Monday, November 22, 2010

heroes and/or fools?

"The person who takes one step ahead of others is a leader.
The person who takes three steps ahead of others is a martyr." anonymous quote.

A few days ago the pro-democracy political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from a Myanmar jail. Coincidentally, on Friday I was reading an old New Yorker article about the recently released political prisoner Zha Jianguo in China, who was jailed nine years ago for "incitement to subvert state power." Written by his brother, Jianguo is described as a Don Quixote figure...that what he does "politically is absurd, but his idealism and his courage in their purity are beautiful." And then, of course, there is the dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is jailed in China as a political prisoner despite being awarded the Nobel laureate for his criticisms of Communism.

Ai Weiwei with his work. Photograph: Lennart Preiss
Of course it is not just political activists, but artists as well, that walk this line....most recently (last week) the artist Ai Weiwei was subjected to house arrest in his home in Beijing; and in 2008 he was beaten up by police for testifying at the trial of an activist.

What does it means to have political conviction? To be committed to ideals and to society? It makes me think about sacrifice. So few people are capable of putting their lives on the line for society, for a present or future they will not be a part of. What power does such sacrifice wield in the minds and hearts of those of us who can't or don't. What clarity of purpose for those whose inner compass guides them without doubt or remorse.

Another person who comes to mind is Bobby Sands, the IRA member who starved himself to death for what he believed in. The movie Hunger, about Sands' life and hunger strike, was one of the most powerful films I've ever seen. Directed by artist Steve McQueen, the film is crafted without dialogue, except that the first half and second halves are divided by a mid-section of dialogue between Bobby Sands and a priest, who is questioning him about his decision to go on another hunger strike. Of course it will be this hunger strike that kills him.
Priest: You're in no shape to make this call.

Bobby: It's done. It won't be stopped.

Priest: Then fuck it. Life must mean nothing to you.

Bobby: God's gonna punish me?

Priest: Well if not just for the suicide, then he'd have to punish you for stupidity.

Bobby: Aye, and you for your arrogance. 'Cause my life is a real life, not some theological exercise, some religious trick that's got fuck-all to do with living. Jesus Christ had a backbone. But, see, them disciples? Every disciple since--you're just jumping in and out of the rhetoric and dead-end semantics. You need the revolutionary, you need the cultural-political soldier to give life a pulse, to give life a direction.

Priest: That's stupid talk. You're deluded.

Bobby: My life means everything to me. Freedom means everything. I know you don't mean to mock me, Dom, so I'll just let all that pass. This is one of those times when we've come to a pause. It's time to keep your beliefs pure. I believe that a united Ireland is right and just. Maybe it's impossible for a man like you to understand, but having a respect for my life, a desire for freedom, an unyielding love for that belief means I can see past any doubts I may have. Putting my life on the line is not just the only thing i can do, Dom. It's the right thing.
Are these people heroes, fools, both? The Hunger dialogue asks precisely that question. Regardless, as Jianguo has said, "Character is fate." Such actions are less chosen than compelled, from the depths of a person's character. The call to act out one's vision of a righteous life is one that these men and women have answered. "To achieve democracy in a country, some people must offer their blood and lives in the struggle."  And yet, none of these people can achieve political capital unless they have supporters. And so Aung San Suu Kyi said upon her release, “I’m not going to be able to do it alone. One person alone can’t do anything as important as bringing genuine democracy to a country.”

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