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Dec. '03/Jan. '04 Articles:
The Democrats Are Coming
Editorial: Litter Butts
Over-Priced Musings
Stolen Lives
The Muddlemarch: 1
The Muddlemarch: 2
Crossing the Thames
(music reviews)

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In 1968, the Youth International Party nominated a boar hog for president.

Futurist and novelist Robert Anton Wilson dubbed the nomination the most "transcendentally lucid" political act of the 20th Century. Led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the Yippie candidate, Pigasus, starred in a piece of guerilla street theater designed to bring attention to the failures of the Nixon administration–and the equal ineffectiveness of the Democratic Party.

Compare life in America in 1999 with life during the George W. Bush presidency: One might think four years under an administration led by a boar hog preferable to another four with the present administration.

A lot of muddy water has flowed under the bridge in the last few years. Bush presided over the most catastrophic disaster in American history, when terrorists crashed airliners into the World Trade Center–an act which, reports suggest, might have been prevented. Already at the center of controversy over energy policy and dirty dealings by corporate energy execs, Bush used the September 11 tragedy to justify a revenge war against the most convenient target available–Afghanistan and its Taliban leadership, whom the U.S. government had previously praised and rewarded for their work in "the drug war."

Conveniently for the Texas oil man and his energy-company cronies, the invasion of Afghanistan opened up the country to oil pipelines that would benefit American and British oil companies; at the same time, it further eroded America's already poor relations with Islam.

A rational person might wonder why Americans had not dragged Bush from the White House, dressed him in tar and feathers, and ridden him out of Washington on a rail. The president, seemingly immune to criticism, then used faulty intelligence and grand leaps in logic to justify invading Iraq, conning us into spending billions of dollars and thousands of American lives to avenge his father and, coincidentally, stake a claim to more Middle Eastern oil.

Along the way, the Bush administration walked out of an international forum to address global warming in Kyoto, thus turning America's back to an important global environmental issue. At home, Republicans cut funding for important social and cultural programs, unbalanced the national budget, plunged America into debt, pontificated and prevaricated about spiraling unemployment rates, then threatened to further increase the income gap–and the budget deficit–by handing out tax cuts to the wealthiest among us.

In the meantime, Bush managed to muddy the line between church and state by helping reduce funding for social programs while opening up government funding to "faith-based initiatives." He and his administration backed the Patriot Act, committed civilian prisoners to military tribunals, and limited press access to the war, thus partially suspending civil rights like freedom of the press, due process of law, and fundamental rights to privacy.

Compared to Bush, Richard Nixon looks like a saint. With an indictment like this against the Republican incumbent, one might wonder how any credible alternative could fail to win the 2004 election by a landslide.

Add to that the questionable circumstances under which Bush took office, and a boar hog might even stand a chance. Even if the electoral vote was handled fairly, Bush didn't win the popular vote. According to the U.S. government's Federal Register site, Gore won the popular vote by more than a half-million votes. Incidentally, Nader received almost 3 million votes; if those votes had gone to Gore, Bush would have lost by more than a five percent margin.

"If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times." Mark Twain

Only two other Presidents in U.S. history lost the popular vote but still "won" the election: Rutherford B. Hayes (in 1876) and Benjamin Harrison (1888). Both were Republicans. Hayes' election, interestingly enough, hinged on contested electoral votes in three southern states–one of them Florida. Harrison became the first president to ask Congress for a billion dollar appropriation; and like Bush, he drained the U.S. Treasury of a surplus long before the end of his administration. Neither Hayes nor Harrison were reelected. Hayes had announced in advance that he would only serve one term, and Harrison was defeated by Grover Cleveland, who had won the popular election the first time around.

Harrison, however, didn't have the Bush trump card–the "war on terrorism."

The 2004 presidential campaign will be fought hard and on many fronts. Unless some sort of miracle brings an independent out of the woodwork to create a viable third party, election day will boil down to a contest between George W. Bush and whichever Democratic candidate emerges from the Boston national convention on July 29.

Currently, the field of potential nominees includes former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Gen. Wesley Clark, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

At some point during the next few months, each of us will wonder: Does any Democrat truly offer the kind of leadership we need, or are they all just politicians, choosing the puffery they hope will sell them to the voters while offering little in the way of real value?

