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

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?

Support the People Not the CML

February 25, 2014 By: Mel Category: Core, Politics, Seeking

Evo MoralesWhat is going on in Venezuela right now has brought to the surface a lot of tensions between different parts of what is usually referred to as the left. That’s a good thing. And I expect I may write a few things about those conversations in the coming weeks. But I want to start with this quote my friend Navid put up on his FB page.

As an anarchist I still support the governments of Venezuela & Bolivia. Why? Because they are building popular governments & are in the process of distributing power to the bases. Anarchists & Libertarians that are living under neo-liberal governments & have produced no structural change to the way they are governed want to criticize & dismiss the work that the governments of these revolutionary movements. It would be nice if Evo Morales didn’t have to be a president. But because we are still living in a world with nation states, most of them republican, social movements & the governments they put in place will continue to struggle with the contradictions of distributing power through the state. Anarchists & Libertarians that want to take what they think is the ‘principled high road’ of not supporting & in some cases dismissing the work of the governments of social movements, I don’t think have a vision of how we can actually achieve a world without borders or states. I would love to be able to wish & dream this into existence but the fact is, there are steps, and none of them lack contradictions. We have to acknowledge reality & collectively deal with it. — Cexilia Poncho Rojo

I don’t know any anarchists who don’t struggle with the fact that we sometimes support state programs or political changes as a practical matter in the here and now. We understand the contradictions. You will find plenty of anarchists who protest for state funded housing and education. You’ll find plenty of anarchists who vote.  We get that we live in a world where it is expected that we will all live in states or participate in groups led by a charismatic male leader (CML).


As someone whose beliefs are fundamentally a critique of power, I will always raise an eyebrow toward anyone who pursues power. I will always be skeptical about what will happen to even the best intentioned person who attains power. I will always be vigilant in watching how people use their power. Because I believe that power corrupts. Most importantly, I make a very large distinction between the people, the social movements that bring someone to power, and the CML that becomes the face of that movement.

Evo Morales has an inspiring personal narrative. But the movement that brought him to office is what really counts. And when those people turn around and protest President Morales in order to force him to cancel an amazon road project, I have no internal contradiction about whether I should support the president or the people who put him in power.

It is the same for other social movements as well. I have respect for MLK, but I believe that Ella Baker was right that the movement made Martin, not the other way around. Ultimately, it is the people who are important, not the power center or the anointed face – as inspiring as that person may be. As a bonus, when you keep your focus on the people instead of the CML, perhaps losing that leader doesn’t put the whole movement into disarray.

It is an exaggeration to say that all governments and leaders are exactly the same. Some are definitely more responsive or more repressive than others. In so far as there may be people out there who are summarily dismissing the beneficial things these governments have done, Rojo’s criticism is valid. But in so far as I am expected to confuse support for the people with uncritical support for the CML, which is often what people seem to want, that just isn’t going to fly.



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.

Women and Politics

November 18, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics

Amazingly, there are still people out there who claim that women just aren’t interested in politics.  I discovered this when I started nosing around on Libertarian blogs where they wondered why there weren’t more women in their midst.

Allison Brown says “I personally know no other female libertarians, and when I discuss the topic with other women they’re generally apathetic on the topic of politics in general, and libertarianism in particular.”  Rather than actually looking for information on women and political interest, Allison just proceeds into some drivel about women being emotional and less independent (more on that in upcoming posts).

Terje, a commenter at Thoughts on Freedom, also wonders about our interest in political debate, saying:

The extent to which women are involved in political debate at all (libertarian or otherwise) is a relevant consideration. Maybe men are more prone biologically to expend energy scaning the horizon for signs of trouble/opportunity whilst women are more interested in more immediate concerns.

Let’s break this down a bit shall we?

First of all, we have to define “political”.  You don’t get to define political as only that which entails a theoretical circle jerk between privileged people with way too much free time.  Politics isn’t only that which has no immediate application to reality.  “Immediate concerns” like being able to feed your family are political.  It isn’t that women aren’t interested in politics.  It is that some people define politics so narrowly that it only applies to pseudo philosophers.

