Happy Birthday, Simone Weil!

Simone Weil via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Simone Weil, born on February 3, 1909, lived only thirty-four years. She died as an unintentional martyr to her ideals on August 24th, 1943; she contracted tuberculosis when her overworked, underfed, exhausted body, working for the French Resistance in England, could not fight off disease. As she had done before, Weil refused to eat more than wartime rationing allowed to others, or to accept extra medical help. In a sense, allowing herself to become so run-down that she collapsed and died soon thereafter seems inconsistent with one of her central beliefs: that morality is centered on obligations to one another. When she debilitated herself through overwork and malnourishment, she rendered herself unable to fulfill those obligations she believed in. Yet in working for the benefit of others among those doing the same work, and demanding of herself that she do so under the same hard conditions that many others had to struggle in, Weil continued her long practice of putting her ideals in practice and in the process, testing them. The idealist, deeply spiritual Weil, in this way, often acted as a sort of empirical ethicist.

Weil was born to well-to-do, agnostic Jewish parents who provided her a very comfortable, secure childhood. Her high level of intelligence was evident from a very early age, and she received an excellent education. She surpassed the brilliant Simone de Bouviour in her École Normale Supérieure postgraduate exams. Yet Weil resisted employment as a full-time academic; she was intensely interested in common human concerns such as labor rights and politics. While teaching philosophy, Weil took time to travel to Germany to help her determine why Nazism took such hold there, and donated much of her time and skills to groups who supported working people. She left teaching in 1934 to work in a factory for some months, to observe conditions for unskilled working women. Weil then followed her activist instincts into joining Spain’s Republican efforts against the far-right, authoritarian Francisco Franco’s revolt in the Spanish Civil War, but an injury rendered her unable to complete her combat training, so she lent her support through her primary skill, writing. After she and her parents fled the Nazis first from Paris (she worked for a time as a farm laborer in rural France during this period), then from France, Weil joined Charles De Gaulle’s Free France movement from their London center of operations. Weil’s practice of observing work conditions and political movements first-hand undoubtedly contributed greatly to the force of the ideas she drew from such experiences.

Throughout all of this, Weil had many mystical experiences and converted to Christianity, with many of her beliefs overlapping Catholic doctrines, However, she refused to be baptized or ally herself with any one sect, prioritizing personal spiritual transformation over ritual. Weil wrote creatively and deeply on spirituality and theology; among her most original ideas was that the silence of God was necessary for creation to happen; he wasn’t dead, despite all appearances, he was just absent from the places where creation happens.

Weil had also long thought deeply about the liberal philosophy of human rights, and came to the conclusion that it was an ultimately empty concept on its own. Since it was not centered on a robust concept of human obligations, it was ultimately unworkable: rights, so conceived, could be and often were bought and sold, and while non-interference can mean rights are not violated, this means little when we need support that human rights theory doesn’t necessarily entail that we give to one another. It was only a commitment to fulfilling one’s obligations to others that well-being, bodily integrity, and every other aspect of each person’s humanity can be respected and protected. Weil put this idea to the test by working at that auto factory, as described above, where she observed the effects of the mechanical process of mass assembly on herself and other workers; to her, it appeared dehumanizing, harmful to the moral and spiritual self, instilling docility. In this and other institutions of a rights-based, private-property-centric society, Weil saw that aspects of humanity were rendered into something tradable in the marketplace, and interpersonal relations were reduced to contractual agreements, real or implied. Such a system allows for justice to be dispensed differently, or for differential access to basic human needs, according to one’s ability to pay. While I believe it’s true that liberal societies’ commitments to universal human rights have brought about a level of peace, prosperity, and individual liberty unparalleled in all other types of society throughout history, Weil’s ideas provide important insights into how a liberal system based on individual human rights might not consistently promote human well-being and personal fulfillment unless it is balanced by a robust ethic of interpersonal obligations.

