The (Near) Death of an Activist

Last April was probably the period where I was the most politically radical—and optimistic—I’ll ever be. By the time I handed in my thesis, it was pretty evident that I had drank the proverbial freegan kool-aid. I genuinely believed the freegans, by working to create sustainable, egalitarian, local anarchist communities, were on to something that might actually work. It didn’t hurt that capitalism was in disarray, a fact that even the mainstream population seemed to have noticed, prompting us to elect a new President who was, for a bit, genuinely exciting to me.

As tends to be the case with high points, things went downhill from there. While what follows may seem like a series of unconnected anecdotes, each has played a part in making me much more pessimistic about the world and my capacity to impact it. In May, the animal rights group I helped to start invited Keith McHenry, the founder of Food Not Bombs, to speak. I was hoping for the event to be something of a “capstone” for my activism at Princeton, and spent hours and hours flyering and chalking campus to promote what I thought would be a rousing speech by an inspirational radical figure.

In the end, practically no one came to see him. The sad part, though, is that the low turnout was a relief. McHenry—the man who coined the term “freegan” and started a movement that now has thousands of chapters around the world—was delusional and ill-informed. What was intended to be a triumphant finale turned out to be just one more poorly executed event, one among many in two years of campaigning in which I, on reflection, had accomplished pretty much nothing.

My next (un)related anecdote came during the summer, when progressives erupted in an orgy of self-congratulation about “people power” in response to the mass demonstrations against the stolen elections in Iran. My friends changed their facebook profile pictures to solid green and set their twitter locations to “Tehran,” and acted like this was genuine political action. What really bothered me, though, was when the repression started, and we realized that even in a globalized post-modern world text-messages and blogging are no match for guns and batons, we quickly forgot about it. Iran’s “Green Revolution” receded from memory as quickly as the hijacked “Yellow Revolution” in Ukraine or the failed “Saffron Revolution” in Myanmar. The balance of my summer was spent in Uganda, where we—as “development” researchers—used our time and resources to show the failures of a well-intentioned project. Then we departed, leaving behind a few dollars and no solutions. Aside from my qualms about the project itself, Uganda was tough for me, not just because the country is desperately poor but because it was quite evident that the things I advocate for and believe in were not solutions to their problems. Uganda doesn’t need autonomous sustainable communities based on principles of mutual aid: it needs factories and businesses.

I came back from Uganda to the U.S., where it seemed like we had collectively gone insane. Providing health care for poor people, suddenly, was “communism” and “fascism” all at once. What was most distressing, though, was that the Democrats—despite winning the election in a clear fashion—couldn’t bring themselves to even pass a “reform” that was, at best, a half-way measure. I wasn’t particularly surprised, but I realized that the response of most of my peers to this failure, who had pinned their hopes on Obama to save it all, would be disillusionment and complacency. Electing Obama should have been a starting point of a new movement for change; instead, I’ve quickly realized it was the end point, the moment at which we collectively decided that we had been saved and could go back to our normal lives.

And, to really bring things full circle, the freegans also went a bit mad.—the group I studied—had always been dysfunctional. But, partly because I thought the group had some real visionaries, and partly because I felt some obligation to give back to them for all the help they gave me with my thesis, I agreed in May to take over some administrative duties for the group. It was pretty boring stuff: moderating some e-mail lists and handling some media requests. And yet, somehow, my execution of these jobs convinced one member of the group that I was, in fact, a government agent attempting to dismantle from the inside. Sometimes the biggest lies are the hardest to disprove; in this case, I didn’t bother trying, and just walked away.

Sometime in September, I came to the decision that I was going to take it easy with activism when I got to Oxford. My political activities have, frankly, been a bit aimless and disjointed, and while I won some awards partially for being an activist, I’m well aware of how little I’ve accomplished. My other consideration was the fact that, somehow, I tend to wind up in charge of any group I join, and for my own sanity, I didn’t want to helm yet another struggling organization. The Oxford activities fair seemed to vindicate my decision: the guy at the workers’ rights table told me I lacked proper “class consciousness,” and, beyond that, there was hardly a single other leftist groups. Oxford seemed to be somewhat more apathetic and conservative than Princeton, which means that getting involved here would be akin to sentencing myself to two more years of beating my head against a brick wall.

– – –

And yet, for all this, today I found myself in London, surrounded by a throng of fellow students, holding aloft a Socialist Worker’s Party banner that had been thrust into my hands (“What party?!?!”). Madeline, one of the freegans, once described her return to activism after a (much longer) hiatus as akin to “having lived underwater and then sticking up my head and breathing.” It’s an apt description, so I will leave it at that.

Me taking a break from activism.
Me taking a break from activism.

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