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Commentary :: Protest Activity

OK Reformists...

please email this to yourr reformist friends
It makes sense that Americans should be depressed after the election. The inability of the system to give a victory to Kerry over the worst President ever is quite significant evidence of how serious the problem is. But really it isn't anything new -- many of lousy Republicans have been President. Ever since the 50s we have had to imagine the threat of sudden nuclear annihilation. Ever since the 60s, we have had to imagine the threat of destruction of our land, water and air. It is not just a momentary problem here, or confined to just one country. Quite simply, toxic threats are growing as the market is growing. Since these forms of growth are unsustainable, they are cancerous, and self-destructive. It is time to realize how fundamental the cancer is in civilization to broaden our thinking beyond the confines of what is happening here now.

OK REFORMISTS....

Imagine that Kerry could somehow do better than Clinton who sped up the rate of environmental destruction, skyrocketed federal incarcerations and passed three unconstitutional acts that were necessary preconditions for the Patriot Act? What if we see Kerry not only did better than Bush's second term, but actually made things better than they are now? Signing some important disarmament agreements? Appointing a good judge to the Supreme Court? It was possible, I concede. But Kerry suddenly changing his mind and supporting true bilateral peace and empowerment in Palestine? No way. Kerry withdrawing support for the FTAA which will be a death sentence for millions of people and entire ways of life? Not a chance. Reigning in toxins of GMOs? No. Shutting down corporate plunder of dwindling resources? No. Decrease addiction to oil? Nope. Limiting the abuse by multiple government agencies of international law and human rights? Ha! Decrease the prison population? And disappoint all those investors? The proof that Kerry would not ever have fought those battles is that he did not fight the battle of the questionable election.

I am not trying to say he wouldn't have made many things better than Bush will. I don't try to play down the importance of this -- Bush may very well get us nuked with all his arrogance, there is a serious distinction! But behind all this is the undeniable fact that it is all getting worse fast -- we are having worse Presidents, worse air, worse food safety standards, worse air standards, worse water standards, worse education, worse conflicts, worse energy dependence, fewer old growth trees, more divorce, more abortion, more suicides, etc. Turning this around is an essential challenge, and getting hung up on whether some powerful white man could do it for us is a major distraction from thinking about and acting on the underlying problems.

That a person who spoke truth to power regarding Vietnam better than almost anyone else in the world in 1971, and again in exposing Iran Contra had become such an empty shell of a Democrat should make clear that politics will corrupt all who enter, and how foolish we are for pinning our hopes on such a class of people. That a man could so completely forget everything he had learned, and everything he had taught others, should be a shocking revelation, except that it happens so often. People who understood injustice, often suffering torture and imprisonment like Valclav Havel and Nelson Mandela, become useless to the victims of injustice, once in power.

The whole idea of having a President with so much power over not only this country but the entire world, is just suicidal. That Bush and Cheney could just decide one night to wipe vertebrate life off the face of the Earth is corrupting enough (whether they choose to do it or not) to make us realize that choice of candidates is important and all, but there are deeper choices we still can make. Having a President with this ultimate power is not anything like what the Constitution set out to do, and it defies the simplest things that we know to be true about power (that it corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely).

TRYING TO BE PRACTICAL IN A SUICIDE MACHINE

Most of the time when a homicide / suicide machine falls apart we think of it as a good thing. Unfortunately, we happen to be inside this one, and when it falls apart, big chunks of it will land on others. It is really scary, but sometimes the fear itself keeps us from looking too closely.

