I haven't been adding new content to this blog. At some point it seems every blogger says something to this effect, breaking a several month's long silence. I think I haven't been writing because what I actually want to write about is so different than what I used to write about. Doing justice to the hope and joy I feel, simultaneous to the grief and anger, is, well, hard. Mostly I don't try to do it justice. Do I have anything to offer someone I don't know? Well, I don't know.
The truth is my happiness is the happiness of a baffled survivor, and though I see this resonating in the lives of those I love (which is to say those I know), I do not see this as an idea resonating into a short form way to explain it to myself or to anyone else. There is something vicious about the ideal of happiness, that total happiness that people who stand amid ruins seem to desire. Something cannibalistic and cold, like a blade. It actually frightens me. I think my happiness is more like satisfaction. I am satisfied with my path through the ruins I only partially chose to be moving through.
I'm also not really happy about anything. I am grateful. I am grateful to see that I know how to play, really play. In the last week I have had a water balloon party and my partner actually let me beat him at chess, or showed me how as the case might be. And this weekend, I am setting up a bee colony, with friends. I am watching both of my sons really claim a place through their skills. Mac is a great cook and a great friend in his world of friends and finding a vocation. Ob, at the age of seven, has found an entire community of adults and kids to do meaningful work with in the form of a local Maker Space. And I have learned, after two decades of looking for equity in my life, that somehow or another geeks have the social skills to treat other people with kindness and respect, with no overarching ideology to do so. I am filled with awe by this.
I am grateful to be loved, probably most of all, and to find within myself the ability to love, not transact business or be, or expect of myself to be, a good deal, a pleasant mix of traits; nor in my partner or in my friends or in my children do I expect this. Love is commitment, by its very nature, to reality. As I divorce, I am grateful for the cold legal system, in some ways, though I am ashamed to be grateful to it, and I am troubled by my gratitude. I am troubled, I think, to find that I am not really divorcing a man, but more a way of being in relation to others, many others, again. Again and again this lesson is learned, first in my paid work and now in a family. My family. And the lesson is somehow bigger too, than work or family. It's a lesson about listening well and sharing well, but not taking out the parts of me that hurt and letting someone else hold them outside of me, for me or for themselves, whichever or both it is, and do with them what they will. But I am divorcing a man too and I will never call him a friend again, and this is big because this is not what I wanted, or what I think is best, and I fought so hard to not be here. I lost that fight. And while I am grateful to be able to choose another life, outside of brokenness and confusion, well, maybe I don't really get to choose another life either because, well, I am not recycled plastic. I am a woman. And I can be satisfied with this lesson.
I am exhausted by the cultishness of renewal. It has done me no favors and I don't think it is sincere. Sometimes, I am ashamed to tell you, I think it is actually dumb and to call it insincere is giving it too much credit.
I am also uplifted to have been entrusted with a friend's pet fish for the summer. That's pretty big too. To see the rings on Saturn (which I did last weekend). To be looking for the words to share with you, whoever you are. To be in this with you.
I am sure, if you have gone to even one protest in your life, that you know the chant: "This is what democracy looks like." That is pretty much it, over and over. We are in the street, banging on water jugs, and this is what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like.
I hate it because we can't simply chant about democracy and have one that is actually good for people. I, of course, dislike chanting in general though, seeing it as a rather loud and mindless way to spend time I could have used having a conversation where I and another person were given the opportunity to grow together. But I digress. Sort of.
A society can be democratic and unjust, if you believe in the concept of justice anyway, and/or cruel and/or hypocritical. We can be democratic and be a whole host of other things.
There is a logical fallacy called The Appeal to Popularity
, wherein one claims that a position is true because many people believe it to be true. Many people can be quite wrong, about facts, and about morality, especially when they do not speak to one another and are, in fact, many people who are totally alone in their thoughts.
Democracy isn't the goal of our work, as far as I am concerned, though it may be a pretty good partial strategy. The goal is goodness, morality: a way of living together that is humane. And goodness, morality and humanity are realities we build with other people and to do that we have to do something much harder than march, or gripe (or say classist things about Stupid Rednecks), or chant, or even petition -- as miserable an activity as that is -- we have to talk with each other. We have to inform and be informed about the reality of the other and oneself.
