March 20, 2016

The failure of evangelical liberalism

Sam Smith – Lately, I’ve been feeling real glad that I got into activism in the early 1960s because I’m increasingly getting the sense that I wouldn’t be good enough to be an activist by today’s liberal standards.

For example, Jesse Benn, writing in Huffington Post, said recently that “White people from across the political spectrum are overt racists, hold implicit biases, and/or harbor otherwise problematic, incomplete views about race. All white people fall into one or more of these categories, from vehement anti-racists to card carrying white nationalists.”

When such sweeping generalities are applied to other ethnicities, isn’t it called racism?

Then there’s all this talk about “white privilege” which seems to be applied equally to whites out of work or underpaid as well as to Donald Trump.

Then we have the charge that critics of Hillary Clinton’s loud approach to campaigning are “sexist” even though Bernie Sanders also shouts a lot and eight years ago Howard Dean faced a similar critique as outlined by US News at the time:
Getting revved up by the crowd's cheers and chants, he promised to take his campaign on to New Hampshire, South Carolina, California, and a string of other states, the names of which he shouted out like a cheerleader at a high school pep rally. His face reddening and his right hand balled into a fist, Dean shouted: "And then we're going to Washington, D.C.—to take back the White House—YEEEEEAAARGH!" The moment of exhortation was described in the media as the "primal scream" or the " 'I Have a Scream' speech." And it was replayed endlessly on national TV. It immediately became the target of ridicule on the late-night talk shows, adding to Dean's embarrassment.”
As Meghan Daum pointed out in the LA Times, “Clinton is a shouter. Not the bellicose kind, like Sanders, but the testy, scolding kind. Her rhetorical effect sometimes brings to mind a parent counting slowly to three in an effort to get a recalcitrant child to stop whatever it is she's doing right now.”

In fact, the problem in each of these cases is that politicians appeal to their immediately present audience rather than the even larger one watching it all on television. It’s a rational thing to note and talk about. You might want to even add the nearly eight years of professorial lecturing we’ve gotten from the current president who seems to think we are all his students.

And since substance and integrity no longer matter much in American politics, journalists should be at least allowed to cover it all more like the sporting event it has become.

Finally, there’s the way that some of today’s activists seem more concerned about the meaning of a Harvard Law School symbol than they do with how the law is actually being executed against blacks in urban areas. Or that a sign on a university building has to be taken down but signs of poverty can be ignored.

Of course, back in the 1960s we had our problems as well. I was at a Student Non-Violent Coordinating meeting when Stokely Carmichael came and said we whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement. Two of my activist friends went to prison and three committed suicide after losing their way in the movement. There were many activists who fought vigorously against the Vietnam War but didn’t have any time for ethnic discrimination or anti-poverty issues. And as a 220 pound iron-pumping 30-something, I was confronted four times at demonstrations by protestors who were certain I was an uncover cop or FBI agent.

So we could get it wrong, too. But lots of people were doing lots of different things in lots of different ways. And the point was to produce change, not merely to prove one’s own virtue. So you were active also because, with luck, you could actually change how people thought about things.

I knew early on that this was possible because I had changed. In fall of 1965 I wrote, “The public must be conditioned to the realities of the situation. They must be made to understand the necessity of the undramatic, sufficient, and lengthy application of American force in South Vietnam.” Less than a year later I wrote that LBJ’s “Vietnam escapade has been an abject failure.”

One thing I learned from that experience was not to be too hard on people who hadn’t figured it all out yet. Or who still believed the lies of those at the top.

Today, it too often feels like both liberal and conservative America considers politics an evangelical religion where there are those who have been saved and those who will go to hell. And the ones that don’t think like you are in the latter group.

Which is why so many liberals are willing to define their faith as encompassing things like gay marriage and abortion, while ignoring the economic issues that once made their politics powerful.

For more than three decades, as their own social and monetary status has improved, many liberals have been drifting away from concern over economic matters, creating a huge cultural gap between themselves and the middle and lower class. This has opened the way for the right wing success now peaking with the candidacy of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Liberals didn’t lose the support of the less successful white American; rather they tossed it away.

Part of the secret of successful politics is not to condemn those whom you’re trying to convince. Especially since there aren’t enough liberals around to have a majority just by themselves. They may get into heaven, but they won’t make it to the White House.

Besides, insisting on the rights word and right symbolism at best only gets you that. Picking the right issues and the right actions and forming alliances even with those who don’t think and talk right about everything can get some really important change.

I learned this as an admirer of the community organizer Saul Alinsky, someone who wouldn’t be too well regarded in liberal circles these days. A short time before his death in 1972, he was interviewed by Playboy. A few excerpts:
PLAYBOY: The assumption behind the Administration's Silent Majority thesis is that most of the middle class is inherently conservative. How can even the most skillful organizational tactics unite them in support of your radical goals?

ALINSKY: Conservative? That's a crock of crap. Right now they're nowhere. But they can and will go either of two ways in the coming years -- to a native American fascism or toward radical social change. Right now they're frozen, festering in apathy, leading what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation:" They're oppressed by taxation and inflation, poisoned by pollution, terrorized by urban crime, frightened by the new youth culture, baffled by the computerized world around them. They've worked all their lives to get their own little house in the suburbs, their color TV, their two cars, and now the good life seems to have turned to ashes in their mouths. Their personal lives are generally unfulfilling, their jobs unsatisfying, they've succumbed to tranquilizers and pep pills, they drown their anxieties in alcohol, they feel trapped in long term endurance marriages or escape into guilt-ridden divorces. They're losing their kids and they're losing their dreams. They're alienated, depersonalized, without any feeling of participation in the political process, and they feel rejected and hopeless.