Learn more about the spiritual philosopher and activist Simone Weil, who Susan Sontag called ‘one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit,’ at:

‘God Isn’t Dead, He’s Silent’: Simone Weil Dies, Very Young ~ by Nettanel Slyomovics for Haaretz

Gravity and Grace ~ by Simone Weil

Should We Still Read Simone Weil? ~ by Heather McRobie for The Guardian

Simone Weil ~ by A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Benjamin P. Davis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Simone Weil ~ by Susan Sontag for The New York Review of Books

Simone Weil articles, assorted ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Simone Weil: French Philosopher ~ at Encyclopaedia Britannica

What We Owe to Others: Simone Weil’s Radical Reminder ~ by Robert Zaretsky for The New York Times‘ Stone blog

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Feminist, Abolitionist, Immigrant, Socialist, Atheist, Jew: The Extraordinary Ernestine Rose, Human Rights Activist

5e5b1-ernestinerose2b1In honor of Ernestine Louise Rose on the anniversary of her birth, January 13th, 1810 

Why such a title, you might ask? Feminist. Abolitionist. Immigrant. Socialist. Atheist. Jew. A series of epithets in Rose’s day, they’re still too often used as such. Why be so provocative?

In her life as an activist and orator, Ernestine Rose wasn’t deliberately provocative in any shock-factor sort of way. She wore modest black, gray, and brown dresses, never the bloomers (puffy pants worn under short skirts) that the more ‘radical’ feminists adopted; she never railed against individual capitalists or slaveholders as evil oppressors; she was openly happy in her traditional-style marriage; and while she was not hesitant to respond abruptly, wittily, even sarcastically to insults and bad arguments, she was not given to preemptive personal attacks or calls for violence. Yet in a time when women stayed at home when not accompanied in public by chaperones, she traveled often and often alone; when women were expected to be demure and silent in public, she was a witty, incisive, passionate, and famous public speaker; when most women accepted their assigned roles, she argued and fought for their rights; when slavery was still widely considered acceptable or at a necessary evil, she worked for their emancipation; when many or even most of her fellow feminists did not consider the races and classes equal, she argued that all people should have the same political and social rights; when hierarchical class systems were considered a law of nature, she argued for economic equality; when most people were religious, she was an unapologetic atheist; in an insular and xenophobic Protestant Christian country, she was a cosmopolitan foreigner of Jewish ancestry.

In short, Ernestine was just about as much of an outsider as one could be. Save being black, disabled, gay, or a single woman, she could hardly have belonged simultaneously to more of the marginalized groups of her day, yet even these found in her a champion as well. Feminist, Abolitionist, Immigrant, Socialist, Atheist, Jew can goad us into considering anew why and how these labels are simultaneously uncomfortable reminders of the persistence of prejudice, and remind us that they’re really badges of honor for passionate believers in universal human freedom.

3a25c-ernestine2broseIn spite of many obstacles, Ernestine Rose was a renowned public speaker and debater in her own time, and especially acclaimed for her role among the preeminent leaders of the feminist movement. The abolitionist, socialist, pro-immigrant, Jewish, freethinker, and Paineite (devotees to the life and ideas of Thomas Paine, who had become a target of hatred and slander due to his freethought views) communities also benefited from her staunch and tireless work on their behalf. She was widely praised as an orator, her style described as ‘powerful’, ‘eloquent’, ‘intelligent’, and ‘dignified’, and often sold out even the largest halls. When travel plans or one of her many bouts of serious illness kept her from speaking at conventions and other public events, organizers would worry about the possibility of success without her participation. Yet now she is virtually forgotten, more so than just about any other feminist or abolitionist of the time with her level of fame. How did this come to be?

It was, for Rose, a very similar situation as it was for her hero Thomas Paine, hailed as a father of the American Revolution who wrote Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Both of these great advocates of universal human rights had ideas that were simply too innovative, too outlandish, too challenging for widespread and sustained acceptance. Both inspired great admiration and achieved widespread fame for their abilities and achievements during their lifetime, but after the initial thrill of their progressive ideals wore off, conservative fearmongering that Rose’s and Paine’s ideas would undermine civilized society won the day. Successive generations would come to pick out what they liked from their work and enjoy the benefits, while vilifying Rose and Paine as radicals, corrupters of public morality, and would-be destroyers of civilization.

