(This is me, working on some thoughts for my general exams forthcoming in December.Â Read at your own risk.Â You might learn something.Â Links to follow later.)
Lately, there’s been two debates in the blogosphere (and beyond) that I see as distinctly related though I have not seen them paired.Â The first is the question of whether activism is “dead.”Â Never mind that the overly narrow definition of activism used here is a 1960s model of urban protest and Southern Civil Rights organizing; folks across generations seem eager to proclaim activism (and the Roxy) dead and unlikely to be resurrected.Â (To their credit, young politically minded upstarts take issue with this, then claim fatigue and a suspectible distraction to house parties in Brooklyn).Â Check out Weboy’s take on this silly debate with his own wizened view.Â
In my opinion, activism is alive and well in different, perhaps more viral, but ultimately just as vibrant forms as periods past.Â It has a transnational/global character (which is not new, though targets of the multinational corporations and governing institutions may be), and a multi-issue focus, often on the rights of varying overlapping groups – women, workers, immigrants, gays/lesbians, or on the rights of the overall human race.Â It reflects the awesome mobility of capital, people and culture across borders, and is inherently highly multicultural as a result, despite being as susceptible to issues of equity and power (North v. South, white v. non-white, developed v. developing, West v. “the Rest”, etc.) as one might expect.Â I argue it is more diffuse and de-centralized than, andÂ certainly in contrast to our popular memory of, the movements of the 1960s and 70s.Â
One of the key activist and generational claims and corresponding policy efforts I think we’re seeing today is demand for an enacted set of universal rights, in particular economic rights.Â This includes the right to housing, the right to a basic education, the right to medical care, the right to work in a secure environment, etc.Â This is qualitatively different than past activism frames and policy initiatives that demanded equality for specific groups (African-Americans, women, the poor and/or working-class).Â The rather contradictory factors that shape these claims towards universalism are A) the (incorrect) perception that equality, or a good enough approximation of it, has been achieved within our civic capabilities, and B) that inequality persists and is worsening for most of us due to the machinations of institutional structures (free markets/capitalism, governing elites/constrained electoral systems).Â Even thoseÂ liberal (as opposed to conservative, versus in the political philosophy vein) individuals whoÂ don’t feel any particular claimÂ that their rights or access isÂ constrained feel indirectly threatened by the instability ofÂ a system of widening inequality,Â not least because they are often compelled to believe theyÂ ought to do something about the injustice of being so fortunate and privileged (and of course,Â ridiculously good looking).Â
But here’s the (rather obvious) rub: C) there are many, many groups and individuals out there who (rightfully) believe that realistically achievable equality has not been met, and the rise of contemporary inequality is merely further erosion of a job not well done, hell, not even close to finished.Â And this is where the recent debate about the rise/return of anti-black racism (and anti-Semitism) and sexism comes in (we can’t come clean with ourselves as a nation to really talk about class yet).Â Because asÂ individuals andÂ group members, while we may have (relatively) strong concensus on B, we are sharply divided about A and C.Â And this disagreement, and the political action it engenders on our behalf, is the source of rising conflict as we all strive to confront the shared realities of worsening income, wealth and spatial inequality.Â We can’t mutually engage in the fight for universal social justice (or just universal healthcare, to start) if we’re not lined up along the political spectrum due to our beliefs that past struggles for equality are still on-going, and should thus take precedence, and that the (white, affluent) folks aiming to protect the “middle-class” now in the name of universalism are the same people, or their descendents,Â even by association, who uphold the racialized, gendered and classist inequality structure that is being exacerbated by current, neoliberal policies.Â We’re not fighting the same battle, and that’s pissing everybody off, because it seems we’d like to be, and this dissonance, tension, mistrust and conflict is seriously obstructing our ability to take to the streets and create policy-by-riot, like the Boomers did in the good old days.Â
Before I move on to the point that inspired this post, I have to say that our respective framings on past equality struggles and the outcomes as shaped by race, class, and other cultural factors has an irrefutable bearing on how we decide to approach contemporary problems of inequality.Â Weeks ago, Matt Yglesias wrote what I consider to be his most ludicrous post to date about how the sources of inequality don’t matter.Â I’d like to spend several more paragraphs and wee morning hours chastising him for this, but I hope my rather terse outline above is enough of a refute for now.
Now, on to the need for diverse coalitions.Â On Saturday my mom and I attended the anti-war rally on Boston Common. (The family that protests together, stays together…and then has lunch at Louis Boston and goes shopping at Filene’s Basement.)Â Though by now I should know better (e.g., my surprise at the HRC event earlier this month), I was still struck by the whiteness of the sea of faces.Â People were mostly old and young, and almost all white.Â And I realized, not for the first time: in the Gulf, I work with a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-class coalition.Â We are white, black, Creole, Latino, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, disabled, young, old, women, men, Northern and Southern, living in trailers and homes that we ownÂ (and that’s all I’ve been able to confirm so far via others’ self-identification).Â AtÂ a meeting three days prior to the anti-war protest, I was one of only 2 white persons in the room, out of six (three men and three women).Â At MIT, my mentors are white women and women and men of color.Â Even though MIT is still predominately white and Asian, my intellectual networks are not.Â And at Brandeis, well, most of you know my Jewish-Christian experience there.
See, for me, working in diverse coalitions is the norm, though not since Brandeis have I had to confront the issues of power and privilege that are bound up in all of these relationships.Â But, the nature of my coalitions now demand this reflexive analysis, and at the worst, we’ll go down fighting to build a common agenda that best meets our different needs as individuals and group members.Â And somewhere in that struggle ideally emerges a platform of universal claims and demands, and the political commitment and breadth to advance it. (Do multicultural coalitions have the power to raise resources to fund our causes?Â Now that’s a question for another blog post!)Â
Racial and economic residential segregation has rendered the workplace as the key site where non-homophilous interactions take place, and cross-racial and cross-class bonds are formed.Â Yet activism (vs. charity) and organizing in most workplaces is prohibited or sanctioned.Â I ask us, where do we form our socio-political bonds; what inspiresÂ us to action and where and when?Â How do we effectively build these diverse coalitions so that we might press nationally to realize goals such as universal healthcare, better public education, an expanded social safety net, the enforcement of our civil and economic rights and claims to citizenship and full participation in society?Â It is at the national level where these struggles must unfold, yet our current patterns of local segregation, alienation and control make this opportunity far less likely.Â Furthermore, the likelihood that our victorious spoils will be distributed equally is even smaller unless we can build cross-cultural coalitions focused on universal claims.Â Sustained, visible activism and a concurrent reduction in contemporary racism, sexism and discrimination depends on it.Â
Let the arguments about universalism v. particularism begin.
For now I’ve spared you the analysis of activism and policymaking by urban liberals v. progressives v. conservatives and the roles of race and class.