Americans Fighting for the Good

I’ve been having many discussions about our dysfunctional society. Many people are drawn into such discussions because of the campaign season. But my own focus on this is fairly constant.

The reason for this is that I’ve been painfully aware for decades that I’m a dysfunctional product of this dysfuncional society. This is true for everyone, not that most ever think about it. I guess it’s just more obvious for some of us. My personal dysfunction isn’t well-adjusted to the societal dysfunction, creating a constant state of conflict.

Part 1

Someone asked me what we should do about these societal problems. He complained about what he called whining and conspiracy theories. Instead, he argued we need to strategize and organize.

Maybe this is the wrong way to think about it. We live in a society that is more obsessed with strategizing and organizing than likely any other society before in history. We aren’t lacking in that department. Doubling down on more of the same is less than inspiring, in seeking change in the status quo.

I’m not exactly arguing against anything in particular. It’s not as if, based on principle, I’m against strategizing and organizing. I just don’t see that as the impetus of change. The outward forms of politics seem more to be result than cause.

That seems key. We often confuse result for cause because the latter is easier to see. What we forget is that politics is part of society and, at the most basic level of human reality, we are society. The problems we face aren’t outside of us.

The deeper challenge is that this fundamental truth contradicts the ideological paradigm that rules our perception and thought. We don’t need to create a strategy around which to organize. That is because we are already organized. We make things unnecessarily complicated. Change will happen when we want it enough and no sooner.

Change is a bit of a mystery to us, as we are a mystery to ourselves. It’s easier for us to explain change in retrospect or at least to make up compelling stories about it. But possible future change is another matter, in particular on the large-scale. Change happen when the conditions are right. Even if we can’t force change, we can prepare ourselves to take advantage of the moment when changes begin.

Fortunately or unfortunately, our society is in the middle of major changes at this moment. There is both danger and opportunity. The greatest danger might be simply not realizing what is happening. I see many people acting as if nothing has really changed or else not grasping what is changing. Before strategizing and organizing, what we really need is awareness and understanding.

Otherwise, our attempts at action will be flailings in the dark. We might just hurt ourselves in the process.

Part 2

The above mentioned person further responded. He told me that he is a fighter. Giving some details, he explained that he had been in activism for 6 decades, including starting 3 non-profits for social justice. I applaud that dedication, that willingness to fight against injustice. Still, it doesn’t begin to touch upon the deeper issues we are faced with.

I felt compelled to point out that, in the 6 decades he has been strategizing and organizing, many of the most major problems have been getting worse: mass incarceration, militarized police state, endless wars, millions of innocents dead, military-industrial complex, centralization of power, concentration of wealth, economic inequality, decreasing economic mobility, shrinking middle class, stagnating and dropping wages, loss of good benefits and job security, capitalist corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, cronyism, revolving door between big biz and big gov, regulatory capture, environmental destruction, mass extinction, climate change, etc.

One of the problems is people on all sides are strategizing and organizing. Even those with massive wealth, power, and influence are strategizing and organizing in their causing all of these problems. It’s like raising more money for the Democrats, as Republicans raise more money as well. Maybe the problem is that all that money is corrupting politics, for all sides.

The entire mentality is dysfunctional, always fighting as if society was a battlefield in a war to be won. We have a war on poverty, on crime, on drugs, and on and on. In the end, we are at war with ourselves. This makes for endless conflict. Maybe the problem isn’t a population that lacks a fighting spirit. We Americans love to fight, whether against foreigners or other Americans.

Part 3

Here is the moral calculus of our society.

Most people want to think of themselves as good people. They will often even do good things, contributing to their communities and the larger society. This makes them feel good and, in many cases, people are genuinely helped. Progress and betterment does come from all of these acts of compassion and concern. This should be praised for what it accomplishes.

Yet many of these people are partisans and will consistently vote for establishment politicians who are inseparable from major societal and global problems. It’s never been clear to me that the good these people do in their volunteering, donating, and fundraising outweighs the bad that has been done by the politicians they support.

