From HAC Member Phil Burpee
Liberation is the throwing off of the yoke of tyranny, and liberty its outcome. Freedom is rather the ongoing ability to speak your mind and act openly within the cultural and political life of your community or society. The latter ought to follow the former, and it must be defended in all places, at all times, and in all circumstances. For it is never enough merely to throw off the yoke without setting in mind the necessity of keeping the forces of suppression and oppression ever at bay. Revolution has no end-point.
Roger Berkowitz’s consideration of the dangers made manifest in the newfound enthusiasm hither and yon for the notion of the ‘illiberal democracy’ is certainly a case in point. It is perhaps the central and abiding innate failing of democracy that it provides a ready mechanism for demagoguery of all types to accede to power without recourse to brute force. Witness the U.S. presidential election of 2016. Yes, just as the glory of the peaceful transfer of power underpins the marvel that is democratic process – the ballot rather than the gun – so therein lies the peril. These clamouring and insidious adherents to the new and perverse orthodoxy of majoritarian democracy stripped of its root elements of respect and accommodation belie their true intent – that of democratic access to power as a mere stepping-stone to the ultimate disassembly of the democratic state itself. The il-liberalism referred to stems from the incisive and specific English tradition of the term ‘liberal’, the liberal in liberal democracy, which articulates a society based upon free expression of ideas, free assembly, representative government, personal freedom within the law, sanctity of the individual, open markets and an ongoing rigorous challenging of any and all stultifying orthodoxy. The American usage of the term is far more squishy and broadly encompasses any and all social posturing and a certain dopey acquiescence to anything deemed to be ‘cultural sensitivity’. That bastard child, hyper-excessive political correctness, is its progeny, along with the resultant suppression of free thought and idea. It was Hitchens who reminded us that the essence of the independent mind is not found in what it thinks, but rather in how it thinks. Independent thinking is the key to an open society. Groupthink sounds its death-knell. Information silos, you see, contain a mildewed grain, replete with toxic ergots that befuddle and dull perceptions.
So yes, the really astonishing thing about democracy as an operational idea is this underlying sanctification of the thinking individual as being the absolute basic building-block of the entire edifice of political governance. The very idea of the mere scratching of an X on a piece of paper being the deciding element in the raising up and/or bringing down of the mighty and the powerful is breathtakingly radical. Every woman and man in a democratic society is the ultimate arbiter of power, and of the way in which it will or will not be wielded. This is a very bitter pill to have to swallow for those who would rather rely on the more conventional mechanisms of the plutocracy/kleptocracy – money, propaganda, nepotism and the police. Hence the chronic efforts towards voter disfranchisement by the right-wing corporatists in the U.S. – of Blacks, Latinos and the poor especially. And witness the early assaults by ‘illiberal’ putschists such as Viktor Orban of Hungary on the judiciary, the free press, and open universities. And here again Trump likewise considers any media or governmental structure which does not advance his cult agenda to be a threat, and therefore subject to attack or co-opting. The Supreme Court itself is regarded as a mere tool. These are the very organs we have nurtured over the last few centuries to assure compliance with the rule of law and the free exchange of information and ideas. The peril is not new. Socrates was, to all intents and purposes, murdered by the state for challenging the authorities whose preferred system of ‘thought’ was closed and compliant. Purported ‘crimes of convenience’ were accordingly drubbed up to provide a sour patina of validity for the charges against him – bogus, of course, as a three dollar bill. But the point was made for anyone tempted to step outside the bounds.
