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Why it's so hard to make good things happen

Sam Smith

This is the part of history I don't like. Not the part where people
don't know what's happening to them nor the part where they try to do
something about it. There's plenty to do in both those parts. No, it's
the part where people know there's something wrong but nobody knows what to do and how to do it and so they just sit around or go through the
same old motions just as vulnerable as when they didn't know what was
going on only now they're also mad and frustrated and confused and
nothing happens even though everyone wants it to.

It's also a time of fear and, as boxing trainer Teddy Atlas points out,
fear usually lasts longer than the thing you fear. You can count by
seconds the time the other boxer smashes you about, but you can count
by hours or days the time you spent worrying about it, hours and days
that, that beyond their intrinsic pain, can make the thing you fear,
when it happens, even worse than it had to be.

So you try to push away the fear and do the same old thing and just

And what are you waiting for? Perhaps for something so catastrophic or
moving that everyone changes what they're doing or not doing and does
something else. Or for some group of people to do something nobody was
expecting and then nothing is the same - typically because the group
that does something is too young or too idealistic or too committed to
have jettisoned all their hope, or because they're too poor or too
beaten down to worry about falling any further.

If you follow history you know these times are going to come but you
also know that you're not going to know when they're gong to come and
so, if you still care at all, you just keep doing what you have been
doing all along and hope that change will come sooner rather than later.

And then sometimes the hope just fizzles out. Like the Zapatistas, the
World Trade demonstrations, the immigrant' protests with all their
vibrations suggestive of something big about to happen. But in the end,
the tectonic plates just stay right where they've been all along.

And what if we have fouled our own souls and psyches as badly as we have
fouled the environment? What if we are the rats in a cage we call
civilization but which is really the end of a civilization? Maybe we
won't become extinct but only lousy versions of what we were once. It
happens to other creatures. What gives us the immunity that frogs lack?

I would like to be surprised just like everyone was surprised when a few
students sat down at a lunch counter in the 1960s but I'm struck by how
many ways the rules have altered since then and how much harder that
makes it for the serendipity of change.

Over the past few months I've been jotting some of these ways down on
scratch pads, file cards, or the margins of the morning paper. Then one
day I started putting them into the computer and even my keyboard almost
went into catatonic collapse.

I can't write this, I scolded myself. I will just be aiding the enemy
with gratuitous despair.

But the words still seemed true and, in a curious way, offered a glint
of courage because they helped diagnose the cause of our suffering and
perhaps contained, albeit well concealed, the hint of a cure. By
considering these things we might find clues not only as to the true
direction of hope but also about why so much of what has been tried
hasn't worked. In doing so we may better distinguish between what is
truly useless and what is merely the frustrations of the darkest part of
the night.

Here then are a few of the ways in which America has become harder to
change. Read them not as a victim seeking vindication for weakness
despair but as a mechanic seeking the right place to start repairing

- Americans are becoming increasingly socially isolated. It is hard, for
example, to imagine a great social revolution with so many ears
literally tuned out. And not just to Ipods. Many, as non-profits are
finding, are too stressed or too busy to engage in joint ventures
beyond the necessary or the profitable. From the hyper schedules of
well-ordered pre-schoolers to the adult time destruction by the economy,
it is harder to find the room to change.

- We live in a semiosphere of lies, noise and myth - bombarded by
advertising, hype, interminable words and by sights and sounds devoid of
meaning. The unavoidable ubiquity of these external messages is only a
few decades old. Assessing reality in such circumstances is a chancy
business at best.

- The media and its manipulators have developed weapons of propaganda
far exceeding anything Herman Goering could have imagined. Conversely
badly needed information is simply not reported. As my nephew Trip Kise
put it, "Information is marginalized, minimalized or spread as

- Our educational system increasingly demands answers without thought
and it tests for inculcation rather than judging imagination, critical
analysis and comprehension. Pursuing change on campus has become a form
of disorderly conduct.

- Progressive churches and church leaders have either vanished, become
intimidated by the religious and secular right, or operate at funding
and energy levels a fraction of what they enjoyed during earlier
activist periods.

- Anyone wishing to create a coalition soon runs into the atomization of
public interest groups each with their own turf and funding demands and
often leery of taking up arms with others of whom their funders might
not approve or who might be seeking funds from some of the same sources.
Thus easily perceived demands of intramural competition among these
groups often overwhelm grander but less obvious common causes.

- At the other end are pseudo movements that create the illusion of mass
action while in fact being little more than public relation agencies for
particular causes taking up space that a real movement might otherwise
occupy. Many of these faux movements are funded by foundations or
political groups that aren't all that interested in change anyway.

