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Criticism and Critics March 4, 2009

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This Monday, we did a presentation in the college library on youth homelessness, showing a ½ hour long documentary on homeless youth in Minnesota. Afterwards, we had a discussion…and honestly got a little surprise.
One of the (very few) people who attended the presentation stated that she wasn’t convinced by our presentation that she should support the runaway and homeless youth act. This was, quite honestly, a pretty major surprise for the 3 of us-of all the reactions we were expecting to get, “this isn’t worth my time” honestly wasn’t one of those.
What are we to think of naysayers and critics? Well, honestly, I think movements need them very badly. Movements without internal criticism, or who do not listen to external criticism, will fail. Because they will not be able to refine their counterarguments, the movement will end up looking foolish in any public debate. Possibly, they will lose touch with their audience and sympathizers, as they will not be able to change their message, goals, or methods when it becomes necessary because they lack the ability to respond to constructive criticism. Without critics and naysayers, movements would be in a very sorry state-and impartial observers who see the movement ignoring the concerns of those who question its agenda will probably conclude that the movement is totalitarian. Movements need their criticism.
Of course, this does lead to the question of which arguments to take seriously, and which to not take seriously. Many criticisms of the environmental movement come from think-tanks that are obviously working on behalf of corporations who stand to lose a lot of profit if the environmental movements have their way. It’s obvious that the think-tanks are following an agenda that could be quite rightly described as nefarious. But what if they make some valid criticism? Simply dismissing them out of hand for having a “corporate agenda” may make the movement miss some vital and necessary change their argument will have to undergo for them to succeed.
The only answer that I can really give is that there is no one easy answer-no movement can waste energy answering every question or criticism leveled against them, particularly criticism from quarters that will never side with the movement, but ignoring all criticism can be just as problematic for the movement in the long run. Many left-wing movements need to shed the illusion that every critic they have is nothing but the tool of a vast right-wing conspiracy, and must learn to defend their agenda. Martin Luther King Jr., in response to public letters from Southern clergy criticizing his movement, took their criticism seriously and responded quickly and clearly to their points in his famous letter from the Birmingham jail. He emerged from jail and criticism with his movement strengthened, his actions against the status quo justified, and his opponents humiliated by his icily polite but extremely powerful reply.



Democracy: It’s really weird if you think about it February 21, 2009

Posted by obnoxioususername in Uncategorized.
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I have a new job for the project: get the names and contacts of Minnesota State representatives and senators, for the purpose of bothering them until they agree to fund the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which will provide funds for shelters (there are so many homeless youth on the streets that shelters cannot provide them all with shelter-in December 2007, 156 young people were turned away from shelters). This won’t be an easy fight-Pawlenty is a “fiscally responsible” republican who consistently refuses to raise taxes, no matter what. Unfortunately, given that Minnesota currently has a deficit, and the economic problems, it’s unlikely that Pawlenty will sign it-but if we bug enough senators and representatives, we may yet get the Act funded.

However, there’s something about this process that’s far more interesting than Minnesota state politics-it’s the fact that, as part of a school project, we are going to bug, harass, annoy, and flood political leaders with phone calls and letters, asking them to vote our way, based not on our influence or kinship with the senators, but on the fact that we are voters in their constituencies and they owe it to us to represent us. This is completely amazing.

I suppose that people who’ve lived all their lives in the US may fail to appreciate what a bizarre and rare situation a working democracy like this is. But I assure you, it is. When I “signed” an e-mail created by STAND to President Bush requesting him to do something about Darfur, I got a form e-mail in return-I was ignored, in other words. But when my family first moved to Kenya, about 10 years, and I had done something similar to President Moi (the president of Kenya at the time), my family may have been harassed by the police-and that would be getting off lightly, due to our status as foreigners. We came to Kenya during the twilight years of Moi’s rule, but only a short time earlier, during the early 1990’s, people had been arrested and tortured for speaking out against the regime-some people had even been killed. People who annoyed powerful people were in danger in those days in Kenya.

But in the US, we can do this-we can annoy the powerful, and get away with it. There are laws protecting us. The powerful aren’t even particularly annoyed or threatened by us asking a lot of questions. It’s routine. And although the members of the Federal government hold the most power on earth, they give it up easily every election cycle or two. This is rare-America is in a small minority of countries in this regard.

A democratic government makes activism a lot easier and more pleasant, really. Groups looking for political change can work through elected representatives who given the right incentives (i.e. votes) will gladly work to pass the laws the activists want passed. Of course, there are limits-working with politicians means that you have to obey political rules, which some activists find constraining. And getting laws changed isn’t the same as changing societal attitudes, as we’ve seen in California with Proposition 8. Despite the shortcomings it does have, however, democracy opens up many avenues for political activists, and gives many social movements a great opportunity to succeed.