Saturday, August 29, 2009

Message Discipline is Easier Said than Done

For the past couple of months we have all been engaged in a contentious, confusing, and highly scattered debate on the merits of health care reform, a public option, and the contentious and strident arguments of our opponents. Some have blamed the Obama Administration for poor message discipline when it comes to setting out one set line on health care reform, but a quick glance at where we as progressives stand as a codified, coherent whole would quickly provide at least some answer for that. We on the left were frequently fragmented and rudderless well before health care.

We came together to elect a President, but much of our unity there was a result of collective revulsion of what had come before and also a shared belief in the unspecific, barest outlines of what constituted necessary change and reform. The details and the methodology to put these proposals into force are the means upon which we differ and sometimes violently disagree with one another. This is where we eat our own with a cold precision and effectiveness that no Republican ever could hope to attain.

That four separate plans for health care reform are competing with one another in various levels and departments of our Federal Government comes as not much surprise to me. Each coalition and each group that splinters from the whole clings to its own particular argument, forgetting often in the process that when it comes down to legislative success, often a middle ground is more important than minutia. We need to understand that coming to consensus means that we aren't going to get everything we want and sometimes our pet projects and pet ambitions might not be understood properly by all, but that sometimes the minutia isn't nearly as important as the substance. If we want to remember Ted Kennedy as some are arguing and we want to invoke his memory, we would do well to recognize that his mastery in getting legislation passed was due to promoting trust, good will, and esprit du corps among his fellow Senator, and even those in that other party which shall remain nameless.

President Obama was partially elected by preaching a gospel of bipartisanship. Yet, as the same predictable fault lines materialized out of thin air and the polarization that many found so distasteful manifested itself yet again, the bitter rancor created ripples and waves between Republicans and Democrats; it also kicked up papered-over divisions that had long existed within ourselves. In my opinion, I think our own devotion to individual thought works against us. We've all been educated, indoctrinated, and versed in the same terms, the same concepts, and the same strategies so as a result we often have an unfortunate tendency to over-complicate matters. What often annoys me about liberal discourse is that we keep unintentionally fragmenting ourselves when finding a middle ground and coming to a basic understanding would be a tactic better served. If we call everything into question and break ourselves down into small and smaller identity groups, making sure as the good liberals we are that each group should have an equal voice in the debate, then we do ourselves a great disservice. Namely, because our opposition doesn't feel a similar compulsion. Conservative thought often draws firm lines in the sand. Things either are or they are not and this makes propagating a unified voice a far easier task.

I can't help but note that sometimes people who have never been highly educated take a common sense, matter-of-fact approach to issues like health care reform, even the most complex ones that might not take into account all the particulars, but quite notably don't end up with counter-productive bickering and demoralizing in-fighting, either. I also think at times we would be wise to ask ourselves what drives us to care so passionately about the cause we support. Is it an altruistic desire to improve all of humanity? Is it sparked by a negative experience we have had with classism, sexism, racism, patriarchy, the sins of capitalism, and those other ills we all seek to eradicate? Well and good if my revulsion at the status quo spurs me to action, but do we also acknowledge that at times our own bitterness and our own internal agenda can overshadow the consensus process? This is what gives rise to that nauseating tendency for people to believe that all criticism directed towards their cause must be designed solely for malicious ends and as a result, it must be coldly destroyed. This is also when we as liberals fragment, squabble amongst ourselves, and aimlessly drift without a single purpose that might unify us for a greater good.

To make a comparison, today I came across a fascinating article on Feministing. Activists Rachel Griffin and Josh Phillips have joined forces to fight for sexual assault education and prevention. Both bring a different, but related perspective to the topic. While each of them brings a perspective to the subject that is in large part influenced by their gender, they also manage to find much to agree upon and skillfully layer their responses accordingly to build a greater understanding. Combined, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Their observations regarding the current state of Feminism as a movement are not only spot-on, they are also deeply applicable to the whole of Progressivism.

Griffin points out that

...I don't think that there's one kind of feminism that can account for all those differences, but I do think that the feminist community needs to understand that our needs and values and beliefs are just important as the other person's needs and values and beliefs. So if I'm trying to have a conversation with a heterosexual white female feminist who has a disability, we need to come together in a humanizing moment and understand that her needs are just as important as my needs as a heterosexual able-bodied woman of color who identifies as a feminist. (italics mine)

We have to find a way for those needs to simultaneously co-exist and be met in different ways. And not everybody's needs are going to be met quickly, and not everybody's needs are going to be met fully, but I do truly believe that Audre Lorde was dead-on brilliant when she said that there is no hierarchy of oppression. We are so caught up in a social justice equivalent of a patriarchal pissing contest that it's ridiculous. And until we stop struggling amongst ourselves, we can't form a coalition across difference.

Phillips adds,

I will qualify my remarks, which you're never supposed to do. But I recognize that I'm in no position as a male to be telling females on the front lines of feminism what's wrong with the organizing of feminism. It is more my responsibility to support feminists in the direction that they want to go.

However, what I would say is challenging from an outside viewpoint is that I can't find the focus of the movement any more. And I've studied the history of feminism and I've seen clear lines of political intention, clear lines and focus, and in the last ten or fifteen years, I don't always know what is expected of male counterparts and allies in feminism. What's expected of us isn't as clear as it used to be. So if we could redirect, refocus and reorganize some of the overarching goals, that would really help some of us on the outside in supporting the cause.
(italics again mine)

We have to put our own house in order before we can hope to pass health care reform or any contentious reform measure that has a lengthy history of creating substantial opposition. What is our focus? How can we strive to find commonality in a wealth of often discordant voices? If we change the very building blocks and the cherished beliefs upon which we have expended so much energy, will that be enough? If not us, who? If not now, when?

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