The Consumption of Guilt

I’m currently reading Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool (Pantheon, 2015), a book that distinguishes shame from guilt in ways that make guilt seem less valuable for societal change than we commonly think it is.

For example, we tend to respond to environmental problems by assuaging our guilt about them via consumption choices. We buy organic, dolphin-safe, free-range, etc. By doing this, we buy into the free-market concept of choice, which allows the wealthy and concerned to buy their way out of environmental degradation, while the use of pesticides, the killing of dolphins, and the mistreatment of chickens scarcely changes. The alternative is government regulation, which removes choice and ensures much less harm to animals and the environment.

Consumption choices can even make things worse, in two ways. One is that people who assuage their guilt through making choices that are good for animals or the environment more easily justify other sorts of misbehavior. The second way is that labeling standards that allow for choice undermine the possibility of serious regulation. To get a price premium, organic, dolphin-free, free-range products have to be the exception, not the rule. Therefore, the companies involved have extra incentive to oppose regulation.

Jacquet asks us to consider what would have happened to the ozone layer if CFC-free products were voluntary and expensive. The ozone layer was protected by government regulation worldwide, not by choice.

Another consideration is that even small changes by big institutions can make a big difference, while changes among some individuals make very little difference. It is better to shame companies and governments into action than try to instill guilt among individuals.

Jacquet argues that “we should not be encouraged to engage with our guilt as disenfranchised consumers, capable of making a change only through our purchases, and instead encouraged to engage as citizens.” Note the “only.” It is not wrong to make these purchases, only to stop there, to think that this is enough to salve our consciences and, therefore, fail to engage as citizens.


Capitalism and the Climate

One of the hardest decisions that faces a progressive right now is how to consider the environment when there are so many justice — race, class, and immigration — issues confronting this country. And yet it is arguable that the Trump administration is doing more harm to our environment than it is even to undocumented immigrants.

I just finished reading Naomi Klein’s excellent 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. One of Klein’s central points, as the book’s subtitle suggests, is that combating climate change requires all the elements of the progressive worldview, not just the traditional environmental conservationism. It has become clear that the values of free-market capitalism will do nothing to slow down climate change; “only mass social movements can save us now,” she writes in her Conclusion, just the sort of movements that are emerging more powerfully now than in a long time.

Where can we look for a time when social movements made a huge change to the U.S.? We can look to the gains of the labor movement in the Great Depression, and to those of the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century. In times like this, “activism becomes something that is not performed by a small tribe within a culture…, but becomes an entirely normal activity throughout society.” This is arguably what the succession of marches and rallies is seeking.

Klein writes that “any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of world-views, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect. … [I]t requires breaking so many rules at once—rules written into national laws and trade agreements, as well as powerful unwritten rules that tell us that no government can increase taxes and stay in power, or say no to major investments no matter how damaging, or plan to gradually contract those parts of our economies that endanger us all. … [T]he task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

Fighting climate change requires the same ideas, attitudes, and methods as fighting income, wealth, educational, racial, and criminal justice inequality. The biggest difference with climate change is that we have so little time, and that what our society has done, and what the current administration is doing, hurts not just our country, but the world, and not just now, but for a long time.

At a more local level, Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven recognizes the importance of environmental concerns in urban housing in its new Environmental Leadership program, which starts in mid-June.

You’re More Powerful than You Think – III

[A third post on Eric Liu’s You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (Public Affairs, March 28, 2017), the perfect accompaniment to thinking about what you might do to make a difference in these troubling times.]

Some of the most exciting stories that Liu tells involve movements to change the way workers gain power. Their leaders accept that certified unions and collective bargaining are not the framework of the future. One of the new organizations preparing for this future is The Workers Lab.  The lab is supporting tools for workers in the modern workplace, for example, an app called WorkerReport that gives workers a direct channel to local worker centers so they can document wage theft issues or health and safety violations they think need to be dealt with. In this project, the lab is working with New Haven’s own SeeClickFix.

More depressing is Liu’s view of the typical conservative narrative:  Paradise, Paradise Lost, Paradise Redeemed. Things were better, but those things were attacked from without and betrayed from within, and we need to fight to get it back. Trump knew how to use this narrative effectively.

Beyond a narrative, movements need “a concrete conflict in a defined arena with a binary possible outcome.” Climate change isn’t enough to get people to act; in fact, it can seem like an intractable problem, leading to paralysis. Better to stop the Keystone Pipeline or to get universities to divest from companies involved with fossil fuels. Unfortunately, this often means a focus on less important solutions that can best be handled by public protest.

It is also important to have defining fights, which can be extreme (e.g., on the right, campus carry) or moderate (e.g., on the left, the Dreamers). What is important in such fights is crystallizing the broader conflict and defining it in one’s own terms.

Movements also require networks, to amplify power “not incrementally but exponentially,” power that is based not on control but rather on invitation. For example, #Giving Tuesday took off globally due to a counter-commercial value system that led people to want to make a positive statement against the commercialization of the holiday season. Networks set off “contagions of attitude and action,” as well as “webs of knowledge.”

