Saturday, January 20, 2018

Social movement victories in 2018

Today, I want to write about social movement victories. I want to reflect on what that means a little, and then this thread will be one I come back to throughout the year to add movement victories from North America and maybe elsewhere in 2018.

I think those of us who ground ourselves politically in movements, communities-in-struggle, and the extra-parliamentary left don't often do enough to note and celebrate when we win things. Partly – and this is kind of counterintuitive – that's because we don't actually win things very often, these days. I was born in 1974, and you can make a case that the global reaction against the wins by movements, communities, and national liberation struggles in the preceding two decades began to take shape at about that point. So in my lifetime, we (understood broadly and vaguely) have lost far more often than we've won. As well, when we do win, as wonderful and important as those victories are, they tend to be vastly smaller in scale than the systemic violence, exploitation, and oppression that remains to be faced, so it's understandable that folks just move on to the next fight.

And yet, when we act bravely and collectively, we can win, we do win. Noting and celebrating that is about respecting the cleverness, the bravery, the work that made it possible. And it's about actively remembering our own power – which is absolutely essential to win more in the future.

Now, before I get to the list portion of this thread, I want to complicate a bit what the term "victory" means.

For a lot of people, victory means surviving another day. That is not just an empty slogan. I think it sometimes gets treated that way, but it really shouldn't be. Rather, it is a deliberate valuing of everyday resistance – which is the resistance from which all else is built. And it is a recognition that for those who are most intensely targeted by violence from the state and other sources, refusing to die and insisting on building conditions for thriving are themselves ongoing challenges to the oppressive status quo. As well, there are definitely times when a successful collective action can legitimately be understood as a victory even if it doesn't directly lead to tangible gains. Building the "we" that will continue to struggle is itself a win.

All of which means that there are all kinds of victories that we need to be paying attention to and really celebrating – victories that are real, material wins that build towards a better collective future – that I just won't be able to capture in this thread. Every time an Indigenous child develops fluency in their language, that's a win. Every time Black communities, in the face of another police killing, come together to support each other, that's a win. And so on. And I think actions like #TimesUp can legitimately be understood as wins. Yes, it was full of contradictions, it was messy, it did certain things and not others. But it wove new people into struggle, it connected grassroots messages with new audiences, it gathered significant new money to support movement work. It was a win.

This thread, for better or worse, is going to take a much narrower approach. Not because all of those things aren't victories, and not because they don't matter, but because there is lots I just can't see, and because recognizing moments when all of those kinds of victories turn into forcing changes in oppressive systems matters too.

In listing these wins, I'm most interested in the context of the Canadian state, but I'll be actively adding US examples too. And I won't be looking for them but I may add instances from elsewhere as well.

So, finally, here is the start of my list of victories by social movements and communities-in-struggle in 2018, to which I hope I can make many additions in the next eleven and a third months:

1. At the beginning of 2018, Ontario's minimum wage went from $11.60/hr to $14/hr (on its way to $15/hr next year) thanks to years of organizing by people across the province.

2. In response to Toronto's inadequate shelter system and a brutal cold snap, street nurse Cathy Crowe, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and others mobilized to push the city to open the Moss Park Armoury for use as an emergency homeless shelter.

3. The climate movement pushed New York City to divest its pensions from fossil fuel companies and to launch a lawsuit seeking compensation for climate change-related damages from the five biggest oil companies.

4. Ottawa-based academic Hassan Diab was finally, after years of legal and movement work in support of his struggle, released from his false imprisonment on terrorism-related charges in France and returned to Canada.

That's what I have so far. I'll do my best to remember to keep this list updated as the year progresses. Please send me your suggested additions! :)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pushing back against the claim that ending harassment will end romance

I've been thinking, over the last few days, about this piece – "Ending Harassment Won't End Romance" by Sarah Jaffe.

It challenges the absurd claim that keeps popping up in the mainstream that #MeToo and the current wave of challenge to sexual harassment and sexual abuse "will, somehow, end flirting, fun, and romance." Jaffe links several pieces that make such claims. Or there's the more recent statement from 100 prominent French women making similarly ridiculous claims about how the post #MeToo moment threatens sexual freedoms.

