Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Bad Sexual Politics of Julian Assange

When I heard that Julian Assange, founder/principal publisher of Wikileaks, was wanted for sexual assault, it was a “where is the nearest hole for me to crawl into” moment. It didn’t get better.

The debate between feminists Jaclyn Friedman and Naomi Wolf on Democracy Now! did not make me feel better; it made me feel worse. For those who missed it, Friedman, the author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, argued that the case would “raise the bar for the women of Sweden and the women internationally for what we can expect from our justice systems.” I can’t see this case raising any bar except the ones in whatever prison they decide to send Julian Assange to.

Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth and the lesser known but more relevant Fire With Fire, countered that when Assange started having sex with someone while she was asleep after repeatedly refusing to use a condom, “it seems to me that when you say, ‘OK, you better not have HIV,’ he said, ‘Of course not.’ Quote, ‘She couldn’t be bothered to tell him one more time because she had been going on about the condom all night.’ To me, that—I mean, if I was making love with a woman, if I was—you know, if I was a lesbian making love with a woman and we had that conversation, I would keep making love with her, because we had had a discussion about it and reached a conclusion.”

If that is Naomi Wolf’s idea of a positive sexual encounter, I’m just glad she’s not a lesbian.

I have little doubt that whatever else did or did not happen, these women did not get the idea to make criminal complaints against Assange by themselves. But the problem I have is that the women in this situation are props. Depending on your world view, either Assange is a persecuted hero or he is a sexual predator. The likelihood that he is both a persecuted hero and a sexual abuser doesn’t seem to come up. Both of these young women were supporters of Wikileaks and probably had a liberal amount of hero worship for Assange. If he took advantage of that admiration to coerce them to do what he wanted in bed, that doesn’t make him much different from Mike Tyson or Ben Roethlisberger.

When do we get to talk about the tendency of men in progressive movements (just like those in every other kind of movement) to treat the women they work with as lesser beings and sex objects?

In the few weeks before the Assange arrest thrust this issue into our national conversations, I happened to read about two incidents that occurred some years earlier.

The first concerned an allegation of domestic violence against the best known member of the revolutionary “youth” group STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), which was active in the Bay Area in the mid 1990s. This was an incident I knew about at the time, because a couple women I knew from Women Against Rape were asked by STORM to help investigate it. My recollection is that they left the group in the aftermath, feeling that they were being used as window-dressing to give legitimacy to the group and its process. Last month, I happened to run across something that STORM had written about this incident, which I had never read before. The conclusion of their investigation was that the incident had not happened, that the woman involved had made up the accusation as part of some kind of COINTELPRO – CounterIntelligence Program to discredit a revolutionary man of color. Again, I don’t know what happened. What struck me about the reflection, written some years after the incident was resolved (in STORM’s mind), was that they never considered the possibility of multiple truths, that the woman involved actually experienced violence at the same time that the man had no awareness of having committed it. I personally witnessed that man being physically aggressive and threatening toward women I knew, when they disagreed with him during an action, and he refused to be held accountable after that incident, so I am predisposed to believe that he was capable of similar aggression toward a woman he was involved with and would be unlikely to cop to it.

The other piece I was reading had to do with our local Pacifica radio station, KPFA in Berkeley. KPFA, the oldest listener-sponsored radio station in the country, has a long history of bad gender dynamics and accusations of violence against men who are revered by portions of the left. We are currently mired in a terrible political crisis brought on by a huge financial deficit, and in that context a lot of old muck is getting raked up, including some related to two men accused of sexual harassment. One is an on-air personality with whom I personally am usually on the same side politically. This man, who is white, has been accused of harassment by a string of women. Most recently, a friend of mine won an enormous settlement of her claim against him and the station, which is one of the many reasons KPFA and Pacifica are in such financial trouble. The other was a former station manager who was accused of sexually harassing a stream of women. Other men jumped to his defense, saying that he was being targeted because of racism (he was African American), notwithstanding that nearly all of the women who accused him were women of color. The word “COINTELPRO” was again invoked.

A close friend of mine is an incredible organizer and has been instrumental in forming or sustaining a number of progressive organizations over the years. Like most of us whose lives center around movement work, he usually gets involved with women he meets doing political work. And for some reason (guess), when he stops being involved with them, they always end up feeling like they have to leave the organization. At one point, an ex-girlfriend accused him of sexual harassment. The organization was bitterly divided over the question of whether he was guilty or the woman was just an embittered reject. I don’t remember how that situation was resolved, but I do remember what a mutual friend said about it: “It probably wasn’t legally harassment, but he definitely has bad sexual politics.”

I suspect that every movement woman who ever dated men has had an experience like the ones described in the Assange police reports. When I was younger I had two encounters with male friends in the movement who wanted to have sex with me. I wanted to be close and cuddle with them, but not to have sex. They knew I was a lesbian. I kept saying I didn’t want to have sex and they kept insisting, and eventually I gave in. I would not say that I was raped. I didn’t feel afraid of them. If they still lived in this area, I would probably still be friendly with them. Even if I were the kind of person who thought of calling the police as an option, I would not have considered calling the police on them. Nevertheless, I know that what they did was coercive sex and was not okay.

A long time ago, a friend of mine was date raped by someone she had been going out with, who was in the same political group she was in. Some of the women in the group were dismissive of her accusation, saying, "If she was raped, I've been raped 100 times." One of the woman's male friends said that he felt uncomfortable judging this man because he had committed rapes when he was in a fraternity in college. It was very hard for this woman to remain in that organization, which was pretty much the only radical direct action group in town at that time. Fortunately, the group as a whole came together and forced the man to take responsibility for his action. They kicked him out of their full meetings, but the men's group continued to work with him and discuss what had happened. I don't know if he ever got it, and the group didn't last that much longer after that, but that was an example of a system for community justice that other progressive groups could emulate.

The women involved in the Assange case should not be letting themselves be used by the forces that want to put him away for creating a place for people to leak information. They should not be looking to the criminal “justice” system to remedy bad treatment by a man they believed in and trusted. But progressive people, especially people who call themselves feminists, should not be defending his behavior. We need to defend the rights of whistleblowers, the rights of journalists and the public’s right to know. We also need to defend the right of women to say no to sex, even with people they have had sex with before and plan to have it with again. Refusing to use a condom is a serious violation of a person’s right to safety, and if a man doesn’t want to have sex with a condom and a woman wants him to wear one, then he has no right to nag at her or coerce her to change her mind. He certainly has no right to initiate unprotected sex with her while she is sleeping, in the hope, presumably, that she’ll be too out of it to protest.

We must figure out how to hold all our political heroes, male and female, accountable for their bad sexual politics. When do we get started on that?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party Comes to KPFA

I hate to say it, but what is going on at KPFA is a lefty version of the Tea Party. People are using the rhetoric of freedom, fairness, workers’ rights and diversity to subvert democracy, diversity and a lot of community programming. And they are determined to destroy probably the most valuable resource the left in this country has. (They're also, in general, good progressive people. I want to say that out front. I am friendly with some of them. But I believe they are good progressive people with a very bad vision for community radio.)

They’re extremely well organized, they are extremely unified, and they have been able to get their talking points broadcasting non-stop on the airwaves. And the people who know the truth and oppose what they are trying to do are either being timid or complacent, keeping their heads down, not organizing, talking in platitudes, wanting to compromise.

And when it is done we are likely to have lost both Pacifica and KPFA.

It’s about workers’ rights.

It is about workers’ rights, but not the right to organize or have a fair contract. It’s about the right of certain workers, who run the union, some of whom are or were managers, to decide who and what goes on the air, without meddling by ignorant community members.

The “union busting” offense that Pacifica committed was laying off people at the bottom of the seniority ladder, rather than people who raise less money in on-air fund drives. This offense is specifically required by the contract and rearticulated by the union negotiators when the contract was renewed last spring. (Tracy Rosenberg, who participated in the meeting where the two possible sets of layoffs were discussed, outlines the choice in an open letter. [I have some issues with Tracy, who has used her positions as both a KPFA rep to the Pacifica Finance Committee and Executive Director of Media Alliance, to wage political struggles against KPFA board members she has conflicts with. Even so, I found the evidence she presents pretty convincing.])

(Note: Pacifica's ED showed terrible lack of strategic sense in the way that the layoffs were done. I disagree with taking the Morning Show off the air before replacement hosts were lined up. If it's true that she has refused to talk with the union leadership, I condemn that, and I strongly disapprove of hiring Folger & Levin, a union-busting law firm, to defend against a lawsuit rather than trying to work with the union. But that doesn't change what I know to be true.)

It’s about democracy.

It is about democracy. The people who are vocally demanding their jobs back and their allies on the local station board don’t believe in it, at least not for KPFA. They insist that board elections are a waste of money. They have openly said that the only role for the elected community leadership is to raise money so that paid staff can make all the decisions about programming. They disparage unpaid staff – many of whom have been at the station much longer than most of them – and paid programmers they feel are not up to their lofty (white) standards of professionalism. (Larry Bensky famously referred to all of us as “clowns” on Michael Krasny’s Forum two weeks ago.) They disbanded the Program Council, the mechanism for community input into the programming grid, and de-recognized the Unpaid Staff Organization, which was established when unpaid staff were kicked out of the union.

