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Summer reads 2021

Book recommendations for a summer of freedom

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August 23, 2021

In the past, activism was risky business. By definition, it disrupts lives, threatens chaos, causes disorder and often ends in violence. It should, at the very least, get you in trouble with your boss. But these days, as others have noted, being an activist is simply another part of one’s career, one’s social life, one’s brand. It’s something you perform on Twitter and brag about on LinkedIn. The risk has evaporated and that begs the question: what does real activism actually look like?

This question has animated much of my reading this year: from Clayborne Carson’s Martin Luther King Jr, to Roy Foster’s examination of Ireland’s revolutionary generation in Vivid Faces. But the book that today’s Twitter activists could perhaps learn the most from is John Loughery and Blythe Randolph’s deeply researched and highly entertaining biography of Dorothy Day. This rambunctious American peace activist emerged in times that echo many of the crises we currently face, but her answer to them was, inspiringly, different.

Born to a relatively comfortable middle class family in 1897, Day enjoyed a misspent youth among the radicals of 1920s Greenwich village, falling in love with feckless journalists and drunk intellectuals, writing novels, experimenting with feminism and socialism, and trying to figure out how life should be lived. If a friend of Dorothy’s was going to be arrested — and they often were, for agitating for votes for women in the 1910s, or protesting against the arms race in the 1950s or Vietnam in the 1960s — you could safely bet that she would be right there alongside them. The Groucho Marx saying about how a good friend will try to bail you out of jail, while a best friend will be in the cell next to you, could have been written about Dorothy.

Dorothy did not have to agree with you to love you. Her worldview did not depend on ideological convergence between friends — unlike that of today’s activists, who often insist on absolute purity and cannot tolerate disagreement. While Day’s openness allowed for the hectic fun of her early life, it gathered depth and meaning when she converted to Catholicism in her early thirties and began the journey that would lead to the foundation of her influential movement and newspaper, the Catholic Worker.

Dorothy’s conversion was an enormous surprise to her friends — she ran with a bohemian set and had been inclined towards communism as a young person (who isn’t?). But she ultimately declined communism’s emphasis on material progress as the only thing mankind need bother itself over. She needed more, and she thought humanity in general did too. Dorothy saw each individual as a whole person — which helped her avoid the horrific dehumanisation of the great ideological catastrophes of the twentieth century: ones that many of today’s activists, in their determination to hate those who don’t agree with them, seem bent on replicating.

Dorothy, on the other hand, practised the love she preached. In 1933, she and Peter Maurin — a penniless French intellectual drunk on the radical potential of the Gospel — founded a “House of Hospitality” in Dorothy’s stomping ground of lower Manhattan. The House was for anyone who needed shelter, food and care — no questions asked. Crucially, no standards of behaviour or personal hygiene had to be adhered to. Dorothy liked to tell newly arrived volunteers at the House: “there are three things you have to remember about very poor people who live on the street: they don’t smell good, they aren’t grateful and they are apt to steal”.  This is not the carefully sanitised language of the modern activist; it’s the no-bullshit lowdown from someone who lived her word. Dorothy was not interested in saving people: her religiosity was non-evangelical, her compassion was not charity. It was not about control.

The results of all this acceptance were predictably chaotic, and the Lower East Side House of Hospitality was always just about to fall apart: bedbugs, unsympathetic city officials, rats, fire. Dorothy was comfortable with chaos — former hedonists often are — and it was a principle of her new faith that it was no use to live in middle class comfort while helping the poor. You had to live among them.

Day’s commitment to writing about organised labour in the 1930s brought her all across the country and her concern for racism brought her to the south long before the typical white do-gooder from the north paid attention to conditions for black people there. She, like many anti-racist campaigners today, thought that America was rendered a hypocrite through its racist treatment of its own people — but she was prepared to write about it while it was still deeply unpopular and indeed dangerous to do so. It’s amusing to imagine what Day would think of today’s booming Diversity and Inclusion industry with its corporate activism; while an advocate of brotherly love, she also had a caustic wit and a deep, instinctive distrust for any kind of institutionally mandated morality. The Catholic Church of its day did not know what to make of her; at one point, she was asked to omit the word “Catholic” from her newspaper’s title. She declined.

While Dorothy seems to have been on the “right side” of most of the big questions of the twentieth century — anti-Franco, anti-Jim Crow, anti-fascist, anti-war — she was no saint (even if the Catholic Church is currently engaged in the long process of beatifying her, it being much easier to celebrate her now that she’s dead and can no longer shame comfortable prelates with her radical poverty). She was a less than ideal mother to her daughter, but then people called to higher ideals so often fail their own families. Tamar Teresa was born when Dorothy was 29, the result of a doomed love affair (one of several). She was a wanted, cherished child, and her arrival seemed to propel Dorothy towards the spirituality that would shape the rest of her life. But Dorothy was influenced by Emmanuelle Mounier’s “personalist” Catholic philosophy, which was sceptical of the bourgeois family and its emphasis on security and comfort — and this made her an unreliable mother.

A life of voluntary poverty is all well and good when freely chosen; Tamar never had the luxury of that choice. Growing up in an eccentrically run housing shelter can’t have been easy, especially as Tamar got older, and her mother spent increasing amounts of time on the road. While Dorothy had an answer to most questions, her life doesn’t offer many solutions to women who have children and feel called to something more. To be fair to Dorothy though, that one’s a toughie.

Dorothy Day died in 1980. She lived a huge life in a humble way, dedicated to improving — however slightly — the lot of the very least of us. She was a true activist: “the original hippie,” as icon of the counter-culture Abbie Hoffman called her, disciplined in nothing apart from her love for her fellow man, no matter how drunk, disorderly or ideologically unsound those men (or women) were. She is pretty useless as an example, then, to activists whose work involves identifying and shaming those who have the incorrect opinions. And maybe she’s also not that useful to the rest of us either: who among us is going to embrace a life of voluntary poverty? In this era of relentless careerism, such a notion is laughably quaint.

As a life-long anti-war activist, the last decade of Day’s life saw her engage with the enormous wave of opposition to the Vietnam War. While she was heartened by the size of the protests, she was dismayed by their tenor; she hated the “contempt and ridicule” of the counter-cultural approach to activism. What would she think of current activism, which often seems comprised of only that? For Dorothy, the project of creating a better life on this earth — the project, one might in good faith assume, of all activists — had to be centred in love. And while few of us can follow fully in her footsteps — self-abnegation is not for the faint-hearted — we can perhaps learn from this.

Perhaps her most important lesson, though, for these terrifying, paralysing times, is Day’s rejection of the notion that anything or anyone will ever be “fixed”. Maurin said of the movement he created with her: “we don’t measure our success, we don’t despair and we don’t judge.” Our shambolic life on this collapsing planet is forever in crisis; we are always, like Dorothy’s Manhattan House of Hospitality, about to fall apart. But still she pushes us to answer: how can we make it better for the very least of us in the meantime?