OK, the verdict is in -- and 2015, defying all predictions, was a pretty interesting year! Here at Attytood's Mission Control Center, it was a struggle to keep up with it all -- the rise of Bernie Sanders' democratic socialism and Donald Trump's "national socialism," if you know what I mean, the election of a new mayor and the dawn of a new governor closer to home, triumph and bitter setbacks for the social justice movement in America. As at the end of every year, I've tried to re-stir the pot with a "Five for Fighting" post of the things that mattered. In 2015, I was the same pathetic liberal hack (or so they told me) that I've always been. but at least this time around I had some good material to work with.
5. You call that 'democratic socialism'? Count me in, then, Nov. 19, 2015:
First, while I applaud Sanders remarkable consistency over the last 55 years, I'd have to say that "democratic socialist" isn't the branding that I'd go with if I were starting from scratch in 2015. Why? I think the term "socialist" suggests certain programs -- nationalizing industries like the railroads (oops, we kinda did that one...nevermind) or coal mines, when that's not in any way what Sanders advocates. Instead, he supports an expanded role for government in a handful of areas where unfettered capitalism -- insurance executives paying themselves 7-figure salaries while rejecting your kid's transplant, for example -- doesn't make sense.
If "democratic socialism" meant a state-run media instead of a free press, or if the government decided to nationalize Silicon Valley for Soviet-style production of the iPhone 7, that would be a terrible idea. Bernie Sanders doesn't support that. Nobody does. Instead, his platform asks some basic questions. Why do we take care of all old people through Social Security but not all sick people? Why do we only offer free public schooling through 12th grade, when it's not possible to succeed today without either advanced vocational training or a college degree? Is that 'democratic socialism,' or just common sense?
The most interesting thing about Sanders' speech today is his effort to re-cast himself not as someone "from the 1960s" (Hillary's unexpected phraseology) but as a re-incarnation of FDR. That's not just to associate his campaign with uplifting the working class -- something Roosevelt did more successfully than any other POTUS -- but also to remind folks that when it was necessary, FDR was resolute in dealing with threats overseas. But would Sanders ever get a chance to prove this in the White House? That will be tough -- while most polls have shown him beating the weak GOP field, it will be very, very hard for Sanders to erode the years of goodwill that Clinton has developed the Democratic base of older voters, blacks, Latinos, and female activists. But then, his campaign is largely more about his ideas than about him
For me, the last few years -- from the the crash of '08 to the current painful sight of watching some beloved friends and colleagues losing their jobs -- have caused me to lose a lot of faith in capitalism as we've come to know it in America. But this much seems clear: That expanded educational and health care opportunities, and strong unions in the workplace to maintain a middle class, are critical for this country to get anywhere in the 21st Century. Bernie Sanders says that would make me a "democratic socialist," too. If that's the case, then count me in.
4. 'Mad Men' and the shock of the things that never happened, May 19, 2015
In the end, even Don Draper couldn't keep writing his fictions. Maybe it's a coincidence that something clicks inside Don in November 1968 -- in the time after the Tet Offensive and the murders of King and Robert Kennedy. Maybe it isn't. But his nostalgia flavored pitch for Hershey's collapses when he feels an almost unnatural urge to tell the truth -- that a candy bar was his reward for luring customers to the family's house of prostitution. This begins a quest to unburden himself -- of his lies, but also his consumer possessions, even his beloved Cadillac. But he still confronts the question that so many of us do: When is it too late for redemption?
"Mad Men" made me realize it's a lot easier for a person to stop believing its own myth than it is for a nation. The period that's depicted in the waning days of the show -- the early 1970s -- was a rare and all too brief moment of introspection for the nation, when the Pentagon Papers, the Church Committee, even a break-in at an FBI office here in Media, caused America to consider coming clean. But a national plotline doesn't have a scripted ending, and over time it was the myths that looked better in the mirror, especially with the help of a good-looking master pitchman named Ronald Reagan.
No, it was other nations, other adversaries that were poisonous. America is toasted.
Today, in 2015, it's striking that the prevailing winds in our national politics are simply to move forward, that we can still be shocked at how much things never happened. Indeed, President Obama said a couple of years ago that there was no need to look into torture or other abuses of the Bush years because of "a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards." Indeed, the architects of our modern-day Vietnam in Iraq are highly sought pundits and highly compensated authors. Even a leading candidate for president in 2016 seemed oblivious to the fact that a war authorized by his own brother was an unmitigated disaster. Gitmo, waterboarding, untold number of dead civilians?...you'll be shocked how those never happened.
3. Sorry, but Tony Williams is not the new Stokely Carmichael, May 7, 2015
But the really awkward thing is Williams' rank hypocrisy here. Since he's eager to revisit the 1990s, it's worth noting that that was an era in which Williams couldn't throw citizens from "our communities" behind bars quickly enough. Then a state rep from West Philly, Williams worked with three Republican lawmakers as part of a tough-on-crime posse called "the Gang of Five" that lobbied then-Mayor Ed Rendell (successfully) to bring in New York's John Timoney as police commissioner and to institute so-called "broken windows policing" that would cite and even jail low-level, non-violent offenders.
Of course, "broken windows" policing became the "gateway drug" to the mass incarceration crisis in America, which has ripped urban communities apart, and eventually to policies like stop-and-frisk that 2015 Williams now wants to end. At the height of the Gang of Five crusade, Williams even championed what was described in the Inquirer as the Gang's "most intriguing idea: a plan to set up tent cities for incarcerating low-level offenders during warm-weather months. At present, a lack of city jail space makes it tough to keep prostitutes, for instance, off the streets..."
Yes, Anthony Williams wanted to keep non-violent criminals, like sex workers, in sweltering tent cities during the summer (an idea borrowed from Phoenix's barbaric sheriff Joe Arpaio, by the way) because there weren't enough jail cells for all the folks he wanted to lock up. But I guess that's a lot harder to fit on a cardboard sign than #BlackLivesMatter. Especially at the height of 2015's Black Spring.
Be very wary of last-minute political conversions. I'm sorry, but one protest march and a new pair of flip-flops don't make the pro-fracking, pro-charters dude into the second coming of Stokely Carmichael. Tony Williams is just a politician trying to win an election, but I'm not even sure that Philly Jesus can save him in the last mile of the race.
2. SWB: Swimming While Black, June 7. 2015
It all makes you want to type, "So much for that post-racial America"...except that's already been typed so many times in the last six years. In a world where we have our first black president and most of us toil away in integrated workplaces, still way too many people pick up the phone and call police when they see someone who's acting lawfully in their own neighborhood -- but who simply doesn't look like them.
Occasionally, the results are tragic: In Alabama recently, an anonymous person called the cops when he spotted an Indian man he hadn't seen before walking in his neighborhood. The 57-year-old man, who spoke no English, had just arrived to help take care of his toddler grandson while his engineer son studied nights for his masters degree. The man's rough arrest nearly killed him.
But the fact that the #McKinney police mayhem was triggered by a swimming pool makes it especially painful to ponder. Some of the worst integration fights (and not just in the Deep South) of the 1950s and 1960s were prompted by fears of black and white teenagers swimming in the same pools. Some communities simply padlocked their municipal pools for years, rather than admit blacks. We talk about these things as embarrassing oddities from long ago, but as William Faulkner observed, it turns out that "the past is never dead. It's not even past."
All of which continues to beg the larger question of whether the problem in policing our communities is really the lack of body cams and better training. Or is it something much much deeper, something that needs to be taught in the home because the police academy is way too late.
People always ask, where are the parents? And yet here are the parents telling kids to "go back to Section 8," based not on the content of their character but the color of the skin. Maybe we should be asking instead, where is the morality? And in 2015 I really don't know what the answer is.
1. From Howard Stern to Donald Trump as democracy amuses itself to death, August 18. 2015
Indeed, Trump is the perfect storm of 21st Century excess. Worried about the influence in politics of billionaires like the Koch Brothers or George Soros? Just have a billionaire run himself -- problem solved. Think that modern political campaigns have become nothing more than elaborate reality shows with the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue voted to the winner by our national studio audience? Donald Trump learned how to entertain and influence people on his own reality show, "The Apprentice." He says whatever is on his mind, and it's not only conservatives who agree with the best of his zingers, such as his explanation of how he and his billionaire friends buy conventional politicians.
Indeed, there's only one problem with the rise of Donald Trump. He's a demagogue -- arguably the most dangerous one that America has seen in generations. His "truth telling" and one-liners have been built atop of a brownfield of poisonous industrial-strength xenophobia. It's impossible to ignore the intentional non-gaffe that launched his campaign and sent his poll numbers skyward, calling Mexican immigrants criminals and "rapists." His motto "Make America Great Again" is in fact a thinly veiled threat against The Other. That threat that sprung to life this week as the Trump campaign unveiled an immigration policy that includes the forced march of 11 million people -- uprooting families that have been in America for years -- and also goes against 100 years of settled constitutional law regarding citizenship. His first so-called "policy plan" spits at the idea of Congress and consensus, spits harder at the U.S. Constitution, and puts its faith in just one thing: The cult of the personality of Donald Trump. And we've seen how that movie turns out.
Look, the odds remain strong that Trump loses -- that he goes all Ross Perot and quits over some petty grievance, or that the GOP establishment unifies in a stop-Trump effort (although it's hard to see where that level of political skill would come from). And even if Trump shocks the world and wins the Republican nomination, the so-called "Obama coalition" of non-whites, coastal educated professionals, "waitress moms," gays, young people, et cetera -- which gets bigger every four years -- will probably rally around the eventual Democratic nominee.
On the other hand, history's dustbin of the last 100 years is littered with despotic rulers who started out as a joke until they weren't, who ran on a platform of restoring national greatness against the alleged pollution of outsiders, of immigrants or ethnic minorities, who manipulated the real and perceived grievances of the masses to get their foot in the doorways of power, and who had little use for the niceties of diplomacy or even the rule of law once they got in. The time to stop laughing at Trump's demagoguery and take it seriously is today, not next July and heaven forbid not in November of 2016. When it comes to democracy in America, to quote Yogi Berra, it gets late early out there. America has survived civil war, slavery and segregation, and all types of crises. This is no time to amuse ourselves to death.