Over the past couple of days, I’ve had the fortune to seriously think about what’s both going on in terms of the campaign instigated by #liabilityofthemind, Ferguson, and the broader context of activism. Between the local and national modes of change and activity against the neoliberal reactionary period in which we find ourselves, there are a number of important corollaries and parallels.
One of the most important is the question as to what purpose being an activist serves. For so long, I think the concept of an activist as someone who marches in the streets, demanding equality of some form or another has become so ingrained in the national image that it becomes difficult to displace it. Activism engenders comparisons to MLK’s walk on the Lincoln Memorial, or the Million Mom March. We know what “good” activism looks like: nonviolent, seeking political change, and making itself accessible to a broader audience in order to change national conversations.
This is a false image; or at least, a carefully constructed one. It has become a reality of history that the march of MLK and his famous “I have a Dream” speech were carefully conscripted and organized to appeal towards as broad a population of Americans as possible. The condemnation of violence, itself inspired by the call of Gandhi was somewhat uncritical in its aims. It de-legitimized modes of civil unrest based on their public relations appeal: and for awhile, it worked. When the nation was first receiving images of police hosing peaceful protestors, or setting dogs on children, a number of our parents and grandparents were shocked into action.
Yet, a side effect of this campaign meant that all modes of violent opposition, be they material or human targets, were condemned as “irrational” or “emotional” reactions against a state that could be in some sense salvaged. MLK was borrowing from the tradition of Edmund Burke in this regard—that his generation had some responsibility to their children to maintain society and work within the system in order to ensure its radical transformation.
I’m not critiquing those goals. As someone who is seriously attempting to “join” the system in a very real sense (let us not pretend the academy resides in an apolitical bubble in any of this), it will probably serve as a foundation should I engage in building a new Cultural Turn for the 21st century. However, agreeing that transformation from within the system does not mean I must condemn actions that reside outside of it. Rather than think about either of these positions as antithetical to each other, they seem to complement. Thomas Kuhn, in his landmark text The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, points that a fundamental aspect of transformation of thought is the incorporation of new ways to think—ways to think that may not have been previously accessible. In his work, he refers to these as “paradigm shifts.” Where, in the Medieval Period, people may have thought a certain demon was responsible for influenza, the Enlightenment realized it was caused by a natural phenomenon. These “paradigm shifts” are often radically different, but also play towards the same sorts of goals.
Of course, politics play a very real role in mediating the shift between paradigms. The Church, for example, might have a vested interest in the position that demons caused influenza, as that gave them undue influence in the everyday life of the European peasant. In a more rooted example, the transition of the act of charity from religious to secular turned the notion of “begging” from a pious virtue into something undesirable. A number of studies have produced bodies of work in which we see this transition as a result of the larger Reformation’s motivations to undercut the influence of the Church in civil institutions like hospitals, orphanages, and housing. These transformations almost never occur in an apolitical moment, nor are they influenced exclusively by rationalist tendencies, or estimations about what would be best. They operate in the nexus of control between the state and the people.
In a similar way, neither Gandhi nor MLK could ignore the very real political implications of violence and destruction. Gandhi, Nehru and the rest of the Indian nationalists (long read, but solid development of this relationship in the context of Gandhi’s deification) focused on refusing the paradigm of Indian colonial rule could not also shoulder the burden of effectively pluralizing the demographics for which they spoke. The result was an emphasis on “political consciousness” as phrased by the famous English historian Eric Hobsbawm: those who could read and write had a duty to use their voices to speak the consciousness of the Indian nation. The peasants had a duty to listen and attend the rallies, and above all remain peaceful, for this was the way modernity spoke to its constituents in regards to escaping the “waiting room of history” of John Stuart Mill.
