The Optimism Of Uncertainty

The Optimism Of UncertaintyI scare myself sometimes with my own negativity, especially regarding politics in the US and world events in general. We’re surrounded by liars, cheats, thieves and hypocrtites; the glass was never half full.

Luckily for me, there’s Howard Zinn.

A radical historian and author who sees the world and its travails in a larger perspective, he’s the author of the bestselling (and rather eye-opening) A People’s History Of The United States, among other writings..

Thanks to our fabulous local library system, I’ve been reading a collection of his essays called A Power Governments Cannot Suppress. Zinn’s reading of history constantly reminds us of the revolts, rebellions, strikes, and movements that mainstream histories suppress or deny.

The book ends with a short, heartening piece: The Optimism Of Uncertainty..

A few excerpts:

I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played.

The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.

There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.

What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability.

Looking at this catalogue of huge surprises, it’s clear that the struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it.

That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience–whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union itself. No cold calculation of the balance of power need deter people who are persuaded that their cause is just.

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.

And if we do act, 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 defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

My apologies to Mr. Zinn for hacking the snot out of his lovely essay.

I’ll compound the injury by adding some audio from a talk he gave exactly one month after 9/11 called Artists In A Time Of War. And if you don’t think this guy is an intellectual with massive balls, then remember the howling banshee hysteria that overtook the country at that time; when Bush & Co. had the world in the palms of their filthy hands; this is a strong antiwar talk given just at that moment.

From a CD produced by David Barsamian, AK Press, and Alternative Tentacles.

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