Monday, June 10, 2013
If There Is Hope, It Lies In The Proles
This is the transcript of a speech I gave at Independence Mall on 6.9.2013
I want to start out and acknowledge how much of a privilege it is to stand before you today. I was born into a world where the way I look gives me certain privileges; those privileges extend from being able to know that I am always at the top of socio-political chain. For centuries men who looked like me have built an empire for the benefit of the rich on the back of the working, poor, and people of color. The simple fact that I am able to stand before you today is a privilege denied to many for fear of reprisal from the police state. I, like many of you, did not ask for this privilege but either God or fate decided that I should wear this skin, but we must bear that responsibility, for better or for worse. With great power comes great responsibility and that responsibility is what has brought us all here today.
George Orwell is his monumental work 1984 burned forever into our minds the fear that truth could be so distorted such that we would accept lies as the truth and the truth as lies: War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. At first glance these ideas seem paradoxical. Such ideas can redact mistakes, change the meaning of words, and even rewrite history. In the story Big Brother, the personified state, had cameras on every street corner, microphones in every room, and eyes on everything written. As a result, the people lived in fear of being found out to be what is called a thought criminal. A thought criminal was someone who disagreed with the state. Even the mere utterance of dissent was punishable by death. Big Brother’s omnipresence was his omnipotence.
While Big Brother’s presence in the cities was absolute there was a contingent of resistance. They were called the Proles. Students of history will note that this is shorthand for Marx and Engels’ proletariat, the working class. They were described as such as well. While the elite of Big Brother’s machine dined upon the finest food and drank the finest wine, these resistors lived in abject poverty, so marginalized by the machine that they were driven from the public square to exist in pockets of poverty away from the “safety and security” of Big Brother’s bosom. Out of sight out of mind, they say. When the Proles got out of hand they even could expect to be bombed in their sleep. Sound familiar?
1984 is an extreme example of a dystopian future. When I read this book in College I thought to myself, naively in hindsight, that things could never get that bad. Never could a state have total access to my emails, my phone calls, and my thoughts. Never could the US government, a supposed beacon of liberty and democracy for the world, imprison and torture one of its own for telling the truth. Never could a democratic government even attempt to justify raining death down from the sky on its own people. I was wrong.
I think we all knew that the state was spying on us, but the recent revelations of the scope and audacity of the government’s spy program is infuriating. In the world of 1984, the people were painfully aware of Big Brother’s presence. “Big Brother is Watching You”, the posters said on every corner surrounding the face of their crypto-fascist benevolent leader. In the world of 2013, at least up until very recently, our crypto-fascist benevolent leaders are much more subtle. They are not so audacious as to reveal their motives. They operate in secret, in the dark, where their lies will not be exposed. Thankfully, we have heroes committed to telling the truth.
In Orwell’s classic we were thankfully provided with a hero. Winston Smith was just another cog in the machine. He was responsible for protecting state secrets. He was one of the worker bees who was responsible for rewriting history to fit Big Brother’s narrative till one day he decided he had had enough. He went home and wrote in his journal “Down with Big Brother/ Down with Big Brother/ Down with Big Brother/ Down with Big Brother” over and over again. His rage became all consuming. He started traveling to the areas where the Proles lived, sought out comrades, and started to live an alternative life until the chance came to join the resistance. (A theme running throughout the book is an underground resistance that operates in secret). For Winston the chance never came. He was arrested, tortured, kept in solitary confinement, and brainwashed into believing that Big Brother was reprimanding him for his own good.
We have our own Winston Smith, but our Winston has not caved under the pressure of his torturers or his solitary confinement. His name is Bradley Manning. Bradley Manning, like the hero of our story, was charged by his superiors with hiding the truth and rewriting history. However, instead of hiding information away like Winston, Bradley did what any person of good conscious would do- he exposed the truth. What was Big Brother’s response? In both cases our heroes were taken and locked away. Like Winston, Bradley was arrested, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for refusing to hide the truth. He has been beaten, humiliated, and dehumanized for refusing to rewrite history.
One of the last lines of 1984 is a picture of Winston sitting in a diner watching Big Brother on TV. “He smiled and looked up. He loved Big Brother.” Our story, however, will not end this way. Our hero will not cave. He has endured and continues to endure years of inhumane treatment at the hands of Big Brother, yet still he remains strong. Just last weekend hundreds of us gathered in support of Bradley in Fort Meade, MD where his court martial is taking place. People came from the horizons and margins of the northeast to show their support and solidarity for our Winston. Because our Winston does not love Big Brother. He loves the people of the world living under the boot heel of imperial oppression and is currently suffering for it. Bradley’s livelihood is on the line right now. Why? Because Big Brother wants to keep his secrets and steal yours and mine.
Thankfully, the story does not end here. There is another line in 1984 that bears worth mentioning: “If there is hope, it lies in the Proles.” If you’ll recall the Proles were the everyday people who refused to live under the eye and out of the poisoned breadbasket of Big Brother. As a result, they suffered. They went hungry. Their homes, businesses, blocks, and neighborhoods were derelict at best and firebombed at worst. But behind the cold dead eyes of oppression an idea remained, and ideas are bullet proof. The idea was resistance. It was almost impossible to find the resistance in 1984 because they had to stay so well hidden to stay out of Big Brother’s sight, but I would bet you that behind every eye is Proleville you would find a hope. A hope that resistance was real and that they were not alone.
We gather in public today to express that very idea, resistance, and to affirm to all who would gather with us: you are not alone. Revolution will not come today. It probably won’t come tomorrow or the week after that, but as long as Big Brother spies on us, censors us, and continues to chip away our human rights, our discontent will continue to be kindled and fanned until it erupts into the fires of rebellion.
We are the discontent. We are the truth tellers. For if it is not us, then who? If not now, then when? How many rights must we be stripped of before we stand our ground, even in the face of beatings, prison, torture, and loss? Must we stand naked before the tribunal of our conscious in a world that we let manifest before we wake up to the dangers of a surveillance state? I pray that day never comes.
My favorite theologian Bishop N.T. Wright, speaking of the work of Jesus, said of him that he did not fight the battle with the enemies sword for that would have been to lose the war in principle. Likewise, we must remain vigilant, and if our democratic rights are not affirmed and upheld, then we bear the responsibility to resist. Emails will be taken; Phone calls will be recorded; People will be taken; And some of us will bear the blunt force of the state, as so many of us have before. But we must, like Bradley, endure their schemes, persevere through their suppression, and resist their order.
We are gathered here to protest the surveillance state. We already live in a surveillance state. Some of our brothers and sisters are living in a brave new world, content to be lied to and pacified by corporate media and celebrity culture, but you and I are Proles, living under the constant gaze of Big Brother’s PRISM colored eyes. But if there is hope, it lies in the Proles and as long as resistance lies in our hearts and we cultivate community, we can and must overcome.
George Orwell once said, “In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” We, with the shared heart of Bradley Manning and all the victims of senseless violence committed in the name of the Empire, are here to tell the truth which means that we are here to commit revolutionary acts. This is a scary thing. Not everyone has the capacity or privilege to stand at the enemies’ gate and speak truth to power, but those of us who do have the capacity have the responsibility to remain steadfast. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We do not have the lobby, the money, or the power, but if there is hope it lies in Proles. We are all Winston Smith. We are all Bradley Manning. And we have gathered here today because we all feel morally compelled to resist. First they will ignore us. Then they will laugh at us. Then we’ll fight back. But then… we’ll win.
Down with the surveillance state and free Bradley Manning!