Ants and Elephants
By Omar Swartz
As students around the country gathered by the tens of thousands during the 1960s to protest the American invasion and destruction of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, they were frequently met with police violence and repression by the State. And just as the television cameras testified to the police violence used against the Black protestors in Selma, Alabama (the vicious attack dogs and fire hoses turned on the young children and old women), the newspapers and television cameras documented the police riots and violence done to protestors at places like Chicago in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention.
Expressions of outrage at the ugliness of the violence brought against Indo-China led to expressions of outrage at the violence brought to bear on the protesters. When the children of the middle classes are beaten by the protectors of middle-class (and upper-class) privilege, this sends a message that is different in tone than when the police beat the Black protesters who were demanding civil rights. More than any other message.
The white anti-war protesters demonstrated that the violence that middle-class America so readily accepts when it is placed on others (i.e. the Vietnamese and African-Americans) can easily be directed at themselves. The message that white protesters exemplified, both in the anti-war and Civil Rights movements, was that, in America, institutional violence will be directed against those who side with the victims of institutional violence. When not even middle-class white Americans are safe from the violence of the Federal Government, it helps other, indifferent people to realize that the wanton use of force by the United States government to solve its problems must be reigned in.
Similarly, in China in 1989, it took the agitation of the children of the Communist Party, the student elite of modern China’s best schools, to point out to everyone in China that the ugliness of state power, and the unaccountability of state leadership, is unacceptable. This power, which is so easily accepted or tolerated by the Chinese people when it is directed elsewhere, particularly against the Tibetans and against individuals who are defined by the state as “enemies,” causes real consternation when it is met face-to-face by the people themselves.
Whatever else happened on Tiananmen Square during those final tragic days, it should be clear to everyone in China, and particularly clear to the Chinese leadership, that the government that rules best is the one that does not rule by physical force, but rules, instead, by the force of its ideas, as China’s own Tao De Ching makes perfectly clear. Furthermore, this is a point that is compatible with, and indispensable to, most forms of socialist ideology.
Social agitation, particularly when it is used in conjunction with social movement persuasion, is often designed to provoke the violence of the state, to tear down its facade of normalcy and acceptability, by showing the naked violence that the state reserves for its enemies, but which it will, however reluctantly, turn against its own.
When the ant calls for justice against the elephant and stands its ground, we have to recognize that the ant is not being foolish. Instead, we have to see that in its voice, in its stance, in its expression of anguish, it cultivates a power that is, in some significant ways, greater than the force that is used to squash it. Maya Angelou explains why the “caged” bird sings: “his wings are clipped and his feet are tied, so he opens his throat to sing.”
Angelou reminds us that sometimes the power of our voice is the only thing we have to draw strength from. This is a rhetorical strength, the strength of persuasion. It was the strength cultivated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and by Mahatma Gandhi. It is the power of our ideas that become expressed in human speech. It is the power behind all national liberation movements and the power behind the yearnings of all people to be free, no matter where they are and which government stifles their expression. For freedom is an attitude that is expressed. The expression of freedom, even in the face of brutal repression, is itself an act of liberation.