Tuesday, October 14, 2008

THE SWAMPOODLE REPORT: TAKING IT FROM THE TOP AGAIN

Sam Smith, Progressive Review - One of the things about being ahead of the curve is that every once in awhile the curve catches up and what was dismissed as radical rant suddenly becomes conventional thinking or a cliche. Perhaps - as in the present instance - it takes no more than a few days or weeks to implode concepts as massive as thirty years of Reaganesque values, values observed by most who claimed power, ranging from the National Review to National Public Radio, and from John McCain to Barack Obama.

While the introduction of reality is generally a step forward, it does have a couple of problems. One is that the same misguided, misleading and misbegotten crowd is still in charge. For example, I have yet to see one conventional columnist praise Ralph Nader, Dean Baker or Dennis Kucinich for their perception or suggest that we nationalize healthcare coverage so it will be on the same field as banks, that former icon of the free enterprise system.

Instead, the elite treat ideas much like employees. If the quarterly return on a particular idea flops, you simply fire the idea. You certainly don't change those in charge. Thus the new reality is controlled by old incompetents and is soon easily twisted into another fantasy for another three decades or so.

There's not a lot we can do about this, but we have to remember that progressives also have presumptions and that it is also easy for us to cling to old concepts when times dramatically change.

This is a rare moment. If progressives just play by rote, then this moment will pass them by, too. They have to start thinking right now about what's changed and how they're going to deal with it in a changed way.

This doesn't necessarily mean new ideas; it may be as simple as rummaging through memory and archives to find ideas that didn't launch the first time. But one thing is clear: merely being grumpy about Sarah Palin or fawning over Obama is not enough.

Trying to take my own words to heart, a couple of things come to mind - both involving the way that we do things.

The first is the Internet and why progressives have not been more effective with it. As early as 1994 I was enthralled by the Internet's potential, writing in my book, Shadows of Hope:

"The computer, once considered primarily a tool of orthodoxy, has now become a major weapon against authoritarianism. The highly effective campus anti-apartheid protests were organized with the help of a computer bulletin board that advised newcomers how to plan demonstrations and deal with the media. In the last days of the Soviet Union, the relative security of computer information provided dissidents a means of communications with each other and with the outside world. More recently, computers have established the first strong link among environmentalists working to save Lake Baikal in Siberia. . . And thousands of miles away, in the Silicon Valley community of Sunnydale CA, a city councilman was elected with 60% of the vote after campaigning almost exclusively on the Internet computer network."

I remember being particularly struck by the release of a labor leader after the Russian police station received hundreds of calls from angry Internet users around the world. But I also sensed a problem:

"Yet the very anarchistic nature of our new sources of data, -- including computer services, cable channels, special interest magazines, and the archives of our video store -- also means that we may have less information in common. At a time when communications and transportation make it ever simpler to cross geographic and cultural borders, we increasingly seem to make the trip alone. We see far more than we understand or are understood. Louis Farrakhan and the Anti-Defamation League have the same technology available to them but they are checking in at different bulletin boards."

It is a conundrum that still bedevils us: why is this huge window on the world not helping us more?

In part, I suspect, the answer is that the highly pragmatic approach used, say, for the release of that Russian labor leader or in the organizing of college anti-apartheid groups has been increasingly submerged in a spin-drenched, funding hungry and graphic centered approach which is attractive to look at, pleasant to read (if you already agree with what's on the page) but surprisingly short on practical advice such as how to make friends with a state legislator, what forms of demonstrations work best, samples of well written legislation, things that have succeeded elsewhere, key points to make in testimony, where to find new allies and so forth.

The problem is partially in the character of the beast itself. Every medium invites its own style and the Internet is in many ways the opposite of community organizing. It does, after all, give us one more reason not to go to that meeting.

I have, on the Review site, attempted to deal with this by having pages on activism and hidden issues, useful stats on a variety of matters and topic pages that include links to data and organizations. Not much, I admit, but what do you expect from a busker on the corner?

Besides, where are my role models? I spend no small part of each day trying to find facts on all sorts of issues and I'm constantly struck by how difficult it is even when visiting well endowed sites. They are quite ready to tell me how to think but short on information on how to do something with these thoughts other than to have them, add my name to a list and send them some money.

Progressive sites need to think more like community organizers and less like fundraisers and spin meisters. But that brings us to the second problem. A community organizer gathers the social and political assets in a neighborhood and helps to place them on a common course. The typical non-profit today seeks to make itself stand out from those who are meant to be on the same course, but are actually competing for attention and money. Like dysfunctional children, they often don't play well with others.

One of the ways to change this is so mundane it may seem superfluous to mention. Only sadly it isn't.

