April 2013

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In this together…

I get home weary, with shoulders slumped. My movements to the front door fluctuate between shuffle and ooze. Dazed, blank, I turn the key and step into the living room and, each time, it’s such a warm and energetic shock what I see.

Each time, for about the last month or so, I get to enter the house and see my daughter’s masterwork. I get to see the joyful product of her newest, most dedicated hobby.

You see, my daughter is a radical librarian. And a damned systematic one, at that.

Pretty much each morning, afternoon, and evening, she race crawls into the living room, grips our bookshelf and lifts herself up, then proceeds to pull my books from their homes one, by one, by one. We put them back, she crawls back and does her work again. She will not be deterred.

—-

I think about those books today, and their soggy corners from all the chewing and slobber…and I can’t stop thinking about the news.

Guatemala. The historic, heroic trial of the dictator Efrian Rios Montt–the architect of the worst of the Guatemalan genocides in 1982-3. Just before damning testimony will be shared about the current president, Otto Perez Molina, and his involvement in the genocides as a young officer…the trial is annulled. There is video of those days, when his code name was Major Tito. He is standing over the bodies of some radical peasants. Their skin is dark brown, like Glendi’s brothers. Her dad.

The peasants had radical books on them. Like mine. They were killed.

Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Today. FBI agents in Hawaiian shirts are visiting activist houses. Not so subtle intimidation before May Day. They even visit Left Bank books, where so many of these books–now on the floor–once came from. Where so many times I thought about which titles would be most useful for building a revolution.

All the death and all the fear of so many generations who have struggled for a different world than this one. So many legacies are in those pages, now squeezed between those craggy, tooth-pocked gums of my baby. How many people have had to hide, or burn, or justify their possession of those books I come home to? How many comrades in danger, or shock, just because they happen to be more active than I am?

If, one day, my daughter chooses to agree with what those books are about? And she chooses to act?

Will she be safe?

Will she remain undeterred?

So, like 2 years ago I wrote part 1 of a series of reflections about my time in revolutionary groups. I had part 2 almost done, and I had part 3 outlined…and then I just stopped.

I just found part 2 in my drafts folder. It’s got some interesting stuff that shouldn’t just be forgotten. Here it is.Part 1 focused on lessons around handling conflict. Part 2 is focused on addressing oppression, and then the final part is about improving revolutionary praxis. Like I said in the first part of this series, these are my thoughts as I got them down on the page, and I reserve the right to change them, add to them, and delete them as I feel more clarity.

ADDRESSING OPPRESSION (this is focused on how revolutionary organizations address oppressive dynamics and try to build a liberated culture internally…questions of addressing oppression on the larger scale will be taken up in the next part)

Have a holistic, intersectional perspective. My own political trajectory has taken me all over the map about how I theorize oppression, and whether I think there are core oppressions or linchpin systems or anything. And although I feel fewer and fewer comrades at my side about this, as so many of them move toward more materialist perspectives, I still remain unconvinced that oppression has only one source, one foundation, or one weak point (such as class struggle, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.).

People are complex, our relationships are complex, and that means our social systems–and the dynamics of hierarchy and oppression underlying them–are complex. It makes perfect sense for radicals to seek out powerful, and efficient means of understanding these systems in order to identify priority areas, and I do think there are priority areas, but in the end I believe that revolutionary organizations are best served by a perspective that acknowledges and seeks to address–at least at the personal level–the ways that power and oppression manifest across all differences of identity and experience. That is, I think organizations should work from a holistic perspective that believes that all forms of oppression need to be addressed simultaneously–even if there are sometimes strategic priorities within that work.

I don’t say this because I believe all struggles are equal in their revolutionary potential, but rather because all forms of oppression actively live, grow, and do their damage within each of us, and we need to build organizations and a revolutionary culture that can hold us and help us heal and grow from where we’re at and what we’re feeling. We need organizations that can see us as whole people, which means we need organizations that can deeply understand the complexity of what keeps us boxed in.

Be clear about how huge and insidious oppressive systems are, in the world and within each of us. This one is pretty straightforward. Oppressions run deep, and the infrastructure that sustains them is ridiculously large and resourceful. We have to be honest with ourselves: this is a long struggle, and there are no magical shortcuts. Even those with an insurrectionist perspective need to recognize this. We will not experience total liberation in our lifetimes, and probably neither will the next few generations. Instead, we will have periods of progress and setbacks, and we will consistently push up against the limits of how fast society can move, and how much personal change is possible over the course of our lives. Within our organizations this means…

It’s important to expect and offer personal accompaniment, but it’s a trap to expect and offer personal liberation. There can be a real cheerleading element to revolutionary work, where, in an effort to stave off feelings of desperation and futility in the face of an overwhelming enemy, we rah rah about will, and transformation, and living completely new lives. This hopefulness is essential–because I do believe that social transformation is possible if we’re able to hold it as a vision–but it can also shoot us in the foot.

