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.

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