Tuesday, February 27, 2018

It's Talking Radical Radio's Five-Year Anniversary!

Today marks five years since the first episode of Talking Radical Radio appeared. For all of that time, it has been my biggest ongoing project. On a weekly basis, almost every week, the show has brought grassroots voices from across Canada to radio stations and various online venues. It has given people involved in a wide range of social change work a chance to talk in depth about what they're doing, how they're doing it, and why they're doing it. And it has given the rest of us a chance to learn from their experience, insights, and analysis.

If you are interested in learning more, you can check out the show's website or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

And you can listen to all of the episodes via SoundCloud and Rabble.ca.

A big thank-you to the hundreds of people who have so generously shared their stories with me over the years! And a thank-you as well to the many more who have made suggestions, listened to the show, clicked 'like' or 'share', or otherwise made it possible for this work to continue.

Here's to many more years!

Monday, February 12, 2018

WIP: Double radio, extra reading, hold the writing

In my first post of the year, back on January 1, I declared an intent to try writing blog posts that were more frequent and casual, often starting from Twitter threads.

I have been very pleased with that new practice. I've kept it up, mostly. I'm not as good at making them casual as I might like, but I've managed to write a range of kinds of things and to do it all in a way that connects, a little or a lot, to other things I'm working on. It feels both useful in multiple ways and pleaureable. So less-than-daily, more-than-weekly, quick, casual blogging is a practice I intend to maintain.

That said, it's a practice I intend to suspend for the next six weeks or so.

I'm going to be travelling for a couple of weeks in March. I have a separate mix of ambivalences about the travelling itself, which I may eventually write about, though I'm sure there will also be lots to enjoy. Of more immediate relevance, however, is that when you live with a rolling weekly deadline, as I do for Talking Radical Radio, two weeks in which no work whatsoever can happen necessitates a great deal of advance preparation and hassle. I'm actually in okay shape – not yet out of the woods, but on a good path – in terms of ensuring I'll have all of the interviews I need when I need them. But it's also going to require doubling up on the most time consuming element of doing the show, which is editing, for a period of a few weeks. So as of tomorrow, more or less, I'll be doing double my usual daily amount of radio editing.

As well, in the January 1 post I mentioned a major re-orientation of a book project that I've been intermittently working on for a few years. I say a little more about that as well in the first paragraph of this post. Since the new year, that has mostly involved doing a bunch of reading (as well as some exploratory writing), some quite similar to what I would be doing anyway, and some rather new. My goal is to have done enough of that to be able to make some further decisions by the end of March. And it has been happening, but unfortunately it has not been happening as quickly as I'd like.

Which means that along with double radio in the next few weeks (and no radio at all while I'm on the road, other than some social media promo stuff), I will be doing extra reading over all of that time. As a consequence, I don't think I'll have time to do any writing, or at least not any that will be seen by eyes other than mine. There are a couple of points where I might try to sneak a post in...but I won't have time that I can count on for doing writing of that sort until the last week of March.

All of which I say less because I think too many people who aren't me will be fussed one way or the other, but more as a way of making clear to myself that this will be a no-writing tunnel that will have a distinct and clear light at its end.

And now, off I go to begin mapping the interview for next week's episode of Talking Radical Radio. Well, first I'll cook dinner. Then the mapping begins... :)

Friday, February 09, 2018

Review: As We Have Always Done

[Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.]

How to read from somewhere – and from where I am in particular – is an ongoing preoccupation in the reviews on this site. It's always a relevant question, but I feel it particularly keenly in instances like this book, where it's 100% clear that the book is not in any way addressed to me. Not that this book discourages anyone from reading who is willing to approach it in a spirit of respectful engagement, but it is also very clear about who it is written to and for. So given that, how do I read? What can I learn? How should I listen?

This book is written by Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. It builds from her earlier book Dancing On Our Turtle's Back – which I read and reviewed last year – and outlines a comprehensive vision, grounded in Nishnaabeg thought but relevant to other Indigenous nations as well, for radical resurgence.

The premise for this work, at least as far as I am able to understand it from my external vantage, is the persistence of the integrated material cluster of lifeways, land, stories, logics, relationships, ceremonies, systems of perception and meaning and knowledge, and ways of organizing communities and lives that constitute, in a very practical and bottom-up sense, Indigenous nations. Centuries of colonial violence and, in the case of the author's territories in Ontario, massive and growing settler intervention in the landscape mean that it cannot be lived in quite the same way as in years gone by. But the seeds of the whole, the core, the basis for living otherwise, for theorizing the world in an Indigenous way and for refusing colonization in an Indigenous way, remain vital and alive. They key to resurgence, the book argues, lies in "the brilliance and complexity of Nishnaabeg embodied thought" learned from Elders and the land through traditional pedagogies, and that must be the emphasis of Indigenous resurgence. Simpson argues, "the intellectual and theoretical home of resurgence had to come from within Indigenous thought systems, intelligence systems that are continually generated in relationship to place" (16). As understood in this book, resurgence "is a flight out of the structure of settler colonialism and into the processes and relationships of freedom and self-determination encoded and practiced within Nishnaabewin or grounded normativity" (17).

