Rebuilding America: We Need a Movement, Here’s a Manual
Grassroots: A grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is one driven by the politics of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures. Grassroots movements are often at the local level, as many volunteers in the community give their time to support it.
A movement, not a campaign
In 1997, WW Norton published my book the Great American Repair Manual, a title that, sixteen years later, seems overly optimistic. Repair is no longer enough. Today, America needs to be rebuilt. Here is the first in a series of ways we could go about it, based in part on a remix of earlier writings.
A movement is not like a campaign. No one gets to start a movement and no one gets to own it. You don’t have to file any contribution reports. The archaic media pretends you don’t even exist for as long as it can. And it doesn’t even have to have a name.
It’s sort of like the Gulf Stream, hard to see yet undeniable as it moves you faster in a certain direction.
The system that envelops us becomes normal by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis — “like being dead and not knowing it.”
The unwitting dead — universities, newspapers, publishing houses, institutes, councils, foundations, churches, political parties — reach out from the past to rule us with fetid paradigms from the bloodiest and most ecologically destructive century of human existence.
Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.
It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel — the courage to emigrate from one’s own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.
We have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions.
People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.
Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.
Movements work differently. They don’t use popes; they rely on independent congregations. They are driven not by saviors but by substance. They assume a commitment beyond the voting booth, they think politicians should respond to them rather than the other way around, and they believe in “Here’s how” as well as “Yes, we can.”
If you are presently doing anything to try to repair the damage that has been done by our cynical, greedy and incompetent leadership you are part of the movement. Student, union worker, teacher, retiree, infirm, ecologist, defense attorney, community organizer, informed or reformed – you are part of the movement.
So welcome to the movement. If you don’t believe there is one, trying using the word anyway. The very term is a weapon in our arsenal. If the politicians and the press start hearing the phrase in places they thought had little in common, they will start to pay attention. We can leave it to the historians to define it. In its very ambiguity lies its strength.
Organize from the bottom up
From the American revolution to the underground railroad, to the organizing of labor, to the drive for universal suffrage, to the civil rights, women’s, peace and environmental movements, every significant political and social change in this country has been propelled by large numbers of highly autonomous small groups linked not by a bureaucracy or a master organization but by the mutuality of their thought, their faith and their determination
Whatever the source, it now takes longer, requires more paper, and stirs up more intimations of liability to do almost anything worthwhile than it once did. While our rhetoric overflows with phrases like “entrepreneurship” and “risk-taking,” the average enterprise of any magnitude is actually characterized by cringing caution with carefully constructed emergency exits leading from every corner of chance. We have been taught that were we to move unprotected into time and space, they might implode into us. Every law office is a testament to our fear and lack of trust.
The reporter risking status by telling the truth, the government official risking employment by exposing the wrong, the civic leader refusing to go with the flow — these are all essential catalysts of change. A transformation in the order of things is not the product of immaculate conception; rather it is the end of something that starts with the willingness of just a few people to do something differently. There must then come a critical second wave of others stepping out of a character long enough to help something happen — such as the white Mississippian who spoke out for civil rights, the housewife who read Betty Friedan and became a feminist, the parents of a gay son angered by the prejudice surrounding him.
Too often today, we expect our leaders to do our work for us, to save us, to redeem us. There is little sense of the wisdom laid down by Eugene Debs: “Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.”
Concentrate on specific issues
I learned this secret many years ago when I first became involved in activism. The issue then was an unwanted fare increase by DC Transit. The organizer was the heavily black and young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee but the participants came from all over including 100,000 riders who stayed off the buses. Then we went on to stop a Los Angeles like freeway system planned for the capital with an alliance that included old leftists, preservationists, SNCC, and black and white middle class homeowners threatened with removal.
Over and over, the best causes of the sixties and seventies – from ending the Vietnam War to the young environmental movement – found their strength in issues that could attract people who might not agree on everything but did on those issues. Just like Saul Alinksky, the god father of issue based activism, told us.
Create a counterculture
Sane and decent America is acting like gays in the closet. Having been convinced by the corporate media and our leaders – either by being ignored or dismissed – that its views have no status or power, it accepts the unacceptability that has been assigned to it.
What is missing is not organization but the multitudinous confluences that create a culture – yes, organization, but also music, spirit, values, gatherings, habits. . .
