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.