In 2020, during the onslaught of COVID-19, Time magazine published an op-ed by Rutger Bregman titled "The Moment to Change the World Is Right Now." The logic of that headline may seem suspect -- when is it ever not time to change the world? -- but the writer made a compelling case that the circumstances were ready for a tectonic shift in human priorities. "The age of excessive individualism and competition could come to an end," he proposed, "and we could inaugurate a new age of solidarity and connection."
Three years later, I'm not sure what the status of that new age is. For sure, the world changes all the time, and many of those changes bring hope, but they take on a patchwork quality -- individual victories rather than a full-scale annihilation of aggression and greed. A social movement garners more prominence for Black actors in Hollywood; Native Americans remain mostly invisible. A regime change topples the dictatorship of Iraq; North Korea continues business as usual. More than 10 million people buy electric cars to curb air pollution; relatively few of them also give up beef. There are any number of advocates for Native American representation, North Korean freedom, and veganism, but their causes have not reached the tipping point in society. Not yet, at least. We often celebrate our heroes in hindsight.
My poem "The Activists," which appears today in the Journal of Radical Wonder, is about two people who belong to that frustrated group. I have known the type. Around the time I wrote this poem in 2010, I was acquainted with a pair of animal-rights crusaders. Both belonged to tight circles of fellow believers. One struggled to reconcile her own vegan diet with the fish she had to buy for her pet cat. The other said she often felt nervous among other animal advocates, since they often attacked her beliefs as not progressive enough. Both of them had difficulty agreeing on restaurants with friends. Supporting a cause is often bleak and unglamorous, not to mention unapplauded. Every so often, a Rosa Parks or Malala Yousafzai provides a galvanizing face for a cause, one that can be mass-produced on T-shirts and marketed as a story. Those faces are exceptions. The unheralded crusader, who boycotts selected companies, signs petitions, and declines invitations on principle, is the more common profile of those who sacrifice comfort to make the world a fairer place.
The poet Robert Hayden wrote about "love's austere and lonely offices." Activism must be one of those offices, at least sometimes. The man at the center of "The Activists" is lonely. He may be an activist by marriage; his wife seems more dedicated to their numerous causes than he is. His mind fixates on her body as much as on social justice, to the point where he keeps count of the blemishes that protesting has left on her. When she leaves for work, he smells the clothes that she dropped in the hamper. He shares a bed with her, but it can be a cold bed, even as he steels his resolve by remembering that their love centers on what they stand for.
Most of us are not activists. At UCI, I had a classmate -- a devout Christian -- who told me that he dreaded walking through a section of campus where student groups habitually set up booths to petition for those in need. He only had so much money and time, and every booth that he passed reminded him of what he wasn't doing. Even the most socially minded of us tend to pick our battles; not every feminist is a vegan, just as not every antiracist drives a Tesla or avoids Walmart. We can bond easily over shared comforts. But if you know someone who checks the country of origin on shirt labels or bypasses Amazon to shop at the neighborhood co-op, ask that person what he or she has learned. You may get a lesson in how to be less "nice." You may also get a lesson in how to be a better person.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.