A History of Achilles-Heel Tickling

Well, that’s been an interesting week. The reaction to my article on the Open Rights Group has made me consider the issues discussed therein with some rigour. So, I am preparing a paper which hopes to detail the strategy that was only sketched in the report. To this end, I send out an appeal to any who might be reading this: I have at hand some historical analogies which seem to demonstrate that our strategy is not just a troll or a Gedankenexperiment, but has antecedents; I am sure there are many other examples of which I’m not aware. If you know of one, please include it in a comment below.

Now, what sort of analogy am I talking about? Specifically, I would like historical examples of where a powerbase has been tempered, subverted or overturned not through Fabian-like lobbying and bourgeois “education”, but either implicitly or explicitly by using the powerbase’s own hubris to destroy itself. In particular, I am interested in examples where a powerbase’s insecurity and greed has led to a bust flush, to its overreaching itself and enacting a reductio ad absurdem. A famous example I (and, it appears, others), can think of in this context is, of course, the 18th Amendment of the American Constitution, whose instigation of Prohibition did more to destroy the Temperance movement that had craved it than any lilly-livered letter-writers and libertarians. As the author of the above link wrote, “it affirms the economic theory, which predicts that prevention of mutually beneficial exchanges fails”. If that theory is sound, and I believe it is, then encouraging a radical “prevention of mutually beneficial exchange” in one fell swoop, rather than in halting increments, is sound. Not only is it extricated from accusations of Trollhood, but is one of the most rational courses imaginable, and enshrined in economic orthodoxy.

Further to this, please send historical examples of the raising of public consciousness through the encouragement of such reductio ad absurdems, where agents specifically catalysed what they realised as the fatal hubristic flaw at the heel of a powerbase.

A powerful example, of course, is the American Civil Rights movement, of which my brother (a Historian specialising in America) has just reminded me:

“The Civil Rights movement, and the rise of white ‘Massive Resistance’ in Birmingham Alabama, with their hosepipes on little kids, strikes me, off hand, as a good example. It was completely misjudged in the TV age, and got those who were uneasy about the end of segregation for ‘practical reasons’ to side with black civil rights leaders. Indeed, the policy of direct action without violence by the civil rights movement was predicated on the hope of an over-reactive, violent police/white counter-measure. This makes the policy of ‘non-violence’ precisely about violence, given that its raison d’etre was to provoke a violent counter response, whose violence would be contrasted to the ‘lack of violence’, and lead moderates who would have supported segretationists on grounds of maintaining ‘stability’ and ‘not rocking the boat’, to move to the side of the civil rights people. In other words, those who hosed the kids defeated their very aims by their actions”.

This is indeed directly analogous. Rosa Parks is the most famous single example of this principle. It was not the “production of press releases”, or “edutainment” which proved monumentally powerful: merely her sitting in the “wrong” seat on a bus, and calculating that the ludicrous official reaction would point tellingly, stingingly and devastatingly at the injustice abroad. The movement had prepared this action well in advance, and had trialled it many times before. No doubt, they would now be dubbed silly agit-prop trolls. Finally, true to form, the official reaction was just as obnoxious as had been hoped, and the rest is, literally, History. Had a proto-ORG been advising Rosa Parks, they’d have suggested contemporary equivalents of setting up a Wiki or contacting her MEP instead. Or edutaining her way through press-releases to freedom.

19 thoughts on “A History of Achilles-Heel Tickling

  1. The earliest example, after brief inspiring discussion with Mr Trellis, would be the addendum to Christ’s suggestion that one turn the other cheek.

    Often misunderstood as acts of pacifism, or more often, patheticism, they were in fact moves to highlight the corrupt nature of the oppressive power.

    The most appropriate example would be:

    “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

    The logic being, if one is being sued for ones tunic, then one has nothing else with which to pay. So if you, in response, offer your cloak, you are rendered naked. Not only do you demonstrate that they are literally stripping you of everything, but /they/ are causing /you/ to disgrace the court. The judge at this point cannot allow this to happen. The folly, the corruption of the case, is highlighted.

