Smart Tolerant Professionals are the Real Americans

Assuming Obama wins the election, we can already see one clear explanatory narrative emerging among the pundits - the McCain campaign pandered to the racism and anti-intellectualism of Americans and lost, because Americans are better than that. David Brooks has been making this argument (most explicitly here) and yesterday Frank Rich devoted his column to the idea. As Timothy Egan wrote on the op-ed page yesterday, "Republicans have been insinuating for years now that some of the brightest, most productive communities in the United States are fake American" - and it's finally going to bite them in the ass. America is increasingly a multiracial society with a knowledge economy and Republicans have permanently alienated the well-educated, tolerant professionals who make it run.

While criticizing the Republicans' conception of church-going, small-town, implicitly white "Real Americans", these writers clearly have their own favored social group. This is a wonderful wish fulfillment for these pundits: it's payback time for the smart, ostentatiously not-racist professionals that they identify with, against the Republicans who constantly demonize them. But there are two big problems here.

First, if Obama does win it certainly will not prove Rich's claim that
"despite the months-long drumbeat of punditry to the contrary, there are not and have never been enough racists in 2008 to flip this election." In case Rich has forgotten, one month ago the polls showed a neck-and-neck race, even tho McCain had just chosen a provincial lightweight with no obvious interest in any national policy issues except abortion to be his running mate, and even tho the political climate in the country was already giving Congressional Democrats big leads.

What has changed is not the sudden disappearance of the longstanding American complex of racism, xenophobia, and nationalism that had dragged Obama down for so long, but the explosion of the economic crisis. Joe Klein, writing in early September, also counterpoised the Republican fantasy of the '50s as Golden Age to "a multiracial country whose greatest cultural and economic strength is its diversity". But he lamented that this "vision is not sellable right now to a critical mass of Americans". If Obama wins comfortably, it only proves that in the midst of the worst financial disaster in 80 years, voters' fear of the Other can be overcome by their fear for their livelihoods.

The real test will come when the Republicans resume their mobilization-thru-bigotry tactics during the Obama presidency, especially if Obama's attempts to revive the economy do not immediately succeed. (And the crisis is now threatening to get so out of control that the chances of quick success are very low.) We on the left are not only going to have to fight Obama's centrist policies, we're also going to have to fight his instincts to move even further to the right in the face of Republican attacks. It would be nice if the American tradition of racism/xenophobia/nationalism really were so weak that we didn't have to worry about it. But four years ago that tradition combined with homophobia to return George Bush to the White House. Even tho the political mood is much different now, the underlying ideologies of the country haven't changed. We can't lose site of the need to keep up the culture war against these supremacist ideologies just because a black man wins the presidency.

Second, the know-nothing Republicans and their urbane critics have set up a false dichotomy between Real Americans and Smart Tolerant Professionals. I certainly agree that there's nothing wrong with people who live in cities and eat ethnic foods, and there is something wrong with the parochialism that Republicans celebrate. But both sides are ignoring a key issue here: the resentment of Smart Tolerant Professionals is not based solely, or even primarily, on their tendency to eat arugula. There is a strong and legitimate, if inchoate, class basis for this resentment.

A large majority of these professionals come from privilege and leveraged that privilege to gain access to the country's handful of elite universities. This education gave them the status and connections they needed to get one of the small number of interesting, empowering jobs in the economy. Occupying one of these jobs, they are elevated far above the working majority of the population - they are glorified by the culture, they can buy whatever they want, and in the workplace itself they hold direct and dictatorial power over their subordinates. And then they look down on those they dominate culturally and institutionally, branding them intolerant, unsophisticated, and even stupid (a recurring word in Rich and Egan's columns).

Republican demonology has twisted the class anger of the victims of this process into support for reactionary policies. But the success they've had in this project has been guaranteed by the Democrats' decision to turn their backs on the working majority. Clinton made populist gestures, but the financiers, lawyers, and technocrats ran the show. Gore and Kerry maintained the substance of Clinton's administration without his ability to hide it behind a show of populism. Obama, perhaps less clumsy than Gore and Kerry, nevertheless has not changed the formula. The historical conjuncture will probably allow Obama to win the election, but like the Clinton years it will be an empty victory if he doesn't restore the Democrats to their working-class base. All the evidence suggests that he has no desire to do so, which means that only a powerful popular show of force can push him in that direction.


