Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Baby steps to the revolution

And stumbles on the way

Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it,” says Arundhati Roy. “To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our relentlessness—and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we are being brainwashed to believe.

“The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling—their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

“Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Thank you, Arundhati Roy. This should be our mantra.

But we also have our bad moments when we forget where we are headed, forget what we are trying to do. I have had such moments, moments when I should have been channeling Arundhati Roy. Or channeling any one of a thousand other activists I have known who did not believe that the obligation to make change was somehow a personal obligation, an outcome on which they personally would have been judged. But we all have our bad moments, moments in which our frustration and confusion leads us to the conclusion that we, as individuals have failed. Our egos get in the way.

I recall just such a missed opportunity. At the time, I might have said, channeling Ms. Roy, something like this:

“So tell a story—any story—that shares your vision of what ought to be, of what real justice looks like, of why you resist, of who you remember, who you honor, what you hold sacred, of the community that sustains you.”

But I didn’t.

That moment, which has stuck with me, came a little more than a decade ago. I was the publisher of In These Times (ITT), a left-wing magazine based in Chicago. A few years before that I had been, with Marrianne McMullen, the co-publisher of an alternative weekly originally named the Dayton Voice, later Impact Weekly.

I was not generally a person who could be relied on to focus on a task until it was done, but some of Marrianne’s motivation and work ethic had rubbed off on me, and together, and with a cadre of dedicated staff, we had pushed the Voice more or less forward for seven years.

Our explicit mission was to select, report, edit and publish stories that treated working people, women, communities of color and the LGBTQ community as legitimate subjects, sources and audiences for the news. We did not always succeed in this mission, but as a staff we tried to remain mindful of our goal. The larger reality of the paper, editorial consistency or no, was that as an entrepreneurial effort, the Voice was permanently (and fatally) undercapitalized.

Designed to be a for-profit enterprise, we did not have donors, but investors, who were never rewarded with profits. More often, they were the targets of desperate appeals to “invest” more. But our editorial ambition consistently outran the resources available to support it. Never flush to begin with, Marrianne and I went broke trying to hold up our end of the financial bargain. By the time our son, Brendan, was born in December 1998, I had fallen into the habit of sometimes covering expenses, occasionally an entire payroll, with credit cards.

We staggered through another year with the paper, but spent part of the time looking for jobs that would pay us. Eventually, Marrianne found a position in Chicago with the Illinois State Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Soon after we moved, I found a job, too. Together, and for a couple of years, Marrianne and I made more than five or six times what we had been able to pay ourselves at the Voice, had benefits, good health insurance, paid down debt, and managed, with next to no down payment, to buy ourselves a place to live.

Then I took the job with In These Times, an estimable publication on the left, but one that required a constant transfusion of funds from reliable donors, especially from its founder, James Weinstein. As it happened Weinstein was nearing the end of his life and tiring of the magazine’s inability to provide for itself. As publisher, my principle task was to correct that condition, but, though I made a few smart moves to keep the magazine going, I ended up using funds that Weinstein had intended for another use, pissed off the entire Weinstein family, and alienated several other donors along with virtually the entire board of directors.

Into the bargain, and without telling Marrianne, I used my personal credit cards to inject thousands of additional dollars into the ITT operation without creating a proper paper trail to account for what I gave. With the magazine in bad shape, the board arrived at the defensible conclusion that I had done far more harm than good and fired me with a warning that I should make no claims on the magazine to repay loans that I could not conclusively document.

Despite the two-year debacle that constituted my term as publisher at In These Times, I have to say that I learned more than just a few grim lessons while I was there. In fact, I met a long list of skilled and passionate writers and activists, and got to participate in a variety of ways in valuable discussions about defining and working for social change.

One of my more instructive experiences came in the spring of 2004 with the opportunity to meet with a journalism class at Northwestern University. The class kicked off with my overview of high-priority peace and justice issues of the time.

This included a long look at the preparations for war in Iraq, especially the accusation that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction (WMDs),” and a further look at the massive loss of Iraqi lives and destruction of civilian infrastructure that accompanied the war when it was finally launched in March of 2003. In discussing the war, I also observed that the global anti-war movement, which had been celebrated as the largest and most significant anti-war mobilization in history, had failed to stop the war, though it may have succeeded in keeping a few European countries from joining in the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Other topics I covered with the class included the anemic economic “recovery” of the time and the continuing erosion of the purchasing power of the average wage, and the fact that the United States imprisoned a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the world and targeted, in particular, young black men, at a considerable cost in lives, treasure and human potential.

