Is there anybody in the world who can hear the word “progressive” without puking?
“We are kinda sorta maybe for some stuff that Republicans kinda sorta maybe aren’t for!”
No, we aren’t! We’re DICKHEADS!
May 17 2010
I wrote this originally for a Quaker audience, but would like to share this with you as well. I’ve added a few notes in the text to aid the comprehension of those who are not Friends. I’ve also expanded the message to include those who are not people of faith.
Mar 26 2010
The stereotypical definition of Feminists held by many is that they are frigid, miserable, depressed, angry, and obsessed with finding systemic fault in every man and under every rock. I find evidence of this sentiment no matter who I ask or where I search. In response, I will say only that every activist movement has a tendency at times to let anger at the status quo threaten to overshadow its altruistic policies predicated on compassion. However, this characterization isn’t exactly justified for a variety of reasons. With the passage of time the radical, reactive voices within Feminism have been held up to highest scrutiny—the implication being that they must surely speak for the whole. The ultimate fault in why this assumption has been allowed to thrive and grow is not easily assigned, but a drop off in active involvement within the movement as a whole is regrettably a big part of the problem.
Institutional memory in American liberalism is often in short supply. We frequently forget the trailblazers and fostering mothers and fathers that guided us because so many of the rank-and-file have left or devoted their attention toward other things. Feminism once was quite fashionable, as was participation and proud membership within groups like NOW, along with the omnipresent subscription to Ms. magazine. Looking specifically at membership in a wide cross-section of left-wing movements, I note with some trepidation that we are now neither losing, neither are we gaining. As one person leaves, another springs up to take his/her place. But when this happens, the newcomers find themselves severely challenged by the ability to use the breakthroughs and lessons of the past and put them in their proper context.
Every ideological movement or group based on common identity feels a compulsion to look back into the past to find both a means of pointing to supreme authority or for help in its own discernment of ideas. As much as we embrace the future as the bellwether of the needed systemic changes to advance our agenda, we also rely heavily upon the past to grant us guidance and underscore our values. This is not a paradox in terms, but it nonetheless is a facet of Progressive thought that often times goes overlooked. Speaking specifically to the Feminist movement, this is accomplished for some by constantly alluding back to Feminist history. However, without a common memory, these names and accomplishments seem like ghostly apparitions pulled from the shadows. Without a collective sense of continuity, the most abrasive, strident voices easily rise to the top and end up dominating the entire message.
Mar 11 2010
Michael Walzer’s piece entitled “Missing the Movement” is so relevant and smartly written that I felt inclined to read it through four times before beginning to thinking about formulating an adequate response that would do it justice. I am overjoyed to find someone who has managed to put forth a strong, sound hypothesis as to why recent reform efforts tied to a resurgent liberalism have been so limited while setting out cogently what we ourselves ought to do to fix the problem. Having identified what went wrong, let us now proceed to take on the hard work and soul searching necessary to get past it. For as it is written, “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.”
Liberalism is the American version of social democracy, but it lacks a strong working-class base, party discipline, and ideological self-consciousness. None of these are in the offing, but we need to be aware of what we are missing, and we need to begin at least the intellectual work of making up for it. European social democrats are on the defensive right now, but they have a lot to defend. Liberals here are in catch-up mode, and not doing all that well. We know more or less what we have to do, but we haven’t managed to give the American people a brightly colored picture of the country we would like to create. There is a lot of wonkishness on the liberal left, among American social democrats, but not much inspiration. We haven’t found the words and images that set people marching. As an old leftist, I can talk (endlessly) about citizenship, equality, solidarity, and our responsibility to future generations, but someone much younger than I am has to put all this in a language that resonates with young Americans-and describe a “city upon a hill” that may or may not be the same hill that I have been climbing all these years.
