Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Crimes of Mike Daisey

Two years ago, a friend and I were looking for billboards to modify. We were working on art related to Hewlett Packard and the clothing manufacturer H&M, both of which had big ad campaigns on, but the city was awash in iPads. Every surface we really wanted to hit had an apple in the corner. Then I saw a piece in the paper about workers at one of the iPad manufacturing plants in China committing suicide because the working conditions were so terrible. I sent it to my friend with a note – “something to do with all those iPad billboards.” She mocked up some great art, but before we had it ready to go the ads were down, the iPad was old news, the company had agreed to pay the workers a few cents more per hour and the story was forgotten.

Flash forward a year. Just about one year ago, a friend invited me to a play her aunt had given her tickets for. It was a monologue called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” A one-man show by someone named Mike Daisey. When we settled into our seats and I looked at the program, I looked at my friend doubtfully. “A two-hour monologue with no intermission?” When I saw Mike Daisey, I had even more doubts. He didn’t present like a guy who could carry that kind of thing.

Two hours later, I walked out shell-shocked. The first thing I did was call my friend. “We have to do that iPad campaign.” The iPad2 was on the way, and there was a whole BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station covered in iPads. I took a picture of a couple perfect spots and sent them to my friend. Problem was, I was leaving town in a few days for a month-long writing retreat at Hedgebrook. I hoped my friend would be able to do it with someone else, but she was busy too. Didn’t happen.

I carried that regret with me to Whidby Island, but I also carried something I had gotten from the show: a newfound awe for the written word. I went into my precious writing month mesmerized by what I had seen.

It was not the content that was so powerful to me. Many of the stories I had heard – the one about the suicides, the one about the people poisoned by the toxic cleaning solution. Some, like the ones about the overcrowded dorm rooms and the workers frisked on their way out of the plants, I had seen for myself, years ago at an export-processing zone in the Philippines. The one about the 13-year-old workers I did not find particularly memorable. Child labor and China have been virtually synonymous for decades.

What captivated me was the way Daisey wove the stories into a powerful drama. He created a seamless emotional roller coaster without ever making you feel manipulated. The story begins all light and fluffy, his Hawaiian shirt, his bumbling attempts at cultural sensitivity, his efforts to make a passable business card in a foreign city where he doesn’t speak the language, and then the fact that it all works! Sasha and I exchanged knowing looks, because we’ve both been there. I thought about giving Israeli soldiers at military checkpoints a laminated business card proclaiming me a “legitimate human rights worker” in Hebrew, and them nodding and letting me through. And then he is talking about people jumping off roofs and standing up doing repetitive motions for twenty-four hours in a row without the opportunity to rest their arms, all so we can have cheap iPhones. Sasha felt for hers in her pocket. She’d been telling me about how she was watching the Arab Spring on the alJazeera app all day long.

I thought, how is this guy ever going to pull us back from this abyss without it seeming incredibly hokey? I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly I found myself laughing again.

I write mysteries about Palestine. I do it because it’s fun. I also do it because I want people to care about Palestine. Now my first one, Murder Under the Bridge, is pretty Manichean. There are moral complexities in it, but basically there are some really really bad Israeli guys and a lot of the Palestinians are damned near saintly and there’s a teenage girl for angst and good measure. That’s okay, it’s a first mystery. But Murder Under the Fig Tree, which I was going off to Hedgebrook to write, is much more ambitious. It has a lot more shades of gray, but I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I think there’s any gray about the Israeli occupation. I never want to leave any doubt that the biggest problem facing every Palestinian in the world today is the theft of their land and denial of their national rights. Seeing Mike Daisey’s show made me believe, more than I ever have before, that if I write a good mystery, people will understand what I want them to understand and care about it.
Two weeks ago, Mike Daisey was all over the Twittersphere, and it wasn’t good news. “Mike Daisey Apologizes For Fabricated ‘This American Life’ Foxconn Story”, screamed the Huffington Post. “We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio,” said Ira Glass, Executive Producer on the website of “This American Life.”

“This American Life,” which had broadcast parts of “The Agony & the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” ran a full hour called “Retracting Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” In what many have called one of the most painful things ever broadcast on radio, Ira Glass interviewed Mike Daisey about the lies he told and why he did it. There’s a long bit of silence in which you can hear Daisey wrestling with his conscience before he answers the question “So you lied about that” with a Santorum-esque “I wouldn’t express it that way.”

The crux of the problem is this: The show is based on a 5-day trip to China, during which he worked with a translator. When This American Life’s producers asked if they could talk to the translator to corroborate what he told them, he lied and said he couldn’t reach her and said her name, which is “Cathy” in the show, is really Anna. TAL, having checked the basic facts about how Apple products are manufactured and found them solid, let it go. Then Rob Schmitz, a reporter for NPR’s “Marketplace,” who lives in China, heard the piece and was surprised by a few things and went and found the translator, whose name really is Cathy (it’s not, but that’s the name she uses with Westerners). She contradicted a number of things in the story Daisey tells onstage, which he also told on TAL.

