See the mountain

18 01 2011

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.”

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr

Acceptance Speech on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize,

Oslo, December 10, 1964

The third Monday in January is a public holiday in the United States: Martin Luther King, Jr Day. Delivering his speech before the great and the good assembled in Oslo, The Rev. Dr King became, at 35 years old, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Feted before royalty and heads of state, he then became its shortest lived, assassinated on 4 April, 1968, aged 39.

I have been thinking about The Rev. Dr King for some time. Along with several other Twitter friends, I wanted to organise drinks for people with a passion for US politics eary in the new year, and thought this past weekend would be the perfect opportunity to do so. That was until the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, the deaths of six people and wounding of 19 attending her first ‘Congress in the Community’ meeting of 2011. The frenzied tweeting; the race to be first with the news – any news (including reports that Congresswoman Giffords had died, or was sitting up in bed); the hasty conclusions, claims and counter-claims about the mental health, political affiliation, musical tastes and reading habits of the young man arrested after the shootings; the impact of political rhetoric; gun laws; healthcare; homegrown terrorism – everything about America in 2011, compacted into one tragedy. I thought about it. USPol wonkdrinks would have to wait. Chiefly, because I was astounded by the way so many people I follow on Twitter saw this crime – and it is a crime: through the bifocal lens of our political system, ignoring the multipolarity of the US system, where a Jewish woman who had been a member of the Republican Party could be elected to the United States Congress as a Democrat representing a district in urban Arizona; where her seat, or her head, could be targeted in a map of surveyors’ marks or gunsight cross-hairs; a system which identified her as a “Blue Dog”, or fiscal conservative, who voted for President Obama’s healthcare reforms; a woman who was pro-choice and pro-gun. There is a left and right in US politics, but its electoral system encourages a middle ground where individual representatives put their individual interests ahead of the collective and attach demands of bridges to nowhere for their vote on a bill, blatant pork-barrelling known as ‘earmarks’. Few seem willing to acknowledge or understand the level of resentment towards ‘Washington’ and the perception that it writes cheques it cannot afford to cash that inspired the amorphous entity we know as the ‘Tea Party’; while its adherents might also be social conservatives, they are not the cookie-cutter base of the GoP. In short, the tie that binds is fear, not of God, but of government. It is a movement that has been hijacked by politicians and purveyors of the 10 word answer, hacks and haters more notable for backing failures in the 2010 Senate mid-term elections than successful candidates in the House.

The Rev. Dr King has been playing on my mind for weeks. His leadership of another amorphous entity, the civil rights movement; its expansion from the bigotry in Montgomery, Alabama, through to the March on Washington and his final push against the Vietnam War and poverty, whoever and wherever it marked. I was mindful in the early hours of this morning of other quotes from a preacher of the doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience, that, ‘a riot, is at bottom, the language of the unheard’; that ‘a man who won’t die for something is unfit to live’. He remains forefront in my mind as I read more claims and counter-claims regarding the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia and whether it was fomented by social media.

I say a resounding ‘no’. There is a breathtaking, post-colonial arrogance at the suggestion that Tunisians took to the streets to protest, and eventually ouster the despot Ben Ali, because social media made it so; that the truth of a leaked American diplomatic cable alerted the Global North to what Tunisians have known for years – that Ben Ali and his family and hangers on were corrupt; that educated young men have no prospect of employment, and were willing – nay, acted, on their despair – willing to die by their own hand in the belief, as the Rev. Dr King states, that, ‘freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed’. Acts of self-immolation have spread from Tunisia to Algeria, and now, Egypt. I see monks burning themselves in Vietnam, a war which cost America Johnson’s Great Society, according to King. The dictators of the Maghreb Union and Arab League may yet follow Ben Ali into the arms of the House of ibn Saud – but it will be in real life, at the cost of lives, not thanks to a Twibbon. We may know more – and information may spread faster – thanks to social media, but does it play that different a role to the French pamphleteers of 1789 – particularly in Tunisia, where al-Jazeera was not welcome and the internet and press censored and strangled?

Networks exist, but I cannot ascribe the fleeing of self-styled kings to ‘social networks’ as we know them. They are the palpable cry of people against networks of influence which free political actors from formal constraints of governance – the rules of representation, accountability and transparency; networks that coalesce around influential individuals, and infiltrate every element of the political process, helping those in power to keep it by manipulating the national polity and cultivating a culture of cronyism, solidifying a power base – such as Ben Ali’s – for 23 years – and making the machinery of government inefficient and susceptible to corruption. Such networks flourish in states where power is not diffused, making it difficult for opposition voices to be heard legitimately. When a society is wracked by what Kennes terms the ‘banalization of corruption and theft’, the nomenclature of the state ceases to bear meaning other than as a rallying cry for opposition. If the perception arises that just about anyone can do just about anything, longstanding norms and behaviours are turned on their head – suddenly and shockingly to us, as we read 140 character updates. If the norm-reversal extends across North Africa, then we must do more than hope that these ancien regimes will recede into the darkness. We must see the mountain, as Martin Luther King, Jr did in the final days of his life. We must say no to injustice, everywhere, wherever it exists. We can use social media as a tool, as Gabby Giffords did, inviting her community to be a part of her work in Congress; but in doing so, we must open ourselves to multiple voices, not simply amplify the ones we want to hear. Dismissing the dissenting opinion without applying critical thinking invites closed networks to flourish.