It is this section in particular which resonates most strongly with me. I notice this kind of stultifying dullness among those who have, for reasons unknown, exchanged wonkery for truly impassioned discourse and inspirational rhetoric. The result produced is robotic and bloodless, for one. For another, it’s downright Pharisaical. In this circumstance, Dictionary.com defines Pharisaical as “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit.” I have noted, sometimes with anger, sometimes with frustration, never with satisfaction, that this is true not just in gatherings of religious liberals, but also quite evident in multiple settings and causes comprised of vocally secular liberals. Going through the motions without understanding the passion will never serve anyone’s cause well and indeed, it is partially why we find ourselves in the mess in which we are now. Layering laws upon laws, formalities upon formalities, and procedures upon procedures might seem to be helpful upon first glance, but they end up separating ourselves from each other, not pulling us together.
Feb 16 2010
It seems nearly inconceivable that this time last year many were pondering, with all seriousness, as to whether or not the Republican Party was dead. What a difference a year makes. Still, the almost certain GOP gains at the end of this coming election cycle are not a result of the rebirth of a party, any party, though this will certainly be the narrative the media spins out this November. Democratic incompetence has created this unfortunate situation, just as Republican incompetence led directly to the last substantial power shift in 2006. And, in all fairness, this is usually how it happens. The party in power proves to be all talk and no action, and the opposition party runs against it and capitalizes on voter ire. This should, of course, never be confused as a mandate. The GOP has no more new ideas then it ever did.
Jan 20 2010
Jon Walker makes a very effective argument about why learning the wrong lesson from the defeat of Martha Coakley in yesterday’s Massachusetts Senate race will lead to disaster.
Not only will Democrats lose badly if they adopt this strategy, but they will be laughed at. Republicans never had 59 Senate seats, and that did not stop them from passing the legislation they wanted. Trying to explain to the American people how, despite controlling everything, Democrats cannot do anything, because a mean minority of 41 Republican senators won’t let them, is a message that will go over like a lead balloon. If you try to use that excuse, people will think elected Democrats are liars, wimps, idiots, or an ineffectual combination of all three.
Jan 19 2010
I know now that it is foolishness personified to believe that the Democratic Party, nor any of the existing spheres of influence currently established will provide the strong leadership we need. Back in 2006, I was, of course, certainly elated that we had won back control of the House and the Senate, but my reservations then were that the core of the majority body were the same bumblers and bloodless supposed “leaders” whose inaction led to a loss of control in the first place, back in 1994. Unfortunately, these fears seem to have been confirmed. Some have proposed term limits to counter-balance this tendency and while I have my own reservations regarding that solution, I know that surely there must be a better way than what we have now. Long ago, my home state, Alabama, knew that its concerns were likely subordinate to that of wealthier, more well-connected states, so it consistently has elected the same weasels to office, knowing that with seniority comes power and with power comes the ability to set legislative priority.
Even dating back a hundred years ago or more, the state continued to elect the same decrepit, graying elder statesmen for this very reason. The most notable example of this was when, out of fear that these men would die in office, a special election was held, whereby voters could select not only these long-standing candidates for perhaps the last time, but also those who would immediately take power the instant they passed away. “They will be our pallbearers”, one of the ancients was reported to have said at the time. This unique balloting situation was partially due to the fact that Alabama was a poor state and couldn’t afford the additional expense of printing out a second round of ballots if one of its aging representatives died, but it was also due to the fact that the state wasn’t willing to give up its share of influence in the Congress until it absolutely had to, either. If Robert Byrd runs again, one wonders if the voters of West Virginia would be similarly inclined to pursue this strategy. One also wonders if this unique course of action had been employed in Massachusetts had Ted Kennedy’s illness come to light back in 2006 how different the situation facing us today would have been.
I think part of what we are struggling with is an ability to adjust to uncertainty. I have recently noticed that workers in their forties and fifties, those who have paid into the system for years, are now beginning to get laid off in scores. First came the low-wage earners, then came the young, now a group previously insulated from layoffs. This makes for an angry, confused electorate, one which might finds itself unable to construct much in the way of a unified front from within, but still votes to throw the bums out when it comes time to cast a ballot. What I do know, based on observing larger trends over time, is that the economy will come back eventually. This is, of course, not exactly comfort food to those drawing unemployment and subsisting on a fraction of their previous income. And, we must admit, nor is it a good sign for the party in power.
