WWTYD? Memory & History: “What’s Left?” March 2017, MRR #406

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WWTYD?

An MRR alumnus lettered this acronym on a black button over a copy of Tim Yo’s old column header; a skinny menacing Yohannan brandishing a rolling pin and spatula beneath the name “Tim Yo Mama.” What Would Tim Yo Do? The button was an instant success on FB, with commenters waxing nostalgic about Tim, sharing stories about the old days, recalling his meticulous if quirky attention to detail, remembering what outstanding things he said and how he belly laughed. It was a fun thread about a joke button, until I googled and posted another reference to “What Would Tim Yo Do,” this one from an online pop rock radio show called “All Kindsa Girls.”
When it comes to unyielding doctrine the MRR crowd give religious fundamentalists a run for their money.  I have no doubt that on a daily basis young punks around the world were asking themselves- WWTYD (What Would Tim Yo Do).  And not just regarding music- it was politics, clothes, consumer products- you name it, Tim and his people had a strong opinion about it.  And God help you if your favorite band got signed or even got a distribution deal with a major label  because then you could expect a sh*tstorm of hate to rain down on them in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll.  The Clash were on a freaking major label for God’s sake! [#150, 6-16-16]
Needless to say I was harshing everybody’s mellow, so it was taken down soon after I posted it.

This is a grim portrayal of Tim Yo and the MRR gang which likened us to a humorless fundamentalist religious sect bent on denouncing anyone or anything we deemed not punk enough. Yes, Tim and the rest of us volunteering at the magazine were certainly extremely opinionated and more than willing to use the pages of MRR to promote those opinions as the truth, especially when it came to what we thought was or was not punk. There was a fair amount of consensus, but there was never a party line about what constituted punk rock, major label involvement, appropriate scene activity, and what not. Tim had a great sense of humor and working with my fellow shitworkers at MRR HQ was nothing if not memorable. Then why are there two so widely differing descriptions of the same experience?

These are personal memories which are subjective by definition and therefore not accurate. Amassing numerous individual memories into a collective memory doesn’t necessarily improve their accuracy. Collective German memory of the second World War differed markedly depending on whether the Germans in question were Christian or Jewish, and was demonstrably inaccurate even concerning fundamental facts of record within and between these two groups. Whether individual or collective, memory must first be documented, then combined with primary and secondary sources in prescribed ways to constitute evidence for the events of history. Historical evidence is more accurate because of this process, but such evidence is not fact, and certainly not truth. Consider the interminable debates still raging around the Nazi Holocaust as to who and how many were killed, by what means where, even whether it happened at all, to determine the veracity of recorded history and its methods.

But first, when I use the word history I mean written history, not some Marxist abstraction with agency. We can argue endlessly about whether or not history demonstrates causality, pattern, or meaning; what it isn’t is capital “H” History with a life of its own. People make their own history, to paraphrase Marx, but not under circumstances of their own choosing. This brings me to my second point. History is clearly distinct from the current post-fact/post-truth thinking that says simply believing in something makes it so. Simply believing that crime in the US is exploding or that all Muslims are out to kill us or that America actually won the Vietnam war or that climate change is a hoax doesn’t make them facts, or true. And jumping off the top of a skyscraper while thinking you can fly doesn’t negate the reality of gravity. Finally, history is not some vast conspiracy where everything and everyone is connected and some cabal runs the show from behind the scenes. According to obsessed conspiracy theorists, history is governed more by design and the will of secret elites than it is by causality, pattern, and meaning. While history records many conspiracies as determined by the evidence, history doesn’t equal conspiracy.

So, what will history make of, and blame for Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat? Bernie Sanders and angry BernieBros, Jill Stein’s third-party swing-state votes, the Clinton email Russian/Wikileaks hack, FBI Comey’s interference, last minute GOP-instigated voter restrictions, persistent sexism and the rising alt.right’s racism, the fake news smokescreen? The reasons are myriad, yet ultimately secondary. Clinton’s overconfident, complacent, and strategically bumbling campaign combined with the Democratic Party’s arrogant, top-down, corporate campaign management guaranteed her electoral defeat. Yes, Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million even as she lost the electoral college vote. But it’s bullshit to claim “he’s not my president” or “I want my country back.” That’s how the game of electoral politics is played in the United States, for better or worse. Instead of being sore losers, we need to transition from discussing the elections to where to go from here. Or “what is to be done,” to use a tired old leftist trope, since part of what we need to do is reevaluate the Left and leftist politics.