If someone supports a politician who has contributed to the harm of millions of people (war casualties, sanction victims, families and communities wrecked by destabilized societies, citizens terrorized by propped-up authoritarian regimes, refugees of violence and climate change, neoliberal economic problems, mass incarceration, militarized police, etc), how many other people would they have to help to outweigh the harm they’ve helped cause?

That is a serious question that few think to ask or have the moral courage to answer.

Then I consider the societies like the Nordic countries, specifically as I’m reading a book about them right now (The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen). Those are healthy social democracies and simultaneously they have low rates of volunteering. Nordic parents, for example, send their kids to some of the best schools in the world and would never think of volunteering at the local school. Living in a culture of trust, they simply trust the teachers will do their job well and they don’t worry that the schools will be underfunded.

It’s occurred to me that high rates of volunteering is only necessary in a society with systemic dysfunction like the US. More well-functioning countries would effectively deal with such problems on a systemic level, preventing many problems that Americans allow to fester. We Americans are better at reacting to problems than preventing them or catching them before they get bad.

This is seen most clearly in the American South. It is the region of some of the highest rates of donating and volunteering. But it is also the region of the worst of social problems.

Maybe those two are connected. If so, maybe we need to rethink how we deal with problems in American society, how we do good.

Conclusion

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The pursuit of Happiness is enshrined in one of America’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. We are free to pursue it, but we are not guaranteed it. I find it interesting that the Nordic social democracies apparently don’t have any official declarations about pursuing happiness and yet it doesn’t stop them from rating among the happiest societies.

Americans are always warring against and fighting for various things. Similarly, Americans are always seeking and never finding. We are a restless people, never satisfied. Without conflict and struggle, what purpose would we have?

It’s hard for us Americans to imagine anything else.

Vision and Transformation

I feel both drawn to and wary of activism. I have involved myself in various ways over the years, but I’ve never identified as an activist.

I recently was feeling the attraction again with all that was going on. I started following closely some local activist groups. I attended a rally and talked to some others about writing a trade union resolution in support of the Ferguson protests.

I was reminded of my wariness. There is so much personal drama people put into their activism. I constantly see turf wars going on between activists. In private messages, I get warned about dealing with this or that person. A few loud people dominate almost everything and agreement is hard to find.

With the trade union resolution, the main guy interested is a strong left-winger where the ‘worker’ is the basis of his identity politics. He offered a draft and in it he went far beyond his original proposal. He made it into a far-reaching manifesto, from harsh criticisms of the police as terrorists to demands that major industries be nationalized. I was like, where did this come from?

Besides the questionable politics, it was extremely negative in tone and so broad as to be unfocused. I saw little practical value in it other than emotional catharsis. I couldn’t see it as the conversation-starter that he claimed it would or should be. Even with softening the language, it didn’t appear to be a fundamentally hopeful vision of a democratic free society. It was a demand for change by a perceived elite vanguard that would represent the workers and lead them in the fight against all that is wrong with the world. I found it the opposite of inspiring.

I was definitely not on board with his vision, but the experiece was helpful for me. At the same time I was reading Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination by Robin D. G. Kelley. The two gave me contrasting views, although both radical. In the book, Kelley writes about visions of hope. He purposesly steers away from ideological dogmatism and toward the power of imagination itself.

He writes, “the kind of politics to which I’ve been drawn have more to do with imagining a different future than being pissed off about the present.” Further on, he makes this even more clear: “There are few contemporary political spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful forces.” The author wishes to promote such spaces for inspiring dreams. That is namby-pamby liberalism, but in some ways I think this attitude is more radical than what what many left-wingers are offering, at least the dogmatic variety.

The guy who wrote the draft maybe is stuck in his own suffering (as he mentioned some major family tragedies in recent years) and I know how that feels. The difference between the two of us is that it seems he can’t imagine anything else other than the struggle. I understand life often involves struggle. It’s just I don’t want that to be the defining feature of my experience. Still, I understand the attraction of that worldview. I have just decided to resist that attraction because of the dark turn of mind it leads to.

