*Bernie Sanders and the Noose of American Elections – Part I: A “Socialist” among Hunters

Part I:  A “Socialist” Mayor in a State of Hunters

(in 3 or 4 parts)

In the early 1960s, a young Jewish man from Brooklyn, New York, by the name of Bernard Sanders enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.  Sanders’ father was the sole member of his family to escape the Holocaust; in high school, Sanders reportedly ran for president of the study body and argued for “scholarships to war orphans in Korea.”  His political awareness would be at once sharpened at the University of Chicago, where the student chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was just reorganizing itself as a chapter of the more militant Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).  The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been established in 1960, was similarly pushing American civil rights leaders into adopting more militant positions.  Sanders plunged into this political ferment, assuming a position as chairman of CORE’s social action committee and committing himself to a struggle to integrate student housing at the university.  Sanders led the first sit-in at the university in 1962 and, the following year, joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The political career of Bernie Sanders, who is now in the race to be anointed the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, has by now been thoroughly rehearsed:  the narrative touches upon his unsuccessful run over a decade for various state offices in Vermont, the tiny northeastern state which he had adopted as his residence, before his election by ten votes as mayor of Burlington in 1981, eight two-year terms in the House of Representatives as Vermont’s only congressman commencing in January 1991, and his successful run for office as US Senator from Vermont, the position that he still holds, in 2006. Sanders’ decade in political wilderness, 1971-80, is associated with his candidacy for state offices as a member of the Liberty Union Party, which grew out of the anti-war, student, and popular movements of the 1960s.  In his outlook towards third parties, Sanders may have been chastened by his early political failures; when he did finally win office, he did so as an independent and by defeating a six-term Democratic incumbent.  His term as mayor of Burlington, in retrospect, anticipates Sanders’ ability over the decades to work within a capitalist framework and yet visibly lend his support to anti-establishment positions.  In Burlington, Sanders, much to the surprise of many critics and commentators who did not expect him to last beyond the initial two-year term, successfully courted businesses and engaged in ambitious programs to revitalize the downtown district; but, rather unusually for the mayor of an American town, Sanders also visited Cuba and the Soviet Union.  In his second term as mayor, Sanders did what few if any elected officials in the US would ever do:  he invited Noam Chomsky to Burlington City Hall and then introduced him with the following remarks, “At a time when many intellectuals… find it more comfortable to be silent and to go with the flow as it were, it is comforting to find on occasion individuals who have the guts to speak out about the importance of issues of our time. And certain Noam Chomsky has been the person to do it.”

Sanders’ years as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, thus furnish in many respects the template for cues to his subsequent political career, pointing both to an uncanny will to political survival and advancement and the limitations that will almost certainly put a brake on his ambition to win the White House.  Vermont is the second smallest state of the union, with a population of less than 650,000; the “city” of Burlington has fewer than 50,000 people, and the state is predominantly white.  Leaving aside the question, which is scarcely unimportant, of how Sanders will reach out to African Americans and Latinos, large constituencies where his name is little known, the critical consideration is how far the experience of Vermont has shaped his worldview and political priorities.  On the issue of gun control, for instance, Sanders has adopted positions that have sometimes earned him sharp rebukes from fellow liberals but plaudits from the Republican party where gun ownership is nearly an article of faith. Even among those who are sympathetic to him, he is sometimes described as a “gun nut.”  Most critically, Sanders cast a vote—a decision that may come to haunt him—in 1993 against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which mandates federal background checks for gun purchasers, a minimum five-day waiting period, and greatly restricted access for felons to firearms.

An ad produced by a Martin O'Malley Super PAC.

An ad produced by a Martin O’Malley Super PAC.

The United States is, of course, exceptional among the wealthy nations of the global North in the rate of homicide by firearms, and in countries such as Holland or, better still, Japan—where over the last few years the number of homicides by firearms is about ten each year—it would be a laughable proposition that the Brady Act should be construed as a “progressive” piece of legislation.  And, yet, Sanders could not bring himself to vote for an exceedingly modest legislative intervention in a public sphere dominated by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its supporters.  Sanders may claim in his defense that he represents the entire state of Vermont, not just progressives and liberals, but the fact remains that Vermont has a high gun ownership rate, a culture of hunting, and comparatively lax gun control laws; the state allows anyone to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

A Progressive Politician?  Bernie Sanders:  Friend or Foe of the NRA?

A Progressive Politician? Bernie Sanders: Friend or Foe of the NRA?

Though Sanders has also cast votes for measures that would increase minimum sentencing for gun crimes and ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons, his tacit support for the gun lobby is nowhere more apparent than in his egregious support of the NRA-backed Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a piece of legislation, introduced by the Republicans in 2005, which shields gun manufacturers and dealers from liability when their firearms are used for criminal activity.  Reportedly, Sanders is said to ascribe to the view that “there’s an elitism in the anti-gun movement”; or, in a different language, on this measure at least he stands with small-town America.

