Posted by admin on 24 Jul 2007 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

Every time I think I’m going to use a blog for something, I get so bored with it that I just can’t muster the slightest effort to regularly add content to it. So, I’m going to just use this blog for extremely irregular posts about things that I feel like mentioning here. For the most part, it’s simply going to be a place to maintain a list of links–my (yuck) “blogroll”. And if something interesting happens to me I may make a comment about it here, but don’t hold your breath.

11-12-2007 Update: I’m still not doing the blog thing but, as you can see below, I’ve set up a best of list of my previous blog posts when I was posting on my old blog. Enjoy.

Politics: The Poverty of Protest

Posted by admin on 24 Oct 2006 | Tagged as: politics

I’m about to confess something that I think many North American activists secretly know to be true but have never had the nerve to say aloud: protests don’t work anymore, they may have worked in the past and they may still work to some degree on small focused campaigns but, generally, protesting is a futile and ineffective activity. If you don’t believe me, then name an American protest movement in the last 25 years that has accomplished anything of significance. Anyone? Anyone? Yeah, I can’t either. One could suggest the anti-apartheid movement of the 80′s and 90′s, but in that case we were just doing our part and in no way can it be said that the American anti-apartheid movement was directly responsible for the defeat of apartheid in South Africa–that distinction goes to the South African people and to exile groups like the British AAM (ACTSA). What about the anti-globalization movement? Well, what about it? For American activists, it was a fad, the political equivalent of ugg boots, and it collapsed like the rest of the left in the wake of that stiff wind called 9/11. What about the contemporary peace movement? Just kidding, no one would seriously suggest the contemporary peace movement has accomplished anything.

What if you count direct action as form of protest? Well I do, since what passes for direct action among North American activists is not direct action at all, it’s really just another form of symbolic protest. While it’s true that you may be able to find the occasional direct action campaign that saves a copse of trees somewhere in the Northwest or frees a few hundred puppies from a research lab, at the end of the day, even the most impressive victories through direct action are nullified by the overall rapid destruction of our environment and the wholesale slaughter of animals worldwide. It’s pretty astonishing when you think about it: such a huge chunk of activist’s time and effort goes into planing, promoting, and attending protests. Yet, if you look at the results we get from our labors it’s not just astonishing, it’s shocking.

Why do we keep doing things we know aren’t working? Part of the reason stems from the reactive nature of American activist culture. We don’t make things happen, we react to the awful things that other people make happen. We haven’t been really active, in the sense of actually creating the world we want to see, since the labor movement and anti-fascist movements of the 1930′s. Add to this a simple lack of imagination and an unwillingness from most activists to buck the stifling dominant activist culture of “protest, rinse, repeat” and the result is the marginalized ineffectual state of affairs we have now. But even all these reasons pale in comparison to the simple fact that we really don’t know what we want. Of course, we know what we’re against, but we only vaguely know what we’re for. The left has no coherent plan for changing society, and it’s a pretty sad state of affairs when marginal nutball groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party have more coherent plans than anyone else on the left. The RCP’s plan is horrible, scary, and as old as the hills but at least they know what they want.

And so does the right wing in this country, they know exactly what they want. But unlike the RCP and most left groupings, they know how to play nice with each other. The right, like the left is composed of a plethora of large and small groups with agendas often seemingly at odds with each other. The more radical groups are just as committed to accomplishing their goals as any radical left group. Why are right wing groups able to accomplish so much? Because they know what they want and they have a plan to get what they want, and they don’t sweat the small stuff like ideological differences. The ideological differences part is where the left gets stuck every time. People on the left seem to enjoy arguing about things like how the liberals will betray “us” and try to water down the “revolutionary message” of this or that protest or campaign while the liberals and “progressives” have an all too eager tendency to turn on or distance themselves from the people who are willing to take the most risks.

When you know what you want and you have made a plan for yourself to get what you want, you tend not to waste time with ideological arguments or other bullshit. It’s only people stuck in the political backwaters who care about ideological minutia and the whole left is in a political backwater. But the most marginalized and irrelevant groups and sects best illustrate this because they have nothing better to do but complain about the authoritarianism of other irrelevant and equally powerless groups–yes I’m talking about you my anarchist friends. I’ve read lengthy dire treatises from anarchists on the danger to the left from dogmatic newspaper selling clowns because they organize protests better than anarchists can. I don’t know about that, but I can tell you what IS NOT in danger: the left IS NOT in danger of becoming relevant while broken up into little sects that stare up each other asses the live long day. And the left IS NOT in danger of doing anything worth a damn while we focus on protests at the expense of organizing in the real world among real people.

It’s actually funny that people on the left think huge protests are really important because, guess what? No one else thinks this. No one cares. You’re arguing in a vacuum. You are people no one cares about criticizing other people that no one cares about for engaging in activities that no one cares about. What the fuck is wrong with all of you?

I’ll admit, I’ve basically said most of this before, and the last time I tried to be more restrained and even handed, but I’ve grown really tired and disgusted. I don’t really want to be restrained and even handed about this anymore, it’s too important. How bad does it have to get before we pull our heads out of our asses? I’m going to make things real simple so that it might sink in to even the slowest and the most hidebound. Leftists love their lists of demands, so here’s my list of “demands” to the left in general and anarchists in particular.

1) Protests are a show of strength, nothing more, if you have no base you have no strength and if you have no strength, no muscles to flex, then don’t organize large protests.

I don’t know how I could make it simpler folks! Protests used to be a way to show the world how many people you had doing real-world things. The protest was not an end in itself, it was a way to show the world how strong your movement was. What you did outside of the protest is what mattered and what made the protest itself even relevant. We don’t have this anymore. Now protests are the only thing we do, it’s an end in itself and the most significant activity that most activists engage in, which is to say that most activists don’t do anything of significance. Can activists legitimately call themselves “activists” when all they do is protest in one form or another?

2) We want to have political and social power or we don’t. If we don’t, then stop wasting the time of people who do want to have the power to change things. Either shit or get off the pot.

This goes for anarchists in particular, but also the left in general. It’s time we faced the fact that, gee, we want to have power. We want everyone to have the power to change their own lives, but to want everyone to have power is to still want power. Stop being coy about this and start acting like you mean it. Stop acting like you’re asking a hypothetical fucking question and start making it happen. Either that or just shut the fuck up, stay home, and jerk off to your Spanish Civil War posters.

3) If you are even remotely serious about changing the world you’re going to have to work with people you don’t necessarily agree with. Duh!

You have no base. You are completely fucking irrelevant. The only hope you have of doing ANYTHING at all is by working with other groups that might not agree with every word that comes out of your mouth. And by “working with”, I don’t mean attaching yourselves like some parasite to a protest that other people did the heavy lifting to make happen and call them fascists when they are not entirely cool with your plans that you didn’t even have the courtesy to run by them in the first place. It’s just pathetic folks. I’ve been to too many of these kinds of fiascos and I’m embarrassed to have defended some of the shitty things that anarchists had unilaterally chosen to do at these things. Protesting is generally a waste of time, but it’s even more pathetic when you have to hijack someone else’s waste of time because you couldn’t be bothered to organize your own.

Even anarchists need to compromise. This isn’t the revolution and there isn’t going to be any revolution anytime soon. If you want something to happen and if you actually believe in things like participatory decision making then you are going to have to accept viewpoints that are different from your own and hammer out some course of action that may be watered down a bit, but might actually lead somewhere. Either you intend to make your ideas mainstream or you’re just fucking around. And if you do intend to make your ideas mainstream, then you have to get out there in the world and work with people who don’t think like you. There is simply no other way, anyone who tells you different is full of shit.

4) Understand that if you are not building institutions, then you are doing nothing to change the world.

In their heyday, the communists had schools, summer camps, neighborhood organizations, they had sympathizers and fellow travelers elected to political office, their organizers where among the backbone of the labor movement, they were organized and they had solid institutions that they could use as a base to realize their goals. The religious right now have similar institutions in place and they are growing stronger by the day. If you are not changing existing institutions or building new institutions to replace existing ones, you are doing nothing. Don’t kid yourself. You can chant till your blue in the face, wave signs until your wrists break, break enough windows to affect the stock price of glass manufacturers and nothing you have done will even come close to the people who unionize a workplace, or found radio stations, coops, or alternative schools and universities.

