Tabs Open #37: There Must Be A Spark In Little Men

Since 2003 there has existed a sport called “chessboxing” which is, unsurprisingly, exactly what it sounds like. Competitors alternate rounds of boxing and chess, with a winner declared by knockout or by checkmate, whichever occurs first. Despite originating as a jokey piece of performance art, it forms a tidy little juxtaposition of brain and brawn for the spectator.

In my view the fight to win something like Medicare for All is akin to a chessboxing match. We are going to have to be clever and strategic in our approach and our policy-making, yes; we will also have to be willing to drag our opponents into the proverbial ring and slug it out.

I made the above video (hi, everyone who’s never seen me or heard me talk before) as part of the Medicare for All campaign’s #DontBargainWithOurLives Day of Action. The thrust is that unions should fight like hell to get M4A done because once healthcare is off the bargaining table, labor can focus its energies on other fights instead of fighting for scraps or “benefits” that still amount to the cost of an arm and a leg for workers.

But to even get to that point a lot of union workers—myself included—will have to fight not just a Republican White House and Senate, but our own “progressive” leaders. My union’s president, Randi Weingarten, is about as cozy with corporate politicians as it’s possible to be; accordingly, she has come out swinging against the “false choice” of Medicare for All. It’s par for the course for Weingarten, who despite heading up a teachers’ union was on stage trading jokes with Rahm Emanuel the week Chicago teachers went out on strike against him in 2012.

So it’s a daunting thing to think about. All these powerful forces arrayed against providing the barest shreds of humanity to people. But that doesn’t mean there’s no power in us, either. I was reading some John Steinbeck this week and this bit from The Moon is Down struck me:

I am a little man and this is a little town, but there must be a spark in little men that can burst into flame.

The nice part is knowing that there isn’t just one little man carrying the spark. There are lots and lots of people all doing the same. Organizing all those sparks into a flame is the tricky part.

But it is possible! It is, and at quite a scale, too. Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the WTO protests here in Seattle, and while there is a certain connotation of unseriousness and frivolity to the idea of Seattle protests, I think it’s important to note that the WTO actions didn’t earn that reputation. Emphasis mine:

Our aim was “to physically and creatively shut down the WTO.” We weren’t interested in routine and largely symbolic arrests; as much as possible, we wanted to prevent the Ministerial meetings from happening.

Organizers with significant experience from the direct action anti-nuclear movement played leading roles in shaping DAN’s approach. As a result, the core features of our action plan were adopted from that movement. One – which was controversial in planning discussions and became even more so later – was a set of “action guidelines” to which all participants were asked to agree: no violence, no weapons, no use of alcohol or illegal drugs, and no destruction of property.

80,000 people got out in the streets—not for the sake of being in the streets, but to shut down an international event. I think that’s instructive. They didn’t achieve everything they were aiming for; what single event ever has? The point is to keep organizing and use the extant momentum to win more each time. I think we have that chance with Medicare for All right now. And not the wishy-washy, “we’ll get there eventually” strategy advanced by a number of leading presidential candidates, either. If you’re going to win in this world you need to identify the kind of world you want to live in and work backward from there, not try to envision a marginally better world from what incremental gains (if any) have already been made.

Alright, off the soapbox. Unrelatedly a buddy and I have been working on doing some songwriting together for the past couple weeks, and boy is that a brain-breaking exercise for someone who has only ever written prose with the exception of a half-dozen clumsy poems over the years. But I am (so far) enjoying the creative challenge of it all, the same way I’ve found as an adult that I like doing math, something I detested and believed impossible for most of the rest of my life.

I realize where it sounds like this is leading and lol no I am not sharing any of that songwriting effort here. But my friend and I have been comparing notes about songwriters we like and find impressive. A number of them—Tyler Childers, Jason Isbell, Sam Beam, for example—have already been shared in here. Here’s two others I don’t think I’ve covered.

Sean Rowe:

That voice is like a coal train running you over in the middle of the woods.

And here’s John Moreland:

I’m so damn good at sorrow, too, John.

This time next week I’ll be out in the redwoods looking for myself. There may or may not be an on-schedule issue; if it’s the latter, I’ll aim to squeeze one in sometime before Christmas.

‘Til then,