A feed of recent articles from the independent global media platform openDemocracy’s Section Transformation, which tells the stories of those who are combining personal and social change in order to reimagine their societies.

14 December 2017. Why Redneck Revolt says deal with racism first, then economics

Addressing systems of White supremacy can’t be dismissed as ‘identity politics.’

“Moved by the need for control, for an unchallenged top tier, the power elite in American history has thrived by placating the vulnerable and creating for them a false sense of identification—denying real class differences where possible.” Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

There is no shortage of media commentary discrediting “identity politics,” particularly the focus on Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities calling for justice and equity. Economics is our real problem, a counter argument goes, not race, sex, gender, citizenship. But as author Nancy Isenberg points out in White Trash, “identity has always been a part of politics.”

Laws have been written to oppress and exploit particular identities—Native Americans, Black Americans, Asians, homosexuals, transgender, and women—in a successful effort to maintain a system of White supremacy. Yet, members of these communities have worked for the rights and equality of everyone. In turn, White allies have joined in these anti-racism fights.

The Redneck Revolt is one such organization. The self-described anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-fascist group challenges working-class White people to stand against White supremacy.

I recently talked to Brett, one of the members who heads up the network’s Southeast Michigan Chapter (because of hostilities toward the organization, Redneck Revolt members use only their first names publicly).There are about 40 chapters nationwide. He explained why the group focuses on anti-racism rather than economics even though it seeks out white working-class and poor people in economically struggling rural areas. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Zenobia Jeffries: What is the significance of the name Redneck Revolt? Why did the name change from the John Brown Gun Club?

Brett: They’re two sides of the same coin. We have some branches that are still the John Brown Gun Club. Our national network is Redneck Revolt.

Redneck Revolt chapters like ours in Michigan here primarily focus on outreach, and winning hearts and minds, counter recruitment, showing up, being present, being allies, being where we need to be to show our community support.

Whereas, John Brown Gun Club pretty much only deals with the firearm aspect of things. It deals with a lot of tactical training, a lot of information security-type stuff.

Jeffries: Can you give an example of what you mean by “changing hearts and minds.” What does that look like?

Brett: A really great example would be back in June. The ACT for America folks did an anti-sharia law march. Redneck Revolt was there. We were on one side of the barricades along with a slew of other leftist organizations. On the other side of the barricades were Proud Boys, Vanguard America, and a hodgepodge of other alt-right groups. But one of the most prominent was the Michigan Liberty Militia, which is famously racist and famously exclusionary.

Toward the end of the demonstration, this one older gentleman—he was an older White man up at the barricade with all the gear on, and armed—had his rifle. One of my members and [I] went up to this guy and were like, “I understand mixing state and religion is not good. Nobody here wants to mix state and religion, nobody is protesting that. [But] it’s clearly anti-Muslim. This protest is against Muslims.

“Furthermore, it’s against all people of color because this neighborhood [is] first-generation Somali, first-generation people form sub-Saharan Africa who are fleeing abject poverty and warfare, starvation, disease. So how can you be in this neighborhood and be like, ‘This is what America stands for’?

“Not only that, if you look to your left and right, those kids with the sun wheel on their shields, and the eagle on their shirts, those guys are self-described, literal Nazis. We fought a war about this. I thought we were all in unanimous agreement that Nazis are bad.”

And this guy he kind of started tearing up, and he was like, “You know, I’ll tell you, my dad died in World War II in Europe fighting Nazis.” And he goes, “This really has given me [something to think about]. You know I may not agree with everything you say. But associating myself like this has really given me pause, and has really made me think about what I’m doing here.”

We don’t expect anybody to walk away from someplace where we’re counter-recruiting waving the red flag of revolution. But if we can at least pull them out of that mindset, that’s a win for us.

Jeffries: One of the things I find fascinating about Redneck Revolt is that your primary focus is organizing working-class Whites, yet you center race and anti-racism in the work that you do. So many are putting the focus on the economy, and calling anti-racism work “identity politics.” How did you all decide that you wanted to focus on White supremacy—that it is just as much of a problem for working-class Whites as for people of color?

Brett: Our stance is that our entire capitalist system is built on a bedrock of White supremacy, and as White folks we have access to spaces that people of color don’t. So we try to exploit the spaces and put ourselves in those positions to reach the White working class because it’s like the old IWW [Industrial Workers World] saying, “If we don’t get to them first, the Klan will.”

And we understand that if there’s going to be any kind of serious discourse about dismantling capitalism, about building the new world from the ashes of the old, as they say, that description can’t be had until the underlying issue of racism is addressed.

That’s why [we] don’t engage law enforcement. We believe law enforcement is an extension of the old slave catchers.

We don’t engage with anything that reinforces the current system that basically is built on White supremacy. We go to great lengths to dismantle that system and empower people to help us do that, but at the same time using the spaces that we have access to, to get other people to see that.

And I believe that a lot of people we speak to may generally not be racist in a conventional sense. But they’re certainly benefitting from the system of White supremacy that has been built. They’re not doing anything to actually help dismantle it.

So, that’s kind of the message that we try to bring across. Nobody is saying [to them], “You’re like burning crosses, you’re actively racist.” But you have to acknowledge that … as a White person in America, you are benefitting from White supremacy.

So, in order to address capitalism, in order to address economics, the issue of systemic racism first has to be addressed.

Jeffries: I would imagine that when you’re in those spaces, and saying what you’re saying, that people respond, “But Black people are racist, too.”

Brett: Yes, we get that a lot.

For an example, I was talking to a gentleman the other day. He was like, “Blacks have a whole month. They have Black History Month, where we do nothing but celebrate Black history. Blacks have their own channel. People would be up in arms if we had a White Entertainment Television.” And that’s the kind of thing we get most often.

What I say, first of all, is there is no such thing as White culture—that’s a myth.

Secondly, we do celebrate White holidays: Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day, arguably Columbus Day. Not to mention our entire society is [tilted toward] celebrating Whiteness. What I try to tell people is, Look at your ancestors. Most White people can point to a single village. I’ll use myself as an example. I can point to a single village in Sweden. I know exactly where my people are from. That’s why I take a lot of pride in my Scandinavian heritage.

Whereas with Black folks—and other people of color, but especially Black folks—the reason they celebrate Black culture is because their culture, everything Blacks had, was ripped away from them when they were taken from Africa. So that’s why it’s celebrated; that’s why it’s important.

Because it’s the counter narrative to hundreds of years of systemic murder, oppression, just brutal slavery. That’s why we celebrate Black culture, because that’s all most folks have.

The conversation we have to have is how can we look at ourselves and say, “I’m benefitting from this culture that has been built to only make sure people that look like me get the advantage.”

And, obviously, the topic of privilege comes up, and most White folks will deny that they have White privilege. They’ll say things like, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” or “My grandfather started his own business."

It’s hard to get people out of that mindset.

[We] start explaining to them that “I’m sure your grandfather was a hardworking man, I’d never doubt that he was. But the fact that he was able to do that, and given that opportunity, I can promise you that postwar United States, a Black man applying to that same position definitely would not have gotten it.”

Jeffries: Along the lines of the “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” mindset, I’m sure you also get folks who say, “Why should we poor and working-class Whites care about what’s happening to Blacks and other people of color when we’re struggling, too?” Especially, when the issue of crime is brought up.

Brett: We get a lot of reactionary questions, and it keeps us on our toes. But it makes our practice better. What we try to explain is that Black communities have their own set of problems just as other communities have their set of problems.

The difference is White communities have the support of the state. For example, [when] a Black family moves into a primarily White neighborhood, then the housing values tend to go down. So what happens? The state intervenes and then makes the price of housing so high that then that Black family has to leave. That’s one example of how the state supports White supremacy. I’ve given that example a whole lot, and it tends to resonate with people.

I have the clarity to understand that I am a college-educated [man] … who’s had uncountable numbers of opportunities thrown my way because I’m White. And given the same circumstances with a young Black man, that most certainly would not have happened. That’s what I try to explain: that people of color in the United States categorically do not have the same opportunities as White folks. Even if you are poor, which a lot are.

But there are systems in place to make sure that I succeed. There are systems in place that make sure that my Black counterpart does not. And it’s designed that way.

Until we as White folks can recognize collectively that we are benefitting from a system of oppression, then economics is secondary, or tertiary at best. There is no point in talking about economics when the only people affected by these economics are White people.

Jeffries: I’ve read some articles stating that Redneck Revolution doesn’t have a political ideology. While you may not align yourselves with the status quo parties of Democrat or Republican, your actions and principles are very much political. How do you describe your politics?

Brett: We’re broadly on the left. We’re what’s called a “big tent” organization. We’re overwhelmingly anarchists, but we have some communists in our ranks, we have some capitalist Democrats, progressives, and Republicans, believe it or not. I mean, we have people from all political stripes.

That being said, we do understand there’s not going to be any grand revolution tomorrow. But the best thing that we can do short of a revolution is revolutionary change. We believe that revolutionary change comes in the form of dismantling the system of White supremacy that exists.

Jeffries: What is the end goal of Redneck Revolt?

Brett: Part of it is dismantling White supremacy. Another part of it is creating spaces inside of communities [where we can] help people not rely on the state. We help to create and encourage radical spaces that encourage things like mutual aid and direct action, as opposed to relying on the state for whatever means.

For example, we’re working very closely with the IWW, one of the oldest radical unions in the country. They have a soup kitchen in Detroit where they distribute food and clothes every second and fourth Sunday in Cass Park. They’ve been doing it since 1996, or something like that. We’re trying to build a sustainable model like that close to Ypsilanti [in Michigan], especially with the winter months coming up. There’s another organization called the Michigan People of Defense, who do a lot of street medic training. There are a lot of us, including myself, who have military experience. I’m a combat lifesaver, so I have skills I can teach people.

People get hung up on the firearms thing, but we also believe that it’s very important for the working class to be armed. We also understand that that puts people of color at a very high risk. So we try to put ourselves at the tip of the spear, so that way we can teach people the knowledge that we have. We can show them safe operation of firearms. How to use them, how to safely handle them.

In [one community], there are a bunch of Hammerskins [a White supremacist group]. They basically patrol the neighborhood, and we have people of color over there who are in fear for their lives, and they’ve been reaching out to Redneck Revolt to help show them to use firearms.

We’ve taken proactive steps, and if a community needs us, they know they can call on us, and in a heartbeat we’ll be there to help in any capacity that we’re able.

The big point is building mutual aid, radical spaces inside of existing communities to not have to rely on the state, and while doing that trying to dismantle the system of White supremacy.

We think that by doing that, one kind of complements the other.

Jeffries: Was the Trump campaign for the presidency the catalyst for Redneck Revolt?

Brett: We were already around, it’s just people didn’t know about us. And that’s probably one of the problems that we face, is that people don’t know we exist. And I want to say it’s our own fault, but we do things very intentionally.

We don’t have much of a social media presence, and we do that on purpose because we have no interest in getting bogged down in spam wars on the internet. If you have a legitimate critique of our practices, meet us in the streets, tell us what we’re doing wrong. And if your idea is better, then we’ll incorporate your idea. That’s the way we operate.

We feel like we’re an organization that is meant to be in the streets with the people doing things, making differences in people’s lives, not sitting behind a keyboard crying about capitalism.

You can be any [ideology] you want. If you agree with the fact that capitalism is a system of oppression, and that system of oppression is largely held up by White supremacy, and you’re willing to dismantle that system, then welcome aboard.

Jeffries: What would be your message to the middle and upper-middle classes, to so-called elite/progressive/liberal Whites who dismiss rural poor and working-class Whites simply as Trump supporters?

Brett: The major issue is getting them to come out of their bubble of comfort. They hear the word “redneck” and they don’t see it through the [same] lens that we do.

The word redneck has always been used pejoratively, but we don’t see it that way. We look at our grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers and understand why they were called rednecks. You look back at the Harlan County wars, and those folks would wear bandanas to keep the sun off their necks, and that’s where the term redneck comes from. We embrace that term, and say, “Yeah, that’s who we are. We’re working-class people who are out in the streets.”

If you can take the blinders off, you’ll see that … your comfort is still built on a system of White supremacy. Your comfort and the things that you’re enjoying are a byproduct of 150 years of working-class struggle. If you like the weekends, thank a union man. You like your 40-hour work week, you like that there are no kids slaving in textile factories, thank a union worker.

It’s working-class people who brought those changes. It wasn’t [the] middle-class bourgeois who brought that change. It was working-class people out fighting in the streets. That’s who we are, that’s what we do.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

CC by NC 4.0

12 December 2017. How should we feel about the feelings of the animals we eat?

Acknowledging the sentience of other species requires us to be vegan.

Credit: All rights reserved.

In the second half of November 2017 there was a considerable amount of emotion and confusion surrounding the UK’s ‘animal sentience’ bill, which sought to include the notion that animals have feelings in post-Brexit animal welfare legislation. These reactions have been fuelled by the viral sharing of posts on social media claiming that Members of Parliament have rejected the idea that animals feel pain.

In fact, MPs did not vote against this proposition. Rather, they rejected a motion that explicitly recognised animal sentience, purportedly so that the Brexit legislation can be passed with as few amendments as possible. In the ensuing public outrage, the Conservative Government issued a statement claiming that the UK will lead the way in animal protection policies. 

One could argue that UK legislation on animal welfare such as the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 and the Welfare of Farmed Animals Act of 2007 already recognises that animals are ‘sentient’—that they are subjectively aware, and have interests that are manifested as preferences, desires or wants. Anti-cruelty stipulations, of which a considerable number are enshrined in UK legislation, are also premised on the assumption that animals are aware of their feelings and emotions.

Critics claim that this body of legislation falls short because it doesn’t include fish, wild animals or laboratory animals; nor does it explicitly mention sentience. But the logic that underpins these laws clearly points in this direction.

Not surprisingly perhaps, many people have been quick to assume that a government that seems to relish the gratuitous punishment of foxes and the poor would be inclined to reject the notion of animal sentience. But there is something deeper going on here, and it isn’t restricted to ‘virtue signaling’ as LSE journalism professor Charlie Becket has suggested—in other words, claiming to act ethically without actually doing anything virtuous.

“People want to demonstrate their values,” he is quoted as saying in Buzzfeed, and “What can you be more angry about than sentient animals?” Such anger is real, but the more important issue is that accepting the reality of animal sentience (even implicitly) directs us to a set of political positions and personal behaviours that reject eating meat: the belief that it is wrong to cause unnecessary harm to sentient beings requires us to be vegan.

What does it mean to say that animals are sentient? A sentient being is one that can experience pain and distress. We cannot be cruel to rocks and trees and other non-sentient beings; we can only be cruel to those beings that are aware of their feelings and emotions.

As the late Harvard biologist Donald Griffin once noted, such feelings necessitate a form of self-consciousness in their subject. Sentience also has an evolutionary function, since pain makes us aware of what is bad for us, while love allows the formation of strong social bonds that are necessary for wellbeing—or  just plain survival. “Sentience is not an end in itself” as the animal ethicist Gary Francione puts it, “it is a means to the end of staying alive.”

If most of the animals we use in food production systems and other aspects of our lives are sentient, and if we care deeply about this as a moral matter, then two key questions must be answered.

Firstly, even if animal welfare laws recognise that animals are sentient, can those laws ever protect the interests that sentient animals have?

As Francione noted, because animals are seen and used as human property, animal welfare laws—even the arguably more progressive ones we have in the UK—don’t do much more than prohibit the kinds of gratuitous harm that are in any case economically inefficient. All such legislation comes up against this fundamental contradiction: while it may aim to protect the interests of sentient beings, it cannot do so in any meaningful way while those same beings are the property of another.

Secondly, if we care morally about animal suffering, and we really do object to the infliction of ‘unnecessary’ harm, then we should ask ourselves what forms of harm count as ‘necessary.’

In terms of sheer numbers and scale, the most significant use of animals is for food. It is estimated that over one billion animals are killed for food every year in the UK alone, yet no one—nutritionists and medical experts included—maintains that this is ‘necessary.’ In fact, there is evidence that vegans live longer lives than non-vegans. Eating animals isn’t essential for good health or wellbeing; we do it because it is customary, and because we like the taste of their flesh.

But are those good reasons to inflict suffering and death on a sentient being who, by definition, seeks to avoid pain and to continue to live? The fact of the matter is that there is only one way to respect the sentience of living beings, and that is by being vegan.

Being vegan means refusing to treat animals as property, refusing to participate in their exploitation, and avoiding as far as is possible the degradation of the conditions required for their well-being. Veganism is sometimes painted as an extreme—even aggressive—life-style choice. The contrary is true. It’s actually a matter of respecting sentience and rejecting violence—values that so many people claim to share.

Indeed, for those of us who profess to care about animal sentience, veganism is a moral imperative. If we are to avoid the charge of virtue-signaling, then respecting animal sentience requires us to be vegan.


CC by NC 4.0

11 December 2017. The virtues of a many-sided life

A rounded human being has got to be better than a square one for the tasks that lie ahead.

Credit: Wikimedia/USMC. Public Domain.

A couple of weeks ago, covered in lake slime and pieces of European water chestnut weed, I climbed into the bathtub and turned on my favorite podcast from the BBC called Coast and Country. The subject of the podcast was Dartington Hall in Devon, a seedbed for radical ideas and creativity since it was founded in 1925.

The core of Dartington’s philosophy is a “many-sided life:” the idea that we should draw on all of our faculties in our efforts to transform the world, and by doing so, become transformed ourselves—“head, hands and heart.” A life with many sides instead of one is bound to be more productive and fulfilling, both for individuals and for the societies they create.

Without knowing exactly what I was doing or why it might be important, I’ve been following the same philosophy since leaving my last full-time desk job in 2008. Helping to clear the rampantly-invasive chestnut weed from our local lake is the latest installment of my efforts to build in more manual labor to my life.

I call it ‘manual labor,’ though of course it’s more a hobby than a livelihood—there’s little dignity in a sweatshop, and I don’t pretend to be ‘a worker’ as in ‘working class.’ I’m comfortably off, with enough security to choose how to spend my time. So increasingly, I’m choosing to use my hands and not just my head by getting stuck into the hard, physical, collective work of the community.

As often happens, the more I thought about Dartington and its ideas, the more I started to come across examples of the same philosophy in action. An article in the Guardian reported that ex-President Jimmy Carter was treated for dehydration after he collapsed while building a house with Habitat for Humanity in Canada. A piece in the New York Times explored the life of political scientist James C Scott, who divides his time between studying peasant resistance and working on a farm in Connecticut.

Then there was a visit to John Ruskin’s home at Brantwood in the English Lake District, where reputedly he was just as happy when building guesthouses, garden walls and harbors with his friends and neighbors as he was when spinning out radical new ideas on politics and economics. Those ideas included a minimum wage, social security, free universal education and public ownership of land, and they set the stage for future developments like the welfare state and the National Trust.

I also commissioned a series of articles for Transformation on ‘intentional communities’—places like Findhorn in Scotland, Tamera in Portugal and Schumacher College in Devon (another outgrowth of Dartington Hall), which aim to ‘be the change they want to see’ in the world. Incorporating manual labor into learning is a central tenet of the experience they offer, whether that’s through shared domestic tasks like cooking and washing-up, or digging in the garden, or learning how to paint or make pots and other crafts.

At Dartington’s School for “multi-dimensional” education, “Students were as likely to learn how to fix a car engine as to read Chekhov” as Andrea Kuhn puts it. That probably came in useful for graduates like Michael Young, who spent the rest of his life inventing new institutions like the Open University. The virtues of a many-sided life are a common theme in radical experiments like these, and I’m definitely happier and more fulfilled as a result of diversifying myself, but why? I can think of at least three reasons.

First of all, while it does little to dissolve material class boundaries, shared physical labor begins to erode some of the artificial barriers that have been erected over time between ‘more’ and ‘less valuable’ forms of work. Manual labor becomes something that belongs to everyone, rather than being relegated to a secondary status for a separate group of people who are permanently under-rewarded.

There’s more than a touch of voyeurism in what I’m doing since it is always voluntary rather than enforced. But getting stuck into collective work is surely a better way of dealing with this problem than simply observing or studying the lives of others. As the late Ben Pimlott once wrote about George Orwell, “the author uses his account of proletarian life as a peg on which to hang what really interested him: not just the lives of working-class people as such, but his own inner dialogue about how middle-class people like himself did and should relate to them.” Shared work takes this dialogue one step further.

Second, and without wanting to sound like your Grandad, manual labor is good for you—and it’s also good for your role in the struggle for social change. In an age when so much social interaction, communication and activism are virtual, getting stuck into physical work, especially in a group, provides a much more direct experience of engagement with other people and a different set of challenges to navigate.

The pace of work is usually much slower than what’s possible on social media and the internet, and the level of commitment required is correspondingly higher (we reckon it will take at least ten years of continuous activity to get rid of the chestnut weed in the lake). In contrast to the current fashion for ‘frictionless’ solutions, face-to-face negotiations, trade-offs and conflicts are inevitable because of the sheer scale of the problem or its lack of malleability, or the vagaries of the weather and the environment, or delays caused by ill-health or a thousand other things. Translated into social action, these experiences can build stability and sticking power into movements.

Third and most important, a fully-integrated life is the best grounding for democratic politics, new forms of economics, and social problem-solving. We need activists who are also scholars, nurses and teachers who are also politicians, carpenters who sit on town councils, entrepreneurs who are also artists, and politicians who are anything except professional politicians. Mixing things up in this way is far more likely to generate collective energy, creativity, ideas and perhaps even consensus than keeping people trapped in boxes that are permanently marked as one thing or the other.

It also helps in cross-fertilization, as when thoughts and ideas are born during physical work, or when physical work provides a testing ground to put them into practice. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that someone like Scott frames his academic work in terms of real world problems instead of theoretical abstractions, a philosophy that has seen him produce a string of hugely-influential books like Weapons of the Weak and Seeing like a State. “I’m as proud of knowing how to shear a sheep as I am of anything, and I’ve been a better scholar partly because I’ve had this other activity,” he told the New York Times.

Of course, here’s no necessary link between manual labor and the adoption of progressive politics; both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush delighted in hosting brush-clearing parties down on the ranch during their respective US presidencies. But at least in an integrated life, each set of faculties—head, hands and heart—can help to counterbalance the others, guarding against too much reason, emotion or brute force in judgment and decision making.

As Terry Eagleton once pointed out, atrocities like The Holocaust are rooted in the pursuit of reason unmediated by ethics or emotion, but one can also argue that a surfeit of ‘heart over head’ or ‘hands over both’ can be just as damaging. Not only is a many-sided life more personally fulfilling, it also has social and political effects when scaled-up.

But is such a life a luxury reserved for those who can afford it? That’s certainly the case today, when so many people have been boxed into narrow categories and assigned a role and value according to the dictates of contemporary capitalism—so that speculators and managers are hugely over-rewarded, while nurses, care workers, labourers and others are penalized through salary structures, taxation and the unequal allocation of financial risks. The erosion of institutions that used to challenge some of these categories and reward systems (like workers’ education and cross-class civil society groups) has been immensely damaging.

Therefore, re-valuing manual labor and/or instituting some form of basic income is vital if everyone is to have the opportunity to do different things with their time—“there is no wealth but life” as Ruskin famously put it. After all, a rounded human being has got to be better than a square one that’s designed to fit neatly into all those boxes of bureaucracy, hierarchy and convention that force people to live a life that is both limited and divided.

Satish Kumar, one of the founders of Schumacher College, calls this a “path to wisdom” instead of just cleverness or shallow success, a preparation for the essential work of transformation that lies ahead for all of us. So get out your gloves and your boots and your tools and your brushes and get stuck in. You won’t regret it.

CC by NC 4.0

7 December 2017. Ken Burns’ powerful film on Vietnam ignores the power of the anti-war movement

The Vietnam peace movement was inspirational. Its story deserves to be told fully and fairly.

This article first appeared on Waging Nonviolence.

Anti-war march in Chicago, 1968. Credit: By David Wilson CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS series, “The Vietnam War,” deserves an Oscar for its depiction of the gore of war and the criminality of the warmakers. But it also deserves to be critiqued for its portrayal of the anti-war movement.

Millions of us joined the struggle against the war. I worked for years as an organizer for major national demonstrations and many smaller ones. Any semblance between the peace movement I experienced and the one depicted by the Burns/Novick series is purely coincidental.

Two of my fellow activists, Ron Young and Steve Ladd had similar reactions to the series. Historian Maurice Isserman says the film is “both anti-war and anti-antiwar movement.” Another historian Jerry Lembcke says the filmmakers use the technique of “false balancing” to perpetuate myths about the anti-war movement.

These criticisms are valid. But for today’s resisters, the PBS series misses the most relevant story of the Vietnam era: how the anti-war movement played a critical role in limiting and ultimately helping to end the war.

You would never guess from this series that as many Americans took to the streets to protest the war on one day (October 15, 1969) as served in Vietnam during the 10 years of the war (about two million for both). Nor would you realize that the peace movement was, in the words of respected historian Charles DeBenedetti, “the largest domestic opposition to a warring government in the history of modern industrial society.”

Instead of celebrating the war’s resistance, Burns, Novick and series writer Geoffrey C. Ward consistently minimize, caricature and distort what was by far the largest nonviolent movement in American history.

Anti-war vets are the only participants of the peace movement that Burns and Novick relate to with any sympathy or depth. John Musgrave, a former Marine who joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, describes his transformation. We also hear anti-war vet John Kerry’s moving testimony before Congress: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” And we see and hear from war veterans who threw back their medals at the Capitol steps. The filmmakers would have done well, however, to describe the extent of that GI resistance movement, such as the 300-plus underground newspapers and dozens of GI coffeehouses.

It’s disconcerting that the filmmakers did not interview even one draft resister. Had they done so, we could hear why tens of thousands of young men risked up to five years in prison rather than fight in Vietnam. The filmmakers would not have had difficulty finding any as there were at least 200,000 draft resisters. Another 480,000 applied for conscientious objector status during the war. In fact, more men were granted CO status in 1971 than were drafted that year.

Even worse, “The Vietnam War” fails to tell the story of the organized movement of draft resisters that grew to such proportions that the draft itself became virtually unworkable and that was a major factor why Nixon ended the draft. In “Jailed for Peace: The History of American Draft Law Violators, 1658-1985,” Stephen M. Kohn writes: “By the end of the Vietnam War, the Selective Service System was demoralized and frustrated. It was increasingly difficult to induct men into the army. There was more and more illegal resistance, and the popularity of resistance was rising. The draft was all but dead.”

The movement’s crippling of the draft system was not the only major achievement of the anti-war movement omitted from the Burns/Novick epic. The film shows scenes from the March on the Pentagon in 1967, where more than 25,000 protesters confronted thousands of Army troops. But it does not tell us that the Pentagon demonstration and the increasingly radical anti-war movement were among the factors that led Johnson to refuse General Westmoreland’s pending request for 206,000 more troops and why the president himself refused to run for another term just six months later. (The Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee is holding a gathering October 20-21 in Washington, D.C. to mark the 50th anniversary of the march.)

Likewise, the film shows footage from both the Moratorium on October 15, 1969 (demonstrations that drew more than two million people in hundreds of towns and campuses) and the Mobilization in Washington the next month, which drew more than a half-million marchers (the largest single demonstration in American history until the Women’s March earlier this year). Unfortunately, Burns and Novick do not tell us about the impact of the peace movement’s fall offensive: It forced Nixon to abandon his plans for bombing the dykes of North Vietnam and/or using tactical nuclear weapons. This story was not known at the time, but numerous historians have written about it based on interviews with Nixon administration officials, documents from the period and White House tapes.

Another missed opportunity: We see scenes of the massive demonstrations throughout the country—and on college campuses—in reaction to the Cambodian invasion and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. That eruption forced Nixon to withdraw from Cambodia prematurely, another point Burns and Novick failed to tell.

Meanwhile, the scenes related to Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 do not make clear that Nixon’s reaction led directly to Watergate and his resignation. Had Burns and Novick also interviewed Ellsberg, who is alive and well in California, they would have discovered that the most significant individual act of civil disobedience during the war was inspired by the example set by draft resisters.

