Sunday, September 13, 2015

As yet another election draws us into its vortex ...

At Jacobin Magazine, U.S. historian Eric Foner has offered some thoughtful reflections on the relationship of between the politics of moral imperatives and the "normal" politics of elections and policy making that can, sometimes, effectuate some measure of justice. It's not surprising that Foner has deeply considered views on this: he's spent a life plumbing the abolitionist movement of our Civil War era, the terrible war that resulted in the freeing of the slaves, and subsequent era of Reconstruction during which the return of "normal" politics made possible the Jim Crow racial regime, erasing much of the freedom won with so much suffering.

The entire interview is very much worth your while, but here are some excerpts to chew on:

The abolitionists show you that a very small group of people can accomplish a lot by changing the discourse of the country. After the Civil War, everybody claimed to have been an abolitionist. But they weren’t!

There weren’t a whole lot of abolitionists before the war. There were a few beleaguered individuals scattered about, in upstate New York, for example. There were only a couple dozen abolitionists in New York City!

Now, there was a free black community, they were very militant, and you could say they were abolitionists, but I’m talking about the organized abolitionist movement. That was very small. Nonetheless, they managed to actually accomplish quite a bit. They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn. The first thing to do is intervene in public discourse.

And the Occupy movement — success, failure, gone, still around, whatever you want to think about it — it changed the public discourse. It put this question of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, inequality, on the national agenda. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do much about it in Washington, but it is now part of our consciousness, just as by 1840 the abolitionist movement put the issue of slavery on the agenda in a way it had not been. Now, it took twenty years for anything to happen, but I think that’s something to learn from them, how they managed to do that.

Here’s the point. I am a believer in the abolitionist concept — that the role of radicals is to stand outside of the political system. The abolitionists said, “I am not putting forward a plan for abolition, because if I put forward a plan, people are just going to be debating my plan. ‘Oh, it’s going to be two years, five years, seven years.’ No: I’m putting forward the moral imperative of dealing with slavery.” And if people are convinced of that, then politicians will come up with a plan to do it. That means politicians are eventually going to pick up those ideas and use them in other ways and turn them into political strategies.

... I think radicals shouldn’t be involved in the day to day business of politics. ... Our job is to put out new ideas, different ideas, pressure people ...Sure I have an opinion about it but I don’t think that’s our job to worry about it. All of this maneuvering, “Oh, what do we do in this or that election.” We are not politicians. Politicians do it better.

... I’m giving you a rigid kind of view of what radicalism is, when what I actually believe is that people should be doing everything at the same time. There is no one correct way. If people want to work in the Democratic Party, let ’em. ...

This is never simple. And I agree with Foner: radical change starts with projecting a vision of justice. And then, getting anything done requires seizing as many pathways as present themselves, however improbable they may seem. We always need some imaginative opportunism to go with our moral imperatives.


Rain Trueax said...

So that basically also approves of Kim Davis in Kentucky and others like her? Ignore the laws you don't like or break them to get your beliefs and cause noticed. Forget the idea of going through the legal system and changing laws or amending the constitution? If you approve this idea, then you have to approve what she did also, don't you?

janinsanfran said...

Hi Rain: I think making change requires 1) vision. But vision is not enough. You have to be 2) willing to work at it. Some things will work and some won't. Sometimes street heat is what wins some stuff; other times it is the long slog of taking over the local branch of the Democratic Party. These need to complement each other as much as possible. It's hard. They are temperamentally very different and each side usually decries the other.

I think Kim Davis is a loser. I think a lot of people who came out and took a lot of shit for it are winners -- those who survived.

Rain Trueax said...

Hope you are enjoying your vacation.

I am a believer in changing people's minds as a way to win a cause. Whether it's right or left,i really don't like using aggression. Every so often in history, and seemingly again right now, we see right and left ready to use even violent ways to scare people into change. When the cause is one we believe in, it seems okay; but when it's not, we don't like it. I operate more by logic. Convince me your way makes sense and then I'll work for the candidates who will change things. The other way seems one step toward terrorism. When I saw the photo of oath keepers ready to defend her with their guns, from our/their own police, I felt like we aren't far from a very violent time in a way this country hasn't seen for a long time with extremes wanting just that. :(

Related Posts with Thumbnails