Saturday, January 21, 2012

Zinn Reader i

First in occasional series of direct quotes from the Howard Zinn Reader.

These quotes are all taken from the chapter entitled, "Abolitionists, Freedom Riders and the Tactics of Agitation"

At issue are a number of claims advanced by liberal-minded people who profess purposes similar to the radical reformers, but urge more moderate methods. To argue a case too heatedly, they point out, provokes the opponent to retaliation. To urge measures too extreme alienates possible allies. To ask for too much too soon results in getting nothing. To use vituperative language arouses emotions to a pitch which precludes rational consideration. To be dogmatic and inflexible prevents adjustment to rapidly changing situations. To set up a clash of extremes precipitates sharp conflict and violence...

To jump to the cry "extremism" at the first glimpse of the unfamiliar is like a boy with his little telescope peering onto the heavens and announcing that the star he dimly perceives at his edge of vision is the farthest object in the universe...

Anna Gardner
Anna Gardner (1816-1901) was a teacher, writer, secretary of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, worker for women's rights, universal suffrage, and temperance.
It is paradoxical that the historian, who is presumably blessed with historical perspective, should judge the radical from within the narrow moral base of the radical's period of activity, while the radical assesses his immediate society from the vantage point of some future, better era. If progress is desirable, and if escape from the bonds of the immediate is healthy, whose perspective is more accurate - that of the agitator, or that of the scolding historian?

James Russell Lowell wrote in 1849: "... the simple fact undoubtedly is that were the Abolitionists to go back to the position from which they started, they would find themselves less fanatical than a very respectable minority of the people. The public follows them step by step, occupying the positions they have successively fortified and quitted, and it is necessary that they should keep in advance in order that people may not be shocked by waking up and finding themselves Abolitionists."...

[Lloyd] Garrison was quite aware that most of the American population to which he was appealing was not sympathetic with his views, and he was completely conscious of how distant were his own fiery convictions from those of the average American. But he was persuaded... that only powerful surges of words and feeling could move white people from their complacency about the slave question. He said once in Philadelphia: "Sir, slavery will not be overthrown without excitement, a most tremendous excitement." He must lash with words, he felt, those Americans who had never felt the whip of a a slaveowner... "I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt."...

The politician is annoyed and angry at the pushing of the radical reformer, and the moderate observer thinks the radical unfair and injudicious in making extreme demands of the man in office, but both critics fail to distinguish between the social role of the politician and that of the agitator. In general, this distinction is perceived more clearly by reformers than by office-holders. Wendell Phillips put it neatly: "The reformer is careless of numbers, disregards popularity, and deals on with ideas, conscience, and common sense... He neither expects nor is overanxious for immediate success. The politician dwells in an everlasting now... His office is not to instruct public opinion but to represent it."

James Russell Lowell expressed the idea in another way: "The Reformer must expect comparative isolation, and he must be strong enough to bear it. He cannot look for the sympathy and cooperation of populace majorities. Yet these are the tools of the politician... All true Reformers are incendiaries. But it is the hearts, brains, and souls of their fellow-men which they set on fire, and in so doing they perform the function appropriate d to them in the wise order of Providence."

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