Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Angel of History is Pissed

We won! We regained the majority! I have repeated this to myself over and over again for the past two weeks, trying to adjust to the feeling of possibility and hope, and to cast off the oppressive feeling of political doom.

For the past six years, I have been tense with rage, as, I'm sure, have many of you. Now that we have won, I wonder: what do we do? how should we be? Politically, it is perhaps time for our elected officials to shift the discourse from outraged, but impotent minority to poised, powerful, and principled majority, in control and ready to steer the country toward the horizon of justice for all. We have seen the rhetoric of bipartisanship and moderation, and discussed its benefits and perils here with intensity.
We, the people, elect our officials, and these politicians are our representatives, but we (the people and the politicians) operate in and on different aspects of lived experience, and with different parameters and protocols. Closer to the mechanisms of power, they need to be much more measured and focused in their deployment of productive energy. That is their task--to help materialize our ideals of justice and equality.

But I believe it is always the task of "we, the people," to be the guardians of outrage, to bear the cries of justice for those neglected, disappeared, annihilated, silenced, brutalized, victimized, oppressed, repressed, negated, forgotten. We have wider latitude to form our productive energy in a variety of ways. We, the people, are powered by a freer freedom of expression than are our elected officials. And this for the good, imho. We can sing, shout, march, yell, blog, talk, make art, and express our demands for justice in nearly unlimited ways. And now that our hard work has paid off and we've won, how should we move forward? How should we continue to make progress?

One of my favorite writers Walter Benjamin reflected on the injustice of so-called progress in "Theses on the Philosophy of History," the last essay he wrote before committing suicide when he thought he would be unable to escape the Nazis. In this highly stylized, poetic, stacatto polemic, he essentially cautions progressives against the complacency of good conscience, and the unquestioned faith in history as steady progress (the politics of faithful patience). Benjamin thought that any movement forward was better powered by memories of injustice than by projections of future happiness, as if the hunger for justice were best "nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren."

We, the people, animate our elected officials by being guardians of these violent and violated memories; we stir our leaders to action with the passion for justice. We throw open the Overton Window. We roll with the angel of history and the angel is pissed. Walter Benjamin conjures the angry force of history.

A Klee painting named `Angelus Novus' shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

A little while back, I wrote about the so-called division between purism and pragmatism. I believe that we, the people, can both cry out in the purist voice of rage that animates justice, and channel that rage into a pragmatic politics without sacrificing principles. It's not so much that we need to rage against the machine as recognize that from the netroots up righteous rage powers the machine, the machinery of government and the rule of law that are our best promise of justice here, now, and in the future.

Beyond Left Melancholy: Purism and Pragmatism

This diary is about how we might imagine transcending the ever-present tension between idealism/purism and pragmatism, and truly become a big tent. We experience this purism/pragmatism struggle regularly here at dKos. From the Pie Wars to all the various forms of SYFPH to the brouhaha over the Chevron ads, to whether to include anti-abortion candidates, &c, we confront the conflict of purism vs. pragmatism all the time. And with our victory in Congress, we will see that battle playing out in Washington D.C. According to the NY Times, Incoming Democrats Put Populism before Ideology:
In general, they set themselves an extraordinary (political veterans might say impossible) task: to avoid the ideological wars that have so dominated Congress in recent years, to be pragmatists, and to change the tone in Washington after a sharply partisan campaign.
Let's examine this "extraordinary" negotiation of purism and pragmatism.
I do not think that principled pragmatism is an impossibility. I think that from the hard right position we are in in America, we can only move to the left through the center. Make gains at the center while pressing the most left, progressive agenda we can by throwing open the Overton Window. (Thanks to thereisnospoon for excellent work on this and the amazing conversations it generated!)

Can we imagine a pragmatic purism? or an idealist pragmatism? I think we can. And if we can imagine such a thing, can we embody it? I think we can--I think that that is precisely the Democratic Big Tent. We are the party of difference--we understand the variety of experience, the strengths of our differences, and the difficulties that differences can bring. But we do not shy away from difference--we embrace it. We are the party of dissent and consensus, not top-down messaging. Our Big Tent needs to be held together by trust and respect. If we are the party that always looks out for the ones on the margins, we cannot neglect our own margins, and neglect our own political minorities.

