What principle do you hold dearest? What sense of American identity matters most to you? If I put a question— say, What do you stand for?—what answer resounds with total conviction?
My friend and I were at lunch, discussing our usual topic: The Impasse, aka the gulf between what we know of Americans’ capacity for equity, compassion, and justice, and the actuality of so many of the behaviors that represent us in both the public and private spheres. My friend and I are veterans of many progressive movements. We have been heartened by the outpouring of indignation and aspiration in demonstrations by Occupy and other domestic social justice movements.
But we are also deeply impressed by the U.S. establishment’s ability to ignore such things, to promote the decentralization of denial and disdain. The whole world was watching Tahrir Square when a massive show of conscience thrust a wedge between Mubarak and the Egyptian Army; the resulting global outpouring of sympathy and shame opened space for democracy (however imperfect) to emerge. But in the U.S., the powers-that-be are insulated by Americans’ well-established scorn for world opinion, by our propensity to defer to authority. A sex scandal, maybe, but otherwise, what sort of condemnation could possibly shame someone like Scott Walker into stepping down? From deep in The Impasse, it appears that even massive protests can now be disregarded with impugnity.
I told my friend that I keep searching for the key, the issue that could shatter this carapace of denial, reminding us of our better selves, moving us to act from there. Every time I give a talk, I told him, I ask the same three questions:
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
After asking them, I say that we can deduce answers from our collective actions: if we have the largest prison population and highest incarceration rate on the planet—if, as I quoted in my previous blog, California has built twenty times as many prisons as colleges in the last 30 years, if it spends six times as much on each prisoner as on each student, then who we are and how we will be remembered is as the Planet’s Biggest Punisher. If you look at corporate welfare, such the legislation extending Bush-era tax cuts (in which the U.S. Treasury lost $225 billion in revenues just from tax breaks specifically tailored to benefit high-income taxpayers), the answer is Robin Hood in Reverse. If you look at war and the associated profits, the answer is Bloodthirsty.
The cynical view is Yeah, so what? One possible conclusion is that these actions indeed express who we truly are, and all the protestations about fairness are nothing more than hypocrisy and self-regard. You could drop a dozen dinosaurs into the gap between our claims to love liberty and justice for all and the injustice meted out to people on account of race, gender, and other differences made into impediments. Maybe we should just give up on a society contaminated with toxic levels of pious phoniness.
But I just can’t make myself go there. None of these policies is the result of a popular referendum. I wasn’t consulted; were you? I can’t imagine a majority of taxpayers saying sure, let’s spend many times more on killing and imprisoning people than on educating them. I can’t imagine a majority of ordinary working people, given the choice, saying of CEO pay that 1980’s 42:1 ratio of CEO’s to average worker’s pay just wasn’t fair to CEOs: let’s raise it to 2011’s ratio of 380:1.
Instead of being the product of citizens’ conscious choices, The Impasse is fed by an internalized sense of powerlessness. These issues are so big and I am so small, we think, what can I do? At lunch, my friend said he was betting on small-D democracy, locally based, to renew a sense of agency and connection, to model the future through mutual support.
He’s right, of course. Lately, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, keeps coming into my mind. “We have all known the long loneliness,” she said, “and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
But I keep returning to the truth that for me, community isn’t geography, it’s the fellowship of common goals, the communion that the spiritual architects of the sixties civil rights movement called “the beloved community.”
The members of that community need a focal point for the upwelling energy that has been invested in Arab Spring-style demonstrations. We need to want a concrete outcome. It needs to plug into our deepest, truest sense of who we are, what we stand for, and how we want to be remembered. It has to affect people of all ages, races, conditions, and orientations. It must offer many creative ways for people to take part through art-making, social networking, policy development, legislative action, direct action. There must be roles for thought-leaders, media makers, rank and file workers, everyone.
I know a lot of smart policy wonks are working on this. The think-tanks and framers are working overtime to find the key that unlocks our power of self-determination. But that doesn’t mean anyone else can’t come up with a better idea. What is your idea? What principle do you hold dearest? What sense of American identity matters most to you? When asked what you stand for, what answer can you proclaim with utter conviction everywhere you go?
For me, it’s fair play and freedom. Equal treatment, equality of opportunity, equal freedom of expression and access to the means of participation in community and society. When I look at The Impasse, here’s what I want to say: Wake up! We are better than this.
