[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Josh Bolotsky, Host:
We have a serious problem, people. It’s called power. We don’t have it. We don’t want it. We think it’s dirty and bad…And that’s exactly why you’re the people who I trust the most to get power and use it for good.
* William Upski Wimsatt
There are no second acts in American life.
* F. Scott Fitzgerald
William Upski Wimsatt is one of those writers that one tends to either not know, or feel passionately about – there is little if any middle ground. If you’ve read Wimsatt’s cult classics No More Prisons and Bomb The Suburbs, then you already know why his work inspires so much feverish devotion, along with why his earlier, fearless examinations of race, power and politics were bound to instigate the occasional controversy. You also, if familiar with Wimsatt’s work, have made up your mind on reading through this salon. So rather than write to those folks already in the know, I’m going to provide a quick introduction to Please Don’t Bomb The Suburbs as a standalone work, distinct from his previous efforts, that has something to say of singular importance to progressives working in this historical moment.
Wimsatt, who seems to go by William Upski on the covers of his books but no where else (witness his primary site BillyWimsatt.com), has so much to say to us that he had to write at least three books. And so he did.
Sure, PDBTS appears to by a relatively slim volume of 211 pages, the thick acknowledgments section included. But don’t be fooled by outward appearances – by turns, PDBTS slides comfortably into three very different books:
* A memoir of activism, casting Wimsatt’s political engagement, first with grassroots hip-hop culture in 80s Chicago and later with the renewed progressive movement that grew up as he did. Peppered with hard-taken failures and the rare victories that slowly become more and more common as the movement grows, this section largely serves as a much-needed cautionary tale for young people diving into politics for the first time without thinking strategically about the people they want to be.
* A kind of self-help work for grown-ups in the movement, stuck between the crushing fear of impending doom that underlies our work in an era of climate crisis, BP spills and looted treasuries, and the desperate need to take care of ourselves so we can still be effective in transferring power from the ill-intentioned to the high-principled.
* Finally, a treatise on building a progressive movement that is big enough to stare unflinchingly at the sheer magnitude of our problems and move forward anyway, maybe just turning the Titanic around in the process – a kind of Super Movement dedicated to protecting our home planet, nation and communities. We require new metaphors for the size of our big-P Problems and the nature of our big-R Responses, and Wimsatt is in no way loath to provide them.
That all three books are so consistently engaging and thought-provoking, little must-read classics for those thinking about political work in the broadest frame possible, is a delightful surprise, given how much of a confusing disaster such a jam-packed approach could (and frankly should) have been. After all, describing PDBTS as three books masquerading as one is in and of itself a simplification – Wimsatt is not just unafraid to digress when necessary, but his digressions represent the kind of manic energy that make the book so much fun to read in the first place, the way that a face-to-face discussion with someone who shares your precise hopes and anxieties can be so bracing, able to expound on any point at will without losing the thread. The book truly flows like a conversation, just one that happens to have extensive timeline graphs.
Which seems to be part of the point. For Wimsatt, all of these stories are inextricable from each other, are perhaps just in fact the same bigger story honestly expressed. We need to look at the last 25 years or so of lefty politicking to understand the problems we have right now; we can’t responsibly discuss those problems without engaging in the very real anxieties, taboos and fears that we bring to the table; and all of this is for nothing if we don’t find new ways to explain and handle the unique nature of the opportunity before us.
All of which makes for a lot of fun while reading, but not a lot of fun trying to summarize for the purpose of a book salon. Rather than providing a fully in-context picture of every individual section, argument and remembrance, I’m going to provide a few interesting excerpts/concepts from the book to seed the conversation. Alongside some devastating self-critique of his earlier tactics as a youth activist, Wimsatt tackles:
* Why Please Don’t Bomb The Suburbs? Because after self-published his first book at 21, Bomb The Suburbs (which refers to the graffiti practice of ‘bombing’, not literally bombing), Wimsatt found doors shut for the rest of his life where we might’ve been able to affect real change, someone in a higher position not wanting to risk the bad press of hiring the author of Bomb The Suburbs, the actual meaning of the title in cultural context aside. The new title with “Please Don’t” affixed is part and parcel with the larger message to young activists: be strategic and don’t mess up your lives by being easily avoidable mistakes early on.
