The End of Groundhog Day is the Beginning of Hope
I got a short email the other day saying that a line from a Barack Obama speech -- "We are the ones we have been waiting for" -- is actually an "old Hopi Indian saying."
I call "bullshit" on almost all old Indian sayings. Most of these "poster perfect" quotes were first written by Hollywood film writers in the 1970s. Let's not drink too deeply from the well of mythological 19th Century native American prose poets, eh?
Maria Shriver launched the phrase into the Obama campaign a few weeks ago. Apparently she was the first person to suggest it was an "old Hopi Indian" saying. In fact, the actual origin of the phrase is not deeply hidden: It's the title of a book by Alice Walker who lifted it from her friend June Jordan, who first used it in a "Poem for South African Women."
It may be entirely coincidental that Barack Obama's first entry into organizing for political change was in the arena of divestment from South Africa.
At the time, Barack was a sophmore at Occidental College in California, and he was contacting members of the African National Congress to speak on campus, drafting letters to faculty, printing up flyers, and arguing strategy.
In his autobiography, written 13 years ago, he notes that "I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions. It was a discovery that made me hungry for words."
For a person hungry for words, writer June Jordan was not a bad person to turn to.
Like Barack, June Jordan sought to put her life in context, and while doing that, she was drawn to the commonalities between all of us, and the responsibility we all have to make the world a better place. She wrote:
"My life seems to be an increasing revelation of the intimate face of universal struggle. You begin with your family and the kids on the block, and next you open your eyes to what you call your people, and that leads you into land reform into Black English, into Angola, leads you back to your own bed where you lie by yourself, wondering if you deserve to be peaceful, or trusted or desired or left to the freedom of your own unfaltering heart. And the scale shrinks to the size of a skull: your own interior cage.
"And then if you’re lucky, and I have been lucky, everything comes back to you. And then you know why one of the freedom fighters in the sixties, a young Black woman interviewed shortly after she was beaten up for riding near the front of the interstate bus –– you know why she said, ‘We are all so very happy’? It’s because it’s on. All of us and me by myself: We’re on."
Alice Walker was friends with June Jordan, and she borrowed June's poetic line for the title of her own book of essays entitled "We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For."
In the introduction to that book, Alice Walker tries to compress the larger idea encapsulated in the phrase. She begins:
"It is the worst of times. It is the best of times. Try as I might I cannot find a more appropriate opening for this volume: it helps tremendously that these words have been spoken before and, thanks to Charles Dickens, written at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps they have been spoken, written, thought, an endless number of times throughout human history.
"It is the worst of times because it feels as though the very Earth is being stolen from us, by us: the land and air poisoned, the water polluted, the animals disappeared, humans degraded and misguided. War is everywhere.
"It is the best of times because we have entered a period, if we can bring ourselves to pay attention, of great clarity as to cause and effect. A blessing when we consider how much suffering human beings have endured, in previous millennia, without a clue to its cause. Gods and Goddesses were no doubt created to fill this gap.
"Because we can now see into every crevice of the globe, and because we are free to explore previously unexplored crevices in our own hearts and minds, it is inevitable that everything we have needed to comprehend in order to survive, everything we have needed to understand in the most basic of ways, will be illuminated now. We have only to open our eyes, and awaken to our predicament. We see that we are, alas, a huge part of our problem. However: We live in a time of global enlightenment. This alone should make us shout for joy.
"[....] It was the poet June Jordan who wrote 'We are the ones we have been waiting for.'
"Sweet Honey in the Rock turned those words into a song. Hearing this song, I have witnessed thousands of people rise to their feet in joyful recognition and affirmation.
"We are the ones we’ve been waiting for because we are able to see what is happening with a much greater awareness than our parents or grandparents, our ancestors, could see.
"This does not mean we believe, having seen the greater truth of how all oppression is connected, how pervasive and unrelenting, that we can 'fix' things.
"But some of us are not content to have a gap in opportunity and income that drives a wedge between rich and poor, causing the rich to become ever more callous and complacent and the poor to become ever more wretched and humiliated. Not willing to ignore starving and brutalized children. Not willing to let women be stoned or mutilated without protest. Not willing to stand quietly by as farmers are destroyed by people who have never farmed, and plants are engineered to self-destruct. Not willing to disappear into our flower gardens, Mercedes Benzes or sylvan lawns.
"We have wanted all our lives to know that Earth, who has somehow obtained human beings as her custodians, was also capable of creating humans who could minister to her needs, and the needs of her creation. We are the ones."
When I first read those lines, standing up in the aisle of a book store while skimming fronts and backs of books to find something worth reading, a little light went on in the back of my head.