These problems, I observed, were linked. A country whose leadership manufactured non-existent weapons and argued that an enemy with an imaginary capacity for destruction could only be stopped by going to war, was also a country that would logically underfund public education, neglect crucial domestic investments, embrace climbing prison populations as an economic development strategy, and ignore widespread environmental damage in favor of laying waste to several countries in the Middle East.

By the time I concluded my indictment of the policies and political leadership of the country, the class of aspiring journalists was pumped, ready to do their part in the work of exposing fundamental problems with our politics. One student raised her hand and asked a broad general question along the lines of “what can we do about all this bad stuff?”

I should have been ready for the question. I had written stories and op-eds for In These Times and The Voice about the movement for social change that I thought was developing across the country and manifesting in a variety of ways. I had been part of any number of union and community organizing efforts and worked on a variety of political and issue-oriented campaigns. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, I had even run for public office. Ordinarily, I was an optimistic sort, seeing in every initiative and every new organizing effort the potential to make a significant difference, to connect to and support suddenly promising movements for social change.

Nevertheless, the question threw me off. I looked out at the classroom of 20-somethings and felt a wave of despair. For more than 35 years, I had been organizing, writing, protesting, above all, believing that together we, the people, were finally on our way. But we were nowhere.

We hadn’t stopped the war in Iraq. Hell, we hadn’t stopped the one that had begun in Afghanistan two years earlier. The rate at which Americans were being thrown into prison had been increasing for two decades. Wages had been stagnating since the 1970s. Industrial unions were collapsing. And the presidential election of 2000 had been outright stolen from Al Gore, who was nothing more than a centrist Democrat who seemed overmatched by the son of the man who, in Texas Governor Ann Richards phrase, “had been born on third base and thought he hit a triple.”

What could they do to fix things? At that moment, somehow focused only on myself and the notion that I had been on a very long losing streak, I forgot completely that I was part of an effort much larger than myself. I had no answer. I felt the weight of failure. I got nothing I told them. I wish I could tell you what to do. I’m sorry.

The air went out of the room. The instructor tried to save what was left of the class. Well, thank you, she said and shook my hand. As I walked out the door, I could hear her try and refocus. “Well, what do you think we can do?” she asked.

I don’t know how the class ended. I never talked to the instructor, again. And I’ve returned to that terrible moment over and over in the years since. What can we do about all this bad stuff?

Oddly, I do have an answer to that question. I’ve always had an answer, even if there are also times when the question catches me standing there, looking like a deer in the headlights.

The first part of the answer is that the changes we want to make are big changes. They happen when people organize and don’t give up. They happen when people pursue justice, bit by bit, with and for their own communities. The big changes depend on the little things that each of us do. They happen because we commit to be part of something larger than ourselves. They happen when we build something that will outlast our own efforts. That will endure and continue the work when we have nothing left to give.

Individually, we don’t leave much of a mark. Our own footprints will get washed away. But we should join hands and join up and build something larger than ourselves, something that will leave a mark. Work with groups and organizations that will multiply our aspirations and leverage our energy. Support groups that will move ahead, even when we are feeling a bit feeble and very alone.

What would I tell those young journalists now? I’d say, excuse my moment of brain freeze. I’d say, reach out. Find allies. Build networks. I’d tell them I have my own list of organizations that I try to help, that I support with contributions, whose stories and positions I try to amplify, groups that don’t falter, that have an institutional existence that helps to aggregate the individual energy that each of us can add to their work, that will persist when we are tired, that will move ahead even we are not there.

If they were to ask what groups are on my list, I would say my list includes the Equal Justice Initiative, Planned Parenthood, Jobs withJustice, The Center for Economic and Policy Research, Jewish Voices for Peace, the North Carolina NAACP, and the group with which I currently volunteer, Teaching for Change. But I would add that the possibilities are endless. At the time, I would also have mentioned In These Times, of course, and maybe it should be on my list today. It has a decent on-line following, still reports important stories, and offers a perspective that is reliably at odds with the mainstream media.

Maybe my list should also include some more self-consciously revolutionary groups, as well—they are certainly out there—but I have this feeling that not only will the revolution not be televised, we won’t really know it’s upon us until it’s actually the new world we are living in. In other words, I don’t believe that there are any giant steps we can take to change the world. It’s all baby steps, a little bit at a time. It’s two steps forward, one step back, at best, and sadly, from time to time it’s two steps back, or even three. But we can make that work. We have to make that work. We build something, something small to carry on after our energy runs out. We play a long game and the moral arc of the universe will bend our way.

And, I would say, you journalists. You tell the stories that need to be told, that will help us make the choices we need to make about peace and justice and sustainability.

Go find the truth and tell it.

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