August 2013

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I have come to understand myself as having roughly two “specializations” or focuses when it comes to the radical thinking that I most enjoy: popular education/political development and structures for political organization. The reasons why I have these focuses are 1) I believe that the left heavily—almost pathologically—overemphasizes social analysis and so I prefer to keep my head tilted toward vision and strategy, 2) my visions and strategies continuously tell me that revolutionary work is fundamentally educational in nature, and 3) I believe that building dynamic, healthy, high-capacity organizations is perhaps the most critical factor in the success of that revolutionary work. I adore thinking about education so much that it has become my day job. I am so gaga for all things organization that organizational daydreaming is one of my favorite free time hobbies.

You can imagine, then, how baffling and tantalizing a puzzle it is for me that the U.S. left has such a spotty history with building revolutionary organizations. I’ve been writing about this a lot lately, and I just wanted to share some notes about different aspects that I’ve been thinking about.

When I was 12, in Oak Harbor, Washington, I was playing ball tag with my best friend when I witnessed his neighbor charge out of his house yelling, and then brutally kick his dog in the ribs with steel-toed boots. I cried almost instantly. I didn’t care that my friend might see me and think I was weird. This was wrong, and I cried. I then called my mom to tell her and get advice. She gave me the number for some animal control and welfare organizations on Whidbey Island, which I later called, and then she paused and praised me for how sensitive a person I was. This was a defining moment in my identity development. I was a sensitive person. I defended an animal and I wasn’t afraid to cry when things weren’t right.

In Guatemala, in the present day, our family has two dogs that no one pets or plays with, which serve simply as night guards. There are four or five other dogs who come to hang out and socialize, steal some food, kill a duckling, or go to the bathroom. Along with all the rest of my family, I yell for them to leave. I curse and complain with the chorus. When one of the men in the family came charging out with a leather belt to scatter them yelping, I said nothing. In fact, I think I was happy that he was taking care of a problem. When one of their dogs got in a fight and its tail got infected, I don’t remember feeling anything. I merely nodded in the affirmative as the family predicted how many days it would have left.

What happened to me? If I am still a sensitive person, and supposedly still a dog lover, how is it that I let myself become so desensitized?

A surface analysis might just attribute this to individual personality changes, growing up, getting jaded—that something changed in me on an individual level. But I believe this has far more to do with the overwhelming power that human culture has to both submerge and unearth our best selves. In this case, I didn’t just magically become less sensitive, I changed to conform with a culture that expected a far less sensitive—and more violent—relationship with animals. For the most part, I have prioritized my family’s smooth (read: with minimal conflicts or controversies) acceptance of me over my love of animals. It’s just one example of the situational moral and emotional shifts we make all the time to fit in with our surrounding cultures.

I think these dynamics are important, perhaps even key, to building a winning revolutionary politics. People rarely change, for better or worse, as isolated individuals. We change as cultural participants. Prison guards may or may not enter their jobs with previous violent or sadistic conditioning, but you can bet that almost all of them retire as worse human beings. Insurrectionist and individualist anarchists might wax poetic about the liberation of individual desires and the destruction of a barcode based existence, but they sure do tend to talk and dress and party all the same as each other. John Brown wasn’t just individually moved as a white person to violently resist slavery, he came from an intense American masculinity that melded with an intense church tradition that told him slavery was a sin. We are social beings, cultural beings. Our best and worst human potentials, our heroism and our villainy, unfold out of our common cultural pools. This doesn’t have to be seen as a problem. It’s just a feature of our common humanity. If we want a revolution, we must revolutionize our cultures. Revolution is cultural change.

But here is where many radical people get into a sort of chicken-and-egg debate cycle. How can you change a culture without transforming the material conditions within institutions? But how can you change institutions without changing the cultures of those within them? Round and round we go, and so many of our movements harden into positions that are either mechanically focused on institutional organizing at one end of the spectrum, or exclusively spiritual, counter-cultural, navel-gazing at the other end. Our way through these debates is the synthesis of the opposing positions. Yes, revolutionary work, at any level, is cultural—even spiritual—change. But institutions, through their accretion and solidification of social traditions and relationships, are the engines that generate culture. In fact, what makes any institution viable is its ability to create and sustain a specific pattern of social behavior—a culture. To try to change culture outside of institutional change is like continuously mopping the floor of a flooded house without ever thinking to turn the faucet off. Thus, revolutionary work is counter-cultural, even spiritual, work, but it should be grounded in the concrete realities of both existing and alternative institutions, not just diffuse culture building that lacks institutional ties.

