Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home


Flotsam and Jetsam: Movement Time

Posted: 2008-12-15

Sam Smith is the editor of the very savvy The
Progressive Review, with the e-mail commentary

I may be jumping the gun a bit or perhaps I've

let some childish optimism sneak out from under

my usually cynical brow, but I think there may be

a movement underway.

A movement is not like a campaign. No one gets to

start a movement and no one gets to own it. You

don't have to file any contribution reports. The

archaic media pretends you don't even exist for

as long as it can. And it doesn't even have to

have a name.

That's why I just call it the movement. It's sort

of like the Gulf Stream, hard to see yet

undeniable as it moves you faster in a certain


And if a movement hasn't started, it may not be

long before it does. I have never seen so much

cause for so many Americans to be so mad at so

many of those who have been running the place -

establishment politicians, academics, media,

economists and corporations. They've lied,

denied, connived and contrived, often with an

unprecedented blend of stupidity and greed for

which we all now paying.

If a movement has started, then present at the

birth were those factory workers who staged the

sit in until Bank of America backed off.

And if a movement hasn't started, then one reason

why may be the Reddit, headline that read, "Vote

up if you would rather bail out NPR for 30 lousy

million than failing auto companies for 15


You had to travel a third of the way down the 500

comments before any responders even mentioned the

auto industry, and when they did many didn't

like it or its workers. An exception came when

one of the workers wrote:

"I like reddit a lot. But sometimes it really

gets me down. People here so often come across as

children in the way they speak, or how biased

they are. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of

thousands of people may lose their income if the

auto industry goes under, and you joke about it."

It's not just the people in power who are the

problem; it's the ones they've taught. Taught to

believe in lies and now think they're clever by

being snarky about anyone who wasn't smart

enough to believe those lies, the sort of

education that leads you to think that saving NPR

is more important than saving the auto industry.

The sort of education that makes you think you

have to choose between them.

When I saw it, I remembered that it was like that

under segregation, too. You had the bad guys at

the top and then you had all those who went

along, either to get along and get ahead or

because they had come to truly believe the stupid

stuff the bad guys at the top had taught them.

And even educated people talked about blacks back

then like educated people talk about auto workers


But now the market for myths and lies has dried

up and there's nothing on the shelves any more

but reality. The folks who deceived us can't come

up with the answer so it has to come from

somewhere else.

We are now into the third month of the most

severe financial breakdown since 1929. And,

worse, we are in the third month of repeated

demonstration of the incapacity of leaders of

both parties to deal rationally with the problem

other than to throw money at it in directions

unknown, for uses unknown, and with results

unknown. Add to this the disaster in Iraq, our

inability to respond sensibly to climate change

and the dismantling of our constitution, and it

would be hard to point to a time when the

American elite has reacted worse to its problems.

We are, for all intents and purposes, a

dysfunctional country in a state of collapse.

The solution lies not in a new administration

whose appointments seem to reflect more a team of

revivals rather than of rivals, including repeat

performances by some of the very people who

created the mess in the first place.

The answer, if there is one, lies in a movement

that that gathers the wisdom of the disaster's

victims, the critics of what created it, and the

imagination of those able to see past both cause

and effect to a truly better time.

It is hard for some to conceive of such a

phenomenon because of the current obsession with

Barack Obama and the still widespread belief that

he will, through some personal magic or gift of

God, come up with answers that not only have

eluded all the rest of Washington, but eluded his

own campaign and transition as well. Those of us

who question such a fantasy are called mean

spirited and instructed to be silent until the

wise one works his way.

But then America often works like that. There's

always some myth to distract us from what's

really going on. We're like a schizophrenic

trying to play soccer. One minute our eye on the

ball, the next moment we're deep into some

national delusion.

Truly bad times don't have much tolerance for

that sort of thing. And so ordinary, rational

people have to come up with their own answers,

often small solutions in many different places.

Such as the group in Milwaukee creating a local

currency. Or the sit-in at the factory.

We can expect more of this as matters continue to

deteriorate. It will include new ideas as well as

ones brought back to life and ones that have

already been pursued for years with too little

money and respect. It will include union workers,

environmentalists, teachers tired of test

totalitarianism, 401Kers discovering the

difference between stock funds and a pension,

unemployed professionals, women losing their jobs

only a few decades after gaining a right to them,

minorities learning that white guys can also get

screwed, white guys learning what it feels like

be dissed like a minority, the ill without proper

care and people who want their constitutional

rights back again.

Add it all together and you start to see a

movement. It doesn't need a name; it doesn't need

an address; it doesn't need an icon on the alter.

At times the movement may find itself allied with

Barack Obama; at other times he may be its major

opponent. In either event, Obama will define

change no better than John Kennedy defined the

civil rights movement or LBJ the anti-Vietnam war

movement. Change doesn't originate in the White

House; what happens there merely reflects the

power of the change around it. Which is one good

reason not to go soft just because Obama's in the

White House. If he won't be an ally, then he must

be made irrelevant.

Where might the movement lead us? Sarah van

Gelder of Yes Magazine has given us a clue based

on polls-- "an agenda that the majority of

Americans support, whether they vote red, blue,

green or something else."

67% favor public works projects to create jobs.

55% favor expanding unemployment benefits.

76% support tax cuts for lower- and middle-income


71% say unions help their members; 53% say unions

help the economy in general.

80% support increasing the federal minimum wage.

59% favor guaranteeing two weeks or more of paid


75% want to limit rate increases on adjustable-

rate mortgages.