Access to water is an immediate need and a dilemma often left up to poor women to grapple with.  Who has access to water sources, whether or not water is privatized or a public utility, whether or not water sources are protected from pollution – these are all very political issues connected with a very immediate need.

So lets look at a few proxies for women’s political interest.  Do women:

  1. vote?
  2. participate in public protest?
  3. follow the news?
  4. study political science?
  5. run for public office?

Women vote.  In fact, in the United States, women vote in higher numbers and in higher proportions than men do.  Even in Afghanistan, 40 – 55% of women braved the polls this year, despite Taliban threats.  And in 2004, when things seemed somewhat safer, 70% of Afghani women voted.

Public protests are filled with women.  Perhaps the most famous protester in the United States is Medea Benjamin of Code Pink.  And it was s a woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death became the symbol of Iranian protest.  Even in the most repressive regimes, women like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo continued stand up when nobody else was.

Women follow the news.  Women are more likely to follow network news (morning shows, nightly news, and news magazines).  They are almost as likely to watch cable news.  What women are somewhat less likely to do is read newspapers, listen to talk radio or get their news online.

News sources by gender

News sources by gender

Perhaps women don’t read newspapers like the Washington Post because 90% of the Post’s opinion pieces are written by men.  Perhaps they don’t want to listen to vile shmucks like Rush Limbaugh on the radio.  Perhaps women don’t spend as much time online because they are actually working at their desks (not me, obviously, but some women).  Whatever the reasons for the differences in news sources between men and women, it is clear that women are following the news.

As for political science, according to the American Political Science Association, 42% of all PhDs in political science go to women.  It is true the number of women who complete the tenure track to become full professors is only a fraction of the number of men.  As the APSA report shows, that isn’t due to lack of interest, but to less support and more responsibilities.

Obviously, there are far less women in public office than there are men.*  There are people who would like to claim this is due to lack of interest.  There are people who would like to claim that women are less ruthless and power hungry. I would like to believe it is because all those women are secret anarchists, but I think we all know it is much more likely a result of the barriers to women being elected to office.

So no, my Libertarian friends, a lack of political interest is not the reason there aren’t more women in your midst.


*Only Rwanda has near parity in male/female political representation.

Torture Investigations and the Right’s Imaginary Race War

September 01, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics

It’s no secret that race is the central issue for many of the people who oppose Obama (but pretend to oppose his policies).  Glenn Beck has taken a lot of heat for saying that he thought Barack Obama was a racist, but Beck is not the only one.  And now that conservatives are feeling nervous about a torture investigation, even the most polished organizations are getting blatant.

Yesterday’s Morning Bell from the Heritage Foundation was titled Politics Before Justice at Obama’s DOJ.  Agreeing wholeheartedly with their lord and master, Dick Cheney, they claim that Eric Holder’s investigation is only an attempt to attack the previous administration.  Then they go on to cite other examples of where politics has trumped justice with Eric Holder.

Example number one – Black panthers who intimidated voters in 2008 had their cases dismissed.  Example number two – Bill Richardson will not be charged with any crime related to the pay-to-play scheme that was under investigation and which cost him his post in the Obama administration.  Example number three – Holder was said to have pushed for pardons for members of the FALN and Los Macheteros, Puerto Rican nationalist groups.

Are we noticing a pattern here?  Eric Holder dismisses charges against brown people, but goes after the good ole boys at the CIA.  Now the Heritage Foundation is not quite that blunt.  For the blunt version, you need to head over to Free Republic, where commenters are more than willing to spell it out.

True. Most obama advisors hate whites,
but Holder advocates violence and threats against whites,
and has and will continue to use the US Government
to protect those who assault whites
— even at voting booths.

This is the narrative that is developing over the torture investigations.  It is only going to get worse.  There are a lot of people out there who know they broke the law and know they have very slim protection.  They are powerful and they aren’t going down without a nasty fight.

