Friday, June 18, 2010

After the Vigil: a Few Thoughts on Activism, Human Nature, and Changing the World

Four days ago, I attended an oil spill “vigil” at Manasota Beach. It was organized by MoveOn.Org, and “hosted” by a local woman, Julia. I agreed to attend, and to speak, and to bring posters, and I did all of the above.

I also invited twenty or so people whom I knew locally. None of them came.

No, actually, one of them came. My Uncle Don, he of the beachfront home, he of the East Coast conservative “upper crust” pretensions and heavy gold nautical jewelry... HE came.

I didn't even know he was there till the end, when he approached me, and we embraced and exchanged a few inconsequential civilities. I didn't ask him why he was there, and he didn't tell me... but I suspect it may have had something to do with his home, which fronts on the Gulf.

Later, out of curiosity, Allan looked up Don's blog, “The Storch Report”... and sure enough, Don had made a new posting. Apparently he had attended, more or less, with the idea of scouting out enemy territory. Certainly he had nothing useful, or kind, to say; his pronouncement on the event seemed to be that it accomplished nothing, and that the people there were all stupider than he was.

But then, that pretty much encapsulates his whole reason for writing, anyway.

At first, in thinking back, I had to agree with him that nothing had actually been accomplished... people came, people spoke, disparate opinions were expressed, but no single useful idea or plan of action came from the evening, that I could see. On consideration, however, I've decided that actually, something WAS accomplished... something important.

There was a lot of “venting”, and a lot of sharing of stories and information relating to the spill-- what I read fell into those categories. There were also a lot of opinions aired. One woman in an eccentric outfit got up and told us we needed to throw out all the incumbents; a man was there promoting his scheme to make and sell compressed-air cars. Another man, who said he had worked on oil rigs, insisted that BP had caused the spill on purpose. Equally ludicrous (and unfortunate, in that it spread false information) was the Vietnam vet who told us that the dispersant that is being used in the Gulf is actually closely related to Agent Orange (only 10 times as toxic) and that a whole lot of us were going to die, over the next 10 or 20 years.

(...actually, considering the median age of the crowd, that last statement was somewhat... no, I'm not even going to go there.)

A man came from the newspaper and went around interviewing people. There was also a woman whom I strongly suspect of being a Republican plant, as she told us all how Buchanan is really a great guy (she knows him personally) and it's those OTHER guys (like Nelson, the Democrat) that we need to keep on top of. Then she invited us all to come to an event she said she was organizing. EVIL.

A couple men mocked us, saying we were “preaching to the choir”, and that “you won't get anywhere putting up pictures of dead seabirds... nobody cares”. I noticed, though, that neither of them had any alternate suggestions, so far as I could tell.

In fact, it has been said that one picture of a dead sea-animal is more effective than 10,000 “tweets” from BP. I will continue to hope so.

The event was well-attended, for a rainy evening in Englewood in summer; there were between 40 and 70 people present. That in itself was a positive thing... because I know many (including myself) were surprised to find that they were less alone than they had thought. Still, the disparate nature of the many views expressed, and the lack of a practicable outcome were more than a little disheartening. Some people began to wander off, eventually, looking discouraged; others raised their voices in loud discussions, and all efforts at maintaining a coherent “meeting” were abandoned soon after that.

Since the meeting, I have been troubled in mind, with feelings more than a little mixed. On the one hand, I'm quite pleased with my own part in the vigil; my three posters were a big hit, and the article and speech I prepared met with a very satisfactory reception. Although I became emotional at a couple points while I read, I was able to regain control; beyond that, I felt that I spoke with an uncommon force and clarity. A number of people came up to me afterward to embrace me, press my hand, tell me how much what I had said had meant to them, and how I ought to send it into the newspaper.

All very heartening. Still, I wished that I had been able to do more than move people... but I was just like them. I had no idea what we could actually do.

