Local Fires

David Iscoe newsletter, Weekly Update #6

Right now, there is, as one woman put it while a carload of us local progressives were headed back from a far-off meeting last night, “one giant garbage fire” blazing in our national political scene, and it wasn’t something she wanted to talk about. “It’s nice to have all our local fires to distract us,” one of us said. “Yes,” she said, “our little local fires to keep us warm.”

I like local politics not only because it’s important, but because engaging with it can help with the feeling of fighting overwhelming forces. Even when things are fucked up and nonsensical, there’s a chance of seeing them move. Of course, there’s a lot of good ways to engage with national politics, too. These things are immensely important. Rage can be good. People can connect patterns they see in national politics to changes they want to see in the fabric of life. The world of modern communication and technology means that connectedness isn’t just geographic, and community and movements can emerge across space in new and exciting ways. But for a lot of us there’s something grounding about spending time in physical spaces with dynamic interaction, and engaging in small, relatively tangible struggles and sometimes local politics lets you do that.

The five of us in that car were on the way back from the Kings County Democratic Committee, which is basically a small cabal “representing” almost a million registered Democrats. Here’s an incomplete broad-strokes writeup of what happened. I can’t do my own full recap right now because that would take even longer than the meeting itself–which lasted about five hours from when it was supposed to start to when it eventually ended–but basically it was big, crowded, and exciting in a nerdy “small world” type of way. The longer you’ve been around, the more faces become familiar and the easier it is to see the drama in handshakes and conversations, even if you only have a little piece of the puzzle.

To put it briefly, one thing that became clear over the course of the meeting was that the party bosses were not equipped to run a truly democratic body. They were used to the party leader holding enough proxy votes to overrule any vote in the room, and they did not know how to quickly count a vote with hundreds of people actually in attendance. There’s really no clear way of knowing whether that the vote total cited in the article was accurate, and there are about 200 votes unaccounted for, more than the reported margin of victory.

I was attending not as a member of the county committee (you need to collect signatures, and I do not like to bother people at their homes – always willing to talk, rarely to knock), but as an observer/supporter of the New Kings Democrats, a formerly little reform group that I joined only a couple years ago in response to the national hellfire that’s been raging ever since. It’s mostly run by people much more dedicated and knowledgeable than I am, and I basically do small things to help out. I have one of their shirts, and on the back it says “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE,” but I never really agreed with that, because too many members of the group where white and almost all of them were young. Last September, it was mostly (but not only) those types of people getting up and yelling every time the party leader and his team tried to subvert democratic process, and it didn’t look all that much like democracy (though the point the reformers were making was good and valid).

Last night, there were over five hundred committee members in attendance, and people of a wide variety of backgrounds and ages were yelling, booing, and speaking about the process being a sham. That is somewhat more in the direction of what democracy looks like. I think in two years there may well be a legitimate vote, and then it will look even more like democracy. This means that sometime soon it will be that case that when judges and local politicians are appointed a wider group of people will have a chance to weigh in and ask questions of right and wrong, not just loyalty to power. This will matter because these judges and politicians will have power over people, and the chance to rise to more power, and some will handle this more responsibly than others

One phrase I hear a lot these days is “nothing matters,” and what it usually means is that things matter very much to a lot of people but not to the people in power. Giving more power to people to whom things matter makes things matter more. There are a lot of ways to do this but when you see one you can do then it is good to do it.

Reading Recommendations

This essay by Becca Rothfeld in The Baffler got at something I had been thinking about for a while, about the pressure to compartmentalize individual perception of societal problems as personal things to work through so that society is off the hook. It also has a lot of feminist analysis that I lack. Also it is (tongue-in-cheek) anti-meditation and anti-plant, and I do like those things, but I think that’s performative to make a bigger point. I’m always hesitant to recommend theory-driven stuff because I’m not well-versed in it and I fear I might be unwittingly going down a wrong path, which is one reason I’m a little more comfortable with things like local politics where results seem more concrete and broad directionality seems easier to assess. So tell me if I’m wrong to think this is good. But I thought it was good.

This book by Celeste Ng had a name that I thought of when I wrote the title to this newsletter update. I like the title of her book, Little Fires Everywhere, I heard it was good, I have a copy I have been meaning to read, I like what she writes online, and I had a good interaction with her on Twitter once. So I am recommending it.