I am recently not fond of the idea of rebirth. Our culture, at least the Middle-Class White dominant, professional, pseudo-Buddhist culture of Liberal America, to be specific, embraces the idea fully. We don't apologize or reflect or mourn. We move on.
We find new friends or new family when we destroy a relationship, political or personal, usually repeating the same behavior with the replacement people that hurt the last people in our lives. We don't talk about our pain in public, as that is more impolite than talking about politics or religion. We find new ways of being, such as Buddhism, or pseudo-Buddhism in its many self-care, self-focused forms, borrowing the culture and identity of others, to cover up our own.
It always feels a little land of the lotus eaters to me, this idea of being born again, if one is a working class Christian, and certainly this idea of rebirth, if one is of the professional culture. This is something liberals and conservatives have in common. We think we can walk away. It is a trademark of colonial thinking: there is always new territory, even if inhabited by the flesh and blood reality of others, to move on to once our own flesh and blood home has been destroyed, or made difficult, through our own reality.
Easter, in this cultural narrative about rebirth, cleansing of the sins, or cleansing of the past, is neuter. Jesus was not reborn. He lived and died painfully, focusing on a small group of close friends; then he came again, with all his scars, to the people he had already loved. He presented his mangled body to them, to see, to be seen, to recognize, to be touched, to be real.
I am thinking today about how deeply I love and trust old friends. How people grow with each other by growing into each other, through memory and experience and baggage -- that ugly word for the human experience --that we lift together.
I cannot undo my experience. But I can incorporate it.
A Meditation on American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein
“One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.”
In a 2001 CounterPunch interview with Norman Finkelstein Don Atapattu said of him: “Often lambasted for his intemperate approach, Finkelstein is unlikely to win popularity contests in America for the language he employs, as much as his arguments.” Though currently unemployed by any university, Dr. Finkelstein is often cited in mainstream academia as an expert on the Israel/Palestine conflict, especially in the work that brought down Joan Peter's best-seller From Time Immemorial, which he successfully proved was historically inaccurate on several points, but most of all in her claim that there were no Palestinians living in Palestine at the time of Zionist settlement. He is an incredibly successful failure, a beautiful loser. I think you get that sense from American Radical. People get mad that Finkelstein gets mad.
He worries on camera about how to support himself when universities can be pressured into severing his employment. His entire adult life, though a prolific scholar, he has been partially employed, saying in the film that into his 40s he was making $18,000 a year. He is a best-selling author, by all accounts a meticulous scholar, and he is a popular professor with students, when he has work. But his enemies, who seemingly never attack the merits of his claims on camera but prefer instead to attack him, the person, are powerful. Most recently, according to activists, he was derailed in his bid for tenure at DePaul University by Harvard's Alan Dershowitz, whom Finkelstein had, in 2003, convincingly accused of plagiarizing, for the benefit of Israeli government, from the previously discredited From Time Immemorial. In 2007 Finkelstein was forced to resign, though with some sort of financial agreement perhaps brought about by student outcry, even after his department voted nine to three, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Personnel Committee five to zero, in favor of giving him tenure.
The documentary is touching and it concerns me. I think the bulk of what I have to say is not really so much a review of the film, or a summary of Norman Finkelstein's existence, of which I only know the plot line through a film. The bulk of what I have to say is about how this film affected me, what it made me think about.
On a very personal level, I saw myself in Finkelstein's memories of his mother. She could not speak of war without becoming hysterical. She was committed, passionately committed, to pacifism. Deeply traumatized by the Holocaust, everything in her world was about the camps, about understanding her pain, and about changing the world that would allow such terror and pain. She had a huge influence on her son.
I feel as if I understand being traumatized, being politicized by trauma and by the love of a child. In the American South I had a child young, my first son, and our early life together is my story of trauma and political maturation. For the longest time -- really, consistently, until very recently – everything, absolutely everything, was about understanding the terror I felt in poverty and alienation and about reaching out to others, sometimes hysterically, to change the world that would allow such terror. In the summer of 2001, for instance, though I had not a penny and I was food insecure, I traveled to Chicago to work at Voices in the Wilderness as an unpaid intern. This was the tiny organization that was sending delegations to Iraq in violation of the economic sanctions and sometimes bombings which were killing 5,000 children a month. I saw a link between the poverty in which I lived, my son's life, and the children of Iraq. It was the first time I really understood. It felt so good to understand something and so terrible too.
I wasn't very good at my job there, partially because I was inexperienced and still very traumatized and partially because I had a young child to care for and no one to really help me. All of my struggles my son has been witness and participant in, and I can see its effects. He's now 16 and I am sometimes afraid for him, precisely because he does take his morality -- the one I taught him -- seriously. I am also proud of him as I watch his early battles, as I don't doubt Finkelstein's mother was of him, before her death in 1995. Though she did worry.
