Message From A GenX Radical To A Millennial Progressive:
Welcome to the Struggle.
I started my activism with Amnesty International back in ’95; went to many candlelight vigils against the death penalty (in Virginia); got a little involved with Students Against Sweatshops, did some protests against the School of the Americas. I was at the IMF Protest in DC in 2000. In 2001, I served as a street medic at the FTAA protest in Quebec, in which I was thrown in jail for absolutely nor reason at all (it happens a lot at these things). I went to quite a few anti-war rallies.
There are many, many activists that did many, many more actions, protests, petitions, fundraisers, organized meetings, or wrote more articles than me, but I just wanted you to know that I did enough to know what I’m talking about. And just to make it clear, I have never advocated or perpetrated, violence or property destruction. So below, I wanted to share some experiences/advice with you about what I’ve learned as a political radical/progressive/left-winger, so it might better arm you (psychologically) for the Struggle ahead.
They Will Try To Control The Narrative
The most frustrating thing about being an activist, especially in those early-Internet, pre-smartphone days (most of us could not afford a cell phone, even) was that the mainstream media had complete control over the narrative. I mean total control. Sure we had Indymedia and A-Infos and Democracy Now, but Internet access was not widespread, much less attention to alternative news sources. Even the mainstream human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had a hard time getting the word out about horrible atrocities all over the world.
1. You Will Be Framed As Troublemakers No Matter What
So it’s pretty infuriating when after a long day being intimidated by cops in riot gear, getting tear-gassed/pepper-sprayed for peacefully (but spiritedly) protesting, you turn on CNN to reports of “violent protesters” rife with superlatives from Wolf Blitzer about how he’s “never seen anything like this,” when in fact the United States as a very long history of protest, and it has been almost always the case that the police and authorities are those that instigate and perpetuate the violence at mass protests (my opinion; I’m not going to link a source because this is something you should research and decide for yourself).
Being framed as the instigator/troublemaker is not isolated to street protests. Let’s take the Democratic State Convention in Nevada from last Saturday, for instance. Even though there was only one documented case of fisticuffs (out of a crowd of 3000+), there already exists this narrative that the Sanders supporters were unruly, and false rumors that they were throwing chairs and bottles. Meanwhile, the most vicious false rumor that the Sanders supporters were spreading was that the cops were throwing away the pizza that they ordered. Often, mainstream journalists express their bias simply by omitting crucial contextual details and just saying that the protesters were unruly and chaotic without explaining why.
2. The Truth Only Has The Power YOU Give It
Everything on the Internet has a comment section, it seems. A lot of people seem to be spending time in support or opposition to articles/spin by the mainstream media, which is good, but is ultimately not the best use of time. I feel that comment sections on MSNBC, CNN, and FOX are mostly just black holes for people to spend their time on, an interactive version of click-bait that not only gets them more page-views, but gives people a sense that those websites/reporters might actually care what people think.
You, like me, probably share a lot of articles aimed at elucidating people about “The Truth,” however a lot of people don’t care or don’t want to hear about The Truth. Simply put, the version of reality that the mainstream media spins is more comfortable to the politically-average American. The truths you share will be liked and hearted by similarly-minded people, and may compel them to take action to address those issues they care about. However, the mainstream media’s worldview is one that requires no further action from people: they can carry on as normal, accept guidance from their leaders, and indeed desire their own oppression. This is a condition that the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari termed “pathological fascism,” in their book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
This means that it is not enough to simply spread The Truth (please do continue), but that you must act upon it (yourself) for it to be of any real use.
3. Do Not Condescend To Moderates/Conservatives
The backlash against the morally superior liberal is real for a reason. The mainstream “Left” is just as guilty as not providing concrete answers to global crises as the “Right” when it comes to neoliberals vs. neoconservatives; it is this moderate (not-progressive) Left that a lot of people seem to be a part of — they watch MSNBC and recycle, buy organic and local, try to observe political correctness and vote Democrat. The people that uncritically repeat the talking points of the mainstream liberal media are no less guilty than those repeating the talking points of the mainstream conservative media.
It has been shown that people with dug-in beliefs will double-down when confronted with contradicting evidence, and assuming you’re a millenial, you know how to deal with trolling. This means that a large portion of the population cannot be argued or shown enough evidence to join your side. It easier to dismiss them — to call them “sheeple” and troll back — than it is to acknowledge their points, politely disagree, and move on.
You can’t change their mind, but how you act when they don’t change their mind is more important to your cause, at this point. Remember that there will be agent provocateurs trying to discredit your cause by being violent, harassing, or trolling in your name. Disavow them and move on.
