This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Recently, Nelson Mandela turned 93, and his nation celebrated noisily, even attempting to break the world record for the most people simultaneously singing "Happy Birthday." This was the man who, on trial by the South African government in 1964, stood a good chance of being sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Given life in prison instead, he was supposed to be silenced. Story over.
You know the rest, though it wasn't inevitable that he'd be released and become the president of a post-apartheid South Africa. Admittedly, it's a country with myriad flaws and still suffers from economic apartheid, but who wouldn't agree that it's changed? Activism changed it; more activism could change it further.
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch, who'd amassed a vast media empire, banked billions of dollars, and been listed by Forbes as the world's 13th most powerful person, must have thought he had it made these past few decades. Now, his empire is crumbling and his crimes and corrosive influence (which were never exactly secret) are being examined by everyone. You never know what'll happen next.
About 1,600 years ago, Boethius put it this way in The Consolations of Philosophy, written while he, like Mandela, was in prison for treason: "As thus she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand, and presses on, fortune now tramples fiercely on a fearsome king, and now deceives no less a conquered man by raising from the ground his humbled face."
Still, that wheel didn't just turn. It took some good journalism—thank you, reporters of the Guardian!—to bring Murdoch to his knees. Just as it took some dedicated activism to break Mandela out of prison and overcome the apartheid era.
Everything changes. Sometimes you have to change it yourself.
Unpredictability is grounds for hope, though please don't mistake hope for optimism. Optimism and pessimism are siblings in their certainty. They believe they know what will happen next, with one slight difference: optimists expect everything to turn out nicely without any effort being expended toward that goal. Pessimists assume that we're doomed and there's nothing to do about it except try to infect everyone else with despair while there's still time.
Hope, on the other hand, is based on uncertainty, on the much more realistic premise that we don't know what will happen next. The next thing up might be as terrible as a giant tsunami smashing 100 miles of coastal communities or as marvelous as a new species of butterfly being discovered (as happened recently in Northern Ireland). When it comes to the worst we face, nature itself has resilience, surprises, and unpredictabilities. But the real territory for hope isn't nature; it's the possibilities we possess for acting, changing, mattering—including when it comes to nature.
Burger King CEO Apologizes to Farmworkers
Not all hopes are created equal, and sometimes their failure is the good news. The mass murderer who rampaged through Norway last week hoped to change that country forever. Sophisticated when it came to plotting a massacre and building a bomb, he was naïve when it came to political cause and effect. He attacked the ruling Labor Party in its office headquarters and its youth summer camp. The consequences will almost certainly be the opposite of what he hoped for.
His bloodbath is unlikely to aid the advance of an anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic right-wing agenda. It will expose what is vicious about the far right in Europe and elsewhere, bring more careful scrutiny to extremists at that end of the spectrum, and likely help discredit politicians who pander to them.
If we're lucky, it might even have some repercussions in the United States, where demonizing immigrants and encouraging violence are common right-wing tactics (discredited a little in January when Tucson Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and Sarah Palin was rebuked for the map on her Facebook page with crosshairs over Giffords' district).
History's pendulum tendencies always need to be factored in, and such assassins for the far right, like Timothy McVeigh before them, may do for that ideology what the Symbionese Liberation Army and Baader-Meinhof did for the left four decades ago. Think of a wheel of fortune.
Russell Pearce, the powerful Arizona state senator who created and promoted AB 1070, the 2010 state law punishing all brown-skinned immigrants (and people who resemble them), is up for recall on the November ballot. He will have to fight to be reelected in the special recall election (though a court challenge to the petitions has been mounted).
At a Tea Party event in May, Pearce dismissed the efforts that have now put his career on the line this way: "People know who these folks are, they've tried it before, they're simply open-border anarchists who have no respect for the law. We'll deal with it."
Oh, and about that Tea Party which the media was romancing with stories inflating its scale and significance not so long ago: its national convention got cancelled for lack of attendance. Meanwhile, Palin's documentary "The Undefeated" has been… well, defeated at the box office, big time.
The wheel of fortune spins, and sometimes it even comes up our way. Sometimes we win. Look at the people who led that recall drive on Pearce. At one point, it seemed beyond unlikely. "Russell Pearce Recall Drive Supporters Face Uphill Battle," said a typical headline in the unsympathetic Arizona Republic. They persevered anyway. Which is why they won their special election. They turned the damn wheel themselves.
Hope is not about guarantees and certainties. You don't know you'll win, but you don't know you'll lose either, so why not try?
No one is more remarkable in this light than the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a nearly two-decades-old organization of mostly immigrant and undocumented farmworkers in a particularly bleak part of Florida. They pick tomatoes at a rate of 32 pounds for 50 cents, meaning they have to pick more than two tons in a workday to walk out with the equivalent of a minimum wage. (Most US farmworkers make less than $1,000 per month, and thanks to a New Deal compromise three-quarters of a century old, they are not guaranteed a minimum wage, overtime pay, or the right to organize and bargain collectively.)
This tiny group of profoundly marginalized people decided to fight the biggest food corporations on earth—and they won. Ten years ago they started a campaign for "fair food," pressuring the major buyers of those tomatoes to pay more. Within four years, with the help of college-student organizers and brilliant strategy, they got Taco Bell to meet all their demands, and by 2007 McDonald's had fallen in line.
Florida growers managed to stop a penny-a-pound increase in payment, but Burger King (whose CEO personally apologized to them) and Whole Foods got on board, and in 2010 food corporations Aramark and Sodexo signed on as well. They're taking on Trader Joe's this summer, and given their track record…
Watch them. Or join them.