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The Impossible Will Take a Little While

Soul of a Citizen


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By Paul Rogat Loeb


If John Kerry wins, he’ll have America’s peace movement to thank. Last year, when millions of ordinary Americans rose up against the Iraq war, many felt like their efforts were futile. They forced a debate, but couldn’t avert the war.


Yet their actions made had an unexpected impact—as courageous actions often do, even when they seem like immediate failures. And their fruits may well make the difference in November.


During the initial flush of victory, those who disagreed with the war were branded as whiners, even enemies of the troops. Bush seemed virtually unbeatable. Media pundits cheered his every move. Democrats scuttled for cover like whipped dogs. Citizens who dared to raise a contrary word felt isolated and alone, and their actions seemed futile. The Bush administration continues to attempt to brand protestors present and past as disloyal.


But as the occupation has unraveled, the arguments of once-isolated activist voices have fallen on increasingly receptive ears. Had there been no significant opposition, Bush would now have a far easier time rationalizing the war as a risk the entire country had embraced. Who could blame him that it hasn’t quite worked out? Instead, the voices that cautioned about missing Weapons of Mass Destruction, sundered ties with allies, and resistance and resentment from the Iraqi population, seem steadily more prophetic. A war that helped the Republicans capture the 2002 elections has now become a prime liability.


We can thank the peace movement for helping highlight the key issues, even as John Kerry distances himself from their voices. The movement has also significantly broadened the base of those willing to actively challenge Bush’s regime—a critical development in an election likely to hinge more on turnout than on persuading the miniscule number of those still undecided.  Citizens who first came in to political participation through this movement, or returned after years, continued their involvement through the Howard Dean campaign and groups like MoveOn. They’re now registering voters, reaching out to the undecided, and doing all the critical tasks that give John Kerry his best possible chance to win despite his own limitations.


What is it that enables people to take difficult stands despite all the pressures to stay silent?  They recognize that history turns in unexpected ways—and that getting involved is itself transforming. They created engaged communities, because few can act alone. They recognize that action creates new possibilities, a process Reverend Jim Wallis describes as “believing in spite of the evidence--then watching the evidence change.”


Think of heroes of the past who persevered through bleak times for visions of justice: Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel.  They did it by maintaining hope, precisely when success seemed most elusive. We think, because we’ve been told, that one day Parks stepped onto a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and single-handedly inaugurated the Civil Rights movement by refusing to move to the back of the bus. “Rosa Parks wasn’t an activist.” Garrison Keillor said a couple years ago, well-meaningly, “She was just a woman with her groceries who was tired.”


But by that time Parks been a civil rights activist for twelve years, was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter, and acted not alone but in concert with others. The summer before her arrest, she’d taken a ten-day workshop at the Tennessee labor and civil rights center, Highlander School, which is still going strong. Only because she and others persisted was she able to visibly make history that day on the bus.


Even in a seemingly losing cause, one person may unknowingly inspire another, and that person yet a third, who go on to change the world, or at least a small corner of it. Rosa Parks’s husband Raymond convinced her to attend her first NAACP meeting, on lynching. But who got Raymond Parks involved? The links in any chain of influence are too complex to trace. But hope blooms when we realize that only by acting with courage and faith can we create these links of possibility.


Think of how people learned to act in a seemingly even more hopeless situation. In the 1970s, future Czech president Václav Havel became involved after the authorities first outlawed and then arrested the rock band Plastic People of the Universe, claiming their Frank Zappa-influenced music was “morbid” and had a “negative social impact.” Havel helped organize a defense committee that evolved into the Charter 77 organization, which in turn set the stage for Czechoslovakia’s broader democracy movement.


The Czech dissenters didn’t instantly succeed, any more than our American dissenters. When we stand up for our deepest beliefs, we rarely see immediate results. Social transformation doesn’t happen in the blink of an MTV ad. But we never know when someone we help take their first difficult stand will play a key role in advancing human dignity down the line. In Havel’s case, critics mocked the early human rights initiatives that he and others launched, particularly a petition to free jailed dissidents. They belittled those who circulated the petitions as “exhibitionistic,” dismissing their motives as an attempt “to draw attention to themselves.” Dissenters everywhere receive similar treatment.


Havel‘s group didn’t free a single political prisoner—just as last year’s protests didn’t stop the war.  But both immediately apparent “failures” were more significantly worthwhile. The imprisoned Czech dissidents said the mere fact that others had taken up their cause sustained them in prison.  Nelson Mandela calls this the multiplication of courage. And the movement built by once seemingly hopeless actions eventually toppled a dictatorial regime. As Havel wrote, three years before the dictatorship fell, “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.”


We need the courage to persist between now and the November election—and beyond. Too many people hold back from volunteering or even voting, because they feel politics is out of their control. We need to remind ourselves—and others—that history isn’t some inevitable pendulum.  It’s contingent on the hope that enables us to act. 


Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, just published by Basic Books, and of Soul of a Citizen. See

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