By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
Democracies survive and thrive on numbers. Following George Floyd’s savage death under the crushing knee of an abusive cop, as protesters grew in numbers and took over America’s streets, political pundits showed renewed interest in crowds and the sheer raw power of numbers, even recalling DeLillo’s reference in his 1991 book that ‘the future belongs to crowds’.
To anyone hailing from India, where crowds dominate space and are the easiest to muster, crowds seem normal and evoke less reverence. The poignancy of structured rule-abiding societies with low demographic density is their inability to deal with numbers. Until the floodgates are thrown open with the force of rage caused by an unprecedented human failing, as happened following Floyd’s massacre, crowds in the American setting presented mainly as congregations around positive happenings. Granting a few racial disturbances and rioting, recent years remained largely benign. One visualized or encountered crowds as people jammed together in a football or baseball stadium or frolicking on beaches during spring break or swinging away at an outdoor concert.
That crowds materialize and assemble is not a surprise or an inspiration in itself. What is inspiring but also devastating is when the crowd unites around a single message, and on the downside, when it becomes activist and illegally appropriates to itself the power that lies in the elected representatives and in duly appointed bureaucracies. Crowds are upsetting when they claim our nation’s turf in its entirety for themselves and worse, wink over violent means to slash, burn and destroy all who come in their way, including the dead men from our past. Thus, bringing down commemorative statues and memorials becomes fair game with no distinction made between a slave owner and liberator, or between Mahatma Gandhi and Hitler.
To demonize George Washington, father of our adopted nation, is no less painful and bizarre as to denigrate Gandhi, the father of our natal nation. Both were offered paramount power on a platter, for life if they so wished. Yet both preferred to honor their conscience and put the nation above their lust for power. Washington may well be the first leader ever to decline a crown or even a longer tenure as president. Gandhi likewise declined to go anywhere within the seat of power, instead choosing to remain in the shadows. Their wives and children did not succeed them in dynastic fashion very different from the present day Gandhis (no kith of the Mahatma), Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons, Obamas, Bidens and Trumps of today do or are likely to do.
The post Floyd crowding was rooted in righteousness and in universally shared pain of racism, but once it claimed to unilaterally speak for all, and to assert unrestrained power, it lost its compassion, meaning and legitimacy. Today we can honestly say we are all black but the richly empowering and unifying import of that slogan, and its compelling hold on our individual and collective consciences, is already enfeebled. In asking that Black Lives Matter and only Black lives do, we are forced to artificially become one.
No human being likes to live under the constant threat of being called out, shamed or ostracized as is now being advocated. In Seattle, for instance, racial sensitization training apparently is mandating whites to apologize for their whiteness and to denounce and forsake its privileging. This is violence of another kind, but equally brutal and inhuman, even amounting to reverse racism.
Whether perpetrated individually or by a crowd, violence poses an existential challenge to any group or nation. BLM and other groups who advocate violence claim it is genetic in that America was born out of violence. But in suggesting the Boston Tea Party and similar terrorist acts led the nation to freedom, they make a false assumption. What led us was the vision and commitment of the founding generation to imagine a country and a system where the people chose to be governed not by a divinely anointed king but by a constitution and a bill of rights devised and adopted by humans. In the interest of a workable social contract, they were willing to surrender their individuality and become a nationality. True, slaves, Native Americans, women, convicts, un-propertied, genders operating outside of the binary, and many unstated others were left out of their stake in equity and continue to feel excluded. But even when the promised rights for all are not yet a reality for all, to hold those truths that all are created equal and inherit their rights from God as lies is to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
Imagining a world without oppression is a healthy goal and humanity’s long cherished ideal, but one can hardly arrive at it by denying all that this nation has stood for and done. America, like any imperial power in history, has shattered other nations and their lives, but it has also fought for them and shown them a path to liberty, lawful society and democratic polity. Societies leave and inherit a mixed legacy and we can reform them intelligently or lethally, democratically or dictatorially. To ask us to totally uproot ourselves, and like what BLM appears to be doing, pretend they alone have the key to solving racism and oppression, is to start the cycle of oppression all over again.
Being black does not free you or me of the curse of oppressing others or the venality and headiness of unrestrained power that manifests in highhanded conduct. You no more can claim to own the vastness that is America than you can your neighbor’s house or spouse. A political vacuum could well be filled by dictating mobs and their authoritarian leaders who could last a few days, months or even years, but systems that are open to dialogue and sustained by constructive action and consensus offer better guarantee of longevity.
Ms. Sohoni is a freelance writer and published author and can be contacted at [email protected].
The views expressed in Op Eds are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times.