A culture of resistance can be built, and it can also be methodically dismantled, and sabotaged.
Recent weeks have provided a lot of illustrations, around the world, of effective, massive-scale, sustained organizing in many cases, and in other cases, a few small protests that then sputter out, evolving into very small, isolated actions carried out by the dedicated few who just feel they must bear witness to the carnage in some symbolic way, at least.
Personally, I relate to and appreciate almost all the actions I hear about, including armed resistance to a genocidal occupation, including taking over the streets of London or any number of other cities around the world with hundreds of thousands of protesters, including actions to disrupt the flow of arms, or dropping a banner at a local highway overpass or in a local shopping mall to remind people there is a genocide underway that their government is supporting to one degree or another.
My personal affection for almost all forms of resistance aside, however, for so much of the rest of humanity, what kinds of efforts are going into building what kind of movement really matters. While there's never any guarantee that even the most inclusive, exciting, and well-organized social movement will change history -- given the other forces involved with shaping history, such as the billionaires, their propaganda machines and their imperial armies -- those social movements that have changed history have shared characteristics, around the world, that are vitally important to understand.
According to my reading of the history of social movements -- a reading amplified dramatically by my own direct experiences with social movements in many different countries over the course of my lifetime -- there are fairly clear patterns in terms of what kinds of efforts and tactics tend towards building, and success, and which ones tend towards ineffectiveness, and failure.
Successful movements, or at least movements that successfully alter the parameters of policies and change the nature of the discussion around them, are movements that have managed, despite all the opposition, to win a whole lot of hearts and minds over to the cause. And the movements that do this are not only big, well-organized and well-resourced, but they are fundamentally inclusive, forward-looking, and deeply engaged in the project of fostering a culture of resistance in so many ways.
Among the more profoundly unsuccessful social movements have been ones based on appealing to the public largely around notions of guilt, atonement, moral outrage, and other negative emotions that focus on the failure of the mainstream culture of a society to understand or respond to a terrible situation. Such as a genocidal war being waged in their name, for example -- which happens regularly in the course of US and European history and beyond, and is not new, as impossibly horrendous as it is.
While criticizing the failures of a society, blaming and shaming the mainstream of a society for its many failures as a culture to rise to the occasion of genocide or whatever other occasion it's failing to rise to, may on some level make a lot of sense, as a tactic it tends to be counter-productive, and in fact basically the opposite of the kind of orientation and organizing efforts that do build movements.
People who have read much of what I've written will be aware that this is a theme I've explored frequently and at length. What inspired thoughts on the subject in this current historical moment was a conversation I had last night with a Palestinian friend who was lamenting various aspects of the tactic of protesting Christmas in solidarity with Gaza.
While Saed and I both shared the sentiment that celebrating the holidays while other people who might like to do that are busy having their homes destroyed by bombs is in very bad taste, we agreed that what's desperately needed is the building of a culture of resistance that is standing for something beautiful and positive -- such as peace and coexistence, such as a people, a culture, a community, with history, and with brilliant poetry and musical traditions, that can all be viscerally and deeply appreciated through the effective dissemination of a narrative and a culture.
Movements that grow are ones that form exciting, inclusive communities that you not only want to be working with with because it's the right thing to do, but you want to be part of because the movement is also the most vibrant center of not only resistance, but culture as well. This is where the intellectuals, musicians, artists, playwrights, visionaries, and those who love the preciousness of life the most are spending their time. These are the people you want to be around anyway, and where you'll find them is at the heart of this movement. Those are the movements I've seen that grow, and are capable of sustaining themselves in the long term, when they get like that.
A prime example of such a movement now and historically has been the movement for a free Palestine, particularly within historic Palestine as well as in the Palestinian diaspora throughout the Arab world and beyond. As vital as any other form of resistance to subjugation and occupation for Palestinians historically has been keeping alive Palestinian culture and identity. As important for the Israeli occupiers as any other method of disenfranchising and oppressing Palestinians has been the efforts to erase Palestinian culture from the face of the Earth, in so many different ways, including by assassinating Palestinian writers, artists, and journalists on a regular basis in covert operations in many different countries. When they don't face the consequence of death, they face Israeli efforts to censor their work on every possible level, often involving the overt cooperation of the western media and tech platforms.
