Democracy is a dish best served hot, it seems. Otherwise, it curdles and dries out and draws in on itself, like some mysterious thing left in the fridge too long.
In my totally not-even-resembling-a-historian way, I’ve been looking at various social and justice movements throughout the years… I won’t say I’ve studied them, because I haven’t. As someone with right hemisphere brain dominance (lovely excuse, that), I tend not to gather facts and figures so much as impressions. And it’s my impression that nothing describes the history of social change better than imagining it all as a big PushMePullYou. There you go… fair warning.
What interests me most about social movements is not so much how they have begun, but how they’ve ended. And they all have, you know… ended, that is, at least for the vast majority of people.
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The beginnings seem fairly simple and cyclical; from under the weight of great injustice or oppression, of fear, of the need to feed their children or to have some semblance of power or control over their own lives, people rise up and demand change, sometimes at great danger to themselves. A visionary leader appears to articulate the demands, and to be the voice and heart of the movement, and eventually the people are heard. The reaction of those in power is sometimes to use violence; imprisonment, threats to family or reputation and whatever methods are are their disposal, in an attempt to repress the movement or eliminate the leaders. Eventually, the people in power often accept the inevitable, or someone else comes into power that recognizes that this is something that won’t go away, and so talks are begun, accommodations are made and demands are met. Some, at least.
(Terribly over-simplified, I know. But remember, as these are just general impressions, I can do that.)
So, then what? Well, having gotten what they came for, or some facsimile thereof, most everyone goes home and sets about the business of leading their (hopefully) improved lives. They’ve gotten the right to vote, the right to self-rule, the right to organize, the right to control their own bodies, to cleaner air and water…whatever it is they were fighting for, (and which many of us who came afterwards take for granted), and now are quite justifiably ready to enjoy the fruits of their labor. All is well. Or, almost.
In the matter of movements for social change, I would say there is nothing so dangerous or damaging as a declaration of victory. Even a little one. Because it seems as soon as that happens, the pullyou begins. As we settle into our better, more comfortable lives, we sometimes forget to be watchful. After all, we won, didn’t we? We’ve had successes… the Labor Movement, and the Women’s Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, and the Poor Peoples Movement, and the Environmental Movement, and the Non-Violent Revolutions, and… well looking at this list, I would say to start mourning any movement as soon as its put into capital letters, because thats’s a sure sign they’ve been done in. Silly way of looking at it, I know, but still…
Once campaigns for social progress settle down (or even before) and become part of Our History, then the clean-up work by those who oppose progress quietly begins. It sometimes seems that as time marches forward and people become more complacent and comfortable, with their jobs, and families and mortgages, the social progress movements and the gains they made are encased in amber and moved off the conveyor belt, so that while things don’t always move backwards, they often fail to move forward much. There is a bit of bait and switch that goes on, tit for tat, policies are proposed and laws are passed to placate and give at least the illusion of progress even though in the long run no one’s given up much. And we are pacified, for a time. Eventually we catch on and wind up fighting for the same things all over again, maybe under a different name.
Of course, there are always some who are never satisfied and never give up and never shut up. They are the ones that help keep things simmering just below the surface, until the next time things come to a boil and we have a movement for change.
If I ever stopped rambling along and came to a point, it would look something like this:
We know how to start movements. We know how to mobilize, organize, and energize. We know how to effect change, how to get things done… we’re experts at this, by now. And “They”, on the other side, are expert at recognizing an incipient movement, forming initial opposition, and then seemingly giving in and giving up something, while actually only temporarily granting a concession as a pacifier, for a time, until they can maneuver to take it back.
So here is my question (hopefully you weren’t thinking I had any answers). We are on the verge right now of a new progressive movement for social change, I believe. Things are gearing up in many places, people are forming their coalitions, making out their plans of attack, and so on. The beginning has begun… what I want to know is, how do we keep it from ending? What do we have in place, or should we put in place, to prevent us from becoming The Movement for Social Change (by any name), that has a beginning and an end, and instead make progressive change that encompasses all a continuous effort?
I suppose we have to also consider… what will we be pacified with next? And will we recognize it when it comes?