Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Albert Draws Lessons From Chavez Speech

Michael Albert's reflections on Hugo Chavez's speech to the United Nations are important, I think -- too many of us are caught in traps of civility, of playing it safe, of reacting to discomfort-but-safety by hiding even when that fails to be accountable to very real lack of safety for many, many others.

A few relevant paragraphs:

I would guess that Chavez didn’t think to himself, they will revile me in their columns and commentaries, so I better not rip into Bush and celebrate Chomsky. The ensuing ridicule might reduce my stature, I better avoid it. To rip Bush and celebrate Chomsky will look strange, I better avoid it. If I do that I will be giving time to elevating someone else, and not myself, and I better avoid it. I will be displaying anger and passion, and that will brand me as uncivil and improper, it will label me as undignified and even juvenile, and I better avoid it. How many of us think like that, how often, is a question worth considering.

Instead, I suspect Chavez thought, Chomsky’s work deserves and needs to be more widely addressed. It affected me. It needs to affect others. I will try to push it into people’s awareness using all the means at my disposal to do so, which, indeed, he has been doing, though with much less success, for some time now. ... We don’t all have a giant stage, or often even a large stage, or even any stage at all, from which to sing our songs. But we can still do our part, wherever we may be. And the fact is, we who know so much often don’t do our part. We often don’t point out sources of ideas and discuss them with our workmates, schoolmates, and families at every opportunity. If we have audiences for our work, again we don’t use our writing, talks, and other products to promote valuable work by others beyond ourselves. Why is that? Sometimes we are afraid of reprisals. Sometimes we are afraid of looking silly. Sometimes we just don’t want to do it because it isn’t our thing. Cheerleading and recommending, that’s not my thing. I doubt it will work. I won’t bother trying. Then our foretelling of failure is fulfilled. Well, we need to get over all that.

Again, I think the difference between Chavez and most others even on the left is that Chavez is seeking to win, and we are instead seeking, as often as not, to avoid alienating pundits or to even appeal to them. We are seeking to avoid annoying anyone we like, or anyone we might like, or who might like us. We are seeking to avoid looking odd to anyone, or to avoid making a mistake, or to avoid seeming shrill and angry, or self serving, or passionate. And we need to transcend all that.

Now, I think the phrase "we who know so much" should be understood as being pronounced with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek inflection -- the point isn't so much "us" having more knowledge than "them", which may or may not be the case in any particular situation, as raising potentially alienating issues to begin with while keeping a firm, humble, openly admitted grip on both our knowledge and our ignorance. So I'd maybe want to add a whole paragraph or eight about listening and asking questions as well as pontificating, things the left in North America is often pretty awful at as well. But that doesn't take away from the importance of sharing where we are at and engaging with those around us in face of the tension-in-the-body instilled within us by white middle-class North American conventions of oppressive/repressive civility. I'm not always so good at that.

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