Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected]
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
Like a lot of people, I spent the lead-up to the election expecting a Clinton victory and a rather business-as-usual political future. Even though I drifted to the left in the past year like many other millennial white guys (thanks Chapo!), I didn’t see it as a particularly awful outcome and planned a multi-month trip starting in December—a sort of once-in-a-lifetime, solo backpack around the world type deal I had been saving for since I graduated college. November 8 was a shock, and I considered cancelling. But seeing as I had already put my money down for several flights and had no job I decided to go ahead and do it, reasoning I would jump head-first into anti-Trump socialist activism when I return, which I still intend to.
These first ten days of Trump though, my god. With WiFi available in every corner of the globe now, I’m as aware as anybody of the velocity and frequency with which the shit is hitting the fan. Seeing the massive protests on the street makes me want to buy a plane ticket home and participate in this urgent political moment; I know organization and ongoing political engagement will be vital. On the other hand, when I put my phone down I find I truly am enjoying this trip that I planned and saved for so long. Not to be corny, but also I feel like getting out of my comfort zone has been really good for me in a self-growth way and gets me closer to being the happy and confident person I want to be, and I feel like that is important too.
I guess this is my question then: How do I choose between these two directions? If all I’m doing is being informed without action, is it okay to just be uninformed for a while so I can fully appreciate this experience, or is that irresponsible? Is this political moment so urgent that I should consider flying home to participate and organize, even though I have no previous organizing experience? I know my vacation anxiety is specks of dust compared to the other pain Trump will be causing, but any advice would be appreciated.
First of all, it’s fantastic that you feel moved to participate in this encouraging (but still hectic and inchoate) resistance we have brewing. In the post-Occupy malaise, the potential for political activism has been absolutely hobbled by the exhaustion of burn-out, the dysthemia of failure and the ever-present “reflexive impotence” of neoliberal ideology. Or in layman’s terms: everything is so hard, depressing, and seemingly hopeless that it’s hard to even get off your ass. Luckily though, something gave way in the wake of Trump, and people are more motivated than ever to fight; good on you for feeling the call to arms!
As for whether you should drop everything to start organizing with zero prior experience, I would first like to point out that the raw impulse to “do something,” does not necessarily manifest anything productive for “the movement.” For this point I also like to turn to the classic anti-“activistism” polemic, “‘Action Will Be Taken’: Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents,” by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti, which argues that “Thoughtless activism confuses the formulation of political aims,” and that a failure to reflect and evaluate on the efficacy of our work has left activists worn out with little to show for it. Heed their call:
How does activist anti-intellectualism manifest on the ground? One instance is the reduction of strategy to mere tactics, to horrible effect. Take for example the largely failed San Francisco protest against the National Association of Broadcasters, an action which ended up costing tens of thousand of dollars, gained almost no attention, had no impact on the NAB, and nearly ruined one of the sponsoring organizations. During a post-mortem discussion of this debacle one of the organizers reminded her audience that: “We had three thousand people marching through [the shopping district] Union Square protesting the media. That’s amazing. It had never happened before.” Never mind the utter non-impact of this aimless march. The point was clear: we marched for ourselves. We were our own targets. Activism made us good.
I mention all this not to discourage you from getting involved, but to let you off the hook! Trump is a disaster, but it’s not like he’s an earthquake and you’re Doctors Without Borders. It’s true that everyone can do something for the cause, but you don’t even know what your something is yet. So why not enjoy your vacation and take a little time to figure out the best way for you to contribute?
The key here is balance—which sounds a lot easier than it is. I suggest you take a few hours each week to enrich your activist education and feel out the emerging political landscape. Your magical trip around the world may seem all-consuming now, but you’re going to have downtime, so try learning some history and theory, brush up on political struggles and the state of labor, and look into some groups or campaigns that are doing work that really moves you. Just as important, consider the skills and talents you have and/or would like to develop—you’ll be most useful (and most fulfilled) if you play to your strengths.
I assure you that the fight will still be here when you get back. And you will be of much better service to it as a well rested, invigorated, educated, and focused activist.