Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sustainable Activism?

Last Sunday The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story by Isabel Hayes that seems to have caught the attention of both Al Gore and John Nichols' The Beat blog. Here is the introductory summary in her report:

Tens of thousands of protesters - and a few sceptics - have taken to the streets across Australia to urge the major political parties to take action on climate change.

Both Labor and the coalition have failed to take decisive action to cut Australia's pollution levels in the run-up to the federal election, Walk Against Warming rallies in Australia's capital cities heard on Sunday.

Events held in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Darwin, Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth attracted tens of thousands of people.

Gore's blog ran a similar summary under the headline "The Movement We Need."

I certainly agree with the spirit of Gore's headline. Since he and I are roughly of the same generation, I am sure we share memories of the role that public activism played in advancing the cause of the civil rights movement. One might even say that the very turnout for the March of Washington provided one of the reasons why the "I Have a Dream" speech now has such an iconic position in the history of the United States of America. However, it is also important to recognize that this was a time when activism was being exercised on multiple fronts, the other most important being protest against the Vietnam War. In retrospect, however, we can see how each of these protest movements provided energy for the other. Ironically, the President who signed the resulting civil rights legislation into law was also the President forced out of office because of Vietnam. Such are the consequences when there are too many targets for protest.

This is the situation we now face. Yes, the health of the entire planet is a serious issue. It would be foolish to quibble over whether it is more or less serious than either the physical or fiscal health of citizens of the United States (or any other country); but could it be that our own lack of activism derives from our being confronted with too many crisis issues? Might it also be that the root cause of all of these issues is just too abstract to support a mass protest movement?

Think about it by beginning with the extent to which Main Street has not yet recovered from the economic crisis while Wall Street has returned to business-as-usual. This is nothing less than Main Street being reduced to those conditions of "serfdom" that prompted Friedrich Hayek to write such an alarmist exposition and circulate it through The Reader's Digest. If that is not enough to keep the general population in an enslaved state, then the unchecked economics of health care pretty much seal the deal. Confronted with a future that offers no promise of ever getting out of this mud, can you blame people for not worrying about whether that mud is polluted or whether it, along with just about everything else, may get washed away in a massive flood similar to the one that just struck Pakistan? The root cause has to do with a government that reflects the highly politicized vision of Republicans as the party of "no government 'of the people, by the people, for the people," in favor of a government concerned with little more than selling "the people" a bill of goods. However, this impact extends beyond our own country. Globalization has made this a world of government by oligarchy on an international scale, and that oligarchy is based on nothing less than Hans Magnus Enzensberger's consciousness industry. How do people respond to such a cause through activism when the cause itself has warped their minds against even the possibility of activism?

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