Just to be clear: what I mean by founding an institution is not the same as setting up a flophouse for your cool friends or an exclusive club that admits only the ideologically pure. Anarchists and other radical activists do a lot of things that cosmetically resemble institution building but are actually just bullshit projects to impress people in the scene. Ban “infoshop” from you vocabulary and learn words like “mutual aid society”, “grassroots medical insurance”, and “cooperative”. Fuck! Even founding a credit union has a more positive impact on society than some sign waving song and dance.

5) If you’re not thinking about how people will feed and clothe themselves, or how things will be made, or how the trains will continue to run after you’ve taken over society, then you’re just not serious.

I’ve heard it all before: this will all take care of itself after the revolution…but we don’t need trains anymore ‘cause trains destroy the earth…we’ll all go back to the woods and live as hunter-gatherers…we’ll all put on our chairman mao suits and live as shiny happy workers in a smokestack ridden socialist paradise. Blah, blah, blah. Tell it to someone who gives a damn. Oh, that’s right, no one gives a damn about any of this. That ignorant rabble we claim to want to liberate obstinately insists on having indoor plumbing and living in a house with heat and electricity, they want to have a better standard of living than what they have now, they actually think working in a factory sucks ass, the philistines!

If your plan for changing society does not seriously take into account how society is going to function, if you’re not doing the work to make sure society actually will function after you’re done, then all your high-falutin’ ideas are little more than shit-talking. Not breaking the basic functionality of society is pretty key and if you intend to make your ideas mainstream you should know that instinctively. Now, I know that some people want to totally break down society and see it go away, but I’m not talking to them. Let the misanthropes have their fantasies, I’m only interested in the people who are trying to make things better, not worse.

I can already hear the criticism of this piece: You’re arguing for mere reformism…you want us to emulate the right wingers and the communists…you’re telling us to abandon revolutionary praxis (whatever the fuck that is). But these criticisms will all be wrong. What I’m advocating is that people actually get serious about what they claim they want and believe.

It’s easy to go to protests and to organize them, it’s even easy to get arrested–people get arrested all the time, it’s really no big deal. (I have always felt a bit like an ass for even thinking of feeling somehow noble for going to jail for a few hours and getting treated a million times better than the shoplifter in the cell next to me.) None of these things requires a life commitment, although some people do make a life out of this and similar activity. What does require a life commitment is institution building and union and community organizing. But that kind of work is boring and often thankless, it also requires competence and responsibility, and spending tremendous amounts of time with ordinary people who don’t dress cool or listen to hip music, who might be a bit racist or a bit sexist, or who just might simply be insufferable assholes. However, with these people lies the only hope of changing this society for the better. Until, activists get out there among these people and start actually building the world they claim they want to see we aren’t doing anything at all.

Eco-Friendly Car Buying Guide

Posted by admin on 16 Oct 2006 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

This is an informal guide I’ve put together after doing a lot of research on buying a new car and I thought some people might find it useful. I am not an expert on any of this, I’m simply sharing what I’ve learned from doing my own research. Obviously, the most ecological choice you can make when it comes to buying a car is to not buy or own a car at all. Unfortunately, for a great many people, particularly in rural and suburban areas, going car-less is not an option. I hope this guide will help people who cannot practically do without a car make the most ecological choice of vehicle.

Shopping Suggestions:

Buy used: From an ecological perspective, it’s better to buy a used car over a new car and it will also be a lot cheaper for you. However, used cars tend to have more mechanical problems than new cars, so if you buy a used car, I would recommend buying a fairly recent used car that still has at least a year or two of the manufacturers warranty still in effect. Also, as cars get older, they tend to be less fuel efficient unless they are very well taken care of. Very old cars (more than ten years old) tend to be less fuel efficient, less safe, and will cost you more in parts and repairs. I’m assuming most people reading this do not know how to fix a car themselves, so unless you are a mechanic who can do your own repairs I would avoid buying a used car older than, say, seven years. (Should you keep a car, longer than seven years? Yes, if you take good care of it. Just don’t buy one older than that.)

In addition to used cars, there are essentially new cars that you can often purchase for a significant discount off the full retail price and still have many of the benefits of having a completely new car. Some nearly new cars you can find at a dealership include:

The test drive or showroom model: Some small dealerships, expecting their customers to order the exact car they want (with accessories and options), will have only one or two cars of a certain model for display and test drive purposes. These cars will often have milage in excess of 100 miles giving you room to bargain on the price. If you can settle for the showroom or test drive model on the lot you can often get a better deal on the price, and you will also be helping to save on the use of fossil fuels from shipping and manufacturing a new car that you have custom ordered.

“Damaged in shipping” models: almost all well connected dealerships will get a few cars from the manufacturer that had problems in shipping and can’t be sold as new. For example, some foreign cars often get doused with sea water when they are aboard ships en route to the US or they get soot on them from the ship’s exhaust. The car is otherwise perfectly fine and still brand new, but due to manufacturer’s quality standards and some state laws they must be sold at a discount as used. Ask about these kinds of cars when you go to a dealership. Again you will be saving on the use of fossil fuels by not ordering a custom car, and you will be getting a new car at a discount.

Buy the car that will get the job done: If you really need a pick-up truck to haul materials around, it might make sense to just get a pick-up instead of a vehicle that does not suit your needs but is more fuel efficient. However, you should make sure that you really do need a pick-up or an SUV. Do you mostly just need all-wheel drive? Then maybe a Subaru wagon or their Baja mini-truck might be better than a pick-up since all Subaru’s are all-wheel drive, are better made than other AWD vehicles, and have better gas milage than most other AWD vehicles. Do you need to haul stuff around, but you really don’t need as much space as an SUV or truck provides, then maybe you should go for a fuel efficient wagon, like the Toyota Matrix, or a flexible compact, like the Honda Fit. But in the end, if you really do need a truck or van, then get one since it’s better to use a truck to make one trip hauling things than making two or three trips, or more, with a “fuel efficient” vehicle that isn’t suited to your needs. Just try to get a fuel efficient truck if you must get a truck or van. As for SUVs almost no one actually needs an SUV. I would avoid buying one even if it’s a hybrid.

Hybrid vs. Diesel: While diesel vehicles get much better milage than their gasoline vehicle counterparts, the best hybrids (Toyota Prius, Honda Insight) get vastly better milage than any diesel vehicle. Diesel vehicles are also dirtier than gasoline vehicles, even with the new cleaner burning diesel fuel. However, one major advantage of having a diesel vehicle is that it can be converted to biodiesel. If you have the equipment and resources to use biodiesel then, diesel is the correct choice for you.

Is the most fuel efficient car the best choice?: Not always. Take the Honda Insight, for example: it is the most fuel efficient car available in North America and one of the most fuel efficient cars ever made. But, unfortunately, it’s a two seater. A two seater is fine if you’re a single person who lives alone, but if you have a family or roommates, or you would like to have more space for storage, it’s not such a great choice. If you’re not single, or you want to further minimize the environmental impact of owning a vehicle by car pooling, then a hybrid like the Toyota Prius is the wiser choice. What about hybrid SUVs? I say they’re still SUVs and should be avoided, even if they get better (even respectable) gas milage. In reality, there is an incredibly small number of people who actually need SUVs or other large vehicles. More than 90% of all private vehicle owners would get along just fine with a regular mid-size car, or even a compact or subcompact. Hybrid or not, don’t perpetuate the blight of SUVs on the road by buying one.

