When you get to be my age, losing a night's sleep takes it out of you for several days thereafter. While I have been stumbling around in a daze and trying to nap so as to make up what is sometimes referred to as a "sleep deficit," a vigorous discussion has broken out on this blog in the comments section. The antagonist, or perhaps protagonist, in this discussion has been Chris, who has for several years scolded me on what he sees as my shameful star-struck admiration for Barack Obama. He has been answered -- intelligently in my judgment -- by several commentators. Before I move on to what I really want to talk about today on this blog -- the book about South Africa that I have just finished reading -- I would like to say just a few words about the dispute. My remarks are mostly a response to Chris's angry rebukes, but I hope they will find an audience elsewhere among my readers.
There are two fundamental facts about political action that one must recognize and accept if one is to have any hope of being at all effective in the world. The first fact is that each of us is born into a specific moment in history that we have not chosen and cannot change. If I may once more quote the lovely and evocative passage from Erik Erikson's Childhood and Society, "An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history."
At the present time, the United States is a hegemonic imperial world power. I am actually old enough to have lived through the early post-war period in which this country chose to step into the space created by the decline of the European imperial powers. As that was happening, I and many others argued and agitated against this choice, but we lost, and so I have been forced to live the remainder of my life cycle in a time of American imperial world ascendancy. Chris, I believe, is a good deal younger than I, so he was born into the world that I watched coming into being. Neither of us likes or supports America's imperial adventures, but neither of us has any way of stopping them. Some who oppose the direction of American foreign policy in the past half century and more might approve of an interventionist foreign policy so long as it intervened on the other side -- for Castro rather than against him, for Mossadegh rather than against him, for Ortega rather than against him, and so forth. Others might oppose any imperial role for America, even if that meant simply leaving a space into which some other nation could step. But those are idle thoughts. Chris and I, like everyone else on the left in America today, are confronted with extremely intractable facts, the changing of which would require more political muscle than we are able at this moment to muster.
The second fact about political action is that in a nation of 310 million people, in a world of seven billion people, all effective political action requires the building and sustaining of coalitions of enormous numbers of activists who, one can be absolutely certain, will disagree fundamentally on any number of important questions. For as long as any one can recall, the besetting sin of leftists has been their lust for ideological orthodoxy and their consequent tendency to splinter into ever smaller and more ineffectual factions. There have, to be sure, been historical moments when weeding out those who disagree with oneself in any way can can lead to greater power rather than less -- one thinks of the Bolshevik revolution. But this moment in America is not one of them. So if you want to work effectively for major social change with any hope at all of success, you must learn to embrace and find common cause with men and women with whom you disagree. When I was young, this meant working for nuclear disarmament with Quaker pacifists and Catholic activists whose religious commitments were anathema to me. There is nothing admirable or morally uplifting about the refusal to forge workable coalitions with those who are -- so to speak -- part of the avalanche rolling down the same side of the mountain.
We have just come through a presidential election whose outcome was a good deal more progressive than any of us anticipated. Several really admirable women have been elected to the Senate; a wretched hollow man who would have brought in his train a nightmare of aides and appointees has been defeated. But the election revealed, once again, that very close to half of those 310 million Americans are opposed to the changes we seek to make in this country. That is a fact that we must confront and acknowledge, for it sets limits to what we can, in the short or medium run, hope to accomplish.
This is not the time for the left to splinter into angry factions more concerned with maintaining their ideological purity than with advancing common progressive policies.
I can assure you with absolute certainty that if we are successful, against all the odds, each one of us will still be disappointed in what has been left undone. The acceptance of that fact is, in my opinion, the mark of a truly serious and grown-up progressive.
I have been around a long time. Trust me. There are going to be some defeats ahead. For God's sake, enjoy the victories.