Timeless Relevance: “Turn, Turn, Turn” at 50

by Frank Fear on August 29, 2014

The year was 1965 and the Viet Nam War lingered. Unsettled Americans (youth especially) sought a clarion call. In October they got it. A new rock-folk group, “The Byrds” released a song, an anthem for peace that also became the nation’s #1 song. The song was “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Written by legendary Pete Seeger in the ‘50s during a time of suspicion (The McCarthy Era) and concern (nuclear proliferation), “Turn’s” lyrics are drawn from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8  (with words attributed to King Solomon). The song begins with a well-known refrain:

“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Turn” is a gentle expression of life’s ebb and flow—it’s about time, context, and change:

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep.

What’s “Turn’s” activist value? When people feel “enough is enough,” when they can no longer accept the status quo, it’s time to mobilize around a common cause—a time to speak up, act out, and seek change. It’s Organizing 101.

Back in 1965 unacceptable circumstances had titles and culprits had faces, a dynamic that continued into the ‘70s with Watergate and Nixon. And while there are plenty of reasons to be wary still of institutional power, there’s more to it today. American society needs to address a different kind of turn. It lives on Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Main Street, and right next door…everywhere. What is it?

An inward-slanted obsession has become “the new normal” in America today: self-interest infuses personal ways of valuing and acting. It’s mostly about me, and much less about us, especially the collective us (unless it’s about the “tribal us”). This cultural dynamic has gained prominence in stealth-like fashion. Without fanfare, or even much discussion (let alone critique), self-focusing attitudes and behaviors are accepted widely as “routine.”

Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and her colleagues have studied this dynamic. In one study they analyzed words and phrases in print between the years 1960 and 2008. They found that ego-focused language “increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases” with greater emphasis on individualism and less focus on values. In another study researchers analyzed attitudinal differences across generations of young adults for the years 1966 to 2009. The attitudes of Baby Boomers (born from 1946-61) were compared with young adults of subsequent generations. Researchers found that post-’61 respondents placed more emphasis on “extrinsic values (money, image, fame)” than on “intrinsic values (self-acceptance, affiliation, community).

Consider those outcomes in conjunction with Linda Churney’s interpretation of the student protest era of the 1960s: “Dissatisfied with the world they inherited … the youth of the 1960s formed a “counter-culture” which rejected many of the fundamental values of American society.” It was a time when American folk singers—Seeger, Guthrie, Baez, Dylan, Chapin, and Peter, Paul, and Mary among others–spoke on matters of peace, justice, humanity, and hypocrisy, too. Their work made people think and often stirred them to act. And many policy platforms of the time—“The Great Society,” The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and The Voting Rights Act of 1965—weren’t about serving self: they were about serving the greater good, particularly the marginalized and the poor.

What’s the difference between now and then? The “me-focus” picked up steam in the 1980s. The Reagan Years brought major changes in economic and social policy. “Reaganomics” was wedded to supply-side economics (“trickle-down” economics); and social programs were viewed skeptically, called “entitlements,” which needed careful managing. The best social policy was business expansion, so the thinking went, and key pieces of Federal legislation sought just that, including the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Later, President George H. W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” initiative (1989) became a policy  platform for having the non-profit sector assume more responsibility for social welfare. And during the “Go Go” Years of the 1990s—with the digital revolutiondot.com era, and “day trading”—the stock market skyrocketed. Money was king.

That 20-year span (1980-2000) was a yeasty environment to grow neoliberalism, a social and economic philosophy that extends to this day. 

That 20-year span (1980-2000) was a yeasty environment to grow neoliberalism, a social and economic philosophy that extends to this day. Jason Hickel sees it as “common-sense furniture of everyday life.” Elizabeth Martinez and Arnoldo Garcia describe neoliberal tenants this way: financial and trade markets are predominate; public expenditures for social services should be cut; government regulations should be reduced; government-controlled services should be privatized; and “the public good” and “community” are outdated concepts—the individual should rule.

The neoliberal ethic was well reflected in the “We built that!” refrain associated with Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Neoliberals extol individual achievement and underplay, if not denigrate, shared contributions. Case in point: unions are problematic and “Right to Work” is preferred.

Neoliberalism also extends the logic of market systems into literally all aspects of social life. Individuals and institutions (across sectors) become commodities in markets; and money-related metrics are used to evaluate value and success. This ethic has redefined social life in all sorts of ways. It happens, for example, when the value a college degree is evaluated as a “Return-on-Investment”—lifetime earnings in relationship to the cost of getting a degree—with colleges and majors ranked accordingly. That approach privileges higher-paying fields and diminishes other purposes (including civic purposes) that higher education serves.

