By Stan Persky | August 6, 2001

One day in the 1980s, when apartheid still existed in South Africa, I saw scenes of rioting in the sprawling black African township of Soweto on the evening television news. The visuals featured menacing armoured vehicles that were more tank than truck, rumbling through the racially segregated encampment of more than a million people, spewing tear gas and bullets.

The next day, I was visiting my friend Tom Sandborn and said, as we sat at a picnic table in his sunny Vancouver backyard, "Tom, we’ve got to do something."

This was one of those rare occasions when the famous political question, "What is to be done?", had an obvious answer. The black leadership in South Africa had called for international sanctions against the country’s apartheid government, sanctions that ought to take the form, they advised, of a boycott of products imported from South Africa. The call for sanctions received the support of the United Nations and the boycott was being haphazardly enforced by various countries around the world.

One of the few exceptions to the boycott was occurring where Tom and I lived, in British Columbia, on the west coast of faraway Canada. Practically every other province in Canada had implemented a boycott against South African liquor products, but not the conservative provincial government of British Columbia. Even as people in Soweto were being shot before our televisual eyes, the beefy minister for liquor sales in British Columbia was justifying the continuing sale of South African liquor products on the grounds of the sanctity of consumer rights in a free market. Consumers, he argued, have the right to individually choose whether or not to support the apartheid government of South Africa by buying or not buying its products.

Tom didn’t bat an eye. He didn’t engage me in theoretical arguments about the efficacy of the sanctions strategy or about the inconvenience of engaging in acts of civil disobedience, topics that were the subject of extended hand-wringing in newspaper columns and among political activists. Instead, we went straight to his basement and began rehearsals. Our first task was to learn how to smash a bottle without cutting our hands. There’s nothing worse than political klutzes who can’t get the champagne bottle to smash against the about-to-be-launched ship or who end up a bloody mess themselves. Since this was to be a symbolic act for the eyes of television cameras, and since television cameras are easily distracted, we wanted to be sure that its eye stayed focused on the bottle rather than any fumbling slapstick of ours. Soon, armed with ordinary gardening gloves and a small hammer, we had progressed to the ranks of journeymen bottle-smashers.

A couple of days later, accompanied by a gaggle of TV cameras and print reporters whom Tom had alerted, the two of us appeared on the premises of the B.C. government liquor store at the corner of 18th and Main in Vancouver. Among Tom’s many virtues are his organizational thoroughness and tidiness. He had already cased the store, and we were able to go directly to the South African wines section. Furthermore, Tom had phoned the union, informing them of our intentions, and asking them to tell the workers in the store so that they wouldn’t be overly-alarmed by our criminal act. Finally, Tom had brought along plastic bags, so that the broken glass and spilled wine wouldn’t make a mess for the store’s employees.

We each selected a bottle of South African wine, donned our gardening gloves and wielded our hammer while the cameras duly recorded our minor protest against apartheid and the policies of the government of British Columbia. There was a bit of a hitch with the authorities. While Tom borrowed a mop and bucket to tidy up the floor, I had to remind the store manager that it was his job to call the police. Then we had to stand around for a while until they showed up. When they did, there were a half dozen of them, two constables and four senior members. They took us into the back room of the liquor store for questioning. At the end of the questioning, the constable said, "Okay, we’ll send you a summons in the mail if we decide to charge you." Tom and I looked at each other. As everybody knows, the last shot in a televised story of this sort is of the police car pulling away from the curb with the miscreants in tow.

I said, "Constable, I have to inform you that if you don’t apprehend us, it’s our intention to return to the store and do further damage." The officer said, "I’ll have to consult with my superiors." The police huddled. Perhaps they imagined that once we got done with South African wine, we might move on to vodka from the neighbouring province of Alberta. In due course, if a bit grumpily–I think it was lunch hour for them–Tom and I were packed into the police cruiser, and driven down Main Street to the police lockup at 222 Main. The cameramen had their concluding shot.

I suppose I should include a political philosophy note here about civil disobedience since it’s a topic not well understood by many people, even by some civil disobedients who distract from the focus of their action by whining about whatever small punishment they may receive or protesting that they’re really innocent because of the greater good they’re doing. Environmental activists have been more than occasionally guilty of this kind of misdirected pleading. In protesting against apartheid, or whatever other evil, by breaking the public mischief law, you’re not claiming that the minor law being violated is wrong, unless you’re some kind of anarchist. Instead, you’re saying that evil is wrong, and you’re prepared to accept whatever punishment is necessary in order for you to appeal to the public, a public of which you’re a normally law-abiding member in good standing. It’s theoretically pretty simple. Practically speaking, it’s only complicated in countries like China where civil disobedients are still thrown in jail for ten years.

Since this is a story that has something to do with the media, I’d better say something about its informational/disinformational roles in relation to political acts. While Tom and I were awaiting our trial, one newspaper columnist worked himself up into an incensed state, devoting an entire column to denouncing our "attention-seeking media stunt." This otherwise unremarkable and noxious bit of journalism stays in mind because it’s both typical of the sub-textual silences of much journalism and it raises questions about the ability to engage in political action in nominal democracies where the media and most other forums are dominated by the ideas of ruling-class corporations.

