One thing I’ve not been since I was a teenager is a political activist. Working in Washington DC from ages 23 to 25 gave me a kind of cynicism about the nature of power politics in America. I couldn’t put my heart into the political games that were played, even when the stakes were high. At age 25 I made a choice to leave a very lucrative and successful career start in the world of DC politics to go back to the Midwest and get a job at Rocky Rococo Pizza as a night manager.
I had an MA from Johns Hopkins SAIS, but in Minnesota a degree in International Studies opens few doors. Still it felt good to be away from power games and doing something real – running shifts at pizzeria. And we had some excitement, like when Kirby Puckett ordered a pizza and tipped our delivery guy $50. Ultimately I decided to get my doctorate and teach international affairs and European politics.
While at grad school a friend asked me if I’d help out with a counter protest to a right to life group that was protesting a Planned Parenthood clinic that did abortions. It was theater of the absurd. The protesters screamed at women coming in for the procedure, hoping to convince them through screams, shouts and signs to change their mind. The women couldn’t change their minds though, since they were not pregnant. They were a misdirection – the real abortions were done on a weekday evening, the Saturday afternoon time was just to make sure the protesters were there at the wrong time!
The other side was screaming about how we were all godless, like Hitler, doomed to hell, and murdering babies. They said it was the holocaust, a crime against humanity and wicked. But then “my side” screamed back, and the rhetoric wasn’t any better. Some people from “Act Up” were making sexually lurid statements about the protesters and well, I didn’t want to identify with either group. They were too angry and made me feel very uncomfortable. I ended up moving towards the back and having separate conversations with interesting people rather than joining in the action.
For awhile after leaving DC but before my pizza gig I was working for a group promoting a nuclear freeze – the job entailed going from door to door explaining the movement and asking for donations. Others, mostly activists, went door to door and were enthused to try to promote the movement. I froze. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t knock on a door, disrupt an evening, and try to talk to people about a political issue. It felt intrusive. I waited in the cold two hours until the car picked me up and I informed them this wasn’t the job for me.
Yet I’m surrounded by activists I respect. Both colleagues and students are often very active in a variety of causes, many of which I agree with. I admire the work they do. So I have to ask myself – am I wrong to avoid activism? Am I being selfish spending my time writing a blog, teaching overloads that earn me money rather than getting involved in community action? After all, in political science we point to civil society — being active in community groups — as a key indicator of the success of a democracy.
When I do get involved, it’s usually not political. I am very active in the PTA and get real satisfaction from that. I’ve been active in faculty governance and issues where I work. I just ended five years as campus President of the local faculty union, though as tensions mounted over lack of a contract I gave up my role to someone more passionate about taking on the system. I enjoy the work of helping colleagues deal with difficulties, but leading a union fight is not my cup of tea.
When I try to force myself to get involved with political battles it doesn’t feel right. Not like I’m doing something wrong, but that it just isn’t me. So I started to think about how the world works. Activists are a minority, people driven to and wanting to work to change things on the front lines – protesting, lobbying, and getting involved. There are others who do a lot of volunteer work to help others, and many more who focus on their own worlds.
I also started to think about how activists are able to be effective. Political action can only work when there is an opening for change — people are ready to accept something different. That comes about through the spread of new ideas, education, and free thinking. Maybe my role is to do what I love – teach, work with students, and help young people get a broader perspective on reality and think critically. I think I do that reasonably well.
After all, activists might otherwise work in a typical corporate office and not do much teaching or exploration of new ideas – that’s not their niche. Maybe it doesn’t feel right because it’s not my niche. Of course, my colleagues who both teach and are activists are able to do both, why not me?
One reason I’m not an activist because at base I’m not a materialist. I really believe in the top photo on this entry, life works by how we think and what we bring to our daily interactions, all of them. I know that in the world of secular academia I’ve got spiritual views out of sync with most of my colleagues. Sometimes I get on little sidetracks on ethical issues in class, joking that I must have inherited a little preachiness from my Grandfather, a Lutheran Minister.
But maybe that’s my niche. I try to strike a subtle spiritual chord in my dealings with students (or my blog and facebook) that is a bit unconventional. Since I don’t believe any dogma it’s not to convince students of anything, but to signal/model that it’s OK to think about the world differently; spiritual thinking is not bad. I also am naturally positive and optimistic about life — something I do get teased about. I’ll note the bright side of a problem and a colleague will say “only Scott could twist this into sounding like something not that bad! In fact, I know I irritate people by tending to think positively, but that’s who I am. Maybe that niche for me pushes me away from activism and towards a different kind of influence on reality.
One thing I tell students is to try to know themselves and be themselves, and not be what society might be programming them to become. Live awake, not in a cultural trance. And just as I hope others won’t judge me negatively for my spiritual positivism, I certainly won’t judge people negatively for passionate activism. If that is who they are, that is how they should live.
And that’s the key – know who you are, be who you are, and recognize that we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Trying to be something you’re not — even if it involves doing something you consider to be good — isn’t the right path.