    To sue someone with nothing seems vaguely familiar to the current climate. That the RIAA, and their various international counterparts, are merrily suing thousands of children a month somehow doesn’t seem to have caught the mass attention. Perhaps if those stripped bare by the sub-legal settlements for thousands of dollars/pounds/etc were to demonstrate this to the court of the wider public, people might start to take offense.

  2. Oh come on, you can do better than that. Why the American clichés? Let’s find some fine English role models for you – how about emulating Emily Davison? Or William Huskisson? Or Wat Tyler, no, hang on, I know, how about Ned Ludd?

  3. “Ned Ludd” did precisely the wrong thing. The Luddites thought that by arbitrarily smashing up a few looms, they’d bring down the industrial revolution and the death of cottage industries. No doubt kicking in a spinning jenny gave some cathartic relief to a few croft workers on their way to the inevitable grimy city, but it did bugger all to prevent anything.

    What actually brought down British industry was, indeed, its internal inefficiencies and inconsistencies. British Leyland, anyone?

  4. John W makes an excellent point: Indeed, new historians are linking this Christian understanding of ‘non-violence’ to Martin Luther King and the liberal Christian theology of Reinhold Neibuhr, who maintained precisely that notion of ‘turning the other’ cheek, which Luther King used to create his ‘beloved community’ that was not so happy clappy as some people caricature it as: It had to be founded on a deliberate provokation of violence to act as a counterpoint.

  5. I’m just going on a dimly remembered bit from a film, but Ghandi burning his identity papers springs to mind. It may be completely irrelevant, but for some reason – over other protests I can remember – I have a gut feeling that it’s on a par with the others you’ve given. I think there’s something specific to the way identity papers were required or a specific use of them or what they represented that’s salient, but I’m buggered if I can pinpoint it.

  6. The assumption seems to be that those campaigning for digital rights cannot compete against those who would seek to restrict them, due to resources. In this case, in the traditional playing fields, ORG ultimately will achieve little.

    Yet with the Internet, one could argue we have greater resources than the other side. Individuals are now standing on the shoulders of each other to create disruptive technology that drives public debate and forces companies to think again. Since when did individuals have so much influence?

    Trying to stop a war, or cancelling third world debt is hard. It requires the other side to come round to your point of view in order to do those things you campaign for. In cyberspace, those campaigning for digital rights can achieve it themselves via technology such as anonymous networks layered on top of the Internet. Such a network would render activities such as data retention by telcos redundant, as well as assist individuals in the real world to speak freely. Why campaign and engage the other side to help give you ‘good’ digital rights, when you can achieve so much yourself?

  7. Prohibition legislation doesn’t strike me as a redutio initself. It failed because people wanted to drink, people were drinking and eventually the powers that were realised there were more votes in reinstating booze than in pandering to the puritains. There was no inherant contradiction other than in so far as most people were not teetotalers even those that supported it. The hypocritical nature of the public and private morality or the time produced the redutio.

    If you want to produce a redutio in DRM legislation you would probably try to have the rules so stringent that they throttled the sales they were trying to protect; so that no one would buy on those terms. But by pointing out an analogy you would do your own cause a disservice, depending of course on how widely your paper is disseminated and read.

  8. A recent, and much smaller-scale example, is that of Sarah Harman. Despite knowing it would leave her vulnerable, she brought a miscarriage of justice to public attention which by law she was not allowed to discuss, or even bring up with MPs. She was indeed found in contempt of court, and banned from practising law for three months. Since then, and partly because of her actions and the subsequent treatment she received, Parliament has changed the rules to give citizens the right to discuss Family Court injustices.

    Nick Cohen goes into more detail here: http://www.nickcohen.net/?p=45

  9. Your brother, the historian, writes that “…the policy of direct action without violence by the civil rights movement was predicated on the hope of an over-reactive, violent police/white counter-measure”.

