Monday, June 23, 2008

on the subject of resistance...

I have been devoting much thought recently to the idea of protest; of violence and non-violence and resistance and resignation. These have been difficult terms for me to grapple with, and it has taken some time for me to flesh out thought from feeling. I suppose a good place to begin, is with a poem by Hayden Carruth:

"On Being Asked To Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam"

Well I have and in fact
more than one and I'll
tell you this too

I wrote one against
Algeria that nightmare
and another against

Korea and another
against the one
I was in

and I don't remember
how many against
the three

when I was a boy
Abyssinia Spain and
Harlan County

and not one
breath was restored
to one

shattered throat
mans womans or childs
not one not

but death went on and on
never looking aside

except now and then
with a furtive half-smile
to make sure I was noticing. 

This poem has been described as a "troublesome" one. This is because it seems to state, "what is the point of protest, if the violence will still carry on?" and yet, the poem itself is an act of protest in a way. it is still breathing (a breath of despair, yes)- but also a breath of resistance. So the point still seems amorphous...until one digs deeper. Perhaps, the point is that his goal, and the point of this small resistance, is not about stopping violence or war, but about something else entirely....

Accompanying this contemplation on resistance, has come the topic and rhetoric surrounding 1968. Kevin has invited me to attend a
"Recreate '68" protest at the DNC. The stated goal of the protest is to voice the resistance towards the two party system, resistance towards the war, and make visible the disenfranchised masses wishing to shout together "enough!"

This all sounds good and well, but i cannot help but recall the many negatives associated with the year: the violent deaths of great visionaries (RFK, MLK), the Vietnam War, gender and race riots.... in short, great violence. But then, I am reminded of the positives. In a way it was a year marking the rebirth of our nation...our eyes were opened to an ugliness and violence (brought right into our living rooms for the first time via television) that we were not used to seeing. In a sense, it was our 
exit from the cave. Therefore, it makes sense that this period would be a painful one marked by mixed emotions. Nonetheless, it would seem we had come closer to the light. 

Fifty years later, we are seeing strong parallels. A recent article I read in the "New Statesman" was written by Noam Chomsky, and titled 
"On 1968". In it, he weighs both the good and the bad aspects of the year, to conclude that it had an overall positive effect on our nation and its history. He encourages us, pointing out that unlike Vietnam, there has been a strong opposition to this war from its onset. He points out that this opposition has even been within the margins of main stream media, and main stream politics. 

These points aside... the verbiage at least seems dubious. I think of the protest last week in response to a House approval of a bill allotting $162 billion towards continued funding of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Red stained dollar bills were showered upon lawmakers as they entered the visitor's gallery. 

While that protest is not directly related to R-68, it coincides in my mind because is raises the question "what is the point?" "Does this create any positive change?" These types of protests seem naive. I think of Wendell Berry: "Much protest is naive. It expects quick, visible improvement, and despairs and gives up when such improvement doesn't come." It seems flashy, and reactive to splash around red dollar bills, and strut around the halls of congress in suits and pig masks. But this value judgment aside....does it work? To determine this, I suppose we should first ask "what are the goals of these acts?" before we are able to determine if they succeed. 

I asked a friend what he thought the point of protest is. He responded by saying that he thinks it is to make your voice heard when you think no one else is listening. That seems accurate. It also seems naive; liek a shouting match. Yet this is the continuous rhetoric: "Let your voice be heard!" "Fight the oppressive silence!"...... I was having trouble Figuring out just why this bothered me so much. Why did this not seem right?

The answer dawned on me while reading at my mother's home. She had a copy of Josephus on a shelf, and liek I have done so many times before, browsed through it for something of interest. One of the first things I stumbled upon was the resistance of the Jews in Caesarea against Pilate and the orders of Roman law. They refused to allow a statue of the ruler to be erected, saying they would rather face death than see the laws of the Torah desecrated. This gave me chills. I then thought of the photograph of the man in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square. What gave these protests the authenticity that others seem to lack?

Again, Wendell Berry provided clarity. "If protest depends upon success, it has no durability. Protest that endures, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirt, that would be destroyed by acquiescence." I think it is in this statement, that Berry is able to elucidate the poem Carruth wrote. It becomes clear that the poet's intention was simply one of survival. He had to write. He was left with no choice... action or atrophy. 

I then think of Thoreau: "There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher, and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly." The people are a power higher then the state. This is a fact that, for me, becomes lost and crippled by concerns with political parties, elections, laws and lawmakers. We are kept well sated with "facts" and conflicts; filled to the brim with diversions. But the restless current cannot remain forever dammed. The footage of the floods sweeping over the midwest at present, provide powerful imagery. It would seem it is time for our rivers to swell and levees to break. The time seems nearer at least, when people will heave breathes of resistance in as necessary a fashion as heaving breaths of air. There is not a need for violence, or elaborate show. There is only a need to refuse to quell, and a need to rise and matter how high the sandbags scale. I find I have hope in this...and hope is far more powerful than protest, because it is what gives one the strength to even heave those breaths. 

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