We can tout a stimulus as a job saver, but the true measure of its impact might potentially not be measured for years. The same goes for health care reform. What leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many about the program is that it begins collecting the necessary tax revenue to properly fund it almost the instant it is enacted, yet is not fully implemented until 2014. Not only that, some parts of it will not be in full force until a few years after that. While this implementation stage might be the only way the system can go into effect without toxic shock, that very fact has and will prove to be a powerful talking point for Republicans and disaffected Independents already skeptical of increased taxation, for whatever means.
In situations like these, the natural inclination is to look for a historical antecedent, and some point back to the 1982 Mid-Congressional elections as well as the 1966 cycle. Neither of these fit the profile neatly. The Democratic majorities in the House, for example, were far greater than they are now. In 1966, the Democratic party shed 47 seats but still had a majority cushion of more then 50 seats. In 1982, Republicans picked up 26 seats, but the majority Democrats still had over 100 more than the GOP. No one knows the number of seats that will be lost this coming November, but I still am unconvinced that control will change hands in either chamber. What is more likely is severely reduced numbers which will likely require more conciliatory and concessionary measures with minority Republicans. And, to be blunt, perhaps that isn’t all bad since resounding majorities in both the House and Senate have not prevented legislation from proceeding forward at anything more than a snail’s pace. The Republicans may have put all of their winnings on obstructionism, but inter-party fighting has proved itself a far more effective opponent than anything the GOP has flung at it.
What concerns me more is the completely justified anger at Wall Street and big business, who have methodically bought up every seat at the bargaining table if not other seats in other contexts. This sort of conduct is indefensible from whichever context it is examined, and President Obama and the Democrats in power could launch attacks against this base inequality that would prove to be very popular with voters. Though a few Republican voices might sound the alarm, it is a position that rarely goes sour and can always tap into an endless source of anger, frustration, and bile. Populist anger at the wealthy is an ancient tactic and one that even the most fervent second-guesser can do little more than scream about, since few actually will listen, or have much in the way of general sympathy.
As for more contentious matters, Democrats must avoid letting their opponents frame the issue for them. To some extent, I understand anyone’s fear of big government, if only from the context of reduced efficiency of work and decreased quality of service. Since the Recession began, I have noticed that in many government agencies, budget shortfalls and layoffs have gummed up or slowed to a trickle what would seem to be rudimentary, straightforward processes. In so doing, this has given government employees no incentive to do an efficient job. If you will please pardon, I will again refer to a personal example from my own life. When I filed for food stamps two and a half months ago, the framework existed to allow and encourage claimants to send out applications online. But, as I found when it took twice as long as it ever should have to receive my benefits, budget deficits prevented the agency from being able to hire and train the necessary people to process these online claims. Thus, my file sat on a desk for a month and if I had not contacted an advocacy agency, it would probably still be there.
In Progressive circles we talk frequently about Good Government™ and its enormous potential to do a massive amount of laudable things. I, of course, believe in it as well, though I recognize that up to now it is still a dream kicked further and further down the road. President Obama was swept into power talking about the merits of smart government and, lamentably, up to this point, I’m afraid I don’t see it. Yet, neither am I willing to sagely propose, as some do, that there is some purity in the private sector. Different name, same trough. I suppose it depends on that which you fear the least. It is the formation and perpetuation of systems which have shortchanged all of us that leads people to make conclusions as to the ultimate success or failure of any new enterprise, government or otherwise. Our pessimism might not be justified, but our skepticism is not.
Though I too have engaged in finger-pointing as to why we’ve reached this climacteric a mere year after it seemed like we were on top of the world, I recognize that it is ultimately a self-defeating activity. In the end, it doesn’t matter whose fault it was, unless that entity or collective body is willing to reform itself. Barack Obama was a rock star once, not a vacuous celebrity as some tried to paint him. Having released a critical disappointment that didn’t sell nearly as well as advertised, he is now facing the first openly hostile reviews of his career. Yet, have no fear, fans. Americans love a comeback, particularly with an extensive tour attached to it. Someone as talented and as capable easily has the dexterity and strength to exceed our wildest expectations again, but only if he has the help he needs and he presses an agenda with a reasonable chance of succeeding.
