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Witness for Survival: Existential Choice and Action Constructing Historical Mega Events

Painting of the author by Salomon Huerta.

Witness or, more particularly, the witness frames the process of social movements for change beyond a generational approach by emphasizing actors, motives, and actions in relation to a specific goals or enterprise. To witness means to know and to provide evidence. This person assembles and communicated facts, presumably for a purpose whether personal or public that is impelled by motives. The word “witness” also refers to place or site, as well as to a does or maker. The witness acts because witnessing is an action compelled by the mind and body that can be considered a choice to achieve a desired goal. There are no mindless or unbiased witnesses. There are different kinds of witnesses whose witnessing varies within an action scenario. Their testimony varies according to the caliber of the witness. By identifying the roles of the varied witnesses, we can clarify and understand the historical episode by emphasizing actors and their actions.

By looking back, the witness reflects on a scenario, but that action itself, whether being that of recall, descripting, or interpretation can lead to repudiation of all or part of the scenario. These energies or actions of the mind and body have purpose, they may have purpose of survival due to a love for their fellow humans. For all species an urgent purpose is survival. At a certain point of the long dure of human history, certain humans’ pro-actively began to imagine a better world than that of their current existence; they gradually conceptualize a radical proposition. These positive proponents imagine a map to navigate to view this new world. Those who in opposition endorse the status quo, to be sure, can act as naysayers to the new possibilities for human survival proposed by those who point to a positive future.

Whether positive or negative, witnessing involves the mind and the body acting in basic ways to create an action beyond the initiators. All of one’s faculties creatively determine the action; all of one’s mind and self, all of our body—brain, eyes, throats, hands, feet. Pro or con, witnessing is basic to human survival. Witnesses act and record human events. How does this happen? One can purpose that conscious way of achieving this is politics, that is, humans working together to achieve a common goal, humans acting in their own behalf cooperatively. Memory provides a roadmap to a desired or preferred world and the will to achieve or assure this world. The dark side of this proposition is contention. Those that purpose a positive outlook believe that the better survival is to be secured by themselves. This in opposition to the naysayers, the negatives, who in turn see a radial positive proposition as catastrophic to their world preference, the status quo. They have a different motivation and means.

One of the earliest notions of radical, survival mapping is a generation-premised vision, the clocking of human activity according to a schema of predictable births and deaths. Ancient sources of past mappings of human survival are often generation-arranged chronologies. Their maps inscribed beautiful passages on the commendable passing of generation progressing toward a better world. However, more useful is to focus on real action(s) to secure survival, not simply clocking contingent happenstances or recording contrasts on the march over time.

According to one of the oldest Western records, the actor can be identified as a certain preacher, a propagator and worker for a belief in a better world and ways to achieve it peacefully. Her/his action, her/his work, begins at age thirty with the recruitment of co-actors, co-initiators, the apostles. To be sure, the initial acts are cooperative, although contention does follow. Together the initiators formulate a project, one with stages, involving demanding, life consuming work. The initiating generation is primarily motivated by love, although they encountered persecution and death. Eventually, their activity is continued by surviving co-actors who extend a belief system, a map expanded beyond the rhetoric of the iconic initiators. This in turn necessitated recruits, say pilgrims, if you will, the legatees of the initiators, a succeeding cohort of project workers. In sum, action can be seen as a project, a pilgrimage, loyalist recruitment and belief construction. All who are directly involved, imitators and the early converts, are proactive witnesses. Throughout these accomplishments and events, there are children, some who will choose to be continuators and thus may be a future witness.

Legacy witnesses who follow the co-initiators see themselves as related to the initial witnesses and co-actors, as well as to their complex belief, by reason of family, pedagogy, place, and their work. Because of the continuation of the work of witnessing, their social ties woven by shared love, belief, need, and curiosity. In any case, they construct and maintain basic arguments, a rationale for their goal and process that is significant to their own lives—and importantly, to their children’s survival. Young and old, children and parents, in practice are teachers in training, and their practice is also gathering recruits to their beliefs. These are witnesses convinced a better world is possible. To be sure, time passes, older witnesses blend with younger ones for eighty or ninety years, but they maintain some ties to the co-initiators. The instrument for realizing their idealized human possibility, their goal, is foundationally the action of storytelling, narrating their story. The basic story is the memory of the beginning, the leadership of the co-founders, the initiating convictions and actions, and the endorsing repetition of these.

The positive is contested immediately. At stake is the conviction of those committed to the prospect of a better world versus those who are committed to the present. Their view ties them to a negative story. Humans continually contest beginnings and the actions of other humans. Those who have alternative beliefs, devote themselves to a different, contrasting negation of the story of positive human survival. Witnessing will entail differently stories of both proponents and opponents. Using the witness approach, once can trace and decipher the process of a belief system. This approach differs from examining radical historical mega events and processes as dialectical consequences which are inherently contentious, because mainly economic trends and their social manifestations. A witness approach is more akin to a theater production sheet with casting notations rather than a theory of the play.

The mega event is visualized and witnessed as a culmination, although in practice, there may be one, two, or more, endings. That is, the positive mega project, a work in stages, is both a landscape and an enormous theater. Action and actors may be understood by identifying witnesses and their participation in creating history, which centers on a mega event and its process are complex and multiple. Mega event witnesses and their actions are varied and important. In the actions encompassing the mega project, witnesses are several and are constituted by both proponents and opponents, that is, each part in contention has its witnesses. Oppositional interplay is at the crux of mega event that assumes historic stature. At issue are material as well as ideational aspects of a given material circumstance and historical context, as well as the motivations of the actors. The positive initiators are committed to making history through their work. Yet, their mega process eventually fades or ends in their lifetimes or shortly thereafter. Thus, motives and circumstances change.

Looking primarily at positive proponents, initial witnesses are those that pro-actively exert founding responsibility for the sake of a better world, for the possibility of achieving such. Initial witnesses are the prime makers of the event, those who willed the event. These initiating prospects are furthered by a variety of talents, skills, and personalities. The pursuit of this idealized goal involves idealistic notions as well as utilitarian steps or instruments to achieve these. For initiators their message is in fact a statement on the enterprise of survival—we are all involved in this enterprise whether we want to or not. Better to act consciously and decisively. There is a defining sense of personal obligation here, a moral one. One inspection, the involvement encompasses varieties of witnesses which constitute the project. Initiators in fact must be accompanied by children who, though young, are present at the initiation of the mega process. In any case, from the first or in time, they, (the positives), meet their opposites, the major naysayers.

The initiators are supportive or empathetic witnesses who actually make the process and contribute to culminating events. Their presence and participation, their caring, their listening and acting give substance and form to the convocation transmitted by the initiators. They are the committed ones who are the rank and file, energies and vices, the arm and legs, working for an envisioned society-wide, idealistic intention. Supportive witnesses can be direct participant or convinced idealistic sympathizers who act in some way for the process and event. In fact, they are both the achievement of the project and also the audience for transmitting the story of the project and its consequences. They are indeed the conduits for the continuation of the project’s history.

Of particular importance are cultural or organic witnesses whose practice is motivational and directly or indirectly pedagogical. Such witnesses give verve and imagination to the mega process actions as it unfolds, and equally crucial, they will do so for the meaning and interpretation of the future, its historical understanding and broadcasting. Cultural witnesses may be teachers of the lore of the event, those who instruct the larger audience of the community as well as the prime constituency of the event, of the reason and explanations. They are the artists, writers, film-makers, in a word, the communicators. Some cultural witnesses will be direct, Gramscian-identifiable organic organizing participants, others will be sympathetic informational reporters and compelling interpreters of the event. Such persons may be present at the mega event, other will communicate the process as its passage proceeds. Such players facilitate thoughtful contemplation as well as factual reportage of the event. The hoped for positive legacy of the mega event or project as time passes is facilitated, if not outright dependent, on the “communicator” persons who may be empathetic witnesses.

Cultural doers, whether they prefer to overtly shoulder responsibility or not, are liable for their communicating actions, no less so than initiating leaders. There is often a dilemma on their mind and consciousness, as artists and pedagogues, they see both the seriousness as well as the irony of events. They are imbued with the notion of art as beauty and play, and dominant class notions of “objectivity.” Consequent with their participation, artists and writers have the obligation of moral reflection to enrich their work and outreach. The seriousness of legacy overrides aesthetic or formalistic commands. The legacy may often be one of tragedy and sorrow, but preferably the positive organizing point of view is not subject to the whims of audiences not committed to the mega event and processes. The answer to the dilemma is clear: the artist is free and also responsible, she or he exercises judgement and will also, as all witnesses, be judged. In time however, artists, photographers, and reporters with direct contact with initiators and founding actions will cease participating. They will be replaced by communicators or cultural doers with no emotional ties to the mega process.

Those unengaged witnesses are aloof but present, they indeed, stand and serve. As an individual, this witness is not simply, an unthinking and inactive persona, She/he may be a potential recruit whether initially uncommitted and also unreflective. She/he is there as part of the primary or secondary audience, to be moved or repelled at any given moment. The unengaged stance may be merely a pretense at not being a witness; the stance may evolve. Then presence means at least for a moment, to some slight degree, contemplation of the mega event and its process. This self-assessment may lead to non-participation, and this too is a result of reflection of the event. This person, to some extent, commits to the process by their presence and on that basis may claim evaluator latitude, but that is a soft claim to evaluate. Her/his ostensibly non-engaged stance may evolve into a critique of the mega event that is positive or negative, but in either case it is made on the basis of certain involvement.

Positive or negative, mega events are magnetic. Some bystanders may adamantly have chosen not to be with either side. Within the crowd but apart from others are those who pose seemingly as bystanders, but in fact they act in expectation of some possibility of self-gain, some benefit no matter how elusive. This reward may be in practice illusionary, or trivial self-satisfaction, nothing more than a moment’s entertainment. Some individuals exhibit bizarre behavior among the varied participant. They are “show boat” witnesses, who self-identified as bystanders, but who are in fact present but adamantly declare not to be affiliated in the contestation at hand. Show boaters do not often become energized pro-supporters. In any case, the unengaged of whatever sort are part of the audiences for proponents and naysayers, they are contested and thus play in the contestation for years. The struggle for their possible affiliation by positives and naysayers continues into the future. Both parties have to contend with former adherents who evolve intro critics of their former allegiance. To be sure, many present at events of the process are gleefully subject repudiation in the naysayers version of history. For both parties, the early actors and the initial contestatory actions fade. Other must increasingly address public audiences who have little personal connections to past contentions to past contentions and, as a result, the numbers participants decline.

