February 26, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Retaking the center

By |2018-04-19T16:53:33+02:00November 19th, 2004|First Person|
Time to start over.

uss Gershon, a liberal Massachusetts musician and record-label owner, offered this advice to his depressed friends and colleagues following the defeat of John Kerry. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.
Like most everyone I work or socialize with; like most of you; like everyone whom we think has a morsel of common sense, I am more than a little dismayed by the reelection of George W. Bush, probably the most unqualified and worst president since Warren Harding, and certainly the most reckless since, well, I don’t know when. My friends are talking about moving to Canada, not reading a newspaper for four years, going off the grid, becoming Buddhist monks. I hear and utter analyses ranging from “Kerry has no charisma” to “the Republicans snowed the electorate with lies.” Political activists and pundits, like Matthew Rothschild, whose screed against John Kerry’s concession speech provoked me to write this, stamp their feet like spoiled children who have been denied a new toy. (“Kerry, How Dare You! John Kerry gave a lousy, reprehensible concession speech… ” http://www.progressive.org/webex04/wx1103a04.html).
Well, you who believe that “Red” America (ironic, isn’t it?) got its facts wrong better step up to the plate and get your facts right. Like it or not, a lot of America disagrees with what we liberals believe on a number of hot-button issues, which Karl Rove played like Jimmy Smith at the Hammond organ. That’s a fact. But try not to be so smug, insular, elitist or hermetic as to think that Bush voters are not sentient human beings who are entitled to their beliefs. If you really want to make a better country and a better world, do not demonize them and the politicians they have elected to represent us.
That big red area in the middle of the country is full of real people who want many of the same things that we do: to have a job they can tolerate, achieve a modicum of financial security, give their kids a better life, do something to help people less fortunate than themselves. I have traveled a lot in the middle parts of the country, mostly on band tours, and I have met many people: the more progressive ones who come out to hear bands, and the people you just run into along the way. Well, guess what: they may be under- or uninformed, xenophobic, intolerant — or they may be educated, articulate and expansive. Remember: even in most of the “red” states, Kerry won 45 to 49 percent of the vote. And in the “blue states,” same for Bush. Do not demonize whole swaths of America just because that big red block of electoral votes in the middle of those election maps was seared into your consciousness on election night.
Many of you who will receive this email are artists and activists, so we are devoted to something “higher,” if you will, than simply economic survival. Again: I may disagree with virtually all of what Christian conservatives would impose on others, but I have to respect the fact that many of them are willing to vote against their own economic interests to elect candidates who share (at least some of) their moral values. We must not write them off simply as dupes and suckers: like us artists, musicians and activists, they are willing to sacrifice dollars for beliefs. You have to respect that decision, maybe not admire their goals, but acknowledge it as a fact. As difficult as it is for me to follow this advice, I render it unto you: do not demonize the Christian right. If you do, you fall into exactly what you might accuse them of doing, indeed what extremists of all stripes do.
And don’t be too righteous about the other side’s use of political tricks. Undeniably, politics as it is played in 2004 employ exaggeration and distortion as basic techniques. (In making art, let’s not forget, we use them too, under the rubric of satire, stylization, parody or melodrama.) These are indeed techniques that both parties use, although I personally think the post-Lee Atwater Republicans have repeatedly reset the bar for ruthless behavior, but exaggeration and fear-mongering certainly go back to the Democrats’ anti-Goldwater little-girl-with-a-daisy-mushroom-cloud ad in 1964 — and long before.
Remember that it’s one thing to say: we’re going to continue to fight for what we believe in; it’s another to say, 51 percent of the voters in this country are morons. Sorry, they are not (…well, maybe some of them…). Yes, many of them are unclear on the facts, have been misled by Bush and his people, are small-minded, etc. But you know what: so are many among the 48 percent who voted for Kerry. People choose based on a very complicated personal calculus of interests and values.
Going hermetic, adopting a siege mentality, deciding you are living in fortress Massachusetts (or New York or wherever), is in my opinion counterproductive. We live in the United States of America, a huge place full of people with diverse points of view. There was a time when a group of people decided they didn’t like what the majority of the citizens of the US wanted for this country, and they tried to leave. You remember: the Civil War. We are better off as one big, contentious entity than as two or 50 small ones. After millennia of conflict, the Europeans understand this: behold the EU. And if you’re going to live in a house with someone, you owe it to yourself to figure out what makes them tick, where is the common ground, how compromise can be achieved. This goes double for liberals in a country that has been moving to the right for a quarter century.
One of the things that has made the United States the most powerful country in the world, and a place where we artists, musicians and activists can go about pursuing our muses and causes, is pragmatism. The center rules, for the simple reason that in a large sample group, statistically most individuals will be distributed toward the middle. The leaders who manage to pull the country to the left (FDR, Johnson) or the right (Reagan, Bush Jr.), are ones who understand something profound about the economic or emotional needs of the people in the middle.
So, my friends, colleagues, and fellow liberals, you can sulk and feel alienated and dismayed at why the rest of the citizenry is so wrong, you can turn them into caricatures and you can vow revenge or political isolationism. Or, you can ask, why? Who are these Americans, our brothers and sisters under the Constitution, who on the surface seem to disagree with us on everything from the existence of a connection between Saddam and Osama to when a blob of cells becomes a human being? What beliefs underlie their desires and aspirations — and ours? Where do they overlap? How can we use our understanding of this commonality to bring the other side closer to our point of view? How do we use our intelligence and humanity to take a broader perspective, one that encompasses what our opponents want and need and yet advances the progressive goals we have for our country?
Take your head out of your you-know-what, blow your nose and remember that respecting one’s opponent is the key to victory. And that victory in politics, in the long run, doesn’t mean pummeling an enemy, but convincing your neighbors that your point of view makes sense for them. (Witness our disastrous “War against Terror,” which should be conducted as a political, not military, conflict.) That’s what John Kerry means by saying that we must find “common cause.” It doesn’t mean we have to agree with Bush, Cheney and friggin’ Bill Frist, or not do everything we can do to outmaneuver them when those Supreme Court appointees come down the pike. It means we must think bigger, be smarter, understand more, feel more deeply about why 51 percent of the country voted for Bush, so that we can retake the center. We owe it to our country, our world and ourselves.

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