No person is an island. We have wept and prayed and fasted and purged and been delayed by the same impasse. My own contribution to a growing canon of proposed solutions is that we take a more active stance within government itself. Anyone can lock arms, hold hands, and sing stirring songs. Anyone can find themselves beholden to Protest Culture™, whereby one assumes that rallies, marches, and symbolic posturing are sufficient in and of themselves. Anyone can oppose and find with opposition a million followers, a million voices of affirmation, and a million friends and supporters validating each and every sentient point. We can hold the feet of our elected Representatives to the fire, but I believe in the value of electing new feet that won’t need to be forced towards the fireplace on a maddeningly consistent basis. This is within our power.
I am reminded of how much talk yesterday revolved around a plea for us to not sanitize the legacy of Dr. King and to keep his memory alive as a revolutionary who made many in positions of power very uncomfortable. Indeed, if all we remember him today was as a purveyor of sentimental, feel-good platitudes, then we forget that he was more than that. Far more. Had he been merely Santa Claus, he would not have been assassinated. At times, traditional liberalism has been reduced all too often to a never-ending Pete Seeger concert, with the sting removed and without any obligation whatsoever to be self-reflective. When I left a more conservative, more Christ-centered faith of my own accord and moved towards unashamedly activist liberal faith, I always found it curious how easily the John Lennon song “Imagine” was adopted as a kind of mission statement of sorts. If one examines the lyrics literally, its lyrics advocate an atheistic, anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist Utopia—a fact that gets overlooked due to the attractiveness of the melody that obscures what even a cursory examination of the words implies.
It is time for Democrats to be bold and edgy again. I see this all the time in the blogosphere, but I rarely see it among elected representatives. And even when a Representative or Senator does stick his or her neck out, it is usually to make a splash by forcefully uttering some patently inflammatory or controversial statement, knowing full well it will be media catnip. The immediate impact is usually positive, but few know how to push their agenda beyond immediate shock value and dramatic statements that sound compelling at first hearing, but often are a bit on the childish end of the spectrum by the end. And, it hardly needs adding, even these sorts of attitudes are in short supply, all told. No one ever confused the base as being anything less than fired up and ready to go. If those elected to serve us are not willing to listen to us, we have an obligation to replace them with those who will, and in so doing, being willing to drafting candidates from within our ranks to fill the slots. Those willing to complain are legion, but those willing to serve are often not. Participatory Democracy does not depend on a particular Patrician class we deem the experts and the only sorts that can get the job done. The skill set needed now and forever is only the willingness to run and the ability to learn the game.
Jan 01 2010
In this New Year, I resolve to learn the balance between that which I can positively effect and that which I cannot. I make this resolution not in a desire to shirk my responsibility to my fellow person, but out of the understanding that life is too short to hold myself to a series of arbitrary, exacting rules that remove the joy of daily living. This goes beyond the familiar language of the Serenity Prayer and has application to every activist cause of which I espouse. Though we may be tough on the offenders, we are even tougher on ourselves, and that inevitably leads to burn out and soul-killing cynicism. There is no sin in recharging our batteries periodically or at least recognizing that the greater problems which face us will remain no matter how many hours we devote to their eradication or how intensely we seek to amplify the volume to raise public awareness.
For example, dietary laws were extremely important to the First Century Christians, and indeed in still so in many Jewish and Islamic circles (as well as some Christian ones). Moreover, the idea of unity with God by eating a meal was an integral concept within Jewish, Christian, and Pagan traditions. Those who had converted to Christianity from Paganism were uncomfortable consuming food that had been presented as a sacrifice to Pagan gods and asked for guidance. To this, Paul replied,
Someone may say, “I’m allowed to do anything,” but not everything is helpful. I’m allowed to do anything, but not everything encourages growth. People should be concerned about others and not just about themselves. Eat anything that is sold in the market without letting your conscience trouble you.
I’m not talking about your conscience but the other person’s conscience. Why should my freedom be judged by someone else’s conscience? If I can thank God for the food and enjoy it, why should I be condemned for eating it?
