ABOUT THE NEWS- LETTER
RADICAL MIDDLE, THE BOOK:
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Issue No. 55 (June 2004) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Four Key Values
+ Any Caring Person =
Radical Middle Manifesto
A Politics, a History, a Memoir
by Mark Satin
I. A Politics
Slowly at first, and now in growing numbers, from kitchen tables to nonprofit organizations to corporate boards, Americans are turning away from the politics of bickering and division and working out a new politics -- a politics of creative problem-solving.
It would have us come up with solutions to public issues that are thoughtful enough, clever enough, and inclusive enough, to bring people and factions together.
It would dare to suggest real solutions to our biggest problems -- but it wouldn’t lose touch with the complex facts on the ground.
It would encourage us to be as many-sided as we really are -- practical and visionary, mature and imaginative, sensible and creative, all at once.
You can describe it as an increasingly coherent “radical middle” politics, and a growing political movement, but it’s not necessarily so elaborate. It is an attitude, an impulse, a mood. You’ll know it when you see it.
If you see pundits shouting half-truths at each other on cable TV -- or demonstrators with simplistic slogans on their picket signs (“Stop the Racist War!,” “Bush the Baby Killer’s Helper!”) -- or politicians spending years in cushy office without ever finding the courage to propose real, long-term, sustainable solutions to our most pressing problems -- then you know you’re very far from the radical middle.
But when someone on your school board suggests that schools need better teachers, and that that means giving school principals the right to hire and fire teachers and set their pay -- then the radical middle is in plain view. You’ve got someone coming up with a bold and constructive goal, better teachers, and a practical means for carrying it out, empowering individual schools (see RM #23, p. 1).
When a community activist addresses a problem in your community -- and instead of scapegoating government or business, proposes a solution to the problem that involves working with city hall or the business community -- then you’re seeing radical middle politics first hand. Because the radical middle is not about bashing government or business. It is about learning to listen to everyone, learning to work with everyone, and learning to build on everyone’s best insights.
When a politician proposes an approach to universal health care that would cover everyone -- every single American -- and would take full advantage of preventive and alternative medicine, but would build on privately-run insurance plans, then you’re seeing radical middle politics.
Here again, you've got a bold, radical goal (universal health care), but you’re getting there without setting up a bureaucratic National Health Service. And you’re saving money by creatively building on many people’s interest in preventive and alternative health care measures (see RM #22, p. 1).
When your kid comes home carrying a huge new textbook about global history, a book that helps him or her see the U.S. as neither a Racist Imperialist Demon nor God's Gift to Mankind, but in glorious cultural, economic, environmental, and political context -- then you’re seeing radical middle politics. Because it’s a politics for people with the imagination and the humility to see themselves as part of a much larger whole (see RM #22, p. 5).
And if your best friend comes to you saying she’d like to run for office on a platform consisting of creative policy prescriptions that are nevertheless very grounded and responsible (and affordable), and wondering whether you might be interested in helping run her campaign -- then you’re not only seeing radical middle politics. You are being invited to help create it.
For it is by no means a “done deal.” It is a politics in process.
Liberalism and conservatism, Marxism and anarchism, are all European political philosophies. Radical middle politics -- with its combination of quintes- sentially American creativity and quintes- sentially American pragmatism -- may turn out to be our first home-grown political philosophy.
To succeed, though, it needs your efforts. And the efforts of all caring Americans.
Idealism without illusions
Politics is stuck in America today. We need to break through the stale debates and self-serving non-solutions that are coming from both political parties, and we need to do it without ending up at the “mushy middle,” where there's no direction or principle.
That's where the radical middle comes in.
The radical middle is an attempt to break out of that stuckness in a fresh and principled way. It consists of everyone who’s bold and yet savvy enough to want idealism without illusions -- a fresh and hopeful vision that doesn’t fall into the trap, as many leftists do, of looking back to chestnuts from the counter-culture of the Sixties and Seventies, such as socialist economics or neo-anarchist democracy or a wildly optimistic view of human nature (see RM #12, p. 1).