It’s only within the last fifty years or so that Paine’s reputation (Theodore Roosevelt still referred to him as a ‘filthy little atheist’) has been fully rehabilitated, his contributions widely celebrated. For Ernestine Rose, unjustly in my view, this hasn’t happened. Paine has the advantage of having been a white man, a friend of many of the Founding Fathers of the United States, a believer in free markets, and a deist. For Rose, a woman, a Jew, an atheist, and a socialist, the remnants of bigotry that she so eloquently called on us to overcome still cast a shadow over public memory, as the light of history belatedly re-illuminates the life and work of this extraordinary woman.

To learn more about the great Ernestine Rose, please check out:

About Ernestine Rose ~ by the Ernestine Rose Society at Brandeis University

Ernestine Louise Rose (1810-1892) ~ by the American Jewish Historical Society via the Jewish Virtual Library

Ernestine Rose, 1810-1892 ~ by Janet Freedman for the Jewish Women’s Archive

Ernestine Rose: American Social Reformer ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Forgotten Feminisms: Ernestine Rose, Free Radical ~ by Judith Shulevitz for the New York Review of Books’ NYR Daily

Interview with Bonnie Anderson, Author of The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer ~ by the New Books Network

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Happy Birthday, Gwendolyn Marie Patton!

Gwendolyn Marie Patton, photo from Trenholm State Community College Libraries

To celebrate the memory of activist and scholar Dr. Gwendolyn Marie Patton, born October 14, 1943, I share here an excellent article by Ashley Farmer, assistant professor at Boston University and a regular contributor to the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog Black Perspectives. By the way, if you also seek to learn more about the contributions of great thinkers like Dr. Patton who are not widely known or celebrated enough in popular culture, Dr. Farmer is an excellent author to follow.

Remembering Gwen Patton, Activist and Theorist, by Ashley Farmer

“Ideas are powerful,” Dr. Gwendolyn Patton used to say when she talked to the younger generation about civil rights and political organizing. This simple but powerful notion undergirded Patton’s incredible activist life, one that spanned much of the late 20th century and many different facets of the Black Freedom Struggle. Patton always contended that access to knowledge, and in particular, theoretical frameworks for understanding oppression and liberation, were key sites of protest and contestation. Weaving together a powerful life of theorizing and activism, she was and remains one of the most profound black thinkers of our lifetimes.

Patton was born outside Detroit, Michigan in 1943. Her early childhood was characterized by the dialectic between the trappings of middle-class life and insurgent black politics. She grew up in a comfortable black neighborhood and spent her summers with her grandmother in Montgomery, a hotbed of civil rights activism in the early 1950s. In 1960, after her mother passed away, she became a full-time Montgomery resident. As a teenager, she volunteered with the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization responsible for the Rosa Parks-led boycott in 1955. When Patton went off to college at nearby Tuskegee University, she brought this zeal for activism with her. She joined several student-led organizations and protests and eventually became the first woman student body president of the university.

At Tuskegee, Patton was part of what she called a “close-knit, intellectual student movement” that engaged in public accommodation desegregation battles and voter registration work…’ Read more:

And to learn more:

Dr. Gwendolyn Marie Patton, 1943-2017 ~ by Brian Jones via Academia.edu

Gwendolyn M. Patton ~ Interview for the Civil Rights History Project conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Montgomery, Alabama, 6/1/2011 for the Library of Congress

Gwendolyn M. Patton ~ Bio and interview at The HistoryMakers website

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Lovely But Sterile?

Statue of Athena, goddess of Philosophy and War, in the Vatican Museum. Like so much of traditional academic philosophy: elegant, cold, impersonal, the purview of the wealthy, and white…

W.E.B. DuBois once wrote that academic philosophy is the ‘lovely but sterile land of philosophical speculation.’ He decides to turn his attention to history and the social sciences so he can offer more concrete answers and practical help to his beleaguered fellow black citizens.