I understand the importance of social justice, particularly social justice through food purchase, which has driven a cottage industry. Organic food, for example, was hippie food first, then became yuppie food. Aside from the obvious, however, it is a curious quirk of humanity that we often cast aside one form of rote legalism for another form of it that closely agrees with our current sensibilities. I know of Atheists who are themselves converts from conservative Christianity and in rightly pointing out the restrictive elements of their upbringing, they then adopt a philosophy of their that is no different in its basic construction. We often focus on that which is intolerant, but living a life dictated too heavily by rules and restrictions doesn’t just eradicate freedom, it also removes the pleasure and fun of life. I firmly believe that life is to be enjoyed. Enough problems exist with our time here on earth than to be further dragged down and burdened by looking for problems. Furthermore, if we focus on law, we adopt a neurotic posture that revolves around ourselves first and foremost. If, however, we focus on unselfish love, then our concern shifts to other people.
This isn’t true just for that which we take into our bodies. Far too often the fear of climate change and global warming leads to its own a kind of legalism that assumes that through an well-intentioned obsession with minimizing our potential damage to the planet that we can somehow fulfill our obligations. Global warming or some form of environmental decay has led some to rush to turn off lights, micromanage the settings of thermostats, and turn noses up at products likely produced by objectionable means. This is, of course, not to say that aiming to be environmentally friendly and less conspicuously consumerist is not worth our time. However, when our lives become Sisyphean to no good end, then we ought to concede that it is our own salvation through works that is predicated on personal conduct that leaves no room for error. If I could teach any lesson to those of us who ascribe to an activist philosophy, that would be it.
In my own life, it is a big temptation to rush to judgment towards those I deem not conducting their own affairs in the manner in which I demand they should. In particular, among online activist forums, a kind of extreme skepticism takes hold among participants. It stems from a collective understanding of just how easy it is to pull the wool over the eyes of the ignorant and the ill-informed, and with it comes understandable feeling of despair that nothing one can possibly do will change that fact. Still, if we adopt that stance, we are assuming that people are forever prisoners of their fate and that they can never change for the better. Even though many may never revise their beliefs and may cling to that which we deem unenlightened and maddeningly stupid, we must never forget that there is always a chance that some may see the light. Perhaps it is we who must modify our expectations and take a more realistic position regarding our poor power to add or detract to the tally.
A year or so ago, I taught an online course of American History to technical college students. My students were predominately working class, blue collar toilers who were seeking to further their education by means of attaining certification to achieve a specific higher paying vocation. They were far from the typical college freshmen of which I had once been. With my middle class education and background, I recognized quickly that it was highly unlikely that I would have ever befriended even one of my students, nor gravitated towards the same things as they in my own life. At the beginning of the course, the views of many of my students were identical to those that Progressives often lament or caustically dismiss as hopelessly backwards or offensively naive.
Yet, after I was fortunate enough to really engage and reach my students, I noticed many of those old prejudices were being openly challenged and few were resisting this exercise in liberty and personal freedom. I never sought to change anyone’s mind, but what I did note with much satisfaction is that until that instant, no one had ever bothered to expand and broaden their understanding beyond soundbytes and inexact, hackneyed rhetoric. Once the complexities of human nature and historical reality became known to them, one could almost observe the metaphorical light bulb going off. It was a thrilling thing to observe for me, the instructor, and after I took some degree of pride in my hard work, I recognized again how much class differences and economic disparities go into forming a concept of identity and system of belief. Many of those who may have thus far taken a completely opposite political stance to mine never had the opportunities I had. What I often find most frustrating among those who consider themselves worldly and intelligent are that they are usually the most stubbornly intractable regarding entertaining the notion that they could be wrong or that their own personal canon of wisdom might not be as airtight as they claim it is. Those who, like my students, almost have a hero worship of the educated are much easier to enlighten and empower, though with that blank slate comes its own set of responsibility and ethical conduct.