58% believe a court warrant should be required to

listen to the telephone calls of people in the


59% would like the next president to do more to

protect civil liberties.

79% favor mandatory controls on greenhouse gas


90% favor higher auto fuel efficiency standards.

75% favor clean electricity, even with higher


72% support more funding for mass transit.

64% believe the government should provide

national health insurance coverage for all

Americans, even if it would raise taxes.

55% favor one health insurance program covering

all Americans, administered by the government,

and paid for by taxpayers.

81% oppose torture and support following the

Geneva Conventions.

76% say the U.S. should not play the role of

global police.

79% say the U.N. should be strengthened.

85% say that the U.S. should not initiate

military action without support from allies.

63% want U.S. forces home from Iraq within a


47% favor using diplomacy with Iran. 7% favor

military action.

67% believe we should use diplomatic and economic

means to fight terrorism, rather than the


86% say big companies have too much power in


65% believe attacking social problems is a better

cure for crime than more law enforcement.

87% support rehabilitation rather than a

“punishment-only” system.

81% say job training is “very important” for

reintegrating people leaving prison.

79% say drug treatment is very important.

56% believe NAFTA should be renegotiated.

64% believe that on the whole, immigration is

good for the country.

A stunning portion of these choices of the

American people are at odds with those of their

leaders in both parties and with the way popular

opinion is routinely described by the major

media. The choices are also far from radical.

They are actually conservative, aimed at

conserving our constitution, our integrity, our

economy, our environment and our standing in the

world. It is the establishment center that led us

into this disaster which has been radical and

extreme: radically wrong and extremely

incompetent in dealing with the consequences.

Back in 2001, in my book Why Bother?, I

tried to describe what was happening to America

and what could be done about it:

The system that envelopes us becomes normal

by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its

sheer noise. Our society faces what William

Burroughs called a biologic crisis -- "like

being dead and not knowing it."

The unwitting dead -- universities,

newspapers, publishing houses, institutes,

councils, foundations, churches, political

parties -- reach out from the past to rule us

with fetid paradigms from the bloodiest and most

ecologically destructive century of human

existence. . .

Yet even as we complain about and denounce

the entropic culture in which we find ourselves,

we are unable bury it. We speak of a new age but

make endless accommodations with the old. We are

overpowered and afraid.

We find ourselves condoning things simply

because not to do so means we would then have to

-- at unknown risk -- truly challenge them.

To accept the full consequences of the

degradation of the environment, the explosion of

incarceration, the creeping militarization, the

dismantling of democracy, the commodification of

culture, the contempt for the real, the culture

of impunity among the powerful and the zero

tolerance towards the weak, requires a courage

that seems beyond us. We do not know how to look

honestly at the wreckage without an overwhelming

sense of surrender; far easier to just keep

dancing and hope someone else fixes it all.

Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes

life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have

lost. We can give up our futile efforts to

preserve the illusion and turn our energies

instead to the construction of a new time.

It is this willingness to walk away from the

seductive power of the present that first divides

the mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage

to emigrate from one's own ways in order to meet

the future not as an entitlement but as a


How one does this can vary markedly, but one

of the bad habits we have acquired from the

bullies who now run the place is undue reliance

on traditional political, legal and rhetorical

tools. Politically active Americans have been

taught that even at the risk of losing our planet

and our democracy, we must go about it all in a

rational manner, never raising our voice, never

doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let

alone screaming for help.

We have lost much of what was gained in the

1960s and 1970s because we traded in our passion,

our energy, our magic and our music for the

rational, technocratic and media ways of our

leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis

solely with political logic. We need living rooms

like those in which women once discovered they

were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The

politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav

Havel. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of

Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King.

Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions.

People coming together because they disagree

on every subject save one: the need to preserve

the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry.

Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand

assemblies and simple suppers.

Above all, we must understand that in leaving

the toxic ways of the present we are healing

ourselves, our places, and our planet. We rebel

not as a last act of desperation but as a first

act of creation. ­

What I was talking about was a movement of the

sort that may now or soon be underway. Providing

mediation for anger, structure for hope, and

pragmatic plans for tomorrow, a movement can seem

anarchistic, disjointed or directionless, yet

what we see may be no more the little waves on

the surface that conceal the force of the current


Further, it is sometimes hard to perceive because

while the cause is national, the action is often

local. We have become trained in recent decades

by both liberals and conservatives to define

action by simply being on a national mailing list

and making a contribution. Which is why Move On

and Emily's List are so powerful but nobody knows

what a liberal is any more.

Movements work differently. They don't use popes;

they rely on independent congregations. They are

driven not be saviors but by substance. They

assume a commitment beyond the voting booth, they

think politicians should respond to them rather

than the other way around, and they believe in

"Here's how" as well as "Yes, we can."

If you are presently doing anything to try to

repair the damage that has been done by our

cynical, greedy and incompetent leadership you

are part of the movement. Student, union worker,

teacher, retiree, infirm, ecologist, defense

attorney, community organizer, informed or

reformed - you are part of the movement.

So welcome to the movement. If you don't believe

there is one, trying using the word anyway. The

very term is a weapon in our arsenal. If the

politicians and the press start hearing the

phrase in places they thought had little in

common, they will start to pay attention. We can

leave it to the historians to define it. In its

very ambiguity lies its strength. We may

contradict ourselves, but as Walt Whitman once

noted, that's okay; it merely proves that we

contain multitudes.

More Commentaries

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.