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Sunday, March 04, 2007

DISSENT: Promoting the Left

With the presidential election season off to an early start, it's useful to get some background information from serious political journals like Dissent. This venerable leftist quarterly was founded in the tumultuous early 1950s, and was edited by Irving Howe until his death in 1993.

Dissent is published by the Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the Vatican City of the intellectual American left.

The table of contents of the Winter issue reflects the current preoccupations of Washington and the presidential candidates. Foreign policy problems dominate the journal's meticulously edited 144 pages, and the Middle East is the focus of many of the articles.

Iran gets the main cover headline, as Dissent presents a brave speech given at the Iranian Center for Strategic Research in Tehran last year by Joschka Fischer, the former foreign minister of Germany. It's the first time the speech has been published in English.

The topic he addresses is the European community's take on the Iranian government's apparent efforts to develop nuclear weapons. He also cites its leader's call for the annihilation of Israel and what are perceived as rampant violations of human rights and women's rights within that strongly Muslim country.

Fischer's warning to the Iranians to cool their military ambitions and rhetoric in the region is unequivocal. He recalls the German experience trying to challenge the European balance of power system twice during the first half of the twentieth century. Both attempts ended disastrously. "What was our strategic mistake?" he asks. "We followed hegemonial aspirations that relied on military might and prestige, and we miscalculated the anti-hegemonial instincts of Europe. And twice we underestimated the strategic potential, the power, and the political will and decisiveness of the United States."

The health and future of the left in American politics is very much on the minds of the editors of Dissent. The burning question is whether the precipitous fall in popularity of the Bush administration over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other issues, means a resurgence of the left wing of the Democratic party.

Dissent's co-editor, Michael Walzer, doesn't think so. He writes that the Democratic left wing "is doing the best it can, I guess, given poll data that strongly suggest that if it prevails, the party will lose the next presidential election." He continues, "My views about the Democratic Party are simple: I want it to win, because any Democratic victory would be a setback for the far right."

Sociologist Frances Fox Pliven contributes an interesting short history of the traditional American left, an amalgam of labor unions and a powerful Democratic party that dominated urban America and the South. She calls it the "New Deal Left." That's pretty much gone now, she writes, as business elements have combined with "the populist right"―read Christian fundamentalists and those unhappy with gains made by African-Americans and women―to control a resurgent Republican party and the American South. Pliven sees the best hope for a new left movement in the antiwar movement, coupled with the unmet social and economic aspirations of racial minorities and women.

Political scientist Sheila Croucher writes about the town of San Miguel Allende, nestled in the mountains of central Mexico. In recent years this beautiful community has been largely taken over by as many as 12,000 foreigners, mostly retired Americans, who have moved there because dollars go a long way in Mexico. Americans with even modest resources can buy a nice house and employ a maid. Everybody in San Miguel speaks English. The Mexicans have mostly sold their houses to the rich foreigners and now live outside the town.

Croucher contrasts this with the opposite movement of younger Mexicans over the American border, and wonders if an American crackdown on Mexican immigrants will have repercussions on the Americans in San Miguel, many of whom work illegally within the town as architects, psychotherapists, financial advisers and the like.

They're not all senior citizens. Croucher says an increasing number are young professionals whose high-tech skills enable them to provide services to American companies from very well-equipped offices in their homes. No one has to know where they live. They use Voice Over Internet Phone services from companies like Vonage that allow them to choose an American area code when they dial out.

She adds that most Americans maintain post office boxes in Laredo, Texas, and have companies forward mail to their San Miguel homes. That way they can continue to get Medicare benefits, Netflix videos, eBay shipments and American magazines without postal and bureaucratic hassles.

I was surprised to read that "Pinche Bush" buttons are popular in San Miguel Allende. The polite translation given is "Screw Bush."

An annual subscription to Dissent (four issues) is $20.00 from the publisher. We'll be happy to send you a sample copy for $2.59.

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