Seven Degrees from Normal

Two people, eighteen years of marriage, seven college degrees.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Saving the world, part one

You must never so much as think whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.
- Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross
In the List post (see below; I'm too lazy to link), I outlined a pretty impressive set of scandals that will/may/already have dogged Bush in term two. I stopped at 18, even though I think of additions to the list practically daily. And items from the list are already appearing in the press pretty regularly. Whether the press will follow up on any of them, or do more than say "unnamed sources speaking for the administration denied any problems," remains to be seen. What else can we be doing while we watch the scandals bloom?

Anyone who wants to undo the damage Bush has done needs to offer a compelling alternative. And as I keep saying, this doesn't mean offering logical, well-reasoned, or even moral or ethical reasons to vote for people who are not Bush and who will work against Bush. People who respond to that approach are already on our side. The reality-based community knows what's going on. We need to address the fear and other psychological -- not logical -- factors that have driven some folks over into the Bush camp.

Now, I don't think everyone who voted for Bush is reachable. Some people are, frankly, either too dumb or too mean to see the dangers the man embodies. But even some of the ones you want to throw up your hands about could probably be enlightened. For an extreme example, I give you this little tragedy from Daily Kos:
I work at a domestic violence shelter in a rural conservative district in Mich. that is has had its economy gutted by NAFTA and where Christianity dominates the culture.

Yesterday while reflecting about 4 more years of Bush I was talking with a woman staying in the shelter. I will give her a fake name, lets call her Laura B. Laura is 28, pregnant, (never considered an abortion). She finished highschool and did a year of college before dropping out to have a couple of kids with her military husband. Living in Virginia on base with her autocratic mate (he doesn't allow the boys 3 and 4 to say "yeap" they have to answer "yes sir") drove her crazy and she was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. Military dude divorced her and has custody.

She came home to Mom in Mich and ended up at our shelter to try and sort out her life. (Mom has no money either and her own problems.) We, like all secular agencies, have seen a steady erosion of funds.

Laura B. has found a job working in the kitchen at a local faith based Christian College. She makes $6/hour. She drives a dying Ford Escort wagon pays $2.15/gallon for gas. Her latest crisis is her insurance expired on Oct. 9 (her ex-partner cancelled policy). She needs to come up with $211 to get insurance for one month or face a $1,000 fine if she gets caught driving with no insurance. We have some public transportation, Dial-a Ride, minibus runs between 7 am and 6 p.m., M-F $1.50 one-way. She has to be at work at 6am.

She has been walking to work lately but it is about 2 miles she is 5 months pregnant, it is dark at 5 am, and winter is coming. Solution? Go begging at the churches who seem to have money for these things. They will give her the money if she attends bible school. So last night she was at bible school until 9 p.m.

She has never attended our domestic violence support groups as she is too tired at night and goes to bed early but the bible study was not optional.

She was excited about "God's message" when she came back.

This week she moves into low income subsidized housing. Her newest crisis is she has found out when the college is closed for the Christmas holiday (one month) she has no employment. She is hoping to find temporary employment as a seasonal retail worker if the Christmas sales are brisk to tide her over. She doesn't know what she will do when the baby is born, hopes she can work up till the last week (she is on her feet all day with this job). She will be eligible for subsidized daycare.

She voted for Bush because of his "family values."
Horrifying, yes? On a listserve I belong to I recently took a stab at addressing the problem of reaching this woman and other, less extreme, examples of people who support Bush against their obvious better interests -- even against their deeply-held values.

Caveat: I only have limited experience here -- I have taught self-defense at a women's martial arts school and our school has a special concern for survivors of violence and abusive relationships. I've also taught rhetoric and composition for years at the college level, and done a bit of free-lance research into propaganda analysis. But from this experience, I can say that what I have seen work is helping people feel and appreciate the personal power they really do have -- power to make choices, to stand up for themselves, to say "no," to be a person. When people feel empowered they are essentially inoculated against the sort of fear-mongering that the Bush crew uses so often. They ask more questions because they feel they have a right to information and, moreover, they trust themselves to make good decisions once they have that information. When they know they are capable of handling real threats, they are better able to distinguish real threats from imagined ones. They do not need to rely on God or the President or Daddy to keep them safe, because they know they are responsible for their own safety. And they also know that there are worse things than being unsafe, such as ceding control over their lives and minds to entities that will betray and abuse them.

I think my experience actually extrapolates well to the current political situation, because the election made me feel like I'd just witnessed a battered woman moving back in with her abusive spouse or boyfriend: How can she do this?

From what I have seen, the kind of empowerment I'm describing happens primarily through one-on-one interaction and modeling, and it's a slow process. It has to be taught and practiced. And I think you really need individuals who embody the ideal to act as models. So is it a workable strategy for progressives? Obama's landslide victory certainly makes me hopeful.

On the rhetorical side, the promising thing is that this model of the empowered, questioning, confident individual parallels so many "old-fashioned" American ideals:

  • America is strong, not just tough. Strength implies wisdom.
  • We are good, trustworthy friends (remember the cries of disbelief after 9-11: "Why do they hate us?" We desperately want to be popular, even if we have no clue how we should go about earning popularity).
  • Americans are savvy - we have an eye for a bargain and we aren't easily fooled.
  • Americans are clever and resourceful. We are good problem-solvers.

Most "liberal values" have never been problematic to the bulk of Americans; they've just been re-defined by the right in unattractive ways. That can be countered -- and it will be doubly easy now, because all the bright shiny words that the Republicans chose for their own have now been so sullied by Bush that they have lost the glow that made them attractive to the masses in the first place. "Tax reform" means record deficits; "freedom" means dead American soldiers and endless battles dragging on in a place where we can't even keep the names straight; "moral values" means vilifying people and telling them what they can and can't do, and so on. I want to post a list of terminology here, describing some basic values that resonate deeply in America, and how they might be "re-branded" by the Democrats/progressives, but this post is getting hugely long and I need to leave for work. So I'll try to get to that this weekend. In the meantime, let me float the beginnings of a plan: what might happen if small groups of people who practice and embody the qualities I've described here (and they don't, by any means, have to be superheroes -- I'm talking about realistic, confident people, is all) could find a way to work at the state and local level to associate themselves, their attitude, and their beliefs with Democrats and Democratic candidates? What if they made organized efforts to speak to clubs, groups, or whatever? What if they found ways to be involved in community events, or even entertain people? Could that make a difference? Could they at least start to float some of these ideas and gauge whether people are as hungry for optimism, strength, kindness, and real compassion as I suspect they are? What would that kind of project look like? Would it involve formal or informal ties with the party itself? If so, at what level? How could you focus the mission of such a group? How could you measure its success? Lotta questions, I know, for a lady who says she has a plan.

Anyway, I'll close with one last hopeful though: fear is exhausting. People can't keep it up indefinitely, and I think they will eventually welcome an ideology of hope, of personal strength that does not hinge on hatred of others (also exhausting). We all need a rest. But progressives are going to have to dig a little deeper and find the energy to get the bulk of Americans feeling optimistic again. We're all at a pretty low ebb right now but if we really believe in the Good and the True than we should naturally be the ones who are able to function when times get rough. Those beliefs have to be sustaining or they aren't any good anyway, right?


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