Fallout from an Ill Wind
San Francisco after November 2
The United States was visited by unusual silence
during the past 2 weeks as Americans, in red states as well as blue,
picked up the pieces left by the tornado of the recent presidential
campaign. Yes, we’re still here.
Now that the dust and the rhetoric have begun to
settle, it’s time for a reality check. It’s clear that, at every level,
the election didn’t really settle anything. It merely opened a few doors &
closed a few others. But it’s still up to us to decide which corridor we
want to travel along, and how far.
At times like these, enlightenment leaps out from
strange nooks & crannies. In my case, it came from a show window at Black
Oak Books in Berkeley, which featured
Chris Carlsson’s latest publication.
The Political Edge is yet another spin-off from the San Francisco
mayoral race of 2003. But unlike Nicole Walter’s
Go, Matt, Go!, in which the story is told by active campaigners,
these contributors are not all passionate supporters of Matt Gonzalez.
Instead, they look beyond the excitement of last fall — into the past &
into the future — to create a picture of the city where Gonzalez’s
candidacy was possible.
That’s quite a city.
It’s a city where the static world described in the
pages of the Chronicle co-exists with a dynamic culture that refuses to
accept traditional explanations for anything. Where there are no “right”
I’m not going to tell you what the 24 contributors
say. In most cases, their thinking is too nuanced to be crammed into a
nutshell. And the viewpoints they present are too varied.
Take Marlena Sonn, “a former merchandiser for
underground musical acts, rock journalist, photo editor, and dominatrix”:
I think every political junkie has a moment that
hardens the curiosity of dabbling in campaigns into a routine, a way of
life. The challenge to activists committed to working within the system is
to re-create the perfect storm again and again, with each engagement
drawing in the young legs that are destined to support, then usurp,
political establishment, including our own.
Or Bianca Henry, an organizer for the Coalition on
Homelessness’s Family Rights and Dignity program:
In a ghetto, we have so many people with talents
that are misspent, but don’t tell me that the OGs don’t have the ability
to handle money! We need to channel that energy into something positive.
Take, for instance, a drug dealer. When a dope fiend comes into the
neighborhood there are a hundred dealers waiting to sell the same drugs to
him. If you can convince that dope fiend to come back only to you, you’ve
done a great job of marketing. Imagine that energy and intelligence set
loose in City Hall, or organizing our communities.
Or “self-unemployed” Joel Pomerantz, in a passage
that Susan Leal should read:
It is not clear that San Francisco needs this
water [from the Hetch Hetchy] as much as we claim to. Unbeknownst to most
San Franciscans, our little seven square miles contain a remarkable
geologic feature, a significant wellspring of quality water. At one time,
local sources were our only supply and were taken for granted in their own
right. Now, the gushing output of San Francisco springs is diverted into
our sewers, replaced in our homes by other sources of water that are more
susceptible to central control. Our relationship to water has been
determined as much by revenue streams as by streams of water.
Or Carlsson himself, in a passage that befits the
In taking a job, no one asks for our ideas about
what kind of work the enterprise should do, how the company impacts
the environment locally and beyond, or what quality standards our work
should meet. We have no say over who works there or how hiring is decided.
In fact, on the job we lost most of the basic rights we take for granted
as citizens in a democracy, including freedom of speech, freedom of
assembly, freedom from search and seizure, freedom from random drug
testing, right to due process, trial by peers, and so forth.
Or Annalee Newitz’s take on politics among computer
geeks. Or Quintin Mecke’s examination of land-use policies in “McFrisco.”
Or Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s fable about the secession of San Francisco from
the State of California, which ends most happily for all involved.
See what I mean.
But a clearly discernible pattern does indeed run
through this crazy quilt, and because it has to do with the nature of
voting in a democracy, it is relevant to our post-election
self-examination. Voting, as several contributors note, is a mediated
activity. Writer, musician, and activist Michael “Med-o” Whitson says,
A primary conflict arises between electoral
politics and citizen direct action. Electoral politics, because it is
rooted in a structure of representation, acts as a brake on grassroots
In other words — although no one in The Political
Edge uses these words — representative democracy creates a virtual
community, which threatens authentic community.
The 2004 election satisfied almost no one except the
actual winners. On the contrary, many people in both parties are
dissatisfied, feeling that they compromised the values they stood for
in order to vote against someone. If ever there was a time to
make changes, this is it.
May I suggest a couple?
First, turn the conflict between electoral politics
and citizen direct action on its head by a reversal of priorities.
Presidential candidate David Cobb got it right when he was asked about the
relationship between his Green Party and the various grassroots movements
that have emerged in recent years: the movements provide the content, he
said, and the party is their political arm.
No political party is worth even a smidgeon of salt
unless it represents the goals not of its officials but of its members.
It’s time that the members used their prerogative to walk out if they
don’t feel they’re being represented.
Charles Kalish urges progressives not to squander the
next four years. Pick two or three issues, he suggests, and work hard to
resolve them. Focusing people’s energies will lead to success, which will
be good for both progressives & the city.
But why limit the effort to issues? Winning a few
battles is always nice, but it leads all too easily to a perpetuation of
the same system, only with new players.
Why not work on the process itself? Why not
rediscover Saul Alinsky and follow his lead back to the good old days of
grassroots organizing? The folks who live near the Hunters Point Naval
Shipyard would be astonished by genuine offers of assistance. So would the
people in Districts 1 & 5 who’ve been trying to work out more
pedestrian-friendly uses for Golden Gate Park. Together, activists &
residents could achieve some pretty impressive results. But they could
also lay the foundation for a firm, new political movement.
Second, follow Matt Gonzalez’s advice & “pledge that
we are not going to delay our efforts to build a more humane society” by
voting for candidates or issues that we do not genuinely support. From
what I’ve seen, Americans of all political persuasions are disgusted with
the meaningless sound bites that pass for debate. They want — and deserve
— candidates who actually stand for something.
Arianna Huffington perhaps
unwittingly provides an illustration:
election was about security,” Gary Hart told me. But when he suggested
that Kerry should talk about jobs and energy and other issues in the
context of security, Hart said, he was “constantly confronted with focus
group data, according to which the people wanted to hear a different
message focused on the economy.”
Why on earth should
Kerry, or any other leader, limit his message to what people “want to
If politics is to be
used to build a more humane society, politicians cannot be afraid to take
moral positions. Engaged voters will welcome their candor.
There’s an old tradition
in who-dun-its of simplifying the search for a solution by asking, “Who
benefits?” Perhaps we should create a new political tradition: evaluate
possible actions by asking, “Who will suffer?” If someone will, just say
no. (This is exactly what Ted Gullickson, of the San Francisco Tenants
Union, did recently in reference to proposals to increase condo
conversions, when he said: “The real solution is not to cannibalize
existing stock. The real solution is to build more condo units…. Every
time we convert a rental unit to a condominium, it means someone’s being
Or bury your head in the
sand. That way you won’t be able to see the next ill wind until it’s
actually bearing down upon you.