Whether or not the ancient Chinese actually had such a curse, we are indeed living in interesting times. Thankfully, “interesting” is not all bad.
In quiet moments I look around at all the things that should, by rights, send me into the depths of despair… and instead, in defiance of all logic, feel a tremendous hope. I realize that the temptation to ask if I have completely lost my mind must be almost overwhelming, but bear with me, and I will attempt to explain… well… why I haven’t.
Never has the fight for justice - social, environmental, economical - been so important - not because victory is so far away, but because it is so close. Not quite close enough to touch yet, but if you look quickly you can sometimes catch a glimpse of it struggling over the horizon – clumsy, rather unwieldy and prone to falls like a baby just learning to walk, but determined to eventually master the process.
When you view the ominous events and actions of the past few years in the “darkest before dawn” frame of mind, they take on new meaning – those who are feeling their power slipping away are hastening to enshrine their views in law, and to muddle the minds of the citizenry, in the hope that by so doing they will be able to stem the tide of history. It won’t work.
So many “democracies” too appear to be deciding that a democracy, a republic, one person one vote, representative of the will of the people, is not such a good idea after all. People start to insist that that should actually mean something, you see, and that will never do.
Thus the increasing dependencies on theocratic nationalism, militarism, eliminationist rhetoric, corporatism and the insistent cultivation of a dumb and compliant populace, which are all highly unpleasant, exceedingly dangerous… and the manifestations of last ditch desperation.
You will be forgiven if you are not yet convinced of my attachment to reality but follow along a little longer and my reasoning will become clear.
Each and every day we bask in the legacies of the social movements and activists that have come before us. Great and brave men and women, many trembling in fright and horror at the thought of what they were doing, and the likely repercussions of the stands they were taking, but who did it anyway. Imagine standing up, time after time, fully knowing that you are going to be knocked down, maybe never to get up again. But also believing that every time you do get up, your foot is placed just a tiny bit further than it was… maybe even an entire inch… and that the next person who stands up starts from where you left off.
The world is a very different place today because of actions taken and lives committed to change in the yesterdays. And it can and will be a different place in the tomorrows because of actions taken and lives committed to making changes today. Despite what seem to be very dark times, we are starting from a much better position in this era than we have ever been in before. Things that used to be common practices are now considered wrong – most beyond debate.
That the struggle to make sure these gains are fully realized (and not rolled back) is constant does not detract from the fact that equal rights for all is the accepted “civilized” standard. Some may have an imperfect understanding of what “all” means, not to mention “rights”, but we’re working on that. That non-whites, women, gays and lesbians are equal citizens anywhere, that the slavery of another human being is not tolerated, that reproductive justice is a vital part of the lives of women, that people who do a days work deserve a days pay – to the people on the front lines even just sixty years ago, and especially to those who labored in the shadows, these things must have seemed like a very far off and almost impossible dream. Still, they dreamed. And here we stand today.
We did that.
I’ve never quite understood people who buy into the entire “wimpy, soft Liberals and Leftists” trope. What are they talking about? Courage doesn’t lie in the one driving the tank bristling with firepower and the ability to easily crush underfoot, but in the one standing in front of it, armed only with a couple of shopping bags. Courage doesn’t lie in the forces who have the might of law and history behind them, demanding to be obeyed, but in the small woman who refuses to give up her seat.
Speaking truth to power, when it’s likely to get you tossed into jail or ostracized, refusing to run with the pack - choosing instead to stand with the few against injustice, planting yourself in the path of a vicious foe, not for your own protection but for that of those weaker who are standing behind you… now that is courage. That is progressivism, liberalism, leftism, kumbaya idealists, moralism - whatever you want to call it.
It awes me sometimes to realize that there are few places on this earth where you can take a step and not tread in the footsteps of giants. We don’t know all their names, what occurred in their lives, who they loved, when or how they died or anything else about them. But that they, before any of the large social movements ever began, stood up (or sat down) and said “No more.” cannot be in doubt. It took all the “little” people (giant though their small actions may be) to change the course of history or society. We did that. One by one, and together.
Gather that thought – draw it closely around you like a soft, comforting heirloom blanket, woven by an untold variety of fingers… blunt edged and worked roughened, crisscrossed with scars and lines, soft as a baby’s bottom, every color and size imaginable, each contributing a strand, gossamer fine and tough as tungsten… a weave to which each of us who work for justice and peace add our own unique patterns as we move through life, to be later passed on to those who come after us.
Never should we lose sight of all the work still to be done to bring about a just world, but we must not allow that to obscure our view of the triumphs already gained. The forces for justice, equality, dignity and humanity cannot and will not be denied… we are unbeatable, awe inspiring and effective. What do “the powers that be” fear most? Us, and what we can accomplish together, when we stand up for one another, and for the dignity and rights of every person.
There may be no time to rest on laurels, as we have a long ways to go yet, but there is always time to think of how far we really have come, and to remember… we did that. We are the unstoppable dynamism that has changed history, sometimes inch by inch, since the beginning of time and we are the ones that can and will do it again - and no one can take that away from us.
originally published Jan '06, in Human Beams: Our Society
(with minor edits)