To be sure we have grisly imitations all around us: coffee shop culture replaced by Starbucks, “hip” apparel determined by multinational corporations; a presidential candidate promising “hope” and “change” but providing neither, teens learning to scream at music rather than listen to it in preparation for lifetime service as loyal consumers. Whether it’s Facebook, Abercrombie & Fitch or Barack Obama, our task is to buy it and shut up.
When, if ever, we think of counterculture, pot, love beads, and Joan Baez may come to mind. Or bongo drums and berets. Or freedom schools and singing We Shall Overcome.
While they are just examples from particular times, they are instructive because they reveal something our intellect easily forgets: change is an act of art and music and theater as much as of organization; of symbols as much as substance, of informal dress on a bar stool as much as formal addresses on a podium.
And above all, positive change doesn’t need a mission statement, strategic plan, or table of organization; it requires the creation of a community of common dreams and values and a meaningful way to express them.
So you’re lonely, but you also cling to the faith that at some point millions who also feel lonely, angry and sad will come out of their cautious closets and discover each other – not just for a protest, not just for a piece of legislation, not just for one cause, but for the sum of what a better America might be like- and to follow the advice of Alan Watts: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
Every time I see a young child wearing a T shirt with a peace symbol, the irony hits home. That half century old sign still has more power than anything describing our present condition.
Countercultures are about everything beyond our specific agendas. In the Sixties for example, the peace, anti-poverty and civil right movements shared alternative space because there was so much more behind what they were up to than just their chosen priorities.
Today, our various causes share too little beyond isolation and lack of common ground with others. The Green Party and labor unions don’t know each others. Nor the prison reformers and the anti-war activists. What will bring us together is not our agendas but our spirits and our souls.
And remember: people only get involved in politics in large numbers when it becomes more than politics, when it is more than a logical, thoughtful and well constructed process, when it is more even than a ideology. They get involved when politics becomes a normal, convivial, exciting and satisfying part of their social existence.
I once visited the Clearwater Festival with my family. Over 90 performers were there on the Hudson River bank – ranging from Blues and Funk to Cajun and Zydeco. And with the revival music was a clear message of reviving the earth.
I was prepared to be bored, like going to one more political antique show. Instead, I found myself in a place of magic, surrounded by happy, decent and lively people. I felt good about America as I watched a woman singing “Union Maid” and clogging between the verses – as I rediscovered the almost forgotten notion of activism and joy bound together.
You don’t find it much in modern politics. There’s a stiffness, an artificiality and the assignment of potential activists to a passive seat in the audience. A few elite performers instead of large numbers of unskilled voices. A message rather than conversation. Watching Live Earth on TV rather than wandering around the Clearwater Festival.
Symbols are more than marketing or PR. The symbols we use define not just a cause or its image but signal our relationship to it. Among the missing:
– Even with a broadly despised war, there is no simple icon like the 1960s peace symbol.
– There is no hand greeting like the “V” sign or a special hand clasp.
– There is no color associated with supporters of a new America.
– There is a stunning silence. The disappearance of easily recalled tunes in popular music has taken sound away from our collective lips, leaving a silence that “like a cancer grows.”
– There is a lack of art of literature that clearly reflects the collapse of the First American Republic, or our present political purgatory – what Eric Budon of the Animals has called “the endarkenment.”
Get an agenda
One has to go back to the Great Society to find a time when Democrats knew what they were doing and how to describe it. The Greens have an agenda, but it is complex and undifferentiated. Meanwhile, the GOP has happily gone about oversimplifying life to God and gays, abortion and Al Qaeda, and the left still can’t figure out why it’s losing.
Quick: describe the progressive agenda in a few sentences.
If we can’t do it, how the hell is the media and the public meant to know?
The point here is not to define the list, but to argue the need for one. It might be both broad as:
– Changing our foreign policy so fewer people want to kill us for it
– Adding morality to our commercial affairs and restoring economic progress to all Americans, not just for those at the top
– Providing single payer healthcare
– Saving the planet from further ecological destruction
And it might be as specific as:
– Instant runoff voting
– Ending credit card usury
– Shifting public budgets from cars and planes to buses, bicycles and trains
I might not even agree with these lists tomorrow, but it only took 70 words and you already have a pretty good idea of where I’m coming from, which is more than you can say of the major Democratic presidential candidates.
