Activism 101

True story. When I was a kid, I didn’t have any black magic markers. I had a box full of orange and yellow and green, but no black. Why? Because my parents used them all for protest signs.

At that time, they were very involved in local politics fighting corruption and environmental issues. Before that, my dad had rallied against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. By the time I was six, I knew how to collect petitions to organize a third party run for local office. My dad would position me outside of supermarkets, and I would thrust a clip board into the faces of shoppers.

After my folks became more religious during the Reagan era, they switched teams. Now, they put those protest skills to work for the Pro-Life movement. In their 80s, they still attend the March for Life.

So, I like activism. Like Hannah Arendt and Aristotle, I think that we are political animals, who come alive when participating in communal decision making. Sometimes, I get irritated when it’s done badly; I think that the Women’s Marches have been major missed opportunities to do something real. But there’s no question that activism is on the rise. I’m overjoyed over that students are walking out of schools to protest the lack of meaningful gun control.

The trick with activism is not to be too democratic; there needs to be some proper leadership. There has to be a concrete goal, but one that is a notch too high, so there is room for compromise. There has to be a group with the movement that knows how to use the media.

But change is happening pretty quickly, so there have definitely been more successes, than failures. In the midst of this Trump fiasco, there have been these little triumphs.



38 thoughts on “Activism 101

  1. I can’t picture my parents attending, let alone organizing, a protest. I think partially because the place we lived was so small, my dad would just go talk to whoever was running the thing.

  2. Hmm, de gustibus non est disputandum. Those kinds of activities leave me cold. I feel like when you look at history, most of the causes that aroused people are simply meaningless now (I mean: free coinage of silver?), or in some cases evil (read Henry Timrod), and there’s no way for those in the moment to distinguish what is meaningful and good from what is not.

    1. They don’t make everybody in Nebraska learn about Williams Jennings Bryan for nothing. “Free coinage of silver” isn’t meaningless now. It’s just an earlier round of the debate about inflation and the money supply and how the government should balance the interests of the wealthy with those of regular people.

      1. The kids today should read up on the “Cross of Gold” speech. Parts of it were written for farmers and rural laborers, but could easily be adapted to kids with lots of student loans or retail workers. Parts of it (e.g. ‘Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses”?’) could be cribbed wholesale and used today.

    2. I teach an interdisciplinary course on work. One of the assignments I have students do is to look at newspapers from the late 1800s to early 1900s and find articles about work. They are kind of shocked to read about how many strikes there were throughout this time. One student found out about a strike in her hometown that led to the deaths of 12 people at the hands of police mobilized by the governor. She had lived there her whole life and never knew about it.

      When I was in college in the 1980s and found out that women and people of color had been writing great stuff that was suppressed while boring crap by white male authors was being promoted as the best (I’m talking to you Herman Melville and James Fenimore Cooper) (Note: I actually like some of Melville’s work, but some of it is painful to read; Cooper is just unredeemable, and Mark Twain agrees with me), I was really pissed off. I think students today are going to be just as pissed off when they learn about the history that has been erased from their education.

      1. Living in Pittsburgh, it’s easier to remember the history of strikes. The former site of the Homestead Works is right across the river.

      2. Another mean thing I do is start off class asking them if they’ve ever been injured at work. I get lots of “sliced my finger doing food prep” or “burned myself” or “dropped a glass and cut myself picking it up.” Then I have them look at those same 1800s/1900s newspapers for stories about workplace injuries. Most of the stories are about getting electrocuted, sucked into a machine, or hit by a train while doing track work. Then I say, “Suck it up, snowflakes!”*
        *Not really.

    1. Loomis covers the Norris-La Guardia Act, which was also mentioned in Nebraska history classes. Except they somehow didn’t mention Norris had anything to do with supporting unions.

  3. Activism is not my personal style — often, the movements seem to be organized around a principle something like, “the world is wrong, fix it”. And, I think it is hard to fix the world, which is a complicated place.

    But, if the activism draws attention to the problem and we institutionalize efforts to develop policy in the long run, that’s a positive. And that some activism fizzles out doesn’t mean that some isn’t good.

    I’ve seen the mini-instiutionalization of efforts that I think started at facebook groups: for example, Washington’s Paramount Duty (which refers to a clause in the WA State constitution*: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex. ” and Pantsuit Nation. WA Paramount Duty now testifies in the State legislature, organizes efforts around school funding in WA state.

    *That clause, written by the writers of the WA constitution in the 19th century still amazes me.

    1. One thing about activism that I think is working is maintaining interest in the issue. Every time some RWNJ tries to claim that the shooting survivors are “crisis actors,” they are keeping the story in the news. We have been so discouraged by the forgetting that happens after a tragedy like this. With constant activism and marches and walkouts, these issues stay in the news, and the politicians can’t just pretend it didn’t happen and go back to sucking down those yummy NRA dollars.

    2. Particularly if you consider that Oregon’s constitution contained the line “No negro, Chinaman or mullato shall have the right of suffrage” until 1927.

  4. Yes, 1889, and you can see the original in the handwritten version. “”; All the signers are white men. I would love to hear about the person who wrote the words, but haven’t found anything in that depth.