Here is what really caught my attention in Kelley’s book:

“I did not write this book for those traditional leftists who have traded in their dreams for orthodoxy and sectarianism. Most of those folks are hopeless, I’m sad to say. And they will be the first to dismiss this book as utopian, idealistic, and romantic. Instead, I wrote it for anyone bold enough still to dream”

This relates to why I naturally imagine democracy as both means and ends. The trade union guy, on the other hand, only imagines it as a means and even then only a partial means. If he were given a choice between democracy and struggle for the ’cause’, I feel confident he’d choose the latter.

The worldview he is in is that of tragedy. It is a compelling worldview because it creates a sense of high drama and that can be addictive. When someone is dealing with much suffering, it is a natural worldview to be drawn to. But I’d rather live in a different kind of story, a different kind of vision of the world.

I really do believe it matters what we focus on. Also, the means matter as much or more than the ends, for the latter is implicit in the former. What we focus on and how we act will determine the path we take and the results that will follow. I’ll accept what struggle cannot be avoided, but I have no desire to seek out struggle for the sake of it.

I genuinely believe democracy is our greatest hope. I don’t mean voting and other official political processes. What I envision isn’t just a politics of democracy, but more important an entire society and culture of democracy. In a very real and basic sense, we are all in this together. Our fates are intertwined.

A turn toward that understanding can’t be forced. It must be embraced and given the space to grow.

“Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”

Poverty In Black And White

It is unfair to all poor people of all races that poverty and other economic problems become racialized. Race becomes blamed for that which race is just an excuse. Worse still, the powerful hope to turn the poor people against each other using racial divisiveness.

It is inspiring that some Americans have been able to see beyond this. I was reading a book about the activism and organizing of poor and working class whites during the 60s: Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy. It is about how these white groups formed alliances with black groups in common cause, both groups dealing with poverty and oppression.

The book is eye-opening. This isn’t any history you were ever taught or even likely to have come across. As far as I know, this is the first book written about it. In one instance, the Klan provided protection to a black group during a strike that blacks and whites were organizing together. That is hard to imagine, but it happened (Kindle Locations 149-154):

“We organized a meeting of Movement organizers, including members of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), for the Patriots delegation. At the time, the New Orleans chapters of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) and the RNA were working together supporting a strike by pulp mill workers in Laurel, Mississippi, not far outside New Orleans. Virginia Collins , the local RNA leader and one of the organization’s founders, told the Patriots about the white and Black workers who had been enemies before the strike but were now working together. She shared that the local Klan actually provided security for the SCEF and RNA organizers when they came to hold meetings, and that sometimes they met in the Black Baptist church, sometimes in the white Baptist church.”

One group was the Young Patriots. They were lower class white Southerners who had moved North. They all lived in a neighborhood in Chicago where poverty and unemployment was rampant. These were the poorest of the poor whites. So, just like poor blacks, they organized. But they never got the attention from the MSM. Even the middle class white activists largely ignored them. Poor Southern whites were supposed to be the bad guys, but some blacks were able to empathize. It took the Black Panthers to acknowledge these struggling whites (Kindle Locations 262-266):

“The Young Patriots’ own chairman, William Fesperman, even let some heartfelt gratitude show in between jibes about the “pig power structure” when he explained how the Patriots came to be at the conference: “Our struggle is beyond comprehension to me sometimes and I felt for a long time [that poor whites] was forgotten … that nobody saw us. Until we met the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and they met us and we said let’s put that theory into practice.” Summing up why they had all come to Oakland, he added, “We want to stand by our brothers, our brothers, dig?””

Those in power don’t care about poor whites any more than they care about poor blacks. Racism sucks and should be dealt with, but we have to realize that the ignoring of poor whites is part of the racial equation of oppression. If all poverty is seen as a black thing, then the poor whites don’t have to be recognized. Poor whites with the same social problems as poor blacks can be swept under the rug. Instead, we can simply blame all social problems on blacks with the assumption that blacks are just inferior and so nothing can be done about it.

