By Frank Blechman
When I was a community organizer, I hung out with people who thought they could tackle any injustice, challenge any entrenched power, change any bad law or policy. Even in my most idealistic moments, I wasn’t that carried away.
Gradually, I found folks who had been through a few more wars than I had, and asked them about where they thought the line ought to be. What can we do, and what is the bridge too far?
Saul Alinsky, credited with coining the idea of “community organizing,” famously said,
“I can teach one (guy) in ten to organize. And, I can teach one in a hundred how to strategize. But, I can’t teach one in a thousand when it is time to make a deal.”
And Andrew Young, Martin Luther King Jr.’s top aide at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, when asked about the lessons he took from his experience in the civil rights movement, said:
“We put on our overalls and marched in the morning. So that we could put on our three-piece suits and negotiate in the afternoon. If we had not been willing to march, we would never have gotten to negotiate. If we had not been willing to negotiate, there would have been no point in marching. The tragedy of the civil rights movement is that thousands marched, while only a handful negotiated. The lesson most folks learned was that marching (by itself) makes change, which is wrong. That is why we marched for ‘freedom’ and got basketball courts.”
Both recognized that power is essential to loosen the past’s grip on the future, but it is a blunt instrument. It can create the possibility of change, but really can’t control the direction of it.
Power … is a blunt instrument; it can’t control the direction of [change]…. [One also needs] a strong vision of the future, … [and] the barriers standing … to be overcome…. [It is about not] anger and discontent, … [but] hope.
Both understood that it is not enough to have a clear critique of the present. One must also have a strong vision of the future, with a catalog of the barriers standing in the way to be overcome.
Both believed that their reach (goals) should exceed their grasp (what they knew they could achieve). Their job was to conjure a positive vision of the future to which the present condition could be compared. They were not peddlers of anger and discontent. They were about hope.
When should we make a deal? Where are the areas or what are the topics on which the Bernistas and the MAGAs agree? What “consents of the governed” form the basis for our common society?
Now, the challenge we face in these polarized, uncompromising times, is this: When should we make a deal? Where are the areas or what are the topics on which the Bernistas and the MAGAs agree? What “consents of the governed” form the basis for our common society?
I think the first principle is freedom. None of us likes to be bossed around, whether by big government or big business or even bossy neighbors. We can agree that most people, most of the time, can mostly take care of themselves.
The second principle is loss of freedom. Freedom is not unlimited. When a person or a group insists on using their freedom to harm others, their penalty should be a loss of that freedom. We don’t need to “take people’s guns away” if we can agree which uses of guns are permitted and which are unacceptable. As the old adage goes, “Your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose.” As a diverse nation, we may not all agree on every boundary, but we should be able to find agreement on some. And where we can agree, we can proscribe remedies along that spectrum of freedom, ranging from restoration to retribution, from sanction to prohibition.
The third principle for me is common responsibility. We mostly take care of ourselves and mostly expect others to take care of themselves, but when some need help, we should help as much as we can.
That is the great social compact in which I want to live. Those beating drums to “reopen states” during our current quarantine want to focus on the first principle. Lawyers and regulators spend their lives in the second. Communitarians like me focus on the third. All I am arguing here is that we need to acknowledge all three principles simultaneously, as coequally important. We cannot make progress on the second and third until we grant the first. Our failure to do this has made it easy for our critics to demonize us.
Let’s make is less easy for them, and easier for us.