"And young people like yourselves, despite the allure of careers and comfort, have defected. Our only hope for real change lies in the possibility that all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards of the prison uprising in Attica: expendable. That the establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, if necessary to maintain its control will kill us. But if the guards stop obeying, if you stop obeying, the system falls."
--Howard Zinn in "The American Ruling Class"
This is the quote that keeps running through my head since I first watched "The American Ruling Class". Not shocking: Zinn is talking directly to me. I'm slightly (well more than slightly) privileged and slightly (well now, a little more than slightly) uneasy. While I can see that things are very bad for so many people in this world, things are just good enough for me that I can convince myself that things are alright for those who are struggling. Or, maybe I recognize that I want to do something, so I become involved in the within-system organizations that are available for upper class liberals like me. I join the Democrats, and fight for their cause, to increase equality in our country. That's the right thing to do, right?
But it seems to me that Zinn is suggesting being a democrat is no better than being a republican, it's only a better lie you can tell yourself when you are feeling uncomfortable about the bad situations that you see around you. By representing the elite liberal viewpoint, I'm actually just playing my role in the system that oppresses those that I want to help. I'm the prison guard, without me, the prisoners would not be kept where they need to be--after all, I am who is suppose to be representing them in the negotiations.
This question is very challenging. I have been struggling with it a lot, and I don't know the answer. Is it possible to change a broken system from within? Or by working in the system are you just perpetuating it? The current political situation is an interesting one to examine. Now, we have Obama, whose election, in many ways, was suppose to represent the causes of the previously disenfranchised, the anti-Bush. But the incredible struggle for health care simultaneously invigorated the far right while watering itself down to the point of distaste for many 'very' liberal democrats. Meanwhile, the economic 'recovery' could be summed up as rich people being uncomfortable for a short period and then thankfully becoming rich (and in some cases *goldman sachs* richer), while 1 out of 6 americans are currently unemployed with the poverty rate higher than it has been in decades. So, it does appear to me that cheering the current democratic 'victory' is something of a sham. It entails swallowing a whole lot of things that I think are wrong, and accepting that the things I want "aren't possible", when that really means "not possible within the current system".
On the other hand, am I really going to claim that progress has not been made within the system as it is? Aren't we, as individuals, as nations, as a world better off than we were 20, 100, 200 years ago? It's a very debatable question, but hard to unequivocally say that things are getting worse. Not to mention I can only barely conceive of what working 'outside of the system' or 'stop obeying' could mean practically. What else can I do besides join the fight that has been making some progress some of the time using the channels that are available to it?
Zinn's quote paints a dim picture of me, the liberal elite. It's not that I have the wrong ideology, but rather because I have the right kind that complacency is so alluring. If I have a vague notion that things aren't right, I can vote for a democrat and chalk up their failures to politics as usual, while I go along my business living a comfortable, free life. And there is a big part of me that thinks there is something really wrong with a system where this is a natural, common choice. But if I'm honest, I think all it can definitely imply is that there's something really wrong with me for choosing it.