    I say “bollocks, no it wasn’t”.

    One blank assertion meets another.

    With all due respect to your brother, who is probably a fine and admirable human being, his declaring that the “the policy of ‘non-violence’” was “precisely about violence” does not necessarily make it so. Can he cite a quote from a significant source from within the civil rights movement which supports his thesis about this conscious ‘hope’ for a violent reaction?

    Even if he can – even if he can cite ten such quotes from ten such sources – he is still missing the point. The civil rights movement was a popular mass movement, not a monolithic entity. No single person, not even Martin Luther King, had the authority to speak for the civil rights movement en masse.

    Your brother, splendid fellow though he probably is, certainly does not have the authority to declare that the “raison d’etre” of the civil rights movement was “to provoke a violent counter response”.

    Some might contend that the raison d’etre of the civil rights movement was to win civil rights for black Americans. Provoking a violent counter response may, or may not, have been a conscious tactical objective for some of the participants, but it’s doubtful that a violent counter response was seen by many in the civil rights movement as an end in itself, much less as a raison d’etre.

    Moreover, it is entirely possible that a significant number of people involved in the civil rights movement did not expect any such violent counter response, and were unpleasantly surprised when it came.

    By attempting to reverse-engineer a knowing and deliberate strategy, presumably on the part of every single participant, I think your brother is over-playing his hand. I don’t it’s a powerful example at all.

    Anyway. I look forward to reading your paper when it’s ready. I originally signed the pledge agreeing to donate five pounds per month to ORG. Thus far I have not done so, and I must confess that I am beginning to have serious doubts about it. Perhaps your paper will help me make up mind one way or the other.

  10. Reasonably Anonymous – as for donating funds to ORG, check out their web-site (blog) to see what they have or haven’t done since the meeting a week ago. Still no word on the brown paper and white cards…

    Like you, I signed the pledge, and was deliberating whether or not to donate funds, but I think I won’t. I’ve made a couple of posts, and I’ll say it again. They don’t have any transparency regarding who is behind ORG and what they need the money for. No details whatsoever.

  11. I will respond to Reasonably Anonymous’ mypoic statements regarding my non-violence-violence dialectic in greater detail later. Before that, I provide a taster of King’s relationship with the liberal realism of Niebuhr’s theology, and its relationship with the use of force to bring about the happy clappy ‘beloved community’ and social gospel:
    King was particularly receptive to Niebuhr’s criticism of love and justice as conceived in both liberal and orthodox theology. In orthodoxy, “individual perfection is too often made an end in itself,” whereas liberalism “vainly seeks to overcome justice [through] purely moral and rational suasions.” Liberalism, King wrote, “confuses the ideal itself with the realistic means which must be employed to coerce society into an approximation of that ideal.” We will see that violence/ force could be needed to ‘coerce’ society, even if caused by deliberate non-violence.

  12. The SC plan to encourage such draconian corporate DRM that the masses rise up to smash it makes for top quality rhetoric, but it falls to your own argument against the ORG strategy. Like, how you gonna do it? Send a press release to the Guardian? Or use your connections in the secret government to ensure that corporate power and the representatives of capital have more or less unrestricted global leverage in the legislative process? Oops, too late. It could sound like a recipe for a nice cup of dofuckall while the Rosa Parkses of the DRM issue (something of a melodramatic analogy IMHO but you started it) are already being prosecuted and convicted for file-sharing pour encourager les autres. Still, it’s a debate worth having, and I’m sure you have more to offer. Looking forward to the next installment.

  13. The uprising in France 1968 was sparked by the enrager strategy of demonstrating to provoke police violence. They held a demo naming people who may or may not have been police informants as police informants, and when the police arrived and attacked them they retreated into the Sorbonne, at which point their liberal mates joined in to defend them and everything went boom.

    I’ve been told that the Bolsheviks had some of their supporters in the Russian Army to commit attrocities to provoke public opinion, but I have no cite for that.

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