On Doug Henwood’s piece about Hillary Clinton

Published online 29 October 2014.

(also to be found at Firedoglake.com)

There has so far been a good deal of controversy about Doug Henwood’s piece (“Stop Hillary“) excoriating Hillary Clinton in the most recent Harper’s magazine (November 2014), and now that this issue can be purchased in newsstands, I feel permitted to comment upon the Henwood piece and the debate so far.  Much of this debate dates back to before the Harper’s issue appeared in stores — many of the commentators must either 1) have Harper’s subscriptions or 2) be able to access the piece online somehow.  At any rate, this is a summary of the conversation that has occurred so far.

The thesis of Henwood’s piece is in black and white in front: the world is about to experience global warming disaster, and the economy is clearly ailing, but from Hillary Clinton one can expect more of the same.  “And that shouldn’t surprise us,” we are told on page 31.  So what’s wrong with business as usual?  Henwood:

Today we desperately need a new political economy — one that features a more equal distribution of income, investment in our rotting social and physical infrastructure, and a more humane ethic.  We also need a judicious foreign policy, and a commander-in-chief who will resist the instant gratification of air strikes and rhetorical bluster.Is Hillary Clinton the answer to those prayers?  It’s hard to think so, despite the widespread liberal fantasy of her as a progressive paragon, who will follow through exactly as Barack Obama did not.  In fact, a close look at her life and career is perhaps the best antidote to all those great expectations.

So what does Henwood say about Hillary Clinton’s life and career?  Her father was an “authoritarian drillmaster” (32).  She was exposed to Martin Luther King, Jr., but campaigned for Goldwater in 1964.  Saul Alinsky offered her an organizing job, and she rejected the offer for law school.  She argued a case for business interests against ACORN over a ballot measure “that would lower electricity rates for residential users in Little Rock and raise them for commercial users.”  (33)  She tried to organize a health care initiative that was “very high-minded, and good for her image, but of limited impact.”  She supported the Welfare Bill of 1996.  She was involved, with Bill, in what was later to be called the Whitewater scandal.  She passed a lot of symbolic legislation as a Senator from New York, while “mak(ing) friends with her Republican colleagues.” (36)  She “backed an escalation of the Afghanistan war, lobbied on behalf of a continuing military presence in Iraq, urged Obama to bomb Syria, and supported the intervention in Syria.” (37)  There is a summary of this piece at Huffington Post.

Henwood, then, portrays Hillary Clinton as a standard-issue neoliberal, and so if we are to judge her from her record we can expect a standard-issue Democratic Party neoliberal, with lots of symbolism and status quo substance.

I have yet to see a point-by-point encounter with this piece that refutes its factual statements.  Oh, sure, Gene Lyons attempted a takedown of Henwood, but Lyons focused upon Henwood’s mentioning of Blackwater (oops!  I mean Whitewater), ignoring most of the substance of Henwood’s piece, and he did so in a way that did not quite establish a direct clash with Henwood’s stylistic criticism of Hillary’s penchant for secrecy and evasion.  Max Sawicky responds to this.

Scott Lemieux thinks that “there’s a good Clinton critique waiting to be written (but that) this ain’t it.”  I am not convinced by Lemieux’s dismissal.  In dealing with Henwood’s critique of the status quo Lemieux praises Obama’s record on the environment.  Obama has done a few nice, symbolic things for the cause of Obama as an environmental President, such as are well critiqued in ThinkProgress by Joseph Romm.  Maybe that’s all he can do.  Should we expect more from Hillary Clinton?

Salon has a piece on Henwood’s article which features an interview with Doug Henwood.  He says he wrote the piece “to throw a stink bomb into liberals’ [sense of] certainty.” Here Henwood argues about Hillary’s life that “she went from a youthful semi-radicalism (she was never a real ’60s radical) to a sort of early-middle-aged conservatism, at least in style and temperament, pretty quickly.”  And, as regards the bigger picture:

…this is really not the kind of politics we need for our present situation, which is: structural economic stagnation, polarization, climate change and all these very profound structural challenges [and] I think the “business as usual” [approach] that Hillary and much of her party represents is not up to the task.

Steven Rosenfeld, in his summary of the Henwood piece on Alternet, wants to know:

What’s missing from the pages of  Harper’s is what the public most wants to know: what has Hillary learned over the years? How has it shaped her character? Has it made her wiser in the ways of the world? Or is the pre-2016 Hillary a figure who thrives inside a well-protected bubble, who goes through too many stage-managed motions, and is little more than a screen into which people project their hopes?

Is this last question a rhetorical question?  The bubble exists, protecting the elites of Wall Street and DC from the consequences of their actions, and the projections appear on television screens all the time.  As for being “wiser in the ways of the world,” we might ask, wiser at which ways?The Wall Street Journal discusses Henwood’s piece, but only as gossip.  The New York Observer ran a piece that cites Henwood’s article in passing, while asking what happens if Hillary Clinton doesn’t run.  Lincoln Mitchell tells us:

Most recent polls show that more than 60% of Democrats support her over the other possible candidates and that she leads the second most popular candidate, either Vice President Joseph Biden or Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts by more than 50 points. The Ready for Hillary PAC, a kind of proto-campaign organization, has raised and spent millions of dollars, far outpacing the campaign organizations of other Democratic candidates. Many high profile Democratic leaders, as well as various liberal organizations, are poised to endorse Ms. Clinton as soon as she announces her candidacy.

So it seems pretty inevitable at this point: the 2016 Presidential election will feature a Clinton running against a Bush.  This, I suppose, is a story, but in the same sense in which the absence of rain in southern California is a story.  No change is news, so here we are.

Invariably, people reading this stuff will ask, “so what do we do?”  On one level the question is funny: omigod we gotta DO SOMETHING!  Let’s go out and do something ineffective.  Will some other candidate arise to challenge Hillary Clinton?  Maybe not.  The first task of critical thinking is to ask: will our actions grant us the results we hope in performing them?  And how do we know if they will or won’t?

Then what’s the point of Henwood’s article? some have asked.  Why are Henwood and Sawicky and others criticizing Clinton if they’re going to vote for her anyway?  The wish for something more radical does not have to start out as an immutable force changing history, and it may fail anyway.  Understanding that truth, though, may require more advanced critical thinking.

Other critics of Henwood recognize his radical content and say omigod he’s a RADICAL!  He wants a hippie President!  Quick!  Let’s distance ourselves from him.  However, radicalism is essential if we are to understand how our actions are informed by our history — and that’s basically what Henwood wants to get at, whether or not the individual details of his Harper’s piece survive scrutiny.

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