2002: The Good, The Bad, The Worst

By Don Hazen, AlterNet
December 19, 2002

As years go, they don't get much worse than 2002. The year's main saving grace – that we haven't yet invaded Iraq – suggests that, believe it or not, 2003 could be even worse.

A year that came on the heels of 9/11 was probably doomed from the start. Yet the ongoing War on Terrorism that most characterizes our times has cast a muddy shadow on public life that hints of the paranoia and knee-jerk nationalism of the 1950s.

Although we have experienced no acts of domestic terrorism in the 15 months since the Sept. 11 attacks, our country is becoming increasingly unrecognizable – constricted by fear, hysteria, xenophobic intolerance and a whole new set of laws and government intrusions that most of us couldn't have imagined in the relatively rosy days of pre-9/11.

One of the year's biggest blows was the loss of Senator Paul Wellstone, killed with his wife and daughter in a plane crash on Oct. 25. Wellstone was a role model whose integrity and conscience showed us what American politics could really be like.

Looking back, it is impossible to list the myriad events, scares and arrests that dominated the constant media flow in '02. And our immediate future is teeming with unknowns: Will we invade or will we wait? How draconian are the Patriot Act and the new Homeland Security Department? How intrusive will Total Information Awareness be? We are faced with a new, strikingly conservative reality, and let's face it: Life in the USA is a whole lot less fun than it used to be.

While it's a stretch to try to find the silver lining in these dark clouds, all is not yet lost. Artists, writers, politicians, union workers, activists and countless others are using all means available to speak up – be it through the Internet, a newspaper column, the judicial system, or just good old-fashioned grassroots organizing.

Listed below are 10 threatening themes we have identified from the right-wing quagmire, followed by10 genuine reasons for hope and celebration. Weak as the rays of hope may seem in contrast to the darkness, they are the brightest spots on the progressive horizon.

The Dark Side

1) The Conservatives' 50-Year March to Victory

The conservatives are in the middle of a successful half-century effort to transform the nation. Many credit arch-conservative Grover Norquist for bringing together fellow right-wingers along with big buck funders to create think tanks and market the plan. Their modus operandi has been consistent and deadly: Discredit the service side of government, deregulate industry, undermine trade unions, erode liberties and democratic values and trash long-standing principles of foreign policy. As U.C. Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff points out, the sum of their plan is far greater than the parts: "This isn't just about taxes, or social programs, or prescription drugs, or the Iraq war. It is an attempt to take over the American mind."

2) The Politics of Fear

A majority of Americans disagree with conservative Republicans on most issues. Yet the climate of fear promoted by the Bush Administration is having wide effect. Without a clear alternative message from the Democrats, the GOP won big in the midterm elections. The constant use of scare tactics and the demonizing of Saddam Hussein dominate the public discourse at the expense of many other important issues. As Herb Chao Gunther, head of the Public Media Center notes, anxious people "have a tendency to look for the 'tough cop on the beat' to take care of them." In a recent political address to fellow Dems, Bill Clinton echoed his analysis: "When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody, who's weak and right."

3) Let's Call It the Conservative Corporate Media

Whack Them Lefties, once the occasional pastime of bitter conservatives, became a televised national sport in 2002 with the help of Rupert Murdoch and his Fox "news" channel. Bill O'Reilly, the Mike Tyson of liberal-bashing, used progressive ideas and commentators as handy straw men, pounding them into a bloody pulp in rigged debates that bore an uncanny resemblance to WWF programming. This cult-like phenomenon unfortunately gained journalistic legitimacy thanks to the mainstream media, which mindlessly echoed every frivolous right-wing theory or allegation under the guise of news reporting. The U.S. media today resembles a funhouse hall of mirrors, reflecting a distorted reality that serves corporate rather than public interest.

4) The Return of the Living Dead

Who said there are no second acts in American politics? We naively believed that congressional hearings drove a stake through the heart of the Reagan-era Iran/Contragate scandal. But 15 years later, a zombie-like gallery of rogues have arisen from the dead to haunt our political landscape. Elliot Abrams, John Poindexter, John Negroponte and Otto Reich, all key Contragate players, now all occupy high positions in the White House. Fortunately, the resignation of Henry Kissinger as head of the 9/11 investigation committee signals the return of at least one zombie to the crypt. True to form, Kissinger departed not because of his shoddy track record of human rights violations, abuse of power or clandestine warfare, but because he was unwilling to reveal the client list of his precious consulting firm.

5) Big Brother on Steroids

You'd think people would have figured it out by now: Huge government bureaucracy simply doesn't work, no matter what the ideology behind it. But the current occupants of the White House are determined to repeat grievous errors of the past. During this year, they have created gargantuan institutions whose size and powers are unprecedented in U.S. history. The Homeland Security Act consolidates 22 wildly divergent agencies, 170,000 civil servants and $37 billion worth of goods and services, making it the largest non-military department in the government. From the USA PATRIOT Act, to the Homeland Security Act and Total Information Awareness (complete with the official logo of an unblinking eye), security has never sounded so scary, or to use the "F" word, fascist.

