Sam Smith, 2010 – In 1997, WW Norton published my book the Great American Repair Manual, a title that, sixteen years later, seems overly optimistic. Repair is no longer enough. Today, America needs to be rebuilt. Here are some ways we could go about it, based in part on a remix of earlier writings.
A movement is not like a campaign. No one gets to start a movement and no one gets to own it. You don’t have to file any contribution reports. The archaic media pretends you don’t even exist for as long as it can. And it doesn’t even have to have a name.
It’s sort of like the Gulf Stream, hard to see yet undeniable as it moves you faster in a certain direction.
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.”
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.
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.
We have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s 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. 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.
Movements work differently. They don’t use popes; they rely on independent congregations. They are driven not by saviors but by substance. They assume a commitment beyond the voting booth, they think politicians should respond to them rather than the other way around, and they believe in “Here’s how” as well as “Yes, we can.”
If you are presently doing anything to try to repair the damage that has been done by our cynical, greedy and incompetent leadership you are part of the movement. Student, union worker, teacher, retiree, infirm, ecologist, defense attorney, community organizer, informed or reformed – you are part of the movement.
So welcome to the movement. If you don’t believe there is one, trying using the word anyway. The very term is a weapon in our arsenal. If the politicians and the press start hearing the phrase in places they thought had little in common, they will start to pay attention. We can leave it to the historians to define it. In its very ambiguity lies its strength.
From the American revolution to the underground railroad, to the organizing of labor, to the drive for universal suffrage, to the civil rights, women’s, peace and environmental movements, every significant political and social change in this country has been propelled by large numbers of highly autonomous small groups linked not by a bureaucracy or a master organization but by the mutuality of their thought, their faith and their determination.
Whatever the source, it now takes longer, requires more paper, and stirs up more intimations of liability to do almost anything worthwhile than it once did. While our rhetoric overflows with phrases like “entrepreneurship” and “risk-taking,” the average enterprise of any magnitude is actually characterized by cringing caution with carefully constructed emergency exits leading from every corner of chance. We have been taught that were we to move unprotected into time and space, they might implode into us. Every law office is a testament to our fear and lack of trust.
The reporter risking status by telling the truth, the government official risking employment by exposing the wrong, the civic leader refusing to go with the flow — these are all essential catalysts of change. A transformation in the order of things is not the product of immaculate conception; rather it is the end of something that starts with the willingness of just a few people to do something differently. There must then come a critical second wave of others stepping out of a character long enough to help something happen — such as the white Mississippian who spoke out for civil rights, the housewife who read Betty Friedan and became a feminist, the parents of a gay son angered by the prejudice surrounding him.
Too often today, we expect our leaders to do our work for us, to save us, to redeem us. There is little sense of the wisdom laid down by Eugene Debs: “Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.”
I learned this secret many years ago when I first became involved in activism. The issue then was an unwanted fare increase by DC Transit. The organizer was the heavily black and young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee but the participants came from all over including 100,000 riders who stayed off the buses. Then we went on to stop a Los Angeles like freeway system planned for the capital with an alliance that included old leftists, preservationists, SNCC, and black and white middle class homeowners threatened with removal.
Over and over, the best causes of the sixties and seventies – from ending the Vietnam War to the young environmental movement – found their strength in issues that could attract people who might not agree on everything but did on those issues. Just like Saul Alinksky, the god father of issue based activism, told us.
Sane and decent America is acting like gays in the closet. Having been convinced by the corporate media and our leaders – either by being ignored or dismissed – that its views have no status or power, it accepts the unacceptability that has been assigned to it.
What is missing is not organization but the multitudinous confluences that create a culture – yes, organization, but also music, spirit, values, gatherings, habits. . .
To be sure we have grisly imitations all around us: coffee shop culture replaced by Starbucks, “hip” apparel determined by multinational corporations; a presidential candidate promising “hope” and “change” but providing neither, teens learning to scream at music rather than listen to it in preparation for lifetime service as loyal consumers. Whether it’s Facebook, Abercrombie & Fitch or Barack Obama, our task is to buy it and shut up.