Some good sites to help you make an informed decision about your next cars fuel economy and emissions standards

Greenest Cars of 2006 – fuel efficiency and vehicle emmisions data

EPA Green Vehicle Guide


Manual Transmission vs. Automatic Transmission: As a rule, manual transmission vehicles are much more fuel efficient than automatics. With a manual transmission, the driver has complete control over the vehicle’s engine. It is claimed that with modern automatic transmissions, the milage difference between automatic and manual transmission vehicles has become negligible, however, even with a hybrid car like the Honda Insight (which is the only remaining manual transmission hybrid still on the market), if you check the EPA MPG estimates for the Insight’s manual and automatic versions, the manual transmission model has a significantly better MPG rating than the automatic. One key gas saving trick that you can’t do with an automatic is coasting in neutral. A skilled manual transmission driver can save quite a lot of gas by taking every opportunity to coast in neutral (rolling down hills, rolling up to a stop, etc.). If you know how to drive a stick or you’re willing to learn, buying a manual transmission vehicle is invariably the best choice if it is available for the model you wish to purchase.

eHow Guide: How to Drive a Car with Manual Transmission

How to drive a manual transmission (stick shift) car

Busting the Myths of Driving a Manual Transmission – How not to drive a stick by’s editor in chief

Some manual transmission driving tips from personal experience: 1) Press the clutch ALL THE WAY DOWN when changing gears, every time you change gears. You’ll either wear down the engine or the clutch or both if you don’t press the clutch to the floor every time you change gears. 2) As a beginner, when familiarizing yourself with a manual vehicle: press down the clutch and start the engine, keep the parking break in place and put the car in first gear, then slowly release the clutch. When the engine starts to sputter push the clutch back down to keep the engine running. Keep doing this until you have a feel for where the clutch completely engages. This will make it much easier for you to get the hang of the clutch and to start driving with fewer stalls.

What are the best car makes: this is my opinion, but it is backed up by data, I suggest: Toyota, Honda, and Subaru (if you need AWD). Avoid American cars, they simply suck quality wise. Speaking generally, no one else comes close to Japanese cars in terms of quality. The best objective resource for quality car makes is Consumer Reports car buying guide. If you want free advice, you can usually just do a google search for Consumer Reports top 10 most reliable cars and use that as a starting point for your research.

After you’ve bought the car: to maximize your fuel efficiency, you should start learning good driving and car maintenance habits. The following links can provide you with some good general tips on improving fuel economy and the life of your car.

Car Talk’s Guide to Better Fuel Economy

Tips to Increase Your Gas Mileage

Synthetic or Conventional Motor Oil: Which is Better for the Environment?

[11-12-2007 Followup: What car did I end up getting? I traded in my 2000 Toyota Echo for a manual transmission 2007 Honda Fit Sport off the lot and I'm very happy with it.]

9/11 Conspiracies and the Left

Posted by admin on 27 Sep 2006 | Tagged as: politics

This is rather belated, but while many people on the left still cling to 9/11 conspiracy theories, this topic will remain relevant. On the fifth anniversary of the September the 11th terrorist attacks, I listened to a debate on 9/11 conspiracy theories hosted by Democracy Now. The debate was between Dylan Avery and Jason Bermas, producers of that cinema masterpiece of the tinfoil hat crowd “Loose Change”, and David Dunbar and James Meigs of the military hardware worshiping Popular Mechanics magazine. I am glad that Democracy Now decided to have this debate to clear the air and I listened in the hope, given all the energy and time that many people, particularly on the left, have put into pushing 9/11 conspiracies, that these theories are at least based on something that could qualify as non-circumstantial and non-anecdotal evidence.

My hopes of some kind of straightforward presentation were dashed right at the beginning when Jason Bermas of Loose Change brayed like a giant ass to Amy Goodman: “I’d just like to thank you for the opportunity to take on the government’s lies and Popular Mechanics, which is a Hearst yellow journalism publication’s lies, as well”. For Bermas and Avery, it only went downhill from there. They had nothing, not a single item that didn’t involve taking seriously the wild speculations and assumptions that were thrown out during the first few days after the attacks, all of which have been either clearly debunked or recanted or have absolutely no corresponding physical evidence to back them up. You can go over the debate or the Loose Change film itself and you will search in vain for a shred of hard evidence. What has passed for “evidence” among 9/11 nuts is largely a dishonest assemblage of various individually unremarkable and unrelated facts used as a skeleton for draping the most lunatic speculations and free associations over it.

During the debate, Avery and Bermas made asses out of themselves every time they opened their mouths while the nerds from Popular Mechanics were calm and reasoned and demolished every single point the Loose Change crew made. Two of the best among many shining moments for the “Loose Change” duo were: repeatedly resorting to smear tactics by calling the Popular Mechanics people liars without providing any evidence to show how they were liars and when Dylan Avery claimed that Underwriters Laboratories “certified” the steel used in the world trade center. David Dunbar of Popular Mechanics proceeded to correct him, stating that UL does not certify steel (which is true); Avery’s withering response was: “Oh, okay”. Examples like these combined with the nearly constant juvenile scoffing and snickering from the Loose Change crew whenever one of the PM editors opened their mouths served to make them sound like a couple of teenage punks crashing a radio show.

Some people may think I’m being uncharitable to the Loose Change folks, I mean they are lefties after all, and they’re trying, however incompetently, to expose the bad guys who, in the case of Bush and Cheney, really are bad fucking guys. The problem is what they claim happened just didn’t happen, the facts are there for anyone willing to honestly look at them. The Loose Change folks may truly believe in what they claim and they may earnestly think that their work is in the service of truth and justice, but it is not and they are not comrades or friends to any serious movement for social change. But people like Avery and Bermas, however unwittingly, do play an important role in keeping the Left irrelevant. They are really just the flip side of right-wing grassroots conspiracy nuts who think that, around every corner and behind every door, evil liberals are plotting to turn America into a modern Gomorrah. The right focuses on petty little things that they blow out of proportion, the left focuses on big things that they grossly misinterpret. A good example from the right (and this is from an actual right-wing nut action alert) would be the personal anecdote from an unnamed Christian mom complaining that’s completely automated system for suggesting books and movies is a tool of the “gay agenda” because it suggested Brokeback Mountain to her. The right focuses on stupid small things like this because if you actually look at the big picture (e.g. the left is an ineffectual joke and the right completely dominate all branches of national government and most state governments) you would be in danger of coming to the otherwise obvious conclusion that being an agent of the “gay agenda” is as laughably preposterous as the existence of a conspiracy known as the “gay agenda”. But People do not believe these things for no reason, though the reason isn’t what the believers think it is. Nonsense like this serves to make people feel angry while keeping them helpless at the same time. It’s purpose is to provide a venue of sorts and a focal point for people to vent their outrage and yet to ensure that the battle they fight will be unwinnable. (No matter how many letters they send to offending companies and institutions, or how many businesses they boycott or how many conservatives they elect to office, those evil liberals will come out of every crack and crevice, they will emerge from every shadow, to do evil and to undermine them at every turn.) It’s like the abortion debate: can anyone think of a single reason someone like Bill Frist would have to abolish abortion? It benefits him, and people like him, to have an abortion debate, not to end that debate. That’s why there will always be an abortion debate.

The conspiratorial left is just the flip side of this coin, only poorer and more irrelevant. And another important difference is that, while the conspiratorial right works like some brainless vote factory for the demagogues who milk it, the conspiratorial left is supposed to just stay out of the way. And what better way to forever keep the left at the kiddie table while the grown-ups talk business than to make us look like a bunch of lunatics. And for those who do not believe these conspiracies it’s just another turd smeared on your credibility, through no fault of your own, interfering with your ability to get shit done.

This all may sound like merely another conspiracy theory to you, but actually it’s not. The right has figured out a way, actually almost an exacting industrial process, to manage dissent within it’s ranks for the purpose of motivating their constituents to storm the polls on election day and literally throw money at their campaigns. Like good marketers the right-wing political elite understand their demographic and they have found an ingenious way to turn otherwise useless activities (e.g. sitting on one’s ass listening to talk radio and grumbling about gay pinkos running Hollywood and brown people overrunning the borders) and translate that real smoldering, festering anger into political action. Democrats, and their codependent lackeys in the liberal left, have been doing exactly the same thing for years, but with fear instead of anger; in an effort, not to win, but to simply maintain the status quo. Every time you hear some political hack tell spooky stories about how the right will make abortion a capital offense and put neo-Nazis on the supreme court if you don’t vote for some utterly corrupt cog in the Democrat party machine is engaging in electorate management just as cynically as the demagogues on the right do. In both cases they harness your anger and fear to get you to do something that will always benefit them and never benefit you. Of course, this has always been the case in American politics, the only difference now is the level of sophistication on the part of the manipulators and the appalling level of docility and predictability on the part of the American electorate.