Racializing social problems is how the mostly white upper class argues that it isn’t their problem. The mythical black that ruins all that is good about white society becomes an explanation for everything. Blacks are the scapegoat for what we don’t want to face. Race is a distraction, a justification for an oppressive social order. Race is an idea that blinds us to reality. The social problems caused by racism become justified by that very same racial ideology.

If enough people ever realized that there are no blacks and whites, just people struggling, a real threat to the status quo might develop.

There Are No Allies Without Alliances

This article makes some good points, but in doing so it misses a larger point.

So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know
by Jamie Utt

The following are my thoughts on the matter

* * * *

I would particularly add something to the sixth point: You Can’t Be an Ally in Isolation.

Being an ally is a two-way street. There is no such thing as an isolated ally. Allies can only exist in a mutual alliance (of interests, of worldviews, of values, of respect, of understanding, of compassion). If you seek to be an ally with someone who doesn’t want to be an ally with you, then there is no alliance. You can only ally with those who ally with you.

If you seek to emphasize even the smallest of differences instead of even greater similarities/commonalities in order to attack potential allies, then you suffer what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” This is a failure of so many militant and adversarial activists who undermine rather than strengthen alliances, and so undermine rather than strengthen their own activism.

It is self-destructive behavior typically fueled by dogmatic righteousness where being right (at least in their own mind) becomes more important than promoting what is right. Such dogmatic righteousness just leads to becoming isolated in self-certain arrogance and lockstep groupthink.

Allies work together. They don’t attack each other. This requires an attitude of caring and understanding, the only worthy motivation of any activism.

* * * *

If you find yourself regularly attacking potential allies, you might want to see if you are the problem. 

If you find yourself constantly attacking people and looking for what’s wrong with them, you might want to consider that you are likely at best being nitpicky and at worse projecting. 

If you constantly wait for people to ally with you while not extending yourself to ally with others, you might want to rethink this behavior when it undermines your activism.

Remember, activism isn’t about you. It isn’t about being right. What it is or should be about is making the world a better place for all involved.

* * * *

I’m making a larger political point. 

There are no isolated issues and problems. There are diverse areas of marginalization, victimization, oppression, suffering, etc. I see it as disempowering when people separate their issues and problems from everyone else’s issues and problems. Everyone wants people to ally with them, but not enough people are willing to go to the effort of allying with others. This is the failure of so much advocacy and activism.

Most of us are ‘victims’ of some kind of marginalization/oppression or other, for those who hold most of the power in this world are few. The lack of functioning democracy in most countries, the US included, doesn’t only impact minorities or other small demographics. If everyone fights for their separate identity politics and sees themselves in competition with everyone else, then divide and conquer will always win.

My point is that the article is missing a larger point that too often is ignored, forgotten, or misunderstood. I’m talking about the practical methods of actually making the world a better place, not just about winning rhetorical battles but real victories in the real world.

* * * *

There is a problem that has faced humanity for a long time.

The problem is less the overt issues and problems we focus on, but rather our inability to cooperatively and collectively deal with such issues and problems. If we were able to solve our problems, we wouldn’t have problems. The first problem to face is our (with emphasis on ‘our’) inability to find and implement effective solutions.

Such a simple, yet empowering, insight.

When we fight with one another instead of allying with one another, we create a world of conflict, divisiveness, and violence. How we act toward others is the world we create. The means is as important as the ends for the means is the foundation upon which the desired ends is built.

* * * *

The ten points in the article can be generalized and universalized to apply to all moral, constructive behavior for all humans. By doing so, they become more important and meaningful, touching upon wisdom that applies to all of us, not just the other  person.

So, let me rephrase them:

1. Being a Human is About Listening (and Hearing and Understanding)
2. Stop Thinking of ‘Ally’ as a Noun that Only applies to Others
3. ‘Victim’ is Not (or Should Not Be) a Self-Proclaimed Identity
4. Two-Way Aliances Don’t Take Breaks on Either End
5. Moral and Humble People Educate Themselves Constantly
6. You Can’t Be an Ally in Isolation and Without Mutual Support, Respect, and Understanding
7. Allies, Advocates, and Activists Don’t Need to Be in the Spotlight
8. Those Seeking Alliances Focus on Those Who Share Their Identity
9. When Criticized or Called Out, Moral and Compassionate People Listen, Apologize, Act Accountably, and Act Differently Going Forward
10. Humble People Never Monopolize the Emotional Energy When They Prioritize What is Right Over Being Right

Now, that’s an improvement.

* * * *

My viewpoint is exemplified by Martin Luther King.

He didn’t just seek allies, but sought to ally with others. He didn’t see himself as a victim who had to wait for people with more power to save him, to help and assist him, to advocate for him. No, he sought out a vision of shared humanity and proactively took the steps to manifest that vision. 

He wasn’t just fighting for the civil rights of his group, but for all people. The movement he most wanted to form was a movement to fight for the poor of all races/ethnicities, not just blacks, not just minorities, but everyone working together to make the world a better place and solving practical problems.

When you see yourself as a powerless victim, then your only recourse is to demand that others ally with you. But if you see yourself as a powerful agent of change, you realize you have the power to choose to create alliances that are greater than just your personal problems, issues, and interests. 

The highest form of power comes from relationships of equality. A one-way ally with power and influence to offer help is good and necessary sometimes, but an alliance of mutually-reinforcing power and equality is even better.

Battle In Seattle: A Personal Response

I just watched the film Battle In Seattle.

I don’t have any grand opinion about it’s quality as entertainment. It isn’t great art, but it did hold my attention. More importantly, it’s about as close as Hollywood usually ever comes to even slightly grasping the reality of a major grassroots protest… which isn’t necessarily saying a lot. It is worthy in how it gives one some idea of what it might feel like to be at such an event. But, of course, it inevitably leaves out a lot of context and substance. It’s only a movie, afterall. In order to have any real understanding, you would’ve had to been there and have read tons of material about it.

I realize many people criticize the film because of its failings, but I’m annoyed by people who criticize it with an attitude of superiority. It’s just a fucking movie. Anyway, it introduces a lot of people to an event that they would otherwise be ignorant about. It might even inspire some people do some research to learn something new.

Anyway, here is one scene that caught my attention:

Sam: “How do you stop those who stop at nothing?”

Jay: “You don’t stop.”

You could say that it’s just cheesy dialogue (“The conversations are made up of clichés or slogans.”), but that misses the point. Cheese or not, it is still true. That is the 64 million dollar question. I feel that question gnawing at my mind (not the exact wording, but the sentiment of the question). It’s always there. The character realizes that those with power control everything including the media. This protest was before the rise of the internet as we now know it. The average person couldn’t easily put videos on the web and have it go viral. Still, even with the internet today, most people feel just as powerless. The mainstream media only reports what is in the interest of the corporations that own the media.

Why did the protests fail? Was it because of the violence? No. If it had been completely peaceful, it would have had even less impact and would now be forgotten. It wasn’t a complete failure. The problem is the media won’t pay attention until they are forced to pay attention. Even when they are forced, they will still just spin the story. Seattle didn’t succeed for the simple reason it was only one protest. Imagine, however, if protests like that had been going on in every major city around the US and around the world all at the same time.

But that wasn’t the real reason I wanted to post about this movie. I was curious about the lines I quoted above and so did a websearch. I found two reviews which both portrayed different versions of an attitude of superiority.

