George Lakey says political polarization offers opportunity for societal progress, but that outcome isn’t guaranteed
By Herbert Rothschild for Ashland.news
“Polarization is like a forge that heats up metal. It makes institutions malleable and susceptible to change. What kind of change occurs is up to us; it can be either good or bad. But polarization itself is neither.”
George Lakey brought that unorthodox perspective on the current state of U.S. politics to his audiences when he spoke in Ashland on Tuesday, first to about 40 people gathered at Peace House and later at the United Church of Christ (UCC). The renowned exponent of nonviolent social change was in Ashland as part of a national tour to promote his latest book, “Dancing with History: A Life for Peace and Justice.” His talks were sponsored by Peace House, South Mountain Friends Meeting (Quakers) and the UCC church.
Lakey said that a dozen years ago he had the same perspective on our increasing polarization so many commentators still have — that it was an obstacle to progress toward a more just society. What changed his mind was a study of how the Nordic countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden achieved a degree of economic justice and social harmony to a much greater extent than in the U.S.
A century ago, that wasn’t the case in Scandanavian countries. People were emigrating to the U.S. in search of a better life. In the 1920s and 1930s, those countries went through the kind of upheaval that other European countries experienced after World War I and into the Great Depression. They came out on the other side of it with social democracy. Lakey recounted this history in “Viking Economics: How the Scandanavians Got It Right — and How We Can, Too” (2016). You can hear him talk about the book on Youtube.
Lakey pointed to similarly good consequences of the 1930s and later the 1960s in the U.S. He said that the former led to the greatest advances in justice in the first half of the 20th century, and the latter to the greatest advances in the second half.
Good outcomes, however, are not guaranteed, he warned. Germany and Italy emerged from their periods of polarization into the fascisms of Mussolini and Hitler. Like metal made malleable to human control in the forge, what’s wrought out of the political opportunities that polarization makes possible are up for grabs.
In “Dancing with History,” the 85-year-old Lakey recounts stories from a lifetime of both thinking and acting for justice and peace. He is committed to nonviolent direct action in the tradition of Mohandas Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and generations of his fellow members of the Society of Friends (Quakers). Lakey was first arrested at a civil rights demonstration in 1963, and most recently arrested during a march for climate justice in 2021.
Lakey doesn’t believe, however, that such witnessing is by itself effective. It has to be part of a campaign with a well-laid plan and a winnable goal. Much of his strategic thinking is laid out in his previous work, “How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning.”
The stories in “Dancing with History” offer a trip through the various struggles of our times, beginning with the campaign to end nuclear testing in the atmosphere and including the Montgomery bus boycott, ending the Vietnam War, and gay liberation. Told with considerable humor, Lakey draws from them lessons for social change activists, such as how, he says, action reduces anxiety and solidarity is the best antidote to fear.
One excerpt Lakey read to the audience at Peace House was about the time he served as an accompanist — “a nonviolent bodyguard,” as he put it — for human rights workers in Sri Lanka in the midst of its civil wars. Assassinations were common. He realized that he was using his privilege as a white person to protect persons of color. “Decades later, I would realize that subtle strategizing of this kind shows the limitations of identity politics, which can get in the way of the bold and effective action needed to tackle oppression.”
Trained in sociology at the University of Oslo and the University of Pennsylvania, Lakey has combined an academic career with deep political engagement. He taught at Penn, Haverford College and Temple University. His last appointment was the Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change at Swarthmore College. In 2010, the National Peace and Justice Studies Association named him “Peace Educator of the Year.”
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.