If we Americans are nothing more than hopelessly addicted consumers who think of ourselves as an exceptional people with special entitlements; if we see ourselves as god’s morally superior chosen people; if we are selfish and greedy beyond redemption—then we are complicit in all of the horrible crimes that government commits in our name.
The United States has a violent history of atrocity and exploitation that began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the shores of North America in 1492. It extends all the way to the present and is guided by the same poisoned ideology—Manifest Destiny.
Those who know history understand that we have never come to grips with the horrible past which has led us to the appalling present. We take great pains to suppress a ghastly history of murder and mayhem in order to convince ourselves that we are not the people who exterminated and enslaved the indigenous people of North America; that we were not the practitioners of racism and chattel slavery questing for treasure on the backs of the oppressed or the murderers of striking workers seeking a living wage and decent working conditions.
Americans need to believe that those events and their effects are safely buried in the past, thereby absolving us from culpability for them in the present; but they will not stay buried and they will pursue us to our graves if we do not acknowledge them and comprehend their implications.
Likewise, we suppress our responsibility in unleashing the plague of global warming on the world and we call it a natural cycle so that we do not have to change our ways. Under the unbearable pressure of inconvenient truths, we ignore them in hopes that they will go away rather than fester and multiply. But if that is who we are and if we are incapable of coming to terms with the repulsive past there is no hope for us. Our fate is already cast and a terrible price will have to be paid by billions of people and countless other species. We will reap as we have sown and misery and death will be our just reward.
If that is indeed the case, then everything that follows this paragraph may be an exercise in futility; albeit it a necessary one.
Despite the considerable evidence that suggests we are collectively—like our ancestors also practitioners of Manifest Destiny, history has disgorged some notable exceptions to the idea of American exceptionalism and entitlement. The people who actively opposed injustice throughout American history and offered fierce resistance are a light in the gathering darkness—a beacon of hope to those living in the present and an inspiration to those who will follow us in the future. Most of them were ordinary people who differed from us only in their willingness to resist the injustice and tyranny of their time.
We have only to follow their example to avoid being ship wrecked in a history that endlessly repeats itself. There may be a way out of hell but it will be wrought with difficulty and characterized by individual and collective struggle. The willingness of enough people to engage in that struggle will determine the outcome and define the future.
From thousands of indigenous uprisings against colonial occupation, to Shay’s rebellion and continuing through heroic acts of revolutionary unionism and the courageous peace activists of today’s Code Pink, America has produced a continuous line of revolutionary thinkers and organizers intent on fundamentally restructuring society, including the redistribution of wealth and power.
America is a nation that has always been divided by socio-economic class with the rich and powerful holding the keys to political empire and advancing the agenda of the moneyed gentry over those of everyone else. Yet we persist in calling our republic a democracy—which suggests that we have no idea what a real democracy should look like.
There has always been strong opposition to the tyranny of unjust government and to the prevailing institutions of oppression and inequality. And where there is resistance to evil, no matter how small or seemingly impotent, there is hope. Resistance, apart from being an act of defiance to illegitimate authority, is also an act of faith akin to planting a seed that has enormous potential to change the world.
Resistance creates hope and hope in turn fuels further resistance. Resistance and hope give birth to a faith that believes that just outcomes are possible through struggle and opposition.
Without resistance there is no hope and no possibility of the transformative change that is so desperately needed. No matter how seemingly futile the gesture of resistance—hope is its byproduct. Hope is born of struggle and defiance to unjust authority. It is born of a rebelliousness that refuses to tolerate the intolerable and moves to oppose it. While it is theoretically possible that people can exist without hope, they cannot flourish and become fully human in its absence.
Where hope is abandoned, fear immediately rushes in to fill the vacuum and tyranny quickly ensues. Lacking hope, we are simply biding our time, stealing from the future and waiting for the end to play out. We are passive spectators on the deck of the Titanic awaiting our fate, whistling in the dark and trying to convince ourselves that these menacing waters are safely navigable through blind reckoning and indifference when in fact, they are not.
The great conservationist Aldo Leopold wisely observed: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” That is also the penalty of having a social conscience. Cultivating a social conscience can be exasperating and it can adversely affect one’s health. But the failure to cultivate a social conscience approaches what Dr. Martin Luther King called, “Spiritual Death.” There are rarely easy ways out of the moral morasses we create. Opposition and struggle are the way but they exact costs that too few are willing to pay. That is why injustice is passed from one generation to the next and injustice so often prevails over justice. Our core beliefs should be non-negotiable. Either we stand by them or we are deluding ourselves.
The situation is exacerbated when our fellow citizens fail to grasp the gravity of the crises and even contribute to the injustice, either deliberately or through unintended ignorance of the important issues. In such times the reward of struggle appears small and the temptation to quit is great. As the flag wavers and prevaricators hold sway and ignorance and darkness, it seems, becomes all pervasive and hope seems like a Utopian dream as dim as the long lost sunlight of a nuclear winter.
In the midst of insidious fear and belligerent nationalism, resistance is never an easy proposition; but it is a critical component of human nature that gives rise to hope and, ultimately, to transformative change and justice. Resistance creates possibilities, whereas capitulation extinguishes them.
There are those who can look the other way in times of peril or during the commission of crimes; and there are those who cannot. We happen to belong to the latter group and we must try to set things right. We are hard-wired that way—it is our nature and it is who we are.
The alternative to resistance is as unthinkable as it is unconscionable. As long as a single voice cries in the wilderness hope exists and better outcomes are possible. It is in our DNA to resist evil and, it is the only principled action available to us. Conscience requires that we act on the knowledge we have, regardless of our numbers or the consequences to ourselves. Other good people will recognize the justice of the cause and a few will join the struggle.