I would like to suggest that a good response to North Carolina may well not be a snarky reiteration of the rights of the individual -- which damn if we don't have down to such a degree that we don't even know who our neighbor is anymore, as we say all the time, chantlike, to whomever our choir is; and isn't that the problem here, organized insularness? -- but a greater movement toward community. In the strategy of democracy this may be our best option. Inclusive community starts with me and you.
If I ever have something really crappy happen to me that enters into what is deemed relevant political discussion, do me and you both a favor: do not chant "I am Windy Cooler." Do not wear t-shirts or buttons that say this.
Take care of my kids. If you loved me, find other people who did too, and take care of each other. Try to learn something about being human, about yourself, through the relationship with me. Tell some good stories. If you did not know me, did not love me, seek out those who did. Make some sense of what happened, whatever it was that finally did me in. The options for my unjust demise are endless. Whatever it is, bear witness. Take action. But do not take my name and put it on yourself.
We are no one but who we are, but we can do a much better job of supporting other people and asking for the same.
That is what solidarity is.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Iris Murdoch: "Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real." We are not the same person. We are, however, mutually dependent and capable of doing much better by each other than we do.
Actually, wait...why wait until something is deemed politically relevant by whomever it is that decides these things?
Let's learn something about each other and take care of each other now. The options for our unjust demise are endless. Let's try a little harder to be ourselves and be present to the reality of each other.
A Friend who is a friend (FYI: I am an atheist Quaker sunday school teacher) told me, told all of us, about this song
today at Meeting. There will come a day
When we will all stand before the throne
On that day, some will say:
"Did we not prophesy in your name?"
And they'll say:"We drove out demons in your name"
I know some will say: "We performed many miracles in your name"
Some will say: "So many works we've done in your name"
Then the Lord will say: "Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity I never knew you"
That's why I know
Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there
Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin'
Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there
Oh my Lord
He was talking about peace, about how many of us talk about peace, but we may never see it, relating Palm Sunday to April Fools Day, with Jesus entering Jerusalem as a fool in Matthew, on two animals, triumphantly riding to his death.
I am feeling this song as a message about solidarity.
Not everybody talking about solidarity is going there. Not hardly. And, it is
the nature of solidarity, I think, that makes it so that if not everbody goes,
none of us do. I always thought, when I was a Christian, that heaven would be the same, because without someone we might love, there could be no true heaven.
Our whole idea of heaven is the reverse of everything else Christianity is. It
is about material comfort. Not love.
To me, colonial thinking (for example: racism, classism, misogyny),
which we all engage in to varying degrees -- in testament to our wretched
inheritances -- is ultimately about denying humanity, making people, ourselves even, abstractions, ideas, not flesh and blood people.
The idea we have might be violent or it may be sentimental, as our political
debates speak to, but the reduction is ultimately an evil. It may be the
defintion of evil, I think.
In my experience solidarity is a word we use to mean superiority in the colonial experience we are all having, not the shared responsibility to the human one that is hurting in the face of it.
Franz Kafka once wrote: "In the fight between you and the world, back the
world." This is not an admission of defeat, for me, but a call to negotiation,
to the belief in the reality of others and its awesome power. Be a friend and
have friends. Make peace with and love and understand your family. Your
relationships are your work and your bread. They are who you are. There can be no heaven, no solidarity, without you and without me.See More
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...
, who, as "writing coach" is helping me to find the umph I've been missing to write like I would like to while living the way I would like to (which I'm sure, one day, I will), that there are an awful lot of people in the current American economy who have begun freelancing. These formerly middle-class people, without healthcare, without a nice office to go to every day, have skills and time on their hands and are perhaps noticing how nice it is to have time on their hands, if indeed their basic physical needs are still being met through the work they create. This may be dubious, I know. I know all too well. These people, though, thought Zein and I, might very well be in a state of mind where they can participate in the world of children, in the moral instruction of children.
