"The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When reporting on the infamous New York School of abstract expressionist painters in 1947, art critic Clement Greenberg pondered, "What can fifty do against one hundred and forty million?" It wasn't so much an entire population stacked against a band of radical painters that Greenberg was contemplating. Rather, it was 140 million Americans essentially ignoring a movement that would eventually change the face of art.
The U.S. population has more than doubled in the fifty-plus years since Jackson Pollock dripped his way onto the cover of Life magazine and there are still plenty of movements being ignored by the majority. In fact, lurking beneath the homogenized, one-size-fits-all surface of today's consumer culture, there's a broad range of indefatigable rabble-rousers doing their thing.
For many (most?) Americans, the term "dissident" evokes images of a brave soul standing up against a Soviet-style totalitarian regime. But, contrary to our headlines and history books, a long, storied tradition of American dissent exists-out of necessity. From Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and Helen Keller right up to Abbie Hoffman, Huey P. Newton, and Angela Davis--there's been no shortage of rebels in the U.S. The same holds true today.
Of course, charismatic leaders can never take the place of an informed populace, brimming with solidarity and ever ready to engage in passionate action based, for the most, on some sort of unifying theory. Still, dedicated, articulate, and perceptive activists are essential...particularly in such a heavily conditioned society.
Everywhere we are inundated with the American theology of individualism within the capitalist/entrepreneur model. The "heroes" that are packaged and sold to us are Wall Street speculators, professional athletes, and digitally- or surgically-enhanced celebrities. The dreams we are encouraged to fulfill seem to be limited to appearing on television, purchasing consumer electronics, and playing the lottery. Civil society is vanishing while fortitude is measured on Fear Factor, morality is dropped along with cluster bombs from 15,000 feet, and solidarity has been reduced to waiting together on line for hours to buy Play Station 3. Obviously, we need a radical new vision of courage.
As Alice Walker reminds us, activism is our rent for living on this planet.
Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.