Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 8, 2009


David Sirota, Open Left - Over the last decade, I went from idealistic college kid, to idealistic Hill staffer, to cynical political campaign operative, to angry/angsty writer/activist, to full-time journalist, and in this last stage, I've hit an existential question that I think many are struggling with in their own lives, regardless of their age: What the fuck am I doing?

What, for instance, am I doing working in a media/political business that is so often governed with no rhyme or reason, and so often rewards the foolish, the stupid and the immoral? For every Rachel Maddow, there are five Sean Hannitys, but it's not even that. That's just an ideological bias against progressives, and that I can make sense of (even though it disgusts me). The worse truth - the one I simply cannot grasp - is that for every Harold Meyerson (ie. for every legitimately brilliant progressive writer) there are 25 Joe Kleins (ie. braindead megaphones). . .

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to throw my computer out the window, wear my PJ's and a robe to the supermarket, and play Halo all Though I certainly don't want that for myself (thus, my flee to the sanity of the Rocky Mountain West), I'm struggling with the questions about the system. I wonder: What am I doing working in a system that creates those desires, rewards that idiocy, and creates a gross incentive structure?

Thanks to the economic meltdown, ensuing AIG bonuses, and promotion of economic criminals to top White House jobs, it has never been more clear that the American economy and political system is one that rewards everything we say we don't want to reward. The media world I work in rewards David Brooks, the economy rewards AIG executives, the political system rewards Larry Summers. It's all the same fucking thing - everything we say we want to punish, but instead systemically cheer on.

So again, what the fuck are we doing? Why do we just sit here and take it? And if we're not going to take it, what the hell should we do? Most of us who have a job are totally overworked - we barely have time for our families. Those of us who are out of work are scratching and clawing to survive - they barely have time for anything else. So what should we do?

I don't have an answer to these existential questions...at least not yet. And I certainly don't know what to do in reaction to asking them. One voice in the chorus that is my inner monologue says "you're right, what am I doing? Fuck this, I'm moving to Costa Rica."* Another voice says "I'm not getting out - I'm doing the right thing by keeping the faith that this is important work." And yet another voice says, "Just don't ask those questions - they will only give you heartbreak."

Sam Smith, 2004 - We must learn to stand outside of history. Quakerism, for example, prescribes personal witness as guided by conscience - regardless of the era in which we live or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And the witness need not be verbal. The Quakers say "let your life speak," echoing St. Francis of Assisi's' advice that one should preach the gospel at all times and "if necessary, use words."

There are about as many Quakers today in America as there were in the 18th century, around 100,000. Yet near the center of every great moment of American social and political change one finds members of the Society of Friends. Why? In part because they have been willing to fail year after year between those great moments. Because they have been willing in good times and bad -- in the instructions of their early leader George Fox -- "to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one "

The existentialists knew how to stand outside of history as well. Existentialism, which has been described as the idea that no one can take your shower for you, is based on the hat trick of passion, integrity and rebellion. An understanding that we create ourselves by what we do and say and that, in the words of one of their philosophers, even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows.

Those who think history has left us helpless should recall the abolitionist of 1830, the feminist of 1870, the labor organizer of 1890, or the gay or lesbian writer of 1910. They, like us, did not get to choose their time in history but they, like us, did get to choose what they did with it.

Would we have been abolitionists in 1830?

In 1848, 300 people gathered at Seneca Falls, NY, for a seminal moment in the American women's movement. On November 2, 1920, 91 year-old Charlotte Woodward Pierce became the only signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions who had lived long enough to cast a ballot for president.

Would we have attended that conference in 1848? Would we have bothered?

Or consider the Jewish cigar makers in early 20th century New York City each contributing a small sum to hire a man to sit with them as they worked - reading aloud the classic works of Yiddish literature. The leader of the cigar-makers, Samuel Gompers, would later become the first president of the American Federation of Labor. And those like him would become part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left.

These are the sort of the stories we must find and tell each other during the bad days ahead. But there is a problem. The system that envelopes us becomes normal by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis -- "like being dead and not knowing it." Or as Matthew Arnold put it, trapped between two worlds, one dead, the other unable to be born.

The unwitting dead -- universities, newspapers, publishing houses, institutes, councils, foundations, churches, political parties -- reach out from the past to rule us with fetid paradigms from the bloodiest and most ecologically destructive century of human existence. What should be merely portraits on the wall of our memories run our lives still, like parents who retain perpetual hegemony over the souls of their children.

Yet even as we complain about and denounce the entropic culture in which we find ourselves, we are unable bury it. We speak of a new age but make endless accommodations with the old. We are overpowered and afraid.

