Chapter Two: Overcoming Cynicism
Juliet Berkman, Senator Malcolm King, and Andrej Goldman discuss
overcoming cynicism and early momentum.
Juliet, when organizing, did you encounter cynicism? How did you reply?
We all encountered it, including in ourselves. Trump becoming President depressed us, and while resistance to Trump grew quickly, going further nearly always encountered cynicism. I usually replied indirectly. I would ask, can you think of even one person who is not evil? Perhaps your grandmother, a famous person, yourself? Everyone would answer, “Yes, I have someone in mind.”
I would say place that person on the social side of a ledger. Now list as many folks as you want on the anti-social side. Hitler, Trump, the Clintons, the rest of your friends, your family, yourself, whoever you like.
Now notice that if evil was inevitably wired into human nature, everyone would appear on the evil side of the ledger. If you didn’t list everyone there, you know evil isn’t inevitable. It isn’t like having a stomach. On the other hand, you also know human nature doesn’t preclude people becoming evil. Evil routinely lies, manipulates, and fear mongers its way into our lives. For me to deny that would be ridiculous. Evil happens, so it is possible. But if evil isn’t wired in, why does it happen and. why is it so prevalent?
To answer, I would say look around and notice how our society rewards greed, violence, and callousness and how it punishes more caring inclinations. I would urge that our better traits must be in our nature, albeit able to be muted. They have nowhere else to come from since institutions don’t foster them. But our anti-social aspects can be produced by circumstances that impose them.
Sometimes it would have to end there. I would give a talk, offer the above arguments, and move on. Other times, discussions would continue, and we would consider how our existing roles mute social inclinations and impose anti-social ones. Though the reasoning is obvious, people often found the claims opaque. But it wasn’t a communications problem. They resisted accepting that they had taken false things for granted.
So, the approach didn’t work?
You rarely know for sure whether you efforts work. If you are pessimistic, you often walk away thinking not. If you are optimistic, you often walk away thinking you have succeeded. At the extremes, my efforts likely had no lasting impact. But with most folks, they likely lodged in peoples’ memory, set to join other factors later to cumulatively reverse cynicism.
Did you have other ways to address cynicism?
Sometimes I borrowed an approach from Noam Chomsky. Imagine you are looking out a window on a really hot summer day. You see a child with an ice cream cone. Along comes a big adult who takes the cone, swats the kid into the gutter, and walks on.
Watching from a window above, do you think, there goes a fine specimen of humanity? Do you think, that guy’s human nature is freely expressing itself? Do you think “gimme that ice cream and get out of my way” is in our genes like having a liver is in our genes? Or do you think, there goes a pathological deviant who was warped by his past or born messed up?
Chomsky had another approach that I did not like as much and that he eventually stopped using, as well. He would say, look, I know that if we do nothing, the result will be dismal or worse. If we work hard to win change, the result may be better. Clearly, we should try.
The reasoning was valid, but I had little success using the approach. People have personal lives, jobs, overtime, and families. To give time, energy, and emotional focus to fighting for change incurs emotional, social, and sometimes material costs. People hearing that to not fight for change is suicide but to do so may accomplish good tended to ask themselves, “But will my personally fighting for social change benefit those I care about better than my working to directly benefit them?” To answer yes required having informed hope and a broad sense of solidarity. To inspire participation required more than arguing that activism might thwart disaster.
So it required more than listing all the disasters befalling us?
Yes, I first saw that with my parents and some close friends. I was on my activist path. They were liberal, progressive, and even radical about issues, but they did not seek change. A significant shift in my parents’ and most other peoples’ choices had to wait for them to gain a sense of efficacy and hope, and it often took years. We suffered plenty of familial tension along the way to unity.
