American Exceptionalism And Political Violence

Adam Shatz offers some interesting thoughts on dreaming of political violence in the Age of Trump-Bannon:

It’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era. American exceptionalism may be dead, but it lives on as a habit of mind…in the unprecedented horror we imagine ourselves to be experiencing….It might be useful to think about these fantasies in wider terms, as a way of trying to understand the citizens of other countries, particularly those whom Americans have for the most part refused to sympathise with. We might try, for example, to understand why Palestinians have carried out violent attacks against the people who have occupied them for…half a century. They have been under military rule, without recourse to elections or a fair legal system, much less citizenship, for roughly 600 times as long as we have been under Trump.

Indeed. And we would do well too, to look inwards and closer as well, at the state of communities that have already, for ages now, suffered the kind of political and legal regime we imagine the Trump-Bannon era to resemble. The crisis of mass incarceration and the systematic evisceration of the US Constitution that it has both relied upon and facilitated provides the grimmest reminder that arbitrary search and seizure, detention, arrest, show trials, and cruel prison sentences are already the norm for some American citizens. Innocents make plea deals that send them to jail for years; families are torn asunder; no one reading the formidable corpus of literature on America’s prison and penal system, or the manifestos issued by Black Lives Matter, would imagine that much worse could happen to a black American in the Trump-Bannon era. The heavy-handed knock on the door in the middle of the night at the end of which a young man goes missing, and sometimes ends up dead in police custody? Been there, done that. The road-stop followed by the gunshot, which leaves an unarmed man dead? Been there, done that too. The ACLU received $24 million in donations in the weekend following the issuing of the disastrous ‘Muslim ban’ Trump executive order; it certainly could have used some of those dollars in holding the tide against the assault on the Constitution that drug warriors have been mounting for close to over three decades now.

Why, again, would such an openly declared war not provoke fantasies of violence? America is lucky, very lucky, that the millions of guns floating around in its cities and suburbs have not yet been turned against the armed constabularies who, on the pretext of conducting a War on Drugs, have felt free to promiscuously wage war against entire demographics instead.

The Trump-Bannon era calls for resistance, and resisted it will be. But let us not imagine that this era is exceptional, that the political and legal crisis it showcases is. To do so would be to lapse all too easily to facile self-congratulation, and to let the real work remain undone.

The Trump Rally In Chicago Was Not ‘Shut Down’

The Donald Trump rally in Chicago on March 11th was not ‘shut down.’ It was called off by Trump himself, a decision for which the Chicago Police stated they had not extended any support (they did not consider the situation to be out of hand.) The protesters showed up in numbers thanks to advance organization, and were greeted in the same way all protesters are at Trump rallies–with abuse, and threats of violence. But this time, the protesters were different; they had come in numbers and were much, much louder. And there is strength in numbers, which means that the same bullying which saw single, isolated protesters get beaten, abused, mocked, and ultimately ejected from other Trump rallies, ran up against a wall of locked arms and even louder chants. Violence against such numbers quickly fades from viability: if anyone had dared throw a sucker punch at a protester, it would have been responded to with ten punches. Bullying works when you have superior numbers and/or perceived or actual strength. When you don’t, you get bullied right back. Bullies always, always, back off when they are first confronted with anything resembling a credible threat. Trump behaved like all bullies do when an ostensible victim fought back – he ran for the hills.

