This summer marked the 45th anniversary of the murder of Medgar Evers, a community organizer shot in the back by a Klan member who found integration frightening enough to justify murder. That same year Bob Dylan put to music a diagnosis of that murder, a song whose relevance today lies not so much in the possibility of another assassination, but in the broader strategy by which rulers distract those they rule.

“A Southern politician preaches to the poor white man,

`You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.

You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,’ they explain.

And the Negro’s name

Is used, it is plain

For the politician’s gain

As he rises to fame

And the poor white remains

On the caboose of the train

But it ain’t him to blame

He’s only a pawn in their game.”

The strategy of “divide and conquer” has been employed as long as there were institutionalized power disparities in society. Every company thug knows that the best way to break a union is to make sure the scabs are from a different ethnic group, because workers fighting amongst themselves will not be effective fighting bosses. So when the Reagan administration facilitated the destruction of family farms in America, driving hundreds of thousands off the land they had farmed for generations in support of multinational agribusiness, there were plenty of church leaders and right-wing politicians ready to goad the victims into the ideology of the militias and talk radio. It’s the blacks with all their welfare; it’s the immigrants stealing jobs for sub-minimum wages; ignore the men in suits behind the curtain. Rally around race war, never class war.

“From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks,

And the hoof beats pound in his brain.

And he’s taught how to walk in a pack

Shoot in the back

With his fist in a clinch

To hang and to lynch

To hide ‘neath the hood

To kill with no pain

Like a dog on a chain

He ain’t got no name

But it ain’t him to blame

He’s only a pawn in their game.”

The massive Reagan-era buildup in military spending – begun in the last years of the Carter administration – was designed, so we were told, to bring about the fall of the Soviet Union. But a funny thing happened, the enemy collapsed but the budgets remained. There was a brief small drop, and then a new gradual buildup from Bush I, through Clinton I, and culminating in Bush II. Now we spend more than the rest of the world combined on the military. Now we sell more weapons worldwide than the rest of the world combined, and the Bush administration wants to sell more. But don’t get the wrong impression: It has nothing to do with profit. As quoted recently in most major press:

“This is not about being gunrunners,” said Bruce Lemkin, the air force deputy under secretary who is helping coordinate many of the biggest sales. “This is about building a more secure world.”

I certainly feel safer knowing the Saudis and Israelis are well-armed. So what if a few executives get rich? Those Muslims hate us because we are free. And what kind of name is `Obama’ anyway?

We are, right now, facing the most serious collapse of U.S. financial institutions since the great depression. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans have lost their homes and major banks are in collapse. None of this impacts the people who caused it. “Corporations” – imaginary legal constructs created to transfer the risk of capitalism to the people while leaving the profit with owners – may fail, but the CEOs retire with millions. If an assembly-line worker screws up and costs the company a few thousand dollars, he’ll be fired and left with nothing. If a CEO’s greed wrecks an entire industry, he goes home to his mansion with a multi-million-dollar pension. All of this is facilitated by reckless deregulation and massive tax cuts for the rich, but don’t get upset children: That Hussein guy wants to raise our taxes, and he taught kindergartners about sex, and McCain was a war hero.

“Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught.

They lowered him down as a king.

But when the shadowy sun sets on the one

That fired the gun

He’ll see by his grave

On the stone that remains

Carved next to his name

His epitaph plain

Only a pawn in their game.”

Electing Obama, on its own, won’t change anything fundamental in this country. It won’t save the environment, won’t end poverty, won’t transform our militaristic foreign policy and won’t restore civil liberties. Only community organizers like Medgar Evers will do that. But their job will be a hell of a lot easier with Obama in the White House than McCain. If you are going to vote for McCain, at least do it with your eyes open. Do it because you are already rich and want to be richer, consequences for others be damned. The real power brokers in the Republican Party don’t care whether gays get to marry. They don’t believe that Obama would hand the country over to Arabs. They don’t believe in apocalyptic religious struggles, love cheap illegal immigrant labor, and know perfectly well that the bulk of our military budget is welfare for the rich. And if Americans ignore this and base their votes instead on gay sex, moose skinning and racial animosity, you can be sure of one thing: In every penthouse in America a CEO will be, in the immortal words of Lou Reed, laughing ’til he wets his pants.

ark Lance is a professor in the philosophy department and a professor and program director in the Program on Justice and Peace. He can be reached at COGNITIVE DISSIDENT appears every other Friday.

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