Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The area under the curve

What you have above is a crudely drawn graph of the equation y=x2 marked at x=4, y=16, and with the area under the curve shaded. It's a representation of a very basic mathematical equation. It's also a representation of my, if you will, philosophy of political action.

The issue here is measuring the area under the curve. For a long time, no one knew how to do that. The problem is that all our basic geometric formulas for determining an area depend either on straight lines, regular curves (such as circles or ellipses), or a combination of them. But the line on this graph is neither straight nor regularly curved; instead, its slope - how steeply it rises - increases constantly.

The method that can be used to solve the problem was developed by Isaac Newton (and, about the same time and independently, by Gottfried Leibniz). Suppose we replace the curve with two rectangles, each two units wide on the X (horizontal) axis, with their upper right corners at 4 and 16 on the Y (vertical) axis. We know how to calculate the area of a rectangle. For convenience, let's say the graph is marked off in units of inches. So the rectangles would be 2x4=8 square inches and 2x16=32 square inches, for a total of 40 square inches. That gives you some very vague idea of the area under the curve. But no better than that - because those rectangles would also include a lot of space above the curve.

Suppose we then made it four rectangles, each one inch wide on the X axis. Their upper right corners would then be at 1, 4, 9, and 16, respectively, on the Y axis. Their areas would be 1, 4, 9, and 16 square inches, again respectively, for a total of 30 square inches. They still include space above the curve, but not as much, so that answer is closer to the area under the curve.

Keep going. Keep adding more and more, thinner and thinner, rectangles. You'll get closer and closer to the true area until you reach a point when you have an extremely large number of extremely thin rectangles whose sum total area is so close to the actual area under the curve as to be indistinguishable from it. Then you have the area under the curve.

And in case you're interested, you've just gotten a fundamental lesson in integral calculus. (The answer, by the way, is 211/3 square inches.)

The point here is that each of those rectangles, in and of itself, is so thin, has such a vanishingly small area, that for all practical purposes it does not exist. But add enough of them together and you get the area under the curve.

In 2004, George Bush got something approaching 61 million votes. But he didn't get them in one block, he got 61 million individual votes, each one of which, in and of itself, meant almost literally nothing. Each one, standing alone, was irrelevant, meaningless, pointless. But together they made the difference.

That, in a nutshell, expresses my understanding of, my conviction about, political activism: It is rare, exceedingly rare, that anything we do as individuals will make a damn bit of difference. Indeed, most of us will never be in a position even to have the chance to have a demonstrable impact on our own; opportunities to be a Daniel Ellsberg are to say the least unusual. But it is also exceedingly rare that it is just us. It not just our one vote, our one letter-to-the-editor, our one dollar contribution, our one participation in a demonstration, our one act of civil disobedience. It is that plus everyone else's votes, letters, dollars, demonstrations, and disobedience. It is the sum total of all that we all do that matters, not the effect of any act in isolation.

Everything you do is another rectangle under the curve, every action you take is another rectangle. No matter how unimportant it may seem, how small it may appear or even be, it is not nothing. It is another rectangle, another part of the whole.

Now, we can get sidetracked into one of those interminable and to my mind useless arguments about the "best" actions and the "most effective" tactics and the "highest priority" issues. You want to do that, fine, go ahead, just don't expect me to get involved except to scold you for wasting time and energy. Because I say the first question to ask isn't "What are you doing?" but "Are you doing something?"

This is not to say that I think that any particular type of action has the same impact as any other type of action under any given circumstances. Of course not. Rather, it's to say that none of us should ever feel guilty or despair because we can't do "enough." Whatever you do, however minor it is, it's more than doing nothing.

Rectangles. More and more rectangles. Vote: rectangle. Attend a demonstration: rectangle. Stage some guerrilla theater: rectangle. Refuse to pay the federal phone tax: rectangle. Throw a pie at Ann Coulter: rectangle.

