On the Nature of Civil Protest

I wrote this in reflection upon a conversation I had with a friend who was heading off for a weekend of protesting against the U.S. Government's "School of the Americas". There was the potential that my friend would be arrested, but there was also the general sense that it would be an exhausting and draining event. I asked her about why she was doing it, and a wonderful conversation ensued. These are some of the thoughts that remain. It's not done yet, thus the weak ending.

In every good conversation, the participants ideally exhibit a mutual desire to communicate their thoughts, share their ideas, and help the other participants to understand what they are trying to say. The conversation takes place because all of the participants recognize the significance and benefit of engaging in conversation with the other participants to communicate but also for the sake of conversation itself. The conversation is able to take place because all of the participants recognize that the other participants share the desire to engage in conversation.

In every good argument or debate, the participants ideally exhibit a mutual desire to convince the other participants that one view on a particular issue or series of issues is more appropriate, suitable, correct, or right than another view on the same issue or series of issues. The participants in an argument attempt to achieve this goal by explaining and detailing the point of view that they support in the context of opposing or refuting the points of view of the other participants, or sometimes affirming some parts and opposing other parts of a generally opposing point of view. Arguments and debates take place because participants recognize the opportunity to gain from discovering or acknowledging a particular point of view as more appropriate, suitable, correct, or right than another, whether it be the gain of personal knowledge, argumentative victory over another participant, or some other form of gain (not necessarily a positive gain).

Arguments are able to take place because participants recognize a need or desire to engage in the process of attempting to determine a more correct or appropriate point of view on a particular issue. This need or desire can arise from external pressures, personal passion about the issue or the argument itself (sometimes leading to physical combat), mechanical process, or any number of other sources. In all cases, participants recognize one or more of the other participants as being worthy of engaging in the argument or debate; they accept that the participants have a valid place in the process of argument, they recognize that the argument or debate has the potential to benefit themselves and possibly the other participants, and acknowledge respect (or present a façade of respect) that the other participants are suitably equipped to engage in the argument.

In every protest or act of civil disobedience, the participants making the protest or committing the act of civil disobedience exhibit a mutual desire to express an opinion about a particular issue or series of issues. The nature of protest and civil disobedience do not necessarily require that the parties holding, authorizing, enacting, or maintaining the views being protested against voluntarily participate in the event or even recognize the event as a valid "conversation" or "argument" as they were defined above. In this sense, it is not a conversation between two or more willing participants, but only an act of expression by participants representing only one point of view, directed at the parties holding, authorizing, enacting, or maintaining the opposing views.

This may be the case for several reasons. The opposing party may have refused the request of the participants to engage in a conversation or debate on a particular issue. The participants may have previously engaged in a conversation or argument that did not reach conclusion satisfactory to one or more of the participants. The protesters may desire to surprise or intimidate the opposing participants by initiating the protest or act of civil disobedience without advance notice. The protestors may not feel that they have available to them appropriate means by which to engage in a conversation or argument with the opposing parties, due to various power structures, logistical concerns such as time and place, or other factors.

By engaging in protest or acts of civil disobedience, these participants do, however, make the opposing parties a part of the conversation or argument, albeit unwillingly, in the following manner:

  1. The protesters imply a degree of responsibility for engaging in a conversation or acting lies with the opposing party;
  2. The protesters acknowledge that the opposing party is the most suited for taking on the role as an authoritative participant in a discussion on the issues in dispute;
  3. The protesters acknowledge the opposing party's authority or right or obligation to deal with the issues in dispute.

There are negative consequences associated with this approach to a conversation or argument. Because the opposing parties may not desire to be unwilling participants, they may react to the acts of protest or civil disobedience unfavorably. The structures (governmental, social, or otherwise) of the location in which the protest takes place may require or facilitate that the protesters` actions be halted or oppressed. Protesters or persons performing acts of civil disobedience may be subject to immediate consequences such as incarceration, injury, and death, or long-term consequences such as social displacement, internal conflict, or others.

