Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hope and the left

The other night, I watched a DVD of a PBS documentary, “Sisters of Selma,” about Roman Catholic nuns who joined the civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, after the first attempt at a march from Selma to Montgomery was infamously met by violence from local and state law enforcement. In the wake of that outrage, religious people traveled to Selma from other parts of the country, to stand up for their fellow citizens’ voting rights.

It was an inspiring film, to which I responded at points with a reaction that I’ve learned over years to expect, but which still surprises me with its uncontrollable nature: I get choked up and tearful at expressions of hope and courage against the odds. A friend of mine who noticed this reaction one time when we sat together in a movie theater watching “Born on the Fourth of July” (with Tom Cruise, of all people, playing a disabled Vietnam veteran protesting the war), said afterwards that she had read that people get emotional when their most deeply-held values are touched.

This only makes sense, of course, as any rightwinger who chokes up at the national anthem can tell you. But what’s funny to me is that this reaction usually hits me when I’m watching or reading accounts about dissidents (whose uncompromising and idealistic radicalism certainly reflects my most deeply-held values), protesting a simplistic, conservative nationalism that leaves most leftists cold. Sometimes, though, the reaction happens when I’m listening to corporate politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I’m an idealist by nature. I want to hope.

By coincidence, earlier in the day that I watched the “Sisters” DVD, I had read a commentary at Common Dreams by a regular contributor, Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado. Titled, “Obama and the left 2,” it was a return to a topic he had discussed earlier which had received many critical comments from supporters of third-party candidates, who objected to being asked once again to vote for the Democratic lesser of two evils.

Chernus’ second commentary also received a lot of comments from readers (almost 400 as of this morning). It was interesting to read because it so accurately reflected the argument in my own mind between two sides with approximately equal weight: the side that says that incremental progress (or even backing up slowly) is better than the rapid decline—social, political, cultural and environmental—the nation inevitably experiences under modern Republican rule; and the side that says American democracy is already dead, and it hardly serves our long-term interest to pretend the rotting carcass is still breathing.

Every day, I go back and forth between these sides of myself, the idealist and the cynic. But which is which, when both sides are true? Is it idealistic or cynical to think that things will always be the way they are, with two corporate parties essentially serving the same military-industrial interests and playing good cop/bad cop with partisans who invariably see the other side as the bad cop, whose agenda must be prevented at all costs? Is it idealistic or cynical to think that all citizens should take a political Hippocratic oath to first, do no harm? Is it idealistic or cynical to hold fast to your principles, and refuse to compromise with a system that will never truly challenge the prevailing corporate order, whose steady march to fascism has been enabled by the actions of both major parties?

Do I give in to my hope that a Democratic administration, at this crisis point in American history, will crack the door open just wide enough that a flood of progressive legislation will be unstoppable; and that electing the first African American president will cause a subtle shock to the political culture, that will forever alter the system of white supremacy on which America has been built?

Or do I give in to my hope that enough people casting “protest” votes will open more people’s eyes to the fact that the American experiment in democracy has become a meaningless sham, with no real effect by either party on an ultimately militaristic empire, unresponsive to the public whim? Do I keep hoping that keeping my eyes on the prize of necessary and radical change, however hopeless that change may seem today, is the price that must be paid to see it happen (as it was for the early Abolitionists)?

At this moment, I have an answer. But it’s an answer that can change in fifteen minutes, so I won’t bother you with it. I suspect there may be millions of Americans on the horns of the same dilemma. And we’re going to have to figure it out for ourselves.

1 comment:

Reid B. said...

Mike, this column contains a good deal of food for thought, so much so that it’s troubling to attempt a “coherent” response. I want to toss out a few points that come up in this context, and hope to continue the discussion.

- Too much of our “political” dialogue today consists of false dialogue…Much of this has to do with manipulation, and is no accident.

- Between a cynic and an idealist, there ought to exist a realist. This individual would attribute human actions to the interplay of selfish and altruistic motivations. Politically, realism should be made practical via a working system of checks and balances and separation of powers: that is, a recognition of the presence of both poles.

- Our political education in youth certainly over-expresses the idealistic aspect of the founding of our republic. One thing that’s interesting in this regard is the manner in which our cultural dialogue now tends so much toward orthodoxy, in a sense on both sides. If the educational myth of coming to America for religious freedom were toned down and we focused more on the economic opportunity aspects of the colonization of the New World, we might find our political dialogue less choked with crusading language, empty phrases and divisive wedge issues. We might be able to sit down and address problems.

- Within the political system as we know it, I do not see the value of a “protest vote.” Of the presidential candidates, Ralph Nader expresses my thoughts most exactly. If he can’t be elected, I need to vote for someone who can.

- Meanwhile, the last item induces another reflection: we are and have to be, I suppose, desperately hooked on politics. However, the political dialogue and process we have known during our lifetimes in America seems stubbornly resistant to our innermost urgings. What does this say about our ideas of importance and power?

- I also saw a documentary last night, “Burning The Future,” about mountaintop removal in West Virginia. It also brought tears to my eyes. I fear they were the tears of impotence.

- Nevertheless, I have some hopes for an Obama presidency. We’ll have to see what history will make of such an opportunity.