The New York Times essayist David Brooks believes the influence of “a commercial culture” has induced today’s focus-on-self. So while “it’s natural that many people would organize their lives in utilitarian and consequentialist terms,” he also thinks the emphasis has gone too far. “It’s possible to get carried away with this kind of thinking,” he writes, because “human life is not just a means to produce outcomes.”

The neoliberal ethic has infected America’s institutions and organizations, too. Many are self-absorbed—hyper-focused on internal matters, lathered with self-promotion. The consequences often serve to erode public trust. Examples include tax-dodging corporate inversion (private sector); The Veterans Administration debacle (public sector); and insular responses to child predation (non-profit sector). An inward-facing tilt (“what’s best for the organization”) exists across the country as John Creighton and Richard Harwood found in their national study. They gave it a name: “the organization-first approach.”

The metamorphosis to self-absorption works often happens without fanfare. It evolves. It starts with rotation of executive leadership or when board leadership changes (one or the other comes first). After that, new administrators are appointed in key positions up and down the organization. New institutional goals come next—and aligned policies and practices follow—both designed to “fit the new reality.” All of this could be done for the public good but, instead, the outcomes emphasize money, organizational achievements, and brand advancement and protection.

None of these changes is accompanied by much debate, and critique is almost never sought or welcome, but the evolution does leave a fingerprint. It comes by way of the language used to describe organizational intent, priorities, and directions—from people-oriented (before) to organizationally-focused (after). Some public and non-profit institutions even adopt slogans-mottos that befit products and services in the commercial market. ”Branding” has become the rage.

Whatever happened to simply declaring what’s best for people? Those words—carrying a strong populist ring—should be an American anthem. Growing up in the 1960s I assumed it was and, more so, that it would always be. I was wrong. I underestimated the consequences of Robert Bellah’s warning—chronicled thirty years ago (1985)—in his book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.


The “me-first,” self-absorbed ethic is a well-developed social pathology. America, the patient, is in triage. It will take incredible energy and effort—undertaken with wise, strategic, and ingenious intent—to accomplish the “turn” this country so desperately needs.

Progressives everywhere understand what I’m talking about. They’re already working to effect “a turn.” As Water Moss put it recently: “Higher values and a higher goal, seeking the common good, must take precedence…. Our task as progressives is to help bring about such progress.” But the prognosis isn’t good. The “me-first,” self-absorbed ethic is a well-developed social pathology. America, the patient, is in triage. It will take incredible energy and effort—undertaken with wise, strategic, and ingenious intent—to accomplish the “turn” this country so desperately needs.

How? The biggest challenge is this: democracy isn’t working as it should. Robert Reich wrote about it recently in “The Disease of Democracy” published in the LA Progressive. Dysfunctionality is the result of a perfect storm, Reich contends, the confluence of increasing elite influence coupled with increasing citizen disengagement. Elites have learned how to subvert political and institutional systems for personal aims. Money is the fuel, not only in political campaigns, but also in non-profit and public affairs. With “philanthrocapitalism” elites donate significantly for charitable purposes and in public projects. It’s worthwhile but hegemonic, too. This influence-by-money wave is taking place at a time when citizens are less engaged in civic and political affairs—not only politically, but also in the “roll up your sleeves” type of engagement that comes with participating in public interest groups and associations. A considerable amount of work that citizens used to do is being done for them today by professionals employed in non-profit and public organizations.

To combat the current reality Reich argues that citizens need to develop “countervailing power” (borrowing Kenneth Galbraith’s term). Doing so would get America “back toward a democracy,” Reich asserts. He believes that can happen if citizens get “politically active once again, becoming organized and mobilized.”

But how? For starters, let’s be clear: there isn’t a “best way” for citizens to gain countervailing power. It will take a variety of ways—each with a different modality—to bring about the change we need. Secondly, there’s the important matter of how citizens engage. My strong preference: democratic means should be used to achieve democratic ends. Citizens take a Gandhian approach that way: they become the change they seek in the world.

What countervailing powers can be used to advance democratic purposes? Six are discussed here: marches and rallies, elective office and getting out the vote, policy reformation, activism, information and commentary, and local engagement.

Marches and rallies

Anyone who lived through the ‘60s will recall the important function served by citizen gatherings. The historical “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” (1963) is perhaps the best example, but there were other notable gatherings, including many on college campuses (e.g., Columbia University, 1968). But few national events are taking place today. Yet, as Michael Hertz asks in a recent LA Progressive piece: “Is now the time for a day of national protest?” The answer may well be “yes” and the circumstances in Ferguson may propel it.

