Quakerly Gadflies

Photo by Mykola Komarovskyy

Most definitions of the word gadfly make people like me sound like pests, but that’s not how I see it. I will allow that what we do may be irritating to recipients of our attention. But we’re useful.

I like to think that we’re not only useful but necessary in an age where almost everyone is bombarded with gotcha phrases demanding our attention: Are you paying too much for your auto insurance/mortgage/groceries? How to decrease your risk of E-coli poisoning/heart disease/bankruptcy/memory loss. These constant barrages compete for brain space with efforts to stay reasonably informed on wars, famine, earthquakes, floods, fires, and the decline of democracy in our backyards and around the world.

What is a gadfly but an at-large lobbyist, sending endless postcards, emails, letters, and tweets to our elected officials to remind them of promises unkept or inattention to the needs of underserved constituents? Friends Committee on National Legislation keeps us gadflies busy signing petitions and writing letters. Quaker Earthcare Witness and our monthly meetings’ Peace and Social Concerns committees often ask “What canst thou say?” Well, plenty. And plenty of Quakers speak out often: faithful gadflies stirring the air with our discontent, buzzing around for shortcuts to the peaceable kingdom.

Phil Buskirk, one of the first Quakers I was fortunate to know, once told a story that left such a deep impression on me that, even now decades later, I want to believe its message: that even the greedy and powerful can be nudged toward epiphany. Phil was working for American Friends Service Committee in California on housing discrimination. A new development was being planned and word got out that Hispanics would not be welcome. I do not remember the details except that Phil called the lead developer every single day. Knowing Phil, he probably mostly listened. In the end, not only did the man decide to open residency to Spanish-speaking residents, he even gave some of the streets Spanish names.

As a Quaker living in Florida, I have faithfully sent letters, signed petitions, and called the D.C. offices of Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott knowing full well that I will receive a standard reply thanking me for my viewpoint and putting me on their email list, which clutters my inbox with explanations of their fixed positions on gun control, immigration reform, and moral decay.

And if that isn’t frustrating enough, Ron DeSantis is Florida’s governor. I live in perpetual angst of an impending “Reichstag fire,” which will erase any doubt about where we’re being led.

I try to ration my energy and focus my efforts on issues that have a direct impact in my community, which are most issues. I boycott stores and fast-food chains that do not respect farmworkers or LGBTQ folks. I wrote an impassioned letter to a CEO of a major big-box store that was selling Christmas tree ornaments in the shape of revolvers, urging him to remove them from the shelves out of respect for the thousands of people killed each year by handguns in the United States. A recent letter was to the CEO of Lowe’s home improvement stores asking why they still sell Roundup despite its link to cancer. I seldom, if ever, get a response.

Some activists focus on one cause. But we gadflies see so much injustice going on: mass shootings, children afraid to go to school, teachers and doctors leaving their jobs in droves because of overwork and lack of appreciation, book banning, racial profiling, and widespread indifference to the fact that the planet is disintegrating around us. I recall the fable about the sheep herder crying “wolf” so often that he gets ignored. But we gadflies dare not fall silent lest the wolves take advantage of message overkill and a dire situation goes from bad to worse.

A quote commonly attributed to Margaret Mead (though with no evidence) goes: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” That small group of committed individuals are the persistent people who won’t take no for an answer and who pester until right comes round.

I keep the first two lines from Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard” taped to my computer monitor. He was an insurance executive by day and a poet by night. When I feel like hanging up my gadfly wings, his simple words remind me of the power of stubborn persistence: “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.”

Kathy Hersh

Kathy Hersh has been a Quaker for 40 years, officially joining Miami (Fla.) Meeting in 1990 at the start of the Gulf War. She currently worships with the DeLand Worship Group in central Florida. She clerks Southeastern Yearly Meeting’s Committee for Ministry on Racism.

2 thoughts on “Quakerly Gadflies

  1. Yes, and! Yes, we sometimes need to be gadflies and fly in the face of those whose positions we feel need to change. And, we also must remember the powerful role we play in supporting those who support “our” positions. In an FCNL Advocacy Team meeting with a friendly Member of Congress his staff person shared how we were “the wind under his wings”. It is hard fighting the good fight and lifting up those who do is important.

  2. Much easier to think outside the box and lobby when deeply understand multiple perspectives and long histories to the point of near empathy. For example, what if tiny Gaza were recognized by UN and Israel as a nation of only Palestinian Christians, so Israel no longer has two internal fronts? Could Gaza be evacuated of all unarmed: children, disabled, women, seniors, and Christians, plus any men accepted by another country? In Ukraine, our weapons and tactics have already been tested at taxpayer expense/debt, and Russia paid a very heavy price for stealing land instead of buying it, We should not throw more money and more debt into a more expensive fight than all of Afghanistan, when EU has bigger GDP and population than US, but contributes far less, except refugee aid, and very few US voters care about foreign affairs beyond the cost and debt. Russia cannot afford to be weak with China on its border. Lose/lose escalation is not the solution, so it is time for a win/win settlement, perhaps making disputed lands a new independent buffer nation that only former residents can vote for own government and asking Russia to pay UN for full value of Crimea, as Russia won’t give up warm water Naval port.

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