Sunday, December 30, 2007

Individualism, community, and social change: Thoughts for 2008

By Nancy Jane Moore

I went to a Patti Smith concert the other night. It did not disappoint: Smith writes great songs and puts herself fully into her performances, so we were treated to high energy and interesting ideas.

The show contained some surprises. In addition to her well-known songs, she did what had to be a brand new one about the death of Benazir Bhutto. After telling a story about her obsession with the opera "Tristan and Isolde" -- never assume that any performer doesn't like other art forms -- she launched into the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," which ended with the many 50-somethings in the audience joining in on the "Feed your heads." And her encore included "O Holy Night."

I had a great time. But early on in the evening, when Smith first took the stage and made a political comment, the crowd response bothered me. It wasn't just appreciation; there was something else in the mix, something like obsession. It wouldn't take much to turn a crowd like that into a mob, even the 50-somethings (after all, Smith is also 50-something and those of us among her fans who are no longer young still like to see ourselves as radicals even if we do have safe day jobs).

A good performer -- and Smith is one -- can keep an audience like that hooked without letting it turn into a mob, and she did. But the possibility that a room full of mostly intelligent people ranging in age from 20 to 60-something could turn into a mob mind was there.

I found myself drawing back, refusing to surrender to the whole mob ethic. I don't like crowds, anyway. In the standing-room-only crowd, I made my way upstairs where there were places to stand against a wall and still see the stage. I could not have handled standing on the ground floor surrounded by other people.

I can remember a few times in the past when I have become one with the crowd -- a few political marches from the 1960s and early 70s, the occasional concert (a Leonard Cohen concert that ended on the banks of Austin's Town Lake in 1970 springs to mind). I can't do it anymore. Could be because I'm a writer, an observer by trade. Could just be age. Possibly it might be the onset of wisdom.

Because once the mob mind takes over, individual restraint goes out the window. Even if you have second thoughts, you go along with the crowd. That's what happens in riots -- people who would ordinarily never steal or vandalize or harm another person get caught up in the frenzy. And they do it even when it's not in their personal best interests.

I don't want to give up my individual thinking to a mob. Or to any other kind of group. Not only do I want the freedom to act and think for myself, I want everyone else to have this freedom.

And yet I know something else, something important: The only way to really affect things in this world is to work together.

I am happily single, live alone, and am reasonably self-sufficient. But my freedom is insured by my union (the Newspaper Guild); a number of laws, regulations, and social programs; and a community of friends and family.

My union has made sure I have decent health insurance and job protection, along with many other benefits; my company is better than most, but I don't think they would have been nearly as good to their employees if we weren't organized. Civil rights laws -- themselves brought about by group movements -- have changed things dramatically for women like me. Social Security and Medicare provide a base that was not there before. My friends chip in many ways, from feeding my cat when I travel to providing computer advice to listening to my troubles.

So I argue here for the individual acting as part of the larger community. We need to come together as individuals and work for as a group for the many changes needed in this country. While we should never sacrifice our individuality to the mob, we likewise must sometimes give up our individual desires for goals that benefit the largest number.

It's a conundrum and a constant balancing act, but a necessary one. There are six and half billion people in this world, and all of them have dreams and desires. The more we work together as a group, the more of our people can live their fullest lives.

Which brings me to partisanship. Paul Krugman has recently written several columns on the subject, setting out his core argument most clearly in this piece on Slate adapted from his recent book, The Conscience of a Liberal. Krugman writes:
What progressives should be focused on now is taking on the political movement that brought Bush to power. In short, what we need right now isn't Bush bashing -- what we need is partisanship.

I don't think he's wrong, but then I pretty much agree with Krugman about the need to take firm stands on so many key issues, from global warming to health care to foreign policy to economic inequality generated by bad tax policy. The meager changes wrought by the current Congress -- despite the public's desire for much more -- are a good argument for taking strong stands. (I realize Congress is hemmed in by the slimmest of majorities in the Senate and the unwillingness of moderate Republicans to jettison the extremists in their party, but stronger stands by the Democratic leadership would have been useful.)

But implicit in Krugman's argument is the idea that the choices are either old-fashioned partisan politics or mealy mouthed bipartisanship. And, interestingly, he seems to think that Barack Obama's search for middle ground is an example of weak bipartisanship that would keep us from attaining the progressive agenda. I gather he thinks John Edwards, and even Hillary Clinton, are more likely to take a strong partisan stand.

Personally, my biggest reservation about Clinton is her willingness to compromise with the right wing for personal political gain (her vote for the Iraq War being the most obvious, but far from the only, example). She is personally polarizing (I fall on the side of liking her rather than hating her), but in her political actions she has always struck me as far too willing to sell out principle.

Edwards is taking a strong partisan stand on economic issues, one I agree with. But what I like best about Obama is his ability to take a strong stand -- against the Iraq War, for affirmative action -- without antagonizing those who disagree with him, something Edwards isn't quite pulling off.

Krugman is dismissing that as old-fashioned bipartisanship, but I don't think it is. I think Obama might be bringing something new into the mix: An ability to take strong liberal stands without losing half the population when he opens his mouth.

I may be reading more into Obama than is actually there. But while Krugman is dead right on the kind of programs the country needs to fix the extreme damage of the Bush administration and the far right in general, I don't think he's right about the old-fashioned partisan approach.

It's possible to take a strong stand for change without slamming the door in the other side's face. It's difficult, in much the same way that it's difficult to retain one's individuality while working in a group, but it's not impossible.

I suspect Krugman would agree with me if I were discussing how the US acts in the world rather than our internal politics. Replacing our hardline US-centric partisanship with negotiation and group effort -- even a flawed group effort -- would do a lot to rein in so-called terrorism and create a more peaceful world.

In a recent post on Ambling Along the Aqueduct, I wrote about two novel series in which the authors are arguing for a new way -- what I would call a wiser way -- of resolving our conflicts: Laurie Marks's Elemental Logic series and L. Timmel Duchamp's Marq'ssan Cycle. Marks, writing fantasy, and Duchamp, in science fiction, are providing us with images of more highly evolved human beings.

Years of Aikido study have convinced me that humans have the capacity to resolve conflicts without excessive violence, that revenge is mostly useless, and that it is possible to take a strong stand without being so rigid that you deny the humanity in your opponent. It is good to see fiction that makes the same points.

I keep hoping to see such wisdom seep into politics.

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