The radical middle looks to the present and future. It says we live in a new era dominated by high technology and “knowledge work” and disappearing borders, and we need a politics that’s appropriate for our new time.
We need a politics that’s “radical” in the sense that it addresses fundamental public policy issues in ways that are honest and imaginative and creative -- but “middle” in the sense that it doesn’t aspire to overthrow corporate capitalism or representative democracy. It is committed to finding practical, humane, and thoroughgoing answers to the very real problems of American institutions and corporate capitalism.
Call it the experienced person’s alternative to politics-as-usual and bitter street protest.
Some political movements barely twiddle the dials of the status quo. Others confuse idealism and hope with trying to breathe new life into the crude anti-Establishment verities of the Sixties. The radical middle is different still. It trafficks in thoughtful idealism and informed hope -- idealism without illusions.
"Four Key Values"
The radical middle movement is phenomenally diverse. But when you look at what everyone who might be called radical middle is saying and doing, you’ll discover we share four goals. I like to call them our Four Key Values:
-- maximize choices for every American (and for the U.S. as a whole) as much as possible;
-- guarantee a fair start in life to every American;
-- maximize every American’s human potential as much as possible; and
-- be of genuine help to everyone in the developing world.
Put these values together and you can see how the radical middle draws holistically on our entire political tradition.
Each value is a sort of updated version of an aspect of our 18th century political heritage -- liberty, equality, happiness, and fraternity, respectively.
You could say that each value pays homage to (even as it radically updates) a different industrial-era perspective -- conservative, liberal, humanistic, and evangelical, respectively.
Don't tell the ACLU, but you can even see aspects of the Christian faith (or any world faith) in them -- I would say peace, grace, joy, and love, respectively.
Four values, one vision
The Four Key Values are not just provocative abstractions. You can use them to identify what more and more of us are beginning to want, and why:
Maximize choices. In the postindustrial era, we’ve become better educated, more expressive, more self-reliant, and more individualistic. That’s a fancy way of saying we’ve learned more than our parents, we feel freer to say (and hold out for) what we want, we’re less haplessly dependent on our jobs and spouses, and we spend more time consciously shaping and re-shaping our personal identities.
As a result, we want public policies that can provide us with many choices in life, rather than one-size-fits-all government programs.
Take health care. Many of us are beginning to envision a universal health care system that would allow us to choose among a kaleidoscope of preventive and alternative health care options (see RM #22, p. 1).
Or take law reform. Those of us at the radical middle would see to it that many affordable choices were offered to folks in trouble -- from innovative kinds of mediation, to dramatically expanded small claims courts, to hands-on “problem-solving courts” (see RM #26, p. 3).
Besides expanding people’s choices, we’d have the government, itself, expand its policy choices. Take energy.
Instead of continuing to be dangerously dependent on Middle Eastern oil, or making a heroic stab in the dark at the most promising unproven energy alternative c. 2004, we’d have the government provide a substantial amount of support to each of seven very different energy paths on a continuing basis -- conservation, renewables, “clean” fossil fuels, hydrogen, nuclear, biobased fuels, and lifestyle change. We’d bring each to the fore whenever each is ready to meet our energy needs cheaply and safely (see RM #25, p. 1).
Give everyone a fair start. For Democrats and Republicans, this is a largely rhetorical commitment. For radical middle thinkers, it’s an absolutely essential commitment. Almost a choiceless one. No caring person wants to feel they’ve gotten as far as they have because others were held back.
What can be done? Plenty, once you see things with the imaginative but practical eye of the radical middle thinker-activist. From preschool through high school, we can pay maximum attention to providing kids with the Number One Thing they need in order to learn -- competent and inspired and empowered teachers (see RM #23, p. 1).