I’ve been inclined to agree with DuBois now and again, out of irritation, out of impatience, out of out of distaste for the obscurantist language and arch tone philosophy is sometimes delivered in, and no doubt, out of my own inability to comprehend. While I often find academic philosophy enthralling, elegant, interesting, and beautiful, I sometimes think, well yes, this is interesting, this is clever, this is fun, but in the end, what does it do? What is it for, and who is it for? Why care about those fine points, technical details, and subtle nuances that academics and scholars go on about that are seemingly unrelated to practical matters of general human wellbeing? Are they just entertaining and impressing themselves and occasionally each other?

I’ve heard people make a similar critique of the arts as DuBois makes of philosophy. ‘Real art’ shouldn’t be primarily about pleasure, about beauty for beauty’s sake, though it can be beautiful too. Its primary purpose should be to transform, inspire, even disturb and shock the viewer so as to make them an agent of change.

Here’s the thing: as much as I love history, ethical theory, civil rights movements, the arts as described in the previous sentence, and so on, I also love human artifacts which have no apparent reason to exist other than their interest and beauty. This is sometimes portrayed as frivolous: why please ourselves with ‘useless’ things which don’t do any work, which don’t inspire action? But I counter: why does everything have to be useful to us, to do work for us? Putting aside the practical value of philosophy (which I and so many other lovers of philosophy contend is quite high) and the arts, is there no place for sheer beauty, sheer interest? Is there no value in just pleasing our senses, from our most basic and instinctual to our most highly refined? Are the deep desires for intellectual exercise and beauty any less central to the human psyche than the needs for love and liberty and life itself? I know sustaining life and expanding liberty is valuable not only because they help us to survive but because they give us access to those things which make life beautiful.

I also know, for myself, that the beauty and interest I find everywhere in the world, be they in products of nature or of human creativity, impact my heart directly and immediately. I enjoy them without wondering why they exist, if they have a right to exist, or if they are useful to me or others. With human artifacts, it’s only after that first impact that I wonder about the personality and motives of the artist, think about what they’re trying to convey, and find inspiration, whether it be to further refine of my sense of beauty or to change the world or myself in other ways.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, posted from Paris on May 12, 1780. From the Massachusetts Historical Society collections

I think of something John Adams once wrote to his wife Abigail: ‘The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.’ For Adams, the purpose of work to change the world for the better is in order that beauty can exist in the world more plentifully, to be promoted and protected for its own sake, and in order that everyone would ultimately have an equal right to access and enjoy in that beauty. Just so for art, for philosophy, for the natural world and for human society alike.

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

I think DuBois agrees, actually. He clearly loves philosophy for its own sake and thinks it beautiful; after all, he describes it as ‘lovely’ instead of merely dismissing it as useless. But he feels his own talents are best directed at making the world more just for himself and for others who are still routinely denied access to academic philosophy, the high arts, and any other realm of thought and creativity they might want to engage in. Some don’t have the leisure time or disposable income; some are deprived of the right to education or access to the funds needed to pay for it; some live in war-torn places unable to support or protect educational and arts institutions. Like Adams, Dubois feels it his duty and his calling to be an agent of change in his time. And like Adams, DuBois lives a life of philosophy-in-action, his work driven by his convictions about justice and the good life. This demonstrates that for him as it is for countless others, philosophy is fertile indeed.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Key is Activism, Not Persuasion, by Massimo Pigliucci

Here’s a passionate and well-reasoned call to action by one of my favorite philosophers in the public square, Massimo Pigliucci.

Footnotes to Plato

Two kids at the recent women's march in New York (photo by the Author) Two kids at the recent women’s march in New York (photo by the Author)

I’ve been giving a lot of thought about the rise of Trump, and even though I rarely write about explicitly political matters on this blog, this will be one of the exceptions. I think it is necessary. WARNING: unusually strong language ahead, either deal with it or go somewhere else for the day, we’ll be back to normal programming later in the week.

