A Primer on the 2010 US House and Senate Elections

By Al Giordano

The national conversation among political junkies, insiders and reporters over whether the Republican party can take the US House and/or Senate this November is fraught with dysfunction, so it’s really hard to reach beyond the many smokescreens and attempted manipulations of public opinion to get a good read on it.

The comparisons to 1994, when then-House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich and his “Contract for America” brought GOP triumph in 52 Democratic congressional districts, ending 72 years of Democratic control of the House, are manifold. It was the midterm election after a Democrat (Bill Clinton) won the White House, and the ghost of ’94 still has Democrats spooked, Republicans pumped and political reporters and pundits reaching for the easy comparison.

I covered those elections in ’94 for The Boston Phoenix, and let me please just point out some key differences between then and now:

As of last year, 62 percent of Americans had Internet access in the home (and 82 percent of those had broadband). That wasn’t the case in 1994. As late as 1997, only 17 percent of Americans had Internet access in the home. And, today, about 90 percent of US homes have cable or satellite TV. That was a healthy 62 percent in 1994, but without the screaming cable news channels like Fox on the right or General Electric’s MSNBC counter-programming to reach a liberal demographic audience. CNN was basically the only national cable news channel in town in 1994.

Back then, network TV news and daily newspapers were all powerful in determining the political discourse in the United States: ABC, CBS and NBC, and their local affiliates, were royalty. Their news shows were the most important slot for candidates to place their campaign ads, because that's where most of the voters could be found each night. Network TV news and daily newspapers still enjoyed the illusion of authority. People actually believed that what the local TV newscaster or the editorial page writer said was true!

What has changed since 1994 is that the American populace has splintered into thousands of sub-demographic groups and is getting its news and forming its political opinions based on a wide variety of media sources. The golden age of network and daily newspaper dominance over the electoral choices made by citizens has evaporated.

I take you on this stroll down this Amnesia Lane because the new media landscape makes it less likely that electoral history in 2010 will so cleanly repeat what occurred in 1994. I’m not saying that it is impossible that the Republicans could take the House or the Senate or both. What I’m saying is that if it does happen, it won’t happen because the dominant national media discourse (as it did in 1994) stokes an electoral stampede, but, rather, it will happen because one party outmaneuvered the other, one contest at a time, in 50 or 60 key congressional districts and senate contests, more or less.

November will not be a national election, but a series of separate state and congressional district elections each with their own dynamics. (Ironically, former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s credo, that “all politics is local,” is even more true today than it was when he said it in the years leading up to 1994.)

Much ado has been made over a recent Gallup poll showing a reported ten-percentage point gap between Americans who say they would vote for a generic Republican over a generic Democrat for Congress. First of all, generic candidates aren’t going to be on anyone’s ballot this November. (I’m reminded of another popular political axiom: that most Americans hate Congress but they like their own district’s congressman.) But even if we presume that the generic poll offers at least some guidance as to what will happen in November, the fact remains that the Gallup poll is almost an outlier among the sum total of public opinion surveys on that question.

Mark Blumenthal at pollster.com points out that the average of all polls on the question show not a ten percent difference in generic party preference for Congress, but, rather, a five point (and according to the average that includes newer polls, a four point) advantage for Republicans (which, if it doesn’t increase by November, would point to GOP gains in Congress but short of an outright majority that would shift which party controls the gavel and the committee chairmanships). Five points is actually quite normal for a year like this, given American voter tendencies to lean toward the party not in the White House during midterm elections:

But headlines that merely tell the truth – “Normal Election Forecast for November” – don’t sell newspapers, or keep you glued to the TV or Internet screen. And beyond the transparent effort by so many in the media to grab your attention with apocalyptic warnings for Democrats or triumphant teasers for Republicans, there is another level of duplicity going on behind the curtain.

If you look at the comments section under Blumenthal’s “just the facts, M’am” essay you can see the partisans on each side cheering or attacking each pollster based on whether the results fit what the commenter wants to happen. But that’s the rank-and-file party activist or sympathizer position. Up above, in the war rooms of the political consultants and party operatives, Democrats are actually stoking the reports of their own demise under the belief that they will scare their grassroots troops into action. (And that explains, for example, why the Democratic-leaning New York Times has already sensationalized its new team member Nate Silver’s Senate projections to imply something that Nate’s own numbers do not: a GOP takeover of the Senate: the headline accurately states “New Forecast Shows Democrats Losing 6 to 7 Senate Seats,” but the lede paragraph jumps immediately to the doom and gloom scenario: “The Democrats now have an approximately 20 percent chance of losing 10 or more seats in the Senate.”)

Using the 538 model, which is still useful if one can look beyond the NY Times editors’ spin on it and just at the hard numbers, there are in fact just eight states in which the aggregate difference in the polls show a contest to be within five points. It is in these states where the control of the Senate will be decided: Democratic seats in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, Washington, California and Wisconsin plus Republican seats Kentucky and in Florida where Governor Charlie Crist, running as an independent, could wrestle the seat from the extremist Marco Rubio. Other states still in play include Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, while Senate elections in Alaska and Delaware could take turns toward the crazy and still get into play by November.

If you live in one of those states, then, yes, you’ve got a battle on your hands. If you live in an nearby state without a competitive contest, and you were active in the 2008 presidential campaign, you’ll likely receive an invitation to come knock on doors (or make phone calls from your own) in the neighboring state very soon, if you haven’t already.

A similar political logic is at play in the House. If there are 50 or 60 or 70 congressional districts where one party might wrestle the seat from the other, that means that 80 to 85 percent of Americans live in districts where the incumbent party will almost certainly retain control. In the coming weeks I will try to produce a list of the remaining 15 to 20 percent of congressional districts that are in play, because that is where the action is going to be this fall. Feel free to use the comments section here to offer your nominees for that list and explain how you know that contest is close enough to go either way.