Despite so many efforts at suppressing the voices of Palestinians and their supporters in so much of the world, with the rise of the internet and news and information platforms like Al-Mayadeen TV, and platforms like Al-Jazeera broadcasting in English as well as Arabic, a lot more people in the world have had easier access to a different narrative than the Israeli one promoted by most western media and leaders. This has obviously been very distressing to Israeli and US leaders, as evidenced by the many intentional killings of journalists and missile strikes carried out by both the US and Israeli forces against known locations where Al-Jazeera was operating or where Al-Jazeera journalists or family members lived, most recently a few weeks ago -- or in the case of Al-Mayadeen reporters, a few days ago.
What these platforms have done with their ability to put forward a narrative that gets to be heard by billions of people around the world has involved regularly featuring voices that are rarely heard in the mainstream western media -- including of course lots of Palestinian and other Arab writers, commentators, reporters, and artists, but many from the western countries who aren't used to appearing on such massive platforms in their home countries, like, for example, me.
Or the great London-based hiphop artist, Lowkey. Supporters of Israel in the UK are constantly trying to get his gigs canceled and get him kicked off of various platforms for his popularity and eloquence in speaking out against Israeli atrocities, in support of the Palestinian people. His voice is rarely heard on mainstream media in the west, but if people in London want to hear their favorite hiphop performer, they can most easily catch him for free, performing at one of the recent marches there, or being interviewed on Al-Jazeera about it.
Al-Mayadeen has interviewed me on a number of occasions, most recently last Saturday, and their interest each time, sensibly enough, is the same. Each time involves me having written recent songs about recent events in Palestine, and their interest is in discussing the role of music and culture in standing up against Israeli hegemony and countering Israeli lies. Each time, I talk about the importance of framing reality in ways that might be accessible and even familiar to people in different settings, using universally accessible themes, and speaking in the language of your listeners, literally and more broadly. If they didn't agree with me on these points, they wouldn't have an English-language version of their website, but of course they do. And they wouldn't keep having me back on their evening news programs, but they do.
If you examine other struggles between occupying armies and subjugated peoples, where those subjugated people have managed to maintain an ongoing, militant opposition to the status quo of occupation, such as in that place they call Northern Ireland, it's the same. Keeping the culture alive within that culture of resistance has always been seen as crucial -- just as banning and otherwise destroying all expressions of this culture was such a high priority for the British Empire for so many centuries.
For exactly the same sorts of reasons, in most of the US for much of the history of this slavery-based empire, drumming among the enslaved was illegal. This is why clapping instead became a popular alternative in the Black church, centuries ago.
In terms of somewhat more recent US social movement history, the impact of the culture of resistance that became established in large parts of society in the course of the 1960's and 70's would be hard to overstate. In so many ways, we have spent the rest of history since then "overcoming" the impact of those times. One form this has taken has been decades of dismissing and deriding the utopian ridiculousness of those who became known to the mainstream media as "the hippies," with their obsession with what the media dubbed "sex, drugs, and rock and roll."
On one level, it's an easy movement to dismiss. To the extent that the genocidal American war in southeast Asia went on throughout the existence of the antiwar movements in the US and other countries, killing millions of civilians in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the opposition movements clearly did not succeed in stopping this terrible, terrible series of wars.
On the other hand, the movement was so successful -- along with the Vietnamese resistance itself -- in deflating the martial spirit within the ranks of the conscripted American soldiers that the "Vietnam Syndrome" that resulted from this whole historical episode kept the US from sending significant numbers of troops to invade any other countries for more than two decades after that war ended. Which is a long time, by US imperial standards.
