Top 10 Activist Errors

| Strategize!

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.

  • Aquifer

    “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.”

    “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.”

    Well, let’s see – how does the first relate to the second – anybody else see the contradiction here?

    I suggest that the first is a, if not the, major activist error – and is a perfect example of the second …

  • kevinzeese

    Right now our power does not lie in elections, it lies in building a mass independent movement to challenge whoever is in power.

  • mwildfire

    I totally disagree. Working for change via the electoral process is like trying to solve the energy problem by working toward mining asteroids–the likelihood of success in the foreseeable future is extremely low, to the point where it’s a waste of time. Elections in the US today (and in many, probably most other countries) amount to a card game in which the other side makes the rules, shuffles and cuts and deals the cards, and is able at any time to make up new rules. Calvinball. They own the media! Thus they can marginalize the few candidates not part of their team, so that if voters even hear of them, they think of them as–well, compare Kucinich, who ran for president several times, with Paul Wellstone. Kucinich weighs 100 pounds, is vegan, and says he saw flying saucers at least once. Wellstone, who was talked of a potential candidate, was a reasonably attractive Catholic, a union guy–a leftist (by US right-skewed standards) but “normal.” He also died in a plane crash with all his family, blamed on bad weather that doesn’t show up in a photo taken at the time. If all else fails, the card-sharps can always rig the vote count, since their people own the computer voting and vote-counting, machines.
    Putting activist energy into this system is like putting money into the ocean. Refusing to do so is not defeatism, it’s simply having your eyes open.

  • kevinzeese

    Yes, the US is a mirage democracy with rigged elections.

    The card game analogy is good, more like a corrupt poker game.

    Sanders is the new Kucinich, sheepdogging wayward Democrats back into the Party to vote for Hillary or some other Wall Street Democrat.

  • mwildfire

    Excellent piece. Except for #7. I think he’s wrong there, both in the general principle and in the example he uses. Maybe people could have put their rooftop solar money into trying to make utilities put up community solar arrays, but that would NOT be better than power controlled by the citizens with the utilities not dictating. We could use more concentrated solar plants, but they disrupt local ecology and then require long transmission lines which confiscate land, cause ecological harm, and lose some of the power along the way.
    Working at the local level often means doing the thing he left out in this list:
    “creative nonviolent activism, education, organizing, media, disruption, resistance, and protest”–namely, building the alternative. Large numbers of people everywhere are engaged in a thousand experiments in permaculture, creating communities, setting up alternative local currencies, working with CSAs and farmers markets, setting up community banks, doing Transition Town initiatives, doing bikeshares, and so many other things–building the world we want instead of fighting the powerful vampires at the heart of the enemy running our world today. These people are not making a mistake!

  • While that’s definitely true, I think the important point is that you can’t just *stop* there. Setting up local systems is only the first step (albeit an important one).

  • PETER CHILDS

    Hillary on the left, with nothing like the awareness we now need. On the “right” a pack of lost souls gibbering in the wilderness of their ignorance. But I’ll still vote because 1) I refuse to abandon the democratic process and 2) if I vote for the lesser of two evils the evil lessens. If the election looks close I’ll grit my teeth and vote for Hillary; if it’s not I’ll vote for who I’d really prefer (almost certainly Bernie).

    Then, with that out of the way I’ll continue to try to do all of the (David’s) above.

    I continue to feel that something very much larger than we yet realize is afoot on our planet and that after this difficult birth it will turn out to be wonderful.
    I try to explain why I feel this way in “Of Thee I Sing; The American Experiment and How It Can Still Succeed” (e.g. Amazon).

  • kevinzeese

    You sound trapped in the corporate two party system, a sure way never to get anywhere. Evil is always elected from that system. Break out!

  • PETER CHILDS

    Lordy, Kevin! Read my book. (I continue to be a strong admirer of yours).

  • rgaura

    Hillary is not even to the left of Hitler. Even that noodle was a socialist!

  • rgaura

    First, lets demand a paper ballot, and chuck those hackable machines. We need to educate so people realize that we have not had an election that was valid for 12 years at least.

