U.S. Politics

Amid all the uproar over the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to drop charges against Jacob Zuma, it’s worth noting that state prosecutorial cronyism is not the unique domain of South Africa. The U.S. recently exhibited similar tendencies, and ended up with a similar result. Former Alaska senator Ted Stevens was convicted of corruption shortly before last November’s election. Recently, though, the charges were dropped due to claims that the federal prosecutor’s office mishandled the case. Stevens lost his re-election bid, though he very well may have lost had he not been convicted at the time. Like Zuma, the facts still seemed quite damning whether or not he was convicted in a court or not. Perhaps the main difference is that in the Stevens case, the U.S. government appears to have suppressed evidence, whereas the Zuma case was more a matter of interference in the general protocol and procedure of the prosecution. You can listen to my interview with political analyst Adam Habib about the NPA decision here.

Anyway, to those who think this is an example of South Africa “going to the dogs” or, as the more timely lament goes, “the way of Mugabe,” it’s helpful to remember that long-established democracies still encounter similar situations to that currently facing the South African legal structure. Then again, who am I to say the U.S. isn’t also going to the dogs.

Don’t tell that to my man Bob Dylan. He is characteristically — and wonderfully — out of his gourd in this new interview. He seems positively smitten with Barack Obama.

He’s got an interesting background. He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage – cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.

Way to just come up with words that refer to almost every different region of Africa, Bob. Later he muses on Obama’s literary abilities in Dreams From My Father:

His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He’s looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he’s wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors.

Then Dylan puts on his Jewish mother hat and second-guesses Obama’s latest career choice:

In some sense you would think being in the business of politics would be the last thing that this man would want to do. I think he had a job as an investment banker on Wall Street for a second – selling German bonds. But he probably could’ve done anything. If you read his book, you’ll know that the political world came to him. It was there to be had.

You can also hear the Obama-ified “I Feel A Change Coming On” at the same link as the interview.

When people talk about citizen democracy it often seems like a utopian pipe dream. Any realist should know will never be possible if you want a semblance of order in a given society, the argument goes. Philadelphia is currently testing some of the boundaries of what might and might not work insofar as hearing the voice of the people in what are increasingly desperate economic circumstances.

The city’s mayor, Michael Nutter, announced a round of emergency budget cuts, which affected the fire department and library services on November 6, two days after the election of Barack Obama. He faced an immediate outcry against these two cuts in particular and ended up trudging before eight town hall meetings to take a beating from citizens expressing their displeasure with his proposals.

I attended one of  these meetings in the Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia. I was not impressed with Nutter’s performance, as I thought it reflected a paternalistic attitude that seemed to be characterizing much of his approach towards dealing with the crisis. I would sum up his — as well as his administration’s — attitude like this: “You don’t understand how hard this is. Yeah we’ll let you scream at us and then we’ll do whatever we want. Stupid citizens.”

Other commentators seemed to get a similar vibe and the administration has tried to put forward a more substantive image with regards to citizen involvement in crafting a new series of town hall meetings. We’ve now had three of the four meetings. I attended the first, in another section of Northeast Philadelphia. Reported estimates seemed to settle on about 500 people having attended the meeting. They were broken into a number of small groups of about 20 people each plus two moderators. You can read a good rundown of what each group decided, along with some choice quotes from the groups at It’s Our City’s report (WHYY is a co-organizer of the four workshops). Each group received pieces of paper with a supposedly exhaustive list of all the options available to cut, and then groups got to making the cuts Though the groups varied, on average they made about 50 percent of the necessary cuts.

Some question whether all the choices are on the table. Still, I think the biggest question mark is not just about the government’s willingness to listen to citizens, but the bigger zeitgeist that these meetings could represent. Is this just paying lip service to citizen democracy? Or are we facing a situation where the citizens are stepping in to make important decisions where politicians are stymied by both incompetence and the gravity of the situation at hand?

One thing I worry about is how both the government and observers perceive these meetings. It’s one thing to say, “Look how hard this is, citizens can only cut half of the budget in 1.5 hour meetings.” I would say that shows how easy it is. Give the people another 1.5 hours and you’ll be done with your problem.

