I’ve been thinking more about issues surrounding what I see as progressives’ lack of understanding around how to organize for the change they want. See here, but to reiterate, too many progressives see voting for “the one leader who will save us” every four years as a useful strategy, as opposed to the decades-long work of creating real change through organizing on the local level and either establishing a legitimate third party with deep local roots or taking over the Democratic Party structure and remaking it in their own image, i.e., what radical conservatives have done to the Republican Party over the past 50 years.
I started to wonder why so many progressives seem to believe this, whether Nader in 2000 or Obama in 2008 or whatever. I’m sure there are many reasons for this. But as a historian, I wonder if part of it doesn’t have to do with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about the past. Traditional teachings of history, as their critics have so long pointed out, have focused on the Great Man. Of course, that was a Great White Man who probably oppressed others or was at least morally compromised in some unacceptable ways (Thomas Jefferson having sex with his slaves, Andrew Jackson and lots of horrible things, etc). That kind of teaching about those kind of people arguably reinforced conservative political values, which is part of the reason that conservatives fight to control local school boards.
But while the Great White Man version of history is rightfully out of fashion for progressives, the Great Person who created tons of change version of history is as strong as ever. By focusing on the Great Person, even as we often tell ourselves that we focus on mass movements when really we don’t, I think we might be creating the conditions for Green Lantern versions of how change happens.
The most clear example of this is the civil rights movement. This story of one of tremendous complexity. It took decades of organizing to make this happen. Yet we tell it as the story of a couple of people doing amazing things. Rosa Parks wouldn’t get to the back of the bus because she wanted to rest her tired feet (a story that actually conflates two different women but one that is commonly told). Martin Luther King had a dream. Then some bad southern white people did bad things and King’s dream convinced the government to do something and the black people could ride the bus and go to school with white people. Therefore, the civil rights movement was a success.
King just had a dream. It was so powerful, look what it accomplished.
Or at least that’s pretty close to the master popular narrative of the movement.
This of course disguises that the civil rights movement was something that engaged tens of thousands of people over a century plus who did amazing actions and still do, even though the master narrative says the movement ended when King was killed in 1968.
It’s not all that different with other movements. The women’s movement is a series of leaders from Susan B. Anthony to Gloria Steinem. Environmentalism is Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir and Rachel Carson. Gay rights is Harvey Milk. Labor is Mother Jones and John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther. Note that I have tried to avoid biographical pieces in my This Day in Labor History series. This is a specific choice to counter these narratives, though I may do so in the future.
We say these are mass movements, but we don’t teach them that way. Instead we teach the Dream and the Great Person. If King could change people’s hearts with his Dream, why can’t Obama change it with his supposed vision?
And the answer of course is that a) King didn’t change people’s hearts solely with his Dream and b) disappointment with Obama, while rooted in real reasons, is also a reflection of how the world works outside of myths we tell ourselves about change. A whole lot of civil rights activists called King a compromiser and even a sellout too, not only Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael, but everyday people involved both deeply and peripherally in the movement. Whether they were right or wrong is a matter of opinion, but this King-centric Dream story is one that developed after his death, not during the movement’s heyday.
I understand the psychic need we have as people to craft historical narratives to fit our desires for the present. Stories about individual people creating change have a beautiful simplicity to them. But that doesn’t mean they are true. As we see in the present, change doesn’t happen in a beautifully simple and inspiring way. It’s a bloodbath full of power plays, infighting, and knife fights.
And I think if we understood this about the people and movements we revere in the past, we’d do a better job understanding how to organize and what to expect from our leaders in the present.
I don’t want to overstate the case because I am sure it is multifaceted. But I think I am getting at part of the problem.