by Nina Eliasoph
Cambridge University Press
$22.95, 330 pp.

Just get any activist started on the topic of apathy. Environmentalist,
union steward, soccer dad * their biggest gripe is always the indifference
of everybody else. "Don't these people care?" they fume.
Apathy is indeed rampant, and many political scientists assume it's normal;
it's the politically engaged who are weird. Left-wing sociologist Nina
Eliasoph takes the opposite tack, to say that what looks like political
apathy is not a natural state of affairs.
One key reason is society's group norms that say what is polite to talk
about. In her research for this book, Eliasoph looked at interactions
between people, what they say to each other and what kind of talk is
permitted in different contexts.
Americans devalue talk, she argues, dismissing it as "rhetoric." But
political talk is the very basis of citizen participation, she says, and
should be valued in and of itself. By tossing ideas back and forth,
unembarrassed, in the public sphere *whether at the bar or the soccer
meeting * people learn what others think and discover what they think
To test her theories, Eliasoph participated in three different types of
groups in the atomized suburbs of the San Francisco Bay area: Political
activists, "volunteers," and a country-western dance club.
In her book, she shows how activists avoid analytical, idealistic, political
talk in public settings * even in their own meetings.
The political group Eliasoph studied opposed construction of a toxic waste
incinerator, and came to be knowledgeable about the military's role in
toxics production, the place of profit in incinerator construction, and the
stonewalling of government officials. And yet they were always afraid that
such discussion in their meetings * as opposed to during a poster-making
session or over breakfast * was "going off on a tangent." They would even
apologize for bringing up such topics.
When it came to speaking at a rally or to the press, their statements of
concern focused on property values, amorphous fear, or what Eliasoph calls
"mandatory public Momism."
The discourse would often shift the very moment reporters turned on their
cameras, and shift back again the moment cameras went off. One older woman,
an activist since the civil rights movement, always dumbed down her response
to reporters: "She's a new mom and I'm an old mom. That's why we're in it.
We're worried."
I learned myself that the media encourage this stance, in the days when I
took my daughter to picket lines in a stroller; I could count on being
singled out for a sound bite.
If activists practiced self-censorship about public political talk, that was
even more true of the other groups Eliasoph joined. A volunteer group of
parents, for example, was discussing fundraising to buy computers for the
local high school, through hot dog sales and the like. A newcomer suggested
that Silicon Valley companies be asked to donate the computers, because "big
corporations take our money but they don't give it back * It's training them
to work in industry, and the corporations need that as much as the kids.
They should pay for the services the schools give them." His suggestion was
completely ignored * but buying a new Royal Dog Steamer was discussed in
great detail.
For these volunteers, silencing public-spirited political conversation was
actually their way of looking out for the common good. They picked small
topics they saw as "doable," in an effort to convince themselves and others
that "regular people really can make a difference," and to wall off the
larger sphere in which they felt powerless.
The country-westerners never discussed politics as such at all, except in
the sense that racist, sexist and homophobic jokes are a form of political
expression. Even a remark like "Coors, that's scab beer; I'll take a Bud"
produced an embarrassed silence.
The country-westerners saw anyone who took a stand on anything as "getting
on a high horse." They believed that no one could or should have an opinion
on any issue unless in possession of all the facts * which ruled out
ordinary people such as themselves and left politics in the hands of
technical experts.
The heartening point is that within a couple of years the anti-incinerator
activists did begin to value and practice open political discussion within
their group (though the newspapers still printed only Momisms). One reason
is that they discovered regional networks of groups similar to their own *
sympathetic "ears" for their voices. The other groups looked to them for
ideas, and vice versa.
"Having an encouraging audience made a difference in the group's speech,"
Eliasoph writes. At a statewide meeting of anti-toxics groups, members
talked about the implications of profit-making incinerators "front-stage"
instead of during coffee breaks.
Eliasoph's unexpected observations and humorous asides, as well as the many
quotes from the natives, bring all three types of mindsets vividly to life.
She convinced me that it was a good thing for our Detroit Labor Party
chapter to discuss impeachment, for example, even if there was no action
plan attached.
I recommend this book to any activist who's sick of boring meetings and
would like to argue for changing the culture of her group * or anyone who's
ever wondered why they should care at all.

Jane Slaughter (book reviewer) is a frequent contributor to the Metro Times. E-mail her at metrotimes@metrotimes.com