Friday, March 20, 2015

"Don't Panic the Herd" (Unnecessarily) [24 July 2014]

             In a way this post supplements my rather insistent request for some apologies from the late 20th-century "Lefter-than-Thou" Left, this time adding in some issues of pretty much just style.

            Part of what's going on is old resentment on my side. No one on the Left ever threatened to kill me, nor even put a riot baton upside my head, but what I did get from some of my radical colleagues on the was, back when I was visible among the local 1960s peaceniks, quiet contempt for "the short little Lib with glasses" and, later, a kind of active disregard.

            You may now ignore that opening; I included it for, not full disclosure; no one can do that, but to admit some of the personal, and petty, that is always part of the political.

            The more political portion of the political that concerns me here is that some to my Left both did necessary and important work, for which they will usually take credit, but also messed up a bit, about which we hear less.

            One job they did was crucial for me: the loudest and most radical were always useful to those of us dealing with The Powers That Were (and Still Are) trying to negotiate what we hoped would be progress.

            It is always essential in such negotiations that "the Man" in his various incarnations look out the window and see and hear a mob — however small or nonexistent the crowd out there — and think, "If I do not compromise with these relatively moderate Moderates, I will have to deal with THEM outside."

            Indeed, on one occasion there was just too little rabble being roused for even the most paranoid administrator to grow concerned, so on the way to a meeting I had to take off my jacket and tie and go outside and whip up the crowd a bit myself.

            "Always have someone to your Left" if you're on the Left, to the Right if you're a conservative: either way, radicals that make you look eminently reasonable (even if the radical arguments are often more logically consistent than moderate compromises).

            And to a great extent many of us tried hard to look like moderates. 'Cause — in part, as usual — many of us growing up in the gray middle of the 20th century grew up with the unspoken or spoken rule, "Don't panic the herd."

            Among my friends, the maxim was spoken and should have been expanded: Don't panic the herd unnecessarily, or even (unnecessarily) annoy them.

            We were quietly cocky little bastards, my friends and I, but it's hardly bragging to note that we were smart enough to figure out that our high school's student council was a "toy government" and that class president and similar faux-democratic offices weren't even that.

            And toys are to be played with, and, being wise-asses, we played.

            We saw ourselves as something cooler than kids at play, though; if we were conscious of it at all — and here we were pretty unconscious — we thought of ourselves as cowboys moving along the little dogies, or, just maybe, now and then, a lion sneaking up on the herd at the water hole.

            Anyway, we quietly, offhandedly, and in our spare time, manipulated graduation-class politics and student politics more generally — what there was of student politics at Lake View High School in the late 1950s — and figured if we couldn't be "the popular kids" we'd be the quiet manipulators.

            It was a Chicago high school, Lake View High, so such exercises were good training for adult life if we stayed in the neighborhood; and it was crucial if very basic training for my future political life in downstate Illinois, the academy, and what is now John Boehner's Congressional District. (Hint: However negative the news coverage can be of Mr. Boehner, it's better than we were used to in the Ohio 8th CD: no phrases in the media like "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" and "counts of bribery and conspiracy.")

            We called our group "Delta Chi Omega Sigma Mu," from the initials of our initial motto of "Don't Cry Over Spilt Milk" and because it has a rhythm (at least with an Omega and not an Omicron) appropriate for singing, so we kind of automatically had most of a club song.

            One high point in our brief corporate life — Year Clubs are people, my friends — was when one day junior year I was sitting in the school cafeteria and a kid came up to me and asked me if I was president of Delta Chi Omega Sigma Mu, and I replied "I think so." This actually wasn't a wise-ass answer since DCOSM handled transfers of authority in the tradition of the late Roman Empire, but without the violence, and I was pretty sure I had just been impeached. I finally decided I was as close to a president as we had at that moment and asked him what he wanted. He said he was running for some school or class office, and I said, "Well …?" And he asked, "Is that all right?"

            Ah, if only The Godfather had been out, and we had gotten our class rings! It hadn't and I don't think we had, so I just said, "Uh, sure" and tried to look warm and sincere and earnest and wished him luck.
            That was my personal best, but what's relevant here — I will get around to the point, honest — what's relevant here is a group achievement, and its eventual celebration.