In those closer contests, a lot depends on the individual candidates and the competence of their campaigns. Organizing for America – Obama’s grassroots political army, now part of the Democratic party – has made lists of all the first time voters from 2008 in each of those contested districts and a lot will ride on whether they can be inspired or pulled by the ear to actually vote. That’s not going to happen because of duplicitous scare tactics. That kind of thing only happens the way it did in 2008: through person-to-person recruitment, effective door knocking, phone banking and the deployment of community organizers in social networks, and not just the online variety.

Another factor that cuts somewhat against GOP chances to retake the House or Senate is the dysfunction in its own party ranks, between the Republican establishment and the in-house radicals broadly painted as “tea party” factions. Think Progress has a very interesting story that reveals seven congressional and three senate elections (as well as various gubernatorial races) where the Republican candidate defeated in that party’s primary has not endorsed the party's nominee: there is a lot of internecine bad blood flowing inside the GOP ranks. And in cases where the more radical “tea party” associated candidate won many primaries, the sheer battiness of the nominee produced is going to scare some voters away (and this phenomenon could still happen in some contests yet to have their primaries, such as the Republican senate primary in Delaware).

In this sense, a political parody site like Wonkette has become more relevant to the 2010 midterm elections than the entirety of the so-called Netroots, which in 2006 became a kind of kingmaker in the Democrats’ midterm electoral triumphs. I tuned out completely on the Netroots blogs since June and only started browsing them again recently, and its as if they’re stuck on autopilot, still debating “Obama, good or bad” and blissfully disinterested in the midterm elections, certainly compared to where they were in 2006. On the eve of the 2010 elections, they’re still infighting like it’s 2009! Meanwhile, day in, day out, Wonkette is producing wonderful caricature profiles of the insane class of GOP congressional and senate nominees this year, and is actually driving the media discourse about them.

Likewise, the cable TV political shows on Comedy Central – The Daily Show and The Colbert report – have become far more relevant to the national political discourse than any host on MSNBC or even Fox, which has gone down the Glenn Beck rabbit hole in a manner that only increases the dysfunction inside the GOP. Fox and the “tea party” minions it has stoked are now the Republican Party’s own version of the 2010 Netroots: mirrors on each side of the partisan divide that seem more concerned with asserting their own illusory relevance and factional power than with actually getting out there and winning general elections in November.

In the cases of Wonkette and Comedy Central the defining edge is, of course, a sense of humor, or, more importantly, not having lost one. My own coverage of the upcoming US midterm elections will try to adhere more closely to theirs than to the humorless pundits, talk show hosts and bloggers of the right and the left. That took a summer of turning all of them off to rewire my own news gathering habits and get back to the basics of researching what the actual numbers really show us.

The two main points I would like to make are: First, that it will not be the end of the world if a new generation of GOP circus clowns take over the House or the Senate (an event, that if it happened, would create its own backlash by 2012), and; Second, that it is still more likely that the Democrats hold onto both houses than that the GOP takes either of them. The outcome will be decided by efforts like those of Organizing for America, and whether Democrats can successfully package their opponents in so many districts as the mentally unstable whack jobs that so many GOP primaries have produced for 2010.

The fact is that there is not one election this November, but up to eighty separate ones where the control of the House and Senate will be determined. Each one has its own unique candidates and dynamics. And on the congressional district level, and in the less populace states, these are contests where a sole volunteer with good community organizing chops could still make the difference between victory or defeat.

Update: Wonkette asks the Internets, with a quote from this essay, Are You People Driving the Media Discourse? Heh.

Are you ready for some football, Field Hands?

Six American Zeroes: Reason Enough to Support California Prop 19

By Al Giordano

As support continues to grow for California’s November referendum to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, the six US drug czars from four different administrations have now flailed together to try and stop the biggest electorate in the nation from bringing America back to its senses. In an August 25 column in the Los Angeles Times, Why California should just say no to Prop 19, the six epic losers posse up and ride out West in an attempt to rescue their failed cause.

Because memories are short, let’s review all the big successes of these brave and valiant drug czars, who assuredly saved the nation from drugs and drug abuse and all the violence and corruption caused by policies of prohibition all these years, so we can remind ourselves of why these six American Zeroes are the last people we should listen to when it comes to figuring out how to solve problems associated with illegal drugs.

William Bennett (1989-91)

At the January 1989 press conference when then-president George Bush, Sr. established a new cabinet-level post and named William Bennett as “drug czar,” an enterprising reporter asked how could Bennett – a heavy cigarette smoker – lead the nation away from addictive drugs when he himself was an addict? The press conference briefly halted as Bush and Bennett huddled in the rear of the stage whispering back and forth. Bennett returned to the microphone and announced that for the duration of his term in the National Office of Drug Policy Control he would quit smoking cigarettes.

Nine months later, as Bennett oversaw a major escalation in federal spending and repression against users and suppliers of some drugs, the Doonesbury comic strip revealed a scoop that would later be confirmed by official media: Bennett had been chewing Nicorette, the nicotine chewing gum then only available with a doctor’s prescription, to mask his nicotine addiction.

Bennett’s hardline approach to combating drugs was, as everybody knows, an abject failure and he left the post in just two years, parlaying it into a gig as a national conservative political pundit and author of the so-called “The Book of Virtues.” In 2003, reports revealed that this braggart moralist had lost millions of dollars gambling in Las Vegas. Virtue might not have a book, but it sure does have a bookie.