6) Bush's Reign of Eco-Terror

From day one of his administration, it was clear the environment was high on the President's "Things to Destroy" list. His appointments for Energy Secretary, Secretary of the Interior, heads of the EPA and the USDA, not to mention the man himself and his titular second-in-command, are all buried deep in the muck of the oil, logging, mining and chemical industries. Bush repeatedly refuted global warming, but when his own EPA released a report saying that it was most definitely a real threat, he admitted its existence, but dismissed the report as a work of bureaucracy and urged Americans to adapt to changes rather than give up their SUVs. Bush has gutted the Clean Air Act, loosened restrictions on drilling, mining or logging on public lands and pushed to open many of our National Parks to his friends in private industry. Now he plans to offer 9.6 million acres of pristine Alaskan coastline for drilling in 2004.

7) The Corporate Reform That Wasn't

Corporate accountability crashed and burned in 2002, sending an already flailing economy spiraling downward. The Enrons, WorldComs and Tycos of the world destroyed $175 billion in retirement savings. But the march to war in Iraq has pushed plans of corporate reform into virtual obscurity, though it remains high on most Americans' list of priorities. In response, Democrats have made economic recovery a party priority, but in the post-November elections era, the Dems are outnumbered (and perhaps outwitted) by the Republicans. As columnist Robert Scheer warns: "We ought to wake up to the reality that business greed is subverting the American way of life – and hurting the image of American capitalism and democracy – more effectively than the ploys of any foreign enemy."

8) The Body Politic

2002 may well be remembered as the year when medical science was turned on its ear. Over the last 12 months, many of our long-held health and dietary views were refuted or reversed. Hormone replacement therapy was convincingly proven to harm as much as it helped; arthroscopic knee surgeries, which generate over a billion dollars per year in medical revenue, were shown to be less effective in curing knee problems than are placebo operations; and the low-fat diet that is the darling of the medical establishment was targeted as a primary cause of the obesity epidemic. E. coli, salmonella and listeria outbreaks around the country were traced back to poor conditions at meat-packing plants and factory farms, causing many to question the safety of American agriculture.

9) Racism Goes Mainstream

One of the big winners this year was racism with a capital R. Along with other social scourges like Kissinger et al., racial profiling made a stellar comeback in the name of national security. Scarves, turbans and beards lost favor, but mocking, abusing, or sometimes physically attacking anyone with the wrong name or skin color gained in popularity. Xenophobia became a respectable middle-class virtue this year – with cheery blonde-haired soccer moms talking freely about the need to keep America safe from "those people." No wonder Trent Lott is feeling nostalgic.

10) Foreign Policy Goes Back to the Future

If the Homeland Security agency sparked fears of an Orwellian future, U.S. foreign policy turned retro – returning to long-discarded policies of the past. The Bush administration's "war on terror" heralded the return of Cold War chic. In 2002, assassinating "enemies" (a list that includes American citizens), nuclear warfare, Star Wars programs, staggering defense budgets and cozying up to a new crop of bloodthirsty tyrants became cool again. But this is just the beginning of an unprecedented new paradigm in post-WWII U.S. foreign policy that is driven by dangerous visions of imperial power. Cheney, Rumsfeld and their various protégés plan to take us back a lot further in history – all the way back to the golden age of the British Empire. Hail to the King!

The Silver Lining

1) The Rapid-Response Peace Movement

One of the most encouraging signs of the year was the lightning-quick organization of a deep-rooted, nation-wide peace movement. On Oct. 26, hundreds of thousands congregated in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and other cities to protest Bush's proposed war for oil. And most heartening, the fledgling movement is made up of a coalition of unlikely allies. Teachers, Teamsters, healthcare unions and countless other labor organizations are working together. Veterans were among the first to speak out: From current enlisted soldiers in all of the Armed Forces to those who witnessed the realities of the first War on Iraq, military voices eloquently reminded the nation of the horrors of war. The movement also includes African-American and Latino organizations, hundreds of campus antiwar groups, religious groups, celebrities (including Sean Penn, who traveled to Baghdad) and scores of Just Plain Folks who never attended a protest in their lives.

2) Michael Moore: The People's Filmmaker

Radical filmmaker Michael Moore's star soared to new heights this year with "Bowling For Columbine," a funny, courageous, bittersweet documentary on gun violence in America. The film, currently in the widest-ever national release of a documentary, is enjoying both critical acclaim and popular success. Moore is arguably the only artist in America asking the big question: Why is America so violent? Moore's book "Stupid White Men" is in its ninth month on the NYT bestseller list and was 2002's biggest selling nonfiction book. Eric Demby writes in the Village Voice that Moore's popularity "has extended beyond the liberal fringe and represents the fruits of a grassroots movement that corporate America and potentially the government can no longer ignore." Go get 'em, Mike!