            One day, one of my club brothers (one of the guys behind the impeachment) came up to me and asked me for a name everyone in the school would know, or think they knew. I paused and said, "Carlson. Robert Carlson — Robert A., A for Allen, but everyone calls him 'Bob'" and asked why. And my friend said that we were running him for Sgt. at Arms of the Student Council.

            I noted that I'd made up the name, and he said he knew and that that was what he wanted.

            So one of the year-club brothers wrote up a student folder for Bob and filed it appropriately, along with other subsidiary documentation. I didn't follow this part: no "Need to Know," you know, and our, well, forger was very professional about the operation (he went on to become a significant expert in encryption and had a notable run-in with the NSA before that was fashionable). Others worked on the Carlson campaign and wrote a speech for Bob to deliver at the school's election assembly.

            Getting the speech given was something of a challenge, but poor Bob came down with some medical affliction, and we got a hotshot from the current Student Council officers — a guy the speechwriter didn't like — to deliver the speech. The Council officer did an excellent job, and it looked like Bob was a shoo-in.
            And this brought us to a decision point for the, well, conspirators. Some of us wanted to get Bob elected; others noted a problem.

            Lake View did a good job running realistic elections for our toy student government, and we used actual Chicago or Cook County voting machines. Those came cheap, but there was a rental charge; and if it became clear that there'd need to be a new election based on the non-existence of the winner, or even the death or nonexistence of one of the candidates; and either way the machines would have to be rented again or there'd have to be a hand count.

            And costing the school money or making the Student Council election committee count by hand over 2000 ballots: neither was going to be taken as just good clean fun.

            So we killed Bob.

            After all, he'd been too sick to deliver his election speech, and even back before well-publicized school shootings and some poor schmuck's managing to OD on caffeine, high school students did die with sufficient frequency that the story was plausible.

            Fortunately for us, this was before the time of bringing in grief counselors for basically routine deaths; and also fortunately we were able to stop the collection of money for flowers or a contribution to … whatever-Bob-had-died-of fund — and we "pulled the string" as they used to say and whispered it around that good old Bob whom everyone knew had a terminal existential issue.

            There was an investigation, spearheaded by the current Sgt. at Arms of the Student Council, the guy who initially came up with the Carlson-for-Office idea. And we went to ground and kept our mouths shut.
            And the herd was quiet, and we sort of celebrated getting away with the prank by buying ΔΧΩΣΜ club shirts (knitted short-sleeves in blue with black letters: ugly — really ugly — but appropriate for us).

            And then someone got a bad idea, and we upped our celebration of our success by all of us wearing our shirts to school on the same day.

            Hubris yields Nemesis as the Greeks used to say, or in a more decorous formulation: Chutzpah — dumb-ass arrogance — is the pride that goeth before a pratfall.

            We made it obvious who had gotten elected to many of the offices of the toy government and such, and the herd wasn't panicked so much as the flock spotted the owls out in the daylight and mobbed the shit out of them. Less metaphorically and far less melodramatically put, we pissed off a number of our classmates, and the next election that came up — senior class officers —we were out.

            It made little difference who became class president, although the candidate elected instead of our guy made that his first step on a successful career in the cop business and then as owner of McDonald's franchises. Important for me here were lessons about the dangers of arrogance, the limits to how far people (not cattle or zebras or sheep) can be annoyed, and how something as banal as ugly short-sleeve shirts can have unanticipated effects.

            Which returns me to heavier matters.

            "The sixties" as a period in political history didn't correspond exactly to the decade of 1960 through 1969. If you need dates for it, one might say the sixties started in late 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, got caught in a backlash in 1968 with the election of Richard M. Nixon as President of the United States, got shot down at Kent State and Jackson State Universities in 1970, twitched a bit and then got indecently buried in an electoral landslide with the re-election of Richard M. Nixon over George McGovern in 1972. With some important ups and downs, primarily with the Watergate Scandal, the sixties were well over in crucial aspects by 1972, symbolized by Nixon's successful "Southern Strategy" for Republicans and the successful campaigns for President — to overstate — of Southern Eisenhower-Republicans by the Democrats.
            The Reagan Revolution of the 1980s f. (the Margaret Thatcher Revolution to give credit more accurately) helped "roll back" a good deal of the sixties and "the Movement."