But how do you manage people who often won’t fall for those liberal and Democrat scare tactics? How to you manage people whose votes you know you can’t count on and who, from time to time, manage to build marginally troublesome movements against this or that aspect of the status quo? What do you do with people who tend to be more trouble than they’re worth when it comes to the difficult task of staying in power? You marginalize them through a variety of means: you keep them off the air, you ignore them, and you ridicule them and discredit them wherever you can’t ignore them. Unfortunately, when it comes to discrediting the left, ninety percent of the work will be happily done for you, and that’s where people like our 9/11 conspiracy theorists friends come in.

If you think that this all seems like an exaggeration of the impact that 9/11 conspiracists have on the left, you’d be right. 9/11 conspiracists are merely a symptom of a deeper problem: leftists, like most people in this country, don’t know how to think and are drawn to irrational, but simple and satisfying, explanations of the world. Take the typical lefty’s ideas about capitalism: with the exception of political nerds who’ve read everything that Marx, Bakunin, and Kropotkin ever wrote, most people on the left have a pretty incoherent and simplistic idea of how capitalism works. For lefties, capitalism is just another conspiracy theory and, for lefty 9/11 conspiracists, 9/11 is merely a subplot in the larger never ending drama of behind the scenes capitalist machinations. Let me be clear that it’s not just nutcases on the margins who fall for this way of thinking, many people who are otherwise highly intelligent and valuable activists have fallen for the 9/11 conspiracy nonsense, and conspiratorial thinking generally, and that’s where these conspiracists pose a real problem. A conspiracy theory is a mental venereal disease and the conspricist is the most popular slut in town spreading it like wildfire among a group of people all too willing to be infected.

“Corporations”, “the Rich”, “the elite”, the average lefty talks about the people who run the world as if they didn’t have names and addresses, as if they weren’t flesh and blood people who behave in the way one could rationally predict someone with great wealth and power might behave. The left may be critical of authority, but it’s often not so great at critical thinking in the traditional empirical sense. Thus, the left has proven to be a fertile environment for all kinds of high nuttery and the most embarrassing gullibility.

Often a person’s or group’s opinions about the nature of what or who they oppose provides an insight into their own shortcomings and their belief in their abilities to challenge what they oppose. When you view an enemy as omniscient and omnipotent, faceless and unknowable, you are admitting defeat before you begin to fight and you are simultaneously rationalizing and advertizing beforehand your inability to effectively fight that enemy. I think conspiratorial thinking on the left is evidence that people on the left have gotten so used to never accomplishing anything of significance that it almost feels more right to some people to be forever chasing after imaginary crimes, because the chase can go on forever, and it is the chase that they love. Like Don Quixote, they can tilt at windmills imagining them to be giants while the real giants go on about their business unperturbed.

Once you’ve swallowed the basic premise of the conspiracy, no amount of facts or logical reasoning will ever convince you. This way you can always be the underdog, the truth-telling rebel. You’ll never accomplish anything because there’s nothing to accomplish and therefore you’ll never have to be responsible. Because with victory, with the winning of political power or any kind comes responsibility: responsibility for doing what you say you’re going to do and, most importantly, responsibility for your mistakes, miscalculations, and failures. But if you place yourself in a situation where you cannot only never win, but you never even face reality, you can forever blame it on someone else, you can blame literally everything on the conspiracy.

Alternately, I also think, for the more competent and intelligent activists who have fallen for the kind of conspiratorial thinking exemplified by 9/11 conspiracies, there is such focus on Bush and his administration and such a desire to get him for something, that it is appealing to think that 9/11 is the smoking gun. It’s right there in front of everyone and if only they could just prove that Bush and company were responsible it would change everything, it would be such a huge blow to the evil empire. And it would be a powerful blow if any of it were true, but it’s not.

Fighting an enemy that doesn’t exist or, in the case of 9/11 conspiracies, trying to catch criminals by hanging the one crime on them that they didn’t commit, can also serve as a hiding place. You can have all the ego nourishing benefits of being an activist, without ever having to worry about actually doing anything or even getting into trouble with the bad guys you claim to be fighting. Why would “they” come after you over something “they” know they didn’t do, especially when you’re doing your very best to discredit yourself, making it easy for “them” to brush you off the radar screen of relevance?

Obviously, there are few tasks that are more arduous and overwhelming than fundamentally transforming society. No one asks an activist to save the world and, let’s face it, most people don’t care about what activists are trying to do. I think when people start to come to this view of capitalism as an unbeatable force managed by a virtually invincible shadowy cabal it’s an indication that they’ve given up whether they can admit it to themselves or not. However, outwardly, it appears that they have not given up. They keep ranting and attacking, making their continued commitment to “expose” the bad guy’s conspiracies appear brave and principled. Even though they aren’t fighting anything real, they can maintain the feeling of being a fighter–it’s a bizzare way to keep one’s pride while sacrificing one’s dignity.

In reality, conspiracy theories are the solace of losers, they are the comfort of people who are powerless and who have come to accept that they will always be powerless. It’s comforting to think that it’s not your failure to act (or to act effectively) to change the world that’s to blame for the world going to hell, but some vast, omnipotent, and omniscient conspiracy that is impossible to stop or even expose. In fact, the most popular theories imply that it’s essentially futile to act at all: a comprehensive, all-powerful conspiracy that is so effective at covering its tracks that you can’t even obtain a shred of hard evidence on them makes, by definition, the very act of trying to resist them in anything but a symbolic way (or on stubborn principle) completely pointless. A defeatist or cynical person might say that accepting one’s powerlessness is the right decision–obviously, far too many people would agree–-but for an activist to tacitly accept and obliquely promote such a policy seems perverse to say the least. Yet, that is what is happening when activists fail to exercise reason and common sense in their quest to “get” the Bush regime and other villains of the day.

You want a conspiracy theory? Try this one on: why is it that the left is so embarrassingly ineffective? I’m talking about the whole left, from radical to liberal. We’ve been losing ground and falling on our face over and over for at least the past 25 years. Why is that? Can we blame it all on The Man or can we take a good long and hard look at ourselves and maybe have the integrity to admit that we’ve played more than a small part in our own disastrous decline? Why is it that there has been no protest movement in the last 25 years that has accomplished anything at all (unless we want to pat ourselves on the back and take credit for South Africa liberating itself), yet we keep on protesting as if protesting works, as if we had no imagination at all. As if some shadowy cabal was actively leading us down the most ineffectual path every single time. It seems like we only know how to either wave signs and chant or monkeywrench and break windows, both practices being the least effective means of social change that could possibly be imagined.

Yet we keep doing it, over and over and no one questions it beyond demanding that we need to protest yet more or break even more windows or burn more shit down. You want a mystery to solve? Take a fucking bite out of that and chew on it for awhile. Could some part of the answer be in our tendency for willing gullibility as long as whatever we’re being fed confirms our dogmatic beliefs? Could some part of the answer be in our tendency to chase phantom bad guys down the rabbit hole, while the earth dies, people die, and real bad guys get away with real crimes? Have we grown to accept our permanent function as mere martyrs, scapegoats, and fools in the dystopian social order that is being built around us? Or are we like fatalists hunkering down for the The End that we are convinced will happen (after all, something’s got to give, right? Peak Oil, the revolution, “exposing” the 9/11 conspiracy, something!) and we’re just passing the time telling campfire stories to each other while we wait for the people in the world who actually make things happen to fulfill the prophesies we’ve dreamed up for them.

[CONCLUDING NOTE: There are many places on the internet that have taken the time to debunk, point-by-point, every single 9/11 conspiracy theory no matter how nutty or improbable. I’ll give you just one example for free: It’s a very good site run by a guy in the UK with no special qualifications, which gives him exactly the same level of expertise as 99% of all 9/11 conspiracy theorists.]

Useful Links:
Critical Thinking
Critical Thinking Mini-Lessons
Introduction to the Scientific Method

Review: The Meanest Flood by John Baker

Posted by admin on 01 Apr 2005 | Tagged as: reviews

How I came to read this book serves as a good example of one of the most basic benefits of the Internet that we all take for granted, which is how the Internet makes it possible for one to communicate with people that you might not ever interact with otherwise.

Last February, John Baker wrote me a note complimenting me on my review of Million Dollar Baby, I wrote back thanking him and we exchanged links. Of course, I saw on his blog that he was a mystery/crime writer but I had never heard of him because his books are published in the UK and you can only get his books as imports here in the States. So, I wrote him again and asked if he knew a place in New York where I could buy his books. He suggested Partners & Crime in the West Village, which turns out to be a neat little independent bookshop that is dedicated to mystery, crime, and suspense fiction, and which also has lots of interesting events and readings for mystery buffs.

