In order to understand why ending distracting divisiveness is important, it is first important to understand why such divisiveness is so awful to begin with.
Such divisiveness is not bad because it causes angst in people or makes life in Washington D.C. less pleasant.
It is harmful and toxic because it is a tool used by the powerful and wealthy to thwart meaningful social change.
Obama writes in his memoirs Dreams From My Father how he learned about power while growing up:
Power. The word fixed in my mother's mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things; until you visited an Indian reservation or spoke to a black person whose trust you had earned. But here [Indonesia] power was undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line just when he thought he'd escaped, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn't his own. That's how things were; you couldn't change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo made his peace with power . . .
pp. 45-46 (emphasis in original)
Obama also learned about power from his father's story:
"Most of the Old Man's friends just kept queit and learned to live with the situation. But the Old Man began to speak up. He would tell people that tribalism was going to ruin the country and that unqualified men were taking the best jobs. His friends tried to warn him about saying such things in public, but he didn't care. He walys thought he knew what was best, you see. . . . Word got back to [President] Kenyatta that the Old Man was a troublemaker and he was called in to see the president. According to the stories, Kenyatta said to the old man that, because he could not keep his mouth shut, he would not work again until he had no shoes on his feet.
"I don't know how much of these details are true, BUt I know that with the president as an enemy things became very bad for the Old Man. He was banished from the government--blacklisted. None of the ministries would give him work. When he went to foreign companies to look for a post, the companies were warned not to hire him. He gan looking abroad and was hired to work for the African Development Bank in Addis Ababa, but before he could join them, the government revoked his passport, and he couldn't even leave Kenya.
and as a community activist
"It's going to take a while to rebuild manufacturing out here," he said. "Ten years, minimum. But, once we get the unions involved, we'll have a base to negotiate from. In the meantime, we just need to stop the hemorrhage and give people some short-term victories. Somthing to show people how much power they have once they stop fighting each other and start going after the real enemy."
"And who's that"
Marty shrugged. "The investment bankers. The politicians. The fat cat lobbyists."
p. 150 (emphasis added)
At this point, it may be unclear what the link between divisiveness and power is. To make that more clear, I will bring in the analysis from John Gaventa, an esteemed author who did groundbreaking analysis and community organizing work while working the the poor of Appalachia.
In his book Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, Gaventa discusses the ways that power may be applied by the powerful, including the disempowerment or inducement of powerlessness in the less fortunate.
I will shamlessly excerpt a law school research paper here to summarize his analysis:
How was power exercised, if not by a uniform system of laws applied universally? Gaventa identified three aspects of power and its exercise.
a. The First Dimension of Power: Direct Conflict
The first aspect is the most conventional—that of observable conflict. Whether by negotiation, legal and governmental proceedings, or simple force, this aspect involves the direct resolution of issues in controversy. When this dimension is in play, all parties involved are aware of the conflict. They have adopted conscious strategies, and are active in seeking their goals. Everything is in the open.
b. The Second Dimension of Power: The Prevention of Conflict
The second dimension or exercise of power involves the prevention of conflict. This ‘mobilization of bias’ can take many forms—intimidation, deterrence, popular or cultural attitudes, legal or procedural rules. The powerful do not utilize this mechanism to defeat challenges. Rather, it is the "means by which demands for change in the existing allocation of benefits and privileges in the community can be suffocated before they are voiced . . ." Thus, the resistance or challenge that one would expect in the face of great disparities in social status fail to materialize not because of consent to the current conditions but rather because of a conscious calculation of the utility of such measures. Individuals may conclude there is no chance of prevailing, or that the costs of mounting a challenge outweigh the likely benefits. Or, there may simply be no avenue within the current system by which individuals can offer resistance
c. The Third Dimension of Power: Manipulation of Consciousness
The third aspect involves not the actions but the consciousness of the powerless. Whereas following the exercise of the second aspect the less fortunate of society recognize resistance as an option but decline to exercise it, the exercise of the third aspect of power prevents the less fortunate from recognizing that resistance is an option. This third dimension can take several forms. The simplest form is that which creates a sense of powerlessness amongst the less fortunate. "There’s nothing I can do about it" becomes the maxim by which individuals accept their lot in life. Another form is the suppression of class or political consciousness through the inhibition of participation in the public sphere, via the second aspect or other manifestations of the third aspect of power. According to both democratic theorists and social psychology studies , citizens receive their political learning at least partly through active participation. If this participation is inhibited, so is the information that flows from it. If members of an aggrieved group or class such as coal miners are not aware of the full range of options before them, they cannot make a decision regarding their exercise. A final element of this psychological aspect is the adaptation by the ruled of the ideologies and belief systems of the rulers. Those who feel powerless may become susceptible to myths orcideologies that cause them to see their interests as aligning with those of the powerful. Churches, schools, and the media are some of the more familiar channels by which the powerful may exercise this influence.
