Today would be Bayard Rustin’s 100th birthday. For all the differences I have with him and his though, he’s an inspiration. To mark the day, I’m reposting a column I wrote a couple years ago after reading the man’s biography.
Bayard Rustin was the man who taught Martin Luther King how to use nonviolent protest to achieve civil rights. But Rustin had long been an activist for nonviolence itself. He didn’t just see it as a means to an end; nonviolence was Rustin’s philosophical north star, his primary goal for the world. College students can stay up all need debating whether the end justifies the means, but the whole question was moot for Bayard Rustin, because his means were his end.
I’ve thought a lot about that. And it’s led me to a guiding principle of my own (which I’m still learning how to follow):
Your means will shape your end.
I don’t mean anything fuzzy or aspirational by that. It’s a hard fact of reality. The means you choose won’t determine just whether you reach your goal — it will change the way that goal plays out when you bring it into reality.
I made the Republicans in Congress video because I saw the party orchestrating a campaign of lies on issue after issue. These weren’t petty rhetorical overstatements, or the political sleight-of-hand we expect during a reelection bid. This was a coordinated, party-wide effort. Republicans seemed to toss out statement after statement with no regard for the truth, and if one of them gained political traction then they all started echoing it. Who cares if death panels are a vicious myth? If the lie helps us, let’s use it!
Forget for a moment whether this strategy is moral. Ask rather, If it succeeded, how would it shape the result? Republicans would have won their bid for power. But what else?
The electorate would be deceived, ignorant, and just not capable of making good choices. Media institutions like Fox would be little more than ministries of propaganda. The ruling elite would rely heavily the “noble lie” strategy: if you know what’s best for the American people, then craft a story, any story, that will boost public opinion. Weapons of mass destruction? Ooo, that’s a good one. If we push that, along with a fake link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and Iraq, then we can invade the country, set up a democracy there, and change the whole political equation in the middle east!
You set up this structure to get yourself in power, but it doesn’t go away after the election is over. Instead you’ve got an entire deceit industry whose new chief goal is its own survival and exaltation. Once upon a time the Republican Party used buffoons like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck as political tools. Now those tools are able to frighten the hell out of party officials. In 2008, the party advanced an obscure governor to boost a presidential campaign. They told her what to say, where to be, how to dress. Now some of them beg Sarah Palin for endorsements, and she delivers them in speeches that reflect her fiction of the moment.
Your means will shape your end.
I’m not a pacifist like Bayard Rustin. I’m mostly a big dork and what I like best is to figure things out. It may be naive to think you can change the world by focusing on what’s true and can be supported by reason. Certainly our anti-gay opponents jettison careful thought every day. They work from their own prejudice and count on the prejudice of others (even if they’re too blinded by their phobia to see it that way). But whether I do it well or not, whether it’s the best strategy or a hopeless attempt, I have to stick with my dorky does-this-make-sense approach. It’s not just a method, it’s the world I want to live in. Remember the give-and-take meetings Obama had with Congress over health care? That’s why I still love him despite his broken promises to our community. That’s why I can be patient and see how he plays out his long game. Your means will shape your end.
The long game is essential. The failed Prop 8 campaign decided not to show many images of gays and lesbians on TV. They followed the best polling available and maybe they were right. Maybe we’d have lost even worse if we’d put out our lives out there in this struggle about our lives. But I don’t care. Keep your eye on the long game. What kind of place can we achieve in the world through hiding, though accommodating that gay-is-yucky feeling some voters have? Our opponents can hurt us this year and the next by appealing to ignorance, fear, and hate, but they can’t do it forever, not if we’re more visible every year, not when people who know us are more likely to vote with us.
This strikes me in the most immediate way as I get ready to fly to San Francisco and begin the AIDS/Lifecycle. Yeah, the event raises millions of dollars for prevention and treatment, but it does so by building an amazing week-long community, a tiny traveling work of people working their asses off (the crew even more than the riders!). People are better when they’re in that world — I’m certainly better when I’m in that world — more open, more friendly, more connected to the people around them, more eager to help when help is needed. The people I see on the LifeCycle are working to build the world they want to live in, and they do it by creating for one week that very same world. I’m honored and humbled to be a tiny part of it.
Because you know what? Your means will shape your end.