Sunday, January 10, 2016

Support John Moore -- still fighting an unjust and racist conviction


John Moore
During my decade of living in Sudbury, Ontario, I got to know John Moore and became involved in supporting his struggle for justice in the face of a wrongful and racist conviction. Right now, Moore is asking people to write to federal politicians in the new Parliament -- your own MP; the Sudbury MP, Paul Lefebvre; Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould; Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett; and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau -- in support of his request that the Minister of Justice order a judicial review of his conviction, or provide some other kind of remedy for this injustice. Remember, you can mail MPs for free at the address below. To learn more about John's case, check out this article that I wrote in 2009. (Sadly, little has changed since then.) And check out my letter below as an example of things you can say in yours. Please consider taking a few minutes to support John's struggle for justice!


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
House of Commons
Parliament Buildings
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada
K1A 0A6


Re: Justice for John Moore


Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

I am writing in support of John Moore, an Anishnaabe man from Serpent River First Nation who lives in Sudbury, Ontario, and who has been struggling for decades to clear his name of a wrongful and racist conviction. Though I moved to Hamilton, Ontario, in August 2015, I lived for more than a decade in Sudbury and was lucky enough to get to know Moore and the details of his case. I am writing to encourage you to ask the Minister of Justice to use her power to order a judicial review of Moore's conviction, or to find some other remedy for this decades-long injustice.

Moore was convicted of second degree murder in 1978. This happened despite the fact that he was not present when the crime was committed and had no role whatsoever in perpetrating it, and was based solely on him having spent time earlier that day with the individuals who committed the crime. Several other individuals, all of whom were white, had contact similar to John's to those who actually committed the crime – most of them were not charged, and none were convicted. Moore's trials were tainted with systemic racism. The law under which he was convicted was ruled unconstitutional in the late 1980s in another case, and no one would be convicted under similar circumstances today – that is, Moore did nothing wrong and his conviction was unjust. He spent ten long years in maximum security prisons before being released on parole, and lost more in those years than most of us can imagine. Still today he bears the burden of the stigma created by his conviction and the indignities of having his life supervised on an ongoing basis by the justice system.

At an earlier stage of Moore's struggle, a wide range of organizations and prominent individuals endorsed the call for a review of his conviction. The organizations include the Aboriginal People's Alliance of Northern Ontario, Sudbury First Nations Church, the Laurentian Association of Mature and Part-time Students, the Sudbury and District Labour Council, and the national level of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Along with a number of local activists, academics, and citizens, prominent figures from outside of Sudbury have endorsed the call for a review of John's unjust conviction, including the late Charles C. Roach, a long-time lawyer in Toronto's African-Canadian communities; Doreen Spence, a Cree elder from Alberta; and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a prominent academic, author, and activist from San Francisco. Doug Millroy, former editor of the Sault Star, the daily paper in the city where the murder of which John was wrongfully convicted took place, has written repeatedly in support of John's quest for justice.

Moore himself has recently or will soon be sending you and other federal politicians more detailed information about his case and about what would be required for a just resolution. I urge you to pay careful attention to what he submits, and to do whatever is in your power to ensure that his unjust and racist conviction is subjected to appropriate judicial review and that Moore at long last finds justice.

Sincerely,



Scott Neigh

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Activism, Accompaniment, and Being in a New City


A perennial question: How should I act next in the world to create the change that I need, that you need, that the world needs?

The shape of the question and the shape of the answer differ with the shape of the life in which it is being asked, of course. If you are born into a life in which just surviving requires a fight, and a big one, your answer has to do certain things. If you are born into a life where that is not the case, your answer (to the extent that you even have to give one) will look much different. That is, if the struggles you face personally are small enough, or the resources you have plentiful enough, you can pretend that your own fights are private and you can solve them mostly on your own – they aren't actually private, necessarily, and sometimes throwing (social or financial) resources at them is more like a buffer or just painful avoidance than a solution, but it is often the easier path. So in lives where fighting for survival is not base necessity, if – not when, but if – you take the step to asking this question in bigger ways, the potential shapes of your answers are likely to look quite different than in the former situation.

I'm in the latter camp, mostly. I wasn't born into a community-in-struggle. My nation isn't colonized, but rather colonizes. My people benefit more than we're harmed by how money and power flow around the world (though we're harmed too). I have clean water, food, shelter, and leisure. I'm not in prison. My experience of gender is one that makes my life easier far more than it harms me (though dominant forms of cis-masulinity harm those who enact them too). At this stage of my life, I'm able to do work that doesn't mean facing a horrible boss every day, and that I can largely define the terms of. For better or worse, the socially punishable ways I violate dominant norms are ones I've been able to organize into privacy, though not without stresses and strains and considerable political unease at that choice.

So how should I act next in the world to create the change that I need, that you need, that the world needs? And I ask this in the context of being a third of a year into living in a new town, where any answer is going to be new-to-me in at least some sense.

I've been thinking a lot, lately, about Staughton Lynd's idea of "accompaniment" as a way to frame my answer to that question.

Lynd is a veteran of the New Left era in the United States, from being one of the co-chairs of 1964's Freedom Summer in Mississippi, to doing years of work as a grassroots labour lawyer in a now-deindustrialized steel town, to more recent legal and movement support work with prisoners, as well as writing a number of books. His politics are an idiosyncratic blend of liberation theology, Wobbly-ish rank-and-file syndicalism, Rosa Luxembourg-inflected revolutionary socialism-from-below, an avid interest in anti-sectarian marxist/anarchist dialogue, and a resolute commitment to engaging with people wherever they might be at. I had the pleasure of doing an hour-long radio interview with him about 15 years ago, and I have read some but by no means all of the things he has written.

