As the Pause Ends, Back to Brunch?

Movements for change sometimes fade because activists burn out, but we don't always know what actions lead later to fundamental change.

Like many generations before us, we live in tumultuous, traumatizing times. Though at the moment here in America it feels like we are in the middle of a parenthesis, a Pause on life caused by the pandemic, but bookended on one side by the past traumas of the last four years, with the other end still open. Trump’s election, the Muslim ban, children in cages, white supremacists on the march, #MeToo, police murders of so many Black men and women culminating with George Floyd—these and many other moral shocks have pushed millions of us into a frenzy of political motion.

Now what, as the worst of the pandemic in the US seems to recede and the Biden Balm spreads? My friend Panthea Lee, who for the last decade has run Reboot, a social progress innovation firm that has worked in 30 countries, has just shared a long and perceptive essay on what the past few years have been like for her, as she has turned her focus more inward toward her community in NYC’s Bedford-Stuyvesant and as she has wrestled with responding not only to ongoing Black trauma but also the terrible upswing in anti-Asian hate of recent times. Panthea’s deeply personal writing beautifully illuminates the contradictions of traversing a mostly white-led liberal establishment promising to travel through the pandemic portal so evocatively invoked by Arundati Roy as a chance to leave our deadly baggage behind, while these big bureaucracies muddle their way through drawn-out planning processes and actually change only a little if at all.

She writes that since last spring, she’s “advised, formally and informally, about a dozen strategic planning processes. And here’s the thing: Most institutions are being bold in rhetoric, but business-as-usual in practice. Most are using the same approaches, consulting the same traditionally pedigreed ‘experts’, and blushing when I bring up their public statements of last summer. As I remind people of our vows to treat the pandemic as a portal, some have responded by encouraging me to ‘cheer up’ and ‘enjoy life a little.’ It’s the professional version of telling women to smile.”

Panthea correctly worries that “in NYC, the energy is distinctly ‘let’s get back to brunch!’” (In other parts of the country that drive culture, like Miami, the new hotbed for next-generation tech entrepreneurs and VCs, they never even stopped brunching.) She’s right to warn that another round of disaster capitalism is coming, evinced by the newly released “Reimagine New York” Commission’s final report, which was led by Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and junior philanthropist. (The report reimagined nothing beyond expanding private pledges to spend more money on workforce training, promoting subsidized broadband access for poor people, launching a “telehealth facilitator pilot,” and increasing “awareness” of virtual mental health support resources, while blowing air kisses at some other public-private partnerships already underway. While the commission’s ambit was confined to defining an action plan for “connectivity, telehealth and work,” if this is a reimagining then bring back “New Coke” because that too was a reimagining of similar daring.)

Panthea’s essay highlights many things, but two stood out for me. First, that fundamental change is hard. It’s one thing to do the reading; it’s another thing to do the work. And second, that being on the frontlines of many struggles for fundamental change isn’t personally sustainable. She asks, “What does it mean to live in a state of perpetual grief and mourning? To experience and bear witness to so much collective trauma? What does it do to our spirits and our imaginations?” For her, the answer is a turn toward soulful searching for community that can sustain such efforts, and a recognition that unless we reinforce joy and not just rage we will burn out.

As I read and re-read Panthea, I was reminded of a question that I’ve long wondered about, which is what happens to radical activists after movements fade. I am a child of such waves. My father came to political consciousness as a socialist Zionist in the late 1940s who then experienced McCarthyism and the collapse of the belief in Communist Russia; I came of age in the mid-1970s catching a whiff of the pot and patchouli fumes left behind by the collapse of the anti-Vietnam War movement. (It’s not a small irony, by the way, that the longest lasting institution that came out of the radical and counterculture 1960s was the Grateful Dead community, which gathered multitudes and rolled on for decades, a topic that Carol Brightman brilliantly explored in her book/memoir Sweet Chaos.) I grew up politically inside movements that were post-60s in focus—anti-nuclear power, pro-nuclear disarmament, against US support for the contras, for an end to South African apartheid. But all of them felt like echoes of a much larger wave of societal change.

It was literally fifty years ago from yesterday, May 3, that more than a half million people marched in Washington to stop the war and even more audacious, some 25,000 people calling themselves the Mayday Tribe took nonviolent direct action guided by the slogan, “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” A year earlier, as my friend L.A. Kauffman describes in this generous excerpt from her book Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, roughly half of America’s student population—about several million youth—took part in antiwar activities sparked by the Nixon Administration’s invasion of Cambodia. But people were frustrated. Kauffman writes, “As one antiwar publication put it in an unsigned piece, for the previous seven years ‘we have met, discussed, analyzed, lectured, published, lobbied, paraded, sat-in, burned draft cards, stopped troop trains, refused induction, marched, trashed, burned and bombed buildings, destroyed induction centers. Yet the war has gotten steadily worse—for the Vietnamese, and, in a very different way, for us.’ It seemed that everything had been tried, and nothing had worked. ‘Most everyone I know is tired of demonstrations,’ wrote New Left leader David Dellinger. ‘No wonder. If you’ve seen one or two, you’ve seen them all … Good, bad, or in between, they have not stopped the war, or put an end to poverty and racism, or freed all political prisoners.’”

