A Prairie Populist Leaves the Senate

It’s going to take a while to get used to the thought that the “Senator” part of Senator Byron Dorgan soon will be in the past tense. For most of my adult life, Byron has been an elected official of exceptional conviction and resolve. He also has been an employer and friend of mine. Name a fight that pitted global corporations and entrenched financial interest against the little guy in the U.S. economy, and Byron probably has been there. He has also sought to address global hunger and bring some sanity to foreign affairs.

Byron’s retirement, which he announced recently, isn’t just a loss for the Senate. It marks the waning of a political outlook that took shape in the farm states more than a century ago and that has given spine to the nation’s politics for decades. Byron is probably best known today for opposing the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which since the Depression had held the speculative urges of the banking industry in check. In a prescient speech on the Senate floor in 1999, he warned that Congress would “look back in ten years time and say we should not have done this.” He called it practically to the year. (Only seven other senators voted along with him.)


Obama Needs Our Help

I think it was the late Paul Sweezy who said that you could make Leon Trotsky the CEO of Exxon and the company wouldn’t change much. The behavior of that company, as with any corporation, is built into its DNA, which is encoded for the unrelenting pursuit of gain. A CEO can make changes at the edges. But Exxon still will be Exxon, for pretty much the same reason that a goat isn’t going to fly.

I’ve been thinking about Sweezy’s comment in light of the recent complaining about Obama on the Left. It’s gotten pretty intense, and it’s what the Left in America does best—feel victimized and disaffected. I understand the disappointment. I have been especially dismayed at Obama’s inability to do—and in fact apparent disinterest in doing—the thing I thought he’d do best, which is define the debate. On medical insurance, for example, he’s given his big speeches and then let his opponents drive the issue through the daily news cycle. As a result, advocates of health insurance reform have been on the defensive throughout, which is quite an achievement considering the insurance mess that exists today.


From Raising Hell to Raising Barns

There is something to be said for writing in a hostile political environment. You can’t coast on prevailing opinion. You have to use your wits.

This is one reason Texas has produced some of the most arresting progressive voices of the last generation. Working against the state’s Rightward flow, they have harkened to its populist tradition. They are funny and a little outrageous. They have swagger, and tell stories.


Blue Commoners, and Abstractions in the Red Zone

The Red States/Blue State trope lost ground last week, at last. It never was what it seemed to begin with. As numerous writers have pointed out, the electoral divide is less between states than between urban, suburban and rural areas within states. California’s Central Valley is Red, while the coast is Blue.  Much as with the concept of race, there is as much diversity within the so-called Red states, as between them.

That leaves the big misconception about the Blue areas themselves – namely that they are hip urban enclaves inhabited by “cultural creatives” in the smug and self-congratulatory parlance of the demographic trade. Those Red people with their rec room projects! We have Thai food and couture.  In this version Blue is a kind of cultural emanation that floats through the urban ether, imparting an affinity for gay marriage and welfare and a snooty aversion to churches and guns.


DDT: Echoes of Iraq

We were on the farm in April, my wife’s parents’ rice farm in the Philippines, and our son got sick.  At first we thought it was the heat.  But as afternoon became evening he got worse and worse. Vomiting. Couldn’t eat or drink.  A fever that kept rising. My wife’s parents sent word to the local manogluy-a, a kind of herb doctor, who scrunched down on spindly haunches and rubbed ginger on him, to no effect.  He is three years old. There was not much sleep that night.

The next day we got a ride to a provincial hospital, and waited in a sweaty corridor with just occasional relief from an oscillating fan.  Finally it was our turn – a kind doctor with a gentle touch.  Josh was admitted right away.  As the nurses put an intravenous tube into his hand, I became woozy.  There followed three days and nights – nights especially — of torment. I kept thinking of mosquitoes, and dengue fever and other dread diseases. Was he still breathing?


The Coffee House Candidate

Zioncheck for President
by Phillip Campbell
Nation Books, $15.95

Campbell got fired. (His boss was syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage of “Savage Love” fame.) Cogswell asked Campbell to manage his campaign for the Seattle City Council. Zioncheck for President is the story of that campaign.

It is not a campaign memoir in the usual sense. There is not much on strategy and issues, and still less blow-by-blow. The candidate himself is somewhat blurry, beyond his crabbing about printing errors and distaste for fundraising calls. Basically, he comes across as impassioned in a good way–the kind of fellow who sits in coffee houses during the long grey Seattle winters and broods on the absurdity of “freeways” jammed with cars that burn gas as they go nowhere.