Our Actions Are More Powerful Than We Realize
David Swanson writes today:
Almost every [history of past activism] includes belated discoveries of the extent to which government officials were influenced by activist groups even while pretending to ignore popular pressure.
These revelations can be found in the memoirs of the government officials as well, such as in George W. Bush’s recollection of how seriously the Republican Senate Majority Leader was taking public pressure against the war on Iraq in 2006.
Of course, activism that appears ineffectual at the time can succeed in a great many ways, including by influencing others, even young children, who go on to become effective activists — or by influencing firm opponents who begin to change their minds and eventually switch sides.
The beautiful thing about nonviolent activism is that, while risking no harm, it has the potential to do good in ways small and large that ripple out from it in directions we cannot track or measure.
Wittner participated in his first political demonstration in 1961. The USSR was withdrawing from a moratorium on nuclear testing. A protest at the White House urged President Kennedy not to follow suit:
“Picking up what I considered a very clever sign (‘Kennedy, Don’t Mimic the Russians!’), I joined the others (supplemented by a second busload of students from a Quaker college in the Midwest) circling around a couple of trees outside the White House. Mike and I — as new and zealous recruits — circled all day without taking a lunch or a dinner break.
“For decades I looked back on this venture as a trifle ridiculous. After all, we and other small bands of protesters couldn’t have had any impact on U.S. policy, could we? Then in the mid-1990s, while doing research at the Kennedy Library on the history of the world nuclear disarmament movement, I stumbled onto an oral history interview with Adrian Fisher, deputy director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He was explaining why Kennedy delayed resuming atmospheric nuclear tests until April 1962. Kennedy personally wanted to resume such tests, Fisher recalled, ‘but he also recognized that there were a lot of people that were going to be deeply offended by the United States resuming atmospheric testing. We had people picketing the White House, and there was a lot of excitement about it — just because the Russians do it, why do we have to do it?'”
Yes, Kennedy delayed a horrible action. He didn’t, at that time, block it permanently. But if the picketers in 1961 had had the slightest notion that Kennedy was being influenced by them, their numbers would have multiplied 10-fold, as would the delay have correspondingly lengthened.
Yes, our government was more responsive to public opinion in the 1960s than now, but part of the reason is that more people were active then. And another reason is that government officials are doing a better job now of hiding any responsiveness to public sentiment, which helps convince the public it has no impact, which reduces activism further. We also focus far too much on the most difficult individuals to move, such as presidents.
In 1973-1974, Wittner visited GI coffee houses in Japan including in Yokusaka, where the Midway aircraft carrier was in port. The Japanese were protesting the ship’s carrying of nuclear weapons, which was illegal in Japan, and which the U.S. military, of course, lied about. But U.S. soldiers with whom Wittner and other activists had talked, brought them onto the ship and showed them the nukes. The following summer, when Wittner read in a newspaper that,
“a substantial number of American GIs had refused to board the Midway for a mission to South Korea, then swept by popular protest against the U.S.-backed dictatorship, it occurred to me that I might have played some small role in inspiring their mutiny.”
Soldiers can still be reached much more easily than presidents, more easily in many cases in fact than the average citizen. War lies are harder to sell to the people who have been fighting the wars.
In the late 1990s, Wittner was researching the anti-nuclear movement of decades past. He interviewed Robert “Bud” McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan’s former national security advisor:
“Other administration officials had claimed that they had barely noticed the nuclear freeze movement. But when I asked McFarlane about it, he lit up and began outlining a massive administration campaign to counter and discredit the freeze — one that he had directed. . . . A month later, I interviewed Edwin Meese, a top White House staffer and U.S. attorney general during the Reagan administration. When I asked him about the administration’s response to the freeze campaign, he followed the usual line by saying that there was little official notice taken of it. In response, I recounted what McFarlane had revealed. A sheepish grin now spread across this former government official’s face, and I knew that I had caught him. ‘If Bud says that,’ he remarked tactfully, ‘it must be true.'”
When someone tells you to stop imagining that you’re having an impact, ask them to please redirect their energy into getting 10 friends to join you in doing what needs to be done. If it has no impact, you’ll have gone down trying. If it has an impact, nobody will tell you for many years.
