Sunday, November 24, 2013
[Margaret MacMillan. The Uses and Abuses of History. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008.]
Margaret MacMillan is a respected academic historian who is firmly embedded in the liberal tradition. I haven't read any of her original historical scholarship but there is one of her monographs I may end up reading, depending on how a particular project of mine evolves. I say these things because I want to start off by establishing -- despite my reaction to this book, and despite having different understandings of the uses and limits of conventional history from MacMillan -- that I appreciate that she does useful work, that it is highly skilled work, and that she does it well, and also that she has skills and knowledge around a particular kind of historical knowledge production that I don't have and don't claim to have.
This book is an adaptation of a series of lectures delivered by the author at the University of Western Ontario. It is lay-focused though clearly filled with reflections based in the author's long career in the academy. Many of its central observations, when expressed as general statements, are things I agree with -- about the dangers of distorted, selective, or falsified history; about the importance of using history to rupture myths, especially national myths; about the temptations of oversimplification and the importance of not erasing complexity; and many other things. As well, a few more sustained passages are useful too. There's good stuff in the pages about national myths, for instance. And the section that lays out the competing historical narratives of the Israel/Palestine conflict is better than I would've predicted (though its presentation as two supposedly equivalent sides without decision is kind of a cop out, and a later passage that moves into ancient history supposedly also relevant to the conflict is something I would categorize as a questionable use of history). And some of the things it says about Canada are useful -- for example, the author played a role as an outside expert during the controversy over the Second World War exhibit at the Canadian War Museum, and was on the side of the split that argued that, really, saying that there continues to be controversy about the strategic utility and morality of Allied bombing of civilian areas of Germany was just being honest, whether it upset veterans or not.
Nonetheless, despite my acknowledgement of the abilities of the author and my agreement with a number of the book's key points, the majority of my reaction to the book was significantly less positive. Since my brief foray into grad school a few years back, I've taken to using pencil to add the occasional note or underline in the books I read, and my copy of this book has "Seriously??" added in many a margin. I'm not going to attempt to be anything approaching comprehensive in reporting on all of that, but I think a good way to tie all of the varied shades of my dismay together is to note that most of them can be related to the author's commitment to liberalism.
One major way this manifests, for example, is the liberal tendency to treat crimes committed and harms done by official enemies and by Others very differently than crimes and harms resulting from the actions of us and ours. This is built into liberal knowledge production in a sufficiently integral way -- necessarily, given liberalism's commitment to rule-based knowing and to a self-image of fairness -- that it can be very difficult to convince those steeped in such practices of the presence of a double standard. Viewed from outside, though, it tends to be quite obvious.
So the book deals a little bit with the ways the Canadian state and those close to it have been mobilizing distorted history for political ends in the last decade, but it does so very tentatively and makes very mild claims. This is in contrast with other recent books (this, this, and this) that tackle head-on the mis-use of history in the Canadian state's militarist cultural offensive, but also in contrast with the strident language used in this book to talk about abuses of history by states that can easily be thought of as enemies. As well, the most important crimes of us and ours in recent centuries -- slavery, colonialism, genocide -- are most clearly named in the book when they are being presented as examples of things that enemy Others (China, Islamists) talk about to distract attention from their own crimes, and are otherwise dealt with much more obliquely (when they aren't just omitted in toto from points where they would to my mind be entirely relevant). When talking about the actions that we and our friends have engaged in over the years, colonization is very selectively acknowledged, and certainly its centrality as one of the key axes of global history over the last five centuries is largely absent from the book. And it is fascinating, frustrating, and central to how liberalism does this sort of thing that you can guarantee that if, for instance, you were to quibble with the absence of contextualization of the Vietnam War in the larger arc of colonial oppression and anti-colonial struggle, she could likely respond by talking quite articulately about that relevance -- and yet, still, that was not deemed relevant to include in the few pages on the war in the book.
The ways in which the colonial history of Turtle Island is not completely erased in the book but is largely voided of political weight is even more breathtaking. The first mention of that history at all is in a section about challenging comfortable myths, in which the finding of one 9000 year-old skull from the Americas that some scientists thinks may have had European rather than Aboriginal features is deployed in a way that seems designed to rhetorically destabilize in a blanket sort of way the claims of indigenous people to indigeneity (74-5), but just sort of in passing and without much discussion before hopping away to another topic. What does it say about the framework you are working from and that you assume in your readers that a single anomalous finding of this sort is used to call into question massive amounts of other evidence and narratives of hundreds of nations, without further discussion or even acknowledgment of the weight of what you are doing with your rhetoric? Even if this finding did mean what she claims, which it doesn't at all, it is classic colonial disrespect to present it this way.
And then there's a passing mention of histories of claims to the land in what is now known as "Canada" that simultaneously acknowledges the highly unjust character of land transfers in the past while still somehow implying that really the biggest concern is lack of good records from those years (112). A little later, there is a sentence about "Aboriginals" invoking various sorts of history "to claim back what they argue are their ancestral lands" (118), in a paragraph that is otherwise about semi-mythological claims by various European peoples to various bits of land in Europe. This construction fails to make clear that, yes, it may be difficult to sort out competing narratives in determining if a given area was, say, Anishnabe or Haudenosaunee land pre-contact -- that is somewhat analagous to some ways that different claims get made in Europe. But even if the details of which indigenous nations have what claims to what part of the land are not always clear, the fact is that they don't need to be clear to us. What matters to us -- to settlers and the states we have imposed on Turtle Island -- is that there is no doubt whatsoever, no need for qualifiers like "what they argue are", in talking about Turtle Island as the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples and not of settlers. Organizing your account in a way that implies otherwise is a big problem.
Another feature that this book shares with many different liberal accounts of things is a very shallow engagement with the Left -- both the histories of those states that appropriated for themselves the mantle of socialism, and also the various intellectual and political traditions tracing some lineage to Marx. As often with these things, much of what it says is, in an immediate sense, true of specific people or institutions or in specific ways, but the blanket way statements are made and the choices made about what to say and how to say it creates an impression that amounts to Cold War caricature rather than the kind of nuance and complexity that other parts of the book claim to favour.
Then there is the section talking about the ways in which history can be used such that people's attention remains focused on the past, to the neglect of problems in the present. Yet there is no clear distinction made between, say, governments doing this and using apology for long-past wrongs as a way to distract from inaction in the present (as one could argue the Harper government did with the apology for residential schools), and people's own decisions about how to relate present realities to past oppressions and take action to create justice for themselves. I would argue that such difference in standpoint matters immensely. This book goes on to caution about people using history to construct a mantle of victimhood for themselves. It does so in a very careful way, as if it knows it is treading on dangerous ground, but I think it still ends up encouraging a reading that will affirm the dismissal by many mainstream white people of the claims of Black and indigenous people whose struggle in the present links current-day problems to the past, and will be mobilized in casual ways by privileged people in general to dismiss people seeking justice and liberation. And, in fact, it's very troubling that the book constructs this opposition between a focus on past problems and a focus on current problems, for instance between the legacy of residential schools and poverty on reserves today, as if the former was not one important mechanism in producing the latter, and as if indigenous people who think addressing the former is important are somehow foolishly leaving the latter unaddressed. Overall, this implication that claims based in historical legacies of injustice are often dubious combined with a complete lack of analysis of the oppressive present and how it was produced by the past, is a serious problem with the book.
