February 18, 2013

From our overstocked archives: Freedom as a local option

From the Progressive Review, 2004:

Sam Smith - Even in these dismal times, a few lights shine. More than a hundred communities and several states have voted resolutions deeply critical of the so-called Patriot Act. In California all the major candidates in the gubernatorial race supported a position on medical marijuana strongly opposed by the federal government. And the Washington Post reports that "in Seattle, the public library printed 3,000 bookmarks to alert patrons that the FBI could, in the name of national security, seek permission from a secret federal court to inspect their reading and computer records -- and prohibit librarians from revealing that a search had taken place. . . In Hillsboro, Ore., Police Chief Ron Louie has ordered his officers to refuse to assist any federal terrorism investigations that his department believes violate state law or constitutional right."

When one reviews such brave acts and words of Americans still loyal to the ideals of their land and its constitution, it is striking is how few of them emanate from the nation's capital. Officials and the media in Washington have generally accepted the assault on constitutional and democratic government with all the adaptability of the Vichy French of Paris getting used to the Germans.

This tolerance of anything as long as it demonstrates power, so typical of decadent elites, is warning enough that if there is to be a restoration of a decent, democratic America, the capital's establishment will be among the last to join the movement.

Orwell saw it coming. The dystopia described in 1984 is so overwhelming that one almost forgets that most residents of Oceana don't live in it. Orwell gives the breakdown:
Below Big Brother comes the Inner Party, its numbers limited to six millions, or something less than two percent of the population of Oceania. Below the Inner Party comes the Outer Party, which, if the Inner Party is described as the brain of the State, may be justly likened to the hands. Below that come the dumb masses whom we habitually refer to as 'the proles,' numbering perhaps eighty-five percent of the population.
It is amongst the latter that Winston Smith and Julia find refuge for their trysts, away from the cameras (although not the microphones). The proles are, for the most part, not worth the Party's trouble: 
Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult. A few agents of the Thought Police moved always among them spreading false rumors and marking down and eliminating the few individuals were judged capable of becoming dangerous; but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party . . . From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is . . .
Orwell's division of labor and power was almost precisely replicated in East Germany decades later, where about one percent belonged to the General Secretary of the Communist Party, with another 13% being far less powerful party members. Huxley's Brave New World, though more encompassing, still offered alternatives such as Iceland and the savage reservations in New Mexico:
Leaning forward, the Warden tapped the table with his forefinger. 'You ask me how many people live in the Reservation. And I reply' - triumphantly - 'I reply that we do not know. We can only guess.' . . . about sixty thousand Indians and half-breeds . . . absolute savages . . . our inspectors occasionally visit . . . otherwise, no communication whatever with the civilized world . . . still preserve their repulsive habits and customs . . . marriage, if you know what that is, my dear young lady; families . . . no conditioning . . . monstrous superstitions . . . Christianity and totemism and ancestor worship . . . extinct languages, such as Zuñi and Spanish and Athapascan . . . pumas, porcupines and other ferocious animals . . . infectious diseases . . . priests . . . venomous lizards . . . '
In short, what we would call life.

As we move towards - and even surpass - the fictional bad dreams of Huxley and Orwell, it is helpful to remember that these nightmares were actually the curse of the elites, and not of those who lived in the quaint primitive manner of humans rather than joining the living dead at the zenith of illusionary power.

This bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane mass and a manic depressive elite that is alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, mimics in some ways the time of moated castles. But it also foreshadows what we find today - an elite willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of a few young men with box cutters.

The cost of this psychotic conflict is enormous, even on the innocent and unchosen. Yet ultimately the heaviest burden is on those in America's inner and outer parties. An important part of the split is geographic. The proles and savages were mostly removed from the centers of power, much as in our world. In fact 'globalization,' rather than making us "one world," has actually widened the gap between the powerful and the weak. The former mostly live and work in the economic and political capitals, enjoying what might be called capitalism were not the term already taken. The rest of the world is separated from the action. This phenomenon even occurs in conquered lands: the Iraq war was 'over' when we thought we had captured Baghdad, the devil take the rest of the country. Similarly, we have yet to capture Afghanistan, but under today's rules, holding Kabul is close enough. Such a distortion was noticed more than a decade ago by Jacque Attali, the French writer and advisor to Francois Mitterand, who said:

We have to build a word which would be 'New York-Hollywoodization' because we are not Americanized in the sense that we are not going to be closer to St. Louis, Mo., or some place else. These countries are far from us and we are far from them. They are less in advance, less influencing than New York and Hollywood.
Here is a world in which a sophisticated Parisian speaks of St. Louis - but not of Hollywood or Manhattan - as a foreign country. It is the world, suggested semiotician Marshall Blonsky, of International Man. International Man is unlocalized. He wears a somewhat Italian suit, perhaps a vaguely British regimental tie, a faintly French shirt and - said international man Furio Columbo, president of Fiat USA - shoes 'with an element of remembering New England boats and walking on the beach.'

