"The more things change, the more they stay the same" is a common interpretation of a French quote by critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. Yet, as events of the past year and a half have demonstrated, sometimes things change so much that underlying assumptions must be questioned.
Western society has always had its share of extremist, fringe activists, who are generally dismissed tolerantly or not by the mainstream culture.
British journalist and tech blogger Jamie Bartlett points out that successful radicals of the past are now heroes who changed both history and culture. For instance, in the United States: "American revolutionaries, the abolitionists, the civil rights activists, the LGBTQ rights groups."
Radicals Chasing Utopia interestingly, if unevenly, chronicles Bartletts experiences embedding himself in various radical groups.
"In streets, halls, fields, chat rooms and even parliaments, more and more people are trying to change the world. And for the last two years, Ive tried to find them."
Bartletts 2014 book The Dark Net, about underground and sketchy sub-cultures in various corners of the internet, included "transhumanism," and thats where Radicals Chasing Utopia begins.
Transhumanists "believe that technology can make us physically, intellectually, even morally better."
Bartlett accompanied other journalists and fellow travellers on Zoltan Istvans quixotic 2016 presidential campaign, in a bus "redesigned to look like a giant coffin."
Some transhumanists believe even mortality can be overcome by scientific advances and obsessively careful living.
Other chapters cover anti-immigration activists in Europe, psychedelic drug experiences, the Italian Five Star Momentum movement, and a commune in Portugal attempting to establish "a healing biotope, a template of how man could live in harmony with himself, his fellow man and his environment."
Bartletts reports on most groups achieve his stated goal of "assessing them as honestly and objectively" as possible, but retaining "a degree of scepticism."
The chapter Interlude: Prevent examines the U.K. governments difficulties attempting to "deal with the spread of radical ideas that directly seek to undermine or destroy" liberal democracy.
His chapter about taking part in direct action to protest a coal mine in Wales somewhat exposes his own bias, but the rest of the book does not come across as a polemic either for or against the radicals he observes.
That chapter, The Activists Paradox, discusses the tendency of some radicals to turn off the general public, whose participation in the machinery of change is so important to fundamental shifts in cultural or political norms.
Engaging as Bartletts coverage is, reading the book can be frustrating, partly due to the overwhelming documentation. Over 50 pages of endnotes often containing additional exposition or explanation, not just attribution compete with numerous explanatory or illustrative footnotes.
Some passages point the reader to both a footnote and an endnote. Much of that information would be less intrusive if it were included in the text, rather than interrupting it.
Bartletts observations and analyses of particular groups culminate in an especially thoughtful and challenging epilogue, discussing the dilemmas and difficulties inherent in radicals who are trying to change the world.
"Their energy, imagination and passion might save us; but those very attributes might also lead to ruin and desperation. Yet, for all this, radicals remain our best hope."
Whether one agrees or disagrees with this conclusion, Bartletts book is an enjoyable and thought-provoking addition to the conversation.
Bill Rambo teaches at The Laureate Academy in St. Norbert. He adheres to the radical idea that knowledge of Shakespeare could arrest virtually all decay of the English language.
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