Category: Social Movements

In Defense of Optimism: How I Became Disillusioned with Disillusionment

martin-luther-king-and-malcolm-x1This blog gets its name from a famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote:  “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Today I’m thinking about the hope and faith held by Dr. King and the importance of optimism.

I read a great story about King today:

Harry Belafonte tells a story in his amazing memoir, ‘My Song,’ about King being challenged by his SCLC deputies on his accelerating radicalism generally, and the Poor People’s Campaign specifically, just a week before he died…  Belafonte quotes King telling the group, gathered at the singer/actor/activist’s New York apartment: ‘What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.’  When Belafonte asks what that means they should do, an exhausted King tells him:   ‘I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.’

This is the kind of optimism that looks with wide open eyes at the reality of the world and decides not to dismiss it and withdraw from it, but to engage it and reshape it.  King realizes he is fighting to be part of an America plagued by poverty and war.  But he not only believes that marginalized people can be included in this society, but puts them in the role of heroes: those who through their liberation and inclusion can lead the movements needed to heal it.

Many activists are cynical people.  It’s hard not to be, organizing reluctant people to fight uphill battles against a powerful status quo.  Anger is an important motivator.  But people are never truly called to action without that seemingly-impossible combination of anger and hope: An understanding of the world as it is, and a deep belief in a vision of the world as it should be.

In fact, optimism itself is fundamentally necessary to the spread of a worldview that supports progressive change.

Conservatism is deeply dependent on pessimism.  The foundation of the right-wing narrative is pessimism: basically those promiscuous gay birth-control-using kids these days and all those dangerous criminal brown and black people are taking over America, crumbling its moral foundation and taking all our tax money to spend on drugs.  Therefore, beef up the prisons and the military, dig your heels in on traditional practices, and slash the social safety net.  The fact that most people believe teen birth rates, drug use, and violent crime are rising right now when they’re actually all plummeting in the US is a testament to the power of conservative fear messaging.  Every time you spread the idea that this country is going to shit, a Republican gets elected somewhere.

I was raised with pretty cynical politics.  For most of my life I believed that America was irredeemably racist, materialistic and violent.  My political consciousness developed largely through 3 national moments: The dismantling of civil liberties in the early 2000’s and horrifying start of the Iraq War, the failed push for immigration reform in 2006 when I started watching cable news and was stunned by the swell of public hatred towards immigrant families, and the financial crash in 2008 and following years of heartless austerity as I worked to get a public education in a system that was crumbling around me.  Disillusionment came easy.

It took me actually doing work to make me disillusioned with disillusionment.  I worked on campaigns that beat bank lobbyists to pass legislation raising tens of billions of dollars in federal student aid and defeated big oil at the ballot box in California.  I stood behind Nancy Pelosi at her press conference in San Francisco to announce the passage of historic health care reform.  I helped organize Oakland residents to force big developers to guarantee thousands of living-wage local-hire jobs targeted at those who needed them most.  I turned out the vote to raise enough revenue to finally balance California’s budget so the youth I work with today are dealing with how to restore budget cuts in their schools, not how to make them.

And sure, I was a very small part of each of these victories and I know they each would have happened without me.  But not without a lot of people like me.  The real transformation was not the impact I had on this work, but the impact this work had on me.  It made me see myself not as someone passively affected by the conditions of the world around me, but as an agent of change.  It made me believe in the power of people like me, young people and people of color, to be neither the villains nor the victims in the story of my country, but the heroes.  I began to believe in a different story, one that ended happy.

I deeply believe that the forces of peace and equality and enlightenment throughout history tend to win in the end.  I’ll admit I’m going on faith and a loose grasp of history given to me by what’s left of California’s public education system.  But I believe victory in the battles we fight today will one day feel just as inevitable as the battles fought by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

Practicing optimism is not just about motivating yourself or feeling happy.  It’s about changing the dominant narrative about our world.  It’s about telling stories of hope where we are the good guys and we win.

