Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

[Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.]

I've noted before that when I go for a long stretch without reading any history -- which happens fairly often, these days -- then there's a real feeling of satisfaction and comfort when I finally get to. And I began this book with exactly that feeling. The standard tasks of the Introduction and then the first chapter's brief sketch of Indigenous life in the Americas before 1492 were fascinating and smoothly told, and reading them was a real pleasure.

The fascination and smoothness didn't change through the rest of the book -- the Intro alludes to how tricky a task it was to write an overarching history of the United States as settler colonial entity, and make it short and readable while still politically incisive and meaningfully complete, and I was able to put together a fuller imagining of the work to which those allusions pointed by way of my own much more modest writing experiences, yet Dunbar-Ortiz does an amazing job.

What didn't last past the first chapter was the pleasure. Not because of anything about the writing, which remained superb, but because as interesting and important as this history is, and as engaging as its treatment in this book, it is also utterly grim and depressing once the story proceeds past the moment of contact. The book does not skimp one bit in demonstrating exactly how bloody, deceitful, and inhumane settler colonialism was and is.

The organization of the material combines chronological and thematic elements, and weaves together stories and ideas quite effectively. I think perhaps what I most appreciated about the history in this volume is the pains that it takes to demonstrate continuities across eras and contexts. In particular, it is common in progressive circles today to point to the US's current way of making war as a relatively recent development, whether the shift being referenced is Donald Rumsefeld's post-9/11 alterations, the switch to a professional as opposed to conscripted army after Vietnam, or the change in global focus and scale of US military intervention after the Second World War. But Dunbar-Ortiz draws out the connections between how US war-making began even before the secession of the original thirteen colonies from England and how it still happens today, with a combination of regular military forces and irregular forces that engage in a range of violences against the entire population of the enemy. And this is not merely symbolic similarities, but an actual institutional descent in which ways of making war that were used against Indigenous nations from the earliest days were coded into the very bones of how the biggest military in the world operates now. And through this and a variety of other connections, she stresses the continuity between settler colonial conquest and violence on Turtle Island, and the more recent US empire/imperialism that usually gets treated as a different phenomenon.

I also appreciated the book's attention to the continuity and the unceasing character of resistance by the Indigenous nations of this continent -- it has taken many different forms, from waging war to building movements to just helping each other survive, and certainly has included in certain times and places a strategic purchase of breathing space and resources through accommodating demands made by a more powerful enemy, but it has never stopped. The trajectory of resistance that the book allows us to glimpse reaches right up to the New Left era resurgence and beyond. Of course this book is not a history of the any one nation or collection of nations that are in resistance, or even a generalized history of Indigenous resistance; rather, it is a history of the US as settler colonies and a settler state. But you can't do the latter without also saying plenty about the former.

I do have to say that this book's relationship to settler colonialism as it has occurred in the northern half of Turtle Island is a bit peculiar, though I suppose not in a way that's at all surprising. The territory and peoples currently encompassed/colonized by the label "Canada" come up in passing from time to time, but are mostly left in silence. It's certainly not a book about settler colonialism here, so I wouldn't expect it to have much to say about what has gone down on this side of the colonial border. Nonetheless, it seems to me that briefly noting the fact that the processes north and south of the border are deeply intertwined but nonethless distinct -- and this is not indulging in delusional Canadian left-nationalist we're-betterism, just noting that the respective pasts and the presents of settler colonial processes and resistance to them have meaningful specificities -- would've been appropriate. Some sort of nod in that directly felt particularly needed in parts of the book that somehow referenced the contemporary context. That said, while I won't claim to be able to speak to what Indigenous folks in the Canadian context should or shouldn't read, I will say that settler folks who try to support and engage in struggles against colonialism here should definitely read this book. Author, radical scholar, and movement historian Robin Kelley's endorsement of this book reads, "This may well be the most important US history book you will read in your lifetime," and I think if Canadian settler lefties read only two books of US history, it should be Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States and this one.

I want to close with what may seem like two very specific points of resonance I experienced in reading this book -- specific, but nonetheless illustrative of the importance of really sitting with the sorts of continuities described in this book between earlier phases of our settler colonial past and our settler colonial present.

One was that as I was reading this book, I also happened to encounter several instances of an ongoing dialogue on social media between two (Christian) people that I know, but not well, about the conflict in Israel-Palestine. The details aren't important -- and, indeed, I did not actively engage in it, because the awfulness from one party was already being gently but persistently countered by the other, and nothing would've been gained by me barging in. What matters, and what caused me much reflection in the context of reading this book, is the way in which one of those commentators somehow managed to reconcile a broadly liberal worldview and a commitment to values of compassion and charity and all of those other Christian things, with a consistent deployment of points and arguments that could only be considered plausible with some deep-down investment in the premise that Palestinians are less than human. (Yes, it was pretty gross.) So certainly there are long histories of Western anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, the roots of which can be traced back well before 1492, but I couldn't help but wonder if part of this vicious disregard for the humanity of "the native" who resists is also rooted in structures of North American settler colonialism. It certainly felt like some of the things being described in the book.

The other point has to do with an anecdote Dunbar-Ortiz uses in the Conclusion, where she talks about a number of expressions of the settler colonial continuity of the US in the present and the need to challenge them as we move into the future. This particular anecdote is about "Kennewick Man," a skull that was at least 9000 years old that was discovered in Washington in the 1990s. A local archaeologist managed to get his hands of it, did a variety of biometric measurements, and declared that it didn't resemble current Native people and really was closer to current Europeans, so it was therefore evidence of Europeans in North America many thousands of years ago. It's nonsense, of course -- bad archaeology (as promptly declared by the Archaeological Institute of America), bad biology, bad history, and bad reasoning. But the media picked it up and ran with it, and it still crops up as lay "evidence" used in popular media and bar-stool conversation to rhetorically chip away at the realities of Indigeneity. Which sounded familiar to me, though I couldn't immediately place it. Then I remembered that back in 2013 I read (and reviewed) a book of reflections on history and how it gets used in various contexts, written by a well-regarded scholarly historian at an Ontario university but intended for a lay audience. There were lots of deeply concerning things in that book, but certainly among them was this supposedly serious and liberal-minded thinker's off-hand use of this ridiculous and debunked bit of pseudo-archaeology to do exactly that, and chip away at the various historical and political claims made today by Indigenous nations.

Like I said, these are small things. But they are small (awful) things that would be hard to put into any sort of meaningful political context without some understanding of the history of settler colonialism on Turtle Island -- the sort of history that, at least with reference to the portion of the continent currently imprisoned in the label "United States of America," can effectively be learned through reading this book.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Friday, November 20, 2015

Review: Learning Activism

[Aziz Choudry. Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.]

For a long time, a unifying thread in many different-seeming activities that have filled my days has been the complex and vital relationship between social movements and knowledge -- this was true in an increasingly conscious way after I realized that I had oral history interviews with 50 long-time activists and no clear sense of how to make use of them, but I think it was the case even in an inchoate way before that as I engaged in various writerly, grassroots media, and activist endeavours. Certainly today, it underlies my radio show, much of my blog writing, and the the writing project that I'm slowly attempting to build from the incredible pool of material that the radio work is amassing.

Given that, I was tremendously excited to stumble across mention of this book in the couple of weeks after it was published. I first encountered Aziz Choudry's work 15 years ago or more, when he was living in New Zealand and doing movement-based research and writing relevant to global justice struggles. He's now a scholar at McGill University in Montreal, and his work continues to be focused on movements and communities-in-struggle in the sort of real, grounded way that simply is not true for far too many academics for whom movements are a topic and radical verbiage their basic tools.

Learning Activism, in how it talks about movements and how it talks about knowledge, is very consistent with my own sensibility about such things. The book's four chapters are, roughly speaking, a general introduction to movements and knowledge, followed by examinations of knowledge produced about/from movements, teaching and learning within movements, and research done in and by movements, with a brief epilogue tying some of the key issues together. Throughout, I found it thoughtful, provocative, and carefully attentive to actively and practically supporting struggles for justice and liberation as the point of this kind of work.

It was an interesting experience to go back through the book in preparation for writing this review -- interesting because it became clear to me that I had been so absorbed by its ideas during my initial read that it hadn't really registered that the book is not the sort of relentlessly linear argument that I so often expect to see in a scholarly monograph. Which may sound like a criticism, but it is not. Rather, I think it's an embodiment of the book's political commitments. By this, in part I mean that it is committed to refusing to erase both the complexity and materiality of movements and knowledge. Capturing complexity in your writing, particularly if you aren't interested in the sort of dense academese that just replicates it and offloads the work onto the reader, means a document that is structured in some way other than a simplistic straight line. And materiality means a responsiveness to partial, limited, but real inputs from the world that hold the potential to result in knowledge that is actually useful for creating social change, but that can mean taking some of that real-world unevenness into your text in a way that flights of detached abstraction never have to worry about. More important than any of those, though, is that -- at least in my reading of it -- the goal of this book is to create a document that can be useful in thinking through the politics of knowledge in the context of movements in a variety of different ways, from a variety of different places, to a variety of different ends. So it's not a relentless drive to prove or disprove some abstracted hypothesis, but a collection of interwoven meditations that are designed to be able to be taken up by lots of different people in lots of different ways.