Kauffman argues convincingly that the Mayday Tribe’s seeming failure (the government essentially declared martial law and arrested 7,000 people even before they got to block many buildings) marked not just the end of the big New Left antiwar movement but also a shift in how many different movement activities were organized, turning more toward decentralized self-run affinity groups, more gay and women-led groups, and for Black radicals deeply wounded by violent government repression, a wariness about direct action that lasted until the mid-1980s. There was also a turn towards personal healing and joy not unlike the one that Panthea writes about now; Kauffman notes that the best part of a post-Mayday conference that summer was, for one woman, “getting to know one another through dancing, swimming, making music together, singing, rapping in small groups, in twos and threes, digging on each other.” (And yes, this is when the phenomenon that became the DeadHead community also took off.)

One of my mentors at The Nation magazine, where I started out as an editorial intern in the fall of 1983, was the radical writer Andrew Kopkind. He had quit his straight reporting job at Time magazine in the early 1960s and eventually started his own radical rag, Mayday, then renamed Hard Times, with James Ridgeway and Robert Sherrill. Like many of his generation, Andy left the city and moved into a rural commune as the antiwar movement crashed (that place continues today as the Kopkind Colony, a summer retreat for independent journalists and community organizers started by Andy’s longtime partner John Scagliotti and many of his friends). Unlike many, he sustained his radical commitment and vision in his writing for his whole life. I remember him once sharing how hard it was to imagine a different future; he described driving once through Pennsylvania, coming home from some political convention perhaps, going past the giant King of Prussia Mall, then the largest retail space in the US, and thinking, “How are we going to change all of this?”

How does one live a whole life of radical commitment when change is so slow? Friday and Saturday, as I listened to Daniel Ellsberg and a host of antiwar organizers from his generation and more recent ones discuss the impact of his leaking of the Pentagon Papers, another echo from fifty years ago, I caught glimpses of an answer. We rarely know which actions make a difference until many years later. We now know that in his first years in office, Richard Nixon was seriously considering vastly expanding the American assault on Indochina in order to win the war, even toying at one point with using nuclear weapons to cut off North Vietnam’s supply lines into China. But two things appear to have deterred him.

Marines from the 82nd Airborne land on the grounds of the Washington Monument to reinforce police May 3, 1971. (Flickr/Washington Area Spark)

First, the antiwar movement’s massive demonstrations, particularly those in the fall of 1969 and again in the spring of 1971, which staved off multiple rounds of Nixonian madness. As antiwar organizer Robert Levering wrote in Waging Nonviolence, the 1971 mass protests rattled Nixon and led him to soften his negotiating position in the peace talks in Paris. And second, the president’s fear that Ellsberg had taken government planning documents for escalating the war, which led to his sending a covert team, the so-called White House Plumbers, to burglarize Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. (The same team later got caught bugging the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate.) That burglary not only led to a mistrial that freed Ellsberg after he had leaked the Pentagon Papers, it also was one of the strongest counts of Nixon’s impeachment, leading to his resignation.

It is too soon for us to know how the organizing and mass protests of the last few years is changing America, though it is understandable to despair at the slow pace of change. Listening to the elders who spoke at the Ellsberg conference, I was reminded again of something that Marshall Ganz once said to me, though he said he got it from someone else. “When you are young, you think change is a sprint. In your middle years, you think it’s a marathon. But actually, it’s a relay race, and we must keep passing the baton.”

-Related: If Thomas Ricksreview of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, The Bomber Mafia, is to be believed, Gladwell has completely gone over to the dark side, because the hero of the book is Curtis LeMay, who devised the firebombing of dozens of Japanese cities and thus sped the end of World War II, later proposing doing the same to Vietnam. “Curtis LeMay’s approach brought everyone — Americans and Japanese — back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible,” Gladwell writes. And it also killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, not even counting those killed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings. I’m looking forward to Gladwell’s treatise on how Nixon could have won the war in Vietnam and how Bush-Obama-Trump-Biden could still win in Afghanistan.

-Also: I know we’re supposed to be focusing on all the good things Biden is doing, and pushing for Congress to act on vital democracy-strengthening legislation like HR1, the For the People Act, and HR4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but I’m struck by how Biden’s request for $715 billion in spending for the Defense Department has gone unremarked. While there is some variation between what Democratic and Republican administrations have asked for, since 2000 the military budget has more than doubled and shows no sign of ever coming down.


Odds and Ends:

-Cars as spies, continued: The Intercept’s Sam Biddle reports on a federal contract between US Customs and Border Protection and a Swedish data extraction firm that claims it can extract vast amounts of personal information vacuumed up by the infotainment systems of modern cars, including “Recent destinations, favorite locations, call logs, contact lists, SMS messages, emails, pictures, videos, social media feeds, and the navigation history of everywhere the vehicle has been.”

-Facebook’s Oversight Board will let us know tomorrow if Donald Trump is being allowed back on the platform. My prediction, which I wrote about a few weeks back, is they’re likely to end his suspension.

-Related: Herbert Lin’s recent testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on technology and information warfare is hair-raising. He notes how Russian media have hyped the allegations of a single US blogger who has asserted that Antifa was behind the January 6 Capitol siege, and how both Russia and China have been the source of a large percentage of Facebook posts promoting QAnon. He says, “the information warfare threat to the United States is different from other threats that the nation has faced in the past. Our information warfare adversaries have weaponized our constitutional protections, our minds, and our technologies against us. Cyber-enabled information warfare has the potential to destroy reason and reality as the basis for societal discourse and to replace them with rage and fantasy. In the long run, perpetual civil war and political extremism, waged in the information sphere and egged on by our adversaries, is every bit as much an existential threat to American civilization and democracy as any military threat imaginable.”

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