Monday, August 31, 2009

True Reform Requires Real Sacrifice

Today I read a thought-provoking piece that inspired me deeply. The writer of The Hyphen Blog makes a compelling case that I won't completely summarize here in the hopes that interested readers will take the time to read it in full. The main idea of this extended treatise on activism and the media's frequently insufficient means of showcasing it to meant, in part, to note that real reform takes more than minimal effort on our part and ought not to include the, pardon the phrase, self-congratulatory circle-jerk that far too often follows it. In particular, the post criticizes The New York Times Magazine for having, at best, a naive understanding of what truly constitutes solidarity with the less fortunate and the oppressed. The writer of The Hyphen Blog piece, as I interpret it, appreciates the effort made, but recognizes that that the conclusions drawn and overall structure falls far short of really elucidating the problem.

Going about our daily business, we are far too often proof that we want reform on our own terms alone. Social justice has been, perhaps inevitably, institutionalized and commodified in ways that go beyond Whole Foods or drive-through liberalism. As The Hyphen Blog point out, this mode of thinking has made its way into the media, too. We are often so blind to the big picture that we simply don't see our own limitations or even observe the need to continue the struggle for equality on all levels. Reform is not a destination. Reform is a journey. The most successful movements have an announced intent, but those who take up the banner realize full well that the Promised Land is a mutually accepted state of mind, not a fixed point.

To quote from the blog I've cited above,

To put it simply, solidarity is about more than simply joining forces for the common good. Rather, it's about forging coalitions based on mutual interests, trust, and -- most importantly -- the equitable distribution of power and resources amongst stakeholders and supporters. (In the jargon of the unenlightened: stakeholders = people who need help, while supporters = people with money to help them.) That last point is where most well-intentioned, would-be do-gooders flub.

In the still-festering health care debate, I and others have called for an individual-by-individual approach to shape the debate and push back against Republican scare tactics and misinformation. In my opinion, it's important for people to feel empowered and not strait-jacketed by the petty squabbling of our elected officials. Disgust at the sorry state of the political process and a cynical, defeatist perspective, after all, is what greatly contributed to eight sorry years of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and neo-con insanity. Still, one must take into account the whole, not merely selected fragments of a huge jigsaw puzzle.

The Phil Ochs song "Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, I'm a Liberal" comes to mind when I think about this kind of conditional, limited activism.

I vote for the Democratic party
They want the U.N. to be strong
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs
I'll send all the money you ask for
But don't ask me to come on along
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

I'm not out to castigate do-gooders. If only making change was as simple as a burning, sincere desire to attain it. We need only look at our own daily routines to witness the times we fall short of our ambitions. For instance, after having waited in traffic, which only compounds my fatigue from having worked a full day, I can opt for convenience and purchase fast food for my dinner. But with that choice comes with the understanding that, if I make this a habit, I will probably gain weight if I don't take the time to exercise it off. Instead I can purchase healthier ingredients to make a meal ahead of time and spend an extra hour or so putting it together after I've arrived home. With time, the eventual long-term cost will supersede the short-term gain. I might feel more of a pinch in my pocketbook today and feel less of a pinch in my wallet for the moment, but eventually there will come a point where I save more in the long term.

To cite another example, I acknowledge that while the car I own that isn't fuel-efficient, it is completely paid for, too. And I also recognize that eventually filling up twice as much as I would have if I bought a less gas-guzzling model has already cost me more in the end. Sometimes, particularly in these economic times, we can't avoid robbing Peter to pay Paul, but more often that we might wish to take into account, we can and choose not to do so.

Returning again to The Hyphen Blog:

After all, it's pretty easy to build a relationship based on mutual interests and trust when everyone at the table has big hearts and great intentions. It's quite another thing to build a relationship based on equitably distributed power when half of the table has all the money (and the clout that comes with it) while the other half of the table has none (but desperately needs to get it).

I know I am safely wager that we're all painfully aware of this glaring inequality. Everyone I talk to online and in real life mentions some variation of this same completely justified gripe. It's tough to dare to sit at the table when you know you'd have to buy a seat just to be heard. It's even tougher to choke down when you realize that you have to be part of the club and know someone well-connected to even know where table is. Still, this shouldn't dissuade us from seeking and combining our voices. I firmly believe that the most successful strategy for strangling one's opposition is to spread the seeds of cynicism among the general population, which as they sprout are then adopted as a kind of fundamentalist wisdom. Cynicism has an easy answer for every question, and its net result is willful paralysis.

The aforementioned article also addresses the difference between charity and solidarity. Charity is paternalism defined. It is, as the entry notes, "egoistic benevolence". Americans do this better than anyone else, and in fairness, so would anyone who lives in a country of excess. When we imply that we know best without understand subtleties like context and nuance, then we contribute to our own take on the White Man's Burden, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Solidarity is not concerned with self or with looking pious. While charity is Pharisaical, solidarity is Righteous. Solidarity is doing the right thing for the right reason, while charity is doing the right thing for the wrong reason and sometimes even doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason. If this is not our aim, we ought to examine what makes us settle for the little we know we can get instead of aiming for the lot we could attain. Though it might take daring to be self-aware, which is not an easy undertaking for many people, our own salvation, in all of its shades, is within ourselves. I fully believe what when we either consciously or unconsciously proscribe limits upon ourselves, then we create the bonds that hold us down. Then, as before, ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

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