3) The Power of the Web

When the web bubble burst, dotcom businesses went belly-up, but the Internet didn't go away. It's still here, and just as useful as ever. In 2002, activists took to the web to mobilize in the largest numbers ever. Web sites like UnitedforPeace.org, VeteransforCommonSense.org and AntiWar.com all became resources and organizing centers for the peace movement, while WorkingForChange.com and True Majority.org helped connect people with their elected representatives. It took MoveOn.org mere days to collect more than 175,000 signatures and over $300,000 in donations to buy antiwar advertisements in national media outlets. MoveOn's success shows how much power is created when we connect like-minded people online – a power we've just begun to tap.

4) Writing Truth to Power

No journalist puts a bee in Dubya's bonnet quite like Paul Krugman, the Princeton economics professor who writes a twice-weekly column in The New York Times. Of all our major pundits, Krugman most forcefully illuminates what Nicholas Confessore in the Washington Monthly called "the seamless melding of corporate, class, and political party interests at which the Bush administration excels." He is a fearless and brilliant critic who has persistently pointed out the administration's deceptive economic policies, most memorably the Bush tax cut. Krugman and other left-leaning political columnists like William Greider, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, Farai Chideya and Arianna Huffington have become the truthtellers of progressive America. They are all, in Confessore's words, "essential reading for the Age of Bush."

5) Leading the Charge

Luckily, there is no shortage of inspirational leaders fighting the good fight. Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, is helping to raise the visibility of rights abuses across the land and educating Americans on what the Patriot Act and the new Homeland Security department could do to our basic constitutional rights. Fifty thousand Americans joined the ACLU after 9/11, bringing the organization's membership to a whopping 330,000. Other leaders aggressively and effectively bucking the conservative trend include Greenpeace head John Passacantando; Van Jones of the Books Not Bars campaign; Martha Honey, who runs the highly influential Foreign Policy in Focus; Billy Wimsatt, who organizes "young rich kids" for social change; SEIU organizer Jane McAlevey, leading union organizing across the country for quality public health care; and far too many others to list. Those who stand out include philanthropist Rob McKay, who invested millions in a major campaign to expand voter participation with Prop. 52, Election Day Voter Registration in California; and Paul Hawken, whose anti-corporate speech at the Bioneers conference this fall rocked the 3,000-strong audience with power and passion.

6) Conscious Hip Hop Comes Home

From The Coup to Dead Prez, from Mos Def to Talib Kweli, Sarah Jones and Danny Hoch, 2002 was a powerful year for progressive hip hop. Black August, the independent hip hop benefit for political prisoners, grabs larger crowds each year. The Hip Hop Theater All Stars – a socially conscious crew including Danny Hoch, Suheir Hammad and Sarah Jones – made its way from sold-out shows on both coasts to MTV. While there have long been radical and revolutionary individual hip hop artists, 2002 saw the emergence of a conscious hip hop community keeping it real while keeping the beat.

7) Elected Officials We Can Respect

Elections often disappoint us, but electoral politics is essential to change. Though so many of our leaders failed us on the crucial Bush/Iraq war vote, there were many who didn't. Let's support our best and help bolster the courage of their convictions: Nancy Pelosi, the first woman Minority Leader in the House; Dennis Kucinich, the brilliant working class hero from Cleveland; Senators Barbara Boxer and Carl Levin; stalwarts Russ Feingold, Ted Kennedy, Jon Corzine and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin; and virtually the entire Black and Hispanic caucuses. Other progressive pols who deserve props are Barbara Lee of Berkeley; Bernie Sanders in Vermont; Jerry Nadler on the Westside of Manhattan; Jan Shakowsky in Chicago; and John Conyers of Detroit.

8) Carter's Nobel Coup

If you interpreted the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to humanitarian Jimmy Carter as a direct challenge to Bush's warmongering ways, you weren't far off the mark. Bestowing the honor upon the former pres, Nobel committee chairman Gunnar Berge pulled no punches. He declared the award "should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken. It's a kick in the leg to all that follow the same line as the United States." Carter has been an articulate and persistent critic of Bush's foreign policies, and with the prestige of the Nobel behind him, we hope his diplomatic efforts will bear even more fruit in the future.

9) Noam and Naomi

It's good to know who you can count on. In 2002, both Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein published smart books ("Manufacturing Consent" and "Fences and Windows," respectively) and continued their habit of speaking truth to power – both eloquently and often. Whether analyzing the roots of corporate excess, breaking down the motivations for U.S. military action or speaking as firm supporters of global justice protests, they are sometimes bellicose and bombastic, but always passionate and clear on who holds power and how it is being used. Noam Chomsky wins our Lifetime Achievement Award. Long may he carry the torch.

10) Leading the Union Movement

Among trade unions, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) stands out as a union investing serious resources in organizing, with the willingness to develop a broad-based ambitious campaign for national health insurance. The 1.5 million-member union is working on solutions that will ensure quality care, reduce the costs of prescription drugs, and enable families to take back control from the HMOs. Given the more than 40 million Americans who are uninsured, no issue is more important to the public today.

AlterNet staff Lakshmi Chaudhry, Tai Moses, Rachel Neumann, Omar J. Pahati, Derek Powazek and Matt Wheeland contributed to this article.