When the ancient Russian plane landed at the Havana airport, it was raining. And I remembered one other time that I had been in this airport (an unforgettable day for me, and the happiest day of my life). It was raining that day, too, and getting late, and I had seen Havana from the air surrounded by a halo of opalescent mist, as if wrapped in a great sadness. Some Yankees, sunburned and smiling, got on the plane loaded with Bacardi rum, and I felt that they were coming from a depressing world. Airline attendants carried their bottles to the landing stairs. It was Batista’s Cuba. A cousin of mine who had been in Cuba had told me shortly before that a young man was fighting in the mountains and that his name was Fidel Castro. I was stopping off in Havana on a flight from Managua, Nicaragua, to Miami, but I was going to Miami only to enter the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani. This flight I later described as “a true flight to Heaven rather than a routine Pan American flight.” It was a flight to freedom. (And I remember that from the air I had seen far-off mountains and I had wondered where that fellow Fidel Castro might be fighting.)
From the book In Cuba by Ernesto Cardenal, 1974
I’ve been reading Latin American non-fiction lately. Mostly it’s been centered around Liberation Theology and the history of European and U.S. exploitation of the Americas. I have been surprised and fascinated by how often I read praise for Fidel Castro and Che Guevara from Christians. As you would correctly guess these are not U.S. Christians who have been rigorously propagandized against Fidel and Che. Rather, these are Christians who are far less bourgeois in their faith and far closer to the original Christians in spirit and experience. This can make one wonder. Do we U.S. Christians know the gospel? I continue to think we don’t.
The quote at the top is from the opening paragraph to the book In Cuba by Ernesto Cardenal and based on his diary from a stay in that country in the early 1970’s. The book is fascinating and gives a substantially different picture of life in Cuba and of Fidel than was generally been presented to the U.S. public. Cardenal does not pull any punches either. He both praises and criticizes. And he describes in detail life in revolutionary Cuba. In that sense I feel like it’s a very fair assessment, albeit from a Left-leaning, Liberation Theological, Latin American, Catholic priest.
But I still find myself a bit caught off guard (and not a little bit excited) to read Christians expressing fascination for, and even praising, the Cuban revolution and its leaders, and often doing so in ways that draw connections between that revolution and the gospel of Christ. This has been especially true reading The Gospel in Solentiname, also by Ernesto Cardenal.
Marx, along with Freud and Nietzsche, is regarded by Paul Ricoeur as one of the great masters of “suspicion.” But somehow Marx does not seem to have ever entertained the suspicion that ideology could have warped the thinking of the theologians and the interpreters of Scripture so that they ended up unwittingly interpreting it in a sense that served the interests of the ruling classes. Marx does not seem to have shown any interest in trying to find out whether distortion had crept into the Christian message and whether a new interpretation favoring he class struggle of the proletariat might be possible or even necessary.1
I don’t know Marx as well as I should but I believe Fr. Segundo gives a fair assessment of Marx in the quote above. But I also want to be careful not to dismiss Marx because of his lack of suspicion regarding religion. I believe Marx had logical reasons, born from his life experiences, to not bother himself with digging deeper and developing a suspicious position in the manner we mean here.
In 1844, when he was only 26, Karl Marx took up the criticism of politics in a commentary of Hegel’s chief political treatise. In that document, Marx famously referred to religion as the opium of the people. A thousand times we’ve heard that phrase quoted. As expected, it set off a lot of Christians who ever since have claimed Marx’s ideas are incompatible with Christianity, thinking Marx is saying religion is merely a drug and if Christians will only pull themselves away from their stupor they might finally see reality. Other Christians felt Marx was showing his lack of knowledge about the social aspects of faith and if he were only willing to see then he would embrace the Christian gospel.
