Saturday, June 10, 2017

Selma, Romania, and more breaking down democracy

I continue to think about the current realities so skillfully discussed in the Freedom House report entitle Breaking Down Democracy.  I keep finding unexpected connections back to the report's description of a new authoritarianism, based not on bald, crude repression but rather on skillful manipulation of modern, seemingly democratizing forces like the Internet, other media, the free market, and electoral institutions.

My wife and I finally watched the Ava DuVernay movie Selma, since it just now become available on Netflix in our country.  I was blown away by the movie, perhaps above all by its subtlety, by its lack of bombastic, dramatic artifice designed specifically to blow you away, to stir your emotions.  No, unlike the stirring song "Glory" that anchors the film's soundtrack, the movie itself is light on big speeches and tearjerker moments.  It's more about the day-to-day strategizing of Dr. King and the SCLC, how they chose issues to pursue and places to pursue them in.  Even more than this, the film is about Dr. King's doubts, about his very valid questions regarding the correct balance between the one-off dramatic protest events that the SCLC promoted to force political change, and the less glamorous, long-term community organizing work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  In this the film takes us well beyond the romantic version of Dr. King that we all learn about in school, beyond his lofty ideals and important speeches, and gives us instead an idea of a human being struggling with the questions we all ask ourselves about the best way to effect positive social change.

A random note--it's really funny to me that a large proportion of the leading actors in the movie, both black and white, are British.  They do a good job with the US accents and the representation of the characters.  I guess it just proves that we are in a globalized world, with a wide pool of people available to depict universal stories, beyond the homeland or context of a given actor.

The story of Selma had me thinking a lot about the white clergy that eventually joined Dr. King on the march.  They are a noble example of people going beyond their own narrow racial self-interest to advance what is morally right.  But at the same time, I wonder what this white clergy could have done or did do once back in their communities, in their Northern congregations.  It was surely dramatic and stirring, and certainly necessary, for them to come South and risk their lives in a one-off event.  But the more difficult, and surely even more necessary, work would be to convince their own people, in their own hometowns, to fight against the framework of oppression and hate that kept black folks down.  Even in the time of Dr. King, he claimed that racism and oppression in Chicago were as virulent as anywhere he'd seen.  But this situation existed in Northern cities where legalized, institutionalized racism was largely absent.  So what was that white clergy to do?  What are they to do today, when the problem may be even worse than before?  The film Selma hints at this dilemma, as Dr. King numerous times foresees that the legal and political gains he is fighting for will mean little if structural poverty is not tackled.

The Breaking Down Democracy report from Freedom House paints a pretty bleak picture; it describes the new tactics of authoritarianism that seem to make it much more solid, resistant to attack.  The problem is that, if repression becomes more subtle and less visible, and if an authoritarian regime manages to gain and maintain the support of the general public, then the possibility is reduced for dramatic moments that lay bare the tyranny of the regime and inspire people to rise up for human rights.  There will be fewer Selmas, fewer Berlin Walls, and more just grinding, invisible poverty and oppression that inspires neither sympathy nor organized resistance.  It's a lot more difficult to make a dramatic, impassioned case against the quiet unraveling of the Voting Rights Act that has occurred over the past few years, than it was to make the case for it, as Dr. King so dramatically did with his march from Selma.  Where Dr. King had success in getting the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts signed, he wasn't able to make a dent in de facto segregation in Chicago, and I think he began to sympathize with the lack of tangible results shown by his rival Malcolm X, who was dealing with a much less explicit, more ingrained system of injustice that was hard to lay bare.  There were no outside white observers who sympathized more with Malcolm's oppressed Northern blacks than with their Northern white coracialists, and who could thus overturn the system of structural racism in the North.  You couldn't bus people into New York or Chicago to fight the oppression there, as you could in Mississippi.

But amidst this seemingly bleak panorama, maybe black Americans can in fact offer lessons to the rest of the world if the world is indeed veering towards a new style of media-savvy, seemingly democratic authoritarianism.  Black Americans have at least 50 years of experience living in what on paper is an open democracy, but which all too often functions as a repressive, authoritarian state.  Blacks in the US today are targeted by laws designed to keep them away from the polls or the gerrymander them into insignificance, they are targeted by abusive law enforcement practices and high rates of incarceration.  And blacks suffer from seemingly "self-inflicted" violence in the high crime rates that afflict their neighborhoods, and which are often used as justification for the other abuse piled on them by the rest of society.  These are all the sticky problems that Malcolm tried to address, and that Dr. King increasingly realized were more challenging to defeat than the explicit Jim Crow laws of the South.

At the same time, I've been reading a booked called In Europe's Shadow.  It is a masterful review of Romanian culture and history, up to and including what the author (Robert Kaplan) regards as the new Cold War that has gelled after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  There is much discussion of the "soft" subversion through media and economic influence that Russia is visiting on its Eastern European neighbors, so it dovetails well with my recent reading of the Breaking Down Democracy report.  I also was struck by a few quotes regarding Romania's long infatuation with Fascism.  Said EM Cioran, a Romanian intellectual who flirted with Fascism in the 1930s;
"If there is something I like about Hitlerism, it is the cult of the irrational, the exultation of pure vitality, the virile expression of strength, without any critical spirit, restraint, or control."
This seems to describe well our current moment of post-modern, anti-intellectual nihilism, where people derive a palpable joy from stomping on what is good and logical and coherent.  If pre-modern man cared mainly about tribe and Volk and eventually the Nation, and modern man aspired to more coherent, universal ideals, post-modern man seems to have reverted to the pre-modern, doing away with any pretense of consistency, universality, or lofty ideals.  We're back to tribe, without even the potentially moderating, universalizing force of religion to temper some our destructive, dehumanizing urges.

I guess in the end the hopeful note I can close on is another quote from the book.  It at first sight seems to disparage liberal democracy, but is in fact an endorsement of it.  It is a quote from a liberal thinker of 20th-century Romania, Iuliu Maniu, with further commentary by Kaplan.  Here goes:
"One can only be a liberal out of exhaustion, and a democrat out of rational thought."  In other words, liberalism and democracy, with all of their limitaitons, are what remains after every utopia and extremist scheme based on blood and territory has been exposed and shattered by reality....Rather than defend something grand and remote, like the marching masses or the ethnic nation, Maniu ... represented the sanctity of the individual and his right to freedom and existence.
Would that all of us strove to be like Maniu, a "brave, decent, uncharismatic counterpart to the monsters he had to deal with."

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