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Chernynkaya On March - 8 - 2010

I read two great articles I want to share. They are elaborations of a piece I posted a couple of weeks ago, about the confounding  and stunning passivity of Americans in the face of issues that should have taken us all to the streets. I keep coming back to this because I am frustrated by the inaction I see on the Left to do more than bemoan the slowness of change. I am searching for reasons why our despair does not translate into more vigorous activism.

The first is pretty short, “Has America Lost Its Mojo” in The American Prospect, by Nina Hachigian. She lists ten things – and I have edited her thesis–that we should keep in perspective about the US:

1. America’s fate is in its own control

This is cold comfort given the dysfunction in Washington, but it is nonetheless important to remember that the decisions Americans make at home determine our fate far more than anything China or any other pivotal power does—including keeping its currency undervalued, as destructive as that is.

2. We are still number one

We shouldn’t forget that America is still far ahead of all other emerging and established powers by nearly every important measure. And we have demographics on our side.

3. Our relative decline is inevitable

Relative to other pivotal powers such as China and India, we are declining—the huge gap between the United States and the others is shrinking. That is a function of two factors completely out of American control: the size of their populations being many times larger than ours, and the fact that they are at earlier stages of their economic growth, still climbing out of poverty and moving people off subsistence farming.

4. Primacy isn’t what it used to be

It is not as important as it used to be for a power to remain on top by a huge margin. Countries used to acquire power by conquering each other, and in that world, primacy is a life or death matter. The contest today is to see who can grow and lure more innovative talent, and become energy independent first. Land grabs are a waste of time and money.

5. Americans have it really good and will for generations

Here’s another key point to remember: China and India’s growth will not change living standards for the vast majority of Americans if we make the right choices at home. Even if China’s economy does grow to be larger than ours one day, there is no reason to think Americans will be worse off. We could even be better off. Look at the British—they enjoy very comfortable lives and take a lot more vacations since they gave up their empire.

6. Americans are safe

Americans enjoy an unimaginably high degree of safety from outside threats compared to most other peoples. We are protected by oceans, a strong military deterrent, and a stable society based on the rule of law. The growing strength of other powers will not change that fact.

7. The trajectories of future powers is unknowable

It seems that China, Brazil, and India are rising inexorably, and maybe they are. But maybe they aren’t. The Soviet Union looked like it would be around forever in 1988, and in 1990, Japan was seen as the undefeatable hegemon. We just don’t know, and can’t control, the futures of other big powers—which is yet another reason to focus on getting our own act together.

8. American leadership is vital, and everyone knows it

Even after eight years of stomach-churning foreign policy under the Bush administration, most countries acknowledge that American leadership is vital to solving major global problems and keeping order.

9. Previous bouts of self-doubt have proven unjustified

As Atlantic correspondent James Fallows recently explained, Americans are prone to cyclical periods of self-doubt. Our worries have been part of American culture since the days of our founders.

10. We have still have fundamental strengths

America doesn’t have nationwide broadband, consistent cell coverage, high-speed rail, or large-scale solar, though we need them. But it does have a high tolerance for failure, which encourages zany and sometimes very profitable ideas.

I can provide counter-arguments to many of her points, but I’m wondering if you agree with her. And even if you do, does it help?

The second article is somewhat more psychological and much more practical. It is “No, We’re Not a Broken people” written by Davis Swanson in The Humanist.

Some excerpts (and the emphasis is mine):

Most of the defeatist questions I get asked are more statements than questions, mostly pointing out ways in which our nation is corrupted, but stated as much out of frustration and despair as out of any hope of having a miraculous solution articulated: Aren’t politicians all bought and paid for? Haven’t we tried being activists for years with no success? Can’t the corporate media just destroy us if it wants to? Won’t the secret permanent bureaucracy just kill any politicians who stray from the plan? Isn’t anything good doomed to fail under our two-party system? And so forth.

Some of these questions, statements, and cries of anguish refer to all that’s wrong and needs to be fixed, at least in the view of the questioner. I tend to agree with much of the analysis I hear, and want to add to it. I want to get people to see the danger of leaving all power in the hands of presidents, for example, even though returning it to Congress wouldn’t do a bit of good until we fix Congress. But I have no sympathy for what I consider the intellectual and moral offense of coughing discouragement on people.

Swanson is responding to another article about our malaise by a psychologist Bruce Levine on the AlterNet. Levine finds causes of our disempowerment in financial stress, social isolation, institutions of higher education that train submissiveness, the treating of rebelliousness with pharmaceuticals, the damaging effects of television, and the replacement of citizenship with consumerism. He finds solutions in “encouragement, small victories, and models of courageous behaviors.” We don’t need to be told what’s wrong, claims Levine. We need the morale boost of seeing people succeed in doing what’s right.

