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Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, Victories Come in All Sizes

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

I was electrified, and my own trajectory in life changed, by the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.  That experience, those years, mobilized me.  They shocked me -- quite literally -- about what my country was capable of.  They destroyed my rather idealistic urge to be a part of the government.  I had long dreamed of becoming a diplomat, and at one point in the 1960s even applied for a job at the United States Information Agency.  In the years when I was growing up, the thought that I should and could find some way to represent my country proudly to the world was a powerful and motivating one for me.  In it lay a citizenly urge to serve.  What I learned in the anti-Vietnam movement stripped me of that urge or, at least, of the urge to apply it to the U.S. government.

Even when that movement died out and great effort in the popular sphere went into turning the dismal, disastrous, and deeply destructive war that called it up into a "noble cause" and the movement I had been a part of into so many "hippies" who "spit on" the returning troops, I never forgot.  Nor, by the way, did I, or anyone I knew in those years, ever see any antiwar activist spit on returning troops.  My life then had, in fact, been thoroughly entangled with Vietnam vets who had come back from the war in a state of protest and G.I.s still in the military who were antiwar and happy to say so.

Even in the decades after, when I demobilized and my most active work was simply putting good books into the world as an editor at the edge of mainstream publishing, I remained a changed person, primed for I had no idea what.  After 9/11, the urge to serve manifested itself powerfully once again and what the antiwar movement had taught me decades earlier helped organize and mobilize me to create TomDispatch.com, which has been the obsession of my later life.  Today, I feel that, thanks to what a movement now half-forgotten did to my life and sense of self, I do in some modest way finally represent my country -- the best of it and the worst of it -- to the world (and to us as well).

Still, if you had looked at my life in the 1980s or 1990s, you might have been hard-pressed to know just what, if any, effect those antiwar years had on me.  You might well have said: none at all.  Similarly, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit points out -- in a piece adapted from her introduction to Nathan Schneider's Thank You, Anarchy -- we tend to want to measure the importance of any oppositional movement by its instant results, not by the seeds it may plant in its participants that sometimes don't sprout for years or decades. Tom 

Joy Arises, Rules Fall Apart: Thoughts for the Second Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street
By Rebecca Solnit

I would have liked to know what the drummer hoped and what she expected. We'll never know why she decided to take a drum to the central markets of Paris on October 5, 1789, and why, that day, the tinder was so ready to catch fire and a drumbeat was one of the sparks.

To the beat of that drum, the working women of the marketplace marched all the way to the Palace of Versailles, a dozen miles away, occupied the seat of French royal power, forced the king back to Paris, and got the French Revolution rolling. Far more than with the storming of the Bastille almost three months earlier, it was then that the revolution was really launched -- though both were mysterious moments when citizens felt impelled to act and acted together, becoming in the process that mystical body, civil society, the colossus who writes history with her feet and crumples governments with her bare hands.

She strode out of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City during which parts of the central city collapsed, and so did the credibility and power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI that had ruled Mexico for 70 years. She woke up almost three years ago in North Africa, in what was called the Arab Spring, and became a succession of revolutions and revolts still unfolding across the region.

Such transformative moments have happened in many times and many places -- sometimes as celebratory revolution, sometimes as terrible calamity, sometimes as both, and they are sometimes reenacted as festivals and carnivals. In these moments, the old order is shattered, governments and elites tremble, and in that rupture civil society is born -- or reborn.

In the new space that appears, however briefly, the old rules no longer apply. New rules may be written or a counterrevolution may be launched to take back the city or the society, but the moment that counts, the moment never to forget, is the one where civil society is its own rule, taking care of the needy, discussing what is necessary and desirable, improvising the terms of an ideal society for a day, a month, the 10-week duration of the Paris Commune of 1871, or the several weeks' encampment and several-month aftermath of Occupy Oakland, proudly proclaimed on banners as the Oakland Commune.

Weighing the Meaning

Those who doubt that these moments matter should note how terrified the authorities and elites are when they erupt. That fear is a sign of their recognition that real power doesn't only lie with them.  (Sometimes your enemies know what your friends can't believe.) That's why the New York Police Department maintained a massive presence at Occupy Wall Street's encampment and spent millions of dollars on punishing the participants (and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions more, in police brutality payouts for all the clubbing and pepper-gassing of unarmed idealists, as well as $47,000 for the destruction of the OWS library, because in situations like these a library is a threat, too).

Those who dismiss these moments because of their flaws need to look harder at what joy and hope shine out of them and what real changes have, historically, emerged because of them, even if not always directly or in the most obvious or recognizable ways. Change is rarely as simple as dominos.  Sometimes, it's as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly turn out to be flowers that emerge from plants with deep roots in the past or sometimes from long-dormant seeds.

It's important to ask not only what those moments produced in the long run but what they were in their heyday. If people find themselves living in a world in which some hopes are realized, some joys are incandescent, and some boundaries between individuals and groups are lowered, even for an hour or a day or -- in the case of Occupy Wall Street -- several months, that matters.

The old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come. It is, in fact, more than possible. It is something that participants have tasted many times and that we carry with us in many ways, however flawed and fleeting. We regularly taste failure, too. Most of the time, the two come mixed and mingled. And every now and then, the possibilities explode. In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a "we" that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency. New possibilities suddenly emerge, or that old dream of a just society reemerges and -- at least for a little while -- shines.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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