Brian Edwards-Tiekert, the principal spokesperson of this “Save KPFA” movement and one of the laid off hosts, was quoted in a recent article as saying, “Fifteen hours of airtime were dedicated to candidate forums for the local board. We spent more time covering KPFA’s election than Afghanistan’s and Iraq's elections combined.” Fifteen hours a year doesn’t sound like too much democracy to me. If that’s more time than we spent on the Iraq and Afghan elections, that might say something about our coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn’t say anything about the value or lack thereof of KPFA elections.

It’s about diversity.

The union is on the warpath because the hosts of the Morning Show were laid off. The person who has been most vocal, and whose job is the reason that there can be no peace (Brian Edwards-Tiekert again), is a white man. He and the people who support him have used the fact that a number of people of color chose to accept severance packages to make it seem that they are standing up for diversity at the station. In fact, at least some of those people of color left because those same people made them feel unwelcome. That’s not conjecture – one of them told me that personally. He said the show he helped to start, Hard Knock Radio, probably the single most unique show on KPFA, is devalued because they can’t raise much money through on-air promotions. They could raise a lot of money through concerts, but KPFA management (not Pacifica) would never agree to front money for security, venues and fliers for concerts, though they frequently put on speaking events, often taking a loss in order to get a recording they can use for premiums during fund drives. When the “Save KPFA” team goes on and on about how the Morning Show raises more money than anyone else, that’s in part a dig at Hard Knock.

A year and a half ago, the clique that runs the union and the station proposed eliminating Women’s Magazine to make room for a weekly “greatest hits” version of Letters to Washington. They did eliminate an hour of Music of the World for the daily version of Letters. In September, the station managers, who were part of that clique, proposed eliminating Hard Knock Radio and Flashpoints. If that had happened, they would not be picketing or screaming about injustice, despite the fact that the programmers on those shows have much more seniority than the Morning Show staff who were laid off.

The producers of Poor News Network, which airs on the Morning Show once a month, recently wrote in an open letter, “Throughout our tenure on KPFA we have consistently faced internal harassment and a varying amount of disrespect from paid staff on the show, saying we were airing ‘too much Spanish’ and/or our people didn’t speak correctly, even to the point that when we were supposed to produce a second show per month, which Andrea Lewis fought with for, it was vetoed in the end for not being ‘professional enough’.”

It’s about local control.

It is. The people who are protesting and picketing at KPFA feel they would be better off independent of Pacifica and the other four stations. They don’t care if people in Houston and DC lose their Pacifica stations, they don’t care if Free Speech Radio News or even Democracy Now can continue broadcasting, as long as they get to keep the money they raise locally. (FSRN and Democracy Now are funded by Pacifica, out of the money they get from the five member stations and the affiliates. People in the know have said that Democracy Now might be able to survive on syndication fees alone, but FSRN never could. It is a source of news that is not heard anywhere else, and a source of income and training for local journalists all over the Global South.)

If KPFA cannot pay its bills and Pacifica cannot raise the money to bail it out, the entire network goes into bankruptcy. This part is rumor, but I am pretty confident of it: that is what the ruling clique hopes will happen. They are amassing a war chest to buy the station by encouraging people to withhold money from Pacifica and put it in a separate fund instead, as was done in 1999. This idea did not spring up only after the layoffs – many people believe the $375,000 check that was supposedly misplaced by the previous General Manager was intended for this purpose.

But there is no guarantee, and in fact it is unlikely, that that is the way a Pacifica bankruptcy would end up. It would be up to a bankruptcy judge who would not be bound by Pacifica’s mission statement or any other concerns. The chair of Pacifica’s board recently wrote, “The outcome of bankruptcy hearings will not be five progressive stations running their own affairs, but more likely two commercial stations and three new Christian radio channels.”

Of course, they may hope to force Pacifica to sell KPFA to them under threat that otherwise, they will take the whole network down. If they succeed, they will not only be free of the “albatross” of Pacifica’s expense (though they will have to assume a lot of expenses that are now paid by Pacifica including insurance, licensing fees and auditors). They will also be free of those pesky bylaws and the democracy they foist on us. They will be able to do away with the local station board and the Program Council and get all us scruffy unprofessional “clowns” off their airwaves.

In the recent board election, the top vote-getter was Mal Bernstein, of the “Save KPFA” slate. In an on air candidate forum, he stated that the “core shows” on KPFA are the Morning Show, Against the Grain, Letters to Washington, Sunday and the evening News. Notice anything about those shows? Notice what that “core” does not include? If he and his allies win this fight, we can assume that what we will hear is more time devoted to shows like those, and less time to shows like Hard Knock, Voices of the Middle East, La Raza Chronicles, APEX and Full Circle.

A friend recently asked me, “Who is organizing for the real left/people of color at KPFA?” The sad answer is, I fear, no one.

No doubt, the KPFA Tea Party (or should I call them the Tiekert Party?) will dismiss me as exactly the type of conspiracy theorist/snake oil huckster they are trying to banish from our airwaves. You may choose to believe them, but keep this in mind: the other Tea Party also denies that its rise has anything to do with racism.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Become an Iron-Jawed Angel, Don't Vote for One

There’s a letter that made the rounds on email and feminist blogs a few weeks ago. It read in part:

“Last week, I went to a sparsely attended screening of HBO's new movie ‘Iron Jawed Angels.’ It is a graphic depiction of the battle [the woman suffragists] waged so that I could pull the curtain at the polling booth and have my say. I am ashamed to say I needed the reminder. … So, refresh my memory. Some women won’t vote this year because why, exactly? We have carpool duties? We have to get to work? Our vote doesn’t matter? It’s raining?”

On election day, I read something very similar on Daily Kos (I can’t find it now) invoking the spirit of the African American civil rights movement to exhort people to go out and vote.

It’s true, many people fought and died at many different times for the rights of disenfranchised groups to vote. But they didn’t fight for the vote as a symbol of equality. Voting was supposed to bring actual equality. Which is a greater betrayal of the suffragists and the martyrs of Freedom Summer? Not voting, or voting for someone who will use my vote to give more money to billionaires? Not voting, or voting for a progressive woman Speaker of the House who was willing to trade away our reproductive rights for a health care plan that delivered millions of our hard-earned dollars to the insurance industry? Not voting, or voting for the man who imprisoned eight sixty- and seventy-year-old former Black Panthers for a 36-year-old murder they didn’t commit?

Sure, I went to the polls. I mostly voted for people that had no chance to win. Sadder than that, I probably wouldn’t even have liked their policies if they did win. I did cast my second-choice vote for Oakland mayor for Jean Quan, and it looks like all those second-place votes may actually propel her over Don Perata, which would be a victory for actual democracy. Maybe it will convince other progressive cities to try ranked-choice voting which, despite dire predictions, has yet to bring down the power grid or cause a volcano to erupt in Oakland (which has no volcanoes, in case you were wondering). I voted for legalized marijuana, which we didn’t get, and for implementing California’s Clean Air Act, which we did. We voted to drop the two-thirds majority requirement for passing a state budget, but two-thirds is still needed to raise any taxes so it’s not worth much.

In the end, voting will not turn around the despair that I feel around and within me. It won’t put money back into our bankrupt community college and university system, or find jobs for the millions who have been out of work so long they’ve stopped looking. It won’t provide childcare or job training for single mothers trying to squirm their way out of poverty; it won’t provide restorative justice for survivors of sexual assault.

If anything reminds us how little the Voting Rights Act has actually done to increase racial equality, it’s the sentencing of Johannes Mehserle in Los Angeles last Friday, before the final election results in our state were even known. Mehserle is the white transit cop who killed 20-year-old Oscar Grant last New Year’s morning with one shot to the back while Oscar was pinned on the ground. On Friday he was sentenced to two years (including four months already served) for involuntary manslaughter. On Friday night, Oakland police, led by African American police chief Anthony Batts, herded protesters into a trap where 152 were arrested, ostensibly because a very few people broke a few windows. I am not condoning breaking windows of small businesses or cars. But the chief made it clear that the plan to break up the march was crafted long before a single window was broken, and executed as soon as the marchers deviated from an agreed-upon route. They didn’t arrest the few vandals, they arrested everyone they considered part of an “illegal assembly.” The story I heard from people who were there was that when the vandalism started, the crowd chanted for it to stop and it did.

Yes, we should be inspired by the suffragists and the civil rights movement. But the lesson we need to take from them is not that we must vote even if there is nothing we want to vote for, but that we can and must organize for the change we truly need.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Whose Giants?

I have a confession to make.

I’m not a Giants fan.

I have nothing against them, mind you. I just don’t watch or follow them. So now that they’re World Series champions, I can’t suddenly claim a loyalty I never had just to share in the excitement of my town.

Sad, because I remember the first year I was here, when the Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl. With my friends, I watched the game and then we all spilled out into the streets, joining our neighbors, and headed over to Jack London Square, where I’d never been despite living not far away in South Berkeley. It was a great party.

I see my coworkers in their orange and black, brandishing Giants banners and huge smiles. I see my neighbors standing on trucks and screaming in joy.

“We Won!” they say.

“Who is we?” I respond in my head. I had nothing to do with it. They would have won with or without me. The last time I bought a ticket was around eight years ago when my nephew came to visit. The only time I was at the ballpark this season was to protest the Arizona Diamondbacks over SB1070.

