Wednesday, October 20, 2010

We Want a Better World, Mo

Maureen Tucker, drummer for the Velvet Underground, just granted an interview about her political views and her relationship to the Tea Party.

In it, she mostly comes across confused and cynical, railing against "socialism" in nearly the same breath as complaining about the lack of increases in social security.

But she articulates a view that I think is emblematic of a lot of the conservative discourse, and that I think can't be answered by simply snarking on her.

Tucker starts out by saying that the government can't and shouldn't provide all things to all people, which is a fair, if not exactly full, statement to make. She talks about how when she was growing up poor, she didn't have TVs or Levis, a sidelong attack on what she sees as the entitlement of the younger generation.

Part of that can be understood just by noting that she's old, and that this is a complaint made by old people throughout history, that young people don't know how good they have it, that they're decadent and demand more and more. Monty Python riffed on this, as did Dana Carvey. It's a complaint that's been around since Plato, with Socrates declaring that the grasping nature of the young will always corrupt governments from generation to generation.

But to acknowledge that as a complaint, Tucker should also acknowledge that when she was younger, she wanted TVs and Levis. And also that the country is a better place for having enough of a surplus to provide TVs and Levis for the poor (and that's leaving off the fact that when she was young, TVs and Levis were the new hotness; it's not like the majority of welfare recipients have flatscreens). She says she survived, but survival is the barest measure of a society. We're better off with TVs and Levis, and companies that make TVs and jeans are better off for us having them down to the lower income brackets. You can live without them, and maybe should, but most people choose not to and we are better off economically for that.

Tucker then moves on to a litany that's got at its core an ignorance and distrust of government. Which is understandable, given that idealistic Democrats are disappointed with Obama, from his handling of health care to his continued privacy violations and failures on LGBT issues, and that Republicans are livid over attacks on their privilege and have an established media apparatus that's the very definition of sophistry. The Republicans have retreated to the same rhetoric they used to fight against Roosevelt and the New Deal, but Obama's no Roosevelt — there are no fireside chats to reassure the nation — and the American people have, by and large, forgotten that Republicans were wrong about the Great Depression and wrong about the recovery and that their positions remain wrong today.

Progressives are also hobbled by a generally disengaged populace, especially on the part of the poor. The shift toward suburbanization has meant that people are alienated from each other and harder to organize, and the very availability of the TVs Tucker complains about means that more leisure time is spent with entertainment than with organizing for solutions. This isn't a novel statement to make — the California Supreme Court decided in Pruneyard v. Robbins that the modern suburban anomie and alienation required a diminishment of private property rights for the health of democracy. (It goes without saying that property owners detest the decision.)

Rather than trying to explain to Tucker that there's no such thing as a donkey museum, at least not in the US, that the TARP bailouts actually started under Bush, that no one is saying that you can't fly a flag or sing the national anthem, or that many of her other complaints are based on nonsense, misinformation and ignorance, and that taxes for most folks have actually gone down since Obama's taken office, or that you can't decry name-calling in one breath while calling all politicians cheats and liars in the next without being at least a little hypocritical, it's worth making the case (again, I know, it seems to never be enough) that we are working for a more egalitarian and more free country and world.

The health care reform isn't perfect — I would have preferred a public option — but it's a good start, and without an organized, coherent left (which only seems to come from dire crises), it wasn't going to happen. But the health care reform we got despite the best efforts of the insurance lobby will still save billions of dollars and thousands of lives. The banking reform was also a good start, and the bailouts of the auto companies not only saved thousands of jobs, but have now essentially paid for themselves. These were real successes, and there's a real danger in allowing the narrative from the left to be one of dissatisfaction with all things, rather than recognizing the incremental nature of progress.

That's how we beat the Mo Tuckers, by articulating the better world we want and showing real progress toward it. People are scared now, people are scared over their health and money and the changes to their culture, but pretending it's worse now than in the 1970s or 1930s or 1890s or even 1840s is ahistorical nonsense and shows a naive view of history. It's better now, and it's better because some politicians really do want to make things better, and those politicians are the ones who we largely elected in 2008, and we're better for it.

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