It’s astonishing to see how Americans have been conditioned to think that political action and engagement is futile. I’m old enough to have witnessed the reverse, how activism in the 1960s produced significant advances in civil rights blacks and women, and eventually led the US to exit the Vietnam War.
I’m reminded of this sense of despair almost daily in the comments section. Whenever possible action steps come up, virtually without fail, quite a few will argue that there is no point in making an effort, that we as individuals are powerless.
I don’t buy that as a stance, particularly because trained passivity is a great, low cost way to hobble people who have been wronged. I mistakenly relegated an article by Johann Hari in the Independent on this topic to Links, and Richard Kline’s commentary on it made me realize it deserved its own post, so I am remedying that error now.
As Kline observed:
The nut of the matter is this: you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, they give up. As someone who has protested, and studied the process, it’s plain that one spends most of one’s time begin defeated. That’s painful, humiliating, and intimidating. One can’t expect typically, as in a battle, to get a clean shot at a clear win. What you do with protest is just what Hari discusses, you change the context, and that change moves the goalposts on your opponent, grounds out the current in their machine. The nonviolent resistance in Hungary in the 1860s (yes, that’s in the 19th century) is an excellent example. Communist rule in Russia and its dependencies didn’t fail because protestors ‘won’ but because most simply withdrew their cooperation to the point it suffocated.
Americans have cultural norms that work against trying to move the political/social needle. Class and economic aspirations are one of them; protestors are by definition malcontents, and thus presumed losers. Busy successful people obviously have not reason to waste their time this way, right? Another impediment is the weird American fixation with optimism. Talk candidly about how stuffed up things are, and you can be dismissed as being “negative”. Despite how much it is revered in pop psychology and the “how to succeed in business” literature, optimism is not necessarily a good trait for long, hard fought struggles. Those who anticipate that success will come sooner than it does will find their hopes dashed repeatedly. Some may be resilient enough to themselves up and try again, but that isn’t universal (being pessimistic and tenacious is probably a better stance, but our culture does not breed for that).
From Johann Hari:
There is a ripple of rage spreading across Britain. It is clearer every day that the people of this country have been colossally scammed. The bankers who crashed the economy are richer and fatter than ever, on our cash. The Prime Minister who promised us before the election “we’re not talking about swingeing cuts” just imposed the worst cuts since the 1920s, condemning another million people to the dole queue. Yet the rage is matched by a flailing sense of impotence. We are furious, but we feel there is nothing we can do. There’s a mood that we have been stitched up by forces more powerful and devious than us, and all we can do is sit back and be shafted.
This mood is wrong. It doesn’t have to be this way – if enough of us act to stop it. To explain how, I want to start with a small scandal, a small response – and a big lesson from history.
In my column last week, I mentioned in passing something remarkable and almost unnoticed. For years now, Vodafone has been refusing to pay billions of pounds of taxes to the British people that are outstanding….
Many people emailed me saying they were outraged that while they pay their fair share for running the country, Vodafone doesn’t pay theirs. One of them named Thom Costello decided he wanted to organize a protest, so he appealed on Twitter – and this Wednesday seventy enraged citizens shut down the flagship Vodafone store on Oxford Street in protest. “Vodafone won’t pay as they go,” said one banner. “Make Vodafone pay, not the poor,” said another.
The reaction from members of the public – who were handed leaflets explaining the situation – was startling. Again and again, people said “I’m so glad somebody is doing this” and “there needs to be much more of this.” Lots of them stopped to talk about how frightened they were about the cuts and for their own homes and jobs. The protest became the third most discussed topic in the country on Twitter, meaning millions of people now know about what Vodafone and the government have done.
You might ask – so what? What has been changed? To understand how and why protest like this can work, you need some concrete and proven examples from the past. Let’s start with the most hopeless and wildly idealistic cause – and see how it won. The first ever attempt to hold a Gay Pride rally in Trafalgar Square was in 1965. Two dozen people turned up – and they were mostly beaten by the police and arrested. Gay people were imprisoned for having sex, and even the most compassionate defense of gay people offered in public life was that they should be pitied for being mentally ill.