Interestingly, in their better days the Athenian Greeks took it a couple of steps further with their open forum system of balloting. Not only did they not trust the rich and powerful to do the right thing, they also didn’t trust the political classes themselves, so their candidates were chosen at random from amongst the population. It was not just tongue-in-cheek nor indeed mere cynical bitterness that generated the observation back in 2016 that virtually anyone chosen at random off the street would stand an odds-on chance of being a better president than Donald Trump. We now know that to actually be true, but the point is that chronic power corrupts, and those blessed with wealth and privilege simply cannot help cleaving to the old saw – viz. the Lord helps those who help themselves…..to other people’s stuff. The rich govern for the rich. The powerful govern for the powerful. They are, therefore, largely unfit to govern a society that seeks equity and the full expression of humanity. The best anybody can hope for in a government run by the rich is a sort of patrician noblesse oblige – Bloomberg-style. The great benefactor will promise to see to the animal needs of the masses, so long as his treasure-trove is not compromised, and due legislation put in place to assure that ongoing state of affairs. Look around if you like, but don’t touch the merchandise. Yet this in itself supposes a relatively benign ruler – a righteous king. Well, good luck with that. You might as likely get Louis XIV or Idi Amin. Nope – it’s a vain hope, and very chancy to boot. It’s not worth the risk of ceding control. Power must be of, by and for the People. And that’s not just being quaint or jingoistic. That’s a mechanical reality that has to be established and maintained.
Why resistance, then? What does that even mean? And resistant to what? Well, consider the attached image here. And place it within the context of the truism that war is a failure of civil society/societies. It is a pencil drawing I felt compelled to render after seeing this man in a magazine photo. He is Gazan. We know who is the target of his sling. We also know that he is in great peril of being shot. It is, of course, a very dramatic and graphic inverse allegory for the abiding national and cultural mythos of David and Goliath. As it happens I am a long-standing supporter of Israel, though I lament its gradual decline into reactionary nationalism and right-wing extremism of recent years. Nonetheless, the experiment of a democratic state and secure homeland for the Jewish people was, and potentially continues to be, a worthy one. I knew kids from my generation who went to kibbutz, and also went to serve in the Six Day War. They were acutely aware of being in the vanguard of resistance to a historical juggernaut that very nearly annihilated an entire people – and the sense of common purpose was intoxicating and heady. But now, who is this legless fellow risking his life to lob a rock at an Israeli tank? What’s going on here? Where did it leave the rails? How desperate and enraged do you have to be go out in a wheelchair to confront a modern technological war machine using a weapon that hasn’t changed for three thousand years? It’s a moot question. Here then is resistance at its most visceral and immediate. The image has a companion in the fellow in the white shirt with the shopping bags standing in front of the tanks on their way to Tiananmen Square in 1989 to quash the student uprising. It is at once compelling, audacious, astonishing, shocking and inspiring. And it begs the question – is there a time before the onset of desperation when it is necessary to stand before the machine and say – “Here I am. Cut me down if you must, for I will not stand aside.”?
Certainly the most recognized application of the term in the 20th century was that applied to La Resistance in France during the Nazi occupation of WWII. This was the resistance against an actual fascist invader whose very presence in the country was anathema to the espoused foundational ideals of the native people – liberty, equality and brotherhood. The enemy against whom to resist was all too obvious, and the work itself was profoundly dangerous – an entire family or village could be exterminated if an agent of the Resistance was found amongst them. It also culminated in D-Day and the term that began us here – Liberation. But what does resistance mean as an ongoing political tool where the ‘invader’ comes from one’s own polity, one’s own family, and the imposition of control is more protracted and cumulatively corrosive? This is by no means moot. Our liberal democracies are under assault from within and the man with the sling and the man in the white shirt cannot help us here in our time of growing peril. If we wait till then it will be so much too little too late. Or consider this – I picked fruit back in the day with a French dude, Celtic stock from Brittany. It was the 1980s and there was much talk of peace and disarmament and such like. We were having a heated chat one time about the merits of pacifism and non-violence and came to the sort of impasse that often results from such conversations. Would Gandhi’s ahimsa have worked against Stalin or the Gestapo – that sort of thing. Finally, in some mild exasperation I suppose, he had this to say - “All I know is zis – when the Nazis come, you shoot.” Okay, yep – point taken. End of conversation. This is functionally where the Gaza slinger is in his head. No more options. But, of course, we are not there yet. Rather we might choose to fall in behind Marianne, that bare-breasted icon of the revolution, as she leads her people into battle. So…….we pause. And we consider.