Another way the book ties into the overall pattern of liberalism is through various things that it says explicitly about how best to know the world. For instance, there is a section near the beginning that expresses some skepticism for ways of doing history that are informed by theory and that get too far from "what really happened" (37). Again, there's lots to say here. Academic obscuritanism for its own sake is irritating and politically dangerous, but recovering ways of knowing and naming the world in the service of social transformation will sometimes mean ways of talking about the world that seem weird and alienating, and figuring out how those two different tendencies are at play in any given moment is not always easy. But there seems no space in this book's account to recognize that sometimes it is precisely a bit of theory and a way of talking about the past that is a little less easy to engage with that is required in order to get at "what really happened."
Also, there are many places where the book engages in the liberal tendency to disguise political choices as apolitical technical decisions. For instance, in making its case that there is a role for professional historians that amateur enthusiasts cannot fill -- which I don't necessarily disagree with -- it makes it sound like skill and know-how are all that goes into producing knowledge about the past, and that choices that have some sort of political basis are always and inevitably counter to the goal of producing good knowledge. I just don't agree with that. Yes, skill and know-how and care and fidelity to the evidence are important, and you certainly don't have to look hard to find political choices that produce bad history. I completely agree that ways of understanding the past and the present that deliberately substitute what is comfortable for full, prickly engagement with the world are a problem that must be opposed, even (and I would say especially) when those doing so claim in some sense to be doing so with critical, radical, or left intent. Yet practices of knowledge production are never solely technical; they are always political as well. Liberalism often claims otherwise, and claims to have found ways to avoid the latter, but it inevitably amounts to hiding the politics rather than escaping them.
There's more I could say. I haven't touched on the various highly dubious generalizations about Muslims and terrorism and so on, nor her assertion in the final chapter that really business and the military make the best use of history and we should learn from them (all the while citing examples of current imperialisms learning from past imperialisms in a very matter-of-fact or even approving way, as if the US learning from the French experience in Algeria merits nothing more than, "Look! They're learning from history!"). But this has already been longer than I intended and I want to wrap up. And I want to do so with this: I began with the assertion that the author's commitment to liberalism is at the root of a lot of what I found troubling in this book. Another way to get at a related tangle of issues is to say that any general analysis of history, its uses, and its abuses that doesn't fall into some version of the problems in this book must, must, must begin from a frank and critical discussion of how we know the world and how we know the past. Because liberalism is dominant, it doesn't feel the need to lay out its epistemology, so it can disguise political decisions as technical ones, and it can sweep readers along in ways that sound authoritative and convincing and universal when they are very partial and questionable and specific. Epistemology must be where a book like this starts, but other than the implications contained in its modest skepticism about theory, this book has little to say about epistemology, or at least little that makes visible the foundations of what it is doing.
I'm not sure who I would recommend read this book. There are a few bits and pieces that are useful in various ways, but I really think that for the average reader looking to learn a bit about history and how it works, there are way better things to be reading.
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Posted by Scott Neigh at 11:53 AM
Tuesday, November 05, 2013
[Zillah Eisenstein. Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy. New York: Zed Books, 2007.]
I'm more than old enough to be familiar with the odd sense of dislocation that comes from being pulled back into the mood of a past historical moment that you actually lived through. This book, written towards the end of the Bush (junior) years, definitely managed to do that to me. So while I'm not sure its approach to weaving together theory produced in the academy with a critical take on recent events is as effective as it could be -- somewhat reminiscent of my reaction to a couple of more popularly oriented things I've read by critical pedagogy scholar Henry Giroux, actually, though the work itself is pretty different -- I really admire the commitment to bringing the two together. And in this case, I really appreciated the intensity, the anger, that Eisenstein brought to the writing, that evokes something real and important about the mood cast by the heavy hand of empire in that moment. Not a lot of academics allow that sort of passion to show in their work, and I wonder if we might be better off if more of them did.
The basic focus of this short book is examining the shifts in the social meanings of gender and race in the context of militarism and empire during the Bush years. The basic point is that there are a lot more meanings and possibilities open to people with a wider range of experiences of gender and racialization. However, the ways in which those spaces exist most often function to propagate meanings that disguise the fact that the actual workings of power are really not so different than when the mappings between identity and location within the matrix of social relations were much simpler and more direct. So, for example, the presence of white women and women and men of colour in relatively senior positions in the Bush administration served as a sort of decoy which distracted attention from the fact that the overall impacts of the ruling relations for which they were the public face continued to be misogynist, white supremacist, capitalist, and imperial. Or, for instance, she also talks extensively about the prominent role of women as perpetrators and/or enablers in the torture by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and argues that they served much the same function. Diversity, she argues, is not the same thing as justice, and the two should not be confused. That said, though, she argues that the greater range of ways of being that neoliberal diversity facilitates can be an entry point, a pathway, to justice, if struggle makes it so.
There are a number of things that she does that I find useful or interesting. Her take on the sex/gender distinction is interesting, for instance. Her analysis is that in contrast to the position that says that dominant notions of gender are binary because biological sex is binary, actually sex is much more variable than that when you actually look carefully at the (socially shaped) biology of it all, and it is the dominant binary organization of the social relations of gender that discipline our understanding of sex into a rigid binary.
I'm also intrigued by her response to the complexity of contemporary mappings between identity and power. I'm not entirely convinced that the actual lived reality is quite as different from a few decades ago as she seems to indicate, in terms of level of complexity -- I think at least part of what that analysis is registering is that critical politics were less willing or able to recognize such complexity back then. But certainly it is different, and she is pointing to a real, material change. And I think dealing with it by diving in, not renouncing the complexity, and following it where it leads by actually naming the various permutations and combinations of social experience and power, and considering their origins and meanings, is interesting. It certainly embodies in writing in a non-linear way the very complexity that is an important part of her object of study. However, it does also make it harder to read and harder to follow her argument than perhaps would be the case with a different approach. Regardless, I find what she does to be intriguing, as I said, and it is probably important to include in our repertoire something like this practice of seizing on reified notions of identity and tracing how they fragment, twist, and turn. Certainly it is preferable to just throwing up your hands and refusing to deal with the complexity, which all too many people do, including many activists and scholars with radical pretensions. But I wonder -- and I may be misunderstanding the situation in even hypothesizing this -- if perhaps plunging after the fragments of reified identity through the shifting currents of social meaning might be more manageable and more useful if it is done as part of a larger approach that self-consciously resists the reification as a baseline, and focuses more on the relations among people. Which isn't to discount the power that reified identity has in our lives and our social world, or to ignore that following their twists and turns can lead to important insights. But I think such a baseline might lead to better politics and to a way of responding to the complexity that is less likely to be overwhelming.
Or I could just be talking through a hole in my head, I don't know.
Another key idea that she presents is the contiguity between war and other sorts of politics, and by extension the contiguity between all of that and gender. It is a fairly standard objection by the left within anti-war movements that the more mainstream peace movement tends to be very concerned about the mode of domination (i.e. war and other militaristic stuff) but at least sometimes less concerned with the fact of domination (i.e. oppressive social relations that are not in this moment at least visibly a basis of violent conflict). Even granting that sometimes the anti-war left goes a bit far the other way and fails to recognize that mode matters too, I think that's an important point. And Eisenstein spends part of a chapter working through a way to talk about it all that recognizes the specificities of war but also focuses a good deal of attention on how the domination-that-is-war is very much integrated with the domination expressed in other modes as well. And, as I said, she argues that given that the social relational aspects of gender are tightly twined together with domination on a couple of axes (M > F, the binary), gender too is contiguous with war and militarism. I don't think I've thought through all of the implications of that, but it's an idea I want to hold onto.
