Inciting Democracy: A Practical Proposal for Creating a Good Society
Questions and Concerns
D: Is This the Right Strategy for Change?
- What Do You Mean by “Fundamental Progressive Social Change”?
- Why Are Progressive Activists Needed?
- Are Activists the Only Ones Who Create a Good Society?
- Why Are So Many Activists Required?
- Does It Make Sense to Act without Greater Understanding?
- Why an Education Program?
- Is It Possible to Bring about Fundamental Change without a Fight?
- Are these the Correct Methods?
- What Kind of Emotional Counseling Do You Advocate?
- What about Activists in Rural Areas?
- Won’t Excluded Activists be Resentful?
- Why Focus on One Nation?
- Why Focus Only on the United States?
- Would the Vernal Project Go International?
- Is It Really Possible to Attract So Many Activists to Join the Vernal Project?
- What Secular Sentiment Would Inspire So Many Activists to Join?
1. What Do You Mean by “Fundamental Progressive Social Change”?
What do you mean by the term “fundamental progressive social change”?
By “fundamental,” I mean getting to the root of problems and completely changing whatever needs to be changed to create a good society. “Progressive social change” means any activity that moves positively toward a good society. Figure 4.2 [download pdf file] lists several behaviors and attitudes I consider progressive.
It is difficult to write about fundamental progressive social change because all the conventional terminology is either vacuous and unclear or suggestive of practices I do not endorse. I have chosen words that I think best convey what I mean and do not carry too much extraneous baggage. I have also tried to use simple, straightforward language whenever possible. Still, many people inevitably misunderstand or misinterpret these terms.
We are getting into semantics again. If we use words, there is a very grave danger they will be misinterpreted. — Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman testifying in his own defense at the Watergate hearings
2. Why Are Progressive Activists Needed?
Why do we need activists to create a good society? Why isn’t the current system of private business and representational government with two parties adequate to create a good society? Shouldn’t we leave the job of helping the unfortunate to churches and social service agencies?
Our current society is based on narrow self-interest and fierce competition. It sets up an endless succession of win-lose contests. Our educational system encourages individu-alism and callous rivalry. Business is based on furious, cold-hearted competition. Any business that does not play bru-tally enough risks losing to others that do. Moreover, the whole economic system is structured so there will always be unemployment and unmet consumer needs (scarcity).
The American system of ours, call it Americanism, call it Capitalism, call it what you like, gives each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it. — Al Capone, American gangster
As a natural consequence of this competitive and savage environment, many people — usually those beset by accident, illness, disability, physical or emotional battering, or just bad luck — end up losing one or more of these contests. Those who lose many rounds of this pernicious game usually fall so far behind that they (and their descendants) continue to lose in every future round. Even those who win can never rest since there is always the danger that someone stronger, prettier, smarter, shrewder, healthier, luckier, or more brutal will surpass them.
Our society also encourages winners to blame those who have been defeated — self-righteously calling them stupid or lazy. Moreover, our society sanctions the use of bullying to force losers to accept their miserable fate.
Such harsh institutions and such a callous culture cannot possibly produce a good society of toleration, compassion, fairness, equity, balance, democracy, and joy. At best, good-hearted individuals and church groups can alleviate some of the worst suffering created by this system, but they cannot end the misery if they only focus on helping individual victims.
Government could provide more support for those who have lost these battles and it could work toward establishing fairer competition. It could even change societal institutions to downplay competition and support compassionate alternatives. However, since the winners control government, government generally works to perpetuate competition and usually takes the winners’ side.
The problem is structural and institutional. It involves the essence of our economic, political, and social systems. It can only be solved by totally transforming all aspects of our society — replacing the underlying ideology of greed and competition with one of compassion and mutual support, and replacing inhumane institutions with compassionate alternatives. The current structures are inadequate to accomplish this task.
3. Are Activists the Only Ones Who Create a Good Society?
Is it only “activists” who will create a good society? What about schoolteachers, ministers, social workers, planners, architects, nurses, doctors, hairdressers, and grocery store clerks? Is it only when we explicitly call ourselves “activists” and work outside existing institutions that we contribute to a good society?
Activists are people who actively work to create a good society. Hence, by definition, they are the ones who will create a good society. I consider anyone of goodwill who works toward a good society to be an “activist” whether they consider themselves one or not.