 The main things are:
  • He said he visited ten factories, then when Ira pressed him on it on air, he said it was really five, but the translator says it was three.
  • He said he met twenty workers who belong to an illegal union, but it was only three to five.
  • put this image on its story
  • He said he met some workers who were twelve to fourteen, but the translator says he did not meet any underage workers. No one disputes that there are underage workers at that plant and others, but they dispute that Daisey met any. He insists that he did.
  • He said he met some workers who had been exposed to the solvent n-hexane and had lasting injuries from it. In fact, he did not meet those workers; he heard about them from activists he met in Hong Kong.
  • He said he saw security guards with guns but security guards in China are not allowed to carry guns and the translator says they don’t.
  • He said there were cameras in workers’ dorm rooms, but the cameras are only in the halls.
  • He tells a story about a worker who had lost his hand in an accident at the factory where iPads are made. When the worker saw Mike’s iPad, he got wide-eyed and wanted to touch it, because he’d never actually seen one assembled. The translator says the incident happened but that man did not say he’d ever worked at that plant.

On his blog last week, he posted a talk he gave at Georgetown. In that talk, with the same cadence and intensity I found so riveting in the show, he explains how it all happened. How one little lie became a bigger one, how he ended up going on TAL, how he got interested in the labor issues related to Apple, which he says he never had been. He says he never was an activist, but when he heard the stories and saw what there was to see at FoxConn and the other factories, he felt he needed to make people care. And he says something that made perfect sense to me: He just happened to get to China at the time that the suicide story had broken. At the time that he was there, everyone was buzzing about it, and while he was there, a memo from the government went out about how to contain it, and he saw the story die. And that’s what fueled his passion for telling the story, because he’d been there and seen it with his own eyes and now everyone was moving on.

I’m not trying to say that Daisey didn’t screw up. Obviously, he did. But what did he really do wrong? Well, he lied to Ira Glass, which is a big mistake, because that’s someone you sure don’t want to piss off. He probably made sure that he’ll never be taken seriously as a “reporter” again, but of course he is not a reporter.

Without trying to cast aspersions on people I don’t know, let me just raise a couple questions:

  • Why do both Ira Glass and Rob Schmitz assume everything the translator said is true? According to the TAL piece, neither she nor Daisey took notes. But for Daisey, this was a world-changing mission on which he was going to base his next several years of work. For the translator, he was one five-day client out of dozens – this is what she does. She has apparently taken lots of foreigners to these factories. So without notes, why do we assume she’s going to remember every interview she did with this one guy better than he does?
  • According to Schmitz, a lot of the things in the show are things that are confirmed by Apple’s own audits of the manufacturing plants, and the disputed facts are things that it denies. The Chinese government, he says, wants corporations to have better labor practices, but maybe it doesn’t care as much about that as keeping its economy growing. Given that, is it possible that people like this translator know that confirming things that Apple says are not happening would be bad for her business, or could even get her in trouble with the government?
  • What support does “Marketplace” get from Apple?
  • Isn’t it ironic that Mike Daisey’s exaggerations have had a longer news cycle than the original suicide story did?

In the first draft of Murder Under the Bridge, probably about 40% of the story was lifted from my Palestine journals. As a novel, it was pretty terrible. The more I went through it, the more real stuff got cut and the more my ever elusive imagination began to take over and supply better stories. It doesn’t matter, because it’s a mystery, not a memoir. But even more than that, it doesn’t matter because at its core, it’s still true. Even though I never heard of a trafficked nanny-cum-prostitute being murdered in an Israeli settlement, I have little doubt that something like that has happened.

But something else is interesting, and that’s that when readers say, “That part just struck me as completely improbable,” they’re almost always talking about one of the things that really did happen.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cracking the Twitter Code

The other day I was trying to figure out which of the appalling things that happened over the last few weeks I had anything to say about.  Candidates included the massacre in Afghanistan, of course, and the U.S. cutting off money to UNESCO because they had the nerve to recognize Palestine.  Then there are the hunger strikers, Hana Shalabi in Palestine and Abdulhadi al Khawaja in Bahrain both about to hit the one-month mark, and definitely getting close to the danger point, and Christian Gomez, who died in Corcoran prison here in California just a few days after renewing a hunger strike over prison conditions.

Also-rans are Rush Limbaugh and the Slut Wars, state-legislated transvaginal ultrasound, and the fact that the Nazis began their ascent to power by targeting women’s liberation (in 1930, Hitler campaigned on a promise to remove 800,000 women from the depressed workforce, so that men could have their jobs).

A part of me wanted to skip all that depressing stuff and write about the highly amusing “Game Change,” the HBO movie starring an eerily great Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin.