So the next time you see some corny Upworthy link that says “This 3 minute video will restore your faith in humanity” maybe you should watch it.  We could all use our faith in humanity restored sometimes.

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Playing the Inside Game as an Outsider

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This week I read two of the most interesting articles I’ve seen in a while.  The first is an interview with the founder of Health Care for America Now (HCAN), the alliance of major organizations created to pass healthcare reform, easily the biggest public policy change in a generation, which closed its doors at the end of 2013.  The second is a profile of the Working Families Party (WFP), which many credit with the surprise victory of Bill de Blasio, the populist mayor-elect of New York, who ran on a message of fighting economic inequality and is seen as a symbol of a new era in America’s largest city.  You should really read them both yourself, it’s hard for me to do them justice.  But both pieces made me reflect on the idea of “the inside game” and “the outside game” in politics

Some activists believe only in the inside game (lobbying, legislative analysis, running for office), while some believe only in the outside game (organizing, protesting, moving the public through mass communications).  Like many others, I believe social change is only possible with a combination of both.

But more importantly, I believe that it must be the same people, the same organizations, at the same time, that play both the inside game and the outside game.  We cannot be content to have some people within our movements doing electoral politics and others doing grassroots organizing.  The inside players will become out of touch and unaccountable to the grassroots, while the outside players will become marginalized, ineffective and powerless.  We have to build organizations that can play the inside game as outsiders.  Organizations that engage with the Democratic Party and have the weight to sway elections, but that maintain independence and don’t take marching orders from Democratic elected officials.

From the profile on the WFP:

“Like many who came out of the 1960s left, Cantor came to realize that community organizing and movement building were both indispensable and insufficient to win lasting change. He still identifies with those movements, but his distinctive aptitude has been to find ways in which the electoral process can advance progressive goals. “I feel we’re in a long line of people going back to the abolitionists: the populists, the suffragists, the labor activists, the civil-rights workers,” he says. “These were all extra-parliamentary movements. We strive to be like them, and we recognize we have to contest for these values through the state, through elections. That’s what most people think politics is. That’s our role.”

But of course elections don’t lead movements, movements precede elections.  HCAN began building the momentum for healthcare reform in 2007, while the presidential election was over a year away.  They managed to bring all the Democratic candidates together around roughly the same healthcare plan.  Edwards’, Clinton’s, and Obama’s policy proposals on healthcare were surprisingly similar, and this was no accident.  Even the differences between candidates disappeared once it came to actually passing the law (Obama opposed the individual mandate as a candidate, but ended up adopting it and fighting for it as president).

However, when movements and elections are timed well, they provide a point of access for millions who would never otherwise participate in movement-building activities like attending rallies.  An electoral win becomes a symbolic moment, a turning point that gives people the feeling of an inevitable tide turning.  Bill de Blasio’s stunning election in New York City may have been the first time average people felt like the momentum created by the Occupy movement had led to a real victory.  After 15 years of building the infrastructure to win progressive victories at the ballot box outside of the Democratic Party establishment, the WFP was perfectly positioned as public outrage over economic inequality had finally begun to take hold.

The hard part is that movements depend on perfect timing.  Movements must be sustained by organizations, but it’s immensely difficult to start a new organization in time to capture a movement’s moment of opportunity (at least an organization of the size necessary to have real power).  So perhaps the most effective large-scale movement-building organizations are those like HCAN and the WFP, which emerge by bringing together coalitions of existing community groups and labor unions in order to scale up rapidly.  These organizations had membership bases, relationships with key local players, experienced staff, and a fundraising machine before they even launched.

Yet simply getting all the key players in the same room is not nearly enough.  Some of the biggest failings in the campaign for health care reform (loss of the public option, inadequate subsidies to make insurance plans affordable) came from the Obama administration dismissing the value of the outside game.  Despite Obama’s community organizing background and his team’s talking the talk about everyday citizens getting involved, in practice the administration has taken a very insular, inside game approach to governing.  With HCAN taking a subdued approach and all the outside game action coming from the Tea Party, there was virtually no pressure on the left to hold firm to the principles of healthcare reform.