Revolutionary organizations–and larger social movements–cannot deliver total personal liberation, and often our cheerleading to the contrary causes us big problems. I would bet that thousands of potential organizers pass by the radical left each year because of the disconnect they see between our lofty promises and ideals and our less-than-stellar, very human realities. People get frustrated when we can’t solve their problems in timely ways, and especially when they see that our organizations and movements can’t alleviate the pain of living in this society.

What we can and should do as organizations is be present with people, and accompany them in their struggles. If a person is abused, downsized, evicted we can’t always win the fight, but we can be there fighting with them, and then–and this is critically important–we can still be there the next day as their comrades and community members. That presence, that essential solidarity is less fancy than the poetry of “build total liberation now,” but it’s far more lasting when things get hard in the movement.

Also, as people within a thoroughly messed up society, we are individually thoroughly messed up. We have weird hangups, prejudices, triggers, desires and compulsions that have evolved out of our daily practices while trying to get by in this world. These are deep within us, and we have to be patient with ourselves and each other as our perfectly clean and clear radical ideals crush up against our dirty and weird realities. That contradiction, and our presence and growth within in it, are the struggle.

Our lives don’t fit in their boxes, so our organizations shouldn’t be boxy. Okay, so our society is constructed around systems of oppression and exploitation that create social dichotomies and then box us into identities based on those dichotomies. At the same time, we know that society’s identity boxes don’t match who we actually are. They are social constructions, which often have been imposed on us through force.

So, if we are seeking to create something new, our organizations are not served by structuring ourselves around those same boxy identity forms that never fit us in the first place. Separatist groups, people of color or white only groups, women only spaces, or other identity based formations that key off of identities that the system made for us are not lasting formations. Sure, they are potentially very important for specific functions and caucus type spaces in order to make space to build skills and consciousness without the disruptive presence of privileged people’s defensiveness or entitlement. That makes sense. But in the end, the movement has to be multiracial–race being a social invention after all–intergenerational, multi-gender, accessible, and even cross class in the sense of multiple layers and cultures within all the non-owning classes.

I believe that building a winning movement means working with each other across identity, seeing and feeling commonality, and even holding each other’s pain–even if we feel that it’s coming from a more “privileged” place than our own.

We are who shows up, and we work from there. There are times when groups have a majority of one or another identity, and if that identity is more on the privileged side of things, then groups can sort of freeze up into this, “if we don’t get more diverse than we can’t do anything.” This is garbage, and it often only leads to either navel-gazing or awkward “diversity recruiting” drives. No thanks.

Instead, when groups gather, they should acknowledge who’s there, honor who’s there, and then have honest conversations about how best to move the group’s work forward. If the group happens to be majority white, for example, that doesn’t mean that the group doesn’t have legitimacy until it meets some quota or something…it still has the potential to do fantastic work. However, the group does need to recognize the dynamics of being majority white, understand why that might be, recognize what unique responsibilities and perspectives such a formation might have, and realize that in the end the group will probably have to dissolve into a larger multiracial organizational form rather than ever having the possibility of recruiting people of color into its existing form. Sure, sometimes groups do need to just dissolve and start from scratch if they are incapable of authentically and respectfully participating in community struggles because of their makeup…but I think the pattern of groups just stopping and starting around purely demographic issues is often a waste of time.

Avoid formulaic and linear conceptions of leadership. This is where my original draft stopped, and I can’t remember what I wanted to say here. Knowing what I think about this topic, I imagine that I wanted to talk about how organizations have many vital tasks to do, some of which are more celebrated than others. Within a group, members have a wide variety of strengths, skills, and interests. These all offer different forms of leadership, many of which are unacknowledged because they aren’t public. This is a classic feminist argument and I don’t need to go deeply into it, but…

The multiple forms and strands that leadership can take in groups can really help a group explode in creative directions if it is nurtured in the right way. Now, if only I remembered all my original thinking about this point!

All the other great reflections I forgot to write down. I can’t remember the specifics, but I know that I wanted to talk more about some of the specifics of personal improvement work vs. public political work. I wanted to talk about specific ways that oppression and superiority get internalized and play out in groups. I wanted to specifically talk about addressing oppressive dynamics in groups. I didn’t get any of that written down. That’s a shame. Right now it’s a school night so I certainly don’t have the energy to remember all this stuff…but here’s hoping that I come back and add more reflections in time.

