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We hear a steady stream of progressives say that progressives need to “learn from the South” where they are having more success at social change — Venezuela, in particular — but much less frequently do we hear what exactly there is to learn; except it is sometimes noted that people are less isolated, and therefore talk to one another more, and therefore are able to facilitate change more — it has become a cliche, however valid.

What often goes unsaid is that a big part of what allows more unity and motivation for change in the South is poverty, also sometimes the church, also sometimes race. One point of fact is that much (though not all) of this does not so much apply to the U.S. where the overarching oppressive structure is managed mainly by people of the majority race, where the church, etc, is often more culturally marginalized than in the South (and anyway faith is dangerous, in my view), and a far smaller percentage of the population is outright poor.

Or take an opposite case in the U.S.: Starr County, Texas — where I lived and worked for 5 years — it’s one of the most impoverished counties in the U.S., some years _the_ most impoverished county, as a measure of per capita income — it’s also almost 98 percent Hispanic (and the Valley in Texas is majority Hispanic) the highest percentage of any U.S. county. Well, a few years ago there was an almost 100 percent vote “yes” in Starr County to approve a 99 million dollar bond issue to expand a small community college branch there and the much larger community college facilities in the neighboring county. About 10 percent of the bond issue went to Starr County, but if not for the Starr vote the entire bond would have failed, because it did fail in the other much larger county that could vote, Hidalgo, where it was/would have been defeated by a push from wealthier sectors. So in Starr County, the scourge of extreme poverty and unemployment apparently motivated the difference in the vote.

And church based efforts in Hidalgo County — notably by Valley Interfaith — have successfully gained living wage laws in the area. Whereas I believe all such efforts have failed in, say, Houston, where New Party and ACORN have made attempts. And so in Hidalgo County, primarily the involvement of Catholic church members in labor politics makes the difference, perhaps along with some other racial/cultural cohesiveness.

With church, and poverty, and racial/cultural unity, you’ve got some effective solidarity and motivation. And that’s a big part of what has facilitated change in this sector of the South in the U.S, and it seems in the larger Latin American South as well.

So what can the bulk of the U.S. learn from this? Sure, _something_ can be learned, and it’s useful to make the effort, but it may be too that progressives in most of the U.S. need to learn most from where they already are, and realize that a lot of what they are doing is what they in fact ought to be doing.

What can progressives learn from the South? Well, probably not that they should seek to increase poverty, increase religion, and increase majority race identification in the North — probably not that they should or could act in the North on what exists moreso in the South.

Sure, progressives have plenty to learn from the South — the importance of effective communication and real economic and political understanding and action, not least — but there are others — e.g., the majority of the people who make up the military and the churches in the U.S. — who have more to both learn and act on in regard to the successes of the South and the reality of the world and their country. First they have to see the state of things for what it is, and then change the repressive and oppressive roles of the powerful institutions that they put much time and energy into.

Unless the military and the church grow out of many of their status quo enforcing and repressive ways – and for that matter unless the schools and universities and the labor force generally do so as well (not to mention the rest of the “liberal” and “conservative” establishment, who, I suppose, along with the police, will be among the last to change, by force) — it’s not clear that any amount of learning by progressives about the South will have widespread decisive effect. The greater poverty of the South gives it more motivation to change, and probably more economic and political consciousness — to an extent.

That seemed to me at least to be the case in Starr County — due to its stark impoverishment, extreme unemployment. But the North at large will have to find other means of motivation for transforming its social and cultural institutions, I think — the threat to the environment, the threat of nuclear war, the “blowback” threat of U.S. militancy….

Sound familiar? In fact, progressives ought to continue a lot of what they are already doing in this regard: pressuring the military, pressuring the churches, challenging their colleagues and the various bureaucracies in the schools and universities and the workplace generally, and working with the electorate and others to create change.

Tony Christini is author of the fact-filled anti Iraq War novel, Homefront — published by Mainstay Press: http://www.mainstaypress.org/

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