From the profile on HCAN:

“This was a huge misunderstanding by the Obama folks about power and political dynamics, just a fundamental miscalculation and blindness that was really destructive.  The president’s personality is to be conciliatory. Until the summer of 2011 and the grand bargain collapsed, he always wanted to be conciliatory. He also had people like Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina in the White House who wanted to totally control everything and did not want any on the left pushing them. But power works differently. They would have been in a much stronger position if they could say, “We’re being pushed really, really, really hard from the left, and so this is the best we can do.”  And then cut final deals when they had to.”

Without the outside game holding a hard line, those playing the inside game are impossibly weak in negotiations.  But being an ideologically pure and independent outsider is not enough either.  Frederick Douglass famously said “power concedes nothing without a demand”.  Yet too often our lists of demands are empty noise shouted from outside the building, barely heard by smirking suits inside the halls of power.  Demands are only demands when they come with credible threats to their targets.  One of the most credible threats is an electoral machine that actually has the capacity to end the career of a politician that crosses it.  That was the source of the Tea Party’s power, and is similarly the source of the WFP’s power.

Maybe the biggest lesson from these two stories is that our work is never done.  A few weeks ago, Health Care for America Now closed its doors, declaring its mission accomplished.  Of course it’s difficult to keep a coalition together after the campaign that created it is won.  But even with the Affordable Care Act, the US healthcare system will likely continue to lag behind most industrialized nations in affordability, access and quality.  If the Working Families Party had gone home satisfied after their signature victory of ending New York’s harsh drug sentencing laws in 2004, they would have never made it to their golden opportunity last year in the aftermath of Occupy.  But this speaks to the fundamental difference between the WFP and HCAN: The WFP grew from a vision of an organization, not a vision of a campaign.  An organization that can play the inside game and win a seat at the table of power while maintaining its independence and values through an authentic grassroots base on the outside.

We don’t need more inside game organizations or more outside game organizations.  What we need are organizations that can do both, that can stand on power and on principle.

Who Jacked the Word “Responsibility”?

Conservative politicians use the word “responsibility” a lot, especially to sell policies that punish people—for being poor, for being immigrants, for being sexually active women, etc.  If you’re poor, it’s your individual responsibility to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and get more money, it’s not our social responsibility to give you food stamps so you don’t like… die and whatnot.

Effective political messaging taps into the universal values we hold like freedom, fairness, compassion, etc. that go deeper than our political affiliations.  That’s how you move people who might otherwise disagree with you.

Responsibility messaging resonates strongly with me.  Responsibility was the single most important value I was raised with.  If I could magically create a wordcloud of everything that came out of my mother’s mouth when I was a child (after removing some heavy cussing) “responsibility” would probably be the most commonly uttered word in my formative years.

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My mom’s friend Dana babysitting me and my brother at our home in Oakland in the 90’s

But I was taught a different kind of responsibility than the right wing likes to talk about.  I had a single mom who was working, going to school, and raising children all at the same time.  I admired her individual grit and determination, but also the responsibility of her circle of friends who all pitched in to collectively help raise me and my little brother because my mother gave birth earlier than they did.  Now my mom owns her own home and has an empty nest, and it seems like every month she’s letting a new friend crash at her house until they get back on their feet.  My understanding of the word responsibility comes from the incredible women I was raised by.  It means stepping up to care for our communities in times of need.

The kind of responsibility I learned growing up was not my responsibility to myself, but my responsibility to others, to my family, to my community.  In elementary school I was packing my own lunch, doing my own laundry.  These are things you can reasonably expect a 9 year old to do, the basic tasks of taking care of oneself to not be a burden on others.  But by the time I was a teenager, greater responsibilities were expected of me.  I was cooking dinner every night for the family, making sure bills were paid on time every month.  I stepped up because my family needed me.

