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Commentary :: Activism

The Ehrlich Report

A monthly commentary on politics and more
Ehrlich’s Report

I had finished yesterday’s emails and over a second cup of coffee was skimming the New Yorker, also yesterday’s, when I came across a cartoon that sent me scurrying back to my keyboard. The setting was plain—two men in suits sitting at a bar talking. One of them says to the other “Sure, we have common ground with Middle America—we’re all carbon-based life forms.”

My initial reaction was a weak smile, but by the time I reached the movie reviews, right before the end of the magazine, I had to go back to the cartoon. I could say I had an epiphany, not in the religious sense, of course. Obviously, Americans have more in common. Just the same, the cartoon has that kernel of truth that characterizes a compelling stereotype. Now I identify with “Middle America.” I would strongly identify with it if I knew exactly where it was. I spent a good part of my life living in Columbus, Ohio, East Lansing, Michigan, and Iowa City, Iowa. I suppose we could all agree that these are in the Midwest, but I am not sure we would all agree that these are Middle America, or are in Middle America.

I can hear the objection being mobilized: these are all university towns. College towns are not real towns. They are populated by a transient agglomeration of young adults. Forget the politeness, they’re kids. Most of them have little idea why they are there except that “everybody’s got to be someplace.” (That’s a punch line to an old joke, but a different story.) Much of their time, including classroom time, is spent in mindless activism. I submit this proposition as evidence that the population of these cities is no different than the residents of the rest of Middle America.

There is an unfortunate flaw to my argument. I have to admit it: the population of these cities is no different from the residents of the rest of America. Maybe being carbon-based life forms is closer to reality than I have admitted. But seriously folks....

At least half of the country is politically Alienated, Ignorant, in Denial, and Self-rejecting. The acronym for that is AIDS, call it Sociological AIDS. It is a social disease that rots the brain. It is fatal, though a small number manage to survive. Most all are not and will never be politically active. The closest to a political activism they manifest is as “free riders.” That is, they travel along with the political current whatever it is, wherever it flows. Incidentally, though in a different time and culture, that’s why Mao Zedong targeted the “intellectuals.” He saw them as free riders and thus as the potential enemies of the revolution.

These days the rest of America is in a reformist mode. Unfortunately there are three camps, the religionists, the populists, and the antiauthoritarians. The religionists, not to be confused with people of a genuine spirituality, are protofascists. The world—if not eternity—belongs to those who have been born again, and they are the keepers of our moral values. Two out of four Americans lay claim to a rebirth. Their god, who has personally revealed himself to them, places little value on human life here on earth. Democracy and its fundamental nderpinnings of civil liberties are seen as subversive political mechanisms. Their delusional system, in another sociocultural context, would define them as being in borderline contact with the world, if not as borderline personalities.

The populists who claim, with some minor rationalization, that they represent the “rank and file” or the “grassroots,” have a serious, but seriously flawed, view of democracy. To begin with, they define democracy as an exclusively political process, that is, a process circumscribed by government and governance. Populists are “authoritarian,” but will take offense at the appellation. The world, in their view, is highly stratified and, for them, that is not a bad thing. They may reject hierarchies based on “race, class, and gender” —the triplets of fashionable sociology today—but they do not reject the construction of hierarchy. For them, direct democracy is cumbersome if not unworkable and is not a mechanism for decision-making in the workplace, the school, and certainly not in government

The third camp is populated by antiauthoritarians. They are not reformist in the sense that they typically have or are abandoning participation in the established political system. They view political change as a process, but unlike the religionists and the populists their theory flows from their practice. (It has been the dominant paradigm of other movements that theory directs practice, although everyone hopes for an “interaction” between the two.) The antiauthoritarians, mainly anarchists, reject the principles of hierarchical organization and view their efforts at building oppositional and egalitarian institutions as their primary mechanism of change.

There are these many Americas: the free riders who blithely drift about everywhere; the sociologically AIDS victims who are also to be found everywhere; the religionists who populate the South, the upper Midwest, parts of the Northwest and rural America; and the populists and antiauthoritarians who seem to live together mainly in the larger cities across the country. I guess the New Yorker cartoonist was right, after all. Our major commonality is that we are carbon- based life forms.


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