(Image: San Francisco skyline while at a recent hospital visit)
My new pieces at Ordinary Times Magazine.
My recent essays at Ordinary Times.
My new piece is up at Ordinary Times. Here is a bit:
“I hold a controversial position on the subject of common narratives that libertarians and liberals may find problematic. I believe that the tragedy of our contemporary society is the death of any meaningful meta-narratives that bind a community or people. Not only has Christianity faded in its communal importance, but in terms of political power, ideologies like socialism are ghosts of their former selves. What makes us a community or nation other than our proximity? What responsibility do I have to my neighbor if larger social ideals do not bind us together?”
Read it all here.
The war in Syria and the surrounding region is multifaceted and complicated; it feels daunting to even approach the conflict as an outsider with any hope that my mind can be wrapped around it. You have democratic and counter-revolution, religious extremism, fascist and communist parties from last century, geo and power politics, terrorism, and internationalism. In addition to the use of technology to connect forces on each side of the conflict with allies around the globe, media from the Syria and Iraq is made available almost immediately after its creation. You can literally watch the war unfold in real-time via forces on your ideological side. One of the most interesting developments from the Syrian conflict has been the radical social project taking place in Rojava. Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, an anarchist-publishing house, has recently compiled essays and interviews on the anarchist revolution that is taking place among millions of people in this northern Syrian region called A Small Key Can Open a Large Door. The book is an admirable introduction to the massive social changes happening in the middle of a war zone between Islamist ISIS and the authoritarian Assad regime. In addition to a brief overview of Democratic Confederalism (the term used to describe the social-economic system in Rojava), the book includes discussions on the role of women in the movement, how the West has muddled into Kurdish self-determination historically, and what this revolution means for socialists and anarchists trying to build a new society within the existing one.
(Vice News – Rojava: Syria’s Unknown War)
The most stimulating aspect of this text for outsiders is the focus on the aforementioned concept of Democratic Confederalism, an ideology pioneered the PKK’s leader and founder, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) is an odd group for anarchists to support. Built on a cult of personality around Ocalan, the organization came into existence to fight Turkey over autonomy for Kurdish people in Southeast Turkey. As noted in the text,
“There was little to differentiate the PKK from the dozens of Mao-inspired militant liberation groups of the late 1970s and 1980s” (p.20).
When its founder was captured and imprisoned by Turkey in 1999, and communism as a radical ideology faded from the world stage, many assumed the PKK would dwindle in size and influence, much as similar Maoist insurgencies around the globe. Something rather different occurred. The editor’s write:
“In his first months of imprisonment, Apo had a “crisis of faith” regarding doctrinaire Marxist ideology and its ability to free the Kurds. Ocalan, who spent most of his life espousing a hard-line Stalinist doctrine, started to reject Marxism-Leninism in favor of direct democracy” (p.22).
Ocalan came under the influence of American anarchist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin was well known in libertarian-socialist circles for his support for a concept called communalism. This libertarian municipalism advocates for voluntary cooperation between people at small, localized levels, producing a face-to-face democracy between its citizens. Building on Bookchin’s ideas, the YPG (Kurdish Defense forces, often connected or related to the PKK) have instituted a tiered council system to govern the regions affairs. It works as follows:
“In Rojava, neighborhood assemblies make up the largest number of councils. Every person can participate in an assembly where they live. In addition to those neighborhood assemblies, there are councils based on workplaces, civic organizations, religious organizations, political parties, and other affinity-based councils (e.g. Youth)” (p.26)
What is striking is how decision-making is conducted. Unlike the federalist tradition, the lower local councils are not required to adopt the rulings of higher regional assemblies. Thus, when a regional council decided that security forces would be permitted to carry weapons while on patrol, three of the local assemblies rejected this ruling, and so security personnel enter those areas, they must refrain from having arms (p.27). Higher councils simply act as coordinators for the myriad of smaller, local councils. While some of the text’s claims are had to substantiate due to the chaos surrounding the region, its glowing account of the revolution and its enthusiastic call for anarchists and socialists to support the Kurdish cause is understandable. Many radicals on the Left and Right bemoan the state of their revolutionary movements, arguing that real social change is something for a distant, hypothetical future. The rebels of Rojava have carved out a pluralistic, multicultural, socialist experiment amidst existential threats from barbarous theocrats. While the US-backed Iraqi Army is unable to hold territory against the IS onslaught, the people of Rojava have held their own, all while implementing radical change. The following excerpt is a report by an anonymous Turkish anarchist who traveled to the region.