All this is neither here nor there as far as John Baker’s novel is concerned, but I just thought this whole chain of events was kind of cool–randomly interact with an interesting guy, discover a cool little bookstore, and read a good book that I would proabaly never have read if Mr. Baker hadn’t dropped me a line.

So, anyway, onward with the review: The Meanest Flood is the most recent book in John Baker’s Sam Turner mystery series. Sam Turner is a private detective based in York (John Baker is also based in York), he’s a recovering alcoholic with an unpleasant past that he is trying to put behind him. In this book, someone from his past is out to seek revenge on him by attemping to kill every woman that Sam Turner had a serious relationship with and set-up Sam as the prime suspect. As the killer starts murdering the women in the order that Sam met them, there begins a race to stop him before he reaches Sam’s current partner.

Let me say, that I’m not a mystery or crime novel buff, I don’t generally read mysteries at all, but I really enjoyed this book. This is the sixth Sam Turner novel, and I imagine that many of the characters that make up Sam Turner’s network of friends and helpers have already been well established for those who have followed the series, but the characters are so well drawn that I found it easy to jump into Sam Turner’s world. In 312 pages John Baker tells a well paced story with thoroughly developed characters and still has room for interesting oberservations and commentary. After reading the first few chapters of the book you know exactly where John Baker stands politically (firmly on the left), but he does it in such a way that it seems natural to the narrative and the characters viewpoints. I doubt many people would have a problem with how the views are expressed through the characters and the narrative unless they were violently adverse those opinions.

All in all a really good and fun book, I definitely recommend it.

What do we do now?

Posted by admin on 25 Mar 2005 | Tagged as: politics

[NOTE: This is really long, and I'm not sure it's quite complete, but I'm posting it anyway. --Shawn]

Since the RNC protests here in New York last summer, I’ve been taking a break from activist work–mainly for personal reasons. Standing back from activist circles for awhile has given me an interesting perspective that I haven’t experienced in over ten years: living in and experiencing the world around me like an average person. This may sound odd to someone who hasn’t been intensely involved in left activist projects and general lefty culture but, when you are involved in this world, you are not living in the same world as your neighbor.

To put it in highly general terms, an activist’s life is typically a cycle of meetings, events, protests, and actions. The meetings and events (i.e. teach-ins, film screenings, tablings, conferences etc.) tend to culminate into protests and actions and then, after some downtime, the cycle starts all over–this tends to be true regardless of the focus of one’s activist work. It is a world with its own jargon and social conventions, its own etiquette and hierarchies, its in-crowds and out-crowds, in other words, it’s a sub-culture. It can be said that activists view the world differently because they pay attention to what is happening in the world more intently–although this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a more accurate view of what’s going on. Though all activists may not have it right, even a crackpot leftist who will shout without any explanation that the US government is a mass murderer is closer to the truth than the majority of the American public. Compared to even a misfit ranter, most other Americans seem to be asleep. Yet, ironically, for all the efforts to be well-informed and broadminded, the world seems smaller and simpler when one eats, sleeps, and breathes activism and activist culture. Unsurprisingly, when one steps outside of that smaller world things suddenly become more nuanced and complicated.

Many activist’s view of the world is also often distorted by egotism: we are doing something important, after all, we are trying to change the world, we are “activists”–the very word necessarily implies that everyone else is a “passivist”. Most of us, like myself, do what we do on our own unpaid time and some of us even fund our work out of our own pockets, some of us get beat up by cops or arrested for what we believe, all of which can add a dash or more of martyrdom to spice up one’s life. For those of us engaged in more radical or confrontational activity, there’s the coolness factor of facing down the cops in some protest melee or doing some kick-ass direct action–providing the unique opportunity to get an adrenalin junkie fix, a selfless martyr fix, an ego boost, and a sense of purpose in life all rolled into one activity. In this light, the banality of one’s striving and straining which comes zooming into focus when one, in a manner of speaking, becomes a civilian for awhile is actually humbling and refreshing–a mental emetic for people who take themselves far too seriously. In some ways, I hope to concoct my own emetic in this essay but, more importantly, I want to try and understand how to do things better than I did them before.

I should say, before I continue, that it is not my intention here to mock or unfairly criticize activists, but to be honest and to accurately relate my observations from my temporary, self-imposed exile. There’s so much for me to go over that I could write ten essays and rants but, to spare the reader, I will make my best effort to keep it down to just the one. I am writing this as someone who wants to win and who has grown unsentimental toward aspects of the activist world that, I think, prevent us from winning. I have been wanting to write something like this for a long time, since my vacation from activism has only confirmed for me many doubts I had about what I was doing while I was doing it. After a decade as an activist in many different movements I really feel the need to point out some things about the Left in general that should be obvious but are apparently not–even at the risk of sounding ridiculously arrogant, which I may very well be.

In February of 2003, we had the largest global anti-war demonstration in history including direct actions that preceded it and it did not even delay the war on Iraq a single day, much less stop it. We had the largest protest against a political convention in American history while, simultaneously, a blockbuster documentary, playing in theaters across the country, detailed the crimes and misdeeds of the Bush administration, yet the Republicans swept Congress, the Senate, and the White House. In between those two events we’ve had smaller demonstrations and actions (Miami, Sea Island, March 27th 2003 in NYC, among others) which were either disasters or completely ineffectual. And now, last weekend, we had yet another protest that has also been ignored. Has it occurred to anyone that we (meaning the full broad spectrum of the Left) might be doing something wrong? I’m sure it has occurred to some, but from what I’ve seen, they’re keeping mum about it.

I’ve only dipped my toe into this subject and I can already anticipate some objections that are probably forming in some readers minds:

Yes, of course, we don’t have the resources that the corporate media has at our disposal to get our message out, and it is in the interest of the corporate media and the state to suppress our collective messages.

Yes, it’s true that those of us on the left who are active are in the minority, and most of us are doing the best we know how to help make this world a better place, whatever our definition of a “better place” may be.

Yes, we generally have the cards stacked against us in terms of resources and person-power when compared to the resources of corporate funded think tanks, political action committees, PR firms, and the apparatus of the state itself.

Now, having said that, it also must be said, in spite of all these forces arrayed against us and our own limitations, we collectively have a tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot before we ever enter the battle. What’s worse, nearly every faction of the Left, with a few welcome exceptions here and there, are practically allergic to self-analysis and self-criticism of any depth. Still, there comes a point where, after witnessing failure after failure, any rational person would be forced to look inward and around themselves to determine whether what they were doing, or not doing, might play a part in why everything that we all have been doing just hasn’t worked. I also think that people on the Left should ask themselves how we’ve arrived at this state of affairs after decades of gains through the first two thirds of the twentieth century.

I do acknowledge that it is unpleasant to be criticized for doing the best you can. Being criticized is never fun, but losing isn’t fun either. I’m not calling for some kind of viper pit of recrimination, but for a serious pull-no-punches review of what we’re doing, what we think, how we think, how we communicate with people outside of our activist milieu, and if any of this is really effective. I want to help build a better world for everyone. Hence, I want to seriously determine how to actually do that and I do not ever want to do things that do not substantially contribute to these goals.

Let’s start with protesting and direct action, the bread and butter of grassroots activism, and the default response to pretty much any issue that the Left wants to address. Frankly, I have come to question the value of protest as an effective means of social change. More to the point, I think protest and even what is often mistakenly called “direct action“, as it is practiced on the Left, is often worse than useless, except when it is focused on a discrete, single-issue campaign. Generally I think protest as the sole expression of dissent is not nearly enough.

Mass protests are only effective as a show of strength—a manifestation of the level of support your cause has. The 1963 civil rights march on Washington, for example, was an effective show of strength because those in power knew that the march was the product of thousands of people organizing against racism and segregation in cities and towns across the nation. What made the march effective was not that all those people showed up, but what all those people had been doing and what they would continue to do when they went home. However, if all you do is protest, if protesting constitutes the bulk of your activist work, what your protest shows is that your support is only skin deep. The fact that a group can get thousands out into the street really means very little at the end of the day if the people that show up are not involved in day to day struggle. Those in power know this and they aren’t at all afraid to ignore us–they know we are powerless, they know that our support is, at best, shallow; what’s frightening is that too many people on the Left don’t seem to know this.

