Living with Denial by Steve Clemens. October 11, 2008
Why do we Americans lionize Oscar Schindler, The White Rose, the originators of the Kinder train, the villagers of Le Chambon? There were many honorable and courageous acts of conscience and compassion that surfaced in resistance to the attempts of the Third Reich to exterminate the Jews of Europe. We relish the story of Anne Frank and the family who risked much to shelter her from Nazis. Even though ultimately unsuccessful, their heroics give many of us a smug sense of relief that there still remain at least a remnant of ordinary folk who are able to rise to the occasion and be truly human(e). Even while we recognize that most people remained either silent or actively complicit with the unfolding holocaust, somehow the memory of a few resisters continue to give us hope for the rest of “humanity” – in the midst of growing inhumanity evidenced in our global community.
It is always easier to celebrate these triumphs of the human spirit against the brutal crushing machine of repression and oppression in hindsight. We have enough distance and separation from the Nazi movement in western Europe, the wholesale slaughter under communist systems in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China to celebrate those who resisted those injustices. Some Americans have even dared to look beyond political alliances to recognize the “excesses” of US –supported regimes in the Congo (Mobuto), Indonesia (Sukarno), the Philippine Islands (Marcos), Chile (Pinochet), … and the list could go on and on.
Harder still is the recognition and appreciation for creative resistance to bad policies and inhumane actions taken by essentially “good” or benign governments. For many Americans, we may be open to resistance taken by Israeli citizens on behalf of occupied Palestinians – but less receptive to Palestinians acting on their own behalf. Advocates on behalf of indigenous rights for Aboriginal people in Australia could be recognized – although Aborigines acting on their own would be less welcomed by most Americans because we see the “Aussies” as our allies and too much like us to be criticized. Some of that same scrutiny might be focused on our own policies.
It seems we need the distance of time (and the passing of some of the major protagonists) for widespread recognition of the righteousness of the cause when the resistance is closer to “home”. Enough time has gone by to celebrate the differences of William Penn’s and Roger Williams’ relationship to Native Americans when compared to that of other colonial imperialists. Enough time has gone by to recognize the principled witness of the abolitionist movement and (maybe) even the violent resistance of Nat Turner and John Brown. Even some U.S. history books have been willing to appreciate the courage and conviction embodied by Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce and Sitting Bull –although fewer are willing to extend their salute to the violent resistance of Geronimo and Crazy Horse who also stood up to the violent oppression of their nations.
We feel free to celebrate Susan B. Anthony and the suffragette movement now that they aren’t disrupting our lives since enough time has passed. Some of us are more ambivalent about the passions and actions embodied by Carrie Nation and some of the more “radical” prohibitionists –but even if we might disagree with her cause or tactics, we can have a sense of pride in identifying with her convictions. Even enough time has passed for many to begin to join the chorus for elevating Catholic Worker movement co-founder, Dorothy Day, to sainthood for her work for the poor. Some even are willing to celebrate her refusal to comply with bomb shelter drills at the height of the Cold War scare.
How much time has to pass before we are willing to embrace principled resistance to present injustice? And why do I always want to qualify my admiration and appreciation to “principled” resistance? Isn’t any resistance better than acquiescence? Am I so defensive about my own commitment to nonviolence that I fail to celebrate any and all attempts to resist injustice? How many years of “distance” will we need as a nation and people before we are ready to identify the evils embodied in our present actions and policies? Torture justified at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Baghram, and other black sites. Wars of choice and aggression in clear violation of the UN Charter. Ignoring the cries of the growing numbers of poor and uninsured. Deliberate targeting of “economic immigrants” trying to feed their own families both here and in their economically devastated homelands. Once again, the list could go on and on.
I have much more in common with the black-clad, kerchiefed “Anarchist” who sees the injustice and hypocrisy embedded in our society and “acts out” in anger and rage than those who remain silent and “enjoy” the benefits and privilege that come with complicity. Yet even that description does not do justice to many of the “angry” people in the streets during the Republican National Convention last month in St. Paul. I witnessed not only the “taunting” of riot-geared police but also joy and celebration of resistance. When 3 or 4 girls danced chorus-line style chanting, “You’re hot, you’re cute, take off your riot suits!” to the cops, I laughed and deeply appreciated the humor in a tense situation. Dancing to songs by Rage Against the Machine and other resistance anthems played on portable boom-boxes in the middle of street intersections in front of rows and rows of up-armored cops with tear gas guns and Tasers pointed at them, these (mostly) young resisters weren’t only about anger and confrontation but also wanted to embody an alternative to an “uptight” society that seems to over-react in fear and possessiveness when feeling threatened.
While still clinging to my deep conviction and belief that only creative nonviolence can bring about the ultimate just society we long for, recognizing with Gandhi and King that the means used help determine the end results, I need to remember to embrace any acts of resistance to what Dorothy Day calls “our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” We don’t need to wait 50 years before historians make it safe to look back critically at America in the dying days of its empire. Let’s tap the energy of the young and combine it with the wisdom of our elders and, together, remake our society where we won’t have to look back in shame and wonder at the “silent majority”. Don’t criticize others unless you, too, are out in the streets or working “under the radar” to resist injustice and help build the new world for which we await.