Monday, April 18, 2011

2, El Diablito

In some syncretic religions of Latin America, worshippers use little red-horned plaster statues of the devil to represent aspects of Exu, or the trickster spirit who inhabits the crossroads. The crossroads is both literal and figurative, where things could go either way, up or down, left or right, good or bad, and a deserted intersection is as good a place as any for an impromptu little shrine. In these religions -- like Macumba in Brazil, cousin though not sister to North American Lucumi/Santeria -- these little devils often look like comic-book illustrations of "The" Devil we're accustomed to in American fairytale horror stories for gullible semi-religious people not well versed in actual theology. This Exu is an aspect of the Yoruba Eleggua or Elegba, but a wild and earthy one caught mixing it up with the ancestral spirits. One aspect of Exu is Pomba Gira, a female gypsy-spirit consorting with the dead: I have a little statue of her where she is represented as a beautiful dark-coffee-colored naked woman cavorting on a lavender coffin. But these little red devils are not in any way equivalent to the great symbolic evil of the Abrahamic Satan; they're not the Manichean darkness duking it out with God's lightness, and they're not a nihilistic force of revenge summoned up by anti-social teenagers or mentally-impaired would-be mass murderers.

Instead they're a recognition of mortality and the human condition, including knowing that we don't always do the right thing, especially when we're trying to get where we want to go. Above all Exu is neither evil nor morbid, though the intended playfulness of laughing at death is often colored by the worldly knowledge that death is indeed everyone's eventual visitor. Temptation, sure: people who play with Exu are definitely playing with fire. Do the right thing? Well who's to say exactly what that is anyway: is God really a micro-manager? We make plans but things don't always (usually?) go as we hope they will. Enter the little devils.

Which brings me to what I'd actually like to contemplate, which is what I'm going to call the lesser evil of lesser evilism in American politics, our very own political little devil.

When I was a child in Chicago in the 1960s, I remember a senatorial election in which my very political parents announced they were supporting Charles Percy, a liberal (inconceivable now) Republican. I remember telling all my little friends at school that I was a Republican! At age eight I wasn't yet hip to the complexities of Chicago politics and given the progressive liberal atmosphere I grew up in, this seemed sort of logical given the dark and looming machine of the first mayor Dailey who was anything but progressive. Of course two years later as my parents dove into working for a succession of anti-war Democratic Party presidential candidates in 1968 I remember eating a bit of crow as I went around telling my little friends that I was now a Democrat. Well, we know how that ended.

Fast forward to the heady days of my young adulthood. At college I became a communist and soon learned the lessons of Leninism: the Republicans and the Democrats are the twin pillars of American capitalism, tweedle-dum to tweedle-dee. Any difference between the two was surely cosmetic, and the elaborate dancing exchange between the two a well-rehearsed trick to keep the working people from exercising their own independent class power. There might be publicity value in fielding a leftwing third party candidate, but the slogan of the hour was, "Don't Vote, They're All the Same!" And dutifully, that is what I did. And, speaking of evils that aren't so lesser, in 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president.

The left was minuscule in 1980; its influence was nil. It wasn't their fault. But I soon learned that, in fact, "they" weren't all the same. Ronald Reagan turned out be a very bad man, and he did some very bad things, including laughing and whistling while quite a few of my friends contracted the mysterious and then always-fatal AIDS. Say what you will about the cannibalistic unsustainability inherent in capitalism, Reagan and his inane trickle-down economic theories are one of the reasons the American economy is in shithole today. And while it's simplistic to ascribe the death of the left only to Ronald Reagan, nevertheless it was during his presidency that the organized Marxist left, whether or not it was overtly sympathetic to the Soviet Union or not, followed the Soviet Union into the dustbin of history. Left parties that had thousands of members soon had dozens of members; left sectlets that had hundreds of members soon had none.

Anyway by the time 1988 came around I was no longer convinced that voting in presidential elections was irrelevant. Like many leftists I worked on the Jesse Jackson campaign, which it must be said, was inside the Democratic Party. Of course he lost. I set aside organized political activism shortly thereafter.

