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Chomsky, Zinn, Nader, & The Quadrennial Farce
by Michael K. Smith
October 31, 2004

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Just when you thought the presidential election picture couldn't get any more schizophrenic, there were Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky signing a petition stating that dumping Bush is the number one priority of progressives this year. Zinn has long maintained that what matters is the people in the streets, not the people in high office. At a speech he gave at Humboldt State University in Arcata several years ago he stated that when the people are organized and determined no leader can prevent them from advancing their cause. But this year he is sounding the alarm that Bush cannot be influenced by popular pressure. Chomsky, meanwhile, has long expressed great reluctance even to recommend reading material to his audiences, let alone how they ought to vote, on the basis that they shouldn't be substituting his judgment for their own. At the same time he has equally consistently maintained that elections are an elaborate PR charade unworthy of more than the briefest attention, a stance he somehow considers consistent with the petition's call to put the presidential elections at the top of our list of concerns this year. Fortunately, these two fine dissidents haven't joined in the vilification of Nader that has become all the rage among Democrats and all-too-many progressives, at least not yet.

In a recent Democracy Now! interview progressive Norman Solomon declared his support for Nader's right to be on the ballot but criticized his appeal to disaffected conservatives on the basis that it constitutes a courting of racists and xenophobes, a charge that he declined to make against Kerry, who merely supports rabidly racist fanatics mass murdering the children of Palestine. At the same time Solomon criticized Nader for helping Bush by siphoning votes from Kerry. Apparently, it is fine for Nader to be on the ballot as long as he doesn't seek votes from either the right or the left.

The currently fashionable crackpot realism beneath all this is but the latest version of the quadrennial farce called electing a president. I must say that this year's version is beyond the absurdist norm, what with so many progressives pronouncing Nader a strategic moron, a charge that is, of course, untrue. But even if it were the case, it would not be nearly as serious as the wholesale moral surrender summed up in the vacuous slogan "anybody but Bush."

Hardly anyone seems to realize that politics is not purely utilitarian, nor would we like it if it could be. The 1943 Warsaw ghetto revolt was utterly pointless from a practical point of view. At the time, some 60,000 Jews were walled up there preparatory to being "cleared out" and sent to concentration camps. Himmler expected it would take three days. Contrary to "realist" expectations, the doomed Jews made a "pointless" last stand from their fortified sewers, vaults, and cellars. With a handful of pistols and rifles, some homemade grenades, and a couple of dozen machine guns smuggled in, they held off the Nazi Army and Waffen SS troops for four weeks. Many of them chose to be burned alive rather than surrender, a stubborn defiance that visited grief unnecessarily on an undetermined number of German families whose sons lost their lives in the battle. So far as I know, none dare call these Jews egomaniacs.

So even if Nader were running simply on moral conviction, his campaign would be amply justified. But the fact is that he has also demonstrated considerable political savvy, which helped the Democrats in 2000, a fact they never bother to acknowledge and one most progressives decline to point out as well. The Green spillover vote that year got Maria Cantwell (D) elected to the Senate from Washington state and Debbie Stabenow from Michigan. Cantwell won only by a couple of hundred votes. That knotted the Senate at 50-50 Democrats vs. Republicans, so when James Jeffords abandoned the GOP to become an independent, the Democrats had the majority. Then in 2002 when the Democrats ran without Nader in the race there was no spillover vote to be had and they got crushed, the main themes being "guns and religiosity" rather than economic justice, since the Democrats can't address the latter with any conviction.

If the Democrats had thrown Clinton out of office for lying under oath, as Nader favored at the time, Gore would have run as an incumbent in 2000, Bush's theme of restoring integrity to the White House would have been weakened, and the race would not likely have come down to Florida at all. Bush would be back on the ranch where he belongs. But that would have deprived Democrats, and, alas, all too many progressives, of the satisfactions of denouncing the Republicans as laughable prudes out to suppress the "private" life of our nation's first "black president." If strategic thinking is being questioned here, it seems to me that Nader is doing a lot better than many of his critics.

Nader showed he can not only criticize but also work with the Democratic Party by supporting Dennis Kucinich in the primaries. Predictably, Kucinich was labeled a "vanity" candidate by the media, allegedly in the race only to lend color to the campaign, though in purely personal terms Kucinich is hardly colorful. In any event, this is the well-established signal from our corporate masters to abandon faith in our humanitarian instincts in preference for a "realistic" candidate that will put our conscience in exile while demonstrating "pragmatism" in harvesting votes from a social democratic populace in furtherance of a right-wing program. Naturally, what we end up with is a Democratic Convention in which the overwhelming majority of the delegates are against the Iraq war while the standard bearer is in favor. This, in turn, is dutifully described in realist terms as unprecedented "unity."

