I have been dealing for several days with personal matters that have taken me away from this blog and when I returned to check things out, I discovered that my very brief recent post had triggered 112 comments, a record I think. This morning, before taking my walk, I read through them all, and on my walk I sorted out in my mind what I wanted to say about this tsunami of opinion.
Let me begin with the distinction, which I am sure I have several times drawn before on this blog, between two very different images of progressive or transformative political action: brain surgery and a landslide. If you think that radical political action is like brain surgery, then you will suppose that it is a precise and delicate matter in which it is desperately important to perform the operation in precisely the correct manner – one wrong move can leave the patient paralyzed or, worse still, dead. For the past 200 years, a good deal of debate on the left seems to have been motivated by this image of political action. I saw this up close at the University of Massachusetts almost 50 years ago when five young Marxist economists were hired simultaneously into tenured positions in the economics department and almost immediately split into three factions.
The alternative view, to which I subscribe, is that social change or political action is like a landslide. I like to compare the modern civil rights movement in the United States to an enormous landslide down the side of a mountain. Here comes a tremendous boulder – Fannie Lou Hamer. Then a huge tree uprooted and tumbling down the mountainside – Malcolm X. Then an entire outcropping of rock that lets loose – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Now there are two things about a landslide. The first is that it does not consist only of these highly visible and very notable objects – the boulder, the tree, the outcropping. If those are the only things that roll down the side of the hill, then although they will be quite striking as they tumble down, the hill, when they are all done falling, will not be transformed. The landslide also includes middle size boulders, rocks, pebbles, small trees, bushes, twigs, clots of dirt, even little bits of dirt. All of that taken together is the landslide and when the dust has settled the entire side of the mountain is changed forever.
The second thing about a landslide is that more than anything else what matters is what side of the mountain it takes place on.
As I read those 112 comments, I reflected that all of us were tumbling down the same side of the hill, bumping into each other, knocking one another this way and that, producing a lot of dust so that it was hard at times to see exactly what was going on, but nonetheless all of us on the same side of the hill contributing, or so we hoped, to a landslide that would forever transform the American mountainside.
Not all of us end up being Fannie Lou Hamer. Indeed, for most of us even our names are lost in the dust of history. But in the end what matters is whether we were on the right side of the hill tumbling down with all those big boulders and trees, making up a part of a transformative landslide.
Now one thing I have learned in more than 65 years of political activity is that life being what it is, you will only stick with an activity if you find something to do that you actually enjoy so that you will keep doing it even when the band goes by and the headlines change and it is no longer the moment. Leaving aside the metaphor of the landslide, there are many different tasks that are required of those who want to change the world. There is carrying placards and marching; there is standing on street corners handing out flyers; there is sitting at a desk making phone calls; there is giving money and there is raising money; every so often there is voting and of course there is going door-to-door trying to get other people to vote. Sometimes, if the moment calls for it, there may be running guns. And it may even that someone needs to be writing books.
Almost half a century ago I gave a talk at Hampshire College in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. I explained to the students that historical change was not by and large made by people writing books, so one of the students asked me "then why do you write books?” I answered, “writing books is not by any stretch of the imagination the most important thing one can do but I am good at it and I enjoy it so I do it. It is not a major contribution to social change but it is some sort of contribution, somebody needs to do it, and since I enjoy it I know I will go on doing it even when the band has moved on and is playing in another festival.”
I do not actually like taking part in demonstrations. Oh, I have done it of course. On January 21, 2017 I schlepped up to Washington DC and took part in the Women’s March to protest the election of Trump. I got a couple of good pictures from it on my cell phone but I did not much enjoy it. It is just not my thing. But one of the consequences of my involvement in the anti-apartheid movement at Harvard University is that I discovered I am good at raising money out of my computer by sending out mailings and it is something I like to do, so in 1990 I founded a little one man scholarship organization for poor black men and women in South Africa who wanted to go to historically black universities there and because I liked doing it, I stuck with it for 23 years. Was that a major accomplishment? Of course not. I helped about 1600 young men and women go to university during those 23 years but that was such a small number that it is scarcely a blip in the South African educational statistics. But the important thing is, I did it. I stuck with it because I enjoyed doing it. I figure, if I may return to my metaphor, that I was a middle sized rock rolling down the hillside of racial liberation – not a boulder, not a tree, but maybe not just a pebble either. That is really the most one can ask in a lifetime.
That was my first thought about the comments as I started my walk. I had some other thoughts as well, but since this one took me more than a thousand words to express I will stop here and leave the other thoughts for subsequent posts.