BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, anarchist, atheist who likes the letter A
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Stuff Dudes Do

June 04, 2013 By: Mel Category: Inequality

Mild rant warning.

I’m an anarchist. I used to be in a punk collective. I worked on criminal injustice issues. Sadly, all of these things mean that I end up in spaces that are largely dudes. Maybe those things attract more men than women. Or maybe a whole lot of us women have been chased out of those spaces by the stuff you dudes do. I can tell you that one of the reasons I backed off from things this last year is that I just didn’t have it in me to deal with certain types of behavior, behavior that tends to be very gendered.

Why are there always those one or two dudes in every space who will take up half a meeting with long-ass soliloquies?   Do they really think that what they have to say is that much more important/intelligent/fascinating than anyone else? Are they trying to prove how great they are? Shutting everyone else down by talking the whole time doesn’t show you are great. It shows you have no consideration for other people.

You know how else dudes shut people down? They talk down to people. How many times, like this weekend in fact, have I seen a woman say some real shit only to have a dude respond to her in the most condescending way? My friend was right and speaking from experience. Some asshat dude responded by demonstrating that he wasn’t listening to a word she said and telling her to read Frantz Fanon.

Which brings me to another way dudes shut things down. Why are so many of you incapable of speaking from experience or to experience? Why do you have to speak in quotes? I am not impressed by your ability to quote paragraphs from Marx or Kropotkin. Are you trying to intimidate people who haven’t read as many dead white guys as you have? Are you trying to demonstrate that you have never had an original thought? Or maybe just that you have so little life experience that you have nothing else to say?

And no, dude, I will not let you turn a discussion about lived experience and human suffering into a pissing match about some pseudo-intellectual point where you think you can outwit me.

And then there is that damned certainty, certainty that so often leads to bullying. In a way it is impressive how dudes who are talking out their ass can do so with such certainty. And then I watch women who know so much more than they do put things out as questions for discussion.

And somehow this certainty born of ignorance and hubris and disrespect wins out. Opening things for discussion allows people to find the holes in an idea, to use our combined experience and knowledge to come up with things that are better than one of us would come up with alone. Certainty just demolishes anything in its path. Certainty leads to antagonism and a debate where one person has to come out the winner – no matter how many flaws they ignore. And then you know what happens? We fuck up.

I’m so tired of bullies. Of certainty. Of a total blindness to the different ways issues affect women.  Of women doing all the invisible work. FYI – I’m not your fucking secretary or your maid.

But do you know what the absolute worst thing of all is? The absolute worst of all are the dudes who do all of those things in the name of feminism. Or women’s rights. Or being an ally. Or whatever the fuck they want to call it. Can there possibly be anything more sexist and condescending and egotistical than telling me, a woman, what to think in the name of my oppression? You don’t have my experience and, since we can only be experts on our own experience, you don’t know shit.

I would not have the audacity to walk into the NAACP and tell them their polices are racist. I wouldn’t be so clueless as to take a position on whether or not black people should use the n word. I’ll certainly listen to the discussions about those issues. But my job is to work on myself and my own behavior so as not to contribute to other people’s suffering. It isn’t to think that what I read and hear trumps what they live.

I used to give the benefit of the doubt, thinking people should get some credit for trying. But that isn’t trying. It shouldn’t be that I get treated with more respect by people who don’t even think about these things than by the ones who claim to be allies. You aren’t being allies. You know what you are being? Heroes. You have made it all about you. You have bought into the victim, villain, hero narrative and you can’t break out of wanting to be a fucking hero. I don’t need a hero. Me and my girlfriends can take care of ourselves. Thank you very much.

I know I am painting a lot of people with a broad brush. But if you exhibit any of these behaviors, please stop. We need to be able to work together. Chasing us away isn’t helping.

Book Review – 33 Revolutions Per Minute

January 11, 2013 By: Mel Category: Book

33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day by Dorian Lynskey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of this book is “A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day.” But it should really say that it is a history of (mostly) the U.S. and U.K. through protest songs. I don’t say that as a criticism. The book actually turned out to be more interesting than I thought it would be.

I have some gripes here and there, but overall Lynskey did an admirable job of smashing 100 years of history and hundreds (thousands?) of musicians into one book. Whatever details I wish he would have put in or taken out, his ability to weave a readable narrative from so much information makes up for any flaws.

