Category: Non-Violence

R.I.P.: American Democracy

The flags should all be flying at half-mast today.  American democracy died last night.

I know many will say it has been on life-support for many a day now.  Others will say, “you fool, it never existed in the first place.”

But it did exist so long as the path forward, the way to bring about the changes and reforms one desired, was electoral politics.  If you could swing, through all the devices of persuasion, a majority to your side, you could take over the government and pass the legislation you deemed necessary.

Yes, that is simplistic and ignores all the veto points, all the obstacles put in the pathway of change.  And it ignores how the system always excluded certain people—people who had to resort to extra-electoral tactics (civil disobedience and its various forms of protest) to make their needs and desires felt.

But the great social movements of American history, the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, aimed for the vote.  They put so much emphasis on gaining the vote precisely because they associated the vote with power, the power to effect change.  They believed that we had enough of a democracy, no matter how imperfect, that it made sense to engage in electoral politics—and that electoral politics was the road to reform.

Perhaps that belief was a delusion, but 2006 and 2008 seemed to bear it out.  The country rose up against the lies and incompetence of the Bush administration—and grabbed the government back.

Now, however, we have a Republican Party in power that is determined to never let another 2006 or 2008 occur.  Their simple plan is to render “free and fair” (that old cliché) elections impossible. Emboldened by the nation’s acceptance of Bush v. Gore,  they have deployed every means at their disposal; they keep people from voting or nullify electoral results: voter suppression, gerrymandering, judicial or legislative over-rides of election results (taking away powers of elected officials if they are Democrats, as has happened in both Wisconsin and North Carolina).

Still, I will admit to having thought there was a limit to their willingness to turn elections into farces worthy of the so-called “people’s republics” of yore.  Surely, even the Republicans needed the cover of “legitimacy” that elections provide in a democracy.  Various pundits kept claiming that John Roberts was the bulwark against complete Republican destruction of our democracy.  He cared, they said, about the integrity of the Supreme Court, about its standing above partisan politics.

Quite evidently not.  The Supreme Court last night authorized a Wisconsin election in which thousands will not have their votes counted.  The situation is Kafkaesque: in order to be counted ballots must be returned before they have been received.  But the court’s decision is as straightforward as could be: we will validate election results even though thousands are prevented from voting.

I am heartsick.  If electoral politics are a sham, are rigged from the outset, the only way forward is non-electoral politics.  As Martin Luther King saw very clearly, that means either a “persistent and unyielding” non-violent mass movement or a resort (always, necessarily by a much smaller number) to violence.  King insisted that violence could not succeed; not only were the odds against it too great because you will never get large numbers to join your violent movement, but also because violence breeds more violence as it creates bitterness and the desire (almost impossible to ignore) for revenge.  It also turns off those sympathetic to your cause, but opposed to violent means. (I am channeling MLK’s essay, “The Social Organization of Nonviolence” here.)

The Republicans have learned (it would seem) over the past few years that they pay no price for their destruction of democracy.  I venture to guess that life for most people in this country is just comfortable enough to keep them from endangering what they have by devoting themselves to a long, persistent struggle.  Endangering their leisure time, their peace of mind, their jobs and livelihood.  The reasons may range from petty to dangers to economic and physical well-being.

It seems that the death of democracy will occur amidst various howls of protest, but little more than that.  The officials elected in today’s Wisconsin election will take office—and continue to wreak the damage that has been the platform of Wisconsin’s Republicans for the past ten years.

Unless a strong and effective dissent is lodged—and such a dissent will require sacrifices of time, comfort, and well-being—democracy will not return.  Or, if you prefer, democracy will not be seen for the first time in this land. I do not see where that dissent will come from, where that movement will arise.

A Parable

In 1948, Congress was working on a bill to reinstate the draft.  At first, there was a proposal to introduce Universal Military Training.  New York pacifists, including A. J. Muste and Bayard Rustin (who had been raised a Quaker), mobilized to oppose mandatory military service.  They allied themselves with A. Philip Randolph, who had a different object in mind: the desegregation of the US military.  Randolph found a Republican ally, Grant Reynolds, an African-American who held office in Governor Thomas Dewey’s administration in New York.  During Congressional hearings on the proposed draft law, Randolph told members of Congress that there would be massive non-compliance among blacks if the military was not integrated.  Specifically, young black men would not register for the draft.

Randolph was no stranger to the power of threatened mass action.  In 1941, he told FDR there would be a march on Washington by blacks if the president did not issue an executive order against discrimination in federal hiring practices—and by contractors getting federal dollars.  At issue were the companies already producing war materials prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Roosevelt took the threat seriously, issued the order, and Randolph called off the march.

In 1948, the draft bill passed in June, and–for interesting and complicated reasons I will perhaps try to outline in a future post—Harry Truman issued his famous executive order desegregating the military in July.

Randolph immediately cancelled his call for non-compliance with the new draft law.  Muste and Rustin, true to their pacifist principles, broke with Randolph at this point.  They wanted to go ahead with resistance to the draft.

I am going to ruin this parable by explaining in terms undoubtedly too stark the four lessons I derive from it.

  1. There is always someone to your left.  No matter what course of action one proposes or undertakes, there will always be some who claim it is not radical enough.  The same is probably true on the right as well.  One’s commitment, one’s toughness, one’s willingness to go the full nine yards will always be called into question by someone, playing a game of one-upmanship, claiming to be truer to the cause, more principled, and more morally pure.

 

  1. Those in power will often (maybe always) over-estimate the strength and (most crucially) the unity of those they oppress. In truth, Randolph’s threat of massive non-compliance was mostly a bluff.  He had neither the standing with blacks across America or the organizational and communications wherewithal to have actually delivered a very substantial boycott.  But to white Congressmen and Harry Truman, people with just about no knowledge of blacks or black America, Randolph’s threat was credible.  We just had the same exact thing happen at UNC.  The grad students threatened a grade strike. Realistically, about 200 grad students at most (out of over 3000), would have participated.  But the administration thought of the grad students as a unified bloc, wildly overestimating the threat the proposed grade strike posed.  It almost makes you think that, to the powerful, all underlings look alike—in the old clichéd way that whites can’t tell Asians apart, or blacks for that matter.

 

  1. But this overestimation of cohesion among one’s enemies can go the other way as well. Corey Robin has been banging away on this theme since Trump’s election: the left consistently stands in awe and terror at the right’s power and effectiveness.  My post on Silent Sam places some hope in a schism in the North Carolina state Republican Party.  I must admit that here I am wary.  We (the left) keep looking for signs of fracture on the right, with stories of voters who are going to abandon Bush or Trump or whomever when they stand for re-election.  Just as we keep pointing to lines that Trump will cross that will lead congressional Republicans to throw him under the bus.  Of course, the opposite has been the case.  It is Democrats who are the squabbling, disunified party, while Republicans demonstrate again and again that they put party loyalty (and its benefit of retaining power) above all else.  This unity of American overlords is very impressive indeed.  Think back to the 2008 recession when the business men of Main Street were royally screwed by the frauds of Wall Street.  But they closed ranks despite their being fleeced.  SO: I can hope for weakness in the right’s ranks, but I ain’t holding my breath.

 

  1. To use a dubious, even hateful, metaphor: a loaded gun pointed in the enemy’s direction is 50x more powerful than a fired gun. Once the gun is fired, the worst you can do is now known.  And when that worst is a lot less than it was estimated as, you (the holder of the gun) have basically lost.  Much better to take that gun which was pointing at your foe and slowly put it back in a holster where it remains visible.  Power hinted at but not deployed is often your best weapon.  Randolph knew that.  Of course, when you undoubtedly have the power to win, there does come a time to grab the spoils, to achieve your objectives.  Again, the Republicans of the past eighteen years have shown us how that works.  They have been grabbing and grabbing, while they defy anyone to stop them.  But until you have done the “precinct work,” the hard slog of organizing and of counting (whipping) votes and participation, so that you know that you have at least a reasonable chance of winning, best not to bring your forces onto the field.  Feeble gestures just reinforce the arrogance of the foe.  (There are exceptions to everything.  Politics is a messy business, with no “laws” that determine outcomes.  The Easter 1916 rebels knew they would lose; their gambit was that martyrdom would galvanize a future success.  And they were not wrong, even if they couldn’t have scripted or predicted the English ineptitude that led to independence a mere five years later.)

 

Coda:

“On the first day for complying with the conscription law, Rustin and several placard-carrying pickets congregated outside a Harlem registration center shouting for men not to register.  Similar picket lines formed in Philadelphia, Boston, and a number of other cities.  Rustin wrote to Selma Platt in Kansas about ‘the terrific responses we got all over the East,’ with coverage by lots of radio stations and the daily press, and he was pleased that so far there was no evidence that the government was going to ‘crack down.’  But if federal district attorneys were laying low, the New York City police were not.  Rustin was arrested for disorderly conduct and spent fifteen days in jail.  By the time he was released in late September [1948], it was hard for him to deny the obvious: the combination of Truman’s executive order and Randolph’s public acceptance of it had taken out of Rustin’s resistance movement whatever small head of steam it had.