Finally, the film does not explain that Congress cut off funds to the war largely because of the intensive lobbying efforts by such groups as the American Friends Service Committee and Indochina Peace Campaign, or IPC, led by Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. Don’t take my word for it. In his testimony before Congress the year after the fall of Saigon, the last U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam blamed the peace movement’s lobbying efforts for eliminating the funds needed to forestall the final North Vietnamese offensive. Not mentioning IPC’s lobbying efforts is particularly puzzling since the only peace movement activist interviewed for the series was Bill Zimmerman, one of IPC’s principal organizers. We hear opinions from Zimmerman about a variety of other issues, but absolutely nothing about the organization he describes in detail in his memoir.

All these omissions and distortions notwithstanding, we must credit this 18-hour epic as one of the most powerful anti-war films of all time. “The Vietnam War” certainly rivals “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Just as that World War I classic portrays the nightmare of trench warfare, Burns and Novick show horrific scene after horrific scene of mutilated bodies and corpses. Through the words of combatants on both sides, you can almost feel what it’s like having bullets and shrapnel flying at you and watching your buddies get hit while you’re trying to kill other human beings.

You may find yourself emotionally drained after watching countless gruesome battles and stomach-churning scenes of mutilated Vietnamese peasants and torched villages. Several of my friends stopped viewing after two or three episodes because they found it too upsetting. Still, I encourage you to view it if you haven’t already. (PBS stations will air episodes on Tuesday nights through November 28.)

Burns and Novick do more than immerse you in blood. They demonstrate the callousness, ignorance and hubris of the warmakers. You can hear tapes of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara revealing that they knew from the outset that the war was unwinnable and that more combat troops and bombings would not change the outcome. Yet they lied to the public and sent hundreds upon thousands of Americans into the fray, while dropping more tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia than the total tonnage of bombs exploded by all combatants in World War II. You can also hear Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger cynically plotting to prolong the war for four more years so that he could run in 1972 without the stain of losing Vietnam to the communists.

Generals and battlefield commanders in Vietnam show just as little regard for the lives and limbs of their men as their bosses in Washington. Soldiers fight valiantly to capture hills, where dozens are killed or maimed only to have their leaders tell them to abandon their conquests.

It’s no wonder then that, almost without exception, the American soldiers tell the filmmakers that they now believe the war was senseless and feel betrayed. Many voice support for the anti-war movement. Some even proudly became part of the GI resistance movement after they returned home. (My brother-in-law, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam and later joined the Secret Service, expressed the same sentiment when he told me, “We were suckers.”)

Burns and Novick should also be applauded for incorporating numerous Vietnamese soldiers on both sides of the civil war. By humanizing “the enemy,” the film goes beyond a condemnation of American perfidy in Vietnam and becomes an indictment of war itself. Particularly touching is hearing a North Vietnamese officer talk of how his unit spent three days in mourning after losing over half of his men in a particularly bloody skirmish. (They did not do as good a job portraying the toll on Vietnamese civilians, however.)

We also see how North Vietnam’s leaders mirrored their counterparts in Washington by consistently lying to their citizens and by callously sending tens of thousands of their young on suicidal offensives that had little chance of success. Similarly, the filmmakers get beneath the surface enough to reveal who actually fought the war. Just as the overwhelming majority of American soldiers were working class or minorities, the North Vietnamese side was composed almost entirely of peasants and workers. Meanwhile, children of Hanoi’s elite went to the safe environs of Moscow to further their education. Back in the United States, children of the white upper middle class and the privileged found safety in their student and other draft deferments.

Military recruiters would hate to have any of their potential enlistees watch this series. Those who sit through all 10 episodes will have a tough time discerning significant differences between the war in Vietnam and the ones in Iraq or Afghanistan. Common themes abound: lies, pointless battles, mindless violence, corruption, stupidity.

Unfortunately, most viewers will justifiably feel totally overwhelmed and helpless by the end of this epic film. That’s why it’s important to spotlight the misrepresentations and underestimations of the peace movement. For the success of the anti-Vietnam war movement provides hope and illustrates the power of resistance.

Rarely in history have citizens been effective in challenging a war. Other unpopular American conflicts have had their protesters—the Mexican, Civil and Spanish-American Wars, World War I, and more recently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Opposition typically fizzled out soon after troops were sent into action. Not so in the case of Vietnam. No other antiwar cause has developed a movement nearly as massive, endured as long or accomplished as much as the struggle against the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam peace movement provides an inspiring example of the power of ordinary citizens willing to stand up to the world’s most powerful government in a time of war. Its story deserves to be told fairly and fully.

CC by NC 4.0

5 December 2017. Myth and dystopia in the Anthropocene

The sleeping ice giants of Antarctica are stirring. Will we wake up before they devour us?

Calving front of the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. Credit: Flickr/Etienne Berthier, Université de Toulouse. CC-BY-2.0.

In the autumn of 1913, Carl Jung dreamt of a monstrous flood of yellow waves cascading down from the North Sea through north-west Europe and down onto the Alps. Later in his apocalyptic dream-vision the swirling yellow seas turned blood red amidst “the floating rubble of civilisation, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands.” 

Nine months later Jung had a similarly dramatic dream, but this time with a different emphasis: “An Arctic cold wave descended and froze the land to ice...The whole of Lorraine and its canals frozen and the entire region totally deserted by human beings.”

I thought of Jung’s pre-World War One visions when I read of the stirring of the sleeping ice giants of East Antarctica earlier this year. According to recent research, one of those glaciers—the Totten (larger than the state of California)—is moving slowly towards the Southern Ocean as a result of global warming, with the potential  to raise sea levels by 3.5 metres in future decades.

This figure is a worst case scenario, but a sea level rise of even a fraction of that figure could lead to extraordinarily worrying outcomes. In the case of the Totten glacier, warm ocean water is seeping up from the bottom of the sea into the cavity beneath this vast ice giant, which could destabilise the surrounding ice sheet even further. That’s important because East Antarctica has long been regarded as more stable than West Antarctica in terms of its melting ice.    

Returning to Jung’s fascination with dreams, myths and metaphors, the ice and fire giants of Norse mythology are described as forces that oppose the orderly rule of the gods; they exist to create havoc, chaos and war, representing all the destructive aspects of nature. In Old Norse language they were called Jötunn, roughly translating as “devourers.”

The symbolism of the devouring glacier is unmistakable. As these modern day ice giants melt, they seek revenge for their deaths by attempting to devour those whose actions are causing their demise—our cities, our industries and us. In allegorical terms, it’s hard not to think of ice monsters (both real and metaphorical) as vengeful behemoths who have been prodded once too often by the myopic stupidity and greed of industrial capitalism, driven on by unsustainable levels of production and consumption, and it’s here that an understanding of myth and metaphor can be especially useful in helping us come to terms with the spectre of anthropogenic climate change.

The great mythic stories of pagan Europe, Buddhist and Hindu India, and Taoist China exist for a reason. These archaic traditional narratives understood that we have a tendency as humans to rely on metaphors, allusions and myths to unravel the unexplained and the mysterious, rather than relying solely on reason and logic. Human beings are instinctive and emotional creatures, and all great folk tales have understood this fact.

As moral parables, these mythic stories were designed to make sense of an unknown and unpredictable world; create sense out of disorder; and warn us of our collective and personal arrogance, stupidity and inattention. Across all cultures their themes are universal: revenge, warnings of hubris, ambivalent heroes, magical origin stories, suffering, bereavement and greed. They also talk of the unfairness and injustice of a sometimes callous universe, and—at least in the Greek tragedies—the ambivalence and indifference of the gods to the suffering of ordinary mortals.

Myths also warn us that the monsters are not just present externally, but also exist inside of us. Arjuna’s philosophical dialogue with Krishna at Kurukshetra in the Bhagavad Gita, for example, is not just the tale of a reluctant and despairing warrior prince unsure of his martial duties, but also a meditation on the moral and spiritual conflicts that take place within. These conflicts have implications not just for our own souls, but also for those around us and the worlds that we create.     

In terms of climate change there are conflicts and monsters everywhere both internally and externally, yet we don’t seem able or willing to face them. The biggest monster of all is capitalism, particularly the neoliberal version that has been slowly hollowing out everything it touches like some giant blood sucking incubus over the last 40 years, devouring the social compact between people, natural resources and the future. Ultimately, it is rooted in rapacious greed and the insatiable desire for power.

The fire from this monster’s mouth is always the same: endless privatisation, endless production, endless growth and endless consumption. Among other systemic failures, the blind pursuit of profit has led us to a level of carbon dioxide emissions that’s now over 60 per cent higher than at the time of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The ideologically-dogmatic Pandora’s Box of carbon trading, Dr Strangelove geoengineering fixes and other myopic, time-wasting “market solutions” dreamt up since then to hold back the inexorable tide of rising temperatures certainly won’t save us.  

Nevertheless, the much-lauded Paris climate agreement of 2015 promises to “[hold] the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C” in the future by utilising just these technocratic solutions: 111 out of 116 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models that chart the economically optimal paths to  2°C assume negative emissions.

In effect we are hedging our bets on technologies that are supposed to suck out hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere in the future (none of which have been tried at scale), whilst doing little to curb the profligate, fossil-fuel based consumer cultures that lie at the root of the problem. 

In October 2017, Storm Ophelia  battered the south and west coast of Ireland where I live. The night before the storm I tracked it online. It looked like a swirling Technicolor Dervish in slow motion, crawling up past Portugal and France as it headed north. The next morning, a few hours before the storm made landfall, I went out to feel the atmosphere. I live near a large wooded area not far from the Atlantic coast, and the trees were already swaying violently, with thousands of birds flying around chaotically in the sky, perhaps instinctively sensing the coming of the storm.

In two minds, I drove the short distance to the coast. The sky had a strange reddish-orange colour and felt dark and foreboding. Branches and house-roof slates were already falling off, and I sensed that—as much as I wanted to experience the wild elements of nature—the situation could become much more dangerous very quickly. The road made me feel I was entering a magnetic vortex pulling me towards the ocean.

Sideways winds buffeted my car ferociously, with gusts of 156 kilometres per hour recorded a few kilometres away. As people say in the west of Ireland, the waves resembled a horde of giant white horses stampeding violently towards the land. An old fisherman I’d seen on previous visits was already there; “Never seen anything like this before,” he told me, “this feels like something different.”

In 2017, the IPCC concluded that “The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger abrupt and irreversible change remain uncertain, but the risk associated with crossing such thresholds increase with rising temperature.” The language is dry, antiseptic and clinical, but the harbingers of permanent climate change are clear.

The IPCC tells us that we need a fundamental departure from ‘business as usual’ to confront this situation; otherwise anthropogenic global warming will get much worse, possibly much sooner than we think. In the Soviet Union, cynics purportedly said that it’s the future which is certain; it’s only the past that is unpredictable. Climate change increasingly feels the same. In which case, what could encourage us to take the necessary action?

Carl Jung believed that myths resonate deeply within our unconscious as “the deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity.” Because they are universal, we all have access to them across time and space. Perhaps the appeal of these myths to our emotions, and the inner wisdom they offer, might finally wake us from our induced inertia on climate change instead of relying on yet more reams of data and statistics.

The great mythic stories teach us that it is unwise to commit crimes against the gods. The arrogant Sisyphus, for example, who always managed to elude his fate, was finally condemned to push his rock to the top of the hill for all eternity by Hades, only for it to roll all the way down again each time. 

In the 21st century, Sisyphus’s arrogance represents the myopic stupidity of global laissez faire capitalism as it drives the world on towards climate chaos. We are all susceptible to hubris, of course; we’re always pushing the rock up the hill, expecting redemption to follow. But, as it says in the Upanishads, we must not be “like fools dwelling in the blind led by the blind.” 

CC by NC 4.0

3 December 2017. The American that America doesn't want to know

For Max—poor, white, male and vocal—politics were a projection of the personal.

Max Kennedy’s truck at the Minutemen encampment near the US/Mexico border. Credit: still from Max Kennedy and the American Dream directed by Vikram Zutshi. All rights reserved.

One day while scanning the Los Angeles Times I came across a headline: “A Watcher Sees Across The Divide.” The article was about Max Kennedy, an anti-immigration activist patrolling a small stretch of the US-Mexico border in the beautiful, inhospitable mountains of southeast San Diego County. The Minuteman Project, to which he then belonged, is a controversial activist organization that monitors the flow of illegal immigrants into the US.

The article described Max as, “a lanky, sunburned man with a scraggly goatee and a voice like a fistful of desert gravel. In his 53 years, he says, he has driven a cab in Miami and ferried fur coats in New York, peddled marijuana and jewelry, played bass in a punk band and marched with 1960s radicals. He has been a Gingrich Republican and a pagan, a seeker of meaning in the Kaballah and the sayings of Chairman Mao.”

It was a description I couldn’t resist. As a filmmaker, and an immigrant at that, the appeal of a person like Max was obvious. He was a seething mass of contradictions, living the life of an outlaw on the fringes of society. Filming him would be like shining a light on areas of our collective psyche that rarely find a voice in the mainstream media. This was an aspect of the immigration debate that most narratives shy away from, yet one I felt we had to understand to comprehend the true complexity of the issue.

Max was the American that America doesn't want to know: poor, white, male and bigoted – and vocal with it. But in spending time with him, filming Max Kennedy and the American Dream, I realised I'd encountered someone from whom I would learn more about the tortured soul of America than anyone else I had known thus far. Max agreed to have a camera crew follow him, if we could endure the privations of life on the arid border. The nine months that followed were a social experiment infused with a strange irony: an anti-immigration activist and vigilante telling his story to an immigrant filmmaker. 

Over time, as he got comfortable with the presence of a camera, Max started to open up and our conversations grew more intimate. He loved to talk, an eclectic and articulate person who held forth on Middle-Eastern politics (he opposed the Iraq War), post-war Europe, ancient Egypt, Che Guevara, Chairman Mao, JFK, Bush, art house cinema and punk rock. He discussed his abusive childhood and abandonment by his mother, his string of failed relationships and his broken dreams. His deepest wish was to meet the daughter he'd never seen, born from his relationship with his Puerto Rican ex-wife who now lives in Paris.

His soliloquies would often degenerate into long-winded, tangential rants at everything he perceived to be a symbol of the ‘system’ that threatened to take away his freedoms. A ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ sticker was proudly displayed on the dashboard of his vehicle nicknamed ‘the Green Machine’, a hulking, weather-beaten truck with large off-road tires and faded camouflage. It seemed like the only way he would calm down was with a joint of weed, which he’d fish out of his glove compartment before turning in for the night. The medically prescribed cannabis was probably the only thing that kept him from completely losing it in the desert all those brutal winter nights.

We shot extensively on the other side of the border, at Tijuana as well as Sasabe in Sonora, known as the ‘Grand Central of Illegal Immigration.’ Being non-white in Mexico worked in my favour; it helped me blend in and capture some truly poignant and unguarded moments from the migrants’ journey. The film was shot and edited with two parallel tracks running simultaneously, creating an ‘Us and Them’ narrative arc—outsiders versus nativists—whose separate journeys are juxtaposed with the intent of bringing out their similarities.

Max was a frontier philosopher, often surprising me with his reflections. “I can understand it now, in all of these holy books, where prophets go off into the desert,” he told me, “somehow the isolation brings them to a spiritual revelation…I became a part of this desert. It's amazing how deep you can get into it. I know all the animals and all the animals know me.”

What we ultimately captured was as much a result of serendipity as design, but I made a conscious decision to eliminate staged interviews because I wanted the characters to tell their own stories. I wanted to create a space to bring out raw truths about otherness, identity and belonging, not to push a particular political stance. 

For many Americans, immigration is an issue with fixed political boundaries. For Max, an outlaw surviving at the frayed margins of the American Dream, it was a deeply human matter that had made him reflect on his own life. “I started noticing the look in the migrant's face,” he confessed, “I mean, they are as poor as I am. They are at the bottom of their world, and basically I am at the bottom of my world.”

Providing constant relief to Max’s solitary ruminations were his fellow Minutemen, a motley crew of grizzled, retired pensioners camped out in a circle of trailers. They had colourful names like Gadget, Ridge Runner, Li’l Dog, Czech Stan and Kingfish, and equally eclectic reasons for being there. Most of them were happy to cooperate with me except for Czech Stan and Kingfish who felt I looked ‘too left-wing’ to trust. All of them insisted they were not racist.

Their reasons for joining the group ranged from concern about the economy and national security to drug smuggling, terrorism and human trafficking. My closeness with Max ensured that I was able to capture him and his fellow Minutemen in the most extraordinary and candid moments, giving us close to a hundred hours of footage to sift through at the end.

When Max secured a job at the Las Vegas motor speedway, he was happy to leave his border outpost. He had also grown disenchanted with the Minuteman movement, which he felt had been hijacked by Bible-thumping evangelicals and narrow-minded right-wing ideologues, none of whom shared his post-hippy ‘liberal’ views on culture and society. Moreover Max recognised that he had been tilting at windmills, and was himself a victim of the same forces that compelled migrants to leave the safety of their homeland and make the arduous trek to reach the US.

One of the highlights of the film is when Max drives into Vegas for the first time and is struck with the brash neon glare of Sin City. After a long sabbatical in the desert, Vegas appears to him like a phantasmagoric spectacle—he calls it ‘Disneyland for adults’. Life seems to be looking up once again. His friend has given him the use of his big house with a pool until he can find his feet. Max can scarcely believe his good fortune. At one point he even says, ‘I’m going to live and die in Vegas’.

But two months into his new job he had an accident while riding his scooter, breaking several bones in his left foot. After several months of painful recovery shacked up in a trailer home, he reconciled with his estranged sister and moved into her house. He also adopted a stray dog along the way—perhaps the only true companion he's ever had. The last time I saw Max was at the border, where he was recuperating in his trailer with his leg in a cast, popping large doses of high grade Vicodin to numb the pain.  

As uncomfortable as I found much of his worldview, I was constantly struck by how complex and indefinable Max was: a blue-collar Brooklynite turned post-modern frontiersman; an anti-immigrant activist co-opted by the Right who loathed Christianity and capitalism, and identified with the struggle of poor Mexicans.

He was a figure who, like America itself, was a mass of contradictions, impossible to decode and make sense of. And a journey over the parched, broken rocks of his own life was what the Minuteman project offered him. For Max, as for everyone else, his politics were only a projection of the personal.

CC by NC 4.0

30 November 2017. Capitalism is not the only choice

Every day we have opportunities to build economies that lift each other up and spread joy.

Old Window Workshop production manager Nannette Bowie and director Pam Howland with Leishla Lugo and Shaniqua Dobbins at a worksite in Springfield, Massachusetts. Dobbins and Lugo are in their first year of training with the women-owned cooperative. Credit: YES! Magazine/Chris Marion. All rights reserved. 

Since the breakup of the Soviet bloc and China’s turn toward free markets, many economists have pronounced an “end of history,” where capitalism reigns supreme as the ultimate form of economy. Perhaps “there is no alternative” to a globalized neoliberal economy, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher often said. Indeed, free markets in which individuals compete to get what they can while they can are glorified in popular culture through reality shows such as Shark Tank.

But many of us in the 99 percent are not feeling so happy or secure about this economy’s results. Many are working harder and longer just to maintain housing and keep food on the table. Even the college-educated are mired in student debt, keeping the American Dream beyond their grasp. And then there are those who have never been served well by this economy. African Americans were liberated from enslavement only to be largely shut out of “free” market opportunities. Immigrants continue to work in the shadows. Women still earn only about three-quarters of what men make for the same work.

So, are we trapped in capitalism? While many of us may want a new economy where people and planet are prioritized over profit, we remain skeptical that another world is really possible. We make some progress locally but then feel powerless to affect national and global forces. Too often “the economy” is equated with markets where corporations compete to make profits for the wealthiest one percent and the rest work for a wage or salary (or don’t make money at all).

Work itself is seen as legitimate only if it legally generates income. Value is measured only in money terms, based on what people are willing to pay in the market. The capitalist mindset also separates economy from society and nature, as if it exists apart from people, communities, government, and our planet. Economy is its own machine, fueled by profit and competition.

When everything that we label “economic” is assumed to be capitalist—transactional and market-driven—then it is no wonder that we run short on imagination.

Redefining economy beyond capitalism.

To escape this “capitalocentrism,” we need to broaden the definition of economy beyond capitalism. What if, instead, economy is all the ways that we meet our material needs and care for each other? And what if it’s not a singular thing? Then we would see that beneath the official capitalist economy are all sorts of thriving non-capitalist economies, where there may not be a profit motive or market exchange. They include tasks that we do every day. We care for our children and elderly; we cook and clean for ourselves and each other; we grow food; we provide emotional support to friends. These are all ways of meeting our material needs and caring for each other.

For many, these economies, which foster solidarity and are rooted in values of democracy and justice rather than maximizing profit, are invisible or not recognized as “economic”; they are merely how we go about our lives. Capitalist thinking blinds us to these economic activities, some of which make survival possible and life meaningful. These non-capitalist ways also add up to a significant portion of all economic activity. Economist Nancy Folbre from University of Massachusetts Amherst estimates that unpaid domestic work (historically considered “women’s work”) was equal to 26 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product in 2010.

Broadening the definition of economy also puts people back into the system and empowers us. Economy is not just something that happens to us, a sea in which we swim or sink. Rather we are all part of multiple economies, some in which we are the main actors—such as our household economies—and others in which we are the extras—such as venture capital markets.

Recognizing these diverse economies and lifting the veil of capitalocentrism allows us to see that there are choices to be made, ethics and values to be considered. For example, I might pay more for lettuce from a local farmer who grows sustainably rather than from a distant supplier that exploits farm workers and uses pesticides. These choices are not only made as consumers, but also as workers, producers, and neighbors, and through policies that set the rules necessary for any economy to function.

Do I work for a for-profit owned by shareholders or for a worker-owned cooperative, nonprofit, or B corporation? Should public land be used for luxury condos or for affordable housing? These questions open space for all of us to participate in shaping our world and the economic futures of the 99 percent.

Solidarity is rising.

Across the U.S., from Jackson, Mississippi, to Oakland, California; in rural Kentucky and on Navajo-Hopi lands; and throughout Massachusetts’ biggest cities, it is often poor communities and communities of color that are building solidarity economies around these questions. This is not new. In fact, this is where solidarity economics—collective strategies for survival—have been innovated out of necessity. Think mutual aid, community organizing, self-help, and cooperatives of all kinds. These practices have been embedded in Black liberation movements, the early labor movement, and many other progressive movements in the U.S.

The desire for deep, transformational change—for the multitude of solidarity economies to add up to something—comes not just from those who are dissatisfied, but even more so from communities that are simply struggling to survive. Dreams of a decent life and a fair shake come from those making Black Lives Matter, from immigrant workers making poverty wages, from ex-prisoners locked out of the mainstream economy, from tenants barely able to make rent, and from communities being displaced to make way for the 1 percent.

Springfield is Massachusetts’ third-largest city, and here the Wellspring initiative is building a network of worker-owned cooperatives to create local jobs and build wealth for low-income and unemployed residents. Inspired by the Cleveland Evergreen Cooperatives, which has built a network of worker-owned businesses to provide goods and services to the region’s anchor institutions, Wellspring was founded in 2011 to try to capture some of the $1.5 billion spent by its own anchor institutions, such as Baystate Health and University of Massachusetts Amherst. One study showed anchors procure less than 10 percent from local businesses.

Its first cooperative, Wellspring Upholstery, was launched in 2013 and now has seven workers. Wellspring Upholstery was the first business to be developed, in part because a successful 25-year-old upholstery training program run by the county prison could provide trained workers. Wellspring’s second cooperative is Old Windows Workshop, a women-owned window restoration business. A main goal of this business, according to production manager Nannette Bowie, is to allow “the flexibility of a working mom to take care of your family responsibilities and keep a full-time job.”

Wellspring raised almost $1 million to start its third business, a commercial greenhouse, which will produce lettuce, greens, and herbs for the local schools and anchor institutions. Construction began during the summer. With several businesses underway, Wellspring is demonstrating viable models they hope will inspire others and grow the job base and wealth-building opportunities for low-income and unemployed residents.

Wellspring is just one example of solidarity economies that are emerging in Massachusetts. In Worcester, the state’s second-largest city, the Solidarity and Green Economy Alliance is cultivating their own ecology of more than a dozen cooperatives. Some are matching resident skills to meet community needs, such as landscaping, soil remediation, honey production, and urban agriculture. Others are providing services to movement organizations, such as translation, video production, and bookkeeping.

In Boston’s Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods, a food solidarity economy is emerging, which includes a community land trust, urban farms and a greenhouse, a kitchen incubator, a consumer food co-op, and a worker-owned organics recycling company. And Latinx residents of East Boston have formed the Center for Cooperative Development and Solidarity. Concerned about rapid gentrification, the group began exploring how economic alternatives could help them stay in East Boston. They are supporting startup cooperatives in child care, sewing, and cleaning. The Boston Ujima Project was just officially launched in September to build a community capital fund where a participatory budgeting process is used to make investments in local businesses.

Consciousness, power, and economy.

Yet solidarity economics is more than just cooperatives. It is a social justice movement. It is shifting our consciousness not only to uncover root causes, but also to expand our vision of what is possible, and to inspire dreams of the world as it could be. It is building power, not just to resist and reform the injustices and unsustainabilities produced by current systems, but ultimately to control democratically and govern political and economic resources to sustain people and the planet. And it is creating economic alternatives and prototypes for producing, exchanging, consuming, and investing in ways that are more just, sustainable, and democratic.

If we want to transform and go beyond capitalism, then we must confront it in all three of these dimensions: consciousness, power, and economy.

We do not have the luxury of creating solidarity economies in a vacuum. That means that we have to put them into practice now at home and in our own communities, no matter how small the scale. At the same time, we can work with others to build larger solidarity alternatives and do the hard work of reforming the political, economic, and ideological systems that are making life so difficult for so many.

Everyone can put solidarity values into practice—to live in solidarity—starting in whatever ways we can. And that is the transformative power of solidarity economics: it doesn’t have to scale up only by building larger and larger organizations and systems. It can scale up by many people in many places pursuing economics of social justice. It will require taking back government to dismantle the systems that privilege capitalism and to redirect public resources toward solidarity economies. We can all begin by spreading the word, sharing our radical imagination of the world that we want to live in.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

CC by NC 4.0

28 November 2017. Visualising the human price of gold

An exhibition of powerful photographs brings home the real costs of illness and incapacitation for miners and their families.

Nosipho Eunice Dala, widow of Zwelakhe Dala who worked in the mines for 28 years and contracted silicosis. Credit and copyright:Thom Pierce. All rights reserved.

In May 2016 the South African High Court (Gauteng Local Division) granted an order in the case of Nkala and Others v Harmony Gold Mining Company Limited and Others that certified a consolidated class action against 32 mining companies. The action had been brought by mineworkers who had contracted silicosis by breathing in the silica dust that is generated during mining, along with their dependents. This disease can take many years to manifest, is incurable, debilitating and often fatal.

The mineworkers argued that exposure to silica dust also increased the risk of contracting TB, a lung disease caused by bacterial infection. Once miners became too ill to work they returned to their families, who became tasked with their care. The Nkala decision authorised the commencement of the largest class action litigation ever to occur in South Africa, with almost half-a-million possible claimants.

The mining companies lodged an appeal against the High Court judgment which will be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal in March 2018. Parallel to the appeal process, there are discussions occurring between some of the parties regarding a possible settlement. In the meantime, significant numbers of plaintiffs are dying each year without seeing the case resolved.

In addition, given that the miners’ families have had to take on many more responsibilities as a result of their incapacitation, shouldn’t they also have access to compensatory damages? The High Court recognised the contribution that women make to caring for the miners, but like most international measures that calculate GDP (such as UN System of National Accounts) it did not recognise the value of domestic labour as labour that has real economic and financial value.

This is largely because domestic work is placed outside the ‘production boundary’ and is not seen to be contributing to the national economy, a non-recognition that leads to a measurable deterioration in the health and well-being of individuals, households and communities because the inflows required to support social reproduction fall below a sustainable threshold. This is especially important in the context of the reduction of state-provided services in countries like South Africa as a result of economic crises, austerity policies and government retrenchment.

