Greg Guma

Signs of Change? How Americans Turned Disaster and Outrage Into Upheaval

 For most Vermonters the big stories of the last year were the state's response to Hurricane Irene, which produced the state’s worst natural disaster since 1927, the struggle over closure of Vermont Yankee, and passage of the first-in-the-nation universal health care system. After almost a decade the state had a Democratic governor who pledged to usher in single-payer health insurance and usher out Yankee. Around the country people were rallying to the economic critique of Vermont's popular US Senator, Bernie Sanders.

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Presidential Death Match 2000

NOTICE: This article contains scenes that may not be suitable for mature humans. Discretion is advised. However, it also contains reviews of current productions, like Fistful of Moolah, starring George W. Bush; Millennium Man, with Al Gore; and Mission Improbable, an indy party road movie. Plus, a preview of what could be the next blockbuster political/action hit.

After Zippergate and the Starr Report, could politics get any more warped? You wouldn't have thought so. After all, in little more than a decade, we'd gone from arms for hostages, covert war in Latin America, and prime time bombings in Iraq to the wall-to-wall circus that placed the president's penis in the center ring for a constitutional trapeze act. But then the corporate pimps, media sycophants, and political fixers who convinced voters to put a B-grade actor, a drugged-up Yalie, and a world-class narcissist (you know who they are) in charge of the world's only superpower came up with a blockbuster not even DreamWorks could have packaged.

Yes, it's a title bout for the new millennium. Presidential Death Match 2000. You don't need a ticket to get a seat for this $2 billion fatal distraction. But there's no way out until the last pundit sings.

When he retired from the US Senate, that great white hoopster Bill Bradley, who offered up his "authentic inner core" early in the presidential race, said "politics is broken." But it's worse than that. If George "Dubya" Bush and Al Gore are any indication, it's become a rite of succession that makes the presidency look more and more like an inherited crown.

Deep Pockets, Demagogues, and the Democrat's Big Sleep

The two crucial traits that apparently endear Dubya to GOP stalwarts are his fundraising prowess and family pedigree. It's certainly not his IQ or way with words. Sure, he's also a governor -- in a state where the job is as taxing as hosting a celebrity golf tournament. Mainly, he's taken credit for reforms that were already in the legislative pipeline. But then again, Texas does rank first in executions, proving at least that the younger Bush has the killer instinct essential for any "compassionate conservative." And he was the brains behind Texas' "war on sex," a proposal with a $9 million price tag to "encourage young people to save sex for marriage."

Despite his rocky start, nagging questions about basic brain power, and an unexpected challenge by John McCain, power-starved Republicans have rallied the stalwarts and suppressed their doubts. Clearly, they'd rather back a born-again frat boy with a fat bankroll than face the reality that their rescuer has the moral compass of a turkey buzzard.

Meanwhile, the Democrats barely stayed awake long enough to see whether their incumbent vice president, who supposedly had the nomination wired before the race began, could stave off a half-hearted challenge from the politician formerly known as Senator Sominex. Pundits called the Gore-Bradley contest a legitimate horse race, but it was more like watching pelicans mate in slow motion.

Even when these two raised "serious" issues, the goal was to talk tough while taking as few risks as possible. How else could you explain Gore's lame attempt to turn his concern about sprawl into a bold departure? Then came Elian Gonzales, the boat boy whose saga took on the qualities of a Nativity scene in Little Miami. Gore changed his tune faster than you can say 25 electoral votes. And I hate to disillusion people who thought Bradley was actually fighting for universal health coverage, but subsidies for the poor and tax breaks for the middle class -- two major chunks of his "big idea" -- wouldn't have fixed the mess created by HMOs and insurance company bean counters.

So, forget the issues. The real question was whether Bradley's awkward warmth and celebrity status could overcome Gore's effective exploitation of patronage and federal pork to win early support from elected officials and party hacks. It was an image battle in which both contestants badly needed a personality transplant. The outcome surprised no one: nagging predictability defeated high-minded tedium.