They won because a bunch of guys not from San Francisco, hired and coached by guys not from San Francisco (though to be fair, CEO Bill Newkom did grow up nearby) got paid a lot of money to throw and hit well and they did it.

So what does San Francisco get out of it? Does a kid from San Francisco have a better chance of becoming a Giant than a kid from Georgia or Colombia? Clearly not. Will being the home of the World Series Champions put a dent in San Francisco’s chronic homelessness epidemic? Obviously not. Will San Francisco voters carry their good mood into the voting booths and defeat the initiative to punish people for being homeless by making it a crime to sit or lie down on the sidewalk? I can cherish that faint hope, but I wouldn’t take it to the bank (or the polls).

Did they even build their own stadium? Of course not. They got San Francisco taxpayers to cough up for it by threatening to move out of town. Good role models for loyalty.

Yet none of this changes the fact that local sports teams fulfill people’s deep desire to belong, to have in Carson McCullers’ immortal words, “the we of me.” That desire to belong, to be one with the people around us, is something I share, and something to be cherished. It’s what at times makes people engage in those random acts of kindness and generosity that make me slightly believe in the goodness of human nature. I just wish we could find it in something more real and less fleeting than a sports championship we did nothing to earn.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Labor Movement: Save the Rest of Us to Save Yourselves

The latest attack ad from Meg Whitman, right-wing businesswoman running for governor of California, targets public sector unionization. “Who can retire at 55?” the narrator asks. "As governor, Jerry Brown allowed state workers to collectively bargain. That’s why now they can retire at 55 with nearly full pension.”

Of course it’s a lie – a friend who is a public school teacher said if she retired at 55, even with thirty years in the same job (a contingency Whitman’s ad doesn’t mention), she’d get about half of what she will get at 65. But it’s also shocking that Whitman thinks she can increase her voter share by attacking not a specific bargaining agreement but the whole idea of collective bargaining. I’m not shocked that SHE is anti-union to her core – most businesspeople are. (Even KPFA radio, the first noncommercial radio station in the country, where I volunteer, thinks that now that they have to cut jobs, they don’t need to do it according to seniority. And the union leadership is supporting them because they or their friends will get jumped over more senior people.) But I was shocked that her campaign managers are convinced that the public is so fiercely anti-union.

Whitman’s people didn’t come up with that idea by themselves. They took it from the Tea Party strategists, who have declared a class war on public workers. The corporate interests funding and fueling the new populism have decided that they can turn the supposed (but mostly unseen) anger at bailouts for banks, BP and businessmen by turning it against unionized public sector workers earning a living wage and a pension when they retire. I admit it’s true that when my friends who are unionized government workers complain that their pensions are shrinking, I sometimes think, “At least you have a pension.”

But what is unsaid in this, like all the rest of the Tea Party rhetoric, is what lies behind the somewhat bland expression “overpaid public workers.” Like every other plank of this new populist platform, it comes down to racism. “Pampered public workers” is code for “unqualified” Black and immigrant workers, because the civil service has been the one sector that has been forced, by the use of the test and affirmative action, to be relatively color-blind. People of color pass the test, thus proving they are qualified, so they have to be hired if they are next in line. It’s one more example of the “logic” by which “elite” has come to stand for the most oppressed people in our society.

It’s not new. Remember that oft-quoted Niemuller poem? “First they came for the unionists…” That’s right, the unions were the first target of Nazism, which was also a pseudo populism funded and used by corporations. So maybe this would be a good time for Jews to come back to our progressive labor heritage.

The unions also need to take some responsibility. The biggest mistake the labor movement ever made was to stop organizing and start protecting. My whole working life has been in the unorganized private clerical sector. It’s always been equally frustrating to me that my coworkers were mostly uninterested in organizing and the unions were uninterested in organizing us. Some parts of the labor movement have recently started important and innovative organizing campaigns, mostly among low-wage immigrant workers at hotels, restaurants and piecemeal sweatshops. That’s great, I’m all for it, I have gone to many of their picket lines. But I have a secret to tell them. Most immigrant workers can’t vote. Please don’t misunderstand me for a second - I’m not saying to stop those campaigns. But I am saying that by ignoring the mass of citizen voters who are in nonunion jobs, the union movement may have dug its own grave.

Or maybe it’s not too late. If the unions took all the money they pour into electing useless Democrats and threw it into organizing, they might be able to turn the tide around. If they could tell unemployed workers in places like Kentucky and Nevada, we’re going to set up a hiring hall and you’ll be able to get a few days’ work every week at a decent wage; if they could tell workers slaving away at Wal-Mart or Starbucks, “You’re going to be (theoretically) able to retire at 55 yourself,” people might stop being so enamored of the Tea Party.
Of course it is an uphill battle. Destruction of the unions is the number one agenda of neoliberalism. But look at France. Three million people in the streets, almost the entire economy shut down, over the threat of raising the retirement age to 62.

Yesterday I went to a rally in Oakland demanding justice for Oscar Grant, the young man who was shot in the back by a transit cop a year and a half ago. This rally marked an extraordinary event: the ILWU shut down all the ports in the Bay Area in solidarity with Oscar’s family, because his uncle is a longshore worker. It represents an amazing organizing effort. On the other hand, there were less than 1,000 at the rally, which means that the unions that put their names to the action didn’t call their people to come out. In fact, none of my friends who are in unions were there, and most of them didn’t even know about it. One of the speakers made a call for a general strike. A friend who is newer to activism came up to me enthusiastically.

“Did you hear them call for a general strike?”

“Yes,” I said, “but it won’t happen.”

She shook her head. “I’m excited,” she said.

To her, I’m just a professional naysayer, which is hardly a role I want to play. So I asked myself, “Am I wrong? Could we have a general strike, like France?”

Of course I hope I am wrong, but I’m pretty sure that unfortunately, I am not. The problem with that call-out, like so many things here, is that people don’t get the difference between calling for something and doing it. A general strike isn’t just something you call for. In order to have a general strike, you have to have an organized labor movement. And that’s the difference between us and France.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Case for Cheating

Last night I saw “Race to Nowhere,” the antidote to “Waiting for Superman,” the new film which blames the failure of our educational system on teachers’ unions and other proponents of publicly run public schools. “Race to Nowhere” is a powerful indictment of the pressure-packed environment today’s kids have to navigate. It’s one of the most intense movies I ever saw, partly because a lot of kids I have known and loved bear the same scars as those in the movie. At the panel afterwards, some of the protagonists and other experts on educational policy drilled the central message: the obsession with “achievement” is getting in the way of much actual learning.

The kids talked about coming home from a full day of school followed by sports, music lessons, Hebrew school or work to do six or eight hours of homework. One of the talking heads was the author of the book “The Case Against Homework,” which I picked up a few years ago, concerned about the unwieldy obligations of my niece and some of the other kids I know. The book presented a lot of evidence that kids derive no benefit from most of the homework they do, that the rewards of homework diminish rapidly after about 20 minutes per class for high school students, and that unstructured time is important for developing creativity and discovering one’s passions. In the film, one Advanced Placement teacher said he cut the homework in half and the AP scores of his students went up.

Sunday night I had dinner with a friend and the Chinese student who is living with her. Yi Sha told us that high school students in China start their day at 7:00 a.m. and don’t go home until 10:00 p.m., six days a week. Middle school is 7:00 to 6:00 and little kids get to go home at 5:00. We were all horrified, but my friend said, “That’s why we’re failing.” I disagreed, and tonight’s movie reinforced my disagreement. In fact, our kids are working as hard as the Chinese kids, and I don’t think it’s good for either of them.

By contrast, most Palestinian kids go to school from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and don’t do more than a couple hours of homework, and Palestine has the highest percentage of Ph.D.s in the world.

One thing that annoyed me in the movie was a romanticism about what childhood was like in the “good old days” – that is, the sixties and seventies when I was growing up. The parents in the film, who are my age or a little younger, rhapsodize about how much fun we had. All I can say is, they weren’t growing up where I was. I remember feeling suicidal every day for three years – and in my family, I was the happy well-adjusted kid. Several of my classmates actually attempted suicide,. Nearly all of us were anorexic, some were bulimic, many of us were molested, we were bullied, we cut ourselves, we were pressured, we were shamed and ridiculed by teachers. My classes were smaller than today’s, but only because I was born during a period of declining birth rates and the budget cuts hadn’t quite caught up with the lower enrollment. It didn’t matter how large or small they were, though, because you didn't get individual attention if there were five kids in your class; it wasn’t part of the methodology back then.

I remember some years ago figuring out that the reason I never learned anything in gym class was because no one really tried to teach me anything. The teachers thought yelling stuff like, “Watch the ball!” or “Try harder!” would turn you from a klutz into a gazelle. The more interesting realization was that the frustration I experienced during the one period of Phys. Ed. was what kids who weren’t good at academics experienced the rest of the day. No one tried to figure out why they weren’t learning. They just got bad grades, and if the grades were bad enough they failed.

By far the most useful thing I learned in school was how to get along with people whom I didn’t necessarily have that much in common with. The second most useful was that not everything was going to be about me. I might be bored, the culture of the school might not be what I was comfortable with, but that was just life, and I had to adjust. That is something I was pleased to hear mentioned in the film: that the main purpose of education is socialization.

So that begs the question, what are we socializing kids for? The given in every discussion about education is that the goal is to get a good job. One theme that was continually raised in “Race to Nowhere” was that the skills taught in school need to be relevant to the jobs people are trying to get.

