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Where Change Really Comes From

One of the reasons that change is so hard to come by these days is that the things that make it happen have increasingly been forgotten, replaced, dismissed or ignored. .Just as urban migrations have caused tens of millions to lose simple but critical skills of rural survival, so the tens of millions of Americans who have migrated into the purported sophistication of post-modern politics have left behind many of the habits, technique and skills that created democracy in the first place and then sustained it.

Who needs community when you have television commercials and the Internet? Who needs serious conversation when you have tracking polls? Who needs the grass roots when you can afford to lay Astroturf anywhere you want? Who needs local organizing when you have huge national groups that can raise more money in a few days than a nation of precincts once could have in a whole year? Who needs the skills of a community organizer when you can go to the Harvard Business School?

Except for one problem: the corporate based system that has seized control of our politics lacks the interest, imagination, integrity, capacity and soul to produce positive change. Whatever the sign on the side of the political machine says, whatever the TV commercial claims, how ever many times the candidates chant the word “change,” we have, in fact, systematically been destroying the means by which we once achieved what it is we say we want.

This fact is hidden because of the language used by our leaders, the media and ourselves – and our acceptance of it. We happily applaud a politician promising to bring change without demanding to know what the hell the candidate is talking about. We accept hope as an objective though devoid of detail, dimensions or even simple description. We have become a nation mainlining comforting nouns and adjectives as a substitute for the social, economic and physical improvements that used to be the goals of a good politics.

Another reason we find it hard to recognize or talk about real change is that we haven’t seen its positive form on any scale in some time. Thus, it is not surprising that many don’t seem to realize that while politicians can help to create change, they are rarely its source. Even the best politicians need a community of creative and conscientious pressure to discourage their response to those forces that have never succumbed to believing for themselves the advertising slogans they foist on others. Even the best president steps into the Oval Office surrounded, beleaguered and manipulated by the most skillful organizers in the country – those who organize the bankers, corporations, religious extremists, polluters and other assorted hustlers – while well intentioned but nave ordinary constituents of that president assume their work was finished when they left the voting booth.

This is one major reason why the Democratic Party has done so poorly in recent years. With the election of Clinton, its liberal wing became subservient acolytes at the altar of the most reactionary Democratic leader of modern times. For the crowd on the inside, it was playtime.

Consider in contrast, Franklin Roosevelt, constantly being pushed from the left by everything from communists to socialists to Midwestern populists, or Lyndon Johnson, shoved towards progressive politics by forces like the civil rights movement.

Nothing like that exists today. Instead we have change reduced to a matter of simple iconography. In the 2008 campaign, for many a choice of a woman or a black was considered change enough. The rest would take care of itself.

Of course, it never does, in no small part because the bad guys fully understand that politics is about real things, not cuddly symbols. And well before Inauguration Day they are on the case, cutting the deals, writing the legislation, and passing the bucks.

Yet one has to go back a decade or more to find the creation of effective alternative models such as the anti-apartheid movement, the anti-sweatshop movement and the national Green Party. And back even further for the explosion of truly revolutionary civil rights, women’s, gay and modern environmental movements.

Today we have two illegal wars, the greatest glacial melting in 5,000 years, the collapse of constitutional government, a sinking economy and fraud at every turn – yet the streets, communities and hearts of America slog along largely unaware of their latent power to turn themselves from victims to creators.

The origins of this civic impotence are many. The rise of greatly segmented television programming and the internet have tended to isolate us from a common sensibility and each other; the Ipod earphone has helped finish the task. The ubiquitous acceptance of the values, cliches and leadership assumptions of big business have helped change our thinking from that of citizens to that of mere aspiring corporate staffers. People appear overloaded with the requirements of a life that keeps them apart from others who might share their feelings. Programs like the endless sportscasts and American Idol teach us to think constantly about winning rather than working together with others. Business and political machines have each conspired to take the language and systems of democracy and turn them to their narrow uses. For example, that icon of decentralized democracy, the town meeting, is now a gimmick used by bureaucrats and politicians who want to make their targets feel good without having any actual power. And even Barack Obama, drawing on his community organizing experience, altered the nature of this technique so it no longer empowered the voter, but himself.

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.”

I put it this way once: “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.”

We need to do this because, as Lau-tzu said:

Of the best rulers, the people only know that they exist;
The next best they love and praise;
The next they fear;
And the next they revile . . .

But of the best when their task is accomplished, their work done,
The people all remark, “We have done it ourselves.”

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