To the New Generations, Please Don’t Repeat Our Mistakes! (Part 1)

Posted: November 14, 2016 in Uncategorized


I am turning 60 this year. In looking back I realize that is long enough to actually see some patterns in history. The old adage on repeating history comes to mind all too frequently.  I find myself frequently shaking my head in disbelief and muttering “I thought we’d done this already.”

I also have come to see firsthand the truth in MLK’s statement “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

I have lived on this arc long enough to see a tremendous amount of positive change in my life. In the 10th grade the authorities desegregating the school I was in in Charleston had police with dogs in our school hallways for class changes to suppress the fighting. When I graduated from high school interracial marriage was still illegal in 16 states – this year we saw the Supreme Court protect gay marriage. Prior to the Vietnam protests our governments went almost unchallenged on many issues. Public participation in government decision processes was almost unheard of. Decisions were largely made over a handshake in smoke filled rooms. Today we are inundated with notices for public hearings from school boards, to city councils, county, legislative, agency rulemakings, and more.  And we have had decades of using the Freedom of Information act to get inside the decision making processes. Environmental pollution in our country looked like that in China today. Scores of people died in air pollution events and rivers were catching fire from pollution. I have lived to see many of these things fall away and change for the better.

From this vantage point I look back and see clear evidence of Rev. King’s arc and it gives me some joy. I look out though and also see the rollbacks and the work left undone.

So it is I watch today as a passionate new generation of change agents is emerging.  It pleases me so to listen to these young people who will not tolerate injustice and feel compelled to action. I find myself reminiscing of 1968 and the many movements of the ensuing 70s, not just at home, but around the world – turning out for racial equality, sexual equality, against the war, against colonialism, against poverty, for open government, environmentalism, and more. I look at this new generation and see another tsunami of change is swelling in the ocean and preparing to wash ashore.

They are our hope for a better world, a fairer world, a just world. I am filled with admiration, joy, and hope, as I listen to my sons, the children of my friends and others I meet and I hear them speak with passion on the need for change and see them launch into action. I want them to succeed. We need them to succeed.

And then as I watch them launch forward my stomach falls. All this energy, all this passion, all this work – I want it to be effective. I want it to accomplish things.  And I see too much of it repeat the mistakes of my generation.

 The 60s and 70s saw a lot of wasted energy. They saw a lot of protests that served only to fuel and grow the opposition.  But the movements and the protests persisted over enough time to refine their methods and tactics, to learn from their mistakes and become more and more effective. Movements learned their targets and methods had to be calculated to generate change and support.


There was lots of anger. Anger unleashed is rage. And rage is blind. It lashes out. It destroys. It injures. And, at least initially, it satisfies. But rage accomplishes nothing. Well, not quite nothing. It affirms and reaffirms our opponents in their view. It discredits us. Rage accomplishes nothing positive.

Rage saw the burning of many of our cities in the race riots, destroying those communities. Today most of those cities are still impoverished, disempowered and underserved. Rage saw the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention protests that served only to help elect Nixon and defeat anti-war candidate Hubert Humphrey extending the war another 7 years.

Rage causes fear in our opponents. This fear solidifies them in their opposition and makes our work that much harder.

Anger is a different story. There is nothing wrong with anger. Anger is simply a message to us that something is wrong, something needs to change. It is a motivator. Dr. King was angry with injustice. Gandhi was angry. They channeled their anger (and that of those around them) into strategic and tactical avenues that accomplished incredible things.

Today as I watch this new “1968” swell into action I see too much rage and not enough channeled anger. I expect the movements, like ours of the past, will mature and learn – and the actions of rage will slowly be displaced with those of real power. I fear though that until then, they will not get traction and they will actually increase and stiffen the forces opposing change.  We risk losing years, decades, even losing all together.

We live in a democracy – granted a democracy that is distorted by oligarchy and money – but it is still a democracy. In the long run our goal has to be getting a majority of the American public to support our goals.

I  view movements and politics as a matter of talking people off the fence and then shoving the fence forward. And then talking the next group of fence sitters down to our side and shoving again.  When we act out of rage and create fear and rage in our fence sitters and opponents, the fence comes shoving back and crowding us. We lose ground we need to recapture before we can make real progress.

Let your mistakes be fresh mistakes, new mistakes; mistakes that come from exploring new ground. Please do not repeat our mistakes and waste time on well-trodden ground. (More to come.)


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