Let’s take a look at that phrase in context:
Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo.2
By putting that phrase back into its immediate context we can see Marx’s understanding of religion is more nuanced than is often presented. Religion, rather being a mere drug of escape, becomes are kind necessary salve for real wounds, though not necessarily a solution to the cause of those wounds. Many Christians might disagree with Marx on this point, but it is an understandable conclusion for many who have had an experience of religion as a cultural force, which is most. As Michael Löwy says:
An attentive reading of the Marxian paragraph where this phrase appears reveals that it is more qualified and less one-sided than is usually believed. Although he is obviously critical of religion, Marx takes into account the dual character of the phenomenon[.]3
We can also see that Marx saw religion as symptomatic, that is, arising out of suffering. The implication is that if suffering were totally eliminated then religion would be no longer needed.
The more I ponder these words the more I think Marx was correct. First, religion is an opiate much of the time for many people, and I’m sure it made sense to Marx from the evidence around him. This seems undeniable. And the opiate nature of religion has been used by both oppressors and oppressed to manage, justify, excuse, and accept the structures of power. Many Christians push back because they don’t want to see this is true of themselves, but many more find a kind of escapist solace in forms of Christian worship that divert their eyes and minds from suffering and the material causes of suffering.
Second, it’s true that religion is a kind of sigh of the oppressed. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” We look to God for salvation; we seek healing and liberation. Christians are told God hears our cries. Many of our prayers are pleas to God for help. This sigh is built into our liturgies.
Third, when suffering is no more so also religion will no longer be needed. Christians believe that when Christ returns and there is a new Heaven and a new Earth and sin and all its effects will be vanquished. We will be in full communion with God, fully divinized, and thus will no longer need religion as a mean of perfection.
On the surface, Segundos’s assessment of Marx appears to make sense. Calling religion the opium of the people has the hallmarks of a quick dismissal, a rhetorical flourish and a wave of the hand at the local pub. However, given Marx’s theories of alienation and fetish, and given his formation under the philosophical force of Hegel and the Young Hegelians, it makes sense to consider his idea of religion being an opiate (he wasn’t the first to say this either) as a deep and rather insightful, though perhaps overly terse, critique of the society in which he lived.
Religion was not a merely personal, and certainly not a private, affair in 19th century Europe. Religion was overtly interwoven into the fabric of society. Marx’s father was a Jew who converted to Protestantism in order to have a chance at forging a career and supporting his family, a common choice for many German Jews at that time. Thus religion was a visible controlling tool used to create boundaries of social, political, and economic inclusion and exclusion and thus enforce a kind of caste system. Along with the “Jewish question” and the exclusion of Jews who remained faithful Jews, Catholics and Protestants warred against each other, not merely because of the Reformation but because of the Napoleonic wars which pitted the Catholic French against the Protestant Germans (and others). Many Germans were Catholic and this created tension for them in a post-Napoleon Germany. This created the world into which Marx was born.
And consider this bit about his high school education in Trier
His classmates were divided into two groups, largely by religion. Most of the Catholics were from modest backgrounds, typically intending to go on to the Tier Theological Seminary and become priests. By contrast, the seven Protestants [of a total of only 32] in the class were from families of government officials, professionals, or army officers: they were heading for the university to study law, medicine, or public administration. Forty years laters, Marx would remember the Catholic pupils in his class as a bunch of “peasant dolts,” probably reflecting the opinion their Protestant classmates from more affluent and better-educated families had of them.4
Arguably, Marx must have felt he understood religion enough to take it for how it presented itself. That he did not approach religion with an attitude of suspicion is a significant gap in his thinking, certainly, but not illogical.
More importantly is the prevalent lack of suspicion by the Church of its own history and received interpretations. When suspicion is thoughtfully and seriously elevated, such as with Liberation Theology, many Catholics see it as a threat. It is sad but predictable that many Catholics, especially those in the so-called developed nations or in positions of social power, cannot fathom the idea that distortion may have crept into the Christian message and purveyed via seminaries, homilies, and formation. But the world, and the Gospel itself, is in need of interpretations that favor liberation, focus on material conditions, recognize class differences and the struggle of the proletariate, the poor, and the oppressed. In fact, they (especially the Church hierarchy) have too often actively supported the suppression of such ideas. (This has been well documented so I won’t go into it here.) Thus religion does, in fact, become the opiate of the people and the Church pushers.
