Sunday, June 20, 2010

Let me explain

Okay, I recently told you I was feeling really dispirited, a lack of emotional energy that is largely responsible for the paucity of posts. Let me give you an example why.

The other day, Rachel Maddow gave her version of what she wished Barack Obama had said during his speech on energy earlier in the week. On the whole, I thought her take was decent. Not outstanding, but decent.

The policy proposals she cited were moderate enough to lie safely within the bounds of acceptable political discourse; they were of the sort that make genuine progressives grimace and go "Geez, is that really the best you can do? We're doomed." In other words, there was nothing radical about them - probably the most "radical" was no offshore oil drilling anywhere the company involved could not prove it was able to deal with a major failure - and they are ultimately inadequate to the task at hand.

Still, it was evident that laying out some dramatic new far-reaching energy agenda was not her purpose; rather, it was to push for what Obama's speech clearly lacked: energetic advocacy for proposals most of which are already on the table, proposals which while, again, inadequate are not useless and which without such advocacy will go the essentially nowhere they have gone so far.

So bottom-lining it, she was being critical of Obama for not being forceful enough.

And in comments at the ostensibly "liberal" site where the above link to the video leads - TalkingPointsMemo, to be specific - she got slammed for it. Slammed, when you come right down to it, for daring to criticize the Changer-in-Chief.

The segment was called an "idiotic and egotistical display ... shameful." It was a "stunt ... like a Saturday Night Live skit." It was "very, very sad" and "nonsense." It was "painful to watch. Cringe worthy ... the lowest and most embarrassing moment of her career." She herself was labeled "immature," guilty of "self-indulgent arrogance," "full of herself," "naive," it was said "her ego got in the way," and she was accused of having "revealed her deep ignorance about how laws are made" as her remarks about using reconciliation or presidential orders were nitpicked over legal technicalities.

Yes, there was pushback in the same comments (one commenter denounced the critics as "spineless") but the exchange just served to demonstrate that for a whole segment of the supposedly "progressive" community, this is what it has come to: "Progress" equals Barack Obama equals "progress" and never the twain shall be divided. So STFU, you DFH.

There was one comment - actually, the person was so impressed with their insight that they said it five times in slightly different ways - that got me the most because it seemed to (quite unintentionally) sum up everything that is wrong with how we have been pursuing political and social change for some time now.

Maddow is "young and idealistic," this person said. "Hopefully a dose of maturity will help her along the way" because "maturity brings you closer to reality."

What? Gain "a dose of maturity?" What does that mean? What is this "maturity" supposed to provide her with here? What defines this sort of "maturity?" Is she supposed to, as it appears is the intention, lose whatever idealism she has? Is she supposed to become cynical, dismissive, to stop caring about the actual policies and the effects they have and become one of the media gang who regard politics as a spectator sport and spend their energies dwelling on the process without regard to the substance? (Mind you, this is at a time when some :cough: Bob Somerby :cough: say she is already too much of an insider.)

Or is this "maturity," as I suspect it is, a matter of psychological surrender to a form of thinking ever more intent on brushing away hope and declaring that, whatever it is, "it can't be done" and completely forgetting what should be done? Is it a submission to "accepted" limits on the future, a matter of coming to celebrate not only half-measures but half-efforts at half-measures, which will leave you with quarter-measures (if you're lucky), simply and solely because that's what's "realistic," it's "what will pass," and anyway "it's better than nothing" even if it isn't? Is it adopting the practice of relegating the actual goal, whatever it is, to living only "in a perfect world" or to happening "maybe someday," a someday which will never come without demands that it come today? Is "maturity," then, a matter of learning to endorse living in fear of political "God forbids," the fear of "alienating people," of "going too far" and "provoking reaction?" A matter of hardening your heart, darkening your vision, and shortening your reach, all the while patting yourself on the back for your "realism?" Is that what "maturity" means? Being afraid of actually going after what you say you believe in?

If so, I will be joyously immature as long as I can hold out and up. And if not, then what in hell could have been meant?

