BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A
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Archive for the ‘Seeking’

Work Less. We Need You.

May 23, 2017 By: Mel Category: Seeking, Stratification, Work

It seems like everyone I know is in one of two situations. Either they are un(der)employed and trying to figure out how to get some hours/money to survive or they are working far too many hours and trying to figure out how to fit any kind of a life into a workday.

I used to work appallingly long hours. It started because I was severely underpaid and had little choice. But it continued because I had internalized the idea of a “hard worker” being a good thing. I succumbed to the expectation that people are supposed to fit their life around their work, rather than the other way around. I also wanted independence. Work seemed like a better route to independence than housewife, the only other option on offer.

There were some rewards for all that “hard work” and long hours. It might almost make you believe in the pull yourself up by your bootstraps nonsense. Of course, not everyone can do it. While I was getting raises and promotions for being “indispensable,” my coworker was struggling just to get to the office on time. She was a single mother who lived in a part of Liberty City where the buses, when they were working at all, only ran Monday through Friday during rush hour. Ostensibly my raises and promotion were a result of all those long hours. But the reality is that requiring long hours to “get ahead” is a way of privileging certain people without seeming to.

Even a forty hour week is too much. It worked o.k. for my father, when I was small.  He was able to work full time, still have a social life, and participate in his community. But that is because he had a stay at home wife, a support staff in his office, a periodic housekeeper, and various babysitters for us kids. In other words, he had a cadre of women doing much of the work for him. Once his business was crushed by the big box stores, life changed. No more stay at home wife. No more support staff. The community participation stopped. He had a stroke and was never really able to work full time again.

So if you are feeling like you are somehow failing, if you think you need some self-help bullshit about how to manage your time better, you don’t. There is nothing wrong with you. The reason we have so many exhausted, sick people hanging by one last nerve is not that we are all inadequate. It is that the grind is killing us.

When I entered the nonprofit world things got even trickier. Suddenly, it isn’t that you are giving all your life hours to make an owner even richer. It is that you are dedicated to a cause. When the people you are ostensibly helping seem even worse off than you, how can you justify cutting them off?

Ironically, one of the first nonprofits I worked for was an organization in California that helped people who were caring for someone with a brain impairment. I worked long hours. I was tired, stressed, and cranky. I spent zero time trying to be a part of the community. I didn’t treat people the way they should be treated. While I was supposedly helping caregivers, I had a life which would not have allowed me to do any caregiving. So how was that really helping anyone?

What I have come to see is that the more we work at our jobs, the worse off we are as a society. Our work structure is designed to provide cover for continuing discrimination and inequality. It is designed to prevent us from being able to participate in the life of our communities. It relies on a cadre of women – disproportionately poor women of color – whose struggles are mostly invisible. It is exploitation that we are all complicit in, whether you hire someone to clean your house or are so busy that you need to rely on the poverty wage workers who make your fast food. I began to understand what Nancy Fraser refers to as a “crisis of care.”

Between the need for increased working hours and the cutback in public services, the financialized capitalist regime is systematically depleting our capacities for sustaining social bonds. This form of capitalism is stretching our “caring” energies to the breaking point. This “crisis of care” should be understood structurally. By no means contingent or accidental, it is the expression, under current conditions, of a tendency to social-reproductive crisis that is inherent in capitalist society, but that takes an especially acute form in the present regime of financialized capitalism.

In short, Capitalism cares only about production and marginalizes the relationship building and care that our lives actually depend on. If our communities are falling apart, it is because the time we need to nurture the relationships that make communities strong is being stolen from us. I don’t see how we will resolve any other problem unless we can tackle this one.

Clearly, this is a systemic issue that will require collective action. But one of the first steps has to be reprogramming our own thinking and pushing back on the theft of our time and well-being.

It is not easy to break the cycle. It might even be a little terrifying. We have been programmed our whole lives to believe that one false move will land us on the streets. The reality is that some people really are in such a precarious position that they have little room to push. But that isn’t true for all of us. And the more collective hours we can recover, the more time we will have to do things to open space for the people who don’t have it now.

A good start is to push back against all the voices, including the ones in the back of our heads, which tell us to judge people for not being hard working enough. Push back when people start every conversation by asking what a person does for a living. Don’t work overtime if you can afford not to. Find ways to decrease your material needs or alternate ways to meet those needs. Refuse to get on emails outside of work hours. Take every minute of your vacation (if you are lucky enough to have it).