I expected a lot of fascinating factoids and was not disappointed. You’ll read about how FDR raged when the Almanacs released Songs for John Doe. How Paul Robeson was confronted by a lynch mob when he showed up for an outdoor concert in Peekskill in 1949. How Johnny Cash pissed off Nixon by playing What is Truth instead of the requested Okie from Muskogee at a White House Concert. How FBI informants infiltrated black arts groups like the Watts Prophets. How Marvin Gaye fought to make political music and what the recording session for What’s Going On was like. (Hint: It involved lots of weed, booze, and masturbation.)

As interesting as the historical details are, what I love most about the book is how it delves into the tensions that artists confront. Is art self expression or should it have a purpose? How do you make music with a message that isn’t trite and preachy? What is your responsibility to your audience? What do you do when people misinterpret your work or co-opt it for things you never intended? How can a radical artist stay motivated to keep fighting when you lose more often than not? How do you stay focused in the face of repression or popularity?

In other words, the book deals with tensions that many of us face. It shows how fleeting those moments are when everything comes together. Sometimes people worked their asses off trying to make inspirational music or radical organizations and it fell flat. Sometimes a song written in twenty minutes would take off and start something huge. But even those twenty minute wonders had a million different happy accidents leading up to them.

A history through music turns out to be an ideal way to look at those tensions and to see how moments that seem to come out of nowhere never really do. History buffs and music nerds will like this book. But so, I think, will anyone who does art or activism.

View all my reviews

Big Tents, Little Bridges, Vested Interests

August 24, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change, Inequality

Bridge in the Japanese Garden in San FranciscoThis piece over at Cubik’s Rube reminded me of something I have been wanting to write about for a while. James is worried that the atheism+ idea that Blag Hag wrote about, and that I linked to on Wed, will be just one more divide in a movement that already has plenty of “splits, schisms, and dichotomies.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about big tents and factions since the group I was working with disintegrated. I think one of our core problems was that we tried to be too much of a big tent, or at least we went about it the wrong way. We knew that people in the group had different political views, theories of change, and ways of working. We had different backgrounds and life experiences – age, gender, race, class, religion. And rather than tackling those differences head on, we avoided talking about them. It was a huge mistake. And we ended up bleeding people anyway.

If you spend any time studying social justice movements from the past, you will soon learn how many of them fell apart or were co-opted because different groups sold each other out. White workers threw black workers under the bus with the unions. Black men threw women under the bus with voting. White women threw women of color under the bus with the feminist movement. Trans people got thrown under the bus by the GLB community. And on and on.

And in the end, while there may be a few beneficiaries here and there, we all lost. We find ourselves fighting the same battles all over again. Clearly, we can’t just all break off into little affinity groups that only think about ourselves. Our liberation is tied together in a very real way.

At the same time, whenever you get people together that have wildly different backgrounds, privileges, interests, communication styles… you are going to spend a huge amount of your time just keeping the group together. If you don’t spend the time, you will lose people. But if you spend all your time dealing with those things then people will feel like you aren’t moving toward your goal. And you will lose people that way too. Not to mention that the most marginalized people will be FUCKING EXHAUSTED trying to beat their heads against everyone else’s blindnesses.

And let us throw in another conundrum while we are at it. In that atheism+ post, she inserts a long quote about how many of the people who have gotten involved in the atheist movement are people who are not affected by any other type of prejudice/oppression. Being an atheist is the one little speed-bump on the otherwise smooth road of their lives. And they are wholly uninterested in having their other privileges questioned.

It is pretty much impossible for me to work with anyone who can only see their little corner of the universe and stay willfully blind about everything else. That doesn’t mean I won’t talk to them. I just can’t work with them. But as infuriating as it is for me to deal with people who can only see the one thing that affects them, it would be so much worse if they were coming in to white knight on some issue that they have not experienced and do not understand.

As (I believe it was) @manowax said at the Words, Beats & Life teach-in, ”You have to have a vested interest to make change.” If atheist prejudice is the only thing that those people can see that they have a vested interest in, then that is what they should focus on. It is when something isn’t just an “issue” but your everyday life that you will see it through to the end. What choice do you have?

