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Beauty All Around Me – Turtle Nesting By The Riverbank



This Is An Uprising – Declare Victory & Run

(One in a series of posts on Mark & Paul Engler’s 2016 book, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping The Twenty-First Century.)

It’s one thing to organize around symbolic demands and win symbolic victories when there are relatively independent means of communicating with one’s followers and with the public at large. But how do you win symbolic victories under a dictatorship? That was the challenge Otpor faced in Milosevic’s Serbia.

“Otpor came up with a novel approach: campaigners themselves publicly laid out their standards for what would constitute a win, and then they loudly trumpeted it when they met those objectives, using the publicity to generate momentum. For example, activists might announce a goal of launching ten new chapters. Whether it took weeks or months to accomplish this, they could then make a major show of having met their goal once it happened. Or Otpor might announce the objective of holding simultaneous protests in at least a dozen different cities on a national day of action. Because they set this target themselves, they could be confident that it was attainable. And once it was attained, they made certain that everybody knew about it. With each completed goal reported in the alternative media or in the movement’s own communications, the fear barrier became that much weaker.” (p. 135)

If that approach seems too glib or facile, consider the alternative:

“If Otpor members had structured their public relations around making a demand of the regime and allowing the media to judge their success or failure based on the government’s response, they would have put themselves at the mercy of their opponents, setting themselves up for failure. ‘Your adversaries are rarely going to grant full acceptance of your demands,’ says (Otpor activist Ivan) Marovic. If people’s attention is focused on the messy back-and-forth of negotiations, naysayers can always find grounds for complaint and movement supporters rarely emerge inspired. Otpor’s method allowed them to avoid that. For publicity purposes, Otpor sought to accentuate when the movement made a show of strength and to let insiders worry about muddling through the aftermath.

The activists sometimes summed up the approach with a crafty aphorism: ‘declare victory and run.'” (pp. 135-36)

Note that an essential piece of this strategy is deciding in advance what the movement’s goal is for any particular action or campaign. This is no place for wishful thinking or “aspirational” goals. Better, for example, to set a goal of turning out 100 people at a demonstration knowing you can turn out 200, than to proclaim a goal of 250 people and fall short.

What’s more, even symbolic victories must be grounded in reality. The Englers emphasize this point:

“Organizers of civil resistance cannot be content with empty declarations of victory or with merely ‘speaking truth to power.’ They must be hard headed in assessing their progress in winning over advocates and sympathizers from outside their immediate networks, always guarding against tendencies to become insular ‘voices in the wilderness.'” (p. 141)

Among the metrics they suggest activists attend to as means of building their campaigns and keeping themselves honest are: “movement in opinion polls, growing numbers of active participants, the ability to generate resources through grassroots channels, and the responsiveness of different pillars of support to their mobilizations.” (p. 141)

It’s virtually impossible to overemphasize the fact that even when you win your opponents (and much of the media) will not give you credit. The habit of defining and claiming your own victories is an essential practice of momentum-driven organizing.

Morning Song – Boogie Body Land

(One in an occasional series of posts inspired by Joaquim Paulo & Julius Wiedemann’s Funk & Soul Covers, a small encyclopedia of classic albums celebrating the proposition that you can judge a record by its cover.)

Being the #3 house band at Stax Records is kind of like being the third tallest mountain in the Himalayas. It’s easy to get overlooked.

For proof, check out The Bar-Kays’ “Boogie Body Land” from their 1980 album, As One. It’s chock full of that good cosmic/spiritual “free-your-body-and-your-mind-will-follow” funk.

Don’t you fight the feeling that you’re feeling,
‘Cause it’s alright to have a good time;
When your body calls, get on off the wall;
Just stand tall, can ya dig it y’all?

This Is An Uprising – On The Importance Of Symbolic Campaigns & Victories

(One in a series of posts on Mark & Paul Engler’s 2016 book, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping The Twenty-First Century.)

For organizers and leaders seeking large-scale, transformative change, a campaign built around symbolic demands and symbolic victories, the Englers argue, can be more powerful and effective than one built around instrumental demands and victories.

To illustrate this point, they examine in detail one of the great nonviolent campaigns of the 20th century, Gandhi’s Salt March.

In 1930, the Indian National Congress had voted 1) to launch a campaign seeking Purna Swaraj (“complete self-rule”) and to 2) to give Mahatma Gandhi complete authority to determine the scope, timing and direction of the campaign.

Many of Gandhi’s closest colleagues in the Congress leadership expected—and wanted—a campaign focused on constitutional questions, such as winning “dominion status”, within the British Empire.

Instead, Gandhi—accompanied by 78 of his most trusted followers walked 240 miles over 3 1/2 weeks to the seaside village of Dandi, went to the beach, picked up a grain of dried salt left behind by the receding tide and ate it.

That initiated the “Salt Satyagraha” in which millions of Indians joined, tens of thousands were jailed, and the British Empire ultimately, after a year of protests, agreed to negotiate as equals with Gandhi and the INC.

