SIDE OF POLITICS
[A talk to the Claim Democracy conference
organized by the Center for Voting & Democracy]
I rise to interrupt your proceedings -
logical, thoughtful, and well constructed though they are - to
suggest something oddly subversive: that people only get involved
in politics in large numbers when it becomes more than politics,
when it is more than a logical, thoughtful and well constructed
process, when it is more even than a ideology. They get involved
when politics becomes a normal, convivial, exciting and satisfying
part of their social existence. I want to talk for a moment about
the non-rational, inefficient, even sometimes almost indescribable
elements of a politics that works.
Come with me for a moment to the time of
when politics was so much a part of New York City that Tammany
Hall had to rent Madison Square Gardens for its meetings of committeemen
- all 32,000 of them. . In contrast, when the Democratic National
Committee decided to send a mailing to its workers some years
back, it found that no one had kept a list. The party had come
to care only about its donors.
We got rid machines like Tammany because
we came to believe in something called good government. But in
throwing out the machines we also tossed out a culture and an
art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia,
we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were
somehow by association criminal as well.
One Tammany politician, George Washington
Plunkitt, claimed to know every person in his district, their
likes and their dislikes:
"A young feller gains a reputation
as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball
club. That fixes him. You'll find him workin' for my ticket at
the polls next election day. . . I rope them all in by givin'
them opportunities to show themselves off. I don't trouble them
with political arguments. I just study human nature and act accordin'."
In the world of Plunkitt, politics was not something handed down
to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King or George
Will. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience,
memory and gratitude.
So the first non-logical but necessary
thing we must do to reclaim democratic politics is to bring it
back into our communities, into our hearts to bring it back home.
True politics, in imitation of baseball,
the great American metaphor, is also about going home. Yet like
so much in our national life, we are only going through the motions,
paying ritualistic obeisance to a faith we no longer follow.
In fact, we have lost our way home.'
We must not only make politics a part of
our culture but make our culture a part of our politics. The
first political campaign in which I took part - at the age of
12 in Philadelphia - featured a candidate who made ten to twelve
appearances every evening on different street corners, preceded
by a string band that attracted the crowd. By the time, he was
finished he held an outdoor rally for 12,000 in front of city
hall. How often have you seen that?
I remember something else from that period
- a record my father brought home of labor songs. I do not remember
anything anyone said from that time, but I do recall bits and
pieces of those songs. As Joe Hill said, 'A pamphlet, no matter
how well-written, is read once and then thrown away - but a song
There are folks who understand this. For
example, the punk rock movement has stood out over the past two
decades, not just as an accessory to politics but as politics
itself waiting for the political activists to take over.
This is no unusual. After all Billy Holiday
sang about lynching long before the civil rights movement took
Recently the Hungarian ambassador was invited
to speak at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His topic: the
role of rock in the downfall of the Hungarian dictatorship. He
knew about it for he had been a rock musician himself.
In 1993 Rage Against the Machine stood
naked on stage for 15 minutes without singing or playing a note
in a protest against censorship.
In 1997, well before most college students
were paying any attention to the issue, Rage's Tom Morello was
arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor.
Throughout this period no members of the
band were invited to discuss politics with Ted Koppel or Jim
Lehrer. But a generation heard them anyway. Rage T-shirts became
a common sight during the 1999 Seattle protest.
We also need to do a better job of helping
people justify to themselves why they should become active. Activists
naturally are always looking for action, but helping people find
the right attitude sometimes comes first. Especially in a time
when no action seems adequate
Among those who understood this were the
beats of the 1950s. It is instructive during a time in which
even alienated progressives outfit themselves with mission and
vision statements and speak the bureaucratic argot of their oppressors
to revisit that under-missioned, under-visioned culture of what
Norman Mailer called the "psychic outlaw" and "the
rebel cell in our social body." What Ned Plotsky termed,
"the draft dodgers of commercial civilization."
Unlike today's activists they lacked a
plan; unlike those of the 60s they lacked anything to plan for;
what substituted for utopia and organization was the freedom
to think, to speak, to move at will in a culture that thought
it had adequately taken care of all such matters.
To a far great degree than rebellions that
followed, the beat culture created its message by being rather
than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility
rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and
music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal
Finally, we need to help others find a
place in their time by standing outside of their time. This is
not easy in a culture so riveted to the bottom line, one that
has even worked out a way to have a first date that lasts only
three minutes. We must help people learn that while we can't
control history we can absolutely control our reaction to it.
This involves a revival of that too much forgotten philosophy
of existentialism, which has been well defined as the idea that
no one can take your shower for you. We are what we do, what
we say, and how we react. As one existentialist put it, even
the condemned man has a choice how to approach the gallows.
For example, knowing what you know now,
would you have been an abolitionist in 1820, a feminist in 1870,
a labor organizer in 1890? Or would you have said, why bother?
In 1848 the first women's conference was held at Seneca Falls.
Of the three hundred persons there, only two women lived long
enough to vote. Would you have gone to Seneca Falls anyway?
The trouble is we know how that one turned
out. We don't know how this meeting will turn out. And precisely
because any of us who attempt to change history's course are
wandering in the wilderness, we need each other, we need sources
of courage, and we need the music and the art to carry use through
until the laws and policies make sense.
Our society faces what William Burroughs
called a biologic crisis -- "like being dead and not knowing
it." Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life
simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We must 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 have lost much of what was gained in
the past because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic
and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of
our leaders. 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 and
rock groups in Hungary. 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 rebel not as a last act of desperation but
as a first act of creation.