Reform or Revolution?: Seeking a (truer) collective responsibility

adam renner


Two years ago, I began a reflection that, for all intents and purposes, has remained an evolving story (a winter reflection).  Here, again, I sit in the front room of a 108 year old shotgun (still chilly) house with the Christmas tree aglow behind me and the space heater at my feet.  I continue my reflection on the state of things, sipping coffee, mesmerized by beads of rain suspended from the magnolia tree in the front yard. 


These dangling beads provide an interesting background against which the Christmas tree lights reflect in the window, looking themselves like little droplets on the outside tree branches.  This switching foreground/background provides an apt metaphor for my frame of mind—the perspective of inside/outside. Upon which canvas do I most want to do my work? That of reform from within or revolution from without? (And, figuring out where or if the two possibilities overlap.)


My impetus for expanding this reflection now stems from a panel I co-moderated not too long ago on the connections between religion and the war in Iraq.  I have been helping construct a series of teach-ins, entitled Beyond the Sound Bites, in which we seek to hold deeper and more meaningful dialogues about the war through the lens of such issues as history, US foreign policy, religion, energy (consumption and policy), veteran’s affairs, media, etc.  At this particular discussion, one panelist, who fervently favored the war, was asked to comment on his faith’s perspective on the death of innocents in war, what we have come to term, quite innocuously and unfortunately, as “collateral damage.”  This panelist suggested that a nation’s people assume “collective responsibility” for their leaders. So, in the process of having a leader deposed (as the US war of aggression in Iraq has accomplished), that some innocents are murdered is ultimately the fault of the people who perished, since they did not oust said leader themselves. Taken to its logical conclusion, then, this line of reasoning claims that the seven-year-old incinerated by the indiscriminate US bomb is culpable for his/her own murder, since s/he did nothing to depose the dictator who seized power in their country.   This also suggests that the seven-year-old Israeli child who is blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber or the immigrant janitor who died on September 11 in the world trade towers are somehow “collectively responsible” for their own deaths.  To the extent that we are able to democratically choose our leaders and have input into our foreign policy, I can agree with some responsibility.  But, to uncritically suggest it is each of our responsibilities, equally shared, is preposterous (mean-spirited, really), and misses the oppressive and rigid systems constructed to minimize our democratic participation and input (in Iraq, in Israel, in the US, etc.)—keeping us relatively ignorant and distracted by meaningless minutiae. 


Our preoccupations and lack of access to (or desire for) information leads, then, to a more dogmatic dependence on someone else’s truth; a more simplistic, un-nuanced understanding of complexity; and a growing disconnectedness from the humanity of others.


During these last two years, my reflections have led me to ponder issues of community and its relative lack in our nation and world.   More recently, I have begun to view this lack through the lens of five major events (what Naomi Klein would call “shocks”) that have marked the first decade of this century—the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the genocide in Darfur, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the expansion of neoliberalism/globalization—which I believe successfully narrate the collapse of community in our world.


The “shock doctrine”—disaster capitalism

That we ever had community is a matter for considerable debate.  But, as the new millennium gains momentum, a focus on rekindling this concept of community is central to the thesis of social justice.  One need only look at the signposts of our new epoch, ruptures and upheavals that punctuate injustice: the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the genocide in Darfur, the No Child Left Behind Act, and corporate globalization.  While these events find their roots in years that precede the 21st century, I want to position them as pivotal points that dot the landscape of this first decade and possibly foretell the trajectory of this yet young era.  I also mean to suggest that their occurrences/unfolding/aftermath are linked to an overall breakdown of community—that, counter-intuitively, as we have developed the technologies to reach out to nearly anyone in the world at any time and have access to more information than at any moment in history, we find ourselves (at least in West/Global North) more disconnected from others and with less understanding of what is happening to our brothers and sisters down the street, in our nation, and in our world.


In an earlier column (the revolution) I etched out initial thoughts related to these ruptures.  Unfortunately, their impacts continue to be felt and, in most cases, worsen. 


