01 May 2012

For May Day: the return of a violent left?

With Occupiers planning symbolic or confrontational reoccupations across the country in honor of the international workers' day, from Cleveland comes news of the arrest of five supposed anarchists who are accused of plotting bombings and attacks throughout the metropolitan area. As is usually the case, much of the government's information comes from a hired infiltrator so the usual caveats should apply when reporting or commenting on purported terrorist conspiracies. Still, it would be an interesting milestone, if not a reversion to classic form, if we actually have a homegrown leftist conspiracy to commit public violence. As far as some people are concerned, any alleged Muslim conspiracy is "leftist" to the extent that it is a priori anti-American, but violence on behalf of poor or presumably oppressed Americans is categorically different. It used to be fairly common, but the American left seems to have disarmed itself since the 1970s. Gone are the days when black radicals were among the most urgent advocates of more widespread gun ownership and white radicals were busy making bombs. Many a liberal is glad those days are gone, but I wonder sometimes whether the turn toward pacifism if not passivity is as absolutely positive a development as liberals suppose. The cult of Dr. King skews our view of the Civil Rights Era, when it could just as well be argued that politicians made concessions out of fear of rioting and insurrection rather than through the persuasive power of King's moral example. Liberals abhor coercion in any form, but how much progress has actually been made toward equality without demands being made in "or else" terms, explicit or implicit?

For many observers, "everyone must live, or else no one is safe" is not a moral argument -- though that may be because, for those observers, morality is only a matter of determining who deserves to die. I suppose anyone who makes an "or else" demand does the same thing, but that only leaves it up to us to judge between different determinations. The left has been too easily discredited in the U.S. because the right has persuaded people that the left's demands are unreasonable if not immoral -- while the right's demands go unquestioned because they claim not to demand anything they don't earn. A combination of guilty conscience over the excesses of the Sixties and Seventies and the effects of rightist sophistry probably has convinced many Americans that they have no right to demand anything as the right of civilized people, and that leaves people with little motive for taking up arms or even taking a chance on challenging the social order. It may be inevitable, however, that socioeconomic and environmental pressures push more people to the point where older laws take effect and they see no choice but to push back.

With those thoughts in mind it'll be interesting to see what happens to the Occupiers today. In Albany, where I live, the authorities intend to allow the Occupiers to demonstrate in Academy Park, where the shrubbery has been carefully fenced off, but they intend to enforce a curfew as well, while an Occupy Albany sign posted throughout town invites people to "bring a tent" because "the party may not end." While the district attorney may still refuse to prosecute would-be Occupiers, the protesters can't expect not to be arrested if they try to stay in the park again. What then? Will it convince some that nonviolence accomplishes nothing? Will violence then confirm others in their contempt for the left and its demands? Everyone's ideal -- even on the right, for the most part -- is a world not without violence but not ruled by violence. The implications of that ideal differ depending on your point of view. For some, it obliges everyone to compromise. For others, it obliges some to submit rather than take what they want or need. Some say that poverty is violence while others scoff at the notion. Some blame violence on greed, others on envy. Some say granting a monopoly on violence to the state is our only guarantee of security, while others see that as a surrender to inevitable tyranny. Some say fight and some say flight -- but what if there's no place else to go? Sometimes state and society must say we can't have everything we want; when may people disagree? Thinking these problems over may be a more useful way of honoring May Day -- as long as we can find a practical way of acting on those thoughts next May.

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