Thursday, November 04, 2004

Calling people of ordinary conscience

Good grief, America! What is wrong with you? The man racks up debt in your name, gets your children killed and maimed, says he regrets nothing, and you haven’t changed the locks? If I were Dr. Phil, I’d say this is an unhealthy codependency you’ve got going here. Get some backbone and get that man out of your life for good. What’s that? You think you don’t deserve a better president? Girlfriend, we need to get you to a therapist, and fast.

Seriously. I confess I was blindsided. For weeks I’ve been thinking that if the election were clean, Kerry would be our next president. But the election was apparently as clean as it ever is, and Kerry lost. I’m surprised and disappointed.

Still, this may be a blessing in disguise. I think a lot of people were thinking of a Kerry victory as a panacea, as if things would be fine if only we could get Bush out of office. But of course things would not have been fine. Our soldiers would still have been wandering around in the desert, surrounded by unidentified enemies. We would still have a massive deficit and an anemic economy to deal with. The mistrust festering between the midwest and the coasts, between the south and the northeast, between the religious and the secular, would be no less purulent. But if Kerry had won, I think many of the people the Bush administration has switched on to politics (like me) would have switched right off again, feeling that we’d dodged the bullet and the danger was past.

I'm coming to realize what anyone who gets involved realizes eventually: activism is a lifetime charge. Recently I read two books that come to opposite conclusions about the effectiveness of struggle: Orwell’s 1984 and Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In 1984, Winston Smith’s effort to resist Big Brother’s authoritarian regime gets him tortured physically and psychologically and eventually executed. It’s a result that’s forecast from the beginning of the book and plays out almost mechanically, shockingly inexorable. Not great beach reading. Similarly, Mandela’s opposition to the apartheid regime got him 27 years in prison, privation and abuse, and alienation from his family. But Mandela never, ever gave up. He managed to fight injustice and indignity throughout his whole life, almost never letting bitterness or rage distract him. He treated everyone around him, including prison guards, as fellow sufferers in an unjust system, and he’s become a symbol of hope and resistance in our time.

The thing I want to emphasize is this: Mandela was not alone. In Pretoria, middle class white women stood in the streets holding protest signs. During the sham Treason Trial of 1956-1961, an Indian woman, Mrs. Thayanagee Pillay, made Mandela a hot lunch every single day. White lawyers defended the Treason Triallists for free and journalists publicized the injustice of the Trial abroad. In Holland, ordinary people descended on grocery stores and slapped stickers on the South African oranges reading, “When you eat this orange you support the killing and oppression of black people.” In America, students held sit-ins at university campuses to persuade their administrations to divest from South African companies. Some of those people did not live to see apartheid end; some of them only lived long enough to see the violence worsen in the 1980s. But even when things seemed to be stagnant, or changing for the worse, those people kept on. They saw what Winston Smith saw—the ostracism, the danger, the seeming futility of their efforts—and they decided that a struggle with no visible result is better than no struggle at all. Resistance itself humanizes.

There are more of us like Mrs. Thayanagee Pillay than like Nelson Mandela, I think. But without that little old lady bringing lunch, without the protestors on the steps of Parliament, without foreign divestment and boycotts, Nelson Mandela would have been Winston Smith. Because of them, instead of ending by accepting tyranny and a bullet in the brain, as Winston does, Nelson ends with the words: “I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

So I guess what I’m saying is: let’s keep walking. This election was not a choice between salvation and damnation. A Kerry win would not have let us off the hook, but a Bush win gives us fewer opportunities to make excuses, to withdraw into our own lives and stop trying to connect with other people and promote change. So get out your posterboard and your markers and get busy. There are lots of little ways to resist and dissent, to stay involved in our communities and try to make life better for people there. And it’s important, because it is only when people of ordinary conscience are active that people of extraordinary conscience can appear.

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