In the sense that some participants are brought in unwillingly, protest or civil disobedience happens because the protestors recognize the potential for their actions to directly or indirectly impact the views and actions of the opposing parties. By participating in protest or civil disobedience, the participants exhibit a degree of respect for the opposing party to recognize, process, acknowledge, and act as a result of this impact. While the protesters may not necessarily place all responsibility for such processing and/or action with the opposing party, the notion of expectations between participants (be they willingly so or not) does arise.

Protest or civil disobedience are appropriate, then, when the potential for this impact on opposing parties outweighs the potential negative consequences of action. Protest or civil disobedience is successful when the opposing parties become willing participants in the conversation or argument about the issues at hand because they have recognized the nature or depth of the impact on them.

Weighing the Value of Life

I think that one of the hardest things a person can be asked to do is confront the value of their own life weighed against that of the world around them. But we see the tensions of this confrontation everywhere - balancing our self-interest against our service to others; balancing our concept of the good life against the survival of other species and the environment they live in; balancing our intense love for a small group of people against the thousands of neglected and unloved that die in some unknown place.

Last night, I saw one of the recent movies to come out about wars and the nature of the experience for those fighting in them. This one was about Vietnam, and it did an amazing job of contrasting the emotion and intensity of individual participants (American and Vietnamese) against vast scenes of death and destruction, hundreds of lives being ended violently and quickly and without prejudice. But the overall feeling I walk away with is awe at the magnitude of the loss of life. The movie tells us that loss of life on this scale can be worthwhile - that sacrificing spouses and parents, hundreds at a time, is sometimes necessary. And, perhaps unfortunately, this is the message that is absorbed from these films, more so than the sense that the loss of any particular man or woman is in itself a horrible tragedy. For who can bear the burden of reflecting on the pain and sadness of any and every widow and widower, son and daughter, mother and father that would hold their loved one no more?

When I wake up this morning, I go into the kitchen and see on the front page of the paper that a local high school student has died in a car accident. The picture on the front is of my housemate Charlie, a volunteer firefighter, wading around a half-sunk, overturned car in an icy creek. Charlie says that the shot was taken right before he went under to try to find the kid. We talk about the rescue effort, how cold it was, and how sad it is. "Poor kid." Thinking about the shock and the sadness and the sense of loss that his friends and family will experience breaks my heart as I sit and stare at the words on the page.

But how can I put it into context, how can I think about the loss in terms of all the loss that was experienced that day, even in that hour, around the world? How can that tragedy be weighed against images of boys the same age as the accident victim being shot, stabbed, blown up, and burned as they run through the forest fighting for a country that will notify their next of kin via telegram delivered by taxicab?

At either extreme, the value of life is sharply more understandable than in the relatively mundane existence that is common in the middle. There is the sense that I am doing an injustice to that boy and those soldiers by worrying about my plans for the summer, stressing over too many meetings, pondering my weight and my exercise regimen. I know that I may never have an opportunity to truly experience the appreciation of simply being alive because I may never understand how good life is, and how easily it slips away.

The resolution, it would seem, might come in the form of relativism - the sense that the value of our lives can only be completely known when taken in the context of those around us who we love, fight for, and miss when they are gone. It is too cold to say that because life HAS been lost on massive scales in the past, the value of an individual life is decreased. But neither does it feel right to say that we must all mourn deeply and at length over the loss of every stranger...again, who can bear that burden?

Even in relativism, I can find no peace. But it is perhaps the unanswered question - what is life worth - that can inspire us to seek ways of living our own lives that pay tribute to those who no longer have life, and to those who miss them.

Live Free or Die: Maybe Napster Should Call it Quits

I should preface these thoughts by saying that I believe the current uproar over Napster, copyright issues, the music industry, and information theory is producing a public debate that is very healthy for our government, culture, and nation. It is forcing us to look in new ways at how we treat information, data, privacy, personal transactions, art, and money on a personal and public level. It is forcing several large and powerful corporate and government entities to think hard about their place in the digital age.

007 4AThat being said, I think it might be best if the debate ended with the voluntary end of Napster, instead of the involuntary end of Napster "as we know it."

