Optimism When All Else Fails
Abraham Lincoln once said, “I am an optimist because I don’t see the point in being anything else.”
Winston Churchill agreed, “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.”
This past week, I attended the American Political History Conference, and I had the privilege of appearing on the final panel with some truly astounding scholars. The theme of the closing plenary was The Past, The Promise, and the Future of American Democracy. As a bunch of journalists and scholars, we naturally talked about the crumbling, slow, and sometimes sudden death of democracy.
One of the audience members challenged us to provide a proscription about how to try and fix it. No small feat because if there was an easy answer, I think we’d have done it already. And then a line from Harry Potter popped into my mind. In the 5th movie, there is a scene in which Luna Lovegood offers some real wisdom. (For the sake of full disclosure my relationship with HP has gotten complicated over the last several years, but Luna rocks).
The dialogue goes something like this:
Luna Lovegood : We believe you, by the way. That He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is back, and you fought him, and the Ministry and the Prophet are conspiring against you and Dumbledore.
Harry Potter : Thanks. Seems you're about the only ones that do.
Luna Lovegood : I don't think that's true. But I suppose that's how he wants you to feel.
Harry Potter : What do you mean?
Luna Lovegood : Well, if I were You-Know-Who, I'd want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it's just you alone you're not as much of a threat.
So I shared that scene with the audience and said that authoritarians want us to feel defeated, because we are much less of a threat if we’ve given up hope and stop fighting.
Admittedly, the next morning, I wondered if I should be embarrassed about quoting Luna Lovegood when speaking on a panel with some of the scholars I respect the most in the world. For a moment I blamed the gin & tonic that I had enjoyed during the event. It was at a brewery, so we were all imbibing.
But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I am than ever that Luna’s energy is exactly what we need. And if I had any doubt, I revisited this poem my friend sent me from the audience while I was talking.
Every single reform movement, resistance, and revolution failed….until it didn’t. Every big thing started small. You have to organize the first 10 people before you can organize millions. We don’t have to fix everything right now. We just have to keep trying. We can’t give up, or worse, stop caring.
So let me be more specific. If you are a scholar, consider reaching out to K-12 teachers you know. Offer to speak to their students about history or civics. Teachers do so much and most welcome guest talks as an opportunity to introduce their students to a new voice. And maybe take a well-deserved rest for five minutes. Those students will soon become voters and need to believe that their vote matters.
Do you have elderly neighbors or family members? Can you offer to drive them to the polls or help them return their ballot (if that’s legal in your state)?
Don’t be afraid of conversation. The other day I was at an appointment and the practitioner asked if I had a busy work week. I could have shied away from it, but instead I said yes. I said I’ve been paying close attention to the January 6 hearings for work. He replied he didn’t really watch the news but wanted to know what was happening. I gave him a quick summary, and he said “oh, so it was definitely planned.” In the past, I would have avoided talking about that kind of thing in non-work settings, but this interaction really shook me.
There are a lot of good Americans out there who aren’t blind or ignorant, they are just busy. They are focused on their work and their families. My work is to help people understand this moment and its historical origins. It’s amazing what you can do just by respectfully engaging people.
With that goal in mind, I’ve been writing summary threads of the first two hearings for people who haven’t been able to watch. Here is the first one and here is the second. I’ll keep going as long as I can.
Anyway, moral of the story, I think the real and tangible thing we can do is not to give up. We will all have moments when we get discouraged. And that’s ok, but dust yourself off, get back on the horse or the bike or whatever you need, and keep at it. Let’s inspire one another to keep going. Let’s quote Luna. Let’s send each other Lord Tennyson poems. Let’s be optimists.
Because really, what’s the point otherwise?
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“Today’s Abortion Protests Have a Long and Deep-Seated History,” Governing, May 25, 2022.
“Madeleine Albright’s Fascism Warning is More Pertinent Than Ever,” Washington Monthly, May 23, 2022.
“The best history books for Father’s Day,” Shepherd, May 16, 2022.
The Thomas Jefferson Hour, May 30, 2022, #1497: Ten Things About Theodore Roosevelt (Part Two)
The Thomas Jefferson Hour, May 24, 2022, #1496: Ten Things About Theodore Roosevelt (Part One)
September 15: Sam Houston State University Constitution Day Event
September 16: Houston University Constitution Day Event
September 24: Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium