To those who feel the Bern,
This week I have been thinking a lot about Bernie Sanders, Theodore Roosevelt, Venezuela, and craft beer. Strange bedfellows I realize….
Let us first remember Theodore Roosevelt.
The man was a progressive in his time. In addition to believing in gender and racial equality the preeminent passion of his political career was the dramatic reform of the economic and political structure operating around him. As a New York Assemblyman, to the Governorship, to the Presidency, ‘Teddy’ fought tirelessly against the political ‘spoils system’ (read: legalized bribery) as well as the enormous power wielded by corporations. As you may imagine this made him decidedly unpopular with the establishment machine. Politicians growing fat on spoils, corporations tilting the dissemination of profits disproportionately in their favor, and of course the media, all tried to paint Roosevelt as an eccentric, a radical, and an agent of the fringe.
This may sound familiar…
Over a century later we face our own political spoils system, and our own corporate nightmare. In the face of a system which is at best breaking, at worst broken, the disenfranchised have finally found a voice, a champion, in one Bernie Sanders. But much like Roosevelt before him Bernie stands against the full weight an oligarchy none too interested in releasing their vice grip of control.
It is difficult for Bernie supporters to themselves not feel this weight daily. Corporate leaders, concerned for their monopoly on inequality, paint Bernie Sanders as dangerous. Political leaders, gazing upon bank accounts stuffed full of corporate donations, portray him as radical and unrealistic. And of course the corporate media, the oligarchy’s official department of propaganda, relentlessly present a depiction of Bernie as a destructive eccentric.
To withstand the onslaught of this coordinated barrage can be intimidating and exhausting. Even as support for Bernie among the people continues to grow there is always a subconscious questioning of the possible. How can we possibly hope to oppose an establishment which is so fantastically rich, so entrenched in the mechanisms of power, so ruthlessly uncompromising, and so unapologetically dishonest?
In pondering this quagmire I could not help but recall a story. It is an illustration of the voraciousness of the human spirit, and the smoldering potential of the multitude.
An elderly woman stands inside a small community grocery store in a barrio on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela. In her hand is a small bag of rice, there are tears in her eyes. On the back of the bag, as is the case with many household goods, is an excerpt from the new Venezuelan Constitution articulating the universal rights and freedoms which are to be shared by all members of the country. The woman, pressed on the significance of such a seemingly small gesture, illuminates its importance. “Before, I didn’t know we had rights like everyone else. We did not feel part of this society. This makes us feel included”.
This is not a story about the geopolitical in and outs of Venezuela in the 21st century. A reliance on oil as the country’s primary export combined with a colonial history and the aggressive economic antagonism of the United States has led to a complicated scenario well beyond the scope this piece. But what is not complicated is this — The election of Hugo Chavez as President in the late 1990’s led to the enfranchisement of an enormous portion of the population which had previously been ignored and discarded. Aside from a new Constitution which guaranteed universal rights and freedoms, Chavez enacted a large number of social reforms aimed at the nearly 50% of the country that lived in poverty. As a result, quality of life rose measurably, at nearly the fastest rate in the world, the poverty rate was cut in half, and Venezuela came to enjoy the lowest income inequality in Latin America. Because of this Chavez was beloved among a huge portion of the population, eventually winning 10 elections in 8 years. However there was an opposition to Chavez which came, predictably, from the ultra-rich Venezuelan elite and, more importantly, the United States. Of course I am not suggesting that the ‘average’ American sat at home on the couch stewing about what was to be done with the Venezuelan President. Rather I am referring to the huge multinational corporations and their representatives in the American government who were making billions of dollars on the oppression of millions of Venezuelan people. When in 2001 Chavez introduced legislation to reduce the control of American oil companies over the Venezuelan oil sector this conglomeration of American corporations and Venezuelan elite decided they’d had enough. They must remove Chavez.
Deep in the bowels of Venezuelan governmental headquarters a woman, a cabinet minister no longer, stares into a handheld camera. Her jaw is set firm but tears roll down her cheeks. Around her is a small group of men and women, some openly crying, others simply holding each other close. “This is a coup” she implores, her eyes filled with a pleading desperation. “This is a coup! Let the world know!”