Trying to limit our goals to what is "practical" in electoral politics means having no goals at all -- both because the people won't have real changes in direction and because any good tendency in a candidate is successfully weeded out before they get near office. How could it be otherwise? Bobby Kennedy figured it all out. His speeches near the end make it clear he really understood. Therefore, he had to die. If he hadn't been killed that day, he would have been killed soon after. If Kerry had spoken truth to power on the campaign trail he would have lost. Knowing this, he tried to play both sides of the fence and he lost too. If he had managed to win and then in office started really speaking truth to power, he would soon be as dead as Wellstone. The election was not just a tricky conundrum, it was completely unfair, corrupt and undemocratic. I am amazed by the people who are already talking about 2008 without acknowledgment of what they are up against. Iran / Contra and Watergate give us a clear information about how far Republicans will go to win elections. To me, people not at least having questions about the rigging of voting machines, intimidation of voters, throwing out of good ballots, etc., is like a cow telling another cow not to worry about being eaten because humans would never do such an awful thing. What happened in the election was as inevitable as slavery -- when the people don't demand justice there will be none.

The Democrats are afraid to either fight dirty like Rove with Nazi propaganda techniques or to prosecute the corruption of the Republicans. Perhaps they are concerned that doing so could ultimately backfire and show how corrupt they are too. They may indeed be less corrupt, but after the spin, all will appear equal. When you and your competitor are both standing on stilts, you can take little jabs to try to knock him over, but you never want to push so hard that you end up knocking yourself down too. It is insufficient to say "yeah we're both corrupt, but they are really more corrupt than we are." Democrats are not clean enough themselves to really expose the corruption of Enron, Halliburton and so much else, even the appearance of which is a stain on the Constitution.

REVOLUTION? REFORMISM? RADICAL CHANGE?

The market, the environment, the system of feeding people and keeping them healthy, social security -- all of it must crash. That is completely unpreventable now, a system that needs unsustainable growth to put off a crash just makes the crash bigger when it eventually comes. Revolutionary change is not something that people need bother advocating. It is coming like a tidal wave, and doesn't require anyone's consent. The only question is how many people will have gotten off the beach in time. Change is inevitable, whether it be repair or collapse. Peace is inevitable, whether it be the result of caring humans struggling for it, or the aftermath of nuclear war.

Reformists are caught right now in an impossible conundrum -- they don't want to agree to rock the boat too much, but many know the boat is heading towards a waterfall.

The first meaning of radical is "to the root." Being a radical doesn't mean wanting to rock the boat so much as wanting to stop focusing only on symptoms when there are root problems that we need to fix before things will stop getting worse. The symptoms are important too -- I would not choose to focus only on ideas without volunteering every week to help people right now, But if we never address the root problems, we will keep having more and more victims to help.

It is ironic that radicals are called dreamers, when it is the people who won't acknowledge the inevitability of doomsday under our current trajectory who are dreaming. Americans will not understand any of it until they have suffered a terrible crash. Like Germans after W.W.II, only after defeat will many suddenly realize how pathological they have been. But how sad and dangerous it is to live among people who are asking to be taught a lesson by destruction.

WHAT IS THE ROOT PROBLEM?

I already described the "cancer" as relating to the need for constant growth (therefore against sustainability), but here is some more info about it: It grows any time any person or groups of people make decisions for anyone else but themselves / their own small children / their dog. Whether it is the preacher who condemns those who don't believe in his heaven to hell, George Bush killing 100,000 innocent civilians under the pretense of freeing them, a corporation creating GMO terminator seeds, Congress deciding that certain corporations will get tax breaks, or an insurgent taking a hostage, it is all the same phenomenon. Knowing what the cancer is does not imply that it is obvious or simple to defeat it -- but it is essential to recognize it, consider its implications and perhaps most important, research its origins. A democracy is no protection against the cancer because it allows 51% of whoever gets to vote to legalize anything including collective suicide. A Republic offers even less of a protection since at best the 51% of the people only get to choose the small group of people who get to make the decisions. And that is where we would be now if we had universal suffrage and an uncorrupted voting system, but we don't even have those.

We are smart enough to come up with better systems, but the first step is acknowledging that our problems are deeper than our choices of candidates. We have been overthrowing more democratic regimes all around the world for a long time now in favor of oppressive ones. We are manufacturing toxic substances at unmeasurable rates. We have been sick for a very long time. If we took all the energy that we put into creating all kinds of crap, we could make a nice little planet here.

