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Cover Story: What is our next move? - Chess anyone? - The Gambit By Nathaniel Turner, Editorial Board


Note: We are pleased to welcome brother Nathaniel Turner as a member of the Editorial Board. His column ďThe GambitĒ will appear on a regular basis.

Gambit: 1.

An opening in chess in which a minor piece, or pieces, usually a pawn, is offered in exchange for a favorable position 2. a remark intended to open a conversation.

Iíve come to realize that Iím just a pawn on the chess board of life. Not complaining or anything, and I donít want you to feel sorry for me. Pawns are not powerless. True, we can only move forward, never backward, just one space at a time, and we donít have the same mobility as the big fancy pieces. Still, the pawn has its strengths. We can impede the flow of an adversary. Carry out guerrilla attacks with other pawns. Best of all, if we stay on the board long enough, we can develop into a coveted Queen and change the whole game!

So you see, low self-esteem isnít my problem. My problem is: Iím trying to figure out what my next move should be. Iím looking for a way to get more engaged in The Movement, even while holding down a full-time job, a wife, and three children. Here am I. Send me. There must be something more I can do.

And letís be honest, itís not like you donít need me. You need as many as pawns as you can get. Because the numbers just ainít there. You donít have enough chess pieces to effect any real social change.

Now, maybe youíre wondering: whatís with all the allusions to an idle game of chess when so much is on the line? Universal health care. Economic justice. War and Peace. Corporate media dominance. Environmental degradation. Xenophobia and on and on.

Well my answer to that is simple: ďThe game of Chess,Ē as Ben Franklin wrote, ďis not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions.Ē

This ancient Persian war game, Franklin argued, was a tool that could inculcate four indispensable habits of mind:


, which ďconsiders the consequences that may attend an action.Ē I call it vision or grand strategy. On the left, you can find deep insights but very little foresight. In fact, The Movement right now has about as much vision as Stevie Wonder. Actually, Stevie is one up on the left because heís figured out a way to sing to the masses and not just perform for the choir. Itís not that thereís a lack of clear values or goals being expressed. Itís precisely that virtually no strategy is apparent, one that delineates a path from here to there.


, ďwhich surveys the whole chess board or scene of action.Ē To be circumspect literally means to look around. It also means to carefully consider all circumstances and possible consequences, or at least as many as you can manage. In my travels on the margins of the U.S. left community, itís hard not to be struck by how insulated groups tend to be, often completely unaware of the initiatives of other groups. Itís like every group organizing around an issue thinks their issue is The Issue.

Moreover, in terms of becoming more attractive to the disillusioned and disengaged, progressives donít talk like ordinary people. They often donít look like ordinary people, which violates a fundamental tenet of even the most radical of radicals. Che Gueveraís writings on guerrilla warfare noted the importance of blending in with the common people.


, which is to ďnot make moves too hastily.Ē On this score, progressives can be forgiven for being hastily reactive at times, given the urgency of alleviating the suffering of people and the planet. But, when the left does make a move, it is incautious to project a sense of self-righteousness towards mainstream working people. Far too many passionate agitators on the left give off a palpable vibe that they despise ordinary folk - their religion, their entertainment, their food and their unwillingness to fight in the absence of viable and desirable alternative institutions, or at least a clear vision of what that would look like. I once had an exchange with a leftist blogger and asked him: If there was a magic button that could wipe out corporate America and the government overnight, would you push it? Without the slightest hesitation or caveat, he said: Yes! As if it didnít matter that millions of ordinary folkís livelihoods and sense of purpose would immediately evaporate without any means or resources to survive. To say nothing of the historical fact that revolution doesnít happen overnight. Social change, even if it culminates in a radical break from the past, takes generations to unfold.

And, finally, the most important lesson chess offers is learning ďthe habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs; the habit of hoping for a favorable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources.Ē

Thatís where I fall short - in the hope and perseverance department. But being the stubborn, faithful pawn that I am, Iím not content sitting on the back row or the edge of the board. I must move forward.

So, like I was saying: my problem is in figuring out what my next move should be. Iím looking for a way to get more engaged in The Movement, while holding down a full-time job, a wife, and three children. And Iím here to tell ya: my problem is your problem.

Hereís the problem (mine and yours), more specifically: despite the valiant efforts and determined commitment of many activists, as Michael Alpert has pointed out, ďdissent has come to mean traveling long distances, staying in difficult circumstances, taking to the streets in militant actions that highlight civil disobedience and street fighting, and even risking arrest and severe mistreatment. If we just pause a minute and think about it, it is obvious that this is a lot to ask of people at any time, much less as their first entry into activism.Ē

If youíre a college student, or single, or a tenured professor, or independently wealthy, maybe this isnít your personal problem. But, if you think about hose with serious family obligations, I ask with Alpert: ďHow many such folks are likely to join a demonstration that seems to demand as a prerequisite great mobility and to involve high risks as their initial step in becoming active?Ē

Another thing to consider on the outreach front is the obsession progressives seem to have with the Internet. The Internet is an amazing networking tool and can play an important role in raising awareness. But, the truth is: the only people reading progressive websites are other progressives.

Addressing these challenges are paramount because if our numbers donít grow, The Movement will have reached what Alpert calls ďplateau-ed dissent,Ē which poses no threat to elites. The threat comes only when elites know that The Movement has the capacity to replenish and keep growing.

So what does a married pawn who happens to be the father of two teenage daughters and a five-year-old son do?

If thereís one thing The Movement needs itís more strategic thinkers. In fact, itís not clear to me how well progressives understand the difference between strategy and tactics. For example, Saul Alinkyís book Rules for Radicals has an entire chapter on tactics but nothing on strategy. Randy Shawís insightful primer, The Activistís Handbook, has a chapter titled ďDonít Respond, StrategizeĒ but then goes on to discuss ďtactical activismĒ and strategy as if they were one and the same. Writing letters, protest marches, vigils, sit-ins, teach-ins, fasts - those are all tactics, the effectiveness of which are unclear.

But because Iím not a believer in re-inventing the wheel, Iíll continue to employ the usual tactics - when time and space allow. Meanwhile, Iím going to teach my kids how to play chess so they can learn how to think strategically and get in the practice of developing a long-term vision. Maybe Iíll even start a local chess club that can serve as way to draw more pawns to The Movement, engaging the uninitiated face-to-face.

Chess anyone? Editorial Board member Nathaniel Turner is a pseudonym for a Gen X writer, newspaper editor and activist.  He is a news analyst who offers commentaries on contemporary issues facing the progressive movements in the USA Click here to contact brother Turner.


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Issue 357
January 7, 2010

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Executive Editor:
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