Time for change

Politics has been swirling furiously through my brain for the last week, shooting out from my personal and professional sides, on subjects local, national, and international, in disparate shards that nonetheless seem to add up to something cohesive and consistent. This is a big moment in time, both mine and ours.

This Tuesday’s California presidential primary is an obvious catalyst to my sense of epic transition. Despite similarities in the policy positions of the two top Democratic candidates, it seems clear that only Barack Obama could be the kind of transformational leader that this country so desperately needs. I tend to agree with the progressive political leaders who I interviewed for my story in this week’s Guardian that an Obama election could open up discussions that the Democratic Party hasn’t been willing to have: How do we rein in the military-industrial complex and get past these cycles of war? Can capitalism be tweaked into sustainability or do we need to socialize key sectors of the economy? Will we finally deal with institutionalized political corruption and create a real, public interest, multi-party democracy that reengages the citizenry and expands the political dialogue? Are we willing to atone for our national sins or will we keeping tell lies to ourselves and the world? Are we doomed or is redemption still possible?

Despite my support for Obama, I acknowledge the critics who correctly note that he’s not talking in these terms, at least not yet. Nor should he, lest we see the Republicans keep the White House. But once he’s sworn in and we know the makeup of Congress, that’s when the real struggle begins for the anti war, social justice and other people’s movements. That’s when we expect action on this change rhetoric and do what we can to push and pull our leaders to really earn the votes we cast for them.

It’s true on the national level and it’s true here in San Francisco on the local level, where I and others have been pushing Mayor Gavin Newsom to live up to his rhetoric. Three-quarters of San Franciscans say they support him, but he’s maddeningly imperious and self-serving to those of us who closely follow his initiatives and political tactics. I’ll cop to holding leftist political views, but I can abide anyone who is honest and acts in good faith, regardless of their ideology. Yet disingenuousness grates on me.

I prefer well-meaning outsiders to the powerful people who ape populist rhetoric while propping up the status quo. I’ve started doing interviews with key anti-war figures for an upcoming cover story and I admire their tenacity in the face of impossible obstacles. Because their sacrifices matter and history will note their presence in our streets as it condemns imperial America (including people like Newsom, who bash the Bush Administration and condemn the war, but never once lent their presence or support to the anti-war marches and have consistently belittled and undermined the movement).

This week, I’ve also been making preparations for my trip to South America, including sending out letters making my first overtures to Bolivian President Evo Morales, in the hopes of getting an interview when I’m down there in April. As the week began, he was meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and representatives from Fidel Castro’s Cuba in Caracas at the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas conference, which seeks to strengthen the rising socialist tide with mutual defense pacts and agreements to create a lending institution to replace the World Bank in South America. As I said, this is a very exciting time, fraught with possibilities and innumerable pitfalls.

In preparation for my five-week trip to Bolivia and Peru, I’ve been studying Spanish and reading a great book: Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics. It looks at the history of people’s movements in South America, going back past Simon Bolivar to Tupac Amaru (both of whom Morales praised in his inaugural address in 2005), and right up to the current revolutionary period that began in 2000, when the people of Cochabamba rose up against SF-based Bechtel’s takeover of their water system, continuing through the protests in La Paz in 2003 that drove the American-educated president into exile in Miami and right up to recent adoption of a new constitution in Bolivia.

The world is changing. That’s why President Bush’s State of the Union speech this week sounded so anachronistic and why people are so resistant to returning the Clintons to the White House. That’s why I and other journalists in San Francisco are trying to create new models and aggressively resisting the predation of corporate America. It’s why progressives here are pushing policies that set new standards for the rest of the country.

We can either embrace the political awakening we’re seeing rise up in South America and elsewhere, or we can keep living under the illusion that we’re an indispensable and lovable superpower. We can choose a new course, and this is the year to do it.

Resistance is Futile

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion — which coincides with my fifth anniversary as city editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, for which I’m now starting my reporting for a cover story on the issue — here are a few of my thoughts:

What does it mean that it didn’t matter?
San Francisco erupted against President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, before and after it happened. Almost a million people filled our streets during several large protests leading up to the war. Much of the city was shut down on March 19, 2002, the first full day of war, and police arrested more than 1,000 people, including me.
Yet it meant nothing to the president, who had compared these massive street protests to focus groups, dismissing their importance completely. San Francisco’s political power structure reacted the same way – with a few noble exceptions – while gently condemning the protesters’ impact on business and the police budget. And Congress didn’t care.
It doesn’t matter that the protesters were right. On every major issue and prediction, the messages from the street proved correct while those from the White House were wrong. We weren’t welcomed as liberators. There were no WMDs. Iraq isn’t a stable democracy or shining beacon to anyone but the new generation of jihadis we created.
We had numbers on our side. It was the biggest protest in American history of an incipient war. We told our leaders not to do this while there was still time to back off. That should be our right in a democracy and it’s the reason why the framers of our constitution gave the decision to declare war to Congress.
But they didn’t listen.
We had eloquent speakers, insightful slogans, creative signs, and funny street theater, all sounding arguments and themes that were spot on right. People set their lives aside to make their opposition to the war understood, taking vacation time or even losing their jobs, facing violence and arrest and mistreatment in the name of a cause they believed in.
And it didn’t matter. What does it mean that it didn’t matter? What does it mean to democracy? What does it mean to those who protested? What will it mean to our future leaders? Does it create a likelihood of more wars? If the people are powerless to stop even an obviously doomed war, launched in our name without provocation, do we have any power?