When, if ever, we think of counterculture, pot, love beads, and Joan Baez may come to mind. Or bongo drums and berets. Or freedom schools and singing We Shall Overcome.
While they are just examples from particular times, they are instructive because they reveal something our intellect easily forgets: change is an act of art and music and theater as much as of organization; of symbols as much as substance, of informal dress on a bar stool as much as formal addresses on a podium.
And above all, positive change doesn’t need a mission statement, strategic plan, or table of organization; it requires the creation of a community of common dreams and values and a meaningful way to express them.
So you’re lonely, but you also cling to the faith that at some point millions who also feel lonely, angry and sad will come out of their cautious closets and discover each other – not just for a protest, not just for a piece of legislation, not just for one cause, but for the sum of what a better America might be like- and to follow the advice of Alan Watts: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
Every time I see a young child wearing a T shirt with a peace symbol, the irony hits home. That half century old sign still has more power than anything describing our present condition.
Countercultures are about everything beyond our specific agendas. In the Sixties for example, the peace, anti-poverty and civil right movements shared alternative space because there was so much more behind what they were up to than just their chosen priorities.
Today, our various causes share too little beyond isolation and lack of common ground with others. The Green Party and labor unions don’t know each others. Nor the prison reformers and the anti-war activists. What will bring us together is not our agendas but our spirits and our souls.
And remember: 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 once visited the Clearwater Festival with my family. Over 90 performers were there on the Hudson River bank – ranging from Blues and Funk to Cajun and Zydeco. And with the revival music was a clear message of reviving the earth.
I was prepared to be bored, like going to one more political antique show. Instead, I found myself in a place of magic, surrounded by happy, decent and lively people. I felt good about America as I watched a woman singing “Union Maid” and clogging between the verses – as I rediscovered the almost forgotten notion of activism and joy bound together.
You don’t find it much in modern politics. There’s a stiffness, an artificiality and the assignment of potential activists to a passive seat in the audience. A few elite performers instead of large numbers of unskilled voices. A message rather than conversation. Watching Live Earth on TV rather than wandering around the Clearwater Festival.
Symbols are more than marketing or PR. The symbols we use define not just a cause or its image but signal our relationship to it. Among the missing:
– Even with a broadly despised war, there is no simple icon like the 1960s peace symbol.
– There is no hand greeting like the “V” sign or a special hand clasp.
– There is no color associated with supporters of a new America.
– There is a stunning silence. The disappearance of easily recalled tunes in popular music has taken sound away from our collective lips, leaving a silence that “like a cancer grows.”
– There is a lack of art of literature that clearly reflects the collapse of the First American Republic, or our present political purgatory – what Eric Budon of the Animals has called “the endarkenment.”
One has to go back to the Great Society to find a time when Democrats knew what they were doing and how to describe it. The Greens have an agenda, but it is complex and undifferentiated. Meanwhile, the GOP has happily gone about oversimplifying life to God and gays, abortion and Al Qaeda, and the left still can’t figure out why it’s losing.
Quick: describe the progressive agenda in a few sentences.
If we can’t do it, how the hell is the media and the public meant to know?
The point here is not to define the list, but to argue the need for one. It might be both broad as:
– Changing our foreign policy so fewer people want to kill us for it
– Restoring economic progress to all Americans, not just for those at the top
– Providing single payer healthcare
– Saving the planet from further ecological destruction
And it might be as specific as:
– Instant runoff voting
– Ending credit card usury
– Shifting public budgets from cars and planes to buses, bicycles and trains
I might not even agree with these lists tomorrow, but it only took 70 words and you already have a pretty good idea of where I’m coming from, which is more than you can say of most Democrats these days.
One of the reason that history has been so downgraded in the current assaultS on public education such as Common Core is because it can be a radical tool of change.