This ugly impulse towards illiberal democracy, itself a deep dichotomy of terms, reminds of a sour joke about democracy following the Arab Spring – one man, one vote, one time. You vote the guy in who will make sure you don’t get to do it again. This is a very appealing notion for conniving moral midgets like Donald Trump. Such rat-bag operators will typically get into power, co-opt the judiciary and security forces, hobble the free press, then set about changing the constitution to enable dynastic control. Don’t laugh – this stuff happens. But only with a complacent or cowed citizenry. Which is where resistance comes in. And here we can broadly take resistance to mean civic engagement – wolfbane to autocratic werewolves everywhere – or Kryptonite or stake-through-the-heart or whatever analogy of giant-slayer you want. I recall an interview with Frank Zappa once years ago, who, as interesting as it might seem, self-referred as a conservative. However, the matter of youth unrest and agitation came up. Here’s what he said – “If you don’t like what’s going on around you then go run for something – dogcatcher, school council, congress – any duly elected office. Then change things.” Or consider rapper, activist and social philosopher Killer Mike at that news conference in Atlanta a couple weeks back with Mayor Lance Bottoms about George Floyd and all the protest action. He was sad and angry, but really pissed about the fires and looting, and what he said was this – and I paraphrase loosely here, but with the gist of it intact - “I know you’re angry and frustrated, and I don’t blame you - but don’t go and burn down your own houses – that’s what they want you to do. Hang onto your houses and gather in them and organize and get ready for lawful action and prepare to vote out that bad sheriff or racist congressman. Channel it into real action.”
Yes, there it is. The only salvation for democracy is more democracy – and yes, sometimes that happens in good part in the streets. I worked with a Dutch guy back when I was in my twenties and he told me something that surprised me and stuck with me. He was a recent immigrant, and he said that when he went before the immigration judge to get his citizenship, she had this to say to those so gathered. “Wherever you may come from in this world, know now that you are becoming a citizen of Canada, which is a democratic country. But do not believe that this is merely the right to elect your government - it is also a responsibility, and one which you must pursue every single day with pride and vigilance. It is not merely the casting of a ballot every four years – it is a constant commitment to citizen action.” Wow – that’s cool. Nobody ever told me that in school. And there’s the magic. In a democracy power is not assumed – it is granted.
You know, countless bad guys in countless B-grade movies have cackled maniacally – “HA! You fools - resistance is futile!” Uh, no it’s not. Quite the opposite. In fact it is the essence of democratic vigilance. Resist the forces of conformity and acquiescence at every turn. Take it seriously. Believe that power lies in your own head and heart. Don’t sit on your couch punching into online petitions and think you’re somehow meaningfully involved – you’re not. Think. Organize. Act. Pester your councillor, your mayor, your member of parliament, your congressperson, your senator. Stand up. Run for something. Shake off the dust. Find voice.
What has been learned alarmingly over time, and sometimes too late, is that it all slips away so easily. And it need not be some great putsch – it can go in dribs and drabs. It is a dangerous laziness that says, “Oh, come on – it can’t happen here. Don’t worry – our representative government is secure. Tyranny is a distant bogeyman.” But, hey – give your head a shake. The bogeyman is never far away – lurking like some skanky drug dealer on every street corner. Or more to the point, like some bloated, degenerate latter-day King George III slumping like an evil toad behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. As Henry Wise Wood, the former President of the United Farmers of Alberta, pithily observed – “Democracy may be simply defined as the people in action.” Yes, again - there it is. But act now, not later – ‘cuz later can get too late. Don’t wait for somebody else to do it for you, for if we do not tell our own story, somebody else will do it for us. And then we’re into Orwell’s dystopia where who controls the past controls the future – and who controls the present controls the past. History is written by the victors. Once the tanks arrive, figuratively or otherwise, your resistance will be nothing more than a grand futility – beautiful perhaps, but really nothing more than slinging rocks at the Machine with an intense but useless fury.
Think. Speak. Register. Vote.
Pincher Creek, Alberta
June 23, 2020