The bulk of the book works through the author's understanding of what this flight from settler colonialism into Nishnaabewin looks like along different axes, including how it happens in practice and what key elements of that thought/practice consist of. It is assertively internationalist and anti-capitalist. It centres bodily sovereignty and ways of living that refuse the heteropatriarchal domination that has been so integral to settler colonialism. It involves (following Glen Coulthard) a stepping away from politics that see recognition from the settler state or settlers themselves as central, and instead a centering of Indigenous reciprocal recognition. It is premised on an idea of flight from but in recognition that, in the current state of things, amplifying the scope for autonomous Indigenous grounded normativities will inevitably come into conflict with the colonial violence of the settler state, so the kinds of resistance that implies will be part of the way forward as well. It is very clear about naming anti-Blackness and about prioritizing alliance with Black and other racialized communities as part of Indigenous resurgence, while seeing little direct role in resurgence for white settler allies. It advocates cohereing into small collectives as a useful, radical starting point, and offers some interesting cautions about online mobilization based on the author's involvement in the peak moment of Idle No More.

There are probably many ways that I could read this book usefully from where I am. Certainly there are the generic strategies for reading/listening across differences in experience that I first started to think about while doing my oral history project years ago: Using that listening to learn about areas of the social world beyond one's direct experience, and then engaging in the work to extend that into understanding how that experience and one's own are connected and are products of the same social world. There's always value in that, I think.

In particular, this book has helped me develop a richer understanding of the ways in which the collective, material context, and therefore the political possibilities and responsibilities, are different across the Indigenous/settler divide. To put it starkly, Indigenous people have at least the possibility of deep connection with the still-extant, place-based grounded normativities that Simpson writes about – the very real, material persistence of lifeways and episetemologies and logics that are substantially different from the colonial capitalist patriarchal totality that dominates most of social life. And white settlers don't.

This goes beyond a simplistic anti-oppression reading of the colonial axis of domination, i.e. who benefits and who is harmed, and begins to think about how the practical differences in positioning impose different starting points for engagement with struggle and therefore different political responsibilities.

So I know it's not a perfect metaphor, but I still find a great deal that's useful in heterodox marxist theorist John Holloway's way of talking about our resistance as cracks in the oppressive social order of which we are a part (which he would name simply "capitalism" but which I would quibble needs to be named more expansively and variously.) Part of what I like about the metaphor of the crack is the way it shows the necessary continuity between the tiny acts of everyday resistance that all of us engage in, the larger collective cracks that can be nurtured when we work to collectivize our everyday resistance, and the broad system-threatening ruptures that occasionally become possible.

Using this metaphor, to have the possibility of becoming part of an existing Indigenous grounded normativity is to be already in relation with a pretty substantial crack in colonial capitalism – which in fact isn't exactly a crack so much as a space that has, despite the past five centuries, never been wholly subsumed. That crack, as I said above, contains at least the seeds of an entirely different social logic that requires and is cast into resistance – inevitably – by the pressures of continuing to exist within, against, and beyond heteropatriarchal capitalist colonialism. Which is not to suggest that having that possibility dictates any particular choice about what to do with it. That is, after all, part of the point of the book: to outline the author's understanding of the value of choosing active immersion in the grounded normativity with which one is in relation. But obviously for that to be a meaningful possibility, you have to exist within material circumstances that make it possible to actively embrace the flight out of settler colonialism and into an Indigenous grounded normativity.

We – meaning white settlers – do not exist in relation to anything similar. Our range of possibilities looks much more like what Holloway describes. We, too, must make choices about how to relate to heteropatriarchal capitalist colonial social world in which we exist, but in making those choices we don't have that kind of larger crack that we can choose to orient our existence towards. We have only the flickers of our own everyday resistance and those of the people around us, and whatever we can weave together collectively from those flickers. So, for instance, the metaphor of "flight" really makes no sense for me and for others like me – we have nothing to flee to, and the only possible way to understand flight in the absence of some connection to grounded normativity is flight into quiescence, which is a very different thing. So I don't know exactly what all of the implications are, but it does point to a very different kind of political work that is required of us.

And yet I see moments of overlap, too. Simpson looks at the existing practices of small collectives of Indigenous people oriented towards grounded normativity, particularly but not exclusively artist collectives, and suggests a broader practice of using small collectives "for instantiating microcommunal forms of grounded normativity and Indigenous intelligence" and acting as

doorways out of the enclosure of settler colonialism and into Indigenous worlds. They can be small collectives of like-minded people working and living together, amplifying the renewal of Indigenous place-based practices. They can be larger Indigenous nations working within their own grounded normativity yet in a linked and international way. When these constellations work in international relationship to other constellations, the fabric of the night sky changes: movements are built, particularly if constellations of coresistance create mechanisms for communication, strategic movement, accountability to each other, and shared decision-making practices. (217-8)

And yet when it comes to beginning from the tiny cracks of everyday resistance, even with no grounded normativity to orient towards and to work to strengthen, it seems obvious that a major part of what is needed remains cultivating collectivity. It isn't done with the same purpose, with the same basis, or with the same resources – starting from flickers is an impoverished place to be. As well, I think there is value to experimenting in the context of settler society with lots of different organizational forms. But I think small collectives as building blocks remain one important element.

As for the larger question of how to read books that are not addressed to you, while the specifics in any given instance may not be clear, the general shape of the answer has to include a mix of working to understand the text on its own terms, including appreciating that there are elements of the world and of political practice that are just not about you and never will be, while also putting in the work to figure out how the text can inform your understanding of your own political responsibilities.