We might fault Marx for his lack of suspicion when considering religion, but the more significant fault lies at the feet of the Church. But so does the solution.
1Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology (Eugene, Or.: Wipf And Stock Pub, 2002), 17.
2Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels-Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: Norton, 1972), 12.
3Michael Löwy, The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America (London: Verso, 1996), 4.
4Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 26-27.
In the mid-to-late 1970’s, over a period of years, a group of campesinos (peasant farmers) in Solentiname, an archipelago in Lake Nicaragua, gathered together to read and discuss the teaching of Jesus. They focused on the beatitudes from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Below is a small excerpt from their larger discussion, facilitated by Ernesto Cardenal. This discussion occurred during the brutal dictatorship of the Somoza family and the long Nicaraguan civil war. In the end the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship.
Let’s go now to the southern islands of Lake Nicaragua and read from The Gospel in Solentiname.1
Dichosos los que tienen espíritu de pobres, porque de ellos es el reino de los cielos.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
ALEJANDRO: “[…] The poor who are bourgeois, who are opposed to revolutionary changes, they do not have compassion in their hearts, and they are not the poor of the Gospel.”
LAUREANO: “A perfect communism is what the Gospel wants.”
PANCHO, who is very conservative, said angrily: “Does that meant that Jesus was a communist?”
JULIO said: “The communists have preached what the Gospel preached, that people should be equal and that they all should live as brothers and sisters. Laureano is speaking of the communism of Jesus Christ.”
And PANCHO, still angry: “The fact is that not even Laureano himself can explain to me what communism is. I’m sure he can’t.”
[Ernesto Cardenal] said to PANCHO: “Your idea of communism comes from the official newspaper or radio stations, that communism’s a bunch of murderers and bandits. But the communists try to achieve a perfect society where each one contributes his labor and receives according to his needs. Laureano finds that in the Gospels they were already teaching that. You can refuse to accept communist ideology but you do have to accept what you have here in the Gospels. And you might be satisfied with this communism of the Gospels.”
PANCHO: “Excuse me, but do you mean that if we are guided by the word of God we are communists?”
[Ernesto]: “In that sense, yes, because we seek the same perfect society. And also because we are against exploitation, against capitalism.”
REBECA: “If we come together as God wishes, yes. Communism is an equal society. The word ‘communist’ means community. And so if we all come together as God wishes, we are all communists, all equal.”
WILLIAM: “That’s what the first Christians practiced, who had everything in common.”
PANCHO: “I believe that communism is a failure.”
TOMAS: “Well, communism, the kind you hear about, is one thing. But this Communism, that we should love each other…”
PANCHO: “Enough of that!”
REBECA: “It is community. Communism is community.”
TOMAS: “This communism says: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
PANCHO: “But every communist speaks against all the others. That means they don’t love each other.”
ELVIS: “No, man. None of them talk that way, man. They do tell us their programs. And they’re fine.”
Increasingly, I’ve come to see the Gospels in a way similar to these Nicaraguans do. I used to think somewhat similarly to Pancho, who can only see equating Christianity and communism as outrageous. But I now see there is a kind of communism at the heart of the good news of Christ. In fact, I’m inclined to think it’s the communism; all others are imitations in degree, some very dark indeed, but others have been closer to the Gospel. But Christ must be the center and all other things ordered to Him, that is, to love itself. And unlike some Catholic apologists who publicly argue that a person cannot be both Catholic and a socialist (which is provably false), I’m inclined to go the other way – to be Catholic is to be, in one way or another, a socialist and perhaps even more specifically a communist (a distinct form of socialism). One can argue that without Christ at the center any form of communism will fail, but also one can argue that with Christ at the center then communism is inevitable. In this I empathize with Cardenal who did not waver in his conscience or commitments after being publicly reprimanded by Pope John Paul II:
“Christ led me to Marx,” Father Cardenal said in an interview in 1984. “I don’t think the pope understands Marxism. For me, the four gospels are all equally communist. I’m a Marxist who believes in God, follows Christ, and is a revolutionary for the sake of his kingdom.”2
Although I don’t call myself a Marxist (yet) because I don’t like overly loaded terms and I don’t want to be labeled an “ist” anything, I do find the use of Marxism as a social science useful in helping us get at the roots of economic inequalities and forms of alienation that both plague our societies today and are what Jesus preached against. And I find many of the core goals of communism at least interesting in the light of the Gospel. Long before communism came into existence as an ideology, I find Scripture pointing in that direction, especially in terms of liberation and freedom. In short, “liberation theology is nothing other than theological reflection on oppression and on the people’s commitment to freedom from this oppression[.]”3 I find this a fundamental and essential Catholic pursuit. But who am I? I’ve still got so much to figure out.
The Gospel in Solentiname has been a revelation for me. Jesus and His disciples were more like the Nicaraguans in Solentiname than the Americans in my neighborhood or parish. The insights from these campesinos, I believe, are closer to the kinds of insights one would expect from those listening directly to Jesus, or those of William Herzog in his book, Parables as Subversive Speech, than those spoken in a homily on the beatitudes in the tradition of Christendom. They are earthy, human, sensitive to the struggles of liberation, arising from a place of poverty, and more concerned with how to love one’s neighbor than in one’s interior spiritual attitude or a personal psychological definition of faith. In other words, they don’t overly “spiritualize” the Gospels but, in fact, more clearly preach the Gospel as it was delivered and heard two thousand years ago.
I am not willing to say the insights found in The Gospel in Solentiname are unproblematic, but they are refreshing in their frankness and challenging in their non-bourgeois perspective. They also highlight something important that I think many of us have lost—that basic human need to read and discuss the Scriptures with others in a kind of dialectical circle of interpretations. We Catholics tended to be trapped in a prison house of pedigreed teaching and official interpretations that we fear stepping out and taking the risk of speaking our own interpretations born from our own lives. But if we step back we discover the Church (if not, for example, Catholic Twitter) has a rich tradition of multivalent perspectives and rarely provides singular interpretations of Scriptural passages. Personally, I long for a Solentiname discussion group. What a joy it would be.
Finally, the last member of the group to speak was a person named Elvis. I believe this is Elvis Chaverría, a member of the Solentiname community and a revolutionary guerrilla in the fight for freedom. On October 13, 1977…
Nicaragua’s leftist guerrillas, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (F.S.L.N.), thought to have been decimated by years of repression, launched a new military offensive against the Somoza regime, attacking National Guard barracks at Ocotal in the north and San Carlos in the south, losing two rebels but killing two dozen soldiers.4
One of those two rebels killed was Elvis Chaverría who was involved in the attack at San Carlos. He “was captured during the raid on San Carlos, taken up the Río Frío, and shot in the head.”5 That attack precipitated the beginning of the end for the Somoza regime. Elvis is remembered as a hero and a martyr of the revolution. He gave his life in the struggle to bring about a more just society for his neighbors.
1Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 122-123.
The Jesuits of UCAII watched television in amazement one night as Molina made a campaign broadcast on behalf of the PCN “candidate” General Romero. The president stood before a large blackboard with a piece of chalk in his hand. Then he slowly drew a line down the middle and announced that on one side of the line were to be found the enemies of El Salvador, and on the other, the friends. “Starting with the enemies,” he went on, “number one: liberation theology.” 1
The quote above references the 1977 presidential election in El Salvador. Liberation Theology, and many other forces, were at play in that country. Opposition to the murderous thugs who ruled the country and their oppressive policies was growing. The Vatican sided with the government. Many of the priests in El Salvador sided with the people and especially with the poor.