4. People Will Find Out The Truth Eventually
This takes a little faith in humanity. Remembering this will help you keep patience with those in denial I just talked about. I’ve seen activists burn out because they don’t see their actions having any great effect, and give up or become angry and bitter. Just look or search for videos having to do with the anti-globalization effort of the late 90’s/early-2000's — there’s many retrospectives and reports that bear witness to the truth and not the spin the media was putting out at the time. Look at the Civil Rights / Gay Rights / Women’s Rights/Environmental Justice movements — time has vindicated them because they were all truth-based movements. Fact-free movements (like the anti-vaxxers) come and go, and so does media spin.
The flipside is, don’t ever be intellectually dishonest for the purpose of expediency. It will bite you in the ass.
What To Do With Your Life
…later. I’m assuming you’re in your teens to twenties and are either in, going to, or just graduated college, and/or you’re working full time and somehow staying politically active, so I have no advice to give to you right now, except that you should keep it up as long as you can.
Of course, life gets complicated and you have to spend some time on yourself in order to survive or pursue your interests. Several of my activist friends went on to become union or community organizers, but most of those I knew in college went on to finish their degrees and become teachers, engineers, scientists, bureaucrats, lawyers, researchers, social workers… you get the point. Eventually I got my B.A. in Fiction Writing, and my Master’s in Architecture (but that’s a whole other story). So, that brings me to point #1:
1. Go To School For Something You’re Interested In
This is, admittedly, my advice for people in general, no matter how old you are. It continually surprises me how many people go to school for something they feel they should study, rather than what they want to study. No, go to college by any means possible, find out what interests you the most and get a degree in it. Don’t worry if it doesn’t seem like it will help “the cause,” because the cause will be helped the most by having people who are invested in what they do still being part of the cause.
I have to admit something else: I’ve never been comfortable holding a sign at a protest. I’ve never been good at talking to people at an info-table, or handing out flyers. I’ve shied away from political conversations with people, especially at social events, especially when people are drinking. I tried to give a rallying speech once (when I was President of the Virginia Tech Amnesty International Chapter) and it failed spectacularly. The mere thought of cold-calling people for a political campaign gives me anxiety (I strongly suspect that I’m on the spectrum for Asperger’s syndrome, but that is also a whole other story). I decided pretty early on that I wouldn’t make a good lawyer or social justice organizer.
I started out studying Engineering, but later got a BA in Fiction Writing. My rationale then (and still is now) that my politics will always inform the thing I do, so if I do something I’m good at my politics will be expressed all the more in that way. If I write a science fiction novel, my worldview will be expressed in that science fiction novel. If I’m a good writer, then those political ideas will be communicated without seeming contrived and heavy-handed because people will be enjoying the story. More recently, I went back to school for a Master’s in Architecture because I was interested in that, and I’m sure my politics will find a way to express themselves through architecture, somehow.
2. Be As Involved In Politics As You Can, To A Point
This may seem like a no-brainer now, but down the road, after you’ve got a kid or two, an unstable job market, a landlord that kicks you out because they want to gut rehab and raise the rent 175%, a spouse that you want to spend as much time with as possible (but may not be as invested in politics as you), aging parents with no retirement plan, a dog (as opposed to cats that require much less oversight), and friendships to maintain, it may seem better to spend those two hours you have to yourself a day playing video games, than trying to organize a political revolution via Twitter.
Some days, it’s better to play the video game.
That’s really just a metaphor about doing whatever you need to do for self-care. Myself, I’m currently engaged with X-Com 2 and Dark Souls III, but everyone needs guilt-free fun in their own way. As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.” Maybe if you like video games so much, you should make them part of your political revolution, you might say. Maybe I am (also, another story).
Realistically, you should be able to incorporate your politics into your everyday life, but if you can’t because everything is just so impossibly horrible that you can only deal with it through copious drug use (which includes alcohol and nicotine), then maybe:
3.Don’t Be A Hopelessly Grim/Dire Ideologue
Because nobody will like you, because no matter what they do, it won’t be good enough to stop us from going off the inevitable cliff of doom, so you might as well vote for Trump so maybe people will wake up sooner and then — NO.
I’ve met a lot of people (far too many) who are cynical to the point of political apathy (e.g. saying, “if voting could change things, it would be illegal,” or some sort of justification for a life of Bukowski-like hedonism). Another thing I’ve heard is, “why should I vote for the lesser of two evils?” Because less evil is LESS EVIL, duh. Nobody said we’re going to fix every problem with one candidate, policy, or referendum, did they? But don’t vote out of spite or protest, that’s just silly.