He has discussed accompaniment in a number of places, but in a very focused and accessible way in his book Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change, that I reviewed in 2013. Despite being an entire book on the subject, it does not offer a quick, quotable definition, but rather a series of meditations and illustrations from the decades that he and his wife Alice have been active and also from the life of martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Accompaniment is about being present, about being in relation with people – with draft resisters, with workers, and with prisoners, in the last few decades of Staughton and Alice's work. It is not a specialized, part-time activity, but a way of orienting a whole self. It is about being in relation over the long term, about practicing equality and listening, about neither imposing an external agenda on others nor renouncing your own vision and politics, principles and self. That is, it is not top-down organizing as has been historically practiced in North America, which has generally resulted in "a complex and restrictive institutional environment that stands in the way of creative and spontaneous action from below (as in the labor movement), or (in the heartbreaking case of the civil rights movement) a situation such that when the organizer leaves, some of the worst aspects of the way things were reassert themselves" (1). But neither is it simply being present in a community over the long term and engaging in a sort of activist self-effacement that denies one's own agency, responsibility, and politics. It is, rather, a horizontal, active, walking-together. In particular, Lynd argues that when you are someone coming from a place of privilege, it helps a great deal to enter into accompaniment with some sort of practical skill you can offer, beyond just an ability to organize and certainly beyond vague declarations of an abstract "solidarity." And despite the emphasis on actions that emerge organically from relationships and on horizontalism, as opposed to more utilitarian and hierarchical ways of thinking about organizing, it is not an approach that is against activities which might result in enduring organizations – not at all. It is just suspicious of pre-defined organizations and organizational models that enter communities with claims to have answers and that end up either subordinating autonomous activity or abandoning people, and it leans towards organizational forms that emerge within communities in the course of struggle.

I should say that I feel a bit of trepidation at publically taking up this notion of accompaniment. To me, the way that it brings together long-term commitment, listening, honesty about privilege, an explicit willingness to be part of struggle without having to be at its centre, accountability to those at the forefront of struggle, and deployment of movement-useful skills is very appealing. It is my sense that there are actually considerably more long-time activists/organizers/lefties out there – people I know, people I've interviewed – who do something like this than would actually recognize the term. But I also can hear anticipatory echoes of the scorn that, for instance, some socialists who have very different ideas about organizational form, or anarchists who are wholehearted partisans of the 'cult of the militant', might say about this way of framing involvement in struggle. And I also know that in among the unhelpful (and often patriarchal) radical posturing that underlies that scorn, there are also probably some criticisms worth listening to.

I also appreciate that there will inevitably and entirely legitimately be skepticism by marginalized folks of anyone who doesn't share the experience of marginalization in question, who is newly arrived, and who seems to want to be involved somehow. Lynd doesn't directly address questions of colonization and resistance to it, but it makes me think of the piece that has circulated in the last two years that instructs us to be accomplices with rather than allies to Indigenous people. As far as I can tell – and I'm open to being corrected – accompaniment taken up in the spirit in which Lynd intends it looks a lot like being an accomplice rather than an ally, in the sense of that piece. At the same time, it would also be incredibly easy to check off boxes and think you were engaging in accompaniment while doing all sorts of the politically destructive things that piece associates with "ally" identity. So skepticism is warranted, just as it is for any other framework for becoming involved in struggles to abolish oppressive relations from which you benefit, and starting from the framework of accompaniment doesn't inoculate against the possibility of engaging in harmful behaviours.

Nonetheless, I still think there is value and wisdom to be found in Lynd's approach. It feels relevant and useful to my situation.

My political involvement during the final few years of my time living in Sudbury, Ontario, looked something like accompaniment. Now, I'm not sure what Lynd would make of that claim. I'm not sure the kinds of writing/media/research/knowledge skills that I had to offer are really as practical as what he has in mind. And though the Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op provided me with opportunities to build organic, lasting relationships, and to offer of those skills -- both through their direct use and via opportunities to build the skills of others -- to people in struggle in different ways in the city, I know full well that it never fully realized whatever potential it had in theory as a means of enacting accompaniment. Nonetheless, it was for me a site of potential, a site from which I could ask and answer "How should I act next in the world to create the change that I need, that you need, that the world needs?" within a framework that seemed to me to bear some family resemblance to accompaniment, even if I was never fully satisfied with my answers.

And now, of course, I'm back in Hamilton, a city I lived in for most of the decade before I lived in Sudbury. I miss specific people in Sudbury rather a lot, but I had largely been taking the long view in terms of the change in communities -- there are lots of things I like about Sudbury as a political and social community, but there are also lots of things I like (and missed!) about Hamilton, so there was loss in this transition but also gain. But as I've been reflecting on these questions, and as I have reflected on accompaniment as a framework for thinking about engagement in struggles for social change in a more explicit way than I had for a couple of years, I realize that there is something concrete that I have lost in leaving Sudbury that I cannot directly replace: that context for accompaniment. I won't get into the details, but because of differences between the two cities, it does not make sense to try and duplicate here what we were trying to do in Sudbury.

Don't get me wrong: As I said, Hamilton is wonderful, and I'm happy to be living here. There are some interesting grassroots things that are happening, and I've done my best, in the last few months, to go to things as an attendee and participant. But I have thus far hesitated about committing to be a member in an ongoing way of any local group or initiative. Partly that's because I'm enjoying having a bit more time for the non-locally-focused movement-related writing and media work that has stayed much the same for me before and after the move, and for the time being that might continue to win out. But partly -- and this may be completely backwards -- it's because I'm hesitant about plunging too much of myself into something local, urgent, and immediate before I have developed a better sense of how I can be usefully present in Hamilton over the long term.

Given what I bring – the skills, the quirks, the strengths and weaknesses – how can I most usefully position myself for long-term contribution to struggles for justice and liberation in Hamilton and elsewhere?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Lessons of '93: Social movements, party politics, and the last time the Conservatives got booted



Earlier this year, I was involved in a special issue of a print magazine called The Dominion, which is the flagship publication of The Media Co-op network. The theme of the issue was "4 More Years of Austerity?". It was originally pitched as an intervention into conversations in the lead-up to the federal election. I'm not sure why -- I was involved in the editorial collective for the issue for a few months, but had to put a firm endpoint on that for various personal reasons, so I don't know what went down after that point -- but my copy only arrived in the mail yesterday, and I have seen no signs of any of the content online. However, a lot of it is entirely relevant to the present context.

