I think it's almost certainly wrong that we're not overwhelmed by the volume of tragedy in the world -- there'd have to be something genuinely wrong with you to be able to absorb the current moment in some coherent way. So what many of us do is pick and choose. But once an issue is selected, there's no real step two. Marching doesn't work. Exhortations to write a letter or shoot an e-mail seem increasingly hoary, particularly as the process is taken over by organized pressure groups able to flood legislators with millions of e-mails. Volunteers are generally misused, and even when a campaign tries to construct a movement out of them, it can backfire, discrediting the whole enterprise (see Dean, Howard, and those $%*^*# orange beanies). The utter inadequacy of contemporary methods of protest and social action has been well established -- it's even been recast as narcisstic. As Martin writes:
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At the end of the day, there's really one good option: Donating money. Possibly even raising it. And so political activism becomes indistinguishable from consumerism, and relies on funding other people's ability to make a difference. Some groups, like Moveon, have done brilliant work at involving their small-time funders in the process, closing some of that gap. But the average campaign or cause is not nearly so innovative. And so most who want to be involved, who want to make a difference, are left writing a check, and never, themselves, feeling impactful.
First of all, the notion that this is some sort of uniquely horrible moment in world history is absurd. I grew up with the very real fear that one day, without much warning, I would simply vanish in a radioactive cloud. The fear of nuclear annihilation was the ever-present undercurrent to the lives of children living in major urban areas, or near military installations, in a way that you simply cannot comprehend unless you've lived it. Compared to the threat of global thermonuclear war, any of the world's current problems, including climate change, are trivial.
With the exception of climate change--and even then, remember, it was already happening twenty years ago; we just didn't see it--pretty much everything one can think of is better than ever. Wars are fewer, and kill fewer people. Everyone's richer. Racism and xenophobia are bad, but not as bad as they used to be. Women have more freedom and opportunity than at any other moment in world history. Health care is better. Our teeth are cleaner, straighter, and less cavity-filled. We know more, do more, and enjoy more than human beings ever have before. I mean, things may look pretty grim compared to the three years at the end of the last millenium, but that's life: you have good years, then you have less good years, then you have better years again.
But of course, people now in their early twenties don't really remember anything before the late Clinton administration; no wonder everything seems like it's going to hell in a handbasket. Their baseline is an unsustainable economic bubble in an unprecedented peacetime lull following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Not only did things used to be worse; very few people managed to do anything about it. Think of the communists languishing for decades, their only substantial achievement stealing nuclear secrets for Stalin. Or the student movement of the 1960's which contributed to the end of the war, but lost on everything else they wanted, and moreover only fought against the war because half of them thought Ho Chi Minh was the good guy. Or the decades it took for the NAACP et. al. to get America to the point where we could even have a civil rights movement. The narrative where you pour out of the classroom, tell everyone how wrong they are, and sit back and wait for magic social change is a fantasy cooked up by the Baby Boomers. Who, by the way, destroyed the effectiveness of protest by creating a protest culture which emphasized alienation from, rather than solidarity with, the larger culture.
Update Brian says his argument is not that the world is worse, but that the avenues of action are fewer. Fair enough, but I don't think that's really true. I'll re-emphasize two points above. First, most grassroots action never achieves anything, because most grassroots action is at odds with what the majority wants. You can wave your polls about the environment until you're blue in the face, but I maintain that the public gets a lot angrier about rising gas prices than about climate change, which tells me where their actual priorities lie. People look at the civil rights movement and think "Yeah! That's the way to do it!" but it was preceeded by decades of slow, painful work preparing for it. Likewise, it took decades to get women the vote. Most major political change occurs at a glacial pace.
In passing, I wonder if the left isn't having a hard time getting it together precisely because sixties nostalgia is making it hard to, as conservatives did in the sixties, develop a thirty-year plan.
The other thing I would emphasize is that protesting minorities generally succeed when their letters, marches, etc. emphasize their role as part of a larger culture. This is why the breast cancer lobby is overwhelmingly more successful than, say, the antiwar movement.
But on a lot of issues, the grassroots culture really emphasizes alienation rather than connection. Antiwar protests might not have stopped the war no matter what, but it's a safe bet they'd have garnered more sympathy and respect for their views had more of the protesters shown up dressed for the Elks Lodge Annual Dinner Dance rather than Sunday afternoon in the Village. Undoubtedly, in an ideal world conformity to restrictive social norms would not be a prerequisite for activist success, but you're stuck with the primate tribe you got born into, where it largely is. The boomers got away with it because they were the largest generation in American history, and had recently been given the vote. No one else will get to repeat that feat.