This is why I’m so passionate about the organizational questions facing revolutionaries, and why I’m so baffled by how awkward the left is about handling them. I believe that explicitly revolutionary organizations are crucial vehicles for changing culture. They are the missing link between external organizing and internal process. However I see too many people who see them as either unnecessary, or as something for the far-off future, or as some kind of necessary evil.

I imagine the totalitarian and bureaucratic legacy of Marxism-Leninism is a major culprit in this, but I observe that leftists are hyper-wary of organizational projects—especially anything beyond single issue or campaign work. It’s like we go into the work holding our nose, or dipping our toes in, not wanting to get too close or too deep. I imagine, like my dog example, that we are worried about creating a culture which dehumanizes us, which, in the name of efficiency, strips us of what we love most about our radical selves. Certainly, building any organization carries this danger. We can become organizational robots, puppets to the mass line that so many party-builders of the past have become. But guess what: avoiding organizational questions doesn’t change that danger, it just makes the acculturation process more chaotic, informal, and implicit. Anti-organizational milieus can be just as conformist and dehumanizing. In fact, I would argue that our lack of organizations makes radicals far more vulnerable to the acculturating tendencies of the dominant culture. We just get good at hiding it when we go to parties, meetings, and fundraisers.

When we try to avoid organizational experimentation, we do avoid some dangers, but we also miss out on huge transformative opportunities. See, the institutional nature of organizations can be just as much of an asset as a liability. By institutionalizing practices that are liberatory, reflective, compassionate, inspiring, and rooted in ethics of solidarity, we have the potential to accelerate the process of cultural change way beyond what any informal scene or milieu can offer. People change faster, and more profoundly, when they are changing within a group that they are committed to, and that is committed to them.

I know this, because I’ve experienced it in quite an unlikely place: the small high school where I teach. Officially, I work for the State, in an institution that is unquestionably part of a large and problematic bureaucracy. But, damn, the intensity and quality of the collaboration that our school has been able to generate is thrilling. It’s some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done, I relish it every day, working face to face, building a culture with people who don’t even share my politics or interests. The cohesiveness of the institution, our collective commitment to its mission, and the humanizing work structures that we’ve built allow us to build a culture that makes us better teachers, and better people. Why is it so hard for leftists to build organizations with that same dynamic?

I am optimistic about our ability to create organizations that hold radical values and visions at their core, and which institutionalize practices of both mutual aid and mutual inspiration. In fact, I don’t think it even has to be as hard as we make it. Like I said earlier, I think the left’s overemphasis on social analysis—a process of breaking society and people apart with our sharp radical scalpels—actually also makes it harder for us to come together. By relaxing a little, softening our edges a little, and just getting together to do some pretty good work around some pretty good ideas, I think we could get so far. I want to see us experimenting so much more with new organizational forms!

Sometimes simplistic identity politics are just easier than actually thinking about the realities of power and relationships. Over the years, I have been served well by facing potential conflict by just bowing, acknowledging the depth and obscenity of my privileges, and asking for readmission to the good graces of my more marginalized friends or comrades. Not manipulatively either, I’m talking genuinely believing that my privileges simply make me more wrong than people who’ve faced more violence, or trauma, or exploitation. The formula that this approach provides can ravage one’s sense of agency and self-worth, but it eases tension, and it allows one into all sorts of spaces where one would not normally be invited.

The problem is, those kinds of politics aren’t just simplistic, they are dangerous. They are patronizing and flat. The truth…god!…the truth is just so much harder and messier.

