Archive for February, 2007

Undressing the Other, Addressing One Another

February 28, 2007

Undressing the Other

I’ve heard it said on a few occasions that revolutionary/political organizing isn’t supposed to be a “group therapy session.” That sentiment couldn’t be more wrong-headed (or meat-headed: the times I’ve heard it said, it’s always by a male who thinks he’s being militant by saying it). This society is so fucked up, it could seriously use some healing, and that’s what therapy is for. The only defensible reason for the statement (beyond intellectual posturing), as far as I can see, is that therapy can be too private, too individual, whereas politics is first and foremost a social experience.

This opens the question of what revolutionary/political therapy looks like. James Baldwin suggested an answer when he wrote “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” Art, Baldwin saw it, was a war with society, “a lover’s war… to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, make freedom real.” If art is both a social struggle and a personal confession, it just might be therapeutic.

Last night, I witnessed art worthy of Baldwin’s definition – and therapy of a revolutionary variety. Called “Undressing the Other: the Naked Truth About Stereotypes,” it’s a “truly anti-racist-sexist-classist-elitist-ethnocentric-homophobic- xenophobic transnational feminist/womanist production” now in its third year at Western Washington University. For the second year in a row, it’s also being held in the larger Bellingham community.

The event emerged out of a “Women of Color Week” held at Western several years ago. It’s similar to monologue productions like Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” but with several important twists. Rather than read other women’s’ pre-written stories, “Undressing the Other” focuses on young women developing their own narratives (and not all necessarily women – this year a young trans man also performed). This takes place over the course of several months, with participants working together around a curriculum based on writings by the likes of bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, and – of course – James Baldwin.

Staged like a fashion show, the program itself is broken into two parts. In the first, women one-by-one strut the stage in the guise of the most disgusting stereotypes: the parade of ugliness puts in bold relief how society sees women through distorted lenses of race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality. There’s the wetback, the white trash lady, the jockette. In the second part of the show, the women return as their true selves, telling their own stories, their true strengths and weaknesses on full display: righteous, doubtful, survivors, intelligent, ignorant, powerful, petty. In short, human beings.

It’s in the second part that the power of confession, in Baldwin’s sense, takes over. This isn’t Catholic confession, communication through a grate, privacy between pastor and parishioner. They “vomit the anguish up” in their words, in their performance, as art. This is social – and thus, highly radical – therapy, working through issues of identity in order to grow. By sharing their true selves against the brutal social constructs of the first half of the show, what are personal truths also become social truths.

In this way, “Undressing the Other” is all about addressing one another. Though it’s a performance with an audience, its hardly a spectacle to be simply enjoyed at leisure. By pushing the stereotypes to their ugliest limit, the monologues coax confessions of sorts from the audience. As part of the audience we don’t know to respond. Do we laugh? These stereotypes are absurd, after all. Do we cry? These are horrors in front us. Do we applaud? This is a performance, isn’t it? We realize how we see these elements of ugliness everyday, but never in such a concentrated form. Our mix of emotions is our own confession, as we must admit that in everyday life, some of us have the privilege of ignoring these images; in “Undressing the Other,” they are there, plain to see, and you can’t take your eyes away.

Which brings us back again to James Baldwin, and his definition of confession. “The effort it seems to me,” he explained to Studs Terkel, “is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too — the terms with which they are connected to other people. ” And what are these terms?

Becky Renfrow, an organizer whose energy and commitment is beyond comparison, presented a possible answer in her honest monologue on white people’s experience with racism, “White Trash.” Too often white people see racism abstractly, as statistics, rather than feel it in their heart, in their gut. This is especially true on a college campus. As my friend Jeremy writes, “it’s amazing how many people there are who get paid, who get degrees, who build status and careers all trying to explain this mess, to package it as THE way, trying to argue how it’s good for us, that this is the best of all possible worlds.”