"Ah! Condorcet!" I thought. Alice Walker wass channeling the Marquis de Condorcet.
Condorcet was a French philosopher, mathematician, and sociologist, and a leading figure in the French Enlightenment.
In his last and most famous essay, entitled an "Essay on the Progress of the Human Spirit," written just before his death in 1775, Condorcet argued that science, reason, and education, together with the principles of political liberty and equality, would soon lead humanity into a new era of happiness.
Condorcet said he thought economic and social progress in developing countries would spring forward much faster than it had in Europe because these less advanced countries would have the European model of success to emulate and copy.
Condorcet argued that:
"The progress of these peoples [folks in undeveloped countries overseas] is likely to be more rapid and certain than our own because they can receive from us everything that we have had to find out for ourselves, and in order to understand those simple truths and infallible methods which we have acquired only after long error, all that they need to do is to follow the expositions and proofs that appear in our speeches and writings."
I short, Condorcet recognized that, thanks to the printing press, increased literacy, and the declining cost of books, knowledge was finally accumulating, and could now be passed across time and space.
Human were no longer doomed to live "Groundhog Day" over and over again.
Progress was not only possible, but it would become more rapid, Backwards regions of the world would leapfrog over 5,000 years of things that did not work.
Condorcet argued that someday:
"A very small amount of ground will be able to produce a great quantity of supplies of greater utility or higher quality; more goods will be obtained for a smaller outlay; the manufacture of articles will be achieved with less wastage in raw materials and will make better use of them.... So not only will the same amount of ground support more people, but everyone will have less work to do, will produce more, and satisfy his wants more fully."
Condorcet anticipated this abundance would lead to increased population growth, but he also believed that people would engage in voluntary family planning as incomes, education and knowledge rose.
Was Condorcet Right?
As Condorcet anticipated, shared knowledge across time and space has dramatically boosted both agricultural production and personal income, with "each successive generation" amassing "larger possessions ... as a result of this progress."
As Condorcet anticipated, the spread of democracy has increased across the globe, and modern societies across the world have embraced Social insurance "safety nets" to protect the poor and aged -- just as he predicted.
Condorcet argued that improving the status of women and making investments in female education were critical to economic and social development. This is now widely accepted all over the world, even among social conservatives.
Condorcet anticipated that increased food production, combined with a rise in international trade and an increase in personal wealth, would result in an increase in the number of people on earth. This too has occurred as he predicted.
Most remarkably, Condorcet argued that in time population growth would slow as people came to understand that the greater good was not in making more people, but in making more happy people.
The kind of voluntary slowing of population growth that Condorcet predicted has occurred in Europe, Canada, the United States, Japan, and increasing numbers of developing countries (Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Iran, Brazil, etc.)
Indeed, across the globe today, nearly half of all the people on earth are now living in countries that have replacement level fertility rates or less.
OK, but what is new here?
Why are "WE" the people we have been waiting for?
The answer, as Alice Walker suggests, is that this current generation "has entered into a period of great clarity into cause and effect."
What has happened to information in the last 15 years is a quantum leap forward unimaginable even 20 years ago, and unprecedented in human evolution.
It is Condorcet on steroids and stilts.
You are part of that great leap right now. Not only is this little missive instantly posted and available to hundreds of millions of people around the world with a mere push of a key, but it is also available at no cost to them, and at no cost to me.
Along with the written word, this post provides links to source material, pictures, and even video.
If you want more information on some obscure point, you can get it by simply going to Google and posting a simple query.
What is particularly amazing is that this technology is not not captive to a few rich people in a few well-placed countries.
Easter Island now has three Internet cafes, and spam email from Nigeria and Ghana are commonplace.
The small town of Obama, Japan is following the current U.S. election cycle like it's a local event.
Inside our computers, the bits and pieces of our hard drives and mother boards come from Malaysia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Mexico and El Salvador. When I run into computer trouble, I call Dell Tech Support ... in India.
And it's not just the big players that have an international reach. This little blog (entirely free to create in a world where water costs $2 a bottle) is visited by several thousand people a day. In the last 9 months it has registered visitors from over 180 countries.
This is all pretty amazing stuff. The Internet, if nothing else, has become a great equalizer. You no longer have to be rich, live in an urban area, or have a high-powered job to be heard.
Today, even in rural America, if you have discipline and time, you can be as well-read as anyone on earth.
Perhaps more importantly, you can find people around the world who have similar interests to yours, no matter how obscure or off-beat they might be.
And, of course, all of use are now free to use the Internet to build social consciousness, and to organize other people into action.
