Grounded Rhetoric for Change


“…a reform should always appear, either as the return to a past which has been allowed to degenerate, or as the adaptation of an institution to new conditions, an adaptation which has as its object not a change but, on the contrary, the maintenance of an unchanging relationship.”  

While I revere Simone Weil as a theologian, I also admire the nuggets of political philosophy that salt her writings.  This one, found in the collection of her work titled “Gravity and Grace”, struck me as deep wisdom.  She believed that people get into terrible trouble when they try to change the world.  Instead, the manner in which we press for social improvements should be grounded in what is good in the world as it is.

That’s the kind of rhetoric that I hope my sisters and brothers in progressive politics will employ in the run up to the crucial November 2022 election.  In order to win decisively, we must bring along a much bigger swath of the public.

I have lived long enough to see some patterns that I fear are being repeated.  I came of age in a time when my generation wanted to turn the world upside down – and for good reason.  The government lied to us about the war in Vietnam at the same time that it conscripted us to fight in it, alienating most of us.  The civil rights struggle had achieved major successes but was far from completion.  On the streets we chanted “two, four, six, eight, organize to smash the state!”  If we waved the US flag at all, it had a peace sign superimposed on it.  Or we lit it on fire.

But most Americans were horrified by these displays of disrespect toward the symbols of the country.  And in reaction, they voted overwhelmingly for Nixon, the candidate of “law and order”.  My generation’s disregard for our country’s traditions and institutions backfired spectacularly.

My wife and I went to a pro-choice rally shortly after the overturning of Roe v. Wade.  We brought a big American flag and waved it.  People in the crowd clearly were nervous that we were infiltrators from the “other side”, until they saw the “Freedom = Choice” sign that we carried next to our flag.  Beside ours, there were only two small American flags on display at the rally, among hundreds of people.  In conversations with folks at the rally, I asked: why would we abandon our flag to the folks who want to take away the freedom it stands for?

The way to stop catastrophic climate change is to describe it as a violation of “America the beautiful”:  this land won’t be our land if it is on fire or swept away by floods.  Correcting racism is the “American way”: we stand for equality and justice for all.  We don’t want to de-fund the police, but rather to refine them into better protectors of life and liberty.

When we show respect for our country, we deprive right-wingers of their most basic and cherished assumption:  that progressive-minded people aren’t “real Americans”.  They get away with this assumption because we let them do so.  By not waving the flag, we’ve handed the symbol of our country over to them, to misinterpret its meaning as they wish.  We’ve given them power they don’t deserve.

When we progressives show our patriotism, we’re establishing a new narrative for our country. When we wave the flag, we’re pointing it out of the past and toward the future.  We love our country because countless of our fellow citizens are working hard to turn our nation’s highest ideals into reality.  Learning about 1619 motivates us our patriotic push to end racism in 2022.   We’re patriots because we support all our scientists and activists who fight human-caused climate change.  We are patriots who celebrate the American pioneers of women’s rights and LGBTQ+ equality.  We’re patriots because we are making right the wrongs of our country’s past and present.   We’re patriots who won’t rest until we secure real liberty and justice for all.

To win in November, we must wrap our progressive agenda for the future in the rhetoric and symbolism of all that is good from our nation’s past.  I know that is a stretch for a lot of folks.  But if we’re serious about success, and not just about living in an echo chamber of the like-minded, we’ve got to change the way we frame the issues we care so much about… or we’ll be living in a re-run of 1969.


(See more of my “musings” here…)

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