I myself have a college degree to my name that says I can think this stuff. Its most important that I feel it too, because that’s where the struggle is: the constant self-reminder of others pain and suffering, joy and growth that are so easy to intellectualize out of life. Academic study is such a individualized task, whereas our emotions are inherently social. This barrier between thinking and feeling was broken through by Undressing the Other. I felt it – and its worth risking the generalization to say everyone felt it.

Props to all those who made it happen this year: Stephany Hazelrigg, Afrose Ahmed, Elizabeth Johnstone, Antasia Parker, Becky Renfrow, Olide Valenzuela, Sandra Villarreal, Erica Merker, Rachae Thomas, Luisa Nayeli Mercado, Maribel Galvan, Yumi Ishibashi, Devin Majkut, Abiola Akanni, Anneka Ramirez, Whitney Knox, and everybody else not mentioned in the production program.

Drop Tuition, Not Bombs

February 25, 2007

This Saturday, February 24th, I was one of over 100 people who rallied in front of Bellingham, WA’s Military Recruitment Center demanding an end to both the US occupation of Iraq and military recruitment in schools. The event, called in part by Northwest Students for a Democratic Society, was done in coordination with similar actions in both Tacoma and Olympia.

Critical Mass arrives Critical Mass still arriving

The day began with a Critical Mass bike-ride meeting at noon in downtown. Community members, picketing along Meridian Street, Bellingham’s busiest thoroughfare, were already present to greet the bikers as they converged on the Military Recruitment Center at 1 PM.

Critical Mass arriving some more Recruiters lie, recruits die

Folks then gathered in the parking lot outside the Recruitment Center. Speakers began to address the crowd via bullhorn, with Sean Burke of Bellingham SDS serving as MC. Those who spoke included Dan First Scout Rowe, an anti-war Vietnam vet and professor at Fairhaven College; Aline Soundy of Community to Community Development; and several others. An attempt was made to play some music off a boombox, but it was too wet and cold for anyone to really dig the tunes, so folks marched back to Meridian Street and resumed picketing before calling it a day.

Dan First Scout Rowe speaks Aline Soundy speaks

I really liked this event. While all the anti-war events I have been a part of in the past have had nebulous goals, this action actually had a target: the Recruitment Center. The rally managed to shut down the center for about 30 minutes, as the recruiters locked their door and turned off their lights. Police presence was moderate, with several squad cars stationed in a parking lot across the street, but never – to my knowledge – interacting with the event.

As far as I understand it, the action was only thrown together in two weeks, and in some ways this showed. The whole event was rather modest, only lasting about 45 minutes altogether, though this was something I sort of appreciated after all the long winded anti-war rallies I’ve been to in years past.

But the line-up of speakers suffered for the lack of preparation. With only a few exceptions, it was full of the dudes who love to jump on the mic at these events and talk no matter how interesting or relevant their speeches (No offense intended here, just an honest critique. I used to be this guy).

Overall, the attendance itself was remarkable for an event organized with such short notice, and hopefully indicates a larger interest in anti-war actions in the future. At this rate, future events will expand the forms of participation beyond listening to speakers, and will have a better cross-section of students and non-students.

Big up to Bellingham SDS and everyone else who made it happen!

Comrade Karim in Kangaroo Court

February 25, 2007

Karim in courtFriday, February 23rd, over 50 people gathered to support my friend and SDS member Karim Ahmath at his arraignment following an erroneous arrest on Thursday, February 15th. Karim was passing out anti-recruitment fliers at a Western Washington University career fair with other SDS members. While many engaged in debate with military recruiters, Karim was the only one singled out for arrest.

