BOOK REVIEW Davids in a world of Goliaths Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and a Bit of Ingenuity Can
Change the World by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson
Reviewed by Jim Ash
The mullahs of Iran have all sorts of power, which they wield in the name of
their version of Islam. But one thing they can't do is flag a cab when they
According to Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson, authors of Small Acts of
Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and Ingenuity Can Change the World,
taxi drivers in Tehran simply refuse to stop for these bearded men of god. It's
a paltry act of defiance, but it became a highly symbolic one due to a 2004
Iranian film called Marmoulak (Lizard).
In the movie, a small-time thief - nicknamed Lizard for his ability
to scale walls - escapes from prison by impersonating a mullah, only to find
that his disguise makes it impossible for him to get a cab. Iranian censors saw
the scene as disrespectful of religious authority and banned the film. That
decision backfired spectacularly: Marmoulak became a smash hit via
pirated DVDs, Iran's guardians of public morality ended up looking ridiculous,
and the mullahs still can't get a ride.
a pattern that's repeated over and over again in the collection of anecdotes
that makes up Resistance. An individual or a small group takes a stand
against repressive authority - a stand that may or may not be strictly legal,
but eschews violence. The rebellion spreads, often in direct response to clumsy
official efforts to suppress it. And the government is ultimately humiliated,
be it by bad press, a sheepish about-face or - in extreme cases - a popular
What the authors have created is a compendium of people power, based on their
experiences on the front lines of the battle for human rights. Crawshaw, a
former journalist, is the international advocacy director for Amnesty
International. Jackson is a veteran rights campaigner who fought many of his
battles in Asia, particularly Myanmar, and now works as vice president of
social responsibility for MTV Networks International. Their book brings
together dozens of short tales from around the world that illustrate how even
the most brutal and repressive authority can be undermined by the simple
refusal to accept it.
One thing that will strike the reader of Resistance is how inventive
some of the more symbolic acts of resistance have been. Take the case of the
residents of the Solidarity-era Polish town of Swidnik. They wanted to boycott
the official TV news broadcast in a way that couldn't be ignored, so they took
to leaving their TV sets in their front window, showing the broadcast, while
they went out for a walk. (The hardline communist rulers of Poland responded
with a curfew during the broadcast; the Swidnikians simply started giving an
earlier news broadcast the same treatment.)
We also hear about the Myanmese who hung pictures of Snr-Gen Than Shwe and
other senior junta members around the necks of stray dogs during the 2007
demonstrations. Associating someone with a dog is seen as a mortal insult in
Burmese culture, and Yangon residents delighted in watching the city's dog
catchers scramble to apprehend the canine protesters.
While many of the anecdotes in Resistance concern the powerless finding
their power, the book does not confine itself to the heroism of the little
people. It also offers example of abuses of power being confronted from within.
Sometimes this takes the form of triggermen who refuse to play their assigned
role, like the Israeli seruvniks (from the Hebrew seruv, meaning
These Israeli Defense Forces members refuse to serve in the occupied
territories on the grounds that the Israeli occupation is cruel and illegal.
Other times the resistance comes from the top, as in the case of Zhao Ziyang,
deposed as Communist Party leader in China because of his outspoken criticism
of the Tiananmen crackdown. He had the last laugh with the posthumous release
of his memoirs, which contained damaging disclosures about the decision to
employ lethal force against the student protestors, and were widely
disseminated despite Beijing's efforts to suppress them.
Behind all these tales, told in short, rapid-fire bursts, is the book's main
theme: that all authority, even the very worst, only exists with the consent of
those it commands. The moment the people decide they have had enough - and this
applies to the people that enforce the system as well as to those that endure
it - the gig is up. It's a truth that is being driven home right now across the
Arab world, as one rotten dictatorship after another feels the heat of a
populace that refuses to be pushed around any more. And it's a truth that gives
the reader of Resistance some hope in a world that has been steadily
getting darker since the turn of the millennium.
Readers from the affluent West may reach some uncomfortable conclusions after
finishing Resistance. Most of the uplifting stories in the book come
from places where defying power carries real risks - of imprisonment without
trial, of torture, of extra-judicial murder. Those of us who live in the rich
democracies of the world can challenge governments we dislike at our ease.
Those regimes are forced to tolerate dissent by their constitutions and legal
systems, and by the last vestiges of a free press, and they have to secure the
continued consent of the people regularly in fair elections.
Despite all these advantages, we in the West do little to nothing about the
glaring problems in our own countries, and Resistance makes this
poignantly clear by showing just how much can be done. We can applaud the
stories in the book, just as many of us applaud the way people in the Middle
East are fighting the power.
Yet despite the rot at the core of our system - led by Washington, with the
rest of the rich industrialized countries either actively playing along or
coyly looking the other way - we keep electing the same discredited political
parties, who serve big money instead of the people. We sit idly by while our
leaders wage illegal wars, kidnap our fellow citizens abroad and ship them to
offshore torture chambers, and assassinate foreigners with robot drones. And we
stay glued to the TV while corporate power continues its program to put us back
in the feudal age with one hand, while systematically restricting debate on the
subject with the other.
Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and a Bit of Ingenuity Can
Change the World by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson. Union Square (Sep
15, 2010). ISBN-10: 1402781245. Price US$16, 240 pages.
(Steve Crawshaw will be one of the participants in a panel discussion at the
Foreign Correspondent's Club in Bangkok on March 22. The topic of the
discussion is Small Acts of Resistance: Popular Movements and Democratic
Change. For more information, click
Jim Ash is a Canadian writer and editor.
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