In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead. Some of them are forgotten. Most of them are unknown.
To resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It is to defy injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency and at times your life. It is to be a lifelong heretic. And, perhaps this is the most important point, it is to accept that the dominant culture, even the liberal elites, will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do, but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at The New York Times after being booed off a commencement stage in 2003 for denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded by the paper for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I had known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby. They did not want to be contaminated by the same career-killing contagion.
Ruling institutions—the state, the press, the church, the courts, academia—mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, no matter how venal, which provide them with money, status and authority. In times of national distress—one has only to look at Nazi Germany—all of these institutions, including the academy, are complicit through their silence or their active collaboration with radical evil. And our own institutions, which have surrendered to corporate power and the utopian ideology of neoliberalism, are no different. The lonely individuals who defy tyrannical power within these institutions, as we saw with the thousands of academics who were fired from their jobs and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, are purged and turned into pariahs.
This sublime madness is the essential quality for a life of resistance. It is the acceptance that when you stand with the oppressed you get treated like the oppressed. It is the acceptance that, although empirically all that we struggled to achieve during our lifetime may be worse, our struggle validates itself.
I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith, which lies outside any religious or philosophical creed. This faith is what Havel called in his great essay “The Power of the Powerless” living in truth. Living in truth exposes the corruption, lies and deceit of the state. It is a refusal to be a part of the charade.
“You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,” Havel wrote. “You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. … The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public. He offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin—and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.”
The long, long road of sacrifice and suffering that led to the collapse of the communist regimes stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They did not try to reform the Communist Party. They did not attempt to work within the system. They did not even know what, if anything, their tiny protests, ignored by the state-controlled media, would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives. They did so because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue; indeed they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these poets, playwrights, actors, singers and writers finally triumphed over state and military power. They drew the good to the good. They triumphed because, however cowed and broken the masses around them appeared, their message of defiance did not go unheard. It did not go unseen. The steady drumbeat of rebellion constantly exposed the dead hand of authority and the rot of the state.
Her voice that night suddenly flooded the square. Pressing around me were throngs of students, most of whom had not been born when she vanished. They began to sing the words of the anthem. There were tears running down their faces. It was then that I understood the power of rebellion. It was then that I knew that no act of rebellion, however futile it appears in the moment, is wasted.
We may feel, in the face of the ruthless corporate destruction of our nation, our culture and our ecosystem, powerless and weak. But we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements that follow us. It passes on another narrative. It will, as the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes. But if we persist, we will keep this possibility alive. If we do not, it will die.
Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ novel “The Plague” is not driven by ideology. He is driven by empathy, the duty to minister to suffering, no matter the cost. Empathy, or what the Russian novelist Vasily Grossman called “simple human kindness,” becomes in all despotisms a subversive act. To act on this empathy—the empathy for human beings locked in cages less than an hour from us [here in Princeton], the empathy for undocumented mothers and fathers being torn from their children on the streets of our cities, the empathy for Muslims who are demonized and banned from our shores, fleeing the wars we created, the empathy for poor people of color gunned down by police in our streets, the empathy for girls and women trafficked into prostitution, the empathy for all those who suffer at the hands of a state intent on militarization and imposing a harsh cruelty on the vulnerable, the empathy for the earth that gives us life and that is being contaminated and pillaged for profit—becomes political and even dangerous.
Evil is real. But so is love. And in war—especially when the heavy shells landed on crowds in Sarajevo, sights so gruesome that to this day I cannot eat a piece of meat—you could feel, as frantic family members desperately sought out loved ones among the wounded and dead, the concentric circles of death and love, death and love, like rings from the blast of a cosmic furnace.
‘The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.’ No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.”
Accept sorrow — for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful at the state of our nation, the world and our ecosystem—but know that in resistance there is a balm that leads to wisdom and, if not joy, a strange, transcendent happiness. Know that if we resist we keep hope alive.