The Producers of "The Activist" Are Apologizing For All The Wrong Reasons
A long rant.
Last week, CBS announced a new television show called The Activist, where a handful of activists will compete to be the best activist for their issue, and the winner will get to go to the G20 and deliver an impassioned call-to-action for their cause.
This show seemed incredibly stupid to me, but this is a free country, and no one is going to force me to watch it, so who cares? A lot of other people didn’t like this show as well. Yesterday, CBS announced that they were pulling the planned version and retooling it. Is it because the blowback made them doubt its appeal? No. It’s for an incredibly stupid reason.
Here’s Variety, which first reported the news:
In a joint statement, CBS and producing partners Global Citizen and Live Nation announced the format switch, saying: “‘The Activist’ was designed to show a wide audience the passion, long hours, and ingenuity that activists put into changing the world, hopefully inspiring others to do the same. However, it has become apparent the format of the show as announced distracts from the vital work these incredible activists do in their communities every day. The push for global change is not a competition and requires a global effort.
What sort of soft “everyone is a winner” loser talk is this? Activism is, by definition, a competition. Activists are advocates for issues who necessarily come into conflict with advocates of the other side of that issue. And even if that somehow weren’t true, they would still be in competition for attention and dollars with other issues and other outfits advocating for their own entirely separate causes.
Gun control activists are literally in competition with open-carry activists. Anti-tobacco activists are literally in competition with tobacco lobbyists. Pro-choice groups are literally in competition with pro-life groups. And gun control activists are also in competition with other gun control groups, because there is a finite amount of gun control donations to be had. In fact, gun control advocates are even in competition with pro-choice advocates for the attention, sweet, and savings of pro-choice people who believe in gun control! Everything about activism is competition.
“Political activism” is a concept that has been revolutionized by the internet, for both good and ill. On the one hand, the internet is an amazing tool for people to organize around an issue they strongly believe in. It has led to massive increases in funding for these groups. On the other hand, this has happened across the spectrum. It has produced opposite reactions to counter them. This doesn’t mean that nothing ever changes, but it does mean that one side doesn’t suddenly have nuclear weapons while the other side is still fighting on horseback.
Let’s say you’re an anti-fracking activist, and I ask you the following question: “is it good that more people are involved in the political process?” I imagine you’d say yes. What if I then told you that it would mean that roughly half of the people activated by this issue would be on the other side of it? Less enthusiastically, you’d probably still say yes, because political participation is something we believe is a moral good that leads to just ends. Ultimately, you’d probably think that greater civic participation would lead to the banning of fracking, because banning fracking is good and just and right. What if I then offered you an alternative: instead of all this activation and debate and organization, what if I—a genie—just offered to ban fracking with a snap of my fingers? Would you prefer that to the civic good of increased civic participation? Of course you would. Your main goal is to ban fracking. That’s your thing. Activism is about achieving things, or at least it's supposed to be. I’ve just offered you the result you want.
Of course, the activists fighting against fracking bans because of jobs and energy independence feel the exact same way, just in the other direction.
This is one of the ridiculous things about The Activist in both its original incarnation and its retooled one. It is primarily concerned with romanticizing the process, the lifestyle. It makes you the subject. But activism is not about the activists. It’s about the results. But The Activist, particularly version 2.0, is not about the results. It’s saying, “it’s cool to care and the real change is the friends you made along the way.” It’s your Instagram feed.
Let’s talk about you (which is to say the average American and not necessarily you, who as a reader of this Substack, are probably exceptionally attractive and smart):
In the era of social media, “activism” has not only become something that more people can participate in, it has actually become a requirement. You are expected to be “an activist”. Everything in every feed incentivizes you to feel strongly about something, be certain about it, and to shout it from the rooftops. And if you feel strongly about an issue, you should! That’s great! If you’ve looked into the issue and studied it and decided one policy is better than another, you should advocate for that policy. You probably shouldn’t confuse your social media posts for having much real effect, but if you believe it and have mastered it and want to post about it, godspeed.
But I don’t think anyone would suggest that most people are educated about most issues. The simple fact is that it’s hard to be educated about issues. It’s hard to know how they will play out. If you do not feel confident about your grasp on an issue, you should absolutely abstain from advocacy about it, because you’re just as likely to advocate for something that will have the opposite effect of the one you want.
“Consider the Scared Straight program that arranges confrontations between convicted criminals and youth found guilty of misdemeanors in the interest of “scaring” the youth off the path of crime,” Christopher Freiman writes in Why It’s OK To Ignore Politics. “It turns out that Scared Straight dramatically increases the odds of young people committing a crime. One study found that that program did over $200 worth of harm for every dollar spent. But only 15% of people quizzed on the program knew that it increased crime.”
It doesn’t make you a bad person if you don’t know every nuance of every policy. You’re a busy person with a job and a family and responsibilities. You spend most of your time thinking about those things, and I bet you are an expert on them. It would be a very silly life choice to put in too much real effort for things you don’t understand or feel strongly about. But Instagram tells you, you don’t need to invest too much of yourself in it. It only asks that you express your broad support for something or another.