WORKING IN THE SYSTEM? ACTIVISM OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM?

Good activists experience suffering a little, and by consent, in contact and solidarity with those who are suffering a lot without their consent. Breathing tear gas is painful and horrible and quite liberating. All the oppression which reformists feel psychologically, activists have gotten to feel more directly. Seeing, in non-hierarchical collectives, the essential dysfunction greatly reduced is more convincing than any words. Working in the system to me is a good experience -- at least to see how it works. But one can only compare it to working uncensored, undiluted, uncorrupted when one has tried both. I have participated inside the system in infinite ways. I have gathered signatures, voted, been interviewed by the corporate media, etc. The process is quite familiar to me, but I am well aware of the limitations. I know that if I get a quote in the paper it will definitely not be the one hard hitting undeniable charge that I repeated twice, instead it will be something somewhat peripheral. Limiting myself to working in the system means many people will encounter my message in a form so watered down that it may no longer have relevance to what I was trying to communicate. Working in volunteer media means fewer people will get to see my message, but it will be undiluted. As to which is a better tactic, I have no opinion. I use whatever cool tactics are available to me. I have no problem working within the system on many things, but I am well aware of the limitations and know that ultimately the system can corrupt any message unless additional outside pressures are exerted. Mainstream newspaper reporters have told me this fact, that certain stories will only be covered when there is community pressure.

Reform in America right now is like someone saying during the fall of the Roman empire that they could really turn things around if they were elected Senator. The system has no self-corrective mechanisms to really counteract and undo any of the things threatening us -- nuclear attack, imprisonment and torture of activists, the dollar crashing due to our national debt, the middle class crashing due to credit card debt, an energy crash from thin reserves or an upswing in attacks on oil fields, a mass break out of mad cow, flu or antibiotic resistant bacteria, climate change, etc.

LESSONS FROM HISTORY

This is "course of empire" here, not just some random shift to the right. Just as no German could join the SS with hopes of reforming it, we couldn't just join the CIA or Homeland Security with any idealism to fix things. Why did Germany go Nazi? Because they had a long tradition of authoritarian government? No. Because they had a long tradition of shunning individualism? No. Because they had lost spark and creativity? No. Because they were stupider, more evil or more racist than other countries? No. Germany went Nazi because it had many pre-Nazi conditions in place when their market crashed. The United States right now has most of the same conditions in place, and when our market crashes there will be nothing, not a Constitution that has been watered down and neutered, not the judiciary which is being replaced by ideologues and not even the people who are all off in consumer daydreams will be able to stop it from going totalitarian. Why are so few comparing pre-Nazi conditions with current U.S. conditions? Do we imagine that we are somehow immune to the historical forces that cause fascism because we throw around the word "freedom"? Well, so did Hitler.

Luckily Hannah Arendt has written Origins of Totalitarianism, and Wilhelm Reich has written Mass Psychology of Fascism from his experiences working in pre-Nazi Germany as a psychologist, so we can just go through and compare and see all the same crap -- stateless people being held in detention centers... faith based abstinence programs... flag waving... corrupt connections between corporations and government... torture... homeland security... accusing the countries which we want to attack of planning to attack us... prison labor... repeating lies until they become the truth... surveillance of activists....

Nazi Germany has to be the standard of comparison because it is necessary to acknowledge that once a certain line has been crossed there is no possibility of working within the system. The decision is about where to draw such a line, and the decision has to be wide-eyed. There cannot be any "well if its really that bad I don't even want to think about it." We have to logically analyze how many of the pre-fascist conditions are in effect here right now and decide where to draw the line past which we will enact complete noncompliance. Is Guantanamo enough? Is the Patriot Act enough? Is a society where people are afraid to really say their beliefs because they might get put on some list enough? Apparently not. Would activists being rounded up be enough? Would a U.S. led nuclear attack be enough? If we don't prepare for the possibility of the line being crossed, think about what we will do in response, and keep vigilant about it being crossed, then we will cross the line asleep, and wake up in totalitarianism.

