RECLAIMING OUR COURAGE
It’s hard to maintain hope when greed and fear seem to hold all the cards. Despite Bush’s mangled phrases, the political operatives who surround him are as ruthless and cunning as any in recent memory. Some of them believe they’re taking orders from God. Others are simply playing the political game. Either way, they’ll do whatever they can to maintain and increase their power. With the help of a compliant media and a fearful and distracted populace, they may even temporarily prevail. But ultimately they’ll succeed only if those of us who embrace more humane visions give up in despair.
It’s tempting simply to wait for the Republicans to overreach, or be brought down by a stagnating economy. But when facing men who lack any sense of humility, limits, or shame, we can’t let them keep setting the agenda. Think of the critical Georgia Senate race. Republican TV ads linked Senator Max Cleland with videos of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and explained that because Cleland opposed Bush’s homeland security bill, he lacked “the courage to lead.” Cleland lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam. His Republican opponent, Saxbe Chambliss, never wore a uniform. But that didn’t matter to the Republican chicken-hawk strategists. And the ad helped knock Cleland out of his seat.
I recently asked former United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights (and Irish President) Mary Robinson how citizens could resist this bullying politics. The Bush administration had just forced Robinson out of her job for questioning the United States’ exclusion of Afghan detainees from the standard protections given prisoners of war. “People need the courage to stand up for what they believe,” Robinson said. “If I’d backed down just because the US is the most powerful nation in the world, it would have sacrificed all the moral credibility of my office. By standing up, I preserved it. You have to keep standing up even if it’s hard. You have to be willing to pay the costs.”
Calling for moral courage sounds like praising mom and apple pie. But what would it mean for us to apply Robinson’s message to our own lives? To begin with, it would mean speaking out in contexts where not everyone agrees with our words, because only then can our culture change. Whether as members of civic or religious organizations, as educators, or simply with co-workers, neighbors, and friends, we can’t be afraid to raise the difficult questions—challenging the administration’s right to attack any other nation at will, to deny critical environmental crises like global warming, and to hand over national policies to the Enrons of the world. Sometimes our words will draw heat. After Sept 11, thean organization co-founded by Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynn, publicly targeted professors who made even the mildest suggestion that the terrible attacks might have deeper roots. But if our democracy is devolving into a manipulated nation of inattentive spectators, we have the responsibility to speak honestly about our national choices, and to do so even if we feel hesitant or scared.
Overcoming fear means thinking about the kind of world we’d actually like to see, and not being afraid to advocate for it. In Poland, in the early 1980s, leaders of the workers support movement KOR made a point of printing their names and phone numbers openly on the back of mimeographed sheets describing incidents of police harassment against then-unknown activists like Lech Walesa. It was as if, in the words of reporter Lawrence Wechsler, they were “calling out to everyone else, ‘Come on out! Be open. What can they do to us if we all start taking responsibility for our true dreams?’” Whether we’re raising questions in difficult contexts or engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience, that might be a model for us now.
We might actually make a public issue of the very ruthlessness that put this administration in power. It’s easy to dismiss the Cleland ad and others like it as politics as usual. But when I’ve spoken about these ads, even very conservative people have had trouble justifying their moral viciousness. We can point out how attacking the patriotism of a man who lost three limbs for his country parallels the shamelessness of so many high administration officials whose careers have embodied contempt for democracy: Otto Reich, Elliott Abrams, John Poindexter, and John Negroponte lying during the Iran-Contra investigations; Henry Kissinger (now resigned but still kitchen cabinet) launching a secret invasion of Cambodia and a military coup in Chile; John Ashcroft obstructing the registration of African American voters in inner-city St. Louis; Dick Cheney opposing the freeing of Nelson Mandela; and Trent Lott waxing nostalgic about the good old days when Strom Thurmond fought to keep blacks in their place.
It’s an ugly legacy, and when administration spokesmen say Americans have no right to disagree, we need to respond with outrage. They’ll also suggest we lack the knowledge or standing to speak out: Professors are academic eggheads. Religious leaders are unrealistic. Students are too young. Baby boomers are reliving the sixties. Immigrants are disloyal suspects. Celebrities are limousine liberals. We’re conditioned to accept an impossibly perfect standard on political speech that dismisses everyone but the Kissingers and Rumsfelds as insufficiently credentialed. We need the courage to challenge this standard, and recognize that we all have the right--and responsibility--to act.
