October 01, 2012

Rebecca Solnit: We could be heroes . . .

I saw this on Daily Kos. Meteor Blades posted this excerpt from TomDispatch by Rebecca Solnit. TomDispatch by Rebecca Solnit. A follow-up for some of thoughts from our post yesterday . . .
One manifestation of this indiscriminate biliousness is the statement that gets aired every four years: that in presidential elections we are asked to choose the lesser of two evils. Now, this is not an analysis or an insight; it is a cliché, and a very tired one, and it often comes in the same package as the insistence that there is no difference between the candidates. You can reframe it, however, by saying: we get a choice, and not choosing at all can be tantamount in its consequences to choosing the greater of two evils.

But having marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to health care is not the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values perfectly. Yet people are willing to use this "evils" slogan to wrap up all the infinite complexity of the fate of the Earth and everything living on it and throw it away.

I don't love electoral politics, particularly the national variety. I generally find such elections depressing and look for real hope to the people-powered movements around the globe and subtler social and imaginative shifts toward more compassion and more creativity. Still, every four years we are asked if we want to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic. The usual reply on the left is that there's no difference between the two experiences and they prefer that Che Guevara give them a spa pedicure. Now, the Che pedicure is not actually one of the available options, though surely in heaven we will all have our toenails painted camo green by El Jefe.

Rebecca SolnitBefore that transpires, there's something to be said for actually examining the differences. In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it's that the people in question won't be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake.

An undocumented immigrant writes me, "The Democratic Party is not our friend: it is the only party we can negotiate with." Or as a Nevada activist friend put it, "Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don't vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters."

Presidential electoral politics is as riddled with corporate money and lobbyists as a long-dead dog with maggots, and deeply mired in the manure of the status quo -- and everyone knows it. (So stop those news bulletins, please.) People who told me back in 2000 that there was no difference between Bush and Gore never got back to me afterward.

I didn't like Gore, the ex-NAFTA-advocate and pro-WTO shill, but I knew that the differences did matter, especially to the most vulnerable among us, whether to people in Africa dying from the early impacts of climate change or to the shift since 2000 that has turned our nation from a place where more than two-thirds of women had abortion rights in their states to one where less than half of them have those rights. Liberals often concentrate on domestic policy, where education, health care, and economic justice matter more and where Democrats are sometimes decent, even lifesaving, while radicals are often obsessed with foreign policy to the exclusion of all else.

I'm with those who are horrified by Obama's presidential drone wars, his dismal inaction on global climate treaties, and his administration's soaring numbers of deportations of undocumented immigrants. That some of you find his actions so repugnant you may not vote for him, or that you find the whole electoral political system poisonous, I also understand.

At a demonstration in support of Bradley Manning this month, I was handed a postcard of a dead child with the caption "Tell this child the Democrats are the lesser of two evils." It behooves us not to use the dead for our own devices, but that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration policy. Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.

You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all US presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.

You don't have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.

Bitterness poisons you and it poisons the people you feed it to, and with it you drive away a lot of people who don't like poison. You don't have to punish those who do choose to participate. Actually, you don't have to punish anyone, period.

We Could Be Heroes

We are facing a radical right that has abandoned all interest in truth and fact. We face not only their specific policies, but a kind of cultural decay that comes from not valuing truth, not trying to understand the complexities and nuances of our situation, and not making empathy a force with which to act. To oppose them requires us to be different from them, and that begins with both empathy and intelligence, which are not as separate as we have often been told.

Being different means celebrating what you have in common with potential allies, not punishing them for often-minor differences. It means developing a more complex understanding of the matters under consideration than the cartoonish black and white that both left and the right tend to fall back on.

Dismissiveness is a way of disengaging from both the facts on the ground and the obligations those facts bring to bear on your life. As Michael Eric Dyson recently put it, "What is not good are ideals and rhetorics that don't have the possibility of changing the condition that you analyze. Otherwise, you're engaging in a form of rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation that has no consequence on the material conditions of actually existing poor people."