They're the first to live in a total mass-media-oriented world, and every night when they turn on the TV and the news comes on, they see the almost unbelievable hypocrisy and deceit and even outright idiocy of our national leaders and the corruption and disintegration of all our institutions, from the police and courts to the White House itself. Their society appears to be crumbling and they see themselves as no more than small failures within the larger failure. All their old values seem to have deserted them, leaving them rudderless in a sea of social chaos. Believe me, this is good organizational material.

The despair is there; now it's up to us to go in and rub raw the sores of discontent, galvanize them for radical social change. We'll give them a way to participate in the democratic process, a way to exercise their rights as citizens and strike back at the establishment that oppresses them, instead of giving in to apathy. We'll start with specific issues -- taxes, jobs, consumer problems, pollution -- and from there move on to the larger issues: pollution in the Pentagon and the Congress and the board rooms of the megacorporations. Once you organize people, they'll keep advancing from issue to issue toward the ultimate objective: people power. We'll not only give them a cause, we'll make life goddamn exciting for them again -- life instead of existence. We'll turn them on.

PLAYBOY: You don't expect them to beware of radicals bearing gifts?

ALINSKY: Sure, they'll be suspicious, even hostile at first. That's been my experience with every community I've ever moved into. My critics are right when they call me an outside agitator. When a community, any kind of community, is hopeless and helpless, it requires somebody from outside to come in and stir things up. That's my job -- to unsettle them, to make them start asking questions, to teach them to stop talking and start acting, because the fat cats in charge never hear with their ears, only through their rears. I'm not saying it's going to be easy; thermopolitically, the middle classes are rooted in inertia, conditioned to look for the safe and easy way, afraid to rock the boat. But they're beginning to realize that boat is sinking and unless they start bailing fast, they're going to go under with it. The middle class today is really schizoid, torn between its indoctrination and its objective situation. The instinct of middle-class people is to support and celebrate the status quo, but the realities of their daily lives drill it home that the status quo has exploited and betrayed them.

PLAYBOY: Mobilizing middle-class America would seem quite a departure for you after years of working with poverty-stricken black and white slum dwellers. Do you expect suburbia to prove fertile ground for your organizational talents?

ALINSKY: Yes, and it's shaping up as the most challenging fight of my career, and certainly the one with the highest stakes. Remember, people are people whether they're living in ghettos, reservations or barrios, and the suburbs are just another kind of reservation -- a gilded ghetto. One thing I've come to realize is that any positive action for radical social change will have to be focused on the white middle class, for the simple reason that this is where the real power lies.

… It's quite true that the Back of the Yards Council, which 20 years ago, was waving banners attacking all forms of discrimination and intolerance, today doesn't want Negroes, just like other middle-class white communities. Over the years they've won victory after victory against poverty and exploitation and they've moved steadily up the ladder from the have-nots to the have-a-little-want-mores until today they've thrown in their lot with the haves. This is a recurring pattern; you can see it in the American labor movement, which has gone from John L. Lewis to George Meany in one generation. Prosperity makes cowards of us all, and Back of the Yards is no exception. They've entered the nightfall of success, and their dreams of a better world have been replaced by nightmares of fear -- fear of change, fear of losing their material goods, fear of blacks….

The the ultimate key to acceptance by a community is respect for the dignity of the individual you're dealing with. If you feel smug or arrogant or condescending, he'll sense it right away, and you might as well take the next plane out. The first thing you've got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community. Because no matter how imaginative your tactics, how shrewd your strategy, you're doomed before you even start if you don't win the trust and respect of the people; and the only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them. And without that respect there's no communication, no mutual confidence and no action.

… The middle class actually feels more defeated and lost today on a wide range of issues than the poor do. And this creates a situation that's supercharged with both opportunity and danger. There's a second revolution seething beneath the surface of middle-class America -- the revolution of a bewildered, frightened and as-yet-inarticulate group of desperate people groping for alternatives -- for hope. Their fears and their frustrations over their impotence can turn into political paranoia and demonize them, driving them to the right, making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday. The right would give them scapegoats for their misery -- blacks, hippies, Communists -- and if it wins, this country will become the first totalitarian state with a national anthem celebrating "the land of the free and the home of the brave."
I got my activist start with help from an Alinsky trained Presbyterian minister, learning early not only good strategies but the importance of treating everyone with respect, finding unity in specific issues rather than a general ideology, and approaching problems as a friendly human and not as a sociology professor sternly parading theories.

As I wrote some years later, “What if we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of ‘no fault justice.’ We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King's admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends.”

It’s not a bad way to start by bringing middle and lower class whites to the progressive agenda. Dump self righteous liberal evangelicalism and find issues that, by pursuing, can make friends with those they have been trained by the right to despise. Talk about middle class white pain instead of white privilege. Teach ethnic commonalities. Find what we share. And choose issues that will make things better for most - regardless of the color of their skin.

One of the other ways the 1960s were different was that we believed that if we worked hard enough in the right way things would get better. We have to recover that sense. Working together on things you didn’t realize you had in common is a great way to start.

It’s not our own virtue that need protecting; it is our common goals that need to be discovered and acted upon.


Dan Lynch said...

Very well said, Sam.

As one who studied history at LSU, I consider myself a disciple of Huey Long, not Saul Alinsky. But Huey and Saul seem to speak the same language. Huey was all about forming temporary alliances to get specific things done. Huey stayed away from divisive social issues and instead focused on helping the average guy. "Every man a king."

wellbasically said...

Never read that story of your transformation before. Thank you for publishing it here.

I figured out a while ago that white privilege was a weapon that rich white people used to beat poor white people. The rich understood that in their world, a black man or would always be at a disadvantage socially, whereas a poor white is a potential threat.