I think about the opposition to the beatification of the martyred Archbishop Óscar Romero by men such as Archbishop Emanuele Gerada because he disapproved of Romero’s breaking with the El Salvadoran government.2 I also think of Pope John Paul II’s disregard of Romero’s warnings, a disregard that arguably3 contributed to the Archbishop’s death. I think of these things and I cannot help but believe fear of the radical Gospel of Jesus Christ is an underlying constant in the life of the Church and especially of powerful men of the cloth. Of course, I cannot pass judgement on others if I don’t also pass judgement on myself. I know of no one more fearful of the demands of the Gospel than myself. It is a fear that plagues all human beings, perhaps Christians most of all.
But under that fear is a deep longing; a longing for true and complete liberation. This is why Liberation Theology increasingly reveals itself as one of the truest expression of the Gospel in our world today. However, I do recognize many claim Liberation Theology is too interested in Marxist ideas at best or outright leftist ideological heresy at worst. I would counter by saying if someone such as Molina publicly states Liberation Theology is enemy number one, maybe that’s because the darkness hates the light and Liberation Theology deserves a more honest look than many are willing to give.
Liberation Theology has not only been a threat to the sin of oppression and arrogant rulers who grind the poor into subservience, and to governments who prop up dictators, it has also been felt as a threat by many in the Church who sadly fear a truly integral salvation. Fortunately not all are threatened.
1 Teresa Whitfield, Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuria and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador (Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaPA: Temple University Press, 1995), 100.
3 Claire Saldana, “Oscar Romero: The Fight for Beatification,” STMU research scholars, April 5, 2022, https://stmuscholars.org/oscar-romero-the-fight-for-beatification/. I must also note that Saint John Paul II has been a kind of hero of mine and his example played a role in my becoming Catholic. And yet, the more I learn of his pontificate the less I can stomach some of the hagiographies of him. Nonetheless, I think he was a generally good pope and a very good and holy man. I do believe, however, the Church should not have rushed his canonization for sainthood.
I am curious. What is it with businesses and flags?
There is some sense in a state capitol having a state flag out front, or the U.S. Capitol building having the Stars and Stripes waving out front. But why is it necessary for a business to have a U.S. flag, a state flag, and even a flag with the business’s name or logo on it? I ask this, in part, because government flags in front of buildings have become so ubiquitous that we barely notice them, and when we do we never ask why are they there.
I suppose most people would give a quick unthinking kind of answer, a kind of “isn’t it obvious?” answer. But stop for a moment and wonder if it really is so obvious, or should be so obvious.
What are flags anyway?
Flags are symbolic representations of something bigger. The Stars and Stripes “stand” for the United States of America, all that is good and all that is bad. That is why some people salute the U.S flag, yeah even get tears in there eyes at it presence, and others burn the flag, even get tears in their eyes as well, but for other reasons.
When a business flies a flag it is showing us a symbol for something that represents that company. So a U.S. flag, in this sense, stands not only for the country but for the business as well. The business is “claiming” the symbol as being meaningful to the business.
Personally I find flags interesting, but troubling as well, especially when the flag represents a state or government. People have fought and died for the Stars and Stripes. That’s a big deal for a lot of people. For that reason alone it seems almost demeaning to the flag (and those who have died) for any business – like a car dealership – to wave the flag outside as a means of advertising their business. On the other hand, I find it sad and problematic that anyone would willingly or unwillingly die for a state (in this sense a nation state). Flags are part of the ongoing problem we call humanity and what emerges from that humanity is sin (among other things). People get tribal, power hungry, territorial, and vain. People kill each other and even like doing so. Governments, such as the violent and all too self-righteous U.S. government, wave flags and create mythologies around those flags. Government flags are about power. The U.S. is a great country in many ways, but it is also a country of countless problems and even atrocities. For that reason it is also troubling to fly the flag in front of a business.