Every repressive or corrupt government relies not only upon its lies about the present but about those of the past. It is particularly important that those the system wishes to suppress know as little as possible about a past that might not only give them more pride in their culture but teach them ways that others of their ilk have dealt with the problems before them
Here’s how teacher Craig Thurtell discussed Common Core in the History News Network:
[The Common Core standards] express an antipathy to the humanities in general and insensitivity to the practice of history in particular, and this problem is closely related to their non-historical approach to historical texts. This approach also permits the allocation of historical texts to English teachers, most of whom are untrained in the study of history, and leads to history standards that neglect the distinctiveness of the discipline. If implemented as their authors intend, the common core will damage history education.
To assess the potential consequences of the standards for history education, it is illuminating to examine how an adopting state has gone about implementing them. In New York, a state-sponsored website called EngageNY.org offers “exemplar” lessons in ELA and math…
The ELA exemplars demonstrate a careful fidelity to the common core. In a piece published in the Washington Post, Jeremiah Chaffee, an English teacher in New York, explained his dissatisfaction with the lesson on the Gettysburg Address he and his colleagues were asked to develop using an EngageNY exemplar.
All the “Guiding Questions” provided on Lincoln’s Address are “text-dependent,” and most of them demand a literal, as opposed to interpretive, understanding of the text. A few examples illustrate the approach:
“What does Lincoln mean by ‘four score and seven years ago?’”
“When Lincoln says the nation was ‘so conceived and so dedicated’ what is he referring to?
“What if Lincoln had used the verb ‘start’ instead of ‘conceive?’”
“What four specific ideas does Lincoln ask his listeners to commit themselves to at the end of his speech?”
“What does the word ‘dedicate,’ mean the first two times Lincoln uses it, and what other verb is closely linked to it the first two times it appears?”
These questions reveal an aversion to interpretation of the speech’s historical significance…
A page of the exemplar is devoted to explaining why “non-text dependent questions” like “Why did the North fight the Civil War?” and “Did Lincoln think that the North was going to ‘pass the test’ that the Civil War posed?” divert students from text comprehension:
Answering these sorts of questions require students to go outside the text, and indeed in this particular instance asking them these questions actually undermines what Lincoln is trying to say. Lincoln nowhere in the Gettysburg Address distinguishes between the North and South (or northern versus southern soldiers for that matter). Answering such questions take the student away from the actual point Lincoln is making in the text of the speech regarding equality and self-government.”
In fact, no historian or history teacher could read the Gettysburg Address in the manner insisted upon by the exemplar, which should, at minimum, remand it to the drawing board. Its admonitions against a historical approach reveal a disheartening ignorance of historical thinking. In the hands of the common core’s New York exemplarians, the Address is to be utilized as an “informational text.”
Learning the real history and culture of one’s society can be one of the most radical experiences in life. Among the best role models – and stunningly different from Common Core – were the Freedom Schools of the civil rights movement. These not only helped create enthusiasm for the movement of the time, but helped grow black studies over time.
Here are just a few excerpts from the Freedom Schools’ guide that gives a sense of how they approached the matter of history:
Slave ships: Description of the slave ships and the manner in which the slaves were packed into the hold of the ship. The route of the slave ships would illustrate the economic basis of slavery, as well as the various nations involved in the trade. Example: the Amistad slave ship and the Cuban planters.
Slave Revolts: Illustrates the many revolts occurring even before the slaves arrived on American shores. Further instruction could include a description of the utter despair on the part of the slaves, as witnessed by cases where Africans jumped overboard in order to escape a life of servitude. Slave revolts on board the ships can be recalled during a study of insurrections in America, e.g., Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, etc. The underground railroad and Harriet Tubman, even John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry might be included in a discussion of revolts. One could include here a general discussion of slavery, if time allows, and use Frederick Douglass as a guide. All of these things can be mentioned and discussed so that when the same issues come up later, they can be recalled. It is most important that the students understand that protest is nothing new for Negroes and this study clearly illustrates that point.
