it's so hard to make good things happen
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
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
- 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
Trip 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 15 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 last two presidents have been
pathologically clever and deceitful in manipulating public opinion
and repeatedly dishonest.
- We haven't elected a president
by a clear majority in nearly 20 years which has helped to leave
a sense of a permanent insurmountable division.
- The population of the U.S. has
nearly doubled since 1950; it has increased about 50% since 1970.
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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.