Today's Activists Are Not Frederick Douglass Kind of Activists. We Can All Try To "Grow Up" Like Him

Photobucket "I at once felt myself in the present of an honest man — on whom I could love, honor and trust without reserve or doubt." ~Frederick Douglass after his first meeting with President Abraham Lincoln
A front page article from Sunday at Dailykos, Frederick Douglass: The activist who would not 'grow up', highlighted the greatness of Frederick Douglass as an effective model for activism. However, Douglass was also characterized as someone who had refused to "grow up" to advance his calling to abolish slavery in the process the article was rebutting a commentary made by Fareed Zakaria who "berated liberals for their criticisms of President Barack Obama" by urging them to "grow up". In my opinion, the commentary made by Fareed Zakaria has been used to paint a false equivalency of today's activists by comparing them with the likes of Frederick Douglass which in my opinion undermines the legacy of Frederick Douglass.
In my view, the majority of today's activists on the blogsphere are not anything like Frederick Douglass for a reason I will discuss further below. However, to give the "grow up" liberals remark made by Zakaria's a context, watch the first 4 minute of his Sunday program with partial transcript provided (bold emphasis mine):


Partial transcript

But first, here's my take. Over the last week, liberal politicians and commentators in America took to the air waves and OpEd pages to criticize the debt deal that Congress reached. But their ire was directed not at the Tea Party or even the Republicans, but rather at Barack Obama, who, they concluded, had failed as a president because of his persistent tendency to compromise. This has been a running theme ever since Obama took office.

I think that liberals need to grow up. As "The New Republic's" Jonathan Chait brilliantly points out, there is a recurring liberal fantasy that if only the president of the United States would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his poetry and enact his agenda.

In this view, write Chait, every known impediment to the legislative process - special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macro economic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public policy - are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. This does happen if you're watching the movie "The American President," but not if you're actually watching what goes on in Washington.

The disappointment over the debt deal is just the latest episode of liberal bewilderment about Obama. "I have no idea what Barack Obama believes on virtually any issue," Drew Westen writes in "The New York Times." Confused over Obama's tendency to take balanced positions, Westen hints that his professional experience, which is as a psychologist, suggests deep traumatic causes for Obama's pathology.

Let me offer a simpler explanation. Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best, the enemy of the good. Obama passed a large stimulus package within weeks of taking office. Liberals feel it should have been bigger. But, remember, despite a Democratic House and Senate, it just passed by one vote.

He signed into law an unprecedented expansion of regulations in the financial services industry, though it isn't one that broke up the large banks. He enacted universal health care through a complex program that was modeled after the Republican Mitt Romney's plan in Massachusetts. And he's advocated a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines tax increases with spending cuts.

Now, maybe he just believes in all these things. Maybe he understands that with a budget deficit that is 10 percent of GDP, the second highest in the industrialized world, and a debt that will rise to almost 100 percent of GDP in a few years, we cannot cavalierly spend another few trillion hoping that it will jump start the economy.

Maybe he believes that while American banks need better regulations, America also needs a vibrant banking system and that, in a globalized economy, constraining American banks alone will only ensure that the world's largest global financial institutions will be British, German, Swiss and Chinese. He might understand that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are smart people, who, in long careers in public service, got some things wrong, but also many things right.

Perhaps he understands that getting entitlement costs under control is, in fact, a crucial part of stabilizing our long-term fiscal situation and that you do need both tax increases and spending cuts - cuts, by the way, that are smaller than they appear because they all start from the 2010 budget, which was boosted by the stimulus.

Is all this dangerous weakness, incoherence, appeasement? Or is it just common sense?
Fareed Zakaria seems to think that what President Obama is and has been doing is a common sense approach to dealing with the reality of our current politicking discussing it further in the Time Magazine piece The Pragmatic President :
My bet is that the American people will see it as the latter. Obama's temperament was eloquently expressed by the late Bart Giamatti, a former president of Yale and former baseball commissioner, when he urged students not to fall prey to ideology from the right or left and to celebrate the democratic process that balances the two extremes. "My middle view is the view of the centrist," he said, before quoting law professor Alexander Bickel, "who would ... fix 'our eyes on that middle distance, where values are provisionally held, are tested, and evolve within the legal order derived ... from the morality of consent.' To set one's course by such a centrist view is to leave oneself open to the charges, hurled by the completely faithful of some extreme, of being relativistic, opportunistically flexible, secular, passive, passionless ... Be of good cheer ... To act according to an open and principled pragmatism, to believe in the power of process, is in fact to work for the good."
The premise of the Sunday front page article at Dailykos while making strong case for the hero Frederick Douglass was and is, it disagrees with the Fareed Zakaria's "grow up" connotation used on liberal activists while portraying the role of today's activists as more than the adults in the room. In fact, it tries to highlight by blending respectable activists with many of today's activists who show contempt for our nation's first Black President and those who characterize President Obama's presidency as a failed president to be the grown ups in the room who get things done like Frederick Douglass.