It reminds me of the beginning of this civil rights roundtable when they ask the participants to talk about why they are there. James Baldwin talks about being “born a negro.” Poitier says, “I became interested in civil rights struggle out of a necessity, to survive.” Belafonte talks about inheriting the struggle from his parents and grandparents. But Brando talks about Rosa Parks and Heston about talking to people at cocktail parties. Balwin, Poitier, and Belafonte spent their lives struggling for their rights as human beings. Heston went back to cocktail parties and shilling for the NRA.

So there is nothing wrong with spending your time on the things that affect you, but somehow we also have to find ways to help people see how all the different struggles are connected. At the very least, we need to figure out how to stop throwing each other under the bus.

I should say here that I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting involved in a struggle where you are not the most affected. But I do think we need to understand how that struggle is connected to our own. We should be very careful about how we get involved and realistic about how dedicated we are to the issue, to the people, to the community. We can’t just drop in for a year and then skip out to a masters program, patting ourselves on the back the whole way.

So where does that leave us?

I think we should stop trying to have big tents. We need to focus on understanding our interests and how they connect. We should be building small, close-knit groups and a lot of little bridges.

In other words, stop seeing different experiences, backgrounds, and struggles as divisive and start seeing them as connective. Blag Hag is a bridge between feminists and atheists. Not all atheists are going to examine their other privileges. Not all feminists are going to examine theirs. But many will understand. That bridge is the beginning of how we are going to stop throwing each other under the bus.

We don’t need to worry that our movements will be divided. Large organizations only erase differences that shouldn’t be erased and grow hierarchies that shouldn’t be seeded. Successful social movements of the past have usually been made up of small, tight-knit communities and groups. They have been made up of people with long relationships and a lot of earned trust and respect. It wasn’t a thousand people who started the freedom rides. It was a handful. But that handful sparked something and others followed.

I think it is o.k. if we work on the issues that most affect us and with people that we like, understand, and respect. But we all have to take on the work of pushing to understand how the struggles are connected. And we have to make sure that we aren’t taking the easy way out by avoiding the uncomfortableness that comes from working with people whose cultures, experiences, marginalizations, etc. are difficult for us. We need to constantly be confronting ourselves.

The good news is that most of us are a part of many communities and struggles. So we can all be bridges. We can all work on the things that most affect us. We can all help each other to understand how those struggles are connected. We can work towards the same thing from different angles. Our work will be stronger for it.

Small Acts of Resistance

August 13, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change

I’m reading this book called Freedom’s Children right now. I only just started it, but it relates to all the thinking I have been doing about motivation and participation in activism. The author interviewed thirty people who were children or teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s.

Maybe one of the reasons we find it hard to stay motivated with activism is that sometimes we think too big. We don’t always have to be aiming for thousands at a march or the total collapse of the banking system tomorrow. We need a culture of resistance that can build over time.

When I read about nine-year-olds who poured water on soda fountain counters when faced with discrimination or teens who removed the “colored, do not sit beyond this board” signs from buses, I feel oddly motivated. All those small acts seeded something.

Focusing on small acts won’t just motivate us who are already involved. It might also help more people to get involved – people with limited time or resources. I’m not talking about buying some greenwashed product. I mean small acts that challenge the system, but that are part of everyday life and don’t require spending 3 hours at a meeting every week.

More importantly, I love that this book focuses on young people, often very young people. One of the ways we fall down horribly in the activist community is making spaces unwelcoming for people with kids, or just impossible for caregivers to participate. That’s not just a problem because we lose those caregivers. It is also a problem because we lose those kids.

The first person to refuse to give up her seat was not Rosa Parks. It was a fifteen year old named Claudette Colvin. There was a children’s crusade where elementary schoolers marched and were firehosed and attacked by dogs. Imagine the power behind that and imagine what kind of person you become when you are in the struggle starting at eight or nine.

I’m not sure exactly how this plays out in the day to day – how my behavior needs to change. But I am definitely going to start paying more attention to small acts and small people.

 

Activism and the Unbearable Dissonance

July 27, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change

Playa ChacalaI’ve been thinking a lot about why more people don’t get involved in activism. Which means I have been thinking a lot about what compelled me to get involved.