I think the right-wing is stuck in what I would call Elementary School Responsibility.  It’s a worldview where responsibility is not about community, but about the individual.  Or as my mom would say, “How to wipe your own ass”.  In their worldview, responsibility is about taking care of yourself alone.  It’s making sure you personally go to a good college, get a job where you make a lot of money, own things like houses, and don’t end up in jail.  Apparently if you get any help doing any of these things, you’ll never learn the true meaning of responsibility.

Unfortunately, this definition of the word “Responsibility” has become the dominant one in America.  But it wasn’t always this way.  On a hunch I looked up historical trends in the usage of the phrases “Your responsibility” and “Our responsibility” in American texts using Google NGram.

YourResponsibilityNGram

“Our responsibility” was the more common usage through most of our history.  The phrase suggests collective action to care for the needs of a larger community.  It grew gradually over time, with spikes during national crises like WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII.    “Your responsibility”, meaning taking care of yourself, takes off suddenly in the early 1970’s and becomes the dominant usage at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution.

Growth of real hourly compensation for production/nonsupervisory workers and productivity, 1948–2011What’s fascinating about this graph is that it mirrors historical trends in income inequality, union membership, the real value of the minimum wage, and other economic data that shows that sometime in the early 1970’s there was a change of direction in America.  Something snapped, where average working families’ incomes no longer grew along with the nation’s economic productivity, as they had throughout American history until that point.  For the last 40 years we’ve been moving rapidly away from a “We’re in this together” economy and towards a “You’re on your own” economy.

 

Those terms were coined by economist Jared Bernstein, but we could just as easily call it an “Our Responsibility” economy and a “Your Responsibility” economy.

This didn’t happen naturally.  Somebody jacked the word “responsibility”.  Or more accurately, a whole generation of right-wing politicians, academics, lobbyists and media commentators did, intentionally and effectively, as part of a comprehensive effort to slash the social safety net, gut regulations, cut taxes on the wealthy and lower wages.  Words matter.  As a people, we’ve allowed our language to be corrupted, and have abandoned “our responsibility” in favor of “your responsibility”.

Now I think making sure over 30 million people can see a doctor when they get sick even if they can’t afford it is the definition of responsibility.  I also think the Republican idea of responsibility these days looks like this:

But we can take back the meaning of responsibility, just as we can correct our course after four decades driving down the path of widening inequality and cold individualism.  We can provide education for our children, take care of our loved ones when they’re sick, and allow our elders to rest.  We can, and in fact, we must.  It’s our responsibility.

The Real Reason Obama Deports So Many Immigrants

Yesterday I read a post on the Daily Kos that included a searing critique of the 4th of July holiday by Frederick Douglass.  The article mentioned Douglass’s feud with Abraham Lincoln over the president’s stubborn dedication to the policy of capturing and returning runaway slaves from the South, even while he advocated for abolition.

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I was struck by a similarity to President Obama, who often cites Lincoln as his personal role model.   Obama recognizes the need to create a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who moved here to find a better life, but now live in constant fear of deportation.  He made the issue the most important policy priority of his second term.  But at the same time, his administration is deporting immigrants at a faster pace than any president in history, causing hardship and heartbreak among separated families.  Moral inconsistency?  Political necessity?  Who knows.

But here’s the real reason Obama deports so many immigrants.  He’s the president of the United States.  That means a majority of American voters had to like him better than the other guy.  The problem with a lot of American leftists is that they live in places like Berkeley and don’t get out much.  They just don’t come in contact with the solid majority of Americans who support drone strikes, militarizing the border, and all sorts of other nasty things.

Honestly, ask yourself: Could I be elected president of the United States?   I couldn’t– not by a long shot.

Anyone who can be elected president is either:

a) Not really that progressive, or

b) Acts like a centrist really convincingly

In Obama’s case  I think it’s a combination of both.  Generally I would say Obama is better than the average modern Democratic president of the United States.  So I think it’s nice that he’s done more progressive stuff than the guy who signed NAFTA and DOMA, deregulated the banking system and slashed the social safety net.  But I’m just not going to expect him to be the messianic love-child of Karl Marx and Gandhi.

