While Fiona Trafton is not new here on Practical Politicking, her column is. Here is the first installment of Scot-itude!
Activism is a term that is often (but not exclusively) associated with negativity — agitators who are just out to spoil the status quo and shout down any and all of their opponents.
The reality is, active citizenship is not only healthy for democracy, but it is much needed — badly. Much of the rights and freedoms that we have today are by virtue of activists who, with passion and gusto, challenged the establishment of the era to influence change. The 20th century can be regarded as a period where many marginal or radical ideas are now in the mainstream — universal suffrage, child labor protection laws, right to an education for all citizens, the end of segregation, workers’ rights, including protection from dangerous working conditions. It is only in our distant history when anyone calling for or supporting such measures could have been vilified, or at least called a utopian with pie-in-the-sky ideas.
I do not agree with one of my local Washington State Senators who referred to recent political protests as “un-American”. While I strongly disavow criminal acts of violence, damage to property and intimidatory acts against attendees of the President’s Inauguration, peaceful protest is a hallmark of our advanced democracy, and protected under the First Amendment. There are competing narratives about what it means to be a good American, and I directly experienced conflicting narratives when growing up in Scotland about what it means to be patriotic. This intensified prior to and after the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. Terms such as ‘proud Scots,’ or ‘anti-Scottishness’ were not only on the airwaves, but shouted in the street. Unless an individual is engaging in acts of terrorism, espionage and other serious activities that are a threat to the state, then I prefer to ditch the narratives and look beyond political maneuvering.
Many laws end up being taken for granted and that is why activism is needed — Governments and politics are always changing, that includes public policy. For example, while there is a remote chance that Roe v Wade could be overturned, many activists across the US are highlighting real affordability and availability issues with regards to contraception and abortion for some — mainly poor — women. Reproductive health rights are already under threat, irrespective of the legality of Roe.
When I look back at the progressive history of the United States, I am inspired by the work of the former Republican Governor of Oregon, Tom McCall. While working as a journalist in the 1960s, he hosted the award winning documentary Pollution in Paradise, which led to early socio-political efforts to combat dangerous levels of pollution, in particular the cleaning up of the beloved Willamette River. Daisy Gatson Bates suffered intimidation and a rock through a window of her home, but that did not stop her from continuing to lead efforts to end segregation in Arkansas during the Jim Crow era. America has a proud history of influencers and social agents — across the political spectrum.
I am not a fan of the term ‘armchair activist’ when it is used wholly as a pejorative. Having the time to regularly engage with campaign groups, volunteering and attending events is a privilege — not everyone has the time, the financing, or the mobility to do so within their own complex lives. Millions of people don’t have the confidence levels that young Hillary Rodham had when she started out as a social activist, nor the charisma that Ronald Reagan had when he impressed Californian Republicans during the 1960s. For the benefit of doubt, I am not trying to discourage anyone from seeking frontline activism, but there are multiple ways for citizens to not only become more informed about political reality, but to be agents of change themselves.
I actually welcome (some) armchair activism that goes beyond posting articles or espousing views on social media. From writing to lawmakers, to signing online petitions, and reading multiples news sources while fact checking are all examples of active citizenship. Propaganda is not an education; it too often tells voters what to think, not how to think. An informed citizenry is healthy if it holds political machines to account. It is not just the job of moderators to critically examine the policies of candidates during television debates — eligible voters have that important task too, for their sake and for the country.
When millions of men and woman marched peacefully across America, they were not being deviant. After all, activism is an American tradition.
I understand why many are jaded with politics and politicians — engaging can be exhausting. However, apathy not only weakens democracy, but it leads to a crisis of legitimacy in governance. When JFK made his famous ‘Ask Not’ speech, he was not joking around when he called on citizens to reflect on what they could do for the benefit of our great country.