Okay, realistically speaking it’s not that easy, but I think the people have demonstrated an ability to deal with this that is, in many ways, far more mature and transparent than anything we’ve seen from city officials. Let’s remember that when things get too bad for the politicians to handle, the people have successfully taken things into their own hands before. Check out the example of the “piqueteros” in Argentina during their recent economic crisis to get an idea of where we could  be headed if things continue like they are.

Originally published on WHYY’s It’s Our City blog:

Following the money

by Ben Bradlow, WHYY Online

There is a lot of money coming out of the federal government these days. Yesterday, Barack Obama signed a bill authorizing a historically large chunk of this money with the new federal stimulus package.

Let’s admit our self-interest here. We want to know what this bill means for the city of Philadelphia.  When – and where – are we going to see the money?

Shortly after President Barack Obama’s election, Mayor Michael Nutter led a committee of mayors from across the country to submit a list of shovel-ready projects in American cities that could receive federal stimulus funds.  Still, it has long been clear that state governments would be receiving most of the funds.  Alan Berube, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, said that this is due to distinct Washington, DC political realities.

“The mayors were up against a couple things. One is just interest group politics in Washington and that transportation has often been dominated by less urban interests, people like the road builders,” he said. “They also faced the obstacle that the purpose of this bill was to spend money quickly. The bias in the bill was to put money into existing programs, not creating new ones.” …

Read the rest here.

Obama likes to say that he is a blank slate where others project themselves onto him. Well it seems like Frank Rich’s column is having a similar effect. Some go global, but I try to keep it all in the good ol’ U. S. of A family. Stephen Walt paired this week’s Rich column with articles in the Sunday New York Times about the failure of Hamid Karzai and the opportunism of Richard Holbrooke. When I read Rich I thought of another Sunday Times piece about the inside politics of the textile and hotel workers union, UNITE-HERE. This fight has all the intrigue of the best gangster movie you’ve never seen.

The break-up of the union being proposed by a group of leaders led by Ed Wilhelm is, according to them, about democracy and the will of a union that doesn’t want to go along with Bruce Raynor’s plan to break up the once separate UNITE and HERE. This is really just the beginning of a whole series of fights between national-level unions, locals, and merged segments of previously separate unions. Just one part of the whole deal is speculation about what kind of moves the SEIU might make to get members from warring factions of UNITE-HERE. It’s basically a factionalist war with no obvious kingmaker, though Andy Stern at SEIU at least has some pretensions of taking on such a role. Usually you would think that such important institutions would have good governance structures to prevent this kind of massive infighting; democracy would ultimately crown the king. But you would be wrong. Democracy is clearly just the Wilhelm camp’s prop in their fight, at least the way the public battle is going. As opposed to emphasizing the primacy of institutional democracy as an arbiter in this fight, the Times piece seems to portray Raynor as a bit of a wounded hero struggling against the statist Wilhelm-led forces:

The fight is led by two hyperarticulate heavyweights, both Ivy League graduates, each using his decades of experience in battling corporations to clobber the other.

We’ll see where this all ends up, and if the Times‘ equivalency on the issue is borne out.

The bottom line is that not only is this union fight coming in the midst of an economic crisis, but, as Rich argues, it’s a crisis with a bit of a unique populist dimension. Obama, Rich says, is not only trying to right an economic system gone awry, but also a corrupt political system that propped up such financial malfeasance:

Americans have had enough of such arrogance, whether in the public or private sectors, whether Democrat or Republican.

We have to remember that the ugly McCain-Palin campaign unleashed its own sort of populist anger, one with a distinct racial tinge. So now we have anger at Wall Street bosses, anger at Capitol Hill cronies, and a bunch of union statists  — no matter which you look at it, at some level every side in this UNITE-HERE debate just seems out to save their positions and those of their friends — who are supposed to represent the working man.

One the one hand, this fight could be good for the unions. Long-simmering tension gets fought out and resolved into a more competitive union organizing atmosphere rather than careerists getting comfy while losing valuable members. Still, the possibility of the current dysfunction ravaging any power the major unions have left in advance of crucial fights on the Employee Free Choice Act and to change the nature of the National Labor Relations Board appears distinct. Most importantly, these fights drain energy from difficult organizing battles — the actual work of unions.