Coupled with this concept of community (or lack there of), I have most recently been influenced by Naomi Klein’s latest book: The Shock Doctrine.  In it she develops the concept of “disaster capitalism,” which Klein claims forecasts and promotes the further breakdown of community and general destructiveness given that the economic structure helps create the disasters from which it can profit.  In the October, 2007 Harpers Magazine, Klein argues, “After each new disaster [tsunami’s, hurricanes, war, etc.], it’s tempting to imagine that the loss of life and productivity will finally serve as a wake-up call, provoking the political class to launch some kind of ‘new New Deal.’  In fact, the opposite is taking place: disasters have become the preferred moments for advancing a vision of a ruthlessly divided world, one in which the very idea of the public sphere has no place at all. . . .Every time a new crisis hits—even when the crisis itself is the direct by-product of free market ideology—the fear and disorientation that follow are harnessed for radical social and economic reengineering.  Each new shock is midwife to a new course of economic shock therapy. The end result is the same kind of unapologetic partition between the included and the excluded, the protected and the damned.”


Let’s consider the shocks that have befallen the first decade of this century:


The Iraq War

As the war gets ready to enter a 5th year of its devastation for Iraq, the greater Middle East, and the world, there are few signs of its let up.  As President Bush continues to ask for more money (and the Congress rolls over and gives it to him); as the democratic presidential hopefuls trip over each other with minimally different strategies for our exit; as liberal journals like Mother Jones cynically ask “out of Iraq, how?”; as we continue to support dictator Musharaff in Pakistan (declaring martial law then reconstituting his Supreme Court to make sure he can stay in power, indefinitely); as we give Turkey unfettered access to the PKK rebels in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq; as military demographics continue to indicate that our armed forces are disproportionately made up of troops of color; and as the US decided to appoint and approve a new Attorney General who isn’t sure whether water-boarding is torture, but that expanded executive powers which stand outside the Constitution might be okay, we begin to understand the concept of a “ruthlessly divided world” and the “partition of the included and excluded” as global red and green zones get constructed in which some will be protected and most will not.


Genocide in Darfur

As the echoes of “never again” become fainter and fainter; as more and more Darfurians are displaced; as more and more Darfurians are murdered by state sanction; and as the world community drags its feet (and considers who might get Sudan’s oil), one already imagines the horrific narratives that will be written about this era—wondering how it could have happened, why no one stopped it, and what we will do to make sure this time it never happens again. The (ultimate) breakdown and disconnect of community, indeed—a world in which the relative wealthy receive the technical bread and circus of reality TV and the latest electronic gadgets while thousands of our brothers and sisters are murdered by relatively simple and unsophisticated implements: knives, machetes, and rifles.


Hurricane Katrina—an aftermath that refuses to recede

As the poorer sections of New Orleans continue to lie in ruins; as HUD prepares to destroy more public housing; as insurance companies figure out ways to deny losses resulting from the rain and/or the flood; as the public education system is dismantled in favor of charter schools (with less public oversight and more selective criteria); as the Saints demonstrate the revitalization of (or is it the evisceration of?) the New Orleans spirit in the house (the Superdome) that served as tenement/morgue/refuge for the disenfranchised, symbolizing simultaneously the resiliency of human beings and the disregard for human life; as the public is quickly and quietly usurped by the private, creating residential red and green zones; and as the federal, state, and local governments (perhaps purposefully) perform grotesque political theater in which our faith in the public withers, we batten down the hatches, hoping our communities are not visited by such ‘natural’ disaster. And, with the subsequent incompetent response, we watch as the metaphorical midwife of corporate interests write their new prescription for “economic shock therapy.”  Klein, in fact, speaks even more directly to this: “Not so long ago, disasters were periods of social leveling, rare moments when atomized communities put divisions aside and pulled together.  Today, they are moments when we are hurled further apart, when we lurch into a radically segregated future where some of us will fall off the map and others ascend to a parallel privatized state, one equipped with well-paved highways and skyways, safe bridges, boutique charter schools, fast lane airport terminals, and deluxe subways.”


The No Child Left Behind Act—the decline of democracy

As No Child Left Behind continues to reveal its significant imperfections and its implausibility as educational policy (removing money from the kids who need it most); as critical thinking is routinely sacrificed at the alter of rote memorization and regurgitation of factoids; as the military gains unfettered access to the kids designed to fall through the cracks; as we avail ourselves to more and more police state like operations and tactics, characterized by cameras, rights reductions, prison-like discipline policies, and accrediting bodies who limit the potential of teaching and learning through heavy-handed, goose-step standards; and as we watch idly as the Supreme Court returns us to a state of educational Apartheid, we witness the spiritual demolition of perhaps the last place that might bring/assure us a viable democracy: public schools.