If protesting doesn’t seem to work, why do we keep doing it? Partly because we don’t know what else to do and something must be done, so we do what we know. Partly because when we look at protest movements of the past we mistake form for substance: we mistakenly think that people marching and holding signs was what won all those victories in the past, when in fact what won those victories was on the ground organizing and street level activism. And partly because we make the mistaken assumption that the methods of targeted, single issue protests and direct actions that have actually been effective can be just as effective on a larger scale. Those who make this last assumption fail to understand that it is not necessarily the tactics, but the circumstances that make these single issue campaigns effective.

Think about it. You have an evil corporation that is doing bad things. A grassroots group or an NGO that specializes in protesting evil corporations organizes a campaign against the evil corporation to get them to stop doing, not all the many bad things it does (breaking unions, massive layoffs, bribing elected officials, dodging taxes, etc.), but just the particular bad things that the protest group finds most egregious (destroying rainforests, say). The group lobbies the relevant politicians and/or organizes protests at company sites and at shareholder meetings; maybe they drop some banners, maybe they do some lock-downs, they generate all kinds of bad press for the company and bring attention to their cause. Finally, the company cuts a deal with the protesters, usually something that allows both sides to come out looking good. Victory!

It is not necessarily the tactics that brought about the victory, although militant action tends to be more effective overall, but rather that the target was a single company, the issues were narrowed down to simple demands, and a single target allows one to utilize a “diversity of tactics” (lobbying, civil disobedience, picketing, etc.) to maximize pressure on the target. Most crucially, a campaign like this does not require mass support at all, it only requires that a campaign group interfere with the company’s ability to conduct business and generate as much bad press for the company as possible. It’s professionals vs professionals: professional activists against the company’s PR and security professionals. If an NGO did the work, then they could add another notch on their belt and parlay the victory into more grant money. If a grassroots group did the work, they’ll most likely consider their work done when their local issues are resolved. Meanwhile, the evil corporation turns their concession into a PR coup showing the world, in the form of full-page ads and TV commercials, what a wonderful and compassionate evil corporation it is. Everybody wins, everybody’s happy.

In fairness, some of these single issue campaigns do win significant victories, but generally their victories amount to little more than a drop in the bucket. While these campaigns win in one small area, evil makes massive strides across the globe. Save a tree here, lose a forest there, establish a union in a couple sweatshops and companies just pull up stakes and move to another place that is more amenable to exploitation. But if you’re in the game, one often loses that perspective—being a winner just feels so good that you just don’t think about the big picture and you go from campaign to campaign actually believing you are really doing something that will matter in the end. Even when single issue campaigns are taken to another level–like the SHAC campaign, for instance, where the goal is to completely put a company out of business–one can admire the guts and tenaciousness of those conducting the campaign but, in the end, another company will just take the place of Huntingdon Life Sciences when it is finally put out of business (in fact there are already other companies that pick up HLS’s lost business). In spite of the limited and localized impact that these campaign-style protests have, they still can claim a kind of success. The well organized and measurable campaign victories of groups like RAN, Greenpeace, and the more militant Earth First! look like unprecedented success when compared to much of the rest of the Left which has been almost entirely ineffectual–spending the last 35 years doing little more than helplessly watching the rollback of every gain made in the previous 60 years.

It was the tactics and strategies used by single-issue campaign groups like RAN and Greenpeace that provided part of the inspiration for the contemporary mobilization-oriented protest movement, from Seattle 1999 to the present. Another source of inspiration was the newly resurgent Anarchist movement, bringing with it new ideas about organization, a focus on militant action, and tactics of its own. It really seemed like we had a shot at turning the tide for awhile there, mobilization after mobilization, winning well-organized, clearly defined, victories (shutting down the WTO, successfully disrupting the World Bank and the FTAA summits). Those victories didn’t seem small at the time, they seemed enormous. It seemed as if we were unstoppable.

Then 9/11 happened and exposed our coalition as the house of cards that it was. The big groups lost their nerve and called off the World Bank/IMF protests that were going to happen just weeks after the attacks, the professional activists representing NGOs like RAN and Greenpeace pulled out too, withdrawing their highly skilled people who might have otherwise been training activists. The Anarchists and some stragglers and dissenters from the other larger groups were the only ones who went ahead with the protests and the protests were a disaster, needless to say. Regardless of who you may think did the right thing, what is important about this event is that it demonstrated how feeble our alliance was. We have not had anything resembling those creative, diverse, energetic, organic and militant mobilizations in the US since 9/11. But 9/11 isn’t to blame for what went wrong, if anything, 9/11 helped accelerate a process of disintegration that was bound to happen sooner or later and it showed how far everyone was willing to go, neither of which are necessarily bad things.

In a sense, the anti-globalization movement, the Anarchist movement, and a lot of other Left movements, share much in common with dead heads or renaissance fair geeks—they are self-organized mobile communities based on common interests. There can be a lot of solidarity within a community like that, but such communities are also extremely insular and out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, often willfully so. I am not about to urge people to get involved in their local communities as if community based organizations were any more effective at making significant change, but I do think that the reason why the anti-globalization movement couldn’t have lasted is because it was never a representation of what was going on day to day in the real world. What we did then was pretty powerful, but it took all of our energies to pull those mobilizations off–we would have petered out sooner or later. Unlike the civil rights movement, our mobilizations were not a flexing of our powerful muscles, but rather an exertion of all the strength we had in us. Some people had an inkling of this, they urged others to take what they experienced in Seattle, in DC, and in Quebec City and bring it back to their communities—almost no one listened.

What did it really mean to bring the spirit of Seattle, or DC, or Quebec back to your community? Who knows? I don’t even think the people advocating such things even knew. I was one of those advocates, and I didn’t really know–I had some ideas, but they were pretty vague and romantic and I don’t think anyone else had a better grasp on it either. What I know now is that it shouldn’t be about people getting caught up in some dead end preexisting community group that spends all its time working on myopic or milquetoast projects but, instead, starting your own projects if necessary. What’s important about local activism is not that you’re somehow down with the common folk, but that you view yourself as one of them. It’s not about “helping” people like some missionary, but acting like a stakeholder who’s going to be around for awhile and helping each other. Does any of this sound like something that the glory-hounds and rockstars, the adrenalin junkies and handcuff fetishists, the scenesters and gadflys in our movements could ever hope to be serious about?

When we talk about an activist who is not a labor organizer or a community organizer, we are talking about someone who not only has little experience dealing with ordinary people, but probably actively avoids dealing with ordinary people. In fact, such a person has probably spent a good deal of their lives actively running away from their ordinary families and their ordinary hometowns. People don’t move to college towns and big city’s to live amongst the common folk, they move there to live amongst other people like themselves–so that they can make each other feel guilty about not living amongst the common folk. But seriously, the fact that there are places where people can be a part of a community that holds different values than the dominant culture is mostly a good thing, but these places also can (and do) serve as enclaves where people can escape the world and immerse themselves in their little scene. The fact that these lefty enclaves exist can be credited to the ‘cultural revolution’ of the 1960′s and, to a much lesser extent, the DIY punk movement of the 70′s and 80′s. The Left has managed to carve out these enclaves for themselves but, instead of using these places as footholds for the spread of different values, they have served instead as protective cocoons, as ghettos.

The trouble is that the Left wants to change America but they don’t want to deal with all those icky, backward, reactionary people that make up the majority of the US population. Who among you wants to live in Harrisburg, PA when you can live in Ithaca, NY? Or Bakersfield, CA vs. Berkeley? Or Binghamton, NY vs. Brooklyn? I don’t blame anyone who chooses to live in a place where they feel comfortable, I would choose the same way, but there is such a gulf between what was once called the counter-culture and the rest of the country that we may as well live on different planets. This isn’t necessarily a strike against people who live in leftist enclaves, though these enclaves do tend to show the true face of the contemporary Left—educated, generally affluent, and mostly white. These places have all kinds of problems and contradictions, but the biggest problem they have regarding the stagnation of the Left is a general sense of contentment and self-satisfaction. After living in an enclave like this for awhile, it becomes easier to just stay within its boundaries and deal only with each other—people who generally share our values and beliefs. We all end up living in our own little world, our own little sub-culture, and dealing with people who do not believe what we believe becomes more and more problematic, it becomes easier to avoid these skirmishes with reality and just hide in the safe cocoon of the leftist ghetto.