I’ve been here in Guatemala for almost two months, which is actually one of my longest consecutive stretches yet. In that time, I’ve spent nearly every moment in this same house with my family. That much time in close quarters with between 12 and 23 people? You don’t need an MTV reality show to know that things are going to get real. Pet peeves. Petty and not so petty conflicts. Days without speaking to certain people. Sulking, simmering, then later singing together. Always, at least one person is having a bad day or is feeling sick, and on a good number of days that includes me.

This is to be expected from any extended family trip, I know. Especially with in-laws. But how does one manage that when the landscape of culture and power is as freaking weird as it is in our case? What does it mean when your in-laws feel comfortable teasing you all day long, playing with you, but when they are actually angry with you, they say nothing because they know that you are their sole provider? You have the power to cut them off at any level you want, from luxuries like cable and ice cream, all the way to electricity, health care, and food. How does that not just totally screw up the authenticity of a relationship? How do I handle, at the same time, that Glendi and I have all this power and responsibility, but I also feel like I’m never allowed to say “No” to anything, because then I will be a hoarding, cheap, privileged gringo? What happens when I know I’m being lied to or manipulated, as sometimes happens?

Tonight, I crossed the line from playful family banter to being a North American ogre, and I just don’t know how to process it cleanly. I don’t usually write about details like this, but this time I feel like I was sufficiently in the wrong that it won’t embarrass or shame my family to share it. I need to write this out, and maybe it can help some others in my life have a little window into the constant, exhausting complexities of our family situation.

Here’s the story.

In rural Guatemala, the word agua doesn’t mean water. In reference to beverages, it means soda. If you want to drink actual water, you need to ask for agua pura. The Guatemalans I know almost don’t drink plain water at all—usually only after playing an intense sport or if they are sick or something. With their three meals a day, they drink sugary coffee, sugary packaged juice (like Tang or Kool-Aid), sugary soda, sugary boiled water, or a sugary corn-flour water that they make. They think plain water is a very gringo (or canche, which literally means blonde-haired) thing to enjoy. They think it tastes bad, and they often make jokes that it’s more for animals to drink than people. I know this, I’m used to this, and I’ve been fine weathering 6 years of constant comments about how weird I am for what I prefer to drink at the table. I’ve always been a big water fan.

Fine. This has been fine for years, and mostly I’ve just been fine with boiled water from the family well.

Then comes the baby, and in consideration for her baby stomach and our decision to not give our baby coffee and sugared drinks, we started buying big jugs of pure water. The whole family could access them, but the family still made constant comments that they were for the baby and also for me, because I prefer water to coffee and other sugary stuff.

Two jugs a week, supposedly only being used by a few people, because no one else even likes the stuff.

Over time, I start realizing that the two jugs are being finished in 2-3 days, with me accessing a tiny portion of the water. I’m playing basketball with the family every day, and I’m drinking almost nothing. My pee is almost always yellow, often dark yellow. Some days I’m only drinking 2 or 3 coffee mugs of water in an entire day that includes almost 2 hours of intense basketball. I can’t find water because it’s being used for juice packets, or because everyone else is drinking pure water as well.

When the water is gone, few people even mention it. They go back to their sugared coffee and sugared boiled water etc. The baby doesn’t have pure water to drink and neither do I. Not until the next delivery in 3 days, or unless we go out and buy more from the local stores.

Okay, context set—from my perspective, at least. So, here’s what happened tonight.

It was dinner, just a few hours ago. Chile Rellenos. Delicious. The family, as usual, is drinking sugared coffee. I have my bag of pure water, which we had to buy earlier today because there wasn’t any water and no one had said anything for a few days—I don’t like to be demanding here. Suddenly, I see one of the teenaged boys asking for pure water instead. At lunch, I had noted that 4 other family members had drunk from the bags of pure water along with their coffee also.

In the sarcastic, even caustic style that I see my family tends to use, I said loudly to the whole table, “Ah, I see how it is. Whenever there’s no pure water here, no one cares, no one complains, and I just go without water for days. But when we finally have water, everyone suddenly wants it. You all finish it in two days and then I don’t have any water any more!”

