“That sounds rather quixotic, don’t you think?”
I had just finished explaining our plan to garner support for the Bring Jobs Home Act, a bill that would eliminate tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas and instead invest that money in tax breaks that create jobs here at home. The man at the door continued his response.
“I mean, it sounds like you’re tilting at windmills.”
I smile. I can certainly understand where he is coming from. But the smile has more to do with the particular reference he chose.
“Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? Do you know what quixotic means?”
Yes. Yes I do. Do you?
The term “quixotic” is a reference to the literary character of Don Quixote, the title character in the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes. I was first introduced to the character via the movie version of the modern musical “Man of La Mancha.” Anyone who watches The Newsroom on HBO may also recall the character and the plot being referenced in that show’s first season finale.
So who is Don Quixote? Cervantes’ book tells the tale of a middle-aged lesser noble in Spain who is obsessed with tales of chivalry and romance that were popular at the time of the book’s writing in 1605. The age of knights and chivalry is long over, but Don Quixote finds some rusty old armor, an aged donkey and an unlikely squire to accompany him on an attempt to sally forth into the world to right all the wrongs and remedy all the injustices around him. He imagines himself a knight of old, his donkey a fabulous steed, the local inn a castle, and its serving girl the famed Lady Dulcinea to whom he will dedicate his heroic (mis)adventures.
The phrase “tilting at windmills” refers to one of his most (in)famous adventures. As he and his loyal squire Sancho come to the top of a hill they are faced with some massive windmills in the distance. Instead of windmills, Don Quixote sees giants that are terrorizing the land and must be slain. He straps on his helmet, raises his lance and charges (as fast as a donkey can charge) the giants he imagines in the distance. When his lance finally strikes, it runs through one of the blades of the windmill and Don Quixote is ignominiously caught up in its turning, going round and round. Sancho asks him if he now realizes they were windmills all along, to which Don Quixote replies that a sorcerer must have surely transformed the giants into windmills at the last second to rob him of his victory and glory.
That’s a long, roundabout way of saying that when someone tells you that your given task is “quixotic” and that you are “tilting at windmills” he isn’t usually giving you a compliment. He is saying, according to the English World Dictionary, that you are “preoccupied with an unrealistically optimistic or chivalrous approach to life” and that you are “impractically idealistic.”
The man continued.
“Outsourcing has been going on for years. Since before you were born, probably. Everyone knows about it. No one likes it, but those big companies aren’t going to let you pass this. Nothing passes the Senate. Toomey won’t vote yes no matter how many people sign up for this. I agree with you but you’re wasting your time.”
I listen patiently. I nod. But unlike Don Quixote I’m not an unrealistic optimist, even if I might occasionally be guilty of impractical idealism. “Maybe you’re right,” I tell him. “Maybe we can’t win on this one. Maybe all my walking up and down these hills going from door to door tonight won’t be enough to win this time. But if you agree with us and you think this is a bill that SHOULD pass, then it’s only a waste of a few seconds of your time to show that support even if we lose. What can it hurt?”
He laughs slightly, and sighs as an acknowledgment that I’m right. He becomes a member of Working America and signs a petition telling Senator Pat Toomey to Bring Jobs Home, as hundreds of others have before him.
Not long after, we knight-errants that make up the field teams across the country at Working America faced our own Knight of Mirrors, the enemy that ultimately vanquishes Don Quixote by forcing him to confront the reality of just how quixotic his whole enterprise is. Toomey voted against allowing the Bring Jobs Home Act to come to a vote in the Senate. It never even came to the floor of the House. The Bring Jobs Home Act failed to pass. The giants and windmills had won the day, just as the man I spoke with that night had predicted.
Defeats hurt, whether they consist of being tossed from your donkey by a windmill blade or whether they consist of watching a disappointing vote count come across C-Span. There are times when even the most passionate and idealistic of activists questions whether all the hard work is worth it. That night in August I had walked up and down steep hills all night and had been left with not only aching feet and sore legs but a desperate need for a shower after all that walking under a hot summer sun. And all for what?
But the story doesn’t end there. As Don Quixote says of knight-errants in the musical version, “each time he falls he shall rise again. And woe to the wicked!” Practical, realistic idealism acknowledges that we can’t win every battle. The war is never over. We lose some of the battles we fight, but we lose ALL of the battles when we stay home. When I left that man’s door that night, I had one parting thought to leave him:
“You know, I might be tilting at windmills. Maybe you’re right. But I’ll keep keep right on tilting til the windmills fall or I do.”
A few weeks later, I got a call from our office in Washington, D.C. Working America was opening up offices in Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren was challenging Scott Brown for the Senate. And they wanted me to go.
Talk about a knight-errant– Elizabeth Warren had charged after the giants on Wall Street after the economic meltdown demanding more protection for consumers and tighter regulations on the misdeeds that had caused the mess. Wall Street had kindly thanked her by blocking her for an appointment to the commission that would oversee the implementation of some of her ideas. And all those giant windmills were lined up against her because they did not want an idealistic knight-errant like Elizabeth Warren to have subpoena power in the United States Senate.
When I got that call, Scott Brown was a popular incumbent senator with the backing of the big money financial sector. He was up in the polls. Elizabeth Warren seemed a long shot. Scott Brown seemed like just the kind of windmill I’d like to take a tilt at. Elizabeth Warren never stopped fighting and neither did we.
I spent nearly a month in Massachusetts, knocking on doors and talking to voters and passing out information on the records of the candidates. We trekked on despite the rain from Hurricane Sandy and my first ever experience of a nor’easter. We showed people, one door at a time why Elizabeth Warren would fight for ordinary working families to bring good jobs home, to improve education and to reign in the corporate greed on Wall Street.
And on election night, we won.
And we’re still winning. Every week I see a new story about how Elizabeth Warren is acting as a champion of ordinary people in the Senate. Currently, she is taking to task those who are charged with regulating the misdoings of Wall Street for their assertion that some firms are just “too big to jail.” Senator Warren had some very powerful words for those regulators that had allowed financial giant HSBC off without a single criminal prosecution, despite that company’s laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for drug cartels:
“If you’re caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you’re going to jail. If it happens repeatedly, you may go to jail for the rest of your life. But evidently, if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed at night — every single individual associated with this — and I just think that’s fundamentally wrong.”
Yes. Yes, it is. But now we have one more knight-errant in the Senate to keep tilting at those giants until we fall or they do.