Monday, February 23, 2015

Selma, protest tactics, and the false hope of moderation

I watched the Academy Awards (yes, the whole thing) with my church community group last night, and one of the most moving moments was when Common and John Legend performed the song Glory from Selma, right before they won the award for Best Original Song. As they pointed out in their acceptance speech, Selma is a timely movie, because its spirit exists today in movements from the US to France to Hong Kong.

I came across one of the best discussions of the movie on a website I normally peruse for its excellent sports analysis. Mark Harris of Grantland primarily responds to some of the criticism of the movie's portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, but has many interesting things to say along the way. His defense of the genre of historical fiction as providing value beyond mere recitations of facts is stirring, but I want to focus on another point of his.

What is Selma really about? Harris's answer matched my own impressions pretty well, so I'll just let him talk:
Selma is, among many other things, a movie about tactics, and about how disagreements between men who see themselves as ideological comrades with strategic differences play out in the struggle for social justice. Those tensions are enacted on different fronts and in several pairings — not just in the scenes between King and Johnson, but in those between King’s men and the on-site leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (including future U.S. Representative John Lewis); between Johnson and Governor George Wallace (a smug racist who nevertheless views himself as the reasonable middle between Johnson’s softheartedness and the outright thuggery of Dallas County, Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark); and, by implication, between King and the less pastorally inclined, more outspoken Malcolm X. One of the most brilliant and honest connections that DuVernay draws between King and Johnson is that, like so many leaders, each man sees himself as a righteous warrior caught in the middle.
The tactics were also what most struck me about the movie, particularly how it portrayed King as "not as a martyr or plaster saint but as a brilliant tactician" (again, Harris's words). Selma portrays him and the SCLC as deliberately planning to protest in Selma because of how they predicted Sheriff Clark would react: when the local SNCC leadership says he is more like Bull Connor of Birmingham than Laurie Pritchett of Albany, King knows he has found his protest site.

Tactics are what separate, in my mind, King's activism from the examples Common and Legend bring to mind today. While the marches following Ferguson and the Charlie Hebdo shootings also come to mind, the example I followed the closest was the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong.

Starting in late September 2014, many protesters (peaking over 100,000) physically blocked key commercial locations in downtown Hong Kong. They were protesting the electoral reforms that require any candidate for the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive election to be approved by a smaller, presumably Beijing-picked, committee before appearing on the ballot, effectively ending universal suffrage, at least in the eyes of the protesters.

The protest was remarkable for how peaceful and clean it was, and initially it appeared that the police use of tear gas was going to escalate the situation in ultimate favor of the protesters, as it had in 1965. But the police backed off and instead played the long game, waiting for the protesters' energy to wane over time and the international spotlight to wander away before finally clearing them out in November and December.

The election in question won't take place until 2017, but as of now (February 2015), the protests in Hong Kong appear to have basically failed to accomplish any of their goals.

One difference I see in approach is that King's activism was active, seeking out the locations with which to protest and draw awareness to his cause. Sure, events like the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Reeb ignited his rhetoric, but King had a goal in mind all along.

By contrast, today's protests seem to be mostly reactive. An event or trend happens to spark the (inter)national consciousness, and protesters angrily react. Maybe it isn't even really clear what they want (police body cameras? h/t SSC). Or maybe it is clear what they want, but the highest levels of leadership are not nearly as sympathetic as Johnson was (as in Hong Kong). Either way, it amounts to poor strategy and tactics.

In talking about this, I want to be completely clear: Like President Johnson, I agree with the purpose of these protests, but I just don't see the tactics succeeding. The Umbrella Revolution in particular moved me, but racially biased police brutality in the US is also an important matter of justice, and free speech an important value to maintain. And this is another way this movie is timely, as it focuses on relationships between people who find themselves "ideological comrades with strategic differences."


The last sentence of that Grantland quote also struck me in a more personal way. Selma depicts each of the major characters in the story as moderates in their own eye: Johnson between King and Wallace, King between Johnson and Malcolm X, and even Wallace between Johnson and Clark. While the film clearly depicts King as the hero, it also shows how each man saw himself as the hero, which Johnson's current apologists ironically confirm in their criticism.

I've noticed similar tendencies in my own life as I've moved away from pure math. It can be tempting to get attached to a particular point on the pure-applied spectrum, criticizing for instance the ridiculously useless bounds of extremal combinatorics on the one hand and the incomprehensibility of the successes of deep learning practitioners on the other. I occasionally hear others talk about how they've decided to do theoretical computer science essentially because it's mathy enough for them to put those skills to use but hints of practicality enough to make other people listen.

But thinking this way would be to fall into the same error as Johnson or even Wallace, simply comparing ourselves to the people around us. No, simply being a reasonable middle is not enough; our work needs to stand on its own, worthwhile in its own right. As I've been struggling with ever since exiting the high school math competition world, I need to stop comparing myself to others and simply look to add value wherever I can, however I can.

PS Grace and I won "Best Dressed Couple" at the party, and received a pretty cool pair of conjoined 3D-printed Oscar's. We weren't comparing, though. :)


  1. Perhaps 2 Cor 10:12 and surrounding may make more sense, now. :-)

  2. I like your conclusion - that's something I'll keep in in mind when I get into arguments with my deep learning friends on one side and my theory group friends on the other. Perhaps the "right" point on the pure/applied spectrum is different for everyone?

  3. @Timothy:

    > Perhaps the "right" point on the pure/applied spectrum is different for everyone?

    Consider the alternative: what if everyone searched the same "solution space" with precisely the same strategy? (I said "same", because Thomas Kuhn argues against it in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)

  4. Hi Sam,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your point on not comparing. (There should be courses dedicated to that.) There is one issue though. At some point people need to make decision on how to allocate the resources. Fund this person or that person, this research or that research. One complain that I hear from more pure people directed at more applied area is the extra focus on the hot and the trendy and the overexcitement that comes with it. These sort of maneuvers attracts funding but sort of misfires at truly advancing the science (too much shift of focus, etc.). It would be ideal if we did not have to compare fields, people, research directions and so on. But many times it is unavoidable.

    What you are right about though is the following. At the personal level, the least you compare yourselves with others the better off you are. (I wish I was good at doing that myself :- )