Thursday, March 11, 2010

Building the Movement, Brick by Brick

Michael Walzer's piece entitled "Missing the Movement" is so relevant and smartly written that I felt inclined to read it through four times before beginning to thinking about formulate an adequate response that would do it justice. I am overjoyed to find someone who has managed to put forth a strong, sound hypothesis as to why recent reform efforts tied to a resurgent liberalism have been so limited while setting out cogently what we ourselves ought to do to fix the problem. Having identified what went wrong, let us now proceed to take on the hard work and soul searching necessary to get past it. For as it is written, "Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house."

Walzer writes,

Liberalism is the American version of social democracy, but it lacks a strong working-class base, party discipline, and ideological self-consciousness. None of these are in the offing, but we need to be aware of what we are missing, and we need to begin at least the intellectual work of making up for it. European social democrats are on the defensive right now, but they have a lot to defend. Liberals here are in catch-up mode, and not doing all that well. We know more or less what we have to do, but we haven’t managed to give the American people a brightly colored picture of the country we would like to create. There is a lot of wonkishness on the liberal left, among American social democrats, but not much inspiration. We haven’t found the words and images that set people marching. As an old leftist, I can talk (endlessly) about citizenship, equality, solidarity, and our responsibility to future generations, but someone much younger than I am has to put all this in a language that resonates with young Americans–and describe a "city upon a hill" that may or may not be the same hill that I have been climbing all these years.

It is this section in particular which resonates most strongly with me. I notice this kind of stultifying dullness among those who have, for reasons unknown, exchanged wonkery for truly impassioned discourse and inspirational rhetoric. The result produced is robotic and bloodless, for one. For another, it's downright Pharisaical. In this circumstance, defines Pharisaical as "practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit." I have noted, sometimes with anger, sometimes with frustration, never with satisfaction, that this is true not just in gatherings of religious liberals, but also quite evident in multiple settings and causes comprised of vocally secular liberals. Going through the motions without understanding the passion will never serve anyone's cause well and indeed, it is partially why we find ourselves in the mess in which we are now. Layering laws upon laws, formalities upon formalities, and procedures upon procedures might seem to be helpful upon first glance, but they end up separating ourselves from each other, not pulling us together.

I sometimes consider myself a bit of an inadvertent stop gap measure. Due to the year of my birth, I have a foot in two camps, both of which have completely different ways of looking at life. Though technically a member of caustic, skeptical, cynical Generation X, I am only a year or so removed from the new idealism, optimism, and renewed activism of Generation Y. It forces one to develop ways to best communicate with two related, but still very different outlooks. And furthermore, since communicating effectively with greying Lefties comprises much of my work as an activist, in particular because they often hold the reigns of power and control, I've learned over time that the generations do speak a different sort of language to each other. For example, if I mention to a Baby Boomer that my hometown is Birmingham, Alabama, (which, of course, it is) then I have come to expect that it is highly likely that my response will invoke some sort of extended soliloquy about the Civil Rights Movement, Bull Connor, or participation in a march held somewhere down South. To someone my age or younger, more often than not, I'll receive a shrug of the shoulders and the topic will then quickly shift to other matters altogether.

To be sure, there are certain ways and courses of action to effectively reach people who are of a different generational mindset than oneself, but not nearly as many as some might think. We do a fantastic job of complicating the already complex enough. Language itself is not nearly as much of a barrier as is the resistance of certain people to entertain new strategies and new tactics to suit new times. For some reason, all of us reach a point in our development where we wish to romanticize our own internal Golden Age, and in so doing confuse reality for myth. It is easy to see those younger than us as uncouth, loud, rabble-rousing, and otherwise offensive. Even though I am merely a decade or so older, I already have this instant reaction when I see a bunch of chattering, carefree, silly college students at the bus stop or on the rail. Yet I acknowledge too that with those instant negative judgments is a profound sense of loss, which I think is due more to a perceived loss of something intangible on my part, as part of some idealized conception of youth gone by, which as is often true, speaks more about me than it ever does about them.

Back to the topic at hand. Walzer believes that incremental change is about the best we can hope for right now, but posits as well that we would be wise to begin the steady process of base-building so that whatever is accomplished now cannot be washed away by subsequent periods of conservative rule, whenever they shall be. I agree, of course, and again my response returns to a passage of scripture.

"Suppose you want to build a tower. You would first sit down and figure out what it costs. Then you would see if you have enough money to finish it. Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you. They'll say, 'This person started to build but couldn't finish the job.'

These are not times for half-measures and limited devotion. If incremental progress takes the form of building a tower, metaphorically speaking, we must not abandon it halfway because of the difficulty involved. As a person of faith, I may choose to see certain challenges through a Biblical lens, but I know that morality, ethics, and a sense of societal obligation need not be indebted purely to the religious or the spiritual. Still, the meaning of this passage is crystal clear to me at least--commitment to a worthwhile cause requires complete selflessness and with it much devotion to planning, cost, and time. Anyone can be trained to jump through hoop after hoop without much conviction or purpose behind it, or to make one's living of it, and those who have become devotees of wonkery are prime examples. It is easier to proscribe any act designed to facilitate forward progress than it is to sign on and in so doing make it work.

But there is another kind of incrementalism that we need to think about, on the margins, alongside the big issues. I mean things like putting some aggressive liberal/leftists on the National Labor Relations Board, or pushing through small changes in the labor laws that would make union organizing easier, or using federal funds in small amounts to strengthen the kinds of community organizations that the president once worked for, or creating a liberal/left version of Bush’s "faith-based welfare"–enabling local communities, unions, and different sorts of NGOs, as well as churches, to organize family services and mutual aid. This sort of thing is base-building for the future. It can be very quiet and still be effective; its point is simply to loosen the "limits of progressive governance," so that a Democratic president years from now can do more than Obama can do today.

If these are indeed incremental times, everyone's combined, collective efforts from here on out are crucial. Perhaps we should see this reduced expectation as freeing in a way, being that we are not expected to win the War on Poverty, accomplish a lasting Peace on Earth, or cure any of a number of debilitating diseases anytime soon. If progress and Progressivism as currently defined are purely a matter of shoring up the base and advancing modest measures that cannot be washed away by flood waters, then I feel fairly certain such a strategy is well within our grasp. Much of the game of politics is a matter of attempting to predict the future and certainly no one could have taken into account the disappointment of 2009. Still, sometimes one never knows until one tries. Being that we know our limitations now, we can resume clearing the underbrush and paving the path for those who will follow. The roadway must be cleared first before we begin to build our tower.

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