Saturday, May 24, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Signature Payload--Adventures Petitioning, Pt. 2

Okay, it wasn't actually a payload--as I happily told those who asked, "I'm not getting paid; I'm a volunteer." But I would like to take this moment to thank the cast, crew and advertisers of the new Indiana Jones movie that I have no intention of seeing for finally having a tangibly positive impact on my life. Well, them and the fact that my local movie theater uses the public sidewalk as a waiting area.

For days things had come up to keep me from petitioning and I wasted one evening at a local farmer's market getting--wait for it--three signatures, so I was in a very bad mood. But I thought I would give the opening night of Indiana Jones a shot. As I mentioned, my local movie theater uses the public sidewalk as a waiting area, so I don't even need to ask for permission to petition in front of their fine people-attracting (or was it distracting?) establishment.

I just showed up and started asking people to sign and to my great surprise--about 35 of them did in under 2 hours. I'm sure this is quite unimpressive to those great signature gatherers out there, but it's the best I've ever done in such a short time.

What they say is true: places with lots of people waiting in long lines (even better, on the public sidewalk) are great places to petition. Captive audience. Well, unless it's the Democratic National Convention, anyway. But generally, people seemed much more friendly when they were hanging out with no place to go.

One young man even tried to get his friends to sign, saying rightly that this was "Democracy in action." There were also, of course, the usual comments about 2000 as well as the guy who told me (before even hearing what I was petitioning for) that he worked for the Republican Party and so should I (no, he didn't sign). But I'm starting to wonder if maybe the biggest obstacle to getting past the two party duopoly isn't the 40-plus-hour work week and the great stress Americans are under for time.

Interestingly enough, there were a couple people who, though they refused to sign the petition themselves, commented that they respected my persistence, lack of intimidation, and bravery in petitioning. In retrospect, this is still bothersome in that it shouldn't take bravery to do something as basic to civic involvement as petitioning. But hey, at least they weren't mad at me. They appreciated that I was doing something I believe in.

This brings up another issue. There were more than a few people who were more willing to sign when they found out I was a volunteer. They commented that they didn't like or trust people who were getting paid. I understand where they're coming from, but the fact is that with such difficult and extreme ballot access requirements, it is often necessary (and in fact the common practice) to hire signature gatherers.

In the end, there wasn't much that could lift my spirits like collecting a whole bunch of signatures at once to get the best candidate on the ballot. But one thing that could beat it would be getting him into the debates or, better yet, the White House.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Lessons of History and the Myth of the "Powerless" Democrats

In the 2006 mid-term elections, many Americans, largely because they were fed up with the Iraq war, voted Democrats into Congress in districts with Republican incumbents. There was a widespread idea that the Democrats would end the war and hold the president and his administration accountable, if only they had a majority. Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. Once they had the majority, Speaker Pelosi (more recently reported to have known about US waterboarding and not objected) immediately took impeachment off the table and, among other things, the Democrats have voted to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act and passed billions in war appropriations. The Democrats say that they do not have a large enough majority to end the war.

As Matt Gonzalez described, speaking about Senator Obama's website:

Now, this is an American senator who's telling you, even though we're in the majority party, we don't have the votes to end the war, and we need your help to get 16 Republicans either out of office or behind us. Well, what's wrong with this?

It is so fundamentally--shows such either duplicity or inexperience on his part, because you don't need a super majority, two-thirds of the senate, to end this war. You need two-thirds of the senate to override a veto by the president. But how do you stop a war? Well to fund a war you've gotta have war appropriations, if you don't want war appropriations, what do you do? You vote against the war appropriation, you are the majority party and vote it down.

Now if some of your Democratic colleagues, we'll give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe a handful of them don't want to do that, you know what you do? It's called filibustering. Because you, in other words, don't allow the measure to be voted on and then the president doesn't have money to spend on the war. How do you do that? How many votes do you think you need to filibuster? ...if the Democrats can put together 41 out of their 50 or 51 votes in the senate, guess what? Not a single war appropriation could be passed.[1, emphasis added]

The Democrats and Republicans seem to have quite a nice system worked out for themselves. I can't say that it was intentional, perhaps they just stumbled into it despite their incompetence--how to betray the interests of your constituents and get away with it without being held accountable? Blame it on the other guy--"He did it, but don't blame me, I just helped. And by the way, look how much worse he is than me, you don't want more of him, do you? So work with me." It's almost like a really awful Good Cop/Bad Cop routine.