- A major decline of progressive America occurred during the Clinton
years as many liberals and their organizations accepted the presence of
a Democratic president as an adequate substitute for the things liberals
once believed in. Liberalism and a social democratic spirit painfully
grown over the previous 60 years withered during the Clinton

- History has become far less socially important. In preliterate
societies, history was inexorably blended with the present and was a
living part of current reality. More modern societies put history in its
temporal place but still gave it honor and considerable social
significance. Now, however, we are increasingly relegating history to
the back cable channels and replacing it in schools with driving and
anti-drug programs. In its place, our culture gives extraordinary
emphasis to the new and the ephemeral. The result is that both the
virtues and the horrors of the past are not easily available as
organizing or educational tools.

- Our constitutional republic is dead. One may argue whether we have
only temporarily lost our way or are moving inexorably towards fascism
but, in either case, social and political action lack the protection
that comes from a commonly observed moral and democratic core.

- There is no clearly apparent counterculture around which dissent and
action can organize itself.

- There are a lack of comfortable social refuges for dissenters.

- There is little sense of solidarity among the unhappy and restless of
the country. It seems at times that the evolution of our culture, which
has removed so many from family and community and left them to fight
their battles on their own, makes the whole idea of solidarity an alien

- Nothing can happen for long before its definition and image becomes
the intellectual property of a media that couldn't care less for its
well being.

- America's most self-serving, self-promoting, self-important,
self-absorbed and self-referential establishment - with the least
possible justification for any of these traits - has spent the past
quarter century destroying our economy, environment and constitution.
Establishments are typically obstacles to change; this one has been a
deadly enemy.

- We have changed from being a country that makes things to being a
country that markets things. An extraordinary number of Americans
outside the service industries spend their lives selling products, ideas
or images to others. Their targets are no longer considered citizens but
merely consumers and even many progressive organizations treat them this
way, demanding only their contributions and their signatures. But
consumers don't produce change; citizens do.

- More than a few young Americans have mentioned to me that whatever
one does will simply get co-opted by greater forces in politics and
corporations. This pessimism probably has a far greater hold than is
generally recognized.

- The Internet was seen by many of its early users (including myself) as
a tool for the restoration of democratic power and the achievement of
change. We were wrong. In the 15 years that the Internet has played a
marked social role, America has moved dramatically to the right.
Coincidence? Perhaps, but it is something that needs to be examined.

- Our last two presidents have been pathologically clever and deceitful
in manipulating public opinion and repeatedly dishonest.

- We haven't elected a president by a clear majority in nearly 20 years
which has helped to leave a sense of a permanent insurmountable

- The population of the U.S. has nearly doubled since 1950; it has
increased about 50% since 1970. The original 13 colonies - about the
size of today's Los Angeles - had a population less than 2% of today's
America. This has huge implications for how people relate to one
another, how they spend their time, and how they go about getting other
people to do good things.

- During the period that the size of the country has doubled, television
has become an overwhelming factor in politics, business and social life.
The time that televisions are turn on in the average home has increased
by an hour just in the past decade.

- Television has had an impact on how people are organized and how
organizers think they should be organized. Mass meetings of the sort
that built the Populist and Socialist parties are rare; For the typical
voter, politics is a virtual and lonely business.

- For most adults, a politics defined by television means that politics
has not only become less personal and less communal but less dependent
on folklore and local information. Politics was once about things
remembered. Politics was also about gratitude. Above all, politics was
about relationships. The politician grew organically out of a
constituency and remained rooted to it as long as incumbency lasted.
Today, we increasingly elect people about whom we have little to
remember, to whom we owe no gratitude and with whom we have no
relationship except that formed during the great carnie show we call a

- The media has shifted from being economically and socially
representative of its audience to being a part of the establishment that
controls the audience. The media can no longer be expected to stand up
for its readers or viewers against the establishment.

- The media regularly suppresses debate on major issues such as national
health insurance policy and the war on drugs. The media basically
functions as a Berlin Wall of the mind, preventing the logical, the
fair, the moral from entering public affairs.

- The government and its police have become more aggressively repressive
of political action, more fascistic in techniques, and ubiquitous in

- America has increasingly engaged in social bigotry towards groups that
earlier would have been considered constituencies to which to appeal.
This includes not only immigrants, but pot smokers, the young, the poor,
and the overweight. In an older politics, simply thanks to the numbers
of voters involved, politicians would have courted rather than
alienating such groups. Now some are sent to jail, some are ridiculed,
some are deported, some get their subsidies reduced, and some are held
up as negative examples.

- Why is this possible? One good reason is that what matters now in
campaigns is money - which the votes dutifully follow. Another is that
far fewer people bother to vote. If those of voting age turned out
today's presidential elections in the same proportion as they had in
1960, there would be 24 million more voters, or nearly 25% more cast
ballots. Those are people who have given up on the system or have no
idea of how to use it.

