Practicing Solidarity

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]

As the summer war between Israel and Lebanon threatened to spiral out of control, a rarely-used word began to wend its way into news accounts and editorials: solidarity. Groups from Orange County, CA, to St. Louis, held “solidarity vigils” in support of Israel, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised the “spirit of solidarity of the Israeli civilian population” which had withstood the rocket attacks from Hezbollah fighters. Meanwhile, Jacques Chirac, in discussing aid for the decimated areas of southern Lebanon, called for a “vast outpouring of solidarity” from the international community for the war’s civilian survivors, while the London-based Arabic paper Al-Arab celebrated the “solidarity of the Lebanese, both governmental and popular, against the Israeli invaders.”

In a conflict, particularly one as pitched and angry as that between Israel and its Arab neighbors, people naturally reach for potency that only the word solidarity transmits. Its mere invocation answers the question, immortally phrased in the old labor folk song: “Which Side Are You On?”

There is something bracing and inspiring about such declarations of loyalty. “Your friends are our friends!” we seem to shout, “and your enemies are our enemies.” But there is something dangerous about this loyalty as well, something tribal, illiberal, even beyond the bounds of rationality. Solidarity can seem a means of sticking together through conflict, but it is hardly a means of ending it, except through that chimera called victory. Recall the lyrics of the old union song, “Solidarity Forever,” sung to the tune of battle hymn of the Republic.

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?

In other words: we’re going to kick your ass.
But the unity one finds in battle against a common foe, which can be nothing more than another rocket in tribalism’s arsenal, is just one of solidarity’s many modalities. Solidarity is a spectral concept, a word with an unusual amount of semantic give. Alongside the solidarity of battle, there is the deeply humanist solidarity that grips, with fingers outstretched, for justice—the solidarity that binds together strangers in fellowship, stretches our limited notions of community boundaries. Ultimately, it makes more sense to speak, as this issue of AREA does, of solidarities in the plural. These solidarities are everywhere around us, though rarely named. A potent example comes from the ravaged streets of New Orleans, where an all-volunteer group called Common Ground Collective has been working to restore political power and a civic voice to the residents who have been systematically marginalized. The group’s slogan cuts to the quick: “Solidarity, Not Charity.”

What’s the difference? Intimacy and action. Charity emanates from pity and the distance and condescension with which it’s associated. Solidarity calls upon us to close that distance, to take up the interests of those ravaged by Katrina as our own. It is to bring the same determined loyalty that comes with the ties of blood, kin, faith or race, to people that are fundamentally outside those ancient categories. And unlike the vague and squishy word support (we “support” our troops), this kind of solidarity cannot exist as mere sentiment. It is, inherently, the description of action.

For this reason, the current issue of AREA is taken up with praxis in its many forms: the creation of a Chicago Freedom School to bring young social justice leaders from around the city together, the work of the Chicago-based Radios Populares which helps build people’s radio stations in South and Central America, and W.A.S.T.E., a coalition of 34 community organizations that successfully shut down an incinerator on the city’s west side.

Of course, observant readers will note than in all these cases the solidarity of conflict (“we will fight with you”) and the solidarity of justice aren’t unconnected. Sides must be taken. Battles must be waged, and sometimes victory is the only path to a better world. But what emerges in the accounts within these pages is the core of “solidarity” as a militant humanism. Ferocity and empathy bound together in a tense alliance.

One way of understanding the catastrophe of the last six years is as a surfeit of ferocity and a deficit of empathy. Solidarity provides no answer to the proper balance to strike. We can be in solidarity in error. But the proximity that true solidarity entails is the antidote for the theoretical certainty of the ideologue, or the stereotypes of the philanthropist. It is at once humbling and animating. And while it is not sufficient to produce change, no true change, no true victories can come without it.


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