November 2008

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Quick Venezuelan election update…

Things are certainly complicated. While in almost any other electoral context the Venezuelan regional elections would have been considered a near-sweep for Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the situation is actually not so clear-cut.

The election had record-breaking participation (65.45%) and the PSUV won 17 of 23 state governorships, but lost some really crucial states. It also seems that they lost pretty handily in Caracas itself. Now, this is the first election for this new socialist party, so one could argue that they kicked ass. But reading commentary on some Chavista sites, it seems that this shows a decline for their candidates…and it specifically shows a dissatisfaction with the way that Chavista politicians (not necessarily Chavez himself) are governing.

Looks like the next couple of years will be rocky for the Venezuelan process. Just like the aftermath of Chavez’s failed constitutional reform last year, he’s going to have to shake stuff up, and there is a big question of whether changes will fall to the right or to the left. If he’s listening to his base, it sounds like they want more power for the communal councils, more accountability from the representative elements of the government, and less corruption and clientelism.

I’ll hope to keep writing about this as my understanding gets better (or my questions get more profound), but for now I’m afraid I have little to say that’s not being said on Venezuela Analysis.

Meanwhile, in Ecuador, general elections to elect the new government after the recent passing of the new constitution will be held in late April. And in Bolivia and Paraguay? Hmm…don’t know. Should do some reading about that.

Eyes on El Salvador in 2009…

Just a quick note. Last night Glendi and I attended an event talking about elections in El Salvador in 2009. They take place in March, and though there is always danger of US intervention and fraud, right now the FMLN (former guerrilla group turned political party) candidate, Mauricio Funes is on track to win.

This will be a big deal if it happens. Not only because it’ll be the second ex-guerrilla group after the Sandinistas to win power in Central America, but also because it will keep the leftward tide moving in Latin America. Who knows, maybe 2012 in Mexico? It also will of course have interesting implications for Guatemala, and their weak center-leftist president, Colom.

In other news, Venezuela has its regional elections on Sunday, will almost all the governorships and mayor positions in play. It’s the first vote after the Chavistas’ constitutional referendum loss, and Chavez and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela are putting A TON of energy into it. I’ll be watching closely, as it will be a good gauge of what direction the Venezuelan revolution is moving.

Here’s my second piece. I almost thought about taking these down off the blog, but I feel like sharing.
***

The night that I became an atheist was one of the most powerful nights that I’ve had so far in my life. It was also the night that I came closest to killing myself. Thankfully, atheism saved me.

I was seventeen years old and it was a clear and brutally cold night in the middle of Alaskan winter. While my family slept, and wearing only a t-shirt and jeans, I headed out to ride my unicycle—I had recently taught myself the skill and it had become almost meditative for me—across the snow and ice of my small town of Eagle River. I was not planning to return.

My teenage years so far had been really intense for me. Having abandoned past quests for conformity after moving to Alaska from Washington at fourteen, I was enmeshed in a process of self-discovery and self-expression in which I was redefining my beliefs and my identity on a constant basis. It was hard for me to keep up with who I was from one week to the next. I was a self-proclaimed revolutionary anarchist; an ex-Catholic aspiring to understand Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufism; a fledgling poet and short-story writer; a voracious reader of critical educational literature and philosophy; and an iconoclastic dresser, with my black and white wingtips, my homemade t-shirts, my black suspenders, and my briefcase covered with political and philosophical stickers and quotes. In all honesty, I was just plain weird, and I was fiercely proud of that fact.

I was fiercely battling with my body as well, and carrying a deep shame about it that kept me from looking anyone in the eye for nearly two years. I had chronic acne that covered not only my face, but also my chest and back. I had to sleep with a towel wrapped around me, because every night all of the pimples on my back would burst and I didn’t want my sheets to get bloody. Skin and pus would wash off along with the soap bubbles in the shower, and my tears often drained away with them. I would wear layers of sweaters or even turtlenecks to cover up as much as possible at school. After I read Moby Dick I wrote a poem likening myself to the whales in the book, full of rich, thick oil that could be used to light lamps or fuel homes. Unfortunately what I had within me wasn’t so prized. When I finally got up the nerve to talk with my mom and go to a dermatologist, the doctor told me that it was level four acne, apparently the worst kind, as it also formed cysts underneath my skin. She put me on a drug called Accutane, at double the normal dose. Apparently, I was a special case.

