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The Art of Taking Action

Art, activism and documenting the Seattle protests


My first experience with activism was carried out in second grade under the supervision of Sister Tarcisius. We bought a pagan baby. I know that there is absolutely nothing OK about buying pagan babies, even if we didn’t really buy them. We just sponsored them, which possibly meant buying some food. They didn’t even make it to the classroom, to my serious disappointment. I had contributed a lot of my allowance to this cause, as had another student, Linda. Linda and I were allowed to think of a name for “our” baby, as if it didn’t already have one, and we gave it the fancy name of “Megalinda,” which we thought sounded biblical, along the lines of Magog or Elzaphan. Now it brings to mind something closer to Star Wars, though I’m not sure if I’m thinking here Lucas or Reagan.

It’s odd, but the very absence of the baby is what redeems this tale as a story of activism. We couldn’t see the baby or play with it. So we simply thought of it, we pictured it, living over there in darkness, in Africa or France. Without knowing a thing about the baby’s life, even whether it was male or female, we wanted him/her to have a better one. We wanted to help the baby in the abstract.

Later, I did a friend a favor and approached our high school English teacher with some raffle tickets to benefit schoolchildren somewhere, somehow. Building a school, that’s what it was, some foreign country, I dunno. This teacher ripped my head off, rightfully so. Because as it turned out, this project, too, had a missionary cast to it, and she—being an unusual thinker in our small town, possibly a closet activist, pretty well informed, anyway—didn’t think much of it. She knew full well that I, being inactive now, in terms of anything beyond Friday night, had thought to myself: Oh, something to help the poor people, that’s um, let’s see ... good! Right. (Yawn.)

I’d hoped now to tell you in splendid detail all about my anti-war activism, but I’m running out of time and space. I’ll summarize. 1. Marched in protest parade in l970 with motley crew of zealots on streets of Bozeman. 2. Stood on post office steps every noon hour for a few weeks in l990 with other mothers and office workers in Missoula.

In the first instance, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it seemed like a lot. In the second instance, I wanted to do much, much more than I was doing. But I didn’t.

It seems to me that anti-war activity only occasionally is confusing. Usually it carries a clear conviction of what’s right and wrong, and a serious resolve toward right. It then merely becomes a question of how much of “regular life” you’re willing to let go of to pursue your anti-war stance. But anti-poverty activism, if we can call it that, feels less clear cut. It isn’t just a question of how much comfort you’re willing to relinquish, in terms of legalities and lifestyle. It also is a question of how much energy and time you’re willing to give toward becoming knowledgeable about the way the world works—about the connectedness of things, if you’ll forgive the phrase, the usage of which has come to imply that things are always connected.

The protests in Seattle last November, during the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting, sparked a lot of reminiscence of the days of the Vietnam war protests, and it struck me that, on a popular level, the dynamics of the situation—i.e., the thuggishness of the police, the tactics of the protesters, etc.—were discussed far more than the actual issues. That’s because the issues, I think, are dense and difficult. Should I drink shade-grown coffee or not? I don’t know. Does protecting birds necessarily mean hurting people? It’s a long story.

I feel OK, in retrospect, about my second grade philanthropy. It was harmless, or maybe I mean that the actual harm the pagan baby experience did to my world view was directly proportionate to the actual good it did any “pagan baby.” It did teach me to try to imagine an invisible other’s physical realities. In Sister Tarcisius’ second grade class, our view was, in fact, very different from Ronald Reagan’s, years later. We felt that others’ realities could improve while their otherness remained. Those hypothetical pagan babies always remained pagan in our minds, exotic (just as the esoteric nuns were commonplace). And, strangely enough, upholding exoticism—Edward Said take note—meant, for us, self-sacrifice, giving up our allowance.

Nowadays, it seems, so much needs to be known if you’re going to do right. Was it always this way? Probably. I suppose the only straightforward response to the world’s complicated inequities is to do what St. Francis of Assisi (himself a bird lover) and some others have done—that is, show solidarity with all the unknown poor by embracing poverty itself. Total sacrifice, I’m talking, not just your allowance. But who these days is going to do that?

Women in Action: Participation in Protest Against the World Trade Organization, black and white photographs by Melissa Hart are on view in the University Center Second Floor Student Organizational Suite through May. Call 243-4991.

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