Imperfect activism

There has been a lot going on in the world of politics, both Australian and international since I last posted, most of it disheartening at best and enraging at worst.  Even if one has only one or two foci, it’s pretty hard to keep up with everything, and to be honest, I haven’t tried all that hard.  I’ve been busy and stressed at work, and when I haven’t been, I’ve been using my spare time to sleep, try to cook and eat something healthy, and basically recover in time for the next busy period.

I can’t be the only person out there finding themselves horrified by what’s going on in the wider world, but lacking in time or the energy to devote to activism.  Part of it is, I think, the sheer mental exhaustion from reading terrible thing after terrible thing, day after day.  Part of it is that there are so *many* things to worry about – it’s hard to pick just one.  And it feels as though governments are getting less responsive by the day.  I feel a sense of despair, too, that whatever I do won’t be enough.

As an Australian, I’m finding the US situation particularly distressing, not least because the Republicans and Trump are doing a fine job of making Turnbull’s government actually look good by comparison (of course, Turnbull has given me a belated appreciation for John Howard, which is something I never thought I’d be saying).  I’m close enough to read my friends’ posts and to worry for them, but too far away to do anything – I receive call to action after call to action in my email, but all for things that require a US zip code to be effective.

And so I find myself overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness, and guilt that I’m not doing enough, and wind up doing nothing at all.

I suspect that this is exactly what the far right wants.

So.  This post is not going to be about any one specific thing.  There are *so many* things that one can be angry about right now.  This post is about finding ways not to be paralysed by the size of the problems, by their overwhelming variety and nature.  And it’s about figuring out ways to use the resources we have right now, be they energy, time, money, community links, or other things, to do what good we can.

I think the first thing to remember is that even if you only do one thing, ever, that’s still one thing that wouldn’t have been done if you hadn’t done it.  I don’t think it’s actually possible to do ‘enough’.  I’m not even sure what ‘enough’ looks like.  But I think that getting hung up on whether you are doing enough can actually get in the way of doing what you can.  So no, you probably aren’t doing enough, all on your own – but most of the political problems we are facing right now can’t be fixed by one person anyway. Everyone needs to do their part. So perhaps the trick is to find the thing, or things, that you can do, and do them, and trust that others will do the things that they can do, and that together, enough will be done.

This has the capacity to become a really positive thing – if more people are involved and engaged in bringing positive change, that means that more people will be engaged and invested in the solutions, when we find them.  So let’s not even try to have just a few people doing all the things (and probably getting worn out in the process), get everyone doing their one thing.  And here’s another advantage of this approach – the more people who are involved, the more diversity – hopefully! – we can capture.  And a diversity of voices, people with different backgrounds and different perspectives, and also different experiences and skill-sets is, I think, crucial for finding solutions that work for everyone.

So perhaps the real goal is to do your one thing, and then encourage two or three more people to do their one thing, too.

A second thing to think about is that there are two chief ways to be effective in a climate like this one, and we need both.

The first is to pick an issue – just one issue – and go deep.  Learn about it, talk to the people it affects, do the research, build collaborations and communities to fight it, write about it, protest about it, fundraise for it, and so forth.  The trick to this one is focus and not getting distracted.  Yes, there will be places where your issue intersects with others, and that’s important and useful and should be explored.  But don’t jump ship, unless your issue is already well-resourced – every issue needs people who can really dig in and be knowledgeable and involved and educate others, and very few people can focus on more than one thing to the extent needed and still do both things justice.

The second is to pitch in where you can across a lot of areas, and do lots of little things.  Don’t go deep, but go broad.  The pitfall here is making sure you actually have good sources in the areas you are acting on, so that you aren’t going off half-cocked on the basis of incomplete or inaccurate information.  I suspect that for those of us who work full-time in a field that isn’t social justice related, this is the best option – it’s hard to devote the time and focus to one issue unless you are in the field professionally.

A final thought – and this may not be applicable to the US, where things seem to be  evolving at a ferociously fast pace, but for the rest of us it is true – this is a marathon, not a sprint.  We are not going to win all our battles overnight.  And that means we need to pace ourselves, and accept that we will not necessarily be able to be engaged in activism full-throttle and full-time.  We need to conserve our energy so that we are still able to do what needs to be done in a year’s time, or in five years, or in ten.  Because I’m not just talking about Trump and Turnbull, now.  The world is facing some really big problems which won’t be fixed overnight even if we do manage to get governments who understand that science is real and people don’t just decide to be poor so that they can mooch off hardworking tax-payers.  Climate change is already affecting us, and will require global cooperation to solve; the refugee crisis is too big for one or two countries to cope with; we are going to reach peak oil at some point; and with more and more jobs being mechanised or computerised, we are going to have to find different ways to look at unemployment and income.

Yeah, I’m feeling overwhelmed again.  I’m not even sure if it’s possible to think about these things all the time and still function usefully.  It isn’t for me, at any rate.

So here’s my personal plan: I’m going to do two things a week.  Just two.  If I can do more, I will, but if I can’t, that’s OK as well.  Two is sustainable, and two is my share.  If everyone else can do two things, we’ll be a long way forward.

The first thing will be political or big picture.  It might be a letter or a phone call to a politician.  It might be participating in a rally or march.  It might be organising a letter-writing party.  Or it might be a donation to a charity that helps refugees, that helps the environment, or promotes the rights of the disadvantaged.  It might be promoting a petition or action, going to a Friendship Picnic, or writing an essay here.  The choice of action will depend on what is going on, and where my resources are focused (time poor = throw money at the problem.  Money poor = do something more active).