Mncedisi Dlisani, who worked in the mines for 15 years and contracted silicosis, with members of his family. Credit and copyright:Thom Pierce. All rights reserved.

One way to document, raise up and publicise these under-appreciated issues of care and compensation is through visualisation, which brings home the human costs of gold-mining and silicosis through powerful imagery and associated commentary.

In a remarkable collaboration organized in the weeks prior to the court case, Cape-Town based British photographic artist Thom Pierce worked with Section 27 and the Treatment Action Campaign—two South African civil society groups that work on health rights—and  Sonke Gender Justice, which works on the rights of carers, to photograph all 56 of the named miners in the space of 26 days. The portraits were taken in the homes of the miners that were spread all around the country.

As Pierce told us in an interview about the project:

“One of the biggest challenges is to find some simplicity and balance. You don’t want to overload the photograph with information and you want the person to be the centre piece with other supporting information that tells a story. After meeting each of the miners or widows we would explain the project in as much detail as possible, making sure they understood what we were doing and why we were doing it. We would then do the interview so that I had a chance to get to know each person a little better.


The interviews started being about silicosis and how they struggle with the illness but I soon realised that I was getting the same answers from everyone, because that is what it is, the same illness with the same symptoms. Once I realised this I started just finding out about them as people and this led to some much more interesting stories that told relatable stories, forcing the viewer to connect more deeply with each person.


I shot portraits with the wife or other family member wherever possible. I wanted to tell the story of the family. The widows were all photographed alone but where the miners were living with sisters or brothers I wanted to include them. Only one wife refused to be photographed due to her being a traditional healer.”

Patrick Sitwayi, who worked in the mines for 22 years and contracted silicosis, and Asive Bingwa. Credit and copyright:Thom Pierce. All rights reserved.

To go along with the photos and increase their potential impact on the climate of public opinion surrounding the court proceedings, Pierce wrote a blog that pulled from his conversations with miners and their families. He also made sure that they were exhibited in the most powerful way possible using sound and visual effects that were designed to pull the viewer more deeply into the experience:

“All of the portraits were beautifully printed and mounted on board, and then displayed in a pitch black room so that they formed tunnels for people to walk through. We had a soundtrack on a loop of the wheezing from the miners that I had recorded during my interviews, together with industrial mining sounds, and we provided hard hats and head torches. The only way to view the images was to walk through the tunnels and use the head torch to see. All of the individual stories were also displayed next to each portrait. As you can imagine it had a huge impact; people came out crying.”

By using these techniques, Pierce was able to walk the fine line between exposing the collapse of the worlds of the miners and their families, and displaying their courage and dignity in the face of such adverse circumstances. His photographs are striking in what they say and what they omit, what they make visible and what remains invisible. He supplements some of these gaps with captions containing information that he has selected about each of the miners.

The social construction of illness—of silicosis acquired by black, male bodies working in white owned mines—frames the social context of these photographs. Pierce aims to alert the audience to the pain and loss the photos reveal, and to support the legal claims of the miners and their families in the process. He gives attention both to the male workers and their relatives since each group has been so clearly affected by the men’s illness and their loss of employment.

The photographs also speak to the issue of gender and gendered roles: in most of them the description is of male lives, even when female bodies are present in the same frame. There are women in kitchens, situated in their homes with the accoutrements of everyday life. Their dwellings showing plenty of wear and tear, but also careful maintenance.

Zama Gangi, who worked in the mines for 19 years and contracted silicosis, and his wife Matshozi. Credit and copyright:Thom Pierce. All rights reserved.

Looking at compensation claims through the lens of photography helps us to think about which forms of harm are recognized and which are not—and why. It also leads us to ask who is compensated for the harms done to them and who is not, and what happens when compensation is denied to those who must assume extra responsibilities.

Understanding these questions as they manifest themselves in Pierce’s photographs points to the need for a deep and textured reconsideration of ideas about loss and injury as they are normally understood and quantified for the purpose of compensatory damages in law.

Thom Pierce’s award-winning photographs can be seen at the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize Exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery in London in November 2017.

A longer version of this article has been published in Social & Legal Studies

CC by NC 4.0

26 November 2017. Why aren’t we thriving at work?

With mental health problems forcing thousands of people out of their jobs, we need to fundamentally re-imagine the role that work plays in our lives.  

Credit: Constance Laisne. All rights reserved.

This month the UK government-commissioned ‘Thriving at Work’ report was released, stating that 300,000 people with long term mental health problems are losing their jobs each year, and that poor mental health is costing the UK economy up to £99 billion.

For those who graduated from university into a post-crisis economy, this is no surprise. In 2016 The Mental Health foundation reported that young people in the UK have some of the poorest mental wellbeing in the world: could this have something to do with the ever-greater precarity of work, the rise of zero hours contracts, and the constant pressure we face to fight for a shrinking number of well-paid jobs?  

For my generation the recommendations made in the report— like developing greater mental health awareness in workplaces and encouraging a healthier work-life balance—feel like moving chairs around on a sinking ship. They don’t go nearly far enough to deal with the interlinked crisis of work and mental health that we face today.

In order to solve this crisis we need something much, much bigger: we need to fundamentally re-imagine the role that work plays in our lives.

The causes of mental health problems are complex, but it’s well known that they are related to deprivation, poverty and inequality. Against the background of these wider factors, both the Royal College of Psychiatrists and The World Health Organisation (WHO) cite the workplace as one of the key determinants of mental well-being, so why is the workplace so important?

The WHO suggests that employment provides five categories of psychological experience that promote mental well-being: time structure, social contact, collective effort and purpose, social identity and regular activity. But with an increase in unemployment, zero-hours contracts and freelance work, many of those positive aspects of work have been eroded. The isolation of freelancers and an associated increase in depression have been well-documented. The instability of zero-hours contracts—and moving continuously in and out of work—fail to provide regular routines, strong social identities and time structure. And anxieties linked to financial survival as a consequence of irregular work and the increasing cost of living have never been higher.

Lobbying big employers to improve working conditions for those suffering from mental health problems at work is all well and good, but for the rest of us that don’t even know what holiday and sick pay look like, things will likely remain the same. Furthermore, this strategy fails to get to the root of the problem: why are so many of us feeling depressed and anxious at work?

In a 2015 survey more than a third of British workers said that their job “was making no meaningful contribution to the world,” a phenomenon that anthropologist David Graeber has called the rise of “bullshit jobs.” We’re either overworked or unemployed, so let’s face it: the current reality of work isn’t working.

So what’s the solution? What would a different world of work entail—one that is beneficial for people, the planet and society?

First, let’s liberate ourselves from the idea that work is how we should be spending most of our time.

This may sound utopian, but the idea of a three-day working week has gained traction in recent years. Research shows that a shorter working week would not only decrease our carbon footprint, increase gender equality, improve our health and strengthen democracy, but it would also boost worker productivity. Those who work less tend to be more productive hour for hour, and they are less prone to sickness and absenteeism. All of us working less would overcome the interlinked problems of overwork and unemployment and mean that we all could lead more healthy and balanced lives—without there being any significant damage to the economy

Second, we should separate income from work, and provide all citizens with an income or a ‘social dividend’ that is enough to cover their basic needs. This income would be a set amount of money provided by the state, regardless of income or employment status, and is most commonly known as Universal Basic Income. UBI is currently being trialled in countries such as Canada, Finland, Holland and Namibia.

Contrary to popular belief, these trials—like the one that took place in Canada in the 1970s—have found that people who receive a basic income don’t spend all their time watching TV. Instead, they use the income in different ways to support their families out of poverty. Not only could UBI play an equalising role in society, it could also empower us to have greater agency over when we want to work and for what causes, and it could enable a wider range of people to engage in entrepreneurial, creative and innovative thinking. 

A basic income could be financed by raising income tax rates or through new taxes on wealth, land value or pollution. Renationalising public assets, or scrapping schemes such as Trident and lowering our spending on the military and defence, could also generate the required resources.

Third, we need structures that support people to find, develop and share their gifts and skills for the positive benefit of themselves and society. The rise of automation is set to transform work, and with the right political policies and support this could liberate us from menial, manual jobs, enabling us to focus on doing work that expresses our true human capabilities: the ‘three C’s’ of care, creativity and craft.

Taken together, re-imagining work around these three pillars could have huge positive impacts for the wellbeing of society at large, and it could provide one of the keys to solving the mental health crisis of my generation. It could liberate us from unpaid internships, freelance contracts and bullshit jobs, and the anxiety and depression that so often come with them.

In this new future of work the economy could be something we engage with from a place of security and safety. Work could be something we choose to do as a way to share our ingenuity, our creativity, our skills and our passions to enrich the lives of ourselves and others. It could fulfill all those psychological needs identified by the WHO like social contact and collective purpose, without being the most important thing in our lives.

It’s time to create a new vision for the world of work: to make work something that supports and nourishes our mental health and the world around us. 

CC by NC 4.0

21 November 2017. Swords in the hands of children: an insider’s account of what happened to America’s New Left

How Weatherman confused violence with militancy and triggered the downfall of Students for a Democratic Society.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

Students for a Democratic Society logo. Credit: By Tim Lourd - Own work, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

To those of us deeply immersed in the New Left in the summer of 1969, apocalypse felt imminent. Despite growing opposition, the war in Vietnam was still escalating, with no end in sight. There had been strikes and building seizures at scores of campuses. Demonstrations were increasingly confrontational and bloody. The civil rights movement was reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the year before, and the massive riots that followed, and from the emergence of separatist groups that rejected the goal of integration. Some of those were armed, including the Black Panthers, whose offices were routinely and lethally attacked by police.

Within Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, the New Left’s principal organization, there was desperation to articulate a strategy in response—and to create the conditions for revolution, which many of us had convinced ourselves was necessary. Factions formed and competed bitterly. At the SDS convention in June 1969, the organization burst apart. Control was seized by a group called Weatherman, which eventually went underground and carried out a campaign of bombings. But in the months before doing so, we trashed SDS, abandoned the mass movement it represented, and dedicated ourselves to ultra-militancy and fighting in the streets.

To many people today, apocalypse feels imminent once again. And activism feels mandatory. How to build organization, devise strategy and be effective are pressing questions. So is the distinction between militancy and violence. What follows is an excerpt from “Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary,” the story of my path through SDS and the Weather Underground. For activists grappling with those questions, it should be a cautionary tale.

Through the summer and into the fall of 1969, we forged ourselves into an infantry of swaggering kamikazes dedicated to the ideas in the Weatherman position paper. Every effort was aimed toward a series of demonstrations we called for Chicago in October. They became known after the fact as the Days of Rage, although in building for it we just called them “the National Action.” Our goal was to get tens of thousands of angry young people fighting the cops in the streets. In the event, only about 400 people actually participated, maybe fewer. There was an opening night salvo when our troops ran through a fancy neighborhood trashing things and attacking the cops, who responded with shotguns, wounding 11, and arrested more than 60.

A couple of actions planned for the following days didn’t go forward at all—one was defused by the police as people were gathering, and we canceled another out of fear because the National Guard had been called out. The final day’s march was another melee, with numerous injuries and mass arrests. Altogether, considering our inflated vision of it, the Days of Rage was a spectacular failure. So, smarting from our abandonment by the movement we had alienated and from the failure of our fantasized masses of followers to materialize, we in turn abandoned the movement and the masses in a huff. Obviously, nobody else was as committed as we were! That’s when we began preparing to go underground.

This spoiled-brat, feelings-hurt motivation for such a consequential step was obscured behind our overblown rhetoric about the need for armed action. We pointed for justification—and reflected glory—to revolutions, such as the Cubans’, that started with small, clandestine military ventures. We also rationalized the intention to go underground as a refusal to surrender. Many of our members accrued felony charges for things like mob action and assaulting an officer, and didn’t want to face trials and jail. But our unwillingness to admit that our strategy had been a farce—that is, our shame at having talked so big and delivered so little—would also be a powerful impetus.

Over that summer leading up to the Days of Rage, we built a network of collectives in half a dozen cities; membership was somewhat fluid during those months, as some people bailed out and others were recruited, but I don’t believe there were ever more than 200 or maybe 250 members. They were disciplined to a leadership group that we cutely called the Weather Bureau. Not insignificantly, while there had been two women among the 11 signers of the position paper, Karin Ashley and Bernardine Dohrn, Karin was very quickly kicked off the Weather Bureau and Bernardine remained the only female member. (In the fall another woman was brought on, for cosmetic reasons I should think. She also didn’t last long, most likely because she was a nascent lesbian feminist.)

The local groups that became Weather collectives had originally been meant as short-term organizing projects. Many who joined them were students expecting to return to college in the fall. But by fall our sense of reality was so skewed that for many, the idea of resuming life as a student would have been as inconceivable as volunteering to become a police informer. This first incarnation of Weatherman, as a public and visible organization, was nicknamed by someone—me, I think—the Weather Machine. This image gave us something to keep in mind as we subordinated our individual wills and learned to function like cogs and gears. We didn’t consider its other implication, the repetitive, controlled, mechanistic way we were thinking.

At the SDS national office, where I was, there was a staff that fluctuated in number between perhaps half a dozen and a dozen people. From there, the transformation of the summer projects into the Machine only reached us in anecdotes and rumors of bizarre and thrilling and scary goings-on. We began to hear of marathon meetings, “criticism/self-criticism” sessions that lasted until dawn. This was a technique appropriated from the Cultural Revolution then going on in China, aimed at beating the bourgeois individualism and wimpiness out of each other. For example, out on the street you were supposed to “lay down” the correct “raps,” as if upon hearing the perfect formulation, strangers would magically abandon their own lives and join up.

If your rhetoric hadn’t been perfectly congruent with what the leadership was promulgating at the moment, then that could be the focus of criticism. Whatever you’d said would be picked apart—along with your self-esteem—and you were expected to recant, repent and parrot back the right phraseology. Worse, perhaps, would be to have appeared weak. “A lot of those criticism sessions grew out of how you performed that morning leafleting, or in some confrontation with the cops. Everyone doubted themselves. I was really scared on the street,” one friend remembers. Of course, it would have been rational to fear physical combat with the police. But thinking rationally wasn’t possible, once you’d committed to meekly following orders and forcing yourself to be something you were not.

We heard that collective members were learning karate. There were also tales of erupting promiscuity. And we would sometimes receive surprising news that a person who had been a trusted cadre had been “offed”—ghetto slang for “killed”—and was now a non-person with whom nobody should interact. Occasionally, following one of those torturous criticism sessions, the non-person was liable just as surprisingly to be rehabilitated. Then there was the campaign of “smashing monogamy.” Smashing monogamy was justified as a way to free girlfriends from the domination of their boyfriends, but it also had the effect of freeing previously attached women to be sexually available to the leaders, or any other guy who felt empowered to coerce them.

What made us so willing to trash people no worse than ourselves, and take orders from people no smarter? The organization we created was a vehicle for our politics. But its peculiar nature was enabled not so much by the ideology as by the psychic crisis created within each of us by that ideology.

Weatherman held that in making a revolution, not only would black people be the vanguard but that “the blacks could do it alone.” This was more than a challenge to the arrogance of white leftists, it was a profound invalidation: we weren’t only not primary—we weren’t even necessary. The acknowledgment of white privilege, an enormously important understanding that was new to most of us at the time, also permeated Weather thinking. But it became a club with which to beat ourselves: we were coddled, and whiteness would always give us an easy out; we were racists objectively and inevitably simply by dint of being white in a racist society.

There’s truth to that, and value in realizing it. It makes possible an understanding of the nuances, and insidiousness, of racism both within us as individuals and in the structure of society. We, though, did not examine nuances. We leapt from this insight to judging ourselves to be worthless, along with every other white person in the country. Hence the despair and bitterness with which we took such crazy risks with our lives, and with the lives of others. But here was a group of people who were so confident—or unreflective or power hungry —that they could promulgate these ideas without themselves being similarly debilitated. Following their leadership would be our path to rehabilitation.

No one involved, however—except the undercover cops—set out on a path of political activism with any less idealism and heart than I had at 13 when in my first political act I joined a picket line to integrate a segregated apartment complex. And at the core of the original Weatherman position paper were humane and passionate convictions. Its authors understood that the war in Vietnam—and unnecessary American military meddling in other countries, in general—was a tragic blunder. And they knew that for this country racism is central to the history, and the biggest challenge.

Both observations remain demonstrably true today. The leaders I criticize were right to insist on these ideas. Their failure was not in their motivations to activism, or in their instinctive radicalism and boldness, or in their analysis—well, not in those two elements of their analysis. But they lacked humility. They liked being right way too much. They were not saints, as most leaders of most movements, even righteous ones, turn out not to be. They aren’t saints, and this isn’t heaven.

So in the Weather Machine we created a structure that perpetuated repeated mood swings between cockiness and self-loathing, endlessly and with no possible resolution. We could strut around like bullies all day, and cower and pule before our hierophants in the evening. The breaking down of self-esteem, the abdication of critical judgment, the omnipotent leadership, the not-quite-free free love, the ever-present threat of banishment: We didn’t identify our organization as a cult, but I guess people in cults generally don’t.

Reinforcing the separate reality of life in the Machine was the escalating state of confrontation with the cops, not all of which was directly provoked by us. People were routinely followed by plainclothes officers who made no attempt to be surreptitious, pulled over for the slightest real or concocted infraction of traffic rules, illegally searched and arrested. “I remember at least three or four times that summer when we were raided by the police,” my friend recalls. “We’d be sitting around in the collective house and they’d just come in, without any warrants, and terrorize us for an hour or so. Once they hung somebody out the window of a third-floor apartment by his heels.”

In Chicago, as the days counted down to Oct. 8 and our National Action, we still had close ties with a local group of leftist lawyers, and with Rising Up Angry, a Chicago organizing project among working-class white kids started by some people from SDS. The radical Student Health Organization had agreed—reluctantly—to provide first aid during the demonstrations. But we had succeeded in alienating virtually everybody else. No matter; we knew that the masses of kids were with us. I was cited in the newspaper Chicago Today, as late as September 23, asserting that between 5,000 and 10,000 of them would be joining us in the streets.

But the reality was that we had isolated ourselves almost completely. This is what happens when you insist you are totally right, belittle everybody else as wrongheaded and “objectively” counter-revolutionary, and deride them all as wimps. We acted as if we didn’t care that our ties to the larger movement were being severed. We pretended it proved our superiority. Driven by spite, it seemed easy to cut ourselves off from the rest of the New Left.

The last issue of the SDS newspaper we published before the National Action had an unambiguous theme of armed revolution, with articles on four Latin American insurgencies. New Left Notes had often printed a roundup of short items of movement news. This time, under the headline “Insurrection!” we ticked off several militant street battles of the Weatherman type, and seven recent bombings of National Guard armories and federal buildings in various locations around the country. Weatherman hadn’t yet blown anything up, but that idea was in the air. Some people were beating us to it.

It was right in the middle of those feverish Days of Rage that the Weather Bureau made the decision to transform the visible Weather Machine into an invisible underground. Perspective and composure were apparently not deemed essential for the taking of such a momentous decision. But we had gone far out on a limb and discovered that everybody else was ready to leave us dangling there, so I think we all felt that we might as well jump; it certainly wouldn’t do to wimp out on our commitment to ceaseless escalation.

There is also the reading of this decision as an adolescent tantrum: If we were to die in the act of committing revolutionary suicide, it would serve everybody else right. And there is the psychological reading, in which it isn’t a surprise that the leadership made the decision to go underground when they did. What a spectacular way to repair their punctured collective self-esteem, given the colossal defeat they had ushered us to. 


CC by NC 4.0

20 November 2017. Solidarities outside the box

Can the expression of conviviality act as a reminder of everyday acts of kindness?

Who are we banner_0.jpg Solidarities outside the box. All rights reserved.With constant news about growing islamophobia and anti-semitism, and the rise of right-wing movements and parties across Europe and the world, the media is dominated by stories documenting and trying to understand our ‘age of anger’ as the essayist Pankai Mishra has called it in his recent book. Public displays of anger, anxiety and resentment hold our attention. In a political climate shaped by uncertainty and competition, the social is increasingly understood in ethno-nationalist/monocultural/religious terms and the ability to live together in diversity is thrown into question. In a recent survey by the 2017 Aurora Humanitarian Index, for instance, which was reported in the Guardian found that ‘more than half of Britons believe their culture is threatened by ethnic minorities living in the UK’.

Such situations allow for ordinary and unspectacular encounters with others in which difference is routinely rendered insignificant.

Laura Sorvala’s installation ‘Outside the Box’ provides a counterpoint to the depictions of an increasingly divided society shaped by stereotypes and resentments. As part of the Who are we? project at Tate Modern’s Tate Exchange programme she sent out a call via social media for stories that document kindness and solidarity that people have experienced in their everyday lives. People were asked to share their stories on the project’s Facebook page, post them on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #OutsideBoxArt or send them to Laura directly via email.

In a conversation we had in preparation for the piece, Laura said she was “interested in the personal and sometimes intimate experiences of acts of kindness or solidarity, the encounters or incidents that might happen on public transport, in a shop, gym, workplace or on a street corner. We witness empathy in our everyday lives regardless of religious, ethnic, religious or cultural expressions. I want to encourage people to pay attention to these everyday situations, perhaps start instigating small acts of kindness.” Laura Sorvala, who as an illustrator and visual facilitator has long-standing experience of translating stories into colourful and accessible visuals, drew these stories on cardboard boxes that were assembled into an installation for the exhibition at the Tate Modern. Visitors were asked to move the boxes around and to contribute their own stories to the growing sculpture.

A number of sociological studies have drawn attention to the everyday situations of being together in ethnically and culturally diverse environments, which have become characteristic of life in big cities and other areas of Britain. Such situations allow for ordinary and unspectacular encounters with others in which difference is routinely rendered insignificant. In his 2004 book After Empire, Paul Gilroy suggested the term conviviality for these everyday experiences of living together in diversity. Convival culture is based in the ordinary human commonalities of sharing a workplace, a neighbourhood or religious congregation – or simply in being in the same place at the same time, and recognising each other as fellow human beings.

lead lead Convivality is a powerful concept as it rejects any emphasis on integration or the need for shared and unified national identities. It also marks a departure from the principles of tolerance and recognition which are defined by the assumption of difference and, often, an implicit hierarchy of ethno-racial positions. Instead it renders racial (or other) differences unremarkable as they “do not… add up to discontinuities of experience or insuperable problems of communication”.

Laura Sorvala’s stories can be seen as documenting such a convivial culture. The title of her ‘Outside of the Box’ explicitly refers to the absence of categories like race, religion, gender or sexual orientation in everyday encounters, rejecting and challenging the processes through which people are marked out as others. Moreover, it demonstrates moral relations between fellow neighbours, citizens, and simply human beings who offer support and reassurance, enacting solidarity in everyday life. While more fleeting than any form of sustained activism, these acts can nevertheless make a big difference to our everyday experience, as Sorvala shows.

Solidarities outside the box. Alena Pfoser. All rights reserved.

Solidarities outside the box. Laura Sorvala. All rights reserved.

Solidarities outside the box. Laura Sorvala. All rights reserved.Convivial culture and neighbourliness should not, of course, be idealised as though they are the usual way of being in cities and other places; living together is neither without conflict – the geographer Ash Amin has aptly called it an “experiment without guarantees” – nor is it detached from political and social developments as the increased number of hate crimes against ethnic and religious minorities after the Brexit referendum and the Manchester and London attacks show.

Conviviality departs from the principles of tolerance which are defined by the assumption of difference and, often, an implicit hierarchy of ethno-racial positions.

According to records from regional police forces, the number of religious and racially motivated crimes rose by up to 100% after the Brexit referendum, and British Muslims in particular have been confronted with a rise in verbal and physical abuse following the Islamist terror attacks in May and June 2017. When looking at everyday solidarities, we should be mindful not to forget that neighbourliness has become a political issue in itself. In 2001, New Labour placed local communities at the heart of its social policy, and David Cameron and Theresa May have put forward their own expectations in their concepts of a Big or Shared Society. Geographer Joe Painter has warned that in these visions “neighbours have become burdened with political expectations out of all proportion to their fragility in practice”. 

Firmly situated in the contemporary sociopolitical situation, Laura Sorvala’s stories resist depicting these idealistic scenarios of people “coming together to do good things in their neighbourhood”, but show the social contexts in which kindness and solidarities are enacted. Several stories explicitly articulate critique of a worsening sociopolitical and economic climate in which cultural and religious diversity are repudiated and inequalities have become heightened by the measures of austerity: an EU migrant who receives a support message after the EU referendum saying that she is welcome in Britain finds her status has been suddenly questioned. The pregnant woman on the London tube who remarks that the only person getting up from the seat is a drunk, acknowledges his act but at the same time complains about the lack of support she receives from others. In this way, Outside the Box can also be read as a reaction to the dispossessions and displacements experienced by many in our society. 

Solidarities outside the box. All rights reserved.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy, The Open University and Counterpoints Arts to reanimate the Tate Exchange project in which academics and artists together ask who – during a time when the lines marking out citizens, borders and nations are being redrawn, or drawn more starkly – 'we' are, and who gets to decide.
CC by NC 4.0

20 November 2017. “The power of Fannie Lou Hamer compels you!” Resisting Donald Trump

To deal with Trump we must first face the Trump inside ourselves.

Credit: CC0 Public Domain.

Please allow me to introduce myself.

I’m a black man, I’m gay, I’m an addict. I’ve been a crackhead, I’ve been a drunk.

I don’t remember being sexually abused, but I was a gay boy, now a gay man in a homophobic society that continues to destroy people like me for our sexual orientation—and that’s a kind of abuse, isn’t it?

This week, a father in Nevada killed his 14-year-old child, because he’d “rather have a dead son than a gay one.” In our society, we kill transgender women and men every day for telling the truth about their lives.

Sometimes I feel I’m fighting for my life. These days, I’m not always sure I’m winning.

I was at a gym in a small town I was visiting last month and a man asked me for my phone number. Another man overheard us talking and whispered under his breath something about perverts and how disgusting we were. I was too scared to confront him, so I didn’t say anything.

At night, when a cop car passes by me in Harlem and slows down, I’m frightened. I’ll admit, I’m frightened a lot. My partner is always surprised when I use all the locks in our apartment, even the chain, and sometimes even during the day. I believe our building is secure, but I don’t know how to explain to him that I rarely feel safe—anywhere.

I come from a family with a history of domestic violence.

One time, my parents got in a fight and my mother told us to get our things, we were going to McDonalds. We stayed for awhile and then we went back home. When we arrived, there were all these little bits of paper everywhere, like confetti, as if someone had thrown a party while we were gone. I looked closer and I saw a tiny picture of my mother in a white dress—her face torn in half. My father had ripped up my parents’ wedding photos.

A few years later, when I was thirteen, I got into a fight with my Dad and ran to my room and locked it. He threatened to rip off my bedroom door. I hid in my closet until my mother calmed him down.

One day he told me, “I will break your spirit, son.” I was so furious with him that I made a decision.  In that moment, I imagined something pouring down into my body, moving through my veins like steel or concrete, and then hardening. I promised myself I would never cry in front of him again, or feel any pain. I would just be numb, like a robot. Yes Dad. No Dad. Goodnight Dad. I imagined myself a soldier, shot on the battlefield, eyes wide open, dead and cold and quiet.

That was the day I became an emotional alcoholic.

I need you to know this about me because it influences my relationship to bullies like Donald Trump, and why we need a new paradigm of resistance to go with the old one.

I like horror movies, not the slasher genre, but psychological horror, and especially 70’s horror—Rosemary’s Baby, Omen, Carrie, The Exorcist. There’s that amazing scene in The Exorcist where the priest says to the devil who has possessed the young girl, Reagan, “The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you!”

I don’t know much about exorcisms, but the shit seemed to work on that devil, so the other day when Donald Trump came on the screen I thought, why not? And I blurted out, “The power of Fanny Lou Hamer compels you!”