As such, the book brings together and contributes to a wide range of important discussions. It adds to a genre of critique of Social Movement Studies that I'm in firm agreement with. It talks usefully about the relationships between movements and the academy. It had some important critical things to say about the NGOization and professionalization of responses to need and to oppression. It contributes to conversations about Indian historiography, which may sound obscure but it shouldn't be -- I actually know a little bit about these debates from reading a few things by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Himani Bannerji, and one or two others, and I think they are quite important questions for the left in the West to think about. It offers some important reflections on popular education and critical pedagogy, not just in the simplistically adulatory way that has become so common among progressive scholars in North America, but in a way that is quite sharply critical of how it has become ritualized, squeezed into institutional contexts which are inconsistent with its basic mission, and subordinated to a celebrity-system and an uncritical worship of Paulo Friere -- while definitely acknowledging that Friere did important work, Choudry encourages grounding popular education in a broader understanding of the centuries of history of such work and also in a way more engaged with Antonio Gramsci's thought.

The book also talks in some very useful ways about the importance of knowing and deploying historical knowledge, with a particular emphasis on the centrality of critical history to the process of turning everyday experience into radical analysis. In the same vein, I really appreciated the book's emphasis on the fact that a grounding in everyday experience, particularly everyday experiences of struggle, is absolutely essential for developing a radical understanding of the world, but it is not sufficient; we also need engagement with to-the-root ideas. Moreover, too often we don't look to movements as a source of such ideas, but listening to theory that movements themselves have developed, as well as to movement opinions about what theory produced in other contexts is useful, is actually one of the most important ways we can develop movement-grounded knowledge.

The book also made good use of practical, in-depth examples. I particularly appreciated the lengthy account of how experiences of state repression plus collaborative engagement with communities resisting colonization helped shape the analysis and strategic approach of participants in global justice organizing in New Zealand. And I thought the interview-based examination of existing examples of movement-based research were useful and even inspiring, particularly the case study of such work in the Philippines, where things are much more developed than in Canada.

So, as you can see, it covers a real mix of ground for what is a relatively short book. How exactly you might want to make use of it, and which elements you might want to take up, will depend a lot on why you're reading it. This is an area where there remains relatively little work, though, or at least relatively little in this spirit. So if you are at all interested in knowledge production, learning, teaching, and research in the context of social movements, this is a must-read.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Let's take a moment to acknowledge our collective ignorance about West and Central Asia

There's lots to deplore about how (white settler) people in this country have responded to the Paris attacks and their aftermath -- racist assaults, racist politicking, racist vandalism, and a wave of noxious white supremacy on social media often cloaked as practical concern for safety.

There has also, however, been generous expression of impulses towards humanity, compassion, and solidarity. Mind you, I think we should be very cautious about how much encouragement we take from this fact, given that so much of the form taken by these pro-social impulses by white settler imperial subjects involves making ourselves feel better about ourselves, without actually facing what would be required to permanently widen the space for racialized and colonized folks to breath, survive, and thrive. But it is still somewhat positive to see more of this sort of pro-social, anti-reactionary response than we have often seen in past iterations of this same awful cycle.

As important as it is to understand these competing impulses, and to recognize in the instinctive move by many towards human solidarity the seeds of a social and political response that might one day be adequate to the problem, my most forceful reaction in the last couple of days has been to a somewhat different aspect of what's going on. That is, it has been so, so disheartening to be reminded of the painfully shallow character of our collective understandings, including in the whiter parts of the left, of the political and social situation in West and Central Asia that we have been so complicit in creating.

This is not a novel observation, of course. And I want to be clear it's not really about individuals, and I'm not exempting myself from it. It's more a matter of taking a moment to pause and recognizing the immense socially organized pressure to not get what's going on there -- with the centuries of sedimented orientalist ignorance first named as such by Edward Said lurking in the background; the generalized refusal to acknowledge five centuries of European imperial/colonial history; the lack of understanding (even in much of the left) about how complex institutions function in general, never mind in this specific context; and the massive investment of energy and labour by Western states over the course of decades in making sure we have no basis to understand what's going on specifically in West and Central Asia, including how our own governments are and are not involved, along with a mixture of active and passive complicity in this by various media institutions.

The exact mix of those things varies some with the politics of the knower -- rad left folk might have a clearer sense of European and Euro-American histories of pillaging the rest of the world, for instance, but that doesn't necessarily come attached to any greater capacity in any of the other areas, and certainly some of the painfully superficial analysis I'm reacting to has been from rad left sources taking one or another oppositional line. The phenomenon as a whole is general: socially organized deprivation of the tools to understand the situation, and therefore to be able to put together programs of collective action to meaningfully intervene and change it.

As general as the problem is, though, I think it's also important to place some specific, though again collective, responsibility at the feet of the (white settler-dominated) left. Western states -- the states in which we live, which claim to represent us, which we are in some sense politically repsonsible for -- have directly, indirectly, and through proxies been killing people in West and Central Asia pretty much continuously for 25 years. Movements and organizations and groups have, with various ebbs and flows, been organizing against that in North America for just as long. And part of what movements and organizations and groups and the broad left as a whole do, at least at their best, is produce knowledge of the world that is in opposition to dominant understandings and that points towards justice. But somehow, in this case, we haven't really. Despite a quarter century, we have not managed to produce a broadly accessible framework, or collection of inter-translatable frameworks, that are sufficiently established even in the leftier fringes of the culture to allow us to respond to the horror of events in Paris and the horror of violent Western responses to those events by being able to just fall into a discussion of what's going on that is sophisticated, smart, and useful.

Unfortunately, I don't have much of a hopeful note to end on. It has in fact been awhile since I've written something that makes me feel as much like a crotchety, negative, lefty crank as the line of thinking in this post. But the lack of easily and broadly accessible raw material for having sophisticated conversations about what's going on that might lead to collective political responses that might move us all in the direction we need to's very disturbing and it's very important, so I decided to say it anyway.

Perhaps the first step, in this era of oh-so-easy public opining, is for more of us, including more of us on the left who like to think we know what's what, to take stock of our ignorance and be more explicit about owning it, even as we share and tweet and comment. And perhaps we can somehow collectively commit to doing something lasting about lessening it, even as we go about the immediate work of welcoming refugees, opposing direct racism in our communities, and trying to stop further imperial wars.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

10 things grassroots writing and media can do (even given the power of the filter bubble)

In the aftermath of the recent federal election, I wrote a post (building on a piece by someone else) that, among other points, argued that the community-based left in Canada is fragmented and weak in part because we focus too much on particular kinds of online activities and on small-scale offline specatcles, while not putting enough energy into the slower and more laborious kinds of mostly-offline work that would allow us to build relationships and engage in dialogue with people who don't already think like us. I think there are a bunch of reasons why this happens, but certainly one contributing factor is the way that major online technologies like social networks and search engines function -- without really realizing it, when we are online we tend to disproportionately encounter material and people we agree with, and when we opine or otherwise share substantive content, it is sympathetic eyes that are most likely to end up seeing it. This sometimes gets called the "filter bubble".

That line of thinking has implications beyond just how movements and their sympathizers conceptualize effective political action -- implications that hit rather close to home for me. Grassroots media, community-based intellectual work, online writing, and various other sorts of extra-institutional production, articulation, and circulation of knowledge intended to be of relevance (at least in a broad sense) to struggles for social change all depend to a very large extent these days on the internet to connect with potential audiences. Given the filter bubble, though, are these kinds of grassroots knowledge work politically useful investments of time and energy?

I sure hope so.

Actually, I'm pretty certain so.

Before I get to why I think that, though, I want to emphasize that for all that I devote significant amounts of energy to writing, intellectual work, media-making, knowledge production, and what have you, and I do see it as worthwhile, I do not see this work as in any sense the most useful work. I am cautious about any claims that X is inherently more valuable than Y in building movements, particularly outside of very concrete circumstances, because I think we generally need the whole alphabet, and often such determinations smuggle hierarchies of power and privilege back into our movements in how they differentially value the kinds of contributions that tend to be made by differently situated people. Still, I feel reasonably comortable in suggesting that one kind of activity that is currently lacking in a major way in building movements for radical social transformation in North America, and certainly is more urgently needed than the sort of media/writing/knowledge work that I spend lots of my time doing, remains all of those activities that can be labelled "organizing" -- a term I use more broadly than some, perhaps, because I'm not sure its more top-down manifestations are necessarily all that useful, and because I think it actually has to take on a much broader range of forms than is usually credited if we want to end up with the movements we need. With that in mind, by "organizing" I mean the many practices that deliberately work to catalyze the coming together of my moments of resistance with your moments of resistance with her moments of resistance over there to allow for their collective and confrontational expression in the service of social transformation. Over the years, I've certainly done some of that, and will do more in the future, though I don't claim to be particularly good at it. But even so, I do far more of the media/writing/knowledge sort of work. I do this because not everyone's contributions to social change need to look the same, and in fact I would argue that we need to do a better job of accommodating a wider range of capacities, skills, and passions in our movements. I do this because I do have some skills that are at least a bit more developed when it comes to certain media- and writing-related activities -- I perhaps remain a mediocre white guy, but one at least who has practiced enough to have something to offer -- and it feels like making use of those skills and the pleasure I take in deploying them should be part of how I contribute to movements.

