This is an excerpt from my recent response to an activist who felt that stopping an attack on Iran was the most important issue we faced, given the horrendous likely consequences of such an attack on Middle East populations and on the global economy. A variation of this letter could have been written to any number of activists on any number of other subjects. It is not intended to invalidate any activism or the good work being done on so many issues, but rather to urge a broader perspective that results in at least a significant number of people shifting their activism upstream to changing the systems* that generate the danger, destruction, suffering and mind-boggling emerging crises we face in this century.
A passionate video version of these sentiments can be found at
I was a peace activist by the age of 12 in 1960, going on my first peace march (the SF-Moscow walk, as it passed through Pittsburgh, where I lived). I was a draft resister in the Vietnam War. During the Nuclear Freeze movement and U.S. Central American interventions in the mid 1980s, I had an epiphany, and wrote an article entitled “Who Owns the Game?”, which launched my 5-year career writing bimonthly articles for the peace strategy newsletter Thinkpeace. I wrote that as we in the peace movement successfully protested War A, the “MICE” (my satirical name for the “military industrial complex establishment”) would start War B, which we would then dutifully run across the playing field to protest. We were ultimately following the lead of the powers-that-be, running from war to war, protesting all the way, instead of changing the game, i.e., the systems that made the wars and kept us so busy. We were constantly REACTING (as “reactionaries”?), rather than strategically, pro-actively changing the game.
Gandhi was an example of a game changer. Before Gandhi, laws, clubs, guns, prisons, and threats were sufficient to keep the population under colonial control. Gandhi changed the playing field so that all the British laws, clubs, guns, prisons and threats backfired on them. The British strategies and tactics didn’t work anymore. The British had to play on GANDHI’S playing field which, as the saying goes, royally upset them. But they had no choice. They had to play his game because he changed the game and they were on his field.
When I was a peace activist, the stakes were the end of life on the planet. We faced a potential global thermonuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States EACH of whom possessed more nuclear weapons than all the current nukes in the world today (for decades averaging 60-70,000 nuclear weapons between them, compared to less than 20,000 total in the world today, 90% in the hands of US and Russia). An all-out war between those bellicose empires would have resulted in a years-long radioactive nuclear winter that would have definitely terminated civilization, almost certainly destroyed all humans, and possibly destroyed the vast majority of multicellular life on earth. A pretty thorough catastrophe.
As horrible as a nuclear Iran – or an attack on it – would be, it is nothing compared to what was our daily threat back in the 80s with a warmonger president, and tens of thousands of megatons on hair-trigger alert waiting for an accident, miscalculation, or insane leader.
So my personal response to the Iran crisis is to note that the political, economic, and media systems and cultural narratives that generate these crises (and they don’t seem to stop, do they?) are keeping us in urgent “STOP IT!!!” mode, successfully preventing us from investing the time, money, effort, strategic thinking and attention necessary to change the systems* that keep us running around saying “STOP IT!!!” I do what I can, but this overwhelming truth saddens me almost as much as the steady degradation of what little democracy we have in this country.
* Some people wonder what I mean by “changing the systems”. Loosely, “social systems” means the way we have our society set up. Here are a few examples of the kinds of change I consider to be “systemic change”:
- Get special interest money out of politics and governance (e.g., campaign finance reforms)
- Create institutions whereby ordinary people can generate wise public policy recommendations – and then arrange things so that that wisdom actually shapes public policy (e.g., the innovations I discuss in my new book “Empowering Public Wisdom“)
- “Internalize the social and environmental costs” of products into their prices so that toxic and destructive products become more expensive than responsible and sustainable ones (e.g., a carbon tax).
- Tax speculative financial activities and investments that do not support the production of real goods and services and use the significant resulting revenue to fund citizen oversight of Wall Street.
- Require all candidates for a public office to be publicly interviewed for a day by a randomly selected group of a dozen ordinary citizens.