August 25, 2011
The 3rd in my series of end of vacation reflections on civil disobedience (#1 and #2).
I will continue to be frank here in my political opinions, not assuming that all will agree. If it’s helpful, I work from a couple of basic assumptions: First, that our politics ought to reflect our ethical sensibilities. And second, that government does, in fact, have a role to play in helping provide the best possible quality of life for the most possible people for the longest possible time.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I am happy with the demonstration, proud to have taken part, thankful for all those still to come, and hopeful about the future of this movement.
In the course of my daily life, I will continue to pressure elected officials through more traditional channels. And I would encourage others to do the same. Write letters, write articles, pray, educate. This continues to feel like an important moment. And a real opportunity to take a step toward a more just and sustainable future.
In this moment, though, I find myself reflecting on the nature of non-violent direct action. Was the action of getting arrested worthwhile?
The classic moments of non-violent direct action - Gandhi's march to the sea, sit ins though out the American Civil Rights movement, Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat – are forever burned into my consciousness. In such cases object of protest was an unjust law. The act of being arrested is, thus, more than symbolic. It is directly related to injustice at hand. (The takeover of the Madison capitol recently would fall into a similar vein).
In the case of our protest, however, the action was not so direct.
Sitting on the White House lawn is connected to the potential executive order - allowing the construction of a pipeline - only symbolically. As I pondered taking part over the past weeks, this struck me as problematic. And indeed, involves a much greater explanation for how and why we were (and are) acting in this way.
But I am now more convinced that this was (and will continue to be) a worthwhile and worthy endeavor. The wheels of injustice and environmental degradation are powered by two things: our desire for comfortable lives without great monetary cost, and by corporate money. Thus, in our fight for a more sustainable future, there are likely to be relatively few instances where we come up against government action that we deem unacceptable (as in the case of the British salt tax, or Jim Crow laws, or removal of collective bargaining rights).
Rather what we are likely to continue to see, is unjust government inaction in the face of corporate interest. And we must ponder how we will react. We may never have a Rosa Parks moment. And yet we cannot sit idly by.
In particular, two things seem important to notice:
First, we are all complicit in corporate malfeasance. We purchase the oil and shale gas and coal-fired electricity. We will not, and do not act as pure, sinless beings.
Second, corporations are essentially amoral things. They don't dig up the Tar Sands because they are bad people who hate forests and freshwater. They do so because there is profit to be made.
The problem comes first when the true costs of particular actions cannot be measured in monetary form. We have little way of accounting for trees and fresh water and indigenous populations and greenhouse gases, and even health risks in our current system. Oil extraction is far from cheap. But it works because we cannot easily measure these other costs.
And this problem is dramatically furthered when corporate interests become bound up in the political process. The intertwining of corporate and political interests are not, in my opinion, merely amoral in this moment, it is immoral and undemocratic. It is here, in particular, that I see movements for sustainability, for peace, for racial and economic equity all coming together.
And in the face of this corporate governance, I feel justified in taking such direct action, even if purely symbolic. It is an act of non-violent corporate disobedience. And I think we must all contemplate how to unravel this unholy marriage of corporations and politics, regardless of our philosophies of governance.
Primarily, I think this means building healthy, local, more sustainable communities. It means thinking hard and being creative about what we want from life, and how we can achieve it together. It means creating models of healthy, and happy communities that thrive on things other than cheap fossil fuel. We needn't go about this alone, and we can do considerably better.
Secondarily, I think this means pushing for sane political policy. And occasionally, I suspect this will mean pushing the levers of non-violent direct action. Corporate interests are, right now, winning. And I think our politicians needed to be reminded that they are representatives of the people and for the people. We are stressed and dismayed and concerned about our future. And we will, I hope, be willing to take risks to make it better.