So with the buying power of the proletariat going down (shout out to Bob Dylan aka Will.I.Am) and unions potentially out for the count, where is this populist anger going to go? Wall Street? Politicians? Immigrants? Other racial minorities? I don’t mean to cry wolf here, but the bottom line is that these fights make for great political intrigue, but also a depressing leadership deficit on things that actually matter. I hope to have more on this as the public battles heat up, but I think it’s important to start by getting at what is at stake here.

Things may look different from the inside. If you’ve got anything to say, comment or message me. It seems like some are already going the anonymous comment route, which is FINE with me when it comes to this issue.

While transferring at City Hall station this evening a guy I’ve never noticed before stands on the El platform next to a bucket of single pink and red roses. “A new day in America,” he repeats as a sales pitch, his eyes darting around for someone who might like to bring home a flower to a loved one.

After Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of the office of the presidency for the first time, cannons blasted mere yards away from me in the 21 gun salute common to the inauguration of every new president of the United States. The pageantry that often marks off a capital “H” Historic moment was loud and clear in my ears. The new president took a podium looking out over us 2 million onlookers and implored my generation and our seemingly cashed and failed preceding ones to give a chance to government and to give a chance to ourselves. A skeptic — wow, that’s an understatement — of presidential politics for my adolescent and young adult life under the Bush administration, I found myself willing to open myself to this new presidential figure if at least momentarily. To hear a United States president speak of our commitment to developing nations, acknowledge non-believers as equals in our national spiritual compass, and note, with bittersweet pride, the blood of slaves that was spent bringing him to this podium, rang true for me in a way unique to this new president. Even as his rhetoric occasionally echoed the words Bush used throughout his presidency, his tone indicated a more ambitious, less vengeful, more fundamentally decent understanding of the world. It was fitting, then, that both Rev. Joseph Lowery and poet Elizabeth Alexander both clung to “love” as the value to cherish under this presidency, something surely limited to the dregs of hippie-dom at most other times in modern political memory.

I, along with my girlfriend, clawed through crowds in the fabled purple ticket holders “line” to our obstructed view spot on the Capitol lawn beginning at 5:15 am, reaching a spot at about 11 am, and, like a vast majority of the country and much of the world witnessed the oath, the cannons’ blast and heard a speech that I found uniquely inspiring, particularly in its call for individual work and decency. These are not themes unique to Obama as far as inaugural speeches go, but in conjunction with my time on his presidential campaign, as well as my longtime following of his writings and career, I believe that his inclinations as a politician are uniquely geared towards rewarding the realization of those values.

What I had not considered was how much of this pageantry drove the days proceedings. The parade of former presidents had the assembled crowd display their relative affections for the respective aging politicians. I relished joining the rest of the crowd in showering Bush with boos and a rendition of “na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye,” but by the time Obama had begun to impose his new sense of decency as presidential prerogative, I felt shamed into letting go of my urge to shame the thankfully former president. Then again, perhaps a little shaming was in order.

It is hard to fathom a crowd as large as that which assembled on Tuesday in Washington, DC, especially for the ones who were in it. Suffice to say, a willingness to give up personal space and physical well-being was a necessity. While I was legitimately inspired to witness the inauguration of the country’s first black president, it was clear that there was an aspect of perhaps less inspiring celebrity worship that permeated the events. This was especially true at the official Southern inaugural ball, where I worked as a volunteer escorting journalists around the floor of the DC Armory to interview ball attendees. A significant number of the 10,000 attendees arrived only to immediately stake out a spot in front of the podium where the VP and President would dance with their wives… for one verse each of a song. The scripted grace of both couples was great to see, though hilarious in its acknowledgment of how ridiculous some of this pageantry is. Can you imagine going to ten different dances in one night and asking thousands of random people, “How beautiful is my wife?” In any other world but that of the absurd official balls, you’d have to say Obama was just being a self-important horndog!

The city was packed with visitors for the inauguration at every turn. Even as we drove back to Philadelphia the next night, a rest stop in northeastern Maryland was packed with travelers donning their newest Obama buttons, hats and t-shirts. There are obviously people who aren’t on board the Obama train, even after all of this pomp, circumstance, and a bit of substance. But to not at least be willing to give it a chance as observers and participants in Obama’s calls for work, responsibility, decency, and opportunity would be the work of a cold heart indeed. In a world where those things are possible, I can still hold out even the slightest bit of hope for progressive, dare I say liberal change in this country. Or at least health care!