Connected to this approach as well is her insistence that the increasing militarism since, say, Bush took office is not about an individual administration's bad policies but is a response to changes in global social relations. I'm not sure she quite says this explicitly, but I think that insight is important because it makes it very clear that it is insufficient for us to oppose this militarism simply by deploring the policies or politicians that enact it; we must also address the shifts in social relations that prompt it. Or, to adjust it to Canada in 2013, voting Liberal or NDP is not going to undo the militarist cultural offensive that has gripped our own country in the last decade.
For all the book's willingness to tackle complexity head-on, however, there were still moments where it felt insufficient. There were times where the complex experience and meanings of a particular phenomenon were spelled out in detail. But then there were other moments in which broad statements collected together moments from multiple contexts as belonging somehow together. And, really, it makes sense that you would have these, as a way to navigate the tension between recognizing complexity and specificity with the ways in which various fragments also have things in common. But I'm not convinced that each and every instance where this was done is sound. And some of the places where it happens are of definite political concern. For instance, even given that differences relative to the colonial axis were spelled out elsewhere in the book (or even on the same page), there were moments where the arrangement of examples of, say, patriarchy on either side of the colonizer/colonized divide really did seem to be eliding the profound difference in the implications of that divide and implying false equivalences. Or, for instance, even if it was not exactly intended, giving sequential lists of certainly related social phenomena in very different contexts without spelling out those differences or how they were socially related implies just by that sequential rhetorical arrangement a kind of sameness that doesn't hold up. This, again, adds weight to my conviction that while I'm happy to have read this particular approach to analyzing social complexity, I'm far from content with it. It again seems to be connected to following the meaning of reified fragments in a way that does not always account well for existing, socially organized relationships between the people encased in those fragments.(Sherene Razack's take, expressed in this book, that Eisenstein's notion of sexual and gender decoys in, for instance, the Abu Ghraib example tends to underestimate the active complicity of white women in embracing and reproducing white supremacy is also well taken -- not how I initially read the idea of decoys, but probably accurate, and I think related, via a couple of intermediate steps, to my own point in this paragraph.)
Anyway. There are certainly pieces of this book that I will hold onto and make use of, but I don't intend to take up the overall approach. It's probably of most interest to people thinking through some of the related topics in detail rather than as a general interest read, though if you're looking for a decent overview of some of the imperial and military nastiness of the Bush years that pays attention to gender and race, you might find it useful too.
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Posted by Scott Neigh at 1:18 PM
Friday, November 01, 2013
[Vijay Prashad. The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. London: Verso, 2012.]
When the global justice movement erupted into mainstream North American consciousness in 1999, much that was written not only in the mainstream but even by many of the participants in the movement themselves treated it as a phenomenon that started on the streets of Seattle. Right from the start, there were people -- generally older activists and radical intellectuals, often racialized, sometimes indigenous -- pointing out that this was not, in fact, the case. These movement elders pointed both to current but still older struggles ongoing in the Global South, and also to the overarching history of five centuries of struggle against European and Euro-American domination of which organizing against the World Trade Organization and the other elements of neoliberal global governance was merely the latest phase.
There were resources around, for those who cared to look, about each of these scales of history -- recent grassroots organizing in the Global South and bigger picture accounts of colonization and resistance -- but what I don't remember encountering, then or more recently, was material that effectively connected those two. And that, I think, is one of the key accomplishments of The Poorer Nations: connecting the institutions of global neoliberal rule to earlier colonial realities, not merely by pointing out similar patterns of benefit and harm, but by tracing material and institutional connections between the point A of the postcolonial moment and the point B of the neoliberal moment. The neoliberal institutions that were the targets in summit protests in the couple of years following Seattle (and that remain the means through which global austerity has been organized since the first wave of crisis in 2008) do not exist by accident. They are not technocratic solutions to capitalist problems that just happen to reproduce global relations of domination. They were, as Prashad's hard work in the archives demonstrates, put in place quite deliberately to do just that. They exist as they do as a result of a series of answers over the course of sixty years or so to elites in the dominant capitalist countries saying, "So now what do we do?" in response to efforts by formerly colonized peoples to make the global order more just. The G7/G8/G20 lineage of organizations was explicitly started, as Prashad shows, to smash the power of such attempts to create justice. And it worked. What was produced in its place is now called "neoliberalism." And while current efforts by formerly colonized countries to make shifts in the global order do continue, they do so with much more modest ambitions than in the early postcolonial years, and in ways much more attuned to their elites than to the bulk of their populations.
The organization of the book is roughly chronological, and it is mostly an intellectual and political history with a focus on the developments of and in international institutions. It begins with a more detailed examination of the moment with which its predecessor, The Darker Nations, ends: the turmoil of the 1970s during which the Third World project was at its high point and when its defeat was assured. This moment was also the moment of defeat within the Global North for post-Second World War social liberalism as a source of principles for shaping the global order. It was, of course, neoliberalism that triumphed over both. The next chapter traces efforts by the states of the Global South starting in the '80s to grapple with the new reality, and to arrive at new ideological and institutional tools to intervene in it. This resulted in a much narrower vision of what might be possible than in the Third World project, aspiring not to a radical reordering but to what Prashad calls "Neoliberalism with Southern Characteristics" -- basically attempts to stay for the most part within the neoliberal vision but with deviations from the North's approach so as to address the South's debt, re-jig the relatively new intellectual property regime which also substantially blocks industrial development in the South, and rework global rules for agricultural trade. The North has had almost no interest at all in making even token concessions, so the South was forced into the strategy that is the focus of the third chapter, that of depending not on generosity from the industrialized North but on co-operation among the countries of the South, with a leading role for the largest countries. Again, though this was part of a vision somewhat more humane for much of the population of the planet than the neoliberal viciousness of Washington and its allies (of course enthusiastically including Canada), it was still very much neoliberal and very much dependent on inequality within and between the nations of the South.
There are at least a couple of other key points that Prashad makes in this history that are often ignored in the ways that Northern leftist talk about it. One is to augment the still quite useful version in works like David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism to recognize the role of the neoliberal shift not just as a response to a crisis of capitalist accumulation but as a tool for maintaining neocolonial Euro-American dominance in a postcolonial world. Another is to emphasize that the elites of the South are not just hapless pawns of northern hegemons. Rather, as the mass anti-colonial movements faded as political forces in the South, Southern elites actively embraced an enthusiastic pursuit of neoliberal reorganization of social relations for their own benefit -- just with a slightly different inflection than the elites of the North.
