Two seemingly unrelated events got me thinking this week: Jack Kevorkian's release from jail and the firing of David Rubenstein as Executive Director of The Save Darfur Coalition.
Does advocacy in America just pay lip service to free speech and democracy or can it really achieve change? Is it fated to never survive its infancy?
The conditions of Jack Kevorkian's parole do not permit him to advocate for assisted suicide and euthanasia. He was imprisoned 8 years ago after submitting the evidence for his own conviction via a CBS 60 Minutes segment where he taped an assisted suicide. Upon his release, former members of the Hemlock Society said that the movement essentially died with Kevorkian's conviction for 2nd degree murder. A powerful advocacy movement was essentially closed down through the judiciary -- the victim of its own success.
Time marches on. Genocide unfurls half way across the world. The few in the know are outraged. 60 Minutes films a segment too. A coalition is formed to raise awareness. At the beginning it is little more than a man with a cell phone. It becomes the biggest advocacy organization on this issue, its message so pure and simple that over a million people join up to SAVE DARFUR. Within a handful of years The Save Darfur Coalition is the de-facto behemoth of the movement with an annual budget of $15 million, organizing rallies, selling literally millions of green bracelets and successfully petitioning President Bush to impose sanctions on Sudan.
So what happens next? The knives are drawn. The advocacy is so successful, people complain (endlessly) and someone must be made to pay: goodbye Mr. Rubenstein. Of course it is more complicated, there is a back story: should Save Darfur have spent so much money on advertising, does the advertising threaten the work of aid groups on the ground, is this an organization or a coalition? When the advocacy really works who is threatened? In this case perhaps it was not just the government of Sudan.
When advocacy becomes successful, when it has outgrown its infancy, individuals and the system start to bring it down. We love free speech and grass roots movements, but can we accept the changes they seek to effect? Alas, perhaps not.