If you heard the performance by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at the Obama inaugural concert that just finished, they sang the verse about private property that at another time would have gotten everybody involved right onto the top of the blacklist!

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said: Private Property,

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing

This land was made for you and me

It’s been a long time coming!

—- Update —-

I’ve now found the video:

— Update #2 —-

The link I posted to a video was taken down, but thanks to commenter Alline Anderson for posting a new link.

I can’t get over this week’s cover of The Nation. Imagine Cesar Chavez, Eugene Debs, Nelson Mandela, Steven Biko and Rosa Parks at the Capitol…

Well imagine no longer because here it is. John Mavroudis of Zen Pop put it all together. The link above has a key to all the people depicted.

My parents are obsessive shredders of bills and other such documents. So before they moved back to South Africa a couple of weeks ago, I went with my dad to this place called Shred-It in Silver Spring to shred the vast quantities of documents he’d deemed shred-worthy. We got to talking with one of the employees there, and he showed us around the shredding plant, which is a pretty amazing sight. The place was covered in pallets full of shredded bits of paper, and in the middle was a huge shredding device. Outside this warehouse were a few big trucks. The whole thing was just surreal.

The reason that I bring this up is that the worker at the shredding plant told us that they do all the shredding for the White House. And since today is Bush’s last day in office, I want to give a shout out to all the Shred-It employees working overtime. Somebody needs to get onto one of those unmarked white trucks and start searching through the documents. Maybe there’s some piece of evidence that will stop the pardon for Scooter Libby that I’m betting will come in the next few days.

Anyway, see ya Bush. Maybe I’ll have more to say later about the idea of prosecuting these thugs. For now, like Lennon and McCartney, I ask you, “How do you sleep?”

Originally published in Swarthmore’s Bulletin magazine:

“A Change Is Gonna Come”

An Obama campaigner shares the jubilation of his candidate’s victory.

By Benjamin Bradlow ’08

Barack Obama

When I found myself in Barack Obama’s campaign field office in South Philadelphia on Election Day—where I had worked for the past month—I couldn’t help feeling somewhat surprised to be there. For almost the entirety of my awareness of politics, I had been alienated from my government, estranged from my country, and unsure of my generation. That night, campaign workers cried, screamed, and high-fived their way through the office and into the dancing multitudes on Philadelphia’s Broad Street, a block away from our office.

I felt the empowerment of my youth. I screamed, hugged, and danced in the streets of this struggling, emotional city, with friends and with strangers, black and white. This was my country, shorn of the shackles of our parents, of our teachers, of our former leaders. After years of feeling that the Bush administration was just one constant attempt to hoodwink the country and the world, I could begin to consider that maybe we had pulled the ultimate trump card in what had previously been just a high stakes game of political frivolity.

Soon after I had started at the South Philadelphia office, in early October, reports emerged that John McCain would be making his last stand in Pennsylvania, hoping to chip away at Obama’s support in heavily populated Philadelphia by targeting white, working-class neighborhoods in Northeast and South Philadelphia. Obama visited four areas of the city during my first weekend working for the campaign. His last stop was at 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, long a key shopping avenue for the city’s historic African American community. The crowd overflowed at least two blocks beyond the designated area for the rally. Old ladies cried; crowds chanted, “Yes we can”; and street hawkers entertained by contorting the candidate’s name as they shouted into bullhorns, “Obamaobamaobamaobama!” It was both moving and fitting that his last stop in Philadelphia would be to this area of the city, which surely had never before been the focus of a presidential campaign. Still, this was all he would offer as help in our fight in the biggest battleground city of the election.

We were left with our “bodies on the doors” strategy, to use the vaguely dehumanizing, gung-ho language of the campaign field staff. So I went to the doors in the wards where Hillary Clinton had rung up large margins—up to 50 percent—in her primary challenge to Obama earlier in the year. These wards were full of the white, working-class voters who, we had been told, would never vote for a black man. My pleas were sometimes met by aggressive, racist ripostes. “It’s been the White House for 200 years, and I don’t want it to become the Black House,” one man with a thick foreign accent told me, somehow laying claim to an imagined legacy that was clearly an adopted one for him.

