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RUNNING OUT
OF CHANGE

Why it's so hard to make good things happen

2007

Sam Smith

This is the part of history I don't like. Not the part where people don't know what's happening to them nor the part where they try to do something about it. There's plenty to do in both those parts. No, it's the part where people know there's something wrong but nobody knows what to do and how to do it and so they just sit around or go through the same old motions just as vulnerable as when they didn't know what was going on only now they're also mad and frustrated and confused and nothing happens even though everyone wants it to.

It's also a time of fear and, as boxing trainer Teddy Atlas points out, fear usually lasts longer than the thing you fear. You can count by seconds the time the other boxer smashes you about, but you can count by hours or days the time you spent worrying about it, hours and days that, that beyond their intrinsic pain, can make the thing you fear, when it happens, even worse than it had to be.

So you try to push away the fear and do the same old thing and just wait.

And what are you waiting for? Perhaps for something so catastrophic or moving that everyone changes what they're doing or not doing and does something else. Or for some group of people to do something nobody was expecting and then nothing is the same - typically because the group that does something is too young or too idealistic or too committed to have jettisoned all their hope, or because they're too poor or too beaten down to worry about falling any further.

If you follow history you know these times are going to come but you also know that you're not going to know when they're gong to come and so, if you still care at all, you just keep doing what you have been doing all along and hope that change will come sooner rather than later.

And then sometimes the hope just fizzles out. Like the Zapatistas, the World Trade demonstrations, the immigrant' protests with all their vibrations suggestive of something big about to happen. But in the end, the tectonic plates just stay right where they've been all along.

And what if we have fouled our own souls and psyches as badly as we have fouled the environment? What if we are the rats in a cage we call civilization but which is really the end of a civilization? Maybe we won't become extinct but only lousy versions of what we were once. It happens to other creatures. What gives us the immunity that frogs lack?

I would like to be surprised just like everyone was surprised when a few students sat down at a lunch counter in the 1960s but I'm struck by how many ways the rules have altered since then and how much harder that makes it for the serendipity of change.

Over the past few months I've been jotting some of these ways down on scratch pads, file cards, or the margins of the morning paper. Then one day I started putting them into the computer and even my keyboard almost went into catatonic collapse.

I can't write this, I scolded myself. I will just be aiding the enemy with gratuitous despair.

But the words still seemed true and, in a curious way, offered a glint of courage because they helped diagnose the cause of our suffering and perhaps contained, albeit well concealed, the hint of a cure. By considering these things we might find clues not only as to the true direction of hope but also about why so much of what has been tried hasn't worked. In doing so we may better distinguish between what is truly useless and what is merely the frustrations of the darkest part of the night.

Here then are a few of the ways in which America has become harder to change. Read them not as a victim seeking vindication for weakness or despair but as a mechanic seeking the right place to start the repairs:

- Americans are becoming increasingly socially isolated. It is hard, for example, to imagine a great social revolution with so many ears literally tuned out. And not just to Ipods. Many, as non-profits are finding, are too stressed or too busy to engage in joint ventures beyond the necessary or the profitable. From the hyper schedules of well-ordered pre-schoolers to the adult time destruction by the economy, it is harder to find the room to change.

- We live in a semiosphere of lies, noise and myth - bombarded by advertising, hype, interminable words and by sights and sounds devoid of meaning. The unavoidable ubiquity of these external messages is only a few decades old. Assessing reality in such circumstances is a chancy business at best.

- The media and its manipulators have developed weapons of propaganda far exceeding anything Goebbels could have imagined. Conversely badly needed information is simply not reported. As my nephew Tripp Kise put it, "Information is marginalized, minimalized or spread as disinformation."

- Our educational system increasingly demands answers without thought and it tests for inculcation rather than judging imagination, critical analysis and comprehension. Pursuing change on campus has become a form of disorderly conduct.

- Progressive churches and church leaders have either vanished, become intimidated by the religious and secular right, or operate at funding and energy levels a fraction of what they enjoyed during earlier activist periods.

- Anyone wishing to create a coalition soon runs into the atomization of public interest groups each with their own turf and funding demands and often leery of taking up arms with others of whom their funders might not approve or who might be seeking funds from some of the same sources. Thus easily perceived demands of intramural competition among these groups often overwhelm grander but less obvious common causes.

- At the other end are pseudo movements that create the illusion of mass action while in fact being little more than public relation agencies for particular causes taking up space that a real movement might otherwise occupy. Many of these faux movements are funded by foundations or political groups that aren't all that interested in change anyway.