Meanwhile, as if this isn't strange and sad enough, Reform -- Ross Perot's facsimile of a party, linking naïve populism with potentially dangerous nativism -- has featured the most contentious nomination fight of all. Many Perotistas looked to Jesse "the gov" Ventura, the most cheeky demagogue since Huey Long. But Ventura, who doesn't hesitate to trash religion and revel in junk culture, wanted no part of this smackdown. Instead, he threw out sacrificial lambs like Lowell Weicker and Donald Trump. In 1990, Weicker, a former GOP senator, did wage a successful third-party campaign for governor of Connecticut. But he was yesterday's news. And running The Donald? That would have been like spraying the party with voter repellent. As it turned out, Trump was just promoting a book -- or himself, and Ventura stormed out of the party instead.

Which brings us to Pat Buchanan: Nixon apologist, CNN commentator, and the man who declared our current "culture war" during his 1992 bid. At the time, columnist Carl Rowan called Buchanan's convention speech "the closest I have ever heard to a Nazi address."

After his second presidential run in 1996, Buchanan's status changed dramatically, from right-wing avatar to potentially "radioactive" weapon of GOP destruction. The poison pill turned out to be Pat's isolationist take on Hitler and WWII, which brought his other mutant ideas into focus. George Will, the conservative spear-carrier who trained Ronald Reagan for his 1980 presidential debates, came close to calling his fellow tele-columnist a fascist. He and other conservatives hoped Bushanan would just disappear, uncomfortable having him either in or out of the Republican Party.

But Pat had other plans. Determined to debate Dubya and whoever bored the Democrats least, he jumped ship for the Reform nomination. Perot initially welcomed the attention, but it was the last straw for Ventura. Scorned by most Republicans, with the mysterious exception of Dubya -- who appears to live by that old Mafia proverb about keeping enemies close -- Pat is primed to lead his pitchfork brigade on a hostile take over of Reform.

The guy is like some tenacious alien creature that can only be killed when projected deep into outer space. And maybe not even then.

Looks are Everything

Sometimes the political process comes across like some sort of conspiracy, a made-for-TV event designed by media moguls to boost ratings and transfer escalating production costs to campaign contributors. They're already the beneficiaries of federal matching funds, which largely go toward paying for TV ads. Think about it: US media is basically controlled by a handful of conglomerates, and the key players probably all pee on the same tree at Bohemian Grove. Since they're forced to cover presidential candidates anyway, maybe they just decided to handle the casting and plot points as well.

But no, they're not that clever. And anyway, not even the WB would air a series in which the callow son of an ex-president is challenged for the nomination by the wife of a former nominee. That's pushing suspension of disbelief too far, isn't it? And yet, there they were for a while -- Dubya and Liddy Dole -- living proof that the US does have a political aristocracy. The only thing left is a royal wedding at the GOP convention. Imagine the ratings for that.

Still, this has been the most media-driven campaign ever. For example, the first question about every candidate was how he or she came across on the tube. The next -- long before we knew much about their positions -- was whether they were capturing sufficiently high ratings to get picked up for the second season. Cokie, Sam, and the rest of the punditocracy talked about each candidate's fundraising ability as if that was the main qualification for office. Surrendering to this logic, Dan Quayle admitted he dropped out essentially because Dubya's $60 million war chest proved he was the best man for the job. So much for ideology.

To make an impression, most candidates turned themselves into stereotypes. If they didn't do it, talking heads and late-night hosts would. The name of the game was image management. Steve Forbes thought he could even buy an image and, perhaps, the presidency itself. He was wrong. No amount of money could compensate for his pervasive nerdiness, not to mention eyes that made you wonder whether his father, the even more bizarre Malcolm, had Steve built in an underground lab. Luckily, the US isn't yet ready to elect someone with the affect of an android -- with the possible exception of Gore.

To paraphrase Billy Crystal's Fernando, it's better to look presidential than actually say too much. In a way, the less revealed the better. Having learned that lesson, John McCain -- the GOP's anti-Bush -- was long on anecdotes and vague reform talk, but short on specifics and ready to avoid tough stands. (After dropping out, he apologized about the latter, then proceeded to campaign for GOP incumbents who oppose his own reform agenda.) During the tour of his "straight talk express," he mainly dripped sincerity whenever given the chance to talk about God and country. His mantra was simple: As a war hero, I love America so much it's simply my duty to be president. McCain didn't often have to mention being a POW. He knew the media would make the connection, and play clips of him in captivity so often many people wanted to invade Vietnam all over again.

