In Czarist Russia, centuries ago, conditions for the serfs could get truly appalling. Living in an agricultural society in a cold, dry land, famine was a frequent visitor; living in an autocratic society, taxation was basically armed theft by the lords, the boyars. The serfs were therefore caught between the climate and the hierarchy. But they held out hope for rescue: their perpetual refrain was, “If only the czar knew!”
The czar was the agent of Jesus, you see — the sainted ruler, Christ’s agent on earth. Since he was so holy, he would rein in the boyars and protect the people (and who knows, he might ask Christ for a mild winter, too). Since he obviously wasn’t doing this, however, it must be because he had no idea how his people were suffering. So the serfs reasoned, or so goes the story. In 1905, therefore, a group of serfs and low-ranking priests took a petition for a relief of sufferings to the czar at the Winter Palace, relying on his goodness, and were massacred for their trouble. There were probably quite a few serfs who had guessed the truth before that, but afterward it was blindingly obvious.
For the czars were mortal — some good, some bad, some totally ineffectual, not a few insane — and they were bound up in the system the serfs bemoaned. Rather than being above and apart from the outright robbery of the boyars, rather being a potential intercessor, the czars benefited enormously from the system as it was. To intercede would have been to cut off the branch they were sitting on. So for nearly a thousand years, it was “If only the czar knew!” while the czar knew all along.There was evidently something of the same ruler-worship under Lenin and Stalin, even more egregiously. It eventually began to shift into “If only we could get back to Lenin’s principles!” — apparently unaware that Lenin himself had set the police state into motion.
Lest anyone think this is a Russian-specific phenomenon, there was a similar pattern in the thirteen colonies in the run-up to 1776. For years the colonists ascribed the worst British offenses to the government ministers or Parliament, not King George. The assumption was that the young king himself was fine; he’d just appointed lousy officials. Petitions to repeal “ministerial” policies were addressed to the king; some even succeeded, although not permanently. When the British occupied Boston and the shooting started at Lexington, the Americans still referred to their attackers as “the Ministerial Army.” It took quite some time for the colonials to realize that the ministers were, to a man, acting on George III’s orders. The Declaration of Independence is filled with charges against the king directly, since by then Jefferson knew — in fact he likely phrased the Declaration as he did to get that message to others who still thought George was fine. But even after Lexington and Concord, quite a few living in the colonies were reluctant to endorse such lese-majesty, and stayed loyal to the crown.
Today in the United States we have a somewhat more complicated pattern of hopes. We distrust the concept of monarchy, but we still have similar hopes: “If only the other party were in charge!” Or it’s “If only the politicians would do as they promised!” This latter comment is especially true when referring to an incumbent president of your own party who is beginning to disappoint.
Each party makes great use of this longing, rousting out their base and trying to sway the middle with cries of, “We’re better than the other guys!” Each party, every two years, resolutely asserts “They will do horrible things to you. We on the other hand, can protect you from them, and if you play along, we can even throw in some treats!” The treats might be subsidies under the Democrats or tax cuts under the Republicans, but the promise of goodies and the threat of Those People (or That One, as the case may be) is held up every single election. Nor is this new. The level of threat combined with treats is now increasingly on par with the vitriol the Founders hurled at each other. It’s how it’s always been.
There’s a term for it: “Good Cop, Bad Cop.”
Thing is, whether they’re good or bad, they are both cops. And when they are pulling this particular trick on you, they are never on your side.
I am not suggesting that the Democrats and the Republicans are consciously in cahoots. The Democrats often seem only barely in cahoots with themselves, after all. Moreover the blistering antipathy the parties have for each other makes it plain there is no vast conspiracy. I am merely suggesting that both sides gain enormous benefit from each other. They need each other, really. My great-grandfather had a saying: “Hold your nose and vote Democrat.” I’ve known libertarians and fiscal conservatives who have voted Republican for the last few years with similar reluctance. We’d throw both parties over if there were any alternatives, and if one party crumbled to nothing and the other took total charge, it too would be howled down within years — if not weeks.