For those who may not know or remember, Fannie Lou Hamer was a black organizer in the Deep South, a civil-rights activist, who fought to exercise her right to vote in a virulently racist Mississippi. She was tortured, her life was threatened, and she even had to battle for the right to be heard within her own political party. Fanny Lou said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” and “Nobody’s free, until everybody’s free.” She had what the old folks call ‘Holy Ghost power.’

So I shouted it at the screen over and over. “The power of Fannie Lou Hamer compels you!”  It felt good, so I tried a few others. “The power of Audre Lorde compels you!” “The power of Harvey Milk compels you!” “The power of Eleanor Roosevelt compels you!” “The power of Sojourner Truth compels you!” Try it at home, it’s fun, and you really do feel better.

And then I thought, if I was a priest with a congregation what would I tell them right now?

I think I would say: Believe in miracles, believe in your power as a sorcerer and sorceress, stir shit up for Good, invoke.

I’d remind them: You don’t have to earn grace. You are already worthy.

I’d say, You are not a commodity. You are not a can of Coke or a pack of cigarettes. You are not a stock option, a casino, or land purchased for development.

When you go on a date, stop looking at everyone the way you shop for household cleaner, turning it around, figuring out what it can do for you. Resist commodification and resist being commodified.

Listen to someone today. And I don’t mean waiting for the pause before you speak—really listen. Look at someone today—and I don’t mean judging how much weight they’ve gained or lost, or what they are wearing. Look into their eyes. Take in the miracle in front of you.

Wear those high heels, work your beautiful yellow dress, shake out that black wig, wear your best red lipstick and dance—I’m talking to the straight men right now.

Deal with your shame about slavery, appreciate your black ancestors, understand the horror of your history and be honest about how it has harmed your beautiful blackness—I’m talking to the white people right now.

If you really want resist Trump, stop whipping your kids.

You’ve been talking about quitting smoking for years. You’ve been going to sleep drunk for years. You won’t give up your meth, your coke, you won’t stop eating sugar even though people in your family have died from diabetes. You sit in your car, in the parking lot, crying, with empty bags of fast food around you.

Your life belongs to McDonalds and Burger King and KFC. Your life belongs to corporations with scientists whose job it is to find new and innovative ways to kill you, one delicious happy meal at a time. Realize, lovingly, that they don’t really give a fuck about you, and take your life back. Decide that your life is worth saving. Resist Trump.

“You know I always wanted to go back to school, but there just isn’t enough time.” There is enough time. Go back to school.  Resist Trump.

Stand in front of the mirror naked. If you are a woman, gay, or a person of color, consider the peril that body has seen. See yourself on the auction block, burned at the stake for being a witch, bashed after you left the gay bar. Hold your body dearly while it is still your own.

Resist Trump, and finally forgive yourself, for the childhood abuse, for the childhood violence, for the abuse that’s been sabotaging your life, that makes you apologize when other people bump into you, that keeps you in torn clothes.

End the war with self. Integrate. Reconcile. Emerge into your greatest power. We need you whole. Your life is an ecosystem and you have a right to keep it balanced and to preserve it. Stop all self-harm. Remember: it wasn’t your body that betrayed you. And although you may not always feel like it, despite what happened to you, your beauty remains intact.

Consider: what did it take to make you, what did it take to get here? Think of the parents you had or didn’t have. The mother who died when you were twelve.  The father you never knew. Think about the money you had, the money you didn’t have, the marriage that ended, the day you left home…..have you left home?

What did it take to get you here? Did you come over on the Mayflower or were you dragged here, or did you flee? Recall the grandmother who was cooking when you saw the numbers tattooed above her wrist. She promised to tell you a story one day about concentration camps. Think about the grandmother who was cooking when the men arrived on horses with sheets and took her son, the uncle you never met who was carried away in the night.  She promised to tell you a story about lynching. 

And understand that no one is going to save us. What is happening right now is more profound than Hillary vs. Bernie vs Trump; it’s deeper than Sarah Huckabee Sanders or the NRA. What we need isn’t going to come from the Democratic National Committee and it won’t be found on WikiLeaks.

Something is definitely coming. And to deal with it we need to be whole. We can’t be fragmented with each other or within ourselves. The thing that’s coming needs you to hate yourself so that you’ll feel nationalistic pride when they try and build a wall. It needs you to be afraid at night, hiding behind the shades, so that you can be manipulated into supporting a travel ban.  

The thing that’s coming is counting on you to be a mess, in debt, traumatized, dissociated, drunk, high, angry, racist, lonely, heartbroken, in despair, cynical; it needs you to think Black/White, Palestinian/Jew, Man/Woman, Gay/Straight, Them/Us, Me/Other.

The thing that’s coming needs you numb and asleep so it can organize at night. Then suddenly, you get up one morning and see the men in the streets with machine guns. Because they know by then it will be too late.

To deal with Trump we must first face the Trump inside ourselves. Despite the ways we are being coarsened and made to live a life of staring into phones instead of each other’s eyes, we must return to compassion. It really is all that we have. Study war no more. The real enemy is our belief in enemies. Never underestimate the power of your kindness in every moment.

We have to grow up, even when everything in this culture tells us to stay immature, entitled, greedy, narcissistic and pathological; even when the man in the White House is really just a teenage boy up in his room surrounded by empty Doritos bags and playing with his X-Box all night.

We must grow up. Our lives, and maybe even life itself, depend on it.

For a longer version of this article, click here.

CC by NC 4.0

16 November 2017. No more white saviors

It’s time to let people lead their own movements—and support them in doing so.

The White savior: a person of privilege who picks a cause they know little to nothing about and insists on solutions that inevitably cause more harm than good. YES! Illustration by Fran Murphy.

The time we’re living in requires an extraordinary understanding of who we are, what we’re working toward, and how to get there. As people committed to social justice in the time of Trump, we have a twofold challenge: resisting an administration that came into power through an election won on the dehumanization of marginalized people, while also being mindful not to reproduce the devastating hierarchies that mimic that power. So far, we’ve largely come up short.

A new book by Jordan Flaherty, "No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality," offers insight into how the practice of “saviorism” injures our movements and provides visions for an alternative and much-needed praxis.

You’re no doubt familiar with the White savior: a person of privilege picks a cause they know little to nothing about and insists on solutions that inevitably cause more harm than good. As Flaherty explains, the savior mentality cannot exist without turning people into objects who need rescuing.

“It is as old as conquest and as enduring as colonialism,” he writes. As an activist and a journalist, Flaherty has witnessed firsthand the harms of saviorism and neatly lays out countless examples of its failure—perhaps most poignantly when he writes about Brandon Darby. Flaherty cites numerous articles and other activists for his well-researched chapter about Darby, a man he’s known for several years.

Darby’s origin myth, as it were, begins in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when, Darby says, he rescued Robert King, a Black Panther who spent three decades in solitary confinement until his conviction was overturned in 2001. Darby, along with anarchist organizer scott crow, “had taken a boat to Robert King’s house [and] faced down state troopers who got in his way.” Shortly after, Darby became a leader in “Common Ground, an anarchist-leaning volunteer group that brought thousands of young, mostly White volunteers to work on rebuilding New Orleans,”  Flaherty writes.

What followed, as described in No More Heroes, is a case of “disaster masculinity,” a term coined by scholar Rachel Luft to describe the familiar practice in which charismatic men (often White—but not always) poise themselves to presumably lead a marginalized group to freedom. What ensues is destructive abuse and exploitation against the very people these saviors claim to want to rescue.

As described in No More Heroes, in the case of Darby, it was not only the Black people of New Orleans who were disregarded to let Darby shine, but also women who were sidelined through the use of sexual assault under his leadership at Common Ground. Despite constant warnings about and accusations against him, Darby garnered and maintained support from well-intentioned men and was allowed to continue to do his work however he saw fit. That work paved a path of ruin.

Shortly thereafter, according to Darby’s own account, he became an informant for the FBI.

As Flaherty explains, Darby tipped off the FBI about Austin, Texas, activist (and Flaherty’s friend) Riad Hamad, a full-time schoolteacher who used to sell crafts in support of Palestinian children, an operation he ran from his home. Darby apparently convinced the FBI that Hamad had been living a double life, but a subsequent raid of Hamad’s home found no evidence of any crime. Less than two months later, Hamad was found dead in an Austin lake with his mouth duct-taped and his arms bound. The death was ruled a suicide—but Darby suggested to Flaherty that the FBI may have killed Hamad. Months later, Darby was outed as an informant.

Men such as Darby, who take center stage in struggles they know nothing about, who are applauded for doing so, and who are excused for abusive behavior, don’t always turn into informants for the FBI. But the truth is that they don’t have to. To make this point, No More Heroesquotes scholar Courtney Desiree Morris’ essay “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants”: “Before or regardless of whether they are ever recruited by the state to disrupt a movement or destabilize an organization, they’ve likely become well versed in practices of disruptive behavior.” 

That is, activist men who come to command without listening to those they’re ostensibly helping—and dismiss marginalized people who critique their methods—produce a kind of devastation that makes the project of systemic oppression that much easier. Darby’s work, however outwardly flawed, was also unconditionally backed by community supporters.

“This period in New Orleans crystallized the idea of the savior for me. It is not just about Brandon Darby, but also about the people who followed him,” Flaherty writes. “Darby is not so much a prototypical savior as he is the kind of dangerous person who can rise to power when we are seeking saviors.” The way that saviors are doing the work, and the way it’s supported by activists seeking a savior, only serves to perpetuate inequity and sow discord. And that has a lasting, if not permanent, effect on marginalized people involved in movement work, who are already less visible.

Flaherty’s book doesn’t focus solely on Darby—in fact, Darby’s mostly limited to one of 11 chapters in No More Heroes. The rest cover observations from cities as far away as Gaza, and organizations ranging from Teach for America to Occupy Wall Street. Part of what will strike you about No More Heroes is the multitude of voices included throughout its pages. The author manages to amplify the voices of people who have drawn significant conclusions across the spectrum of privilege and marginalization.

Although I recommend reading the book in its entirety, most of the chapters stand alone, so that you can pick up what piques your interest from the chapter titles. The final three chapters, which cover Occupy, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter—along with a thoughtful ending on how to decenter privilege—are worth reading in one sitting if possible. Flaherty’s knowledge of the last few decades of grassroots organizing proves especially incisive here.

Flaherty concludes his first chapter by quoting the Zapatista saying “preguntando caminamos,” which he translates as “Walking, we ask questions,” explaining that one shouldn’t “be so afraid to take action that you are immobilized.” Early on, I returned to these pages over and over again, mostly because my interpretation of this phrase is different. For me, a better translation might be “Asking questions, we walk.” But even that translation doesn’t convey the depth of the words in Spanish, which can also be interpreted to mean “Asking questions, we walked,” to indicate the past tense of asking and walking to arrive at the present.

"Preguntando caminamos" originally comes from an early Zapatista communiqué in 1994, which tells the story of two gods, Ik’al and Votán, who were one. One asked the other to walk, and the other asked how and where. The two gods couldn’t move at the same time, so they agreed to walk together but separately. All in small and deliberate steps. It doesn’t matter who walked first, the story goes—it matters that they asked questions before moving. The gods have walked with questions ever since and have never stopped. And, in the Zapatista story, real people have learned from the gods that questions serve us to walk together and separately, and never stand still.

By the end of reading No More Heroes, it mattered less to me how Flaherty, a writer I’ve long admired, interpreted the phrase. It mattered more that he took the time to incorporate his understanding of this phrase in his opening chapter. I know he and I are walking together but separately. Flaherty’s book is a critical and welcomed meditation on how imperative it is to keep a measured stride on the long marathon toward justice. It couldn’t come at a better time.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

CC by NC 4.0

14 November 2017. Embracing holy envy: 'Allahu Akbar'

We should not allow terrorists and bigots to hijack language in order to sow fear, ignorance and division.

Interior of the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Credit: By Phillip Maiwald (Nikopol) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I say ‘Allahu akbar’ dozens of times a day. I say it during prayer. I say it as an expression of reaffirmation and gratitude to God.

I said it when my daughter was born, and there will be someone to say it over me when I am buried.

I say it when I witness beauty.

‘Allahu akbar.’

In 1985, Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl, in defending the building of a Mormon temple by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Stockholm, enunciated “Three Rules of Religious Understanding:”

“When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.”

“Don’t compare your best to their worst,” and:

“Leave room for holy envy.”

Stendahl challenges us to be open to recognizing elements in other religions—even those that may appear foreign or threatening—and to consider how we might wish to support, embrace, emulate or further explore those elements that might help us to deepen our understanding of our own religious traditions and more deeply connect to others: to embrace ‘holy envy.’

Abdullah, a Saudi friend of mine whose family tree traces back to the time of Prophet Mohammad in Mecca, travels to Cairo with his family every Christmas.

He, with children and grandchildren—perhaps even now with great grandchildren—window shop, go to Christmas parties, sing Christmas carols and together celebrate the birth of Jesus, considered by Muslims to be the most revered prophet after Prophet Muhammad.

On Christmas Eve they attend Midnight Mass at the Anglican Church in Zamalek. Abdullah doesn’t take the Eucharist but he loves Jesus—and Christmas pudding (Egyptian friends make him an alcohol-free version).

Before New Year’s Day they return to Saudi Arabia, renewed by their encounter with Christian tradition and re-committed to an ecumenical understanding that the descendants of Abraham share much more through faith than they disagree about politically.

Like Stendahl, Abdullah and I believe that being open to holy envy helps us to connect to others, to ease tensions and build bridges.

I was recently reminded of Stendahl and Abdullah as I listened to the discussion that followed the terrorist attack in New York on October 31 2017 when eight people were killed and 12 injured by a truck driven by Uzbek native Sayfullo Saipov. As the truck plowed into a bicycle path in lower Manhattan, it’s reported that Saipov cried out ‘Allahu Akbar.’

‘Allahu akbar.’

We know, from documents released by the FBI after 9/11, that a letter written by the hijacker Mohamed Atta urged attackers to shout ‘Allahu akbar’ because “this strikes fear in the hearts of the non-believers.” 

We know, from Fort Hood, from New York, London, Paris, Brussels, Mogadishu, Istanbul, Baghdad and Beirut, that terrorists continue to shout ‘Allahu akbar’ even when most of their victims are believers.

To terrorists the non-believers are those who don’t hate as they do—Muslim and non-Muslim.

On the other hand, at the funeral service for Muhammad Ali there were four recitations of ‘Allahu akbar’ along with prayers, readings and blessing in-between.

‘Allahu akbar.’

I believe that ‘Allahu akbar’ will strike fear only if we allow, through ignorance and prejudice, terrorists to define how we approach God. 

To Muslims ‘Allahu akbar’ means ‘the greatest,’ although linguistically, it translates as ‘greater.’

To Muslims it means nothing is greater than God. 

‘Allahu akbar’ isn’t in the Qur’an, but it’s part of daily prayer and worship, embedded in our consciousness. As a term of gratitude to God it’s even used by some Arabic-speaking Christians.

Today, Muslims who pray ‘Allahu akbar’ are caught between terrorists who try to inspire fear and Islamophobes who try to instill ignorance and fear of The Other.

In the US, we are learning not to define all Christians by the practice of the Westboro Baptist Church (“God hates fags”), or the far-right anti-Muslim Judge Roy Moore, or by those who want to ban Harry Potter, Halloween and dancing.

We’ve learned that Christianity is not monolithic.

Today, we must also learn that Islam is not monolithic, and that all Muslims are not defined by Sayfullo Saipov and Mohamed Atta.

We must embrace more holy envy and less unholy ignorance.

A friend of mine, an Episcopal priest who has traveled in the Middle East, has holy envy over the Muslim tradition of saying ‘insha’Allah.’

“I often wish we had something like that in our tradition” she once told me, “the constant reminder—‘insha’ Allah’—that only God knows the future.”

‘Insha’Allah’—if God wills it—is to recognize God’s omnipotence, God’s Grace, presence and authority in our lives.

Can I borrow your snow-blower tomorrow? ‘Insha’Allah.’
Can we have dinner tonight? ‘Insha’Allah.’
Can you meet me tomorrow? ‘Insha’Allah.’

I love Thanksgiving. I like Christmas trees. I love menorahs and the story they tell. I love the call of the shofar, the peeling of church bells and the sound of muezzins calling the faithful to prayer. We need to witness, and we need our children to witness, each others’ religions, traditions, symbols and practices.

We need more holy envy—‘insha'Allah.’

We need to see the world, not as something to be partitioned and feared but as a source of engagement and richness that nourishes all of humanity.

Our challenge today is to refuse to allow terrorists and bigots to hijack, weaponize and appropriate language in order to sow fear, ignorance and division. I believe that our public squares are richer and our nations healthier when we struggle to preserve and enhance the pluralistic experience that defines our societies at their best.

This isn’t just an Abrahamic calling: whether secular, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Quaker—whatever faith tradition we may or may not embrace—I believe that we are all called, by our Constitutions as well as our Prophets, to serve the forgotten and the dispossessed, and to honor conscience and each other’s dignity and humanity.

‘Allahu Akbar.’



CC by NC 4.0

12 November 2017. Is Christianity finished as a source of inspiration for progressive social change?

Whatever the emerging world becomes, it will need a new consciousness to guide it, especially if we want that world to be a good one. 

Credit: Pixabay/Stocksnap. CC0 Creative Commons.

“Were Christians to be in a position to exert enduring cultural influence, the results would likely be disastrous or perhaps mostly so.” This is the judgment of University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, who coined the term “culture wars” in the 1980s, but it’s a sentiment that’s shared by many on the left.

Given their flawed thinking about public life, says Hunter—“based on both specious social science and problematic theology”—there seems to be little future for the Christian faith as a motivating force in progressive politics in the USA and beyond. But is this judgment correct?

To put this question in context, the American Century is over. The institutions that sustained the modern industrial world (including many of the mainstream Christian churches) are rusting out, their legitimacy crisis dragging on like a festering wound since the Sixties.

Whether we like it or not, we are emerging into a different world. It feels strange to us. We can’t see it clearly at this point, or even know what to call it. But whatever the emerging world will become it will need a new consciousness to guide it, especially if we want that world to be a good one.

Finding and articulating that new consciousness in order to re-imagine our societies is one of the central challenges of our times—supporting the growth of a wider, public sensibility and a progressive way of life in which peace, justice, love, hope and human flourishing can grow. To meet this challenge, I think we’ll need to draw on imaginative resources wherever we can find them.

So it’s at least worth taking another look at Christianity’s faith and practice, history and global diversity, theological ideas and spiritual traditions in order to see whether any of these things might offer us these kinds of resources. Can Christianity be critical enough of itself and of society to be a productive source of change? By this I don’t mean that Christians should simply criticize. We’ve had enough cranky, reactionary rhetoric from the uniquely American religious right in recent years to last a lifetime.

But keep in mind that as recently as the Sixties, Christian public identity in the US was claimed by the moderate-to-progressive Protestant ‘mainline’ denominations—the religious center-left. Progressive theologians including Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox, and activist clergy like Martin Luther King Jr and William Sloane Coffin, were all well-known, consequential public figures.

Their intellectual and moral tradition was rooted long ago in the eighteenth-century in what historian Amy Kittelstrom calls the “American Reformation” in her recent book, The Religion of Democracy. Kittelstrom describes this period as one of fascinating intellectual ferment during which New England pastors and theologians started to mix Reformation Protestantism with the values of the Enlightenment.

This experiment produced a new liberal faith; a new liberal intellectual culture fostering democratic values such as liberty of conscience, equality and social progress; and the first stirrings of protest against slavery and in favor of women’s rights. These church leaders, says Kittlestrom, “were the first people in the world to call themselves liberals.” Their ideas were crucial to the development of social consciousness in the USA well into the twentieth century.

Kittelstrom connects distinctly American traditions like Transcendentalism—white America’s first truly new spirituality; Pragmatism—its first unique philosophy; and Progressivism, fueled by the Social Gospel, to the spirit of the American Reformation and its fusion with democratic society. The American Reformation’s intellectual influence, writes historian David Hollinger, “was—and continues to be—a world-historical event, or at least one of the defining experiences of the North Atlantic West . . . from the eighteenth century to the present.”

This diverse, open and inclusive mainstream version of Christian faith has faded out in the last 50 years, to be replaced by an inexperienced reactionary rump with neither the historical memory nor the cultural skills to articulate a coherent public faith, or even to grasp how society is changing. The now long-forgotten ‘death’ of the Protestant mainline churches, as Catholic sociologist Joseph Bottum reminds us, is more consequential than we might think. Bottum laments losing a venerable, crucial, moderating voice in civil society as “the central historical fact of our time”—and a significant source of our present political and cultural confusion.

But can Christian faith today offer a critique of our current way of life, in the same way that, say, feminism or critical race theory can? Is it able to provide a progressive resource for creating a new public consciousness and form of life as societies sail into uncharted waters?

Nearly everyone outside the white, Euro-American dominant society feels written out of history, but where do we turn for an alternative point of view to correct this situation? We turn to post-colonial writers certainly, including Christian theologians from Latin America, Africa and Asia. We look to the East for new varieties of religious consciousness, and to pre-colonial indigenous cultures for alternative modes of life. And we look to pre-Western pagan values that underpin eco-spiritualities and new religious movements.

But all these resources only go so far in helping us with our own critical self-understanding. How can we in the West understand ourselves—on our own terms—from the perspective of our own history? One way to do this is by re-telling our own story from our own beginnings, without prejudice to the ancient and Medieval Christian roots that predated the modern period.

This is already being done by some of the most influential philosophers of our generation. For example, Charles Taylor, an early leader in multicultural theory, has helpfully traced the rise of modern consciousness from theological as well as philosophical roots in his magisterial Sources of the Self.

Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (a radical leftist, and an atheist as far as I know) is another. He argues that to understand Western thinking we need to pick apart modern thought to uncover its theological underpinnings, and he publishes copious theological writing. “I think” he says, “that it is only through metaphysical, religious, and theological paradigms that one can truly approach the contemporary—and political—situation.”

Another voice in the mix is Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosophical rock star of the Marxist left who publishes frequently with theologians, even claiming that “to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience.”

These are not endorsements of actually-existing Christianity by any means, but they represent a rich intellectual search for philosophical alternatives that are rooted in the ground of Christian theology and practice.

In addition, the Western perception of Christianity is more than a little myopic. It’s easy to forget that 33 per cent of the world’s people—2.4 billion individuals—identify as Christians. Jesus still has more followers than Facebook, and most of them live lives far different from those in the West. Pentecostal Christians alone now outnumber Buddhists worldwide. As Philip Jenkins pointed out some years ago in his seminal book The Next Christendom, to overlook the rise of Christianity in the global South—which  now constitutes 60 per cent of world Christianity—is to miss the most profound social revolution of the twentieth century.

Why don’t we see this clearly? In part it’s because many of us live in an ‘already-been-Christian’ context. Christian tradition has been in our background for so long that it’s almost second nature to be critical of it, and many of us assume that it’s on its way out anyway.

But that ignores the fact that in ‘never-before-been-Christian’ societies, Christianity might provide progressive resources, social as well as spiritual. Some choose Christian faith as a means of assimilating liberal Western values, some to connect with a global religious consciousness. Many others see in the faith solutions to personal problems as well as intellectual tools to understand their own cultural traditions. We do the same thing in the West when we borrow non-Western spiritual practices like meditation or yoga.

For whatever reasons, individuals around the world who are concerned about their spirituality are asserting their free agency to choose these resources in order to address their own developing consciousness. They do this in large numbers even now in a post-colonial period of extensive criticism of the West and its religion.

What can be made of this enormous, global community of different and often clashing Christian identities? It’s certainly a testing ground for just about every social problem and potential solution. To take an example from Africa: the Anglican Communion ranges from homophobic bishops to progressive civil rights heroes like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Ugandan Bishop David Zac Niringiye. How tensions between conservatives and progressives play out will have an enormous influence on African society—as well as demonstrate whether or not Christian faith can mobilize its resources to support human flourishing for everyone.

Whatever you decide to make of it, the Christian movement will be with us for a very long time, warts and all. In spite of its many problems—and they are manifold—it is important to take another look to see how rich it might be in terms of the resources we need to guide the world into a new way of being, and a new form of consciousness, where peace, justice, love, and hope may prevail. 

CC by NC 4.0

11 November 2017. Otto Dix and the robot soldiers

The paintings of Otto Dix are an imperishable reminder that the best possible bulwark against becoming "machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts' – in Chaplin's phrase – is in not thinking like a machine. 

Otto Dix, Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor). 1924. Tate Liverpool.For the German painter Otto Dix, the First World War really was “all over by Christmas” – only it was Christmas 1918, after he had spent four years on the front lines at Champagne, Artois, Flanders, and the Somme. Dix returned home to Gera aged 27 and spent Christmas with his family. The pictures he went on to paint of his experience would later be confiscated by the Nazis, and trashed at the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition hosted by Adolf Hitler. 

These works are the only serious contender for a pictorial counterpart to the war poems of Wilfred Owen, and prove that there was nothing “sweet and seemly” about the great abattoir of 1914–18.

Dix’s 50-piece etching series Der Kreig (1924) – recently shown at the Tate Liverpool – make the war paintings of John Nash and John Singer Sargent look euphemistic. A worthy successor to Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War (1810–20), Der Krieg uses a range of styles and techniques to depict war as it had never been seen: decomposing corpses, a human skull packed with worms, bombed out civilian homes, troops in gas masks looking like giant bugs, shell craters at night like the surface of the moon, dead soldiers caught in pieces on barbed wire. 

The etchings followed Dix’s Trench (1923), a seven-foot by eight-foot full-colour hellscape depicting the aftermath of a battle on the front, and informed Dix’s four-panel opus, also called Der Krieg (1929–32). These works are the only serious contender for a pictorial counterpart to the war poems of Wilfred Owen, and prove that there was nothing “sweet and seemly” about the great abattoir of 1914–18. 

The word “abattoir” suggests the bloodshed was systematic, and so it was. Part of the war's horror was the use of new technology – machine guns, armoured tanks, war planes, flame-throwers, poison gas – to kill and maim on an unprecedented scale, and terrify soldiers promised adventure and an easy victory. 

Erich Maria Remarque, another German veteran, captured this well in his 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front, describing the tanks as “a fleet of roaring, fire-spitting ironclads, invulnerable steel beasts that crush the dead and the wounded”. This idea of machines as monsters was common to the period, from Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose Arms and the Boy (1918) begins:

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade 
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood; 
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash; 
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

When Dix returned from the war, his Dadaist crowd was using machine-images to explore the war’s aftermath and its impact on German society. Max Ernst’s Murdering Airplane (1920) has a twisted silver aircraft with giant human arms flying over three men against a desolate landscape. 

George Grosz in pictures like Republican Automatons (1920), and Raoul Housmann in his 1921 sculpture Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Time), satirised what they considered the vacuous inner life of the ordinary German. (TS Eliot made a similar point from the other end of politics in his 1925 poem The Hollow Men, though Eliot opted for the more folksy image of the scarecrow.)

Dix chose to focus on the amputee veterans who were a regular sight on the streets of Berlin. Around 2.7 million German soldiers came back wounded or disabled, with 800,000 amputees still receiving pensions in 1927. Dix’s Prague Street (1920) has veterans with missing limbs begging for change on the street. In a nod to the Dadaists, a piece of newspaper on the ground with the headline “Juden raus!” (“Jews out”) is crushed under the wheels of a veteran with no legs, who rolls around like a mechanical toy. 

Otto Dix, Wounded Soldier (Autumn 1916, Bapaume) (Verwundeter (Herbst 1916, Bapaume)) 1924. Tate Liverpool.The War Cripples (1920) has four veterans with missing limbs, shell shock and metal jaws, eyes, and ears, still marching dutifully in their uniforms and medals. The most arresting is perhaps The Skat Players (1920), whose three soldiers struggle on with a card game despite their absurd robotic augmentations. One strains to see his cards held up between his toes, while another with no limbs at all holds a card in his mouth. Their wooden legs mingle with those of the table and chairs, making them hard to distinguish from the furniture. 