Will we accept what this toxic society is leaving to our kids -- debt, toxins, ADD, fear, divisiveness, consumerism and addiction? Will we accept it as it sends off the poorest kids to fight wars to protect our consumer rights destroying the entire fabric of life in countries around the world? Will we work within the system as we are being beaten or imprisoned for journalism or even just walking down the street as many were in NYC a few months ago?

If I believed that America would still have a middle class in twenty years, I am sure I would be more open minded to reformism, but my conclusions about the rate of this cancer that make me, like a cancer patient, have different priorities. It is no dream to say another world is possible. It's more like the last shred of hope. Yet it is true, another existence is there for humans, just as we were once cavemen and became whatever we are now, we could all become something quite different if we can cure our pathology. What would we look like? No, not some cyborgs! It really is a simple idea -- if we could live like humans and not like kings, soldiers and slaves we would be just fine.

WHY AREN'T PEOPLE THINKING ABOUT THE BOTTOM LINE?

I hear this alot: "if things are really that bad, I don't want to even think about it, and whatever happens, we will figure out a way through -- we always have before and science is making so many advances. If people don't want to think realistically about what is coming, it is like trying to ignore the elephant in the room. It is a misuse of the word science to include it in a sentence with such a statement of faith. To not acknowledge how horribly toxic and fragile things are already and how this fragility is increasing exponentially is to essentially have faith that we will be saved. I prefer real science (including sociology) which uses the scientific methods of observation of what is really happening and opposes anything resembling faith tainting the results. "We've always made it before, so we'll keep making it" is an anti-scientific statement clearly not based on a repeatable identical set of conditions. Faith in salvation by science is a major obstacle to Americans really trying to solve problems. To have a debate with a person who has this faith is like debating someone wrapped up in any other superstition.

How many people spend their lives trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with us and what steps can we take to change it for real? It would seem most people on the planet should be trying to figure out, but amazingly hardly anyone does. Christians point to original sin, communists -- class oppression, but in "Ishmael," Daniel Quinn has a much deeper answer. It is our living in hierarchies which is the source of war, and it is our preposterous assertion of god-like land ownership that is the source of our hierarchies. Another man who spent his time trying to answer this essential question was Wilhelm Reich who escaped Hitler only to come to America, have his books burned by the FDA, be imprisoned for a fraudulent medical device and killed in prison. For Reich, Hierarchic families, schools, workplaces and armies lead smoothly into fascist obedience. Neither of these men are sacred to me in any way. But their work -- the work of only two men -- has done so much to answer this most essential question for mankind on the brink of doomsday that we should all wonder what possibilities would exist for us if all of our universities were dedicated to this question. How many people are there who's great obsession it was to answer it? Compared to any other career or hobby they are entirely off the map.

I wonder what it is like to live without the same cancer inside me that is destroying the world, and for brief periods, I have found out. I wish others could experience it too. Not necessarily because we will save the world, but because we can see what it is for a moment to live like humans.

OK BUT WHAT DO WE DO?

I think the question of "ok, but what do we do about it" comes up at almost every presentation, and it's not a bad question. But I don't think every analysis has to answer it. We could accept analysis on it's own just as we accept actions on their own. No one ever asks me what the meaning or philosophy is of what we do at Food Not Bombs -- we serve food to hungry people. It doesn't require much analysis. Similarly, an analysis of a problem need not tell me what to do about it for me to learn something.

Whenever I am asked the question "but what should we do," I say "please do whatever you can to help, and do as much of it as you can." It would kinda contradict my ideas against authoritarianism and telling other people what to do to have one generic answer like "don't pay your taxes" or something. I trust caring people to best figure out what they can to help. People may not like this answer because it is too vague, but if I had some specific answer, many probably wouldn't like it either. That is in the nature of planning and tactics - some people will chose one tactic and others choose another. I think its a bad idea to need everyone to work on the same project. I would never tell everyone looking at this article that I recommend they adopt one tactic, but I like to recommend things based on people's interests.

