Monday, January 18, 2010
If You Go Carrying Pictures Of Chairman Mao
There's an interesting phenomenon I've noticed when working for change. I've heard people criticize Code Pink for our "stunts" because "they just alienate people", presumably people who would otherwise sympathize with our position if only we didn't wear tiaras and dance joyfully. During the 2008 election cycle, I had folks tell me that reaching out to voters on the phone or at home was dangerous to your cause because hey, what if you piss somebody off when you interrupt their dinner or whatever.
I don't deny that guerrilla theater (which is not the only thing Code Pink does) turns off some observers. And I don't deny that I had doors closed in my face and angry hangups when campaigning for Obama in rural New Hampshire.
I do take issue, however, with the ultimate conclusion--sometimes implicit and often explicit--that we should therefore be wary and only engage in activities that will not offend sensibilities. Canvassing is a perfect counterpoint: turns out that research shows for every dozen doors you knock, no matter what the outcome of the specific interactions, you gain a vote. Sometimes getting in people's faces even wins you the right to vote.
Sure you're going to have negative encounters. That's the nature of social engagement in any context. Yet outreach is fundamentally more constructive and positive overall than doing nothing, which seems obvious to me but I guess it ain't.
Similarly, people will often raise objections to the way you express yourself in verbal or written communication. Don't talk about the concept states' rights and their role in a Federal system, whether you even use the term or not, because it brings to mind segregation. Don't use the word 'sedition' when discussing the need for escalating activism because that will frighten people away and make you look stupid.
Of course as communicators should do what we can to clearly explain our ideas and try to frame them so that they reach a receptive audience. However, you are always going to run into resistance when bringing up ideas outside the usual safe areas.
It's apt that I'm doing this post on MLK Day because he was criticized by a number of people in the Civil Rights movement for speaking out against Vietnam. He saw it as a social justice issue tied to equal rights at home, others felt it diluted the meaning of their struggle. Dr King's inspiration, MK Gandhi, was also not without controversy over tactics, definitions, statements, etc, in Congress and India as a whole. Both men challenged doctrine within their own movements, causing conflict.
I've found that when a discussion devolves into argument about word choice it's because one of the parties is really just grasping for any reason to shut down a line of inquiry or debate, or disagrees with something else entirely. For every one of those objections, in my experience, there are even more people who will approach things with an open mind, say they've got more to think about, even start running with the concepts presented.
While I don't want to dwell on such concern/process trolling, I do have to admit I get a chuckle when these things reach the point of scare tactics. I've often gotten helpful tips to not plan a revolution online and to get a good tax attorney when I'm steadfast in my position. Because, like, I never thought there might be consequences to my actions and OMFG I'D BETTER STOP WHAT I'M DOING FOR FEAR OF THE MAN!
Yeah, I never thought the State would come after me for tax avoidance, the Capitol Police would detain us when we pink on the Hill, or the IDF would fire tear gas, concussion grenades and rubber bullets at us. If only I'd had such advice before naively heading down the revolutionary path.
Anyway, yesterday I thought there was a decent thread at Great Orange Satan about my sedition post. One person thought I was being too clever by half--not to mention self-indulgent--for using sedition as the framework for my advocacy of extra-electoral action. Alice in Wonderland came up:
"There's glory for you!"
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,' " Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is, " said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty. "which is to be master—that's all."
From where I sit, 'glory' means "talking about revolutionary change." It can take many forms and be labeled in many ways, but the key is that I think we all need to shake up our assumptions about the political process and think about ways to push the envelope in terms of real action. We need not be William of Orange to be revolutionaries--we just need to be revolutionary and seditious in posture and mindset.
Really, if you're not even trying to be a little threatening to the existing power structure, then you're probably not going to have much impact on it. And that's fine if you don't really want to change things.
I personally don't like how our system is functioning, and while I don't want to grab torches, pitchforks and muskets, I do think we need some form of rebellion beyond the ballot box. As Thoreau said:
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance...
So I advocate collective, nonviolent, revolutionary action against rampant corporatism in our government and society. You might not call such advocacy 'sedition', but given the examples I provided in yesterday's post, it could effectively and even legally be treated as such so I'm going to continue using that word even if it scares some folks off or makes them roll their eyes.
Tocqueville identified three fundamental kinds of revolution:
- Purely political revolutions
- Sudden (and violent) revolutions that transform society in addition to establishing new political institutions
- Slow transformations of society that take generations
He can be forgiven for not seeing the possibility of sudden nonviolent revolutions such as occurred in the Philippines in 1986 since there wasn't really a track record in his historical context to examine.
I'd say the 1994 GOP revolution falls into the first category because it was purely political and offered no institutional change. Sure it was nonviolent and electoral, but that doesn't mean it wasn't an actual, let alone successful, revolution because the nation as a whole did essentially reject the Clinton agenda and reduce his power. The 1998 impeachment was also a revolution of sorts, albeit ultimately unsuccessful (possible impact on Election 2000 notwithstanding).
The 1980s and 1990s gave us a myriad examples of nonviolent revolutions in Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Soviet Union, Ukraine. And we've seen many nonviolent revolutions of the third type in the Indian Independence Movement, the demise of Apartheid, our own Civil Rights saga and even HCR.
In the wake of Shay's Rebellion--though before the excesses of the French Revolution that was Tocqueville's prime example of #2--Thomas Jefferson lauded revolution:
I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.
You certainly never felt the Terrorism excited by Genet in 1793 when ten thousand People in the Streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his House and effect a revolution in the Government, or compel it to declare war in favour of the French Revolution and against England? The coolest and firmest minds, even among the Quakers in Philadelphia, have given their Opinions to me that nothing but the Yellow Fever could have saved the United States from the total Revolution of Government.
I have no doubt You was fast asleep in Philosophical Tranquility...
These days with an infant in our household there's not much sleeping in tranquility, philosophical or otherwise. But I firmly hold that with a government and economic system that is not responding to our needs, we all of us must commit acts of rebellion, large and small: engaging in civil resistance, refusing to pay war taxes, sticking it to corporations, etc.
Will all that lead to a Glorious Revolution? Probably not any time soon, if ever, even if we stop carrying pictures of Mao and Mumia, but I'd hate to tell my son in the coming years that we didn't even try.
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