June 9, 2017

Reclaiming How Change is Made

Mr. Ober

I think it is fair to say that many of us are unsettled by current events. No matter what political position we take, anger, frustration and fear dominate the public discourse. To make matters worse, we are cynical about our government. The opposition – whoever that is – is unreasonable and irrational and our side – whatever side that is – is frequently beholden to moneyed forces beyond our reach.
It is easy to feel that things are out of our control. I’ve felt it myself on occasion. But I take comfort in two quotes.
The first is by historian Howard Zinn: “Change takes place not as a result of a few heroic actions but as a result of large numbers of people doing very small things and pursuing them no matter how tough it looks or how hopeless.”
The other one is attributed to the author Ken Kesey, who said, “When you don't know where you're going, you have to stick together just in case someone gets there.”
History teaches me that society moves forward when people, citizens, band together to work toward change. Experience tells me that banding together is not only effective but also joyful and enriching.
Real justice, real social change is not a “top-down” proposition. Almost by definition, justice cannot be granted to us by a leader. Justice merely given implies inequality. Justice bestowed through benevolence is ephemeral and unreliable. True justice is achieved by critical mass, pursued, demanded and defended by citizens working together.
Neither Woodrow Wilson nor Alice Paul granted women the right to vote. It was thousands of women, who protested, marched, gave speeches and relentlessly insisted on the right to vote who won the battle for women's suffrage.
Voting rights and Civil Rights for African Americans were not won by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and they were not granted by Lyndon Johnson. It was the Selma marchers, the Freedom Riders, the lunch-counter sitters, the 200,000 who gathered on the National Mall who demanded and earned equality.
Richard Nixon did not end the Vietnam War; it was the citizens of the United States, voicing their objections, who brought the war to an end.
Undoubtedly, Paul, King and individuals in the anti-war movement were focal points and inspirations, but they alone could not have brought about the enormous changes that those “large numbers of people” accomplished.
These large numbers of people did small things. They marched, they petitioned, they pressured legislators, spoke out, they voted. They educated and urged others to join them. And Zinn, who was optimistic but certainly realistic, points out they did these things often in the face of difficult opposition and frequent hopelessness. But they persevered and prevailed.
I was Zinn’s student for a number of years – I think I took five courses with him – and he was my advisor in college. He certainly inspired me and influenced the way that I teach history.  When I think about him, though, the first thing I think of is his mischievous, biting humor. He is certainly one of the funniest teachers I ever had.
But there’s not much that’s funny about that quote. The truth is that with its talk of tough times and hopelessness it’s kind of grim.
And that’s where Kesey’s quote comes in. I don’t know if he really said it, but it sure sounds like the man that I’ve read about. It’s witty, it’s slightly nonsensical and it’s completely joyous. It’s commonplace to hear people say that teams are stronger than individuals; groups have the benefit of complementary strengths and weaknesses, blah, blah, blah.
I say stick together for the sheer joy of working together. Most of the happiest moments of my life have been spent with people working toward a common purpose. I would rather play music with a group than play a solo, I would rather go to a rally than make phone calls – although I’ll do that too – and I would rather have a discussion than give a lecture.
Acting in concert with others is more interesting. Acting in concert brings new ideas, new perspectives and new opportunities to learn.  Working with others is easier, for the burdens are shared. And working with others is just plain more fun; engaged, intelligent people are often funny and fun. I think one of Kesey’s points is that wherever you’re going, whatever you’re trying to do, it’s good to have company.
And so I would take heart in a troubled time. We can have control of our nation and our lives. We don’t have to rely on leaders and governments that don’t seem to be reliable. We can look to ourselves and take actions, small manageable actions. We might have to take these small steps more than once, but we don’t have to do it alone. We can stick together so that when one of us gets “there,” we all will have arrived.

Mr. Ober is a member of the Social Studies Department at Golda Och Academy. Unsurprisingly, he spends most of his day thinking about government, politics, history and music, always music.

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