Thank people who actually take off when they are sick. Support paid sick days for everyone. Applaud publicly those who prioritize their family and community in actions and not just words. Call out anyone who criticizes people who actually have their priorities straight. Build a support system that makes risking your job a little less scary. Be there for others so that they can take risks too. Be the one who helps those trying to live without wage labor, not the Petty Crocker who resents anyone that isn’t working as much as they are.

When you have a moment of guilt or fear, think about how this system is designed to make it impossible to have a reasonable life. Think about all the people who could benefit from a drastic shift in culture and expectations. Ask why, if you leave work early or get on Facebook at your desk, employers say that you are stealing time. Yet it is totally accepted that an employer expects you to be on email 24/7, schedules meetings during lunch hour, or takes advantage of lax overtime exemption laws to make people work late for free.  Get pissed. Remember that you aren’t just pushing back for yourself. Remember that time is not money, time is life. They are stealing your life.

No matter how you earn your living, you aren’t doing anyone any favors by abandoning your loved ones, community, and health to the organization. No person can work 40 hours a week or more, support their loved ones in the way they deserve, be an active member of a community, be aware of what is going on in the world, be conscious about the systems they support, take care of themselves, create beautiful things, and find time for the joy that makes life worth living. Too many of us are sacrificing all the most important things on the altar of work. We need to look at our lives differently. Or as Fraser puts it

“The idea that you could build a society that assumes every adult is a person with primary care responsibilities, community engagements, and social commitments. That’s not utopian. It’s a vision based on what human life is really like.”

You can (and should) read the whole interview here.

My Two Cents on Getting Involved in Movements and Activism

December 07, 2016 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Photo of sign that says Occupy Everywhere and Never Give it BackEven before Trump was elected, more people were asking me for advice on getting involved in something besides electoral politics. After all the questions and chats, I have a few thoughts to add to my earlier post for the Newly Disillusioned.

Take Care of Yourself

I know it can seem selfish and that advice about “self care” has become eye-rollingly ubiquitous. But if you cannot take care of yourself, then you are no help to anyone. If you drive yourself into the ground and need people to pick you up off the floor, you are taking them away from things they could be doing to make things better. If you are in a constant stream of bad relationships (romantic, friend, colleague, comrade…), then you are sucking energy away from yourself and everyone else. You will hurt more than help if you are overflowing with unexamined rage, prejudices, and privilege. None of us will ever be perfect, or perfectly able to take care of ourselves, but personal responsibility and self awareness are prerequisites to useful action.

Help Those Closest to You

The mindset of just “take care of your own” and screw everyone else is part of how we got into this mess. At the same time, if you cannot be relied on to help the people you love, how can anyone rely on you for anything? Besides, when you know someone well, you are in a better position to understand what they might need. When you “help” people you don’t know, it often goes terribly wrong. (Hello nonprofit industrial complex. I’m talking to you.) All of us will need help and support at some point. All of us will get sick, lose loved ones, and have our hearts broken. Most of us will have times where it is a struggle to just get by. We need to be able to rely on each other so that life’s tragedies don’t derail us completely. The more we can rely on each other, the less people can control us through fear of destitution.

Expand Your Circle

Just make sure that those closest to you are a diverse enough group that you are also supporting some of the most marginalized people in our society. Our society is so stratified and segregated that many people don’t have any relationships outside of their own race, class, age, physical ability, religion…  Poor people tend to know poor people. Professional/managerial class people tend to know other people like themselves. The further down you are on our societal hierarchy, the harder it is to be able to meet your basic needs. If all the college-educated professionals are only helping each other, we have a problem. For those of us who have had it relatively easy, sometimes the best thing we can do is make it possible for someone else to fight the system that is crushing them.

Let People Help You

I have an amazing group of friends who are all loath to “burden” anyone with their problems. I get it. Taking care of yourself is important. There are always people out there who have things worse than you do. Everyone seems to have so much on their plate. How can we possibly ask more of them? The thing is, we cannot succeed without functioning support systems. And we cannot have functioning support systems if the most reliable people are never willing to ask for help when they need it. Mutual aid requires that we all be willing to both give it and receive it.

