Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deference and Defiance, Egypt and U.S.

Hope knows that unless we physically defy government control we are complicit in the violence of the state. All who resist keep hope alive.

--Chris Hedges



Those are the words of a Pulitzer-winning journalist in explanation of his participation in civil disobedience last December against our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Deference and defiance. Similar-sounding words that reflect very different relationships with state power. The deferential pose allows questions and criticism of authority, while taking pains not to obstruct or even to offend it. This is how, for instance, most mainstream news media relate to power. There are lines these journalists won't cross because their livelihood depends on ingratiating the oligarchs in order to maintain access to them and other privileges.

Defiance entails getting in the way, even at personal cost. Non-violent defiance entails civil disobedience and general strikes. Obstructing economic activity is enough to get one labeled a terrorist in the United States, even if the truth is the opposite: sometimes obstructing economic activity prevents violence.

I have continued to follow a few Egyptian blogs after the U.S. media has packed up and moved along to the Oscars. The revolution is actually in its most dangerous phase, and there are a few moving parts in play. One is the military, currently in charge of the country although it was not as friendly to the revolutionaries as our media liked to suggest. There are divisions within the military, from the younger generation of officers to the older and more senior officers who were close to the Mubarak regime. On Friday night, the military began a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, with extensive video documentation here.

Over the weekend, the masses revolting in Madison, Wisconsin topped 70,000 in gentle defiance of a state government's persistent effort to eliminate the right for public sector employees to organize and bargain directly with power. Soon after I write this, the arrests at the state legislature are due to begin, and my hope is that there will be a lot of peaceful arrests that clog the system.

That's what this is about: getting in the way, being "sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world." That is the technique of satyagraha.

Not-Going-Along. This is an element that is too often missing among self-satisfied New Age and pseudo-Zen hocus pocus. Variations on "don't worry about it, it's all a delusion anyway" abound. Yet there appears in this realm a world full of streets. To live, we must cross. To cross, we must use our mind like a sharp knife, making the appropriate distinctions, with nothing sticking to the blade.

Whether we believe it is all a dream or not matters less than how we treat each other within the dream. If crossing a street makes sense, so does taking care of ourselves and those we love, helping them stay out of harm, and addressing the injustices or delusions that may cause us harm.

This might include, at least it could include, participating in an act of disobedience or defiance when state power -- increasingly commingled with the interests of one social class against the majority of people trying to live decently in the world -- is wrong.

1 comment:

Petteri Sulonen said...

Well spoken.

About Egypt—yup, the old regime's attempt to co-opt and quash the revolution has started. Up to this point, though, it's gone rather better than I expected. The discourse has shifted; it's no more a matter of whether there will be reforms, but what shape those reforms will take. That's good. My optimistic scenario is still that Egypt will end up with a more or less stable system with enough machinery for change to permit further evolution in that direction. Sort of the Turkish trajectory. If I could just magic away the military and police forces, that'd be awesome, but I can't, so there'll have to be some way to deal with it without violence.

The top brass in the military never were pro-revolution; how could they be, being such an organic part of the regime? Dunno how it was portrayed in US media, but if they did portray them that way, that's just silly.