Bert Garskof on the Obama ‘Movement’ : Shoot Where the Ducks are

Turning the Obama campaign into a real movement: Get your ducks in a row.

Ducks in Flight:

The Obama campaign has often been described as the Obama Movement. Why? Because of the huge number of young people, students and others who flocked to work for Obama and what he promised — change.
By Bert Garskof / The Rag Blog / November 10, 2008

In 1964 I was Middlesex County, New Jersey, Chairman (not yet a “Chair-person”) for “Citizens for Johnson-Humphrey.” I was asked by the regular party chairman to come to his home on election night to watch the results come in. After the victories were reported and the cheering over, the old-time long-time state chairman leaned back in his chair and told me something I have never forgotten. He said with reference to political work, “Shoot where the ducks are!”

Working class, new working class, hippies, students, women, African-Americans, young people. These and others have been suggested as possible flocks over the last century or so. What has been the sign that has lead various parties, groups, sects, factions, fractions, or coalitions to a constituency on which to focus their energies, their theorizing, and hopes? Whom to target? Whom to go after or even, whose lives should we imitate? The latter might be labeled the “be a duck decoy, and they will come to you,” approach. At the beginning, what led Marx to bank on the working class? What led the late 1960s, organizers of the quickly proven wrong, “Free Vermont Movement;” to decide to leave the friendly streets of New York for the grass-y fields of Vermont? Or theorists to wonder about the new working class of white-collar workers? The list that could go on.

In most instances, I think that what led hopeful organizers to their constituencies may be expressed in another aphorism, this one with no attribution as far as I know, “Without motion there can be no movement.” That is, we have asked, “where is there noticeable dis-order in what part of the mass and complexly organized population?” Amongst all the people whose lives are otherwise ordered and integrated within the exploitative capitalist system who are at least partially bursting out from their assigned and yet self-imposed confines?

At this time in the United States, as the depth and complexity of economic crisis is only beginning to become apparent, and as war has drained our resources and exposed our weakness, the Obama candidacy arose and separated itself from unexciting recent elections. Kerry and Gore were candidates whose virtues may have been many, but whose campaigns were fueled for the most part by the usual combination of paid professionals and party regulars.

The Obama campaign has often been described as the Obama Movement. Why? Because of the huge unprecedented number of young people, students and others who flocked to work for Obama and what he promised — change. They are not a Movement. Not now. Not yet. They are in motion. Mobilized by hope and by the chance to participate in a historic moment – one described by Thomas Friedman as “The End of the Civil War.”

To become a movement, the adherents must stay involved and active even though the task it essentially was mobilized to accomplish has been accomplished. It must come to articulate a theory and practice that expresses change more fundamental than electoral change is able to bring about. It must transmute itself so that it becomes one constituency in a broad-democratic worldwide movement to replace Capitalism before Capitalism destroys itself and the rest of us.

A tall order or an impossible dream – which it is, does not matter. For now, the question is more limited, the scope perhaps more manageable. What can we do now to move ahead? Not exactly a small or unimportant question.

I cannot any longer avoid looking at who “we,” is? I intend until corrected by practice for “we” to be broadly defined as leftists. We cannot afford any longer to fight the battles of the 19th and 20th centuries. We need to use what we have learned to move in the present, informed by but without the weight of our own history. Those who understand the current world in terms of the scourge of capital and who hold a vision of a communal/democratic replacement must act as a “we” and act as organizers. There are too many people in motion for us to batter each other with words or for that matter to batter the Democrats or Nader with words. There is good work to be done.

The call for change resonates with our ducks. They moved from the comforts of cynicism and me-ism into action. There is among all of these actors a range of understanding of what is meant by the oft-repeated Emma Goldman quote, “If voting meant anything, they would make it illegal.” Some who worked for Obama are not yet there. They believe that, as it were, the leopard could change its spots. Many who got involved know the limited gains possible within the electoral/two party system and its government. Before Obama, many had worked in free-swinging campaigns against this or that injustice or third party building and settled on lesser goals.

We must organize among the bright- and experience-dulled eyes and all others who for whatever reasons have placed their hopes on and committed their time to Obama. To look at what must be done we must examine Obama himself and the people he mobilized as one inter-locked system. Obama nurtured grass roots volunteerism. He got it. He expressed a vision of grass-roots democratic change. So do we. Change from the bottom up; yet he is now at the top. We must insist on a seeming paradox: The top is the bottom. Hundreds of thousands flocked to this man and this notion. We of the Left must take the “word” for the possibility. The vision — in every ward, town, county, whatever unit can be traversed, say, in 90 minutes — encourage the birth of a group to decide on issues, positions, priorities and to forge an ongoing, working two-way communication with Obama. (The internet may give us virtual groups in addition to geographically defined groups.)

Perhaps we can think of these emerging groups as, (say) New Haven Voices for Change (VC). Each VC group would earn the right promised in the abstract, would earn the right to this two-way communication. I cannot imagine all of the problems and permutations opened up by this vision. I think we who might see this the way I do, and probably have already thought of it and who probably have thought more deeply, ought to get together to think collectively. However, I would also encourage anyone who sees this potential to go ahead and start. You will quickly know more about this than I do or than any collection of people theorizing same.

