As Americans commemorate President's Day, Spanish historians are marking an
important date in their own nation's history as well. It was on February 21,
1936 that Right Wing general Francisco Franco was relieved of his command
and sent to the Canary Islands.
Franco's holiday there would not last long. Just under five months later, he
would launch his infamous coup d'etat, spawning a brutal three-year civil
war that would lead to the establishment of a fascist state in Spain and
harbor ominous warnings for the rest of Europe.
Franco did not only win because his forces were strong; he also won because
his opposition was weak. Because the majority of the Left and the Right had
abandoned the Spanish state, there was no national government to speak of
left to fight him.
By the 1930s, both the Left and the Right in Spain had lost faith in the
national government. The Left saw it as an oppressive capitalist force, and
the Right saw it as too liberal and permissive.
Today, the United States stands at a similar crossroads: the Left is
becoming increasingly disgusted with politics and the political system -
especially after the last two elections - and an increasingly authoritarian
Right is taking over.
And it is taking over almost everywhere, from the presidency, the federal
legislature, our national court system and our major national political
parties, down to my local school board, which is appointing conservative,
authoritarian school administrators in one of the most liberal parts of the
country. God only knows what is happening in Kansas and Alabama.
On the Left, we are beginning to panic, because we all understand - deep to
the very core of our beings - that to travel down the tragic road that Spain
and Germany and Italy did during the first half of the last century - at a
time when our government possesses unparalleled powers to persecute domestic
dissidents and, along with an expanding array of other countries, a
stockpile of nuclear weapons with the capacity to destroy the world many
times over - would lead to a disaster unprecedented in human history, one
that may end life on Earth as we know it.
If we are to avert such a disaster, we must draw our inspiration from the
past, by looking to popular movements that succeeded in achieving peace and
justice without resorting to violence. Thankfully, there were many that did
so, and they left many valuable lessons.
Yet if we are to succeed, we must also do some things differently. We must
learn from those popular movements that failed, namely those that abandoned
their national governments, because they hold profound lessons as well.
In most countries, the Right stands on many legs, and that makes it seem
powerful. But that unity is invariably built upon many contradictions, and
each of those legs embodies at least one vulnerable Achilles' heal.
Today, one of the Right's most glaring Achilles' heals is the fact that at
the same time it is dismantling much of our government in both word and
deed, it also depends on government power to maintain foreign and domestic
control. And here-in lies an extraordinary opportunity, if we are willing to
let go of past labels and broaden our worldview.
The Right is going for broke, gambling that it can dismantle much of the
State apparatus and still maintain support and control. Today, the Left has
the once in a few decades opportunity to call the Right's bluff, to build a
popular movement that will not only stop the Right in its tracks but use its
energy to move us closer to the peaceful, just, sustainable society we all
dream of quicker than we ever thought imaginable.
To call that bluff, we can do one simple thing: as citizens, we can fill the
vacuum. And there is no better time to start than now, several months after
the Presidential election, at a time when the Right is making clear its
foreign and domestic priorities for the years to come and the Left is
grappling for new strategies.
As spring approaches, we have fertile ground in which to plant our seeds. In
my town of San Rafael - as in the majority of municipalities across the
country - the Right's retreat at the national level is causing growing
Though San Rafael is located in the wealthiest county in California, our
library has shortened its hours and slashed its budget for new books. The
schools here are laying-off teachers. The roads are not being as well
maintained and the cultural programs are disappearing.
As progressives, we are always torn between wanting to build something
beautiful but also knowing we must stop what is ugly. This dilemma amounts
to a heart-wrenching Catch-22: How can we promote justice and sustainability
when we need to stop war and destruction? And yet how can we stop war and
destruction without building justice and sustainability?
Today, we can do both: we can build while we oppose. We can use the Right's
energy to our advantage, and as it comes charging toward us, shift our
stance a bit and flip those forces over onto their backs, where they can lay
in a daze and watch as we build a new society.
This may sound like a grand vision, and in some ways it is. But mostly it's
quite simple: As the Right abandons the State, we can rush in to fill the
As the Right cuts funding for our schools, we can step in and not only
support our public schools, but create out of their shells the progressive,
nurturing institutions they can and ought to be.
As the Right cuts funding for health care, we can take over our local public
hospitals and expand their missions.
As the Right cuts funding for our cultural institutions, we can rush in to
support those institutions and use our newfound power to make their mandates
more progressive than they've ever been.
And even when it comes to the police, when the Right cuts funding for cops,
we may choose to rush in and use our newfound power to create more community
policing positions, and enact stronger guidelines to protect our freedoms
and our bodies from police abuse.
Sometimes, taking over our local institutions will come only after difficult
struggles. Other times we will face virtually no resistance. In any case, we
can count on a basic tenant of human organization that holds true from the
most liberal democracies to the most authoritarian dictatorships: whether
crafting economic policies or putting in new speed bumps, the world is run
by those who show up.
Across America, the Right is showing up. From national elections to local
school boards, the conservative base is taking over our democratic
institutions and altering the very nature of our country.
