De-Identity Theft: “What’s Left?” January 2017, MRR #404

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When hungry, eat. When thirsty, drink. When tired, sleep.

― Attributed variously to Baizhang (720-814), Tanxia Tianran (736-824), Huihai (788), Linji (867), or Bankei (1622-1693)

I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an ‘anti-imperialist’, since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.

I am (and so is the proletariat) against fascism, be it in the form of Hitler or Le Pen. I am not an ‘anti-fascist’, since this is a political position regarding the fascist state or threat as a first and foremost enemy to be destroyed at all costs, i.e. siding with bourgeois democrats as a lesser evil, and postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.

—Gilles Dauvé

I’m going to start a new philosophical movement while I wait to learn whether this country elected the corporatist-globalist-multiculturalist or the nativist-isolationist-populist to be president. It’s like waiting to hear whether the terminal diagnosis is heart failure or cancer. Or the COD is death by firing squad or death by lethal injection. Either way, it’s not good. As for my philosophical movement, I think I’ll call it de-identity.

The germ for my de-identity philosophy started when I took a writing workshop from Cary Tennis who used the Amherst Writers & Artists method developed by Pat Schneider. The AWA appropriated writer William Stafford’s aphorism—“A writer is someone who writes”—and built it into a writing methodology that emphasizes spontaneous writing techniques employed in a group process unencumbered by criticism or deadlines. The whole experience was a little too hippie-dippy-new-agey for my tastes and not at all conducive to honing the craft of writing. So I was glad when Cary developed the idea of the Finishing School, which helped me finish rewriting my second novel.

The phrase “a writer is someone who writes” remains troublesome for me however, not the least because it’s a tautology that means little and tells us less. A dancer is someone who dances. A policeman is someone who polices. A bricklayer is someone who lays bricks. These statements are not just self-evident, they are redundant. Am I a writer if all I do is write a grocery list every morning? If I write the orders for the execution of prisoners on death row? If I write nonsensical word salad screeds because I’m schizophrenic? And how long do I remain a writer once I stop writing? Five minutes? Twenty-four hours? Or once I earn the appellation, is it good for life? This all sounds rather hazy even as the phrase seems vaguely self-congratulatory.

Yes I can be harsh on the AWA’s inspiration and methodology even as I acknowledge that it works for some people to encourage them to write. I have similar reservations for the process and declarations of AA, including their signature “I’m so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic” statement, even while I grant that AA does work for some people to keep them sober. If nothing else, the placebo effect is quite real even though any “cure” remains elusive. My concern is with the identitarian claims that such statements foster and whether they hinder or help the efforts of those who make them. I think that the attempt to fix one’s identity—“I am a writer” or “I am an alcoholic”—in order to fix one’s problems—“I can’t write” or “I drink too much”—ultimately does more harm than good. Rather than face their declining writing abilities, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide. Certainly, creative individuals like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams were tired and depressed from constantly dealing with their self-admitted addictions and may have committed suicide as a consequence. Issues of declining health and mental problems combined with issues of addiction and creative obsession complicated matters for all four of these individuals, but this but doesn’t negate the point I’m hoping to make.

In line with Gilles Dauvé’s above distinction between opposing imperialism and being an anti-imperialist, or opposing fascism and being an anti-fascist, I rarely call myself an anarchist, a left communist, or even an anti-authoritarian these days. I support most, if not all the positions associated with these political identities at the same time that I reject the inclusive wingnuttery of anarchism, the vulgar dogmatism of left communism, and the kneejerk sectarianism of both. A similar attitude informs my comments in a previous column that sometimes a vote is just a vote. I’ve voted in the Peace and Freedom Party primaries much of my adult life, which doesn’t make me a leftover 60s Leftist. I voted for Barack Obama for president both times around, which doesn’t make me a Democrat. And I voted for Bernie Sanders, which doesn’t make me a democratic-socialist.

Defining a political identity based on voting, or even electoral politics, is ludicrous because that’s not all I do. To expand on a bumper sticker type of mentality, I vote but I also sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate, protest, commit civil disobedience, and riot. Pointing out the broad range of my political involvements is one way of de-indentifying with any one particular political activity, but it doesn’t actually decontextualize me and my politics. Quite the opposite. If I sum up all my individual political tactics into a personal political whole, I arrive at an overall political strategy, that being of an independent-minded, left-of-liberal kind of person. What I’m after instead is what I alluded to above in discussing writing. I’m trying to be overly literal with the phrase “a writer is someone who writes.”

I am a writer only when I write. I am a reader only when I read. I am a critic only when I criticize. I am a voter only when I vote. You get the idea.

It’s one of the flip sides of the Zen saying at the top of this column. And it has some interesting implications. A tongue-in-cheek Zen aphorisms I like is “don’t just do something, sit there” which flips a common saying. When I sit zazen, my intent is to be mindful, to be here now, to be in the moment. So if I’m doing nothing, I’m being nothing. At the moment I sit, my intention is to have no ego. My intention is to have no identity.

And I bet you thought I was going to rail against identity politics.

