In some cases, though, knowing the ending can put us at a singular disadvantage. Lately, I’ve been thinking the problem with history — especially in regards to progressive activism — is that we know the ending. We hear stories about the Founding Fathers, the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the early union organizers, the Freedom Riders, etc and because we know they were victorious in the end, we assume those victories were inevitable. We think because we know the ending, our forebears somehow knew it too, and it was this secret knowledge that gave them the strength and courage to wage the battles they did. Unlike us, they could actually see that light at the end of the tunnel; they didn’t have to fumble around in the dark.
When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, we know this act (along with a brutal war) helped found a nation, but at the time, they had no idea. For all they knew, they were signing their own death warrants. They hoped it would lead to something better, and they had the courage of their convictions, but there was no way they could be sure everything would work out in the end. In fact, they had every reason to believe it wouldn’t. I imagine it felt a little like jumping off a cliff.
Likewise, when abolitionists hid runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad, they risked their lives, reputations, and property to commit what was then a serious crime. They felt compelled to do the right thing, but they had no guarantees doing so would dismantle America’s peculiar institution. Slavery was pretty entrenched in this country. The Southern elites had a good racket going. They were rich and growing richer. Insane profits with a payroll percentage of way less than the “optimal” 20%. No way were a few rogue operators going to persuade them to stop.
It is tempting to be lulled into reading the history of this country as a frustratingly slow — though ultimately heroic — march towards a yet unattained but inevitable state of perfection. We believe perpetual progress is our birthright and that we are ordained by the universe to keep getting bigger and better. But the activists who came before us knew no such thing. You have to be willing to risk it all to do what is right and good even when the odds are stacked against you, even when you are almost certain to fail. Because many times you will fail, and the those few victories you do win will be tenuous. You have to keep fighting every day.
This country has gone dark and our enemies seem untouchable — but it’s been that way many times before. One annoying thing about history is that it keeps repeating itself. If you really think about it, are BP, Bank of America, the Koch brothers, and Fox News any more intimidating than the ruling monarch of a superpower, the antebellum Southern aristocracy, or the robber barons of the First Gilded Age? Activism has always been difficult and often futile. So many good works get thrown down a black hole. Why did Bernie Sanders make that speech? Why did those veterans chain themselves to the White House fence during a snowstorm? Why did all those people camp out in Madison? What good did it do?
There’s a character in my novel-in-progress, The Plague Child, named Father Anthony, who is an activist priest. The novel is set in an America of the future, and frankly, that future isn’t too rosy. The country is broke and barely holding together. There are huge uninhabitable Dead Zones. A few corporations control everything and sometimes declare war (yes, actual war with guns and everything) on each other. Violence, sickness and poverty are commonplace and most people are too busy with merely surviving to mount any sort of coherent resistance. Still: Father Anthony wages a battle for change he is almost certain to lose. But he’s no Don Quixote. He sees the world for what it is, and continues with his work. Another character says of him: “He sees everything so clearly, so starkly; he stares down the darkness and does not flinch. And yet: he persists in doing good.”
That is precisely the sort of courage we must have. We owe ourselves and those who came before us nothing less. Victory is far from certain and there is no guarantee of a happy ending. No matter what we do, there’s bound to be some rough sailing ahead. But if we give up and do nothing, we’ll deserve the ending we get.