Jaffe's piece points out that this concern and its variants seem to be premised on the idea that "men are incapable of interpreting signals from other people about sexual interest." This incapacity is assumed to be inherent and just how things are. Flowing from this (incorrect) premise is the (incorrect) idea that men plunging forward with advances, innuendo, touches, kisses, in the absence of knowing that they are welcome is an unavoidable part of sex and romance. End one, you end (or seriously impede) the other.

It would be hard to overstate how utterly silly this idea seems to me, not to mention dangerous.

Jaffe challenges it by going after the premise that she has identified. She argues that whatever gendered imbalances exist in capacity to interpret signals are not inevitable but about power, socially enforced gender roles, and the gendered public/private divide, and that men are perfectly capable of acquiring these capacities. Which means that sexual/romantic cultures that are premised on ongoing mutual nonverbal and verbal signalling of interest, and engaged mutual seeking, reading, and acceptance of those signals, are entirely possible.

I agree with her.

Moreover, I agree with her as someone who is colossally bad at knowing when someone might be interested in me. I know this incapacity is not absolute and inherent, but for me has a specific origin and is amenable to change with work and time. I know this because, in general, I'm actually pretty good at reading people and relationships and situations. It's just that, for me, social anxiety and various flavours of shame get in the way when it comes to knowing if people are interested in me. That's one etiology among many, of course, and I suspect what Jaffe describes is more common, so the kinds of work required to resolve this incapacity will vary. But, regardless, absolute and invariant it is not. (And for the record, I have rarely if ever been a "plunge forward" type, notwithstanding a few embarassing choices when I was younger. Mostly, I assume no one is interested and act accordingly.)

I also think that the premise Jaffe writes about is not the only faulty premise bolstering the fears that challenging sexual harassment and abuse might lead to the end of romance, flirting, and sex. I think, drawing on things that feminists identified decades ago, that it is also premised on sexist narratives of women's experiences of desire being absent or weaker or passive or inherently more subject to containment by propriety than in men. Men pursue, women are pursued. Men are beasts, women are the guardians of morality. Etc. Sure, there's a longer discussion to be had there about the micro-politics of initiating relationships and encounters -- women face much more intense surveillance and social punishment for their choices, and of course the ubiquity of sexual violence itself shapes how it all happens. But the idea that men obliviously plunging forward in the absence of enthusiastic encouragement is the only source of energy and initiative from which romantic and sexual fun can spring is...well, again, very harmful and kind of silly.

I wonder, though, whether some of the vehemence with which some men disparage the kind of sexual culture imagined implicitly in the Jaffe piece and much more clearly in lots of other writing is also about something beyond masculine sexual entitlement.

Let me take a few steps back to explain what I mean:

One very common idea of freedom, of what life should be, boils down to maximizing your space to be able to do whatever you want, unencumbered by constraints from other people, rules, the state, etc. This is the freedom of right-libertarianism, of classical liberalsim, of neoliberalism, of the MRA, of the sexist gamer boy, of the man-child, of the tech start-up bro, of dominant masculinity. The targets of its complaint and the degree of insistence that it should be absolute, versus willingness to balance it with other goods, varies with its precise flavour and kind. But in all of these cases, freedom is treated as being about getting you out of my business.

In contrast, insisting that it be normative to invite, actively seek – early, at every scale, continuously – signs of interest, or not, in sexual and romantic contexts is precisely the opposite. It is saying that I must invite you into my business. It is not only saying I must respect your boundary when you set it, but it is inviting you to play a role in shaping my conduct, my choices, even my desires, before they bump into a hard boundary that you have set. It is deliberately and consistently going out of your way to make sure that your every space, every relationship, is co-created by the others who are in them. It is inviting others – in ways and degrees attuned to the specific relationships and contexts – in to co-create you.

Which is not to say that it is easy or simple, or that there is just one way to do it. Rather, it is a different starting point for navigating all of the inevitable complexities of relating to those around us. It is also not to argue for a surrender of self or of principle – it is co creation, not obedience.

To those whose only vision of a good life is maximizing the disconnected autonomy of the liberal self and/or the rigid impermeability of dominant masculinity, this is a tremendously threatening idea in ways that go far beyond romance and sex. It is an attack on an important micro-level building block of how gendered power is reproduced in our everyday lives. It touches every aspect of how our families, our friend groups, our activist formations, our classrooms, our workplaces function.

So I don't think this idea explains everything – many of the objections to a robust ongoing challenge to sexual harassment and abuse are definitely about nothing more than masculine entitlement to women's bodies. But this is part of the mix.