Make our values clear
Just as progressive goals are lost in the mush, the same could be said of values. In fact, there may be less consensus possible than one might imagine. How do you get the Manhattan liberal to worry about and respect the drought-stricken Montana farmer? How do you get well-off gays to concern themselves with the urban poor? How do you get women’s groups to recognize the degree to which non-college educated young men are the ones really in the rear these days? How do you blend the liberal, the populist, the civil libertarian and the green?
One thing is for certain: we don’t know because we haven’t tried. To a stunning degree, progressive and libeal politics has been defined by the right.
One way to start is to commence talking about it, finding common ground, testing who we really are and what we have in common.
A few questions to start the discussion:
– Can urban progressives find common ground with non-urban Americans?
– Why have the values of populism and civil liberties become so far less important among liberal agenda?
– How do we form debates so the door is open to gather supporters and not chase them away?
– Why isn’t community – including local control – more important to the progressive movement of the day?
– How do we foster the idea of reciprocal liberty – I can’t be free unless you have your freedom – rather than having freedom defined by purists on either the left or the right?
In my book, The Great American Political Repair Manual, I outlined some values that I thought were central to what I called a cooperative commonwealth, such as:
– We seek to be good stewards of our earth, good citizens of our country, good members of our communities, and good neighbors of those who share these places with us.
– We reject the immoderate tone of current politics, its appeal to hate and fear, its scorn for democracy, its preference for conflict over resolution, its servility to money and to those who possess it, and its deep indifference to the problems of ordinary Americans.
– We seek a cooperative commonwealth based on decency before profit, liberty before sterile order, justice before efficiency, happiness before uniformity, families before systems, communities before corporations, and people before institutions.
– We should tread gently upon the earth and leave it in better condition than we found it.
– The physical and cultural variety of human beings is a gift and not a threat. We are glad that the world includes many who are different from ourselves by nature, principle, inclination or faith.
– We must protect the right of others to disagree with us so we shall be free to speak our own minds.
– Our national economic goal is the self-sufficiency, well-being and stability of our communities and those living in them.
– Ecological principles should determine economic policies and not vice versa.
– The first source of expertise is the wisdom of the people.
– Individuals possess fundamental rights that are inalienable and not contingent on responsibilities assigned by the state. These rights are to be restrained only by a due concern for the health, safety, and liberty of others and are not to be made subservient to the arbitrary and capricious dictates of the government.
– Citizens should participate as directly as possible in our democracy
– The media should inform citizens and provide a means by which citizens may address government rather than serving as a vehicle by which members of the government and elites tell citizens what to think.
– Power should be devolved to the lowest practical level.
-The Bill of Rights and other constitutional provisions have deep permanence and are not to be manipulated or abridged for political gain.
– Politics dependent on corporate financing and lobbyist influence is corrupt, anti-democratic and unacceptable.
– Simplicity, conservation and recycling should be central to our economy, our politics and our lives.
– Individual privacy is paramount and not to be subservient to the needs of the state.
– Individual rights are manifestly superior to any granted corporations.
– Our elected officials are servants and representatives, not rulers.
– We need more community more than we need more things.
– We are citizens and not merely taxpayers.
– We own our government and are not merely its consumers.
Change it, rewrite it, scrap it, but put something down that explains to us and others what it is we value.
Become an existentialist
The history of existentialism is murky and confusing, for those lumped in the category have agreed on neither religion nor politics. But for the purposes of getting a life rather than tenure, Jean Paul Sartre’s definition works pretty well. Sartre believed that existence precedes essence. We are what we do. This is the obverse of predestination and original sin with their presumption of an innate essence. Said Sartre, “Values rise from our actions as partridges do from the grass beneath our feet.”
In fact, some existentialists argue that we are not fully us until we die because until that moment we are still making decisions and taking actions that define ourselves. Even the condemned person, one said, has a choice of how to approach the gallows.
Wrote Sartre: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism . . . Man is condemned to be free. . . From the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”
To show just how murky existentialism can be, one of the most famous existentialist writers, Albert Camus, even denied he was one.
