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Everywhere one looks today there’s crisis. Economic collapse, war, environmental degradation, health, poverty, mis-education and corruption, all at the same time, with common roots and fruits. What’s a poor boy/girl-man/woman to do in such insane and chaotic times? Study history. Learn more about the present, ourselves and others. Channel anger, creativity, love and whatever else we’ve got into action. Take advantage of the extremely rare opportunity, at such tipping points, to make history by telling our own stories, and create our future.
This essay connects three points of relatively modern history – including the present intense moment. In today’s American Idol, bail-out-the-toilet-bowl nation, let’s revisit a few previous experiences of politics and activism, and start laying a foundation for organizing and struggle thru the present emergency.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt needs no introduction. His January 6, 1941 “Four Freedoms” State of the Union Speech was a classic rhetorical call for democratic resistance to tyranny and terror, pretty much a 20th century Gettysburg Address.
The Great Depression that’s been so in vogue lately was still hanging on, after nearly a decade of major policy reforms trying to get Americans back to work. But new challenges threatened from Europe and Asia, especially since the September 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland 16 months before, and the resulting Hitler/Stalin non-aggression pact. Some people today justifiably fear both long-term climate catastrophe, and a potential authoritarian reaction against the imminent collapse of The American Way of Life. Like us, in 1941 our so-called “greatest generation” would soon learn that even massive economic breakdown might not be the very worst thing that could happen.
The greatest President of The American Century began his constitutionally required State of the Union message to Congress that year by referring to simultaneous challenges of foreign and domestic policy emergencies: The “democratic way of life” was mortally threatened by “the new order of tyranny.” Therefore he said “this Annual Message to the Congress is unique in our history.” Explicitly basing our national policies on the “rights and dignity of all,” and “the justice of morality,” FDR made the following major points:
“The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are:”
Equality of opportunity for youth and others Jobs for those who can work Security for those who need it The ending of special privilege for the few The preservation of civil liberties for all The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living
[and he gave some specific examples of things calling for immediate improvement:]
Bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance
Widen the opportunities for adequate medical care
Plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it
“No person should try, or be allowed, to get rich out of this [crash national war preparations] program; and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.”
“We look forward to a world founded on four essential human freedoms:”
Freedom of speech and expression Freedom of every person to worship God in their own way; Freedom from want, which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants; and Freedom from fear, a world-wide reduction of armaments to the point where no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor.
Much like the above (pretty amazingly still current!) thoughts, the President’s conclusion drew on historical ideas and emotions we need today: “Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change, in a perpetual peaceful revolution … Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.”
Hold that thought. Please (turn off the damn TV and) hold on to ALL those thoughts tight. I want to introduce you to another perspective. Amazing how this works, ain’t it?
28 years later, dancing on Mr. Roosevelt’s shoulders in the midst of Woodstock Nation, meet Gary Snyder. The model for the fictional protagonist “Japhy Ryder” from Jack Kerouac’s second-most famous novel Dharma Bums, young timber jack, Buddhist seeker, nature poet, more recently author of immensely valuable essays in The Practice of the Wild. In the summer of 1969, with a small gaggle of countercultural collaborators, he wrote a poetic political essay called “Four Changes.”
A very different, obscenely unjust American war was chemically burning Asia. The civil rights revolution, riots in city streets, and a new youth generation’s visions of freedom had crested in the past decade (like the New Deal before FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech). The tumultuous year of 1968 lay just behind in the mind’s rear view mirror, smoking a lot like the tumultuous year of 2008 reeks today. Che Guevara had been dead for about a year and a half – roughly the time period between the beginning of WWII in Europe and FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech. “Four Changes” concluded with a section captioned “TRANSFORMATION,” closely paraphrased here:
We have it within our deepest powers not only to change our “selves” but to change our culture. If humans are to remain on earth we must transform the five-millenia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically-sensitive harmony-oriented wild-minded scientific-spiritual culture. “Wildness is the state of complete awareness. That’s why we need it.”
Nothing short of total transformation will do much good. A basic cultural outlook and social organization that inhibits power and property-seeking while encouraging exploration and challenge in things like music, meditation, mathematics, mountaineering, magic, and all other ways of authentic being-in-the-world. Women totally free and equal. A new kind of family – responsible, but more festive and relaxed – is implicit.
Since it doesn’t seem practical or even desirable to think that direct bloody force will achieve much, it would be best to consider this a continuing “revolution of consciousness” which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won’t seem worth living unless one’s on the transforming energy’s side. We must take over “science and technology” and release its real possibilities and powers in the service of this planet – which, after all produced us and it.
[More concretely: no transformation without our feet on the ground. Stewardship means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there – the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters – local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point. On all levels from national to local the need to move toward steady state economy-equilibrium, dynamic balance, inner-growth stressed – must be taught. Maturity/diversity climax/ creativity.]
We are the first human beings in history to have so much of human culture and previous experience available to our study, and to be free enough of the weight of traditional cultures to seek out a larger identity; the first members of a civilized society since the Neolithic to wish to look clearly into the eyes of the wild and see our self-hood, our family, there. We have these advantages to set off the obvious disadvantages of being as screwed up as we are – which gives us a fair chance to penetrate some of the riddles of ourselves and the universe, and to go beyond the idea of “humanity’s survival” or “survival of the biosphere” and to draw our strength from the realization that at the heart of things is some kind of serene and ecstatic process which is beyond qualities and beyond birth-and-death.
