It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting in my dressing gown with a cup of coffee, but I’m not relaxed. I’m distracted and uneasy, finding it impossible to focus. Butterflies in my stomach, I’m staring out the window at the morning light and the occasional birds flying past, breathing deeply to ground myself. What is going on? Only this: the spaciousness of Sunday morning has made room for something to come down off the shelf, something that I stashed for later. Now later has arrived.
I’ve recently two-stepped in a wee merry dance of miscommunication, flirting with membership in a group which promotes social change and funds grassroots groups whose aims are often too radical to attract traditional funding. An interesting process, being called to account for my views: it felt uncomfortable and frankly adolescent. Are you one of us? In the end, I pulled out. Not because I disagree with their purpose; on the contrary, I wholeheartedly agree with the aims and values of this organisation, its strategy to support groups that advocate strategic and systemic social change. But I’m not sure how to evidence it, and in any case I was applying on an idealistic whim, rather than with any project or agenda in mind. “I’m not a radical anything,” I told them, “I’m just me.” Clearly I hadn’t thought it through, nor read their published criteria closely enough. In the end I merely wasted time for people who have more than enough to do already.
But something still nags at me about this. What is the point of radical activism, if not to connect to the mainstream at its edges and change the parameters of social expectation? And how does one connect with that conceptual barrier of personal identity (eg I’m a radical activist, and you’re not) in place? How do we connect with others while maintaining our differences, our criteria and identity? And what is the aim of political activism? If radical views become mainstream, do they then become compromised, suspect? What is the difference between successful collective action and the mainstream? What is the difference between membership, participation and engagement?
At the Soulmakers Gathering I attended at the end of September, someone made reference to the Trojan Horse: in this case a metaphor for slipping new or challenging ideas into mainstream discourse in order to affect widespread change. Is the metaphor apt? Are we at war?
Many people would say so. Capitalism is at war with the natural world, power and privilege are at war with the dispossessed and disenfranchised. The traditional third sector operates to mop up the casualties, but it still plays by the rules of the game – a game which is ultimately rigged. This ship we’re on will go down eventually through the weight of its own malign hubris, and we’ll go down with it. The number of birds flying past my window grows fewer every year.
Once there were a billion passenger pigeons
So many flew by they darkened the sky
I can’t believe how easily
A billion birds can disappear
Handsome Family, “Passenger Pigeons“
Meanwhile, here we are. We do what little we can while we wait for that little black train to arrive.
So here’s the kernel of my Sunday morning unease: how little a difference I make. I’m not a radical anything, I’m just me. My contribution and influence in this world are circumscribed by the limitations of social participation and personal choice, by the tiny space in which I dwell and the brief spell of my life with its candle flicker of existence. I haven’t got a strategy to fix the world. I haven’t got a strategy to save myself or those I love. We can’t be fixed and we can’t be saved, we can only live out each moment at a time as truly as we know how and marvel that we’re here at all. I don’t want to spend my life at war; I don’t want to play tricks or conquer Troy. That’s not the real challenge.
The real challenge is to admit how vulnerable, how inconsequential I am, how easily my security may be sacked and overrun. Those butterflies in my stomach, they’re telling me that I’m inside the city walls already, and the most courageous and radical thing I can do is to open my door in the spirit of trust and friendship, even with – indeed, most particularly with – those who are not one of us. Loving our neighbours and even our enemies and even ourselves: the most radical activism ever.