If the resistance movement was in reality dead, the harsh feelings were very much alive.  In mid-October, perturbed over some of the comments that Rustin and others had made about them, Randolph and Reynolds issued a stinging rebuttal accusing Rustin and Muste of using the military campaign as ‘a front for ulterior purposes’ and engaging in ‘unethical tactics.’  Rustin, they implied, was trying to snatch a defeat from victory.  The support for resistance was so weak, they claimed, that continuing the civil disobedience campaign would only have discredited the method.  ‘Gandhi in India and South Africa never engaged in mock heroics,’ they said.  Over the next several months, Muste [and others, but not Rustin] wrote back and forth with Randolph, trying to repair relationships and clarify their respective positions.  But there was no doubt that for a time, the ties between Randolph’s civil rights camp and the Gandhian pacifists were badly frayed.

As for Rustin, afterward he felt miserable about how he had behaved in the waning stages of the campaign.  ‘It was two years before I dared see Mr. Randolph again, after having done such a terrible thing,’ he recalled.  When he did finally visit Randolph to repair the breach, ‘I was so nervous I was shaking, waiting for his wrath to descend upon me.’ But Randolph had by then put the conflict behind him and was happy to have their working relationship restored.

Whatever the personal feelings it aroused, the campaign to desegregate the military raised a host of issues about strategy, tactics, and goals.  When was compromise a choice with integrity, and when did it represent a betrayal of principle?  When did one seize the victory at hand, and when did one opt to keep the troops roused for victories not yet imminent?  How did two sets of activists and two social movements with overlapping but distinct goals work together with integrity in a coalition? Which was more important: an institutional change that led to equal treatment of black and white or a movement that placed peace and nonviolence above other goals?  Was the objective to create widening circles of resistance or to achieve a concrete reform that pointed in the direction of justice?  The tensions embedded in these questions would confront Rusting and other American radicals with painful dilemmas again and again in the next two decades.”

From John D’Emilio’s Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin [NY: Free Press, 2003, 158-160.]

I highly recommend this superb biography of Rustin.  There is nothing even remotely as good written about Randolph, who remains a curiously unreachable subject, a very private man whom no writer, so far, seems to have gotten a handle on.  That he did not hold a grudge against Rustin is characteristic of Randolph, who seems to have been able to work with just about anyone he felt could advance the cause, and who showed an almost complete (and saintly in my opinion) indifference to his own standing in the movement.  He seems to have been just about as ego-less as it is possible for anyone to be—which may be why writing a biography of him has proved so difficult.

Violence, the Irish and Religion

Here, from Maud Gonne’s autobiography, is her rationale for being a firm “physical force” advocate, scorning the “constitutional” road toward Home Rule pursued by the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1885 to 1914.

“A robber will not give up his spoil for the asking unless the demand is backed by force.  Once a constitutional party turns its back on physical force, because not being able to control it, . . . its days of usefulness are over.  It may linger on, but, being unable to deliver the goods, it falls shamelessly into the corruption of its environment.  . . . The funeral of the Parliamentary party should have taken place when its leader Parnell was lowered into his grave at Glasnevin in October 1891.  He had failed when he had repudiated acts of violence.  He was never a physical-force man himself, but he had walked hand in hand with physical force in the early days when luck and the spiritual forces of Ireland were with him, so that even ordinary words from his lips became charged with great significance and power.  Luck deserted him when he deserted the force which had made his movement great” (174-75). [The Autobiography of Maud Gonne, University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Charles Taylor, in his A Secular Age, spends hundreds of pages worrying the issue of violence.  Basically, he keeps insisting that humans experience some kind of mysterious or mystical connection to the “numinous” when engaged in or stand as witness to acts of violence.  He never gets more specific than that, but insists efforts to simply repress violence will never work.  Violence is as ineradicable as sex; religion both gropes toward a way of grasping the meaning of violent and sexual acts, while also providing forms (rituals and stories) that enclose those acts.  Here’s a typical Taylor passage along these lines (he repeats this point several times without ever getting more concrete):  “if religion has from the beginning been bound up with violence, the  nature of the involvement has changed.  In archaic, pre-Axial forms, ritual in war or sacrifice consecrates violence; it related violence to the sacred, and gives a kind of numinous depth to killing, and the excitements and inebriation of killing, just as it does through other rituals for sexual desire and union.  With the coming of the ‘higher,’ post-Axial religions, this kind of numinous endorsement is more and more withdrawn.  We move toward a point where, in some religions, violence has no more place at all in the sanctified life. . . . But nevertheless . . . various forms of sanctified and purifying violence recur.” {at which point Taylor instances the Crusades and the violence of ideologies like fascism and communism} (688-89).

