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In the spring of 2000, a Dutch subsidiary of the Bechtel corporation re-routed a stream that flowed through a village near Cochabamba, Bolivia. The people had enough wells to keep their homes and farms supplied with water, but when the stream was diverted the trees which once grew along its banks began to wither and die. When the trees died, the birds stopped coming, and the people lost the beautiful music that once brightened their mornings. And so these campesinos and factory workers took to the streets, confronting soldiers armed with rifles and teargas grenades, putting their bodies on the line to fight for the right to hear birds sing at dawn. (See “Oscar Olivera: Spokesman for the People” by Amy Casada-Alaniz, Narco News, August 23, 2004.)
There is something ecstatic and alive in this struggle of the poorest of the poor for the right to beauty and dignity. There is nothing symbolic or contrived here — the people of the village weren’t playing out roles scripted for them by history or culture or ideology, their resistance was a spontaneous and organic reaction to seeing the land that they loved threatened by people who had no understanding of or connection to their lives. It was an act of love, an act of passion, something visceral that required no translation or explanation.
All of this points to what is lacking in many of the resistance movements in the U.S. today. We have become too enamored of the abstract and the symbolic. We know what we are resisting, but we have lost any real connection to that which we want to liberate, preserve, or bring into being. Perhaps most disturbingly, we have become caught up in a morality play, in which our victories are defined by how much suffering we can endure, where the intensity and integrity of an action are defined by whether or not the police are provoked into firing teargas and rubber bullets, or by how much jail time the judge hands down, or how quickly the court shuts down our attempts to talk about nuclear weapons and international law.
Consciously or unconsciously too many of us have bought into the idea of a mystical economy of suffering, in which our own physical sacrifice will somehow reduce someone else’s pain, somehow transmute a violent system. But this very economy of suffering requires and embraces violence ñ even romanticizes it.
One of the central tenets of Western nonviolence is that “unmerited suffering is redemptive.” But is there anything fundamentally redemptive in the rape of a child or the poisoning of a river?
Suffering is suffering, and by proclaiming that it is redemptive, we deny its reality. We can embrace suffering as a teacher, and recognize it as an essential characteristic of our constant process of birthing and rebirthing ñ but neither is possible without facing head on the real and essential nature of that suffering.
Somewhere along the line the willingness to endure suffering in order to defend life, which is inherently connected to a deep and vibrant love, became distorted into a belief that the amount of suffering we were willing to endure was a measure of our love. This is inextricably linked with a puritanical denial of pleasure, sexuality, and the self that marks both the Christian and the Gandhian traditions that have shaped most contemporary Western thinking about nonviolence.
I once heard a Plowshares activist speak about how we must “crucify our desires.” The crucifixion of desire is not a renunciation of violence, but a choice to turn that violence inward. Empathy and compassion are rooted in understanding the shared desire of other beings for liberation and for life. When we deny our own desires, our own passions, our own flesh, we lose that empathy and compassion and replace them with moralistic abstractions.
The feminist psychoanalyst, Julia Kristeva, writes about the chora, the pulsing core of pure desire that drives all our actions from the moment we emerge from the womb. Early in childhood, the chora is subjected to a “symbolic order” which restricts and limits its expression. But sometimes there is a rupture in that order, something emerges that is so sublimely beautiful that the symbolic order has to be reshaped in order to accommodate its reality, and if the order fails to bend and change it will be shattered. This is the site of poetry, of art, of orgasm, of magick.
Truly nonviolent resistance comes not from suppressing these moments, not from attempting to sublimate what is already sublime, but from riding their wild and undeniably erotic energy. The only love that has the power to transform is the visceral, primal love at the core of our being, that recognizes the pulsing chora at the center of all life, and wants to shatter the symbolic order and set that chaotic force free into the universe.
This kind of nonviolence also demands that we do away with abstractions and connect with the direct experience of other people’s lives. When we do this we begin to recognize the pervasiveness of violence in every day life. In her profile of Oscar Olivera, one of the leaders in the struggle against the privatization of water and natural gas in Bolivia, Amy Casada-Alaniz wrote that:
“The ‘Wars’ for water and gas, Oscar says, are so termed by the people in general who in reality live in struggle and ‘war’ daily. He asks: is it not violence to wake up every morning in a state of anxiety, unsure of how the day will play outÖ vulnerable to employers whom he testifies force birth control on female workers, threatening them with the loss of their jobs in no uncertain terms if they should ever become pregnant? He says that some factory working women here are told that they must accept a copper apparatus that will prevent pregnancy, an IUD, if they wish to keep their jobs, and that they must keep this secret from their husbands. ‘Is this not violence?’ asks Oscar. [ . . . ] This is war every day; it is essentially violent. It is in this context that the resistance of the people empowered with a voice and given an ear, name their collective struggle: WAR.”
It was in this same spirit that Diane DiPrima wrote that “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” The daily repression that denies people the ability to be fully alive is as real and as violent as the war in Iraq. If our resistance ignores, or worse yet replicates, this repression, we are complicit.
Conversely, resistance that is rooted in real compassion, real empathy, born of living passion, is liberating in and of itself ñ a revolution both in its end and in its means. In Linda Hogan’s beautiful novel, Solar Storms, the narrator, an Indigenous woman resisting the construction of hydro-electric dams that would destroy her ancestral homeland, says that:
“For my people, the problem has always been this: that the only possibility of our survival has been resistance [ . . . ] To fight has meant that we can respect ourselves, the Beautiful People. Now we believed in ourselves once again. The old songs were there, came back to us. Sometimes I think the ghost dancers were right, that we would return, that we were always returning.”
Its time for us to return to the erotic passion for life that inspires our resistance, to claim our own power fully and use it to awaken other people to the knowledge of their own power to be free.
SEAN DONAHUE is a poet, journalist and nonviolence trainer living in Gloucester, MA. He wrote the chapter on Rand Beers, Kerry’s top foreign policy advisor, for CounterPunch’s new book on the 2004 elections, Dime’s Worth of Difference. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org