Proportional Response

“What is the virtue of a proportional response?” asks Martin Sheen.

It’s season one of Aaron Sorkin’s political drama The West Wing, and Sheen’s character is the president of the United States. His friend has just been killed by insurgents backed by a foreign state, and the Joint Chiefs have just presented him with a plan for a “merciful” retaliatory strike.

John Amos hesitates. “It isn’t virtuous, Mr. President, it’s… all there is, sir.”

“It is not all there is,” declares Sheen, his eyes glimmering with anger. There is the disproportional response: the reply that isn’t fair, measured, and merciful. The answer that makes them hurt, and regret that they ever even thought that they could fuck with you and yours. Sheen’s character carries a burning desire for vengeance, and wants to stop this from ever happening again.

His best friend and chief of staff (rest in peace, John Spencer) talks him down. This isn’t how a superpower behaves, he explains. Hitting extremists even harder isn’t an effective deterrent, and all it would achieve is one step down the road towards tyranny. Mercy usually doesn’t feel good, but it’s the right thing to do. Restraint and justice were key.

As a teenage liberal trying to figure out where I stood on politics, it was an episode that I found very instructive. Part of being a good liberal was understanding the consequences of your actions, and seeking the best possible outcome. I was a rash young man, and when I acted or spoke in anger, in irritation, or disdain, no one took me seriously. I was surrounded by those who could out-argue me and adults who wouldn’t consider my position because I clearly lacked perspective. I got so angry when people I cared about were targeted- but if I couldn’t translate that anger into a message I could share, what good was it?

The care and consideration I learned was valuable, but the lessons themselves were fundamentally flawed- certainly, a lot of my troubles could be boiled down to being a teenager trying to argue with adults, with all the emotional immaturity and lack of experience that came with that. With time, I realized how arrogant and short-sighted I was. Still, that is how I walked away from my teenage years- valuing careful consideration, perspective, and with a certainty that violence was thoroughly unproductive. Even if you were in the right, violence would only make you the villain in the eyes of others.

“To arms, citizens/Form your battalions/Let’s march, let’s march!/Let an impure blood/Stain our fields!” read the professor. I was still a high schooler, visiting my big sister at her college, and she’d taken me along for one of her history classes. They were studying the French Revolution, and the professor was reading a translation of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time- what sort of good progressive advocates violence? However corrupt the French monarchy, was it really necessary to resort to spilling their “impure blood?” The anthem slid into a corner of my mind for later consideration, as I wasn’t sure what to make of it at the time.

Out of that corner it slid when the French-developed indie title Anarcute cheerfully directed me to form a riot and assault gas masked law enforcement. From the pastel rabbit protesters to the sprightly synth soundtrack, it was clear that the game was going for a cheerful, positive tone. Yet here these lovable animals were, throwing signs and rushing government buildings. An adorable riot.

In the middle of election season last year, it was a valuable message to me about the worth of even more aggressive protests, as then-candidate Donald Trump campaigned on misogyny, racism, and hatred. I wrote a draft of an article then about Anarcute, and the essential role of protest in society. It was shit. At the last moment, I backed away from saying anything worthwhile. The last vestiges of my “don’t upset people” liberalism told me I couldn’t be seen as advocating violent protest in any way- it wouldn’t help anything.

Well, it’s 2017. Donald Trump is the president of the United States. And every day his administration of Neo-Nazis and enablers thereof announce a new attack on people I love: to take away their human rights, to prevent them from entering the country, to “build a wall” metaphorically and physically, and shrug as people die on the other side of it. My blood boils, and my soul screams for the disproportionate response. Then my strategic mind tells the rest of me that violence will get us nowhere, and only peaceful pushes for change will make things better.

When has that ever been true? When have real, significant gains in civil rights, or successful defenses of them, been peaceful, respectful endeavors?

When West Wing said that we had to be merciful, I took that as a grander mandate, but it’s a line with context that I wasn’t respecting. It was said to the president of the world’s last superpower. When you’re a head of state, it’s a message with importance and weight. When you’re a citizen of a nation that is being turned against itself, violence isn’t disproportional. At a certain point, it’s self-defense.

This isn’t a declaration for you to step into the streets and attack a Republican. There are limits, of sanity and humanity. But understand that revolutions are healthy– they are the final safeguard of a people under oppression. Always consider your actions. Always weigh the effect of your efforts. But when your back is to the wall, and they’re trying to oppress the ones you love?

Fucking fight.

To the credit of so many of my friends and acquaintances, I have seen a lot of fighting. I have seen efforts to resist that put my own to shame. For me, the biggest question is, will we keep this up? In a culture defined by a short attention span, will we have the tenacity to stick with our fight long enough to achieve the results we need? And it will take tenacity. Anarcute doesn’t ask you to pull off the ultimate riot, and then you win the game. The fascists adapt- they bring out new strategies to fight you. They run away. They hide in every corner, from Tokyo to Paris, and you have to root them out, by force. Real life is no easier.

“To arms, citizens/Form your battalions.” It still blows my mind that that is the national anthem of France. It’s not a non sequitur by any means- it is the song’s entire message. When France’s monarchy became toxic to its people, they rose up to cut them down, and the cries of that bloody time are still their national watchwords. When the Nazis occupied France, its people formed the French Resistance, a citizen’s insurgency that would prove a thorn in the Nazi’s side for the rest of the war. I’m not French, nor a great student of French culture, but it’s hard to argue with their track record of fighting fascism.

When I first played Anarcute, I thought the timing of the game’s “fight the power” message was amazingly fortuitous, and unlikely. What a time for such a game to be released, as the world’s last superpower sits at the edge of disaster! But perhaps I was giving Anarteam too little credit. Perhaps they knew exactly what they were doing- giving us the smallest push, in a moment where we felt lost. “Hey. It’s okay to fight back. You don’t just have to take it.”

In the end, their intentions aren’t salient to what they’ve created. Their delightful Pikmin-esque game about overthrowing fascism is just the message we need in our dark political climate. Take a stand. Don’t expect it to be easy, or quick. Square your shoulders against corruption and abuse of power. Fight for your friends, your family, your lovers, your neighbors. We can weather the storm, and come out stronger.

“Liberty, cherished Liberty/Fight with thy defenders!”


UPDATE: This article implies that La Marseillaise was created to reference the French Revolution, but was in fact originally titled “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” and written in response to a declaration of war with Austria. It was adopted as an anthem by revolutionaries from Marseille, hence its new name, “La Marseillaise.” Thank you to David Rabineau for the correction.