We talk about prefigurative politics, the idea that you can embody your goal. This is often discussed as doing your political organizing through direct-democratic means, but not as being heroic in your spirit or generous in your gestures.
Left-Wing Vote Suppression
One manifestation of this indiscriminate biliousness is the statement that gets aired every four years: that in presidential elections we are asked to choose the lesser of two evils. Now, this is not an analysis or an insight; it is a cliché, and a very tired one, and it often comes in the same package as the insistence that there is no difference between the candidates. You can reframe it, however, by saying: we get a choice, and not choosing at all can be tantamount in its consequences to choosing the greater of two evils.
But having marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to health care is not the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values perfectly. Yet people are willing to use this "evils" slogan to wrap up all the infinite complexity of the fate of the Earth and everything living on it and throw it away.
I don't love electoral politics, particularly the national variety. I generally find such elections depressing and look for real hope to the people-powered movements around the globe and subtler social and imaginative shifts toward more compassion and more creativity. Still, every four years we are asked if we want to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic. The usual reply on the left is that there's no difference between the two experiences and they prefer that Che Guevara give them a spa pedicure. Now, the Che pedicure is not actually one of the available options, though surely in heaven we will all have our toenails painted camo green by El Jefe.
Before that transpires, there's something to be said for actually examining the differences. In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it's that the people in question won't be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake.
An undocumented immigrant writes me, "The Democratic Party is not our friend: it is the only party we can negotiate with." Or as a Nevada activist friend put it, "Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don't vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters."
Presidential electoral politics is as riddled with corporate money and lobbyists as a long-dead dog with maggots, and deeply mired in the manure of the status quo -- and everyone knows it. (So stop those news bulletins, please.) People who told me back in 2000 that there was no difference between Bush and Gore never got back to me afterward.
I didn't like Gore, the ex-NAFTA-advocate and pro-WTO shill, but I knew that the differences did matter, especially to the most vulnerable among us, whether to people in Africa dying from the early impacts of climate change or to the shift since 2000 that has turned our nation from a place where more than two-thirds of women had abortion rights in their states to one where less than half of them have those rights. Liberals often concentrate on domestic policy, where education, health care, and economic justice matter more and where Democrats are sometimes decent, even lifesaving, while radicals are often obsessed with foreign policy to the exclusion of all else.
I'm with those who are horrified by Obama's presidential drone wars, his dismal inaction on global climate treaties, and his administration's soaring numbers of deportations of undocumented immigrants. That some of you find his actions so repugnant you may not vote for him, or that you find the whole electoral political system poisonous, I also understand.
At a demonstration in support of Bradley Manning this month, I was handed a postcard of a dead child with the caption "Tell this child the Democrats are the lesser of two evils." It behooves us not to use the dead for our own devices, but that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration policy. Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.
You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all US presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.
You don't have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.
Bitterness poisons you and it poisons the people you feed it to, and with it you drive away a lot of people who don't like poison. You don't have to punish those who do choose to participate. Actually, you don't have to punish anyone, period.
We Could Be Heroes
We are facing a radical right that has abandoned all interest in truth and fact. We face not only their specific policies, but a kind of cultural decay that comes from not valuing truth, not trying to understand the complexities and nuances of our situation, and not making empathy a force with which to act. To oppose them requires us to be different from them, and that begins with both empathy and intelligence, which are not as separate as we have often been told.
Being different means celebrating what you have in common with potential allies, not punishing them for often-minor differences. It means developing a more complex understanding of the matters under consideration than the cartoonish black and white that both left and the right tend to fall back on.
Dismissiveness is a way of disengaging from both the facts on the ground and the obligations those facts bring to bear on your life. As Michael Eric Dyson recently put it, "What is not good are ideals and rhetorics that don't have the possibility of changing the condition that you analyze. Otherwise, you're engaging in a form of rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation that has no consequence on the material conditions of actually existing poor people."
Nine years ago I began writing about hope, and I eventually began to refer to my project as "snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left." All that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that the differences don't matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is acceptable. If you're privileged you can then go home and watch bad TV or reinforce your grumpiness with equally grumpy friends.
The desperate are often much more hopeful than that—the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, that amazingly effective immigrant farmworkers' rights group, is hopeful because quitting for them would mean surrendering to modern-day slavery, dire poverty, hunger, or death, not cable-TV reruns. They're hopeful and they're powerful, and they went up against Taco Bell, McDonald's, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's, and they won.
The great human-rights activist Harvey Milk was hopeful, even though when he was assassinated gays and lesbians had almost no rights (but had just won two major victories in which he played a role). He famously said, "You have to give people hope."
In terms of the rights since won by gays and lesbians, where we are now would undoubtedly amaze Milk, and we got there step by step, one pragmatic and imperfect victory at a time -- with so many more yet to be won. To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.
There are really only two questions for activists: What do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as do it with generosity and kindness and style.
That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don't you? Make sure you're clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.
As in 2004 and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably invade northern Nevada on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union. She is, however, much more excited about 350.org's anti-oil-company campaign and the ten thousand faces of Occupy now changing the world. Also, she wrote some books. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.