I continue to believe that purging the electoral system of private money is the key to everything. If big business and entrenched privilege are deprived of the power to pressure and influence officials with money, the political playing field becomes far more level. I endorse Move to Amend and The Occupied/Saving American Democracy Amendments offered by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ted Deutch, for instance, and others working for that end.
The issue just hasn’t grabbed the popular imagination yet. The fault must be the way it’s being framed, in not yet being able to tell the story with enough force, clarity, and depth to bring it home. It feels like there’s an answer on the tip of my tongue, as if I were reaching for a forgotten name in the instant before it bubbles to the surface of memory. But what is it?
If you could say one thing to your fellow Americans to remind them of their great capacity for fairness and freedom, to sweep aside the self-deluding self-regard and open a window on their own power to bridge The Impasse, what would it be?
The great Joe Louis Walker, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
I don’t know why nobody told you
How to unfold your love
I don’t know how someone controlled you
They bought and sold you.
To me the crux has to involve our sense of agency. The less we are confident that we have a role in deciding things the less responsibility will motivate us. If we feel we can’t make a difference, then we may never try.
Which is why I feel our support for the arts matters so much. But it can’t all be a support for art as something that only a few professionals do while the rest of us sit passively in the audience. As consumers of other people’s art we are reminded that other people do make a difference, but have no sense of how that ability relates to us. It only reaffirms that other people do things for us. But by acting as creators in our own lives we have first hand experience that we ourselves CAN make things different. By generating new things and ideas, thinking and doing for ourselves, we experience that our imagination IS a potent force in the world, and that we are not stuck consuming other peoples ideas and goods. We can do it ourselves. Nurturing creativity shows us that we too CAN make a difference.
It seems that the more we are in touch with our creative vitality the more we can see our own efficacy in the world. In small ways we get to decide how things will fall out. Making art, manifesting our imagination, is an experiment in deciding the new shape of the world. Its not all in the hands of the anonymous concerns of others that push the options we are continuously spoon fed. And the more that we recognize that we too can have a role the more we will also feel our responsibility.
Unless we feel responsible the fate of the world is always in someone else’s hands. And it just seems hard to feel responsible if you have been trained that nothing you do matters. If you have been brought up to believe that the only choices you can effectively make are between the goods and ideas that are being presented to you, then the size and scope of your own imagination will shrink. The curiosity to imagine that things COULD be different disappears. And the curiosity and moral responsibility to imagine that things SHOULD be different disappears along side it…..
As long as art is something that other people do we miss out on our best (not our only) reminder that every person is an agent of the future. The more we are kept passive, and the more we fit snugly into the role of consumers rather than generators of culture the easier it becomes to lead us about by our noses. If we put all the relevant decision making in the hands of our ‘betters’, are we not more than a bit like the domesticated cattle that are happy to live inside their pens as long as they are fed regularly? Do they even care what the purpose of their being there is? Does trusting our fate to others always serve our own best interests? Does an absence of agency reassure us? Do we not need to be reminded that we can stand up and use our voices not just to repeat other people’s slogans but to look deeply within our own selves and decide for our own selves what best makes sense? Is this not an ability that takes constant exercise to preserve and to make healthy? Use it or lose it? Isn’t a lack of open mindedness and flexibility costing us? Do we not need to dream bigger than what the cultural arbiters are giving us?
Sorry to ramble on, but this seems like just about the most important topic facing us. If I don’t stand up now, will I ever…?
I’m not sure I want to listen to 300 million opinions all at once before I decide what I will dedicate my activism to. I’m not sure assigning them all equal value will serve me/us. Most people can have great ideas, eg. “we should stop paying out welfare to lazy people who don’t want to work”, that have no bearing on real issues such as the reality of poverty.
If I am around long enough, perhaps I could adjust my priorities, but for now I think the single most important issue that needs to be addressed before we can take any steps further as a culture, or as a society, is the “war on drugs”. The current war that was declared in the early 1980s needs to end. The resources that are poured into the war on drugs need to be freed up for much more important causes. Causes like poverty, education and healthcare.
I am not talking about stopping the covert war on illegal drug regimes amd cartels, but the overt war drugs on our big city streets and in our small towns and villages. We still need to address the issue of drugs, just not in the para-military fashion we have become “adjusted” to in the past 30 years. We have to take the street level crime out of drugs.
[…] Well-Maladjusted and The Impasse, my last two blog essays, I’ve been examing the culture of politics, looking for ways to […]
[…] precursor to anything like a meaningful democracy in the United States. Most recently, it was in “The Impasse”: I continue to believe that purging the electoral system of private money is the key to everything. […]