This is what lies ahead. This is the change we have been waiting for.
I do not expect anyone will fall down and grab their brain at reading these observations. Most of what I have said here is old hat, and has been said before (and much better) by others.
What we may not realize, however, is that the change is already on and impacting even small areas we have a personal interest in.
Over at the Pet Connection blog, Gina Spadafori recently noted that the investigation into the Menu Foods dog food poisonings, the rise of the No-Kill Movement, and the backlash against the AKC's financial relationships with the puppy mill industry, have all been connected by a common thread -- the power of the internet.
Twelve years ago, these kinds of groundswells did not exist because the Internet, as we know it today, did not exist.
Something huge has happened since then, and the wave of change is still building.
The riptide of information, social consciousness and community creation that is occurring today is almost more than Condorcet could have predicted.
Only in the last few years, with the rise of independent web sites, online newspapers, blogs, Internet lists-servs, email, online books, and free telephone connections has it been possible to not only get informed about everything, but also to take action on all those things we think are most important.
Only in the last few years have "We, the people" had the power to educate ourselves, inform others, and organize movements without the benefit of massive direct mail budgets.
We are, of course, still very low on the learning curve. We are discovering the power of the technology, but we are also learning its limits as well.
The same technology that makes it easy for two million Americans to send an email message to the U.S. Forest Service, also makes it easy for the U.S. Forest Service to discount those messages and wipe them off their servers with the push of a key.
And so, we must have no illusion: We may be able to get informed and get organized using the Internet, but information and organization alone are not going to force change.
Change does not come from a mouse click alone.
America's collapsing infrastructure will not be rebuilt by email; it will take tax dollars and iron workers, poured concrete and municipal bonds. We will have to suit up for that.
Our inner city schools cannot be turned around so long as city planners think a new sports arena is an economic asset, and a new school is a tax burden. We will have to show up and demand new priorities.
If we want manufacturing jobs to return, we will have to stop giving tax incentives to companies relocating to slave-labor countries overseas. And yes, we will have to pay up if we want more things made in the U.S.A.
If we want more construction jobs to go to American workers, we will have to limit immigration so wages and working conditions in that sector rise high enough to attract American workers. We will have to speak up for that.
The point here is that there is no free lunch.
If we decide to go to war, then we need to recognize that there will be dead and wounded soldiers, and there will be a tax increase too.
It will not be enough to put a "Support Our Troops" sticker on the back of your SUV.
Change, in short, will not come with a mouse click, but with movement.
We will have to move off the couch in order to get to the voting booth.
We will have to move out of our comfort zone in order to attend rallies and demonstrations.
We will have to move off our ass in order to get out our check book.
We will have to stand up for change.
And yes, we will have to sacrifice. Great things always take great effort.
Will America be willing to sacrifice?
That remains to be seen. Things are always easier in the abstract.
The Bush Administration was eager to get the nation into a war, but they did not send their own children to the front lines, did they?
Everyone agrees that our bridges need repair, but no one is standing in line to foot the bill.
Yes, the nation needs immigration reform, but who wants to pay $150 for half a day's worth of maid service?
And yes, it's really horrible that the American Kennel Club's closed registry system has wrecked so many breeds, but folks still demand AKC papers.
And so we stand on the edge. Change is on the horizon, but it's not quite there yet, is it? In every room where six people are now saying "yes we can," there are least three others thinking "no we can't."
Yet there is hope. History is on our side. When called to action, America has shown up in the past. We will show up again. But we need to be asked.
Where is the call for a national program to develop a 200-mile-per-gallon vehicle?
Instead of that, we were told to buy a roll of duct tape and go shopping.
Where is the call to rebuild our inner city schools and staff them with competent teachers?
Instead of that, we got pictures of Barbara Bush reading to children.
It has been such a long time since we had a leader who called us to action, that most of us cannot remember the experience.
Has it occurred in your lifetime? Perhaps not.
And yet there is hope. America is not a fundamentally different place than it was 60 years ago. We are still Americans, and if called to action for a good cause, we will join up.
But who will call us?
Is there anyone out there who seriously thinks Hillary Clinton can do that?
Is there anyone out there who seriously thinks John McCain can do that?
These are politicians from another era.
They are the same old tired Washington politicians who continue to believe it's OK for nameless, faceless, people meeting in secret to decide our fate.
But we are now entering a new era, and it is not an era in which "super delegates" will hold sway.
We the people no longer need bankers, oligarchs and country club pundits to get out the message and organize us for change.
We are the ones we have been waiting for. And now it's on all of us.