|Henry David Thoreau|
Ethics, then, implies a way of thinking not inspired by NIMBY, and thus those operating from immediate outrage about their own discomfort may be inspired to protest for reasons that are not motivated by strictly ethical considerations. Ethics implies a consciousness of justice beyond self interest, and motivated by a sense of what is right, a sense of what one cannot, as a human being, countenance in one's own name as citizen, person, neighbor.
Having spent the last few days involved in an uncharacteristic flurry of political engagement in little Burlington, Vermont, I am struck by a number of unfortunate realities and questions about what factors do and do not induce people to become politically engaged in our society. I read "Civil Disobedience" on the steps of City Hall yesterday with a number of brave and beautiful people in honor of and defense of a number of our fellow citizens who were shot at with rubber pellet-bullets on July 29th by Burlington police. These concerned citizens were engaging in a peaceful blockade during the Governor's Conference. They were protesting devastating plans to destroy land and eco-systems reaching from Canadian Inuit populations into Vermont, plans in the interest of profit for the few.
Few of the people who read "Civil Disobedience" yesterday were at the original protest and some of us who joined the protesters later for a march to the police station and back to City Hall were disturbed and put off by the tone and the inarticulate message of the protesters whose fundamental right to protest we had been defending. "The Burlington Police Department is Fucked Up" was not exactly a sign we felt proud to stand behind, nor were we practitioners of the nuances and power of language comfortable chanting slogans whose ill-considered meanings we could not get behind. So we left them to their own devices, and went off to drink a glass of wine before the City Council meeting that same night, where we hoped to hear more articulate voices of dissent and concern. Indeed, there were more articulate voices, a great many, which was encouraging, but also a good deal more ranting and incoherence; and I am left wondering about why people who might have something meaningful and considered to say so often stay home from such things, while the extremely disenfranchised and wretched of the earth come out in larger more visible numbers.
This morning I am thinking about ethics, and about the role and responsibility of the intellectual, or "Geist" in Musil's sense, in society. Is it possible, as Musil asked during the Paris Conference of Writers in Defense of Culture, to engage in complex discourse about such questions, or must we devolve to chanting simplistic slogans and a polarized celebration of one brand of right-thinking over another? Must we choose between non-participation and participation in things we can't whole-heartedly stand behind? And finally, why is it that the disenfranchised and the wretched of the earth are the first ones to speak out against injustice while the relatively comfortable (like myself) so often sit by and criticize their tactics? Is it really because we are as-yet inured to the pains that they already feel everyday, and because our ethical imagination is so weak that we do not yet see or believe in the imminent dangers of which they warn us? Or is it because we don't want to associate with the great unwashed, the half-mad, the angry and resentful mob? They certainly have good reason to be angry, to feel disenfranchised, to feel that they have no voice, to feel betrayed and unheard. We only wish they had something better to say once they are given a platform upon which to say it. But perhaps it is our fault for not lending our voices to the discussion more often.
Thoreau and Musil present powerful models of independent ethical voices, who neither compromised nor watered down their complicated intellectual analyses and who were able to remain true to themselves while still making significant statements about what they deemed unjust and insupportable. Clearly, Musil suffered for his adamant resistance to the lure of the Soviet Republic (he was booed off the stage at the Paris conference and called a Fascist sympathizer because he predicted that the Soviet brand of thought-control was not so very different from that of his German and Austrian oppressors), although he tried, in his way, to bear witness and to speak against the horrors of Nazism; and Thoreau was never a member of any club (though he was surrounded in his own home by active abolitionists and himself helped in the escape plans of several fugitive slaves). Thoreau maintained the individual's imperative to be true to himself, as an acorn grows into an oak, while seeing to it that he does not sit on the shoulders of others or steal a plank from a drowning man. They both had the imagination to consider the suffering of others and to understand that in all the great world, we share one back yard.