A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
More and more I feel that people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. . . . We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. —Martin Luther King, Jr.
THAT TWO THIRDS of Americans are appalled by Donald Trump is a cause for hope, not to be discounted. Trump’s racism, sexism, vulgarity, and narcissism are embraced only by a third of Americans — his deplorable base — and even within that minority are many who just couldn’t abide another neo-liberal Democratic president, and are far more interested in Trump’s economic nationalism than in his racism and his demented tough-guy bullshit.
A clear majority rejects not only Trump, but most conservative views. According to Pew Research, 60 percent of us believe that the federal government is responsible for ensuring health care coverage for all Americans, compared to 39 percent who disagree. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 12 percent of U.S. adults want decreased spending for Medicaid, while 40 percent would like to see increased Medicaid spending (and 47 percent would keep it at current levels). According to Pew again, 74 percent of us believe “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” compared with 23 percent who think “the country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment.” Polling on issues of gun control, racism, a border wall with Mexico, etc. similarly reveal that the base for rightwing ideas in America is certainly substantial, but far less than a majority.
When it comes to messaging, however, advocacy for liberal or progressive ideas is being significantly overshadowed by rightwing advocacy, and the “marketplace of ideas” has fewer and fewer items for purchase. Sure, Hollywood produces some progressive films (Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is a terrific reminder of the key role played by the media, especially by newspapers, in making democracy come alive, and such films as “Loving” and “Marshall” are great reminders of the fundamental unconstitutionality of racism), but these are all about the past — and are mostly overwhelmed by the constant stream of violent “heroism” that inundates movies today, normalizing American militarism and our contemporary national security state.
And yes, there are a million progressive petitions to sign and support on social media, but these are melting snowflakes. However eloquent they might be, they are received and read only by true-believing progressives.
Meanwhile, National Public Radio, into which liberals pour their membership funds, doesn’t pass a day without commentary by representatives of National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the Heritage Foundation in its national news broadcasts. What’s their excuse? Used to be they were intimidated by reactionaries in Congress about losing funding, but the truth is that federal funding for NPR amounts to only 9 percent of its budget, compared to 37 percent from listeners (read: liberals). How many times do we have to hear Jonah Goldberg or Republican climate-change deniers — with hardly a voice from the left — before we start complaining to NPR?
As for the Democratic Party, its leaders seem to be wagering the 2018 election on revulsion against Trump and the very stale collusion-with-Russia issue. Where are the national speeches about Social Security and Medicare and Paul Ryan’s naked intention to mess with them? Where are the television ads about what Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut is going to mean to the environment, the national parks system, education, food safety, food stamps, veterans’ health, infant mortality, etcetera etcetera?
IT DOESN’T MATTER that the tax bill has already passed! Watch and learn from the reactionaries, who use each of their advances to lay the ideological groundwork for the next. For instance: Following the tax cut, states are now being actively encouraged to add a work requirement to Medicaid and/or welfare eligibility. Never mind that more than 60 percent of working-age people on Medicaid already have jobs (often two or three of them) — the point is not to help people find work, the point is to spread the propaganda that poor people are more lazy than the rest of us. This comes on top of a 2015 license for states to do drug-testing before giving assistance. ThinkProgress reports that in the thirteen states that do so, just 369 tests came back positive in 2016 — at a cost of $1.3 million for drug testing. Again, the point is not to help people who are struggling with drugs, the point is to spread the propaganda that poor people are, by character, more prone to drug addiction than the rest of us.
The right wing understands that we are engaged in an ideological war, which they are winning hands down: a war to define government as an oppressive force, rather than as a fair arbitrator and occasional protector of the oppressed; a war to keep people believing in the punitive (and self-punishing) “I work hard, why shouldn’t they” ethic, rather than a share-the-wealth ethic; a war to deny the corrosive power of racism and sexism in America, rather than acknowledging and atoning for it, with an eye towards the future; a war to equate great wealth with great virtue and entitlement, rather than with social responsibility.
The right wing propagandizes at every opportunity, in every available venue! Nu, It’s time for the Democratic Party to rent a football stadium and invite everyone to kneel during the national anthem before the speeches begin. It’s time for labor unions, progressive churches, mosques, and synagogues, and left-leaning corporations to pay for public-service ads (don’t wait until the election season!) about how the fabric of American society is being torn apart by the defunding of our government. It’s time for activists to organize campaigns against the right wing’s nastiest propagandists, campaigns that flood their shows with protest calls, boycott their advertisers, and publicly shame them for their ugly words.
It’s not enough for us to sign online petitions that are a dime a dozen, or to turn out by thousands for street demonstrations that achieve little but overtime pay for cops — or to listen, choked up, to a speech about a dream recited in 1963.
Public opinion will not be on our side for long if we don’t find new dreams, and new ways of expressing them.
Copyright 2018 Lawrence Bush. First published in Jewish Currents.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.