Direct Action

Martin Luther King, Jr. on direct action:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

King’s recipe for direct action is a kind of gold standard. Still, it may have its weaknesses: there is no definition of “justice” in place, nor standards of appropriate patience with negotiation, or justification for the strict pacificism. Whenever I teach the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I remind my students of Condoleezza Rice’s father:

“My father was very clear about why he wouldn’t [march],” Rice says. “My dad was not someone who you would strike with a billy club and he wouldn’t strike back. It just wasn’t in him.”

In what sense is this sense of self-respect a failure of “self-purification”? Too often references to King and Gandhi are used as a cudgel against activists. Even King himself!

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

Questions for Martin Luther King, Jr Day: When is non-violent direct action justified? Is violent direct action ever justified? If so, when? Should activists always restrict themselves to the actions that would be acceptable if used by their political opponents? Should pro-life activists Occupy Abortion?

The Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear

GOODSIGNWinMcNamee:GettyIt was a policy wonk’s rally. People who know too much to think activism can be effective in the current media environment. People who spent the last decade protesting the war or Gauntanamo to no avail, only to watch the Tea Party become a major force with minuscule numbers because of a television network’s support.

I think some are confusing the image of the rally described in the news, a hipster’s ironic send-up of political activism, with the event itself. Even the organizers knew that would happen. Perhaps they’ve even made that mistake themselves, because they were on stage. But it is a mistake.

For one thing, most attendees couldn’t even hear or see the stage or the various jumbotrons. So most people who were there ended up spending the rally interacting with the people around them. We’ve grown used to political movements aligning themselves with a visionary voice: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Barack Obama. But Jon Stewart isn’t that, and the people who attended the rally were not there primarily to hear his jokes or to listen to the musical acts he booked.

The vast majority of the signs were anti-extremist signs, mostly lampooning the Tea Party. Just as the vast majority of the Tea Party’s signs were against Democrats. I saw one sign I found offensive: “I masturbate to Christine O’Donnell.” Other than that, people with signs were generally proclaiming that they value tolerance and civility. It may have been buried in several layers of irony, but these people were for and against things. Civility *can* be a cause of its own.

It wasn’t all Democrats, though there were quite a number of “Legalize Marijuana” signs. It was a polarized group, though. There were Republicans, but they were Mike Castle Republicans, not Sarah Palin Republicans. (Many still wearing their campaign apparel.) There weren’t any anarchists, at least not in their characteristic “garb” or up to their anti-corporate vandalizing antics.

The one thing a rally can do (that a policy paper or late-night comedy show can’t) is remind people that they’re not alone. Gatherings give us a palpable insight into the power of our ideas, their support among strangers, and the thronging multitudes of others who want what we want.

In my paranoid moments, I sometimes worry that the rise of overly sentimental anti-intellectual demagoguery presages some form of fascism. (I don’t really believe this, any more than Juan Williams believes that all “garbed” Muslims are terrorists. But the gut fears what the gut fears.) After the Rally on Saturday, I can say with greater confidence that the moderates outnumbered the extremists.

It is tempting to reject moderation when one is frustrated by politics, and there is a long tradition of lampooning moderates for being unprincipled or quietist. But I’m with Cass Sunstein, and Halifax, on this one:

Why, after we have played the foole with throwing Whig and Tory at one another, as boys do snowballs, doe we grow angry at a new name, which by its true signification might do as much to put us into our witts, as the others have been to put us out of them? The Innocent Word Trimmer signifieth no more than this, that if men are together in a Boat, and one part of the Company would weigh it down on one side, another would make it lean as much to the contrary, it happneth there is a third Opinion, of those who conceave it would do as well, if the Boat went even, without endangering the Passengers.. . . [T]rue Vertue hath ever been thought a Trimmer, and to have its dwelling in the middle, between the two extreams. — Lord Halifax

Badiou and the Philosophy of Religion

Arts and Letters Daily has this piece on Alain Badiou. Badiou theorizes that there are four conditions of philosophy: science, poetry, love, and politics, and as many of his early adopters have pointed out, there’s a clear bias against theological or religious truth in his work.

Mr. Badiou also took considerable interest in a question about why religion was excluded from the areas that he identifies as sites for the work of philosophy. He said that the question of why he had limited such areas to four came up often, and “my answer is that I don’t find another.”