To give every economically deprived American a fair start, we can provide two things, and the sooner the better. First, a decent-paying job for every able-bodied person willing to work. (Government wouldn’t necessarily have to provide the jobs -- subsidies to private firms might suffice.) That means every kid would grow up in a home with at least one responsible, working parent in the economic mainstream. Second, we’d have government contribute to “individual development accounts” for every poor child. These could lead to one-time disbursements of $20,000 or more once the child reaches 18 (see RM #13, p. 1).
In higher education, we’d replace race-based affirmative action with affirmative action for the truly disadvantaged of every color and ethnicity. Why should the kids of elite lawyers who happen to be black or Hispanic be given a leg up over the sons and daughters of Teamsters or single moms who happen to be white or Asian (see RM #26, p. 1)? Our value commitment is to fairness for individuals, and we reject the far left’s apparent desire to see America officially turned into a balkanized battleground of competing racial groups (see RM #21, p. 1).
Maximize human potential. Pundits who enjoy seeing themselves as tough-minded like to sneer at the concept of “human potential.” It is said to be murky, squishy, even New Age. In fact, as developed by master American psychologists like Carl Rogers and Howard Gardner, it may be the most vital concept to enter the political arena in our lifetimes.
It proclaims that politics (or any human endeavor) is about more than the giving or getting of things. It is also about helping the human spirit flourish, or not flourish. It is about creating conditions for individual human beings to be constantly learning and growing.
Everyone I know at the radical middle is sensitive to this task and eager to take it on.
For example, we’d help corporations become better places to work -- and better corporate citizens -- by changing their cultures in a humane direction. We’d do this directly, by bringing in experienced but visionary consultants. We’d also do it indirectly, by pushing for visionary laws and regulations (see RM #20, p. 1).
We speak in a cautiously optimistic voice on biotechnology, as distinct from the fearful voice of the antiglobalists, in part because of the potential biotech holds for creating healthier crops and humans -- a potential that’s barely been tapped (see RM #10, p. 1).
Many of us would go so far as to reinstate the draft and make it universal, with military, homeland security, and community service options. We value absolute freedom -- but not absolutely. We also value the positive psychological and spiritual effects that a year or two of national service might have on young Americans (see RM #15, p. 3).
Help the developing world. The fourth value that defines those of us at the radical middle is we’re totally committed to helping other peoples around the world survive -- and flourish.
That doesn’t mean we feel a need to send them billions of dollars of aid out of some vague sense of guilt. It does mean we want to do whatever we can to be of use to them.
One way we can help is by supporting what I call free trade with a conscience -- that is, free trade that could benefit working people in developing nations. A North American or European market can often make a world of difference to farmers and small producers in Africa, Latin America, or Asia (see RM #6, p. 1).
Another way we can help is by supporting intervention, including armed intervention, to prevent humanitarian catastrophes abroad. Despite the quasi-pacifist outlook of the traditional peace movement, many of us see the push for humanitarian armed intervention as the real peace movement of our time; over six million innocent people have died in civil -- mostly genocidal -- wars since the early 1990s (see RM #5, p. 1).
As for terrorism, most of us support a two-track approach that typically runs afoul of left and right -- one track seriously vigilant against the harm terrorists might do, the other track tough on the socioeconomic roots of terrorism, so tough that it envisions a Marshall Plan for developing countries combining emergency aid, special attention to education, and special attention to building up local and world-class enterprises (see RM #19, p. 1).
So, there you have it: a quick over- view of the Four Key Values of the radical middle.
Coming of the creative class
Pollsters have established that radical middle views are emergent -- even, in some cases, dominant (see RM #25, p. 7). But where are those views coming from? Who holds them, and why?
By and large, they’re not coming to us from far-sighted politicians or a suddenly visionary media. Nor are they coming to us from political intellectuals in universities, or sullen denizens of cafes in Paris. They’re coming from a deeper source.
Who we are as a people is changing -- and that’s inexorably changing what we want and what we value.
