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one helluva year

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The best you can say about 2003 is that it isn't 2004, the year the far right will gorge itself on power, while liberals-moderates will choke on their own shortcomings.

            For the moment, however, the realities of 2003 are all we've got. And as I look back over America's recently traveled roads, it looks like the significant news is all bad. (There are hopeful signs, too, which you'll see below. But first let me purge.)

Start with the local scene. Many Rochesterians are still reeling from news item number one: this year's election of a new county executive, in which Mayor Bill Johnson lost to the stunningly mediocre and evasive Maggie Brooks.

            The outcome of this key race (and "race" is a keyword here) insures that Monroe County will suffer from apartheid for a long time to come. True, our problems stem from national and global policies and trends, things beyond local control. But instead of doing what commentators like the excellent George Monbiot suggest --- refreshing the stale "think globally, act locally" paradigm with truly global activism from a regional base --- Monroe County leaders get more parochial by the day.

            Meanwhile, higher levels of government pull the strings, or put a rope around our necks.

            Look at what they did to Medicare this year.

            I think people are just waking up to this story. The Bushies stuck a $400-billion coupon on a "modernization" effort that could end the program as we know it. Seniors, not coupons, will get clipped: Most will see higher drug costs, and all could be losers if this historic entitlement morphs into another voucher swindle.

            But things don't look great in health care overall. Medicaid, subjected this year to mass-media demands for "reform," might be forcibly enrolled in Dr. Frankenstein's HMO. Pressure is building to trim away services and impose unaffordable co-pays --- solidifying the multi-tier health system we already have informally.

            The story of the US economy over the past year has gone from piffle to Pollyanna. Spikes in quarterly growth rates made big headlines; the fine print about jobs and wages revealed the slow destruction of the working class.

            How come so few are talking about how the Reaganites and Bushies are using economic inequality to stifle democratic hopes? Because of the Bush 2003 tax cut --- and massive tax-cuts past and future --- the rich will keep getting richer, and the poor poorer. Here the big story is the rightwing "Starve the Beast" strategy, using disinformation and fearmongering (sound familiar?) to bulldoze what remains of the welfare state.

Chris Hartman and David Martin put their finger on it this summer for United for a Fair Economy, one of the best information sources around: "The dismantling of 70 years of US social progress continues apace with a tax cut that will further constrain the ability of the government to deliver the things Americans repeatedly say they want and need: affordable health care, a secure retirement, a clean environment, and a safe and fair workplace..."

As a candidate for Story of the Year, the domestic economy has a muscular rival, and I don't mean Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's poster boy of 2003.

            No, it's the endless war that started not with the horrible crime of 9/11, but with the Bush invasion of Iraq this past spring. I've said it before and I'll say it again: A coalition of right and center has elevated wars of aggression --- almost on a par with genocide, in terms of international law --- as the keystone of US foreign policy.

            In the process, much violence is done to American civil liberties, and this too is a big story. Bob Fitrakis of the eminently non-embedded Columbus Free Press recently called 2003 "the year democracy ended." Is that overstating the case? Maybe, but the threat is real. It's amazing that more Americans aren't rising up against the USA PATRIOT Act, the war against pot smokers, and almost anything Attorney General John Ashcroft does, says, or thinks.

            What's the big story of the holiday season? We've got another "code orange" security alert. But there are hopeful postscripts. Americans understand the litany of fear is only vaguely related to national security, and they're refusing to be stampeded or herded by the White House totalitarians who masquerade as conservatives.

            Speaking of masquerades: I think 2003 was an outstanding year in the history of military propaganda. George Bush donned the flight jacket he was loath to wear in his Air National Guard days and told us "major war" was over. This turned out to be a double lie: The war was just beginning, and the "major" was more like Colonel Klink.

            But Bush is no comedian. Month after sobering month, American men and women are dying in Iraq, and Iraqis are dying and suffering in great numbers, all for nothing.

            Or for oil, or greed, or the lust for power and domination, or the apocalyptic and Manichean worldview that stole the 2000 presidential election. (Speaking of which: Why are there so few in-depth analyses of Republican electoral skullduggery in Texas and other states?)

I promised to talk about some good stories of 2003. And these certainly were out there.

            My candidate for biggest and best story of the year is the advance of gay marriage rights in Canada and Massachusetts. The US is at the cusp of great social progress; America's hate-radio honchos might huff and puff about a constitutional amendment, but I think the rainbow flag will be flying ever higher.

            There was a healthy development in the world of media, too. During the hot war this spring, huge numbers of Americans migrated to offshore new outlets. It's great to see people turning on to journalists like the UK Independent's Robert Fisk, whose Middle East coverage is peerless. Or Uruguay's Eduardo Galeano, whose informed radicalism is passionate and buoyant.

            And how about the Miami story? Thousands of grassroots activists, many of them young people with a refreshing worldview, went there this November to oppose the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Some Rochesterians took part; their commitment to a just and fair global economy was strengthened after they watched the police crack heads with abandon.

            As regards police policy, that Miami vice probably won't be replicated here. We've got a moderate-to-liberal police administration, and officers have dealt with recent street demos pretty well. But RPD Chief Bob Duffy, a political moderate and straight-shooter, ended the year by announcing a crackdown on gangs. Violent crime does call for an immediate response. But Rochesterians need to be reminded that social alienation isn't cured by being put behind bars.

            Let's not forget about new social initiatives in Rochester, like the grassroots anti-poverty campaign led by Poor People United and other groups. Talk about a reasonable demand: a hypothermia shelter for the homeless. And a round of applause for Rochester Food Not Bombs, which provides perishable food to poor families. This year RFNB got a large grant from the UPS Foundation.

            Yes, young people especially are remaking the world. I hope their ranks will increase.

            Or as someone said in another context this year, Bring 'em on.

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