Giving or taking over?



One: The law of death or glory. I don’t know you, but I’m guessing your oppression was not overturned last night. You may have a good idea of what ending that oppression would feel like, whether it’s a revolution, passing a new law, or getting a new job. For most people, I imagine, that thing didn’t happen. For radicals, a revolution would involve some kind of “structural change” in the world, though they disagree about what this means. Maybe it comes down to the whole world getting a new job. But that it didn’t happen, either.

Or did it? Writing last month about teaching and violence, I proposed an idea so unusual, and yet so inescapable, that I’m still wrapping my head around it: that movements to change the world, short of outright military campaigns, are, and always have always been, about teaching rather than fighting. The idea applies to revolutions themselves, which aren’t just about power changing hands, but hands changing power. To the extent that movements involve confrontation, these confrontations always teach, and hold out the possibility for reconciliation. Without this element, all battles are war, suicide, or both: the logic of Kaiser Soze killing his family to win (in 1995’s The Usual Suspects, where the villain showed “these men of will what will really was”).

I followed this idea to its logical, more bewildering conclusion: that there are parallels between movements confronting uncooperative power and teachers confronting uncooperative students. The connection goes unseen because the skills of effective teaching—"say, see, do" lessons, giving incentives, cooperative groups, and “meaning business"—are obscure. Most people still think you can punish children into learning. We see authority as something taken, not given. And the very idea of giving is distorted where metaphors of competition, battle, commerce, and retribution dominate. This vocabulary is all some of us have. But we diminish ourselves by thinking we win affection, fight for good, pay it forward, teach somebody a lesson, and are rewarded for our efforts. Language insists we don’t give anything, including a crap.

This blindness, I’ve argued, stems from an oppression that comes from within, a false and corrupting ideology that has no common name, so I call it the Law of the Jungle (Kipling’s original idea narrowed to its crude common usage). Here is a toxin that poisons even the ideas of movements that would end oppression, benefitting all illegitimate authority. So the new left of 1962, taking shape at the Port Huron convention of Students for a Democratic Society, began as a community “both ‘fraternal and competitive,’” according to participant Paul Potter, quoted by Sara Evans in Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left (1980, p. 113). But “As SDS grew, community suffered and competition heightened” (p. 113). As ruthless arrogance grew thick, the movement marginalized women and damaged men, who “felt inadequate and ‘put down’” (p. 154).

In the sexual revolution that followed, men and women could embrace what David Thomson calls “the modern itch, the movie urge” to have everyone, like any moviegoer, “less inclined to fix upon the means of choice in love and marriage than yield to the parade of dreams that are more likely to become glamorous and sexual” (The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, 2004, p. 217-218). A generation raised on movies attached itself “to a medium which in its deepest being urges detachment,” Thomson writes, or danced to songs of love at first sight (p. 218). Starting out as the narcissists they revealed in song and unlearning the Law to become better people was part of the drama and evolution of the Beatles.

The Law is obsessed with winning, fighting, having, or dying—“death or glory,” as the Clash sang in 1979. It has little use for compromise, real controversy, cooperation among differing views, or admitting weakness. Which is why many radicals favor consensus over pluralism—at best synthesizing opposing perspectives, at worst cutting away opposition—while equating revolution with cathartic violence. “Are you taking orders, or are you taking over?” the Clash sang two years earlier, in empathy with riot—the moment when a third option between taking orders and taking over seems impossible, before the realization that you’re doing neither sets in. But the drama and evolution of the Clash was their half-conscious realization that revolutionary romanticism is another Hollywood cowboy or soldier story. Even the supposed arrival of the left counterculture to the big screen in the 1970s was really the Law blended with wary irony, where The Godfather (1972) and its sequel (1974) bound the audience to Michael Corleone’s cool view of enemies, his calculation that Cuban rebels are admirable because they fight to the death, and so they can win. Michael punishes underlings, family, and government to death because that’s the only card he has. 

