Letter to a Discouraged Progressive

The year 2010 has not been kind to the majority of the world’s people. From the streets of Chicago to those of Port-au-Prince, Kabul and Athens, life has gotten harder for ordinary folks, while the ruling elites have become even more tyrannical than at any time in recent memory.

Or so it seems from the vantage point of the Empire’s crumbling financial center where I live, New York City.

The hopes many around the world had placed in a Black American president have long faded; even Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters can’t muster a compelling call to the ballot box to stir his disgruntled base. Obama’s flaccid response to the crises around him and embrace of right-wing Clintonite triangulation has resurrected and even legitimized the right.

It seems that everywhere you turn there are reasons to despair?endless wars and occupations, ecological disaster beyond belief and of course, joblessness and the downward spiral of living conditions for workers everywhere. Overall, 17.9% of Black men are without a job, and in New York City only one in four Black men between 16 and 24 are employed.

It’s enough at times to make the most ardent hopemonger among us?that would be me?yield to the prevailing gloom and resignation. But if you allow your gaze to take in only the horrors of the system and you turn a blind eye to the developing responses and politicization, then defeat is almost certain and hopelessness is reaffirmed.

This isn’t a holiday cheer-up message. I’m a devout atheist with no faith in anything beyond the power of ordinary people to take collective action to change their circumstances. No, this is a blunt and urgent reminder that one of the most crucial weapons of the ruling classes of the world is their ability to disarm us?ideologically, emotionally and physically?by pounding into us a distorted and partial picture of our situation.

How else can a tiny class of parasites remain in control unless they convince us that we have no alternatives to the ones their barbaric system puts on offer?

The massive strikes and protests against austerity and injustice taking place in Rome, London, Paris and Athens ?pitched in the U.S. media as “riots”?are very real and very encouraging. They are Europe’s best hope. But, you ask, what about here?

Well, what about here? To be sure, we appear far from surrounding our own wannabe monarchs’ cars and shouting “Off with their heads,” as they did with Prince Charles and Camilla in London last week. (Please, brothers and sisters of Britain, complete your bourgeois revolution already and bring down that useless family’s reign.)

But while the level of struggle remains low in the United States, it is not always subterranean. There are even protests and strikes occurring in the most unlikely places?among prisoners and doctors.

In Georgia, where one in twelve adults is in jail, prison or on parole or probation, “prisoners are us,” as Black Agenda Report puts it. A strike of historic proportions among Muslims, Blacks, Mexicans and whites has been taking place in Georgia’s state prisons since last week. They are demanding pay for their work, opportunities for education, decent health care and nutrition.

These prisoners are peaceful, well-organized and united?in defiance of every expectation and in the face of a thuggish corrections system attempting to goad them to violence. But prison strikers are asserting their humanity in a place designed to rob men and women of their souls.

At Harlem Hospital, 75 percent of 200 unionized doctors voted to strike against pay cuts, the loss of tuition reimbursement and sick days, as well as inferior benefits. The physicians settled without a strike last night, but the proletarianization of their working conditions, like those of teachers and other professionals, are compelling even those we’re accustomed to thinking of as above resistance to reconsider their options.

The senselessness of Obama’s “little Gitmos,” domestic Guant?namos where entrapped Muslim victims like the Newburgh 4, the Fort Dix 5 and the North Carolina 7 languish in solitary confinement, is forcing family members and new allies to unite their efforts and build a broad solidarity movement. More than 120 people attended the first meeting last evening where 13 families told their kafkaesque stories and everyone huddled and strategized.

All of this is happening within a broader context of discontent and unease beginning to show itself in all sorts of small ways?from successful anti-eviction fights in Boston and Chicago to the packed community hearings in cities across the country where budget cuts are debated.

Even the world’s most vilified people, the Palestinians, are gaining a greater hearing than ever on campuses and in communities in this country. Since May, when Israel massacred 9 activists on their way to Gaza with humanitarian aid, new Students for Justice in Palestine groups began forming, and now a first-ever US Boat to Gaza is organizing to join the next international aid flotilla and a newly emerging International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network is mobilizing alongside Arab and Muslim groups to expose Israel’s lies.

I know, we are far from the level of organizing and political cohesion required to win these fights. But we are about to enter a phase when the right wing will have to go from spitting out idiocies on Fox News to actually pursuing their slash and burn policies, with the Democrats in open collaboration.

If progressives continue to look upward toward politicians for answers, disappointment is guaranteed. But there are more people than in decades attending leftist meetings, reading left-wing blogs and Web sites and seeking out independent left alternatives to the politics of Washington.

What will it look like when American workers and students get more organized?to the background of scenes of Europe and elsewhere in open rebellion playing on TV and YouTube?

I don’t honestly know what it looks like when a society starts to go from grumbling into mass resistance. I’m too young to have experienced the last major upheavals, despite my head of salt of pepper hair. It’s actually been that long.

But perhaps this is what it looks like. Decades of crapification, deep crisis, illusions in a great leader, deeper crisis, mass upheavals elsewhere, discontent in great leader, stirrings, setbacks, small actions, politicization and so on from there.

I am certain of two things: 1) The numbers of people wanting to read and figure out a way forward are greater than at any time in my adult life; and 2) The worst thing a progressive can do these days is sit at home, alone, and fret. It only reinforces the isolation and defeat that the people at the top want us to absorb. We have a long road ahead, but there are actions to get involved in and groups to join.

As I look toward the next year, I think about the teachings of Howard Zinn, a kind and brilliant historian who passed away early this year after a life well-lived and engaged in struggle.

In You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn was at his hopemongering best:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places?and there are so many?where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of the world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

SHERRY WOLF is the author of Sexuality and Socialism. She blogs at Sherry Talks Back.