As image took center stage, it almost seemed logical to conclude that the best candidate was really just the best actor. Perhaps that's what made Warren Beatty's brief flirtation with running something to consider. He was certainly telegenic, and he'd been playing roles for 40 years, including an effective turn as a suicidal senator in Bullworth. He knew how to raise money for big productions, and also understood the importance of marketing an image. Plus, he wanted public campaign financing, which would at least make this show a more balanced ensemble piece.

But alas, Warren opted not to appear for his call back.

Sneak Previews

Until money is removed from the equation, we might as well think of primary races as a series of TV pilots, each competing for the best advance notice. From Stiff Neck Productions, for example, comes Fistful of Moolah. It's a modern-day Western in which Dubya plays the Man with No Scruples, blowing away bible-slinging rivals like Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes with tough love and silver bullets. Even Pat Robertson sacrifices his principles before Dubya's altar of expedience. The Moral Minority gang doesn't have a prayer -- until the Man ultimately discovers a philosopher named Jesus and realizes that El Dorado is place called Family Values. In Moolah II: The Arms Race, Bush and Charlton Heston team up to bring compassion back into the death business.

Empty Promises Unlimited has a science fiction saga, Millennium Man. In this US-Chinese production, Gore is cast as The Chosen One, a loyal cyborg who struggles to overcome his programming by returning to the heartland. But his mission is briefly, yet perhaps fatally undermined by the arrival of Morpheus, a famous athlete-turned-preacher with the power to lull the masses into a false sense of hope. At the preview I attended, most people didn't believe either hero could save the nation from terminal ennui.

But primary season's surprise hit turned out to be Mission Improbable III, produced by Oddball Enterprises in association with a consortium of casino owners, environmentalists, and the World Wrestling Federation. In order to save the world, highly-decorated misfits wage psychological warfare on the two major political parties. The problem is that they can't resist trashing each other. Ralph Nader has a cameo -- but too few lines, while Buchanan gives it his brilliant but evil best. Perot makes a surprise appearance as the cranky team leader, who gives incomprehensible assignments and can't help upstaging his own men.

For a while, Beatty considered launching a series called The Paranoid View. But he couldn't develop a story line in which he wasn't assassinated.

Diehard on the Campaign Trail

If I were in tinseltown, I'd pitch a political thriller that takes all this insanity to the next level. The timing is perfect for a high concept property ripped from the headlines, I'd explain. Just give it the green light, and I guarantee this will make Air Force One look like a trip to the mall. Sorry, Harrison.

Here's the pitch: Set in the near future, the story revolves around a three-way campaign for the presidency. It opens on the Republican convention, where the front runner -- played by Michael Douglas, doing his Gordon Gekko thing as a well connected governor with a huge war chest -- has just locked up the nomination. He's born to rule and totally ruthless. In the opening sequence, there's an assassination attempt by some lone nut. Manchurian Candidate stuff. The crowd goes wild, the nut becomes Swiss cheese, and the candidate gets a huge sympathy bump. It's all very convenient. After the smoke clears, Michael fires up the delegates with a killer acceptance speech about courage, the virtues of greed, and crushing any "extremists" who get in the way.

But he has a problem -- and it's not his major party opponent. I see Kevin Costner for that role. He's perfect to play a former basketball star turned politician. (It's fiction, remember.) So, he's kind of Mr. Smith in Washington, full of principles, but no instinct for the jugular. Even friends say he's charismatically-challenged. No, Michael's real trouble is the growing support for a third party insurgent, a tough-taking former talk show host and Dubya-Dubya-FU pro wrestler. The part has Schwartzenegger written all over it. But we need to move fast, since Arnold may run for governor of California if his next projects bomb. (The other way to go is Gary Oldman as Buchanan, but that would be way too dark for an October release.)

Back to the story. Michael is obviously worried; the way things look, he could lose the race to a jock, either way. He isn't about to let that happen.

