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Bruce Levine Says Americans Are Broken: Is He Right?

The disillusioned masses don't just need more morale, as Levine claims. We also need more truth and more intelligence.

Can people become so broken that truths of how they are being screwed do not "set them free" but instead further demoralize them? Has such a demoralization happened in the United States?

Bruce Levine’s thoughtful piece about why we’re not fighting back has hit a responsive cord among readers. I thank him for initiating this critical discourse about activism. In the spirit of open dialogue, I feel compelled to respectfully disagree with his basic analysis.

Political Action Doesn’t Fall From the Sky; It Requires Deliberate Political Infrastructure

Levine reminds us of how passive we seem to have been in the face of obvious injustices hurled our way. As he points out there was little to protest against the theft of the 2000 election by the Bush forces. He further points out that we are again missing the moment concerning health care -- that "despite the current sellout by their elected officials to the insurance industry, there is no outpouring of millions of U.S. citizens on the streets of Washington, D.C., protesting this betrayal." (I recently asked similar questions about the lack of protest against the current Wall Street rip-offs. See, "Have We Forgotten How to March?")

Why aren’t we in motion? His deeply disturbing analysis deserves a closer look:

U.S. citizens do not actively protest obvious injustices for the same reasons that people cannot leave their abusive spouses: They feel helpless to effect change. The more we don't act, the weaker we get. And ultimately to deal with the painful humiliation over inaction in the face of an oppressor, we move to shut-down mode and use escape strategies such as depression, substance abuse, and other diversions, which further keep us from acting. This is the vicious cycle of all abuse syndromes.

While this may describe individuals Levine has encountered, I can’t buy it as a political justification. I believe we can find more compelling reasons by looking at our own political infrastructures – our activists and leaders, our political parties – and not by analyzing “U.S. citizens" at large. These "abuse" brush strokes are too broad and cover up the detail we need to examine.

Mass demonstrations are almost always the product of hardcore organizing. (The major exceptions were the spontaneous riots that ripped through our country in the 1960s like the ones triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King.)

Those who have been involved in organizing mass demonstrations know how much effort it takes. If the infrastructure to do all of this hard work is not in place, it’s an impossible task. Or if those who control the infrastructures (churches, unions, environmental groups, political parties, etc.) decide to sit it out, you won’t succeed very often. (Clearly, some moments are riper than others. In 1965, for example, the Students for a Democratic Society shocked themselves and everyone else when 50,000 turned out in Washington for their first anti-war demonstration. But it still took considerable resources that came from organized groups including the labor movement.)

Take the 2000 election that Levine uses as an example. The response from the Democrats and the Republicans was quite different. The Republicans flooded Florida with their top dogs who participated actively in the recounts. I can still recall Bob Dole glowering as he challenged every Democratic hanging chad. The Republicans also concocted faux demonstrations by flying in staff.

Meanwhile the Democrats relied on the legal process even though they could have organized massive demonstrations all over Florida. What did Al Gore, the leader of the entire party, do after the Supreme Court decision against him? Nothing. He meekly accepted the results and moved on. He refused to call us to join him for mass protests at the steps of the Supreme Court because he believed in the judicial process, however flawed. He refused to rock the system because he was so much a part of it.

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