I offer each of you personally this lovely Christmas card, now nearly 140 years after it was first created in the year 1870, as I start to write this essay on Christmas eve, year 2009.
Best holiday wishes to all my friends and visitors, you who are my brothers and sisters, who come here to Alan OldStudent’s Musings.
And Merry Christmas to my Christian friends.
Although I am an atheist, I like that Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things that I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
As one who is in the seventh decade of his life, I have seen some amazing things. I saw how a mass movement in my own country, the United States, defeated and knocked down the infamous Jim Crow laws, America’s home-grown version of apartheid. And I saw how a mass movement ended an unjust war in Vietnam.
These are examples of things that we were able to change, and the American people are better off because enough of us had the wisdom to know we could change these things, that despite our youth, we had the wisdom to know the difference.
Yes! We had the audacity to try and the gumption to carry it out.
Today, late 2009, so many of us on the American left are feeling demoralized about now, partly because so many of us had put our hopes in the very attractive and compelling Barack Obama. Now we see him pursuing a war we oppose, we see him representing the interests of the plutarchy over our interests, and now we feel let down.
Our mistake on the left has always been the tendency to tie ourselves to those twin parties of capitalism, the Democrats and the Republicans. But all real progressive change in this country has always come about through the agency of independent mass mobilization and mass action, and the politicians have always opposed these mobilizations and mass actions, at least until change became irresistible, inevitable, and irreversible.
Deep within me, I still hold that belief that I had as a youth.
I believed and I still believe, that together, we can change the world. I believed, and still believe, we can fight injustice, war, racism, exploitation, and create a world fit for decent human beings. I believed, and still believe, we can make progress towards that goal, that each of us, though our own lives be tiny in the greater scheme of things, can make a difference and influence history.
My elders said I was naive and unschooled in the ways of the world, that we just had to come to terms with injustice and violence, that understanding and accepting this inevitability was the wisdom to know the difference.
But now I’m an old man. And I still believe we can and we simply must change this world. Both human existence, even life itself, hang in the balance.
To do that, we need, each of us, to educate ourselves. Educating ourselves means so more than just learning a few facts or reading a newspaper. It requires us to develop our sensitivity, to learn to think critically, to learn to think in terms of human history, to look beyond our preconceptions and to examine the evidence, to not be afraid to examine our times, our culture, ourselves, and to be daring enough to leap beyond our fears and reservations into the world of tomorrow.
The word “educate” comes from two Latin words, “ex” and “ducere.” “Ex” means “out of” or “away from.” “Ducere” means “to lead.” So ex-ducere becomes educere. Education literally means to lead us out of ourselves, out of convention-imposed ignorance, out of superstition, out of our xenophobia and obscurantism, out of our comfort zone, out of what the poet William Blake calls the “mind-forged manacles, and into awareness—both self awareness and social awareness.
One of the reasons I talk so much about physical fitness on this site (other than it being one of my passions) is that physical fitness is a part of self-education. Physical fitness helps us, if we are lucky enough to be capable of developing it, to lead ourselves into a greater sense of poise, of self-confidence, of dignity and sharpness of senses, spirit, and mind.
But we must also develop our sensitivity to history, to human feeling, to human passion, to the human condition.
For truly, we are all brothers and sisters. We are, all of us, literally the children, the direct descendents, of a very small band of people who lived somewhere in Ethiopia about 160,000 years ago, wandered out of the desert, and crawled all over the face of our mother, the planet earth.
And so we owe it to ourselves and each other to develop a morality that is humanistic, that seeks good for its own sake instead of a fear-based morality. That is our duty as moral beings. That’s why the header of this site has that paraphrase of Thomas Paine, 18th century American revolutionary:
“The world is my country, humankind is my family, and to do good my religion.”
So may this coming year grant us the wisdom to see the necessity for self reliance, of building an independent, peaceful mass movement, so that we can change the things that must be changed, so that we can literally ensure the viability of our planet, for ourselves, for the future of our children and grandchildren—for the human race, indeed for all the life forms that dwell here on our watery planet!
In the words of an old anarchist and socialist hymn
Justice thunders condemnation
A better world’s in birth!
Thus, my brothers and sisters, you have my fervent wishes for a better 2010 for us all, and may your holidays be joyful.
The graphic below is of the first commercially-made Christmas card, circa 1843, by Sir Henry Cole, an Englishman.