Interesting Times

There's an old Chinese proverb, sometimes called a curse, that says, "May you live in interesting times." For those who hold some belief in the possibility of living in a society or a world which is just and spacious enough (in every possible sense) for a human being to flourish (in every possible sense), the times we live in may seem cursed. Industrialized war machines seem to roam the earth nearly unimpeded, ideological extremism of every variety threatens the very basics of human dignity in almost every nation in the world. Any peoples relatively unaffected by those first two are ever more subject to the tyranny of a global economic system which shows as much disdain for their humanity as the war machines and extremist ideologies. The strange storm of the three combined seems to also be hurtling us toward  a world in which questions of human dignity may not matter in the most ultimate sense, as in a disastrous future where the scales of the delicate ecological balance that has allowed for our species (and billions of others) to evolve may be tipped toward one which makes the continuation of human life (possibly mammalian life a whole) impossible.

Until relatively recently, despair may have been an absolutely appropriate reaction to this state of affairs. In "radical" circles, there is often talk of the possibility that pharmaceutical companies are chiefly responsible for sudden and dramatic upswing in the diagnoses of mental illness and the prescription of medications manufactured by the industry as the treatment of these ailments. It's no less possible that what is often referred to as illness, is in fact a response to an insane world that should at least be expected, if not recognized as a healthy response to it. For those whom the work-a-day world is not enough of a distraction for their minds, and who have a bend to their personality and psyche which nurtures an interest in the world beyond their direct, daily experiences and immediately apparent needs and desires, the convergence of facts make a compelling argument suggesting the road our species has long been walking ends in a cliff towards which we have begun to sprint. We may just be medicating the very natural reaction of human beings to find the lives their being corralled into by the societies they live in as inhumane and irresponsible, without the society also making available to tools to deal with these problems. The majority of us are expected and treated by the larger world as either consumers or as social problems in need of the most simple and easily instituted solution. Agency is something to be undermined or whose use is to be directed along avenues that serve exactly the same conditions creating this situation. It's not something to be fostered, nurtured and seen as a necessary and vital part of a healthy society. A healthy society has an acceptable G.D.P, where it would be more sensible to suggest that a healthy G.D.P creates a society it's citizens find both acceptable and healthy.

It's generally accepted in radical, activist, and even most reformer circles that the population at large is under a rather heavy burden of almost constant indoctrination by a society that is deeply unhealthy. Depending on the school of thought, the particular community, political or social bend of any given circle, the reasons for this and the results of it are debated. They do generally agree though that the combination of media, economics and social pressures the individual faces from the time they are able to begin to understand themselves in context with other human beings and a larger society, there is a level of indoctrination at work. That indoctrination generally involves supplanting or outright creating the consumer citizen in place of the civic citizen, and shaping a persons ability to view the world through the consumer lens and the narrative that favors the kind of society that will continue that tradition. It should also be noted that these aren't necessarily some completely fringe radical ideas either. There are entire schools of academic thought dedicated to studying, producing data and explaining the mechanisms and results of it. They aren't generally ideas that are expressed in the more far reaching media outlets or in political discussions or debates held at the national or global level. Academics by nature or training don't tend to express ideas in the kind of easily digestible, simply expressed terms that make them fit neatly into the narratives and interactions they're describing, making them essentially unusable. Good academic research tends to produce results that aren't as simply black and white as our current political and media institutions like them either.

Even if all of this is true, the astute observer realizes there are signs of hope which have been largely absent for at least a few decades. As protest movements spring up and spread in nations across the globe, their motivations, shapes and tactics may all be very different, but they have at least one thing in common, none of them are content to simply accept the current order of things. All of them are essentially asserting that the institutions of their societies (often institutions with deep ties to those of other nations undergoing similar mass discontent) are no longer able to meet, respond to or generally seem very interested in the needs and desires of their citizens. Those of us will an eye toward seeing our societies move toward more just and humane foundations should be cautiously hopeful about this. We should also be watching what's unfolding to understand who the players are among these movements and what exactly may come of it should they succeed. History suggests human beings do not always force useless institutions out in favor of institutions any more useful or humane.