As the 20th century began, most Americans were farmers and industrial workers. For the last four decades, a plurality of us have been service workers. An economy primarily dependent on farmers, industrial workers, and service workers will favor such norms as conformity, predictability, loyalty, and fitting in, and it’s not hard to see why. Those are the qualities you need in an industrial-era workforce.
It is not a matter of good people and bad people. Nor is it a matter of capitalists “oppressing” the rest of us. It is just that, if you want an industrial-era economy to succeed, then you need people to show up at work at a certain set time, perform repetitive tasks without too much acting out or daydreaming, and happily consume the standardized products the economy is great at churning out.
There are advantages to industrial-era rigidity. If you get good at it, you can help win two world wars and one cold war. Also, schooling can be mostly by rote, which makes it a lot easier to do. And families tend to stick together longer, since everybody’s roles are more defined; which is another way of saying that everybody’s choices are more limited.
As a young man, I spent some time in the industrial economy, so I don’t romanticize it the way some academics and antiglobalists do.
One of my jobs was working at an enormous cannery in Oregon as a member of the Teamsters Union. Dozens of cans a minute came rattling down long chutes, and I had to stand there and pick up four at a time, four at a time, four at a time, endlessly, and deftly place them in cardboard boxes which some other happy guy would lug out to the boxcars forever waiting in back.
By the time mid-morning rolled around, tears would involuntarily be rolling down my cheeks. Tears of boredom. The pay was good though.
I had another industrial-era job handling legal documents at the land titles office in Toronto. That job was less stressful, to put it mildly. I’d fold the documents in the mornings, and spend the afternoons putting them in hundreds of wooden drawers and army-green filing cabinets. About 15 guys worked there doing similarly interesting things.
Although one of my industrial-era jobs was “blue collar” and the other “white collar,” the dominant subjects of conversation were exactly the same at both: sports and sex. In that order. Our limited personal repertoires perfectly mirrored the narrow, suffocating nature of our supposed life’s work, which most of us never thought of leaving or even humanizing except in our wildest dreams. By the age of 30, most of us felt with a terrible certainty that our best days were behind us.
The industrial era is on its way out now, mercifully, I’d say, and in its place is what social scientists are calling the knowledge era.
It still includes farms, factories, and offices, of course. But most of the work done there is done far more creatively and systemically -- in part by making maximum use of high technology, and in part by making maximum use of employees’ own unique experiences and knowledge. To further enhance creativity, an ever-increasing amount of work is being handled by independent individuals and hyper-specialized small organizations.
So instead of hand-loading cans off assembly lines now, we do it with the help of extraordinary machines. Instead of shuffling around millions of documents, we get good at computers. Instead of impersonally processing medical patients, we’ve begun training doctors and nurses to really listen to their patients.
The knowledge era is, in sum, so different from the industrial era that it requires an entirely different sort of person to carry out its tasks.
If the industrial era favored norms like conformity and loyalty -- norms that helped industrial-era institutions function well -- then the knowledge era favors norms that help knowledge-oriented institutions function well. Our most essential knowledge-era norms include creativity, individuality, self-expression, curiosity about self and others and world, self-reliance, social service, and enjoyment of -- not just toleration of -- differences.
Put those norms together and you get the kind of person that might feel comfortable with the Four Key Values of the radical middle. In fact, you get the kind of person that might fight for them -- just as working people once fought for socialism or the welfare state.
Most of us aren’t there yet. According to urban economist Richard Florida (in his path-breaking book The Rise of the Creative Class, 2002), 43 percent of the workforce consists of the service class, and 27 percent consists of the industrial working class.
Only 30 percent consists of what many call “knowledge workers” and Florida prefers to call the “creative class.” These include people in science, engineering, architecture, education, the arts, and entertainment, as well as professionals in such fields as business, finance, marketing, law, journalism, and health care.
