Stand together or fall apart

I’ve been trying to write something like this post for some time.  I think I’ve finally figured out how to do it – by leaning on better writers than myself:

Tim Maly: “Certainly, the pundits are talking about [Bentham’s Panopticon]. Foucault’s in now. He’s arrived. He’s the hot new way of understanding the world and the pundits loooooove to natter on about how there are security cameras everywhere.”

I glanced around; the room was empty.

“The thing about pundits,” she said, “is they’re always getting it wrong. It’s easy to talk about all the cameras. It’s exciting to talk about the all-seeing tower in the middle. That’s where the power seems to be concentrated, and power sells.

“The truth is that the people manning the tower are a pack of squabbling incompetents. The halls of power are full of bad craziness, with reams of data miscollected, misfiled, and misunderstood. Still, the weight of authority, arbitrarily applied, is real and crushing, and far too heavy for any one person to bear.”

The room was cold; some fool had cranked the air conditioning too far.

“There’s a second half to the prison’s design and no one seems to remember this. The second half is that the prisoners are isolated from one another. If they could coordinate, those few lonely bastards in the tower wouldn’t stand a chance. But their clients are kept separated and when the hammer comes down on one of them, all the rest can’t help but think ‘at least it wasn’t me’.”

Quinn Norton: You’ve been letting it happen and grow for 50 years. Congratulations on noticing. Now do something about it, because you’re next.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: The culture of our world, right now, is crafted by little boys who only recall being stood up on their first date, and nothing they got after. They don’t remember the sand they kicked in other people’s eyes, only their own injuries. Our art is cynical and bad-ass and made by people who will not be happy until you join them in the church of “everything is fucked up, so throw up your hands.” This is art as anesthesia.

You don’t need me to tell you that there’s been a lot of bad news lately. Not only the constant drumbeat of climate change; or of humans as the only animal that foul our own nest in a more general sense than that. There’s Egypt and Libya; then Syria which hurts me more because that’s where I see the men who look just like me, except that they hold weapons I hope to never touch, with fear, desperation and grief in their sunken eyes.  Then Turkey, where I came from and which I still hope can one day show the world a better way to live together, but turns out to be at least a generation further from it than I had thought.  Then closer to home we have the spying brouhaha, which at the very most optimistic reading reveals a government (one whose election I cheered) too out of touch to reassure its people that its own actions are legitimate, and that’s a heroically charitable interpretation if you ask me.

It’s enough to paralyse me with that toxic mixture of anger, despondency and cynicism.  But I refuse to be paralysed, and we must all of us guard against the cynicism—as psychologically protective as it can be—from numbing us. Of course, Teju Cole put it better than me:

What’s next, then?  Fury, just like he said.  An anger that spills over beyond the obvious villains; beyond the dictators and the oil barons and the sweatshop exploiters to their smiling, damned enablers.  Beyond the gleefully evil, the Inhofes and Limbaughs and their ilk, to those who earnestly believe they are fighting dragons but have become so terrifyingly sure of their own goodness that they forgot to check if they’re becoming dragons themselves.  That, for whatever it’s worth, is where I really think government secrecy and overreach comes from.  Not willful evil, but guileless, and becoming more so each time they sideline a critic by branding them as an enemy.

As far as that, I will defend the anger as legitimate, appropriately targeted, and potentially motivating, but it spills over beyond this.  Some of it is a sort of guilt-induced self-hate, because at times I have trouble with the distinction between “this is my fault” and “I am implicated”, but I can usually keep a handle on that.  The harder part is more external.  I tweeted yesterday that I’ve finally come to understand why my more politically radical friends aren’t merely impatient with the people they call “liberals” (I think “gradualists” is a better term and I’ll switch to it from here on), but actively despise them.  I think I made it sound like I despise them too, which isn’t what I meant to say, but I am finding myself increasingly frustrated by those who who will only work within existing power structures and are too afraid to challenge them.   Over to Audre Lorde:

…survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those [people] who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

And the master’s house does need dismantling.  It would be comforting to merely hate those currently in power, as I and most of my fellow-travellers did through the George W. Bush era, but like all easy ways out, that’s a sideshow.  More crushing is my conviction that we have the best President the US has had in my lifetime, who may even be the best candidate that status quo politics can conceivably elect, and yet:

Shit's still fucked up and bullshit.
Photo by Quinn Norton.