In particular, see below for the article that I wrote, "Lessons of '93: Social movements, party politics, and the last time the Conservatives got booted," which contains cautions that seem to me to be very relevant to the current Trudeau honeymoon period. In it, I interview three long-time activists -- Judy Rebick, Jean Swanson, and Gary Kinsman, who together have a combined 120+ years of involvement in social movements in Canada -- about their reflections on the last time Liberals displaced a hated Conservative regime at the federal level.

Check it out...click on the image and then view it at full size to read the article:


Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: Methodology of the Oppressed


[Chela Sandoval. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.]

I'm not sure quite what to make of this book. There's no doubt that it is bold and visionary, and I get why the book from which I learned about it spoke of it so highly. There is something remarkable about the way that it combines a deep-down commitment to movements -- not just the notional nod of many scholars who perform radicalness, but a commitment that feels genuine and not at all weakened by time in the academy -- with a headlong plunge into canonical big name white dudes whose work exemplifies what grad students mean when they say "theory." Some of the ways it rethinks the larger sweep of history and context have the potential to be very valuable. But I think a core goal that the book sets for itself -- or at least what looks like one of the core goals to me -- is extracting useful tools for folks engaged in struggle on the ground, and I'm just not sure how successful it actually is in doing that. And there are some choices that it makes in both the stronger and weaker portions of its work that I'm not sure I understand.

It begins by talking about "the postmodern." Even just that single word points to a way of articulating shifts in the social world that makes me wary, and there are a number of other ways that this book talks about the world that evoke a similar reaction in me, but I think in this instance it is worth holding that wariness in check. I think its language and my reaction to it are a combination of the age of the text -- it was published 15 years ago, and parts of it were written upwards of 10 years before that -- as well as the author's interest in drawing on different sources than I might usually think of looking to. Unlike some other folks whom I've seen use the language of "the postmodern," she is clearly tying it to some very material changes in the world, including aspects that the left of today most often generalizes under the term "neoliberalism."

Starting in the mid-20th century, Western scholars -- including those who were or soon became superstars and icons -- began articulating new ways of understanding the social world and therefore the self as fragmented, partial, and complex, and very different from the more unitary, coherent selves at the heart of liberalism and the versions of marxism that had dominated to that point. The way I've seen this change described (and often criticized, on the left) has understood it as a change in the ways that analysts approached the social world and selves, rather than a change in the social and the selves being analyzed. (The change is variously attributed (in a favourable tone) to scholars doing smarter things or (with derision) to a scholarly retreat from the totalizing narratives people supposedly need to struggle for liberation.) Sandoval argues, however, that this change is not just about changes in the academy and changes in analysis, but that it reflects actual material changes in subjects and the ways that subjects are shaped by the social world. Or, rather, some subjects changed in the second half of the twentieth century. She argues that privileged citizen-subjects in the global north, in the second half of the twentieth century, came to be formed under different circumstances than had been the case earlier. Decolonizing struggles and other struggles for justice and liberation in the middle of the century caused a crisis in colonial capitalism, which reconfigured in a way that no longer permitted privileged citizen-subjects in the global north the same stability and unity and privilege that they had earlier been afforded. Which, except for the way that most conventional marxists tend to leave out the importance of decolonizing and other struggles in creating the crisis that capitalism answered with neoliberalism, doesn't sound all that unfamiliar to an ear trained in the early 21st century left. What is interesting, beyond the centring of anti-colonialism, is how the changes that I more often see talked about in terms of privatization, deregulation, attacks on labour, and so on are show as connected to shifts in how selves are formed through experiences of the social world. And in becoming more fragmented and partial and complex, citizen-subjects in the global north are not actually doing something completely novel: they are becoming more like colonized and other marginalized people have always had to be. (It makes me think of this long quote I posted a decade ago from Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred, which includes him thinking, in response to white industrial workers up in arms about neoliberal capitalist globalization, "Looks like we're all Indians now, heh?".) And given this understanding of what critical Western scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century was doing, the book argues that such scholarship is worth seriously engaging with, including some instances that movements have not to date regarded as being very useful or very 'political' in an on-the-ground sense.

As part of this, another important assertion that this book makes is that this work of critical scholars in the privileged, seemingly sheltered environment of the academy in the global north is actually taken from and/or responding to the struggles of colonized and otherwise marginalized peoples. The implication is that such scholarly work already belongs at least partially to colonized people, or at least is connected to their struggles, even if nothing said directly by the elite Western scholars listed as "author" concedes this connection. Which means these are perfectly valid resource for marginalized folks in all sorts of other places to take up. The book doesn't really dwell on the ways in which this amounts to appropriation by Western scholars, but rather demonstrates how the anti-, de-, and post-colonial "we" can make use of those ideas, given that they they were really theirs in the first place. And of course there are often crucial things that the white dude critical superstars of the Western academy miss, so as colonized and otherwise marginalized subjects reappopriate their ideas, they can also fix them.

I don't know if I entirely buy all of this, but they are powerful and seductive claims.

But here's an example of one of the choices that the book makes that I don't understand: In characterizing the shift towards what it describes as the "postmodern" social world, it relies pretty heavily on a single essay published by marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson in 1984. Now maybe part of that is to illustrate what I was just talking about, because the book points out the ways in which this essay captures something real, but also the things that the essay misses because of where and how it was produced. But I don't get why so much weight was put on this one essay. Why not consult other sources that are situated in other ways? I mean, I'm convinced by the assertion that shifts in social relations produced shifts in selves, and just from my own other reading I think at least some of the general shape of this shift is captured both by Jameson and by the use that Sandoval puts him to, but surely that one essay isn't worth spending that much space on, and we could learn more by turning some of that space to other sources. Couldn't we? Or maybe I'm missing something.