Disclosure: I'm from the Mean People Suck (MPS) wing of the Democratic Party. But that doesn't always mean you'll find me allied with the Kumbaya Caucus--I'm more likely to be in step with the Ironic Ways and Means Committee. I'm all for vigorous debate, but I frown on name-calling and the habitual use of homophobic and misogynistic language to render insult and epithet.

So how do we move forward together, we purists and pragmatists?

In the 1930s, German writer Walter Benjamin wrote about what he called "left-wing melancholy," which is essentially a conservative attachment to an ideal. Recently, feminist political theorist Wendy Brown has characterized "left-wing melancholy" as

a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present.
In the melancholic attachment to an ideal, one would rather fail than participate in the supposed failure or destruction of the ideal. I think of "left-wing melancholy" as the affliction of Green Party voters in close elections and those who will "Never vote for Democratic candidate X if X does/doesn't do Y"--absolute absolutists. Melancholic attachments lead us to taking ourselves out of the game altogether.

But a new day has dawned. Can we seize on our collective good mood? Now that we have the power, we need to try and move beyond this melancholy together. But this can only be done if we recognize and continually reaffirm our commitment to the shared ideal of "equality, liberty and justice for all." It means having the trust that we are working together toward that ideal in ways that "recognize the particular character of the present." That does not just mean caving in or selling out--it means always keeping our eyes on the future and always moving in positive steps, however incremental, toward our goal. Purists may have to sacrifice their brand of purism, and pragmatists will have to work with purists to come up with feasible plans for action that do not ultimately defeat the possibility of achieving our goals. Netroots! We cannot split apart, especially now that we have won!

Let's move forward together by being pragmatic purists and idealist realists. How could such a paradox be possible? Bear with me as I turn to one of my favorite short stories, Hawthorne's "The Birth-Mark," which recounts the tale of obsessive scientist Aylmer and his unquenchable desire to rid his beautiful wife Georgiana's face of a tiny hand-shaped birthmark. Different people have different opinions of the birthmark, although all essentially agree Georgiana's beautiful. Some haters go as far to suggest, however, that precisely because she is so beautiful the flaw renders her hideous. The narrator comments:

But it would be as reasonable to say, that one of those small blue stains, which sometimes occur in the purest statuary marble, would convert the Eve of Powers to a monster.

Hawthorne is referring to one of Hiram Power's famous Eve sculptures, perhaps this one, "Eve Tempted." Powers used the blinding white marble of Seravezza, Italy. The narrator says that it would be unreasonable to think that the "small blue stains" detract from the beauty of the "purest" marble. I love, of course, that the stains are blue, but for me the beauty of this description is that the stains detract neither from the marble's beauty, nor its purity. Here is a figure for a purity that can hold difference, that can be stained and beautiful. That's how I picture our Democratic Big Tent: beautiful, earthly, blue-stained, and the embodiment of the ideal to which we aspire politically: equality, liberty and justice for all.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

November 7th is coming.

What will it bring?

These have been dark dark days. But we cannot be completely eclipsed.

Driven to despair, we have found each other and have reclaimed the possibility of changing our world.

November 7th is coming. I faltered a bit--I lost the feeling of an oncoming force for change. But I feel it now, the hand of hope.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Mandala to Take the Edge Off

It's almost too much to bear. I can't wait until 11/7. Right now this GOP perfect storm of bad news has hit me like a "positive" trauma. Can it really be true? Is the GOP really imploding? Foundering under the weight of its own corruption and obsession with consolidating power by whatever means? Could we really be on the brink of stopping Bush in his tracks? When you can't take it anymore, meditate on this mandala. Breathe deeply. Inhale, 1 ... 2 ... 3, and exhale, 1...2...3...4...5...6. Feeling better? Good. Now back to obsessively reading the Internets for the latest on the Congressional races.