Where have you gone, Albert Einstein?

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)



In a recent diary by Cassiodorus, one point of his in particular struck me:

Thus the comparison between the Great Depression and the current Great Recession falls flat, because the popular upheavals of the 1930s are only in evidence today among the least helpful segments of the population.  This of course is a major reason why we can expect no FDR-like President to save us from the…economic collapse…

…During the 1930s…intellectual figures such as John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Kenneth Burke, and Richard Wright were actual socialists and not just mere liberals offering occasional plugs for John Kerry.

Another prominent socialist, albeit a bit later than the Depression, was Albert Einstein.  He was an all around brilliant man, someone whom I admire greatly.  And he wisely said this, although today it would probably be considered way too radical for anyone respectable to utter:

[I am] a passionate pacifist and anti-militarist. I am against any nationalism, even in the guise of mere patriotism. Privileges based on position and property have always seemed to me unjust and pernicious, as did any exaggerated personality cult.

Where are our Einsteins today?  It seems that even ordinary citizens with in an interest in politics bare a greater resemblance to James Carville than Einstein or Martin Luther King or John Steinbeck.  Radicalism has waned in politics, and although moderation is frequently what uncreative thinkers in the media salivate over, this is a terrible shame.

Less radicalism means less ideas on the fringe of mainstream politics and less people radically involved in politics.  Now, the “fringe” is often derided as a place that not many people want to be and of those people that are there anyway, many are crazy.  That’s an unfair characterization.  Before an idea reaches mainstream acceptance, it must pass first through the fringe – in fact, almost every good idea in politics first emerges from some fringe before it reaches mainstream acceptance and then possibly societal acceptance.

Founding Father John Adams understood this idea.  He realized that it was not bullets and combat that made independence from Britain inevitable, but a radicalization of the people of the American colonies.

“The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

Unfortunately, today there are few prominent and openly radical leaders – like John Adams and George Washington and Ben Franklin were in the early 1770s – in the political world.  We have let ourselves be consigned to a surprisingly partisan world, in which the two major political parties and a sympathetic media, for the most part, determine what is acceptable discussion in politics.  One of the great radical leaders of our time, Noam Chomsky, does a good job of summarizing what is wrong with this in his famous lecture “Manufacturing Consent.”

Perhaps this is an obvious point, but the democratic postulate is that the media are independent and committed to discovering and reporting the truth, and that they do not merely reflect the world as powerful groups wish it to be perceived. Leaders of the media claim that their news choices rest on unbiased professional and objective criteria, and they have support for this contention in the intellectual community. If, however, the powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear, and think about, and to “manage” public opinion by regular propaganda campaigns, the standard view of how the system works is at serious odds with reality…

…The mass media are not a solid monolith on all issues. Where the powerful are in disagreement, there will be a certain diversity of tactical judgments on how to attain generally shared aims, reflected in media debate. But views that challenge fundamental premises or suggest that the observed modes of exercise of state power are based on systemic factors will be excluded from the mass media even when elite controversy over tactics rages fiercely.

The significance of Einstein is that when figures as prominent and well-respected as him are vocally in favor of radical ideologies like socialism, they can get through a media blackout and radicalize and mobilize the population.  That’s what Cassiodorus was talking about – there were proudly radical intellectuals, which meant there was a large section of the populace that was proudly radical, as well.

Just read some of Einstein’s famous essay “Why Socialism?” – it does not offer the same creed of compromising with those in power and bending to their prejudices in order to succeed as “Taking on the System.”  That may be an unfair comparison, but Moulitsas is often portrayed as some kind of radical on the fringe of acceptable political debate (in fact, “radical” is in the subtitle of his book).

Another unabashed radical in today’s political discourse, Chris Hedges (a man who recently called for a return en masse to socialist philophies and the Green Party), addressed this idea in his most recent column from a slightly different angle.  Liberals in particular, he says, have been neutered by the ruling political class, and that is preventing any sort of useful rebellion, like the kinds seen in the late 1800s, early 1900s, 1930s, and 1960s, to name a few notable times.

Those in power have disarmed the liberal class. They do not argue that the current system is just or good, because they cannot, but they have convinced liberals that there is no alternative.

And Glenn Greenwald – who is not a particularly ideological commentator, but is radically in favor of the rule of law and civil liberties (shouldn’t that be a contradiction?) – delved into this idea recently, paying particular attention to how political consultants have influenced the Democratic Party.  And since the progressive “movement” has voluntarily and stubbornly attached itself to the Democratic Party, that has a tangible and negative effect on progressive change.

Whether one agreed with their original view or their election-year view mattered little; what was clear is that they were poll-driven opportunists with no core beliefs who were eager to shift with the slightest change in wind.  That — far more than any specific position on war and Terrorism — is what makes Democrats appear to be weak losers, and it’s what they’ve been doing — and what the Carville/Greenberg faction — has been urging  for years and years.  