Someone recently told me a quote that struck me:  “Those who are easily disillusioned were suffering from too many illusions in the first place”.

My main point is one I’ve harped on before.

Elected officials shouldn’t be your movement leaders.  They should be your targets.  Even elected officials who are your allies should be your targets, because you can often push them to do more than they would otherwise (see Obama, DREAMer sit-ins, Deferred Action).

What I’m trying to say here is don’t expect Obama to become Frederick Douglass.  Obama is Lincoln.  Frederick Douglass could never be elected president of the United States.

Just be Frederick Douglass.  We could really use one right now.

 

Why Immigration Reform Matters More Than You Think

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You could fill a high school yearbook with superlatives about different issues within the broader progressive movement: Most Likely to See a Victory This Year, Most Important Total Lost Cause, Best Facebook Profile Picture, etc.

Foreign Born Chart

Today I want to cast my vote for “Most Strategic”.  I’d define “strategic” as the issue that focusing resources on to win a major victory now will most build the long-term strength of our movement and set us up to be more effective in taking on everything else.

We’ve all heard the talk about how immigrant communities won the election for Obama in 2012 and the Republican Party is doomed.  There’s some truth in it.  The percent of Americans born in another country is the highest it’s been since the 1920’s.   The combined political muscle of those who are immigrants, live in immigrant neighborhoods or have immigrant family members is pretty hefty.  Immigrants tend to have more progressive views on most issues than people born in America.  And American-born Latinos and Asians are even more progressive than their parents.

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But I think we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Latino and Asian voter turnout is still really low.  Latinos and Asians are shamefully underrepresented in Congress, more so than African-Americans.  Community organizations in Latino and Asian neighborhoods tend to be weaker than those in black neighborhoods.

Lack of political power is a cycle, a positive feedback loop.  When a community is disenfranchised and oppressed, people see no value in engaging in a political system that shits on them.  This weakens their organizations, results in scarce political representation, and an absence from the negotiating table over policy.  This leads to being shafted even further by policy and budget decisions, which further heightens the community’s distrust of politics.

It takes a major social movement to break this cycle.  The Civil Rights Movement and its echoes grew political power within the black community.  The civil rights generation saw their collective action directly result in change in their daily lives.  They saw powerful institutions panic in the face of their strength and scramble to maintain the status quo.  And they saw themselves win.

It’s not emphasized enough that winning is fucking important.  People like winning.  They feel afraid, powerless, and insignificant until they win.  Even incremental, incomplete victories create organizations and develop leaders and build the confidence to win again.

It’s no accident that despite a massive coordinated effort to suppress them at the ballot box, black voter turnout rates in 2012 may have surpassed whites for the first time ever.  The dominant media narrative said the novelty of voting for the first black president had worn off and turnout would plummet.  Maybe true for white liberals.  But for the black community, it was no novelty.  It was a moment in history where many people of color felt a sense of their political power and the motivation to win again.

We won’t see the true power of American immigrant communities until we win a major victory.  The Chicano Movement was smaller and won far fewer victories than the Civil Rights Movement.   Immigrants’ rights activists have seen a few small victories lately like deferred action for DREAMers.  But something big has yet to come.  And when it does, the result will be a shift in our political landscape.

I expect the passage of comprehensive immigration reform to create a shift in communities like the ones I organize in.  I believe folks will see the power of taking to the streets and demanding justice, and many more will join future struggles over education, income inequality, even climate change.

Now I’m not saying everyone drop whatever you’re doing and work on immigration reform.  I am saying leaders and participants in all progressive movements should be paying close attention to what happens here, because it affects all of us.

Even symbolic displays of solidarity make an impact, especially on issues strongly dependent on winning public support.  When a black civil rights leader, a union president, or an LGBT rights activist publicly takes a stand on the issue of immigration, it signals to their followers that their struggles for dignity are bound to each other.