It turned out later that Accutane was closely linked to teenage depression and some cases of suicide, but we didn’t know that then. And I didn’t actually feel depressed or suicidal. On the contrary, I was actually a very happy person, with nearly boundless enthusiasm about life. I did feel something, though, a certain sharp quality to my emotions, a certain clarity and force to them, and I now wonder whether that was the drug doing its work on me.

Regardless of my reasons, be they chemical, developmental, or even purely cerebral, my emotions about the world weighed heavily on me, and they often expressed themselves in relation to deep spiritual questions that I was exploring at that time. Was there a God? What was the meaning of life? What do life and death mean, and are we reborn in a cycle? Is the world all an illusion or even a dream? I would often go on walks or unicycling trips to think about these questions, to try and puzzle out who I was, who I could possibly be in the shadow of such massive confusions. I read books, and lots of them. The Bhagivad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, David Bohm and J. Krishnamurti, Frtizjoff Capra, the poet Rumi, Descartes, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kurt Vonnegut, and especially the philosopher Martin Buber, and his book, I and Thou. In all of this reading the essential question remained: What could I possibly amount to in a universe so large, and so what did my life signify?

On my bedroom ceiling, directly above my bed, I placed a strip of masking tape that said, “Mysticism or Activism?” This was another definitive question for me. Did I want to focus myself on the inner life, on trying to reconcile and harmonize myself with the deeper rhythms of the world in some kind of search for enlightenment or the dissolution of self into something greater, or did I want to maintain my sense of self and my grounding in the world in order try to change the world and make people’s lives better? Was the choice so stark, or could I do both? I pondered all of this daily, I fretted about it, I wrote about it. While I had friends, and had crushes, and played video games and ate junk food like other teenagers, these were the parts of myself that felt most real to me.

Perhaps it was not only because of the Accutane, but because of my overall skin condition that the inner life meant so much to me. I’m not sure. I do know that I broke up with both of my high school girlfriends as soon as we got to a point of intimacy in which we are on the verge of taking off our shirts. Perhaps this is why I found so much comfort in thinking about living a hermitic or monastic life. In such a life I wouldn’t have had to think about the painful contradictions between my desires and the condition of my body.

*

This was me at seventeen, and this was me on that night. Earlier in the day I had just read something by Sartre, in which he said that life has no meaning, that there is no God to watch us or care for us, and the universe doesn’t know or care about us either. This was a alarming to me. As a boy raised Catholic, I had always had a feeling of a presence watching me over my shoulder. I felt the buoyancy of that presence. Even as I began to doubt the Christian God, I still felt like life itself had some kind of conscious, guiding, loving quality, and this comforted me. But on that day Sartre had messed all of that up. For him, life was meaningless, unless we alone chose to infuse it with meaning. This disturbed me greatly, mostly because I had a hunch that he was right.

So I took my unicycle out that night, thinking seriously about dying. I wasn’t sad, really. I was just exhausted. For me at that time, it felt like I had spent my most recent, most conscious and lively years completely wasting my time. I had put so much of my energy and creativity into searching for some kind of deeper connection with life, with myself, with something greater than myself, and now it seemed pointless. I had spent years struggling with my body, searching for ways to transcend it, to overcome it, to completely deny its existence as pure worldly illusion, and yet, ultimately, it was all I really had. The futility of all my efforts absorbed me that night. With these tired thoughts, with this world-weariness, I headed into the Alaskan cold.