Outrageous, you say? They should fight to the death, you say? Well, let's think about it. When this whole conflict started, the Napster folks took the hard and fast position that they were providing a legitimate service that was not in any way defrauding the music industry. I'm not sure how their personal/internal corporate view has changed since then, but the current course of events would suggest that Napster is making every attempt to find the best way to handicap their service in a way that satisfies the music industry. This is the result of the seemingly immutable decision of the justice system that Napster's original operating model is illegal.

If you follow that course to its natural conclusion, it means that the current conflict will not end until either Napster operates in a manner that is pleasing to the music industry and/or the government, or Napster does not operate at all.

As a matter of pride and principle, I think Napster should head off either ending and call it a day. By continuing to participate in the current conflict, Napster publicly acknowledges, however reluctantly, that it is in the wrong and that the music industry and government are somehow in the right -- OR, it acknowledges that its more important to Napster's keepers to exist as a prisoner of these entities than it is to assert the right to exist freely or not exist at all.

However, if Napster were to close its proverbial doors, it would be its own unique way of admirably saying "we choose not to exist in a manner that is subject to the corrupt whims of a malicious industry". Yes, it would be a loss for Napster users, and yes, it would be a loss for a practical, working example of the power of the Internet. But it would NOT be a loss for the cause of freedom of information; quite the opposite.

Some things change our lives so significantly that they deserve better than to be trampled out of existence by the changing face of subtle bureaucratic oppression.

What do you think?

Review: Daniel Quinn's After Dachau

This analysis necessarily discusses some plot and thematic details of the book After Dachau by Daniel Quinn. I have made every attempt to refrain from revealing too much or spoiling the experience of reading the book for the first time, but picky readers be warned.

After reading just the first sentence of After Dachau, I was sure I had identified the major themes, direction, and message-delivering vehicle that Daniel Quinn would use in his new book. This was slightly comforting; I'd read that his latest work was radically different, obtuse, and unrelated to its predecessors. Given that his other books had significantly challenged the way I look at the world, and that I'd become (too) comfortable with that challenge, my initial reaction was my own attempt to tie everything together, to find central, comfortable ideas that I could hold onto, nod and agree with, and make my own.

But that, of course, is not the point. Quite the opposite, actually, and the book is anything but formulaic.
Continue reading Review: Daniel Quinn's After Dachau

Wet Contrast

005_21.JPGI was actually looking forward to working late tonight. I had a client who'd asked me to do some work on a project related to some software I maintain. Because it's software I maintain outside of my usual duties at my company, I charge an hourly rate directly to the client, instead of going through Summersault. But even more than the higher pay, I was really looking forward to the particular problem space. The client sells real estate forms over the web, and maintains his order information in a database (a system I also helped to work on). He wanted me to design software that would produce a complex sales report against this database. I'd certainly done similar things before, but not ever quite anything like this, and so before I started working on it, I'd been thinking about the best approach. What data structures to use. Whether to do the sorting in the database or in the software. How to abstract the display of the data from the calculation of the data. These are the things that this 22-year-old white male thinks about on his way home from dinner on a Thursday night in Indiana.

I started around 11 PM and finished at 1:30 AM. I was alone but not lonely, the office was quiet, and I had some good techno/house music to keep me company. When I finished, I stepped back and looked at the software I'd created, proud of its design, excited about the satisfaction it might bring the client. I gathered my things with energy in anticipation of a good night's sleep.

As I turned out the lights and locked the door behind me, I noticed how hard it was raining and flipped up my hood. I didn't see the man in the black leather jacket coming around the corner right in front of me, and he gave me a bit of a jump. His hands were tucked in his pockets, his hair and face soaked to the point where he could barely see, and he was stumbling down the sidewalk not seeming to seek out any of the shelter that was available in the alcoves of the office entrances (including the entrance to mine). I had seen many other folks like him, wandering down the same street at the same time of night, some of them looking more dangerous and mean than others, all of them feeling quite distant from the world of databases and programming and websites from which I had just emerged.