What I mean by "sub-textual silences" is this. First, there’s nothing "natural" about any "news." While there’s a history, and even a professional ethos, of how journalists decide that something is "newsworthy," there’s also a strong sense in which all of the news is a "media stunt," i.e., a decision by journalists to feature some aspect of everyday life that may or may not deserve such attention. Two of the best bad examples of this are: 1) the media’s overemphasis on sporadic violence, giving sensationalised attention to empathy-provoking murders while in fact violent crime is statistically declining, and 2) treating practically all business decisions as implicitly rational and good.

Second, even with respect to the colloquial usage of "media stunt," it’s not clear why our citizenly action was any more of a manipulation of the media than the ceaseless parade of political "photo-ops," indirect corporate advertising and governmental press conferences announcing or defending some policy, such as the liquor minister’s defense of apartheid. That is, the columnist in this case is sub-textually silent about why he’s so irked by us, a silence that makes me suspect that he thinks the media should have the right to determine who is or isn’t a legitimate political actor in the public forum.

Finally, the one other interesting thing about this newspaper column, as we now know from the ideas of deconstructionist reading, centres around the trope of innocence and guilt. The columnist is making the flimsy claim that Tom and I are "seeking attention" for ourselves, rather than seeking to bring attention to the evil of apartheid. The claim is flimsy because we’re not obvious crazies ranting in formulaic jargon, but adults in our forties who speak in sentences. At the same time, while chastising the protesters for illegitimate attention-seeking, the column is silent, either willfully or naively, about the columnist’s own attention-seeking self-portrait as a tough-minded critic willing to blow the whistle on self-indulgent, ineffective political activists. The column implicitly pretends that the columnist isn’t a guy who has to come up with something three times a week if he wants to continue to receive the attention of having his name at the top of the column, not to mention his paycheque. More important, the column is silent about the evil of apartheid, suggesting, again implicitly, that it’s possible for one to be innocent, to not be complicit, whereas the protesters are saying that everyone is implicated, everyone could do what the protesters have done in order to concretely resist that particular evil.

I’ve gone on about this topic at some length because the widely-observed passivity of the citizenry in nominally democratic societies usually goes unexplained by the very institutions that are partially responsible for reinforcing that passivity. How hard it was to imagine distant South Africa, notwithstanding its brutal televised availability, how hard it was to conceive of oneself as having the right, if not the responsibility, to alleviate the suffering of people living far away whom we did not know. I consoled myself that this neurotic column helped, in some small way, to increase public awareness of the fact of apartheid.

While awaiting trial, the political problem of South African wine and spirits in Canada was solved when the federal government announced a national policy of boycotting South African products in compliance with the United Nations’ anti-apartheid program, thus taking the matter out of the hands of the free-market enthusiasts running the government of British Columbia.

The judge I appeared before some weeks later, a charming eccentric named Wally Craig–I later got to know him at the local YMCA health club where I play squash–gave me an absolute discharge in exchange for forbidding me from making a speech in the courtroom. And, as the novelist Kurt Vonnegut says, so it goes.

These days, on television, I observe large groups of youthful demonstrators in the streets of Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa and other places protesting against capitalism. Now, capitalism’s evils are perhaps more complicated than those of apartheid, which has at long last ceased to exist in South Africa. My attention to South Africa is now mostly confined to reading its novelists, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, and Andre Brink. The strangest after-effect of apartheid for me is its amnesiac absence in the present world, especially when I happen to mention South Africa while talking with students in college classes I teach. I’ll casually refer to, say, Nelson Mandela, the former black president of South Africa and, feeling a sudden gap in the psychic space of the classroom, I’ll glance up and recognize from the looks on the students’ faces, that although these nineteen-year-olds were alive when black people were racially denied any political existence whatsoever during the apartheid regime, that for them what I’m talking about is "history" while for me it’s "memory." For me, it’s "real," for them it’s "abstract," and a frisson of fear snakes down my back, as I imagine a dystopia in which almost everything has been forgotten.

But once again, the protesters–maybe even including students in my classes–are pointing out an evil. They’re saying about capitalism that not only are the perpetrators of its evils guilty, but that the rest of us are implicated, too, that there is no way for us to be innocent.

Just the other day, I was reading various newspaper articles in the wake of the protests in Genoa, Italy against the indifference of the rich capitalist countries to the plight of the poor people of the world, articles that turned on the binary notion of innocence and guilt. Rather than focusing on whether this indifference (or worse) was being accurately described by the protesters, the journalists made much of the fact that, among the thousands of demonstrators, there were small groups of mostly anarchist protesters who engaged in "violent" acts, thus allegedly sullying the purity of the resistance to capitalism.

One conservative editorial I read harrumphed, with some self-satisfaction, "The protesters lost much of their innocence in Genoa." I couldn’t figure out what the newspaper’s usage of "innocence" meant. Did it mean that the overwhelming majority of non-violent protesters had innocently imagined that there were no violent protesters in their ranks and were now disabused of their naiveté? Was the suggestion that since there would inevitably be a minority of violent protesters, the predominantly non-violent protest movement was implicitly guilty of violence? Or was this confusing bafflegab about innocence a way of justifying the sub-textual absence of any consideration of the violence done to the poor?

The point of all of this, ultimately, is about the difficulty of imagining the world and doing something about it. I’m not arguing that there’s a requirement to do anything, at least not on each and every occasion, but the question is there. No matter how we do or don’t divide our private lives from our public ones, anyone who has even a minimal conception of shared existence is daily faced with the political question, "What should I do now?"

August 6th, 2001


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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