Since visiting the Greenwood Cultural Center and the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa last week, I struggle to understand what happened to the enormous power that propelled the social activism of the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. Though remnants of activism remain, today’s fights for justice and equality and economic opportunity seem to be little more than impotent vestiges of the past; tilting at windmills with the full knowledge that “activism” is all for show and is not expected to have real results.
Today’s conservative support for equality and justice seems to me to be contrived and hollow. It seems designed to deceive both its advocates and its opponents into believing it is real, all the while aggressively undoing the advances of the last seventy years. Conservatives have adopted the successful tactics of social activists, turning those tactics on their heads in furtherance of conservative causes instead of promoting integrity and equality. Legitimate calls for equality and social justice are drowned out by opposition to equality that is stronger today than ever in my lifetime. Real efforts to bring about positive change wither in comparison to growing choruses calling for conservative “values.” There is no value in subjugation and economic bondage, except to those who profit from financial enslavement and political feudalism. As much as I support and appreciate today’s efforts to bring about social justice and decency, I think most of those efforts are wastes of time and energy because they are so weak and diluted.
Maybe my own sense of powerlessness and surrender is evidence of the problem. What’s missing is the fervor and the ability to infect others with it. Leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois and Rosa Parks and Malcolm X and Julian Bond and John Lewis and others are missing. But what’s especially missing are white leaders calling for equality and social and economic justice. And, of course, the rest of us, willing to stand up for what’s right in our everyday lives. Instead, a smattering of essentially powerless local citizens who have no hope of generating masses of followers are attempting to accomplish the impossible with archaic tools and diminishing support. I do not know the answer; I just know I am feeling discouraged. Hopelessness feeds itself, I suppose; I have consumed far too much and am full to overflowing.
Maybe monuments like the Greenwood Cultural Center and the Woody Guthrie Center and the National Civil Rights Museum and all the other testaments to “the struggle” were created too early, before we actually achieved success as a society. Perhaps we celebrated victory before it was ours to claim. I remember President Bush, standing in front of a banner that read “Mission Accomplished,” saying we had prevailed in Iraq, long before we abandoned the fight and allowed the country to descend into chaos. I am afraid we have a tendency to let up before the fight is over. Afghanistan, too, comes to mind. And, maybe, domestic efforts to accomplish the vision the country’s framers and founders had in mind.
I’ve long been intrigued by the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, though I will admit to being far too ignorant of the details of his philosophy. His disdain for capitalism and his concepts of “the anguish of freedom” appeal to me. While I think his philosophies were guided in part by a mistaken “purity” of individuals’ choices, I think most of his concepts were solid. Money is, indeed, at the root of most human problems. While the idea of “evil” is magical bullshit, in my view, extreme problems do arise from the existence of money and our reliance on money (or the lack thereof) for our choices. Too often, we credit (or blame) our positions in life on how much or how little money we have. Our career choices fly in the face of the very real facts that we do not have to accept the careers given to us; we could, if we had the requisite courage, abandon banking or real estate sales or truck driving, devoting ourselves to farming or music or a thousand other options. Sartre argued that we, individually and alone, limit our choices simply by refusing to accept that we have the freedom to pursue choices beyond our limited scope of knowledge.
And, so, I ponder whether it’s too late for me to change course and explore new ways to live and to be or whether I’m simply giving myself an excuse to avoid uncertainty and potential failure. I blame Jean-Paul Sartre for insisting to me that any limits I place on my own choices are my limits, alone, and not limits placed on my by “the world” or by some outside force. My choices are my choices, period. I could choose any number of other choices, but I choose to believe my choices are limited. They are not. But it’s easier to believe they are, than to explore reality and find, indeed, my choices are limitless. Maybe not easy. But limitless, nonetheless.
I think conservatives and progressives, alike, tend to stake rigid, inflexible positions. Out of embarrassment, they are unwilling to change even when facts bear out the fact that their positions are fundamentally wrong. In other words, steadfast conservatives and steadfast progressives (call them liberals if you like) are stupid. We paint ourselves into corners and then insist that’s exactly what we meant to do. We are stupid. Some of us are remarkably stupid, while some of us are only moderately stupid. But we’re all stupid to some degree or another. That’s assuming, of course, that our political philosophies fall somewhere along the spectrum of conservative to progressive/liberal.
We throw money at problems we personally do not attempt to solve, absolving ourselves of responsibilities to do anything but fund someone else’s efforts to do what we are too lazy or too incompetent to do. Doesn’t that make you feel good about your role in the world? We’re all (most of us) fooling ourselves into thinking we make a difference to the “bigger picture” by contributing to political causes or social causes or some other cause or another. We’re just buying our way out of a sense of obligation. “I gave money, therefore I contributed in some meaningful way.” Yeah, right. I gave money to a dog rescue organization, so the dog that’s being euthanized in the pound down the street is not my problem; my responsibility was satisfied when I signed the check. I think this is my morning to be skeptical and curmudgeonly and otherwise not especially fun to be around.
I spent quite a lot of time yesterday on the phone with a mutual fund company, trying to figure out why my late-wife’s IRA has not yet been transferred to my account. Money. It’s the damn problem. That, and incompetent bookkeeping staff at pharmaceutical companies. And nurses and doctors who do not listen and do not complete their obligations to their patients. Oh, there are more. But I’m trying to turn over a new leaf and be so positive and sweet a person could flavor their pancakes with the syrup flowing out of my pores.
We cannot be completely honest about what we want because that could create all manner of problems. On the other hand, honesty in expressing wants and needs ties in nicely with Sartre’s philosophies. So, I might surprise myself (and others) one day with unrestrained honesty. And I might be surprised at the firestorm that honesty creates.
Time to face the remainder of the day. More coffee and, perhaps, something out of the ordinary for breakfast. I am passionate about breakfast, sometimes. Or maybe not. I have a title in mind for my breakfast book. Or another book. Time will tell which one gets written first, if one gets written at all.
I am deeply offended by your characterization of me as curmudgeonly, sir! And I hereby challenge you to a duel with my stand-in, an Olympic gold-medalist in marksmanship and a crack shot with all types of weapons from bamboo spears to pistols, rifles, bazookas, and nuclear arms. Yes, let’s talk about this topic! I believe I’ve been able to dust myself off a bit and am making good headway toward returning to my amiable self. I’ll buy you a beer and we’ll talk Sartre and philosophy in general!
Being sweet and positive is not in your curmudgeonly nature, my good sir. I did take a few philosophy courses during my time in the exalted halls of THE University, including on existentialism… While I believe that life is not as black and white as what Sartre says, I DO believe that we should be judged on how we react to the roadblocks that are thrown in the way of the choices and plans we have made… I will not judge you by your failure at something, but by whether you pick yourself back up and dust yourself off… After the appropriate time of reflection, that is… We should talk about this sometime…