Liu says that the practitioner of civic power should not just try to nudge a network, but be the network. “Society becomes how you behave. … Small actions (and omissions) compound.”

Liu is big on networked localism, working with a variety of solutions to the needs of the poor while giving them a sense of agency. He gives the example of the Family Independence Initiative, which began in Oakland, and bypasses or preempts the state “in ways that don’t fit easily into a left-right framework.” It has experimented with such things as matched savings accounts and lending circles.

Liu’s final strategy for opening up power is acting reciprocally, building systems of mutual aid and opening up opportunities for cooperative self-government, what Liu calls “power-as-sociability.” Power with rather than power over. He found that the ecosystem of groups and leaders focused on issues or constituencies is “separated by invisible fences of habit and culture.” He created an institution, the Civic Collaboratory, that would help develop relationships across the whole ecosystem.

Mutual aid requires trust, but it also creates trust:  you can best earn trust by giving it. Cooperation also changes the locus of responsibility, so that others’ problems are shared rather than just someone else’s problem. With great responsibility can come great power.

Liu reminds readers that although democracies are governed by majority rule, every significant civic change is moved by minority will. “It always takes only a few.” This is why we are more powerful than we think. And this is especially true at the local level.

For Liu, the enemy is not conservatives, but cynicism, which undermines trust, and denies responsibility and the possibility of remedying situations.

There is a lot of wisdom in this book, and the many stories that are told are both inspirational and provide valuable models to emulate. I highly recommend this new book by the founder of Citizen University, whose most local manifestation was this February’s Yale Civic Leadership Conference.

You’re More Powerful than You Think – II

A second post on Eric Liu’s You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (Public Affairs, March 28, 2017), the perfect accompaniment to thinking about what you might do to make a difference in these troubling times

Organizing, Liu tells us, is the awakening, the activation, of dormant power. A boycott has impact because a lot of people are willing to stop giving their power away to the boycotted business. Liu quotes a billboard he once saw, “You aren’t stuck in traffic. You are traffic.” We are politics, we are consumption; we’re not stuck in them, we can change them.

Liu argues that seeing in systems is essential to making change. This means focusing on how things connect, understanding networks (and not just those online). He feels that our systems are in decay, that we need new systems to provide us with more dignity and more control over our lives. This is why, I would add, progressives need to be careful not to manipulate individuals who want to get involved, that is, not to create new systems by employing the values of the systems we are trying to replace.

The largest section of the book is on how to respond to power, and how to take and use power. Liu says that we must change the game (interrupt the cycle of self-perpetuating power), change the story (depict an alternative story and use it as the basis for organizing), and change the equation (design experiences of mutual aid that remind people of the power they have, and act on this power). Each of these three changes has three strategies, but that’s too many strategies for one blog post. However, here are a few quotations from this section:

“All civic life begins in the imagination.”

“The resizing of the arena of activism is perpetual.”

“In everyday civic life, the rules are often overlooked or simply considered fixed. They are not fixed. They can be remade”

“If the game is rigged, don’t say so generally; say so precisely. And show precisely how to unrig it.”

“You have to expand the public’s sense of what’s possible—by asking what if questions; by describing a better way in detail; and by offering a new values-based definition of what ought to be considered ‘normal.'”

“Don’t try to beat your adversaries at their own game. Paralyze, bypass, and undermine their strategy instead. Even a dominant power is only as strong as its strategy.” An example of this is how, because the NRA works through legislatures, a pro-gun control organization won locally via a ballot initiative.

[To be continued]

You’re More Powerful than You Think – I

Eric Liu’s You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (Public Affairs, March 28, 2017) is the perfect accompaniment to thinking about what you might do to make a difference in these troubling times. It is better for today than Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (1969). This book is a primer on power — how we think of it, what it actually is, and how we can wield it. This book is designed to close the gap between the rhetoric of revolution and the actual changes in values, systems, habits, and skills that are needed. Liu’s goal is to help people make better demands and then make them a reality.

In his prologue, Liu suggests that we ask the question, “Who runs this place?” It’s a question that is too rarely asked and even more rarely answered thoughtfully. He suggests that we widen the lense from government (where the answer is often harder than we think) to include the businesses and other institutions that dominate the local economy, and who in those busineses has a real say. Wider, to include who makes the deals — the fixers and the enforcers, the groups that usually get their way. Who do you have to target to get things changed, to make things the way you want? Who decides?

Liu calls the time we are in the Great Push Back, the revolt of those who feel they lack power. But what is “power”? Liu’s definition is “the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.” Power is as often about persuasion or contagion as it is about coercion. It takes the form of force, wealth, state action, ideas, social norms, and numbers. It’s not just about the making of laws, but also about the making of relationships, and about biases and slogans.

It is a problem that most people ascribe power to others rather than to themselves. The left ascribes power to business and the right to government, but there is also power in numbers, in ideas, and in changing the way we see things. Think how quickly a minority movement for gay marriage changed the way most Americans think. When we give in to others’ power, we let their kind of power, based on their values, prevail.