International Man thrives in Washington. At the moment you call, though, he may well be in Tokyo, Bonn or London sharing with colleagues who are nominally Japanese, German or British their common heritage in the land of the perpetually mobile.

It is this unnamed country of international law, trade and finance, with its anthem to "global competition in the first half of the 21st century," that is increasingly providing the substance and the style to our anti-democratic politics. It is their dual citizenship in America and in the Great Global Glob that characterizes the most powerful among us, now more than ever including even our own political leaders.

International Man dreams of things like NAFTA and GATT and then gets them passed. And he knows that he, as a corporate executive or licensed professional, will pass quickly through Mexican customs in his somewhat Italian suit and shoes with a hint of a New England beach because the agreement he helped to draft and pass has declared him entitled to such consideration. The union worker, the tourist from St. Louis, are, under the new world order, from far countries and so it will take awhile longer. The policies of International Man bring Mexico City ever nearer and start to make St. Louis a stranger in its own land.

In the wake of September 11, this trend became even more prominent. Our country's policies and budgets have been strongly skewed in the interest of protecting New York and Washington (and the natural resources and borders that support their activities). There has not been much mention of a terrorist threat to St Louis, at least in the national media. After all, St. Louis is in the countryside that is filled with persons who, if left to themselves, will, in the words of Orwell, "continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is."

This is not to say that St. Louis won't be a target, only that it is far from what the war on terrorism is really about, which is to defend those things, people, and places that the elite hold most dear starting with themselves. Nor is it to say that such places can be immune from the sort of economic or environmental catastrophe of which the Bush regime is fully capable. But unlike our frightened leaders, the residents of most of the country simply live with the risk. There is no government money for their bunkers.

Strange as it may seem, however, it is in this dismal dichotomy between countryside and the political and economic capitals that the hope for saving America's soul resides. The geographical and conceptual parochialism of those who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still free in which to nurture hopes, dreams, and perhaps even to foster the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.

Eric Paul Gros-Dubois of Southern Methodist University has described Orwell's underclass this way:
The Proles were the poorest of the groups, but in most regards were the most cheerful and optimistic. The Proles were also the freest of all the groups. Proles could do as they pleased. They could come and go, and talk openly about whatever they felt like without having to worry about the Thought Police. . .

[Orwell] also concluded that the hope for the future was contained within this group. At several points in the book, Winston, the hero, made a point of mentioning that the Proles were the hope for the future and the only ones who could end Big Brother's tyranny, since they were the only group still allowed to have feelings and opinions. Orwell, through Winston, said that the lower classes were the only ones capable of creating change, since they were the only ones who have the vision to do so."

Orwell also gave a warning to the lower classes. He said that the government controlled them through such devices as the lottery, the spreading of rumors, and the elimination of the troublemakers from amongst them. . . Orwell, through his portrayal, seemed to be warning the lower classes that they were being controlled, and that they should fight to be rid of their leaders who were oppressing them, rather than feeling a form of 'fake patriotism' toward them, which allowed the cycle to continue.
As a Washington native I often find myself thinking of part of my city as occupied and robotic, and part still free and human. I roughly define the free portion as that having buildings I can enter without having to prove in some direct way that I am not a terrorist. While the occupied city encompasses much of downtown Washington, the consumptive fear of those in power is so concentrated on their own safety that they leave the better part of us alone. In fact, since September 11 both local crime and fires have increased for there just isn't enough time or money to look after the rest of us anymore.

