Friday, June 12, 2009

Happy Anniversary!

I could not let today pass without noting that it is the 27th anniversary of the largest peace demonstration in US history, when somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people gathered in Central Park in New York City to call for an end to the nuclear arms race.

No, the movement did not achieve its goal; the danger of nuclear weapons is still with us, only now it's tucked away out of our awareness except when a little fear-mongering about Iran and/or North Korea seems useful. But still, this was a campaign that did more than move mountains, it moved nations, altered the policies of governments, and changed forever the image of nukes from "protection" to "risk."

Looking back on it, I'm struck by two things: One is the energy, the verve, the yes excitement that stands in such contrast to the jacket-and-tie mien of so many of the leading voices of the "movement" (the quotes are deliberate) today, who seem to regard such hairy, chaotic, "still crazy after all these years" actions as pointless and icky even though they are precisely the kinds of things that pried open the gates to the halls of power through which they have passed to exert their supposed but largely symbolic influence.

The other is the real sense of hope that drove the whole thing. Sure, there was a fear of nuclear war involved, but fear is a paralyzing emotion, not an energizing one. I remember the story of a teacher at the time who asked a class if they were afraid of a nuclear war. Every student raised their hand except one girl. When the teacher asked her why she wasn't afraid, she said "Because my mommy and daddy go to meetings to keep it from happening." The hope drives out the fear.

The rediscovery of hope, more than anything else, was the engine of the Obama campaign. The re-awakened sense not only that things should be better, but could be better. But this is an unfortunate hope, for it's a hope that lies not in ideas, but in slogans; not in what we can do but in what someone else can do; not in ourselves but in a man - worse, in a political party. The hope becomes restricted by what the Democratic Party thinks will get it the most votes and is not looking to what is right or just but merely to what is immediately "practical." A perfect example of that is the debate on healthcare, with the "movement" focused on "supporting Obama's program" for a "public option," one that increasingly looks like it will be consciously designed to be no better than existing private plans - in which case, exactly what is the point?

The worst part of such unfortunate hope, the part that concerns me, is that it easily can become (and to be blunt I can see it becoming) failed hope. And failed hope is the primary cause of discouragement and despair - which are every bit as paralyzing as fear.

In my very first post here, over 51/2 years ago, I quoted myself as having told a friend "The truth is, my hope is nearly gone. My anger is the only thing that keeps me going." In the intervening time, I've realized that's not entirely true. The anger feeds the awareness of injustice and fuels the wording, but it's the hope that keeps the flame alive, generates the heat in which righteous anger can dwell, and it's the times when the hope is at a low ebb that the fire is coolest and thus the drive is the weakest.

So today, I'd like everyone to look back (or, for the grayer among us, think back) twenty-seven years and take some pleasure and some encouragement in seeing and sensing what hope - hope based in ideas and ideals, not merely elections - looks and feels like.

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