Today, I celebrate!!
Last night I was reading from my favorite bedside book, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear. The book is exactly what it purports to be – a shot in the arm for those of us who see much danger and disappointment in our current political realities. It is ballast and balm for the soul, and always leaves me refreshed when I put it down after reading or re-reading one of the collected essays. I love Howard Zinn’s contribution, The Optimism of Uncertainty, which reminds us that “the bad things that happen are repetitions of bad things that have always happened….” But that even in our current times, we have been awesomely surprised again and again when the power structures come crashing down. He writes,
When we forget the fragility of that power at the top we become astounded when it crumbles in the face of rebellion. We have had many such surprises in our time, both in the United States and in other countries.
Looking at this catalog of huge surprises, it’s clear that the struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience – whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union itself. No cold calculation of the balance of power need deter people who are persuaded that their cause is just.
He also exalts not only the Dr. Martin Luther Kings and the Nelson Mandelas among us, but the Cindy Sheehans, and yes, the Bensons, the Shelbys, and the Melissas among us,
Understand that the major media will not tell you of all the acts of resistance taking place every day in the society – the strikes, protests, individual acts of courage in the face of authority. Look around (and you will certainly find it) for the evidence of these unreported acts. And for the little you find, extrapolate from that and assume there must be a thousand times as much as you’ve found.
This passage reminded me of another recent event not much covered in the major media. But perhaps you, blog reader, will have heard by now of Jean Sara Rohe. She is the recent graduate of the New School University in New York who stood up to Senator John McCain. McCain had been selected as the New School commencement speaker, sparking disappointment, anger, and protest from many students and faculty. Jean Rohe was one of two student speakers and she discarded her original remarks when she learned that McCain would deliver the same speech he had given at Liberty and at Columbia. Rohe said in her speech,
Right now, I'm going to…digress from my previously prepared remarks. I am disappointed that I have to abandon the things I had wanted to speak about, but I feel that it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge the fact that this ceremony has become something other than the celebratory gathering that it was intended to be due to all the media attention surrounding John Mc Cain's presence here today, and the student and faculty outrage generated by his invitation to speak here. The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded. Not only this, but his invitation was a top-down decision that did not take into account the desires and interests of the student body on an occasion that is supposed to honor us above all, and to commemorate our achievements.
If ever we needed “evidence of an individual act of courage,” here is this young woman! Let’s celebrate! She goes on,
What is interesting and bizarre about this whole situation is that Senator Mc Cain has stated that he will be giving the same speech at all three universities where he has been invited to speak recently, of which ours is the last; those being Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, Columbia University, and finally here at the New School. For this reason I have unusual foresight concerning the themes of his address today. Based on the speech he gave at the other institutions, Senator Mc Cain will tell us today that dissent and disagreement are our "civic and moral obligation" in times of crisis. I consider this a time of crisis and I feel obligated to speak. Senator Mc Cain will also tell us about his cocky self-assuredness in his youth, which prevented him from hearing the ideas of others. In so doing, he will imply that those of us who are young are too naïve to have valid opinions and open ears. I am young, and although I don't profess to possess the wisdom that time affords us, I do know that preemptive war is dangerous and wrong, that George Bush's agenda in Iraq is not worth the many lives lost. And I know that despite all the havoc that my country has wrought overseas in my name, Osama bin Laden still has not been found, nor have those weapons of mass destruction.
Picture this young woman, 21 or 22 years old, on a stage in a theatre in Madison Square Garden with Senator McCain sitting mere feet away from her. Word by word, she is proving Zinn’s assertion that ultimately moral fervor and courage are effective against even the most entrenched power structure. I wish there were video of this speech on YouTube, as there was of Stephen Colbert’s remarkable act of courage. We have to do our best to piece together a mental movie of this drama with the excerpts we have on Huffington Post. These are the real moments of history that lead little by little, action by action, to real change. As we watch our mental movie of Jean Rohe, a cheer goes up!! Our hero wins this battle. Let’s take a pause and celebrate this victory, celebrate Jean Rohe. As Zinn writes,
Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.
Jean Rohe is one of our endless succession of surprises (thank you, thank you, thank you!). Here’s how she closed her speech,
Finally, Senator Mc Cain will tell us that we, those of us who are Americans, "have nothing to fear from each other." I agree strongly with this, but I take it one step further. We have nothing to fear from anyone on this living planet. Fear is the greatest impediment to the achievement of peace. We have nothing to fear from people who are different from us, from people who live in other countries, even from the people who run our government--and this we should have learned from our educations here. We can speak truth to power, we can allow our humanity always to come before our nationality, we can refuse to let fear invade our lives and to goad us on to destroy the lives of others. These words I speak do not reflect the arrogance of a young strong-headed woman, but belong to a line of great progressive thought, a history in which the founders of this institution play an important part. I speak today, even through my nervousness, out of a need to honor those voices that came before me, and I hope that we graduates can all strive to do the same.
I am so thankful to Jean Rohe for her stirring words. They lift me up. I am also thankful to her for being a symbol, a hero, for all of us. To remind us of what is possible, what we can be, what we are striving for. Zinn finishes his essay,
To be hopeful in bad times is not foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.