Two-Thirds Rule

April 8, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Activism

In a meeting of activists discussing strategy, policy or simply process, there emerges an issue that transcends politics, usually even before the meeting begins.


Get mostly guys in a room to discuss the details of an action, and you get chest thumping.  The less the guys have worked together, the more thumping goes on.

Get mostly gals in a room to discuss the details of an action, and you get long, meandering explorations of common ground.  It seems to be the case whether the women know each other well or not.

Of course, there are more exceptions to this generalization than there are cases that fit the rule.  Often, the presence of some non-chest thumping males or some focused, target-thinking females will change the nature of the whole group in a useful way.  Still, over time, this is what I’ve observed.

I’ve found a good mix is 2/3 females and 1/3 males if you’re looking for a group to both bond and get something done.  If the group doesn’t bond, there is no foundation for future actions.  If nothing is accomplished, many folks will not come back.…


April 7, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Activism

Conflicts among activists predictably congregate around several themes:  endorsements, speakers, Democrats and structure.  I spend most of the time that I’m organizing with regional or state networks or coalitions.  Whether the coalition has 12 local organizations or over 100 state organizations, these same four issues keep emerging.  I’m personally deeply fascinated by the nature of structure yet find myself dismayed by the frequent friction that accompanies the working out of the details.

There is more than one polarity at play, but lately I keep seeing the struggle for balance between top-down vs. bottom-up, sort of a vertical teeter-totter.  Authority vs. anarchy is another way I hear the conflict described.  Seeing things from an evolutionary perspective, I must admit I have a soft spot for anarchy.  Biology is messy.  Messy makes for such a resource-filled, creative start.

Yet, I see what a creatively led, top-down organization such as Moveon has accomplished, and it’s obvious to me that no easy conclusion can be drawn.  Balance seems necessary.  Many people whose opinions I respect reflexively lean toward the more hierarchical perspective because often you can accomplish more with fewer resources if there are fewer people giving directions to a cooperating group of folks.  …


April 6, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Activism, Auto-Biography

I was fifteen during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 that unfolded a few miles from where I lived.  Still a few months away from becoming politically aware, my hair was growing longer, which was polarizing me from my father.  My mother was back in the mental hospital.  When Lee, the new kid in the neighborhood, asked me if I wanted to attend an anti-war protest planning meeting, I said yes.  At the age of 16, I joined the ranks of the politically disaffected.

Mostly I sold buttons at political events.  I felt competent to sell things because I’d won the pup tent in Boy Scouts a couple years before.  John Yowell and I sold the most fruitcake, so we both got a tent.  My male relatives were all merchants or manufacturers.  In my world, selling stuff was what guys did.  From 1969–1971, that was my contribution to the anti-war protest.  I sold buttons.

At the Evanston Farmer’s Market in July of 2004 I saw Dale handing out flyers and selling tickets.  For a year and a half, I’d been attending meetings of Evanston Neighbors for Peace.  Dale was usually there, one of its articulate founders.  Neighbors for Peace began …


April 5, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Activism

Perhaps the most underestimated tool in the activist’s collection of inspired interventions is the meal.

Two women lead a local coalition than meets in my home twice a month:  my wife, Marcia Bernsten, and Dickelle Fonda.  Representatives from 13 peace and justice organizations from the northern suburbs of Chicago meet, eat and discuss actions.  The food is often excellent.

Taking buses to Washington, D.C., or New York City for mass rallies, Republican National Convention protests or inaugurations, I break bread repeatedly with my deeply fatigued bus companions.  Busing through the night, eating at a fluorescent and neon, jammed, bad burger chain at 4:00 in the morning, you get to know people.

When involved in organizing a series of planning meetings to make an action happen, I bring food.  It makes the gathering more female.  The Left needs all the female it can get.

