Tuesday, March 23, 2010


My email batch today included angry condemnation by some of my fellow leftists of the new Health Reform Act and everyone who supported Sunday’s historic vote. Laura Bonham of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), of which I’m a member, called it “A Kafka Moment” and bitterly attacked MoveOn for congratulating the Democrats who voted for it. Ralph Nader and Chris Hedges scorned “craven Democrats”, especially attacking Howard Dean. This was an echo of the attacks on Dennis Kucinich for “folding” when he announced he would vote “yes”.

That’s certainly not the way I see things. The times call for militancy and resolve, but not for a nasty war against anyone who sees today’s momentous challenges from a broader perspective than do Bonham, Nader and Hedges. I can’t support PDA in an assault on MoveOn. Nor can I conceive of a significant American left if Dennis Kucinich, Al Franken, Barbara Lee, Barney Frank, John Lewis and Bernie Sanders just sold us out by favoring a “yes” vote on the final bill.

Is it possible to see two realities at once? Is it possible to be highly critical of limitations and compromises in the new legislation and yet to see it as an advance? Is it possible to recognize a flawed process, with serious shortcomings, and still acknowledge that in its final stage Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi did a praiseworthy job of advancing health care as a basic right and beating back the violent ultra-right counter-attack against the results of the 2008 elections?

It had better be possible to see the whole contradictory reality as we go on from here. It’s never been more necessary to fight hard on a host of vital issues, yet never more necessary to bridge gaps and hold a progressive majority together. Whatever the Administration does or doesn’t do, holding back on critical struggles is not an option for leftists and progressives — not on ending the wars, fighting for immigration reform, universal health care and jobs programs, or fighting cuts in education and social welfare. While pushing vigorously for the President and Congress to live up to the promise of change that swept the 2008 elections, we have the responsibility to do everything we can to defend and extend what’s positive and hopeful. We cannot dismiss for a single moment that a rightist and racist cabal has targeted the Obama presidency, trying desperately to reverse the historic opportunity to change America for the better. This vigilante crusade aims not just at a return to something like a Bush/Cheney regime, but something far further to the right that’s closer to fascism.

I’m glad the Health Reform bill became law and not Obama’s “Waterloo” as the GOP projected. The majority can do a lot better and the door is open. It might have been slammed shut not just on health care, but on any possibility for progressive headway in the next several years.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


I met Lester at the end of WWII. By then he was already one of my personal heroes, and had been ever since he began his crusade against Jim Crow in baseball in 1936. I was one of thousands of young people who rallied with great enthusiasm to the cause he spearheaded. We collected petitions, protested at ballparks and spread the word from Lester’s groundbreaking interviews and initiatives. In my home state of Connecticut, we demanded without success a try-out in AA baseball for a talented young pitcher, Billy Taylor. And Lester’s example galvanized us to challenge Jim Crow at other recreational facilities. I remember our group, which included a high school student who eventually became the first African-American woman to be appointed as a federal judge, militantly protesting the shameful color bar at a community swimming pool in New Haven. I mention this because to appreciate what Lester meant to us, it’s important to remember that in those days baseball reflected the widespread poison of Jim Crow that permeated every aspect of life, North as well as South.

In his book with Irwin Silber, “Press Box Red”, Lester’s landing a job as the Daily Worker’s first real sports editor is depicted accurately as a strange and somewhat awkward marriage. Embracing a genuine lover of America’s pastime was certainly new ground for the Communists of that day, but the fight against Jim Crow and lynching had been a core cause for many years that joined Communists to the struggle of African-Americans for full equality. What Lester and his comrades did was to add a new dimension, one that reached into the daily lives of millions of Americans and that ultimately reached beyond Sports. Like all civil rights progress, the victory over discrimination in sports resulted mainly from long years of determined effort in the African-American community, often with no apparent white support. Lester recognized that and put a priority on direct solidarity with Black athletes and publications such as the Pittsburgh Courier that were leading the fight.

I met Lester through his wife, Clare. Clare and I were organizers in the same youth movements during WWII and for quite a few years after. Clare and Lester, and Roz and I, were bringing up new families as the cold war unfolded and McCarthyism gained sway. It wasn’t an easy time for those of us on the left, progressives and liberals included, as blacklists, and attorney general’s lists, and subpoenas and arrests multiplied. One of the things that amazed me most about Lester was his boldness, in and out of the press box, his unwillingness to be intimidated by the “red” label, his absolute refusal to be cut off from the main stream of American life. It took guts, more than most of us have, to take his rightful place as a journalist, to connect with famous ball players, to go face to face with the powerful in the pursuit of social justice.

Life changed pretty dramatically for each of us during the mid-to-late 1950s. Some ideas and organizational allegiances were left behind, while fundamental values and commitment to social change remained central. Clare and Lester forged new and very worthwhile careers in California, despite periodic political harassment. It’s in these latter years that my own relationship with Lester became close and flourished, until the last few years when Roz's illness made visits too difficult.

Lester and I shared two passions that never left us even as we got to old age. The first page I open in the morning is the sports section; then I get to the serious stuff about the state of the world. As we walked around the Lafayette Reservoir, we went back and forth between both passions. We were more likely to disagree as fans (I’m a Giants fan) than on politics or the human condition. Talk was particularly intense during the time that Gorbachev was seeking to transform the USSR into a democratic socialist society. We both rooted passionately for that process to succeed, and the world would be better off today if it had. Of course the change we most wanted to see was in our own America, with so much to offer to our people and to the world, but so badly afflicted by the injustices of an uncontrolled and destructive capitalist system.

Lester was optimistic about America. I think that came of his own experience, his faith in accomplishing in the sports world what most people once considered impossible. It took a long time, too long, for Lester Rodney to be recognized as one of America’s greats. To me he was always that, and a dear friend as well.