Jesus spoke to those who felt as though they knew-it-all,
Then he said to them, “I can guarantee this truth: Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
This is not to imply that I am infantilizing my students in some kind of exercise of mock pious Paternalism, but rather to note how much easier it is to open the minds of those who have not kept theirs resolutely snapped shut. We are never too smart, nor too old to learn or to be taught a lesson. Elitism begins to creep in whenever we act or think otherwise. Elitism is a enemy of Progressivism as sure as any of the well-documented offenders that never leave our radar screens. Constructing hierarchies of influence locks out those who wish to belong and want a spot at the table. Who cares if they don’t fit the profile up front! So what if they can’t write a brilliantly crafted blog entry or propose some pithy statement in comments! If we, myself included, were a bit more patient with each other and embraced the idea of a loving family rather than as an outlet for people who desperately want their own views to be validated in a public forum, then we might be making some serious progress. No one doubts how desperately we seek and need a community and how many of us find it within activist political circles, but the shortcomings and the problems cry out for reform just as badly as any number of the worthy causes we demand be addressed.
This then, is my greatest New Year’s Resolution,
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.” “Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
Dec 07 2009
Here I briefly wish to examine the idea of “utopia” for its contribution to progressive ideals, specifically w/ reference to Thomas More’s Utopia. Conceptually, “utopia” is composed of “utopian ideals.” Utopian ideals are ideals which appear to us to be impossible to achieve in full, and which for us represent the difference between what our society is and what it could be. They thus prompt the activity of utopian dreaming, which is the engagement with these ideals. This forms a starting point for the proper critique of our world and for action to create a better world.
(also available on CD and tape at Orange)
Nov 23 2009
When all the cards seem stacked against you, when the road is long and rocky and all uphill, when it seems that the whole world and everything in it tells you you can’t do it because you just don’t have it in your genes to do it… don’t listen to all the negative nellies, and whatever you do, don’t give up.
Sometimes, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how many times you fall, you just gotta keep getting back up, and you just gotta get dressed up, and you just gotta keep on trying.
Even if your wheels fall off, or you go right off the road into the bushes, or you drive right into a rock wall, you just gotta get back up, brush yourself off, put on your best suit, smile at the doubters with a big ass toothy grin, and with steely eyed determination get back into the drivers seat, stamp on the gas pedal, and go for it.
Goal setting and determination is what separates the humans from the monkeys, I guess.
Never give an inch… and never give up.
Don’t never say never.
Success is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.
Whatever it is you’re trying to do, you can do it if you just keep on trying.
Nov 18 2009
Amy Walter’s column “It’s Still 1960 in Washington” rings true in many ways. Designed to point out the stain of sexism and condescending attitudes Washington still holds within its its corridors of power, the piece also speaks to that which we have gained and have yet to gain regarding equality between the sexes. Certain assumptions have proved difficult to completely eradicate from our system and while the boldest and most visible offenders may have been banished from public sight into private secret, subtle suggestion and dog whistle have sprung up to replace them. To be sure, we do not live in a post-sexist society (yet), though if one only considered the victories won and not the upcoming contests, it might be easy to be lulled to complacency. At times we resemble the boxer, who having won a few key contests, rests back on his haunches, fails to stay in shape for his next match, and ends up losing it based on poor conditioning.
Gloria Steniem wrote,
“Those of us who were taught the cheerful American notion that progress is linear and hierarchical may have had to learn with pain…that no worthwhile battle can be fought and won only once….the issues still repeat themselves in different ways and in constantly shifting arenas.”
This is, at its core, the fly in the ointment of many a Progressive and many an activist. No single election, no single candidate, no single protest, no single idea, no single victory of any size is enough. Whether you agree or disagree with the mission, The Crusades, after all, progressed easily enough at the beginning. Spurred to action by the passionate appeals of a zealous Pope, highly trained and heavily skilled armies easily defeated Muslim forces. After having secured the Holy Land and established outposts, Christian crusaders began to slowly but steadily trickle back home with time. This left the soldiers who did remain in the coveted territories and manning the castle outposts vulnerable to Muslim attack. In time, the crusader states won went back into the hands of the “infidels” and the process had no choice but to start all over again. End of Crusade One. Next, Crusade Two.
