I had a conversation last week with someone who gave up making films to start a business he hopes will earn enough money to finance major social-change organizing projects. He condemned progressives for their illusions, saying they that think if they’ve watched a hard-hitting film, they’ve done something, but really, “they’ve done nada. The most under-appreciated art and the one most needed and that makes the most difference is the art of organizing.” He explained that he meant Alinsky-style community organizing, with protests—rallies, marches, pickets—focusing on a succession of concrete steps in the hope they will aggregate into meaningful change.
I find this insistence on one form of activism fatiguing. It reminds me of the old alchemical idea: that if you perform the same action over and over again, it will eventually yield a transformative result. At this point, I think most old-style forms of organizing have about as much chance of succeeding in addressing our crises as ancient alchemical experiments had of finding the philosopher’s stone and transmuting base metal into gold. But you can’t make anyone see what he or she is not ready to perceive, no matter how plainly it is inscribed in reality.
When it comes to actualizing a paradigm shift—replacing an old reality-map that can’t hold newly emerging information with a new framework that can—the biggest challenge is human perception. A paradigm shift has been compared to an optical illusion: when an optical illusion flips between a duck and a rabbit or a vase and two facing profiles, it isn’t that the printed image has altered in the slightest. The entire change is in how the identical information is seen: if a perceiver is willing to let go of commitment to one image, the exact same information can be read in a second markedly different way.
For several years, I’ve been writing and speaking about a paradigm shift in which culture—and specifically art, the purest expression of culture through movement, image, music, story, and so on—is finally being given its true value as the container for all social organization and action, the place where we discover identity, explore values, learn about each other, and imagine a future. Every day I see more evidence, but this week has been remarkably emblematic of the whole shift. Just a very few examples:
A group of 600 guitarists gathered in Darjeeling, India, last week played John Lennon’s song “Imagine” in tribute to the young woman whose rape by a gang has been a flashpoint for protests around the globe. These images have been widely circulated.
The indigenous peoples’ movement Idle No More, which began in Canada and has spread rapidly, “calls on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water. Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth.”
Idle No More has called upon people to come together for Round Dances in which movement, song, and drumming express the unity of activism, art, and spiritual practice. Here’s some footage of a Round Dance flash mob in Oakland, California, yesterday.
The growing initiative called “One Billion Rising,” begun by Vagina Monologues author and V-Day founder Eve Ensler, centers on a huge number of public dance events in which women and their supporters stand up to demand an end to violence against women.
I could spend days at the keyboard listing music, drama, dance, video, visual art, interactive media, literature and other artistic expressions of the vast, decentralized movement for social justice. YouTube videos (which is to say short films) have become our most popular form of political speech. Groups like 100 Thousand Poets for Change organize many simultaneous events around the world asserting the defense of freedom through art. Pick any genre or artform: hip-hop , graphic art , murals—and you will find countless examples to draw on, with more emerging every day.
I’m a little sad that some people are still so committed to the old paradigm of social change that they can’t yet allow these powerful, multidimensional alternatives to come into focus. But not too sad: what is emergent will not be stopped; and it’s just a matter of time before it can’t be ignored.
Here’s the Playing for Change version of “Imagine,” featuring well over a hundred musicians from around the world.