Abolitionism: The founding of the American Missionary Society lends itself to a discussion of the many persons both white and Negro, who devoted their lives to abolishing slavery. This might include a discussion of men such as Wendell Phillips and Lloyd Garrison, as well as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. One should also include Elijah Lovejoy of Illinois, who was killed because of an abolitionist newspaper.
Now imagine yourself a young black student faced with the Common Core standards approach to the Gettysburg address or the Freedom School approach to slavery. Which one would be most likely to encourage you to read, think and write better and even become an activist?
The Freedom School approach was one of the great examples of American activism and change being born in a classroom. It could be emulated today by environmentalists, labor unions and many others.
Note: The Freedom Schools curriculum is fascinating in a variety of topics including reading and writing. As the site points out: “The Freedom School Curriculum is one of the best examples of an effective progressive curriculum whose goal was to give students’ academic as well as democratic citizenship skills. This site includes the original curriculum with supporting primary source materials, a brief historical context and suggestions for how to use the FSC as curriculum today. Among those that we hope will find this material helpful are people starting modern freedom schools, high school and middle school teachers as well as progressive historians and teacher educators.”
Just as progressive goals are lost in the mush, the same could be said of values. In fact, there may be less consensus possible than one might imagine. How do you get the Manhattan liberal to worry about and respect the drought-stricken Montana farmer? How do you get well-off gays to concern themselves with the urban poor? How do you get women’s groups to recognize the degree to which non-college educated young men are the ones really in the rear these days? How do you blend the liberal, the populist, the civil libertarian and the green?
One thing is for certain: we don’t know because we haven’t tried. To a stunning degree, progressive and libeal politics has been defined by the right.
One way to start is to commence talking about it, finding common ground, testing who we really are and what we have in common.
A few questions to start the discussion:
– Can urban progressives find common ground with non-urban Americans?
– Why have the values of populism and civil liberties become so far less important among liberal agenda?
– How do we form debates so the door is open to gather supporters and not chase them away?
– Why isn’t community – including local control – more important to the progressive movement of the day?
– How do we foster the idea of reciprocal liberty – I can’t be free unless you have your freedom – rather than having freedom defined by purists on either the left or the right?
In my book, The Great American Political Repair Manual, I outlined some values that I thought were central to what I called a cooperative commonwealth, such as:
– We seek to be good stewards of our earth, good citizens of our country, good members of our communities, and good neighbors of those who share these places with us.
– We reject the immoderate tone of current politics, its appeal to hate and fear, its scorn for democracy, its preference for conflict over resolution, its servility to money and to those who possess it, and its deep indifference to the problems of ordinary Americans.
– We seek a cooperative commonwealth based on decency before profit, liberty before sterile order, justice before efficiency, happiness before uniformity, families before systems, communities before corporations, and people before institutions.
– We should tread gently upon the earth and leave it in better condition than we found it.
– The physical and cultural variety of human beings is a gift and not a threat. We are glad that the world includes many who are different from ourselves by nature, principle, inclination or faith.
– We must protect the right of others to disagree with us so we shall be free to speak our own minds.
– Our national economic goal is the self-sufficiency, well-being and stability of our communities and those living in them.
– Ecological principles should determine economic policies and not vice versa.
– The first source of expertise is the wisdom of the people.
– Individuals possess fundamental rights that are inalienable and not contingent on responsibilities assigned by the state. These rights are to be restrained only by a due concern for the health, safety, and liberty of others and are not to be made subservient to the arbitrary and capricious dictates of the government.
– Citizens should participate as directly as possible in our democracy
– The media should inform citizens and provide a means by which citizens may address government rather than serving as a vehicle by which members of the government and elites tell citizens what to think.
– Power should be devolved to the lowest practical level.
-The Bill of Rights and other constitutional provisions have deep permanence and are not to be manipulated or abridged for political gain.