But that figure is up tenfold from what it was 100 years ago, and it’s continuing to climb. And it would be the height of arrogance to assume that, just because people are in the service or industrial sectors, they haven't adopted many of the norms that have fueled the creative class and the value commitments of the radical middle.
You can even argue -- as does futurist labor scholar Arthur Shostak -- that creativity and self-expression are just as necessary in the service and industrial sectors now as they are in the knowledge sector.
Still, it’s probably fair to say that knowledge workers, aka the creative class, constitute our most important class now, since our economy runs on knowledge now and depends for its lifeblood on creativity and innovation. As a result, the norms of the creative class -- which many in the industrial era looked down upon as bohemian or worse -- are becoming the accepted norms for society as a whole.
"The Caring Person"
The rise of knowledge workers and the creative class represents more than a change in lifestyle. It represents a change in what significant numbers of Americans want for themselves, their country, and the world.
Put the new norms of the creative class together and you get a new model or archetype of the Good American, whom I like to call the “caring person.”
The caring person is the carrier of radical middle politics, just as the bourgeoisie was the carrier of classical liberalism and the working class was the carrier of socialism (in Europe) and the welfare state (in the U.S.).
To see this clearly, it’s helpful to look at three competing archetypes of the Good American -- not just the caring person, but two archetypes from the industrial era that are still very much with us, the “self-aggrandizing individual” and the “self-sacrificing individual.”
We’ve all met versions of the self-aggrandizing individual. Self-aggrandizers are ambitious strivers. They get their primary identity from their occupation and the social status associated with that. They believe passionately in the concept of freedom, especially the freedom to accumulate material possessions. When Democrats try to picture Republicans, they often think in terms of the self-aggrandizing individual.
We’ve all met versions of the self-sacrificing individual, too. Self-sacrificing individuals are not personally ambitious -- and when they are, they try to hide it. They get their primary identity from their ethnic, racial, or religious affiliation or gender roles. They believe passionately in social justice and occasionally even fight for it. When Republicans try to picture Democrats, they often think in terms of the self-sacrificing individual.
The caring person is an archetype that embodies the norms of knowledge workers and the creative class.
Caring persons may or may not be personally ambitious, but they want their jobs to provide them with opportunities for personal growth and social relevance. They get their primary identity from the lifestyle choices they make and the values they consciously choose. They are equally committed to personal freedom and social justice, self-development and social change.
When caring persons try to picture Republicans and Democrats, they often think in terms of the self-aggrandizing individual and the self-sacrificing individual. But then they mentally kick themselves -- because they know they can’t get anywhere if they caricature their political opponents!
Caring persons are far more common than you might think. The administrators turning our professional schools into social change incubators are caring persons (see RM #15, p. 5). The consultants helping transnational corporations become more sensitive to the needs of consumers and poor people in developing nations are caring persons (see RM #8, p. 1).
If your child’s elementary school teacher volunteers to stay late to provide special tutoring, then that teacher is a caring person -- whatever the local teachers’ union may think. If your son or daughter joins the military because he or she wants to help America defend itself and develop the capacity to stop genocidal wars in developing nations, then he or she is without a doubt a caring person.
Who says we have no heroes today? Many caring persons are just that, though they’re not often in the camera’s eye.
The creative class and those who share its norms is expanding. Which is why the caring person is emerging. Which is why the radical middle is on the march.
II. A History
Over the last 40 years, U.S. political activists have spent billions of person-hours trying to tease relevant insights out of socialists, anarchists, and anyone deconstructionist and vaguely paranoid. We were so committed to attacking “capitalism” that we didn’t immediately appreciate the radical middle insights coming from pre-Reagan Era pioneers like Peter Drucker (see esp. Post-Capitalist Society, 1993, a synthesis of his socio-political writing going back to the 1950s), Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961), and Heidi and Alvin Toffler (The Third Wave, 1980).
On a deeper level, though, the radical middle political perspective has always been here.
If Thomas Jefferson is the liberals’ (and libertarians’) Founding Father, and George Washington is the conservatives’, and Tom Paine is the radicals’, then Ben Franklin is the radical middle’s.
