It is the privilege of the moderator to pull excellent comments onto the front page. In that spirit, I direct your attention to this contribution by John A Arkansawyer in the Open Thread:
I’ve been thinking about something since giving a talk at the local Occupation about lessons from the Civil Rights Movement for Occupy, and this is, I think, the place I have to share it.
There were three great rights movements in America with material causes stemming from World War II: the human rights of Blacks, women, and gays and lesbians. There’s a working consensus, ranging from a huge majority to a bare one, for equal rights for those classes in principle; in practice there’s still a fight, but now it’s about how to get what’s right, not what is right.
At the same time, the relative prosperity of the post-war labor truce allowed a more comfortable living for more Americans. Eventually, that truce broke down and economic inequality began its rise.
During this period, those rights movements were still able to make progress, but this progress came at a price. More and more, some of us found ourselves defending the rights of people to enter, on a non-discriminatory basis, an economic and social elite which we considered illegitimate in the first place. Is it progress when Empire is furthered by Colin Powell or Hillary Clinton?
The logic of equal rights under an unfair system means exactly that. I personally find the end result distasteful, but then, that’s how I felt about the result of the N*z*s marching at Skokie. Human rights are absolutes. If defending that principle means some people who benefit from it do bad things with those rights? That’s on their conscience and a new addition to my fix-it list.
Defending those human rights comes at a personal and political cost, and I’ve been happy to pay it over the years, especially during the ones when it seemed nothing would end plutocracy and war.
Now, right now, there is suddenly, for whatever reason, a resurgence of unrest which has broken the frame of market fundamentalism. Through that break, other things than an awareness of economic inequality have come through. Some of them are just plain bad, some are trivial, and a few are fundamental. Civil liberties in a broad sense is one and ending the endless war is another.
Right now, those appear to be possibilities, items on the agenda, that haven’t been there for some time. Those three biggies—economic inequality, civil liberties, endless war—are no less important to me than the rights movements (for which I will also continue to fight) and no less important to others. I want those on whose side I’ve put myself, for good, in this with me.
This is a time to take risks.
There is no one piece of progress, I think, so precious that it may not be risked for any other.
The historical example making that point in my talk was the Birmingham civil rights battle of 1963, where a depleted leadership sent children onto marches and into attack dogs, fire hoses, beatings, and jail. It was a terrible thing to risk, and taking that risk was the right decision, both tactically and morally. It has become one of my touchstones when I am troubled.
I would ask those of you who focus yourselves on various worthy causes you and I both support to consider what changes you might be willing to risk at this remarkable time in history.
On the one hand, I agree with John: this does appear to be a chance for some of the big issues of our day to make it back into the national discourse. But my agreement is balanced by a concern for the fate of reforms left half-completed. As I said in the ill-fated Ron Paul thread:
…there’s no reform deader than a half-completed and abandoned one.* If we lose this stuff now, we lose it for years. There are people who already make it their electoral platform to ensure that we do.
It would have to be a pretty iron-clad guarantee of tangible progress in the other issues [genuine engagement with the wider world on an equal basis, the reining-in of corporatocracy, and reversing the steady erosion of civil rights for the population as a whole] to make me risk what we have and what we are building. I probably would, though, if it were in the offing. But I don’t know that other liberals would, particularly not gays, not at this stage of things.
But I’m not seeing that kind of chance in any candidate, not even Paul.
* ERA, anyone? And health care was an order of magnitude harder because of Clinton.
In my more pessimistic moments, I think that the tension between these two concerns is the civics equivalent of trying to choose between predestination and free will: if they’re not both true, we’re screwed anyway, so why pick?
In a more optimistic turn of mind, I know that it is choices like these that make politics more of an art than a science. Furthermore, since the pursuit of excellence in art is one of the classical roads to wisdom, these are the moments that show us not just what we are, but what we can become.