The final chapter of the book looks at the less institutional and more street-based efforts within the Global South to advance an alternative to neoliberalism, from the so-called "IMF riots" of the '80s, to the electoral "pink tide" in Latin America of the '00s, to organizing by indigenous people, peasants, women, and in slums today. This chapter is really a different sort of thing than anything else in either of the two books. It certainly covers some important aspects of movements and state-based left politics in the Global South in the last 20 years, and some of its analysis of the present moment is very useful, but as history of struggles from below it feels much too brief to do them justice. And as useful as I find the analysis of the current moment that is really the bulk of the chapter, I think a more in-depth history of movements would do more to ground it. As well, the analysis itself (again, as useful as it is) could have benefited from greater length. For instance, I think there is more to be said on both sides of the debate about the potential role for the state form in struggles to challenge neoliberalism and, ultimately, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Even in his choice to begin his account from a 1989 uprising in Venezuela (which he follows up later in the chapter with an analysis of the accomplishments of Chavez) rather than from the Zapatistas, Prashad signals his stance in that particular debate. Which is fine, and I think his take on the question is worth serious consideration, but there's also much more to be said on the issue than this chapter has the space to say. In any case, there's lots to like in this chapter. I think his conclusion that material conditions mean struggles for the moment must be within nations and regions, and can only aspire to planet-wide internationalism but not yet realize it, makes sense. I also think his emphasis on the importance in the future of radical organizing within slum communities seems plausible. And I do like the overall approach of the chapter: identifying what is already happening and trying to figure out what that says about future possibilities. I think, really, this chapter should've been a book in its own right to most effectively do what it sets out to do.
So, yes. Read this book and its companion volume and you will develop a much surer understanding of how current institutions of global rule have been derived from past arrangements, and of many of the different moments and possibilities in the last six decades created by anti- and postcolonial resistance to the unjust global order.
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Posted by Scott Neigh at 10:07 AM
Friday, October 25, 2013
[A.L. McCready. Yellow Ribbons: The Militarization of National Identity in Canada. Halfiax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2013.]
The social shifts that this book describes enrage me. But the fact that this book describes them makes me very happy. There are a few key elements in what it does that I've felt for some time now need to be put front and centre in the conversations happening among folks working against war and empire in the Canadian context, and I think it's great that McCready has published a book that can contribute to making that happen.
Yellow Ribbons is a book that is very short and quite readable. It begins by situating Canadian nationalism and national identity in the post-9/11 world, with particular attention to the shift between the late 20th century liberal self-image of peacekeeping and multiculturalism to the more harshly neoliberal and militarist version that has at least partially displaced the former over the last decade. It follows this introductory chapter with two chapters of investigation, one looking at everyday practices emanating from various sources that have clearly been meant to propagate the militarization of Canadian culture, and the other looking at a range of media products that have contributed to the same phenomenon. The former focuses on the Yellow Ribbon campaign, the Red Fridays campaign, and the Highway of Heroes -- interestingly, the author says that she went into the research looking to find a significant autonomous, grassroots component to these campaigns for militarist patriotism, but in fact, though they certainly had some popular resonance, their driving impetus was much more closely tied to the Canadian state than she expected. The second investigative chapter talks about Canadian Forces recruiting ads, the CBC radio drama Afghanada, and Paul Gross' appalling but widely feted First World War flick Passchendale. There is then a short concluding chapter about "the new Canadian exceptionalism," which McCready defines as, "an emerging cultural and political idiom that defines and represents Canada (to itself and to the world) as unique and particularly well-suited to find its way in the 'post-9/11' global landscape by drawing on a perceived history of peacekeeping and multiculturalism to justify and legitimize neo-imperialism and racialized policing at home and abroad" (111).
To my knowledge, this is the third book to be published that is on the anti-war spectrum in terms of its politics, that critically examines the militarization of Canadian society since the turn of the century, and that connects it to questions of national identity -- the other two are Ian McKay and Jamie Swift's Warrior Nation, and Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War. All three of them trace certain aspects of the militarization of Canadian culture, and indeed each does things that the others do not, but I particularly like the way McCready's book lays groundwork for thinking about the change that is systematic and materialist and that hits a (to-me) sound political note in its framing (even if it does not necessarily build on that groundwork as much as it could, given the brevity of the book).
As well, in contrast to the other two -- and this is a point that I think is absolutely vital, and that anti-war and anti-empire organizers in this country have not done nearly enough to recognize and wrestle with -- this book centres the idea that these changes related to the militarization of culture (which I have come to think of as the militarist cultural offensive) are not merely about the military, but are in fact a mechanism through which the broader neoliberalization of everyday life and culture in Canada, and of the national self-imagining of many Canadians, is being pushed. I have myself witnessed numerous instances in which uncritically positive sentiment towards certain aspects of the military gets people who are otherwise progressive or apolitical to take stands with reactionary implications, often unrecognized, and I think this is something that is being deliberately cultivated by the state and the political right. And they are doing so not merely to transform our political culture around things military, but to enable all kinds of other changes that fall under the neoliberal banner.
And, finally, I was very happy to encounter a book that deals with this cultural transition in a way that pulls no critical punches in talking about the previously dominant liberal internationalist conensus -- something that, unfortunately, McKay and Swift do in a partial and tactical way and that Richler does in a more wholehearted and genuine way. The balance McCready strikes between recognizing that the change is real and that it matters while maintaining a critical stance towards the oft-romanticized "before" in the comparison is much more akin to how I would want to do it.
Of course, every book has limitations. Not that one book could ever hope to do it all, but length is certainly one of the limitations of this book, as I think there is a great deal more that needs to be done to explore how the militarist cultural offensive is happening and how it is impacting us. I think in particular there is more to be learned about how it is being co-ordinated, as the Canadian state has refused to release some key details of what has gone on. And I think there are many more strands to tease out in terms of how militarization has contributed to and interacted with neoliberalization. Some of that, though, is less about this book and more to do with the general limitations in the language and ideas we have for talking about culture in materialist ways. In particular, I think it is often hard to convincingly connect downstream material outcomes to specific upstream content and cultural production practices. And, finally, the book does not touch on the question of how those of us with anti-war and anti-empire politics can act against the militarist cultural offensive. That is a crucial question for us to be thinking, talking, and writing about, I think.
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Posted by Scott Neigh at 9:04 AM
Tuesday, October 08, 2013
[Staughton Lynd. Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change. Oakland CA: PM Press, 2013.]
There have been a number of occasions over the years, both in conversation and in writing, where I have identified as being someone who exists in a state of perpetual low-level existential crisis. It is perhaps not quite as prominently true as it was the first time I used that line, but it still captures something about my journey through the world. And one of the areas where it continues to be true is in relation to the collective, community-based side of my political work. I don't think there's ever been a time when I haven't relentlessly second-guessed my choices and actions in that area, but in the last year or two it has had a distinct flavour -- it is a rare period in which I am very busy politically in a number of ways, yet little to none of that energy is going into what might traditionally be understood as organizing collective, potentially confrontational movement activity. This causes me all kinds of angst. Not long ago I had the chance to interview two amazing activists about their own decision to invest significant energy into the slow, hard process of building activist infrastructure with a long-term mindset. That was certainly useful in my own reflections given that a significant part of what I do now (though very different from the two people I interviewed) could be thought of in terms of supporting "infrastructure of dissent." I think the opportunity this book has provided to refamiliarize myself with Staughton Lynd's development of the idea of "accompaniment" further contributes to clarifying my thinking about my own activities.
Lynd has been a committed radical in the United States since the 1960s. I first ran into both him and the idea of accompaniment many years ago when a friend organized a visit by him to the city I lived in at the time. I had the chance to do a leisurely, hour-long radio interview with Lynd, and to hear him do a public talk or two. Enough of us were sufficiently taken with his idea of accompaniment that we set out and founded a group that we thought was an embodiment of it -- it wasn't at all, really, which we found out after this friend chatted with Lynd a few months later and told him about the work. But the point is that I was struck by the idea even then, even if I didn't quite understand it.