The loss of interest in fighting patriotic wars of aggression that swept the ranks of the warriors and so much of society more broadly was accomplished not only by the horrors of the war itself, but in no small part by the movement which was agitating with coffeehouses at every military base in the country and in many other countries, with popular "underground" newspapers that were widely circulated, with huge, free festivals featuring the groundbreaking musical and theatrical culture that this movement so actively produced -- forms of music that would soon become globally popular.
Mainstream media depictions of this movement focus on isolated incidents of an American soldier returning from Vietnam and being called a baby-killer. As with Israel's current genocidal war on the Palestinian people, massacring whole villages, including children and babies, was a regular practice. However, what characterized the antiwar movement, rather than the occasional such outburst at a returning veteran, was the inclusive nature of the movement, specifically towards returning veterans, and anyone else who wanted to join. Quite literally, making love -- and playing music, and smoking weed, and a whole lot of other common practices within the movement -- were overall far more attractive an option than going to the jungle and killing people. It was not a choice between being in the US and getting yelled at, or going to Vietnam and dropping napalm on villages. The domestic options were far more exciting than just getting yelled at -- and what in fact transpired instead is veterans of the American War in Vietnam were so welcomed into the ranks of the antiwar movement that they became its backbone.
If we take a look at some of the basic precepts involved with successful cultures of resistance, let's also consider how those trying to prevent the development of such a movement might respond to each of these things.
Inclusivity might be the most fundamental of all precepts. You'll often hear people communicating the message in so many ways that the movement for the liberation of the people of Palestine is not just a Muslim movement, even if the majority of the Palestinian population is of Muslim background. You'll hear the same message hammered home throughout the centuries in the struggle against the British occupation of Ireland -- this is not just a Catholic movement, it is bigger than that, it is a movement for national sovereignty, where your participation is desired whether you're Catholic or not, just as non-Muslim involvement in the struggle for Palestine has always been actively welcomed.
So of course the divide-and-rule messaging of the propagandists opposed to Palestinian liberation has been to talk about how this is all about Muslims vs. Jews. With the propagandists against Irish nationalism, they tell us this is all tribal warfare between Catholics and Protestants. By the same token, in the context of the US antiwar movements that have taken place since the 1960's, the pundits and politicians push the line that the movement is against our own soldiers -- as if we were the ones sending them off to kill and die.
When it comes to solidarity movements in the west specifically with Palestine, we are treated to the notion that because of the sensitivity of the issue, only Jews can more or less safely condemn a genocide being carried out by Jews. If other people were to do so, they could be labeled antisemitic. This is another way to turn it into a Muslims vs. Jews dichotomy, that everyone else should best avoid, at a time when what is obviously desperately needed is for everyone of all nations and all backgrounds to join the struggle to stop this genocide.
The centrality of the notion of celebrating life in the face of death, singing and dancing in spite of or in defiance of the efforts of those who would silence your voice and your culture, can't be overstated, in all sustained social movements and popular struggles. You see this spirit everywhere there are social movements with the kind of lasting power of the Palestinians, the Irish, and so many others. Children learn to speak the languages, play the music, learn the dances, and not just pass this cultural knowledge down through the generations, but celebrate its continued relevance and cross-pollination with the rest of the world's forms of expression.
The historic efforts to ban the Irish language and Israel's bombing the schools of Gaza are policies cut of the same cloth. Genocide through the destruction of cultural identity, along with other means.
Considering the potency of language, culture, and real education, those hoping to prevent solidarity movements from taking hold in other countries might focus on presenting lines of reasoning that discourage musical performance or other artistic displays, perhaps calling such things frivolous or disrespectful or even culturally appropriative in one way or another. Maintaining a stranglehold on the media and on social media in order to keep such forms of culture marginalized as novel or pigeonholed as "political" forms of art is another way to prevent such potent tools from having too much influence.
The power of culture as a major means for helping to gather community, maintain morale, and build a movement can't be overemphasized, so many examples make clear. We would do well to be very skeptical of anyone who doesn't think this is true. Because there is no time for sabotage, only for building.