"Well... what can you do?"
Recently, I had a very nice email exchange with a reader who had replied to a Facebook post with the excellent question, "What else do you suggest we do?" It got me thinking about the level of frustration I know I experience and imagine many of you do as well. The headlines we read each day, the threats to our personal freedoms we see - it can get to be too much at times. It all seems insurmountable. It may actually be insurmountable. But we won't know until we try.
As the adage goes, the first step is admitting that you have a problem - but the second step is giving enough of a damn to do something about it. If you are considering that second step, you should first contemplate some very unfortunate, very jaded-sounding, but very accurate truths that come with the territory when defending your rights.
These are the lessons I learned from my experience as a novice in this arena. I have others, more strategic in nature, that I hope may be helpful but I want to start with these simply because I believe you should know what you're getting into before taking the demanding - and in some cases, risky - step of pushing back.
First, you are not going to cure all ills with one dramatic effort. Life simply doesn’t work that way. If you have any hope of address any of them, you must first accept that. Identify the very specific problem you want to improve and break it down into as granular a level as possible. Your goal should not be “fix America.” It could be “remove the traffic cameras at my intersection,” or “expose the County Clerk’s shakedown of my business.” It may be all you get, if you succeed. Don’t be disappointed.
Second, you will very likely fail. In some cases, success is easier than you would think but the task has been too intimidating for anyone to try it. However, in most cases, if it was all that easy, it really would have been done already. You need to be mentally and emotionally prepared to crash and burn – maybe many times – and be willing to throw yourself into the fray again anyway. Always ask, “Is it worth it?” That is a very personal question. Ask it of yourself often.
Third, the status quo exists because it is beneficial and/or profitable to many people - including those on “your side.” This means that, even if many agree with your position in spirit, there will be great resistance to any type of change because too many boats will be rocked. Many people have based their entire career and livelihood in fighting the very battle you wish to join. If you were to succeed…. Well, there’s not much reason to support a knight in shining armor when you come along and slay the last dragon in the public square. Rather than being seen as an ally, they will see you as a threat to their "share of the market" and will ignore or possibly work against you.
Fourth, you will need to spend a great deal of time and effort developing relationships with people, knowing that they are likely to betray or dismiss you. You will need the time and persistence to meet with elected officials, on their schedule and turf. You will need to reach out to members of the media, and develop a sense of public relations savvy. And you will have to expect them to stab you in the back at some point, even while you share funny family stories over lunch.
Politicians have a certain amount of leeway in their actions but, at the end of the day, they answer to their party leaders and are very unlikely to cross them if it ends their careers. Members of the media make their living through headlines, and well-mannered types who eschew the limelight just don't bring in ratings. They need the drama and, if your cause's demise is more interesting than its message, guess which way their coverage will lean? You cannot be surprised, disappointed, or angry. This is the nature of the beast. Accept it up front.
Fifth, the worst and hardest reality I had to face was that most people simply don't care enough to act, even if it’s in their best interest. The percentage of the population willing to get off the couch and take time out of their lives, even if they recognize the validity of the cause, is abysmally small. The largest segment of society is comprised of those who refuse to acknowledge anything is wrong. This is followed closely in size by those who will admit "that's not right" but will then go on with their day.
This is followed by a collection of folks who will show up to a rally or two, or click a "Like" on Facebook. They will stay within the embrace of their tribe - virtually or in the real world - speaking passionately to like-minded folks, following the herd, basking in the groupthink, and buying trinkets and bumper stickers. But they won't speak to strangers or attend meetings where "the opposition" might be present. They won't take the time to write a letter or make a phone call or visit an official face-to-face to voice their feelings and ask for answers. They would, mind you, but something unexpectedly prevents them, or they hold some dark secret that prevents them from "going public." You understand, of course.
Sixth, many of those who will act don’t know what to do. This was a piece of wisdom given to me some time ago but, in my frenzied state, I didn’t understand the meaning of the words, “You need to give them an action.” You will lose the support of these people if you don’t have some tangible, closed-ended task to assign to them. It’s not enough to say, “Go forth and represent! Get involved!” They need numbers. They need talking points. They need boxes to carry. They need copy/paste emails to send. Or they will feel confused, left out and abandoned, and will drift away. It needn’t be useless busy work but it must be something they can understand, achieve, and derive a sense of accomplishment from. If you want help, you have to manage.
Seventh, some of those most willing to act will do so for their own profit, despite what they tell you – or themselves. That “profit” is not always financial but can be political capital, limelight, or just plain ego. Your cause, win or lose, will get them noticed elsewhere and to their benefit. They may be useful but they will use you and your cause is not their primary motivation. They will undermine your authority, claim credit for your work, and promote themselves even to the detriment of what you’re trying to accomplish. They would rather be known as the person in charge of a failed effort than be seen as “just another soldier” in a successful one. Know what you've got and either ride constant herd on them or cut them loose early. Even if they are the most productive member of your "team," never forget that they will scuttle the whole thing if it gets them what they need.
And finally, because of all the above, no one will believe you. Those who don't want to get involved will justify their inaction by blaming you - you're doomed to failure and so not worth supporting, or you're "up to something" and so not worth hearing, Those who might get involved but view all politics in terms of Left or Right wing will judge you by the effect of your efforts on "their people." If the target of your attention is a policy or representative of their party, you will be dismissed as a shill for the other; if you are "attacking the other," you will be judged by their party's litmus test(s) and dismissed for your lack of purity. Those who are actively involved in the political realm simply will not understand your sincerity. They will view your efforts through their tried-and-true filters of political ambition and the rituals of working the system. Since you are sincere, you will not show any recognizable qualities of either - which will make you a potential danger, like an unattended bit of luggage in Heathrow Airport. They will shun, isolate, and quarantine you for their own safety, assuming you're some sort of Trojan Horse that they just can't figure out.
Anyone can stand atop a soap box and make noise. You can do that right now, all alone - and accomplish nothing but making yourself feel good for the moment. But if you want to affect change, you need to internalize the observations above, accept the disappointments, frustrations and pain in advance, and be willing to move forward regardless.
If you are able to do so, stay tuned for the next installment in the coming weeks.