Mr. Swanson is right. I noted in 2009:
As MSNBC news correspondent Jonathan Capehart tells Dylan Ratigan, the main problem is that people aren’t making enough noise. Capehart says that the people not only have to “burn up the phone lines to Congress”, but also to hit the streets and protest in D.C.
Even though most politicians are totally corrupt, if many millions of Americans poured into the streets of D.C., a critical mass would be reached, and the politicians would start changing things in a hurry.
As [liberal] PhD economist Dean Baker points out:
The elites hate to acknowledge it, but when large numbers of ordinary people are moved to action, it changes the narrow political world where the elites call the shots. Inside accounts reveal the extent to which Johnson and Nixon’s conduct of the Vietnam War was constrained by the huge anti-war movement. It was the civil rights movement, not compelling arguments, that convinced members of Congress to end legal racial discrimination. More recently, the townhall meetings, dominated by people opposed to health care reform, have been a serious roadblock for those pushing reform….
A big turnout … can make a real difference.
Baker is right about Vietnam.
Specifically – according to Daniel Ellsberg and many others – Richard Nixon actually planned on dropping a nuclear bomb on Vietnam. Nixon also said he didn’t care what the American people thought. He said that — no matter what the public did or said — he was going to escalate the war in Vietnam.
However, a well-known biographer says that Nixon backed off when hundreds of thousands of people turned out in Washington, D.C. to protest an escalation of the war.
And Pulitzer prize winning reporter Chris Hedges pointed out recently:
I was in Leipzig on November 9, 1989 with leaders of East German opposition and they told me that – perhaps within a year – there would be free passes back and forth across the Berlin wall.
Within a few hours, the Berlin Wall, at least as far as an impediment to human traffic, did not exist.
Week after week, month after month, these clergy in Leipzig held these candlelit vigils. And it was slow at first … people forget. Just like the Egyptian revolution has been percolating for many many months, and even years.
And suddenly, it began to grow.
And Honecker – who had been in ruling East Germany since the time of the dinosaurs – sent down a paratroop division to Leipzig .. . and they won’t attack the demonstrators.
Part of the reason that our actions are more powerful than we think is that courage is contagious. So is the ability to think.
As we’ve previously noted:
[Studies show ] that even one dissenting voice can give people permission to think for themselves. Specifically:
Solomon Asch, with experiments originally carried out in the 1950s and well-replicated since, highlighted a phenomenon now known as “conformity”. In the classic experiment, a subject sees a puzzle like the one in the nearby diagram: Which of the lines A, B, and C is the same size as the line X? Take a moment to determine your own answer…The gotcha is that the subject is seated alongside a number of other people looking at the diagram – seemingly other subjects, actually confederates of the experimenter. The other “subjects” in the experiment, one after the other, say that line C seems to be the same size as X. The real subject is seated next-to-last. How many people, placed in this situation, would say “C” – giving an obviously incorrect answer that agrees with the unanimous answer of the other subjects? What do you think the percentage would be?
Three-quarters of the subjects in Asch’s experiment gave a “conforming” answer at least once. A third of the subjects conformed more than half the time.
Get it so far? People tend to defer to what the herd thinks.
But here’s the good news:
Adding a single dissenter – just one other person who gives the correct answer, or even an incorrect answer that’s different from the group’s incorrect answer – reduces conformity very sharply, down to 5-10%.
Why is this important? Well, it means that one person who publicly speaks the truth can sway a group of people away from group-think.
If a group of people is leaning towards believing the government’s version of events, a single person who speaks the truth can help snap the group out of its trance.
There is an important point here regarding the web, as well. The above-cited article states that:
When subjects can respond in a way that will not be seen by the group, conformity also drops.What does that mean? Well, on the web, many people post anonymously. The anonymity gives people permission to “respond in a way that will not be seen by the group”. But most Americans still don’t get their news from the web, or only go to mainstream corporate news sites.
Away from the keyboard, we are not very anonymous. So that is where the conformity dynamic — and the need for courageous dissent — is vital. It is doubly important that we apply the same hard-hitting truthtelling we do on the Internet in our face-to-face interactions; because it is there that dissent is urgently needed.
Bottom line: Each person‘s voice has the power to snap entire groups out of their coma of irrational group-think. So go forth and be a light of rationality and truth among the sleeping masses.