And as for it ushering in a new age of sexual puritanism – again, that's a dangerous and silly suggestion. For me, at least, realizing this mode of relating to others requires connecting to desire and vulnerability through the powerful block of shame in a dynamic, fine-grained, ongoing way that is precisely the opposite of the puritanical "No!" and "Bad!". It holds the potential to lead to an equitable rather than a dominating/misogynist anti-puritanism.

And to me that's a pretty enticing possibility.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Eduardo Galeano and the telling of resistant stories

At the moment, I'm in the middle of reading Hunter of Stories by Eduardo Galeano (translated by Mark Fried). Galeano, who died in 2015, was an Uruguayan writer and public intellectual of global renown. I haven't read his early classics Open Veins of Latin America or the Memory of Fire trilogy, but I've read a couple of his later books.

Hunter of Stories was written in the years before he died and was only published posthumously. Like others of his later books, it collects very short pieces of story – almost all shorter than a page, in what I've read so far, and most considerably so. The title of the book refers to Galeano himself, who – like any master storyteller – collected stories wherever he went. The pages are filled with what he has found, and then distilled, polished, and presented. He has, it seems, taken fragments from dusty books, from ancient myths, from the pages of newspapers, from his own life, and from a thousand conversations with the people he has met in his travels. In his choices about which fragments are worth extracting and re-telling, and his ever-so-minimal approach in doing so, he makes them his own...but, as storytellers often do, he sends them out into the world to be told and shared again in turn.

I don't actually know much about him or about his process of working, but for some reason I imagine him in conversation with my partner's maternal grandfather – a rural working-class man, devout and conservative, who did hard manual labour his whole life. And also a storyteller. He was the sort of storyteller who would start at random, proceed at length, and reveal only by a glint in his eyes just before he dropped the punchline that this was not an anecdote from his day, but a joke he'd heard, re-packaged, and re-told just for you. So though the two were very different men – different lives, different politics – I for some reason am drawn to imagining the joy in the Spanish-accented and Pennsylvania-Deutsch-accented Englishes as stories fly back and forth over coffee at a kitchen table.

But I digress.

The book is remarkable for two reasons. The first is its craft.

The stories do many things. Some are pointedly political, others more subtley so. Some are general observations of the world, others are narrativizations of self. Many are told with humour, while many relate the tragedy of a violent, oppressive world. What is amazing is how effectively Galeano does all of these things with so few words – just a few lines, often, and rarely more than a few short paragraphs. I also happen to be reading a science fiction novel by Cixin Liu right now, and in it one character talks about Chinese landscape paintings that capture an entire scene in very few brushstrokes. I feel like Galeano does that with his stories.

But what is perhaps even more remarkable about these stories, and what I had trouble identifying for awhile after I started reading, is the rare way it brings together the conversational and the resistant in print.

There are a limited range of ways that we get used to encountering words that honestly name the colonial and capitalist domination of the world, and the things that people do to survive and thrive. Many of us have little opportunity to encounter such words at all. They are mostly not in the media that most of us view and hear and read – people's realities sneak in anyway, but they are rarely matter-of-factly present. Others of us encounter them primarily in written form, but it is the written form of the polemic, the dense novel, the ideological code-word, the (quasi-)academic decoding of the social, all of which are important but all of which are boundaried, limited. It's not that we don't need those things – we do. But they are knowledge with built-in walls. They name what we have been deprived of the tools to name, which is great, but that means many will be unable to understand them without other kinds of work. And a few of us encounter honest naming of colonial and capitalist domination through the people around us relating and reflecting on their lived experiences. Which is crucial – it's how communities-in-struggle make and re-make themselves, it's how moments of everyday resistance are shared and circulated. And, frankly, listening to such moments is a big part of the work-life I've constructed for myself. But everyday conversation is bounded as well, not because it won't be understood, but because it won't be heard. Chatter over a water cooler or kitchen table by definition reaches only those others gathered around the same object.

What Galeano does, here, is takes all of those resistant knowledges that he has encountered – the polemic, the shared everyday conversation, the obscure incident in the dusty book, the anecdote, the myth – and makes them story. The language of story, the circulability of print – it allows a kind of naming of the world that is so often kept restricted to certain spaces or to inaccessible forms, or forced to pre-emptively defend itself, to feel broad and normal and ordinary.