Work with People You Like and Trust

It is tempting to think that people who show up for the same protest or organizing meeting have the same values you do. It is tempting to think that people who seem to share your principles can be relied on when it really counts. But experience has taught me that is not the case. Sometimes it is the conservative friend, the one who thinks your actions are foolish, who bails you out after. If you get involved in movements and community groups, you will meet all kinds of frustrating people. There will be racist, feminist women and misogynist, anti-racist men. There will be elitist union reps and homophobic environmentalists. There will be people who say lovely things and show up for every protest, but cannot be relied on to do anything that doesn’t come with fame. Take stock of who you know and what they are trying to do in this world. Think long and hard about who you really think would have your back in an emergency. Keep those people close.

Do Things With Joy

I have a tendency to do whatever needs to be done. Agendas? Sure. Meeting notes? Sure. Collecting money? No problem. It isn’t a bad thing. You don’t want to be the person who is never willing to do grunt work. There are far too many of those people already. But if you find no joy in what you are doing, then you will not keep at it long enough for it to make a difference. We are all so busy. We all have to spend so much of our lives on obligations, especially to our paying jobs. The best way to make sure that our extracurriculars are successful is to make sure that they bring us the joy, community, and sense of possibility that we all crave. There are so many things wrong and so many ways to be a part of trying to change them. It may take a while, but you can find something that won’t feel like another job.

Small is Big

When something newsworthy happens, there is an immediate effort to start identifying the charismatic, (usually) male leader who supposedly brought it into being.  When we hear about the bus boycott, we hear about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. We don’t hear about all the people who worked at their job, took care of their family, and then put in just a little extra driving carpools or knocking on their neighbor’s door. We don’t hear about the thousands of people who really make things happen in small ways. Heroic figures can be inspirational, but they can also be paralyzing. If you think any effort needs to be fame-worthy or it is worthless, then you won’t do anything. Besides, the fame seekers are often motivated more by ego and savior complexes than anything else. Don’t undervalue the little things. The little things are more important than they might seem.

In Short

There is no end to the struggle for justice. It isn’t as though, if you can just get through a few hundred sleepless nights, we will arrive at utopia. If you really want to work for a more just world, then you just signed on for a lifetime job. We don’t need more people who make speeches all day and leave the child rearing and cooking to someone else. We don’t need more people who burn themselves out after six months and contribute to the constant churn in our organizations. We need strong, grounded people who take care of themselves and others. We need collaborative, organized communities that provide foundation and protection. So just start where you are at, find good people, keep your ego in check, and try a little something.

Dipping a Toe Back In

October 16, 2016 By: Mel Category: Seeking

toe-in-water-772773_1280You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing much lately. It has been hard to prioritize. It isn’t just the full-time job or that I am prioritizing framily and community over the solitude needed to write – though those things play a huge role. It is also because I started to wonder why I was writing.

What I love about writing is how it helps me think things through. It forces clarity and brings up questions I didn’t even realize I had. And I like thinking things through publicly on this blog…sometimes. When it was good, people helped me to see things that I had not thought of. I found a lot of kindred spirits, some of whom became friends that I cherish.

But sometimes I let myself get sucked into debate with people who were not trying to grow or build anything. Sometimes I found myself wasting time being the female opinion for dudes who weren’t really capable of even attempting to see things outside of their own experience. Sometimes I wasted precious time on haters and trolls who just liked to stir up shit. It is so easy to get caught up in other people’s agendas –  to wake up and realize you just spent days, weeks, or months being responsive to everything except the things you most want and most value.

I want to write again, but I’m going to be careful to use this blog for the good parts – finding like-minded people, finding people who want to work on similar things, opening a conduit for information about the areas I’m working on, and having genuine discussions with people who have different experiences.

To that end, I thought I would share some of the things I’m working on (or planning to in the very near future).

  • A book on Grand Juries
  • A creative/community space that is child friendly
  • A DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia) media project
  • Making things (I’m painting again!)
  • Starting a Diaspora pod (or some other alternative to Facebook/Twitter that isn’t for profit)

The grand jury book is the first priority. If any of you know folks who have served on grand juries or have some expertise in that area, please ask them to get in touch with me at mel (at) broadsnark.com

So what have you all been up to?

 

Some Thoughts on Voting for the Newly Disillusioned

August 03, 2016 By: Mel Category: Core, Seeking

I’m seeing quite a few people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds who have just now realized that the political system is not the path to what they are looking for. They are feeling angry, cynical, and lost.

I get it. I’ve been there.

