Sunday, February 6, 2011

Love in OHIO

People are valuable. Precious, even. Powerful and pertinent and worth patience and heartfelt investment. Not some people. All people.

It goes like this: There are a lot of people I interact with in my daily, weekly life who really seem to be waiting for something. It's awkward. We'll be talking and talking and there's something lurking behind it all. I don't know how to converse about it, but I can tell from their face that an expectation is still pregnant; has yet to fruit. Whether they want something from me or the world, they aren't sure if they've got it yet and they seem to be holding back until the right cue comes their way. This is all of us at some time or another. Certainly me, too.

Maybe we take that cue when we finally see it and maybe we don't, but either way I want to just shake us and tell us we're enough. More than enough: we're ready. We're worth it.

Dramatic words, I know. A lot of times what someone is waiting for is pretty paltry: a social go-ahead to open up or a nod of acceptance from a peer. I think about this on a larger scale, as regards activists looking for larger movement or people who used to do activism waiting until the right thing comes along that might really make a difference. Large or small, I want some way we could just know: There is no cue. The dance floor is open. It's ours to take. This is all there is: the present. The right time is now. And it was ages ago. And it is tomorrow. I think about this especially looking to Egypt and Tunisia, Jordan and Sudan lately.

When I want to shake us--you, me, and the people around us--I want it like a Hollywood buddy cop comedy at the low point in the film. Get yourself together, man! You've got [slap] to get [slap] yourself [slap] together! [slap]. This is to say, I want to slap us out of love.

Which brings me to the first half of the title: love. I remember being particularly inspired by part of bell hooks' All About Love, the part where she discusses love as a revolutionary act. She feels that the core of any revolutionary ethic should reside in love. Love: the will to extend oneself for the growth of another. A tricky amalgam of care, affection, respect, recognition, trust, and open and honest communication. It took a little brain stretch, but to picture this definition of love, a righteous goal for my relationships, as the core of a revolutionary ethic made me hopeful. If you hold all of humanity at the locus of care, affection, respect, recognition, trust, and honest communication, all work for justice becomes so clear, so necessary, so driving, and in a way so easy. Love trumps inertia.

What a powerful lodestone: to love all people and "the people" like you would a true love. If what happens to people the world round every day at the hands of those in power were happening to your lover or your child at the hands of a single person, you might be willing to move mountains to change it. Certainly you would stand up to the offender with all you had and then some. You would extend yourself. With love at the core of a revolutionary ethic, you would do the same for the people.

Loving gives us unnatural-seeming amounts of energy: it releases all the brain's best drugs and provides the lover with uncanny abilities in the realm of how far one can extend oneself. Remember the last time you were all gooey in love? Remember love jail with your new lover? The revolution is some seriously hard, long work, so thank Gosh herself that we have a trick up our sleeve for creating ungodly amounts of energy for a project that at many points will feel unreachable or hopeless!

Take a minute now and picture the strife in this world at the hands of a capitalist system that we in the US are responsible for. Think about what loving truly the people of this world would mean for how you live your daily life. Would some previously too-hokey-to-bother-with things become much easier to do? Possibly useless but wholly easy things like petitions and protests, shopping ethically and speaking out about simple things in daily settings? The drive of loving pushes innovation. What comes after the petitions and the shopping choices?

Let me be clear: I am aware that many people, including many I know, are fighting hard to change this world every day. They are working in brilliant, complex ways to make lives better. As much as anyone, I am writing to myself here. Myself and the many brilliant, sometimes broken, always buoyant, and fairly privileged activists and queers I know here in San Francisco. I am writing to the armchair anarchists and the dwindling anti-war marchers. I am writing to the snarky-but-informed youth of today who know the score but may not really believe they can change it or who only do small things, confusing 'a good place to start' with 'enough'. I am writing to the cynics in the crowd: hokey as it sounds, in the end, love really is the answer.