Bob Martinez (1991-1993)

After Florida voters unseated him as their governor, Martinez replaced Bennett as drug czar. Although not known for any tobacco habit, Martinez did Bennett one better, as the Miami New Times reported at the time: “…if approved by the Senate during confirmation hearings that begin this week, he will be the first drug czar known to have enjoyed the financial support of a major drug trafficker.” You can’t make this stuff up! Click the link to read all about it.

Lee P. Brown (1993-1995)

The former police commissioner in Houston and New York was tapped by then-president Bill Clinton to be a kinder, gentler drug czar, emphasizing Brown’s role as “the father of community policing.” Like his predecessors, Brown accomplished absolutely nothing to curb drug use or abuse in the US, but he did use the post as a trampoline into a job as Mayor of Houston. His was the last political campaign supported by the Houston-based Enron corporation, which went belly-up shortly after Brown’s 2001 reelection.

General Barry McCaffrey (1996-2001)

Narco News owes a great debt of gratitude to General McCaffrey, the craziest drug czar of all, with an even battier press secretary. On our first day of publication, April 18, 2000, I issued a public invitation to the White House to respond to our reports of official corruption, malfeasance and ineptitude in the US-imposed “war on drugs.” And McCaffrey’s spokesman incredulously took the bait… more than a year later, and after McCaffrey had been supplanted as drug czar.

McCaffrey’s spokesman, Bob Weiner (whose congressional campaigns I had covered a decade prior in Massachusetts) apparently discovered the Internet around 2002 after he and his boss left the office and wrote an email-to-the-editor complaining about our coverage of his office. Here’s an example of the quality of work that came out of McCaffrey’s regime:

“Al -- HI! In browsing the net, I JUST saw your strange report of over a year ago (sixth item) when you attacked me (?) for not only my "silencing" two reporters during my then ongoing stint at the White House but my strategies in my congressional campaign...????!!!!  First of all, what am I missing here -- you and I were/are liberals fighting for just about all the same causes, and were then. Second, why didn't you just call me up at that very number you printed (which I am of course no longer at -- now I'm at 202-361-0611). It would have been great to hear from you -- AND I would have given you a lot more substance from your (and my) point of view than you mysteriously printed without, for some reason, even calling me up! What was that all about and why didn't you call?”

“Why didn’t you call?” I haven’t heard that since my last one-night stand.

Anyway, McCaffrey had a few bigger scandals as drug czar, like when he got caught secretly paying millions of taxpayer dollars to TV networks to implant subliminal anti-drug messages on television programs.

And remember how that and the other pioneering work by McCaffrey’s drug war command post stopped the flow of illegal drugs?


Me neither.

John P. Walters (2001-2009)

One of the only members of the George W. Bush administration to last the entire eight years, Walters survived mainly because of his superpowers as The Invisible Man. The former chief of staff to the first drug czar, William Bennett, Walters saw his role eclipsed when in 2001 the war-on-drugs took a back seat to the war-on-terror as the pretext for erasing the Bill of Rights.

Sure, millions of Americans continued to go to jail and suffer when family members were imprisoned for violating drug laws, lost their homes, and were denied access to basic medicines like marijuana even when they were sick, and meanwhile during Walters’ term multiple Latin American countries that had been victimized by US drug policies set a new course away from US dominance.

But, surely, Walters ended the scourge of drug use and abuse utilizing quiet invisible leadership, didn’t he?

Um, guess not.

And now the current drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, the former Seattle police chief friendly to harm reduction policies, somehow got himself caught up signing an open letter with his Rogues Gallery of predecessors.

They chose a title for their LA Times op ed column utilizing that failed slogan of the 1980s war-on-drugs – “just say no” – that had been championed then by First Lady Nancy Reagan. One wonders why they didn’t invite Mrs. Reagan to sign the letter, too. At least she’s a California voter.

As Tom Lehrer says, parody is dead when stuff like this happens: the six guys who most embody the failure of prohibitionist drug policies – none of whom vote in California, by the way - now are telling California voters to continue to bankrupt their state budget on enforcement of laws that can’t be successfully enforced. They might as well have titled their open letter, “We Screwed Up and You Can, Too!”

There can be no more ringing endorsement to vote Yes on Proposition 19 than its opposition from the very bureaucrats that exacerbated the problems associated with illegal drugs over the past two decades with their stubborn and cowardly cling to same policies that clearly have never worked, and never will. But they and their lost war are now at the mercy of California voters, who in November could deliver the fatal blow to a budget-busting drug policy that wore out its welcome years ago.


NNTV: Al Gore's Mexican Adventure

By Al Giordano

The 2012 presidential campaign is already underway... in Mexico.

And, as in previous Mexican elections, US interests are all over it like a cheap suit.

Mexico will vote two Julys from now for a chief of state that will serve a six-year term. Two of the last four presidential elections south of the border were determined by blatant and well-documented acts of election fraud: both times to prevent center-left candidates from assuming power. US president George Bush Sr. endorsed the 1988 imposition of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and George W. Bush, Jr. supported the 2006 installation of Felipe Calderón. But lest anybody think that only Republicans in Washington meddle in Mexican politics, think again.

Last week’s Narco News story by Fernando León and Erin Rosa, Al Gore Stirs Controversy, this time in Mexico, and the follow up piece by Rosa, Al Gore’s 7 Simple Rules for Blocking Media Access offer eyewitness reporting of the former US vice president’s August 4 visit to Mexico. Now comes Sebastian Kolendo, of Narco News TV (you’ll be seeing and hearing more from the nascent NNTV project very soon) with a video report underscoring the key points of the story. In just two minutes, Kolendo – who reported the story with León and Rosa – offers viewers a crash course of the surrealistic relationship between US and Mexican politicians, and introduces the guy that key gringo economic and political powers have already designated as Mexico’s next president, the violent repressor Enrique Peña Nieto, governor of Mexico state, the most populous in the country.