There is a very intelligent Maoist website called Kasama. Once upon a time that would have been quite a nonsequitur, but now two decades on from the fall of the Soviet Union and well into the revolutionary egalitarian democracy of the internet, all sorts of leftists are leaving the worst of their dogmatic trappings behind and trying to regain their footing. Kasama has initiated a discussion of the upcoming elections based on the lessons of Obama. I contemplated participating in this discussion as it's one of the handful of leftist sites I read daily. But I was immediately confronted by the reality of my position: I voted for Obama, and so far, I plan to vote for him again. Because the main point of many leftists, Kasama included, remains: don't vote, they're all the same. Kasama and other leftists I've read say that the Democrats are whipping up fear of the teabaggers to scare people into supporting Democrats. My response is, yes, I'm scared!

The great American socialist Eugene Debs had an opinion on lesser evilism: "It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it." A beautiful quote but I'm not sure that in our current era it's true. Elections have results; one side always wins. It would be great if there was a viable electoral alternative to the Democratic Party. It would be great if the great majority of working people organized themselves in their own class interest and rejected the Democrats who are always selling them (us!) out. But there is not... yet. Leftists, and I do count myself on that side, should advocate for independence and try to raise consciousness and condemn the actions of both Republicans and Democrats that need condemning. But at the same time we do this, I believe it is necessary to recognize the reality of the balance of forces in society and vote for viable candidates, which usually means Democrats. In 2000 many many leftists got behind the independent candidacy of Ralph Nader (with, I would argue, many many right-wing independent voters since "independent" voting in the United States is in recent history almost always right-wing populism). The result? A close election went to George Bush, the right-wing Republican. We can see from the 2000, 2008 and 2010 elections how it is not irrelevant who wins an election.

President Obama and the Democrats have done some terrible terrible things. They have continued old wars and started new ones. They have continued to steal from working people and rewarded the rich and the corporations. They have continued to erode civil liberties. They will inadequately defend the social safety net that is being whittled away. All these things are true: each one of these things makes me furious... including being furious at myself for believing that Obama's sometimes brilliant lofty speeches meant anything at all. But if you're frustrated by President Obama, imagine President Palin or President Trump or President Bachmann or even President Pawlenty or President Christie, and be very, very afraid. That's not fear-mongering, that is the real choice before us.

I am utterly unconvinced by today's left discounting the danger from the right wing. I don't know if it's because as a gay man I'm sensitive to things that many straight white people don't see or what, but I think the left's failure to identify the teabagger movement as nascent fascism is a crucial mistake. The mainstream media like the New York Times have been busy perpetuating this absolute myth, no make that lie, that the so-called Tea Party is all about economic issues and not about the social conservatism that has been festering on the right wing for decades. Perhaps it's because the leaders of the "Tea Party" are so careful to stick to their coded dogwhistle approach, it's hard to pin them down. But anyone who cares to look can see that this new right-wing is deeply and profoundly racist and antigay; its mixture of populism and corporatism is missing only the brown shirts or white sheets. History does not repeat itself exactly: the fact that the teabaggers have not mobilized actual lynch mobs is I think irrelevant, given the right-wing infiltration of the military and militia movement. The Democrats and elections will not, I don't think, be able to defeat this new rightwing threat, but I believe for now, until the left finds a way to make itself relevant again, Democratic victories may stave off the worst of it.

Obama and the Democrats are going to do what they're going to do. I'm not so naive as to believe that "we" can do something like "hold their feet to the fire." This is the president of U.S. Imperialism we're talking about: it's in his job description, his very nature, to do terrible terrible things. But at local levels especially, leftists should be weighing the possibility of finding viable, not symbolic, candidates who can begin to change the game.

