Black Lives Matter: transformational politics and mainstream politics.
The emergence of “Black Lives Matter” is having impact. The recent videoed conversation between Julius Jones and Hilary Clinton on 8/18/15 in New Hampshire was major in several ways besides its wide coverage. (The full Good video is here; a NYTimes article here.)
For me it was major for what it reveals about how we actually approach personal and social change, and what that beast actually demands of us in spite of whatever our moral outrage and passionate commitment to matters of the heart might be. It will take me time to get to my main point. Please bear with me. If the journey through my piece gets weary, take a break and watch the Comedy Central brilliant comic treatment of that amazing interaction between Julius and Hilary by Larry Willmore and company. But come back.
Two different conversations in one space
I want to begin by commenting on the Julius-Hilary conversation in terms of the kind of communication that was and was not possible between them. I want to begin there so I can build the ground for a rather subtle discussion of change processes down the road.
First of all, it seems to me that Julius and Hilary were having two different conversations. Both of them did well in terms of being there for the interaction in spite of the unique challenges each of them had in the situation. Hilary was genuine and quite human within the constraints of her chosen role as a politician. Julius was genuine and looking for a transformational conversation with her, one in which people come together in their respective vulnerabilities as humans in order to work with issues that challenge the kind of person one is at a given moment and could become different as a result of such conversations. He was clearly confronting her, but he did it with and without attacking. This is highly unusual when someone is in an emotionally charged situation like this one. However, I think Julius and his comrades were reaching for something that is simply beyond the space of a mainstream political conversation. Jonses’ observation to CNN after the conversation with Hilary makes this clear:
…as for the arena of the heart, she was not willing to go there.”
From my perspective Hilary, as a mainstream politician could not go into the transformational space that Julius was asking her to come into. (At the end of my blog I post Cornel Wild’s very different view on what is possible ion mainstream politics.) She’s running for president and she could only get into a mainstream political conversation in that kind of public space. And she said this very clearly and openly:
I don’t believe you change hearts…I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. That’s what I’m trying to put together in a way that I can explain it, and I can sell it — because in politics, if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on the shelf.
And, yes, there were things she didn’t do or say that she would have been better, etc. The same for Julius. But this was an existential situation. The kind in which people come out with what they’ve got on the spur of what has been said to them, not with what they have prepared in a polished way.
To go transformational Hilary would have had to move into a whole different role that she has chosen for her life’s work, whatever you or I think about that choice. For her to come from her heart openly would require a much more private space. Even then that would be limited by whatever expectations participants would bring into it regarding desired consequences in terms of policies and official actions.
The stories I have heard of the famous conversation in the early 1960s involving Black artists and leaders with Robert F. Kennedy when he was both Attorney General and point person for the Kennedy administration gives me some perspective on this situation. The big difference between that one and this one is that the first was not being videotaped live. I don’t know remember any information from those stories on how heartful Bobbie got in that situation, but he had much more room to do that than Hilary.
On the other hand, Julius could go from his transformational track into a political one rather easily in that situation, but that wasn’t his objective. So the approach he and his comrades were taking was quite out of synch with Hilary’s and she, for her purposes and role, was right not to go where he wanted her to go. There’s no fault here. In spite of this disjunction of intent, both were remarkably genuine and were very “out there” with their truths. In fact, in some ways Hilary was so “there” within the constraints of her chosen role that one of her handlers got freaked and tried to stop the discussion.
All of that said my primary interest relates far more to what Julius and the Boston chapter of Black Lives Matter were trying to do. Afterwards, according to the NY Times article, Julius was making the point that the way forward on our racial matters is
actually taking a frank, honest look at the premises of bigotry and what they’re tethered to in the American creed.
I totally agree about this being the way forward. In my language it is a transformational goal, and therefore outside of mainstream politics. Rather, they were coming from a territory we could call transformational politics, or deep social change. There is a way in which the transformational should confront the mainstream. Julius and his comrades demonstrated that in the most positive and proactive way. However, at the bottom line, transformational politics operates on very deep personal and collective levels that mainstream politics cannot work from. Due to our culture, that is the way our world works. And maybe that is due to the nature of evolution and our species.
I agree with Hilary on the outer stuff—laws, resources, etc. I don’t agree with her on the inner stuff, on not being able to change our hearts. But she is not without wisdom in saying we can’t change hearts. That has been the core of my work and personal experience for the past 35 years in a small intentional community in NYC we established as a research project in transformational politics at both the personal and a small collective level. I have changed my heart in many ways, and have been with others who have also. But, honestly, I can’t imagine more challenging work. Even the work of changing laws, etc. There is a profound differential factor of scale and time involved in the processes of mainstream and transformational politics. We can change laws and allocations of resources affect our systems operate. This is vital work and must be pursued by every generation.
However, it does not change culture in any deep way, and culture shapes all the ways we use and don’t use laws and resources. (That is the primary reason why, in my opinion, we are again struggling for the unobstructed right to vote 50 years after the landmark Voting Rights Act. And the primary reason why the three oppressions—gender, race, and class—have persist for millennia and are still so alive.) Culture has a lot of influence on producing the “unintended consequences” of all underlying policies. Changing culture requires getting to the heart of personal and collective matters. We, each of us, embody our culture. It is what we began incorporating from birth in order to survive and grow up. We are its primary site. At the core of our cultures is a dynamic that William Faulkner described so eloquently as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” It’s a bitch to change. It’s why capitalist patriarchy in its class, gender, and racial forms persists tenaciously.