That's precious and rare, and the chance to experience it is making me glad that I'm reading this book.

Anyway. I look forward to reading the rest of it, in particular the later sections that I think feature more stories drawn from Galeano's own life. I'm always keen to learn about the teller as well as to hear the tales. :)

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Sameness, difference, and cold dangerous winters

I am visiting Sudbury, Ontario, at the moment. I lived here for about a decade, and moved away two and not-quite-a-half years ago. This is my first visit back in more than a year. As such, my mind is turning to questions of sameness and difference and to cold, dangerous winters.

I am very conscious that I could tell a story about my life between when we moved and today that shows that my life is essentially the same, and I could tell another story about my life between when we moved and today that shows my life is very different.

Both would be true.

Sameness, in brief: The people in my life are much the same, even if I'm physically farther from some and closer to others; the work I do is much the same – Talking Radical Radio is still my biggest ongoing project, and a book emerging (in a broad sense) from the work on the show is still a central (if intermittent) commitment, and social movements are still at the heart of what I do; and, I am still involved in grassroots political work in the community – not as intensively as when I was 25, certainly, but to the extent that I can be, I'm still engaged with collective efforts to push for change.

Difference, in brief: Materially, other than my primary partner and my kid, who I actually spend time with and how that time is organized is quite different than before we moved, and I've met many new people, plus three (of not-many) older Neigh relatives have died in that time; the show is the same, but the book project emerging from it has changed drastically, and I'm also involved in something new, the Red Hill Stories of Struggle project; and in terms of my political involvement, I no longer do grassroots media organizing (as opposed to grassroots media making, of which I still do plenty) but I am now involved in climate justice work.

If I did that over three pages each rather than one short paragraph each, I could turn these differently emphasized data points into narratives that feel much more dramatically different. But both true.

That's the key: We make different stories out of the same complex situation by choosing which facts to include, which to emphasize, which to downplay, which to omit. That can be done responsibly (e.g. grassroots journalism centering the voices of ordinary people who are most directly affected by an issue, while not knowingly leaving anything major out) or irresponsibly, but it is inevitable when making narratives about the world.

And I know that what I did above for a life can also be done for a place. So as I visit and chat and sip tea, I'm on the lookout for ways that Sudbury is the same, and different, over the last two-and-a-bit years. I honestly haven't been able to identify much. But I do know one major difference is that for much of the time I lived here, there was an active direct action anti-poverty group, often but not always called the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP), and now there is not. The story of why it no longer exists is one that makes me sad, but it isn't mine to tell. Instead of thinking about the causes of its absence, though, I've been thinking about the consequences.

I feel very aware of its absence because of the messages coming out in Toronto this last week about the dangerously inadequate shelter system in that city in the middle of a sustained cold snap, which is putting lives at risk. We've seen the city administration in Toronto working very hard to keep the inadequacy of the shelter system there as one of those facts that just doesn't get mentioned in narratives of 'Toronto,' that isn't present in mainstream/middle-class consciousness of the city. And we've seen action by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, street nurse Cathy Crowe, and a lot of other people refusing to let that happen – insisting that a shelter system so inadequate as to be life-threatening *is* part of Toronto's story.

When S-CAP existed, its presence and loudness and persistence similarly forced the mainstream media, city hall, and middle-class people in Sudbury to bring into their narratives of this place aspects of the complex social whole that they would otherwise have ignored. Their work also pushed other progressive groups in the city to take up and talk about poverty issues, social assistance, and homelessness in new and more vigorous ways. They didn't bring the revolution, sure, but they forced real improvements in the systems that keep marginalized people alive, and they did it in a movement-building way aimed at building capacity to win bigger and potentially more transformative fights in the future.

So as I think about sameness, difference, and cold dangerous winters, I'm thinking about what we don't notice because there isn't a persistently loud collective forcing us to notice. We've heard lots about how the shelter system in Toronto is inadequate. But what about in Sudbury? What about in Hamilton, where I now live? What about in other cities that do not currently have a militant anti-poverty group? And, yes, these cities have lots of people concerned about and working on poverty, some of whom I know, and many of whom do wonderful work. Some of these folks are, no doubt, saying what needs to be said. But that's not the same as having a collective (like S-CAP, OCAP, or something else) that will make these uncomfortable but vital facts unavoidable – that amplifies voices in a way that the powers-that-be and the comfortably-not-knowing cannot ignore, cannot leave out of their narratives, however much they would like to.