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Frederick Douglass the Pragmatist

Frederick Douglass House Parlor, Washington, D.C.

Douglas is a fiery orator, an uncompromising abolitionist and proponent of universal human rights, and even an advocate of using violence if the cause is just, the harms too great, and other means prove ineffective (more on that in an upcoming piece). He criticizes those who ‘shamefully abandon their principles’. And very often, when he encounters discrimination in a hotel, restaurant, or other public place, he reports the incident to the local press.

Yet for all his energetic activism, uncompromising rhetoric, and devotion to principle, Douglass is also a pragmatist, in matters large and small.

To be sure, many of his activist tactics are as idealistic, and plainly appear so, as they are as practical. Douglass’ reports of discrimination, for example, fire up public support for the cause of equal rights by arousing a storm of protest and in turn, raising consciousness and providing examples for use in the political arena.

He’s a pragmatist when it comes to making a living as well: after a decades-long successful career lecturing and publishing, a house fire and an attempt to rescue the Freedman’s Bank from collapse leave Douglass’ finances in disarray. So he takes to the lecture circuit again full time in the 1870’s. In the pre-Civil War era, he makes his living doing what he believes in most: lecturing, debating, and arguing for abolishing slavery and expanding human rights. But in the post-Civil War era, he finds that morals, politics, and rights issues are no longer such profitable topics. So he goes ahead and lectures on the profitable ones, so long as it he can make the talks instructive and wholesome, and link them to more important issues. ‘People want to be amused as well as instructed’ he writes.

He’s a pragmatist when it comes to tactics and the importance of crafting an image. For example, Douglass considers photography a very important, modern tool for engendering mass support through empathy: if people can see and recognize the face of the person behind the ideas, and of one who is a member of a suffering and oppressed people, people will feel the visceral need for change. So, he takes care to become one of the most photographed men in American history.

Douglass’ practicality holds sway in larger issues too. He does not hesitate to change tactics or switch allegiances between organizations or parties if he thinks it would help the cause in the long run. In fact, he is convinced that true, unswerving, uncompromising allegiance to the cause itself requires a reformer to use whatever means necessary, so long as they are not morally wrong, even if they are imperfect or less inspiring or exciting to others than the more uncompromising choice. He has been criticized throughout the years for splitting with the Garrisonians, for siding with Captain John Fremont against Abraham Lincoln in the latter’s recall of Fremont’s emancipation proclamation in Missouri early in the war, for refusing to support or join in on the raid on Harper’s Ferry (though he supports John Brown’s ideas about the validity of armed resistance in general), for evading arrest and possible execution for charges of co-conspiracy in the Harper’s Ferry raid by fleeing to Canada, and for abandoning the Radical Abolitionist Party in favor of the newly formed Republican Party. His critics contend that his practice of often siding with moderate tactics and candidates reveal a lack of commitment and moral courage.

Yet he defends all of these practical choices on the grounds that commitment to the tactics or politics in and of themselves are actually a distraction, since the practice of committing to the ‘pure’ choice in the short run is often an impediment to achieving the ultimate goal in the long run. For example, if he throws his support behind his friend and hero Gerit Smith, uncompromising political candidate of the Radical Abolitionist Party, instead of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate who ran on the more moderate goal of preventing the spread of slavery to the new states, he might be more admired as an uncompromising leader. But he understands what a risky move this would be. The Radical Abolitionists had little chance of winning, but the Republican Party was off to a very successful start, losing its first presidential campaign by a relatively small margin. Since the moderate goals of the Republican Party had a good chance of realization while those of the Radical Abolitionists little to none, Douglass sides with the former. The stakes are simply too high for Douglass to risk losing at this point, even if the risk appears nobler.