However, in my view it is difficult to consider many of the people who engage in progressive sites like Dailykos to be the Frederick Douglass type of 'activists' in any practical sense of the word because most don't think pragmatically as Douglass did. In fact, the extreme left has demonstrated time and time again that they would rather act against their best interests. They fail to understand the historic limitation of Presidencies but are ready to call for abandoning our President when the President tries to pass Health Care reform because it did not include the Public Option or when he pass financial reform because he did it without breaking up banks or when he compromise on the tax deal to get unemployment insurance with all the goodies because he did not raise taxes on the rich.

Frederick Douglass, a slave who escaped slavery to freedom and championed the abolitionist movement working within the political space afforded to him, acting like a grown up, pushed for anti-slavery policies all his life and was a pragmatic thinker who understood and appreciated Abraham Lincoln's vision of saving the Union first is the key to his life long dream of freeing the Colored men, abolishing slavery. Frederick Douglass understood without the Union being saved first, there was not going to be the Emancipation Proclamation therefore worked tirelessly to convince and assemble a negro army that were wrested from the enemy (confederate line) to give Lincoln the means and power to save the Union. Douglass' activism was not just taunting anti-slavery end results but the means to the end result by helping strategize a way on how Lincoln would be effective in his quest to save the Union and in the process make it possible to declare the Emancipation Proclamation.

I can not imagine or did not hear Douglass calling President Lincoln an appeaser or the kinds of names President Obama has been called for not making freeing slaves his key objective or motivation for wanting to win the civil war as Lincoln notes in his 1962 letter to Horace Greeley:
My paramount object in this struggle [the civil war] is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
In fact, Frederick Douglass understood Lincoln's long-term intention to abolish slavery without Lincoln stating it explicitly. Douglass' recollection of the first meeting with Abraham Lincoln, has been documented that recalls the respect and admiration Douglass had for President Lincoln:
Frederick Douglass first met with Mr. Lincoln in the summer of 1863 and as he later recalled "saw at a glance the justice of the popular estimate of his qualities expressed in the prefix Honest to the name Abraham Lincoln."1 Mr. Lincoln explained his policies on black soldiers and defended his incremental steps toward black rights. Unlike with many of his white abolitionist contemporaries, the proud former slave found no hint of condescension in President Lincoln's demeanor. Douglass later recalled:
I shall never forget my first interview with this great man. I was accompanied to the executive mansion and introduced to President Lincoln by Senator [Samuel] Pomeroy. The room in which he received visitors was the one now used by the President's secretaries. I entered it with a moderate estimate of my own consequence, and yet there was to talk with, and even to advise, the head man of a great nation. Happily for me, there was no vain pomp and ceremony about him. I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man, than in that of Abraham Lincoln. He was seated, when I entered, in a low arm chair, with his feet extended to the floor, surrounded by a large number of documents, and several busy secretaries. The room bore the marks of business, and the persons in it, the president included, appeared to be much overworked and tired. Long lines of care were already deeply written on Mr. Lincoln's brow, and his strong face, full of earnestness, lighted up as soon as my name was mentioned. As I approached and was introduced to him, he rose and extended his hand, and bade me welcome. I at once felt myself in the present of an honest man — on whom I could love, honor and trust without reserve or doubt. Proceeding to tell him who I was, and what I was doing, he promptly, but kindly, stopped me, saying, 'I know who you are, Mr. Douglass; Mr. Seward has told me all about you. Sit down. I am glad to see you.' I then told him the object of my visit; that I was assisting to raise colored troops; that several months before I had been very successful in getting men to enlist, but now it was not easy to induce the colored me to enter the service, because there was a feeling among them that the government did not deal fairly with them in several respects. Mr. Lincoln asked me to state particulars. I replied that there were three particulars which I wished to bring to his attention. First that colored soldiers ought to receive the same wages as those paid to white soldiers. Second, that colored soldiers ought to receive the same protection when taken prisoners, and be exchanged as readily, and on the same terms, as any other prisoners, and if Jefferson Davis should shoot or hang colored soldiers in cold blood, the United States government should retaliate in kind and degree without dely upon Confederate prisoners in its hands. Third, when colored soldiers, seeking the 'bauble-reputation at the cannon's mouth,' performed great and uncommon service on the battlefield, they should be rewarded by distinction and promotion, precisely as white soldiers are rewarded for like services.
After reading the exchange and especially this statement made by Douglass speaking of Lincoln -- "I at once felt myself in the present of an honest man — on whom I could love, honor and trust without reserve or doubt", I am inclined to guess that today's activists will say Frederick Douglass is blinded by his "hero worship" for the President, who lacked to understand that Lincoln primary objective was not to freeing slaves but the union. Today's activists would call Lincoln an appeaser for suppressing Douglass's civil and equal rights for his admission that he will first save the Union without freeing any slave if he had to.
Douglass was not a proponent of any compromise where slavery was concerned, but his interaction with Mr. Lincoln convinced him over time of the wisdom of the President's deliberate movements toward emancipation. //snip [Historian David W. ]Blight wrote: "In this encounter, narrated to an audience in early December 1863, Douglas constructed his own proud mutuality with Lincoln. However falteringly, by whatever unjust means blacks had to die in uniform to be acknowledged as men, Douglass was determined to demonstrate that his own ideological war aims had now become Lincoln's as well. The 'rebirth' they were imagining was one both clearly understood as a terrible ordeal, but one from which there was no turning back. Douglass came away from this extraordinary meeting with the conclusions that Lincoln's position was 'reasonable,' but more important, that he would go down in history as 'Honest Abraham.'
Frederick Douglass was a man of conviction who understood his limitations but knew all alone what his callings were -- to work through the system to ensure that the Constitution is a 'protection against, rather than a sanction for slavery'. His activism took him to be a circle of William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society, to giving speeches on anti-slavery movement in many churches and communities around the world 'denouncing colonization and deportation of black slaves', and starting his own newspaper to share his ideologies and speaking against slavery that made him a prominent and respected abolitionist. He also knew the good from the bad and backed Lincoln for the Presidency with reservation because the Democratic candidate Stephen Douglass, about whom he said after his death, "No man of his time has done more than he to intensify hatred of the negro." While his reservation for Lincoln was short lived because of Lincoln's approach to emancipation, the civil war was a defining moment for Douglass to appreciate and respect Abraham Lincoln not because he was always right but Douglass though he was the most reasonable pragmatic thinker.
Douglas's respect for Mr. Lincoln's leadership was deeply felt. Morel wrote: "Just two years after his 1876 oration, Douglass spoke at Union Square, New York, to the Lincoln Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. There he called Lincoln 'the best man, truest patriot, and wisest statesman of his time and country.' Given the host and venue, this comes as no surprise. But Douglass repeated this high praise of Lincoln five years alter in a fiery speech titled 'The United States Cannot Remain Half-Slave and Half Free.' After observing that Lincoln's name 'should never be spoken but with reverence, gratitude, and affection,' Douglass called him 'the greatest statesman that ever presided over the destinies of this Republic."
I have been fascinated by the life of Frederick Douglass for a long time when I first started digging into his history and I must say he is indeed the kind of model we need to be an effective activist. He is everything what today's activists who personally insult and demean President Obama are not. He is everything like those who are able to respect the man while disagreeing with some of President Obama's choices but continue to support their President and protect Democratic political position in order to shape our political agenda. If reading Douglass was any indication, I bet he would look at what President Obama has been able to achieve to date and appreciate him in a profound way for The Undeniable Progress That Can't Be Buried. However, something tells me that a clear understanding of how pragmatic Frederick Douglass was and what he stood for might cause today's activities a discomfort and would more likely force some activists to chase him out of progressive sites like Dailykos just as so many other people of color and pro-Obama supporters have been chased out from the community.