I was smiling. For me, this was a family nit pick, not actually something that’s a huge deal for me. My family, however, was not smiling. The teenager pushed his pure water away in a “never mind” gesture. Glendi left the table, her food untouched, and sobbed in her bedroom. One of the twins later ran to his bed—which I share with him—and cried for 20 minutes.

Glendi told me that I was bitter and yelling and that I hugely insulted her family, claiming that pure water is only good enough for the gringo and that no one else should be able to have it, not even the young ones. The twin, crying and crying, told me that if he had millions he could buy all the water he wants, but since he’s poor, only the rich, proud gringo gets to have the water.

With one side of my mouth, I apologized for hurting feelings and being insensitive. With the other side of my mouth…immediate defenses. I explained that my tone was an attempt to use the family’s sarcastic style, and that I actually was mostly just ribbing on them for what I saw as hypocrisy. I told them that of course I’d actually prefer for them to drink pure water, but if they want to, then we should buy enough for everyone, or we should boil enough, and all it would require is spending less money on powdered drinks and sugar…that it was an issue of family priorities, and pure water is only a priority when it’s in the house—for me and the baby’s consideration—and when it’s not in the house it’s not even an afterthought.

Nothing. They went to bed angry and hurt. See, I crossed a line of class and culture that is so hard to uncross. I exposed myself as privileged and as an outsider, and that’s just how it goes. Here’s what I let slip from my mind: although I am one of their sole providers, it is highly humiliating and insulting for me to ever criticize their consumption decisions, especially with the kids and especially with life-affirming and healthy things like water. I understand how they read what they did into my words, and I understand how there were so many other ways that I could have broached the subject. I also understand my reasons. It feels so messy to me.

This particular situation will clearly wash over after a few days. The family will probably whisper and gossip about it for awhile when I’m not around. It will probably make it to some circles of aunts, uncles, and in-laws. Can you believe what Jeremias said?

That’s fine with me. I think it’s important for my family to be able to be mad at me. It’s healthy and authentic. However, I wish we could talk about it more openly, rather than either speaking in sarcasm or in broad class strokes.

That’s the thing, though. How do we talk about this stuff openly? Because the need for money is so constant, because Glendi and I are always giving so much, there are so many little screw ups or moments like this, so many reminders of the one-sided nature of our situation, so many examples of how the power dynamics distort the fullness of our relationships. I don’t know how to navigate to a place where we discuss this openly and healthily. For example, why didn’t I just use my abundance of conflict resolution and even teaching skills to just directly address my frustration about water weeks ago? (seriously, I sometimes don’t know where the hell so many of skills go when I’m down here!)

So hard, so sad, so confusing. And I just end up feeling really bad about myself, while still also feeling unheard.

I wish I knew more people with these same unique family dynamics, but I still haven’t had much luck. I could really use more people to talk to about this.

Writing Update and More Than We Imagined…

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing every day but, with the exception of a few spontaneous poems, little of it has been showing up on this blog. That’s because I’m finally earnestly putting my energy into a couple of bigger writing projects that have me really excited. I’ve been preferring to keep my head down, working quietly until these pieces are further along.

One of the pieces that’s really pushing me is an attempt to develop a more sophisticated and articulate synthesis of some of my favorite ideas about revolutionary strategy and organization. I’ve been thinking and writing about these topics for years, and I’ve never attempted to publish or even share any of that writing beyond this page—which has an average of just 16 readers! Now I’m ready to change that, as hard as it feels sometimes.

One thing that has been encouraging to me in the last couple of weeks is the recent report, “More Than We Imagined” by a grassroots research/listening project called the Ear to the Ground Project. The authors of this slick report interviewed more than 150 committed activists about the state of the movement, and what the authors have to share is quite encouraging. You should read it. It’s a pretty quick read.

There’s a lot to process in the report, but here are just two things that stood out to me:

1) This report provides a little window into just how much the U.S. radical left has matured in its ability to handle complexity, diversity, and disagreement. For far too long, I believe that the left the world over has been pinned to the ground by a certain antagonistic and polemical style of idea-building that has its roots in the cantankerous personalities of Marx and Lenin. That approach to disagreement has done significant damage to our ability to build a meaningful movement of movements, and it’s something that we don’t talk about enough. One of the many things that I really appreciated about David Gilbert’s memoir of the Weather Underground Organization, Love and Struggle, was that he explicitly named this phenomenon for the problem it is. However, this report shows a healthy, optimistic, and cooperative orientation that is becoming increasingly common on the left.

