The way that political change and social advancement is taught in school gives an impression that human progress in America is achieved steadily — like going up a ramp — each year society improves, each year is better than the last. And that those safely dead heroes of the distant past who worked and struggled for greater justice and democracy marched bravely forward to inevitable victory. It's a warm and comforting illusion, but in the real world it's rarely the case.
American abolitionists fought against slavery for decades, but slavery did not gradually decline year after year until it faded away — rather it was destroyed in the sudden cataclysm of the Civil War. From its inception in 1909, The NAACP struggled decade after decade to win voting rights for Blacks, with little progress to show in the Deep South. SNCC and CORE began combining voter-registration and direct action in 1961, and year after year — a time that to us "twenty-somethings" seemed interminable — nothing was gained, the number of Blacks registered in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana barely changed. Then like a sudden bolt of lightening came Freedom Summer in 1964 and a five months later the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and the March to Montgomery, followed by passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But those flashes of sudden lightening did not occur in a vacuum, they were based on, and grew out of, the years and decades of struggle that preceded them.
The struggles to abolish slavery and win voting rights both illustrate the "Rubber Band Theory of History." Imagine a block of wood sitting on a table. Attached to it is a long chain of rubber bands. You pull on the rubber bands hoping to move the block, but they just stretch and stretch and the block doesn't move at all. You pull some more, and stretch the bands tighter, and nothing happens. You pull some more, and then suddenly the block moves so fast that it bangs you in the fingers. Sometimes.
Sometimes it works that way — but sometimes you pour your heart & soul into moving the block, you stretch and stretch the rubber bands, you march, you picket, you go to jail, but the block never moves. You achieve nothing. Which is why activists need to keep in mind Rabbi Tarfon, and the Tao of Social Struggle.
Which brings us to the "Water Strategy of Social Change." Contrary to the deeply held beliefs of some ideologists, there is no instruction manual for achieving political reform (let alone, revolution). There is no easy how-to pamphlet, no simple 12-step program. Social struggle is like water flowing to the sea. If something dams the water, it goes around. If it can't go around, it goes over, if it can't go over, it goes under, if it can't go around or over or under, it eats away at the blockage until it dissolves.
The Water Strategy recognizes that social change is an art, not a science. It's a Darwinian process — you try something. If it works you do it more. If it fails, you try something else. That which succeeds survives and thrives, that which fails become stagnant political backwaters thinly inhabited by sterile dogmatists and irrelevant ideologues.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2010.