Letter to a Discouraged Progressive

See you back here in the New Year!

The year 2010 has not been kind to the majority of the world’s people. From the streets of Chicago to those of Port-au-Prince, Kabul and Athens, life has gotten harder for ordinary folks, while the ruling elites have become even more tyrannical than at any time in recent memory.

Or so it seems from the vantage point of the Empire’s crumbling financial center where I live, New York City.

The hopes many around the world had placed in a Black American president have long faded; even Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters can’t muster a compelling call to the ballot box to stir his disgruntled base. Obama’s flaccid response to the crises around him and embrace of right-wing Clintonite triangulation has resurrected and even legitimized the right.

It seems that everywhere you turn there are reasons to despair—endless wars and occupations, ecological disaster beyond belief and of course, joblessness and the downward spiral of living conditions for workers everywhere. Overall, 17.9% of Black men are without a job, and in New York City only one in four Black men between 16 and 24 are employed.

It’s enough at times to make the most ardent hopemonger among us—that would be me—yield to the prevailing gloom and resignation. But if you allow your gaze to take in only the horrors of the system and you turn a blind eye to the developing responses and politicization, then defeat is almost certain and hopelessness is reaffirmed.

This isn’t a holiday cheer-up message. I’m a devout atheist with no faith in anything beyond the power of ordinary people to take collective action to change their circumstances. No, this is a blunt and urgent reminder that one of the most crucial weapons of the ruling classes of the world is their ability to disarm us—ideologically, emotionally and physically—by pounding into us a distorted and partial picture of our situation.

How else can a tiny class of parasites remain in control unless they convince us that we have no alternatives to the ones their barbaric system puts on offer?

The massive strikes and protests against austerity and injustice taking place in Rome, London, Paris and Athens —pitched in the U.S. media as “riots”—are very real and very encouraging. They are Europe’s best hope. But, you ask, what about here?

Well, what about here? To be sure, we appear far from surrounding our own wannabe monarchs’ cars and shouting “Off with their heads,” as they did with Prince Charles and Camilla in London last week. (Please, brothers and sisters of Britain, complete your bourgeois revolution already and bring down that useless family’s reign.)

But while the level of struggle remains low in the United States, it is not always subterranean. There are even protests and strikes occurring in the most unlikely places—among prisoners and doctors.

In Georgia, where one in twelve adults is in jail, prison or on parole or probation, “prisoners are us,” as Black Agenda Report puts it. A strike of historic proportions among Muslims, Blacks, Mexicans and whites has been taking place in Georgia’s state prisons since last week. They are demanding pay for their work, opportunities for education, decent health care and nutrition.

These prisoners are peaceful, well-organized and united—in defiance of every expectation and in the face of a thuggish corrections system attempting to goad them to violence. But prison strikers are asserting their humanity in a place designed to rob men and women of their souls.

At Harlem Hospital, 75 percent of 200 unionized doctors voted to strike against pay cuts, the loss of tuition reimbursement and sick days, as well as inferior benefits. The physicians settled without a strike last night, but the proletarianization of their working conditions, like those of teachers and other professionals, are compelling even those we’re accustomed to thinking of as above resistance to reconsider their options.

The senselessness of Obama’s “little Gitmos,” domestic Guantánamos where entrapped Muslim victims like the Newburgh 4, the Fort Dix 5 and the North Carolina 7 languish in solitary confinement, is forcing family members and new allies to unite their efforts and build a broad solidarity movement. More than 120 people attended the first meeting last evening where 13 families told their kafkaesque stories and everyone huddled and strategized.

All of this is happening within a broader context of discontent and unease beginning to show itself in all sorts of small ways—from successful anti-eviction fights in Boston and Chicago to the packed community hearings in cities across the country where budget cuts are debated.

Even the world’s most vilified people, the Palestinians, are gaining a greater hearing than ever on campuses and in communities in this country. Since May, when Israel massacred 9 activists on their way to Gaza with humanitarian aid, new Students for Justice in Palestine groups began forming, and now a first-ever US Boat to Gaza is organizing to join the next international aid flotilla and a newly emerging International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network is mobilizing alongside Arab and Muslim groups to expose Israel’s lies.

I know, we are far from the level of organizing and political cohesion required to win these fights. But we are about to enter a phase when the right wing will have to go from spitting out idiocies on Fox News to actually pursuing their slash and burn policies, with the Democrats in open collaboration.

If progressives continue to look upward toward politicians for answers, disappointment is guaranteed. But there are more people than in decades attending leftist meetings, reading left-wing blogs and Web sites and seeking out independent left alternatives to the politics of Washington.

What will it look like when American workers and students get more organized—to the background of scenes of Europe and elsewhere in open rebellion playing on TV and YouTube?

I don’t honestly know what it looks like when a society starts to go from grumbling into mass resistance. I’m too young to have experienced the last major upheavals, despite my head of salt of pepper hair. It’s actually been that long.

But perhaps this is what it looks like. Decades of crapification, deep crisis, illusions in a great leader, deeper crisis, mass upheavals elsewhere, discontent in great leader, stirrings, setbacks, small actions, politicization and so on from there.

