In the past few days, the comments section of this blog has taken a turn with which I am very unhappy, and I have only myself to blame. The flood of comments was triggered by my post yesterday morning [good grief, was it only yesterday morning?] in which I commented on a brief YouTube Noam Chomsky clip to which “Heraclitus” had supplied a link. These comments provoked just the sort of agitated and somewhat hostile back and forth on the left [in which I participated] that I have always decried and tried to stay out of. In this post, I want to step back and make some general observations about political action, especially in pursuit of the sorts of goals that I think I share with most of my readers.
As I have observed before, political change is not like brain surgery, in which the slightest slip of the hand can mean death or terrible injury. I prefer to liken political change to a landslide, in which an entire mountainside is transformed by an enormous flood of boulders, uprooted trees, rocks, clods of earth, but also pebbles and grains of sand, all tumbling, rolling, bouncing, pitching down a slope. In the Civil Rights Movement, the greatest popular political movement of my lifetime, one sees huge boulders like John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King rolling down the mountainside, along with small trees, like my UMass colleague in the Afro-American Studies Department Mike Thelwell, who ran the SNCC office in D. C. for a while.
But if nothing moves save for those few big objects, the result is not a landslide, and the mountainside is not transformed. For that transformation to happen, everything, small as well as big, must be in motion. If you are one of the pebbles or grains of sand, your participation in the landslide will make little or no observable difference, but without you and all the other pebbles and grains, it will not be a landslide.
The greatness and also the besetting sin of intellectuals is that they try to think about everything, not merely about something. If all you are doing is thinking, then of course the one is as easy as the other. But when it comes to political action, for most of us it is all we can manage to do just something – to be a pebble or a grain of sand. The trick, if you are intellectually inclined, is not to make the mistake of imagining that arguing in grand terms about everything is any sort of substitute for actually doing something.
That is why I spent several days writing and merge printing some fundraising letters for young Ryan Watts here in the NC 6th CD, which, Lord knows, is about as pebbly a thing as it is possible to do.
Now, I am, for better or worse, an intellectual, so I will continue to opine on the big picture, since that is what we intellectuals do. But I am not going to get into arguments about that big picture with folks who, I hope, are tumbling down the mountain with me. It is enough that we are tumbling down the same side.