So both parties are working toward the same fundamental ends — power and control — and playing off each other advances that agenda quite nicely, even if they are unaware of it. The Republicans, I’m told, are quite expert at playing the game: even when defeated, they simply wait. They know they’ll be back on top eventually. This is old news to some; moreover, asserting that both parties are basically the same at bottom will seem bogus to others. I am not quite making that claim here, however. What I am saying is that substantive change will not come from either party. All cries of “If only the Republicans were back in charge!” or “If only Obama would do as he promised!” are, in essence, “If only the czar knew!” And our current cries are just as hopeless as any Russian serfs’.
The political parties are part of the system. This was not how it was originally intended, but the parties developed and polarized almost at once. They have gone through some rather dramatic changes over the years, for instance exchanging positions on the issue of civil rights, but there have almost always been two real parties in the US, and their fundamental goals are and always have been to preserve the existing system and their preeminent place in it.
Jay Rosen, writing in a different context, put it well: “The job of fixing what’s broken would break the system responsible for such fixes.”
We live in a situation where our government spends billions to keep us safe through intelligence, and doesn’t seem to be working all that well. We live in a situation where our government invades a country to keep us safe, and gets us mired in a nine-year war, our longest continunous conflict ever, killing civilians and hiding the fact, betrayed by our allies on numerous levels, with thousands dead and tens of thousands maimed. We live in a situation where our government budgets 9 billion dollars for the reconstruction of the other country we’ve invaded in the last ten years, and then cannot account for $8.7 billion of it later on. In fact we live in a situation where our military system has never successfully passed a financial audit. We live in a situation where, despite these ulcerous conflicts, politicians are seriously advocating an assault on yet a third country, the most stable, democratic, and militarily prepared one yet, Iran. (Protests over a rigged election are evidence of democracy, even if it’s democracy betrayed.)
We live in a situation where massive oil leaks produce no boycott or rioting, let alone any real shift toward renewable energy; instead the egregiously polluting and inefficient tar sands are being opened up, the cavalier “fracking” process of discovering and harvesting natural gas is accelerating across the West and Northeast, leaving huge swathes of precious water table contaminated, and the people of the Gulf Coast beg for more of the offshore drilling that doomed half their livelihood. If the oil goes, after all, they’ve lost both livelihoods. What’s even more tragic is that they have a point.
We live in a situation where an African-American woman makes a speech about racial reconciliation, gets attacked by an outright lie of a video edit from a man who has already perpetrated a similar outright fraud, and gets fired by an African-American president without stopping to ask whether if the liar has lied again. We live in a situation where one political party delays benefits to out-of-work people for weeks on the basis that they’re worried about deficits, while simultaneously voting for war budgets of the sort mentioned above without batting an eye. The same party then strikes down legislation for health benefits for the police and firefighters who responded to the calls on September 11th on the same “we can’t pay for it” basis. The other party, despite majorities in both houses of Congress and a president in the Oval Office, permits them to do it.
We live in a situation where $12 billion of the $26 billion authorized to keep teachers from being laid off will come out of the food stamp program. Rather than have our kids be poorly educated, it seems, we’d rather see them starve.
If this is not a broken system, what is?
The Founders were wise enough to include a system of checks and balances, as we all know. Their system, however, relied on numerous, somewhat independent parts of government (and the press) operating in creative tension. They failed to foresee a party system bent on self-perpetuation that would infect all the branches, making those checks and balances they’d built not restrains, but political footballs… either they failed to foresee this danger, or they were already contaminated by it.
So how do we fix this mess? The system can no longer right itself. The creative tension laid down in the Constitution has become a mere seesaw in a playground, its riders going up and down in the same spot as the park around them burns. The czar already knows everything, and won’t intervene because he’s part of the system. To set this country right will require a force outside our government.