Food politics more visible, still naive

Last Tuesday, Oprah aired a show about California's Proposition 2, which would require livestock producers to give their confined animals enough room to stretch and move around. It was a balanced show, including both advocates of the measure and some of the factory farmers it would target, but Oprah's sympathies were clearly with the measure's proponents. Unfortunately, the alternative offered to factory farmed pork, veal, etc was free range pork, veal, etc. Not eating animals was not raised as an option. Nor did the show go into the environmental or food supply problems of animal agriculture.

Oprah could be a huge force for raising consciousness about these issues, so I encourage everyone to take a minute (even if you didn't catch the show) and write a quick comment to the show - the form is here. This is what I wrote:
Your show on factory farming was great, raising extremely important issues about the ethics of how we raise animals. But I was surprised and disappointed that you did not explore a key option for addressing these issues - eating vegetarian. Even the most humanely raised animals end their lives in the horrors of the slaughterhouse, and I believe that unnecessarily taking life is at least as big an ethical problem as unnecessarily causing suffering.

Vegetarianism not only eliminates the cruelty and killing of the livestock industry, it also solves the deep environmental problems with meat. The livestock industry produces 1/5 of human-induced greenhouse gases - making meat a bigger global warming problem than cars. In addition, meat production is a terribly inefficient use of resources, which is why it's a central cause of the current global food crisis.

I hope that you'll bring up these issues in future shows, because reducing the amount of meat we eat is the only way to a sustainable, cruelty-free society. And the best way to facilitate this transition is to expose people to the incredible diversity of delicious vegetarian food.
* * *
In other food news, Michael Pollan had a cover article in The New York Times Magazine last weekend. The first half covers the same ground Pollan always covers - how perverse market and government incentives have built a food system with horrible effects for the environment, the economy, national security, and public health. The rest of the article offers a range of policy solutions that the next president should follow to dig us out of this mess.

The policy ideas are all focused on moving us back to the organic, integrated, labor-intensive kind of farming that dominated before World War II, which would both dramatically reduce the amount of oil used in food production and raise the artificially low prices of the foods destroying our health - meat and junk food. Pollan emphasizes the array of policy options available and necessary for such a profound transformation - from a complete rewriting of agricultural subsidies to the symbolic power of planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn and announcing a weekly meatless meal for the first family.

These are all good ideas, but what Pollan does not do is grapple with the two enormous obstacles to this agenda: the extraordinary political power that agribusiness wields, and the popular commitment to a diet full of cheap meat. As urgent as these issues are, do we really expect someone as cautious - even timid - as Barack Obama to cross the farm state senators and their patrons the meat and grain corporations? Even if he did, imagine the national uproar that agribusiness could mobilize by simply pointing out that these reforms would end of cheap meat.

Capitalism gives big business a stranglehold over our politics, and Americans are almost dogmatically committed to eating meat. What Pollan needs to do, rather than simply reiterate his (admittedly very strong) arguments, is start confronting how we can overcome these obstacles. The key here is that we need to be building a movement not just of self-satisfied yuppies eating organic food in the comfort of their suburban home or big condo. Instead, if we as a society are going to get past the seduction of cheap meat, we need a movement of people who morally reject the power of corporations and the predominance of meat.

Meat means cruelty, unnecessary killing, global warming, air and water pollution, and global hunger. Corporate power undermines democracy and disfigures our culture. There's no shortage of reasons to oppose the two, but until we can mobilize people by explicitly appealing to these ideas, it will be impossible to create the political will needed to transform our food economy.

This isn't an impossible agenda. You don't have to be a vegetarian to recognize that the amount of meat Americans eat is ethically unacceptable, and you don't have to be a socialist to demand an end to corporate control of politics. But before Americans are willing to give up the era of cheap meat, they will have to make these connections. Our job is to speed up the process.


