Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pleasuring Ourselves While Rome Burns

Throughout much of the 1990s until about 2008, I was very heavily involved in progressive causes. One of the duties I signed on for was to develop, promote and administer a variety of conferences, conventions, seminars and meetings. Some were very small affairs for no more than a handful of people, but others were big deals with anticipated attendance in the 400 - 1,000 range.

Along with my colleagues, I worked very, very hard to insure that each such conference would live up to its potential. We worked to come up with meaningful themes. We brought in speakers and entertainers from far and wide. We spent hours upon hours working out all the logistics and making damn sure we had enough pamphlets, programs and other necessary educational materials.

As is my wont, I typically was in charge of all the behind the scenes administrative work. I made sure we scheduled the right speakers in the right rooms. I worked doubly hard to make everything appear seamless to participants, so they could concentrate their energies on the important matters at hand. I tended to work myself past the point of exhaustion, but my reward were those confabs that went off with few hitches.

With this preface as a backdrop, I think you could understand my initial dismay with one of Chris Hedges' recent columns, "Where Liberals Go to Feel Good." In it, he writes,
The liberal class’ solution to the bleak political landscape is the conference. This, along with letters and cries of outrage circulated on the Internet, is its preferred form of expression. Conferences, whether organized by Left Forum, Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Tikkun or figures such as Ted Glick — who is touting a plan to lure progressives, including members of the Democratic Party, into something he calls a “third force” — are where liberals go to feel good about themselves again. These conferences are not fundamentally about change. They are designed to elevate self-appointed liberal apologists who seek to become advisers and courtiers within the Democratic Party.

The conferences produce resolutions no one reads. They build networks no one uses. But with each conference liberals get to do what they do best — applaud their own moral probity. They make passionate appeals to work within systems, such as electoral politics, that have been gamed by the corporate state. And the result is to spur well-meaning people toward useless and ultimately self-defeating activity...
As much as I want to disagree with his assessment, I can't. Even though most of the conferences and conventions I organized were far to the left of the Democratic Party, his main thesis still holds true!

At the conclusion of each effort, the hosting organization would release a press statement or manifesto that almost no one read. We would create far flung networks only to see them never materialize out in the real world or they would quickly evaporate in sectarian disagreements. About the only positive realized by such meetings was that it made all the participants feel as if they had done something important when, in truth, we had hardly done a damn thing!

The few conferences that included some form of direct action as part of the proceedings were the lone exceptions. That said, even those generally were tame. About the only direct action we employed was a march and/or rally on the steps of the state capitol. The impact of such action, unfortunately, was mitigated by the fact that most of these conferences were held on weekends and, of course, the elected leaders and state officials we railed against at the podium WEREN'T EVEN IN THE BUILDING.

The truth of the matter is that we expended all sorts of time, money and energy discussing what we were going to do to change the world in a beneficial and progressive manner as a substitute for actually doing ANYTHING to change the world in a beneficial and progressive way.

I guess you could say we greatly enjoyed activist masturbation. It sure felt good, but it never seemed to produce anything.


  1. I had a much longer comment written, but it was so depressing I deleted it.

    You are of course correct in your judgment, we really are a toothless menace to the plutocracy. They let us shout on the street corners and mentally masturbate in public because they know that sooner or later we'll go away again. If a few of us get too far out of line, there's always the gulag, er, the prison industrial complex to fall back on.


  2. It almost sounds like you're coming around to something my position (which is not exactly despair, but a sort of enlightened apathy.)

    To take this to a Taoist point of view, one needs to figure out how to conserve that misspent energy and use it for some kind of enlightenment, political or spiritual, whatever.


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