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James Block

James Block

Posted: February 20, 2011 09:24 PM

I caught a glimpse of the future last weekend in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee. For those of you who haven't spent time there yet, it would be easy to miss. For a century (the 20th) raised on dramatic accounts of revolution, the Russian, Chinese, and Cuban for example, there was scarcely anything to see. There were no street demonstrations like Tunisia and Egypt, no citizen uprisings poised to topple the regime.

Several of us visited a citizen cooperative getting off the ground in a mixed income, race, and ethnic neighborhood of old but pretty solid buildings near downtown. The Riverwest citizens' group already runs a food coop that has been in business for several years, and is just about to open a community bar, music venue, and meeting center renovated from an abandoned tavern. The choice was strategic -- the next business had to generate income to support future ventures and provide a place for Riverwest residents to gather to work that future out.

The American corporate sector hardly shudders, in fact it is paying no notice, but it should. Like progressives, it thinks of social change as cataclysmic, and imagines itself secure until that far-off day when the barbarians amass at the gates.

Progressives have been the victims of fantasies of instant change, from the socialist dreams of the early 20th century to the cultural upheavals of the Sixties, to the fall of the Iron Curtain and now North Africa. The appeal is painless transformation without an endless lead-up or the risks of failure that social movements otherwise bear.

Let's call it the illusion of armchair revolution, attracting those who want to be invited to the victory party, to opening night, without the sweat equity. They want to open the book to the last chapter, bypassing the account of decades of toil and travail that went before. They want to believe that the promises of history, like all other promises, arrive by Fed Ex, and all that is needed is to make sure someone is home.

My own generation of the Sixties was burdened by such illusions. The old order collapsed so quickly and the pleasures of affluence and liberation appeared so accessible that one could simply surf the wave of change till set down on Edenic beaches. When the counter-movement of reaction geared up its mighty wave machine to inundate the proponents of change, would-be revolutionaries couldn't take the long hours and poor pay demanded by movement work. "Easy come, easy go," they concluded.

The folks at Riverwest, and those like them across the U.S., have arrived at a different conclusion: what isn't worth the effort isn't worth having. Remember that!

Van Wyck Brooks, the great literary critic, made the point most clearly. Brooks had also lived through a period of cultural upheaval, the early Progressive era from 1900 to 1915. He later describes it as a time in which "we seem[ed] to live on our hopes," inflamed by a "prophetic" belief in "man's perfectibility." When the reaction came, world war followed by business dominance during the Twenties, that once-optimistic generation found itself in a wasteland, filled with "contempt and disgust," retreating into cynicism and passivity.

For Brooks, as for the Riverwest members, there was a different lesson to be learned. The periods of reaction were in his view as important for social progress as the "free-spirited" periods of elation and promise. It was in these more somber times, what he called "cultural ice-age[s]," that individuals had to "cut down to the bone" what they believed, to figure out what it took to live in new ways, and to work for the necessary changes. It was in this time of testing that deep convictions and the "power to change" achieved traction.

Spending weekends renovating an old tavern doesn't look like a revolution. Except to those engaged in the work, who perhaps one Saturday have sensed what another great cultural voice and friend of Brooks', Randolph Bourne, learned from his movement involvement. The greatest reward of such engagement, Bourne wrote, was that one already lives in the "world which he desires," in a community that believes in justice and acts with others upon ideals that will one day be available to all.

The future, in other words, is arriving next door, perhaps in a neighborhood in your town or mine. But to find it one has to disconnect the T.V., beaming instantaneous images of a promised future, lulling us to sleep until the delivery. Turn it off and walk over to Riverwest and, by the way, bring some work clothes. There's plenty still to be done.