            Why? Too big a topic for my pay grade, but let's start with "the Movement's" being far from monolithic — a good thing — and at its roots too incoherent (not a good thing). Hippies were not Radicals; the Civil Rights movement and Peace Movement overlapped but were not identical; Malcolm X was emphatically not Martin Luther King, Jr., and Black Power as a movement was not Civil Rights and integration.

            And finally moving into the topic announced in my opening paragraph — the social and cultural movements of Hippies, feminists, gays, and associates (GLBT) overlapped with the other small "m" movements in American society but were far from identical, and not always in agreement on goals and tactics.

            "The personal is the political" is true indeed, but the personal also can and does compete with the more purely political, defined in traditional terms of broad-scale power and economic issues. Identity politics are politics, but they are necessarily particularistic and complicate coalition politics.

            And religious politics are always and necessarily incredibly problematic and dangerous, as can be seen by a quick look at the body counts from the 17th-century European Wars of Religion as well as those from the older Crusades and battles within Islam.

            Short form here: Some of my colleagues on the Left weren't colleagues at all but provocateurs, and there's a history to be publicized of infiltration of Movement groups by people assigned to act offensively and provoke trouble. More, though, were sincere people who got important work done, but work with costs.

            Obviously, the wise-guys of ΔΧΩΣΜ had the right to wear our shirts to school individually and conspire to all come to school in them on the same day. It was, however, not prudent to do so. Old adolescents and young adults have the right to wear their hair as they like, and it is progress that people nowadays can wear a wide range of hair styles without worrying about what sort of political statement they're making. And that you can display tatoos and that mi-level executives can be pierced — etc., except that fights over hair and clothes and fashion are far less of a drain on the status-quo Right than on the Left, and for the serious politics of Who-Gets-What are largely a distraction.

            And the "life-style" fights of the 1960s and following much too frequently panicked the herd. Indeed even far more serious conflicts — ones with excellent results like getting acceptance of gay marriage — came with upsetting traditionalists more than prudent.

            It can be useful and often necessary to "appall the bourgeoisie," but bourgeoisie is a Frenchified way to say "middle class," and it can be a very bad tactic to appall a middle-class that must be brought into any effective alliance against the reactionary among the very rich.

            It can be galvanizing to attack any orthodoxy, including religious orthodoxy, but go back to the old image with "galvanize" and picture putting electricity through people. They may object, strongly.

            After the American Left lost the power to threaten widespread disruption — basically after Kent State and Jackson State and convulsions that followed them — it was time to cool it and avoid unnecessarily annoying the conventional.

            Plenty of annoyance is already necessary.

            So, a sensible atheist can deal with theist by mildly re-formulating the probably apocryphal assertion by Pierre-Simon Laplace, "I have no need of that hypothesis" — the God hypothesis — and then shutting up unless the theists are trying to control your behavior.

                        * Effective politics are coalition politics, and there are a lot of religious people out there who can be drawn into progressive coalitions on the basis of their/our beliefs.

                        * In the United States, there are a lot of religious people, period.

                        * Historically, going back to the rediscovery of Greek philosophy, science, and "Reason," a standard response to overstated Enlightenment and "modernism" has been calls for a return to unquestioning faith and various fundamentalisms. Hold your ground civilly, but don't encourage that return. You don't have to say the "under God" part of the pledge of allegiance — or any of the Pledge — but you can stand there quietly when others indulge the patriotic impulse.

            All Americans of any, all, and every sexual orientation can cool it with Public Displays of Affection when PDA means public fondling.

            Having established the right to decorate one's body however one pleases, in public cover up anything overly outrageous — and do not think that making an artwork of your body is some sort of significant contribution to a just society.

            And so forth.

            The "sixties" in one sense lasted maybe five years, and after that it's been largely backlash. Most of that backlash was and remains inevitable; those of us Left of center, should not add to it.

            Back in high school, Delta Chi Omega Sigma Mu had the excuse of inexperience in unnecessarily goading our classmates. Older folk have no excuse. Unless it is really necessary, do not panic the herd.

            Unless you have a mob at your back — or your opponents imagine one — civility and restraint are always good options in dealing with people who just might give you what you want.

            You don't have to love your enemies or even your neighbors or "the stranger who resides with you" as on alien in or midst — not unless you Believe. Still, you can be nice to them, where possible, and, prudently, avoid unnecessarily throwing them into a panic, or a snit.

            Pranking people and arguing with them is fun; but it's better to deal with them so they'll give you their aid. 

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