A warm, late October day rapidly cooled as early dusk drained to darkness. Playa Vista’s Central Park bandshell was jumping, half pep rally, half rock concert. A thumping dance mix blared from an eardrum pounding speaker topping a towering tripod ten feet away. Eager Sandernistas, many wearing Feel the Bern t-shirts, were streaming into the meadow that nuzzled the bandshell stage. Bouncing and dancing with anxious energy, the joyful crowd waited to see, hear, and cheer their champion: Bernie Sanders was in the house.
Journalists were in the house, too. Self-appointed eyes and ears, journalists are supposedly objective cans tied to media strings connecting on the other end to cans of those who can’t be present. Sanders’s national profile had drawn a more-than-usual cohort of reporter cans to a local political event, and Karen Bass’s campaign organizers had packed us tightly into a press pen placed stage right of the bandshell. Movement restricted by video, photo, and sound equipment, cold hands stuffed in pockets, eardrums pummeled by discordant disco driven by the over-amped speaker, we could see to our left the bandshell’s stage and to our right the excited crowd.
Which whooped as Vermont’s three-term, junior Senator bestrode the stage and approached the microphone. Screw objectivity. In the deepening fall chill, I too wanted to feel the Bern.
In Vermont, Sanders runs as an Independent, but he caucuses with Senate Democrats, and he calls himself a Democratic Socialist. A Democratic Socialist is a socialist, but in anti-socialist America, a socialist candidate hoping to win a general election uses a modifier, a softener, in this case Democratic. It’s a genuflection to political reality: No socialist candidate can survive the toxic vendetta that America’s Knights Templar of capitalism, suffering sorely from FDRPTSD (Franklin Delano Roosevelt Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), feeling under-appreciated and badly used, have relentlessly pursued for nearly one hundred years.
Capitalists defend their rabid anti-socialism as tough love, harsh, yes, but necessary to ween us from our addiction to character-weakening, morality-undermining government handouts. For our own good, they have spent ungodly sums of their own money in an altruistic effort to show us that socialism is of the devil. Sad to say, they have succeeded. Far too many of us now believe that socialism, once a vibrant and thriving American third party, is deviant, treasonous, and evil. Some Americans believe that socialists, and by association liberals and Democrats, are literally the devil’s spawn. Those of us burdened with social consciences watch with frustration, sadness, and anger, knowing that those who’ve been brain-drained into knee-jerk anti-socialism are the ones it would benefit most.
Anti-socialists have pulled off a neat rhetorical trick: Their propaganda has positioned Marxism, not so much a separate ism as a critique and analysis of socialism, as socialism’s evil twin, then implied that socialism was a gateway drug that seduced naïve do-gooders into a more toxic Marxist cult. For many of us, Marxism stirs images of mirthless, endomorphic Comrades rocking Moe Howard haircuts while dressed in ill-fitting, drab uniforms and singing endless, monotonous choruses of Song of the Volga Boatmen. Socialism stirs images of earnest union organizers in overalls imploring workers to strike, accompanied by Pete Seeger on the banjo leading sincere choruses of Good Night, Irene, If I Had A Hammer and This Land Is Your Land. Democratic Socialism, though, stirs images of sturdy cars, sparkling Nordic fjords, modern furniture, and cool, willowy, glowingly healthy young Scandinavians wearing loose-fitting cottons and, innocent, welcoming smiles exposing improbably white teeth, singing happily harmonious choruses of Fernando, Mamma Mia, and Dancing Queen
For socialist candidates, there’s no getting around it. After the Hundred Years’ Anti-Socialist’s War, today’s socialist candidates must, if their candidacies are to survive, add the soft-focus filter Democratic.
Though in the rest of the world there are variants of socialism, in America, calling it Democratic Socialism is just marketing, a distinction without a difference. Practically speaking, the golem with which the far right frightens their young is less a defined political philosophy than it is, as the economist Dr. Richard Wolff describes it, a longing for something more, for something better than capitalism’s rising tide indifferently provides those without boats.
The Democratic Socialist Party does present a platform that, after touting Bass, Sanders articulated: universal health care, free tuition at public colleges and universities, cancelling student debt, freeing minorities from the terrorism of the War on Drugs (and the resulting—and intended—carceral state), doubling the federal hourly minimum wage to $15.00, reopening the two-party system, ending America’s endless war, curbing big tech, restructuring the economy so it serves the boatless also, and meaningfully addressing climate change so the boatless don’t drown in the rising tide. In other words—call them crazy—responsible government that promotes the general welfare, not just the welfare of the rich.
