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Wanted: Unknown Rebels

unknown rebel

Wanted: Unknown Rebels

Austin C. McCoy

Today I had a couple of really interesting conversations. Naturally both of them revolved around political action. My first conversation involved issues of difference generally, race specifically, and action while the other was based upon my concerns about the lack of political action, or as many activists come to know it, apathy. It is no secret that we seem to be living in a period of high political intensity with the Presidential campaigns in full swing, the war in Iraq, and Americans hanging on every news headline that concerns the plummeting housing market, raising gas prices, senseless crimes, and immense poverty. Is this not enough to make human beings withdraw?

Yes and no. There is a lot of excitement for Obama’s presidential campaign. However, there is a lot of both skepticism and worship. Sometimes we try to escape what is going on by, ironically, indulging ourselves with movies about superheroes and super-heroines. Are we subconsciously looking for someone or something?

Maybe?

Maybe not?

Maybe some individuals think the problems are larger than they are? Maybe some individuals believe that if we just sit back, change will come as if we’re listening to Sam Cooke?

Maybe I am just pontificating?

But what if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. felt so overwhelmed by segregation he just gave up? Crazily enough, he could still be alive. What if Mahatma Gandhi thought British colonialism was too tough and insurmountable even for Satyagraha? Where would South Africa be if Nelson Mandela had given up in while in jail at Robben Island? What if Malcolm X did not choose to reform himself? What if that Chinese “Unknown Rebel” had not stood up against those tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989?

Questions of social change and political action are quite understandable. There are huge problems in the world: nations such as China turning a blind eye to genocide in Sudan, nations, the illegitimate leader of Zimbabwe—Robert Mugabe—rigging elections while nations who claim to be the beacon of democracy—the United States—only issues as much as a statement condemning his atrocities, rampant poverty found in all nations. Yes, I agree, these and other issues are huge. And yes, I agree, one person cannot change the minds of millions regarding issues of race, poverty, and genocide. That is too much pressure for even one person to even consider the thought.

However, one person can start where they are. We can talk about these issues. We can challenge our friends to act and stay focused. We can write letters to the editor, write blogs, and hold meetings. We now have the ability to create online communities and use these connections to organize political action on the ground. If we know it can, at times, take one person to pull a trigger to alter the course of American politics—John Wilkes Booth, James Earl Ray (presumably), Lee Harvey Oswald—then why do certain individuals ridicule one, two, or three people for organizing for positive change? Activists should respond, “It is your prerogative if you do not want to act, but keep your criticisms to yourself,” or, “Just do not get mad at me if I am no longer around.”

Granted, this may not be the most glamorous work. Organizing community is long and arduous. But even Senator Barack Obama would say that it is necessary. Issues that are close to one’s home can only last as long as people are willing to sit on their hands, keep their mouths shut, and their eyes closed. Homelessness, domestic violence, and drug use can only last as long as we do not think about it, or only think about ourselves. Racism only lasts as long as a group, or one, individual remains quiet and unaware. Sexism will only last as long as men want it to.

Marches, speeches, and demonstrations may draw news coverage but real change is built between individuals in local communities in the shadows of the Martin Luther King’s, Malcolm X’s, and Barack Obama’s. While I am excited and supporting Barack Obama’s campaign, it is also worrisome that we may actually convince ourselves that real change can only happen through casting a ballot. The act of casting a ballot is easy. Real change comes from, to paraphrase my friend and colleague, Greg Jones—communication, conflict, connecting individuals and groups, and thus, creating community. We can rally behind a political candidate. We can lose ourselves in movies about superheroes and heroines. We can remain complacent or we can dwell on the idea that the most pressing problems of our time are too big. However, many of tend to forget—while simultaneously propping up—the countless individuals who thought that their small contribution could impact the areas in which they live or stay. They never forgot that effective leadership, political ideologies, organizations, tactics, community, and luckily, solutions were created—often against insurmountable odds and seemingly out of nothing. Not all every activist was “gifted” or a “genius.” They were passionate, committed, and not willing to take no for an answer. Maybe they created genius?

Even if a civil rights activist in Greenwood, Mississippi could not read, she or he could listen, and still connect other activists to other pertinent community leaders and resources. Even if a black person in Montgomery did not have a vehicle to lend to the movement they could donate shoes for people to walk to work. Even if a black child could not vote during the 1960s they gave themselves to the cause. In creating community conducive to positive political action, each individual understood that they had to give a small part of themselves. Most importantly, these individuals who came together to form groups saw superhuman qualities in each other. Yes, not everyone was perfect, they made mistakes, and there was often conflict. However, they never resigned themselves to the thinking that the problem was too big.