As the Australian art critic Robert Hughes observed, these “wretched half-men” represented “the body re-formed by politics: part flesh, part machine”. “Prosthetic man” was a symbol for artists like Dix and Grosz, for whom “the Weimar Republic too was a political mutant, a war casualty”. These ghostly figures haunted Weimar as they haunt Dix’s “swinging 20s” picture Metropolis (1927–8), and were a constant reminder of what the war did to a generation of soldiers, and to Germany.  

“Prosthetic man” was a symbol for artists like Dix and Grosz, for whom “the Weimar Republic too was a political mutant, a war casualty”

This personal and national trauma was the subject of Remarque’s novel, which incidentally opens and closes with the amputation of a soldier’s leg. As narrator Paul Baumer says: “Only a military hospital can really show you what war is.” Dix, (who had recurring dreams of crawling through rubble) was so taken with the book that he sent Remarque his portfolio of war etchings as a gift.

Despite all this, there was another interpretation of the war and its aftermath, the nationalist theory of a “stab-in-the-back” and the need for military and spiritual renewal. As Dix later said in a 1964 interview: “During this time in the Weimar Republic, numerous books were again freely propagandizing a heroism and a ‘hero concept’ that had been led ad absurdum to the trenches of World War I. People began to forget how much terrible suffering the war had caused them.”

One such book was Mein Kampf, in which Corporal Hitler describes his love for the war and his despair upon hearing about the armistice (“the greatest villainy of the century”) while recovering from a gas attack which left him temporarily blind. (Would Hitler have been able to win support as a warrior king if he had instead lost an arm or leg?)

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Dix was sacked from the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, and 260 of his paintings were seized and either sold or destroyed. (That year, Dix painted Hitler as the mask of envy in his The Seven Deadly Sins.) It was then that Dix’s paintings, Trench and The War Cripples, were shown in the Nazis’ philistine 'Degenerate Art' exhibition in 1937 under the heading “Painted sabotage of national defence”. That same year the Nazis bombed Guernica.

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait with Easel.1926. Tate Liverpool.Dix moved out to a castle near Lake Constance and painted landscapes, including the chilling Jewish Cemetery in Randegg in Winter (1935). In the last months of the Second World War he was drafted aged 54 into a civilian militia headed by Joseph Goebbels, of all people, and ended up in a French prisoner of war camp.  

That war ended in defeat for what Charlie Chaplin called “machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts”. But the paintings of Otto Dix are an imperishable reminder of the need to stay vigilant against what George Orwell called “the gramophone mind”. Just as Bertolt Brecht noted that the tank’s fatal defect is its human driver, the best guard against mechanised war and authoritarian politics is not to think like a machine.

CC by NC 4.0

9 November 2017. How prisoners organized to elect a just District Attorney in Philadelphia

Winning political victories doesn’t always require a shift to the center; how about putting those affected by injustice at the heart of campaigns? 

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

Larry Krasner with canvassing volunteers. Credit: Facebook/Lawrence Krasner for DA. All rights reserved.

The US general election on November 7 saw a former civil rights attorney running on an anti-incarceration platform elected district attorney to Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in America. Larry Krasner, who defended Black Lives Matter activists and indicted police officers while in private practice, promised sweeping reforms—and voters responded.

In a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one, the fact that Krasner won might seem unsurprising. However, back in May, when the Democratic primary was in full swing, Krasner wasn’t the party favorite. Most other candidates, like Tariq El-Shabazz, were considered favorites because they towed a more moderate line and touted their experience as prosecutors. Then, during the general election, he was faced with pressure to moderate his proposals, and the battle continued to make sure that a message of systematic reform was front and center in the race.

In order to shift the race to the left and hold Krasner accountable as he prepares to take office, a broad coalition of progressive groups put aside their differences to focus on winning. The leaders of this alliance are the people most impacted by the city’s justice system, including prisoners in Pennsylvania state prisons. Their efforts, which helped create the conditions for Krasner’s victory, are part of a long history of Pennsylvania’s incarcerated citizens changing public discourse.

Setting the stage with prisoner organizing.

Twenty years ago, radical black prisoners in the State Correctional Institution Greene, a super-max prison in rural southwest Pennsylvania, started the Human Rights Coalition, or HRC—a radical new model of advocacy for human rights in criminal justice reform. Distinguishing itself from the old paternal/liberal model—which put professional “advocates” in charge of decision-making—prisoners voted on all major decisions. This model built on the legacy of the National Prisoners’ Rights Movement established by George Jackson in California, and represented a historically significant shift in ideals, organization and actions during the age of Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” law and reign of Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, also known as “America’s Deadliest DA.”

Over the past two decades, the HRC has sown the seeds of criminal justice reform in the city of Philadelphia and throughout the state of Pennsylvania. The HRC has also inspired the formation of several other prisoners’ human rights organizations in Philadelphia.

Prisoners who were leaders in HRC joined the advisory boards of local and national organizations such as the American Friends Service CommitteeDecarcerate PAFamilies and Communities United and Reconstruction, Inc. They then encouraged their family members and loved ones to join community organizations as rank-and-file members to ensure their voices were heard. Prisoners at State Correctional Institution Graterford, in particular, organized a political action campaign in Philadelphia that saw their families and communities influence the 2015 Pennsylvania Supreme Court judicial elections, resulting in a clean-sweep of Democratic justices being elected to the state’s Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, the community organizations’ spokespersons were able to contact the candidates and explain that SCI-Graterford prisoners are 5,000 in number and have an average of five family members who will vote for the candidate of their choice. That means a potential 25,000-strong voting bloc.

That number of potential voters compelled El-Shabazz to campaign at SCI-Graterford on four occasions. Krasner also scheduled a campaign event at SCI-Graterford, but prison officials cancelled the event, claiming they had not been given enough notice. After the primary, Graterford prisoners were able to reschedule Krasner’s visit. Speaking to several hundred prisoners, he unequivocally adopted their proposed criminal justice reform agenda.

As a result, according to leaders of organizations in the prison, Krasner earned the overwhelming support of the incarcerated men at SCI-Graterford. His impeccable record and reputation of being a civil rights attorney for the people of Philadelphia also made him the candidate of choice for multiple prisoners’ organizations, such as Right to Redemption (an organizing group focusing on ending life-without-parole sentencing, or what they call Death By Incarceration), the Latin American Cultural Exchange Organization (representing Latino lifers) and the Grey Panthers (representing elderly prisoners).

That being said, support for Krasner wasn’t universal. El-Shabazz received the endorsement of Graterford’s NAACP group. That wasn’t enough, however, to overcome his ambiguous stance on the prisoners’ criminal justice reform agenda or his tainted reputation as a former criminal defense attorney and deputy district attorney.

After discussing which candidate would best represent the collective interests of prisoners and their communities in society, Graterford prisoners reached a general consensus that Krasner would be their candidate of choice. Prisoners supported Krasner’s candidacy with a robust political action campaign of voter education, voter registration, political forums, and get-out-the-vote drives directed towards their families, loved ones, friends and returned citizens.

Building a coalition for a just district attorney.

A year ago, high up in a 16th floor law office in downtown Philadelphia, a collection of community leaders gathered to discuss the upcoming district attorney race. Convened by Media Mobilizing Project, a local media justice organization, ACLU Pennsylvania, and Color of Change, the first meeting was a raucous affair. Donald Trump had just won the election. The current district attorney was under investigation. Organizers crowded on windowsills and along the walls argued over who would run, whose issues would take center stage, and what needed to happen. Like so many efforts, it could have died right there.

But it didn’t. Held together by those convening organizations and a deep belief that they could all benefit by working together, the group—calling itself the Coalition for a Just DA—kept pushing, bringing in more groups and widening the table. Organizations flooded the city, coordinated door-knocking efforts, mobilized people who wouldn’t have otherwise voted, and hosted a large forum where candidates were grilled by people directly impacted by policing, incarceration and “crimmigration” (the intersection of immigration policy and the criminal legal system).

The Coalition for a Just DA didn’t stop after the primary. When centrist Democrats tried to regain control of the race and quell the insurgency, coalition members pushed back. The city’s Democratic machine showed they were more interested in maintaining the status quo—essentially Republican candidate Beth Grossman’s platform—than in reform by quietly stepping back from the race.

In meetings with insiders, the coalition learned that moderate Democrats from around the country were interested in helping Krasner if he won. So, they responded by becoming more bold. Groups directly impacted by youth incarceration, the bail system, ‘crimmigration,’ policing, Death By Incarceration sentences, and other issues got together and drafted in-depth policy proposals. Prisoners contributed directly to a number of these proposals. The coalition then articulated a set of demands for the first 100 days in office for the new district attorney and presented both candidates with a list of what could be done on day one.

At the same time, moderates became more critical of the radical positions of some Krasner supporters. Instead of throwing other progressives under the bus for being “too radical” or “dangerous,” the coalition kept the focus on winning meaningful reforms. When the Philadelphia Inquirer backed Grossman, worried about looking too progressive, coalition members stepped up canvassing and organizing efforts, bringing in more community organizations.

Lessons for radicals.

Politicians and political commentators generally operate within the range of ideas that have broad public support. Anything outside that range is generally considered politically impractical, or even impossible.

The Tea Party and the so-called alt-right are textbook cases of movements widening the range of ideas. While many liberals continue to be shocked by racist statements made by President Trump or other members of the far right, neo-Nazis rally and advocate for genocide in public spaces. When it comes to policies around mass incarceration and policing, movements for justice and equality cannot be afraid to use our capacity to shift the conversation.

A year ago, political leaders in Philadelphia would have told you that only very moderate criminal justice reform was possible. A report from the Philadelphia City Council from fall 2016 recommends a slight reduction in bail for a few nonviolent offenders. Today, the incoming district attorney advocates for the complete end of bail for nonviolent offenders.

Earlier this year, and just weeks before he went to jail for corruption, former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said he would seek life sentences for a number of people sentenced to die in prison as juveniles. Throughout the campaign, Krasner publicly stated his support for HB 135, a bill in the Philadelphia House of Representatives that would end life without parole and make over 5,000 prisoners in Pennsylvania currently sentenced to die in prison eligible for parole after 15 years.

This sea change in the district attorney’s office is just one part of the struggle to radically rethink policing, prisons and punishment. This shift in the range of what’s politically possible could not have happened without the many campaigns that came together to form the Coalition for a Just DA or the vision and organizing of Philadelphia’s politically-active prisoners.

Prisoners mobilized a base—their family and friends—that is often disconnected and disenfranchised from politics, showing that winning isn’t necessarily predicated on co-opting centrists. It can also be done by organizing people who aren’t normally involved in the election process to vote as a bloc. That’s why last night 147,666 people voted for Krasner, as compared to just 89,238 votes for the Democratic candidate in 2013.

This campaign can be a blueprint for other prisoners, their families and community groups to wage a grassroots radical criminal justice reform campaign. By organizing alongside prisoners, recognizing the possibilities of mobilizing new constituencies, and keeping the focus on building inclusive coalitions and winning real change, radicals can get practical and win.

CC by NC 4.0

7 November 2017. How to fight the global Wall Street landlords

Banks and vulture funds make money from ordinary people’s distress. The only way to fight back is to outsmart them. 

Activists from PAH in Barcelona. Credit: Esperanza Escribano. All rights reserved.

“Thank you, for making the impossible, possible,” a beaming Ada Colau told thousands of whooping supporters packed tight on the cobblestones of central St. James Square in Barcelona’s old town. It was June 13th 2015, and she had just been sworn-in as Mayor of Barcelona.

Colau won on a wave of support for the way she had fought the housing crisis as founder of Spain's Platform for People Affected By Mortgages (PAH), an extraordinary movement that has mobilised thousands of ordinary citizens to take direct action against forced evictions and rising mortgage costs.

Its target are Wall Street giants—the so-called ‘vulture funds’—that have been on a house-buying spree across Europe and the United States since the 2008 financial crash. According to the New York Times, Goldman Sachs, Cerberus Capital Management, Lone Star Funds, Blackstone Group and other US companies have bought more than €223 billion worth of troubled real estate loans in Europe in the last four years.

The profits made by these institutions from ordinary people’s distress have made them the target of a backlash that has bought together homeowners, renters and housing activists across the world. Campaigners have one common fight—to protect the right to decent and affordable housing for everyone.

"Capital operates globally, as Blackstone does, and we must set up a global movement too. People have the same problems in Madrid, Dublin and New York and they face exactly the same actors," said Santi Mas de Xaxàs in an interview with us, a PAH activist and speaker for its international network.

Blackstone and the others have quickly proved themselves to be ruthless landlords. Paquita Rivas, for example, is retired and is now a PAH activist. During the recession, her daughter was forced to sell the apartment she’d bought during the boom times but for a rock bottom price, leaving her owing €55,000 to the bank. When Blackstone took over the mortgage, they came after her parent’s home as payment.  "I spent day and night crying until a friend put me in contact with PAH. We were very afraid, but ultimately we decide to fight and we won. Yes, we can!"

The PAH has sought to create alliances with groups like Right to the City in the USA, a network of grassroots organisations from some of the poorest communities in America. Blackstone began buying up the homes that were vacated by people no longer able to pay their mortgages in the aftermath of the 2008 crash cheaply and in volume—up to a 1,000 homes a day—and then rented them back to the newly dispossessed. Almost overnight, Blackstone became the biggest landlord in the United States.

Tony Romano is Right to the City’s executive director. He told us that organising tenants is tough because Blackstone’s purchases were spread out across the country, but a visit to Spain proved transformative:

“We went to learn about the movement and their model of organisation. There are few examples of activist led movements that have reached scale. We made a partnership, and put that into a manifesto of seven international demands against Blackstone.”

This partnership turned into the first ever day of action against Blackstone in New York, Dublin and London, along with a drive to jam their phone lines and to speak to or email Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman with this message:

"Mr. Schwarzman, I stand with Blackstone tenants and community organizations around the world. Stop buying up our foreclosed homes and public housing, stop all your unjust evictions and make your rents affordable. I support this important struggle and will not let up until you meet the tenants' demands. Homes are NOT a commodity!"

Since then, Right to the City has acted more aggressively in mobilising tenants across the US. “We’re moving into places that are not organised and starting from scratch,” Romano told us.

In September 2017 it held its first nationwide ‘Renters Week of Action,’ with groups across the country holding marches, staging sit-ins and confronting landlord lobbying associations with demands that included rent controls, the prevention of unjust eviction and the right of tenants to bargain collectively with landlords without fear of reprisals.

Romano and his army of grassroots activists can expect no support from the current US administration. Blackstone founder Schwarzman is a close ally of President Trump and donated $5.5 million to the Republicans in the 2016 election. In January 2017, Fannie Mae (the US government agency responsible for expanding homeownership) announced that it would underwrite Invitation Homes, the company Blackstone set up to purchase all of its new rental housing, so if Invitation goes bust, American taxpayers will bail it out.

Romano is honest about his chances: “We’ve won some victories but the reality is that our power to influence is limited.” Since the beginning of the last recession a decade ago, the number of poor families in the United States struggling to pay their monthly rents or living in “deplorable accommodations” has grown by 41 percent.

Across the Atlantic in Ireland, vulture funds now own 48,199 mortgage accounts, with one in ten homeowners behind with their repayments. Byron Jenkins is one of them, though he’s an unlikely hero—a construction boss who went bankrupt after the 2008 crash and faced eviction in 2013. He and his wife set up a non-profit organization called ‘The Hub’ above a shop in Dublin to help others like them by advocating for people to stay in their homes and fight proceedings brought against them by banks or vulture funds.

The Hub gives people the tools to represent themselves at court and has also learned from the PAH. “We were watching other countries experience the same as us but it didn’t sink in what we could learn,” Byron told us, “we wanted to know how to bring a country together.” 

In Ireland, he added, pride has prevented people from talking about their financial problems, often suffering in silence until eviction day looms. James and Kathleen, for example (not their real names) are being chased by a vulture fund for  €150,000 despite receiving an original loan of only €55,000, the total escalating through interest and fees. Negotiating through official routes hasn’t worked. 

“It’s the mental strain of what those people do to you,” Kathleen sobbed down the phone, “they will chase you until the day you die.” We heard this refrain many times. This year, legal actions against borrowers in Ireland have rocketed: Goldman Sachs, Cerberus and CarVal (another US fund) have already pursued 370 prosecutions compared to 160 in 2016

One of the first things The Hub did after its visit to Barcelona was to explore ways to help people feel less intimidated by a courtroom setting. They wrote a free guide and instigated role-plays of court scenarios for those representing themselves. Kathleen told me a visit to Byron was the first piece of hope she had of keeping the family home. Today they have a legal team and are fighting in the high court.  

Renters too have found that the old ways of negotiating don’t wash in post-crisis Ireland, which has seen the private rental sector (PRS) become the target of large corporate landlords backed by international finance. “The PRS in Dublin is a home run,” said a US investor in a recent report issued by accountancy firm PWC; equity is flowing into Europe “from all corners of the globe and all types of investors… residential is on the radar and is undervalued because it gives long-term, stable returns.” As a consequence of this growing power, rents have steadily risen, with Dubliners this year spending an average of 55 per cent of their income on rent.

When we met one of them, Mariana, in a busy cafe in Dublin, she was still reeling from losing her home after her apartment block was bought by a corporate landlord called IRES. Set up by a huge Canadian firm called CAPREIT to buy homes in Ireland in 2014, it’s now the country’s biggest private landlord. IRES raised her rent by nearly €300 a month and acted aggressively to remove her when she attempted to negotiate.

“Their attitude was, we don’t care about you, you’re not a person, you’re just a number,” she told us. IRES argued that the rent increase was ‘in line with the local market,’ but the reality was that the company had distorted the local market through buying so many apartments and raising the rent every time someone moved out. The new rent would have taken up over half of her pre-tax pay packet.

IRES forced Mariana to give three months notice at the new level of rent and took that extra money out of her deposit. She told us that she was too scared to fight them any longer. In the last year IRES has made 43 applications to the courts to evict people, mainly those refusing to pay the higher rents. These tactics are effective: in 2016, IRES’ profits rose by over half to €47 million.

At the time we talked Mariana was sofa-surfing with friends’ until she could raise the money for a deposit, her belongings stored in a basement at work. “I know I’ll get through it but it’s embarrassing. You feel like you’ve failed at something but you’ve done nothing wrong.” 

The Irish Housing Network (IHN) is a loose affiliation of activist groups that also went to Barcelona last year, where they heard about PAH’s “Obra Social”—direct  action to help evicted people occupy empty apartments owned by bailed-out Spanish banks. 

IHN’s most notable success is “Home Sweet Home,” the occupation of an empty former government building called Apollo House in Dublin by 90 people without homes. When the Irish government threatened HSH with eviction they organised a rally to defend themselves.  Apollo House was only returned to the government once its demand for every occupier to be properly housed had been met.

Activists internationally will need to work hard over the coming years to defend the right to housing, since Wall Street has made clear that its appetite for real estate is undimmed. Over the last year, both Cerberus and Blackstone have made major incursions into the UK with the purchase of mortgages held by failed banks like Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, with further sales pencilled in for 2018. In the United States, Blackstone has expanded into multi-family developments like Stuyvesant and Kip Bay.

For most people, the economy has never recovered from the crash of 2008. Others are too young to have known a more financially secure way of life.  Meanwhile, some of the richest people in the world like Schwarzman continue to profit handsomely. Now they want to make more money from our homes, and they’ll devise endless innovative tactics to do so. The only way to fight back is to outsmart them.

This article was developed with the support of

CC by NC 4.0

5 November 2017. Techno-brilliance or techno-stupidity?

We pay a high price when we confuse addictive pseudo-significance with real meaning.

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt. CC0 Creative Commons.

Several years back the physicist Stephen Hawking proposed that the full development of Artificial Intelligence could spell the end of the human race by out-thinking our species and perhaps even out-competing it—through programs that not only self-replicate but generate novelty and select for advantage.

Without question, technological innovation will dramatically transform major aspects of our lives, but in what direction? All inventions have costs, benefits, and unintended consequences. In order to use technology wisely we must accept the reality of limits, recognize that every question is ultimately a moral question—a question of value and not just technological efficiency—and learn to combine all the different facets of our intelligence in new ways.

To do this we’ll need much more cultural maturity,  a fundamental ‘growing up’ as a species. A distinctive feature of human beings is their capacity as tool-makers, but too often we treat our tools—especially our new digital tools—as truths, if not gods. This can’t work going forward. The future will require a greater ability to step back and consider the consequences of what we humans create—if for no other reason than we are now capable of so much that would cause great harm as well as great good.

Take, for example, our growing addiction to electronic devices, whose dangers easily sneak up on us. These devices do many things that we find useful—and are fun. But their dangers far outweigh those of other addictions around food or drugs.

The dynamics of addiction are most obvious with video games where shootings and explosions create readily repeatable jolts of excitement. Addiction works by promoting artificial substitutes for real fulfillment, as when real relationships are replaced by the stimulation we get from our electronic devices, a phenomenon we see with growing frequency in relation to social media.

It’s even easier to use Virtual Reality to confuse or deceive. ‘Fake news’ lies and distorts; ‘fake realities’ have even more potential to be used for demagoguery and manipulation. Artificial stimulation in the name of meaning—as in Virtual Reality or video games—readily translates into ever-more sophisticated digital ‘designer drugs’ which are immensely profitable.

Such dynamics are also present in the ways we relate to our cell phones. That’s partly because cell phones have become such an aspect of almost everyone’s life, and partly because of the immense commercial rewards that come with the ability of cell phone companies to control our attention.

It’s important to recognize that what we see is not simply a product of the usefulness of these devices. There are specific chemical reasons why people feel they have to check their cell phones every few minutes. A dirty little secret of the tech world is that programmers consciously design their software to be addictive. They build in rewards that make visiting a favorite site just like playing a slot machine. And they intend us to feel anxiety if we are away from our devices for any period of time. The fact that most of the content on our cell phones is advertising-driven means that such addictive methodologies will only become more sophisticated in the future.

These concerns are amplified by what I call a ‘crisis of purpose.’ As traditional cultural beliefs stop providing essential guidance, we can be left feeling adrift and alone, and this can make us particularly vulnerable to addiction. But we pay a high price (both personally and as a species) when we confuse addictive pseudo-significance with real meaning, because this diminishes who we are and undermines future possibilities. The antidote lies in asking what matters most to us with new depth and courage. Being distracted and addicted undermines our capacity to take on this essential task.

The internet promised a new democratization of information and has often provided just that. But if we do not pay attention, rather than freeing us and making communication more democratic, the information revolution could end up by undermining the democratic experiment—and even put the larger human experiment at risk. In his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell warned of Big Brother taking control of our minds. The real danger in the future is not government manipulation, but artificial stimulation masquerading as substance so that information is used in ways that ultimately disconnect us from matters of real importance.

In fact the term “Artificial Intelligence” is a misnomer, since compared to the human variety it is so much more limited. Some computers may have already passed the famous Turing Test that says that Artificial Intelligence has been achieved if a computer responds to your questions and you can’t tell that it’s a computer. But the Turing test is bad science. Think about it. Imagine a bright red toy sports car made out of candy that someone pulls along with an invisible string. From a distance, you can’t tell that it isn’t real. Such a toy might be fun and useful for many things, even amazing things. But that doesn’t make it a car, just as a computer isn’t human because it can mimic the way we process information.

Managing Artificial Intelligence wisely depends on drawing on precisely what makes living intelligence, and in particular human intelligence, so different. Human intelligence—when all its complexity is included—is not just creative in ways we are only just beginning to grasp, but also inherently moral. Different moral codes follow from how human intelligence works, including our capacity for rational processing. But this dynamic breaks down if intelligence becomes ever-more machine-like and hence vulnerable to exploitation.

The only way to keep Artificial Intelligence from becoming our undoing is to manage it with greater cultural maturity, so that we become better able both to draw consciously on the whole of our cognitive complexity, and to step back and appreciate our tools as simply tools. That will also help us to discover new skills and capacities that can help us utilize our tools in the most life-enhancing ways.

By contrast, levels of technological enthusiasm today are sometimes extrapolated to the point that they become literally religious. I’m thinking in particular of the techno-utopian assertions of people like futurist Ray Kurzweil, who proposes that we are rapidly approaching a point in history—what he calls the “singularity”—when artificial intelligence will surpass the human variety. He proposes that a whole new form of existence will result, one that will transcend not just our biology but also our mortality. Kurzweil describes digitally downloading our neurological contents and thereby attaining eternal life—which he hopes to be able to do in his own lifetime.

There’s no doubt that the technologies of the future will affect how we think about ourselves in important ways. But it is important to appreciate that—while modern day techno-utopian thinking is put forward as radical in its newness—it is not new in any fundamental sense. Rather, it reflects an ultimate expression of the Modern Age’s heroic, onward-and-upward story.

We can also tie techno-utopian thinking to even older impulses: the desire, for example, to eliminate polarities between the body and the mind, the unconscious in favor of an all-knowing consciousness (even if devoid of real human knowing), and the reality of death in favor of a now triumphant digital immortality. But far from being new to our times, these efforts to eliminate the body, the unconscious, and death have been common to utopian beliefs for thousands of years. 

Instead of succumbing to such techno-utopian fantasies, our future depends on appreciating both the possibilities and the limitations that come with invention, and taking responsibility for thinking and acting about these costs and benefits in more mature ways. That will be the key to making good choices about issues such as climate change, avoiding nuclear catastrophe, guaranteeing clean air and water and adequate food for the world’s people, slowing the ever-increasing rate of species extinction, and addressing inequality.

None of these questions have a convenient technological fix. The fact of new invention is exciting, and the inventions yet to come are important for us to contemplate. But much more important are the need for new ways of thinking about ourselves and finding the right relationships to the technologies we create.

With these things in place, our relationship to invention changes fundamentally, as we begin to see more clearly that electronic devices must serve what human beings are at their best, and what machines are not: moral, creative and loving, capable of being not just intelligent but also wise. There lies the critical fork in the road. Our tools can free us or replace us, depending on how we understand them—and how we understand ourselves. 

CC by NC 4.0

2 November 2017. Before the NFL took a knee: four lesser-known moments of resistance in sports history

This isn’t the first time the world of professional sports has entered the fight for civil rights and racial justice.

The three winners of the Ladies 200-meter final at the Rome Olympics on September 6, 1960: from left to right, Britain’s Dorothy Hyman (bronze), the USA’s Wilma Rudolph (gold) and Germany’s Jutta Heine (silver). Credit: YES! Magazine/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images. All rights reserved.

When NFL players, coaches, and owners took a knee during the national anthem Sept. 24, it ignited a nationwide discussion about the role of athletes in standing up for racial justice. Since then, teams and players have continued taking a knee during the national anthem. And the Seattle Seahawks have taken the symbolic act one step further by launching the Seahawks Players Equality & Justice for All Action Fund.

But this is hardly the first time the sports and political arenas have become intertwined.

“Sports has always been an important platform in which America’s ugly racial history has been challenged and where African-Americans have fought for full recognition and respect,” said Dr. Mark Naison, a History and African American Studies professor at Fordham University.

Most people remember Jackie Robinson shattering major league baseball’s color barrier and John Carlos and Tommie Smith delivering a Black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. These are often heralded as moments in sports when athletes added a prominent voice to the fight for civil rights and racial justice.

But there are many lesser-known examples in the history of sports when individuals and groups stood up against racism.

Here are four of those moments. 

NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf protests the anthem in 1996.

“What Colin Kaepernick is experiencing is nothing new,” Naison said. “Anytime you speak out if you’re Black, any time you’re a pioneer, you’re going to catch hell.” 

That was certainly the case with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, whose national anthem protests more than 20 years ago received media and professional backlash much like Kaepernick is experiencing today.

Not much has changed since Abdul-Rauf’s days as a high-scoring point guard with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. In a recent summer hoops tournament for retired stars, he showed he still possesses his patented quick release and sweet jump-shot. And at that tournament, during the national anthem, Abdul-Rauf stood, palms up, in silent prayer for the oppressed poor and people of color in America, just as he did as a NBA star in 1996.

Then, Abdul-Rauf sat while the “Star Spangled Banner” played, causing the NBA to swiftly issue him a two-game suspension and stirring a national debate at that time. Abdul-Rauf said the American flag was a symbol of global “tyranny and oppression” that, therefore, didn’t represent his Islamic beliefs.