003_23.JPGI thought how sad it was that this guy was getting so completely soaked with no apparent end in sight. Maybe he was mentally handicapped and didn't know where to go? Maybe he was drunk and didn't know where he was? Maybe he was homeless and didn't really care if he made it to or from anywhere at all. With these thoughts in my mind, I got into my car, turned on the wipers and the heat and the radio and the engine and the lights, and started for home.

But when I came to the end of the block of our office, the man was alongside the car, and waved in at me. He came around to the front of the car and shouted something that I couldn't hear. I powered down my window cautiously, and heard him mumble something about "going to 12th street".

And this is the thought process we go through: His hands were in his tight jean pockets, probably nothing too harmless there. His jacket was bulky but probably didn't contain anything that could be used for beating me too severely - at least if he had a gun, he'd shoot me quickly and be done with it. I wasn't carrying anything with me that would turn my existence into a meaningless void were it to be stolen or damaged. He was stumbling around and looked off balance. I could take him. (I could take him on.) It was raining like hell.

"Get in!" I opened the door and he landed in the passenger seat. "Oh, my god, thank you."

We drove through a run-down part of town that I wasn't too familiar with, and headed out into an even less-familiar residential area that was actually just an industrial area with some homes and trailers scattered around it as a convenience to its workers. It was dark and there was no one around. His name was Herb, and he told me that he had been on his way to try to call his son, and then I saw that he did have something in his hand - two quarters. He said "I gotta pay you for this" and I told him that he didn't. When he insisted further (even nice, nonviolent people can be mean when you don't let them compensate you properly), I told him the quarter he was going to use to call his son would be sufficient. He gave me both quarters, muttering that it wasn't enough, and I put them in my car change drawer where I will probably withdraw them again in the future to cover the cost of an overpriced fast food item.

025 22AConfirming my suspicions that he was slightly drunk, he threw out a couple of names and asked me if I knew the guys, telling me that they'd all graduated together. He asked in a manner suggesting that because of this good deed I had done for him, I should know these men that he held in some sort of high regard. I was a little nervous but touched. As he made to leave, I said something stupid like "maybe we'll run across each other again some day and you can do the same for me." He said I was an incredible fellow. And then, after Herb had gotten out of the car, he turned around and looked at me, rain once again drenching his face and jacket, and said "You know what, though, this isn't anything like Vietnam. There, this stuff went on for forty days and more." With that, he tightened his jacket around his chest, closed the door, and walked off towards the house. These are the things a 50-something working-class white male thinks about on his way home from a bar on a rainy night in Indiana.

I drove away quickly, still fighting off wondering "am I safe?" as I headed to known parts of town. I couldn't have NOT picked Herb up from out of the pouring rain unless he displayed some outward sign of intentions to harm me. But beyond that, I'm *glad* I did it. The personal security I gave up was well worth some crystal clear perspective granted to me by the contrast that Herb provided tonight.

Why Have a Personal Website

Why have a personal website? Isn't it just an excuse to show off pictures of your cat, your significant other, a great poem about cheese that you wrote last week? Well, some of them are just that, and I strongly oppose the use of internet bandwidth for the sole purpose of showing off household pets.

However, there is a largely underutilized potential for the personal website that I'd like to comment on. As I see it, a great deal of the world's problems are derived from a severe lack of communication, a lack of human understanding amongst one another. Just think, there are 5 billion people out there that you don't know; you don't have any idea where they came from, what they're like, where they're headed. You just assume they're pretty much like you and that they'll get along okay without you.

013 10That's not the case. We go to war because we assumed someone was like us and they turned out to be too different. People die because we assume they'll be able to support themselves while we enjoy extreme affluence. Because our field of significance extends only to our family, friends, and the people we "know", we have a very narrow concept of how the "world" is.

The personal website is a great solution to this. Our stories, our interests, our problems, our joys; they make up who we are and when you can share in someone elses, you've suddenly broadened the field of people who are in some way significant to your life. If you can learn about people and what makes them tick, you're a lot more likely to know how to fix the problems that get the world down. You might even learn something about yourself.

The web and internet in general have an enormous potential to change our world, a hundred times as much as it already has. I've encountered people from all over the world I wouldn't have otherwise known about; we might not speak each other's language, but through this incredible technology we can learn about each other, appreciate each other, and openly and directly share the common bond of humanity.