Since nothing was singing my song, I decided to look at Twittter to see what other people were talking about that I could riff off of.  My twitter feed was unusually quiet.  At least three quarters of the tweets were from Serena Williams, because as it turns out it was a #SerenaFriday, where people can tweet questions and she answers them.  No one had tweeted, “What social issues are most important to you?” so the most interesting revelation about my favorite athlete is that she hates breakfast.  In between the SerenaFriday minutiae, Billie Jean King congratulated Michelle Kwan on being inducted into the Figure Skating Hall of Fame.  Democracy Now! thanked me for listening.  Apparently my usually enlightening and prolix friends were as stymied by the state of the world as I.

So I thought I would see what other people, that I don’t follow, were talking about.  Here’s what was trending in the U.S.:
Other than Victoria Azarenka (the new tennis #1) and Saint Louis, I don’t know what any of the other topics mean.  Wasn’t “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” like three years ago?  Why is it trending now?

Well, I thought, everyone knows the U.S. public is primarily nabobs.  Let’s see what’s trending somewhere where people care about weighty things.  I looked at the options and chose India, and got a popup asking which city I wanted.  Since my friend Preeti lives in Chennai, when she doesn’t live in Oakland, I chose Chennai.  These were the top trends in Preeti’s enviros:
Obviously, I’m going to have to study up on PenguinCam.

Before I went to Bahrain, I didn’t really get Twitter.  I occasionally ran across a good link that way, but it was probably something I would have found eventually somewhere else.  In Bahrain, where many people have smart phones but not computers, I saw how it could be used for organizing, disseminating information quickly and even getting around the government censors.  Photos and video from demonstrations could go around like lightning, where if they were just posted on a website, that site could easily be blocked.  It’s a way to spread the word rapidly about a change in plans or an arrest – when some Witness Bahrain folks were arrested a few days after I returned home, I heard about it from their lawyer’s tweets.  That’s also how I learned about Whitney Houston’s death, and apparently I’m not the only one.  Willie Brown, who was staying at the same hotel, saw the ambulances but found out what had happened from British tweeps.

But the real power of Twitter is in skillful use of hash tags to create trends.  This is an art that has developed over the last few years.  Apparently the TV show “The Voice” was the first U.S. organization to use it well.  The idea is that tweeps – people who tweet – on a particular subject agree on particular ways of tagging their posts so that they will clump and create a trend.  So the Bahraini protesters agreed to use #Feb14 and #LuluReturn (Lulu is the Arabic name for Pearl Roundabout) as well as #Bahrain.  When we arrived, they added #WitnessBahrain to their tags, which resulted in us getting 2700 followers in a single day.  You have to be careful not to create too many tags, though, because they count toward your 140 characters.  One of the things we learned when tweeting from WitnessBahrain is that tweets marked @WitnessBahrain were easier to find in our feed than #WitnessBahrain.  @ is a direct reference or response to someone, so someone who wants to argue with me can tweet “@katrap40 is an idiot” and that will go to my followers (of which I do not have many) as well as to me.  Within our group we had some discussion about whether responding to the people who attacked us on Twitter was a good idea.  Our instinct is to rise above, and obviously we are not going to change their minds, but Twitter’s all about creating buzz and we all know that controversy helps with that.

The other day I saw posts claiming that the Bahrainis had trended both #FreeAlkhawaja and a hunger striker in Saudi Arabia.  I can’t seem to get to the Bahrain trends from here, but I’ve never seen anything that profound trending here.  In October, there was a big article about the fact that #OWS and #OO had never trended, despite many people tweeting about Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland.  Activists were accusing Twitter of manipulating the algorithms to keep them off the top trends, and Twitter responded that their algorithms are picking up trends in the moment and not over time.

“Twitter Trends are automatically generated by an algorithm that attempts to identify topics that are being talked about more right now than they were previously. The Trends list is designed to help people discover the 'most breaking' breaking news from across the world, in real-time. The Trends list captures the hottest emerging topics, not just what’s most popular. Put another way, Twitter favors novelty over popularity” 

Needless to say, the ability to rapidly disseminate unsubstantiated rumors has resulted in some Twitter-bloopers.  A few false reports spread on Twitter:
Warren Buffett died
Wesley Snipes died
Lauren Spierer (missing child in Bloomington, Indiana) found
Michele Bachman going on Dancing with the Stars
Kim Jong Un assassinated

But as the late unmourned Andrew Breitbart demonstrated more than once, Twitter definitely has no monopoly on sending false information around the world at the speed of light.  Rachel Maddow’s show last night had a montage of Mitt Romney repeating over and over that President Obama has “made the recession worse” and “doubled the deficit,” both claims that are “counter-factual.”

On the other hand, getting anyone to pay attention to your tweets is harder than it sounds.  According to a 2011 blog post, 05% of entire the Twitter population (~20,000 users) attract almost 50% of attention on Twitter; 71% of Twitter tweets receive not reaction whatsoever.”

