Forward or Back? That is the question.

by Karoli on September 27, 2012 · 1 comment

Over at The Nation, Rebecca Solnit writes a poignant and passionate letter to her lefty friends:

Maybe it’s part of our country’s Puritan heritage, of demonstrating one’s own purity and superiority rather than focusing on fixing problems or being compassionate. Maybe it comes from people who grew up in the mainstream and felt like the kid who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that there were naked lies, hypocrisies, and corruptions in the system.

Believe me, a lot of us already know most of the dimples on the imperial derriere by now, and there are other things worth discussing. Often, it’s not the emperor that’s the important news anyway, but the peasants in their revolts and even their triumphs, while this mindset I’m trying to describe remains locked on the emperor, in fury and maybe in self-affirmation.

When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail, but that’s not a good reason to continue to pound down anything in the vicinity. Consider what needs to be raised up as well. Consider our powers, our victories, our possibilities; ask yourself just what you’re contributing, what kind of story you’re telling, and what kind you want to be telling.

I have seen an improvement in the buzz over the past six months, but I also see the same complaints crop up, too. While I respect their passion about drone strikes and agree that we would be a better nation and better people without them. Many good, good-hearted friends are absolutely adamant that this one bad thing negates any good things which might be done.

One of the more refreshing aspects of the DNC for me was being in a city full of unabashed Obama supporters, who saw the good as far outweighing the bad. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I wasn’t going to get my ears boxed from the left for actually joining the chorus.

It would be nice if we could find a way, as Solnit writes, to brush idealism with a nice color of reality:

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t—and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope, and generous hearts.

We talk about prefigurative politics, the idea that you can embody your goal. This is often discussed as doing your political organizing through direct democratic means, but not as being heroic in your spirit or generous in your gestures.

The thing is, she’s also right about the suppressive nature of left-side negativity, and makes an argument I’ve been making for a very long time, which goes something like this. Getting rid of DADT, passing a health care act that eliminates discrimination against sick people, turning a huge boat around called the US economy, and appointing an attorney general who actually fights for the right of everyone to vote instead of suppressing the right of some to vote are not small things. They are very big things. They are very big good things, which we can either use as steps to more progress or watch the right wing undo.

This doesn’t mean I don’t respect those who speak of the things we don’t like. I do respect them. But I also think there’s a time and a place to speak of them, and that time is not right before an election where drone strikes will be the least of our problems if a President Romney should be inaugurated on January 13, 2013, which is why I had serious issues with Conor Friedersdorf’s column yesterday, “making the case against casting a ballot for the president — even if you think he’s better than Mitt Romney.”

I could make a case for not dodging the 100-pound boulder rolling toward my foot, too, but it seems sort of stupid to let a rock roll over my foot if I can avoid it.

It isn’t as if we’re choosing between two candidates who have similarities. They don’t. One candidate is a carrion-eating vulture whose team stands at the ready to throw more bodies into the middle east on a long-term basis and start World War III in the process, and the other one is a pragmatic type who doesn’t shy away from violent solutions when he feels necessary but doesn’t initiate them either.

Writing a column 40 days before an election, ignoring all of the good things — yes, GOOD things — this president has done in order to “make the case” that one should not cast their vote for him because he has done some bad things is suppressive. It encourages people who respect this person’s opinion and writing to opt out altogether.

We tried that in 2000, remember?

There’s more than enough suppressive activity to fight between voter ID laws and Republican shenanigans with voter registrations. It’s unnecessary and yes, self-immolating to opt out of the electoral process because you can’t imagine weighing good against bad and arriving at a balance. As one person on Twitter said, “Bad things don’t make good things bad; good things don’t make bad things good. The whole is more important.”

Like it or not, politics is not absolute, because it centers on people, and how people interact in this thing we call society. Each person has a vote and a perspective, which they’re entitled to. I really, really do not like President Obama’s education policy, but that doesn’t negate the fact that more progress is being made toward an economy based on alternative energy resources, that college costs are at least somewhat manageable, and that his policies really do benefit that 47 percent Mitt Romney has turned his back on.

You weigh the whole, and in Romney’s case, that weight falls into the negative space. In Obama’s case, it weighs more toward good, with the potential for more good with a better Congress.

Consider these questions as you read her entire column, which I hope every one of you will, and I also hope you’ll share it. I think Solnit wrote from the heart and from her head, and what she said makes sense.

There are really only two questions for activists: What do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as do it with generosity and kindness and style.

That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.

  • http://twitter.com/Norbrookc Norbrook

    I would also point out 2010 as an example to these purists.  They were the ones who ranted on almost every blog site about not voting to “send a message to Obama.”  That worked out well for them, didn’t it?

Previous post:

Next post: