Monday, May 10, 2010

Progress Report on Organizing the Community

Issues to be addressed (a brief summary): At the start of our project, the community was fragmented and apathetic. Many serious problems had gone unaddressed for years, with the predicatable result that citizens felt disempowered and unable to address those same problems in a downward spiral of morale and effort. This feeling of disempowerment had led to a sense that only a “strong leader” could make a difference, and that leader would make that difference by issuing orders which would magically lead to the lost unity of purpose and direction. This is, of course, the definition of the “man on the white horse,” the desire for which has led in so many situations to the popular election of dictators, to whom power is given willingly.

Dysfunctional “solutions” to the problems abounded: many amounted to ignoring a problem so that it would go away, as in climate change and decaying infrastructure. In the case of the economy, responses were actively contradictory to reasonable solutions: encouragement of the same sorts of activities that led to the Enron and Long-Term Capital Management disasters; continuation of discredited “supply-side economics”; and the utter refusal of a positive role for government. The approach to economics was sufficiently delusional that a collapse on the scale of the 1930s disaster was in progress when we began our role in the project.

Internal dysfunctionality was reflected in external relations. Projection of one’s own problems on others was far advanced, and, in return, external confidence was much reduced and decreasing.

Initial goals: The first goal had to be preventing an economic disaster. Restoring external confidence (and therefore ending projection) would reinforce and support that goal. Also to be addressed immediately was empowering the people; reversing the downward morale and effort spiral was essential. This empowerment, of course, is also a long-term goal and is expected to progress gradually. As empowerment proceeds, the willingness to address problems and the quality of proposed solutions can be expected to improve. In some cases, all that can be expected initially is improved understanding of the problems. In a democracy, participation in generating and executing solutions is essential; improved understanding contributes to both a desire to participate and improved solutions.

Specific instances of progress toward goals
The economy: Although it is too soon for a full evaluation, the worst of the economic collapse seems to be over, and a number of indicators have turned around significantly. We must continue to monitor the situation carefully and act as necessary. Congress is working on regulations; the present bill may be insufficient, but it moves in the right direction, and changes can be made after it passes.

Empowering the people: Public discourse has improved greatly. While there remains a significant residue of desire for the magical leader, rationality is beginning to emerge. A caution is necessary here: as empowerment proceeds, an increasing number of voices will emerge, as will conflicts among those voices. Given the transition from the one-way media of newspapers and broadcast media to the multi-voiced internet, we can expect that those who are invested in the one-way model, along with those who are invested in the idea of a magical leader, will be extremely threatened by the emergence of new voices and new thinking. It will not be possible to discuss this dynamic fully in this progress report; we will include indicators of emerging rationality and new approaches and will discuss the threatened resisters separately.

Attitudes toward terror attacks: We are beginning to bring down the level of hysteria associated with attempted terror attacks. It was helpful that New Yorkers pride themselves on their coolness toward danger in responding to the Times Square attempt. It is also helpful that the last two attempts have been carried out incompetently while law enforcement rapidly mitigated what threat there was and arrested the perpetrator in a few hours more than two days. Richard Clarke provides a much more measured perspective today than he did a few years ago. The Washington Post editoral board explicitly distances itself from the cries for eliminating Miranda protections.

Tenor of political discussion: There are two aspects to this at our current stage of organizing. In one, there is a movement toward greater rationality and a willingness to call out obvious absurdities. Small examples can be found in the media almost every day. Paul Rademacher provides a way of visualizing the size of the BP/Halliburton oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and James Fallows expounds on it. Both parts of that observation are relevant; Rademacher develops a utility that others can use, and Fallows, a member of the old media, jumps on the bandwagon. The Boston Globe editorial board suggests that negative campaign ads be squarely set on their beneficiaries, whatever slim excuse those beneficiaries may muster.

In the second aspect, voices of dissent and opposition have grown, making the marketplace of ideas more contentious. Expanding the range of discussion is part of the near-term goals, so we may consider this a type of success.

The threatened resisters. A vibrant and thoughtful range of opinions, of course, is a feature of all healthy communities. However, when we began the project, a pathological Manichaeism had set in. Separating the world into good and evil prevented serious consideration of realistic policy options. So the improving tenor of political discussion is one measure of recovery from that pathology.

But as recovery proceeds, the threatened resisters will find it unacceptable for a variety of reasons. Some will, with time, come to see that open discussion in a less simplistic framework is necessary to their projects and prospects as well. As discussion opens up, however, the most threatened are likely to be the most vocal. Expression of opposing views should be welcomed, as is being done in the moves toward bipartisanship. People must feel accepted as they are if they are to participate.

Resisters to the opening up of discussion are likely either to form a more thoughtful opposition, or to become more estranged from the process. Formation of a thoughtful opposition is a positive step; a full discussion of possible actions will improve decisions. Estrangement is more difficult to deal with. Separation from the community will result in extreme beliefs and, potentially, actions. The political world has the corrective of elections. A group that becomes too far estranged will be unacceptable to the great majority and will lose power, and, losing power, will eventually disappear.

We are, however, in the middle of the process, when the estrangement seems more important and effective than it is likely to be in the long term. Some relevant examples follow.

The more extreme demands of insurance companies are being discredited, now that the health care reform bill is law.

The Republican Party is being strongly influenced by those who see separation from the larger community as their only way forward. Thus, they are jettisoning moderate candidates like Senator Robert Bennett of Utah in favor of separatist “Tea Party” candidates. A copycat attempt to call the BP/Halliburton oil spill “Obama’s Katrina” is not catching on with the media; in fact, the AP refuted the charge. An important point to be noted is that various arms of the media, including the MSM, are critiquing the actions of the threatened resisters, which helps to marginalize them.

External relations. To some degree, the community organizing process extends to the rest of the world, because America has been the leader in so many global initiatives and is expected to continue to lead. Some of the internal pathologies have spread to the rest of the world as well. However, we will include only three indicative actions in this report. A number of countries have stepped up to provide mediation and, potentially, nuclear services to Iran in attempting to defuse that situation, most recently, Brazil. Egypt is expected to play a major role in the NPT Review Conference and raise some delicate issues. Indonesia is about to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty without waiting for US ratification.

Improved relations with other communities was essential in dealing with the financial crisis. The clear delineation from previous policies and personalities was a first step, but introducing new policies designed for better external relations must continue. Negotiations for a follow-on treaty to START advanced the stated nuclear decrease agenda, gave Russia some of the recognition sought, and laid an explicit basis for bringing other countries into the negotiations. Although Russia retains significantly undemocratic internal policies and some apparent need to continue old behaviors, a large number of small actions indicate improving relations.

A number of former government officials, most recently Warren Christopher, Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, have written op-eds approving current foreign policy.

We are very much in the middle of the organizing process. Although the immediate dangers of the economy seem to have been mitigated, not all the deleterious effects, like the high unemployment rate, have been corrected. Political communication, news coverage, and external relations have all improved but also have some distance to go before our democracy can be considered healthy.

This is the most unstable part of the process, as changes begin to take hold. Opposition can be expected, but, if we continue to apply tested techniques of community organization, it can be expected to become more responsible or fade away.

1 comment:

esgaffney said...

1. It seems weird for Sen. Bennett to be described as a "moderate". I suppose that is an indication of how far the move to the extreme has progressed.

2. I am encouraged that the MSM has reported correctly that the stubbornness of the high jobless rate in the face of higher job creation is due to the positive news that more of the discouraged are resuming their job search.