In this book, I focus particularly on those who work steadfastly for fundamental, comprehensive progressive change at least a few hours each week (labeled in this book as steadfast activists and progressive advocates) because they take a leading role — they are more involved and more progressive than other activists. I hope we can greatly increase their skills and increase their numbers to more than a million. Nevertheless, in a society of several hundred million adults, these million activists cannot transform society unless they are working in conjunction with many more less-involved activists who each do their own small part. Still, if all people just live their everyday lives and only promote a good society through their normal work and relationships, then I do not believe we will have the strength to overcome the obstacles and create a good society.
4. Why Are So Many Activists Required?
Is it really necessary to educate and organize so many activists?
There are people with wealth and in positions of authority who currently have a vast array of powerful means to coerce or threaten anyone who tries to change society. Most of the gigantic institutions that dominate our society also have built-in mechanisms for perpetuating themselves and for preventing significant change. Our culture, including its destructive aspects, also perpetuates itself. Moreover, each of us has a multitude of internalized hurts and fears that stifle us and limit our ability even to see what is happening.
Effectively challenging the power elite, the institutions they control, and everyone’s cultural and emotional conditioning requires an extremely strong counterforce. To keep this counterforce from getting out of hand and itself becoming oppressive, it must be widely dispersed and of a relatively benign nature.
For these reasons, I believe we need a large and broad movement of activists supported by the vast majority of the adult population. Since most people do not have the skills, knowledge, or desire to participate in this movement, there must be a smaller number of activists who deliberately devote time and energy to create this movement and generate interest in it. These activists must carry out a large-scale, sustained campaign to inform and inspire millions of people to understanding and action. Likely, they will not have the money, prestige, or authority to carry out this campaign using conventional means (national advertising, massive news coverage, televised publicity stunts, celebrity endorsements, slick teacher packets, research grants to university professors, grants to social service agencies, and so on). Instead, they must rely on their own personal integrity, their large numbers, and their resolute efforts to persuade other people, one by one.
To reach a majority of the people in a country the size of the United States using direct face-to-face methods requires a very large number of activists — I assume one for every 200 adults or so. This means there must be around a million progressive activists in the United States, each working for change at least a few hours every week.
5. Does It Make Sense to Act without Greater Understanding?
There are many ways to think about our world and society. People have proposed many ways of solving our problems. By choosing a particular orientation and a particular solution, aren’t you excluding other possibilities? How do you know this is the right strategy? Does it make sense to choose one strategy and act on it without greater understanding?
The world is certainly multifaceted and complex. No perspective can ever be completely correct. Being open to multiple perspectives is essential if we are to avoid falling into an ideological rut. There is always a danger of believing one perspective too single-mindedly and consequently making terrible errors.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, there is always the danger of being so open to multiple perspectives that we can never make a decision or act. Paralysis of analysis can relegate us to the sidelines. Then, by doing little or nothing, we unwittingly support the status quo.
I believe we have enough understanding to act. Certainly, we will make mistakes, but if we do our best to stay true to our ideals, our worst mistakes will be minor compared to the horrors of current oppression, destruction, and war.
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. — Edmund Burke
Like a surgeon, we must be careful not to harm the patient by intruding needlessly. Nevertheless, if the patient is severely ill, then we must operate, even if surgery is risky. We must be as careful as possible, but we must proceed.
6. Why an Education Program?
The Vernal Project would require a large amount of time and effort — most of it devoted to education, not action. Wouldn’t it be better to use these resources to support activists in their efforts to bring about change?
My experience working in a variety of change campaigns has convinced me we need to find a better way to bring about fundamental social change. Too much of our current efforts are devoted to struggling with each other (infighting) and pursuing ineffective strategies. This wastes much of our effort and drives away many people who might support us. It saps the strength and energy we need to succeed.
I believe the time and effort required by the Vernal Education Project is worth the cost. By greatly increasing the knowledge, skill, and endurance of activists, I think it would generate far more useful effort, over the long run, than it would consume.
Today the world is the victim of propaganda because people are not intellectually competent. More than anything, the United States needs effective citizens competent to do their own thinking. — William Mather Lewis
7. Is It Possible to Bring about Fundamental Change without a Fight?
Most strategies for progressive change have called for armed struggle. But the Vernal Project focuses mostly on supporting, educating, and inspiring people, not on struggle. Is it possible to bring about fundamental change without a fight?
As I envision it, the Vernal Education Project would involve a great deal of struggle with those who stand in the way of positive change (the power structure). It would also involve a great deal of struggle to overcome destructive cultural norms and dysfunctional emotional conditioning. I see a fierce fight, sometimes dangerous and intense, spanning eighty or more years and extending into every realm of society. Some people will probably die and many more will be injured physically, mentally, and spiritually. I do not see any way around this.
