Free Your Mind--Also

The first time I went to Thailand it was only a few short months after 9/11. I went to an art festival that had been in the works long before 9/11, but had been quickly retooled under the name "Art against War" in the wake of the beginnings of the US war on Afghanistan. At that point, I had just recently joined an antiwar organization and had marched in a protest or two. Though I'd been a bit blasé about political involvement before, I was moved to get more involved by that series of events. So, in Thailand, I found myself--without much experience--advocating intense engagement in political movements. And I kept hearing Thai people, practicing Buddhists and artists with their own type of political involvement, saying "before you can change the world you have to change yourself." I spoke with a vary senior Buddhist monk--the abbot of a monastery. He said this same thing to me. What, I asked, about the innocents dying in Afghanistan. "Don't you think they committed some bad act in a past life for which they're now being punished? Before you can change the world you have to change yourself."

At the time I was not very receptive to this attitude. First, I wanted to act. I could not help feeling the need to act based on a certain emotional immediacy. (This, of course, was exactly what a committed Buddhist would be skeptical of.) And second, I felt myself to be a well-adjusted and very self-aware person, one who had spent a fair amount of time, whether in therapy or in personal reflection and via various relationships, "working on" my personal issues and foibles. It seemed to me that it was, in fact, the mature and self-aware thing to do to take my long-held political feelings and views and actually put them into action. I thought of how the Beatles' "free your mind instead" thing hadn't really worked out so well, at least in terms of what happened as 60s political movements devolved into the "Me Generation" of the 1970s, creating "little utopias" (a term I am stealing from Version>05 and Feel Tank), dealing with personal issues, raising a little consciousness here, a little consciousness there, but not, as far as I could tell, accomplishing all that much. (On reflection I think political movements actually accomplished quite a lot in the 70s and the 80s, but that's not the story we tend to hear.)

Lately, though, especially in this activism class I'm teaching, I've been re-appreciating the value of learning to think differently (and learning to convey those ways of thinking differently) as an integral part of any kind of political involvement. Obviously, as we all say all the time, the work you do may not have any immediate effects, but it may have unforeseeable ones further down the line. Another piece of this that I didn't fully understand back in 2001 was the fact that, these things being the case, you really have to steel yourself for a lot of hard work with few rewards; you have to find ways to make political action enjoyable; you have, on occasion, to be able to be self-critical. (I have to say, too, it's not like I'm any kind of full-time or veteran activist or anything; but I think I've now made a commitment that I'll keep, to working, when I can, on political issues, alongside my other work.)

Anyway these thoughts about the subjective side of political activity came back to me in a recent discussion in class where my students were, well, sort of trashing We Are Everywhere (edited by the Notes from Nowhere collective) on a few grounds, but mainly its uncritical optimism ("the irresistible rise of global anticapitalism") and its apparent equation of struggles of poor people living in truly dire conditions with middle-class American white people's avant-gardening (we're all in it together, i.e. "We Are Everywhere").

So the rest of this post involves some thoughts provoked by the book, which I still do recommend. On some level, my students are right to be critical. It's a fantastic book in lots of ways, but my interest did start to flag after reading many many poetically written, but rather repetitive, personal narratives of struggle and triumph. It raises important issues, though, in its various sections -- autonomy; the media; clandestinity; etc.

And I'm not sure it's wrong to bring together the life-and-death struggles of Bolivian small farmers fighting water privatization with the efforts of New Yorkers to save their community gardens. The forces they're fighting are related, as is the work they're doing. I find the book useful in that it provides a whole series of examples by which we can debunk neoliberal claims that there is nothing of value in poor countries before corporations move in and start providing jobs. This is based on the theory that only monetary transactions count as value. (An aside: an economics student recently told me that in all her classes, whenever people bring up art, it's always as an exception to whatever rule is being taught at the time. This is an insight, it seems, we should do more to exploit! Maybe there's a real role for art in highlighting the existence of non-economic value.)

We might criticize the book because its audience is mostly people more like those New Yorkers than like those Bolivian farmers. On the other hand, I think a big thing that it combats, for those of us in the first category, is apathy and despair. The stories of antiglobalization movements' successes around the globe might force us to take a good look at ourselves. If so many people can do so many things, why can't we do more?

I was recently at a talk in which the speaker discussed revolution, in the old sense, I think, of armed uprising. He said, just as an offhanded comment, that in America we tend to find the idea especially distasteful because of the long years of truly awful social disintegration we would have to live through in order to get to a bad enough situation for revolution to be possible. For Bolivian farmers, living at the edge anyway, the tipping point was closer to the surface (if I may mix my metaphors).

I think we could use a little self-criticism in our unwillingness to face the issues that separate us from the working-class white red-staters Tom Frank writes about. There are issues that divide us on which we are not prepared to budge. But we and they both, for instance, believe that there are values that are not economic ones. Part of what we don't seem willing to face, though, is that many of us are, actually, better off than many of them. (Not better off than the Republicans' economic base; but better off than many of their moral values voters.) Are we willing to do grassroots work among those "others" we least want to identify with?

Maybe we DO need a different kind of revolution. Maybe not "free your mind instead," but "free your mind--also."


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