According to Walter Isaacson’s surprise bestseller Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), Franklin was extraordinarily practical -- ran a fabulously successful printing business for 20 years, started innumerable community improvement associations. At the same time, he was extraordinarily creative -- invented bifocals, the lightning rod, and the Franklin stove.
He was a man of principle -- opposed colonial tax policies that would have benefited him personally, became a leader in the fight against slavery. Yet synthesis and healing were an art with him. He became our most ardent champion of religious tolerance. And better than anyone else at the Constitutional Convention, he was able to get the warring factions and wounded egos to transcend their differences and come up with a Constitution for the ages.
Franklin was hardly alone in the tenor of his views. You could even say that the years from 1770 to 1790 were the years of our first great radical middle political movement.
Surely the single most important and glorious radical middle document is the Federalist Papers (1787-89) -- James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay’s collected newspaper columns arguing that the freshly drafted Constitution should be ratified by the 13 states. In their eyes, the Constitution was both extraordinarily practical and admirably visionary, and their defense of it often relied on a characteristically radical middle blend of realism and vision.
Almost two centuries later, in the mid-1970s, forces began gathering for a second great radical middle political movement, the one we can see now on the horizon.
I was disillusioned; we all were. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Robert Ken- nedy’s assassinations were still reverberating in our souls; the New Left political movement had collapsed; even traditional liberalism had been discredited (because many social problems turned out to be impervious to the traditional liberal solution of “Just spend more money”).
There was a hunger for new political forces that could challenge the far right and the big government left.
Four forces appeared that are still with us, and each has something vital to contribute to the emerging radical middle movement:
-- Neoliberals proved you could be liberal on social and economic issues while at the same time lambasting outdated big-government policies and inefficient government bureaucracies, getting tough on crime, and going to bat for entrepreneurs.
Although there were some neoliberal Senators, the most influential neoliberal was Charlie Peters, recently retired editor of the Washington Monthly. Peters had been an evaluator of Peace Corps programs, and he thought -- why not start a magazine, written by talented young journalists (on tiny Peace-Corps-style stipends), that would evaluate all government programs and doings with the same fine-tooth comb?
Out of years of that kind of painstaking, unpretentious, real-world-only journalism came the neoliberal philosophy (Peters coined the term himself, in 1979).
The Democratic Leadership Council, an influential group of Democratic Party officeholders and operatives that for years has been trying to get the party to act more “centrist,” is often seen as neoliberal. But the poll-driven centrism of the DLC has little in common with the principled, liberalism-plus-common-sense perspective that Peters and his young journalists wrought.
-- Neopopulists proved that issues of social and economic class were still very much with us.
Some neopopulists came across like capitalist-bashers from the 1930s. But others proposed innovative, forward-looking, and admirably concrete remedies with a minimum of rhetoric.
For example, Yale Law School professors Anne Alstott and Bruce Ackerman proposed giving young people large one-time financial grants when they turned 21 (see RM #1, p. 1). And the Jobs For All Coalition proposed a variety of ways to ensure that every able-bodied person could find a well-paying job (see RM #13, p. 3).
-- Neoconservatives proved that you didn’t have to abandon your commitment to opportunity for all just because you finally understood that capitalism is more economically efficient than socialism, and personal responsibility a more efficacious outlook than a bottomless sense of entitlement and rage. They also proved, for better and worse, that national security requires a strong and supple military.
Although extreme neocons like Charles Murray and Richard Perle garnered most of the headlines, a more interesting set of neocons lurked beneath the radar screen. Political scientist Lawrence Mead hammered out an approach to public assistance that would have guaranteed generous payments to needy Americans so long as they met certain behavioral requirements, such as working or staying in school or attending job-training classes (see RM #7, p. 1).
