Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Deciding What to Fight, How and Why

I often disagree with what I read in David Brooks' columns in the NYTimes, but I (almost) always find his columns articulate, thoughtful and engaging. His column from February 2, How to Fight the Man, is no exception, and a particular passage has been echoing around in the back of my head:
The paradox of reform movements is that, if you want to defy authority, you probably shouldn’t think entirely for yourself. You should attach yourself to a counter-tradition and school of thought that has been developed over the centuries and that seems true.
These belief systems helped people envision alternate realities. They helped people explain why the things society values are not the things that should be valued. They gave movements a set of organizing principles. Joining a tradition doesn’t mean suppressing your individuality. Applying an ancient tradition to a new situation is a creative, stimulating and empowering act. Without a tradition, everything is impermanence and flux. 
In general, I would agree with Brooks that a revolution must be empowered by a belief in something that allows the revolutionaries to see the world as it should be, rather than as it is. But I think he misses a crucial piece of zeitgeist: the conjoining philosophies of many modern revolutionaries is a disbelief in the power of revolution, particularly in the pattern of revolutions overthrowing one order to establish a "new," all too similar, order.

In America, I'm thinking specifically of the various Occupy movements and the frustration stimulating the Tea Party, while abroad I'm thinking of the latest round of protests and the violent government reaction to the protests in Syria, Egypt, Russia and China. From everything I hear and read, there are undercurrents of a mantra claiming 'the system cannot be transformed or reformed, it must be entirely circumvented.' While there is no compromise and no negotiation, this refusal to articulate demands is not a form of nihilism; the unifying force behind the many revolutions is the conscious dismantling of the weapons used by institutions of power to pay lip service to reform.

In less public arenas, there are thousands of people trying to find ways to live the revolution. The proliferation of urban farmers and barter networks has been fueled by the belief that our current system is too deeply entrenched, too powerful, too seductive to change. For the modern revolutionaries, we live simultaneously in and around the capital-imperialist structure of the world. Having decided to fight "the man," we employ a strategy of non-engagement in hopes of avoiding being sucked back into the traditional power dynamics that subsumed each revolution from the Bolsheviks to the Beatniks to Flower Children to the Monday Demonstrations.

For one of these new style revolutions to be successful (and I doubt any one of them will, but perhaps the aggregate influences on our culture will give birth to the conditions to a genuine revolution) the revolution will have to grow in an organic way, one that historians can chart backwards through time, the way we chart the American Revolution back to the Enlightenment ideals of John Locke a century before, and back through European history to the Magna Carta. The revolution will be slow, but because it is slow, it might be complete.

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