Why salt? Because, as Gandhi argued, “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.” (p. 124)

The Englers elaborate: “(Salt) was a simple commodity that everyone was compelled to buy and which the government taxed…. The fact that Indians were not permitted to freely collect salt from natural deposits or to pan for salt from the sea was a clear illustration of how a foreign power was unjustly profiting from the subcontinent’s people and its resources.” (pp. 124-25)

After a year-long struggle, Gandhi emerged from talks with the British Viceroy, Lord Irwin, with an agreement to end the campaign. Under the terms of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact,

  1. the Salt Act, with minor exceptions for a few coastal areas, remained law;
  2. the British made no concession on independence;
  3. the British refused to investigate incidents and allegations of police misconduct;, and
  4. most, but not all, of the repressive security measures enacted by the Raj during the campaign were repealed.

Congress won only the release of political prisoners, the return of fines collected from tax resisters, and the right to continue its boycott of British cloth.

It was a classic example of Gandhi’s preferred negotiating strategy of the “reduction of demands to a minimum consistent with the truth“. (p. 128)

Instrumentally, the outcome of the Salt Satyagraha was a failure. After all, Great Britain had not conceded a single step towards independence for India, and still retained its monopoly (and tax) over salt.

Symbolically however, it was a huge victory for India, as even the Empire’s staunchest advocates acknowledged:

“In a now-infamous speech, Winston Churchill, a leading defender of the British Empire, proclaimed that it was ‘alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi…striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace…to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.'” (p. 128)

Congress leaders initially were divided about the campaign’s outcome, but the Indian people were not:

“Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the radicals in Gandhi’s organization who was skeptical of the pact with Irwin, had to revise his view when he took in the reaction in the countryside. As (Geoffrey) Ashe recounts, when Bose traveled with Gandhi from Bombay to Delhi, he ‘saw ovations such as he had never witnessed before.’ Bose recognized the vindication. ‘The Mahatma had judged correctly,’ Ashe continues. ‘By all the rules of politics he had been checked. But in the people’s eyes, the plain fact that the Englishman had been brought to negotiate instead of giving orders outweighed any number of details.'” (p. 128)

The Englers recount a similar tale regarding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s 1963 Birmingham campaign. Launched with the stated goal of desegregating the city’s public facilities, the negotiated settlement Dr. King agreed to desegregated department store fitting rooms…and little else. (Public parks remained segregated; the city would “begin a process” to desegregate lunch counters and take down “Whites Only” signs; “at least one Negro sales person or cashier” would be hired in downtown Birmingham.)

But while the Birmingham campaign was an instrumental failure, it was a massive symbolic victory—swinging public opinion sharply against Jim Crow, smoking out the cautious and calculating President Kennedy, and compelling him to deliver a televised speech announcing a sweeping new civil rights bill, explaining, “The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.” (p. 131) A year later, President Johnson signed that bill into law as the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Both Gandhi and King would gladly have won the instrumental demands announced at the start of their respective campaigns. But both recognized that they were also, and in some ways more importantly, engaged in a symbolic struggle for justice, freedom and equality. By organizing and leading campaigns that operated effectively on symbolic levels (e.g., claiming access to salt, water fountains, lunch counters), they and their movements were able to win important symbolic victories that ultimately sped up the arrival of victory on their instrumental demands.


Beauty All Around Me – Dogwood Flowers & Leaves


Morning Song – It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City

It’s beyond this little blog’s powers to say anything meaningful about David Bowie’s sexuality.

But the way he brings out all the closeted gayness of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” in his cover of the song is a delight; it’s also more than enough to fulfill the requirements of this little blog’s First Rule Of Cover Songs.

With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet,
Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat,
When I strut down the street I could hear its heartbeat….

Shades Of Difference: Mac Maharaj & The Struggle For South Africa

“‘And some interrogations,’ said Smiley, gazing into the dancing flames of the log fire, ‘are not interrogations at all, but communions between damaged souls.'” — John LeCarré, The Secret Pilgrim, p. 289.

What George Smiley, novelist John LeCarré’s most famous and long-lasting character, says in retirement when called upon to speak to a newly trained class of young British spies could apply, with slight changes, to Padraig O’Malley’s 2007 book, Shades Of Difference: Mac Maharaj & The Struggle For South Africa.

For O’Malley and Maharaj are, one senses, drawn together because each recognizes in the other a kindred damaged spirit. Both men are highly intelligent, intensely driven, enormously accomplished, fiercely analytical, notoriously stubborn, and utterly dedicated to the causes to which they have devoted their lives at the nearly complete expense of their families and close friends (one might say “loved ones”, but it’s an open question to what extent either man has allowed himself to truly learn the meaning of that phrase as most people understand it).

