The Country is Lonely Excerpts from a Speech to the Populist Alliance BY LARRY GOODWYN 11 SPENT THE EARLY years of my adult life here in Texas trying to create a social movement with many people many aging people in the audience. Having failed to change the world, I have spent the last two decades studying social movements. And I thought I’d talk about two things, they being the only two things I know. In the world as I understand it, and maybe it washes through the events of today, we have “normal” politics. And I’m doing it right now I’m talking and you’re listening and it’s in an artificial and sterile environment, and it has a lot of hierarchy built in, and it’s normal. And there are certain constraints that are present, in terms of dreams of people … who are called “those in power,” “conservatives,” [who] control our agenda. And we carry this limitation in our minds and it’s a function of all our years on the planet. We have been taught by our society, by our culture, to have very small hopes. When we learn all these lessons we’re called “sophisticated,” and we’re called “old pros.” Politicians who are sophisticated and old pros do not change anything. They merely administer normal politics. Most people, most of the time, in most countries, in most centuries, live all of their lives within the context of normal politics. Not much changes, and what we have essentially is what I call received culture. Every now and then, very rarely in human history, we get “abnormal” politics. Abnormal politics is a social movement. There are very few large-scale social movements in world history. We’ve had about three in all the 200 years of American history. The reason we don’t have them very often is that they’re very hard to put together. It’s not because people aren’t in need. It’s not because times aren’t hard, because times are hard. It’s not because people don’t know they’re oppressed, because people know they’re oppressed. It’s that they don’t know what to do about it. And it’s not part of our heritage. It’s not part of the received culture to teach the victims of hierarchy how to change hierarchy. So there is not a populist heritage that’s alive and well in American society. That, one can see on ABC or CBS or see its rhythms in the Former Observer editor Larry Goodwyn is a professor of history at Duke University. New Y orkTimes, or flowing from lectures by college professors in our nation’s universities. No, we lost that cultural battle. So the democratic idea lives in the West in Western society, and lives in the United States, as a dissenting tradition. And you are it, insofar as it exists in Texas at this moment. Here’s what I distill from 25 years of studying social movements. Social movements create internal mechanisms of communication so that the people a movement is able to recruit can keep knowing who they are. Because as soon as a movement appears, the received culture begins to define the movement in very harsh ways. And it calls them bad names “hayseeds” or “reds” or “niggers,” or whatever will sell at a given moment. And if the movement’s people who, after all, do listen to the received culture because they have no option but to live it cannot redefine themselves as to what they are, the movement will be killed. The only thing that keeps movements going is internal communications. That’s the first thing I’ve learned in 25 years of studying social movements. The second thing I’ve learned is that movements talk to each other, the people of movements talked to each other. And here we hit a brick wall, here we hit something that not only involves a talent that the received culture doesn’t give us; it’s not a talent that the dissenting tradition gives us either. It’s something that, if it’s created in the world, some generation is going to have to come along and create it. And that is: a way to have a democratic argument. We do not know how to talk to each other, be candid with each other, without putting each other down. Democracy is a sanctioned argument. It’s an argument conducted by people who’ve decided they need each other and respect each other, but disagree about what to do tomorrow morning at eight o’clock. And that’s unfortunate but predictable. We have so many sectarian ways of dividing ourselves. Is this a room full of good people, or are they progressives or are they liberals or are they social democrats or are they and this goes back in time are they Trotskyists, are they populists? Those are not our words. Those are the words of the other side. Those are words that are created to divide people. If we can find a way to talk to each other and be candid and not have hidden agendas, not try to manipulate ourselves, they’ll have a name for us after a while. We’ll recruit the country! Because the country’s terribly lonely. The country is profoundly distrustful of power. It doesn’t know what to do about it. So the things I have to say today are very simple. Number one, the primary category of political life is the word “recruitment.” Now I can’t recruit anybody today because everybody in this room has already been recruited. The people we need to recruit are out there, somewhere. Now we can elect to condescend to those people, the ones who are not in this room. We can say that they don’t know enough, that they vote wrong, that they do not realize how oppressed they are. We can find a hundred ways to condescend to them, and justify thereby the fact that we can’t recruit them. … Scholars will say, “The trouble with the people of Texas or Arkansas, or New Mexico or anyplace is that they have inadequate consciousness.” And that is the way elite people condescend to people they can’t recruit. We have to get the message, we have to be clear. This is where Hightower is so helpful. This is where elite liberalism is not helpful. We have to be clear. The American people are suspicious of politicians now, because they’re not clear. We have to learn to be clear. Part of our heritage is that if you’re clear, you sound radical. That’s so: if you’re clear, you’re clear. And if we take people where they are, we discover that we can’t say everything right away, because they won’t understand it. We can’t be too clear too quick because we just opened the conversation. So the first thing we have to do is evolve a way to touch this loneliness, to capitalize on it, to say to people that we’re all victims. Since 1980 we’ve gone from the world’s largest creditor nation to the world’s largest debtor nation. In that time period the lowest 20 percent of the American people now make in real income 11 percent less money than they did ten years ago. This is called “progress.” The top 20 percent make 19 percent more than they did then, in real dollars. The top ten percent of that 20 percent make 29 percent more. The top two percent of that twenty percent make 41 percent more than they did ten years ago. The sanctioned term of description in the United States, right now, on ABC, CBS, The New York Times, what have you, to describe this ten-year period in which we’ve gone from the world’s largest creditor to the world’s 14 SEPTEMBER 28, 1990
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