“Bearings in a Whirlwind,” and wearing green blindfolds

by zunguzungu

I started reading Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge when watching coverage of non-violent marches in Iran suddenly made me want to pull it off the shelf (I read the first two volumes and ran out of steam some time ago). This section of a letter from Stanley Levison to Martin Luther King struck me as making an apropos point:

“…Non-violent direct action was proven by Selma to have even greater power than anyone had realized…We would be at fault if we believed our own propaganda that Selma was a terrible expression of brutality and terrorism. Considerable restraint was exercised by the authorities. The degree of violence was shocking and startling, but not extensive.”

Instead, Levison argued that (as Taylor Branch paraphrases):

“the violence of Birmingham–let alone the spectacle lynchings of recent decades–was much worse, and that the power of Selma rose from the cumulative inspiration of the method itself. Nonviolence evoked courage. When sustained and crafted, it built political engagement almost inexorably. ‘Someone asked a Negro if he thought they would win,’ Levison informed King, ‘and he responded, “We won when we started.” This is profound.’ (At Canaan’s Edge, “Bearings in a Whirlwind,” p200-1)

It’s worth remembering, here and elsewhere, what a protest march is and isn’t; Levison’s point cuts in several different ways, but one of them is that the pictures of protesters being beaten — and the martyr narrative in a general sense — isn’t what it’s about, nor the spectacle of riots and crackdowns as examples of violence. Which is not to preclude optimism about what is happening in the streets. We should, I think, be very skeptical about the leaders who are trying to ride the passions of the citizens in the streets; after all, as Lila Ghobady has pointed out, (h/t)being the candidate who isn’t named Ahmadinejad doesn’t necessarily make Mousavi a champion of democracy:

“Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran in the 1980s when more than ten thousand political prisoners were executed after three-minute sham trials. He has been a part of the Iranian dictatorship system for the past 30 years. If he had not been, he would not be allowed to be a candidate in the first place. In fact in a free democratic state someone like Mousavi should have gone on trial before becoming a presidential candidate for his crimes against thousands of freedom-loving political prisoners who were killed during the time he was Iran’s Prime Minister.”

But that’s not really what’s important, is it?  The difference between the last election in Iran — widespread voter apathy and boycotts — and those green hands in the streets now is pretty striking, and has to be a lot more important than the political leaders themselves. Iran has always had an incredibly vibrant civil society but a huge part of the story of the Iranian revolution was the tragedy of how a single faction within it took control of what had begun as an unruly heterogeneity of many different people with many different reasons for wanting the Shah gone. And seeing that unruly heterogeneity exert itself now is exciting precisely because it gives us occasion to hope that something strange and unpredictable and even wonderful might be happening as people forget, for a while, that politics is hopeless, and might even give us license to think that maybe Levison was right and that when people gather themselves in non-violent movement, they “inexorably” transform the relationship between government and the people. But that, of course, has little or nothing to do with Mousavi or the election, or anything we here in America or Twitterland can really know or think. And it’s good that it does. It’s happening there.

But if the question of what America is supposed to do is still unavoidable, a comparison Mahmood Mamdani made between the Save Darfur movement and the anti-war movement in the 60’s and 70’s is worth putting on the table. For him, the most important point to remember is that almost all American mobilization on the issue of the Darfur genocide — the Save Darfur group in particular — has been focused on military intervention, on trying — to put it most bluntly — to start a war for peace. And he not only deplores it as a tactic, but he notes the striking difference between Save Darfur‘s disinclination to actually know anything about Darfur and that leitmotif of the anti-war movement, the “teach-in” (another idea inherited, by the way, from the civil rights movment (SNCC, I think), who first used the term).

“For the antiwar movement back then, the world was a classroom,” he remembers. “The signature activity was the teach-in. The movement’s entire endeavor was to bring its student constituency face to face with scholars, and to learn about Vietnam: its people, history, politics, about the history of colonialism and de-colonization.”

The Darfur movement is very different: “If you look at Save Darfur, there is no interest in education, no interest in scholars. For them, the world is an advertising medium. They are after showbiz personalities, and name recognition. The leaders are like Pied Pipers, trying to get the children to follow them.”

If all you want to do is start a war, then you don’t need to know much; in fact, the less you know the better, which is to say, you want to know the right kind of non-information. And while the “Teach-in” was about knowledge, it was, after all, also about commitment not merely to knowing, but to the humble realization that you needed to learn more (the very opposite of the worst Save Darfur types, who so often reduce the people of Darfur to props). In that vein, in fact, I vaguely fear the kind of information (and illusion of information) that’s being passed around on twitter; nothing can be more perniciously misleading than welding the appearance of authenticity to the context-less brevity of a text message and soldiering it all together with a media narrative about technology bringing the revolution (especially when there are so many neocons chomping at the bit to make the imbroglio in the streets into an American cassus belli). Or maybe I’m just grumpy about the 140 character limit on twitter (and I definitely am grumpy about that). But what makes me hopeful — and sort of reverently awes me — is the prospect of things we don’t know anything about being the things that make all the difference, the movements in the streets and the unspoken decisions made by humans in the presence of other human beings.

In that vein, I take Levison’s faith in the “inexorable” power of non-violence to bring about change less as signaling some magical power intrinsic to the practice (as if not committing violence were an incantation) or even as a faith in God or progress than as simply an acknowledgment of the presence and priority of immanent forces, subjectless and inarticulate, in the movement itself in the fact of people throwing off apathy, something we can neither understand, nor control. And that it’s sometimes the better thing to humbly recognize that we can’t and not to try, especially when we are not the people in  question.