For Gore, as reported, his appearance at Peña Nieto’s conference on “climate change” was lucrative, according to one source, to the tune of five million pesos ($380,000 US dollars), paid by an undisclosed donor or donors (it is not known whether these financial backers in the shadows were Mexican or North American).

What Peña Nieto gets for his (or someone else’s) money is the public perception in Mexico that he’s the chosen one to quarterback the country’s never-ending game with Washington. Gore was only the first player to be rolled out onto the field in this media strategy. On Wednesday, Peña Nieto was in DC, invited by the elite Woodrow Wilson International Center to give a speech on “Mexico in Globalization” and was also received by US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who posed for this photo op with the butcher of Atenco:

Notimex, the state-owned news agency in Mexico, quickly served up a fawning report of Peña Nieto as the gringos’ golden boy for 2012. As to why major Democratic party leaders like Gore and Napolitano have leant themselves as steps Peña Nieto’s ladder, they haven't said. But the game on the Mexican governor’s side is clear as day. It’s the resurrection of the time-dishonored Mexican practice known as “el dedazo.”

For six decades – from 1935 to 1994 – the winner was determined by a tradition called the finger-pointing (“el dedazo”), in which the incumbent Mexican president from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI, in its Spanish initials) would hand-pick his successor. That happened ten times in a row until in 2000, when Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (the PAN) won the Mexican presidency away from 69 years of single party rule with big promises of change that never came.

Since there is no incumbent president from the PRI party at present, Peña Nieto’s political gamble is simply to eliminate the middleman and create a series of media spectacles that give the impression that he has received the dedazo directly from Washington. His slogan could be “why go to la Malinche when I can go directly to Cortéz?” And as recent events demonstrate, key sectors of the Democratic party in the US are so far cooperating with the gambit.

The truth is that Washington has always meddled in Mexican presidential elections. Beyond the US-endorsed election frauds of 1988 and 2006, there are other recent examples. In 1994, when leading PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in Tijuana, then-US ambassador James Jones was at a breakfast with leading Mexican intellectuals including the author Carlos Fuentes. The attendees all gathered around Jones to ask him for Washington’s reaction to the vacuum created by the death of the frontrunner. Jones – of the Clinton administration – said, according to published reports, “Salinas de Gortari now has three options for his successor: Zedillo, Zedillo or Zedillo.” Ernesto Zedillo, in turn, became the next head of state.

In 2000, when PRI warhorse Manuel Bartlett was gathering steam for his own presidential campaign, offering a return to the populist roots of the PRI, which in the 1920s and ‘30s began but quickly strayed from its roots as a project in socialism, then-US ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, also of the Clinton administration, without offering any evidence at all, simply said to a Mexican magazine that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had “files” on Bartlett, and with that one statement exercised the veto power that no one speaks of but everybody knows the US government has over who gets to be president in the neighboring country.

Foreign policy deciders in the Obama administration should think again whether Peña Nieto - the man who in 2006 in the town of Atenco brought back the violent tactics of the dirty wars of the sixties and seventies against Mexican social movements – is really what the twenty-first century needs in the nation next door. A new wave of government repression would only serve to motivate millions more to cross the border in order to escape the return of brutal authoritarianism in Mexico. The fact is that only an improvement in the Mexican economy and how its vast wealth is distributed for the tens of millions of the poor, the unemployed, and the marginally employed workers and farmers of the land can stem the northbound migration that has proved such a policy headache and political hot potato for US officials.

Peña Nieto – economically backed and allied with a particular gang of oligarchs, robber barons and reported narco-traffickers from Mexico state, some of whom deny being part of a secret society within the PRI called the Atlacomulco Group – would surely be just yet another Mexican president dedicated first and foremost to redistributing wealth from the many into the hands of his few cronies. For Mexico, that would be another chapter in the same long tragedy, and it would have severe consequences north of the border, as well; economically and, subsequently, politically.

It is not yet clear exactly who in the Democratic Party side of Washington and Wall Street is moving the strings for Peña Nieto (one naturally shoots a fleeting glance at the Clintons), but it is easy to see that somebody north of the border is busy in cahoots with the aspirations of this dictator-in-training. We're gearing up our investigative reporting on that and related stories, and welcome Narco News TV as the newest weapon in our arsenal of authentic journalism.

“Shut Off the Raging Dialogue of the Story of the Week”

By Al Giordano

Al Giordano & Noha Atef - Citizen Journalism and Digital Resistance (FSI 2010)

Late last month, Egyptian authentic journalist Noha Atef and I led a workshop at Tufts University’s Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict near Boston for seventy community organizers and civil resistance leaders from 41 countries. This video shows the first hour of that ninety-minute session. We were invited by our friends at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict to host the plenary session.

Careful readers of The Field will have heard some – but not all – of the points we made on journalism as civil resistance. We talked from our own experience at the School of Authentic Journalism and as journalists and communicators. It probably wasn’t a “normal” session for such an esteemed academic institution: I did part of my talk in darkness after shutting off the lights in the hall, and later led participants outdoors through what I called a “discipline building exercise” into the preferable set and setting of a perfect New England summer day, where everyone who had something to say had a chance to say it. My intervention was essentially designed to kill the Power Point method of education-as-spectator-sport and unleash more of the innate imagination in each individual so that we could think and speak creatively together.

