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Other Priorities: Three Lessons and a Prayer

John Halle


I'll begin by making a personal statement:

While I have been politically active at some points in my life, usually I have not been.

In particular I was not active in 1994 when a compromise reached between the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress resulted in a raid on the Social Security trust fund.

Our failure to protest effectively meant that everyone my age will need to work until we are 70 to collect full retirement benefits. This will be necessary for almost all of us since our accumulated savings and recently devalued IRAs will be insufficient to provide a livable income.

Though I wasn't thinking about it then, it matters to me now that Social Security was cut.

What was I doing?

As a former Vice President notoriously remarked, I had other priorities.

And so I understand very well when I see no protest or even discussion on my campus or others of Obama's recent formation of a deficit commission which will likely result in further cuts to Social Security--even in its effective elimination by the time you are preparing to retire.

You have other priorities and (unless I have missed something) organizing yourselves politically to prevent this assault on the old folks you will some day become isn't one of them.

I also understand students not protesting the abomination known as health care reform, likely to result in cuts to Medicare. Medicare is a ways down the pike--and you probably don't think much about getting old and sick. Neither did I when I was your age.

But the individual mandates proposed by the administration will require you in just a few years to purchase junk insurance, claiming the few dollars you have left over from whatever job you manage to pull down in the midst of what is likely to be a full blown depression.

You won't like having to pay insurance premiums or face a stiff fine for not doing so--or you probably won't when you have to. Whatever the case, that there are few campus chapters of Single Payer Action or Health Care for All (from what I can tell) demonstrates conclusively that, at the moment, you (and I) have other priorities.

I also understand students not having much to say about the widening of the theater of our military operations in the Middle East into Afghanistan and beyond. There is no draft--you (or my friends or my friends' kids) probably won't be dying or getting maimed over there. Of course, there is the matter of the $3 trillion bill which will consume a vast percentage of the federal budget, as outlined by Joseph Stieglitz in an excellent Bard talk from a couple years back.

But this thirteen figure sum is just one order of magnitude away from this year's Wall Street bonus pool-courtesy of the TARP program and the Federal Reserve system--financed ultimately by your or your parents' taxes. Given that there was no visible protest of the Wall Street crime spree here at "the most liberal of the liberal arts colleges" it stands to reason that there would also be no protest against hundreds of billions of tax dollars underwriting war crimes on the other side of the world.

Finally, I also understand not protesting the Obama administration's commitment to boondoggles such as clean coal, biofuels and nuclear power, rather than investing in the development of renewables, energy efficiency and the Green Jobs program that we all understand is necessary to combat catastrophic climate change.

There's nothing like complete planetary destruction to focus the mind, it would appear, and so there have been a few raised voices at some campuses on this matter.

But most of these have been in the context of top down fora disconnected from any broader political mobilization. For example, an initiative much trumpeted at my school includes leaders of corporate funded big green outfits, such as Larry Schweiger of the National Wildlife Federation and administration insiders such as Under Secretary of Energy Joseph Romm.

The title of Schweiger's address gives the game away: "Capitalism . . . Business on Board".

The only response to such rhetoric ostensibly offered on behalf of the environmental movement is despair.

For, as should be obvious, catastrophic global warming has everything to do with business, namely businesses whose profits depend on the production and consumption of fossil fuels and their control by proxy of the political system.

Bringing "business on board" is a near certain prescription for failure; this is as true for the regulation of carbon emissions as it is for reform of the health care, financial, and retirement systems and the return to sane defense budgets.

Businesses do not need to be brought on board, they need to be brought to heel.

And this is the necessary condition for minimal progress on any and all of the matters discussed above and others not mentioned.

This is what needs to be our main priority.


All this begs the question: what are our other priorities?

In my case, I know what they were, and, judging from the numerous announcements of bands, theatrical productions, dance recitals, gallery openings and poetry readings, (many of them quite wonderful), not to mention talks given by distinguished scholars, they were the same as yours.

And while I didn't major in political studies where I would have been exposed me to classics of political thought, (some of them more than a little radical, incidentally), I did read widely--in and out of class.

At the time, those of us immersing ourselves in Gramsci, Kropotkin, Prudhon, and Marx believed this constituted something more than an academic interest. Confronting forbidden, "counter-hegemonic" ideas in itself seemed to constitute an expression of political dissent, one which would naturally, albeit via an undefined and circuitous route, lead to real, as opposed to cosmetic, institutional change.

It was only some years later that a recognition dawned that much of this was self-deception.

In particular, the belief that political analysis constituted a form of political action allowed us to remain within our comfort zone, of reading, writing, discussion and argument within our select--and self-selected--circles, those having the temperament, background and leisure to deal with politics as an abstraction.

There is, of course, much to be gained from understanding the systems of exploitation and domination as they have existed throughout history and function in the present. And having a command of at least some of the relevant facts is probably a good idea for those who aspire to be politically effective so long as it is understood that this knowledge has a specific practical function--that of mobilizing the powerless and determining possible areas of weakness among the powerful. The purpose of obtaining knowledge--or truth--is not to confront the powerful with it. Doing so is simply a waste of time.

