I feel both drawn to and wary of activism. I have involved myself in various ways over the years, but I’ve never identified as an activist.
I recently was feeling the attraction again with all that was going on. I started following closely some local activist groups. I attended a rally and talked to some others about writing a trade union resolution in support of the Ferguson protests.
I was reminded of my wariness. There is so much personal drama people put into their activism. I constantly see turf wars going on between activists. In private messages, I get warned about dealing with this or that person. A few loud people dominate almost everything and agreement is hard to find.
With the trade union resolution, the main guy interested is a strong left-winger where the ‘worker’ is the basis of his identity politics. He offered a draft and in it he went far beyond his original proposal. He made it into a far-reaching manifesto, from harsh criticisms of the police as terrorists to demands that major industries be nationalized. I was like, where did this come from?
Besides the questionable politics, it was extremely negative in tone and so broad as to be unfocused. I saw little practical value in it other than emotional catharsis. I couldn’t see it as the conversation-starter that he claimed it would or should be. Even with softening the language, it didn’t appear to be a fundamentally hopeful vision of a democratic free society. It was a demand for change by a perceived elite vanguard that would represent the workers and lead them in the fight against all that is wrong with the world. I found it the opposite of inspiring.
I was definitely not on board with his vision, but the experiece was helpful for me. At the same time I was reading Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination by Robin D. G. Kelley. The two gave me contrasting views, although both radical. In the book, Kelley writes about visions of hope. He purposesly steers away from ideological dogmatism and toward the power of imagination itself.
He writes, “the kind of politics to which I’ve been drawn have more to do with imagining a different future than being pissed off about the present.” Further on, he makes this even more clear: “There are few contemporary political spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful forces.” The author wishes to promote such spaces for inspiring dreams. That is namby-pamby liberalism, but in some ways I think this attitude is more radical than what what many left-wingers are offering, at least the dogmatic variety.
The guy who wrote the draft maybe is stuck in his own suffering (as he mentioned some major family tragedies in recent years) and I know how that feels. The difference between the two of us is that it seems he can’t imagine anything else other than the struggle. I understand life often involves struggle. It’s just I don’t want that to be the defining feature of my experience. Still, I understand the attraction of that worldview. I have just decided to resist that attraction because of the dark turn of mind it leads to.
Here is what really caught my attention in Kelley’s book:
“I did not write this book for those traditional leftists who have traded in their dreams for orthodoxy and sectarianism. Most of those folks are hopeless, I’m sad to say. And they will be the first to dismiss this book as utopian, idealistic, and romantic. Instead, I wrote it for anyone bold enough still to dream”
This relates to why I naturally imagine democracy as both means and ends. The trade union guy, on the other hand, only imagines it as a means and even then only a partial means. If he were given a choice between democracy and struggle for the ’cause’, I feel confident he’d choose the latter.
The worldview he is in is that of tragedy. It is a compelling worldview because it creates a sense of high drama and that can be addictive. When someone is dealing with much suffering, it is a natural worldview to be drawn to. But I’d rather live in a different kind of story, a different kind of vision of the world.
I really do believe it matters what we focus on. Also, the means matter as much or more than the ends, for the latter is implicit in the former. What we focus on and how we act will determine the path we take and the results that will follow. I’ll accept what struggle cannot be avoided, but I have no desire to seek out struggle for the sake of it.
I genuinely believe democracy is our greatest hope. I don’t mean voting and other official political processes. What I envision isn’t just a politics of democracy, but more important an entire society and culture of democracy. In a very real and basic sense, we are all in this together. Our fates are intertwined.
A turn toward that understanding can’t be forced. It must be embraced and given the space to grow.
“Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”