The 2012 election campaign is in full swing, beginning, once again, to stage the vast (and vastly repetitive) drama that periodically mesmerizes the body politic. Like a huge pod out of Invasion of The Body-Snatchers, it replaces actual democracy with an expensive similacrum. From time to time, I’m going to focus on the culture of politics in the United States, pursuing these questions: what can we do to resuscitate democracy in this country? What means are at our disposal? What imposed stories must be cleared away to reveal the true nature of power and our collective agency in exercising it?
Right now, many people are so discouraged by electoral politics that exhortations to take to the streets are arising with unusual frequency and force. Yet I find myself deeply ambivalent about the sort of direct political action that focuses on street demonstrations. I don’t think it’s all me, though. In truth, the ambivalence seems inherent in the language of human bodies on the march.
Communicating with picket signs doesn’t support a lot of nuance. When the message is clear and delivered on a scale both large and notable enough to command media attention, meaning comes through. From the 1963 March on Washington to Soweto to Tiananmen to Tahrir, when huge crowds stand to speak truth to power—especially when power imperils protestors’ lives—the message is received, and often, it moves the world.
But when the message is more diffuse, the scale much smaller, and/or the media uncooperative, the effect can be paradoxical, expressing the opposite of organizers’ intentions. We don’t know what else to do, such actions can say. But we have to do something.
The flashpoint in Soweto was a 1974 decree that henceforth, certain courses had to be taught in Afrikaans, the language of apartheid. It was the brutal 1976 murder of 176 of the marching student protesters that captured the world’s attention. In Tiananmen Square in 1989, mourning the death of a pro-liberation official became the catalyst for a brave outcry for human and economic rights. Once more, the image of unarmed civilians falling to tanks and guns triggered international outrage.
The meta-message of such actions is always that great numbers are willing to sacrifice and risk to stand for freedom. When the whole world is watching (to borrow a slogan from the antiwar street demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago), the hope is that horror or shame will play a part in mobilizing popular support for the demonstrators’ cause.
In smaller actions, demonstrators also hope to evoke outrage, support for change, calling the powers-that-be to account. From the individual perspective, the degree of courage and commitment can be equivalent, no matter the scale. But when the message is not multiplied by many thousands, often, the actions seem to undermine their intentions, by signalling weakness or desperation—or both.
When I look at the culture of politics in this country, I am sad that for many dedicated advocates of human rights, social justice, and environmental healing see so little hope of intervening through conventional means that symbolic action is all that’s left, and even that cannot currently achieve critical mass.
Right now, demonstrators are in New York for Occupy Wall Street, conceived as an ongoing confrontation with economic policies that concentrate power and wealth. About 80 protesters were arrested on Saturday as they marched north to Union Square from their encampment in Zuccotti Park, at Broadway and Liberty Street. Most of what I’ve heard about the protest has focused on complaints in alternative news outlets and via social media that the protests weren’t getting the press coverage they warranted. (Although recent police actions have drawn some press, as Nathan Schneider reports.) Someone also sent me a link to a long list of activists who ought to be invited to the protests; my name is on it, but no one has followed up.
Danny Schechter has a heartfelt account of the demonstrations that sums up the double message I am describing.
The mainstream press coverage the demonstration has attracted is snide in an extremely interesting way. Consider Ginia Bellafante’s New York Times piece published on Friday: it starts out making fun of demonstrators whose unconventional dress or demeanor singles them out for ridicule, takes the whole enterprise to task for lack of focus, and—having established the writer as anything but a fellow-traveler—makes the protesters’ case:
Members retained hope for an infusion of energy over the weekend, but as it approached, the issue was not that the Bastille hadn’t been stormed, but that its facade had suffered hardly a chip. It is a curious fact of life in New York that even as the disparities between rich and poor grow deeper, the kind of large-scale civil agitation that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently suggested might happen here hasn’t taken shape. The city has two million more residents than Wisconsin, but there, continuing protests of the state budget bill this year turned out approximately 100,000 people at their peak. When a similar mobilization was attempted in June to challenge the city’s budget cuts, 100 people arrived for a sleep-in near City Hall.
Last week brought a disheartening coupling of statistics further delineating the city’s economic divide: The Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, which included more than 50 New Yorkers whose combined net worth totaled $211 billion, arrived at the same moment as census data showing that the percentage of the city’s population living in poverty had risen to 20.1 percent. And yet the revolution did not appear to be brewing.
Occupy Wall Street protestors, heartily sick of being told that their demands are not clear, responded to mainstream press critiques with a kind of poem, pointed, ironic, and so hugely encompassing that it simultaneously answers critics and proves their point. Here are a few lines:
This is the fifth communiqué from the 99 percent. We are occupying Wall Street.