I was crushed when Bill Clinton gave us welfare “reform,” NAFTA, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I was one of those people everyone blames for the 2000 election because they voted for Nader. And, even though I had long before become cynical, I really hoped that Obama at least kinda meant all that stuff he said about civil liberties. Other people maybe picked Howard Dean or Ron Paul, but many of us have had at least one moment of political hope followed by inevitable disappointment.

Of course we have. We have been trained our entire lives to focus our attention on the shiny circus of Big P Politics, especially presidential elections. We are taught it was LBJ and FDR that made things better. It is as if all the people who went door to door, marched, organized strikes, wrote, exposed corruption, and took direct action did not even exist.

The good news is that now you are free. There are millions of things you can do and millions of people who also think things suck. Now that you have safely eliminated presidential politics from your arsenal of tactics that work, you can put your energies towards better things.

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade reading about social movements – from the kids involved in the civil rights movement to the anarchists in Barcelona. And I’ve spent a bit of time, though not nearly enough, participating in them. I don’t have a magic formula for you, but I do have a basic path that has started to form in my head. It goes something like this.

  1. Imagine how you want your life to be and what is standing in your way. Figure out what you want your world to look like. It doesn’t have to be precise or perfect, but you do need something to reach for.
  1. Find other people who want the same things that you do. Build communities of trust and support. (That trust and support part is crucial.)
  1. Plan direct actions. Ideally they should provide for immediate needs and disrupt the systems of oppression.
  1. Identify the obstacles that you will face and prepare for them, figure out how you will defend yourselves.
  1. Act
  1. Review the action. Figure out what went well and what didn’t. Reassess. Adjust. Make sure all your people are taken care of.
  1. Rinse and repeat.

That doesn’t mean that voting can never, ever be a part of what you are doing.

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” – Emma Goldman

All due respect to Emma (and I love her), her statement is kind of a case for voting. After all, it has been and still is prohibited for a whole lot of people (former felons, for instance). And it is not true that voting never matters at all. Voting for someone who is less likely to mow you down in the street is a totally reasonable defense strategy. Voting a terrible prosecutor out of office is a legitimate tactic. If two dudes are running for town sheriff and one is a sociopath, we might consider voting for the other guy.

But then we should go right back to working on ending the position of sheriff or prosecutor entirely. We should learn how to build community for ourselves rather than constituencies for people with their own agenda. We should learn how to resolve conflict ourselves, not empower violent authorities to run systems of oppression and retribution.

It is a lot harder to do those things than to stump for a candidate and vote every couple years. But we can only get out from under these people if we take responsibility and represent ourselves. I screw up every damn day in every way imaginable. But that is why it is called a struggle. And it is so much better to be struggling – to be a better person, to build alternate systems, against oppressive structures, with my community –  than to be looking for some kind of savior to come along and make it better.

Now that you are free of the constraints of electoral politics, what are you going to do?

The Road to Hell

April 29, 2011 By: Mel Category: Core, Criminalization, Seeking

My mother has a platitude for every occasion. One favorite is “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I thought about that saying as I read this piece on prostitution arrests in Honolulu. I have no doubt that some of the people pressuring the Honolulu PD to make prostitution a priority think they are doing a good thing. And I understand how someone hears about really awful trafficking stories and wants to do something about it. But the end result of their pressure is that a bunch of women are getting arrested, sometimes on multiple occasions. They even published some of their names in the paper. How the hell is that supposed to help the women that they are supposedly so concerned about?

The paper notes that, in nine months, the police have arrested only one pimp.  An associate dean at Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, explains why:

A prostitution arrest is very easy. You can do that quickly. You can go out on the street or go on Craigslist and get the individuals involved. But to get the pimp, it is harder to make that case.

Let’s set aside the fact that a whole lot of prostitutes don’t have pimps. It is an absolute truism that the law goes after the easiest pickings. If a six month investigation will result in one arrest of someone with a good attorney (who will probably get them off), but one afternoon on the corner can result in multiple arrests of people who can’t afford an attorney, who do you think most police departments pursue?

Back in 2004, a report was prepared for the Racial Disparity Project in Seattle. Like in the rest of the country, blacks and Latinos in Seattle were being incarcerated at higher rates than whites. The researchers set out to determine why. They found that the Seattle PD focused on downtown areas where crack was sold, ignoring areas where white people were selling heroin. The researchers found no “racially neutral” explanation for the disparities. In other words, the police were targeting the black community. It is always going to be the people with the least status who are targeted by the laws. Always.