The narrative is already spreading.  A quick search showed coverage in the Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Philadelphia Enquirer.  We better be ready to ridicule this thing out of existence.

Number 1 – The black panther case that the right is in such an uproar about involved two men standing outside a polling place in Phili.  One was an official poll watcher with every right to be there.  Judging by the video below, the only one there scared by the black panther’s presence was the fox news correspondent sent to the polling place to sensationalize.  Although I’m sure Faux News viewers were peeing in their pants at the site of an unarmed black panther.

Number 2 – Bill Richardson was investigated and the DOJ decided not to pursue the matter.  They haven’t said why.  Republicans and Fox News are insinuating that they are letting him off for political reasons, but they don’t know that.  Moreover, as TPM reports, the DOJ isn’t exactly exonerating him.  They just don’t seem to think they have a case.

Number 3 – FALN and Los Macheteros did plan bombings and I don’t condone violence.  But the people pardoned by Bill Clinton (with reported pressure from Eric Holder) had not been convicted of bombings or of any crime where people were hurt.  Moreover, clemency for those individuals was being pushed for by prominent human rights defenders, including Jimmy Carter.  Whether or not you think the pardons were appropriate (and I personally thing presidential pardons are a bad idea), the right is leaving out most of the story when they just say Holder released terrorists.

The kicker to the Heritage Foundation’s email was this doozy of a quote.

Now, as the head of DOJ, Holder’s political decisions are undermining core rule of law concerns including the integrity of elections, ethical governance, and national security. Holder reports directly to his boss, President Barack Obama. Someone needs to be held accountable.

Can you believe those guys can actually write that?  It’s like they live in a parallel universe. The people who testified before congress that the Supreme Court was right to stop the 2000 recount are worried about the “integrity of elections.”  The people who insisted that human rights protections didn’t apply to people not in our territory are worried about ethical governance?

They are right about one thing.  Somebody needs to be held accountable.

Are We Capable of Democracy?

August 18, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics

All these town hall meetings have got me thinking about whether or not people are capable of democracy.

Plato certainly didn’t think so.  He thought we should be ruled by a group of philosopher kings.  Our founding fathers didn’t think so either.  They thought only white, male landholders were capable of making those kinds of decisions.  Marx and Guevara, who ostensibly believed in us workers being capable of running our own lives, thought we needed a “vanguard” to shepherd us poor schleps into a higher plain of being first.

It’s easy to look at the screaming maniacs from the town hall meetings and conclude that some people are beyond reason.  And there is no doubt that majorities of people have supported reprehensible things.  But I still maintain that we should trust democracy.

If not democracy, what?  If only certain people can make decisions, who?  Who gets to decide who is capable and who isn’t? Shall we have tests like Plato wanted?  They have tests to get into Yale.  Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush passed those tests.  Pretty much everyone can find something to dislike there.

Shall we have property ownership be the criteria as the founding fathers suggested?  They thought property owners were responsible businessmen who knew how to manage money.  They apparently had no issue with how some of those responsible businessmen obtained their property or what they did with it.  (Can you say massacres and slavery?)  And we all know how that “vanguard” turned out for the communists.

No.  The only hope we have is for everyone to have a say.

The problem is not that we are incapable of democracy.  The problem is that we have no practice actually participating in one.

Some of us get up off our butts to vote every few years.  Many don’t even do that.  The rest of the time we disappear into our homes.  We barely pay attention to what our supposed representatives do.  We allow talking heads on the cable channels to do our debating for us (if you can call that debating, and if we even watch the news at all).

Imagine if we had town halls all the time.  Imagine if those people in the town halls were people you saw all the time.  How many would feel comfortable screaming like nutters if they knew they would have to see everyone again?  And wouldn’t the rest of the group come up with a way to deal with the nutters if they kept coming back every week?

