Free the radicals
Dave’s recent essay falsely equates being “radical” with being “violent.” Violence and radicalism are not the same. Being a “radical” just means you want to see significant, fundamental changes to society — say, a real, true shift to sustainability or an economy that actually values people and the environment over monetary profit. These are changes, I am willing to bet, that a large number of environmentalists would love to see. They are also radical. They would require a fundamental change to society. But does that shift have to include violence? Absolutely not.I agree with Dave that “environmentalism is ultimately a cultural change,” but I would also argue that progressive cultural change has rarely come from the political center. This is true for practically all progressive movements including the fight for women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights. So it’s appropriate that in Dave’s essay, Will & Grace is presented as an example illustrating the tangible advancement of gay rights because it shows the lack of recognition of the real force behind gay rights, which, as with environmentalism, women’s rights, and civil rights, is radical progressivism. That is, Will & Grace doesn’t actually address gay rights in America or depict most realities of gay life at all (unless it’s to demonstrate that lesbians and gay men have now attained the status of market niche to advertisers) any more than The Brady Bunch accurately portrayed the ’70s.
Sure, Will & Grace is important, in a way. A show with gay characters on prime time network TV is a sort of progress, but the show is doing well and is tolerated by some otherwise squeamish Americans precisely because it doesn’t deal with real issues of gay life. Take a show that actually does deal with the issues sometimes (such as gay bashing, gay marriage, HIV/AIDS, and actual sexuality) like Showtime’s Queer as Folk, and some people will think it’s scary. And that’s just my point. We will never advance the progressive cause if we artificially sanitize the message or move farther to the political middle. Will & Grace is harmless, yes, not because truly equal rights for lesbians and gay men doesn’t frighten some people who would love to see gays oppressed, but instead because Will & Grace doesn’t say anything of substance beyond “now we have a sitcom too.” Of course it’s politically harmless — it never really ventures into politics!
There has been significant progress in the gay rights movement, but it hardly owes that progress to forces like Will & Grace; it’s largely due to the activism of groups like ACT UP and others who refused to be pushed to the middle (see: Stonewall). Change happened precisely because people refused to sit still and play exclusively by the established rules saying, “Gee we lobbied and petitioned and all that, but we’re still marginalized and discriminated against, so let’s just sit here and wait for our rights to be given to us and eventually people will accept us.” Unfortunately, that’s never the way it’s worked for civil rights in America, or anywhere else.
So, much like the Will & Grace model, the enviro movement could become less “radical,” never dealing with issues except on very surface levels in order to be tolerated by those who might otherwise see us as threatening to their interests. We could just stay quiet and not assert that what we actually want is clean water AND clean air AND true sustainability AND, while we’re at it, an economy that actually values the environment over profit. We could probably make ourselves more palatable to the general public by just saying, “We don’t actually want fundamental changes to our economy or to our society that would bring about lasting change for the environment, we just want to stop this one timber sale, that’s all. See? We’re harmless!”
Instead of pandering to what we think the public might want to hear by reframing our message to sound less “radical,” we can choose to address the actual root causes of environmental destruction as a part of our overall strategy and vision.
As for vision, in the wake of the election, some political types argued that progressives in general, and Democrats in particular, lost in large part due to lack of organization and a lack of vision — which the opposition has in scads, they said. With this in mind, I suggest we channel the post-election anger and disappointment of our readers into actually articulating to the world our vision of environmentalism and our vision of the future of environmentalism — a future where the environment is actually healthy and the world is more socially just.
We need to decide what we want, and not just what we’ll settle for. We need a comprehensive vision of where we could be, and how we can get there. We should assert for once what we are FOR instead of just defining ourselves by what we’re against (pollution, extinction, etc.).
To me, this is a more constructive approach than moving to the political center just because the right has an excellent propaganda system to sway voters and distract the public from our enormous environmental woes.
But if you’re worried about the political right and those in power painting enviros, or any lefties, as extremist radicals, be aware you’ll be worried for a good long time as that’s purely and simply what they do. They would say this even if all of our aims were totally rational, sane, and possible, which, of course, they are. The right will politically and verbally attack us if we act and they’ll do exactly the same if we don’t act.
Even now, business-friendly pro-drillers are pulling out the same tired lines saying that the enviro movement is far too radical because we want to stop drilling from happening in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge even though polls show that most of the U.S. population says no to ANWR drilling. Is that radical? Not at all. But labeling, pointing fingers, and employing well-funded propaganda are their tactics and they’ll use them whether we just politely say, “Well, we think maybe you shouldn’t drill there although most other places are just fine to drill” or whether we go out and disable the drilling equipment.
And more to the point, the reality is there’s room in the enviro movement for the whole political spectrum. Organizations like the Sierra Club that work within the system have frequent successes. They can often file lawsuits to, say, stop a particularly destructive timber sale, and that’s great. But there is also room for groups like EarthFirst! whose members typically work outside of the system to, say, physically (and most often, peacefully) stall the deforestation until the suit works its way through the courts so there’s still a forest there to save. This is just one example, but there are many more.
I’m speaking to all enviros here (even the ones who hate the term enviros) when I say, if you think violence is not the answer, that’s a great message — and it’s one that many radicals share. But equating progressive radicalism with violence is not only a waste of energy, it’s exactly what conservatives have been trying to do for years and what they continue to do. So I’m asking nicely, please don’t help them. They’re doing well enough without us.