This is the dynamic our small cooperative culture has been working with and looking at for 35 years. The best analogy I know of as to how daunting the challenge is came from a friend of mine when our project was described to her in our early years. “I think it’s on the scale of moving a mountain with a teaspoon,” was her simple response. I so disagreed with her at the time. I was full of enthusiasm and passionately committed. And I loved how that felt! I mean loved it! Did not want to hear anything that might sap the sources of that energy.
Today, I am still full of enthusiasm and passionately committed, and I still love how that feels. But my friend made a very important point. It took a long time but I gradually came to see her wisdom. It became crucial in my not getting burned out. (At least not so much that I couldn’t come back from it somewhat smarter than before.) And for not despairing to the point of giving up.
More importantly, it was crucial to my realizing that we cannot come to these matters of deep personal and collective change without a strong focus on learning what is really involved in these kinds of change processes. That we can’t just project our moral outrage and passionate hopes for another kind of world, and then righteously demand that this or that happen. Nor can I push myself to change this or that just because it is better than what I am doing. Far more than demanding that this or that happen, we have to see what is. Not just “out there,” but “in here” as well. (Maybe even more so.) And we have to hear what both tell us about what kind of strategies we need for deep change. Then, we have to realize that since so little of this kind of cool heartful thinking has been done, we don’t really know much about how to make deep change happen on a broad sustainable scale. And finally, grasping that knowing what we don’t know is simply beyond valuable.
Well, after writing all of the above I read an interview in the NYTimes with Cornel West relating to the “fire” of prophetic politics and the current emergence of a newly energized generation around the theme of “Black Lives Matter.” West, in his way, confirms and adds strongly to what I am saying about transformational politics. At the same time he strongly disagrees with what I was saying about the limitations of playing a mainstream political role.
First on our agreement:
George Yancy, interviewer:
What do you see as the foremost challenge in creating a common cause between past generation and the current generation now “catching fire,” as you put it?
For me, it is the dialectical interplay between the old school and prophetic thought and action. I’m an old Coltrane disciple just like I’m a Christian. You can be full of fire, but that fire has to be lit by a deep love of the people. And if that love is not in it, then the fire actually becomes just a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal that doesn’t get at the real moral substance and spiritual content that keeps anybody going, but especially people who have been hated for so long and in so many ways, as black people have.
For me, the love ethic is at the very center of it. It can be the love ethic of James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane or Curtis Mayfield, but it has to have that central focus on loving the people. And when you love people, you hate the fact that they’re being treated unfairly. You tell the truth. You sacrifice your popularity for integrity. There is a willingness to give your life back to the people given that, in the end, they basically gave it to you, because we are who we are because somebody loved us anyway. (Emphasis added.)
Second, West’s very cogent disagreement with me on playing a mainstream political role:
But is it really possible to speak courageous speech while acting as the most powerful country in the world? Of course, we also have to admit the history of racism preceded Obama’s tenure and will exceed it. My point is that there is a deep tension that exists for someone who desires to embody prophetic fire and yet be in charge of an empire.
I think that’s true for most politicians, actually. Now when it comes to the intellectuals who rationalize their deference to the politician, so they want to pose as prophetic even though they are very much deferential to the powers that be, they need to be criticized in a very intense way. That’s why I’m very hard on the Obama cheerleaders, you see, but when it comes to the politicians themselves, it is very difficult to be a prophetic politician the way in which Harold Washington was or the way Paul Wellstone was or the way Shirley Chisholm was, or the way my dear brother Bernie Sanders actually is. He is a prophetic politician. He speaks the truth about wealth and equality. He speaks the truth about Wall Street. He speaks the truth about working and poor people being afterthoughts in terms of the kind of calculations of the oligarchs of our day. He shows that it’s possible to be a politician who speaks the truth.
Once you occupy the White House, you are head of the empire. Then you have a choice. We’ve had two grand candidates in the history of the United States. We’ve had Abraham Lincoln and we’ve had Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both of them are full of flaws, full of faults, full of many, many blind spots. But they pushed the American experiment in a progressive way, even given their faults. And that’s what we thought Obama was going to do. We were looking for Lincoln, and we got another Clinton, and that is in no way satisfying. (Emphasis added.)
In spite of what I said above, I mostly agree with West here. I would also add Elizabeth Warren to the list. It would be interesting to see how Sanders would engage with a Julius Jones.
I added West’s disagreement to my blog rather than doing a re-write because I think what I said above and what he is saying are two important positions in a deep dialog about the possibilities of transformational/prophetic politics in the mainstream. Both West and I are saying that love has to be the driving force, but such an agreement does not address HOW. That is,
How do people working for deep change learn how to 1) make this central, and 2) then sustain it when confronted by the inevitable life-long challenges both from within ourselves and without.
This is my my core concern.
(Very demanding work consumed most of my time and energy for the past nine months. My last blog was almost six months ago, but I am now returning. Hope you missed me. My apologies for this one being so long.)