It’s just a word. That’s the main thrust of many of the comments on my last blog entry, several e-mails, and a lot of tweets. The other side of the same argument is that words can be very powerful, so what’s the point in using that power to scare people? If we call it a Depression, a Recession, or a Banana it doesn’t really make any difference except the potential for panic. Why do I want people to panic?
Just as the power of words leads many people to think we might as well avoid the incendiary word, taking away its power, the goal of using the word Depression for me is to actually avoid panic. I want to confront this thing head on.
Community organizing always forms around an issue of some kind. Either you want to make something happen or stop something – it’s the issue and the work that brings people together. Where it gets interesting is when there is a systematic disempowerment of one class by another, the leading cause of civil unrest. Let me say that again in English – people who are totally dissed tend to rise up and make serious trouble. The divisions in our society, especially along class lines, are very deep. When otherwise honest people find they have to steal to survive, they’ll be in a rather nasty mood. That’s the way it always goes down when it’s really hard.
It doesn’t have to go down like that, of course. Starting with Johnson’s War on Poverty through Reagan’s War on Drugs to our latest War on Terror, Presidents have deliberately used incendiary language in an attempt to mobilize people. Think of it as community organizing on a grand scale. It doesn’t work very well, but the basic idea of calling people together to fight the problem is critical. In an period where we don’t have a lot of money, what we have is people. I want to start from the power of people and what they can do.
Mobilizing all of us to work together to cure a common problem is only one reason to use the hard language. Community organizing always forms around the work that needs to be done, and in this downturn there is a lot of work. More of our elderly will not be able to afford care. More families will be homeless. More of us will be looking for jobs. We are going to have to help each other, across lines of race and class, like we haven’t done in a very long time (if ever). The call to arms fighting the Depression is a call to action, and through that work we organize. We no longer see a need to fight each other because we have a common enemy – the Depression itself.
What I’m asking is that we all take a moment to realize we’re in the same situation, together, and we have a lot more to gain by working together than by fighting each other for the last scrap of bread. Yes, I think it’ll come down to that if we aren’t careful.
I’ve been slow to name exactly how we can get out of this situation for the simple reason that the government response will have some effect, but I’m not sure what. As time goes on, it’s becoming clear to me that if it can be solved with money our Feds are on it, and that’s great. What’s left behind are the things that are not going to be solved with money, or at least not entirely. The secret, as our President should know better than many people, comes in organizing people around specific problems in the community.
That isn’t always a lefty social program. Investment pools dedicated towards building jobs locally, rather than pissing the money away in a distant Stock Market, can not only kick start the local economy but provide a good return. Throw in a few veteran small business owners who are retired to mentor the process in direct, hands-on quantity time, and we have the potential for a real winner. Money doesn’t make money anymore – it takes money plus brains plus some hard work.
There’s no one answer to getting us out of this situation. There are, at my last count, about 300 million different needs and the same number of people to organize. What can you do to help? It might surprise you.
By picking a label to get people thinking this way, the problem ends a lot sooner as surely as more hands make lighter work. More critically, we can be sure that our old demons of race and class divisions don’t come back in ways we are also unprepared for. What we need is a call to action, a sense that while our government is doing all it can it still needs us to join the fight. The word Depression might give us a visceral sense of panic, an empty feeling in our guts that freezes us to the spot. It shouldn’t. It’s a call to action, a call to bravery, and a call to be our best. We’ve been through this before, after all, and came out stronger.
Denial doesn’t help us at all right now. Bravery in the face of danger, however we can put it together, is what we need. I want to issue the call and see who really is brave, who is willing to do the work. That’s the leadership we need today.
For some reason, I really like this joke:
As the ship was preparing for battle, a Midshipman saw the Captain walking the deck in a bright red coat. He steeled himself to talk to his Captain;
“Sir, about the coat. Won’t the enemy see you clearly?”
“That is a risk, as always. But it’s very important.”
“Why is that, sir?”
“Should I be hit, should I bleed, no one will see I have been wounded.”
Just then, the watch atop the crow’s nest called down,
“Enemy sighted! Not one, but a dozen Frigates, bearing down on us!”
The Captain, very calmly, turned back to the Midshipman and said,
“Beat to Quarters and prepare for battle. Oh, and bring me my brown trousers, too, please.”