Sunday, January 06, 2008


Orthodoxy of Radicalism

A while back, I recounted how my political science curricular proposal, Communication for Change, had been hijacked by a washed up professor trying to hold on to his prestigious teaching position, but plagiarism is the least of the damage he apparently wrought. I have since encountered some of the graduates of the Activism and Social Change program he took charge of, and was sadly disappointed at the orthodoxy of radicalism associated with what I call the moral theatrics industry.

At the heart of the problem, I am convinced, is activism as a career, as opposed to activism as a civic duty. Those who view civic involvement as a way to make a living will naturally adopt doctrinaire tactics oriented toward philanthropic marketing, rather than painfully examine strategies for achieving a public benefit. Unfortunately, for those absorbed in pious posturing, this distinction is largely lost in the rhetoric.

One of the habitual tactics of this corporate activism is the perpetual building of paper coalitions –- frequently described as supporters, allies, or affinity groups -– supposedly to convey a working combination that wields political clout. Usually unexamined or fictitious, these combinations mostly signify delusions of grandeur, and are illustrative of a fairly common desire to appropriate a sense of cohesion that doesn't exist—often expressed as solidarity within a vaguely defined movement. Mostly, it serves as a fetish or pointless distraction.

Coalitions, like other tools of community organizing, should be used when they help make you more effective. Same with non-profit corporate status, litigation, or lobbying. When they simply drain limited energies and other resources, they should be avoided.

Having managed litigation for a coalition of non-profits for five years, I know from experience how much energy goes into keeping a real coalition together. Better for each organization to work individually, than to add to already demanding administrative tasks. Of course, if they're just paper allies, the whole exercise is just another fruitless distraction—something career activists seemingly spend a lot of time on.

Careerism is certainly a draw to political activists, but an even greater appeal, I think, is the prestigious identity associated with activism. What I find fascinating about this (and it very much applies to my alma mater and the plethora of Bay Area producers of moral theatrics) is that they simultaneously conform to the capitalist framework of social discontent-–a very predictable, very controllable, very ineffective commodity.

It takes a long time for people to unlearn useless information and ineffective practices, especially when they learned them as part of an alternative education they believed to be avant-garde learning for social change. In the meantime, they mostly get in the way.


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