You Must Be the Change You Wish To See in the World: The History of Ideological Intransigence

Dr. Laura McCall, Professor of History

"Steal a little and they put you in jail;
Steal a lot and they make you the king."
—Bob Dylan

"The trouble with normal is it always get worse."
—Bruce Cockburn

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
—M.K. Gandhi

The Headwaters participants for 2002 were called upon to speak about achieving consensus and cooperation within the government and community. Although I greet such concepts with sympathy and thoughtfulness, I must answer with skepticism. Based upon 10 years in the activist trenches, my experience has shown we cannot reach consensus with developers and their minions in the political establishment without fundamental (and possibly impossible) transformation of a system that favors the status quo. They are the true obstacles to community well-being and, as long as they get their way in an official arrangement that works for them, nothing is going to change.

Using both historic examples and medical metaphors, I wish to play devil's advocate and assume a maverick position. Sometimes cooperation with the powers-that-be simply does not work. As Tom Lustig of the National Wildlife Federation has noted, there exist certain self-serving groups and people who insist that "it's never going to work unless you collaborate with us." Or, as William Gamson notes in The Strategy of Social Protest, "A member of the polity may need to wheel and deal, but a challenger should be prepared to stand and fight. ... The appropriate image ... is more a fight with few holds barred than it is a contest under well-defined rules."

The founders of the United States fought. When they came to the conclusion that achieving consensus within the English political system was unattainable, they rebelled. Before deciding upon resistance, they sought conciliation with the British through the Olive Branch Petition of 1775, which argued that Americans were acting only in defense of their rights. This petition was rejected, making revolution, in the minds of many, their only course.

Parallels exist between the situation of the eve of the American Revolution and what is currently happening to many political and social activists. Initially, King George III ignored the American requests for redress of grievances, which included the prevention of their moving across the Appalachian Mountains (Proclamation of 1763), positioning standing armies in their midst (Quartering Act), taxation without representation (Stamp Act), and import duties on necessary goods like paper, paint, glass and tea (Townshend Acts). Concurrently, King George began slandering the colonies, and Parliament quickly followed suit. Both King and Parliament eventually declared the colonies to be in open rebellion and began seizing American ships. Today, those who oppose public or private endeavors are threatened with SLAPP Suits, SLAPP standing for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

In January 1776, Thomas Paine responded to perceived British tyranny with the pamphlet Common Sense. "Every quiet method for peace hath been ineffectual. Our prayers have been rejected with disdain; and hath tended to convince us that nothing flatters vanity or confirms obstinacy in kings more than repeated petitioning."

In a similar voice, the Declaration of Independence, after listing numerous specific grievances, declared: "In every stage of these oppressions, We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury."

During debates over ratification of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison penned "Federalist No. 10," a treatise on the problems of special-interest groups—what Madison termed "factions." "By a faction," he wrote, "I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

Madison's solution to the problem of factions has, of course, failed miserably yet he touches upon the fears about special interests that still resonate today. Far and away the most dangerous factions, in Madison's view, were those interested in making money at any cost and whose motivations were "adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Madison's "violent" factions included "a landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed [sic] interest." He proposed "two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects."

Madison's words foreshadowed how the medical community currently fights cancer. Consider the present-day medical metaphors, particularly in the "economy versus environment" debate. Developers love to tell us that "without growth, you will die." Preservationists, however, compare growth to a cancer and research has shown that physicians cannot work with cancer. Doctors must instead take extreme measures by either "controlling its causes" or "removing its effects." In treatments today, in fact, they are trying to "fool" the cancer, sending messages to the growth to destroy itself. They are not seeking a dialogue with the tumor. In a similar manner, sprawl is choking out healthy living ecosystems.

"Curing the mischief" through consensus rarely works under the current system. Cooperation works for the status quo, the vested interests, the big money, the established, the well-positioned, and the spin doctors in government and the media. The Citizens to Preserve Golden, for example, have been invited to the table on several occasions in order to reach a "consensus" but we soon learned that what THEY sought was co-optation, not compromise. They have used our presence at their meetings to infer we were giving our blessing to their next development scheme.

Virtually every good and worthy cause in American History has begun not from the top down but from the bottom up—the grassroots. Were it not for the dedicated people working at the grassroots level, we would not enjoy many of the accomplishments for which Americans are proud—the abolition of slavery, civil rights for persons of color, safeguards for workers, the women's right to vote, students' rights, more humane treatment of animals, environmental protection. These crusades began not from the elected and appointed officials of our country but from the people.

The fight for women's right to vote spanned nearly 100 years of grassroots organization and resistance. In the final stages (1917), the Woman's Party initiated 24-hour pickets of the White House. When some of these women were imprisoned and then engaged in hunger strikes, their jailers force-fed them by inserting tubes down their throats. Activist Alice Paul was placed in the psychiatric ward. (Riley, 2nd edition, p. 227) Three years later, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.

A more immediate example involves the Brady Bill, a gun-control measure passed in several states and initiated after President Reagan's press secretary James Brady was paralyzed during the 1981 assassination attempt on the President's life. Brady's wife, Sarah, led the charge for several years. Michael Schudson, author of The Good Citizen, wonders: "Are these only fairy tales of democracy to pacify critics and to prevent more far-reaching movements for change? Politicians and the media are drawn to these stories in part because they legitimate the world-as-it-is and momentarily veil formidable structures of power and psychologies of intransigence. Still, if these are mythologies, they are mythologies of the real; they tell of real people taking decisive actions, often against great odds, to genuinely change lives." (Schudson, p. 291)

What works is not compromise but finding ways to insure that the status quo eventually understands—that they "get it." As Robert Goldberg writes in Grassroots Resistance, "Social movements, it seems, operating outside prescribed channels, innovating means of challenge, and combating more established contenders, can make decision makers listen and respond." (p. 234)

Yet, in the words of an old song, "It Ain't Easy Being Green." It isn't easy being an activist, either. Resignation to the troubles that beset our world is what psychologist Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism has termed "learned helplessness." People who suffer from severe depression, he found, "do so less as a result of particular unpleasant experiences than because of their 'explanatory style'—the story they tell themselves about how the world works. ... There's nothing to be done because nothing can be done." (p. 25) Or, as Paul Rogat Loeb has written in Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time, "Society has systematically taught us to ignore the ills we see, and leave them to others to handle. ... Whatever impulses toward involvement we might have, they're dampened by a culture that demeans idealism, enshrines cynicism, and makes us feel naive for caring about our fellow human beings or the planet we inhabit. ... Our culture makes us feel that raising our beliefs in public is like parading some disreputable personal passion. ... The more we challenge institutional power, the more heat we'll take." (pp. 6 and 31)

Ellis Jones and his co-authors call this apathy "The Cycle of Cynicism." People discover a problem, want to do something to help but do not know where to begin, fall into anger or powerlessness, eventually shut down, and ultimately want to know less about all problems. (p. 3) A common mantra of activist wannabes (want-to-be's) is that they lack the physical time or psychic energy to get involved. "We fill our daily schedules with bill paying, message returning, meal making, appointment keeping, note writing, house cleaning, and appearance fixing. We surround ourselves with more and more technology to save ourselves time and then often find ourselves at the mercy of it. In the end, it seems we have even less time and more to get done." (Ellis, pp. 7-8)

Ellis and his collaborators urge their readers to shift their energies and re-examine their priorities, such as watching television or shopping. "Buying less stuff will actually save you time that you would otherwise spend in traffic, in lines, and in working to pay for the stuff you bought. In fact, we expect you to find that living out your values and engaging in meaningful daily action actually gives you energy! And there's no better feeling than the feeling that you're making a positive difference in the lives of others." (Ellis, p. 8)