That game will change only when the Democratic and Republican parties explode and factionalize. While the people -- the working class if you will -- have tremendous power and social weight, they don't know it. And that's the task of leftists I think, not to build better sectlets and tiny little parties like they tried -- and failed at -- before. But to focus on raising the self-awareness of the people who should be fighting back against the class war of the rich people. I'm not sure I call myself a Marxist anymore, that's true. But in today's world I'm just not sure what the hell that means anymore. The Marxist left has always said that the revolution will not come from the ballot box. Okay then: I'm not seeing any revolution from outside the ballot box on its way, at least in this country. But that election's happening whether any of us like it or not. While we're building the idea of the world that could be, let's commit a little lesser evil and participate in the world that is.

Better the little devil you know?

UPDATE: I feel compelled, almost four years later, to say I'm extremely glad that I changed my mind from this piece, and in the 2012 elections decided to no longer vote for Democrats. Indeed, I question the process of voting in the United States as being singularly delusional and worthless. It strikes me now that Democrats, far from being a lesser evil, are the more effective evil, siphoning off social movements and sending them off to die. The kind of cynical realism I mused with at this stage of my life was thankfully and forcefully unravelled by participation in the Occupy movement. #LessVotingMoreRevolution

(This is part of a continuing series of meditations on the archetypal Mexican Loteria bingo cards. For earlier essays in the series click here.)


  1. Better the devil you know!

    Massively well written - I am passing this one on. You know ish, as far as ideology goes you are farther left than I am, but I have so much respect for how you pose your arguments I always listen. You never seem mean spirited in your concerns and I find that so important.

    If the election were held today I too would vote for Obama again. Hard to say what can happen in two years, but the thought that this country could be run by the likes of Palin, Trump or Bachmann is truly frighting. I won't not vote - I'll take the devil I know, because I believe the heart of that devil is in the right place.

    I don't always like the compromise that politics requires but I can understand it. I am becoming more aware each day the evil that corporate power has become. Perhaps I grow closer to your ideology as each day passes.

    Thank you again for a thoughtful post.

  2. Thanks Annie. And i do know that we differ in our past experiences and conclusions. People rightly distrust what they perceive of as ideology...I think because it sounds like you have to embrace political belief like a religion. In truth I'm not actually sure I'm even capable of following a religion like a religion... good religion like good political theory should expand your mind, expand your experience and understanding of the world and make your efforts and life's work more effective.

    Anyway thank YOU right back.

  3. You repeat the "Nader was a Spoiler for Gore in 2000" lie. Even if you believe it to be true, the facts do not support your claim. It assumes that everyone who voted for Nader, particularly in Florida, would have voted for Gore if Nader wasn't on the ballot. Well perhaps not "everyone" but enough to make a difference. The exit polling does not support this claim. Gore won that election, Bush stole it, and Gore's weak numbers were his fault and the fault of the Democratic Party. No one else. When Democrats keep perpetuating that myth, you just look weak and unwilling to engage in self-examination. There is an alternative to the duopoly, The Green Party. Here are the details as to why the myth of Nader causing Gore to "lose" in 2000, is bunk:

  4. Miles, a closer reading of what I said does not make that statement. I said what is factual, that the strongest third party run in recent history ended with a Republican victory. Even if you're right that the election result was not the fault of Nader's run, it doesn't change the fact that every last person who voted for Nader threw their vote away. Was Gore a great candidate? Of course not. Was Bush's victory disastrous? Ask the Iraqi people.

  5. Gore ran as an empty suit and happily conceded the stolen election to Bush. Nader just confused things. I voted for Nader because I knew that California was gong to go to Gore and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to protest. Other than that very slight disagreement I think you've done a great job of summing up our predicament. I'm going to vote for Obama because, for all practical purposes there is no such thing as a left in American politics. Unfortunately there most certainly is a dangerous and extreme right in American politics.

  6. I'm not anti-third party candidates but timing is everything. Someone with a good knowledge of this might shed some light on the subject. But with the teabagging splintering of the Republican party that is going on who knows maybe a viable non-mainstream candidate could get elected. But I would not be willing to pay the price if the cost was letting a TB-er get elected.