It is the process of participating in a democracy that teaches you the skills to make a democracy work.  It is being involved in governance that informs people.  That rage, frustration, and powerlessness we feel when the government doesn’t seem to be representing us is alleviated only by actually participating in the decisions that affect our lives.

We are capable of democracy, but we need to stop abdicating our responsibilities to representatives and talking heads.

Should Drug Users Lose Their Right to Vote?

April 06, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Politics

More than five million Americans could not vote in the last election because they were convicted of a felony. Only two states allow felons to vote. In many states, former felons are barred permanently from voting. In others, felons can get their voting rights back, but the process is so arduous that few do.

I doubt many people are losing sleep over whether Charles Manson can vote. I’m guessing many people would approve of the idea that criminals lose their rights as citizens after acting against the citizenry. But we aren’t talking about Charles Manson here. More than half of federal prisoners are in prison for drug crimes.

Let’s take a state like California. California has the nations largest prison population and an overcrowding problem so bad that federal judges have ordered the prison population decreased. While Prop 36 has caused a decrease in the percentage of prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, they still constitute more than 20% of the prison population in California.

Recent polling shows that more than 50% of California voters are in favor of marijuana legalization. A vote would be close. All those people barred from voting, the very people who lost their freedom and civil rights due to drug prohibition, could tip the scales.

Drug laws have been broken at least once by 40% of Americans. If that many people are breaking the law, there is something wrong with the law. Would we strip 40% of Americans of their voting rights? What kind of democracy is that?

Sheila Jackson Lee has introduced a House bill intended to restore voting rights to all ex felons within thirty days of being released from prison. The bill is languishing in committee right now. If your representative is on the House Committee on the Judiciary, call and tell them you want to see that bill move.

How Do We Get Good Governance?

April 01, 2009 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Suddenly I’m being bombarded with talk of good and bad governance.

The Stiglitz Commission blames, among other things, bad corporate governance for the economic disaster we are in. Madeleine Bunting credits good governance with Singapore’s economic turnaround since the 1950s. My weekend movie, Life After the Fall, showed how a total lack of governance turned Iraqis from hopeful to dejected in just four years.

All of which got me thinking about what good governance is.

Systems for

  • making decisions about issues that effect the group
  • resolving disputes
  • coordinating projects that no person can do on their own (highways, bridges…)
  • preventing one person’s greed and selfishness from sabotaging the lives of everyone else
  • enforcing consequences for actions that adversely effect others
  • responding to emergencies
  • keeping people safe

I think few people would disagree that we need those things, although many would disagree about what each of those things involves. Keeping people safe could be anything from an army to helmet laws – and you’ll find people in favor and against both of those things.

But I don’t want to argue about those definitions right now. That’s the purpose of having a system that allows for group decision-making. What I want to ask is how do we get good governance?

Elections certainly don’t lead to good governance. Elections in Iraq didn’t do anything to stop the violence or get the electricity working. The election of Dubya certainly didn’t lead to good governance. Any post Katrina New Orleans resident will attest to that. In fact, if having elections leads people to believe that voting once every few years is all that is required of them, elections may leave us worse off. Everyone just pushes the button on their local Diebold machine and then goes home to bitch about what the politicians they voted for are doing.

The corporations that led us into this financial disaster also have a farcical version of democracy. They talk about responding to shareholders the same way politicians talk about responding to constituents. And shareholders have abdicated their responsibilities even more than citizens have. How many of us own mutual funds and don’t know what they are invested in, much less how our fund manager is voting at shareholder meetings.

This lack of participation by most of us suits the politicians and CEOs just fine. Quarterly reports, legislation, contracts, and financials are purposely confusing, unclear, complicated, and absurdly long. Combine that with working too many hours and the sad state of our media and most of us just give up trying to figure things out.

So what would I like to see? We could start with

  • A compensation system that enables people to work less so they have more time to participate in governance
  • A universal unwillingness to give money or votes to anything not understood
  • Accepting representative governance as a fallback position, a necessary evil sometimes, but not the be all and end all

Anyone else?