In his The Culture of the Cold War , Stephen J. Whitfield quotes the chairman of the Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in the State of Washington as saying, “If someone insists that there is discrimination against negros in this country or that there is an inequality of wealth, there is every reason to believe that person is a communist.” That was 1947, but the practice of censure and surveillance of people for simply stating the obvious has not abated.
Perhaps the continued use of illegal surveillance should come as no surprise. While the more flagrant displays of discrimination against “negros” have become less frequent, the actual occurrence of obvious and institutionalized racism continues. As to the “inequality of wealth,” you have to have been living under a rock for the past 30 years to not know why thousands of people across the country and around the globe are taking to the streets.
The past “scares” and the current attempts to defame the protesters highlight how stating the obvious can often be the most radical thing one can do. They also highlight how little content there is to usual ascriptions of the word “radical.” The idea of ‘stating the obvious’ carries with it something more than merely stating a fact. Usually that extra flavor is a normative spice; when one states that a thing is obvious, one intends to convey the idea that one’s audience should already be willing to ascent to the statement. There is another flavor that ‘stating the obvious’ can have above the statement of a fact, one with a descriptive rather than normative spice. This use of ‘obvious’ intends to convey to one’s audience not only the idea that a thing is a fact and that one knows it, but that the person denying the fact knows that it is a fact. We are all radicals and the term has no meaning, or none of us are and the term is a red herring.
There’s been a lot of debate lately about whether the Occupy movement should be rallying around a common ideology or at least some specific policy goals. My first instinct was to hope that the movement represents a move towards imagining alternatives to global capitalism. That is not likely, and so, remained but a hope. My second instinct was to think that it would be a good thing for the Occupy movement to rally around a set of ideas and goals that fell far left of what today passes for center. That instinct is, I think, closer to a potential reality. The movement is youth-dominated, and any hope of real change lies with younger people.
But any hope of real change is still only a hope, and the course from mere hope to real change is a winding and uncertain one. I’m beginning to think that the movement’s attempt to resist the urge to centralize opinions into a distinct set of goals is the best policy. It is enough, it is radical enough, that the movement has stated the obvious. The most probable potential reality that anyone in the movement is hoping for is one in which the debate has changed so that the obvious is not radical. My particular political hopes have their best chances at fulfillment in a society in which political debates have changed in that way.