MLK had similar concerns. In order to move his pragmatic paradigm—the civil liberation of African Americans within America—he had to jettison other issues. W.E.B DuBois, having died the night before, was castigated nonetheless for his commitment to the Communist tradition. Despite the role African American women played in organizing and constructing the protests, not a single woman gave a speech during the March. The NAACP chairman, Roy Wilkins attempted to discredit, Bayard Rustin’s role in organizing the March on Washington, and Rustin has lost influence, due to his sexual orientation. Even James Baldwin, a rhetorician whose writings we admire even today, was refused a spot at the rally, in fear that his words would prove inflammatory. My basic point is this: even the most fundamental picture of activism most Americans hold within their minds was little more than a show, carefully designed and preserved for mass appeal. And what is even less fortunate is that on some basic level, it worked. By reducing intersectional concerns, by removing any elements of radical concern beyond the basic “ask” of civil rights for African Americans, and by making nonviolent nonconformist policies the core of the movement, the NAACP and MLK shifted the conversation.
MLK certainly wasn’t the be all and end all of that rally, nor of this particular brand of activism. However, he has become the lightningrod image. A homegrown boy who grew into a preacher, and whose name invokes a long-lasting legacy of radical transformation within the systems in which such names reside. Yet it is his name that holds a national day. It is his form that Robert McCulloch invoked when urging activists to remain calm, and active in a productive manner. And it is often the call by many people afraid of the results of a state predicated on the exclusion of violence, despite having been built upon it.
Many people on campus are wondering why anyone should take activists at the University of Chicago seriously, after finding out the poster of the initial Facebook status that provoked all this attention was lying. Many people in the country are wondering whether to take activists across the country seriously, after seeing the fires set in the streets in the wake of the non-indictment. My answer to both questions is fundamentally the same: one must realize to be an activist is not to take upon the paradigms of how pragmatic concerns are addressed, and replicate them in every situation. It is the job of the activist to continually view such actions critically, and have reasons as to what action they do and why they pursue it. Anyone can call any work activism much in the same way that scientologists can use that title while preaching old-school religious ideology. If an individual placates themselves with an outdated mode of activist politics because it comforts the political paradigms in which that individual exists, then I wonder whether any activist has a perceived duty to change them. As the old saying goes, “you can bring privilege to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
This is not to endorse lying. Nor is it to endorse setting businesses—with no relation to this case outside of being part of the political economy in which it exists—on fire (although the pyromaniac in me does enjoy the pretty lights, not going to lie.) It is however, to provide a serious question to those who would be content at shutting the door on activism tests at “Would MLK do it?” or “Would Gandhi do it?” A cursory glance at either movement reveals a number of positions that would not hold in the wake of post-modernization, where information is monarch and so readily available. These modes of thinking are outdated, and times have changed. I suggest we change with them.
I’ll give the final word (or attempt to motivate the final word) in this conversation to a discussion recently held between bell hooks and Cornel West. In context, the idea being discussed was the role of spirituality in the forms of activism they produce: written texts, from authoritative positions on the deconstruction of the imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. In this regard, they both agree on the importance of the Christian tradition: “Both Cornel and I have been obsessed with the role of prophecy and the role of spiritual calling in your vocation.” (around 12:30)
I’ve been fascinated by this moment more recently, in the light of what we might call the secular traditions of the state: McCulloch’s claim that this non-indictment is the result of “scientific” evidence, so often used as ajuxtaposition to spirituality. When prominent atheists appear shocked that people still cling to faith as something relevant in their lives, I cannot help but think about moments like this one, in which by all accounts the secular state has failed. One passerby, a Dr. Bradley, on MSNBC stated the following: “These people [in reference to the ones burning the buildings], they’re not crazy, they’re hopeless.” In a similar manner, I think we might speak towards the religious tendency of certain activist groups and traditions not as being outdated, but being a last alternative. How does one continue onward whenthe state has verified this case is not even worth putting to trial? How does one continue to do work when it takes a false report using a racialized slur (remember: sexual assault threats had been made before with no response from the administration) in order for anyone to notice the problems in a community? I don’t think I agree with hooks nor West here, but I take and understand the point to be more complicated than simply the removal of spirituality from the people. Especially when we presume the “rational” and “scientific” empirics of the very investigations that refute any hope of self-determination.
Also, if you’re going to fabricate a statement, just don’t. It’s hurtful enough making people go through an episode like this without being detrimental to everything and anything.