But Levine’s discussion needs to be expanded because it offers no explanation for why activists (at least on the left, and I think across the political spectrum) were hit with despair so severely in 2009. Nor does it specifically address why we’re lacking in encouragement, why we’re missing small victories or courageous behavior. I believe the answer has more to do with our communications system than anything else, so the solution isn’t simply for you or I as isolated individuals to act courageously.

But why 2009 in particular? Why such a dramatic increase in defeatism from 2008?

Another evolving trend is the equation of civic involvement with participation in presidential elections. The president is a character in a television drama, and our job is to vote the lesser of the two presidential contenders off the fictional island. Our job is then complete, and the good president will fix everything for us. So many seem to believe.

No Encouragement to Be Found?
Above all, humans are imitators. It’s how we learn as children and how we learn as adults. We do not, as Levine points out, need to be told to get active. Rather, we need to be shown others being active, enjoying it, succeeding at it, and being rewarded for it. When was the last time you saw that on television?

If we see public activism fail twenty times and are then told to get out there and be active, the actions speak louder than the words. But if we see courageous, inspiring, successful activism—and enough of it—we don’t need as much explicit encouragement to join in.

Our independent media follows corporate media too closely, spinning its stories in a different way, while missing the stories that no one else has covered. When we hear of successes, they’re often disguised as something else. When a policy decision follows public pressure, the pressure is left out of the story. Politicians give other reasons for their actions, and stenographic reporters report them. And, of course, when a policy decision hasn’t been made yet, the media instructs everyone not to imagine they can have any effective input.

WHAT WE CAN DO:

We have to be the media. We have to report on our successes (I will post any good stories you send me at afterdowningstreet.org). We have to use the media. We have to actively search out the sorts of stories we want to learn about. We have to reform the media, bust the monopolies, provide equal access, and support community, public, and independent outlets. We have to build organizations that create good media and press for media reforms. We have to stop supporting bad media in any way. Don’t buy it. Don’t buy ads in it. Don’t participate in it. Put everything into enlarging good outlets that report the news.

Uncausing the Causes of Gloom
Some of the causes of despair that Levine points out may be more easily addressed than some of the causes of congressional misrepresentation (money, media, parties, election rigging, and so on). The primary causes of financial stress are not things an individual can simply wish away. Millions of Americans are under severe financial stress, the only solution for which is getting more money into their hands. The blame for this situation lies entirely with the predatory plutocrats pigging out on the fruits of other people’s labor.

And yet there are things we may be able to do to become more citizenlike and less consumerized, and to alleviate some of our financial stress. We can cease buying unnecessary crap. We can grow and make more things for ourselves. We can trade and barter and participate in local economies. We can save money in local institutions, avoid borrowing, and avoid the mega-banks.

We can also address social isolation whether or not we’re under financial stress. An ideal approach might be to start small political clubs or book clubs—groups of a handful of people who can be friends as well as allies. We can join non-profit advocacy groups that will keep us informed of their efforts, progress, and victories large and small. Announcing your despair is almost the equivalent of announcing that you don’t belong to such a group.

Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.


I think that what we do at PlanetPOV—and especially GROW—can help not only democracy, but ourselves. We can build on small successes and attain bigger ones. There is so much about which we can despair; it takes energy and discipline to counteract that. (Frankly, energy and discipline are the themes of my life!) I think we must work harder at that. I least I should.

Categories: News & Politics

Written by Chernynkaya

I am an artist and have lived in Los Angeles all of my life, except for a brief hippie period when I lived in SF. I am currently (semi-unwillingly) retired, but have had several careers.

32 Responses so far.

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  1. escribacat says:

    My attitude is quite a bit more optimistic than most folks here and I’ve actually tried to figure out why. I am not despairing at all.

    What I see is that for eight years we were moving in the wrong direction. Now we are slowly turning and heading back in the right direction. This is a good thing. We won’t get everything we want but at least there’s movement toward progress again. I admit I will be upset if HCR doesn’t pass, and I will be angry at the all-or-nothing lefties like Kuchinich. However, I still think it’s going to pass.

    As for why I’m optimistic while so many are despairing, one
    reason is that I’ve still got a residual high that Obama even got elected and that Shrub is GONE. Wow. I had my hands over my eyes for eight long years. It feels good be looking around again.

