No, We’re Not a Broken People

Published on ZNet, by David Swanson, December 30, 2009.

(3 excerpts of a long article): In 2004 I began speaking at rallies and forums around the country on issues of peace and justice, something I’ve done off-and-on ever since. Up through 2008, it was extremely unusual for questions from the audience to consist of pure defeatism. In 2009, it was rare to get through a Q&A session without being asked what the point was of trying.

And the defeatism is so contagious that it will be hard for me to make it through 2010 if people don’t shut up about how doomed we are. If current trends continue, by 2011 the only people showing up at forums on peace and justice will all be old enough to tell my grandparents they’re too young to understand how pointless it is to try. And my grandparents are dead. 

Most of the defeatist questions I get asked are more statements than questions, mostly informing those in the room of ways in which our nation is corrupted that we are all painfully aware of, but stated as much out of frustration and despair as out of any hope of hearing a miraculous solution articulated … //

… What to do?

One of the most insightful and useful articles I’ve read this year is Bruce Levine’s “Are Americans a Broken People?” published by Alternet. Levine diagnoses us as abused citizens and points out that the more we learn about how badly we’re being abused by our government, the less able we are to push back. We’re ashamed of our subservience, and every new report of it increases it.

Levine finds causes of our disempowerment in financial stress, social isolation, institutions of higher education that train submissiveness, the treating of rebelliousness with pharmaceuticals, the damaging effects of television, and the replacement of citizenship with consumerism … //

… Victory Dependency:

It has certainly been my experience that people are most willing to engage in activism when they have been winning smaller victories and when they foresee the likelihood of another bigger victory. In one way this makes logical sense: we ought to work where we think we might succeed, and use the strategies that seem most likely to work. In another sense, this is sheer lunacy. We are choosing to add our bit to the struggles that least need them and to withhold our assistance where it is most desperately demanded.

Now, it’s certainly true, as Levine (and Chomsky) suggest, that sometimes victories are more nearly within reach than it appears, and there are those who work very hard to make popular victories appear impossible. But some struggles really are difficult, really do require long-term commitments and extreme sacrifices, and must include education and persuasion as well as mobilization.

It has been my personal experience, and that of some others I know, that engaging in activism strategically directed at the most useful possible success is enjoyable, far more enjoyable than sitting on the sidelines and complaining. I don’t find that I have much use for or need of hope or the expectation of immediate victory. I find myself motivated primarily by the moral need to press for change, regardless of whether the wisest spectators predict success next week or next decade. (On the other hand, as noted at the top of this article, people’s defeatism does eventually drag me down.)

So, I’m reluctant to endorse small victories, and even more so the expectation of early victories, as a necessary ingredient in civic engagement. As I understand it, people struggled to end slavery for generations with very little to show for it. Yet they were willing and able to keep struggling, and they were the same species of being that we are.

So, get your morale boost where you can find it, in examples new or old, near or far. Improve the strategy of your activism as well, supporting independent organizations not corrupted by parties or funders. But try to be inspired by victories without becoming any more dependent upon them. This is a marathon, not a sprint. (full long text).

(David Swanson is the author of the new book Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union).

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