Sprezzatura

Because neurotic is the new black....

Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols
Location
East Lansing, Michigan,
Birthday
December 31
Bio
I write, I read, I clean up after people and I worry about things. I have a chronic insufficiency of ironic detachment. My birthday isn't really December 31; it's March 22 but it won't let me change it.

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Salon.com
Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 3, 2012 11:16AM

No Room for Moderates: Tales of a Community Organizer

Rate: 19 Flag

There is no room in this politically polarized world for middle ground, even at the local, grassroots level.

Five years ago I got involved in protesting development near my house. I’m not anti-development, but this was an objectively and inherently bad plan, complete with shaky financing and a sketchy developer. I was played by people in power, I got angry, and in the end, when it became clear that I had sweated blood for nothing, I “retired” from public life.

Recently, and not surprisingly, the development scheme fell apart. There is a chance for a do-over that includes public input and transparency.

Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

“You were so good at bringing people together,” they said, and “you can represent the people who felt burned the first time around. You can heal the neighborhood.” Those last words were like chocolate wrapped in baby bunnies. I saw myself as the Mother Theresa of grass roots political action, binding up the ragged wounds of the disappointed and the disenfranchised and bringing everyone to the table (which would undoubtedly feature a Kinkeade-worthy shaft of sunlight falling on my wise and noble head).

I began attending meetings again, and sharing information. We were not, I was fiercely determined, going to have a repeat of what happened before. No one was going to find out from the newspaper that a ten story building was being erected a block from their home, or that our only green space would be dominated by high-end townhouses. I urged transparency, inclusion, and charity towards City Hall. Many of the players had changed there, and I saw no reason to assume that they were lying. We would be vigilant citizens, but we would also be open-hearted and fair.

Almost immediately, I realized that the angry voices in the community had only intensified while I was out of the game. We had been natural allies five years ago; they were angry and I was angry. We didn’t always agree about everything, but we were on the same side. The City was The Evil Empire, and we were the earnest, honest revolutionaries. I kind of romanticized them - I grew up attending lefty political rallies and watching the Watergate, and went to Oberlin where I protested apartheid and nuclear weapons. (I had a huge crush on the guy who ran all the protests. If I squinted he looked just like Che Guevara). I read about The Chicago Seven and The Weather Underground, and I wept about Oscar Romero. Two years ago, at the peak of my opposition to City Hall, I was oddly energized by the possibility that I was actually one of the Bad Rads. It was a power thing, an approval thing, exhausting, but thrilling.

This time, it is considerably less thrilling. I’m not angry, I see an opportunity for a fresh start, and I’ve had a lot of time to think. I know that we didn’t get anywhere with anger last time. I also know that I, personally, am more Dr. King than Malcolm X, more Ghandi than Abbie Hoffman. I am, by nature, a conciliator, a mediator, and slow to anger.  I am a Democrat married to someone who is not a Democrat, and a Buddhist working at a Protestant church – every day of my life I see that differences can be harmonized and that people can work together and accomplish mutual goals. The Dalai Lama gets a lot of shit done in the world, and his charter is compassion.

The folks who were once my allies are really disappointed in me. I’m not outraged, and I’m not fighting. I’m too trusting, and I’m not seeing the truly despotic nature of City staff and City Council. The City folks, to whom I would like to reach out and say “let’s try again,” still associate me with the angriest voices raised against them. The fixing of all of this, if it’s possible at all, would involve incredibly slick political machinations of which I am not capable and in which I am not interested.

Thirty years ago, if the Che Guevera Guy had asked me to throw a bottle through a window, I probably would have done it to get his approval. People like him were dynamic and informed; I acted based on silly things like feelings.  Even five years ago I was more susceptible to the notion that the people who saw corruption behind every tree were right and I was stupid and wrong. They FOIA’d, they compiled, they monitored and they knew all kinds of stuff I didn’t know. I never questioned their agendas; I simply accepted that my lazy “let’s all get along” thing paled in comparison to their vigorous, rigorous criticism of City Hall.

These days, I’m too comfortable with myself to need their endorsement. I may get nowhere this time, and I may just drop out of the whole thing and reclaim the hours to spend with my family and friends. I care what happens down the street, I care a lot, but I honestly don’t believe that my presence will tip the balance in any particular direction. I can’t “heal” anything if my time is spent fighting with the people who used to be my allies.

I bring nothing to the table but my naïveté, and my belief in human nature. I am apparently the Jimmy Carter in this story, all good intentions and not enough political capital or street smarts. I know that I lack the grit, the flint, or the stones to engage in perpetual conflict. I am soft, and called to nurture the tender green shoots of common ground. It makes me wince when hopeful new voices are cut off by the interminable drone of negativity. I really just can’t live my life on the basis that everyone is lying, scheming, stupid and venal.

There is no room for people like me on the political scene, local or national, and I’m okay with that. I’m happy here in the middle, where it’s fine to be my vulnerable, soft self.

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So we can call you JC then? Excellent POV here.
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Great post, Ann! Once I read a quote by a rabbi, but I just don't remember his name. (I was walking outside on a windy day, when this piece of paper came flying with some inspirational words on it.) He said something like, there are two approaches to healing. One is to grab the bull by the horns and cut out whatever is diseased. The other is to nurture the parts that are healthy, and make them stronger. I think we need more healers like you! (p.s. I love Jimmy Carter...he and the Carter Center still continue to accomplish so much, and still he says the thing he is proudest of as President was that we kept our country at peace.) I hope everything turns out well for your town!
Are you sure you can't be Annie Hoffman Nichols? "Steal This Blog!"

