taking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick.

From Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense.”

On Saturday, I ate my 50th birthday dinner with my beloved wife and younger daughter in a restaurant in Cambridge, MA. While we waited for the check, we heard about the protest at Logan Airport and decided to go. I then watched two of my favorite people stand against injustice in the company of a large and passionate band of our fellow citizens.

To say that I enjoyed my birthday evening seems wrong. It sounds a bit like saying, “The US Coast Guard turned the refugee-laden ship St Louis away from Miami in May 1939, and 254 of the passengers were soon murdered in the Holocaust, but I enjoyed standing on the dock with a ‘Let them in!’ sign.”

But there is another way of looking at these situations. Politics is often about cruelty and injustice. Sometimes the people who respond with optional political actions–like carrying signs in Logan’s Terminal E–are not directly at risk. We may nevertheless take satisfaction from our political action if we contribute, in some ultimate way, to a better world.

For one thing, we should draw satisfaction because that motivates more activity. If politics is mere sacrifice, everyone except the most direct victims (the ones with their backs to the wall) will drop out sooner or later. I think it’s wise for activists to advertise the emotional benefits of action.

More than that, we should take satisfaction from politics, even if others are suffering while we are safe, because consequential public action is part of a dignified life–an aspect of dignity too often denied to us by bureaucracies and markets. Hannah Arendt thought that the American Framers originally revolted in defense of their own private liberties, but they discovered, as they made the new republic together, that “no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public business” (On Revolution,  p. 247). Lin-Manuel Miranda captures that feeling at the very end of Hamilton, when his hero sings, “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference.”

We shouldn’t wish for injustices so that we can make a difference. (Young-man Hamilton does–singing “God, I wish there was a war! / Then we could prove that we’re worth more /
Than anyone bargained for…”–but he outgrows that sentiment.) When, however, we are confronted with injustices that we did not choose, we may take some joy from rising up together with those we love:

For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,–the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

– Wordsworth, “The French Revolution

See also: unhappiness and injustice are different problems ; you have a right and a responsibility to attend to your own happinessnotes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution; and Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.