For example, Bill McKibben, one of America’s foremost leaders of the movement to stop climate change, recently wrote an op-ed in the LA Times supporting immigration reform.  Environmentalists and immigration advocates haven’t always been BFFs.  But McKibben gets it:

Election after election, native-born and long-standing citizens pull the lever for climate deniers, for people who want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, for the politicians who take huge quantities of cash from the Koch brothers and other oil barons. By contrast, a 2012 report by the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza found that Latinos were eager for environmental progress. Seventy-seven percent of Latino voters think climate change is already happening, compared with just 52% of the general population; 92% of Latinos think we have “a moral responsibility to take care of God’s creation here on Earth.”  These numbers reflect, in part, the reality of life for those closer to the bottom of our economy. Latinos are 30% more likely to end up in the hospital for asthma, in part because they often live closer to sources of pollution.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign came under fire last week for telling one of their speakers at their rally in front of the Supreme Court not to mention that he was an undocumented immigrant.  The largest gay rights group in the country should know that “coming out” as undocumented is a key strategy for moving hearts and minds, because like with LGBT issues, people are most likely to change their minds if they know someone personally affected.

 

Listen, all I’m saying is, this shit is really important, not just for undocumented immigrants, but for all of us.  So try to say nice things and don’t fuck it up, okay?

Where is Our Modern Martin? (It’s Not Barack)

One might say the ultimate dream of progressives is to replicate the Civil Rights Movement and the accompanying progress on a range of political issues that occurred throughout the 1960’s (and to some extent 1970’s).  In fact, I like to talk a lot about how I believe we’re at the beginning of a “movement time”– a decade or so where social change advances quickly on many fronts.   (Here’s my case for why I think conditions are ripe.)  But if so, it seems like a problem that the face of progressive America is Barack Obama.  (I’d challenge anybody to come up with someone else who they can honestly call the face of progressive America.)

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2013, which also happens to be President Obama’s second inauguration, like many in the media, I’m irresistibly drawn to compare and contrast the two men.

I’m not angry about Obama being sworn in on MLK’s bible.  I’m a strong Obama supporter and I think by historical standards of American presidents, he’s been great for progressives.

But Barack Obama has done a good job as an American president, not as an American social movement leader.  As much as the Obama team has adopted the language of organizing, as much as he painstakingly emphases passages in his speeches like “this has never been about just one election” and  “this campaign belongs to you”, Barack Obama left the community organizing business decades ago.  He inspires people to come to events to see him speak, and to wait in lines to vote for him.  He can claim the most “liked” picture in Facebook history.  But he does not inspire people to march on Washington together or engage in civil disobedience to demand change (except the Tea Party).  Not a personal failing.  That’s just not what presidents do.

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President Obama sits inside the bus made famous by Rosa Parks

Barack Obama is not our Martin Luther King.  Barack Obama is our Lyndon Johnson, to a yet-undiscovered Martin Luther King.

I’m really interested in his new organization that he’s been asking his supporters to join, the revamped OFA– Organizing for Action.  I think it could be an innovative tool for advancing the president’s legislative agenda in Congress– it’s got a big list and can probably generate insane numbers of phone calls and petitions etc.  But I don’t think anybody seriously believes it’s going to be a movement-building organization like MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  It’s run by people with the Campaign Brain, and will never be truly independent of the Democratic Party, will never have people willing to be beaten and jailed and shot for it.

At the time of his death, King was not just the de facto leader of the civil rights movement, but also one of the nation’s most prominent labor/antipoverty activists, one of America’s premier antiwar activists.  He did not need to engage in fiscal cliff negotiations.  His job was instead to fuel the burning engine of pure human will that drove forward social progress– and allow the axles and cogs of the legislative machinery to be ground along by the miserable grunts of the United States Congress.  As a social movement activist, he was not constrained by the demands of re-election, by the pull of donors, by the gravity of his office.  He could say things like this, that Barack Obama could never say:

“In the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers, as I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.

But they ask — and rightly so — ‘what about Vietnam?’ They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

He could take unequivocal stands for justice without having to hedge his words while simultaneously awkwardly holding the reins of a government whose laws dictate separating undocumented immigrant parents from their children and sending suspected enemy combatants to detainee camps.  The leader of a movement cannot also be the Commander in Chief (unless his name rhymes with Schmitler).

