Was listening to CBC the other day as I was driving home from Canadian Tire with a trunk full of potentially toxic items - blow-up boat, beach umbrella, picture frame hooks, Twizzlers, freezer containers, and heard Sandra Steingraber (a biologist, cancer survivor and environmental activist focused on toxins and kids) being interviewed about her latest book Raising Elijah
Almost everything she said was depressing. Yet she was inspiring and encouraging. She told a story of meeting a teacher who taught third grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Every child in her class, except one, was convinced that at some point in their lives they’d be killed by an atomic bomb. When asked why she didn’t think it would happen, the one exception responded that her mom and dad were peace activists working on a way to stop it.
When children witness their parents trying to change the world they feel more secure and optimistic about the future, Steingraber said. I felt a spark of aspirational optimism, while at the same time thinking how stressful it might be to grow up in the Steingraber household. These days I do homework, make dinner, and purchase potentially toxic and oversized goods.
It’s curious how important messages come at you all at once. The night before Canadian Tire I’d heard Sarah Schulman speak about activism and the history of ACT UP. In a funny, clear, smart and non-judgmental way, she talked about what makes activism work and what doesn’t. She pointed to the phenomenon of gays seeking acceptance and success within the society that had oppressed them, content to rise alongside people that had been complicit in their subjugation and communal death. Not an unfamiliar scenario to many of us.
Without being gratuitously critical of people “selling out” or “buying in” she noted that this erodes the impulse for activism. People clamor for entrance into clubs that are either forced to allow them in, or reluctantly open their doors to prove they are not part of the problem. They’ll get used to us we think. We’ll prove ourselves. In time they’ll even like us.
Schulman claims there is a character-based drive to act when faced with the oppression or suffering of others. Yet it was gay men and women with AIDS and their friends and lovers that formed the lion’s share of ACT UP membership. How can we be compelled to take action in greater numbers when a problem is not directly ours? It’s encouraging that many people are caring and sympathetic. But compassion in the comfort of your home or across the table at a dinner party will change little if anything.
Sandra Steingraber raises another problem, WIFS - Well Informed Futility Syndrome (love that name). WIFS is paralysis in the face of knowledge that gives us guilt. Ostrich-ism I’d call it - a desire to not know what you already know. Makes sense, given how many bad things there are in what we and our kids ingest, touch, encounter, desire. The path out of despair, she argues, is through action - personal, communal and national.
When I think of how many things are wrong, it makes me want to bake. Concrete, but off-target. Schulman says you need to have clear goals, or people get disillusioned and burn out. “Socialist Revolution as an objective, for instance, won’t cut it,” she says. “Cookies?” I wonder.
The need for action is endless, as is the stream of instant information soliciting involvement that comes at you through social media. Engagement is now a simple matter of clicking submit.
In the 90’s I was involved in anti-fascist activism. I wrote and thought a lot about people’s ability to grab a slogan and head to the streets lacking nuance - black and white so much simpler than grey. From a position of certainty people found fault with folks who should have been allies, and in so doing veered off track.
I dedicated this blog to writing about writing but there’s so much to talk about, so many problems to solve – pervasive rape and brutalization of women, murder and imprisonment of queer people, lack of health care, human rights violations on a million other fronts, natural disasters, abhorrent treatment of animals and everything to do with the environment: what’s dumped with impunity on the earth, into the air, into our bodies knowingly and unknowingly. The crap they put in toys, carpets and air freshener. How do people pick a topic and stay focused? I’m feeling paralyzed.
Is it ok to just bake and write? I don’t think so.
Both Schulman and Steingraber are prolific writers, researchers and most of all engagers and activists. I’m humbled and overwhelmed by their capacity to do what they do, and to find the time to do it.