The Threat of a Good Example: Reflections on Hope and Tenacity

Published as a ZNet Commentary, June 20, 1999

Occasionally when I’m speaking to college students, attempting to inspire at least a few to commit themselves to social justice as a way of life and perhaps career, I’m asked the question for which there is no easy answer; the one that goes something like: “What’s the point? Can you really make a difference? Why keep fighting against such incredible odds?”

As disturbing as such fatalism is, particularly from persons so young, I must admit that I rather appreciate the opportunity to confront it. It’s one of those rare times during a lecture when the speaker is forced to drop all pretense, put aside academic theories, and actually connect with that one other human being, even if only for a moment. It is in that moment where truth is revealed; that brief span of time when one can actually move another to a different place, without statistics or applause lines, by standing in a figurative sense naked before those one hopes to inspire.

And it’s a good question, after all. As we look around, there is much to suggest that justice, peace and equity are pipe dreams; that even our best efforts aren’t enough to prevent incalculable tragedies. The bombing of Yugoslavia; the ongoing embargo against the people of Iraq; the passage of draconian welfare reform; the rollbacks of affirmative action; the expansion of the prison-industrial-complex as education budgets are slashed. In the face of such ominous trends, the question is often posed: “Don’t you ever just want to throw up your hands and quit?”

There was a time when I might have said yes to that question, but not now. Like anyone, I confront fatigue. But that’s not the same as wanting to quit. And what made the difference was a letter I received many years ago from Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; a letter he sent in 1988 to the anti-apartheid group I co-founded at Tulane University; a letter in which he thanked us for sending information on Tulane’s investments in apartheid-complicit firms: information that convinced him to reject the school’s offer of an honorary doctorate.

As if knowing that those of us involved in the battle at Tulane were doubting our relevance (since even if we forced divestment would things really change in South Africa?), he offered an obvious yet profound rationale for the work of any freedom fighter: “You do not do the things you do because others will necessarily join you in the doing of them, nor because they will ultimately prove successful. You do the things you do because the things you are doing are right.”

There’s much to be said for such simplicity, as it’s usually a lack of complication that allows people to feel. Religion, after all, is not terribly complex. But it has inspired, for good and evil, millions around the world. Sometimes I think we both oversell and undersell the notion of fighting for social justice. Oversell in that we focus so much on “winning” the battle in which we’re engaged, that we often create false hope, and when as often happens, victory is limited or not at all, those in whom we nurtured the hope feel spent, unable to rise again to the challenge.

Yet we undersell the work too, in that we often neglect to remind folks that there is redemption in struggle itself, and that “victory,” though sought, is not the only point, and is never finally won anyway. Even when you succeed in obtaining a measure of justice, you’re always forced to mobilize to defend that which you’ve won. There is no looming vacation. But there is redemption in struggle.

Of course, that there is redemption in struggle, and that victory is only one reason for why one fights in this world, only seems to come as a surprise, or rather, as a source of discomfort to white folks. Invariably, it seems it is we in the white community who obsess over our own efficacy, and fail to recognize the value of commitment, irrespective of outcome. People of color, on the other hand, never having been burdened with the illusion that the world was their oyster, and thus, anything they touched could and should turn to gold, usually take a more reserved, and I would say healthier view of the world and the prospects for change. They know (as indeed they must) that the thing being fought for, at least if it’s worth having, will require more than a part-time effort, and will not likely come in the lifetimes of those presently fighting for it. And it is that knowledge which allows a strength and resolve few members of the dominant majority will ever, can ever, know.

This is not, and please take note of it, to sentimentalize suffering or the strength often borne of it. In fact, this last statement should be taken less as a comment about the strength of persons of color, than as an observation about the weakness of those without it. For it is true, at least in my experience, that whites, having been largely convinced of our ability, indeed entitlement, to affect the world around us and mold it to our liking, are very much like children when we discover that at least for some things — like fundamentally altering the system of privilege and domination that first invested us with such optimism — it will take more than good intentions, determined will, and that old stand-by, to which we euphemistically refer as “elbow grease.” There are certain things, in short (and little did we suspect it), that we are not to do with our privileges — such as demand their eradication, or challenge elite prerogatives — and when we stray into that forbidden territory, it is there we discover what real work is. And I’m afraid we’re often not up to it.

I’m reminded of the young white woman, appropriately liberal for what that’s worth these days — and I’d venture to say it’s not worth much — who explained to me once how she wanted to get busy on this “racism thing,” so she would have plenty of time to save the rainforests before having to get a real job and “sell out” when she graduated from college. One would be hard-pressed to encounter such stupefying naivete from a young black woman, or Latina, or any person of color, and the reasons for this are as obvious as they are distressing.

This isn’t to say it’s impossible to inspire young whites to fight for justice, nor to stick it out. It’s just a bit more of a challenge sometimes, for it requires that the person be open to an entirely different way of thinking about the world and their place in it: a challenge, but not undoable, as any glimpse at the long list — however much longer it should be — of whites who have committed their lives to equity and peace will attest. And so, I explain, there is something to be said for confronting the inevitable choice one must make in this life, between collaborating with or resisting injustice, and choosing the latter. There is something to be said for knowing you did all you could to stop a war, eliminate racism, or improve your community for the good of all. There is something to be said for a good night’s sleep, and the ability to wake in the morning, look in the mirror, and never doubt that if you died before lunch, you would have lived a life of integrity.

Now some may think such an answer would be of little import to college students, obsessed as they supposedly are with consumerism and six-figure jobs. But quite the opposite is true. Sure, some roll their eyes at such talk; but these are folks who didn’t care about social justice careers in the first place; the ones for whom attendance at my speech was little more than a classroom assignment. But for the others, including those who posed the challenge to begin with, the answer is meaningful. These are folks desperate for lives of principle and substance; desperate for someone to assure them they can do it, and that it’s worth it, win or lose.

These are people in need of role models, who crave assurance that someone is there for them, to nurture their interest and allow their contribution. But unless we reach them before the “real world” begins to feel more like a burden than a challenge, and before they develop an interest, proprietary or otherwise in maintaining the status quo, they will likely drift away, moved to action rarely if ever, having had to compromise so much, so soon.

And it’s important to remind them that every now and then, and even quite often, you really do make a difference; you really do improve people’s lives; you really do force better working conditions; you really do stop people from being bombed and tortured; and you never know exactly when that will happen; when your efforts will break loose the dam and send forth waters of triumph. But you do know one thing. You know for certain — as certain as the sun rising and setting — what will happen if you don’t do the work; if we don’t. Nothing; and given that choice, between certainty and promise, in which territory lies the measure of our resolve and humanity, I will gladly opt for hope.

What’s more, it seems it is always at precisely that moment when one stops obsessing about one’s efficacy, and begins to draw strength from the sheer moral force of one’s actions, that victory is most likely. I don’t know if this is some cosmic law on a par with gravity, or just an odd coincidence, but I know it appears true in every instance of which I can think. That moral force is what prevents or at least modifies burnout. That moral force is what inspires and makes possible human progress. That moral force is the thing we must seek to enliven in the young, and it is that same thing which many of them wish so badly to see enlivened in themselves.

If a monster the likes of Adolph Hitler can rise from a movement that started with roughly seven guys sitting in a pub, then surely those who fight for his antithesis can make do with the raw material to be found in Generations X and Y. Surely we can inspire as well as he. And all of us can play that role, no matter how young, old, prominent, or obscure. A few years ago, I was approached by a student at San Francisco State who said he’d seen me on television, and that in the five minutes I’d been given to explain the obligation whites have to confront institutional racism, I had changed his life. At first I thought he had the wrong guy, it never having occurred to me that a few words spoken between commercials could have such impact. But the look in his eyes proved his sincerity; and it’s a look I’ve seen in the eyes of others whom I’ve had the good fortune to meet. Sometimes I wonder whom those I reach today may reach in the future? What great things might they do? All I know is, it is worth my entire being to be a part of it.

Recently, I spoke at the University of Oregon, and gave a workshop in the Ben Linder room of the student center: a room named for a man who, in April, 1987, in Nicaragua, was murdered by contra forces, armed and trained by my government, and his; killed for the crime of helping bring running water to rural villagers. And as I sat there, inspired by a painting of the village where Ben died, and the tribute to his work that greets visitors to this room, and reflected on how I’d felt as a college freshman upon hearing of his assassination, I remembered why both he and the revolution of which he was a part, ultimately had to be crushed. They both posed, as we used to say, the threat of a good example.

That’s when I realized that Ben Linder’s life and death sums up, as well as anything I could say, why I do what I do, and what is required of us. I can think of nothing more rewarding, after all, than to serve as the threat of a good example; and I can think of no higher calling than to be prepared to die for your principles if need be, but even more so, to be unafraid to live for them.

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