Three themes emerge from Gaventa’s study of this Appalachian valley. First, it becomes clear that powerlessness is more than the mere absence of power. Instead, it is a very real condition, an observable social fact that can play an extremely important role. Secondly, what is most important is not what happens, but what does not happen. In this case, why people do not demand change or rebel tells us more than any actions taken. Finally, all three dimensions of power complement and to varying degrees depend on one another. For example, the ability of the powerful to repeatedly defeat those "below" them can lead to a deterrent effect manifested in the second dimension or a sense of powerlessness in the third dimension.
As we can see in Obama's first and second excerpted paragraphs, the first dimension of power is what immediately and initially forces Lolo into a series of actions. As we also see, however, Lolo almost immediately falls into powerlessness through the second and third dimensions of power. He shrugs his shoulders and figures he has to go with the flow. No sense in bucking the system that is lined up against him so strongly. First it becomes not worth the effort, and then it becomes completely futile in his mind. Meanwhile, his father refuses to bow down and refrain from speaking out. However, he is still defeated because he and others like him have no opportunity to exercise power in the Kenyan political system.
Obama's third excerpted paragraph shows us just how divisiveness is actually an exercise in power. The default mentality amongst people is that activism is futile. Moreover, the people perceive each other as enemies, rather than seeing those who exploit them as their true opponents.
And we can actually see the legacy of the "divide and conquer" strategy in the story of Obama's father in Kenya. One key feature of European colonialism in Africa was the use of one tribe as a ruler by proxy over the others. In Rwanda, it was Tutsis vs. Hutus instead of Rwandans vs. the French. In Kenya, it was Kikuyu's vs. Luo's (Obama's tribe) instead of Kenyans vs. the British. As we see in Kenya, this division did not end with the withdrawal of the British government. Instead, the dynamic remained Kikuyu vs. Luo instead of Kenyans vs. Multinational corporations.
In the United States, divisiveness and rancor serve the powerful bad guys very well. To begin with, the dysfunctionalism, cynicism, and generally ugly nature of politics turns many people off of politics and thus keeps them out of the system. Moreover, those who do participate are fighting each other--liberals vs. conservatives, GLBT vs. evangelicals, in some areas blacks vs. whites, in other areas immigrants vs. non-immigrants, Democrats vs. Greens, and yes Democrats vs. Republicans--instead of uniting to solve the great problems they have in common. So long as the country is alwas divided 51-48 along every issue in Congress, nothing worthwhile will get done.
What Obama recognizes is that bitterness and anger aren't bad because they are aesthetically unpleasant--they are bad because they serve to protect those who would stand in the way of social progress in this country.
People may point towards 2006 and say that our angry partisanship defeated their angry partisanship. That is a mistake. True, the Republicans reaped a bitter harvest last November, but do not expect them to change. Why? Because so long as the country is focused on positions instead of interests and parties instead of problems, they can afford to be on the wrong side of a 51-48 vote for incremental progress every once and a while. Because they know that with margins so narrow, eventually things will flip back to them on the basis of some other distraction.
Polarization and division are anti-progressive. They are Karl Rove's game, and we don't win by playing someone else's game.
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