Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Pardon my absence.
I've been hibernating;
trying to spare my fellows,
but it's impossible.
The raging river.
The half empty rafts.
A closet full of clothes
never to be worn again.
I have a sister again, she said.
I am a lion. (moon)
I am a scorpion. (rising)
I am the hunter hunted. (sun)
I am not yet born. (childish)
I am the hot petulant tear
who needs to be reminded
that one can only go it alone.
The universe's atoms and mine
scattered like a tray of marbles tipped
me vs. me
winning and losing
at the same time.

Why blog? Because I’m a secret narcissist. Secret’s out, I guess. Yesterday I received this message from a friend:

So, we recently subscribed us to Netflix, and among the first of the DVDs we received from our list was Bowling for Columbine. It crashed (surface damage) 1 hr 20 minutes into it (and heck, we needed a break by that point anyway), so we flipped it and watched the special features.

And there's footage of Michael Moore speaking in Denver six months after the release of the film. During his speech, he tries to get the audience fired up on phoning their congressmen in support of some upcoming "gun loophole legislation." Not many people raise their hands to commit to making a phone call.

It prompted quite a conversation between us about activism, and what it takes, mentally, for someone to switch over from inactive to activism. Personally, when I'm outraged about something, when I'm really frustrated with some political or economic policy or event, I want to talk about it. I rant about it. But that's it. And I'm thinking lots of folks are like me. The Internet is full of weblogs written by politically outraged people who otherwise aren't doing much.

It seems to me that there are several possible responses to political/economic outrage:

1. doing nothing
2. talking, writing, weblogging about it
3. the structured response (i.e. phoning a congressman when instructed to do so; writing a letter to protest an injustice when provided an address and an example letter by your local chapter of Amnesty International)
4. creating your own custom response (e.g. organizing a protest rally; throwing a pie at Bill Gates, or eggs at the U.S. President's limousine)

So, my question:

Is it typically a linear progression from 1 to 4? Or do people go directly from inaction to #4? And what does it take, mentally, to switch over to #4? Does someone inclined to activism mentally personalize political and economic policies and events differently than someone inclined to #2?

I just thought you might have some insight.


Well, this friend of mine poses an interesting question, and one upon which I said I’d think on. Having done so, my initial response is that politicization it’s probably like the process of grief, with a range of known or common phases. Some people experience all of them in a common particular order while others go through very few or possibly none or maybe stay stuck in one phase forever.

I think about my own experiences. I’ve always been an angry letter writer, but for years my satisfaction came in the writing not the delivering. So even to this day, I have one particular letter I wrote in response to an article in The South End, Wayne State University's student paper. The article was a ridiculous piece equating gay rights with “special” rights. Aach, special rights. The foundation upon which it was written was super sketchy and to this day it’s the response of which I’m most proud—but I never mailed it to the paper.

I also remember an incident that to this day still sticks in my craw. I had gone to visit my parents for the weekend, and my mother drove me to the Greyhound station for my return trip. She wanted to put my ticket on her credit card, but when I went to the ticket counter they said that she would have to come to the counter to sign for it. That much was understandable, but, as I explained, it was very difficult for my mom to get in and out of the car due to physical weakness caused by a congenital illness that was becoming symptomatic. I asked if the ticket person could instead accompany me to the parking lot where my mother was waiting in the car. I could draw the story out but the short of it, is that she refused and so did the manager whom I eventually requested to see. It was mid-afternoon in Grand Rapids, Michigan (not exactly known for serious crime like carjacking or kidnapping), no other customers were in line, and the car and my mother were visible from the ticket counter. It couldn’t have been more than 20 feet from the tiny station’s front door. But they wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t policy. I was asked, “if she can’t get out of the car, then how did she get in it?” I have never come so close to decking somebody. I was absolutely incensed and outraged at their stupid bureaucracy and lack of compassion. After lunging at the woman behind the counter, I went out to the car where to my surprise—and my mom’s and my aunt’s—I burst into tears. To be honest I don’t remember how the situation was resolved, though my aunt admonished me gently, saying that I needed to be strong for my mom. The entire bus ride, I scratched out the most scathing the letter. I was determined that not only would both the ticket clerk and her manager be reprimanded, but I was going to send a copy of my letter to the Grand Rapids Press, hopefully inspiring the firing of both people. But as always, the act of writing was all I needed to move on with my life. I never mailed the letters though I felt guilty for not doing so.

To say the impact of the Internet on protests of any size, shape, or form, has been enormous is a tremendous understatement. If you want to march, you can find other marchers. If you want to turn your back on the president’s inauguration, you can do it en masse with others who’ve found out about it and signed up. So many prewritten letters and petitions circulate that one may start to wonder if they’re truly effective. Still, the Internet has opened the door to the perception that I, as an individual, can make a difference. From there it has been a relatively easy jump for me to actually get out there and march or leaflet for a cause or phone bank for an issue or candidate, especially because I live in the Bay Area, which has a rich heritage of activism as long as you can stand all the patchouli. (Many times I cannot.)

Yah, I’ve marched. I’ve marched up and down San Francisco. Marched to voice opposition to the Iraqi occupation/war. Marched against Bush’s victory in 2000. Marched in the annual dyke march. Marched in support of Palestine. My flat feet have gotten flatter, making the rounds around City Hall and through the streets of San Francisco. And my fingers need respite from all the petitions and letters emailed and forwarded—or deleted when I become overwhelmed by my inbox. I’ve even attended a Ruckus training. I also try to keep myself informed even though the task is daunting. I can’t tell you how many newsletters and bulletin board digests I receive on a daily basis; if I hadn’t worn glasses before, I’m sure I’d be seeking out ocular therapy wherever it’s doled out.

But try as I may, only rarely can I escape what Joe Bageant calls “the politics of the comfort zone.” Talking, writing, blogging, being told what to write or say or do and doing it or creating one’s own response—it all feels like the first thing on my friend’s list, i.e., doing nothing. For that, I feel guilty and immensely so. The only time I feel like I am having an impact on the social ills we face is when I volunteer my time and physical presence—not just marching or writing a check, but actually doing something whether delivering meals to the needy, mentoring an adult learning to read, sitting through emergency response trainings so that when the next big quake hits, maybe I’ll be able to useful.

Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with donating to charities or doing whatever suits you—something is better than nothing. Yet, I agree with those whose sentiments are similar to Bageant’s. It’s damn difficult to become radicalized if the raison d’être isn’t shoved hard in your face—like 9/11. I remember writing at the time that I would gladly take up arms to protect my country. Well, that was then. Not all of us are born Che Guevara, and even Ernesto himself wasn’t born Che. He only became who he was after he’d forced himself to experience the world the way his brethren did. I think that’s what it takes for most people to move beyond letter writing or egging Bill Gates. Though I’d always felt sympathy for homeless people, I never preached against homelessness as strongly as I did when I nearly became homeless myself. You stand up for yourself and others when you have something to protect, something to lose, even if that something is only the ability to look yourself in the eye when facing a mirror.

You tell me. Does someone inclined to activism mentally personalize political and economic policies and events differently than someone inclined to sit back and let others sort things out? Additionally, to experience the richness of life must we live as if life is dependent upon our actions?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your response was interesting. I think for myself that it would take very personal circumstances to drive me into time-consuming activism. And I think most people are like that. People dying of cancer or AIDS become activists for their medical conditions, and that's not surprising. People who have a loved one injured in a shooting become anti-gun activists, and that's not surprising. What is surprising, and much less commmon in my experience, is a person who's active across multiple causes that aren't immediately personal to them. I have to imagine that they mentally personalize those causes somehow. Or maybe it's just I (and most people) are culturally desensitized to how personally we're actually affected by some of these things. And the activists are less desensitized. I was pretty curious to see whether an activist would say that others are desensitized, or would say that they personally work to mentally personalize their causes.

1:08 PM  

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