However, if this battle is to lead to a good society, it must proceed in certain ways. Democracy, wisdom, and compassion typically fare poorly in savage wars. Civilians are massacred and truth vanquished. Repression, bigotry, and hatred typically do much better — often thriving — in such an environment, and they end up winning out in the end.
Therefore, we must find a way to exert massive power without undercutting our own efforts and ultimately undermining our victory. We must fight in a way that is effective, but does not destroy the things we are fighting for: truth, freedom, fairness, compassion, sustainability, tolerance, balance, and joy. To do this, activists must have the knowledge and skill to employ suitable methods in useful ways at appropriate times. The Vernal Education Program would offer this essential information to activists.
Even if we are very skilled, it seems impossible for us to bring about massive change against a deeply entrenched opposition without them causing devastating destruction. Fortunately, there are many nonviolent techniques that actually undermine our opponents in a way that restrains their response. We may also be able to outflank our opponents by educating large numbers of people, inspiring them to their best behavior, and supporting them as they shift their support from conventional institutions to alternative institutions. When large numbers of people withdraw their support from our opponents, the strength of our opponents diminishes, reducing their ability to fight back, and therefore rendering them less dangerous.
8. Are these the Correct Methods?
The Vernal Project relies heavily on education, nonviolent struggle, emotional therapy, and consensus decision-making. These tactics have their limitations, and they have often been used poorly and abused. Are you sure these are the best methods?
Education, nonviolent struggle, emotional therapy, and consensus decision-making are certainly not perfect methods of change. Still, they are usually benign and generally better than most other methods. If practiced well, they prevent activists from making too many grievous mistakes. Each of these processes encourages understanding, dissent, questioning, and challenge. They build people up so that they can speak their minds clearly and forcefully against oppression. They also promote honest interaction and compassionate embrace of other people.
There are two ways for me to win an argument: I can convince my opponents that I am right. Or they can convince me they are right; then when I adopt their perspective, I also become right.
Even when these methods fall short of ideals, I think they have much more potential than hierarchical authority processes or processes based solely on tradition. Such processes have aspects that squelch dissent and questioning, so they are more likely to lead to groupthink and self-righteous oppression of others.
There are still other processes — bargaining, mediation, ministering, prayer, meditation, and so on — that have potential for moving toward a good society, and I do not oppose them when they do. However, I am more wary of these processes since they do not necessarily steer people toward boldness, honesty, openness, questioning, dissent, and compassion.
9. What Kind of Emotional Counseling Do You Advocate?
To improve their emotional health, do you recommend that people should talk about their childhoods and how bad they feel? If people are happier when they talk about making music, why not help them set up their lives so they make more music instead?
I believe people can overcome their emotional obstacles in many ways. When I am depressed, confused, or emotionally stuck, I typically do the following things:
- Listen to music
- Sing, whistle, or play music
- Go for a hike or a bicycle ride
- Exercise or stretch
- Read a good book
- Go to a movie
- Go for a drive in the countryside
- Get a massage
- Talk to my friends
- Help someone out
- Ask someone to help me out
- Write in my journal
- Write a political treatise
- Have an intense political discussion with someone
- Work on an exciting project
- Make love with my partner
- Go to a therapist who can help me see a perspective I do not already have
- Think positive thoughts about better ways to act and then try to act that way
- Feel sorry for myself, then get angry and decide to fight back
- Cry or laugh intensely
- Watch TV
- Go to a party and dance
- Drink alcohol or take mind-altering drugs
- Play card games, board games, or video games
- Engage in competitive sports like basketball, golf, or bowling
- Watch other people play sports (on television or directly)
- Go to a store and shop
- Work in a garden
- Drive fast, skydive, river raft, etc. (engage in a mind-absorbing activity)
- Attend church
- Take anti-depressant drugs
- Yell at someone, start a fight, attack someone
As far as I can tell, all of these activities help people deal with their emotional upsets and limitations to some extent. I am not opposed to any of them practiced in moderation (except the last one). Some of them are probably more efficient in helping get someone back on an even keel than others, and some of them can be destructive at times. Still, it differs for every person, so it is difficult to prescribe a single method.
When I counsel people, I try to encourage them to do what seems to work best for them. Sometimes I encourage them to be bolder. Sometimes I encourage them to be mellower. Sometimes I hold them and stroke their hair softly. Sometimes I challenge them. Usually, I try to see how they are hurt and where their limitations are, and then encourage them to overcome those limitations.
