Today's Fanatic, Tomorrow's Saint

It's popular to think that the world gets changed by nice people, but the lives of activists past and present tell us otherwise

By fanaticism we usually mean two things. One is that someone is
dedicated in the extreme to their cause, belief, or agenda, willing to
live and die and maybe kill for it, as John Brown
was. The other is that the cause, belief or agenda is not ours, and in
1859 John Brown's beliefs were not those of most Americans. No one
calls himself or herself a fanatic. It's what you call people who are
weird or threatening, extremists in the defence of something other than
your own worldview. I've been around activists all my adult life, and
though it's popular to think the world gets changed by delightful
people, a lot of the saints and agents of change are obsessive,
intransigent, unreasonable, and demanding, of themselves and of us.
That's what it generally takes to change the world. Gandhi knew this
when he said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they
fight you, then you win." Conventional people give up when they laugh
at you. Timid people back off when they fight you. They don't win, and
neither do those who prize ease and security. The prize is for those
who risk and persevere.

That slavery was an intolerable
evil is something slaves have tended to believe all along; a few free
men caught up with them in England in the 1770s, as Adam Hochschild's
wonderful history Bury the Chains
relates, and that handful of Quakers and dissenters persevered until
they won, half a century later. I am not so sure about John Brown's
means, or that his actions were necessary to start a war that was
already brewing, but I am sure that slavery needed to be abolished, and
that his general ends were good. The really interesting thing is that
in 1839 to be against slavery in the US was an disruptive, extreme
position, often seen as an attack on property rights rather than a
defence of human rights. Half a century later we held those truths to
be self-evident that no one should own anyone else. (Except husbands
owning wives, but that's another story that got revised in the 1970s
and 1980s when things like domestic violence came to be taken seriously
by the legal system of many countries. Sort of.)

Lincoln called John Brown a "misguided fanatic." Thoreau wrote a defence of him
in which he remarked, "The only government that I recognise - and it
matters not how few are at the head of it, or how small its army - is
that power that establishes justice in the land." Some 13 years before
Brown's bloody raid on Harper's Ferry,
Thoreau went to jail, in a quiet, half-comic way, to protest slavery
and the US's territorial war on Mexico. I'm writing this the evening
before the global day of climate action, on the 10th anniversary of the
Seattle WTO uprisings. I was in Seattle when the mainstream considered
us nuts to think corporate globalisation was a bad idea; that
perspective is mainstream now; and I can see the world waking up and
shifting its sense of what we need to do about climate change. A quick
online search reveals quite a lot of people have been called
"climate-change fanatics," mostly for believing the change is real and
it requires some fairly profound responses. But the baseline of belief
is shifting, thanks to the dedicated and unreasonable among us.

is a troublesome word. I've written a book about disasters in which I
propose throwing out the words panic and looting, because they're
incendiary terms more often used to misrepresent and justify
authoritarian response than to describe reality on the ground. Maybe
fanaticism is another such term, since my hero is your fanatic, and
yesterday's fanatic is so often tomorrow's saint. Maybe we should all
be a little more - not fanatical, but unreasonable and intransigent in
our commitment to truth, to justice, to a better world.

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