Feel The Bern

images Image by flicker.

Published at CounterPunch February 24, 2016

On the Road in the Sanders Campaign



On the Road in the Sanders Campaign for President

It had been twelve years since my wife and I had worked in a political campaign and attended a political rally. To say that we had been burned out by the 2004 presidential campaign would be a gross understatement with too many negative details to recount. One thing that was learned, however, was how the rightward movement of the political, economic, and social systems in the US had battered ideals.


But like the eternal optimist, fueled by irrepressible ideals for a just society that meets the needs of all its people, we joined yet another campaign after this long hiatus.


The use of phone banks in presidential campaigns had changed. Cell phones make it more difficult to reach potential voters, but newer dialing programs are better at reaching people on voting lists. And rather than making calls from a centralized location, which is always good for enhancing a sense of camaraderie with likeminded campaign volunteers, calls can now be made from anywhere using a computer, smart phone, or tablet. As long as expectations are high, and the phone lists are fairly accurate, the chance of abusive responses to phone calls is minimized. The latter was not so twelve years ago when hours spent calling lists of voters felt much like how the late rounds of a prizefight must feel.


Canvassing homes is a more risky proposition depending on the demographics of the canvassing assignment. The area I canvassed was a rental area in far western Massachusetts. The list of registered Democratic voters I had was small, but the majority of people were not home on the Sunday afternoon of canvassing, and those people who were home were hostile. I don’t know why the latter was so, but door-to-door canvassing has never been a positive experience for me. I’ve never canvassed in an economically “advantaged” area, so I have nothing with which to compare the results from years of knocking on doors and talking with potential voters.


The highlight of the campaign thus far was the huge rally at UMass Amherst on Monday, February 22 “Young and old cheer Bernie Sanders at UMass Amherst,” (Boston Globe, February 22, 2016). The serpentine line of Sanders’ supporters wound in a seemingly endless throng of students from the many colleges and universities in central Massachusetts and folks from nearby communities. A cold wind blew from the north, which made waiting in line to enter the cavernous Mullins Center at UMass all the more uncomfortable.


Once inside, the wait for Sanders to appear seemed like it would last forever. Bands played, speeches of local politicians and a union leader took up some of the time in the sports complex. It was a welcome  reprieve from the cold and wind outside the arena.


When Sanders finally took the stage, his speech electrified the crowd of about 8,000 supporters. He eloquently and forcefully addressed the issues of how the political system was at the beck and call of the interests of extreme wealth; student debt; financing a college education; investing in schools and daycare; equal pay for equivalent work of men and women; income inequality; the plight of the homeless and veterans, those living on social security pensions, disability pensions, and veterans benefits; the catastrophe of climate change; the decaying infrastructure of the US; how the economy has failed to provide decent jobs for millions of people; and how his adversary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, could not possibly remain unaffected by the outpouring of massive amounts of cash from Super PACs funding her campaign. He spoke of how Citizens United had unleashed that money and how his campaign has relied on the contributions of about 4 million small donors. It seemed as if the energy of the powerful sound system in the complex had been transformed into the electrifying response of the gathered thousands. I have not witnessed such a response to a political message since Dustin Hoffman spoke at a rally for Eugene McCarthy’s candidacy for president in August 1968 in Providence, Rhode Island. And Sanders did not shirk in providing the specifics of where money would come from to fund proposed programs. Offshore accounts of US businesses would be taxed. A tax would be paid on investment transactions. The familiar cry of the far right about “tax and spend,” would be replaced by progressive taxation on wealth with those monies being put back into the economy for the betterment of all people. Had so many years passed since it was possible to give voice to the aspirations of average people who wanted to take back the political, economic, and social system and make it work for ordinary people?


It felt as if Sanders was giving voice to the lost ideal of a society worth living in after the feeling of angst that is best voiced by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield when his main character expresses how bereft of hope his life has been.


Sanders has discussed his differences with Hillary Clinton vis-à-vis the start of the Iraq War, but he needs to talk honestly about how war has become such an accepted part of life in the US, as endless wars continue almost without criticism.


