Sankar Ray is a senior journalist who has worked in various news and current affairs magazines, has spawned scores of good journalists and has in-depth knowledge of global issues, especially Left politics in India and abroad
Naftali Bennett, a brash 45-year-old former military officer and high-tech entrepreneur, who is now the education minister and once a protégé of the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, stated ostensibly in an innocent way: “After the era of Netanyahu, I intend to be the prime minister of Israel.” Sharply critical of the PM’s alleged gift-taking, he claims, he will run and win as a better “leader by example”. His conservative, essentially a religious party, named Jewish Home, currently a member of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, prodded and pushed the PM quite often to the right.
“Bennett has Bibi hostage,” a veteran Israel observer quipped.
Is Bennett a dissenter? Only history will tell us.
A dissenter is one who dissents from an established church, political party, or majority opinion. Early dissenters were English Separatists who were Protestant Christians who dissociated themselves from the Church of England in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The etymological root of dissenter is Latin dissentire, means one who disagrees in opinion and belief.
That was when tolerance was held high.
Incidentally, this year was the 50th anniversary of a great dissent. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, ‘Danny the Red’, was a hero of rebellious France. On 6 May, 1968, ahead of appearing before the disciplinary commission of Paris-Sorbonne University he sang “L’Internationale”. It was when French students and workers, revolting against consumerism, monopoly capitalism, and US involvement in Vietnam, made the largest general strike in the history of France to happen. The national economy screeched to a halt and that continued for two months. President Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle had fled to the then West Germany, albeit briefly. The strike finally ended when de Gaulle, the founder of Fifth Republic, dissolved the National Assembly and held new parliamentary elections on 23 June.
He had dissenters, namely French socialist Jean Jaurès, moderate Left André Léon Blum and bourgeois liberal political personality Pierre Isaac Isidore Mendès-France, known as PMF, although but none of them could edge out de Gaulle. Four years later, on 21February 1972, during Nixon’s trip to China, Premier Zhou Enlai declared that it was “too early” to assess the impact of the “French Revolution.” However, Zhou’s reference to 1968, instead of 1789 was confusing to many. But that’s not congruent in this discussion. But Cohn-Bandit, then an anarcho-libertarian fighting for sexual freedom, believed elections would mean a ‘fool’s trap, ’ but now as a Member of the European Parliament, representing both the German and French Green parties, hosts a whimsical radio programme called L’humeur de Dany, or Danny’s Mood. He had long ceased to be a dissident. Prior to the French revolt, another dissent exploded in January in Czechoslovakia when libertarian Alexander Dubček defeated hardcore Stalinist Antonin Novotny, first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia on 5 January 1968. But he had turned into a dissenter when the then general secretary of the now defunct CP of Soviet Union sent the Soviet army to oust Dubček.
But dissenters are today an extremely endangered species. On how to accommodate a dissenter, I look up to the giant of French Enlightenment, author, historian and philosopher François-Marie Arouet, known by his pseudonym Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” If and only if dissent is honoured, dissenters can dwell freely, but when state reigns trampling liberty and freedom, dissent and dissenters are insecure. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, father of the Bolshevik Revolution and Bolshevism, stated in his major tome, ‘State and Revolution’, “When there is State there can be no freedom, but when there is freedom there will be no state.” Yet, Lenin’s precept and practice were mutually dissimilar. Thus, the power of the state and freedom for dissenters are mutually exclusive. This reality is reflected in ultra-authoritarian regimes of the US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Suppression of dissenters by the two enemies of liberty turns democracy a gigantic farce. A US citizen of Bengali origin, named Sankar Ray (obviously not me) fiercely defended all who dissent in a letter to the editor, in the Auburn Reporter on 7 October 2017, where he stated, “The U.S. Constitution, above everything – above US prosperity, above US politics, above US military might, above US economic power, even above all the sacrosanct proverbial “apple pies” – is the real America. The inherent power of this unique document is that it not only allows, but actually empowers, every expression of peaceful dissent. Through the free expression of peaceful dissent, much more than salutes, our Constitution truly shines. Through dissent we revere our constitution by freely exercising our unique rights enshrined in it, to fearlessly challenge the status quo. “We respect and honour our military personnel as we respect and honour our teachers, doctors, first responders, scientists, farmers, students, factory workers and many others that make up our country. We all contribute in our unique ways to the vitality of this nation and we are all equal under our Constitution. “So, let no individual, or group, claim special rights to dictate to others what actions constitute dishonour of our constitution (or its symbols), especially when such actions involve peaceful – and I might add decent – expressions of dissent like taking a knee for couple of minutes before a game. By their action the knee-takers revere our unique Constitution no less than those who stand. “One is free to disagree with the intent behind the dissent, but it is un-American to demean its free expression under our Constitution.”
