How We Elderly Activists Failed

As young people newly protest, many may wonder why they have to. Why do they suffer school shootings, unbearable student debt, child hunger, racist killings, sexist rapes, surging poverty, deadening war, meaningless and insecure work, rampant profit seeking, pervasive political corruption, and escalating climate catastrophe? Why does health care create opioid scourge? Why does creating commodities cremate nature? Why are there so many social wrongs for young people to correct?

We elderly activists answer, because our society’s profit-oriented, racist, sexist, me-first kitchens, bedrooms, schools, playgrounds, neighborhoods, voting booths, cultural centers, legislatures, courts, and workplaces produce social ills. Society’s pliers bend us until we submit to survive or steal to prosper. Damn the system. Curse congress and corporations. Incomplete, our answer avoids responsibility.

My generation woke in the 1960s. Civil rights, women rising, poor people marching, and war’s violence schooled us. Counter cultural innovations fueled us. We became rebels with causes. In an historical eye-blink, millions of us rejected existing social relations. Hundreds of thousands of us advanced to totality of oppression resistance. Tens of thousands of us committed to revolutionizing all sides of life. 

We knew society’s ills. We knew their source. We even had intimations of  replacements. All this before we had children, before our children had children, and before our children’s children woke up to Trump. So a half century on, why is the world still full of injustice?

It is too easy to say the world’s ugliness ran deeper and tougher than we thought, and too flip to say we tried, the system beat us, it’s your turn, do better. It is too resigned to say too many of us lost hope and dropped back into the roles we had earlier dropped out of, and too deadening to claim that a big bad opponent unavoidably beat us, seek less. 

Fifty years on, my generation should admit we fucked up our chance to win a new world. We were informed, committed, and steadfast. We courageously acted in ways that reduced military mayhem, renovated race, gender, and sexuality relations, elevated ecology, and much more. But we also made devastating mistakes that reduced our outreach and deadened our prospects. Here are some.

We were often insular but rarely outgoing. We socialized, but overwhelmingly with people like ourselves. We enjoyed our community, but we defended it so aggressively against real and imagined violations, that we floated off, immunized against insights from without, and for the most part alienating others from connecting with us. We strengthened the ties that already knitted us together, but we failed to tirelessly create new ties so that activism’s support grew rather than stabilizing or shrinking. We avoided becoming happy idiots, but we let paranoia strike deep.

We were often callously anti-reform but rarely emphatically revolutionary. We rightly rejected seeking modest gains as ends unto themselves, which is to say we rightly rejected reformism, but we missed that winning reforms that reduce pain can grow resistance. We could win reforms now and simultaneously increase strength to win more later. We often even ridiculed efforts to gain more justice and more benefit for those worst off. Our dismissiveness toward those seeking anything less than winning the world now was callous and bred more callousness.

We were often proudly inflexible but rarely flexibly confident. We were so rigid that we lost capacity to alter in ways that challenged our tightly held newly minted self definitions. In time we couldn’t hear voices other than our own. We went from admirably constantly looking for new answers, to harmfully defending newly adopted thoughts and actions against further growth. From change-seekers we morphed into protecting ourselves against being changed. We too often saw every criticism as an assault meant to derail us. We became somewhat and sometimes even savagely sectarian. We lashed out while lashing ourselves in.

We were often half-heartedly solidaritous but rarely wholeheartedly united. We admirably advocated mutual aid, but across our many focuses we rarely went from nice words to meaningful acts. Neither cash nor labor often flowed from parts of activism able to raise lots of each to parts lacking such options. We formed coalitions that let organizations and movements with different priorities battle together for a particular agreed demand, like ending a war. But we did not create an overarching bloc of movements and organizations whose agenda was the greatest common sum rather than a least common denominator of all involved. We cautiously coalesced, but we did not all of us together take lead from anti-war prioritizers about war, from anti-racist prioritizers around race, from feminist prioritizers around gender, from ecology prioritizers around environment, and from economy prioritizers around class. We did not interweave into one big movement bloc in which all benefitted from every participant supporting every other. We did not discuss much less celebrate large differences as we all worked powerfully for a whole greater than the sum of its parts. We exaggerated and even exacerbated small differences as we each worked weakly alone.

We were often financially stupid but rarely fiscally wise. We rightly hated the perverse dynamics of the cash nexus, but wrongly underestimated the need for a shared approach to financing our efforts. We rightfully rejecting profit-seeking. We wrongfully celebrating impoverished means.

We were delusionally visionless, not insightfully visionary. As opponents ridiculed our not having answers for the future of everything, we began to celebrate not having answers for the future of anything. As audiences evidenced no hope for major change we avoided proposing the necessity and substance of major change. As family members, neighbors, and workmates asked what we were for, we said justice and equality and listed various short-term changes but avoided proposing institutions that would deliver rather than stifle such goals. As people became doubtful, cynical, and even dismissive, we fueled their alienation by endlessly repeating how bad things are and endlessly ignoring their doubts we had anything better to offer. We said join us in struggle despite your seeing no worthy institutional goals. We said another world is possible, but we did not provide hope and institutional goals that could convince anyone the claim was true. We did not inspire and inform struggle for another world.

So as much as we achieved, we lost, and that’s why young people today have so many social wrongs to correct.

So whatever paths you young folks discover and whatever new choices you make, please avoid our errors lest they undercut your aspirations as they did ours.

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