Yes, I may think social problems could correct themselves if we let them. Yes, I may think these issues are too large for me. However, we know problems never correct themselves. Regular people correct them. Okay, issues just may be too large for me. We may not know exactly what to do. Sometimes it is best to start where one is and keep it simple. Yes, I could resign myself to the fact that the problem is larger than myself, but—if we helped create them—then there is no way that one can convince me that the most pressing issues are larger than us.

Not this time.

We do not need anymore Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Malcolm X’s, Abraham Lincoln’s, or even Hillary Clinton’s.

We need to buck socio-political conventional wisdom, experiment, and take risks.

We need to give a small part of ourselves.

We need more unknown rebels.

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Filed under: Activism & Political Organizing

To Stand Up and Fight: A Principled and Critical Patriotism for the 21st Century

Austin C. McCoy

 douglas

“Freedom is fragile and must be protected. To sacrifice it, even as a temporary measure, is to betray it.” –Germaine Greer

“Cause, everybody wants a shot, in this land of opportunity/Look at what this country’s got/ There shouldn’t be nobody homeless/ How can the president fix other problems when he ain’t fixed home yet?/The earth wasn’t made for one man to rule alone./To all colors and creeds is to whom it belongs…” –Nas

“He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” –Thomas Paine

“The metaphor is deliberate; it is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.”–Howard Zinn

 

American flags, shirts, pins, cookouts, parades, commemoration of the fallen and the founding fathers are staples of the American July 4th celebrations. Rightfully, a handful of individuals risked their lives to found a country based upon various then-radical and revolutionary ideals—representative democracy, freedom, and liberty. These ideas and the subsequent founding documents became dominant models of governance for other groups of individuals seeking independence from tyranny. Most importantly, scores of individuals from various nations have fought and died to preserve what they believed to be the best ideals that the West has ever created.

However, while everyone gathers on their porches to watch parade participants pass, I will be thinking of President Thomas Jefferson’s famous remarks concerning the patriotic ideal, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” I will be thinking about the alternative, and often suppressed, version of patriotism extended by ex-slave, famous orator, and civil rights activist, Frederick Douglass. In 1852 Frederick Douglass delivered—to a crowd comprising mostly of white individuals—his famous speech that not only acknowledged the past accomplishment of the founding individuals, but also criticized the United States, as a whole, for its unwillingness to repent for its original sin—slavery. Highlighting the contradictions of America with his biting, yet elegant, rhetoric, Douglass asked in his address “What to a Slave is Your Fourth of July?”:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery…”

These words are representative of the legacies of a patriotism that does not manifest itself in the wearing of lapel pins, the flying of flags, or the dissemination of slanderous email messages. Douglass’s criticisms of slavery provided an example of patriotism that stands up for those less fortunate, less powerful, and residing on the margins. These words provide a model of patriotism that constantly reminds American citizens that this country has to be perfected, not by politicians or governmental institutions, but by its citizens. It is not the job of the citizen to defend inequality like in the days of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Even if the nation’s leaders decide to export democracy at gunpoint and dress injustice in the rhetorical garments of “freedom and liberty,” it is the job of the American citizen—along with the media—to expose budding empire. As Thomas Jefferson once stated, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.” I would also add the constraint of civil liberties, more marginalizing and profiling of individuals who look different from “us,” and more unjust violence.

This patriotism is both local and on time. Patriotism does not just mean the flying of a flag in front of one’s home. It means standing up for the best ideas of humankind—equality in all of its forms, dignity, respect for individuality, group culture and difference, recognition, critical thinking, respectful dialogue, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, heart, critical support of allies, an intolerance of inaction and most importantly, empathy. This could be as simple as standing up for an aggrieved friend when confronted with evidence of discrimination (race, gender, sexuality). As both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Senator Barack Obama stated on occasion, there is such a thing as being too late. Each time one misses the opportunity to address what they consider an injustice—no matter how benign it may appear—they allow it to continue and flourish. Remember, oblivion, denial, inaction, and silence—whether collective or individual—are the allies of the forces of inhumanity.

A progressive patriotism also means telling the truth in all of its dimensions. An American patriot does not just convey a normative narrative of American historical events. A citizen investigates, interrogates, and communicates the contradictions embedded within the fabric of America. As most people know, Thomas Jefferson probably drafted the Declaration of Independence while African slaves tended to his household needs. He also helped to construct a racial ideology complete with stereotypes and hierarchies in his often noted, “Notes on the State of Virginia.” Jefferson, as historians like Staughton Lynd have documented, was also one of the nations more formidable radical democratic theorists. Patriotism and the American experience are not a one-sided nor one act play, as Senator Obama demonstrated in his speech on race, and as scholars such as W.E.B. Dubois and Howard Zinn established in their writings, it respects and thrives in historical nuance. This nation will only be strong and indivisible when it can accept and respect the grey areas and diversity in human experience.