Apparently a major response to the pressure that kids are under to achieve has been a meteoric rise in cheating. In one very high achieving school, 80% of the students said they had cheated. The assumption was that this is a problem, and I’m not saying it’s not, but we can also look at cheating as cooperation. What’s the difference between helping a friend pass a test and being a “team player”?

Recently, I got to take a private class in database development. I had been trying to write a macro to do something and it wasn’t working. I asked the teacher and he said, “Google it.” So we did and found some code that I copied into my macro and it ran.

I said, “That’s what I usually do, but I always thought it was cheating.”

He looked at me like I was nuts. “Does it work?”


“Then why is it cheating?”

I said, “Well, I don’t exactly know why it works.”

“Does it matter?” he asked.

I am a little ambivalent. You could say that it’s ridiculous to make challah when I can buy perfectly good ones from Semi Freddie’s. I would say that it’s both useful to know how to make bread and fun to do it. But I know that the secretaries at my job who spend time retyping documents because they don’t know how to scan and OCR them (or even better, that they can send them to me to do for them) are not using their time wisely. So I would add to the list of most important things I learned: distinguishing between activities that have intrinsic value and those which are unnecessary busy work.

Some years ago at a workshop, the facilitator asked us to write down a negative characteristic of ourselves that we are kind of proud of. Without hesitation, I wrote, “I’m lazy.” When I tell people that, they always argue with me. How can I be lazy when I’m involved in so many projects and take on so much work? But I’m not being humble. My laziness is what makes it possible for me to accomplish a lot. The fact that I’m the laziest person on earth makes me good at my job, because I’m always looking for the fastest way to get the work done with the least amount of effort.

I get frustrated that most of my coworkers are not adventurous. They’re smart and experienced, they know a lot, but they’re afraid to try new things. They prefer to plod than to figure out how to learn what they don't know. I learned to word process by lying. I said I knew WordPerfect when I had never used it. I went to a bookstore and read up on how to turn on the computer, change the margin, set a tab. When I got to my first job, fortunately there was no one sitting near me to see me frantically looking at the help menus. By the time anyone came to see how I was doing, I seemed like an expert.

So if my experience is any indication, laziness and lying are more useful qualities to teach kids than honesty and industry.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Movement and the Moment - Part III - Creating a Spirit of Joy

Since I sent around the second part of The Movement and the Moment, a number of people have asked me, “Did I miss the part where you said what we should be doing?”

So no, you didn’t miss that. I didn’t include that because, honestly, I haven’t got a clue, but I have been thinking about it, and your questions made me think more. And I’ve actually come up with some things I think are … well … better to do than others.

So here are a few recs, FWIW.

1. I continue to believe, with the passion of a cultist, that doing something is better than doing nothing. I’m sure some of you are saying, “Well duh,” but this is actually a fairly unpopular position in parts of the left these days. Parts of the Palestine solidarity movement in particular, and the antiwar movement (such as it is) as well, in this area, have done close to nothing for a couple of years now, and it’s not because they are burned out, not because they don’t have ideas, and not because they don’t spend hours and hours and hours in meetings. It’s because they truly believe that doing nothing is better than doing what might turn out to be the wrong thing. This is a position I have just never been able to understand. As I’ve said many times before, it’s very hard to know what the right thing is, especially when you are in the moment. Because in fact, the right thing is not one fixed point in space that you have to get your hands on, but a set of responses to ever-shifting social and political conditions. What would have been right two years ago is probably less right now. Things that I was very skeptical about – the Free Gaza boats, for instance –turned out to be the absolute right tactic for the moment. But the assumption some people are making that what we need to do now is put all our energy into funding and populating and launching more boats, is not a given. It’s one option, and it’s a tried and true one – if something works, keep doing more and more of it until it clearly has diminishing returns. But that’s not always the best idea. A friend told me a mutual friend who is a leader in Palestinian nonviolent resistance cautioned, “We do not want the resistance to be more expensive than the occupation.” I think he meant in terms of human life, as well as in terms of money. Huwaida Arraf, one of the lead organizers of the Free Gaza Movement and someone whose strategic sense I trust a lot, wrote that she feels the best thing that came out of the attack on the flotilla has been the increased interest in BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions). It might be hard for some of us to accept that rather than glomming on to the newest sexy thing, the best thing we can do is continue slogging along at the unglamorous work we were already doing.

2. I would suggest that if we can think of tactics that haven’t been tried, we try them. A friend and I did that a year ago, coming up with a type of street art that hasn’t been seen before, at least in our area. It builds on types of things we’ve done before, and we still sometimes do the things we have always done – putting up posters, etc. – but this new form of DIY has caught the imagination of people who were feeling pretty demoralized and had some unexpected successes. Now my friend is a little irritated with me because I keep saying, “Okay, but we’ve been doing that for a year now, what are we doing next?” but I think it’s important to keep trying to evolve. One commitment I’ve made to myself is to try to do at least one new thing every year for the rest of my life.

3. As much as possible, we should embrace opportunities to promote transnationalism. I think a lot of movements think they are doing that now, but we could do it much better.

There are two types of transnationalism in western countries today, and they tend not to have much to do with each other. (Actually, there are three but the third is academic transnationalism, such as transnational feminism and transnational queer theory, and I don’t know enough about those movements to comment on them.) One is the alliance of mostly college educated, politically sophisticated activists who travel a lot. It comprises anti-capitalist convergences, protest tourism, the solidarity delegation industry, the international labor movement, as well as random individuals and groups going to places like Bolivia, Palestine, Cuba and Chiapas to live and do solidarity work and skills sharing. Many of these folks will tell you that an international workers’ alliance is right around the corner, something I think our friends in Arizona and Michigan would be pretty skeptical to hear.

The second is the transnationalism of people who are living in western countries while rooted in parts of the “developing world.” These are the migrant and immigrant work forces, who have an intrinsic transnationalism that is slowly transforming western countries, and that’s part of what Tea Parties and Red State nationalists are reacting against. For people like Sarah Palin, whose idea of transnationalism is being able to see Russia from her back yard, not to mention people in Kentucky who have never even been to Canada, the presence of neighbors who watch soccer and call it football, who wear unfamiliar headgear and speak languages they’ve never heard of, makes them feel like they’ve been shoved into an unfamiliar world where they can’t find a place.

There is not a natural affinity between the transnational communities in the U.S. and the transnational left. In my memory, the anti-capitalist convergence in Seattle in 1999 included more activists who traveled there from the Global South than transnationals from the Global South living in this country. For one thing, most transnational people in the U.S. are not anti-capitalist; many of them are here because they hope that capitalism will afford them a better life. For another, their cultures often (though certainly not always) have a heavy influence of religions which are opposed to or uncomfortable with values like queer liberation and abortion rights which are touchstones for the (white) left. And many, though again by no means all, immigrant communities are pretty insular and suspicious of outsiders – even outsiders for whom they are often mistaken by white people.

For the most part, what I might call enforced transnational communities are not interested in movement-building. They are interested in living their lives. But they can be organized into movements for social change, one because organizing is much more possible in cohesive communities, and two because they have a lot of interest in seeing things get better economically and less repressive politically. The immigration rights movement of 2006 very effectively organized the Latin American transnational communities, while making few inroads into Asian and African communities (at least in the SF Bay Area). The movement that organized the recent day of action for immigration justice seemed to have much shallower roots in those communities (again speaking only about this area), and more of its base among the white left and the nonprofits who work in immigrant communities. The movement to protest police killings, of which Oscar Grant’s has the most publicized in this area, is primarily African American and white, while the movement to oppose raids by ICE/Migra is primarily Latino with a smattering of support from progressive organizations. Organizing in the Arab/Muslim communities around special registration and targeting by ICE has generally been quite separate from Spanish language organizing, though there has certainly been some crossover.

The transnational left is the one sector that is somewhat involved in many of these struggles. We could and should work harder to bring these various movements together in a more consistent and collaborative way. But one of the things that means is not flitting so much from action to action and group to group, but hanging around for the debriefs and the arguments and the prayer breakfasts. It means going places that make us feel uneasy, or even threatened, like mosques and churches. And it requires staying put for long enough to build and sustain relationships. QUIT! (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism) has certainly seen big changes in the movement for Palestinian liberation in this area in terms of their willingness to acknowledge us and say the Q word, and that is because we have been there consistently since early 2001. I know there is an immigration justice group in Chicago that is multiethnic and has a lot of queer members and has taken on some queer issues. It seems like half of the hard-core antiwar organizers I know are out of the country at any given time, which might be why we have no anti-war movement in this area.

4. This piece is especially for those of us who are journalists or bloggers: We need to emphasize the small stuff. We need to shine at least as much light on the smaller acts of resistance that people are doing every day as we do on the big flashy once-in-a-blue-moon actions. The mainstream media is certainly most guilty of our obsession with size, but the left media is also very guilty, and even the micromedia – the blogosphere – plays a significant role in this. So for instance, while I admire the folks that commit their lives to activism, traveling to Washington to get arrested in Congress every few months, or living in a tree, or going on boats to Gaza, giving the bulk of air time and print space to those folks pretty much ensures that the movement will stay small and fringey.