Perhaps it’s those similarities that created the unusual “two-books-in-one” structure of Shades Of Difference. Here’s how O’Malley describes it in the book’s introduction:

“We had our rules of engagement: I sent Mac the raw transcripts of his interviews and the subsequently edited interviews. (Over an 11 year period, when O’Malley interviewed dozens of leading South Africans about the struggle to create a nonracial democracy, it was Maharaj he ended up interviewing for over 200 hours.) Frequently, questions for follow-up interviews had their origins in previous ones, as answers begged further elaboration, clarification, or were at odds with other published accounts of events at that time. And, of course, he received the final versions that I wanted to include in Shades Of Difference so that he had the opportunity to correct and have a say in what went into it.

Each chapter is also made up of an introduction. This consists of my independent investigation, interviews, and analyses. Mac has had no say in this. Indeed, he had no sight of anything I wrote until the final text had been agreed between my editors at Viking and me. Only then was Mac shown the full manuscript. In this part of the book Mac could only correct facts and spellings.

And we kept to the deal: two parallel paths, one resonating with Mac’s voice telling his story, one preceding his, in my voice, my critical assessment of the context in which his life was unfolding at that point in his life. These two paths converge and crisscross, but remain distinct throughout the book. The end product, I like to think, is both a portrait of Mac and of South Africa, intertwined yet singularly apart.” (pp. 24-25)

Shades Of Difference is a sprawling book, 500 pages long (and it doesn’t even cover the past decade of Maharaj’s life, which has included his return from political exile to serve as President Jacob Zuma’s chief spokesperson), plus another 100 pages of detailed endnotes, appendices, indices and bibliographies. Not to mention the extensive “Heart Of Hope” website compiled by O’Malley based on his almost two decades of research in South Africa, including analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras (now hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation), which the book repeatedly cross-references.

Maharaj joined the Communist Party of South Africa as a student in the 1950s and since then, as O’Malley summarizes near the book’s end, he has played a nearly unique role in the struggle for a free South Africa as he has:

“interacted with the three different but complementary struggle cultures: the Robben Island strand, with Nelson Mandela at its head; the exile strand headquartered in Lusaka, with Oliver Tambo at its head; and the internal strand that evolved out of the UDF and the MDM. He bridged the often uncomfortable gulf among the three.

He roamed free, wherever the struggle was and in whatever form, one could find his fingerprints; London and the AAM, South Africa and the underground in the early 1960s; Robben Island and the single cells; Mandela’s autobiography; the IPRD and building an underground political network in South Africa; moving the emphasis from the military to the political; hammering the point that waging a revolutionary war against the apartheid regime could only be accomplished by building the army within South Africa itself and heading willingly back to South Africa to do just that; linking Tambo and Mandela, the MDM and Lusaka; putting out internal fires; shuffling drafts of the Harare Declaration among key internals and getting their comments back to Lusaka; connecting Mandela with the underground; relaunching the ANC in South Africa and preparing the way for the SACP to redefine its role in the alliance, part of Ramaphosa’s back channel; opportunistically stepping into the political vacuum in Bophuthatswana; codrafting the final clause that made possible the constitutional settlement and opened the way for the TRC.” (p. 476)

O’Malley, perhaps not surprisingly for a man who has dedicated his life to trying to help societies resolve intractable conflicts, is blistering in his assessment both of the ANC’s decision to resort to armed struggle (“This was, it must be said, a revolution of amateurs…. The plant to overthrow the government, Operation Mayibuye, was phantasmagorical creative writing…. There was no assessment of the government’s military capacity (huge) or the movement’s armed revolutionary capacity (none)…. (pp. 98 – 99)); and of uMkhonto we Sizwe’s continued ineptitude over the next three decades (“ANC operations suffered a high rate of failure…. Often the failure was of the most basic kind: the ANC’s failure to implement what it had decided upon, or failure to change what it had resolves to change…(and) failure to achieve stated operational objectives when new strategies  or tactics were decided upon.” (p. 202n)).

Those who watched from a distance as Nelson Mandela emerged from 28 years imprisonment and then led not just his movement but also his country’s governing opposition through a (relatively) peaceful transition of power often felt they were watching a miracle unfold.

If anything, Maharaj’s up-close story from the center of the struggle—and O’Malley’s perspective as an engaged outsider/ally—makes the entire outcome seem even more miraculous, both because of the warts-and-all inadequacies it reveals about the participants and institutions involved, and because of the extraordinary sacrifices, vision, and work they accomplished despite—and at times, because of—those limitations.

Shades Of Difference is a magnificent book, one worthy of the struggle that produced it. As Nelson Mandela writes in his “Foreword”, “O’Malley’s book is, I believe, a model for others who want to record our history of struggle and the deeds of the men and women who are our history makers, the foot soldiers and generals of our revolution. New nations in particular must have a memory bank in order to establish a strong sense of collective identity. We deposit our stories into the memory bank and draw on our collective account in moments of uncertainty or crisis, or to remember who we are and how we got to where we are.” (p.18)