You probably know Tom’s voice if you’ve listened to my radio show. He and I represented about half of the southern Humboldt folk who opposed Measure T last year, and more often than not we’ve found ways to piss off pretty much everyone across the political spectrum at one time or another. Among the eggregious topics was activistism – we read from the essay on a couple of shows. The feeling is that the majority of direct action and demonstrations taking place are at best a waste of time and on some occasions actually counter-productive. I intend to write something up in more detail about the over-use of the demonstration, and the lack of real thought on the part of the usual participants, but I wanted to touch on the topic while it’s fresh.
So for activistism:
This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hypermediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a 19th-century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous. The activistists seem to borrow their philosophy from the factory boss in a Heinrich Böll short story who greets his employees each morning with the exhortation “Let’s have some action.” To which the workers obediently reply: “Action will be taken!”
Activists unconsciously echoing factory bosses? The parallel isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, as another German, Theodor Adorno, suggests. Adorno—who admittedly doesn’t have the last word on activism, since he called the cops on University of Frankfurt demonstrators in 1968—nonetheless had a good point when he criticized the student and antiwar movement of the 1960s for what he called “actionism.” In his eyes this was an unreflective “collective compulsion for positivity that allows its immediate translation into practice.” Though embraced by people who imagine themselves to be radical agitators, that thoughtless compulsion mirrors the pragmatic empiricism of the dominant culture—”not the least way in which actionism fits so smoothly into society’s prevailing trend.” Actionism, he concluded, “is regressive…. It refuses to reflect on its own impotence.”
On the other hand, the left also has a bad habit of brutalizing the English language by taking any noun, verb, or adjective and putting an ism on the tail end to create a catch-all word to describe some opposition to your own world view. But this time it’s okay because anything is acceptable if taken as irony. That’s my personal rule – ironyism.
So it’s with ironyism in mind that I make note of Tom’s letter to the Redwood Times in response to this article about a weekly peace vigil held at noon right here in Garberville. Unlike Tom, I do take comfort in the fact that they’re there even though my work schedule doesn’t allow me to participate. There is some importance to visibility. Tom is not impressed with the “honk for peace” sign that encourages a disturbing of the peace in the name of peace. However, it was another sign that really chafes his craw (do I have that metaphor right?). He writes to the RT:
But my glee must question itself, for in the middle ground of the photograph we read on another sign that, “The Terrorists are U.S.” Since I am a citizen of this country, I am apparently a terrorist. In spite of all my honking, I (like most readers of this paper) am guilty of horrendous crimes. Who would believe the honking of a terrorist? How do we distinguish between a terrorist honk and a peace-loving honk?
Tom is of course addressing the original sin approach to progressive politics, which applies to racism, sexism, imperialism, and every other ism worth fighting. We is it. And the only redemption is…. action. Action will be taken.
The demonstrators are all good people, and I consider some of them personal friends. But if Tom, a progressive whose politics border on socialist, is getting this message and responding as he does, imagine the impact on the vast majority of ordinary folk who are on the lunch clock as they’re driving by this very exclusive demo. As with every demonstration, the strategy should be considered. Whom are we reaching? How are we reaching them? How will we measure the success of the demonstration?
From the essay:
How does activist anti-intellectualism manifest on the ground? One instance is the reduction of strategy to mere tactics, to horrible effect. Take for example the largely failed San Francisco protest against the National Association of Broadcasters, an action that ended up costing tens of thousands of dollars, gained almost no attention, had no impact on the NAB and nearly ruined one of the sponsoring organizations. During a postmortem discussion of this debacle one of the organizers reminded her audience that: “We had 3,000 people marching through [the shopping district] Union Square protesting the media. That’s amazing. It had never happened before.” Never mind the utter non-impact of this aimless march. The point was clear: We marched for ourselves. We were our own targets. Activism made us good.
And maybe the good Paul Encimer and friends have thought these questions through, and have their answers, or at least some of them. Let’s just remember that a demonstration is not necessarily successful simply because it happens.
Oh, and I forgot to mention – the RT’s edit of Tom’s letter to change the spelling from minuscule to miniscule is technically erroneous. minuscule is the proper spelling.