I pedaled slowly toward a nearby creek bridge, looking up at the clear, dark starry sky. If life was meaningless, then it seemed fittingly dramatic and poetic to punctuate my death with the sharp, pure pain of freezing water. All it would take was a leap from the bridge. As I pedaled closer, I sobbed.

It was the sobbing that was the turning point, as I arrived and stood on the bridge. I looked at the water, I gripped the railing, and I imagined the fall, but my crying got more intense. I started to think about that fact, and it started to crowd out my thoughts of death.

If I was crying about life, then this clearly showed that I cared about life, I thought. I didn’t just care, I was actually deeply passionate about life. I looked through my teary, blurry eyes at the snow around me, with its millions of crystals reflecting the light of the streetlamp back at me, and I started crying more forcefully because of its beauty. I looked up at the moon and I lunged at it with both arms as if to try at embracing it, and I let myself fall to my knees in the attempt. The things all around me we were so beautiful. Life was so beautiful. Death would erase all of these things for me. But life, life alone contained all of these colors and sensations. Life alone was so full and complex, while death was a monotone, a flat line, a complete void.

That was the moment when I embraced atheism. Facing a choice between the constant blackness of death and the endless variety of experiences of life, I chose life. For the first time, I chose life, consciously and ecstatically, for what life was in itself, not for what was promised in some afterlife, not for the sake of some outside force that I thought was watching, and not for the idea of transcending to some supposedly more enlightened kind of living. I chose life as it was, and thus I also chose myself as I was, as a humble, lucky participant in life. Even as an accident of the universe, even with a body that seemed at war with itself, I was lucky to be alive, I realized. Even more, I was lucky to have all of the privileges of family, economic security, education, and peace to be able to appreciate life so consciously and abstractly, and so the question of social justice became even more forceful in my mind at that moment. There, on my knees in the snow, on the verge of choosing death, I finally really connected with my own authentic spirituality, and it gave me the force to choose life instead.

I am still a proud and happy atheist. I also love life, and my body’s participation in it, as passionately as I did that night.

However, I have grown up in many ways, and I’m often so embarrassed of this story, of the heavy teenage angst that it portrays, that I rarely tell it to anyone. I’m especially embarrassed, even ashamed, because two years after that night happened, one of my good friends, Stephen, committed suicide. There was nothing poetic, romantic, or philosophically pure about it. There was just sadness and confusion. There were just tears and snot and constant questioning about why he left us. There were just scores of people who wondered why he didn’t love us enough to stay and share this life with us. I’m so thankful that I didn’t make the same mistake that he made, and I wish that I had told him my own story.

For me, ever since that winter night on the bridge, life has been a choice that I make daily. I choose to give meaning to my thoughts and my actions. I choose to love and care about the people I love. I choose to work for a world where more people can choose life passionately, rather than just struggling to scrape through it. I choose to appreciate the blades of grass, the old trees, the tumultuous cloudy skies, because they simply make me feel blessed to be here.

And I also choose to love myself, with each scar that I still carry on my chest and shoulders, and with each memory that I still hold of that younger boy who didn’t yet have the force to choose. Now I do have that force, and I try to carry enough passion and love within me for both of us.

Pieces of Memoir… Part 1

When I was studying for my Master’s in Teaching, I had to write two autobiographical essays. I dreaded the assignment, and waited until the due date to write both of them. But now, just having re-read them, I think there is a lot there that I almost never share with anyone…so, why not post them here.

Bear in mind, that I wrote these a year ago. Also bear in mind that I wrote them both in about an hour or two. With that in mind, I hope you like them. (Oh, and Christina isn’t her real name.)

***

I had to search through my seventh grade yearbook to learn that her name was Christina. Thirteen years ago I didn’t ask or care. She was merely a prop for me, a comic foil that allowed me to fit in exactly in proportion to how left-out I made her feel; and for these purposes she served me well. I made the whole playground laugh, so easily and instantly, and all I had to do was make her cry. I didn’t then know the full price, for her or for me. Even at night, sobbing and hating myself, I didn’t know what would come from my choices. I didn’t know that Christina would transform my life.

