query: are activists foolish?
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Thu May 24 22:37:00 CDT 2007
[ed: please feel welcomed to engage in the discussion Larry is inviting.]
From: Larry Yates <lamaryates at igc.org>
I'd like to put an idea out there for possible discussion.
It seems to me that one of the popular images of activists and
organizers -- both in the media and among ourselves -- is of activists
as foolish, disorganized, personally quirky, and generally goofy. Our
public events are scruffy, we have all kinds of internal disagreements,
we are silly and inconsistent about our vast range of issues, many of
which are irrelevant., and we are always unrealistic and out of the
I would be the last to say there is no truth to all this. But at the
same time, I seriously doubt that most of these labels are more true of
us than of the population in general. In fact, I would suggest that this
is a myth that plays at least one social role. (I think popular jokes
often do this -- one clear example is the many jokes about women talking
all the time while men suffer in silence. As if.)
Here are a couple of social roles such a humorous image might play.
First, it "explains" why any one would be an activist/organizer, when
this is obviously not only low paid and risky, but not as "socially
productive" as a "real job" llike being a lawyer, corporate lobbyist,
academic, social worker, or business executive. Organizers and activists
do it because they are just kooky -- maybe in a nice way, but still
kooky.They don't choose a profession in a reasonable way -- they fall
into it because they just can't help themselves. They don't plan
campaigns -- they erupt into protests willy nilly. Unlike say Paul
Wolfowitz or Dick Cheney, they lack impulse control.
At another level, the image serves us as self-deprecating humor. This is
certainly not all bad, but it can also be part of excusing ourselves for
not winning, or even create an expectation that we never will win. It
can play into a belief that we are "good but can't get our act together"
while "they" are evil but efficient.
I'm going to put out there that perhaps we need to at least among
ourselves be aware that this image is not only potentially harmful to
us, but that it is plain wrong factually.
Strategically, the people who are pushing for a serious response to
climate change, institutional racism, and homophobia, and leading local
fights against environmentally vicious facilities, etc etc, are hardly
the goofy ones. If we have ancestors, they will probably see us as the
only people who were at least minimally sane -- much as we see
abolitionists from slavery days, or resisters to apartheid or Nazism --
the few who were not consumed by what seems, in retrospect, to be mass
Tactically, we are also far from fools. We have won many victories, and
buliit powerful movements, despite the fact that we are going against
the grain of this society's elite and the immense financial and
propaganda power that it wields. Corporations certainly recognize this
-- they spend a vast amount of money and time figuring out how to get
around us or run over us, often in anticipation of what we might do.
They have even set up an entire TV network whose main task is to
demonize us and anyone who dares to ally with us. We may have forgotten
that a civil right revolution led by working class African Americans
transformed democracy in this country, but the ruling elite never has.
Socially, we have a grasp of human dynamics in this society that is
quite rare. A person in the world of business or government who has as
solid a grasp of how to work with people as the average experienced
organizer is pretty unusual -- often a star. Not only that, but this is
an area where we are getting better -- and where young organizers
especially are breaking new ground.
Even at a functional level, we do pretty damn well with minimal and
unreliable resources, managing to keep operating in circumstances that
destroy small businesses every day.
None of this is meant to say that we are perfect, or winning every
fight, or even that we do not screw up royally now and then.
I think we should not willingly let ourselves be presented as fools, or
think of ourselves as fools. We don't walk on water, and we are no
better than our last win. But in the context of this society, we are
clearly not the fools.
VOP Valley Organizer
P.O. Box 245
Maurertown VA 22644
540 436 3432
llyates at shentel.net
Personal website: www.user.shentel.net/llyates
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