September 20, 2008

A Time Bereft of Heroes

An unusually revealing spectacle is now playing out before us, and an historically rare opportunity. A presidential election campaign occurs just as a major economic crisis unfolds. This is the moment when women and men of great courage make themselves known, particularly if they propose actions that are contrary to those that already appear to have gained wide acceptance. Whether such heroes appear tells us a great deal about the tenor of an age.

Heroes on this scale have appeared very rarely in American life, but they are not unknown. This is part of the story of one such hero:
ON March 25, 1921, at the age of sixty-five, Robert M. La Follette Sr. took the greatest risk of his long political career. Four years after he chose to lead the Congressional opposition to World War I, La Follette was still condemned in Washington and in his native state of Wisconsin as a traitor or--at best--an old man whose political instincts had finally failed him. But La Follette was not ready to surrender the U.S. Senate seat he had held since leaving Wisconsin's governorship in 1906. He wanted to return to Washington to do battle once more against what he perceived to be the twin evils of the still young century: corporate monopoly at home and imperialism abroad.

The reelection campaign that loomed just a year off would be difficult, he was told, perhaps even impossible. Old alliances had been strained by La Follette's lonely refusal to join in the war cries of 1917 and 1918. To rebuild them, the Senator's aides warned, he would have to abandon his continued calls for investigations of war profiteers and his passionate defense of socialist Eugene Victor Debs and others who had been jailed in the postwar Red Scare.

The place to backpedal, La Follette was told, would be in a speech before the crowded Wisconsin Assembly chamber in Madison. Moments before the white-haired Senator climbed to the podium on that cold March day, he was warned one last time by his aides to deliver a moderate address, to apply balm to the still-open wounds of the previous years, and, above all, to avoid mention of the war and his opposition to it.

La Follette began his speech with the formalities of the day, acknowledging old supporters and recognizing that this was a pivotal moment for him politically. Then, suddenly, La Follette pounded the lectern. "I am going to be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate," he declared, as the room shook with the thunder of a mighty orator reaching full force. Stretching a clenched fist into the air, La Follette bellowed: "I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."

The crowd sat in stunned silence for a moment before erupting into thunderous applause. Even his critics could not resist the courage of the man; indeed, one of his bitterest foes stood at the back of the hall, with tears running down his cheeks, and told a reporter: "I hate the son of a bitch. But, my God, what guts he's got."

This was the La Follette that his friend Emma Goldman referred to lovingly as "the finest, most inconsistent anarchist" of his time. This was the man so fierce in his convictions that he would risk consignment to political oblivion rather than abandon an unpopular position. The antithesis of the elected officials whose compromises characterize our contemporary condition, La Follette genuinely believed that the inheritors of America's revolutionary tradition would, if given the truth, opt not for moderation but for the most radical of solutions.
The cowards of today who pose as political leaders would do very well to take many lessons from La Follette's story. At this particular moment, one lesson is especially relevant: La Follette won reelection overwhelmingly.

You can read about Robert La Follette, and about another extraordinary man, Thomas B. Reed, here: "No One Is Safe: The Ruling Class Unleashed"; and there is more about La Follette here: "Learn This Lesson Now: How to Fight -- and Win."

A great drama will play out in Washington over the next several days. I should more accurately say, a great drama could play out. It will not. There is not a single national leader who possesses even a tenth of the immense courage and bravery demonstrated by La Follette over the course of many years. In the midst of the collective insanity that led to the United States' entrance into World War I -- a catastrophic decision whose effects the world still feels a century later -- La Follette was almost driven from the Senate as a traitor. Is there a single politician who would take such risks today?

Our culture drowns us in the shabby, the cowardly, the pathetic, and the detestable. Men and women of vision and courage need not apply. If they did, they would almost certainly be destroyed. Those dramas that we witness would embarrass the worst of fifth-rate hacks.

I expect the Democrats to extract certain modifications and perhaps make a few additions to the monumentally destructive plan proposed by the Bush Administration. The final plan may be marginally less awful than in its current form -- but it will remain entirely awful.

Most Americans would not even recognize a La Follette or a Reed if such a person appeared today. And so no such person will appear.

In cultural and political terms, we get what we ask for, and what we deserve. We will get it in spades in the coming week, and in the years to come.