MY PREDICTIONS

I’m one for four on my electoral predictions, the same odds according to Nate Silver that the Cubs had of winning the World Series or that Trump had of winning the election. Or, more precisely, one for three, with one that doesn’t count. I predicted that Trump and Clinton would win their respective primaries, but I was wrong about everything else. There were no riots at the RNC, indeed there was much more action outside on the streets and inside on the convention floor at the DNC. I certainly was wrong when I thought Clinton would squeak by Trump to win the presidency. And it really doesn’t matter how Gary Johnson did as he was incidental to November 8th’s outcome.

The big news is that Clinton might have won the popular vote, which is still to be determined, but lost to Trump in the electoral vote. I’ll wait until next column to do a more thorough analysis, but for now, a couple of points. Michael Moore early on predicted that the anger and alienation felt by America’s white working class, especially in the midwestern Rust Belt, was so intense that Trump was likely to win if the Democrats didn’t take them into account and do something dramatic. And Nate Silver, whose prediction metrics based on crunching poll numbers, had Clinton leading Trump at around three points just before the elections, with the caveat that three points is well within the margin of error. So while Silver said: “In an extremely narrow sense, I’m not that surprised by the outcome,” he also said: “But in a broader sense? It’s the most shocking political development of my lifetime.” I echo his sentiments.

Now I need to practice some of that detachment I try to cultivate sitting zazen.

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1 Comment

  1. From Insurgent Notes
    January 1, 2016

    Dear Friends,

    We’re writing to ask you to join us at a public meeting to discuss the broad topic of “Building a Radical Left in the Age of Trump.” The meeting will be held in New York City in late January or early February. We’ll confirm a date as soon as our inquiries regarding a possible site are answered.

    We are calling this meeting because, along with many others, we realize that we are entering a time of great uncertainties and great dangers—dangers that result from what the government does here and abroad and dangers that result from the emergence of a variety of new right-wing populist and nationalist forces that can only be understood as pre-fascist or fascist. At the same time, we insist that the great majority of Trump supporters cannot and should not be tarred with such a brush. Indeed, as we wrote in our most recent editorial, “There are people in the Hillary camp who are our enemies, and there are people in the Trump camp who are our potential allies.” Many people attracted to the Trump campaign, alternatively, could be attracted to a consistent vision of an alternative to capitalist society, which up till now has not existed. They will not, however, be attracted to a defense of the existing state of affairs—no matter how dressed up in notions of understanding, tolerance and opportunity.

    We are convinced that the only way out of the terrible mess that this country and the world are in is the development of a mass radical movement–a movement that will challenge the fundamental bases and characteristics of capitalist society with a program for the radical reconstruction of this society under the direct democratic control of the immense majority of the people. Such a movement cannot restrict itself to participation in electoral campaigns of any kind. We need to be clear—we do not believe that such a movement can be built upon the legacies and traditions of liberalism, progressivism, social democracy or Stalinism-Trotskyism-Maoism.

    Over the course of the last six years, Insurgent Notes has published fourteen issues of its online journal. For the most part, we attracted modest levels of attention and support. Recently, we believe in response to articles and editorials focused on the election and its outcome, we have seen a dramatic upswing in the number of visits to our web page, the number of comments posted and the number of new subscribers.

    We feel compelled to seize upon that momentum to find out how we might contribute to the development of the movement that we so desperately need. We recognize that such a movement will be the result of the coming together of individuals with different experiences and political convictions. Towards that end, we also believe that we need to come up with new forms of political organization that can allow for the definition of fundamental agreements, provide space for ongoing productive conversations and enable us to act in concert as events unfold.

    Let’s briefly describe what our preliminary ideas are for the meeting:

    • The meeting would take up the better part of a day—perhaps from 11 AM to 5 PM.
    • We hope to include panel discussions on at least the following major topics:
    o The world’s crises and the election
    o Class and race: is there anything new to say?
    o An anti-capitalist vision
    o Creating a new language of hope and revolt
    o Naming and fighting male supremacy
    o Imagining new forms of political organization.
    • We also hope to include opportunities for people to get to know each other and to actively engage in conversations about the most pressing of the issues.
    • We’re going to work hard before and during the meeting to insure that presentations and comments go far beyond the mere re-statement of prior convictions or the re-arguing of old debates.
    • We’d like to entertain suggestions for next steps after the meeting.
    • We’re hoping to sponsor an informal social event at the end of the day.

    This letter is being sent to individuals who we believe might want to participate in the meeting. Please feel free to circulate it to people who you think might be interested. Beyond that, we’d like to ask for your advice about the topics we should be discussing and other individuals that we might want to invite to participate. Please respond to editors@insurgentnotes.com as soon as possible.

    In the meantime, we’re going to be contacting other individuals and organizations to see if they might be interested in participating. In the near future, we’ll be posting a meeting announcement on our web page and using other media to spread the word. We’ll keep you informed.

    If you’d like to talk about any of this, you can email us and we’d be happy to set up a time to meet in person.

    In hopeful solidarity,

    Insurgent Notes


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