The better teacher was McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), the class clown as instinctive Yippie (or early Sex Pistol). But even there, Jack Nicholson’s willfulness was meant only for death or glory (or escape), not change. As a middle-school kid in the early ’80s, I drew and published a cartoon of a rebellious student who turned into a jungle-cat superhero and attacked his teacher—a likeness of my own teacher at the time. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I instinctively sided with kids sent to the office for disruption because the teacher made discipline a public spectacle (the old “names on the board” technique), so in the moment I didn’t care if the boys were bullies. Only after I was marched in to apologize by another teacher did I begin to see my target as a person, obviously hurt by what I did, and only now do I see him as just another struggling teacher, one who hadn’t yet learned the skills of classroom management.



Two: The authority of giving. People carry these figures of authority in their heads throughout their lives, and some make eternal war on them. This sense of fighting intensifies the more you feel that you have somehow cooperated with the oppressor, as George Orwell or Malcolm X felt they had done. So when some radicals realize they can’t punish the world into changing, an odd defeatism settles over them, a kind of revolutionary all-or-nothing-ism: the syllogism neatly dividing the world into oppressed and oppressor, McMurphy and Nurse Ratchet, justifying the (perpetually) coming conflict to make solidarity along these severely drawn lines—often with a kick of self-loathing privilege. Reality for these revolutionaries is Cuba in 1959, with the guerrillas about to sweep through. It becomes very easy to believe that all is lost, in this mindset, because in fantasy, it usually is. And there are so many Hollywood versions of this story, often involving a sci-fi hero who presses the right button to reveal all, and make power crumble.

I don’t mean to disparage militants doing good work, movies processing these feelings, inevitable revolutions, or even dreams and utopias. How else can you teach something good that’s not already there? My worry comes when dreams defeat the dreamers, the psychic toll taken by the Law on those who see humanity as losing. This frightened pessimism is the mentality that envies Kaiser Soze, and limits what we see as revolutionary even before totalitarianism takes hold (which it always does in the Law), because we don’t notice how revolutions are underway all around us—how we train for the job before getting it.

To take a mundane and blessedly middle-class example, last week my neighbors gave me tools and advice to help me fix our snow blower—the kind of problem I used to daydream about as a renter. As the machine came to life, I felt something more than gratitude: It was power and, for lack of a better word, faith. Power because I’d learned to fix something that had seemed unfathomable. Faith because I found that a neighborhood—a network sometimes viewed with suspicion or competition, like school or work—might also contain a community. I wish this feeling was what Star Wars (George Lucas’s 1977 Vietnam parable) had talked about instead of the aptly named Force. (After my Grandma died, I learned that she took my brother and me to Star Wars all those countless times in the ’70s without ever liking it. That was real faith.)

Many come by this insight of giving every day, and change the world in small ways without acknowledgment. Others teach large numbers of people using the same strategy. But as I cleared the sidewalks for neighbors the other night, this pride and optimism mingled with news, art, and internet noise reminding me (as any corporate employee knows) that oppression hasn’t ended, that the Empire stands. There was first the entirely fictional “suppressed” Grammy speech by Lorde, circulated in social media, where the singer (an imagined reader of Naomi Klein) urged fans to send “the psychopaths that currently run the world to the planet’s prisons,” and added, “Peace cannot happen with reconciliation. That was Nelson Mandela’s mistake.”

There was also The Lego Movie (2014), a kind of Star Wars remake that called for just this reconciliation—telling “President Business” that maybe he didn’t have to be the bad guy after all—and attacked by Fox Business at the same level of inanity on which hoaxes operate, with one guest echoing Hoover’s FBI to cite It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as evidence of Hollywood’s anti-capitalist bias. (George Bailey was a banker too, guys.) And there was The Daily Show's Jason Jones hugging a Russian gay-rights protester, a grandmother who quoted TV’s Angel to say that if “nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” In the Minneapolis Jones mentioned, there were also free Art Shanties, a screening of 1977’s Eraserhead (showing the Law’s dread of human need—pictured above with the Olympics bear mascot), and an amazing piece of music and dance by an artist I know, about his loneliness in the network that saved him after he appealed for a kidney donor through Facebook (Antarctica, which was like a live Eraserhead, pictured at the top under a photo from the recent Ukraine protests).