Corporate Globalization

Finally, as corporate globalization, aka “neoliberalism,” seeps its way into poorer and poorer countries; as the promises of revitalized economies in the Global South ring empty under the weight of structural adjustment policies which take from the poor and give to the rich; as the environment is raped of its resources and clean air is replaced with pollution the Global North would rather not have in its back yard; as we know the ‘people’ are continually duped by the global powers to jump on the corporate globalization bandwagon against their better interest (see Costa Rica); and as our attention is diverted from recognizing the link between producer (child in maquiladora making $0.50/day) and consumer (professional family living in 108 year old shotgun making $100000/year combined), we witness an evolving and cataclysmic economic crisis of free market ideology in which we/I have failed in our/my “collective responsibility.”


Shouldn’t we/I, as the relative privileged, shoulder more of the responsibility for this injustice than the relative oppressed? Should we blame the victims of systems constructed to create victims for their own oppression?  Shouldn’t we expect (and actually hope for) resistance?


Well, where is the hope?

These shocks that jolt our 21st century consciousness could certainly render us hopeless.  Indeed, it leaves me cynical.  Yet, I hold onto some thread of hope—some moment of creation that might yet be born despite the concerted efforts of the shock therapists. In this moment, perhaps we can begin to (re)write some of the narrative—turning it around, flipping it over—recognizing that history is not already determined, that it is constantly being made.


Practically, and more locally, I think about the continuously evolving work of the PrESS Network in which we create a supportive circle of students, teachers, social workers, and community activists, launching professional developments on critical literacy and green education, serving the local community, and promoting a more critical consciousness about the system of injustice that structures schooling in America.


I think about the work my partner and I have developed in the Global South over the last decade, particularly in schools and children’s homes in Montego Bay Jamaica.  Specifically, I reflect on the work of one of our close teacher friends who has just begun full time coursework for her official teaching credentials (and how she balances full-time schooling, full-time teaching, and full-time parenting as the mother of four children).  Our financial assistance pales in comparison to her strength and tenacity to overcome conditions of extreme poverty and deprivation in the world of corporate globalization I described above.  As well, I consider the possibilities of the forthcoming partnership we have forged between the physical therapy school at my university and one of the private (under-funded and under-resourced) children’s homes in Montego Bay, which houses and serves children impacted and disfigured by physical disabilities.


I think about my fall 2007 students and their blossoming potential—(1) graduate students who demonstrated the real possibilities of an educative community: discovering and constructing knowledge together, serving the local community, and committing to the ongoing struggle in their future classroom, and (2) undergraduate students who helped launch the second Beyond the Sound Bites teach-in, who had a voice in the development of their university community and who inspired fellow students to respond so critically (with their own voices at the teach-in and in follow-up reflections/editorials) to the relatively uncritical comments of some of the panelists.


I think about the Rouge Forum and their work to keep alive discussions of the war and to hold unions accountable for the protection and promotion of workers.  This March, students, scholars, teachers, performers, activists, and others who work on the better behalf of their local and global brothers and sisters will descend on Louisville for an international conference which investigates whether (and/or to what extent) education in America can/should be reformed or revolutionized.


Internationally, I think a lot about the examples of solidarity provided by our neighbors in the Global South, particularly the block of nations that Hugo Chavez is coordinating.  I am particularly reminded here of President Correa’s recent comments.  In a November edition of The Nation, Naomi Klein reported: “In less than two years, the lease on the largest and most important US military base in Latin America will run out. The base is in Manta, Ecuador, and Rafael Correa, the country's leftist president, has pronounced that he will renew the lease ‘on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami--an Ecuadorean base. If there is no problem having foreign soldiers on a country's soil, surely they'll let us have an Ecuadorean base in the United States.’” May we all possess such clarity and such courage.


Working for reform or revolution (am I inside or outside?):

Alongside these practical considerations and possibilities (of which I know there are numerous additional examples), I also want to reflect on more theoretical potentialities and frameworks toward which we can articulate our future work and trajectories. This work is not random.  It is coordinated and intentional. To this end, then, I propose three possible concepts/frameworks which might help direct our future intentions: Paul Farmer’s “pragmatic solidarity,” Michael Lebowitz’s “revolution of radical needs,” and Paulo Freire’s “dialogical action.”