    Another reason is that I’m writing a history book and I spend most of my days living in the year 1864 in frontier Colorado. Things in 1864 were really horrific unless you were an Anglo male, in which case things were just really bad. Life was cheap and it was easy to get sick and die. Health care? Heck, just be thankful if you find a piece of fruit so you don’t end up with scurvy, which most people did anyway. For that matter, be thankful you can find anything to eat and a warm place to sleep. By the way, you mess around, you’ll probably get syphillis. That is, if someone doesn’t shoot you first. If you have anything worth stealing, someone will probably steal if from you. There isn’t much of a justice system but there are a lot of “necktie parties.” You and your friends will get drunk and enjoy watching the hanging together. If you survive all this, maybe you’ll die of old age--at 50.

    Anyway, when I pull my thoughts back to the present after a day thinking about that stuff, life looks pretty damn good. Maybe when I finish the project I’ll start despairing.

    • AdLib says:

      Cheers Escrib, thanks for zooming out to add some perspective to where we really are.

      Granted, HCR isn’t passed yet but I think it will be. The road to HCR has proven that this is going to be a long hard slog so those who are discouraged are justified in feeling that way but what is the only alternative?

      No HCR.

      When this bill passes and is signed, I think many will change their opinions. As time passes and the doom and gloomers find they still have their same HMO and the sky hasn’t fallen, the angst will turn to acceptance and in many cases appreciation.

      Obama did mess up with his approach, starting off with “Medicare for All” would have been a far stronger way to have gone, even if it was compromised, it would have brought more reform.

      Still, until Apple invents the iTimeMachine, we have to live in the worlds of “now” and “tomorrow”, and just a few weeks from “now”, I think an historic change in this nation will occur.

    • choicelady says:

      Es-cat -- nothing like an historical perspective to keep, well, a perspective! I have to agree that for the most part, I look back just a century and realize that things were MUCH worse than they are now. No one really had rights other than the well to do white male, the attitudes towards immigrants was horrific though changing (Hull House and the general progressive movement helped a great deal), racial attitudes were at their MOST dire with the new Jim Crow laws, and women struggling for suffrage were tormented just for wanting to vote. Poverty was the norm -- only 7 percent were middle class, about 1/2 percent were stinking rich, and everyone else was dirt poor and in hock to some giant corporation in which they labored 12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. It was the time of the “long turn” -- 12 hours on, 12 off until Sunday when you did 24 then got 12 off to start over again on the different shift. Every other week you got 24 hours off -- and the highest rate of death and accident was going back. Just enough relaxation to make you even more tired and off kilter. Kids were lucky to get through 5th grade, children worked the mills starting as young as 5, and the boom-bust cycles of Wall Street with its total lack of regulation put people into the streets every 5-8 years.

      So yes -- things are better. MUCH better. But we’ve lost the gift of anger and action because we believe things will always BE better so we have forgotten how to challenge the system. I’m not sure I know. What are we willing to risk? A century ago, there was nothing left to lose most of the time. Most workers embraced, unknowingly, Zapata’s famous, wonderful, inspiring line: It is better to die on your feet than to live life on your knees. They knew it, but we do not. We have a lot to be grateful for -- but it also makes us fearful of risk.

      And unlike those days, there are way too many of us who won’t risk anything because they do not have to. They carp and whine, but they do not act, even when the acts are without violence and risk.

      Revisiting the past should help us keep perspective, both in gratitude AND as empowerment. It is not beyond the pale, as SueinCA has noted, for us to lose it all if we wimp out now and let the RW back in power, for they will roll over us all, and we may not, this time, emerge. They learned the lessons of the Gilded Age, and they won’t let go this time. They have too much to gain.

      But we do have strengths IF we will use them. That is the single biggest question: will we keep the progress we have just regained? Or will we let it slip through our fingers because it’s not “good enough”. I love Kucinich, but he is wrong, wrong, wrong to block this reform simply because it’s incomplete. That’s what I fear too many of us will do. And that will bring us BACK to 1864 and all the fresh hell that would unleash.

      Thanks for reminding us of perspective!

  2. choicelady says:

    Hi cher -- outstanding contribution, very rich, very complex.

    Last week students in 34 states demonstrated against the sweeping fee hikes at public colleges and universities, and some did so with real civil disobedience. And I fear it proves what many of us have discussed before: the absence of a significant anti-war presence around Iraq and Afghanistan is directly linked to the absence of the draft. The first real student mobilization in decades was about what directly affected those students. In my entire life, only the civil rights movement seemed to engender a kind of altruistic participation.

    I fear that unless any person’s ox is being gored OR they fear it will be, not very many are prepared to do the hard, hard work of maintaining democracy. That leaves it to the zealots whose media mills have ginned up phony ‘victimhood’ by which to mobilize the (small but nasty) masses.

    Yup -- too many Americans won’t act unless it’s all about them. And that’s the fastest way to lose democracy. It’s a real worry.

  3. KQuark says:

    One of the biggest problems has been we are a victim of our own technological success.

