Why bother? What's the point? What difference can I possibly make?
Ever felt that way? Many do.
Yet others keep at it, whatever the odds, staring down defeat. What sustains them? What keeps them going?
What a life he led! Past tense because, as all but cave dwellers are by now aware, he died last Monday, January 27, at the age of 94. Jon Parelesjan, "Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94," New York Times, Jan. 29, 2014, p. A20. His wife, Toshi, predeceased him last year, Elisabeth Blair, "Toshi Seeger, Wife Of Folk Singer Pete Seeger, Dies At 91," New York Times, July 11, 2013 -- just shy of their 70th anniversary.
His death marks the end of an era, an era of folk songs and banjo, his leading audiences of thousands in song, energizing, organizing and raising our hopes that change was possible.
Memories of Pete Seeger flooded back again a couple of days ago as I read an email from a young man I know. It was going to require a response, and it got me to thinking about why it is that some are able to keep going for 94 years, while others give up after years and years of frustration.
First, here are some excerpts from what that young man wrote me:
Over the years I've written numerous letters to the editor, attended several public meetings, joined local non-profit groups and gone to their meetings, written directly to government officials (both email and postal letters), spoken with sheriffs and police chiefs, tried to change things at work by talking with management and working with the union, written gobs of blog entries, forum posts and comments on online newspaper articles -- on and on -- and essentially none of it has mattered. All my effort has amounted to practically nothing.
After one disaster in which people were killed and injured, I got the impression that no one wanted to know the truth. Perhaps there were enough people who might potentially get burned that they all just got together and buried it. When I try to bring things like this to the attention of local reporters they either never respond to my calls and emails, or don't seem to care. There is just a collective shrug. Crickets chirping.
I'm pretty much done fighting. I really don't see the point.
That's not to say there haven't been some advances in society over the last 50-100 years. Of course there have been, most of them involving civil rights. But it doesn't do anyone much good to be able to vote, for example, if powerful special interests are determining the candidates and the ship is headed for the iceberg.
Regardless of whether one thinks we are headed for nirvana or total annihilation, it really seems to me that the speed and the course are beyond the control of most individuals and groups. Any of us can rant and rave about the politics, WalMart, overpopulation, over-development, abortion, stem cells, guns, church/state issues, the Middle East, nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, public education, and taxes, and it just does not matter. We're almost always either preaching to the choir and/or pissing off a large number of people (some of whom may be mentally unstable). It's exceedingly unlikely that one of the Waltons, or a bishop protecting pedophile priests, or a KKK member, or a cement head conservative would read something -- written by anyone really, but especially little ol' me -- and say to themselves, "You know, this guy makes a lot of sense! I realize now that I've been wrong my entire life. Gosh darn it, I'm gonna turn over a new leaf and do the right thing!"
The deck is stacked. Just one example from emails I received today -- efforts to stop the XL pipeline. I think we all know how that's gonna go. I doesn't matter how many people are against it -- there's too much money at stake. Obama will approve it.
Even in years past, for every JFK, Martin Luther King, or Gandhi -- every person who ever made a difference -- there were scores of others who worked, sacrificed, and suffered in vain. Not to mention that all of the above were eventually assassinated.
There are good reasons for millions of Americans to share that sense of hopelessness. And frankly, I don't know what the best response would be to those who feel that way. I'm sure there are many who could do a better job than I in coming up with a response. In any event, here was my feeble effort:
There are many potential responses to what you wrote.
Sadly, yours may be the majority view. Look at the voting turnout in Iowa City – the world’s third-selected “City of Literature,” a city one with one of the nation’s highest percentages of college graduates, one seen as so progressive as to be characterized as “The People's Republic of Johnson County” by those in Western Iowa. We often get turnouts of 5% to 10% of the eligible voters for city council, school board, and bond elections. Apathy rules.
There is certainly a lot of evidence to support your position. How many “public interest” organizations have shut down because their initial mission was accomplished?