That, at least, is how I have rationalized this choice to myself. But what, exactly, can media/writing/knowledge work do, given the difficult and limiting reality of the filter bubble?

This list is far from comprehensive, but it suggests a few possibilities -- ten, in fact:

  1. Preaching to the choir. In my last few years of living in Sudbury, Ontario (which ended in August) my central involvement in the community was doing editorial and organizing work (and the odd bit of grassroots journalism) with the Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op. The Media Co-op is a cross-country network of collectives devoted to producing, circulating, and promoting grassroots journalism and other forms of independent media. At some point early in the life of our working-group, we had an organizer from the Toronto Media Co-op come up and do an event with us, and I remember being particularly struck by his emphasis on the fact that, as much as people of many different political stripes use "preaching to the choir" in a derogatory sense, sometimes it's a worthwhile thing to do. If I'm not mistaken, he was using the example of the TMC's reporting on the G20 in 2010, and how, even if nothing they produced during those days was read by anyone who wasn't already aware and active -- and if there was a time when that wasn't true, it was then, because their stuff circulated far and wide during those few days -- it was still important to have media produced from the standpoint of folks in the streets as a way of strengthening and reproducing existing community-based left networks. So even if what we produce and share doesn't make it outside the filter bubble, it is serving that function, and it's a necessary one because political networks, however ephemeral and marginal, don't reproduce on their own. It takes labour. And, in fact, neither do political identifications and commitments -- in some ways, this labour that happens within the confines of the filter bubble smacks of Benedict Andersen's insight into nations as imagined communities, which he argued was originally produced by certain sets of shared practices, including (print newspaper-based) media consumption habits. We'll never change the world if we don't go beyond this, but that doesn't mean we don't need to do some of it.

  2. Mediating difference within the choir. The fact is, our left-of-NDP-type networks, both in how they manifest offline and in their somewhat different expressions on social media, are not actually homogeneous. Yes, I argued in the earlier post that we spend too much time talking to each other and not enough talking to people who think in completely different ways, but that doesn't mean we don't need to talk to each other at all. We have profound differences in our experiences of the social world and in our analyses, in all sorts of ways. Social media may be a singularly terrible place to try and resolve any of that with any finality, given how attempts at political dialogue in such settings are so rarely productive, but it is still a context in which we can encounter that difference along with pointers to background information (i.e. links), which can allow us to learn from it, and to be better able to engage in such encounters when they happen in the (somewhat, sometimes, hopefully) more productive environment that is face-to-face meatspace.

  3. Circulating struggle. Struggle-related knowledge and practices move. Something works in one city, so folks in another city take it up. A particular action helps forge a victory in one struggle, so folks involved in something quite different look at it closely, make some changes, and apply it to their own situation. Activists in one organization come up with a new approach to decision-making that displaces broadly accepted convention in a way that really works for them, and others decide to try it out. Organizers in one place find a frame for a given issue that really resonates with people who hadn't thought about that issue before, so organizers in a dozen other places are inspired to change how they communicate about that issue. This kind of circulation of knowledge and practices can be crucial to catalyzing new movement upsurges, to adapting to changed circumstances, and to benefiting from local innovation. In all of these cases, even if the writing or media that carries this knowledge doesn't leave broadly leftish circles, it can still do that valuable work of circulation, and contribute to the processes of discussion and debate and adaptation that inevitably accompany it. (This is one of the things that I hope that Talking Radical Radio does in some small way, given that it makes it possible to hear directly from a wide range of activists and organizers involved in a wide range of struggles about what they're doing, how they're doing it, and why they're doing it.)

  4. Amplifying voices. Even within our movements, even within the horizon of the lefty filter bubble, there are voices and analyses and experiences that get marginalized. This is unjust in and of itself. It is also harmful to movements, because it means that ideas and approaches that could strengthen our work, deepen our understanding, take us more truly to-the-root, never get heard. So do things that make use of the space and skills that you have to amplify those voices and analyses and experiences (while of course being very clear not to appropriate, distort, or talk over). (I also hope Talking Radical Radio does some of this.)

  5. Constituting a new choir. I think there are limits to the kind of analysis that uses this language, but there's some value too to the understanding that a publication summons a public into existence. Now, this way of thinking about it has its roots in a somewhat idealized understanding of the liberal public sphere in the days of penny newspapers and salons and journals, and I think even the more critical stuff I've seen that uses this language sometimes feels like it's leaving out important aspects of how power shapes knowledge and discourse and action. Nonetheless, the idea that a publication summons into existence a sort of fragile, fleeting social formation that does indeed have a certain reality and relevance and that can do certain kinds of work is, I think, a useful one. One of the features of community life in Sudbury, particularly in my earlier years in the city, was that different sectors that were, in broad terms, progressive mostly didn't know much about each other. And Sudbury is not at all a large city. It was more complicated than this, but speaking quickly and crudely, environmentalists, labour activists, and community-based, movement-focused radicals (who at various points focused more on anti-poverty issues or more on anti-war/anti-imperialism/Indigenous solidarity issues) were largely disconnected from each other; Indigenous folks largely did their own things, with occasional overlap with one or another constituency within the anglo-settler left; and francophone-based political work was pretty much entirely separate from the anglophone community left. So one of the useful things about my work with The Media Co-op in Sudbury, however partially realized, was that we were trying to create a grassroots venue where people from a range of different sectors would come to see local, original content that was directly relevant to them, and in so doing would encounter things from other sectors that they previously had little to do with. It was a chance to build up somewhat broadened habits of awareness and attention, and then perhaps knowledge, and then perhaps networks. And combining this online content and its associated practices with offline events that were specifically designed to appeal to people with different (but still broadly left or progressive) political priorities was, at least we hoped, a way to gently nudge people towards certain kinds of conversation and learning and, ultimately, broadening and strengthening networks within the community and therefore strengthening the ability of the community to tackle a range of political problems. For various reasons, it wasn't as successful as I'd hoped (at least by the point of my departure -- the work continues!) but I don't think that's because it's a bad idea.

  6. Permeating the filter bubble. The filter bubble is a big thing, and it matters, and we need to do mostly-offline, long-term work that is not captured by it. But it isn't impermeable. Even on that most bubbled of platforms, Facebook, you will occasionally see a post from that right-wing guy whom you kind of knew in high school who for some reason added you, or from that nice-seeming Christian lady you met in the context of your community garden who has the most godawful racist and settler colonial opinions about the freedom struggle of the Palestinian people, or from that extended family member who is mostly apolitical but who, when they do share a meme, can be relied upon to share one that is both reactionary and based entirely on fabrications. And they will occasionally see a post from you. Again, dialogue is unlikely to be productive (though sometimes you just have to say something), but even minimal seepage means the possibility for some awareness of difference. I actually like to think of it as similar to postering for events in downtown Sudbury -- in some places, urban postering is a good way to get people out to your events, but that rarely proved true in Sudbury. Nonetheless, I still thought it was important, not just because even a couple of unfamiliar faces attracted that way made it worth it, but because the debris of past posters on lamp posts was an intervention into urban space that let even the people who resolutely refused to be interested in the content of the posters know that there was something going on, something they didn't control, something they probably wouldn't like. And of course not all social media works like Facebook. I'm not an active poster there, but I occasionally lurk on Tumblr, where the mechanics of the site mean that there is often quite significant crossover of content across political lines. Again, I'm uncertain about how productive some of those exchanges actually are, but I know from things I've seen on the site that there are folks on Tumblr who are aware at all of the existence of people concerned with social justice and anti-racism and such -- "social justice warriors," in the lingo of the platform -- because they ran into them on the site, and otherwise would never have encountered them. (A few, it seems, even think that concern for social justice became a thing because of Tumblr, which amuses me.)

  7. Sneaking into mainstream spaces. It's rarely fair, satisfying, or even remotely adequate, but material produced outside of mainstream contexts, in response to logics to which such contexts are hostile, can still sometimes find its way into such contexts, or can influence material that does. Not that mainstream influence can or should be the guiding principle for our work, but it can be one way that grassroots work can sometimes have one kind of impact. Sometimes this happens because it is being produced by someone who already has a certain amount of celebrity, like Naomi Klein or Laurie Penny. Sometimes, it is because mainstream venues take up stories that were broken by a grassroots venue -- I forget the details, but I know there were a number of instances of stories broken by Toronto Media Co-op journalists that found their way, in one way or another, into daily newspapers in Toronto. And sometimes, mostly in the context of fiction, it happens through what I would call "impurity," where ideas and images with origins in writing/intellectual work/media produced in oppositional contexts are mixed (often in troubling ways) with other sorts of ideas as part of making a complex but compelling narrative that makes it to a screen or page near you.

