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Joan of Arc v. Ted Kennedy: Activism and Heroism on the American Left Pt. 3 of 4 – Green Dragon
Jul 152012

Here’s part 3 of my psycho-socio-historical analysis of the impact of the experience of the Sixties Generation in helping to divide the current American left. Part 1 is here, Part 2 here. Last tomorrow!

As I was saying before that guy down at the end of the bar so rudely interrupted us…

After decades of seeing the nation regress, I believe that a sizable cohort of those who were once the young idealists of the Sixties, disillusioned, settled into a pattern where their political motivation is actually no longer to win. Throughout their adult lives, progress has been hopelessly out of reach: the country has been going backwards. Rather, this group’s primary political goal now is to derive a feeling of righteousness, and vindicate its beliefs about the world.

Having never experienced significant success—or respect—in the national policy arena, this element of the Sixties generation has learned to draw what positive experience it can from an emotional cocktail comprised of one part heroic martyrdom and two parts cynical satisfaction that they are too savvy to get fooled again.

In my experience, former Sixties Kids who fit this description make up a large and vocal chunk of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, as well as of leftist third parties such as Greens. Unable to change the world as they hoped, they settle for the moral satisfaction of telling themselves they have not sold out. They demand that leaders, likewise, hew to impractically pure positions, even if–especially if–it means they make no headway, because a good cause that fails is, in an odd way, a winner for them. It confirms they are fighting the Doomed Good Fight.

Their heroes are the likes of Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders and Barbara Lee and Jesse Jackson and Noam Chomsky and Jim Hightower, all of whom give impassioned speeches that repeat their admirers’ beliefs back to them, and help them feel they matter.

Realistically, of course, all of these are voices in the wilderness: none possesses significant political influence. But that very outsider status—the fact that they, too, like the stymied youth of the Sixties, go unheeded and ignored—makes them more credible to their supporters, not less.

It is important to note that to achieve a good feeling about having Remained Pure and Kept the Faith, people who orient to politics this way must draw a distinction between those who qualify for their noble status and those who do not. So they attack real advances towards their ostensible political goals as inadequate, and castigate those who accomplish these advances as corrupt and weak.

And the key thing to understand about this phenomenon is that the main motivation involved in engaging with politics under these terms is not to achieve policy goals.

It is self-gratification.

Let me be clear: the frustrated True Believers of the Sixties Generation got to this state for a reason. It’s not their fault. History has been thumping their cherished values and political ideals for their entire adult lives. It is no surprise that many have responded in this way.

But there is definitely something here, and we need to talk about it.

A recent example of this phenomenon in my area provoked this long series. We just went through a primary cycle for an open Congressional seat in which the two top contenders on the Democratic side were a state legislator with a superb 20-year record of effective progressive voting and leadership, and a somewhat well-known Sixties generation author without any prior policy making experience. There wasn’t a single major policy issue on which they disagreed.

From a progressive standpoint, by any objective measure this was a no-brainer. When someone proves able to deliver passage of progressive legislation many times over, that’s the guy you want to send to Congress. As it turned out, voters agreed by a wide margin.

However, the writer was heavily supported by graying left-end veterans of Sixties activism, many of whom cited—often in caustic terms—that the legislator’s experience was not a credential, but a stain. To them, the very fact that he had served in office—even though his record entirely supported the causes they claimed to care about—rendered him suspect.

He had become part of The Establishment.

Yes, someone actually used that term in discussing this election with me.

Technically, I’m a very late Baby Boomer. I was born in the early 60s, and I have memories from the time I was two. I actually remember the climate of assumed progress and enthusiasm for the future of the mid 1960s.

But by the time I came into political awareness, it wasn’t possible to be a bright-eyed idealist any longer. My earliest political memories are the murders of King and RFK, the riots, Cronkite with the body counts from Vietnam, My Lai, the Napalm Girl, and then Watergate.

Those gravitating to politics who came of age in the late 1970s already knew how bad it was, and our college years under Reagan reinforced the point. Opportunities were shriveling and the political values of the country curdled into poison. We never had a moment of we-can-do-it optimism about the future. If we chose to advocate for change, we knew the odds were long, and that sudden, sweeping social transformation only happens in fiction. If we were going to win at all, it was going to be a yard at a time, threading our way through a minefield of powerful opposition.

I explain this because mine is Barack Obama’s generation. He, too, came of age in the era of America in Conservative Decline. And as a black kid, he knew far better than I how steep it was going to be, and how much work it was going to be, step by step, to get anywhere.

My generation’s experience made clear that the righteousness of a cause did not imply any inevitability that it would succeed, and that losing is losing. There’s no nobility in it; it just means the world gets worse.

In my experience, few activists of my generation believe that being on the side of the angels has any inherent power. We know that love and belief alone are not enough to change the world. To do that, you need power—and the status quo does not surrender power willingly.

As I said: yard by yard.

[NEXT and FINAL:  What Are You In This For?]

At publication, the Dragon was:  AFFABLE

NOTE: I do not own the peace sign image, and I couldn’t find out who does. If it’s yours and you want credit or a takedown, please contact me.

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