Friday, February 7, 2014

idealism ... activism

Last night I got into rewatching "Reds," a 1981 movie about the life and times John Reed, author of "Ten Days That Shook the World," a much-acclaimed and moderately-good first-person account of the  the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Though a bit fluffy, the movie is shot through with portrayals of the socialists, communists, artists and activists of the era. It was a time of considerable idealism in artsy Greenwich Village on Manhattan's lower west side and around the world. It was a time when people got the shit kicked out of them by police sent to quell protests over working conditions, women's rights, voting and a number of other issues. Watching the movie made me feel I were watching an earlier version of a today that is likewise tinted by waxing oppressions, though the expressions are often less bald and, as yet, patently brutal.

The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin would later complain that he had not been given enough prominence in Reed's book. Reed focused more sharply on the thought-shapers and idealists of the Revolution -- Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.

And perhaps Stalin was right. Lenin and Trotsky helped light the idealist fuse that overthrew an imperial Russia ruled by tsars, but Stalin was a good example of the harsh dictatorship that followed in the idealist wake. Had Reed lived (he died in 1920 and was buried in the Kremlin wall), his idealism might have been tempered by the ruthless realities that followed from a bold and shining dream. On the other hand, maybe it wouldn't: Like George Orwell in "Homage to Catalonia," Reed did not pretend to be "objective" ... he was hip-deep in ideas and ideals.

Revolution! Change! Idealism! "Reds" is shot through with boisterous ferment, even if the actors and actresses are almost all nicely dressed and intelligent and hence, somehow, fluffy. Idealism addresses real issues, but those real issues have blood coursing through their veins and can be higglety-pigglety in their workaday realities.

"Reds" is not especially gritty, though it splices in interviews with individuals who could actually remember the people being portrayed in the Hollywood version of events. It is as if the movie hoped, through historical testimony, to lend credibility and substance to the somewhat fluffy actors.

And in one such bit of historical testimony, a fellow observes:
A guy who's always interested in the condition of the world and changing it either has no problems of his own or refuses to face them.
I can imagine activists everywhere cringing at being nailed so neatly to the wall. No one has "no problems" so what is it s/he might be refusing to face? Is s/he chickening out and what would be the upshot if s/he didn't chicken out? And further, does such a redirecting of energy and intent serve a worthwhile purpose ... more worthwhile, perhaps, than getting to the well-tailored bottom of his/her own problems?

What at first seems a painful thrust strikes me as simply opening a discussion. Sometimes activism can serve as a camouflaging cover-up. Sometimes the cover-up simply pales by comparison with the positive results that can and sometimes do evolve. And sometimes, perhaps, there is no cover-up at all... though I admit to being skeptical about that, given the interconnectedness of events and thoughts.

I can't help but think of the activists and do-gooders who have shown up here to practice zazen or seated meditation. Many have been wrung out, confused, bereft and limp as a wet wash cloth. Somehow all of their very-good efforts have not brought them an envisioned peace of mind. They need a new perspective and as yet have no idea what that perspective might be. Some imagine they need to throw in the activist towel -- fuck activism! -- and take up, perhaps, gardening... or any other activity that would not demand so much energy with such mixed results.

I've seen the same wan confusion on the faces of those who have pursued spiritual adventures as well: So much effort, so much time, so much sacrifice for what can feel like a depressing bupkus: I...can'

It is at this point that others may offer chitter-chatter about expectations and how they need to be reworked. OK, it may be true. But I think there is something to be said for just allowing the confusion and sense of loss have its day. It may be confusing and the way forward may be unclear and the disappointment may be vast, but ... well, a little quiet helps to still the noise.

Or maybe not ... it's just a discussion.


  1. Nice piece.

    For some reason self-proclaimed activists often don't get the fact that they need support. Or if they do they can't find a compatible support network.

    Do a search on "support groups for social activists"
    Look for older activists who have been working at thing for at least 25 years listen to what they have to say.

  2. It could be me. But you write like everyone else thinks complex problems will be solved with simple solutions requiring little effort.

    You seem to be seeing others struggling unsuccessfuly. But may be there are others struggling successfully.

    - MG

    Everyone loves a winner, so how come she likes the underdog?
    Oh! You mean nutruing underdogs makes her feel like a a winner.
    You said it not me.

  3. MG -- I am sure others are expending lots of effort on complex problems and that some meet with success. This is just my corner in which to mutter and chew my cud.

  4. Through out human history there has been a ruling class and a working class. Activists for social reform make a difference for a generation or maybe more. But the structure they work to improve ultimately falls and another power structure will arise, along with activists who fight the same fights again. It's a good thing to fight the good fight and ease the suffering of any you can, but an expectation of changing samsara might frustrate you.