Today, the Left must do the same. We cannot afford to make the mistakes our
predecessors made in much of Europe during the 1920s and 30s.
Instead, we must show up. And as we do so, we can use our newfound power not
only to stop the Right and take back our country and our communities, but to
demand that our institutions become more just and sustainable as well. We
can demand that all police uniforms issued by the police department we now
control - with a new mandate and more progressive practices - be made of
organic cotton in fair trade factories that minimize pollution. We can
demand that all our schools conserve energy and run on solar power and
provide their students with healthy food and pay their cafeteria workers a
The same holds true for our political freedoms and institutions. If the
Right is intent on destroying the Bill of Rights, let us embrace its
valuable protections - to freedom of expression, and due process, and
liberty from unwarranted search and seizure - and educate our fellow
citizens about why they are important, and even seek to strengthen the
protections they provide and apply them to new realms, throughout every
government agency and even throughout the private sector. As the Democratic
Party loses power, let us do what my friend Janis and her friends did, and
what Michael Moore has begged us to do for years: let us take over its local
committees and make the Democrats into a true People's Party.
Such action will require a major shift in our worldview, from looking at
government and dominant institutions as the enemy to looking at "them" as
ours. And people in my town, especially young people, are beginning to make
In two weeks, high school students will join forces with elected officials
and workers in our community - with teachers and librarians and police and
firefighters - for a rally and march through town to demand funding for our
communities instead of for war.
We are filling the void the Right has created, and we will march to OUR
police station, our local school, our park, our library, and our town hall.
We will oppose and resist the policies of the Right at the same time that we
march hand in hand with a growing, grassroots coalition of citizens that
will rebuild and reshape our community.
The shift in worldview such actions require will truly take hold when we
begin to reconnect with our country and look at ourselves as patriots once
again. Because most of us know, whether we are on the Left or on the Right
or in the middle, that patriotism does not mean obeying the government. It
means supporting and doing what is right for our community and our nation.
In an increasingly interdependent world where we are the undisputed
superpower, doing what is truly right for America - ensuring she interacts
sustainably with the environment, ensuring she respects the rights, freedoms
and well being of her citizens, ensuring she acts with good will towards
other nations - will invariably help not just America, but everyone and
every nation on the planet. Today, being a true patriot goes hand in hand
with being a global citizen, one who cares about freedom and justice and
For too long, the Right has been allowed to define patriotism, and has
taught us all to believe that the generals and the presidents and the
religious extremists of this country are the true patriots. And if its
definition were really true, I would want little to do with patriotism.
But that is not the case, and it never has been. The true patriots have not
been the presidents, they have been the Freedom Riders and the Suffragettes
and the Abolitionists and the labor organizers who forced those presidents
to do what was right.
The true patriots have not been the generals. They have been the pacifists
and the tax resisters and the peace activists and the conscientious
objectors who have kept them from destroying the planet.
The true patriots have not been and never will be the religious extremists.
They are us. They are the people who work at the non-profits and care for
the elderly and stand with the poor and teach the sick and make our
buildings more environmentally friendly and farm our land organically and
preserve our glorious open spaces.
Given the many wrongs our government has perpetrated, such a shift in
consciousness can be difficult. Yet I am coming to believe we cannot win
this great struggle if we do not have faith in and love for our towns and
our people and our country. If we lack that faith and that love, we will
forever think of ourselves as the minority in an alien land, and we will
forever be locked in a negative cycle of cynicism, protest and
disillusionment. Only it might not be forever because we may soon lose the
physical, ecological and political security to even express dissenting
views, much less hold them.
If, on the other hand, we begin to feel pride in our people and our
communities and our country - if we are honest about the bad as well as all
the good - we cannot only reclaim the idea of America, we can tap our
creative power to apply its virtues wholeheartedly today - especially at the
local level - and even take her and thus the planet a massive leap forward.
In Spain, and in other countries across Europe, it was the Left's retreat
from government that at least in part accelerated the Right's ascension to
power, yielding disastrous consequences for the home country and,
eventually, much of the planet. Today, we find ourselves in a similar
The Spanish freedom fighters proclaimed that they would rather die on their
feet than live on their knees. I would rather live on my feet, in a country
I can truly be proud of.
I believe we can build that country - and avert disaster - if we fill the
vacuum the Right has created, and exploit its massive gamble to our
advantage. We can view our current crisis as an exciting opportunity to
develop unprecedented coalitions that take over our civic institutions and
mold them, and hence our entire nation, into the just, peaceful, and
sustainable society we so desperately need and want to create. By filling
the void the Right has created, we can stop the tide of fear and oppression
that is engulfing our country, and build something unbelievably beautiful in
Roni Krouzman is a writer, activist and citizen who lives in San Rafael, CA.
His writing has appeared on CommonDreams.org, TomPaine.com, and Alternet.org,
as well as in magazines nationwide including EXTRA and the San Francisco Bay
Guardian. Roni directs Next Generation, an organization he founded in 2002
to help young people work for peace, democracy and sustainability. He can be
contacted at email@example.com.