I have long believed that effective activism toward a better world is difficult if undertaken solely as a reaction to what we oppose. Without a positive vision, and the faith that it is achievable, we act in ways that may be ineffective, even harmful. It is well established that expectation creates outcome. To create the world we seek, we require an idea of what that looks like. Findings in the scientific literature [also here and here] and popular media [also here] bear this out: What we expect to happen is more likely to happen. Moreover, what we expect of others influences them to behave in ways that meet our expectations.
I’m not arguing that high expectations would lead the incoming leader to suddenly become rational or “presidential.” But we can still take a certain kind of positive approach. If, rather than simply reacting with disgust and dismissal, we are able to evaluate him with the astuteness of, say, a Vladimir Putin, we might discern ways to have a positive impact.
So, is there a plausible positive vision for the time ahead? I think there is.
During the 1960s, the nation suffered through the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, candidate Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and others. Thousands of young men were drafted and sent to Vietnam, where many were killed or wounded in body or in spirit. Yet the sixties and the early 1970s also saw massive social progress. Civil rights, feminism, and environmentalism made huge strides. In a terrible time, visionary movements not only pushed back against the darkness; they brought forth new light.
The silver lining I see in the very, very dark cloud we face is the possibility that the coming period will bring forth a level of progressive activism the likes of which we’ve never seen — one that moves our society far forward, leaving the current backlash in the dustbin of history. This won’t happen without huge setbacks and great pain; but if we keep our eyes on the prize, I think we can get there.
Here are some reasons I have hope:
- The new administration comes in with an incredibly weak “mandate” — losing the popular vote by nearly three million, with polls showing 51% disapproval of the presidential transition (versus 12% disapproval of Obama’s transition eight years ago). Many Republican leaders are already publicly expressing dismay about the guy in charge. (In response to a series of tweets slamming civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis, one Republican Member of Congress tweeted at the president-elect, “Dude, just stop.”) The new administration is assembling a largely incompetent team (with not much government experience [more info here] and little education) who stand a good chance of being rather ineffectual.
- People are ready for action in a way that I’ve never seen. Folks around me are eager to jump at the chance of doing something. I’m hearing people talk of retiring from their careers to focus on social activism. Communities of all sorts are gearing up for action. And the frantic, factually challenged, strategically unsophisticated chain-mail and chain-post “urgent alerts” are starting to give way to well-thought-out resistance. →
- In the 1960s and 1970s, we didn’t have the tools we have today for rapid coordination and organizing. In 1973, 90% of my high school, and of most schools in Chicago, walked out in protest of the Vietnam war. That was organized without cellphones, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. We didn't have apps for registering to vote or contacting Congress or organizing flash mobs. And people are using these tools to build community as well — which will be crucially needed in the time ahead.
- During the Vietnam war, activism was driven by the urgency of personal risk. Today, so many people feel personally threatened that motivation will not be much of an issue for millions and millions. Many folks who have been immobilized by shock and fear will eagerly jump at the chance to break out of that frozen state when they begin to feel the support of mass movements around them.[A3]
- The mainstream media have finally started to wake up to their complicity in this atrocity and are making long-overdue changes in a way I’ve never seen before. The Associated Press, whose stylebook governs most journalism, now says the term “alt-right” is not to be used without explaining that it’s a white-supremacy movement. Headlines and articles are immediately calling out the incoming leader’s statements as “unfounded,” “without evidence,” and “already debunked.” The Washington Post is adding as many as 60 positions to its journalism roster, bringing its newsroom to around 750, including a new rapid-response investigative team. Even some of the main figures on Fox News have started calling out some of the actions of the president-elect. I expected the media’s post-election navel-gazing to result in maintaining the status quo, as it always seems to have before — the reason I left the journalism profession early in my career. But some real changes have been occurring.
So, where do we start? With preparation. In the next few posts I’ll be offering concrete suggestions in each of these areas:
- Secure your information. The incoming administration has nominated for CIA Director, National Security Advisor, Attorney General, and other national-security posts people who want to vastly expand government spying on U.S. citizens and subscribe to far-out conspiracy theories. The authoritarianism at the top of the ticket is echoed in these selections, and cybersecurity experts worry that privacy will get little respect in the time to come. In the immediate future, I recommend securing the privacy of your online communications and data. In the next posts I’ll outline some specific steps to take.
- Select your key causes. I recommend picking perhaps your two top causes, and then joining sophisticated, effective organizations working on those issues. Mine are civil liberties (without which it will be much more difficult to address any other issues) and climate protection. For the former, I recommend the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, my choice), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Southern Poverty Law Center, and Center for Constitutional Rights, but there are several other good groups. For the latter, I’m going with the Sierra Club, which recently has become much more assertive; many environmentalists I polled recommended 350.org. While it will be important to act on a variety of issues in the time ahead, having one or two that you adopt as your special causes will enable you to focus, especially when it seems there are a million crises pulling you in all directions.
- Strengthen community ties. Whether by getting to know your neighbors better, connecting with social and spiritual communities, or just staying in touch with friends, it’s important to have the mutual support to sustain you over the long haul. And it’s important to have a place to process your feelings about the horrors that are unfolding, to avoid demoralization or frantic knee-jerk reaction that is likely to be ineffective. Especially, reach out to Hispanics, people of color, LGBTQ friends, Muslims, and others who are among targeted populations. Don’t isolate them or yourself.
- Plan to be visible. Posting online for your friends and signing digital petitions are fine, but actions that take more effort and are more visible will have more effect: visits to legislators’ offices, mass marches and demonstrations, letters to the editor and op-eds in media that are read by a wide range of people (not just left-oriented outlets), and the like.
- Plan to be in it for the long haul. Too many of my friends were putting all their hopes in quick solutions. The election would save us. (It didn’t.) The Electoral College would save us. (It didn’t.) He’ll quit before taking office, or soon thereafter. (Don’t count on it.) The Congress will impeach him. (Unlikely.)
There will be no quick fix. Even if the new president quits or is impeached, the forces he’s set in motion will be around for a long time. Don’t hang your hopes on any one victory; expect setbacks, even severe ones. While they will be disappointing and painful, they will only defeat us if we give up. Adopt a long-haul view; expecting setbacks will help you keep from being devastated by them.
Taking Our First Action
Update 1/26/16: Visit https://www.womensmarch.com/100 for post-march actions recommended by the organizers of the Jan. 21 marches.
In later posts I’ll be offering specific suggestions for actions you can take to get ready, starting with how to protect yourself from the authoritarian crackdown that may come. For now, here is a first step you can take this minute: Sign up to participate (even volunteer) in the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, either by traveling to D.C. if you can, or by participating in a nearby sister march (planned in all 50 states and 48 other countries as of this writing — more than 370 locations in all.)
All people, not just women, are invited. Bring your friends; urge everyone you know to join. This will be the first mass demonstration of the new era, and it needs to be yuuuuge. While we will need to take political action in many ways in the years ahead, nothing substitutes for visibility in the streets. The media, pundits, politicians in general, and the country as a whole will look to these events as early indicators of the strength of the opposition. This is not one to miss. I hope to see you there!
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