Yesterday, someone refused to sign my Nader/Gonzalez ballot access petition because he was "too afraid it could result in McCain." I think it's been established that he is not alone in this view, and in a number of posts I've already addressed topics such as the myth of the "spoiler" and what's really at stake in this election. There are some things that need to be demanded regardless of how likely people think it is they will be achieved--I certainly don't hear anyone today faulting the 19th-century Liberty Party for pushing the anti-slavery issue by refusing to support the least-worst presidential candidate between the Whigs and Democrats.[2]

Many people defend their least-worst vote by saying that if it was not clear in 2000, it is now apparent that there is in fact a difference between the corporate candidates. I've mentioned before that they rarely discuss the differences between the corporate candidates and their own interests, but they also rarely stop to consider how such differences came about--are they different because the Democrats (for example) became better, or is it because while they've both become worse, the Republicans have even more so?

The fact is that both of them have become worse (read: more beholden to corporate interests with less regard for the well-being of Americans) and continue to do so. As Ralph Nader has pointed out in this video:

And guess what? Even Richard Nixon signed bill after bill that [we?] got through Congress: the EPA bill, the OSHA bill for job safety and health, he signed into law the great air and water pollution legislation, he signed into law the product safety commission bill--he didn't believe in any of these bills, but he had a flourishing statement of enthusiasm behind each bill and a ceremony at the White House. Now why did he sign bills he didn't believe in? Well, one answer is he was the last Republican president who was afraid of liberals. He signed these bills into law because he heard the rumble of the people from the 60s and he was afraid of the rumble of the people. And as the years passed the rumble of the people was reduced and became less and less audible. Half of democracy is showing up.[3, emphasis added]

So how is it that they aren't held accountable?

If you have a low expectation level of politicians, then they're going to oblige you. --Ralph Nader[4]

All they really need from us is our votes and then they're pretty free to do the corporations' bidding. Millions of Americans vote for one party over the other because they're the least-worst, sending candidates the message that our only demand in exchange for this and other votes is that they stay less horrible than the other guy. If the other guy becomes even more bad, they're free to become more bad too. Even though both of them get worse and worse with each election cycle, as long as the Republicans are more in-your-face about being horrible, the Democrats get away with being their accomplices.

How many times do they have to betray us, before we learn they are not an opposition party? How many times before we learn the lessons of history? The lesson that we won't get better unless we demand better.



Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Stories from the Streets--Adventures Petitioning, Pt. 1

This past weekend I started doing a bit of petitioning. First I watched this how to petition video from and then I decided to see how long it would take me to get my first ten signatures of 2008 (a little over an hour). I don't know how those people who get 300 signatures in a day do it--if you're out there, your tips are appreciated.

I didn't get nearly as much anger directed at me as in 2004, but it was still a frustrating experience. I know eventually the memories of frustration fade away, I've already forgotten many of the particularly mean things people in my community said to me when I petitioned four years ago.

One of the images that has stuck with me most from this first hour is of three young men who walked past me as I asked if any of them were registered voters in this state, one of them saying "No" in a very insincere tone and then looking back from a short distance and laughing with his friends, apparently finding hilarity in rejecting the possibility of an interaction that might mean something serious for the state of their country--as if apathy is cool.

I suppose I can't blame them, they probably thought I was trying to sell them something. But then, it's a sadly telling state of affairs when people imagine that anyone trying to talk to them on the streets is after their pocketbook.

Then there was the young woman who refused to sign, even after I had mentioned this was not an endorsement but a petition for ballot access, because "it doesn't make sense to sign" if she doesn't support Ralph Nader or want him to win. I'm sorry, I must be missing something, when exactly did Americans become opposed to democracy? You know, that system where everyone puts forth their ideas, proposals, candidates; gets educated about the arguments for/against them; tries to persuade others; and then votes? Like Matt Gonzalez said, other candidates should go out and earn the votes that would otherwise be cast for Nader/Gonzalez, not force people to vote one way. Nader voters aren't blind sheep that vote for Mr. Nader because he tells us to.

