Little Things, Big Differences
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ability of a single person to effect significant and sweeping change. Here’s two stories on the subject that recently caught my eye:
Last week, The New York Times reported on the death of Zhou Younguang. Zhou was the father of Pinyin, the system of romanized Chinese that revolutionized literacy and language-learning for untold numbers of people. Prior to Pinyin’s implementation in 1958, romanization of Chinese was mainly via Wade-Giles—a system developed in the 19th century that was at best archaic and at worst confusing. Pinyin, on the other hand, was simple, streamlined, and designed with a clear understanding of the phonetics of Chinese. It’s been an invaluable tool for me as a scholar of East Asian art, but I never gave much thought to what went in to creating it or who I had to thank. In my imagination an endeavor of this nature involves many and varied complex moving parts, and indeed there was a committee that worked together to bring the project to fruition, but the man overseeing that committee… he was just one man. And he gave the world something incredible.
I’ve taken to starting my day with something funny of late. I’ve felt, overwhelmingly, that me and my countrymen are headed for dark days, and regularly engaging comedic material has been a huge help in keeping my mood fairly stable. One of my favorite go-to comedies is the UK’s Big Fat Quiz, basically an end-of-the-year pub quiz that showcases a collection of competing comedy teams. During a viewing this past week, one of the questions concerned the vandalizing of a Spanish church fresco by a well-meaning parishioner: Cecilia Giménez. Her failed attempts to restore the fresco resulted in a patently hilarious image, the “Ecce Homo” became an “Ecce Mono,” and Giménez was humiliated. Watching The Big Fat Quiz and recalling the event, I wondered if the fresco had ever been properly restored. It hadn’t. There is a happy ending to the story, though. International interest in the fresco resulted in such an uptick in tourism that the small town of 5,000 was largely spared the recession that has plagued the country for years. Mrs. Giménez set out to save her church’s fresco, and she saved her whole town. Not bad for one little old lady.
Opinion: On the Merits of Punching Nazis
The Internet has been on fire with Nazi-punching memes since Richard Spencer, a Neo Nazi piece of trash, got punched out on national television by an as-yet unidentified assailant. The incident sparked a massive debate on the ethics of violent protest in response to hate speech, with some arguing that violence is never the answer and others arguing that—when dealing with someone who advocates for genocide—yes, it bloody well is. Naturally, I had some thoughts.
First, I’m really tired of the folks who have been trying to frame this as a free speech issue. It’s not a free speech issue. The first amendment guarantees citizens, religious adherents, and the press freedom of expression without fear of government persecution. It does not guarantee freedom from any and all consequences. A public boycott is not an assault on freedom of speech; someone getting fired for making a deeply offensive joke in a public forum is not an assault on freedom of speech. A Nazi getting punched on national television is not an assault on freedom of speech. Now, there’s no denying that—according to the laws of the land—Richard Spencer was the victim of an assault, and if the authorities catch the person who punched him, they’ll probably be prosecuted. And I can’t say anything against that; an important part of civil disobedience is understanding that there will be consequences for your actions (no matter how justified those actions may be).
Second, the morality police need to stand down because I am 100% not here for all this “being glad he got punched is as bad as punching him” bullshit. Watching a video of a Nazi getting punched and feeling good about it is not a morally compromising activity. Watching one of the videos of Richard Spencer getting punched, and thinking to yourself, “I’m glad to see that hateful son of a bitch take one on the chin,” is not stooping to your enemy’s level. It’s feeling satisfaction that a loathsome person got what they deserved. It doesn’t mean that the people who feel that sense of satisfaction are going to go out and punch other people in the face, and it’s not the same as going out and punching someone in the face. It’s fucking not. Stop treating it like it is.
Third, The Beat posted an interesting point-counterpoint article on the subject, contrasting the views of Warren Ellis and A. David Lewis, which I highly recommend. Though I’m pretty solidly in Ellis’ court on this one, I think that Lewis makes a valid point about remembering that violence should be a weapon of last resort—particularly when there are other weapons still waiting to be used. I think he’s mistaken, however, when he argues that violence against Nazis will embolden them to be violent themselves. They have already been violent and have signaled their intent to continue to be so. Worrying about whether or not the occasional violent response is going embolden them is, in my view, nonsensical. They have already been emboldened: not by the violence of progressives but by our passivity. We must not remain passive.