Another pillar of the book is the success of US Third World feminists in the 1970s and 1980s in building on practices that colonized and otherwise marginalized folks had engaged in for survival and struggle for many years in many places, and advancing a distinctive and powerful kind of consciousness, politics, and movement. Sandoval herself was active in this movement, also described as women-of-colour feminism or anti-racist feminism. Using US feminism as an example, she argues that most social movements in the 20th century adopted stances that could be categorized as "equal rights," "revolutionary," "supremacist," or "separatist," each with associated practices and politics, and various flavours of feminism adopted each at different moments (56). What the US Third World feminists did was introduce a fifth type, which she called "differential," which allows a sort of strategic, contextual switching among the different stances. She argues that this ability to shift politics and practices in response to the different demands caused by the much more fragmented and complex social organization of domination and subordination in the postmodern world, while still having it guided both by a sound analysis of the social world and a firm ethical/political sense, is something that all movements need to learn how to do to function effectively in today's terrain of power.

Moreover, she argues that for movements to be able to enact this sort of differential politics, they have to be comprised of people who have at their disposal a particular set of tools for politically navigating the world. She argues that the demands of surviving in a highly marginalizing environment has forced many women of colour in the US, and many colonized subjects in contexts around the world, to develop skills of this sort without necessarily having language to name them. However, she argues that many Western critical scholars from the middle of the 20th century onwards advanced analyses that boiled down to essentially the same set of critical skills. Again, this was an instance of scholars picking up on the changed circumstances for privileged citizen-subjects, and observing and reasoning their way to approaches to understanding the world that oppression had long ago forced on those who had long since been colonized or otherwise seriously marginalized. The book goes into great detail to demonstrate how, a few years after Franz Fanon wrote with such brilliant insight into the experience of self by colonized people, Roalnd Barthes wrote a book doing something similar for white citizen-subjects in the global north, and describing in his own way these "oppositional technologies of power" (82). As in the earlier conversation about Jameson's essay, Sandoval points out some key things that Barthes missed that prevented him from linking his analysis to lived, hopeful experience of resistance. But nonetheless, she argues that his insights were crucial, even though that significance has mostly been neglected by contemporary scholars and activists.

Though again, I'm puzzled: Even granting that Barthes did this thing early and well, and that it doesn't usually get recognized, why is it worth spending so much time talking about what he did when we already have more politically useful articulations of similar ideas coming from the very movement that Sandoval helped build? I'm unsure.

Sandoval argues that these insights have been discovered again and again and again. I won't try to capture all of their nuance, but they involve capacities for critically reading the world -- for reading signs and systems of signs, and taking them apart -- and then for intervening in the deceptive sign systems that rule our lives in ways that build from there towards justice. They involve being able to tactically switch among modes of reading and acting in the world guided by an underlying commitment to justice and thriving. They've been lived by colonized and oppressed people for centuries, but in the changed environment after the middle of the 20th century, countless critical scholars in the West -- she doesn't engage with others in quite as much depth as she does with Barthes, but she does touch on quite a few -- have advanced analyses of the world that include these oppositional technologies, albeit under many different names and in many different configurations. Part of her goal with this book is to break down what she describes as "an apartheid of theoretical domains," where all of the various traditions and activists and scholars who cover very similar territory stay more or less separate and not aware of their similarities. Moreover, she wants to draw all of this scholarly work into the context of the insights of US Third World feminism and its operationalization of these technologies of power and self in the service of actual on-the-ground struggle.

There's lots here that resonates with me. My own political formation fits within the broad stream that writer and activist Chris Dixon has described as "anti-authoritarian," a loosely-knit rad left political tendency that in part traces its lineage to the women of colour feminist movement that Sandoval was a part of (along with anarchism, prison abolitionism, and others). Certainly part of the sensibility that anti-authoritarian politics have inherited by that route makes the political spirit of this book as it engages with various big scholarly names feel familiar to me. She never quite uses the phrase later popularized by John Holloway, of us existing "within, against, and beyond" social relations of domination, but the idea is there and central to her approach to thinking about struggle. She has a commitment to a kind of mutually transformative, practice-based politics of coalition that...well, I'm not sure I've ever really had the chance to live them out, but they've always felt to me like what we need. And personally, I think that contextually shifting political practices grounded in an underlying radically transformative commitment to justice and liberation just make sense -- for all that boosters of reified versions of marxism decry such political mobility, I think it reflects a stauncher commitment to materialism than any doctrinaire adherence to a single organizational form or a singular supposed path to revolution.

And I think that, as descriptions of how people enact such politics, this book's outline of these various stances and technologies of opposition as a methodology of the oppressed, or a methodolgy of emancipation, works. They aren't necessarily intuitive ways of characterizing these things, but that very fact makes them useful for those who alredy have some level of identification with these traditions in reflecting on how we engage with the world. But I'm really unconvinced that anyone is going to be able to take up and learn these technologies and this methodology based on reading it like this. Maybe I'm wrong about that. Maybe that isn't the point of the book anyway. But it seems to me that people -- both people pushed into learning these things as survival strategies, and more privileged folks who take them up a bit more consciously as part of a different sort of politicization process -- are going to continue to learn them, or not, in the ways that already happen, and a highly theoretical book like this is not going to facilitate that process.

I would also be interested in the author's reflections on the ways in which some of the crucial insights from US Third World feminism have been taken up since this book was published. In particular, my sense is that there are ways that they have been taken up by a wide range of people in the academy, and in various academic and non-academic spaces by relatively privileged folks, that distort their radically relational and dynamic core and instead substitute a premise of a reified and vastly oversimplified way of thinking about both identity and the social world. (It is often this reified and simplified version that today's various versions of class-reductionist politics attack in their tiresome polemics against "identity politics", rather than engaging respectfully with the full complexity and power of these ideas.) How would this more recent history of how the legacy of US Third World feminism of the 1970s and 1980s has been taken up change the book's project, or at least change its approach to advancing said project?

