Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The worst mistake progressives make

By Jonathan Wolfman

In the summer of 1980 I wrote a book, Survival & Renewal, for the World Fellowship Center in Conway, New Hampshire, in celebration of the leftist retreat's 50th anniversary.
I'd been a guest there before, taking in a wide variety of programs, political, cultural, artistic, economic, from many presenters from all over the United States and overseas. At any one time there were perhaps 300 at World Fellowship, a stimulating, vibrant place whose activities go beyond lectures and discussions in a rustic setting.  There's boating and canoeing and swimming on and in magnificent Loon Lake; you can hike, play ball, make a clay pot or three, play pick-up basketball and most of all, just talk a summer away with bright, well-informed people, adults and kids.

I enjoyed writing the history of the Golden Anniversary Summer Session immensely and most of all I loved meeting the people who challenged me to my core. There were many. I was 29 and barely conscious of the gay rights movement and what I knew before that summer of women's issues paled when I looked back on the two months later on that fall. The learning was always rich and often surprising. In one instance it was shocking.  
 Under a gigantic birch tree, I'd just finished a reading to a group of young people from Orwell's Animal Farm. As these readings were always open, any adult could pull up a weather-beaten Adirondak chair to listen in as the kids sat on the soft grass, and that often happened. As we finished the kids left the shade of the birch. 
A woman, Sadie, didn't leave. I remember Sadie's strong blue eyes, intelligent smile, her long white hair, her green and white World Fellowship tee, her black jeans, her sandals. In her 80s and well-known for her outspokenness even among The Outspoken, we all knew her as a veteran of old, socialist and communist labor movements and as someone who'd put her body on the line more than a few times from the days prior to The Depression, during the civil rights movement and beyond. She'd known beatings and jail cells and was proud of it and she was rightly admired.
 Sadie had been listening intently to my Animal Farm reading and my Q&A with the children. As I stood to leave I smiled at Sadie and moved to walk past her when she grabbed my arm hard and yanked me toward her.
          -You must never criticise Russia.
          -You must never, ever criticise the Soviet Union, Jonathan. Ever.
          -Sadie. First, I believe I may criticise any nation, my own, or another, when I think it's appropriate. And I was reading Animal Farm, Sadie. We weren't talking about Russia.
          -That's what you say. Mr. Orwell, that bum! He knew he was criticising the Soviet Union in that trash and now those children will find out, too.
          -Sadie, I....
          -You must never criticise Russia.
She let go of my arm and when I sat with her and many others at a long table that night for dinner and later for a professor's slide-lecture, she was as jovial as ever with me. Perhaps she'd let go of it as she'd let go of my arm. More likely, I think, she just assumed I had taken her teaching to heart.
 But I never did.
 And it does still surprise me the extent to which there's as yet a slice of the American progressive movement who find it easy, if not obligatory, to criticise the Unites States for all of its sins loudly and continually (and there are and have been and will yet be many American sins) and yet ignore what we have and do that's positive, as if, for example, celebrating the Bill of Rights as exceptional and wonderful and working hard for its application is at best sappy or, at worst, a cover for America's crimes.
 Many American Progressives are firmly in Sadie's camp. Not about Russia, of course, but about what progressives should and shouldn't ever criticise. They suggest we should never criticise other nations or political movements because America is huge and powerful and guilty and that denies me the right to lodge thoughtful criticism elsewhere.
 To those who believe that, these few questions. Is it untoward for an American progressive to criticise:
          - Soviet-style communism that has transformed the northern half of the Korean Peninsula into a massive starvation-camp overseen by a military clique that imports Western porn flicks? Or is that just rightist propaganda I've swallowed?
          -South American dictators?
          -Al Qaeda's desire to see you dead?
          -The flat-footed and horrid Israeli action against the flotilla? (Many U.S. progressives slammed that one. Were we out of line?)
          -Rich Muslim nations' consistent economic neglect of their poor co-religionists in the Near East?
          -Was I to be silent in the face of apartheid because South Africa is elsewhere?
          -Was I to be silent when the Soviets wouldn't allow Jews out?
          -Have U.S. progressives nothing valid to say about Mexican government collaboration with cocaine cartels?
          -Must we say nothing when African freedom fighters such as Mobutu become president of Zaire and then turn his nation into a dictatorship? Is it my job to be silent when the opposition needs my voice?
          -Must I be quiet when China imprisons its newest Nobel Peace laureate or when it murders 3,000 at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989? Was I wrong to do what it took to get my former student, Ms. Zhang, out of there after that massacre?
     These 10 instances alone, opportunities to criticise and to act, tell me that if I am living up to what is best in America, that if I am proudly progressive, I must not shy from  seeing and doing what's right when and where I can no matter where the wrong is, here or overseas.
    I love you, Sadie, in memory; I honor who you were. But I'm honoring and will honor, old friend, what wasn't worst in you but what was best.
Jonathan Wolfman blogs at where this article first appeared.

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