Along with more creaky joints, five years can bring a mellowing or further refinement of What Really Matters, otherwise known as You Want Me To Raise My Blood Pressure For That? Five years ago my anger was such that I wanted the entire Bush Administration to be crammed on a small vessel, then sunk in the middle of the ocean - due process be damned. Five years later I've mellowed. I want the Bushies tried, found guilty and tossed in a dark, dank hole for life.
boy, am i with you, ann. i've got similar stories to tell and maybe someday will, but for now i'll just agree with you and hope there is an outcome in your current situation that includes the property getting developed in a way that benefits the community. (i'll just secretly hope that the virulent shriekers on whatever side wind up the losers. somehow they always make it about *them*, not whatever the issue is.)
And yet, if you tell me which window to aim at I'll hurl the bottle.
I see this same intolerance of moderates on the National scene. Without moderates to seek a common ground all we have left are two very polarized sides who can agree on nothing. I really fear what is to become of this nation if the extremes are all we have left.
I like your style. Hang in there. We shall overcome this incredible self-centeredness of both extremes.

PS - I would suggest deleting Algis' incredibly sophomoric "drawing." It detracts.
some humans envision societies that are kind, run by discussion and sharing rather than greed and aggression.

a very pleasant fantasy, but we have to survive in the world as it is. quite possibly that greed and aggression will make it impossible for most or all to survive.

humans generally use the wildebeest strategy, keep your head down, mouth shut, wiggle toward the center of the herd. that way the hyenas take someone else. it works for wildebeest, and works for homo sap, until the hyenas got control of technology. now they might eat us all and keeping your head down isn't good enough anymore.
Al Loomis's comment (directly above this one) has been nominated for a Readers' Pick Award. Please click on the highlighted link and second this nomination.
It's your neighborhood. That's why you're fighting for it. Sometimes activists can beat out big money. But when activists get too much money they become selfish ideoogues who see nothing wrong with vacations in the Carabbean at the other activists expense.
Ann, I think that you may be wrong here -- you are the very kind of person needed in the political strife that we are experiencing now. The left vs. right is not only strident -- but that nugget of truth has a way of being buried in the heft of ego's rhetoric. I hate taking the dead center just to stay away from the extreme edge; but to take an extreme position just to be more dug in, only alienates those who may be drawn into to your sane point of view. We have T Party types who see things only in one mode: cut everywhere that helps the poor or needy people -- with a machete ... The other side rejoinders: give us every human service that can be funded -- and do it NOW ...
You see, people with the moderate tone, really are needed. Blessed are the peace makers ...
Thank you for sharing a much needed post. R>>>>>>>
We need the kind of people who are the revolutionaries that you feel estranged from, but we also need people with diplomatic and communication skills to help negotiate conflict.

In short, we also need people like you, people who can see all sides with some clarity. There are a lot of jobs that need to be done in a revolution. Yours may be the hardest job of all, but if it doesn't get done, success is unlikely.
It's been my experience that as we age, we come to a fork in the road, where one side heads to bitterness and grumbling discontent, the other side to acceptance and savoring of what is. Sitting on your little pillow also results in greater equanimity. Med techs fret when they take my blood pressure, and they've tested me twice, to see why it is so low. Everything is fine. It's the pillow ;-)

The way I see it, we did our time in the protest trenches. Now it is someone else's turn. Abbie Hoffman and Richard Brautigan died of disappointment. I loved them both, but I'm not going to do that. Pass me one of those homegrown tomatoes will you?
those of us in the middle are becoming rarer and rarer......apparently the left and right will never get it that a bird won't get off the ground if both wings don't work together.....
R
Good Lord, no community needs to be "organized" by somebody else. And Che Guevera was a murderous thug. Ugh.
Sadly, it's easier today to plant your feet firmly in one of the extremes and refuse to budge. Then when you don't get 100% of your way, you can blame failure on the compromisers' refusal to heed all your words.
A prime example of "how we talk to each other" getting in the way of "how we get things done." Thanks for the story, Ann.
I know absolutely nothing about community organizing, but I know good writing. My favorite sentence in days: "Those last words were like chocolate wrapped in baby bunnies." ~r
There is no need for the middle ground! Never give in! Everyone who disagrees with me is likely a communist! No compromise ever!
This is the way of the NEW Republican Party! We need to get rid of theose wishy-washy Gerald Ford types! Jim DeMint is a sell out! We need REAL conservatives! No taxes at all! Fund the military with tariffs! Close the borders and get the government out of my Medicare!
I think miscommunication is a common problem for all of us. Both parties need to be sincere when talking to each other to avoid arguments.

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I do not like the middle or as I call them the muddled masses of moderate mush. As Howard Zinn said, "You can't be neutral on a moving train."

Where is the middle ground on fracking, Arctic oil development, climate change, Wall Street corruption, mindless war, torture, drones, occupation, inequality. It's not about left or right, it's about right and wrong. Its about justice vs injustice.

Agitate and organize for Justice!
I think I'm more a middle ground person too... Anyway, locally, I'm afraid it's almost always a case of follow-the-money. There is no urban management ideology, just development deals. At least in TX, where I've lived (mid-size towns, mostly).
Thanks for your well reasoned call for reason and moderation. I hope that some day, somehow, there is room for such.