Monday, May 22, 2006

"yeah I'm for peace, but..."

In the days leading up to the opening of the latest Iraq War, I was a member of the “Anti-War Coalition” at my University. Like a thousand similar groups across the country, we were a “big tent” organization that held many philosophies: anarchists, vanguard socialists, democratic socialists, liberals, Christian Pacifists and even a lonely libertarian. The organization involved itself with local rallies, traveling to national protests, student education, etc, and everything was going quite smoothly until we took to writing our formal constitution.

The sticking point is probably a strange one to the outsider: it was the name that brought out the passions that had been simmering under the guise of cooperation. Despite many early suggestions and a number of proposed compromise names, the conflict boiled down to whether we would continue being called the “Anti-War Coalition” or would change out name to the “Peace Coalition.” For readers who are not experienced with life out here in the Left, it is apparently little things like this[1] that have deep philosophical importance in the “Progressive Community.”

The instigators of the name debate were a number of members who held a philosophy, which I will call Tranquil Reflectionism, that is best summed up in the bumper sticker: “Be the peace that you seek.” The holders of this philosophy are pacifists who seek to create a world of peace and harmony and believe that the first step to ending global violence is to bring their own minds and bodies into a state of peace and harmony. The second step, of course, is to make their organizations mirrors of their own internal state of tranquility. This is where the conflict starts.

Their problem with the “Anti-War Coalition” was the use of words “anti” and “war,” which both have negative and violent meanings. “Peace” on the other hand was a name that reflected the harmony they sought. Of course, this was a symbolic struggle, the real question was whether our “Big Tent” would now take a philosophic stance in alignment with pacifism and Tranquil Reflectionism.

Needless to say, as the debate wore on tempers flared on both sides[2] and the exchange became heated. For those of us in the Anti-War Camp, which I was a member of, we felt that our organization was being stolen from under our feet and turned to serve a philosophy that we disagreed with. Granted, we all had different reasons to disagree with it based off of our own personal viewpoints, but that was the beauty of the organization. We all wanted to stop the coming massacre and were willing to cooperate to do it, but not to serve someone else’s personal mission for spiritual equilibrium. In the end, the Anti-War side won the day, perhaps because we had a young fellow named Dave with us who could (and still can) outshout an entire motorcycle gang.

Tranquil Reflectionism, however, did not die with our victory and is certainly not limited to my little Upstate SUNY campus. Today, the Big Tent has collapsed across America and the movement in opposition to the Iraq War has become controlled, except in a few pockets, by a single ideology. Attend a rally in Tempe, AZ, and the “Peace Police” tell you which chants and signs you can carry, where you can stand and what you can wear. The only acceptable slogans are the “peaceful” ones and confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. Attend a peace council in Rochester, NY, and you’ll find that it’s full of white folk who love Ghandi and put all of their hopes on getting the UN to intervene in Iraq. Once upon a time, these meetings were full of all of those groups that I mentioned above in my Big Tent, plus more, and reflected society in general. Today, for some reason those folk don’t feel comfortable in the movement and no longer feel that it belongs to them.[3]

The Tranquil Reflectionist movement presents an inherently impossible and completely ineffective model for social change. There first inherent flaw became obvious when they dropped their peaceful composures and argued back at our fateful meeting: in a place where human beings are able to express their opinions there will inevitably be conflict. We can never create the model of perfect harmony in our organizations and perhaps not even within ourselves without also killing dissent and freedom of thought.

Secondly, Tranquil Reflectionism takes the flaws in society and places the responsibility for them upon the head of the activist. “If society isn’t peaceful,” it claims, “the reason for it is because you (the activist) aren’t at peace.” I have seen dedicated activists drop out of their good work entirely because they weren’t “at harmony” and had to perfect themselves before returning. Of course they never came back. Perfection seems to be always out of reach for the average human, just as utopia seems to be always just beyond the horizon for human society; to insist that the activist attains the first before even contemplating the second is the place her down the path to failure. Furthermore, this philosophy is, in itself, a reflection of capitalism’s hyper-individuality and it’s emphasis on personal change and effort as the only path to a better life. It reinforces apathy, rampant egoism and activist burnout.

Finally, to insist upon tranquility is to ignore the plight of those whose lives are constantly subject to the violence of the state and the capitalist system in order to keep them down; it is thus a class- and race-biased philosophy. While the use of violence against objects and, especially, people, is always a hotly debated subject, the need for aggressive action should not be. When the Man pushes you down in the mud, to not look up and spit in his eye is a crime to your own dignity and humanity. To quote “We Want Freedom” by the hip-hop artists Dead Prez:

“Yeah, I'm for peace/But I'll kill ya if ya fuck with my moms or my niece/See we all want peace, but the problem is/Crackers want a bigger piece/Got it where the niggas can't get a piece/That's why police get stabbed and shot/Cuz a nigga can't eat if the ave is hot.”
Perhaps the Anti-War faction was over-zealous in the repulsion of the Peace faction, because, after all, our Big Tent should have been big enough for even a Tranquil Reflectionist to find room. I regret many of the actions that we took in those heady early days of activism, when we made it all up as we went along and every challenge appeared to be something new to the face of the earth. While today I would suggest to my past-self a response with more tact and diplomacy (probably better than shouting, we need to save that tactic for dealing with Nazis and the Minutemen, not our misguided allies), I do not regret following my gut on that day and rejecting outright a philosophy of self-repression and ineffectual distraction.

-By Jesse Harasta

[1] For instance, I once saw a national congress break apart over the issue of consensus versus majority vote. At the time I was somewhat naïve and didn’t see it for what it was: a power struggle between the International Socialist Organization (an authoritarian group) and the anti-authoritarians for the heart of the student movement. Today I’m ashamed to say that I sided with the ISO and helped to drive out the anarchists.
[2] A bit ironic for the Tranquil Reflectionists, eh?
[3] However, resistance doesn’t even die here. I remember sitting in a peace council preparing to protest the arrival Dick Cheney. Most of the suggestions at the meeting came from a group of old white Quaker women who had been running “the peace scene” in the city for years, through a dozen wars. Half-way through the meeting, the representative of the local homeless person’s organization, Poor People United, rose to speak. A large, striking, black man in a leather jacket, he denounced them all as ineffectual, ignorant and basically racist. Perhaps he was a bit harsh on the grannies, but after his speech, the room became alive again and people who had been silenced before now felt free to express their own opinions and ideas. While the plan to have the city’s homeless barricade themselves under the conference center and fight the police with homemade weapons to demand heated shelters to sleep in during the winter fell through, the plan to have folk in powered wheelchairs blockade the main doors did work… Cheney and his local fan club had to sneak in the servant’s entrance while we controlled the front gates for a day.