Thursday, July 25, 2013

Is Elizabeth Warren Just "Noisy"?

But let me back up.  In a column over the week-end in the Boston Globe, Alex Beam summed up his view that Warren is nothing more than a “feckless demagogue”, “a panderer”, full of “purported outrage”, “baying at the moon”, with her “hundred-megawatt smile; the Dos Passos-era haircut; the broad vowels redolent of her Oklahoma birthplace”.  She is, he concludes, “the Big Noise”.

Maybe—hopefully—I’m wrong in seeing in Beam’s vicious characterisation of Warren’s character and appearance some of the misogyny that in 2012 became a foundational plank of the Republican Party’s platform.  Language about shrillness, hysteria, shallowness, combined with scrutiny of everything from hair-styles to pant-suits—these are all weapons in the toolkit of commentators looking to tap into a vein of sexism that remains altogether too wide and deep in the public.

One of Warren’s crimes?  Being “earnest”.  Far better, in Beam’s world, to have a smirking Senator, who mouths all the right homilies to a broken social and economic system, cosies up to all the powerful interests who will enable some cosmetic legislation once the senator has surrendered their soul, and who doesn’t take their job—serving the public interest of our national community—all that seriously.  Because an earnest, serious, committed—yes, even ideological—politician is no fun for Beam.  A confirmed cynic, he lazily assumes that everyone shares his complacency, and that any ounce of passion, commitment, anger, or outrage must be pretence.

He goes on to attack Warren for her famously blistering questioning of Tim Geithner, the financial sector’s golden boy in the Treasury Department, arguing that because “the money was long gone and Geithner couldn’t do anything about it”, ignoring the fact that identifying and describing a problem, and criticising those responsible for its manifestation are the first steps on the way to preventing a repetition of such problems. 

Like so many other commentators, Beam deliberately misconstrues Warren’s arguments about Glass-Steagall, pretending that she has said that it is some kind of silver bullet to prevent all future economic turmoil.  What Warren has repeatedly said, but which doesn’t fit the misleading narrative that her self-satisfied critics like to peddle, is that Glass-Steagall is but one component amongst a suite of regulations and legislation that should be put in place to reconfigure our listing moral economy. 

Warren, Beam says, “became an icon for ‘speaking truth to power’ and accomplishing...very little”. 

Let’s examine this premise.  Beam doesn’t bother to tell his readers what his version of an “effective” Senator would look like.  California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein is often regarded as an “effective” legislator.  She’s got a finger in lots of pie, and carries a lot of clout on national security related issues through her committee chairmanship.  She, and most other powerful legislators certainly behave very differently from Warren.  They flip.  They flop.  They triangulate.  They don’t step on any toes.  They genuflect to vested interests and kowtow to their party leaders.  They imbibe conventional wisdom and spout uncritical nonsense.  Given command of the ship of state, they chart a course straight for the rocks, from which irresistibly sirenic vested interests sing their deceptively-reassuring hymns.  Our country is run by politicians who got where they are by not asking hard questions and by keeping their distance from serious issues around social, economic, political, and moral reform.

Many “successful” legislators pass legislation—much of it bad—largely because that legislation doesn’t offend anyone and doesn’t make significant changes to a political-economy which is clearly not up to the job of creating a fair, equitable, humane society.  Are the legislators who so “successfully” deregulated the financial sector really all that successful?  What about those who “successfully” passed the Patriot Act and subsequent infringements on human rights?  Those who aided President George W Bush in “participation in a common plan of conspiracy for the accomplishment of crimes against peace” and “planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace” (the words used to describe the German government’s crimes during the Second World War)?  Those who negotiate grand bargains which leave the profits of the wealthy intact and the lives of working people in tatters?  If “success” means getting your way more often than not, as Beam seems to suggest, the consequences of such success are nothing less than terrifying.

If Warren has accomplished very little, is that because she is so bad at what she does, or because most of her invertebrate colleagues are failures at what they do and lack the moral courage to stand with her?  Does being in a minority opinion, and not allowing yourself to be bought off like your colleagues make you wrong?  “Speaking truth to power” does not generally lead to instantaneous political success.  “Power”, after all, is accustomed to getting things its own way, and doesn’t like people who talk back.  Besides, I would contest Beam’s claim that Warren hasn’t accomplished anything.  Only six months into her tenure, building on her public profile, she has done more to change the nature of the national political conversation—for the better—than most senators mange over decades.

History is full of struggle—some of it violent, happily some of it not.  The right to vote; the end to chattel slavery; rights to wages, healthcare, working hours, vacation time, workplace safety; freedom from colonialism; an end to monarchical and other authoritarian regimes; equality before the law; the enshrinement of human rights; the expansion of civil rights...these changes—including the many which are incomplete—did not come about because of the kind of legislators Beam seems to idolise.  Historical change is not driven by morally moribund men of moderation who pat their constituents on their heads and send them on their way with a promise of gradual change over a period of a hundred years.  Ideological agnostics, by their nature, seldom leave an imprint on their world.

Change rather comes from the pressures that material conditions create within a society.  The force of that change comes from expressions and demonstrations of discontent from amongst what we rather quaintly call “ordinary people”, and that change occurs more rapidly when it finds expression in individuals who combine moral courage and political conviction to act. 

Warren, I believe, represents one version of this expression, reminding us, as she does, of the unfinished business of the progressive era early in the last century, when campaigns to better the lives of working people in the United States, and to put them in a position of equality to their sometime political and economic masters, were derailed.  They were derailed by half-hearted reformists who were frightened by the thought of economic justice, political equality, and a moral economy which would not shrink from judging and punishing greed and ill-gotten wealth.  In California—to take but one example—the idealism of direct democracy, designed as an answer to the robber barons of the nineteenth century, has been recaptured by twenty-first century plutocrats and their hand-picked representatives, and needs to be revisited.

In 1913, campaigning for the rights of women to vote, Emmeline Pankhurst declared that “in the course of our desperate struggle, we have had to make a great many people uncomfortable”.  Pankhurst, the icon of Britain’s suffrage movement, described what in her view was the only way of breaking up the cosy consensus which consigned women to the margins of society: “You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under, if you are really going to get your reform realised”.

If Warren’s crusading language makes people like Beam uncomfortable, that tells me she’s doing something right.  We tried incremental, half-hearted, one-step-forward-two-steps-back reform with President Obama.  In him, we elected someone who was comfortable with the financial industry, cosy with corporate power, contented with our colonialism, and complacent about what it would take to change our country. 

Warren represents a different brand of politics.  Billed by the representatives of conventional wisdom as “far left” and “divisive”, she actually demonstrates a far firmer understanding and more articulate vision of what ought to bring our divided working and middle classes together in the face of an unprecedented assault on their livelihoods (which is why she is so threatening to the public’s assailants).  Where Obama, who tried too hard to compromise, looked uncomfortable and performs abysmally because he keeps one foot on Wall Street and the other on Main Street, Warren has made it very clear that she is not prepared to indulge the interests which wrecked our economy and prey on our people. 

Warren is doing more than making noise.  She is trying to break through to the public with a compelling vision about a more just and equitable country.  So it’s no wonder people who fear justice and equality are doing their best to shout her down.

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