– Politics dependent on corporate financing and lobbyist influence is corrupt, anti-democratic and unacceptable.
– Simplicity, conservation and recycling should be central to our economy, our politics and our lives.
– Individual privacy is paramount and not to be subservient to the needs of the state.
– Individual rights are manifestly superior to any granted corporations.
– Our elected officials are servants and representatives, not rulers.
– We need more community more than we need more things.
– We are citizens and not merely taxpayers.
– We own our government and are not merely its consumers.
Change it, rewrite it, scrap it, but put something down that explains to us and others what it is we value.
Under the present political rules there is virtually no chance of decency, fairness or common sense prevailing, because these rules function in a culture that is largely devoid of such values. To change anything, you have to change the culture, in our case a culture of greed, social indifference, arrogance and cruelty that has thrived for some three decades.
This culture is not just a matter of law, or even of corporate propaganda and manipulation. It has also included distorted education by supposed intellectuals and their universities, sleazy business school concepts so pervasive that even virtuous non-profits adopted them, and selfish values passed on by a media that thought it was just saying the obvious.
This is not new. Every major change requires a cultural transformation. Sure, the politicians will ultimately inscribe it as law, but before that there must be a massive alteration in how people see, understand, and believe things.
Think about the civil rights movement. Before it, even those who knew there was something badly wrong didn’t know what to do about it, didn’t dare say it, or didn’t know who else might be thinking the same thing. The movement liberated these suppressed feelings and gave them a visible and powerful new home long before the first civil rights measure was passed.
So it is today. For three decades America has increasingly been going along with the lies of the corporate elite. In time, these lies became remarkably successful in destroying the culture of progress that had blessed this land from the New Deal to the Great Society, and had dramatically improved the role of the worker, the middle class, blacks, and women, just to name a few
And then it stopped.
But, again, it wasn’t a law or a collection of laws at first. It was a change in the language, the values, the icons and the clichés. It was a new culture that incrementally eradicated what had preceded it and replaced it with what we have today.
To get a sense of how irrational and strange this change has been, consider that among today’s major pop cultural icons are Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians. Now look at our political icons and consider how similar they are: vapid, talentless, unreliable creatures famous merely for being famous.
Each movement of cultural change does it differently. Some want admission to the culture. Some want to turn it upside down. Some want to make it irrelevant. Some dream of replacing it with something far better.
And within each movement, each individual can see it differently and perhaps a consensus will be hard to reach.
There is a lusty tradition in American politics of citizens of disparate sorts, places, and status coming together to put power back in its proper place. At such times, the divides of politics, the divisions of class, the contrasts of experience fade long enough to reassert the primacy of the individual over the state, democracy over oligopoly, fairness over exploitation and community over institution. This could be such a time if we are willing to risk it, and one of the soundest way to start is to trade a few old shibboleths for a few new friends.
The history of existentialism is murky and confusing, for those lumped in the category have agreed on neither religion nor politics. But for the purposes of getting a life rather than tenure, Jean Paul Sartre’s definition works pretty well. Sartre believed that existence precedes essence. We are what we do. This is the obverse of predestination and original sin with their presumption of an innate essence. Said Sartre, “Values rise from our actions as partridges do from the grass beneath our feet.”
In fact, some existentialists argue that we are not fully us until we die because until that moment we are still making decisions and taking actions that define ourselves. Even the condemned person, one said, has a choice of how to approach the gallows.
Wrote Sartre: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism . . . Man is condemned to be free. . . From the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”
To show just how murky existentialism can be, one of the most famous existentialist writers, Albert Camus, even denied he was one.
Perhaps this antipathy stemmed in part from the fact that Camus was a novelist rather than a philosopher like Sartre, and perhaps because they disagreed on politics, but whatever you want to call it, few have spoken as wisely on behalf of the uncertain human spirit. “There is no love of life without despair of life,” said Camus. “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”
These are not the precise and pedagogical words of a philosophy rising, yet, as with art and love, there is no particular reasons why life should be hostage to logical words, among the least fluid of human expressions. Robert Frost, asked to explain a poem, replied that if he could have said it better he would have written it differently. Louis Armstrong, asked for a definition of jazz, replied that if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And, said Gertrude Stein, there ain’t no answer. There never was an answer, there ain’t going to be an answer. That’s the answer.
