Activist how-to guide

Issue 

Imagine If: A Handbook for ActivistsBy Joy Noble and Fiona VerityWakefield Press, 200656 pages, $9.95

If PM John Howard, education minister Julie Bishop and the various federal cabinet flat-Earthers are serious about young Australians needing to understand democracy, they could do worse than ship a couple of hundred copies of this book to every school, library, and kindergarten in the country. But they won't because the purpose of Imagine If is to try to equip people with the skills and abilities that could enable them to challenge Howard's "democracy" of prison camps, racism, fear, censorship, militarism and imprisonment without trial.

The book's authors are activists. Joy Noble has a background in social work and volunteering, and Fiona Verity has been involved in community work and activism, and is currently lecturing in the school of social administration and social work at Flinders University. Their book is a usefully concise and straightforward general tactical guide for activists. The book posits 10 basic steps for successful activism, with each step assigned a chapter and each chapter containing several points of tactical consideration regarding action and resources.

Although Imagine If is laid out as a 10-step plan,
Noble and Verity are careful to point out that the steps should be approached in reality as a dynamic and interconnected process, "a dance", rather than a prescriptive checklist. While much of the material may seem obvious to experienced activists, the key word is "experienced". To someone with no previous exposure to or knowledge of activism, and no organisational framework to provide training, this information would be invaluable. And there are a few tips that even old hands could usefully refresh themselves with occasionally.

Woven through the text, highlighting various points, are quotes and references to well-known Australian activists and the traditionally unknown or ignored community and student activists. This technique puts local activists on a par with celebrities, and helps reinforce one of the book's key points — that change relies on ordinary people, and anyone can and should take action. Perhaps the most important aspect of this book is its clear perspective that inaction is effective support of the status quo — "To express this commitment we need to do more than talk or read about what we see as the problems or injustices. We need to put ourselves on the line" — and that successful activism has to be collective and must be critical, planned, and conscious.

If there is a flaw to Imagine If, it is not a unique one, but rather something that is rampant in the modern world, particularly in academia — liberalism. We live in an era of widespread cynicism and distrust fuelled by seemingly constant displays of deliberate corporate and government corruption, collusion, subterfuge, and open attacks on civil and human rights. In this environment, the language employed in Imagine If seems unnecessarily general and moderate, and several important aspects of activism are insufficiently addressed.

While the book lays out an effective general framework for dealing with individual issues, the deep interconnectedness of many issues that activate people is only hinted at; there is little overt attempt to encourage activists to develop a political understanding or analysis of social forces; and the possibility of organised political activity as legitimate activism is not broached.

Although an analysis of systemic oppression is beyond the stated scope of this book, by neglecting to acknowledge that injustice may be intrinsic to society and that ending such injustice would necessitate overturning the old order, the authors inadvertently limit the handbook's applicability. Without such an understanding, any activist, however tactically skilled, is eventually ineffectual against the major cruelties of our world.

That said, Imagine If is a valuable initiative at a time when the moral act of activism is so necessary yet so denigrated and ridiculed by the Coalition, their media attack-dogs, the ALP, and (however humourously) by such supposedly left-leaning commentators as The Chaser. At the very least,
every movement group should get themselves a copy, but it is a book that would fill a useful space on most people's bookshelves.

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