Sunday, January 27, 2008

On Violence (With Apologies To Hannah Arendt For Stealing Such A Succinct Title)

In my seminar on liberation theology, the first book we read wasn't Gustavo Gutierrez' A Theology of Liberation, but Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. A seminal work that now reads in many ways as a period piece, Fanon's book is two essays reflecting on the effects of the long struggle Algerians waged for independence from France. I say it reads as a period piece because there is much in there that is outdated, most especially the pan-Africanism that Fanon obviously supports, and that is an impossibility. Saying that, there is a wealth of material for thinking and reflection in Fanon's book.

As Arendt writes in her review essay, under the same title as this post and published in a collection of review essays, the bulk of commentary on Fanon's work focuses on the first section, with its exploration of the rhetoric and practice of violence among those involved in the Algerian resistance movement. Because so much of that first section is striking in its acceptance of violence - a kind of late-20th century Bakunin - Fanon is often lumped with Georges Sorel and other theorists of violence. Even Arendt, who notes that this is not the aim of the book, does this anyway. The second half of the book, as important as the first, is a long muse on how extended exposure to the realities of violence, of the rhetoric of dehumanization that accompanies so much militant activity, and the twin pressures of striving for a common humanity and a release from oppression destroys the psyches of the people involved. In other words, Fanon is writing on the destructive - not just personally but socially - consequences of engaging in violence. Arendt notes this, as well as the disparity in reviews, but insists that Fanon is a "theorist of violence" anyway, because he was an active supporter of the Algerian resistance until his untimely death from cancer.

I am musing on this because in some comments over here, in our long and extremely civil discussion of hate crimes laws, I am accused of giving support to violence, or at least a defense of racially-motivated violence. Nothing could be further from the truth. I offered, rather, an attempt to understand the frustration that leads to violence, how it is understandable as a reaction to officially sanctioned violence.

I take my cue on the issue of violence in American race relations from James Cone and the Black Panthers. I realize this might sound surprising, considering the fact that we have just celebrated the birthday of the leading American theorist and practitioner of non-violence. Nothing that follows should be considered as rejecting King's message, however, but as clarifying my own understanding, and the limits I believe are inherent in any attempt at non-violent social change, especially in an American context where violence was the rule.

The Panthers were introduced to America with the following one-liner: "Violence is as American as cherry pie." The uproar this little statement caused is hard to fathom today. Coming in the midst of King's attempt to construct a social ethic of non-violence, the idea that some young blacks would embrace violence as a means of social change seemed heretical. Yet, the statement is true on its face, and contains within its pithiness the lived experience of a people.

In various places in his earliest work, Cone - professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in NYC - writes that it is one part ironic, one part effrontery, for the white power structure to get the vapors at the thought of blacks using violence to achieve certain social ends, considering the systemic, thoroughgoing violence used to oppress African-Americans throughout our history. It is, Cone writes, part of the way the power structure plays the game - the rules keep changing, the goal posts are moved, and now blacks are held to a standard that has never been applied to whites.

Of course, good liberals are supposed to be outraged at such talk. "You're supporting violence!" they harrumph.

Actually, I understand the desire for violence. I also understand the frustration expressed by many blacks that the game keeps changing in ways that prevent them, not just from winning, but even from playing. I do not approve. Social violence is never constructive - whether done to oppress, or to rebel against oppression. Yet, the frustration, rage, and despair that breed violence need to be understood, not just in an intellectual fashion, but in a deep, existential way. We need to enter in to the lives of the Other, that Other whose way of life and place in society is so different. That is, we need to meet the Other at the Other's place for once, rather than demand the Other meet us where we are. As many African-American cultural commentators have noted, whites have no secrets from black Americans - we are an open book. Yet, the life ways, folk ways, and history, of black America is still foggy at best, unremarked and unrecognized by most whites. With the possible exception of individuals such as George Washington Carver, W. E. B. DuBois, King, Malcolm X, and an entertainer of sports figure - Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Jackie Robinson - there is no grasp of the ways the lives of these groups living within one society have woven the tapestry of American life, one of them against all odds.

All of this is to say something rather short, and sweet. The effort to understand the roots of violence, and to explain those roots, and even to sympathize (to an extent) with the desire is not to approve, or condone, violence. It is what it is - an effort to understand. Without understanding, how can we move through, then past, this rage that can only kill?

Virtual Tin Cup

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