You get all the psychological rewards of feeling like you fought in the Spanish Civil War without actually having to go to Spain. Or even know where Spain is on a map.
This is one of the main differences between you and professional activists, the type who in theory should be contestants on a show called The Activist.
There are people for whom activism is their job. They spend a lot of time thinking about that issue. Obviously, that doesn’t lead them to agree. There are activists who spend time on the issue and end up believing the exact opposite things. But both of those groups probably spend as much time thinking about their issue as you think about your job. In the same way you are expert on your own life, these people are experts at the issues they obsess over.
Now, the goal of those activists is not to make you a professional activist. Then you would be in competition with them for jobs. Their goal is to make you feel strongly about an issue they have thought more about than you. They want to move you down a funnel of caring until you partake in some contributory action: signing a petition, making a donation, etc… Maybe the way to do that is to educate you about the issue in all its complicated nuance. But it probably isn’t. Because these people aren’t educators. Your education isn’t the end goal. The end goal is that California loosens its gun restrictions or that Alaska bans off-shore drilling. You are completely irrelevant to them. You should be. Their job is to motivate/manipulate you. They would be great wellness professionals but really bad activists if they named the lobster. You are the lobster.
All of this is fine and good, but there is a context collapse that happens where the goals of professional activists—who are righteous publicists—are sometimes misaligned with broader clicktivism, and even more so with the broader public.
The presumption that everyone should be an activist leads people to feel strongly about policies they don’t know much about, and it causes them frustration and disappointment when they fail to make meaningful contributions to that movement.
Back to The Activist show: The backlash inspired one of the hosts, Julianne Hugh, to post a statement on Instagram that reads like the transcript of a hostage-taking video, which is de rigueur for things like this, but there is one line that I think is very telling.
“I heard you say that there was hypocrisy in the show because at the root of activism is a fight against capitalism and the trauma that it causes so many people and that the show itself felt like a shiny capitalist endeavor.”
It’s hard to imagine a statement that is more revealing and preposterous.
First off, of course it’s a “shiny capitalist endeavor”! CBS is a corporation in the United States! But, within the confines of that, it’s a television show that valorizes and gives free airtime to causes! It’s about as close to altruism as anyone could expect a company with shareholders to partake in.
The real problem is that it says the quiet part out loud. This is a show about left-wing activism, not activism writ large.
The idea that activism is necessarily anti-capitalist is absurd. What about the millions of people who lived and died fighting for freedom against the Soviet Union? Were they doing it out of hatred for capitalism? Or were they just not activists? They don’t count?
If you generally care about achieving change in the world, I can’t imagine anything more helpful than looking to the democratic movements that successfully toppled the Soviet Union from behind the iron curtain in the late 1980s. We don’t even need to go to Riga or Tallinn to see that activism is obviously not definitionally left-wing: open-carry activists have the word right there in the name! But a reasonable note to the producers of the show would be, “maybe one of these judges should be a Latvian baby boomer.”
Here is Variety again:
The now-abandoned format for the series had six activists representing three causes — health, education and environment — completing challenges to raise awareness about those issues during the initial four episodes. For the fifth and final episode, three of the six activists were to have been chosen (one representing each area) to go to the G20 summit in Rome at the end of October and meet with world leaders to personally press their causes. Performances from well-known musicians also would have figured into the climactic episode.
The documentary version is expected to focus on the same activists but without the “challenges” or evaluations.
So, the abandoned format is basically the same format as every reality competition show: people in one field compete with each other and get feedback from judges, and then the winner gets an ultimate prize. In the new version, not only do none of them get a big prize, none of them get feedback either.
Why does this matter? Because, well, feedback is good! There are literally people who are better at this than others. There are literally groups that are better at attaining and wielding legislative influence in the United States. No one on Earth thinks that the reason America has the laws that it has is that one group had the best idea and it won out in the end. If that were so, we wouldn’t need activists! There would be nothing to change. Sometimes you have to fight (i.e., win a competition) to make sure your wonderful goal is achieved.
Selling an idea matters. It isn’t dirty or beneath you. It’s a key part of any theory of change.
On this show, one of the good notes the judges could give these activists is: stop using the word “capitalism.” Even when people in America agree with the left on the merits of economic policy, they are turned off by their vocabulary. It isn’t difficult to see why. The United States spent the 20th-century fighting and winning an epic ideological battle in defense of capitalism. Whether you think that is good or even a fair description of the Cold War, it is a simple fact that generations of Americans have been bred to associate that word with good things. Stop saying it as if it’s the devil!
This was a lesson that people really should have learned for the last time in 2020. Let’s describe the democratic 2020 primary in a very unfair and broad way by looking at three candidates: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden.
Bernie Sanders loved to talk in the language of the Left about how capitalism is bad. He matched this rhetoric with a very left-wing policy platform.
Elizabeth Warren, who had a very similar platform, was wiser to the toxicity of disowning capitalism and instead talked about “how to make capitalism work.”
Joe Biden never used the word capitalism at all, and if pressed on it, would have answered the way Nancy Pelosi did in 2019.