Whoa! In 28 years of revolutionary (and counter-revolutionary Cold War) social change, leading American male thinkers have gone from defending the nation state against foreign enemies, to inner-directed ecstatic personal liberation, and total ecological transformation of industrial civilization – absolutely essential for survival today, through comprehensive, relentless and non-violent social action as a way of life! NO WONDER we had that mind-numbing, money-grubbing, torture-loving backlash in the ‘70s and after! Too damn many people taking democracy entirely too seriously…
As Gil-Scott Heron put it: “Godammit! First one wants freedom, then the whole world wants freedom.” All that neoliberal claptrap about “greed is good” and letting “The Market” (holy, holy Market – we are not worthy!) decide everything, until we landed in this pile of crap behind our very own war criminal tyrants George W. Bush and his smirking henchman Cheney… But I digress.
Professor Henry Giroux of McMaster University in Canada is an educational and cultural expert, and a semi-frequent contributor to the Counterpunch.org web site, which I personally have to visit at least several times a week to avoid [even more] severe psychological/emotional damage from living in the 21st century. His erudite February 6 essay, entitled “Educating Obama,” surveys the present consequences of the last three decades’ neoliberalism. He explores some of the intellectual contours of a new hope that is taking shape. He shows, among many other things, how timely and critical the past insights of both FDR and Gary Snyder are to our present crises of survival and freedom.
Professor Giroux’s essay struggles courageously against many progressives’ perfectly understandable negative reactions to the tax cheat/bankster-dominated beginning of Obama-time:
either a deep sense of despair in light of his increasing political shift to the center, or a doom-and-gloom cynicism in the face of economic crisis.
Giroux doesn’t stop there:
At stake is the need for a new politics of resistance and hope, one that mounts a collective challenge to a ruthless market fundamentalism that for the last thirty years has spearheaded the accumulation of capital and wealth at all costs, the commodification of young people, and the usurpation of democratic modes of sovereignty. In the depths of massive human suffering, a financial Katrina, millions of displaced lives, a weakened social state and a failing democracy made all the more ominous by the dumbing down of public discourse and the emptying out of critical public spheres, democracy is about neither the sovereignty of the market nor a form of state governance based largely on fear, manipulation, and deceit.
It’s about, among many other things, defending ourselves against tyranny, following our deepest dreams and highest visions, and liberating ourselves from internal and external oppressions, even while getting the required economic, political and human work done right. Like fascism, global warming and the draft, these are important and necessary things we really can’t escape, even if we want to.
Professor Giroux continues:
Democracy is not simply about people wanting to improve their lives; it is more importantly about their willingness to struggle to protect their right to self-determination and self-government in the interest of the common good. The militarized corporate state and the sovereign market reduce democracy to either an overcrowded prison or a shopping mall, both of which are vulnerable to totalitarianism. The fundamental institutional and educational conditions of social, political, and personal rights have been under attack for the last thirty years, and now face a moment of crisis as severe as the current economic crisis. Corporate culture reigns unchallenged as the most powerful force in the country, while democracy becomes dangerously empty. We need more than bailouts; we need a politics that reinvents the concept of the social, while providing a language of critique and hope forged not in isolation but in collective struggle that takes social responsibility, commitment, and justice seriously.
Looking back at FDR’s inspiring words and Gary Snyder’s visionary ideas synthesizing east with west and inner with outer realities, we can see with Professor Giroux that The Good Society and The Good Life are all about reinventing “the democratic way of life” in our world and time, making it real and relevant in our lives, and applying it to the pursuit of sustainability as the basis for happiness. The “hope” of the Obama era lies in our struggle, and his and our growth, toward real democracy, FDR’s “rights and dignity of all,” “the justice of morality,” and the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Living in a democratic society means changing our “selves” and our culture, and in this mess nothing short of total transformation will do the trick. In short, we have to love and fight and create and work and organize and dance, so that life won’t seem worth living unless one’s on the transforming energy’s side, on our side. Our very lives depend on it.
Again, according to Professor Giroux:
We live at a time when social bonds are crumbling and institutions that provide collective help are disappearing. Reclaiming these social bonds and the protections of the social state, in part, means developing a new mode of politics and education in which a critically educated public is as central to this struggle as the future of the democratic society it once symbolized. At the heart of this struggle for both young people and adults is the pressing problem of organizing and energizing a vibrant cultural politics to counter the conditions of political apathy, distrust, and social disengagement so pervasive under the politics of neoliberalism. For this we need a new vocabulary, social movements and modes of collective resistance that are democratic in nature and global in reach. This is a moment in which education becomes the foundation not simply for collective change but also for a rewriting of the social contract, an expansion of the meaning of social responsibility, and a renewed struggle to take democracy back from the dark times that have inched us so close to an unimaginable authoritarianism.
Militarism, racism, empire, peak oil, climate catastrophe and authoritarian responses to the crises of our time will kill us. Dead. We can either fight back, following the light from the past, when people fought other destructive forces and injustices for a future worth living in, or we can wish to go back to “normal,” roll over and give it up to corporate rule. Because we’ve gotten used to not thinking or seeing, and comfortable doing things the same way things have been done to get us into this fix.
Positive attitude and vision, or passive acceptance of a world gone crazy and terribly wrong. We have to find other ways to live in this world, for human rights, for balance with nature, for survival. Learn from both the good and the bad things in our past. Our choice. Our future.
TOM STEPHENS is a lawyer in Detroit. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
“eschatology:” the body of religious doctrines concerning the human soul in its relation to death, judgment, heaven, and hell. [Mid-19thc coined from the Greek eskhatos “last” + -LOGY] (ENCARTA WORLD ENGLISH DICTIONARY 1999)
“Educating Obama: A Task to Make Democracy Matter,” at: https://www.counterpunch.org/giroux02062009.html Like Gary Snyder’s “Four Changes,” it is closely paraphrased here.