It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So, too, a movement is born with a single act of resistance that is rooted in conscience.
No one knows if enough people will ever care enough to get involved so we can reach the critical mass necessary to evoke transformative change, which is why it is so imperative to continue the struggle. It is impossible to know where we are on our journey, so we must simply continue the excursion by moving forward which is what defines us as progressives and separates us from the crowd.
Humankind is rarely uplifted by its majority or by those who play it safe by looking the other way in the face of injustice. It is advanced by those who see wrong doing and choose to do something about it—the conscientious few that stand on principle and act in accordance with those principles for the betterment of everyone.
Without principled resistance there is no possibility of transformation from an unjust society to a just society; and no possibility of driving a wooden stake through the heart of the imperialist ambition that is killing our children and the children of other people like us in distant lands in war after war.
Fighting injustice is an antidote to the debilitating despair that casts a dark pall over the nation and across the world. Giving in to that despair can only assure its continuation. Opposition to evil is preferable to capitulation to it; and, moreover, it is the only appropriate response. The beauty and joy is in the struggle, in knowing the rightness of the cause; the stubborn refusal to cooperate with evil or to commit crimes against earth and humanity.
While our struggle often feels lonely and futile, we are rarely as isolated as we think. There are almost certainly kindred spirits in our own communities. Put out your hand to see if anyone takes it. You might just be surprised to know who is there.
For every front line activist there are tens of thousands who agree with them in principle but who remain on the sidelines as spectators. As conditions deteriorate and others come to appreciate our position in the same light as we do, more of them are likely to become involved in the resistance. The untapped potential of our moral supporters is both enormous and grossly under appreciated. Fear and uncertainty is all that keeps us apart but they can be overcome through networking and solidarity.
Sweeping change and justice will never come from the inert masses who occupy the safe middle grounds. As corporate fascism spreads across the planet there are no safe places for anyone but the fascists themselves. Nor will transformation come from the neo-conservative regressives occupying the far right, as embodied by the likes of Trent Lott and Rush Limbaugh and their ideological brethren in corporate America. It will not be enacted through neo-liberals such as Hillary Clinton either, or indeed anyone in the mainstream.
Justice will come, as it always does, from the far left that champion the cause of the disenfranchised and the defenseless. It will be derived from ordinary citizens—people like you and I working for justice and accepting nothing less; by standing up and being counted and refusing to sit down and be quiet. Ordinary people must become interested enough and they must care enough to take ownership of government and demand fair and equal representation by it. But awakening is often a painfully slow process and patience is so difficult when urgency is needed.
Government that is not accountable to the people is accountable to no one. That kind of government can only become fascist and prey upon the people it is supposed to serve. Such government must be abolished and replaced by genuine democracy—government of the people, by the people, for the people—all of the people, not just those with wealth and social status.
Obedience to authority that is not derived from the people themselves will ultimately result in injustice and economic inequity. Obedience can only assure the continuation of the established orthodoxy and a future that is significantly worse than the past and the present combined. If we truly believe in what we claim to hold dear we must be willing to fight for those beliefs without compromising them. Faith that is not driven by principled action is useless—it is not real faith at all.
Yet, despite our best efforts, it may well be that the best we can hope for is to slow the spread of the racist dogma of American exceptionalism that, unfortunately, continues to define us as a nation. Perhaps there are simply too few of us actively engaged in resistance to stop the purveyors of hate and extremism. But even if that is the case and resistance is futile, it does not change the moral imperative to resist. Injustice is wrong and it must be opposed. Stepping out of the way or quitting is to cooperate with the evil we rail against. Apathy and hopelessness are the great enablers of tyranny and we must never give in to them.
Given the enormity of the evil that stalks decency everywhere, rage fatigue and depression are the prevalent symptoms that follow. All of us are susceptible to them to various degrees because we feel so alone and understandably frustrated. The few are expected, as they always are, to do the work of many from which all will benefit in the end.
Dealing with the defining issues of our time and the blundering apathy of the multitudes can be infuriating and demoralizing. We cannot do everything but each of us must do what we can to affect the things we can change. Outrage and anger can be powerful tools for motivation or they can become debilitating liabilities. We must take care that they motivate rather than destroy us. Righteous indignation and fury is a just response to what is being done in our name but it must be harnessed and directed.
Continuous resistance is exhausting and necessary work. It is work that will probably never bring us the admiration of our fellow citizens who are more likely than not to hold us in contempt. People fear what they do not understand and most still subscribe to the myth of American exceptionalism. But it is the most important thing that any of us will ever do. It is for us to show the way and keep hope alive.
In these trying times of doublespeak and group think it is easy to feel overwhelmed and demoralized. But action is the antidote to despair. It is vital that we stay connected to other people engaged in related struggles; that we provide mutual support to and encourage one another to continue a spirited resistance that does not know how to quit. We are rarely as alone as we are lead to believe.
It is immensely helpful to know there are other people out there doing the important work that the times require of each of us. Seeing others engaged in resisting wrong doing may inspire others to take up the cause and a powerful movement may someday be born. It is the certainty of that knowledge that keeps hope alive and makes existence not only bearable, but enjoyable.
I am not expecting anyone to do the impossible or to offer oneself up for crucifixion or martyrdom. I am calling upon all good people to simply live a wholesome and simple and decent life and to uphold the principles of fairness, decency, sharing and empathy for others and, most importantly, justice. An injury to one truly is an injury to all.
Charles Sullivan is a nature photographer, free-lance writer and community activist residing in the Ridge and Valley Providence of geopolitical West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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