'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, December 15, 2008

Folk Hero 

From today's New York Times:

A day after an Iraqi television journalist threw his shoes at President Bush at a news conference in Baghdad on Sunday, his act of defiance toward the American commander-in-chief reverberated throughout Iraq and across the Arab world.

In Sadr City, the sprawling Baghdad suburb that has seen some of the most intense fighting between insurgents and American soldiers since the 2003 invasion, thousands of people marched in his defense. In Syria, he was hailed as a hero. In Libya, he was given an award for courage.

Across much of the Arab world on Monday, the shoe-throwing incident generated front page headlines and continuing television news coverage. A thinly veiled glee could be discerned in much of the reporting, especially in the places where anti-American sentiment runs deepest.

Muntader al-Zaidi, 29, the correspondent for an independent Iraqi television station who threw his black dress shoes at President Bush, remained in Iraqi custody on Monday.

While he has not been formally charged, Iraqi officials said he faces up to seven years in prison for committing an act of aggression against a visiting head of state.

Not surprisingly, Zaidi isn't being treated very well by the authorities:

Witnesses said that Mr. Zaidi had been severely beaten by security officers on Sunday after being tackled at the press conference and dragged out. One of his brothers, Maythem al-Zaidi, said Monday that the family had not heard from Mr. Zaidi since his arrest, and that a police officer who picked up Mr. Zaidi’s cellphone at midnight on Sunday had threatened the family.

So much for civil liberties and human rights in the liberated Iraq. The incident also raises a prickly moral question. What if Zaidi had used a gun instead of his shoes? On what basis could an attempt by an Iraqi to kill Bush be condemned? Given the brutalities that Bush has inflicted on the country, it is hard to maintain that an Iraqi is morally and ethically prohibited from using violence against someone who has directed violence against him.

An abhorrence of vigilantism would seem to be the most compelling reason to caution against such an act, as well as the extreme elitism, if not authoritarianism, of an individual making such a decision, a decision that results in adverse consequences for many without any prior consultation. But that's inherent in most political situations in which individuals, even leaders of nation states, decide to resort to violence, isn't it?

Along these lines, I vaguely remember a passage from Machiavelli's Discourses, a passage wherein he condemns a man for not assassinating a corrupt Pope when he had the opportunity. Of course, Machiavelli isn't crude enough to actually use words like assassinate or kill. Instead, he rather elliptically describes it in a way something like this (I am working from memory here): an act for which he would have been universally praised by those contemptuous of the manner in which these corrupt figures conduct themselves. Perhaps, Gaius will stop by and provide a precise recitation.

Machiavelli, of course, was no egalitarian, no democrat. Hence, it is not surprising to see him advocating an act of personal violence consistent with an elitist view of history. History as made by those willing to manipulate violence towards the achievement of their ends. Conversely, Marxists, with their belief in the collective mission of the proletariat, condemn such violence as adventurism, because it distracts from the necessity of a mass politics to transform capitalism. Anarchists, however, with their emphasis upon direct action, have historically advocated it from time to time, seeing it as both a form of self-defense and a means of inspiring the working class to revolt. Of course, I'm speaking philosophically here. Marxists, once in power, were as equally willing to assassinate people to facilitate policy as anyone else.

In this sense, propaganda by the deed can be traced back to Machiavelli, expropriated in the service of a radical politics. Initially, the pragmatism of Machiavelli and the anarchists appears to more historically accurate that the utopianism of the Marxists. The asssassinations of prominent political and social figures have undoubtedly chaged history on many occasions, but, curiously, not necessarily in the manner contemplated by the perpetrators. Such acts often crystalize public perception in surprising ways. Lefebvre aptly described the unpredictable, frequently contradictory outcomes of such historical events and movements as dialectical irony.

But this doesn't make it very different from any other form of political activity. In order to believe in the plausibility of politics as a means of instigating social change, one must resist the allure of chance, randomness and nihilism. After all, in relation to the slight act of leafletting, for example, who knows how the recipient is going to respond to it? Perhaps, they don't like the font, the way the message is conveyed or the appearance and speech of the person who gave it to them. Maybe, they just had an argument with a friend or spouse. And, even if the recipient responds favorably, it is merely a grain of sand on a large beach.

As Sam Smith of the Progressive Review once explained to high school students in regard to political activism: You never know how it's going to work out. . . .or when. . . One might therefore say that the assassin possesses a condition of extreme faith, an absolute faith that he or she will succeed in the perpetration of the act, and that the world around them will respond as anticipated. A pretty reductionist perspective, in other words, a sort of meglomania. Much like, strangely enough, the behaviour of a president who ordered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and found himself overwhelmed by the social turmoil unleashed by his conduct.

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