Rust is the enemy of reform and as much as it would be tempting to swap war stories, no worthwhile conflict leaves any room for nostalgia. The problem facing Feminism right now (or for that matter, any reform movement) is that many of the major forces at play haven’t recognized the generational shift and new challenges that are merely part of the progression of time. Instead, they want to fight the newest enemy with obsolete strategies and obsolete weaponry. Those who do recognize the problem, frequently young Feminists and young activists, end up being tokenized, patronized, or discounted. These offenses have led to third-wavers forming their own organizations and groups, though in truth it would be far better if everyone was on the same page and not working at cross-purposes with each other. In order to make change, one must be willing to make change within oneself, and those who encourage self-reflection, sad to say, often run the risk of taking a long walk off of a short plank.
For years, the goal of feminism was to get reproductive rights out of the realm of “women’s issues” and into the category of “family issues.” And many have wondered if EMILY’s List, an organization dedicated solely to electing pro-choice Democratic women, has outlived its usefulness. After all, in an era that saw a woman come so close to being elected president, a women’s-only group can sound as outdated as the three-martini lunch. Yet it was striking that on an issue as central to the Democratic party ideology as this one, it was up to women to define and defend it.
Upon first reading this passage, I was afraid Walter was going to resort to the same argument which states that feminism and women’s-only groups are superfluous and outdated. The need for them does persist, but aforementioned outdated thinking and antiquated strategy comprises the mission statements of far too many of them. That which begins with good intentions drifts dangerous towards self-parody if group introspection is not prized and actively incorporated. Many women’s rights groups could and probably have been fodder for The Onion and for good reason. The second-wave feminism of the sixties and seventies advances the concerns of a relatively privileged group of now aging white middle class women and frequently doesn’t take into account currents trends and cultural evolution. Furthermore, getting more than just reproductive rights transformed into the realm of family issues is what Feminism has attempted and frequently failed to do. Even invoking the phrase “family issues” instantly conjures up maternal images of rocking babies to sleep and feeding small children.
What needs to happen, unless it is forever perceived in the cultural imagination as a niche group with a relatively limited scope, is for Feminism’s goals to advance human rights. To be sure, there are many activists, myself being only one, who are attempting to bring this to pass. What we continue to struggle with, however, are cultural attitudes that lock men out of the process altogether by assuming that they will be meant to feel unwelcome in feminist circles or that taking an interest in the concerns of women is masculine and thus effeminate. Along with this is a gross stereotype that portrays Feminism as shrill, exclusive, lacking an understanding of irony, and having no grasp of nuance or subtlety. Though most Feminist thought does have a woman-centered emphasis for good reason, I as a man have been amazed at how much of conventional masculine gender roles and concerns I can observe even in the most strictly female construct. It is that point in particular that makes me realize that our supposed separation from each other is a skillfully crafted illusion. We must not be careful to not break the bonds of fidelity and common purpose that link us together, provided we are willing to constantly seek them and repair them. Wear and tear is simply part of the game.
Nov 09 2009
When it comes down to brass tacks, people in positions of authority seem often to be indebted to one of two sorts of leadership styles. Some are devotees of the process school, whereby one embraces wholly a highly regimented and specific system, and in so doing does not deviate from it for any reason. Process managers doggedly cling to a prefabricated strategy until resolutions and goals are finally reached. Other people are of the idea/visionary school, and for them the big picture and a more creative means to an end are far more important. While process people are frequently exasperating to idea people and vice versa, what is often forgotten is that there is a need for both of them in the big tent. However, when the organizational structure of a political party is overwhelmingly dominated by process politicians, the discrepancy between the two is not only jarring and highly visible, it is also demoralizing and insipid.
