Towards a Psychology of Activism

An ordinary beautiful San Francisco day in 1979.  Home from work, flicked on the tube, the announcer droned that the jury had just convicted ex-cop Dan White of manslaughter for the carefully planned murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.  People were gathering at the Civic Center.

I immediately hopped in my car and headed downtown, parking several safe blocks from the scene.  Thousands were gathered before the Civic Center steps, mostly silent in stunned vigil.  The prosecution had horribly botched a slam-dunk case.  Many thought deliberately botched.  A nervous line of cops surrounded the building, and 13 police cars were parked alongside the mall across the way.

Nothing happened.  The crowd swelled.  On man began tugging on a parking meter along the sidewalk.  Its moorings loosened, he kept rocking it until the meter came free.  He took the meter and smashed in the windshield of one of the cop cars, then ran for the cover of the crowd.  The crowd only watched.  The police only watched.

Another man — or the same man — approached the car with a crumpled newspaper, lit it, tossed it through the gaping windshield, and the inside of the car began to slowly burn.  The crowd watched.  The police watched.  I watched.

Mass production.  Several men began dislodging parking meters, going down the line, smashing more windshields, nervous, angry, ready to flee if the police moved.  The police didn’t move.  Some in the crowd gestured for the men to stop, but didn’t press the matter.  By now, the crowd had somewhat sorted itself out.  Most, stage left and center, were distinctly peaceful, in silent vigil.  Those stage right were more visibly angry.

The evening darkened.  Gas tanks began to explode.  It’s not like in the movies, no mighty blast.  Just a dull crump and the flames a bit higher.  Black smoke started pouring out of the cars, and as the flames shorted out the wiring, the horns started howling in a steady scream.

A fire truck began making its slow way down the street towards the fires.  The crowd, the peaceful crowd, parted before it, parting ever more slowly.

Then the moment.  I was about 10 feet from the truck’s path, but I knew what was about to happen.  I saw the people in front of the truck twitching, their bodies positioned to move aside, but their feet not moving.  The moment seemed frozen for just a few seconds, then it seemed like everyone at once took a step, watching their neighbors, two steps, toward the fire truck, closed solid around it, and the truck stopped cold.  Waited a minute for instructions.  Then slowly backed away not to return.

13 police cars burned that night, screaming like banshees as black smoke billowed as though it were a war zone.  Which in a way it was.

The police finally tried to force the crowd to leave, but the park was in darkness, the lights all smashed, and a hail of paving concrete flying out of the darkness drove them back.  It was late, people had jobs, had to get up next morning.  They went home.  (The Wikipedia account differs in significant ways from what I saw.  The Wikipedia account is wrong.)

Yes, there was leadership present.  But the action was not led by them.  A crowd of largely strangers came together, took collective intelligent action, skirmished with the police, went home having made their point.  The moment that sticks with me is the moment when they stepped in front of that fire truck, the brief glances they shot each other, the final determination in their eyes.

Hold that moment.

Flash forward to now.  We have a blogosphere of at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions.  We are outraged.  We are intelligent.  We are well-informed.  (Lord, are we well-informed!)  Events happen, and we now about them usually in less than a day.  We are politically sophisticated.  We are organizationally experienced.  We are politically impotent.

In some ways the disconnect between our potential and our practice is astounding.  In very particular ways, we act collectively as dumb as posts.  Now some folks like to go around calling other people stupid.  I don’t.  Gave that up years ago.  One thing I’ve learned over the years is that when intelligent people act dumb, the issue is not IQ, it is that there are emotional and psychological and methodological problems.

In Towards a Method of Activism I try to examine progressive methodology and its discontents.  Here I want to try to examine some of the emotional issues that hold us back.  So let me take a look at some of the positions that constantly come up in our discourse.  Pardon my bluntness.  I seek to understand, not excoriate.

1.  We need to stop just talking to each other about what we already know.  Who wouldn’t disagree with this.  But there is comfort in sharing our powerlessness with OTHERS.

2.  First we need to unite the left.  In the aggregate, we know a lot of history.  Never in history has the left united.  At best, segments of the left unite, usually around a specific course of action.  We could do something if only OTHERS got it together.

3.  Labor has to lead.  It was a driving force in the 1930’s, made Roosevelt “do it.”  Plays a large, but never radical, role in today’s progressive politics.  When I point out to proponents of this that labor won’t lead, advocates of this position always back off.  Yet they cling to it even as they deny it.  Again, we could do something if only OTHERS take charge.

4.  We need big money to do anything.  Big money would be good.  But of course, the central conflict is between the rich who run things and the poor who don’t.  Yes, progressive sugar-daddies and sugar-mommas will come along.  But they never put up money blind.  They wait until something gives signs of getting off the ground, and then they kick in.  People know this.  But they prefer to perpetuate this dependence on OTHERS.  (We can’t, until …)

5.  Important progressive leaders must step forward.  See the above.  We would follow if only important OTHERS take the lead.

6.  We need media coverage.  You know, the corporate-owned media that feeds us lies every day.  See the above.  More OTHERS.

