Saturday, February 6, 2010

What Is To Be Done?

Alexander Cockburn has some important reminders in an article at Counterpunch today:
[Rosa] Parks was a trained organizer who, like King, attended sessions at the Highlander Folk School, founded by Christian Socialists, close to the Communist Party, one of whom, Don West, began his career as a high-school agitator organizing demonstrations in 1915 outside cinemas featuring Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a violently racist movie praising the Ku Klux Klan for protecting whites from black violence after the Civil War.
It's always a good idea to repeat that Rosa Parks was not just a solitary, isolated person. Just a few days ago, I heard her mentioned on the radio as someone who acted because "My feet were tired." Her feet were surely tired that day in 1955 when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, but she was already secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama chapter of the NAACP, and had worked for the defense of a teenaged African-American woman, Claudine Colvin, who'd been arrested for the same offense. Oddly, the Wikipedia article on Parks claims early on that "Nonetheless, she took her action as a private citizen 'tired of giving in'", as though activists were not private citizens too. While activists surely have differing motives for getting involved, they usually start out as private citizens who've had enough, and they remain private citizens after they become activists. That would seem to be gripe that so many people have about activists: Who do they think they are!? They're not the professional politicians and managers and doctors and lawyers who are supposed to concern themselves with such things. An odd sentiment in a supposed democracy where citizens are supposed to concern and involve themselves with the public good. The same article later quotes Parks herself:
People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
I suspect that so many people try to atomize and isolate Parks partly to force her into a mythic mold: the Gallant Little Tailor, say. Perhaps part of the idea is to encourage us ordinary workaday folks to get off our butts and do something, but I'm inclined to doubt it for a couple of reasons. One is the implication that all you have to do is Have Heart, and get Mad As Hell and Not Take It Anymore, and the world will change -- you don't have to hang out with Dirty Reds to make it happen. Even if this were true sometimes, the fact remains that Parks did hang out with Dirty Reds and change happened that way in that case. The net result of discouraging organization is that the few nails that stick up their individual heads get beaten swiftly and efficiently down.

Another is that people who organize in this country (and elsewhere) are generally derided. Even our dear Teabaggers are torn between presenting themselves as a movement and as a bunch of Mad As Hell Private Citizens who just happen to gather in the same place at the same time to express their dissatisfaction with the way this country is going. I've seen occasional admissions that they've decided to learn from the example of past movements for social justice, but since they usually seem to hate those past movements for being a bunch of Damned Communists and Dirty Surrender Monkeys who want to bring America to its knees, they tend to trip over their own rationales. And since Teabag Nation, while not entirely the creation of Fox News, has relied very much on its Fair and Balanced blessings from its inception, I think it's safe to say that most of the Tea Party Protesters wouldn't have gotten very far without exhortations from Fox and generous donations and other support from its corporate sponsors. As I've pointed out before, naming themselves after the Boston Tea Party allows them to pretend that they are doing civil disobedience without the risk of ever being herded into a holding cell.

Not that I mean to sneer at them too much. I'm not sure I'm ready to see the inside of a holding cell either, or face tear gas grenades or police clubs. Hwang Sok-yong's great novel The Old Garden, which I just finished reading, brought home very forcefully again the courage and determination of people who didn't have corporate subsidies for their resistance to power. But unlike Teabag Nation, I honor them, and continue to mull over what sort of work I could do.

But speaking of holding cells, tear gas and police clubs, I see that there will be another G20 summit in November, this time in Seoul, and while this Korea Herald story stresses all the nifty things that the city government is planning to welcome the corporate and political scum of the earth:
The city has decided to designate the fourth Wednesday of each month as a “Big Clean up Day” when citizens voluntarily participate in a city cleanup campaign. It also plans to clean up sewer pipes around the summit venue to prevent the spread of unpleasant aromas. Sewage disposal tanks in large buildings near the venue will also be checked to ensure they have been properly maintained....

Other plans include dispatching 1,000 foreign language speaking volunteers to 25 subway stations and 165 bus stops across the city, to help foreign visitors comfortably utilize the public transportation system.

In about 75 first class hotels, the city will run special support centers for G20 participants, which will offer services concerning interpretation, health care and visas. ..

About 10,000 citizens, including 3,000 for interpretation, are expected to participate in the summit as volunteers.

And my Korean friends have told me that Koreans aren't very civic minded! Ten thousand volunteers mobilized to make the G20 delegates feel welcome is quite a respectable number, and I'm sure they just came to City Hall on their own to offer their assistance.

Maybe because it goes without saying, though, there's not a word in the article about beefed-up security, or sweeping beggars and homeless and street vendors off the streets (this last was already in progress for other future events anyway), or about the protests and demonstrations that follow the G20 and other corporate/government events around the world. For once, poor Korean farmers won't have to travel overseas to confront the bigwigs -- the bigwigs are coming to them, though they may not realize it yet. I won't be there, unfortunately, because I haven't moved to Korea yet, but I'll be watching.