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Political Ethics

By Lynna Landstreet

Posted on the IMBAS mailing list, Wed, Sep 3, 1997.

Mike Walsh writes:

[In the wake of various comments on the death of ex-Princess Diana]

Lynna Landstreet writes:

Personally, despite being no great fan of the British monarchy (or any other, for that matter), I think they should charge every one of those assholes with MURDER. Never mind manslaughter.

Well, how about charging the English royal family with the murder of the Irish people over which they symbolically preside? ...It's just more English government nonsense and arrogance as usual. While the person's death was unfortunate, when you put yourself in a role like that, you've got to be able to take the consequences -- media attention. Sorry to sound harsh, but I couldn't believe having to read sympathies for the English royal family, a clan of mass murderers if there ever was one, on a CELTIC list.

I delayed replying to this until I thought I could do so without losing my temper. We'll see if it worked. ;-)

You'll note that I said above that I was "no great fan of the British monarchy (or any other, for that matter)". In fact, despite having lived in Canada for 29 years, I am still a U.S. citizen because I will not swear an oath to the Queen. I do consider myself Canadian rather than American, and if they ever change it to an oath to Canada, I'll take my citizenship oath in a second, but not the way it stands. And the Irish situation is a large part of my reason for making that decision.

However, I fail to see how that has anything to do with what I wrote. Quite apart from the fact that since her divorce, Diana Spencer was no longer a part of the royal family, much less involved in policy-making on Ireland or anything else, what the news stories say those photographers did -- delaying summoning help because they wanted to get their pictures first, and in the case of at least a few of them, actively preventing emergency personnel from getting through -- would be criminal no matter who was in the accident, or what caused it.

But the thing that really got to me about your message was, I think, how much it reminded me of the reasons why I'm no longer much of a political activist any more. For those who don't know, I was heavily involved in radical politics of various sorts during the 1980s, but eventually found that there were too many things that realy disturbed me about the mindset of a lot of the people I was working with, and your messages on this topic seem to embody the same type of thinking.

In about '86 or '87, as I was beginning to have doubts about some of my political involvements, I wrote an article for the anarchist journal Kick It Over (which I know at least one listmember used to read) entitled "Jerk-Off Politics, or the Macho Revolutionary Syndrome". I began it with a quote from an article Marge Piercy wrote in the late 60s (I'm probably paraphrasing, since I don't have it in front of me):

"There is a point beyond which cutting off sensitivity to others does not make for a more efficient revolutionary, but only a more efficient son-of-a-bitch. We are growing some dandy men of steel nowadays."

To me, the measure of any radical movement's potential to bring about real, meaningful change -- to create a better society than the one they oppose, rather than just becoming a funhouse mirror of the ruling elite they're trying to overthrow -- is the extent to which they can hang onto their humanity and compassion -- even for members of the dominant class/race/gender/nationality they seek to displace.

I do not mean to say that individuals should not be held accountable for their own individual actions -- clearly, they should. But when you start applying notions of guilt and innocence to entire groups of people based on the actions of some members of those groups, you're treading on dangerous ground.

I've heard anti-nuclear activists argue that a bombing in which a night-shift security guard at a nuclear weapons plant was killed was OK because by working there, he'd made himself "part of the machine" that they were opposing -- never mind the fact that most security guards are underpaid flunkies in dead-end jobs, and are often hired from agencies with no direct connection to the actual places they're stuck guarding.

I've heard animal rights activists argue that the British ALF's poisoned Mars Bar campaign (which turned out to be a hoax, but that's another story) was OK because since Mars bars aren't vegan, anyone eating one deserved whatever they got.

I've even heard some people argue that an action which killed random passersby on the street would be OK because "In a revolution, there are no innocent bystanders", and "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" -- in other words, that anyone who wasn't actively engaged in political activism against the state was guilty of tacitly supporting it, and therefore "just as guilty" as if they were actually in a position of power.

That kind of thinking scares the hell out of me, and it's the main reason why I'm no longer as politically active as I once was, and have pretty much disassociated myself from the anarchist community. I know that not all anarchists, or activists engaged in other radical movements, think this way. But enough of them did, and do, that I decided those movements were not the place for me.

I can understand the rage that makes people take hardline stances -- I've felt it myself. But I think that to surrender to that rage, to let it control you and turn you into a reflection of what you oppose, is a terrible mistake, and ultimately, a betrayal of the ideals that make people become activists in the first place. The true challenge, and the best hope the world has today, is for people to learn how to stay passionate and committed and active, and yet still remain caring and compassionate, even toward those they oppose.

I'll close with one more quote, from Joan Cavanagh's poem "I am a Dangerous Woman" (I'd type in the whole thing, since it's all relevant, but this message has gone on way too long already):

"I am a dangerous woman
Because I will say all this
Lying neither to you nor with you
Neither trusting nor despising you...
You have conspired to sell my life quite cheaply
And I am especially dangerous
Because I will never forgive nor forget
Nor ever conspire
To sell your life in return."

Déithe duit,

Liath Cadhóit
(a.k.a. Lynna Landstreet)


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