It is better to not fly the flag. There is no need to do so and probably several excellent reasons not to. Anyway, as I stated at the beginning, I am curious.
>We glorify the protests of the past. We have seen (or remember) the civil rights marches, the sit-ins and other actions. We remember the anti-war movement. We remember May 1968 and other important dates. But where are we today? Remember the huge global anti-war protests just prior to the invasion of Iraq. Or the mass protests at the Republican convention. Remember the police crackdown on the protesters? It was like clockwork, surgical, carefully crafted like extraordinary rendition. But it also got violent at times – the anti-riot police were the ones who typically led with the violence. And recently we saw the same thing at the G20 protests in Pittsburgh. But, like the protests of the romantic past, we once again wonder at the role of the police and the individual choices of each officer.
Check out this video and ask yourself what is really going on.
Now read this excerpt from a news report on National Public Radio regarding the G20 summit and, specifically, the protests outside the summit.
ROBERT SIEGEL (host): And have the protests been going on throughout the entire city?
SCOTT DETROW (on scene reporter): They have. After the tear gas, the march broke into many small groups. It stayed out of downtown, from what we can tell. Police are responding by breaking up these clumps of protesters. I saw one after the tear gas was fired. They were peacefully marching down the street and police officers swarmed the block from all directions. They got out of the car and they just pushed the protesters into side streets, and that’s what they’ve been doing. There have been arrests here and there, we’re hearing from other news outlets. But that seems to only be happening when marchers are directly confronting police officers. For the most part, police are just trying to show a presence and trying to get these marchers to break up on their own.
I find both the video clip and the NPR report fascinating, not because they are anything special, but because they say a lot about the structures of power that we have come to view as normal. But should they be normal? Consider the situation: A group of representatives from the richest and most powerful nations on earth come together to discuss the future for all of us. But the the G20 has been around for some time already and the world is in trouble with widening gaps between rich and poor, increasing corporate control over such basic things as water rights, food distribution, farmer’s crops, and of course the economy. In fact, it could be said the recent bailouts of large companies around the world represent a kind of coup d’état. It may just be that the current economic crisis (and the steps to remedy it with tax dollars) is evidence of the increasing loss of real power on the part of the government (a government of the people) over the economic/big business sector.
MICHAEL MOORE: We’re here to get the money back for the American People. Do you think it’s too harsh to call what has happened here a coup d’état? A financial coup d’état?
MARCY KAPTUR (Representative from Ohio): That’s, no. Because I think that’s what’s happened. Um, a financial coup d’état?
MICHAEL MOORE: Yeah.
MARCY KAPTUR: I could agree with that. I could agree with that. Because the people here really aren’t in charge. Wall Street is in charge.
Given our democratic ideals the situation looks grim. One could easily see the recent election as a kind of sham (as are most elections but especially this one), a game those in power managed in order to help all of us feel like we participated in their power play. Maybe democracy as it’s been sold to us is a way to tie us up with mythological fairly tales so that the powerful few remain in power. So why would not people peacefully (or even angrily) march down the streets where the G20 is being held to protest? And why wouldn’t those marchers see the police as something like turncoats?
And this brings me to more questions: Why do police (working class men and women apparently there to uphold basic freedoms of speech, especially when it is most needed) seem to automatically view protesters and demonstrators as enemies and radical provocateurs? Are they trained to think that way? Or is it something closer to social influence and group think? Why, when anti-riot forces come out in overwhelming force, they end up being the group most prone to violence? Could it be something like the old adage, ‘to the man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail?’
Why does our society accept as normal such activities as the use of tear gas, batons, knocking people to the ground, tasers and rubber bullets, and now anti-riot siren devices, by police against weaponless, non-violent protesters? What is the psychology?