Ah, but before we can go forward, we need to sum up where we’ve been, or so the mainstream Marxist Left would have it. Summing up? The Left is endlessly summing up everything from the Russian Revolution onward and coming to fractious, diametrically opposed positions. Such summing up often paralyzes people into ceaseless rumination, keeping them stuck in thinking rather than in having them act. It would be far better to take people where they’re at, with whatever backgrounds and beliefs they have at that moment, and start them acting together. There’s much Marxist thinking (György Lukács, Martin Glaberman, Antonio Gramsci, et al) that “action precedes consciousness.”

As I write, mobilizations are under way for “no peaceful transition” to “stand up to Trump” and “make it ungovernable” on January 20, Inauguration Day. It would be nice if such protests could shut down Washington DC as was done in Seattle, 1999, around the WTO. I’ll be sure to cover events of that day next column. Just for comparison, in May of 1971, the May Day Tribe organized three days of mass protests and civil disobedience in the capitol against the Vietnam War intended to shut down the US government. Over 35,000 protesters participated, facing off against 10,000 federal troops, 5,100 Metropolitan Police, 2,000 DC National Guard and President Nixon’s internal security forces implementing combined civil disorder emergency measures. The protesters engaged in a variety of creative tactics (such as launching tethered helium-filled balloons to ward off low-flying helicopters), but the use of mass civil disobedience was stymied when troops secured major intersections and bridges ahead of time while the police roamed through the city firing tear gas and making mass arrests. In response to the police sweeps, protesters resorted to hit-and-run tactics throughout the city, disrupting traffic and causing chaos in the streets. Politicians were harassed and federal workers, who were not given the day off, had to maneuver through police lines and protest roadblocks. In all 12,614 people were arrested, including construction workers who came out to support Nixon, making it the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. Neither Washington DC nor the US government were shut down.

A friend who participated in the 1971 May Days was tear gassed, almost run down by a motorcycle cop while walking on the sidewalk, and ultimately arrested for civil disobedience. The DC jails were filled to overflowing, so he was housed in a fenced-in emergency detention center next to the DC Stadium (now RFK Stadium) and denied food, water, and toilets while in custody. He eventually had all his charges dropped as did all but 79 of his fellow arrestees. Thousands of protesters pursued a class action suit through the ACLU. In the end, the US Congress admitted the arrests were grossly illegal and agreed to pay financial compensation to those arrested as part of a settlement that set an historic precedent by acknowledging US citizens’ constitutional right of free assembly were violated by the government. My friend received a small check for his troubles over a decade and a half later.

Unlike May, 1971, when protesters had only DC residents and workers to contend with, Inauguration Day 2017 is anticipated to have 2 to 3 million people in attendance. The government’s police and military powers have been greatly expanded since Nixon’s day, as have urban disorder contingency measures, and the forces of law and order will be under Obama’s control until Trump takes the oath of office. I have no doubt that a willingness to protest Trump can fill the streets of DC, but not if those protests are dispersed and divided. So I predict that the protests will be contained, Trump will be inaugurated without incident, and the US government will not be shut down. I don’t think it’s likely that the independent @/ultraleft actions in Mcpherson Square Park, Workers World Party protest in Union Station, and ANSWER Coalition demonstration in Freedom Plaza will get out of control, let alone merge their separate events and run amok through the city, reprise Seattle 1999 in the nation’s capitol, or declare a Columbia Commune. If protests intended to go beyond run-of-the-mill 60s mass marches and demonstrations into mass nonviolent disruption couldn’t break the government in 1971, it’s unlikely that protest-as-usual and limited, targeted civil disobedience or even some streetfighting can do so now.

We’ll talk about how to go beyond ineffective protest into effective direct action, but I’ll first evaluate the present-day American Left in the next column or two.

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Practical resistance: “What’s Left?” June 2014, MRR #373

The logic is inescapable. If US politics are irredeemably corrupt, then to try and reform them is a waste of time, even counter productive. If America is bound and determined to destroy the planet through its imperial activity, then to sustain this country is folly while to hasten its demise is necessity.

Only a fool fights in a burning house.

I’ve been on a doom-and-gloom jag lately. We’re all fucked, everything is going down the porcelain highway, the planet is bound for a slow-motion apocalypse. I keep harping on this pessimistic perspective, which allows for only two real choices; burn it all down, or party hard and die young. Well, this column I will mention a couple of political causes that you can get behind that might make a difference. Winning them won’t bring about The Revolution, which I’m convinced isn’t happening in my lifetime, but these small victories might make our lives a little bit easier, and counter the rampant nihilism in which I’m currently mired. But first, a sidebar with respect to relevance.

I once did an interview with David McReynolds in the 1980s for San Diego Newsline, a tiny independent community newspaper. McReynolds was a pacifist and democratic socialist, a member of the War Resisters League and the Socialist Party USA, of which he was their presidential candidate. He said something during that interview that has stayed with me, with regard to a central fallacy in Marxism. This fallacy holds true for both orthodox, vulgar Marxism (which called itself “scientific socialism”) and the plethora of Leninist variations of Marxism (all hail the science of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought!). As McReynolds explained, in science and the mathematics upon which science is based, 2+2=4. This formula is correct, and science is based upon a number of such correct formulations, truths that cannot be denied without denying reality itself.

If, however, your political ideology is defined as “scientific,” or “based on science,” or a “science” unto itself, then the formulations of your ideology are supposed to be scientifically correct. There are various and sundry Marxist and Leninist sects which promulgate their “correct political line” as scientific fact, on everything from whether or not to vote for Obama to who to support in the Syrian civil war. In the case of Syria, for instance, these sectoids fight over whether to support Assad whole heartedly, or provisionally, or as “objectively anti-imperialist,” debating in turn whether to support the Syrian opposition unreservedly, or reservedly, or just one or another opposition organization or individual. On this one issue alone, there can be a myriad contending positions, and believe me, there are scores of Leftoid sects vying against each other for possession of the correct political line on the Syrian civil war. Problem is, if all these groupuscules possess a political ideology based on science, and if their political pronouncements are all supposed to be scientifically correct, then why the fuck do they all disagree so vehemently with each other on virtually everything?

That’s because Marxism is not a science. But rather than argue this further (let alone probe the difference between ideology and theory), I will present a couple of political issues that most of us will consider important, broadly define as correct, and ultimately hope to see triumph in order to make our lives better. Unless, of course, you contend that “the worse things are, the better things are,” that the more miserable most of humanity becomes, the faster we all will inevitably rise up in revolution against state and capital. In which case, you can stop reading now.

STOP THE TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP

The Obama Administration is currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade treaty on steroids. Encompassing a dozen nations around the Pacific Rim (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore,Vietnam, and the United States), with more hoping to join, the TPP is being negotiated behind closed doors. The rigid secrecy extends to members of the US Congress, who aren’t privy to most of what’s being discussed, and who are prohibited from disclosing the little they do know. Shit has been leaking out about the TPP negotiations however, and it ain’t looking good. In addition to all the official government representatives cutting deals in smoke-filled rooms, there are over 600 business representatives from the likes of Chevron, Walmart and Halliburton participating in these trade talks. Similar trade deals in the past have resulted in 3 billion plus dollars in corporate handouts.

There are provisions for media censorship and the banning of buy-local policies. Big Pharma will be allowed to limit access to medicines, and governments will be restricted from regulating food labeling. Workers rights, organizing, and safety will be severely undermined. Foreign companies will be able to legally challenge US environmental regulation. Increased fracking, and the increased export of all fossil fuels will be promoted. In turn, fossil fuel corporations will be allowed to sue governments that stand in their way. The TPP is not so subtly considered an effort to encircle and contain China internationally. Finally, this massive corporate power grab, neoliberal restructuring of government power, systematic suppression of human and workers rights, and gutting of the climate and environment which the Trans-Pacific Partnership represents is intended to be pushed through the US Congress using Fast Track. Fast Track is a legislative process by which treaties are railroaded through without any opportunity for discussion, debate or amendment by up or down vote only.