Quakerism also prescribes personal witness as guided by conscience – regardless of the era in which we live or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They were early existentialists.
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.”
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?
On the other hand, there was the time in early 1960 when four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in 15 cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to 54 cities in nine states. By April the leaders of these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Four students did something and America changed. Even they, however, couldn’t know what the result would be.
In a world dominated by dichotomies, debate, definition and deconstruction, existentialism suggests not a result but a way, not a solution but an approach, not goal but a far and misty horizon. It is, says Robert Solomon “a sensibility …. an attitude towards oneself, an attitude towards one’s world, an attitude towards one’s behavior.”
The sense of being individually responsible yet part of a seamless web of others produces neither certainty nor excuses. One can, one must, be responsible without the comfort of being sure. Camus once admitted that he would be unwilling to die for his beliefs. He was asked why. “What if I’m wrong?” And when he spoke of rebellion he also spoke of moderation:
There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and thinking which is possible on the level of moderation which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. . . Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests. … The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas of optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.
The existential spirit, its willingness to struggle in the dark to serve truth rather than power, to seek the hat trick of integrity, passion and rebellion, is peculiarly suited to our times. We need no more town meetings, no more expertise, no more public interest activists playing technocratic chess with government bureaucrats, no more changes in paragraph 324B of an ineffectual law, no more talking heads. Instead we need an uprising of the soul, that spirit which Aldous Huxley described as “irrelevant, irreverent, out of key with all that has gone before . . . Man’s greatest strength is his capacity for irrelevance. In the midst of pestilences, wars and famines, he builds cathedrals; and a slave, he can think the irrelevant and unsuitable thought of a free man.”
We need to think the unthinkable even when the possible is undoable, the ideal is unimaginable, when power overwhelms truth, when compulsion replaces choice. We need to lift our eyes from the bottom line unto the hills, from the screen to the sky, from the adjacent to the hazy horizon.
The key to both a better future and our own continuous faith in one is the constant, conscious exercise of choice even in the face of absurdity, uncertainty and daunting odds. We are constantly led, coaxed and ordered away from such a practice. We are taught to respect power rather than conscience, the grand rather than the good, the acquisition rather than the discovery. The green glasses rather than our own unimpeded vision. Oz rather than Kansas.
Any effort on behalf of human or ecological justice and wisdom demands real courage rather than false optimism, and responsibility even in times of utter madness, even in times when decadence outpolls decency, even in times when responsibility itself is ridiculed as the archaic behavior of the weak and naive.
There is far more to this than personal witness. In fact, it is when we learn to share our witness with others — in politics, in music, in rebellion, in conversation, in love — that what starts as singular testimony can end in mass transformation.
Here is an approach of no excuses, no spectators, with plenty of doubt, plenty of questions, plenty of dissatisfaction. But ultimately a philosophy of peace and even joy because we will have thrown every inch and ounce of our being into what we are meant to be doing which is to decide what we are meant to be doing. And then to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth doing it.
The simplest thing any voter could do to help change the nature of American politics would be to register in the Green Party. The Green Party’s platform is the best comprehensive statement of progressive politics you’ll find in any national organization.
Note that I say register. How you vote is up to you and, except for Democratic primaries, registering as a Green won’t affect your ability to vote or campaign the way you want. In some places, registration is so easy that you can even temporarily switch to the Democratic Party to cast a ballot in an important primary.
If everyone who is thoroughly pissed off at the course of American politics were to register as a Green it would be, at least, the most profound political shift since the Populist and Progressive eras. Imagine if striking Walmart workers, Occupiers, Chicago teachers and 350.org activists all joined the party. Even the corporate media couldn’t ignore it.