You have your own news, and I’m sure it was more significant. But if it involved changing the world, take a moment to reckon with this month’s cover essay by Adolph Reed Jr., in Harper’s, boldly titled “Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals” (his battle metaphor right up front). Then watch what I’ve come to think of as its unwitting answer and negation: a real speech, and a moving one, by actor Ellen Page, coming out as gay before an audience of actual youth workers, advocates, and young people on Valentine’s Day in Las Vegas (embedded above, transcript here).

That last moment blots out the rest, which says something about how change works. But start with Reed, subscribing to Harper’s if necessary (it’s great), and take my word that the author can be brilliant, even here. He sings the old song that cultural politics can’t challenge real “power” because they’re not based in a majoritarian movement for economic justice. He would have us reforge the “labor-left alliance” of the It’s a Wonderful Life era, a familiar old line he sees and raises on the symbolism of an African American president “sold, even within the left, as a hybrid of Martin Luther King Jr. and Neo from The Matrix.”

For Reed, there’s been no progress since the ’80s, only “defeat and marginalization”—and why? Because the left “lacks focus and stability,” drawing “its inspiration, hopefulness, and confidence from outside its own ranks”—“from this oppressed group” or that (students, Zapatistas, “the black/Latino/LGBT ‘community’”)—rather than doing “long-term organizing” around populist goals such as “single-payer health care, universally free public higher education and public transportation,” and “federal guarantees of housing and income security.”

But, to quote Ellen Willis 15 years ago, “I’d suggest a different explanation for the [economic] majoritarians’ failure: their conception of how movements work and their view of the left as a zero-sum game—we can do class or culture, but not both—are simply wrong” (Don’t Think, Smile!, 1999, p. x). As Willis writes, “People’s working lives, their sexual and domestic lives, their moral values are intertwined… If [Americans] do not feel entitled to demand freedom and equality in their personal and social relations, they will not fight for freedom and equality in their economic relations” (p. x-xi). Predatory power in one arena feeds predatory power in another.

What’s more, “It’s not necessary, as many leftists imagine, to round up popular support before anything can be done; on the contrary, the actions of a relatively few troublemakers can lead to popular support” (p. xvi). This is how the radical “gesture” Reed denigrates can teach the country, as Willis experienced first-hand at the lonely start of the women’s liberation movement.

The pattern Willis outlines is familiar to anyone involved in successful social movements such as LGBT equality. As “radical ideas gain currency beyond their original advocates, they mutate into multiple forms,” she writes. “Groups representing different class, racial, ethnic, political, and cultural constituencies respond to the new movement with varying degrees of support or criticism and end up adapting its ideas to their own agendas” (p. xvi-xvii). With popularity, the culture-teachers bring “pressure on existing power relations. Liberal reformers then mediate the process of dilution, containment, and ‘co-optation’ whereby radical ideas that won’t go away are incorporated into the system through new laws, policies, and court decisions” (p. xvii).

Willis calls this dynamic “a good cop/bad cop routine,” where liberals eventually “dismiss the radicals as impractical sectarian extremists, promote their own ‘responsible’ proposals as an alternative, and take the credit for whatever change results” (p. xvii). While this “process does bring about significant change,” she worries that “denying the legitimacy of radicalism… misleads people about how change takes place,” and leaves us “unprepared for the inevitable backlash” (p. xvii).

Here is where Willis, who died in 2006, joins Reed in warning that the political right takes the marginalization of radicals as an “opportunity to fight back. Conservatives in their turn become the insurgent minority,” and “the liberal left keeps retreating” (in another metaphor of war)—so that “the entire debate shifts to the right” (p. xvii).

Three: The leap of faith. The same process applies to conservative ideas, I would add—some argue marriage is one of them. But contrary to the economic determinism of leftists and child-rearing determinism of conservatives, our “debate” is more changeable than we might think—as marriage equality shows. The “good cop/bad cop routine” could more accurately be described as a “good teacher routine” within any effective protest movement going back to civil rights: giving incentives and setting limits to get power moving. The goal is always to change minds—something you can either do badly or well. Because what’s the alternative? Smashing heads?