Noha Atef is, simply, a force of nature. Even if you only have time to watch her part of the presentation, do that: You really want to meet the 25-year-old soft-spoken warrior who through persistent journalism, a lot of guts, and a significant sense of humor, tore down the curtain on torture by Egyptian police and hear about how she did it. The presentation she gave at Tufts was an encore of one she gave last February in Mérida, Yucatán at the Narco News J-School, but we didn't videotape that one at her request. In Boston - in what was her US premier - she was ready to bring her story to a global audience.

You’ll also get a taste, from this hour, of what the School of Authentic Journalism is like and of how we do things, in case you’re thinking of applying to the 2011 session or know someone who should.

At the six-day session we met organizers who are from or work in Argentina, Armenia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Burma, Camaroon, Canada, China, Colombia, Egypt, England, Ethiopia, Georgia, Germany, Guinea, India, Kenya, Mexico, Morroco, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, the US, Vietnam, the West Bank, West Papua-Indonesia, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

We broke bread and conversed late into the nights with each other, and also with veteran social fighters like Mary Elizabeth King and Jim Lawson. We found some excellent recruits for the School of Authentic Journalism from the continents of the earth and made some new friendships, which are sure to last.

The point of it all was that nonviolent struggle is not a question about whether one considers oneself a pacifist or not (I certainly don’t, and regardless, the group was a serious enough collection of free thinkers and doers that we didn’t waste our time having that stupid “debate” that some “activists” like to have on a perpetual hamster wheel in which nothing ever gets resolved except to displace the real work of organizing) but that nonviolent resistance is really about how we, as aspiring change agents, learn to plan and act strategically.

I wouldn’t quite call it a “science,” although it does resemble certain laws of physics. It is more of an art, even a martial art, in which every circumstance in every struggle is unique but also shares common dynamics with all struggles. And so it is very helpful to listen to the experiences of others in lands we’ve never visited. We see our own struggles in theirs, and solutions for how to win ours in the strategies and tactics developed locally by each one.

And, of course, the matter of media is now central to all struggles. Our workshop began with a premise:

“A movement that makes its own media has considerable advantages and better chances of success than those that must depend on commercial media to tell their story and define their narrative.”

And that’s the story Noha and I tell in this video. If you spend the hour to watch it and don’t find it worthwhile, I’ll personally give you your money back... Oh. Wait. It’s free!

Mexico 2010: Enter the Detonators

By Al Giordano

In recent weeks, Mexican television viewers have been deluged with an advertisement in power rotation on all networks, including cable channels, from an apparently wealthy consortium called “Iniciativa México,” or, the Mexico Initiative.

The ad features head coach Javier Aguirre of Mexico’s national soccer team (the original ad appears here) strutting around the Mexico City monument known as the Angel of Independence, wearing a suit jacket and unbuttoned white shirt, noting that 2010 marks the bicentennial of Mexican independence and the centennial of the revolution of 1910. And, he encourages the people of the nation not to fall into “the old complexes” this time and to be positive and sunshiney in this historic year.

You can't make this stuff up!

The reaction on the street, in the markets and other public places, was overwhelmingly negative. “Who is this futbol coach to tell us what to do?” was the typical reaction this reporter received everywhere he asked. Interestingly, everybody had seen the ad, and hated it.

Aguirre had already caused a national scandal last February when he told a Spaniard sports network that “Mexico es jodido” (“Mexico is fucked”) and that he keeps his family in Madrid so they can be safe. And after the Mexican team was disqualified from the World Cup finals last week, Aguirre quit in a public tantrum and said he wanted to move to England or Spain. Thus, his ad, which begins, “I’m Javier Aguirre and I love Mexico” has become a national joke of sorts, in the category of gallows humor. The gross ratings points that the Iniciativa México spent on airing this ad has had the opposite effect of its intent to calm down the public and strip them of any ideas of a centennial revolt in 2010. To the contrary, it got a lot of regular folks thinking about the possibilities. More than a few passersby I interviewed practically tried to recruit this international reporter for a revolution!

According to the Iniciative’s website, the consortium's board of advisors includes the owners of the two national television networks, Televisa and TV Azteca, also Channels 11 and 22, plus the owners of UNIRADIO, Radio Formula, Braca Communications, and the daily newspapers El Financiero, Novedades, Milenio, El Universal, El Siglo de Torreón, El Economista, in other words, the media oligarchs of the nation.

And the consortium’s technical advisory board includes, in addition to the media owners, the rectors of the National Autonomous University (UNAM), the Insituto Politechnico Nacional (IPN), the Tech de Monterrey (gotta keep those rambunctious students in line!), and the CEO of the cinema chain Cinépolis, among others.

It doesn’t take a degree in marketing to understand what the magnates are up to: their ad campaign reveals their intense fear that the historic memory of the Mexican people could turn on the aspiring owners of the country as they it in 1810 and 1910. The electoral fraud by which President Felipe Calderón came to power is still an open wound, unresolved, festering. And the wave of repression against pro-democracy social movements that escalated in Atenco and Oaxaca in 2006 continues raging into the present.

A sign that the State is at least somewhat worried about the potential detonation of 2010 came on Thursday when the Supreme Court of the Nation ordered the release of Ignacio “Nacho” del Valle and eleven other political prisoners from Atenco, the town that rose up and defeated the national airport planned for their farmlands in 2002.

Javier Aguirre, in the Iniciativa México TV ad.

Into this churning national cauldron today entered a group that calls itself “Los Detonadores” (“The Detonators”) with a video parody of the Initiative’s TV ad, that in a few short hours has already gone viral on the Internet.

Field Smith, in the response from Los Detonadores.