In the case of this book, I am keenly aware that I would be able to get more out of it on both scores if I was reading it with other people, so we could talk about it. At a bare minimum, though, I think it makes it very clear that there will be moments, as Indigenous people pursue the strategy that it outlines, when repression by the settler state and in a more populist vein by violent settler individuals will need to be opposed. And there will also be moments when resurgent Indigenous nations force the land question unavoidably onto settler agendas. In both of those cases, and probably many more, we have a responsibility to act in solidarity, which includes ongoing efforts to figure out what solidarity looks like. It most definitely doesn't mean trying to insert ourselves into the middle of struggles that should not centre us, of course – we have more than enough work on the settler side of things trying to figure our own stuff out. And the more effective we are at doing that, the more effective we are in growing the cracks in colonial heteropatriarchal capitalism as it surrounds and shapes us, the more we will be able to bring to struggling against the injustices that we face ourselves and that shape our communities in all kinds of ways, and the more we will have to offer in solidarity.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Limits of Listening

A big chunk of the reading and thinking and writing that I'm doing at the moment is focused on working out how to expansively and radically think about listening as we work to understand the world and to build movements (including making movement media) to change it. The plan is to read things explicitly about listening (and various related topics), to read movement-ish things that I would be reading anyway but through a lens of listening, and to re-read a select few things that I've read in years past through that lens too.

I read a piece this week that drove home the idea that listening, however earnestly attempted and well intended, has limits -- not a new idea for me, but a powerful articulation of it. The piece is "It Takes an Ocean Not to Break" by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in Cindy Milstein's collection Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief. I've hesitated to actually name the piece here, as it is so much more than the few narrow thoughts by a random white dude that I'm about to offer, but it seemed more disrespectful not to. It's a powerful, dense piece sharing deeply personal colonial trauma and resultant grief. I'm drawing out a single element, but as I said the whole is so much more, so please read it if you can.

Part of what that piece does is narrate the experience of the author, who is Indigenous, of going to a white woman therapist. The author gets enough from it to keep going back, but despite years of listening, the therapist never comes close to grasping the colonial realities she relates or their impacts on self, family, community.

Given my current focus on thinking about listening, this instance of a deep failure of listening caught my attention. As I read it, this absolute insufficiency in listening can be traced to two causes: One is because the therapist only has therapeutic (psy-based) discourses into which she can read the experiences of colonial trauma that she hears. Therapeutic discourse is simply inadequate to understand colonization. The other is white-settlerness. That is, our experiences of systemic harm and benefit shape our capacities to know the world. Committed, humble, listening while in genuine relation can bridge some of that, partly, sometimes, in some ways. But not always.

There will always be a gap.

There will always be moments, sometimes tiny and sometimes painfully deep and broad, where listening fails.

There will always be moments where those of us who experience benefit along some axis are generously gifted stories by those who experience harm, where we earnestly work to take them up, and where we fail to understand what is being said.

What are the implications of that?

Well, I'm not entirely sure.

I am certain that the lesson should not be, oh, well, don't bother trying then. It has more contradictions and limits than popular movement songs and slogans allow, perhaps, but I think we still need to cultivate solidarity whenever we can, and that requires a commitment to listening, even knowing it will sometimes fail.

So...what, then? I'm still thinking it through, but I think it has to do with how we listen.

We have to be aware that our listening inevitably has limits. We have to reject the approach to listening, to perceiving the world, to taking up the stories of other people, that expects that the resulting knowledge can be complete and that it will lead, in some sense, to mastery. That last word is important – it captures a whole complex history of how we are taught to know the world. It is the knowing of colonization, the knowing of capital, knowing that is oriented to control, domination, profit. Not that most of us occupy the violent cutting edge of that knowing most of the time, but it's still how we are taught: the world as knowable in a particular way, and therefore controllable, even if it's not us who knows and controls as individuals.

Instead, I think we need to listen in a way that acknowledges its limits, our limits. Listening done in this way has (I think) no choice but to stand back, allow autonomy, encourage co-creation. It is a listening that must be humble – what other choice is there, when you know you can be told directly and repeatedly, you can listen deeply and genuinely, and still (in a moment or over a whole vast field) be clueless?

It is a listening of the listener who knows that they might not know, so they have to ask.

It is, I think, a kind of listening that is a much better starting point for genuine solidarity.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

WIP: A very short post about introductions and about complexity...

One of my tasks for today is finishing writing the introduction for next week's episode of Talking Radical Radio. And that has me thinking about the challenge of representing complexity in writing.

After almost five years of doing the show, I have a pretty solidly established routine for each week, in terms of editing/producing the episode for the following week. Ideally, writing the introduction is something that begins and ends on Tuesdays, though I don't always manage that, and today is one of those not-unusual instances where the writing has taken long enough to bleed over into Wednesday.

In principle, introductions are pretty simple things: They are meant to be short, and their job is to give listeners the info they need to be able to understand what they are about to hear. But they don't often feel simple. I tend to do more than the bare minimum in my introductions, though, often not just setting the stage for the interviewee's words, but giving an overview of what they will cover, and when I can, suggesting an idea or two illustrated by or framing the episode.

Which isn't ideal – the majority of the time, for this kind of writing as for so many others, shorter and simpler is better. I often have to actively resist my impulse to do too much.

