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Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World

Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World - Steve Crawshaw, John Jackson, Václav Havel I had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, it was just very hit-or-miss. Small Acts of Resistance (SAOR) is a collection of disconnected anecdotes about various instances where oppressed people stood up to power. It’s good for what it is, but doesn‘t attempt to synthesize any overarching lessons from the stories. That’s a pretty glaring deficiency. In fact, for that reason, the book feels to me like it is still unfinished. Another book that did this to me was Modern Tyrants. WTF, people?! There are obviously a ton of lessons to be learned from these stories- why don’t you finish what you started? If you’d like to hear more of my bitching and moaning about how this book let me down, please be my guest: If political activism interests you at all, you've probably already heard about at least a quarter of these stories. By now, the 1986 vote-counters' refusal to certify fraudulent elections in the Philippines is a well-worn road in the annals of standing up to power. It’s not bad to hear, but it’s just old news. About another quarter of these anecdotes (a subjective estimate; I didn't count them) seem to be filler material which don't actually deliver what the book's title suggests: acts of resistance. Take the example of Nelson Mandela uniting opposing factions within South Africa with a soccer tournament. That's very nice, and shows how people can overcome differences, but it isn't an example of defiance. While Mandela’s life story is inspiring, and deals very much with standing up to power, in this particular case, he was the leader of the nation- hardly a disadvantaged position, and he used a sporting event to unite opposing factions within his country- nice, but not an example of standing up to authority. Some of the vignettes here exist in a gray area, where they seem vaguely inspiring in some ways, but aren’t exactly acts of resistance. Take the case of censors in Darfur... Sudanese newspapers are heavily censored, but apparently in the past decade some more liberal-minded of these censors used to engage in extremely juicy gossip around coworkers they knew to be much more strict, in hopes of distracting them from their work. The idea here is that little coded messages or other subversive tidbits in documents being reviewed might be more likely to escape notice and be published. It's great in principle, but can anybody show that this ploy actually worked? And is this an example of outright defiance, or passive aggression? (or is passive aggression a subset of defiance? I don’t know.) Don't get me wrong: I like the spirit of the thing; I'm just not sure it helped the cause. Like I said: it's a gray area.Another group of stories which didn’t impress me were those which seemed to be so culturally-rooted as to be irrelevant outside the country where they occurred. If that sounds unfair, I’m sorry, but let me give you an example: (p.68) To protest unfair inheritance laws in Uganda, one widow walked naked into a room full of her relatives. They freaked out and withdrew a legal claim on her deceased husband’s property. Ummm, okay. I understand that walking naked into a room full of one’s relatives might take some courage to do, even in the permissive West, and perhaps it is even more courageous for a woman to do in Uganda. The act probably has all sorts of connotations and implications in that culture, which I’m not aware of. More important: the widow’s act of “defiance” actually achieved its intended purpose, so maybe it deserves to be in this publication… but honestly, it seems very esoteric, and probably wouldn’t achieve the same effect outside the very limited circumstances where it is described. Put another way: if all the stories in this book were like this one, I’d probably have stopped reading after about three or four.To focus more on the book’s good points (and there are some), let me say up front that these pages contain occasional anecdotes which are truly inspired. When Slobodan Milošević ran for re-election as President of Serbia in 2000, his campaign put up posters of him giving a speech in front of a huge crowd. .. It had been Photoshopped to appear so. In reality, the crowd of Milošević supporters was much smaller. In Milošević’s poster, a man with distinctive sunglasses appears several times. (God, I wish this image had been available to include in this review). Milošević’s opposition copied the poster, and added prominent circles around the offending figures to expose the Photoshopping. Then they added the caption ["Stop the Lies"] across the top. This annotated opposition image found its way onto posters, post cards, and faxes throughout Serbia. Pretty soon, all the political discourse in the country centered around the Photoshopped picture, eclipsing and neutralizing Milošević’s propaganda, and turning his campaign into a nationwide joke. Pretty clever, isn’t it? Okay, if the authors aren’t going to offer any interpretations about the significance of that story, then I’ll jump in and do it myself! ? Here’s what I got out of it:1) The old “show don’t tell”: Showing exactly how and where Milosevic et al were lying was much more effective than printing a bunch of flyers that said “Milošević is a liar”. Even though it’s true, it would sound like unsupported slander.2) Humor: Living under an oppressive regime is a drag. It’s just constant negativity, day in and day out. If humor can be used to brighten up peoples’ lives, it will be appreciated, and the message behind it will be more likely to be remembered. The problem with talking about serious things like the police state is that whenever one starts pointing out problems in the system- even if accompanied by useful suggestions to improve- it tends to sound negative and downbeat. Unfortunately, that makes potentially very good points easy to dismiss. If you watched FOX News any time during the George W. Bush administration (and I don’t blame you if you didn’t) you’ll know that a favorite label Bill O’Reilly used to dismiss any and all criticism of Bush was to simply call the critic a “hater”. Humor can be used to good effect to counter this strategy. Here’s a good example of “show, don’t tell” combined with humor:Sticking with Slobodan Milošević for a second, there is also a clever account of how the opposition party knew its phone lines were being tapped, so they made arrangements by phone for a large delivery of anti-Milošević promotional materials. Members of the press were invited to cover the delivery, to show how robust the opposition to Milošević was. When the delivery van showed up, the eavesdropping police appeared immediately to seize the materials. They had a warrant in hand, stating that the