While on vacation last week I got a letter from a friend. She’s a well educated young liberal woman with two preschoolers, a career, a home to run. She sees the need for drastic change in governance; she clearly supports Barack Obama to spearhead that change. But she’s discouraged. She’s an idealist struggling to hold fast those core values true to humane policies in a toxic environment of dishonest, intolerant, fear- and hate-mongering leadership, media manipulation of both news and issues, the negative tone of politics–where “swiftboating” has become the norm–and public apathy which tolerates it all.
“I’m turning to my ‘progressive when progressive wasn’t cool’ older/wiser friend…for guidance,” she wrote. “Having lived through the ’50s (my only framework for narrowminded, fearful times), how did you keep your chin up and keep believing in the cause when so many were willing to embrace the folly? I’m asking because I’d genuinely like to do the same now…”
Here is a portion of my reply:
We seem to need enemies in this country. Failing the obvious threat of one, we manufacture them. Muslims, gays and lesbians are the early 21st century version of the 1950s’ “Red Menace.” Commies were everywhere back then; they were hiding here under our noses, plotting and subverting us from within. They were in the Soviet Union planning to nuke us into the stone age and take over the world with their Godless ideology. Home bomb shelters were in vogue. “Better dead than Red!” was the mantra in a time we were sure the Russians and their fledgling allies in China would begin the long march west. One country after another would fall–like so many dominoes–under the thrall and total control of our communist enemies. And then they’d destroy us.
We were taught to fear and hate them. That fear and hatred worked together in facillitating the rise of the military/industrial complex. War and the threat of war became good business. We invested our national treasure, our tax dollars and our children, in that new venture. Power brokers took note of such a successful combination. They would continue using the same themes.
Some of us resisted the notion that our only true enemy was a Marxist war machine. We saw an enemy in the mirror, one infecting the soul of this democracy. We lived our own apartheid. We weren’t Red. We were white. And people of color suffered under a crushing system of violent inequality. We were a male-centered, male-dominated society. Women’s roles were narrowed to a single path. We saw, we felt, the inherent evil in our own system. We decided to change course. None of it was easy. Much of it was painful and ugly. No single election righted all the wrongs. We had to hang in, hold on, keep fighting for change and more change.
How to remain progressive?
We hold fast because we know the difference between humane ethics and hate- or fear-mongering for the sake of expedience–political or religious. Morality is about sharing and caring and community without the simplistic bombast of self-interest and intolerance. We see a better nation, a better world, in such sharing. We argue for that principle. We do it for our children, for their children.
We are, and likely always will be, the minority. There have been brief “Golden Ages” when we–or those like us–gained ground enough to effect real change. The abolition of slavery, the end of child labor, the end of the era of the Robber Barons, the organizing of blue collar workers for economic parity and safety in the workplace, the covenant between one generation and the next which is Social Security, the Peace Corps and VISTA, the Civil Rights movement, the beginning of parity for women.
We gain ground. We lose it. Too many of us in America suffer social and political A.D.D. We mean well, but get distracted by shiny things. We like to believe problems get solved and stay solved–a presto-change-o kind of trick that means we’ve done our chores and can go out and play. At play, we are prone to forget everything but our games and the acquisition of new toys. The neighborhood can collapse around us, but we’re too busy to notice. We are prone to the “amoeba option”: Everything is hunky-dory until and unless we get painfully poked. Then we react.
We tend toward arrogance. We have the most toys. That makes us The Greatest Nation on the Face of the Earth! We holler that sentiment at the top of our collective lungs–whether we’ve ever been anywhere else or not. We are so enchanted by the America First ethos we too often drift into playing the bully on the playground. And that old shiny thing A.D.D. remains our national personality disorder. We are scripted, for corporate profit, to believe “I’ll be really happy as soon as I can have this…and that…and that!” Like toddlers, we are easily bored and want sole ownership of everything we see. “Me, my mine!” When we do share with others we are too often prone to bragging about it–we have to make it clear we’re the rich kids giving charity to the unwashed. And they seldom deserve it.
The last 6 1/2 years have expanded Reagan’s notion of conspicuous consumption as acceptable behavior to a theology of American supremacy and the inherent right to the vast majority of resources of every kind, in every country. This notion of entitlement has given rise to the belief that we also have the right to dictate values, lifestyles and policy to all other nations. We have no tolerance for the idea that just maybe they all do not want to be just like us. Hubris trumps humanity on all fronts. It’s immoral. And it’s childish.
We remain progressives, Laura, because we believe it’s time we behaved better. We’re grown-ups. We know the difference between right and wrong, fair and unfair. It is our moral imperative to stand up for what we know to be right–even if we must stand alone. Even when we lose. Even when losing is so bitter we want to give up. We rise again, clean our wounds and go on fighting. What is true remains true–and once we know the truth we are fully responsible for acting on it.
What’s the old quote? “All that’s necessary for evil to prevail is for good men (and women) to do nothing”? There you have it, Laura. We hang in, we hold on, because giving up is not an option. Quitting–no matter how painful or unrewarding the path might get–makes us a part of the problem. And now, today, right here, at this moment in history, it has never been more critical for the welfare of our children, our nation and the world for progressives to be grown-ups; for progressives to be the solution.