Years ago I remember a debate published between Michael Harrington and Christopher Lasch in The New York Review of Books about the efficacy of working inside the “system” or outside it to create social change. (I might be wrong about the publication—it was a long time ago.)
Since that read, this debate has been a major part of my life as well as my political thinking. Although my stint in Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) was obviously a “within,” the program I helped developed was not–and, by design. The People’s School, a storefront project that worked with high-school dropouts to eighty year olds, staffed by volunteers, had nothing to do with the Chicago school system. “Inside” or “out?” Both, really. VISTA paid my salary.
I was offered a job in Boston at Project Place, which, at the time, was a worker run collective where paid workers and volunteers made collective decisions about defining and running our different projects. And there were many: a counseling center, 24/7 telephone emergency hotline, runaway houses, legal aid, ambulance, and more. All the services were free, which meant private and public fundraising. “Inside” or “out?” Also both.
I’ve always leaned toward the “outside” argument and lived much of my life as an “outsider.” Never felt easy in schools and have no high-school or college diplomas to show for that discomfort–though I attended both, even graduate school, for at least a while.
This headset continued when I decided to write detective fiction. My main character, Matt Jacob, is definitely a person who works outside any system. And while he is an exaggeration, the apple never falls far from the tree. When Random House systematically tried to censure my work (another story for another time) I picked up my fourth book and lawyered out of my contract. In fact, if it weren’t for the radical changes in publishing and the ability to totally control all aspects of my writing and (soon to be) E-books, I’d a never returned.
But for me, one of the largest outside/inside issue has been the ballot box. I just could never buy the “better of two evils,” argument as an inducement to the polls. Since 1972 and George McGovern I’ve never voted in another federal election. Until 2008 when I not only voted, but worked for the Obama campaign.
Some of it was purely personal. My father owned a tavern in a small town when I was growing up. At that time, when a Black person walked into the bar and was served, immediately upon his departure, whoever was bartending had to make a show of breaking his glass. Not because my father personally disliked Black people; he campaigned among this friends and voted for Obama in 2008. If the glass had remained intact he would have been out of business the next day. Literally.
So for me, the notion of a progressive Black having an opportunity to actually win the presidency was right up there with smashing the Berlin wall.
I knew Obama had emerged from Chicago politics and all that implies. But after Bush’s eight years, two wars, the disgusting Patriot Act, and a myriad of other repressive measures, I thought the country was ready for significant change and believed he thought the same. He was going to be a difference maker.
I was wrong. Although the Obama administration has accomplished things I believe in—a terribly flawed but better than nothing health care law, abolished Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, non-enforcement of The Defense of Marriage Act, some Wall Street and credit reforms, he simply hasn’t hurdled my “pass/fail” process of looking at life.
We now have three wars. One without any discussion of an “end game.” Guantanamo remains open and people held captive without any hope of due process. And most importantly the nation’s wealth is still shoveled to the rich while the poor and middle class have their services and safety nets dismantled.
I understand that the first two years of his administration was hampered by “Blue Dog Democrats”. I also understand that the Republicans now control the House. But maybe it’s time for Barak Obama to read that debate between Michael Harrington and Christopher Lasch. Despite being president, maybe it’s time to work “outside” the world of political compromise because leading from behind the pack and acquiescing to right wing blackmail just isn’t working.
Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about 2012.
HOW CAN YOU BE IN TWO PLACES AT ONCE IF YOU’RE NOWHERE AT ALL?
The Firesign Theatre