I saw how many resisted activism due to hopelessness. Events that spontaneously generated hope – such as massive outpourings of dissent that betokened more outpourings to come – were, to an extent, kryptonite for cynicism. But I couldn’t provide that kind of jolt in a one-on-one discussion. Operating one-to-one, I had to resort to thought experiments about a loving grandma or an ice cream grabbing brute. Even socially sparked involvement needed something more to help it persist beyond initial outrage. Cynicism could defuse spontaneous activism. Writ larger, encountering cynicism made me see that accurately criticizing unjust relations and showing their catastrophic implications would rarely alone generate sustainable forward-looking activism.
What more did you need to provide?
We had to address people’s emotional resistance to becoming active. We had to overcome people’s view that we cannot win a better world because the enemy is too powerful or because our internal natures are so anti social that any victory will eventually become oppressive. We had to provide hope that each person could meaningfully advance lasting change. We had to reorient our intellectual and organizing efforts from overwhelmingly emphasizing what was wrong to clarifying how a good society would look and how we might win it.
I went from repeatedly saying war kills, poverty starves, diminishment stifles, racism subjugates, bad is bad, to showing the shape of new fulfilling institutions and showing new ways of organizing and struggling. But I don’t want to make it sound easier than it was. Turning myself around was hard enough. Communicating vision that could sustain hope to someone skeptical about a good society even being possible and who because of that had avoided involvement and who had the added factor of not wanting to admit that they had been wrong, was very daunting. After all, if bridging that set of obstacles took forever with a sibling, parent, or child, it was going to be hard with others too.
Senator King, born in 1985, you were an avid student of history but initially an assembly worker and cook. You were attracted to RPS and became a member and not long thereafter ran for office within the Ohio Democratic Party and became the first highly placed national elected office holder to use your position to propel the RPS platform. You became a U.S. Senator, and many, myself included, think you will be President in a few years. Can you remember what precipitated your becoming radical?
I was fascinated by history and it gave me great sympathy for those fighting against oppression as well as considerable understanding of the institutions that create oppression. When I left school I couldn’t get a history-related job, so I worked as an assembler and then a short-order cook.
Suddenly, I wasn’t looking at working class conditions as subject matter. I was living them. I like to think that had I gotten a teaching job at some elite institution, my life would have been like it has been, but I know the odds are slim so I now celebrate what I horribly resented at the time – that I had to enter working class life and endure its injuries. Doing so ensured my radicalization.
Can you tell us some events, campaigns, or moments in RPS history that were personally most moving for you?
Being a short order cook taught me a whole lot about work, economy, and class attitudes, but two other moments jump out in my memory. First was when Bernie Sanders died. I know, he wasn’t in RPS and his politics, at least publicly, never rose to RPS allegiance. But his life, and particularly his Presidential campaign, greatly influenced me. His way of engaging, his sense of proportion, his compassion for working people, greatly inspired me. The slogan, “Don’t mourn, organize” is fine for a dying revolutionary to intone as advice to others. But for those still around who really cared, while it may be good advice, it denies reality. So when Sanders died, I mourned.
Second, during the Campaign for Military and Prison Conversion in 2028, I happened to give a speech at a U.S. military base in Oklahoma. After that session, I sat around with some soldiers at Fort Sill and we talked about their experiences, motives, and what the campaign might mean for them. I was greatly impressed by their thoughtful concerns for the country, themselves, and their families.
The proximity of change for their military base and thus for their lives, and the sober calm of our conversion campaign caused our exchanges to be heartfelt. We talked for hours covering incredible ground. The lessons I took about the need to hear people’s actual beliefs, not those imputed to them from a distance, and to relate to those beliefs in ways that could create solidarity rather than fear and antipathy, made my interactions not only with those soldiers, but with lots of different constituencies, much wiser.
Looking back, what do you think spurred the early boycotts and other campaigns emerging when they did?
I think the proximate cause was energy from the March on Wall Street. But I also know the importance of the earlier Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and, still more broadly, the Sanders campaign and the stupendous turn out of women to kick off sustained resistance to Trump. I guess we were all realizing if we didn’t stand for what’s right then we would likely fall for what’s wrong.