This whole attitude, this whole notion of insider politics being the way to go is not new; it didn't just appear now or in 2008. It's been building for quite some time. I still remember Todd "Hey! I was president of SDS, dammit!" Gitlin condemning the involvement of ANSWER in organizing for a demonstration in the fall of 2005 because it would be "divisive" and "drive people away." Before that, there was hot-shot-blogger-turned-media-dude Ezra Klein denouncing a proposal for a counter-inaugural in January 2005 because it would "make us look like sore losers, and worse, hopeless partisans." And the summer before that, there was the case of wide-eyed bewilderment among some, wondering "why are there going to be protests at the Democratic Convention" with the suggestion that only "the usual loonies" and "the crazies" would do such a thing. Even protests at the GOPper convention that same year were slammed on the grounds they would appear "disrespectful" of Bush and so, it was and I emphasize the word feared, give the wingnuts some kind of talking point.

This is also far from the first time I've addressed this, which even better illustrates the history of this lunatic rejection of non-electoral, outsider politics. For one (not even the most recent) example, in August 2007 I wrote that
too much of [the] "movement" is too god damned concerned with its own image. Too god damned concerned with being "respectable," with being seen as "serious," as truly "pro-American." Too god damned concerned with politics over praxis, with positioning over protest. As a result, it has surrendered tactical decisions to the leadership of the Democratic Party and moral leadership to a crew of inside-the-Beltway wannabes both on- and offline who have mocked demonstrations and made Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi the arbiters of the acceptable limits of debate.
Years before that, in the print version of Lotus in April 1991, I expressed my dismay at the failure of the attempts to prevent the first Gulf War.
We showed ourselves more concerned with not "offending" anyone than with saying what we believed, more with sparing ourselves the embarrassment of "losing" than with advancing our ideas. We were so worried about not looking "radical," "un-American," or whatever other word it was we thought would make "middle America" gasp that we undermined our own arguments, undercut our own authority....

The bottom line is that we were so eager to be part of the "mainstream" (which, again, we let the right wing define), so eager to avoid "isolation," so eager not to be seen as "losers" that we were ready to trade real truth for rudimentary tolerance - and in so doing failed in all three goals.
And even before that, in a personal letter in August, 1988, I wrote of
the increasingly-jacketed-and-tied mien of some peace movement “leaders” who think that the cause is best advanced by prowling the halls of power and seem to regard their new-found (and marginal) access there as proof of their importance and now find boisterous, blustering, disheveled, and (“Still Crazy After All These Years”) sometimes hairy demonstrations - that is, the very kinds of actions that pried open the gates of power through which they’ve passed - vaguely distasteful.
Part and parcel with this increasing devotion to passively accommodating ourselves to what we old folks used to deride as "the system" is what has become a ritualistic denunciation of "the '60s," the phrase intoned the same way some roughly-dressed villager in some low-budget horror movie would refer to "the beast that lives in the forest." It serves as a means to position yourself as "serious" to dismiss the entire era as just "self-indulgence" and sneer at "the fad of protesting" - the official spying, the "red squads," the "police riots" in Chicago and elsewhere, the conspiracy trials, the literally tens of thousands who spent anything from several hours to years in jail, the literally tens of thousands more who risked prison, the hundred thousand-plus who left the country, the untold number of families bitterly divided, all going on while an estimated 300 people (Americans and Indochinese) were being killed every day in the war, yeah, it was just one big goddam lark.

In fact, just last November I got fed up with the bullcrap when I came across yet another online whine about all the "attention" being given to '60s activists. (Which I don't see, but as I said then, eye of the beholder and all that.) So I indulged myself by running down a list of examples of political accomplishments and social changes that could be connected to the activism of the '60s and then said that if you want to shut the old farts up, then establish a record of your own accomplishments that reduced what we did to "BFD material." (I did add that "nothing would make me happier" than if they succeeded in just that.)