    The fact is manufacture output has gone up steadily in this country since 1960 but manufacturing has become so much less labor intensive since the advent of the computer age that we’ve lost almost half of our manufacturing jobs.

    Nate Silver did a great analysis of the manufacturing sector that dispels some myths and solidifies some hard truths.

    http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/02/us-manufacturing-is-not-dead.html

  4. bitohistory says:

    Matt Yeglasis has a short comment on progressives lamenting their plight in the HCR fight. He provides a good link to Open left and their accomplishments.
    He also ha some choice words for FDL.

    http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2010/03/public-programs-in-health-insurance-reform.php

    http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2010/03/how-many-divisions-has-jane-hamsher.php

    The complete list of ways progressives strengthened health reform legislation
    by: Chris Bowers

    http://www.openleft.com/diary/17728/the-complete-list-of-ways-progressives-strengthened-health-reform-legislation

    I don’t know how many times ihave typed thi one simple line:

    Progress Is Progressive

    • Chernynkaya says:

      I bookmarked those, Bito. And learned a new term I’m using from now on:

      The Firebaggers

    • KQuark says:

      Hamster is a thorn in the side of HCR.

      • bitohistory says:

        I agree, KQ, She has her HC so she can fight for purity, as if a major social bill has ever been passed that was purely progressive, never compromised.

        Edit: If she negotiated your employment contract, you would never work!

        • KQuark says:

          Yup I always pick SS as prime example of a huge compromise that built a foundation for what has become one of Americans biggest safety nets. If progressives of today were around back then SS would not have passed because it did not cover most professions like farm workers, service workers, domestic worker and all Federal workers. The Southern socially conservative Dixiecrats insisted jobs where minorities and women comprised most of the workforce should not be covered by SS. But like the first iteration was the foundation, eventually virtually everyone is covered by SS.

    • Chernynkaya says:

      But, Bito, that line bears repeating. It is so simple, but just plain true. And thanks for the links-- i’LL read them now.

  5. TheRarestPatriot says:

    Yes, America IS all of those things and does have its place in the global machinations of progress and worldwide change. We do have some of the best living anywhere and more opportunities than most. It’s not so much WHERE we are in the world’s rankings..to me, it’s where we’re headed. More importantly, what we’re teaching our future generations. Is it ethical to have our children see us all scrambling for the almighty dollar at the expense of everything else? That we serve as perfect examples of how NOT to evolve capitalism with greed, hubris and corruption as entirely acceptable business practice is what concerns me. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, either. I realize these practices have been employed since this nation established itself. However, there is a more public and transparent acceptance in it today that really stokes my fire. In decades past, these sleazy deals and corrupt dealings all took place behind closed doors and out of the sunshine. And when these deals were exposed to the public through competent reporting and journalistic hound-dogging, the officials were summarily rounded up, exposed, shamed and dismissed. Today they are almost publicly proud of HOW they were able to screw the other guy! and sadly, too often the ‘other guy’ is us, the middle class. But I feel America is a divided country and to suggest a revolution is proper and maybe even justified, but I fear it would turn into tea-bagger vs tree-hugger bloodbath that wouldn’t change anything.

    Time and again I am reminded of a couple of quotes from MLK that really resonate with me today:

  6. Chernynkaya says:

    Democrats are working their way past depression to anger because their party, despite majorities in the House and Senate, has not made significant advances for immigrants, or women, or unions, or African Americans, or environmentalists, or gays and lesbians, or civil libertarians, or people dedicated to health care, or human rights, or jobs or housing or economic justice. Democrats also think their party is selling out to big business.

    15 Reasons Why We Need a Revolt in This Country

    http://www.alternet.org/story/145943/15_reasons_why_we_need_a_revolt_in_this_country

  7. Chernynkaya says:

    It looks like MoveOn! got the message of the second article-- focus on the areas of success:

    Dear MoveOn members,

    Last week, we launched the “Citizens’ Vote Count for Fair Elections” to make fence-sitters in Congress pick a side between citizen-funded elections and corporate-backed candidates.

    We’re already seeing great results. For example, Massachusetts Representative Richard Neal’s office started off by telling callers they “don’t know his position.” But after two days of calling to follow up, his office broke the news to a constituent from Northampton that he would vote for the bill!

    But your representative, Laura Richardson, still hasn’t taken a position either for or against the Fair Elections Now Act. To get her off the fence, we need to make sure she knows that constituents expect her to have a position on an important issue like this.

    Can you call Rep. Richardson, and urge her to cosponsor the Fair Elections Now Act? Here’s where to call:

    Representative Laura Richardson
    Phone: 202-225-7924

    The email goes on about Fair Elections Now Act, which I will cross-post on the GROW thread.


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