And a recent study shows that when only 10% of a population have strongly-held beliefs, their belief will often be adopted by the majority of the society.
True, governments worldwide are cracking down on liberty with the iron fist of repression.
But some argue that this is actually a sign that we are winning.
As Truthout’s Matt Renner writes:
Recently I sat down with two of the young adults who organized and led the Egyptian resistance movement that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. The media narrative said it took 18 days, when in fact, they had been organizing for over five years.
According to these young men, the moment they knew they had won was the day Mubarak’s government shut off the Internet and blocked cellphone communications. When people could no longer get updates about what was happening in Tahrir Square, they had to come out of their homes and see for themselves, tripling the size of the protests in one fell swoop.
The global plutocracy is terrified of dissent. In some places, the war on dissent is being fought with bullets. In others, the war on dissent targets social media and mobile communications, while repressing and deceiving communities of struggle. It’s already happening.
Indeed, the use of heavy-handed tactics – taking the velvet glove off of the iron fist – could backfire, as it will show the “emperor’s ruthlessness” for all to see.
The powers-that-be are terrified of political awakening and dissent. For example, Zbigniew Brzezinski – National Security Adviser to President Carter, creator of America’s strategy to lure Russia into Afghanistan, creator of America’s plans for Eurasia in general, and Obama’s former foreign affairs adviser – said:
For the first time in human history almost all of humanity is politically activated, politically conscious and politically interactive. There are only a few pockets of humanity left in the remotest corners of the world that are not politically alert and engaged with the political turmoil and stirrings that are so widespread today around the world.
America needs to face squarely a centrally important new global reality: that the world’s population is experiencing a political awakening unprecedented in scope and intensity, with the result that the politics of populism are transforming the politics of power.
[T]he central challenge of our time is posed not by global terrorism, but rather by the intensifying turbulence caused by the phenomenon of global political awakening. That awakening is socially massive and politically radicalizing.
It is no overstatement to assert that now in the 21st century the population of much of the developing world is politically stirring and in many places seething with unrest. It is a population acutely conscious of social injustice to an unprecedented degree, and often resentful of its perceived lack of political dignity.
These energies transcend sovereign borders and pose a challenge both to existing states as well as to the existing global hierarchy, on top of which America still perches.
The misdiagnosis [of foreign policy] pertains to a relatively vague, excessively abstract, highly emotional, semi-theological definition of the chief menace that we face today in the world, and the consequent slighting of what I view as the unprecedented global challenge arising out of the unique phenomenon of a truly massive global political awakening of mankind. We live in an age in which mankind writ large is becoming politically conscious and politically activated to an unprecedented degree, and it is this condition which is producing a great deal of international turmoil.
That turmoil is the product of the political awakening, the fact that today vast masses of the world are not politically neutered, as they have been throughout history. They have political consciousness.
The other major change in international affairs is that for the first time, in all of human history, mankind has been politically awakened. That is a total new reality – total new reality. It has not been so for most of human history until the last one hundred years. And in the course of the last one hundred years, the whole world has become politically awakened. And no matter where you go, politics is a matter of social engagement, and most people know what is generally going on –generally going on – in the world, and are consciously aware of global inequities, inequalities, lack of respect, exploitation. Mankind is now politically awakened and stirring.
And a reader notes:
We do not understand our own power. Look around you. Almost everything you see was not only made, but created by people like yourselves. Most of the horrors existing on earth were engendered by the elites, WITH OUR CO-OPERATION. Without our consent, most of the terrifying situations existing in our world will cease to exist. Resist. It certainly may be difficult initially, but it grows easier moment by moment.
Some historical quotes may be helpful in illustrating the importance of struggling to make things better …
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
– Robert F . Kennedy
We must never despair; our situation has been compromising before; and it changed for the better; so I trust it will again. If difficulties arise; we must put forth new exertion and proportion our efforts to the exigencies of the times.
– George Washington
We must remember that one determined person can make a significant difference, and that a small group of determined people can change the course of history.
Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
– Margaret Mead
Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.
– Studs Terkel
At certain points in history, the energy level of people, the indignation level of people rises. And at that point it becomes possible for people to organize and to agitate and to educate one another, and to create an atmosphere in which the government must do something.
– Howard Zinn, historian
There is no act too small, no act too bold. The history of social change is the history of millions of actions, small and large, coming together at points in history and creating a power that governments cannot suppress.
