Monday, June 10, 2013

The Lonely Individual

In my latest reading of W.A. Swanberg's Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, which is about six-time Socialist candidate for President Norman Thomas, I saw example after example of Thomas alienating people whenever he took a stand.

Thomas was opposed to U.S. intervention into World War II, for he thought that it promoted British and American imperialism abroad and the repression of civil liberties at home (as occurred during World War I).  Thomas himself was not a member of the largely right-wing isolationist America First Committee, but he did speak before it, and Thomas supported America First-er Charles Lindbergh in the hope that Lindbergh's fame would attract more people to the non-interventionist stance; then, Thomas wrote a piece that criticized Lindbergh's controversial remarks about Jews.  After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Thomas reluctantly endorsed U.S. intervention into World War II.  And yet, Thomas was still critical: he opposed the internment of Japanese-Americans in prison-camps, he said that devastating Germany through bombings would set the stage for Stalin to take over Europe (which, at this stage, he considered to be a bad thing), and he thought that the post-war conferences were enabling the major powers to dominate the world, when Thomas favored a more democratic set-up.  After World War II, Thomas met with right-wingers to find some way to fight international Communism.  Yet, even though Thomas was told that the anti-Communist Chiang Kaishek of China had surrounded himself with Socialists, Thomas, unlike a number of right-wingers, was skeptical that aid to Chiang did much good.

Through all of this, Thomas alienated people.  His non-interventionist stance alienated a number of Leftists, who thought that the U.S. needed to fight the Fascist threat abroad.  Thomas was criticized for associating with the America Firsters, as if Thomas had Fascistic sympathies, but then a number of America Firsters objected to Thomas' criticism of Charles Lindbergh's comments about the Jews.  When Thomas reluctantly endorsed U.S. intervention into World War II, he alienated the leftists who were non-interventionists.  Thomas differed from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) because he was opposed to the internment of Japanese-Americans into camps, whereas the ACLU chose not to object to the internment policy.  When Thomas after World War II met with right-wingers because of his common-ground with them in opposing Communism, leftists were critical of that move on Thomas' part.  And yet, Thomas did not see eye-to-eye with the right-wingers, on certain issues.

That's Thomas on foreign policy!  On domestic policy, Thomas was managing to alienate labor unions, a key element of political liberalism!  On page 264, we read that Thomas "criticized union featherbedding, union racism, union demands for excessively high wages while soldiers fought for a pittance, union opposition to labor-saving devices, exorbitant initiation fees and high union dues, and the union habit of favoring friends and punishing enemies in the awarding of jobs" (page 264).  Thomas lamented that the labor adviser to the War Production Board had "an almost dictatorial power" (Thomas, as quoted on page 264).  On page 278, we read that Thomas was "disturbed...about union leaders who laughed off the corrupt practices of employers as long as union employe[e]s got fat wartime checks and double time for overtime."

Thomas was not an effective politician, for he could not form coalitions that well.  Reinhold Niebuhr, long a friend of Thomas and a participant in the leftist movement, split from Thomas because he felt that many Socialists made the perfect the enemy of the good, when sometimes one needed to go with an imperfect option because it was better than the alternatives.  But Thomas did get to air his opinions through his column and (if I recall correctly) his radio commentary.  Thomas also did not hesitate to contact government officials with his concerns, and sometimes they were receptive to his ideas, whereas other times they were not.

One area in which I can identify with Thomas' experience concerns the loneliness that comes with being an individual.  Thomas thought for himself.  In the process, he had a hard time seeing completely eye-to-eye with others, even people who were in his own ideological camp.  I'm not sure how this affected his friendships----he was an affable and a giving person.  But it inhibited his political success.  In my case, one reason that I have difficulty forming friendships with people is that I like to talk about politics and religion, and it's hard for me to form bonds with people with whom I disagree.  Moreover, I, like Thomas, tend to be an individual, and so it is rare that I would say "I think that, too" when someone makes a comment, or that someone would say that about my comment.  But perhaps I can be affable and giving, as well as find common-ground with people on other things, such as movies or TV shows.

Another issue that comes to my mind is political perfectionism.  Thomas appears to have had a hard time latching on to any political figure or program because they did not meet his standards.  And I don't think that Thomas wanted to see absolute perfection before he could commit to a figure or program, but he had a hard time supporting what he considered to be injustices.  Thomas was not being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian, for he opposed things that he considered to be dangerous, even if they overlapped with his ideology in areas.  It's hard to pick the lesser of two evils, when both options have their weaknesses.  Yet, what other choice is there?  Third-parties don't get enough votes to be effective, so one has to pick either the Republicans or the Democrats if one wants his or her vote to count.  In my case, I side with the Democrats because I fear that things could be much worse under the Republicans, but I'm not satisfied with elements of Democratic policy.  But what can I do?  One thing that I can do, perhaps, is to write my opinions on my blog, regardless of whether they agree with or differ from the two political parties.  Maybe that's one way to influence people.

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