Sunday, May 23, 2010

Civil defense is defense of civility

Since the Pentagon spent $4.7 billion on public relations this year, we might assume they put some topspin, backspin, slice, and arc in their game. They carry gauze, veils, and halos in their vast toolchest, and pull vats of mud and tar behind their warwagons, all to deal with the images of friends and enemies. All elites--military or corporate or rulers--do this.
In his classic Power in movement, Cornell professor of Government Sidney Tarrow traces the arguments and theories of what social movements are and how they work. He alludes frequently to what movements looked like from the beginning of academic and popular assessment of what they meant to themselves and to their opponents and to the public at large. Some of these factors result in natural tension that only nonviolence can resolve properly.
For Durkheim (1951) and most others, social movements were seen through the lens of the French Revolution and early 19th century industrialism (Tarrow, p. 5). Added to this, of course, were the adversarial styles of most labor fights in the first half of the 20th century, inflamed by the export of Leninist revolutionary vanguard violent philosophy. In many ways, the indigenous labor movements in the US were in fact hijacked by those who believed that power comes through the barrel of a gun or, at least, through the arc of a swinging club about to connect with the head of a cop.
In the case of the pictured 1934 Teamsters strike in my hometown of Minneapolis, the small Teamsters Union had a number of Trotskyist Communist League members who helped foment a mob mentality as they went out to strike in a climate of unregulated robber baron capitalism with goon squad paramilitary units. Indeed, most of my great uncles were truck drivers in Minneapolis then and one was hospitalized by these paramilitary units. When the cops shot and killed one of the strikers, that act triggered massive sympathy for the strike and literally half the population of the entire city were in the streets for the funeral.
Many in my boomer generation grew up with such links to direct battle for labor rights and these were the organizers who trained us. I will forever be grateful for their great lessons and will forever be internally battling much of the emotional content that they taught me to load into conflict. I spent the first years of my political life learning all their lessons and the next several decades unlearning and trying to replace many of their responses that shot straight to hate and violence. This is how collective memory works for all of us in our culturally specific ways and is why we have to work relentlessly and with great resilience to refashion those responses and the images that are created by our responses to social conflict.
Why? Didn't the French Revolution succeed? Didn't the Teamsters succeed?
Yes, but they also created victims and enemies that came back to haunt them again and again. Plus, any violence in any movement feeds into the ability of the elite who own and govern to tar and smear us with the Jacobin-Hoffa terrorist-thug brush of frightening violence and brutality. Those of us in any movement pay a dear price for the violence of others and we have to defend our movements against this vat of mud by creating a highly disciplined nonviolent force that creates and maintains that image of nonviolence. If we don't do that, we lose sympathy and recruitment falls. It shows we have no strategic plan and without that, as Sun Tzu told us 2,600 years ago, "Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."
Movements need the strategy of growth and the tactics of imaging toward recruitment. That is best achieved by making our movements look inviting, lower risk, and fun, or, as Tarrow put it, in a carnival spirit rather than anomie and social disintegration.

References (Sid Tarrow pictured)

Tarrow, Sidney (1998). Power in movement: Social movements and contentious politics (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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