Feature Article
Activism? Sure, Why Not? by Martin Murie

I'M STANDING AT THE BUS in downtown Portland, Oregon, collecting signatures to put the Progressive Party on the ballot. The year is l947, Henry Wallace has broken with the Democrats and we're bound for glory. A lively man grabs my clipboard, signs and tells me that elections alone are not enough, and that what's going on now is a continuation of previous people's struggles and that what lies ahead of us is going to be tough sledding. He's a Wobbly (International Workers of the World). I'm a recently discharged GI, so naive that some of what this man is telling me is news. People's struggles? One Big Union? As a kid in my isolated little town in Teton County, Wyoming, the New Deal had been nearly the totality of my political reality, and I knew that the leading men, the opinion makers, hated it, hated Roosevelt, hated Eleanor. Our American Way of Life (Free Enterprise) was threatened. Hidden behind the New Deal, the Red Menace. Well, it had made for some confusion, because people kept on voting for Roosevelt.

I remember where I was on April l3, l945 when word came down that FDR had died. On a ridge in the Appenines, returning from a reconnaissance. We passed a Sherman tank, its radio on. A sergeant said, and there was real emotion in his voice, "This is bad, he was a great man." And a liar, I thought, parroting elders of Teton County. You couldn't trust him. All too true, I learned, later. But that wasn't the whole picture. Roosevelt was an activist president, and he was that because public support was there, people in motion. He noticed. Eleanor helped him notice. Being a smart political animal, he put the donkey at the head of the parade. He said, at least once, "That's a great proposal, now go out there and make me do it."

Henry Wallace won l.l million votes and lost the election. It was clear enough, by then, that elections were just a piece of the puzzle. And the sledding did get tougher: the shut-down, the turn toward fascism. (Polite term: "Cold War.") House Un-American Activities Committee roving the land, investigating. Blacklists. Firings. Fear.

I got a college degree and drifted down to California to put in a little time as a perpetual graduate student, but that activism bug had bitten deeply, I'd stumbled into a culture of resistance, and loved it, couldn't stay away.

A radical political animal from those days is, I suppose an "Old Leftie." So be it. I have to admit it was, and is, by and large, a good life. For one thing I had happened to fall in love with a woman who stubbornly refused to bow to patriarchy. Sheer luck, that was, for me. Only recently have I come to see that the resurgence of feminism is one of the truly great happenings in our century. Without feminism, we go nowhere but down.

I keep running into reminders of that Wobbly's message, that we never start from scratch. Our radical agendas for today? Defense of abortion rights, tree sitting, buffalo shielding, building a new party, union organizing, composing cutting critiques, whatever. None of these are written on clean slates. They're infused with previous moves that are as multifaceted, as warm-blooded as ours. Suffragists. Populists. Union organizers. Abolitionists. Paine. Douglass. DuBois. Wollstonecraft. William Blake, "I will not cease from mental fight ..." Gerrard Winstanley, "True freedom lies in the community in spirit and community in the earthly treasurey." And thousands upon tens of thousands of unknown humans as starry-eyed as us, as clever, sexist, woefully ignorant, unaccountably generous.

This great skein of history, ancient struggles, many of their strands broken: we have to imagine them. Justice, for us and for the other animals. For me, it's the trying and the making that illumine this spirit. Asking and accepting don't make the cut, though in life's totality asking and accepting are integral, as are passivity and quiet scholarship and conversation and meditation and all the other good things. But somewhere, at the edge of it all, or at its heart, we have to put, insist on, the radical tilt, the action.

The activist terrain is, of course, littered with defeats. Some of them you shake off, and go on. Some stay as lifetime sorrows. Here's one of mine: a long strike waged by students whose promised financial support had been, by college and federal government, yanked away. Bad things happened, neither side squeaky clean, but that strike deserved to win. When the showdown came, a final ultimatum before the law would be invited in, a few faculty members who had been supporting the strike from the sidelines, met in agitated session. We held forth to each other, unable to come to a clear decision. I was of two minds. Finally, a peacenik, a passive resister of long standing, said that for him there was simply no valid alternative, he would be with the students.