Abdul-Rauf continued to face enormous backlash when in subsequent games to he chose to stand and pray to Allah during the anthem. But he did not waver.

“My beliefs are more important than anything,” said Abdul-Rauf at the time. “If I have to give up basketball, I will.” Shortly after being reinstated Abdul-Rauf was traded away from the Denver Nuggets to the Sacramento Kings where he received significantly less playing time and then, unable to secure another playing contract, was effectively blackballed from the NBA.

Black Newspapers: The Unsung Heroes in the Jackie Robinson Story.

Today, statues of Jackie Robinson outside baseball fields in Los Angeles and Brooklyn honor the Hall of Fame career of the first African-American to play major league baseball.

But Robinson didn’t do it alone. Black newspaper editors helped pave the way for Robinson and the integration of the major leagues.

John Sengstacke, the managing editor at the Chicago Defender in 1943, called the ban against Blacks in organized baseball “neither wise nor practical” during a face to face meeting with the major league commissioner. He went on to criticize the “un-American, undemocratic implications which the gentlemen’s agreement imposed upon the face of this country.” 

And in 1938, Wendell Smith dedicated his column in the Pittsburgh Courier-Journal to chiding Black consumers for upholding the “institution that places a bold ‘not welcome’ sign over its thriving portal” each time they attended major league games. 

According to Naison, a major part of the newspapers’ strategies to integrate baseball was to conduct interviews with White players after they played unorganized exhibition games against Black clubs, asking them to assess the talent level of Black players.

In 1935, White MLB star Dizzy Dean told the Courier-Journal that if “big leaguers believed that they were better than the best Negro players they had another thing coming.” 

“It all began in the mid 1930s with campaigns by these newspapers [...] that finally [succeeded when Robinson broke the barrier] in 1947,” Naison said. “Jackie Robinson’s entry was after 10 years of agitation.”

Serena Williams at Indian Wells.

Serena Williams recently won her 23rd Grand Slam at the Australian Open, the most wins of any tennis player ever. It’s one reason why ESPN and The New Yorker have called Williams the greatest professional athlete of all time.

But before reaching this height, Williams competed in her first major tournament at Indian Wells, California, in 1999 in front of a hostile White audience.

“I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people—mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob,” recounts Williams in her biography. “I don't mean to use such inflammatory language to describe the scene, but that's really how it seemed.”

After her winning match against Steffi Graf at Indian Wells, Williams promised to boycott the tournament, and for 14 years she didn’t return.

Since then, Williams has faced oppression as a Black woman in a majority White sport. But she has shrugged off lewd comments about her body shape and her curves with grace, class, and fierce determination.

In 2015, Williams returned to Indian Wells, to the surprise of the tennis world, and she used the event to raise funds and media attention for the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end racism in the criminal justice system.

“Galvanizing forces around recent police killings [of unarmed Black men and women] likely increased Serena’s want to speak out,” said Dr. Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history at Pennsylvania State University. “She’s outspoken about not remaining silent in those moments.”

Olympian Wilma Rudolph faces Jim Crow America.

An African American woman, Wilma Rudolph, overcame childhood diseases including polio and left leg paralysis to become widely known as “the fastest woman in the world.” At the 1960 Olympics, Rudolph won the 100- and 200-meter races and helped the U.S. win the 4 x 100-meter relay.

“Because of the Cold War it became very important to show sporting strength in the '50s and '60s, and it gave women like Wilma Rudolph platforms to be seen across the country and the world,” Davis said.

Rudolph returned to the United States after her successful Olympic performance as a national heroine and a celebrity. But this did not exempt her from suffering the racism in her segregated hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee. On June 13, 1963, Jet Magazine published the headline, “Hometown Eatery Jerks Welcome Mat from Wilma.” Shoney’s, a local restaurant, had refused to serve Rudolph.

So Rudolph and members of the Citizens Committee on Local Affairs began a month-long demonstration against the restaurant’s segregation.

When Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington, a devout segregationist, planned Rudolph’s welcome home parade, she refused to attend the segregated event. Later, her hometown threw a parade and banquet in her honor. It was the first integrated event to be held in the town.

This article was funded in part by the Surdna Foundation and first published in YES! Magazine.

CC by NC 4.0

1 November 2017. It’s communication isn’t it? Using theatre to bring people together

On issues like Brexit there’s never one single answer, one right or wrong view.

Production shot from What Once Was Ours. Credit: Phil Crow. All rights reserved.

For many people Brexit was a shock, but should it have been? Perhaps those on the left had been so busy talking to themselves that they hadn’t listened to the other side of the story

Similarly, theatre is often accused of ‘preaching to the choir,’ but it doesn’t have to be this way. Zest Theatre, for example, is a national company that makes work for young people, mainly those aged 12 to 25 (the average age of our audience is 16.5). From our base in Lincolnshire we tour regularly to many of the towns and cities that voted ‘leave’ in June 2016 like Hartlepool, Doncaster, Sunderland, Burnley, Boston and Barnsley, places where a working class revolt had taken place among people who had had enough of not being heard

However, for our target audience it was a different story: 75 per cent of voters aged 18-24 chose to remain in the European Union, and 16 and 17 year olds were excluded from the most important decision of their lives so their voices were ignored completely. Can theatre help to address this problem, not only by connecting with young people but also by reaching out to older voters who had voted leave?

To find out, we teamed up with East London-based Half Moon Theatre and spent time in four different parts of the country: Barnsley, Lincolnshire, Newcastle/Gateshead and London—two areas that voted to leave the EU and two that voted to remain. In each place we met with young people across the Brexit divide (215 of them in total), and used their voices to explore and create a new production.

In three of the locations the mood was upbeat—one of equality, tolerance and openness, a younger generation not wanting to be defined by narrow views of what it means to be British but as global citizens. As one person in Barnsley told us, “I don’t want to see myself as the British stereotype, that’s a social construct. Rather, I want to see myself as an individual out in the world. Me, myself, in society.”

Across the board we heard young, passionate, politically-engaged voices.  “People think young people are lazy,” said one young woman in London, but “we’re not, we just need encouragement.” And that became our call to action—using theatre to help empower a new generation to make their voices heard.

However, not all of these voices were easy for us to hear. The fourth of our locations—Boston in Lincolnshire, dubbed the ‘Brexit Capital of the UK’—has become a boiling pot for right-wing rhetoric. Boston is a rurally isolated market town that returned the highest leave vote in the country, and it has a large Eastern European immigrant community.

At times people’s expressed fear of ‘foreigners’ was almost tangible, with immigrants blamed for a whole host of problems in the town: “I’m scared of like, ISIS people” one young women said, seemingly unable to separate Polish migrant workers from the terrorists she saw on the news. Another perception was that foreign shops were taking over: “Soon there won’t be any English shops left” as one young man told us in one of our conversations.

Scare stories in local newspapers were spread around the town by word of mouth, and they seemed to have a powerful, negative impact on people’s views of migrant workers. Young people said that they often heard anti-immigrant rhetoric from older generations in the Boston community: “They hate them”, one of our respondents said, “my mum and my nan despise them.”

“Who’s going to listen to us anyway?” one student asked when we quizzed a group on how they could use their voices to speak up. Maybe that was a mistake on our part—as if the deep-seated tensions in the community could be fixed if only there was a magical way of changing everything. Silence filled the room, until one young person simply said, “Well, its communication isn’t it?”

That seemed to hit the nail on the head. Communication between all sides can change things, but these young people had been ignored to the point where even a simple conversation between different groups seemed like an unattainable feat. Why believe that you have the power to change the world if you’ve never seen any proof that you can?

This is where our art form steps in. Our challenge was to create a production that would communicate honestly and powerfully to all generations, and to both sides of the Brexit debate, and help to explore the values, perceptions and misconceptions that underlie it.

There’s an assumption in some corners of the theatre sector that creating work for young people is somehow a soft or easy option. Our experience is the opposite. Young audiences seek authenticity and honesty. They want drama that tells it how it is and keeps them engaged. If you don’t tick these boxes then the audience will soon let you know. Young people can handle abstraction better than most adults, and they aren’t afraid of being challenged by big ideas or difficult questions. In short, they don’t take any bullshit.

This kind of immediacy is why we create productions for this age range in the first place. Most of our audiences are first time arts attenders, so they don’t enter the theatre with any preconceived ideas or norms of behaviour. We respond by creating immersive worlds in our shows, removing the seating and placing the audience in the centre of the action for a 360-degree experience in which they can actively feel the show rather then passively spectate.

Armed with hours of interview recordings from our tours, we set about boiling all the noise and conversation into a coherent narrative—using  these voices to inspire the production but also littering the script with verbatim quotes from the interviews. The resulting show, What Once Was Ours, aims to illustrate the effects of global and national politics on one family—the macro panorama of the bigger story boiled down into the life of a pair of estranged half siblings called Katie and Callum.

For them life is difficult. Their parent’s complex conflicts have created a gulf between them, rooted in different heritages, cities and opportunities. Yet transformation comes, not from some complex answer, but by restoring their relationships through listening to each other and being heard for the first time.

Just as Brexit highlighted the disparity in investment between different areas of the UK that’s led to a lack of opportunities for many, the family is fractured by their different experiences of poverty and racism. Callum is branded a benefits scrounger when he turns to his father in financial desperation, whilst Katie is surrounded by the racist vitriol that’s handed down from her Granny to her Mum.

Her Gran escaped the UK for a better life in Spain, and now Katie wants to get away too: ‘the Paki’s were bad enough, now it’s the Poles’ as she says in the play. This rhetoric has influenced every inch of her daily life, with people talking in right-wing headlines and slogans. Now that poverty has hit her own household, fear has moved in, and the blame has been placed at the doorstep of immigrants.

In Katie’s world, Callum is representative of everything her Mum and gran despise. It isn’t until she’s confronted with her ‘other’—her brother—that she begins to understand a different way of thinking. Together they learn to talk, to start again and find the common ground that unites them.

At the time of writing we aren’t even half way through our tour, so it’s too early to say exactly what impact we might be having, but there have been some encouraging reactions. Whilst we were opening the show in London in early October, I received an email from one of the young people we’d worked with in Boston:

“I just wanted to say, having a chat with you and seeing the production has really opened my eyes and has changed my views completely. I now walk into and buy products from what Boston people call ‘foreign shops’ and I literally can't find the problem. It hasn't changed my views on Boston itself. However this whole debate about the ‘foreign’ people coming to Boston doesn't bother me anymore. So I just want to say thank you.”

Of course, that’s just one story, one voice that’s been challenged and changed through real conversation, but it isn’t insignificant. At the end of each show on the tour, the actors take their bow, but instead of running to their dressing rooms they stay in the theatre. We distribute biscuits to the audience and chat about the show they’ve just seen. In other words, we start another conversation.

Sometimes we think a complex situation needs a complex answer. But the young people we’re working with just need encouragement to join in, to get involved, to raise their voices and to engage with different views. After all, there’s never one single answer, one right or wrong view; the answers come from the process—“its communication isn’t it?”


CC by NC 4.0

29 October 2017. I’m a Muslim—ask me anything

Hearing Muslims being ignorantly targeted is like waking up to see a cross burning on the communal front lawn. I want to help put out that fire.

Credit: Pixabay/Abdullah_Shakoor. CC0 Creative Commons.

“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land,” wrote President George Washington to Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue in 1790, “continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Today, as a child of the “Stock of Abraham,” as a Muslim whose faith tradition traces to Prophet Abraham and as a first-generation American, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric I see in the United States. I’ve become increasingly distressed by witnessing individual and institutional actions that attempt to marginalize, delegitimize, and disenfranchise America’s diverse community of Muslims. 

To counter such un-American sentiments, and following the model of itinerant Methodist ministers—circuit-riders who journeyed from town-to-town preaching the Gospel in the 18th and 19th centuries—I’ve been traveling across New Hampshire and Massachusetts as an itinerant Muslim, from one public library, church and retirement community to the next, engaging with my neighbors in a program I call “Ask a Muslim Anything.”

I’ve been traveling at the invitation of local communities to speak about my life, what it’s like to be Muslim in America today, and how I came to convert to Islam. I talk about Islam and its history—especially in America—and about the Middle East, terrorism and associated political and social issues.

Nothing is off the table: I speak, to the best of my experience and knowledge, of faith, tradition, understanding, conflict and identity. All questions are welcome.

I’m doing this not to proselytize but to reconcile—to  reaffirm and strengthen bonds of comity and faith—and  I am overwhelmed by the beauty and generosity of the responses I receive, all seemingly in reflection of the belief that, as the Qur’an tells us, “We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another” (49:13).

We come together to know one another.

I’ve found that, when engaged in small-scale or one-one-one conversations, my neighbors—even those who are critical of Islam and fearful of Muslims—are willing to listen and engage if engagement occurs in what are perceived to be safe or neutral places: houses of worship, libraries, schools and civic organizations.

So those are the places I go to for conversation, and not a day passes when I’m not humbled by people’s courtesy and curiosity, even when they are speaking out of fear or out of not knowing what they don’t know.

They ask about ISIS and Al Qaeda, about women and prayer. They ask about Shari’ah, Sufis, Sunni and Shi’a, about apostasy, honor killings, and terrorism—about issues that Muslims as well as non-Muslims struggle with.

And I explain that the 9/11 attacks on the US—and subsequent acts of terrorism and violence committed in the name of Islam which have irrevocably scared the national psyche—are no more representative of Islam than the KKK or the Branch Davidians or the Peoples Temple at Jonestown are representative of Christianity.

Almost invariably, someone will ask me whether Muslims are required to practice taqiyya or dissimulation—deliberate lying to non-believers to advance the cause of Islam—and whether I’m practicing taqiyya in order to proselytize.

I tell them no. I explain to them that I didn’t even know the word taqiyya until critics of Islam introduced me to it, but maybe they think I’m practicing taqiyya about taqiyya!

Indeed, I explain to my neighbors that Islam has been part of America’s religious and political fabric for generations, and that there was little anti-Muslim rhetoric in the early days of the Republic. Tolerance was clearly articulated in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, for example, which stated:

 “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen—and  as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation ...”

I tell them that John Quincy Adams had a copy of the first Qur’an printed in America with him (by Isaiah Thomas in 1806) when he defended the Amistad Rebellion mutineers, many of whom were Muslim, and that Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he wanted a meeting hall built in Philadelphia so inclusive “... so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”

I cannot imagine any public figure voicing such sentiments today—and neither can most of the people I talk with in my conversations—even  as we recognize that Muslim Marines, auto mechanics, artists, educators, photographers, doctors, scientists, writers and students live amongst us, pay their taxes, and fight, defend and die during America’s wars.

My neighbors, most of whom have never knowingly met a Muslim before they meet me, come to understand that before 9/11, Muslims were so well assimilated that they only appeared every ten years—as part of the national census.

Together, we recognize that the anti-Muslim demons that today roil America’s domestic tranquility were first released when Barack Obama decided to run for president, demons quite distinct from those that followed 9/11.

Today’s demons emerged when truthers, birthers, and assorted conspiracy theorists, united by fear and ignorance, determined not only to disenfranchise Barack Obama but along with him anyone remotely related to “The Other”—primarily  Muslims. 

Obama was identified as foreign, Kenyan—and Muslim—because his opponents couldn’t use the N-word any longer. As a result, the use of “Muslim” as a derogatory term that is meant to denigrate and diminish someone’s humanity has metastasized today into “Muslim” as a code word, not just for believers in Islam but for all those who are non-privileged, non-white, and non-Christian.

As a result, for many Muslims today, hearing fellow Americans ignorantly attempt to disenfranchise, marginalize and target a faith community that’s been present in these lands for nearly 400 years for craven political purposes is not unlike waking up to see a cross burning on America’s communal front lawn.

I want to help put out that fire.

I want my neighbors to understand that, while it’s true that the Qur’an is the literal word of God, that doesn’t mean that all its contents are meant to be read literally; that Islam in not monolithic and Other; that Muslims are as fully within the Abrahamic tradition as are Jews and Christians; and like those other traditions we, too, are challenged by those who attempt to interpret scripture for privilege, profit, and power. 

I answer people’s questions because I want to be able to breathe freely again.

Prophet Muhammad once spoke of a man who asked God why he was being punished. God answered, “You passed by an oppressed person but did not help him.” I travel from community to community because I want to find out how we can struggle to express solidarity with the oppressed and the occupied, and agitate for social justice regardless of ethnicity, color, gender or faith—so as to pass by no one.

And I nurture conversation so that with my brothers and sisters we can struggle to find a path through which we can serve God and humanity with dignity and respect, and where together, we can all sit in safety under a communal vine and fig-tree.

CC by NC 4.0

27 October 2017. Combating online abuse with the principles of nonviolent resistance

Individual and collective empowerment may be a more effective strategy than policing or legal action.

This article was first published by Waging Nonviolence.

Credit: Flickr/Atlas Social Media. Public Domain.

Online harassment is on the rise, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. While that may not seem surprising—since even the president of the United States regularly engages in it—researchers are, nevertheless, perplexed, given the many widespread efforts to combat the phenomenon.

An examination of these efforts, which have been the subject of several books in recent years, may yield a better understanding of not only what’s working and not working, but also what’s missing—namely an approach that relies more on individual and collective empowerment, as opposed to legal and police action.

Online harassment as a crime.

Danielle Keats Citron’s 2014 book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace” is a comprehensive account of online harassment directed at women. Citron uses three case studies to illustrate the seriousness and seeming intractability of the problem. In one case, a woman was targeted by various anonymous individuals, perhaps including her university classmates, who spread horrendous lies about her, sending them to family, friends, her teachers and later her employers. The harassment continued for years.

A key theme in “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace” involves comparisons with sexual harassment and domestic violence. Decades ago, these were not seen as issues of importance. Sexual harassment was seen as something women at work just had to accept, and likewise domestic violence was invisible as a social issue. Then along came the feminist movement. Sexual harassment and domestic violence were given names, stigmatized as wrong and even contemptible, and criminalized by the passing of laws.

Citron says cyber harassment should be treated the same way. In all three forms of abuse, women and men can be victims, but women are much more likely to be targeted.

Citron is a lawyer with extensive experience with abuse online. She devotes considerable attention to legal remedies, but the overall message is that they are inadequate even when they can be brought to bear. Another avenue for redress is via complaint mechanisms provided by service providers. However, in many cases, harassers are anonymous and change their online identities. For example, on Twitter it’s possible to set up a new account within minutes, so shutting down the account of an abuser may provide only temporary relief.

Some targets of abuse go to the police, but this is usually disappointing, as many police do not understand the online world. For example, they fail to appreciate the importance of Twitter for some women’s work and how harassers can abuse the service. Police may suggest going offline to avoid the abuse, but this is unrealistic in an online world. It is like suggesting never going outside because of the risk of assault.

The misogyny of online abuse.

Emma Jane is an academic at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, where she researches online harassment of women. Before this, for two decades she was a well-known media commentator under the name Emma Tom. Before the internet, she and other female figures in the media were used to receiving hostile written letters. But something changed in the 1990s after she started adding her email address at the bottom of her newspaper columns. The abuse she received in response to her columns became more insistent, graphic and voluminous. She started saving all this abuse, not knowing what to make of it.

In her research, inspired by her own experience and based on interviews and other evidence, she is quite clear that online harassment targeted at women is intended to tear them down and drive them off the internet. She has written several academic articles about the phenomenon and a 2017 book titled “Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History.”

Jane addresses the frequency of online abuse, its gendered features, the weakness of the rationales for doing it, the terrible consequences for targets and the failure of institutional channels to address it. She terms the inadequacy of police and service providers to address abuse as an “epic fail”—Jane has a delightful turn of phrase and manner of plain-speaking.

Unlike most other commentators, Jane gives many examples of some of the worst abuse received by women. That is why the subtitle of her book refers to a “brutish” history: to read examples of abuse can be disturbing even when you are not the target. By presenting graphic examples, Jane challenges the usual dismissals of this form of harassment as just a normal part of the internet. To get a feeling for the sort of abusive messages women receive, visit Random Rape Threat Generator (note: this is explicit and confronting).

Jane also gives special attention to academic work in the area, castigating scholars for not addressing an important topic or, when they do, not taking the abuse seriously. For example, incorporating rape and death threats in the category of “trolling” reduces their seriousness.

The problem with rationalizing abuse.

Bailey Poland is a writer and editor who became interested in cybersexism and wrote the book “Haters: Harassment, Abuse and Violence Online” published in 2016. It is a comprehensive, scholarly treatment. Poland learned about the problem in part through her own experiences of coming under attack. She recounts the stories of many other women harassed online.

Some cases have become notorious, most prominently what is known as Gamergate. Zoe Quinn, a game developer, was abused online and openly complained about it. This led to a huge increase in abuse and threats, in turn triggering a countermovement. Gaming is highly male dominated, and women working in the field are regular targets.

Poland takes aim at the many justifications for cyber harassment and at the advice regularly given to women. One often-repeated mantra is “Don’t feed the trolls.” This assumes that trolling is the problem, but trolling is not an accurate description of rape and death threats. Not feeding the trolls means not replying to abusers, on the assumption that they get their kicks by seeing their target squirm: without replies, they should tire of the game and give up. The problem with this advice is that it doesn’t work. The attackers continue as long as their target is online, and may escalate by sending abuse, threats, and derogatory comments to family members and employers.

(For insights about trolling, see Whitney Phillips’ book “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” Phillips argues that trolling can’t be addressed on its own because it draws its energy from damaging behaviors in mainstream culture.)

One of the rationalizations for abuse is that “everyone gets harassed.” In other words, women shouldn’t complain because men are harassed too and, anyway, it’s just part of the way the internet works. Poland reports on studies showing that although many people are harassed, women are harassed far more, and furthermore much of the abuse aimed at them is specifically about gender.

Another regular piece of advice is to block the harassers. This is all very well, but is not protection from the harmful effects of abuse. When damaging claims are posted online, they can hinder a woman’s job prospects, because employers often do a Google search on the names of prospective employees. Blocking harassers also takes time; some of them create several new identities every day.

Harassers cloak their actions in the righteous mantle of free speech. In their eyes, it seems, sending unsolicited derogatory comments is an exercise of free speech, and to protest against such messages is an intolerable restraint. Setting aside the fact that rape and death threats are not legally protected speech, one of the consequences of online abuse is the silencing of targets. Indeed, silencing women seems to be the purpose of much of the abuse. This is a serious restraint on their own free speech. If the goal is a public forum where people can express their views, then moderation and respect for others are crucial.

To get a handle on how to respond to cyber harassment, Poland turns to a perspective developed by feminists in the early days of the internet, called cyber feminism. Some women use privacy settings for protection. Groups of women have set up closed online networks for sharing information, including about harassers. A few, for example Lindsay Bottos, use art to challenge online harassment.

But the burden of responding to online abuse should not rest only on women. Poland cites work by Leigh Alexander on what men can do. The first step is to not engage in cyber harassment themselves. Men can also provide one-on-one support for targeted women, focusing on a woman’s work (not just the harassment) and intervening online to draw attention away from the target.

Poland usefully refers to the activism of several U.S. groups, including Working to Halt Online AbuseEnd to Cyber BullyingCrash Override Network and HeartMob.

The psychology of abusers.

Citron, Jane and Poland cite studies about typical perpetrators, but it seems to me that more could be done to understand what drives them. It is not sufficient to look at the effects of their harassment (namely, women driven off online spaces) and assume that is why perpetrators do it. Roy Baumeister, in his book “Evil: Understanding Human Violence and Cruelty,” looked at what is known about the psychology of Nazi camp guards, serial killers, and other perpetrators and concluded that usually they feel justified in their actions, feel they are the real victims, and do not think the consequences of their actions are very significant. If the same analysis applied to perpetrators of online harassment, it implies they do not think sending rape and death threats to women is a big deal and that their targets deserve what they get. This is not far from the usual rationales provided.

But why are women targets? One explanation is based on the psychological process of projection, in which a person unconsciously rejects a part of their self or behavior and attributes it to others. For example, a man might reject his own attraction to other men, fearing it, project it on to gay men and sometimes attack them.

All people have, as part of their personalities, both masculine and feminine aspects. Some men may not want to recognize their feminine side. Instead, they project it onto others, onto women, naturally enough, and then try to destroy it. In this picture, powerful and prominent women would be the most likely targets. This perspective seems compatible with a perpetrator pattern called DARVO—deny, attack, reverse victim and offender—in which perpetrators deny their own abuse, blame it on the target and say, when they are criticized, that they are actually the ones being abused.

The point of gaining a deeper understanding of the psychology of abusers is to come up with more effective responses.

Insights from nonviolent action.

In acting against online abuse, what can be learned from the theory and practice of nonviolent action? This is not straightforward, because nonviolent action most commonly involves collective action in public spaces against identifiable opponents. Cyberabuse typically targets individuals, often in private spaces, and many attackers are anonymous. Nevertheless, several of the key features of effective nonviolent action—non-standard, limited harm, participation, voluntary participation, fairness, prefiguration and skillful use—are relevant to countering cyberharassment.

The most commonly recommended response to online abuse is to report it to authorities, something each of the three authors find is usually unhelpful. A nonviolence-inspired response needs to be something else, something non-standard.

In effective nonviolent action, actionists try to limit the harm to their opponent. In cyberspace, this means not using abuse to counter abuse. It seems that few targets do this anyway. When they do, it is often counterproductive, as would be expected from nonviolence theory.

In nonviolent action, a high level of participation greatly increases effectiveness. Methods such as strikes, boycotts and rallies enable many people to participate regardless of age, sex and ability. In the online environment, the implication is to choose methods of resistance that enable greater participation. A first step is for targeted women (and men) to join together with allies to formulate a collective response. This might be making supportive comments, challenging ISPs that allow abuse and developing campaigns that allow safe participation.

One of the benefits of greater participation in nonviolent action, especially when people with varied backgrounds and experiences are involved, is more ideas about responding and more innovation in techniques. This suggests that campaigners against online misogyny should attempt to involve diverse sectors of the population, for example men as well as women, old and young, different social classes, social media newbies, as well as digital natives, and people from different cultural backgrounds. Especially important is building support among people who would not normally be interested in the social media platforms where abuse often occurs.

Taking the issue to broader sectors of the population has the prospect of getting to friends (online and off), neighbors, parents and children of abusers. This is the same broadening of concern that has been effective in stigmatizing sexual harassment offline.

Another important facet of effective nonviolent action is skillful use of methods. Responding to abusers needs to be done well, based on assessments of the psychology of the attacker, audiences, the likelihood of others joining in the abuse or opposing it and other factors. Developing skills requires guidance and practice. The implication is that targets of abuse need to reach out to others, gain support and, in particular, get help in improving responses. By improving skills in judging the motivations, intent, and psychological weaknesses of harassers, targets should be better able to judge whether to make a polite response, to not respond, to ask for personal assistance or to seek help in mounting a campaign. Similarly, skills can make a big difference when making a response to abusers, finding supporters and campaigning.

All too often, targets feel isolated and humiliated and attempt to deal with the situation on their own. Reaching out to others, and others being willing and able to help, are crucial for mobilizing support and for making better choices and responses.

The implications of ideas from nonviolent action for challenging online abuse seem, at one level, all too obvious: Get more people involved, including from different backgrounds; learn and practice skills; and work cooperatively to develop responses and campaigns. Yet, at another level, these implications are not obvious at all, given the continual attention to addressing the problem through laws and actions by police, ISPs and other officials. Rather than looking for authorities to provide protection, it may be more effective to aim at individual and collective empowerment.

'Read On' Sidebox: 

openDemocracy will be at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the impact of populism on our media, political parties and democracy (see the programme for more details).

CC by NC 4.0

24 October 2017. How to prevent nuclear war

What can be done to build support for a peaceful resolution to the stand-off with North Korea?

Credit: Pixabay/geralt. CC0 Creative Commons.

Everyone from Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and President Vladimir Putin to Steve Bannon and China agree: war with North Korea would be so horrific that it simply can’t happen. Up to one million people could die on the first day of such a war. At that rate, it would take two months to match the death toll of the whole of World War II.