On September 21st, 2011, Troy Davis, an innocent man, was murdered by the state of Georgia. Troy Davis was one of the 99 percent.
Ending capital punishment is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, the richest 400 Americans owned more wealth than half of the country’s population.
Ending wealth inequality is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, four of our members were arrested on baseless charges.
Ending police intimidation is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, we determined that Yahoo lied about occupywallst.org being in spam filters.
Ending corporate censorship is our one demand….
I perceive two main ways of looking at this phenomenon as part of the culture of U.S. politics.
The first critique and prescription are nicely summed up in the Sunday New York Times by Michael Kazin (whom I knew as a fellow communard and underground newspaper worker in the early seventies). He is looking for an organized left on the order of the economic reform legislation-oriented movement that brought about the policies we associate with the New Deal: limits on corporate power, social insurance, etc. He is looking for a resurgence of progressive social institutions, such as unions, to create the foundation. He doesn’t prescribe how to do this, at least in this particular piece, but the mood is retrospective and nostalgic—of course: turning the clock back to a widespread passion for basic fairness and social justice? Where do I sign up for the time machine?
But there is also a perspective suggested by the Occupy Wall Street poem. It is less concrete and specific in terms of policies, but it warrants attention. It is the underlying truth that many Americans’ sense of political reality is now terribly ungrounded, lacking a sense of agency, and overwhelmed with impotent frustration.
On the right, people are susceptible to the manipulations to of the Tea Party’s funders and operators, who, in effect, say that black is white and are believed. Our political discourse isn’t getting to values questions, at least in part because that space is being occupied by trumped-up controversies—Michelle Bachmann’s many misstatements, for instance, which magnetically attract media attention, elevating her standing among those who mistrust those she counts as enemies. The left is different, because there isn’t a driving big-money force (a counterpart to the right-wing zillionaire Koch brothers) pulling the strings. But when the scale is larger than local community organizing, among many, there is a reductive sense of possibility: let’s work for a candidate, and if that is demoralizing, let’s get arrested.
I can tick off the specific legislation I’d like to see adopted, to be sure: financial regulation, fair tax, adequate social funding, public campaign financing, corporate regulation, environmental protection, a new WPA, and so on. But (despite my great respect for Rebuild The Dream) I don’t see terribly much hope that actual existing organizing efforts will bring about the adoption of such reforms.
Instead, I am worried about what may happen if we don’t make a much deeper commitment to the culture of politics: teaching people how campaign money works; how advertising and other information manipulation works; how to understand their own mental processes so that they can correct for inbuilt biases and cultivate awareness, lessening susceptibility to exploiters and demagogues; how to educate themselves about issues and seek inside themselves to consider how they really think and feel about them, rather than settling for immediate reactivity. It’s not that there aren’t abundant information resources about all these subjects; it’s that you have to decide to use them, and most people don’t. How, then, can they learn?
I want to be clear about this: I’m not saying that those who disagree with my positions on this or that issue are inevitably gulled. Thoughtful people disagree all the time. What’s foreground for one may be background detail for another. Take any hot-button moral issue: I am far more gripped by the thought of a women being forced to bear an unwanted child than by the thought of abortion; and I know there are people who have considered the issue deeply and arrived at exactly the opposite conclusion. Core moral values and priorities differ, and those lead to different positions.
What I mean is that the current culture of politics doesn’t offer the basic citizenship education and fundamental self-exploration needed to achieve an informed, engaged, and self-aware electorate. I have quite a few ideas about how it can be done, most involving artists in eliciting, sharing, and extracting essential learning from people’s own stories of civic and social meaning. I doubt there’s any viable substitute for the labor-intensive work of assisting people, conversation by conversation, in learning the cognitive, emotional, and critical skills their formal educations have failed to provide. And without it, I doubt the culture of politics will become less desperate and surreal anytime soon.
My ray of hope? Life throws up opportunities to peer at the culture of politics through a thousand different lenses: the Wall Street occupation, the presidential campaign, the growing polarization of wealth Ginia Bellefante described above, and countless others every single day. In the absence of an overarching public initiative, citizenship education can be radically decentalized to every dinner table, classroom, and coffeeshop in the land. I’ve been deputized (by my own hand, to be sure); now I’m deputizing you into the Culture of Politics Corps. Good luck with your assignment!
I can’t quite explain the grip that electric blues has on me at the moment, but somehow, this music is the soundtrack of my world. Maybe it’s that the culture of politics makes me a little sad. Here’s the amazing Luther Allison with the classic hymn of compassion, “It Hurts Me Too.”