Pioneering feminist demonstrators, belittled by cheap entertainers in the 1960s, proved to be the leading edge of a transformative movement which altered our public and private lives. The Stonewall "riots" of 1969 signaled the start of a gay rights movement that has profoundly affected both our culture and our politics. (A majority of Americans support gay marriage, according to polls, up from 27 percent less than 20 years ago.)
Each of these dramatic outcomes was made possible by committed citizen-activists.
That's why they're frightened. That's why they deployed the national security apparatus against the Occupy movement. That's why they're taking draconian steps against North Carolina's Moral Monday movement.
Sometimes it begins with a demonstration, sometimes just with phone calls or emails to an elected official. But from the Triangle Shirtwaist marches to Hoovervilles, from women's rights marches to civil rights sit-ins, progress has always begun with a handful of determined citizens. As Fall brings us the resumption of Washington's "Grand Bargain" talks, will you be one of the them?
It's true that cynicism is still an option. But, as Henry Ward Beecher said, the cynic "is the human owl, vigilant in darkness and blind to light, mousing for vermin, and never seeing noble game."
Beecher knew something about fighting cynicism. He was the New England clergyman who backed causes so hopeless he was mocked for supporting them, causes like the abolition of slavery or giving women the right to vote.
They want you to think things are hopeless. "A true revolution of values," said Dr. King, "will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth." Today that contrast is greater than at any time in modern history. But history shows us that pessimism and cynicism are fatal -- and unforced -- errors. They're also betrayals of our duty: to future generations, to our fellow human beings, and to ourselves.
"Cynicism," said Norman Cousins, "is intellectual treason."
They were afraid of Occupy. They're afraid of you. That's because citizens have more power than we think. Their greatest weapon, the one weapon that's even more powerful than a corrupt political process or a blinder-wearing, misleading media, is our own cynicism. We need to disarm it before it disarms us.
A mobilized public can change the world at any moment. Those who oppose your cause know that.
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