According to Paul Edwards, an international security expert at Stanford University, the effect of a major nuclear war would be comparable to the “giant meteor believed to be responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.” Leading researchers Alan Robock and Owen Toon warn that even “a regional conflict has the potential to cause mass starvation worldwide.”

If it wasn’t for Donald Trump’s threatening rhetoric, his continual sabotage of diplomatic efforts, and his personal insults directed at Kim Jong-Un, the U.S. would not be on the verge of war. No other American president has elevated tensions so dramatically, but Trump shows no signs of changing track.

Nevertheless, the U.S. still has alternatives: despite numerous reports to the contrary, North Korea has said they would be willing to negotiate about their nuclear program if the U.S. stops threatening to destroy it. In that case, what can be done to build pressure inside the U.S. to pursue a peaceful solution to the crisis, and how can ordinary people help?

It’s here that historical precedent may be useful. When we reflect on the Holocaust, for example, we tend to vilify prominent Nazi leaders like Adolf Eichmann who were “just following orders,” while extolling ordinary citizens like Oskar Schindler who used creative strategies to prevent atrocities.

Few of us believe we would have behaved like Eichmann. Many of us would like to think we would have acted like Schindler, and hundreds of others who have developed non-violent resistance when faced by the prospect of war and large-scale killing. The choice we face is the same today—and we have the strategies and tactics to make nonviolence work. But first we have to recognize the seriousness and urgency of the situation.  

Several indicators suggest that Trump could be preparing to initiate a pre-emptive strike against North Korea in the second half of November.

First, according to the State Department, he has already said that he would launch a first strike if North Korea developed the capacity to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States. Last week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo announced that North Korea is “on the cusp” of achieving that goal and “it's now a matter of thinking about how do [sic] you stop the final step.” Pompeo’s statement is consistent with earlier predictions that North Korea would develop such capabilities by early 2018.

Second, in early October Japan’s Minister of Defense, Itsunori Onodera, implied to reporters in Tokyo that Trump would initiate military action in mid-November unless North Korea complies with US demands.

Third, back in August of 2017, U.S. military officials said that they needed a few months to prepare logistically for war. Then they began preparations. This timeline suggests that they will be ready to carry out a first strike in November.

Fourth, on October 20th 2017, Trump declared a national state of emergency and legalized a limited military draft.

Even GOP members are reportedly “praying Trump doesn’t do something really, really stupid,” according to a former Republican member of Congress who wants to remain anonymous. His former colleagues have said that they would support Trump’s removal—potentially by invoking the 25th amendment to the U.S. Constitution—if the leadership of the Republican Party gave “the signal to everyone they can bail.”

It seems that in this process, Republicans are just ‘obeying orders’—as with Eichmann’s defense of his actions in World War II. Perhaps they need a reminder that the judge in Eichmann’s trial ruled that “blind obedience” made him no less culpable when he found him guilty of war crimes.

None of these developments guarantee that nuclear war is imminent, or that a preemptive strike against North Korea would necessarily be judged a war crime, but they do suggest that such a strike is highly plausible, if not probable. The stakes are high enough to make all Americans take the threat of war very seriously, and to organize immediately to prevent it. Yet large-scale activism has failed to materialize thus far. Why?

The first problem is that there is little sense of urgency, largely because government officials never offer a time frame for when they expect hostilities to break out. It’s easy to become complacent when you’ve been hearing that we are “on the brink of war” for months.

A good example of this problem in another area was the failure of activists to mobilize people in response to the May 4, 2017 House of Representatives vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), despite successfully doing so around other votes to repeal the ACA both before and afterwards.

What made the difference? The May 4th vote wasn’t scheduled until one day before it took place, so people didn’t “realize how close the GOP [was] to repealing," and therefore it “didn’t feel like we were in an emergency,” according to’s Ben Wikler.

Conversely, a clear timeframe was a major factor behind one the biggest success stories in terms of resistance against the Nazis. In Denmark, 95 percent of the local Jewish population survived, in part because a German diplomat leaked the Nazi’s plan to remove them to death camps three days before the projected start date of the operation. That information was widely disseminated through the Danish population, who then organized to help the vast majority of Jews escape to Sweden in the span of 72 hours.

The second problem is insufficient awareness about the potential consequences of nuclear war. According to Alan Robock’s research, “most people, including high-ranking defense officials, are unaware that a nuclear war occurring halfway around the world…could seriously harm the homeland.”

Even Schindler didn’t act until he fully understood the magnitude of the Holocaust. In fact he was a member of the Nazi party himself, and only began his efforts to save Jews after he began witnessing atrocities against them.

Third, there is no consensus on the best way to prevent a war. While there is general agreement that Trump is responsible for escalating tensions with North Korea, opinions are divided as to the best solution, and most of the suggestions that have been made are unviable.

Many groups and individuals—including most recently Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—have advocated for legislation that would prevent Trump from launching a nuclear strike unilaterally. While such laws would (theoretically) pry Trump’s finger off the nuclear trigger, they won’t stop him from escalating tensions to breaking point.

There have also been increasing efforts to instigate an impeachment process (so far with little sign of the necessary Republican support), but even if proceedings were initiated now, Trump would still have plenty of time to launch a nuclear strike. War could start in as little as four to six weeks, whereas historical precedent suggests that impeachment would take several months: President Clinton's impeachment process took over four months, and Andrew Johnson's more than three.

The only remaining viable option is invoking the 25th amendment, which would remove Trump immediately, but that would still require the support of either a majority of Congress or Trump’s cabinet, as well as Vice President Mike Pence. Pence’s acquiescence might not be as difficult as some imagine, especially under pressure from both the American public and Congress. Invoking the 25th would satisfy Pence’s presidential ambitions, not to mention his suspected deep-seated but carefully concealed resentment of Trump.

Even in this scenario, large-scale public pressure would be vital, so what kinds of actions might help to create it?

The efficacy of activism is not predicated on the size of a protest crowd, but on the leverage that the public exerts on decision-makers’ interests. Members of Congress care about their re-election. Organizing locally and holding representatives individually accountable can be effective because they are afraid of losing the support of the people who would be voting for them in the next election.

The grassroots activism that—so far—has prevented Congress from axing Obamacare is a great example of this strategy in action. Even though Republicans had spent eight years swearing to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, many of them retracted their support because thousands of their constituents called their offices, turned up at town hall meetings, and publically embarrassed them.

The obedience of Republicans in Congress is always politically motivated, since they fear that moving outside of party lines will cost them their jobs. But if they think that their obedience will actually lose them the next election they will be less likely to follow in Eichmann’s footsteps. That’s why large-scale public pressure is the key to preventing nuclear war.

CC by NC 4.0

22 October 2017. The death and life of liberation theology

A generation of radical theologians from Latin America is passing away. What does their legacy mean for the rest of the world? Español Português

Zapatista Church: a very small monument to liberation theology. Credit: Flickr/David Sasaki. CC BY-NC 2.0.

This June saw the passing of two of our generation’s most fascinating and controversial Catholic priests: François Houtart and Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann. Houtart was a Jesuit priest and prolific scholar on the faculty of sociology at the University of Louvain in Belgium. His leadership in the dialogue between Marxism and Christianity, his research on religion in society from Sri Lanka to Nicaragua, and his desire to connect social movements in the global South through the Tricontinental Centre (CETRI) which he founded in 1976, matched his academic output of some 50 books.

On the theological front, he assisted in drafting the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes or “Joy and Hope”), one of the most influential documents of the landmark Second Vatican Council. Houtart was a hero to many around the world but certainly no saint. In 2010, he terminated a global campaign to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize when he admitted to sexually abusing an eight-year-old boy in 1970.

He is perhaps best remembered for his pioneering work on the analysis of, and resistance to, corporate economic globalization. Noting the pervasive influence of the World Economic Forum, he proposed the “Other Davos” in 1996, a counter movement against the mounting power of neoliberal economics.

Five years later, others including Chico Whitaker, a lay Catholic activist and secretary of the Commission of Justice and Peace of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil,  built on Houtart’s initiatives to launch the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, an annual  meeting place for alter-globalists seeking solidarity under the banner of “Another World is Possible!” Houtart served on its International Council.

Miguel D’Escoto served as a Maryknoll missionary priest in his native Nicaragua after his education and ordination in the USA. A liberation theologian, he joined Nicaragua’s Sandinista movement (FSLN) in the overthrow of the dictatorial Samoza regime and its resistance to the US-led “contra” war, serving in the Sandinista government—including as Foreign Minister between 1979 and 1990. In 2008 he was elected president of the United Nations General Assembly. Though never entirely repudiated by the Vatican for his political work, he was suppressed for decades before being fully restored to his pastoral duties by Pope Francis in 2014.   

Houtart and D’Escoto were both men of their times. In their generation, liberation was in the air through national movements against colonialism, through revolutions, and through New Left activism across the globe. Following Vatican II’s “opening to the world” and the Church’s fresh engagement with modernity, Catholic priests, missionaries and lay leaders were free to pursue novel forms of ministry.

Such novel religious activism wasn’t entirely new. Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Câmara, the “bishop of the slums,” had taken a radical approach to his ministry to the poor a decade before Vatican II; and the antecedents to what would be called liberation theology had been building in both Catholic and Protestant circles for years. But the 1968 meeting of Catholic bishops at the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) in Medellín, Colombia, marked a turning point for the realignment of the church away from traditional social elites. Liberation theology was thus liberated to pursue its “preferential option for the poor.”  

This movement spread powerfully through Latin America—and with assistance from Houtart and others, in Asia and Africa as well. But the epicenter was Latin America, where the movement aligned itself with other civil society groups in opposition to right-wing military dictatorships.

Among this generation, Roman Catholic theologians Gustavo Gutiérrez (now aged 89), Leonardo Boff (78) and Jon Sobrino (78), and the Methodist José Míguez Bonino (who died in 2012) are among the better known liberationists. Many of their ideas were developed in association with Paulo Freire (who died in 1997), the Brazilian Christian educational activist, proponent of popular education, and author of the acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Also part of this group was the Paraguayan Fernando Lugo (still young at 66), who was ordained a missionary priest by the Society of the Divine Word and returned home to become bishop of San Pedro where he was known as the “friend of the poor.” In 2008 he was elected president of Paraguay, but impeached in 2012 in what neighboring countries called a “constitutional coup d’état.”

Why did this generation rise to prominence in Latin America? There are numerous reasons. For one, in the post-World War II period, some like Houtart in Belgium were radicalized by the plight of the European working class and challenged by its irreligiosity to find new ways of articulating and identifying with the poor. This experience spread to Latin America almost accidentally, for the simple reason that Europe was oversupplied with priests and Latin America needed more of them; knowingly or not, Latin America imported radicalized priests in significant numbers. Latin American priests also studied in Europe, absorbing radical thinking. These influences played out in societies dominated by the Catholic faith.

But the larger reasons were twofold: first, the abject poverty of the Latin American majority which even the Vatican could no longer overlook; and second, the rise of oppressive military regimes and bitter political revolutions in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The felt need for liberation among the poor, the marginalized and indigenous peoples was as palpable as it was necessary. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the struggle for liberation was very real.

Those days are gone. Democracy has returned to much of Latin America, as well as a more pragmatic form of social democracy, and liberation theology has lost some of its revolutionary raison d’être. In his open and honest postmortem on the movement, the Belgian-Latin American José Comblin (who died in 2011) admits that in many ways the liberationists misinterpreted the life experience of the Latin American poor.

While they focused on rural peasants they overlooked migration to the cities. They also missed the mood of the campesinos’ popular religiosity, which trended strongly towards the Protestant and Pentecostal churches. And they ignored the desire of the poor to become consumers. “The Catholics opted for the poor,” as the saying goes, but “the poor opted for the markets.”

Hence, liberation theology was but a moment. It was a particular theo-political response to a specific set of circumstances—a generation’s rebellion against grinding poverty in the killing fields of revolutionary Latin America. But the rich theology of the liberationists endures as a challenge to every church tradition. Their analysis of the causes of poverty and how it is structured into prevailing global systems—recently articulated by Houtart in his 2011 manifesto From ‘Common Goods’ to the ‘Common Good of Humanity’—challenges every church to open its eyes to the cold, hard analysis that’s required to grasp the changing world around them.

Is there anything else the rest of the world can learn from the liberationists?

In the West, the Protestant, Anglo-European North and the Catholic, Iberian South produced vastly different socio-political traditions, even though they share in common a white settler history of slave-holding, the suppression of indigenous peoples, and capitalist class exploitation. If the South trends social-democratic and struggles against powerful conservative elites, the North trends liberal, towards laissez faire capitalism and expressive individualism. As it was framed in Latin America, liberation theology could never succeed in the North.

Nevertheless, it has many lessons to teach. The first lies in its consciousness—its willingness to flip the social script from catering to elites to privileging the poor. Liberation theology was never only about theo-politics and revolution. It was also about overcoming alienation: the alienation that separates human beings from each other, people from the Earth, Western from pre-Western forms of life, and alienated psyches from transcendence. It taught ordinary people to perceive the reality of their own circumstance—to conscientize themselves, as the liberationists put it—through their own self-reflection, so that they were free to construct a social reality that resisted the powers of the age.  

Secondly, we can learn from its methodology, simple yet profound: “See–Judge–Act.” That is, live in the concrete world. Describe reality as it is, not simply as theory tells us. But also judge reality from the horizon of a reconciled humanity, and act accordingly to bring that reality about. The liberationists put a lot of time into analysis, and that let them tell, in great detail, the hard truth that the world we have made is grinding others into the dust, and that this must stop, as much for our own salvation as for the wellbeing of others.  

Third, we might even learn from its mistakes. To overlook popular religiosity—because intellectual and religious elites aren’t interested in the daily lives of the faithful, or because wealthy city dwellers forget rural life and laugh off its traditions, or because the successful classes denigrate the struggling classes and blame them for their own suffering—is to leave large segments of society without the material, intellectual, and spiritual resources to find their way in the world.    

Lastly, we might learn to take our own churches more seriously. The liberationists believed in spiritual community, life-giving fellowship, and historical church structures to hold them together more than any religious movement that I’ve come across. They believed in a “new way of being church”—confident that the social power of faith can liberate societies as easily as it can oppress them.

Since the end of Soviet-style socialism in 1989, ‘alter-globalization’ rather than ‘liberation’ has come to define the radical imagination, but the problems of poverty and oppression persist—as does the possibility that we might draw again on the theo-political resources provided by a remarkable community of radical priests to inspire a new generation of alter-globalist activists and theologians. 

CC by NC 4.0

19 October 2017. My white friend asked me to explain white privilege, so I decided to be honest.

He wanted to know how institutional racism has made an impact on my life. I’m glad he asked, because I was ready to answer.

Yesterday I was tagged in a Facebook post by an old high school friend asking me and a few others a very public, direct question about white privilege and racism. I feel compelled not only to publish his query, but also my response to it, as it may be a helpful discourse for more than just a few folks on Facebook.

Here’s his post:

To all of my Black or mixed race FB friends, I must profess a blissful ignorance of this “White Privilege” of which I’m apparently guilty of possessing. By not being able to fully put myself in the shoes of someone from a background/race/religion/gender/nationality/body type that differs from my own makes me part of the problem, according to what I’m now hearing. Despite my treating everyone with respect and humor my entire life (as far as I know), I’m somehow complicit in the misfortune of others. I’m not saying I’m colorblind, but whatever racism/sexism/other -ism my life experience has instilled in me stays within me, and is not manifested in the way I treat others (which is not the case with far too many, I know).


So that I may be enlightened, can you please share with me some examples of institutional racism that have made an indelible mark upon you? If I am to understand this, I need people I know personally to show me how I’m missing what’s going on. Personal examples only. I’m not trying to be insensitive, I only want to understand (but not from the media). I apologize if this comes off as crass or offends anyone.

Here’s my response:

Hi Jason. First off, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve quoted your post and made it part of mine. I think the heart of what you’ve asked of your friends of color is extremely important and I think my response needs much more space than as a reply on your feed. I truly thank you for wanting to understand what you are having a hard time understanding. Coincidentally, over the last few days I have been thinking about sharing some of the incidents of prejudice/racism I’ve experienced in my lifetime—in fact I just spoke with my sister Lesa about how to best do this yesterday—because I realized many of my friends—especially the white ones—have no idea what I’ve experienced/dealt with unless they were present (and aware) when it happened.

There are two reasons for this: 1) because not only as a human being do I suppress the painful and uncomfortable in an effort to make it go away, I was also taught within my community (I was raised in the ’70s and ’80s—it’s shifted somewhat now) and by society at large NOT to make a fuss, speak out, or rock the boat. To just “deal with it,” lest more trouble follow (which, sadly, it often does); 2) fear of being questioned or dismissed with “Are you sure that’s what you heard?” or “Are you sure that’s what they meant?” and being angered and upset all over again by well-meaning-but-hurtful and essentially unsupportive responses.

So, again, I’m glad you asked, because I really want to answer. But as I do, please know a few things first: 1) This is not even close to the whole list. I’m cherry-picking because none of us have all day; 2) I’ve been really lucky. Most of what I share below is mild compared to what others in my family and community have endured; 3) I’m going to go in chronological order so you might begin to glimpse the tonnage and why what many white folks might feel is a “where did all of this come from?” moment in society has been festering individually and collectively for the LIFETIME of pretty much every black or brown person living in America today, regardless of wealth or opportunity; 4) Some of what I share covers sexism, too—intersectionality is another term I’m sure you’ve heard and want to put quotes around, but it’s a real thing too, just like white privilege. But you’ve requested a focus on personal experiences with racism, so here it goes:

1. When I was 3, my family moved into an upper-middle-class, all-white neighborhood. We had a big backyard, so my parents built a pool. Not the only pool on the block, but the only one neighborhood boys started throwing rocks into. White boys. One day my mom ID’d one as the boy from across the street, went to his house, told his mother, and, fortunately, his mother believed mine. My mom not only got an apology, but also had that boy jump in our pool and retrieve every single rock. No more rocks after that. Then mom even invited him to come over to swim sometime if he asked permission. Everyone became friends. This one has a happy ending because my mom was and is badass about matters like these, but I hope you can see that the white privilege in this situation is being able to move into a “nice” neighborhood and be accepted not harassed, made to feel unwelcome, or prone to acts of vandalism and hostility.

2. When my older sister was 5, a white boy named Mark called her a “nigger” after she beat him in a race at school. She didn’t know what it meant, but in her gut she knew it was bad. This was the first time I’d seen my father the kind of angry that has nowhere to go. I somehow understood it was because not only had some boy verbally assaulted his daughter and had gotten away with it, it had way too early introduced her (and me) to that term and the reality of what it meant—that some white people would be cruel and careless with black people’s feelings just because of our skin color. Or our achievement. If it’s unclear in any way, the point here is if you’ve never had a defining moment in your childhood or your life where you realize your skin color alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege.

3. Sophomore year of high school. I had Mr. Melrose for Algebra 2. Some time within the first few weeks of class, he points out that I’m “the only spook” in the class. This was meant to be funny. It wasn’t. So, I doubt it will surprise you I was relieved when he took medical leave after suffering a heart attack and was replaced by a sub for the rest of the semester. The point here is, if you’ve never been ‘the only one’ of your race in a class, at a party, on a job, etc. and/or it’s been pointed out in a “playful” fashion by the authority figure in said situation, you have white privilege.

4. When we started getting our college acceptances senior year, I remember some white male classmates were pissed that a black classmate had gotten into UCLA while they didn’t. They said that affirmative action had given him “their spot” and it wasn’t fair. An actual friend of theirs. Who’d worked his ass off. The point here is, if you’ve never been on the receiving end of the assumption that when you’ve achieved something it’s only because it was taken away from a white person who “deserved it,” you have white privilege.

5. When I got accepted to Harvard (as a fellow AP student, you were witness to what an academic beast I was in high school, yes?), three separate times I encountered white strangers as I prepped for my maiden trip to Cambridge that rankle to this day. The first was the white doctor giving me a physical at Kaiser:

Me: “I need to send an immunization report to my college so I can matriculate.”

Doctor: “Where are you going?”

Me: “Harvard.”

Doctor: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”

The second was in a store, looking for supplies I needed from Harvard’s suggested “what to bring with you” list.

Store employee: “Where are you going?”

Me: “Harvard.”

Store employee: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”

The third was at UPS, shipping off boxes of said “what to bring” to Harvard. I was in line behind a white boy mailing boxes to Princeton and in front of a white woman sending her child’s boxes to wherever.

Woman to the boy: “What college are you going to?” Boy: “Princeton.”

Woman: “Congratulations!”

Woman to me: “Where are you sending your boxes?” Me: “Harvard.”

Woman: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”

I think: “No, bitch, the one downtown next to the liquor store.” But I say, gesturing to my LABELED boxes: “Yes, the one in Massachusetts.”

Then she says congratulations, but it’s too fucking late. The point here is, if no one has ever questioned your intellectual capabilities or attendance at an elite institution based solely on your skin color, you have white privilege.

6. In my freshman college tutorial, our small group of 4–5 was assigned to read Thoreau, Emerson, Malcolm X, Joseph Conrad, Dreiser, etc. When it was the week to discuss The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one white boy boldly claimed he couldn’t even get through it because he couldn’t relate and didn’t think he should be forced to read it. I don’t remember the words I said, but I still remember the feeling—I think it’s what doctors refer to as chandelier pain—as soon as a sensitive area on a patient is touched, they shoot through the roof—that’s what I felt. I know I said something like my whole life I’ve had to read “things that don’t have anything to do with me or that I relate to” but I find a way anyway because that’s what learning is about—trying to understand other people’s perspectives. The point here is—the canon of literature studied in the United States, as well as the majority of television and movies, have focused primarily on the works or achievements of white men. So, if you have never experienced or considered how damaging it is/was/could be to grow up without myriad role models and images in school that reflect you in your required reading material or in the mainstream media, you have white privilege.

7. All seniors at Harvard are invited to a fancy, seated group lunch with our respective dorm masters. (Yes, they were called “masters” up until this February, when they changed it to “faculty deans,” but that’s just a tasty little side dish to the main course of this remembrance). While we were being served by the Dunster House cafeteria staff—the black ladies from Haiti and Boston who ran the line daily (I still remember Jackie’s kindness and warmth to this day)—Master Sally mused out loud how proud they must be to be serving the nation’s best and brightest. I don’t know if they heard her, but I did, and it made me uncomfortable and sick. The point here is, if you’ve never been blindsided when you are just trying to enjoy a meal by a well-paid faculty member’s patronizing and racist assumptions about how grateful black people must feel to be in their presence, you have white privilege.

8. While I was writing on a television show in my 30s, my new white male boss—who had only known me for a few days—had unbeknownst to me told another writer on staff he thought I was conceited, didn’t know as much I thought I did, and didn’t have the talent I thought I had. And what exactly had happened in those few days? I disagreed with a pitch where he suggested our lead female character carelessly leave a potholder on the stove, burning down her apartment. This character being a professional caterer. When what he said about me was revealed months later (by then he’d come to respect and rely on me), he apologized for prejudging me because I was a black woman. I told him he was ignorant and clearly had a lot to learn. It was a good talk because he was remorseful and open. But the point here is, if you’ve never been on the receiving end of a boss’s prejudiced, uninformed “how dare she question my ideas” badmouthing based on solely on his ego and your race, you have white privilege.

9. On my very first date with my now husband, I climbed into his car and saw baby wipes on the passenger-side floor. He said he didn’t have kids, they were just there to clean up messes in the car. I twisted to secure my seatbelt and saw a stuffed animal in the rear window. I gave him a look. He said, “I promise, I don’t have kids. That’s only there so I don’t get stopped by the police.” He then told me that when he drove home from work late at night, he was getting stopped by cops constantly because he was a black man in a luxury car and they assumed that either it was stolen or he was a drug dealer. When he told a cop friend about this, Warren was told to put a stuffed animal in the rear window because it would change “his profile” to that of a family man and he was much less likely to be stopped. The point here is, if you’ve never had to mask the fruits of your success with a floppy-eared, stuffed bunny rabbit so you won’t get harassed by the cops on the way home from your gainful employment (or never had a first date start this way), you have white privilege.

10. Six years ago, I started a Facebook page that has grown into a website called Good Black News because I was shocked to find there were no sites dedicated solely to publishing the positive things black people do. (And let me explain here how biased the coverage of mainstream media is in case you don’t already have a clue—as I curate, I can’t tell you how often I have to swap out a story’s photo to make it as positive as the content. Photos published of black folks in mainstream media are very often sullen- or angry-looking. Even when it’s a positive story! I also have to alter headlines constantly to 1) include a person’s name and not have it just be “Black Man Wins Settlement” or “Carnegie Hall Gets 1st Black Board Member,” or 2) rephrase it from a subtle subjugator like “ABC taps Viola Davis as Series Lead” to “Viola Davis Lands Lead on ABC Show” as is done for, say, Jennifer Aniston or Steven Spielberg. I also receive a fair amount of highly offensive racist trolling. I don’t even respond. I block and delete ASAP. The point here is, if you’ve never had to rewrite stories and headlines or swap photos while being trolled by racists when all you’re trying to do on a daily basis is promote positivity and share stories of hope and achievement and justice, you have white privilege.

OK, Jason, there’s more, but I’m exhausted. And my kids need dinner. Remembering and reliving many of these moments has been a strain and a drain (and, again, this ain’t even the half or the worst of it). But I hope my experiences shed some light for you on how institutional and personal racism have affected the entire life of a friend of yours to whom you’ve only been respectful and kind. I hope what I’ve shared makes you realize it’s not just strangers, but people you know and care for who have suffered and are suffering because we are excluded from the privilege you have not to be judged, questioned, or assaulted in any way because of your race.

As to you “being part of the problem,” trust me, nobody is mad at you for being white. Nobody. Just like nobody should be mad at me for being black. Or female. Or whatever. But what IS being asked of you is to acknowledge that white privilege DOES exist and not only to treat people of races that differ from yours “with respect and humor,” but also to stand up for fair treatment and justice, not to let “jokes” or “off-color” comments by friends, co-workers, or family slide by without challenge, and to continually make an effort to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so we may all cherish and respect our unique and special contributions to society as much as we do our common ground.

With much love and respect,


This article was originally published by Good Black News and then edited for and published in YES! Magazine

CC by NC 4.0

17 October 2017. Danger: there’s a centrifuge in the White House

While centrifugal forces tear things apart, centripetal forces bring things together again.

French H-Bomb 1968. Credit: Flickr/James Vaughan. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Today, nuclear weapons occupy the headlines in a way not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the positive side, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an advocacy group that promoted the historic treaty to prohibit these weapons that was reached at the United Nations in July 2017.

Although the treaty has been dismissed by the world’s nine nuclear-armed powers, its proponents believe that it will help to build a groundswell of support for the destruction of all nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee that they will never be used again.

In more worrying developments, President Trump’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal threatens to revive the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, while North Korea’s headlong pursuit of multiple nuclear warheads, alongside its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States, has heightened the confrontation between the US and North Korea to alarming levels.

These tensions have prompted the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight, and to warn that, “the probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.”

At the heart of the process of assembling a nuclear bomb is a relatively simple device called a nuclear centrifuge. A centrifuge is basically a cylinder that spins at very high speeds in order to separate out different materials. It’s what a washing machine becomes when it spins wet laundry to remove the water. Nuclear scientists use centrifuges to separate heavier Uranium 238 atoms from their lighter and more explosive Uranium 235 counterparts, which is what you need to make a nuclear bomb.

That’s why centrifuges occupy centre stage in the current debate. Under the Iran Nuclear Deal, Iran has drastically reduced the number of centrifuges in operation at its two uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, and agreed to undergo inspections by the global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to ensure that the Ur235 it still produces is only used for peaceful purposes (mainly as fuel for its nuclear power stations).

By contrast, centrifuges in North Korea have been working overtime. It is thought that Kim Jong Un now has enough of them to produce the material required to make six nuclear bombs a year. Kim’s regime is estimated to have perhaps 30 nuclear warheads already, and is continually building more.

But what’s raising the dangers to extreme levels isn’t just the spread of this technology; it’s  the fact that in the 2016 Presidential Election, the American people voted to install a centrifuge in the White House. His name is Donald Trump.

