On Efficacy

Tomorrow, we march.

I’ve been attending so many meetings, assemblies, flyer-ings, and marches in the last few weeks that it’s hard to see them as distinct events.  But still I tell myself that tomorrow is critical; that in a week that saw coordinated crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations across the country, it’s a crucial time to show solidarity and build momentum before the movement whithers away.  I’m so convinced (or perhaps, deluded) about how important tomorrow is that I’ve waived my don’t-be-a-moralizing-prick rule and sent an e-mail to my friends, encouraging them to join me.

Most of them won’t, and they’ll have good reasons not to.  If it’s not raining tomorrow, it’ll be too hot—either way, an unpleasant way to spend a Saturday.  They’ll have papers to write, funding applications to prepare, or, at the very least, hundreds of pages of reading to plough through.  Others will tell me, quite validly, that they really think the best way to achieve “change” is to focus on their degrees, trading short term engagement for long-term advancement, working towards that nebulous point in the future where we will, supposedly, forget about our careers and tenure and families and mortages and decide that now we’re ready to act.  The best reason not to come out, though, is encapsulated by a question that even I’ve been asking myself over and over again during the last few weeks: “You don’t actually think any of this will change anything, do you?”

Well no, not really.  I’m not stupid.  The odds are stacked against any movement for social justice, ever.  I can envision many scenarios in which Occupy Wall Street ends, and few of them are positive.  Eventually, images like that of a New York Police Supervisor beating the shit out of a woman will scare people off—or, if not that, the impending cold will.  Absent that, the grab bag of leftist causes that Occupy Wall Street represents might collapse from its own lack of coherence, dissolving into infighting as so many anarchist movements do.  Supposing the movement does piece together some demands, they will be dismissed immediately.  All told, the rational person would hedge his or her bets and stay home tomorrow.

I ultimately don’t buy the argument that people stay away not because they are apathetic, but because they’re saving their energy for things that are more likely to be effective.  After all, what would happen if we applied this same rationality to the rest of our lives—if we were as cautious about our day-to-day choices as we were about politics?  Why bother making a pass at the next girl at the bar when you know the chances you’ll wind up happily married to her are infinitesimal?  What’s the point of working hard to get ahead when the vast majority of Americans will die in the same socioeconomic cohort as their parents?  And why put on a seat belt given the tiny likelihood of this being the trip where you roll over?

The reality is that we are human precisely because we play long odds; our greatest moments are when we strive for things impossible.  Or maybe I should say improbable.  The funny thing is, things do change.  If you don’t believe me, try a Rawlsian thought experiment.  If you didn’t know what your race, class, or gender would be, would you rather be born in present day America—or the America of 100 years ago?  As catastrophic as things may seem today, I’ll bet you’d choose the America where people have an eight hour work day, a safety net of disability insurance and food stamps, and universal suffrage.  What’s makes that 100 year difference matter?  It was the aggregate of thousands of futile choices, the sum of meaningless individual flailings against an unjust system that, somehow and inexplicably, combined into something meaningful.

Some of our parents went to Washington to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, joining a legion of Don Quixotes marching against centuries of entrenched hierarchy and subjugation.  Some of our parents watched it all on TV.  Have your pick, but if you stay at home, don’t expect me to keep you company.  I’ll be out tilting at windmills.

6 thoughts on “On Efficacy

  1. Of course, Alex. But striving for tenure-track employment–and the chance to open the eyes of a new generation of Organization Kids–is its own kind of windmill-tilting. Perhaps the fact that I have a hard time taking a day away from my thesis to go to Zucotti Park makes me a bad leftist, but I’d really really prefer to think that there are many different roads to change and progress.

  2. So with all due respect, I think I have to disagree. You are right that there are many roads to social change and progress, and side-by-side, I could not tell you that marching in New York is more efficacious than writing your thesis.

    But I do think you have to consider that not all roads are open all the time, and that there are certain key junctures where some modes of action become more important than others. While I’m simplifying somewhat, there isn’t going to *be* an educational system – at least, not of the kind you’re envisioning – in the future if we don’t change the countries track now.

    1. And we all have different roles to play within it. Yeah, sure, it’s a tactic for getting to sleep at night and getting up again in the morning as much as anything else, but trying to get my zees to think about careers other than finance–or reading the Victorian critic John Ruskin’s critique of “political economy”–is good work too. Maybe it should be “both, and.” But it’s hard enough just doing one, and someone–I believe–has to read Ruskin and talk to my zees about their hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

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