By now you have probably read, or at least heard about, Rebecca Solnit’s piece on TomDispatch titled The Rain on Our Parade. Salon republished it as Hey left wing: Quit griping.
Solnit is frustrated that us radicals are constant Debbie Downers who do nothing but bitch and moan. We can never see anything positive. We are ebullience crushing, sanctimonious, disgruntled, sour, bitter, narcissistic, privileged, fools who lack any compassion for the people who will be helped by the incremental policy changes that Democrats will bring us.
I will give Solnit this. I think that radicals are too often better at pointing out problems than offering solutions. I wish that the Criminal (in)Justice Committee spent more time talking about restorative justice and other alternatives to incarceration. People need a positive vision to fight for and not just enemies to fight against.
But the Democratic Party and incremental policy change are not that vision.
I used to be a liberal. I was brought up to believe that the people who voted Republican were all ignorant, racist, homophobic, Christian fundamentalists who were beyond redemption. The implication being that people who voted for Democrats were not those things. The “good” people voted for Democrats and our only option for change was to cross our fingers and hope more people would pick the Democratic Team.
I was excited that my first election put Clinton in office. He wasn’t 250 years old. He wasn’t going to arm Contras. He talked about civil rights and justice. I thought things were going to be different. But they weren’t. In fact, in a lot of ways they got a hell of a lot worse. And I knew that Clinton was about as good as it was going to get. It was a horrible and paralyzing realization.
Contrary to Solnit’s assertion that us radicals fixate on international issues and ignore the national issues that Democrats are better on, it wasn’t international issues that made me give up on Democrats. It was studying drug policy. It was understanding that Bill Clinton was arguably the worst president on the drug war. It was understanding how racist our criminal (in)justice system is and how Democrats (including our current vice president) were front and center pushing the policies that have 7 million people under correctional supervision.
Studying drug policy opened my eyes to other things to. Like that a whole lot of libertarians who voted Republican were actually paying attention to an issue that most liberals didn’t (and still don’t) seem to notice. Here liberals were pretending to care more about poor people and people of color, but (at best) ignoring one of the systems that targets them mercilessly. Suddenly, I had to reassess my view of who was the enemy and who I had common ground with. Suddenly, I found myself in conversations with libertarians and conservatives and people who defied our limited categories.
Losing my liberal baggage and walking away from electoral politics is not about hopelessness or nihilism or sanctimony. Walking away from electoral politics was what finally started to give me some hope. If I kept smashing my head against our electoral system, I would have permanent brain damage from all the political concussions. It isn’t “an excuse for not really doing much.” It was the opposite. It allowed me to see possibilities that politics keeps hidden. It allowed me to start building the unlikely relationships that the defenders of our hideous systems are rightly terrified of.
I find it incredibly ironic that Solnit says that radicals are being divisive, that we fall into a “cartoonish black and white.” It isn’t just that she says it in an article that has such contempt for us and has understandably pissed a lot of people off. It is that she also talks about how we have to “counter the Republican right.” It is that she talks about how we have to be intelligent and empathetic, unlike those people. How is that not divisive? I no longer see the right as Republican. I certainly don’t see it as the people who vote Republican any more than those who vote Democrat, at least not all of them.
I see the problem as the systems that crush us all – the criminal (in)justice system, the school system that is designed to teach us the futility of resistance, the corporate behemoths who bleed us dry, the thugs with guns here and abroad – and whoever it is that upholds those systems. Any president, or anyone who wants to be president, has the job of conserving those systems. And that means that they are the problem.
I get that sometimes a small policy change can make a real difference in someone’s life. And I do not begrudge the people who work for those changes, even though I believe that they are operating on a gross misunderstanding of how change happens. If a movement is big enough, if the culture shifts, the change will come no matter who is in office. But a politician cannot make change (even if we think they want to) without the movement. The movement is what is important. Solnit herself uses the Montgomery bus boycott as an example. That wasn’t an election. That was direct action. That was a movement.
It is so frustrating to see people buy into the right/left, Democrat/Republican divides that have so little meaning. I can’t stand watching people waste their time begging at the doors of the powerful and watching them be worn down by it. That is what I find divisive. That is what I find hope killing. That is what keeps us from resolving problems and coming up with creative solutions.
I get frustrated too, Rebecca. Sometimes I need to let out a good rant. I live in DC. I am surrounded by party loyalist “progressives” who focus myopically on the few scraps Obama has thrown and close their eyes to the damage he has done with bombs, bailouts and a total disregard for civil liberties. Sometimes the only response I am capable of is to puke out a damage list. Sometimes, when someone accuses me of being a brat for not being grateful that the person who cut off my arm gave me a band-aid, I really lose my shit.
So I won’t hold all the insults against you. But I hope the insults and uncharitable assumptions are out of your system now. Because every moment we spend being frustrated at each other’s frustration is one less moment we spend building the relationships and movements that might actually do something.