Sunday, August 25, 2013

Martyrs, Whistle-Blowers and Us

I worked in a middle school in Seattle where a very dynamic and creative teacher, Rosalie Romano, taught her 8th graders a potent lesson about values and activism, a lesson that explored the balance between moral authority and the demands of social cohesion and control. She presented the stories of leaders and activists like Mohandas Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela, and explored their relationships with the societies in which they lived. Her classes discussed the balance that all of us must seek between our personal well-being and a broader good, and how that balance is affected when our societies perpetrate or support evil.

Romano posed questions such as: How does one live in a Nazi Germany? Or endure a slave society? How does one respond to the recognition that the comforts of life are gained or maintained at the cost of illegal and inhumane wars, the incarceration or oppression of innocents, the second class citizenship imposed on entire ethnic groups, religious communities, or an entire gender? And, given that power structures are difficult or impossible for individuals to take effective action against, what compromises does one accept to survive, to maintain ones own realm of contentment, or even happiness.
And, Ms Romano proposed, the extent to which one maintained a strict and uncompromising commitment to morality was often very nearly the same degree to which one became a target for the retaliation of the vested powers. So what are the personal sacrifices that an individual may make, up to and including life itself, in support of a deeply held value or commitment to the lives of others? In a sense, Ms Romano was challenging her students to be suspicious of their comfort, reasoning that a comfortable life may well equal complicity and support of whatever evils one's country or community commits.
What a powerful, challenging class for eighth-graders, eh?
What has me thinking about all this are the cases of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden, the two young Americans currently in the news for their supposed acts of treason. These individuals each released US government information that exposed activities they felt to be in violation of the highest principles and aspirations of America. But in doing so, they broke the law, disrupted the exercise of US government programs and policy and power, and potentially put government agents at risk. And they also exposed themselves to retaliation by said government, including the full force of legal action.
Manning has just been sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, seven with no possibility of parole. And Snowden is stuck in a legal limbo while the arms of US power close in. And my questions are: Where does the rest of America stand on this? Do we want to support those like Manning and Snowden, who put their well-being on the line for their principled stands? Or do we want them dealt with like traitors and criminals? How are we – individually and collectively – to respond to their acts and to our government’s reaction? And what will their treatment say about the kind of America we have, and about the kind of America we want?
I think it’s fair to say that most of us would like to live in a country and in communities where individuals take heroic stands to preserve the integrity of the group.  I also think it’s fair to say that only a small percentage of us will ever take such bold stances ourselves. For example, most of us have managed to pay little or no attention while our country uses drones to kill innocents in foreign lands and imprisons suspected terrorists for more than a decade without due process? Most of us go on, living as well as we can, consuming many times our per capita share of the world's resources, while doing little or nothing about the inhumane but friendly regimes and exploitative business practices that make it all possible?

This is as true as the fact that most people, historically, have always stood by in the presence of slavery, genocides, blatant discrimination and exploitation. Yes, I'm pointing a finger, but as the saying goes, as I do so, three other fingers are pointing right back at me, and I'm guilty as charged.
But this essay isn't meant to condemn the far too many of us who live neck deep in easy compromise, but to look at what we do to, or about, the few who renounce compromise to challenge the intimidating and seemingly unshakeable status quo.

What will we do to support the whistle-blowers, the martyrs, the conscientious objectors, the protestors, the one child who will see and SAY that the Emperor has no clothes?

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