Hedonism: The Kryptonite of Revolution

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It is a mistake,” he said, “to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort.”

Isaac Asimov


I often give serious thought to identifying factors that work to sabotage and derail the Black Liberation Movement.

Obviously we can identify external factors like the outright false imprisonment and assassination of Black leaders, the infiltration of radical Black organizations, or the deliberate flood of drugs and corporate funding (with political strings attached) into our communities.

Internal factors also contribute to decimating or at least compromising our movements. Among these is the longing for “personal comfort” science-fiction writer Issac Asimov writes of in the quote preceding this essay. In this quote, Asimov essentially describes Hedonism.

Hedonism is the relentless pursuit of pleasure and comfort. But we all desire some degree of these things, right?

Indeed while we don’t readily admit it, hedonist tendencies arguably back much of the motivation behind college enrollment, shopping, nightlife, the enormous popularity of gambling, and the enduring appeal of restaurants, narcotics, sex appeal, infidelity, etc. But how does hedonism – the sometimes obsessive quest for pleasure and comfort – qualify as the “Kryptonite” of Revolution?

To answer this we must think about the objectives and qualitities of a revolutionary. Those engaged in cultural, political and or economic revolution seek to expose, challenge and ultimately dismantle the institutions, views, values and power arrangements of the current society. The society in question naturally views these individuals as enemies of the state and seeks to imprison, sabotage or even kill them.

Assassination, (America’s anti-liberation weapon of choice throughout the 50s-70s) has serious drawbacks: 1. It exposes to the public the inhumane and unjust nature of the empire. 2. It highlights and even legitimizes the use of violence for political ends, an idea that the masses begin contemplating for themselves. 3. It turns the assassination victim into a martyr which might immortalize the person and his/her cause.

Domestic assassination has become a less desirable tactic for the U.S. due to the reasons stated above in addition to the scrutiny this country received during deliberations of the Church Committee in the mid 70s. America now seems seems to prefer character assassination, surveillance, harrassment via the IRS, charges of “Domestic Terrorism,” blocking employment opportunities, job firings and other methods of retaliation.

Revolutionaries therefore must be willing to endure any or all of these forms of punishment, at any given time for their political activities. In a word, they must have the capacity to forego certain forms of pleasure and comfort for the higher objectives of social justice and truth.

Such discipline is near impossible for a hedonist. He must acquire certain amenities and status. He or she must have a   nice car, stable form of employment with benefits, and a fine home filled with the latest gadgets. Any other scenario is simply, well….uncomfortable. They will argue that they simply want to pay biils and secure necessities, but they are beung partially truthful.

If we attach this thinking to millions of people, we understand why many Black folk are not doing more to advance our people. Taking certain positions on the job might be grounds for getting fired; Losing a 9 to 5 means the equivalent loss of vacations, gadgets, prestige and stability…not just “necessities.”

Most are unwilling to sacrifice their pleasure or comfort to benefit the community. Most will not stand up or speak out and thus lose their access to cable television, gambling, clothes’ shopping, dining out, or any number of routine pleasures.

A nation of 35 million Black people with varying degrees of ability and educational attainment are controlled by their appetites for pleasure, comfort, status and the semblance of success (the American Dream).

Hence, hedonism is the kryptonite of Black liberation.  It literally weakens our fearlessness and confuses our priorities and values. Our appetite for sensuality and comfort curbs our righteous indignation and would-be activism.

Hedonism has us biting our tounges instead of speaking truth to power; It makes us champion individual achievement and satisfaction over collective empowerment; It causes us to excuse and defend the wealthy/powerful among us whose silence and collaboration soothe and satisfy our enemies; It makes us believe there is nothing ethically wrong with minority control of the Earth’s resources; It allows us to dismiss all the brothers begging for change or sisters living on the sidewalk as drug addicts, losers who blew precious opportunities in life or bums lacking initiative.

Hedonistic tendencies do not just compromise large areas of activity like Black liberation Movements. This pursuit of pleasure and comfort leads to a materialistic mentality that threatens our family structures as well.

In a hedonistic and materialistic culture, children equate monetary wealth and the acquisition of status symbols with success. They eschew parental wisdom in areas of character development for more relevant advice from morally indecent adults who’ve managed to amass significant savings, prestigious jobs and the status symbols that presumably “prove” ones worth. A parent only loves their child and values them if they provide money and gifts.

A young  college student seeking to become a social worker, schoolteacher, chef or community leader finds him or herself subtly challenged by parents and others to pursue a more lucrative career; Adults who do advocate for and serve the community are often seduced into becoming collaborators with the enemy in exchange for higher salaries, media attention and other promises of prosperity. Even the progressive Black church in many cases,  has exchanged their ethical and social justice priorities for a crude emphasis on “prosperity preaching.”

Clearly this country has hedonist and capitalist tendencies which along with other factors, is turning us into selfish, opportunistic, pleasure-seeking, status-driven, comfort-addicted, slaves to our appetites rather than advocates for our people. Once dedicated community organizers turned nonprofit professionals now put the community last as they jump through hoops to secure and maintain corporate funding which compromises and revonfigures their original community empowerment agendas. Teenagers view little value in truth, justice and love. Cynicism, indifference to others and political apathy pay more. Education itself is no longer valued for shaping ethics, competence, and leadership but for insuring job security, career advancement and “something to fall back on.”

We can do better, and we must. Our survival and liberation, along with our collective souls and the future of our children depend on this. Pleasure and comfort within reason are fine. But I am convinced that the relentless drive for such things weakens and even eliminates our revolutionary resolve and dooms us to become slaves to such desires. If we want to reach our potential as super men and women, we must recognize and remove the kryptonite (in all its forms) that stands in our way.


Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

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