When we're building coalitions or negotiating with political opponents, we don't always get to choose our ideal political partners. But we can have a powerful impact when we seek common ground, even with people whose actions may appall us. This isn't always possible: Obama's presidency is far the worse for having waited endlessly for good faith responses from Republicans who have no interest in anything but taking him down. Our negotiations also work best when we've organized enough to create genuine political power. But even in the most polarized situations, or when confronting the most predatory institutions, those we consider our enemies may sometimes surprise us.
In the late 1980s, human rights lawyer Julia Devin joined Quaker physician Charlie Clements and activist Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott to try and negotiate an agreement for medical neutrality in El Salvador. It was the height of the Salvadoran death squad terror; the U.S.-trained military had just brutally murdered six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America, as well as their housekeeper and her young daughter. Earlier on, an assassin shot Archbishop Oscar Romero while he was conducting Mass--a month after Romero publicly asked the U.S. Government to cut off Salvadoran military aid. The military and allied death squads kidnapped and "disappeared" more than 30,000 people and carried out large-scale massacres of old people, women, and children. Yet Julia and the others met with the colonels and generals to persuade them to allow the provision of medical care in all areas of the country, from the government zones to those controlled by the opposition guerrillas.
"Many of my friends who worked for Central American peace were outraged that we even talked with the military," recalls Julia. "But we weren't naive. We knew the generals would use any agreement to look good in Congress and try to get more money in the face of our efforts to cut off the aid that kept them going. But the peace process had to start somewhere. This seemed a logical place. If they went back on their word, we'd have a huge report that we could wave in front of Congress describing all the violations."
Some of the generals gave Julia the chills. "You walked out feeling like you'd just encountered pure evil. They'd done horrible things, helped kill thousands of people." Still, she said, "I tend to believe that everyone has a spark inside them that's redeemable, even if they've never done a single decent act in their lives. Although some people for all practical purposes can't be reached or redeemed, mostly, I kept coming back to the sense that we had to try, and the possibility that this might help end the war. You don't have to like people to talk and negotiate."
Much as Julia hated what the generals had done, the meeting offered "a way to draw them in, give them a stake in the peace process, and create a precedent for addressing other issues, like not bombing hospitals. We kept coming back to our priorities, what people in the Salvadoran villages said would help their situation. Working out agreements like this with both sides seemed a first step, a piece of the puzzle toward something larger." As it turned out, the agreement they helped negotiate became a key building block in finally achieving a lasting peace in El Salvador.
Julia's belief in a "redeemable spark" may seem like wishful thinking, but people who've done terrible things reverse course often enough that we never know when someone whose past may seem abhorrent will surprise us. As recounted in Studs Terkel's book, American Dreams: Lost and Found, a Ku Klux Klan leader named C. P. Ellis accepted an invitation from the North Carolina AFL-CIO to a public meeting on racial tensions in the state's school system. Ellis, who had worked hard to prevent integration in the schools, accepted because he wanted to see what was going on and to speak his mind. "If we didn't have niggers in the schools," he told the group, "we wouldn't have the problems we got today."
To Ellis's surprise, a black activist praised him for "being the most honest man here tonight." Later, another black man nominated Ellis to co-chair the group with Ann Atwater, an African American who had led civil rights boycotts and protests. Ellis hated Atwater "with a purple passion," but he was "tired of fighting." He accepted the position, and the improbable partners began "to reluctantly work together." After both their kids came home crying because classmates had accused their parents of collaborating with the enemy, Atwater and Ellis began to recognize a deeper commonality, and they eventually became close friends. Ellis found a new career as a union organizer, bringing poor blacks and whites together against employers who had long exploited their mutual mistrust. This former Klansman had completed one of the longest journeys imaginable--largely because people had reached out across an enormous divide to invite him in.
Reaching out in this way can be powerful, whether we're talking with people whose actions seem reprehensible or simply those with whom we passionately disagree. We still need to challenge gross abuses of power. Companies like Lehman Brothers and AIG really did crash the entire global financial system through reckless speculation, destroying lives and livelihoods. BP, Halliburton and Transocean devastated the Gulf because they prized profits over safety. Exxon, Massey Energy and Peabody Coal threaten the habitability of the entire planet when they fund climate change deniers, and work to block critical legislation. When corporate or political leaders damage communities and lives, we need to hold them accountable for their actions. "There are moments," writes poet Charles Simic in Harper's, "when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, in the strongest possible language."