Patriotism is empathetic. An American patriot is not just “thankful,” she or he remembers those less fortunate. Patriotism gives voice to the echoes of a dream deferred; the homeless, those who cannot marry the ones they love, the American Muslim anxious about whether or not they can be accepted, the sick and afflicted, the poor, those who have paid their debt to society, individuals wrongly held on death row like Mumia Abu Jamal, women confronting sexism, the white, black, brown, and Asians banding together to address the historical racial inequities and stereotypes, those stuck in ghettoes and barrios only wishing they could escape. The United States seems to have a high volume of apathy and a low reserve of empathy. Many of us tout the thoughts, words, and actions of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalia Lama, but struggle and complain of giving too much to others—whom, depending upon certain characteristics, are often depicted as “undeserving”—in need. To address this low reserve, we will have to dig deep into our own wells and fulfill a higher level of empathy, a level that sociologist Joe R. Feagin calls autopathy in his book, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, & Future Reparations. According to Feagin, an individual in this stage can envision herself or himself in the world of those who struggle and those who are less fortunate. This individual responds to individual and collective suffering by also feels their pain. Yes, patriotism requires imagination. If patriotism is good then it should seek to alleviate all suffering.

Patriotism is moving with the times. We have always lived in a world of interdependence, independence, individual similarity, and group/cultural difference. Only dialogue (“think diplomacy”) and understanding will be able to truly address disputes, not taking swings, firing weapons, or war. Change is the new liberty. Embracing change can be liberating in the sense that we realize that uncertainty is not just one of the few realities that are inevitable, but it is optimistic and hopeful. Patriotism, change, and freedom are representative of a reality where individuals come together without having to totally suppress their differences in order to solve the problems in their school districts, universities, social, cultural, industrial, medical, and political institutions. Presidential primary and other electoral systems have become archaic. The top-down leadership model is tired. Grassroots organizing and democratic recognition and participation (with a small “d”) in all arenas—the (industrial) workplace, classroom, politics, etc.—have to become values that we associate with the “change we can believe in” and ultimately practice.

Patriotism is online and it links individuals and groups who aspire to and struggle in their fight for change. Labor activist Tony Budak’s Community Labor News, Feminist activist Jessica Valenti’s website, Feministing, and the celebrity organizing of Ariana Huffington’s Post are formidable examples. Patriots walk and organize among each other at a campus—Kent State University–where four individuals sacrificed their lives to end the Vietnam War. Just a short distance from where Allison Krause, Jeffrey Glen Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer, and William Knox Schroder were shot, young student-citizens such as Issac Miller and Katie Dougans continue the fight against war and international oppression. Various students like Preston Mitchum and individuals in the History Department, as well as other student groups like Black United Students, Kent NAACP, and the Kent State Anti-Racist Coalition have been, and beginning, to confront racism and promote cross-racial and cultural understanding on campus. While causes and individuals seem to frequently come and go, these citizens remain dedicated. It is easy for anyone to stand among many but they, as well as many other of my friends and family, are not afraid to stand among the few or alone. They nor anyone else should ever become discouraged when membership and/or participation seems to be low. As anthropologist Margaret Mead once insightfully said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.” And like my friend and fellow activist-citizen Aaron Beveridge wrote in an issue of Spirit of the Nation! in 2005, a movement is two.

Patriotism is grateful. Yes, individuals should live this day with a sense of gratitude and pride. But too much gratitude and pride only breeds narrow-mindedness, complacency, and ultimately blind faith, silence, and denial during the times when only critical-thinking, questioning normative assumptions, standing up and speaking to power can prove positively decisive. We should also beware of those individuals preaching narrow nationalisms from gold-plated microphones and profiting from such divisiveness. That is not patriotism, that is demagoguery. Patriotic individuals stand and deliver the truth. They stand and fight. They do not wait to see what the person next to them is going to do. They stand up—whether it is with their writing, whether it was four black American men sitting at a Woolworth lunch counter in 1960, young Americans protesting war, an individual challenging normative assumptions and stereotypes, a hip hop artist addressing controversial subjects in a society that scoffs and seeks to marginalize her or him. Regular people stand daily. One just has to wake up and open their eyes to see. To the dismay of all of the allies of passivity, to those that believe change comes from sitting on one’s hands waiting for it to “just happen as it should,” power concedes nothing without demand. Like Frederick Douglass once intoned in 1857, you cannot have rain without the thunder and lightning. It is the job of American patriots to bring the thunder and lightening to bear upon the forces supporting indifference, denial, and injustice.

© 2008 Austin C. McCoy. All Rights Reserved.

Filed under: Activism & Political Organizing

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