I’ve known that things were fucked up since I was a tween. I may have more data and a different analysis now, but the sense has been there for a long time. That sense didn’t lead to activism for me. Seeing so many of my young friends die and so many older people live miserable lives just led to drugs, angst, and a compulsion to have as much fun as possible before I died too.

I had no real conception of how things could be different, much less the steps that I would take to make it so. Over time that changed. Over time I began to have vague notions about how I wanted to live and how I wanted other people to be able to live. And I began to believe that it was actually possible.

It wasn’t how fucked up things were that compelled me to act. It was the unbearable dissonance between how things are and how things could be that compelled me.

Radicals often find ourselves preaching to the choir. The same faces show up for meetings, events and protests. We are constantly focused on educating people about the details of the great fuckedupedness. And we wonder why we can’t get more people interested. Do people not care? Do they not know? Are they scared?

Perhaps the problem is that the details are necessary when you are trying to figure out what to do. But if a person needs to reach the unbearable dissonance first then the details come later. The details are for people who have already decided they can’t live with things the way they are, people for whom activism is survival, people who already have some vision of what they want things to be like.

Which means the starting point is sparking the vision.

We can’t talk about prisons without talking about conflict resolution, restorative justice, and ways of living that wouldn’t push so many people into drug abuse, violence… We can’t talk about the economic system without talking about alternative ways of managing resources. People need something to fight for and not just something to fight against.

It also means we need to be very conscious of what kind of world we seem to want. When I looked at the occupy camps I always had mixed emotions. I appreciated that many people were discovering different ways of making decisions and interacting. But I couldn’t help wondering what people on the outside thought about a camp as a model. Most people in the world are trying not to have to live in tents without running water.

I feel equally ambivalent about blueprints of how we could live. I appreciate many of the ideas of participatory economics, but I also find the detail oppressive. Instead of blueprints or a visual representation of something that many people will not identify with, we should be like good writers.  A novelist doesn’t list every item in a room. They provide a few details and let the reader fill in the rest with their imagination, experiences, desires.

Once you have a vision, once you reach the unbearable dissonance, you really have no choice but to seek out the information you need. You are going to find ways to deal with fear and take risks. You are going to seek out the people that have similar visions and are confronting the same obstacles. You’re going to do something.

Kony and the Problem with Advocacy

March 09, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change, Politics

I’ve been thinking a lot about advocacy the last couple weeks, in large part because that advocacy mindset keeps seeping into the movement building and organizing work that I’m involved in. I wrote a little bit about this in my post on the perils of DC activism. But then a friend sent me the Invisible Children video on their Kony campaign and I think it is time to expand a bit on what I was saying.

Like I said in the other post, I am not completely against advocacy.

People have immediate and pressing needs. Sometimes a minor reform can actually help somebody without increasing the state’s power. Changing the crack to powder cocaine sentencing discrepancy does not challenge the racist prison industrial complex. Though I’m sure those people getting out of prison a bit early are glad someone did it.

It is possible to have radical goals and still spend some of your time dealing with the power structures in order to help people in the here and now. But many of the people who do that work do not have a critique of the system. They think the system needs tweaking, but that it is the best we can do. Sometimes those people will run into so many roadblocks that they accidentally hit on something. But without a radical critique of the system, and of power itself, they end up being misdirected into doing things that are completely wrongheaded.

The Invisible Children video is inspiring in a lot of ways. And they get some things right. It all starts with a personal relationship, with someone coming face to face with a human being who would rather die than keep on living in constant danger of being kidnapped and turned into a murderer. Not being radical, his first thought was to go to the US government to fix things. Finding that they didn’t give a shit, he turned to educating and organizing everyday people. One by one they built awareness and relationships.

But then they used that strength to go right back to the power structures to ask them to fix it. I’m supposed to cheer the involvement of the U.S. government and military in Uganda? Ask an Iraqi or one of the millions of people being tortured in U.S. prisons how great they are. And what about the Ugandan government? Are we really supporting the government that wants to kill gay people, that murdered nine people during their elections, that regularly tortures and imprisons people on a whim?

The goal should not be to get enough collective strength to make power seeking thugs pay attention – whether they call themselves LRA or Senator. The goal should be to get enough collective strength to make power seeking thugs impotent.

Now, of course, you are thinking. But what should we do?