"I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." Groucho Marx

The Democrats have a lot of old baggage to eject before they inspire voters with confidence. Fairly or not, the political and personal scandals during the Clinton administration left America with a bad taste in its mouth. And while the Bush administration's shortcomings are many and obvious, the Clinton administration left a lot of unfulfilled promises, too.

Given the mess a Democrat would inherit, one might question the sanity of the candidates and think, "I don't care to vote for anyone crazy enough to want that job." No president has had to face a mess like this since Jimmy Carter tried to pick up the pieces left behind by the war in Vietnam, the Watergate burglaries, and the Nixon-Agnew resignations.

The Democratic Party, says political activist Bob Kunst, is beyond saving. "It's too tied into the same money interests as the Republican party," he says. "It's no longer even a legitimate alternative. There's no force of resistance, and they have no real agenda that would make any difference."

A Miami Beach native, Kunst has been active on the political scene since he worked with the civil rights movement in the late 1950s. Along the way, he helped protest segregation in south Florida schools and organized demonstrations against the war and against Nixon. He came onto the mainstream radar–however briefly and faintly–during the last Florida gubernatorial campaign, when he ran for governor on a "no more Bushit" platform.

"I learned in the campaign," when he was rarely allowed to speak as a Democratic candidate, "that the Democrats are not here for the country; they're here for themselves," Kunst says. "Both sides play to whoever's going to give them the check. I would have helped the Democrats, but by cutting me out, they said there is only one voice."

Kunst became so frustrated by the process that he started the Independent Democrats of Florida, a grassroots group of "New Democrats." By becoming an independent, he felt he was at least able to force a debate on "real issues." Politically, Democrats look too much like Republicans, Kunst says, pointing to Bob Graham, who dropped out of the race, as a great example of a "Republicrat."

The media, at least in Florida, made a big deal out of Graham's entering the race, and many people thought he was the only Democrat who could beat Bush. "But he's the man who supported Anita Bryant" when she turned anti-gay activist, Kunst points out. "And he wanted to spray marijuana with stuff to kill people who smoked it."

Even some of the candidates know they look too Republican. At a New York fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee, Clark apologetically told those assembled that he had only recently become a Democrat. According to the Hartford Courant, Sharpton later told Clark, "Don't be defensive about just joining the party. It's better to be a Democrat who's a real Democrat than a lot of Democrats up here who have been acting like Republicans all along." (Hartford Courant, Sept. 26, 2003)

"Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about." Mark Twain

As the election year begins, the Democrats are choosing their niches: One or two have focused on labor, trying to turn employee benefits and globalism into the main issues. Others are most vocal about Medicare and other seniors-related issues. Others are positioning themselves against the war in Iraq.

If the first Republican ad is any indicator–and it probably is–the Bush campaign will milk the "war on terrorism" for all its worth. The ad, which portrays Bush as fighting terrorism while his opponents snipe at him, tries to return viewers to the days immediately following September 11, when Bush's approval ratings soared.

Interviewed in The New York Times just before the ad's release, Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke said of the ad that the time seemed right to provide a contrast to the negativism of the Democratic field, which he believes is out of step with mainstream America.

"It's fine to say Iraq's wrong, Afghanistan's wrong. But what we're talking about is the safety of the American people and who's putting forth the policies to address it," Dyke said. "We're going to...point to the positive policies of this president and this party and present the sharp contrast in approach and also in tone."

An Oct. 17, 2003 letter from Florida Congressman John Mica may sum up much of the Republican argument supporting Bush's hawkishness. "Saddam Hussein posed a significant threat to the Iraqi people and the stability of the world, and nearly all agreed that the danger was real and significant." Mica goes on to say the war in Iraq was a bipartisan decision, and quotes Democratic challenger John Kerry: "The threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real."

Mica then lists a series of Clinton's lost anti-terrorism opportunities, including the World Trade Center bombing, the 1996 killing of U.S. soldiers in the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. That list joins Clinton's other military mishaps, including Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. In the last case, Mica says, Clinton "opted prematurely for UN Peacekeepers–who stood by as men, women, and children were ruthlessly slaughtered by the thousands."

"Fortunately, we have a President today who does not ignore our responsibility to help keep some order in a world filled with chaos and constant threats from terrorist forces," Mica says.