A father playing with his children at a playground in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza predicted, “If he gets in, he’s going to bring Sharpton, Jackson, and Farrakhan with him.”

But more often than not, and, it seemed, as the economic picture became increasingly bleak, I heard tales of lost jobs, financial insecurity, and a desire among Republicans and Democrats alike to vote for the person “who cares about me.” The stories fit right into the Obama pitches I had seen in TV ads and speeches, and I began to adopt some of his rhetoric in selling his candidacy when I spoke to voters: “John McCain wants to double down on the failed Bush policies of the last eight years.” “Obama is working for you.” “We can’t afford John McCain.”

More and more South Philadelphians seemed to agree as the weeks went by. But the campaign fight in the area was going to go down to the bitter end. One undecided old lady, skeptical of Obama’s experience, couldn’t help but note, “The young people really seem to like him.” “That’s why I’m here,” I almost replied.

We had to convince the people who had heard all about how Barack Obama was not like them that he actually was. This occasionally became a tougher proposition than I had bargained for. In late October, I made a call to a woman in a predominantly African American area of South Philadelphia. I stuck to the script. “Can we count on your support for Barack Obama this Election Day?”

“Yes, but I never hear him talking about us,” she said. “It’s always ‘the middle class.’ Well I’m definitely not the middle class. When is somebody going to talk about the working poor?”

All I could say to this woman, as I listened to the cries of her young children in the background, was, “You’re right.”

A black woman was unsure of Obama despite his being black, and white people were doubtful because he was black. Some were hopeful despite their fears of being let down, while others were afraid to hope. And I was beginning to regain my own political inspiration — “to drink the Obama kool-aid,” as my younger brother liked to joke — as I watched this inner battle playing out with voters across South Philadelphia.

As the last days of the campaign piled up, I received an e-mail from my mother encouraging me to keep working hard so that we could all celebrate on Election Day. She signed off as “the original Obamamama.” I shook my head in wonder at her motherly idiosyncrasies. I thought of what this election meant to her and my father, white South Africans who emigrated in the late 1970s and were now planning on moving back to their home country.

In my house, growing up, there was always one political hero: Nelson Mandela. By the time Mandela was actually on the ballot in South Africa, my parents had lived in the United States for more than 25 years, had become citizens, and had voted in many American elections. On Nov. 4, it struck me. They had left a country that, among its many injustices, denied the possibility of a black man for president in a majority black country. Today, they would cast their first vote for a black chief executive not in South Africa, but in the United States, a country with its own fraught history of racism. As I made my way through that day, I thought about when they would vote. Maybe they would see it as their election, just as much as I saw it as mine.

The street celebrations of Obama’s victory seemed to belong to the young and racially diverse crowd that gathered that night. I felt one with this crowd and our victory. The next morning, I realized an even more profound truth. This election belonged to everyone. At Greater Mount Olive A.M.E. Church, where I had coordinated volunteer canvassers in the days leading up to Election Day, older members of the African American church laid their claim to the victory, drawing the lineage of King and Kennedy to Obama. White and black of all ages were smiling at each other on the public bus I took back to the campaign office to begin cleaning up. This was not just my election. This election belonged to my parents. It was the election of the tired old lady in South Philadelphia worried about her dwindling retirement money and skyrocketing pharmaceutical bills. It belonged to African Americans across the country waiting on Martin Luther King’s dream.

I took it as my own as well. I ran into a friend in the streets near the campaign office that day, and all we could do was hug and talk about our hopes for the future. Barack Obama was our next president. We had inspired and become inspired along the way. Such optimism was out there in broad daylight for everyone to see and feel.

I scoured the Internet throughout the day for reactions from around the world, waiting to see what Mandela, and my family’s number two hero, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid, would say. The first time I cried during the entire election season was when I read of their public joy at this momentous occasion.

A few days later, my parents forwarded me a private e-mail a family friend had received from Tutu. On Election Night, Barack Obama recalled the soul singer Sam Cooke’s powerful “A Change Is Gonna Come” when he told America and the world that “change has come.” And in his message, Tutu—that voice I had always admired that combined wisdom, justice, old age, and youthful exuberance all in one—articulated in his response what every single one of us was feeling at that moment: “Yippee!”

If anybody arrives to this site from the link the editors put at the end of the article, welcome!

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