On the Danger of Inevitability, Our Role in History, and Sleepwalking

History is not how one man smooths the past so that we all slide towards war.  It is how many of us, each a little differently, confront the difficulties of the past and so imagine our own individual routes towards the future.  ~Timothy Snyder

Resist notions of fate … and optimism…. History is also made by us. ~Timothy Snyder.

There come moments when individual choices matter…. What the Ukranians are doing magnifies out…. “If they can fight against tanks with their bare hands, what can I do?” ~Yuval Noah Haran


*Before I get to today’s note, a personal invitation: I’ll be joining author and former Ohio state party chair David Pepper on Thursday 3/10 to discuss our long-term strategy to run and support nominees in every district, in every state. I’d love to see you there! Options at noon or 7pm eastern. Sign up here: https://davidpepper.lpages.co/march-zoom-pep-rally/

And another note. Today’s post is organized differently. It just … happened that way. Sometimes words just have a mind of their own, and when that happens it’s hard to convince them to behave differently. I hope you don’t mind a different format.


I thought about a famous quote this week while watching a riveting conversation with Yale historian and Ukraine expert Timothy Snyder. In answering a question, Snyder warned that we must resist notions of inevitability.

There is danger in believing improvement is inevitable, he explained.

I couldn’t agree more.

And it’s why I am often troubled by a beloved quote: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

It’s a balm on a wound, isn’t it? A salve to take some sting away. To settle our nerves.

And, as a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. (who himself was quoting a 19th century clergyman Theodore Parker), it carries significant moral heft.

But I worry about this quote, because too often I think it brings about the exact result that King was warning against when he said the words.

King used the quote in a commencement address at Oberlin College, entitled Remaining Awake Through a Revolution. The entirety of the speech is focused on the need for all of humanity to stay awake, to snap to attention, to recognize the social revolution that was happening … and to refuse to sleepwalk through it.

There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution, he said.

Please forgive me for the long passage from his speech I am going to lay on you now, but every word is important.

Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out. Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem. That is a myth, and it is a myth because time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m absolutely convinced that the people of ill will in our nation – the extreme rightists – the forces committed to negative ends – have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.” Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.

(Read the entire riveting speech here: https://www2.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/BlackHistoryMonth/MLK/CommAddress.html)

King saw the passive passage of time as an enemy – an “ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation,” rather than the courier of some inevitable moral victory. That’s why he directed us: “we must help time” with our hard work … starting now (i.e., the oft-quoted “the time is always right to do right”).

It is only after recognizing the abuse, scorn, struggle, and effort of social revolutionaries that King turns to why he has hope: the moral righteousness of the cause, coupled with the fortitude and perseverance of Black Americans. (“Certainly if the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face will surely fail.“)

His call to action for the graduating class at Oberlin – who were already committed to the cause of equality and social justice – was to stay awake, to keep going even though the road is long, and to see that progress is itself a victory.

And that’s when he told them to take heart, and keep the faith: “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.”

Stripped of all of its rich context, the quote feels like a promise of preordained success.

In isolation, it suggests that so long as our cause is moral, it will succeed. Just … wait on time.

Viewed in isolation, it can lead right back to the very sort of sleepwalking that King was so concerned about.

That is why, in our times, when I hear that quote I worry that it soothes too much, and encourages folks to, as King said, sleep through the revolution.

* * *

Democracy is not the default.

Freedom is not humanity’s factory setting.

Quite the contrary, actually.

America, the shining (though tarnished) city on a hill was a totally revolutionary idea, made possible because a few hundred years ago some upstarts got creative and imagined a completely different path.

And so, we became a democracy. That’s what we are and who we are. It’s how we describe ourselves. It’s woven into our national fabric. It is foundational.

But … is it? Is it really?

Would you describe a country that’s restricting voting, curbing civil rights, allowing constitutional rights to be gutted because of a Senate procedural rule, allowing politicians to gerrymander themselves out of accountability, voting for things that are terribly unpopular and refusing to vote for things that vast majorities support (I could go on, and on, as you know) … as a vibrant, functioning democracy?

I would not.

That is hard to confront.

It is difficult to fight things you cannot confront. Or that you refuse to see.

Perhaps that’s why it has been so jarringly inspirational to see the commitment of Ukrainians, juxtaposing their valor fighting for their fledgling democracy … with the typical American’s inattention to our own.

Ukraine is a mirror. And they’ve shown us just how much we take for granted.

How much we’ve been sleepwalking.

* * *

The only thing worse than believing in the inevitability of success is believing in the inevitability of failure.

I saw a familiar theme in an analysis of the war in Ukraine before it broke out: Ukraine is doomed anyway, perhaps a better path is negotiating, there is little point in resisting, just get it over with.

In my work trying to get support for pro-democracy candidates (read Democrats) in rural districts, I hear an analysis that rhymes: Democrats are doomed here anyway, there is no way we will win this district, give up and save your resources, there is little point in trying, just get it over with.

There is a vast chasm between what Ukrainians are doing and where we sit. There is more than a world of difference between the courage and commitment required to put your body in front of a tank and that required to conduct a political campaign.

But that’s part of why it demands such self-reflection. As Yuval Noah Haran said this week “If they are fighting tanks with their bare hands, what can I do?”

When the stakes are so high and the personal cost so small, how can we not act? And why aren’t more acting?

