For me, two recent and seemingly unconnected events have highlighted the power of ideas and the ability of civil society to
First, the recent visit to the UK of Eboo Patel, founder of
the USA’s Interfaith Youth Core. Eboo’s thesis is that we are living at the
collision-point of four seismic shifts: religious revival; increasing
interaction between people of different faiths; a youth bulge (he notes approximately
60 per cent of Iranians, for example, are under 30); and the fact that extremists are
the only people organising around the first three trends.
I don’t know enough to be able to interrogate Eboo’s
hypothesis with any real vigour. But what was startling about listening to the
man was his incredible ability to bestride the intellectual debate whilst
simultaneously evincing a sharply practical focus on what civil society can do.
The Interfaith Youth Core is all
about practical action, bringing young people together from diverse backgrounds
to talk and work together on issues of concern to them and their communities.
Theologian, historian, philosopher, sociologist, this former Rhodes Scholar,
and now part-time adviser to President Obama, seems, above all, a man of action.
away inspired at his ability to combine cool analytical rigour with a warm,
pragmatic awareness of the inevitable messiness of community organising. And as
I did, I was reminded once again of the incredible power that lies in
harnessing ideas to movements – and that, whilst in the UK,
in the third sector we (inevitably and maybe justifiably) spend a great deal of
time discussing institutions and personalities, we should remember the wider
notion of civil society and the part we play in long-term social change.
Which, in turn, led me to get unfeasibly excited about Rage
Against the Machine’s rise to the top of the charts courtesy of a campaign
against the corporatisation of popular culture which started out on a Facebook
page and ended up capturing the imagination (for a few days at least) of much
of the population. And all thanks to the ingenuity and savvy of Jon and
Tracy Morter, getting active with their idea.
Say what you like about the song Killing
in the Name – Radio 1 DJ Bruno Brookes played
the full uncensored version live on his show in 1993 and was sacked in 1995,
pop-pickers – this feels to me like another neat illustration of the power of
people coming together around an idea – the notion at the heart of civil
So as we slink off into
the snow and start the new year, let’s remember that we’re about ideas and social
movements as well as institutions and services.
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