we’ve been more about sedation than provocation

December 13, 2011 § 10 Comments

A: So . . . I love to see all this action on the ports — light years ahead of anything that’s happened in our lifetime, in terms of activism. But there’s this nagging question in the back of my head — what’s the point?

B: My first (admittedly facile) counter: what’s the point of doing nothing?

A: Duly noted.

B: My second (slightly less facile) counter: it empowers those who are doing it. To be doing something, anything, no matter how miniscule, is a grand gesture in contemporary America.

A: I can also see it as a kind of preparatory exercise.

B: It’s a tiny slice of empowerment –basically what people used to think voting was, vaguely participating in a system, that has no room for them.

[standard conversational deviations ensued . . .]

B: I think what these protests in particular are setting in motion are relationships, as strained as they will be, between non-unionized workers and unions. This action in particular is a provocation on many fronts: toward the obvious players, Goldman Sachs, capital, etc., but also toward those with whom we want allied, the mainstream unions, some of whom rightfully regard this as an undemocratic imposition on the rank & file. But, you know, nothing happens without adequate tension. In contemporary America, we’ve been more about sedation than provocation. If nothing else, this is something different.

A: And I guess just doing SOMETHING keeps the movement going/growing/etc.

B: Yes. And ideally, the “something” to which this might lead is more pro-union reform, where rank & file start pushing for more legislation to make strikes easier/legal. The day’s success cannot be measured by its media coverage, whether that’s positive or negative, though that plays a role. Assessing its success will take much longer than the attention deficient media cycle, though, since we’re talking about building connections that haven’t existed for quite some time.

A: Then we might get a Democrat elected president on a wave of popular support not seen in a generation, with a palpable debt to union organizers — OH WAIT. . . . Maybe the nation should go on a general strike until the fillibuster is abolished.

B: Given my tendency toward ambivalent positions that don’t make for very good slogans, I tend to approach the “what’s all this good for” question from the perspective of “this is all well & good, but do recall, we’re doomed.” For some, I realize, this takes away the need to do anything at all, so it must be advertised with discretion. But for me, it just takes away the need to quantify what success would mean. With that out of the way you’re freed to try just about anything.

§ 10 Responses to we’ve been more about sedation than provocation

  • Guido Nius says:

    Trying anything is not better than doing nothing.

    The idea that we are doomed always has been the root of all evil.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    It’s not always better, agreed, esp. when one is actively doing nothing. But certainly in America, where doing nothing (I’m speaking from the perspective of one not in power) is not so much a willful stand of principle as it is a default setting in need, I should think, of a reboot. In terms of dissent, Americans can on the whole afford some mistaken, shortsighted or blind stabs, if one subscribes to the notion that we learn by such things.

    As to the root of all evil — I believe I must disagree with you on this. In my view, evil is most prevalent when illusions are cast (& clung) to the contrary. Not so much when solutions are pursued, mind you, as I see no essential problem in this. I’m thinking more of when the core issue of mortality, the natural course of things is doomed — though that is perhaps a bit dramatically cast, I will admit — the flimsiness of it all, itself is denied. Even here, I am reluctant to say this is somehow a “root of all evil.” I’m not sure I believe in such a notion.

  • Guido Nius says:

    Brad, I think the notions of being doomed and waiting to be redeemed are one and the same destructive thought. Root of all evil is overly dramatic, but allow me the hyperbole because cultural pessimism really is a mighty bad thing. I don’t think couch potatoes are bad but I do think do-gooders are bad. We all express ourselves in the way we do and if that turns out suboptimal it is mostly because some are very active in expressing pernicious things and not at all because most are minding their own business.

    I know I am pretty alone in this conviction.

    I read Omensetter and: thank you, sir! It is even pertinent to this discussion.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Re: my use of “doomed” — it’s merely an expression of (a) finitude, and (b) a perceived premature rush, by way of a culture’s chosen activity, toward that inevitability.

    The only thing that distinguishes your position from the world as it is now is that for you passivity is a positive virtue. As I see it, though s/he may not be in the abstract a bad person even the couch potato is implicated in & by the actions of those who are, in your words, doing the “suboptimal” things. (Which is to say, there is no “in the abstract.”) As, for one, enablers; &, still others, reaping the reward of comfort by way of the crimes of others. This, to me, becomes particularly repugnant when we deny our place in the larger scheme of actions & inaction.

    I’m glad you liked Omensetter’s Luck, & agree that it might be pertinent to the discussion – but not at all how it might be in service to your conviction.

  • Guido Nius says:

    We come at this from different angles and I am afraid that putting my position forward will come over as me behaving like an ass, so with hesitation I reply to you thusly:

    I don’t buy finitude (neither do I care for the infinite). Life is a continuity without a beginning and without an end. Within that continuity things are never as they should be but they can become better as they were.