I would have liked Sanders to have addressed the link between those endless wars that the US is now involved in and how the outlays for those wars has sapped the economy of necessary funds with which to challenge the chasm of income inequality that now exists in the US. But, I was not disappointed by what I did hear.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.


Winds Of Change


Photo of orchard and tree line by Howie Lisnoff.


Winds Of Change

The stand of maple at the far end of the orchard

Sentinels of crimson/orchid sunset

Painted in bold strokes in the north and west.

Before the sunrise

The Seven Sisters will set

Orion and his dog stars at their heels

Holy, holy

Life may be plentiful throughout the endless universe

But it is only here

A month away form the equinox

That such indescribable beauty

Born on winds of change

And fleeting impermanence

Can be held so close.

The Political Landscape in the Real World


Image by flikr.com.

Published at CounterPunch on February 15, 2016.

The Political Landscape in the Real World


The Political Landscape in the Real World

The online and print attacks against Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign come as a nor’easter batters the New England coastline in one of the extremes of global warming. The attacks by the far right are expected. Not a single Republican candidate will endorse the science that backs the reality of the fossil fuel fired decaying environment. These Neanderthals of the right, along with the help of their paymasters of the 1%, get some traction among those not inclined to learn anything about the nation and world in which we live, and in fact really don’t want to do much else than to hate and rant. Donald Trump is their perfect reflection of both the haters and the ranting.


But there is also a fatal flaw in the left’s criticism of the Sanders’ campaign. Who else do people have as an electoral choice and where are the legions that will put their feet to the pavement to change the status quo? The left, at least the antiwar wing of the left, melted away with the election of Barack Obama. While he expanded US wars, deported more immigrants than any of his recent predecessors, allowed the criminals who tanked the economy to go free, and expanded the surveillance of ordinary people to levels never before even imagined in an Orwellian nightmare of government snooping, the left became an unimportant appendage. The left’s critical stand was great, but feet on the ground amounted to the support of identity politics and occasional bursts of economic populism such as for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The only exception to the lack of left’s ineffectiveness has been the uprising of the Black community in opposition to the war being waged against Black people across the US.

After the attacks of September 2001, it soon became obvious to those in the antiwar movement that no force on Earth would stop the war in Afghanistan (The latter is not a criticism of those on the left who continued to protest that war, but simply a critique of our effectiveness.). Prominent members of an antiwar coalition in Rhode Island, where I was involved in the antiwar movement at the time, said it was time to end our actions and focus our efforts on organizing, which of course, never materialized in an effective way. As I write, the war goes on today after nearly 15 years.


Why can’t the left mount a real effort through organizing to offer the electorate a viable alternative to politics as usual? Grotesque abuse of the environment may very well spell the end of civilization, or perhaps a nuclear catastrophe by way of a confrontation between the many nuclear powers?


Almost all of the variables work against the formation of a left party in the US. Campaigns like that of Eugene Debs happen with great infrequency. Debs, an authentic hero of the left believed that “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it,” Debs once wrote, “than vote for something I don’t want and get it.” In other words, Debs believed that it was better to work for his ideals through organizing than get undesirable results while in political office. Debs best presidential showing was in the fourth of his five runs in 1912 when he garnered 5.99% of the national vote as the socialist candidate. Liberal Henry Wallace also was shunned and jettisoned by the political establishment for his socialist views and turned into a politically marginal player. Ralph Nader was transformed into a political pariah by his critics for simply daring to run for president with progressive policy positions. He garnered just 2.74% of the popular vote in 2000 as a Green Party candidate.


Not many people will take serious risks for their commitment to transform the political, economic, and social system. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the thousands who resisted the Vietnam War brought about only incremental and sometimes only temporary changes to the political system that were later either turned back, to a degree, or rolled back completely. Black Lives Matter rose up to challenge the insane official violence against African Americans. Occupy Wall Street, a real threat to the 1%, was so strenuously and violently opposed by the power of great wealth that it disappeared from the political and economic landscape with perhaps the idea of the 1% as its major accomplishment, but with no real achievable program for change.