I do not care which kind of therapy or activity people use to overcome their emotional problems as long as the method they choose enables them to act intelligently and compassionately and it does not hurt anyone else.
10. What about Activists in Rural Areas?
As described here, the fifty Vernal centers would be located in metropolitan areas and would generally only admit students who lived within a 75-mile radius of a center. What provision is there for activists who live in rural areas or in metropolitan areas other than these fifty?
In developing the idea of the Vernal Education Project, I felt it essential that activists learn in their own home environment. I also felt that to minimize resource costs, the Project could not have more than fifty centers. By putting centers in the largest metropolitan centers (and having them reach out to a few metropolitan areas that are not within 75 miles of a center), I found that they could accommodate about two-thirds of the U.S. population. I think this is about as good as can be hoped. Still, in this arrangement, one-third of the population would not have direct access to a Vernal center.
However, this does not mean that one-third of the country would have no progressive activists. I see the Vernal Project as a supplement to progressive change movements, not a replacement for them. There are now progressive activists in almost every city, town, and rural area in the United States, and I assume this would continue throughout the time of the Vernal Education Project. As I envision it, the Vernal Project would simply increase the number of skilled and experienced activists in these fifty metropolitan areas.
Moreover, just as now occurs, I expect that the efforts of Vernal activists would spill over into other areas. The news media would report positive, powerful change activities, and activists across the country would learn of these actions and duplicate them in their own communities. Natural migration would also lead many Vernal activists — and the steadfast activists and progressive advocates they support — to move to regions where there were no Vernal centers. They would bring their knowledge and expertise to their new communities.
Furthermore, I assume Vernal activists would not focus exclusively on their own communities. Since they would be interested in creating a good society, they would want progressive change to occur in all parts of the United States (and the world). I expect they would publish their strategy and skill papers on the Internet and distribute them to anyone who wanted them. Furthermore, I expect many of them would deliberately work to reach out to activists in the outlying areas around their centers. They might periodically travel to these areas and facilitate skill-training workshops for the activists there. They might also provide telephone or email consulting to activists in these outlying communities.
11. Won’t Excluded Activists be Resentful?
Won’t those activists who do not live near a Vernal center be resentful? Won’t some of them move to a city with a Vernal center so they can attend a Vernal Program?
Some activists may be discontent and move, but I hope they are not and do not. Activists are needed everywhere to bring about the transformation of society. If an activist moved close to a Vernal center and lived there for a year while attending a Vernal Program, her focus of attention and her connections would likely shift. There is a good chance she would not move back after graduating. Therefore, the community she moved away from would no longer benefit from her activist energy.
We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free, and to make room upon the earth for honest men to live in. — Thomas Paine
To prevent this, I would expect that Vernal centers would generally be reluctant to accept applicants from outside their focus area. Instead, they would encourage Vernal graduates to facilitate educational workshops for activists in outlying areas.
I also hope that activists would understand why the Vernal Education Project was limited to fifty centers. I hope they would see that their change work in their own communities was more important than attending a Vernal Education Program.
12. Why Focus on One Nation?
Why do you focus on the nation-state of the United States? Why not the whole world or smaller areas like a single state or bioregion?
By focusing on the United States, I do not mean to imply that I accept the inviolability of the system of nation-states. If we were able to create a good society, political boundaries would likely decrease in importance. Nevertheless, they are currently very important. Crucial decisions regarding the military, tax policy, civil rights, and regulation of corporations are made on the federal level. These decisions often supersede local, state, and international decisions. People frequently move from place to place within the United States, but usually do not move outside its borders. So culturally, we are more alike than different.
Still, the world is changing. Transnational entities like multinational corporations, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and NATO are becoming more important. Immigration, especially in California, Texas, and Florida, is significant. Over time, it will be increasingly important to address world issues.
However, for this project, it seemed prudent to choose an entity large enough to make a difference, but not so large that it was overwhelming. That is why I chose the United States as the focus of the Vernal Education Project.
13. Why Focus Only on the United States?
Why do you focus only on the United States? We live in a highly interdependent world. Multinational corporations go wherever labor is cheapest and wherever it is easiest to pollute and dispose of toxic wastes. The financial influence of countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela greatly affects the economic and political systems in the United States. Drugs from countries like Colombia and Cambodia also greatly affect us. We should be working with The Greens in Europe and working in solidarity with struggling movements for change in Central America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere.