The Opponents

A negative witness is the one who acts against the proposers and their proposition of the mega claim or mega event. To be sure, from their negative perspectives upholding the status quo is positive and those so committed believe themselves to be positive proponents, but mostly they are viewed as negative conservatives. Paradoxically, given their power, their motivation besides preservation is fear and their means are pejorative. Their propagandists do not exhibit the aesthetic élan of their opposite among positives. In any case, negative witnesses are as committed to their ends of survival as the positives are to their proposal. In some cases, even more so. Thus, they are prone to drastic actions not for the sake of propaganda or stature, but to end the proposition and proponents of it. The ‘60s all-purpose peace movement comic Jerry Rubin wants to make you laugh, Mayor Richard of Daily of Chicago ’68 fame wants to both end the humor and humorist. As yet, there are no aesthetically acclaimed murals heroically depicting punishing demonstrators. However, let’s not forget the naysayers do have writers and journalists on their side with clear outreach.

Negative witnesses are also various. What is common to them is an antipathy to the core positive initiators, to those who empathize with the event, and even to the uncommitted bystanders, if they are at the scene of the mega event. In words and actions negatives adamantly are against the positive message and the reasonings underpinning its advocacy. Sometimes the positive witnesses think they are the sole participants in what they initiated, whereas actually the negative are there from the first and also shapers of historic events.

Negatives believe they do not receive the favorable attention they deserve, when in fact as defenders against reforms they receive more public endorsements than their opposites. More importantly, negatives have a variety of material instruments to engage in real politics and often are situated within complex institutional organization. Their supportive complex includes the executive deniers, their adjutants, tactical deployment supervisors, and trained rank and file as well as a significant public constituency. Negatives receive as their claimed due the ready support of most of the media and elected officials, as well as public advocates of one kind or another. Multiple elements are negative witnesses, from the negative emphasizers, to their families, to their apologists and their descendants.

The main negative operatives have front line deniers to carry out their decisions—if the matter at hand is public. The police often add painful or even tragic consequences to their deployment. Regular police are negative witnesses equipped with power at its most rudimentary application—force. Specialized police are trained in keeping persons “in line,” that is, maintaining people’s subjugated status. This assignment in turns is witnessed both by their superiors and the subject persons, including the rank and file of the positive proponents alike. Elected, appointed, and law enforcement supervisors are the responsible executors of painful events for the positive proponents and, thus, makers of their own and their opponent’s histories. They, in action, formulate the equation—resistance merits punishment, defining in practice this applied formula from the past to the present.

Negative history, as story and drama, has the main deniers and their subordinates as central saviors, the creative protagonists, in their script of survival for the world as it is. Their constituencies of negative players and supporters are so much endorsed that deniers never apologize and the have rarely been faulted with crimes against public morality for violating the civil rights of individuals. They are never compelled to an apology, much less judged are they at fault by courts of law. In sharp contrast to the positives, they do not mourn. The major naysayers claim their actions and beliefs are the history for the future. Yet, who and what challenges these assertions? The answer is—the positive cultural witnesses as they engage in struggle over history, whereby the loss of yesterday is turned into the elusive of today, the future.

Conclusion: May time be the handmaiden of truth?

In particular, memory-sensitive weavers of scripts detailing persons and events transmitting the lore of the positive mega process are important for future storytelling. Indeed, the past should not fade. Time cannot be allowed to swallow the tragic memories or the heroics of those working for positive human survival. Loss of historic memory compounds the tragedies of libertarian struggle.

The struggle for the past is no less urgent, no less requiring work than the human survival effort of the truly historic actors and actions. These stories at hand are the sustainers of the past, their tellings and works are no less useful for positive human survival than the heroic actions of yesterday by positive creators. There are real contemporaneous precedents for these labors, if we think of the works of some close at hand: of Saul Friedlander on European Nazis (2009); John H. M. Laslett on Los Angeles Chaves Ravine Neighbors (2015); and Benjamin Madley on California Native Americans (2016). Each is a witness to sorrow and also to the persistence of the human will for a better world. The progressive visions for today and tomorrow depend on the memory provided by historical works written by creative and conscientious historians. We are all witnesses in history-making and must be involved in mapping human survival for a better world future.

Professor Juan Gómez-Quiñones is a Research Professor of History at UCLA, specializing in the fields of political, labor, intellectual and cultural history. As a prolific scholar, key figure in the Chicana/o movement and mentor to countless students and academics, Dr. Gómez-Quiñones has a long trajectory in higher education, civic/political engagement, the arts, poetry and related activities. Born in Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico, he was raised in East Los Angeles. He earned a Ph.D. in History from UCLA.


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