I can't help wondering, let's say she's just opposed to signing this one petition, is there anything, any issue she and others like her care enough about to be willing to petition for? What has to happen for her to say enough is enough? Clearly wars, PATRIOT Acts, indefinite detention without trial, compulsory arbitration and the gradual loss of trial by jury, poverty, hunger, and hundreds of thousands of preventable American deaths every year are not enough. These are all issues that it seems most Americans think "realistically" we have to "compromise" on because the "status quo" of everything getting worse and worse is better than whatever schemes the other corporate party has in mind.

Mostly, I kept reminding myself not to waste valuable petitioning time arguing. My mission was ballot access, not to persuade every last person who walks by me on the street to support democratic elections. And all in all, I didn't suffer any harassment in this first hour, other petitioners and I have taken much, much worse, and of course I found ten people who thought it would be great to have Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez's names on their ballot this November--nothing extraordinarily bad happened--except being faced, yet again, with the now ordinary idea that exercising my first amendment rights or wanting to allow for more voices in the election is insane, radical or both.

I thought of what Ralph Nader has said, about what your level of social indignation is and whether you have an outlet for that anger--well, lucky for me, I have one outlet in the form of this blog. (Another important outlet in this case is allowing the frustration to motivate me to work harder to collect signatures to get the best candidate on the ballot and oppose the unfair ballot access laws.)

If you've been petitioning and you'd like another outlet to share your thoughts on the first amendment, democracy, and your adventures, I welcome guest posts--contact me. Or maybe you think this is all an enormous waste of energy and the way towards a more democratic America is through supporting another candidate--if you think you've found someone Better Than Nader, I'd love to hear about it.


Friday, May 9, 2008

Looking Past November--Watchdogs and Other Canine Metaphors

[11-5-08 -- Update: Please see]

An as of yet much under-advertised aspect of the Nader 2008 campaign is the fact that it won't end in November. Mr. Nader wants to build on the energy and volunteers in the campaign to start Congressional Watchdog groups of 1000 people in each Congressional district to put pressure on our elected officials to, well, do their jobs (you know that thing we're paying them and giving them health insurance for).

I happened to be looking back through a list of interesting quotes I keep and came across one I hadn't thought of in a while. It's from a popular movie from the 90's, Wag the Dog. I don't remember the details of the film, but in case you haven't seen it, it's basically about a president who hires people to fake a war in order to divert attention from his own domestic scandals. In any event, I do remember the quote the title is based on, from the very beginning of the movie:

Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail.
If the tail was smarter, the tail would wag the dog. [1]

Now, I'm not sure I agree with the analysis that it's
entirely because of intelligence, but the quote and it's film context certainly inspire one to think about what is wagging whom in this country.

I just watched this video of the Nader campaign protest of the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) Mr. Nader helped start 40 years ago. They protested a "rule that will deny roof crush victims their rights to seek justice and compensation." [2] In Mr. Nader's words:

So what we're seeing here is a giant auto industry crackdown on the lives and safety of the American people, using the federal government as a weapon against the kind of safety technology that the engineers know how to put in the cars, doesn't cost them anything, and that 8 models already meet... [3, emphasis added]

Mr. Nader goes on to urge everyone to contact their senators about this issue before the June 4th senate hearing. But the point here is, this sounds like yet another example of the corporations "wagging" the American public. Corporations aren't even living beings, they are not capable of intelligence, having less intelligence than a dog's tail. But it would appear that if Americans do not act intelligently or work to put pressure on our representatives, money and entities that only exist on paper fill the void.

Here's hoping that people will volunteer for these Congressional Watchdog Groups! It's time the tail learned its place.

I'll end with the statement the Nader Exploratory Committee made on this topic a few months ago:

Maybe we’re wrong.

Maybe the Democrats and Republicans will nominate Presidential candidates this year who will stand up against the war profiteers, the nuclear industry, the credit card industry, the corporate criminals, big oil, and the drug and health insurance industries.

We doubt it.

But hope springs eternal.

In the meantime, take a few minutes and explore with us an idea.

The idea is this—1,000 citizens in every Congressional district.