But the world is So. Fucked. Up. How do you deal with this shit?! Well, we're in the belly of the beast people. If we're waiting for a cue, it was hours ago. The play is droning on and our line is key to the plot's development. The show's getting boring. There is no time like the present to do a thing. Any thing. You have to start somewhere. It's like activism has writer's block. The reality is that the best way to break a writer's block is the scattershot method: write anything for five minutes or twenty or an hour. Know that you're going to burn or delete it at the end--accept that this time it just won't be consequential. Start somewhere that seems like a Good Start and just write for the sake of it, even if it's gibberish. When you're done, you have a starting point and you can begin the real artmaking process: editing. Looking at what worked and what didn't and tweaking it. I think that's what we need to do now. Scattershot activism. Start somewhere easy or wacky or inconsequential but well-intentioned. Work it out from there. Experiment.

What am I saying? I am saying come with me to the lovely state of OHIO. Only Handle It Once. This is a wonderful mnemonic for a profound and basic philosophy for gettin' shit done. It means: don't open the bill and put it in the "to pay" pile and then sort that pile later and then try to get a check mailed next week. If you have the money, walk straight to the checkbook as soon as you open the mail. Keep envelopes next to the checkbook and stamps in the drawer to the right. Do it now. Don't hash and rehash it: only handle it once.That's our job right now. Get to it!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cynicism = Apathy.

Well, sometimes a lady needs a strong title. Here’s the deal: I want to call us to action: us, the cynics. Are you smirking at my earnestness right now? Hear me out.

I believe that Cynicism is the main form of dialogue in our culture (and many of our subcultures) in the US today and that it is hobbling The Left (let’s, for the sake of conversation, accept this imperfect title ' The Left' as a catch-all for politically left activists of all stripes). Cynicism takes the form of snark and sarcasm and irony. It is this political-dialogue-irony-humor which is dominating all political discussion in our media, especially pop culture. Do you see it? It is the overarching tone of every advertisement (is also on the tongue of most lefty activists I ask about our chances of ever succeeding).The thing to be is knowing and disaffected. The way to win an argument is to be cooler. The thing to do, whether on Facebook or on the street, is to have an opinion—any opinion. This looks a lot like critical thinking, but it is missing a really important element of engagement.

Cynicism says: “There’s a protest tomorrow? Yeah, great. We’re going to go out and stop the war?. Sweet, is three good for you? Because three in the afternoon would be a really good time for me to dismantle capitalism and build a better world. I’ve got something around eight. I’ll bring my COEXIST bumper sticker, you bring the big, unattractive banner, the puppets, and the panicked, outraged pleading, okay?” Cynicism may go to the protest anyway.

The snark is really gratifying; extremely emotionally engaging—it touches on something very real and vents some righteous outrage. On the surface it appears to serve our purpose of calling out injustice. It looks like living a politically-informed life. But I believe the attitude behind the actions is devastating us: I believe that cynicism is a complex form of apathy.  I think cynicism is counterrevolutionary. Like a little, tiny agent provocateur in your mind. Like a Hoover of the heart. COINTELPRO for soul. Cynicism would have us stop before we even try.

I want to make clear: I think there is a very important (and sometimes very slippery) line between cynicism and engaged, critical thinking. I think the latter is an utterly necessary skill that is harder to develop than one expects and that we all could use more of—in fact will not survive without. The former, in effect, is still critical of injustice, but its response is different. Cynicism knows better. It's a basic too-cool-for-school attitude, but when measured cumulatively it shows itself to be devastating to our ability to effectively fight injustice and build movement. A habit of cynicism is degrading our connective tissue.

I want to change this habit of cynicism. I want us to change it. I have my own myriad qualms with how the activism I see is being done, but I feel like our commitment to making a better world at all is flagging under the weight of poor expectations.

