17 October 2014

In an election likely to be decided as much by voter turnout as by convincing the remaining undecided, how do we maintain the hope that's necessary to keep making the phone calls, knocking on the doors, funding the key ads, and doing all the other critical tasks to get Bush out of office?

Even those of us working hard for change hit walls of doubt and uncertainty about whether our actions really matter. Our spirits rise and fall as if on a roller coaster with each shift in the polls. In a time when lies too often seem to prevail, we wonder whether it's worthwhile to keep making the effort.

We need to remind ourselves that we never can predict all the results of our actions. A few years ago, I met a Wesleyan University student who, with a few friends, registered nearly three hundred fellow students concerned about environmental threats and cuts in government financial aid programs. The Congressman they supported won by twenty-one votes. Before they began, the student and her friends feared that their modest efforts would be irrelevant.

Even when our actions seem futile, we never really know their full influence.  Last year, when millions of us rose up against the Iraq war, many felt like their efforts made no difference. We forced a debate, but couldn't avert the war.

Yet our actions have played out in unexpected ways-as courageous actions often do, even when they seem like immediate failures. And their fruits may well make the difference in November.  If John Kerry wins, despite his own limitations, and defeats what's probably the most dangerous administration in America's history, he'll have the peace movement to thank.

During the initial flush of "Mission Accomplished" "victory," those of us who challenged the war were branded as whiners, even enemies of the troops. Bush seemed virtually unbeatable. Media pundits cheered his every move. Democrats scuttled for cover like whipped dogs. Those of us who dared to raise a contrary word felt isolated and alone, and our actions easily seemed futile.

The Bush administration continues to brand protestors present and past as disloyal. But as the occupation has unraveled, the arguments of our once-isolated voices have reached more receptive ears. Had there been no significant opposition, Bush would now have a far easier time rationalizing the war as a risk the entire country had embraced. Who could blame him that it hasn't quite worked out? Instead, our warnings (about missing Weapons of Mass Destruction, sundered ties with allies, and resistance and resentment from the Iraqi population), seem increasingly prophetic. The Iraqi war has now become a prime Republican liability.

We can thank our movement for helping to highlight these key issues, even as John Kerry needlessly distances himself from our voices. We also significantly broadened the base of those willing to actively challenge Bush's regime.  Citizens who first came in to political participation through this movement, or returned after years, then shifted to efforts like the Howard Dean campaign, and to a lesser extent, the Kucinich campaign. They're now registering voters, reaching out to the undecided, and doing all the critical tasks that give John Kerry his best possible chance to win.

What is it that enables people to take difficult stands despite all the pressures to stay silent?  What will allow us to keep on? Those who persist in the critical work of change recognize that history turns in unexpected ways, and that courage is contagious. They create engaged communities, because few can act alone. They recognize that action forges new possibilities, a process Reverend Jim Wallis describes as "believing in spite of the evidence--then watching the evidence change."

Think of heroes of the past who persevered through bleak times and helped end unjust regimes: Rosa Parks and Václav Havel did it by maintaining hope, precisely when success seemed most elusive. We think, because we've been told, that one day Parks stepped onto a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and single-handedly inaugurated the Civil Rights movement by refusing to move to the back of the bus. "Rosa Parks wasn't an activist." Garrison Keillor said a couple years ago, well-meaningly, "She was just a woman with her groceries who was tired." But by that time Parks been a civil rights activist for twelve years, was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter, and acted not alone but in concert with others. The summer before her arrest, she'd taken a ten-day workshop at the Tennessee labor and civil rights center, Highlander School, which is still going strong. Only because she and others persisted was she able to visibly make history that day on the bus.

Even in a seemingly losing cause, one person may unknowingly inspire another, and that person yet a third, who go on to change the world, or at least a small corner of it. Rosa Parks's husband Raymond convinced her to attend her first NAACP meeting, on lynching. But who got Raymond Parks involved? The links in any chain of influence are too complex to trace. But hope blooms when we realize that only by acting with courage and faith can we create these links of possibility.

Think of how people learned to act in a seemingly even more hopeless situation. In the 1970s, future Czech president Václav Havel became involved after the authorities first outlawed and then arrested the rock band Plastic People of the Universe, claiming their Frank Zappa-influenced music was "morbid" and had a "negative social impact." Havel helped organize a defense committee that evolved into the Charter 77 organization, which in turn set the stage for Czechoslovakia's broader democracy movement.

The Czech dissenters didn't instantly succeed. When we stand up for our deepest beliefs, we don't always see immediate results. But if we do our work well, our efforts will both address immediate challenges, like our immensely critical election, and also build engaged community for the long haul. We never know when our seemingly small action will make all the difference in a critical campaign. Or when someone we help take their first difficult stand will play a key role in advancing human dignity down the line. In Havel's case, critics mocked the early human rights initiatives that he and others launched, particularly a petition to free jailed dissidents. They belittled those who circulated the petitions as "exhibitionistic," dismissing their motives as an attempt "to draw attention to themselves." Dissenters everywhere receive similar treatment.

Havel's group didn't free a single political prisoner-just as our protests last year didn't stop the war.  But both immediately apparent "failures" were more significantly worthwhile. The imprisoned Czech dissidents said the mere fact that others had taken up their cause sustained them in prison. And the movement built by once seemingly hopeless actions eventually toppled a dictatorial regime. As Havel wrote, three years before the dictatorship fell, "Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart."

We need the courage to persist between now and the November election-and beyond. Too many people hold back from volunteering or even voting, because they feel politics is out of their control. We need to remind ourselves-and others-that history isn't some inevitable pendulum.  It's contingent on the hope that enables us to act.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, just published by Basic Books. Barbara Ehrenreich writes of the book, "For anyone worn down by four years of Bushism, The Impossible Will Take a Little While is a bracing double cappuccino!"Loeb is also the author of Soul of a Citizen. See www.theimpossible.org