This month, we’re celebrating the blog’s first year as a resource for critical thought around what it means to live and work in red states with our “Where We Have Been, Where We Are Going” series. Matt talks about the grass not being at all greener (or more radical) on the other side.
That activists on the coast get more attention, more resources, and more funding is indisputable. There seems to be a sense that there are more activists in these dense blue states, and that the activists are better and more competent. To the extent that flyover country gets any attention, it is generally in the patronizing way attention is given to a child who is acting like an adult. Real activism is a quintessentially coastal, radical, blue state thing, and those who do it elsewhere are basically imitators, people who are at best deserving of a pigeonholed slot in masturbatory coastal conferences.
It goes without saying that this kind of bias and treatment is harmful. If the end goal is justice, underfunding and mistreating advocates in the most problematic regions makes no sense. But more than that, this sort of bias is actually uproariously funny, as anyone who has actually meaningfully participated in activist circles in both regions could tell you. The popular mythology has it exactly backwards: it is coastal activists who are kind of comically inept, and only egotistical delusions that make them think otherwise.
In my last year at the University of Oklahoma, a collection of students — many of whom contribute to this blog — sought to change the sexual assault policy at the University of Oklahoma. A survivor’s mistreatment by the University authorities prompted this campaign. The campaign had no institutional support, and was met with hostility by the very institutions that in theory should be behind such a cause: members of the student government and the women’s outreach center. The campaign had no galvanizing media story to work in the wake off, e.g. a university sexual assault scandal. It had no support from outside groups, no coverage in feminist blogs, and only private faculty support.
Despite all of this, the activists collaboratively put together a media-pressure strategy that culminated in a credible threat to carry out a 50-person takeover of the administration building if the totally reasonable demands were not met. After some back-and-forth in which the organizers refused to cede ground, the night before the takeover was planned, the organizers were notified that the administration would carry out all the advocated changes. This was an unbelievably successful and well-orchestrated campaign in a very hostile environment with basically no outside support. The organizers celebrated briefly, but outside of recounting the story on occasion, it was off to other matters.
Contrast this with a remarkably similar campaign that I witnessed last year at Boston University. A ragtag group of rebels — by which I mean an institutionally-supported group that has a massive space carved out of the student union for their activism — wanted to do something about the sexual assault issues at the school. Unlike the activists at Oklahoma, they had all sorts of institutional support including respected faculty writing letters to the President on their behalf. Leaders of well-known feminist organizations wrote letters as well. The campaign was run on the heels of a media-frenzy surrounding a sexual assault scandal within the school’s hockey team. This made media access relatively easy and also made it easy for the President, who was fairly cooperative throughout, to get on board with the campaign: it gave him a way to say he was doing something about the scandal.
The campaign was the kind of milquetoast liberal letter-writing sort of thing you can do on the coast. Hell, it even had a change.org petition going! But it was by any objective account unremarkable. It takes time and effort, but no real creativity or risk to do something like that, especially with widespread institutional support, and occasional mentions in national blogs like Jezebel. Despite the sheer easiness of the campaign — the only successful campaign I am aware of out of this group of activists in a half decade — they toot their horn about it all day every day.
This is just one example illustrating a much more general point. To get things done in tough states, you have to be creative and have to be risky. There is no support, and letter-to-the-editor campaigning won’t work. This climate has, in a Darwinian sort of way, created activists that cannot get away being ineffective conference-hopping scenesters most of the year, and then write some letters and declare a successful campaign. Yet, we are meant to believe that flyover activists exists in a kind of backwater of activism that is markedly inferior to the sort of cushy and easy stuff activists elsewhere do (and poorly at that). It’s hilarious.
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