  8. Sneaking offline. Today, online circulation is important to grassroots writing, intellectual work, media production, and knowledge production in a way that would have been inconceivable when I started dabbling in this sort of thing in the mid 1990s. But as important as the internet is, life beyond the internet continues, and it's a way to connect with people in a way not limited by the filter bubble. My first regular paid writing gig, many years ago, was doing magazine-style grassroots journalism for a local print weekly. I haven't done that in a long time myself, but it still happens. And, sure, how that knowledge circulates is still socially organized and limited in particular ways. But it's different than what search engines and social media would produce. Or take broadcast radio – right now Talking Radical Radio broadcasts every week on 8 or 9 stations in different parts of Canada, and on an occasional basis on a few more, and I know that reaches numbers and kinds of ears far beyond those who are likely to encounter the podcast version. Or take 'zines – lots of work, generally pretty small circulation, but often a way to reach eyes that would never see the same content in a blog post.

  9. Building an organization. There's a quote from Lenin that I'm too lazy to dig up that says something to the effect that if you want to start a political organization, begin by starting a publication. While some organizations that claim his mantle seem to interpret this as having something to do with preparing militants for revolution by having them flog newspapers on street corners, a more sophisticated understanding is that through co-producing a publication, political cohesion will be built, which can be turned into action. I have been part of one project where a subset of the original core participants had this hope, or so I've heard. I myself was a fairly peripheral participant, I would not have shared this hope anyway, and it did not end up playing out that way. But I think it's as reasonable a model of building an organization as any. And I do know of another organization that did not begin this way, but that has in the last couple of years turned towards the collaborative development of an organizational publication as a way to build shared political knowledge and political cohesion, and from the outside at least it seems to be working.

  10. Supporting a specific organization or struggle or movement. This can take a variety of forms, but it involves developing some sort of sustained relationship with a particular organization or cluster of organizations involved in a very specific, concrete struggle. It might involve actually joining and being very clear about putting your labour and specialized skills at the disposal of that group. Or it might mean staying a bit apart but using some other space that you have access to in a way that supports them. This can look like consistently covering the actions of a local direct action anti-poverty group for your local grassroots media site, thereby helping them build a public profile and making sure they consistently have accounts of their actions grounded in the standpoint from which their organizing springs that they can make use of in their own outreach, promotion, and organizing. Or it can look like using your space and skills, perhaps in a university but not necessarily, to produce knowledge that the group will find directly useful, such as facilitating their efforts to map institutions and relationships and power that they face in the community.
I'm sure I've missed a great deal. I haven't even touched on the ways in which writing and media work can nourish our creative, imaginative, spiritual sides, in the way that Montreal-based organizer and musician Stefan Christoff talks about music in this week's episode of the show. And I'm sure there are lots of other things I've missed because they have never really applied to my own work, but are totally central to what other people do. But I feel good enough about the partial list that I've assembled here to feel pretty confident that, yes, even given the ways in which the online circulation of lefty content is limited, doing grassroots writing, media, knowledge, and intellectual work can still be politically useful.

Monday, November 02, 2015

As #ClimateWelcome gears up, what might it mean to "keep it in the ground"?

It seems increasingly clear that keeping our planet habitable over the medium to long term requires that certain things that are currently in the ground must be allowed to remain there. But we have few examples to help us imagine the ways in which our social world would have to be different if fossil fuel extraction and other kinds of mining were scaled back to levels consistent with long-term ecosystem and human health, and I think the failure of movements to popularize realistic, grounded, imaginative models for how things might look and feel is a barrier to getting there.

The need to "keep it in the ground" is especially pronounced, and increasingly talked about, when it comes to fossil fuels -- in the lead-up to the latest UN climate summit that is happening in Paris in December, climate justice activists in Canada and writers and thinkers the world over are very clear that the majority of large carbon pools like the Alberta tar sands must not be extracted and burned if we want to keep global warming from making the leap from "bad" to "horrendously bad." However, while it is less immediately urgent, it also seems like it may be true in a more limited way of other kinds of mineral extraction as well, which often depend for their profitability on an intensification of colonialism, and on externalizing potential costs as pollution and other sorts of damage to ecosystems, communities, and health.

There are many barriers to making "keep it in the ground" a real possibility. Not least among these is that the globe is currently in the grip of a way of organizing our lives, work, communities, and nations that has never allowed us adequate scope in collectively saying "NO!" to profit-making activities of any sort, even when they are demonstrably connected to violence and harm. That has become even more true in recent decades. This is, of course, a state of affairs that is aggressively defended by those who benefit most from it, including but hardly limited to the increasing mobilization of national security discourse (and the state violence that underlies such discourse) against Indigenous and environmental activists in Canada.

In light of such material obstacles, it may seem peculiar to be focusing on our collective ability to imagine a different future, but it seems to me to be entirely relevant: I, personally, have a great deal of difficulty imagining how our social world would need to be different if we scaled back our extraction of fossil fuels and minerals to sustainable levels, and it seems to me that a key element to motivating increasing number of people to engage in the kind of struggle necessary to make this change happen -- which the world direly needs us to do -- depends on our ability to make the post-transformation reality imaginable. If you don't have any idea how it's going to re-shape your everyday life, you're less likely to fight to make it happen, even if on some level you know it's necessary.

There are, of course, a number of existing narratives of how our lives might have to change to make sure our grandchildren's grandchildren have a planet to live on. One narrative, which often comes along with arguments for "green capitalism", is that they won't need to change at all in any substantive way, just in surface ways related to which products we choose to consume. We will, according to these stories, just need to make a few technical and lateral shifts and we won't notice any difference. This seems to me to be absurd on its face, given how dependent our lives in North America are on a certain kind of cheap energy and on the easy availability of other sorts of mineral resources. On the other extreme, you'll find folks who identify with one strand or another of primitivism, who argue that only a complete end to technological society will save the planet. Without getting into a detailed debate on primitivist thought -- to which I have some very serious and fundamental objections -- it seems to me that if it is true, we'll end up knowing sooner or later anyway, so why not organize our struggles around a vision that would allow for a broader possibility of justice and thriving, just in case we really can win that.

What interests me most is the flavour of most of the options we have for talking about it that lie between those two extremes. This is, admittedly, impressionistic, but it seems to me that most often when we hear about the kinds of changes that might be needed, the conversation is framed in terms that boil down to the quantitative: We will have to make do with less of X, and perhaps more of Y. There will be less disposable packaging, and more reusable containers. We will drive less, and walk more; own fewer cars, more bikes. We will eat fewer tropical fruits, and more local food; less meat, more veggies. We will have fewer technological gadgets, and more...well, who knows. Or sometimes it is more vague than any of these, and the message is simply that we will, we must, consume less -- a sound prediction, given the wastefulness inherent in late capitalism, but one that inevitably carries an austere and unpleasant tone that shapes and limits how people will relate to it.

Each of these things may, indeed, be true. But it's their presentation as quantitative changes -- as less pleasure, less leisure, more work, more virtue -- in the context of what are often puritanical narratives, whether they endorse the changes or oppose them, that I think is noteworthy. Why do we get such stories, rather than nuanced, lively, three-dimensional narratives that focus on the how of the change? That portray possible futures as complexly different from the present in ways that allow them to be sites of joy and pleasure and thriving, as well as certain specific kinds of lessening and restraint?

I suppose the predominance of narratives that are puritanical and at heart quantitative over those which are rich, dynamic, and complex shouldn't be surprising. There is often something moralistic about many forms of green and lefty discourse, and a blanket tendency towards puritanism perhaps inherited from the discursive legacies of Christianity that are only slightly below the surface even in supposedly secular spaces today in the West. We also don't talk much in general today about how things work socially, and so from that basis of course it's hard to have narratives that imaginatively project complexly different futures of how things might work. And all of this is in the discursive context of neoliberal capitalism, where it's a constant struggle to talk about the social world as anything more than a projective enlargement of a morally or psychologically framed individual, whether that takes the form of green goals framed largely in terms of individual consumption rather than social re-organization of production, or whether its the more general tendency to see complex political problems as somehow relating only to individual characteristics projected onto monolithically envisioned populations. I also wonder if flinching from more in-depth exploration of possible futures might also be a sort of tactical choice, conscious or not, among certain green folk, so as not to have to talk about, or even internally confront, the too-the-root radical character of the social transformation that will ultimately be required to bring about a sustainable future.

Whatever the source of this reluctance, we need to push through and talk more about it...and not just in specialized or obscure places, but everywhere. What impact would it actually have on our everyday lives to sharply reduce extraction of fossil fuels? Rare earth metals? Other sorts of minerals? How would our cities look different? How would we get about differently? How would our information technology change? Food systems? What about cultural production -- would that be affected? And what about the change in dominant social logics necessary to stop a potentially immense source of profit from being exploited? How would that ripple through other kinds of institutions, and into our lives? How would it be difficult for us? How would it open up new possibilities to create, to connect, to enjoy?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reluctance to write about social movements

I'm feeling an odd reluctance to do a certain kind of writing about social movements.

