Monday, December 06, 2004

On the duty of defiance

I was alerted by email to an essay by William Rivers Pitt of He wrote about a loss of morale he felt among progressives, noting
that the energy and hopefulness which had marked the long slog towards the vote had been replaced by a dimming of expectations, a hunch-shouldered feeling of despair
marked by an "odd silence" in the face of widespread evidence of voter suppression if not outright fraud in the elections, the razing of Fallujah, and the on-going assaults on civil liberties under the guise of "fighting terrorism."

And yes, it's true, there is an odd silence. It has fallen over us at least partly because, foolishly but predictably, we tied everything to John Kerry, to "Anybody But Bush," to the point where there were those who openly spoke against having the demonstrations at the GOPper national convention for fear they'd make the Dims look bad. So of course when the election was over, win or lose but worse lose, there was nothing to do, no next step to take. Even the proposal for a January 20 counter-inaugural has been dissed and dismissed by some - including at least one foolish high-traffic blogger (name withheld to avoid embarrassing Ezra Klein - uh, oops) - because it'll make us "look like sore losers, and worse, hopeless partisans."

So a sense of emptiness, of having nowhere to go, settled into the hearts of many and some have considered leaving the country altogether. (Full disclosure: So did I, in 1994, after the Newt-wits captured Congress. I could smell - the word is chosen deliberately - where we were headed.)

But Pitt also talks about hope against despair in the person of Brian Willson, a Vietnam vet and long-time peace activist who lost both his legs below the knee in 1987 while taking part in a nonviolent obstruction of weapons deliveries to Central America. He and his colleagues would lay across the train tracks, stopping the trains until the demonstrators were arrested. One time, however, the engineer decided he just wasn't going to stop and Willson got run over.
If Brian Willson can wake each day, strap his metal legs to his body, and keep marching for what he believes in, who am I to despair? ... Cynicism is not an option.
And that is all true. But the whole point of posting about this is how Pitt ends:
Perhaps it will all come to nothing. ... We are down to the ethic of total opposition, and as lonely as that estate may be, it is what we have, and we owe it to those who have suffered beyond our comprehension to continue as we began.

I refuse to concede defeat in any way, shape or form. Yet I must consider the possibility that all efforts will come to naught. In doing so, I am reminded of a scene in "The Lion in Winter." Geoffrey, John and Richard await their executioners, and Richard demands that they face their doom with strength. Geoffrey scoffs, "You fool. As if it matters how a man falls."

Richard's reply: "When the fall is all that's left, it matters."
Even at our lowest moments, even when we just want to give up, pack it in, and move to a commune or to Canada - or to a commune in Canada - we have to remember that even in failing, the manner in which we fail matters. Even in falling, the manner in which we fall matters.

Henry David Thoreau, in his classic essay "On Civil Disobedience," wrote:
I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name - if ten honest men only - ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.
Of course he did not mean, as some seeking to dismiss him have, that such would mean the instant end of slavery. Rather, he meant that a seed would have been planted that would eventually, ineluctably, lead to slavery's demise. "What is once well done is done forever" because even if it failed to stop slavery at once, the manner of failing mattered.

Immediate victory is not the only end worth achieving; what can be won now is not the only cause worth fighting for; even being able to see victory in the future is not the only reason for keeping up the struggle. It is also for ourselves, for our own integrity. A member of the anti-Stalinist Russian group Memorial, founded by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Sakharov, said
I do what I do because I owe it to my family, to the victims of my country's injustices, and for my own honor.
Or as Wendell Berry put it,
[p]rotest that endures is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.
Or perhaps you would find Abraham Lincoln's observation the most telling version:
To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.
We owe it to others, we owe it to the victims, we owe it to ourselves; we are honor-bound to carry on as best as we can. The issue, I say to you (and to myself, for that matter), is not "What can I do?" It's "Am I doing what I can?" Perhaps that only amounts to a little, to what can seem so trifling as to not matter, but matter it does. We are each of us as individuals called, required by what is right, to do what we can. No one can expect more of us - but we should expect nothing less of ourselves.

And if despite all, we fail? Then we fail. When Dylan Thomas's father was old, the poet felt the old man, so energetic in his younger days, had given up on life and was just passively waiting to die. Saddened and distressed, Thomas cried out to his father
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
We do live in a darkening time, a time marked not by failure to advance but rather by failure to hold on to the little that has been gained, a time not of standing still but of slipping backwards. So yes, we may fail - or at least seem to because true victory (and getting John Kerry elected would not be such a victory) is far enough off that we will not be able to see its approach. While I think that unlikely (I do speak of "surviving a dark time"), I have to admit it's possible. But that possibility makes it even more important that we do not go gentle into that good night but that we rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
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