Columns / Discourse / April 30, 2014

A self-critique: Building the revolution on empathy

Today I want to take a brief critical look back at my column from two weeks ago, “Building the revolution on empathy.” I think that the writing I’ve done so far on the topic of revolution/widespread social change has been accurate in many ways, but it’s lacked applicability and, at times, critical perspective. Specifically, though human empathy is critical, there is a whole lot more to widespread political change than just that. In the last few weeks I’ve been reading books and working with organizations that have given me a wider window into the world of activism and social change. These experiences have made me realize how little I really know. They’ve also given me hope for our way forward.

Because we can be certain that as we graduate and move on to do amazing things after Knox, we’ll need a better understanding of that way forward. It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that the world around us is merely a brief snapshot in time, a framed picture of a ship about to plunge over a waterfall; a ship that appears, for all the world, to be motionless and serene. We are facing immense struggles in the future, however, which are already hitting home elsewhere in the world.

Food supply shocks in the Global South have been increasing in number along with the erratic weather, in patterns that will increase and eventually reach the privileged few living in the West. Michael Klare took care to note this in his April 2013 column for Al Jazeera: “The earth is already shifting under you. Whether you know it or not, you are on a new planet, a resource-shock world of a sort humanity has never before experienced.”

Dystopian trends are occurring not just in the realm of climate. Matt Taibbi’s “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” points out that as crime rates in the USA have been falling, poverty rates have risen and our prison population underwent an explosive doubling, from 1 up to 2 million people, in the two decades between 1991 to 2012. Hidden behind bars are the victims of a rising order that makes profit from the subjugation of the poor and people of color.

As all of this is happening, the U.S. is becoming steadily more and more influenced by the interests of the powerful few, with decision after decision from the Supreme Court allowing money an even larger role in elections.

I believe that we’re fast approaching a moment of critical mass when these kinds of problems will no longer be able to hide behind the walls of privilege built in a divided society. Even within the next 30 years, ecological disaster will percolate the consciousness of the U.S. public in a radical new way.

If we capitalize on its arrival and emphasize that it is a wake-up call to the nature of our wider social breakdown, we may yet be able to use the crisis as an opportunity to pull ourselves together and set our society in a better direction. This is the hope of the myriad social movements that have begun to sprout across the U.S. in the wake of Occupy, from large ones like 99Rise to smaller ones like the Maypop Collective in Philadelphia. Encapsulated in each new movement is the dream of a changed society where every person and community will have the freedom of building the life they want for themselves and their society. I believe that these movements hold real promise for the future of our world.

I had mentioned that one thing I need to do is make my columns more specific, and I ended up writing another generally focused column. But I think this one hit the nail pretty well on one of the evolving focuses of my writing: namely, that I want to raise consciousness around the immense crisis our world is facing, and our potential to meet it with preparedness and imagination. This isn’t easy, not least because the important topics here are many and broad. The answers are out there, however, and in each of us. I’m excited to keep exploring them.


Leland Wright

Tags:  Hitler holocaust human nature New Deal reformation Russell Brand U.S. Vietnam War world war II

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1 Comment

May 01, 2014

There are two assumptions at the root of this week’s column: a) that either a major disaster will occur, or society will reach a boiling point, at which point, society will fundamentally change. b) these radical changes will be for the betterment of everyone. On both accounts, I acknowledge the possiblity, but remain skeptical.

The case for casting doubt on (b) is fairly straight-forward. It’s possible that a golden age of democracy replaces the old regime. It’s also possible that the new government is a theocracy, or there is a military take over, or both. The outcome of a hypothetical revolution is unknowable.
Regarding (a), what’s the evidence that such a mechanism exists? In other words, what are some examples of capitalist republic (albeit stratified and partially disenfranchised) being toppled by popular uprisings, which may or may not have been triggered by disasters?

There are plenty of examples to the contrary. For example, the US has suffered several severe storms and natural disasters, which have been attributed to climate change. And yet, the US government chose not to implement any significant climate change initiatives following said disasters.

For another example, the US has suffered many, many tragedies in recent years caused by gun violence. And yet, the US government chose not to implement and significant gun reform legislation following these tragedies.

This column posits that inequality will reach a critical mass, and then the system will fall. Such analysis rings hollow. What about all the people who have already reached critical mass? There are millions of people in the US who are homeless, or unemployed, or work but still live in poverty, or have medical debt, or who are incarcerated, or are disenfranchised for any of many other reasons. Every day, new people join the millions of Americans who are left behind.

If these millions of people (and growing), who have already reached critical mass could rise up, and strike down the system that oppresses them, don’t you think they would have?

What society has done instead, and what I believe will continue to happen, is lowering standards. Quality of life degrades, and everyone but the very top, learns to live with less.

Suppose that in the future, climate change causes a disaster that wipes out a substantial portion of our food and water supply. This won’t be “the wake-up call.” Everyone who doesn’t starve will carry on, and just tell themselves it could never happen to them.

Closing thoughts: I didn’t mean to imply that a revolution certainly won’t happen, or that such a revolution certainly won’t turn out well. I’m merely trying to illustrate that there is no certainty. It’s possible that no conditions exist under which a revolution would take place, or it’s possible that there are. A hypothetical revolution has potential to either improve, diminish, or ignore quality of life for the average person.

Further reading: http://www.theguardian[dot]com/commentisfree/2014/mar/06/not-even-climate-change-will-kill-off-capitalism

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