I WENT to MoveOn’s candlelight vigil at the corner of Central Park across from Columbus Circle in New York City last evening. Possibly there were 400 people at the peak, some holding candles. Most, as you’d expect, were middle-aged or older, but there was a sprinkling of the younger, including a man who had open-heart surgery at twenty-six. Citizens went to the microphone, told their horror stories–some quite gripping–of medical woe, of insurance refusal, and so on. Some read snippets from other people’s horror stories. A perfectly sweet day for a rally, personal, nothing strident or threatening. Personal stories. Americans love personal stories.
I think the tone was a mistake. There was more bemoaning than indignation, more personal testimony than resolve to fight for a good (not perfect) bill. The pageant of human suffering has the capacity to move people, but not to fire them up, not to convince them to turn out again, not to make demands of their recalcitrant legislators. To me, the parade of victimhood chronicles said of the reformers: we’re losers. It wasn’t just too bland for New York. It whimpered.
An old friend I ran into, and then a more recent acquaintance, confirmed my feeling that the tone was far too much “Me-Me-Me, I Suffer,” not nearly enough “We Have a Right.” My friend felt the same. We’ve been running into each other at demonstrations since we were 20 years old together. The first one was to integrate an amusement park outside Baltimore, I hate to say how many years ago. That one exuded confidence–not just moral rectitude. The spirit was, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Last night’s was more “I am injured and woeful.” It did not have the sound of victory.
If MoveOn thought to emphasize small-scale stories and candlelight across the country in order to look and sound inoffensive in regions where know-nothing goons go to their rallies packing, it succeeded. But I doubt this is the spirit that will convince Blue Dogs they’d better win this one for Obama if for no other reason than that if the Democrats are mortally wounded by failure, shades of 1994, this spells disaster for the party and the rest of any progressive agenda.
Please do not tell me I lack compassion. Don’t get me started on my own medical chronicles. After sixty years of successful crackpot attacks on “socialized medicine,” an outraged citizenry needs to speak up as a citizenry–not as a ward.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and on the editorial board of Dissent. This article first appeared on TPM Cafe‘s Web site.