I know that the meeting one's basic physical needs and leading a wholesome life in our culture is dubious, however, because this is kind of what I am trying to do, and if it were not for the kind support of my ex-husband, I would not be doing. And I am intentionally unemployed. Let me tell you about the book I'm trying to write and publish. It's a
child's journal of development, designed to both document the future conscientious objector status of a young child and create learning opportunities, through the use of thought questions and lesson suggestions, in the development of pacifism. My teenage son is the illustrator.
The big idea I have is really in the giving of the book. The book is meant to be a gift from a concerned adult. Since "god parent" is a relationship in decline -- even if one has a god parent they don't actually help to raise you and support your spiritual or moral development -- this book is meant to be a tool in, not only the effective moral instruction and protection of children, but in the establishment of an adult/child friendship that works to be benefit of everyone involved. It is a tool for the re-establishment of the "the village."
Here's my puzzle. And because of John, my dear former husband and baby daddy, the puzzle does not yet quite involve money for survival (though if I ever want to have any savings and not be in serious debt, it does now): the puzzle is how in the hell do I live the way I want, being available to my children, my friends, to life and to joy, and focus the way I must to write a book? I keep coming back to involving more people in the production of the book. That must be the answer. I don't know how to do that, however.
People don't just come out of the woodwork. What do I ask for? What if what I ask for isn't given? Should I ask for money (ala kickstarter) to pay for services I need to make myself available -- a housekeeper, some childcare every so often, an editor, some recreation, some restaurants, supplies...the list could go one and on. Things that we don't share the responsibility for in our world, yet I need the sharing of in order to share myself at all, in person or in the writing of this book. And if I ask for money, do I only ask for money, or do I ask for specific help too, and who and how do I ask? How do I know what is possible? What does cooperation mean, really? Does it mean my being available but not getting my own needs met? Can't be. I'm not just a nice lady. I want solidarity. Where do we start when the vision of solidarity requires, perhaps, not having it in the moment? Is it a matter of social skills, as I have long thought? And if I am awkward, which I am, having been only partially parented myself, what then?
What say you? This making a living and being in the world is hard stuff.
It was pointed out to me recently by my friend
" with which I am so obsessed? It was first the idea that the people over which we have the most influence are the people who know us best. Parents have enormous influence over children, for instance. Children, in my experience, also have enormous influence over parents. I was, in fact, radicalized, by the birth and circumstances around the birth, of my first son, when I was a very young woman. My love for him taught me, a child who still existed in a Victorian romantic fantasy, to look at the animal world. The real world in which even Dickens was wasted and soiled. Our poverty was physical and so was my neighbors. It was my love for him that led me to understand what we were doing to children all over the world. It's a story I tell all the time. I wanted activists to use their influence over those who love them. Our friends and families.
I was offended by, among other things, campaigns in which organizers were "parachuted" in, in "blitzes," where one goes in like a soldier, like a navy seal with a clipboard, and a rating system in which the people one meets are assigned a number based on their agreement with the leadership of the organization and their
ability to convince others to agree as well, their own leadership potential in combination with their loyalty to "the message." I was offended by having an assigned "turf," like some street dog, in which I rated others and my job was to never deviate from the recorded message. And certainly to never have real, organic relationships with those I worked with, or for, or with what seemed to me the subjects of our organizing, something like the subjects of an experiment in a mad scientist's lab. It never felt like justice. And I couldn't be convinced that even winning the goals of an organization's leadership, even though they may be sound goals in and of themselves, was truly a win in the context of the culture this kind of organizing created.
It felt like fracking
for freedom. I was never sure this was possible. Freedom and justice and love and solidarity can't be dug for like natural gas. These are not physical resources. They are spiritual.
Can you do cultural violence and in the end have the kind of community competence
necessary to keep on winning, winning something more than a 10 cent pay-raise, or a new bus, or whatever resource that community needed in that moment? It always seemed that the resource we most needed were social skills, the kind that put us in touch with each other, our best renewable resource, with which, if you are a believer in organizing in the first place, are the way we can move mountains. We are our own golden egg laying hen. When we frack for freedom, do we kill the hen?