Many of us would prefer a more dynamic leader in charge of both the House and the Senate. I am among the many who appreciate a scrappy fighter who loves hand-to-hand combat and will not be bullied or cajoled into submission by anyone. Within the Democratic party a few names fit that profile, but their overall limitations in leadership capacities keep them from reaching a wide audience. For whatever reason, both Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—perhaps Reid more than his House colleague—are beholden to process and the minutia of their jobs more than inspirational speeches, long range planning, or dramatic legislative success. In contrast with President Obama, who is the consummate big idea politician, they both look tepid and dull by contrast. When the base clamors for red meat, they are instead provided with bloodless Democratic leadership. Thus, it is any wonder that approval ratings for Congress and for both the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader are exceptionally low? Nor is it any wonder that Harry Reid is facing the fight of his life in 2010 and that Nancy Pelosi has proved a huge disappointment to those who, like me, welcomed the arrival of the first female Speaker?
Having read the news today, I did note that with the passage of the House’s version of Health Care Reform Pelosi was forced to twist some arms and hurt some feelings, one notices this is hardly a role she relishes and one she performs only when absolutely necessary. She and Reid both seem to prefer behind-closed-doors private negotiation and shrink from direct confrontation. If I believed in that sort of methodology or in its inerrant ability to achieve results, I would be less skeptical, but I know that a balance between recklessly throwing forearms and elbows and sweet talk is what usually translates to legislative success and does not create enemies in the process. Forgive me for believing that political people-pleasers might consider alternate careers as well as those who try to be everything to everyone. Compromise ought to be empowering, not debasing.
What we might want to ask ourselves is why so many process legislators exist in the Democratic party in the first place. One explanation is that they were forced to take the path of least resistance while out of power for twelve years and in so doing concede ideological territory to the Republican majority. Post-1994, the party was at its weakest point in decades and hardly fired up and ready to go. Back then, Barack Obama was an obscure law professor who had yet to run for a single elected office. Though certainly no one at that point would have ever speculated in print or in conversation as to whether or not the Democratic party was dead, to many of us, it did certainly feel that way. Democrats shifted to a prevent defense kind of strategy, whereby they sought to stem the bleeding and in so doing, ensure that the liberal stalwarts and left-leaning centrists did not get voted out. What this did, however, is concede the middle to the Republicans, who continued to make steady, solid gains with moderates and independents. Years of failure and failed policy cannot be easily overcome by two successful election cycles. To be sure, ideology and party identification calcifies slowly but once set, it is difficult to melt away.
Although this is now 2009, you’d scarcely notice it if you examined the conventional wisdom of the, need I state the obvious here, majority party. It’s one thing to play like one is behind, but it’s quite another thing to not act like one deserves to be number one. At the moment, the Republican party may be in tatters, but one cannot deny that there is a certain defiant spirit to the right-wing base at the moment that I never saw in the aftermath of 1994, nor even in 2002. That it took a charismatic, genius public speaker with an inspirational message combined with highly incompetent incumbent President to bring that perfect storm to Category 5 status reveals some very key limitations within our goals and expectations. Electing a President promising transformational reform is not sufficient. We must also elect stronger, better, more effective Representatives and Senators, too. We know, now more than ever, that a President can propose anything, but he or she cannot vote and cannot through force of will break up logjams or counter the inertia of committee and counter-productive partisan posturing.
Process is beholden to policy wonkery and, rest assured, I do not deny the importance of knowing the existing framework, also. The best Senators, for example, are masters of that chamber’s rules and in so doing utilize their encyclopedia knowledge of said fact to push legislation in the direction they feel is best. However, process can also result in stubborn inflexibility and a wanton disregard towards changing course when what is being tried clearly is not working. Process individuals often feel utterly rudderless and lost when their carefully formulated theories prove insufficient or ill-equipped in a changing environment. Complacency in any form is anathema to any movement or any organization. What some fail to understand is that reform is a constant process with no end because those who oppose reform constantly redraw the battle lines to suit their own desires. My own hope is that we may have recognized finally that letting things get this bad for so long provides us with challenges so large and so looming that even getting the minimum passed and enacted provides a supreme challenge. Had we not buried our head in the sand all these years, our plates and portions would be of much more manageable size. Above all, we cannot and must not ever assume for an instant that victory is owed to us based on moral high ground or that any battle can be won so conclusively that we have nothing else to do but swap combat stories and reminisce about the good old days.