Imagine if you had stood in Trafalgar Square that day and told those two dozen brave men and women: “Forty-five years from now, they will stop the traffic in Central London for a Gay Pride parade on this very spot, and it will be attended by hundreds of thousands of people. There will be married gay couples, and representatives of every political party, and openly gay soldiers and government ministers and huge numbers of straight supporters – and it will be the homophobes who are regarded as freaks.” It would have seemed like a preposterous statement of science fiction. But it happened. It happened in one lifetime. Why? Not because the people in power spontaneously realized that millennia of persecuting gay people had been wrong, but because determined ordinary citizens banded together and demanded justice.
If that cause can be achieved, through persistent democratic pressure, anything can. But let’s look at a group of protesters who thought they had failed. The protests within the United States against the Vietnam War couldn’t prevent it killing three million Vietnamese and 80,000 Americans. But even in the years it was “failing”, it was achieving more than the protestors could possibly have known. In 1966, the specialists at the Pentagon went to US President Lyndon Johnson – a thug prone to threatening to “crush” entire elected governments – with a plan to end the Vietnam War: nuke the country. They “proved”, using their computer modeling, that a nuclear attack would “save lives.”
It was a plan that might well have appealed to him. But Johnson pointed out the window, towards the hoardes of protesters, and said: “I have one more problem for your computer. Will you feed into it how long it will take 500,000 angry Americans to climb the White House wall out there and lynch their President?” He knew that there would be a cost – in protest and democratic revolt – that made that cruelty too great. In 1970, the same plan was presented to Richard Nixon – and we now know from the declassified documents that the biggest protests ever against the war made him decide he couldn’t do it. Those protesters went home from those protests believing they had failed – but they had succeeded in preventing a nuclear war. They thought they were impotent, just as so many of us do – but they really had power beyond their dreams to stop a nightmare.
Protest raises the political price for governments making bad decisions. It stopped LBJ and Nixon making the most catastrophic decision of all. The same principle can apply to the Conservative desire to kneecap the welfare state while handing out massive baubles to their rich friends. The next time George Osborne has to decide whether to cancel the tax bill of a super-rich corporation and make us all pick up the tab, he will know there is a price. People will find out, and they will be angry. The more protests there are, the higher the price. If enough of us demand it, we can make the rich pay their share for the running of our country, rather than the poor and the middle – to name just one urgent cause that deserves protest.
And protest can have an invisible ripple-effect that lasts for generations. A small group of women from Iowa lost their sons early in the Vietnam war, and they decided to set up an organization of mothers opposing the assault on the country. They called a protest of all mothers of serving soldiers outside the White House – and six turned up in the snow. Even though later in the war they became nationally important voices, they always remembered that protest as an embarrassment and a humiliation.
Until, that is, one day in the 1990s, one of them read the autobiography of Benjamin Spock, the much-loved and trusted celebrity doctor, who was the Oprah of his day. When he came out against the war in 1968, it was a major turning point in American public opinion. And he explained why he did it. One day, he had been called to a meeting at the White House to be told how well the war in Vietnam was going, and he saw six women standing in the snow with placards, alone, chanting. It troubled his conscience and his dreams for years. If these women were brave enough to protest, he asked himself, why aren’t I? It was because of them that he could eventually find the courage to take his stand – and that in turn changed the minds of millions, and ended the war sooner. An event that they thought was a humiliation actually turned the course of history.
You don’t know what the amazing ripple-effect of your protest will be – but wouldn’t Britain be a better place if it replaced the ripple of impotent anger so many of us are feeling? Yes, you can sit back and let yourself be ripped off by the bankers and the corporations and their political lackeys if you want. But it’s an indulgent fiction to believe that is all you can do. You can act in your own self-defence. As Margaret Mead, the great democratic campaigner, said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”