Letters at 3AM

Dancing in the dark

Letters at 3AM
Illustration By Jason Stout

Joe Hill was a labor organizer executed on trumped-up charges in Utah in 1915. The night before his murder he telegrammed his comrades: "Don't waste your time in mourning. Organize."

I once shook the hand of a man who shook his hand. In the spirit of passing that handshake on, here are some thoughts the day after the election:

  • It's after a defeat that you find out what you're made of. Cry if you must, cry it all out, but don't let the bastards sap your vitality.

  • In 1964, arch-conservative Barry Goldwater was crushed at the polls. Everybody thought conservatism was forever politically dead in America. But conservatives regrouped, rethought, and organized patiently from the ground up; when fundamentalist religion became a force in the mid-Seventies, they were ready to take advantage of it. In 1980, they elected Reagan. Dig: It took them 16 years. American progressives seriously started mass-scale organizing only about a year ago. In just one year we came within reach of victory.

    That's remarkable. Now is no time to quit.

  • Iraq is a mess and it'll get worse. Our military is way overextended. To keep present troop levels, Bush will renege on his promise and institute a draft – probably next spring, so that he can recover by the midterm elections. Rural poor are already fighting this war; a draft won't change their vote (though continued failure in Iraq might). But the conservatives of the middle class will be hit hard by a draft; that will change the present equation considerably. Progressives must stay organized and ready to help them. Reach out to save their kids – and ours.

  • Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker said recently that he sees a 75% chance of "financial catastrophe" within five years. That's his polite Establishment way of saying that an economic shitstorm is on the horizon and could hit anytime. Any mix of oil hikes, credit trouble, unemployment, interest hikes, etc., could set it off. Also: The European Union, China, and Southern Asia have been hanging back, hoping we Americans would clean our own house and vote Bush out. We failed. They can't afford to hang back any longer. The U.S., thrown into heavy debt by Bush, now depends on these powers to buy our bonds. Their collective hand is on our financial spigot and they'll start turning it slowly toward "off." They'll do it carefully, but they'll do it, because it's the only check they have on Bush America. They needn't cut their investment much to make us hurt. Combine the two – our internal weaknesses and dependence on foreign financing – and we're in big trouble. Bitching about that won't be enough, as this election proved. Progressives must offer an analysis and alternatives, and present them in a way that badly educated people can understand.

  • Since the mid-Sixties, progressives lost white working stiffs because we talked down to them. We dissed their work, their desires, their beliefs, their religions. We made them Other, matching their bigotries with a new one all our own. On Election Day 2004 we paid full price for that. No working man or woman is my enemy. Their struggle, their endurance, is to be respected. They may be foolish and desperate enough to follow people who lie to them, but they've got too much self-respect to follow people who look down on them. They're terrified. They're unequipped for the complexities and paradoxes of the 21st century and they know it, and they resent like hell all those who accept leaving them behind as the price of entering the 21st century. Progressives have got to accept what this election made painfully clear: Either we all proceed or none of us do. It's the greatest challenge and the biggest lesson of this election: We've got to learn how to talk to these people. They are our fellow sharers in America. They may not know or want that, but we must; and we must act and speak accordingly. Whitman must be our guide: "I will not have a single person slighted or left away."

  • Don't demonize people who disagree with you. That's how Bush and Cheney behave. Behavior is more important than belief. What does belief matter, if your behavior apes your enemy's? Behavior shapes reality. Belief merely justifies reality. Demonization creates demons. Your enemies are as human as you are. If you treat them that way, the outcome may surprise you.

  • Never underestimate the power of the Irrational. At every critical juncture of history, the Irrational has been a potent, often decisive force. At times whole peoples go insane – Europe in World War I, Germany throughout Hitler's reign, America during the Red Scare. This is one of those times. Realize that you're in the midst of it. Things may get so irrational that nothing will work. In that case, what's our job? To dedicate our lives to preserving and passing on what we love so that if things ever get sane again there'll be something left. Which may be a way of saying: Like Joe Hill, lose beautifully. That beauty may be something the future can build on.

  • This election was about identity. The concrete issues – Iraq, the economy – ultimately didn't matter. Bush didn't lose the debates, after all. He incessantly told his base that their wish to return to the national identity of the 1950s was personified in him. He reassured them that America was a force unto itself, an entity that could create its own reality, and that this reality was anything he said it was. He told them, through coded language that they well understood, that the 21st century would be the same as the 20th, and that being an American was identity enough. He was saying to the terrified and the left-behind: "You don't have to grow, you don't have to change, you don't have to be anything other than what you are – leave the rest to me. I will fill your emptiness, validate your God, still your terror."

    Kerry's logic couldn't pierce that. His command of the facts threatened everyone intimidated by the very facts that seemed to win him the debates. They didn't want to hear it. Reasoned judgment versus passionate belief? Passion wins over reason every time. Democrats played reason, Republicans played passion. End of story. A progressive strategy? Never surrender reason, but remember: We're passionate, too. Passionate about genuine liberty and genuine justice for all. Compromise that – play to a now nonexistent middle ground – and all is lost.

  • Let's say this loud: THE ISSUE OF GAY MARRIAGE DID NOT DOOM THIS ELECTION. You may measure the unhappiness of heterosexual marriage by the ferocity of the opposition to gay marriage. Listen to the country music that rural red counties listen to: The hits are about the failure of males and females to get together. In trailer park or penthouse, half the marriages end in divorce and many that don't are shameful compromises. Marriage, in America, is in a state of unbridled panic. That panic, not gay rights, helped doom this election – the panic of people trying to hold on to something that really isn't there anymore. Progressives must stand passionately with all who seek their fair share of the Bill of Rights.

  • My friend Deborah said today: "Bush manipulated through fear, and the people who voted for him are filled with fear. We're buying into it somehow. He generated it, we voted against it, but now we're creating it. That's something that leaves us vulnerable. We're not any different from the other people." She's right. Bush's re-election has driven many into a despairing fear. Which is just where he wants you to be. That fear you feel inside – that's Bush himself, inside you. Act out of fear and the fear will increase. Courage doesn't mean not being afraid; courage means doing what's necessary in spite of your fear, even because of it.

    Remember: We've only been organizing on a mass scale for about a year, and we almost won. If more of the poor, the endangered, and the young had voted, we would have won. We must keep those we organized and reach out to those we failed to organize. The poor and the endangered don't have many computers; they're not on the Net. Politics is still local. Organizing from the ground up means from the ground up, face to face, speaking words that people can understand, showing them how they can have a chance to change things and helping them take that chance. It's only a chance, but it's not a delusion. Election Day is not set in stone. Our world is in ferocious flux. In that flux, in the very thing that frightens us most, is our chance.

    Just one more thing: Nothing is less appealing or more boring than solemnity. The old-time lefties who gave us Social Security, the civil rights movement, the 35-hour week, and the original (now shredded) social safety net – they partied, sang, danced, feted, all the damn time. They were famous for it. These are dark days and they're going to get darker, but the dark side of the day has always been my favorite time for dancing. end story

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    Election 2004, George w. Bush, John Kerry

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