In sum, Douglass argues that the truly committed reformer is free to choose the more modest, practical, sure-bet option over the less apparently compromising, more radical option when it appears to be more effective in the long run. That’s because true faithfulness to the mission does not require appearing an effective reformer, it requires actually being as effective as possible. No small part of Douglass’ greatness as an activist and as a person is his willingness to forgo short-term public approval or personal glory in favor of acting in the long-term best interests of his cause. And it appears that history not only validates him as an astute tactician, but as a heroic figure, in part because in hindsight we can more easily recognize the wisdom, integrity, and strength in his pragmatism.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies, with notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction.. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Varon, Elizabeth. ‘Most photographed man of his era: Frederick Douglass’, the Washington Post, Jan 29, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/most-photographed-man-of-his-era-frederick-dou

Activism is Not Enough: As Long As We Keep Shopping and Don’t Vote, It’s Our Fault Too!

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a wonderful place to live. It has a rich culture and a thriving music and arts scene and nightlife. It’s surrounded by great natural beauty in all directions: from oak forests to redwood groves, from chaparral to sandy beaches and sea cliffs. It has a fascinating history, plentiful and delicious food, beautiful architecture, and balmy weather. It’s also a liberal ‘bubble’, with an appetite for activism and, for better and for worse, a penchant for righteous outrage.

I admire and identify with the history and the culture of activism. Like the reformers of history and of today, the brave people who fight to create a more just world are among the finest the human race has ever produced. But I’ve been feeling something a bit lacking in activist movements lately. They still march in the streets, and we join them there and online by signing petitions for reform, posting blog pieces, and sharing videos bursting with righteous indignation. It’s exciting, it’s attention-getting, it makes the news. Historically, take-it-to-the-streets activism has been key in achieving the most important reforms (and breaking away to form our own nation in the first place!). The Occupy Movement, for one, was inspiring, and exciting, and it appeared that we were finally witnessing a harbinger of real change.

Sadly, it seemed to fizzle out before any substantial reform was achieved. Why? Because it wasn’t followed by practical action, which, of course, is much less exciting. Demonstrations of protest don’t do much lasting good unless they’re backed up by real, widespread change in attitudes, behavior, and civic engagment. Right now, the activist community is mainly pouring its energy into marches, inspiring songs, signs, slogans, and speech, and a few into blocking highways, smashing windows, and taunting riot police. But for actual reform to happen, we need to turn our collective accusatory gaze back on ourselves and realize we are the problem too…

How can we be the problem while we’re working and calling for reform? Because we keep supporting bad business through what we choose to buy, and we’re not reforming government by showing up at the polls.

It’s like protesting an assassination after we pitched in to pay the hit man and did nothing to stop him as he stole the getaway car.

For example, we’ve long known that many of our smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets are made in factories where people work terribly long hours for little pay, in conditions we’d never put up with ourselves. And we know that many or even most of our discarded electronics end up in some country, state, or town unprotected by regulations, or whose ‘recycling’ systems are really not effective in keeping up with the deluge, at keeping toxic heavy metals and chemicals out of the water supply, the ground, and the air. So we’ve signed online petitions and shared testimonies of abused workers on YouTube and Facebook. Yet we buy every new gadget as fast as they come along, throwing away our ‘old’ ones (cracked screen? doesn’t have the new games on it? too thick now since the new ones are 1/4″ thinner?) and buying a new one whether we ‘need’ it or not. When we purchase these things, we fund all operations of the companies that make them, and we send them the signal that we’ll buy them no matter how much their products pollute and how they treat their workers.

We also know, from the wealth of scientific information gathered and presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and our own National Climate Assessment, that we’re polluting our air to levels that present great threats to the health and future food security of ourselves and our progeny. We’ve also seen how air and other pollution causes respiratory ailments and even death in humans and animals, from pre-1970’s, pre-Clean Air Act Los Angeles, California, to Beijing, China of today. So again, we sign online petitions and share videos and speeches, and call on regulators to crack down on corporate polluters, on factories (industrial and farming), auto manufacturers, and the trucking industry. Yet it’s the commuter cars we drive and the emanations from animals we eat every day that pollute the most. We drive everywhere we want to go whether or not we need our car to get there, and gobble up more meat than is healthy for us and for the planet, all the while insisting that gas and meat stay cheap.