The varieties of political actions are damn near endless. (Some, like pieing, should be used only occasionally on carefully-selected targets. The fact that such actions are uncommon is part of what gives them their power.) As an example of a particularly creative action that amounted to a form of guerrilla theater, I remember that in 1968, when George Wallace was running for president, he went to great lengths to tone down and gloss over his image as an extremist and a racist. But like all politicians, he had his standard stump speech with a string of guaranteed applause lines.

One time he went to a college campus to speak and seemed to be well received. Too well, in fact: The audience reaction was more enthusiastic that he could've expected.

After a while, he realized what was going on: Students had packed the hall and were actually heckling him, not by shouting at him but by cheering wildly at every cue he gave them. When he caught on, he became furious, departed from his prepared text, and wound up blowing his carefully cultivated image as a born-again moderate. The students wanted to remind people of what Wallace really was. They succeeded admirably. (In fairness, I'll note that some years later, Wallace did, apparently sincerely, recant his racist views.)

And everything can have an impact, even if you don't realize it at the time. Recently I had a back-and-forth about effective protest with Arvin over at A Carnival of Horrors. (It starts at the sixth comment to the linked post.) I won't recap the whole exchange; you can go read it if you want. I mention it here because one of the things I objected to was his statement about demonstrations, "provoke a response or go home." I called that "a recipe for despair and defeatism" because - other than being arrested or having your head cracked - you will rarely see a response to any given action and so would repeatedly feel like a failure.

But just because you don't see a response doesn't mean you're not getting one. From a review of The War Within, a book about the Vietnam antiwar movement:
On November 15, 1969, a half-million people gathered in Washington, D.C., to demand an end to the Vietnam War. This "Mobilization" was, at the time, the largest demonstration in American history. Earlier in the fall, President Richard Nixon had insisted that antiwar protest would change nothing. "Under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it." The only college students he would acknowledge during the November "Mobe" were the ones playing football on the tube. His indifference was just pretense. In fact, the White House was in a state of emergency. Outside, a solid ring of buses, parked bumper-to-bumper, barricaded the Executive Mansion. Underneath and overhead, dozens of National Guardsmen and army troops filled the tunnels and catwalks. From his command post in the White House bomb shelter, "Field Marshall" John Ehrlichman was in direct communication with police, FBI agents, and intelligence officers throughout the city. And, as always, Nixon wanted a steady stream of dispatches from the antiwar front. ...

Nixon once demanded that a single picketer be removed from Lafayette Park because he was annoyed by the protester's sign. [His administration] concocted hundreds of plans, not always executed, to attack, spy on, infiltrate, sabotage, harass, imprison, smear, divide, counteract, provoke, and placate the antiwar movement.
(I recall saying to someone when this information came out about how "all that time we thought we were being ignored when actually we were driving them nuts. Kinda gives you strength to carry on.")

Sometimes, too, what you don't see is itself the effect. The story goes (I think this is from David Halberstam's book The Best and the Brightest, but don't hold me to that) that in late 1967 or early 1968, Pentagon planners told Lyndon Johnson that their computers projected that the Vietnam war could be won if he'd approve the commitment of 200,000 more troops. Johnson told them to go back and ask their computers how long it would take "100,000 angry Americans to climb the White House wall out there and lynch their president." The deployment didn't happen.

Moreover, even what may look like a small thing may turn out to not be so small: Last fall, a man in Ridgefield, NJ, put a coffin on his lawn.
Adorned with American flags held in place with staples and stone figures, the coffin bears numbers in big black letters reminding everyone how many soldiers have been killed and wounded since the start of the Iraq war.
That silent protest by one man, a 77-year-old World War II veteran, sparked debate and discussion in his town about the war and a possible return of the draft.

Action breeds further action, dissent legitimizes further dissent. The most debilitating feeling for any activist on any cause is the sense that you're alone. So dammit, do something. Show others that they are not alone and so encourage them to go a step beyond what they have already done. Don't pay war taxes. Resist the draft when it comes back. If you can't do that, take part in sit-in or refuse to be confined to a "free speech" zone. If you can't do that, join a march, a rally, a vigil. If even that seems to bold, write a letter to your local paper. Call Congress. Put a bumpersticker on your car! Wear a political button, dammit! But do it! Do what you can, as much as you can. Never worry that it's "too little." Do it anyway.

