Finding Hope in Hard Times

MANY DAYS I SCOOT my chair back from the breakfast table in a daze, stunned and upset at the morning headlines. “Bush Economic Package Heavily Favors Wealthy,” “Research Offers More Evidence of Global Warming,” “Broad Public Support for War,” “Deep Cuts in Social Spending Foreseen.” A rush of emotions swirl through my still-sleepy head as I try to make sense of the world.

It’s not the bad news that gets me. Having lived through Vietnam, Watergate, the energy crisis, Reaganomics, Iran-Contra, Newt Gingrich, the Clinton impeachment, and the 2000 election, I am accustomed to bad news. It’s the lack of effective opposition to what’s going on that troubles me. Again and again, some ill-advised, unjust or outright dangerous initiative out of Washington or corporate America is met with criticism from Democratic politicians and public interest groups. Liberal commentators convincingly (at least to me) dissect why it’s a terrible idea, and there may be some protests. But that’s about it. The public momentum needed to challenge right-wing policies never seems to build, and before long I’m facing another front page photo of George W. Bush celebrating a political victory as I eat my oatmeal.

While dissenting voices can be heard, the powers that be pay little attention to them. In last year’s Congressional elections, politicians skillfully skirted the real problems we face as a nation, squabbling instead over the details of prescription drug proposals and the like. Who from either of the major parties spoke frankly about global warming? Corporate corruption? The cancer epidemic? Our diminished civil liberties? Continuing hunger, poverty, and alienation–at home and around the world? These crises were brought up only occasionally on the campaign trail, and were drowned out by political ads and “sports desk” media coverage focusing on which team would win Congress.

That’s what we’re up against at this stage in American history. Corporations and the military-industrial establishment (a phrase that may sound quaint these days, but is still accurate) have amassed so much power that even the Robber Barons of a century ago would be impressed. At the same time, many of the tried and true methods progressives have used for decades to galvanize citizen action seem to be losing steam.

I don’t believe for a minute that Americans care less about injustice or environmental devastation today. But people’s lives have grown so busy that it’s a struggle now to stay well-informed on foreign affairs and economic policy, not to mention finding the time to write Congress, join a demonstration, or organize an action group. One response has been “activism-in-a-hurry” efforts like e-mail petitions and political groups you participate in simply by writing a check. But these are no substitute for the long years of organizing that ignited the labor, civil rights, peace, environmental, gay rights, and women’s movements.

Protests, while still important, don’t pack as much punch as in the 1960s. Camera crews and reporters are sparse at rallies these days, which means activists must scramble to find new ways to reach the broader public. My family joined 10 thousand other Minnesotans last fall to march on the state capitol in opposition to war in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people did the same in Washington, San Francisco, and other cities around the world. But the media paid scant attention to it all. If a couple demonstrators, however, had broken away from the crowd and smashed store windows or overturned police cars or stripped naked and howled four-letter words, you can bet that would have been big news. But teenagers, old people, families, war veterans, union members, and church delegations gathering peaceably to make their voices heard was not deemed particularly newsworthy.

So what do we do now? You can blame the media, blame the immense power that corporations wield over American society, or blame activists themselves for insufficient creativity. Whatever your conclusions (and I think a case can be made for all three of the above), it’s clear that something’s got to change in how we think about politics before we’ll see much progress toward peace, ecological sustainability, or economic justice.

The time is ripe for reinventing progressive politics to meet the new conditions of a new century. That’s why we’ve filled our cover story with bright ideas about how to create social change in your community and across the nation. From longtime activist Van Jones’ insight that the left must learn to take the long view, to our own co-publisher Julie Ristau’s advice on how to talk to people who don’t agree with you, we hope this issue will fire you up to keep working toward the kind of future you want to see–and fortify you with practical advice on how to achieve it.

Code Pink, the new movement shaking things up across America described by Utne chair Nina Utne on page 66, is one example of how passionate, playful political engagement can stir the souls of Americans. We also take a look at unexpected developments on the right, as a number of professed conservatives embrace ecology and simple living, while others denounce corporate greed and Bush’s militarism (see page 70). And suburbia, long seen as the heart of American conservatism, also gets a close examination in our special section (see page 46). One surprising conclusion is that the majority of American suburbanites have more in common with inner-city residents than with the country club crowd–and therefore benefit from progressive public policies that promote economic equity. Who knows, perhaps someday we’ll see protest marches winding through cul-de-sacs and activist groups setting up shop in remodeled fast food joints?

This issue of Utne was conceived as an antidote to the gloom that can overtake many of us at the breakfast table. The ideas and people highlighted here offer hope that we’ll soon have something to cheer about in the morning headlines.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.