The actor the group hired looks familiar, and is quite good at the role (think of a Mexican version of Stephen Colbert). He plays a US businessman with a heavy gringo accent who claims to be “the owner of Mexico” and Aguirre’s “compadre,” urging the Mexican people to calm down and stop rebelling every hundred years, and thanking them for sitting in front of the TV during this bicentennial year, for sending their sons and daughters to work as his “illegal slaves” in the North, for putting up with the war on drugs, and for buying all their products from him and for selling their "beaches, mountains and rivers" to his companies. And that is pretty much what has happened since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994.

Here is the ad, which hit the Internet at 10 a.m. this morning, Mexico City time:

Here is a translation of the ad’s text, which borrows liberally from Aguirre’s narrative while turning his phrases against the intentions of the Mexico Initiative’s ad campaign:

I’m Field Smith and I love Mexico. In fact, I’m the owner of Mexico!

I don’t know if I always understand it, but I know that I always love it.

And I know that for some reason every hundred years the Mexican people go out from their homes to try to make things impossible for businessmen like me. And what’s worse is that if they rebel, they can achieve it.

In 1810 it seemed impossible that Mexico could be an independent country. And it has cost us a lot of money in troops and loans to your government to insure that it still is not.

In 1910 it seemed impossible that Mexico could be democratic. And thanks to the huge electoral frauds it still is not.

It’s 2010, and the clock of history is ringing anew.

And it seems impossible that this could be a great country, secure, prosperous and just, that the Mexican people want.

The time has come to ask you if you want to keep being a country for sale for failure, or if you are capable of ending this capitalist control over your country.

Mexicans, calm down!

The time has come to change the country doing no more than sitting and obeying orders, and believing exactly what they tell us on TV.

Because as my compadre Javier Aguirre said, “Mexico is fucked,” and it’s clear that neither the national soccer team nor the people can do anything because Mexico… is what it is.

It’s the hour to forget about the Mexico that fought for its indepdendence, to leave behind the Mexico that seeks to develop itself. And to keep being a Mexico in which all of you buy my products.

It’s time to change history, passing from the Mexico of “Yes, we can,” to the Mexico of “we’re already screwed.”

But it won’t be easy if the people remember that a country can transform itself during just one night of mass awaking.

The seed that Mexico yearns for is already transgenic.

For it to flower depends on its consumption by all of you.

Believe me that the most important things have already been done.

Keep being a country subjugated and unaware of its own history.

Welcome to the Fucked Mexico of 2010.

Thank you, Mexicans, for sending your sons and daughters to the United States to be my “illegal” slaves.

Thank you, Mexicans, for handing over your rivers, your beaches and mountains, to my companies.

Thank you, Mexicans, for lending yourselves to the war on drugs and allowing me to buy your politicians with the profits.

Thank you, Mexicans, for sitting in front of the TV during this bicentennial year!

Mexico is already our place. 2010 is our year. Now is the hour to sell your homeland to the highest bidder.

The ad then offers a link to a website – www.losdetonadores.com - which has only one paragraph of text and an email address. It says:

"The Detonators seek choreographers, dancers, designers, video makers, audio techs, musicians, artists, muralists, pamphleteers, writers, poets, performance artists, singers, dramaturges, game players, thinkers, actors, detonators and talents of all means of expression to collaborate in the most fun and urgent game: to reconquer all the terrains of daily life..."

The video has no credits for the screenplay, the video, the audio, the editing, the costume, the make-up, the post-production, the actor, or the website. They sent us the video anonymously, with permission to publish it, free of charge. It carries none of the whiff of bureaucracy, careerism or droll self-sacrifice or tired sloganeering that burden, sadly, too many “art projects” and “activist groups” alike.

I guess by “detonators” they mean that they don’t follow, and they don’t lead, they simply exist to detonate that "single night of mass awakening" that, throughout history, has made great leaps forward.

And, gee, it all looks and sounds so very fun. I think I will write to these “detonators” right now and ask them to please keep us posted on their next detonations. I could be wrong, but this looks like a project with a lot more up its sleeve and still to come.

Summit Protests Are Obsolete

By Al Giordano

More at The Real News

Authentic journalist Jesse Freeston, who you heard from on these pages last month, handled himself about as well as anyone could last weekend when police in Toronto punched him in the face and stole his camera microphone while he was covering protests at the G-20 summit. You can see it in the video, above. Calm, coherent and consistent: that’s how an authentic journalist, or any effective organizer or change-maker, rolls. And his boss, Paul Jay of The Real News, did some pretty good “press conference theater” in response to the incident, too.

I can understand why Jesse, a Canadian, went to report those events. They happened in his town. I can understand why a lot of folks went there, sincerely wanting to stand up and be counted against savage global capitalism and its consequences. The problem is, almost nobody who didn’t participate, especially those who only heard of the protests through the media, has any idea what the protests were about, or why the protesters were there.

The G-20 or “Group of 20” is made up of 20 of the governments with the 32 biggest economies. It includes the center-left governments of Argentina and Brazil, and also includes China. Here is a list of the participating nations. The G-20 group has no power to make laws, no real institutional power at all. Its resolutions are non-binding even among the signatory countries. Are the protests trying to say that countries should not meet with each other? Nobody quite says that, either.

I would posit that protests at events like this happen on autopilot, robotically, by many who are trying to relive the glory days of the 1999 Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization (where the stated goal was to keep the WTO meeting from happening, and in fact succeeded at causing its premature adjournment). There, hundreds of thousands of people, including significant participation from major labor unions like the Teamsters, converged around a clear demand and an attainable goal: The WTO shouldn’t meet, as it has binding power over policies in its member nations and that power is abused to benefit the haves against the have-nots.

