Let’s say you are a Progressive. Let’s say you think the Tea Party, led by Glenn Beck and funded by the Koch Brothers and Dick Armey, is both dangerous and wrong. All those ridiculous agit-prop posters at their rallies make you cringe.
Let’s further say that while you have had differences with Obama you basically believe we are far better off with him at the helm than we would be with any of the assortment of con-men, genuine dumb-asses, and con women on the other side, all either running for office now or lining up for 2012. Obama is no socialist. He can’t see Alaska from his front porch; he hasn’t tied the family dog to the roof of his car while driving from Massachusetts to Michigan; nor has he, as certain Teapublican candidates for Congress have recently done, had to deny being a witch or admitted to having enjoyed playing dress-up on weekends in a Nazi uniform.
So what do you say?
Or do you say anything? Is this the time or the place for this sort of defense of the president? These appear to be nice people out to enjoy the fine weather and share stories and memories about classic British cars. Plus, this guy is seated alone. No one seems to want to be within listening distance of him. No one else has enjoined the conversation or openly sided with him. You could leave well enough alone. You could remain silent.
To speak, or not to speak, that is the question …
There are three problems associated with remaining silent. First is the assumption he has made that you are on his side. Left unchecked, others, too, will see that your silence is a kind of public consent. We know from research done on propaganda as long ago as the 1930s that extremist discourse relies on division, suspicion, and fear. Divide Jews from Protestants (or define “loyal Americans,” “Believers in Liberty,” and “Patriots” from the undefined rest of us); suggest that we should be suspicious of Jewish bankers (or of Muslims, or Progressives and Liberals), or Mexicans; paint ominous scenes of massive job losses, far-ranging economic peril, small business failures, and cast doubt on our ability to defend ourselves from foreigners, gypsies, immigrants, and/or socialists/Communists; blame it all on “the Other” (e.g., President Obama and the Democrats) and you have created the Perfect Storm for Propaganda. Should you remain silent in public, when doing so brings with it these historical and cultural associations?
The second problem is your own conscience. Do you feel that gnawing sense of guilt? That acidic bile arising from inner conflict, like something bad stuck in your throat? That hard-to-shake-off sense that you should have said something? That while it’s true that “discretion may be the better part of valor,” being discrete sometimes make you feel like a coward?
So what to do?
I recommend that you consider a range of possible responses. At one end of this “speakable” comtinuum is the simple and straightforward statement: “With all due respect, I disagree. And I prefer not to engage in a political discussion on this otherwise splendid day.” Fair enough. Only a lout or bully would argue against that stance. It’s a free country. You don’t have to engage in debate to let those around you know that your refusal to do so represents an appropriate response.
Or you could ask some questions. For example, “Define socialism.” I have found that most people on the right sprinkle that term over a leftie as if it were salt to an open wound. It has also been my experience that most people have no idea what the term truly means. Let’s begin with the basics: A socialist doesn’t believe in private property. If Obama is a socialist, why on earth would he bail out the banks and stop home foreclosures?
Of course you could also say “I, too, am a socialist. And proud of it.” End of discussion. Although it hardly ever ends there. Instead I have witnessed my socialist friends then launch into a critique of capitalism, which these days is kind of like knowing a great deal about innovations in Oldsmobiles. Nobody really cares, except those who do. And they don’t need convincing.
Progressives, as a rule, do not hate capitalism. What we hate is unrestrained capitalism. Free enterprise is one thing. Unrestrained free enterprise, fully equipped with deregulation and a right wing campaign to convince Americans that all taxes are bad and that limited government will protect us from greed, and that led to the current economic collapse, high unemployment, and home foreclosures is quite something else. Like most people, we aspire to a better life and we work hard to ensure a better life—a sustainable economy and a sustainable planet—for our children.
Toward the middle of the spectrum of possible responses, then, we have the polite, but reserved engagement strategy that begins with reasonable claims, supports them with appropriate evidence, and then asks for the humbled listener’s assent to that which makes perfectly good sense. In my experience, with Tea Partiers, that won’t happen. For among denizens of that political camp reason itself is a strategy deployed by the “ruling elite” against the masses, and it is just another way in which well-educated and articulate persons oppress those who didn’t do so well in college. Their response is anger, supported with a louder voice, and somewhere in their bleating complaint will come a challenge to your patriotism. Reasoning with right-wingers is a waste of time. Fox Republican Entertainment provides them with talking points that in their mind don’t require evidence or even truth to be on their side.
Which brings us to the other end of the continuum. Here you, too, engage the debate as a passionate representative of the Progressive cause. Your forward a strong case, based in the Constitution of the United States, for a government that serves the “public good,” not just the freedom of the individual. You defend fair and progressive taxation as necessary to that end, because without revenues our government simply cannot do what a decent society expects to have done: education of its young, care of its elderly, promotion of enterprise, defense against invasion. You should remind your listener the government is not a faceless monolith; it is made up of ordinary citizens who get up each and every day and work for the public good. From teachers and firefighters to police and safety inspectors. From every member of our Armed Forces to every member of those agencies that pay our Medicare and Medicaid bills on time, that deliver our 58.1 million social security checks on time, and that prevent another 9/11.
A good government is all about promoting the public good and all about staying out of the private lives, and decisions, of its citizens. It’s really that simple.
Simple or not, at this point your listener will no longer be listening. He or she will be convinced that you are an enemy of the State. One of the hated “liberal elites.” Probably the next charge against you and your ilk will be something like this: “You probably think social justice is a good idea, and that we should all be favor of redistributing the wealth!”
I don’t know about you, but my answer to this one is simple: Yes, I do. And no I’m not.
Social justice is at the heart of the Progressive cause. We believe in equal rights, equal opportunity, and a fair share of the wealth of this affluent nation. We believe in an economic safety net. We believe in regulations that keep us safe and help us recover. We believe there is no such thing as an “illegal person.” An we believe that anyone in this great land of ours should be free to love and to marry whomever they want to, and, if they are equally qualified, to serve in the military or stand before a classroom and teach. We believe that “the public good” is not limited to the few, but must embrace the many. We are democrats; we love the beautiful idea of America and the full sense of democracy.
And how about that claim that we want a “redistribution of wealth?” Well, the truth is that I do not believe that 95% of the wealth of this nation should be controlled by the wealthiest 5% of is citizens. I believe that the times of our nation’s greatest prosperity were the times of a healthy middle class, and figures don’t lie. Today we no longer have much of a middle class, much less the promised prosperity associated with it. Instead, what we have learned is that a true redistribution of wealth migrated from the middle class to the top 5% during the past 30 years. And I believe we ought to address that shift in ways that promote the public welfare, not that simply protect the inherited welfare of the rich.
We do not believe that inherited wealth should not be taxed. It should be taxed because it was generated not from so-called “already taxed income,” but from profits made from investments that were largely untaxed.
Finally, Progressives believe that we must learn from past mistakes. Never again should we commit troops to an invasion of a sovereign nation without real and abiding evidence of a clear and present danger to our defense. Never again should we allow government to be so downsized and so deregulated as to cause the death of great American cities or the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico or the continuing saga of dangerous and discriminatory workplaces, whether in the coalmines of West Virginia or the crop fields of California or the corporate offices throughout the land.
So, back to my initial question: When should we speak? While the right answer depends on where you want to be on that continuum of possible responses, it is never okay anymore to remain silent. Never.
Now is the time for us to speak up. Everything we love—country, family, friends, work—is at stake.