Friday, September 14, 2007

What Is To Be Done?

With this title, given to a pamphlet on revolutionary strategy by Vladimir Ilych Lenin, memo writers everywhere (notably me) have amused their peers in multiple ways. In this instance I am using the title to respond to a question posed in response to my post Why Don't We Solve Problems.

Jen, you surely recall, asked "if caring for each other is the answer, what do we do next collectively?"

Did I want to call everyone to the ramparts? Would anyone come if I did? It seemed an awesome responsibility. So I dithered until, in the course of my meandering through Wonkland I came across a few ideas that make sense to me.

1. Change the Words We Use and the Way We Speak

Somebody reading this surely remembers how, after the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the term "busboy" disappeared from everyday speech in Washington. While downtown buildings were still smoldering, nobody wanted to be caught dead calling a waiter's assistant "boy," especially since most of them were black for reasons that I think need no explanation.

Similarly, do we have any takers for calling Hillary Clinton a "girl"?

Those two changes alone have not made African Americans suddenly privileged nor created a matriarchy, but they have caused people to rethink the notion of diminutives for people whose socioeconomic stature has been forcibly small.

In a similar way, it's been suggested that the way we talk about poverty -- even the term "poverty" -- focuses attention on the wrong thing. Sympathy for poor people still means thinking of poor people and their problems as something that affects them, not us, when in reality we are all in this together.

Greater poverty means greater crime, poorer health and greater inequality for all of us. You and I can become poor. We can be robbed. We can suffer from class distinctions.

Instead of poverty, we need to focus on shared prosperity. The Economic Policy Institute is devoting a series of events to developing a policy agenda about it. Shared prosperity involves better wages for all. It's about food, clothing, shelter, jobs, education and health. For everyone, in a measure that allows everyone to live a life all of us can recognize as dignified.

2. Unify to Retake Our Democracy

Today I happen to have gone to hear economist Robert Reich, secretary of labor from 1993 to 1997, make an earnest appeal to activists to stop focusing on our parochial issues, no matter how important and valid, and to unite into the grand task of retaking the decision-making processes of our society for all citizens, not just Gucci-wearing lobbyists and campaign contributors. Reich, who makes a point of bringing up his diminutive height (4 ft 10.5 in) whenever he speaks or writes, is a giant when it comes to making sense.

We can't let them (and we all know who they are) pit women against blacks and Hispanics, homeless against homeowners, limousine liberals against bus-line activists.

There will be no shelters built unless we stop burning money in Iraq. No schools built unless we raise the wealthiest people's marginal tax rate from somewhere between 15% and 35% to something closer to the 76% to 91% it was under presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower -- neither of whom were wild-eyed radicals.

Everything has to be done together, organically, with everyone pitching in the areas they can help best.

3. Participate in Healthy Criticism of the Leadership

Whether it's President H. Clinton or President Obama, the next, hopefully Democratic, president will not be infallible.

Clinton brings in tow a circle of seasoned, extremely bright people whose conversation sets the mind of anyone listening to them on fire. They can take complex problems and recast them simply, surgically slicing the Gordian Knots of policy.

But they are also a tad over-confident and last time they didn't do so well.

Obama is unquestionably inexperienced, although he has something akin to the JFK charisma on his side. Let's not forget what happened to JFK. Obama is not the only pre-primary presidential candidate to get Secret Service protection for nothing. There are a lot of hate-filled people in the US of A.

Can Obama make the spark he brings set off our imaginations for good? What if the unthinkable happens?

In either case, the next president should not get a pass merely because he or she is a Blue-State president. Democratic administrations have screwed the unions, have forgotten the Mexican-American votes they solicited and have even started stupid foreign wars.

We have to all participate in holding our truly elected leaders' feet to the fire. Make them fulfill their promises. Elect more radical folks to Congress -- instead of Republicans -- if the liberals can't get the job done.

We always live in crisis because we are always growing, progressing in our lives until we die. The next few years, for our society, could be defining moments.

Will we unite to put in policies that save the environment from catastrophe, allow a generation to retire without unduly burdening those that follow, fulfill some of the basic promises of the American Dream for all of us, behave in the world in a manner somewhat gentler than a gorilla despite our 900 lbs.?

You and I have the answer. Don't mourn me, Joe Hill said, get out and organize.


jen said...

Ah. You never fail to disappoint. I agree wholeheartedly...the time for talking is over - the time for action is upon us - not the pithy us versus them but the action that comes from finally realizing we are all in the same lifeboat and hey, that leak is getting bigger and bigger.

And I especially liked that you wrote: Sympathy for poor people still means thinking of poor people and their problems as something that affects them, not us, when in reality we are all in this together.

And you know, I bet if I could sit in the midst of all the brilliant policy minds I'd have such a better time in the trenches.

(again, they should invite the rank and file to these things too)

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