Voting and rioting: “What’s Left?” May 2015, MRR #384

Was it a millionaire who said “Imagine no possessions?”

Elvis Costello, “The Other Side Of Summer”

I vote.

In admitting this, I always feel like someone undead confessing my vampiric tendencies, only to be met by torch-wielding mobs waving silver crucifixes, er, circle a’s, hoping to ward off evil, um, political incorrectness. That’s how many in the anarcho/ultra milieu view any admission of electoral participation, as if merely by punching a ballot for five minutes I actively affirm the entire bourgeois edifice of capitalism and the state and all that is heinous about our society today. Those who employ this reductio ad absurdum argument would brand me a class traitor for simply casting a vote every two years.

As a détourned bumper sticker I once saw expressed it, I riot and I vote. I do less and less rioting the older I get, but that’s a different matter. More precisely I organize, I protest, I act, I demonstrate, I resist, I give money, I rebel, I back unions, I riot, and I vote. Way too long for your average bumper sticker message. I engage in, support, and appreciate a wide variety of political activity in the course of any given day. I don’t consider all political activity equal, either in commission or experience. I rank direct action above voting as I would favor social revolution over streetfighting. But I prefer doing something over doing nothing.

Last column, I made the case for critical support for the military advances of Rojava in western Kurdistan and for the electoral victory of Syriza in Greece. Last June, I talked about stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership and embracing the idea of “see something, leak something.” All of these issues are decidedly reformist, but I haven’t suddenly forsaken revolution for reformism. “Can we counterpose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms?” Rosa Luxemburg once famously asked in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution. “Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social Democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class struggle and working in the direction of the final goal—the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor. For Socialist Democracy, there is an indissoluble tie between social reforms and revolution. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its goal.”

I offer up Luxemburg’s quote to short-circuit the usual bullshit political runaround about the relationship between reform and revolution. We’re told either to accept the “lesser of two evils” or to demand “all or nothing at all.” We’re told either to be reasonable in our demands, or to demand nothing and seize everything. The full social dialectic between reform and revolution is belittled by such simplicities. A few days before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X visited Selma, Alabama, and spoke in secret with Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King. “I didn’t come to Selma to make his job more difficult,” Malcolm is supposed to have said to Coretta about Martin. “But I thought that if the White people understood what the alternative was that they would be more inclined to listen to your husband. And so that’s why I came.” The dynamic relationship between reform and revolution cuts both ways.

This discussion of reform and revolution flows easily into the related discussion of tactics and strategy. Occupy Wall Street introduced issues that Occupy Oakland brought to a crescendo with respect to the debate between nonviolence and what has been called a “diversity of tactics.” Unlike the tactical rigidity of traditional nonviolence however, the anarcho/ultra milieu’s effusive embrace of a “diversity of tactics” is not for tactical flexibility, but rather a glorification of tactics without strategy, a justification of fucking shit up for the sake of fucking shit up. Again, I don’t fuck shit up nearly as much as I used to, but that’s not the point. The absolutism embedded in the latter’s insurrectionism and communization, no less than the moralism inherent in the former’s pacifism, are inimical to forging winning strategies for social change. And frankly, I find it as tiresome arguing in the abstract against the supposed counterrevolutionary reformism of electoral participation or union involvement as I do in countering the histrionic, emotional outrage over the wrongs and evils of coercive violence. I mean, isn’t it middle-class, suburban white kids with everything who are always talking about “Demand nothing?”

People forget that the point is to win. Not by any means necessary, but by means sufficient to achieve victory and by means commensurate with the ends desired. No more “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” as is ubiquitous in the anarcho/ultra milieu, and no more “destroying the village in order to save the village” as is the practice of the authoritarian Leninist Left. No more beautiful losers, and no more one-party totalitarian states disingenuously called socialism. As much as I want principles to align with pragmatism, I’d rather be pragmatic over being principled, if I had to choose.

Plus, I like focusing on the practical every now and again as a welcome addition to my usual mashup of theory, history, news, reviews, commentary, and tirade. After twenty-four years and some two hundred and fifty odd columns, I frequently repeat myself. Too often, I struggle to say the same old shit in slightly different ways. I still manage to raise some controversy and an occasional stink. Unfortunately, it’s rarely in the letters-to-the-editor pages of this magazine, and almost entirely on the intrawebz.

This month, another old-time columnist bites the dust. I’m the only OG columnist left who got my benediction direct from Tim Yo himself. Without going into details (and since no one asked my opinion) all I’ll say is that there’s a difference between being an asshole punk rocker and being an asshole to your fellow punk rockers. I’ll leave it at that.

Next column, fifty shades of anarchy.

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Treme: “What’s Left?” September 2011, MRR #340

My wife often finds it difficult to follow a speech or conversation, on TV or in a movie, if there is a strong accent or dialect involved. I, on the other hand, can usually catch the gist of what’s being said and roll with it. When we saw Harry Brown in a theatre, or rented Alfie and Flawless on Netflix, she felt that subtitles would have been appropriate, given the overpowering cockney of Michael Caine’s British accent. The same with David Simon’s HBO series The Wire. She complained that Baltimore’s black street vernacular needed captions. In all these cases, I got the general idea of what people were saying, even though I never got all of the words.

Currently, we’re fans of another David Simon TV series, Treme, now having finished its second season. Co-created with Eric Overmyer and set in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, Treme features plenty of local language, culture, locations, and flavor. It’s also wall-to-wall music, frequently jazz of one stripe or another, but often so varied that it’s a delight to watch the show to try and identify what’s being played. In episode 19, entitled “What is New Orleans?,” David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It” shared the soundtrack with Dr. John performing “Hu Ta Nay” and Allen Toussaint’s “Tipitina and Me.”

Treme is also riddled with Famous People, musicians like Ron Carter and Kermit Ruffins, but also writers like Roy Blount Jr., chefs like Tom Colicchio, and politicians like James Carville. Elvis Costello did a cameo at the beginning of season two, and Peter “Spider” Stacy of The Pogues played his tin-whistle, busking the streets of New Orleans with American musician Steve Earle, in a recent episode. To add to this chaos and complexity, the show’s plot is multi-layered, multi-charactered, and multi-cultural in the best sense of that word. Sometimes didactic and heavy handed, particularly when castigating those responsible for fucking over New Orleans before, during and after Katrina, Treme is nevertheless incredibly rich, lush in details, and profligate with the truth. Gumbo would be an inadequate metaphor for the intricacy and density offered up by this tasty show.

There are still times when the dialogue in Treme is difficult to follow. When the city’s Vietnamese community, or its Mardi Gras Indians, or the bounce music subculture, or white rural Cajuns are featured, both my wife and I could have done with some translation. An excellent source to help fans decipher the show can be found at http://www.nola.com/treme-hbo/. I suggest renting the first two seasons, then watching the third when it returns to HBO.

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