The Marathon and the Sprint

I don’t make best-of lists at the end of the year, but the song I spent the most time listening to in 2019 was B-Movie by Gil Scott Heron:

It’s not as well known as his most famous song, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, and I can see why because it’s clear which song gives the quicker rush.

But they go very well together as book-ends.  Maybe the revolution will not be televised, but the counter-revolution will.  Just look at this year’s election season.

B-Movie is a long endurance run and The Revolution ba26c3f8167428e6e8323205cadb81fbWill Not Be Televised is a sprint.  They might seem opposites, but they really are alternating phases of political movements.  People get involved under the spell of the rush of a sprint, but you can’t really sustain that.  Those rushes always subside, and we talk about that ebb and flow in our teachers union movement.  If you’re in it just for the rush, you burn out and drop out.  If you can switch your pace from sprint to marathon and back, you can get real wins over the long haul, though not as many and as quickly as you want.

One book I would really recommend that captures this truth is Elaine Brown’s book a Taste of Power.  It’s a very sad but powerful story of the shift from the romance of the sprint to the – often abusive – relationship of the marathon.  The marathon hurts, but it becomes necessary as the counter-revolution kicks in.  Check out her website to see the evidence that she is still running today.

We at Organize 2020, the Racial and Social Justice Caucus of the North Carolina Association of Educators, just finished a multi-year marathon by winning the leadership positions of our state organization.  Last night we had a 6 hour long virtual dance party to celebrate on Zoom, and right now feels like a sprint.  But we all know that what we’re really celebrating is the opportunity to start another marathon when this rush subsides.

I’m blown away by B-Movie in so many ways, especially because it was released in 1981, just after Ronald Reagan was elected, at the dawn of the era that it is now common to refer to as “Neoliberalism.”  What’s so unusual to me about it is the way he nails the economic shift of a country moving from being producers to consumers under de-industrialization right as it’s starting.

What has happened is that in the last 20 years, America has changed from a producer to a consumer. And all consumers know that when the producer names the tune, the consumer has got to dance. That’s the way it is. We used to be a producer – very inflexible at that, and now we are consumers and, finding it difficult to understand. Natural resources and minerals will change your world. 

….and how he links that shift from producer to consumer to the phenomenon of nostalgia:

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can – even if it’s only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse – or the man who always came to save America at the last moment – someone always came to save America at the last moment – especially in “B” movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at -like a “B” movie.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you who our chief purveyor of nostalgia is – the former reality show star in the red hat – but nostalgia is bipartisan, as Democrats fall for a man whose only real appeal seems to lie in reminding people of Barack Obama.  Republicans aren’t the only ones who fear losing their religion.  On screen myths of what constitute “Electability” are also powerful forces that keep working people from realizing their potential power.  No wonder, as the song notes in its first stanza, so many don’t even vote, if they’re lucky enough to get the chance.

The end of the song redirects our attention from the movie screen to the world outside the theater, reminding us what is at stake:

As Wall Street goes, so goes the nation. And here’s a look at the closing numbers: racism’s up, human rights are down, peace is shaky, war items are hot. The House claims all ties. Jobs are down, money is scarce, and common sense is at an all-time low on heavy trading. 


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