I know I have written about this before when I talked about Over Reliance on the Law and Why the Legal System Does Not Work For You, but I just keep coming up on the same mental block. People see something horrible and they feel like they would be a bad person if they did nothing. And the only thing they can think to do is pass a law or call an authority or violate a person’s rights in some way. If to save one person, you hurt ten (or ten thousand), what the hell good does that do?

I was recently contacted by one of my friends, we’ll call her Carrie. Carrie is worried about one of our mutual friends who is going through a really rough time right now. Bad stuff. Deaths and illnesses and breakups and generally more than anyone can really handle. Our friend, we’ll call her Sandy, is not necessarily utilizing the most healthy coping mechanisms. (Neither would I be, but that’s another tale.) Carrie wants to do something to save Sandy from herself. I get it. I love Sandy. She is family to me.

But trying to save people from themselves almost always goes horribly wrong. It is how you get prostitutes being jailed in the name of saving people from sex work. It is how you get minority drug addicts being jailed in the name of saving people from drug addiction. And it is how you get women being institutionalized against their will in the name of “helping” them.

I’m not suggesting that we all just think about ourselves and do nothing about suffering. If someone asks me for help, and I can give it, I will. If someone says that something I do hurts them, and I can stop it, I do. If I see injustice and I have the ability to call it out, I will. If I can be there for a friend, not judging them or telling them how to live their life, I’m there.

I realize that means that I will sometimes have to watch people that I love hurt themselves. And that sucks. But we can’t save anyone but ourselves. We can’t prevent one another from experiencing pain. We can be there to lean on. We can be kind to people. We can make people laugh. We can remind people about the parts of life that don’t suck. We can forgive people their imperfections.

We can respect that the road that they are on may be the one that they need to travel, even if it is long and ugly and dangerous. Because really, in the end, all those roads end in the same place.

Selling Social (In)Justice

April 21, 2011 By: Mel Category: Politics, Seeking

Last week, I was invited to an awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center. The event was put on by an organization called Vital Voices, an NGO that “trains and empowers emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the globe, enabling them to create a better world for us all.”

Sunitha Krishnan, won the human rights award. Liron Peleg-Hadomi and Noha Khatieb won the Fern Holland award. Even a cynic like me finds it difficult to watch the linked videos without being a little inspired. In Sunitha’s case, that is despite my generally negative view of people in the rescue industry. (Just count how many times Sunitha says “I” and “rescued” in this TED talk).

But it isn’t the messianic complexes of so many in the non-profit world that really made the event horrific. That I could deal with. The real problem was who put on the event and what their agenda is. You see, Vital Voices was started by Hilary Clinton and Madeleine Albright back when Clinton was first lady. The organization still receives government funding. They also receive funding from a smorgasbord of some of the most hideously destructive private corporations.  If you want to get an idea of who this organization is built to serve, take a look at their board list.

So there I was, watching a splashy awards show that cost who knows how much of the organization’s multi million dollar budget. (They pulled in over 12 million dollars in 2009.) There I was watching Hilary Clinton march up on stage to introduce an event that honored women in countries like Afghanistan and Haiti – countries Clinton and her closest pals played a large part in fucking up.

I had to watch as they honored Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a woman who never met a war she didn’t like and who was rated 100% by the Christian Coalition and 0% by the HRC. Her voting record is just anti-human. And what about some of the other presenters/agents of misinformation. Wolf Blitzer? He may as well be paid by the Department of Defense. He does their work for them. Cokie Roberts? She robotically spews conservative talking points on trade and uncritically accepts conflating Iraq with terrorism.

Even worse was the sponsorship.  Much of the time the event felt like an ad for Goldman Sachs. Fatema Akbari, who won the entrepreneurial achievement award, actually thanked Goldman Sachs during her speech. Yes. Thank you Goldman Sachs.  Thanks for helping to blow up the world economy. Thanks for gambling on food and energy futures. Thanks for so generously letting all your employees work in the government. Everything is all better now that you supported a woman’s business in Afghanistan.

I wanted to punch somebody.

Much like my experiences working at that hotel in Miami, the Vital Voices event made abundantly clear how elites in politics, media, and corporations all merge into one amorphous blob of self-congratulatory power. And I have little doubt in my mind that most of them actually believe that their little philanthropic show makes them upstanding people, fighting the good fight. The delusion is infuriating.

