10/20 - The Barricade and the Law


Eric Hazan's latest book, <La barricade: Histoire d'un objet révolutionnaire> (Autrement 2013), consists of eleven vignettes of this "revolutionary object" in French history.  The first vignette concerns the religious wars of 1570-1580s, when a Catholic-dominated Paris rose up against the Protestant successor to the throne, Henry the Navarre, and Hazan identified this moment as the earliest usage of the word "barricade" to describe some sort of improvised barrier in popular resistance to governmental forces.  The barricade of the Baroque era, however, shared little in common with its heroic reappearance in the years *after* the French Revolution of 1789.  It was not until after the victory of the 1830 Revolution when the barricade was enthroned as a heroic revolutionary object in French history, and later portrayals repeatedly invoked iconic images such as Eugene Delacroix in La liberté guidant le peuple.  In it, students, workers, and Bohemians fought side by side in solidarity.  The very longevity of this Romantic image, however, risks obscuring the fact that barricades, as a strategic prop of urban conflict, hardly enjoyed any success after June 1848.  When cannons were brought in for the preservation of public order, the barricade becomes more of a symbolic gesture, a theatrical prop - more than anything else.  So it was in the last days of the Paris Commune in 1871.  So it was in the student protest of 1968.  Hazan suggests that the barricade shall live on not in its original physical form (furnitures, make-shift objects picked up from the streets, flags, etc.), but perhaps in the *blockage* of other repressive forces in other arenas.

Many parts of the present book have already been presented in one of Hazan's previous books, <The Invention of Paris> (English translation available from Verso in 2010).  In it, Hazan reconstructed city maps marked with the locations of barricade, a lot of which he used again in the present book.  Quoting copiously from contemporary authors, among whom most prominently Victor Hugo, Hazan was explicit in his admiration for Hugo's vivid and soul-searching prose.  For those who get to know Hugo primarily from the Broadway reconstruction of <Les Miserables>, it might be sobering to read how Hugo emerged from his guilty conscience after siding with the establishment in June 1848 to create this powerful tale of personal redemption.  While present-day mobilization of Hugo tends to play up the heroic, upbeat side of it ("Did you hear the people sing?"), it is striking how the story was written *after* the heyday of the real barricade, in an altered age when Bourgeoisie horror of the mob held the day.  The tension between Javert, ever the guardian of law and public order, and Jean Valjean, fugitive, guilty of past crimes, but closer than anyone to the idea of human compassion, ought to be the real take away from Hugo's tour de force.

A couple of weeks ago the world's media witnessed the speedy construction of barricades on the streets of Hong Kong, which was followed by equally speedy (if messy) destruction overnight.  While the pro-activist side was quick to invoke the iconic, ever theatrical power of the barricade, the pro-establishment organs dutifully play the practical role by attacking the barricade as "unlawful," "naïve," and "dangerous."  To the chagrin of those who cared, "Did you hear the people sing" has become one of the mainstays of popular protest in Asia today - I never liked it, for how can it bring real solidarity across social strata, if only the English-speaking, Broadway-following crowd could feel the elation after singing it?  In any case, what's important is the mix-up of roles here in this new chapter of the barricade's history - the communists (and local financial gurus) backing up the rule of law, while old enemies of the barricade voicing support for the protestors from Europe and the US.  It is both anachronistic and dangerous to interpret the Barricade only as an icon of some non-existent revolutionary past.  And reading Hazan at least gives one pause to think what has happened between now and then.










10/06 The Wall and the Other

Rain and wind washing all along the east coast.  Insulated in the train, the travelers were more quiet than usual.  I could only imagine, but not hear any sound of water - raindrops splashing on the window, river torrents below the bridge, and occasionally, a glimpse of the dark, roaring ocean.  Some gloomy thought was brooding in my head.  It no longer feels as gloomy now that two days have come to pass.  But nevertheless it exists:

I have come to understand the predicament faced by advocates of liberal ideas in China today.  On the one hand there is this protracted struggle with local repression and censorship.  It is important to note that the GFW (Great Firewall) in fact could not cut off the flow of information at large, but merely worked to ensure that no stable references to information can last.  The ephemeral nature of exchange and contention makes it less visible not only to people in China, but also to observers on the other side of the wall.

On the other hand, the talks of Communist China as an "authoritarian regime" & the frantic jingoism with which many Western mass media prophesied its doom only served to alienate a key group of Chinese constituency - the youngest, brightest, and most resourceful generation, coming of age at the turn of the millennium.  This generation faces the daunting task of articulating its own vocabulary of politics, and it goes without saying that whether liberal or conservative opinions would prevail among them matters very, very much for China's future.

It is at this juncture that ideological hostility toward Communist China in Western media in fact *helped* its nemesis, the communist party, in pushing a large group of young Chinese into the habit of prioritizing realpolitik (China vs. the West) above all other forms of political life.  A deep sense of marginalization by mainstream US society provides fertile grounds for conservative political stances to brew.  While the CCP uses the Great Firewall to "protect its people from the Other," the West reinforced the wall by ostracizing mainland Chinese as an ignorant, ill-informed, and complacent people who dared not to fight for its own future.  The wall, though more porous than it claims to be, thereby manages to perpetuate a quasi-Cold War logic by constituting the Other from both sides.  It is thus no surprise that some of the most cynical comments on democracy and liberalism I've heard to this day all came from Chinese students who have been through college education in the US.

And so conservative political opinion has come of age in the community of Chinese, both at home and overseas.  It attracts brilliant employees of the Wall Street and the Silicon Valley, and finds ready endorsement in the business community and beyond.  It is a reassuring option to always have a "home country" to side with in the turbulent years as a foreign sojourner, and it makes the ugly realities of politics in the US and elsewhere easier to comprehend.  In the end, persuading them to accept liberal ideas becomes all the more difficult: the burden is now on the liberal person's shoulder to have to prove that in some cases at least, liberalism's "universal values" hold a greater promise of flourishing and well-being than the other options, of which there are many: social-darwinism (or a more subdued version of pragmatism), nationalism/racism, ultra-leftist Maoism, and restoration of rigid "Confucian" ethics, to name but a few.

Time is slipping away from our hands, as more damage is being done every hour: old-time friendship turning sour by new stigma; social media exchanges pushing people to take sides by "likes" or "shares"; academic collaborations with "authoritarian countries" being severed on an ideological basis, etc, etc.  Sometimes one wonders whether the spinning-away of our worlds these days really resulted from some secret conspiracy between the power-brokers.  But the realist in your head says no, it does not even require any formal conspiracy; and the idealist aches, tremendously.