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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The activist identity

Alice raised questions yesterday about campus radicalism/progressivism and the Columbia University "Spirit of '68". She also touched on the idea of 60s-as-myth, including a quote from Roland Barthes so good that I'm going to re-quote it here:

In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.
(Case in point: the hagiography of Martin Luther King.)

On a related topic, my friend Adrienne Brown, an activist who kicks ass and takes names, has an online dialogue on alternet where she argues about activism as a sustainable lifestyle. Basically, she says that activism must be balanced with comfort, health, and free time if an activist is to perform well and not burn out. Gavin Leonard provides the counterpoint, saying that he works 100-hour weeks for movement organizations and still has free time, a hot tub, and a house--and says these luxuries mean he's not holding himself to a high enough standard.

Gavin's perspective brings up some problems I've had with the movement for a long time, though my thoughts haven't congealed. He writes that "If we work harder and with more clarity to our anger, we can win. People like to be on the winning team, and right now, we're losing." What, exactly, is "winning" for us? Is it a peaceful, world-changing revolution--not necessarily a comprehensive overturning of capitalism, but at least a concious, widely-supported reordering of priorities? Or is it just a symbolic goal, one that is significant not for being achievable, but for the direction it provides us?

He brings up the civil rights movement, mentioning that one CRM vet "didn't see in us what she'd seen in the people who protested in Birmingham, and beyond, during the Civil Rights Movement." I'm sure that certain moments in the CRM/black liberation movement were moving experiences, thanks to the confluence of rapid change, inspiring oratory, and mass mobilization. But the nostalgic view of the BLM/CRM as infinitely unique is a fantasy that has become much more popular than the movement's real history. Of course, the Montgomery bus boycott was dramatic, united, focused, and righteous. Sit-ins and school integration were trials by fire, and the force they opposed clearly evil. After those clear victories, however, there were many years of unclear direction, dissention in the ranks, splintering of groups, dead ends, wasted time, and fizzling participation. Would you really find a spark in, say, King's housing rights protests in Chicago, that a marcher against drug laws today lacks?

Organizing for justice today is harder than in 1960 for a simple reason that everyone knows: things are fairer than they were forty and fifty years ago. Racism and exploitation are still oppressive forces, but whereas once they were insurmountable even for those with exceptional merit and drive, that is not the case in America today; oppression is not gone, but it is weaker and more inconsistent. Most oppression today is the result of complex webs of causes: lower expectations from teachers, parents who were undereducated, the negative effects of peers in poor communities, wealth whittled away by overcharging and lower-valued goods, internalized oppression such as valuing defiance over intellectualism.

There is certainly a cartel steeped in corruption that continues to run the country, and more openly than forty years ago; and the law is filled with grossly unfair examples, many of which would be quickly rectified if the victims were white instead of black, or rich instead of poor. But the changes that the country's poor most desperately need require more sophisticated solutions than mere rebellion. Would you rather see Ramsey Clark and Pamela Africa on the Supreme Court, or Ginsburg and Souter?

So what are these necessary changes? I think they include: a huge shift in foreign policy and defense spending; campaign finance reform; universal health care; elimination of union power in some industries and the forming of unions in others; exposure to a wider breadth of cultural models; decriminalization of nonviolent crime, better school funding and choice; better public transportation; a simpler tax code and more progressive tax schedule; basic education in core professional competencies; lowered barriers to entrepreneurship; and the power to rise from getting by to achieving your dreams.

It's not only that these don't make great banners. After all, the media has shamefully refused to cover the stories that might raise wide ire--stories like the rampant police abuse at every large protest in America, and the CIA's admission that they knowingly protected terrorists and crack dealers. We certainly need activists, and more than ever. Who else but organizers, such as the League of Young Voters, are going to make some of these things happen?

It's hard to know whether the simple truth is that activism is different today--when it takes more explaining to get people focused and angry, and there is more comfort competing against the motivation to work for change--or if apathy was as great an obstacle for the CRM folks too.