That being said, there is one suggestion I give almost everybody, and three guidelines I have for any project that I am going to put my time into, and I encourage others to consider them too. The suggestion it to stop watching tv entirely. The guidelines are against organizing hierarchically, advocating any form of nationalism or prejudice or advocating brutality. If a group is doing one of those things, I will not have any time or energy for their project, except to speak out against it.

HIERARCHIES

Hierarchies and positions within an organization naturally arise even when there is an effort against appointing people to different ranks. When working on a radio show, someone will probably be better at working the board than the other people. For some time, it makes sense for that person to keep working the board, but gradually they can get others up to speed on it too. Some positions like "producer" are even less about a specific skill and more about having the confidence to take on responsibility. In both cases, the person with the position will be best fulfilling the principles of non-hierarchical organizing by passing on the skills, sharing the access and empowering others.

Authoritarianism is a manifestation of hierarchical patterns in the individual. Many in our societies tend towards authoritarianism, thinking that they have the answers for others. Sometimes we all find ourselves suggesting for others a difficult course of action we have not even taken on ourselves. It is in the nature of hierarchical society that the people, even the ones who hate the system, are always looking for someone else to do something either for us or in accordance with our beliefs. The antidote for this is the DIY ethic. Create your own change. When someone comes into a non-hierarchical group and starts making suggestions, the group often suggests that the person take on that task themselves.

Those interested in establishing new hierarchies or re-enforcing the old ones will often push the idea that hierarchies are more efficient. "You need to have someone in charge, because... you just do!" Some activists groups have Presidents, regional co-ordinators, vanguard parties, etc. To me, this type of thinking is a pathology that attempts to cure an illness with the illness itself.


NATIONALISM

Cultural identity is a beautiful and important thing. There is nothing nationalist about saying "this is how my people do this." Nationalists, racists, homophobes, and sexists, however, want to increase separation and discrimination. Many resistance movements are nationalist. But the Zapatistas have managed to figure out a different orientation. Zapatistas are an indigenous people's movement in Chiapas, but they are made up of many different tribe / language groups. They are quite different from Basque separatists in that they do not want any one group to have control of a whole region. Instead, Zapatistas value autonomy. In towns with Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas (often called PRIstas for their support of the PRI party) living together, there isn't an attempt to force the Pristas to submit to them or adopt their ways. Sure, they try to convince people to join them when they can, but they strive to convince by example rather than coercion. One can only imagine what the world would look like if all Nations and movements could strive to do the same.

BRUTALITY

Sometimes activists and their critics get all caught up in the question about whether any form of violence, even self-defense, even property destruction, is wrong. It's not a bad thing to discuss, but it is easy to get way out of proportion in a society where we see the same newscaster who is scornful of the smashing a window of a McDonald's at a protest treating the accidental killing of a family in Iraq as an understandable error.

Non-violence is a tactic, and I think it is an incredible tactic. Martin Luther King Jr. and many organizations agree that nonviolence is the way for all participants to agree to act during an action. But that doesn't mean that activists have to agree to sit back and watch one's family be killed. Legal self-defense allows for an equal and opposite force to be used to stop an imminent attack to one's self or to another.

Opposing brutality is not the same as being a pacifist. Those who joined the Spanish Republican Army against the fascists were not pacifists. Also, opposing brutality means opposing non-violent forms of brutality, such as birth defects caused by toxins. The war in Iraq is violent and brutal, but the FTAA and the WTO are also quite brutal, although the violence is not always as manifest. People being kicked off their land to move to cities where the conditions are much more dangerous are victims of this type of brutality. I will oppose any group which advocates brutality or policies which lead to brutality.

WHAT'S LEFT?

Any group which organizes collectively, consensually and opposes nationalism and brutality! There is so much work to be done. There is not one solution except that we all need to make room for each other's solutions.
 
 


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