I don’t understand the situation in Uganda well enough to propose a solution. Neither do you. Neither do people in the US government, probably not in the Ugandan government either. I’m still trying to understand the situation in my own city well enough to avoid doing dumb shit that will make things worse. How arrogant would I have to be to think I could come up with the answer for Uganda? And that doesn’t even begin to address histories of colonialism, imperialism, racism, privilege…

The people in the communities of Uganda are the only ones who know their situation well enough to pose workable answers. That doesn’t mean we ignore people who are suffering. It means we support people in resolving their conflicts. But we need to do it on their terms and with the understanding that we come from a position of power and privilege, a position that the aim is to dismantle. We need to do it without turning to people who are responsible for equally heinous shit.

P.S. That pic comes from afriPOP with African reactions to the video.  This piece on Clutch is worth a read too.

More Revolutionary Than Thou

March 01, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change

On one of the videos from the recent Occupy4Prisoners action in DC, somebody spots a guy on the roof of the jail. At first they think it is a sniper. But when they zoom in on them, they see that it is someone working on the camera.

The protester starts to heckle the guy, telling him he should be ashamed to work at the prison, etc.

That moment has been bothering the hell out of me this week. I see this kind of stuff all the time, people making harsh judgments about others based on one tiny piece of information. That guy probably didn’t work for the jail. He probably works for some camera company that sent him out to fix the equipment.

Maybe that guy hates that he fixes cameras at the DC jail. He probably knows people in there. This is DC, where the vast majority of black men are going to be arrested and probably go through that hell hole. How could a black man in this town not know somebody? Maybe he’s been there himself and that camera company is one of the few that is actually willing to hire someone with a record. Maybe that guy has kids and parents to take care of and it is the only job he could get.

Should he quit his job because some of the clients suck? Should he let his kids starve in the name of ideological purity? Can you find me someone out there who never works for or buys from any organization that does fucked up things? I’m sure everybody reading this grows all their own organic food and weaves their own clothing to avoid the food and clothing industries. And surely none of you pay taxes that pay for bombs we drop on kids around the world. Right?

I’m not saying that it does not matter how we earn our living or who we give our money to. There are many choices people make that say a lot about who they are and what their priorities are. But there is no perfect way to earn a living in the world the way it is. There is no way to completely extricate yourself from every racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, colonial, exploitative, violent, vile system. It is everywhere.

We are not going to build movements to end any of that if we can’t show basic respect to people who may not have yet reached the same conclusions or who don’t have a life that allows them to make the same choices.

When people make snap judgments, when they can’t show people basic respect, when they get caught up in the greener-than-thou or more-revolutionary-than-thou bullshit, it makes me think they are more interested in their personal identity than they are in actual social change.

And that is a damn shame.

 

Please Don’t Come

January 06, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change

Lawyer changes plea to pretty please with sugar on top.I’m hearing various rumors that occupiers are planning to descend on the capital for national actions. I don’t want to belabor the points I made in my previous post about activism in DC, but I just have to plead with you.

Please don’t come.

For the first time since I have been living in DC, I am seeing people coordinate about local issues in a big way. Small organizations that don’t get near enough support are getting attention. Occupiers are turning away from national campaigning. Links are being built. The seeds of workable solidarity networks are being planted. But we have a long way to go.

And if you come here, all our energy will be sucked right back into supporting you rather than doing what we need to do for our community. We just aren’t ready. Bad things happen when activists don’t do the relationship building and humble work of learning how to be allies instead of colonializers. If you don’t believe me, just read this post on racialicious.

Chomsky is right on this one. So are Mike Davis and Silvia Federici.

the movement should not be too eager to produce programmatic demands and should concentrate, instead, on making its presence more visible, on reaching out to other communities, and on ‘reclaiming the commons.’ This is beginning to happen with the migration of the occupations into the neighborhoods, which is essential to reconstruct a social fabric that has been dismantled through years of neoliberal restructuring and the gentrification and suburbanization of space.

Some of the coolest things that are happening in places like Seattle and the rest of the country are happening on a micro level. That’s where we should all be focusing our efforts right now. If people really feel like they need to do a national action, how about the proposed national assembly in Philadelphia? Maybe our Phili peeps have enough capacity to divert their attention.