In this book, Lynd presents accompaniment as an approach to political work that is in contrast with "organizing," at least as that term is often understood. Organizing, as it most commonly plays out in the post-Second World War labour movement and in post-New Left social movements, often means work to move people into a predetermined political trajectory or organization. This, Lynd argues, results in either "a complex and restrictive institutional environment that stands in the way of creative and spontaneous action from below (as in the labor movement), or (in the heartbreaking case of the civil rights movement) a situation such that when the organizer leaves, some of the worst aspects of the way things were reassert themselves" (1).
Accompaniment, in contrast, is a commitment to a long-term being-with, to horizontalism, to equality, and to something that resembles (at least to my eye) the Zapatista ideal of figuring out where we're going democratically and collectively even as we are in the process of acting and moving down the path -- "Walking, we ask questions," in the words of their slogan. It is not a matter of swooping into a community for one action, for a short campaign, or even for a few years, and building something decided on outside of the community, but rather a matter of living there, building a life there, building relationships there, and participating as an equal in the struggles that arise in whatever ways it emerges from below. Though it is applicable in many other situations too, Lynd's own development of the idea is connected to his experience as a middle-class professional in it for the long haul in a working-class town. Originally trained as a historian, during the last few decades he has been a lawyer focused on working with workers and, more recently, prisoners. In that context, where you begin from outside the community and with privilege relative to it, he emphasizes the importance of having some sort of professional skill to offer, even while deploying that skill in a way that undermines the hierarchy that is imbued in the very notion of professionalism and that seeks egalitarian collaboration with the expertise that all of us have in the circumstances of our own lives.
The book by and large uses a story-based pedagogy rather than an analysis-based one. It walks through struggles that Lynd and his wife Alice have been involved in directly, including the US civil rights movement, the US labor movement, opposition to the Vietnam war, and supporting prisoners, as well as a long, rich chapter about assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was an important figure in the development of the idea of accompaniment. It includes attention to both the shortcomings of what he categorizes as "organizing" and the amazing things that have been accomplished in various contexts through what he categorizes as "accompaniment." The book is a very easy and engaging read. I wouldn't have minded perhaps a little more emphasis on analysis, but that may just be me.
The one aspect of the book that felt kind of off-key is the way it relates to Occupy. I certainly have no problem with the book attempting to relate accompaniment to the most recent large-scale politicization to occur in North America, and there is lots to be said about how the sensibilities of accompaniment and Occupy relate. However, it does feel a bit like it was written during a particular moment of Occupy-related euphoria that has not lasted -- which is not meant to disrespect that particular upsurge in activity, or to say that we shouldn't be drawing lessons from and of relevance to that work. The tone just isn't quite consistent with the more nuanced and critical understandings of Occupy that have become widspread since that moment.
Along with linking Lynd's political sensibility and the idea of accompaniment to the Zapatistas, another linkage that I think can productively be made is to John Holloway's idea of fostering cracks in capitalism -- there is something similar about the commitment to radical, horizontal openness to what a future produced from below might bring, and a similar wariness of imposing pre-determined visions. In saying that, I don't want to imply that accompaniment is anti-organizational or committed to a pie-in-the-sky version of spontaneity -- it is entirely consistent with building lasting organizations and infrastructure. It just approaches that in a completely different way than the party-building or campaign-based left, and it insists that we can't really see very far into how that might work so we must let it emerge from below as we act and discuss and act some more.
Anyway, as is always true on books about how to engage in change work, I don't take this as being any kind of final word. I can certainly anticipate more objections to the approach than Lynd directly addresses, at least some of which I would take very seriously. Though the book initially presents organizing vs. accompaniment as a sort of binary, the way the categories are actually deployed through the book makes it clear that they are not nearly that clearly demarcated and they often interweave in the same movement. It is more a matter of contrasting logics than of essentially polarized forms. And I'm not sure, for all that I see accompaniment as useful and important, that I'm entirely ready to renounce all of the things that this paradigm might call "organizing."
That said, as a privileged person with a commitment to movement-oriented politics and long-term goals of social transformation who is living in a non-metropolitan area and who has a particular specialized skillset that can be of use to movements, I think "accompaniment" can be of use in my ongoing ruminations about what I do and how I do it. It is, I think, relevant to both of my major collective political commitments at the moment, and I will continue to reflect on how it can focus my actions and give me better context to understand my choices.
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Posted by Scott Neigh at 2:15 PM
Friday, September 27, 2013
[Vijay Prashad. The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World. New York: The New Press, 2007.]
A conventional overview of world history from the early 20th century to the 1970s would likely talk of World Wars, Cold Wars, and proxy wars. It would, to be blunt, centre the bloody dramas of mostly-white people, with the rest of the global population -- the majority -- rendered as bit players.
Certainly all of those kinds of wars get some attention in The Darker Nations, but the centre is shifted -- the focus is on the nations of what came to be called the "Third World." The use of that term, incidentally, is not quite what a lay reader may expect, and those reading the book's subtitle with the lay definition in mind might picture an even vaster scope for the book than it already has. Prashad's more precise and historically accurate usage insists, in the opening words of the "Introduction," that "The Third World was not a place. It was a project" (xv). Specifically, it was an effort by the decolonizing and newly decolonized nations to work together to push for a new global order that rejected empire and sought some measure of justice on a global scale. As a political project, it had a beginning and it also had an end, in its defeat by the ascendance of what later came to be known as neoliberalism.
Though a somewhat narrower mission than the unwary reader might expect, covering perhaps five decades and most of the world is still a massive undertaking for one modest-sized book. It is not, therefore, a detailed history of movements and struggles so much as a political history and an intellectual history that focuses more on nations' engagement as part of the broader Third World than the details of any one independence struggle, though it gives overviews of many local/national trajectories too. It is cleverly put together, in a way that effectively combines a chronological, geographical, and thematic ordering, and that really does capture key rhythms of history that by rights should be central to what those of us in the First World learn about those years. But, of course, the scale of it all means that each time, place, or theme could be treated in far more detail, controversies of fact or interpretation could be explored much more thoroughly, and the ways in which the world is made by ordinary people and our everyday and collective struggles could be made much more visible.
Even given that, though, I regularly ran into moments that sent shivers down my spine, where a glimpse of the struggle and sacrifice of millions would bubble up in a dry summary sentence or two. Even just the photo on page four, showing Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno, and Josip Broz Tito gathered together at a 1961 meeting is breathtaking if you take a moment to consider the titanic struggle against empire required to make it possible for them to be who they were, and to be meeting as they were meeting.
Given that this is a book written with specific, bounded intent that it largely realizes, I will restrict myself to a single expression of desire for more. The book does an effective job of giving due respect to the hope, the power, and the momentous character of the Third World project and of decolonization (outside of the white settler states) in general, but also refuses to underplay the Third World project's engrained contradictions and weaknesses and the defeats of the idealistic vision that originally informed it. There is probably much to argue about whether it strikes the right balance, but it gives plentiful voice to both. But it seems to me that it could productively have included more analysis linking the destructive consequences that almost universally accompanied the institutionalization of national liberation movements into national liberation states, and the recapture of the Third World project by neoliberalism, to contemporary debates about power, the state form, and movement strategy. I say this even under the assumption that Prashad's take would likely be more unambiguously marxist and less skeptical of the state form than, if not my final conclusions, at least the gut reactions from which I start -- I'd imagine I would learn a great deal if he were to do such analysis.