  • Is that why with all of this voting for the lesser of two evils over the past 30 years, the Democratic Party continues to move further to the right?

  • PETER CHILDS

    I assume that neither you nor Kevin are going to vote and, as I thought I indicated adequately in the first paragraph of my post, I can understand why one would choose not to. But regardless of what you or I decide to do or not do, either Hillary or (I would think) Jeb is going to be President, and we will have to live with the results of their actions. I think Hillary would be less horrible than Jeb, so I feel obliged to “choose the lesser evil”. Not to do so seems to me to be simply throwing away my vote, which is tantamount to simply abandoning the democratic process. It seems to me that it will do no harm to put my drop in the bucket, and it might do a tiny bit of good, so why not?

    I DO NOT think that the solutions to our problems will come from our government, which has been corrupted to the point where it is worsening all our major problems rather than fixing them. I am painfully aware of the nature of the corporate oligarchy and of its effects (read my book). Somehow, the citizenry is going to have to figure out what action to take to reclaim our democracy and reverse the terrible damage that has been caused by our allowing the corporados to take power.

    My hope is that we will be able to do this with love as our primary tool, realizing that every one of us is a member of one human family, brought into existence by That Which Created All Things, and equally deserving of respect and attention. Hopefully we will be able to listen to each other, learn from each other, define the common interest, and devise ways to meet that interest.

  • If I vote, it’ll be to write in the name of Jill Stein, as I did in 2012, or Bernie Sanders. Or maybe my cat.

  • PETER CHILDS

    Your cat is in good company!

  • Aquifer

    Challenging whoever is in power can be done at the polls – so you see no point in working for Greens?

  • Aquifer

    So when will it not be “a waste of time” and what will make it so? How do you propose to construct a system that works?

  • mwildfire

    I used to talk about the reforms that could make it so–starting with the paper ballot as rgaura says, but I honestly think it’s too late for that now. We are living in an empire during the early years of its decline, and reforms that might have been effective even 30 years ago can’t be implemented. The SCOTUS has made clear that it will not allow any bans on campaign spending, any checks on corporate power. I think our best hope now is to construct LOCAL systems that work–that work for local people, allowing them to prosper with or without jobs, that build trust and let people put their energies into productive avenues that solve their and their neighbors’ problems, meet their needs, create a new paradigm. I admire what Kevin and Margaret are doing, but they’re going against a dragon. There is only a hope of success when you have enough people arrayed against the dragon, and it’s hard to get enough people when the dragon owns and controls the media–this is the key. The reality is that a combination of overpopulation, resource depletion and climate change dicatate sharply reduced living standards, very soon and increasingly the case. We COULD actually live better in many ways if we dealt with the situation honestly and cooperatively–but the people don’t want to hear this and the elite are determined to hang onto their power and privilege at all costs.

  • mwildfire

    Generally I agree–it’s good to keep eyes open for opportunities to make a difference on the larger level. But setting up local systems is a huge, daunting project. It’s a lot to ask of people doing that that they also work at the larger level (while 99% of people do absolutely nothing outside of taking care of their own families). I would not expect Margaret and Kevin to also work at the local level. But maybe you mean–once you have a thriving Transition Town going, with a local currency and community gardens and so forth, then it’s time to set up connections with other such for regional networks. True but theoretical for the future, from my point of view.

  • Aquifer

    I think we could use the system we have now, as faulty as it is, to bring significant change – if enough folks sign on ….

    That is true of any “movement” …..

  • Yeah, pretty much. “We made this work here, now let’s see what can be applied to everywhere.”

  • angela jensen

    War is not the answer. It causes more conflicts. Like the endless nightmare after. The Bush administration. Placing blame and pointing fingers are not the solution to this problem either. The sad thing we still have not learned anything. From our past mistakes. Over history. Instead we keep repeating them. The last President was proof of that. We wanted change and instead. We ended up more divided than before. Whether it’s racial. Based religion or political. We are having civil wars in our backyard. When will this insanity end?