One reaction to these events is that the protest and the ‘shutting down’ plays into Trump’s electoral strategy: he can play the role of victim, claim his right to free speech is being infringed (an idiotic claim because–other than in exceptional cases–First Amendment rights cannot be infringed by private actors), and enable him to fire up his ‘base.’ Now, it can’t possibly be a consequence of this position that no one should protest at Trump’s rallies–that would have had the ironic effect of shutting down Trump opponents’ rights to protest. This suggests there are only two options for protesters. Either loners show up to to protest and get beaten and abused as before, or for safety’s sake, masses show up as in Chicago, provoke loud, angry responses, and Trump shuts down again. In that case, he will keep whining like a bully, perhaps his base will be ‘energized’ and they will become more ugly, which might in turn lead other Trump-opponents becoming even more turned off by him, and possibly becoming more ‘energized’ in turn. Or, perhaps protesters could protest outside Trump rallies, and not inside their venues. But in that case,  my guess is that those protesters would still be attacked and abused by Trump supporters–remember, this is a crowd that has been fed possibly illegal incitements to violence from Trump for a while now. Either there are ‘rumbles’ inside, or they will happen outside. That’s what Trump folks do. And if there is a rumble, I suspect the protesters will fight back–if they have the numbers–and take the chance that the Trump rally will be ‘shut down’ and for that fact to be blamed on them.

The claim that the Trump campaign got what it wanted, and that therefore, loud mass protests at Trump rallies should cease misses out on the fact that Trump opponents also got what they wanted: a demonstration of unity and capacity to mobilize, and strength in numbers, . They too will get ‘endless publicity;’ they too know how to manipulate social media.

This is democratic politics–messy, crude, with all its rough edges–in action. People speak, people protest. Democracy would be absent if the government intervened and threw people into jail just for speaking their minds. Those who have been inciting violence for months now bear all the responsibility for the curvature of the arc that has tended from speech to violence.

Amitav Ghosh And Dževad Karahasan On ‘An Aesthetic of Indifference’

In his essay The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi (New Yorker, July 1995), Amitav Ghosh introduces the reader to the Bosnian writer Dževad Karahasan and his ‘remarkable essay called Literature and War (published…in the collection Sarajevo, Exodus of a City), which ‘makes a startling connection between modern literary aestheticism and the contemporary world’s indifference to violence.’ Ghosh goes on to quote Karahasan:

Let us not fool ourselves…The world is written first – the Holy Books say that it was created in words and all that happens in it, happens in language first.

and concludes:

It is when we think of the world the aesthetic of indifference might bring into being that we recognize the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written.

Ghosh is invoking here his own long-held silence, finally broken by the publication of his essay in 1995, an account of ordinary citizens’ reactions to the terrifying pogroms conducted in New Delhi against the Sikh community in 1984–as reprisals for the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, by her Sikh bodyguards.Ghosh interprets this reticence in light of Karahasan’s remark that ‘The decision to perceive literally everything as an aesthetic phenomenon – completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth – is an artistic decision. That decision started in the realm of art, and went on to become characteristic of the contemporary world.’ He resolves his indecision about writing about the 1984 killings by conducting a form of self-inquiry: Is he a writer or a citizen? Should he write about the riots and his response to it, as the former or as the latter? Should he only write about the violence, or all else that accompanied it too? Write Ghosh finally does, as a citizen, as a human, as a friend, who is a writer too.

In so doing, in recounting tales of terror, cruelty, and bravery, Ghosh depicts a world infected not by an ‘aesthetic of indifference’ but one of engagement and attention. A world created with an aesthetic of indifference would be a bland and colorless one; it would lack the horrors of the world Ghosh describes but also its animating spirit. Karahasan’s remark about the primacy of the word suggests an even more radical fate for the world not written about: it ceases to exist.

The point to be made here, that the writer bears a responsibility to pay attention to the world around him, to make note of it with an unflinching eye, is an old one. Indeed, it is disappointingly conventional: the writer must write; all else is subordinate to this foundational principle; to not write is to commit an existentialist sin.

Ghosh’s own reflections add another twist: that the responsibility to write about catastrophe has a moral dimension; the writer must not seek out an affected, neutral, ‘from on high’ pulpit from which to issue commentary, but must instead introduce his own moral perspective into the words written, that his writing must bear his personal impress. These perspectives introduce into what would otherwise be merely voyeuristic forays into the violence of atrocities, a much-needed corrective: they make human and comprehensible the inexplicable. In a world underwritten by an aesthetic of indifference we look on unflinchingly at the terrible, but our gaze is a banal and bland one. Its sees little; it feels even less. What could be worse?