But please, let DC focus on DC for a while.

Occupy, Unions, NGOs and the Perils of DC Activism

November 30, 2011 By: Mel Category: Change, Politics

The CapitalI moseyed over to Occupy K Street last night for the general assembly and the action committee meeting. Not much to say about the GA – except maybe to mention that there was a serious shortage of women. Of the two that spoke, one offered to take notes and the other was reporting back from the committee that cleans and does dishes.  I’ll let you make your own comments.

The action committee meeting was much more interesting. If you have been following a certain blogger (who I most definitely would never, ever socialize with – please don’t ban me too) then you know that the action committee is exhibiting some of DCs most common ailments.

There are a whole lot of people in this town who make their living in orgs that lobby. That includes me, by the way. I work in the advocacy department of the Oxfam International Secretariat. I don’t lobby. I make sure people get paychecks and that their insurance doesn’t get cancelled. (There. Full disclosure. Happy now?)

I don’t actually think lobbying is very useful. I do think the watchdog role we play has some use. My peeps watch the World Bank and IMF. But I stay the hell away from all that shit in my spare time. I’m sure a lot of the people down at occupy are like me. They are paying their rent by working in an org that they hope doesn’t do more harm than good and are happy to have an outlet for the stuff that might matter. The revolution will not be funded and all that.

The thing is, it is extremely difficult to get out of the professional, policy, advocacy, pro-democrat mindset in this town. And not everyone is just paying the bills. There are a lot of climbers in DC. That includes lots of people in organizations that you may think are warm and fuzzy.

Happily, the first part of the action committee went pretty well. While we were still talking national politics, the general tone was that democrats and republicans are equally responsible for our mess and should all be targets. So far so good.

But then the conversation turned to actions sponsored by SEIU et al. While the committee separated itself from them to some extent, we were still basically talking about actions that will inevitably connect Occupy with organizations that spend money and energy to elect democrats to office.

One minute we were talking about how fucked up it is that the democrats are having a $1,000 a plate fundraising dinner. The next minute we were talking about supporting (however nominally) an organization that funnels millions of dollars to democrats in order to get access to the halls of congress.  (How’s that been working out for you, SEIU?)

Orgs that focus on the political process drain all our energy. They are part of the problem. Any organization that is taking our money and giving it to political candidates needs to be a target. They are screwing us. The idea of marching on K street with a bunch of lobbyists (albeit more benign ones) makes my brain hurt.

Nonprofits shouldn’t get a pass either. We spend too much money on the political process as well. We can’t support candidates, but we spend a lot of time on policy. I should note here that, while the Oxfam International Secretariat is not unionized, Oxfam America is represented by…wait for it… SEIU.  (It may be very awkward in the office tomorrow.)

I’m not saying that nobody should ever lobby for anything. People have immediate and pressing needs. Sometimes a minor reform can actually help somebody without increasing the state’s power. Changing the crack to powder cocaine sentencing discrepancy does not challenge the racist prison industrial complex. Though I’m sure those people getting out of prison a bit early are glad someone did it.

But that is not radical change. And people need to recognize that being reformist and radical at the same time is damn near impossible.

The capital occupies this city. It is just too tempting for activists to focus on big, sexy targets like congress, especially in a town where so many people move here specifically to focus on national and international politics. Then we have the continuous stream of outside protesters that come in needing coordination, support, and places to stay.

It weakens us.

All the time that we spend on protesting the national government or supporting the constant stream of demonstrators to the capital is time we do not spend on local DC issues. We live in a city that has hideous statistics. Three out of four African American men in DC will spend time in prison. Our illiteracy rates are through the roof. Our AIDS rates are astronomical. Unemployment may be as high as 50% in some areas.

And by allowing ourselves to be sucked into the national political scene again and again we lose so many potential allies that would work with us if we were focusing on their daily struggles.

Another thing I noticed last night, and that I have noticed in lots of activisty spaces in DC, is the rather narrow age range present. I was probably one of the oldest farts there. We live in a city that is packed with people who have experience with everything from CORE to ActUp. Where are they at?

It seems to me that a lot of activists get burned out on the national protest scene. It is emotionally draining and shows very little results. A person can only do that for so long. Some of those people go off and work in small orgs focusing on local issues. Those people need our support and we need their experience.

