Limited Hangout

Let’s Talk About Violence

Enough about sex already. Let’s talk about violence, baby. And when I say talk, I don’t mean the kind of sanctimonious, hysterical, and tightly prescribed discourse the western media tends to revert to whenever anyone — God forbidbreaks a window or sucker-punches a neo-Nazi. Why skirt around the issue? There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Violence, after all, is a perfectly natural thing. Just turn on the Discovery Channel and see for yourself.

It’s high time each and everyone in polite society had “the talk”. How are societies born, and how are they begotten? Do they emerge, ready-made, from a neatly wrapped bundle delivered by a stork on its beak? Or does the process tend to involve bodily fluids like blood and sweat, raised heart-rates, grunts and screams?

Allow me to torture this metaphor even more violently: We aren’t cute anthropomorphic Disney animals living in some peaceful suburb where everyone has a mommy and daddy, yet nobody has reproductive organs. We don’t live in Duckburg. We live in Fuckburg.

Politics is the business of defining, maintaining, and challenging power relations. Ultimately, all social power can be measured in units of human bodies, hearts, and minds, and by the potential to mobilize them. An MP has constituents, a general has his battalions of armed men, and a cult leader might have disciples fanatical enough to kill and die for their guru. All forms of politics — the non-violent means of “passive resistance” and civil disobedience included — are inextricably linked to the mechanics of violence. Thus, the question of political violence is almost never whether it should exist or not — since all politics is saturated with at least latent violence — but, rather, what form it should take. “Should we crush their skulls, or should we allow them to crush ours, thus making them look bad?” Either way, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.”

How, then, should violence be managed and channeled? Should the state always have a monopoly? Even if it’s a failed state, a rogue state, a slave-holding state within the Union, or a state resembling the Third Reich? Where should we draw the line between the legitimate and illegitimate, the lawful and the awful? Who should fill a possible power vacuum, and how? Hysterical avoidance of these questions is itself a political act, a kind of perverted non-cooperation movement spearheaded by the assholes who get to set the premises of most political discourse.

Some movements consciously focus on violence — either as a virtue or vice — while others prefer to sweep the whole issue discreetly under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind. Often this makes for the most violent and inhumane policy of all. Think of all the “moderates” who, throughout history, have failed to oppose state-sanctioned aggression, oppression, and abuse, from slavery to child labor, while maligning those who call for change as dangerous and misguided, violent radicals. And yet, in retrospect, when a renewed social contract is established as the new normal, the unlawful actions that brought about these societal shifts are turned into mythical tales of nationalistic heroism and dates for kids to memorize at school.

There’s a direct continuum from the mild-mannered and cautious reactionaries of yore to the present-day neoliberal nomenklatura. A person belonging to this clique might well get all teary-eyed singing the Marseillaise or watching The Hunger Games, but still shudder at the thought of any non-state actors actually using force or breaking the law to further their political agenda. It’s a taboo, like sex out of wedlock in Victorian society. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail at a GOP campaign office? The horror, the horror! Somebody was brutally tortured in one of Obama’s black sites in Somalia? Oh well, shit happens.

The liberal reactionary might support so-called humanitarian intervention, even if it was in breach of international law, but would probably label a present-day John Brown as a blood-thirsty madman. An unauthorized individual engaging in “humanitarian intervention”? Sorry, not allowed, not even for a noble cause — unless it’s a movie. Why not have a constructive dialogue with the slave-owners instead, Mr. Brown? Why not engage them in the marketplace of ideas, rather than in the field of battle? Or, better still, why not have a shot at Passive Resistance®?

The establishment venerates Gandhi, MLK, and even the guerrilla fighter Nelson Mandela as the canonized saints of change by peaceful means. What is seldom mentioned is that the guy who came up with this whole civil disobedience thing, a man by the name of Henry David Thoreau, was in full support of the violence committed by the abolitionist John Brown. In his Plea for Captain Brown, Thoreau, “the father of passive resistance”, concludes:

“When I reflect to what a cause this man devoted himself, and how religiously, and then reflect to what cause his judges and all who condemn him so angrily and fluently devote themselves, I see they are as far apart as heavens and earth are asunder.”

