Real Change Does Not Come from the Top

By Andrew Sharp

We can all be thankful for one thing this November, and that is that the political season ended November 6. That means as a resident of Ohio, I will no longer be crushed under a mountain of campaign mail for several weeks at least.
We can all look back on a presidential campaign that dealt not with concrete and realistic proposals, but primarily with rancorous accusations and vague, brightly-colored promises that will never be fulfilled.

If only righting the world’s wrongs were so easy that all we had to do was elect the right leaders and let them do all the hard work.

No, if you want to change the world, don’t go into politics. Obama and Romney both suffered from an itch for power, which they scratched at the expense of dignified and brave leadership. Most politicians do this, dragging their feet until they see that everyone wants a certain social change, then rushing in to pompously announce that they’ve been in favor all along (see “American Civil Rights Movement”).

It’s instructive that when God wanted to change the world, he didn’t get into politics. Instead, he lived everyday life as a poor peasant, a peasant who stood up for what was right even as it earned him the hatred of the establishment. No power addict, he.

Other people who have brought about change did so at their great peril, willing to be front line troops rather than testing the political winds from back at headquarters. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his army of activists took arrest, beating, and some of them, bullets, to end the evil of segregation and institutional racism in the South. The presidents, safe in the oval office far behind the front lines, hunkered down until it was safe to come out.

A more modern example of courageous action is retired police investigator Zafar Ahmed Qureshi in Pakistan. Qureshi was featured in an National Public Radio story earlier this summer. In his four-decade career, he led corruption investigations that implicated people with powerful connections, leading to repeated suspensions. In one case, he was searching for contraband weapons and found a stash of weapons and 100 kilos of gold. Unfortunately, they were owned by a member of the National Assembly, so instead of a pat on the back he got a call from the interior minister, threatening him with banishment to a remote corner of the country. Not having learned his lesson, he went on to uncover a major real estate scandal involving government officials, and failed to keep that quiet either.

This kind of dangerous and career-dampening persistence is rare among human beings, who usually shrug and say something along the lines of “What can I do? I need this job.” (Or, “I spent a lot of money becoming president.”)

But as Qureshi demonstrates, changing things from the bottom up is hard and involves personal sacrifice. It’s not simply a matter of holding high personal standards. When I was in college, the popular T-shirt slogan for young idealists was a quote attributed to Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” That’s a little too easy to be true.

“Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug,” Brian Morton said in an insightful op-ed piece in the New York Times called “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.” He examined this and other popular sayings for authenticity. Turns out this little cliché never came out of Gandhi’s mouth. Morton wrote,

“Thoreau, Gandhi, Mandela — it’s easy to see why their words and ideas have been massaged into gauzy slogans. They were inspirational figures, dreamers of beautiful dreams. But what goes missing in the slogans is that they were also sober, steely men. Each of them knew that thoroughgoing change, whether personal or social, involves humility and sacrifice, and that the effort to change oneself or the world always exacts a price.”

A price our politicians, and most of us, usually aren’t willing to pay.