Nothing is more poignantly amusing than people on the Left putting forth wild guesses about what poor people or working people are like and what they want as if their notions were verifiable fact. They’re like people attempting to describe a painting while blindfolded. We carry around our outrage and our crazy ideas about how everything would be better if we all lived in a big happy commune or a socialist workers paradise and yet we have no clue how to communicate with the immigrant guy who bags our groceries at Whole Foods. To most leftists, the immigrant guy is not a person, he is a member of the oppressed, he is a recruitment opportunity, he is the object of their guilt, he is any number of things but he can never simply be a human being. Maybe he beats his wife? Maybe he hates black people? Maybe he’s a raving religious fanatic? It’s better to not get too close because it may spoil the illusion of a tidy black and white world that we have created.

Does anyone ever think about why it is that we have to go undercover as working class people to understand how working people live? Do we wonder why self-appointed representatives of the proletariat are able to pontificate to the Left about what we should be doing? Could there be a more obvious indication that we don’t know what the fuck we’re talking about when it comes to understanding what our fellow Americans think? The fact is, most of us are so comfortable in our sub-cultures and our scenes and our politically progressive, eco-friendly neighborhoods that we don’t even know how to interact with someone who has no experience with the way of life we’ve adopted. When you reject the system, you inevitably disconnect yourself from the people who are still stuck in that system and who may not have the luxury of rejecting it. This is a difficult fact to face. What’s good about the “counter-culture” is that it has the potential to point a way towards better ways of living, unfortunately, it has mostly become a self-serving, insular ghetto where we can willfully shut out the world. If our lefty hubs could be a place where ideas are born and grow instead of stagnate and atrophy, that could be the start of something useful.

As it is now our leftist ghettos enable us to cherish our pet theories, and have their validity reinforced by like-minded people, without ever having to go out and test them. One very common pet theory is the belief that if the people only knew what was really going on they would be outraged and radicalized and the revolution (or a Democrat in the White House) would be right around the corner. This is an idea that is dear to everyone from liberals to radicals. I think more people than we think know this country is fucked up, but when they are faced with the ‘awful truth’, as it were, they must make a choice: they can fight it, they can endorse it, or they can ignore it. I think most people choose to ignore what’s going on. They haven’t been coming to help us man the barricades because they aren’t interested. Sure, some people are interested–they’re glad we’re doing what we’re doing, always ready with a pat on the back for us or a thumbs up. They don’t want to do what were doing, of course, but they’re glad someone’s ‘fighting the good fight’. The very few who actually do want to become active will find that getting involved is not so simple. Most of these newcomers are young people and most of them will stop being politically active by the time they turn thirty or when they get married, whichever comes first. Only a fraction of these newcomers will remain lifelong activists. It really amounts to little more than replenishing the existing activist population.

A well reasoned argument or a documented history will get some people’s attention, but most people won’t care. We do want to reach the people who respond to the kind of messages we disseminate currently, but what about the majority of people who are indifferent? How do we make them care? I think it’s going to take a lot more than reasoned arguments and well researched academic studies, it’s also going to take a lot more than the flat out propaganda that most people on the left waste so much paper and bandwidth on. I think most people tend to care about things they actually need or use. Most people are absorbed with their own lives and if something doesn’t affect them directly, they don’t care. I think if we are going to expand the left and actually be effective again, we are going to have to work on projects that are useful to people and projects that people will want to be involved in.

“What do we do now?” it’s the question that we have been asking ourselves over and over again for the last 30 years. We have conferences and meetings and panels asking this same question again and again. Our answer to this question always seems to be: “More of the same.” More protests, more teach-ins, more direct actions, more pamphlets, newspapers, flyers and zines. Meanwhile, we lose more and more ground every year. To the public we have become laughable stereotypes, we parody ourselves better than the best satirists ever could. We need to start looking at different ways of doing things if we ever hope to be relevant again.

I think we first need to recognize some things about ourselves and the world around us before we can pull ourselves out of our rut:

* We have to want to win. It sounds obvious, but it’s really not. The left generally does not behave as if it wants to win. Whether it’s anarchists who think that organizing into small social cliques and doing whatever you feel like doing is going to change anything at all, or it’s radicals of any stripe who think street battles with cops make a difference, or it’s liberals who cling pathetically to the Democratic party, or it’s people who think standing in the street and holding signs will stop a war, all of us may think we want to win, but our actions tell a different story. We have all unconsciously resigned ourselves to having low expectations. We all have accepted the constraints of simple rebellion, of mere dissent, of harmless objection. The left as a whole is gripped by a culture of impotence. We talk, we complain, we rave, we rage, we snipe, but few of us build anything, we have grown so used to complaining that we don’t know how to do anything else.

* Even when the left had been successful in the past, it always had less to do with our own organizing than it had to do with the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time when preexisting discontent had reached a critical mass. The difference between then and now is that the Left had something to offer, even if what they offered was only courage. I’m talking about the labor organizers who literally risked and lost their lives building the labor movement or the civil rights activists who risked death and torture working to end segregation–how many of us are willing to do that today? We inhale a little tear gas and act like we’ve been in a war. We spend the night in jail and act like we were in a concentration camp. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of courageous people on the Left, I’ve had the honor to know some of them, but people like that are thin on the ground. We want people to jump on our bandwagon, but why would anyone follow us when we don’t have the courage of our convictions? We backpedal and compromise or, conversely, we revel in our impotent and alienating rhetoric. We are terrified of the people we claim we want to reach, how can we seriously expect them to join us?

* The capitalist system is an incredibly resilient system. If you’re waiting for the capitalist system to collapse, you’ll be waiting a very long time. It’s not that things won’t get worse, they’ll most certainly get worse, but it won’t make capitalism go away. The whole world could resemble 1990′s Somalia politically and economically and capitalism, in one form or another, would probably still be the dominant system. It will only go away when people decide that they do not want to live under this system and act to change this system. Even if it were possible that capitalism might collapse all by itself, how on earth could we think that we will just be able to step into the chaos that would ensue and establish a better society? The fact that we are sitting around waiting for disaster to strike just shows how we unwittingly accept that we’re a bunch of hopeless losers—sick, cynical, and opportunistic losers.

* We have to focus on what we can do that actually helps right now. Claiming everything will be better and we’ll all be happy after the revolution does not help anyone right now. Starting a community radio station, founding a clinic, starting after school programs, founding community centers, establishing credit unions, starting a co-op, starting a community supported agriculture program, starting an employee-owned enterprise, unionizing your workplace, even joining your local volunteer fire department, could help a lot sooner than any revolution that may or may not be down the road. Imagine if, in every city, activists chose one long term project to develop—maybe one of the examples listed above, or maybe something else—and that project became their primary activity for however many years it took until the project reached completion. Imagine also that these activists helped and encouraged other people in the community to start similar projects that involved anyone who wanted to participate and resulted in institutions that served the community. Imagine how even working on one major project could have a more positive impact on real people’s lives than half a lifetime of holding signs and chanting. We have to stop waiting for things to get worse and start working to make things better. If we want to change this society, we have to start building the infrastructure that will take the place of the society we now live in.

* We have to use all the tools at our disposal in order to make change happen: Direct action, civil disobedience, protests, lawsuits, lobbying, sabotage, ad campaigns, boycotts, or our own labor—all of these tools should be at the disposal of activists of any political persuasion. The object is to win, not to feel smugly self-satisfied that you didn’t sacrifice your principles by calling your city councilman or by doing something illegal. We have to do what works, if a lock-down or a building takeover will work, let’s do it, if blast faxing the mayor’s office will get a particular job done, let’s do that too. We need to be unsentimental about particular tactics and focus on what will actually get the job done in a particular situation.

How do we do all this? Well, you’re the people who think that you can stop wars and bring down the capitalist system by waving signs in the street and fighting with cops. If you have enough hope in that strategy how could you consider this one any less feasible?

