What Nelson Mandela Can Teach Us About Violence

Nelson Mandela ... graffiti ... violenceWhen journalist and commentator Chris Hedges decried “violent” anarchists as a “cancer” in the Occupy movement, the violence he had in mind amounted to little more than a few smashed commercial windows.

Ample digital ink has been spilled in the last day by smart observers urging against the whitewashing of Nelson Mandela’s past. In the eyes of his fervid opponents, and many of his fervent supporters, Madiba was a radical, and a violent one. Compared to the militant actions Mandela would countenance and support from his African National Congress, what gets deemed “violent” or “militant” in the U.S. today is both laughable and problematic. On the occasion of the death of a great and violent man, it seems worthwhile to discuss what does and does not get deemed “violent” — and by who, where and when.

It’s beyond the purview of these paragraphs — and to be honest, I’m tired of the hackneyed polemic — to address whether violence, especially politically motivated violence, is ever justifiable or commendable. Instead, I’ll simply posit that violence is itself a moving goalpost. In the contested terrain of political struggles, however, it’s safe to say that any acts posing a threat (existential, ideological and wherever the twain meet) to a ruling status quo will be deemed violent. Even an act as minimal as a smashed Starbucks window can pass muster here — spidering cracked glass serves as reminder to those who might notice: “We do not consent to a gleaming patina; shit’s fucked up and bullshit.”

But I’m not going to weigh in on the ethics of revolutionary violence. To do so would miss how the concept of violence operates in our society: We erroneously isolate certain acts to deem “violent” or “nonviolent” — then “justifiably violent” or not, and so on — and in so doing we miss that there’s never a singular “violence”: there’s an ongoing dialectic of violent and counter-violent acts.

It’s within such a dialectic that we understand Mandela’s support of violence. His relationship to armed and violent struggle is nuanced and certainly not unique to him. He knew counter-violence was necessary in his violent context. He has also expressed that he and his ANC comrades prioritized the reduction of harm to human bodies. For Mandela, violence was a tactic. As Christopher Dickey noted, “when it came to the use of violence, as with so much else in his life, Mandela opted for pragmatism over ideology.” […]

The deifying and sanitizing of Mandela reflects an all-too prevalent “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) mentality, often adopted by the white liberal commentariat. (The ass-backwards, explicitly racist opinions of the right-wing are not my focus here. Take it as read: they suck.) My friend Garrett Ramirez has written about what he calls the “Nonviolent In My Backyard” tract of NIMBY — a position occupied by Chris Hedges and Rebecca Solnit, among others. As Ramirez noted of this sort of NIMBY liberal, “Yes, of course, they celebrate militant, spontaneous, non-bureaucratic grassroots uprisings outside of U.S. borders, even if they’re as physically close as Oaxaca or politically close as London. But as soon as the insurrection gets to their neck of the woods, suddenly we must have everything in triplicate, blessed by the elders, and executed quietly and even ‘neatly.’”

The parameters, by NIMBY reasoning, of acceptable or justified radical violence expand as the struggles in question are grow farther from U.S. soil, and when the event is separated by years and decades. We imprison today’s whistle-blowers and canonize yesterday’s insurrectionists. But (and here’s the trick) the ability to do so is premised on the belief (even a tacit one) that our current context is not so bad, but dissent, militancy and violence is fine there and then — just Not In My Backyard.

NIMBY liberalism rejects the background violence of its own context — the structural racism, the inequality, the totalized surveillance, the engorged prisons, the brutal police, the patriarchy, the poverty, the pain. A smashed window, a looted store, a dented cop car can be read as “violent” now only because a certain NIMBYism fails to see such (small) acts as counter-violent responses to ubiquitous violence. Heroic and necessary violence is reserved for distant lands and completed revolutions.”

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By Natasha Leonard (Salon)

Read full article at: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/08/what_nelson_mandela_can_teach_us_all_about_violence/

See also: Mandela Sanitized by Mumia Abu-Jamal