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Fallout from an Ill Wind

San Francisco after November 2

By Betsey Culp

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” answers.

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 co-founder of Processed World:

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 social power.

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.

This week Arianna Huffington perhaps unwittingly provides an illustration:

“This 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 hear”?

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 evicted.”)


And empathize.

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.