"An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war." Mark Twain

The president's response to the September 11 attacks and Clinton's failures to prevent the spread of terrorism will indeed be hard for Democrats to shrug off. (They could rightfully point out–but probably won't–that the Republicans themselves became a major obstacle to Clinton's Middle East policy when they accused him of using it to distract them from their duty to impeach him for getting blowjobs in the Oval Office.) At this point, it's anyone's guess whether or not the Democrat's rebuttal image, showing Bush on an aircraft carrier prematurely flying the "Mission Accomplished" banner, will have any effect.

The Democratic approach to the war compounds the problem. For now, at least, candidates' points of view are fragmented. They have demonstrated no unified approach and made no statement that clearly indicates an understanding of the current condition in Iraq or a solid plan to address it.

In the past, some Democratic comments sound remarkably Republican: In an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, for example, Lieberman wrote: "The opportunity to build a more stable and democratic Iraq, made possible by our stunning military victory, is now in jeopardy. We're seeing surprisingly fierce resistance to coalition forces and to our efforts to remake the country." Such statements will no doubt come back to haunt their campaigns.

Other Democrats seem much more interested in displays of antiwar hindsight than realistic foresight. Dean and Kucinich, for example, are arguing over which one is the "real" antiwar candidate.

The sad fact is this: We're in Iraq, and it doesn't matter whether a candidate was for or against the invasion; he or she will have to deal with its aftermath. For a Democrat to win, their platform will have to include a viable plan to restore order and rebuild Iraq, as well as come up with a long term Middle East policy that will address some very serious–and politically treacherous–problems, like America's relationship with Israel and the United Nations.

"A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for." W.C. Fields

The war on terrorism may be the Republicans' trump card, but they hold some other valuable cards in their hands.

First, there's the incumbent advantage: Incumbents win elections more often than they don't, at least in part because the challenger begins his campaign already carrying the burden of the attacks from opponents of his own party. While candidates so far have largely avoided too many negative attacks on each other, the process of selecting a Democratic candidate, by its nature, leaves the chosen Democrat tainted by at least a little doubt.

Second, campaign battles are fought in the media, and today's mainstream media is largely aligned with Republicans. Republicans have a history of election-year nastiness (the Watergate burglary; the 2000 Bush/Gore election fiasco) and a gift for turning trivialities into major issues (Eagleton's psychiatric treatments; Clinton's marijuana use; the Monica Lewinsky scandal).

For some reason, Democrats just aren't as good at making mountains out of a molehills –or for that matter, making mountains out of mountains. George W.'s history of cocaine use came up during the campaign, but never became as big a media hot-topic as Clinton's "I tried it but I didn't inhale" joint-toking. Iran-Contra, the biggest Presidential scandal since Watergate, never came up during Bush, Jr.'s campaign.

"...The trouble is that the stupid people–who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations–do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of [the news], and there is where the harm lies." Mark Twain

On Nov. 18, Fox News reported that Michael Jackson had been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct involving a minor, and that an investigation was underway. The Central Florida Fox affiliate ran the item over and over during the morning news show, although at the time, there was almost nothing to report.

There had been no information about the accuser, only the vaguest mention of the accusations, and nothing about the investigation thus far. Nevertheless, the talking heads followed taped clips by urging viewers to visit the station's web site and vote on the question: "Are the accusations true?"

At that point, given a total lack of meaningful information upon which to base an opinion, a rational person might have asked, "What accusations? And how the hell would I know?"

The lack of evidence–or even any real knowledge about the accusations–didn't keep people from logging on to register their opinions. Alas, humans are prone to emotional reasoning: "Michael Jackson is weird looking and weird acting; he must be a child molester," or "I dig Michael Jackson's music, so he couldn't possibly be a child molester." Unfortunately, many Americans go to the polls without bothering to be any more informed than Fox's voters were about Michael Jackson's sexual conduct. The media knows this, and they will use it.

Anyone who clings to the belief that news is controlled by "the liberal media" hasn't been paying much attention. Today's news is as corporate as McDonald's, and has as much concern for the welfare of Americans.

Consider the California recall election: 135 candidates announced their intention to run for the office, yet news coverage all over America was limited almost exclusively to two of them, Arnold Schwarzenegger and adult film actress Mary Carey, who admitted her real agenda was to support the sitting Governor, Democrat Gray Davis. Perhaps local coverage in California was more complete, but for the rest of America, the vote seemed to be between a pumped-up neo-Reaganite and this bust-augmented porn queen and her incompetent cohort who had bankrupted the state. .

Yet during the campaign, Republicans will turn to any negative publicity about Bush and attribute it to bias in "the liberal media."