I'm not so naïve as to think that the government couldn't at any moment suddenly expand its interests. After all, I live six blocks from the Capitol and on July 4, as I walked past the dome on the way to see the fireworks celebrating our independence, police stood by - some parading firearms and scowling at their fellow Americans - to prevent any citizen from getting too close to their own Capitol. Further, as the Observer of London has noted, in some ways even the English countryside today is more Orwellian than when Orwell wrote of it for there are now innumerable cameras as well as microphones. Still, upon leaving Washington I'm quickly struck by the question: where did the war on terror go? The further I get from this supposed democratic apex the more I feel as if I'm in a democracy again.

One good reason for this is because I am. And why not? As the ACLU reported recently, "More than 130 communities, encompassing more than 16 million people in 26 states, have passed resolutions, some of which contain strong legal language directing local police to, among other things, refrain from engaging in racial profiling, enforcing immigration laws or participating in federal investigations that violate civil liberties. Among the communities that have adopted resolutions are traditionally conservative locales, such as Oklahoma City, and three states: Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont."

There is nothing new in this. Almost all great changes in American politics and culture have had their roots either in the countryside or among minorities within the major cities. From religious 'great awakenings' to the abolitionist movement, to the labor movement, to populism, to the 1960s and civil rights, America has been repeatedly moved by viral politics rather than by the pyramidal processes outlined in great man theories of change promulgated by the elite and its media and academies.

Successfully confronting the present disaster will require far more than attempting to serially blockade its serial evils, necessary as this is. There must also be a guerilla democracy that defends, fosters, and celebrates our better selves - not only to provide an alternative but to create physical space for decent Americans to enjoy their lives while waiting for things to get better. It may, after all, take the rest of their lifetimes. We must not only condemn the worst, but offer witness for the better. And create places in which to live it.

A case in point is the media. Change needs its own media.

From the North Star of Frederick Douglass to the 2,000 labor newspapers published in this country at one time or another, to the hundreds of underground papers of the 1960s to the multiple rebellions of the Internet, those who have caused real change have made their own news. Imagine if the nation's unions decided to revive the tradition of a labor press. Or if a conscious effort was made to create alternative local and statewide websites that were not merely rhetorical and missionary but actually served as hard news sources. What if a free media sprung up much like the underground press of the 1960s?

Another case in point is politics. But what if the Green Party declared itself the party of the countryside, of free America, and set its sights on organizing not just the survival, resistance, and rebellion of the unoccupied homeland, but its revival, its discovery of self-reliance, and its energetic practice of democracy and decency? There is a wealth of electoral opportunity. For example, in 15 states more than half the state legislative seats are presently won without a contest.

There is a logic to the Greens becoming the party of free America. After all Greens are the party most in the American tradition of decentralization, democracy, and cooperative communities. And they have ample precedent in the grassroots Populist Party which took on robber barons of startling similarity to those now served by the Bush regime.

These are but two examples of the sort of issues that activists could be thinking much about as they create an ever clearer divide between occupied, proto-fascist America and free, democratic America and help the latter spread like a virus until the former is so weak or so shamed that it changes its ways and rejoins the homeland it now falsely claims to defend.

But it will take work. Our capacity to govern ourselves, to dream, to create has not only been compromised, it has disappeared as an expectation. We have, as in all authoritarian regimes, become increasingly dependent upon those who hold us down and back. But the potential is always there, even under the worst circumstances. I was reminded of this not long after September 11, as I found myself reflecting on the Solidarity movement of Poland. We will get out of this mess, I thought, when we can do in our own way what the Poles did in theirs.

I had occasion to test these thoughts as I read John Rensenbrink's excellent contemporary account of the movement: Poland Challenges a Divided World. For all the differences - for one thing we confront right-wingers instead of communists - I was pleasantly surprised to find myself encouraged again.

At the heart of the Solidarity achievement was something with which the Internet has made us familiar - a form of politics that spread not by the precise decisions of a small number of rulers but by the aggregated tiny and vaguer decisions of a mass of citizens. In a sense, Solidarity was an early unwired flash mob.

The variety of techniques used by Poles in the their search for freedom were impressive. For example, Rensenbrink cites Michael Kaufman of the NY Times quoting a Polish writer on how hand-kissing had been converted into a political act:
The writer went on to observe that the practices had been discarded as archaic or snobbish in all of Poland's communist neighbors. In the Soviet Union, he emphasized, 'No one kisses women's hands.' So of course the Poles do. But the ceremony also has a deeper political significance than this immediate, anti-Soviet one. It signifies a blend of ancient or traditional culture, which is aristocratic, and the egalitarian or leveling impetus that has taken place under communism.