And so I end where I began: this book contains some profound ideas and some powerful insights. But overall, I still don't know what to make of it, and I'm not really sue what to do with those ideas and insights.

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

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Gentrification in Hamilton: Some Initial Thoughts


Without a doubt, one of the key issues facing my new-again home of Hamilton, Ontario, is gentrification. I still have a lot to learn about how that's playing out, and I'm sure it's a topic I'll return to, but I have some initial impressions that I want to share -- particularly about the different positions people take on the issue, and the stark limitations that our neoliberal political context has put on our ability to imagine ways to respond.

Hamilton is an industrial city that is slowly de-industrializing at the same time that it is being bound ever more tightly into the world-city orbit of Toronto. The combination of historic and increasing poverty with the right levels of proximity and affordability to attract both (a) residents and (b) capital that wants to profit from said residents, from our neighbour up the Queen Elizabeth Way, means that the city I've moved back to looks and feels rather different from the one I left over a decade ago, particularly in parts of the downtown and to the north and east of the downtown. The only way I've been able to come up with to describe this difference is that Hamilton now feels shinier, and not in a good way. For me, the defining difference between Hamilton and Toronto used to be that the public feel of Hamilton included a certain open gritty recognition of the fact that a significant proportion of its residents have had to show some pretty major resilience in making ends meet, overcoming marginalization, and otherwise thriving. Toronto also has plenty of poverty and racism, and resilience in the face of them, but rather than the sense of gritty reality historically present in much public space in Hamilton, Toronto has had a sort of chrome veneer overtop. That veneer has never really hid the grinding poverty and exploitation underneath from anyone who was paying even a little bit of attention, but it provides an out for folks with money who don't want to see, who can believe in the shininess with all their hearts as if that makes it true, and who therefore can treat any manifestations of those who don't fit the shininess as intrusions (often, of course, when it is just people going about their lives in their own neighbourhods). Which is icky. In the last decade, Hamilton certainly hasn't lost its grit, but it has developed considerably more of this sort of shiny veneer.

There do seem to be some distinctive things about how gentrification is happening here, which I think have to do with both the size of the city and with the ways in which Canadian vs. US cities have formed historically. My most immediate point of comparison is Sudbury, the small city in Ontario's near north where I most recently lived. There are forces within Sudbury that are desperately trying to get gentrification to happen there, and have driven it far enough to make things more difficult for poor and working-class people in the downtown but not yet to create the kind of boom that I suspect they're hoping for. I wrote an article about it last year, and my sense is that in Sudbury it is a process that is being driven by downtown small business owners, the cops, and the obliviously wielded aesthetic and cultural preferences of downtown-proximal middle-class folk with urban sensibilities, as well as a broader layer of actual or aspiring middle-class people who are doing various things to make ends meet that also end up incrementally transforming neighbourhoods to the detriment of their poor and working-class neighbours. On the other end of the scale, you have places like Toronto and New York and San Francisco, where my sense is that gentrification is driven by big capital, which can generate massive profits by transforming urban space radically and in large chunks.

Hamilton, it looks to me, is somewhere between these two. There has not been the same sort of whole-scale transformation of large bits of space that Toronto or New York has seen, but there is also considerably more capitalist clout behind the changes than in Sudbury. You won't see things like, say, a dozen contiguous blocks utterly transformed in the space of a couple of years like big-city gentrification at its worst. But there are, for instance, plenty of scattered apartment buildings from which poor residents are being turfed in one way or another to make way for upgrades that will welcome higher income tenants -- I haven't seen numbers, but I know I live a couple of blocks from two, we actually looked at a unit in another that's a bit farther away, there are a couple at least in the Riverside neighbourhood in the east of the city, and there are ongoing public fights between landlords and tenants in at least two more that are north and west of us. Given that there's no reliable way to hear about these kinds of things, odds are its happening in way more buildings than have come to my attention. Which means that while it isn't full-scale Brooklyn block-busting, the loss of residential space for poor and working-class people is neither incidental nor trivial. And there are definitely neighbourhoods where the character of other aspects of public space has significantly changed -- the bulk of the folks living near James Street North ten years ago, for example, would probably not feel super welcome in most of the commercial establishments that line much of the street now. And Locke Street South was pretty middle-class before, but it has become even more resolutely chichi. And other areas have demonstrated similar, if lesser, changes.

The other specificity that's worth noting, compared to how this often plays out in US cities, is that it is not racialized in quite the same way. That is, it's racialized in the sense that poverty is racialized in Canada -- so, definitely and increasingly -- but historically that has not been expressed in terms of how urban space has formed in quite as dramatic a way as in many US cities, so the racial dynamics of gentrification are not as stark either. I could be mistaken, but my sense is that gentrification in Hamilton is probably displacing a disproportionate number of racialized people, but that the clear absolute majority of poor and working-class people being displaced are white. Which in some ways is neither here nor there, but it may change the political dynamics a bit.

In talking with people in Hamilton about this issue, and observing both social and mainstream media, there seem to be three basic positions that people take. There's lots of variation within those three, and reducing it like this means that there is an element of caricature in what I describe, but I think it at least sets out the overall shape of the discursive ground where these debates are taking place.

One group has no problem with gentrification at all. They might have no idea it exists, they might enthusiastically endorse it, or they might acknowledge that it's a phenomenon but use various devices to discount the fact that it amounts to harm inflicted on poor and working-class people and communities. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that folks in this camp constitute the majority of Hamiltonians outside of directly affected communities, though I don't know that for sure. Responding to this group involves demonstrating that gentrification exists, that it causes harm, and that we should all care about and work against that harm. However, I'm not interested in engaging with these folks in this post.