Nine years ago I began writing about hope, and I eventually began to refer to my project as "snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left." All that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that the differences don't matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is acceptable. If you're privileged you can then go home and watch bad TV or reinforce your grumpiness with equally grumpy friends.


  1. Well, I was gonna comment, but I got an error message: "Your HTML cannot be accepted: Must be at most 4,096 characters" Oh, I see - I guess I am depriving some yayhoo somewhere of the bandwidth they need to stream the latest episode of "Entertainment Tonight" ...

    Sorry, but serious issues cannot be discussed intelligently in sound-bite or bumper-sticker chunks. Suffice it to say that there are differences between the candidates, no doubt. But this issue goes much deeper than that. Would also add that I'm offended by Solnit's snarky remarks about "moral superiority", especially in light of her superficial gloss of the issues.

    (Sigh ...) Just another sad and depressing example of the structural limitations within which we are forced to try to make clear to each other just what's going down.

  2. Well, duh ... The older I get, it seems, the stupider I get. All I gotta do is break the comment down into sections ...

    OK, so no one can honestly say there are no differences between Obama and Romney, or Obama and Bush, or Bush and Kerry. No argument there. Nor can I say I'm pleased with what Obama's doing vis-a-vis Gitmo, or drones, or whistleblowers, or yet more money for the Defense Department, or his Cabinet appointments. But I'd also like to say a few words in his defense.

    Simply put, he's just one man, and even with the immense powers of the office he holds, he can't do it all - or even very much of what he, and we, might have liked. One of the grievous delusions of this culture is that of the star/celebrity: The idea that one person, like a brave and gallant knight of medieval fantasy, can come riding in on his mighty milk-white steed and rescue the teeming masses from the evil that besets them. It's the stuff of movies and TV, where nearly all Americans get their education - but the real world don't work like that. Any president, regardless of party affiliation or ideology, has two major obstacles to his agenda right off the bat: The legislative branch (i.e., Congress) and his own executive branch (the entrenched bureaucracy thereof). I shouldn't have to explain these impediments to anyone who understands how American government works (or, in this case, doesn't work). I personally think, therefore, that Barack Obama, given what he's had to work with, has done as well as anyone could have done to get at least some kind of health-care reform, and to hold our economic system together (especially in light of the wreckage that Dubya left him). But he's not gonna save us from ourselves, nor will, or could, anyone else either (or any) party could nominate for the office. Get over it.

    So, he's clearly the lesser of the two evils in this presidential election, and if that's as far as it went, it'd be a no-brainer. Problem is, it goes deeper than that, much deeper. The real issue is the nature of the system that presents the electorate with (usually) two pre-selected choices from which they are to make the final "decision."

    (Here it behooves those still in the dark and wondering what the fuss is about to read the article "Feast Of Fools" referenced in Bill's post of yesterday (Sept. 30); it's as accurate and succinct a portrayal of US electoral politics as can be found, but there are many many more readily accessible - Google Is Your Friend.)


    1. I agree, I am constantly saying this: "This is not a Cinderella Story" Not one person can fix everything!

  3. OK, so with a clear understanding of how people get elected in this country, the real issue in this - or any - election becomes: By voting for either candidate for any office, be they the lesser of two evils or not, you are participating in, and thereby validating, the process itself, regardless of outcome. For me, the validation of a process that destroys any possibility or hope of real self-governance is, by an immense margin, the greatest evil that can be chosen in that context. And I think, whether they can articulate it or not, most people are aware of what it means, and I think it goes most of the way toward explaining the utter lack of confidence and participation in electoral politics in this country.

    "You don't have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority ..."

    On the first imperative, I submit that Solnit has failed utterly, either because she herself does not perceive "its complexities and contradictions", or she has a rhetorical ax to grind which precludes an "accurate description." And on the second ... Evil cannot be ameliorated by more evil, only by good. No one will ever rectify an evil by participating in it, regardless of intention. If that be "moral superiority," then so be it. I cannot imagine a more "interesting" (whatever that's supposed to mean) reason for choosing not to participate.