The Occupy movement addressed the $3.3 trillion lost in home equity in 2008 and the $6.9 trillion lost in the stock market, the home equity loss most significant for ordinary home owners. Glass-Steagall had muted the worst excesses of the banking industry, joined at the hip in investment and commercial banking, until the New Deal. In a 1999 deal with Congress, the Clinton administration set the stage for the economic debacle of 2008 and Glass-Steagall was history. The floodgates for buying campaigns and candidates were opened by the Supreme Court through the Citizens United ruling in 2010.


What society-wide political movement for change has succeeded in the recent past? It’s been more than forty years since the antiwar movement challenged the waging of war in Southeast Asia, and that war may have been ended as much through the illegal acts of the Nixon administration and the fact that the ruling class just didn’t think it was worthwhile any longer to wage a costly, meaningless, and divisive war, as much as the war was ended by the years of strident protest of the antiwar movement.


Bernie Sanders votes on war appropriations, his unquestioning support of Israel, of military outlays, and his support of gun rights all require a serious appraisal and critique. But he is not the candidate of Wall Street; not someone who has supported the mass incarceration of the African American community; would make higher education available to students without the burden of lifelong debt; would fund the needs of ordinary people in the areas of health, education, and housing; and I believe, not someone who would give the current blank check to defense contractors to feed at the well of fear and militarism. While other socialist and green candidates may have better platforms, they have little chance of winning even a small fraction of the vote. The organization of masses of Americans into a movement that recognizes its own best self-interests is not happening and has not happened since the New Deal and the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, and that was a very long time ago. Those who believe that much can be accomplished through the political system to make a more just and equitable society need to recognize these facts. Try to imagine Donald Trump or some like-minded candidate of similar fascistic bent in the Oval Office with a Republican dominated Congress, and a majority of right-wingers on the Supreme Court. It’s not only an unattractive prospect, but it would be dangerous to many who hold left beliefs. Many on the left have said in past electoral cycles that such a political scenario would be beneficial for the left, but it always proves counterproductive and could be dangerous for many around the world and here in the US.


Hillary Clinton is either a Republican-Lite or a Democratic neoliberal candidate depending on the issue. Regime change and unquestioning pandering to Wall Street are the trademarks of her tenure as secretary of state, her actions as a senator, and as a candidate. The blood of innocent civilians runs in the streets from her support of regime change in Iraq, Libya, and Syria.


History has recorded that the Democratic Party has co-opted and harmed movements for political, economic, and social change. But in a two-party system the latter is a reality that must be confronted and dealt with. Working within the so-called system has many, many drawbacks, but I see no revolutionary party being effectively organized to confront this dilemma. A person can change his or her immediate surroundings in some ways and work for national and global change in meaningful ways from either inside or outside of the electoral and political system, but the electoral system of politics in the US is an important entity and player on both the national and world stage. And it must be engaged in both critical and productive ways.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He has worked in political campaigns since the 1960s.

The Bar Mitzvah Blizzard of 1961


Sanctuary of Congregation Ahavath Sholom, West Warwick, RI. Photo by Howie Lisnoff, 1977.

The Bar Mitzvah Blizzard of 1961

By Howard Lisnoff

February 4, 1961 was not exactly “A day that will live in infamy,” but it was quite a day for me. Relatives had poured into our small Rhode Island town the night before. Pearl and Irwin and their kids, Phyllis and Barry, from New Jersey; Sam and Yetta from Philly, far enough away that its row houses would seem exotic to me on my first visit there the following spring; Aunt Ester from Brooklyn, someone whose stern and imposing presence, but kindness, always impressed me; and all of the others from places much closer to home.


It was the day of my bar mitzvah, not such an unusual benchmark in life, but after six years of Friday trips to nearby Cranston, Rhode Island, for Hebrew lessons and bar mitzvah instruction, I guess it really was a big deal to my family and I had religiously (no pun intended here) practiced the part of the Torah that I would chant that morning for the small congregation.


My cousin Barry and I got up early, the house full of relatives had begun to stir, and we walked across the hallway of my family’s two-story colonial house to a small alcove where my grandparents’ mahogany wardrobe—too big for their nearby apartment–stood majestically beside a window looking out over the front lawn of the house and John Street. Barry peered over my shoulder as I pulled up the cord of the venetian blinds. What we saw caused our boyish chatter to stop immediately. In front of us and below, huge swirling masses of blowing and swirling snow filled the air and the streets, and the huge open field of a neighbor’s house on the other side of the street. Snow muffles sound, except for the wind that accompanies a blizzard, so any of the few passing cars left no sound either in their coming or their going, much like the scenes of a silent movie. The view outside was both surreal and breathtaking for the two young kids looking out at the pure white, linen wintry landscape from above.