A second pole in this debate is what I would describe as the "some" group. This group is definitely conscious of the harms that urban redevelopment can have on poor and working-class people and communities, but also welcomes certain aspects, certain forms, certain degrees of urban redevelopment as positive and good. I've heard this articulated in various ways. It often includes a recognition that existing residents of these communities have a mix of opinions, and at least some residents see value in some kinds of resources and some kinds of changes being brought to their communities, even if there are down sides as well. Sometimes it's framed in terms of balance, and working to make sure that the harms caused don't outweigh the benefits, though there isn't necessarily much attention paid to the fact that who feels the benefits and who feels the harms are often different people. Others in this group think it's important to treat the harms and benefits are separable, which leads to advocating for policies that they say will minimize or even prevent the harms while maximizing the benefits, though the impact of such policies is often overstated. Though folks situated in a variety of ways take a position that falls into this camp, it is often found among urban middle-class or better-off working-class people who are likely to more directly experience the benefits, and not be as touched by the harms, though it's unfair to reduce the position to that.

And the final pole is the "none" group, which opposes any and all manifestations of change that might fit the description as a symptom of gentrification. Whatever they have to say about the desperate need for resources in many of the neighbourhoods which are targeted for gentrification, they are resolute in opposing any tradeoff involving an acceptance of some harms of gentrification in exchange for some of those resources. They point to how even the more ostensibly non-coercive changes to neighbourhoods can end up crowding out existing residents, and generally they see little possibility for meaningfully separating whatever positive changes that gentrification might bring -- which they would argue are mostly either superficial or oriented towards folks with cash anyway -- from the underlying damage done to working-class and poor communities. Again, though it is unfair to reduce this position to the negative stereotype propagated by those who oppose it, it can sometimes deteriorate into strident posing on social media or other performative lifestyle or micro-level politics that are pretty detached from the actual lives and struggles of folks in the impacted communities.

I wrote in a book review back in October about my dislike of unhelpful polarization within the left or within movements, so even though this is far from the most polarized issue I could name, it still gets my hackles up a bit. That said, I'm definitely closer to the "none" side, though with nuance, with skepticism about radical purity politics, and with a recognition that there is value in some articulations of the "some" position as well. I think an approach that combines radical vision with a practical emphasis on grassroots mobilization to build community power and reduce harms is probably the best way to focus struggles responding to gentrification, though it's obviously not up to me.

What I think is most interesting, though, is not so much the "some" versus "none" binary and the different combinations of politics around markets and states, compromise and purity, benefits and harms, that various positions within that polarization represent. Rather, I'm struck by a conviction that the very fact that this polarization between "some" and "none" exists in this way is because, in our neoliberal age, massive redistribution of resources into poor and working-class communities by mechanisms not oriented around profiting from them is so far from political agendas. Not that folks in and between those camps wouldn't support such redistribution -- in different ways and through different mechanisms, many in both would. It's more that such redistribution is so far from genuinely imaginable today that while it may or may not be present as a piece of rhetoric in responses to gentrification, the actual substance of the two poles boils down to two different sets of answers to the question of what to do in the absence of any way to allocate resources other than the market. Do we cajole and flatter and tease and even regulatorily prod the market to get some (ostensibly) good stuff along with the bad it inevitably brings, or do we just say no and no and no?

There's no easy solution to the problem of getting redistribution back onto the agenda in a more credible way, and therefore to shifting the context for discussion away from options for how to react when capital puts a poor neighbourhood in its sights, and towards something where poor and marginalized people can seize the initiative for driving change in their own communities. There's some tenant organizing happening in the city that is new and seems promising, and I'm keen to learn more about it. Which is great. But the scale of what would be needed remains far beyond what we can imagine at this moment, let alone what we can achieve.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Thinking through writing about interviews with activists, part 2


Earlier in the week, I published a piece in which I began the process of figuring out how to write from my Talking Radical Radio interviews in a way that might address some of the misgivings I wrote about last month. What I published on Tuesday was pretty heavy on the 'what does it all mean' theory end of things, and I made a case that any writing that I did starting from those interviews would by definition involve putting the interview into relation with something else in the social world. Today, I want to move on from there to the much more practical questions of what I might put the interviews into relation with and how I might usefully do that work.

What

As I explained in my earlier post, this act of putting-in-relation is inherent to writing, so maybe I don't really need to be deliberate about it. Maybe I can just write what I want and let it happen.

Maybe, but I don't think so. I can see two main reasons why that would be a bad idea, one related to each term of the "me + interview participant" basis for these interviews. Both of these objections are based in the sense that, though writing inherently puts the object of the writing into relation with other aspects of the social world, if you're not being explicit and clear about it, it tends to happen in a way that keeps attention on those two core terms and invisibilizes in plain sight, or at least deemphasizes, the broader relational element. In terms of the "me" portion, I already talked last month about how monological, blog-standard, white dude opining is not quite what I want this writing to look like, and I think that's what it would look like if I wasn't explicit about bringing in this as-yet unspecified something else. And in terms of the "interview participant" element, there's a good chance that whatever I did would end up looking like pronouncements made about them and their work -- the group or project or struggle or whatever at the heart of the interview. Really, what else would there be to talk about, in this scenario? And I don't want to be doing that. Certainly I agree with those who argue that we need to do a better job of lovingly but critically evaluating our own and other contributions to struggles waged by our communities and movements, but that role is completely inappropriate for how I and the work that I'm doing are situated.

So if I really do have to be deliberate about putting the interview in relation to some kind of something else, what are my options for that something else?

