Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Is Failure the Chicken and Success the Egg?

(Thinking about chickens because of Nevada's new law that you can't wear a chicken costume to the polls.)

More reflections on Budrus, the Movie.

After seeing the movie, I went back and looked at my journals from those early days of action in Budrus. Here is a little bit of what I wrote after the first day:

After two hours or more, another group of soldiers arrived with two police jeeps. Ayad asked us to get in front. Ted and I did. The army commander came toward me and I pointed the camera at him.

He said, “You can put away the camera because I didn’t come to make a scene.”

“Why did you come?” I asked.
“You know why.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I came here to build the Fence.”
“Well, I did know that, but I meant right now, why did you come?”
He said, “We both know the Fence is going to be built. We can do it today, or tomorrow we come in with hundreds of soldiers, we close the school, put the village under curfew. But my government wants to build the Fence, and I know and you know we are going to do it.”

I got a sinking feeling, because of course he is right. If they want it, they can do it. But I said, “No, I don’t know that.”

Reading that now, of course, I think, “I should have had more faith.” But nothing in my experience gave me reason to. And this is the little piece that I think doesn’t come through so well in the film: People did not go out there knowing or even believing that they could win. The villagers did not tell their kids to go to the fields that day instead of to school because they knew no one would be shot. Iltezam didn’t jump into the hole and sit there under the blade of a bulldozer, and her father did not stand there and encourage her to do it, because they knew the bulldozer would stop. Quite to the contrary, they knew that Rachel Corrie had recently been killed, in a situation not so different from theirs.

I can’t help wondering what international reaction to the film would be like if that were the story. (Of course, probably there would have been no film if that were the story.) Would Ayad and Naami be known, not as the brilliant organizers of nonviolent resistance who raised a brilliant daughter to follow in their footsteps, but as proof that Palestinian parents don’t value the lives of their children enough to keep them from sitting in front of bulldozers? What would all those people who say, “This film is so wonderful, these people are so brave, if only the Palestinians had used this nonviolence from the beginning, they would have won in a day,” be saying then? Presumably the same things they are saying about Rachel Corrie and Tristan Anderson, who were equally nonviolent and brave: they shouldn’t have been there. What happened to them was their fault, because they had an irrational hatred of Israel and the Jews.

I’ve said this before, but people have a tendency to read social movements through their outcomes. Working backwards, we make a coherent narrative out of their strategies and tactics, their power struggles and organizational styles, leading inevitably to their successes or failures. We subject both our own and other people’s movements to this torturous dissection, and we pretend that we are deciding what to participate in based on our clairvoyant ability to determine which movements are going to succeed. All of us would have stood with Mario Savio on Sproul Plaza, but none of us would have been killed at Haymarket; all of us would have joined the French Resistance and none of us would have joined the Judenrat (the Jewish Councils in Nazi-occupied Europe, which cooperated with the Nazis in the belief that they would be able to help their people survive). A few years ago, I asked my friend’s son, who was 9 at the time, if when they taught him about Martin Luther King, Jr. in school they made it clear that the government, and many of its citizens, did not approve of what King was doing at the time. He said no, they teach that everyone always loved King. Okay, I said, then do they tell you that they put him in jail? Yes, he said, but I’ve never understood why.

The movements that succeed are not only a result of their forebears which succeeded. When we credit Gandhi’s march to the sea with helping to win India’s independence from Britain, we should also remember that he opposed the creation of Pakistan and that his hunger strike failed to prevent a bloody civil war.

The campus anti-apartheid movements in 1986 were no different from the ones in 1979. I was part of both, and I can absolutely tell you that. The 1986 movement didn’t succeed because it had better strategy than its predecessor. It succeeded because the movement of eight years earlier, along with so many other things, most of them in South Africa but some as far away as South Korea, had changed the conditions under which the students were struggling. And nonetheless, in 1987 it did not look like that movement was going to succeed in helping to dismantle apartheid.

My favorite book is Gone to Soldiers, Marge Piercy’s tapestry of interconnected stories of World War II. Toward the end of the book, one of the heroines, a captured resistance fighter, with her fellow prisoners is forced to watch the execution of inmates who carried out an act of sabotage at Auschwitz. She says, “No one cheered.” When I read that, I thought, well of course not. Why is she saying that? And then I realized that she meant they wanted to cheer, not for the execution but for the resistance. They were not standing there thinking, how stupid and reckless those women were to do something that could result in not only their own deaths but others’ too. It’s not that every act of resistance is the right one, but sometimes you don’t know which is going to be the right one until you’ve taken a few or many wrong ones.

Everyone loves a winner, and we especially do in this country. We don’t like to be reminded of our failures. But next time you hear an inspiring story of resistance and triumph, take a minute to think about how you would be feeling about the resistance if there was no triumph. Because most of the time, that’s likely to be the case.

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