In general, as someone who finds even the blog format constricting, I’m predisposed against anything that leads to the expectation that you can get information in 140 characters.  I suspect it’s intensified the tendency to try to get the full story from the headline.  But is that the case?

According to a recent study of social media usage, the average Twitter visit lasts 14 minutes.  That would suggest that people are clicking on at least some of the links posted and at least skimming the articles.  It does seem clear that the reliance on electronic media leads to more skimming and less word-for-word reading.  But as for the perception that people are generally reading less, that seems to be debatable.

In November 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts published a report called “To Read or Not to Read,” which contained the alarming news that “Americans are reading a lot less.”  One year later, the same agency released another report called “Reading on the Rise.”  This one found that “the percentage of adult Americans who read literature (defined as fiction, poetry, and plays) grew from 46.7 percent to 50.2 percent” from 2002 to 2008.  The report did not, however, endorse the contention of Carolyn Kellogg of the New York Times blog Jacket Copy that “the next generation of young adults found their way to literature through all the reading they do with new media.”

Just more evidence that Twitter has no monopoly on sketchy and incomplete information.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Vigil in Fremont: Bringing the Massacre Home

On Saturday a friend and I went to a vigil in Fremont held by the Afghan community, to protest the massacre of sixteen civilians in Kandahar province last Sunday. I was deeply moved by the experience.

photo: SJ Mercury News
This is a community that has been slow to protest. The South Bay, stretching from Fremont to San Jose, has the largest concentration of Afghans in the U.S., roughly 65,000 in Fremont. Some fled during the Soviet occupation, others after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. They came seeking opportunity and freedom, and that vision has been both challenged and realized. They learned about racism, xenophobia and religious bigotry, and about the hidden realities of poverty in this country, but as one of yesterday’s speakers pointed out, plenty of them broke through and made it, lifting their families to middle class and even wealthier status.

They created their shopping districts, mosques and community centers and sent their kids to UC Berkeley and San Jose State.

Then came 9/11 and suddenly the land to which they had fled from oppression became the biggest source of violence toward Afghan people. Like many immigrant communities before them -- my parents’ generation of Jews, for instance, the primary response of the threatened community was to lie low and try to remain above reproach. While those of us not directly affected by the attacks on Muslims in general and Afghans in particular could scream in outrage against war and civil liberties violations, Afghan community leaders quietly set about creating institutions to protect or defend people from the worst abuses by our government, at the same time loudly and publicly proclaiming their support for the U.S. and distancing themselves from whoever perpetrated the 9/11 attacks (none of whom were Afghan, in case anyone is confused).

Judith Miller wrote in 2010:
Given their discomfort with the foreign policy of the country that has sheltered them but is still fighting in their former home and sometimes killing their friends and relatives left behind, many Fremont Afghans are reluctant to discuss politics with outsiders. The Afghanistan war is unpopular in much of this community, several Afghans told me. So, too, is President Hamid Karzai, despite the fact that he, like an overwhelming majority of the refugees in Fremont, is a Pashtun, Afghanistan’s majority ethnic group.
For sure there have been exceptions. Afghans for Peace has been a small but consistent presence in the anti-war movement when there has been one for them to participate in. Their participation has been hampered somewhat by the fact that the Bay Area movement is led by groups which defended the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, from which so many of the Afghans in this area were refugees. Fatima Mojadiddy, one of the most active members of Bay Area Afghans for Peace, commented on a blog post in 2010, which claimed, “The young socialist [pro-Soviet] government, which had overthrown a centuries-old monarchy, was cosmopolitan, outward-looking, and stressed the education of women as well as men. This was a time when women in Kabul could wear mini-skirts.”:

Soviet backed communists were brutal and used authoritarian force, violence, persecution, etc to enforce themselves upon the people. And Afghans in Kabul were wearing mini skirts well before the Saur Revolution of 1978, not that mini skirts really say ANYTHING about the real emancipation of women, other than Western cultural imperialism.

I am sick of how the American Left repeatedly white-washes the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan….In doing so you are no different from those who defend America's crimes towards the people of Afghanistan.
Last Sunday’s massacre seems to have broken a dam. Afghans around the country have organized vigils. Bay Area Afghans held a smaller one last Monday in Oakland, and this one yesterday which drew about 200 people to the Fremont Amtrak station, where a sign proclaims Centerville, the heart of the Afghan community.

When we arrived the people were lining both sides of the street, waving Afghan flags and signs saying, “Honk for Peace,” and “Obama We Want Peace Not War.” After about half an hour, they moved into the plaza for a rally which began with prayers. Women were asked to “line up behind the men, to respect our traditions.” I chose to stand off to the side holding a sign.

Speakers were eloquent. A young woman named Saylai Lalyas, a student at UC Berkeley, broke down in tears as she talked about how it felt to watch the news of what is being done to the people “back home.” She said, “I am not just angry, I am ready. Ready to take action.” The action she was urging is political – registering to vote and running candidates for local office. She pointed out that the Afghan community has never had a representative on the Fremont city council, in the state legislature or in Congress, despite the potential power their numbers could give them.

