ESSAY #2 – 9.27.20, POSTED 1.29.21

Progressives' Goofy Names

Progressives have changed the world over and over again since the beginning of recorded time. However, it seems that, in recent times, they have come up with slogans that seem to create resistance to the very thing that they are trying to accomplish. Is there another way?

Progressives and Their Goofy Names

Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, you have got to love Progressives. I know I do. Throughout history, it has been Progressives who have introduced the notions that spark the movements that change the world. In America, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Abolitionist Movement, Universal Suffrage, and Social Security were all, at one time, the idea of some wild-eyed, fuzzy-headed kook before they were adopted by Progressives, who carried them until they became part of the bedrock of this country. We need Progressives in our world to imagine our future and challenge us when our thinking becomes staid and rigid.

Progressives’ achilles heel

Having said that though, Progressives are notoriously lousy at coming up with slogans and names for their movements, often choosing phrases that cause so much reaction that the movements they represent lose their impact. In fact, I sometimes wish Progressives would hire some Republicans to help them come up with better terms. Whatever else you might think about Republicans, they have been great at coining phrases and embedding them into the American culture, without the need for asterisks or complex explanations.

In the very long run (decades), our culture will be most affected by the progressive ideas that are well-thought-out, pragmatic, and well-founded. But in the short run (months and years), those ideas can easily be derailed when the mottos used to represent them—and the clever retorts Republicans come up with—cause more fear than inspiration.

For example, I can think of three mottos for racial reform that have caused so much confusion, fear, and misunderstanding that the movements have not progressed as they might otherwise: “Defund the Police,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Reparations.”

“Defund the Police” (or “Unleash the Mayhem”)

First, let’s take “Defund the Police.” I don’t want to make up rules that would inhibit Progressives in their ardor to change the world, but employing a motto that scares half the population into thinking that rioting and mayhem will be the norm—even in small towns and country villages—may not be the most pragmatic approach to moving things forward. The first six-dozen times I heard the phrase, I did not understand it. I had to think about what they were really saying, and I was only willing to do that because I assumed that there was a positive intention behind the phrase. Not everyone is going to share my assumption.

At one point, I had an epiphany and the whole thing became perfectly clear. We have twenty-first century citizenry being policed by a police force built upon a nineteenth century idea of what policing should be. There have been some progressive changes made to policing over the years, and some great people doing the job, but we have never taken the time to clearly identify what we want the role of the police to be in this century. The assumption has always been that they are already doing that which we, the people, want them to do. Instead of looking closely and reevaluating, we continue to modify and add to the original model, giving the police force additional responsibilities without the training or resources to be successful.

I believe the thinking behind “Defund the Police” is something like, “We have been talking about these problems for years, decades even, and we aren’t seeing the changes we need to see in policing. The same issues are recurring over and over again. So, maybe if we take away the money, we can get someone to notice that we are frustrated. Maybe, if we can get your attention long enough, we could look at the job the police are doing and redefine it for contemporary needs. Then, we could hire, train, and performance-manage according to the needs of the community. Oh, and stop shooting citizens.”

Now, I can see that that is a lot to put into a slogan, on a baseball cap or placard. However, if it takes a highly articulate, clear-speaking, brilliant former federal prosecutor like Maya Wiley, five minutes to explain what “Defund the Police” means on a cable TV network, you might want to re-think your naming process. If it took as long as it did for me, an Old White Guy who likes progressive thinking, to come to terms with the slogan, imagine how the average white guy in the middle of the political spectrum hears “Defund the Police.” At some point, you’re going to need that guy, and he is listening through his languaging, not yours. Do you really want to make it difficult for him to get behind what is important to you? Besides, Maya is busy and has other things to do.

“Black Lives Matter” (or “White Lives Don’t Matter”)

How about “Black Lives Matter”? I love this phrase! It’s economic, precise, and to the point. Taken in the context of the times, you would think it doesn’t need any explanation, but apparently, it does. I have still heard people, including black folk, who have responded in conversation with, “all lives matter.” It’s like these people need the phrase to come with a footnote from Progressives that says, “Yeah, we know all lives matter. We are only pointing out that, in these times, black people are killed by our police and imprisoned by our justice system at a much greater rate than white people, so it isn’t apparent to us that everyone thinks black lives matter as much as white lives matter.”

With this footnote, it’s a little wordy and loses a bit of the punch. Maybe a shorter version of all of that might work: “Black Lives Matter, Too.” Of course, some old white men will try to make it mean something it doesn’t, but that is going to happen no matter how good your slogan is.

“Reparations” (or “Bring on World War III”)

Now, here is the one that really troubles me: “Reparations.” I’ve been hearing this word kicked around for years, and have been waiting a long time for someone to tell me what it means. My first interpretation was based on connotations from the little I have heard of it in history. Reparations were what Germany had to pay The Allies after World War I, being guilty of starting the great calamity. They were forced to pay a huge penalty for their actions, and to compensate their victims. That seems fair, but from conversations I’ve had, I’ve learned that these reparations are also credited for being a major contributing cause of World War II. That makes the word a little off-putting, even for the Germans.

Once I realized I don’t have to limit the word to that particular usage, the next thought was, “Okay, I can see that they might have a point, but who is supposed to pay whom how much, and for what?” That’s as far as the conversation in my head has gone, and I keep waiting for someone to give me more to work with.

The word “Reparations” doesn’t really bother me, especially if it moves us forward as a people. However, I think it stops a lot of white folks from even considering that there is a conversation to be had. Everyone hears words in their own relative reality, and when a word gets attached to ideas like guilt and obligation to pay money because of it, people act out their cleverest avoidance patterns, sometimes unbeknownst, even to them.

The time is NOW

Now, here’s the thing for me. I don’t want to wait for the U.S. Congress to pass a bill to study the issue and then subject reams of unread paper to a political process. I do not have the generosity and patience of Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke about leading people to the promised land, but said, “I may not get there with you.” I’m 69 years old, and I want to see the promised land before I die, or at least to see that we are actively engaged in bringing it about. I can’t wait another sixty years to sort this out. I’m noticing that I am being quite selfish here, as I want to depart this rocky orb knowing I lived in a nation that fulfilled its promise of equality under the law and equal opportunity for all, regardless of ethnic background or the shade of their wrappings. I want this for black people, but I also want it for white people. I want it for my children and grandchildren and for my new great-grandson, who represents so many ethnic and racial groups, the Census Bureau will have to create a new category. We need to engage in a healing process that will allow us to uncover, for all of us, the path and remedies for true racial reconciliation.

I want the American people to take this on and be a part of the process, like they already are, but in a complete and thoughtful way. Some brilliant people have been working on these ideas for decades, and there is a lot to be said for their conclusions. I just think someone might be able to come up with a less loaded word than “Reparations” to begin a process of national reconciliation, just as they could come up with a less loaded phrase than “Defund the Police.” “Black Lives Matter,” may not be the best slogan ever written, but it is simpler to understand, and no movement will be free of headwinds, no matter how well-crafted their slogans.

Just give it some thought.