I completely agree with these sentiments. It is essential for contemporary change movements to be aware of international issues and to work with other progressives around the world. I assume that Vernal-supported change movements would devote significant amounts of their energy toward changing conditions worldwide, just as many progressive movements do today.
As I stated in the Preface, I have focused on the United States not because I am xenophobic or parochial, but for these three reasons:
(1) This is my country, and I feel responsible for the way it works. It seems proper for me to work to clean up my home country before addressing the ills in other countries.
(2) I have lived here all my life. I understand this country much better than any other place. Immersed in this culture, I have some sense of how to change the United States. Any strategy or program I might develop for another country would likely have serious flaws.
(3) Fundamentally changing the United States would probably have more impact on the world than changing any other single country. The United States dominates the world militarily, economically, and culturally. Elite interests in the United States can and do impose their policies on most other countries. If the U.S. elite stopped dominating other countries, they could implement more programs that address the needs of their citizens instead of supporting “U.S. interests.”
Also, please note that the Vernal Project is only an education and support project. The social change movements that Vernal graduates supported would probably focus on a wide variety of issues including U.S. foreign policy and economic trade with other countries. Many Vernal graduates would probably decide to travel oversees and work with groups like Doctors without Borders or Peace Brigades International at some point in their change careers.
14. Would the Vernal Project Go International?
If the Vernal Project were successful in the United States, would it spread to other countries?
As I envision it, the Vernal Project is limited to fifty Vernal centers in the United States. However, once it grew to noticeable size in Phase 2, the concept of the Project would likely spread around the world. If the Project were effective, I am sure that activists in other countries would replicate it in their own countries, adapting it as appropriate to fit their own cultures.
15. Is It Really Possible to Attract So Many Activists to Join the Vernal Project?
When the Vernal Project reaches full size, you expect 6,000 activists to attend the program every year. Is it reasonable to assume so many activists would be willing and able to attend?
It will not be a trivial task to attract 6,000 students every year, especially in the years before Vernal graduates have had much impact on society. This is a large number compared to current change efforts. However, this figure is comparable to the number of people entering the Peace Corps each year (about 4,000). If the Vernal Project is doing well, I expect staffmembers should be able to generate enough interest and excitement in the Project to attract that many applicants.
If you think you can do a thing, or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right. — Henry Ford
I believe there are many people who really want to create a good society — they just do not believe it is possible, and their cynicism keeps them away. If the Vernal Project were proceeding as described in this book, these doubters would see thousands of other activists working for change. This would dispel their concerns and fears. Energized and hopeful, they would be ready and eager to attend a Vernal program. Recruiting them would only require locating them, informing them of the program, encouraging them to apply for admission, and helping them find enough money to cover their tuition and living expenses.
16. What Secular Sentiment Would Inspire So Many Activists to Join?
Working for progressive change is hard work and can be very dangerous. It requires a great deal of effort and usually provides little in return. Capitalism attracts adherents by appealing to self-interest. Conventional politics often attracts those who desire power and fame. Many religions attract large numbers by threatening damnation and offering salvation. What positive secular philosophy or sentiment can attract so many activists?
As I see it, people would be attracted to the Vernal Education Project for several reasons:
(1) Some people, appalled by our current destructive and dysfunctional society, feel compelled to do something to change it. They would see the Vernal Project as a powerful, practical way to end oppression, alienation, prejudice, corruption, deceit, violence, war, strife, and destruction of the environment. They would join the Project in response to their feelings of anger, guilt, fear, or hopelessness.
(2) Some people are inspired by the noble progressive ideals of honesty, integrity, respect, compassion, generosity, democracy, equity, fairness, tolerance, responsibility, cooperation, community, and so on. They would see the Vernal Project as a moral and effective way to implement these ideals.
(3) Some people are inspired by their own selflessness and altruism to do the right thing and work for positive change. They would see the Vernal Project as a suitable means.
(4) Some people work for change with the hope that they can create a better world for their children and grandchildren. They too would see the Vernal Project as a suitable way to accomplish this goal.
(5) Some people would be attracted to the supportive and life-affirming atmosphere of the nascent communities of activists where progressive ideals were already partially implemented. They would join the Project to be treated well, to feel supported, and to be able to act according to progressive ideals without being exploited or ridiculed.
Each of these is a powerful motivator that I believe could attract thousands of people of goodwill and sustain them for many years as they worked for progressive change.