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On Protest, Progress, and Fate

Many of my friends have already voiced their opinions on events in Toronto over the past weekend. Some of the more worthy writing on the subject can be found on Facebook here and here. It’s taken some time for me to sort out my own thoughts and feelings about what happened and what it means. While I generally consider the fist-waiving hoi-polloi humorously na├»ve and the wanton destruction of property repugnant, my default sympathies lie with the protestors — even those of the nitwit lumpen-pop Black Bloc flavour. I have a romantic penchant for grandiose, self-important, yet self-destructive gestures, to which any woman with whom I’ve ever been in a relationship can attest. But that’s my heart. Let me try to use my head and start from square one.

Those who protest against existing political orders do so in the name of justice. They see the existing regime as oppressive and harmful to those not fortunate enough to be in the ruling classes. Those whose protest leads to violent action see the plight of the oppressed and harmed as so immediate and grievous that it necessitates harm and even destruction of the oppressors; a kill-or-be-killed choice writ large. (I am, of course, giving these folks a great deal of credit. This all assumes that they actually have motives above and beyond just breaking stuff that isn’t theirs. I’ve yet seen no evidence of this in the reporting on the Black Bloc in Toronto.)

This might be all well and good if the oppressive regime being attacked wasn’t itself founded and sustained on violence, which all oppressive regimes obviously are. By taking violent action on such a regime, those who struggle against it accept the terms of the regime’s power dynamic that strength is the decisive factor justifying political rule. Thus, by entering into violent rebellion against a violent oppressor, you’ve already lost because you’ve bound yourself by that dynamic. Even if you “win”, all you accomplish is becoming what you hated in the first place: namely, the top dog in an oppressive regime.

One of the greatest and most persistent of political fallacies, and a mainstay of political rhetoric since time immemorial, is the claim that if someone else was in charge things would somehow be different. This assertion conveniently and cheerfully overlooks the dual realities that (1) a need for authority hierarchies are part of our primate neurology and an essential aspect of our nature as physical beings, and (2) authority is by definition oppressive. Nietzsche harkened to this in his bitter critique of Christianity, and Plato illustrated that even philosophers aren’t immune to this dynamic in his description of the city ruled tyrannically by philosophy in the Republic. The modern, very secularized Christian notion that the oppressive power dynamic can be stopped and true equality established comes to us from Marx. But Marx never had to reconcile his vision with Lenin, Stalin, and Mao just as Jesus never had to square himself with Crusaders, Inquisitors and molesting priests. On a very important level, oppression and injustice are our fate; the permanence of evil in the human condition.

This sounds pretty pessimistic, and maybe it is. I worry that human progress, such as it is, is a zero-sum affair. We sacrifice the heroic virtues of our nomadic hunter roots for the civilized virtues of pastoral agrarianism, which are in turn given up so we can become permanently connected hipster urbanites. Yet the cruelty and oppression seem to never be really dispelled, merely displaced onto those out of sight and out of mind. However, for the sake of my son and the sake of my sanity, I hope that true progress away from the power dynamic of oppression is possible. If it does exist, then it only moves very slowly and hits the mean between pessimistic resignation to our fate and the violent lashing-out that only perpetuates the cycle. Aristotle seems to strive towards this in the Politics, but he assumes an already-virtuous regime and puts a lot of faith in the virtue of the elite trickling down to everyone else. While Gandhi has already been mentioned by my friends in their comments on the protests, I’ve yet to see any reference to his great American pupil, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His Letter from a Birmingham Jail seems relevant to the current context:

…I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.

The “more excellent way” must appear glacially slow to those who want to feel the quick rush of throwing a brick through a Starbucks window, but it’s the only way that true evolution of our nature occurs. It is the political equivalent of the Great Work: requiring our utmost effort and patience, continually performed, and never fully accomplished.