Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Devil's Bargain

Here’s what’s a somewhat longer and thought out version of what’s been coming out of my mouth the last few times I’ve spoken:
  1. The system is broken.
In 2003 the Bush Administration led us to war based on cooked intelligence. They instituted “enhanced interrogation techniques" (i.e., torture). No one was ever punished except for some extremely small fish at Abu Ghraib. In 2008 the financial system collapsed, due largely to chicanery on Wall Street; the country bailed out the system to the tune of over $1 trillion but again, none of the responsible parties were ever held liable.

In 2016 we had the most absurd election campaign imaginable, which ended with a completely unqualified and temperamentally unsuited celebrity winning the White House. This isn’t the place to detail the perfect storm of factors that led to this result, but it suffices to say that for the second time in 20 years someone entered the presidency who had not won the popular vote.

The political system has been completely subsumed by money in politics. Pres. Obama jury-rigged a health insurance reform based on the already existing private-profit insurance industry because that industry had, through lobbying and political contributions, made it politically impossible to do anything else. The example is repeated in many other issue areas, including Wall Street. 

The issue that has the most severe long-term consequences is human-caused climate change. Yet in the nearly 30 years (good Lord!) that we’ve known about this, we have not yet taken the steps that we know are necessary to address it, because a particular private industry (in this case, the fossil fuel industry) has used its enormous wealth to stifle the political will to do so - not to mention suppressing the scientific fact. 

The Constitution is only a piece of parchment if there isn't the will to follow it. Congressional oversight, the rule of law, scientific knowledge are only nice concepts if we don't have the will enforce them, follow them, obey them. And we don’t have that will. The system is broken.
  1. Middle class white people have made a devil's bargain
Our system depends on a great deal of ongoing injustice in inequity. The US uses far more resources than is fair, and generates far more garbage, including carbon emissions. We know all this, but we (meaning middle class white people) have made a devil's bargain: we're perfectly willing to allow these injustices to be done, here and all over the world, as long as we're been able to get consumer comforts - the cheaper the better. Mass incarceration? Slave labor? Climate change? Too bad, so sad, but I can’t do without my 40” TV and next year's iPhone. 
  1. Complacency 
Most people, but particularly liberals, have a lot of faith that “things will take care of themselves” – that the press, or Congress, or someone, will uncover, discover, enforce, whatever norms we think there are. The continued and continuing fact that this doesn’t happen hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference. Or at least it didn’t, until now. 

This kind of complacency has a long history. Everyone from Jews praying for the coming of the messiah to Karl Marx asserting the inevitability of worker revolution has liked to think that progress, justice, was inevitable if we waited long enough. This complacency is what allows us to sit around and wait for it. 

I love Dr. King, and I’ve modeled my work as well as the organization I founded on his model. But in my opinion the most dangerous aphorism we have is “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This implies that we don’t actually have to do anything to have justice sneak up on us. But it's wrong. The arc doesn’t bend unless it is bent, by us.

The election of Trump has brought a lot of this to the fore. I’ve been in and around activism for a long time, and I’ve never seen so many people engaged and energized. They realize that the very fact of Trump is proof that we’ve let things go for far too long. (While meanwhile, the Kochs and the Exxons and other scions of the regression have been doing all the grassroots organizing and institution building that we should have been doing all these years. That’s how we got here.)

It remains to be seen whether the thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who are active for the first time will stick around past either the initial flush of excitement or the setbacks and disappointments that are are sure to come. The devil's bargain has a strong pull - we're used to it -- and the demands and comforts of life on the hamster wheel will again become very demanding, or attractive. 

In fact, that’s what They’re counting on. In Kansas we had an extraordinary election last year that returned something like 40 new moderate Republicans and Democrats, changing the balance of power in the state. But the right wing, which plays the long game way better than we do, is sure that in 2018, or in 2020, or whenever, eventually, all the people who knocked doors last year or marched this year will go away, and the political process will be return to the tender mercies of the moneyed classes and the ultra-right, as they are sure God intended. And I’m not sure they’re not right.

And in truth, we haven’t even started demanding what’s necessary yet. As of now we’ve only been opposing Trump, or his cabinet picks, or Paul Ryan’s healthcare plan, or whatever. A lot of people still want to think that if the House of Representatives goes Democratic next year then all our problems will be solved. But it's not true. We’ll then have exactly with one less problem, one less dysfunction, than we have now.

We've got to stop picking at the edges of the capitalist order – stop trying to reform what is, in its essence, unreformable. Until we are willing to ask for what we want and need: single payer healthcare, an end to the war machine, money out of politics, the clean energy economy; until we are ready to, as Bill Ayers puts it in his new book, Demand the Impossible; until we are ready, in pursuit of it, to disrupt, to disobey, to risk our lifestyles and maybe even our lives, to take the leaps necessary for the sake of justice -- then we are never going to get it. And the devil's bargain will taste like chalk - as it should. 

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