So what do we do when social justice is co-opted by power? How do we compete against a money drop by Goldman Sachs when we can barely scrape together money to bring coffee to a meeting? How do we confront the people who use justice for women as a front for wars and crooks? How do we deal with the twenty-something girl who thinks Hilary Clinton is some kind of hero? How do we break the illusion?

The Big Show

April 08, 2011 By: Mel Category: Politics, Seeking

Why do anarchists spend months organizing protests around events like the G20 or the IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings?

I’ve heard some reasons over the years, but none of them are very convincing to me. Some people say that we need to publicly protest those institutions of power. Some say it is about not letting them take over our cities and streets. Some see it as an opportunity to build solidarity with like-minded people. Some people just get a rush from confrontation and smashing things up.

But aren’t there better ways to do all those things?

Maybe the question isn’t so much what we are doing there. Maybe the question is, what are they doing there?What are those meetings for anyways? Decisions are made long before those meetings happen, as anyone who has to lobby the key players weeks or months in advance can tell you. Very little of import actually occurs there. It is mostly a media opportunity for glorified PR people/presidents/head hoohas.

Honestly, I am beginning to think that these events are planned just for us. Clearly, a media event is for public consumption. But I mean that these events have the added benefit of keeping activists occupied with shit that won’t make a difference. It makes us predictable.

If we are spending months organizing protests at the G20, we are taking that time away from organizing in our communities. If we are spending our money on international flights, we can’t use it for other things. If we focus all our energies on the World Bank and IMF only twice a year, then we leave them to perform business as usual every other day. It is a game. We are playing by their rules. Why are we letting them set the schedule?

And don’t even get me started on the grand excuse these meetings are to give shit tons of money to the “security” apparatus.

These events attract media. If we think we can get productive media attention, that media attention might do something, then maybe it is worth a little energy. But otherwise, shouldn’t we use our time more wisely? Shouldn’t we at least be surprising?

Don’t Be Like Che

March 17, 2011 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Seeking

Che Guevara is everywhere.  He is on t-shirts, sneakers, bags, bedazzled boots, and even children’s books. The bedazzled boots don’t really bother me so much. Not likely that the person wearing those has actually read any Che and they probably won’t be mistaken for someone who is about to go traipsing through the jungle to start a foco.

It is all the attention from the radical left that really irritates me. At first I thought, maybe they just don’t know what he was about. Maybe they’ve never read his work. Maybe they don’t know what he was doing in Bolivia. But as I watch some of the people who love Che, I am beginning to see that they probably like him for exactly the reasons that I don’t.  Because I keep seeing people in our communities emulate all of Che’s most problematic characteristics.

Guevara was a privileged, white kid from Argentina whose parents were about as close to blue blood as you could get. He eventually became politicized, hooked up with Fidel Castro in Mexico, and joined Castro’s revolutionary movement – a movement that had lots of support, even amongst many of the middle and upper classes who now claim to have always hated Fidel. It was a revolution rooted in community, history, and cultural understanding. And it was the only thing Che was involved with that wasn’t a total failure. (I’m not romanticizing the revolution here, just acknowledging that they achieved their goal.)

After the revolution, Che was in charge of the economic policies in Cuba. And he fucked it up royally. This is not my opinion.  Guevara got on Cuban television and told the people he had designed “an absurd plan, disconnected from realty, with absurd goals and imaginary resources.” (Castañeda 216). He did some other awful things in his post-revolutionary Cuba days. He was instrumental in setting up the labor camp where dissidents and homosexuals were sentenced to hard labor for their “crimes against revolutionary morals.” (178)

Guevara decided to go back to what he thought he did best. He took off for the Congo to participate in the anti-imperialist fighting there. Che should have known better. Even as Castro’s BFF, the fact that he was not Cuban was an issue during the Cuban revolution. Now Che was off in Africa, a place he knew jack shit about, trying to lead troops of Africans.  Many were incredulous at best. Egyptian President Nasser “expressed his astonishment and attempted to dissuade him, explaining that a white, foreign leader commanding blacks in Africa could only come across as an imitation of Tarzan.” (283)

The Congo mission was a failure, as Che himself admitted. But instead of learning from his mistakes, he headed to Bolivia to start a continent-wide South American revolution. Nobody seems to be sure why Bolivia was chosen. The country had a relatively popular elected president. The people had been through a revolution only fourteen years earlier. The 1952 revolution led to some land reform, a lot of food shortages, and the virtual economic takeover of Bolivia by the United States. Nobody in Bolivia wanted a revolution repeat.

