Wednesday, April 30, 2008
The Politics of Association
There is a boilerplate paragraph found in most writings prescribing progressive solutions to socio-political questions that goes something like this:
To overcome this long-running and entrenched practice of the powerful at the expense of everyone else, gays, lesbians, jews, liberals, leftists, anarchists, animal rights activists, trade unionists, blacks, and Latinos must unite in concerted action.
Words that set the young firebrand to marching only to discover, after years of activism, that they are somewhat illusory. And that is largely because, other than being subjected to various degrees of rejection by respectable society, these groups have nothing in common.
A few years ago the highway scribe was treated to an angry rant by a dreadlocked black man against gays that was rooted in the fact he found homosexuality repugnant and resented the political success of this particular subculture visa vis that of the long-suffering African-American.
Many socialists and communists possess a reverence for science the animal rights activist has made a lifestyle of resisting, and Jesse Jackson once called New York City "hymietown" in a way that rang true to both the hymies and the blacks (and so on).
Once in a blue moon, somebody comes along capable of forging a majority from segments of each aforementioned grouping so that a successful progressive platform can be executed for as long as they can all sit in one room together.
Such is the radical burden and blessing. Back to the French Revolution and up through the sixties the Western left has made a virtue of open-mindedness where the question of "difference" comes into play because we can't do it alone and because, philosophically, it seems the world's only salvation.
There are no such problems on the right wing where the flag-pin and blind obedience to authority are the only required credentials.
Which is why this business of Barack Obama's guilt by association to the wacky reverend and the former Weatherman is so troublesome: it's not fair because it outlaws the way we play politics.
Left wing, progressive, liberal, communal politics are associative thanks to the scriptures that created them. We are inclusive rejecters of exclusion. We pushed for an end to segregation, thought women were entitled to an Equal Rights Amendment, and fought for a minimum wage that would put a floor on society's misery.
In our best moments we look across the table at the "different" lesbian with whom we share so little, or the Latino we wish had never crossed the border, and accept them, with or without the necessary comprehension.
True understanding will come later. That is the promise of our politics.
The other guys are not interested in any such future for the past is there talisman. They are conserve-atives. They want those people to go away or to make invisible their differences with the larger culture.
And now we have a fellow with at least the talent and will to try and stitch a tentative agreement between the differing and pained parts of our nation and it is this very virtue for which he is being pilloried.
Obama is being assaulted from the far right, and nearer-right, by senators McCain and Clinton, for his association with a guy who set off some bombs in a very tense time in our country's history named William Ayers.
In a "New York Times," piece published April 29 Stanley Fish noted that currently circulating Clinton campaign literature "features bold heads proclaiming that Ayers doesn't regret his Weatherman activities (what does that have to do with Obama? Are we required to repudiate things acquaintances of ours have not said?), that Ayers contributed $200 to Obama's senatorial campaign (do you take money only from people of whose every action you approve?), that Obama admired Ayers's 1997 book on the juvenile justice system, that Ayers and Obama participated on a panel examining the role of intellectuals in public life?"
This is unjust, not only to Obama, but to the people being used to stain him.
Does not the promise of America offer all of us a seat at the table? Does not the Constitution grant both Jeremiah Wright and Ayers the voter's voice?
In this vicious circle, the have-nots and those pushed to the margins are forced to stay there because, essentially, they don't agree with the way things are done. Turning to politics, they are locked out for the very same disagreement.
There is no escape from the tautology that criticizes a progressive for being inclusive, because the person to whom a welcoming hand is extended is, well, excluded and that by including them, you must be deserving of exclusion yourself.
Many years ago, the highway scribe was the marginal leader of poetry group, which included meth freaks, low-riders, actresses of ill-repute, and no shortage of ex-jail inmates; poets with names like Gago and Razor and Zatar and Suki.
A nice Virginia-educated college boy with a special job that paid him well to work from home recording important issues of the day, schooled in the language philosophy of Wittgenstein and Prince Kropotkin's anarchism, the scribe was as different from these specimens as night is from day.
And that was the point. The collaboration represented progressive theory in play. The scribe's intention was to open his life to ideas and codes so apart from his own, to widen his knowledge of the world, and return the favor in kind.
These poets would often take to the microphone and say horrendous things, empty a place out with their profanity and venom; their words backed by the nice Virginia college-boy's imprimatur.
But together we constructed a project, shared in a learning process and proved that people of varying stripes can produce something that works, generate excitement and laughter, and even occasion a brush with sublime beauty.
Those poets are gone now; different paths taken. And they are not the scribe nor does their presence in his past say anything about his "judgment," because he sought out their otherness, and came to understand that each had a claim to the respect of those surrounding; that each was empowered to question the legitimacy of family, tribe, city, community, and country.
Our long-ago association makes us guilty of nothing and worthy of praise in the best American tradition.