Forget shorter showers: Why personal change does not equal political change

Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.

Tip: Green Lisa, who says the almost 300 comments so far are as good as reading the article.


  1. I would never argue that anything less than eliminating slavery wpould have been acceptable. But I WOULD point out that literally tens of thousands of slaves were freed by their owners who realized the evils of the practice– and tens of thousands more freed by those who broke the law to do it (e.g. the Underground Railway). So let’s not rule out individual activity completely.

    As for abolition, it was trumpeted primarily by the New England Puritans– who were in many ways not nice people. But the fire of their belief kept the issue before the American public until, like a pimple, it burst into full-fledged war.

    Let us never forget the words of Abraham Lincoln:

    “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

    Lincoln, despite his disinterest in the issue, gets the credit for abolition. But it was my ancestors, those pesky Puritans, who pushed the issue.

    As for Hitler, we helped put him in power by going along with Britain and France’s plan to bankrupt Germany after WWI, thus ushering in an era of desperation and extremism. Milton Friedman argued that our irresponsible fiscal policies began and exported the Great Depression, expanding Germany’s problems and (ultimately) making Hitler’s rise inevitable.

    We can argue all day long about what should have been done to stop Hitler. But, as with Saddam Hussein, we carry the blame for his election in the first place. Prevention would have been far easier than the cure…

    • How about adding the next couple of lines to the Lincoln quote?

      • You asked for the next couple of lines to the Lincoln quote. Here they are, though I don’t believe they add anything to (or take anything way from) my point:

        “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.”

        BTW, the (now) much-hailed Emancipation Proclamation did not in practice free a single slave, since it only applied to those states in rebellion, over which the Un ion did not then exert control. Slaves in the pro-Union states, and Louisiana (which had already surrendered) were not affected.

  2. [They] win, and will continue to win, because in place of real information they keep handing you distractions. Sex toys.

    The Howler, couple of days ago [somewhat paraphrased].

  3. From the close of Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley:

    “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

    Lincoln was a complex man, and one hell of a politician. He knew he had to sell emancipation to the public in light of the war and preserving the union, so he drew that distinction as one between his duty and his personal conviction.

    Thinking over DJs comment, I think this is another example of the FDR “now make me do it” story: Lincoln *needed* the New Englanders pushing the issue and keeping it in the spotlight. So I think they deserve more credit than they get.

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