I’ve borrowed the title of President Obama’s second book as the title of this essay because the message is the same, if in a somewhat different flavor. After posting a link to A Comprehensive Paradigm for Progressive Thought and Action; or “Yes We Can, and Here’s How” toward the end of a long Facebook thread, an FB friend commented, “I still imagine activism to be succinct.” The following was my response:
The more succinct our activism is, the less conscious it is. Biological evolution, for instance, is the most succinct form of “activism” imaginable: It is the struggle for reproductive success, and for surviving long enough to facilitate reproductive success. Completely “unconscious,” and extremely slow and haphazard (though cumulatively brilliant). Human consciousness is the basis of another evolutionary process, with cognitions rather than genes being the packets of information that are reproducing, mutating, competing for reproductive success, and thus evolving.
We do have branches of human endeavor that are less bound by “succinctness,” that don’t need to fit their memes on a bumper sticker, but the gulf between them and the zeitgeist is almost infinite. The two are insufficiently articulated. One challenge is to articulate the realms of academe and politics better, so that our politics are better informed. That does not require that everyone take the time to understand the scholarship, but merely that a broader acceptance of the relatively greater legitimacy of scholarship over arbitrary opinion is cultivated.
To me, the bumper-sticker mentality IS the problem, which cannot be solved primarily by reproducing and reinforcing it. I am not struggling to ensure that liberalism or progressivism prevails, but rather to ensure that reason and imagination in service to humanity prevails, and the latter is a process that cannot be excessively abbreviated without being destroyed. I find many liberals and progressives only marginally less a part of the problem than folks like (an angry and narrow-minded conservative commenting on that thread), and I am not content to struggle only to ensure that a marginally less banal ideology prevails over a marginally more banal ideology.
The belief that such goals are impossible is belied by history. People may be irrational and lazy, but over the course of the last five centuries, science and scientific methodolgy have grown from tiny embattled zygotes to major facets of our shared existence, affecting our technologies, our economy, and our broadly shared worldview. People may be belligerent and bigoted, but over the past few centuries humanism and the notions of natural or human rights have grown from almost non-existent to major cornerstones of the modern world’s explicitly pursued ideals. And these things happened through the efforts of people with imagination and passion and a belief in the possibilities.
I’m not content to invest all of our resources directed toward intentional social change on maintaining the status quo with merely marginal fluctuations. Yes, we must continue to do that, and, yes, we will and possibly should continue to invest the lion’s share of our resources in precisely that tug-o-war between competing ideological camps. But we can and should –and, I think, must– divert some small fraction of our resources, of our time and treasure, toward something more ambitious and far-reaching, toward something more fundamental and imaginative, toward reaching and passing through yet another threshold in the evolution of our shared existence. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.