Transcript of my comments to the annual Progressive Festival in Petaluma, CA, September 26, 2010:
First of all, thank you to the organizers of this event- the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center, the Center for Immigrant Rights, KPFA, and specifically to Attila Nagy- for inviting me to speak to you all today. It's an honor to share the stage with these amazing people.
Mostly, I am humbled by all of you and the fact that you're here. As you know, you don't have to be here. A lot of folks might prefer to stay home on a pleasant Sunday afternoon and engage in armchair activism from the comfort of their own homes and cocoons, occasionally talking back to the cable news networks or commenting on a blog. But you all are here, and that's because you understand a couple of important things:
First, that the movement for progressive change did not end when Barack Obama was elected- that was just the beginning- the tiniest cracking open of the door.
And second, that nothing can change without you. You're here because you know that this is your democracy and you are responsible for its upkeep.
I'm going to speak frankly. I am concerned about what I see as a creeping cynicism on the left, a cynicism which is totally justifiable. We progressives had big hopes- and many of them have manifested in some pretty underwhelming outcomes. Although I would pose that in fact we've had more victories than setbacks in the last two years, the scale of some of the prominent setbacks- Citizens United, Prop 8, the outrage over Park 51, public support for Arizona law 1070, not to mention the ongoing foreign policy disappointments in Iraq and Afghanistan especially- has all been pretty demoralizing.
But we don't have time for cynicism. Cynicism is dis-empowering. It is a means of shunting responsibility off to someone else- whether it's the political leadership, the corporations, other citizens, illegal immigrants (as in the case of the tea party) or the system itself. The greatest barrier to the achievement of justice is the belief that it cannot be achieved. Bitterness or demoralization can also lead to bad decision-making, sometimes even to get us withdraw from the process altogether (which would be the quickest way to reinforce the status quo.) Cynicism always asks us to think in the short-term.
But we must keep our eyes on the prize. While they may not always appear to be our friends, the Democrats in Congress right now must be thought of as our allies. Yes, our expectations haven't been met, but real, democratic change is almost always incremental. In fact, the term progressive means to proceed in stages. Which is not to say our action cannot be revolutionary. It can and it should. But it should be strategic as well as principled, keeping the long-term goals - or costs, as the case may be-- in mind.
Unlike the tea party mob and the present day GOP, we cannot define ourselves in terms of what we're against, but rather what we are for. We are progressives. We are for human and civil rights, we are for dignity for all people, we are for equality and fairness under the law, and we are for genuine democracy- that is, people power. Wherever people are suffering or struggling under oppression, we stand in solidarity with them. And unlike the tea party, with their phony populism that casts the blame downward to the most marginalized, we must be clear about where the blame lies- yes- but even more clear about where the responsibility to fix it lies. And that is with us. Nothing happens without our consent.
We have to remember that we are in charge. Most people, when asked to describe political power, tend to think of it as as a pyramid, with the leaders at the top, and the power as something that is exerted downward, something that happens to them. But if you think of power that way, then the only way to stop that dynamic is to cut off the top of the pyramid- and that amounts to violent revolution. Cutting off the top of the pyramid doesn't change the fundamental structure of the system. It reinforces it.
Instead, we must reframe our understanding of power as something more authentic and consistent with democracy. Power is not something that happens from the top. It is not exerted over you, it does not happen to you. Power in a political context always emanates from the bottom. No system - political or economic- can stay in place without people's obedience.
No system of injustice can survive without something called pillars of support. These are the organizations and institutions that keep the system in place- they can be anything from courts to media to businesses to churches to security forces. You may be in one of these pillars- and if not you personally, you know folks who are.
The most effective way to challenge a system of injustice is not simply by going after the leader/rulers at the top, but to undermine the pillars of support so that they eventually erode enough that the system can no longer sustain its own weight. One by one, the pillars disappear until the injustice or oppression comes crashing down.
It is always best to pull individuals out of the pillars, rather than trying to push them out. In movement terms, that means winning them to your side, so they step out, rather than coercing them, which only tends to gird their loyalty to the pillar and the larger system.
But you can't win people over with anger, hostility or cynicism. You can't even win them over- not really- with fear. Because fear is short-term, and anything won that way must be sustained that way. So you can pull people out of the pillars of support, and more generally, sustain a movement for systemic change with shows of empathy, compassion, unity and most importantly, firm (but nonviolent) adherence to truth- what Gandhi called "satyagraha."
And a bit more of the frank talk. I'm going to say something that a few folks might not want to hear, but it needs to be said. The "enemy of my enemy" logic never works. A good example is President Ahmadinejad, for whom I've recently heard dubious praise from some progressives. It's not necessarily correct to say that because Ahmadinejad criticizes President Obama about what we also perceive as legitimate grievances (such as the president's cozy relationship with corporate elites and his policies in Iraq and Afghanistan) that Ahmadinejad is a "truth teller".
