Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.
And another was this: liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive government. It can seem that way when you live under tyranny. Nothing is more comprehensible than people living in apartheid South Africa, or under Saddam, thinking: if only that government were removed from power, things would be better. They would have to be. After all, how could they possibly be worse?
Unfortunately, there are almost always ways in which things could be worse.
Hilzoy, Obsidian Wings
I finally read Marjane Satrapi's memoir "Persepolis
," and it's quite good. I'll have to track down the second half. It sits on my little comics shelf alongside two other serially-published memoirs told in spare black-and-white comics about living through terrible times, through authoritarianism, war, and fear which focus on a single family living through it: Maus
and Barefoot Gen
. To compare them is to be reminded of the common features of grief and pain. If you're videogame-minded, you could begin reading with a simple intonation of "War ... war never changes" and it'd be reasonably apropos. Persepolis
addresses the Iran-Iraq war and the Islamic revolution in Iran from the limited perspective of a youngster. This doesn't make the rendition less powerful: Satrapi pulls off some very effective graphics in service of rendering the parts of the war that touched her childhood, and doesn't fail to notice that, Islamic theocracy or hypocritical-Christian plutocracy, the war is predictably fought by those who cannot pay to be exempted from fighting it. It's an easy book for Americans in some ways, because the role of America in destroying peace in Iran is mostly elided. I like to think that Satrapi assumes that her readers know it, but I wouldn't share that assumption. Even the history of Iran still within living memory has generally been thrown down the memory hole in American culture, leaving just a gaping, halfwitted "why do they hate us?" attitude that stinks of fake innocence. So, like Maus
, it focuses on the easier angle - hey, these are real people that are affected by this, and it is wrong to reduce them to abstractions, to "Islamofascists," to "the Axis of Evil," to "enemy combatants." I think that the comics medium serves this end very well, because in the unadorned style of the three books, the characters need more participation and empathy-building from the reader, their ethnic differences from the American mainstream minimized. That short-circuits a certain amount of knee-jerk judgment. Persepolis
, plus the quick rereading of the other two that I could do without getting excessively blue, brings to mind a familiar surliness. The necessity of works of media, patiently pointing out over and over that war is still
hell, is annoying. The lesson is simple. The lesson is rarely learned by the people who need it - not least because those people tend to be insulated from the consequences of their decisions. If you're discussing privilege, frankly that one should be at the top of your hit-list.
I had to discuss politics with my family again recently. I should learn to avoid that: sometimes it makes me more uncomfortable than discussing either sexuality or religion with them. My mother is your average Democrat (i.e. somewhere a little bit to the left of Obama) and my father is a disillusioned centrist-Republican (to Obama's right, but voted for him anyhow). My father is also the son and grandson of San Francisco police officers, so the police force is a bit of a sore spot that I might need to avoid. In the latest discussion, I had to keep pushing my talking point: high power and low accountability means inherently untrustworthy
. That's my problem with virtually all law enforcement organizations. If you assume that police/FBI/Gendarmerie Nationale
officers are average humans of reasonable goodwill - and I believe they are - that still leaves us with a problem, because the track record shows us that average human beings with access to power and shields against consequences do terrible things, routinely. Especially when, as is the case with law enforcement organizations, an "us versus them" mentality is entrenched in the culture, and accountability measures are seen as weakness or hindrances to getting the job done.
Because of my politics on that front, I can't avoid seeing that theme cropping up in all three comics. Power, its exercise, and its expansion are all there, and the persons seizing power have every incentive to entrench themselves and none to letting go, toxic feedback builds up over and over, and eventually a dramatic simplification is effected in the form of collapse. This was Germany, this was Japan, this is Iran, this is the United States. I certainly hope that the latter two can avoid collapses. Collapses suck. But both need radical simplifications, need to escape long-standing toxic feedback loops (it is a foregone conclusion at this point that the TSA does vastly more harm than good, and so does the Revolutionary Guard). No one currently in a position to effect that change has an incentive to do so, and most of them have profound disincentives. Barack Obama sure as hell isn't going to improve matters: like Clinton before him, pretty much his only claim to fame is being better than the alternative (John McCain thinks that the suspect - suspect
- in the recent Times Square bombing attempt shouldn't have been Mirandized: if you couldn't see that coming, you need shades, a cane, and a dog). So what's going to solve it?
On my bad days, I think that killing the right people would solve the problems, or at least remove many obstacles to solving them. That's why I keep rereading the quote at the beginning. Violence is not a way to solve your problems faster. Violence takes you on a different journey, and you necessarily reach a different destination. "Better government" is especially tricky, here, because it's one of those things where the destination doesn't really exist without the journey: it is a process of refinement, and you cannot have the latter stages of the journey and their benefits without taking the beginning of the journey. Violent revolution is a different journey. Satrapi's story, and the others, are part of the vast chorus of knowledge that violence is not a solution.
The problem is, still, that attaining a certain level of power in the world-system that we have requires systematically deafening yourself to that chorus. Regardless of what they believe or claim to, there hasn't been an administration in my lifetime that didn't act
as though it believed that killing the right people solves problems neatly and with finality. Likewise none of them have been able to understand the results when killing more people fails to solve problems. That's part of why America is not a white hat in international affairs, and why the wars in Iraq and Afganistan - and possibly Iran - will not solve anything. They are incapable of making matters better as long as the people in charge believe that killing more people can solve their problems.
Some days I feel like electing HK-47 president: now there's someone who's straightforward about using violence. Short of that, though, we're going to keep getting Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas: people who make plenty of nice statements and gestures and flourishes about despising war and last-resorting and loving peace and don't make any substantial action to renounce or even scale back violence.
I'm going to try to get my young cousins to read these books: Barefoot Gen
are about children their age, so maybe they'll empathize. Maus
can be for the grim adolescent stage. That gesture probably means that I'll have done more for world peace than George Bush. Pfui.