On page 20, the authors even state, “We originally planned to map out various ‘camps’ to show the central debates within participants’ responses; however, distinct camps did not emerge. Instead there was a high level of consensus. This was a surprise to us. This is not to say there are not differences, but the differences arose in degrees of emphasis rather than outright disagreement.”

This is extra good news because my read of the report is that it skews pretty clearly to the post New Communist Marxist side of the left—especially toward a particular tendency of activist-of-color-led Marxism-Leninism that has brought us a ton of the current campaign and base-building formations we see across the country. To see that the U.S’s most dynamic and powerful Marxist tendencies are demonstrating this kind of dialogical style is great for the entire U.S. left and it should really be acknowledged as a milemarker toward a more sustainable revolutionary current in this country.

2) When asked to identify movement weaknesses and challenges, respondents said:

    -60% said that our current organizational forms are insufficient.
    -50% said the movement is fragmented.
    -33% said that our movement and organizations are not “at scale.”
    -33% said we lack a clear, inspiring vision of the world we are fighting for.
    -32% said that our grassroots organizing and activism lacks a shared long-term strategy.
    -30% of participants said that the culture of the social justice movement is too negative,
    and reproduces destructive practices we’ve learned from the broader society.
    -25% of participants said that the disproportionate power of foundations and donors in the 501(c)(3) system is harmful to movement building efforts.
    -15% of participants said there is a lack of investment in grassroots organizing in key communities and sectors—namely in the South, in African American communities and in rural areas.

The authors also point to four problematic dynamics related to building a better movement culture:

    -Self-marginalization and “localism,” or thinking too small
    -Racist and patriarchal practices within the movement
    -The movement does not act like we plan to win lasting and fundamental change in our communities, workplaces or the world
    -We have an inability to have healthy dialogue, debate and disagreement

While it’s always tough to hear a list of problems and challenges, I find these observations highly validating. I think participants in this research project really are highlighting some key difficulties that we face, and I think so many of these problems are interrelated. As I am arguing in my upcoming piece about organization and strategy, I believe that issues of resources, political culture, self-marginalization, lack of “revolutionary confidence,” and fragmentation actually have a lot to do with the first problem mentioned—our lack of experience and experimentation with more dynamic and open organizational forms. I think the organization question, which really unfolds into a bigger question of our daily movement practices, has so many things to offer us on all these counts—if we are willing to go beyond the old ground of party-building, non-profits, cadre groups, and collectives.

I’m running out of internet time, so that’s all for now, but I’m so excited about writing, reading, and thinking these days!

Poems for When You’re Older #3

August 2013, 14 Months Old

Here in the Caserio, they keep thinking you’re a boy.
After the correction, always the short pause,
then the question,
“Why no earrings?”

My love, forgive me,
but how could I welcome you here,
with a ritual so full of metaphor
for so many things to come?

To hold your head in my palm as I sing,
those same songs that help you sleep,
while another hand
quietly rubs the ice that numbs you.
To leverage this smile and soft voice that you know,
as the needle tears through.
To see you scream, as I pat and coo,
as this thing
that has nothing to do with who you are,
or who you could be,
this thing that was mined and made
by hands we will never know,
becomes a part of you.

This thing they will know even before your name.

Almost there, almost complete.
Here, just a little clasp
to keep your body
from pushing it away.
And here, babe,
just some dabs of alcohol,
because this thing is want to bring infection.
But after a few days, look!
All better. So pretty.
Your skin has grown
around the thing.
Adapted to the lifeless and cold.
As if it were natural.

It isn’t.

My love, forgive me,
but I figured that this world
will try enough enough on its own
to stab you,
puncture you,
and tell you that’s who you are.
I didn’t think it was a father’s job
to help it along.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi