Thursday, April 5, 2012

Rodolfo Acuna, Tucson, facts and right from wrong

Newspaper “reporting” today often eschews facts in the false name, in this case, of “objectivity.” This is visible in the Trayvon Martin case. An innocent and unarmed youngster was murdered by a patroller of a gated community, who turns out to be the son of a retired judge. The police ignored both the circumstances and the evidence, and did not detain the killer. There is an issue of the sanity of the shooter and what the precise charge should be. But there is no issue about what happened (the “claim” advanced by the police was that the young man had somehow beaten the shooter; the difficulty is a police film, now on youtube, which shows the shooter without a scratch on his head, without blood on his clothes, without any physical evidence of being in a scuffle).

But the New York Times and other papers have run long columns about the “evidence” on both sides. The excuse for this is that there is a legal issue involved. But there is no arrest and no investigation or court proceeding. The case has been dropped. Imagine whether this would have happened if Martin were white and the shooter black. See here. This was the norm for a "police" behavior during lynch law in the segregated South.

Facts are relevant in, central to moral judgment. As I argue in Democratic Individuality, there are moral facts – for example that humans share commonly capacities to participate freely in political life, facts about a common capacity for moral personality in John Rawls’s apt phrase – to rule out slavery or patriarchy or colonialism, inter alia. These are relevant to reporting as opposed to propaganda. For instance, the style of reporting in the Trayvon Martin case, initiated by Limbaugh and the racist noise machine in politics, i.e. Fox News, is nothing but propaganda. But New York Times "reporting" now moves in this direction.

Seeing the decisive role of facts in such judgments is what I have named moral objectivity as contrasted with the propaganda involved in [journalistic] “objectivity.”

I write a lot about Socrates, most recently about Socrates and Thraysmachus, the rhetorician. See here, here and here. Rhetoric was involved in the Athenians’ killing Socrates for asking questions. But asking questions, as the Tucson barring of "undesirable" books in Chicano studies classes and the Trayvon Martin cases reveal, is central to democracy, to democratic dissent from below against tyrannical acts by elected officials – what Rodolfo Acuna names activism in the column below. Such activism must be based on – and often is – seeking the truth (the Ku Klux Klan’s “activism” is not activism in this sense).

To name the emperor’s new clothes among the elite and block such practices requires an upsurge from below. The Trayvon Martin murder is a public issue because of a big movement, not because the American elite, in this period of time, allows the raising of central issues (elites never do; the great changes in American history for decency all come from movements from below, starting with the American Revolution). Because the issue is seeking the truth, a passionate movement may awaken a whole country, as Occupy has recently to the rule of the 1% over the two parties, and their growing attack on and dispossession of the 99%.

Rodolfo Acuna, an historian and activist, sent me a column on this central theme: “Just because you think something is true does not make it true.” Acuna is fighting the racist censorship of Chicano and other authors in Tucson down to police-state style removal of books from high school classes. See "I am a decent writer, burn mine" here. Acuna suggests that there is a thin line which separates the admirable – Mandela, de las Casas – from the genocidal (Hitler, Cortes). He names it a thin line because sometimes people who do decent things then as partisans turn around and spew prejudices over other people. He notes rightly that on the intellectual merits, racism and homophobia are illnesses.

He thus combines criticism of those who sit at the door of the rich (Socrates’s description of sophists or sycophants in Plato's Republic) and those within a movement from below, activists, who serve them and not the cause they imagine themselves to be representing (what one might call deficient or, in Rousseau's terms, will of all democrats or blind nationalists).

He chooses not to name those who do these things, but to describe what they do. His reason is that they seek notoriety (Limbaugh’s $34 million per year income comes from this, as perhaps does his use of drugs…It must be hard to look in a mirror). One might add Gandhi’s reason as well – those who commit injustices or further them have souls - they have, as it were, forgotten themselves - and one must stop the action through mass militancy (mass militant noncooperation), but not kill them. The peculiar power of a fierce nonviolent movement (occupying Tahrir Square in Cairo, for example, or perhaps such an occupation made thoroughly consistent by further, organized nonviolent tactics) is that it can stop the injustice without threatening his or her life (in the Zimmerman case, however, it would mean trial for murder, though without the threat of capital punishment).

