New Clear Vision


constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted


Taking a Stand

April 09, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Ecology, Jennifer Browdy, Politics

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What Will It Take to Accomplish Real Change?

by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher and Jamphel Yeshi, the young Tibetan monk who recently set himself on fire, are more alike than might first meet the eye.

DeChristopher, one of the founders of the group Peaceful Uprising, took direct action to disrupt the sale of wilderness to mining companies in a closed Federal auction.  He ended up in prison, but he also did a tremendous amount to raise public awareness about the issue of land sales to corporate industry, and inspired the PeaceUp folks to greater activism.

Jamphel Yeshi also took a dramatic personal action at huge cost to himself — he lost not just his liberty, but his life. He and the 30 other monks who have taken this drastic step in the past have succeeded in letting the world know how deeply the Tibetan people are suffering under Chinese repression, and how passionately they yearn for autonomy to practice their religion and preserve their culture.

Dramatic personal action is definitely a good tool to use in raising public awareness about an issue.

The problem with it is that one leader standing alone is an easy target — and if the action is a suicide, that heroic action is always going to be a one-time event.

That the Occupy movement has so far eschewed the single, high-profile leader model is a sign of the solidity of this nascent social movement.

Despite demands from the media and others for a leader to step out of the shadows and announce himself (the leader is always presumed to be male), Occupy has held firm to its founding principle of being a “leaderless movement.”

This is true in the way the different “chapters” of Occupy, springing up at will anywhere in the world, are completely autonomous from the Occupy Wall Street folks who initially launched the movement last August; and it is true in the way that any passerby can join a General Assembly and have a chance to speak and influence or inspire the group. It’s true in the various Occupy online platforms that give anyone with an internet connection the ability to communicate with the world, and it’s true with the Occupy media, which are collective and often anonymous publications of strategies, theories and praxes of resistance.

I feel a tremendous sense of loss and rage that obvious, powerful leaders like Tim DeChristopher and Jamphel Yeshi are driven by frustration with the system and anger at injustice to commit acts of activist resistance that are either outright suicidal, or land them swiftly behind bars.

This is the approach the Chinese take to anyone seeking to challenge the entrenched status-quo leadership and social structure, and we in the West like to howl about human rights violations every time they throw another idealistic young activist in jail.

But we do the same thing here.

We reward the best and brightest of our young people as long as they play by the rules of the game and never question the wisdom of their elders in setting up those rules.

The Ivy league grads who will go on to become Goldman Sachs executives or corporate CEOs or weapons systems engineers — they are our golden children who can do no wrong.

But those young people who look out at what is and see the waste, the greed, the desecration of the planet, the horrendous danger in which the old game has placed us, as we cross the threshold of the 21stcentury into the new era of global heating, overpopulation, extreme inequality, toxic chemical poisoning, militarization … those young people are considered by the power elites to be annoying, pie-in-the-sky, unreasonable idealists who need to grow up and get a job.

In other words, they need to shut up and join the system.

The reason the Occupy movement is gaining steam is because the system no longer has enough places for all the smart, talented young people we are producing.

We can’t all join Goldman Sachs, now can we?

We can’t all join Greenpeace either.

When young people can’t pay off their student loans and can’t find jobs, and their parents can’t help them because they themselves can barely keep up with the mortgage payments … these young people are naturally going to be much more open to the possibility that something is quite wrong with the established system.

That’s where we are now.  That’s why suddenly we have not one or two extraordinary young leaders like Tim DeChristopher or Jamphel Yeshi stepping up, but a whole tide of young people who have the time, the talent and the energy to tackle the problems of our American society, and our global human civilization, head on.

One General Assembly at a time, they are creating a new vision of society and a new model of leadership.

It couldn’t be more different from the corrupt talking heads they grew up watching on TV.

It is, as Tom Hayden shared with us eloquently in The Nation, a return to the SDS and SNCC vision of true participatory democracy in action.

This spring and summer, it’s the numbers that will make all the difference.  They can’t lock up a million idealistic Americans whose only crime was to want to change our country for the better.

Did I say a million?  Let’s make it 10 million, all across the country, coming out and taking a stand for a new rules to the game of life that are based above all on respect for the planet and her creatures.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, says the Scripture.

No wiser words have ever been spoken.  Let’s stop the hypocrisy and start practicing what we preach.  Let’s do it soon, before any more brave young leaders have to martyr themselves on our account, trying so desperately to wake us up.

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Ph.D., teaches comparative literature, media studies, and human rights with an activist bent at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and directs the annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and the new Citizen Journalism Project at WBCR-LP. She is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, and blogs at Transition Times.

2 Comments to “Taking a Stand”


  1. What Tim DeChristopher and Jamphel Yeshi have done is not leadership, but dramatic autonomous acts of defiance. And it’s not yet clear to this 43-year activist that the Occupy movement’s disdain for leadership won’t prevent it from having any real or lasting impact on American political or economic culture.

    Ironically, the women’s movement, which popularized “leaderless” activism, also left us one of the most insightful critiques of the refusal to recognize the necessity of formal leadership structures: “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman aka Joreen, the Southern Female Rights Union, Beulah, Mississippi (May 1970), published in Notes from the Third Year (1971), Vol. 2 No. 1 of The Second Wave (1972), Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 17 (1972-73), and Ms. magazine (July 1973).

    “During the years in which the women’s liberation movement has been taking shape, a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless, structureless groups as the main – if not sole – organizational form of the movement. The source of this idea was a natural reaction against the over-structured society in which most of us found ourselves, and the inevitable control this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this overstructuredness.

    “The idea of “structurelessness,” however, has moved from a healthy counter to those tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The idea is as little examined as the term is much used…

    “Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group…This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy…the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power.”

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    • James Edwards says:

      Structurelessness, informal structure and formal structure form a continuum that people can move back and forth along as required in order to achieve their ends. This can be called powerful
      In this regard, the word anarchy is helpful. It usefully means no supreme ruler. The supreme ruler can pertain anywhere along the continuum and is the core threat to the continuum by being forceful.
      This expresses the difference between power and force.
      Remaining entirely sympathetic to the desire of the Tibetans to be able to live according to their traditions does not prevent us from pointing out that they are an example of the danger of an understanding of ruler as God-King that can convince people of the need to self-immolate. In other words it is entirely conceivable that the Tibetans need to as it were join the rest of humanity.

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