The headlines from Lebanon have propelled my imagination years into the past, to the period in the late eighties and early nineties when my current ideas about social change first took shape. In news photos, we see massive crowds in Beirut, waving flags and asserting their right to self-rule like so many figures out of Delacroix’s great painting of 1830, “Liberty Leading The People.” Once again, tens of thousands have taken to the streets without bloodshed, asserting their human rights and thereby deposing a puppet ruler.
When I read about Lebanon, as when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, followed by the the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, as when apartheid’s end became clear in 1990, I was reminded of what I first understood fifteen years ago, that ideologies — coherent structures or frameworks of ideas purporting to rationalize some aspect of human events — offer us no help in comprehending human societies. What’s more, ideology obscures our ability to see what is actually happening as it unfolds. In the grip of an ideological framework, instead of perceiving events fully and taking in all possible information, we try to pack them into pre-existing categories or interpretations that often omit or obscure important aspects. Internalizing the world-view that comes with any ideology will lead us to stupendously false expectations.
The result is often the type of immense surprise that has figured so prominently into the global story of the last two decades. Everyone I know was astounded at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the end of apartheid in South Africa. For all their diverse particularity, these earthshaking events followed a common script that turned on the confounding of expectations. In each story, a dominant power is seen as unshakeable, permanent, impenetrable; opposition is noted, but obviously futile, until suddenly it’s not — the picture changes, and everyone is amazed, stunned, and staggered. In these three cases, as in what seems to be shaping up in Lebanon, the outcome was widely welcomed as good news, and delight overtook chagrin about how much reality had been blocked out by our ideological biases. Who cares if we were blind-sided? The good guys won!
But what about when the news is not good? With respect to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the news was appallingly bad and the castigation of those who failed to see the signs has been somewhat more insistent. But the basic plot the same, with the U.S. instead of South Africa or the Soviet Union in the main role? Boundless confidence in an ideology leads to unquestioning belief in power’s invulnerability, cavalier dismissal of threats, followed by shock and awe. In each case, belief in a particular power’s permanence — the assertion of an ideology’s ultimate rightness and claim on the future — distorted its believers’ ability to perceive and interpret actual events unfolding in the real world.
A few weeks ago, I went on retreat with my women’s group, dear friends who have been meeting together over the fifteen years since the Berlin Wall came down. We talked about family and relationships and ageing, of course. But I estimate we spent half our time together talking about what I have come to think of as The Great Question: how can we help to awaken and activate our fellow citizens?
All of us are too old and too experienced to give ourselves over to a system of thought that precludes direct experience, but that doesn’t stop us from searching for answers. Each of us had a different take on what this one might be. One woman follows the news with great focus and knows far more than the rest of us about the current cast of characters, relationships, and particulars of legislation and policy. She asks how much more information is needed before people realize how dire things are and respond. Another woman fears that people are inundated — and thus numbed — by information, that the challenge is linking the facts of social life to their own immediate lives and communities, linking their own stories to the big stories of our time. A third thinks the issue is one of self-awareness: people don’t see themselves as able to affect large-world events, and lacking an awareness of self-agency, they demur; they need to see that even little steps connect up to change. My own view is that people become active when they see a basis for hope, that realizing how bad things are doesn’t provoke response, activation comes from realizing how good they could be.
You know what? I think we’re all right. There is no valid overarching theory of social change, no preset analysis, formula or ideology that explains how the collective desire for freedom is asserted, or where it will lead. The only way to increase our chances of effecting social change is to pursue every alternative, to speak to people in as many different ways as possible, hoping to spark that mysterious alchemy that converts passivity to activism. In Lebanon, for example, a core group perceived that time had come to overturn their country’s oppression by Syria. Activists coalesced in 2001, documenting and spreading information. But it wasn’t until last year that a sizeable group came to see themselves as having agency, as able to take steps in their own lives to right this wrong. When a personage they loved and admired — former prime minister Rafik Hariri — was assassinated by the Syrians on 14 February, the issue suddenly became very stark and very close to home. As people took to the streets, ordinary citizens saw a critical mass taking shape. That spread a sense of possibility, a grounded hope, quickly increasing their numbers to levels that overwhelmed the pro-Syrian government until puppet prime minister Omar Karami resigned.
Who knows what will happen now? The U.S. and French governments have called for Syria’s withdrawal. Many different forces within Lebanon will contend for power if this happens, and U.S. and French voices will be joined by many other nations with varying strategic aims for the region. So many obstacles on the road to freedom can derail or distort the outcome, sometimes even turning one people’s liberation into oppression for another. But there is no denying that nothing can stop people who for their own reasons, as various as snowflakes, decide it is time to stand up and be counted for themselves.
Equally so, no ideology, theory or system can adequately explain why others remain somnolent or cowed. And there it is again, the exhortation to keep on keepin’ on, eyes wide open; or, as it is expressed in \Pirke Avot\ (Sayings of the Fathers): “It is not given to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”