I admit it. 2008 was a whole lot more fun. We were riding a wave of change. We had the political momentum. We reached into states and districts we thought we could win and turned them with our energy and commitment. If felt like we just might be launching a period like that of FDR or the peak of the Great Society and Civil Rights movement, when America really would move forward, when hope and history, in the words of Seamus Heaney, would finally rhyme.
Imagine if your actions made the difference in electing a Senator, Governor, or Congressional representative? Suppose the phone calls you made, money you donated, doors you knocked on, and conversations you initiated helped swing a critically close race, or two or three. Suppose the friends you dragged to the polls helped America reject the anonymous corporate dollars that threaten to drown our democracy?
You’d feel pretty good, I believe, at least about your own efforts. So why aren’t more of us doing everything we can from now through the election to ensure the best possible outcome? In 2008, millions of people reached deep and then deeper to stake our time, money, and hearts on the possibility of change. We knew it was a critical election, and helped carry Obama and the Democrats to victory. Now, too many of us feel burned and disillusioned, with dashed hopes. We’ve lost the habit of being engaged. The election seems someone else’s problem. We doubt what we do will matter–for this round or in general.
I’ve been going door-to-door canvassing, and it’s not that bad — really. It’s actually kind of fun. But only because I’ve found a way to break through people’s cynicism.
No wonder people are cynical. Crashing from the sky-high hopes of two years ago, people are worried about jobs, the economy and their own uncertain futures, about the wars we’re bogged down in and the threats to our planet. They don’t like where America is headed, don’t like most politicians or candidates, and are often uncertain whether their vote even matters. But when I talked about the takeover of our politics by destructive corporate interests, culminating in the barrage of anonymous attack ads unleashed by the Supreme Court’s ghastly Citizens United decision, they quickly became willing to listen.
In trying to get one-time Obama supporters to volunteer for the November election, I often hear this refrain: “The Democrats have sold us out. I’m tired of their spinelessness, their subservience to corporate interests. I’m staying home to teach them a lesson.” Not everyone responds this way, but enough do to make me worry, because if these people don’t show up and work to get others to vote, it could make the difference in race after neck-and-neck race, as a similar withdrawal of Democratic volunteers and voters did in 1994. As I’ve written, we either get past our broken hearts to help elect the best possible candidates between now and November, or cede even more power to the most destructive interests in America.
“OK, so your heart’s broken,” as the old song goes. So’s mine. But we have to get over it–now–and start taking action for the November election.
Granted, we’re far from where we thought we’d be when Barack Obama was elected and people danced in the streets. Change was on its way, spearheaded by Obama’s soaring words and by the millions of ordinary Americans who got involved as never before to help carry him to victory. We thought we’d finally created the opening for a historic transformation.
Now, too many of us watch morosely from the sidelines, feeling disappointed, spurned, and betrayed, wondering if anything we can do will matter. We’re angered by the gap between Obama’s lofty campaign rhetoric and his reality of half-steps and compromises, and by his failure to fight passionately for his policies. We’re angered that we dared to hope for more. We’re angered at scorched-earth Republican obstructionism, a Supreme Court inviting corporations to buy our democracy at will, and a public all too receptive to blatant lies. In response, we decide not to let our hearts get broken again by taking the risk of working for change, at least not in the electoral arena. We feel this way even though most of us have done little since Obama took office to create the kind of sustained grassroots movements that could have actually pressed him and a resistant Senate to take stronger stands.
So how do we act in the upcoming election despite dashed hopes? How do we do this in a way that builds for the future?
When people hesitate to take a stand on issues from the Gulf oil spill to the horror show off the coast of Gaza, it’s often because they’re unsure of the outcomes of their actions. The issues themselves can be complex and overwhelming. I’ve talked in an earlier Soul of a Citizen excerpt about the trap I call the perfect standard, where we feel we need to know every conceivable answer before we start to take a stand. But we also hold back because all our actions seem fruitless or compromised and because we’re uncertain just how they’ll will play out. Yet acting despite this ambiguity is often the most effective way to make change.
Heartfelt social involvement inevitably leads us into uncertain spiritual and emotional terrain. Theologian George Johnson amplifies this point in Beyond Guilt and Powerlessness. “Most of us,” he says, “are more comfortable with answers than with questions. When faced with a problem we generally approach it with the assumption that information, insights, and proper action will bring satisfactory solutions. We want to fix things right now.”
But as Johnson explains, “the reality of a broken world” often leads to ambiguity rather than certainty. “What we thought, believed, assumed, or followed is suddenly brought into question …. Receiving more information unsettles us rather than making things clear and easy …. It should not surprise us that our journey into the lives of those who cry for help will be discomforting.”
As a result, those of us who work for social justice often have no choice but to pursue our fundamental goals by approaches that are sometimes unclear, ad hoc, and seemingly contradictory. I remember one Vietnam-era demonstration in San Francisco that focused on the role of major oil companies in promoting the war. My friends and I drove the 35 miles to get there. As we stopped to fill up at a gas station, we felt more than a little absurd, but there was no other reasonable way to get there. I experience a similar disjunction when flying across the country to give climate change talks that I hope will move people to act, while contributing to the very greenhouse gases I’m aiming to reduce.
We’re used to dealing with contradictory situations in our personal lives. We love family and friends despite their flaws and missteps, sometimes major ones, while trying to help steer them do what’s right. A lonely few wait indefinitely for partners who match their romantic ideal in every possible way, but most of us take the leap of falling in love with people who, like ourselves, fall well short of faultlessness; then we do our best to love them for who they are. Anyone who has children knows that they are the very embodiment of unpredictability. We can influence, but surely not control them. To all those who are dear to us we can only respond, moment by moment, as lovingly and mindfully as possible, improvising as we go. We embrace these necessarily uncertain human bonds, because the alternative is a life of isolation.
Effective public involvement demands a similar tolerance for our own doubts and mixed feelings, and for the inevitably partial nature of almost all of our victories. Think of our relationship to political leaders we have supported. We work for their campaigns knowing that it may take at least as much effort to convince them to act with courage and vision once in office as it did to help them get elected to begin with. The Gulf oil disaster is an example. The Minerals Management Service, the Federal agency that bent the rules to allow the drilling to begin with, was riddled with Bush/Cheney appointees who’d spent their entire careers taking lavish gifts from the oil industry while granting them every favor they’d wanted. If McCain and Palin were in charge, we’d have “drill baby drill” until the shores of the Potomac were soaked with oil.
But many of us are also profoundly frustrated that Obama hasn’t been tougher in responding to this immensely challenging crisis. We want him to put the government in charge of the efforts to plug the leak. We want him and Congress to remove the oil-drilling liability cap so the costs of the disaster will be borne by BP, Halliburton and Transocean, instead of the taxpayers and the ordinary citizens whose lives and livelihoods are being destroyed. We want him to lead on shifting our economy away from coal and oil. We need to speak out on all of these issues and more, and find ways of pressuring Obama to lead, as when he recently advocated rolling back “billions of dollars in tax breaks” for oil companies and using the money for clean energy research and development. Yet the magnitude of the crises we face and the ambivalencies of his responses make it easy to write off the very possibilities of our doing this. By dismissing them because we want all our victories to be pure, we end up dismissing our own power.
When we do act, others may view us as heroic knights riding in to save the day, but we’re more like knights on rickety tricycles, clutching our hesitations along the way. Gandhi called his efforts “experiments in truth,” because successful approaches could be discovered only through trial and error. As I’ve explored, Gandhi himself was once so literally tongue-tied he could not get a single sentence out while advocating for his clients in court, and consequently lost all his cases. So we grow into our involvements and strengths, taking action despite all our uncertainties.
We might therefore characterize the citizens who make the most difference in this difficult time as people of imperfect character, acting on the basis of imperfect knowledge, for causes that may be imperfect as well and in circumstances they’d rarely have chosen. I think that’s a profile any of us could match. If the change we need occurs, it’s those who act for justice despite their doubts, limitations, and uncertainties who will ultimately bring it about.
Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of “Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times” by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin’s Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, “Soul” has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it “wonderful…rich with specific experience.” Alice Walker says, “The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love.” Bill McKibben calls it “a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity.”
Loeb also wrote “The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,” the History Channel and American Book Association’s #3 political book of 2004.
For more information, to hear Loeb’s live interviews and talks, or to receive Loeb’s articles directly, see www.paulloeb.org. You can also join Paul’s monthly email list and follow Paul on Facebook at Facebook.com/PaulLoebBooks
From “Soul of a Citizen” by Paul Rogat Loeb. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin. Permission granted to reprint or post so long as this copyright line is included.
So, the Dog very rarely posts on the same issue in the same week, but this is a kind of breaking and important news, so please forgive the old hound as he breaks his own rules. As you may know, the great State of Maine has passed marriage equality for its gay citizens. This is a very, very big deal as it is the first State to do so without litigation as the basis of the action by the legislature. Mainers, being the good small d democrats they are also have what is known as a citizens veto provision. If you live in Maine and can get the signatures, you can get a vote to override action by the legislature. This is what is happening now in Maine. The Anti’s (the theocratic forces who don’t think all citizens should have equal rights to marry) have gotten the signatures and are trying to override the legislature.
“Originally posted at Squarestate.net”
Update: You People Rock! We have already raised the 10,000 required to get the matching 10,000 from our anonymous donor. He is so impressed that he has agreed to match everything up to 20,000 raised by midnight EST Friday. We are already at 16,098 right now, so we only have to raise 3,902 in the next 11 hours!
So, if you have not donated, here is you very last chance to make you money count twice as much towards full civil rights for all citizens!
These people have No Self Worth, I’m talking about those that just hang to this imaginary, once proud, Republican Tag. Even still calling themselves Conservative!
They allow themselves to be led around like the robots they’ve become, and frankly some on the Democratic side are just as willing, but the fall into line and march in lockstep Falls Souly on the GOP!
They’ve been Silent and Accepting of the Lies that led our Troops into Occupations and All that has come about because of that, the torturing, the no-bid contracts, the corruption, the deaths and maiming’ s…………………………………………, and oh so much more!
They’ve been Silent and Accepting as our Freedoms have been slowly stripped away, and Accepting of Rule by Executive Branch Alone ignoring the fact they have hired others to Represent Them!