Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Non-Profit “Irrational Exuberance” Bubble

As you could probably tell from my Supreme Court posting, I’m very frustrated with the liberal non-profit world these days. (Yes, I still work in it myself because I haven’t quite figured out how else to earn a living.) Today, my partner wrote an email that really captured something I’ve felt, so I decided to share it with you. I took out any identifying information; after all, we do need that non-profit to keep paying his salary!

“This morning, I watched an intern tell a co-worker some relatively unimportant piece of news that I suppose could have been interpreted as a very mildly positive development on whatever the both of them are working on, and I then had the privilege of being a witness to that dorky 10-second dance that my co-worker does when she is given a piece of "good news" (complete with finger-snapping) that totally does not warrant such a physical display of joy.

“And then it hit me: I thought about ol' Alan Greenspan and his comments about "irrational exuberance" - this is totally what half the people here do. We get excited about bullshit, and convince ourselves that the bullshit is in fact very significant and real, like overzealous cheerleaders at a high school pep rally, and then we sweep very substantial and meaningful bad news under the rug and put our own delusional spin on it. Whether this is done consciously to keep morale high or the troops focused on their tasks, or unconsciously as a defense mechanism to prevent us from having a complete nervous breakdown, I dunno. But in any case, it blows my mind, increasingly so since last November.

“It's certainly not in my view a simple case of "positive attitude" or "necessary optimism". No offense to the real hard work all these folks do, but the delusional state of mind (especially after the last presidential election) sometimes borders, in my view, on mental disorder.”


Anonymous said...

Damn! But I LIKE my irrational exuberance. These days, its the only exuberance I get and I'm exuberance starved. But, I hear ya. I keep looking for little things to build on since so many building blocks were snatched away. . .

Anonymous said...

To your partner: my friend, you are pointing to a very real thing.

To take an existential approach: we are born into a situation we did not create. A situation which is rife with ugliness- great beauty as well, but unbelievable ugliness.

This same situation teaches us that ain't nothing to be done about it- human nature is flawed, people are too different from each other, the powers that be are too strong, etc

Most people accept the common wisdom and tolerate the intolerable: it is a society-wide state of denial, indeed I think it is a pathology of sorts.*
In recent years, this has been loosening up a little. I think alongside the denial, increasing numbers of people are beginning to realize the Democrats are 'signifying nothing'.

*There is a word for one who doesn't sweep things under the rug, but rather aspires to get that shit out of the house: revolutionary

Chris Hartman said...

So everyone who doesn't see the world the way you do is delusional?

Anonymous said...

I've had a few conversations with friends lately. A co-worker who said her husband told her she's crazy because she's so worried about the world. Another friend who feels terrified--that was the word she used--terrified--when she thinks about the direction of things in this country. She mentioned the Handmaid's Tale. I keep having moments of clarity where it feels like I'm watching myself in the past before life dramatically changed for everybody.

Even my really important job seems more and more distant from what I should be doing.

I know I'm not the only one, because that's not how these things work. I think your partner is definitely hitting on something.

Chris Hartman said...

I definitely identify with the feelings of terror. I often wonder how far along the road to fascism we are.

My only point is that to call potential allies delusional and borderline mentally ill may not be the best starting point for building a movement.

There is so much work to do that I disagree with denigrating the work of people who work with "mainstream" or "insider" organizations, as frustrating as those people can sometimes be.

Sunsara Taylor said...

Unless there is an alternative available to people - a way to act to bring about a different reality than the current deadly trajectory things are on, individuals do increasingly accommodate themselves to "the way things are."

I, too, have gone back and am currently re-reading The Handmaid's Tale. Something that struck me this time more is how the main character Ofglen recognizes the fascistic nature of what she is being forced to be part of (during a scene where all the fertile women are being indoctrinated to be incubators and accept their status as temptresses and inferior as written in the Bible) but not only gets physically forced to participate, but increasingly believes it too.

In one particularly powerful scene a young woman is testifying about how she was once gang-raped and all the other women are forced to chant, "It was her fault, her fault, her fault" and that god let it happen, "To teach her a lesson, teach her a lesson, teach her a lesson!" Ofglen says, even tho she knew what they were doing was wrong, she couldn't help but despise the woman they were yelling at.

My point is that people's ability to really see clearly right and wrong is affected by what people see as possible to act upon. Obviously, this is relative - but I bet you a lot that if there were powerful resistance like that called for in the World Can't Wait - Drive Out the Bush Regime! that not all these people would be celebrating puny non-victories, but would actually be throwing in energetically in fighting for a real and significant victory.

This gets me to the point i want to quote from above:

"Even my really important job seems more and more distant from what I should be doing. I know I'm not the only one..."

So, quit your job. I'm serious. Come to New York - the world can't wait and if even a handful throw in decisively, this will move many more. You are not the only one. But you might have to be one of the first ones.

Chris Hartman said...

I agree that radical action on the left can move the political center of gravity to the left, and that's a good thing. But once I hear complaining about how dense the liberals are, I tune out.

Tell the truth all you want, e.g. "Puny victories." You're right. They're puny. So what? To my ears, this sort of truth-telling is de-mobilizing rather than energizing.

