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The Tyranny of Low Expectations

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Years ago, I was sitting in a cafe' with my rabble-rousing friend James, both of us gnawing our teeth over the myriad difficulties facing the peace and social justice movement. We cited the usual suspects that stood in the way of progress: the entrenched corporate and financial elite; the embedded Pentagon machine; too much TV.

"But you know what our biggest problem is?" James asked, growing animated. "It's our low expectations! Think about it, man. Folks in this country will always fight for their rights when pushed hard enough, yet we always seem to settle for crumbs, grateful to achieve anything. And that's because we've accepted that we can't win much anymore. I mean, we want a better world, can imagine one, but we don't expect it, not really."

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James went on to say that our expectations are triply low for our so-called political leaders in Congress and the White House. It's common, for example, to acknowledge that politicians are all "just a bunch of crooks and lairs."

"I don't know how many times I've heard these words, or said them myself," James continued. "Yet we still settle for crap like "the lesser of two evils,' as if that's the best we can do, the most we can hope for. But for the most part, we don't accept that "quality' about our teachers and doctors--or even our car mechanics! We hold them to at least a level of competency and good intention. So why do we accept the opposite for people who are responsible for the life and death of millions? How pitiful is that?"

James had a point, and his words ring truer to me now than when he uttered them a decade ago. This lowering of the bar has gone on for having a president who can speak in complete sentences is considered a lofty achievement. If the sentences are about the righteousness of war and empire, well, hey, how about those active verbs, huh? Who needs substance when you can work a crowd?

I guess a case can be made that with Obama, people's expectations were initially not low but high, maybe even unreasonably high. I submit, however, that deep down most people really didn't expect that much from his administration. It was the very idea of his election that was embraced, a symbol that a Black man can actually become president. Yes there was great hope, but great expectations?

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Whatever the case, it seems increasingly the case that we now live under a full-scale tyranny of low expectations; a resignation to despair that has narrowed our struggle and sapped our vision of what is possible. As David Michael Green, professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York City explained, the practice of our politics is so broken today, that "even good Americans--of generous intentions, thoughtful analysis and progressive dispositions--are losing the capacity to imagine genuine alternatives to an American politics which offers the choice between right, far right and hysterical right, all of them differing only in the shading of the patina they spray over their common oligarchical core." (Jan. 10, Information Clearing House)

Professor Green called this condition "an utter failure of the imagination" and the victory of a "regressive framing effort" that has cast even common sense issues into a bewildering and complicated morass. "What could be easier to figure out than nationalized healthcare, when every other developed country in the world already does it?" Green asks. "Yet a lot of progressives in America have been trained to lower their expectations enough to ignore the existence of these ideas and models."

Let me end by saying that I'm guilty of these low expectations also. Despite not being caught up in Obamamania, and sticking to my guns that both the Republicans and Democratic Party are tools of imperialism, I often think that we've reached the end of the road. That the most we in the social justice movement can do is keep up the good fight, lumber forward and play the crummy cards we've been dealt.

There are still days when I try to maintain a revolutionary optimism, i.e. a belief based not on abstract hope but in the power of collective action; in the knowledge that a people's movement has won before and can do so again, even when victory seems impossible. But it's becoming increasingly hard to keep the faith, so to speak.

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David Pe'rez is a journalist, actor and editor raised in the South Bronx, New York, and currently living in Taos, New Mexico. He has investigated and written on social justice issues, the environment, the U.S. electoral farce, and the struggle (more...)

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The Tyranny of Low Expectations