    1. Oh, look, internet searching uncovers that the words were partially borrowed from the Florida 1968 reconstruction constitution: Article VII, Section 1, “It is the paramount duty of the State to make ample provision for the education of all the children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference. “. The Florida version doesn’t list interpretation of “without distinction or preference.”

  5. Civil rights, women’s rights, access to birth control, voting, workplace safety…social activism in action. Like Wendy alludes to above, we need to know our history and be inspired to continue pushing for change.

    1. Hmm, the use and abuse of history. The past contains Unionists and Confederates, Patriots and Tories, Cavaliers and Roundheads, Protestants and Catholics, etc. I can go through history and cherry pick the causes that I think resemble the causes I believe in now, but that won’t make the things I believe in any more true or right, and it will generally require considerable distortion and misunderstanding of the past as it was.

      For a useful exercise, consider which righteous causes of the past would be most inspirational for Laura’s parents in their pro-life activism?

      1. Really, do not try to be a historian or a history teacher. You don’t wear the black turtleneck and black jeans very well.

      2. Yes. I’ve heard and read plenty of historians on the use and abuse of history, but they usually put more effort into it than spouting off a few proper nouns.

  6. I will say, though, that my parents were sort of politically active. One of my earliest memories is attending a rally where we chanted, “Rah, rah, Nixon-Lodge.” (Very few people remember the name of Nixon’s running mate in 1960.) Later, my parents became more liberal, and my mother did volunteer work for John Lindsay. They thought, for a time, that handsome young progressive Ivy Leaguers (like Lindsay or Bobby Kennedy) would lead the nation into the broad sunlit uplands. Then they woke up. Neither my wife nor I has ever believed anything like that.

    My wife was also sort of in the Movement, but that was just to meet boys.

  7. One of my earliest memories is lacing hp my roller skates to skate along with my parents who were teachers and on strike. I got out of school on a glorious day and spent it with lots of folks who were charged up. It’s probably no coincidence that I both ended up in graduate school for political science too.

    I’ve been writing a textbook about women and politics – just finished the chapter on the history of the women’s movement. I completely agree with your analysis here. Social movements are more successful when they are focused around a goal – it lets everyone overlook those other annoying differences (like racism in early feminist movements) that can tear them apart.

    While there is lots of good protest going on here, I worry about the lack of clarity about the goal. I also think this is much more difficult these days. It’s much harder to get people to overlook racism, classism, etc. these days. This is a good thing, but also makes getting everyone on the same page harder. For instance, one of my co-authors heads a protest group; in trying to get people to come to an event, she asked them to bring their pink “pussy” hats. Several people in the group jumped on her for that, calling her a TERF (or a trans-exclusionary radical feminist – had to look that one up) for using that term. How are we going to get people to organize around concrete political goals when we get into fights about what we’re going to wear? 😉

    1. Kiddo is reading Saul Alinsky and talking about him. She’s going to write about community organizing in Chicago for a history paper and is working on refining topics. I know nothing, so it’s been interesting hearing her thoughts. Organizing around a goal in order to bring people who fundamentally disagree on important things together seems to be one of her themes. Another is manipulation.

      1. bj said:

        “Kiddo is reading Saul Alinsky and talking about him. She’s going to write about community organizing in Chicago for a history paper and is working on refining topics. I know nothing, so it’s been interesting hearing her thoughts. Organizing around a goal in order to bring people who fundamentally disagree on important things together seems to be one of her themes. Another is manipulation.”

        I was just having a chat online with a Red Pill/alt-right guy who sees Rules for Radicals as a how-to for his movement. One of the rules he likes is “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”

      2. Yes, a Tea party activist turned Koch brothers conservative organization veep referenced Alinsky in a NY Times article recently.

    2. Sounds like a great book, Shannon!

      I started shutting down on the Women’s March when it became about cute Instagram pictures of hats and then later when there were those long debates about whether the pink pussy hats were micro-aggressions against women of color who had brown pussies.

      1. You sound like Toby in the West Wing episode of “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.” (Showed it to my TV Studies class recently, simply for the scene about the Cartographers for Social Equality: “You can’t do that!” “Why not?” “Because it’s freaking me out!”)

      2. laura said,

        “I started shutting down on the Women’s March when it became about cute Instagram pictures of hats and then later when there were those long debates about whether the pink pussy hats were micro-aggressions against women of color who had brown pussies.”

        OH MY!

        I feel like my manosphere contacts keep me up to date on every dumb thing any woman on earth has ever done on social media, but I missed that one.

      3. I don’t feel like the manosphere really tracks these internecine leftist/feminist quarrels concerning TERFs, microaggressions by white women against women of color etc.

  8. My parents were very active in school board politics, though neither of them ever ran, and worked to support property tax increases. We were always up at the polling places for local elections passing out flyers. And for years afterwards, I could tell you immediately who was running in, say, 1977, by looking at all of our scrap paper.

    1. I read something else somewhere that basically said “These kids grew up on Harry Potter and the Hunger Games. Of *course* they were going to fight back against an authoritarian dystopia regime.”

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