In other words, the benefits derived from activism may be beneficial to your physical, mental and spiritual health. After all, the word "courage" is derived from the French word "coeur," meaning heart. Massage therapist-turned-activist Corrine Kelly states: "There's a process of dying that happens when you shut yourself off to the inequalities and injustices in front of you." Pete Knutson, a fisherman-turned-activist from Washington State, says: "It takes energy to act. But it's more draining to bury your anger, convince yourself you're powerless, and swallow whatever's handed to you. The times I've compromised my integrity and accepted something I shouldn't, the ghosts of my choices have haunted me. When you get involved in something meaningful, you make your life count. What you do makes a difference." As Marian Wright Edelman writes, social involvement may simply be "the rent we pay for living." And, as Paul Loeb concludes, "Swallowed words act like caustic acids, eating at our gut. ... When we shrink from the world, our souls shrink, too." (Cited in Loeb, pp. 27, 5, 27 and 23 respectively)

So, what systems and organizations favor the status quo and what can ordinary citizens do to combat them? What are the obstacles to community action?

Major problems include the appointed officials, also known as the bureaucrats or the staff. Most are selected by the elected officials of our states, counties and towns. Because they, unlike most elected officials in Colorado, are working every day, they direct the agendas for the places we call home. The appointed officials include city and county managers, public works directors, the heads of parks and recreation, and the planners.

Virtually every city, county and state sports a Department of Planning and Development. Their job is to plan and if they don't plan they will lose their jobs. Most planners do not plan for slow growth or smart growth or good-looking growth but for any kind of growth they can get. It keeps them busy and employed but it gives this country the boring uniformity of fast-food restaurants, big-box retail stores and the ticky-tacky houses that all look just the same. Does this awful sameness provide us with a sense of tradition and authenticity? Is this stuff worthy of our affection? Does it make us happy? When you recall the town of your affections, do your recollections include the highway strip which looks like every other highway strip in the nation?

Historian Richard White writes eloquently about the power of planning departments, particularly when the public is not paying attention: "Planning is an exercise of power, and in a modern state much real power is suffused with boredom. The agents of planning are usually boring; the planning process is boring; the implementation of plans is always boring. In a democracy boredom works for bureaucracies and corporations as smell works for a skunk. It keeps danger away. Power does not have to be exercised behind the scenes. It can be open. The audience is asleep. The modern world is forged amidst our inattention." (Wright, p. 64)

A second problem is The Media. Most print and electronic sources of information rely upon advertising for their sustenance. As one newspaperman reports: "The media are big business—immense conglomerates like Disney ABC that have their paws in TV, movies, books, magazines, and sports. So of course the media are going to be friendly to big business—they're part of it." How far can they condemn the big money interests who pay their bills? The information we receive is filtered through the lenses of money and power, and we have to be suspect about its content.

In the western United States, we have an additional media problem. Journalism professors call it "Western Journalism" wherein most newspapers, radio programs and television stations in the West eschew investigative reporting in favor of a civic boosterism consciously designed to convey the feeling that everything is right with the world. (Cited in McCall, p. 27)

The media can also, however, serve as the activists' advocates. That represents one of the reasons why Ed Quillen publishes his own newspaper, Colorado Central, and why the citizens of Golden have followed suit with their own monthly organ, The Voice of Golden. According to an old adage: "Newspapers can't tell people what to think, but they can tell people what to think about." The news media can put issues on the table for public discussion.

A third problem is the way the media and the politicians portray activism, which is fast becoming a dirty word among them. One of Golden, Colorado's, City Council members was sent, at taxpayer expense, to the National League of Cities' Meeting in March 2002. There, he listened to a speech by Lyle Sumek of the Leadership Training Institute. Sumek's talk was pre-published in the Nation's Cities Weekly on Feb. 18, 2002, and he wrote: "In every city, there are 20 percent who are against everything and who will never be satisfied with any decision or action. They are very vocal at council meetings; they loudly argue their points; they try to intimidate council; and they misrepresent facts and issues."

Golden's City Council attendee sent the following to the City Council and City Management in a memo dated March 14, 2002. This was his rendition of Sumek's speech: "When going over demographics he noted the 'negative 20 percent.' These folks know it all and what ever you are doing is not the right thing. They view themselves as watch dogs of city hall. They will attempt to intimidate city government through the public comment process and by always having something quotable for the press on the negative side. They attempt to control city agenda via their ventings. They will lie. They cannot be satisfied. Generally, they have no answer to the question, "What is your vision?' Recommendation: Say 'No' and recapture momentum." Unless Mr. Sumek's comments were recorded, we will never know what he actually said in his oral presentation. Nonetheless, this was the perception passed along to Golden's elected and appointed officials.

A fourth problem are those who comprise the other 80 percent. Most are apathetic and half of the eligible electorate do not even vote. Worse still is America's rampant consumerism and its shameful consequences. The average American consumes as much as two Germans, six Mexicans, 12 Chinese, 29 East Indians or 117 Bangladeshi. "Since 1940, Americans alone have used up as large a share of the Earth's mineral resources as all previous humans put together. In fact, it would require three additional Earths to support the human race if all people on the planet lived the extremely wasteful lifestyles of North Americans." (Jones et. al., p. 25) The average household generates three tons of garbage per year and makes 10 vehicle trips per day. Consumer expert Barry Lopez ties our lust for the newest and hottest items to our loss of community—we don't have each other so we shop and amass possessions to fill the void.

So ... beyond the obvious, what is the citizenry to do?

First of all, we must recognize the power of personal interest, inflated egos, and those who are going to make a buck from any political activity or decision. They are the true enemies of consensus. They manipulate the rules for their own ends and advantages.

Given the way the current system operates, the only genuinely effective way to combat their intransigence is to organize at the grassroots level in spite of the government and the special interests. Insist upon making rules and regulations that do not reinforce their world view but protect most of the people.

Another solution is to change the powers who control our communities and find those who are oriented toward positive action rather than self-interest. Because there has been so much adverse publicity about politicians, finding these people is difficult. Nonetheless, we need to find ways to draw out people who will serve and, when they agree, they deserve support from the "grassrooters".

Strongly related is the link between deep pockets and political office. Political Action Committees (PACs) have mushroomed from 608 in 1974 to 4,123 in 1991. In the 1989-90 election cycle, PACs contributed more than $159 million. (Etzioni, pp. 217-224) PACs represent nothing more than modern-day versions of James Madison's self-serving factions.

There is no perfect solution to the problem of PACs and other special-interest groups but perhaps the best would be to place a spending ceiling on all individual political campaigns. Thus, a person running for Governor of Colorado could only spend $1 million dollars, and that would include contributions from all individuals, corporations and political parties. That's it. This would level the playing field and reduce the amount of influence from any individual or corporate interest. It would also make it easier to "follow the money."

We need to find ways to re-empower the people. Oftentimes, it begins with something that happens in their immediate vicinity. Even though these citizens are labeled unfavorably as NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), their experiences can represent the beginning of a much larger participation and awareness. They may represent the advance guard of "the change you wish to see in the world."


Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Harper, 1985; revised with the University of California Press, 1996)

Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and The Communitarian Agenda (Crown Publishers, 1993). Quirky but thought provoking.

Eben Fodor, Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community (New Society Publishers, 1999). Clear and the best brief summary of the issues.

Robert A. Goldberg, Grassroots Resistance: Social Movements in Twentieth Century America (Wadsworth Publishing, 1991).

Ellis Jones, Ross Haenfler and Brett Johnson, The Better World Handbook: From Good Intentions to Everyday Actions (New Society Publishers, 2001). A must for every activist.

James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape (Simon & Schuster, 1993).

Paul Rogat Loeb, Soul of A Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time (St. Martin's Press, 1999).

[James Madison], "The Federalist No. X," in Literature of the Early Republic, 2nd Edition, Edwin H. Cady, ed. (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969): 81-89.

Laura McCall, "Somebody Needs to Fight These Growths: A Worthy Goal for Western," Colorado Central Magazine (January 1999), pp. 26-27.

Glenda Riley, Inventing the American Woman: An Inclusive History, Vol. II, 2nd Edition (Harlan Davidson, 1995).

Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (Harvard, 1998).

E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper, 1973). The first clarion call for simplicity and still one of the best.

Lyle Sumek, "LTI Seminar to Examine the Courage to Lead," Nation's Cities Weekly, Volume 25 (February 25, 2002), p. 8.

Richard White, The Organic Machine (Hill & Wang, 1995).