Perhaps this antipathy stemmed in part from the fact that Camus was a novelist rather than a philosopher like Sartre, and perhaps because they disagreed on politics, but whatever you want to call it, few have spoken as wisely on behalf of the uncertain human spirit. “There is no love of life without despair of life,” said Camus. “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”
These are not the precise and pedagogical words of a philosophy rising, yet, as with art and love, there is no particular reasons why life should be hostage to logical words, among the least fluid of human expressions. Robert Frost, asked to explain a poem, replied that if he could have said it better he would have written it differently. Louis Armstrong, asked for a definition of jazz, replied that if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And, said Gertrude Stein, there ain’t no answer. There never was an answer, there ain’t going to be an answer. That’s the answer.
Quakerism prescribes personal witness as guided by conscience – regardless of the era in which we live or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They were early existentialists.
There are about as many Quakers today in America as there were in the 18th century, around 100,000. Yet near the center of every great moment of American social and political change one finds members of the Society of Friends. Why? In part because they have been willing to fail year after year between those great moments. Because they have been willing in good times and bad — in the instructions of their early leader George Fox — “to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one.”
Those who think history has left us helpless should recall the abolitionist of 1830, the feminist of 1870, the labor organizer of 1890, or the gay or lesbian writer of 1910. They, like us, did not get to choose their time in history but they, like us, did get to choose what they did with it.
Would we have been abolitionists in 1830?
In 1848, 300 people gathered at Seneca Falls, NY, for a seminal moment in the American women’s movement. On November 2, 1920, 91 year-old Charlotte Woodward Pierce became the only signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions who had lived long enough to cast a ballot for president.
Would we have attended that conference in 1848? Would we have bothered?
On the other hand, there was the time in early 1960 when four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in 15 cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to 54 cities in nine states. By April the leaders of these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Four students did something and America changed. Even they, however, couldn’t know what the result would be.
In a world dominated by dichotomies, debate, definition and deconstruction, existentialism suggests not a result but a way, not a solution but an approach, not goal but a far and misty horizon. It is, says Robert Solomon “a sensibility …. an attitude towards oneself, an attitude towards one’s world, an attitude towards one’s behavior.”
The sense of being individually responsible yet part of a seamless web of others produces neither certainty nor excuses. One can, one must, be responsible without the comfort of being sure. Camus once admitted that he would be unwilling to die for his beliefs. He was asked why. “What if I’m wrong?” And when he spoke of rebellion he also spoke of moderation:
There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and thinking which is possible on the level of moderation which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. . . Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests. … The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas of optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.
The existential spirit, its willingness to struggle in the dark to serve truth rather than power, to seek the hat trick of integrity, passion and rebellion, is peculiarly suited to our times. We need no more town meetings, no more expertise, no more public interest activists playing technocratic chess with government bureaucrats, no more changes in paragraph 324B of an ineffectual law, no more talking heads. Instead we need an uprising of the soul, that spirit which Aldous Huxley described as “irrelevant, irreverent, out of key with all that has gone before . . . Man’s greatest strength is his capacity for irrelevance. In the midst of pestilences, wars and famines, he builds cathedrals; and a slave, he can think the irrelevant and unsuitable thought of a free man.”
We need to think the unthinkable even when the possible is undoable, the ideal is unimaginable, when power overwhelms truth, when compulsion replaces choice. We need to lift our eyes from the bottom line unto the hills, from the screen to the sky, from the adjacent to the hazy horizon.
The key to both a better future and our own continuous faith in one is the constant, conscious exercise of choice even in the face of absurdity, uncertainty and daunting odds. We are constantly led, coaxed and ordered away from such a practice. We are taught to respect power rather than conscience, the grand rather than the good, the acquisition rather than the discovery. The green glasses rather than our own unimpeded vision. Oz rather than Kansas.
Any effort on behalf of human or ecological justice and wisdom demands real courage rather than false optimism, and responsibility even in times of utter madness, even in times when decadence outpolls decency, even in times when responsibility itself is ridiculed as the archaic behavior of the weak and naive.
There is far more to this than personal witness. In fact, it is when we learn to share our witness with others — in politics, in music, in rebellion, in conversation, in love — that what starts as singular testimony can end in mass transformation.
Here is an approach of no excuses, no spectators, with plenty of doubt, plenty of questions, plenty of dissatisfaction. But ultimately a philosophy of peace and even joy because we will have thrown every inch and ounce of our being into what we are meant to be doing which is to decide what we are meant to be doing. And then to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth doing it.