Christina was one of a handful of developmentally disabled students at Oak Harbor Middle School in Whidbey Island, Washington, and she was not the first of them who we surrounded and terrorized. She was just the latest in what was more or less a rotation. As we got bored with stealing one kid’s football or aggressively imitating the slurred speech of another, we would eventually come around to her. And she was mine. I picked her out in the playground, I motioned for my friends to follow me, and I chose those soft spots that I wanted to prod and irritate until I got my desired response. It was a calculated process of emotional brutality, targeted less at our victims and more at each other, a bunch of scrawny white middle class kids who’d learned from our movies, our sports, our dads, and especially our older brothers that this is what one does to be cool: you focus so intently, so callously on the strangeness, the weakness, the frailty of The Other that no one would dare suspect that you carry those things in yourself.

Without the ability to articulate it, and with no one to articulate it to, this was exactly what was going on for me. In my head, in my heart, things felt terribly wrong in the world, and I didn’t know where I belonged. I saw homeless men arguing with lampposts in the streets and I wondered how I was different, why I deserved friends and comfort while these men deserved ridicule. I saw National Geographic specials about poached gorillas and elephants and I rose up screaming at the television, at the unjust absurdity of the world. I even watched Corky struggle with Down’s syndrome on ABC’s “Life Goes On” and TV movies about Special Olympics superstars overcoming their obstacles and I remember feeling so much love and respect for them in their dramatized struggles. But I had my friends, and my brother’s older, cooler friends were always hanging around, as well. None of them talked about these things. They talked about cars and video games and the way women’s bodies were supposed to look. The message was clear: Talking about those other things made you gay. Mama’s boys talked about those other things. Pussies talked about those other things. I didn’t want to be called those names, and so I didn’t say anything about what was going on for me. I just focused on being cool instead, and that meant going after Christina.

Most of the time, I just sort of walked circles around her, tagging her and getting her to chase me, pretending to play with her while everyone laughed along from a distance. The last time was different, though. We all thought she had a crush on me, the way she giggled and tagged me back, and so I thought I was brilliant when the week of the spring dance arrived and I formed my little plan. On the Thursday before the dance, I came up to her really nicely, really slowly. I smiled at her and she smiled at me, and I faked nervousness, pretending to search for words.

“I was just, you know, wondering if, you know, maybe you’d go to the dance with me?”

She blushed brightly, her eyes widened, and she stepped back and turned around. I spun around her to see her face and she was smiling, nervous, clearly surprised. She ran off, laughing, probably not knowing how to respond, then she ran back to me, with a huge smile. She was going to say yes, I could tell, and that was just too much for me. I acted quickly.

“Not! I was just joking, retard!” I ran away to my group, and we walked, chuckling and jostling, back to our classes.

When school ended that afternoon, I ran home by myself, crashed into my bed, and cried. The person who I was inside, the person who I wanted to be, was nothing like the person who I was presenting in public. The gap was so great, and it felt so unbridgeable, that I started thinking about suicide.

I was lucky though. That summer, my parents had to move us from Washington to Alaska, and for me that move was a lifesaver. I remember consciously thinking that I would have the opportunity to start from scratch, to finally redefine myself in my own way. And I was.

In eighth grade, I was unashamed of getting good grades, of having multiracial friendships in a racist town, in being drug free among stoners, and in making friends with the so-called nerds of my school. In ninth grade, I got accepted into an alternative school, where nearly everyone had rejected the conformity of traditional schools, and where, for the first time, my confusions about the world were not only validated, but also reflected back in new and challenging ways. At 14 years old, teachers and students were introducing me to Socrates, Buddhism, anarchism, and the writings of Karl Marx. In that new, open environment, my mind exploded open. I felt like I was identifying with a new worldview every week, debating publicly and privately about questions of materialism, freedom, desire, meaning, and equality.