On April 9, 2002 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was removed from power by an American backed, funded, and organized coup d’etat. This is unfortunately not a conspiracy theory but rather a well documented and, tragically, well repeated piece of American foreign policy. The strategy of this coup was to have Chavez sign his resignation at gunpoint, but when he refused he was simply kidnapped and whisked out of the country. As in previous cases, the overthrow of a democratically elected leader was done to protect corporate profits while the event was presented in the American media as a glorious uprising of the Venezuelan people. The following morning Venezuela’s new military dictator gave a speech announcing the obliteration of the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution. As he spoke, the room full of light-skinned Venezuelan elite stood and cheered “Democracy! Democracy! Democracy!”
But then, a funny thing happened. As word began to spread that Chavez had not in fact resigned, that their champion had not abandoned them, ‘regular’ Venezuelans began to pour into the streets. Out of the hillside barrios and neighborhood shops came a flood of humanity like ants out of an ant hill. Buses began to arrive from the countryside carrying even more people. Soon the streets surrounding the Venezuelan governmental headquarters were filled in every direction with people as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of thousands singing, banging pots, waving flags, and locking arms. Their intention was simple yet clear. They would not accept this corporate decree being imposed upon them. They would stand in the streets until their man Chavez was returned.
In the middle of the night the sound of a helicopter echoed overhead through the darkness. Immediately the people intuitively knew what their eyes would soon confirm. A great cheer went through the crowd as the helicopter descended. This mass of peasants, farmers, and laborers had opposed the mighty corporations and their American governmental puppets using nothing more than their hearts, their voices, and their existence. And they had won. Chavez had been returned.
It is undeniable that the gradual creep of corporate oligarchy over the United States has become somewhat of a sprint. From Flint, Michigan to Ferguson, Missouri the power structure and their ambitions are the same. And almost universally we cannot count on our corporate funded political system to protect us, or the corporate media to inform us. We do not call CNN the ‘Clinton News Network’ because we are masochistic but simply because it is an apt analogy. And like the allegory of the frog in the water the heat has been increased so consistently that we now face a system in which the mechanisms of power are so thoroughly controlled and manipulated as to seem overwhelming.
But then I start to think of the thousands of Americans who took to the streets on a weekend in support of Bernie Sanders, the first ever nation-wide march for a presidential candidate. I think of the well over 3 million individual campaign donations Bernie has received thus far, often for only a few dollars. And, curiously, I think of the craft beer boom in the United States.
I picture a scene where someone sits drinking a Budweiser, or some other ‘brand name’ beer, quietly displeased with the taste but drinking none the less because it is there. One day, as I imagine it, they mutter out loud their distaste for the beer, at which point the person next to them, expressing their surprise at finding a kindred spirit, agrees. Soon a whole group of people gather around, shocked to find so many who had been privately harboring the same thoughts within their own minds. An idea comes over the group; Why don’t we make our own beer?
When I first heard Bernie Sanders say “the system is rigged”, my eyes nearly fell out of my head. Here was a legitimate presidential candidate saying out loud what had been in my mind for so long. I imagine that many people had this same epiphany. And now, despite the desperate and transparent attempts at sabotage by the establishment power structure, millions are joining Bernie Sanders. It is no longer a dirty secret to hold inside, that the system is mutilated and broken, no longer by the people for the people. Finally many are feeling like it can be fixed , like there is an avenue to reconstruction. Bernie Sanders is not a demigod, but he is the representation of the fermented frustration of millions of the exploited.
The path is clear. When the establishment power structure tries viciously to sabotage Bernie Sanders do not look upon their attempts with intimidation or even anger. Rather see these attempts for what they are — the last pitiful kicks of an oligarchy whose power is being wrestled away. In response to each establishment subterfuge replace anger with action. Donate a couple of dollars to the Sanders campaign. Phone bank for Bernie. Most importantly educate yourself and spread this education to friends and family. Talk to them about Bernie Sanders and about the crucial point in history at which we have arrived.
Remember — They have billions of dollars, but we have millions of people.
Feel the Bern.