Violent self-defense is also sometimes a necessary thing (as Gandhi responded to his son when asked, if someone is trying to murder you, should I stop him violently if there is no other way?). Trayvon tried to escape and go home. Zimmerman had hunted him in his SUV, got out when Trayvon sought to escape, came upon him. Trayvon might have, as in Zimmerman’s story, fought him off. Had Zimmerman been hurt or died (neither happened), this would have been self-defense against assault with intent to kill. It is doubtful, however, that Trayvon had much chance to fight Zimmerman physically (Zimmerman was unmarked), being pursued by a much bigger man with a gun…

The same justification applies to violent revolutionary movements against major injustices. Still, violent movements often can be used to justify massively violent state responses. Even in victory, such movements sometimes turn themselves into repressive and violent regimes toward their former leaders (the Soviet Union). In contrast, while nonviolent movements are often attacked ferociously (some 800 Egyptian protestors and bystanders were murdered by the police and army) and are hard because innocents take the suffering on themselves, they often succeed, as in Arab Spring, with far fewer deaths (in Vietnam, 3 million people died during the Revolution....), In addition, nonviolence, for instance, in the movement against apartheid, enabled a once violent revolutionary movement (the African National Congress, the ANC) to pursue negotiation and once they had achieved power, Truth and Reconciliation (see Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness). This was a seed from the struggles led by Gandhi in South Africa early in the 20th century which blossomed 80 years later. That this movement achieved revolution and reconciliation does not mean that it solved the oppression of the poor in South Africa. For that, mass nonviolence is needed from below. But it stopped the genocidal violence of apartheid without producing a violent regime and large scale slaughter in response, and gave South Africa new possibilities.

A violent movement can also do this, to some extent: consider the Vietnamese regime led by Ho Chi Minh, which even stopped the Cambodian genocide through humanitarian intervention - one of the rare historical cases of such a thing - and does not look, whatever its problems, like the Soviet Union. So there is room for subtle debate about these issues, a debate I will take up over time. But this is an era where the window for violence and war is closing – the destructiveness for humanity too great. Nonviolent movements, as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989 or in Arab spring, are now predominant in achieving major political changes, serious movements of revolutionary violence (China, Vietnam) increasingly of the past. Seeking the truth here through facts, questioning and argument will give humanity a way forward, if it is to have one…

Here is Rudolfo Acuna’s powerful statement:

"The Thin Line"
Rodolfo F. Acuña

"Just because you think something is true does not make it true."

One of the most difficult things about writing are "readers" who believe they can read your mind without reading what you have written. For that I reason I have chosen to revisit a piece that I wrote in 2001 during Antonio Villaraigosa's first mayoral campaign.

The struggle against censorship and the fight to preserve effective education in Tucson has resuscitated my frustration, especially irritating are the distortions of a right-wing blogger for the Arizona Daily Independent who has purposely misquoted the article. She has chosen to malign me and falsely claim that I compared Mandela to Adolf Hitler - apparently she did not read the article in question or maybe she can't read.

"The Thin Line
Rodolfo F. Acuña, April 11, 2001

As I get older, I am increasingly aware of the thin line that separates good from bad, the colonized from the colonizer, the soldier from the murderer, the nationalist from the chauvinist, and the true believer and the racist. The thin line separates Ariel from Caliban, Bartolome de las Casas from Hernando Cortes, Lenin from Stalin, and Mandela from Adolf Hitler.

In life we are always walking the thin line, whether attempting to distinguish Democrats from Republicans, businessmen from exploiters, love from hate, or idealism from egotism.

Blurring the thin lines that separate life's driving lanes is not easy. The headlights of oncoming traffic often momentarily blind us, putting us at risk. In political movements, the passions of the times often have the same effect as highway's highlights, confusing the thin lines that separate nationalism from extremism. The glare of the highlights blinds us causing disorientation on the crowded freeway, much the same as they do in struggle.

Take the past mayoral race. In the passion of the fray, some crossed the line, and they abused free speech and became demagogues. A very small but relevant number of self-described Chicano Internet sites, none of them affiliated with the candidates, crossed the thin line and made anti-Semitic statements.

Because one of the candidates was Jewish, "some" Jews became "all" Jews, much in the same way that "some" Mexicans in the past became "all" Mexicans. According to this wrongheaded logic, Jewish money was driving his campaign. This criticism of the mayoral candidate went from the rational to the irrational, as Chicano Internet writers crossed the line from activists to racists.