- A major decline of progressive America occurred during the Clinton years as many liberals and their organizations accepted the presence of a Democratic president as an adequate substitute for the things liberals once believed in. Liberalism and a social democratic spirit painfully grown over the previous 60 years withered during the Clinton administration.

- History has become far less socially important. In preliterate societies, history was inexorably blended with the present and was a living part of current reality. More modern societies put history in its temporal place but still gave it honor and considerable social significance. Now, however, we are increasingly relegating history to the back cable channels and replacing it in schools with driving and anti-drug programs. In its place, our culture gives extraordinary emphasis to the new and the ephemeral. The result is that both the virtues and the horrors of the past are not easily available as organizing or educational tools.

- Our constitutional republic is dead. One may argue whether we have only temporarily lost our way or are moving inexorably towards fascism but, in either case, social and political action lack the protection that comes from a commonly observed moral and democratic core.

- There is no clearly apparent counterculture around which dissent and action can organize itself.

- There are a lack of comfortable social refuges for dissenters.

- There is little sense of solidarity among the unhappy and restless of the country. It seems at times that the evolution of our culture, which has removed so many from family and community and left them to fight their battles on their own, makes the whole idea of solidarity an alien one.

- Nothing can happen for long before its definition and image becomes the intellectual property of a media that couldn't care less for its well being.

- America's most self-serving, self-promoting, self-important, self-absorbed and self-referential establishment - with the least possible justification for any of these traits - has spent the past quarter century destroying our economy, environment and constitution. Establishments are typically obstacles to change; this one has been a deadly enemy.

- We have changed from being a country that makes things to being a country that markets things. An extraordinary number of Americans outside the service industries spend their lives selling products, ideas or images to others. Their targets are no longer considered citizens but merely consumers and even many progressive organizations treat them this way, demanding only their contributions and their signatures. But consumers don't produce change; citizens do.

- More than a few young Americans have mentioned to me that whatever one does will simply get co-opted by greater forces in politics and corporations. This pessimism probably has a far greater hold than is generally recognized.

- The Internet was seen by many of its early users (including myself) as a tool for the restoration of democratic power and the achievement of change. We were wrong. In the years that the Internet has played a marked social role, America has moved dramatically to the right. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it is something that needs to be examined.

- Our lpresidents have been pathologically clever and deceitful in manipulating public opinion and repeatedly dishonest.

- The original 13 colonies - about the size of today's Los Angeles - had a population less than 2% of today's America. This has huge implications for how people relate to one another, how they spend their time, and how they go about getting other people to do good things.

- During the period that the size of the country has doubled, television has become an overwhelming factor in politics, business and social life. The time that televisions are turn on in the average home has increased by an hour just in the past decade.

- Television has had an impact on how people are organized and how organizers think they should be organized. Mass meetings of the sort that built the Populist and Socialist parties are rare; For the typical voter, politics is a virtual and lonely business.

- For most adults, a politics defined by television means that politics has not only become less personal and less communal but less dependent on folklore and local information. Politics was once about things remembered. Politics was also about gratitude. Above all, politics was about relationships. The politician grew organically out of a constituency and remained rooted to it as long as incumbency lasted. Today, we increasingly elect people about whom we have little to remember, to whom we owe no gratitude and with whom we have no relationship except that formed during the great carnie show we call a campaign.

- The media has shifted from being economically and socially representative of its audience to being a part of the establishment that controls the audience. The media can no longer be expected to stand up for its readers or viewers against the establishment.

- The media regularly suppresses debate on major issues such as national health insurance policy and the war on drugs. The media basically functions as a Berlin Wall of the mind, preventing the logical, the fair, the moral from entering public affairs.

- The government and its police have become more aggressively repressive of political action, more fascistic in techniques, and ubiquitous in surveillance.

- There has been, nationally and globally, a marked increase in Christian, Muslim and Jewish radical fundamentalism and aggressive self-righteousness.

- America has increasingly engaged in social bigotry towards groups that earlier would have been considered constituencies to which to appeal. This includes not only immigrants, but pot smokers, the young, the poor, and the overweight. In an older politics, simply thanks to the numbers of voters involved, politicians would have courted rather than alienating such groups. Now some are sent to jail, some are ridiculed, some are deported, some get their subsidies reduced, and some are held up as negative examples.

- Why is this possible? One good reason is that what matters now in campaigns is money - which the votes dutifully follow. Another is that far fewer people bother to vote. If those of voting age turned out today's presidential elections in the same proportion as they had in 1960, there would be 24 million more voters, or nearly 25% more cast ballots. Those are people who have given up on the system or have no idea of how to use it.

