One way to make life seem worth living is to find a cause you truly believe in, and devote yourself to it. It might be political – getting someone elected – or social – getting something banned or permitted – or religious – spreading your own belief, or disputing someone else’s.
I myself have rarely found anything worth crusading for. But I have to acknowledge that many or most of the good things in life which I more or less take for granted today have been the result of other people’s crusades. The country I live in, the laws which make it relatively safe and orderly, the things I eat and wear and travel in, all came about from the efforts and trouble and sacrifice, often of large numbers of people, over long periods of time.
Speaking of crusades, however, we must also concede that some causes have been, and many still are, misconceived, futile, and just plain wrong. The Crusades themselves, for example – that remarkable series of Eastward invasions for supposedly “holy” purposes – can hardly be seen from today’s perspective as anything but a monstrous sequence of errors, misfortunes, and crimes. True, they resulted in some importations to the West of new products, methods, and ideas. But against that, we have to count the hostility, towards westerners, of the invaded lands and peoples, going back almost a thousand years, but lasting even into our own time.
As a much more recent example, we have the cause of Prohibition, with its modern off shoots of various “Wars on Drugs.” How on earth, we might wonder, did people ever get it in their heads that you could deal with human addictions and susceptibilities simply by an act of legislation? To answer that, you have to realize what a terrible plague and social problem certain substances had become in recent centuries. It may be that the intensifying pressures of modern life have rendered any kind of chemical escape a preferable alternative. The people who voted for Prohibition were not, for the most part, wild-eyed reformers and fanatics, but ordinary citizens desperate to remedy an undeniable evil – which, unhappily, is still with us today.
But there are, or have been, other supposed evils in our midst which seemed to justify the most drastic forms of suppression. Certain groups, simply because they insisted on being different, have virtually invited persecution. Those calling themselves Jews have been the most outstanding example, giving rise to Jew-hating causes long before the term “anti-Semitism” was invented. But, if no Jews were available, public outrage might be directed against people considered “witches,” or, in later times “Communists.” In our own day, the campaigns against supposed witches seem to have been so manifestly unjust that we use the term “witch hunt” to disparage any questionable victimization.
The campaign against Communists, which can be traced back at least as far as Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” of 1848, twice reached a crescendo in the United States – after both World Wars. The first time, it was called “The Great Red Scare,” and actually climaxed in the forced deportation of thousands of “radicals” of various stripes. The second wave of persecution became associated with Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who rode a wave of mass hysteria until his own methods brought him into disrepute. He was actually censured by the Senate, and died not long afterwards.
I myself went in the opposite direction, trying to improve international relations, and during the height of the Cold War I actually visited the Soviet Union, and, wearing a sign saying in Russian “PEACE AND FRIENDSHIP,” gave a speech (in English) in Moscow’s Red Square.
Another cause dear to my heart (and lungs) was the campaign to suppress smoking, which has happily had much success.
But my sole experience of actually leading a cause involved the banning of gas-powered leaf-blowers in my own community of Santa Barbara. My alleged victims were gardeners who used those obnoxious machines extensively in their work. When three months of gathering signatures, by myself and a group of devoted volunteers, finally resulted in the issue being placed on the ballot, it won by a substantial margin, and became law. Nobody has ever shown that the livelihood of a single gardener was seriously affected by this outcome, especially since the new law still permitted the use of electric blowers.
But, although even now, decades later, people still thank me for my small part in improving our urban environment, I have no longing to find another cause.