- Politicians and the media have conspired to redefine what were once
considered "unalienable rights" as matters to be balanced at the will of
the government by "responsibilities" as defined by that government.

- The direct intervention in politics by criminal - as opposed to merely
corrupt - elements, which began with mob's involvement in the Kennedy
election, has now become commonplace. In politics, we all live in a
Mafia neighborhood now.

- The declining integrity of election systems has not only raised
questions about the last two presidential votes, but for some about the
value of voting at all.

- Traditional political corruption operated as a feudal system in which
the politician was expected to repay favors at the grassroots level.
Today's corruption offers no rebate to the average citizen. Instead,
one has to be wealthy and powerful to benefit from political corruption.

- Politics is carried out in a culture of impunity in which those in the
establishment increasingly see themselves exempt from standards
previously established by tradition, community, constitution or
ordinary law.

- Ethnic politicians - both black and latino - have retreated to, or
been pushed into, the security of a ghettoized politics in which their
positions are both safe and largely irrelevant. Given the perversity of
our non-proportional election system, minority politicians can only
exercise real influence when they lead the majority but most minority
politicians - aided by the effects of growing gerrymandering - find
themselves instead living on political reservations where what they do
and think really doesn't matter. When one occasionally breaks out, such
as Barak Obama, it is only because he represents a safe change in color
without any significant change in politics.

- The drug Soma, obstacle golf, Feelie movies and Centrifugal
Bumble-puppy were used in Huxley's Brave New World to placate the
masses. These have been supplanted by a enormous variety of political
tranquilizers ranging from actual drugs to distractions such as video
games and even substitute elections such as American Idol and Survivor.
Never have Americans in their off-work hours had so many ways to avoid
what is really going on. Never have so many Americans been deactivated
in imagination, creativity and energy by drugs prescribed by medicine
rather than by taking those of their own choice.


Short of exile, how does one deal with such a situation? Merely berating
it is futile, yet ignoring it is masochistic.

Part of the value in detailing our problem is that it reminds us in how
many ways what we have been doing about it hasn't worked. Move On
hasn't worked but then neither has the Green Party. The conventional
media hasn't worked but then neither has the Internet. Thoughtful
analysis hasn't helped but then neither have blogger rants or political
pop theater.

Admittedly, maybe all we're waiting for is one of those mysterious
moments when everything starts to move, a phase transition that frees up
action, hope, and decency. Maybe nothing will work until forces that
refuse to be hurried find themselves suddenly aligned.

But it is more likely that we simply haven't caught up with the number
and mass of new influences affecting people and their politics so that
we are, in effect, still fighting the last war.

What if, on the other hand, we accept that our approach to politics may
be anachronistic and start asking questions that might lead us towards
some new answers. Questions like:

- How does one increase the solidarity among those in opposition to
greed-grounded and repressive forces in the face of all the distractions
and disabilities of our semiotic addictions?

- How does one avoid the wheel spinning typical of normal progressive
gatherings with their stolidly pre-determined agendas that limits both
participants and results?

- Many Democrats, Greens, and Libertarians agree on some critical
issues. Why is it so difficult to create cross-over coalitions on
matters such as civil liberties?

- How could the Internet be better used to create broad-based consensus
rather than being a largely tool for groups clever at niche
manipulation? How do we make the Internet the virtual lower house of
parliament in a world in which the major division is between governments
and their peoples?

- What effect could voting reforms such as public campaign financing or
instant runoff voting have? Don't we have to change the rules of the
game before we stand a chance of winning it?

- How do we reintegrate politics and culture so that the former is no
longer relegated to television but reflects and grows out of the latter?
How do we train activists to make politics a part of culture again?

- Couldn't we at least have a button or logo - as with the peace symbol
in the 60s - that would help us to know how many others draw from the
same well of the soul?

- Which of our current habits bear up under today's conditions? Are
marches and demonstrations really an effective way to produce change? Do we use radio enough? Do we use music as effectively as we might?

These are just a few examples of the sort of things worth discussing in
seeking a new era in progressive politics that is not so heavily driven
by traditional practices that once worked but no longer do.

Give each of the aforementioned problems some time and some meetings and some emails and some debates and maybe we can do better than we do right now. Give each problem some lateral thinking and maybe the guy on the left in the last row will come up with a new idea.

We can't lose anything from trying because even if we don't succeed
we're only taking time and energy away from failure - so, at worse, it
will just be a draw. And, as our belated awakening to ecological
disaster reminds us, it is better to spend our time trying to figure out
how the world really is than how we thought it was during the last war -
which we didn't win either.