As short day journeyed into night, I held my phone in cold fingers and recorded Sanders listing the benefits of government for the rest of us. During his-25-minute talk (which was briefly heckled by a pair of conservative dildos), I occasionally turned to scan the mostly young crowd, rapt faces drained of color by third-degree lighting. Despite considerable contrary evidence, Sandernistas keep the faith. (But isn’t faith a steadfast belief when confronted by contrary evidence?) They believe, because Sanders believes, that there exists a viable path to something more, something better, and that, like a wagon-master leading Conestogas to western promised lands, Sanders, a Jewish Pied Piper, will lead them to something better than the raw deal they’re getting from a failing capitalism’s failing them.
Feeling the Burn
And then a wave of profound regret, sorrow, and fear washed over me: regret at the tarnishing—on my watch!—of a once-shiny American future, sorrow for my nieces and nephews trapped in today because they can’t afford tomorrow, and fear for the color-drained joyfuls in front of me believing that it’s possible to change this country’s trajectory. I was rattled, disorientated, dislocated in time, stunned, as though I were seeing the last of a species, the last polar bear, the last magnificent humpbacked whale surfacing and spouting its final breath. I felt simultaneously inside and outside the scene, inside and outside history. It felt like nostalgia, but for something that wasn’t yet a memory.
Looking at the pallid faces focused on the Bern, I felt like I was seeing the restless ghosts of the disappeared (los desaparecidos), those many missing Latin Americans who’d been vanished by their countries’ dictators (dictadores). One way we express cognitive dissonance is by converting intransitive verbs—they vanished—into awkward transitives—they vanished them—only here I was seeing them before they’d been disappeared. My anxiety was especially acute because, while committing journalism in Latin America, I had seen the many memory holes los desaparecidos had left behind.
But even without direct experience, most sentient Americans who grew up during the Cold War remember the horrors associated with names like Somoza, Pinochet, Batista, Duvalier, Stroessner. All brutal dictadores and heads of juntas whom the US government, at the behest of American capitalists and their corporations, hand-picked and put in power.
Among those dictadores most terrifying tactics was the joy-destroying desaparición de personas (disappearing people). Relatives, neighbors, friends who were there one day, sitting at their usual café tables in their usual chairs, smoking, arguing, laughing, but were gone the next, their tables and chairs vacant. Children, wives, husbands gone without word or trace. Never seen again. Literally ghosted. One mother told me, Lo más difícil es que nunca dejas de buscar. La esperanza nunca termina. (The hardest part is that you never stop looking. The hope never ends.) Definitive numbers are hard to come by—It’s daunting to count people who are not there—but estimates of los desaparecidos climb into the hundreds of thousands.
But that was then and there; this was now and here.
Much of foreign- and war-correspondent reporting is misery mining. That is particularly true in Latin America, a steady source rich with thick veins of misery ore that seem never to peter out. American journalists (periodistas) fly in, harvest horror, fly home: There but for luck go I; now I get to go. We get home, go to our air-conditioned offices, process the raw misery into words, submit them, then go out for a few, or more than a few, drinks. We confess our pity to spouses, friends, like-minded coworkers, but it’s shallow. Misery miners dig, document, drink to forget, then eagerly dash out on the next assignment. Maybe it’s not misery miners; maybe it’s misery addiction.
Objectivity—disengagement—is a journalistic sacrament, but it multitasks: For readers and viewers, supposed journalistic objectivity provides a sense of credibility; for reporters it provides a carapace that keeps complicity at bay. We watch the suffering and document it for profit, both ours and our employers’, while doing nothing to alleviate it, much less to stop it. Journalistic objectivity is a get out of guilt free card, an easy to play card that allows us to tell ourselves that by getting the word out, we’re helping to bring change. It’s delusional. We know, from observing over time, that nothing changes: same shit, different country. We know, too, that everything we submit serves the media owners’ agendas, or goes unreported. More often than not, American-style journalistic objectivity is a cynical euphemism for collusion.
Nowhere is that clearer than Latin America. But it’s not just American journalists who were complicit in Latin American terror, not just American journalists who colluded during the heyday of south of the border disappearing acts. It was our—all of our—taxes at work: 20th-century Latin American political violence was driven by American capitalists and funded by the US government. Almost all of us (except Noam Chomsky) were disengaged and complicit. Yes, some of us protested, but most of us, if we thought about it at all, thought about it as happening elsewhere, to others. Everything we knew about it was mediated, filtered, soft-focused. We saw it but didn’t see it, didn’t grok it. We experienced it as we experience fiction, as though watching movies or TV shows. In it but not of it. On some level we knew it was real, but at the same time it kind of wasn’t; it was happening behind the flickering screen of the best propaganda device ever invented (until came the internet).