Opportunity is at hand for anyone with the ability to recognize it and to take hold of it. This combination of factors creates a situation in which any of the allies of sanity and human dignity have the ability to begin to address the problems they have long considered, discussed and just plain griped about. With this opportunity though, comes a significant responsibility. Shaping the prospective future of a society, a nation or the global community as a whole isn't something that can be undertaken with recklessness. It's also not something that can be expected to happen quickly or without taking a long term view of exactly what steps are necessary, what methods are most appropriate and especially, what the desired result of it all actually is. It requires a long term strategy with a sober accounting of the conditions as they currently exist as it's foundation, as absent of ideological suppositions as is possible.

In considering this, it's important for any and all to understand that the institutions that currently exist, no matter how distrusted or discredited, have had a heavy hand in shaping the way the populace of any society understands itself or it's situation. Activists, revolutionaries, reformers and many others have long lamented that the populace of the United States, and in many cases, the wider world beyond it's borders are either ill equipped to be able to make a successful transition to a new foundation for this society or the global community. They have lamented that people are under the spell of a media, religions, and state apparatus' that act essentially as Soma, keeping the population laconic and pacified, unable to understand the real factors informing and shaping their existence. In more ways than not, this has been correct. But, again, the relatively sudden explosion of popular outrage and popular movements suggests there is some hope to be found and that these conditions can be changed.

In that context, it is incumbent on us who believe another world is actually possible, to begin to set down many of the assumptions we have long held or to at least begin to learn new ways in which to express them. Insulting the average individual who has been chained to these conditions for the majority of their lives and is beginning to show some sign of awakening isn't a useful method of communicating. It is more likely to drive them directly into the service and employ of those who have recognized the kind of seismic shift taking place and are attempting to take control of it in order to instill an even less humane and just set of conditions that favor an even smaller group of individuals, corporate entities and states, whether or not they realize that is exactly where they have gone to seek shelter from the perceived insult and it's purveyor. In other words, let's not let our own self righteousness and left over outrage (whether justified or not) be our worst enemy. Let's not defeat ourselves because we favor winning the short term debate or argument over winning the long term goals of a larger strategy. That would be an enormous waste of the opportunity we find in front of us.

There's a very recent example to consider. The controversy surrounding the viral behemoth that the Kony 2012 video has become. For a very long time there has been a call for citizens of the United States and other industrialized countries to begin to look beyond the West when considering the suffering and pain inflicted on our fellow human beings. Both nationalism and racism have been attributed to this phenomenon, which is many cases has some definite truth to it. With the release and epidemic like spread of this video, it does represent the opening of exactly that window. The Invisible Children organization has been under relatively heavy fire since the video became such a phenomenon, and rightly so it seems. Much of the criticism (and there's certainly a lot of it) seems to be based on a sound foundation. From not taking the needs and wants of the people it purports to desire to attain justice for to the speculation of it being little more than a scam, nothing about the organization, this particular campaign it's waging or the situation in Uganda (where it's calling for action) seems at all simple.

All of this has been relatively good. There is a small signal that people in Western industrialized nations are beginning to be able to take interest in the lives and well being of people beyond their borders, customs and race that is somewhat different from what we've seen in the past. There has also been a swift, vociferous and pointed rebuttal of what by all accounts is an oversimplified and generally ill advised campaign. Ugandans who suffered at the hands of Joseph Kony (whom the video is attempting to make infamous) are getting a chance to take the global stage to express what they believe is most needed in their country. The brutality and inhumanity of the current leader in Uganda is being brought to light as a result. For anyone willing to take even the most cursory look, a complex picture is emerging, in relatively quick order. Popular debate has begun as well. In all, there are some very good signs here. 

There have also been some rather bad signs. Much of the criticism surrounding the entire controversy has been directed at the members of the general populace who have been spreading the video and expressing support for the campaign, and much of that has been unfair, and as a result, insulting. The dismissive nature of this variety of criticism is a hindrance to the cause of human dignity and respect more than it is a help.

One of the more interesting strains of this criticism has been that the general populace is once again gobbling up propaganda that serves the war machine. This is a myopic perspective. There's a lesson in the Kony 2012 video and campaign that should be heeded. Given that the general populace isn't well educated about the situation in Uganda or it's history, well presented propaganda can get the right conversation started. The word "propaganda" has come to have negative connotations due to the degree with which it is used by the kinds of institutions, governments and organizations there are so many popular uprisings against right now. But, in actuality, propaganda isn't much more than attempting to use some form of media to influence an individual or groups thinking related to a specific subject. Advertising is without doubt the most pervasive variety of propaganda. Advertising itself is used by corporations, political campaigns and every other variety of organization or community one can think of, including radical organizations, reform movements, and individuals with a desire to see the world changed for the better. Propaganda is a morally neutral tool, the way in which it is used may or may not be.