Without ever saying so, Taylor seems to imply that religions that incorporate violence, that practice sacrificial rites, can thus contain it.  Whereas attempts to eradicate violence only lead to uncontrolled, massive outbreaks of the sort that characterized the 20th century.  At other points, he references William James’s idea of finding a “moral equivalent for war,” but doesn’t pursue that idea; rather, he seems faintly skeptical that some substitute would do the trick.  We want/need real violence because of that urge to connect to the “numinous.”  All of this goes mostly unsaid in Taylor because he cannot bring himself to simply endorse sacrificial practices.  Yet he is also committed to this idea that violence and the numinous have some kind of “deep” (his favorite word in the whole book) connection to one another—and thus religion has to attend to, even provide the means for, achieving, that connection.

What has this to do with Maud Gonne?  Yes, she offers a utilitarian defense of “physical force.”  The English robbers are never going to relinquish hold of Ireland unless forced to do so.  But there’s more.  Non-violent movements become corrupt (she argues); without the laying of one’s all, one’s life, on the line, there is no way to overcome the temptations of life.  The reformer will succumb to the fleshpots available to him; he will betray the cause in favor of his own comfort and advancement.  As in Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan (Gonne, famously, played the lead in its first public performance), only those who renounce everything to serve the Queen (Gonne’s autobiography was titled “Servant of the Queen” with that Queen being Ireland) can be trusted to serve the cause faithfully to the bitter end.

The logic here is precisely the logic of sacrifice, where in some weird way the proof of one’s absolute devotion to the cause, the willingness to die for it, becomes more important than the success of the cause itself.  Pragmatism and utilitarianism are spurned; caring about the ends violence might achieve is subordinated to the glorious commitment itself.  Such would seem to be the burden of Padriac Pearse’s sacrificial fantasies—embodied in the plays and pageants he staged—in the years just prior to the 1916 Easter Rebellion.  And, of course, the dating of that uprising at Easter was no coincidence.  The rising was a pageant itself of sacrifice leading to resurrection.

And as we see in Rene Girard’s work—and this idea lurks there in Taylor although never made explicit—an embrace of violence is palatable when connected to self-sacrifice.  Harder to countenance is murder, the killing of the other guy.  It’s the embrace of one’s own death that is fairly easy to sanctify; even ritualized killing of the other is harder to stomach.  For all her hatred of the English, Gonne devotes her life to the cause of aiding imprisoned Irish rebels and their destitute families, not to killing Englishmen.  The one time in her autobiography where actual violence seems in the offing, Gonne (to her credit) backs down and avoids pushing the confrontation to killing.  Gonne is speaking to a riled-up crowd, when the police arrive.  Here’s her rendition of the incident.

“’If you go on I shall give the order to fire,’ said the officer.

‘Go on, go on,’ cheered the crowd.

I heard an order given. I saw the constabulary get their rifles at the ready and heard the click of triggers.  Most of the men now had their backs to the platform and were facing the police; they had nothing but ash plants in their hands but were ready to fight; some still shouted for me to go on.

‘No,” I said.  ‘Men, you know your duty; the proclaimed meeting is now over,’ and I got off the car.

There was disappointment; one man said: ‘You should have gone on.’  I heard another man say: ‘You couldn’t expect a woman to fight.’  I said: ‘If you had guns I would have gone on; the rifles were pointed at you, not me. I couldn’t see unarmed men shot down.’

Again a wave of depression overwhelmed me. . . . Perhaps I had been wrong in not letting the Woodford evicted tenants fight and be shot down.  Dead men might have aroused the country as living men could not and at least made the evicted tenants a live issue.  I had not dared take responsibility; I had refused leadership and the situation was not of my own making” (301).

The practical triumphs over the ideal here, as I (for one) would wish it to.  But then she is led to wonder if bloodshed would have been impractical.  A massacre might, in fact, have advanced the cause, making it (ironically) a “live” issue.  She wonders if she, at the moment of crisis, has proved weak, has allowed inappropriate scruples to stop her hand.