For it should be painfully apparent to all of us by now that power doesn't care a whit about truth. This is, for example, what Dr. Margaret Flowers discovered, when she attempted to confront the Obama administration with the truth that Single Payer is the most efficient mechanism for the delivery of medical services. This truth is of little moment when counterposed to the billions of dollars controlled by the insurance industry and its army of lobbyists. Nor does the administration have any interest in the truth that clean coal is an oxymoron, that biofuels are an environmental atrocity, that developing a new generation of nuclear power will have a minimal impact on carbon emissions, and impose huge costs. None of this is of any interest to an administration lavishly funded by executives from these industries, some of whom serve in high level cabinet positions. Nor is the obvious truth that banking regulation is desperately needed to prevent future bailouts of any interest to the U.S. Senate. How could it be when "the bankers own the place" as Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard Durbin baldly stated?

Facts like need to be kept in mind when one hears a common refrain from my generation of activists which holds that our job is to "speak truth to power". That this slogan elicited anything other than a dismissive chortle is a pretty good indication of the dysfunctionality of the left for the last few generations. To restate the obvious, politics has nothing to do with confronting power with the truth. It is about confronting power period. That is, it is about figuring out what mechanisms are necessary to compete for, obtain and exercise state power in the public, as opposed to private, interest.

This is the uncomfortable truth which few of us could face, and it seems now that the viability of our species depends on your learning this lesson rather more quickly than we did.


And from this recognition stems a broader lesson which a generation of left political failure should have taught us: if political engagement doesn't make you a least a little uncomfortable, what you are doing is probably neither political nor engagement.

This is because political organizing has at its essential core forming alliances with others. And perhaps now more than ever in the Internet Balkanized pseudo-society we have become, these alliances will be required to be with those who are very foreign to us, who have certain attitudes and beliefs which are not only strange, but maybe even reprehensible (and the feeling will be mutual).

One does not learn the battery of social skills which are required from Mattick or Pannekoek--indeed a social barrier is erected by those who are only able to express their commitments, no matter how passionate, in the abstract jargon of political theory. The things "alienation", "social injustice", "oppression", and "exploitation" are, of course, well understood by the victims of each, but the terms need to be made off-limits for those who want to do something about them. For those who are the most victimized by power are naturally suspicious of those whose language betrays a second hand experience of politics, of politics as an abstraction. This, at least, is the main lesson of my brief political career worth passing on.

After a few years at school, you will become fluent in this language--the Esperanto which elites use to communicate with each other and which, by design, excludes others from the conversation. Your fluency in it will provide you prospects in careers able to pay you the salary you deserve, which is to say in mainstream (i.e. corporate funded) politics, establishment environmental organizations, think tanks, and what remains of the corporate media and publishing industries. And it will be natural for you to believe that you are making a contribution by providing your services. Only many years later will you realize that rather than undermining the institutions responsible for maintaining power and privilege, your efforts have served, usually unwittingly, to reinforce them.

This, to take the most glaring current example, is the reality which is now impinging on more than a few well-intentioned progressives who entered the Obama administration. Those in the Obama Justice Department are now presiding over the consolidation of the constitutional outrages initiated by the Bush justice department. Others, such as the Harvard's John Holdren are lending their credibility to an administration which quite deliberately scuttled the Copenhagen accords, possibly setting back the last hope for international agreement on climate change. Those working in the State Department, among them the human rights icon Samantha Powers, are signing off on the destabilization of constitutionally elected governments in Latin America, and the dramatically expanded projection of military force across the globe.

The system holds out numerous rewards to those who play the game and continue to play it and little for those who refuse to join in.

It is, unfortunately, not overly dramatic to claim that the future of our species may now depend on your not doing so.


But who am I to begrudge students a few halcyon years of passionate communion with the arts and ideas before confronting the grubby and dispiriting reality of an economy ravaged by recession, a planet in the terminal phase of its decline and, maybe worst of all, a sclerotic political system incapable of enacting even insignificant reforms and which--on contact--reduces the most sunny dispositions to abject cynicism.

This question came to mind most poignantly during a recent visit to a local book store.

A book in the children's section was called "Ten Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth."

While I'm not given to overt displays of emotion, for a few seconds, I found myself sobbing.

The almost inconceivable scale of the injustice which imposes on my four year old the responsibility for cleaning up so many messes of our making--environmental, economic and political--all the while bequeathing as our legacy the near complete destruction of those institutions through which the public interest could exert at least some positive influence.

It would seem as if the response to having been forced to contend with this panoply of atrocities ought to be simple rage--but the following thought experiment will convince one otherwise.

if someone, your roommate say, leaves a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, you might be inclined to issue a few words of angry protest.

But if a garbage truck pulls up to your home and unloads its entire contents on your front door step, Tony Soprano style, your first response will be mute incomprehension followed by cringing fear. Only much later will you think about what recourse is available to you.

This seems to be the explanation for our priorities being what they are.

In other words, we, your elders, or more precisely, the political, cultural and economic institutions responsible for the world which confronts you, have delivered to you the generational equivalent of a toxic waste dump on your collective doorsteps. It is a one from which you, and subsequent generations, may never succeed in remediating.

But if it is any consolation, there will be at least of few of us who are watching what you do with great interest, and ready and willing to put our aging shoulders to the wheel, if you can show us where it is.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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John Halle teaches music at the Bard College Conservatory. He is a former Green Party Alderman from New Haven, CT. He can be reached at


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