How to stay hopeful in a time of despair
The struggles for democracy, social and economic justice, and a sustainable planet are necessary and noble.
The reason I write this newsletter is not just to inform (and occasionally amuse) you, but also to arm you with the truth so you can fight more effectively for the common good.
The forces undermining our democracy, polluting our planet, and stoking hatred and inequality have many weapons at their disposal — lobbyists, media megaphones, and money to bribe lawmakers. But their most powerful weapon is cynicism. They’re betting that if they can get us to feel like we can’t make a difference, we will give up — and then they can declare total victory.
Which is why we have to keep up the fight even when feeling deeply discouraged.
I’m not going to pretend. There’s a lot to be discouraged about right now — from Manchin’s torpedoing of “Build Back Better” to the surging Omicron variant of COVID-19 and the politicization of public health, from the Republicans’ assault on voting rights to environmental disasters all over the world. My message to any of you who feel overwhelmed, disappointed, or ready to drop out: I get it.
I’ve been in the trenches for five decades and sometimes I despair as well. Again and again over the years I’ve seen hard-fought dreams go up in smoke. Or been sidelined. Or ridiculed. Or I’ve watched them succumb to bribery and corruption. Two of the leaders I counted on most in my lifetime were assassinated.
But notwithstanding all this, we are better today than we were fifty years ago, twenty years ago, even a year ago. I can point out so many examples in our own country, or all across the world, where movements that were once small and stacked against seemingly impossible odds, ended up winning and making America and our earth a better place to live. From Martin Luther King, Jr., to Mahatma Gandhi, to more recent examples like Stacey Abrams and Greta Thunberg, people have repeatedly changed the course of history by refusing to believe that they couldn’t make a difference.
It’s not only the famous leaders who are agents of change. Movements are fueled by individuals giving their time, energy, and hope. Small actions and victories lead to bigger ones, and the improbable becomes possible.
Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of those who want to prevent progress more than a resistance that is undeterred.
This fight, this struggle, all these big problems, can be exhausting. No one can go all in, all the time. That’s why we need to build communities and movements for action, where people can give what effort they can, and can be buoyed in solidarity with others. That’s what we’re doing in a small way in this forum. Building community. Strengthening our resolve. Sharing information and analyses. Fortifying ourselves.
Over the next few years the fight will become even more intense. We are even battling for the way we tell the story of America. There are those who want to go back to a simplistic and inaccurate narrative, where we were basically perfect from our founding, where we don’t need to tell the unpleasant truths about slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all the other injustices.
But there is another story of America, one of imperfection but progress. In this story, which is far more accurate, reformers have changed this nation many, many times for the better. We got labor rights, civil rights, women's rights, and LGBTQ rights. We got clean water laws and clean air laws, and health insurance for most Americans. We’ve torn down Confederate statues and expanded clean energy. We’ve got a new generation of young, progressive politicians determined to make the nation better. The list goes on and on.
The outcome of the fight ahead will not be determined by force, fear, or violence. It will be decided on the basis of commitment, tenacity, and unvarnished truth.
Here’s my deal. I’ll continue to give you the facts and arguments, even sprinkle in drawings and videos. I’ll do whatever I can to help strengthen your understanding and your resolve. Please use the facts, arguments, drawings and videos to continue the fight. To fight harder. To enlist others.
If at any time you feel helpless or despairing, remember that the struggle is long, that progress is often hard to see in the short term, and that for every step forward regressive forces are determined to push us backwards. Also remind yourself that the fights for democracy, social justice, and a sustainable planet are necessary and noble, that the stakes could not be greater or more important, and that we will — we must — win.
I wish you a restful, enjoyable, restorative Christmas holiday.
PS: Here’s a video I just did with my wonderfully talented young colleagues at Inequality Media (who fuel my optimism every day). Feel free to share!