There are variations.  People work on Democratic Party campaigns, like they’ve been doing for 40 years.  The Democratic Party provides a structure that gives the illusion of empowerment.  People know that this is an illusion.  They only have to look out their windows to be reminded.  But there is comfort in this illusion.  Or we need to keep screaming at those in power to do something.  If only we could scream loud enough.  A loud variation of the dependence on OTHERS.

In sum, the blogosphere is in the position of dependence on powerful OTHERS that they know will not do what the blogosphere insists needs to be done.

There are strange attitudes towards the notion of leadership.  We see this cry for leadership from those in positions of prestige and power, this dependence on OTHERS, and at the same time a resentment of anyone among their peers aspiring to lead.  No one has the right to tell ME what to do, we proudly proclaim.  Thus the paralysis is maintained.  Those we would follow won’t lead, those who might lead we won’t follow.  All opinions are equal, and even if the differences are small, the difference is more important than the level of agreement.

Let’s face it, for all our diversity, if we look past the minor disagreements, there are only so many broad courses of action out there.  If the blogosphere in all its numbers simply divided itself according to these broad outlooks, there would be the critical mass to pursue each of these courses of action.  Pick a leader by lottery.  What is ultimately lacking is not a lack of courses of action, but a will to act on the ones we have.  (I recognize that there is effective work, even heroic, going on right now, around specific issues.  I am discussing broad courses of action.)

Take the moment in San Francisco.  How did it happen?  No small part was that each person out there could look in the eyes of their neighbors, a raised eyebrow could be met by a raised eyebrow, a turn of the shoulders could be met by a turn of the shoulders.  A frightened lunge forward could be met by a lunge forward, and a loose mob turned into a solid wall.

We can’t look into each others’ eyes.  The blogosphere makes us gigantic, and at the same time it makes us tiny.

And even as we proclaim rhetorically the broadest and boldest actions, we are conditioned to think small.  I read something by a blogger whom I hold in high esteem:

So I was sitting around my house today, putting off doing my Latin homework, when it hit me – instead of just opening the fridge a dozen times and checking my facebook a hundred times, I could be putting this time to good use!  And I did.  I started doing some online phonebanking for Marcy Winograd’s campaign for Congress in California’s 36th district.  If you’re bored, feeling helpless and alone amidst a sea of political currents …

At least he’s trying to get people to do something.  I applaud that.  But is that our appeal?  Political activism as a relief from boredom?  I single this out perhaps unfairly.  But we do variations of this in so many ways.  We trivialize ourselves amidst our bold calls to action.  How about:

“Do you want to keep us from being crushed by encroaching fascism?”

“Do you want to end oppression and injustice?”

“Do you want to change this whole fucking world!”

I don’t want to get all nostalgic about the 60’s again, but it was true that even those pursuing even moderate liberal ends were infused with a sense of changing the world.  Remember the chant outside the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention:  “The whole world is watching!  The whole world is watching!”

The presence of Marxists gave impetus to this.  They had a plan, however flawed it ultimately was, to transform the world.  They were fighting for something big.  And if you’re fighting for something big, the commitment you are willing to make can be big.  If you are fighting to END injustice, you are willing to take greater risks, even of your life.  We have no equivalent today.  The best anyone really puts forward is the perfection of the liberal welfare state.  If that is your best shot, then risk-aversion makes sense.

People get very emotional about the threat of fascism.  Global warming.  Oil supplies running out.  The collapse of the American empire.  But they are all negatives.  They don’t inspire, they intimidate.  I have to say here that my wife and I have made out our passport applications.  But I do have hope of a new world.  It won’t be U.S.-centric.  It will entail a world community.  I don’t have it fleshed out enough even to myself to turn it into much of spiel.  It’s enough for me, but maybe I’m crazy.

Why am I even writing this?

Two developments.  The Coffee Party Movement.  The Washington Post reported on it a couple days ago, reported that it had gone from 3,500 Facebook fans to 9,200 (okay, score one for the media).  Today it is up to over 25,545 at this writing.  It is an unholy mishmash.  All the ordinary, unhappy but vaguely progressive people jumping into the pool at once.  No plan, but knowing they want to be together to do something.

Then there is the Union of the Unemployed, recently started by the International Union of Machinists.  The IAM is keeping it under tight control, getting people to yell at Jim Bunning rather than the Democratic leadership that set up this extension debacle, supporting a jobs bill that will encourage jobs, steeped in the most militant rhetoric of course, but no a word about directly creating jobs.  Well, what do you expect from the big unions?  I refresh their membership page every 5 minutes, and it’s up a few every time I look, 1,153 at this moment, from zero a month ago.

These aren’t the blogosphere.  These are regular folks.  A year ago, I predicted that 2009 would be the year of the Titanic sinking, and people would be clinging terrified to the decks.  I said that 2010 would be the year that it went under and people would be in the water, and people are starting to try to swim.  That changes everything.  Rather than a paralyzed equilibrium, there is social movement bubbling up from below, however muddled and incoherent.  If leadership is provided, there are people crying out to be led.  If only we would.

So look to your neighbor.  Is there the equivalent of a raised eyebrow?  Or are they waiting for you to raise yours?  The turn of the shoulders?  What’s that mean on the blogosphere, what can you do to turn yours?  And that frightened small lunge forward.