(to be followed by Part 2)

(First published in a revised version, including subsequent parts, under the same title in Economic and Political Weekly Vol 50 (24 October 2015).

*Thesis Nine: The Dissent that is Beyond Dissent

 

A meeting at Penang in autumn 2010 of like-minded intellectuals and activists from the Global South committed to a radical decolonization of knowledge commenced with a screening of the late Howard Zinn’s documentary, We the People.  A few years ago, the World Social Forum in Mumbai opened with a screening, before thousands of people, of the documentary, Manufacturing Consent, focused on the ideas and work of Noam Chomsky, the most well known American voice of dissent at home and abroad.  In either case, most people would be justified in thinking that the choice was sound.  Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States — a work attentive to the voices of the marginalized, critical of mainstream narratives, sensitive to histories of labor and the working class, and so on — has sold over a million copies in various editions; moreover, Zinn’s life, marked by an ethical impulse to do, in common parlance, what is right and stand by what is just, is one that many might seek to emulate.  Chomsky, for his part, has been the most relentless and forthright critic of American foreign policy:  if there is one liberal voice which to the world represents the ability of the United States to tolerate its own critics, it is surely the voice of Chomsky.  Critical as Chomsky is of the United States, one suspects that he can also be trumpeted by his adversaries as the supreme instance of America’s adherence to notions of free speech.  Chomsky is simultaneously one of America’s principal intellectual liabilities and assets.

 

I am animated, however, by a different set of considerations in this discussion of Zinn and Chomsky.  Why, we should ask, did the organizers settle for Zinn and Chomsky, both American scholars – and that, too, at meetings, especially the Multiversity conference in Penang, committed at least partly to the idea of intellectual autonomy, self-reliance, greater equity between the global North and the global South, and so on.  An ethical case might reasonably be made for the gestures encountered at Penang and Mumbai.  No less a person than Gandhi sought alliances, throughout his life, with the ‘other West’.  Holding firmly to the principle that freedom is indivisible, and that it is not only India that needed to be free of colonial rule, but also England itself that had to be liberated from its own worst tendencies, Gandhi sought out those writers, intellectuals, and activists in the West who had themselves been reduced to the margins.  His tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, which is intensely critical of the modern West, lists ‘eminent authorities’ whose works Gandhi consulted, and the bulk of them are figures such as Tolstoy, Thoreau, Edward Carpenter, and Ruskin.  Those who rightly recall this critical aspect of Gandhi’s life conveniently forget that Gandhi, on more than one occasion, also described the West as “Satanic”.  If he accepted English, America, and European friends as allies in the struggle for Indian independence, he also never wavered from his firm belief that ultimately Indians had to fight their own battles.  Thus, following  him, some difficult questions that come to mind should not be brushed aside.  Is the Global South so colonized that it must borrow even its models of dissent from the West?  If the theorists of global import, from Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Adorno, Heidegger and Althusser to Lacan, Habermas, Levinas, Judith Butler, and Agamben all hail from the West, are the ultimate dissenters also from the West?

 

What begins in people’s minds can only end in people’s minds.  All over the colonized world in the nineteenth century, Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Tocqueville were held up as the torchbearers of freedom.  Almost no one recognized Tocqueville, even today a sacrosanct figure in the United States, as the holder of the most virulently racist ideas about Arabs and Muslims.  Mill’s ideas about representative government extended only to people he conceived of as free, mature, and possessed of rational faculties.  The habits of simulation in the global South are so deeply engrained that Americans become the ultimate and only genuine dissenters.  The rebellions of the dispossessed, oppressed, and marginalized are generally dismissed as luxuries possible only in permissive democracies, as the last rants of people opposed to development and progress.  However, the problem of dissent is far from being confined to the global South:  it is, if anything, more acute in the United States, where the dissenters have all been neatly accommodated, whether in women’s studies, ethnic studies, or gay studies departments at universities, or in officially-sanctioned programs of multiculturalism, or in pious-sounding policies affirming the values of diversity and cultural pluralism.  The dictators of tomorrow will also, we can be certain, have had “diversity training”.  Is there any dissent beyond what now passes for dissent?   How will we recognize the dissent of those who do not speak in one of the prescribed languages of dissent?  The United Nations has officially recognized languages, but the world at large has something much more insidious, namely officially recognized and prescribed modes of dissent.  Those who do not dissent in the languages of dissent will never even receive the dignity of recognition, not even as much as a mass memorial to ‘the unknown soldier’.

CONCLUDED

See also the previous posts in this series:

Thesis Eight: Postcolonial Thought and Religion in the Public Sphere

Thesis Seven: The Geography and Psychogeography of Home

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)