Blames it on fate

29 07 2014

1. Victims are bad political actors.

To act politically is to act power-fully, that is, to wield power. To wield power well, you have to recognize that you are, in fact, capable and in a position to wield power; to wield power wisely, you have to be willing to act beyond the wound suffered, to see that others suffer, and to try to create conditions in which suffering is not the main driver of you and your people.

This, needless to say, is tremendously difficult: Nelson Mandela is lauded as one of the great political actors because he tried to move beyond suffering and to point South Africa toward a future in which all of its peoples took part.

He is lauded because what he did was so rare.

2. This doesn’t mean that victims can’t ever become political actors, or that the circumstances of one’s victimization cannot justly for the basis of one’s political activities.

There is a history of victims demanding recognition as having been victimized, demanding that victimization cease, and in some cases demanding recompense for their victimization. These causes—poor relief, civil rights, indigenous rights, Chicano rights, women’s liberation, gay liberation, disability rights—are just, and justly fought for in the political realm.

I am not arguing that the issue of victimization is off-limits to politics—quite the opposite.

The promise of politics is that one is able to act on one’s own behalf, to act in concert with others on shared concerns, and to act in service to larger principles and ideals. Politics offers the possibility of acting both for oneself and beyond oneself.

Politics offers the possibility of power.

A good way to avoid victimization is to gain power.* It is not unreasonable for those who first gain power seek to use it primarily in defense of oneself and one’s group, and then to try to advance that group’s interests based on more-or-less-narrowly self-interested grounds.

Note that this is the history of politics in New York City.

Note as well that New York City is not known for its pantheon of wise political leaders.

3. To state this baldly: in order to act well, to govern well, one has to leave behind one’s primary identity as a victim and embrace a wider role.

One’s past victimhood may, perhaps even should, continue to inform one’s political actions, but broadly, rather than narrowly, and based on generally applicable principles rather than solely on one’s own, particular, experiences.

Again, those experiences matter—politics ought not be shrunk to mere procedure—but if one’s own experiences matter, then one ought to be able to recognize that others’ experiences matter as well.

If you think it is wrong that you suffer, then you ought to be able to see that it is wrong that others suffer, such that when acting to relieve one’s own and to prevent future suffering, one ought to seek a wide relief, a broad prevention.

You don’t have to do that, of course—see the history of all politics, everywhere—but if you stick only to your own kind, insist that yours is the only victimization that matters, that even to suggest that others may be victimized, much less that you may victimize others, is to victimize you all over again, then you are a bad political actor.

If you cannot see that others may be victimized, that others suffer, then you cannot see others.

If you cannot see others, then, politically, you can act neither wisely nor well.

~~~

n.b. Recent events in and commentary about Israel and Gaza obviously informed this somewhat-fragmentary post.

~~~

*Arendtian tho’ I am, I nonetheless recognize that power may be gained thru non-political means as well. For the purposes of this post, however, I confine myself to political power.