Liu argues that power doesn’t corrupt character as much as reveal it, and that power is a gift, a special form of privilege that we can redeem through our deeds and pass on to others. It is a gift because “every person and institution with power in our society today has it because we give it to them.” Unfortunately, most of the time we give power away by not participating. “No one can wield power except as others yield power.”

Liu goes the usual route of setting out the laws of power, but they are useful to understanding what it is and how it works. The most important things to take away from these laws is that power is legitimized by the stories those with power tell to justify their power, and that power is not zero-sum:  it can be bypassed, displaced, and even upended.

In fact, what is special about our time, Liu says, is that legitimizing myths have lost their grip. People across the political spectrum have rejected justifications of the status quo. But there is still not a good vision of the future, especially on the left. “Resist” does not accomplish this. This is something progressives need to discuss and work toward. It is one reason I think that alternative institutions are so important, even if they are not activist in nature, because they are an essential part of a future that we need to make more positive and more concrete.

[To be continued]

What We Do Now – II

This is the second post to share quotes from a new anthology of short essays on how to live post-election called What We Do Now, edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians (Melville House, Jan. 2017). The first post is here.

The essay by cognitive linguist George Lakoff contains a valuable observation. When Republicans talk of getting rid of “regulations,” it is important for the Left to say that they are trying to get rid of “protections,” and to mention the actual harms that will be caused by the removal of particular protections.

Arts activist Nato Thompson’s essay talks about Daniel Tucker’s 2016 multi-city and multi-artist project “Organize Your Own,” which asks artists, activists, and organizers to react to Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael’s idea that whites should be organizing their own communities against racism rather than trying to tell people what to do in other communities: “Let them go to the suburbs and open up freedom schools for whites,” Carmichael said. Thompson suggests that whites “instigate projects that dig deep into the emotional and political terrain that constructs ‘whiteness.'”

The essay by Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, contains an important quote about clean energy:  “We in the environmental community owe it to [citizens who have been left behind by the rush to create a global economy] to show how a future based on clean energy will make their lives better. We have to make sure that the opportunities of that renewable energy economy are shared widely.” Brune also notes that a focus on the state and local level has led to 20 cities committing themselves to 100% clean energy, a number that will hopefully grow over the next few years (for more about these pledges, see the Go 100% website; also check out Benjamin Barber’s upcoming book, Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming (Yale UP, April 24, 2017)).


What We Do Now – I

I’m in the middle of reading an anthology of short essays on how to live post-election called What We Do Now, edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians (Melville House, Jan. 2017). I want to share some of the quotes that struck me.

Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American legislator (MN state rep), writes, “It is essential we recognize the inherent obligation of humanity: to build community. Surviving life in a refugee camp at a young age, I find this obligation to be very real; hope and unity were essential to a fervent community.”

Omar also quotes Solon, an ancient Athenian lawmaker, as saying, “Wrongdoing can only be avoided if those who are not wronged feel the same indignation at it as those who are.” For me, this is the most important theme in this volume:  solidarity, cross-movement unity.

Cristina Jiménez, director of United We Dream, refers to it as “showing up for each other when we come under attack, and showing up for each other when we have an opportunity to advance the cause of justice.”

Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian director of the Arab American Association of New York, writes,”One of the most important things we can all do as Americans is to begin investing in relationship building. Do you know your neighbors? Do you know who leads the local community-based organizations in your neighborhood? Do you know the heads of local churches, local mosques, and temples? Do know who your local elected representatives are? If no, start now. If yes, how can you deepen those relationships so that they are transformative and not simply transactional.”

And she asks us all to “Stay vigilant. Stay focused. Stay outraged. Perpetual outrage is what’s going to fuel our movements right now.” And she concludes, “The question is: What are we willing to sacrifice? What history will we write together?”

In a post-election sermon, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum put solidarity in very concrete terms: “The president-elect has said he intends to register every Muslim in this country. Well, let him try. Because if he tries to register Muslims, there are going to be a lot more Muslims to register than he ever imagined. Millions of us Muslims.”

Many of the authors in this book, especially the ones who are not household names, argue that “we need to shift much of our energy from the national stage to the local,” as M. Dove Kent, director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, puts it. She also writes something it is very important to keep in mind: “We’ve got to find new frameworks for common ground, and and the litmus tests that separate us. … The thinner lines in the sand that previously divided us must be erased. We will need to find a way to get over ourselves, and quickly, if we are to be of service.”

More wisdom comes from Brittany Packnett, cofounder of Campaign Zero and author of my favorite piece so far, “White People: What Is Your Plan for the Trump Presidency?”: “The work of freedom is messy, dangerous, and intentionally uncomfortable. Here’s a simple test: if the action step you’re taking isn’t really costing you your comfort, chances are you’re not doing enough. … Getting in the way to protect the vulnerable, building something new that empowers the marginalized, and endangering yourself to shield others are the acts of an accomplice. We need no more allies — we need accomplices.” Powerful stuff.

I’m just halfway through this sometimes enlightening, sometimes provocative anthology. There should be another blog post in it.