Finkelstein says in the film that while she approved of his work, she was concerned that he would destroy himself or – as I would put it -- be destroyed. Norman Finkelstein, is not, from what I can see, “suicidal,” as a childhood friend suggested in the film he might be. It disturbed me how often friends seemed to be saying that his activism was an act of self-hatred or self-abuse, almost as often as his enemies. This opinion seemed to persist though a few interviews because he shows his anger, and that that either makes his friends uncomfortable, or they think that his anger makes him an easier target. There are quicker ways to die, less painful ways to die, than what he is experiencing though public antagonisms and his lack of job security as a result of his positions. He is being destroyed by people who disagree with him and yet not sufficiently protected by those who respect him, people like me. Noting that point was the second time I saw myself in the film. He is not destroying himself. I am not doing anything to protect him from being destroyed, just like I don't know who is protecting me.
I already know very well what Israel's human rights record is. And I know my responsibility for that record as a US citizen. Many, many of us do. I suspect that most of us who would choose to watch American Radical either agree already with its subject on that record, or hate him for announcing it. I agree with Norman Finkelstein and I respect him and it broke my mother's heart to see Finkelstein take solace in his atheism, as he did in one scene, take solace in how one day the process of being destroyed would be over at least in death. I'm tired of watching the best hearts of my generation be destroyed.
Organizer and activist burnout is the bigger problem I see. Finkelstein keeps working, bless him, but many of us stop, destroyed even before death takes us. If we agree with him, why don't we take care of Norman Finkelstein, send him money and moral support, at the very least? Or create work for him as a teacher? I feel like if I can pay for bullets to kill babies, I can support fellow people who want to stop it.
Noam Chomsky, one of Finkelstein's closest friends, who has supported him through the years, shares with the camera a brief reflection he read once. “If a man were to walk down the street telling everyone the truth he would be killed after walking only a few hundred yards.”
We shouldn't have to walk down the street by ourselves telling the truth. We could embrace with more than the tattered shreds of our well-wishing and our mousy warnings and find the truth together.
The title of my thoughts here originates in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In April of 1963 King was arrested and held in Birmingham for his role in one of the civil rights movement's key examples of sustained, nonviolent direct action, The Birmingham Campaign. On top of being separated from his family and his work, he was openly criticized by White liberal clergy. In one of the lesser quoted paragraphs of what has since become Americana, Martin Luther King took a moment to perhaps speak subtly of his own emotional life as he sat in his cell, alone with only his words and his thoughts, thinking aloud about his, and his movement's, lack of real support from a key part of the religious community to which he had devoted his life, and which claimed, confusingly, to be sympathetic to the civil rights movement. “We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham,” the White clergy said in its public statement, A Call For Unity, “We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled.” They reiterated their belief in the rights of man in their statement and then they called King an outsider. I always wondered when reading this: are there any outsiders in unity?
King sat in jail, ruminating on their words, writing back to them his Letter. "I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension'," King responded. A month after this exchange Black children were pushed to the ground with fire hoses and dogs. By that Fall four little girls had been killed in the basement of their church in an act of terrorism committed by White Supremacists. For generations before 1963 Black people faced the constant threat of racial violence and institutional alienation. He was apparently not the only one afraid of tension. It seems that the only people afraid of tension in Alabama in 1963 were the Liberal clergy.
It must have been with profound loss and disappointment and fear that he insisted – even during the hours he wrote and thought and paced in that cell – on his characteristic unwillingness to give up on the potential power of our shared humanity. He insisted. Five years later someone shot him. 23 years later we gave him a national holiday.
We all tear up on our day off from work once a year as we recall that he had “a dream,” and we recall all those nasty people in the South that we are nothing like. And then we, all too often the Left included, forget about this great brave man's actual message, and the context of that message, and the messages of everyone I can think of who has been great, from Jesus to Gandhi, and we shrug while our still-living heroes are given to the snarling dogs, the threat of the bullet, and the dirt. Or, in Dr. Finkelstein's case, to the likes of Alan Dershowitz.
Malcolm X in 1963 gave a speech entitled God's Judgment of White America. It was less than kind, but as a White person, I think he was right about my culture. “In this deceitful American game of power politics, the Negroes...are nothing but tools, used by one group of Whites called Liberals against another group of Whites called Conservatives, either to get into power or to remain in power.” I wonder what he would say about the Left, as a whole, as we appear, or don't really appear, in American Radical. Are we using the words of Dr. Finkelstein to fuel our conversations, to enrich our knowledge of the world, to be powerful in a sense -- in the safety of our Colbert Report snark -- but unwilling to join him or anyone in the real fight, to risk – together – not alone? I just can't figure how it is that Finkelstein is like too many other good people I know and has been left, despite his work in the spirit of solidarity, to the elements when he is unlike most people I know – he's a best-selling author. It worries me. I worry for all of us.
