February 14, 2011

A Morning's Mild Diversion, and Becoming Artists Unto Ourselves

As I do on most mornings, I listened earlier to one of Los Angeles's major talk radio stations while I fed the cats and made coffee. The hosts of this particular program are generally pleasant and easygoing in their manner, doubtless in part to avoid unnecessary provocation of all those people on LA freeways. They are also relentlessly mainstream, as they would have to be; if they were not, they wouldn't be on a major radio station in a major city. While they are not infrequently critical of particular public figures or actions of government, there is never any question that the United States is basically completely keen, and keener than any other country has ever been anywhere at any time.

One of the hosts was chatting with someone (I missed who it was) about events in Egypt. They noted that Mubarak is reputed to be worth many tens of billions of dollars. The host then added, his tone suddenly colored by outraged amazement and horror: "And he took all that wealth from his own people!"

For the host, and I'm sure for most of his listeners, this seemingly singular fact is inconceivably monstrous, as his further comments quickly confirmed. Although he didn't say it explicitly, the implication was unmistakable: "Such abhorrent behavior could never happen here in these wonderful United States!"

I enjoyed a good chuckle over that. It reminded me of one of the major lines of propaganda in the runup to the criminal war of aggression against Iraq: "Saddam slaughtered huge numbers of his own people!" This was always offered to emphasize two related points: Saddam's evil was incomprehensible to all semi-decent human beings, and evil of this kind is utterly unknown in the glorious chapters of history written by the incandescent wonder that is the United States.

Which, you must realize, is deeply and viciously dishonest. Consider two facts, disputed by no one, which were fundamental to the founding and development of the U.S.: the systematic, centuries-long slaughter of Native Americans, and the systematic, centuries-long institution of slavery, followed by a century of still legal segregation and brutalization. (And I would mention the institutionalized discrimination which continues today, including the unending brutalizations of the so-called War on Drugs, which is nothing less than the systematic deployment of State power to destroy targeted races and classes of human beings, but I fear upsetting the children.)

But, of course, the United States Government knows nothing of slaughtering "its own people." For those who direct the operations of our State and for most Americans, the denial would appear to constitute the truth -- which might lead an observer to conclude that the untold millions who were slaughtered, tortured and otherwise brutalized, and who still are today, are not genuinely "our own" and/or they are not "people." Ah, some consolation to be found there, is there not?

These monumental crimes took place on the hallowed ground of the United States itself. I have not yet mentioned the regular slaughters undertaken by the U.S. Government overseas. But I've covered all of this in detail in many articles; for further discussion, see the second section of "Obama and the Triumph of the American Myth" (the section entitled, "Torture and the American Project").


Chris Floyd is offering a series of excellent articles about Egypt. One aspect of these events is greatly inspiring and hopeful, and it is one for which I feel endless gratitude: by means of their deep understanding of and unyielding, consistent adherence to non-violence, the protesters have given the world an invaluable and desperately needed lesson in how powerful non-violence can be. Yes, it's true that the military remains in control -- a military that has received enormous funding from the United States. But Mubarak also had hugely significant funding and support from the U.S., and he's gone. That is very important. I also note that the military is at least saying that they plan to turn power over to a democratically elected government at an early date, and a number of comments from protesters indicate that the protesters themselves view Mubarak's departure as only the beginning of their work.

I repeat that, whatever valid and significant reservations might be felt about what the future may hold, it is astonishing that the protesters achieved so much and, of still greater importance, did so non-violently. I regard that as a great achievement holding enormous promise for the future, and not only in Egypt. But, then, I myself don't need to be convinced of the power of non-violent resistance; I've been writing about it for years. Non-cooperation and the withdrawal of support from a monstrous regime was the theme of, "The Honor of Being Human: Why Do You Support?" from 2007. And consider the concluding paragraphs of a piece from May of last year:
[I]t cannot be overemphasized that peaceful non-cooperation can be enormously effective against even the most vicious of totalitarian regimes: see here and here for some astonishing and inspiring examples of that effectiveness from fairly recent history. From the first of those links, carefully note this: "[I]n the end almost all Danish Jews escaped unharmed."

The power of "No" is far, far greater than most people ever permit themselves to understand.
I will take this opportunity to state explicitly what is only implied in the last sentence of the above excerpt (although this meaning should have been clear to the attentive reader, especially given many related essays of mine where these connections are spelled out further).

The reason many people will not "permit themselves to understand" the power of non-cooperation is that, if they did grasp it, they would feel more strongly the necessity of resisting the operations of a murderous and evil system of government. They would start to wonder if they should seriously consider withdrawing their support from that system. In other words: they might have to do something. And if they did take action, in the form of non-cooperation and non-violent resistance, they would have to take on the associated costs. Until their lives become inescapably, unbearably oppressive and painful, most people are entirely unwilling to do this. In this sense, the Egyptian protesters are several decades further along this particular path when compared to most Americans, for example.