That’s the same mindset that led Democrats to pretend to want to end the Iraq War so that they could win the 2006 mid-term election by exploiting anti-war sentiment, but then, once they won, continue to fund the war without limits or conditions because they were politically afraid to follow through on their alleged convictions (and like clockwork, there, in 2007, was Democracy Corps predictably warning Democrats not to equate opposition to the war with a desire for Congress to actually end the war).

At the same time, powerful Democrats have been playing to radical desires for peace and other things without actually making radical change, and playing the game of the power structure by limiting radical thought through their influence on media and political discourse.  This would not be much of a concern for radical and progressive activists if progressives (and unfortunately, many radical or formerly radical activists) hadn’t made themselves dependent on the Democratic Party.  If the Democrats don’t support radicalism at all (and one wouldn’t expect them to, since those in power rarely do, except radicalism that keeps them in power), then the progressive foot soldiers supporting the party naturally won’t either.

And let me make myself clear.  That is not a good thing.  This disappearance, or at least extreme marginalization, of radicalism is unhealthy for politics.

Howard Zinn adressed this in a broad sense when, in response to MoveOn and other progressive organizations congratulating Democrats on a meek and fruitless effort to end the war in Iraq in 2007, he wrote,

When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators, it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them.

We who protest the war are not politicians. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable, in a shamefully timorous Congress.

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Things do not change in a positive direction without radicals.  They are one of several important ingredients present in any large shift in policy.  There were the populists and Greenbacks and Socialists and progressives that ended the Gilded Age through reforms like initiative and referenda, anti-trust actions, regulation, and so on.  There were the hippies and yippies and followers of Martin Luther King and followers of Malcom X and Black Panthers that affected some mighty societal and political changes that we’re all very aware of.  Today, that ingredient is missing, in a sense.  Before her tragic passing, Granny D had something to say about this:

A century ago, the ordinary people of America joined together to tie down the giant. The antitrust laws and environmental laws and the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for wages and benefits all joined to nurture the restoration of a great middle class — always the bedrock of democracy. The robber barons, the great giants, remained tied down, no longer free, liberated, to do as they pleased in crushing us with their great wealth and political power. And so it was for a time.

And now, loosed again, these giants have taken over our television networks and most of our newspapers, turning them against our interests and against the truth itself. These giants send our young people off to fight their commercial wars — great profitable ventures.

Despite this seemingly desperate message, Granny D kept her head up.  She did not do so because she was willingly ignorant of how hopeless her situation was, but because she really believed, as do I, that positive change is possible.  If they could do it during the Gilded Age, we can do it now.

Yes, let’s continue our efforts to reform our government, most especially with campaign finance reform. But, with revolutionary new tools, we are capable of redefining democracy at a critical moment. Let us not be shy about it for time is short. We stand for love and fairness in the world. That is not gentle work, nor is it painless or bloodless, as so many people around the world know.

I definitely agree with this, as do most of the people reading this, probably.  But the question remains of how do we get from sitting on our rear ends and whining to creating change.  Traditional protest has become ineffective, say some, at achieving any sort of ends we would have in mind.  But Howard Zinn once again has something to contribute on this topic.

The responses are never adequate, until they build and build and something changes. People very often think that there must be some magical tactic, beyond the traditional ones–protests, demonstrations, vigils, civil disobedience–but there is no magical panacea, only persistence in continuing and escalating the usual tactics of protest and resistance. The end of the Vietnam War did not come because the Left suddenly did something new and dramatic, but because all of the actions built up over time.

Of course, there’s no reason to stop people from protesting creatively, but the overall message is that the ineffectiveness of traditional forms of protest is greatly exaggerated.  Even with regards to the Iraq war, which is rightfully lamented as having an unfortunately small movement opposing it, the effect of protesters is there.  Noam Chomsky contended in a lecture called “Crises and the Unipolar Moment” that he gave in October,

The Iraq War – there was massive protests before it officially started, and I stress “officially” because your candidate for president of the, presidency of the EU, and his colleague George Bush knew that they were already…start[ing] the war when they were putting on a show about wanting diplomacy and so on.  But before it was officially started – March, 2003 – there was a massive international protest.  I think that’s the first time in history that an imperialist war has been massively protested before it was officially begun.  And it had an effect.  The United States could not use – the United States and Britain – couldn’t use the tactics they used in South Vietnam.  There was no saturation bombing by B-52s, there was no chemical warfare – horrible enough, but it could’ve been a lot worse.  

And furthermore, the Bush Administration had to back down on its war aims.  Step by step, it had to allow elections, which they didn’t want to do; mainly a victory for nonviolent Iraqi protest.  They could kill insurgents, they couldn’t deal with hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, and their hands were tied by the domestic constraints.  They had to abandon…officially, at least, virtually all the war aims – I mean, as late as November, 2007, the US was still insisting that the Status of Forces agreement allowed for an indefinite US military presence and…privileged access to Ira[q]’s resources by US investors.  Well, they didn’t get that on paper, at least.  They had to back down…Iraq’s a horror story, but it could’ve been a lot worse.  So, yes, citizen protest can do something…we know that from this and many other examples.  When there’s no protest and no attention, the power just goes wild.  Like in Cambodia, Northern Laos.