But I still have a lot of time for the gradualists, too.  For one thing, a lot of fiery radicals miss opportunities to make real improvements in our lives within existing systems.  Legalising same-sex marriage neither ended homophobia nor helped anyone who doesn’t fit a fairly traditional domestic template, but how many deportations has it forestalled?  Obamacare is gravely compromised—a shadow of the reform it should have been—but how many bankruptcies will it prevent?  Just because these are partial, provisional victories doesn’t mean they weren’t worth fighting for, and won’t stop me from cheering for them.

Just as importantly, I still share the gradualists’ fear.  A while back, I tweeted something to the effect of “How can we have the Revolution without La Terreur?” and no-one answered.  That’s not exactly a scientific measure, but I still don’t have an answer, still haven’t heard a good one from anyone else, and fear that the trauma that is Egypt today proves the point.  Without such an answer, the thought of a true rupture still gives me sickening vertigo.

So what can we do?  I like to look for middle ways, but I don’t see an adequate one here.  I still write to electeds, and I will vote when I’m finally allowed, but I’m consciously minimising the time I spend on this kind of politics, because the potential wins are so dispiritingly far short of the change we need.  The best I have is doing what I can to build and support human scale alternatives to the intermediated, dehumanising political economy we have as a default.  In my more idealistic moments, I think we can just slowly render the old, ossified systems irrelevant and watch them fade away.  Usually I see it as prototyping.  Back to Quinn:

If this is democracy, it is a democracy the world has never known. A kind of kudzu of democracy, small, tenacious, and demanding its way into every crack of the edifices of the old world.

“Why wasn’t I consulted?” is the fundamental question of post-network democracy, and the fundamental question of the Internet, to which the state mechanisms have so far replied: “Who the hell do you think you are?”

The Internet built Wikipedia, Linux, and Facebook, but the old and slow hierarchies don’t understand those things very well. It was the empire that went to the moon, built bridges and ADA ramps across America, and invaded the beach at Normandy. It’s the old way that keeps the electricity running and cables connected to the net, and for this reason, it feels no small bit of entitlement to its power and control.

We don’t know yet if networked communities can manage trash collection and bridge maintenance. And we don’t know if old empires can live peacefully with the roving spirit of creative and loud humans who just change what they don’t like without asking anyone’s permission.

We do know that the old ways have run their course and are variously falling apart or actively resisting needed change, but we don’t know what to replace them with yet.  As impatient as I am, I have to recognise that we’re still testing alternatives, and so far testing them on a relatively small scale.  I do have some hunches about what the successful ones will look like, and these are where I want to focus my energy:

  • We have to trust each other more, and our institutions less.  When the stakes are low enough, that can even mean trusting strangers, as with the Little Free Libraries, but mostly this implies organising in small groups where we can get to know each other and build that trust.
  • We have to share stuff and space a lot more than the rich/western default.  I don’t mean “sharing economy” stuff like Zipcar or Airbnb.  Those are positive developments in that they use resources more efficiently and decrease the cost of living, but I’ve never made a friend by smelling their cologne in the car I rented after them.  Things like a community tool library or a friendly makerspace are much more powerful.
  • We have to be welcoming to beginners.  So many communities of practice are somewhere between too lazy to share what they know and outright hostile to newbies, but this just shuts people out and breeds resentment.  One of the things I’m enjoying about my journey into data visualisation has been finding a techie community that actually supports newcomers and likes to share expertise; I try to model the same in everything I have useful experience with.
  • We have to not only be welcoming to people unlike us, but actually work to bring them in.  I used to believe that it was enough to simply not be racist, sexist, classist, homophobic and so on, but I slowly learned that that’s just not adequate to solve deep historic problems.  This becomes even more important the more we do the other things I’m preaching, because one danger of organising based on personal connections is how readily it reinforces existing imbalances of access or even becomes straight-up nepotism.
  • We have to build more modular, distributed infrastructure.  Centralising infrastructure leaves us too vulnerable to random failures, let alone deliberate attacks or natural disasters.
  • We have to work with natural processes more.  Less dredging, more rain gardens.  Less fracking, more harvesting the sun.  You get the idea.

I know this isn’t going to “save the world”, whatever that means, but it’s something positive that I can understand and do, and that’s leagues better than sitting here fuming or giving up because it’s all too much.

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