But how do we do this most effectively? Sometimes, as Simic says, we have to simply call this destructiveness by its name. But we also want to invite our opponents in, to a more humane vision of the world. I think of Desmond Tutu speaking in a packed cathedral in apartheid-era Cape Town while riot policemen lined the walls, eager to arrest and beat those in attendance. Pointing his finger at the police who were recording his words, Tutu said, "You may be powerful, indeed very powerful, but you are not God! And the God whom we serve cannot be mocked! You have already lost!" Then Tutu smiled and said. "We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!"
Tutu didn't back down from challenging apartheid. He didn't equivocate on his judgment. His words were also complemented by the actions of thousands of ordinary South Africans who organized protests, boycotts, and creative forms of cultural resistance in their communities. He drew a forceful moral line, even as he reached out to the humanity of his opponents.
BRIDGES IN A HOT TUB
Sometimes we discover this humanity only after we've won difficult victories. In the early 1990s, Rainforest Action Network targeted the huge Japanese conglomerate, Mitsubishi, for importing massive amounts of rainforest timber. RAN promoted an international boycott of Mitsubishi cars and electronic products, backed by a major petition campaign and a documentary detailing the company's offences. A button on the RAN website provided a link so people could deluge Mitsubishi with comments. Supporters from the United States to Australia and the United Kingdom hung roadside banners saying "Mitsubishi Destroys Rainforests," and a plane towed a similar banner over the Super Bowl at half-time. Campaign participants held demonstrations at car shows and local dealers. A full-page ad in the New York Times called Mitsubishi the "Worst Corporate Destroyer of Rainforests."
At first, Mitsubishi attacked the campaigners and denied the destructive impact of its operations. But as pressure built, the company eventually relented, pledging to sell only those wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and to phase out its use of tree-based paper and packaging products in favor of alternative fibers. More recently, RAN has had similar victories in campaigns targeting companies like Home Depot and Kinko's, and in an effort to persuade Bank of America to stop financing coal-fired power plants or mining companies involved in highly destructive mountaintop removal.
The relationship between key boycott leaders like RAN president Randy Hayes and top Mitsubishi executives had gotten pretty ugly, so Hayes wasn't sure what to expect when he and a senior Mitsubishi America executive later attended the same Santa Barbara retreat on sustainability and business. The two men avoided each other around the coffee urns and at the meals, almost like two negatively charged magnets repelling each other.
When the proceedings were done, Hayes and his friend, "Confessions of an Economic Hitman" author John Perkins, decided to grab a six-pack of beer and go to a retreat center hot tub that sat atop a hill overlooking the Pacific. But when they arrived there, they found the Mitsubishi executive, sitting naked in the tub with his own cold beer. Hayes and his friend hesitated, then stripped down and settled in the tub as far away as they could.
An awkward silence lasted about five minutes. Then the Mitsubishi man said, "Randy, I want to thank you. I have kids. I want them to see the rainforest. Other executives have kids too. They also want them to see the rainforest. Until you brought this to the attention of our CEO and our stockholders, we were afraid to speak out, to do the right thing. You brought it to the attention of our executives. I want to thank you." He raised his beer in a toast.
Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of "Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times" by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin's Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, "Soul" has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it "wonderful...rich with specific experience." Alice Walker says, "The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love." Bill McKibben calls it "a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity."
Loeb also wrote "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear," the History Channel and American Book Association's #3 political book of 2004. HuffPo is serializing selected sections of "Soul" every Thursday. Check here to see previous excerpts or be notified of new ones. For more information, to hear Loeb's live interviews and talks, or to receive Loeb's articles directly, see www.paulloeb.org. You can also join Paul's monthly email list and follow Paul on Facebook at Facebook.com/PaulLoebBooks From "Soul of a Citizen" by Paul Rogat Loeb. Copyright 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin. Permission granted to reprint or post so long as this copyright line is included.
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more