Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Reflections the Morning After

Yesterday evening I wrote a pitiful little thank-you response to an anonymous reader on antisemitism in the Arab world. In it I expressed the hope that one day -- not in my lifetime, but eventually -- an exchange of young people between Israel and her neighbors might start to overcome this most durable of all human shortcomings...prejudice in general and antisemitism in particular.

For someone waving the flag of optimism (see my tag line) I was feeling whipped and low. My voting yesterday had not helped. I live in an area where local ballot choices are mostly a slate of unopposed Southern Republicans. State-wide, Democrats are mainly embedded old-timers, ensconced in their respective offices for years. I have always thought of myself as a principled independent, casting my votes for individuals, not parties. But that kind of thinking seems to have got me nowhere. I am slowly coming round to the idea that party juggernauts will in the end be the political engines that will really make the big differences. Feeling like someone coming late to a party, for the first time since I started voting I cast my votes for a slate of whatever yellow dogs were listed, whether or not I knew anything about them, and went on to work.

This morning I feel somewhat better. For the past five years I have endured the waving of a bloody shirt and a message of fear, insults and faux-patriotism that takes a lot of energy to ignore. I'm not the one who hitched the president's wagon to the star of 9/11. He is. When I hear that this election is a referendum on the war, my response is "So...when every speech invokes references to that war, then what else am I to believe?" It's not an avalanche, but this morning's news seems to indicate that a lot of others besides me felt the same way. There's a long way to go, but it's a small comfort.

Those of us who have been labeled Left, Progressive, Libruls, Nut-jobs or whatever designation you prefer can for a moment enjoy something of a reprieve. At our finest we are not local-issue people. Local issues tend to bring out selfishness in people. "We need to change leadership in Washington...all except MY Congressman, MY Senator, MY issues, MY pork, etc..." Principled Conservatives turn a blind eye to the problems of ordinary people, saying to themselves (and to those with the problems) If they would only work harder, make better choices, take better care of themselves and make better plans for the future they wouldn't find themselves where they are...Many of us, however, look at those same ordinary people and try to imagine how we might help them avoid the problems they face. Better education, more available health care, and positive leadership models for those who can help themselves...and some kind of safety net for those who cannot.

I'm not as articulate as others expressing these ideals. This morning I have come across two excellent essays that do it much better than I. Interestingly enough, the first is from Egypt, of all places. The inimitable Bayeyya, whose writing I have previously linked, remembers one of Egypt's most respected veterans of the Egyptian Left, Ismail Sabri Abdallah. I never heard of him before, but reading this remembrance makes me wish I had. (Readers who tend to tremble at the mention of the word Marxist should move on to the next post. My allusions to global politics will not make you happy.) I link to Baheyya only partly because I like her politics. My take on Socialism might be as disagreeable to her as hers is to American readers. But her writing is worth the time it takes to read.


Abdallah was born in 1925 to a family of rural notables that hailed from Upper Egypt. His cultured, erudite father invested much in his children’s education. Ismail’s sister was one of the first to attend a boarding school established by Nabawiyya Musa, the pioneer advocate of women’s education. Ismail’s early intellectual strivings were nurtured by his father’s extensive library, particularly rich in the classics of Arabic literature. Ismail then enrolled at the Law Faculty and immersed himself in the heady politics of Egyptian communism of the 1940s, when various communist factions alternately competed and cooperated with one another and with other ideological formations to recruit adherents. In a conversation with me toward the end of his life, Abdallah recalled that it was during this formative period that he understood that electoral democracy was meaningless without a bedrock of economic redistribution.
Abdallah’s endearing personal qualities are no less evocative for me: he hated mediocrity and resisted it in his daily life. He was punctual to a fault, dapper but never ostentatious, gregarious but never babbling, truly modest but without a hint of falsity. He was exasperatingly stubborn and dogmatic about rival political factions, most especially the Islamists, the only issue in which his clear thinking gave way to what I think was really political envy more than anything else.

As those who knew him know well, Ismail Sabri Abdallah went to work every day in a nondescript office in begrimed building No. 36 on chaotic Dokki St., the kind of building that reeks of history, where the stairs sag under the accumulated weight of the years, the stairwells are pitch black, and the patterned tiles have taken on a dull, grey hue. His desk was perpendicular to the desk of his lifelong fellow traveller, Ibrahim Saad Eddin; the two looked like two ancient civil servants poring over administrative memoranda. While Abdallah was gregarious, Saad Eddin was the quiet scribe who softly interjected reminders or corrections to the occasional visitor who interrupted their quiet work routine. The tea always came in a chipped teacup
and mismatched saucer, the chair was uncomfortable and downright evil, and the conversation was never anything but edifying, stimulating, and challenging.

Having said that, I now point to a more digestible essay from our own soil. Sarah Robinson, writing at David Neiwert's blog, has produced on the eve of this mid-term election another inspiring tour de force. I can't say too much about it. She says it all. That a troll captured the first post of the comments thread tells me she cuts to the quick even those who disagree. Read and be edified.


Today is a referendum -- not just on Bush and his regime, but on the whole four decades over which that post-Goldwater Republican juggernaut has been rolling. When we look behind us now, we can see, beyond any possibility of denial, where it has taken us -- and where they mean to take us. The landscape they've dragged us through is scarred by broken lives and ruined hopes: the gutting of the middle class; the growing divide between rich and poor; the raging ugliness of the Culture Wars; the collapse of the educational, scientific, and planning infrastructure that fed our industries and empowered us to meet the future on our own terms; the humiliating exposure of the limits of American power; the reckless fouling of our air, land, and water; and -- perhaps most iconically -- the battered and exhausted army now making its last stand in the sands of Iraq.

Americans are looking at trail behind them -- the blood and the mud, the stench of corruption and decay, the undrinkable water and unbreatheable air -- and realizing that nothing about this trip looks like the sunny golf courses and well-kept Main Streets pictured in the GOP's bright and happy Morning-In-America travel brochures.

You think that's something? You ain't read nothing yet. That's only the beginning...


In the 70s, this core [Conservative] structure was plastered over with Christian fundamentalism, which had to perform impossible perversities upon its own philosophical corpus in order to turn Jesus into an anti-Communist, pro-military free-marketeer. If you looked at it closely, the whole edifice was nothing more than spit, duct tape, and paint; but given sufficient ignorance and the right lighting, it looked like a plausible spiritual and philosophical foundation on which to construct a conservative vision for America's future.


We may vote them out of Congress today. We might even, with luck, take back the Senate. We can make George Bush's next two years a living hell (and I hope we do). But let's not forget that these are True Believers with 40 years already invested in a vision -- and no matter how badly we thrash them at the ballot box or on the floor of Congress, they will not be going away.The only way we can defeat them is:

1) Reaffirm our deep philosophical commitment to Constitutional principles as the guiding force for a truly American morality and politics

2) Draw our own vibrant narrative about the kind of America we want to create -- one that will not require much change or amendment, and which we can rely on to guide our choices for the next 50 years

3) Elevate and support that vision over the priorities any faction, any strategy, or any single leader. The ultimate criterion for all our choices should be: "How does this help manifest our vision?"

4) Have complete and unshakeable confidence in the inevitability of our own victory. We will win because we are keeping faith with the best ideals of America.

5) Realize that we and our children and grandchildren will be in this battle, probably fighting these same people, for as long as it takes to win. In the long term, defeating them will not mean defeating individuals or candidates, but rather the issues and institutions that feed their cause.

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