I won’t pretend to have the answers to these questions. However, when I see the way the police in this country deal with protesters I cannot help but be reminded of some very famous sociological studies, horrific events, and historic observations. My point here is not to equate actions so much as highlighting the way the human mind works in various situations.
Milgram experiment: Showing that people will do terrible things as long as someone (preferably someone “official”) tells them to.
Stanford prison experiment: Demonstrated the impressionability and obedience of people when provided with an apparently legitimizing ideology along with social and institutional support.
My Lai Massacre: Showing that individuals are capable of anything when part of a group, following orders blindly (as soldiers and police are trained to do), and operating in a tense situation outside of normal experience.
Banality of evil: Hannah Arendt’s observation that evil acts are most typically carried out by ordinary people viewing their actions as normal.
Social influence: How we are all greatly influenced by others around us, the situation we are in, and tendencies we have toward self preservation, being liked, and not being stigmatized.
I have come to believe the actions of police toward protesters reflects aspects of all these sociological and psychological characteristics found in the list above – though to a substantially lesser degree in some cases. But there is one other factor that possibly plays to largest role, that of hegemony.
Chavez aside, the concept of hegemony, first proposed by Antonio Gramsci as a way of trying to understand why the working classes did not rise up against their oppressors as the Marxists predicted, is a way to understand how the powerful persuade the less powerful to adopt the values of the ruling class. We live in a country that denies the existence of class structures in terms of power. We speak of middle class or working class merely as sympathetic terms used by politicians to manipulate votes. We do not accept the concept of a ruling class, but maybe we should.
In the videos on this page look at the faces of the police (the ones not wearing Darth Vader masks). There is a lot of anger in their eyes. I wonder if the anger comes from an internal struggle. I can only hope. I imagine the police feel a tension between the hierarchies of power they have come to believe must be protected (of which they are sworn to uphold) and their deeply internal sense of humanity and their belief in democracy (an understanding of which was probably formed in grade school like it was for most of us). They are caught in the clash of values, but they are a group operating with broad impunity and supported by the social dynamic of being able to hide within the apparent pawnship of their job. So they continue to manhandle, arrest, and attack the protesters. But their anger gives them away. They are alienated from the power they protect, and suppressing the very voices that are pointing out that alienation. That would make just about anyone angry.
Consider this video of another protest. If not for the police intervention it would almost be humorous.
I cannot imagine a less threatening protest. In fact I find it almost comical. Why then the overwhelming police force? Are they afraid of another Battle in Seattle? Clearly this is an example of those in power acting out of fear, but what do they fear? In fact, the whole thing has a kind of choreographed arc that not only speaks of a profound lack of imagination on both sides, but indicates the protest may be as much a product of hegemony as the police presence.
What do we do with all this? First, we should not romanticize the past. The efforts of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the past were often heroic, but they were also brutal and scary at times. People were seriously hurt and some died. Many went to prison. And we should know that external actions come from what is inside, but also know that one’s external actions affects one’s soul. The police who give in to the psychosis of power, abuse other humans, act out of anger, and stand in the way of freedoms that are not given by governments but only taken away, those police are damaging their own souls. And they are human just like me – frail, prone to delusion, living in a powerful culture, needed to be loved, and wanting to do what is right. We should not feel sorry for them, but we should empathize.
The fact is many of the above sociological/psychological concerns raised about police action can apply to the protesters. At times it appears some of the protesters are seeking to recreate a May ’68 kind of experience for their own pleasure. I wonder how many made the effort to reach out to the police in the days or weeks prior to their marches. I wonder how many pre-judged the police as irredeemable, in part because it is both the easier route and less romantic than manning the barricades. This is one reason that, while I support the protesters in general, I think the predictable protests outside every G20, G7, World Bank, etc., meeting may be as much a symbol of failure as righteous anger. We need more than theater, we need transformation.
Finally, we are all in this thing called life together, whether we want to admit that or not. It’s easy to march, easy to crack skulls, and very easy to write blog posts, and it’s difficult to love, forbear, and forgive.