“Against all odds, the region has maintained this form for over a year now, and proves much stronger than anyone expected. When ISIS marched on Kobane, everyone assumed that the city would succumb in a few days. But the population is resisting. Everyone has armed themselves, everyone does guard duty. And now ISIS is retreating; more and more parts of Kobane are being retaken” (p.130-131).
Although there is good reason to be skeptical of groups claiming to build utopia on earth, the successful revolutionary modesty of Rojava’s goals should give pause to even the most jaded activist. One does not need to be an internationalist to support their cause. Liberals, identitarians, libertarians, traditionalists, and ideologies of all stripes will likely find something in the revolution in Kurdish Syria to respect and admire. This text should provide a fine introduction to their cause.
Bernie Sanders has been a darling of the liberal-left for decades, but with his presidential campaign in motion, he is getting his first taste of media scorn. Other than the expected derision of his economic policies from the Right, he has received contempt from some on the Left for his racial politics (or lack thereof). Writing at Vox, Dara Lind pinpointed the lack of rhetorical focus on issues effecting black Americans from the Bernie’s camp. She writes:
“This isn’t an accidental oversight. These simply aren’t issues Sanders is passionate about in the way he’s passionate about economic injustice. When my colleague Andrew Prokop profiled Sanders last year, he pointed out astutely that Sanders’s career has been “laser-focused on checking the power of the wealthy above all else.” Sanders believes in racial equality, sure, but he believes it will only come as the result of economic equality. To him, focusing on racial issues first is merely treating the symptom, not the disease.”
Dara (and like-minded liberals like Joan Walsh in Salon) spent the rest of their ink wringing their hands about the exclusionary and myopic nature of his campaign, and its almost exclusive appeal to white voters. They argue that his campaign will need to address the issues important to the black community if he is hoping to make inroads with populations outside of the middle-class, college educated base he currently pulls support from.
While Dara and Joan both claim to support his economic message, this rush to condemn his campaign for not making those ethnic communities’ issues the center of his platform seems peculiar and problematic. The President, by definition, “represents” the nation as a whole. Thus, you see the kabuki dance politicians of all stripes make to appear like a man of the people to all people. The will to be seen as a member of every community is a laughable farce we willfully endorse in American politics. On Monday, a politician champions his blue-collar roots to a group of miners. Tuesday roles around, and they talk up their business-minded father who opened up a factory. It’s midweek, and Christian conservative values are on addressed at a faith consortium, followed the next day by a rousing defense of a woman’s right to choose to a feminist gathering. You cannot belong to every community, but you must appear to be.
This naïve form of identity politics is no more than a charade, and one that benefits the most cunning con artists.
Bill Clinton was championed as the “First Black President” and a guardian of their causes. His wife appears to be building support in the African-American community using the same rhetoric and tactics as her husband. Sadly, the track record of Clinton policies has not ameliorated black Americans in any tangible manner. Writing in Slate, Melissa Harris-Lacewell states:
“There is no evidence to suggest that African-Americans were in a better economic position than whites at any time in American history, including during Clinton’s presidency. In fact, striking gaps in income, employment, and wealth continue to distinguish black economic reality in the United States. Clinton’s administration did keep inflation low and reduce unemployment. This was a rising tide that lifted many boats, including some black ones. But it strikes me as bizarre that nearly a third of blacks perceived a reversal in the deeply historically entrenched economic position of the races.”
The Clinton’s may talk about issues facing African-Americans, but the actually policies they implement do little to improve their economic and social standing in the US. What they do exceptionally well is say the right things on race (except when they don’t, as demonstrated in the 2008 Democratic primary). The Clinton’s are rewarded for being good politicians, who appear to address the demands of each cluster in their broad coalition long enough to get each group’s necessary vote.
Hillary Clinton’s adoring fans in the punditry are making the case that her recent move to the Left demonstrates her true ideological commitments and policy direction. Progressives like Josh Vorhees argues that Clinton’s current rhetoric may be a ruse, but at least it is bringing leftwing politics to the Democratic campaign. I can’t help but feel we are all being duped yet again by another slick politician who claims to “know your pain.”