The frequent feeling of desperation, however, may come from our willingness to believe what we are told.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can contribute to bouts of hopelessness.  A lifetime ago, in September 2009, I went to a protest of a video game military recruiting center, then did some amateur reporting about it online.  I cited an article in which a military spokesperson said that there were going to be no more recruiting centers like this for economic reasons.  When I posted this, David Swanson saw it much more clearly than I had, and said,

for godsake we’re shutting the place down thanks to your work, and you quote their nonsense about an economic motive???

as if they didn’t knwo the cost all along??

as if they don’t want more recruits??

CLAIM VICTORY. It is nothing else. They will not announce our victories for us.

I had bought the military’s excuse, when in reality they’re probably closing the center because of the awful press it gets them.  It’s just one of these places, and they were all over the newspapers, TV, and internet (not to mention, a Frontline special that I almost made it onto) just because a few hundred angry, disgusted people showed up.  That’s people power right there, something that is mostly ignored by the media.  The important conclusion of what Howard Zinn was saying when I quoted him earlier is this:

If you listen to the media, you get no sense of what’s happening. I speak to groups of people in different parts of the country. I was in Austin, Texas recently and a thousand people showed up. I believe people are basically decent, they just lack information….

And there are people taking action against the warfare state, the corporate state, poverty, corruption, and all kinds of other things all over the place.  

Cindy Sheehan, for instance, is one of the great dissidents of our time.  Her latest project is a permanent encampment on the National Mall that will be opening this week.  And closing once our troops are out of the Middle East and getting fair treatment from the government.  And it’s not just political celebrities that are doing this.  Some of the best resistance comes from everyday people like you and me who are fed up with being dehumanized and taken advantage of.

In fact, there is going to be a large peace march in Washington on Saturday, March 20 (and complementary demonstrations in San Francisco and Los Angeles).  If you haven’t joined these people in their resistance yet – if your political action is limited to blogging or donations or calling your congressperson – then there’s no better time than that.

It’s not even necessary that we all become leaders.  Some of us, however, need to take the plunge and get behind people like Cindy Sheehan, or else the ideas of people like that will never have mainstream acceptance, and they will never be adopted by government or society.  Although it is funny, the following video offers a valuable lesson on how leadership and movements work.

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Howard Zinn, Granny D, Noam Chomsky, Cindy Sheehan, David Swanson – these are all (at least) somewhat prominent radicals in our world today.  This seemingly goes against everything I said about Einstein and the lack of radicalism in our political discourse.

It is true that these are some great dissidents, but they are not quite the same as the towering cultural figures that John Steinbeck and Albert Einstein were.  Along with that, there is the problem of these people being consistently marginalized and not being backed up by large enough political movements to counter that.  Instead of cheering on Cindy Sheehan and working for her campaign of radical dissent against Nancy Pelosi, many progressives – the same exact ones who are attached to the Democrats – wrote her off for not being loyal to the Democratic Party.  It was not only the party leadership that did this, but many ordinary people who are also progressive activists.

In an interview with Bill Moyers a few months before his death, Howard Zinn said,

I think there are people like [the protesters of yore] today. But very often, they’re ignored in the media. You know, or they appear for a day, you know, on the pages of the Times or the Post. They- and then they disappear. But, well, you know, there are those people recently who sat in Chicago in this plant that was going to be closed by the Bank of America and these people sat in and refused to leave…But there are people – there are people today who are fighting evictions, fighting foreclosures. And, you know, very often, there’s a superficial understanding of a passive citizenry today, which is not true…the media are not covering them very well.

So maybe there are a few incarnations of Einstein out there today.  But, like Zinn says, having a radical action in the news for one day is not the same as having a large and consistent radical movement.  We as activists must not be afraid to be radicals.  And we as radicals must commit ourselves to being activists.  That is how we create a culture in which figures like Einstein can emerge, because right now there is no powerful and famous figure like Einstein doing it for us.

3 comments

    • rossl on March 16, 2010 at 2:37 am
      Author

    Some other suggested reading that I didn’t fit into the diary, but did contribute to my thinking behind it:

    How do we get grandma to the revolution? by Daily Kos user NBBooks

    Are Americans A Broken People?  Why We’ve Stopped Fighting Back Against the Forces of Oppression by Bruce E. Levine

    No, We’re Not A Broken People by David Swanson

    • Joy B. on March 16, 2010 at 4:19 am

    since way before there was cable TV. My hubby’s probably the only human ever to have eaten fire in the WaPo newsroom. I kid you not. For a story they’d been sitting on for 5 years, never to print anywhere. I am no longer amazed by much… §;o)

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