And it makes me wonder: What else about how I'm perceiving sameness and difference – between places, across time – is missing the mark because of the absence of groups able to make a fuss to bring harmful, oppressive realities unavoidably into our collective narratives?

Monday, January 01, 2018

New year, new writing practice

It's an arbitrary division, but even so, like many other people, as one year draws to a close and another begins, I like to spend a bit of time in focused reflection. I think back over what I did, what I accomplished, what went well, what went poorly in the year just ending, and I look forward to how I might approach things differently in the new year. I don't make resolutions, but I do often come up with a few things – personal, political, work-related – that I want to keep in mind as I move forward, and sometimes a small change or two in my routines and practices.

This year, the work-focused component of my reflection has been a bit more muted than usual. I had a bit of a mini work crisis a couple of months ago, which triggered some intensive reflection that kind of pre-empted the year-end version. Namely, I realized that I was a bit bored with rather a lot of the work with which I fill my days. Almost all of what I do fits under one or another of a few big ongoing projects. I'm committed to all of them and I have no intention of pulling back from any of them...but, still, working only on Big Things can be disheartening and, yes, boring.

As a result of that mini-crisis, I made a few changes. One was that I resolved to get back into experimenting with video – mostly talking-head stuff, often bookish, sometimes bloggish, occasionally something else. I had no time to add video dabbling to what I was already doing, but the prospect excited me, so I did it anyway. I still haven't found a definitive way to use it that feels quite right, but I continue to play.

A little after that, I also came to the conclusion that I needed to significantly re-orient one of my major projects. I won't go into detail on that for the moment, but it involved a change in focus and emphasis, a need to do a lot more reading, but also a very exciting sense of the new approach fitting better with what I have to offer as a writer. (One part of this is that I will be doing a lot of thinking, reading, and writing about the politics of listening, understood broadly and complexly, over the next little while, some of which may show up here.)

Anyway, I thought that, with all of that already done, my year-end reflections about work were likely to be pro-forma and relatively uninteresting. Except, as I've journalled about these things over the last few days, I've realized that's not quite true. I've realized that my decision to dabble in video was in part a desire to make smaller things on a more regular basis. And I've realized that the re-orientation of the book project was in part about doing more to make sure that what I am creating flows a bit more directly and organically from my own predilections, preoccupations, activities, and life. And I've also realized that I'm still not quite satisfied with my efforts to meet those two desires. Add to that a recognition that when I started blogging back in 2004, I did it casually, informally, regularly, and precisely to break up the monotony of a couple of major multi-year commitments, but that over the years my blog has become a place for writing that is longer and more substantial, and not always exactly polished but no longer as casual and informal. The online world has changed a lot since 2004, and I have no interest in going back to what I did then. But I want to do something analogous that fits the context of today.

And here's what I came up with: On some kind of regular basis – less than daily, more than weekly – I want to engage in casual, informal, short, quick, thinking-on-my-feet making-of-things. It will begin from thinking about something I've experienced, something I've seen, something I've read. It will emerge from me, but it will often involve a sort of dialogical engagement of whatever sort beyond myself or thinking through things I've learned from others.

It will not attempt to be profound or novel, though it will try to be thoughtful.

It will attempt to stay limited to one thought, reflection, or question, considered in a relatively open and unfinished way, rather than plunging down the rabbit hole of attempted depth and completeness.

Each instance will probably start as either a Twitter thread or (maybe, we'll see) a short (4 or 5 minute) video, but will also end up as a short post on this blog. Doing it this way will push me to keep it simple, casual, conversational. At least I hope so.

It will in a broad sense be oriented as a practice that will support and feed into my major projects, though that may not always be visible from the content.

I am going to actively try to push back against the ever-present urge to limit what I talk about based on some pre-set idea of "this is the kind of thing I'm supposed to write about", and stay grounded in "this feels interesting and important to me in the moment" or "this is what I'm thinking about today."

It may or may not result in anything of direct interest to other people – I hope it does, at least sometimes, but it needn't in order to be worthwhile. It is, first and foremost, a writing practice meant to support my broader work and to keep me not-bored.

And will I maintain this quick, casual blogging practice longer than a week, in the face of the full new year onslaught of regular work routines? Only time will tell! :)