Things change. And people sometimes have the power to make that happen, if and when they come together and act (and occasionally act alone, as did writers Rachel Carson and Harriet Beecher Stowe -- or Mohammed Bouazizi, the young man whose suicide triggered the Arab Spring).
If you fix your eye on where we started out, you'll see that we've come a long way by those means. If you look forward, you'll see that we have a long way to go -- and that sometimes we go backward when we forget that we fought for the eight-hour workday or workplace safety or women's rights or voting rights or affordable education, forget that we won them, that they're precious, and that we can lose them again. There's much to be proud of, there's much to mourn, there's much yet to do, and the job of doing it is ours, a heavy gift to carry. And it's made to be carried, by people who are unstoppable, who are movements, who are change itself.
Too Soon to Tell
Ten years ago I began writing about hope and speaking about it. My online essay "Acts of Hope," posted on May 19, 2003, was my first encounter with Tomdispatch.com, which would change my work and my life. It gave me room for another kind of voice and another kind of writing. It showed me how the Internet could give wings to words. What I wrote then and subsequently for the site spread around the world in remarkable ways, putting me in touch with people and movements, and deeper into conversations about the possible and the impossible (and into a cherished friendship with the site's founder and editor, Tom Engelhardt).
For a few years, I spoke about hope around this country and in Europe. I repeatedly ran into comfortably situated people who were hostile to the idea of hope: they thought that hope somehow betrayed the desperate and downtrodden, as if the desperate wanted the solidarity of misery from the privileged, rather than action. Hopelessness for people in extreme situations means resignation to one's own deprivation or destruction. Hope can be a survival strategy. For comfortably situated people, hopelessness means cynicism and letting oneself off the hook. If everything is doomed, then nothing is required (and vice versa).
Despair is often premature: it's a form of impatience as well as certainty. My favorite comment about political change comes from Zhou En-Lai, the premier of the People's Republic of China under Chairman Mao. Asked in the early 1970s about his opinion of the French Revolution, he reportedly answered, "Too soon to tell." Some say that he was talking about the revolutions of 1968, not 1789, but even then it provides a generous and expansive perspective. To hold onto uncertainty and possibility and a sense that even four years later, no less nearly two centuries after the fact, the verdict still isn't in is more than most people I know are prepared to offer. A lot of them will hardly give an event a month to complete its effects, and many movements and endeavors are ruled failures well before they're over.
Not long ago, I ran into a guy who'd been involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, that great upwelling in southern Manhattan in the fall of 2011 that catalyzed a global conversation and a series of actions and occupations nationwide and globally. He offered a tailspin of a description of how Occupy was over and had failed.
But I wonder: How could he possibly know? It really is too soon to tell. First of all, maybe the kid who will lead the movement that will save the world was catalyzed by what she lived through or stumbled upon in Occupy Fresno or Occupy Memphis, and we won't reap what she sows until 2023 or 2043. Maybe the seeds of something more were sown, as they were in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968 and Charter 77, for the great and unforeseen harvest that was the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the nonviolent overthrow of the Soviet totalitarian state in that country.
Second, Occupy began to say what needed to be said about greed and capitalism, exposing a brutality that had long been hushed up, revealing both the victims of debt and the rigged economy that created it. This country changed because those things were said out loud. I can't say exactly how, but I know it mattered. So much that matters is immeasurable, unquantifiable, and beyond price. Laws around banking, foreclosure, and student loans are changing -- not enough, not everywhere, but some people will benefit, and they matter. Occupy didn't cause those changes directly, but it did much to make the voice of the people audible and the sheer wrongness of our debt system visible -- and gave momentum to the ongoing endeavors to overturn Citizens United and abolish corporate personhood.
Third, I only know a little of what the thousands of local gatherings and networks we mean by "Occupy" are now doing, but I know that Occupy Sandy is still doing vital work in the destruction zone of that hurricane and was about the best grassroots disaster relief endeavor this nation has ever seen. I know that Strike Debt, a direct offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, has relieved millions of dollars in medical debt, not with the sense that we can fix all debt this way, but that we can demonstrate the malleability, the artifice, and the immorality of the student, medical, and housing debt that is destroying so many lives. I know that the Occupy Homes foreclosure defenders have been doing amazing things, often one home at a time, from Atlanta to Minneapolis. (Last Friday, Occupy Our Homes organized a "showdown at the Department of Justice" in Washington, D.C.; that Saturday, Strike Debt Bay Area held their second Debtors' Assembly: undead from coast to coast.)
Fourth, I know people personally whose lives were changed, and who are doing work they never imagined they would be involved in, and I'm friends with remarkable people who, but for Occupy, I would not know existed. People connected across class, racial, and cultural lines in the flowering of that movement. Like Freedom Summer, whose consequences were to be felt so far beyond Mississippi in 1964, this will have reach beyond the moment in which I write and you read.
Finally, there was great joy at the time , the joy of liberation and of solidarity, and joy is worth something in itself. In a sense, it's worth everything, even if it's always fleeting, though not always as scarce as we imagine.
Climates of Hope and Fear
I had lunch with Middle East and nonviolence scholar Stephen Zunes the other day and asked him what he would say about the Arab Spring now. He had, he told me, been in Egypt several months ago watching television with an activist. Formerly, the news was always about what the leaders did, decided, ordained, inflicted. But the news they were watching was surprisingly focused on civil society, on what ordinary people initiated or resisted, on how they responded, what they thought. He spoke of how so many in the Middle East had lost their fatalism and sense of powerlessness and awoken to their own collective power.
This civil society remains awake in Egypt and the other countries. What will it achieve? Maybe it's too soon to tell. Syria is a turbulent version of hell now, but it could be leaving the dynasty of the Assads in the past; its future remains to be written. Perhaps its people will indeed write the next chapter in its story, and not only with explosives.
You can tell the arc of the past few years as, first, the Arab Spring, then extraordinary civil society actions in Chile, Quebec, Spain, and elsewhere, followed by Occupy. But don't stop there.