But part of the problem is that I want to do as much as possible to capture the complexity of the real world. The world is complex. And understanding how things happen is often key to effectively changing them. So I feel pulled to say more, to use examples, to name exceptions, to flesh-out context, to use language that is more exact but also more cumbersome. And I feel pulled to find ways to include ideas that are maybe less familiar, less easy to communicate concisely, but that do get at something important.

It's a constant tension – to capture as much of that complexity as I can without compromising the basic job of an introduction, which is to introduce what is to come in a way that engages and informs and sets things up for the real point of the show, the interviewee's words.

And that's what I'm about to get back to right now. Next week's show is about reducing barriers in the health system at the intersections of sexual health and mental health – fascinating, complex, important and something that a few-minute intro will never say enough about.

But now I'm off to use my writerly crowbar to continue leveraging as much as I possibly can into the space that I have.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Perceiving the world as an embodied capacity...and movement-building

Being able to perceive complex elements of the world immediately around us isn't something we're just automatically able to do – it's a capacity, or really many different capacities, that we must develop.

That may sound like a pretty abstract thing to say, but I wonder if there might be value in activists and organizers, and politically inclined writers and educators, paying more attention to it as we figure out how to do our work. Let me start with a few ramdon-ish examples of the many different kinds of things I mean by "complex elements of the world around us", and then a bit later I'll talk about why this way of understanding things might be politically important.

In general, I mean perceiving things that are more complex than "X is blue" or "Y is big." I mean perceptions that generally involve integrating multiple elements of the scene around you (sometimes the whole thing, sometimes as it moves) and assessing that emergent whole for characteristics that are complex and contextual.

A very basic (and mildly embarassing) example: The other day, I went to get my eyes checked. I knew my prescription had changed a little, and that it was likely that I would be ending up with new glasses. I don't mind the check-up and everyone at my optometrist is lovely. But I really don't like the up-selling inherent in the business model. And I really, really hate being asked to make the rapid aesthetic judgements necessary to choose new frames. I hate this because I can't do it. I cannot look at my reflection in the mirror and do the near-instantaneous observing-plus-processing that the situation calls for to develop an aesthetic response that includes things like "I like these!" or "Thinner frames, please" or "The same but in black." I will sometimes be able to reach some kind of aesthetic judgment – "Eww, no" perhaps, or "I'm not sure about that colour" – but it is very inconsistent, and much less than what someone who has this capacity in full measure can do.

Which probably sounds ridiculous to those of you for whom this kind of judgement feels instantaneous and automatic. But trust me, it is a skill, a capacity, and it is one that I don't have.

Interestingly, I had already been thinking about this issue prior to my check-up because of an instance in which I have recently, without really intending to, developed the beginnings of another such capacity that I previously lacked. This instance involves, of all things, dance...something that I have never personally had much to do with. There have been a few occasions when sufficient amounts of alcohol plus a sufficiently charming encourager have managed to coax me onto a dance floor, but not in many many years, and I've never paid much attention, in terms of being a spectator, to dance as an artistic practice.

One consequence of the kind of work that I do is that I spend many hours each day in front of a computer, and sometimes when I need either a break from or musical accompaniment to what I'm doing, I turn to YouTube. At some point in the last six months, I think I must have been searching for some particular pop song, and a video came up that involved young people in a dance studio performing to whatever the song was. I liked the song, so I watched it a few times, and YouTube's video suggestion algorithm started offering me other, similar videos, some of which I chose to watch and others of which were brought to me by the relentlessness of autoplay and my own inattention. One feature of this particular nook of YouTube is videos in which different groups of dancers successively do the same choreography to the same song. This means that watching them induces comparison, which becomes at least one sort of raw material for learning about and developing the capacity to perceive the dancing in a new way. Which has in fact, in a small way, started to happen for me. When I started I could tell "can do the choreography" from "can't", but that was it, whereas now I at least sometimes can distinguish between "great athletes doing a good job" and "wow, that was amazing." Yes, that's a small thing. I am still mostly clueless – mostly not able to perceive in a sophisticated way, mostly not able to articulate anything of interest about what I've seen. But it is a shift, and it surprised me. (The fact that there also seem to be signs in these videos of interesting politics related to embodiment, race, gender, sexuality, and hustling to make a living as an artist under neoliberal capitalism also caught my interest from time to time.)

And – to move away from examples that my teenage nieces would be equal parts amused by and scornful of – it made me think of other instances where I have observed similar phenomena, in these cases in reference to people with highly developed perceptive capacities. So, for instance, I remember reading a theorization of Wayne Gretzky's remarkable hockey skills (notwithstanding his terrible politics) that suggested that what he could do differently than most players was connected to how he perceived what was going on, on the ice. And this made sense to me, because my high school basketball coach was someone who had played on the Canadian national team, and on the rare occasions when he would scrimmage with us, it was obvious he saw the court and the play way, way differently than we did. I even think of my father, who was a world-class musician in a particular niche area, and when he would talk about how a piece was to be performed in a fine-grained kind of way, it was clear that part of the capacity that he had was not just wiggling his fingers adroitly, but also perceiving the music in a way that most people wouldn't be able to – a capacity built by years and years of devoted work.

