The Long View: how movements succeed or fail and why they’re worth trying anyway
I’m going to start by explaining this picture. When I show people photos of fireworks, I often get asked how I manage to time the shots to get the fireworks just right. This is because they’re under the impression that I wait until I see the perfect fireworks shot coming and trigger the camera at exactly the right moment.
That, of course, isn’t how it works. This picture is one of dozens I took that same evening. Some of them were excellent: crystal clarity and perfect motion, with the fireworks cascading through. Most weren’t.
I made errors.
I got many shots out of focus.
I didn’t leave the shutter open long enough.
I left the shutter open too long.
Sometimes it works.
Sometimes it doesn’t.
But I’ve never tried shooting fireworks and failed to get a shot that I wanted to use.
But there’s still a trick to all of this. This picture isn’t a quick exposure that I timed perfectly. The shutter was open for about thirteen seconds. I wasn’t trying to get the fireworks timed perfectly so I’d have them at the exact right time. I started at the beginning, opened the shutter and waited for the blast to leave the base, fly into the air and do whatever it would do.
That’s because even though I do make mistakes, I also know what I’m doing and have experience with this sort of photography. But that’s not particularly meaningful if I won’t take risks from time to time as well.
So let’s talk about risk taking.
And why you can make all sorts of mistakes and still come away from it proud of what you did.A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Rosa Parks and how carefully planned the Montgomery Bus Boycott had planned, despite popular belief that it was a spontaneous uprising. It was potential energy, waiting and ready to be made kinetic. It was small movements of light that might seem imperceptible at first, that wouldn’t form a full picture at the the time viewed, but when seen as a whole paints a different picture.
When we build political movements it’s easy to treat them as though they are failures if they don’t meet their goal. When Theresites created the Vichy Democrats blog, the site was dedicated to:
…exposing… and bringing… down… traitors to the Democratic Party, the Republican-lites, the lefty-neocons, the Iraq War apologists. The Vichy Dems.
This, obviously, didn’t quite happen. And it’s easy to be discouraged by this, just as its easy to be discouraged by Democratic fecklessness. When both Schumer and Feinstein agree that Mukasey should just as well be confirmed, it’s clear that traitorous Democrats still hold serious power. When Schumer tries to scuttle the candidacy of an openly gay senate candidate against Elizabeth Dole, we’ve got a big problem.
And it looks, on the surface, like we’re losing the battle against the right-wing bush-supporting sychophants. We haven’t made any obvious ground when it comes to ending the occupation of Iraq. Bush has still, despite his 24% approval rating, managed to bully this Congress. House leadership supports corrupt incumbents like Al Wynn and behaves badly towards those who ask about it. We have Barney Frank dismissing the left-wing kooks who think that ENDA needs to be all-inclusive.
But there’s a real change going on here. We all felt in November of 2006. Netroots candidates made significant progress in ways most of us didn’t think possible four years earlier. But that was quickly deflated as it became clear that we weren’t going to be leaving Iraq anytime soon. And, once again, we feel betrayed by those Democrats who aren’t as progressive as we’d like or by those who have been corrupted and co-opted by the party machine.
So we lose. Again.
But here’s what I figured out, and it took me about 40 years to get this: winning and losing don’t matter.
Let me say this again: winning and losing don’t matter.
And this is what Pelosi and Schumer don’t understand: they’ve been out of power for so long that they don’t know what it’s like to have power and to use it wisely. So they focus all their energies towards holding onto that power. So they don’t do anything about Iraq and they refuse to consider impeachment and they only bother to fight on issues like SCHIP when the country is over 70% behind them and refuse to take Bush on over the hard stuff. They cave on FISA. They decide that Mukasey is just fine even though he doesn’t think Waterboarding is necessarily torture.
So they don’t fight.
Because they think that the way to win the game is to hold on to power. Even if you don’t use that power. Even if you’re afraid of using that power because you think that if you use it, you’ll lose it.
Because here’s what’s really true about winning and losing: it doesn’t matter because fighting matters so much more.
What did Reid and Pelosi do as soon as Bush vetoed them on war funding?
They turned around and gave him the bill he wanted.
Rosa Parks didn’t even get noticed the first time she got arrested on a bus but she fought a great and enormous power because she felt a duty to do so. She fought. Not with force. Not with destruction.
Her weapons were quiet grace and peaceful resistance.
How do we, as activists, find our own way to create resistance to what we see in this world? How do we find new ways to fight the injustices we see? How do we battle the poverty of ideas that we see coming from our representatives? How do we fight for better people in office, ones who will challenge any president who tries to justify torture and wiretapping, by any name?
How do we fight for representatives that will not capitulate to anyone who tries to justify long-term occupation of foreign lands?
And, more importantly, how do we stay in that fight without falling into despair?
We do it by looking at the long view.
We do it by being prepared.
We do it by knowing that what happens now is not nearly as important as what happens three or four years from now.
We do it by knowing that every change takes longer than we’d like and that just because we win some battles doesn’t mean we’ve won the war, but we continue to strive, to try, because if we don’t, we do fail.
So we fight.
And we try to see the big picture.
And it’s not always clear what it’s going to be.
And it might be something that just doesn’t work the way we’d hoped.
So we learn.
And we try something different.
We all lose at some point. We all, in the end, will die. Some of us will die penniless and think of ourselves as failures. Some of us will die with modest wealth and look back on our lives as though we had some success.
But really, we all win at some point, too. Every one of us has some moment that we can look back on and say “I can’t believe I did that. That was so awesome!” (if you really can’t say that, then you should really look at your life and think about what you need to do to change it, because you deserve a moment like that).
But the most important thing is that when you look back at your life, you don’t look at what you’ve acquired, thinking of your successes in terms of what you’ve earned and what you’ve gained. Think about them in terms of what you’ve tried and what you’ve been willing to try even though you might fail.
So I’m going to ask questions I’ve asked before:
As an activist, what are you going to do this week that might change the world?
What are you going to do this year that scares you a little bit to do, but will be worth it in the long run?
What are you going to do that makes your community better?
What are you going to do that challenges an established power?
What are you going to try that’s likely to fail, and how long are you going to keep it up?