Which brings us back to the earlier passage—to Gonne’s analysis of Parnell, an analysis that actually seems to put some flesh on the bones of Taylor’s idea that violence connects us to the “numinous.”  Gonne argues that Parnell’s charisma in only intact so long as he remains tied to the ”physical force” revolutionaries. And that is because the “physical force” advocates are in touch with, bring forward into some kind of mysterious presence, “the spiritual forces of Ireland.”  Violence is the way those spiritual forces speak to us, through particular men who are its priests, its mouthpieces.  Here, eloquently stated, is Taylor’s conviction that violence provides a pathway to the numinous.

Of course, to a pragmatist skeptic like myself, the numinous here is better described as “nationalism”—and the cult of the nation seems to result in much more evil than good.  Taylor knows that, which is why he keeps stumbling on the vexed question of just what is the content of the numinous, just as he cannot specify an actual violent rite that we, with our modern sensibilities, could actually endorse.

Historical distance offers one out here.  Do I wish that the 1916 rebellion never took place?  One hundred years later don’t the rebels seem admirable heroes—even though I have no doubt that in 1916 I would have thought them vainglorious fools.  And didn’t their sacrifice actually achieve, in the long run, their ends?  Yes and no.  Plausible to say that there would have been no Irish Republic without the Easter rising.  Equally plausible to say that the ongoing violence of Irish politics throughout the 20th century was also a product of that rising.  No violence, it seems, without answering acts of violence, producing those cycles of violence that are all too familiar, and rarely conclusive, rarely actually creating a desired state of affairs.  There is always some rub, some imperfection, that justifies more violence—even if it is just the violence of revenge.

Would Taylor accept that the numinous is always out of reach—and thus no act of violence, even if it yields intimations of the numinous—ever satisfies?  Religion is born of frustration, of a longing for “something more” than what the ordinary provides—and violence is born of frustration as well.  Infinite desire in a finite world.  Or a desire for the infinite in a finite world.  We can dream of more than what we can actually have.  Taylor wants to honor how those dreams push us beyond the here and now, how they lead to the astounding, almost unbelievable, things that humans manage to do.  But why claim that destruction and violence are part and parcel of that reaching for what exceeds our grasp? Why not, instead, think of destruction and violence as the rage engendered by our reach falling short, as the spite (resentment) we feel against the world and against others when they disappoint our visions—or worse when someone else achieves what we have failed to accomplish?

One riposte from the Taylor side—and here we return to the power of nationalism—is that violence (like religion more generally) is a collective act.  Soldiers always talk of the astounding camaraderie, the enjoyed intimacy, of the platoon.  One of the things we long for is that kind of melting of the self into communion with others—and that melting can feel numinous, a connection to some larger and higher power.  Violence, like sex, is a way of escaping the self, of ecstatically merging it with others.  It carries us outside of ourselves.  That’s one of its attractions, its lures, its way of thumbing its nose at bourgeois calculations and prudence.  Violence is aristocratic (as in Yeats and in Gonne) or sub-bourgeois (as in Synge).  Taylor wants to tap that “noble” side of religion as well—a task made rather difficult by Christianity’s affinity with book-keeping.  The ledgers of sin must be kept so as to see if the reward of heaven will be won.  Hardly an ecstatic way of thinking.

Another, very different, note on which to end.  In Roy Foster’s wonderful book about the Irish revolutionaries, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 (Norton, 2014), he mentions how naïve the “physical force” rebels were.  In some ways, they simply shared the naiveté of a Europe that went blithely to war in 1914.  A massive failure of imagination.  Violence is rarely attractive when seen close up, which is why historical distance is so often needed to sanitize it.  (We are back here to Grossman’s work on killing—which is only exhilarating at a distance except for a very few, exceptional, persons.)  I have always thought it greatly to Yeats’s credit that he mostly abandoned his romantic celebrations of violence once he witnessed actual violence during the 1920 to 1923 wars in Ireland.  Foster quotes Min Ryan, who “admitted afterwards that when Tom Clarke told her in 1916 that most of them would be ‘wiped out,’ it brought her down to earth with a bump. ‘I got an awful shock because I was living a most unreal kind of life as if nothing could happen to anyone.  I could hardly believe that we would take up arms at all and then I began to believe that we would come out of it alright.’”  Foster goes on to comment: “The five years from 1916 to 1921 would provide a steep learning curve” (72)  Why he excludes the two years of the Civil War, with its brutal executions, is a mystery.

In any case, the rhetoric that calls for violence is easy, all too easy, and very often disconnected from any real sense of what violence means or entails.  Again, violence is more palatable the more distance one maintains from it.  It is hard for me to imagine Taylor participating in the rites he seems to endorse.  Certainly, I want no part of them—even if the numinous were to arrive as promised.