Working on a ship, may never sail on
Ships gonna sail , gonna sail some day
Working on a ship, may never sail on
Gonna build it anyway
I heard this lovely Utah Phillip’s song at Songs of the Workers as sung by Steve Harvey to a hall full of aging activists. I am sure it resonated with all of them as much as it did with me.
I am 63 years old. I don’t remember my first political act but I remember arguing about racism, or as we politely called it: racial prejudice, with my father when I was ten or eleven years old. I remember where I was when I heard the news that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
Like many, I marched in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and with my class mates I joined in the Amchitka protests. The list of marches, picket lines, and demonstrations over the past 50 years seems endless.
Maybe just because I was young and it was the early 1970’s, I thought we were “winning”, that things were improving. The Vietnamese were victorious. Nixon had to resign over Watergate. 100,000 demonstrated at the peace march in Vancouver. Feminism was rising up. . Here in B.C., we elected the NDP who promptly started legislating substantial changes to our society. Though I didn’t believe the revolution was right around the corner, progress seemed inevitable.
Even with setbacks like the elections of Thatcher and Reagan, I still believed in that hard won progress. Maybe I was in denial or delusional.
We now have had thirty years of neoliberalism and it looks as if the new world order of corporate rule is omnipowerful and omnipresent – all the nightmares of Margaret Atwood and George Orwell rolled into one.
Even the victories we have had seem pyhrric. Remember the day Obama was elected? There was such joy. The first Black president of the United States! It turned out not so much had changed in the past six years. We cut off the heads of the Multilateral Agreement on Free Trade and the World Trade Organization, but like the Hydra, many more corporate rights charters disguised as trade agreements pop up. We have arrived at an overwhelming consensus that climate change is a clear and present danger to our survival yet those forces who profit from the status quo are able to block any real progress.
So what keeps an old activist going? What keeps us from folding up our tents and going home?
Not all do keep going of course. Some have burned out, exhausted by the workload and conflicting demands of seemingly endless meetings and debates while trying to carry on a normal life.
Others have given into cynicism. ‘People deserve what they get.’ ‘Violence and the poor will always be with us.’ ‘That is just human nature.’ This is from people who walked those picket lines and demanded justice. It is difficult to keep the faith after people and events have disappointed you once too often. One of my tenets of my activism is that people are basically good and will do the right thing if given the opportunity. ISIS and Rwanda and the re-election of George Bush in 2002 really tested that belief.
Some give in to despair that the whole mess is overwhelming, the solutions unattainable.
It is a dark place we all can fall into at times. But like any form of depression with time and support we can pull out of it.
Back to what keeps us going. There are any number of reasons we can keep building those ships.
For some of it is faith, religious faith, spiritual faith, faith in humanity . Martin Sheen, an actor , activist and Catholic, in an interview from 2003 said “ I never despair because George Bush is not running the universe, he is not running the human heart. That is the higher power of God.”
A part of it is that we know that we are part of much larger movement, and that people all over the globe are struggling for justice, for their fair share. I remember Delores Broten at the 20th Anniversary celebration at the Native Sons Hall saying that despite the evidence of the extent of the global assault by the corporate elite, the fact that we hear of the hundreds of acts of resistance to that assault all over the world is a sign of hope, a sign to carry on our acts of resistance here.
“For some of us it is that we know our history and we learn from that history. We know the hardships our activist ancestors endured, and the enormous obstacles they faced and yet they kept going. History can inspire us. That is one reason Miner’s Memorial Day is an important event in the Comox Valley.
For others, it is just in our blood. We have been doing it for so long we just don’t know any other way.
For everyone, support is essential, whether that support comes from family, a circle of friends or a whole community or a whole movement. That is why cynicism and despair are so debilitating and self perpetuating. They isolate us from those supports.
Remember that what you do matters, whether it is stopping Monsanto from controlling the food supply or winning rights for unorganized workers. We need to have faith that our cause is just but we also need to have faith in ourselves and what we bring to the table.
You never know what seeds will take root or how long it will be before they bear fruit. A Vancouver gay activist once said that, back in the 70’s, he knew that gay rights wouldn’t be won in his lifetime, but he knew for a fact that a national child care program was right around the corner.
Martin Luther King Jr. famous quote was “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” However as Dr. King also pointed out numerous times we, as human beings and as social activists, have to help that arc bend, even if we cannot see where it ends. So keep building those ships, my friends.