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Monday, December 14, 2009

Next Day of the Apocalypse

It was impossible to know on December 14, 1981 what the next days would bring. It sounds histronic to use words like "apocalypse" to describe an action by a government against its own citizens that did not involve carpet bombings, summary executions and wholesale destruction of cities. As had World War II. On a physical scale, "martial law" or the "state of war" in Poland in 1981 had minimal impact. But on a psychological scale, the imposition of war, the government against the citizens, was devastating. Even those intelligentsia, inclined to a so-called 'realist' view of the situation that impinged upon Poland by its fraternal neighbor to the east, even those who were not sympathetic to the Solidarity reform movement, even everyone in Poland was shocked, appalled and disgusted. The justification widely observed held that if Poland didn't invade Poland, the Soviet Union would invade Poland. This may be true. It has been recently alleged, likewise, that the Polish Premier, General Jaruzelski asked the USSR to invade and when they refused, he ordered the Polish tanks into the streets. This will be a matter of judicial review for some time to come. The point, however, is this: within the tightly controlled Soviet empire, novelty could not be tolerated. The absolute authority, the so-called "leading role" of the Communist Party in each of the Soviet satellite nations could not be called into question. Solidarity was threatening to become an out-of-control mass movement of social action. It was already a mass movement of social action beyond the control of the Communist Party. The question was: how far would it push? How far could things go? Power likes itself. Power likes to keep its power intact. Power does not tolerate challenges with equanimity. Power is a force unto nature, insisting on remaining in control. Usually. There are wondrous and generative exceptions. But this was not one of them. The next day of the apocalypse was every bit as disorienting as the first. Telephones didn't work, for the most part. If one wanted to consult with one's family, friends, colleagues, one had to physically go out and find them. But where? Thousands of activists were arrested. Others were in hiding. Family units were disrupted. Business associations were stopped in their tracks. A strict curfew was enforced. It felt like a war on the streets of Warsaw and, I imagine, elsewhere in the country, during those wintry, ugly, bitter days. Paralysis sets in. The famous "fight or flight" impulse is stymied. Where to flee? And whom to fight? Both options are untenable. So the third option comes into play: freeze. "I didn't do anything at all." "I sat in a chair and didn't move, not even to eat, for two days." "I paced. Looked out the windows. Tanks in the street. Patrols on the sidewalks. I felt powerless for the first time in my life." I think the worst of it was the sense of becoming dispirited. Hopelessness. Options cut off. All movement stopped. There seemed no constructive means to confront this overwhelming show of force. There seemed to be no useful avenues for dialogue. It is hard to talk to a tank. And so, for weeks, really, weeks, the country was frozen. Frozen in an ugly gray wintry slush. Frozen in an ugly imposition of force against which, toward which any sense of dialogue seemed impossible. Power can be used in this way: to intimidate. To thwart. To impose, stomp out, cut down. To those who choose to use power in these ways, it seems to them an inevitability, the only means to protect what is most valued, most vulnerable. "We had no choice." But to those who are shut down, trampled down, cut down, the deeper reality is always something of which they are aware: there is another way. Dialogue. Mutual concessions, cooperation. The creation of something fundamentally new. One feels it in one's skin, one's bones and body, one's nervous system. The experience of being thwarted, stopped from making the most obvious, and useful, next move. It feels like being jammed up. It is unpleasant, like being electrocuted at low voltage. It is dangerous, if it builds up over a long time. And it is profoundly dispiriting, ennervating. Woe to those who abuse power. Woe to you who shut down, stop up, trample, intimidate, ignore, and thwart the legitimate exercise of will, of creative, generative, generous activity. In these days, we celebrate and commemorate very different events back to back to back. The imposition of Martial Law, the victory of the Jews over the Maccabees, the end of Communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Let this be lesson to those who win temporary victories. I keep a piece of the Berlin Wall on my dressor. I know what it means. "The days are coming...." It's Advent. Still, we wait.