In addition, we need to fight the tendency only to cover movements when they experience severe repression. The attack on the freedom flotilla was only possible because the previous eight boats to Gaza, six of which succeeded in breaking the blockade, were all but ignored by the mainstream Western media. Those boats carried famous people and journalists, a former Congresswoman and Tony Blair’s sister-in-law. Yet everyone at my job who asked me about the flotilla was shocked to hear that there had been previous voyages.

Most people are not going to go on a boat to Gaza (and though they now seem to be urging people to sign up, lots of people who wanted to go on the flotilla couldn’t because there wasn’t room). Most people are not going to do anything they think risks years in prison. But lots of people will put a sticker on a package of Israeli cheese at Trader Joe’s, especially if you go with them the first time and show that it can be done. Many people would give an hour to walk a picket line or go door-to-door getting people to put up single payer signs in their windows.

But no one is going to do anything if they feel like it doesn’t do any good. If people feel that the small actions they can take are totally insignificant, they are going to go home and watch Dancing with the Stars, and why not? Time is scarce. Which leads to the next thing.

5. We need to infuse our actions with joy and creativity. Easy to say, hard to do. I went to see a movie about Grace Paley last week at the Jewish Film Festival. It was a wonderful movie, and the best thing about it was the huge smile she had on her face every time she was at a protest. Whether it was ten people marching up and back outside a draft center, or five thousand women weaving webs around the Pentagon, she always looked like she was having the time of her life. And you felt her spirit pulling you with her.

Creating that spirit of joy requires first, that we find things to do that are fun for us. Second, it means making it fun and irresistible to join in. On Xmas Eve, I told some friends that I was going to Macy’s to put informational cards in the pockets of jackets and purses, so people who bought them or gave them as gifts would get a little extra present when they opened it up. My friends, who are not that kind of activists, were skeptical about whether they wanted to do that. But they came with me, and once they started, they used up all the cards we had and had a blast. It means having food and drink at meetings, and having them in rooms that are warm enough and have chairs that are not uncomfortable.

Ronit Avni, producer of the movie “Budrus,” asked me recently about the first time I was in the village. I recalled that Ayed took us to see the land where the Wall was to be built, and then we went back to his house for lunch. His wife had made an incredible feast for about 20 people – Israeli, Palestinian and international activists. I could still taste it as I described it for Ronit. A few days later, I mentioned it to another friend who was there too, and her eyes lit up as she said, “musakhan,” the name of the dish we ate. In Palestinian culture, as in my own, food is love, and by feeding us so lovingly, Naami and Ayed made us feel part of their family. And that meant that when it came time to step up and commit to the struggle in that village, those of us who didn’t have to, whose lives did not depend on it, were ready to do it.

I recently interviewed my friend, author Elana Dykewomon, and one thing she said was, “As revolutionaries, we need to make sure we all have comfortable beds to sleep in, because you can’t make revolution with a bad back.” Of course, there have been many people in many countries who made revolution by sleeping on the ground in the mountains, never sleeping in the same place twice, struggling with asthma like Che Guevara and migraines like Emma Goldman, but Elana is right that the less we have to do that, the better off we will be.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

How Oakland's Leaders Started a Riot

In April 2001, about six months into the Second Intifada, an Israeli human rights activist named Jeff Halper wrote an article called “How to start an uprising.” He explained how the Israeli government created the conditions for Palestinian unrest, which it then used to justify increased repression and oppression of Palestinian society. He described how they created a powderkeg by strangling the Palestinian economy and confining people in a virtual prison while stealing their land and portraying them in the media as the terrorists. Ariel Sharon then lit the fuse when he marched onto the Temple Mount with 1,000 soldiers, and the army (then controlled by the Labor party under Ehud Barak) added accelerant by firing a million bullets at nonviolent protesters in one week.

If Oakland’s political leaders didn’t read that article before last night’s demonstration in response to the Johannes Mehserle verdict, they should have.

Here’s how they started a mini-riot:

First they - not by themselves, of course, but as part of a system that is based on denying equal rights to Black and Brown people - created a tinderbox of high unemployment, political disenfranchisement and police harassment. Tony Pirone and Johannes Mehserle lit the match by killing Oscar Grant in cold blood and in plain view of dozens of witnesses; BART management and the DA’s office (no doubt in consultation with the mayor and other political leaders) accelerated the blaze by not charging Mehserle for weeks and keeping Pirone on the payroll for more than a year; the court helped by moving the trial to LA, where the judge allowed all the African Americans to be kicked off the jury and a number of whites with family members on the police force to be seated.

Okay, you might say that all of that was the result of long-term systemic injustice and not under the control of Mayor Dellums and police chief Batts and all the others. And you would be right, except that they have had a full year to offer African American youth in Oakland something that would make them part of the life of the city, they’ve gotten stimulus money that could have been used creatively to employ people who have never had a chance to start innovative community-based projects for health, literacy, training, entertainment – you name it – and they have not done it.

But here’s where they bear direct responsibility for dumping buckets of turpentine on an already smoldering fire.

First, they allowed, or even encouraged, the media to hype and hype and hype the threat of violence for weeks in advance of the verdict, and to film the cops practicing draconian riot-control tactics using dangerous new equipment bought with Homeland Security money. This sent a clear message to young people in the community that once again, they were guilty before they stepped out of their houses. The media whipped up the threat to white people into hysteria that led to every state office building in the Bay Area being closed down at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday. At 5:30 on Friday evening, during our Women in Black vigil near Montgomery St. BART in San Francisco, there were still cops prowling around, “just in case” of a demonstration (I’m not making that up – they told me that’s why they were there).

Next they played the nonprofits and the well meaning street peace groups off against independent activists and community people who don’t identify with those groups. The people doing the 6-8 rally were the good protesters, and everyone else were bad protesters. The nonprofits did their part by worrying so much about how to keep people from doing things that they didn’t give people anything to do with their energy. No one wanted to stand around listening to speeches for two hours. There was no march, so guess what people who wanted something active to do did? You got it – went to face off with the cops.

Then they brought literally tens of thousands of cops into downtown Oakland, armed to the teeth and packed in like sardines. They outfitted them with riot masks and face shields, giving them the look of an army of Darth Vaders. They huddled with each other, targeting people they decided were trouble. A friend of a friend was busted for no reason, on such a whim. This in itself would have likely been enough to spark some confrontations, because for young people who had just been told –again – that their lives are not valued by this society, the presence of this armed camp was a slap in the face. What I saw and filmed as I was wandering around was mostly young African American men ranting at cops who remained stone-faced and silent. Some of the young men were quite sincere in trying to explain how it feels to be in their situation. The individual cops were restrained, yes. They stayed calm and did not rise to the bait. But the mere fact that they were there was a provocation.

As soon as the permitted rally was over, they declared an unlawful assembly, announcing “Anyone who is in this area, regardless of your purpose, is in violation of section 409 of the Penal Code and is subject to arrest.” Of course, to me it sounded like “blah blah blah” but I heard it very clearly on the news. I ended up giving a ride to a guy who came out of work (he works at Earth Justice) at 9:00 p.m. only to find the BART station closed. Great way to get people to leave the area – close off their exit routes.

Whenever the police are engaged in crowd control maneuvers, there’s this thing they do that I’ve never understood. For no apparent reason, about 200 of them suddenly go running down the street, straight at the back of whatever crowd they’re (allegedly) trying to control. As I say, I have no idea what the purpose is supposed to be, but the only thing it actually accomplishes is to create panic. It also obviously pumps up the adrenaline of both cops and crowd, the exact dynamic that caused the tragic killing of Oscar Grant.

What should they have done instead? I’ll tell you. They should have kept most if not all of the cops at home, saving all those millions spent on overtime and paddy wagons and jail space for schools and summer camps and youth job programs. And any cops that were out there should have been in regular uniforms, not riot gear. If all those heavily armed robots had not been on the street, there would have been no looting and no windows broken. I can absolutely tell you that from experience, and from my limited knowledge of psychology.

Yes, there were people who came from Berkeley and San Francisco and probably Walnut Creek, and even maybe a few from Oakland who planned to loot and break windows. That’s what they do, it’s what they believe in. Some of them are even friends of mine, but in this context, they’re the disrespectful assholes who spraypainted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight” on the side of a building –NO IT’S NOT, GUYS! But even those people, or maybe especially those people, would not have bothered destroying stuff if there hadn’t been an audience or anyone to give them counterattack.

It’s true that if the cops and the City had not been out in force, if they had not been guilty of overplanning, and there had been one window broken, the media and the white pundits would never have let them hear the end of it. What the media and the pundits are not pointing out, now that it has passed with the tedium of a badly scripted play, is that all that overreaction did not prevent any looting or property damage. The businesses that wanted to avoid having their windows broken knew what to do and did it – they boarded up. I watched a Vietnamese restaurant throwing up plywood sheets over their storefront as their last customers walked out with bags of takeout. It took them about 20 minutes and doubtless saved them a thousand bucks and a lot of heartache.

Anyone who was seriously interested in looting would have known that any other street in the East Bay was a better bet for it that night than downtown Oakland. You could probably have knocked over banks in Fremont and Hayward that night and gotten away with it, since nearly every cop in Alameda County was in that ten-block area of Oakland. So the people who chose to break the windows of Footlocker and Subway in downtown Oakland did it because they wanted to provoke a reaction. If the police had not obliged them, they would have gone home and the less privileged kids who followed their example, whether lured by the appeal of new shoes or the excitement of the conflict, would not have been left to pay the price.

