Is the Grand Gesture Dead? Martha Quest and Me

Is the grand gesture dead?  Look it up online and it’s all about romance.  The search engine thinks it’s a Nora Ephron movie.

And that takes the “grand” out of grand gesture.

Grand gestures can be political or personal.  You can boycott grapes, or send flowers. But grapes are dusted with too much pesticide for my taste, and I like my flowers in gardens.

Did boycotting grapes from 1965-1970 make a difference? (Yes,  the grape growers finally signed labor contracts with the union.) Have you protested wars, marched for women’s rights (sans pink hat and GIRL POWER sign), and written to your representatives and senators about climate change? I have.  Do words and marching change things?  Sometimes.

In The Four-Gated City, the fifth novel in Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, the wars and chaos of the 20th century have shattered multitudes in Europe and Asia. Leftist characters march for nuclear disarmament in England and protest other threats to the planet, but are frustrated by their inability to solve problems.

The heroine Martha Quest and her friend/employer Mark  converse with an American named Brandon who has fled the McCarthy witch hunts. He says that people often confuse stating a problem with solving it.

He had joked at supper that in his own country, an outsider because radical, he had never felt more of an outsider than this week-end, surrounded by radicals who ‘believed-correct me if I’m wrong-that political protest is a question of stating a problem.

‘…I state something-1 think it’s achieved a change. Like the March-it’s a statement. “We don’t want war.” End of statement. But nothing will have changed tomorrow when everyone goes back to work.’

Sometimes making a statement does help: it brings people together to work for a cause.  But in recent years, aside from movements for social change like gay marriage, the fights for human rights have had little effect.

And the internet is a mixed blessing:  regional newspapers that covered state and local issues have gone out of business as people seek (often fake, and much less reliable) news at Facebook and other venues.  Twitter has  assaulted critical thinking and the grasp of complex language.  Take the Occupy Wall Street movement. The sweet but fuzzy-headed organizers tweeted and arranged camp-outs in parks but never did articulate any demands. They didn’t like Wall Street, or capitalism, or air pollution…but who does? The movement fizzled out. It lasted a few months—less than a year.  And nothing changed.

I have never had a strong grasp of politics, but I have made many personal grand gestures. When a snotty bookstore owner lambasted an excellent book editor, I defended him/her vigorously and said in future I’d buy my books elsewhere. Now that was a noble gesture, and did no harm.  But it was a gesture made by someone who reads too many novels.

The problem is, grand gestures can be grandiose, and they piss people off.

Take my grandest of grand gestures: I vowed in 1992 that I would quit my hated job if Clinton got elected. As one woman said of our toxic workplace, “Every day felt like a rape.” I was tougher than she, and able to cope with the constant sexual harassment, but it was grim. And I had to fight to get my final paycheck: there was much signing of papers and taping of conversations before I got the check that would pay my rent the next couple of months.

And, honestly, I was fragile for a while. But if I hadn’t made the grand gesture—if I hadn’t abruptly quit—I would have suffered more.

Some people, even some women, resented my quitting, perhaps because the consequences weren’t graver.

“You’ll never work again,” said a woman who’d sued this employer a couple of times and eventually been fired.

You’re working,” I pointed out.  And I suspect they were so thrilled I went my own way that they never gave me a thought again.

Now that I’m older, I’m astonished by my boldness. I find the patriarchy much scarier and more extreme now. But it’s quite possible that I was too naive back then to understand whom I was dealing with.  Now we’ve passed the political baton to younger feminists, and good luck to them.  Sadly, much of what we accomplished has been undone, and they must  fight for the same basic rights.