These are the times that try mena*TMs souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.
-Thomas Paine, The Crisis, 1776
The great immigrant revolutionary, abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights, Thomas Paine, made the point in 1776 that in order to win any meaningful battle, it is necessary not only to fight when it is easy. It is necessary to fight, and in fact, it is especially important to fight when all “pragmatic” opinion counsels compromise, retreat and surrender. Had Washington’s army sued for peace in 1776 at Valley Forge then the world’s first representative democracy would never have been born.
Visionary abolitionist Frederick Douglass advised John Brown to abort his ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry, not because he opposed the rebellion, but because he believed it could not succeed in its tactics. However, when John Brown was executed by the slave power, Douglass lauded him as the “man who started the war that ended slavery.”
In 1937, Congress of Industrial Organization union leader John Lewis dared the government to break the auto sit-down strikes and “shoot him first.” The auto bosses and Roosevelt backed down and we can thank the Flint rebels for the remnants of unions we still have today.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, touching off a direct action movement that bucked those who advised to let the apartheid courts work with “all deliberate speed.” The racist backlash was intense and led to the deaths, beatings and jailings of thousands of young Black and white freedom fighters. But Jim Crow died as well.
Any serious consideration of American history shows that Thomas Paine was right. Independence, abolition, unions, civil rights, suffrage, abortion, Stonewall. All great rebellions and reforms came into being because the minority who advocated “unreasonable” demands refused to disorganize their forces under the pressure of majority opinion. Instead, they held to their principles, gathered their forces, weathered the storm and showed friend and foe alike that “truth and not lies are the motor force of history.”
Today, we are at an historical crossroads. Bush has set the world on fire. He has invaded Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti; cheered on the Israeli war against the Palestinians; shredded our civil liberties with the Patriot Act; and wants to codify his version of the Old Testament into a constitutional ban on gay marriage. He wants to outlaw abortion and doesn’t believe in global warming. No doubt, he is a danger to the planet.
However, rather than opposing this madness, John Kerry has helped Bush light the matches. He voted for the invasions and wants to send more troops. He promises more, more, more of the same for Sharon’s dirty war, and adds that we should get tough with Venezuela. He voted for the Patriot Act and vows to intensify the “war on terror” if elected. There are, of course, some differences. Kerry does not want to write his anti-gay marriage bigotry into the form of an amendment. He believes in global warming, but thinks any radical action to reverse it will hurt American corporate power. He says he will appoint anti-abortion federal judges, but will follow Clinton’s policy of slowly outlawing abortion to the young and the poor.
Unfortunately, many “sunshine patriots” are demanding that the anti-war movement that put over a million people in the streets in the spring of 2003 now line up behind a pro-war candidate. This is especially wrong-headed timing because the majority of the country is turning against the war and occupation. Medea Benjamin, Peter Coyote, Daniel Ellsberg, Tom Hayden, Barbara Ehrenreich, Norman Solomon and many other liberal and progressive leaders tell us that a Kerry regime “would be less dangerous” than Bush. This may or may not be true. Remember, it was LBJ who escalated the war in Vietnam, not Nixon. But, even IF Kerry is “less dangerous,” he will be MORE capable of wreaking havoc on Iraq, Palestine, Venezuela, abortion, gay rights, civil rights and unions IF we sacrifice our political movement to getting behind him.
Tragically, rather than building on the great start we made in 2000 when Ralph Nader won 2.7 million votes for peace and justice, many of the very same people who helped that effort are trying to wreck it this time around. Rather than encouraging the Green Party and all anti-war organizations, unions, and civil rights groups to unite for a progressive campaign aiming to get millions of votes, they are condoning, if not actually leading, a campaign to villify as “Republican dupes” those movement organizers and ordinary people who believe Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo are right to fight for the chance to carry our mobilization for peace and justice into the ballot box.
In Los Angeles in 2000, Democratic Party leaders stood on the balcony of the Staples Center and watched the LAPD tear gas thousands of protesters. It seems to me that if we can’t build a movement that learns not to vote for a party that directs police assaults on us, we don’t have much hope of ever building a political challenge to corporate America. No doubt, the debate over presidential tactics will sharply separate many of us who have worked closely together in the past and will again in the future. While all those of us who want a better world should argue respectfully, debate we must because the stakes are too high to hold our tongues.
Norman Solomon wrote last month that he was registering Green precisely because its national convention nominated a candidate who promised not to challenge the two party system where it counts. He joins the chorus of liberal voices who warn us that “this is not the year.” But he is wrong. Like Paine, Douglass, Parks, Lewis, Malcolm, Mario, Gurley-Flynn and countless others understood, any movement that ever aims to win, must learn to stand up for itself precisely when it is darkest. That’s the only way the millions of people who hate the system that oppresses them can ever gain confidence in us to join us and transform our movement from a minority affair of protest into a majority tide of power. For whatever my effort is worth, I am registering Green this year because most of the people I know in the Green Party refused, and are refusing, to submit to the duopoly blackmail. Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo can’t change the system by themselves, but every vote they receive will show the world that there are millions here in the United States who intend to conquer the hell of corporate power and the tyranny it rains down on the planet.
Hang on Citizen Paine, we’re coming.
TODD CHRETIEN was the California student coordinator for Medea Benjamin’s Green Party campaign for Senate and the Nader 2000 presidential campaign. He is now the Northern California Field Coordinator for the Nader/Camejo 2004 campaign. He is regular contributor to the International Socialist Review and CounterPunch. He can be reached at: ChretienTodd@aol.com