It's odd because, in many respects, I'm pretty well placed to do this writing. For one thing, it's very much in the spirit of the sort of writing that I already do – in a significant subset of eleven years of blog posts, in grassroots journalism, in book reviews, and in books, I have written about social movements and communities-in-struggle, as well as about those things which they struggle for and against. As well, one of my main current projects is Talking Radical Radio, which gives me a unique vantage and pool of material through the chance to do 52 in-depth interviews every year with people involved in a broad range of social change work from a broad range of social and geographical locations within Canada. In fact, it's that work that I want to figure out how to write from – not necessarily about, but from. This is particularly the case because I'm slowly working away at a more theoretical-yet-hopefully-practical Next Big Project (which may or may not become a book) that is thinking about how we know the world and what we can say about this thing called "Canada", in part through engagement with these interviews, and I can see a number of reasons why it would be both interesting and useful to me to be doing more immediate, smaller-scale writing of various sorts drawing on the interviews and talking about movements, their context, and what they face.

And yet I hesitate.

I hesitate in large part because I'm not quite sure how I want to do it based on what I have. That is, I have a scattered pool of in-depth interviews. I get to hear quite a bit about person X and about struggle Y that they're a part of, but that is really all I get to learn about X and about Y. And then the next week, I hear about something else entirely. In thinking about what to write and how to write it, I've come up with several possibilities, but I am satisfied with none of them.

I could, for instance, do it in the form of grassroots journalism. I've done a fair bit of that before, after all. And I do think that, for all the limits of the journalistic form (even its grassroots variant), good quality original journalism about movements and flowing from their standpoints is far too rare and we need a lot more of it. So I could maybe do that, and produce written journalistic work that was somehow catalyzed by or flowing from my radio interviews. But I'm not really sure that I want to do that, and I'm not sure I'm well placed to do it – the vast majority of interviews and shows that I do focus on struggles happening nowhere close to me, and it would be a challenge to write the kinds of articles I understand to be "grassroots journalism" starting from a position of never having been in the local contexts I'm writing about. It wouldn't be impossible, but it would be difficult, and I think other people would be better placed than me to do it. (Though if someone wanted to pay me to do this, I'd consider it. :) )

Another option would be something along the lines of the sort of opinion and analysis writing that shows up...well, everywhere, really. If there's something that we don't lack on the left, it's white dudes sharing our opinions about things – it's usually less work than journalism, and it's something we are socialized to feel entitled to do. And of the many examples of this that I run across each day, from the micro-blogging of Twitter and Facebook status updates on up to the voluminous polemic or essay, I do certainly encounter examples that I like and that I find useful (along with many that I do not). And of course I do it too – I make use of social media for opining purposes, plus I have a blog, I write things on it, and I want people to read them, and some of those things are about movements. And that is, at heart, fine.

As you can probably tell, however, I have some reservations about this genre of work as well, particularly when it comes to the purposes informing this post. Certainly some of that is concern about voice and about taking up space, and a recognition that at the very least I want to be cautious and deliberate about doing so. Of course, contrary to the shallow misreading of that sort of concern by some people who reject it, while the point might be to get those of us who already take up a lot of space to quiet down and pull back in specific contexts, I don't think it's meant to be broadly silencing. I really see it more as being about responsibility and accountability, as well as about judicious silence and generous and strategic use of whatever space you have to lift up other voices as well.

But the more fundamental problem for me is the epistemology that such opinion and analysis writing often contains, particularly when it is done in a mode that is not feminist and/or anti-racist. I mean, it's a pretty broad and varied lot of stuff, so I recognize that I'm about to enter into some moderately unfair generalizations, but they are generalizations that express something real. One part of it is that often these kinds of pieces are very univocal – I think it is impossible to know much of anything about the world, or to write anything of any consequence, without drawing from, building on, and in some sense being in dialogue with other people and with social collectives, but so much of how we are taught to write and to think about writing subsumes all of that underneath the single pen, the single name. Yes, I do it too. And I'd argue that there are limits to what an individual writer on their own can do to counter this – it's much bigger than any one of us. Nonetheless, it is definitely possible to push against it in how we write, but the kind of opinion and analysis writing I'm talking about rarely does so and instead tends to embrace a very monological approach.

As well, these kinds of pieces are often written from a pretence of hovering above the social world and making pronouncements. It's not exactly "objectivity" in the sense that word is usually used, because such writing is quite open about containing an element of judgement or "subjectivity," but it pretends to be from the same sort of not-of-the-world place that we are taught "objectivity" defines and inhabits. (And in fact this is a clue as to what one important characteristic of this space is really about, and what kind of "subjectivity" gets to masquerade as "objectivity.") Again, in saying this I'm not trying to excessively narrow the ways of knowing and writing the world that are legitimate – it's more a call for a certain kind of epistemological accountability, in terms of being open and honest about how we know and where we know from.

Overcoming Reluctance

The ways that I have been talking about the sources of my reluctance already contain the seeds of overcoming it, or at least of figuring out how to work with it.

For instance, while it doesn't feel like I'm in a great position to go from a specific interview to locally-focused journalistic depth about that group, person, or struggle, I do have the advantage of the great breadth and range of the pool of interviews as a whole. So there may be some possibility for saying some things about non-local phenomena based on careful listening to and reflection on the voices in multiple interviews from multiple contexts. Perhaps I might be able to identify broader trends, broader issues, broader questions in this way. I'm cautious about this, because it feels like it would be easy to start off with this intent but fall into exactly the kinds of inappropriate writing choices I talk about earlier in the post, but it's a possibility.

What feels more promising, whether it flows from a single interview or from many, is a focus on accountability and guidance. One thing that has become clear to me, as I've done various kinds of (unpublished) writing in the last year to figure out how we know the world through encounters (informed by, among other things, related writing by feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed), is that even the most fleeting of interactions, when read actively and closely, contains volumes. And this is the case because of many hooks into the broader social world – into larger discourses, larger chains of relations and practices – which then in a sense pull all of that information and meaning into that moment. Some of those hooks are not necessarily very conscious or deliberately conveyed, but rather are unearthed through close reading, while others are very explicit pointers to ideas, to other bodies of knowledge, to theory. (And in fact, I hadn't been giving enough emphasis to the latter, but I'm in the middle of reading a new book called Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements by Aziz Choudry, which I hope to review in the next few weeks, and it has been a good reminder to pay close attention to the ideas that activists produce themselves and what they explicitly point to as useful in their work of understanding and changing the world.)

The idea, then, would be to relate to these interviews, in both their implicit and explicit content, and to write from them, as sources not of data about an object but of generously shared guidance and insight to shape further investigation of the world. I'm not really very clear yet on what that could look like in practice. And of course the distinction is not always so clear cut, and there may be moments when something that looks more like the former is entirely appropriate. It is also quite possible that all of this adds up to just another flavour of online white lefty dude opining not so very different from any other, rather than something that's as distinctive as I'd like. Which, given everything, may be fine, so long as it is adequately accountable for how it relates to other people and their stories -- none of what I'm saying is meant to paint such opining as bad, given that I do plenty of it myself, just as not quite what I want to be doing here. However that question gets resolved, though, it feels like this is a substantive enough response to my concerns for me to move forward, reflect some more, and experiment. And of course a key component of this experimentation will be to do the writing in ways that draws out the dialogical and social character of how we know things, and that focuses on raising up work and ideas and voices from other people, particularly work and ideas and voices that often don't get much space.

So we shall see how it goes.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Election Losses, the Filter Bubble, and Left Marginality

A lot of what has been written so far about the results of Monday's election, even by folks on the left, has been about and directed towards political parties – the NDP collapsed because of X or Y and needs to make change A or B; the Liberals will be a modest improvement or a continuation of awful; we need to pressure them on this issue or that, right away or after allowing a brief period for them to prove themselves. This shouldn't be surprising, of course, given that elections are overwhelmingly (though not always exclusively) party-political-based spectacles.

Given this, I was pleased last night to encounter some very useful commentary from James Hutt on the site of the Halifax Media Co-op (currently, I think, the best locally focused grassroots media outlet in the country). He derives lessons not for or about parties, but for "progressives, radicals, the Left, whatever you call the people who believe in and strive for deep social change" that applies regardless of our individual choices about whether and how to engage with the NDP in particular and electoral politics in general. I want to both add a bit of a '+1' to what Hutt has to say, but also to build on his insights and point towards some potential sources of inspiration and action.

Hutt begins from the shock experienced by most of the community-based left in Halifax at the defeat – not even a squeaker but a resounding one – of local NDP MP Megan Leslie. She was not at all a party hack but rather had emerged from and remained very connected with grassroots folks and movements, was wildly popular in the community, and was highly respected for her hard work as an MP. The greatest praise I have heard for her in the last few days was that her presence in Parliament strengthened grassroots organizing rather than weakening it. The items in that list related to grassroots substance are all too rare in today's NDP, and I have to admit that though I am halfway across the country and am no particular enthusiast for the party, even for me her loss was notable and a bit sad.

The lessons in the piece begin not from the loss per se, but from the shock at the loss. Hutt argues that everyone was so surprised by Leslie losing by 7600 votes because too many of us are deluded by the way that social media and the filter bubble lead most of us on the left, most of the time, to encounter a dramatic overrepresentation of views that are similar to our own, and unlikely to encounter an even vaguely representative sample of what our neighbours, co-workers, and extended family actually think.

He argues,

We live in a bubble, and a small one at that.

What amounts for debate in our feeds and in our communities is at best a discussion of tactics, and at worst a display of activist fashion trends.

