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The Orwellian Activist

Once I was an activist. When, more than twenty-five years ago, I started my own business, I was tossed out of the activist crowd for being a “sellout,” for leaving the world of taxpayer funded government jobs and non-profits and making the leap into the private sector. It seemed that the profit motive didn’t fit into any of their “progressive” ideological activist molds.

Over the past twenty-five years it has become increasingly clear to me that to be considered an activist, you have to conform to someone else’s view of what an activist should be.

The current United States Congress considers male clerics to be the appropriate advocates on the subject of contraception.  Los Angeles’ City Council members routinely dismiss the comments of business representatives, but listen intently to neighborhood associations.

Recently, a Neighborhood Council meeting to discuss a mixed-use development gave the local homeowner association three minutes to speak, but the local business organization was relegated to the same time limit as an individual. We have also seen situations where community groups attempt to pre-ordain outcomes. Not only do they not consider input that is emailed by stakeholders but they won’t even consider written comments from sincere stakeholders who are unable to attend their three-hour meetings. 

Of course, favoring those with whom you agree is human nature, but whatever happened to the concept of fairness?  There is no longer even a pretense of equal treatment in the public arena.

Sadly, we’ve arrived at our own version of George Orwell’s 1945 novel, Animal Farm. To paraphrase, “All activists are equal, but some activists are more equal than others”.

Have you experienced this?  Can anything be done about it?

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Reader Comments (4)

We wanted to share this interesting comment from Steve Lantz on Julie's Facebook Page.

Stephen H. Lantz: "Do I remember correctly that CEQA requires the lead agency to offer a public hearing, but not necessarily to hold multiple hearings at outlying sites? What do we have to do to engage the public discourse via the internet rather than by spending hours in line to submit in-person testimony? How can we evolve civic engagement from two-three minute speeches with no feedback to a public conversation with timely and posted responses by the lead agency to issues raised by the stakeholders? Would such a change require legislation? What protections would be necessary to continue to ensure environmental justice and access for those without mobile access to electronic public participation? Wouldn't it be an improvement if folks who provided input in a language other than English could receive their answerin real time in the same language as the testimony and the public could see the translation in real time (I know it's possible, we did it at Metrolink.)"

March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterConsensus Interact

So, what exactly is the definition of an activist? And has that changed over the last 25 years? Are those who have access and wherewithal to participate in a public dialogue really activists, or just individuals with time, internet access, and an axe to grind? Remember when you had to stuff and stamp thousands of envelopes to get your message out? Of course the dialogue has changed--why haven't the structures changed to reflect this?

Can activism come from within government or only from the private sector, as your post seems to imply? While the voice of those who actually invest their own dollars in the community should be considered relevant and valuable, has the social change created by the business community over the last 25 years been the model we should follow going forward?

At a local level, it should be easiest to establish a fair playing field for all voices to be heard and considered. Pre-ordained outcomes, and the perception of them, exist all along the ideological spectrum. Why not recognize and support as activists those elected officials and government employees that are trying to evolve within rigidly defined public processes to include and genuinely engage a wider range of voices? Given the forces that push toward suppression, how can activists on all sides embrace a new model to actually work for change?

Looking forward to keeping up with this cool new blog!

March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElissa G

Really interesting post, Julie--especially the point about how people define activists in different ways (and the implication that this meaning may change over time).

I have no doubt that if Mario Savio was a college student student today, he would not only be occupying Sproul Hall (as he did), but he would also be organizing tens of thousands of others online so all those voices could be mobilized and heard.

I've enjoyed reading commentaries like Julie's and the post-SOPA articles about how the mass protests against the Stop Online Piracy legislation were galvanized (e.g., http://bit.ly/Axm8i7) to better understand the political and social implications going forward.

March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip L.
Good questions, Elissa G. While the word “activist” has been around since the 1920s, years ago people who spoke out on issues were not assigned a word; they were generally considered just folks who cared about whatever was at hand. Years ago, business interests rarely testified publicly. They made their deals in the back rooms. So, the public arena is a good thing, but it must accommodate more than a narrow slice of the public.
I agree that the policy making structures have to change to accommodate the colossal changes in how we communicate. (See my post on Mobile Democracy.)
Government often initiates activism, and the Tea Party’s influence on Congress shows it happens regularly. My view is that activism by government stems from an individual’s strong belief and, whether you are the elected official or the government employee, it takes leadership that is not afraid to promote its views.
Yes, we all need to work together for change, change that will be resisted by those who currently own the public arena.
March 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

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