(See "Passing on the Sense of Wonder" for more on this point, including this passage:
I am enormously struck by the unnecessary and indefensible narrowness of action that most people, including almost all progressive bloggers (and certainly all national Democrats), view as feasible or "realistic." I will be discussing this in detail in a new essay ... For the moment, I will simply observe that almost all people think only within the severely circumscribed limits of what others have already determined to be "acceptable" behavior. In connection with progressive writers especially, the irony is exceptionally heavy: these are people who endlessly rail against "conventional wisdom" and "inside the Beltway thinking," while they themselves vehemently reject the merest suggestion that anyone should break the accepted rules in any significant way, or refuse to play the game as it has always been played. In part, this is why my suggestions in "Dispatch from Germany" were almost universally ignored: I purposely insisted that the bounds of what is "acceptable" be expanded, and that the rules of the game be changed. For most people, this is unthinkable. They say such ideas are not "realistic"; what they mean is that they are not willing to take the necessary risks.)
Thinking about this caused me to remember the series of essays I wrote four years ago detailing a number of specific steps that could be taken to encourage and build public resistance to an attack on Iran. (In case you've forgotten, I remind you that a great many people, including most of the leading liberal bloggers, thought such an attack close to inevitable during that period.) The first of those articles is referred to above; it appeared in February 2007 and was unsurprisingly titled: "Building an Effective Resistance." I remain very proud of that piece and the related ones today, and I emphasize that, although the actions I proposed related particularly to the awful Iran problem (one which we tragically may not have escaped even now), those and related actions can easily be adapted to many other issues.

And even in that first article, I made clear that my objectives were broader in scope:
Two or three years hence, no one will be happier than I to look back on this time and laugh about how worried we were about what turned out to be nothing in the end. But as I said, that is not a chance I am willing to take. Even if my assessment should turn out to be completely wrong, the steps suggested below would be wonderfully good practice, in the awful event that an equally maniacal administration should hold power in the future. It would be enormously useful and comforting to know that an effective force of resistance can be built to check the mad ambitions of those who hold the reins of power.
For the record, I state that I do not think I was wrong even though an attack on Iran mercifully didn't happen -- that is, I was not wrong given the evidence available at the time. I strongly believe that the full story explaining why the Bush Administration did not attack Iran has not yet been told; we may not know it for years, or even decades (if ever). But as I said four years ago, and as events of the last two years have confirmed, the methods of non-violent resistance are ones we must master. We are not so fortunate as to be able to ignore this part of our political education.

As it turned out, with the exception of a handful of writers, absolutely no one was interested in what I proposed. Virtually no one at all. I wrote more than a few articles detailing my immense disappointment and frustration at the response; as one example, you can consult, "Still Another Call to Activism: Prove Me Wrong, I Beg You." No one proved me wrong. I also became incredibly angry: "Thus You Lose the World: What the Fuck Is Wrong with You?"

At the end of "Building an Effective Resistance," I wrote:
Yes, this is a monumental battle. Yes, the odds are not in our favor. But the stakes are the greatest ones in the world -- peace, and freedom. In different ways, many of you have indicated this was the kind of battle you wanted. Many of you have said this was why you got involved in politics in the first place.

We cannot choose the moment in history during which we happen to spend our lives. But we can choose what we do about it, and how we try to affect the course of events, to the extent we can. We are living during an especially critical time, one that is filled with terrible dangers -- and one that might change the world and our country for the rest of our lives. We may not have chosen this battle, but it is here whether we want it or not. So I hope some of you will choose to join it, on the side of peace, liberty and the infinitely precious value of a single human life.

And I hope some of you start, or continue with renewed dedication, today.
I don't expect passages such as that one to resonate with readers more today than they did four years ago. As I noted above, the Egyptian protesters have had to endure several decades of suffering of a kind that most Americans have been spared -- thus far. So, barring widespread calamity (which is far more likely to be of human creation than natural in origin), I would not expect to see widespread resistance here until, say, 2030 or later. As a general matter of timing, history confirms that schedule. It's soul-shattering to contemplate how much suffering will be endured by so many by then. And just think what might happen if a sufficient number of Americans were moved, as the Egyptian protesters were and hopefully still are moved, to say "No" today. What would happen if a few million Americans took up residence in the streets of Washington, D.C. and refused to leave until the government began to dismantle its overseas empire and began the cessation of its brutalization of the overwhelming majority of Americans who are not members of the privileged ruling class?

That is my blessing -- and my affliction, depending on my mood. What is possible is more real to me in a crucial way than the events of my days. Yet for a brief moment, the Egyptian protesters saw what is possible, and they made it real. We all have that power. We almost never choose to use it.

It might help to think of it the way Harold Clurman expressed the idea:
For the greater part of my life I have devoted myself to the discipline of the arts--I do not speak of the theatre alone--and I have always resisted the idea that the arts exist apart as a separate entity in the world for a special breed of people. "Nothing comes from nothing." The arts are rooted in the very stuff of life. They are not meant to make us aesthetes, connoisseurs or critics. Only through the pleasure, the probing experience of contemplating and dealing with the constant drama of living do we achieve full stature as humans. That is the action and function of art.

At certain moments I have been inclined to call this quite simply and plainly "having fun"! It is not a goal reserved for the professional artist. It is something we must all aspire to, teach ourselves to do. It is a capacity we may all attain.

In return for the tribute you have paid me this morning I offer you my own rallying cry: let us all become artists unto ourselves; let us all think of our lives as works of art. It is a prescription to heal many wounds.