Seattle 1999 was when the post-Cold War international left discovered it had a new move, like a boxer with a fast left hook. It knocked out its opponent, the WTO, and gave rise to a generation of new left celebrities and media makers, including Indymedia. Some have launched book-selling careers out of it. Good for them, but is that itself a goal of protests? Creating product and product makers? The rest of its legacy was mainly to create a trail of copy-cat actions with ever-diminishing results.

In April 2000, a repeat of the tactic was attempted in Washington DC to protest meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Only about 10,000 showed up and about 1,300 of those were arrested. In November 2000 the same agencies met in Prague, met by thousands of protesters, 400 of them arrested, who did actually cause the summit meeting to fold its tent early. In January 2001, many of the same protesters headed to Davos, Switzerland, to protest the World Economic Forum (like the G-20, a meeting without statutory authority over anyone anywhere). Their goal, if there was one, wasn’t clear and they had no tangible impact on the conference of world business and government leaders. None, whatsoever.

This dance – think of the consequences for a boxer who keeps using the same left hook with every punch, but eventually his opponents figure it out and know exactly how to beat him – continued through Quebec City’s Summit of the Americas and the European Union’s Gothenberg, Sweden meeting in 2001, to the World Trade Organization summit in Cancun in 2003, so on and so forth, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.

In general, the size of these summit protests grow smaller and smaller, the tactics do not significantly change, the level of planning and training by participants doesn’t rise to that which went into Seattle 1999… and it shows, again and again, in the paltry results.

So what is left of these summit protests? The majority of participants always march peacefully, but many get arrested and beat up by cops who use the presence of a smaller gruposcule – often referred to as the “Black Bloc” or those “using Black Bloc tactics” – as their pretext to arrest and use preemptive state violence against all. The size of the “Black Bloc” contingent, of those who typically go on a spree of breaking windows of corporate chain stores and banks, hasn’t grown, but as the size of all other sectors steadily decreased, they take on a bigger slice of the pie of what little media attention is still paid to these yawningly predictable events.

And then there is another sector I’ll call the “summit hoppers.” These are protesters with enough expendable cash (or are trust fund or parent supported) to jet hop from summit city to summit city to join each protest. Some of them even do creative, laudible things – marching bands or daredevil banner hangers – but their creativity gets typically lost in the teargas smoke and sensational media coverage of the accompanying riot porn.

And just as typically, as in Cancun 2003, local movements and organizers are left holding the bag, no better organized than before. They basically get played by the out-of-towners who use their cities as a weekend stage for their own attention-seeking. It reminds me of Kurt Tucholsky’s 1920 poem about Berlin theater director Max Reinhardt’s play, Danton:

Act Three was great in Reinhardt’s play—

Six-hundred extras milling

Listen to what the critics say!

All Berlin finds it thrilling.

But in the whole affair I see

A parable, if you ask me

“Revolution!” the People howls and cries

“Freedom, that’s what we’re needing!”

We’ve needed it for centuries—

our arteries are bleeding.

The stage is shaking. The audience rock.

The whole thing is over by nine o’clock.

So what is left from these summit-hopping protests, beyond the tons of garbage and reaction that local movements have to pick up afterwards? Some brief media stories about violence – by police or by protesters, whether against people or merely against property, you can’t ever count on the mass media to distinguish between the two, and you ought to know better in advance that that will be the case – is about all that is left over when the show has packed up and gone. Nobody outside the event's own protagonists knows what the protest was about, or why it was done.

And then you get the occasional well-done news story, like that, above, by Jesse Freeston, about police violence against reporters or peaceful civilians. Ideally, that at least says “police bad, protesters good” (as if that is enough a reason to hold a protest at all, since that message only resonates with those that already have that predisposition), but it doesn’t really say anything new or inspiring. It doesn't change the game or any social dynamic at all.

Yet it turns out the police aren’t the only ones attending these affairs who are attacking members of the independent media:

The ones dressed in black and masks are those that either refer to themselves or are tagged by others as “Black Bloc,” and you can see at 1:23 minutes into the video that they’re going after the independent media, too. Their chant of “Who’s streets? Our streets!” thus becomes a mirror image of what the State is saying through its police forces: We own these streets and nobody else does! These events predictably become spats of bullying and thuggery on both sides of the barricades: and that makes the police happy, so happy, they in fact fertilize it with their own infiltrators and agents provocateur to make sure it happens.

At two minutes into the video, you can see how the “Black Bloc” contingent falls hook, line and sinker for the bait left to them by police agencies, who conveniently left unprotected police cars exactly along the route of their protest. Mouth meet hook: The protesters – the ones in these images are, predictably, predominantly male and young – attack and eventually set fire to the police cars. And this becomes both a defining image for the entire protest action and an easy talking point for the State to paint everyone as part of an undesirable and scary (to the general public) horde.

Does anybody really think that police agencies would have left unguarded vehicles in that path if not to get that desired image onto the evening news? And the “Black Bloc” dupes fell for it! Who, among the working class and poor, would follow these white upper class fools anywhere? What separates them from any rank-and-file pyromaniac? That they attach a cause to their attempted rampage? Well, what is that cause? “Whose streets? Our streets”? Clearly they mean theirs and not “ours” in the sense that the streets belong to all the people. Otherwise they wouldn’t be pushing and threatening the people’s own cameras away. If those guys ever did gain power, they would be as violent and bullying as those that have it now. And that is evident to most members of the public who refrain from joining in such protests even when we agree with the overall causes expressed.

It is already well established that Canadian authorities (and those of other nations) implant undercover agents – dressing them in “Black Bloc” and other stereotypical protest uniforms - to whip up the other protesters into committing acts of vandalism and sometimes even violence to rob the protests of moral authority and allow the cops a free pass on their own violence.

