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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2010 > September 2010 > Realitopia



Wordsmithing an Eternal Conflict

Thursday 2 September 2010, by Michael Ryan Wiseman

"... It speaks to the very heart of the dilemma amongst us utopians— how do you move a pile of excrement without getting any on you? At the very least, you are bound to smell of it..."

Greetings Dear Reader,

I recently read a piece by an ex-Alternatives member that was posted on the little-beaver-that-could that is the admirably plucky website. Entitled “The term ‘NGO’ is a misnomer”, the article explores the clout of government in the non-governmental world. And while those remaining at Alternatives would presumably disagree with the cut, thrust, and construction of the argumentation and its conclusions, the NGO nomenclature debate is important. It speaks to the very heart of the dilemma amongst us utopians— how do you move a pile of excrement without getting any on you? At the very least, you are bound to smell of it.

We unhappy few, we band of utopians, must acknowledge our world as it is: messy, relative, and awash with competing claims to power. If we decide to take our toys and go home because life on the playground can be filled with meanies and, frankly, doo-doo heads, all we will have done is abandoned their prey, i.e. those we were trying to help in the first place. Must we leave? Where should we go? What should we do? What anywhere is beyond the taint of anything?

The debate is larger than the appropriateness of the term NGO, or the ethical quagmire of whether one can do good even after having accepted money from a dubious source and/or money obtained by dubious means— here a duplicitous government, there private capital a la Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.

Money is necessary. Sigh. Most of us probably regret that this is the case, we may say, “The capitalist system is imperfect and it needs money, so all money is imperfect. We are all culpable just for using it. But what am I to do right now, with money in my pocket, family and friends with empty stomachs, and a baker around the corner.”

The fundamental question is not what should utopian NGOs call themselves, but can they exist? For, to exist is to engage and exchange. If they are to make any progress, they will have to make peace with an oft-putrid process. To wish power-relations away is not to define them out of existence; it is to render yourself impotent.

Would the world be any better off had Alternatives, following yet another thrashing of civil society by Canada’s increasingly intolerant-of-questions-let-alone-dissent Harper-government, committed financial hara-kiri with an impetuous blade of self-righteousness?

With the little that NGOs possess, they try to affect what they consider to be positive change by using the aforementioned excrement as fertilizer. The discerning reader will, of course, have noticed the hedge-cum-labyrinth that is “what they consider”. Here we go, I hear you scream into your fair-trade/ local-grown/ organic/ sustainable/ co-operative/ carbon neutral/ vegan/ bartered product, another dollop of relativist gruel. Hey, it ain’t easy being a utopian and a realist— a realitopian ™©®(Dibbs), while we’re mincing words.

It all boils down to the fracture that has plagued do-gooders and best-intenders since time immemorial: old souls versus young souls. Both are necessary. Both want the same things. Both find the other utterly incomprehensible. If there weren’t any old souls, nothing good would ever remain; if there weren’t any young souls, nothing bad would ever change. Welcome to realitopia, where we look beyond both our indignation of the lesser-of-two-evils and our condescension of the normative. Sure, humanity is its own— and its own planet’s— worst enemy. Sure, we have the ability to live in harmony with each other— and with our world— if only we would begin. But we will not sacrifice tomorrow’s dream on the altar of yesterday’s nightmare, and we will not let today’s reality stop us from getting to sleep tonight and out of bed in the morning.