I grew up believing in Lincoln’s words, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” I’m sure I was at a ‘60s Civil Rights protest when I was fairly young, but I don’t know when—it would’ve been the first protest that my mother believed would be safe enough for me. When I was twelve, I rode my bike at the head of the first march against the Vietnam War in Gainesville, Florida. At fourteen, I went with my father and some college students to the first Moratorium in Washington, DC. In the Clinton years, Emma and I protested the US sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children. When the Iraq War broke out, we stood quietly with the Women In Black.
It was good to take a stand. But in every case, the government ignored protests and polls. The military killed until it was clear that continuing to kill would not be profitable, and only then stopped.
People point to Gandhi in India as proof that protest can succeed. Gandhi was still standing when the British left India, but does that mean he won, or only that he survived, that he held out until the British Empire crumbled as empires do?
My father believed in fighting for peace. The first evening TV shows that I loved were two of his favorites, a western called Gunsmoke and a World War II series called Combat. The message in both: good guys fight back. In my teens, I loved a kung fu series cleverly titled Kung Fu. Its message: be peaceful for as long as you can stand it—then kick ass. The shows reflected my father’s philosophy and mine. I thought pacifists were admirable, but impractical.
Then I read about China. The Great Wall never stopped an army. Invaders would conquer China, but instead of transforming China, China would transform them as the newcomers adopted China’s ways.
Social change comes from peaceful or violent revolution. Right now, as capitalism is in crisis, two paths may be before us, fascism if the rich win, socialism if the people do. Neither requires violence to win. Marx claimed, “Democracy is the road to socialism,” but it’s a road to fascism, too.
I don’t mention this to argue for socialism. To create peace, people of many philosophies must work together. I say this because I want to work effectively. Sometimes I think there’s no point in taking a stand, that the forces of change are greater than any of us. At other times, I think of people who say, “I can’t change the world, but I can help here. And then here. And then here.” And at other times, I think the people who help in small ways inspire other people to help in turn, and when enough of us act in small, helpful ways, the revolution will come while we aren’t looking.