In ancient Athens, where the male citizen population gained membership of the assembly upon entering their majority, there is said to have been no such thing as detachment from politics.
Men went to the assembly and spoke and listened. Every qualifying citizen had a fairly good chance of being chosen to serve on the boule, the council of state. And good citizens were involved in the democratic system which was at the time strange and novel, and close to new to the world.
The good and bad among them participated; and good citizens, to paraphrase a charming YouTube summary, held strong political opinions.
The Greek word ‘idiotes’, as every student of GCSE classical civilisation is reverentially and amusedly taught, did not mean ‘fool’ to the wise Athenians. But rather, it denoted a ‘private person’. Detachment was foolish, silence almost an affront to social tradition.
In the Rome of the republican age, politics was a spectator sport. Membership of the senate was limited to those elected to the most minor of magistracies, and restricted by social class and by wealth; but there were public assemblies in spades, and law courts in which the crowds would spectate and take sides.
Imperial Rome saw games of scale and depravity, and gladiatorial matches in which the crowd were plausibly as essential participants as those fighting on the sand. The words of the crowds could reach the emperor. And his punishment could not reach those, cloaked in crowded anonymity, who criticised, in that most public of galleries, his bearing or his acts.
How much is myth in the above?
Participatory politics is a kind of con. Assemblies of all the citizens are often weakly attended. They have to enforce their quorums, sometimes at the hands of Scythian archers wielding chalky rope, to justify proceedings and save the exercising of democratic right from farce.
Even societies which compel voting have to account for apathy, and a strong, always-present demand among the people for endorsing none of the above. In other systems, abstention, so we are told, is as much of a statement as action. It is as much of a reasonable choice as a vote. And by lord, it is a popular choice these days.
A democracy where slightly more than half of those eligible to vote routinely do so – why, that’s considered doing well.
But aside from political inactivity by choice, or as statement, what about the avoidance of participation in politics by default, or as a preferable alternative?
Rolf Dobelli’s advocacy of not reading the papers got him some polite attention and a little acclaim. Those who appear to upturn the cardboard scenery behind cable news are occasionally lauded. Some who peek behind the curtain at Davos, or meetings at newspaper or broadcasters’ offices, and come back with a cheeky observation – they are possible truth tellers, if a little pleased with themselves.
The stony-hearted rationalists more common online than in life occasionally suggest that news is little but theatre, useless to the living demanded by the present moment; and that the idols of productivity, sanity, and heath follow happily in its abandonment.
But when Morrissey sang that you must ‘stop watching the news’, as ‘the news contrives to frighten you’, his view was dismissed largely as a whine resulting from privilege. Perhaps that had something to do, more than anything else, with his less than politic past.
Why mention any of this, exactly?
Well, it’s simple enough.
Whenever the United States has one of its periodic moments of observing a moment of horror, the world looks askance at whatever appears to be going on.
In this instance, in Minneapolis just under a week ago, a black man, George Floyd, had his neck knelt into the ground by the action of another. It took a while for Floyd to die. And those filming the event for the best part of ten minutes, and those participating in it, knew what was happening before it did. He was killed, and knew he was killed, some time before he died.
Murders become spectacle when people with cameras become involved.
But this is more than private tragedy and it is more than news. It is a call to arms, a moment perhaps of history.
As some parts of some American cities briefly burn, and a number of photographs are taken, let us avoid for a moment an ontology of protest and riots – who wins and who loses; paid infiltrators and vanguardists and agents provocateurs; the young verses the old in black communities; and those who have felt the need to board up their places and stencil ‘black-owned business’ on the boards in the perhaps unnecessary hope that the flames not come calling.
All that might be over very soon. And more people congregate in peace than burn shops and flip cars.
More novel, to resume a theme, is the social media deluge that all this has prompted. You will find this happens rather a lot. Head to somewhere nominally apolitical at a time like this.
Take a look at some Instagram stories – of bands, of singers and actors and models, of the famous for being famous, of most of the young women you might happen to know.
All different, but many the same. They feature text on backgrounds of bright primary colours, generally; messaging that’s straightforward and direct. They’ll often contain links to others’ hints and occasional instructions of how to respond to the moment.
Here’s where you can donate. Here’s how you can be a good ally; how you can, despite yourself, be one of the community of the good.
A major feature of these contributions is something which seems relatively new to me. It’s the idea that personal conduct, indeed private thought, is less than half the picture – or, in more overt messaging, that it is actually irrelevant when confronted with a structure so latticed and an event so sad.
That it is not enough, bluntly, not to be racist. It simply will not do. That instead, nothing less than being an active anti-racist will do. That descriptor, self-applied, has a few parts. It means dealing with the prejudice and cruelty of others with a toolkit that might be termed ‘search and destroy’, or unearth and disinter. It means no longer getting away with sitting on your hands. But most pressingly, perhaps, it means a continual process of thought and action, external but also internal, unceasing, unfolding, reiterative, to find racism in its conceptual and its practical forms, and to stop it. In yourself as well as in others.
Because what is true of the worst of the rest is not only potentially present in you, as are all aspects of human nature; you are in truth part of it, bathed in it, submerged beyond your neck in it, inseparable from its worst aspects – at least without this new means of action and this new label.
Without it, you are not only no longer on the side of the good; you are also a hypocrite and a liar. Without this method of self-attack, and this theoretical ammunition for assailing the world around you, how can you hope to operate for the good among all the devastation?
Self-perception is a wonderful thing. An unexamined life is etcetera, etcetera.
Arthur Chu, a former game show contestant and ex figure in activist circles (who may be out of favour given his lack of presence and heft in Twitter beef for the past few years) once used a phrase for something like this which seemed strangely vicious.
Others take ‘unlearning’ to describe the purpose of rooting out the wrong thoughts and those unwelcome assumptions which are said to bedevil even the most noble and well-intentioned of us all. Chu chose, so far as my own memory can be trusted, to describe an activity he called ‘mind kill’ – a purging of the bad in his memory and in his thoughts. Re-education, but with the language of lancing a boil, or amputating a limb without an intervening analgesic.
It sounds rather a lot of work.
Leave aside the ‘not racist’ verses ‘anti-racist’ dichotomy. The real tension in the phrase ‘active anti-racist’ is not in the adjectival noun, or nounal abjective, but the verb. Active. What does it mean to be active? Are most people capable of participation? Can most people become truly political, and politically introspective?
A brief point about free will. Even if you believe in the capacity of thought to determine action (and not as an ex post facto trick played by the human machine to convince the conscious beings we are that consciousness is truly at the controls), there are limits to activity, and to change.
We are a slave to our lives – or at least the shape they assume, comprised of everything done more than a moment ago. All cannot be un- or redone. Our previous choices are a matter of choice no longer. They compel our speech and thought, and propel us forward. We are built of all we did before. In the course of normal living, these foundations are unshakeable. They are our shelter and our prison. We can hardly escape now.
With all that in the rear-view mirror, we are barely under our own steam.
Many of us are not actors in history but grist for its mill.
We barely live our own lives. We are alive for a brief time and then, one day, and for ever after, we are not – nothing having changed in the world for our being there in the intervening. No externally visible action having taken place.
All the more prompt for introspection, then – or at least so some have argued. Man as a thinking animal. The only being in our experience capable of perceiving and creating meaning. May as well live within our heads if unable to live throughout our lives. May as well get the thing – they mean the brain – straight and in working order before it ceases to function through oxygen starvation. Purge its worst aspects, keep the machine alive and oiled. May as well be part of the community of the good, in spirit if not in action.
That is one way of looking at things.
But another is more concerning and less easy to take.
Perhaps not only are we limited in scope by plausibility and what’s possible, by circumstance and situation, by time and tide. But also by the action born of intention.
Perhaps the ‘active’ in ‘active anti-racist’ is beyond those who are not predisposed to see action in themselves and suggest it of others.
An example to close.
Midway through last year, I almost shared a room with a declared anti-semite. His name is Mahathir Mohamad, and he was, at least then, the prime minister of Malaysia. He had come to my university to give a friendly chat, and give a talk he did, in agreeable surroundings, to a friendly crowd.
I was not there, attendance requiring a little more activity than I was capable of at that moment.
Given his history, a question was asked of Mohamad’s past comments and conduct re: Jews. And he answered with facile lightheartedness and a half-smile visible on video.
‘I have some Jewish friends, very good friends’, the prime minister said. ‘They are not like the other Jews. That’s why they are my friends.’
The audience gave a little laugh at this, something that was talked up a little, and chalked up to more, in the papers a day or so later.
In discussing this event after the fact, having not been there, having made no effort to attend, I found myself attempting to describe action while feeling only resignation.
Someone on Twitter wondered why no one in the room stood, at the point Mohamad reached the conclusion of this remark, and why no one undercut his ease and his damned jocularity with a shouted interruption of some kind.
I could only say – as well I might – that were I there, I would hope, I may have risen myself, and giving voice to dismay more than anger, begun to shout, or even just to speak, something rhythmic and appropriate, to render his half-smile ridiculous. Perhaps something to the tune of ‘shame, shame, shame’, as I have seen in documentary films. It’s what I may have said.
My interlocutor responded, with possibly bemused charity, that he was sure of it – that if I were there, he knows that is what I would have done.
But would I have risen? Would I have stood?
Can offense, which I felt upon hearing of the event, which pricked my face with red while watching it on video, be so easily turned into righteous condemnation? Can polite horror surpass passivity?
I have a predisposition for embarrassment, something I can catch like an aggressive pathogen from others, even if they are not showing symptoms.
When people say things in front of me for which they ought to be embarrassed, I likely feel it harder, and remember it with more permanence, than they do. But it’s rare I do more than furrow my brows, feel heat arrive in my forehead, and look quickly and furtively away.
Think on this. Is activity, of any kind, possible with such mundane millstones as personality suspends around our necks?
Active, pursuing, innately political. To speak and to chant requires certainty and purpose, and freedom, not just of action, but from the possibility of that effort being wasted, or misdirected along garden paths. Many have shallower reserves of that than might be imagined.
When our impulses suggest attendance, time and place conspire against it.
And when the time comes to stand, in the face of an obvious outrage, and begin the solemn and stentorian duty of someone at least open to activity, some of us can only watch from a distance, through a screen, at obvious racism expressed by someone other than ourselves, and wonder at a year’s remove whether something perhaps ought to have been said.
This essay was originally published at Correspondence, an occasional journal.