At its core, cynicism is trying to ask a very valid question: “How could we really change anything, anyway?” And in this brave, new world of late-stage capitalism, who could blame a person doing activism in the United States, the belly of the beast, for arriving at a cynical conclusion: maybe we can’t. Somewhere along the way the question we’re always asking when we do social justice work (“Can we change this?”) was answered with too many times with what felt like a resounding “No.” (there’s always something new: oppression and injustice keep happening, always harder and stronger, it seems, and the people in power have so. much. power.). This leaves the Left in a state of depression. Maybe not as individuals, but for the sake of metaphor, let’s consider the left as an intelligent entity unto itself...a sort of super-organism.

Widespread cynicism is a clear sign of a depressed person—they will go through the motions, but in conversation, they always talk things down. They seem to take a certain pleasure in finding the faults in a person or argument and deftly breaking them or it apart. They keep trying, but the spirit is not in them.

Depression signals a need for change. We, the left, need to do things differently or we will remain in this downward spiral of failure after failure. Just keeping at it won’t change the pattern. We need to evolve.

We keep trying, but the spirit seems to be leaving us. No one expects to win their fight against oppression, say, tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. The world’s too fucked up. But setting goals is a clear route out of a slump, and every goal must be broken into attainable pieces. That’s easy to say, but hard to do when it comes to, say, ending sexism or dismantling the ill-effects of globalization. So failing a clear roadmap to a better world for all of us (though we do write roadmaps for this. There are amazing groups around the country doing wonderful, long-term planning.), we need something that is still ethical, but maybe a little less bound to the purely logical.

A story, come to me via Ruth, my friend and coworker: In the late 60s, Ruth was listening to the radio and heard an interview with a liberation theologist who was from Central America and had been doing work in either El Salvador or Guatemala. This was the sort of work that could get him killed. Work that had, literally, made him bear witness to comrades and colleagues tortured and murdered, individually and en masse, in ways that I, personally, am not capable of truly grasping. The wretchedness of US-backed civil war was his daily. He was on a progressive program raising consciousness on the issues and on how people might help, describing the immensity of the repression and the difficulty of the task at hand.

As he spoke, the host of the show kept interrupting him in disbelief: “What are you doing? You’re in the priesthood, you could transfer out. You could stay here. Why are you doing this dangerous shit?” The priest would respond, shruggingly, “I’m a revolutionary,” and keep talking. Over the course of a few minutes, the host broke in a few more times, still disbelieving: “But how can you get up in the morning and think you can change this? How do you know you’re doing anything?” And the priest would shrug him off, mumbling, “I’m a revolutionary.” Finally, the host interrupted again, same question: “How can you know you’re changing anything?”

Apparently, you could almost hear the guy look the host in the eye: “Listen. I’m a revolutionary. I’ve seen a lot of hard shit and I have a lot of hard work to do. I get up every day and work harder than I know I can. I go to bed and get up and do it again. But the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, I do every single morning. I get up and I find hope. That is what it means to be a revolutionary. To believe that I can create change in this world. And if I believe I can change things, then I have a responsibility. So how do I get up in the morning? I find hope. That is what makes me a revolutionary. That is what keeps me going.”

Hope, beyond logic but bound by ethics.

A lover of mine, years ago, was stuck in the middle of her own depression and having a real hard time shaking it. She found a book in a free pile outside a bookstore. It was called The Down Comforter, and it was about breaking depression. Hilarious and secretly useful for her, it had this to say near the beginning:
            When you’re depressed, every small thing feels like a failure. In small ways, you can break this every day by making every small thing a victory. Got out of bed? Go you! Brushed your teeth? Score! Turned on the radio to see what’s going on? That’s not nothing! Went on a dismal blind date? Good try, they were just a dud anyway!

Like most self-help books, it felt goofy but it had a point: we need to feel like we’re winning. If we deny ourselves the buoys of smaller victories, we eliminate the possibility of greater success. The difference between depression and (r)evolution is a surprisingly subtle, attitudinal shift—something that is nearly autonomic. I’m calling us all out (me, too) for our habit of cynicism. We have to find a new way of reacting.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not trying to convince you that the interminable International ANSWER protest you were at was charming and profoundly effective. I am not saying that writing letters to congresspeople changes the military industrial complex. I think we need better, more glamorous and cunning strategies than we are employing and I will get to that in future posts.

