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4 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Yes, it’s hard to imagine a book like Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962) having a comparable impact today.

    Richard Flacks, one of the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS: see Kirkpatrick Sale’s seminal study and James Miller’s Democracy Is in the Streets, 1994, which has a nice discussion of ‘The Port Huron Statement’ while also focusing on key individuals of the New Left like Dick and his wife Mickey) addressed some of the difficulties raised here in his Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (1988) [‘radical’ here generous enough to include that which often falls under the heading of ‘Liberal,’ particularly today]:

    “How can the making of history be democratized when Americans are committed to the making and living of their private lives? From the perspective of the left that commitment represents a profound resistance to political engagement and social responsibility. There are two principal ways that leftists have sought to deal with that resistance. On the one hand, they have tended to stand outside the mainstream as prophets and critics, bemoaning the emptiness of daily life, attacking the ‘false consciousness,’ the selfishness, the conformism, the bigotry of Americans, calling on them to wake up and change their lives. Alternating with this prophetic, moralistic stance, leftists have often adopted an opposing strategy deemed more practical. Pragmatic organizers suggest working with people ‘where they are,’ finding the issues that actually bother them, organizing them around ‘bread-and-butter’ problems, rather than addressing them in moral terms. Neither of these stances is particularly satisfactory. The prophetic posture tends to be self-isolating and elitist; the pragmatic approach often appears opportunistic (gives the appearance that the organizers are ‘using’ issues to recruit people for ulterior purposes) or else exceedingly reformist (the demands made are so limited and particular that no development of consciousness or political commitment results from the campaign).”

    Flack proceeds to elaborate suggestions for making everyday life a terrain for history making.

    Progessive social change seems to require a fortuitous and often unexpected or spontaneous confluence of propitious conditions that are set in motion by one or more catalytic sparks. However, this does not mean that we can’t work to plant the seeds of such conditions, to struggle to create them. For example, the civil rights movement of the 1960s was in large measure the germination of seeds planted a decade or more earlier: See, for instance, Charles M. Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995).

    Persevere: often our lives aren’t long enough for us to see the fruits of our labors, however righteous they may be (hence the Beatitudes in the Christian tradition)….

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Erratum: Flacks

    I might had added the “karma yoga” tradition as exemplified by Gandhi likewise gives us reasons for persevering:

    Karma yoga or path of ‘works’ or selfless social service, is one of the three yogas to spiritual fulfillment or moksa. It is the path to God through selfless action and service to others. Devotion to God through such works means one must learn non-attachment and renunciation regarding the fruits of one’s actions, effectively surrendering oneself to God. Cf. Bhagavad Gītā III.3: ‘Men may pursue either of the two paths I have taught in former times, that of yoga through contemplation of the Truth, as expounded by the sāmkhya, and that of yoga through devotion to disinterested action, as exemplified by the yogins.’ In Gītā II.7 we learn that karma-yoga involves the use of our mind to control the senses and acting without becoming attached to sense-objects. Generally speaking, a karma yogin acts in a dispassionate manner, without attachment to the ‘fruits’ of action, meaning those consequences of actions in and for the agent: for instance, pleasure or pain, success or failure. Thus the karma yogin performs dharma without desire for personal pleasure, success, reward and the like, proper motives being on the order of something like Mohandas K. Gandhi’s satyāgraha (nonviolent resistance; relentless search for truth) or sarvodaya (social good, public interest; universal welfare) or, in a different cultural context, the impersonal motives that inspire members of The Catholic Worker Movement founded by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. Indeed, Gandhi is best thought of (and thought of himself as) as karma-yogi.

    Even if one does not accept the religious presuppositions of karma yoga, I think it can teach all of us something about the value and virtues of non-attachment and renunciation regarding the fruits of one’s actions, meaning those consequences of actions in and for the agent: for instance, pleasure or pain, success or failure.

  3. Fraud Guy says:

    To be agressively cynical; I have read several authors who believe that the reason that concepts such as karma and the ideals of the Beatitudes have been as well publicised and supported as they have has been due to their usefulness to established hierarchies in keeping those below them in place by giving them hope for future reward for current abnegation. Too often those in power who espouses such concepts do nothing to follow them in their private (and public service) lives.