One key trope of sixties activism was “heightening the contradictions.” According to this concept, when social contradictions (such as huge accumulations of wealth in the midst of crippling poverty) became extreme enough, people would get fed up and revolt.
I thought of this a couple of weeks ago as I had dinner with a young friend just out of college, intelligent, impassioned, and deeply conflicted. “It was different for you,” she told our table of fifty- and sixty-somethings (I’m paraphrasing). “You had real movements where everyone felt connected to the same big causes. For us, it’s so disorganized, so many different movements, we don’t feel like we’re part of the same thing. It’s especially difficult for my generation to feel united when so much of our activism is also tied into identity politics. Sometimes activists of my generation see each other as enemies and as harmful to their causes more often than the larger forces of oppression that we may think we are trying to unite against.
“Then, it was clearer. Now, even things that seem to be progressive turn out to be tied into corporations. ‘Green’ is a marketing ploy. People act like racism has been solved, but everywhere I go, it’s divided by race. The scale of problems, like the environment, it’s overwhelming and paralyzing.”
As she spoke, quibbles begin to form in my head. The sixties were full of factionalism, I wanted to say. Hypocrisy is timeless. Corporations have always tried to capitalize on people’s fears.
But I could see this wasn’t time to quibble. The contradictions have heightened almost past the point of endurance, but instead of our sixties hopes coming true, the contradictions are now normalized, facts of life. There’s a big room labeled “demoralized and overwhelmed,” and if you open the door even a crack, you are overtaken by the fumes. Inhaling, I began to feel an inkling of what it might be like to be young and facing such obstacles. I exhaled and shut the door.
What we had forty years that is in short supply for our counterparts today is the energy and optimism that comes from hope, not merely the hope of minimizing harm, but of making major positive change. Where we had a long stretch of rising expectations, of encouragement that what we thought and did would matter to the world, they have had a long period of declining expectations and multiplying obstacles.
Forgive me for picking such a tiny example when the world is so generous in supplying greater horrors, but I felt this deeply a short time ago when I read that Pacifica radio stations had declined to read Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl” on the air on the 50th anniversary of a court ruling that rather than being obscene, the poem had ”redeeming social importance.” This is from the October 4th New York Times:
Janet Coleman, WBAI’s arts director, said that when the idea of airing the poem to test the law was proposed, “I said, ‘Yes, let’s try it.'” The radio station has a history of championing the First Amendment, having broadcast the comedian George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine that resulted in a 1978 Supreme Court ruling on indecency. But after several harsh F.C.C. rulings in 2004 — against CBS for a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime show and against Fox for curse words used during the Billboard Music Awards — “our lawyer felt it was too risky,” Ms. Coleman said. The commission can impose “draconian fines,” she said, that could put WBAI out of business.
Yet it is also true that dissent is at an all-time high, that we still have access to a full range of democratic instruments (if we don’t scare or demoralize ourselves out of using them), and that while our culture privileges frightening news, encouraging news is just as abundant. A week after the Pacifica story ran, Al Gore and Doris Lessing won Nobel prizes. Coverage of Lessing’s nonchalant acceptance of the Nobel news included a quotation she gave the Associated Press last year, a strong antidote to our tendency to believe in perpetual corporate hegemony:
Hitler, he was going to live forever. Mussolini was in for 10,000 years. You had the Soviet Union, which by definition was going to last forever. There was the British Empire—nobody imagined it could come to an end. So why should anyone believe in any kind of permanence?
The answerable question is not so much how to make a measurable difference as an activist in a time of terrible social problems, but rather this: In a world crammed with simultaneous evidence of overwhelming troubles and abundant goodwill, how shall I live?
Young or old, here’s how I would answer it today:
- Give up measuring your efforts against an immediate concrete result. We’re too close in to see the impact of our actions. Things change in unimagined ways, as Doris Lessing said. Indeed, assessment is useless without a realistic time frame. As Zhou En-Lai said when asked by a French journalist in 1970 to assess the impact of the 18th century French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell.”
- Choose love. Our efforts have most meaning for us when they are rooted in love. What do you love doing? What opens your heart? What pulls you in? Whichever issues concern us most, there is a way to focus our work on them with love, through countless actions to restore the environment, heal the sick, feed the hungry, bring peace and well-being to the places we love.
- Don’t scare yourself. It’s both a good and bad world, but we live in a culture that strongly favors one side of the equation. As TV news producers say, if it bleeds, it leads. We are easily seduced into obsessively collecting horror stories (telling ourselves we’re “escapists” if we don’t), as if it were everyone’s civic duty to scare ourselves witless. When we internalize this view, it’s easy to feel all hope is illusory, but that despair can be cured by a media diet.
- Give yourself permission to change. I feel sad that younger people have been fed such a big dose of career path-itis, urged to set on a life-goal at the earliest possible point, then pursue it single-mindedly. We can’t know what’s right for us without trying it on for size, and that takes a willingness to change course if the first one doesn’t fit. What’s worse that being stuck with a too-small life until life itself runs out?
- Work with people who treat you with kindness and respect (and vice versa). One of the downsides of activism is that people working for change easily project big-world grievances onto the little worlds of their organizations, leading to a great deal of objectification. So many progressive groups succumb to internal conflicts over race or gender, for instance, while the huge structural impacts of such discrimination persists. There’s no ambiguity about environmental racism when toxic chemicals are dumped in low-income neighborhoods where people of color live. But when the activists fighting for environmental justice splinter over thoughtless words or stupid decisions within a group, that’s a failure of kindness and humanity as much as it’s a political issue. Keep looking until you find people who are willing to work it through with goodwill.
There is no guarantee that activism will achieve its hoped-for goals, or that corporate exploitation won’t filter into realms that should be free. But it’s infinitely more possible and satisfying to change one’s yardstick than to comb the world like Diogenes for the one thing that measures up to an impossible ideal. We may try to pretend otherwise, seeking some external assurance that our efforts are clean, effective, and objectively worthwhile. But in truth, the only way we know what’s worth doing is how it feels.