Celebrating Hellraisers: Barbara Dudley

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Barbara Dudley’s resume reads like a guided tour of activist highlights from the past quarter-century: the anti-war movement; the Berkeley Tenants Organization Committee; the socialist-feminist movement; the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board; a move to New York to become president of the National Lawyers Guild; and then director of the Veatch Program, one of the nation’s major funders of progressive political causes. Finally, three years ago, she moved to Washington, D.C., to become executive director of Greenpeace U.S.A.

Looking back at more than two decades of political involvement, Dudley takes some solace in remembering that this isn’t the first time things appeared bleak. “In 1976, I was downright discouraged. Everyone had gotten really pure about politics. What brought down the socialist-feminist movement, for instance, was the debate about which oppression was more primary–race or class or gender. That’s like asking how many angels dance on the head of a pin.

“The left had an uneasiness about power,” she recalls. “We were afraid of being corrupted, which can happen with power. So we didn’t even try.”

Dudley points to the overwhelmingly upper-middle-class background of New Left activists–mostly kids radicalized at private universities–as the reason for such squeamishness. “We could all be very pure by being very radical as individuals. But if you’re going to live that way, you can’t get down and dirty and do real politics.

“The primary lesson we need to learn,” she observes, “is not to pick each other to death. Look at the Christian Coalition. They know how to compromise.”

Noting that the Christian Coalition might be perceiving the same problems as the left, Dudley envisions a world in which Pentecostal deacons might be important organizers for economic justice and in which new Greenpeace members come from the current ranks of the Wise Use movement.

“I wouldn’t start with the left. It would be a much broader group of people, and I’d invite the left to join. I’m not sure they would even call this progressive. But it would be people interested in a way of community that precedes global capitalism. It’s called local self-reliance.”

Dudley speculates that critics will say this new movement will ruin the economy. “That’s hogwash. This would create all sorts of jobs. And it’s easy to talk to people about these things. A lot of people share a suspicion of both big government and big business. You could talk about this in any fundamentalist church and people would agree with you. They don’t want to live in a Wal-Mart world.”

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