We stood in this near silence. I would celebrate my bar mitzvah during the full fury of a blizzard: that much was certain at this point in the early hours of the morning. In those days, not to sound like a cliché from an old Saturday Night Live skit, we welcomed the snow. It was not hyped on the news; people did not empty supermarket shelves of the last crumbs of bread and the last ounce of milk, but either stayed home and waited out the storm, or went out into the world and dealt with the temporary inconveniences that a storm caused. On an ordinary day, I would have sat on the parlor couch with my siblings and looked out toward the great pines that bordered the Payan Street playground and looked for indications of the intensity of a particular storm and the prospect of school being cancelled that day, if it was indeed a weekday, and hoped against hope that the superintendant of school, a woman who did not believe in so-called snow days, would extend her sympathy to the town’s school children and let us design our own day of snow-bound activities.


Soon, breakfast finished, my family and all of our relatives piled into a convoy of cars and drove down the hill to our synagogue. The synagogue was a beautiful one-story brick building, the bricks being the color of pine needles that had aged a season. A series of huge curved stained glass windows, a pale yellow that set off the complimentary color of the building’s brick, held an impressive-looking Star of David in a portion of each upper windowpane. Two great mahogany doors opened up into the synagogue’s hallway that led to the sanctuary. Above the doors were the two tablets of the Ten Commandments with a lion guarding them on either side. On both sides of the ochre-colored stucco walls of the synagogue were pictures of a woman lighting Sabbath candles.


Swinging doors led to the sanctuary, a beautiful room with benches on either side of the bimah, the raised platform in the middle of the sanctuary where the Torah was read. Men and women sat on opposite sides of the sanctuary, this being an Orthodox synagogue. At the front of the room was the dais where the rabbi, his assistant, or the learned man of our synagogue, Mr. Sternback, would lead a particular service during the festivals of the year. The Holy Ark was on yet another raised walkway just in front of them, its beautiful red curtains with the Ten Commandments also guarded by two embroidered lions. Above the Ark hung the Eternal Light, two imposing high-back chairs flanking either side of the Ark, and the flags of both the state and the nation.


My family and I stood in the hallway greeting guests, having just walked from the parking lot across the street to the steps leading to the great doors in front of which blowing and drifting snow now was piled high. Relatives and friends from the community and nearby communities came in through the doors to where a large puddle of melted snow stood beside a metal coat rack. Max Margolis entered, the president of the synagogue, followed by Mr. Sternback, who had walked through knee-deep drifting white snow for over five miles, covered in snow himself like some northern woodsman, remaining true to his faith and the admonition against driving on the Sabbath. Mr. Hoffman entered next, who lived only a short block away, and whose store never seemed to have any stock worth mentioning, and who wore the same dark suit for as long as memory served, its wide lapels from another era. Syl and Reds Kafrissen came in, who with their sons Sammy and Donny, had driven from 10 miles away in Cranston, their sons having to periodically get out of their car and push them into town through the blowing and accumulating nearly-impassable snow. The sanctuary filled up with familiar faces. My Grandma Ida and Grandpa Bill; Mrs. Sternback, who always took up the first small bench at the front of the sanctuary, and who cried with abandon during the High Holy days for a son lost in World War II; Mrs. Leichman, who would only a few short years later break with my mother over their opposing views of the Vietnam War; Bessy Schectman, one of my mother’s most reliable bridge partners, in a game that went on for years with each host player of a given week having the game at her house; my other Grandma Rose, who showed absolutely no hint of emotion in all of the years I had known her, took a seat silently.


The synagogue filled to capacity. More bountiful years had shone in on the honey light cast by the stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The town had once been the center of the textile industry in Rhode Island and its main retail center. My Grandpa Bill had come here as the superintendent of his brother’s textile mill that dyed synthetic textiles. My other grandfather, long dead, had built up a successful family clothing business from its beginnings with his horse-drawn cart as a merchant peddler. Now, an economic downturn, less than expert business practices, and competition from what were then called mill outlet retailers, had caused the loss of that business and harder times for my family as my father struggled to find consistent work. The textile industry had abandoned the town in the 1950s, gone to the South with warmer climes and no union movement to speak of.

The Sabbath service soon began. Within minutes I was called to the bimah, opening up the book that contained my section of the Torah reading for that day and placing it over the actual section of the Torah below my book. The rabbi, called in from Providence for the service, handed me the sterling-silver pointer that I ran down the pages of my reading for that day. I chanted, partly from memory, partly from glancing down at the Hebrew letters below. My years of training had “paid” off, as I sang with ease, the lines of holy script that my Hebrew teacher, Mr. Shapiro, had tirelessly rehearsed with me.


Finished, I looked not to the rabbi presiding at the ceremony, but rather toward Mr. Sternback, who smiled slightly and nodded in approval. I turned toward the women’s section and caught the wide smile of my mom and my Grandma Ida, who also beamed with pride. Glancing next at the men’s side I saw the familiar faces that I had sat with since memory formed during the religious holidays each year. The blowing snow outside was immaterial at that moment. Here I was at 13, supposedly a man, among those loving faces who have now been nearly lost to the sands of time and place. Only traces of them remain, here on this page and in memory. Even the synagogue was sold during the 1980s, no one left in town to attend services.


And now a second adventure would begin. After having light refreshments and pastry in the finished basement of the synagogue, we walked out into the blizzard that waited. The caterer from Providence, Louis, well known for providing kosher fare, stopped at the synagogue, coming in after the service to tell my parents that his truck would not be able to make it up the hills from the river valley to my house where guests had been invited for the afternoon’s luncheon. We piled out to the parking lot across the snow-clogged street that ran through the middle of the business district of town. A worried look swept over my father’s perennially worried face, above his tan winter coat, snow quickly piling up on its brown fur collar. Lots and lots of food had to be transported between a quarter of a mile and a half mile distant from where we now stood in the blowing snow, its depth increasing with the passing minutes. A plan was quickly devised. All those who believed they were ready for adversity would open up the trunks of their cars and fill the void with the platters, one after another, that Louis and his helper unloaded from his truck. Soon trunks closed and with much resolve a wagon train of food for the impending celebration wound its way through the business district and up a more circuitous route of fewer hills that left the troupe with only about a quarter mile of gently rising hills to climb to my house.


The first hill we climbed left car tires hopelessly spinning. We would have to abandon these now useless machines and walk with huge platters of food through the drifts and blowing snow. And there we soon were, a group of struggling walkers, a human caravan in our finest clothes, traipsing through the snow moving slowly and only visible in the storm to one another. My father led the group.


As if by magic, and there was ample magic that day, we arrived home with all of the food for the celebration intact. No one had fallen in the slow line of celebrants that had finally reached its stormy conclusion. Sighs of relief were many as the several platters were emptied into awaiting dishes while the day’s guests entered the house, stomping the clinging snow from their shoes and boots and shaking it from their heavy winter coats. Soon the house was filled with the convivial noise of friends’ and relatives’ conversation. But despite the fact that the house was filled with voices and hearty appetites, many were missing. Some could not make it from neighboring towns and cities for the celebration: the snow had literally stopped them in their tracks. So my mother and father came up with a plan. Why not extend the luncheon to several Saturdays of the weeks to come and allow everyone who had planned on attending the bar mitzvah to take part in an ongoing celebration?


And celebrate we did, right into the coming spring, when snow was no longer an issue. Maybe this was the bar mitzvah of the century? I don’t know, but what I do know is that that day and the weeks that followed are leaden with some of the best memories of my life. I did not party like that again until I arrived at college four years later. And through all of the seismic changes of the tumultuous and heady days of the decade that followed, there was nothing quite like how momentous that celebration was. When great storms are forecast, or the hype accompanies storms that either materialize or don’t, there was that first Saturday morning of a February from so very long ago when my cousin Barry and I peered out the second-floor window beside the wardrobe and knew instinctively that this was going to be one heck of a momentous day. And it was!