From the breadth of these examples, it should be clear that by "complex elements of the world immediately around us" I intend to capture a lot of different things. Really, I mean any situation in which someone with the right capacities can derive meaning – complex meaning – from an instance of observing the world in motion around them, in a way in which perception and processing happen tightly together.

So. How does all of this relate to activism, organizing, and political writing and educating?

Well, there are probably lots of ways, but I am thinking in particular of how that understanding of perception relates to how we perceive (or not) the micro-political moments that are ubiquitous in our lives. These are the moments in which oppressive power along all of the different axes shapes our interactions with others and gets reproduced and resisted. This certainly includes moments of microaggression, of everyday ___ism, of social regulation, but I think it is also about perceiving aspects of the shape of our interactions and relationships that are less immediately harmful but still crucial to understand.

It's a piece of commonsense in anti-oppression politics (from their more liberal and reified versions on down to their revolutionary, relational roots) that the targets of these micro-political shenangians are much more likely to perceive them than anyone else. So why is that? Why are those of us who are not targeted in a given instance so much less likely to be able to perceive the situation accurately?

There is, of course, a lot that goes into the not-perceiving of people who are unaffected or who benefit from whatever is happening. In part, we don't perceive these dynamics because nothing about the situation forces us to. In part, we don't perceive these dynamics because it is often in our self-interest not to – not-perceiving supports our power and privilege in that moment. And in part, at least sometimes, we don't perceive these dynamics out of a sort of semi-conscious dishonesty – on some level we know exactly what's going on, but hold on to our denial of that perception very tightly. So, innocent or willful, it is a not-perceiving that itself is shaped through the operation of unjust power in how we are formed as people by our experiences.

This means that having the capacity to perceive such things is not the only thing that's going on. But I would argue that it can very much be part of the mix. Constantly being on the receiving end forces your attention to turn in certain ways, and forces the development of those capacities by (unwelcome, unchosen, unjust) repetition. Not having to notice, and in fact having various incentives not to notice, means not developing those perceptive capacities.

This is where it might be useful to do a better job of recognizing that this is, in fact, a capacity -- an embodied ability that cannot be acquired simply by learning some fact or other, but only through repeated practice. If we think it's useful to get more people more able to perceive these micro-political dynamics – and I think that, even if some approaches overemphasize the micro-political, it is still important – then this recognition will shape how we intervene. It means shifting from an implicit "knowing/not-knowing" paradigm where conveying facts has the potential to be sufficient, to a paradigm that recognizes that such capacities can only be built through close attention and repeated effort over time.

What does that mean in different contexts? Well, I don't really know, but I can imagine in classroom or anti-racism/anti-oppression training situations, for instance, that it would point towards some different expectations and practices. And certainly for people who are doing this work for/on themselves, it points to the need to recognize, for instance, that I don't get better at seeing the racialized & gendered dynamics of activist meetings just by reading the right book, although that might a useful early step. I get better by paying close attention, by listening closely, and by recognizing early on that there's probably lots I'm just not getting even before I have any idea quite what. And then doing the same the next week, and the next week, and so on. And it does NOT point towards a new kind of excuse-making – "I don't have that capacity..." is no more a good excuse than "I didn't know..." or "I didn't intend..." when you've done something messed up and caused harm.

However it plays out in specific contexts, I think it points strongly towards a need for humility when it comes to recognizing the limits of our ability to read situations, and it points towards the kinds of work that need to happen to improve that ability.

And, yes, this is all very micro-political and very focused on the individual, at least on its face. But it is, I think, quite relevant to movement building. This is, after all, about getting better at perceiving and understanding the interactions that build the relationships that build the movements and communities that build the world that we need. And perhaps we can figure out ways to collectively foster the development of these capacities. I'm not sure, to be honest...but it feels like it's worth thinking about.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Social movement victories in 2018

Today, I want to write about social movement victories. I want to reflect on what that means a little, and then this thread will be one I come back to throughout the year to add movement victories from North America and maybe elsewhere in 2018.

I think those of us who ground ourselves politically in movements, communities-in-struggle, and the extra-parliamentary left don't often do enough to note and celebrate when we win things. Partly – and this is kind of counterintuitive – that's because we don't actually win things very often, these days. I was born in 1974, and you can make a case that the global reaction against the wins by movements, communities, and national liberation struggles in the preceding two decades began to take shape at about that point. So in my lifetime, we (understood broadly and vaguely) have lost far more often than we've won. As well, when we do win, as wonderful and important as those victories are, they tend to be vastly smaller in scale than the systemic violence, exploitation, and oppression that remains to be faced, so it's understandable that folks just move on to the next fight.

And yet, when we act bravely and collectively, we can win, we do win. Noting and celebrating that is about respecting the cleverness, the bravery, the work that made it possible. And it's about actively remembering our own power – which is absolutely essential to win more in the future.

Now, before I get to the list portion of this thread, I want to complicate a bit what the term "victory" means.

For a lot of people, victory means surviving another day. That is not just an empty slogan. I think it sometimes gets treated that way, but it really shouldn't be. Rather, it is a deliberate valuing of everyday resistance – which is the resistance from which all else is built. And it is a recognition that for those who are most intensely targeted by violence from the state and other sources, refusing to die and insisting on building conditions for thriving are themselves ongoing challenges to the oppressive status quo. As well, there are definitely times when a successful collective action can legitimately be understood as a victory even if it doesn't directly lead to tangible gains. Building the "we" that will continue to struggle is itself a win.