In my opinion, insults -- accurate as they may be -- are not a great way to get large numbers of people to join your cause. And my hunch is that the supply of people who are so frustrated that they are ready to chuck politics-as-usual is too small to get anywhere.

Why is it necessary to denigrate the efforts of others as you promote the rightness of your approach? Here I am, almost ready to come out in the streets with you, but then I read an insult and I lose interest.

Or leave aside the stupid liberals for the moment. What about the politically inactive? I don't see how World Can't Wait appeals to them. If I'm wrong about that, educate me.

Sunsara Taylor said...


I agree that hurling insults is demobilizing and not helpful. I am not sure what you are refering to, tho, when you say that liberals are being insulted. ??

I think confronting the need for strategies that don't dead-end people's efforts - particularly at a time when things are hurtling so rapidly to the right (think of the fact that the left end of the spectrum is not heralding a "moderate" like Sandra Day O'Connor who helped push through major restrictions on abortion access, wrote decisions (Wallace v. Jaffree & Agostini v. Felton) which brought public money into parochial schools and moments of silence into public schools - blurring the lines beteween separation of church and state, and helped deliver the 2000 "selection" to Dubya!!).

Just as in a previous post here, I have found many who are acutely aware of how little politics-as-usual have been able to accomplish in stemming the tide of reactionary fundamentalism and moves towards greater empire - with all the implications and human cost associated with that.

Many of them need a way to act outside the established framework and The World Can't Wait is the only effort formulating a way for millions to do that. But most people don't know about it yet - something we are working on changing.

As for folks who are not politically active: Not all of them, but large numbers of them are not politically active precisely because politics-as-usual have never worked for them. When I was down in Philly for the Live 8 show where we got out 150,000 copies of the Call for the World Can't Wait we met people who wouldn't take leaflets from us untill we explained that this was asking them to NOT WAIT and NOT RELY ON THE DEMOCRATS OR POLITICS AS USUAL.

Here's just one encounter I was part of and wrote about:

One young couple walks past us and refuses to take the leaflets, yelling out quite angrily that it won’t do any good, “We’ve already been robbed twice.” After chasing after and catching up to the couple and expressing that we understood how they feel and that’s why we need to talk, the woman shoots back very fiercely and still angrily, “You know how I feel? Like I’ve been raped!” After hearing that we are not asking her to put her trust in the Democrats or any compromises but to join us in building an actual resistance, she turns more to pleading and says, “I just want someone to tell me what I am supposed to do.” And then she leaves with a big stack of leaflets to get out.

I am interested in telling people honestly when what they are doing is ineffective precisely because I think they are capable of evaluating whether this is true or not and acting on its implications. I've been told I was wrong before - and when it matters a great deal and it is true, I really appreciate knowing it.


Chris Hartman said...

Great points, Sunsara. I appreciate your comment and agree wholeheartedly, especially on the value of evaluating action honestly and not being too self-congratulatory.

There certainly is careerism and complacency on the institutional left, which is frustrating as hell. During the summer of 2001 I was asked to design an ad that would get readers of the Progressive magazine to check out a tax fairness website. My first impulse was an ad that simply said: "Attention Progressive readers: Put down this magazine, get up off your ass, and go out and do something worthwhile for a change!" And maybe that would have been better than the more conventional ad that I actually designed.

But I believe that there is sincerity in the institutional Left as well, at least on a person-by-person basis. So I'm arguing for a more specific diagnosis: is there something inherently wrong with the people who work at the big organizations (making them therefore a lost cause), or is it more a failure of imagination and leadership (which implies that the complacent ones could be persuaded to abandon their accomodationist practices in favor of something more radical)? I'm pretty sure that you believe the latter, but I think that sometimes your rhetoric implies the former, which I find de-mobilizing.

What I meant by insults are words in Rosemary's initial post like "delusional" and "borders on mental disorder." Perhaps these were more expressions of frustration and not meant to be taken so literally.

Chris Hartman said...

Sorry, Sunsara, I was a bit unclear in the second to last paragraph...Instead of "your rhetoric" I should have said "the rhetoric in Rosemary's original post."

KGo said...

I think Chris is right: the tone and choice of words was not helpful. I wrote the original piece that Rosemary put up, and in retrospect, I see how denigrating it is to a lot folks with the best of intentions.

My frustration, as misdirected as it was through my verbal outburst, is very much real, though. Some of it is personal, as I feel that my political views, even when I take into account the lousy way I sometimes communicate them, are often automatically dismissed by colleagues and friends as too dogmatic and unrealistic - that sound like a petty complaint to some, but when it becomes the norm, it's quite alienating - and and some of it is also professional, as I find myself increasingly less and less interested in the strategies and tactics used by the political organization I work for. But I guess that's my problem and not theirs.

I do feel a great sense of urgency as far as the current political situation is concerned, and I do think that groups of people can start a major, somewhat radical campaign without necessarily first making sure a majority of the politically inactive or others on the left (or whatever) are behind them. I agree with Sunsara that a lot of those folks are out there, and they just need somewhere to plug in to get active and mobilized. We absolutely need a long-term strategy, but I also think that we need to do something now, and figure that stuff out as best we can as we go along. It sure beats doing nothing, or for me personally, nibbling around the edges.

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