According to a message from my pal Ian:

They charged him with disorderly conduct, citing his argument with one of the Army recruiters as the reason for the arrest. However, I witnessed the whole thing, and although there was definitely a heated argument, I and others feel the arrest was unjust. At no time did anyone in charge of the Career Fair ask Karim or any of us passing out flyers to leave the event. At no time did Karim engage in physical contact with the recruiters or the police (except when the police put his arm behind his back, forced him out of the building, and later handcuffed him). In addition, I feel that Karim, who is Asian American, was racially profiled. Specifically, I feel he was profiled by the military recruiters, as they are the ones who requested the police remove Karim. My reasoning for this claim is that at least 5 or 6 other students were engaged in handing out the same flyers in front of the Army and Navy recruiting tables. Some of us were also engaged in verbal disagreements with the recruiters. One of us was even engaged in a shouting match with one of the Navy recruiters. But, the recruiters did not request police intervention for any of the rest of us. As you may have guessed, everyone of us, except Karim, is white.

This is only Karim’s first year in Bellingham, but his electric personality and mad organizing skillz, along with the radical energy of his SDS comrades, have endeared him to many in Bellingham – a fact testified to by the outpouring of support at his court appointment, which occured at 8:30 AM. Anything that can get college students up that early has got to be special.

Anyway, Karim plead not guilty, and his trial has been set for the 1st of May. May Day, can you believe it?!

Jobs with Injustice

February 22, 2007

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As of today, the United States incarcerates about 2, 250, 000 people – the most in the history of the world! – and Washington State’s trying its darnedest to pitch in. Two new state prisons are planned, and expansions of many existing prisons are in the works. In Whatcom County, a new jail will be completed by 2008.

Fortunately, the state is having a bit of trouble filling all the new jobs the prison boom is creating (thanks to my comrade Matt for the link!). Unfortunately, a $150,000 campaign is in swing to get new recruits. Billboards are everywhere. My partner, riding with her parents, pulled up to a stop light next to a bus; as her out-of-work father turned his head, a pang of fear ran through her mind as she saw what he was looking at: a giant “Join the exciting career of Corrections” billboard on the side of the bus! There’s even a huge billboard just a block away from my apartment, across the street from Bellingham’s Community Food Co-op.

I don’t know if a huge billboard will be enough for Bellingham’s liberals to take note of the Prison Industrial Complex and do something about it, but folks elsewhere have their own campaign in the works that aims to put a stop to the prison boom and pull things in a better direction. Called Justice Works!, they’ve been hard at work on issues surrounding the criminal (in)justice system in Washington State for several years, and their new campaign, “No More Prisons,” looks really exciting. They’re based in Seattle, and one of the first organizations I’ll be looking into once I move my ass down there come September.

Note: The Justice Works! website appears to be down at the moment, but you can see a cached outline of their campaign here.

À propos de Bothell

February 21, 2007

bothellmap.gifI HAVE no life
I HAVE NO HOME
That sux
NO HOPE
GET A LIFE
– graffiti exchange on bus stop at Bothell Park & Ride, December 2005

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Bothell, for a day or a lifetime.
– former Bothell city motto

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“Bothell’s been displaced.” That’s what a friend of mine observed Saturday night, while we attended a birthday party. He was noting how so many of our friends had moved from Bothell – the suburb where we had all grown up. Many have moved about 15 miles southwest along the shore of Lake Washington to Seattle’s University District, where the party was at.

It’s true – Bothell has been displaced. Of all my friends from high school, not a single one lives in Bothell any longer, if not all in the U District. But I think this is because Bothell is permanently displaced. People live in Bothell – 30,150 people says the 2000 census – but they hardly spend their lives there with any sense of place. It’s the kind of place you want to be free of, really. Even my mother, whose lived in the town for nearly thirty years, talks of plans to move elsewhere someday. Only her church, I think, keeps my parents in town.

Bothell may be famous for a sequence in the film Hype! – a documentary about the Seattle Grunge scene that I’ve only been told about – in which a former Bothell resident recalls how he and his teenage buds would deface Bothell’s official city sign to read: “Welcome to ___hell, for a day or a lifetime.” It’s an apt slogan, but to me, Bothell will always be known more for displacement, not defacement.