Well, like I mentioned a month ago, one option would be to put it in relation to other sources that were from or about its immediate environment – that is, to use the interview as a basis for grassroots journalism. These sources would allow me to present additional knowledge about the context, the struggle, the other parties to the situation, allies, opponents, ruling relations with which they come into conflict, and so on. And a few could also be "experts" whom I could quote as sources of analysis that would help introduce new ways of thinking about the situation. As I wrote before, this is a kind of work that has limits but that we need more of. But, again, I'm not well placed to do this when it comes to the Talking Radical Radio interviews, because I don't have easy access to the communities and environments which situate most of the people I interview.

Another way to put a Talking Radical Radio interview into deliberate relation with an element of the broader social world would be to put it into relation with another Talking Radical Radio interview. If done sensitively and with respect for everyone involved, I think this could sometimes end up being pretty interesting. I'm a little wary about it, again because I don't want it to become a more sophisticated version of me making pronouncements that judge and assess and evaluate the work of those whom I'm interviewing. I also suspect that for it to work, it would have to be just the right pair (or collection) of interviews. So I'm planning on keeping my eyes open for opportunities to do this, but I don't think it can be my default approach.

Or, I could put the interview in relation to me and my experiences. This may not sound like it's any different than the "me + interview participant" default that I've already dismissed, but it differs in that it treats me and my experiences as explicit object of inquiry and source of raw material – as a starting point for theory – rather than me solely occupying the role of unexamined opiner. I'm not going to dismiss this possibility entirely, because I think figuring out how to write about theorizing the world from our own experience is an important subset of figuring out how to theorize the world from everyday experience in general, and it's something I'm interested in working on more directly in the longer term. As well, part of why I think starting from experience is useful is because mine will differ from yours will differ from hers over there, and we can learn a lot about the world by thinking about how they are all socially connected. So there may be instances where this has the possibility to lead to something interesting and politically useful, but again I suspect that will be quite rare, so I'll try to be open to it but I certainly won't count on it or (heaven forbid) force it. (I suspect that what's more likely is that capacities that I build in doing this work with the Talking Radical Radio interviews will come in handy as I do other work, the odd bit now and more later, that will begin just from my own experiences.)

All of which leaves me, as far as I can tell, with one other option. I may be missing something -- and please tell me if I am -- but all that I can think of that's left to put these interviews in relation with as I write is other textual sources. In principle, that could be any sort of texts that might fit, and I'm certainly open to writing about an interview in relation to some online piece that I find, or to a short article, or to a song, or to a poem. I do hope that I manage to keep my attention to possibilities for this kind of writing broad and open enough that I do some of that. But it occurs to me that I read rather a lot of books -- maybe not as many at the moment as at certain other points, but still a fair number. Part of why I read at least the nonfiction portion of these books is in the hope that they contain ideas that are useful for understanding the world, and therefore for writing about it and for trying to act to change it. Now, I already write reviews of most of the nonfiction that I read. But I write those reviews mostly for my own purposes, to help me integrate what I've gotten from the book into my existing knowledge of the world, so while I'm happy for people to read them, considerations of any audience beyond me are usually pretty secondary. So why not put some of these ideas to work? Why not, in my quest to figure out what I can do with these interviews, begin from explicitly and deliberately putting them into relation with ideas from books (or articles, or essays, or ... or ... or ...) that I have read? Not whole books, but key ideas -- maybe just one key idea per piece of writing.

How

I don't think I am yet able to offer a definitive answer to how I will go about putting Talking Radical Radio interviews into relation with key ideas from written sources (or other interviews or maybe even my own experience). Partly this is because doing so will depend on me being clearer with myself about exactly what I want these pieces of writing to accomplish. And I want to accomplish a few different kinds of things, so it may be that there isn't any one answer anyway. And partly this is because coming up with an answer won't be something I can do in the abstract but can only come from experimenting with the actual writing.

Still, there are a few general features for how I want to approach this work that I'm already sure of:

  • The process of putting the two (or more) in relation should be done clearly and deliberately and explicitly, rather than in the sort of casual and ad hoc way that often happens in, say, a blog post. The point here is to transparently invite in voices and ideas other than my own, to make the resulting writing less monological.
  • It will be crucial to centre the interview, not the something else. I don't mean "centre" in terms of giving it the most space, necessarily, but in terms of allowing it to guide what ideas are used and how, as opposed to the sorts of violence done to stories when they are chosen and/or deformed to fit with pre-set ideas.
  • The goal is to go outwards -- to start from the grounding that is the interview, as put into relation with whatever else I'm using, to talk about something out there in the social world. The goal is not, except perhaps in rare cases, to make the movement or group or person the object of analysis or comment.
  • This isn't the only kind of output that I have in mind, but a key initial goal would be to produce posts that are relatively short, relatively accessible and readable, and done in what you might call a writerly mode rather than, say, journalistic or op-ed-ish or scholarly modes.
Saying what you intend to do before you've started doing it is always dangerous, because you might start and discover that, really, you've come up with a truly appalling approach that you want to bury in a hole in the back yard rather than continue to enact. In this case, I'm a little worried that what I have in mind risks being more time consuming than I'd like. But, frankly, I can live with that, at least provisionally. I'm also worried that it might result in writing that isn't as broadly interesting as it could be. But, then, that's always the job: to deploy ideas and craft together in a way that results in something that someone might actually read. I'm occasionally struck by how audacious the act of writing inevitably is, in that it presumes that other people will do work for you just because you have plonked words down in front of them -- the work of reading and thinking. But it's a constant source of delight and surprise that, at least on occasion, people do.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Thinking through writing about interviews with activists, part 1


About a month ago, I wrote about my feeling of an odd reluctance to write about social movements, despite my ample experience of and means for doing so. The kinds of writing that I want, in various ways, to be doing -- and which I am increasingly convinced can play an important role in several interrelated but distinct projects that I have either started or am considering -- involve beginning from the weekly in-depth interviews I do for Talking Radical Radio and seeing where I can go. To try to figure that out, I'll be working through it in this post and at least one other.

