Monday, September 21, 2009

Activism is Not a Labor Saving Device

Birmingham News columnist John Archibald advances an important argument in his latest op-ed, entitled "Our Tribalism Belies our Better Natures". As a means of back story, it needs to be mentioned that the government of Jefferson County, Alabama, has been so woefully mismanaged that it has made the national news for all the worst reasons. Not only that, the mayor of the city of Birmingham is currently under indictment for a variety of corruption charges and will be on trial soon. And recently, after 1 (one) city employee came down with swine flu, the mayor felt it necessary to spend money the city doesn't exactly have to shut down the entire municipal government. Upon the context of these recent events, Archibald makes a strong case of how we ought to live our lives to avoid these pitfalls.

Archibald interviews McWane Center chief Tim Ritchie to emphasize his main idea. For those who are not Birmingham natives, the McWane Center is a non-profit local science museum and research archive.

The way Richie puts it, humans have learned over the millennia that there is survival in numbers. When a threat looms, we run to our tribe for safety. The bigger our tribe, the better our odds for survival.

It sounds like a bunch of high minded stuff. But it’s simple. It’s as easy to understand as love or hope or faith.

Because tribalism touches us all. I see it when readers say, as one did this week, “I agree with you, but I can’t tell my husband.”

Our community divides us into tribes within tribes within tribes. In the Birmingham area we have hundreds of council districts in 50-plus cities. We govern by commission district in Jefferson County, with little call for politicians to consider the community at large.

It’s the same across the state and nation, whether our issue is constitutional reform or health care. People take hard lines based on their chosen tribe’s “talking points,” or their tribal pundit’s position.

Sometimes even the intellectual among us fear to step from the safety of those tribes. Time has taught us what the Japanese say in a proverb: “The protruding nail will be pounded in.”

You need a hard head to take that beating.

As a historian, I've devoted years of my life to study the records left behind to document the past. In hindsight, I wonder now why I am so surprised that any worthy reform movement runs into significant opposition. I could, for instance, cite any number of examples for as far back I'd care to go where change came with much strife and partisan gridlock. Words on a page, however, do not reveal the context of the times. Anyone can be a Monday Morning quarterback. Regarding past events, I must concede that I simply wasn't there. To get a true understanding of the status quo antebellum, one must actually have lived in those times. The historical record doesn't give its reader the ability to easily understand contextual events, trends, and subtext, which in many ways are more important, if not as important, than the main narrative. Events in isolation are often useful, but the full picture, despite the massive advances in technology simply is not available, even on pay-per-view.

Now, having been through the same rough ride that we all have, I know I will never again cavalierly question why other people from another age couldn't manage to pass and enact desperately needed reform measures. I can now place myself in the shoes of those who pushed for each and every one of the societal advances we frequently take for granted today and faced a roaring head wind in every step from beginning to end. I understand now, more than I ever did before, that bipartisanship only works if both sides are capable of acting like adults. But this revelation doesn't just stop at how I will perceive of the past henceforth. This epiphany will influence how I view the future, too. Now, having seen for myself that post-racial societies require more of us than just passively than voting for the First Black President™, I will not be surprised in a few years when the First Female President™ faces a substantial sexist and misogynist backlash, no matter how adamantly she proclaims she is advancing a post-gender agenda.

Part of it is that we are so conditioned to believe in Madison Avenue and in the labor-saving devices it has peddled for decades. The ads of the Fifties, for example, rapturously and excitedly presented technology as the savior of mankind from the barbaric servitude of manual labor. Ever since then, though the slogans have changed and the strategies have been tweaked, we have been led to believe that purchasing things will save us time, money, and effort, freeing us up to do what we please. We've also been told that we are what we purchase, and that's an attitude I encounter within the first four seconds of turning on my television. One could make a compelling case that accumulating things has made us less happy, not more so, and that free time means more time for self-serving pursuits. Selfish pursuits are, after all, what got into the sheer number of messes in which we are currently mired.

At meeting recently we were discussing ways to be more environmentally friendly. When the topic of reducing one's carbon footprint came up, a woman shared a story that reveals how much consumerism has burrowed its way into our brains and subconsciously influenced our decision-making process. "When I began contemplating how to reduce my footprint," she said, "the first thing that popped into my head was 'What can I buy to accomplish it?'" We all laughed, knowingly, but the point was made. The statement isn't just ironic, it's also emblematic of the unfortunate fact that we think substantial activism or social justice might be accomplished in the easiest way possible with the minimum amount of jostling along the way. If someone can sell activism in a box, one can be sure that we'll buy it in record numbers.

Archibald concludes,

So where is the hope?

It is in the opposite of tribalism, Ritchie says. It comes when we decide to live what he calls “evidence-based lives.”

If we can break from the worst of our tribal impulses, we can change. In things as simple and personal as our diets, or as confounding as city government.

If you eat too much cake and get fat, you learn to lay off the cake.

Evidence can come from the heart or the soul, from experience or from hard data, Ritchie says. It is not an affront to faith, for much of the proof in life is spiritual or “deeply emotional.”

And that’s why this seemingly complex idea is so easy. If we see our tribalism, resist the bad parts and live according to evidence, we can change the world.

With one little commitment.

“Our leaders, in churches, schools, communities, even in households, need to agree to lead evidence-based lives,” he said. “We — and we know who we are — need to commit to adapt our behavior according to the evidence.”

Pretty simple, like a roadmap to reasonability. It might just give us the courage to break, on occasion, from the tribes that bind.

And that, really, is a brand new theory of evolution.

I can't add much more to that resolute conclusion except to register that, as best we can, we ought to remember from now on that any worthwhile effort will require sacrifice and that it will not come easily. The wisest among us warned that the struggle ahead would be arduous and in so doing, they invoked past struggles which had run into substantial partisan bickering. Each time another new face arrives on the scene, I think we believe that the inevitable stresses and strains of humanity will melt away at the ballot box. Institutional memory is notoriously short-lived and fickle and this may not be something one can ever reform. Evolution has its limitations, too. Yet, we as humans do much better when we have a goal in front of us and I can't think of a more worthy fight than that of resolutely resolving to move the race forward. No worthwhile challenge comes without steady pressure and unyielding resolve.

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