Anyway, though this book leaves lots and lots for the interested reader to explore in other sources, it is still an important corrective for those of us who have learned the relatively recent global history that has produced us in the white supremacist and still-colonial context of the First World, and I think it should be read broadly within our movements.
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Posted by Scott Neigh at 9:06 AM
Friday, September 20, 2013
[Noah Richler. What We Talk About When We Talk About War. Fredericton NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2012.]
I have some major disagreements with some of this book's political premises, as well as significant reservations about its framework. But somehow, despite all of that, I think it does important work and I know it will be very useful to me in some writing I may end up doing in the future.
The basic goal of the book is to trace shifts in public discourse in Canada as it relates to war and militarism, particularly leading up to and during the Canadian involvement in the occupation of Afghanistan. In doing so, it documents more thoroughly than anything else I've yet found some of the important elements of what I have come to think of as the militarist cultural offensive through which the political right and elements of the state have been trying to transform Canadian political culture when it comes to war and peace, and perhaps far beyond that. It documents the ferocious, multi-pronged attack on the previously dominant tradition of liberal internationalism by generals, academics, politicians, and pundits, and by co-ordinated efforts by bodies such as the armed forces themselves and the Prime Minister's Office under Harper. Of particular interest to me, it spends quite a bit of time examining how those efforts mobilized the myth of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, as well as other imagery and raw material for constructing Canada as what is called here and elsewhere a "warrior nation."
One aspect of the book that was emotionally challenging but probably good for me was its extensive engagement with writing and speechifying from the Canadian right. It made me very aware how little I usually read that kind of material. I mean, I've seen some of the key quotes from key figures. And it's not that I don't engage with material I disagree with -- I do all the time, it's just that when I read things I disagree with, usually they are liberal or left things I disagree with. But this book quotes very extensively from vile figures like General Rick Hillier, columnist Christie Blatchford, historian Jack Granatstein, and many others, and I think it was probably good for me to face in a more sustained way the kinds of odious and ridiculous things that crowd gets away with saying -- their bloody celebration of violence, their delight in empire, and so on. Lots of people take that nonsense seriously, so it's important to be familiar with it.
I was also interested by the author's insistent documentation not only of the explicit rejection of liberal internationalism by the state and elite media figures during the early part of the campaign in Afghanistan, but also liberal internationalism's persistence in the popular imagination in Canada despite that. The book shows that official and elite discourse around Afghanistan later in the war had been pushed to retreat from its outright rejection of liberal internationalism and into a sort of discursive appropriation of it.
One of the key frames for the book is the connection it constantly draws between narrative modes and political sensibilities. It associates liberal internationalism (and post-war social liberalism more generally) with the enlightenment, with a willingness to admit nuance and complexity, and with the novel form. On the other hand, it associates the celebratory militarism and harsh social policies of the Harper gang and their media sponsors with a refusal of complexity, a cultish devotion to a very narrow understanding of the hero, and with the epic story form. On the one hand, I kind of like this. It is an effective metaphor. It captures something important about the way the right in Canada in the last 15 years is distinct from how politics had been done for some decades before that, and it ties it to key elements of rhetorical practice and of distinct ways of narrating the world. On the other hand, I think the book makes rather too much of the novel vs. epic distinction, and it ends up substituting for more grounded, material analysis of what's going on.
Which of course leads to the ways that, despite how useful and compelling I find this book, I also disagree with a lot of its premises. It clearly comes from a place of enthusiastic support for liberal internationalism -- not just a kind of tactical, rhetorical support for it that clearly overlays a more fundamentally critical stance, as in McKay and Swift's Warrior Nation, but an unambiguous identification with it. That is just one element of its fairly standard (though of course eloquently and thoughtfully articulated) liberal romantic understanding of Canada, where things like the fact that colonial settlement in northern Turtle Island more often proceeded by negotiation than by massacre is taken as a sign of not-domination (compared of course to the United States) rather than a sign of domination accomplished by somewhat different means. I do think there are ways in which the distinction between modes of domination matters, but let's not pretend it's something other than it is. And despite quoting a couple of times from people with much more left-wing anti-war politics than the author's, it largely ignores the existence or relevance of that collection of political traditions, and in fact snidely dismisses us in an aside at one point. And in a way you can't blame him, since we have been rather spectacularly ineffective in making our presence unignorable, particularly around the recolonization of Afghanistan. But the fact that this book does so means, conveniently for the author, not having to even bother arguing against left, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist objections to liberal internationalism, the long history of liberal imperialism clothed in humanitarian garb, the inherently colonial character of peacekeeping (a la Sherene Razack's analysis), or the Canadian settler nation and settler state themselves.
And I think its analysis of war is lacking as well. It presents a very dehistoricized understanding, or perhaps more accurately transhistorical understanding, of what war is. I'm sure the author would argue that such an idealized understanding is warranted by looking at the history of war and militarism across different times and places, but I just don't buy it. I think we need to think about war and militarism in ways that keep material, historical circumstances much more closely in mind, and only through doing that will we be able to devise ways to challenge its root causes -- something the author seems to regard as impossible and futile.
Tying both of these criticisms together -- the embrace of liberalism and the dehistoricized analysis of war -- is the failure to recognize how central colonialism (and its legacy in the social organization of contemporary capitalism) are in any and everything that Western states do in terms of war and militarism.
So. If you're looking to understand some of the key events in Canada with respect to Afghanistan and with respect to war and militarism more generally in the last dozen years, this book will be useful to you. If you are looking to develop a broader understanding of war, militarism, and (especially) empire, be sure to read critically, and definitely read far more broadly than just this book.
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Posted by Scott Neigh at 11:05 AM
Sunday, September 15, 2013
One interesting aspect of how most of us regard history is a tendency to take the stereotypes we have of the 1950s as representative of the unchanging essence of our social world up to that point, and to assume that the loosening of constraints around gender and sexuality and many other things that began in the 1960s was completely novel in a world-historic kind of way. While the social constraints and the social organization of gender and sexuality in one moment are never quite the same as at any other moment, and certainly much that was new and different came about starting in the '60s, the idea that such constraints (and the social organization of gender and sexuality as whole) never varied at all until that point is not true at all. Whether you go back as far as the active campaigns by elites and non-elite men in the late Middle Ages in Europe to drive women out of many forms of work and out of public space more generally, or whether you just look at North America in, say, the 1930s, you will see that other, earlier times and places have been not only qualitatively different from the 1950s but arguably less oppressive and restrictive, and the constraints in these areas are not essential and unchanging but have always been social, imposed, and subject to resistance. Just to pick out three indicators that I'm aware of off the top of my head (though that I don't have ready references or links at hand to substantiate -- sorry!) showing less social constraint in the '30s than in the '50s, the proportion of graduate students in Canadian universities who were women was significantly higher in the former era than the latter (though the absolute number of graduate students in total was much, much lower); the frequency and semi-acceptance of sexual activity before marriage, meaning particularly sexual activity that wasn't going to get anyone pregnant, was somewhat more common than in the '50s; and there were physical and social spaces in which queer and gender-variant people could more safely and openly be themselves in the '30s and before than was true in the '50s.
