From a talk to the Claim Democracy conference organized by the Center for Voting & Democracy]
Sam Smith – I rise to interrupt your proceedings – logical, thoughtful, and well constructed though they are – to suggest something oddly subversive: that people only get involved in politics in large numbers when it becomes more than politics, when it is more than a logical, thoughtful and well constructed process, when it is more even than a ideology. They get involved when politics becomes a normal, convivial, exciting and satisfying part of their social existence. I want to talk for a moment about the non-rational, inefficient, even sometimes almost indescribable elements of a politics that works.
Come with me for a moment to the time of when politics was so much a part of New York City that Tammany Hall had to rent Madison Square Gardens for its meetings of committeemen – all 32,000 of them. . In contrast, when the Democratic National Committee decided to send a mailing to its workers some years back, it found that no one had kept a list. The party had come to care only about its donors.
We got rid machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a culture and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.
One Tammany politician, George Washington Plunkitt, claimed to know every person in his district, their likes and their dislikes:
“A young feller gains a reputation as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball club. That fixes him. You’ll find him workin’ for my ticket at the polls next election day. . . I rope them all in by givin’ them opportunities to show themselves off. I don’t trouble them with political arguments. I just study human nature and act accordin’.”
In the world of Plunkitt, politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King or George Will. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.
So the first non-logical but necessary thing we must do to reclaim democratic politics is to bring it back into our communities, into our hearts to bring it back home.
True politics, in imitation of baseball, the great American metaphor, is also about going home. Yet like so much in our national life, we are only going through the motions, paying ritualistic obeisance to a faith we no longer follow. In fact, we have lost our way home.’
We must not only make politics a part of our culture but make our culture a part of our politics. The first political campaign in which I took part – at the age of 12 in Philadelphia – featured a candidate who made ten to twelve appearances every evening on different street corners, preceded by a string band that attracted the crowd. By the time, he was finished he held an outdoor rally for 12,000 in front of city hall. How often have you seen that?
I remember something else from that period – a record my father brought home of labor songs. I do not remember anything anyone said from that time, but I do recall bits and pieces of those songs. As Joe Hill said, ‘A pamphlet, no matter how well-written, is read once and then thrown away – but a song lasts forever.”
There are folks who understand this. For example, the punk rock movement has stood out over the past two decades, not just as an accessory to politics but as politics itself waiting for the political activists to take over.
This is no unusual. After all Billy Holliday sang about lynching long before the civil rights movement took off.
Recently the Hungarian ambassador was invited to speak at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His topic: the role of rock in the downfall of the Hungarian dictatorship. He knew about it for he had been a rock musician himself.
In 1993 Rage Against the Machine stood naked on stage for 15 minutes without singing or playing a note in a protest against censorship.
In 1997, well before most college students were paying any attention to the issue, Rage’s Tom Morello was arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor.
Throughout this period no members of the band were invited to discuss politics with Ted Koppel or Jim Lehrer. But a generation heard them anyway. Rage T-shirts became a common sight during the 1999 Seattle protest.
We also need to do a better job of helping people justify to themselves why they should become active. Activists naturally are always looking for action, but helping people find the right attitude sometimes comes first. Especially in a time when no action seems adequate
Among those who understood this were the beats of the 1950s. It is instructive during a time in which even alienated progressives outfit themselves with mission and vision statements and speak the bureaucratic argot of their oppressors to revisit that under-missioned, under-visioned culture of what Norman Mailer called the “psychic outlaw” and “the rebel cell in our social body.” What Ned Plotsky termed, “the draft dodgers of commercial civilization.”
Unlike today’s activists they lacked a plan; unlike those of the 60s they lacked anything to plan for; what substituted for utopia and organization was the freedom to think, to speak, to move at will in a culture that thought it had adequately taken care of all such matters.
To a far great degree than rebellions that followed, the beat culture created its message by being rather than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal institutions.
Finally, we need to help others find a place in their time by standing outside of their time. This is not easy in a culture so riveted to the bottom line, one that has even worked out a way to have a first date that lasts only three minutes. We must help people learn that while we can’t control history we can absolutely control our reaction to it. This involves a revival of that too much forgotten philosophy of existentialism, which has been well defined as the idea that no one can take your shower for you. We are what we do, what we say, and how we react. As one existentialist put it, even the condemned man has a choice how to approach the gallows.
For example, knowing what you know now, would you have been an abolitionist in 1820, a feminist in 1870, a labor organizer in 1890? Or would you have said, why bother? In 1848 the first women’s conference was held at Seneca Falls. Of the three hundred persons there, only two women lived long enough to vote. Would you have gone to Seneca Falls anyway?
The trouble is we know how that one turned out. We don’t know how this meeting will turn out. And precisely because any of us who attempt to change history’s course are wandering in the wilderness, we need each other, we need sources of courage, and we need the music and the art to carry use through until the laws and policies make sense.
Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis — “like being dead and not knowing it.” Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We must meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.
How one does this can vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let alone screaming for help.
We have lost much of what was gained in the past because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel and rock groups in Hungary. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.
Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.