Dissent in contemporary history witnessed a victory in South Africa when a dissenter Cyril Ramaphosa, Deputy President of SA) moved into the shoes of Jacob Zuma who had to put in his papers as the President of the Republic of South Africa, a position that he had held since 2009. The once powerful leader of the African National Congress, Zuma has left behind a legacy marred by graft on a grand scale, economic malaise and intensive racial tensions. But may be, Zuma is now turned a dissenter although he was embroiled in a dizzying number of scandals. The African National Congress (ANC) brass rose from the slumber when the party saw its worst electoral performance since the end of apartheid in 1994. The party’s reputation fell along with Zuma’s approval ratings, due to events such as the 2012 Marikana Massacre, Nkandlagate (a massacre of striking workers, for which no one has been held accountable) and allegations of state capture by the influential Gupta brothers. But in a developing economy, where crony capitalism rules, dissent hardly survives alike India.
One of the classic cases of dissent in the 20th Century was the schism between the Yugoslav dictator President Josif Broz Tito and once his closest confidante, Milovan Djilas, a Stalin Prize laureate who fell from the grace of Tito for his book, ‘New Class’, considered a masterpiece of dissident literature during the Cold War, although more than spelled trouble for its author. It was published abroad in 1957 and became an instant hit. It was published in Yugoslavia 31 years thereafter in 1988. Djilas, one of the leading figures in the Partisan resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II was thrown into prison by Tito in 1956. He was the first and most prominent dissenter of communist regime. His son Aleksa was a three -year old boy. Stupefied, when he was nine, he asked if his father did steal a book, although in disbelief. In an interview to Belgrade-based NIN weekly, Aleksa about his father several decades after his death said: “I believed that he was innocent and that he was right. I saw him more as a hero than a victim. So, I did understand what was going on quite well. Kids can think clearly if they are not confounded by adults.”
Ahmed Ben Bella
Was Ahmed Ben Bella, who led successfully led the struggle of Algerians to achieve independence from France, a sequel to a coup d’etat on 19 June, 1965 by the minister of defence in the newly independent Algeria, General Houari Boumediene, who forced Ben Bella to be in exile Switzerland, a dissenter in the other way? For, Ben Bella and Boumediene were progressives, as they had dreamt of socialism via non-capitalist path. A combat veteran of the French army in World War II, Ben Bella returned home. But by then he was greatly radicalised, as he was morally converted to a rebel, seeing the humiliations faced by Algerian Muslims under French colonialism. He gravitated towards militant nationalism comprising guerilla warfare and socialist politics by the 1950s. Having escaped from prison for his role in a robbery, he fled to Cairo and founded the National Liberation Front (FLN) that set up independent republic of Algeria. As even after the ouster of Ben Bella, General Boumediene carried forward the same path. Whether Ben Bella should be treated a dissenter remains a political lemma.
Dissenters are not limited to politics. Insulated of pelf and power, academia is the breeding ground for dissent and dissenter. Herbert Butterfield, for instance was called an historian as dissenter, remembered for his The Whig Interpretation of History (1931),a polemic against the self-congratulatory presentism, forsaking the historiography of Victorian historians who upheld the liberal values and institutions of their day as the end-point of historical progress. His devastating critique became commonplace within the profession, and the “Whig Interpretation” came to be stigmatised as the hallmark of an unprofessional style of history practiced only by politicians and popular historians. Son of a West Yorkshire mill worker, he hogged the limelight for his brilliant scholarship that ranked him among the intellectual celebrities of the twentieth century. A scholar, credited with groundbreaking contributions in a number of major fields, including historiography and the histories of science, religion, and international relations, he published 22 books and left behind a highly influential school of political history.
Adrien Rich, a dissenter (or call her a dissident) in the realm of literature, wrote,
“The eyes I met
Accused as they implored me to forget,
As if my shape had risen to destroy
Salvation’s rampart with a hope of joy”.
Or, let’s read together, her Diamond Cutters:
“Be proud, when you have set
The final spoke of flame
In that prismatic wheel,
And nothing’s left this day
Except to see the sun
Shine on the false and the true,
And know that Africa
Will yield you more to do”.
By the mid-1950s, she felt the urge for something new. In the 1970s, she had “embarked on a process that was tentative and exploratory.” Rich’s imagery is therefore frequently abrasive, sudden, full of surprising flashes, sometimes threatening in its simplicity: a woman’s mind “smoldering like wedding-cake”. She was inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”, “her fine blades making the air wince”.
A dissenter in a creative node, the poetess gives the principle ‘I agree to disagree’ an ecstatic tenor and tune. The US President of the 1950s Dwight D. Eisenhower was worried about dissent and dissenters, “May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.” His moral disciple is the 45th US President Donald John Trump.
Nonetheless, dissenters resurface – maybe outside the arena of politics which is constantly contaminated by money, muscle power and mafia – to snap fingers at destroyers of democracy and liberty.