Mix and match
If you want to scare the establishment, get people together who it doesn’t think belong together. If you are students having a problem with your principal or headmaster don’t just go to his or her office with the usual troublemakers; walk in with some of the smartest kids, some jocks, a few punks, blacks, whites, latinos, and, best of all, the kids who never seems to be interested in doing anything at all. Once when we were fighting freeways in Washington, I looked up on a platform and there was the Grovesnor Chapman, the chair of the white elite Georgetown Citizens Association, and Reginald Booker head of a black militant organization called Niggers Inc., and I said to myself, we are going to win. And we did.
My old friend Chuck Stone really knew how to get along with other people. When he was columnist and senior editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, 75 homicide suspects surrendered to him personally rather than take their chances with the Philadelphia police department. Black journalist Stone also negotiated the end of five hostage crises, once at gun point. “I learned how to listen,” he said. Stone believed in building what he calls “the reciprocity of civility.” His advice for getting along with other Americans: treat them like a member of your family.
I can’t emphasize that too much. Show everyone respect and you’ll walk comfortably among every class, subculture and ethnicity in this land. Don’t show respect and you’ll live a lonely life.
Part of that respect is towards yourself. Don’t apologize for who you are. Don’t be afraid to argue with someone just because they are of a different ethnicity. Arguing with someone is a form of respect too, because it means you really care about what they think.
If you are a member of a ethnic or other minority, remember that as an activist your role is to provide solutions to problems and not merely be a symptom of them. To be a survivor and not a victim.
During the civil rights movement, black leaders spoke not only to those of their own culture but to many whites, especially young whites like myself. The most influential book I read in college was Martin Luther King’s ‘Stride Toward Freedom’ and it wasn’t on any required reading list. Cesar Chavez had a similar cross-cultural appeal. But then as African Americans became more successful in politics there was a understandable but unfortunate tendency to retreat to a constituency you knew you could rely upon. And so black leaders became much less influential in the white community.
It’s an important lesson for any young black or latino activist. Don’t let your story be ghettoized; instead take that story and find the universal in it, and use that story to move those who don’t look like you but can understand the story because you made it theirs, too. The greatest ethnic success stories in America have come when a minority learned to lead the majority, as the Irish and Jews often did in the past century.
As an example, I hear over and over that blacks and latinos can’t work together politically, but I can almost promise you that the next great ethnic leader in this country is going to be someone who ignores that cliché and creates a black-latino coalition which, after all, will represent one quarter of the people in this land.
– Have fun. Don’t be ashamed of it. You are not only fighting a cause, you are building a new sort of community. Back in the 1960s, a really good black activist told me, “You know, Sam, all I really want to do is sit on my stoop, drink beer and shoot craps.” After that, I never forgot what the battle was really about.
Our quarrel with the abuse of power should be not only be that it is cruel and stupid but that it takes so much time way from other things — like loving and being loved, and music, and a good meal and the sunset of a gentle day. In a nation ablaze with struggles for power, we are too often forced to choose between being a co-conspirator in the arson or a member of the volunteer fire department. And, too often, as we immerse ourselves in the terrible relevance of our times, beauty and happiness seem to drift away.
– Remember the definition of a saint: a sinner who tries harder. You and your colleagues don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to be always right, you just have to keep trying.
– And while we’re talking of saints remember what St Francis of Assisi said, “Always preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” Which is to say that words are not always the answer. Justice can be expressed in many other ways. For example, if you volunteer at a homeless shelter, you don’t have to make a big deal of it. Just the fact that you are doing it will have an effect on those around you.
– Among the other ways are art and music. Music is often the forerunner of political change. Billie Holiday was singing about lynchings long before the civil rights movement. Cool jazz was a form of rebellion. And when they write about what led up to the important Wilmington student conference of March 2004 the smart historians will give credit to punk rock. Because it kept the idea of freedom alive at a time when few others were interested. As the webzine Fast ‘n’ Bulbous noted:
“Punk gives the message that no one has to be a genius to do it him/herself. Punk invented a whole new spectrum of do-it-yourself projects for a generation. Instead of waiting for the next big thing in music to be excited about, anyone with this new sense of autonomy can make it happen themselves by forming a band. Instead of depending on commercial media to tell them what to think, anyone can create a fanzine, paper, journal or comic book. With enough effort and cooperation they can even publish and distribute it. Kids were eventually able to start their own record labels too.” In other words, it was a musical version of democracy.