After the usual complications -- Kevin cheats on his wife but regrets it, Arnold has a crisis of confidence when his campaign is dogged by dirty tricks -- we get to the big debate. What Kevin and Arnold don't know is that Michael, who maintains secret ties to Islamic fundamentalists through the Christian Right, has struck a deal with a charming but insane terrorist. Think John Malkovich. The plan is that Malkovich's hit team will take out Arnold right on TV -- shades of Network -- clearing the way for Michael to ride the ensuing tidal wave of paranoia into the White House. Malkovich's reward: Afghanistan. Michael promises to pin the blame on Ghaddafi or Saddam, and bomb their patsy's nation back into the Stone Age.

The plot misfires, of course, and Arnold goes on the warpath, hunting down Malkovich in some Middle Eastern hell hole, and eventually cornering Michael in his high-security estate. Plenty of kick-ass executive action. In the end, Michael is either indicted or impaled on a replica of the Statue of Liberty. Depends on how the test screenings go. In any case, Kevin becomes president. But Arnold doesn't mind. He's realized that self-respect is more important than popularity.

Of course, Arnold delivers the film's catch phrase -- just after smashing some fundamentalist thug's head through a camera lens. "Smile," he growls, "you've just been nominated."

The title? Momentum. And below, in the ads: "Some people will do anything for it." Ain't that the truth. And the beauty part is that the movie's bound to cost less and entertain more than the real thing.

Greg Guma is a Vermont editor and author of The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. If Momentum doesn't fly, he's already working on post-election comedy, The Big Lewinsky.

Dystopia or Hope?