Over all the years in which I have been involved in one movement or another, I can think of only of a handful of examples since the 1970s when leaders of groups with much in common got together on a regular basis simply to share ideas, enthusiasm and frustrations.

One example was Eric Sterling's wonderful lunches at the Criminal Justice Foundation for those fighting the drug war. Present were those ranging from full legalizers to those just seeking reforms and from lawyers to activists to preachers. Each week someone would speak and then we would sit around and talk. There was no agenda and no pressure. But each week you left a little wiser about something.

At one meeting I casually dropped a one liner about how we needed a group to compete with MADD, maybe something like Mothers Opposed to Mandatory Sentencing - or MOMS. At the lunch was Julie Stewart whose brother had been sentenced to five years for growing some marijuana. Before long, she started a group called FAMM - Families Against Mandatory Minimums - which would become the major voice for decency in sentencing. Thanks to its efforts, since 1994 one in four first time drug offenders entering federal prison has received sentence reductions.

I mention my one liner not to brag but because it illustrates a key point alien to many in a time obsessed with mechanistic approaches to organization: for good things to happen you have to have good places where they can happen. That hardly ever occurs during a tedious discussion of mission statements; it can happen easily over a casual lunch attended by a range of people of common interests but different perspectives.

Some years later, the lunches moved to a non profit on Capitol Hill and the tone of the discussions changed with the locale. Everyone was more directed, more serious and more conventional in conversation. And instead of helping to start a new organization with thousands of members, the best we could come up with were some minor legislative amendments.

Scott McLarty took a new approach with the DC Statehood Green Party; he introduced the notion that it would have business meeting only every other month; the alternate months would be reserved for social events. And Teamsters official Roger Newell - whose activism dates back to the 1960s as a student at DC's Eastern High School - ran a regular meeting for a cross section of local leaders at a homeless shelter, again without a hard agenda, instead relying on the serendipity of the community he gathered. Even without specific results, one left these gatherings invigorated in your own effort and happy to find that you were not as alone as you had thought before you walked into the room.

I was reminded of all this the other day after another absorbing meeting of the local NAACP police justice committee on which I sit. It is a small gathering as, sadly, such things are these days. But on the committee are the executive director of the National Black Police Association, the head of the local gay and lesbian alliance, a couple of officials of the ACLU, the former head of the DC Police community relations task force (and now a university professor) with committee chair and Sirius radio talk show host Marc Thompson. Again, a meeting weak on agenda but strong on support for whatever each participant is up to and powerful enough to raise issue of a unconstitutional police blockade of a community to major attention. (For a nifty example of the local ACLU at work, click here).

There are lots of new ideas and strategies that need to be pursued in the wake of the present collapse. Discovering others who point your way, and sharing with them, is a good place to start. Each town in America could have a monthly lunch for progressive leaders- informal to encourage the novel and discourage the competition, short on agendas and long on ideas.

And if that doesn't work, try something else. Just take it from the top again. All of our worlds have changed. Let's go discover them.

2 Comments:

At October 14, 2008 5:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sam,

A wonderful site. I enjoy all your posts and especially your historical perspective.

Re this: "There's not a lot we can do about this, but we have to remember that progressives also have presumptions and that it is also easy for us to cling to old concepts when times dramatically change.

This is a rare moment. If progressives just play by rote, then this moment will pass them by, too. They have to start thinking right now about what's changed and how they're going to deal with it in a changed way."

What progressives need to understand is that both socialism and capitalism have taken for granted an abundance of the earth's resources. This is no longer the case. I'm in healthcare and have held for some time that our energy and other ecological problems will force us to either nationalize healthcare or see it sold to the extremely wealthy.

The challenge is to seek social justice in a resource constrained world.

 
At October 15, 2008 12:27 AM, Anonymous wellbasically said...

Thought provoking post. If I can give back 1/100th of what you offered here:

Progressive movements are co-opted by the very thing they seek, which is big government takeover. But the progressives are admirers of FDR and the New Deal and that's the major model available to them.

Certain thoughtful people have looked at the 20th century, especially the Depression and the election of FDR, and connected his solutions to the fashion at the time, which was Mussolini's Fascist system in Italy. This was the collusion of Big Government, Big Business and Big Labor to set the policies for the economy.

A lot of FDR admirers have reacted violently at the suggestion that the New Deal was fascist. But in fact if you look at the last few weeks the response from the establishment in both parties was to collect a group of the smartest people and get them to tell us what to do. When I read the headline "From the Top" that's what I thought this post would be about. We don't need more from the Top!

We are in a similar time to the Great Depression, in that the establishment is without good explanations and good answers. FDR jumped in with better wrong answers in my view than Hoover. The results in mid-century were still terrible, I hope we can do better.

 

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