The communist party in Bolivia was not supportive. Che claims they backed out. Mario Monje, Secretary of the Communist Party of Bolivia, claims that the Cubans lied about Che’s intentions.  Either way, when Che saw he had virtually no local support, he should have turned around and went home. But he did not. He and his group, virtually no Bolivians amongst them, planted themselves in a country not their own and determined to start a war. So here he was, some white dude from Argentina, wandering around indigenous communities in Bolivia and trying to instigate violence that would force those campesinos to take his side.

The campesinos were having none of it. Let’s try to imagine how many times in the last 500 years those people have seen some conquistador come in and claim they were there to save them. This group of outsiders knew nothing about the community. Che and his crew did not know the people or the language. They were so ignorant that they were trying to teach themselves Quechua. Too bad they were in a place that was Aymara and Guarani. And when the news got out that a bunch of outsiders were starting shit, Guevara just lied and claimed that the majority of the movement were Bolivians.

Every single month, Che’s diary of Bolivia tells how they were having no luck in recruiting locals. It tells how the people were informing on them. It tells how they took locals hostage, took their animals, forced the locals to feed them, and made the locals targets of the military. Again and again, Che describes how terrified the people were.

Not surprisingly, Guevara was turned in. He was murdered. Bolivians went on to have their own revolution, a relatively peaceful one. They elected an indigenous man, leader of the once-scorned coca growers union. And unlike with the post-Obama-election liberals in the United States, Bolivians have continued to raise hell every time they don’t like the policies that their government is supporting. Turns out those campesinos didn’t need some conquistador to come in and do it for them. Imagine that.

Every time I see some privileged person protest touring, I think of Che. Every time I hear about some insurrectionists starting shit in other people’s neighborhoods, I think of Che. Every time some twenty-something white dudes audaciously roll into a room like they have all the answers – summarily dismissing the experience and knowledge of everyone else there – I think of Che. Every time I see some supposed radicals who can’t recognize how inappropriate it is to “lead” or “save” or “help” the poor people or black people or brown people, without bothering to ask their opinion about it, I think of Che.

I do admire Che’s willingness to give up so much of his privilege, to suffer and sacrifice for his beliefs. But a person can never give up all their privileges. And he certainly didn’t lose the false sense of superiority that comes with having been told all your life that you are at the top of the food chain. We don’t need more arrogance, racism, cultural insensitivity, machismo, violence, and sexism. That might get your mug on a t-shirt someday, but it isn’t going to make the world a better place.

Imagine if Guevara had not made a new man the center of his philosophy.* What if he had stuck around to fix his fuck ups in Cuba? What if he took care of his official and unofficial kids? How cool would it have been if he had recognized that he couldn’t impose his beliefs on others? How amazing if he had said that it is time white dudes stopped trying to be in charge all the damn time? Now that would have been fucking revolutionary.

______________

* Guevara’s pep talk to the troops, “This type of struggle gives us the opportunity to become revolutionaries, the highest form of the human species, and it also allows us to emerge fully as men; those who are unable to achieve either of those two states should say so now and abandon the struggle” (Guevara 208). Apparently, I am unable to attain the “highest form of the human species” (not being a man). Guevara seems to have put himself in that category, above all the rest of us riffraff. How nice for him.

Castañeda, J. (1997) Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara. NY, NY, Vintage Books.

Guevara, C (2206). The Bolivian Diary. NY, NY, Ocean Press.

On Facts and Truth

February 10, 2011 By: Mel Category: Core, Politics, Seeking

Our book group just finished reading The Whites of Their Eyes by Jill Lepore. Lepore is a historian and spends a lot of time focusing on historical facts that contradict the tea party narrative. So the group spent some time discussing whether or not there is such a thing as verifiable fact, whether the truth is really knowable.

It is common in U.S. politics for the left to assert that they deal in fact, while the right deals in mythology. You can certainly make a case for that when it comes to, for example, sex education or evolution.  But when I got home from the book club, I started thinking about another, similar discussion I had about facts and truth.

Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia is the testimonio of an indigenous Guatemalan woman.  Menchú lived through Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war, a war that resulted in an estimated 200,000 killed or disappeared and more than one million displaced. The book recounts the torture and murders of her family members and her journey from unknown indigenous woman to Nobel prize winner.