Goodbye, blue sky

21 04 2013

A break from being a ghost; my head’s not in it.

~~~

I.

Early ’70s. I remember evacuating the  SmallTown elementary school at least once, possibly more than once.

Bomb scare.

It wasn’t scary. It seemed almost normal. But exciting, too.

II.

Mid-eighties.

On assignment for the Cardinal, to interview a physicist in Sterling Hall. My first experience in a building with radiation stickers on doors, emergency showerheads in the concrete-block halls.

Sterling Hall was bombed in 1970 by Karleton Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine, and Leo Burt, in protest against the University’s involvement with the military during the Vietnam War. The Army Mathematics Research Center occupied 3 floors in one wing of the hall.

The bomb wrecked, but did not level, the building. The AMRC was barely damaged.

It did injure three people: Paul Quin, David Schuster, and Norbert Sutler.

It killed Robert Fassnacht, physics post-doc. He did not work for the AMRC.

The bombers fled. Karleton Armstrong was caught in 1972 and served 7 years in federal prison. He returned to Madison, where he had a food cart on the mall by Memorial Library. He thought for awhile the bombing was wrong, but then reconsidered again, stating that because the cause was just, so too was the bombing. “It just should have been done more responsibly.”

Fine was caught in 1976 and served 3 years in federal prison.

Dwight Armstrong was caught in 1977, and also served 3 years; he died in 2010.

Leo Burt was never caught.

III.

I had been fascinated by and drawn to the radical history of UW-Madison, and was, honestly, disappointed by the lack of political involvement by most students in the 1980s.

Yes, there were anti-nuke and US-out-of-Central-America and anti-apartheid protests—the anti-apartheid protests were the largest—but it was far more a party than political school.

I don’t know how I felt about the Sterling Hall bombing, then. I’m sure I felt that it was horrible that a man was killed, but it’s quite possible that I felt, as Karleton Armstrong later did, that “It just should have been done more responsibly.”

IV.

My second novel is set, for a time, in mid-/late-eighties Madison.

The events of the 70s do not go unmentioned.

V.

Part of my disappointment in Madison was surely political, but it was just as surely an adrenaline slump. I wanted to be where the action was, and there was, for all intents and purposes, no action.

Except, vicariously, in the Cardinal newsroom.

I remember seeing the tear-off from the AP machine that someone had waxed to the wall outside of the Cardinal office announcing the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Pre-internet, if you wanted the news as fast as it was made, you had to be in a newsroom.

More than once, I stood over the AP machine as line by line the rest of the world unspooled in a windowless office in the basement of Vilas Hall.

VI.

In September 2001, I was in Montreal. On the eleventh day of that month I had, as I often did, ridden my bike up and down Mont Royal for exercise, showered at a nearby building, then made my way to my office.

I listened to the CBC before I left that morning, but not until the phone call from my parents and a pop-in from a colleague, did I know what was going on.

I couldn’t stop watching the news.

I wanted to be there, only—goddess help me—not for solidarity.

I wanted to be where the action was.

VII.

At some point between my 18th and my 40th birthday I thought seriously about the Sterling Hall bombing.

I’d like to think it was earlier rather than later, but when I did, finally, think seriously about it, I concluded that if you don’t want to kill people, you don’t plant bombs where people are or might be.

I am not a pacifist—I lack the courage to be a pacifist—and thus recognize that there might be instances when it is justified to use a weapon, to build a bomb.

But not in protest. You cannot responsibly bomb in protest. Never in protest.

The ends never justify the means.

VIII.

I paid attention to the bombing in Oslo.

I note the bombings in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Somalia. In Syria.

But not the same kind of attention. Do bombings matter less in war zones? Would there be war zones without bombings?

The people, they matter.

IX.

It caught the edges of my ears, last Monday.

What? What? Bombings in Boston? What?

Frantic for news. WNYC continuing with an interview about the Human Genome Project. There’s been a fucking bombing! Give me the fucking news!

Headlines on news sites, little more. Boston Globe site overwhelmed. NPR: headline, nothing more. NBC: headline, nothing more. CBS: headline, nothing more. CNN: headline, nothing more. Finally, a link to New England News Network, then WBUR.

Finally, NPR switches over. All three going at once, trying to pick out what happened.

Once again, less out of solidarity than wanting to know, just to know.

X.

I have become skeptical of solidarity in the aftermath of tragedy.

There might be some, good, reason for this: what does it mean? How will it matter? Isn’t this easier than anything else?

Sometimes coldness is in order. To see, clearly.

But I am skeptical of others because I am skeptical of myself. I want to be there, to be in the mix, to mix myself into the event and claim it for my own.

I want, goddess help me, the excitement. The vicarious thrill.

XI.

Sometimes distance is in order. To see, clearly.

What happened to Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, Martin Richard, Sean Collier, and the scores of other victims did not happen to me. I don’t know any of them; I have no connection to any of them.

This is not my tragedy.

It is only when I see that it is not mine that I can see what it means to those for whom it is. Empathy can mean looking for your own face amongst the affected, but sometimes sympathy—for the other—is the better option.

Sometimes you have to stand aside, to let the others pass.

Respect a discreet distance.

Let them be.





On a more sober note. . .

2 05 2011

Douglas Sidialo, who lost his sight in Osama bin Laden's 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, prays at the memorial remembering the victims in Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday, May 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates; photo and caption from The Atlantic