Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Moral Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Chaos

Like most of us, I imagine, I've thought of cutting back drastically on social media, or getting out of them altogether. But if I did, I wouldn't have seen this meme this morning:
Now, this is really, really, really stupid. If Sanders truly were the last vestige of decency, then no one would be working in his campaign, no one would have endorsed him, no one would vote for him.  Certainly no one younger would.  He's a very important figure, but he's not unique, there are plenty of other good people with the same principles out there working for them.  Sanders is not a unique genius who invented all those good policies by himself: he stands on the shoulders of generations of activists and politicians and writers and speakers who invented them or kept them alive during the Dark Age of the Reagan years and his successors.  Sanders deserves tremendous credit for sticking with his principles despite years of pressure and derision, but so do the people he represents, not just in Vermont but around the country and around the world.  This meme is (unintentionally perhaps, which doesn't make it less insulting) essentially, effectively, a slap in the face of all those people, because it erases them and says that they don't exist.

I was always nervous about the premature triumphalism I saw among Sanders fans -- not all of them, but not just the very young ones either.  I wondered how it would hold up under a loss or two.  I don't think whoever made this meme is representative of the campaign overall, but I do think it marks a weakness of the whole rah-rah circus party tone it allows and cultivates.  I've never liked pep rallies, and I don't remember the last time I ever went to one for a political candidate.  Probably I never did.  For whatever reason -- my introversion, my early reading of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, who knows? -- I don't trust cheering crowds.  They can't be relied on.

What part of "Not Me, Us," is so hard for even Sanders's adherents to understand?  This cult-of-personality stuff, this Great Man myth, is why we're in trouble now.  It isn't how we got the improvements we've seen in the past century and more.  FDR didn't haul himself from his wheelchair and give the US the New Deal, he had numerous movements supporting him and pushing him.  Neither Rosa Parks nor Martin Luther King created the Civil Rights Movement, it predated both of them, and King didn't elevate his people, they elevated him.  King was a great orator, and in an important sense a great politician, but the spotlight allowed too many people to overlook the equally courageous people behind the scenes, those who did the actual organizing, who registered voters, who risked being beaten (and often were), risked having their homes burned down (and sometimes did), risked being jailed and killed (and often were).  There were so many of them that it's not practical for anyone to remember all their names, but they were the heroes and King was their figurehead.

Some might argue that King represents the unknown heroes of the movement: we can't remember them all by name, but we can remember him.  If it worked that way, I'd be more tolerant of the tendency, but it doesn't.  Look at the way King's legacy has been distorted, and Rosa Parks's as well.  Every year we have to point out again that Parks wasn't a lone wolf who got tired one day and defied a white bus driver, she was an activist and part of a movement.  It's harder to teach the history of a movement than to teach the history of One Man or Woman, but so be it: it has to be done.

Of course I get it, we've suffered reverses and this person is feeling bad. If they want to give up, they may do so. But others won't. I'm with them. This brings to mind a story, which may even be true, about Harriet Tubman: she carried a gun with her to fight off slavehunters, but she also used it to threaten the fellow runaways she guided to freedom if they quailed and tried to turn back.  Who can blame them for being afraid, but she wasn't going to let them give information to the slavers when they were captured.  Even if they tried not to, they'd be tortured, and brutally punished in any case.  She wasn't concerned with sparing their feelings, however, rather with protecting the others she was guiding, and herself as well.  It's one thing to be frightened and disheartened, like the author of that meme: it's another to broadcast doom on Facebook, and it's not tolerable.