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Free Leonard Peltier

February 18, 2007

Leonard PeltierI owe a great deal to Leonard Peltier. At the formative age of 15, it was learning about his imprisonment that really sparked my questioning of Amerian society and all its injustices, thoughout history up into the present day. I remember bringing a petition to my junior high and gathering a few paltry signatues. The petition didn’t go anywhere – I can’t even remember what I did with it – but Peltier’s struggle has continued to inspire me to fight for a better world.

 

 

Eight years later, he’s still not free. Now in his 31st year of imprisonment, he still serves – in Ward Churchill’s words – “as a symbol of the arbitrary ability of the federal government of the United States to repress the legitimate aspirations to liberation of indigenous peoples within its claimed boundaries.” Peltier never chose to be that symbol, but he’s carried it with amazing diginity and resolve.

 

On February 10th, people gathered in Tacoma, WA for the Annual Northwest Leonard Peltier March and Rally, now in its 14th year. I made it to the march the past two years, but I was regrettably short-sighted this year and failed to get off work. Photos of this year’s rally can be found here and here.

 

What follows below is a report on the march by Arthur Miller, sent around by e-mail and posted on Seattle Indymedia. An inspiring figure himself, Miller’s a long-time anarchist who has worked in solidarity with Native struggles for most of his lifetime, and has played a key role in organizing the Northwest Freedom for Peltier marches throughout their history.

 

Miller’s report touches on several key issues, particularly the shameful absence of the white left at the march, their ignorance of Peltier’s case and of Native issues in general. He also reports of police harassment of Native people, something that liberal peace activists never seem to have to contend with…

 

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All The Anarchy That’s Fit To Print

February 16, 2007

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Youssef Ishaghpour: To you words are enemies.

Jean-Luc Godard: No, only when they’re taken as orders, or thoughtless, or used malevolently as weapons.

– Cinema: the archaelogy of film and the memory of a century, p. 103.

Theory and practice. The word and the deed. “Writers don’t know what they’re talking about, men of action can’t express themselves. Look at Mao,” says a man in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Notre Musique.

What about women of action? Unfortunately, that’s Godard for you. As for Mao, well, I’m of a different generation – and temperament – than Godard, so Mao isn’t my frame of reference. But I’m just as fascinated with the separation between theory and practice, reflection and action. Godard has always been concerned with how words limit what we can express, and I think this is why he puts so much hope in the power of the image to communicate the uncertainties of life.

Like Jean-Luc Godard, I have a love/hate relationship with words. Part of what makes radical politics so exciting is its ability to think of the world in new ways – to employ theory. But theory, given that its mostly communicated through writing, also runs the danger of tripping over words. While some people guard their ideologies like a fortress – quick to denounce so-and-so as “not an Anarchist!” for instance – others are so hesitant they refuse to adopt any words to describe themselves, and may even go as far as to reject “theory” completely.

As I see it, neither approach is very useful. Ideologues’ allegiance to labels overlooks how struggle occurs independent of vocabulary: people can revolt without raising a flag. But if we refuse to engage with theory, we risk allowing the vocabulary of others’ to set the terms.

There’s got to be a happy medium that puts the written word to use without over-committing to ideology. This is why I love reading periodicals – monthlies, quarterlies, annuals, you name it. The periodical’s task, as I see it, is to bridge theory and practice; it’s frequent appearance allows quick response to events, both describing and theorizing. Unlike a book, a periodical never aspires to have the last word on a subject. Instead, it usually has the first word.

leftturn.gifBy this criteria, my favorite publication these days is Left Turn magazine. At its best, it is a forum for radical organizers’ to reflect on their work and to put it into the larger context of the organizing people are doing elsewhere, both in North America and globally. It strays away from ideological terms – like “socialist,” “marxist,” “anarchist” – and sticks to broader, more descriptive (but no less social movement-based) words like “anti-capitalist,” “anti-imperialist,” “anti-racist,” “radical feminist.” Left Turn is quartlerly, so it has a commitment to keep pace with events as they happen.

perspectives.jpgAnother favorite is Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. Obviously, it comes from a particular ideological tradition – it’s the journal of the Institute of Anarchist Studies, an organization that funds radical writers with an interest in all things anarchist. But its my belief, anyway, that something sets anarchism apart from other political theories. Because anarchism throughout its history has been so action-oriented – stressing the deed over the word – its theories have a greater amount of openness. When anarchist theory is applied to a present day situation, what results aren’t rigid formulas, but important, probing insights.