Key California ballot propositions

People from California don't read this blog very often, but I think we all have a few friends living there. So pass on this link or copy this post and email it to people you know.

This November, California voters have a great opportunity to pass three ballot propositions that would be good for the state and, just as important, would make California a leading example for the rest of the country. Failing to pass them would mark a major setback for a number of urgent priorities, so talk to everyone you know who votes in California and let's get some momentum behind these important issues.

Prop 1A - High-speed rail
If passed, Prop 1A would authorize the state to raise almost $10 billion to begin construction on the country's first bullet train, between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once completed, travelers could make the trip in only 2 1/2 hours on trains traveling as fast as 220 mph, for a one-way cost of $55. There would be stops on the Peninsula and in the South Bay, and the system would eventually be extended to San Diego, Sacramento, and Riverside County.

The United States is far behind Europe, Japan, and even China in its rail network, and we're paying the price in terms of high gas costs, highway congestion, air pollution, and an outsize contribution to global warming. Rail addresses all these problems because it gets cars off the road and moves people with far greater energy efficiency than either cars or planes. With rising population densities and clogged roads, California will have no choice but to invest large amounts of money in its transportation infrastructure in the coming years. The only choice is whether to waste money on the failed model of ever-widening highways, or chart a new path for the state and the country by supporting high-speed rail.

(Los Angeles County voters will also have the chance to pass Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase that would fund road and public transit projects. About 2/3 of the revenue would be devoted to transit, paying for a major expansion of the rail system (extensions of the Expo Line and both ends of the Gold Line, extension of the Green Line to LAX, and building of the Subway to the Sea under Wilshire Blvd among other projects) and significant improvements to the bus system. Measure R requires a 2/3 majority to pass, but it is essential to the future viability of LA's transportation system. See http://metro.net/measurer )

Prop 2 - Humane animal agriculture
Prop 2 would require factory farms to provide their animals adequate room to tum around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. Currently, veal calves, laying hens, and female pigs kept for breeding are usually confined for most - or all - of their lives in cages or pens so small that they cannot turn around or sleep comfortably. In pursuit of higher profits, factory farms have crammed as many animals together in as small a space as possible, but this unnatural crowding leads to aggression among the animals. To prevent them from killing each other, they are separated into tiny cages that deprive them of basic needs; chickens have their beaks cut off so they cannot peck each other, cows and pigs are unable to lie down or move.

Prop 2 would give factory farms six years to convert their operations to more humane methods. Such alternatives are already common in Europe and measures outlawing veal crates and sow gestation crates have been passed in several other states. Prop 2 gives Californians the chance to set an example for the whole country by eliminating the most extreme types of inhumane confinement and providing for the minimal needs of the animals we use for our food.

Prop 5 - Rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders
American prisons now confine more than 1 of every 100 adults, by far the highest percentage in the world. This unprecedented punitive approach to criminal justice has come about largely because of harsh sentences handed out to nonviolent offenders, especially those who violate the drug laws. Our laws not only expose these offenders to overcrowded and violent prisons while severely constraining their life opportunities upon release, they also impose massive - and rising - expenses on taxpayers.

Prop 5 would expand rehabilitation programs for nonviolent offenders in California with special attention to the needs of those addicted to drugs, it would relax rigid parole requirements, and would reduce marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction (similar to a traffic ticket). The state estimates that increased spending on rehabilitation programs would be offset be reduced spending on imprisoning nonviolent offenders, and once you factor in the need for fewer new prisons, Prop 5 would save California taxpayers a total of $2.5 billion or more. By passing it, Californians can do the right thing for nonviolent offenders and save money at the same time. (And remember to vote NO on Prop 6, which would make the criminal laws even more punitive and divert money from education and health to lock up more people in prison.)

Prop 8 - Outlaw same-sex marriage
Finally, don't forget to vote NO on Prop 8, which would deny some people the right to marry for no good reason but old-fashioned prejudice.