Elective office and voting rights

The recent elections of Progressives to key municipal offices—Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, MS and Bill De Blasio in NYC—gives hope. But the experiment in Jackson was altered significantly when Lumumba passed away unexpectedly and political challenges in NYC are stressing De Blasio’s platform for change. And while there are Progressives in Congress—notably Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—the numbers are few. But despite challenges the work of electing Progressives—at all levels—is still a priority. Equally important is helping people exercise their right to vote. There’s concern. The efforts to restrict voting rights are unlike anything this country has seen in decades, and changes made by The U.S. Supreme Court to The Voting Rights Act could produce new voting restrictions in nearly half of the states. This circumstance is problematic, contentious, and threatens core democratic rights.

Policy adjustments

The emphasis on private gain vis-à-vis the public good is one way to frame the neoliberal-progressive distinction—a distinction that sometimes comes to the fore in corporate decision making. Consider what happened recently when the Walgreen Corporation announced its intention to move its corporate headquarters overseas (a tax inversion). It was seen as a positive move on Wall Street (estimated to save the company $4 billion over 5 years) but it was also protested by many American citizens. Wall Street reacted after Walgreen’s made the decision—partly in response to public pressure—to stay in the U.S.: the stock price dropped from $72 to $59 a share in a matter of days. This outcome shows you what happens when “winning” is framed in either/or terms. Thankfully there are both-and examples—where private gain and public good go hand-in-hand—and those examples represent a public policy future. Robert Shiller offers an example in an essay published recently in The New York Times. It’s the emergence of the “Benefit-Corporation”: companies that are incorporated to serve a broad set of stakeholders, including employees, the community, the environment, etc.—not just company stockholders. Hundreds of B-Corporations exist today and over half of the states have passed laws enabling their incorporation. Shiller offers another both-and example in his book, Finance and the Good Society—“the participation nonprofit.” In this organizational form non-profit donors secure shares just as they would in a corporation. Although not without a downside, this approach gives the financially contributing public more say in non-profit programs and directions.   

Collective action

The fourth source of countervailing power—a tradition among Progressives—is collective action. The difference today (from decades past) is the way activists—across issues and locations—connect through social media. The emergence of technologies for democratic purposes is a defining characteristic of our time.William Dutton has labeled “connected citizens” The Fifth Estate—a powerful force for change (e.g., consider how technology fueled The Arab Spring movement). Citizens share information and critique; have access to tools and resources; discuss grievances, aspirations, and hopes; take collective action, and much, much more. The Fifth Estate enables the creation of citizen-driven, distance-connecting, and self-organizing activist networks. That’s happening currently as citizens express disdain over the proposed Burger King-Tim Horton’s merger, a move that would shift corporate headquarters to Canada. #BoycottBurgerKing

News and commentary

Progressive news and commentary sources represent the fifth countervailing source. The mainstream media has limits in relationship to serving democratic purposes. But outlets like LA Progressive, The NationProgressive Radioand LINK-TV expose the public to authors and literature, commentators, and interpretations that inform understanding and energize democratic action. And social media (Twitter especially) makes it easy for citizens to “Follow” Progressive outlets and analysts—to keep up-to-date and informed. Citizens can engage directly in this work, too, by writing Letters to the Editor and authoring Guest Opinions in newspapers. Other options include starting an internet radio station and uploading audio files on platforms such as SoundCloud. These public avenues enable Progressives everywhere to speak on issues that matter to them.

Local action

The final—and very important force—is what happens locally. Local efforts include all the options discussed previously, but there’s something else: infiltrating organizations and institutions that neoliberals control—serving as volunteers and becoming board members, staff members, and executives. It’s not about making a frontal assault for change: using that approach will yield resistance and push-back. It’s about leading quietly and democratically with values and principles—consistently putting “the people” first—and (over time) generating as much social and political capital as possible … on school boards, in non-profit organizations, in your neighborhood, at city hall … everywhere. When undertaken skillfully this is a non-threatening approach to change because it’s not a “hard-sell”: it gives people a chance to warm up to ideas and approaches, options they might reject otherwise.

The six options described here represent a fanning-out and embedding strategy. If undertaken extensively and persistently they can usher in change organically, the kind that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in The Tipping Point. Years ago Gladwell wanted to find out why NYC’s crime rate had dropped. He assumed he’d find a trigger point—a decision, a policy, and program. Instead he found a number of like-focused initiatives, most undertaken independently, by a variety of sponsors: the crime drop was the result of collective and disparate action. Social change spread much like a disease: this social infection reached a tipping point and positive change ensued.

We need to a get to a tipping point today. We can take heart about the prospects, too. “Turn” ends this way

I swear it’s not too late!

This piece first appeared in the LA Progressive




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