We have grown comfortable with our own, coddled with cushy reinforcement of our beliefs from all sides. These soft supports serve us best as a padded cell. They do nothing for social change.

And because of this, "The Left is fragmented and weak. We are disconnected from the majority of working people. Yet, we remain content to squabble with each other over dogma and revolutionary purity. "

Moreover, far too much of our political work is either online work of a sort that mostly reaches people who already agree, or is offline spectacle that does not involve direct engagement and relationship-building with people who aren't us.

The Left is fragmented and weak. We are disconnected from the majority of working people. ... We must now do the hard, unglamorous work of talking to and living with people different from us. We have been content in our own company for too long, and we see the result of it. We have become divorced from reality. ... We need to live with difference, to organize among it, and to build the bases for our movements upon it.

These are, I think, wise words.

I want to suggest a few points that I think add a bit of texture and nuance, though.

The first is to add some words of caution against framing too much of the problem in terms of the online/offline distinction. Some of that caution is already captured in the piece, which is clearly not against online engagement in an absolute sense (as I've seen some repondants on social media read it). Rather, it is pointing to one of the limits of such engagement -- the filter bubble is a real thing that we need to take much more seriously. And it is not a blanket endorsement of offline engagement: The piece clearly talks about the kind of offline work that is needed, beyond the sort of small, spectacle-focused offline action that is most often all that grassroots left networks are able to pull off.

But I think in the same vein, an added caution is warranted for folks who live in the biggest cities. One of my learnings from living for over a decade in Sudbury – a small city, but one with a relatively vibrant (if sometimes politically frustrating) activist scene – is that those of us who are active in those circumstances have no choice but to engage with people with very different views from our own even if all we want to do is get a reasonable turnout for a teach-in. If we count on appealing only to people whose politics meet a rigid purity test, there will be far too few bums in chairs to make it feel worthwhile even by the most immediate and shallow of metrics. That's not to say I never witnessed any foolish sectarianism in my time there – that existed all along in some contexts, and my impression was that there was even more of it in the last year or so before I moved away, which was depressing – but there was nonetheless a hard limit on how much you could indulge that sectarianism and prioritize purity over relationships and collaboration before ensuring a very perceptible form of irrelevance. This is in contrast with Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and perhaps a couple of other places, where you can be as sectarian and puritanical as you like and still fill a room for a talk or get a not-embarrassing number of people to hold some signs on a street corner. It's not that the irrelevance is any less, but it's easier to pretend it isn't the case. So I think folks in the rad scenes in more metropolitan centres need to be even more careful as they (and, now that I have moved to southern Ontario, we) take up the suggestions in the piece, to make sure we really are engaging beyond ourselves rather than just with ourselves in an offline way.

The second point I want to make is a caution not to overemphasize the political homogeneity of the broad and vague collection of people whom Hutt is addressing. While there is some truth to the assertion that "what amounts for debate in our feeds and in our communities is at best a discussion of tactics, and at worst a display of activist fashion trends," I think it's easy to take that too far. There really are polarized issues of substance within our communities. The fact that some of those are tactical, like the role of militancy and the best way to relate to electoral politics, doesn't make them less politically substantive. And some that are most highly polarized are not about tactics at all, but about how some in our communites don a mantle of justice and then work against collectively self-identified pathways towards justice and liberation for trans folk and for sex workers. These polarized issues are largely dealt with in our broader networks by lip service support for marginalized folk and then by ignoring them. And that, actually, is most similar to the much larger spectrum of issues where there is not visible polarization, but where sharp divergences of analysis and practice are mostly ignored and papered over. Take, for instance, political practice around white supremacy and patriarchy – by and large, our communities divide politically in ways that often (but don't always) align with being targeted or with passively benefiting from these things, with folks in the latter category most often adding them to the laundry list of social evils they oppose while doing only surface-level work to transform their own analysis and practice based on insights from the diverse political approaches adopted by folks in the former category. So I would argue that the problem is not just a certain kind of political homogeneity within our networks, though that exists, but a pretence at homogeneity that amounts to a refusal to engage with substantive political difference within our networks, and a refusal to take on certain kinds of hard work related to doing so in a politically responsible way that is not the same as but is analagous to the refusal to engage with political difference beyond our networks that Hutt quite rightly decries.

The final caution I want to make is against reading the problems that the piece identifies too absolutely. Not that it's wrong – the grassroots left is, indeed, weak, fragmented, disconnected, and marginal. But I think part of building a response to this marginality is recognizing that there are people – too few, not always effectively, but some – who are already doing things that are pushing against this tendency to be self-isolating. And I'm fully willing to admit that perhaps these folks are overrepresented in my own personal bubble, because a key practical challenge in doing my radio show week in and week out is regularly seeking out people who are engaged in social change work of various kinds across the country, not all of which necessarily meets the requirement of working against the limits of disconnection that Hutt identifies, but some of which does. Just looking at this week's episode, there is no way that the Cree, Dene, Metis, and settler folk in the Committee for Future Generations would have built community sentiment against hosting a nuclear waste facility in northern Saskatchewan that was strong enough to defeat the possibility, without engaging with neighbours and community members of many different opinions on the issue, including those for whom, in this very poor region, the pull of jobs is quite reasonably a powerful one. Then there was the national meeting of anti-austerity and anti-capitalist groups back in July, some of which – like Solidarity Halifax, We Are Oshawa, and Solidarity Against Austerity -- are a new sort of formation that is very much premised on the importance of augmenting social media work with deliberate practices of engaging with a broad range of people offline on a range of issues. You can add to that the more narrowly focused campaigners at Londoners for Door to Door and their hard work to save home delivery in London, Ontario, and across the country in the face of Canada Post's efforts to cut it...and also the more recent efforts to support similar campaigns in communities across the country. Or you can look to these grassroots feminist moms in Toronto challenging the child welfare system by engaging with both other moms trying to navigate the system and with frontline workers. Or to anti-authoritarian worker-organizers who recently gathered to talk about engaging fellow workers in service-related workplaces.

I could go on. That's just a fairly recent and random sample of people I've talked to whose work involves, in one way or another, pushing beyond engagement with those they already agree with.

And the point I want to make is that these things are happening – definitely not enough, and probably not always as effectively as they might, but they are happening. So as we digest the insight that we too often just speak to each other, that we are disconnected from our neighbours and co-workers and therefore marginal, we don't have to feel like we're starting from absolute zero. Yes, changing those dynamics is a big thing that will require a lot of people doing a lot of soul-searching and then a lot of work. But there are people already doing that work, so we don't necessarily have to invent practices and politics and approaches from nothing. We can seek out those who are already doing the work, and maybe we can join with them, or maybe we can just listen to them as we figure out what we want to do next to escape the filter bubble and challenge the depressing marginality of "people who believe in and strive for deep social change."

Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: Languages of the Unheard

[Stephen D'Arcy. Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2013.]

I strongly dislike when there is some sort of intense polarization within and between social movements on an issue. Partly I dislike it because I have a deep distaste for interpersonal conflict. But partly I dislike it because it tends to result in very smart, very committed, very respect-worthy people on both sides of whatever issue saying unhelpful, often stupid, and sometimes hurtful things. And it tends to create an environment in which it is tricky for anyone not willing to fall into line with one side or the other of the polarization, and/or not keen to endure the invective or even abuse from supposed comrades and would-be allies, to say anything at all. That's not to say that I never lean more towards one side than the other when such polarization arises, nor is it to deny that there can often be a real basis for the polarization that means we have no choice but to go through it rather than try to avoid it, and in fact it doesn't necessarily mean that I never intervene in such conversations in some way. Nonetheless, I don't like it, I don't usually find the conversations that result to be very productive, and I don't think we generally deal with it very well in movements and communities-in-struggle.

As someone who came of political age just before and during the peak of the global justice movement in the late '90s, my initial encounter with this sort of dynamic was around questions of tactics and militancy. Even at the time, it was an old and tired debate, and in my experience of being on the periphery of more recent mobilizations, it hasn't changed much since then. We still have a polarization between those who advocate explicit nonviolence (occasionally enacted in a way that's quite militant in its own right, but more often that's fairly passive and a screen for liberal politics) and those who push (using a term that emerged during the global justice movement era and still predominates) 'diversity of tactics,' which boils down to an uneasy agreement to tolerate (often without discussion, or at least without public discussion) and work in broad alignment with folks who do things you don't agree with (often in a way that undermines accountability to each other and to broader movements and communities). Though there are stronger and weaker versions of both of those positions, and I know and respect people who are ardent partisans of both, I think both have significant weaknesses...but, for the reasons summarized above, I've mostly tried to avoid discussing the issue in the last 15 years.

This book is an attempt to get past that polarization and to introduce a new kind of standard for evaluating the soundness of militant action that does not depend on these pre-existing terms. The author is a political philosopher and is himself a long-time activist, and he describes the framework that the book advances as a "democratic standard of sound militancy."

The book draws from the writings of Martin Luther King to develop its ideas about militancy, though the standard it settles on is not the same as King's. It starts by considering some examples of militancy in recent history, from the Battle of Seattle, to the Arab Spring, to Occupy, and beyond, in order to have some raw materials to put together a typology of four basic kinds of militancy: defiance of the authorities, disruption of dominant systems, destruction of property, and armed force. The book then identifies two broad kinds of objections to militancy. One it calls the "conservative objection," which amounts to rejecting militancy as a result of valuing order above everything else. The book doesn't spend much time on this objection, and cites King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to rebut it. Of greater concern is what it describes as the "liberal objection" to militancy, which comes in different flavours that more or less boil down to a concern that militancy is anti-democratic because it turns politics from a debate where you win people over with sound argument into a contest of force. The book talks about three of the most common ways in which militants reply to the liberal objection, and demonstrates how none are quite adequate to the task. (I actually found this to be a surprisingly weak section in what is mostly a very well argued book -- I agreed completely with the book's dimissal of one reply, I agreed with the conclusion of the dismissal of another but didn't think the argument was complete, and I'm still unconvinced by the dismissal of the other.)

The book then goes on to advance its own reply to the liberal objection and its own standard, the democratic standard, for evaluating whether a given instance of militancy is sound or not. The liberal objection assumes that politics already meets the liberal ideal of reasoned discussion in the public square, when in fact there are plenty of instances of intransigent elites and institutions continuing down a particular path regardless of any argument or reason. In that instance, when elites and institutions are already acting in undemocratic ways, sound militancy is action which expands the reach and scope of democracy. From the example of the Mohawk land defence at KanehsatĂ :ke during the so-called Oka Crisis -- an example of militancy that is regarded highly by a very broad political cross-section -- the book derives four principles for sound militancy: it must "create new opportunities to resolve substantive and pressing grievances" (65) in the face of elite and institutional refusal to respond to other approaches; it must encourage "the most directly affected people to take the lead" (68); it must "enhance the power of people to govern themselves through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion" (69); and it must "limit itself to acts that can be defended publicly, plausibly, and in good faith as duly sensitive to the democratic values of common decency and the common good" (70). And the rest of the book involves examining different instances of various kinds of militant action using this framework -- civil disobedience, disruptive direct action, sabotage, various manifestations of the Black Bloc, rioting, and armed struggle.

There is a great deal to like in this book. I really like how clear and straightforward the writing is -- not even a whif of the the academic obscuritanism that mars so much writing by lefty scholars. With one or two passing moments of exception, the reasoning is very clear and very complete. Even if you don't agree (and I'm not saying I necessarily always do), the clarity and completeness makes it easy to identify where and how you part ways with the book's arguments. I particularly like how generous and thorough the book is as it evaluates different kinds and instances of militancy. The tendency for polarization within and between movements to destroy space for exactly this kind of generosity and thoroughness is one of the key things that I dislike about trying to have meaningful conversation about an issue that has been thus polarized, so I find the enactment of these characteristics in the context of this issue to be even more appealing than I might otherwise.

I also feel quite favourably disposed to the book's framework for evaluating militancy. I'd need to see it taken up in the context of live debates, and see it confronted by folks on the left who reject it, before I make up my mind in a final sort of way, but the framework seems basically sound and like a positive provisional addition to any discussion of this issue. Even aside from the details, what it says and how it says it have the potential to create some space for more productive conversation about the issues. And I have to say that his application of the framework in a wide range of instances manages to capture my gut feelings towards the instances more effectively than either half of the existing polarization, and more effectively than I expected going in -- not perfectly, but pretty darn well. Which on the one hand nudges me towards a greater willingness to integrate the framework into how I think about tactical choices, but on the other hand makes me a little wary, too, about what I might be missing and how my comfort with its conclusions might be pushing me to overlook limitations in the ways it reaches them.

While the book makes some important contributions in terms of ideas for evaluating militancy, it's important to recognize that it doesn't get into the practices through which we might collectively do so. That's not a failing or a deficiency, it's just not the book's project. But I think for those of us who are interested in taking its ideas out into the world, it's something we really need to think about. The idealized public square with its capacity for the free and equal exchange of ideas leading to a collective resolution is no more a reality within and between movements than it is in society as a whole. So I think part of taking seriously the principles of autonomy and democracy and accountability underlying the framework for evaluating militancy in this book must involve committing to building the practices and relationships and social forms that will allow us to realize those principles in our movements and communities. I can't help but think that the current predominance of "diversity of tactics" in rad circles in North America is connected with the dominance of neoliberalism in the broader society. And I don't mean that in the way that sometimes rad folks use "neoliberal" as a perjorative against other rad folks who are navigating a tough environment in ways they disapprove of, but rather as a recognition that maybe the kind of fragmentation within movements that diversity of tactics attempts to respond to is not a sign of some sort of political-slash-moral failing but just a predictable consequence of an increasingly fragmented and atomized society -- sometimes, putting up with each other despite some major differences and allowing our fragmented splinters to focus on the common enemy rather than devouring each other probably is the best we can do. But in the longer term, wouldn't it be great if we could build across differences in perspective and differences in social power to something beyond that? The tools in this book are an important contribution to evaluating militancy as our movements and communities-in-struggle make decisions. But it is new practices, relations, and social forms for working together that will enable us to actually make those decisions in meaningful ways in the course of struggle.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Friday, October 16, 2015

With Gloria Anzaldua, shifting

A long-ago encounter: A fragmented, shifting self still in unsettled pieces from earlier impacts. More proximally, deep blue fingers with a tight grip. And in the midst of that, a wonderful stream of words that gets through, above, around, that twists into your deep-down molecular being and pulls you towards a new place. The words flow from a life radically unlike your own, but still they seep through your walls, still they seize you and move you and prod you forward.

The words describe a path, radical life made radical theory. They begin from experience in a profound way and knit self seamlessly into social such that the transformations they describe and hope to catalyze are powerfully personal but generously overflow the neoliberal self, political but deeper than we usually allow that word to go, in essence material but woven together with symbols and images that in places embrace a mysticism that would normally make you wary but that here somehow don't. The path begins from trauma, a shattering of illusions of cohesive self and narratives both comforting and confining. Then six more stages – unsettled in-between possibility; deep and despairing hopelessness; the call to new direction, binary categories overflowed, and reengagement with the social; renarration of self and the world; facing the bumps and barriers of the real; and enacting the spiritual activism of interconnected, engaged self-in-the-social.

The stream of words is an essay with the name "now let us shift ... the path of conocimiento ... inner work, public acts," penned by Gloria AnzaldĂșa – queer Chicana activist writer feminist, and both occupant and willfull transcender of those labels and many more.

The same text, re-encountered today after a reminder of its existence by its heavy citation in a book recently read: Not the same experience, of course. Hard work and time have produced a shift. You are less fragmented, and the fingers are less tight, less blue. Your need is less urgent and qualitatively different. Plus, because of all you have learned and because of new projects and goals, you read differently – even back then, you were drawn by its remarkable craft and approach to knowing the world, but now its potential to guide your journey takes a back seat to seeking ways for it to inform your work.

And it can. It does not use the language of "encounter" which you have begun to favour, but central to the process of shifting consciousness it describes is the presence and pull of seemingly incommensurable perspectives, and developing the capacity to reject these binaries and learn from both as you walk the less-regulated hazy space between. It does not talk of learning about the world through relationships, exactly, but that is because relationality is pervasive rather than identifiably discrete -- the low points are low because of isolation, and the broadened and strengthened interconnectivity of outlook and stance and practice are the very essence of the return to the high.

Perhaps its biggest lesson for the work you contemplate today is that knowing is a fleshy, messy, painful thing. Who and what and where you are made you see knowing as cerebral, and however long ago you began trying to leave that misapprehension behind, it still creeps into how you think and act, and how you write about the world. You learn once more from the streatm of words that knowing is not only embodied, but that embodiment is no abstraction. You cannot write about knowing apart from the painful joyful journey, from embodiment as blood-and-guts, even from ensoulment, which you're not sure it is even possible to translate into the languages of your everyday.

Yet while the pull is perhaps not as strong, the personal resonance remains. Interconnectivity, pushing past constricting and hurtful norms, thinking across scales, self-in-the-social, the centering of listening, writing as a tool for re-creation of self – yes, all of these still compel you. Less urgency, though, means more space to reflect on what it means that she wrote from where she wrote, while you read from where you read. It would violate the very spirit of the words to think of it in a way that seeks an X that is permitted and a Y that is forbidden, and the shallow-left impulse to treat "privilege" as a quantitative metaphor is countered by the imperative in the piece itself to see past that hasty indicator to the complex relationality it indicates.

And yet.

The circumstance of today's encounter: Distant from destabilizations past, yes. But not two months from a major death and a major move, and you do not feel like you are on quite the journey she describes. Are you heartless? In denial? More likely, you are who you are: Less fundamentally structurally in-between than AnzaldĂșa – not none at all, but much less – and therefore the grip of the known and the normative and the dominant yields more reluctantly, feels more like home even when it chafes, and is perhaps changed less often by the dramatic punctuated equilibrium of her path than the mostly slow, mostly steady, only occasionally dramatic trajectory away that your last two decades have enacted. Which is not to exoticize in-betweenness, nor to downplay the harms that transformative turmoil brings along with its benefits. Rather, it is to see this beautiful grounded theory-making as input and inspiration for making theory that begins from your ground, and that hopefully reaches beyond that beginning even a tenth as successfully as her words do.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Reading blunt feminist words as a cis dude

It's a phenomenon as common as the internet is wide: A cis guy who thinks of himself as broadly in sympathy with social justice goals reads a piece of blunt feminist writing, perhaps one directly addressed to cis guys or perhaps one that merely has implications for cis guydom. He has some kind of reaction to the writing. And he deals with that reaction by exhibiting one of the superficially varied but substantively similar responses that perform a combination of supposed underlying sympathy with specific disagreement, that really boil down to not having actually listened to what the piece in question is saying. It doesn't always take this shape, but "not all men" is sometimes within this family of responses.