What I want to leave on is this: we have a choice. We all look at a problematic world and think: What can be done? We are all, often, trying to do something. And when that something fails, or at least doesn’t succeed, we can either try something else, or we can keep trying the same thing. We seem to be picking a middle ground: keep trying the same thing and keep complaining. I want more. I think we need to engage the psychology of the left and see what needs retooling.

So, are you willing to do some homework? It's easy: Identify cynicism. Examine it. Keep track of it. In you, and in others. Start a political conversation or a discussion of someone’s new project. Keep an eye on the cynicism and start to think what an equally critical but totally un-cynical reaction could be.

Next week: utopia!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Earnesty (ur-nist-ee): this is not a word

Welcome! Yes, earnesty is not a word. Or, it's an easy verbal misstep and I think it's important. It is now a word.

Earnesty: earnestness; the state of being earnest. A purposeful blend of earnest and honest. A point on a compass that leads us toward a better world.

I am writing this because I think we have some redefinition to do in the radical left; in this country; in this world. I feel a zeitgeist reaching toward connection, toward community, toward a world where we are not trapped in a machine which asks us to destroy each other's lives in order to make our own better. I feel an American left (a flawed but useful term) collectively too cynical and too dour to keep ourselves afloat. I feel that we are all reaching toward meaning.

So let's talk about meaning. Let's define what we are looking for. Let's discuss. Let's remember how to be disagreed with. Let's learn that the revolution is not a joke and not a single event and not just something to argue about the shape of, but a euphemism for this trek towards a better way to live that we all, Tea Partiers and radical lefties alike, are making daily, hourly in this crazy life.

I want to propose definitions for words like revolution, hope, faith, and utopia. I want to preach to the choir. I want to embrace romanticism as a valid tactic for brewing hope--something we desperately need in these trying times. Romance is a tool that lifts us and strengthens the fabric of our world. It is the necessary counterpart to logic.

I think that we on the American left have begun to take too many grains of salt with our tasting of the world. Sometimes I feel like salt is all we eat on the far left nowadays. Critical thinking is vitally necessary to work for justice in this world, but it sours and becomes cynicism when we forget that the way to find hope is not empirical research but extralogical manufacture. I think our cynicism is destroying our ability to taste the full flavor of our lives. Of this thing we leave undefined, sometimes called the revolution. 

I hope that earnesty is an antidote to our radical left's fall into dourness, dogma, and apathy. Earnesty as a concept and also as a website--a place in our hearts and on the internet for radical hope to find shelter and fertillity amidst the hypersaline conditions of a wayward left.

Don't misread: hundreds of thousands of people across culture and subculture are doing brilliant, beautiful, hard work. I do not mean to say that we have lost hope or that I can speak for everyone. I run in mostly white, middle- and lower-class radical circles. What I have seen and heard, first-hand and 6th degree, is a generalized trend of cynicism. I want to destroy cynicism. I think it is a clinically advanced form of apathy.

I hope to herald good work and name what we think good work can look like. I hope to expand what we think of as valid. I hope to remind us that our work must be delicious and attractive, must feed our mouths and our souls, must meet people on a level of heartlifting fantasy as well as grounded realism.

I intend to toe the line between preacher and polyanna. We have hard work to do, there is no doubt. The amount and weight of the work we who are committed to justice must do is so large as to seem insurmountable. But what else are we going to do? Nihilism is for the broken.

Think of the revolution like a farm: there is always hard work to do. If we feel burdened by it, we will be broken. But if we can truly love the work--love it like bell hooks defines love as a mixture of care, affection, respect, commitment, open and honest communication--love it and be willing to extend ourselves for the sake of its growth, then we will tire but never break. Instead, we will find joy in the doing of the work. We will be able to innovate and expand. By investing in romance, by loving the work we have before us, by engaging fantasy and logic at once, we can grow a revolution that works.

Shall we?