Publication Date: 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
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
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-
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
76% say the U.S. should not play the role of
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
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
81% say job training is Ă˘€śvery importantĂ˘€ť 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. Ă‚Â
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