I want to explore the reaction that leads to these responses, particularly how they are in part produced by core features of how we build knowledge about the world. And I want to suggest more politically useful ways for cis dudes to respond when they are gripped by such a reaction.

So, first of all, read this. It's a letter, framed as an advice column response, to a pro-feminist cis guy seeking advice about challenging rape culture. It is conversationally written, no-holds-barred in its politics, and matter-of-fact intense, and it is a powerful example of things that all cis guys (in this case, particularly those whose desires include women) should be reading, thinking about, and acting upon. Go on: read it.

My reaction to reading it was complicated. For one thing, it was emotionally difficult. None of what it said was new to me and I more or less agree with where it's coming from, but even so, being pushed to think about one's complicity in oppressive practices and relations is not easy. This kind of emotional response is very persistent and even after we think we're adequately taking it into account, it insidiously works its way back into our responses and choices – it continuously pulls our attention away from truly sitting with the situation and the critique. What I'm writing here isn't focused on this emotional response, but working with it is central to being able to take up and use the rest of what I have to say.

But let's say you do manage to work your way far enough through the emotional resistance we all feel at sitting with this kind of stuff. I think most cis guys who do this, even those inclined to political sympathy with the piece, will still be left with a feeling of what it has to say not quite fitting, of a gap (big or little) between what the piece says about their/our experience and how we actually experience our own lives. Trying to apply its words to our own lives will result in moments where we feel a not-quite-rightness, and for many, this produces an impulse to say things like, "Yes but..." or "It left out..." or "What about..." or "I just haven't exerienced that...", all of which are a perilously easy step from "not all men" and other mechanisms of dismissing the basic point of the piece and disrespecting the generosity of the author in taking the trouble to write it for us.

There are lots of examples I could take from the piece to illustrate this, but I'll briefly talk about two. The first doesn't necessarily come directly from my own experience: When the author writes that she "has had to try to teach every dude she's fucked more than once how not to rape her," I definitely feel a strong emotional charge that I suspect most cis dudes whose desires include women feel at hearing such a stark condemnation of dominant masculinities in the context of rape culture. Because of various quirks of my own journey that I'm not going to get into, though, I don't actually experience the gap in this case (which actually makes it emotionally harder to read, not easier, but that's another post). I suspect that a lot of cis dudes do feel a gap, though. They see the intentional implications of this statement of experience for their own lives, and even if they manage to sit with the emotional discomfort, I suspect a lot just don't see how it applies. For many cis guys, I suspect it feels like a mis-fitting, like there is no way to reconcile her experience with theirs.

Or take another example that I do experience more directly: The piece asserts that "you have been socialized at every turn to believe that sexual prowess is the ultimate way for you to assert your value and place in the world." This one feels less emotionally loaded, and I certainly know what it's getting at. But given my current age and social positioning, while sexual prowess is in the mix, I'm not sure that it feels like it is really the "ultimate" component of masculine belonging that constrains me. So I can't help but be pulled towards a "Yes, but..." that puts that in the context of other core elements of the messed up reality of masculine belonging that vary with race, class, sexuality, age, and other more idiosyncratic features of social location.

In these instances and in many others I could name, the piece is saying important things, but it doesn't necessarily feel like it is quite capturing all of my experience of being a cis guy in the contexts it's talking about, and there would be a related but distinct pattern of fitting and mis-fitting for other cis dudes. And many of us (reinforced by our emotional reactions) will treat this gap as a bug, and a reason to regard the source as somehow in error or invalid. This, I think, is a mistake. None of these expressions of a bit of a gap between what the piece says and my own efforts to apply its insights to my experience are indications that the piece is wrong, that it is badly written, or that it cries out for a disrespectful "But...but...but!" response from some random dude on the internet. I think we need to see this gap as a feature, and a prompt to do particular kinds of work as part of and in response to reading the piece. I repeat: Reading something like this is not a reason to conclude that the piece is not worth paying attention to, but a sign that you (and I) have work to do.

One thing that's going on here – and this is by far a lesser component, but still worth mentioning – is just the fact that it's a short piece that is written to be engaging and accessible, so of course it misses nuance, leaves things out, and hurriedly papers over complexity. That is the nature of accessible short-form writing, of whatever kind. In fact, this piece – much like a lot of feminist writing – goes farther than you'll find in a lot of other kinds of writing to engage with nuance and complexity despite the limitations imposed by being accessible and short. So read with a little bit of generosity, and hopefully the inherent limitations of the form won't distract you too much.

But even if we allow for the form of the piece, and take our emotional reaction into account, some of the gap persists between how the piece describes events and actions that are within the experience of cis men, and how cis men ourselves experience them. To account for this, and to provide a basis for my insistence that this is not a problem with the piece of writing but a sign of work that we cis dudes are politically obliged to do, we need to think in a bit more detail about how we (and everyone else) know things about the world.

Every day, we move through the world. We experience things, we encounter people and objects, we read and see and hear media. Constantly and actively, based on those experiences and encounters, we are producing knowledge about the world. And constantly, that is sedimenting into us and shaping how we will go about producing knowledge tomorrow. Though there is certainly an element of randomness and individual journey to our experiences, that journey takes place in a social landscape where the patterns of things that you are likely to experience – the kinds of harms and risks you are likely to face, and the kind of benefits you are likely to accrue – are to a significant degree socially produced in ways that depend on where you fall in the complex array of differences that are currently socially significant. And different patterns of experience feed into how we approach learning about the world in future moments. There will be things that our pattern of experience has pushed us to pay attention to that other people might not, and vice versa. There will be things that are important, that loom large, that shape our narrative of things, that for others might seem trivial, and vice versa. There will be certain things that will feel physically or socially close to us and others that feel distant, some that we are trained to turn towards without really realizing and others that we turn away from. All of these things go into producing the standpoint from which each of us knows the world, such that my knowledge of the social world will not necessarily look the same as yours in a way that does not necessarily mean that either of us is wrong. Which isn't to say that I'm claiming there is no world out there for us to know, just that it looks different depending on where you're standing. And differences in how the world looks depending on where you stand are at their starkest, to the point at times of becoming a fairly significant faultline, when what's at issue is some social phenomenon that harms some and benefits others – consistently experiencing harm focuses your attention and emotion and perception and knowledge production practices in certain ways, while absence of harm or passive benefit or active benefit shape them in very, very different ways. (Thanks, Dorothy Smith and Sara Ahmed for writing things that fed into the ideas in this paragraph!).

So that's what's going on here: The author is writing from her standpoint, and you're reflecting on experiences that you know from your standpoint. The fact that they don't quite match up is a reflection of how all of us know the world.

There's more to think about here, though. The author of this piece has made some pretty deliberate choices in how she talks about rape culture and the place that cis dudes hold within it. Often, those of us who are writers think long and hard about our audience, and we tailor what we say and how we say it in ways that are likely to increase engagement and buy-in from those readers. It would certainly be possible for someone writing about the role of cis men in rape culture to do so in ways that would decrease the emotional discomfort I talked about and decrease the epistemological gap. Among other things, that can include working to accommodate the range of standpoints experienced by cis guys. The author of this piece chose not to do that, and I would guess that there are a couple of very good reasons why. One reason, which she touches on in the piece in other contexts, is that one feature of gender oppression is that women and other gender oppressed folks end up doing various kinds of labour for cis guys that they shouldn't really have to do, including explaining and doing emotional caretaking around our role in gender oppression. But beyond that general principled stand is the fact that, in this case, cis men themselves seeing this very gap in how we know the world and doing the work to overcome it is central to the political point the piece is making.

To me, what this piece is demanding is really an explicit instance of working deliberately and consciously to know the world in light of what I described above about how that happens. In general, as I first suggested some time ago and have slowly tried to think through since then, a great approach for learning about the world beyond our immediate direct experience is to take my experiences, your experiences, and her experiences over there, and to figure out how they are connected. Because no matter how different they are, they are all products of the same social world, and from the starting place of those differences, we can investigate how those differences were socially produced, and therefore learn about how the social world is organized. Which is, y'know, pretty key in thinking about working to change it.

And that's what this piece is asking cis dudes to do: DO NOT start from the combination of our emotional discomfort and what seems to be a lack of perfect epistemological fit to move towards not-all-menning; instead, start from those things and recognize that we are being called on to do our half of the work in figuring out how the range of experiences of gender oppressed folk within rape culture match up with our range of experiences. Where does it all come from? How is it put together? And, most importantly, what can we do to challenge and change it?