To accept the full consequences of the degradation of the environment, the explosion of incarceration, the creeping militarization, the dismantling of democracy, the commodification of culture, the contempt for the real, the culture of impunity among the powerful and the zero tolerance towards the weak, requires a courage that seems beyond us. We do not know how to look honestly at the wreckage without an overwhelming sense of surrender; far easier to just keep dancing and hope someone else fixes it all.

We are overpowered and afraid. We find ourselves condoning things simply because not to do so means we would then have to -- at unknown risk -- truly challenge them.

Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.

It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage to emigrate from one's own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.

How one does this can vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let alone screaming for help.

We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. Unitarian church basements. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.

Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We must rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.


Anonymous Justice said...

Another Year - A Biography Of My Spirit

another year of rockets launching
another year of bombs raining
another year of madness
another year of landmine amputees, pre and post pubescent

another year of fantastically overpaid and underpaid

another year of struggle of all against all

another year of grab all you can
another million girls sold into sexual slavery
another million blinded for lack of vitamin A
another year of being trampled by everyone above and trampling all those below

another year of stupidity
another year of human intelligence as useful as stupidity, judging by results
another year of pride in our achievements
another year without fairpay
another year of torture, oppression, secret police, kidnappings, disappearings

another year of confidence that things are pretty much as they must be
another year of confidence that things are pretty much as they should be
another year of genocides, assassinations, mercenaries, terrorists, and pardons
another year of toxic spills, lethal products, death of millions by lack of clean glass of water

another year without shame or sorrow
another year of waste of buildings, people, talents, possibilities
another year with pay ranging from a million times to one thousandth of fairpay
another year of war, crime, disturbance, crises, depressions, triads, and cabals

another year of nonearners taking over 90% of earnings
another year of billions with trillions starving 50 million to death

another year when every family in the world working average hard is creating US$200,000 of wealth
another year without taking out of the social pool of wealth as much as you put in
another year of glossy magazine gossip about the rich and famous
another year of action, horror, drama, sci-fi, thriller, war, comedy - children's dvds
another year of government by mafias
another year of between a tenth and a thousandth of fairpay for 90% of families
another year of riots, protests, massacres

another year of giants of overpay and overpower trampling lives, peace, safety, justice and democracy
another year of pulling leaves
another year of hope fatigue
another year of the human chimpanzee not knowing the connection of justice and happiness
another year in which there exists US$1 million in income per starving person
another year of acting like everything is fine
another year of anxieties, money worries, job worries, corporate infighting, dangerous streets
another year of stress, mental breakdown, troubles, abuses
another year of pyramids, schemes, and financial destruction

another year of ostrichism
another year of vendetta-endless-revenging
another year of not knowing that the golden rule is good sense
another year of hurting and being hurt
another year of tyrants driving their millions of slaves to war
another year of thinking the superoverpaid are great
another year of not knowing that no one can contribute to the social pool of wealth more than twice the average of 50 hours a week
another year of bullets and tanks and depleted uranium

another year of everyone in agreement that taxing the income of 99% of the people 99% would lead to extreme disturbance and endless problems

another year of everyone not knowing that 90% of people are taxed between 90% and 99.9%

another year of silence on this super-glaring point from all our most honoured thinkers

another year of humans sharing 98.4% of the genes of chimpanzees
another year of perfect commitment to 'everything I get is mine'
another year of super-scarcity when there is plenty for all
another year of stealing from workers by threat of unemployment
another year of vast horrendous unnecessary suffering for overpaid and underpaid
another year in which all have a birthright to US$200,000 a year per family working average hard, to 10 acres of arable land per family, and to 1/nth of all the natural wealth of the world per person, where n is the human population

another year in which overpay has robbed everyone - overpaid and underpaid - of peace, safety, wealth, and happiness
another year of wealth ceaselessly drifting from underpaid to overpaid
another year in which the 1% overpaid take over 90% of wealth

another year in which the 99% underpaid do not campaign for fairpay, peace and happiness
another year in which the 1% overpaid do not campaign for fairpay, peace and happiness

another year in which 90% of human talent and brains are wasted by gross underpay
another year in which population is uncontrollable because of underpay
another year in which environmental degradation is uncontrollable because of overpower
another year in which topsoil is being lost at the rate of 100% per 100 years

another year when the economy is deprived of the spending power of 90% of people
another year in which war and weaponry increase
another year of revel in our achievements, our erect buildings, our advances in science
another year in which the weaponry can destroy all planet life 60 times over
another year in which humans are unalarmed

another year in which this mother of all messages will not spread like wildfire

another year when people will wish each other a happy new year
another year when people will say that money is unimportant
another year when people will work for money every day and night
another year in which people will have confused and inadequate ideas another year in which people will slight realism
another year in which people will not respond to reality
another year when people will treat themselves at Christmas
another year when people will shoot the messenger
another year when people will punish the teachers of happiness
another year in which people will think they are awake and at peace