How to find, how to define, how to keep involvement, how to use our voices to share power (we must dare) with our President, all only must be dimly perceived without the practice that will clear our sight and define and redefine our options. I hope we open up a discussion or better yet, try it.

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3 Responses to Bert Garskof on the Obama ‘Movement’ : Shoot Where the Ducks are

  1. Anonymous says:

    So – is shooting the ducks where they are something akin to “talking to people where they’re at”?

  2. Just got back from the Colorado River; beautiful day, and read this article. Interesting that the duck analogy was used.

    Every day when I go to the river, I take a big bag of submarine sandwich buns. The ducks are always cruising around – out in the middle or around the edges looking for something to nibble.

    The ducks completely ignore me UNLESS I start breaking up one of the buns and tossing it out on the water. Now they start hooting and hollering; they rise up from the water – fly and dive-bomb the floating bread.

    I watch the ‘pecking order’ do its magic; I have to toss to the ‘right’ many times because the ‘lesser ducks’ are driven off and away from the bread. They quickly pick up the bread while the others come on a dead heat ‘swim’ to intercept the crumbs.

    I used to toss 2 or 3 huge buns; watching how they ate and reacted to each other and the food.

    One day I was down to my last bun; I broke it up smaller – same thing happened, and I started up the beach to the steps because I had nothing more to give.

    What was amazing was all the ‘lesser ducks’ came tagging right up the hill after me; the ‘higher order’ still floated in the water quacking their butts off!

    After doing this for 8 years now, the same ducks ‘know me’ – they’ve learned my habit since I started it July 26, 2000. They know I’ll toss a couple buns out; the third is usually the ‘last one’, and that’s when they come closer to me than at any other time during the feeding session.

    Today I decided to play a new game; I broke the bun – dropped ALL of the pieces AT MY FEET, and only about 3 ‘brave’ ducks came up to my feet to eat – all were the ‘lesser ducks’ – the ones that have the hardest time coping with the ‘big bossy ducks’.

    I started to laugh; I was learning a lesson about humans; learning a lesson about what had made Jesus, the man, so sought after.

    So, after driving home and pondering all of this, I find this article and it strikes me that in politics possibly SHOOTING where the ducks are, might mean SHOOTING FOOD OR INSPIRATION – SOMETHING TO DRAW THE DUCKS IN YOUR DIRECTION because ‘shooting to kill the ducks’ who are seeking food and would be your loyal followers would be a bit insane.

    Trick is; you have to identify the ducks that actually will follow you – you have to know how close they’ll come – how much will they TRUST you, and in my case it has taken since July 26, 2000 to get THREE DUCKS (who might not even be the same ducks; just look the same), to ‘eat at my feet’.

    Given that NO ONE COULD DO WORSE THAN GWB UNLESS IT WAS OSAMA BIN LADEN HIMSELF running this country, I’m thinking we are ALL HUNGRY DUCKS – we are all going to have to TRUST we will be fed, and that the bread isn’t POISONED.

    Thankfully, people aren’t quite as vulnerable as REAL ducks are, so I’m sure more are going to MAKE THE BUNS and eat them (or sell them) rather than casting the crumbs out to study the nature of some water birds.

    Tomorrow is the day I take peanuts to the chipmunks who live in the rocks next to the river; now they’re a crafty bunch and they don’t trust me one little bit! So after 8 years of feeding these fellas, I’ve learned that it won’t EVER MATTER IF WE GET THE BEST PRESIDENT IN THE WHITE HOUSE, there will always be people who are like those chipmunks; they’ll take the wel-fare checks and unemployment checks, but they will NEVER TRUST the very system that feeds them.

    Maybe that’s why no one ever says to ‘shoot where the chipmunks are’…….

  3. Anonymous says:

    A couple (perhaps, picky?) thoughts:
    – Let’s not “shoot” any ducks (besides the obvious violent imagery, it also conjures up Dick Cheney’s mis-adventure). Yuck, on both counts.
    – I’m not a duck: I’m a woman.
    A person concerned about racism; the environment; jobs; children; reproductive rights; water quality; election reform; media exploitation and propaganda; the U.S. military budget; and SO MUCH more!! I check many boxes.
    And I look forward to working with people who share my (many) interests. Hard to think that ONE organization would serve all of those purposes.
    A loose collection of like-minded organizations; a network, say, would be great.
    Where our interests overlap, is where we join forces to create change. Power in numbers.
    I dislike the idea that I’m (or anyone else is) the “target” of a “lefty” organizer looking for his next project. That I’m merely a member of some well-defined consitutency, waiting to be moved this or that direction.
    Let’s get rid of the old organizing paradigms (didn’t Obama’s campaign teach us that?) and let’s move forward to do what we know is needed.
    Let’s help ALL people find the power to change their lives right where they live- at home (domestic violence?), with family (child-rearing? schools, education?), with friends, neighbors, co-workers, and faith groups (social justice, labor organizing?).
    Just a few ideas.
    I’ll be interested to see who this discussion develops.

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