Beyond Magical Thinking: How to Really Make Change Happen
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Since the summer of 2003, I've crisscrossed the country speaking at colleges and theaters and bookstores, first with The Weather Underground documentary and, starting in March of this year, with my book, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (William Morrow, 2009). In discussions with young people, they often tell me, “Nothing anyone does can ever make a difference.”
The words still sound strange: it's a phrase I never once heard forty years ago, a sentiment obviously false on its surface. Growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, I – and the rest of the country – knew about the civil rights movement in the South, and what was most evident was that individuals, joining with others, actually were making a difference. The labor movement of the Thirties to the Sixties had improved the lives of millions; the anti-war movement had brought down a sitting president – LBJ, March 1968 – and was actively engaged in stopping the Vietnam War. In the forty years since, the women's movement, gay rights, disability rights, animal rights, and environmental movements have all registered enormous social and political gains. To old new lefties, such as myself, this is all self-evident.
So, why the defeatism? In the absence of knowledge of how these historical movements were built, young people assume that they arose spontaneously, or, perhaps, charismatic leaders suddenly called them into existence. On the third Monday of every January we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. having had a dream; knowledge of the movement itself is lost.
The current anti-war movement's weakness, however, is very much alive in young people's experience. They cite the fact that millions turned out in the streets in the early spring of 2003 to oppose the pending U.S. attack on Iraq, but that these demonstrations had no effect. “We demonstrated, and they didn't listen to us.” Even the activists among them became demoralized as numbers at demonstrations dropped off very quickly, street demonstrations becoming cliches, and, despite a big shift in public opinion in 2006, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan droned on to today. The very success of the spontaneous early mobilization seems to have contributed to the anti-war movement's long-term weakness.
Something's missing. I first got an insight into articulating what it is when I picked up Letters from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out, edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin and Kenyon Farrow (Nation Books, 2005). Andy Cornell, in a letter to the movement that first radicalized him, “Dear Punk Rock Activism,” criticizes the conflation of the terms “activism” and“organizing.” He writes, “ activists are individuals who dedicate their time and energy to various efforts they hope will contribute to social, political, or economic change. Organizers are activists who, in addition to their own participation, work to move other people to take action and help them develop skills, political analysis and confidence within the context of organizations. Organizing is a process – creating long-term campaigns that mobilize a certain constituency to press for specific demands from a particular target, using a defined strategy and escalating tactics.” In other words, it's not enough for punks to continually express their contempt for mainstream values through their alternate identity; they've got to move toward “organizing masses of people.”
Aha! Activism = self-expression; organizing = movement-building.
Until recently, I'd rarely heard young people call themselves “organizers.” The common term for years has been “activists.” Organizing was reduced to the behind the scenes nuts-and-bolts work needed to pull off a specific event, such as a concert or demonstration. But forty years ago, we only used the word “activist” to mock our enemies' view of us, as when a university administrator or newspaper editorial writer would call us “mindless activists.” We were organizers, our work was building a mass movement, and that took constant discussion of goals, strategy and tactics (and, later, contributing to our downfall ideology).