Bernie Sanders does not understand the racial and structural dynamics that have resulted in the recent Baltimore riots. Neither does Hillary Clinton for that matter. Nor do the white, middle-class punditry that have taken on the causes of black community. I roll my eyes every time I read a piece by a white Buzzfeed blogger, writing from gentrified urban center, nauseatingly attempting to “educate” Americans about race.
The black urban poor need their own spokesmen, not liberals from the suburbs speaking in generalities on their behalf. Bernie Sanders represents a specific ideological perspective, and yes, a social and ethnic community. Americans need to stop believing that political representatives can truly represent people of radically different economic classes and cultural experiences. To believe in this lie is to suppose a one-size-fits-all approach to politics and the state is manageable or beneficial.
(Image: Carl Mydans – “Miners at American Radiator Mine” 1936)
The recent rise of SJW (Social Justice Warriors) online, and the apparent backlash being felt by the old liberal guard against the action’s of these net activists, has exposed some incongruity within my own political activism.
Jonathan Chait, in his piece “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” for NY Magazine, addressed the growing power the PC police have over debate and discussion. Various attempts have been made to marginalize ideas deemed unacceptable by this new vanguard of the revolution. Chait argues that,
“Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.”
He is right: a free and vibrant society requires contrarian citizens to speak truth to power, argue against orthodoxy, and challenge dominate narratives. Unfortunately for Chait and other well-intentioned liberals, he doesn’t have much ground to stand on when it comes to accepting and tolerating debate. He was rightfully mocked for taking offense to being called names by those to his left, but he spent years belittling and restricting speech he felt “unacceptable.” Now that the far-left has turned their anger to fellow travelers in the liberal camp, Chait’s passionate plea for an acceptance of debate gives this whole event a “chickens coming home to roost” feel. Forget the fact that the SJW likely do more harm than good when it comes to actually building a political movement; liberals need to address their own role in creating this sicking rhetorical environment.
Practicing liberals, like myself, are partially to blame for this current PC environment. I have personally been involved in protesting speeches and gatherings by individuals and groups I deemed racist. I have helped get activists and professors “uninvited” from giving a presentation at my university. I have demonized political figures (rightfully and wrongly) for saying unpopular things and for ties to unsavory radicals.
I regret my actions, even if the targets of my activism still repulse me.
I penned many essays asking for Ward Churchill to be fired for his “little Eichmanns” comments. I helped protest nationalist speakers from appearing locally, and called for Islamist groups with ties to Hamas to be thrown off campus. I can not, in good conscience, get on my high horse regarding the fostering of an open debate.
Orwell understood politics and the direction our society was headed far better than most of his contemporaries. We used to say that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but chances are you will simply experience 2 minutes of hate. The lightening-fast furry brought about by online activists towards minuscule figures of importance for uttering slightly unconventional thoughts is now a mainstay of our political debate. An entire cottage industry has been created where aspiring writers cut their teeth by crushing individuals for the slightest of infractions. Competent researchers like Razib Khan end up fired for having penned pieces at right-wing blogs, John Derbyshire was sacked for speaking widely held thoughts on race, and mom and pop pizza shops are forced to close for claiming they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding (who gets pizza for their wedding anyway?). We have created a world where the smallest deviation from the acceptable narrative is enough to tank your career and lose your livelihood.
Is this really what we want?
I don’t like most of Greg Johnson’s ideas about race over at Counter-Currents Publishing. I also don’t think he should be destitute and hounded for publishing books that are objectionable. I happen to own some of those books, and they have not destroyed the sanctity of my home.
I find many of the books published by AK Press to be twaddle for an increasingly sectarian group of activists hell-bent on destroying an visage of community present in America. I also don’t think their doors should be closed (I also own a number of their titles).
But I will go further than saying I merely accept their right to disseminate unpopular ideas. I want those ideas to reach as many minds as possible. The blandness of modern political life is nauseating. SJW are working tirelessly to create a uniform culture where all diversity is accepted, except in the realm of ideas. We are not living in a more just world, just one with fewer real viewpoints and notions. Other than the few online activists that get their jollies from taking down random figures for perceived intolerance, does anyone actually want to live in the world they are devising for us?
So from this moment on, I want to see a real radical in every institution. Someone who says things that actually challenge dominate norms. A fascists in every university, an anarchist in every government institution. Towards a radical future without fear of reprisal for philosophical deviation.
(Painting by Wassily Kandinsky, On White II, 1923)