1)

2)Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces by Raul Zibechi. This is the first non escapist sci-fi book I’ve read in awhile. It’s awesome. It explores how social movements in El Alto, Bolivia have been able to maintain such militant and prolonged mobilization that has transformed the politics of their country–while still refusing to be co-opted by the state. His central argument is that the movements are not separated from daily life, but rather completely enmeshed in people’s whole lives–it’s this community and relational aspect that gives the movements their potency. Yes. Lot’s of lessons for us in there, which I’d like to talk about when finished. I’d highly recommend this book for book groups to read and discuss.

3) I’ve come back to pre-writing for a novel I’ve been working on for awhile. A long walk around Vancouver was perfect for my inspiration, as I worked through some long-standing story blocks. I don’t want to talk about it much, but the inspiration is that I love fantasy and sci-fi novels that build deep and convincing worlds–Middle Earth, Game of Thrones, China Mieville’s cities. I believe that a revolutionary and post-revolutionary world could offer similarly exotic and escapist settings, and I’m disappointed in radical fiction writers because they always hover around the moments of insurrection, but they don’t describe the world to be built afterwards. I don’t mean utopia, but what actually would be there afterwards. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a great exception, but I wish there were more. So, that’s what I’m playing with.

So, I fell off the world again….

Glendi knows me so well! For my birthday on Wednesday, she gave me a quite unexpected gift: a 3-day trip to be alone with my thoughts in Vancouver, BC. Here I am, beginning the 3rd day, and it’s no coincidence that I’m coming back to my blog–and clearing out the copious amounts of spam comments–during this special time alone. Something still isn’t quite working in my daily life.

Here I was in December and January, reading, writing, eating with people, balancing my workload and my social anxiety all quite well. Then, pretty much exactly when Glendi and the baby came home from Guatemala, the old patterns crept in. It’s not them. It’s me and my introversion.

Introversion is not shyness. It’s a shorthand way of talking about where our energy comes from. My energy comes from having ample time alone–first to decompress from exhaustion and any person struggles, then to ease into more creative and inspired work. I like being around people, and I love my time with Glendi and Amanecer. But social interaction, even with them, drains me. When we are all in the house, I don’t know where to find my energy. I only know how to energize myself when I have hours and hours laid out before me. When I have to find my alone time in scraps of 30 or 45 minutes here or there, I get cranky and then just fill that time with electronic mind-mushing. In this way, I have frittered away 3 months since last writing. I’ve read almost nothing, I’ve talked with very few people beyond my family and co-workers, and I haven’t been to a single political event.

Don’t get all mopey and down on yourself. Just acknowledge it, take responsibility, and move forward.

I just reread my Backwards Planning for the Revolution. Yes, I am so happy that at least I wrote myself a really practical guide for how to get out of the funk and try again. The goals and ideas still make sense to me. What I wrote still speaks to where I want to be. But I need to readjust to 3 realities:

1) I need to more realistically understand a father’s time limitations. I will not have more than a few 1+ hour stretches of free time. Free time is there; hours and hours of it. But it’s all chopped and chunked up into 10-20 minute moments. I grumpily cast this off as lost time and waste it. I need to become a scavenger and salvager. I want to try positively embracing and playing with these fragments of alone time.

2) I need to own up to my exhaustion. When I am teaching, I feel energized. When I get home, I am drained. I’m only sleeping 6-7 hours a night, so I’m physically tired also. It’s silly to have high creative expectations of myself in the weekday afternoons when I’ve spent so much creative energy trying to teach well. As I get more practiced at teaching, this might change, but for now it’s just plain true that I don’t have that much mind or social power left after work. Do I just designate my weeknights as recuperation time, then? Not quite. I just need to prioritize work that will also be restful–low stakes social stuff, lighter reading, lighter writing.

3) My social anxiety is more debilitating than I want to admit. Intellectually, I can recognize and rationalize around it, but the truth of my daily life is that I live in a constant white noise of anxiety about email, mail, and phone messages. It takes me days to find the courage to go through my email and phone messages, even just to delete unwanted stuff. The longer I wait, the worse it is. I feel like I’m currently standing underneath a tidal wave of correspondence that I owe to so many people…but then I think that they all must be so disappointed in me…so I can’t contact them…so maybe another day…and so it goes.

See, these three realities work in wicked concert together. Because it takes so much strength and energy to face my social correspondence, I never feel like I can do it with just a 10 minute fragment of time. So I spend those 10-20 minutes trying to find escapes to avoid thinking about the mounting social anxiety. I play and consume. This is my cycle. This is how I self-medicate and what I’m self-medicating for.

If I’m going to accomplish my goals, healing from my anxiety and pain need to be priorities for me. I need friends again. If not, then I need a therapist.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi