As we were setting up for an early Last Sunday gathering, a longtime participant in local progressive politics asked me, bluntly, “What’s your agenda with this?”
I offered the event’s mission statement: We hoped to create a space in which people could get together to face honestly deepening economic, political, cultural, and ecological crises; existing political and religious institutions are inadequate to cope with these cascading crises; the goal was a “progressive space” that would raise issues, without channeling people into a particular movement or party. We weren’t creating an organization but offering a place for networking.
She smiled, explained that she knew our public line, and instead wanted the “real” agenda. Sorry, no hidden agendas, I said. Her response: “I don’t believe you would do this without an agenda.”
Skepticism about political motives is understandable. Nevertheless, Eliza Gilkyson (a singer-songwriter), Jim Rigby (Presbyterian pastor), and I (professor/activist) concocted Last Sunday with the goal of making a modest contribution to community-building. We knew many people who yearned for a place to combine interests in progressive politics beyond the electoral arena, spirituality beyond traditional churches, and music beyond concerts and bars. So, like politicized, middle-aged versions of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland gang in old MGM musicals, we figured, “Let’s put on a show!”
After a run of Last Sundays (held at Saengerrunde Hall on the last Sundays of the month, from November 2006 to April 2007), we have taken a break, to assess the experiment and evaluate feedback. And we’ve concluded the project was a great success and a huge failure.
The success came in presenting relevant information, provocative analysis, and good music to audiences from 300 to 500 people, on subjects ranging from race relations in our largely segregated city to U.S. domination of the world. Highlights included a UT-Austin economist’s discussion of the economics of climate change and an explanation by Workers Defense Project organizers and clients of how immigrant workers are sometimes cheated by employers out of hard-earned wages.
The failure was that we didn’t help the audience become more than an audience, during or after the event, but in that failure were useful lessons about contemporary politics. The following observations are drawn from written suggestions after each event, conversations with people at Last Sunday, and comments during the discussion at the final gathering in April.
1) There Is No Choir
Common in progressive circles is the imperative to get beyond “preaching to the choir.” Last Sunday showed the problem with that truism. There is no choir–if by “choir” we mean organized people facing these cascading crises with a coherent ideological framework. There is a disparate group of liberals and leftists with some common policy goals but no common analysis. At Last Sunday, we weren’t claiming to have the grand plan but simply suggesting that extensive conversation that challenges the conventional wisdom is necessary.
A few questions sharpen this point: Is corporate capitalism compatible with real democracy? Can we continue to believe (or pretend) the Democratic Party is a vehicle for progressive politics? How many who opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq are willing to condemn the bipartisan nature of U.S. empire-building? What kind of future does an increasingly pornographic culture offer? What is the connection between the U.S. middle class’ consumption and the ecological crisis?
Raise those questions in left/liberal circles, and it’s clear that the members of the choir are singing from dramatically different hymnals.
2) Looking Beyond ‘Fun’
While avoiding apocalyptic fantasies, we wanted to confront not-so-pleasant realities: The U.S. economy is a house of cards built on deficit and debt, in our so-called democracy the majority of people feel shut out of policy formation, the Iraq war is not a break from post-World War II U.S. history but merely a particularly disastrous episode, white supremacy and patriarchy still structure our hierarchical society, and the “normal” operation of our society undermines ecosystems’ capacities to sustain life. Living comfortably in the midst of unprecedented first-world affluence feels like being a drunk waking up after a bender. Gilkyson captured this in new songs that resonated with folks–“Runaway Train,” “The Party’s Over,” and “The Great Correction.”
Views vary widely about how dire the situation is and what that means politically and emotionally, as was captured by two comments during the final Last Sunday discussion. One person asked whether this kind of political engagement couldn’t be made more fun, a comment that drew both applause and sighs of frustration; another responded that problems this serious shouldn’t be papered over.
No one suggests that political work–even addressing the grimmest realities–must be depressing. There can be joy in struggle. After the final Last Sunday, a young man told me that he wasn’t put off by the blunt talk. “This is one of the few places where I hear people talking about the way I feel,” he said. “It’s not about fun–it’s about what’s happening.”
If our systems are unsustainable in economic, cultural, political, and ecological terms, how do we make confronting that “fun”?
3) The Problem With Solutions
A common complaint about Last Sunday was that it focused too much on problems, not solutions. That marked another split in the audience between a) focusing on short-term actions to influence public policy and b) thinking about more fundamental changes for which there’s no short-term strategy.
Consider the dual problems of oil–we’re running out, and burning what’s left accelerates rapid climate change. A demand for solutions that would allow us to maintain our lifestyles can lead to the corporate boondoggle of corn-based ethanol or the hazy illusions around biodiesel, instead of confronting a troubling reality: There’s no viable alternative to petroleum for an unsustainable, car-based transportation system. So what are the realistic “solutions,” other than to radically curtail the way we move ourselves about? The fact is that we can’t go to some of the places we now go and can’t do some of the things we now do.
Sometimes truly facing a problem is to recognize that it has no solution without a dramatic refashioning of the context in which we try to solve it. Some at Last Sunday found that depressing; others said they felt a sense of relief.
4) Individuals in Systems
Rigby anchored Last Sunday with talks that always managed to bring together the disparate threads of each event. Drawing on secular philosophy and theology–avoiding dogma and doctrine–he came back, over and over, to a basic point: We may be decent people, acting compassionately in our daily lives, but when we live in unjust hierarchical systems, being decent day to day isn’t enough.
No matter what the specific topic of any Last Sunday, we tried to keep this in the foreground: We live in an imperial society structured by a predatory corporate capitalism, with identities shaped by white supremacy and patriarchy, in a technological fundamentalist society dominated by the faith that we can invent our way out of an ecological crisis.
Rigby provided Last Sunday’s prophetic voice, in the Old Testament sense of the term, not predicting the future but calling out the corruption of the society while maintaining faith in humans’ ability to reach down to the better part of our nature, past the greed to the core of a common humanity. Individual responsibility means not simply doing the best one can in the world we’re given but being willing to take risks to change that world.
5) A Direction, Not a Destination
This kind of political and spiritual program attempts to suggest a general direction, not dictate a specific destination. Once we grasp that capitalism is an unsustainable system, inconsistent with our desire for democracy and our struggles for solidarity in community, what’s the next step? The Last Sunday answer was: forward. We don’t need a fully formed alternative to capitalism to take steps to create an alternative. Strengthening unions and fostering cooperatives, challenging corporations’ right to define not only our economy but our identities, demanding a more just distribution of the world’s resources, and reducing our own addiction to the cheap toys dangled in front of us–all are ways we can act.
And we must keep talking. One of the clearest lessons from Last Sunday is that many people lack a place to listen, learn, and talk about new ideas. That was Last Sunday’s clearest failure–we never found a formula for making the gathering more of a conversation than a series of lectures and performances. Out of a fear of seeing the program devolve into unstructured talk, we erred toward tight control. But many said the most successful program was the one that opened up that format for more interaction in the discussion of climate change. Future efforts have to better balance people’s desire to react and engage with the need to control a program so that the loud and long-winded don’t take over.
The Future of Last Sunday
The consensus at the end of April’s gathering was that Last Sunday should continue. Less clear was how that will happen, how the gathering should be structured, and toward what end a permanent Last Sunday might be directed. There are difficult questions unresolved, most notably whether the event could become more inclusive. Although the program from the stage was diverse in racial, ethnic, and gender terms, the audience was disproportionately white, middle-class, and older. Could Last Sunday become a space that reflects all of Austin? Can we go beyond the groups in which we feel comfortable?
Last Sunday was an ad hoc project that remained fluid; various people pitched in to handle the organizing tasks. We deliberately didn’t create a new organization or build a new web site, opting instead to use the communication tools of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center www.thirdcoastactivist.org and the NOWAR e-mail list). Decision-making was collaborative, in a small group.
The options? Last Sunday could remain ad hoc but with broader participation, or a formal group could be created to run the event. Or, of course, the event could end its run, giving way to other forums. The original conveners don’t claim to know the best route, nor do we want to claim ownership. The event demonstrated people’s interest, and now the task is to figure out whether that interest can be translated into ongoing community.
Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege (City Lights Books, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights Books, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2001). He can be reached at <mailto:email@example.com>firstname.lastname@example.org.