The second thing will be local and small.  Maybe even very small.  But it will be something that aims to maintain and build the communities I am a part of. Checking in on someone I haven’t spoken to for a while who is having a rough time; visiting someone in hospital; baking for someone; offering help to someone who needs it.  This is all a bit vague and nebulous, but it’s about valuing the people around me and the connections I have, and making sure they know they are valued and loved.  And yes, it sounds all very touchy feely, but I think maintaining strong communities and friendships is foundational to the rest.

Good luck.  And may you find the One Thing that is Your Thing, and do it as well as you can for as long as you can.  Nobody can ask for more than that.


Seven actions to consider

  • A Kuwaiti asylum seeker on Nauru is 35 weeks pregnant, and has complications that are life threatening both to her and to her baby. The medical team on Nauru are calling for her to be brought to Australia for the birth, so that she will have immediate access to high-quality care if things go wrong, but so far this request has been refused.  Contact Peter Dutton to request that she be brought here.
  • If you’ve opened a newspaper in the last three months, you’ve probably heard that Centrelink is sending debt notices to people, that a lot of these letters are wrong, and that people are having to pay the debts anyway, even while they are arguing the case.  Some people are being required to provide payslips from more than five years ago, which is ridiculous, and Centrelink staff are essentially being ordered to be obstructive. helps you put together your request for review, sends a copy to your local MP, and files a freedom of information claim so that you can see your file and get access to information that Centrelink might have about this debt.
  • If science (and marching) is your thing, there is a movement to organise a March for Science in Australia, in solidarity with the March on Washington.
  • Make a submission to the Senate Enquiry into Marriage Equality.
  • Join the Climate Action Network Australia and find out what you can do locally to help fight climate change.
  • Get involved in the Melbourne Period Project or Share the Dignity, which collect and donate menstrual hygiene products to homeless women.
  • My friend Beppie Keane wrote an excellent letter to her local MP calling on him to fight xenophobia and call on Turnbull to condemn Trump’s recent actions.  I’ve quoted it in full below, with her permission.  I think it’s a great idea for those of us who are feeling helpless about US stuff and want to find a way to express our concerns that might actually get heard, while also affirming the values we want to see reflected in Australia.

Seven charities to donate to

Small Picture actions

Small picture actions are going to be much more individual, but if you want a few ideas to start with, I made a list at the end of this post, and I think they are still pretty good.


Sample letter to an MP

Dear Mr Alexander,

Thank you for your service to the people of the Bennelong electorate as our Federal MP. I visited your website recently and was gladdened to see that you value the diverse population of Bennelong as much as I do. I have lived in this electorate for eighteen years, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to live and work alongside people from all over the world.

As I write this letter, I am watching in horror as the United States of America enacts Donald Trump’s executive order closing US borders to citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. Individuals with Green Cards, student visas, and refugee visas are now denied entry to the United States, not on account of any wrongdoing, but because of their country of origin.

It is deeply concerning to me, as an Australian, that the xenophobia inherent in Mr Trump’s executive order is also present in Australian politics. In November 2016 I was saddened to see Mr Trump’s election win celebrated by Australian politicians from the One Nation Party, and even more worried to see that members of your own Liberal Party, such as Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, endorsed Mr Trump. Peter Dutton’s comments last year, condemning Malcolm Fraser’s immigration policies in relation to Lebanese Muslim families, are also in line with this trend of ostracising whole communities for the actions of a few individuals.

I am heartened, however, by your own stance on these matters: your anti-discrimination speech of 16 September 2016 was a powerful statement condemning ignorance and celebrating diversity. I am writing today to ask you to maintain and strengthen your advocacy against xenophobia and racism in politics. I ask that you petition the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to condemn the actions of the United States in closing its borders to so many people. I also ask that you continue to speak out yourself – both privately, within the Liberal Party, and publicly in your role as a representative of the people of Bennelong.

This matter goes far beyond traditional right-wing/left-wing divides. Political disagreements are a sign of a robust and healthy democracy, but the xenophobia of the One Nation Party, and sadly, some members of the Liberal and National Parties, represents a fundamental threat to communities such as Bennelong.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.

Best Regards,
Beppie Keane


7 thoughts on “Imperfect activism

  1. “this may not be applicable to the US, where things seem to be evolving at a ferociously fast pace, but for the rest of us it is true – this is a marathon, not a sprint”

    USA is a sprint *and* a marathon, I think.

    Right now, the new administration is throwing out an overwhelming amount of bad stuff very quickly, which is exhausting to deal with. One interpretation I’ve seen is that this is a deliberate strategy: wear people out protesting the blatant stuff like the recent executive order, and then slip through lower-profile awfulness like, say, putting a white supremacist on the National Security Council while removing professional soldiers and intelligence staff from same, when people are too tired or too distracted to make much noise about it.

    Another is that it’s not so much a strategy as just what naturally happens when you elect terrible people who aren’t qualified to run a school fete. But either way it’s much the same.

    Barring impeachment, invocation of the 25th Amendment, or misadventure, Trump will be president for at least the next four years, and the Republicans will have majorities in both House and Senate for at least the next two. They might not keep up the current pace but there’ll still be plenty more to fight. Even if Trump does go, his successor (and/or the circumstances of his going) will probably guarantee more.

    All in all, it’s a bit like being chased by a bear: when the bear thinks it’s a sprint, it’s a sprint, and when the bear thinks it’s a marathon, it’s a marathon.

    • Yes, I think you’re right – it’s reminding me (though on a grander scale) of Abbott’s first couple of months in office. If you throw out enough terrible stuff simultaneously it splits the focus of the people who want to fight against it. As for whether it’s strategy or stupidity – I think it’s both. I think the Republicans are letting Trump be Trump out of strategy – I think Trump’s actions are entirely non-strategic and based on the whim of the moment.

      And yeah, sprint and marathon simultaneously is pretty awful. I feel for my friends in the US.

  2. Pingback: My Political Pants | geejenmotw

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