The “Black Bloc” practitioners have become the moral equivalent of cops, and just as ugly and bullying. And, as is proved, some of them are actually cops! And there is no way to tell them apart.

After their vandalism sprees, the Black Blockers then shed their black masks and clothes and hide among the rest of the peaceful protesters. That also reveals them to be cowards. They only deploy these tactics when they can hide under the skirt of a larger group of people. If they earnestly believe that smashing windows and tussling with police is such a revolutionary act, why don’t they ever do it on their own? Worse, they are wrecking the very good name of anarchism and anarchists by behaving in these decidedly anti-anarchist ways! Authentic anarchists are among the most alarmed by the negative impact of their parasitical actions on events that are organized by people who are not them, because it defines "anarchism" as "violent" (and also as "stupid") when anarchism (which embraces, also, anarcho-syndicalists and also anarcho-pacifists who see the State as a form of violence) is about self-management, not about hitching one's wagon to a star that someone else organized.

Throughout history there have been guerrilla insurgencies or groups that used what they called "revolutionary violence" to forward their goals, and whether one agrees or not with their tactics, one can admire that they did have courage. But the Weather Underground or the Latin American guerrilla organizations or other such projects never inflicted their actions on the larger protests of broader coalitions. Not once! The "Black Bloc" types clearly don't have that same level of bravery, planning, training or intelligence. That's what makes them cowards while other armed insurgencies were not.

In the end, the repetitive nature of this story about summit actions makes the majority of protesters, who are peaceful, and the organizations that got them there, dupes as much as the comparatively few assholes with window-breaking fetishes. It is now totally predictable and known in advance that those types will show up and do the same things they always do. And yet the larger coalition does nothing to denounce or separate itself from the premeditated macho tantrums of the few. The summit hopping actions have disregarded all the tools – such as nonviolence training sessions – that have distinguished other more successful movements throughout history from the recent series of failed summit actions, to which Toronto June 2010 becomes just another statistic.

We don’t send reporters to cover summit protests anymore. We already know what will happen in advance, and so does everyone else. At Narco News, we still report, time and time again, on meaningful protests and movements and community organizers and others that actually get stuff done and win battles. But we’ve had it with the summit protest genre. Stick a fork in it. It's done. We now practice non-cooperation with it. We have withdrawn our participation in their boring mirror of the spectacle, at least until some folks somewhere organize one that plans in advance to train and promote a shared action plan and discipline that is designed to have a better impact on human events and history than this sorry trail of repetition.

And to think: At least twice in recent months, in the same city of Toronto, there were two creative actions – neither of them “protests,” per se – that were designed, and succeeded, to win over hearts and minds and public support. They involved planning, discipline and a lot more fun than the tired summit protests offer, and they show us a possible path toward a new kind of protest that, rather than provoking automatic police repression, sneaks up on society with stealth and then disappears quickly avoiding any physical confrontation at all.

On April 29, 2010, students of Canada’s National Ballet Schools held a “flash mob” action at the Eaton Centre Mall in Toronto. Watch it while imagining had the G-20 protesters organized something similar and how different and better the impact would have been:

But they’re professionals, you say? Well, sure, they’ve taken some dance classes anyway. But here’s another flash mob dance action from 2009 from the same shopping mall, this one by amateurs, many of them kids, whose cause was to remember a young woman who died of cancer:

How much training did those dancing novices have? Only six hours! So don’t tell me that we ordinary people can’t do extraordinary actions with a little bit of planning and discipline! The flash mob phenomenon has already proved the case otherwise.

Add a coherent political message, banners, leaflets, a dance tune that resonates with the message, and such to a dancing musical flash mob like these and you have the seeds of a new, more effective, kind of protest than the tired old marching around in circles of the last century that has ceased to win any cause for anyone. If you want media coverage for it, video it and send it out, or plant a few sympathetic collaborators from inside the commercial media to have their cameras there for the scoop.

Organize something like that, and we will come, report, film, and make it known to the world in multiple languages. But “no thanks” if you want us to cover another tired summit-hopping action using the same stale left hook that the enemy already knows how to easily knock out.

One last thing: If you want to defend the actions of the “Black Bloc” or the effectiveness of the Summit Actions that tolerate them, here is the price of admission to the comments section here, and it should be real easy for anyone to do: Write one sentence – that is all, just one – that tells us what the message of the Toronto G-20 protest was. If it doesn’t fit into one sentence, it is not a message worthy of a protest. Then tell us how that protest accomplished advancing the cause of that message.

Maybe it is clear to one or more of you out there. But to the rest of the people of the world, whatever the Toronto summit protest message was, it didn’t reach us, or make anyone else care about it. And that is precisely the definition of a failed action that accomplished nothing but occupying the hours, resources, and budgets of all those who traveled to them in lieu of organizing something real at home.

Update: Somehow I missed this when it came out last year, but authentic journalist Jill Freidberg (documentary filmmaking group director at the Narco News J-School and co-director of the documentary, This Is What Democracy Looks Like, about the 1999 Seattle protests) produced a multipart radio series on the tenth anniversary of the December 1999 Seattle actions that shows where so many of the participants then went: into community organizing...

Part I: Seattle, Ten Years Later

Part II: Race and Mass Demonstrations

Part III: Teamsters and Turtles: Where Did They Go?

Part IV: Indymedia, Ten Years After

Part V: From the WTO to the World Social Forum

So it is fair to say that a positive legacy of Seattle 1999 is how many of its participants then moved into organizing and new, more diverse, strategies and tactics; not everyone kept clicking "replay"!

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