Kaufman noted that 'in Poland truck drivers, coal miners, professors, journalists, party sympathizers and Solidarity activists all kiss the hands of women upon meeting, and women all routinely extend their hands to be kissed." Kaufman quotes the writer again: 'It is a brilliant irony that under forty years of communism, in terms of manners at least, classes have not so much been leveled as elevated as we all try to behave like princes. "
Rensenbrink offers descriptions of Solidarity that echo comfortably a quarter century later:
Solidarity was no ideological movement replete with analysis and finished doctrine; nor was it an instrumental, vanguard movement sporting the latest in revolutionary tactics and strategy. It had its ideas and principles, of course, and its tactics and strategy. But these were secondary to the call for action to provide structures for the defense of historic rights and to demand that the state rule in accordance with them. I was reminded of the Burkean view of the American Revolution as a revolt on behalf of received rights sanctified by tradition and renewed by the spirit of struggle and sacrifice. Perhaps more to the point, I saw here a close kinship with the post-Marxist view of revolution expressed by Walter Benjamin. Marx thought of revolution as history's locomotive. But Benjamin said: "Maybe it is just the opposite. Perhaps revolutions can better understood as the people's way of reaching for the emergency brake on the train."
And this description of Poland's dilemma in the 1980s seems strikingly applicable to our own situation:
It is the struggle of a state in ludicrous pursuit of a nation that it cannot seem to find. And mutatis mutandis, it is the struggle of a nation trying to find a way to meet the state, not in the posture of supplicant or avenger, but in the posture of free citizen.
Rensenbrink tells me that some of Solidarity's early organizing took place on the trains that many of the workers rode to the shipyards. In our own history, there are innumerable examples of change owing a debt to the simple serendipity of people of like values and sensibilities coming together. For example, the rise of the Irish politician in this country was aided considerably by the Irish bar's role as an ethnic DMZ and a center for the exchange of information. Here is another example from the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute:
Mother Jones often organized the women in mining towns to become an active and vital part of the struggle for worker's rights. One tactic she used was the "dishpan brigade." When coal miners were on strike in Arnot, Pennsylvania, in 1900, Mother Jones organized the women to prevent replacement, or scab, workers from taking the striking workers' jobs. The women gathered at the mine, banging together their pots, pans, brooms and mops, while screaming and shouting at the scab workers. "From that day on the women kept continual watch of the mines to see that the company did not bring in scabs. Every day women with brooms or mops in one hand and babies in the other arm, wrapped in little blankets, went to the mines and watched that no one went in. And all night long they kept watch," wrote Mother Jones.
We tend to discount the importance of unplanned moments because of our fealty to the business school paradigm in which change properly occurs because of a careful strategic plan, an organized vision, procedures, and process. During the past quarter century when such ideas have been in ascendancy, however, America has demonstratively deteriorated as a political, economic, and moral force. In reality, many of the best things happen by accident and indirection. While it may be true, as the Roman said, that "fortune smiles on the well prepared" part of that preparation is to be in the right place at the right time. In other words, it is necessary to create an ecology of change rather than a precise and often illusory process.

As we think of creating change that will not only expel the present regime but replace the values it has left like so much toxic asbestos in the walls of our nation, it is important to think of places, ways, and events that inspire possibilities as well as the policies that formalize them. The approaches are limited only by our imaginations and dreams. It could include replacing a driver ed or DARE course in the local high school with a civics or American history course. It could be sign welcoming one to a town that says, WE RESPECT THE CONSTITUTION. It could be a revival of the civil rights movement's freedom schools. Regular salons in people's homes or informal meetups in local bars. The sound of freedom in music, its grace in dance, its form in art. The open commitment of a police department to follow the most important law of the land. And the willingness to say no to those who disobey it, to shame and ridicule them. We can not at this moment imagine the manner in which America's recovery could occur. To attempt to do so, in fact, invites an apathetic fatalism for there seems no solution. What exists, however, are the means by which to cultivate an environment in which solutions may sprout. This may not seem as glamorous but it is absolutely necessary. And it is work that by its nature devolves to the smallest places of our land where change is still possible, where ideals are still preserved, and where imagination still exists. Where the soil of freedom and democracy are still fertile and unpolluted and where spring can show its wonders once again.

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