Top 10 Activist Errors
Ten-year-old Robert Dunn uses a megaphone to address hundreds of demonstrators during a protest against police brutality and the death of Freddie Gray outside the Baltimore Police Western District station April 22, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The number one error, engaged in by the majority of people, is failing to be an activist. The world’s going to hell, countless situations can be easily improved, lives can be saved, and most people just sit there and do nothing. Others actively work to make matters worse. So, if you’re working for peace and justice, you’re among the tiny minority that’s pretty much got the big stuff right. If constructive criticism drives you into despair, please stop reading this article right now and just continue what you’re doing with your life. You have my gratitude.
If you’re open to hearing some suggestions, for whatever they may be worth (and yes, of course, this list of errors will exclude those that I am myself guilty and unaware of), read on:
1. ELECTIONISM. We need elections but do not now have them in the United States, not at the federal level. Working for election reforms is one of the most important things anyone can do. But taking time off from activism to focus on elections is the biggest waste of resources we engage in. Election reform will come through creative nonviolent activism, education, organizing, media, disruption, resistance, and protest. It won’t come through elections. Registering voters is not activism. Creating automatic registration, as just done in Oregon, is activism. Please stifle your compulsion to ask me who I’m voting for. You don’t ask me if I want to win the lottery. (I do, but I will not buy a ticket or devote my life to staring at one.)
2. OBAMANISM. As bad as taking a break from activism every election cycle, is thinking and acting like a voter and a campaigner rather than an activist every day of every year, cheerleading for a team of corrupt officials rather than for policies, reforms, and actions that you support. “The nationalist,” said Orwell, “not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” Nationalism is a huge problem, and its language, which has peace activists using the word “we” in saying “We are bombing Afghanistan,” may contribute to identification with crimes. But the problem of managing not to even hear about them applies to partisanship as well. If a Republican were picking men, women, and children to murder on Tuesdays, you’d see protests.
3. TOKENISM. “Black people are dumb.” “Muslims are violent.” These are understood to be ignorant hate speech. But “Women make better presidents” is not frowned on quite so much, despite its exactly equal idiocy. The problem is not the demographic characteristics of the president. The problem is having a single individual with the powers of a god, in debt to sociopathic billionaires, in a system dominated by militarism and corruption. We won’t change it with a female or gay or Latina corporatist warmonger.
4. STRATEGISM. Winning a first and a second and a third step down a path to peace or justice is not best achieved through the means that many activists think of as “strategic.” If you tell someone that they should halt one war so that the military can be better prepared for other wars, you weaken your argument against the one war, and you provide an argument for future wars. If you oppose the weapons that don’t work, you give legitimacy to the far worse weapons that do work. If you object to a gimmick that boosts weapons spending over a mandated limit by transferring funds from a war budget, you shouldn’t do so in a way that suggests either budget is acceptable at all, or in a way that suggests war spending is preferable to non-war-spending or budget trickery. Pre-compromising doesn’t get you a compromise result; it gets you incoherence and lack of believability. A young woman pointing out to Jeb Bush that his brother (and Hillary and a few hundred others) created ISIS does a lot more to move people against war than do the strategies coming out of DC peace groups. War is counterproductive on its own terms, immoral, illegal, and catastrophic. Its funding should be eliminated. Our job is to demand that. A small reduction is a first step toward our goal.
5. IMPOTENTISM. The most pervasive and powerful propaganda is that of powerlessness. Telling yourself and each other that you are powerless is no different than Judith Miller repeating CIA lies about WMDs. It’s exactly as ridiculous and exactly as damaging. We are not powerless. We quite easily have an impact frequently and could quite easily have a much bigger one. Expecting fairness won’t help. We have to work uphill, but it’s perfectly doable. Being impatient won’t help. We have to keep working however long it takes and however few help out. Self-flagellation won’t help. The money is against you and money is powerful. It’s not your fault you haven’t saved the world, but it might be thanks to you that your grandchildren save it.
6. PAROCHIALISM. We have to form uncomfortably large coalitions, and we really don’t want to. I’m not advocating what I critiqued above as strategism. Don’t sell your soul. Don’t promote destructive ideologies for short-term gain. But don’t be scared of guilt-by-association. Be willing to stand with people on an issue whose views and actions you deeply oppose on other issues.
7. LOCALISM. It’s far more satisfying to find peace in your heart or sustainability in your backyard than to take on the military industrial complex. But if the earth dies, so will you. There are local and hyper-local angles that contribute to the greater cause. Cities and states can change nations. But individual action alone is not enough. Even small group action aimed too near is not enough. If everybody with solar panels on their roofs had put half the money into a movement to create public solar arrays, we’d have them.
8. FREUDISM. In a popular, simplistic notion of nonviolent communication, one never persuades anyone through rational argument. This is a claim, by the way, that comes out of an ideology supposedly dedicated to respecting people and their “needs.” Apparently among those needs is not the need for a good reason to believe something. It would of course be equally simplistic to assert that all one ever needs are facts, or to ignore the age-old wisdom that it is hard to get someone to believe something they are paid not to. But when I tell people that college is free in other countries, their jaws drop, and it’s not 30 seconds before they’re saying it should be that way in the U.S. When I talk to non-self-selected groups about ending war, the majority say at the end that they have been moved toward believing that war can and should be ended. Facts are not enough, but they are one of the main things the corporate media deprives us of, and one of the key components of activism. They do nothing to help us see another’s point of view if we’re unwilling to look. They do nothing to alleviate high levels of fear. But it would be a mistake for us to become inversions of Edward Bernays working to manipulate people in a kinder, gentler manner.
9. FETISHISM. Here’s a little secret. The people who speak the viewpoints that serve big money are not smarter, wittier, pithier, or better at framing a topic. They’re on the air because they speak the viewpoints that serve big money. They may be more eloquent than you. They may be less so. But trying to think and sound like them in general is a quite risky proposition and completely unnecessary. There is nothing we need more than better media and better use of existing media by its readers, listeners, and viewers. There is no smarter place to invest as activists. But what we lack is not spokespeople. What we lack is microphones.
10. PINKERISM. “But haven’t you heard? War is going away on its own? I heard it from someone who read a review of a book by Steven Pinker.” War is not going to go away on its own. It is not even going away with our help. But it could go away if we really get our act together.