Monday, January 19, 2015

There Are No Selmas in Cyberspace

Today is Martin Luther King day in the United States, a civic holiday, and the only one dedicated to the memory of a black man.  This would be a good day to go see the film Selma that captures very well the emotions and the historical significance of the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama marches.

Out of the violence and flagrant racism that characterized the response of the white authorities and their supporters against the predominantly black marchers, images that were broadcast to a stunned nation, who ironically tuned in on their black and white televisions, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was born.

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Fifty years later times have changed, but the underlying conditions of the black man in the United States have not.  An all-white Supreme Court struck down the key clauses of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and voter suppression is rampant in the US, both by undue voter identification requirements and the traditional gerrymandering of electoral districts to maximize the representation of the white electorate.

And the violence remains.  Last year, the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer and the death of a black man in New York City, strangled to death by another white police officer who applied a choke hold, brought about protests, but nothing changed.  Nothing equivalent of the Voting Rights Act, not even an indictment of the officers involved.

So, what the fuck happened over the last fifty years to render Americans so uncaring, so compliant, so blasé to the injustice around them.

Some would say, and I think Malcolm Gladwell would agree, is one thing that has contributed to the demise of meaningful activism is the rise of the Internet and, in particular, the rise of social networks.  In today's digitally-linked world social networks have become the opiate of the masses.

In making his comparison between today's and yesteryear's activists, Gladwell uses a sociological analysis to say that the bonds linking the activists during the civil rights movements during the sixties, like those between the Selma to Montgomery marchers, were much stronger.  No shit Sherlock.

In my opinion, over and above the problem of the lower level of engagement that social networks afford is what Alexander Solzhenitsyn bemoaned in his 1978 Harvard address: the demise of courage.

Without a doubt, the Selma marchers and the supporters were willing to risk their lives, and, in fact, some of them were killed.  Their cause was just and they would not be denied.  The best that we can do in North America is the Occupy Wall Street movement that quickly petered out.  All that is left are photos uploaded to people's walls on Facebook.

Although meaningful protests that bring about tangible results have become all too rare, ocassionally we witness the courageous will to confront the abuse of power as was the case in the Ukraine during the Maidan Square uprising.  Ordinary citizens massed and toppled a corrupt regime.  Their story is far from over, but at least they demonstrated to the rest of us not to give way to comfort and indifference.

So, today, while our thoughts are with Martin Luther King, I would like to wish those courageous citizens in Kiev and in the rest of the Ukraine all the best in their attempt to find their way to peace and prosperity.

Hopefully, some day we will look back at your struggles and recognize their historical importance.

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