In Politics & In Life: You Are Your Own Savior, You Are The Power

David Alfaro Siqueiros Castillo de Chapultepec (1950s)

So, today, the Washington Post’s James Hohlmann riffed on how none of today’s Democratic female presidential-nominee candidates are talking about “smashing the glass ceiling” (a patriarchal barrier faced by career women). He is right and that they are not using the glass ceiling metaphor is a very good thing. The metaphor was a major theme of Hilary Clinton’s run and it was one that didn’t seem right.

During the 2016 campaign, we were told that “when” Clinton is elected the “first female president,” the glass ceiling will shatter and a new era of gender equality will begin (I assume just like Britain ended sexism when Margaret Thatcher took charge). Clinton’s folks were so wedded to the metaphor that her campaign rigged a special-effects smashing of a glass ceiling for her 2016 election victory party. There was no victory. The electoral college vote put Trump in the White House. The glass ceiling — as special effects and a metaphor — remained whole.

When Clinton lost, many were crushed, especially her supporters. Part of the disappointment came from the overwhelming sense that she was a shoo-in, part from the odiousness of Trump, but a lot of it came because Clinton had been set up — by her campaign, by the media, and by us — as a savior of sorts, one who would bring about gender equality simply by being elected president. We just need to elevate that one person to power and the glass ceiling would shatter. The notion is not only untrue, it is dangerous.

The idea of president as savior didn’t come start with HRC. Clinton entered the 2016 race while another “savior” was sitting in the White House. When Barrack Obama was elected president, the overwhelming feeling in America was “Well, racism is over! We just elected our first Black president. He’s smart and funny, too. He will lead us to the promise land”…and then we waited and waited and waited.

David Alfaro Siqueiros “Democracy Breaking Her Chains” (1934)

The 2016 race had another would-be saviors. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s main opponent in the Dem primary, was dubbed savior by many of his supporters on the Left (some who now see a savior in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). President Bernie was going to take down the rigged pig system and usher in an era of fairness and equality. For those of us who were used to “normal politics” (whatever that is today!), it was puzzling to see the shittiness and pettiness that BOTH hardcore Clintonites and Bernie fans engaged in. Politics is always dirty, but this was something akin to a religious war…and why not? Lady Jesus was pit against Socialist Jesus and only one Jesus could live to be savior!

After the primaries, we had a new religious war, this one between Savior Clinton and Savior Donald Trump, the man who promised “I alone can fix it.” Those who were the candidates biggest followers views the rival candidate as the Anti-Christ. Often this belief went beyond metaphor.

None of this savior stuff makes for good decision making or electoral politics. Clear thinking — which we strain to do in any political circumstance — is replaced by passion and religiosity. Even worse: When we look at politicians or any leaders as saviors (even teeny-weeny saviors), we deny our own agency and give up our power. Clinton, Trump, Bernie, Obama, Reagan, JFK, Roosevelt, Lincoln, the Founding Fathers, Robert Mueller — it doesn’t matter who the saviors are, when we turn to them, we lose, even before the fight begins.

David Alfaro Siqueiros “Workers” (no date)

Yes, presidents and other leaders weld tremendous power and can do very big beneficial things, but even the most compassionate, most honest, and most egalitarian ones can only, at best, mediate our wants and desires. These leaders will always filter our needs through a zillion-other-things, things that they, not we, determine are important.

Worse, the more we beg for change from above, the more power we give those on top. “Please, Mr. Big Stuff, help us?” “Give me the resources to do so!” “Here, here is our power!” They take our power and now have new feelings of responsibility. The increased responsibility becomes an excuse to take more from us. And why not? We give them more work to why shouldn’t there be a payoff? If the 1% are responsible for “bailing us out,” don’t they deserve a bigger slice of the pie…if not the whole pie. They are the makers, we are the takers — or at least that is the subtext we create when we forgo our civic responsibility and look to others for our salvation.

David Alfaro Siqueiros “Echo of a Scream” (1937)

What makes this so frustrating is that there is ample historical evidence of significant change happening when everyday people take direct responsibility for their own salvation, unite, organize and work from below to change things. Examples? Sure, let’s start with something seemingly small but very significant:

There’s an intersection at the end of your block, next to a park with a playground. It’s in the suburbs not on a main thoroughfare. Even so, the intersection is well trafficked by parents, children, and cars. Two streets cross but only one has stop signs. The other is a whoosh whoosh whoosh of traffic, especially before and after school, when most children are about. Every year at least dozen kids get mowed down by cars, mostly ones cruising down the street without stop signs. The lack of stop signs means that there is nothing to slow cars down. They often travel 5–10 mph over the limit. You take your kids to the park, in fear crossing the street, knowing that at any moment some speeding bastard could wipe you and yours out.