I am certain of two things: 1) The numbers of people wanting to read and figure out a way forward are greater than at any time in my adult life; and 2) The worst thing a progressive can do these days is sit at home, alone, and fret. It only reinforces the isolation and defeat that the people at the top want us to absorb. We have a long road ahead, but there are actions to get involved in and groups to join.

As I look toward the next year, I think about the teachings of Howard Zinn, a kind and brilliant historian who passed away early this year after a life well-lived and engaged in struggle.

In You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn was at his hopemongering best:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of the world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

I’ll be back blogging in the New Year. I’m off to read a few good books and get together with friends so I’ll feel refreshed to hit the streets again soon. If you’re in NYC, come join me and a bunch of socialists tonight, Dec. 17th, for music, food, dancing and drinks at the Commons in Brooklyn, 388 Atlantic Ave, B,M, Q, 2, 3, 4, 5 .

3 responses to “Letter to a Discouraged Progressive

  1. I am a man of faith and I believe in hope. Hope with a willingness to work and struggle. As a black man over the age of 50 I know that the battle never ends dispite the urge to settle down and rest; evil never rests. We must struggle against the dark always and most of all take joy in the battle.Have a Merry christmas and good dancing tonight.

  2. http://sherrytalksback.wordpress.com/
    Sherry wrote:
    “I am certain of two things: 1) The numbers of people wanting to read and figure out a way forward are greater than at any time in my adult life; and 2) The worst thing a progressive can do these days is sit at home, alone, and fret. It only reinforces the isolation and defeat that the people at the top want us to absorb. We have a long road ahead, but there are actions to get involved in and groups to join.”

    I agree we mustn’t is sit at alone home and fret; we must get out and organise. That what we are doing where I live in Lewisham.

    Lewisham is one of London’s inner-city boroughs. There is money in the borough (enough to put us the richest third of British local authorities, but the cost of living, especially housing, is high so this is deceptive. On other measure we have plenty of problems. Out of 354 local areas in England, Lewisham is 39th on the Index of Multiple Deprivation. It is also 38 out of 166 for Child Poverty and has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. Things are not likely to get better soon. Our new collation Government is slashing public spending and the local council has just agreed a programme of cuts of £60 million over the next four years. As in New York, people in Lewisham are starting to work together and find a way forward.

    Lewisham People Before Profit (LPBP) was set up in 2008 by people campaigning on a variety of local issues: for better schools, swimming pools, health services, housing and facilities for young people. We started working together because the mainstream parties weren’t listening and we could see the way all our concerns were linked. We are a very broad group.

    LPBP says ‘No to privatisation’. We believe that privatisation and the relentless pursuit of profits by banks and big businesses has brought the country and councils to bankruptcy. The drive for ever higher profits has created joblessness, low wages and inequality which in turn have brought huge social problems which fall especially hard on young people.
    LPBP is the only party that operates throughout the borough that is pledged to end all private contracts for public services and provide them through properly paid and trained council workers under popular control.

    In 2010 we constituted the group as a party with the electoral commission and stood* candidates in the mayoral, parliamentary and local council elections that were held in May. Our candidate for Mayor, John Hazelton, won 6,000 votes (5.3 percent). The turn-out was 60.7 percent.

    In November we contested a by-election for the council. Our candidate won 233 votes (7.8 percent). This was not enough to be elected but we had the satisfaction of beating the Conservative who trailed with 153 votes.

    We are currently organising ‘The Real Lewisham People’s Day’ ( a reference to the council’s summertime ‘Lewisham People’s Day’ fair) for 19th February 2011 that will organise protests at threatened facilities across the borough.

    Of course beeing British we are a bit reserved, however we were able to ivolve ouselves in a protest when the council voted for cuts.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newsvideo/8169910/Violence-erupts-at-Lewisham-council-meeting.html

    Best wishes from Lewisham

    (*In Britain people ‘stand’ for office they do not ‘run’)

    all of the wards we have brought together a strong nucleus of people committed to working for a better Lewisham in which services are run for our benefit and not for private profit.

    In the year since we constituted the group as a party with the electoral commission we have brought together a strong nucleus of people committed to working for a better Lewisham in which services are run for our benefit and not for private profit.

    This has taken on a new dimension with the cuts being imposed from central government, faced as we are by a mayor and ruling Labour group which will do nothing to defend Lewisham from the Con-Dems.

    Together with LACA we have to provide the clear political leadership in the borough which means continuing to spread our views via door-to-door petitioning, attendance at local assemblies and involvement in local groups. Input to the letters pages of the press is important, too, and the idea of a community radio/tv station is one we should welcome and back wholeheartedly.

  3. Encouraging words, Sherry. Thanks. I, too, see signs that people are starting to connect the dots. I wonder how many people felt joy when they watched Obama sign the bill this afternoon. I was at the gym (I don’t own a TV) and the sight just reminded me of how foolish I was to vote for the man. Once people connect the dots, I wonder how long it will take for real change to occur. If Romney and Palin win in 2012, that might accelerate the process. Obama doesn’t have a chance in 2012 – definitely a one-term phenomenon.

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