Almost a century ago, novelist and muckraker Upton Sinclair weighed in on the millennial debate with a play that predicted worldwide devastation when a radioactive element causes a deadly explosion on New Year's Eve. Called The Millennium, his script follows the attempts of a handful of survivors to create a new society. Oddly enough, the long-lost play, written in 1908 yet never performed publicly, is a comedy in which utopia prevails and all the characters live happily ever after.Now that the crucial changeover -- and with it, much of the fear about Y2K-related calamity -- is behind us, you might assume that we're out of the woods. And yet, looking at the state of the world, it's hard to be as optimistic as Sinclair. With Russia blasting its way through Chechnya, instability reaches from Moscow to Indonesia. Ongoing hostility between India and Pakistan, among others, raises fear that religious differences could escalate into nuclear conflict. Meanwhile, despite the US economic boom, the gap between the rich and poor grows, and corporate globalization threatens human rights and the environment across much of the planet.In Sinclair's fantasy, survivors of global cataclysm come to see the failures of feudalism and capitalism, finally discovering a socialist society that works. As it's turned out, however, capitalism has managed to squelch consideration of any other option, while wreaking havoc globally and promoting the cynical notion that governments can do little to reduce misery. For many, socialism has become a synonym for repressive state control, a mere dream that produced totalitarian nightmares in the USSR and China, and economic disaster wherever else it was tried. Most leaders are afraid to even use the word these days.Of course, many millennial predictions have turned out to be wrong. The odd thing is that Sinclair, who mainly focused on labor's struggles and capitalism's excesses, could still laugh about humanity's plight and look beyond catastrophe. Today, in contrast, despite a successful millennium transition, a sense of ultimate doom hangs over the world. We've defied the doomsayers, yet apparently lost faith in a better future.In pop culture, post-modern scenarios often stress the dangers of technology in dystopias built on lies, brutality, and callous inequality. Though the hero usually saves humanity from oblivion, the basic message is that we're headed for a breakdown. Beyond that, who knows? It's an essentially hopeless vision, which subtly promotes the glorification of greed and selfishness. We're all on the Titanic, waiting for an iceberg, so why not just party until the inevitable happens.Some say the only way out is global revolution, which is almost as dangerous as not doing anything. If rapacious corporations and their transnational institutions imperil the planet, goes the logic, the solution is basically to abolish both. Yet, this approach, like the state's rights movement that seeks to challenge federal power in the US, could leave no way to enforce uniform standards of behavior. Some regions would flourish, others would become police states or ecological basket cases. And we'd all get to watch it on the Internet.Like it or not, the global village is upon us -- with a vengeance. The questions are how it will evolve and what constructive role citizens can play. A quarter-century after creating his own millennial vision, Sinclair opted for reform, seizing the Democratic nomination for California governor and advancing the End Poverty in California (EPIC) platform. For the Right, the prospect of a radical governor was terrifying. For the much of the Left, Sinclair's move was a betrayal. But some, like fellow author John Dos Passos, saw his plan for land reform and socialization of idle factories as a valuable small step. In fact, although Sinclair ultimately lost the election, EPIC radicalized a generation of activists and helped create the party's progressive wing.Rather than sinking into cynicism or clinging to fantasy, Sinclair translated his vision into a practical program for change. And that's precisely the challenge that still faces humanity: to resist despair, sustain a positive long-term vision, and yet confront corporate power with practical, evolutionary alternatives. This means engagement with -- not withdrawal from -- the emerging global system.Anti-government attitudes make people susceptible to reactionary, often isolationist appeals. Even though they may understand that no single nation can control violence, reverse environmental destruction, or protect basic rights around the world, many also believe that any form of "global management" is either fantasy or a potential nightmare -- the dreaded One World Dictatorship.Only one problem: it's already here, operating behind closed doors and accountable only to those managing its administrative agencies. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund virtually run the economies of many countries, primarily in the interest of transnational industries and global financial interests. Sure, the UN plays a small role, as a forum for dialogue and a convenient place to dump problems. But even there, the real power lies with the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia.Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization (WTO) continues the transfer of economic decision-making to the global level, turning human beings and the environment into tools for expanding trade and commerce. Rather than worrying about secular humanists or black helicopters, those concerned about the New World Order might want to consider the open conspiracy to create a Corporate World Order.Some suspicion of government's potential power is certainly legitimate and relevant. Yet, the form of centralized power that most threatens us today isn't public, it's private, the negative power of big business and elite financial institutions. These interests, influencing and sometimes even determining the actions of governments, ought to be the main focus of scrutiny and action. Conveniently, the same interests lead the campaign to convince us that freedom means "me against the world" or "me against the government." Appealing to fears of government intrusion is a convenient way to derail intrusions on the "right" to profit at the expense of the general health and well-being, and exploit in the name of freedom.Fighting for more responsive and responsible government -- both locally and globally -- doesn't mean surrendering our visions of a better society. In fact, winning a few battles -- universal health care comes to mind -- would give hope to millions. But of course, higher aspirations -- an increase in the demands citizens make on their governments -- is precisely what corporate overseers fear.Self-reliance is a fine idea, but there's no point in romanticizing a bucolic past that never existed. As Doug Henwood puts it, what's the point of treating globalization as the enemy, rather than capitalist and imperialist exploitation? Instead, we can work to democratize the global system, actively supporting the UN as a transitional institution to reduce violence and regain control over economic decisions. According to the UN Charter, the IMF and World Bank are "specialized agencies" within the UN system. Yet, they operate independently, including and excluding countries, imposing unilateral decisions, and undermining the UN's potential as a place to resolve global economic and environmental problems.The emerging movement to challenge our de facto world government -- the "mobilization against globalization" -- has clearly turned public attention to the issues, and challenged the complacency of corporate-dominated, transnational institutions. More accountability and transparency, as well as consideration of environment, labor, and human rights impacts, is the least we should ask. Beyond that, however, we need to move past fear of global governance and work for democracy at the world level.Clearly, we need some planet-level guidance, to ensure health and freedom for all, and deal with arms proliferation, malnutrition, toxic materials, and genetic engineering, among other problems. Rather than continuing to accept the myth that government is inherently evil, lets begin the new millennium by working for effective and participatory global governance, a higher authority that nurtures children, helps poor regions develop along sustainable lines, and defines and enforces global standards of human rights.Rather than assuming government is the enemy, let's take it back and bring it to the next level -- beyond misleading calls to localism or nationalism and toward global democracy.Reforming and strengthening the UN may not sound a very revolutionary agenda, even with more democratic voting, removal of the Security Council veto, a restored economic agenda, and a standing army. It's still a forum for nations -- not people. What we really need is a global parliament, effective enforcement of universal human rights, and trully equitable resource management. But like Sinclair's plan, such a small step could inspire future generations to believe that something other than a high-tech dystopia is still possible.Aside from global meltdown as the catalyst to create a new post-apocalyptic utopia, it could be most likely route to a hopeful and -- dare I say it? -- socialist transformation.Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom, co-author of Passport to Freedom: A Guide for World Citizens, and a member of the National Writers Union.


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