All of which means that there are all kinds of victories that we need to be paying attention to and really celebrating – victories that are real, material wins that build towards a better collective future – that I just won't be able to capture in this thread. Every time an Indigenous child develops fluency in their language, that's a win. Every time Black communities, in the face of another police killing, come together to support each other, that's a win. And so on. And I think actions like #TimesUp can legitimately be understood as wins. Yes, it was full of contradictions, it was messy, it did certain things and not others. But it wove new people into struggle, it connected grassroots messages with new audiences, it gathered significant new money to support movement work. It was a win.

This thread, for better or worse, is going to take a much narrower approach. Not because all of those things aren't victories, and not because they don't matter, but because there is lots I just can't see, and because recognizing moments when all of those kinds of victories turn into forcing changes in oppressive systems matters too.

In listing these wins, I'm most interested in the context of the Canadian state, but I'll be actively adding US examples too. And I won't be looking for them but I may add instances from elsewhere as well.

So, finally, here is the start of my list of victories by social movements and communities-in-struggle in 2018, to which I hope I can make many additions in the next eleven and a third months:

1. At the beginning of 2018, Ontario's minimum wage went from $11.60/hr to $14/hr (on its way to $15/hr next year) thanks to years of organizing by people across the province.

2. In response to Toronto's inadequate shelter system and a brutal cold snap, street nurse Cathy Crowe, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and others mobilized to push the city to open the Moss Park Armoury for use as an emergency homeless shelter.

3. The climate movement pushed New York City to divest its pensions from fossil fuel companies and to launch a lawsuit seeking compensation for climate change-related damages from the five biggest oil companies.

4. Ottawa-based academic Hassan Diab was finally, after years of legal and movement work in support of his struggle, released from his false imprisonment on terrorism-related charges in France and returned to Canada.

That's what I have so far. I'll do my best to remember to keep this list updated as the year progresses. Please send me your suggested additions! :)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pushing back against the claim that ending harassment will end romance

I've been thinking, over the last few days, about this piece – "Ending Harassment Won't End Romance" by Sarah Jaffe.

It challenges the absurd claim that keeps popping up in the mainstream that #MeToo and the current wave of challenge to sexual harassment and sexual abuse "will, somehow, end flirting, fun, and romance." Jaffe links several pieces that make such claims. Or there's the more recent statement from 100 prominent French women making similarly ridiculous claims about how the post #MeToo moment threatens sexual freedoms.

Jaffe's piece points out that this concern and its variants seem to be premised on the idea that "men are incapable of interpreting signals from other people about sexual interest." This incapacity is assumed to be inherent and just how things are. Flowing from this (incorrect) premise is the (incorrect) idea that men plunging forward with advances, innuendo, touches, kisses, in the absence of knowing that they are welcome is an unavoidable part of sex and romance. End one, you end (or seriously impede) the other.

It would be hard to overstate how utterly silly this idea seems to me, not to mention dangerous.

Jaffe challenges it by going after the premise that she has identified. She argues that whatever gendered imbalances exist in capacity to interpret signals are not inevitable but about power, socially enforced gender roles, and the gendered public/private divide, and that men are perfectly capable of acquiring these capacities. Which means that sexual/romantic cultures that are premised on ongoing mutual nonverbal and verbal signalling of interest, and engaged mutual seeking, reading, and acceptance of those signals, are entirely possible.

I agree with her.

Moreover, I agree with her as someone who is colossally bad at knowing when someone might be interested in me. I know this incapacity is not absolute and inherent, but for me has a specific origin and is amenable to change with work and time. I know this because, in general, I'm actually pretty good at reading people and relationships and situations. It's just that, for me, social anxiety and various flavours of shame get in the way when it comes to knowing if people are interested in me. That's one etiology among many, of course, and I suspect what Jaffe describes is more common, so the kinds of work required to resolve this incapacity will vary. But, regardless, absolute and invariant it is not. (And for the record, I have rarely if ever been a "plunge forward" type, notwithstanding a few embarassing choices when I was younger. Mostly, I assume no one is interested and act accordingly.)

I also think that the premise Jaffe writes about is not the only faulty premise bolstering the fears that challenging sexual harassment and abuse might lead to the end of romance, flirting, and sex. I think, drawing on things that feminists identified decades ago, that it is also premised on sexist narratives of women's experiences of desire being absent or weaker or passive or inherently more subject to containment by propriety than in men. Men pursue, women are pursued. Men are beasts, women are the guardians of morality. Etc. Sure, there's a longer discussion to be had there about the micro-politics of initiating relationships and encounters -- women face much more intense surveillance and social punishment for their choices, and of course the ubiquity of sexual violence itself shapes how it all happens. But the idea that men obliviously plunging forward in the absence of enthusiastic encouragement is the only source of energy and initiative from which romantic and sexual fun can spring is...well, again, very harmful and kind of silly.

I wonder, though, whether some of the vehemence with which some men disparage the kind of sexual culture imagined implicitly in the Jaffe piece and much more clearly in lots of other writing is also about something beyond masculine sexual entitlement.

