Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 3: Woodstock: Is any of that relevant now?

The Erickson Report, Page 3: Woodstock: Is any of that relevant now?

Does any of this matter for today, is it relevant in any way other than historical ones? I think it does and is. I see around me today multiple campaigns for change but I don't see a Movement, I don't see any evidence that the people involved in these various efforts conceive of themselves as part of a bigger whole.

Do those who identify with #MeToo feel a kinship with Black Lives Matter or the discussions over reparations? Do those who focus on global warming see themselves as part of the same cultural or political whole as the fight to raise the minimum wage or protect voting rights? I don't think they do, to the loss of each and every one of them.

I was struck by something just recently: Bernie Sanders gave a speech which covered a number of topics. Afterwards, there was a commentator who slammed the speech and Sanders because he didn't mention race or gender until 23 minutes in and yes, she said she clocked it. Actually, she was wrong; he first mentioned the topic less than five minutes in, but that's not really the point. Be clear here: She didn't attack him for what he said about race and gender, which apparently was to her at the very least unobjectionable, she was attacking him because he didn't say it early enough in the speech; he didn't give her focus privilege of place.

Bluntly, in the '60s the response to that criticism would have been along the lines of "What the hell difference does that make? This was a speech, not a Top 10 list ranked according to importance." When the order in which topics are addressed in a speech becomes a basis for criticism, we do not have a Movement, we have a collection of atomized, isolated efforts incapable of drawing strength from each other.

Worse, it seems to me that there has developed a basic divide between the two fundamental types of activism, which I call "inside" and "outside."

By inside, I mean what might be called "Inside the Beltway" thinking - and I note that is not a matter of geography but of a way of thinking, one that focuses on political campaigns, elections, and lobbying to the exclusion of other means. That thinking will fail you in the long run because the apparent distaste some have for street actions does genuine damage to our cause. Elections surely have their place, a necessary place, in the process of change. But not only are they not the only part, they're not even the first part of that process because change starts from outside - as Margaret Mead is supposed to have said, "never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has."*

But those who go outside, those who favor street action, pickets, rallies, mass demonstrations and marches, civil disobedience, and the like - and I confess that for all the lobbying and political campaigning I have done, the streets is where my heart is - people, then, like me need to understand that we need those working the inside route, because our demands and proposals will remain unfulfilled demands and proposals if no one is there to act on them.

These sides of activism, inside and outside, should be mutually reinforcing, should be, if I can use a cliche, two sides of the same coin, but now it seems like they are different worlds with each observing the other from a distance. And every bit of lobbying and campaigning, every rally-driven demand, is weaker for it.

Yes, there have been victories, have been successes, and don't think for even an instant that I am denigrating the efforts of oh so many people or any of what has been achieved. But I can't help but be distressed by how many of those efforts have been aimed at preventing losses of what has been gained in years past by movements of years past rather than on going further, gaining more. We need to do better. We can do better. You can do better.

I will leave you with this: I am hardly the first to raise the idea of the lack of an over-arching message among progressives, which simply means that others have noted the same atomized nature of our efforts that I am critiquing here, except that I would change it from a lack of an over-arching message to a lack of a feeling of connection, a lack of a feeling that despite our particular focuses, we are family, we are of the same tribe, even if the connection lies more in convictions than any outward sign, much like the members of a religious congregation can feel a connection to each other, even as they outwardly may appear diverse.

So for your consideration I offer for what I suppose you could call a shared religion, a set of shared convictions, a secular religion that stands on three mutually-supported legs, my over-arching message for progressives: Justice, compassion, and community. Conceive of every political action you take or for that matter anyone takes, whether inside or outside, as a reflection of one or more of those principles and realize how as you are in one particular effort, you are one of multiple strands that very much need to be woven together to make a capital M movement far stronger than the sum of its parts.

One more very important piece of advice: Do not repeat the mistakes of the past. I'm sure you won't repeat my generation's mistakes of overconfidence, but don't repeat the mistakes of other generations. Don't slice away your friends and supporters in a foolish attempt to avoid criticism or look "more mainstream." It will not help you; it never has and it never will, it merely narrows the field of fire for the forces of reaction. And don't divide yourselves into sectarian camps where people are dissed and dismissed for not using quite the preferred language of for having a different focus from you. That way lies madness and the death of dreams.

*There is no record of Mead having said this but her family believes it to be a real quote because it accords so well with her thinking. They suggest it probably came from a QandA session or an unrecorded interview.

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