People baffled that LGBT equality groups would donate money to Republican candidates who supported the cause, or that disability activists would let Bush Senior take credit for the Americans with Disabilities Act, miss how “raising costs” on bad policy only goes so far. Why not let President Business be the good guy? Great teachers connect, offer respect and humor, and give good reasons for cooperation, which is always a gift. They establish boundaries in ways that save those who would test them from embarrassment. In other words, they build authority—exactly the sticking point for the libertarian left of Willis.

In the anthology Anarchist Pedagogies (2012), edited by Robert H. Haworth, the word authority is mentioned 69 times, all but five with a negative connotation. To anti-authoritarians, authority usually means taking power away—through coercion, deception, commands, threats, terror, manipulation, surveillance, punishment, and bribery. But authority also involves giving power. The author in authority could as easily be the pull of art, the charisma of show, love of family, the weight of knowledge, the legitimacy of representation, duty of order, or the leap of faith. So the book’s five positive references to authority tell how it can be shared or ceded between radical street medics, scientists, and (hey) Zapatistas. 

Of course, giving and taking can blur when different kinds of authority overlap, as in a democracy bought and paid for, or art that lies, or love made conditional through withholding (the disastrous advice of Dr. Phil and others). Unlike those examples, fully legitimate authority affirms an odd duality for those who are under it: You are good, and the rules matter. Every other approach to teaching or activism subtly undermines both ideas. The ultimate goal of all discipline, like all effective world-changing, is reconciliation. This was Mandela’s grace. 

Willis writes that “every economic and social right that we’ve achieved since the nineteenth century has been hard-won by organized, militant, and often radical social movements: the labor movement; the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements; the new left student movement; the black and feminist and gay liberation movements; the ecology movement” (p. 190). She uses these examples to argue that “the idea that the state gives us these benefits is a mystification” (p. 190). But is it really? Rights are gifts from birth, something movements merely affirm. But government programs are a gift, too, because what else could they be? Payments? Bribes? Spoils of war? Our metaphors fail us because movements are taught, not fought.

For every new right we decide we have, we may need to imagine and launch creative, educational confrontations that persuade government to make laws allowing us to enjoy that right. This teaching exercise may need to be repeated everywhere, inevitably in tense personal interactions. But while this experience can feel like a “fight,” and has faced unimaginable violence before, the good cop is as important as the bad cop. So much movement building involves the incentive side of teaching, the personal weight of connection.

At the Human Rights Campaign's Time to Thrive conference in Las Vegas, Ellen Page began her speech by expressing a feeling of collaboration in an oppression without a name. “I am, an actress, representing—at least in some sense—an industry that places crushing standards on all of us,” she began. “Not just young people, but everyone. Standards of beauty. Of a good life. Of success. Standards that, I hate to admit, have affected me.

"You have ideas planted in your head," she continued, "thoughts you never had before, that tell you how you have to act, how you have to dress and who you have to be. I have been trying to push back, to be authentic, to follow my heart, but it can be hard."

To a room full of advocates for LGBT equality, she said, “all of you, all of us, can do so much more together than any one person can do alone.” And then she added shakily, “I am here today because I am gay. And because maybe I can make a difference to help others have an easier and more hopeful time. Regardless, for me, I feel a personal obligation and a social responsibility. I also do it selfishly, because I’m tired of hiding. And I’m tired of lying by omission.”

Page ended by expressing gratitude for the kind of power and faith I described above, except multiplied by the magnitude of fixing a machine inside yourself. “Thank you for giving me hope,” she said, “and please keep changing the world for people like me. Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.”

It was everything you could ask for from a State of the Union: an acknowledgement of despair, vulnerability in wrestling with perceived complicity, dramatic evidence of true empathy, and invigorating encouragement for real, life-changing work, already underway. Page’s words were a sign that, for anyone still changing the world, the past 40 years haven’t been a disappointment. Why not occupy foreclosed homes? Why not rally against climate change, or take on homophobia in Russia? Better to be lifted by choices than burdened by dreams. If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.

Viewing progress as an account receivable is a seductive idea for anyone staring into the abyss, but that’s where it belongs, in the abyss. Reality is so much better. We’re not losing. The psychopaths and men of will pretending to run the planet are just people. We can learn and spread the skills of teaching, and we can do more together than anyone can do alone.