Of course, liberals – the abused children of the Democratic Party – won’t like this idea despite the fact that they haven’t had a president of their true ilk in over 40 years. They prefer to merely look the other way when for example, faux saviors like Obama, challenge Richard Nixon for some of the worst assaults on civil liberties,
Like their conservative opponents, mainstream liberals treat politics like evangelicals which is why MSNBC and Fox offer you a choice of preachers, but little real news and few new allies.
These liberals also haven’t forgiven Ralph Nader for the lie they invented about him: that he lost Gore’s race in 2000. In fact, the polling data shows indisputably that Gore lost his own race aided by the fact that he failed to distance himself from Bill Clinton whom over two thirds of the voters thought would go down in history more for his scandals than for his leadership. Gore even lost his home state of Tennessee, which is like flunking a political breathalizer test.
In fact, politics is just another form of activism that relies on people finding things in common and not eternal salvation for the righteousness of one’s opinions. But it is astounding how little interest liberals show in reaching out to those unlike themselves but potentially sharing concerns on various issues.
Admittedly, the Green Party has not been strong on core economic matters and thus have missed the opportunity to create alliances with many Americans. But with a little nudge this could change.
There is also the need to blend politics and community activism better. I have spent most of my life as a member of third parties, two of which I helped to create – the DC Statehood Party and the national Greens. One of the things I’ve noticed is that these parties seem to thrive when they blur the lines between activism and politics. It was a natural for the early DC Statehood Party, formed by those involved in the anti-freeway and civil rights movements. Today, I see a similar mix in the nearby Greens of Portland, Maine, who have not only had people on the city council and school board, but in the state legislature. They are also a major voice fighting for marijuana reform and other important issues.
I have sometimes asked third party politicians what they plan to do when they lose. I even tried it once on Dennis Kucinich, then meeting at my home with some DC Greens as he ran for president. Like others, he looked shocked and annoyed, yet the fact is that an election is not just a sports championship, but another way to organize folks. Too often, all the effort well expended during a campaign just evaporates the day after the election.
I also think of my own Green Party membership as being like belonging to a friendly church. I am not there for redemption or salvation but to work with others on common causes and to enjoy the company of those who think along similar lines.
Every cause needs that, a congregational approach. The advantage of something like the Green Party is that it can bring people together who might not otherwise even meet.
My local Maine Green Party group, for example, does this deliberately with a series of Vital Connections gatherings which it helps to organize, bringing people of similar interests together to learn what’s going on elsewhere in the community. The other night the topic was energy and it featured over 15 tables where people explained their efforts about everything from a new train system to pellet boilers.
Each got a few minutes to describe their work and then there was an hour where the audience could just wander around and talk to the different activists.
This is not typical in politics – even for the Greens – yet it works extremely well. And I was struck by the fact that the moderator of the evening was Fred Horch, a Green who had recently lost a state legislature seat by a slim 137 votes. Horch had no trouble blending politics and activism.
The message, if you are already a Green, is to find new ways to reach out to others and not give up on organizing just because your in a political party.
The message , if you’re an activist, union leader, teacher, environmentalist – but not a Green – is to sign up with them. You can still vote and campaign however you want, but you’ll have some good soul mates whose concerns you can broaden, whose support you can use, and whose friendship will help keep you going. And you’ll help let others know that something’s really changing.
If you want to scare the establishment, get people together who it doesn’t think belong together. If you are students having a problem with your principal don’t just go to his or her office with the usual troublemakers; walk in with some of the smartest kids, some jocks, a few punks, blacks, whites, latinos, and, best of all, the kids who never seems to be interested in doing anything at all. Once when we were fighting freeways in Washington, I looked up on a platform and there was the Grovesnor Chapman, the chair of the white elite Georgetown Citizens Association, and Reginald Booker head of a black militant organization called Niggers Inc., and I said to myself, we are going to win. And we did.