They crossed the thin line between the rational and the irrational, and between legitimate criticism and stupidity. It is stupid because there was a lot to criticize about the candidate who happened to be Jewish. He was and is a member of Los Angeles' corporate elite that is engineering a corporate takeover of our city schools. Further, his money and his connections are with non-Jewish capitalists like Richard Riordan.

It is these connections and not his ethnicity that mar his candidacy. Finally, it is unfair because many progressive Jews have been his harshest critics.

In spewing the chauvinist rhetoric, one of the self-described nationalists opened up a very divisive and ugly polemic.

In reading the barrage of email letters that cluttered my account, I had a difficult time distinguishing between them and the VCT (Voices of Citizens Together) and its anti-immigrant trash. I also had a difficult time in distinguishing the Email from the Nazi literature of the 1930s.

The irony is that in the past, some of these true believers have heroically struggled for justice for Chicanos and other oppressed people. However, in this instance, their rhetoric wallowed in the sewer and the true believers crossed the thin line when they accused two noted Chicanas of being part of the "Jewish conspiracy." Why? They are married to Jewish males.

In this instance, the thin line that separates the absurd from stupidity was crossed again and again, and one writer in particular fell into the gutter.

The rush of the traffic and the highlights of the opposing traffic also caused a true believer to cross the thin line that separates the macho from the homophobe. In this instance, the true believer accused a national Chicano academic organization of being anti-God because it took a strong stance against homophobia. He then turned around and threatened a respected Latino community organization for sponsoring a forum on issues confronting gay and lesbian Latinos.

The irony is that this same person has condemned Spanish colonialism. So it seems odd that he is raising the moral authority of the colonial Church to validate his prejudices - it is hypocritical.

Another irony is that he has in the past courageously crusaded against racism toward undocumented immigrants, the racism of the border patrol, and the racism of police. Yet, in one swoop, he erased the good and the colonized became the colonizer. The victim of racism became the racist.

The tragedy is that his actions hurt the movement and the human rights issues that he espouses. He has sold out his people for the sake of feeding his ego, crossing the line that separates the altruist from the opportunist.

In talking about the thin line, I have intentionally avoided identifying by name those crossing over the thin line. There is a natural inclination to want to know names. However, in my experience, identifying true believers by name often energizes them. They feed off controversy, much the same as the serial rapist feeds off newspaper accounts of his inhumanity. The fact that they get into a debate with someone with some visibility somehow validates them.

Those who know me or know my history know that I am not afraid of controversy. However, I do not want in any way to validate racism or homophobia because they are sicknesses. As a historian I realize the consequences of not distinguishing between "some" and "all."

History also teaches me that being a Chicano or a Latino in the United States is difficult. I believe in the moral authority of our struggle. I also realize that I do not have to make others less to make myself somebody. My ego is not so fragile that I have to drag others down into the muck to be somebody.

I concede that being an activist is difficult. It is always dark and the opposing headlights often make it difficult to see the lines. An activist is always at risk. Yet the failure to see the thin lines has led to unnecessary factionalism within our community.

The bottom line is that no one forces us to be activists. And, just because we are activists, it does not entitle us to be irresponsible and use a movement for our own biases. This is especially true when the undocumented and the poor will suffer the consequences of our irresponsibility."

I tell my students that they must distinguish true knowledge from false knowledge. They are in school to learn a scientific methodology to distinguish fact from opinion. Just because you think something is true does not make it true.

However, I have learned in Arizona that rationality is trumped by money and stupidity. Instead of being probative, those in power and those who support them invent their reality. They mimic the words of those who they want to believe instead of reading or listening to the facts. For example, Arizona Attorney General has attacked my book Occupied America on the basis of it title - he hasn't read it.

In "The Thin Line" I attack anti-Semitism because it is racist. However, I would not call a person anti-Semitic lightly. If the writer condemned the Israeli government for its policies on the Palestinian question, I would not call him an anti-Semite just as I would not call a person anti-Mexican for criticizing or even castigating the Mexican government. I am certainly not anti-Mexican for criticizing Mexico for stealing Chiapas from Guatemala. I am certainly not anti-American for criticizing American foreign policy. Learned people distinguish between the lines.

In the case of Arizona, my principle objection is that those in power are not differentiating between opinion and fact. In that way they are much more like a Hitler than a Mandela or a Cortés than a Las Casas. Thus, before you judge books, read beyond the cover, listen and think about the message, and not what you want to believe.

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