I don’t know how we avoid getting caught in the national, international, labor, NGO, lobby black hole. I’m not sure if the reform v. radical or agitating v. organizing conflicts are resolvable – or even manageable. And I have no idea if we can actually get more people in on this conversation. But I don’t see where things are going if we don’t try.

Occupation and Motivation

November 17, 2011 By: Mel Category: Change, Inequality

Pic comparing the "99%" to starving African childrenI hate this picture.

I get the point that they are trying to make. The “99%” at the occupy protests are privileged, white, college kids who just want loan forgiveness. They aren’t really the people most suffering in the world.

It is true that many of the people who are participating are relatively well off. I’ve written about how the conversation needs to widen. I was disappointed that the occupy movement completely ignored the prison hunger strike, clearly people who are worse off than most in those parks.

I understand the frustration that so many people only open their eyes to injustice when it affects them. But what should we do? Do we dismiss people because their awakening is belated? If we want things to change, we need most people on board. Maybe some of those people will sell out, just like a lot of former hippies did. But not all of them will. Once you have experienced police  violence, you aren’t likely to forget it. Once you expand your knowledge and circle of relationships, that is not so easy to undo.

What else does that picture say?

It says that poor, POC are just sitting helpless? They are just waiting for someone to come and rescue them? Horseshit. Have you seen the Bolivian protestors who stopped a government planned road through their land? Have you seen the pink gang in India? Or how about the women’s only village of Umoja. Why do people feel the need to portray the poor without any agency? Why do people feel the need to draw a line between the struggles of the poorest and those of the relatively comfortable?

Conservatives do this shit all the time.  The Heritage Foundation loves to talk about how well-off poor people in this country are. According to Heritage, most of our poor have air conditioning and televisions, so they aren’t truly poor and should just shut up. These are the same people who would like nothing better than to erase all POC from the occupy movement.

The other thing that this picture says it that, unless you are truly “the wretched of the earth” you have no business advocating for yourself. It says that acting in your self interest is wrong. It says that people who have never starved should act only out of selflessness.

Does a rich, black person not get to advocate for an end to racial injustice? Does a privileged, white woman not get to advocate for an end to gender discrimination? Does a prisoner who hasn’t been raped not get to advocate for an end to the prison system? Are we all to seek out the most oppressed and only advocate on behalf of them? Doesn’t that indicate our belief that they can’t advocate for themselves? When does one cross the line from helping to having a messiah complex?

In The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin’s novel about a future anarchist community, the worst insult you can say to anyone is to call them an altruist. Altruism indicates an imbalance of power. You can only be an altruist if you have more than those you are “helping.”  I want a world based on mutual aid, respect, and equal power. I want a world where altruism is impossible.  So how does that fit into a world where power and privilege is currently so uneven?

I think people often mistake selfishness with self-interest. True self-interest does not damage the people around you. True self-interest recognizes that, if I do something that negatively effects my community, it will likely come back to bite me in the ass. Like Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Anything you do for yourself you do for the society at the same time. And anything you do for society you do for yourself also.

The trick is being able to differentiate between what is selfish and what is self-interested. In order to do that, we need to understand the people around us and how things effect them. We need to see systems for what they truly are.

We should all be examining our motivations constantly. But do not think that because something seems selfless or altruistic that it means the motivations are pure. Altruism often comes from people who want to feel superior, who want to pat themselves on the back. Selflessness can come from an unwillingness to examine the obstacles that you face in this world.

I’ve come across far too many male feminists who want to white knight their way into vanguardist stardom to cheer when people want to fight for “the other.”  The truth is that it is sometimes easier to fight on someone else’s behalf. When you fight the oppression that you experience, you have to face your own personal pains. And you have to face that you are not completely in control of your destiny. In order to get where you want to go, there is a whole system that you have to go up against. It’s a daunting realization.

It is important to recognize the power and privilege that you have. It is essential to be constantly examining your own motivations. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that only some people can act in ways that are self interested. We shouldnt make the mistake of thinking that it is always admirable when someone takes up anothers cause.

All struggles for justice are interconnected. The more power and privilege you have, the more responsibility you have to make sure your actions aren’t fucking other people up. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t get to fight for your own self interest. It means you have to be careful to identify what that interest is.