When we heard about US-funded and -trained (please take a moment to Google School of the Americas) policía secreta arresting, torturing, murdering, and desapareciendo disidentes, we chose to believe that those people were subversivos, radicales, revolucionarios, posed a threat to their country’s stability and common good. It was regrettable, but poverty-ridden, unstable places couldn’t afford to tolerate troublemakers. Those people had brought it on themselves. They had to have done something. No government would torture, murder, and desaparecer its own people without reason. Wait: There’s a reason a government would torture, murder, and desaparecer its own people?
We saw them. On the news. Walter Cronkite—so it had to be true—showed us skinny, wild-eyed, undisciplined, dirty, masked rebeldes wearing tattered uniforms, carrying hand-drawn signs telling gringos—us—to go home. They hated us, stomped and burned our flag. Burned cars! What kind of people burn cars? They rode around in the backs of battered Japanese pickups waving and shooting Russian-made machine guns (AK47s, the first machinegun any of us knew by name) into the air. They blew up shoppers and ambushed government soldiers, massacring them in their sleep. They were insane. Their governments had to stop them. And best to stop them there; we sure didn’t want them here, in our backyards, raping our women. What we never saw, what Cronkite never showed us, were pictures of pervasive poverty, battered and broken bodies, mass graves, piles of corpses left behind after government soldiers, using American-made machine guns (M16s, Colt), massacred entire villages because some official somewhere, maybe in America, said those villagers were supporting the rebeldes marxista.
And anyway this was all happening elsewhere, in lands with names like El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, Colombia—names that sounded, well, kind of español–y nd that were populated, as we could plainly see, by dark-skinned, malnourished people small enough to fit inside our TVs, people who picked coffee and couldn’t speak English. And anyway what exactly were we supposed to do about it?
That evening at the bandshell, watching the washed-out faces of starry-eyed Sandernistas basking in the Bern’s Democratic Socialism, I remembered seeing the same starry eyes at Sandinista rallies in Managua. It occurred to me (better late than never) that those Latin American desaparecidos might not have been disidentes, subversivos, revolucionarios, rebeldes after all. Might not have posed a threat to the common good. Threats they’d been, but not to the common good, only to the good of the feudal autocrats running their country. They’d been threats to those autocrats’ sense of their places in the universe: Who am I if I’m not better than them?) They’d been threats to los estilos de vida—the lifestyles—of the rich and infamous. They’d been threats to el status quo.
They’d been threats enough to justify autocrats terrorizing, torturing, imprisoning, murdering, and desapareciendo wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, madres, padres, tias, tios, students, periodistas, abogados, teachers, doctores, nuns, priests, alcaldes. And not only so that el rico y poderoso (the rich and powerful) could maintain sus estilos de vida, but also because they were told to by los americanos, by the US military, by US politicians, by executives of United Fruit, Chevron, Philip Morris, et al, by los capitalistas americano driven to moral madness by the mere thought of lower profits, of having to share—because at the end of the day, socialism is simply sharing—what they’d taken from Alicia in plunderland. For los capitalistas americanos, having to share was a fate worse than debt. To avoid that fate, los capitalistas americanos were willing to hire Latin American contract killers (using our money).
As I gazed at the not-yet-ghosts by the bandshell, I realized with dismay that los desaparecidos had been threats exactly like these fifteen hundred joyful Sandernistas were threats to those same American capitalists (or their children, people with names like Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Eric). Like the Latin American seekers of more who had been desaparecido, these Sandernistas were not troublemakers, not rebels, not revolutionaries. They were just people wanting better lives.
In Latin America, that longing, that nostalgia, had been declared a crime that encompassed disidencia: talking about, voting for, and trying to get others to vote for more, trying to get others to see that another way to live was possible and was in reach. But then, because radically changing the future requires radically changing the present, los desaparecidos had come to be seen as threats to el status quo, and that made them amenazas existenciales (existential threats). Disidencia had become a capital offense.
Disappearing America Series:
Disappearing America: Feeling the Bern—Part 1
Monday, 28 November 2022
Disappearing America: The Red Menace—Part 2
Tuesday, 29 November 2022
Disappearing America: I Was Objective When I Started—Part 3
Wednesday, 30 November 2022
Disappearing America: It’s Only Faire—Part 4
Thursday, 1 December 2022
Disappearing America: More For Me—Part 5
Friday, 2 December 2022
Disappearing America: Indoctrination Nation—Part 6
Saturday, 3 December 2022
America Disappeared: What We Could Have Been Doing in the Shadows—Part 7
Friday, 4 December 2022