Let me take a few steps back to explain what I mean:

One very common idea of freedom, of what life should be, boils down to maximizing your space to be able to do whatever you want, unencumbered by constraints from other people, rules, the state, etc. This is the freedom of right-libertarianism, of classical liberalsim, of neoliberalism, of the MRA, of the sexist gamer boy, of the man-child, of the tech start-up bro, of dominant masculinity. The targets of its complaint and the degree of insistence that it should be absolute, versus willingness to balance it with other goods, varies with its precise flavour and kind. But in all of these cases, freedom is treated as being about getting you out of my business.

In contrast, insisting that it be normative to invite, actively seek – early, at every scale, continuously – signs of interest, or not, in sexual and romantic contexts is precisely the opposite. It is saying that I must invite you into my business. It is not only saying I must respect your boundary when you set it, but it is inviting you to play a role in shaping my conduct, my choices, even my desires, before they bump into a hard boundary that you have set. It is deliberately and consistently going out of your way to make sure that your every space, every relationship, is co-created by the others who are in them. It is inviting others – in ways and degrees attuned to the specific relationships and contexts – in to co-create you.

Which is not to say that it is easy or simple, or that there is just one way to do it. Rather, it is a different starting point for navigating all of the inevitable complexities of relating to those around us. It is also not to argue for a surrender of self or of principle – it is co creation, not obedience.

To those whose only vision of a good life is maximizing the disconnected autonomy of the liberal self and/or the rigid impermeability of dominant masculinity, this is a tremendously threatening idea in ways that go far beyond romance and sex. It is an attack on an important micro-level building block of how gendered power is reproduced in our everyday lives. It touches every aspect of how our families, our friend groups, our activist formations, our classrooms, our workplaces function.

So I don't think this idea explains everything – many of the objections to a robust ongoing challenge to sexual harassment and abuse are definitely about nothing more than masculine entitlement to women's bodies. But this is part of the mix.

And as for it ushering in a new age of sexual puritanism – again, that's a dangerous and silly suggestion. For me, at least, realizing this mode of relating to others requires connecting to desire and vulnerability through the powerful block of shame in a dynamic, fine-grained, ongoing way that is precisely the opposite of the puritanical "No!" and "Bad!". It holds the potential to lead to an equitable rather than a dominating/misogynist anti-puritanism.

And to me that's a pretty enticing possibility.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Eduardo Galeano and the telling of resistant stories

At the moment, I'm in the middle of reading Hunter of Stories by Eduardo Galeano (translated by Mark Fried). Galeano, who died in 2015, was an Uruguayan writer and public intellectual of global renown. I haven't read his early classics Open Veins of Latin America or the Memory of Fire trilogy, but I've read a couple of his later books.

Hunter of Stories was written in the years before he died and was only published posthumously. Like others of his later books, it collects very short pieces of story – almost all shorter than a page, in what I've read so far, and most considerably so. The title of the book refers to Galeano himself, who – like any master storyteller – collected stories wherever he went. The pages are filled with what he has found, and then distilled, polished, and presented. He has, it seems, taken fragments from dusty books, from ancient myths, from the pages of newspapers, from his own life, and from a thousand conversations with the people he has met in his travels. In his choices about which fragments are worth extracting and re-telling, and his ever-so-minimal approach in doing so, he makes them his own...but, as storytellers often do, he sends them out into the world to be told and shared again in turn.

I don't actually know much about him or about his process of working, but for some reason I imagine him in conversation with my partner's maternal grandfather – a rural working-class man, devout and conservative, who did hard manual labour his whole life. And also a storyteller. He was the sort of storyteller who would start at random, proceed at length, and reveal only by a glint in his eyes just before he dropped the punchline that this was not an anecdote from his day, but a joke he'd heard, re-packaged, and re-told just for you. So though the two were very different men – different lives, different politics – I for some reason am drawn to imagining the joy in the Spanish-accented and Pennsylvania-Deutsch-accented Englishes as stories fly back and forth over coffee at a kitchen table.

But I digress.

The book is remarkable for two reasons. The first is its craft.

The stories do many things. Some are pointedly political, others more subtley so. Some are general observations of the world, others are narrativizations of self. Many are told with humour, while many relate the tragedy of a violent, oppressive world. What is amazing is how effectively Galeano does all of these things with so few words – just a few lines, often, and rarely more than a few short paragraphs. I also happen to be reading a science fiction novel by Cixin Liu right now, and in it one character talks about Chinese landscape paintings that capture an entire scene in very few brushstrokes. I feel like Galeano does that with his stories.

But what is perhaps even more remarkable about these stories, and what I had trouble identifying for awhile after I started reading, is the rare way it brings together the conversational and the resistant in print.

There are a limited range of ways that we get used to encountering words that honestly name the colonial and capitalist domination of the world, and the things that people do to survive and thrive. Many of us have little opportunity to encounter such words at all. They are mostly not in the media that most of us view and hear and read – people's realities sneak in anyway, but they are rarely matter-of-factly present. Others of us encounter them primarily in written form, but it is the written form of the polemic, the dense novel, the ideological code-word, the (quasi-)academic decoding of the social, all of which are important but all of which are boundaried, limited. It's not that we don't need those things – we do. But they are knowledge with built-in walls. They name what we have been deprived of the tools to name, which is great, but that means many will be unable to understand them without other kinds of work. And a few of us encounter honest naming of colonial and capitalist domination through the people around us relating and reflecting on their lived experiences. Which is crucial – it's how communities-in-struggle make and re-make themselves, it's how moments of everyday resistance are shared and circulated. And, frankly, listening to such moments is a big part of the work-life I've constructed for myself. But everyday conversation is bounded as well, not because it won't be understood, but because it won't be heard. Chatter over a water cooler or kitchen table by definition reaches only those others gathered around the same object.