Each and every one committed to challenging the corporate powers that have a hammerlock on our political and economic systems.

Organized citizen power facing off against corporate power.

In this election year – 2008.

Instead of spending this election year sitting back and watching the corporate candidates spin their vapid mantras – hope, experience, change.

Instead of spending the year complaining about inertia, exhaustion, and apathy.

Let us instead weigh the possibility of pulling together half a million dedicated citizens collectively rising up off our couches and organizing a ground force in every Congressional district in the country.

A ground force of citizens who are informed, committed, tenacious advocates for a just future.

This is what we are contemplating.

Something new.

Something big.

Something bold.

Something that works.

Something that will prod young and old alike.

To join in a mass push back against the corporate powers that are dictating our future.

No one person can get us there.

But one person is ideally suited to lead this grassroots force – if he chooses to do so and runs as the citizens’ candidate for President in 2008.

And that one person is Ralph Nader.

In the 1960s, Nader brought together a group of young people who challenged the corporate status quo.

The press dubbed those young people Nader’s Raiders.

And the rest – as they say – is history.

Here's the idea—1,000 active and informed citizens in each Congressional district ready to take on the corporate political structure in this 2008 election year.

Half a million citizens – mobilized, informed and powerful, organized for a common cause – facing off against corporate power and corporate control.



Monday, May 5, 2008

Seeing It Coming

I was listening to a news story on the radio about the food shortage and how it's been exacerbated because of the use of corn crops to create ethanol as fuel. The reporter asked the man he was interviewing about whether someone could have seen this coming. A good, albeit still laughable question.

Of course they should have seen it coming. This, and a lot of other issues that Ralph Nader's been warning people, our elected and government officials in particular, about for ages. You can find a column Ralph Nader wrote back in 2003 criticizing, among other things, the subsidies for corn ethanol programs here. Then again, it doesn't often take a genius to notice something you're being hit over the head with.

In case our elected officials are too blind to see things like how taxpayer subsidies for big agribusiness to grow corn for oil can lead to a food shortage, how our crumbling infrastructure can lead to problems like an incoming hurricane taking down New Orleans or an unsafe bridge crumbling in Minnesota (look here for info on James Ridgeway's stunning investigative work on what's behind this), how deregulating the greedy people on Wall Street and rewarding them with taxpayer monies every time they cause another huge disaster could lead to a subprime loan disaster and speculation bidding up gas prices, and on and on--in case they're too dumb to notice these problems it's their job to notice and find the obvious solutions it's their job to follow through with, there's Ralph Nader and others giving them the heads up right and left. Mr. Nader really makes their jobs easy for them. Alas, you can lead a politician to urgent answers but you can't make him use them to solve problems.

One thing's for sure, Ralph Nader's been no coward when it's come to speaking up and working on important issues. In a more recent column, "Fueling Food Shortages," from April 25, 2008, Mr. Nader wrote:

Don’t rely on the election year political debates to pay attention to destructive corn ethanol programs. For years I have been speaking out against this boondoggle, while championing the small farmer in America, but no one in positions of Congressional leadership has been listening.

I guess sometimes brains and foresight aren't enough--you need backbone, courage, compassion and principle to be President, characteristics sorely lacking in the corporate candidates especially.

Disagree? Show me who has them. Find me someone Better Than Nader.


Friday, May 2, 2008

What's at Stake?

Every four years, millions of people are opposed to independent and third party presidential candidacies because it's not the time and "there's too much at stake." Many say the "status quo" under one party is much preferable to the destruction of our country under the other. They focus on what differences there are between the two corporate candidates and downplay the differences between both candidates and anything resembling the interests of the American people. It's important to remember what's at stake in our elections and in our country. Ralph Nader recently described some of what I believe is at stake regardless of which corporate candidate wins, and by extension what people are saying they are willing to live with in supporting candidates who betray our interest.

This is excerpted from a 2008 speech at Princeton. You can view the whole speech here. Any emphases, etc. are mine. If you find any errors in my transcription, please let me know so I can correct them.