In particular, right now I am wondering about what spaces and practices might have existed for playing with gender in the Canada of the 1930s. I have been wondering this because of a few old family photos I have discovered. Late last year, an aunt gave me two large boxes of photos taken between the early 20th century and today, and I have slowly but surely been scanning them and adding as much metadata to the files as I can. One of the frustrations of doing this work is how infrequently people seem to think of writing the basic information about a print on its back, or otherwise preserving for posterity who is in it, what they are doing, and when and where it was taken. This is particularly a problem with the older photos where the subjects are no longer alive. I can certainly recognize some of my relatives from my grandparents' generation, and older relatives can recognize more, but there is still so, so much that is preserved in these images but that we no longer have the context to understand.
The three images that I'm concerned with here show, as far as I can tell, people dressing in clothes associated with a different gender than the one as which they usually moved through their lives. I'm not claiming at all that these are indicative of anything resembling experiences we might label "queer" or "trans" today -- given my understanding of how queerness and gender variance were socially organized back then, I think it is highly unlikely that a young middle-class white woman from a churchgoing family in 1930s small-city Canada would have created and then preserved photographic evidence of any behaviours that would have been read by people with power over her as transgressive and/or degenerate. These photos no doubt show socially sanctioned gender play. Which, of course, is one guise under which people with more transgressive yearnings when it comes to their sexuality and/or their gender have always explored those yearnings, so that may be hidden under the surface as well, but really what they make me wonder is what their likely socially sanctioned character says about how gender and playing with gender worked back then.
The first two show a group of women dressed in what even then would have been read as old-timey clothes, some as women and some as men, and holding hands in ways to imply couples.
As you can see in the second of those images, they were taken at Waterloo College, which was what the institution currently known as Wilfred Laurier University was called back then. I don't recognize any of the women in these two photos, but they were in among other images of and belonging to my paternal grandmother, who attended Waterloo College in the early to mid 1930s. It seems likely that these were hers, and perhaps she was even behind the camera. I have no idea why they were dressed like this. It's plausible that it was for a play or other theatrical production, but it's not clear why women would have been playing men -- Waterloo College was not a women's institution but rather was co-ed.
The other photo shows a group of young people in contemporary clothing leaning against and sitting on what appears to be the remains of a fence.
All five of the people in this photo are dressed as women. The way that I read it is that at least two of these people are men who are dressed as women. Obviously making this kind of judgement is fraught with the possibility for all kinds of errors and for misgendering people. And, of course, the fact that you can't really know says a lot about the nature of gender itself. But I've shown the picture to at least two other people and they read it likewise, and one of the people that I read as a man (the one in the dark skirt who is sitting on the crossbeam) appears (at least I think so) in a different photo dressed as a man. The middle person in this one is, incidentally, my grandmother as a young woman (looking very much like my sisters at that age). Judging by her apparent age, it too is from the early 1930s. This scene seems to be less consistent with it being connected to some kind of theatrical production, though that is still possible, and it makes me even more curious about what exactly is going on.
My curiosity about these photos will probably never be satisfied -- write on the backs of your prints, people, and add metadata to your electronic photos, because inquiring minds in future generations will want to know! In the meantime, I wonder if anyone has ever done any work on exactly how gender and gender play were put together in small-city white middle-class Ontario in the 1930s. Anyone have any references to suggest?
Posted by Scott Neigh at 4:04 PM
Friday, September 06, 2013
[Chris Crass. Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy. Oakland CA: PM Press, 2013.]
I tend to resist generational explanations for things, but there does seem to be at least a partial correlation between the moment in which we are first politicized and the sensibility we carry with us ever after. There's lots more to it, and any given moment produces not one sensibility but many, often mutually contradictory. But moment matters. I think of people I've known who were politicized in the New Left moment, or of people I've organized with who came out of the Trot scene in Toronto in the '70s or the nonviolent direct action work of the '80s, and for all that their politics reflect social location and individual journey in major ways, and have significantly shifted over the years as conditions have shifted, they still carry with them some traces of that moment of politicization.
Though there are many differences between us in timing, detail, and journey, I think it's relevant to my reading of this book that the author and I are both products of (quite different) spaces that were left and anti-authoritarian, and that began before but were given generational coherence by the global justice movement moment -- that exciting window between the Seattle WTO protests and 9/11. I've never met the author but I first encountered his work in that period, and occasionally since, and I've found that it has always been wrestling with questions that have been on my mind as well, and usually in ways that I have found useful. It came as no surprise to me, then, that this book tackles questions that I also think are tremendously important -- especially around how to make anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-oppressive change, particularly when you are starting from a place of privilege -- and that it does so drawing on resources that feel useful (and often familiar) and employing approaches that feel promising.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that the "Introduction" to this book was written by someone who is a good friend of both Crass and myself, and that the person who wrote the "Foreword" and has been a mentor for Crass is someone I have met only once but who was generous enough to provide supportive words that appeared on the covers of my own books.)
There is a lot of book packed into the pages of Towards Collective Liberation. The first section consists of a short overview of aspects of anarchist politics and their significance for Crass and for US American social movements, and also a detailed critical retrospective of Food Not Bombs organizing in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s. This latter -- about the organization that was the author's political home in the '90s -- is a fascinating combination of movement history and critical strategic reflection, and it is an example I think many movements would benefit from emulating. The second section is three pieces around the development of the author's anti-oppression praxis, done with a willingness to be open that is rare among us middle-class white guys about the inevitably bumpy ride. The third section takes lessons from the African American civil rights movement and tackles general questions of leadership and strategy, and applies them to movement building more generally. Then there is a section with pieces, mostly interviews, from inspiring organizing projects around the US, and finally a conclusion.
There's lots to like here, I think. The commitment to making practical and real the often abstract-feeling analysis of the interlocking axes of power permeating the social relations that organize our lives is crucial. The lesson of the author's approach to assessing and navigating the workings of those axes of power in his everyday life and immediate political environment seems very useful to others of us struggling with the same questions. The demonstration of a thoughtful approach to combining that immediate-scale attention with broader, transformative politics is important too. And despite the author's origins in what I tend to think of as "big-A Anarchist" organizing -- something I've always shied away from, despite my own somewhat more loosely held identification with anarchism -- I definitely appreciate the book's commitment to extracting what's useful from that tradition and applying it to broader questions of organizing. I also appreciate its willingness to challenge things that amount to orthodoxies in certain anti-authoritarian circles, such as in the book's insistence on the importance of strategic thinking and of deliberately cultivating a particular kind of leadership, or its skepticism but not dogmatism about hierarchy. It's not in any sense a source of final answers in any of these areas, but in all of these ways and more, there is lots of fodder for reflection, experimentation, and inspiration that is very relevant not only to people operating in explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian spaces, and also to anyone active in broader movements.
I wonder a bit about choices made in the book about how to portray the messiness and contradictions that are, thanks to the social relations of domination that shape and surround us, inevitably within both us as individuals and in the movements we create. I don't mean this with respect to the obvious tightrope -- the dangers of teetering in one direction and so emphasizing the difficulty and pain of how power messes up our selves and our movements that it seems to readers to be ontological and inescapable rather than social and historical and subject to change, or of losing balance in the other direction and being so quick to claim answers and the cred of having transcended the mess that the depth and entrenched character of the problems gets glossed over. In that respect, it does a great job. It names messiness, it analyzes it, it talks about how to deal with it. It encourages organizers to be in and with the complexity and the contradictions that shape us and our movements.
