Considering the alternatives

alt.speech: Some lump Sacramento News & Review under the banner of the “alternative press.” Those who defy traditional forms of speech or dress are said to pursue “alternative lifestyles.” Thinkers whose ideas aren’t carried by the biggest publishers or political parties are labeled “alternative views.” But “alternative” is a label that raises a question: Alternative to what?

Voices of the status quo like to deride the term by answering the question with something like: alternative to good or reasonable. But such an answer proclaims our country’s present course to be good and reasonable. By considering alternatives, we question our worldview, defining our country’s actions by the very question we consider: Alternative to what?

Bites has spent some time pondering that question over the last week, after listening to several leading “alternative” voices, people such as historian and social critic Gore Vidal, Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis Lapham, the Hoover Institute’s Thomas Moore and Green Party gubernatorial nominee Peter Miguel Camejo.

These first three—along with Robert Higgs of The Independent Institute and Stanford professor Barton Bernstein—spoke last Thursday at San Francisco’s historic Herbst Theater, where the charter creating the United Nations was signed in 1945, appropriately enough.

The topic was “Understanding America’s Terrorist Crisis: What Should be Done?” and the panel offered an understanding of the situation that was sharply divergent from this country’s dominant storyline since September 11, an alternative portrait of America the Great.

The main American premise holds that we are a strong and benevolent nation, admired around the world for our freedoms and values. Sure, we sometimes make mistakes or do bad things, but our hearts are basically in the right place, and because our stated ends are noble (freedom, justice, the American way), we can justify any means (bombing, bugging, bribery).

But the alternative voices question such self-satisfaction, labeling it as dangerously delusional. This “alternative” perspective is the niggling voice of doubt that seeks to crack our collective denial, and to force us to look into a different mirror than the one our president is holding up for us.

They remind us that the U.S. has militarized the world, training and arming dangerous men like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein that we must later attack, praising the “rule of law” and international standards of conduct when they benefit us and our allies, but ignoring them when they don’t.

Why, for example, do we go to war to enforce a United Nations resolution condemning Iraq while subverting for nearly 30 years an equally forceful resolution condemning Israel’s occupation of other countries? How can we righteously proclaim the moral authority of international law while attempting to block creation of an international court?

Such questions are no longer the sole purview of angry young radicals, no longer easy to dismiss as the fantasies of naïve idealists. The Herbst crowd—which overflowed from the main auditorium and a closed circuit viewing area—was mostly older, educated, well-dressed, paying $20 a head to hear about our country’s alternatives.

Neither is “alternative” synonymous with liberalism, because Moore’s Hoover Institute is regarded as a predominantly conservative think tank. It is the ideologically neutral idea that the people in power—the two major parties and the country’s richest individuals and corporations—might just be manipulating popular opinion for personal gain.

And, there are alternatives …

Green machine: The morning after the Vidal event in The City, head still ringing with his calls to end America’s “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” Bites had a phone interview with Camejo, the gubernatorial alternative to Gray Davis and Bill Simon.

“I think the United States is extremely isolated in the world and the American people are totally unaware of it,” Camejo said, echoing the previous night’s voices. He, too, said the American people were being manipulated into thinking there are no viable alternatives to our current course.

One way that is done is by the illusion of American democracy. The two major parties discuss their differences on a narrow band of issues, creating the appearance of honest debate while shutting out and marginalizing figures who try to talk about entirely different issues, with full complicity of the mainstream media.

Ralph Nader is still demonized as the spoiler who gave us President Bush II, the sequel, rather than someone who tried to widen the political dialogue. A similar fate awaits Camejo, who Democrats say threatens to hand the governor’s office over to the right wing’s Simon unless progressives swallow their issues and vote for Davis.

Left undiscussed is that a subtle electoral tweak like instant runoff elections could instantly kill such spoiler arguments and let people vote for whomever addressed their issues, rather than the lesser of major party evils. These are some of the alternatives we don’t talk about while rehashing the abortion debate for the millionth time.

Camejo was raised in Venezuela, so he watched in resigned disbelief as the Bush administration supported the military coup d’etat that temporarily ousted democratically elected President Hugo Chavez from office last week—implicitly by its public condemnations of Chavez, if not explicitly behind closed doors.

Of course, this country has a long history of proclaiming support for democracy while undermining it in Latin America, something so common it goes unexamined by the American people and media. Hell, in the days after the failed coup, the revelation that top U.S. officials had met with the conspiring Venezuelan generals about their impending coup plans was a small story buried in the middle of the Sacramento Bee.

But Venezuela holds other important lessons beyond being one more example of American hypocrisy. Chavez wasn’t a member of either of that country’s two major political parties, and he was shunned by the country’s media and power structure. Yet as popular discontent with the status quo grew, he was swept into office in a landslide election.

Camejo, who made a name for himself during the 1960s’ Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, isn’t a supporter of Chavez, and shares the concerns of those who criticize the president’s autocratic tendencies. But the symbol is more important than the man in this case, and Chavez symbolizes an alternative. And that’s the good thing about alternatives: if you don’t like one, there are many, many more.

History offers key moments in which even the mightiest of empires can have their courses altered. But that is only possible when the people are aware of alternatives. With world opinion turning against us—even among citizens of countries that are allies, according to recent polls—isn’t it time to at least consider a few alternatives?

Through the looking glass: Without true alternatives, or a public dialogue that can place people and events in their true context, life in America becomes a cruel farce that alienates citizens more and more, making true reform more difficult.

Evidence the decision this week by the Davis campaign to return a $10,000 contribution to a Southern California company that owns three strip clubs because it “didn’t pass the smell test.”

This from the campaign that has refused calls to return nearly $200,000 in contributions from Enron and Arthur Andersen, companies whose political manipulations and impacts have been far more obscene than even the raunchiest strip show.

Geez, if only there were some alternative.