I don’t know if this is a political problem, a spiritual one, or a psychological one: I’m fairly certain it’s all of the above. Or maybe it just feels that way based on all the space it’s taking up in my mind. How do people overcome the obstacles—fatigue, disappointment, magical thinking—that make them reluctant to invest in the often time-consuming and painstaking work required to build something, brick by brick?
In the physical world as in other realms, it takes remarkably less time to destroy something than to rebuild it. A house burns in a matter of hours; perhaps a thousand such intervals are needed to make it habitable again. A single executive order unleashes a war; decades are required to repair what can be fixed.
Even on the individual level, this dynamic prevails. In the past year I’ve had a dozen conversations with deeply unhappy people who will spend months, even years, trying one purportedly quick fix after another—hoping to firebomb their misery into oblivion—because the thought of sitting down to tell their stories to a gifted therapist, an hour at a time over many weeks, is just too daunting. In the aggregate, the time and money invested are the same, but somehow, the investment is more palatable if each installment is conceived as the first and last.
Surely the inherent appeal of quick results is part of what attracts people to the type of nay-saying—burning down the house of democracy—preferred by media personalities like Glenn Beck and the Tea Party leaders. Surely this explains in part why negative campaigns, protesting objectionable policies or public figures, catch fire so much faster, blaze so much larger.
The conundrum I’ve been gnawing on lately is how to engage people in that slow building process, even when they see no reason for short-term hope.
For instance, I was deeply disappointed that President Obama’s new jobs initiative—in the face of terrible, despair-inducing unemployment—amounts to a tax credit for private businesses. Necessary, perhaps, but astoundingly insufficient to address the problem. This country has had two successful experiments in public service employment as a way to advance public goals, build infrastructure, and support job creation, the New Deal programs of the 1930s and CETA and other public service employment initiatives of the 1970s. (You can read brief descriptions here.)
Both took years to build up. Both were ended in no time flat by political fiat, by actions that had almost nothing to do with the programs’ merits and everything to do with a scorched-earth approach to regime change in the U.S., whereby the ascendant party seeks to obliterate any progress made by its predecessor. Both left a wide, deep wake of demoralization among advocates, such that it took years even to rehabilitate the rubric “public service employment.”
For most of my adult life, I’ve been a vocal supporter of public service jobs. If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you know that from the first, one of my hopes for the Obama administration was a new WPA, a new public service jobs program to support artists and others in building community and making social institutions more humane and responsive. I’ve been writing for a while about the poetic synchronicity of 2010 being the 75th anniversary of the WPA, about how lovely it would be to pursue the same public aims today in ways that fit our own times and conditions. (To read some of my earlier essays on the subject, scroll down to “The New New Deal” and “A New WPA: Why a Sustainable Future Demands Cultural Recovery” on the Essays & Talks section of my Web site.)
I’m not the only one, not by a long-shot. If you google “WPA” or “New Deal,” you’ll find quite a few pages devoted to similar ideas. Special attention should go to WomenArts, which is devoting its SWAN Day events to honoring women artists of the WPA. I’ll update you soon about events in New York and the Bay Area in which I’ll be taking part.
But even in the first flush of Obama’s victory, when I spoke with inside-the-Beltway people about the idea, I drew a complete blank. It took them about 30 seconds to rifle through their mental databases and conclude that no actually existing member of Congress would support a new WPA right now. For them, that was enough to dismiss the idea for all time.
Markets are powerful mechanisms, an intrinsic part of every society on earth, one that more or less seems hard-wired into the human subject. I support interventions to make them greener, more transparent, more resourceful and innovative. But you have to be absolutely nuts to imagine they can serve all the needs of a vast, diverse and damaged society like ours. Right now, we have a huge public sector, with far too much of it supporting completely unproductive enterprises like wars and prisons. Very different public service jobs—in schools, community organizations, hospitals, public services, and so on—are absolutely necessary to the tasks of healing and building our society. All the arguments against them are purely ideological: “Government shouldn’t….” And that’s where my mind snaps: I get where the right-wing ideologues are coming from, and just how wrong they are. So how can intelligent, caring, liberals and progressives let them prevail? That’s what they do when they reject the slow building that would eventually change ideological nonsense into common sense, just because they can’t see the way to get a bill through Congress today.
I admit jobs are a pet issue for me, so pick your own issue: the situation is likely to be the same. Many more people are active on healthcare, peace, or environmental issues than on the cultural questions that obsess me. But each of those issues also suffers from the tyranny of the immediately doable, where the most intense public enthusiasm can be mustered for quick action (mostly to tear something down or stop something from happening), and the long, slow process of building seems so daunting that people find it hard to resist giving up.
What has happened to our perseverance and fortitude? Do you think it’s something in the water supply? Consider that Plessy v. Ferguson, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine that legitimated racial segregation, was decided in 1896. Do you know how many court cases, hours of legal research and strategizing, years of activism, decades of fundraising it took to reach the end of that doctrine? Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, 58 years later. It took just as long for the idea of social insurance, introduced by progressives and unionists, to become law as Social Security in 1935. It took 70 years after the mid-19th century Seneca Falls Convention for women’s suffrage to be ratified in this country by the 19th amendment. The struggle for gay legal rights has persevered for decades. And in all these ways, changing laws has been a small part of working for full equality.
I wonder: if these struggles had to emerge from today’s conditions, would desire and persistence trump discouragement, or would too many people have been daunted because the road looked too long and difficult?
In some realms, people understand and accept the long time that building takes. There are good parents and good teachers who would find it absurd to resent the painstaking investment required to nurture a young and promising life; good farmers and foresters who understand permaculture and sustainable harvest; good healers prepared for the long haul of preventive care; good organizers who understand the cultivation democracy requires.
But much of the political picture looks different. The more daunted people are by current resistance to a needed policy, the longer they wait to start pursuing it in earnest, the more the timeline stretches out. What has me most worried now is the possibility that we are so addicted to burning down the house, we will postpone building for too long to recover.
Even writing that sentence goes against everything I care about. Mostly, my attention is on a simple truth: we have the numbers, the capacity and creativity to build, and we have proof that when people see a way their efforts can make a difference, they will act. But every day, a mountain of spin and drivel is deployed to obscure those truths from view. If creative thinkers and activists lack the will and perseverance to see through it, to overcome the tyranny of the immediately doable, to overcome the pervasive preference for burning down the house, the truth won’t matter much. People of vision will go on pursuing it, because that is who they are, but that won’t be enough to tip the balance.
It keeps coming down to the same thing, over and over again: the choice is yours, and mine, and each person’s to make. Dorothy Day, the founder of Catholic Worker, said it best, I think: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”
Today’s sound track: “When Your Mind’s Made Up” by Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova, a lovely song that doesn’t quite mean what it says.