We blended in with the crowd

20 11 2016

Walt Whitman’s I contain multitudes gets its fair share of shares, and for good reason: it’s exuberant and ironic and sincere and boastful all at the same time, a declaration and excuse and an invitation to the tumult of life.

It’s easy to think of that tumult as a kind of playful churning, a shotgunning through rapids in which you are tossed and soaked but ultimately delivered, safely, to the sandy shore. It’s a ride, not a tsunami, not a hurricane; a volunteer thrill, not a crashing terror.

It is, of course, both.

I often forget this, that the multitude, the mix, the plural, contains not just joy but fear, that it’s not just a condition of freedom but the grounding of fear. I like to say about New York that we don’t all love one another, but we do, somehow, manage, mostly, to live with one another.

This is an accomplishment, albeit a fragile one.

Well, okay, not just fragile: there is a sturdiness to this and other places like this. There is a sturdiness to this country. But in taking for granted this sturdiness I have too often treated its fragility as a remnant, or mere theoretical possibility. I’d forgotten that if anything is possible, then anything is possible.

I don’t think we’re on the way to fascism, and do think that our many, varied, institutions, formal and informal, can serve as bulwarks against authoritarianism—emphasis on can. While inertia has its own force, there is nothing automatic in a defense of plural democracy: we have to act.

It’s hard, defending the tumult amidst the tumult. I don’t want everything to be political, everything to be are-you-with-us-or-against-us, even as I see the necessity of holding the line. I want to defend my side but since my side declares that everyone gets to pick their own side, do I end up defending those who would harm me?

I won’t hold to a principle which requires its own extinction, but neither will I abandon it for its practical difficulty.

This will take some doing, and some contradiction, too, probably. There is the theory, and the practice, and both will need some work.

We dress like students, we dress like housewives

16 11 2016

Two years, people, two years: 2018.

Yes, the presidential term is four years, but a) all of the House and a third of the Senate is up for a vote every two years; and b) there are state elections, including governorships, which are up for grabs in two years.

I live in a blue district in a blue city in a blue state, which has meant that in the past few years I haven’t paid much attention to off-year elections: I could do nothing, and my folks got (re-)elected.

Except, I don’t always know that these people were “my folks”. I mean, they were Democrats, but were they good at their jobs? Were they attentive to their constituents? Were they concerned with larger issues? Were they actually doing anything worthwhile, or just collecting a check.

So, what to do? Find out something about my city council member, state assemblyperson and state senator. Oh, and since I finally joined a party in this closed-primary state, I’ll have no excuse for not paying attention to the primaries as well.

And if there are no (good) primary challengers or if the candidates are alllllll right, then I can turn my attention to upstate candidates in need of help. The New York State Senate is controlled by Republicans, so if my own senate-candidate doesn’t need the help, then I’ll have to figure out some way to help someone who does.

That extends beyond just my state: if there are state or Congressional candidates in other states who could use a boost, then DO IT. For example, Louisiana Democrat Foster Campbell is in a run-off for a House seat against Republican John Kennedy. Yes, Louisiana is a red state, but here’s a man who’s got a shot as a blue. The Republicans are taking this seriously; so, too should Democrats and everyone who’s looking to advance any kind of non-insane/progressive/liberal/left agenda.

I’m broke, so, alas, I can’t do much. But if you can contribute: DO IT. Do what you can.

One more thing (for now): good people need to be recruited to run. I have no idea how to do this, but here’s the story of 26-year-old waitress and labor organizer Moira Walsh, who just won a seat in the Rhode Island General Assembly:

If you go to your boss and your legislator and ask for a raise and they say no, where do you go from there? That was the point at which I decided that if these people weren’t going to represent me, or even pretend to care that we were struggling, then they couldn’t really call themselves my representative, could they? That was when I started the process of running because I was tired of being told that they would tend to me later.

Walsh pretty much self-recruited, but note that she was prepared to do so via her participation in the labor movement, as well as the work itself:

I don’t consider myself a politician. I am just a waitress who happened to get pissed off enough to take a crack at it.


I felt like I had accidentally acquired all of these skills through waitressing that were setting me up for success in terms of the political world: being able to take some really awful comments with a smile on my face, remembering people’s names at the drop of a hat, walking six to 10 miles in a shift.