The only way we can improve our world is to face up to reality, is to face up to the torment that is affecting this world of ours, because we can always justify and rationalize our futility, can we not? By in effect saying, “oh, you know that’s, that’s beyond us, it’s too overwhelming.” And then we don’t analyze how it has come to be in order to motivate us toward the solutions or toward at least addressing these problems.

So when someone says to you, three billion out of the six billion people in this world are living on two or one dollars a day, is that too abstract? Well then somebody says, well you know the 350 richest people in the world have wealth equivalent to the combined wealth of the bottom three billion people in the world. How does that affect you? How does it affect you that in the year 2000 Bill Gates’ financial wealth was equivalent to the combined financial wealth of the bottom 115 million people in America who were essentially, in terms of their net worth, almost broke? How does that affect you?

How does it affect you to run through the following statistics that don’t have a human face? That because we don’t have universal health care in this country, we don’t have single payer, which is far more efficient and allows you free choice of doctor and hospital—this is essentially government insurance and private delivery of health care under competitive framework—that 18,000 people a year in this country die because they can’t afford health care according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, a pretty conservative figure, which means hundreds of thousands get sick or don’t get diagnosed in time every year. What does that do to you?

What does it do to you to know that 3,000 people died on 9/11, and that is essentially less than three weeks’ total of the number of Americans who die from workplace related disease and trauma in the United States, week after week after week, according to OSHA, estimate. What does it say to you to know that over 200,000 people in this country die because of hospital and medical negligence and because of side effects of drugs and hospital-induced infections, which is a terrible epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 200 to 250 people a day die from hospital-induced infections and there aren’t many antibiotics left that can deal with resistance [???]. Now, what does it mean to you to learn that 65,000 people according to EPA die from air pollution in this country?

What does it mean to you that under the Clinton-Gore Administration sanctions, economic sanctions were imposed on the people of Iraq—military sanctions is one thing, economic sanctions that damage civilian life is a crime under international law, and a distinguished task force of physicians estimated 500,000 children in Iraq died as a result of those embargos of critical material, including chlorine which of course is critical to drinking water purity, microbial control. What does it, what does it do to you?

What does it do to you to know that hundreds of thousands of students are being ripped off under the student loan rackets? Sallie Mae in particular. They basically—fundamental example of government-guaranteed capitalism, where they can rip you off with abandon, with fine-print contracts that even law schools don’t analyze to protect their law students taking such loans. And if you don’t pay and they can’t collect, they can go to Uncle Sam for a guarantee, government guaranteed capitalism. What does it say that universities and colleges, until very recently, were not alert to these deceptions and frauds that often track students decades after they graduate. They got into a debt spiral which they couldn’t get out of, and because they’re in a debt spiral their credit rating wasn’t very good and many of them couldn’t get certain jobs as a result, and where were the universities to basically say we’re not gonna take these freebies and these junkets in the financial aid offices from these student loan corporations.

What does it do to you to know that 13 million children in this country go to sleep hungry, everyday, in this country? What does it do to you to know that 45 million workers, one-third of the entire workforce, make under 10.50 an hour before deductions, many of them working fulltime and with side jobs and they don’t have health insurance? What does it do to you to know that the GDP in this country is at least 20 times per capita productivity greater than 1900? In 1900 there was poverty, but when you have an economy that has increased its productivity per worker 20 fold, why is there any poverty in this country? What is the disconnect between the relentless increase in paper wealth, in GDP and 80% of the workers of this country falling behind. Where we have an economy almost double the size of 1970 and yet, in inflation adjusted terms, the peak wage in this country was in 1973—it still is the peak wage in this country, 1973, adjusted for inflation—just barely, after all these years may be slightly surpassed, but with the home sub-prime mortgages it doesn’t look like it’s gonna be anytime soon.

What does it mean to you that the head of Wal-Mart, with his rubber stamp board of directors, made 11-12,000 dollars an hour, 8 hours a day last year, when he had the majority of the workers were making 6 ½, 7 ½, 8, 9, 9.50 an hour. Just think of that. Think of that. What does it mean to you that you’re likely to go into the pattern all too often of prior Princeton graduates and have your exquisite talents trivialized because it pays well, where you have exquisite talents but you’re not working on the major problems affecting the world? That’s one reason our Princeton Class of 1955 started Princeton Project ’55, ‘cause we didn’t want Princeton students who could get 20 job offers from Wall Street to Houston, we didn’t want them not to have an option to develop their civic skills on real serious problems of injustice in one city or community after another, during the summertime or for one year fellowships after this...

…Now, imagine if thousands of classes, 30 years out from graduation did something like Project ’55, how many opportunities there would be for you not to have your skills trivialized…how many opportunities there would be for you before the trajectory of your redundant bureaucratic, whether corporate or public, routine lives kicked into place. That you could use your 20s and not waste your 20s, often getting over personal hang-ups you should have taken care of when you were teenagers, that would use your twenties to break ground because your twenties are the most creative decade of your life, you’ll have more wisdom and judgment and experience later on, but it’s in your 20s that you’re gonna ask the impertinent questions, you’re gonna pioneer, you’re gonna see what level of courage you’re gonna have, to connect with your own professional skills. That’s what you have to look forward to. A society that does not allow its most talented people to work on its most serious problems, a society that has been commercialized, corporatized, merchandized, trivialized, into a caricature of itself. And if you open up the panorama of reality, you will see that never in the history of the world has a society piled up more wealth, not necessarily empirical wealth, look at our public works, and how they’re crumbling—a society that’s piled up more wealth than any society in history and has not transferred and distributed that wealth for the well-being of the majority of its people, and its income disparity and wealth disparity is getting worse and worse, where 1% of the richest people in this country have wealth equivalent to the bottom 95%. And so I’m giving you these broader statistical representations of reality without necessarily going into case studies which could be really heart wrenching, because I just want you to ask yourself, are you getting angry? What’s your level of social indignation? What happens when you do get angry? Do you have an outlet?


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Arm-Twisting Tactics in the Voting Booth

In his speech announcing his candidacy for Vice President as Ralph Nader's running mate, Matt Gonzalez stated the following:

Let me just emphasize this: There's nothing that we do that can force anybody to vote for us, but we very much want the opposite not to be true, that anybody that wants to vote for us should not be forced to vote for other candidates. If there is any candidate that fears what we're trying to do here, then I invite them to go out and earn the votes that would otherwise be cast for us. We are in a democracy, that's how it works. Candidates with different opinions put them forward and go compete for votes. Thank you.[1, bold emphasis added]

But that statement does not merely merely attempt to quiet the loud accusations of "spoiler" by pointing out (albeit very importantly) that Mr. Nader and Mr. Gonzalez's voters are not coerced but rather exercise our right to vote for whomever we please. What else, then, could he have been referring to?

By now much of the country is aware of the grave issue of election fraud and other practices that inhibit democratic elections in the USA, though most people remain ignorant of the extent to which it takes place. The more one knows and thinks about it, the more it can really make your blood boil.

A few sources with descriptions of examples of such practices include:

Unfortunately, when most Americans think about problems with our voting and election system (if they think about the most basic mechanisms of implementing democracy in our country at all), they usually only think about issues with making sure people are allowed to vote or how the votes are counted. These are important issues, of course. But coercion in the voting booth starts long before Election Day. If a candidate who is at least 35 years old and a naturalized US citizen can't get onto the ballot, it doesn't just restrict that candidate's rights, it deprives all voters of the right to be given a choice and be able to vote (or not vote) for that candidate. We have all sorts of choices when it comes to buying candy bars or shoes, but when it matters the most we're told we only have two choices for President.

And all too often, voters are forced to vote for someone they don't want to vote for, because they aren't able to vote for who they would like to vote for.
Regardless of who we plan to vote for, we all need to express that this is not acceptable, that we expect better in our country, that a threat to the rights of any voter is a threat to the rights of all voters. We can all protest this by lending our signatures to the ballot access petitions of candidates who are being discriminated against through unfair laws. Then, if you don't think they're the right people for the job, get out there and convince people to vote for someone else. But support their ballot access, support all our right to have our voices heard.

The Democracy Now! web archives also include an interview with the lawyer representing Ralph Nader and other plaintiffs in a lawsuit that was filed last year against the Democratic National Committee. I'll have more on the dirty tricks alleged in the lawsuit in an future post, if you're interested in the meantime you can find more information and link to the text of the lawsuit here.