"History has tried hard to teach us that we can't have good government under politicians. To go and stick one at the very head of the government couldn't be wise." Mark Twain.

Seniors vote. On election day, they arrive at the polls, bussed from retirement communities and assisted living facilities. Those seniors are fairly well informed, relative to the rest of Americans. They have more time to be informed, and they have one of the largest lobbying organizations in America, the American Association of Retired persons (AARP), watching out for their interests.

As a group, older Americans are also more conscientious about their duties to the community. They volunteer more time to community organizations than any other demographic group; they came of age in a time when voting and military service were taken more seriously; and most have more trust in the political system than the average under-55 American. They tend toward more conservative social views. For seniors, issues like gay right to marriage and abortion are more likely to lean toward the religious right than the moderate center or progressive left. The most critical factor, however, is that seniors fear for their financial and physical health. Every election year, that comes to the forefront when Democrats and Republicans battle over social security and/or Medicare issues.

This time around, campaign rhetoric will center around the battle over a new Medicare bill that just made its way through Congress, against Democrats' opposition. Democrats say it threatens Medicare by privatizing it and that it contains a semisecret plan to eliminate it altogether. The AARP, however, endorsed the bill, which will fuel Republican arguments that Democrats tried to block passage of a bill that will benefit seniors.

Strangely, while health care and retirement funding become hot topics at election time, damned little happens with them in the intervening years. Generally, this inertia is blamed by both sides on partisanism–each claims the other side keeps them from getting anything done.

For decades, presidential candidates (and Congress) have made and broken promises to provide health care and better retirement benefits to all Americans. It makes one wonder: Does anyone really want to do anything to provide health care and a secure retirement for all Americans? Or does the issue's greatest political value lie in the inherent opportunities for Democrats and Republicans to piss on one another?

The political bickering leaves Americans hanging in the balance. As Dennis Kucinich points out, more than 40 million Americans have no health care insurance, and another 30 million have only minimal coverage.

In the current economy, which enables corporations to cut jobs and eliminate benefits, this will only get worse. As Wesley Clark has commented, three million private sector jobs have been lost under the Bush administration–"the worst job losses under any president since Herbert Hoover," who was president when the stock market crashed in 1929. An additional 1.4 million Americans have fallen into poverty.

To make matters worse, Bush took over a balanced budget, which has since gone deeper into the red than it had under any administration in history. The enormous deficit leaves little room for providing health care or strengthening social security, and of course leaves little room for creating government jobs, except perhaps in the military.

Bush has tried to solve the country's economic problems almost exclusively with a variation on Reaganomics, in which the rich would get richer, and their wealth would somehow "trickle down" to the rest of us poor saps. Reaganomics didn't work in the 1980s–it started a short term real estate and stock market boom and bought BMWs for some yuppies. The good times quickly collapsed under mountains of Monopoly money, as savings and loans and other financial institutions began to collapse. The economy left Clinton in position to overcome Daddy Bush, who had waged a successful war in Kuwait but failed to prevent a financial disaster at home.

"Some men worship rank, some worship heroes, some worship power, some worship God, and over these ideals they dispute and cannot unite–but they all worship money." Mark Twain.

In three generations of ranching, the Strickland family has seen droughts, diseases, and depressions. "But NAFTA is the worst thing that ever happened to the Florida cattle industry," says cattleman Shannon Strickland. Officially, our interview was about sod and sod-farming for a local newspaper's home & garden magazine section. Then wandered when Strickland was asked, "How did your operation get into sod farming?"

Strickland's grandfather was a pioneer who started raising cattle in Florida in the 1930s. At the time, Florida had almost as many cows as Texas. Competition, mainly from imported beef, had long since made raising cattle a losing proposition. But cattlemen are experiencing an unexpected boon–a case of mad cow disease in Canada restricted imports, thus allowing them to sell their beef at a price that, in a sense, could be seen as an adjustment bringing ranchers out of a depression.

"It's hard to make a living on the prices beef was bringing before the embargo," says K.C. Conaway, past president of the local Cattlemen's Association. "Americans have enjoyed spending a very low percentage of their income on food. In other places, people spend up to half their income on food, but we're very fortunate. We can afford to feed ourselves."

The question arose: Why were prices so low before the embargo? Foreign producers, Conaway explained, didn't have to deal with as many rules and regulations as domestic ranchers. Consequently, the imports cost less than homegrown beef. Not coincidentally, imported beef is of a lower quality, as evidenced by the mad cow case.