And it can lead to profound political change. By the end of the 1990s, an unremittingly political band, Rage Against the Machine, had sold more than 7 million copies of its first two albums and its third, The Battle of Los Angele, sold 450,000 copies its first week. Nine months later, there would be a live battle of Los Angeles as the police shut down a Rage concert at the Democratic Convention. Throughout the 1990s, during a nadir of activism and an apex of greed, Rage both raised hell and made money. In 1993 the band, appearing at Lollapalooza III in Philadelphia, stood naked on stage for 15 minutes without singing or playing a note in a protest against censorship. Other protest concerts followed. And in 1997, well before most college students were paying any attention to the issue, Rage’s Tom Morello was arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor. Throughout this period no members of the band were invited to discuss politics with Ted Koppel or Jim Lehrer. But a generation heard them anyway. So Rage T-shirts became a common sight during the 1999 Seattle protest.
– Be patient. You are not winning a game called justice, you are living a life called justice. Bertolt Brecht tells the story of a man living alone who answers a knock at the door. There stands Tyranny, armed and powerful, who asks, “Will you submit?” The man does not reply. He steps aside. Tyranny enters and takes over. The man serves him for years. Then Tyranny mysteriously becomes sick from food poisoning. He dies. The man opens the door, gets rid of the body, comes back to the house, closes the door behind him, and says, firmly, “No.”
– Be fair to each other. There’s been a sad side to social activism. Some people get delusions of grandeur, some rip it off. And some don’t apply the principles of which they talk to those around them. For example, both the civil rights and the 1960s anti-war movement were rife with behavior that denigrated the women involved. So remember the old Mahalia Jackson gospel song and you won’t go wrong: “You can’t go to church and shout all day Sunday, come home and get drunk and raise hell on a Monday. You’ve got to live the life you sing about in your song.”
– Look for consensus. There’s a lot of either-or in political activism. But within your own groups, it helps to emphasize consensus. Before we got the national Green Party off the ground we held a conference in the early 1990s that many would have said was doomed to failure. We had 125 people from over 20 different third parties ranging from the Socialists and the Greens to the Libertarians and the Perot people. It was asking for trouble.
But we also had two rules: first, we were there to discuss what we agree upon, not what divided us and two, we would discover it by some form of consensus. And we did; by the end of the weekend we had come up with 17 points of unanimous agreement.
– Finally, trust in courage and not only in hope. The key to both a better future and our own continuous faith in one is the constant, conscious exercise of choice even in the face of absurdity, uncertainty and daunting odds. We are constantly led, coaxed and ordered away from such a practice. We are taught to respect power rather than conscience, the grand rather than the good, the acquisition rather than the discovery.
But as Lillie Tomlin noted, even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat.
Any effort on behalf of human or ecological justice and wisdom demands real courage rather than false optimism, and responsibility even in times of utter madness, even in times when decadence outpolls decency, even in times when responsibility itself is ridiculed as the behavior of the weak and naive.
There is far more to this than personal action and personal witness. In fact, it is when we learn to share our witness with others — in politics, in music, in rebellion, in conversation, in love — that what starts as singular testimony can end in mass transformation. Here then is the real possibility: that we are building something important even if it remains invisible to us. And here then is the real story: even without the hope that such a thing is really happening there is nothing better for us to do than to act as if it is — or could be.
Here is ultimately a philosophy of peace and even joy because we have thrown every inch and ounce of our being into what we are meant to be doing – which is to decide what we are meant to be doing. And then to walk cheerfully down the street, through our school, and over the face of the earth doing it.
A final note
Finally, we must remember that change does not require a license. It traditionally has come from the unanointed, the unprotected and the unexpected. We need to create thousands of secular congregations, charettes for a new America and communities of hope and invention – and then bring our discoveries to others so they can share.
In the end, the only solution to a failed America is a new America. And there’s nobody who can do it but us.
Above photos are of Grass Roots Square in Norway by Do Ho Suh, 50,000 figures showing a movement from the grassroots. The artist says “The Grass Roots Square tiles say that it’s not really about one individual, but about the people.” For more see here and here.