- Politicians and the media have conspired to redefine what were once considered "unalienable rights" as matters to be "balanced" at the will of the government by "responsibilities" as defined by that government.

- The direct intervention in politics by criminal - as opposed to merely corrupt - elements, which began with mob's involvement in the Kennedy election, has now become commonplace. In politics, we all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.

- The declining integrity of election systems has not only raised questions about the last two presidential votes, but for some about the value of voting at all.

- Traditional political corruption operated as a feudal system in which the politician was expected to repay favors at the grassroots level. Today's corruption offers no rebate to the average citizen. Instead, one has to be wealthy and powerful to benefit from political corruption.

- Politics is carried out in a culture of impunity in which those in the establishment increasingly see themselves exempt from standards previously established by tradition, community, constitution or ordinary law.

- Ethnic politicians - both black and latino - have retreated to, or been pushed into, the security of a ghettoized politics in which their positions are both safe and largely irrelevant. Given the perversity of our non-proportional election system, minority politicians can only exercise real influence when they lead the majority but most minority politicians - aided by the effects of growing gerrymandering - find themselves instead living on political reservations where what they do and think really doesn't matter. When one occasionally breaks out, such as Barak Obama, it is only because he represents a safe change in color without any significant change in politics.

- The drug Soma, obstacle golf, Feelie movies and Centrifugal Bumble-puppy were used in Huxley's Brave New World to placate the masses. These have been supplanted by a enormous variety of political tranquilizers ranging from actual drugs to distractions such as video games and even substitute elections such as American Idol and Survivor. Never have Americans in their off-work hours had so many ways to avoid what is really going on. Never have so many Americans been deactivated in imagination, creativity and energy by drugs prescribed by medicine rather than by taking those of their own choice.

Short of exile, how does one deal with such a situation? Merely berating it is futile, yet ignoring it is masochistic.

Part of the value in detailing our problem is that it reminds us in how many ways what we have been doing about it hasn't worked. Move On hasn't worked but then neither has the Green Party. The conventional media hasn't worked but then neither has the Internet. Thoughtful analysis hasn't helped but then neither have blogger rants or political pop theater.

Admittedly, maybe all we're waiting for is one of those mysterious moments when everything starts to move, a phase transition that frees up action, hope, and decency. Maybe nothing will work until forces that refuse to be hurried find themselves suddenly aligned.

But it is more likely that we simply haven't caught up with the number and mass of new influences affecting people and their politics so that we are, in effect, still fighting the last war.

What if, on the other hand, we accept that our approach to politics may be anachronistic and start asking questions that might lead us towards some new answers. Questions like:

- How does one increase the solidarity among those in opposition to greed-grounded and repressive forces in the face of all the distractions and disabilities of our semiotic addictions?

- How does one avoid the wheel spinning typical of normal progressive gatherings with their stolidly pre-determined agendas that limits both participants and results?

- Many Democrats, Greens, and Libertarians agree on some critical issues. Why is it so difficult to create cross-over coalitions on matters such as civil liberties?

- How could the Internet be better used to create broad-based consensus rather than being a largely tool for groups clever at niche manipulation? How do we make the Internet the virtual lower house of parliament in a world in which the major division is between governments and their peoples?

- What effect could voting reforms such as public campaign financing or instant runoff voting have? Don't we have to change the rules of the game before we stand a chance of winning it?

- How do we reintegrate politics and culture so that the former is no longer relegated to television but reflects and grows out of the latter? How do we train activists to make politics a part of culture again?

- Couldn't we at least have a button or logo - as with the peace symbol in the 60s - that would help us to know how many others draw from the same well of the soul?

- Which of our current habits bear up under today's conditions? Are marches and demonstrations really an effective way to produce change? Do we use radio enough? Do we use music as effectively as we might?

These are just a few examples of the sort of things worth discussing in seeking a new era in progressive politics that is not so heavily driven by traditional practices that once worked but no longer do.

Give each of the aforementioned problems some time and some meetings and some emails and some debates and maybe we can do better than we do right now. Give each problem some lateral thinking and maybe the guy on the left in the last row will come up with a new idea.

We can't lose anything from trying because even if we don't succeed we're only taking time and energy away from failure - so, at worse, it will just be a draw. And, as our belated awakening to ecological disaster reminds us, it is better to spend our time trying to figure out how the world really is than how we thought it was during the last war - which we didn't win either.