Abu Bakr Mojaddidy talked about the children who were killed in the villages, noting that many of the children at the vigil were the same age. He recounted the horrific violence done to those children, the mothers forced to watch their children cruelly murdered in cold blood, and said, “Those children are not over there. They are here.”

While Mr. Mojadiddy was speaking, I heard someone shouting from the street. I went to see what it was. A white man in a white pickup truck was stopped at a light, and he was leaning out his window. His head was shaved and he wore camouflage. He was staring at the protesters, and I had the sense that he hated us, but I thought, maybe I was just judging on the basis of how he looked. I hadn’t heard what he said. But when the light changed, and he pulled into the turn lane, he leaned out and this time I heard him very clearly: “Kill them all.” Fortunately, I don’t think anyone else was close enough o hear. But I had a moment of terror – what if he parked his truck and came back to attack someone? He might be ex-military, he could even be a reservist. He could be armed. Could something like this massacre happen here?

The man turned the corner and did not return.

The most moving speaker was a ten-year-old girl named Bahar. Her father explained that she had stayed up very late the night before writing a letter to President Obama, and she wanted to read part of it. She read only this sentence, “It doesn’t matter where in the world this happened, and by whom, the murder of innocent civilians, mostly women and children, is wrong.”

Her mother walked around the crowd, getting people to sign onto her letter. She gave out copies, and I read it when I got home. I wished that Bahar would have read the full letter, which I have to say shows a more sophisticated understanding of judicial process than most U.S. adults probably have. She criticized the decision to remove Sgt. Robert Bales, the accused killer, from Afghanistan, because:
“I don’t think he will receive the right justice through the trial without the representation of the families of the massacred civilians….I have a suggestion and a favor to ask: can you please order the U.S. military to bring the remaining members and community members of the massacred families from Afghanistan to the U.S. so that they can be present in the judicial process related to this massacre. This way, the families can fight for the justice of their loved ones and we will not forget the reactions and emotional duress this ordeal has caused…and they will see the American justice system in action as well as the love and generosity of Americans first hand.”
I hope the president listens to her. I hope the love and generosity of Americans will go out in some way to those families.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Anarchism Part II: The Pacifist and the Black Masks

It always surprises people who know little about anarchists that we believe in organizing and working together. As my last post explains, anarchists tend to be highly organized, and most of us have very coherent systems of thought. We can even be dogmatic, contradictory as that sounds, but what we don’t normally do, or should not do anyway, is try to regulate or control what others think. Anarchists probably have as many opinions per capita as Jews, and as for Jewish anarchists … well you do the math.


more results for "anarchist graphics"
When Emma Goldman was coming up as a young anarchist, her mentor was Johann Most, who believed in the liberatory power of individual courageous actions, including assassinations. After her lover, Alexander Berkman, went to prison for attempting to assassinate a union-busting industrialist and financier named Henry Clay Frick, Goldman changed her beliefs and became more a follower of Peter Kropotkin, who believed (by that time, anyway) in collective nonviolent action. At the same time, a guy named Benjamin R. Tucker was the main spokesperson for a libertarian anarchism, based on the premise that:

If … extortion from labor rest upon denials of liberty, plainly the remedy consists in the realization of liberty. Destroy the banking monopoly, establish freedom in finance, and down will go interest on money through the beneficent influence of competition. Capital will be set free, business will flourish, new enterprises will start, labor will be in demand, and gradually the wages of labor will rise to a level with its product. And it is the same with the other monopolies. Abolish the tariffs, issue no patents[,] take down the bars from unoccupied land, and labor will straightway rush in and take possession of its own. Then mankind will live in freedom and in comfort.
Some anarchists believe in a really radical form of autonomism, where no one ever has to be answerable to the collective, and presumably the collective bears no responsibility for the actions of the individual. I believe just the opposite – that in order for each of us to be free we must value the collective more than our individual desires, and that the collective must take responsibility for the consequences of any actions taken in accordance with its decisions.

By definition, anarchists reject hierarchy – the Greek word “archist” is long-disused, interestingly, but in the New Testament, I’m told, it’s translated as “ruler.” So even though I believe in sublimating my individual will to that of the collective, it has to be done freely and in every situation because every one of us believes that we are stronger within the collective. As soon as I feel that the collective does not serve my interest, I am free to leave it, regaining my autonomy but sacrificing the strength and protection of the community.

Though anarchists do not all reject violence, we all reject state violence. That means we do not use the power of the state, even against our enemies. If you are willing to demand that the cops arrest Zionists or anti-abortion protesters who assault you, you are not an Anarchist. As Anarchists, we have to find ways of defending our own communities, something that the various Occupy/Decolonize/Liberate camps had varying success with.

