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Saturday, August 17, 2019

What Ever Happened To Arthur Hicks? The Short, Happy Life Of A Social Activist

Arthur Hicks never met a social cause he didn’t embrace.  Whether global warming, the glass ceiling, income inequality, the gender spectrum, civil rights or peace, he was on the front lines.  He was indeed a Social Justice Warrior – a lieutenant in the war against the reversal of progressive values, an officer in the struggle to restore the rightful balance of liberal democracy, a soldier in the movement to right the political ship of state.  America had indeed been loosed from its moorings and no longer resembled the fair, just, equitable society envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

The era of the Robber Barons had never disappeared.  The captains of industry today, secure and arrogant in their monied fortresses in Cupertino and Silicon Valley, were just as ruthless and rapacious as John Paul Getty, John D Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie.  While they made a big show of distributing their wealth and aiding the poor, this largesse was only window dressing – a deflective, self-interested gesture to win public opinion.  Worst of all the American public had bought this canon of greed lock, stock, and barrel.  They were less and less attentive to the needs of their less fortunate brothers and sisters, indifferent to the coming environmental holocaust, and dismissive of the new realities of transgenderism, the consecration of same-sex marriage, and the dismantling of the market economy.   It was the job of Arthur Hicks and his equally committed colleagues to reverse the trend, to educate the masses, and to take down the shibboleths of wealth, white privilege, and crass commercialism.

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A mighty task indeed, but Arthur and his friends had no doubt that they were up to it.  They were insistent, enrolled for the long haul, and as devoted to their cause as fundamentalist Christians are to the Second Coming.  In fact the social justice movement was in many ways a religion.  It had a canon, liturgy, commandments, saints, sacraments, texts, and a hierarchy of priests, bishops, and archbishops.  There was confession, retribution, penance, and restoration.  Arthur and his friends embraced this comparison.  Their fight was no less than that of the Crusades, a fight to rid the Holy Land of the infidel.  Their ambition was celestial – the pursuit of absolute good would be rewarded by a higher power, if not God then some Universal Something.  At the very least they would be remembered in the history books of The New Utopia which they would create.

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Arthur was a very busy man, for in addition to his government job (a GS-14 responsible for the reshuffling of labor regulations) and his family, he attended all important conferences, seminars, and colloquies on social, economic, and environmental justice. Washington was the only place to be, for it was not only the seat of formal power but the locus of all anti-establishment activism.  The Washington Progressive was a newsletter published by Friends of Democracy, a non-profit organization created to coordinate and guide those who had come to Washington to lobby, agitate for, and demand social change; and every weekend Arthur Hicks used it to set his agenda for the week.

Prominent as he had become in the movement, he was asked to lecture, moderate, or at least offer comments on feminism, climate change, sexual transformation, and the economic ladder.  Little preparation was needed for these events, for he was so well-versed in the chapter and verse of every issue and so eloquent and emphatic in his delivery that it all came naturally.  There was no danger of repeating himself or boring his audience with old claims because repetition was the point.  Everyone knew exactly what he was going to say and how he was going to say it.  They waited for his dramatic pauses, cheered when he took on Exxon Mobil, Goldman Sachs, and Kennecott Copper, and took their seat only when he smiled, reached out his arms, and walked back to the podium.  They would have been disappointed had he changed focus, rhythm, or tone.  It would be as if the Offertory preceded the Kyrie; or if the Agnus Dei preceded the Canon.  There was power in repetition and universal, passionate sentiment.

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Social activism defined Arthur Hicks more than anything.  It was the cause that gave his life purpose, his character definition, and his personality spirit and energy.  Before he had become a follower, his life had been one dreary, predictable episode after the other.  School, marriage, children, mid-level career, and a diffident religious faith – nothing of any uniqueness or special importance.  If he had gone on this way, he would have died unhappy, unnoticed, and soon forgotten.  The movement gave him visibility and longevity.  It would last far longer than he, but he would never be forgotten as a soldier-saint.  He woke every morning a happy, satisfied man.

Until one day, he woke out of sorts on the wrong side of the bed.  Perhaps it was his dream – a sexual adventure with a much younger woman – or the Japanese woman who caught his eye during his lecture on economic perversity who reminded him of an Edo woman on a swing in a garden of cherry blossoms; or the jackbooted contingent from Bernal Heights who had disturbed his notions of sexual equality (why did they have to dress so dykey?); or the jeers and catcalls from the balcony every time Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland was mentioned.

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Something was not right.  He felt irritated and disgruntled and slogged his way down K Street to yet another conference on blackness, the black man, and the pity of the inner city.  Even worse, niggling, unsettling thoughts began to creep into his mind. ‘Lock ‘em up’….’Who needs these buggers anyway?’….’Let the fucking place burn’ – nasty, destructive, hateful thoughts.  What gender spectrum? Who cares about the spotted owl? Round Up got rid of my weeds.   Man up, shape up, get right and off drugs and welfare.  Let the F-35s napalm the whole lot.

But worst of all was this crisis of personal doubt.  How could anyone with so many years of righteousness; such dedication and purpose; such moral certitude be beset by such questions?  Perhaps he was really a closet conservative who simply found the movement congenial and fraternal – God knows how lonely he was as an adolescent and a young man.  Or the adulation, the rush of standing on the podium before an enthusiastic, adoring crowd?

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Was he really only a charlatan, a poseur, an actor without grounding, a comedian on any given stage?

Was it weariness?  Being always up for goodness can be tiring, like holding a smile.  It certainly would be more fun to be in the devil’s swarm – doing whatever, wherever without worrying about right and wrong, never having to hold up anything.  Life was short, after all, and now well into his late middle age he was feeling it more than ever.  If there was no God (probable) and if we all die alone (certain), then what was the point of his political blather and St Vitus dance?  Had he wasted his precious life on nonsense? Was not the lesson of history that it repeats itself predictably and there can be no such thing as progress?

Arthur Hicks was not the first social justice warrior to suddenly go missing.  Thousands simply gave it up as a phase, like dope before children, or sky-diving.  Many thousands more were seduced by Mediterranean dolce vita or que será será and never looked back at what, from the perspective of Cannes or St. Tropez, looked terribly tedious and boring.  Others simply went around the bend and realized that the conservative agenda was not as retrograde as they once thought. 

There are enough young recruits to keep the movement going, for it is youthful enthusiasm, idealism, and emotional sympathy which is at the heart of progressivism.  As long as at least some young people turn down investment banking and marketing for social causes, there is no danger of its disappearance.  All well and good.  If there were no MoveOn, MSNBC, Pacifica Radio, The Nation, Al Sharpton, and the Daily Kos life would be boring.

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