Failure is only assured if you don’t try in the first place. There is value in showing the righteousness of the effort, and that you care enough to fight.

As time passes, I worry that too many people are missing the fight altogether …

because they are sleeping through the revolution.

Let’s get to work.

* * *

Actions for the Week of March 8, 2022

Attend David Pepper’s Zoom Town Hall on Thursday

I’m excited to be joining author and former Ohio state party chair David Pepper on Thursday to discuss our long-term strategy to run and support nominees in every district, in every state. I’ll be presenting, and I’d love to see you there! There are two options: one at noon EST, and another at 7pm EST. Sign up here: https://davidpepper.lpages.co/march-zoom-pep-rally/

If You Haven’t Yet, Get and Read Laboratories of Autocracy

I’ve mentioned this book before, but I can’t help repeating. David Pepper (see above) who is the former Ohio Democratic party chair, a former elected official, and a novelist, does a fantastic job detailing the danger to our democracy in the book Laboratories of Autocracy. He’s a storyteller, so it’s not only an important read – it’s an enjoyable one as well. Before you know it you’ll be at the end, where he has listed 30 different ways you can start protecting and promoting democracy here at home.

You can get a copy here.

I’ve been blown away by David’s enthusiasm and commitment to preserving democracy.

Also, you should follow David on Twitter for his amazing and well-circulated whiteboard videos. They’re fantastic. @davidpepper

Ways to Help Ukraine:

Timothy Snyder, the Yale Professor who you likely know from his book On Tyranny, has published two lists of organizations and fundraisers to support in Ukraine. They are excellent lists, and provide you with a number of options.

As he notes, Ukraine is not a wealthy country, with the average income around $7,000/year.

While you’re there, check out his newsletter. He’s an expert on Ukraine, having written a total of six books on the country, and has fascinating, valuable insights into this war and Ukraine’s place in history. (He links to and describes the books here: https://snyder.substack.com/p/my-books-about-ukraine?s=r ) If you are a fan of Heather Cox Richardson, I think you will be inspired. (One quote from a post he published this week, in which he discussed how schools in Russia are expected to address the war, was gutting, and caused me to reflect for quite some time on our own country’s path: “Violence on this scale requires taming the past, monopolizing innocence, and creating a false certainty that whatever one’s country actually does in the present and future must be correct.”)

This week I watched a zoom discussion he participated in, and I came away from it with a far deeper understanding – both intellectually and morally – of the war. (You can watch a recording of that conversation here: https://online.yes-ukraine.org/2022-march Have a pen handy if you’re like me and often commit to paper stirring words. This talk is full of them.)

Back to organizations to support. Here are Snyder’s lists:

Go here to see the original list: https://snyder.substack.com/p/a-few-ways-to-help-ukrainians?s=r

Go here to see his first update: https://snyder.substack.com/p/a-few-more-ways-to-help-ukrainians?s=r

And go here to see his most recent update: https://snyder.substack.com/p/how-to-help-ukraine-now

Support Media Reporting On Ukraine:

Ukraine is facing an unprecedented, full-scale war. Media across the country continue to operate under the most challenging circumstances.

They have shown extraordinary courage, but the reality on the ground is that most operations cannot continue from Ukraine alone. This fundraiser is aimed at helping media relocate, set-up back offices and continue their operations from neighboring countries.

Ways to support media activities in Ukraine (e.g., purchases of security equipment, paying drivers, medical care) are outlined below.

This campaign is run by a consortium of The Fix Are We Europe Jnomics and Media Development Foundation , as well as multiple media partners from across Europe.

We are working with a growing list of Ukrainian media, including Ukrainska PravdaZaboronaDetector Media and others. Support is allocated based on urgency of needs in the first place, then distributed proportionally.

Go here for the fundraiser: https://gofund.me/80fc894a

Call Out the Big Oil Lies

If you’re in Missouri, you’ve heard this from our junior Senator Josh Hawley: that somehow Biden is constraining oil production and making gas prices go sky high. Not so. It’s really, really important for you to understand the truth of this issue so you can effectively shut it down. And, if enough of us push back, we might even be able to create the counter-narrative. (Dare I dream?)

Here are the facts: U.S. production of natural gas and oil is up and approaching record levels: More natural gas than ever this year, more oil than ever next year, and, even with a global pandemic, more oil production this past year than during Trump’s first year.

On public lands and waters the oil industry holds more than 9,000 unused, approved drilling permits. Those public lands and waters account for a mere 10% of the onshore oil production. Nearly 90% of onshore oil production takes place on non-federal land.

Jen Psaki took on a Fox News reporter on this very issue, and it was a good roadmap for responses. Check it out here: https://twitter.com/PoliticusSarah/status/1500961855996575748?s=20&t=4acdbmirUiJclgBE1CZQJw

Judd Legum of Popular Information has likewise done a GREAT job of breaking down this topic. As with Psaki’s analysis, it comes down to oil companies preferring to keep production low and costs high. Check it out here: https://popular.info/p/the-audacity-of-oil?s=w

And lastly, here’s Psaki’s twitter thread all about oil. Also a helpful and brief analysis:

Confused About What the World Is Doing to Sanction Putin?

Well, this comprehensive (as of March 7) piece on Law Fare Blog has you covered. I thought it was a helpful primer, and that you might enjoy it. https://www.lawfareblog.com/what-sanctions-has-world-put-russia

WHEW! GO TEAM!

P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every email! We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

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