Slingshot #108, which was labeled “Extra Hella Occupy Edition” has some really excellent pieces about militancy, tactics, property damage, and the limits of collectivism and autonomy. One of the best, I thought, by Evan Buswell, reflects,

“Consensus depends on the fiction of an ‘outside’ in two respects: first, that each individual has the capacity to act autonomously outside the group, apart from the group, not affecting the group as a whole; second, that disunited elements can be merely ejected back into the already-existing society…Consensus is totally dependent on the presence of a larger state to which it can eject elements that its process has no other means to discipline.”

The mask-wearing, sometimes projectile-throwing or shield-wielding “anarchists” who have been most active and visible at Occupy Oakland do not, in my experience, use the label “black bloc” and I am not sure they all identify as anarchists. They seem to prefer the terms “militant” and “insurrectionist.” It’s completely inaccurate to call them “outsiders” or suggest that they are all or mostly “agent provocateurs.” Of course, some of them are. We probably won’t know who for many years, if ever. But that’s not limited to the insurrectionists. No doubt there are infiltrators or informers among medics, consensus facilitators and even pacifists. Many of the militants are long-term and even thoughtful activists, whom I’ve known for years. Some of them did a lot of the work to set up Occupy Oakland, and worked day and night to keep it running smoothly. They have beliefs I totally disagree with, but they are deeply held beliefs.

One thing that did surprise me is that many of them describe themselves is “nihilist.” Back in the day we used to use that term pejoratively – “don’t be nihilistic,” meant don’t be juvenile, just randomly lashing out at stuff. But like most pejoratives, it’s been reclaimed. An article on explains:

Nihilist anarchy is a collection of political theories, a growing tendency and influence within the anarchist movement. Nihilist anarchists approach society with skepticism and they attempt to avoid the pitfalls of speculation, even to the point of denying a future vision of society. Some focus on the need to address the problems of the present, but do so without subscribing to the models that are seen to hold back other radicals. By doing this, they reject "progress, evolution, the general strike, the insurrection to end all insurrections, or the supremacy of theory over action."
This form of nihilist anarchism, which the author distinguishes from “Nietzschean nihilism” and “Russian nihilism” is based in a “revolutionary skepticism” which holds:

  • An ethical revolution does not necessarily create an ethical society.
  • No future is as possible as any future.
  • Reject the world as it is. It must be superceded before it can be valued.
  • All attempts to inflict radical change have failed, giving legitimacy to the idea that action is not bound by moral restraint.
  • There is no single method of revolt nor is there a grand scheme behind it. When these ideas are imposed is when we are promised more of the same (reaction and failure).
  • Revolt is not found in moral living.
  • Revolt despite the consequences is worth living.
  • Revolt is without hope, but not without casualties.

The nihilists reject both “prefigurative politics,” which seek to create the new society we want to see at the same time that we struggle to overthrow the existing authoritarian institutions, and any effort to win immediate reforms while trying to create the conditions for revolution. Much like Berkman and Most, they believe visible attacks on corporate and state institutions help to show the system’s weaknesses. At an Occupy Oakland forum on nonviolence, one of the insurrectionists quoted Rudy Giuliani’s “Broken Windows Theory,” under which minor property damage is kind of a gateway drug leading to the collapse of the social order. All I can say is, if only it were so easy.

In January, a number of “anti-capitalist” tendencies in Seattle came together for a five-hour “Anti-Capitalist Smackdown: A Debate among Tendencies in the Occupy Movement.” Here’s the facebook announcement:

Participating tendencies (in alphabetic order)

  • Anarcho-syndicalism
  • Black Orchid
  • Communization
  • Insurrectionary anarchy
  • Nihilism

3-5PM: debates on

  • The enemy (capitalism or civilization?)
  • Revolution (ultimate goals and how to get there)
  • Class & identity
  • The role of revolutionaries
5-6PM: dinner break

6-7:15PM: debates on

  • Unions & solidarity networks
  • Prefigurative (anti)politics
  • The Occupy movement
7:15-8PM: open discussion with audience

A report posted afterwards says: “Definitely successful! The venue was packed, a full house. Comrades stood outside to listen in on the debate.There was a lot of talk of future debates and open discussion on revolutionary politics between tendencies due to the success of this debate and discussion. I think it built a lot of comradary and understanding between the different tendencies.”

Wish I could have been there! Waiting breathlessly for the video.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Confessions of an Anarchist: Part I - All About Me

It was a couple months ago that two of my friends asked me to write about anarchism. I’ve called myself an anarchist for close to 35 years. My understanding of what that means has evolved over the years, but my identification with anarchism has only grown stronger. My friends wanted to understand the differences (and presumably the similarities) between what I believe and the so-called “black bloc anarchists” who are the subject of so much debate, derision and defensiveness since the Occupy/Decolonize movement hit the headlines.
a few of the thousands of graphics that come up in response to
a search for "anarchist graphics"

It’s taken me a long time to answer the call. Part of what distracted me was that little trip to Bahrain, and when I came back there were some family issues to worry about, as well as the sense of rootlessness and political fumbling that tends to ensue from flying 48 hours in nine days and coming back with a whole new project.

The other problem was that I couldn’t figure out what to say. What does anarchism mean to me and why am I so committed to it? It’s hard to articulate. After so many years, being an anarchist seems like breathing or cooking or being a Jew. I am because I am. But of course that’s not right. It’s not something I’ve been since I could talk – the only thing my liberal Democratic parents had in common with anarchists was their dislike of Communists (no offense to any of my Communist friends).

I started off thinking I was going to write a survey of anarchist thought, or perhaps I’d just find the best ones already written and quote from them and link to them. I searched for “anarchism” and came up with 5,720,000 million hits. “Anarchism in America” gets you 2.6 million results and “Spanish Anarchists and Soviets” nets 2.3 million. Obviously, one who sets out to write a survey of anarchist thought is going to be staring at her computer for a lot longer than I have.

So let’s start with me.

The first anarchists I knew about were probably Sacco and Vanzetti. The Haymarket martyrs came next, followed by Emma Goldman. The Kronstadt sailors and shipworkers – anarchists and left socialists slaughtered by Lenin’s Army after a rebellion in 1921 – came to my consciousness much later. So anarchism must have seemed more a path to tragedy than to liberation. After all, I grew up in the age of Communism spreading like wildfire, through Africa and Asia and heading inexorably for Latin America and burrowing its way into our own cities.

I had an instinctive hatred for capitalism, probably an outgrowth of my deep loathing for shopping. But at the same time I could not block out the cries for freedom coming from what we then called “Behind the Iron Curtain.” For if my earliest political memories were the police riots of Chicago ’68 and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., then the Prague Spring must have been in there somewhere too.

When I went to Oberlin in 1976, there were two Communist organizations on campus – the Sparticist Youth League and the Young Socialist Alliance. Each had about four members. I couldn’t imagine being the fifth in either. For one thing, no one took them seriously, and for another, they were always looking to someone else for what to think. As my friend David recently said about me, I was just born ornery. The Sparticists believed nuclear weapons were only dangerous in the hands of capitalists, and the YSA defended the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (in pretty racist terms, as I recall).

Anarchism, as dimly as I understood it then, seemed a way to hold both social equality and individual freedom as fundamentally important. The type of anarchism I gravitated to was a radical communitarianism, in which everyone participates to the maximum extent they are able, equally sharing the labor necessary to sustain the community and the fruits of our labor, everyone’s needs are met and our wishes respected, though not always able to be granted. It was embodied, in the San Francisco I moved to in the early 1980s, by a network of collective houses, most rented, some owned, some well-stocked and spotless, others chronically roach-infested and empty of food, all welcoming to travelers from other communities coming to town for actions or cultural events, and all populated by people deeply involved in social revolution.

That network of houses nurtured and staffed a host of other collective projects, some of which predated it and others conceived within it:
  • The People’s Food System, which at one time encompassed the Noe Valley and Inner Sunset Community Food Stores, Other Avenues and Rainbow Grocery, as well as some direct delivery initiatives
  • Abalone Alliance, which organized the massive Diablo Canyon protests in 1982-85, and Vandenberg Action Coalition, which shut down two MX missile tests in 1983;
  • The Anarchist Coffeehouse, a rotating locale fundraiser that drew hundreds every month for ten years, featuring an open mic that sometimes drew performers like Michelle Shocked, Keith Hennessy, MDC and Tribe 8.
  • Martin de Porres Soup Kitchen, a Catholic Worker “free restaurant” which still serves breakfast and lunch during the week and Sunday brunch in a converted warehouse at 15th and Potrero, and Food Not Bombs, for which I made vats of potato salad every Wednesday night during its first year.
  • Reclaiming Collective, which teaches magic and activism, organizes rituals and pagan clusters at activist convergences.
  • The San Francisco Needle Exchange, for years the largest underground source of clean needles and HIV prevention information in the country.
Our Bibles in that time were The Dispossesed by Ursula LeGuin, a novel in which the anarchists have grown so powerful that they were given the moon, where they scratch out an existence in mostly peace and harmony (I was superhappy to see someone reading it recently at Bradley Manning Plaza when OccupySF was still living there), and the work of Murray Bookchin (which I never read).  We read Processed World, a magazine by and for subversive office workers, and watched Born in Flames, a movie about revolutionary feminism in a post-socialist U.S.A.  We made zines with word processors and press type.