And so on, and so on, and so on. We want one thing, but do another. We say we want the world to be one way, but our actions help guarantee it won’t come to pass. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but here it is: we can’t justifiably blame corporations and the government for institutionalized racism, radical income inequality, pollution, climate change, poor wages and working conditions, poverty, and other social ills while at the same time we’re funding their operations, and are too politically apathetic to send more than a symbolic message by voting in the change we want.

There are two main ways we are undermining our own calls for reform:

We are a market-driven society, for better or for worse, and the market will always deliver what we want to buy, eventually. If we keep buying it, it will keep being made, whatever the good it does, or the harm. If we want things that cause harm, they will be made, ever more so as we keep buying them. And if we shop around for the lowest price, down prices will go, whether by benign means (improved technology) or not (driving down wages). Capitalism brings us wonderful things: safer and better machines for all kinds of purposes, warm comfortable clothing and plentiful food, information-sharing devices to educate and entertain, and best of all, technology that can better our lives while reducing waste. But it brings awful things as well: the supply and demand for plastic bottles and convenient packaging is trashing rivers and seas and killing fish; electronics, designed to quickly become obsolete and full of heavy metals, turns into masses of polluting trash our limited recycling systems can’t keep up with; plentiful, cheap meat pollutes the air and water and encourages animal cruelty; cheap fuel drives climates change and wars; cheap goods of all kinds drive down wages, degrades working conditions, and lead to overconsumption and massive waste. We know this, yet keep the demand going by gobbling it all up as quickly as they supply it.

Here’s an aside to my fellow progressives, liberals, and everyone who loves our world and don’t want to trash it: don’t pretend that recycling bins and boutique ‘green’ products will do the trick. Currently, recycling programs are akin to a cheap plastic Band-Aid applied to a gaping wound. Most recycling processes create nearly as much, sometimes even more, pollution than new products and packaging created in the first place. (Read this fantastic article by Andrew Handley: informative, succinct, and eloquent.)

Secondly, we are allowing the few, most moneyed interests to take over our government with scarcely a murmur. The ballot box, historically the most powerful tool for voicing our collective will, is being abandoned. We are voting in fewer and fewer numbers every year, with depressing results. I understand the Russell Brand type of argument, to ‘drop out’ of politics as an act of protest against systemic government corruption. But I don’t agree with his conclusion. It may be the case, as he points out and as we discover anew every voting season, that many or all of the candidates aren’t terribly inspiring. We may find that many of the initiatives won’t seem to do all the good we’d wish. But consider these facts: historically, the reforms sought by the great activist movements mostly became law because they continued their march right to the polls, and either voted in those laws themselves through referendums, and the rest were achieved indirectly, by voting better leaders into office. And think of what happens when we don’t vote. As someone who considers myself politically progressive, I’ve been dismayed as here in California, such laws as Prop 8 passed, banning gay marriage, because more people opposed to this unjust law (later overturned by the courts as unconstitutional) didn’t bother to get to the polls; ideologues, lavishly funded by a few interest groups, voted in droves while believers in liberal and progressive values (including many who held protest signs, I’ll bet) stayed home. For the same reason, capital punishment is still legal in California and marijuana use (other than medical) is not. I was also dismayed by the most recent general election, in which candidates that are aggressively status-quo and anti-reform were elected to office in droves. Why? Again: those who poll in favor of reform did not show up at the polls.

It’s true that too many candidates are overly motivated to please the interest groups that fund them, and don’t pay enough attention to the rights and the will of the average citizen. But that’s not just because of the money (initially provided by us, by the way, via the market): these candidates have been made well aware that we’ve grown a little too comfortable to make the effort to vote them out. So they make speeches to please us, and then we pass them around online and think we’ve done our duty. On election day, we stay home, and the next day, it’s business as usual.

