2015: Imagine greater
by Tom Sullivan
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
— Ursula Le Guin, accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, 2014 National Book Awards
So much of what bloggers write about is serendipity. Sometimes focusing fiercely on a single topic and searching out components to flesh out an idea, or else grazing the Net at random for articles that spark one, or sometimes just happening upon ideas floating around that connect in ways that say something about the zeitgeist.
This morning I ran across this post on Raw Story featuring Ursula Le Guin's speech at the National Book Awards ceremony in November:
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality. ...
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words.
I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want — and should demand — our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
The very next link led to a terrific read by Rebecca Solnit at Salon. In a San Francisco junk shop, she had come upon a document dating from the French Revolution that reminded her of the very Le Guin speech I had just seen:
That document I held was written only a few years after the French had gotten over the idea that the divine right of kings was an inescapable reality. The revolutionaries had executed their king for his crimes and were then trying out other forms of government. It’s popular to say that the experiment failed, but that’s too narrow an interpretation. France never again regressed to an absolutist monarchy and its experiments inspired other liberatory movements around the world (while terrifying monarchs and aristocrats everywhere).
Americans are skilled at that combination of complacency and despair that assumes things cannot change and that we, the people, do not have the power to change them. Yet you have to be abysmally ignorant of history, as well as of current events, not to see that our country and our world have always been changing, are in the midst of great and terrible changes, and are occasionally changed through the power of the popular will and idealistic movements. As it happens, the planet’s changing climate now demands that we summon up the energy to leave behind the Age of Fossil Fuel (and maybe with it some portion of the Age of Capitalism as well).
The rest is about the global fight to rein in fossil fuels and combat climate change. But most inspiring is her account of a battle by Mayor Gayle McLaughin and progressive residents of Richmond, California to take on — and defeat — Chevron in a company town and get the firm to pay an additional $114 million in taxes to clean up the town and lower its crime rate:
For this November’s election, the second-largest oil company on Earth officially spent $3.1 million to defeat McLaughin and other progressive candidates and install a mayor and council more to its liking. That sum worked out to about $180 per Richmond voter, but my brother David, who’s long been connected to Richmond politics, points out that, if you look at all the other ways the company spends to influence local politics, it might be roughly ten times that.
Nonetheless, Chevron lost. None of its candidates were elected and all the grassroots progressives it fought with billboards, mailers, television ads, websites, and everything else a lavishly funded smear campaign can come up with, won.
Since Democrats' losses in the November elections, most news outlets have focused what the left lost across the country, while ignoring such victories. I point out to any who will listen that while Democrats lost across the South, here in North Carolina, even as Sen. Kay Hagan narrowly lost her reelection bid, Democrats gained seats in the state legislature. And in districts drawn to be safe Republican seats. Instead of wringing our hands over what went wrong, progressives might want to look more closely at places like Richmond to learn from what went right. "The Richmond progressives won," Solnit writes, "by imagining that the status quo was not inevitable, no less an eternal way of life." Imagine greater is not just a cable channel's slogan.
Who ever thought we'd see a pope advocating progressive ideas? Pope Francis is jumping into the climate change fight in a big way in 2015, including issuing a much-anticipated encyclical and taking on Vatican conservatives on the climate issue:
According to Vatican insiders, Francis will meet other faith leaders and lobby politicians at the general assembly in New York in September, when countries will sign up to new anti-poverty and environmental goals.
In recent months, the pope has argued for a radical new financial and economic system to avoid human inequality and ecological devastation. In October he told a meeting of Latin American and Asian landless peasants and other social movements: “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.
“The system continues unchanged, since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics. It is no longer man who commands, but money. Cash commands.
“The monopolising of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inadequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness,” he said.