One man waxed eloquent about how we could all conserve, individually, by riding mopeds and taking solar showers in the back yard, and so on... commendable, surely, but it doesn't clean up the spill, or stop companies like BP from continuing to maximize profits at the expense of everyone and everything else in the world.

IS there anything we can do, that would make any real difference?

I'm not sure. I've never been a “political” animal; I don't easily comprehend and retain the workings of the various institutions that drive us. Also I know myself to have definite limits when it comes to how much I can do, and what I can handle. Yet I'd very much like to help, somehow... because I do care, deeply.

I've had a few thoughts, over these past days-- nothing new, certainly, but just possibly worth remembering...

Firstly, I personally can contribute my strengths and gifts, if I can find a way to apply them. I can write well, speak well, sing well. I can inspire people, and move them. I also tend to think “outside the box” (possibly because I LIVE outside it). ALL potentially valuable.

Most of my thoughts, though, have been about people in general. How to “reach” them? How to begin to change their minds? How to get them to actually DO things? Those are the hardest questions.

In general, I think we need to EDUCATE people... by showing them the truth of things, and backing it up with proof, so that they will be protected from those spreading falsehoods. Then we need to organize those educated people to function as a larger force, such that they can begin to influence world events. That's what has tried to do, and to a certain extent, they have succeeded... they were a big factor in Obama's victory, after all.

They've done something else worth noting: they inspired Julia, and with her help, they brought together 40-70 environmentally-concerned people in the small and conservative town of Englewood, and got them to talk to each other. They got the newspapers and TV to pay attention, too, and they got people to notice that their neighbors were really riled about this Gulf thing... and that they were trying to do something. I'm not sure that's ever happened before... but I have a feeling it WILL happen again.

One of the things I keep thinking about is the concept of “critical mass”. When a critical mass is reached, say, in a physical or chemical reaction, things start to happen. I've often heard, in past years, that consciousness has a critical mass, too: that when enough people come to care about something, then, suddenly, they can create change... whether it's change in beliefs, in laws, or in the way the world is run.

Another thing worth remembering, I think, is that people are much more motivated to do things when they figure them out on their own, than when they are told, or ordered, to do them. Every good teacher knows this... that when kids “learn by doing”, they absorb much more than when they are lectured at, or ordered around.

The third idea that has been much in my mind, goes hand-in-hand with the previous one, and is a very old one, beloved of advertisers everywhere: “sex” sells.

I don't actually mean SEX, of course... a more accurate word might be “seduction”. Make an idea seductive, make it exciting, make it fun and appealing and interesting, and that idea will sell faster than you can say “iPad”.

Can sustainability be sexy? Yes, I think that's doable... and we need to find ways to do it, if we are to save this world. Unfortunately, it will take more than sexiness to save the Gulf. What CAN we do, in that regard?

I suspect that if there were a large enough public outcry, that Obama would feel it incumbent upon him to take actions that the large, ugly powers around him might disapprove of... like taking control of BP, perhaps, or seizing their assets. I am informed that he actually does have the power to do both of those things, in an emergency situation, without having to get it through Congress, et al. I don't KNOW that the government would do a better job than BP, but I suspect they would, because they wouldn't be averse to bringing in any experts that might be able to help... whereas BP wants to keep things secret, and to only use its own people. Plus, while I'm sure BP does want to stop the leak, I don't believe they want that as much as they want to continue to make a profit. Their capitalist motives are hurting the world.

In point of fact, capitalist motives have been doing an awful lot of harm recently. More and more, I wonder whether capitalism itself is to blame... or whether the problem has more to do with Big Business, and Big Banking. I DO know I will never again vote for anyone who has been CEO of a big corporation... because you only get into that position by putting profit FIRST.

Maybe that's why I'm not rich... because I believe putting profit first, is WRONG. Put people first, put Earth's welfare first... but I think Hippocrates said it best: “First, do no harm”. Doctors swear the Hippocratic Oath, yet because we are a capitalist society, most of them end up putting profit first, patients second.

Am I becoming...(gasp)... a Socialist?

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