No End to the Fight for Democracy

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Shortly after the November 2022 election, in which unprecedented spending by billionaire developer and landlord Michael Hackman flipped a Culver City Council seat and created a conservative majority, I was listening to some friends. One was despairing about the outcome, and the other said: “It’s OK, we will win in the end.” I did not want to say anything at the time, but I was pretty sure I disagreed, because there is no end. Every gain, no matter how established, must be defended. Everything from protected bike lanes to Social Security to the Voting Rights Act to marriage equality to reproductive choice to public education is constantly threatened. The people who opposed these developments did not slink away into obscurity but immediately began organizing movements and institutions to undo them. I did not think fighting Nazis would be a thing again. It seemed that our grandparents had at least settled that, but no.

When I started thinking about this essay, I assumed I would need to reckon with Albert Camus’ 1942 book The Myth of Sisyphus. According to Greek mythology Sisyphus offended the gods and was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill every day, only for it to roll down each night. Thanks largely to Camus, this story is a perennial metaphor for endless repetitious work, which seemed apropos.

I am not ashamed to admit I found it a bit of a slog (but it’s in stock at the Village Well, so buy it as part of our fundraiser and prove me wrong!). It’s mostly detailed arguments with a series of B-list mid-20th century philosophers and Dostoyevsky. Sisyphus only appears in the last few pages, where Camus offers the famous and shocking conclusion that we should “imagine Sisyphus happy” because he has a purpose and does not have hope. He has no illusion that the rock will ever stay in place. No expectation, no disappointment, as the Buddhists say. 

There is a new Rolling Stones record. Does Mick Jagger think he will ever write another song as good as “Satisfaction?” How many yachts does he need? I cite this album not for the pun, but as an example of a project which gives the band purpose without hope, since its artistic merit and commercial success are surely irrelevant to them. They made a record because they are a band and that’s what bands do.

Camus’ question is not how one should live but if. If life is absurd (and by “absurd” he means irrational, not funny), why not kill yourself? Sisyphus answers that question but raises a host of others, which are beyond the scope of the book. How do we reconcile Sisyphus’ resignation with Camus’ lifelong activism?

One option Camus considers and rejects is religion. More than one of the philosophers he engages landed on faith as the answer to the absurdity of existence, but he brushes this off because faith, by definition, is not rational. If you are asking for arguments and evidence, you do not have faith. There is, however, a significant tradition of existentialist Christian thought, led by Camus’ contemporary Paul Tillich.

Martin Luther King wrote his doctoral dissertation on Tillich in 1955, shortly before leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King argued against Tillich’s conception of God as Being rather than a being, but was clearly influenced by other aspects of his work. In his popular book The Courage to Be (1952) (a special order at the Village Well, so not eligible for our fundraiser), Tillich discussed three fears that limit human freedom: the fear of death, fear of moral failure, and fear of meaninglessness. King spoke of his own death not only in his final “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, but throughout his career, inspired not simply by the idea of martyrdom but specifically by Tillich’s writing on fear and freedom.

I was on a Progressive Delegates Network Zoom call during the last ADEMs election, and one speaker kept saying “embrace your death so you may truly live.” She was paraphrasing a speech Southern Christian Leadership Conference co-founder Fred Shuttlesworth gave at the start of the 1963 campaign to desegregate Birmingham. A new book on this phase of the Civil Rights Movement is titled with his exact words: You Have to be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live (and it’s in stock at the Village Well!). While Shuttlesworth was calling on people to literally put their bodies on the line for freedom, the woman at PDN was talking about embracing our political deaths to vote our consciences, about committing to do the right thing regardless of its effects on our careers in the Party.

Votes in the State Party are not secret. Delegates are more like legislators in this respect: their votes are on the record so they can be held accountable. That’s one level of policial death: being voted out. That’s democracy. However, all positions on Party committees are appointed by the Chair and, since delegates elect the Chair and their votes are public, anyone who does not vote for the winning Chair will have little-to-no chance of being on Resolutions, Platform, or any other committee. Choosing a Chair candidate based on your values rather than on who is most likely to win is an acceptance of death within the Party. There are people who believe they can compromise to get in the room, then do the right thing, but there always seems to be another room. Without embracing your political death, you cannot live authentically. 

Vice Mayor Yasmine-Imani McMorrin often quotes Mariame Kaba’s maxim that “Hope is a discipline.” Kaba has several books, available you know where. She also explained in an interview:

It’s less about “how you feel,” and more about the practice of making a decision every day, that you’re still gonna put one foot in front of the other, that you’re still going to get up in the morning. And you’re still going to struggle, that was what I took away from it.

It’s work to be hopeful. It’s not like a fuzzy feeling. Like, you have to actually put in energy, time, and you have to be clear-eyed, and you have to hold fast to having a vision. It’s a hard thing to maintain. But it matters to have it, to believe that it’s possible, to change the world.

As a musician, I recognize this as practice. Dizzy Gillespie famously said: “Some days you get up and put the horn to your chops and it sounds pretty good and you win. Some days you try and nothing works and the horn wins. This goes on and on and then you die and the horn wins.” Note that there have been few musicians more joyous or virtuosic than Gillespie (and his excellent memoir is a special order from the Village Well).

My wife has made similar points about yoga, and this is true for most physical and spiritual practices. Dizzy will never decisively defeat his horn or an athlete their sport. No matter how strong your yoga session was today, you’ll need to do another one soon. The Pope still prays.

Kaba’s view of hope as a discipline is not attached to an expectation of success. It is much more compatible with Camus’ position. As Kaba put it in the same interview quoted above: 

This is a long term arc of work and I’m not a progress-narrative person, so I think everything happens at the same time. So we’re resisting and we’re being crushed at the same time always, like they’re parallel tracks happening. Let’s just do what we can where we are within our capacity to the best of our abilities. Like, that’s really the best we can be hoping for.

Improvising musicians often quote a phrase from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In the course of verifying the Beckett quote, I was reminded that it is also a cliche in tech, reflecting the iterative process of product development. However, several writers, who seem to have actually read the source text (which you can special order from Village Well) rather than dealing with a decontextualized fragment, note that Beckett is interested in the inevitably of failure, not its overcoming. A performance of a composition has some set goals, at a minimum one can judge if the score was accurately executed, but an improvisation can never not be a failure. The unrealized possibilities are always infinite and overwhelm the choices made, and the more one develops as an artist, the more one is aware of the limitations of any improvised performance. Whatever the inadequacies of a piece of tech are, and whatever angst its developers experienced, that is different from embracing failure as a discipline. The thresholds of both facility and expressiveness are infinite; a performance can never reach them. This is even more true for improvisations, which add the real-time creation and selection of material to the already unlimited challenges of execution and communication. Creativity is a discipline for artists as hope is for activists: the work will always fall short, but we cannot stop. The alternative is unthinkable.