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