I spoke to a colleague earlier today about what to do with this terrible moment, and told her we had to grind it out: “Politics is the hard boring of small holes.” (That didn’t sound quite right to me, so I double-checked; the correct phrase, from Max Weber, is Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.)

That’s what Moira Walsh, at age 26 did: she bored that hard board.

If you can be a Moira Walsh, do it. If you can’t support your local Moira: give money, knock on doors, call voters, register non-voters, design literature, drop literature, show up, do what you can.

One by one, bit by bit, we grind forward.

Transmit the message to the receiver

15 11 2016

After being knocked flat, then crouching, I’m back on my feet.

Still not listening to NPR, but I’ve managed WNYC and the BBC. It’ll come, it’ll come.

So, what are we to do?

My principles remain. I am committed to pluralism, committed to politics, and (I’ll try to be) committed to life beyond politics. I’m trying to be human. Politics won’t make us human, but it can make it easier or harder for us to become human. Let’s try to make it easier.

What does this mean? Since I’m a political theorist, I’ll be reading (natch) some political theory. I’ll also be reading some history, and anything else that can help me see what I do not see.

But not just that. If theories are to matter at all, they must be connected to actions. To that end, I sent the local offices of my representative and my two senators the following letter:

Given the recent election of a man manifestly unprepared to take over the presidency of this country, I understand that there is a great deal of discussion as to how much or how far the Democrats should go to aid or cooperate with President-elect Trump. This is indeed a difficult question, especially for those who value the institutions of government and who wish to mitigate any damage his administration will likely cause.

My suggestion to and to your Democratic colleagues: do nothing to help him.

He ran a hateful campaign predicated on harming large portions of the American citizenry, he could not be bothered to do the work to make the transition to the Oval Office, and he has selected a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim propagandist as his Chief Strategist. There is nothing in his actions to indicate he cares one whit about the people who voted for Secretary Clinton or anyone who did not enthusiastically cheer on his candidacy. He has done nothing to indicate he wants to be president for the entire United States.

In requesting that you do nothing to help the incoming administration, I do not also mean that you do nothing to help your constituents or this country. If he happens to put together a bill (e.g., the oft-mentioned infrastructure bill) which would injure no one and would do good, please do vote for it. Do what is necessary to fulfill your obligations to your constituents and to this country.

Those obligations, however, do not extend to aiding a man who would harm us. Yes, Mr. Trump will need a great deal of assistance if he is to rise even to the level of mediocrity. But let the Republicans, who selected this petty and careless man to represent their party, take responsibility for him.

Had Senator McCain or Governor Romney won the presidency in 2008 or 2012, I would have been distressed, but I would not have been moved to write a letter like this to you. Whatever my deep policy differences with these men, I doubted neither their experience nor their desire to do what they thought best for this country. I have no confidence whatsoever that the President-elect is concerned for anyone beyond himself or those within his inner circle.

(With all the necessary salutations and sign-offs and such.)

In doing this, I was following some of the advice of Emily Ellsworth,* a former Congressional staffer. Yes, she advises a phone call would be better, but late last night the letter seemed a good idea. As the weeks roll by, perhaps I’ll call. I’ll do what I can.

And that, dear readers, is what I suggest for those of you who are similarly distressed and looking for something to do: Do what you can.

There are all kinds of good ideas out there, some of which may make more sense to you than others. Do those. Don’t worry if someone is doing something else. Moving a country is a big damned deal and requires all different kinds of work. If you can’t stand to talk to someone who voted for Trump, don’t. If marching seems silly, don’t march. If you can’t stand to think about the national scene, look local. Wear a safety pin, don’t wear a safety pin—do what makes sense to you, and be kind to those on our side whose sense is different from yours.

I think the way through is by becoming large: big-hearted, broad-minded, and standing up and with one another whenever and wherever we can.

No, no compromise with racism and sexism, no compromise with hate. No compromise with the small and the mean. But we will have to invite to become large those who have taken refuge in the small.

I’m not ready to do this, not yet. If you voted for Trump, well, today I don’t want to talk to you. But some of us are going to have to, and maybe, down the line, I’ll be one of those who is able to.

But right now, I’m doing what I can.


What to do? Make contact: