Hope For The Homestretch

excerpted from September 28, 2004 | TomPaine.com

by Paul Rogat Loeb

In an election likely to be decided as much by voter turnout as by convincing the remaining undecided, how do we maintain the hope that’s necessary to keep making the phone calls, knocking on the doors, funding the key ads and doing all the other critical tasks to get Bush out of office?

Even those of us working hard for change hit walls of doubt and uncertainty about whether our actions really matter…. Last year, when millions of us rose up against the Iraq war, many felt like their efforts made no difference. We forced a debate, but couldn’t avert the war.

Yet our actions have played out in unexpected ways?as courageous actions often do, even when they seem like immediate failures. And their fruits may well make the difference in November. If John Kerry wins, despite his own limitations, and defeats what’s probably the most dangerous administration in America’s history, he’ll have the peace movement to thank….

Think of heroes of the past who persevered through bleak times and helped end unjust regimes: … V?clav Havel did it by maintaining hope, precisely when success seemed most elusive…. In the 1970s, future Czech president V?clav Havel became involved after the authorities first outlawed and then arrested the rock band Plastic People of the Universe, claiming their Frank Zappa-influenced music was “morbid” and had a “negative social impact.” Havel helped organize a defense committee that evolved into the Charter 77 organization, which in turn set the stage for Czechoslovakia’s broader democracy movement.

The Czech dissenters didn’t instantly succeed…. [C]ritics mocked the early human rights initiatives that [Havel] and others launched, particularly a petition to free jailed dissidents. They belittled those who circulated the petitions as “exhibitionistic,” dismissing their motives as an attempt “to draw attention to themselves.” Dissenters everywhere receive similar treatment.

Havel’s group didn’t free a single political prisoner?just as our protests last year didn’t stop the war. But both immediately apparent “failures” were more significantly worthwhile. The imprisoned Czech dissidents said the mere fact that others had taken up their cause sustained them in prison. And the movement built by once seemingly hopeless actions eventually toppled a dictatorial regime. As Havel wrote, three years before the dictatorship fell, “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.”

We need the courage to persist between now and the November election?and beyond. Too many people hold back from volunteering or even voting, because they feel politics is out of their control. We need to remind ourselves?and others?that history isn’t some inevitable pendulum. It’s contingent on the hope that enables us to act.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, just published by Basic Books. See www.theimpossible.org

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