Monday, June 7, 2010

Out with the Old Rascals, In with the New Rascals

Over at The Sideshow, Avedon Carol wrote:
...I was going to write about how documenting the atrocities is all very well (information is important), but the frustration of not being able to come up with a coherent response aside from telling people to organize (think about how vague that sounds: What does "organize" mean?) just made it hard to write. I may be somewhat hampered in my ability to form plans by the fact that I don't expect to be alive long enough to see any such plan come to fruition. My own generation just didn't see the developing threat from the right-wing coming - or rather, those of us who did see it coming were not in a position to do anything about it, no matter how much we kept warning people about media consolidation (which, don't kid yourself, has a paramount place in all this). We should all have been buying radio and TV stations or something, I don't know, but the wingers did it instead, and now here we are. I don't think we can rely on the internet as our sole organizing tool, and I think too many people do. I'm not saying it's not good to make use of the internet, I'm just saying there's not really a good way to focus information to specific audiences who wouldn't otherwise look for it when the net as it currently stands is a melee and there's a very strong chance that our owners are going to stop that by not letting us continue to participate in it with the freedom we have had so far. I still think people should do what I've been saying they should do for the last ten years: When you see something you wish your neighbors understood, make a flyer, print it out, and distribute it on doormats and through mailboxes, at church picnics, or wherever you can place them. It's what our Founding Fathers did, after all....
This is a problem that has concerned me for some time. One of The Sideshow's commenters was more sure of himself. I'm going to quote him at some length because there are no permalinks to the comments.
As for organizing in response to the increasing probability of a complete breakdown of representative democracy, what I say is that the True Pure Left is so small that it is manifestly incapable of doing much of anything other than being a nuisance to itself and small dogs. If it is going to accomplish anything, it will have to find allies.

In trying to make allies, it does well to remember that people tend to treat as enemies those who attack them. Therefore, if centrists are attacked by both right and left, they are likely to regard both as enemies. Only if the True Pure Left debases itself enough to admit that other people might have a f--king clue and leaves off being total a--holes in its search for absolute purity, it might have a chance at persuasion. I know for a certainty that you understand this, but some younger and dumber people may not.

However, even if the True Pure Left does all the right things to try to form alliances, sometimes the political/economic situation has to become right for potential allies to hear what they're saying. When that happens, people may not remember exactly whether the positions enunciated by the True Pure Left were sufficiently True or sufficiently Pure, but they will remember who was sympathetic to their concerns, and who behaved like an ass. That will determine whether they decide to work with the right or with the left.
This sounds persuasive, especially the part about "people tend to treat as enemies those who attack them." Ain't it the truth! Referring to people sarcastically as "the True Pure Left" is not going to win this commenter any friends, though it has the advantage of avoiding the necessity of making it clear just who he's talking about. It's, you know, them, the "a--holes." In fact the whole comment is laced with such emotive but vague labels: "centrists," "who was sympathetic to their concerns," But it's also a truth universally acknowledged that the Left in the US and Britain is vanishingly small, and unlikely to have much influence on political reality in the foreseeable future.

But as I pondered the commenter's words, something occurred to me. Again, the Left is vanishingly small in the US; no dispute there. But "centrists" -- we all know who is a centrist, trying very hard to be a centrist, though perhaps slightly favoring the center-right. That enabled me to decode the commenter's subtext. I wrote a reply, which I'm going to work from here.

It was good that he used "centrists" rather than, say, "Democrats." In the US context, "centrists" have embraced too many of the practices and rationales of the right, while still remaining True Pure Centrists, for me to want to build alliances with them. (Not that this matters much, since I am a True Pure Leftist with no political base, so who needs to build an alliance with me? Who even needs my vote? Not the Democrats, I'm sure.) That must be why the Democrats have been so successful in building alliances with the Republicans over the years -- they didn't insult them, but rather tried to understand their positions and ultimately to support them.

There's something else, though. I think that the commenter was confusing factions in the political establishment -- where, it's true, the left is vanishingly small -- with political beliefs and wants in the general population. Those of us who favored single payer, for example, were commonly caricatured by True Pure Centrists as ideological fanatics obsessed with a marginal position that most Americans couldn't care less about. The trouble with that claim was that polls have shown consistently for decades that most Americans want a government health plan or system. The difference seems to be that what he, with his alliance-building generosity of spirit, call the True Pure Left, talks about it, writes about, criticizes the political classes for ignoring it, and points out their relation to big Pharma and the insurance companies. Granted, doing so isn't going to win the TPL any friends in the political classes, but I'm not sure that's an entirely bad thing.

The same goes for Social Security. The True Pure Centrists want to downgrade it, privatize it, cut benefits, get rid of it. The mass of Americans want to keep it, and the TPC are unhappy that most Americans are too stupid to realize the political necessity of cutting back "entitlements." Again, it's mainly the TPL who write, argue, blog, about it and make unkind inferences about the political/financial interests of the TPC. And so on, from issue to issue.

When Avedon talked about organizing, I don't think she means finding common ground with centrists like Barack Obama and being nice to them so he'll be on our side. The problem, I believe, is how best to organize outside the True Pure Centrist political classes, who are not "the average person" and indeed are quite contemptuous of that mythical construct. It seems to be concerns about the well-being of most of our fellow citizens that prompt accusations of political Purity, revealingly enough. President Obama will find this out to his dismay, I believe, because as the economy continues to slog along without real improvement for most people, as our two wars continue and possibly are joined by more, when it comes time to go to the polls, they will "remember who was sympathetic to their concerns, and who behaved like an ass."

The voters' dilemma is that neither party is sympathetic to the concerns of the mass of Americans, so there's nothing to do but vote out incumbents. But that will hurt the party in power (currently the Democrats) more than the opposition party. President Obama owes his office and the Democratic majority in Congress to just that anti-incumbent sentiment; it gave him time to make the voters pro-Obama, but he's preferred to worry more about the good feeling of his corporate donors, which sooner or later will hurt him at the polls. When that happens, the True Pure Centrists, true believers all, will blame it not on Obama's failures but on the wickedness of the True Pure Left.

By the way, I've been seeing more and more talk lately about the perception of President Obama as a wimp, a wuss, etc. Even Avedon linked to another blogger's post entitled "Some Suggestions for Our Inert President." Inert? I don't think so. He's been quite assiduous in working for the interests of the corporate branch of our government, in bombing civilians, in anything which does not serve the needs of most people. Alexander Cockburn summed it nicely at Counterpunch this weekend, but I think he concedes to much to the public-relations concerns of media professionals and the politicians who depend on them.
The White House press corps – until recently without a presidential press conference for ten months – quizzes Obama’s press secretary about Obama’s evident inability to project anger about BP’s oil spill, now bidding to be the greatest environmental disaster in the nation’s history. Obama’s flack claimed his boss was “enraged” at BP. “Can you describe it?” asked Chip Reid of CBS. “Does he yell and scream? What does he do?” The best Gibbs could offer was evocation of Obama’s “clenched jaw”.

At least half of any US president’s job is play-acting, pretending to be in charge, on behalf of We the People.
I don't want Obama to put on a show of anger, which he could do without actually doing anything about the object of his anger. I don't want him to groom his image, I don't want him to "send a message", I want him to take effective action in service of the people who voted for him. Having done so, he can do his Joe Smooth routine for the media, and it might even be more convincing if he had something positive to be smooth about. One reason he's so visibly uncomfortable now, I think, is that on some level he's suffering the effects of saying one thing but doing another.