But the book caused controversy when anthropologist David Stoll started investigating some of the details.  He found, for example, that witnesses claimed Rigoberta’s brother was shot rather than burned to death.  He discovered that she had more education than claimed in the book.  And he brought out information about an intra-indigenous land dispute that was not mentioned in the story and which he thought pertinent.

People on the left rushed to Menchú’s defense.  They claimed that indigenous people had different senses of history and fact.  They said it was common in testimonio to mix together stories of what happened to you and what happened to others, that there was not the same sense of individuation that we have.  They claimed that whatever facts might be off, the overall story that she told is accurate.  Her book conveys how the war effected indigenous communities.

Although I was one of the few people in class who actually sympathized with some of Stoll’s arguments, I also had to admit that the facts in question didn’t really matter much to the overall truth of what she said.  As a writer, I know that there are some truths that I could probably only face in fiction.  And I suspect that Arundhati Roy, in the introduction to Field Notes on Democracy, is onto something when she says,

As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on.  Does it eventually mask a larger truth?  I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we really need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry.

I believe that.  I believe sometimes you can get mired in the details and lose site of what is important. And I believe that your belief system, your narrative, your ideology – they determine which facts you pursue.  So the motivation behind the pursuit is often more important than the facts themselves.

The reason that the left reacted so violently to Stoll is that they wondered what his motivation was in going after Rigoberta Menchú in the first place.  As I thought about that, I realized that one of the reasons I really disliked Lepore’s book was that I was suspicious about her motivations for writing it. And my suspicions were very soon confirmed by how she approached the issue.

She mocks the Tea Party.  It isn’t the kind of obvious mocking that you would get on The Daily Show. In fact, she makes herself seem like a very reasonable person who sat down and talked to them.  It is a subtle, intellectualized mocking where she points out all the facts they get wrong and glosses over or trivializes the things they get right.  Right at the beginning of the book she says,

But the Tea Party’s Revolution wasn’t just another generation’s story – it was more like a reenactment – and its complaint about taxation without representation followed the inauguration of a president who won the electoral vote 365 to 173 and earned 53 percent of the popular vote.  In an age of universal suffrage, the citizenry could hardly be said to lack representation. (emphasis mine)

Really?  I think there are about 5 million people in prison or felon disenfranchised who might disagree.  There are millions of undocumented immigrants who might disagree.  There are lots of young adults under 18 who might disagree.  And most of us eligible voters don’t feel represented by the customary choices of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.  That’s why we don’t usually bother to vote.  But thanks for dismissing us with one fell swoop of “facts.”

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I have a somewhat different take on the Tea Party crowd.  I think the Tea party is right that they are not represented.  I think they have been hella slow figuring it out.  I don’t know how to reach some of those people, but I am certain that combing through their words to find every fact they have wrong is not the way to do it. Inconvenient facts are great for winning a debate, but not necessarily helpful for reaching an understanding.

I am not claiming that facts do not matter at all.  I won’t go so far as to say nothing is knowable.  But I do think that we select what facts to go after and what facts to use.  We can as easily use facts to obscure the truth as to uncover it.  Facts and truth have a more complicated relationship than might seem to be the case and sometimes you have to go beyond facts to get at truth.

Beliefs as Barrier

December 16, 2010 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Seeking

I understand and respect the choices that many people within the anarchist community make.  I love the self expression and weirdness that is embraced in how people dress or act.  I completely respect the decision to be a vegan, to avoid chain stores, to criticize suburban homogeneity….

But there is a price that we pay by being too strict in those choices or too harsh in our judgments.

I have friends who grew up in the projects and really like suburban homogeneity.  They think it is great to live somewhere clean, without rats, where the plumbing works.  They don’t want to go to the vegan café, they want to go to Fridays.  And if I refuse to go to those places, I cut myself off from them.  If I am disdainful of their choices and dreams, they will know it.

I understand that people don’t want to support corporations and institutions that are at the heart of our problems.  But there is no way to extricate ourselves completely from that system.  We aren’t always going to be able to engage people on the most ideal terms.  And if we want them to consider coming to our spaces, we have to be willing to go to the spaces they want to be in, and to do it without raising eyebrows or preaching.

I’m not asking that anyone do things that are against their principles.  We all have to act in accordance with our conscience.  But we should understand that living in accordance with our beliefs can be an obstacle to working with people who find the anarchist subculture odd at best.  And rather than giving anarchists the side eye who aren’t fully immersed in that subculture, we should be happy that there are people who will be able to communicate anarchist ideas to audiences that we might not be able to reach.