The CRM vet who Gavin Leonard quotes wrote that "I think what most of us are lacking is a sense of wholeness that allows us to see beyond what we're fed by our culture of consumption". Isn't "A sense of wholeness" just a euphamism for the feeling of strong branding like that you get from clearly evil opponents, from nationalism, from religion, and from charismatic leaders? These provide a source of purpose and direction. But another source is nuanced understanding, communication, and analysis. That might be a weaker source. But is it a worse source?

Leonard writes that "What I'm looking for is more of that energy that appeared to be behind the marchers and protesters of the '60s and '70s. In those years, a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens mobilized and got into the hearts and minds and living rooms of nearly everyone in the United States." How did they get into the living rooms? They wrote articles, they ran petitions, they taught in schools, they ran progressive candidates, they got air time in the media. There are still progressives doing all these things today, and no less energetically and competently. There might even be more activists than there were in 1963, per capita.

But also, how effective were the radicals of the 60s? The Columbia protests of 1968 were intense, to be sure, but what exactly did they accomplish? Maybe there were two strains of 60s activism: one that opposed an injustice so obviously outrageous that lasting change was possible (the CRM) and one that didn't (the BPM, SDS, Weathermen).

And unfortunately, the radical-cell concept of the latter strain of activism holds more allure than it deserves. Leonard gives "a special shout out to the privileged people in the house--white folks, folks with good resumes and noteworthy college degrees, and generally people who have the ability to decide to 'be sustainable.'" That's the way I used to talk about white people like me, before I realized that whiteness wasn't the ticket to payola I was expecting it to be. Leonard explains that "Most people are hustling all day to feed their families, holding down two jobs, and generally unable to find the time they'd like to learn and love and do the things that make life beautiful. I'm not talking to y'all." What exactly earns exemption from Leonard's high standards? Hard work? Hustling? That's not just people of color without BAs. Really, how many people in America go to sleep at the end of the day and say, 'today was another low-key, easy day'? I bet that if Leonard, or I, got to know every Fortune 500 CEO, we'd like some of them and see them as working their asses off for a worthwhile purpose.

I do not do activism for a living. The truth is, I don't know if I'd be very good at it. But I do something I believe in. I'd be happy to see a Radio Shack or a Taco Bell open up in Tbilisi, Georgia, where I live, and I think the best things the government has done since the revolution are eliminating barriers to business, introducing standardized tests, and (this one's more lefty) firing thousands of corrupt cops. Where does that place me in relation to activism?

In a way, Georgia has gone from the civil rights and Vietnam War era to the Dean/Wellstone era in just two years. In 2003, everyone knew what to protest: the government defrauded voters and stole parliamentary elections; the president turned a blind eye to systematic corruption; the police demanded bribes with numbing regularity. In 2005, everyone knows the new government isn't doing a perfect job, but it's hard to articulate exactly what they should be doing differently. 1/3 of the president's supporters a year ago don't support him any more, but they haven't shifted their support to other parties. Opposition is harder to maintain now than it was before; it is more nuanced, more complicated.

Of course, Bush is an energizing target, and corruption and dishonesty in the federal government is a strong motivating force for much of the country. No doubt, if we had organized harder--meaning, if tons of regular, idealistic working stiffs like me had given up time from work and weekends to go organize--we could have beaten Bush the first time around. But what about the second time around? The CRM succeeded in turning overt racists into closet racists, and their children grew up less racist than their parents. But it was a very conservative country then, and it still is now.

What we need to do is build a brand that allows more movement allies to get behind the movement, and that allows young, skilled dreamers to choose commitment over cynicism and apathy. For that, we need less dogma about movement commitment, not more. Adrienne is right that we must abandon this "antiquated vision of activism--the idea that you have to sacrifice sleep, private time and years of your life in order to be a 'proper' activist."

I bet that the majority of activists in the BLM/CRM were part-time, or seldom-time, activists. That doesn't mean that the majority of man-hours were from these activists, but it does mean that there is a large fringe cohort to involve in better ways--like the way the League of Young Voters convinces young idealists that yes, there is a movement, and yes, you are part of a group that believes what you believe, and yes, we need your participation.

Getting back to Adrienne Brown, her dictum is "Work better, not longer. Work more efficiently, rather than just unstoppably." That I can get behind, not as an activist, but as someone who does blend indulgence together with work that helps the world.

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