Last week, there was a meeting between Iranian president Ahmahdinejad and one hundred progressive activists and alternative journalists. While I am fully behind the effort to promote peace and justice through open dialogue, what concerns me about this recent meeting is that none of the activists asked the Iranian president about the crimes going on his own country, against his own people. Crimes against women, against political opponents, against homosexuals, against unions, against minorities.
As progressives, our concerns are, above all, humanitarian. In seeking to hold accountable those individuals whose exploitation threatens all but the most economic and political elite, we must temper our earnestness with pragmatism. Progressives should be standing with the labor movement in Iran, not the president who is killing and imprisoning thousands of union activists, simply because he shares an interest (or criticism) with American progressives. We should be forging people-to-people ties with Iranian activists, not schmoozing a brutal, petty tyrant because he happens to share one of our political objectives.
We need to do a more careful job of picking our allies and less hasty job of naming our opponents.
So on one hand, yes, when President Obama ends the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, he'll earn the right to criticize Ahmadinejad. When Ahmadinejad stops all extrajudicial killings, torture and imprisonment of his own people for political and social crimes, he, on the other hand, will earn the right to criticize Obama. And we as progressives should be keeping a close eye on both.
Now let's talk for a minute about anger, which I think can be much more productive (but also more dangerous) than cynicism. I know you're angry (and you have every right to be), but keep in mind that while our anger can be the coal that fuels the engine of our mobilization, we also have to make sure it doesn't turn into a conflagration of unfocused rage. Take a moment to consider how Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the role of anger in the civil rights movement. He said:
We harnessed anger and released it under discipline for maximum effect.
No one's telling you not to be angry. But I want to encourage you to express that anger strategically, under discipline, and always with the long-term goal in mind.
Take the example of FOX and the tea party phenomenon. The tea partiers are stoking, not harnessing, anger. And they are not releasing it under discipline, but under chaos. That kind of momentum can be intense, but cannot sustain itself for long- it requires a never-ending stream of fuel to keep the fire stoked (hence the need for a new "other"- a new paranoia every week).
As I see it, one of the most significant differences between us as progressives and our counterparts on the right is the kind of sentiments we engage. Tea party candidates, Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, and talking heads at FOX are compelled to draw upon what Buddhists, Hindus, and other mystics call the "lower vibrating emotions"- fear, anger, and self-interest- those sentiments that tell people to regard others suspiciously and competitively. This tactic can work well in the short-term, but it tends to burn out quickly and leave a grave demoralization in its place.
In contrast, progressives should practice the politics of the "higher vibrating emotions"- empathy, compassion, and empowerment- those things that remind us other that human beings (including our opponents) are humans, first and foremost. That is the only long-term perspective that is capable of ushering in real social change. We cannot create democracy by undemocratic means. We cannot retain our dignity by disregarding that of the opponent. We cannot empower ourselves by demoralizing others.
Despite all that has happened in the last decade, many people of the globe still look to the people of the United States for guidance. They expect us to (in the words of Burma's jailed democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi) "use our liberties to promote theirs." But first, in the face of rampant corporate corruption, an undemocratic campaign financing system, creeping, insidious racism and bigotry, environmental devastation, deepening ties between policymakers and corporations, and a social culture that prefers "reality television" to living reality, we must recognize the struggle we face here, and use our liberties to promote justice within the United States. Ultimately, we are accountable for everything that happens in our name. In a democratic society, non-resistance amounts to concurrence. So if we are going to claim the rights and freedoms that come with democracy, then we must understand there is another side to the coin: responsibility.
Which leads me to my last point: as much as we'd all like to see President Obama manifest into the activist we secretly (or not-so-secretly) hoped he'd become, we have to remember that ultimately, presidents don't lead movements, movements lead presidents. It doesn't help us argue that he has let us down, when in fact, it is our job to hold him accountable. Don't get me wrong, I feel that same nauseating sense of disappointment you do whenever I read about more deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan, or another CEO taking million dollar bonuses while his company lays off more workers. But if we are worried that there's a ball that's been dropped in the White House, perhaps we should consider whether a ball has been dropped out here first.
I know that much of what we're up against seems daunting. We're in the midst of what is shaping up to be the most bizarre and vitriolic campaign season in memory. And that's saying something.
We all know that dis-empowering propaganda - the lifeblood of FOX- can be very broad in its scope. But we are fortunate, because although propaganda may be wider, Truth is deeper.
We must re-empower ourselves by avoiding the temptation to sink into despair or cynicism. We must resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water. Revolutionary change can happen incrementally- that is the essence of a strategic nonviolent movement.
In history's greatest struggles for liberty, democracy and justice, it was always the people whose effort forced change- from India to the Philippines to South Africa to Chile to the US Civil Rights Movement. We can- and will- win if we stay unified, committed, and disciplined.