    The notion that most people are guilty because they did not actively stop other people’s transgressions is a perverse notion. It is also perverse in the concrete because it would make mothers guilty of the perversions of fathers. With such a notion every pleasure is guilty – and if every pleasure is guilty then indeed we are doomed because I don’t know what else we can strive for but the increase in pleasure experienced by our fellow human beings.

    No, the perversion of the fathers is an accountability of the fathers and it’s not the individuals that need to feel guilty for it but it is organized society and the public discourse that needs to hold them accountable. In this sense – maybe this is quite close to what you try to say – there is only a responsibility for an individual to help society organize in a better way (not by organizing it but by helping those taking pleasure in organizing it to do it in the right way).

    I have not read Omensetter as doom and gloom. I found it quite upbeat e.g. in Furber’s change of heart. But I’ll leave that for the other blog.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    This seems more reasonable to me, though I’m confident (& indeed, strangely hopeful) that intransigent points of contention remain. I would note only that you are the one who brought “guilt” into the discussion, not me. Being implicated, let’s say ecologically, in the actions of others (all these untold causes & effects, connected in various ways, ofttimes in baroque ways, and add up eventually to create the whole of history) — this is not the same as guilt. I’m definitely not in league w/ that kind of theological blame game.

  • Guido Nius says:

    I always wanted to have a XIX-century type of correspondence where it just keeps on going on. Just to say: I can bet you that contention will be utterly intransigent as far as I am concerned.

    Yes, I brought guilt into the discussion but why not name it guilt if what’s contended is that this absence of active intervention is being implicated into reaping rewards from other people’s crimes? We can see the world ecologically and still have the option to see it in an ecologically positive way or an ecologically negative way. I opt for the former in giving those of us considered as being passive a role in this bumpy & excruciatingly slow path of progress (ao a progress that allows people more activism). For instance, in reading Gass I did some definite good to society.

    The other side of this is that in an ecological reading activism can have a positive or a negative reading. I tend mostly to the latter and I do think there are reasons for this (I may be far more radically ecological in this than most overtly ecological people): there’s a level of drama implied in activism that cannot but exert undue force on individuals caught up in a certain context of activism.

    If you want to abolish bankery then your focus needs to be on bankery, not on people who do too little to stand by you. I am pessimistic this way because I feel that the activist left is currently less about progress and a lot more about attributing their inability to change things to a passivism of the many. Pacifists should respect passivists, their parents and most of their friends are like that. Life is not a mission.

    • Brad Johnson says:

      I would agree with your ecological vision (though I still don’t see or accept the place of guilt in your assessment of the situation), but you seem to prefer that it exist in nearly absolute stasis. In the scheme of thought you’re outlining, you can never quite fully know whether your activity in life will have a positive or negative impact — is it a matter of intention that does the trick for you? and thus why a reading of Gass, say, will be a definite good, because its intention was to involve nobody but yourself? I quite agree that activism has a negative impact on those it is not always directly its attention. The Montgomery bus strikes during the civil rights days, for example, surely made it inconvenient for people who needed to get around. But it would seem to take a certain perversity of mind to suggest “progress” would’ve occurred anyway, so they all the strikers would’ve been better just waiting it out at home reading.

  • […] from The Old Site, original dd. 02-05-2009. Surprisingly good one, à propos of this as well. […]

  • Guido Nius says:

    I don’t mind strikes nor their consequences at all. My problem is not with action but with the negative appraisal of non-action. It is misguided, and misdirected. I do not deny the legitimacy of action but the need for it is a symptom of a problem, meaning that action is always derived from some greater bad and is far removed from a greater good.

    The reason why action prevails has little to do with the action itself but a lot with the fact that the general insight of the public has moved in such a way as to support the goal of the action. When action is consequence of insight it can make a real difference. Where action tries to be in front of such insight it leads to nastiness and violence, and activists telling us what we ought to feel.

    The right ecological frame of mind steers clear from drama and – even – from indignation. It relies on the fact that in public discourse only what is closest to the truth can survive. So even if I don’t know what the specific impact of my reading is I know the impact will be good insofar as it does the service of bringing e.g. Gass more in the public domain. This is not a matter of intention although it may be a matter of intension (I still see a research project in this). I’m utterly optimistic: progress is occurring & will continue to occur, not regardless of us but regardless of this or that specific action that we undertake.

    My optimism only wavers when I see how people get addicted to an idea of being doomed and how prevalent this idea is becoming presently. It’s a recipe for disaster because, if progress is blocked, people will start to look for false security in a past where for instance it was not good to be gay.

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