Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Joshua says:

Violence: I, too, dislike it.

The first thing I should do, after thanking Franklin for making this space for me, is to historicize at least a tiny bit. The recent discussions of social violence (whether it’s “political,” and if so, how, seem up for grabs) come in the wake of widespread rioting in France. But they also come at a long moment when the threat of political violence to privileged white Americans, the sort of people who might work in the World Trade Center, seems closer than ever. And, I would hope, when the knowledge that what that “we” has—cars and houses, the “rule of law” and the time to expound on pacifism—rests on a foundation of violence both historical and ongoing. These are not the meaning of this moment; they are some of the conditions out of which meanings arise.

If I historicize, it’s not to psychologize my debate partners, or to argue for anything so much as history itself. One of the great ironies of arguments that absolutely reject political violence is that they pose themselves as bulwarks against some “utopian” impulse that, we’re told, leads always to Auschwitz, the gulag, the Cultural Revolution. And yet, the absolute rejection of political violence presents a transcendental value. It’s ahistorical, totalizing, and the rest; it tells others what they may and may not do regardless of their circumstances, while denying that such thinking comes out of the particular circumstances of the speaker. It claims objectivity while enforcing its subjective interests. This is the worst bargain on offer: all the foibles of utopian thinking, without even bothering to imagine a better world.

This is not to say “peace” isn’t to be desired. It is. But the residents of the banlieues weren’t at peace a month ago, any more than Rodney King was at peace five minutes before he was pulled over; any more than the Algerians were at peace in 1953. No peace was broken in the banlieues; the violence of that scene has been ubiquitous. The thing that changed was the dynamic of violence. This can’t be stressed enough. When someone critiques the actions of the banlieusards, they aren’t refusing violence. They are refusing violence to certain people in certain conditions, while defending the right to violence of others. They are choosing sides and hoping no one willl notice, perhaps including themselves.

Like Franklin, I am uncomfortable with violence. I am uncomfortable in some of the same ways: with its masculine charge, with its capacity to harm relative innocents. Nor, honestly, do I have much desire to encounter violence personally; though I’ve never hit anybody, I’ve been beaten with a nightstick all the way to the hospital. When I discuss violence, I don’t do so as an armchair idealist. But I also don’t do so as someone who, in every minute of one’s daily life, is a subject of state violence, including the violence of laws that exist to maintain one’s subjection.

That too is historicizing: to remember who I am, and what privileges I have. And to recall, further, that my sense of comfort does not come out of transcendental ethics but from historical conditions. So, to repeat: I am uncomfortable with violence. And yet, at the same time, I understand that historical change for the dispossessed has never come in ways that appeal to the comforts of the possessed. I recognize that to deny politics to the actions of the marginalized is a cliché of the empowered, not an analysis. The sentence “make a rebellion against me that I condone” is nonsensical. The sentiment that the miserable have perhaps a right to their misery but not to relieve it unless in a way I have authorized isn’t ethics; it’s leaning all your weight against the wheel of history while pretending to stand on the streetcorner whistling “Spanish Bombs.”

I’m not calling for violence, nor calling for “peace.” I’m suggesting that particular people, in particular conditions quite extraordinarily different from mine, need not vet their tactics with me, nor with Franklin or other beneficiaries of the world-as-it-is-just-now. Neither do we get to decide whether their actions are properly tactical in the first place. If you fancy yourself truly non-violent, act historically and pragmatically. Exercise your concern first with the cops and next with the corporations; if you succeed, I rather suspect the banlieues will stop burning of their own accord.

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