The Optimism of Uncertainty by Howard Zinn
From an excerpt of Paul Rogat Loeb's book "The Impossible Will Takea Little While"
In this awful world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power, how do I manageto stay involved and seemingly happy? I am totally confident notthat the world will get better, but that we should not give up thegame before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose anychance of winning.
To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing theworld. There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonishedby the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changesin people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion againsttyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. What leaps out from the history of the past hundredyears is its utter unpredictability. This confounds us, because weare talking about exactly the period when human beings became soingenious technologically that they could plan and predict the exact time of someone landing on the moon, or walk down the streettalking to someone halfway around the earth.
Let's go back a hundred years. A revolution to overthrow the tsar ofRussia, in that most sluggish of semi-feudal empires, not only startled the most advanced imperial powers, but took Lenin himselfby surprise and sent him rushing by train to Petrograd. Given theRussian Revolution, who could have predicted Stalin's deformationof it, or Khrushchev's astounding exposure of Stalin, or Gorbachev's succession of surprises? Who would have predicted thebizarre shifts of World War II-the Nazi-Soviet pact (thoseembarrassing photos of von Ribbentrop and Molotov shaking hands),and the German army rolling through Russia, apparently invincible, causing colossal casualties, being turned back at the gates ofLeningrad, on the western edge of Moscow, in the streets ofStalingrad, followed by the defeat of the German army, with Hitlerhuddled in his Berlin bunker, waiting to die?
And then the post-war world, taking a shape no one could have drawnin advance: The Chinese Communist revolution, which Stalin himselfhad given little chance. And then the break with the Soviet Union,the tumultuous and violent Cultural Revolution, and then another turnabout, with post-Mao China renouncing its most fervently heldideas and institutions, making overtures to the West, cuddling upto capitalist enterprise, perplexing everyone. No one foresaw thedisintegration of the old Western empires happening so quickly after the war, or the odd array of societies that would be createdin the newly independent nations, from the benign village socialismof Nyerere's Tanzania to the madness of Idi Amin's adjacent Uganda.
Spain became an astonishment. A million died in the civil war, which ended in victory for the Fascist Franco, backed by Hitler andMussolini. I recall a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigadetelling me that he could not imagine Spanish Fascism beingoverthrown without another bloody war. But after Franco was gone, a parliamentary democracy came into being, open to Socialists,Communists, anarchists, everyone. In other places too, deeplyentrenched dictatorships seemed suddenly to disintegrate-inPortugal, Argentina, the Philippines, Iran.
The end of World War II left two superpowers with their respectivespheres of influence and control, vying for military and politicalpower. The United States and the Soviet Union soon each had enoughthermonuclear bombs to devastate the Earth several times over. The international scene was dominated by their rivalry, and it wassupposed that all affairs, in every nation, were affected by theirlooming presence. Yet the most striking fact about thesesuperpowers was that, despite their size, their wealth, their overwhelming accumulation of nuclear weapons, they were unable tocontrol events, even in those parts of the world considered to betheir respective spheres of influence. The failure of the SovietUnion to have its way in Afghanistan, its decision to withdraw after almost a decade of ugly intervention, was the most strikingevidence that even the possession of thermonuclear weapons does notguarantee domination over a determined population.
The United States has faced the same reality. It waged a full-scale war in lndochina, conducted the most brutal bombardment of a tinypeninsula in world history, and yet was forced to withdraw. InLatin America, after a long history of U.S. military interventionhaving its way again and again, this superpower, with all its wealth and weapons, found itself frustrated. It was unable toprevent a revolution in Cuba, and the Latin American dictatorshipsthat the United States supported from Chile to Argentina to ElSalvador have fallen. In the headlines every day we see other instances of the failure of the presumably powerful over thepresumably powerless, as in Brazil, where a grassroots movement ofworkers and the poor elected a new president pledged to fightdestructive corporate power.
Looking at this catalog of huge surprises, it's clear that thestruggle for justice should never be abandoned because of theapparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and themoney and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable tohuman qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moralfervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit,ingenuity, courage, patience-whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, or workersand intellectuals in Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union itself.
No cold calculation of the balance of power need deter people whoare persuaded that their cause is just. I have tried hard to match my friends in their pessimism about the world (is it just myfriends?), but I keep encountering people who, in spite of all theevidence of terrible things happening everywhere, give me hope.Especially young people, in whom the future rests. Wherever I go, I find such people. And beyond the handful of activists there seem tobe hundreds, thousands more who are open to unorthodox ideas. Butthey tend not to know of each other's existence, and so, while theypersist, they do so with the desperate patience of Sisyphus endlessly pushing that boulder up the mountain.
I try to tell each group that it is not alone, and that the verypeople who are disheartened by the absence of a national movementare themselves proof of the potential for such a movement. It is this change in consciousness that encourages me. Granted, racialhatred and sex discrimination are still with us, war and violencestill poison our culture, we have a large underclass of poor,desperate people, and there is a hard core of the population content with the way things are, afraid of change. But if we seeonly that, we have lost historical perspective, and then it is asif we were born yesterday and we know only the depressing storiesin this morning's newspapers, this evening's television reports.
Consider the remarkable transformation, in just a few decades, inpeople's consciousness of racism, in the bold presence of womendemanding their rightful place, in a growing public awareness thatgays are not curiosities but sensate human beings, in the long-term growing skepticism about military intervention despite brief surgesof military madness. It is that long-term change that I think wemust see if we are not to lose hope. Pessimism becomes aself-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act. Revolutionary change does not come as onecataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endlesssuccession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decentsociety.
We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions ofpeople, can transform the world. Even when we don't "win," there isfun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, withother good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope. Anoptimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in thedark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishlyromantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage,kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history willdetermine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys ourcapacity to do something. If we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, thisgives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sendingthis spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we doact, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents,and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defianceof all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
Adapted from "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear", edited by Paul Rogat Loeb.
Partsof this essay appeared in You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Trainand Howard Zinn on History.
Published on Monday, November 8, 2004 by CommonDreams.org