The bottom line is we don’t have time to be failures anymore. The earth is rapidly being made unlivable for most of humanity. Our country is run by bloodthirsty maniacs and there is no other force in the world to keep our empire building rulers in check. We owe it to ourselves and to the rest of humanity to bring down this imperial system. Dealing a death blow to this system is the best single thing we can do for all the victims of the American empire in this country and around the world. There has to be a better way to do it than the way we have been going about it. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m trying my best to find the answers to these problems. I hope that what I’ve written here will inspire others to think about these problems also. We have precious little time, we need to start turning the tide, and soon.

I’ll Take Manhattan…What’s Left of It

Posted by admin on 23 Feb 2005 | Tagged as: commentary

There is an interesting article in the New York Press this week about CBGBs and the gentrification of the East Village which brings to mind some of my own observations about living in New York. In spite of the fact that the city government and city developers are doing their damnedest to make Manhattan resemble an inhabitable Mall of America, Manhattan is still the only place worth living in New York City if living in New York is worth it at all.

Oh, I know I’ll get a lot of disagreement about this, but it must be said: if you were not born in New York and you are not going to settle down and have children, Manhattan is the only place worth living in New York City. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of interesting places in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, but none of those places posses the uniqueness of Manhattan. Pick any neighborhood in Queens or Brooklyn and I can find one not too different from it in Chicago, or Boston, or even Baltimore but Manhattan is one of a kind–there’s simply no place like it on earth. The only other borough that I find nearly as interesting and unique as Manhattan would be, in its own way, the Bronx–but that’s for another rant.

All the cool people are living in Brooklyn now, and they will vociferously defend it’s wonderfulness just as they defended the wonderfulness of the East Village/Lower East Side before they were priced out of it. The truth is, Brooklyn became hip because the hipsters could no longer afford to live on the Lower East Side, it has nothing to do with there being something innately cool about Brooklyn, it’s simply where the scene now resides–if they lived in Canarsie then Canarsie would be hip. The difference between Brooklyn and Manhattan is that Manhattan doesn’t need any particular group of people to be inherently interesting, it just is. I’m not a scenester and why I stay in New York has little to do with being in a social scene, so what I’m trying to say here may be lost on many people reading this. What I love about Manhattan is not just the obvious things like Central Park, or all the other parks, or the theatre, or the museums, or the wonderful variety of people that fill Manhattan’s streets on a daily basis, it’s also countless intangible things about living in Manhattan that you can only understand if you actually live there. I love the fact that almost everyone is from someplace else, there are lots of Manhattan natives, of course, but what’s amazing about Manhattan is that it is a city of expatriates–this is true of the other boroughs, of course, but not in the same free-for-all-of-humanity way that it is in Manhattan; it’s where the whole city comes together to work, do business, and play.

The problem with Manhattan is that most people can’t afford it anymore. I don’t live there anymore because I can’t afford it, and I really miss it, and if I can’t get back there I see less and less of a reason to stay in New York. People often tell me that it’s only a train ride away from the other boroughs, which is true, but it’s still not the same. I am not interested in quiet neighborhoods–there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just not interested in it–and I’m not interested in being part of a scene. I miss the sense of feeling alive that living in Manhattan gave me. I still work in Manhattan, but it’s not the same, now I’m just another visitor like any other outer borough resident.

However, the fact that I can’t afford to live in Manhattan ties in very closely with another reason why I don’t want to live in Brooklyn or Queens. Though I’m not well-off enough to afford Manhattan right now, I can still contribute to gentrifying someone’s neighborhood who is less well off than me and I don’t want to be a part of that. Williamsburg used to be a mostly Jewish and Polish and Black neighborhood, a real neighborhood with all the good, bad, beautiful, and ugly things that come with a real neighborhood, but the former East Villagers who have moved in in droves over the last ten years or so have made it into a hipster Disneyland, driving out the previous lower income residents because the hipsters can pay more for rent so the landlords charge more–a lot more. What has happened in Williamsburg is simply a repeat of what happened on the Lower East Side/East Village years before. The Lower East Side/East Village used to be a shithole, ‘Alphabet City’ was once one of the scarier places in the city, now tony shops and cafes line the streets and all the poor people have been pushed out to the remaining tenements way over on Avenue D by the sewage treatment plant. How did this happen? Just like it happened, more or less, in Williamsburg.

Here is the process, it’s the same in New York as it is anywhere:

1) “Poor” white artists and activist types are attracted to the character (and cheap rents) of a pristine neighborhood. They love the neighborhood as it is, it’s why they came there. Lacking authenticity themselves, they seek it out in “authentic” places that they imagine they can be a part of without utterly changing the place forever. These people can be compared to early colonists, only these are unwitting colonists, they don’t want to colonize, they want to “assimilate”. By “assimilate”, I mean, of course, living in a cool character-rich neighborhood, lording it over other people that they live in such a cool character-rich neighborhood, and opening cafes, nightclubs, and galleries.

2) Unfortunately, the accidental colonists have made the neighborhood safe for white people/non-ethnic people; rents go up, some adventurous yuppies start moving in, rents go up some more.

3) The original colonists start to get priced out bit by bit, but the original inhabitants start getting priced out wholesale, as developers move in and start “renovating” old buildings and erecting shiny metal and glass apartment complexes. The end is nigh.

4) East Village/Lower East Side/Williamsburg/South Harlem circa 2005

Give me the Upper West Side any day, I actually love it up there and most of it has been gentrified since the 19th century. I do support anti-gentrification efforts and I wish they were far more effective, but I think the best thing I can do as an individual for people more worse off than me is not contribute to the problem by not moving into their neighborhood.

Even if I had the income to move back to Manhattan, the government, developers, and even many short-sighted residents seem so intent on destroying everything that’s good about it that I don’t know if it’ll be worth living there ten, or even seven, years down the road, but for now I’d like to enjoy what’s left of it while it’s still around.

Where I’m From

Posted by admin on 16 Feb 2005 | Tagged as: commentary

Come Home to Syracuse — Although this site is a bit chamber of commerce-y, in the right hands, a project like this could be really interesting.

Instead of: “Look at all that our depressed, rust-belt town has to offer you! Come! Drink the Kool-Aid!” How about a little more honesty, like acknowledging that those who left had damn good reasons to leave. I love my hometown and I have a tenacious sense of loyalty to it even though I no longer live there. I love Syracuse for what it is: a weird rust-belt city that has been stuck in a permanent economic depression for the last 25 years and also happens to sit smack in the middle of some of the most beautiful countryside in the entire world. Like just about anyplace, Syracuse is populated by mostly jackasses, but these particular jackasses happen to be my jackasses. Furthermore, while growing up in that sea of jackasses, I found some of the most crazy, interesting, weird, wonderful, and decent people I’ve ever met in my life.

Unlike the boosters at Come Home to Syracuse, when I think back to when I was growing up in Syracuse, I don’t get nostalgic about going to any damn Orangeman games, or the times I spent in that absurd boondoggle called Carousel Mall. However, I do think about going swimming, as a kid, at Schiller Park, or how my brother and I used to spend all night drinking coffee at the Little Gem Diner when we were too young to drink alcohol. I think about getting drunk at the, ironically named if you’re a film buff, Lost Horizon nightclub and seeing everything from local hair metal bands to Fishbone. I can think of a million memories of growing up there, both good and bad, and not one of them have a damn thing to do with shopping (except for those memories of buying illegal fireworks on the Onondaga Nation Territory every summer).

How about asking people what they could do for Syracuse? How about leveling with people and telling them: “OK, you know why you left and we’re not going to act like you didn’t have a good reason, but if you’re visiting a site called Come Home to Syracuse and you’re not doing it to give your friends a good laugh, then let’s talk. We can’t make any promises that you’ll be a spectacular sucess here, but we want you back and we’re hoping that you and your hometown can be a success together. We want you to come back, but come back with the understanding that this is a reciprocal relationship.”

The project is, in essence, a good and potentially grassroots solution to revitalizing a depressed community, unfortunately it’s being implemented by people who apparently think that a giant shopping mall is going to make people come running back home.

See also:
Syracuse Then and Now
The Wallmen — the greatest band you’ve never heard of.
The Jerry Rescue
Syracuse and the Underground Railroad (see also here and here)
The Erie Canal Museum
Routes 5 and 20