We don’t seem to have our time’s Martin– a powerful, independent, multi-issue voice of the American Left, committed to organization and movement building.  Maybe instead we have an equally important behind-the-scenes figure that I’m too inexperienced or unimportant to know about– a modern Ella Baker or Bayard Rustin.  Maybe the army of paid staff of advocacy organizations made possible by the nonprofit industrial complex has replaced our need for a few big leaders as the pillars of social movements.  Maybe we don’t need leaders at all anymore because of the interwebz and tweets and whatnot.

But I do feel like many of the shortcomings of progress in Obama’s first term were due to a lack of outside social movement.  They were due to Obama being the face of the left, the glowing messiah of 2008 who allowed movement activists to chill out and let Barack take care of it.  I believe the first black president is part of King’s legacy.  But I think a new generation of leaders of organizations within an independent movement for equality, peace and freedom would be a more important legacy.

How Come We Don’t Have Bestselling Novels About Class Struggle Anymore?

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Like millions of others looking for a relatively stress-free holiday family activity, I watched Les Miserables this weekend.

I was struck by an unshakeable feeling of the story’s old-ness.  Maybe it’s the way characters can fall absurdly in love with each other on sight or decide to die after performing tragic monologues.

But to me the clearest sign this story was written in a different time is its unapologetic political statement.  Les Miserables is not about economic inequality in 19th century Europe, it’s about a man’s struggle with personal transformation while being trapped in the sins of his past.  And yet it recognizes that the personal is political and the political is personal.  The suffering Jean Valjean experiences is wrapped in the context of the political and economic system he lives in and the villain is this system, even more than it is Javert.

This all made me wonder: Why don’t we have bestselling novels about class struggle anymore?

The original Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, despite political criticism, was a huge financial success in the western world of the 1800’s.  But today our popular culture seems to shy away from placing characters within a political context.

I want to focus on Hollywood here.  Novels and plays were the medium for popular culture consumption in the 19th century, but today movies and TV are the way regular people interact with storytelling.  (Also if I start talking about books I’d end up revealing, through my complete ignorance, the fact that I mostly stopped reading them at the age of 16.)

I did some research (okay, it was Wikipedia) on the top grossing movies of the 1990’s and 2000’s.  (1990 is the beginning of the After Lucas era, before which nothing is relevant).  Pretty much the closest we’ve got in the A.L. era is The Matrix, which gets points for symbolism.  Maybe at best some sort of vague, fuzzy critique of organized religion in the Da Vinci Code.  Avatar I guess says something about environmentalism and respecting indigenous people?
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If anything we’ve moved into the superhero movie era—where our heroes are individuals who seek not to change society, but to maintain law and order.  Perhaps the perfect counterexample to Les Miserables is the latest Batman movie.  Here the masses, discontent with inequality, are easily swayed by manipulative demagogue villains and can be whipped into a dangerous corrupt mob unless fought by a multi-billionaire heir of a military contracting corporation who can use its sheer firepower to restore the status quo.  The political statement is only that social change is at best irrelevant, or at worst an illusion, a convenient backdrop for the epic battles of heroes and villains.

So the more important question: Why?

Is the medium of film, with its badass special effects, simply more suited to the empty-headed action movie?  Or are writers and producers, or at least the most talented ones, becoming more politically apathetic?  Maybe consumers just don’t want to watch political stuff, so political critique is reserved for niche indie film festival audiences and never makes it to the mainstream.

Whatever the reason, this is a problem for those of us in political work.  Social movements cannot exist without artistic and cultural works to win the hearts and minds of the public.  A blockbuster movie is worth a thousand press releases and a bestselling novel is worth a million petitions.

This is a political organizer’s cry for help to the storytellers of the world:  Can we get some movies about the modern-day 99% up in here that don’t involve us getting our asses kicked by Bruce Wayne in a bat costume?