And Today’s Activists Don’t Get What Activism Is Supposed To Do
I’m a child of the eighties. Growing up, if you wanted to do a history project, you had to go to the library, go through card catalogues and the stacks, and hope that the books you needed for your project were in the shelves or a worthy substitute was. (There was, just to be clear, not one definitive volume for any major subject even back then.) You had to go through volume after volume of encyclopedias and pencil down in handwriting that you hoped would be legible later and that you could remember the points. Then you had to go back home, and if you were fortunate, compose your notes into a subject on a computer if you had it. You almost always had to personally proofread it either way and save it on a floppy disk to make sure you did not lose it.
You had to go to brick and mortar stores to buy the books you needed if they were in stock for your projects. If you wanted to call someone and ask for advice, you had to use your landline and hope that your party got your message on an answering machine. And one more thing pertinent to my current field: if there was a show on television you wanted to see, you pretty much had to be there in order to see it. Reruns were fairly rare and never scheduled, and there was no way to see it again if you missed it. Even if you had a VHS recorder, good luck being able to program it so you could see the show you wanted to watch if you weren’t at home.
Today, the internet has changed all these things to make your life more convenient. Note I didn’t say ‘better’, just more convenient. The thing about progress that this current generation forgets very easily is that it leads to the obsolescence of so many things that were once the lifeblood of various industries. These lead to fewer jobs existing, fewer opportunities to work in any field, and a lot less of a lot of things. All progressives would do well to remember progress has always come at a cost and not all people find those costs rewarding.
Now, with full awareness that I am a straight, white male I would like to ask if African-American, LatinX, female, LGBTQ+ and basically everyone who is thirty or younger and spends so much of there time and energy complaining about how horrible the world is and for your identity group in particular. Many of you spend your time and energy degrading basically everyone who is older than you and who did not have the benefit or luxury of all of the advancements you have today. I’m not merely talking about the technological ones, though trust me that’s a huge part of it. I’m talking about the immense social changes that have taken place within their lifetimes that so many of you seem not only to take for granted, but somehow require as not enough.
I will not pretend that institutional racism does not exist or about the horrors that the average African-American faces to this day. But for those of you who are only in their twenties, I guarantee you that your parents and grandparents sometimes hear you complain and wonder if you realize how ungrateful you are. You are no longer counted as three-quarters of a person. You are no longer slaves. You no longer have to go to deal with colored-only bathrooms in the south or are unable to drink at white fountains because they don’t exist anymore. All of those African-American parents and children who complain so loudly and bitterly about not being taught black history in their schools are clearly forgetting that a generation ago they would not be able to attend so many of those schools, much less complain about the curriculum. (And I imagine the lion’s share of these complaints are in Northern private schools; the idea that so many of them would even think of living in Mississippi or Alabama would be repugnant to the loudest voices.)
I don’t pretend that misogyny and institutional sexism aren’t in every place in our daily life; I don’t pretend that gender equality is something that needs to be fought for. I would merely point out that women have in the twentieth century America gained more rights and freedoms than they did in the entire history of not only country but the world. At the founding of the republic John Adams mocked his wife about the idea of women voting, much less holding public office. Now an entire generation of women can mock the idea that Lauren Boebert or Marjorie Taylor Greene, both elected to Congress, are really representing women even though they have won reelection to their states. Women have run for President and the one who gained their nomination of a major party was denounced by feminists as not being a ‘real female candidate’. Women have gained power in financial, political and corporate institutions that would have been unthinkable even forty years ago. Not even as far-sighted a woman Abagail Adams could have thought about that, and I doubt even Eleanor Roosevelt would have thought it possible when she died.
Nor will I pretend about the horrors that the LGBTQ+ community faces in public every day of their lives. But I would add that they can now live their lives freely in a way that was impossible even a generation ago. In the 1950s, the Lavender Scare was so prevalent in the American government that Senator Lester Hunt of Wyoming took his life when his son was arrested for ‘unseemly behavior’. Now an openly gay man sought the Presidency in the last election and serves as the Secretary of Transportation.
To be clear, I am in no way say that life in America is perfect for any of these groups; I think even they are aware it never will be. But if so many of you have decided that some of the biggest fights worth waging are for representation in the latest Marvel and Star Wars projects (which is, to be clear, a waste of everybody’s energy) then don’t tell me your lives aren’t better now that these are the fights you think are important. And it is because of this that I think that the next generation of ‘activists’ have truly lost the narrative thread.
I don’t deny that so many people of this generation have a justifiable reason to be angry and furious with the way not only America but the entire world looks right now. It’s a mess, I grant you and there is a wing of our political system determined to make sure it goes back to the time before all of these changes took place. There are ways we can fight back and there are actions that can be taken. The problem is, not only this generation but the one prior to it has in the past several decades completely forgotten how to fight back.
Ever since the Boston Tea Party, activism has played a critical role in moving America forward. Much of that activism was theater designed as a means to an end. This continued for a long time, particularly among the most oppressed of our society, from the abolitionist movement to the Populist movement out west in the 1880s that led to the Progressive Era (I will write about that one day) the suffragette movement and the Civil Rights movement. All of these demonstrations were done with the idea of drawing attention to causes that would lead to systemic change. And it was, despite what the leftist history wants to tell you, hugely successful.
