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Jeffrey P. Colin Headshot

The Noble Delusion of Mass Activism

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It is my guess that this will be one of my least popular posts to date (even though my posts are not all that popular to begin with). I am assailing one of the holy grail concepts in both American and world politics: Activism. While I am not intending to call this pursuit "evil," I am suggesting that it is a less than productive and/or thoughtful pursuit. So, in addition to irritating the few that read it, it is my hope that it might encourage some to consider new channels for their energies outside of the readily accepted paths that are defined through "activism."

There is an unproven belief that has persisted among the masses that, by collecting our voices together, we can change anything we wish to for the better. While that appears to be quite noble and easily defended on the surface, there are numerous core assumptions contained in that idea that do not match the complexities of our society. "Activism" is at the core of most American and world political movements. The idea is that amassing enough energy is the key to unlocking the positive potential of any situation. While that may be the case, the kind of energy, and the direction of that energy actually end up have a lot more to do with what is accomplished than the actual amount of energy that is brought to bear. Just as is the case in analyzing force in physics, similar concepts apply in political realities. In other words, there actually are problems that will defy solution. It is wise to accept that, and deal with what can be dealt with.

Much of what arises from the masses to gel into political "movements" appear to be reactions to either deep frustrations and/or desperation on the part of the masses, or highly directed and/or subverted efforts by the entities that might often be those causing frustrations among the masses. In other words, such "activist" movements tend to be either created by the "oppressed masses," or the perceived "oppressors." More often than not, movements arise around charismatic and idealistic leaders, or they quickly die out. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a great example of an "activist" movement that has quickly died out. Apparently, a lack of formal leadership does matter, contrary to what the most dedicated OWS people might have wanted to believe. When powerful corporate or government forces create "movements," they tend to lay down solid foundations for their efforts, with deep media and organizational structures in play. The idea of "leaderless" ad hoc movements has a certain romantic and folkloric appeal, but rarely accomplishes much in the long run, though I would expect many people to angrily disagree.

For all the idiotic nostalgic gloating about the accomplishments of the 1960s, if we really look closely at the record of what the "Hippies" and other social and political "movements" of that period accomplished, we will find that what is claimed to have had its genesis in such movements often were advanced most effectively in the courts, by powerful politicians or corporate backers, or by specialized organizations that worked on issues over decades, and in cooperation with other similar organizations. The idea of the "people rising up against evil" is mostly mythology -- much like a self-aggrandizing pat on the back by many egotistical romantics who have persisted in overstating their own importance in having held up signs, marched, or signed petitions. This is not the same as some of the ground breaking efforts at civil disobedience undertaken by people like Rosa Parks, and others in the Civil Rights, LGBT, and other effective and passionate "movements." Such people acted against specific injustices in ways that were not vague or convoluted, but actually established legal, ethical, and business challenges that could not be ignored. In short, they actually did something rather than "advocating" for something.

When we see the nondescript and non-specific types of movements that exist currently, we might wish to believe that this is only a recent phenomenon. It is actually something that is quite old and common in our country. Aside from a few very rare and well organized "activist movements," most of what has been touted as "activism" in the United States has been little more than brief excited groupings of propaganda producing ideologues. Some truly fantastic movements have arisen. The consumerist efforts of people like Ralph Nader have been able to push forward action on the part of government agencies and corporations. However, this has mostly happened because of the genius and passion of people like Nader himself, and far less because of any grouping of poorly trained or ad hoc "activists." Such effective efforts are actually quite rare, and the people who have led them are usually possessed of epic skills and passions.

Essentially then, "activism" in its popular conception, centers around the idea of populist power. If one believes that the masses as a group can be moved to stand up to "injustices" or "inequality," then one tends to believe in the efficacy of "activism." History does not support such ideas, and for any instance where there is a claim of popular origins for political change, one can frequently, if not always, find specific powerful people or entities that played critical roles in bringing about such change behind the scenes. In fact, the very efforts to organize such any mass efforts are invariably undertaken by highly skilled and/or, usually highly educated individuals. When such powerful forces have been lacking, popular movements have tended to fail.

The power that the masses possess arises not so much from getting together to "demand change," but from undertaking what changes they can make on their own. For those who oppose Hydraulic Fracturing, for example, using public transportation more, using less fossil fuel based heating and air conditioning, growing their own gardens without petroleum based chemicals, could all impact the need for future "Fracking." Such points are frequently not made clear to people in the body of their propaganda, because much of the funding for "activist" organizations depends on what such organizations are doing in efforts to "organize." Contrary to what many such entities preach, they are doing little to "empower" people at all. They are seeking to prolong broad political and social efforts, often at the expense of promoting changes in personal behavior that could, if promoted well, have far greater impacts than any political or corporate efforts ever could.

At the risk of sounding like a fatalist, I wanted to introduce the idea that personal change is far more important than "movements" or "activism." It should be apparent to even the most ardent supporters of such types of activities that when an individual makes up their mind to change based on personal interests and personal experiences, that change is far more likely to be sustained that when it is inspired by propaganda or mass fervor. Activism has become a sad pejorative concept for many of us -- indicative of many people more interested in urging governmental or corporate change than in actually working directly in communities to do it themselves. The odd concept of actually working with a group that builds homes for the poor, rather than "advocating" for the government to subsidize low income housing seems lost on many. The order of magnitude of effort is not actually much different between such efforts, but many seem to see private organizational or local efforts as less worthy of support than those undertaken by government, or those mandated to be undertaken by private industry.

The best I could hope for in making this post is that some might consider more direct service activities over "activism" in the future. If even half of the population of the United States actually got up to directly approach an issue of interest to themselves, the results positive changes would likely be unprecedented in history. Community gardens, community low income housing projects, community clinics, and a universe of other activities are possible, if we are just willing to engage ourselves directly. That is distinct from the largest majority of so-called "activist" activities that focus on asking others to do things on our behalf. And again, this is not a blanket indictment of all "activism." It is the case that the occasional "activist" activity produces results sustained over a long period of time. But consider that, even in the case of the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s, laws can be reversed by many entities. Once you change the thought processes of an individual, you have a good chance of seeing that positively impact the future for a long long time.

At some point, there will an awakening in popular culture that individual actions are overall more important than collective actions. Just as it is not collective efforts that shower us, brush our teeth, or dress us each day, it is not collective actions that make notable social changes. It is personal choice, for example, to abandon racial or other bigotries. No amount of collective effort can force someone to abandon the insanity of racial or other hatreds. Such decisions are spiritual/moral ones, and while having adequate and timely information can help people reach such decisions, only a unique and truly human process allows humans to choose to function in a more enlightened manner. Thus, the need for "movements" is largely overstated. Efforts to educate and organize are necessary, but much of what is done by movements such as OWS has proven to be superfluous nonsense. As individuals, we really need to focus our efforts on things that yield clear and tangible results, and leave meaningless ideologies for dreamers, ideologues, and malicious obstructionists. Peace.

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