I feel powerless, I admit. But that’s not good enough.
I know I’m not alone in feeling powerless. I assume that when half of my country’s citizens don’t vote, it’s partially because huge numbers of them also feel powerless. Well, that’s not good enough either.
People I respect feel powerless. I can tell from their hallway conversation and their social media posts. I get it, I’m there too, but it’s not good enough. I keep telling myself that.
Journalists who have run out of ideas sound like they feel powerless too. They reach for something stirring to say, but it comes across fuzzy and kind of hopeless, like the ending of this column* by Scott Martelle that is largely about addressing climate change through innovation, changes in consumer behavior, and voting:
And as voters, we don’t put enough pressure on politicians to use the power of government to move markets away from products that are killing us in favor of those that might keep the world habitable for humans for a longer period of time. In the end, we know what we’re doing to ourselves, yet we do it anyway.
The column’s last sentence sounds pretty hopeless. The second-to-last sounds pretty fuzzy–not much better than saying, “Hey, y’all, we better do something!”
Doing something isn’t good enough because something is too vague, too weak, too powerless. Changing consumer behavior isn’t good enough either–we have been changing but not fast enough, not far enough. Voting, yes, but for who and for what? Too fuzzy to be enough of an answer. We need to use more potent words than words like do something. We need some particular ideas, some actual knowledge, not just ideas about climate change but, with the same urgency, ideas about activism. How it really works.
So: are there any lessons to be gained from history? Are there patterns visible in activism of the past? What are the most potent stories whose lessons still apply?
Rosa Parks didn’t just sit down on the bus that day. She had a plan that she worked up ahead of time with allies. They considered their options; they practiced; they worked out how things might go. They looked at what kind of court case might go their way. They were a team and in it for the long haul. They knew something about getting into the news and staying there, making things embarrassing for politicians and corporate leaders. Parks and her colleagues knew that they faced specific people and institutions, specific historical circumstances. They didn’t imagine that they were living in a cartoon. It was a real place with particular structures that they could study and adapt to and challenge.
What Rosa Parks did changed the country. What Rosa Parks did was so far from do something that we can hardly overstate it. Knowing the true story of Rosa Parks helps explain why feeling powerless is understandable but not good enough. Why do something is a failure of knowledge and imagination. Why voting isn’t a wise enough conception of active citizenship. Why the country needs to get serious and look into the toolkit of activism.
*”Carbon emissions are up. Don’t blame Trump, this is on all of us,” January 2019 column, LA Times.