My two-mindedness fused. Next day seven of us joined the strikers in front of the main entrance, and were duly fired. We won back our jobs, but the students gained little more than bitter knowledge. That kind of knowledge is apt to stay, stubbornly available. Let's say that losses, and triumphs, and their fruits (grapes of wrath?) are with us, part of the continuity. I should mention that my colleague, the peacenik, the man who said the right thing at the right time, is still out there when needed. Notice, though, that there is an infinite variety of activisms, the huge majority of which are not noisy or public. Maybe we need a new word. Taking a stand against Barbie or Power Ranger might just be one of those episodes that change lives. Yes, it's a chancy world, we meddle with fate.

Win or lose, which side are you on? I think it comes down to that. If you don't see, day-by-day, and feel in your gut, that there are sides, then all this talk about the life of activism won't have much tug to it.

Among the hazards in a radical life one of the trickiest is the smiling two-face of co-optation. Let's look at one of its currently fashionable forms, "the consensus process." This is where "stake holders," i.e., activists, government officials, land owners and corporate representatives sit around a table and hash things out, thereby avoiding unnecessary turmoil, quelling hatreds, gaining better understanding and GETTING THE JOB DONE.

The consensus process is smoke and mirrors. It's selling out most of the store for the sake of appearance, for feel-good. Take the famous spotted owl roundtable, supposedly a triumph of the consensus mode. If you look at the actual, and voluminous, records of that affair, I think you'll find it embarrassingly flawed.

If you yearn for the moderation mantle, you're headed for that round consensus table. Well, there are times when we have to go there. A dangerous place. None of us ought to make it our prime habitat. Don't go hat in hand. Try for a rectangular table. Know where the exit is.

There's another problem, the fretful distancing of activist groups, one from another. After the arson at Vail Associates' ski empire, we heard, again, a well-worn bit of wisdom: "Extremists do have a useful function, they make more moderate groups look reasonable." Even His Eminence, David Brower, uttered this formula, some time ago. I think he was kidding. I hope so. (You have to be careful with that guy, he does have a sense of humor.) Looking good? Who are we trying to impress? Fact: there are always "extremists," to the left, to the right. To be an activist is to invite that label. Grin and bear it.

These "other" extremists, though, they can be a pain in the butt, and they'll say the same of you. However, some are more than a pain, much more. When Alison and I joined the defense of an abortion clinic our main task was to help escort patients through harassing ranks of fanatic pro-life activists. In the turmoil it was hard to distinguish friend from foe. We escorts wore orange vests, that helped. But the "general public," driving by on the way to work or mall, didn't know that newspapers, TV and radio were giving them only small segments of the real day-to-day story. And it was hard for us orange-vested folks to feel that in so many of our fellow citizens' minds we were simply part of the obstruction, part of the "whole stupid, shameful business." But each patient escorted to safety was a victory, for her and for us.

We are, right now, in a monstrous co-optation, wherein we are so obsessed with shoring up a flawed presidency that our protest against that presidency's war on Iraq is eerily muted. Sometimes wiggle room can be found in dilemmas of this sort, but I think that we ought to grab this one by both horns and twist hard.

Recently, Alison and I have been meeting, by phone and snail mail and e-mail, old friends and new. Everybody seems to be, in one way or another, keeping a sharp eye on happenings, both inward and outward. Speaking for myself, I feel a spirit of resistance pervading our lives. This is my kind of spiritualism, my way toward union with the world. Resistance is an essential, it colors everything, it's part of that skein.

One day we joined other protesters on the U. S. side of the Canadian border, rallying against mega-development of wild rivers in northern Quebec. We did the usual things, leafleting, holding signs. An Inuit from the Canadian contingent was being especially effective. He leaned into car windows, talking, smiling and laughing. He held up traffic better than any of us. Afterwards I said he seemed to be actually enjoying the work. "Sure," he said, "why not?" ###

Martin Murie, formerly of Antioch College, is a biologist and with his wife Alison retired early back to the land--writing, weaving, raising veggies.

[Jan/Feb 1999]

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