And it's not just bloggers or other loudmouths who engage in the ritual. In July 2008, in his big speech on "patriotism," then-candidate Barack Obama said this:
What is striking about today's patriotism debate is the degree to which it remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s - in arguments that go back forty years or more. ... [S]ome of those in the so-called counter-culture of the Sixties reacted not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases, the very idea, of America itself - by burning flags; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world; and perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those veterans coming home from Vietnam, something that remains a national shame to this day.
He went on to denounce "these simplistic world-views" and the era's supposed "cynical disregard for America's traditions and institutions."

Not only is that thorough-going bullshit, not only, as Glenn Greenwald noted, had Obama "defended his own patriotism by impugning the patriotism of others" in terms that echoed right-wing rants about "the blame America first crowd," but as I noted at the time,
Obama not only slammed the '60s ... he went out of his way to do so. He went out of his way to defame, out of his way to attack. If you read the speech you'll see that this whole passage could easily have been dropped without damage to his argument. This was no "historical context" argument, it was a calculated attempt to declare "I'm no hippie!" by engaging in ritual denunciation of an entire era.

The blunt fact is, Obama impugned the patriotism of millions among us, the patriotism of those who symbolized and still symbolize the politics of an entire generation, a generation born in civil rights marches and schooled in Vietnam, a generation whose activism was forged in idealism and honed on its deep shock and dismay that the America they grew up hearing about, the America in which they believed, was not the America they saw before them every day, a generation even whose excesses were driven by the conviction that what they saw was wrong and that it did not have to be that way.
But to act on that conviction? To yes, lobby and petition and vote but also to shout! To demand! To be a nuisance! To be boistrous, loud, to be joyous hopeful annoying maddening exciting irritating, to fill the streets and occasionally the jails? Oh, no, that was to be "simplistic," to be "cynical," to "attack the idea of America itself."

And we certainly can't have any of that! No, we must be "serious." We must be dignified, sober, "realistic" and we certainly don't want to raise a fuss. So much so that even merely to desire stronger language from the president in arguing for his own policies is to mark yourself as "idiotic," "embarrassing," "immature," "naive" but at the same time egotistical and arrogant.

It is just so depressing. Especially when you consider that it at times seems that at least half the so-called "progressive" opposition to Obama consists of people still fighting the 2008 primaries and who are convinced not only that Hillary Clinton was rooked out of the nomination but that if she'd been elected, none of this bad stuff would be happening - and that self-described progressive supporters of Obama seem too often to think that any criticism of him from his left comes either from embittered Hillary Clinton supporters or people "so far left they're on the right."

Way, way back in 1984 I gave a speech which included these lines:
You know the saying about "dreaming dreams of things that never were and asking 'Why not?'" What we have to do is dream dreams of things that never were and ask "How?" How? What are the hard, practical steps we can take right now, today? We have to approach the world with steel in our eyes.

But at the same time we can never let the steel in our eyes cloud the dream in our hearts. We have to hold tight to that vision of what we as a society, as a people can do, what we as a nation can be. And that's what I call on you to be: steely-eyed dreamers, people who know the hard, practical work that needs to be done but who never forget the dream that work is for. ...

Reaching that dream won't be easy, cheap, or convenient, but it is possible - and, after all is said and done, it's simply the right thing to do.
The civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s had already eloquently summed that up in the saying "Keep your eyes on the prize." Don't get diverted, don't forget why you came, don't forget where you're trying to go, don't settle. Yeah, you may be taking only one step at a time, but that doesn't change the goal: Keep your eyes on the prize.

Or. as a '60s saying flippantly put it, "Be realistic: Demand the impossible."

For too much of what passes for "liberals" and faux "progressives," the "prize," the goal, the, if you'll pardon the expression, "impossible" dream, has been reduced to electing a centrist, corporatist, Democrat as president, a president whose every policy is to be endorsed, whose every position represents by definition the outer limit of the possible, and who is not to be criticized even on style - and our most important political task is to elect more people just like him.

We are so screwed. And I am so dispirited.

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