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Web Letters | The Nation

How to Weaponize Your Personal Crisis

How nonviolence works

One of the most difficult things to see when you’re not looking for it is an act of nonviolence. We think of it always as something shown in the face of violence, as an act against violence. But sometimes that act is in words. So I understand how Richard Kim missed the act of nonviolence Jose Antonio Vargas committed when he wrote his June 22 New York Times article coming out as an undocumented immigrant.

Kim shows his lack of understanding when he suggests that GLBT people and others tell their stories and say “Are you with us, or against us?” He suggests that New York organizers did the same and said through their stories “you’re either with me, or you’re with the haters—but you can’t have it both ways.”

The power of Vargas’s story isn’t that it is a weapon, that it divides people into haters and supporters. Its power comes from his act of laying himself bare in front of the American people, making himself vulnerable to the very thing he was afraid of: deportation from a country and people he loves. He didn’t do it so that he would get deported, but so that he could show the injustice of the system. This is exactly how nonviolence worked in the civil rights movement of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. People put themselves in harm’s way at lunch counters and on freedom buses to expose the injustice of the oppression. Their actions invited compassion, and did not divide people into camps that they did not choose for themselves. Never does Vargas say or even imply that his readers either be with him or against him. He says “Here’s my neck. Cut it if you can. Now reflect on that.”

I refuse to use my stories as weapons against neighbors and friends who are not sure how they are going to vote on the Minnesota marriage amendment in 2012. They deserve to have my compassion as they tell me they’re not sure. But I’m going to tell them my stories, hopefully to lay bare the injustice. Not to impugn them but to fault the system we all inherited and want to make right.

N. Jeanne Burns

Minneapolis, MN

Jul 10 2011 - 12:58am

How to Weaponize Your Personal Crisis

Scapegoating

Look, I’m an old lady (white, now privileged, retired) and no longer physically brave enough to take to the streets, but it needs doing here, not just around the world where it’s already happening. The biggest and saddest scams involve scapegoating, selling the idea that our national woes somehow stem from some always powerless others who, despite all evidence to the contrary, we seem to love to label and discard..

Whether the Chinese coolies who “stole” jobs from American workers (while making many rich off a terrible form of indentured servitude), “welfare cheats,” or “illegal aliens,” as here, they stand in to bear the brunt of the social rage caused by the obscene profiteering at the other end of the social spectrum. We live in a world where manmade environmental disasters threaten everyone, perpetual wars support the vested interests of the rich and powerful, and so many of the jobs available have become tied to ways of hurting others or ourselves (finance, military, big pharma, insurance, for-profit healthcare, corporate law, big media—one could go on). And the jobs we once thought at least allowed us to help each other or make something useful (nurses, doctors, teachers, firemen, farmers, manual labor) all suffer a downward spiral from systems seen as not making more, faster, whatever the human cost. And yet where do so many Americans place their moral indignation? Maligning the poor, the powerless, the desperate, who else?

This used to be called “split labor theory”; that is, if you pit have-nots against each other well enough, then the haves can make ever more obscene profits. OK, desperate people denied the rights of survival may well evade the laws that threaten them. But when we elevate the letter of draconian laws, we accept the idea of a waste population sucking the air out of the economy (how odd that they stay so poor); and we cooperate in our own demise by turning our eyes away from first causes, the radically widening gap between the fewer and fewer who control the wealth and the rest of us. Were this not the case, language like “class warfare,” “socialism,” “anti-Americanism”—again, the list goes on—could not so easily squash the life out of all public debate.

Carole Taylor

Falmouoth, ME

Jul 1 2011 - 12:25pm

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