If Oakland's leadership, political and civil, spent as much time trying to prevent the periodic recurrences of the Rodney King-Sean Bell-Oscar Grant killings as they spend trying to prevent people's anger at injustice from overflowing in unproductive ways, we might not be doomed to keep playing out this pathetic scenario over and over again.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Movement and the Moment – Part II, Defining the Moment

Marx was wrong. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s undeniable. He was not all wrong, but he was seriously wrong.

He was not wrong, of course, about his historical analysis, and he wasn’t wrong about what was going to happen in the immediate future of capitalism. But he was wrong about the inevitably of socialism and he was wrong about capitalism’s inability to adapt to the challenge of an organized proletariat.

Okay, so maybe that’s old news. But why, then, do leftists continue trying to deny it? If there is one reason why global capital has been able to proceed unfettered by meaningful resistance, it’s that leftists in the capitalist countries persist in trying to cram the 21st century reality into a nineteenth century solution.

The people who sell Socialist Worker at demonstrations, and those of us who secretly sympathize with them, are the Luddites of our time.

Luddites were not were not irrationally opposed to technology. Eric Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian, calls them “simple-minded laborers … smashing the machines which they thought responsible for their troubles,” but that is unfair. They correctly saw that the machines were taking away their livelihood. They were simply deluded in believing that they had the power to hold back the march of capital and its brainchild, mechanization. If we do not want to be described by some twenty-fourth century historian (aboard the Enterprise, no doubt) as “simple-minded activists smashing at the banks they thought were responsible for their troubles,” we need to acknowledge that we have no power to stop the consolidation of capital.

What we might have the power to do is push forward the historical process we’re in, if we can figure out what it is. In Wiccan circles, we sing a song that goes, “Even though it is the darkest hour, no one can hold back the dawn.” The Luddites forgot that, or they didn’t realize that they were at the dawning of the Industrial Age. So what age is dawning now?

I imagine a cell of radical dinosaurs hunkered around the campfire at the La Brea Tar Pits, plotting to overthrow T-Rex, when out of nowhere, along comes a meteor and punches a massive hole in the forest. So what do the Socialist Brontosauruses do? Do they continue trying to organize the foliage-growers and rodent-hunters or do they go help rebuild tar pits for the displaced pterodactyls? Or do they look at what is seeping through the hole in the earth and try to figure out how to turn it into food and shelter, maybe getting there before the ruling dinos do? Well obviously, they didn’t do that, or we would not be here today, but we’re supposed to believe in evolution, so theoretically, we can learn from their mistakes.

There are big historical shifts, like the Industrial Revolution and the rise of nation-states in the Renaissance, there are small shifts, like the difference between Carter’s foreign policy and Reagan’s, and there are medium shifts, like the creation and breakup of the Soviet Union. I maintain that we’re in a massive shift right now. Massive, but not unprecedented. It’s easy to imagine that things are more terrible now than they’ve ever been in history, because we know so much more about conditions in so many places. But in fact, it’s hard to believe that things are worse now than during the Plagues in Europe, or the slavery era in Africa or the famines in Ireland, or the nuclear bombing of Japan. Like many times in the past, it’s a time of great crisis and a time of great promise. When people sound the death-knell of life on the planet, I can’t help recall the predictions of total collapse on Y2K which so many leftists embraced with thinly veiled glee. I called it the Millenialist Bug. Whether you’re a religious or secular apocalyptic, it’s comforting to believe that it’s out of our hands, that the world is about to have its way with us and all we can do is try to ensure we’re standing on the right side when the end comes.

I don’t believe it. People are going to suffer, people are going to be forced to move, but, sadly, that’s been the case many many times in human history. Climate change is how the first people ended up on this continent, right?

Does that mean we don’t try to reduce carbon emissions, lessen our footprint, and all that? No, of course not. But it means that we recognize that usually, political changes come about as adaptations to new geophysical conditions, not the other way around. So I propose that we look at the new geographic and demographic conditions taking shape, and try to imagine what adaptations to those conditions might look like. And that might suggest political paths that are with the tide rather than against it.

So one of the new geographic conditions is that an increasing number of people have national identities which are not tied to the place where they live. Combined with that is the rise of transnational identities, some of which are religious, some cultural and others related to other social classifications. This shift in primary identity creates a lot of anger and nervousness in people who have grown up believing (because it’s been drilled into them) that loyalty to the nation we live in is the highest value that there is. And that translates into reactionary social policy not only in places like Arizona, but also in places like Iran, where openly gay people are considered “West toxified,” in Switzerland, where mosques are being banned, in Cambodia, where feminist activists are imprisoned, in France, where schoolgirls are forbidden to wear hijab, and in Sudan, where women are flogged for wearing pants.

I think one big historical shift we’re on the verge of is the disappearance of national borders. Or they might exist as more or less fictional boundaries, like in much of Europe now – something that determines which soccer team you root for (or whether you call it soccer or football) but doesn’t have too much to do with where you can live or work. And to the extent that is true, it’s sure to be scary to people who have never had a passport.

What are people afraid of, that makes them seek policies like the Arizona laws calling for profiling of immigrants and banning accented English? In its most distilled form, they are afraid that these “newcomers” (many of whom are hardly new, but that’s not here nor there – what they stand for is new) are going to force them out of their homes. And that’s something we should be able to empathize with, even while we reject both their analysis and their solutions.

So while boycotting Arizona, blockading their borders, marching against their policies, ostracizing their sports teams are all legitimate and satisfying responses to hate legislation, we also have to look at those opinion polls saying that 58% of people in the country support those policies. And while the accuracy of opinion polls can be questioned, that number is probably not off by that much. That raises a few interesting points. One is that if we don’t figure out how to calm those fears, we are soon going to be boycotting nearly every state in the country, including our own, which is hard to do. Another is that given the demographics of the country, some of the people who support anti-immigrant legislation are immigrants themselves, and many more are the children of recent immigrants. Which means that much-heralded date in 2024 when people of color become the majority in this country cannot be counted on to produce a more compassionate society.

If indeed, borders are about to become more fluid, then it doesn’t make sense to continue promoting statist solutions to social problems. So one thing the left needs to do is let go of our attachment to the state and start envisioning forms of social organization that can remain constant while the population around them is ever in flux. Another thing we need to confront is how to create a sense of security in a rootless world. For that we can certainly look to immigrant and migrant communities, who have shown remarkable abilities to replicate the institutions of “home” often in a series of new locations.

I am the last person to suggest that we should make common cause with the Tea Parties or the Minutemen. But what I do suggest is that we are as nostalgically attached to the salvation offered by the state as they are to that of the nation. And possibly, if we can find a way past our own nostalgia, we might discover a way past theirs.

I wrote the above yesterday, after thinking about it for the last several weeks. Then this afternoon, I heard Peter Ward, author of The Flooded Earth, on the radio predicting that borders will be erased because of flooding. He also suggested that countries will respond by using nuclear weapons to safeguard their borders. If, however, we look at what happened to Europe, when the Berlin Wall came down, it seems more likely that the surge of refugees across borders will result in new regional forms of units of government. But certainly, it is on us to lay the historical groundwork for the latter, rather than the former.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The movement and the moment – Part 1, Give Up the Electoral Strategy

I mentioned to some friends this morning that I had just in the last week realized what historical time we are in. They got very excited.

“Tell us,” they said.

I was kind of sheepish, because I felt like my realization was not going to sound like much. I imagined the thud of a flat balloon when I told them, but that wasn’t what happened. They got very excited, and said we need to get together and talk about it more. So I decided to try to write it down, fearing, as I often do, that my ideas will evaporate when I try to commit them to print (or LCD).

It started when I was listening to the election coverage on Wednesday. On Democracy Now! and Letters to Washington, progressives were doing post-mortems on the valiant efforts made by progressives to unseat right-wing or disappointing Democratic congresspeople, all of which had failed. The person who was speaking for the Bill Halter campaign, which had been expected to make a stronger showing against Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, said that they had spent $8 million for a primary challenge. The speaker considered it money well spent. It struck me as a total waste.

“Think of all the social movements that could have been jump-started by that money,” I thought. Now I often have thoughts like that, and I dismiss them as just my bias because I don’t like electoral politics. It’s true. I don’t enjoy it, I’m not well suited to it, and the people who are can always tell immediately that I’m not someone they want to court, so I never end up being asked to do anything that might make me think better of it. But in fact, listening to these people talk about what they’d hoped to accomplish, I realized that it’s not just sour grapes.

So my first realization was this: It’s too early for an electoral strategy.

By the electoral strategy I mean the effort to make large scale social change by electing progressives to national office. Local elections are a totally different ball of wax – I won’t go into that now, but San Francisco is a pretty good example of what a well crafted electoral strategy can do on a local level in a community that is fairly progressive to start with. The national electoral strategy started being thrown around about 10 years ago by people who were frustrated with the inability of progressive movements to do more than criticize. These included groups like MoveOn and Color of Change. They saw in the huge outpourings of opposition to the WTO and IMF/World Bank in 2000 and 2001 a potential for social change that was unrealized, and they concluded that it was because the movements were too negative, our negativism turned people off, we didn’t know what we were for, we were too idealistic and not realistic enough.