Okay, I know you probably don’t think this way (because I doubt that someone who does would read this far) but maybe someday you’ll be tempted to. More likely, you’ll know someone who either always has been or becomes this way. At best, they’re just apathetic and want to have fun without it being soured by the messiness of politics and sociopolitical awareness. At worst, they’re the toxic friend that shit-talks all of your consciousness-raising efforts and minimizes the efforts of millions of activists in a depressing funk.
If you can’t unfriend them, don’t let them get to you. Just treat them like you would the troll we discussed earlier: politely disagree, and move on.
Things We Need To Be Doing Together, Now
…if we hate the capitalist-corporate hegemony over our corrupt system of politics (or TL;DR). I’m aware that many people are not privileged enough to have a choice or opportunity to do these things, but I am still going to suggest them as goals.
1. Don’t Work For the Prison-Military-Pharmaceutical-Mainstream-Media-Industrial-Complex
Eisenhower’s prediction came true but so did many things he didn’t anticipate, namely how so many corporate powers in disparate industries inadvertently collude to control the political process and maintain the Spectacle. They cannot be subverted, since in order to gain a position from within capable of changing them you must first further their interest, hypocritically. Since this is pretty obvious, let’s move on:
2.Create Our Own Networks From The Ground Up, Continuously
I don’t mean apps, but the networks made possible by them. Think of the people you follow on Twitter mapped to the people they follow, but only the mutual follows: that’s your network on Twitter. Similarly, we form networks on other social media but it’s only the two-way communication (not the passive viewing/subscriptions) that are meaningful networks, rather than simply a medium for broadcast. This message is more for my fellow Gen-Xer’s than Millenials: you need to stay current with the social media tools on hand. Twitter, Youtube, Periscope, Vine, Snapchat, Reddit, Medium, etc.: don’t roll your eyes and fall behind. Even my septuagenarian parents have embraced Facebook, so it shouldn’t be so hard for you, either.
The reason is, every new political/social relationship is enabled or sparked by changing technology. The modern state is not possible without the invention of commodity money(among other things); the distributed, globalized economy isn’t possible without computers; Marxism was sparked as a response to industrialization, etc. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the politics we’re envisioning now (for example decentralized, egalitarian socialist-democracy) isn’t possible without the latest technology, either to organize it or implement it.
Imagine if Congress was replaced with a Slashdot-like system for debate, discussion, and legislation? What if all voting took place with an open-source, un-hackable app? Why not, if it was made available? Why wait for the government to approve of it, just make your own and do it anyway (if you can code, that is). There have already been alternative, egalitarian currency systems started by local activists in various places (though many have since collapsed, it’s a good example of grassroots action to create alternative systems). Why not just create a new political system that reflects the savvy, flexibility, and information-dense culture we live in today?
3. Form/Join Cooperatives
This is the single best way to create real change, in your life, right now.
Some colleagues of mine from my bike-messenger days were tired of being exploited by the messenger companies they worked for, and after a failed attempt to create a courier’s union in Chicago, they formed their own cooperative. A few years later, another cooperative bike courier company emerged with great success. You can find the cooperative model thriving in many different industries (a lot of them are groceries), but not nearly enough.
The important thing is that a cooperative (or “syndicate” as anarchists would call it) embodies the principles of democracy and the free market without being authoritarian or capitalist. It might take a little bit of imagination to apply the co-op model to fields like architecture or video games, but it can be done.
4. Never Ever Stop Learning and Dreaming
Ideology is a tricky thing, because it is a dream of a world that isn’t possible tomorrow or perhaps within our lifetimes — a recipe for disillusionment, for the impatient. Thích Nhất Hạn reminds us that our ideals are like the North Star (Polaris): we may walk towards it to go north, but we will never walk to it. I’ve always regarded my anarchism as the idea of the kind of society I’d like to have, not the kind that is possible right now; that’s unrealistic.
On the other hand, it’s easy to give up because your ideals are not soon attainable, and there are many obstacles along the way, as President Obama has aptly acknowledged. But managing to find silver linings in every cloud and overcome your circumstances is something no advice will do; this is a life skill that is learned and developed as a trait of survival.
I’m sure a lot of you know all the things I’ve talked about already — sorry if you thought this was going to spark some sort of great revelation — but my aim was to reaffirm that knowledge you may have already cultivated in a vague sense, or have only before kept to yourself. In any case, it isn’t my idea to tell you how to think, but only to share what has helped me make sense of the world from my inescapable, radical-left perspective (“radical” for my generation, merely “progressive” for yours).
Thanks for paying attention, I’m sure we’ll do great things.