“Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” -Mother Jones
In the last 250 years, our nation gained independence from the British Empire, abolished slavery, achieved suffrage for women, and secured civil rights, the eight-hour workday and an end to child labor. And not one of these victories was won because of voting; not one was handed down to us by a benevolent government that had not been forced to acquiesce by popular struggle.
I’ve been accused more than once this semester of being anti-American. But histories, as much as futures, are sites of struggle – struggle to determine what is essential and what accidental, what commendable and what shaming. If one defines America by genocidal Indian wars, foreign aggression, environmental devastation, suppression of unions or international economic exploitation, then I am most certainly anti-American. But in counterpoint to the history of Andrew Jackson, Bull Connor, Richard Nixon and Henry Frick is another history to which I proudly pledge allegiance.
y America is the land of Elihu Burritt, David Thoreau, William Pitt, Mark Twain, John Brown, Crazy Horse, Alice Paul, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, Murray Bookchin, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dan and Phil Berrigan, Noam Chomsky, Liz McAlister, Malcolm X, Mother Jones, Jack and Lucy Parsons, and Joe Hill. My America contains the people who built the underground railroad and the sanctuary movement, Students for a Democratic Society and Vietnam Vets Against the War, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the civil rights movement and the ecological movement; people who opposed death squads in Latin America and apartheid in South Africa, who stood with workers for global justice and with Palestinian refugees. My American history took place in Selma and Stonewall, Little Big Horn and Big Mountain, Kent State and Jackson State, Homestead and Haymarket.
If you do not know the history of any of these, the classic and essential first book in your study should be Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” And the first thing that Zinn will teach you is that no individual ever built a movement, that the people above were both flawed and ultimately inessential. Change comes from masses of people finding a way to live their lives collectively in committed resistance to oppression. Everyone who says “no” when told to participate in injustice, who chooses love over division, who rejects privilege, who stands in solidarity and devotes his or her talents to building a better world, is a hero in the only sense that matters.
Over 20 years ago, I met a woman named Mabel Karsch. Mabel died in 2001 at the age of 96 without ever doing anything that is likely to make it into a history books. But sometime in the1930s, she decided to contribute one evening a week to social justice work. And when I met her 50 years later, she had, by common community reckoning, never missed a week. That, my friends, is a life.
People like Mabel, or my early political mentor Molly Rush – both of whom worked at the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh – are rarely mentioned in political science classes. This is a shame, because Molly is one of the most brilliant strategic thinkers I have known – whether she is addressing local poverty, organizing her fellow inmates in federal prison or analyzing the military industry – and students who hope to build real democracy would do well to study people like Molly, or far better, to apprentice to them.
The most obvious first step in democratic apprenticeship is community-based learning. Georgetown students who work with the poor, with immigrants – the discarded people of global capitalism – have learned skills that cannot be gained in the classroom. Beyond this, students who organize learn skills essential to fundamental political change, skills desperately needed in the struggles to come. A few years ago, Georgetown merchandise was made in sweatshops, Georgetown employees were not guaranteed a living wage and Georgetown lacked a commitment to a resource center for sexual minority students. No doubt the administration deserves credit for implementing changes more willingly than most institutions would have. But without student organization, commitment and pressure, none of these changes would have come about.
In the famous words of Frederick Douglass: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. . If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
So as a new class graduates, I wish you all flourishing, productive, just and joyous lives. As you go into the next phase of life, continue to learn your history, continue to embrace the America and the world that struggled before you, but always remember that what matters most is what remains. We face urgent struggles against environmental destruction, war, imperialism, the prison industry, poverty, sexism, homophobia and above all, authoritarianism in all its guises. It is a daunting struggle to be sure, but if we know where to look, in our past and our present, we will find countless allies. And if we find them and devote our life to a struggle for justice, then win or lose, we will know who we were.
La Lucha Continua.
ark Lance is a professor in the philosophy department and a professor and program director in the Program on Justice and Peace. He can be reached at lancethehoya.com. COGNITIVE DISSIDENT appears every other Friday.
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