Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Barack Obama & The Activist’s Dilemma

For a long time I’ve been interested in what I call “The Activist’s Dilemma”. I’ll illustrate the Activist’s Dilemma with a fictional activist movement – the LUNATICS (League of United Natives Against The Invading Creatures from Space).

The LUNATICS fervently believe that the earth is ill-prepared to defend itself from an attack by aliens. Like any cause, they need money and supporters. So, at every opportunity, they explain to potential donors and supporters that the threat is grave, that action must soon be taken, and that we are totally and completely unprepared for an alien invasion.

The movement is well run and gains some traction. Support grows and huge strides are made. Donations increase. The LUNATICS become important political players, giving money and endorsements to candidates who support their issue. One by one, goals they have set for themselves are achieved, and defenses against alien invasion are considerably strengthened. A LUNATIC is even appointed Secretary of Defense. The movement is a success!

But…here’s the dilemma. In order for the movement to remain successful, the LUNATICS must say they have failed. In other words, if they tout their achievements, then the world will begin to believe that we are sufficiently prepared for alien invasion, and time and money can be turned to other causes. To keep vigilance alive, they must make the case that there has been little progress – which runs the risk of making the LUNATICS look like failures. (The go-to activist phrase here is: there is much work to be done.)

That is the Activist’s Dilemma. And you can apply it to any cause you can think of (except those with specific endgames, like electing a specific electoral candidate).

What does this have to do with Barack Obama?
There has been no greater activist cause in American history than civil rights for African-Americans. It has featured specific noble causes like Abolition and voting rights and heroic enterprises like the Underground Railroad and the Selma marches. It has counted among its champions people from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King – each of whom gave the greatest speeches in American history on the topic. It has inspired great works of art. It has made consistent and measurable progress over a long period of time.

And it is quite possible that in November of this year that the movement will have torn down so many walls and crashed through so many ceilings that Barack Obama (who, with his Kenyan father and Kansan mother, is truly an African-American), will be elected President of the United States. One can’t help but think that Frederick Douglass and Reverend King are enjoying this moment somewhere.

But…here’s the dilemma. As a political movement, civil rights for African-Americans must compete with other causes for time, money, passion, media attention, and legislative focus. And some of those competitors (the environment, the war) are on a roll. The modern civil rights movement largely rests on the contention that the United States is a society that denies equal political, educational, social and economic equality to African-Americans. If Barack Obama – born without privilege, Harvard-educated, financially successful – becomes the 44th President of the United States, that contention becomes harder to make.

So in a strange and screwy way, the elevation of an African American to the Oval Office could have a potentially negative effect on the movement (if not the actual cause) for civil rights for African-Americans. But not that strange, really - it is the dilemma faced by all successful activist causes.

Update (1/14/08): Interesting piece in the Washington Post titled "As Obama Rises, Old Guard Civil Rights Leaders Scowl".

Note: the Activist’s Dilemma is something I’ve spoken about for years, but the Obama part is influenced by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal (see here, 2nd item). I disagree with Taranto’s conclusions about the impact of an Obama election on party politics, but the way he got there made me tie it into my own thoughts about activism.

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