“An external force” can cut both ways, of course. Currently the most visible outside force is the Tea Party. The Tea Party, as its perhaps-forgotten acronymic name tells us, is bent on rolling back taxes. (The serfs of Russia might have said that if the Tea Partiers think they’re “Taxed Enough Already,” they have no idea how lucky they are.) The Tea Party caucus in Congress has also opposed nuclear arms reduction and has effectively endorsed an Israeli attack on Iran, indicating their willingness to fight that potential third war mentioned above. How to pay for the immense costs of such a war has not come up, apparently. Their supporters out in wider America have not, to my knowledge, uttered a peep of protest.
There are independent political movements on the other side, it’s true. For instance there are campaigns to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; there’s a political campaign I’m well-acquainted with, often fronted by Will Phillips of refusing-to-Pledge-Allegiance fame and former Lieutenant Dan Choi, called GetEqual, aimed at passing the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). These campaigns are wrestling with the Democrats to get DOMA struck down and ENDA passed in its place, and wrestling with President Obama to get him to say something, anything, supportive on the Proposition 8 ruling. I note, however, that these groups do not aim at drivng the Democrats out, nor at replacing them, but at simply getting their elected representatives to listen to them. I wish them success, and I hope they get some things accomplished, but I do not expect them to truly reform the system. Such sweeping reform is not their goal.
So there are nibbles around the edges of the system, but no great push, no rising tide to sweep aside the wreckage and rebuild anew. What, then, can we do?
Well, today I did laundry.
It’s more effective a protest than you might think. I washed my clothes in cold water using a biodegradable detergent from an ecologically approved-of company. Then I hung my clothes out to dry on the line in the back yard. Minimal energy expenditure, short of breaking out a washboard. By not using so much energy on laundry, I am not spending money on that energy, which means that the coal and oil companies — such huge players in the mess we’re in — are deprived of a tiny fraction of the wealth they have always used to sway our government to get breaks on fossil fuel sources and easy access to public land, to avoid regulation on oil wells and gas drilling, and to launch wars wherever mineral wealth can be found.
(Okay, so Seattle’s power mostly comes from rivers, not coal or oil, and our local power companies actually have built so many windmills they sometimes have more electricity than they know what do with. But the principle is there.)
When the problems we face are so vast and far-reaching and interconnected, even small acts are rebellious. When the system’s methods of self-correction are broken, and when we are up against problems so massive we can’t even pay attention because the news is so bad (and the quality of the news reporting is failing too), then small acts of rebellion are actually some of the most practical moves we can make. For starters, we do need to take care of ourselves; making sure we stay clean and healthy really is useful. It is a common tendency among activists to push themselves too hard. Of even larger importance, however, is realizing that we really do have the capacity for revolutionary acts. These small acts — “gnawing at the ankles of injustice,” as it was once memorably put — can put some heart back into us, the heart we need before we can begin any larger acts. If we need to re-learn courage, the laundry is not bad way to start.
So rebel at the dinner table with small-farmer food. Rebel on your way to work by riding the bus or a bike. Rebel with your feet and walk somewhere, especially up stairs (I never ride elevators if I can help it). Rebel by reading the news, and double-checking the news.
If you’re white, talk to a black person. Politely, mind you; in a neighborly fashion, with no holier-than-thou, look-how-Not-Racist-I-am crap. If you’re a comfortable middle-class house-dweller, talk to a homeless person, with the same caveats. If you are over the untrustworthy age of 30, talk to a teenager, frankly and honestly, about sex. Talk to a teenager frankly and honestly about economics. Go for a day, or at least a few waking hours, without using a cell phone. Close your accounts with big national banks and open new ones with local credit unions.
Make no mistake, though. These small efforts only take us so far. They may inspire us and encourage us, but they will not save us. Calling your representative or buying a Prius is similar: it will help a bit but not enough, not as much as we’d like to think, not as much as we need. It will take larger and much braver acts to save us, and there is no one who can do it except us. No one is coming to our rescue. Not Obama, not Palin, not Kucinich or Beck. Dr. King is dead. Jesus isn’t back.
We must rescue ourselves. The czar knows all about the system, and he does not care.