Even by Gandhi’s standards, radicals like John Brown, Malcolm X, or the female Kurd commander Hebun Sinya, were brave freedom fighters who made the only honorable choice “between cowardice and violence,” which is “to cultivate the art of killing and being killed” rather than fleeing from danger.

“Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defence or for the defence of the defenceless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission.” (From R. K. Rabhu & U. R. Rao: The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi)

In fact, Gandhi’s black-and-white stance on sex, aside from being confused, lacked all the nuance of his views on violence. Quite like the censors at the Motion Picture Association of America, he considered sex the more obvious, unmitigated evil. Make war, not love!

It should surprise no one that schoolbooks and official speeches typically either sing the praises of state-sanctioned, professional murderers, or civilians who would just like to see everyone get along. Western media turned Gandhi into a mythical sage already during his lifetime, in the midst of India’s independence struggle. What was going on? People deemed dangerous to the existing power structures are not usually portrayed this way:

Granted, Gandhi was an immensely charismatic, fascinating figure, and a masterful manipulator of public perception and the mass media. But that’s just half the story. The powers that be could see the writing on the wall. It was inevitable that the colonies would gain their independence sooner or later, either by peaceful means or through violent upheavals. Following World War II, the resources needed for maintaining a colonial army in the “Jewel of the Crown” had run out. There were good reasons for the British establishment to prefer Gandhi over competing and sometimes fiercely militant leaders, figures like Subhas Chandra Bose or the communists.

It wasn’t just a question of peaceful transfer of power, but of power dynamics beyond national flags, anthems, and lofty gestures. The fact that Gandhi had no coherent political program for the nation of multitudes made him rather harmless. His obscure, half-insane spiritual visions of bucolic village councils and married couples universally abstaining from sex provided an ideal facade for the pillage and looting that would define Indian politics from thereon. As Dr. Ambedkar, the iconic advocate for India’s scheduled castes, bitterly noted:

“Leftist and radical leaders have been giving blind and unquestioning support to the Congress which admittedly is run by capitalists, land-lords, money-lenders and reactionaries, only because the Congress calls its activities by the grandiloquent name of Fight for Freedom.”

In a similar vein, in South Africa, the utterly corrupt ANC, along with its white industrial paymasters, cynically takes advantage of Mandela’s legacy. Conversely, it’s interesting to note how the black Democratic leadership in the US has almost entirely divorced itself from MLK’s explicitly socialist positions.

The most extreme case of quasi-Gandhian politics serving as a smoke screen for extreme violence and abuse can be found in today’s Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta’s ostensible opponent and the country’s current de facto leader, has, in effect, become their co-conspirator in the genocide of a powerless Muslim minority group. As the junta nominally ceded some of its power to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, it also ramped up its decades-long persecution of the Rohingya people, “the world’s most persecuted minority”.

While Trump’s Muslim ban has been universally condemned, very few have even noticed the Muslim genocide currently unfolding in Burma: the burned villages, mass-rapes, and death camps. As for Suu Kyi, on the rare occasion the soft-spoken Nobel-laureate is challenged on the issue, she keeps repeating, like an automaton, that she simply wants to “follow the rule of law”.

To conclude: It’s near impossible to completely divorce ourselves, as political animals, from violence. Most of us have no clear conception of what our own stance is, but vanishingly few are genuine or absolute pacifists. Since violence is a reality with practicalities we have to deal with, it’s essential we don’t shroud the issue with borrowed, meaningless slogans and simplistic narratives. In the case of Burma, for instance, if the aim is to minimize human suffering, which option should we prefer:

A) the continuation of the “peaceful progress”, i.e., the media stunt concocted by the junta’s generals and business elites, aimed at western investors, with Mother Suu Kyi as its subservient mascot, and an all-out Muslim genocide on the side, or

B) a good old revolution, culminating in the genocidal military brass being dragged in front of a firing squad?

You decide.


[Related article: Guns and Propaganda: Lying for a Good Cause]
(Photo credit: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)