Thursday, June 19, 2008

Activism and the Analogy of War

I have come to the conclusion that most activists tend to believe they're involved in something akin to a war of righteousness against evil. Living by such a metaphor is potentially dangerous and leads to unqualified assertions and actions in the name of "the just" without respect for collateral damage.

I have met a few self-proclaimed "activists" or former activists who believe passionately in the rightness of some cause, such as Trotskyism, the living-wage campaign, anti-Walmartism, the Democratic party, abortion rights, right to life, and labor organizing. Usually, with some exceptions, these activists display a frightening amount of certainty about the rightness of what they do without entertaining any of the legitimate concerns of the other side.

For example, I knew someone, a friend, very adamantly in favor of the proposed ordinance in Chicago a few years ago that would have required all "big box" stores in the city to pay a "living wage." In short, this ordinance, which ultimately failed, was an attempt to force large stores like Walmart to pay decent wages to their workers should they decide to establish themselves in Chicago (I believe pre-existing stores were exempt from the requirement, but I stand to be corrected).

I asked my friend about an argument then current that opponents of the ordinance advanced: if the city passed the ordinance, Walmart might not move into Chicago and the people who stood to gain new jobs might have no jobs (in the debates over the ordinance, it was assumed that Walmart would settle in areas of high unemployment). I asked my friend whether an argument was to be made that it is better to have a minimum-wage paying job than no job at all. My friend's response was something to the effect that "if the city allows Walmart to pay the minimum wage, we're telling those employees that that's all they're worth." In itself, that's an interesting point, but it still didn't answer my question, so I repeated it. His answer remained substantially the same, never addressing the argument that a low-paying job might be better than a higher paying one.

Maybe the answer to my question should be "Yes, it is better to have a low-paying job than no job at all. But in the long run, certain sacrifices have to be made to ensure that stores such as Walmart pay their fair share to their employees." I don't know if I'd agree on the necessity of imposing "sacrifices" by others who have much less than I do, but at least that would have been an answer to my question.

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