Farmer, in Pathologies of Power, develops a mode of living which he terms “pragmatic solidarity”—the desire to make common cause with those in need. In his development he suggests we must connect sentiment with work, that goods and services must accompany our claims of solidarity with the oppressed. Thus, how do we balance a “being with” and a “doing for?” And, how do we ultimately bring ourselves closer—economically and spiritually—in the ways we live and struggle together?  Specifically, then, how can we build more democratic partnerships in our service/volunteer experiences?  How might we choose professions/careers/occupations that serve the better interest of humanity and that draw together our personal and professional lives?  And/Or, how might we craft new lenses that ‘see’ from the ‘oppressed’ perspective such that we might activate a spiritual richness and economic moderation?


Lebowitz, in Build it Now, evolves his thesis of the “revolution of radical needs”—the simultaneous changing of (structural) circumstances and self-change.  He argues, “By simulating the solidarity that comes from an emphasis upon the interests of the community, rather than self-interest, a model based on this radical supply side theory rooted in human development will allow a government to move forward with the support of the community”—that the free development of each equals the free development of all. So, how does/can our work lead to self-change (consciousness, life-style, etc.) and to a change in material conditions (that improves the economic and spiritual lives of all)? In particular, then, how does this revolution work in our families, places of work, and places of worship such that the interests of the individual are noticeably and intentionally bound up in the interests of the whole?  How can we maintain a posture of reflection and becoming in a culture of doing and complacency? And/Or, how can we focus education on a deepening of consciousness rather than a thinning of criticality? 


Finally, Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, talks about the concept of “unity for liberation” as an integral component of dialogical action.  He pleads, “In order for the oppressed to unite, they must first cut the umbilical cord of magic and myth which binds them to the world of oppression; the unity which links them to each other must be of a different nature.  To achieve this indispensable unity the revolutionary process must be, from the beginning, cultural action.” That is, the oppressed must first recognize themselves as subjects in the historical process rather than objects of a history that someone else constructed and has foisted upon them. The relative privileged must come to this same consciousness, as well.  Therefore, how do we shed our socialization to demystify our existence and understand the structure? How do we deconstruct the narrative myths created to distract us and domesticate us into believing our resistance is futile? More practically, then, how do we write such a language of social justice which narrates us more as actors and less as victims?  When/Where/How should we come to understand this language: Schools?  Churches?  Communities?  Somewhere else?  And/Or how can this language of social justice—community—be understood on a local level and lived at a global level? 


Toward a truer collective responsibility

What I want is to reshape our understanding of a “collective responsibility” and bring us to greater clarity on issues relative to community.  What I want is for us to stop blaming the oppressed for their oppression and to begin to find ways to make more meaningful solidaristic connections that might bring about lasting change.  What I want is for us to coordinate our efforts, challenge ourselves away from too-easy-dogma and away from fundamentalism toward criticality, nuance, and an appreciation of complexity.  What I want is to attack injustice at its source—not in the actions of individuals, but in the mechanics of systems that are either (1) designed to render a few fortunate and many disenfranchised, (2) manufactured to justify the imbalance, and/or (3) to keep our attention on some future life rather than on the immediate needs of our brothers and sisters.  What I want is some moment of creation in which we can act as midwife to something more beautiful, more humanizing, more liberating.


As the Christmas tree lights and the beads of rain continue their dance in the window, I remain unsure of my desire for an inside or outside position.  I recognize that most of my work is that of reform and, thus, work that emanates mainly from the inside (in the PrESS Network, in Jamaica, in the Rouge Forum, as a professor, etc.).  This work has meaning, but I wrestle with its effect and (usual non-)immediacy of results.  Then, I consider the work from the outside (where those with whom I desire to be in solidarity almost always perform their work) and wonder what type of revolutionary spirit I might muster given my relatively privileged life.  What will make this solidarity more pragmatic?  How can I at once work inwardly on my own consciousness and outwardly on the dismantling of unjust structures?  How can I spark a truer collective responsibility for which our accountability is more dependent upon our ability to preserve life than to take it, to unlock the human potential of all than to bind it up in fundamentalist narratives that ultimately serve the interests of the elite, and/or to bring about an emergence (or renewal) of community than to assist in further disconnectedness?  Whether we can do it through reform or revolution makes little difference (although I’m getting a better idea which is more promising).  That it must be done is more compelling and is, indeed, our collective responsibility.



To Rouge Forum Website