There is a certain time perspective that goes with editing and writing for a quarterly. I am able to think very slowly, which is a way of thinking that comes naturally to me. How anyone writes regularly for the daily or weekly press is a great mystery. I have done it occasionally, with fear and trembling, comforting myself with the old, but outdated, adage that today’s newspaper wraps tomorrow’s fish. Quarterlies, by contrast, are forever; you have to be careful what you say.
So I am thinking slowly about the disaster of November 2. No message leaps out of the available statistics, though I have read many instant analyses. I am unsure what went wrong, despite the many suggestions that have been printed and posted. I am not engaged by the debates about whether the Democrats have to move right or left or stand their ground (if they can find it). I am sure that it is too early to say how they should move, even if we are thinking only of political tactics. And I am not interested, not yet, in who will be their/our candidate for president in 2008—even though I know (and regret) that the candidate and his or her entourage will be more important than the party and its platform.
We need to take a little time, to sing the blues. This is a reflective activity, focused partly on ourselves, partly on the world we live in. I will start (and finish) with “Worried Man Blues,” a Woody Guthrie song that I first heard on an old Leadbelly recording and instantly identified with—even though I didn’t have the worries it describes. Being worried is not the same as being afraid. You don’t sing the blues when you are scared to death. The Bush campaign exploited the fears of Americans after 9/11. I want to explore the worries that people on the left have, and should have. The first worry is obvious: Why weren’t there enough of us? And why are we so radically out of touch with the other America, the America ironically called “red”?
The election produced a heartening unity on the left (which made Ralph Nader harmless) and an inspiring burst of activism. But any properly worried man knows that the unity is temporary and that the activism was oriented more to the hundred-yard dash of the campaign than to the necessary marathon of a movement.
The political marathon requires a kind of stamina that comes only from conviction, and conviction requires ideas that are convincing. Since 1989, probably before that too, most leftists who think at all have lived with a new ideological uncertainty. Certainty has moved to the right, and we, for very good reasons, have to be its enemy. Still, we need an ideological position of our own, even if it isn’t the one and only correct position, and even if it incorporates dissent (as it should). We need to worry about that position, arguing among ourselves about what democracy, equality, and freedom mean for leftists today, and where we find them exemplified, and where not.
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