The first reviewer is someone who apparently is an activist and he feels superior out of some sense of haughtiness. His review had two parts (here is the first part), but it was the second part that interested me where he has some minor commentary on the above scene. His commentary lacks any deep insight and so I won’t quote it, just wanted to point it out as an example. The author seemed to be expressing garden variety cynicism… and was looking down upon mere mortals who might enjoy this movie as an introduction to a major event in US history. I guess he is too cool for any movie made for the masses.

The second reviewer annoyed me even more and I will quote the relevant section below. Basically, the reviewer was entirely ignorant of this major event despite his working in the media at the time. He acts nonchalant, maybe even slightly proud, about his own ignorance. And then he blames the movie for not lessening his ignorance (considering the degree of his ignorance, that is probably expecting too much out of a movie based on a complex event).

The funny thing about this real-life incident is that I was alive and well and conscious and even working at a newspaper in 1999, and yet I have no memory of it whatsoever. I’m guessing I read the news stories, saw “World Trade Organization,” had no idea what that was or why people were protesting it, and stopped reading before I got to the good part, i.e., the part where cops were busting hippie skulls.

The film is kind of terrible. It makes almost no effort to explain the protesters’ grievances against the WTO, instead assuming that we will be on their side regardless. One of the characters even makes a joke about how the general public doesn’t know what the WTO is; all they know is that it’s bad. So, OK, ha ha, interesting comment, but it kinda undermines the WHOLE POINT OF YOUR MOVIE.

Also undermining the movie: the terrible, terrible dialogue. I quote some of the more generic examples:

“The press would have a field day!”

HE: “You know nothing about me!”
SHE: “I’ve been around men like you all my life.”

(Spoken to a pregnant woman.) “You want adventure? You just signed up for the greatest adventure of all!”

“You’re gonna turn downtown into a war zone!”

“How do you stop those who stop at nothing?”

So … yeah. “Battle in Seattle.” The minute I saw this film, I knew it was poo.

I’ve noticed there are many other films about the WTO protests in Seattle:

Showdown In Seattle

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

I noticed that some people highly recommend them, but I haven’t watched them. So, I can’t say anything about them, much less compare them to the Battle In Seattle. But let me end with someone defending the relevance of the Battle In Seattle (emphasis mine):

The issue that Battle in Seattle filmmaker Stuart Townsend seeks to raise, as he recently stated, is “[what it takes] to create real and meaningful change.”

The question is notoriously difficult. In the film, characters like Martin Henderson’s Jay, a veteran environmental campaigner driven by a tragedy experienced on a past logging campaign, and Michelle Rodriguez’s Lou, a hard-bitten animal rights activist, debate the effectiveness of protest. Even as they take to Seattle’s streets, staring down armor-clad cops (Woody Harrelson, Channing Tatum) commanded by a tormented and indecisive mayor (Ray Liotta), they wonder whether their actions can have an impact.

Generally speaking, the response of many Americans is to dismiss protests out of hand-arguing that demonstrators are just blowing off steam and won’t make a difference. But if any case can be held as a counter-example, Seattle is it.

The 1999 mobilization against the World Trade Organization has never been free from criticism. As Andre 3000’s character in the movie quips, even the label “Battle in Seattle” makes the protests sound less like a serious political event and more “like a Monster Truck show.” While the demonstrations were still playing out and police were busy arresting some 600 people, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman issued his now-famous edict stating that deluded activists were just “looking for their 1960s fix.” This type of disregard has continued with the release of the film. A review in the Seattle Weekly dismissively asked, “Remind me again what those demonstrations against the WTO actually accomplished.”

While cynicism comes cheap, those concerned about global poverty, sweatshop labor, outsourced jobs, and threats to the environment can witness remarkable changes on the international scene. Today, trade talks at the WTO are in shambles, sister institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are now shriveled versions of their once-imposing selves, and the ideology of neoliberal corporate globalization is under intense fire, with mainstream economists defecting from its ranks and entire regions such as Latin America in outright revolt. As global justice advocates have long argued, the forces that created these changes “did not start in Seattle.” Yet few trade observers would deny that the week of protest late in the last millennium marked a critical turning point.