Meanwhile, "realist" appraisal of Bush overlooks the fact that it was 911 that allowed him to move so sharply to the right. Of course, Bush became an utter catastrophe after 911, what did we think he would do with a pretext like that, pass a constitutional amendment to outlaw post nasal drip? There is absolutely no chance that a Democratic President wouldn't have used 911 to indulge the worst imperial excesses as well, especially with the Right screaming "soft on terrorism" from the minute the attacks occurred. If it is true that Gore would not have invaded Iraq, it is hardly the case that the overall death and misery toll under his rule would have been significantly less than under Bush. Absent an Iraq invasion, the sanctions would have remained in place and the bombings would have continued. Meanwhile, even more aggressive mayhem would have been carried out in Afghanistan. Bill Clinton suggests that a proper response would be to put another 100,000 U.S. troops in there. With the opium trade thriving again, there'd be lots for them to shoot at.

I'm not sure there's much point in comparing presidents, but if there is it's not clear to me that Bush is the worst ever. Maybe Woodrow Wilson is. He imposed segregation on federal offices, let a suffrage bill languish in Congress through two terms, and plunged the U.S. into the bloodiest war in human history. While speaking piously of self-determination for all he invaded Mexico (twice), Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Soviet Union (twice), with Haiti and the Dominican Republic remaining under brutal U.S. occupation for years. He simply ignored the Spanish flu epidemic, which appears to have started in Southwestern Kansas and spread to Europe with U.S. troops. Current estimates are that 50-100 million people ultimately died from that virus. Wilson was too busy obsessing over the Kaiser to do anything about it.

Furthermore, on civil liberties Bush's achievements under the Patriot Act pale in comparison to Wilson, who elevated himself to virtual Divine Kingship, assuming dictatorial control of finance, the press, the farms, and commerce and transportation. He exercised vastly more power than did Lincoln at the height of the Civil War. After winning much of the socialist vote he wrecked the socialist movement, packed the Wobblies off to jail, and denied Eugene Debs the customary presidential pardon upon leaving office. "Egomaniacs" have to be kept in their place.

In view of all this, I simply do not believe the many people who tell me that in a less "imperfect" world they would certainly vote for a progressive candidate for president. I have been hearing this song election after election, each one described as unique and a "just-this-time" event, but one absolutely requiring my "pragmatic" vote to ward off imminent and ultimate evil. In 1980 Barry Commoner ran a Naderesque challenge for the presidency. At one campaign stop he was asked: "Are you a serious candidate or are you just running on the issues?" In 1984, Jesse Jackson's "hymietown" remark effectively doomed his campaign while the enthusiasts for Jewish supremacy in Palestine continued their longstanding support for the mass murder of Palestinians without a murmur of dissent from liberals or most of the Left. In 1988, Jackson defied crackpot projections and became the front runner, for God's sake, but the realists torpedoed him all the same. His progressive platform just "couldn't win" against the intensely charismatic George Bush Senior. In 1992, pundits ridiculed Jerry Brown's 800 number soliciting small donations, promoting the usual crackpot logic that candidates prostituted to vast corporate fortunes are not compromised, but "viable." In 1996, we had to re-elect Clinton to hold off the Gingrich "crazies," and in 2000 Gore was the Green Prince of the Environment against the GOP's eco-evildoers. To tell the truth, this anti-democratic ruse of lesser evilism has been practiced forever and has never failed to produce disastrous results. In 1908 when a disgruntled ³realist² shouted to him that voting socialist was throwing a vote away, Eugene Debs responded hotly: ³Thatıs right. Donıt vote for freedom - you might not get it. Vote for slavery - you have a cinch on that.²

In short, we can expect no end to surrender under the sway of crackpot logic, which makes me suspect that if the lower half of the wealth pyramid (i.e. the non-voters) by some miracle suddenly took over the Democratic Party and nominated a candidate like Nader, most of the diehard pragmatists urging us to be "realistic" would defect to the GOP.

Michael K. Smith is the author of Portraits of Empire and The Madness of King George (illustrations by Matt Wuerker) with Common Courage Press.