* Over and over, Wimsatt stresses the need for activists to move past their fear of power as a Dirty, Bad Thing, and accept it – the Wall Street day-traders and industry spokespeople have no compunction with using power, and people aiming for a more equitable society should at least moderate their fear. Quoting a professor he had at Oberlin before electing to drop out: “The problem with [people like you] is that you’re good people and you’re not going to have any power…You’ll all want to go into nice professions like social work and become teachers. But you’re afraid to get power because you think it’s bad. So the people who end up getting all the power are the people who want the power.” (p. 49)
* The growth of the League Of Young Voters, an organization that felt to Wimsatt at the time a culmination of all his different hats: hip-hop, youth organizing, electoral politics. He examines the dearth of community-to-movement-career pipelines on the progressive side, particularly when it comes to getting young people typically shut out of the conversation into roles of power.
* I would be derelict if I didn’t mention that, if I know Firedoglake’s readership (and if I’m off, please let me know), perhaps the most controversial element of Wimsatt’s book will be his treatment of Obama as an ally who is the best we can hope for, who can be pushed but ultimately needs to be supported against real political foes. “So, yes, it is important to push the Obamas to be better. But we have to walk two very fine lines: we need to make sure we’re expanding their political space to create progressive change, not tearing them down, and we need to realize just how damn good they are under the circumstances.” (p.115)
* Politely asking progressives to stop moving to cities, and instead organize in their suburban or rural hometowns. Quoting Danny Hoch, he offers “Stop moving to New York. Stop moving to Brooklyn. Stop moving to Williamsburg. Go back to Iowa. Go back to Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin. Wherever you’re from…GO HOME!” (p. 133)
* One section is simply titled “Why Isn’t There A School For Movement-Building?”, and rather than dwell on the institution-by-institution specifics of Wimsatt’s survey of the progressive training field, I think I’ll let that question stand as its own spur for conversation. (p. 142)
* Speaking of segments that are somewhat provocative in and of themselves, the very fact that Wimsatt devotes a chapter explicitly to self-help for people growing up within movement roles deserves some mention. (Wimsatt opines that “people who are the most uncomfortable with self-help books and talking about feelings are usually the ones who need it the most.”) (p. 149) Wimsatt delves into the need to self-sustain in some detail, but all this begs a larger question: why is there so often such a tireless, rugged needs-no-help individual activist story in our movement, when we’re ostensibly dedicated to the idea that we all need everyone else to be a fully functioning society, that the rugged individualist myth is false? Why do we accept it in our activist narratives?
* Wimsatt (thankfully) assumes we’re already on-board with acknowledging climate change and our energy dilemma on a hot, crowded planet, and doesn’t waste time trying to convince us. Instead, he delves right into the central problem – in a world where we need to make deep change, and fast, to live at all sustainably, how do we change our approach to match the seriousness of the challenge? This segment of the book is even more manic than usual, throwing so many ideas and suggestions at once that it’s a bit dizzying. I’m going to focus on two ideas that I think FDL readers will find particularly fascinating. First of all, Wimsatt frames the task we have before us as protecting “God’s Art Project” – the endless array of beautiful life that developed evolutionarily through the Cenozoic Era, including us, which we need to protect from Holocene extinction. This implicitly includes not just protecting a beautiful, livable world, but allowing the humans in it to live rich, full lives, markers like class and race aside, without endangering the whole thing in a carbon-sensitive age. (p. 187) Wimsatt’s plan? Build a Super Movement: over the next 10 years, aim for “sustainable volunteer leadership in all 300,000 precincts in the United States” – by making activism mainstream in every corner of our country. (p. 194)
There is a lot of other stuff to chew through in PDBTS – there is a discussion of the need to evolve how we talk about white privilege and supremacy as a movement that could easily take up its own book – and one of the few frustrations is how Wimsatt will every so often shortchange his own ideas, introducing a deliciously new nugget of an idea (“So we need to talk about the joyous aspects of being a white ally, huh?”), develop it for a few pages, and then drop it, so eager to tackle everything he can.
Maybe that’s reasonable though – he suggests that we all have a big job ahead of us. Wimsatt is doing nothing less than betting the American experiment on Fitzgerald’s pessimist credo being wrong – not just in his own personal life and mistakes, but for all of us to have a sane society and a livable planet. For our own sake, we’d do well to bet alongside him.