(1) Strategy and Tactics. Those engaged in promoting change would do well to give more thought to strategies and tactics. When Dick Remington and I were co-directors of the Institute for Health, Behavior and Environmental Policy, we did a benefit-cost/triage analysis of where we might best put our time and money. We decided, in turn, to focus on (a) control of tobacco use, as it was the number one cause of death, (b) emphasize preventing pre-teens from taking up smoking (as more cost-effective than trying to get nicotine addicts off their drug), and (c) raising the price of cigarettes as the most effective way of discouraging children from taking up smoking. What are the causes that both hold the greatest potential for human betterment, and chance of accomplishment through the efforts of individual citizens? Success, a sense of accomplishment, what community organizers call "the fixed fight," are among the best antidotes for discouragement.
Some causes really are hopeless -– at least at a given time. “Pick your battles,” as my wife advises me. LBJ asked his presidential appointees to provide him with proposals for policies that would best serve the national interest. He said we should not make judgments about what is, and is not, possible -– he would make those judgments. As a congressman’s daughter in law, returning with the family from the south after Christmas, once put it, “Nick, some of those people are just going to have to die” -– not meaning that they should be killed, but that it is seemingly impossible to reason with them. As Thomas Paine explained a couple centuries earlier, “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason . . . is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.” (From Thomas Paine, The American Crisis.)
(2) Words Matter. But Thomas Paine said something else that I often think of, that reflects his understanding of both what a long and hard road it is to bring about change, but also how important incremental efforts can be: “The words pile up and then men do things. But first the words.” (I can’t find the source of that right now.) His pamphlet, Common Sense,” played a major role in the American Revolution. As John Adams is credited with having said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”
(3) Of Butterflies and Politics. Do you know about what’s called “the butterfly effect” (a butterfly flapping its wings in China might potentially contribute to the formation of a hurricane in North America weeks later)? Everything you say, every email you write, every letter to the editor you get published, every comment you make to the host of a call-in radio program, is at least the political equivalent of those butterfly wings flapping. Your words do have some effect -- even if so slight as to be immeasurable. It will certainly rarely be enough, by itself, to produce action or change.
Each leaf that fluttered to the bottom of the pool millions of years ago seemed insignificant, but it ultimately became part of a billion barrels of oil. Your support of ZPG (Zero Population Growth), and writing about global population, is an example; you have been a part of a growing global awareness that has, in fact, slowed population growth in many parts of the world.
Think tanks and various task forces and commissions come out with reports full of proposals to make things better. When they do, some people complain, “Oh, just another report to go on the shelf and gather dust.” My thought is, yes, more reports do come along every decade or so on this subject. But ultimately the time is right, a public official's staff person reads through all those old reports, gets the ear of his or her employer, and action follows.
Change is slow in coming. Very slow. As Paine began Common Sense, “Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
Think of how long it took to convince Americans that slavery was not cool, or that perhaps it was worth taking the risk of letting women vote, or that it was not folly to create a national park system, or Social Security payments.
(4) A Swinging Pendulum Moves the Clock Forward. The pendulum swings. It’s not always “two steps forward and one step back.” Sometimes it’s “one step forward and two steps back.” Sometimes it’s no steps forward. But even a sailboat can sail into the wind by tacking; the reformer’s job is to figure out the equivalent of tacking when sailing into overwhelming opposition. Even the very best professional baseball players don't get a hit, let alone a home run, every time at bat. When I was doing door-to-door selling I read that it's normal to be turned down at least ten times for every sale. Politics, and reform of public policy is like that. A realistic sense of what's possible reduces frustration.
(5) The Personal Return from Making an Effort. Finally, there is the impact on the person engaged in trying to bring about change. There is actually some psychological data on this, I think.
Being engaged in the passions of one’s time is good for your physical, mental and emotional health. It often involves working with others you would not otherwise have come to know. It energizes you, gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Discouragement? Sure. But as President Kennedy said at Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Want a little advice? Take a measured, realistic view of what anyone can accomplish, the causes that are hopeless, those that are going to take decades and yet have a chance. Don’t take on too much. Don’t stress yourself out with lack of sleep and perpetual frustration. Maintain a sense of humor about it all. Find additional activities that are predominantly pleasant. But you’ll continue to benefit, even personally, not to mention for others, by not giving up entirely on trying to improve the status quo -– Latin for “the mess we’re in now.” Help clean it up. It's worth it.