I have met President Obama and spoken to him very briefly while I don't trust he will remember me if we ever meet again but during that brief encounter what I had felt can measure up to the same feeling Frederick Douglass felt about Abraham Lincoln and if I was to rephrase what Mr. Douglass said to reflect my view:
I [too] at once felt myself in the present of an honest man[President Obama] — on whom I could love, honor and trust without reserve or doubt.
All of us progressives can do a little growing up to find success in activism. The success of ones' activism can only be measured if we have results to show for. Frederick Douglass fought for emancipation, liberty and equality but he fought it pragmatically reasoning all the pro's and con's, strategizing and working with President Lincoln to pave the way so that his activism bear fruit. He achieved success in his activism because he was not naive and knew both his and Lincoln's limitation in relation to where the country was. In the moment of activism, Douglass was able to do a pretty darn good job of judging the politician Lincoln to align himself to succeed in his role as an activist.
Today, we must draw the line to foster a more productive relationship amongst ourselves by learning a thing or two from Frederick Douglass so that our activism also can bear fruit. BowMan sums it up here:
...we can have a more productive relationship with the Establishment Left. It would start by getting clear where the line is between advocacy for issues and protecting our political position in Washington. We know we cannot afford to lose the presidential election in 2012. We could improve things considerably if we reserved our attacks on our own political leaders for areas where they at least have the freedom of acting otherwise.
I think that is what Fareed Zakaria was saying when he implied that liberals need to "grow up" -- to stop the over the top criticism of the President, to grow up like Frederick Douglass that championed the anti-slavery movement to help Lincoln issue the Emancipation Declaration.
YES WE CAN be like Frederick Douglass and yes we must "grow up" too.