The plunge is worth it. The vulnerability pays off. The potential for getting to know your world is unimaginable. Publish yourself.

Moments in Balance

The boy, trying to ignore the reoccurring dull pain in his left side, brought his hands together in front of his face, and held them there, barely touching. He moved his index fingers together and smiled at the brief moment before they touched, when each seemed to gently reach out to the other, attracting and pulling and melting into the moment of contact.

The girl, several hundred miles away and an hour from the nearest hospital, dropped her shovel and fell back into the sand screaming in terror from the pressure in her skull. Even when mommy scooped her up and held her tight and told her it would be okay, she could not stop screaming. She cried because it hurt and she did not understand.

The old woman ran her fingers over the smooth cover of the book on her bedside table, comforted at its presence though she could not see its pages. She had always had books near her, as a mother, as a teacher, and as a grandmother, and now she wanted to have one ready to read as soon as she got her strength back. She sighed at hearing the birds outside her window eating from the feeder down below, wishing she could see them, imagining that she did. She wondered if any of the friends or family who had come to say goodbye would remember to fill it again.

The old man nodded his head slowly as he was led past his wife's casket. He briefly ran his fingers over its (almost inappropriately) shiny wood surface, not so long as to acknowledge fully this loss, but just long enough to say "I know you don't belong in there." After sixty-five years together in a world such as this, it did not seem possible that he was breathing while she was not. He thought about how much work there was to do, and how he just wanted to take a nap, wondering if she would be there when he awoke.

The boy glanced up only briefly at his mother, but then back to the dashboard, and then out the windshield to the car in front of them. Briefly, the flashing of the other car's turn signal again came in sync with the clicking noise coming from their own, but then quickly went off into its own cycle. Why not make all car turn signals click with the same rhythm? He giggled quietly at the (somehow unsatisfying) answer to his question as he pictured a great, unified clicking noise on all the streets of all the world. Then, the car turned and it was quiet again.

The girl thought about her father's answer to her question as they kept walking: "Because he is a bad man, and he doesn't deserve it." He hadn't looked like a bad man. He had startled them a bit and he looked kind of dirty, but mostly he looked tired and hungry, sitting in that doorway covered in his blankets and newspapers. The girl could not know about the "bad" man's lung cancer, or that he could only sleep in that doorway because it was Sunday, or that she would be startled by quite a few more like him in her lifetime. But she quietly decided that she would have given him some money, if she had any. So what if he didn't deserve it?

The man tried to look deeply into his wife's sad and cautious eyes, but with every word he spoke he realized more that the depth he sought would have to be recreated rather than rediscovered. The horror would never quite leave him, that he had somehow justified a few moments of unworthy pleasure for this numbing pain he had brought into their marriage. As he looked at the woman he loved - perhaps more so than he loved himself? - he promised that, if she could forgive him, he would learn how to love all over again.

The woman laughed beautifully and fully as she tried to cover her husband in the leaves they had gathered, ignoring the itching against her skin and the damp cold on her fingers. They tossed each other around gently and finally lay side by side in the messy pile they had created. They drew close as she wrapped her arm around his chest and he put his hand in the small of her back. She looked intently up at the rounded space of his neck, wondering if she could curl up in that space and go to sleep. She had told him that she forgave him many times, and they had oddly never stopped saying "I love you." But it was only now that she fully appreciated the intensity and depth of the love with which they had covered each other, the forgiveness and pain inherent in it, and the contentment of knowing that it would survive and shape them forever.

With the noise of the reception now off in the distance, the man and the woman, the boy and the girl, stood facing each other, hands raised and each with palms nervously but firmly pressed against the other's. It was a perfect darkness and the temperature let them forget about their skin and their balance and their mass. They looked deeply, smiling at the joy of this night and of these several years together. Each wondered how they met, how this moment came to be, and each looked for signs about what it would mean to spend the rest of their lives together. As their faces neared, each seemed to gently reach out to the other, attracting and pulling and melting into the moment of contact. Moments before the physical touch, another kind of touch that explains everything engulfed them both.