Old models and new media

Before turning to the practical, following up on yesterday’s post about Unitarian Universalist functional discomfort with political power to effect good outcomes for people in hard situations. As before, I’ll keep this brief.

First, we give too much weight to “golden age” models of public witness. By which, of course, I mean demonstrations and opportunities for arrest. (Memorial vigils are a different thing, and I don’t include them here.) There seems to be something more than solidarity or justice-seeking going; something more akin to “anti-war re-enacting.”

The early to mid 1960s must have been a heady, perhaps a, frightening time to demonstrate. (I say “must have been” because like everyone else under fifty, I have no direct knowledge of any of it.) These demonstrations speak to a time of hope before it withered in the embitterment of the late 60s. Also when churches were influential and full. But those days are over and cannot return. Not only do “new occasions teach new duties” but the old idiom of social change looks quaint to younger progressives, and arthritic to the reluctant or hostile. The post-Ferguson demonstrations are the exception that prove the rule: it was the thing to do, as there was nothing else that could be done. But it doesn’t last, and without an action to follow, nothing changes and bitterness ensues. If the Occupy phenomenon shows us anything it’s that organization is hard, and all those in opposition have to do is wait for the fissures develop.

Sometimes people speak of the late 50s and the decade that followed as the “civil rights era” as if the strides made in the next two generations for women; persons with physical, developmental and emotional disabilities; and lesbians and gay men don’t have to do with civil rights. Or, to put it another way, if this isn’t the civil rights era now, what the hell are you bothering with?

The important part is something actionable. Seeking legislation, regulatory or procedural changes, public works adopted or abandoned, sincere apologies and so forth. How you gather the power to prepare and implement the plans is secondary.To paraphase: “without an endgame, the people perish.”

And that brings up social media: the new model. It’s helpful, but I’ll not praise it much, and I’ll be shorter here. Twitter and Facebook — each run by corporations that don’t give a damn about your revolution — can easily create an echo chamber. The number of heart-sick posts on each post-Ferguson told me people were spinning themselves straight from anger to despair, burning off any righteous energy that might have been applied to change. And we can’t afford that.

I’ve said enough for now; feel free to comment.

Author: Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

4 thoughts on “Old models and new media”

  1. I usually shy away from the culture of protest. In my lifetime (I was born in the 70’s) it usually seems more like a show for the participants, than something which brings about concrete change. The powerful need not even see or be inconvenienced by the event. Their power insulates them. But what specifically to do instead? That part is very difficult, and continues to stump me. And perhaps that’s because I find it a challenge to name individual concrete outcomes, and then organize to work on them across the long term. The death of Eric Gardner, and the Senate Torture Report both horrify me. Can I articulate the specific concrete outcomes I think should happen in response? And how do I achieve the traction to work on those outcomes?

  2. I participated in many of those anti-war Demonstrations starting in Chicago in 1968. The starting point of many in Chicago’s near West ‘burbs was Chicago’s Third Unitarian and the ending was usually at Unity Temple in Oak Park. Usually a film of some sort was shown there. These were usually great fun events for reasons I’ll omit for the moment, but even as they evolved into every more violent demos with SDS’s Days-of-Rage being a capstone, they were really a thrill for a good many of us.

    You wrote, The important part is something actionable. Seeking legislation, regulatory or procedural changes, public works adopted or abandoned, sincere apologies and so forth. but for many in the 60s/70s the impact was “Consciousness Raising” as the first step towards revolution. (We did use the word Revolution a lot). Regulatory or procedural changes were far from most participates frame and boring too boot.

    Police are governed at the local level and in most communities there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with how they operate. How effective those groups are most vary a lot but decisions on how seniority works in a force where the community mix is changing are pretty local decisions. If you get involved, you can more than likely start to have an impact.

    Every cop car in my Village has a set of “combat tourniquets” courtesy of me after a cop had to fashion one out of a pen and rubber bands to keep a motorcyclist from bleeding-out after losing his leg in a crash. I read that story and called the Chief saying I’d order as many as he needed.

    Chicago has a staggering number of murders each week. Often of children and sometimes by Children. Neighboring towns with similar demographics can go the whole year with zero. Maywood Illinois did this a year or two ago. They reduced annual murders in double digits to zero. I called their Chief and asked him if the Press or his fellow Chief in Chicago or anyone else had called him to ask how he did it. (It was no accident. He had a strategy and implemented it including community involvement.) The Chief said no, no one had ever bothered to ask how Maywood Illinois did it.

    I suspect all of the actionable stuff it takes to make these life saving sorts of changes boring stuff, mundane, and not easy to put in place always. And once you do, no ones much interested in it.

  3. Age 65 here. I will not claim to have been a fire-breathing radical, but participated in a campus shut-down following the Kent State shootings as so many did. (Because we White, middle-class students suddenly realized that we could get killed too.) Blocked major thoroughfares, got tear-gassed by the Buffalo police, helped wash it out of eyes, etc. Realized quickly this was getting us nowhere, despite it feeling really good and righteous at the time. It was the more tedious, compromised, political process that actually got us out of Vietnam.

    An interesting comparison: The initial impetus for Prohibition came from demonstrations and actions largely by women and church groups. After the first flurry of publicity, this accomplished almost nothing. The prohibition amendment was finally pushed through years later by the committed, tedious, political work of the organized “Dry” lobbying group. (See the Ken Burns film.) It was a disaster, of course, but demonstrates what needs to happen if actions of outrage and protest are ever going to effect any real change. See also; Occupy Wall Street = accomplished nothing.

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