He said he had concluded that religion was “a fable about an event, and not an event.”

Badiou basically takes the Heideggerian critique of onto-theology as given. That is, he expects that his audience will agree with him that theologians are just bad metaphysicians, trapped by dogma. On this view, the work of the scholastics is entirely predicated on a simple mistake: all God-fearing thinkers will ultimately assume that Being is a being. They will find themselves speaking of God simultaneously as ‘all that is,’ the creator of ‘all that is,’ and the very ‘is-ness’ of ‘all that’. In this moment, they short-circuit the ontological difference, an easily identified mistake in most cases, but hard to pinpoint in this ineffable realm. We know that this red apple is different from ‘redness,’ and moreover, we are generally intelligent enought not to go looking for the ‘Red’ from which all ‘red’ springs. Yet when it comes to ‘Being’… we feel that there must be an actually existing entity responsible for the creation and maintenance of all beings.

Now, in various disciplines, ‘phenomenologists’ (whose actual titles have varied from priests to psychologists to neurologists, but all focus on an experience, so we’ll stick with the ‘phenomenon’) have suggested a number of entries into theological experiences. Conversion experiences and mysticism, for instance, are right up Badiou’s alley, insofar as they point to a moment of novelty, the ‘creation of newness.’ The real question would be: do these experiences in fact have religious content? I have tremendous respect for those who, like Martin Luther King, Jr, use religious language to accomplish truly revolutionary things in the political sphere. But how religious is desegregation, really? He often mentions that segregation models the theological conception of sin: ‘separation from God.’ I think this is beautiful, poetic, even. But did it ’cause’ desegregation? Did the country become convinced of the truth of that analogy, and give up its sinful ways? Or is this just a specific mode of the ‘suture’ by which King brought a poetic truth (racism is ugly) and a political truth (racism is unjust) into conjunction, and thus created something new?

Sin supplies another interesting possibility for philosophical content: we all recognize badness, after all. At its best, sin seems to be a particular metaphysical account of badness, a conceptual regime of discipline mobilized in the service of personal relations (love) and social stability (politics). Insofar as love supplies the crucial metaphors of fidelity, (to the event of ‘falling in love’) from which contract theory derives its legitimacy, we might even say that all ‘sin’ is basically an extenstion of the truth conditions of love. It seems ‘sin’ could only supply an alternative modality of truth if we could recognize something as sin which violated the promises and expectations of neither the private nor the public sphere. I’m at a loss to think of a sin that qualifies.

Perhaps I’m being too reductionistic. The most impressive spiritual achievements I’ve encountered have been attributed to a grand concept, unnoticed by scientists, unmatched by politicians, misunderstood by poets, and inadequately matched by love. ‘Faith,’ they call it. It’s what separates the truly spiritual from the simply religious. And I must admit, I’ve encountered a number of charismatic and serene individuals who definitely had something special going for them. Could it be something undreamt by Badiou’s philosophy?

The thing about faith is that it isn’t really a philosophically interesting concept. Certainly it can be described logically, using the structure of intentionality or as a critique of certain epistemological frameworks, but it’s not a concept that bears as much scrutiny as the scholastics and latter-day theologians seem to think. “Don’t know, believe it anyway.” Is there much more to it than that?

Even Kierkegaard, who used a notion of theological singularity to puncture much of the pseudo-Hegelian metaphysics of the late nineteenth century… does his accomplishment really count as theology? Often, I have trouble differentiating the trappings of religion from the philosophical content beneath. This is why I find Aquinas so distasteful. But with Kierkegaard, it seems clear that the content of Christianity is much less important than the metaphysics of singularity. The man’s greatest influence was Socrates, and his best work is on the inward turn of love. Most of his accounts of Christendom seem to have a political sweep to them: they are a call to arms to the boringly secular Danes, who have lost the intensity that Christian faith might supply. Ultimately, Kierkegaard confirms for me that the most important spaces claimed by religion are better expressed by set theory and psychoanalysis: in other words, by science and love.

Edited to add: it occurs to me that Badiou would describe the intensity of faith as a type of militancy. Thus, religion is easily parsed into his four conditions: theology is bad metaphysics, so it belongs to science; faith is misplaced fanaticism, so it belongs to politics; virtue (or sin) is strangely obligatory model for friendship and fidelity, so it belongs to love; scriptural exegesis and mystical experience both belong to poetry (art).