And international development expert Lawrence Harrison argued that if nations want to prosper, then they have no choice but to adopt Ben Franklinesque cultural values like frugality, future-focus, work as central to the good life, education as the key to progress, and merit as central to advancement (see RM #19-A, p. 4).
-- Transformationalists proved that many of the passions of the counter-culture were essential to a brighter future --among them, women’s rights, racial healing, gay rights, the environment, holistic health, nutrition, animal rights, the fate of other cultures and peoples, and (not least) the psychological and spiritual well-being of Americans.
Few national politicians express a purely transformational point of view today. Congressman and 2004 Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) comes closest, except he’s probably even more clearly in the neopopulist camp. But transformational ideas and writers continue to deeply influence Americans from every walk of life.
Magazines ranging from Michael Lerner’s proudly intellectual Tikkun (a Hebrew word meaning “to mend, repair, and transform the world”) to the breathlessly with-it Utne Reader continue to propagate not just the ideas but the spirit of the old counter-culture. Self-help writers with a transformational edge, such as Jack Canfield, Jean Houston, Scott Peck, Neale Donald Walsch, and Marianne Williamson, reach millions of readers.
In their book The Cultural Creatives (2000), market researcher Paul Ray and psychologist Sherry Anderson make a credible case that 50 million “cultural creatives” are working their magic in the U.S. today -- 50 million people for whom the ideals of the old counter-culture burn brighter than ever (see RM #13, p. 6).
The radical middle movement is a product of the lessons taught by all four strands above.
True, some of those lessons are “radical,” some “moderate,” some “conservative” -- but that is just my point. The radical middle is not another niche on the old left-right political spectrum. It is a genuinely new and remarkably broad-gauged political synthesis.
That synthesis is anything but abstract. In RM #1-26 you’ve seen that radical middle thinking is leading to concrete and promising new approaches in areas ranging from economic policy to affirmative action to national defense.
And that’s nothing compared to what’s on the horizon. The greatest radical middle thinkers will almost surely come from the back end of Generation X and the full run of Generation Y -- young people born from 1970 on. Many of them appear to be as entrepreneurial as any libertarian might wish, as socially responsible as any progressive might wish, and as pragmatic as any moderate might wish -- all at once (see RM #18, p. 1).
III. A Memoir
Your life may have recapitulated that history perfectly, yet you may have been only vaguely aware of the underlying trends pulling you in certain directions. You were probably much more aware -- as I was -- of very private enthusiasms and confusions, dreams and disillusionments, aspirations and regrets.
Certainly I had no idea, when I started out as an activist in the 1960s, that I had embarked on a long march to what I’m calling the radical middle. All I knew was that my country had been brutalizing black people for hundreds of years, and had embarked on a senseless and self-destructive war in Vietnam, and I’d never forgive myself if I didn't do something. Anything.
So at age 18 I dropped out of school to go to Mississippi to work for civil rights for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, out of a tiny clapboard house in a little town called Holly Springs. Then, without missing a beat, I was a VISTA volunteer -- until they kicked me out for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. Then I was kicked out of a small Texas state university for the same reason. Then I was president of my college SDS chapter, and 19 percent of the students eventually joined, the highest percentage of student enrollment at any SDS chapter ever.
Life was proceeding faster than I could take it in. One day I gave a speech proclaiming I would never, never, never kill people in Vietnam. Students wept. A couple of weeks later I rubbed my eyes and found myself in Canada making good on my promise, and more. I co-founded and ran the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, the major group helping young American draft resisters come to Canada -- meanwhile writing one of my generation’s underground bestsellers, the Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada.
It was all such a blur at the time. When the Manual was published I was all of 21. There were moments I didn’t want to be anywhere but back in my hometowns (Moorhead, Minn. and Wichita Falls, Tex.), enjoying an American boyhood free of rage over racism and the war. Then again, there were moments I did more than I should have to help people in and around the violent Weatherman faction of SDS.
Eventually I got sick of the rhetoric that justified the violence, and turned to “New Age” political pursuits.
