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irregular times logoThe Enduring Invisible Activist

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Reason, a book by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. The book is an examination of the liberal values that have formed the foundation of the best aspects of American democracy.

In the fourth chapter of the book, entitled Positive Patriotism, Robert Reich considers two very different models of patriotism displayed in the 1950s by Senator Joseph McCarthy and journalist Edward R. Murrow. Senator McCarthy tried to whip up people's fears about communists in their midst in order to persecute law-abiding Americans and gain political power for himself. McCarthy called that patriotism. The patriotism of Edward R. Murrow, on the other hand, depended upon questioning authority - an act of intellectual independence that Benjamin Franklin himself described as the most important duty of American citizens. Murrow dared to question Senator McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt because he believed that the American ideals of liberty and dissent were more important than the patriotic stylings of flag waving and anthem singing.

Robert Reich quotes Edward R. Murrow's comments on Joseph McCarthy as a context for understanding the current attacks against liberty by Republicans bent upon consolidating their power over the American government. Morrow said,

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty... We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men - not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent... We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

Senator Joseph McCarthy's power was based upon threats and bluster, and so for a long while, people were intimidated by his attempts to persecute according to a paranoid view of evildoers amongst us, out to ruin us all. It took a lot of people to face down McCarthyism, but once enough people stood up to McCarthy, his campaign to impose political orthodoxy through fear fell apart completely. A silent majority had been bothered by McCarthy's actions, but until saw others facing McCarthy down, they remained silent, worrying that no one else would understand their misgivings.

A similar pattern has emerged with the Iraq War. Well before the war began, there was ample evidence that George W. Bush was lying about the need to invade Iraq. Still, many people who had doubts remained silent. They watched supposed experts on television, all agreeing that there could be no doubt that Iraq had massive arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. Bush's "secret evidence for WMD" claims seemed bogus to many Americans, but who were they to disagree with the experts?

Now, three years after Bush's lies began to unravel, the American people finally feel comfortable acknowledging that the entire Iraq War has been based on lies. This summer, Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside George W. Bush's vacation home has given many Americans who have held private anger at the lies of the war permission to speak out loud, in public.

Of course, it isn't really Cindy Sheehan who has turned the American people against the war, any more than it was Edward R. Murrow who turned the American people against Joseph McCarthy's twisted crusade. Before they ever heard of Cindy Sheehan, Americans have seen lonely protesters in small groups on the side of the road in their home towns, read letters to the editor against the war in their newspapers, seen anti-war bumper stickers on cars driving past on the street, found anti-war commentary from bloggers online, and talked to friends and family who have privately expressed the opinion that the Iraq War is a load of bull.

These small gestures against the war may have seemed futile at the time that they were made, but if people had not been exposed to the small messages of opposition to the Iraq War over the last three years, Cindy Sheehan's message would never have reached them, much less made sense to them. If anti-war activists had not tried and failed for years, the anti-war movement never could have reached the strength it is showing this summer.

It's an old lesson, but one that we need to be reminded of: No single person can lead a grassroots movement to success, but the success of any grassroots movement depends upon the efforts of countless individuals. It matters that we act. Even when everyone around us seems to have fallen for the lies of our nation's leaders, and even when no one around us seems to care at all about those lies, we make a difference when we speak up.

Success in activism is a matter of endurance, not of momentary brilliance. So, when all hope seems lost, we will continue to speak for the traditional liberal ideals that form the heart of America. When, as now, it seems that our fellow citizens are willing to listen, we will continue to speak in favor of our values. If, some day, it seems that we have won the struggle to bring back American idealism, we will continue to speak.

As times change, as circumstances change, our values will remain the same. We believe that liberty, justice, nonviolence, responsibility, education, honesty, and humanity are always preferable to the gratuitous destruction and tyranny that are offered in their place.

We expect to be ignored. We expect to be insulted. We expect, that at times, we will become targets for suppression. We will not be deterred by these challenges, because it is not our goal to gain attention for ourselves. It is not our goal to be praised. It is not our goal to be merely left alone. It is our goal to be a small part of the collective effort of dedicated American liberals to return our nation to the idealistic path of liberty for all upon which it was founded.

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