Powerless: not good enough

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?

For example:

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.


Hungry for candor and respect

Concerning climate change, Christopher Lydon believes people have a “hunger for clarity on a street corner, and candor about the pickle we’re in.” That need has recently been satisfied “warmly, humanly,” he says, by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.*

This hunger “had to be there all along,” Lydon suggests. Surely that must be true. Daniel Schrag replies that President Obama’s team was afraid of speaking directly and candidly about climate change. At times I thought the Obama administration’s approach was to say to the American people, roughly, “Leave it to us, we’ve got this,” when in those early months there were millions of us who wanted a way to pitch in.

In his first year in the White House Obama could have asked that a hundred protestors stand round-the-clock watch at the offices of each reform-resistant member of Congress and we would have gladly done it. But he closed his campaign website, containing all the news and come-to-meeting tools that might have shown people day by day how to keep the pressure on in Washington. He and his team decided more or less to go it alone, leaving millions of citizens out of the people’s business. Next, Congress was intentionally hobbled by his opponents, and in terms of legislation Obama was usually defeated.

So Lydon is correct that the hunger for candor is probably always there. People know when they are ignored or condescended to; they know what it feels like to be treated with candor and respect. Recently Kurt Bardella put it this way:

The American people don’t want a string of facts that have been repeatedly proven to be false. They don’t want to be lectured. What they want is for their political figures to respond to the challenges of our time with empathy, authenticity and candor. They want to hear their elected representatives talk about these issues with the same vocabulary that they talk about them around their kitchen table or in their living rooms. That’s what Ocasio-Cortez did so well.

The half of the population that never votes probably intuits what the statistics of Gilens and Page imply: that the general public gets what it wants in Washington occasionally, yes: when what they want happens to align with what the economic elites already want. That’s a pretty good reason for the country’s widespread alienation.

Gilens and Page spot the alienation; Lydon, Schrag, and Bardella identify the hunger. Ocasio-Cortez  knows it’s there, too. She has the spine and some of the rhetoric we’ll need going forward. If we’re fortunate, new presidential candidates will also hear the urgency, find language that speaks honorably, respectfully, to the people, and follow in her steps.

*Radio Open Source, Is the Green New Deal For Real?, January 2019, 25:10 and forward.

Green new deal: making it real

“Is the Green New Deal For Real?” Radio Open Source‘s January 2019 episode that asks question in worthy detail.

But about 19:16 minutes in, Christopher Lydon’s second guest, Naomi Oreskes, describes, almost in passing, the integrated toolkit we’re going to need to have a chance to get there. Taking a lesson from the fight against cigarettes, she says:

That is a good example of the combined power of science and political movements, because we got tobacco control in this country through both. Without the science, we would not have known that tobacco use was so dangerous, so deadly. But the science alone was not enough. It also required political movements, legal action, grass roots movements to ban smoking in public places, things like that. So I think we have the same situation with climate change. The science is crucial, remains crucial for explaining to people what is happening and how we know that all of this is related to fossil fuel use. That message continues to be essential, but it has to be linked, as [@BillMcKibben] said [earlier in the episode], to political mobilization, to political education, and to political action.

Used one at a time, the tools of activism are useless, she implies.

My own shorthand for the toolkit includes these categories of tools: bodies of knowledge, empowering attitudes, diverse and appropriate skills, sets of information and communication tools, affiliations and the skills to make, sustain, and extend them, all in the context of fairly healthy civic institutions.

Knowledge, attitudes, skills, tools, affiliations, and healthy institutions. Without the full toolkit, citizens are easy for the powerful to brush aside. Simple as that.

And that’s why Naomi Oreskes is right to say that we’re going to be needing good science linked to political movements, legal action, grass roots affiliations, political education, and more, to have a chance.

Voting is necessary but not sufficient. Oreskes has named a good portion of the toolkit we’ll be needing, oh, later today and then ongoing for years to come.

It’s still out there. A fully functioning internet.

It’s still out there. A fully functioning internet.

Taking up an old-fashioned hobby “helped restore my faith in the possibilities and the basic humanity of the internet,” writes @FManjoo. Being a hobbyist “helped me find a saner, friendlier corner of the internet,” a place of “collaboration, persistence and shared ingenuity…a way to supercharge my training.”

This served as “a reminder that the internet’s most effective trick is connecting disparate individuals into a coherent whole.” Serving as a space where “the online social structure around any hobby” forms and “the collective builds on itself.”

Newcomers “pick up the basics — but by creating new markets for content and equipment, and connecting every hobbyist who has discovered something new to an audience eager to learn every trick, it heightens the experience for people at every level.”

Because their topic fails to attract trolls and bots who intentionally flood the zone with chaos, the internet’s creative mechanism still works within the hobby’s confines.

Within that zone, the internet “opens up a whole new world.”

The academic way

Most academics don’t imagine themselves operating as publishers of their insights day by day in the ongoing give and take of society, of politics.

We academics usually don’t value the chance of speaking directly to a wide audience. We usually don’t feel the need for non-academic forms of media. We put the power of our understanding on hold or out of reach of people who need it. Most of us do and say this:

“I will teach this powerful idea to my 19-year-old students and maybe in a decade one of them will use it in the world.”

And we will not, for the most part, empower students to practice using powerful ideas in the world during the university years.

Blogging in an expert society

We owe a great debt to experts. They got us to the moon before our enemies; they saved my father’s life in the ICU years ago; they made this truly beautiful machine I am typing on right now; they cured the common cold. [Well, not that last one.] Our debt to experts is profound.

By contrast, bloggers cast a ridiculous figure in a society shaped so cunningly by experts. Who are these typists with their stray thoughts, their hopeless, rambling plans, and their thinning ranks? Their informal little essays almost instantly forgotten, their links rotting and, soon enough, cobwebs decorating their servers. Who do these bloggers think they are fooling?

But expertise can rob us of a little of ourselves:

  • When we use only the lens provided by a profession, there are some things about our fellow human beings we will never know.
  • When we are guided only by expertly-framed policy, we will from time to time stomp on the souls of other people.
  • When we speak only in the words of expertise, some people will believe that we are also quietly saying, “Be quiet and listen. An expert is speaking. It’s time for you to shut up.”

At least there are certain mistakes that bloggers don’t often make:

  • They usually don’t pull rank. They usually don’t insist that a problem can be solved only by a certain kind of expert or talked about only in one kind of language.
  • They tend to think that people’s experience has something to offer. They assume that tradition or dogma should be challenged by people reflecting on their experiences.
  • They get riled up, but down deep they like to hear more voices, not fewer. They want their turn to speak, not the only turn. They get really impatient, but down deep they want democracy.

So: we bloggers aren’t entirely serious. That is our weakness and our strength. We aren’t systematic. That helps free us from the ethical failings of expertise. We have no authority and we can’t make people listen. That means that the people who turn our way are free people, making their own choices. Those are very cool people to have as friends. No money changes hands, just ideas and experiences. Nobody pulls rank. And on a good day, interesting things get said and sometimes they ripple out into the world. In an expert society, bloggers give me hope.

Silence 101

A little theory of the weakness of democracy:

Silence is the basic mode of a citizen, largely unallied with others, having no regular civic audience, skilled in no form of public address, possessing no reliable stream of information or one so contested and poisoned and vexed as to be more problem than aid, susceptible to cynicism or despair or indifference or fear every moment that is not spent laboring or consuming entertainment or tending the beautiful or bare walled garden of the private life.

from KS’s 1999.io and http://ift.tt/2EfGxri