They believed turning our energies into getting progressives elected would do two things: It would bring leftists into the political mainstream, force us to moderate our views to reflect the values of left-leaning non-activists (read middle class voters), and require us to become more pragmatic and concrete in our objectives. And in return, it would give us a platform to put progressive solutions on the national agenda, identify those on which there was a broader consensus, and elect smart, savvy, politically appropriate people who could wield real power to help enact those solutions.

The Obama candidacy was part of that strategy, though I don’t think his campaign team was any part of those discussions. He’s an ambitious individualist who took advantage of a political moment, but many of the people who joined his campaign on local and state levels did so for the reasons I just outlined. And there was one good reason to believe that if he won, things might go in that direction: his awareness and invocation of the power of popular movements. He basically said, “I can be the progressive candidate if you can create a progressive movement.” But what he did not say was, “I will use my candidacy to create a progressive moment.” That would be a very different statement, and I think a lot of the progressives who favor an electoral strategy heard that because they wanted to.

Someone mentioned yesterday that Obama has gotten more money than any other candidate from the oil industry (she mis-remembered – the news that came out recently is that he got more money from BP than any other candidate). With this revelation (disseminated, in part, by oil-industry-hating Republicans like Sarah Palin), some people believe they have found the reason why the Obama administration didn’t properly regulate BP’s offshore drilling. But they are wrong. It’s not that I don’t think Obama’s in the oil industry’s pocket. But he didn’t let them do their high-risk drilling without oversight because they gave him campaign contributions. He did it because in his opinion, which is the opinion of David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel and the rest of his gurus, we need the oil. And there’s one reason they are not willing to do anything to radically decrease our dependence on oil: Jimmy Carter. Received wisdom is that Carter lost the election because of the energy crisis, because he wanted us to acknowledge there’s a crisis and conserve, rather than expand our sources of oil.

Let’s go back to the Blanche Lincoln race for a minute. The person from the Halter campaign who thought their $8 million was well spent was pointing to the fact that Lincoln surprisingly introduced an amendment to the financial reform bill to stop banks from engaging in the risky credit default swaps business. Indeed, Lincoln presumably did that in order to boost her chances of beating Halter. But look now! Yesterdays’ news?

“Sen. Blanche Lincoln, one of the lawmakers ironing out differences in the House and Senate financial reform bills, has refined her legislative proposal to highlight that big banks can keep their swaps businesses — in separately funded units:
‘Although it appears to water down the proposal, the proposed change would be costly for Wall Street. Banks would have to set aside billions of dollars to protect against losses in these affiliates. The provision doesn’t specify the capital requirements, which would likely be decided by a bank regulator.’” …
[T]he plan doesn’t appear to lessen the risk of major swaps dealers being interconnected.” (Bnet)

Having survived the primary challenge, Lincoln presumably will go back to being Blanche Lincoln, a conservative Democrat from a conservative state.
For much less than $8 million, the people who poured energy into building Halter’s campaign could have built a movement for serious financial reform. With that $8 million, they could have hired thousands of high school and college students all over the country to go door to door, learn organizing, develop themselves as public speakers, do all the things that would make them grassroots leaders for life. And with that movement, they could have gotten not just Blanche Lincoln but most of the Democrats in Congress – maybe even some of the Republicans – to back serious financial reform that would not be watered down because the Congresspeople knew there was a loud, angry, mobilized population ready to punish them for ignoring us. That’s what the people who are pouring money into the Tea Parties know. It’s what anyone who was in Congress during the late stages of the Vietnam War knows.

We do not get progressive legislation because we have progressives in Congress. We get progressive legislation because we have a progressive climate in the country. If we can create a progressive moment, many people in Congress who are not currently progressives will suddenly become more progressive.

Last week, I heard two examples of this on the radio. One was a guy who wrote a book on the history of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He mentioned that FDR campaigned against the Hoover Dam –supported by his rival, Herbert Hoover - and all such “big spending” infrastructure projects. Right – that’s FDR, the father of the TVA, the CCC, and all those other big government stimulus projects we love to love.

The other was someone who was talking about the more familiar story of Lyndon Johnson’s flip-flop on civil rights. He mentioned that Johnson, when he was Majority Leader of the Senate, used his position to stop the implementation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. He was a Texas Dem himself, and politically very beholden to the Dixiecrats. But, says the History Learning Site, “By January 1964, public opinion had started to change - 68% now supported a meaningful civil rights act. President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act in July of that year.”

In the current right-wing climate, a few more progressives in Congress will be just like the ones we have now – admirable, ineffective tokens. We in Oakland/Berkeley have had progressive representation for a long time. We had Ron Dellums, now we have Barbara Lee, who (usually) Speaks For Me. It’s very nice to feel like I have a voice, but it’s not that helpful when my “voice” is drowned out 96% of the time. Take Dennis Kucinich, probably the most high-profile progressive in Congress. What did he get for his noble effort to hold up health care in pursuit of a public option? Zero, zilch, nada. A lesson in just how irrelevant the progressive voice is right now.

We often say that there is no progressive movement, which is true, in the sense that there’s not a single progressive political party like the Communist or Socialist Party of the thirties or even the Progressive Parties of the teens or the late forties. But there are a number of progressive movements capable of turning out impressive numbers of people to do impressive things for short times, and I think if you combined all the people who are doing progressive things in their communities for extended periods of time, that would be an impressive number too. What we do not have, and are not close to having, is a progressive moment. And I maintain that without the moment, the movements are not going to get very far.

Coming Soon: Part 2 - The moment are we in, and how to move toward the moment we need.

Friday, June 4, 2010

What Else? Budrus and the Gaza Flotilla ...

It's intensely ironic to read my last post in light of what happened last weekend.

For some, the attack on the Mavi Marmara proves that when nonviolence fails, the consequences are deadly. For others, it's proof that nonviolence is useless against military force, that without armed self-defense, more people would have been massacred.

What I think is more true than either of those things is that in our violence worshipping culture, only those who are willing to use violence are taken seriously. And because of that, more than because of any inherent virtue in the tactics, violent confrontation often succeeds in creating an incident of global proportion where nonviolence fails to do so.

Consider the fact that last week's was not the first maritime convoy or even the second to try to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Eight previous missions set out for Gaza; two even made it through, which arguably, should have been the biggest news of all. Yet there was relatively little attention paid to those actions, especially here in the U.S. Hence very few of my coworkers, for instance, even knew about them. And that fact enabled the attack on the recent flotilla, because no one said, "Why are you treating these ships so differently from the previous ones." Especially since they have been building up to this - previous ships were rammed, disabled, sabotaged, towed, passengers arrested, all provoking very little outcry at any level likely to have any impact.

The difference? On all of those boats, the passengers adhered to strict nonviolence, what Americans always claim to admire the most. Yet when they did that, no one was interested in their story.

Another thing to consider: Palestinians were engaging in nonviolent resistance throughout the years of the Oslo process (1993-2000). There were tree plantings and attempts to block construction of settler roads; there were Israeli-Palestinian occupations of homes scheduled for demolition, some very dramatic; people sat in front of bulldozers just like Iltezam Morar and Rachel Corrie; Palestinians refused to carry permits and ID cards just like the activists in South Africa; thousands of people participated in these actions and no one heard one word about them. Came October 2000, a very few people blew themselves up in Israeli towns, and it was suddenly an "Intifada," all over the international media.

So you tell me: Do we really admire activists who use nonviolence? Or is that just another way to silence people whose militance we fear?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Is Failure the Chicken and Success the Egg?

(Thinking about chickens because of Nevada's new law that you can't wear a chicken costume to the polls.)

More reflections on Budrus, the Movie.

After seeing the movie, I went back and looked at my journals from those early days of action in Budrus. Here is a little bit of what I wrote after the first day:

After two hours or more, another group of soldiers arrived with two police jeeps. Ayad asked us to get in front. Ted and I did. The army commander came toward me and I pointed the camera at him.

He said, “You can put away the camera because I didn’t come to make a scene.”

“Why did you come?” I asked.
“You know why.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I came here to build the Fence.”
“Well, I did know that, but I meant right now, why did you come?”
He said, “We both know the Fence is going to be built. We can do it today, or tomorrow we come in with hundreds of soldiers, we close the school, put the village under curfew. But my government wants to build the Fence, and I know and you know we are going to do it.”

I got a sinking feeling, because of course he is right. If they want it, they can do it. But I said, “No, I don’t know that.”

Reading that now, of course, I think, “I should have had more faith.” But nothing in my experience gave me reason to. And this is the little piece that I think doesn’t come through so well in the film: People did not go out there knowing or even believing that they could win. The villagers did not tell their kids to go to the fields that day instead of to school because they knew no one would be shot. Iltezam didn’t jump into the hole and sit there under the blade of a bulldozer, and her father did not stand there and encourage her to do it, because they knew the bulldozer would stop. Quite to the contrary, they knew that Rachel Corrie had recently been killed, in a situation not so different from theirs.

I can’t help wondering what international reaction to the film would be like if that were the story. (Of course, probably there would have been no film if that were the story.) Would Ayad and Naami be known, not as the brilliant organizers of nonviolent resistance who raised a brilliant daughter to follow in their footsteps, but as proof that Palestinian parents don’t value the lives of their children enough to keep them from sitting in front of bulldozers? What would all those people who say, “This film is so wonderful, these people are so brave, if only the Palestinians had used this nonviolence from the beginning, they would have won in a day,” be saying then? Presumably the same things they are saying about Rachel Corrie and Tristan Anderson, who were equally nonviolent and brave: they shouldn’t have been there. What happened to them was their fault, because they had an irrational hatred of Israel and the Jews.

