Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sedentary agitation

Last week I wrote about a speech Newark Mayor Cory Booker gave in NH for the Obama campaign. In it he talked about too many Americans getting caught up in a state of "sedentary agitation" when it comes to our politics and democracy. Boy...did that ever resonate with me! Put a little more bluntly, he's saying that all we want to do is sit on our asses and bitch about what other people are/are not doing. How true that is.

Democracy in this country has become a spectator sport with everyone assuming the position of pundit. Writing a blog post/comment has become the definition of activism...except when we get really bold and call/tweet/email a member of Congress/the White House and tell them what we really think.

I say this even on the heels of the so-called OWS "movement." Certainly the people who have participated in "occupying" have done more than sit on their ass at home. But essentially all they've done is move their bitching to public spaces. If their goal had been to protest the lack of access to public spaces, they would have succeeded in taking appropriate action. But to sit in a park and yell at Wall Street until the cops kick you out is hardly an effective tool against the opponent they chose. Its the very definition of "sedentary agitation."

These day Teddy Roosevelt seems to be someone who spoke often about things we need to hear. Because when I think about all this, I can't help but be reminded of his words.

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

In other words, you can't score points until you get in the game. All the yelling from the sidelines won't cut it. But when you get in the game, not every play is going to work and sometimes the most important contributions go unnoticed. So we have to be prepared to do the grunt work and risk failure. That's why this poem by Marge Piercy will always be one of my favorites.

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

There is a collaborative rhythm, a grittiness and an invisibility that goes with work that is it in politics or any other endeavor. Those who are willing to risk that are the real movers and shakers of the world as far as I'm concerned.


  1. I've noticed an emotional dynamic in the Tea Party, firebaggers, quite a few at DKos since 2009 and now OWS. There are many that come across as people who are "upset" and see something outside of them as the cause of their feelings. The ones who are effective see something they want to change, deal with their feelings and then work on it: they are collecting signatures to recall Scott Walker or some other effective action. But I see so many who don't deal with their feelings and don't want to do hard work. They want someone to make it go away and are absolutely furious when it doesn't happen they way they want it to. Trash Obamacare because it didn't include the public option and ignore millions of children, high risk adults, and young people who are getting insurance? Ignore the realities of unseated Democratic senators and a Democratic caucus in the Senate that held the magic #60 for 5 months?

    For many of them it just seems all about the drama of emotions and not about doing real work and that's why there's no focus for their efforts in the real world. Bitching and getting others to agree with them helps them to feel like they are right. Something like OWS feels better -- at least they are doing something. And I think there is real value for them in taking that action -- I always hope some good will come of it. It will never be satisfying and they seemed doomed to disappointment because there is no purity in this material world.

    How can we have an effect on the real cause of problems if it is wealthy libertarians and Birchers manipulating legislation and a whole political party behind the scenes? It is frustrating. The GOP is constantly working for what they want. They don't let up and they work in every way they can and every level of society.

    In times like these I can't imagine anything more important than registering Democrats, getting them to out to vote and celebrating and supporting every bit of good that Democratic politicians are doing. There's more power in working for what we want, more energy, more enthusiasm.

  2. I very much respect the intelligent, thoughtful posts on this site and read it every day. I also agree with what you say regarding sedentary agitation. However, I take a issue with your assertion that OWS has simply "moved their bitching to public spaces." As a boots on the ground OWS supporter I've sheltered houseless people, fed hungry people, participated in protests, events, teach-ins, Visions and Goals thinking and much more. OWSers have promoted foreclosure activism, "healthcare" activism (great event outside the former St. Vincent's Hospital today), undocumented worker activism, student loan activism and much more. For a look at the many and diverse causes actively supported by OWS supporters one can visit and take a look at the active Groups there. I myself am not a big supporter of the public space occupying now that the initial message has gotten off the ground, but I do not judge those who resist sendentary agitation in that way. Occupying is not about watching and ruminating on what other Occupiers do, it's about occupying one's own beliefs actively. Thanks for all the great work you do on this site, in solidarity.

  3. regina - Thanks for that. I DO stand corrected.

    And this line especially stood out to me:

    "Occupying is not about watching and ruminating on what other Occupiers do, it's about occupying one's own beliefs actively."

    That's really the heart of it all. And it reminds me of what Al Giordano wrote about it all.

  4. Bah- Bunch of state loving fascists just scheming to get their hands on more power so they can boss the rest of us around. (but very much for our own good of course!)

  5. Thanks for that great link smarty, and for your "ear"! Reading your site is one case of of sendentary agitation I just can't quit. ;-)


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