My old friend, the late Chuck Stone, really knew how to get along with other people. When he was columnist and senior editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, 75 homicide suspects surrendered to him personally rather than take their chances with the Philadelphia police department. Black journalist Stone also negotiated the end of five hostage crises, once at gun point. “I learned how to listen,” he said. Stone believed in building what he calls “the reciprocity of civility.” His advice for getting along with other Americans: treat them like a member of your family.
Show everyone respect and you’ll walk comfortably among every class, subculture and ethnicity in this land. Don’t show respect and you’ll live a lonely life.
Part of that respect is towards yourself. Don’t apologize for who you are. Don’t be afraid to argue with someone just because they are of a different ethnicity. Arguing with someone is a form of respect too, because it means you really care about what they think. But bear in mind that in a community, your view is just an opinion and not a rule.
If you are a member of an ethnic or other minority, remember that as an activist your role is to provide solutions to problems and not merely to be a symptom of them. To be a survivor and not a victim.
During the civil rights movement, black leaders spoke not only to those of their own culture but to many whites, especially young whites like myself. The most influential book I read in college was Martin Luther King’s ‘Stride Toward Freedom’ and it wasn’t on any required reading list. Cesar Chavez had a similar cross-cultural appeal. But then as African Americans became more successful in politics there was a understandable but unfortunate tendency to retreat to a constituency you knew you could rely upon. And so black leaders became much less influential in the white community.
It’s an important lesson for any young black or latino activist. Don’t let your story be ghettoized; instead take that story and find the universal in it, and use that story to move those who don’t look like you but can understand the story because you made it theirs, too. The greatest ethnic success stories in America have come when a minority learned to lead the majority, as the Irish and Jews often did in the past century.
I hear over and over that blacks and latinos can’t work together politically, but I can almost promise you that the next great ethnic leader in this country is going to be someone who ignores that cliché and creates a black-latino coalition which, after all, will represent thirty percent of the people in this land.
Have fun. Don’t be ashamed of it. You are not only fighting a cause, you are building a new sort of community. Back in the 1960s, a really good black activist told me, “You know, Sam, all I really want to do is sit on my stoop, drink beer and shoot craps.” After that, I never forgot what the battle was really about.
Our quarrel with the abuse of power should be not only be that it is cruel and stupid but that it takes so much time way from other things — like loving and being loved, and music, and a good meal and the sunset of a gentle day. In a nation ablaze with struggles for power, we are too often forced to choose between being a co-conspirator in the arson or a member of the volunteer fire department. And, too often, as we immerse ourselves in the terrible relevance of our times, beauty and happiness seem to drift away.
Music is often the forerunner of political change. Billie Holiday was singing about lynchings long before the civil rights movement. And punk rock kept rebellion alive in the otherwise quiet 1980s.
By the end of the 1990s, an unremittingly political band, Rage Against the Machine, had sold more than 7 million copies of its first two albums and its third, The Battle of Los Angeles, sold 450,000 copies its first week. Nine months later, there would be a live battle of Los Angeles as the police shut down a Rage concert at the Democratic Convention. Throughout the 1990s, during a nadir of activism and an apex of greed, Rage both raised hell and made money. In 1993 the band, appearing at Lollapalooza III in Philadelphia, stood naked on stage for 15 minutes without singing or playing a note in a protest against censorship. Other protest concerts followed. And 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. So Rage T-shirts became a common sight during the 1999 Seattle protest.
Look for consensus. There’s a lot of either-or in political activism. But within your own groups, it helps to emphasize consensus. Before we got the national Green Party off the ground we held a conference in the early 1990s that many would have said was doomed to failure. We had 125 people from over 20 different third parties ranging from the Socialists and the Greens to the Libertarians and the Perot people. It was asking for trouble.
But we also had two rules: first, we were there to discuss what we agree upon, not what divided us and two, we would discover it by some form of consensus. And we did; by the end of the weekend we had come up with 17 points of unanimous agreement.