– Howard Zinn
Even If We Will Not Ultimately Win … We Must Do It Anyway
Czech leader Vaclav Havel said:
Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.
In January, attorneys Carl Mayer and Bruce Afran asked me to be the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that challenged the harsh provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). We filed the lawsuit, worked for hours on the affidavits, carried out the tedious depositions, prepared the case and went to trial because we did not want to be passive in the face of another egregious assault on basic civil liberties, because resistance is a moral imperative, and because, at the very least, we hoped we could draw attention to the injustice of the law. None of us thought we would win. But every once in a while the gods smile on the damned.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest, in a 68-page opinion, ruled Wednesday that Section 1021 of the NDAA was unconstitutional. It was a stunning and monumental victory.
Maybe the ruling won’t last. Maybe it will be overturned. But we and other Americans are freer today than we were a week ago. And there is something in this.
The government lawyers, despite being asked five times by the judge to guarantee that we plaintiffs would not be charged under the law for our activities, refused to give any assurances. They did not provide assurances because under the law there were none. We could, even they tacitly admitted, be subject to these coercive measures. We too could be swept away into a black hole. And this, I think, decided the case.
We pushed forward because all effort to impede the corporate state, however quixotic, is essential. Even if we ultimately fail we will be able to say we tried.
This law was, after all, not about foreign terrorism. It was about domestic dissent. If the state could link Occupy and other legitimate protest movements with terrorist groups (US Day of Rage suffered such an attempt), then the provisions in the NDAA could, in a period of instability, be used to “disappear” U.S. citizens into military gulags, including the government’s offshore penal colonies.
The battles that must be fought may never be won in our lifetime. And there will always be new battles to define our struggle. Resistance to tyranny and evil is never ending. It is a way, rather, of defining our brief sojourn on the planet. Revolt, as Albert Camus reminded us, is the only acceptable definition of the moral life. Revolt, he wrote, is “a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity. … It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.”
“A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object,” Camus warned. “But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.”
Victory or defeat was not part of the equation. Not to challenge this law would have meant being complicit in its implementation. And once resistance defines a life it becomes reflexive.
Rebellion is an act that assures us of remaining free and independent human beings. Rebellion is not waged because it will work; indeed in its noblest form it is waged when we know it will fail. Our existence, as Camus wrote, must itself be “an act of rebellion.” Not to rebel, not to protect and nurture life even in the face of death, is spiritual and moral suicide. The Nazi concentration camp guards sought to break prisoners first and then kill them. They understood that even the power to choose the timing and circumstances of one’s death was an affirmation of personal freedom and dangerous to the status quo. So although the guards killed at random they went to great lengths to prevent people in the camps from committing suicide. Totalitarian systems, to perpetuate themselves, always seek to break autonomy and self-determination. This makes all acts of resistance a threat, even those acts that will not succeed. And this is why in all states that rule by force any act of rebellion, even one that is insignificant, must be ruthlessly crushed. The goal of the corporate state, like that of any totalitarian entity, is to create a society where no one has the capacity to resist.
We have to stop asking what is reasonable or practical, what the Democratic Party or the government can do for us, what will work or not work. We must refuse now to make any concessions, large or small. We must remember that the lesser of two evils is still evil. We must no longer let illusions pacify us. Hell is truth seen too late. In large and small ways we are called to resist, resist, resist ….
The great psychologist James Hillman agreed, writing that we should seek to help others and act with dignity even in impossible situations.
In other words, it is in the best interests of our dignity, our moral life, our sanity, and our spiritual well-being to struggle … even if the odds seem impossible.
But How Do We Know If Our Actions Will Be Successful … Or Will Only Help Us In a Spiritual Sense?
But how do we know if what we’re doing will really have an effect or not? How do we know if we are being called upon to struggle in order to succeed in changing things for the better … or for the heck of it?
As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
Hellen Keller pointed out:
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
We are called upon as part of our core purpose to struggle to try to make the world a better place. But we are not privy to fruits of our actions. We are not granted a view of the future … we will never know how many people we will help, and how we will change the course of history.
We are called upon to struggle, but we can never know the end result of our efforts … that is not for us mere mortals to know.
But we are only fully human, fully alive, reaching our potential, and most in tune with the universe if we try.