another year in which people will think they can have democracy without the people taking responsibility
another year in which we will be as far as possible from liberty, equality and fraternity
another year in which people will be valued in proportion to their assets

another year in which people will not know injustice is theft
another year in which people will not know theft is dangerous
another year in which people will not know that 'everything I get is mine', is theft
another year in which people will not know that unlimited power is unlimited sadism
another year in which people will not know that they are being taxed by inflation
another year in which people will not know that they are giving tens of $thousands to the overpaid
another year in which 99% will not know they would be richer with fairpay
another year in which 100% will not know they would be infinitely better off with fairpay

another year when people will not know that none of the inherited reasons for higher than average pay per hour - business risk, responsibility, brains, talent, skill, experience - are sound

another year in which people will not know that siding with higher pay for business risk, responsibility, brains, talent, skill, experience, will make 100% of them infinitely poorer in happiness

another year in which people will not know that every transaction causes a shift of wealth from earners to nonearners
another year in which people, despite knowing that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and that this is not because of the rich working harder and harder and the poor working less and less, do not know that this is unjust, and that this injustice has turned the human world into a whirlwind of suffering

another year when people will not know that society needs, as the mother of all needs, counterbalances to the ceaseless drift of wealth to the overpaid

another year when people will not cotton onto the survival importance of limiting overpay and underpay

another year in which people will think that pay from a million times to 1000th the average must somehow be right

another year in which people will not know that our greater intelligence has made us vastly more suffering than the other animals

another year in which we will lack the intelligence to be masters of money

another year in which everyone will successfully resist the impression of this message

another year in which the most overpaid will take out a million hours' work for every one he puts into the social pool of wealth created by work

another year in which just 6000 being overpaid up to a million times the fairpay would take all the earnings off the 3 billion workers, and we are within 10% of that

another year in which housewives and students will not be paid
another year in which housewives and students could and should be paid
another year in which genuine workers will have been elbowed out by the more aggressive and moneyhungry in all overpaid jobs, ruining the quality of work in those jobs

another year in which humans will wallow in maximal injustice and call it peace and happiness

another year in which no one will show me I am wrong and no one will say I am right

another year of viagra commercials
another year
another year
another year
another year

April 9, 2009 7:06 AM  
Anonymous Justice wants you to wake up said...

here is my love poem for humanity

a memo to Noah

people are disgusting for not being horrified by the horrors

they are disgusting for a million trivial tv shows amidst the horrors

they are disgusting for not being in earnest to get out of the mess

they are disgusting for not picking up on the hints that have been thrown out to them

they are disgusting for fiddling while the world burns

they are disgusting for their vanity, their self-flattery, their egotism, their prejudice, their violent beliefs

they are disgusting for their denial, for their facile head in the sand behaviour, for the poverty of their horizons

they are disgusting for their lack of shame at not being fair

they are disgusting for their selfdestruction

they are disgusting for many reasons there is no point in listing

most of all they are disgusting for erecting a wealthpoverty, masterslave situation whenever they have an egalitarian opportunity so they can indulge their taste for sadomasochism for a few centuries and then when they get tired of that, have a killfest, and then do it all again

April 9, 2009 7:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Humanity i love you

Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both

parties and because you
unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard

Humanity i love you because
when you're hard up you pawn your
intelligence to buy a drink and when
you're flush pride keeps

you from the pawn shops and
because you are continually committing
nuisances but more
especially in your own house

Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it's there and sitting down

on it
and because you are
forever making poems in the lap
of death Humanity

i hate you

ee cummings

April 9, 2009 9:51 PM  
Anonymous Phebe said...


I enjoy hearing your analysis of political/economic matters on Rachel Maddow Show. Thanks for being so honest in this post. Thanks for being true to yourself in asking these questions. May I suggest--if you don't already--that you take up some kind of meditation practice, seriously, to keep your sanity. Life is much more than politics & economics and you realize that. Not trying to put you out of a job (commentator/analyst), just putting forth an idea. Namaste.
Phebe, a progressive & meditator in Cincinnati, OH

April 11, 2009 10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the epilogue of Peter Dale Scott's "Deep Politics and the Death of JFK", University of Califoria Press (1993): Referring to the period of the Roman Empire when power drifted from the republic to a military empire, "The institutions of the city were preserved...the Senate continued to meet. Tribunes and consuls were elected. Historians wrote about decadence, and moralists vowed to revive the old family virtues. A class accustomed to participate in civic institutions continued to do just that and no more, for generations. People found it preferable to ignore the fact that real power had migrated out of these institutions, into an imperial machine, the armies and the courts of army commanders. The self-respect of the senatorial classes depended on this denial."
Tony Vodvarka

April 30, 2009 8:04 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home