They used to call them vegetarians.  At least, when I was a vegetarian that’s what I called myself.  It seems like all the young activists are vegans.  That’s like a vegetarian with an attitude, as if vegetarians didn’t have enough attitude.  I’ve never met a vegan that didn’t eat French fries.  Some subsist on them.  I suspect …

Evolutionary biology, social change activism, spiritual experience, comic art, mythology, psychology, business, anthropology and food are perhaps the passions that have most informed my way of looking at the world. All come into play when I work as an activist focused on encouraging social change. One of the most frequently emerging personal paradigms that explains my relationships with my fellow activists, and my understanding of myself, is how I understand the relationship between mythology and psychology.

In a previous posting, I noted the multilayered nature of the evolutionary dynamic called neoteny and how a biological process can impact evolution on multiple levels. I explained how neoteny might operate on a molecular, species and societal level, providing an activist with levers for encouraging social change.

There are other multilevel processes in play that impact both the world and us, the players on that 6-billion-person stage. The most subtle and powerful process of them all is our compulsion to tell and live inside a story.

Two of the different scales of the stories we hear/tell keep hitting me with remarkable frequency. At the level of culture, one narrative unfolds. And there is a second level where we speak with the voice inside …

I’ve lately noticed that the time I commit to a specific action often has less to do with the stated goals of the action that I’m working on than the next action, one that hasn’t yet emerged.

The most important feature of any project that I’m involved in is the people that I’m working closely with. Practicing the successful accomplishment of the action goals provides me the experience of establishing bonds that can be exercised again. Using an action to put people that haven’t worked together in contact with one another, and noticing when those folks have profited from the experience, I can store that information for the next action that could use this established trust.

Often the overt political goal of a particular action is secondary to the covert, larger goal of establishing relationships and cementing bonds. The medium of social and political change is people. Yet the medium of change, human beings and the bonds they form, transcends the specific goals they are working on. Multiply the trust and friendship of comrades in this fight for social change by the number of people in the culture and we end up with the profound transformation that we seek. Working …

There is a principle in evolution called neoteny.  Neoteny was widely revered in the 1800s, but an understanding of its dynamics disappeared.  Stephen J. Gould nudged them back into the limelight when he published Ontogeny and Phylogeny in 1971.  Long story short, neoteny describes the biological processes resulting in the prolongation of infant features into the adult members of their descendants.  For example, chimp-like human progenitors had babies with high foreheads, big brains relative to body size, big eyes, small chins, a playful nature, etc.  There are over 30 specific features associated with this transformation.  Humans today have many of the physical and personality features of chimp infants.  We call this effect neoteny.  Species evolution can drive infant features forward through to the adult over many generations.

Michael Behe is a much-vilified microbiologist who has concluded that many processes characteristic of molecular biology are so staggeringly complex that they could never have evolved.  Darwinists, those evolutionary biologists that believe that natural selection is the primary force in evolution, demand that all life evolves incrementally, step by step, with each step demanding an individual robust enough to survive to procreation age.  Behe says that there is stuff happening that requires leaps …

Evolution of an Activist

April 1, 2008 | 4 Comments

Category: Activism

Perhaps the question I am asked the most by other activists as we work on one project or another is, “Do you think that what we’re doing is making a difference?”

I am a deep devotee of Darwin.  But Darwinism holds little of the Darwin I admire.  Buried in the books he wrote after The Origin of Species were profound and magical conjectures about the origin of humans and the unfolding of life over single lifetimes and vast periods of time.  Darwin was a Lamarckian.  He believed that the environment and conditions of life could so influence an individual that the individual’s progeny could be transformed by the parent’s life.  This is not a theory that receives attention in our time.  For Darwin, it was so compelling that until his death, he struggled with the relationship of what we call Lamarckian principles of evolution and Darwin’s original theories:  natural selection and sexual selection.

When I am asked, “Do you think that what we’re doing is making a difference?” I think of Darwin.  Hidden in the relationship among those three evolutionary principles, Lamarckian evolution, natural selection and sexual selection, lies the secret of cultural transformation.  Placing myself where I see the …