I began to realize that a lone effort at change rarely wins much, but carried through well, a collective effort can provide lessons and sentiments that lead to another effort, and then another. We never get a continuous, uninterrupted piling on of desires, capacities, and gains. We win some, lose some. Our task is to learn from the losses so the gains accumulate and feed off each other.
Some say, just pick a target, commit, and do the hard work. But what target, commit on what basis, do what hard work? How?
The person saying “just do it” is right, but you are right, too. Saying activism is easy, so just do it, is technically valid but flippant about or ignorant of the obstacles people feel. Many pre-RPS efforts aroused peoples’ worthy desires. Many taught useful skills. Many conveyed needed confidence and overcame harmful biases. But not everyone involved at each stage experienced lasting changes. Many participants would gain new inclinations for a time and then lose those attributes due to the pressures of returning to daily roles to survive. Their activism would decline when they had to refocus on restrictive jobs. Other participants would retain lessons, skills, feelings, and hope, and bring their energies to a next round of activity. Their forward trajectory of lasting involvement was crucial. To be effective, organizing had to generate that.
For example, for the immediately pre-RPS arms boycotts, we had campuses where twenty or thirty percent of students and faculty were vigorously active and eighty percent agreed with ending war research. Yet, as the dust temporarily settled, sometimes with total divestment, sometimes partial, most participants returned to attending classes and getting along. Getting such folks back into activism was a recurring priority. Having them never leave would be even better.
Andrej, you were intimately involved at the outset, too. Was your experience similar?
Yes, I also saw people leave after the boycott. And I too was saddened by that, but, overall, I also saw some people keep on keeping on. I saw even those who returned to their prior ways retain a residue of the boycott experience, able to resurface. We who remained active just had to do good work.
What characterized those who did remain active?
We were changed and retained the changes. We no longer fit our past patterns. A few of us became social misfits when our outrage toward all injustice blocked our engaging thoughtfully in anything. Others of us designed new slots for ourselves. We knew society had to fundamentally change and we resolved to help make it happen. Perhaps most important, activists who stayed began to realize that the right norm for judging events, meetings, and campaigns wasn’t did our effort win what was directly demanded or cause the disruption that was directly sought. The real criteria was did our effort increase consciousness, organization, and commitment in the people it communicated with? Did “movement first” replace “me and mine first.”
What makes you think that happened?
A lot of things, not least my experiencing it myself. But for an outward indicator, imagine a major demonstration called to shut down some elite meeting. In earlier periods, in the initial organizing activists would emphasize what the meeting was for, why we considered it a heinous gathering, why we opposed it, and what we wanted beyond merely shutting it down. When the new criterion gained sway those focuses would persist right through when the meeting occurred and into its aftermath. But before the new criterion gained sway, pretty early on and steadily more so as the meeting neared, organizers and left media would shift from focusing on the goals of the meeting and on the movement’s reasons for opposing those goals, to the technical details of blocking the meeting and dealing with police. Our message would become stop the meeting, we win. Fail to stop the meeting, police win. Focusing on tactical success would cause radical insights to fade from discussion. Police would only have to coerce us into tactical retreat and we would feel defeated. But with the new norm, our priority became how today’s choices impact tomorrow, not whether today’s action accomplishes some short-term tactical aim. When we organized to stop some meeting or to win some campaign, with the new norm we understood our demands and actions mattered for the immediate benefits they could deliver to worthy recipients, but also for how they facilitated winning more gains in the future.
Why was that recognition such a big deal?
It informed how we chose targets and our words and methods. It caused us to realize that being a revolutionary wasn’t mainly about supporting particular ideas or even advocating a transformative vision. It wasn’t mainly about courage or even about being in some organization. Being a revolutionary required life reorienting from being about one’s job or even an immediate radical agenda, to being about winning a changed society. “I am a revolutionary” came to mean that the organizing principle guiding my life is to win a new society.