No, my wondering is more about another axis. I have become increasingly convinced that the best way for texts to be of pedagogical value around these questions is not only to explicitly address the politics in question in propositional ways but also to work to get inside the bodies of the readers. It is related, I suppose, to the old writerly distinction between telling and showing, and more specifically to what I call "tell complexity" and "show complexity" in my review of Eli Clare's Exile and Pride, but also encompassing the intense visceral experience that is so central to this movement messiness and the challenges of navigating it. It's not easy to do writing like that, and goodness knows I don't claim to be able to do it. But I think the way that showing more of that level of complexity, mess, and experience and telling less would tap into readers at a more embodied level could only increase the pedagogical value of books of this sort.
I also wonder a bit about the way the book's politics are clearly grounded in spaces of relative leftist plenty. By which I mean this: The majority of left intellectual work, of the serious stuff that says this is how the world is and this is how we can change it, is a product of contexts (and writers shaped in contexts) that are, for lack of a better word, metropolitan -- urban, with a critical mass of rad folks around. The very fact of having that critical mass shapes priorities and possibilities, and adds a bit of distance from the experience of those of us not living in such circumstances. Now, I certainly don't blame this author for writing from his experience, and in fact I often like to read such things because along with all of the great insights that are applicable everywhere, there is also the encouraging reminder of possibility, that just because it isn't happening where I am doesn't mean it isn't happening anywhere. And, indeed, the way the book is put together clearly demonstrates some cognizance of this question, with its inclusion of the chapter on the wonderful anti-racist, intersectional queer organizing happening in a city in the US South, and the chapter on the rural organizing network in Oregon. But, still, those are the exceptions, and even the latter of those two focuses on the work from the perspective of the region-wide core where they do have that critical mass of folks with an anti-capitalist, anti-oppression, base-building politics in a way that I'm sure is not true at all in many of the individual groups in the the network. None of which is to say that I agree that important political work happens only in left-rich metropolitan spaces -- not at all. But the work is different out here, and there remains the norm against which we automatically compare. And the fact is, San Francisco Food Not Bombs and the Catalyst Project -- a fascinating formation devoted to working with white people to help build multi-racial, anti-racist, anti-capitalist movements in a diversity of contexts, and the author's political home in the '00s -- inform the core of the book. Which, as I said, I enjoyed and benefited from. But I also felt occasional pangs of sadness as I read, at the knowledge that I might never have the opportunity to be active in a political context with the same critical mass -- the same capacity of like-mind with which to do the experimenting, reflecting, and trying again that is at the heart of all movements, wherever they happen -- as the ones at the centre of this book. And from that sadness, knowing that it is not just about me but is based in real, socially organized divisions in how knowledge is produced and in how the production of movement capacity tends to be geographically distributed, I moved to wondering about what else could be done to speak more directly to the experience of the many people whom I'm sure read this book and others like it but do so from a place similar to me.
But even given those two bits of wondering on my part, it was still a book that resonated, and that brought together many useful insights and wonderful accounts of political experiments, successes, and failures. If you are trying to figure out how to build a movement, or an organization, or a group, or a campaign -- even if you weren't politicized in the global justice movement moment, even if you do your work in a town as different from the Bay Area as Sudbury is -- you will still learn lots and be challenged to think about your own choices in new ways.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Posted by Scott Neigh at 10:26 PM
Sunday, September 01, 2013
There are two distinct though very much interrelated tasks that those of us involved in grassroots media should be aiming to accomplish. It's a bit simplistic, but you can think of these tasks as being about us and about them, respectively.
The first task -- us -- is the publication, circulation, and amplification of marginalized voices, stories, ideas, and perspectives. It is about what differently situated ordinary people are doing and thinking, what matters to them, what they are saying about the world. It might be first-person accounts. It might be third-person descriptive stories that focus on what people have said is important in their lives. Moreover, it is doing all of this not as a gesture of charity to individuals, as the language of "marginalized voices" is sometimes interpreted in liberal circles, but in a way that recognizes (perhaps implicitly, perhaps explicitly) how each such voice, story, idea, and perspective can be both revealing of an individual life, and also tells us about the broader world. It is about seeing these voices and stories not just as isolated individual experience but rather in the context of collective, socially organized experience, and also as expressive of struggles in various modes and at various levels to create change. (It is also, by the way, not seeing this us, this we, as something given and already accomplished, but as a field of discussion and negotiation and struggle, a variegated landscape of differing experience and power, that must be navigated using hard political work -- part of which requires the very circulation of voices involved in this first task -- in order to build the movements that might have a chance of winning the greater justice and freedom that so many lives need in so many different ways.)
The second task -- them -- is about developing knowledge that explores what's going on out there to make our lives the way they are. It is about investigating in a very concrete, practical way how institutions are doing the things that they're doing, how social relations are organizing our experiences. Moreover, it is producing this knowledge in ways that are useful to efforts to create change, from everyday resistance to more collective efforts. This involves, to use a phrase I reflected on in a recent post, figuring out how things work in relation to people's struggles to survive, thrive, and create change in the world. It is reporting on the herbicides being sprayed on our forests, yes, but also on how that decision gets made and implemented. It is not only relating that a given institution isn't hiring many people of colour, it is tying that to an exploration of how that is happening and to other struggles in other times and places to challenge such things. It is refusing to erase that people on social assistance are being given the boot arbitrarily, but also making public the mechanisms through which the system is doing it. It is, in short, producing knowledge that individuals and collectives can take up and use in practical ways in their efforts to create change.
Any individual piece of grassroots media work might do one, the other, or both of these things. Any one person's practice might emphasize one or the other, or it might encompass both. I've done both, in different forms, but my recent activities have been a lot more focused on the former than the latter -- an imbalance I'm not entirely comfortable with but that won't be changing in the short-term.
What I think is important, though, is that our collective grassroots media practices -- the cultures of work we create, our organizations, our networks -- recognize that both of these matter and that they are connected but distinct.
Attempts to do the latter in ways not rooted in the former risk losing our political grounding. We don't just want to say things about what's going on in the world and we don't just want to describe how things work, but we want to do those things grounded in the experiences and struggles of people living within-and-against oppression and exploitation -- and not just whatever variants we ourselves experience, but across a wide range. It is that grounding which makes such knowledge production and the media that result from it useful. But doing the former on its own, as valuable as the resulting content remains in important respects, risks losing sight of the fact that our lives have been socially produced to be as they are, and that struggle can change that -- not to mention abandoning a potentially valuable source of practical knowledge for the people and movements trying to enact such change.
Along with recognizing the importance of both, there are some practical consequences to all of this. The two tasks are distinct enough that the skill sets required to do them, while overlapping, are not the same. Both are certainly skilled endeavours, and both can benefit from our grassroots media groups deliberately cultivating capacity in individuals and communities to make the doing of them more widespread and more effective. But I think the range of skill sets compatible with the latter is narrower and harder to acquire. We have to factor that into our work to build skills. As well, we need to simultaneously resist the opposing temptations to dismiss the latter as politically suspect because it is a less accessible domain of activity, or to dismiss the former as trivial because more people are able and likely to do it effectively.
We need to value both. We need to support both. We need to do both.
Posted by Scott Neigh at 3:11 PM