What is the "
Talking with her a few weeks ago left me with the following pieces of thoughts.
If whiteness is kind of a new concept which came about as a convoluted result of the movement toward home ownership and suburbia
(we white people were once Irish, Italian, Polish...), and if race is imaginary (while racism is real), then is it possible that what was once "white" culture is, in our current social context, "professional" culture? I mean, look at our president, look at the MLK memorial and its corporate sponsorship
-- the same sponsorship that goes to making war and leaving people in poverty.
Is there an evil that manifests itself in many forms -- for example in institutional racism, sexism, classism -- and can it be described in some way as "the evil of whiteness?" Which is not to say the evil of people of visible European descent, because evil is not genetic and I know, for all of my white Southern culture's faults, we are not evil -- but is it the evil of washing away what is organic and real and vital between human beings? The mind numbing evil of the suburbs. The evil of washing away the soil in which we all must grow. Are our roots left naked, perhaps wrapped in a plastic boundary, like cut flowers in the supermarket? Did we once call this nudity "whiteness," and do we call it now "being professional." This is
the overall effect of imperialism and of corporatism, I think. This boundary is what has allowed slavery and what allows us now to not collapse at the opening of the newspaper each morning.
There is a children's folk story I read once, I think from India, where the king does not want his feet to be dirtied, so he orders the earth covered in leather. This makes it impossible for the people to live, because they cannot grow food, and when it rains, it floods them out. And so, a wise man creates the first shoes for the king, so that the rest of the world may have the life giving dirt again.
I am about as pale as "white people" get, and yet I am not white in color. I'm more a mixture of pink and blue. Why do brides wear white? It was to say they were pure and clean and virginal, back when our mothers were married. We still wear white to say these things even though there is little pressure in mainstream culture to be pure, as in virginal, anymore. Though the artifice remains. Why is it meaningful to us still? Why was that color -- white -- given to me to define me? To connect me to a culture of imperialism, in which my ancestor's buy-in was at one time necessary? Who must buy-in now and to what? When my former husband John once worked for HR Block as a tax preparer -- a temporary, crappy job -- I remember they were all given baseball caps as a prize at their orientation. The hats simply said "professional." Why the artifice?
Where is the power in that connotation? And what will we do for it?Well, what have we done for whiteness?
And what good did it do any of us, really?
I'm not sure I'm having a whole thought, as I alluded to, really I'm pretty sure I'm not -- but, is it possible that there is an evil that we are not getting at and uprooting that goes beyond all of its symptoms, all of its artifice? The evil that is behind imperialism and its wars, behind racism, something much deeper than the things many of us have spent our lives fighting from within the evil, separated from each other by it, even as we fight?
A new friend of mine, Maggie, a fellow student at Goddard College, is working on a project that involves both growing a good lawn this year and thinking through some sticky places in labor history and union history. And suburbia.
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
"Jesus came and said 'the one and only commandment is that you love your neighbor as yourself' and the people's response was 'Wait, you mean we can eat bacon?' Now the non-converting Jews knew Jesus was crazy; they knew better than to eat bacon."
My dear former husband John winked as he said this to me last night. It is a very deep observation, even if we were eating BLTs at the time. I think about "Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do."
I'm not a theologian, and I have no idea the typical interpretation of that quote, but as the agonized dying words from a man who just spent his life trying to save the world, they are quite striking. Is he saying, as he dies, that he sees how limited, fragile, flawed and stupid we are? He tried to teach us, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." This is the man who threw out the money changers. Did he realize in the end that we're all just thinking about bacon?
Sometimes, when I see how hard my friends work to explain why war is an abomination without excuse to people who see dead babies every night on the news and only seem to stop and cry for the grown people we have sent over to do the killing -- at those times -- when the seemingly most simple truths require essays, polemics, protests...I don't wonder what Jesus would do; I think I know. Hang his head and die.
Work to change the world, even for an atheist like me, is a faith relationship with the people we love. It is an inability to enjoy life any other way. The work is never ending. I find something liberating in this thought. Our work is an exercise in love. I get great clarity from that.