Saturday, May 20, 2006

the grassroots

A slightly rougher version of this little essay originally appeared in my own blog.

I've spent time recently re-reading portions of Howard Zinn's 1995 book, A People's History of the United States. It's quite fascinating, and in my life, quite timely.

The sweet Jeffersonian gloss of "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" notwithstanding, Zinn conceives of all American history as a dialectic, on the one hand, between the self-serving of big government and big money, and on the other, the struggles of every-day people for self-determination. Zinn examines the antislavery, labor, women's, and antiwar movements as examples of "pesky" popular reform efforts that have nevertheless shaped government, and the lives of every-day people, for the better.

The book jibes with my old gut sense that the contributions of the grassroots are marginalized all the time. The existence of the grassroots is rendered invisible, by those whom change threatens, and by those who should know better.

In my teens, my father came upon me reading The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan's best-seller of some twenty years before.

"I tried to read that book once, I thought it was the most boring thing," he sneered. "I had to put it down after a few pages."

I was, maybe, fifteen, sixteen, at the time. I was bright enough, but I was not extraordinary.

"Don't you think the demonstrations by women had something to do with the gains women have made in society?"

He was silent for a couple of seconds.

"No, I think they're unrelated. We'd be in the same place, with women becoming doctors and lawyers and all that, if women had never demonstrated." Then he strode out of the room.

Exactly how his views on women's advancement have affected my father's marriages, or his dealings with his daughters, we won't speculate here. But I wasn't to question his general pronouncement about grassroots self-help for a long time. I didn't question it through the 80s, when 60s-holdover progressive activism I saw on campus struck me as "nutty," did not engage me personally. I didn't question it in the years after college, when I became enveloped in the "recovery movement," a then-popular culture of self-help that actively disparaged involvement in social causes as "trying to save the world."

Outside my personal cocoon, the 80s saw the flowering of the Christian Right, the marriage of authoritarian fundamentalist religion and big politics. The Christian Right instilled a unique brand of despair among progressives, a hangover that still seems to plague the movement.

I have not yet read Michelle Goldberg's new book, Kingdom Coming. I did not even finish her article in Salon, but I did hear her Terri Gross interview. Not doubting the integrity of her journalism, or the value of her research, I worry about Goldberg's cynicism.

Is the influence of the New Right, in fact, "growing," as she asserts? Perhaps, in terms of the arrogance of New-Right-aligned politicians and their appointees, and the grave dangers to American freedoms their reach represents. But in terms of sheer numbers?

When you say the New Right is "growing," it's vital to distinguish between the agenda of big politics, and the will of the masses. I'm not sure Goldberg ever really does. The New Right has appealed to many, who have sought "change," but there are critical signs its influence may indeed be waning among the rank-and-file--making them susceptible to movements that advance their own self-interest.

George W. Bush, who was elected in part because he "speaks for God," is currently being humiliated with presidential approval ratings hardly seen since Watergate. The hard-sell of "free-market capitalism" and "the ownership society" notwithstanding, Americans have rejected his "Social Security reform" in droves, also his failed war on Iraq. They are disgusted by the scandal in his administration.

Americans, a religious lot, aren't liking what they're getting from big politics these days. They're ready to go another way--maybe in the direction of the evangelical Christian conference earlier this year that came out with a statement against global warming. The evangelicals interpret the bible literalistically, they defer to worldly authority--and, on the global warming issue, we saw numbers of them rush in where big politicians had thus far feared to tread.

The evangelical global warming statement is not much, all by itself, but maybe it's a tap on the shoulder progressives would have to be "dogmatically despairing," or blinded, to ignore.

I see it as a portent, like all the others.

The will of big government is one thing. Let's remember the grassroots breathes all on its own, independently, and may have to be heeded and nurtured for the future to turn out better than the present.


Blogger Tiresias said...

The wind is starting to shift. But will it have any place to go? So far, the Left has been unable to articulate a well-stated position that has some legs. The GOP is like a school of dying fish in a barrel. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be able to find a gun to finish them off.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Lyssa Strada said...

Karen, you touch on some things here that I think are really challenging to progressives: to remember to be both inclusive and gracious when splinters from other groups with whom we differ come up with policy statements with which we agree. The environment really is such an issue. Women's issues probably not so much, at least not yet, but I would like to think there's hope.

...and how not to be so carried away with our cynicism that we can't imagine anything better. (If Bob Barr and the ACLU can cooperate on a civil liberties case, anything should be possible.)

How/what can we write that both exposes the truth and imagines its transformation? Aristophanes almost tried to do both, but he meant it as a joke... and improving women's lives was not really an aim, just stopping the war.

I'm hoping we can come up with something better. And there are a lot of news stories that really need to be gathered together somewhere. And perhaps someone here (or even elsewhere) will come up with something so brilliant that...

7:56 PM  

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