Joel Brouwer

Some Varieties of Political Activism

The visiting dissident poet offered
our seminar a paradox. When a regime
cloaks its crimes in empty formulae
of collectivism, by what rhetoric shall
the citizenry collectively resist?
We had to ponder that one. Was there
a way to answer truthfully without
having to be honest? The edge of my cookie
grew mushy where it abutted the clutch
of wet grapes on my napkin. Earlier
we’d entertained our guest with an outing
to Dollar General. Its cleaning products
and plastics pulsed orange and green and purple,
vivid as a dish of revolutionary
sherbet. To demonstrate capitalist
vacuity (OK, we’ll admit it, also
just for fun), we held up one item after
another—spatula set, cinnamon
candle in a jar, sand pail—and asked
our poet to guess: How much? How much? How much?
Despots understand it’s best to be either
omnipresent or invisible. In the DPRK
there’s a Kim in every room; you’ll see
no portraits of Castro in Cuba. Who
teaches these guys this stuff? Are there despot
seminars offered somewhere? The poet
proffered the answer we’d predicted.
Ironically, individualism
and subjectivity become the only
viable modes of general resistance!
I thought of a throng of protesters
in a rainy central square, each under
his own little umbrella. That’s a lot
of umbrellas! I hope they had a way
to buy a bunch in bulk. One dollar, one
dollar, one dollar.
What a joy to have
an answer that’s always at hand and never
wrong. For the Skeptics it was epokhé,
suspension of assent. Blind bats careened
the twilit parking lot, symbolically
devouring the sighted bugs too dumb to
shut up, and a few Hispanic guys, framed
by the seminar room’s picture window,
blew shrub cuttings to the gutter. You’ve heard
folks say everything looks like a nail if
you’re a hammer, but what if you’re a nail?
For my final project I proposed
the U. N. issue everyone a bullhorn
with which they might amplify their subjectivities.
I’m not sure I understood
the assignment. We sent the dissident
back to her country with a swag bag of
ice cube trays, room freshener, and canned milk,
and later learned that one blogger liked this.