Saturday, December 31, 2011

How Not to Be A Radical

There are a lot of people in the Occupy movement; many of them are amazing, talented, imaginative, dedicated, and truly rad.  Some are...less so.

A number of self-proclaimed radicals hang around Occupy.  Much like "honest" or "nice," if you have to tell people how radical you are, you aren't.  Understand, I think being a radical is a good thing, because historically "radical" is a word people use for those who are willing to ask difficult questions and point out that the Emperor is in fact butt nekkid.  Without someone around going "Dang. This shit is messed up.  What are we to do?" no good thing would ever be accomplished.  That is more or less why I'm part of Occupy Atlanta in the first place.

However, from the vantage point granted to me by spending years running about marching in the streets and hanging out with the sort of people who also like to do that, and also due to having read some books, I have a few opinions about what being a "radical" is and especially how one can do so most effectively.  Or not.

I've spent a lot of time with some very focused, organized and accomplished activists, some of whom know how to civilly disobey with style.  I've also done my time in duress with many a poser.  Here are a few tips on how to spot your garden-variety faux radical:

1.  Capable of chanting "Off the pigs!" and asserting that this is a radical action without the faintest hint of irony or apparent awareness that that chant is fifty years old, and in that whole time it has accomplished nothing of note, but that it does tend to inspire revulsion in a large portion of the population.  Unable to draw the obvious conclusion from this.  (Note:  Lest you think this is a left-wing problem, count how many very public figures on the right advocate shooting liberals, "jokingly."  It's a vile sentiment no matter who it comes from.)

2. Prone to choosing actions, behaviors, and protests which serve to reinforce existing social and power structures, rather than the opposite.  Rich white kids using very confrontational tactics is a good example; they can get away with it much more easily than African Americans and Latinos.  This ensures that the latter will be marginalized, especially if those tactics become the central focus of the activist group and are seen as a source of authenticity.  African Americans and Latinos may therefore feel pressure to participate in activities which are more high-risk for them; they are more likely to be targets of arrest and to be more harshly punished...thus further removing them from any influence.  Bonus points if the "tactics" employed involve property damage, which is less of a concern the more affluent you are, and extra bonuses if the property damage is committed in a poor African American or Latino neighborhood.  Not only does this demonstrate a finely honed disdain for working-class (always reframed as "bourgeois") concerns with  how run-down a neighborhood appears and the relationship of that to safety, it also serves to ensure that none of the locals will wish to join the group, thus saving the trouble of having to address their concerns in person.

3. Thinks that being a Marxist makes you radical. I know tenured professors who are Marxists.  They have academic journals and conferences. It's rather like how Hot Topic killed punk:  If you can buy it in a mall store, it's no longer counter-culture.  Once you can be peer-reviewed in it, it's not radical any more. I am sorry to be the bearer of this news, which is several decades old.

4. Prone to highly intellectual, theoretical discussions about "radicalism" and "revolution" while being allergic to any discussions of practical import;  see Mouse council, re: Belling the cat.  Sometimes this extends to not being able to make decisions about food or shelter due to the weighing of political implications and ideological soundness.  Will write lengthy e-mails with footnotes and references about the plight of the worker under capitalism, but not do any actual work.

The ends shape the means; you cannot create profound change by reinforcing the power dynamics and narratives which support the status quo, even if you dress in black and shout hoary slogans from the Vietnam War era while doing it.  Never confuse offending people with changing anything.  Never confuse breaking stuff with changing anything.  Never fall in love with your own rhetoric.  Noise isn't action, theory isn't practice, and talk is cheap.

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