Friday, November 21, 2008
One of the effects of the passage of Prop. 8 has been a great deal of blogospheric and journalistic criticism of mainstream gay rights organizations, especially political (as opposed to legal) organizations, and especially the Human Rights Campaign. One of the major themes in this criticism is that the mainstream groups have been sitting on the sidelines while bottom-up Web-based organizers and activists have been grabbing the baton and organizing the community -- most notably with the marriage rights marches this past weekend. In the context of gay rights, one blogger calls this phenomenon Stonewall 2.0.
So, does decentralized, viral, Web-based political organizing pose a challenge to traditional centralized political advocacy? I'm not an activist, but it seems to me that it must be easier for an organization to have an agenda focused on centralized activities like lobbying at the federal level, as opposed to activities such as organizing nationwide marches or working on state or local political issues. (Legal issues may be different because the activity focuses on one case, regardless of where it might be and regardless of how widespread its impact is.) More generally, it's surely easier for an organization to do what critics allege organizations like HRC do -- appeal to the community for money or attendance at a cocktail fundraiser -- than to tap into, organize and manage a more activist, participatory spirit. The Internet surely makes decentralized activism easier, but at some point the disorganized nature of some Prop. 8 protests will stop feeling like the excitement of bottom-up activism and start feeling like plain old demoralizing disorganization.
The current marriage rights organizing doesn't seem exactly like the immediate post-Stonewall era in terms of who is setting the agenda. Back then nobody set it -- or, maybe more accurately, everyone did. Groups popped up, thought about what they wanted, and demanded them (maybe after writing a manifesto or two). By contrast, to the best of my understanding the decision to press for marriage was partly the result of fortuity (couples suing in Alaska and Hawaii and, to everyone's surprise, winning, if only temporarily, in the courts), partly the result of elites in the community deciding to press for marriage, and partly the result of a community sense that the early victories meant that marriage might be an achievable goal. Maybe the difference lies in the fact that by the 90's the community had institutions that naturally took responsibility for translating general sentiment into a program for action. Moreover, because the tools were legal rather than political broader community participation was pushed to the sidelines.
Maybe the best parallel to today is the AIDS activism of the 1980's and early 1990's. Like marriage now, AIDS then was the one issue the community had fallen in line behind (of course, without a choice in the case of AIDS). But ACT-UP activism was ground-up and locally focused: there were (sadly) a lot of targets around the nation for AIDS activists to criticize. Unfortunately, it also burned itself out -- not just from the tragic deaths of so many of its leaders but also from the internal disagreements that fractured a number of ACT-UP chapters who were free to act without centralized direction.
Thus, the nature of the agenda (political or legal tools, and amenability to local action) may influence the type of activism effective at a given time. If so, it will be interesting to see what transpires with regard to the marriage movement. The battle is more or less over in approximately thirty states now -- those that either provide marriage rights or ban them as a matter of state constitutional law (I wouldn't expect political challenges to those bans anytime soon). Unless there's action at the federal level it would seem like the battle will take the form of a series of engagements in the remaining states, as marriage rights forces either fend off more proposed amendments, defend judicial rulings or push for rights via legislation, and as opponents do the opposite. It will be interesting to see if bottom-up activism can respond to this sort of playing field. In one way, the Internet helps, by directly connecting, say, would-be activists in Oregon with their compatriots in Minnesota involved in a local fight. That sort of direct connection might be more effective than a centralized leadership attempting to serve as the focal point for localized fights.
On the other hand, at some point there will be calls for ongoing coordinated action. It's one thing to organize a nationwide day of protests, and another thing to organize an ongoing movement. Meetings will have to be held, and coffee will have to be served. Someone will have to pay the expenses. Appeals will go out for contributions. Maybe a cocktail fundraiser. Will the cycle start again?
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