The Activist's Dilemma: Reform or Radical Change

By Kanner, Allen D. | Tikkun, March/April 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Activist's Dilemma: Reform or Radical Change


Kanner, Allen D., Tikkun


THE NEW YORK TIMES FRONT-PAGE HEADLINE on October 24, 2009, read: "No Einstein in Your Crib? Get a Refund." The article described how public health lawyers threatened a class action suit against Disney in 2009 for falsely advertising its Baby Einstein videos as educational. In response, Disney is offering a refund on the videos. The New York Times called the refund "a tacit admission that [the videos] did not increase intellect." Baby Einstein, which generates $200 million annually, is itself part of a much larger marketing industry that routinely claims, without supporting evidence, that its toys, games, and videos enhance young children's cognitive development.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, of which I am a steering committee member, was responsible for exposing the Disney scam. This was easily our most successful action to date. Yet after an initial surge of enormously positive news coverage, we braced ourselves for a predictable response that we knew was on the way. Three days later it came when Whoopi Goldberg, on the popular ABC television show The View, took our campaign to task, saying, "I'm sick of people telling me what to eat, what to watch, who to be," and was interrupted by enthusiastic applause. Disney owns ABC. On its website, Disney posted a letter to parents who were seeking the refund, telling them, "Baby Einstein has been under attack by propaganda groups taking extreme positions that try to dictate what parents should do, say, and buy." Angry letters and emails began arriving, expressing similar sentiments.

Of course, there is a great deal of difference between informing parents of a scam and dictating to them how to raise their children. But when the advertising industry accuses us of being "nannies," it brings up a recurring dilemma of mine. It reminds me that as a member of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, I have chosen the path of reform, not radical change. Reformers work within the system to alter it, and therefore routinely advocate for stricter laws and regulations and more effective government enforcement.

Yet, over the years I have devoted much time to getting the government off of people's backs, be it in regard to censorship, immigration, marijuana, the draft, privacy- the list goes on and on. Ironically, when it comes to fighting rich and savvy corporations that are exploiting children, as a reformer I turn to the one entity that has some power to stop them, the government. This means more rules and regulations. The rebel within me squirms.

The question of whether major social change is best accomplished through incremental reform or radical action is an old one, but still pressingly relevant. For example, environmental and social activist Van Jones has proposed that the government solve our current economic crisis by subsidizing a "green-collar economy." Large numbers of poor and working class people could be employed to massively overhaul the nation's infrastructure so as to make it environmentally sound. In his book The Green Collar Economy, Jones anticipated that his plan would be criticized for leaving the root of the problem, the market economy, intact. He thought such a radical perspective was "justifiable- but foolish," and instead suggested we follow the lead of early civil rights activists, whose success was built on incremental change.

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