We organized in opposition to the invasion of Grenada (remember that?) and U.S. aid to El Salvador, the 1984 Democratic Convention, South African apartheid and U.S. AIDS policy, the Nevada Test Site, harassment of sex workers and owner-move-in evictions (two of the three houses I lived in fell victim to gentrification evictions). Some of us were willing to work with Communists – notably the then-anti-gay RCP and Prairie Fire, some of whose members called themselves anarcho-Stalinists. Others were not. We had discussion groups, potlucks and at least one weekend retreat at Point Reyes.

We were mostly hard-core nonviolence adherents, but not surprisingly the media didn’t always see that, confusing punk fashion statements with aggressive behavior. Or maybe it’s just that anti-authoritarian youth groups tend to be seen as threatening by the establishment, regardless of their actual politics. One affinity group in 1985 or so named itself “Hundreds of Punks from San Francisco” after warnings published in the newspaper of some northern California town in advance of a planned action there.

I identify with anarchafeminism, which sees anarchist practices such as consensus decision-making as the most empowering to women, and anarchapacifism, which holds that we need to value all life, even the lives o people who don’t value the lives of others. For me, pacifism is less about the harm I might do to someone like, hypothetically, George W. Bush, than about the harm engaging in revenge violence would do to me. I don’t believe a movement that achieves liberation through militarism will be able to resist using militarism to consolidate its power, even against the people it claims to serve. One we can decide that it’s okay to get our way through violence, I think it is too easy to use that as a short-cut around the frustrating process of democracy. This doesn’t mean that all violence is wrong – personal self-defense, for example – but I believe Violence + Power = Oppression.

To be continued

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Love the Struggle

I have had no time to blog this week.  And I am a little in a funk.  But today I am in the middle of a really boring job at work, so I turned on Living Room with Kris Welch at noon on KPFA, and say what you want about Kris, she is a true feminist, and she sometimes has really great feminist guests on her show.  So she has this woman on, named Merle Hoffman.  Never heard of her, which probably says more about me than about her.  But she is awesome.  She is the founder of Choices Women’s Medical Center, editor in chief of On the Issues magazine and the author of a new book, Intimate Wars:  The Life and Times of the Woman who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom .  Now right off the bat, that title makes my hair stand on end.  I don’t know whether she chose the title; I’ve heard that non-celebrity authors don’t usually get to pick their own titles.  If she did, that’s a big problem, because no one woman brought abortion from the back alley to the board room.  Her bio says she is President and CEO of Choices, and I don’t tend to love Presidents or CEOs.  If I knew Ms. Hoffman, I might not think so highly of her.
Boy, there are a lot of great photos
of Flo to choose from.
This one courtesy Racialicious
But she just said something that I find so profound in this moment, when I’m having a lot of frustration because I feel like I keep spinning wheels and not getting very far.  She was quoting Flo Kennedy, who was apparently a friend of hers (which makes me think I might like her after all), and she said Kennedy told her, “You have to learn to love the struggle.”  And she said people ask her how she keeps going, when she never wins, and she said, “I love the struggle.”  Wow, that is just the most profound thing I have heard in ages.  I used to love the struggle.  I used to feel excited about the political work I was doing, whether it was a confrontational direct action or a five-hour meeting.  Now I tend to approach it all with a feeling of dread, of worrying that it’s not going to come off, or that it’s going to go horribly wrong, that I’ll let people down or let myself down, that no one wants to work with me, or I don’t want to work with them, that I’m trying to do things I’m not suited for or don’t have time to do things as well as I am capable of doing them.  I have petty resentments, and hate myself for them.
In the end I’m nearly always glad I did whatever it was, whether it came off or not, because ultimately I know what I’m doing is right.  I mean, the other day I interviewed a woman I met in Bahrain, Zainab al Khawaja, who was recently in prison for a week after an action.  She was lucky to be released after a week; she could be doing a life sentence for no more than that, like her father, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who is currently on the 21st day of a hunger strike.  I didn’t ask Zainab if she felt like it was worth it to go to jail for a week just for sitting down near Pearl Roundabout.  I know some of her friends were not that happy about it, felt like she could be more useful outside.  But I’m pretty sure she feels like whatever happens will be okay, as long as it’s for the struggle, because I think she loves the struggle.
A guy in my writing group, who is not political at all, just made a snide comment about one of my blogs, saying that it only reinforced his sense of the futility of going somewhere for a week and getting deported.  It’s funny because I don’t have that feeling about the experience at all.  It’s not like I think I made this huge difference by doing it, but clearly I made more than if I hadn’t, because now not only I but everyone I know is thinking about Bahrain, which we were not doing a month ago.  So if I never do another thing about Bahrain (which is certainly not my plan) I will still think it was worth it.  And I also loved it and was not asking myself questions about whether what I was doing was right.  I just did what came along and knew it would work out for the best.  But here, I have so many choices that it’s easy to look at other people and think they seem so much more confident about their paths than I feel.
This is the first day of International Women’s Day month, and the commitment I'm making is to do whatever will help me regain that love for the struggle.
Here's a little thing I did last week that I did not want to do, but ended up feeling really good about.