My own political awakening began early and started manifesting in high school. I had little understanding of how the system worked but my parents were Democrats and I had a natural affinity for liberal politics. After all, by the time I was eleven, I’d already experienced being part of several target groups — children, girl children, younger siblings, Jews, and people with disabilities.
I had a radar for injustice and from my earliest years (starting at age 5) at (the dreaded) Girl Scout camp in the hills outside Prescott, I found myself aligning with whoever the bully in our group had targeted. There was always a bully. Always a chosen victim. I was an active and resilient kid so the bully never seriously attacked me, but I felt the fear she instilled in the other girl and felt my own vulnerability. Every year I’d tell my mother I hated camp and didn’t want to return and every year just before summer she’d tell me I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it and sign me up anyway — for five consecutive years.
My senior year in high school (1964) I invited the Democratic candidate for Governor (Sam Goddard) to speak to my government class. I got a note from a friend. She wrote: “My parents recently joined the John Birch Society. You are either a communist or a communist dupe. I can no longer be your friend. Signed, Robbie.” It turns out most of the parents of most of my classmates were members of the John Birch Society. Barry Goldwater lived a few blocks up the hill from my family the year he ran for President.
My freshman year at the University of Arizona in Tucson, traumatized by my recent realization that we were bombing the people of Vietnam, and by my recently-gained awareness of the extent of racism, I joined a minuscule fraction of the 20,000 strong student body at the U of A called the SPA — The Student Peace Association. It was an independent club with no connection to any national organization. At the end of the school year, a few of our (ten members) wanted to affiliate with SDS —Students for a Democratic Society. I was opposed, thinking SDS might somehow be “communist”.
For years I protested. I organized, though I had no talent for it. I attended endless meetings. I was a member of the Liberation Dance Front —a short-lived activist dance troupe in San Francisco. I worked on an anti-racist and anti-imperialist newspaper (affiliated with SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee) called “The Movement”.
I never did join SDS. But at 19, I ended up living in Uptown, Chicago for a year (as a Vista Volunteer). Uptown was ground zero for SDS to take its politics off campus and into the lives of “real” people. Some of its top national leaders turned out to be my next door neighbors, eventually friends, comrades. Ok, a few of them lovers.
There was an obituary a few days ago in the LA Times. Tom Hayden, one of the founders of SDS died. Tom and I were not lovers; I never even met him. He hadn’t been an organizer in my Chicago neighborhood. I knew his name because of the Port Huron statement. Because of a phrase I believe he coined “participatory democracy”.
Tom Hayden’s life and writing also reminded me of a widely circulating video clip I recently saw of retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter speaking on the same topic.
The question of participatory democracy is no longer only a college student’s dream and “issue”, but alive in our society and at the very heart of whether our democracy (such as we have known it) will survive at all.
I, unlike Tom Hayden, am no theorist or politician. Most of us aren’t. Therein lies at least part of the problem. That is, thinking that once we vote for them, we can leave the decision-making process to those in charge. And then simply point fingers of blame and frustration when the issues we care about don’t get attended to, we continue going to war, and lobbyists continue to successfully buy favors which almost always have a negative impact on our society.
We, the people have some responsibility here. As David Souter points out, first, not to be ignorant. Basically he is asking of us what Tom Hayden asked of us in 1962 — to participate in our democracy.
Most of us don’t have a “bent” in the direction of political activism. So, what to do?
Basically I want to say there is a long way between having one’s head stuck in the sand ostrich-style (and do ostrich’s even do that?) and being a full-fledged political, social, or community activist.
Many possibilities lay along the spectrum. Like most of life, it doesn’t have to be either/or. I’m here to argue against the ostrich end of the spectrum. I would also argue against the armchair complainer who holds strong opinions but doesn’t do anything except point out how imperfect government is. It’s so easy to be ultra-smart sitting in one’s chair opining. It’s also boring and annoying, as the Buddha long ago pointed out.
I’m always trying to encourage myself (in a kind way, not that old new left guilt-tripping way) to do as much as I can, and to get as creative as I can as an artist and a participatory democratist. I want to be the kind of person who belongs to and participates in a society that cares about the well-being of all its members.
Reading Tom’s obituary, I was impressed with how much he put himself on the line, took risks, got knocked down (physically and politically), got up, and tried again, and again.
Tom’s vision was a beneficent one. We need that vision, resilience, love, inspiration, and leaders. And there’s no getting around the fact even if we are not “leaders”, we need to participate.
Each of us has to figure out what makes the most sense for us. Personally I find Ram Dass’ guidelines helpful. He said they are equally useful in all circumstances, from Armageddon to the Age of Aquarius. I have personally tested them in my own lesser-armageddon-and-aquarius moments.
Per Ram Dass —
- Quiet the mind.
- Open the heart.
- See as clearly as possible what needs to be done.
- Do it.
- Don’t be attached to the results.
Then, keep repeating all five steps as often as necessary, which I think means forever.