Perspectives has been around for quite awhile, and has gone through a lot of changes. It used to be a newsletter, then it was a magazine, now its a full-on 100-page paperback journal. It’s still dealing with growing pains – lots of pixelated, unclear images and more spelling errors than you’d find in an academic publication – but its new format is really promising. Each issue has a theme, allowing for a close and thorough look at a hot topic. The current issue is on “Borders and Migration,” and includes everything from etymologies of the words border and region, to thoughtful reports on anti-border organizing, to book reviews, interviews, and poetry. It’s also very international in scope, with maps of European detention centers and an analysis of Canadian immigration policies followed shortly after by an interview with a Bolivian anarcha-feminist.

This themed approach will be especially fruitful if Perspectives keeps its focus on current events and maintains such stylistically diverse content. One of the problems that’s befallen the publication in the past has been an overly academic bearing. I can’t think of too many specifics without the issues in front of me, but I can recall being uncomfortable with the prevalence of “professional” scholars in previous issues. It was my problem too, I suppose, since I contributed a book review that discussed in part my experiences as an undergraduate – and which I completed for college credit! The university isn’t inherently bad, but like all institutions it brings with it a certain vocabulary that’s insular, if not outright confusing.

As I see it, the vocabulary radicals use has to balance between references to the concepts of our traditions, and the more open – if more compromised – language of everyday life. For anarchism, I think this means engaging with the world as it is, participating in social movements rather than forsaking them for our own organizations. I don’t actually think there are many – if any – anarchists who want to shut off the rest of the world and resign , but our theory and practice can often have that effect. The best anarchist theory – and the best periodicals – can offer is honest and useful reflection on daily life and the struggles to change it for the better. The worst of it retreats into comfortable words and analysis that appeases a desire to critique this world, but has no commitment to making that critique transparent to others.

fifth estateIllustrating both sides of the coin, in my opinion, is the latest issue of Fifth Estate, an anarchist magazine. It’s been published for over thirty years (quarterly, I believe), but my knowledge of the magazine only really begins with the current issue, having thrown down the $3 for it at my local newsstand essentially on a whim. On the cover of this issue of Fifth Estate is the image of a plane flying over a city; it’s an appropriate image, in my experience, because several articles in the magazine flew right over my head.

Several articles made very valuable arguments, but left me behind, as they seemed to address countercultures I didn’t even know existed (especially David Meester’s “Letter from Appalachia,” and to a lesser extent, Cookie Orlando’s “Gender Trouble at Burning Man). The most confusing of the lot, however, were two highly theoretical articles full of references to Guy Debord and Gilles Deleuze. If you haven’t any idea who Guy and Gilles are, well, I’m afraid you’re already left behind. The first piece, by Will Weikart, argues that radicals stop thinking dialectically, and start thinking in “immanence;” the other, by Jack Bratch, has some thoughts about the State and activism coded, in Bratch’s words, in a “Nietzschean/Debordian strategic evaluation.” Not the sort of easy reading you’d expect from a newsstand periodcal, I’m fine with that. It’s the relevance of the work that I find myself struggling to comprehend.