The average individual has neither the time nor the resources to spend on finding the information that will present them with the kind of nuanced, fully developed understanding of more than one or two specific issues or situations, at most. Being that they are entrapped in exactly the societal situation the very same activists, reformers and radicals making this criticism are attempting to address, it's a self righteous and ultimately destructive tactic to start attacking these average people. Instead, the Kony 2012 and Invisible Children controversy should be seen as a chance to take advantage of the opportunity that is created by the fact that the average, uninvolved person is taking some interest in people who are geographically and culturally on another continent. If the propaganda that their being presented with is of questionable value or moral standing, attacking the audience isn't going to do any of us any good. Present them with better propaganda instead.

This speaks to the question of a larger, long term strategy as well. It must be understood that the community of people attempting to push the society and the world forward toward a more humane foundation can not continue to both claim the populace is under the heavy handed weight of institutions that are holding them back from that progress and simultaneously attack that populace for being under the influence of those institutions. In many, many, many ways these institutions have formed the perspective through which the majority of society and the world see themselves and the world outside of themselves and their communities. Expecting that they are going to be able to shake that off because there have been a few months of more successful activism and more widespread protest movements is naive and absurd. It is self defeating and self congratulatory in the least attractive and appealing way. Approaching the populace in the same way that we approach the state or the various institutions involved with propping up the sagging status quo is a terrible, terrible mistake, and more than any other will guarantee that there will be change, and there will be a different kind of status quo, but it will be one in which we are even more likely to be the targets of repression of basically every variety. We can not both demand that governments, societies and institutions recognize the dignity of the human being and spend our time insulting the human beings we're demanding that recognition for. It is morally repugnant and it is intellectually and strategically empty. It is, in fact, the result of a lack of any real, pragmatic strategy.

There are other practical reasons not to take this approach to what is the majority of the people in any society. Jeremy Weiland has laid out a rough outline of the why's and how's for this as well. He has eloquently addressed the fact that those of us who have some desire to create a better society, can not do so through the iron willed approach we've spent our lives being addressed with by the agents of the status quo. It produces extremely problematic results that anyone with any real respect for human dignity is not going to want to be put in the position to deal with. His piece is aptly titled "Because Killing Them All Is Not An Option." Any long term strategy has to be made with the understanding that there is also going to have to be a strategy for once you've won, and continuing to develop the kind of antagonistic relationship that the majority of the radical, reform, and activist communities have had (at least to some degree) with the general public (or at least has been perceived by the public as having) is only going to facilitate an adversarial relationship should we actually be able to develop a long term strategy and win. This is not to say there isn't room for the kinds of non-cooperative and civilly disobedient actions that any successful movement needs, but that those actions must be exactly that, actions, and they should always contain the implicit message (if not absolutely explicit) that the action is directed at the state, it's institutions and it's foundations of power, not at the populace.

The attitude toward needling and antagonizing the populace out of it's lethargy is good and necessary when it shows no signs of having any interest in or idea how to bring itself about to some form of awakening. (On a personal note: It's an instinct I understand all too well and one I've been struggling to reign in as I've recognized there has already been a substantial change in the degree to which the public is willing to consider less than comfortable information in the last year). Considering the degree to which this is no longer true, and the numbers that can currently be counted as having a genuine desire to make some fundamental and foundational changes, that attitude should be almost totally discarded. It will not serve any long terms goals which will create a sane society that is willing to coexist with any more of a respect for human dignity than the one we currently find ourselves in. It will only create distrust, disdain and a lack of cooperation among those who do not already share any of our zeal for seeing that creation made real. What we need now is a creative and inclusive message that can point the way toward beginning to give the public the tools they need to no longer be reliant on the state and it's supporting institutions in order to be able to develop a more complex, nuanced understanding of issues on it's own. It will be a slow process, but it is also possible, and necessary in the long term.

For a good overview of beginning to develop and create a long term strategy with some ability to be both sustainable and successful, there are a number of good resources. Robert Helvey's "On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About The Essentials" provides an overview that is detailed enough to lay out the necessities, but vague enough to be able to be adapted to a number of different situations and desired outcomes. It's also written from the perspective of a man who spent a good deal of his life in the military, so it has a realistic and straightforward understanding of dealing with the problems that come from having to face a militarized response. Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship To Democracy" is also a good resource.


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