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Monday, Jul 26, 2004, 9:06 am

A Call to Somnambulance

By Brian Cook
Progressives still hoping to nurse their illusions that John Kerry can be governed from the left should be advised to skip a reading of Kerry's recently released "book," A Call To Service: My Vision For A Better America. As fiery political statements go, this thin pamphlet is barely tepid, offering nothing but the most mindless, market-approved and middle-of-the-road mush imaginable.

The best that can be said about A Call to Service is that at least Kerry is honest enough to let us know he has stopped thinking with the first chapter's opening line: "I am a child of the greatest generation of Americans and therefore a member of the most fortunate generation of Americans." (Here, one envisions Tom Brokaw, heart cockles a-tinglin', assenting with pursed lips and a solemn nod.)

Now if Kerry wants to solidify his standing with the elderly electorate that votes in droves, it's all right with me. But the least we can ask for then is some logical consistency. We don't get it. Indeed, on the very next page, Kerry informs us: "I see evidence that the children of the baby-boom generation have the right stuff...[their] skill and courage...match[ing] the best of my generation in the cold war and my parents' generation in the Second World War."

Whoa, wait a second here, John. We're only two pages in and I'm already getting confused. If the best of today's generation matches the best of the greatest generation then how can the greatest generation be the greatest? Aren't superlatives used to discriminate and acknowledge qualitative and quantitative difference? Admittedly, I didn't go to Yale, but I'm pretty sure about this. (And by the way, where do all those poor souls who were mustard-gassed and buried alive in tank-crushed trenches stand when compared to all us greatest generations? If you're too old or dead to vote or buy a bestseller does that mean you're off the love list? Man, Sergeant York has gotta be in his grave, spinning like a Sufi.)

To continue in this vein of critique would be a Sisyphean task, as most of the book is not so much a rational argument but instead a kind of literary Muzak, custom-designed to replace thought and reason with a harmless, pleasant sounding buzz that would disintegrate into the aether if faced with a hard question or raise of a discerning eyebrow. (This isn't entirely true: I must concede that Kerry's statements that he "bought a Harley-Davidson last year" and that he is "a charter member of...the NASCAR fans of Massachusetts" are, no doubt to the chagrin of the RNC hacks, pretty much unassailable.) It is worth parsing, however, one more patch of Kerry's placid prose to understand just how much work we have ahead of us should Kerry somehow get elected in spite of himself.

On page 34, after informing us that Americans should be proud of "the Bretton Woods family of international economic institutions" (and here, please appreciate the elliptical reference to the more well-known and widely reviled IMF and World Bank), Kerry goes on to say: "Thanks to American leadership, the world today has a strong democratic core-so strong that even protesters against globalization share many of the values that underline the policies they deplore."

To this, one can only shake one's head and moan, "Oh John, you magnificent bastard." For now, let's leave aside the painful fact that the IMF is one of the most anti-democratic institutions ever "legitimately" foisted upon humanity (with an 85 percent approval needed for all of its decisions and the United States accounting for a 17 percent bloc of its vote) and consider the rest of the sentence. It will certainly be news to the millions of protesters against globalization (the majority of whom are not Americans) that they owe their values to "American leadership." In Kerry's account, protesters who believe their pedigree includes the radical likes of Thomas Paine, Kate Richards O'Hare, Emiliano Zapata, Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, Victor Serge, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr. (all of whom were mistreated by the capricious venality of "American leadership") are fooling themselves and should instead be kneeling at the altar of gleeful warmakers like Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon.

Far worse than this bone-headed rewrite of radical history, however, is that condescending "even protesters against globalization." Kerry seems completely unaware that a large percentage of those groups that were tear gassed and beaten down by police truncheons in Seattle (in particular, labor unions and environmentalists) have been ceaselessly (and apparently meaninglessly) organizing on his behalf. But of course, who needs to think about the organizing efforts of tens of thousands of citizens when you have some 564 "Vice-Chairs" and "Co-Chairs" golden showering you with at least $40 million in fundraising? (Special thanks to Craig Aaron and the folks at WhiteHouseforSale.org for doing the work on this.)

None of these passages would be particularly surprising or disheartening if earlier samples of Kerry's writing had not been made available in Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty, which quotes much of Kerry's journals penned during the Vietnam War. It is of course ridiculous to expect what is essentially a politician's campaign stump speech to match in intensity or poignancy the private diary of a soldier acutely aware of his tenuous hold on mortality. Nevertheless, how depressing that in all of Kerry's "Vision for a Better America," not a vestige remains of the younger Kerry's description of lying low in a ditch during a firefight:

I was amazed at how detached I was from the whole scene. I just lay in the ditch, not firing because I wanted to save ammo and because I couldn't see what I was firing at and I thought about what was happening in New York at that very moment and if people really felt that I was doing something worthwhile while they went down to Schrafft's and had another ice cream sundae or while some fat little old man who made another million in the past months off defense contracts was charging another $100 call girl to his expense account. And then, when the shooting stopped, I came back to where I was.


Perhaps I'm being na??ve, but I would imagine that few presidential candidates, at any time during their lives, have had the epiphany that behind the happy fa??ade of a respectable businessman and innocent ice cream sundae lay an obscene pervert and a callous indifference to senseless slaughter. The John Kerry of 2004 seems determined to forget that behind the wind-swept ride on a chopper and the awesome spectacle of a NASCAR race one uncovers the same anti-logic directing our current campaign of carnage in Iraq. It is going to be up to us to remind him.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.

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