Zelda Bronstein Replies

Zelda Bronstein Replies

Rather than engage my argument, Marshall Ganz dismisses it out of hand. He says that I misunderstand his work, but he never says how. Instead, he expounds on his theory of “public narrative” and its ability to move people by “evoking the emotional content of a particular moment.” He ends by lumping me with a “Left [that] often goes disastrously wrong” by “act[ing] as if abstract ideas of how the world ought to be can trump human reality”—above all, the reality of feeling and its moral sources. Even if this charge were accurate, it would signify a disagreement between us, not a misunderstanding on my part.

But I, too, object to the cerebral Left. Indeed, I write that “Ganz’s emphasis on narrative is an understandable response to the wonkery that has too often deadened left calls to action” and go on to aver that “compelling moral rhetoric is an essential political tool.” That said, Ganz and I have our differences, and they are substantial.

FOR ALL his talk about balancing the head (strategy and issues), the heart (values), and hands (action), Ganz discounts strategy, issues, and action in favor of values and their foundation in “lived experience”—as if strategy, issues, and action were not also grounded in experience. He denigrates “intellectual abstractions,” not seeming to realize that values themselves are abstract. He compares my “complaint” that his focus on motivation “is a ‘therapeutic’ substitute for the ‘real’ work of politics” to “someone showing up at a mass meeting during the civil rights movement and wondering when all the singing, testimony, and celebration would stop so the ‘real’ political work could begin.” But unlike the contrived exercises in self-disclosure undergone by participants in Ganz’s trainings, the celebratory activities of the civil rights movement arose out of shared effort in a common cause and struggle, and venerable black church traditions.

I attended two trainings held by organizations Ganz advised, MoveOn.org and Obama for America. I also attended Camp Organizing for America, which drew heavily on his methods. At all three events, people came primed for action, only to be directed into fatuous procedures that squandered precious time and energy. Those drills may have fostered illusions of intimacy, but even authentic intimacy is no basis for building a political organization or movement, which depends on dedication to impersonal, collective goals. Nor did the Ganzian routines help campers to develop the self-confidence and solidarity or to grasp the democratic principles that would have enabled them to resist the trainers’ highhandedness or to endure the rigors of activism at large.

Tellingly, Ganz passes over my description of the ways in which the trainers at Camp MoveOn suppressed challenges to their authority, as well as my claim that his focus on emotion and storytelling at the expense of power and strategy opens the way to such peremptory behavior. That disregard hints at a fundamental disagreement about the nature of democratic politics: lively dissent is central to my concept of political democracy; conflict has a negligible place in Ganz’s trainings and, to judge from his patronizing response to my essay, in his personal political style.

Ganz wishes that I had “reach[ed] out” and communicated my critique via e-mail or the phone, rather than publishing it in Dissent. He says that private communication with “people who challenge [my] work” often results in “learning for me, for my interlocutor, and for both of us.” (He then makes it clear that in this case, the education would be a one-way affair in which he would instruct me in the error of my ways.) Given Ganz’s stature—a recent Nation article calls him “one of America’s great organizers”—his penchant for private exchange with his critics is troubling. Politics is a public undertaking, and vigorous public discourse is essential to its vitality. The publication of political disagreement stimulates thought about what needs to be done and, it follows, helps shape what actually gets done. Ganz’s wish to keep criticism of his work out of the public eye calls to mind the avoidance of direct political contention abetted by digital politicking, and the corresponding enfeeblement of American citizenship.