You want change. You want more stop signs. What do you do? You can elect a mayor or city councilperson and hope that they get to your issue OR you can take responsibility for your neighborhood. Let’s say that you take some responsibility for your community. You hold a neighborhood meeting. You go door to door and visit the park and nearby school with your petitions. You mob your councilperson’s office with your petitions. You demand that they put two new stop signs on that intersection. When it comes to the planning commission you show up and testify. When it comes in front of the council you show up and speak out.

You line the street near the intersection, at rush hour, holding signs that say “Slow Down.” You invite reporters. You show them the stats of kids hit at the intersection. You get a parent of one of the injured or dead kids to talk to the press. When the city slow-walks things, you put up makeshift, illegal stop signs. When the city takes them down, you put them back up. You invite the press to film you and your crew putting up your stop signs. You increase pressure until you get what you need.

When the council votes for the signs and the mayor signs off, you ride the asses of your city council person and the head of the department responsible for putting the stop signs up until they do it. If they stall you make their lives miserable, you keep putting up your own stop signs. You keep calling the press. You figure our more ways to promote your cause. You block traffic.

When the stop signs finally go up, you organize your neighbors to write polite letters thanking the city for acting on your demands. Why the letters? Easy, the gesture keeps the door open and lets them know that you are an active participant in your community and that you are watching.

The alternative is to sit around and wait for Bob Mueller of Stop Signs to come and save your ass…and wait and wait and wait.

David Alfaro Siqueiros “Birth of Fascism” (1936)

Take the stop sign scenario: This is essentially what the Abolitionist and Suffragist movements did in the 1800/1900s. It is how the farmers’ grange attacked monopoly capitalism. Unions used variations on these tactics to end child labor and institute the weekend and 8-hour day. The early 20th Century anarchist and socialist movements did similar things to increase their strength. Their actions led to the New Deal. In the 1940s and 50s, American communists used these kinds of pressure tactics to get politicians to adopt the policies that expanded the middle class. The Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the Gay Rights movement, the fight against AIDS, the fight for international human rights, the boycott and divestment movement aimed at apartheid South Africa, the many phases of the conservation and environmental movements — same damn thing.

Every single one of these movements for change started and was fueled by people who took personal responsibility for change and refused to look to saviors to bail them out. They started in living rooms, backrooms, and bars, talking about their wants and needs, and coming up with plans to make them reality. They talked to neighbors, friends, coworkers and family. They petitioned, they organized. They never trusted those in power to do the work for them or hand them anything. Rather than look to a savior to smash the glass ceiling, they stood on each other’s shoulders until they were able to reach that ceiling and, by the thousands, they hammered the motherfucker down. That is how change is made.

I have no idea why — maybe it’s because my parents didn’t give me shit other than a roof over my head and what became the occasional meal — but I quickly figured out that if I wanted change, I’d have to do it myself. So, if Sacramento didn’t have a punk zine to read, I’d make one. If there was no punk rock radio show in town, I’d grab my brother and we’d do it. Later I learned that it was easier and more fun to work with others to make change. So, we organized against a war, for economic justice, and for queer rights. We created our own punk DIY space, and later a record store. We helped each other book bands and put out records. I tapped into my cohorts for help in support in publishing a community newspaper when I thought that the Sacramento Bee and News & Review were lacking. And there is more.

Now here’s the thing, other than running my mouth, I have no special skills. I work hard. I’ve learned to work methodically. I am outspoken. However, I’d rather snooze on a beach, far away from civilization. My public speaking skills range from pretty okay to uncomfortable mumbling. I put things off. I haven’t balanced a checkbook in decades. And, like many “creative” people, I have lapses in self-confidence.

In other words, I am like you…not just in my everyday struggles, but my accomplishments. Yeah, I’ve released plenty of records, but I’ve never raised a child. That right there — I don’t need to go on. If you can raise a child, even half-assed, you can change the world. You know that.

During the fight against apartheid, a quote by the Reverend Desmond Tutu circulated. He said “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

People mistakenly interpreted Tutu’s quote as a dig at religion. It is not. It is an observation about how when we turn to saviors, we give up power. Don’t make that mistake. Own your power. Know that the politicians and businessmen are not our leaders, they are our tools. They are the hammer and the shovel. We are the muscle. Do not give away your power. Harness it, organize it, and use it to make them obey us.

David Alfaro Siqueiros “Struggle for Emancipation” (1961)

This essay originally appeared in the July 24, 2019 issue of Soriano’s Comment №62. Free Subscriptions available here. Become a patron here.

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