But as long as I have been alive, activism seems to have taken a completely different form. Public demonstrations, marches, protests all seem to be ends with no means. Raising awareness seems to be the idea, but that can never be enough if it doesn’t change anything. Which none of the movements in the last decade — from Occupy Wall Street to Defund the Police — have done. If the goal is to generate sound bites and posts on Instagram, that’s fine, but they seem to be what an entire generation considers a win.
I think the problem with so many of this generation’s of activists and extremists, particularly on the left, is that they can not correlate the immense ability of technological change with the slow progress of a democracy. Put bluntly, they are upset you can not download the most recent version of the Constitution with all the bugs in the software worked out or that amending it or changing any part of it is as easy as ordering on Amazon or Grub-hub. Some of them might actually believe that if Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King, Jr had hashtags the battles for equality would not merely have been won in days but would have completely overcome.
And when you have an entire generation who believes that activism is only about spectacle rather than trying to bring change then the ‘relevance’ of a Greta Thunberg becomes obvious. It is astonishing that millions around the world, so many of them supposedly intelligent people, have decided to consider Thunberg someone who deserves to be listened too. I think Thunberg is the product of the two worst aspects of society: the way that so many parents indulge their children’s desires rather than force them to face reality and that making noise and raising awareness seems to be more significant than changing anything.
A friend of mine thinks Thunberg’s parents should be arrested for child abuse. I wouldn’t go that far, but they absolutely represent what happens when parents decide that their child is special and deserves to be the center of the universe. In 2018, Thunberg told her parents that, rather than finish high school she wanted to spend the rest of her live traveling the world, while not using fossil fuels, and berating — I’m sorry, speaking — about climate change. Any rational parent would have told Thunberg that her plans were completely insane, that she should concentrate on getting her education and then working towards climate change. Instead her parents have decided instead that her voice — which is to be clear, that of a white teenage girl from Europe — needs to be heard by the entire world.
I’m not sure what’s more appalling: that her parents went along with this or that basically so many people in power seem to be willing to go along as well. I save my greatest venom for those who do consider climate change a real threat to the future and somehow think that a teenage girl screaming at world leaders is going to make a difference. Seriously, how does anybody see this playing out? Many of these people have spent a huge amount of time, energy and money trying in vain to influence the corporations and countries that are the part of this pollution. Do any of these people really think that these hardened industrialists will here Thunberg berating them and say to themselves: “Oh my God! What have I been thinking all my life? I will now immediately spend my entire life reversing my path and working to provide a better future for this child who is calling me a monster?” Ebenezer Scrooge needed four ghosts to convince him to change his ways and that was one man. And yet, until very recently, so many civilized people thought that Thunberg was what activism should look like. Not a plan, not a vision. A teenage girl shouting that the world is doomed.
But that is what so many of today’s generation think that activism should be. Not working towards a common coal, not trying to plan for the future, not even bothering to take part in the democratic process. Just calling people names and telling anyone who will listen that you have screwed up our world.
Reality is, and has always been, more complicated. It is far easier to tear things down than to build things and it rarely accomplishes whatever the goal was. One can tear down all the Confederate monuments and removed all the Stars and Bars from state capitals; you will never be able to eradicate either slavery or institutional racism. Getting rid of income inequality can not be done with a sit-in; stopping mass shootings can not be done by simply banning guns. Protests are fine as a way to direct one’s rage towards injustice and I can understand the reasoning for them. But if you truly think by getting rid of any part of our American system of justice, you can de facto stop injustice in the future, you have underestimated the entire mind of the human consciousness.
Progress has always come incrementally in our society. As George Will once said democracy requires patience and compromise, something that has becoming increasingly rare not only in our political dialogue but in any dialogue at all. Achieving the long term goals that lead to progress require patience and building coalitions. They can never be solve with just noise or demonstrations and certainly not by the constant division that we find throughout so many of our identity groups these days.
At the foundation of our republic, Ben Franklin said that we must all hang together or we will all hang separately. These days the idea of hanging together is a myth even among so many of the identity groups. We all want things for our own group, even and sometimes especially, if they come at the expense of another group. There is so much talk of social justice, but part of that means justice for our entire society, not just the parts that have been treated horribly for so long that any true reparation may be impossible.
Progress never comes instantly. It has always come slowly and with great work and patience towards a common goal. Today’s ‘progressives’ argue that the change must somehow come immediately, even and sometimes especially if it harms people that in its way. That they, like the generation who wrote encyclopedias, built answering machines or VHS tapes, might be understandably terrified what that progress will cost them personally is never considered by the generation that spends its life now using social media websites to mock how un-American social media is. To them progress always means that things will get better for them, and who cares who it leaves it behind. They will never comprehend that previous generations worked to make things infinitely better for them than they were for those in the past; they only care that it isn’t perfect right now.
I realize the irony of posting this article on a website that has no solid existence, that will be read by my own followers, and whose memory exists only in a cloud that everyone knows about but can’t define. To be clear, left to my own devices I would rather publish this is an actual publication that I can hold or a book that can be held. But that’s progress. It’s made many aspects of my life easier. I can’t say for sure they’ve made them necessari