The Slow Revolutions of Love

Nonviolent revolutions aren’t clear and simple and swift; they’re typically exactly the opposite. Slow and halting and frustrating.

Violent revolutions have a clarity. A, typically abusive, power structure is forcibly displaced through the expending of material and life energy. This can have a certain effectiveness and speed, and so inspires hope. And there are places where it does, indeed, have a good outcome.

The American Revolution would probably be seen by most people throughout the world as a violent revolution whose outcome had good results. That is to say: the resulting power structure was generally as free, just, and fair as the one it displaced.

But most violent revolutions are more problematic. Violent revolutions have an understandable tendency to create power structures based in violence. Places where order is maintained not so much by the consent of the governed as their fear of the new occupants of the seat of power. The entire history of the Soviet Union is the most prominent and easy to read this way today.

One is tempted, when seeing injustice in the world, to want to counteract it as quickly and effectively as possible. And almost by definition, that action which is swift and decisive will be “violent.” But beyond the dictionary play, it is unlikely that you’re going to want to respect the power structure you see perpetrating an injustice. You’re going to want to overpower it; forcibly displace it; damage it.

The politics of love doesn’t work that way. Love is a slow process of transformation. It’s a revealing, and an opening, and at times it’ll halt and even seem to stop. Its triumphs are small and partial and imperfect. It is the Civil Right Act of 1963, but it doesn’t stop the madness of cases like Rodney King or Eric Garner. It is the fact that today at the end of 2014 gay marriage is legal in a majority of, but not all, US states. It is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, but that Burma is not a well-functioning popular democracy. It is the fact that Tibet is still occupied by the Chinese and that South Africa still has crazy levels of black poverty.

Governments are at their best when they’re responsive to the actual will of the people they govern. And the wills of masses of people aren’t something that’s easy to change. Coercion can make a change seem to have happened from a distant perspective, but it doesn’t actually make it happen. Real change, at the level of the individual, is a slow, inefficient, and idiosyncratic process.

Democracies are at their best when they reflect the well-considered and high-minded will of the people. But the will of the people is not something that can easily be swayed by force, nor should it be. And so it’s partial and halting and incomplete, this quest for justice founded in love in the modern political epoch.

personal, ruminations

Necessarily Callous

Current figures suggest that more than 22,000 perished in Myanmar (Burma) this weekend. Now the story seems to be the most consequential in the world.

Yesterday’s figures suggested that more than 350 perished in Myanmar (Burma) this weekend. Then the story seemed like a regrettable natural disaster.

There’s that old axiom, attributed to Josef Stalin, that “one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.” I think there’s undeniably something to that. But I also can’t deny that I’m staring in the face two different numbers that make two very different impressions on me. In this cases, 20,000 deaths are a tragedy and 300 is a statistic.

It’s an ugly truth that I willfully ignore disasters when damage estimates are small. Unless you know someone who lives near the site of a natural disaster, it’s easy to ignore all the reports of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. It’s probably smart not to get too worked up over natural disasters we humans, by definition, have no ability to control. It may even be wise.

And yet I can’t escape the fact that doing so seems terribly, inhumanely callous.

People who’ve known hard labor know calluses. That toughening of the skin so that the pressure so often put upon it starts to cause no injury. Perhaps even no feeling. The toughening can be unsightly, but it’s the body’s natural and necessary response to pressures that would otherwise cause tissues to rip and bleed. Given the choice between a callus and an injury requiring attention and rest, our bodies will usually choose to toughen rather than tear.

Perhaps, in our concern for the welfare of others, we need a similar amount of callousness. A similar detachment and unconcern that allows us to get on with what needs doing in our lives. That allows us to get up after hearing about five American deaths in Afghanistan, or the death of 30 Iraqis in an explosion, or 20 in a tsunami, or one in an industrial accident.

We have no time to mourn all these losses. We cannot, perhaps, spare the time and energy to consider, regret, and mourn every loss of life anywhere in the world. We cannot even spare the time and energy to mourn every loss of a fellow citizen of our country. Or even of every loss of a fellow citizen of the city, province, or state in which we live. Sometimes, it seems like we don’t even have the ability to mourn those family member we lose.

I see the necessity of this callousness. I think it makes good practical sense as a means of survival. But that doesn’t make me any less disappointed to notice it within myself or others. Any less sure that it’s wrong to stare at immense loss and be unable to shed even a tear. Any less disappointed that I only see a tragedy when the death toll reaches 22,000. Any less sure that 350 is a tragedy. Any less disappointed when I overlook the tragedy of one.

politics, world

The Protester’s Imperative

prakharA picture of pro-Tibet protesters in Paris

Be heard, provoke consideration, but never–never–be perceived as impetuous. The second the public at large sees you are a bigger problem than the problem you’re protesting about, you’ve lost.

These thoughts of mine were provoked in no small part because of the amount of coverage that recent protests along the path of the Olympic torch relay have provoked. Thus far, I’d say that protesters have done an admirable job of making their concerns heard without becoming the story, but they’re treading perilously close to that line.

Obviously, it can be hard to judge when you’ll become seen as a pest and not earnest citizens with a legitimate grievance. There are some people who see even the most minor protest as too big a bother and will, consequently, do their best to handicap the cause for which the protesters demonstrate.

It’s hard to judge exactly what’s accepted by the majority of people and what’s not. Surely, to the average American, “terrorism” is not a legitimate form of protest. If there’s one lesson from the late sixties and the early seventies, it’s that violent protest doesn’t work. Fights scare off the luke-warm and the merely curious, armed clashes and explosive used against Americans will mean you’ve completely lost the public argument.

Surely in some cases and in some circles, by some people, terrorism is considered acceptable. Al Quaeda is not completely without supporters who see their action as a justified means of protest and self-defense. Surely the violence of the IRA was accepted in at least some of the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. So to was the terrorism of John Brown accepted, even fêted in some parts of America before the civil war.

Without a doubt, audience matters. Protesters who violate the sensibilities of their intended audience do a great disservice to their cause by acting dishonorably. Almost without question, black empowerment became less popular in America when the protests organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. gave way the militancy and violence of Black Panthers and other groups. By showing that their hand included guns and a openness to “any means necessary,” they scared off many luke-warm supporters. The militancy of those and other 1970s protesters is widely recognized as the cause for the conservative resurgence of the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Surely it’s no minor tragedy that China has a history of intransigence on the crisis in Darfur. Surely it’s no minor tragedy that China still refuses to acknowledge the role of the Dalai Lama as the representative of the Tibetan people. Surely it’s no minor tragedy that the Chinese have been one of the most crucial supporters of the military junta controlling Burma.

But it’s not out of the question that outrage about beligerent protesters could overwhelm people’s outrage about such tragedies. And if the continued irritation of extinguishers of the Olympic flame becomes the story rather than the tragedies for which they seek attention, I think that would be the biggest tragedy of all.