So the tents have come down at Zuccotti Park. OccupyWall Street is over. Or, as the more hopeful would have it, it has morphed intoOccupy Everywhere. I hope they’re right. I hope Occupy Wall Street does become Occupy Everywhere. I hopethe issues of the 99 percent become a focus of the upcoming Presidentialcampaign. And I hope real, lasting, meaningful change comes of this movement.
But just for a moment I’d like to look at the otherside of the coin.
I’d like to sing the praises of failure. I’d like topoint out that failure is in fact the universal fate of truly transformativesocial, political, or religious movements. And I’d like to argue that gracefulfailure matters just as much for revolutionaries as it does for source code andsuspension bridges.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about graceful failureever since Simchat Torah. This year it fell just after the Occupy Wall Street marchon Times Square. My husband and I were more spectators than marchers, since wehad two sleepy kids in tow. But a few days later when I looked at the brightfaces of the children gathered under the tent of the upraised prayer shawls,whispering about important things like chocolate while we grownups droned onoverhead about death and creation, I suddenly remembered the faces I’d seenstreaming out of Times Square after the march.
It was a very New York crowd: a crowd of every ageand color and social class. There was a radiant joy and hope in those facesthat is all too rare in America today. And the sight of that great flood ofhumanity streaming across Manhattan reminded me powerfully of Martin LutherKing Jr.’s prophetic words about justice rolling down like a mighty river.
Of course justice never did roll down like a mightyriver. If it had, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate crime blog would be alot quieter than it is. And the statistics on African-American children inpoverty and African-American men in prison would not be source of nationalshame. The history of transformational politics in America is essentially alesson in failing, failing again, and failing better. The late Howard Zinndedicated much of his life to documenting this history. And more recently twowonderful books — John Nichols’s The ‘S’Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism and James R.Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A ShortStory of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided GildedAge America – have documented this underground history.
Martin Luther King knew this history. And he had atheologian’s grasp of the readings that waft over the heads of the children insynagogues all over the world each Simchat Torah. King understood that failureis the fate of all truly transformational social movements. If you read throughthe arc of his life and writings, you see him always pushing toward the nextgoal, peering around the next bend in the road, reminding people that themoment you begin to reify a movement — to become infatuated with success orparalyzed by the fear of failure — you have started the slow slide fromrevolution to institution, from transformation to status quo. This was one ofhis great contributions to American politics, though it’s one that is a lotharder to quantify and celebrate than his more tangible successes.
People like to tell fairy tales, of course. And as afantasy writer I’d be the last person to claim that fairy tales are mereescapism. Fantasy turns a magic mirror on our world that can reveallong-accepted injustices and inspire us to transform society in light of ourhighest ideals. But many fairy tales have an insidious lie at their hearts: thepromise of a happily ever after where conflict and corruption are banished; thepromise that slaying dragons is a once-in-a-lifetime event, something you doright before sailing off to what James Thurber (tongue firmly in cheek asusual) called ‘the blessed isles of Ever After.’
But in real life there are no blessed isles of EverAfter. In real life Moses dies in the desert. In real life Martin Luther King,Jr. died just as he was beginning to take on the truly intractable problems ofsocioeconomic injustice in America. In real life the promised land is always onthe other side of the river — and transformative social movements are alwayscrushed or corrupted, diluted or deflected, or simply lost in the flood ofdaily trivia.
So as we talk about what it means that the tentshave come down, we should remind ourselves that it was never a question of whether Occupy Wall Street would fail.It was only a question of when. OccupyWall Street will inevitably fail, just as all truly radical attempts attransformation fail. But if it fails well,then it will have brought us to the bank of the river. And it will have givenus the courage to learn from our failure, turn back to the beginning of thescroll, and risk everything once again in a new act of creation.
Like so much of the Jewish liturgy, Simchat Torah isa ritual that meets you wherever you are in life and seems to impart new wisdomfrom year to year. As a parent I see it mainly as a time to give thanks for thegift of children and reaffirm my commitment to their Jewish education. But thisyear I was struck by the great gift that the ritual gives to our children: the gift of teaching them that failure is, if notexactly sweet, then at least part of the life’s cycle and no more to be fearedthan any other part.
That’s not a gift most of us are very good at givingour children in real life. Don’t get me wrong; kids certainly get plenty ofchances to watch their parents fail. But we rarely do it gracefully. Usually welook around for someone else to blame. Or we lie to ourselves — especially inthe realm of politics — settling for the achievable compromise and thenreacting with fury when anyone has the chutzpah to remind us that we once hopedfor bigger and better things. Simchat Torah cuts through the denial, in themost simple and unsentimental way imaginable.
And so we sing our songs of hope and failure. We putup our tents even though we know they will be taken down. We tell our childrenthat the Torah is as sweet as honey. We tell them about Moses dying in thedesert within sight of the promised land. And then we turn the scroll back tothe beginning, and we start a new year of struggle, and we hope we fail betternext time.Chris Moriarty’s most recent book, The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, is now available.