I’ve only recently realized that all of my intellectual and emotional processes in that exciting time, and up to the present, had their roots in the contradictions of my experience with Christina. Inside, I had long felt a deep love and sensitivity for the world, for other creatures and people, and even for her. But outside there were all of these forces pushing and pulling me away from who I was. They were not just pushing me away from basic decency and respect for people like Christina. They were also pushing me toward more and more consumerism at the expense of my childhood imagination; toward the objectification of women at the expense of authentic desire; toward classroom docility at the expense of intellectual curiosity; toward some vague college track at the expense of my genuine passions and interests. I came to see that modern social forces were far from benign. They were often deeply irrational and oppressive, even murderous. With Christina I had fallen into a myriad of society’s traps, and the move to Alaska freed me just in time to breathe, reflect, and decide that I didn’t want to go down that road ever again.

By 17, I was a committed radical social justice activist, in love with books, and especially steeped in economic justice and de-schooling literature. Even in an incredible alternative high school, I felt stifled and I decided to drop out. I tried college for a few months, but decided to drop out again. The struggle was calling. I decided to focus on full-time radical activism, fighting for farm workers’ rights in Skagit Valley, against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, for anarchist revolution in Los Angeles, and for community control of public space in Bellingham.

All my experiences eventually brought me back to college, by choice this time, rather than by obligation, and they even landed me a job back in the public school system, doing youth-empowerment work in a diverse urban high school near Seattle. I still work at the school, and it feels like such a privilege to work with young people and to provide them support for the kinds of vulnerable, challenging reflection that I wasn’t encouraged to engage with until many years too late. In that job, I discovered my passion for education, and my desire to be a teacher.

For me, every part of who I am is related to the story above. I love life tremendously, and I love sharing it with so many people, animals, and other living and non-living things. Sometimes the beauty is simple overwhelming. At the same time, ever since seventh grade, I just can’t ignore the ridiculous, inhumane, and sometimes unspeakable social systems and relationships that thousands of years of human history have built around us like a cage. I can’t pretend that racism ended with Martin Luther King Jr. or something. I can’t pretend that sexism faded in the 1970’s. I can’t pretend that poverty is on the downswing because the news is optimistic about the Dow or Nasdaq. I can’t ignore the realities of Iraq, Burma, Guatemala, Haiti. What I only viscerally felt in seventh grade, that something is terribly wrong in the world, I now know from experience and from research. Something is terribly wrong. Many things are terribly wrong, and they need to change. I want to be a force for that change, and for almost 11 years now I have tried. For me, that has meant participating in social movements that seek systemic transformation, that strive for the creation of new social institutions built on human cooperation, equality, and dignity. I’m not dogmatic, though. I recognize the possibility that I might not be on the exactly right path.

Every day, I try to find that difficult balance between my deep appreciation for the beauty of this life and my deep outrage at the injustices of this society. For me, this is a kind of amazing dance between my heart and my mind. I know that I need both perspectives, that without one or the other, I would be hollow. I owe Christina for pushing me to the deep introspection that has brought me here.

13 years ago, I didn’t know Christina’s name, but she did change my life. I will always carry shame inside me, knowing that her experience of me was probably not similarly beneficial. Whatever lessons I might have learned do not excuse how I treated her. I hope that somewhere she has forgiven me, but I would support her fully if she never does. All I can do is what any of us should do in the face of those inexcusable choices that we sometimes make when we try to solidify our status or our privilege: recognize my humanity, face forward toward my potential, and try once again to act vigorously for justice.

Me and My Propagandhi Connection…

“When all is said and done, just cuz we were young, doesn’t mean that we were wrong.”
-Propagandhi, “Rock for Sustainable Capitalism”

When I was 15 my brother bought me a pop-punk sampler CD for Christmas, and on that CD was a song by a political punk band called Propagandhi. The song was called “And we thought nation states were a bad idea…” and it was all about the rise of neo-liberalism. It gripped me tight. It opened my eyes to a whole new type of music and expression (before that my favorite band had been the Beatles), and one line just completely spoke to how I was feeling as I was becoming a young, angry anarchist: “And I’m just a kid! Can’t believe I have to worry about this kind of shit…what a stupid world!” I sang and screamed that song in my bedroom all winter in 1995.