One way to think about these interviews is as encounters between myself and the interview participants. These encounters result in a text – a recording or audio text -- that is then edited and shared online and over airwaves. Anyone who's interested can spend 28 minutes listening to the show and thereby have their own encounter with the audio text of the interview. They can take up and reflect on their experience of this "listener + recording" encounter, and thereby produce their own knowledge about the group or project or organization or struggle that was at the heart of the interview.

It's really that text, the recording resulting from the initial interview encounter, that is the starting point for the writing that I want to do. I'm involved in the initial encounter that produced the recording, of course, but the writing will result at least equally from my later encounters with the recording – from the careful, repeated listening and note-taking that's part of the editing process – and then whatever meaning I can make from all of that close attention. At the moment, I have no firm commitment to exactly what form that meaning should take, what sort of final products I want to end up with, what sort of topics I want to cover, what sort of claims I want to make, or anything like that. Instead, I want to figure out what I can do, in terms of what is possible at all, what is ethical, what might be politically useful to movements, and what might be compelling to readers, from this starting point. Once I've done that, then I hope my speculations about these various projects can take on a more concrete form.

Reflection on this has taken me pretty far up the chain towards first principles and towards consideration of what it means to produce knowledge and to write, and what exactly the doing of those things actually involves. And what I've come up with, and what seems pretty important to consider in making any decisions about how to proceed, is that any act of making meaning from X – any act of knowledge production, any act of writing – involves considering X in relation to something else, whatever that something might be.

I can't actually tell whether that assertion will come across as nonsensical or as utterly obvious to readers, so the rest of this post is going to be me walking through what that means and why I think it. And if you find it totes obvs, well, my apologies, and you can probably stop reading now. But on a certain level, why should it be obvious? Does writing about X really have to involve consideration of anything but X, or at the very most the person doing the writing plus X? Couldn't I write about these interviews by just listening to one and then riffing off a "hot take" blog post -- just me, the recording I'm encountering, a few hastily typed words, and bang it's done? I don't particularly want to do that kind of thing, but I could, right?

Well, no.

However casual and sloppy, whatever angle I take – "Wow, the state was evil here" or "there's something else going on here too" or "racism bad, solidarity good" or "Hey, movement, you screwed up, do it differently next time" or whatever – already points to some kind of source or focus or input or comparison or implication that is beyond what was already present in the interview. If I talk about "something else" in the situation, that's obvious, but similarly by invoking "racism" or "the state", I'm pointing to socially organized constellations of relations and practices out in the world, and in pointing out some error in movement practice I can't help but at least implicitly bring in ways of evaluating movements that came from somewhere -- if they are approaches to evaluation that are even vaguely useful, they must have been produced with reference to other movements and with ways of thinking about change that emerged from other situations. So I am already making meaning by putting the interview into relation with something else, even if it feels like me just sitting down and putting a few thoughts onto the screen. I mean, think about eating an apple and then writing about eating an apple: I'm not sure there is any way to do that without at least implicitly invoking other apples or other tastes or other situations.

My conviction that this is inevitable comes not just from hasty thought-experiments, either, but from reading work by a number of people who are much smarter than me who all seem to point in the same direction.

Take philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He thought a lot about encounters between self and other, and in fact based a great deal of his work on how this kind of encounter is foundational to what it means to be human, and that there is no such thing as a self prior to its constitution in encounters with other people. For him, a sort of idealized "self + other" encounter is the core of this and is the starting point for thinking about our existence in the world. But he is also quite clear that you only get to the full implications of it all for our lives when you realize that this "self + other" encounter always happens in a context in which there is someone else, some "third person" (or, really, an infinite range of others) to whom we are also in relation and to whom we also have obligations. That complicates the initial ethical relation to the other and introduces the need for judgement and analysis and balance that point towards justice. Now, the use that he puts all of that to has to do with recognizing a primacy for ethics in thinking about how we exist as beings in the world, but I would argue that it also has implications for our knowledge of the world -- whenever we are producing knowledge through an encounter with a person or an object or a text, it is never just an encounter between me and some other being or object, but an encounter and a process of making meaning that happens in relation to those who are beyond that immediate encounter.

You can also look at philosopher Sara Ahmed's writing about encounters, both in Strange Encounters and in Queer Phenomenology. She starts from the philosophical tradition of phenomenology (of which Levinas was one part) and its close and intense readings of experiences (i.e. encounters with various sorts of objects and situations and people) and she queers it by arguing that we must attend not only to what is perceptibly present in our encounters, but also to what is not directly perceptible but is still important to them -- what came before, what exists on the margins, what sits beside, what is pointed to beyond. Failing to do those things means failing to know all we can about and from a given encounter.

And of course the kinds of knowledge and knowing that I'm interested in are those that can be put into words, and doing that -- as per this quote from Mikhail Bakhtin that I posted almost a decade ago -- means taking up words that are already populated with meaning from how they have been used by others. That means that the very use of words is social, not just because you are trying to convey meaning to other people, but because you have no choice but to use socially produced vessels of meaning to do that. That means that everything, from the slap-dash hot take I hypothesized about above, to the most sober and considered scholarly reflection, involves putting the topic/object/person/encounter at hand into relation with other aspects of the social world as reflected in the words we use to talk about it.

Of course, the default ideas and language that we have available for thinking about these things don't necessariliy make all of this obvious to us. We easily fall into erasing the inevitably social character of writing, and the fact that it fundamentally involves navigating, understanding, and rearticulating relationships among aspects of the social world, and instead we tend to reduce all of that to some isolated Herculean activity of an individual intellect that creates something out of nothing. But that simply is not the case.

So. Writing about X means making meaning from the the web of relationships that X has with other elements of the social world. Writing about my Talking Radical Radio interviews will therefore involve considering them in relation to other aspects of the social world, beyond my encounter with the interview participants, and beyond my further encounters with the audio text of the interview.

But what other aspects of the world? Put into relation in what ways? And to what ends?

I'll continue with those questions soon in part 2.

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 go...it'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.