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Rebecca Solnit: We Could Be Heroes

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My friend Jaime Cortez, a magnificent person and writer, sent this my way: "At a dinner party recently, I expressed my pleasure that some parts of Obamacare passed, and starting 2014, the picture would be improved. I was regaled with reminders of the horrors of the drone program that Obama supports, and reminded how inadequate Obamacare was. I responded that it is not perfect, but it was an incremental improvement, and I was glad for it. But really, I felt dumb and flat-footed for being grateful."

The Emperor Is Naked and Uninteresting  

Maybe it's part of our country's Puritan heritage, of demonstrating one's own purity and superiority rather than focusing on fixing problems or being compassionate. Maybe it comes from people who grew up in the mainstream and felt like the kid who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that there were naked lies, hypocrisies, and corruptions in the system.

Believe me, a lot of us already know most of the dimples on the imperial derriere by now, and there are other things worth discussing. Often, it's not the emperor that's the important news anyway, but the peasants in their revolts and even their triumphs, while this mindset I'm trying to describe remains locked on the emperor, in fury and maybe in self-affirmation.

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When you're a hammer everything looks like a nail, but that's not a good reason to continue to pound down anything in the vicinity. Consider what needs to be raised up as well.  Consider our powers, our victories, our possibilities; ask yourself just what you're contributing, what kind of story you're telling, and what kind you want to be telling.

Sitting around with the first occupiers of Zuccotti Park on the first anniversary of Occupy, I listened to one lovely young man talking about the rage his peers, particularly his gender, often have.  But, he added, fury is not a tactic or a strategy, though it might sometimes provide the necessary energy for getting things done.

There are so many ways to imagine this mindset -- or maybe its many mindsets with many origins -- in which so many are mired. Perhaps one version devolves from academic debate, which at its best is a constructive, collaborative building of an argument through testing and challenge, but at its worst represents the habitual tearing down of everything, and encourages a subculture of sourness that couldn't be less productive.

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Can you imagine how far the Civil Rights Movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough? To hell with integrating the Montgomery public transit system when the problem was so much larger!  

Picture Gandhi's salt marchers b*tching all the way to the sea, or the Zapatistas, if Subcomandante Marcos was merely the master kvetcher of the Lacandon jungle, or an Aung San Suu Kyi who conducted herself like a caustic American pundit. Why did the Egyptian revolutionary who told me about being tortured repeatedly seem so much less bitter than many of those I run into here who have never suffered such harm?

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn't -- and that it never will be. That's why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through e'lan, esprit du corps, fierce hope, and generous hearts.

We talk about prefigurative politics, the idea that you can embody your goal. This is often discussed as doing your political organizing through direct-democratic means, but not as being heroic in your spirit or generous in your gestures.

Left-Wing Vote Suppression

One manifestation of this indiscriminate biliousness is the statement that gets aired every four years: that in presidential elections we are asked to choose the lesser of two evils. Now, this is not an analysis or an insight; it is a cliche', and a very tired one, and it often comes in the same package as the insistence that there is no difference between the candidates. You can reframe it, however, by saying: we get a choice, and not choosing at all can be tantamount in its consequences to choosing the greater of two evils.

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But having marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to health care is not the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values perfectly. Yet people are willing to use this "evils" slogan to wrap up all the infinite complexity of the fate of the Earth and everything living on it and throw it away.

I don't love electoral politics, particularly the national variety. I generally find such elections depressing and look for real hope to the people-powered movements around the globe and subtler social and imaginative shifts toward more compassion and more creativity. Still, every four years we are asked if we want to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic. The usual reply on the left is that there's no difference between the two experiences and they prefer that Che Guevara give them a spa pedicure. Now, the Che pedicure is not actually one of the available options, though surely in heaven we will all have our toenails painted camo green by El Jefe.

Before that transpires, there's something to be said for actually examining the differences.  In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it's that the people in question won't be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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