Like a centrifuge that continually throws things apart, Trump himself is acting as a great divider, widening divisions, separating those who formerly agreed with one another, and leaving only explosive rhetoric where calm thinking and compromise are required.

In response to North Korea’s provocations, Trump has warned Kim Jong Un’s similarly-erratic regime that “they won’t be around much longer.” He has told Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State, that he is “wasting his time trying to negotiate” a resolution to the standoff. He has said that he believes “only one thing will work!”

He has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Trump’s threats have been met with counter-threats by Kim to strike the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam and conduct an aerial nuclear test over the Pacific. As the brinkmanship continues and the rhetoric spins ever faster out of control, threat and paranoia remain at the centre while caution and reason are thrown to the side.

North Korea and Iran are the two most dangerous examples of how Trump is increasing international tensions, but there are many others. As outlined by his senior advisors Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster, Trump’s vision of the new global order he seeks to create is one in which “the world is not a global community, but an arena where nations…compete for advantage.”

Rather than deny “this elemental nature of international affairs” Trump seeks to embrace it. By pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, he has also signalled his lack of concern, not only for those currently being impacted by global warming but also for future generations.

Aside from his divisive influence on foreign policy, Trump has two other centrifuges in the Oval Office that he is spinning to devastating effect. On domestic policy, his signature issues like immigration, healthcare, tax reform, and freeing Wall Street from regulation are set to vastly exacerbate the problems they purport to address. As journalist and author Martin Wolf has noted, after campaigning on a populist agenda and promising to govern in the interests of those left behind, Trump is actually governing as a pluto-populist (paywall).

What Wolf means is that, having risen to power with the support of the ‘forgotten America’, Trump is seeking to enact policies that will increase the fortunes of the richest one per cent and further widen the yawning inequalities that are fuelling grassroots populism. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Centre has estimated that under Trump’s tax proposals, the top one per cent of taxpayers would receive around 50 per cent of the total tax benefit, while taxpayers in the bottom 95 per cent would see their incomes rise by between 0.5 and 1.2 per cent.

Similarly, Trump’s plans for the massive deregulation of Wall Street threaten to remove the safeguards that were put in place by the Obama Administration to guard against a repeat of the 2008 Financial Crisis, unleashing once again the spiral of recklessness and predatory lending that underpinned it.

Trump’s final centrifuge is also the one that is most visibly tearing America apart, namely his personal vortex of narcissism, paranoia and threat. By stigmatising immigrants and stoking fears of cultural dilution, he is rending the fabric of a nation that, in part, has been built on immigration. By valorising racism and white supremacy he is widening racial divides.

Through his hyper-masculine rhetoric which debases women and glorifies violence, he is casting aside values like equality and empathy that underpin democratic community. From the Obama birther lie, to the Access Hollywood tape, to his description of Charlottesville’s ‘very fine people’, Trump’s vitriol is throwing equality, civility and respect to the margins of public discourse, leaving only egotism, vindictiveness and hatred in their place.

Given the nature and scale of the crises facing America and the rest of world, it is essential that Trump’s angry centrifuges are spun down, and that rationality is restored to domestic and foreign affairs.

While centrifugal forces tear things apart, their opposite, centripetal forces bring things together. This is precisely what international negotiation, treaties, and international cooperation aim to achieve. At a domestic level, it is what actions aimed at narrowing inequality and reducing racial tensions would do by making citizens feel once again that they are all part of a democratic community in which everyone has a say. And it is what disarming Trump’s rhetoric of blame, threat and hatred would achieve by allowing the virtues of tolerance and shared identity—on which our futures rely—to re-take centre stage.  

Mahatma Gandhi, a leader diametrically opposed to Trump in both character and temperament, once remarked that “the fact that mankind persists shows that the cohesive force is greater than the disruptive force, centripetal force greater than centrifugal.” The danger is that Donald Trump is testing Gandhi’s wisdom to the limit.

CC by NC 4.0

17 October 2017. Can theatre change your mind?

Most people don’t think of media as propaganda, but confirmation bias is rife. What can be done? 

A scene from "A Nazi Comparison," performed by Craft Theatre. Credit: Rocky Rodriguez Junior, all rights reserved.

Clare, a young woman at university, happens upon an English translation of a play written by Hitler’s favourite playwright that upsets her entire world view. She can’t help but see strong parallels in how the media was manipulated then and now.

Filled with anxiety that the world she lives in is not as noble as everyone is led to believe, she digs deeper, jumping down a rabbit hole that eventually isolates her from everyone she knows and loves. Her friends shun her, her parents demean her and her teachers expel her. If the truth is the truth then why won’t anyone listen?

That’s the question that lies at the heart of A Nazi Comparison, a new play from my company Craft Theatre that’s currently running at Waterloo East in London. The production explores politics, climate change, the refugee crises and more, and through these topics it investigates how aspects of Nazism can resurface in contemporary societies through propaganda—and how the media can strengthen or weaken ‘confirmation bias’ in society: the tendency for people to search for and favour information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs

It’s that sort of bias that underpins the growing trend towards political polarization and the fracturing of communities—think Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ election in the USA, for example, or the manipulation and mythmaking that surrounded Britain’s vote on Brexit. Against that background it’s worth asking whether the arts can help to address this problem as well as to create it: can theatre change our minds in positive, life-enhancing, open-ended ways, and bring people together across the lines of difference?

I’ve been exploring the answers to these questions by engaging with the audience for the play itself, and what I’ve found is disturbing: overwhelmingly, people don’t think that confirmation bias applies to them even when they are shown evidence that it does. They think they are above it, and when they watch the work they don’t actually examine what’s in front of them. “I’m not like that” is a common reaction, “I get it, I understand the world as it is.”

But do they? To go deeper I needed to understand how audiences were internalising the play, and I didn’t think questionnaires would really provide the information I was looking for. On the whole people don’t know my face, and audiences generally don’t know I’m the director of the piece, so I decided to speak to people after each performance. I didn’t lie to them, but I implied that I was a ‘regular’ audience member too. 

Of course not everyone wanted to talk, but many did. Bob, for example (not his real name), looked particularly agitated. “Oh I know for a fact that it’s all ‘hooey,’” he told me, “I have spent 30 years in the news industry, I read a lot, I know what’s going on—and I know for a fact that hurricane seasons haven’t changed in 100 years—it’s got nothing to do with climate change.”

“But I have the all the research that was used by the theatre company to develop the show,” I countered, “it has every fact in the script, properly quoted and referenced, 60 pages long. Can I email it to you?”

“No, no, I don’t have time to read anything” Bob said, proceeding to tell me that climate change is another symptom of the “left’s tricks.” I kept trying to offer insights from the research and he kept implying that he didn’t need to read it. He wasn’t listening. Bob just wanted me to agree with him.

Unfortunately, that was the trend among others from the audience I spoke with too. Each person had their own nuance, but ultimately everyone was trying to convince me that they knew the truth, that their political opinions were the right ones—and they fought hard for their bias. I started to feel like I was in the Twilight Zone. It seems that A Nazi Comparison has actually activated confirmation bias in some people rather than correcting it. That was deeply worrying for me, so why are people so ready to ignore arguments that are contrary to their world view?

It’s here that culture and the media play a crucial role. In Hollywood, it’s pretty obvious that filmmakers support confirmation bias because telling audiences what they want to hear is both easy and lucrative. However it’s also been well documented that moviemakers are actively encouraged by government agencies to present a certain image of the world. Nicholas Schou, for example, explains how:

“Since the mid-1990s, but especially after 9/11, American screenwriters, directors, and producers have traded positive portrayal of the spy profession in film or television projects for special access and favours at CIA headquarters.”

In an interview with The Guardian, veteran CIA operative Chase Brandon confirmed that “We’ve always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian…It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.” And shows like NCIS already receive special assistance from the US military.

Most people don’t think the TV programmes or films they watch are propaganda, just as they don’t like to think that their opinions aren’t their own, but these examples show that confirmation bias is hard at work under the surface of the media. In that case, what can be done?

I’m a theatre director, so that’s where I naturally look for solutions. What can independent theatres do to counterbalance the misrepresentations of history and the growing trend to inject political spin into the arts? I think they can help, but based on my own recent experience with A Nazi Comparison it’s clear that the whole model will have to change.

We need to take our theatre pieces away from tired ‘black box’ fringe theatres and grand palaces. Instead, we should be building stories around circumstances that actually happen to people, and then taking those stories to communities who can use them to foster dialogue, build bridges, and explore the facts together, in order to develop new communities of honesty and solidarity.

Television and film have a ‘fourth wall:’ they come with an innate separation between actor and spectator. Theatre represents a different medium, because the fourth wall in the theatre is fake. It can be broken down and even removed entirely by encouraging feedback and interaction between the play and its audience.

The Brazilian theatre director, writer and activist Augusto Boal attempted something like this when he created “Forum Theatre,” a model in which the actors or members of the audience could stop a scene when a character was being oppressed. The audience would then suggest different actions for the actors in an attempt to change the outcome of the story.

That would be a good start, but it still implies an ‘us and them’ dichotomy. I think theatre makers should go beyond that dichotomy and dive head first into communities. The process of getting to know people and building theatre with them and from their circumstances can develop friendship and trust, perhaps even enabling people to see themselves in new ways.

In the BAFTA award winning documentary The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews people who were involved in the mass executions of accused communists in Indonesia. Some of the murderers gleefully dramatized the killings, but when they watched footage of the actual events something fascinating happened—they realised how horrific what they said sounded, and it started to change their lives.

I’m not saying that all theatre should set out to change everyone by forcing them to confront a particular reality. Rather, we should set out to make friends with people and in doing so, through the act of mutual creation, we can all begin to mend our bias. There are many different ways to do this, but the first step in all of them is to acknowledge that confirmation bias is real, and that we all have it. The next step is to think about what we can each do personally to address or free ourselves from these biases within our own world and social setting.

The highest form of art is the creation of community—worker-to-worker, person-to-person, friend to friend. Real learning—the only kind that counters bias—happens only when people are open with each-other in a trusted environment, where they can develop authentic relationships. When envisioned in terms of community, theatre is one place where this can happen.


CC by NC 4.0

15 October 2017. Head, heart and hands: 25 years of Schumacher College

All students are encouraged to be creative and to care for others. Cleverness should be the servant of wisdom.

Close-up of an indigenous woman's hands together, Chimborazo, Ecuador. Credit:, via Schumacher College. All rights reserved.

“This is not like any other place that I have studied in,” says Pauline Steisel, a 23-year old post graduate student from Belgium, as she chops carrots in a steamy kitchen with several of her fellow students.

“I did not expect to learn so much here about myself, about others, about sharing learning and working with others. It’s like learning about life,” she adds. Pauline has only been in Schumacher College for a few weeks but already the transformation has begun.

Set in the grounds of the historic Dartington Hall in rural south west England, the college has gained an international reputation as much for its pioneering approach to student life as for its innovative courses. Students experience what is described by some as ‘deep immersion’ as they explore themes around ecology, economics and spirituality, while sharing the responsibilities and the struggles of living together as a community.

One of the college’s founders, Satish Kumar, believes that this approach has lifelong benefits: “We are not just in a pursuit of knowledge but also of wisdom,” says the former Jain monk and now peace activist:

“Community learning is learning in a collective way with a collective consciousness and collective ideas, but it’s also about shared tasks, working with one another. We are learning for ourselves, for self-discovery, but this learning is not to have a big status. It’s about serving society, the earth and each other.”  

The college follows the principles of ‘head, heart, hands’ in its approach to education. All students, whatever they study, are encouraged to be creative and to care for others.

“Some students who come here do not know how to boil an egg when they arrive,” says Satish. “We are teaching them how to be self-sustaining humans; how to grow food, how to cook, how to live.”

This concept of multi-faceted learning stretches back far beyond Schumacher’s inception in the early 1990s. It is but one of the many pioneering projects that have grown out of what became known as “the Dartington Experiment.”

Almost a century ago, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst bought the crumbling Dartington Hall which is set within a large estate of fields, forest and farm buildings.

Close to the wilderness of Dartmoor National Park and the Devon coastline, it has an extraordinary history dating back over 1,000 years, being mentioned in the Royal Charter of 833AD and at one point owned by two of the wives of Henry VIII. 

By the time the Elmhirsts bought it in 1925 it needed vast amounts of money for restoration. Fortunately, thanks to Dorothy’s wealth, their pockets were deep.   

Under the guidance and inspiration of Indian Poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore they launched a progressive school with a commitment to multi-dimensional learning. Students were as likely to learn how to fix a car engine as to read Chekhov. 

Even today, the list of achievements of Tagore, who came from Bengal, would be regarded as extraordinary. But in 1920’s Britain recognition for someone who came from the Indian subcontinent was almost unheard of.

He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature and was also a fine artist who exhibited in Paris. Many of his beliefs around education, ecology and women’s rights were way ahead of their time.

Leonard Elmhirst, a vicar’s son from Worsbrough in Yorkshire, had met Tagore while working in India, and introduced him to his wife, the American social activist Dorothy Whitney Straight.  She had been very involved in women’s trade unions in the US and was also instrumental in setting up the liberal-progressive magazine The New Republic and the New School for Social Research in New York City, both of which still exist today. 

It was this spirit, in part, which fuelled the ambitions of Dartington. The Elmhirsts believed deeply in the importance of living what they termed ‘a many-sided life,’ but they also wanted Dartington to become a place where conventional wisdom would be challenged.

As a result, the Hall became a beacon of enlightened social and political exploration, attracting iconic figures such as the writer Virginia Woolf, James Lovelock the environmentalist, and the potter Bernard Leach.

Dartington was the birthplace of the Arts Council, one of the UK’s foremost funding bodies for support and encouragement of the arts, and the country’s first performing arts school.  The estate was also home to the ‘progressive’ Dartington Hall School whose alumni include Lord Michael Young, who drafted the Labour Party’s election manifesto in 1945 and went on to found numerous progressive institutions including the consumer magazine Which?, the Open University, and the National Extension College.

In 1951 the International Summer School was launched which still maintains its international reputation for offering amateur musicians the opportunity to perform with world class talent such as Aaron Copland, Ravi Shankar and Daniel Barenboim.

Yet despite these achievements, part of what makes Dartington special, according to Jon Rae, the director of Schumacher College, is a willingness to change.

He describes it as a “cauldron” where diverse people come together with an openness to explore new possibilities.

It was this melting pot that was partly responsible for the development of the college itself, created in 1991 to crystallize emerging ideas about ecology and sustainability even though they ran counter to the legacy of the Elmhirsts who had favoured more intensive farming.

“I think what drew people here was the very fact that then, most higher education focussed on dominion, a separation of ourselves from nature,” says Jon. “That is alienating for many people."

"The paradigm we are exploring and cultivating is an ecological world view which is not concerned with dominion over nature but integrity in nature. We live in a tightly interconnected but highly fractured nuclear-armed world where we must find ways to get along. We must nurture our empathy and biophilia and acquire the art and science of systems-thinking or the quality of mind that discerns the ‘patterns that connect.’”

The zoologist and ecologist Stephan Harding was one of the founder members of Schumacher College. He thinks this holistic approach has played a key part in the success of the college and the wider ethos of Dartington, fearing that too much of modern society has become a slave to the intellectual:

“What we are doing here is trying to take the best insights of western culture. Western culture has made us clever but it has not made us wise. Cleverness should be the servant of wisdom. Naturally, vocational training is the first level. But here we go deeper, to give the person an understanding of deep meaning in nature and reality. Tagore is the spirit in which we approach this understanding of wholeness.”

The college continues to grow and has developed an international reputation, attracting students from over 90 countries worldwide to its unique form of nature-based education. It runs three masters programs as well as short courses related to ecology, sustainability, spirituality and leadership.

For some, the opportunity for communal living is a particular bonus when they are so far from home; for others it can be a life-changing experience.

“For each of us, and collectively in society and between societies, we are forever choreographing the dance between freedom for the individual and fairness with others and all life,” says Jon:  

“We hope that participants move on ever more connected with themselves, with others and with the natural world, resilient with deep pools of passion, love, empathy and curiosity, and armed with the tools, insights and inspiration so that they can better marry spirit with practice for a life enriching world.”

Today, the Dartington Experiment continues to evolve and adapt amid an ever changing social and environmental climate, yet the spirit of Tagore remains. Satish Kumar insists it is essential if we are to embrace the challenges that face the future of the planet.

“Spirituality is not a way of religion, it is about how to develop a sense of relationship and compassion, a unity of life and humility. We want to build on our heritage—all these people who have come before, from Bernard Leach to Tagore. We are taking their spirit and making it relevant for our time.”


CC by NC 4.0

12 October 2017. Lessons from the front lines of anti-colonial pipeline resistance

Ceremony, mindfulness and healing practices play a key role in radical social movements.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

A bridge leads to the entrance of the Unist’ot’en territory in British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Waging Nonviolence/Jeff Nicholls. All rights reserved.

The Standing Rock standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline was a reminder that colonization, and resistance to it, both exist in the present tense. Fossil fuel pipelines that despoil indigenous lands and waters have become key flashpoints in long-standing anti-colonial resistance.

An important precursor and inspiration for the Standing Rock camp is an indigenous occupation in northern British Columbia, Canada. For the past eight years, the Unist’ot’en clan have reoccupied their traditional territory. When the camp began in 2009, seven pipelines had been proposed to cross their territory, as well as their water source, the salmon-bearing Morice River. But thanks to Unist’ot’en resistance, oil and gas companies have been blocked from building new fossil fuel infrastructure. The lesser known but wildly successful Unist’ot’en encampment holds crucial lessons for anti-pipeline and anti-colonial organizers across North America, or Turtle Island, as many indigenous nations call it.

We visited the occupation this summer. Upon arriving, visitors must undergo a border-crossing protocol. There is only one way in and out of Unist’ot’en territory—a bridge that crosses the Morice River. Before being allowed to cross, we were asked where we came from, whether we worked for the government or the fossil fuel industry, and how our visit could benefit the Unist’ot’en.

We explained that we are both settlers, people living on and benefiting from indigenous lands. We also expressed our willingness to help in whatever ways were needed during our stay, such as kitchen duty, gardening and construction. Finally, we shared our commitment to decolonization and climate justice, and our appreciation for how Unist’ot’en land defense accomplishes both; it returns indigenous lands to indigenous peoples while blocking fossil fuel infrastructure that threatens the entire human estate. After a short consultation, clan members welcomed us to leave Canada and cross into Unist’ot’en territory.

Five pipelines already defeated.

The Unist’ot’en occupation has already contributed to the cancellation of five pipelines, including Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project—a multibillion-dollar development that would have pumped bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands to Canada’s Pacific coast. The two proposed incursions onto Unist’ot’en territory that remain are both fracked gas pipelines: Chevron’s Pacific Trails and TransCanada’s Coast Gaslink.

Unist’ot’en spokesperson Freda Huson explained to us that the tireless work of supporters, including indigenous people from other nations along with settler allies, is a central reason why the camp has endured and grown, knocking pipeline proposals over one by one.

Despite these successes, Huson has been struck by the exhaustion of frontline occupiers—not just on the Unist’ot’en front line, but elsewhere, including Standing Rock. Since starting their occupation, the Unist’ot’en have hosted an annual action camp for supporters wanting to learn about the struggle. Huson dedicated this year’s action camp to the theme of healing. As she explained to us, “the health of the people is vital to keep the resistance moving forward. We believe that if we heal the people they will be healthy to make decisions to heal the land.”

The action camp as a place of healing.

This year’s action camp featured workshops on burnout, healing from trauma, indigenous approaches to conflict resolution, and, on the first day, an exercise in awareness.

This first activity was facilitated by Huson and her partner Smogelgem (a hereditary chief of the neighboring Likhts’amisyu Clan). During this exercise, we were blindfolded, spun around and then guided by a partner to a tree of their choosing. “Be with the tree, make a connection” were the simple instructions. After our partners returned us to our starting points, we removed our blindfolds and went searching for our newfound evergreen friend. Every single participant found their tree. Smogelgem then explained that the land is living and breathing. We are always in relationship to it, but our relations to the land can be intentionally deepened, so that we come to experience trees, water and animals as friends, even kin.

The pithouse on Unist’ot’en territory. Credit: Waging Nonviolence/Jeff Nicholls. All rights reserved.

After completing the workshop, we walked to a traditional pithouse that was recently built on the precise GPS coordinates of Chevron’s proposed pipeline. Huson and Smogelgem plan to live in the pithouse once it is complete (and outfitted with comfortable furnishings and energy-efficient lighting and appliances). Their vision is for more Wet’suwet’en people to join them back on the land, living and renewing their culture. The Wet’suwet’en Nation is comprised of five clans, including the Unist’ot’en people.

Once the two remaining pipeline threats are defeated, Huson and Smogelgem will transition the camp into a full-time healing and cultural center for indigenous people recovering from the ongoing trauma of colonization. Indeed, the largest structure at the camp, a three-story building that includes a dining hall, industrial kitchen, and counseling spaces, is called “The Healing Centre.”

The Unist’ot’en Camp has always had a dual purpose: resisting pipelines while nurturing Wet’suwet’en culture. Like the water protectors at Standing Rock, the Unist’ot’en Clan has been careful to clarify that their settlement is not a protest. Rather, it is an occupation and assertion of their traditional territory—a site from which to resist further colonial extraction, while also practicing a culture and economy that is inseparable from the land.

According to Huson, “our people’s belief is that we are part of the land. The land is not separate from us. The land sustains us. And if we don’t take care of her, she won’t be able to sustain us.”

Huson explained to us that she lived away from her people’s territory for 20 years due to colonization. “I lived on reservation, got educated and worked as an economic development officer for 14 years,” she said. “Once I decolonized and reconnected to my territory, I felt my spirit come alive. When family visit they don’t want to leave.” She wants to share with others the healing that she has experienced by being back out on her people’s land.

Indigenous resurgence and embodied social change.

The Unist’ot’en Camp is exemplary of what indigenous scholars such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Jeff Corntassel (Nishnaabeg and Cherokee ancestry, respectively) call “indigenous resurgence.” According to Corntassel: “Being indigenous today means struggling to reclaim and regenerate one’s relational place-based existence by challenging the ongoing destructive forces of colonization.” He notes that ceremony is a key way to “reconnect to the natural world.”

There are deep resonances between indigenous resurgence and the focus on ceremony, mindfulness and healing practices that are emerging in radical social movements across Turtle Island. Settler activists are finding that different healing practices, such as meditation and yoga, can help reduce burnout, heal the traumas caused by oppression and increase organizational effectiveness. Daily meditations, for example, played an important role at Occupy Wall Street. These resonances between indigenous resurgence and the growing social movement interest in non-Western healing practices have the potential to facilitate new solidarities between indigenous activists and settler allies.

For example, Hajime Harold is a teacher, activist and longtime supporter of Unist’ot’en land defense. During this year’s action camp, he led daily exercises in qigong, a traditional Chinese healing system that integrates breathing, meditation and physical postures. As a Japanese Canadian, Harold experienced racism growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia. These painful experiences sensitized him to injustices, including those related to colonialism. His heart has been opened, too, he said, by learning qigong, which has increased his capacity to act in solidarity with those whose challenges are different from his. For Harold, qigong helps practitioners better connect with themselves, other people and the earth. He experiences qigong as resonant with the indigenous traditional teachings that he is familiar with.

Similarly, scholar Michael Yellow Bird (from the Sahnish and Hidatsa Nations) sees indigenous ceremonial practices as aligned with mindfulness meditation, and crucial to what he terms “neurodecolonization,” or transforming the embodied traumas that colonialism leaves in its wake.

Building settler solidarity on stolen native land.

Despite the similarities between indigenous resurgence and mind-body practices of settler social movements, there is still a vital element of decolonization that is regularly missed by settler activists: land. To whom does the land rightfully belong? Who has decision-making power over it?

Over lunch at the Unist’ot’en Camp, indigenous scholar Edward Valandra (from the Oceti Sakowin Oyate) asked us a simple question: “What is the first thing you do when you get out of bed each morning?” We immediately thought of our various morning rituals (meditation, yoga, a cup of coffee). Valandra patiently watched as we pondered his question; then he leaned in. “I can tell you exactly what you do each morning. You step out of bed onto stolen native land.”

The regular failure of settler activists to grapple with the land question means that even radical social movements are constantly at risk of reinforcing colonial structures and social relations. Consider Occupy Wall Street. The different occupations that sprang up across the continent in 2011 to protest profound disparities in wealth rarely acknowledged that they were happening on already occupied land.

Moreover, as scholars Eve Tuck (member of the Aleut indigenous community) and K. Wayne Yang have argued, “the ideal of ‘redistribution of wealth’ camouflages how much of that wealth is land, Native land.” Without a focus on the repatriation of land to indigenous peoples, a seemingly radical call for redistribution can quickly become a continuation of colonial dispossession.

Decolonization may feel unsettling to some, as it means the return of land and governing authority and the renunciation of settler privileges. Nevertheless, indigenous-led front lines from Standing Rock to Unist’ot’en are drawing a growing number of settlers who grieve colonial injustices, feel anxious about climate destabilization and crave a deeper connection to the land upon which they live.

Julia Michaelis is the camp’s chef. If food critics visited front lines, the kitchen at Unist’ot’en would be brimming with five-star reviews. Julia explained to us that she loved being at camp because every step she takes while there—from chopping onions to facilitating nonviolent direct action trainings—is in the service of decolonization. For settlers, relating to the magnitude of colonial injustice can be overwhelming. But at a front line like the Unist’ot’en camp, a simple chore like washing dishes is transformed into an everyday act of decolonization.

A bunkhouse at the Unist’ot’en camp. Credit: Waging Nonviolence/Jeff Nicholls. All rights reserved.

In a blog post about his experiences of healing at the camp, settler activist Will Falk recently reflected on how “every chore, every conversation, every action at the camp comes with a fullness of meaning I have never found anywhere else.” For Falk, this meaning is rooted in the traditional teachings that inform the camp.

According to Unist’ot’en Clan member Karla Tait, many supporters (both indigenous and settler) have “come out to Unist’ot’en land and found it to be a healing experience, to live on the land and have a connection with the natural world and our teachings.”

Supporters at the camp are making a connection with Unist’ot’en people, whose ancestors have been in deep relationship with the land since time immemorial. Being in good relations with people whose living traditions emerge from thousands of years of reciprocal relationship with the land allows for a depth of environmental connection, a groundedness on the Earth, that many supporters have never before experienced.

As environmental educators, we have learned a variety of contemplative exercises designed to deepen human connection to the land and facilitate a desire for stewardship. But we learned at the Unist’ot’en Camp that there is no substitute for the groundedness that comes from being in good relationship with the specific peoples upon whose lands you are living. Developing that relationship means fighting for the restitution of indigenous lands and authority.


The Unist’ot’en Camp offers a glimpse into what post-colonial relations between indigenous peoples and settlers could look like on Turtle Island. The land is Wet’suwet’en territory and governed by Wet’suwet’en law and systems of governance, but the camp welcomes visitors of all backgrounds who are keen to respect, abide by and learn from the laws of the land.

Members and supporters of the Unist’ot’en camp showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Credit: Waging Nonviolence/Unist’ot’en Camp. All rights reserved.

As stated on the Unist’ot’en website: “People of all races, religions, nationalities, classes, genders, orientations and gender identifications are welcome to support the grassroots Wet’suwet’en people in defending their land.” This connection across difference is practiced actively, a key part of the healing ethos of the camp. Indeed, one of our favorite activities at camp was “Femme Friday,” when everyone was encouraged to wear makeup and nail polish to make the environment more welcoming and celebratory for two-spirit people and genderqueer allies. Indigenous resurgence can look like a hereditary chief in red nail polish.

After eight years of anti-colonial resistance and the defeat of multiple pipeline projects, the Unist’ot’en Camp is still building momentum. Their winning formula is this: indigenous land governed by indigenous people, with consistent support from settler allies. This approach, deployed at Standing Rock and other indigenous-led front lines, is helping to ensure a livable future by stopping the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, while also sowing seeds for a different world—one in which the deep wounds to land and people inflicted by colonialism can finally heal.

CC by NC 4.0