Unlike Malcolm X, I don't believe in God. But I have this kind of faith I've heard religious people describe. I can't go on living without believing in something bigger than myself. In my case, I can't be happy just being comfortable in a world that is so unjust, so cruel, that, for example, any money I can earn is taxed – not to provide my children with an enriching education – but to incinerate, to shoot, and to starve other children all over the world, including in Palestine. The bullets used to murder 1,400 civilians in Gaza in 2009 were manufactured in Pennsylvania. I helped to pay for those bullets. Since I know this, I have to actively choose to believe in humanity's potential. I see little proof of it if I dwell on certain facts. I have faith. It can only be called that. And I have to. I have children and I love some others of us with all my heart too. I want for life to be good. It's with this faith that I would like to call on each of us to make a decision, right now, to stop telling the bravest among us to be wise, sensible, and careful – to protect themselves – when we think what they are saying or doing is fundamentally correct. That's my reaction to American Radical.
I don't care what tone of voice Finkelstein, or anyone, uses. There is nothing immoral about being mad or awkward.
One day the United States will recognize its real heroes. They will be the Norman Finkelsteins...
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded
with appreciation, nodding that yes, people of color have been fetishized by corporatized non-profits; yes, of course, we cannot trust that those who benefit from capitalism will fund any meaningful rebellion against themselves; yes, professional activists, endowed in many cases with the privileges of all other professionals, have successfully worked to change the language of justice, the manners of justice, the culture of The Work, into something not only exclusive, but something neuter at best, manipulative at worst.
But what of these professional activists? I have certainly been one. I frankly don't know any other way to make a living. I wasn't surviving very well as that teenage-mother welfare-queen I once was, back when I was not a professional activist. I sometimes re-visit a letter
I wrote to my now friend Jeff, right before I was able, for the first time in my life, to earn much of anything, acting out my rage and my love. In it I recount how I was being evicted. I am still suffering from the ill-health and emotional trauma brought on by several years of poverty and all the crap that is done to women in poverty. And I realize I was lucky to find my way out.
But that's the American Dream, isn't it? And that's the dream that people like me -- people who above all else believe in solidarity -- reject as a nightmare. It's better than starving, but we are right, because for me to get out of that horror on my own, I lost pieces of my soul, which are pieces of the soul of solidarity. I didn't work for GE or Enron though, and make big bucks. The Center for Community Change discovered the organization I worked for in Montgomery, Alabama as a volunteer organizer and I spent the next year learning how to go to conferences and sell myself to get funding, to get paid, which I needed, and for which I was grateful. But I sold myself. I went on to work for other organizations, including labor unions -- which appealed to me because of their working class rhetoric -- and most of my work was comfortable and my employers or supervisors good, kind, even passionate people. But I always saw exactly the reality I saw back when I wrote to Jeff about what professional activism meant to me in 2002. I never liked any work I was paid to do half as much as I did my volunteer work, when I was free and when I spoke from my heart and when The Work was really about my son and me and our home, and when I understood what solidarity was, even if I didn't have it. I was never as effective again as I once was, when I had few skills, and a lot of heart. And what have I earned? I am barely middle-class. And that could change. And some of these work places have been downright abusive. 18 hour days, for no apparent reason, verbal assaults, feeling as if I was being paid to manipulate the very people I was supposedly in solidarity with.
The way in which activism has been professionalized has created a new activist culture in which activists are largely acting in rebellion against families of origin, not acting to protect their families of origin, as was the older model of social activism.
This has also led to professional activists/organizers displacing neighborhood and worker volunteers through an illusion of professional dominion over the work, expertise in the work, and an expectation that if someone is getting paid, then The Work will get done -- as well as creating an environment that is, in social class, very unfamiliar and unfriendly to the old volunteer culture. Activists and organizers leave the work at a young age, to top it all off, leaving behind little skill and institutional memory in their organizations. Burn out is killing us.
And while it's not all our fault, and many of us don't know what else to do right this second, it is up to us to participate in fixing it. Because for all of our actual faults, we know better. Deep down inside us, we do. I think it's one of the main reasons we see burn out. As we mature past just being pissed at the world, we see how alienating this whole thing we are passing off as solidarity is.
Intentional, focused work in the development of healthy attachments inside activist institutions is imperative. Meaningful, transformative relationships in The Work, blurring the line between what is "The Work" and what is one's personal life in a new way, in a fully human way, grounded in love, is what I am feeling for. Not the 18 hour day "in the field". But the integration of one's relationships in all things. Not the supervisor who once told me how lucky he was that he was divorced, so he could work more, not the kid who hates all his middle-class white parents stand for because he hates them and he wants them to know it, ala All That Rises Must Converge
-- no -- not social hours that go nowhere in downtown DC, but where we are nice for a while and discuss nothing of import.
My vision is a kind of community competence that may never have existed, but which came closer to existing before the professionalization of activist work. I want, my goal is, to help create a world in which solidarity, the mutual support of humanity, to the best of each of our abilities, is our striving. I am inspired by the Catholic Worker Movement. I am inspired by the original Black Panther movement. I am inspired by what I know about myself and my neighbors and my family and all our struggles. We need each other. I want us to find a way to fulfill that need.
While there are many contributing factors to burnout, I think they are tangential to the overwhelming effects of the professionalization of activism in the last 50 years. Many of us have read