We also need to develop new ways to speak out together. This means connecting with whatever organizations can give us shared strength, and working to bring together the often-fragmented groups that promote more humane social visions. More than ever, we need to leave our comfort zones, reach past what divides us, and find opportunities for common action. We particularly need to approach those vast numbers of individuals who are exposed to little beyond the official manipulations and lies. Since only 17 percent of eligible Americans actually voted for the Republicans this round, the potential for outreach is huge.
Some of this outreach has already begun. In the past few elections, unions have developed worker-to-worker outreach projects that often made a critical difference in key campaigns. Even in the most recent defeat, they mobilized significant numbers of voters and volunteers, but found themselves lacking enough other organized allies to prevail in areas where their strength was limited. What would happen if unions joined environmental and social justice groups to foster local discussions on key issues? In early December, a coalition of Seattle peace activists drew together 2,000 ordinary citizens to spend an afternoon talking in neighborhood-based groups from the city and its suburban fringes. Each group then collected local emails and developed neighborhood education and action projects, like vigils, tabling, and letter-writing campaigns. The same week, organizations including the National Council of Churches, N.A.A.C.P., Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility, National Organization for Women, Working Assets and MoveOn.org launched a new national peace coalition, Win Without War. Major labor leaders are also interested. Imagine if the Seattle approach was combined with the grassroots resources of these groups, and if the coalition took on domestic issues as well. The resulting pressure might even wake the Congressional Democrats from their slumber.
Courage requires reaching out to those who may not share all our assumptions or agree with us on every issue. The Republicans have seized power through an unholy alliance between corporate interests whose dollars buy the ads, and religious conservatives who supply the volunteer energy. But when the Pew Center For the People & the Press has surveyed the conservative religious constituency they call "the moralists," they've found that a solid majority of them mistrust corporate power, support environmental protection and regulation, and believe the government should take an active role in improving health care, housing, and education, for low and middle income families. Many also mistrust an all-powerful government monitoring every corner of our private lives. If we talk clearly enough about common concerns, they may well respond.
In 2002, with another core Republican constituency, non-union gun owners in Michigan went for George Bush, by more than two to one. But union gun owners went solidly for Gore, by nearly as great a margin. Once people felt part of a union community and had access to alternative perspectives, this trumped the Republican propaganda. In Washington state, my best friend, a commercial fisherman and environmental activist, recently defeated an initiative to ban family fishing by pulling together an unlikely coalition of fishermen, environmental organizations, Native American tribes--and some highly conservative fundamentalist churches. An Assembly of God minister even gave an invocation against corporate greed on the steps of the state capitol. I saw people celebrating election night who would never have even sat at the same table to talk.
There’s no guarantee we’ll succeed. The political Right has been organizing for over 30 years, lining up foundations, think tanks, and media commentators, cultivating wealthy donors, building the alliance between corporate interests and religious conservatives. The power the administration now holds makes it easier for them to hand out patronage, reward financial donors, and distribute incentives to potential supporters. They won’t be defeated easily.
But as Vlacav Havel wrote before the epochal Eastern European revolutions, “Hope is not prognostication.” Since we can never know how long it will take to turn things around, the courage we need most is the courage to persevere. It’s tempting simply to give up, to say that the deck is too stacked. Yet we might remind ourselves that Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist for a dozen years from her first NAACP meeting until the stand we all remember on the Montgomery bus. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a South African jail, with no notion that he’d ever become President of South Africa. Those who brought democracy to Eastern Europe struggled for decades, then saw the brutal dictatorships they challenged collapse, one after another, when confronted by a defiant civilian population. We can take heart from the persistence it took to achieve these victories.
Many of us have fought for a more humane world for a long while. It’s daunting to face an administration so intent on handing over every aspect of American life, and indeed of the planet, to small groups of wealthy men like themselves. But we also never know when history may turn--and when our efforts to stem the tide of destructive actions may spark a resurgence of conscience, commitment, and hope. If we reach deeply enough into our reservoirs of courage and vision, keep asking the hard questions, and keep connecting with our fellow citizens, there’s no telling what we can eventually create.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time and three other books on citizen action. See . To receive his articles regularly, email firstname.lastname@example.org