Joe Biden won. Upon taking office, he immediately did a bunch of things that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wanted. Not all of them, but he did not prove to be the fiscal hawk the Left feared his language might promise.
If your primary goal is getting results, it appears that a better way of achieving them is to not be overly concerned with the left-wing purity of your language.
One theory of change is winning hearts and minds, where everyone comes together, and the sheer power of their will moves history forward. That’s a great theory. It also seems to be the one the show was concerned with back when it was at least concerned with something. But it’s not the only theory. Indeed, it’s a rather rarely successful one.
Reducing the arrows in the quiver of a Person Who Wants to Make Change to a technicolor dream of mass participation is very limiting! Nine times out of ten that is not how political policies come to pass.
Which begs the dirty name of another group activists are in competition with: lobbyists.
A cynical, inflammatory thing to say—something I would say on Twitter—would be that activists and lobbyists are the same, but that’s not true. I mean, sometimes it is but mostly what we mean when we talk about activists we think of people who might get paid for their work but who sought out the job because of the belief they already had. The personal financial interest follows the belief. When we talk about lobbyists, we are talking the opposite way around. That’s obviously not true of all lobbyists but it’s what the world means when they talk about them. Both of these groups are fine and reasonable things, but they are often in direction competition with each other.
Lobbyists, like professional activists, are people who do this for a living and think about it very deeply. They may be the mortal enemies of the activists the CBS show is thinking of, but they’re dancing at the same ball.
Let’s differentiate lobbyists from activists in another way than just who and what they advocate for; activists primarily are focused on public opinion, or at least the public-facing part of an issue battle, while lobbyists primarily are focused on the non-public-facing part. The part that happens in the shadows.
You can even see this in how we use the words: people “lobby behind closed door,” while activists “take to the streets.” In this sense, Bernie Sanders very successfully lobbied Joe Biden to accept several things as President that he seemed not to support as a candidate.
Bernie Sanders is actually a great example here. All presidential campaigns are to some extent marketing campaigns. Candidates come up with theories of the electorate and then go about trying to sell their product because they’re primarily public-facing adventures. Sanders and Biden had very different theories of the election, but they both executed their marketing plans well.
Bernie spoke to the left-wing activist base in a way that made them zealously committed to him, but the cost was that it turned off many people outside that group. Biden spoke to the normie Democrats at the cost of alienating the activist base.
On a relative scale, I think Bernie was a very successful presidential candidate. He represented a small part of the party and came from nowhere in 2016 to coming within the South Carolina primary of winning the nomination in 2020. But on an objective scale of “did you win,” he was a failure.
Thanks to his campaign marketing strategies, Bernie has a reputation for being a flame-throwing ideologue who you might think doesn’t actually get anything done in a system where you need to win over moderates in Congress.
But Bernie the Legislator is and always has been very successful. When he’s not in campaign mode, Legislator Bernie has been great at “getting things done” in the Senate, in the congress before that, and in Vermont before that. He has been great at getting laws passed. Legislator Bernie is not the Fun Bernie at presidential rallies who makes the left swoon, but in terms of actually making the laws of the United States more aligned with the goals of the left, Legislator Bernie is the far more successful version.
Bernie Sanders, the legislator, is very good at his job. One of the reasons for that is that Bernie Sanders, the lobbyist, is very good at his job.
So let’s get back to The Activist. Activism is supposed to be about accomplishing change. Therefore, a show about who is the best at activism ought to be about who is the best at accomplishing change.
I don’t think that Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are going to be available for it. But if the show were truly interested in helping these activists achieve their ultimate goals, it would have a lobbyist as a judge. Or even better, as a mentor.
Fortunately, if you’re interested in making television that’s dramatic—which confusingly it seems none of The Activist’s producers are— conservative lobbying groups are pretty good at their jobs. Pairing a gun control activist with a mentor who was a former NRA lobbyist would not only make for compelling television, it would genuinely be more constructive to gun control groups than getting feedback from influencers about how to make hashtags trend.
Of course, this would never happen, because the activists are “moral” and the lobbyist is “evil,” but being pure in this situation is a pyrrhic victory. Who better to tell gun control activists what they’re doing wrong than the 2nd amendment activists who have been so successful in stifling their progress for decades?
Which brings me to my original problem with this show: it isn’t about affecting change. It isn’t about activism. It’s about the feeling of activism. The righteous sensation of joining in arms and hiking a little bit up the pyramid scheme of America’s culture war. It’s about popularity and how good it feels to be a part of something. It’s about Instagram clicktivism. The fact that it was made worse by Instagram clicktivism is ironic and funny.
If this world of ours was The Care Bears, and we were all care bears filled with goodwill who lived on a cloud and shot hearts out of our tummies, and everything was good and nice and perfect, then when the dumbass care bear pitched this dumbass show, the other care bears would shoot helpful critiques out of their tummies, so that maybe one day, if you hoped beyond hope and wished beyond a star, the show The Care Bear Activist would become something that some care bear on some cloud might actually want to watch, and it might actually achieve something approaching its desired ends.
But we’re not care bears and we don’t live on a cloud. We are cannibals and we live on social media. And on social media, there are no winners or losers. There are only casualties.