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What It's Going to Take

By Rootsie
March 03, 2004

Let's take a trip to the furthest frontiers of fantasy-land and imagine that Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader is elected in November. Then what? Just what would it take to curb the wild dogs of capitalist imperialism?

This is why talking politics is silly if we think about it very much. Even if 'our guy,' by virtue of some serendipitous natural disaster or collective plane crash, managed to come out on top, what would we do then?

And by 'we' I mean the liberal/progressive intelligentsia, overwhelmingly white and middle (or upper) class. It is important work to stand outside the gates, as we have done for all these years, pointing our fingers at the naked emperor. Our critiques and dissections of the problems with our governmental and economic systems are important. Diagnosis has to come before a cure is remotely possible. But face it, this is a comfortable spot for us, one without direct responsibility for actually fixing anything. Simplistic maybe, but nonetheless true.

We have been morally comfortable standing for the rights of the oppressed, for the 2/3 of the world silenced by racism, poverty, and political and social chaos. But are we the ones who in the end will bring systemic change in the direction of basic justice to the world? I would suggest that the idea that leaders will emerge from the privileged classes is to perpetuate injustice, and leaves the basic issue of white supremacy unaddressed. This implies of course that there has never yet been an authentic, successful liberation movement in modern history.

Let me quote the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire from his Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
"This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only the power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to 'soften' the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their 'generosity,' the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this 'generosity,' which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty...True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity."

Because of our years of principled criticism of the worst among us, we are certainly not too interested in looking at ourselves as the oppressors. But that is of course exactly what we are, even if only by accident of birth. Even if we have spent our lives in the opposition. Some of us even think of ourselves as victims. Solidarity with the oppressed is just that; some of us apparently have the illusion that we are one with the powerless and dispossessed of the earth. For many of us that would feel a lot better. But as Jean Paul Sartre said to his fellow French people during their debacle in Algeria:
"A fine sight they are too, the believers in nonviolence, saying that they are neither executioners nor victims. Very well then: if you're not victims when the government which you've voted for, when the army in which your younger brothers are serving without hesitation or remorse, have undertaken race murder, you are, without a shadow of a doubt, executioners. And if you choose to be victims and to risk being put in prison for a day or two, you are simply choosing to pull your irons out of the fire. But you will not be able to pull them out; they'll have to stay there till the end."

There is no way out for us. As long as we are the beneficiaries in a system of Western, educated-class white and light-skin privilege, whether we chose this or not, we are the bad guys. And we certainly cannot be leaders in a movement to undo the systems of injustice from which we directly benefit. Not least of all, Freire suggests, because we are not psychically or morally capable of such a thing. The moral and spiritual degradation resulting from the past 500 years of European behavior haunts the West. This is the 'Heart of Darkness' that Joseph Conrad spoke of. It is a truism, but slavery is a two-way-street; actions taken which degrade human beings degrade the perpetrators more. To believe that history leaves no residues is absurd on the face of it, and particularly when we have not extricated ourselves from this history in any real way. How should we expect governments to transform their own institutions? There is something terribly na´ve in imagining, as many Westerners seem to, that we will have the world we all deserve as a result of government decree.

It could be argued that if we were truly interested in human liberation, we would not be trying to push our agenda through the American political process. The best we can ever do that way is to mitigate some of the worst abuses, which is okay, but not worth as much as our efforts would be to aid the oppressed in finding their own voices. Not worth as much as the proliferation of us and our views might suggest.

We put up our web sites and print our journals and in effect we preach to the choir. As I said, there is a need for this critical journalism, but how many particular travesties do we need to know about untill we get the picture, and think about the next step? I think we have little clarity about our ultimate aim. It can't possibly be to elect one of us to the White House. The journalists themselves are probably not so na´ve, but I am concerned about the messages they may be sending to some of their readers.

Talking solutions leads us into some very uncomfortable territory. How can we address the skewed power equation unless we are willing ourselves to entertain the idea that privileged white elites must somewhere down the line be willing to sacrifice their privilege? To address historical injustice, more must be done than becoming willing to share power. Simply put, representatives of the worst victims should lead.

As Freire said, only the oppressed have the ability to let us off the hook. We can't do it ourselves. We have neither the moral authority, nor when it comes right down to it, the will. It is a comfortable existence we have here.

"True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity." In our case this means fighting to destroy a system which confers upon us the time, the learning, the language, the access, to make our views heard, at the price of excluding nearly everybody else. It means using these privileges to bring down privilege.
"The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor-when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. True solidarity is found only in the plenitude of this act of love...To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce."

This is the risk we run with sticking to the conversations about the problems and never moving further. We objectify the oppressed, for whom we are ostensibly speaking, unless we are willing to get up off all the good stuff. We are very eloquent about the evils we see in this system, but what are we willing to do about it?

Since many of us have spent many a year breaking down the elements which constitute one person's or one nation's or one group of nation's historical domination, it is within our capabilities to sit down with the people most impacted and enter into dialogue. But it is not for us, in Freire's words 'to implement a liberating education'. We are not the experts at such a table. This can be a foreign idea to people who are used, as a matter of course (as a matter of historical privilege), to monopolizing the oxygen in whatever room they are in.
"Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society? Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation? They will not gain this liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it. And this fight, because of the purpose given it by the oppressed, will actually constitute an act of love opposing the lovelessness which lies at the heart of the oppressors' violence, lovelessness even when clothed in false generosity."

So Freire suggests that the oppressed must be able to identify and deconstruct the forces which have oppressed them, and act out of that in the direction of their own liberation. That is 'praxis.' That is to become a subject rather than an object, and ultimately, Freire says, what it means to become truly human.
"A deepened consciousness of their situation leads people to apprehend that situation as an historical reality susceptible of transformation. Resignation gives way to the drive for transformation and inquiry, over which men feel themselves to be in control. If people, as historical beings necessarily engaged with other people in a movement of inquiry, did not control that movement, it would be (and is) a violation of their humanity. Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects."

To cynically insist that there are no ultimate solutions is itself a hallmark of privilege, a false humanism which assumes a persona of sophisticated understanding, but in reality supports the status quo.

So where do we come in? As sympathizers, as people of good conscience, we can work to bring a parallel sort of praxis to our peers. Perhaps the greatest service we can render is to deconstruct the elements of our own privilege and invite others to do the same. This is much more sticky and unpleasant work than holding forth. The least we can do is to harbor no illusions about our role in this drama. We are often not much more than 'the opposition,' and conveniently pigeon-holed as such. We have our part in 'the debate' as those in power frame it. To be more requires much courage and humility. We have personal decisions to make, for example, about where we want to devote our finances, our leisure, our energies. It really comes down to personal conduct.

Since the gains we in the West have made as a result of 500 years of imperialist looting have been largely material, it only makes sense that our efforts to redress the historical wrongs be material. It is not enough for us as individuals to simply tell the rest of the world, "I am not one of 'them,' " because no matter how we choose to avoid it, we are. I suppose it could be imagined that by devoting time, intellectual effort, and not least of all excess money to the dismantling of systems of white oppression we are somehow contributing to our own demise. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are demonstrating our love for the people we say we love, our love for the world and its future that we say we stand for, and our faith in the ability of empowered human beings to institute justice on behalf of themselves and the rest of us as well.


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