Saturday, October 02, 2004

Book Fair and Conference

Today I attended a book fair and conference put on by the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. It's not a group I knew much about, but apparently it is a liberal/progressive para-Democratic Party organization that was originally co-founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. Had I known this, I might have had a better idea of what to expect -- I just thought it would be cool to go to a place with a bunch of progressive authors.

I found it a very disappointing experience on many levels, though I did pick up a couple of good books.

To begin with, it didn't start on time. I admit, activist events seldom do, and considering that I tend to be pathalogically early to almost everything it is perhaps a bit peculiar that this fact doesn't usually bother me that much. But this event was really late in starting and it did actually bother me. They also had endless technical glitches with the sound system before the musical performance in the middle of the day, which further threw the conference behind schedule.

It was held at the LA Convention Centre, presumably a well-equipped venue, but there was little provision for people to eat lunch, especially for vegetarians. I had to content myself with a mediocre pastry and a coffee.

Though LA proper is comprised of a majority of people of colour, the roster of authors who spoke included 15 white men and 3 white women.

It was quite sparsely attended. I mean, this was an event where the pull was speeches, Q & A sessions, and book signings with 18 authors, some reasonably well known (at least to progressives) and it was held in the middle of a metropolitan area of 13 million people. I was shocked by how few people were present. This group and these authors supposedly represent the fiery liberal base of the Democrats, and despite such a rich (in some ways) array of content they can't even get more than a hundred people in such a staunchly Democratic county? No wonder they lose so often.

The ratio of celebrities to participants was startlingly high, though this is LA: the MCs were Ed Asner (well-known actor) and Mimi Kennedy (actor from Dharma and Greg, or so I'm told) and the guy who plays the father on That '70s Show was in the audience. I found Asner sexist and obnoxious. In the context of the poor turnout, the presence of "TV faces" felt kind of like it was a rather pathetic attempt to make up for actual organizing.

I found the politics of the event and of most of the authors to be disappointing if not downright distasteful. I should mention that I stuck around until about 3 pm, which, because they were so behind schedule, allowed me to hear all of the morning speakers but only the first of the afternoon speakers (whom I stayed to hear because he looked like he would be the best of the afternoon bunch).

Most of the content was very focused on the election, with minimal structural or analytical context, and an emphasis on personalities, dirty tricks, scandals, and the spectacle that passes for politics in the modern media environment.

Only two speakers challenged this in a significant way. Eric Mann, whom I have mentioned before on this site, is a white anti-racist and anti-imperialist activist with decades of experience in grassroots organizing -- he presented an independent leftist position, and was quite open in challenging the racism that permeated the proceedings (which was obviously appreciated by the handful of people of colour in the room). I got the impression that most of the other authors and a good part of the audience dismissed him as a leftist kook. On the other hand, I kind of got the impression that part of the point of having this event one month before the presidential election was to fire up the anti-Bush base (dazzlingly unsuccessful to start with because of the poor attendance) and Mann's staunch passion at a couple of points got some of the most enthusiastic applause of the day.

The other author to present meaningful content was the guy from the start of the afternoon, Carl Boggs. He's a local academic (though he taught at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, for awhile) who edited and contributed to a book of leftist analysis on U.S. militarism. Being an academic rather than an organizer, his talk and his book seemed to be less engaged than Mann's, but I was interested by his emphasis on broader questions of militarism and exploration of its cultural dimensions.

There was some other element to the whole affair that was bugging me, and I didn't figure it out until not long before I left: Most of the discussion (with the exception of Mann and, in a different way, Boggs) incorporated similar tacit assumptions about the nature of political agency, or at least about political agency that was thought to matter.

A digression to illustrate what I mean: Every piece of writing has some kind of a standpoint, and particularly when it is a piece of political writing that standpoint is implicitly or explicitly attached to what the author thinks should be done. The same thing is true of a political speech or discussion. Often this standpoint and the corresponding beliefs about action are not articulated explicitly, but just sort of emerge from the writing. For example, I am a big fan of the Socialist Register series of annuals. However, almost everything in them tends to be written from a standpoint that has basic units that are massive, like "the state" or "the U.S. labour movement" or "the British working class." By treating those as the basic units for analysis and by not making explicit efforts to link large scale collective entities to action at the human scale, it is those basic units that come to be encoded as having the capacity for relevant agency. Therefore any thinking these highly analytical essays might spark with respect to action (and it does tend to be mostly implicit in these books) tends to be at those levels that are totally divorced from the human scale. This means that, while it is useful for understanding the world in an abstract sense, it really has little to do with individuals and small collectives making decisions about how to change the world.

Back to the event: At this book fair and conference, the overriding narrative encoded agency in progressive individuals and in the Kerry campaign. In a way this shouldn't be surprising, since this gathering was one of progressive individuals who wish Kerry to win (while being more or less critical of him in various ways). But it leaves out what for me is the absolute most important part of social change: social movements. Or, to put it another way, other than Mann's discussion, there did not seem to be any space devoted to discussing the agency of politicized collectives outside of the campaign structure -- only the campaign and politicized individuals. Given that I have taken the position (pretty much since I was initially politicized) that it is social movements that matter in enlarging the space for justice and liberation, it is social movement momentum that is most sorely lacking in North America right now, and that parties should be dealt with reluctantly and tactically, this omission is pretty disappointing.

Anyway, enough complaining. I got to see a part of the downtown that I hadn't seen before and take a bus route I had never been on. I also got two new books that look like they'll be pretty cool: The 2004 Elections -- A Turning Point for the U.S. Left by Eric Mann and Masters of War: Militarism and Blowback in the Era of American Empire edited by Carl Boggs. Contributors to the latter include Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Peter McClaren, Norman Solomon, and Chalmers Johnson.

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