What Galeano does, here, is takes all of those resistant knowledges that he has encountered – the polemic, the shared everyday conversation, the obscure incident in the dusty book, the anecdote, the myth – and makes them story. The language of story, the circulability of print – it allows a kind of naming of the world that is so often kept restricted to certain spaces or to inaccessible forms, or forced to pre-emptively defend itself, to feel broad and normal and ordinary.

That's precious and rare, and the chance to experience it is making me glad that I'm reading this book.

Anyway. I look forward to reading the rest of it, in particular the later sections that I think feature more stories drawn from Galeano's own life. I'm always keen to learn about the teller as well as to hear the tales. :)

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Sameness, difference, and cold dangerous winters

I am visiting Sudbury, Ontario, at the moment. I lived here for about a decade, and moved away two and not-quite-a-half years ago. This is my first visit back in more than a year. As such, my mind is turning to questions of sameness and difference and to cold, dangerous winters.

I am very conscious that I could tell a story about my life between when we moved and today that shows that my life is essentially the same, and I could tell another story about my life between when we moved and today that shows my life is very different.

Both would be true.

Sameness, in brief: The people in my life are much the same, even if I'm physically farther from some and closer to others; the work I do is much the same – Talking Radical Radio is still my biggest ongoing project, and a book emerging (in a broad sense) from the work on the show is still a central (if intermittent) commitment, and social movements are still at the heart of what I do; and, I am still involved in grassroots political work in the community – not as intensively as when I was 25, certainly, but to the extent that I can be, I'm still engaged with collective efforts to push for change.

Difference, in brief: Materially, other than my primary partner and my kid, who I actually spend time with and how that time is organized is quite different than before we moved, and I've met many new people, plus three (of not-many) older Neigh relatives have died in that time; the show is the same, but the book project emerging from it has changed drastically, and I'm also involved in something new, the Red Hill Stories of Struggle project; and in terms of my political involvement, I no longer do grassroots media organizing (as opposed to grassroots media making, of which I still do plenty) but I am now involved in climate justice work.

If I did that over three pages each rather than one short paragraph each, I could turn these differently emphasized data points into narratives that feel much more dramatically different. But both true.

That's the key: We make different stories out of the same complex situation by choosing which facts to include, which to emphasize, which to downplay, which to omit. That can be done responsibly (e.g. grassroots journalism centering the voices of ordinary people who are most directly affected by an issue, while not knowingly leaving anything major out) or irresponsibly, but it is inevitable when making narratives about the world.

And I know that what I did above for a life can also be done for a place. So as I visit and chat and sip tea, I'm on the lookout for ways that Sudbury is the same, and different, over the last two-and-a-bit years. I honestly haven't been able to identify much. But I do know one major difference is that for much of the time I lived here, there was an active direct action anti-poverty group, often but not always called the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP), and now there is not. The story of why it no longer exists is one that makes me sad, but it isn't mine to tell. Instead of thinking about the causes of its absence, though, I've been thinking about the consequences.

I feel very aware of its absence because of the messages coming out in Toronto this last week about the dangerously inadequate shelter system in that city in the middle of a sustained cold snap, which is putting lives at risk. We've seen the city administration in Toronto working very hard to keep the inadequacy of the shelter system there as one of those facts that just doesn't get mentioned in narratives of 'Toronto,' that isn't present in mainstream/middle-class consciousness of the city. And we've seen action by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, street nurse Cathy Crowe, and a lot of other people refusing to let that happen – insisting that a shelter system so inadequate as to be life-threatening *is* part of Toronto's story.

When S-CAP existed, its presence and loudness and persistence similarly forced the mainstream media, city hall, and middle-class people in Sudbury to bring into their narratives of this place aspects of the complex social whole that they would otherwise have ignored. Their work also pushed other progressive groups in the city to take up and talk about poverty issues, social assistance, and homelessness in new and more vigorous ways. They didn't bring the revolution, sure, but they forced real improvements in the systems that keep marginalized people alive, and they did it in a movement-building way aimed at building capacity to win bigger and potentially more transformative fights in the future.

So as I think about sameness, difference, and cold dangerous winters, I'm thinking about what we don't notice because there isn't a persistently loud collective forcing us to notice. We've heard lots about how the shelter system in Toronto is inadequate. But what about in Sudbury? What about in Hamilton, where I now live? What about in other cities that do not currently have a militant anti-poverty group? And, yes, these cities have lots of people concerned about and working on poverty, some of whom I know, and many of whom do wonderful work. Some of these folks are, no doubt, saying what needs to be said. But that's not the same as having a collective (like S-CAP, OCAP, or something else) that will make these uncomfortable but vital facts unavoidable – that amplifies voices in a way that the powers-that-be and the comfortably-not-knowing cannot ignore, cannot leave out of their narratives, however much they would like to.

And it makes me wonder: What else about how I'm perceiving sameness and difference – between places, across time – is missing the mark because of the absence of groups able to make a fuss to bring harmful, oppressive realities unavoidably into our collective narratives?