Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Activists

Responding to Dave Pollard, A Paean to Activists.

There is a parallel between your argument here and that of an individual who, faced with his own mortality, decides there is no point working toward a better life.

Civilization will collapse, sooner or later, either of the illnesses that currently afflict us or of some unknown future disaster. But it does not follow from this that civilization is not worth enhancing, improving, saving.

Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death that "human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism." (quote from Wikipedia).

The denial of death may be a fool's errand, in the long run. But it is also the only thing that gives meaning to hope and happiness, love and adventure. The very act of 'living in the moment' is the only rational response to a death that is, ultimately, irrational.

When we seek to improve ourselves, to enhance our moments of happiness, to stay healthy and build a more secure future, we are doing this not in spite of the ultimate failure of all our endeavours, but rather, because of it. We rage against death, not because such rage will ever be effective, but because to acquiesce is to die immediately.

Like the other activists who work - nay, who devote their lives - to the preservation, enhancement and growth of civilization, I do it because it is the only rational response in the face of the mortal threats it faces very day.

I was born at the dawn of the space age, in the shadow of nuclear holocaust, within short living memory of a horrible world war, in an age of global conflict. The seeds of our self-destruction were intermingled with the seeds of our immortality.

As did most members of my generation, the post-baby boom generation, we saw in this grounds for cynicism and concern. This particularly given the reaction of our immediate predecessors, the narcissist inward-looking self-serving materialism and hedonism of the baby boomers.

But rather than retreat into a generational fetal position, as they did, members of m generation began to organize and to create something new. It is no coincidence that the baby boom generation gave us presidents Clinton and Bush, while the post baby boom generation gives us Obama.

Activism isn't about guarantees of success. It isn't bout knowing that, in the long run, your work will lead to a better future. Activism is about being alive, about there actually *being* a civilization to which we all belong, and about that civilization being worthy of a life, being worthy of a future.

Even were we to think that the current ills afflicting our society are terminal, we continue the struggle. For, of course, a great many of us do not, for we do not see the death of the current state of civilization as death, just change. And even those who feel we cannot survive continue to build a legacy, to build an achievement worthy of literature and song.

It is as though we activists believe that it is not enough merely to live well, it is also important - perhaps most important - to die well. To go out swinging, with our heads held high, believing to the last breath that there is something worth living for, something worth fighting for, that so long as there is a breath in our body the dream lives on and can be carried forward.

When faced with the immanent extinction of humanity, I ask, is there anything of civilization worth saving? Is there anything of civilization worth preserving? Be it an idea or an artifact or a culture or a practice, I say then, dedicate yourself to *that*, and civilization, whether it lives or dies, will be worthy of your efforts.

4 comments:

  1. I did really enjoy this reflection. while from an individual perspective death has a certain finality, I do believe part of us lives on in the values we teach our children. After I am gone, hopefully some of my moral values will live on in my children and their children.
    So striving to better one-self or the civilization around us does, to me, always relate to what we are leaving behind to future generation.
    I do think that as a way of escaping the finality of death, we do strive to leave a memory and the obsession with remembering one's ancestors is probably what sparked the creation of the first human settlements

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  2. You have obviously given this a lot of thought, I admire the way you have articulated your argument and think you are spot on in regard to the post baby boomers, Nuclear devastation and the reminders of a world war are quickly forgoten in the shadow of Global warming and energy crisis.I am interested to see how the editorials treat Obama,

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  3. Thank you Stephen for this post. Although I have swinging moods, I do believe one should always continu to be an activist. Ongoing change is beautiful and idealistic rage feels great.

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  4. I still can't remember what I was looking for when I found this, but I'm glad I read it all the same. A lot of what you say here is, to me, common sense and making sure you don't re-invent the wheel (for the sake of doing it).

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I welcome your comments - I'm really sorry about the moderation, but Google's filters are basically ineffective.