Ever since, I’ve had a deep connection to Propagandhi’s music. Well, actually, I think think their music isn’t very good. But there is something about their lyrics, and how they sing them that just speak to my exact feelings about the absurdity of our current society. I don’t think they’re the best band. They aren’t even my favorite band. But whenever I listen to them, I feel less lonely, more understood, and especially more grounded in why, after 13+ years, I’m still a radical.

The quote at the beginning of my post is really ringing true for me lately. I’ve been thinking a lot about my teenage years, and my education as an activist. I am so proud of who I was, of my naivety and my deep desire to be a good person. I am proud of the poems and manifestos that I would write in my notebook. I still read them sometimes and I’m actually pretty impressed. I was a pretty sharp and sensitive kid…and actually way more open to later anti-racist and feminist politics than I sometimes give myself credit for.

Just because we were young, doesn’t mean that we were wrong.

Young Jeremy, I’m so, so happy for how you’ve grown up. I’m so happy for the choices you made and the thoughts you had…because you led me to where I am now, at 27. I’ve learned a hell of a lot that you didn’t imagine then. I don’t know what you’d think of my compromises. Married. Working. Still playing video games. Still eating meat. Still driving and wearing store-bought clothes. But I want you to know that I haven’t forgotten those things you used to tell yourself, those better lives and worlds that you used to dream while bouncing the tennis ball against the garage. I’m walking the path that you found for me…and I so wish we could just spend an hour or two together. It would be so fascinating to get your opinion of all that is happening right now.

But instead, I’ll find you in the Propagandhi songs…because when I sing quietly on my walk to work, I can hear you faintly singing along.

I don’t care what any super-radical folks, anarchist folks, socialist folks say. Obama’s win is a huuuuuge deal for the left. It is fantastic news for all progressive social justice movements. I’ve followed this very closely for the last two years and I know just as well as any nay-sayers that Obama is no radical. He’s definitely center-left, super-pragmatic, and he doesn’t seem to hesitate much when it comes to choosing conservative positions over progressive ones. That’s all true, and it doesn’t matter much. What matters is that he won the presidency, and HOW he won the presidency. It is a HUGE vindication for grassroots organizing and politics, and it will create an infrastructure that will be potentially transformative in 10, 15, 20 years.

In Seattle, thousands of people poured into the streets, all spontaneously and from multiple different locations all over the city. This happened all over the country. I would bet that a lot of those people don’t go out and protest much. That is significant.

I remember when I was in high school in Anchorage, trying to teach myself about politics and activism, I used to walk to the nearest bookstores and look through their current affairs and political science sections. I remember, especially at Barnes and Noble, how hard it was for me to find writers like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, etc. The sections were so small! Now, ten years later, I walk into those sections and not only are Zinn and Chomsky all over the place, but there is Naomi Klein on mainstream news, bell hooks and Freire in the education sections…so much out there. Our country is shifting, and the left is growing, getting smarter, and getting more sustainable. This Obama win is a sign of that.

Now there is a chance that everyone will be mesmerized into a stupor and just let Obama do whatever sell-out things he wants, but I don’t think that will happen. I think people know what they have to do, they know they have to keep watching and keep active…and luckily I think Obama knows this as well. Because although he doesn’t want to be a radical left president, Obama does want to be a “great” president, an FDR type president, and so he knows he needs grassroots pressure on him, something to keep him honest and accountable to some extent.

I’m telling you, this all matters, and radicals like my friends and comrades write it off at their peril. The US is changing, and the left needs to change with it, or else we will watch as masses of people shuffle right past us towards other ideas of justice and peace…leaving us old, crotchety, and irrelevant.

I’m so excited for the next 6 months or so. I think it’s a tremendous time to be a lefty, even though Obama himself isn’t thinking that way.

Love you all,

Jeremy

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi