Futility’s ray of hope

“Do you really think it’ll make a difference?” I was asked a question like that more than a dozen times last weekend while gathering signatures for a petition. My answer was always an emphatic “No.” To think otherwise is the ego romancing fantasy while apathy waits in the wings.


I feel compelled to elaborate on this because it came up a few weeks ago during a student-led session at the University of Alaska’s Power and Privilege Symposium. They explored whether some forms of repression justified symbolic types of violence, and whether it was effective during the 1999 mass demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle. ANTIFA and the masked black bloc protestors give relevance to their question today.

I’m an active member of the two groups that sponsored the petition drive – Juneau People for Peace and Justice and Veterans for Peace. The objective was to urge our congressional delegation “to use all means within their power to prevent a preemptive U.S. military strike against the North Korean regime.”

The risk of with North Korea is very real to South Korean President Moon Jae In. After the North launched an intercontinental ballistic missile this week, he expressed concerns about them threatening his country with nuclear weapons. But echoing our plea to U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, he also said it’s imperative to prevent a situation “where the United States considers a preemptive strike.”

And still, on CNN the next day, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, justified America striking first to end North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates 300,000 people on the Korean peninsula will be killed within the first week of war. It would be far more if either side uses nuclear weapons.

Starting such a war, or any war for that matter, should not be a presidential prerogative. Our Constitution vests that power in Congress. But as CRS states, the framers’ intent has been debated many times “since the founding era” and never resolved.

The War Powers Act of 1973 muddied the water even more. Since then, bipartisan lawsuits against two presidents for using military force without congressional authorization failed to settle the question.

All this raises the possibility Trump will follow through with his threat to order a first strike against North Korea without the approval of Congress.

And that adds futility to an already anemic petition drive.

So what do we possibly hope to accomplish?

American poet and philosopher Wendell Berry believes it’s naïve to expect quick, visible improvements from any form of protest. The more enduring hope, he says, should be “preserving the qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”

Let me go back to the 1999 Seattle protests to describe someone who has put this ideal into practice. David Solnit was one of its key organizers. In the Fall 2008 issue of YES! Magazine, he argued it was successful by contributing to the collapse of the WTO negotiations. “We won,” he declares, “because we were strategic, well organized” and part of a network that spanned the globe.

By every common measure though, none of the protestors’ objectives were reached. Economic globalization hasn’t stalled. Indeed, during his campaign, Trump sought to capitalize on public anxiety about it.

It’s important to note here that if the entire demonstration wasn’t effective, then nothing good came from the violence either. Solnit didn’t condone it then and doesn’t now working for 350.org, the country’s largest climate change activist group, where he still passionately opposes the globalized economy.

Almost hidden in his article is the connection to Berry’s philosophy that keeps him going. “The real Seattle” he wrote, “reshaped the story of what is possible for millions of people around the world.”

Talk of possibility in that context doesn’t betray the sense of accomplishment. It pushes it into an unknown future that can’t be better if we become disillusioned by the immensity of the task.

In all causes, we fall prey to the hero myth by believing we can immediately change the course of history. That’s the demand of an uncompromising ego. The spirit is only concerned with doing what the heart believes is right, especially when apathy makes its frequent appeal to look the other way.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.


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