A few months after the interview with Conaway took place, hundreds of people demonstrated in Miami during a summit meeting designed to open the Americas to even more free trade. For most of the demonstrators, loss of jobs to foreign countries was the biggest issue. However, the loss of jobs to foreign competitors is only one affect of globalism.

Almost every industry in America has had to deal with the same effects of globalism as those facing the cattleman. Global capitalism has occurred for one simple reason: it's cheaper to manufacture and grow products outside the United States. It's cheaper because foreign producers don't have to spend as much money to produce the same goods.

Labor is the most obvious cost-cutter. Offshore companies don't have to pay their workers a minimum wage. So what if the goods are made in sweatshop conditions? So what if they only earn enough for a few beans and go home to live in a cardboard shack?

But there's more to it than labor costs: Other nations don't have the costly environmental regulations and zoning codes American communities enforce, and regulations about occupational safety, pesticide use, and pollution are much less stringent outside our borders.

Republicans will argue that globalism helps "spread American prosperity" to the rest of the world while making it possible for Americans to buy more low-cost stuff.

At least one Democrat has taken a tentative step towards addressing the pitfalls of globalism: Kucinich proposes to pull out of NAFTA and the WTO, and other Democrats propose an "international minimum wage" and tariffs that would restore balance between the cost of American goods and imports.

No one, however, has been willing to suggest the best long term solution–to simply require that goods sold in America be produced under American standards. No one has been willing to tell us what we need to hear: The rest of the world is not America's dumping-ground. Certainly no mainstream politician is going to suggest, to paraphrase the cattleman, that Americans have been fortunate, and maybe we need to pay a fair price for our dinners, our SUVs, and our DVD players.

"Nature makes the locust with an appetite for crops; man would have made him with an appetite for sand–I mean a man with the least little bit of common sense." Mark Twain

Generally speaking, Democrats have a better record when it comes to protecting the environment, education, and culture, and have distanced themselves from the religious right. If they have the courage, this year's Democratic candidate can use that to his or her advantage.

The Bush administration's records on the environment, education, and social programs have been abysmal. Bush has rolled back clean air and water regulations and tried to open the areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Even his own brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, got on his case when, early in his administration, the president tried to open sensitive offshore Florida waters to oil drillers.

One of Bush's most pro-corporate, anti-human measures has been to refuse to support the Superfund tax. The tax forces polluters to pay for toxic waste cleanup. Bush would leave the rest of us to pay to clean up their messes.

Meanwhile, the administration put tougher demands on state and local school systems, while $6.8 billion was cut from school budgets in 2003. Under Bush, Republicans have continued to press for school vouchers and other privatization programs.

Republicans have long been aligned with the religious right, although many of them have tried to distance themselves from the extremists. Two issues, gay marriage and reproductive rights, however, will put Republicans and Democrats alike on slippery political footing.

Democrats have already waffled a little when confronted during debates with questions about gay marriage, for example. Neither side really wants to take a stand, because for a politician to tell the truth about how he or she feels about gay rights or abortion will immediately put that politician on the side of either religious extremists, "abortionists," or gays.

No one really wants to side with either pro-choice or antiabortion factions, and no one wants to be seen as either a promoter of gay lifestyles nor a gay-basher. However, Democrats will be able to point to Bush's record on the gay rights and reproductive choice and place him firmly in league with the most socially repressive government possible.

A wise Democrat, therefore, will lump these issues into the context of other threats Bush and his cohorts have made against personal freedoms–the military tribunals that have held individuals with no access to lawyers and no right to speedy trial, for example, or the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, which insists on making everything from e-mail to one's library reading lists open for government scrutiny.

Perhaps someone will emerge from the candidate roster as the definitive "wise leader," capable of rescuing America from the quagmire in which we now helplessly flail. If not, the best we can hope for is to heed the words of a great American humorist, W.C. Fields, and, as usual, choose from the least of the available evils: "I never vote for anyone; I always vote against."

Contributing Editor Morris Sullivan has written for IMPACT for more than five years. A freelance writer and former high school teacher living in DeLand, Florida, Sullivan is also a playwright. His most notorious work, Femmes Fatale, contained the infamous Nude Macbeth, which has been covered by diverse news media from the BBC and NPR to Playboy, HBO's Real Sex, and Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

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