I’ve said this before, but people have a tendency to read social movements through their outcomes. Working backwards, we make a coherent narrative out of their strategies and tactics, their power struggles and organizational styles, leading inevitably to their successes or failures. We subject both our own and other people’s movements to this torturous dissection, and we pretend that we are deciding what to participate in based on our clairvoyant ability to determine which movements are going to succeed. All of us would have stood with Mario Savio on Sproul Plaza, but none of us would have been killed at Haymarket; all of us would have joined the French Resistance and none of us would have joined the Judenrat (the Jewish Councils in Nazi-occupied Europe, which cooperated with the Nazis in the belief that they would be able to help their people survive). A few years ago, I asked my friend’s son, who was 9 at the time, if when they taught him about Martin Luther King, Jr. in school they made it clear that the government, and many of its citizens, did not approve of what King was doing at the time. He said no, they teach that everyone always loved King. Okay, I said, then do they tell you that they put him in jail? Yes, he said, but I’ve never understood why.

The movements that succeed are not only a result of their forebears which succeeded. When we credit Gandhi’s march to the sea with helping to win India’s independence from Britain, we should also remember that he opposed the creation of Pakistan and that his hunger strike failed to prevent a bloody civil war.

The campus anti-apartheid movements in 1986 were no different from the ones in 1979. I was part of both, and I can absolutely tell you that. The 1986 movement didn’t succeed because it had better strategy than its predecessor. It succeeded because the movement of eight years earlier, along with so many other things, most of them in South Africa but some as far away as South Korea, had changed the conditions under which the students were struggling. And nonetheless, in 1987 it did not look like that movement was going to succeed in helping to dismantle apartheid.

My favorite book is Gone to Soldiers, Marge Piercy’s tapestry of interconnected stories of World War II. Toward the end of the book, one of the heroines, a captured resistance fighter, with her fellow prisoners is forced to watch the execution of inmates who carried out an act of sabotage at Auschwitz. She says, “No one cheered.” When I read that, I thought, well of course not. Why is she saying that? And then I realized that she meant they wanted to cheer, not for the execution but for the resistance. They were not standing there thinking, how stupid and reckless those women were to do something that could result in not only their own deaths but others’ too. It’s not that every act of resistance is the right one, but sometimes you don’t know which is going to be the right one until you’ve taken a few or many wrong ones.

Everyone loves a winner, and we especially do in this country. We don’t like to be reminded of our failures. But next time you hear an inspiring story of resistance and triumph, take a minute to think about how you would be feeling about the resistance if there was no triumph. Because most of the time, that’s likely to be the case.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ordinary People Can Change the World

(Photo: Iltezam and Hanin)

A couple weeks ago, the movie "Budrus" had its west coast premiere at the SF International Film Festival. This was an event I’ve been eagerly anticipating. I would probably have loved the movie even if it were terrible, because it's about people and a place I’m very close to. But it’s not terrible, it’s great. What’s great about it, besides being exciting and infinitely watchable and featuring the oh-so-lovable Iltezam Morar, is that it is the true story of an ordinary village which defeated the Israeli army using nonviolent protest.

Now of course, everyone wants to know, if this could be done in Budrus, why didn’t every village do the same thing, and why didn’t they all win? Those are hard questions to answer, and producer Ronit Avni did a great job of answering them without pretending that the truth is neater than it is. The truth is that Budrus was a special village to start with, a small village that is more unified than many. They benefited from the experience of some other villages which had resisted the wall earlier, and the fact that by that time, there was an international-Israeli presence that they could call on for consistent support. They were able to sustain the daily demonstrations partly because no one was killed in their protests, which may have been because of the high number of women participating but was also partly luck, because there were plenty of live bullets fired at people, as you can see in the film. They also won because the leadership was not held in prison for a long period of time, and whether that was because they had better legal support or just luck again, I don’t know.

Certainly, one of the reasons they had the strength to persevere was that the women were able to break through the army lines on the first day that their trees were being uprooted. What happened – I was right there, so I know – was that Iltezam, who was only 15 years old at the time, ran around the soldiers, jumped into the hole that the bulldozer was digging, defiantly opened her schoolbook and pretended to read it (I assume she could not have been so calm that she could actually read). And then other women broke through and swarmed the bulldozer, climbed into the bucket of the digger, opened the cab door and shouted at the Palestinian driver. The presence of so many women and especially schoolgirls that day probably accounted for the fact that the army pulled out that day instead of using a higher level of force to get rid of the opposition. I think if they had not succeeded that day in driving the bulldozers off the land, everything might have gone very differently. And since Budrus ultimately inspired Bela’in and Ni’lin, the whole course of nonviolent resistance in Palestine might have been changed by the events of a few seconds.

And that is what is so great about the film, because it actually captures (and I can claim a little credit for this, because I helped the producers track down a small bit of critical footage) the serendipitous moment when history was changed. Of course it’s an oversimplification to suggest that what happened was the result of one moment. It would certainly have been possible for the people to have won that day but lost the next. In some other villages, the bulldozers came in the middle of the night to avoid protests. On the other hand, if the women had not succeeded in getting in front of the bulldozers that day, someone else might have found a way to stop them, that day or another. But there is no question that that one incident both infused the people with the idea that "We can do it!" (as they would chant over and over in English) and instilled in the army a sense of what can only be called awe.

The last few weeks have been dominated by another story about a moment that changed history, this time not for the better. This of course is the oil spill in the Gulf, a disaster of unprecedented scope, in a region that seems like it can hardly withstand another environmental catastrophe. I’ve noticed something about the coverage of the spill, and some people’s reaction to it. It’s something I noticed during the first Gulf War as well. The media – especially the mainstream media, but even the progressive media does its part, for different reasons – promote the idea that dangerous offshore wells are drilled and wars for oil are waged so that we in this country can drive our cars and watch our televisions. And that in turn has a silencing effect on people who might otherwise want to criticize those policies. I heard someone essentially say on KPFA the other day that if you drove a car to work today, you have no right to complain that somewhere between half a million and 2 million gallons of oil are leaking into the Gulf every day.

I beg to differ.

Neither Deepwater Horizon nor the Iraq/Afghanistan war are being waged for my benefit. I like having a car, but it’s not because I love cars. In fact, I would much rather be driven, whether in a bus, a minivan or a horse-driven cart (okay, forget about the cart, but only because it’s cruel to horses). I think I need a car so I can get to meetings after work without taking an hour’s worth of buses, which would cause the meeting to be over by the time I got there, and so I can get home from KPFA at 1:00 a.m., after the BART has stopped running. I think I need a car because I don’t live skating distance from a grocery store that carries the products I like to buy, which are grown semi-locally without pesticides. In San Francisco I never had a car and I never really thought I needed one, because it’s so small that I could get wherever I wanted to go by skating, walking, BART or occasionally a bus. I like watching television, despite the fact that there’s nothing on it I can really stand to watch a lot of the time, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to go to war for it. If that were really the choice, I would give up the TV and read mysteries by lantern.

U.S. policies are not proof that Americans are so selfish that we want to keep using fossil fuels despite their enormous cost to the planet and its inhabitants. We want to live well, sure. But so do the people of every other country on earth. No one says, "I want to be starving and cold and bored all day and die a miserable impoverished death." (Well, maybe Gandhi, ….) We are told that the only way we can live well is by stealing resources from other people, and/or by stripping away at the earth’s protective layers, and so we say okay, if that’s what it takes. Few of us are going to decide to make our lives a lot harder than they need to be, like No Impact Man, unless maybe we see it as a chance to star in our own reality series or something. But most of us would just as happily climb into shared taxis if they were zooming around our streets the way they do in Palestine, and avoid the hassle of parking our cars. Pretty much all of us would be happy to take solar showers in the sunny middle of the day if we were not expected to be in some other town performing meaningless wage slavery at that time.

Our lifestyle is at least as much a product of our addiction to oil as it is a cause of it. That is, it’s the economy which has grown up around oil, and coal, and dams, and nuclear reactors, that makes it hard for us to do without the convenience of being able to get places fast and eat fast food from disposable containers. Many people I know are very happy to grow their own lettuce and tomatoes and even corn, pick apples from their trees and sew quilts made from their old clothes, but these are not people who are having to work two minimum wage jobs and somehow get their kids to school across town.

We do not have to accept that just because this is the way things have been for the last 150 years or so, it’s the way it needs to be for the next 150. We do not have to simply swallow bad news with our morning coffee. We can be like the women who stood in front of the Israeli army that day in Budrus and said, no, we won’t accept reality as you have declared it to be. We are going to change reality.

My coworker, who is sort of a bad news junkie, insists that protest can't accomplish anything, ordinary people cannot make a difference, we need to wait until someone with power decides to take action. But I know that ordinary people can win, even against tremendous odds, because I've seen it. It just takes an Iltezam, to step into the void and lead the way.

I decided I am going to collect stories of seconds that changed the world, and maybe think about a short film. Do you have any? Please comment if you do, or if you have an idea about where to look.