The thing I'm trying to drive home to you is that any action you take, anything you do politically, affects the body politic. It's impact may by tiny, it may in and of itself have no more impact than a single rectangle under that curve or a single Bush vote, but together with what others are doing or saying, the impact can be enormous. You very rarely will change anything yourself, but you can be part of a process of change, and anything you do towards that end can help move the body politic in that direction.

New ideas don't spring into existence with full-blown majority support. They begin as minority ideas, ignored, perhaps rejected if not openly reviled by the accepted standards of the time. And the idea of political activism isn't to instantly "win" some kind of up or down, yes or no, social decision - the idea is to make a difference. And even if you can't "win" right now, you still can make a difference that'll help someone else win later on.

When I was living in New Jersey, I used to regularly give a talk on "The Individual in Political Action" to political science classes at the local community college. As part of it, I ran down some of the ways an individual could take part in political actions - a somewhat truncated list since the instructor asked me to limit it to legal methods during the talk. (Not as big as restriction as it may seem since we both expected that civil disobedience would come up in the discussion afterwards - and it always did.) One thing I would do is describe some current campaign to show how various specific actions would combine in a broader effort. This is excerpted from one such speech from shortly before I moved out of state:
The campaign in question is one relating to the question of nuclear weapons at the Earle Naval Weapons Station in Leonardo.

It began with a speech to an environmental rally by a single individual outlining the case for believing that nuclear weapons are stored on the base. That person followed up by writing a letter to Congress on behalf of a single group, which also wrote and distributed a flyer about it.

The response to the issue both in and out of the media lead to taking out a full-page ad in a local paper, arguing the case and urging more letters. Note that already on this single question we've had a speech, a letter to elected officials, leaflets, and a newspaper ad and the audiences addressed have been environmental and peace activists, Congress, and the general public.

The ad was followed up by more letters to other public officials. A demonstration on a related issue by one group lead to a demonstration at Earle by an ad hoc coalition, which lead in turn to the formation of a statewide coalition which has held three large-scale demonstrations at the base in the last year and the decision by yet another local group to hold a monthly vigil at the base.

Meanwhile, the Navy announced it wants to put a base on Staten Island and the Port Authority [of New York and New Jersey] indicated it'd been told that there was no worry about nuclear weapons on the island because if they were removed from the ships they'd be stored at Earle. That lead to letters to both the Port Authority and the Navy, and pressure on local, state, and federal officials - and another demonstration - to make the Navy hold environmental impact hearings in Monmouth County [which is where Earle is] on the proposed base. They finally agreed, and the next step in the Earle campaign is to make public comments on the Navy's Draft Environmental Impact Statement at those hearings ... while at the same time a petition campaign regarding both Earle and the proposed Navy base is getting started.

So already on this single issue - nuclear weapons at Earle - we've addressed local, state, and federal government, environmentalists, peace activists, commercial fishers [who were targeted because of their concern about the effects of construction and waste disposal on fishing], and the general public through letters, speeches, ads, petitions, demonstrations and vigils, and public comments during official hearings. The campaign is no one of those audiences, no one of those tactics, but the sum total of all of them. And every one of those actions was ultimately done by individuals.
The ultimate result was that the Staten Island base was blocked. Earle remains a major facility but, it was believed, the nuclear weapons stored there (mostly old gravity-type bombs) were quietly removed - although of course the Navy would no more confirm the latter than it would admit they were there in the first place. (And, as a result of a ripple effect, the safety issues related to nuclear weapons pushed news about some earlier Broken Arrows - nuclear weapons accidents - in New Jersey back into public attention, which eventually resulted in some contaminated sites being cleaned up.)

Relevant quote #1: "First they ignore you, then they fight you, then you win." - Mohandes Gandhi

Relevant quote #2: "Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

(Sidebar: Mead's estate says the quote can't be found in any of her writings but does not doubt its authenticity since it so closely reflects her views, deeming it likely to have been an offhand remark during an interview or a post-speech discussion.)

The area under the curve. That's how you make a difference. Posted by Hello

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