In Defense of Demonstrating

My favorite movies explore the interplay of character and ideas. If they include history, so much the better. This explains why Politywonk is amusing herself with “Hannah Arendt”, whose topic speaks for itself. It’s a German film which makes use of footage from the actual trial of Adolph Eichmann. 

Eichmann explained himself with words that jolted back to life all the times I’ve gone out to demonstrate, petition, observe a police commission, write a letter to an editor. The words were simple, as translated in the film:

“If there had been more civic courage, things would have been different.” 

Eichmann is here explaining how he lived with a split conscience. One half maintained his personal values, of which he declared the highest one was to keep his personal oath. The other half, which he suppressed, considered what was happening and calculated the outcome of disobeying orders. 

There was no part of him which contemplated that following orders and performing as an excellent bureaucrat, he sent six million Jews to horrible deaths. For that he was hung, and probably a good thing it was.

When Arendt published “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” first in The New Yorker and then as a book, her claim that evil could manifest as banality rather than monstrosity outraged many. In reality, it simply updated the old truism of Edmund Burke, “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men (sic) to do nothing.”  In the movie, Arendt says that totalitarianism has accomplished the ultimate evil, which is to build environments in which human beings feel that being human is irrelevant. Punishment does not follow crimes, rewards do not follow work. I remember being told, over and over, by my politically active family — as well as by so many others — that the first crucial step is the one taken by Eichmann, in which his humanness became irrelevant to himself.

Although I often decry the tendency of Unitarian Universalists — and other bleeding hearts of every faith — to demonstrate again and again at every outrage, these demonstrations do serve the purpose of modeling the civic courage Eichmann said might have changed his strategy for survival. I support this. But a culture of demonstration lacks the tough backbone of neighbor-to-neighbor self-exposure that characterized Freedom Summer and the majority of work that I and others did against the Vietnam War and in support of La Raza and Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers. Hours and hours every week — including every Saturday morning at a large suburban Kroger’s, leafletting every shopper — were what made these efforts successful. Equal marriage has swirled onto beachheads worldwide because individuals came out to their families and those families chose to stand with them, often in spite of social ostracism.

As much as I respect the sacrifice of time and money, it doesn’t take civic courage to jump from one media event to another on a superficial basis. There’s a phrase called “Skin in the game,” which refers to this process of positioning oneself in a vulnerable social spot. This is what bothers me about demonstration culture. People get praised. People get speaking opps. Even if they go to prison, it’s not a long, tough ride. And usually, with a fine or community service, the whole event dissolves and demonstration culture starts looking for another.

Someone as superficial as Eichmann would certainly have paid attention to demonstrations. But someone so ambitious would probably not have been swayed without more than one personal conversation, more than one individual or family who stood up and got away with it.

“Civic courage.” Thank you for that phrase, Eichmann trial. It’s good to be reminded why we do what we do. It’s important to remember what it means to do it well.

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