delivery boxes contained items which were subversive and dangerous. The Chief of Police made a statement to that effect in front of the press, who then filmed the police opening the boxes, only to discover them all empty. Press questions about what the police expected to find, and where they had gotten their information proved humiliating to both Milošević and the (corrupt and very partisan) police.This is another good example using humor in acts of resistance. In a slightly less serious context, this whole thing would be like a giant practical joke. It’s also got an element of performance art to it, doesn’t it? Is humor the only tool in the resistor‘s toolbox? No; how about stealth?In Myanmar, dogs don’t quite have as good an image as they enjoy in the US. There is apparently a problem with rampant stray dogs running around, even in the capital city, and they’re mostly regarded as a dirty nuisance (I‘m paraphrasing the book here). Comparing somebody to a dog is regarded as quite insulting. In 2007, there was a popular uprising against the dictator in Myanmar. Protesters on the street were beaten severely by police. Undeterred, opponents affixed pictures of the leader to stray dogs... an unmistakable act of disrespect in that culture. The image of thousands of the dogs running around the city with the leader’s face glued onto their backs and sides may seem a futile gesture, but in fact it let resistors know that they weren’t alone… a large community of like-minded fellows were out there, acting behind the scenes. Police spent hundreds or maybe thousands of man hours chasing down the offending dogs to remove their leader’s image.Usually resistance takes a little more courage than pasting a picture on a stray dog. A whole section of the book deals with whistleblowers and leaks of official information governments would rather keep quiet. In 2003, British communications specialist Catherine Gun made public illegal orders she was given to spy on British allies in France, Chile and Mexico. In 1971, Daniel Ellsburg leaked the RAND Corporation’s (a private security think tank) “Pentagon Papers“ file, which exposed the Mai Lai massacre- the biggest American human rights violations incident and public relations disaster of the Viet Nam War. Both of these acts took a lot of courage by lone individuals risking their careers and personal safety to expose illegal and/or unethical activities their governments wished to keep secret… and which ought to be public information in a nominal democracy. In the case of the Pentagon Papers leak, there is substantial evidence to show that Ellsburg’s leak contributed to a change in official policies.Lessons learned? I guess the principles here are that:1) One person can make a difference; and 2) Persons acting with integrity should have the courage of their convictions. While history is unfortunately filled with people who have had to die for their beliefs, it has also shown that no positive change comes if there aren’t individuals willing to risk themselves for important causes. Fortunately, the stories in this book have mostly happy endings. Efforts were made to intimidate Gun. She was taken to trial for disobeying official orders, however the prosecution’s testimony proved too embarrassing to the British government.. To successfully convict, they would need to admit to the world that their official policy was to infiltrate and spy on friendly governments. They dropped the case and let Gun go free. The Truth is a powerful ally, it seems. I don’t know if it was the authors’ intent, but I am pleased to note that most of the stories of resistance in SAOR are nonviolent in nature. That’s a key point, not only because nonviolent means always have the moral high ground, but also because acts of force are generally not an area of advantage for broad-based political and social movements. Governments, having professional and well-funded armies and police forces at their disposal, will tend to have the advantage over the masses in this arena… and they know it. Police commonly use provocateurs to taunt nonviolent masses to violence… as an excuse to use police and military against them. Successful resistance is almost always nonviolent… Gandhi’s Salt March, the Birmingham (i.e. Rosa Parks) Bus Boycott are two of the most famous. Why? Well, it’s a bit like that scene in The Matrix movie, when it starts to sink into Neo how powerful he really is… that when he realizes his true potential, he won’t need to dodge bullets at all; he’ll just be able to stop them with his mind. Am I being all mystical and unrealistic by saying this? No. When you have the enthusiastic support of more than ½ the community (as Gandhi and MLK did in the examples above), you can wield great power simply by what you don’t do. When thousands refuse to ride the bus, the city loses millions in revenue in a few days. When millions refuse to work, the wheels of government and industry rapidly come to a halt. Boycotts, strikes and walkouts hit at two important vulnerabilities of the empowered: commerce and their appearance of legitimacy. Effectively disrupting either one of these will overcome any number of police in riot gear. Widespread popular sentiment is so powerful, in fact, it should never need to resort to violence. Unfortunately, getting the massive structure of public sentiment engaged, committed and coordinated in a common direction is very difficult to do. In the authoritarian regime of North Korea, it appears to have never happened in that nation’s sixty year history. In the West, perhaps one can say it happened sporadically over the course of years with the VietNam War protesting, and not significantly since. The point is that it happens infrequently, but when it does, police and armies can’t stop it. All the bread and circus you see on television is there to keep you from becoming engaged and politically active. Can you think of any other reason Lindsey Lohan or Kim Kardashian make millions of dollars doing… whatever it is they do? Their job is to make you forget about how Wall Street is fucking you, and building a police state around you. I could go on and discuss every anecdote in this book, but I think you should know by now whether you want to read it. I guess I’ll finish by commending the authors for including a chapter on “Digital Resistance” which shows what a powerful potential role the internet, digital cameras, and other current technology have in future political and social activism. I’ll leave you with a YouTube link to the 2004 “YES MEN” hoax, in which activist Andy Bichelbaum posed as a Dow Chemical spokesman, begging for forgiveness and fully acknowledging the company’s culpability in the 1984 Bhopal chemical leak which killed thousands. The hoax caused Dow shares to plummet, and brought worldwide attention back on the company’s responsibility for the accident.[Link to YES MEN video]Wonderful.