Violence in Activism: To What End?

2019 07 05 sign

A few months ago, during one of my embarrassing arguments on Twitter, somebody dismissed me as a “tenth-tier Internet commentator”. The insult was petty, but it wasn’t inaccurate: in the eight months since I started putting myself “out there”, I have not obtained a notoriety or prominence, even within the relatively limited parameters of the underground media. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and, as Anderson Cooper and Sean Hannity confirm, one does not become respectable or trustworthy simply because one is a household name. However, anonymity and obscurity ought to come with immunity from the paranoid slanders traditionally reserved for omnipresent figures wielding cultural clout. They don’t, of course, which is why even a tenth-tier Internet commentator like myself can be accused of every manner of nefarious, conspiratorial intent.

Despite my supposed political irrelevance, my unsolicited critics, charming for their inexhaustible powers of imagination, have described me as: one, a government agent dispatched to disrupt the progressive movement; two, an aspiring assassin plotting to murder Senator Bernie Sanders; three, an employee of Tulsi Gabbard’s presidential campaign who is feigning support for Julian Assange; four, a fanatical supporter of Julian Assange who is feigning support for Tulsi Gabbard, which is probably not entirely wrong; and five, a domestic spy employed by multiple federal intelligence agencies to infiltrate, discredit, and eventually dismantle the movement to free Julian Assange. This lattermost suspicion—I avoid the term “conspiracy theory” wherever possible—originated in a noteworthy pro-Assange group, one with which I have been involved before, the same one with which I’ll never work again.

The suspicion developed after I made a speech outside the notorious Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia, where Chelsea Manning is being imprisoned for her refusal to testify against Assange. I praised the work of the Black Panthers, in particular Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, both of whom either endorsed or personally committed violence as a form of political activism. Neither of these men condoned violence unilaterally or unconditionally, but both men believed that, in some situations, and under extraordinary circumstances, violence becomes a viable, albeit quite ironical, method of preservation. A couple of days later, I asked a fellow activist for his perspective on this, and he grew worried that I was gathering incriminating evidence, perhaps on behalf of the FBI. The subsequent paranoia, rumormongering, and slander became so intense that I removed myself from the group.

Philosophical conversations about the ethics of violence have been taking place for thousands upon thousands of years. The subject presents an unquantifiable number of contradictions and puzzles, of which a preliminary attempt to document and diagram can be found in the Bible: occasionally, God instructs his disciples to perpetuate genocide, but at least as frequently, he annihilates people for killing others. Such a lesson furnishes its own moral knot, as violence presumably becomes an appropriate punishment for the infliction of violence. We can draw no sound conclusion from this, none but the tautological note that violence begets violence inevitably. One needn’t be Cassandra to foresee that the violent attempted prevention of violence achieves the exact opposite effect, but that hasn’t stopped millions of people across millennia from driving that weathered square peg into the hopeless round hole.

Perhaps these determined artists of bloodshed, desperate to revitalize their discredited science, are taking their cue from the quintessential historical example: the crucifixion of Christ. I am thankful to Nietzsche for observing that, in attempting to smash the burgeoning Christian cult, the Romans preserved it for time immortal by murdering Jesus and making him a martyr. If martyrdom is the sublimation of violence, then it is also the weapon whereby the fallen take their effortless revenge. Hundreds of years before the crucifixion, Socrates achieved everlasting redemption when he drank the hemlock: the state sought to snuff out his candle, but made it burn much brighter than it could have on its own. Our own country has produced several examples: the shocking barbarity of the Union Army was excused and forgotten, if only momentarily, when Abraham Lincoln succumbed to his wounds; the corruption and timidity of Martin Luther King has been blotted out by his blood unjustly spilled; and, more impressively, many of the despots overthrown by our own government have enjoyed favorable posthumous reevaluations because of the circumstances of their demise.

To present a final, more pertinent proof, consider the persecution of Julian Assange. Ever since he was hauled away by the police, I have asked why the government has taken such an unnecessary step: while the case may convince some people to keep silent when they witness abuses, isn’t there at least an equal chance that the brewing controversy will awaken a portion of the pacified masses? Your guess is as good as mine, which means that no one knows anything for sure—quite right, for you can never anticipate the ultimate outcome of a violent act. If you punch your computer in order to destroy it, then you may cut your hand and spill your own blood. If you and your neighbor come to blows, then an innocent bystander could take a punch, as well. We cannot predict the ultimate outcome of any action, including the act of writing this essay, but the infliction of violence, which is nothing if not a terribly practical act, assumes a confidence and omniscience that is wholly and demonstrably unearned.

Accordingly, I cannot endorse violence, including as a form of political activism. To do so would necessitate a psychological contortion that I cannot sustain, not without embarrassing myself all the while. Seven years ago in an interview with Bill Maher, Assange himself said: “If you engage in these hypotheticals … you can justify anything. You can justify torturing people with hypothetical ticking time bombs and so on.” His words were not a recommendation, but a dire warning to a public that was rapidly losing whatever moral grounding it presently held. It is for this reason that I condemn violence and why I was so bewildered when I was recently accused of so many awful things—we cannot predict the consequences of emotional violence, either.

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