In sum: so long as we put our own ease, comfort, and desire for luxuries ahead of our principles, we are stuck with the world that results. If our political system continues to grow ever more corrupt and our laws fail to protect the vulnerable, the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised, and the environment, yet we don’t vote the bad politicians out and the good laws in, we are to blame too. If corporations and other businesses make harmful products, endanger and underpay their workers, funnel all profits to a few at the top, and pollute, deforest, drive species to extinction, and hasten global warming, yet we keep buying their products, it’s our fault too. If police precincts become ever more militarized and continue to employ overly violent and coercive tactics on the streets and in the interrogation rooms, and we don’t vote them or those that appoint them, out of office, then we’re giving our tacit consent. If our political leaders, prosecutors, and judges continue to make, enforce, and uphold laws that are contrary to our constitutional rights, our best interests, and scientific evidence, and we keep putting them in office (or do nothing while special interest groups put them in office), then we aid and abet them with our neglect.

So what do we do about it? Do we all become ascetics, deny ourselves all pleasures that might conceivably cause harm, subsist in ‘hobbit homes’? Do we obsess over politics, wring our hands in despair daily or cast them in air as we give up in hopelessness? This doesn’t seem tenable: we want an easy, pleasant life filled with hope, comfort and plenty for ourselves, our loved ones, our children, for everyone.

Yet if we want our progeny and the rich, vibrant, diverse world of living things to survive and flourish, we need to change our habits. Our main stumbling block is this fact about human psychology: it’s extremely difficult for us to act idealistically when the long-term ramifications of our actions are not emotionally, immediately apparent at the time. But be it easy or be it hard, we need adopt new and better practices, or the world we love will suffer from our neglect. I’m as stuck in bad habits as much as anyone else, so I’m not playing a blame game here. When it comes to consumer waste: I’m lucky in that I worked in a salvage and recycling operation for some years, and that experience turned me off from enjoying shopping for cheap gadgets, and made me more frugal and more likely to preserve the tools I have for as long as I can repair them and make them work. (There’s nothing like working in a resale warehouse, or salvaging quality reusable goods from a mound of broken cheap crap and trash at the dump, to change one’s perspective on material goods. Now, in the rare occasions I go to Target or a department store, I perceive mostly a mound of thinly disguised future garbage.) But I continue to buy too many things with unnecessary packaging, I still drive my car more often than I really need to, and I buy and eat too much factory-farmed meat. When it comes to politics and law enforcement: I usually don’t do nearly enough homework on the issues or on candidates before I vote, and I miss valuable opportunities to make a difference by engaging in local politics, where individuals can have the most influence.

Let’s make a pact to honor our activists, and to join their ranks as true ones, by living out our desired reforms. Let’s stop buying water and drinks in plastic bottles and packaged goods so long as there’s an alternative; if enough people do this, companies will pay heed and provide their goods through better delivery methods. Let’s stop buying so much stuff, period, and divert our money to businesses and institutions that deliver quality goods that last and public goods that all can enjoy. (Less malls and big box and discount retailers, more small businesses, quality goods made to last, public works, humanitarian projects, and museums.) Let’s stop glorifying wealth and the trappings of wealth more than its due. Let’s vote in every election, for candidates and referendums that best represent our values: if we demonstrate that we will only vote for those that deliver on their promises for reform and will vote them out if they fail, the political arena of competition will shift as it favors less corruption.

Let’s put the act back in activism.

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Sources and inspiration:

Ariely, Dan. ‘The Long-Term Effect of Short-Term Emotions‘. Mar 23, 2010. DanAriely.com

Brand, Russell. ‘On Revolution: “We No Longer Have the Luxury of Tradition”‘ Oct 24, 2013. TheNewStatesman.com

FlorCruz, Jaime. ‘Listen Up Beijing. This is What You Can Learn From Los Angeles About Fighting Smog‘. Dec 9th, 2014. CNN.com

Handley, Andrew. ‘10 Ways Recycling Hurts the Environment‘. Jan 27th, 2013. Listverse.com.

Parsons, Sarah.’Electronics Recycling 101: The Problem With E-Waste‘. Inhabitat.com

Silverman, Jacob. ‘Do Cows Pollute As Much as Cars?HowStuffWorks.com