Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reflections on Activism

People keep saying that 2012 will be the year of protest in North America - the year when ordinary people rise up and demand better treatment from government elites. For example, the Occupy movement is organizing a general strike for May 1. I'm all for that. I think it's crazy that Canada doesn't have stronger employment laws to protect employees, that we don't provide a way for the majority without pensions to save for our retirement, that we don't have lobbyists to fight for ordinary non-unionized working people, that our top tax bracket is so low that we are killing the principle of progressive taxation, that we're in a state of perpetual war. I have written about these issues many times.

But protesting effectively isn't easy. It's a well-known strategy of the far right to encourage division in order to energize their base: Mike Harris as premier of Ontario was a master of this. Thus well-intentioned activists can end up achieving the opposite of their intention.

Most public protest is organized by unions, but unions don't represent the majority of people: like corporations, they exist to fatten one particular group and the rest of the population can go hang. I can't support a movement that claims that Ontario's high school teachers are victimized by not having infinite pay raises, even more time off, and even better pension deals.

Then there are groups with hidden political agendas: when I was a student activist in the 70s, the "Trots" and anarchists showed up at every protest, trying to infiltrate and trick us into promoting their goal of violent revolution. And there are the plain old nutters, insisting on unfeasible and undesirable change: the libertarians, the anti-tax crowd, the obsessed anti-car crowd.

Another problem with trying to be an activist is that it's really difficult to trust people who organize activists. They have their own personal agendas, whether it's springboarding a political career or just getting their photo in the paper.

I recently ran into a problem with a pro-democracy movement. A couple of years ago I happened to be around during the formation of a local chapter of Canadians Advocating Political Participation (CAPP). I was never very active (the rest of the local group supports proportional representation and I don't), but I was impressed by the organizational abilities of our two Facebook admins, who set up tons of non-partisan events and got good turnouts.

Our mistake was in trusting the bosses of CAPP. Out of the blue a few months ago, one of them called Shilo Davis unilaterally shut down our group. She made it impossible for us to write on the wall of our Facebook page, stripped our two admins of their admin privileges, and parachuted in her sister Amanda Davis as the only person with any control over our Facebook site. Amanda Davis, who doesn't even live in our region, has done nothing whatsoever: not contacted anyone or updated the site. Many CAPP Waterloo members, myself included, have tried over and over to reach these people, but they ignore us.

If we can't trust national organizers and have to always operate in local, unorganized ways, it's not at all clear that we can have enough impact to effect any change. Whenever we link up into national groups, we have the problem of power-mad idjits like the crew running CAPP, who seemingly have no interest in democractic practices like accountability and transparency.

For a general strike to work for everyone, it would have to be diffuse: those participating in it would not all have one voice. That would probably be impossible. Even if we tried it, the unions or the CAPP soundrels would try to hijack the day. Even if we had a single message that everyone agreed on, the Shilo Davises would get their snouts in front of a microphone and make it all about them.

It's an age old problem, I know, but I just happen to have hit a wall with it this week: it's not easy as an individual to have a voice, because the world is full of opportunists who are always on the lookout for ways to coopt the voices of others. I'm starting to understand why many people don't speak up and don't vote.

But please, if you have any ideas for how to organize a movement, speak up here or elsewhere.

My only plea is that I not get bombarded with comments by those in favor of proportional representation, telling me that I'm ignorant and need to educate myself...

Update: It seems that Amanda Davis is not the sister of Shilo Davis, but an alias used by Shilo Davis.


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