In a house trailer on an island off the Vancouver coast, with the sea for my front yard and Washington State's gorgeous Mount Baker shimmering in the distance and taunting me constantly (for I still couldn't return to the U.S.), I wrote a book called New Age Politics: Healing Self and Society for a small Canadian publisher. After President Carter gave amnesty in 1977 I took New Age Politics on the road, and the response at New Age gatherings, community events, fairs, bookstores, living rooms, and college campuses kept me going for two whole years.
The book argued that a “third force” was possible in the U.S., though neither the highly confident mainstream nor the hunkered-down left cared to hear that message at the time.
Thanks to my long tour I was able to help organize a national “post-liberal, post-socialist” political organization called the New World Alliance (1979-1983, R.I.P.). I was one of its first staff members. Then I started and ran an idealistic national political newsletter called New Options.
I didn't seek money from foundations -- I really wanted the publication to be grassroots from the word go. So I started it with gifts and loans totaling $90,000 from hundreds of people I'd met on my travels. After 10 years, New Options had become one of the largest independent political newsletters in the U.S.
I could have edited New Options forever. But, increasingly, I was becoming dissatisfied with my hyper-idealistic politics. By day I’d preach decentralism, economic self-sufficiency, cooperative living, the death of hierarchy and the “great man.” But when night fell I’d devour books on how to make free trade work for everyone, and prowl the West Wing of the National Gallery, full of world-class paintings by great men.
Finally I couldn't stand it anymore. I knew my views (and I personally) would benefit from engagement with the real world of commerce and professional ambition. The real world that was calling out to everyone so brassily in the early 1990s and that I’d avoided for so long.
So I stopped New Options and enrolled at New York University School of Law, and enjoyed nearly every minute of it as only an experienced, mid-career student can. Later I worked on multi-million-dollar legal cases for an arbitrator-mediator and then a business litigator.
My lifestyle was suddenly, um, different: uniformed doormen at my Rockefeller Plaza office building were calling me “Mr. Satin” and wishing me good morning. And sometimes I was able to do good in the world. I remember one case where, after a few intense days of researching and writing, we were able to make one Fortune 500 company pay six million dollars for what they'd done to the Hudson River.
Most of the time I was sleepwalking, though. It wasn't the law’s fault or even my employers’ fault. I just needed to be doing something more like what I’d spent the first 25 years of my adult life doing.
On my long midnight walks from Rockefeller Center back to my fancy apartment, I decided I would not only return to political journalism and activism, I’d bring together the lessons I’d learned from the three very different parts of my life’s journey.
From my New Left years I took a love of political struggle. From my New Age years I took a conviction that politics needs to be about more than endless struggle -- that responsible human beings need to search for reconciliation and healing and mutually acceptable solutions.
From my time in the legal profession I took an understanding (and it is no small understanding) that sincerity and passion are not enough -- that to be truly effective in this world one needs to be credible and expert.
Putting all three lessons together brought me, inexorably, to the radical middle.
Many Americans are living complicated lives now -- few of us have moved through life in a straight line. I think many of us would benefit from trying to gather and synthesize the difficult political lessons we’ve learned over the course of our lives. When we do, I think many of us will realize we’ve ended up where I have -- at the radical middle.
Mark Satin, an attorney and long-time political activist, is the editor of Radical Middle Newsletter and author of Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (Westview Press / Perseus Books Group, 2004, $19.95). Although he's sole author of this political-personal manifesto, it draws on the ideas of literally hundreds of thinkers and activists, many of whom are cited in the "Resources" sections of his book.
ABOUT THE RADICAL MIDDLE CONCEPT
GREAT RADICAL MIDDLE GROUPS AND BLOGS:
SOME PRIOR RADICAL MIDDLE INITIATIVES:
SOME RADICAL MIDDLE LESSONS:
SOME PRIOR WRITINGS BY MARK SATIN:
NOT JUST RADICAL MIDDLE: