At dinner with friends this past weekend, the conversation turned to the urgent, imperative topic that seems inevitable these days: what shall we do now? In this context, “we” means all who feel misrepresented by the present U.S. administration, all who fear for ourselves, our nation and the world should its ambitions expand unchecked; all who desire a great awakening to the possibilities we have ignored and the consequences we risk by continuing to ignore them.
Several people had ideas about how to convince those who’ve been lulled by the right’s propaganda, to bring them over to our side. For example, one dinner guest wanted to show them how measures undertaken in the name of safety can actually lead to the loss of liberty, even to fascism. This view is rooted in deep conviction that once having glimpsed what the speaker sees so clearly as truth, listeners will no longer be susceptible to manipulative lies.
Others thought we should emulate the right’s example. One pointed out that following Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election, conservative leaders had invested in decades of think tanks and summit meetings, honing platforms and strategies they correctly believed would wrest control from adherents of the liberal values they abhored, liberal values that from the vantage point of the Kennedy-Johnson years seemed permanently ascendant. We need a clear platform, they said, an unmistakeable and united message. Some guests thought progressives ought to follow the same path now.
That brought an immediate response from another guest: we’ve been focusing far too much on what “they” do; now we need to ignore them and get on with our own work.
There’s something of value in each of these ideas and observations. It would be wonderful if simply speaking truth in a careful and coordinated way could radically change minds. But I have my doubts, doubts that put me in mind of a text from Deuteronomy 30:12-14 that encapsulates the wisdom of the obvious: “It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.”
Our first challenge is very near to us: to mobilize citizens who share interests and values with our side of this debate, who may even have registered to vote, but who were not sufficiently moved by the last election to cast their ballots. As the post-election numbers showed, despite a massive voter registration effort, there was an increase of only a few percentage points in the number of young voters and voters of color. If all those who registered had voted for Democrats as anticipated, the narrow margin of Bush’s victory (as recorded, whether or not there was fraud) would have been overturned. That those with the most to lose did not vote surely bespeaks a failure to present them with either a candidate or a message that resonated with sufficient motive power.
My own view is that they found it insufficiently inspiring to choose between zillionaires who gazed soulfully into the camera while asserting that they felt our pain — I know it didn’t inspire me. I have a hunch they were also turned off by the Democrats’ affection for corporations, their soft-pedaling of economic justice, their willingness to accept and prosecute Bush’s war — I know I was. I believe that the voters who already share many of our views will be mobilized if future messages resonate with the ring of truth, telling like it is about policies that enable the few to exploit the many, not tiptoeing around harsh realities.
When I articulated this position at dinner this weekend, another guest countered with the much more inclusive idea: that we ought to be showing people how present policies harm everyone, even those who seem to benefit in the short-term. Greed and indifference may result in immediate economic benefit, but over time, everyone will lose from the despoliation of the planet, the culture of permanent war, the distortion of culture and character produced by hatred of the Other, the loss of liberty in the name of security.
At first, I disagreed, arguing that while at a certain level of generality or abstraction we are all in the same boat, that perspective obscures the difference between those who exploit and are exploited, making a diffuse and mushy strategy. But then I started to think we were both right, that our views should be combined. To persuade those voters and citizens who are not satisfied with high-sounding rhetoric and politesse, it is essential to expose economic and social injustice, pointing out who loses and who gains in the short run from current policies. And then, to assert our common fate and invite short-term winners to awaken to the world beyond their immediate self-interests, I agree with my big-hearted friend that we must show how everyone is harmed in the long term, how everyone stands to benefit from change.
After all, how many heroes of liberation started life in relative privilege, and in maturity allowed the light of justice to penetrate their hearts and shift their allegiance away from their own social class to the class of common humanity? Moses, Gandhi, Che…. The truth of injustice and the truth of possibility must be twinned, it seems to me, if the awakening we desire is to come about.
I have an idea that you’ve been talking and thinking about the same things around your dinner tables. What have your conversations been like?