So, the FISA bill passed. And today began just as any other day. The sun came up. We drank a cup of coffee. Some of us lit a cigarette - or did any number of things that others do not approve of - and we were not locked up for it. To note the obvious, that the sky did not fall, is not akin to saying that a bill inoculating telecommunications companies against civil lawsuits (and retroactively so) for following invasive government orders, was a good thing.
When I got off the bus for so many years and wandered around the outskirts, those experiences from that vantage point allowed me to see, more clearly, the United States of America, its culture and its politics, more truly as it is. It's a big part of how I've been able to, this year, predict some major events before they happened. I've concluded that a much bigger problem in the USA than any piece of legislation passed by Congress is the petrified manner in which so many Americans define and limit their participation in current events.
It's just to say that it is what it is, and life goes on, and so does the daily struggle to defend our personal and collective freedom on so many fronts.
Only in America do a significant number of people equate expressions of outrage and indignation du jour as somehow being akin to the hard work of political activism or participation. And I hate to say it, but this delusion is worse, much worse, on the left side of the dial where reaction is the standard operating procedure in place of authentic action. I speak, therefore I act is the great American illusion of politics. Sorry, but no. Only when our speech effectively causes others to act does it rise to the level of poetry (which, as Vaneigem wrote, "seldom exists in poems"). Have you ever had to sit through a poetry reading by a particularly bad poet? That's what I feel like when I find myself to trying to listen to what too many people consider activism. They're blathering on and my eyes are drooping as I'm eyeing the wall clock and the exit sign, twirling my cigarette lighter as if a rosary bead necklace.
The phenomenon of "outrage activism" in the United States - something I just haven't experienced to that degree in other lands - is understandable on a certain level: Since 1980, the United States has been plagued by presidents that routinely did outrageous things and did insufficient good things to make up for it. One could even say that with the exception of a few expressions of basic human decency by Jimmy Carter, that this perpetual disappointment has recycled itself since 1963, or even since 1945, and has wrought a permanent character trait that has calcified around the US body politic and most pointedly among those with liberal or progressive tendencies. Most Americans don't even know what real change could look like, and probably won't recognize it, or even find it scary, at first, when it does come.
I return to what Senator Obama actually said about what he will do after the FISA vote, should he get to the White House, because, well, we are now in that time and space:
Given the choice between voting for an improved yet imperfect bill, and losing important surveillance tools, I've chosen to support the current compromise. I do so with the firm intention -- once I'm sworn in as President -- to have my Attorney General conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future.
Now, I understand why some of you feel differently about the current bill, and I'm happy to take my lumps on this side and elsewhere. For the truth is that your organizing, your activism and your passion is an important reason why this bill is better than previous versions. No tool has been more important in focusing peoples' attention on the abuses of executive power in this Administration than the active and sustained engagement of American citizens. That holds true -- not just on wiretapping, but on a range of issues where Washington has let the American people down.
I learned long ago, when working as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago, that when citizens join their voices together, they can hold their leaders accountable. I'm not exempt from that. I'm certainly not perfect, and expect to be held accountable too. I cannot promise to agree with you on every issue. But I do promise to listen to your concerns, take them seriously, and seek to earn your ongoing support to change the country...
There's an interesting paradox here: We don't want the president to eavesdrop, but we do want him to listen. I particularly liked these words in that statement:
And going forward, some of you may decide that my FISA position is a deal breaker. That's ok.
In other words, the veteran community organizer has heard it all before: the declaratory politics of "do exactly what I say or I'm getting off the bus!" Okay, well those people are off the bus now. Or are they? My own organizing experience tells me that the same people (and in the age of anonymous Internet handles there's so little accountability to track it numerically) will move on to the next outrage-of-the-day and declare, all over again, that if the nominee doesn't do as they say on their next ultimatum issue, they will be getting off the bus all over again. And we scratch our heads wondering, didn't that guy loudly announce his exit weeks ago? Sadly, a lot of such "activism" is driven by folks that have a hard time commanding or holding on to our attention in other aspects of daily life, and see such proclamations errantly as a way to accomplish that.
As the saying goes: How can I miss you if you never go away?
Or another of my favorite fortune-cookie axioms: He who says a thousand goodbyes never leaves.
It's the only dance move that some people know. Their miscalculation is thinking that the rest of us worry ourselves or lose sleep over whether they're on or off the bus. Part of the American experience - indeed, a key chapter of every Campbellian "hero's journey" - is the act of wandering out into the wilderness from time to time, learning a few new tricks, and coming back better armed to fight the battles that matter.
For those that feel their own participation is stuck in an ineffective rut, and cry out in frustration about deal breakers and and "getting off the bus" and such, as one who's been there, I highly recommend the voyage. And the fact that nobody really cared about - and few even noticed - my disappearance turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because the lessons are better learned with both feet out, and not merely by straddling the exit door, hanging halfway off of the proverbial bus while warning the other passengers over and over again that one is about to step off, as that's when the chances of getting hit by a truck, and tumbling underneath, are far greater. And that can make one's head hurt.