Can a movement tolerate ambiguity?

There have been many individuals wondering whether people would have to take to the streets to  awaken our legislators, and most importantly President Barack Obama that “hello, there are progressives out here, and we’re feeling ignored.”

Perhaps it took a frustrated and principled individual in Tunisia named Mohamed Bouazizi who expressed his objections to government policies through self-immolation to get things moving. Reports are unclear as to whether he had a university degree or not even a high school diploma, but it seems that he was one of hundreds of millions of individuals around the globe who are under-employed.  He was trying to support himself as a street vendor.  But in the spirit of “let no good deed go unpunished,” he couldn’t ply his wares without constantly being harassed by public and private officials for money, to comply with silly regulations, and to accept his “low station in life.”  And then in the spirit of Howard Beale in the movie “Network,” he said, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” by literally going up in flames.

This was enough to strengthen the protests of the oppressed in Tunisia to the point where they could rally and overthrow their government.  A day or two later, people took to the streets in Egypt to seek the ouster of their dictator, Hosni Mubarak.  Since then the “power to the people” movement has spread throughout the Middle East to Bahrain, Jordan, Iran, Libya, and Yemen.

It may be coincidental or it may be causal, but in the third week of February 2011, public employees in the state of Wisconsin hit the streets.  A Republican Governor and most of the Republican-dominated state legislature want to curtail or abolish the right of public employees to organize and engage in collective bargaining.  Teachers and others did something that progressives have been talking about but not doing ever since the first doubts about President Obama’s commitment to, or even tolerance of, a progressive agenda arose.

Union membership has fallen from 33% following World War II, to 24% in 1979, to 14% in 1998.  Now it is under 9%.

The captains of industry tell us that it’s all in the interest of keeping prices low for American consumers.  If jobs were not outsourced, American companies couldn’t compete and more workers would lose their jobs resulting in even less consumer demand.  Perhaps that is true, but it is doubtful that the motives of most outsourcers are altruistic and based on concern about American workers and consumers.

However Republicans in Wisconsin and elsewhere try to frame their positions, what they are doing is (a) starving the beast, (b) busting unions, (c) justifying low taxes, and (d) laying guilt trips on public employees who are among our most dedicated workers, but susceptible to being called unpatriotic when they are abused.

My support for the workers is only dampened by the e-mails I receive from authoritarian progressives who tell me how to think and who to write and what to say.  My inbox gets flooded with e-mails telling me to sign this petition, go to an on-line survey and answer in the question(s) as they would have me do.  Why is it that I feel that the advocates for those who have been oppressed seem to express themselves with the same arrogance and assuredness as those who they accuse of being arbitrary and capricious?

I wonder what the point of being a progressive is if we can’t respect individuals’ rights to think for themselves.  How can we make progress as a country if we don’t encourage and cultivate critical thinking?  How can we treat our friends and associates when we tell them what to do rather than asking them to give consideration to an issue and a point of view.

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never “signed” an on-line petition when told that I had to do it.  I did enthusiastically sign an on-line petition when the eighteen- year- old son of a friend of mine sent an e-mail in which he (a) immediately apologized for intruding upon my privacy, (b) asked for a moment so that he could briefly describe  the conclusions that he had reached on a public issues, and (c) asked me to consider the information he provided and to access other information and then draw a conclusion with which I was comfortable.  I did my best to follow his words of wisdom.  And I think of him every time an adult with whom I share many political views tells me what to do without acknowledging that many issues are complicated and the best we can do is try to give balanced consideration and then make our own choices (some people call this being pro-choice).

I was at college in Washington, DC when the large anti-Vietnam War rallies began.  I’d go to the Mall, wanting to be convinced that there were sound reasons to jump on the bandwagon against the war.  It didn’t take me long to get to that point, but it was in spite of rather than because of many of the protesters.  My most vivid memory of a march involved a street vendor.  Yes, you heard that correctly, a street vendor, probably not unlike Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia.

A middle-aged man entered the crowd with an aluminum carton strapped around his neck.  It was filled with dry ice and ice cream.  He was there to sell to marchers exactly what many of them wanted.   He was also trying to make a meager living.  Someone in the crowd yelled, “Liberate the ice cream man.”  Dozens descended upon him, took the container from him and threw ice cream bars to as many people as they could.  They “liberated” the ice cream vendor as if he was part of the military-industrial complex fomenting a war 8,000 miles away.  That image revolted me and explained a lot to me, including why our “liberated” baby boom generation has played key roles in electing Ronald Reagan twice, a George Bush three times, and applying pressure on Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to tilt more and more to the right.

So I’d like to apologize to those of you who have gotten this far in this post for possibly intruding on your time.  If you have gotten this far, I hope that you may find some wisdom in these words.  Finally, if you can tolerate the ambiguity that is associated with virtually every difficult situation and you have thoughts you’d like to express about what is happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere, please do so.

Arthur Lieber Arthur Lieber (310 Posts)

Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.


  • Juudith

    …”why our “liberated” baby boom generation has played key roles in electing Ronald Reagan twice, a George Bush three times, and applying pressure on Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to tilt more and more to the right”? Arthur, I’m a “boomer,” but please don’t include me in that statement! (The older I get the more liberal and “socialist” [I’m sure they’d say I was for having Judeo-Christian values, like equal rights for ALL people, and helping the poor].) I absolutely agree with the need for critical thinking (for everyone!)…but most of the money and emphasis for education goes to only two areas: science and math! “Thinking outside the box” is not part of the military-industrial-governmental-complex package! (Which is why we got it wrong in Vietnam, and now seem to be getting it wrong again in all of the wars we’ve engaged in and dictators we’ve supported since then.) The humanities–English (Literature), other Languages, Philosophy, Psychology, Art, World/American History (of which Americans know SO little, mainly because it isn’t really taught in public schools, never has been, because over half the human race [the female half] still aren’t even recognized as “persons” who deserve “equal rights” under the U.S. Constitution [the ERA, remember that?!] which the Republicans buried 35 years ago and it’s the best kept secret around; most young women have no idea what it is, or was!! “Critical thinking” is NOT part of the “education” agenda! Questioning [anything or any authority] is NOT part of the agenda! Heck, even “science” in public schools often isn’t allowed to include evolution [which, after all, is only a “theory”!]…and the humanities are too “soft” and “feminine” (?) and “touchy-feely” and unimportant to be supported by the military-industrial-governmental complex that runs the world (which moderate midwestern President/ General Eisenhower warned us about). “Corporations”!…on the other hand, now They’re “PERSONS”!…under the U.S. Constitution!!! If you don’t believe it, just ask the Supreme Court! (Amazing, isn’t it?!…this world we’re living in!)
    P.S. As a certified boomer, just want you to know I didn’t vote for those guys you mentioned in your article…except for Clinton, and, considering some of his priorities in office, that was a major embarrassment for us feminists…as are some of the too-middle-of-the-road policies of Mr. Obama, whom we thought might be more aware of our dilemma thanks to his relative youth and background. But the center has moved right, and so everyone else seems to have also, “going with the flow.” But if the “arc of the universe bends toward justice,” maybe someday what’s happening in the Middle East will spread to China and beyond, and come back ’round to the U.S. Who knows?! It Could happen!

  • Annman

    Very intelligent and thoughtful piece. I couldn’t agree more, yet have been unable to articulate to myself why these constant appeals to sign petitions and to forward requests to all of my friends have felt so wrong to me and increased my rebelliousness. Thank you for clarifying the issue. This is political action at its best!