I was reading and listening to obituaries of Pete Seeger recently, and noticed something peculiar. In many obituaries, Seeger, who made his living as a musician, was identified as an “activist.” I wondered what exactly the 94-year-old composer of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” had done to earn him the title “activist.” And is that title meant as praise or damnation?
So I first consulted the dictionary, and found that activist is defined as, “an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, especially a political cause.” Since every public cause is a political one, I think that the definition would encompass anyone who is a vigorous advocate of any cause that affects more than a person’s immediate family and friends. So advocating for proper care for your father, who has multiple sclerosis, would not make you an activist. But advocating on behalf of everyone who has the disease would. It’s a lot like the job of “community organizer” that was sneered at an election or two ago.
Seeger’s obituary in The New York Times noted that, “He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond.”
Clearly, for his active involvement in these causes, Seeger earned the title “activist.” Seeger cared about others. His motivation was the polar opposite of greed.
But what about the rest of us? Shouldn’t we all be activists? Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young told us, “We can change the world, rearrange the world.”
It was the “Age of Aquarius.” Well, sadly we all know how that turned out. Self-interest trumped community involvement.
In the ‘80s, many embraced George Bush’s “A Thousand Points of Light” – a sort of “separate but equal” approach to community activism that stressed individual action. It was sold as an alternative to group action, particularly group action using community tax money. And what happened? Income inequality, crumbling cities, and two optional wars.
But some people like Pete Seeger, Tom Hayden, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Al Gore, and even Bob Barker recognized the importance and power of organizing community action. They saw that people working together supercharged their efforts. They didn’t fear government action. They saw that the ultimate community tool was government action. They worked hard to pass civil rights, labor and environmental laws that express the desire of the community for a better world. They all earned the title “activist.”
But is “activist” an honor or an epithet? I think that depends on which side of the particular cause promoted by the activist you favor. There are certainly activists for both conservative and liberal causes. Frankly, I respect them all because even if I don’t agree with the cause they are promoting, I can respect the fact that they took the time to try to help the community.
As we move toward our “senior” years, we have one last chance to be activists. If we don’t, we face the prospect of an obituary of someone who was shamefully a “passivist.” And that’s not someone who advocates against war.