What does it mean to be an activist? Back in the day, people will tell you, it meant you actually got off your ass and took to the streets to make things happen. There are actually some admirable people out there who still do this, but if you use the “good ol’ days” definition, American activism has been on the down slope for a long time, now. Activism, and the way the Left approaches issues, has changed. For many, this new way is ineffective, self-absorbed, and neutered. And there may be no alternative.
In the “glory days,” the 60’s and 70’s, we had the counterculture, and the New Left. The New Left concerned itself with many of the issues modern social activists do: racism, homophobia, democracy and civil rights. Back then, there was a vibrant tapestry of movements, a culture of coming together to protest the general state of American being, to plan action, to force change through people power. There was, at least in image and collective memory, widespread participation, and a popular movement that could make the government listen. Of course, this is an idealized retelling of that time and the movement. In truth, there was a lot going wrong.
One of the biggest problems was one of representation. The radical groups of the 60s employed Marxist rhetoric to get ahead, claiming all oppressed as part of the movement, in solidarity. We were all living in this country, all hurting, and so all part of the same push for change. You can’t have a revolution without a big galvanized mass of The People! But this attempt at homogeneity fails, especially when you’ve got a situation like that of the 60’s, where the most marginalized groups were pushed to the side, even in this fight for a new order.
As activists today would say, white men can’t let the power shift, even if they want to. The issues focused on, the way the movement was organized, the way the movement spoke, were dictated by and centered on men, and generally white men. Women, people of color, sexual and gender minorities, were welcome support, but rarely were their unique needs seen to. To this end, one of the lasting contributions of 60’s counterculture was the revival of feminism, due to the large portion of women who were dissatisfied with how their struggle was addressed and how they were treated within the movement.
So what’s left? Armed with the knowledge of what happened with Vietnam, there’s less hope among current activists for large sweeping change, or at least there’s less manifestation of that hope. Vietnam happened anyway, and all the beatings young people took in protest weren’t enough to stop it before millions died. The Post-New Left has a more defeated attitude. But with this defeat came a sort of freedom. Without the highly pressing issue of the Vietnam War threatening to pull young men into a horrifying, immoral conflict, people can think about and work on the issues that matter to their individual communities. As to the issues of representation, there’s been a massive revision of the charter. The current state of things is that everyone has their own little movement. Things are smaller, but there’s a more precise focus on what each group needs to be done.
There’s much discontent with this modern state of activism. After all, things are still fucked. Almost everything the hippies talked about back then, what needed to be changed, on a societal level, for a just and equal society, is still a problem. And at this juncture, those larger problems are continuing, without a push-back of the size they deserve. The new landscape of Left-leaning activism is identity-based, something that clashes horribly with the traditional Leftist value of The People fighting the good fight.
New “-ism”s are constantly popping up, new ways people can define their own oppression, and it definitely can be baffling, even to people within the community, who genuinely want things to be good for everyone. Look at the scorn visited upon “social justice warriors.” From the outside/and often, coincidentally(?), the side of the establishment, social justice looks like a bunch of people trying to find stuff to complain about. What Tumblr post can compete with this?
There are obvious downsides to the new way. The movement is fractured, broken up into a bunch of less effective groups that have developed their own interests and vocabulary to serve themselves. Instead of discussing larger change, the focus is on developing a rhetoric that fully articulates what it means for them to live under the current system. But how is this bad? They’re not serving the larger purpose they might have forty years ago as part of the big mass of Leftist protesters, but is that a realistic expectation anymore?
The Leftism of the 60’s and 70’s failed. It was put down by the establishment. There’s been a very long time to develop methods to counteract and nip in the bud that type of protest. And let’s not forget what happens to people who try to engage in the old way.
There’s no putting the representation issue back in the jar. Right now, people are trying to figure things out. Not only how to fix their group’s problems, but how to articulate to others what those problems are and how they come about. The objectives are empowerment and understanding. If these goals can be achieved, wouldn’t the new movement be more effective? More solid, more galvanized, if the group truly understands itself and the needs of its people?
How many hippies really got it? I don’t know. But I doubt that many people who talk about the 60’s as if the protest movements were so much better and more productive do, either. Change is slow as hell. This romanticized expectation of how protest and activism should work is not only unrealistic, but an easy way for the establishment-aligned to discredit people doing something, now. What’s left of the old movement is a lot of angry, intelligent people. People who might, when it’s time, do it better.