Despite my confusion, I’m really glad I picked this issue up, because it had two of the best pieces of anarchist analysis I’ve read in a long time. The first, “Anarchism and Disability” by Mitzi Waltz, explores practical ways to cope with the complex social dimensions of disabilities, both mental and physical. Waltz is a professional scholar, but you wouldn’t know it from reading her article, which reminded me of the best of Colin Ward’s writing in its accessibility and practicality. The other article I enjoyed was “Solidarity, Immigration, and Border Regimes,” by Onto, which discussed the author’s experiences as an anarchist struggling against murderous border policies in solidarity with those most affected by those policies, immigrant workers. Like Waltz’s article, it was wholly committed to engaging the world with anarchist principles.

I can’t finish up a blog post – of all things! – about print publications without acknowledging the fact that print publications are really struggling in the face of the internet to stay in operation – and to stay relevant. I think the journal route that Perspectives on Anarchist Theory is taking will probably prove most fruitful – a journal is published less frequently, and thus can be more in-depth than a magazine weighing reporting and analysis, like Left Turn or Fifth Estate. As much as I love magazines, up-to-date radical reporting – by the written word, anyways – is quickly becoming the domain of the internet. A lot of the most exciting writing and analysis is happening at the websites to the left – too many great things to mention now. Too many great things to mention – lets hope it stays that way!

New Objectives, New Cadres

February 14, 2007

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“New Objectives, New Cadres” is a poem by Kenneth Rexroth that sticks it to Leninist vanguard politics. “Our objectives are not our confidantes,” he writes, which I take to mean our purposes can’t be secrets: best that they be out in the open so we can’t go back on our principles.

Well, call this “New Beginnings, New Blogs.” I’ve decided to start this blog to scratch an itch to share my thinking about all the shit I’m interested in – mostly radical politics, cinema, anarchy, anti-oppression, art, and all that. I write about this stuff elsewhere – namely Lucid Screening and my work’s blog – but needed someplace to strech my legs. This blog will only be on WordPress while I teach my self CSS/XHTML and also sorts of website stuff, which is probably among my more tangible goals in 2007.

The name of this blog is the English translation of the title of a film by French filmmakers Anne-Marie Mieville and Jean-Luc Godard called Ici et Ailleurs. On the simplest level, I just like the phrase. It’s a really, really simple way of outlining my politics. Between here and elsewhere lies solidarity. To struggle for a better world, I have to understand myself and my position in society – here – before I go thinking I’m gonna build a better society with others – elsewhere. And vice versa: I got to understand others’ positions in society – elsewhere – before I begin committing myself to my struggle at home – here. That works for race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, you name it. Really simple, maybe too simple. But things demand titles, don’t they?

I have to admit I haven’t actually seen the film. In his Histoire(s) du Cinema series, however, Godard says something about how the favorite films of the French New Wave generation were always the films they had never seen. By which I take to mean the films of their imagination were what mattered most, because these films fueled their Utopian ideals about the ability of the cinema to – more or less – save the world. That’s a good enough excuse for me; as an anarchist, that sort of Utopian approach is really appealing. I don’t want to save the world – and if anything, cinema sure as hell isn’t going to do it – but I love the sentiment. As they say, be realistic, demand the impossible.

Plus, Ici et Ailleurs is partly a film about Godard’s experience making a “documentary” for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a fascinating story on its own. He was commissioned to make the film in the early 1970s with his Maoist collective The Dziga Vertov Group. It was orginally to be called Victory and he completed most of the filming in Jordan documenting the training of Palestinian guerilla fighters. During his editting in Paris, however, the Jordanian government cracked down on the Palestinian militants, killing thousands of people – many of whom had been filmed by Godard – and making the planned “documentary” an impossible task. Years later, Godard returned to the footage with his partner Anne-Marie Mieville, and Victory became Ici et Ailleurs. Instead of a commercial for the PLO, it became a filmed essay discussing the ethics of political documentaries and political images, and the issues that are raised when a French militant wants to make a film about another peoples’ struggle.

All sorts of things to learn from that story. And that’s what this blog shit is all about, I suppose – learnin’. So let’s get to it!