We need to stop the TPP by any and all means necessary.

SEE SOMETHING, LEAK SOMETHING

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was intended to provide clear democratic access and oversight of federal intelligence and security agencies—the CIA, NSA, FBI and DIA specifically—by giving individual citizens a mechanism to request and receive classified documents being held by those agencies. But when MIT PhD candidate Ryan Shapiro made FOIA requests of three of the above agencies for documents regarding allegations that a CIA tip led to the arrest of Nelson Mandela by South Africa’s apartheid government in 1962, and Mandela’s subsequent internment in prison for 27 years, all three stonewalled Shapiro and denied his FOIA requests on grounds of national security, national defense, and executive privilege.

The Catch 22 Squared around this needs to be emphasized. The CIA, NSA, FBI and DIA are tasked with protecting national security, and thus see threats to national security at every turn and under every rock. The anti-war, anti-apartheid, and radical green movements, everything from the Left to Occupy Wall Street, have all been considered threats to national security and potential sources of domestic terrorism. Nelson Mandela himself was denounced as a Marxist terrorist, and remained on the US terror watch list until 2008. US security and intelligence agencies have been, and continue to be instrumental in the surveillance and subversion of all these progressive movements. For these agencies, the FOIA itself is a threat to national security, and those who request classified material through the FOIA are also considered threats to national security. In the case of the NSA, that agency completely refused to acknowledge the very existence of the documents requested by Shapiro in denying his FOIA application.

Shapiro, who has made over 400 FOIA requests over other issues in the past, decided to draw the line when the CIA, FBI, NSA and DIA used their official position to thwart his FOIA requests regarding Mandela by issuing repeated national security exemptions. In January 2014, Shapiro filed a lawsuit against the CIA, DOD, DOJ and NSA for their non-compliance.

“The failure of the NSA, FBI, DIA, and CIA to comply with my FOIA requests for records on Mandela highlights that FOIA is broken and that this sad reality is just one component among many of the ongoing crisis of secrecy we now face,” Shapiro says. The issue for him is that the public needs to keep the government accountable. “It’s not surprising those in power wish to keep their actions secret. What’s surprising is how readily we tolerate it. We are all familiar with the security-oriented signage instructing us to ‘See something, Say something.’ In the interest of promoting a fuller conception of national security, I add, ‘See something, Leak something.’ The viability of our democracy may depend upon it.”

It’s simple. See something, Leak something.

***

I’ll mention principled political issues from time to time in future columns, to try and counteract my deep and deepening cynicism and pessimism. It’ll be an uphill struggle, all the way.

Stranger in a strange land: “What’s Left?” October 2009, MRR #317

And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Exodus 2:21-22

I’m riding on a bus, or sitting in a library, or sipping tea in a coffee shop, or even relaxing in a chair at home, and I’m tired. I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, so pretty soon I’m nodding off. My head slumps, my mouth drops open, I start to snore. Everything goes black. It lasts only a moment, though for all I know I’m out for hours. Suddenly, with a start, I’m awake again. I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing. The sense of disorientation is profound. Sometimes, it feels as if I’ve been transported to an alien world. Sometimes, I can’t even understand what the people around me are saying.

For an instant, I’m utterly bewildered.

That sense of complete estrangement, of being a stranger in a strange land, is how I’ve been feeling lately. The Left in this country is rallying around a president who makes sweetheart deals with Wall Street and Big Pharma, asserts executive power and privilege against Congress, regularly withholds information from the public on grounds of national security, and steadily escalates US military involvement in a foreign quagmire, while the Right protests and riots in the streets. It’s enough to give this aging commie vertigo.

For the record, I don’t give a flying fuck about Obama.

I won’t spill any ink debunking the significance of Barack Obama’s electoral victory in particular, or of the increase in Democratic party clout generally. Nor will I waste my time trying to disabuse people of the belief that some kind of revolution happened last November 8. The next few years are bound to deeply disappoint a lot of young people, bleeding-heart liberals, and aging ‘60s lefties who’ve come to consider Obama as God’s gift to progressive politics. But, maybe not. I know way too many progressive types who look fondly back to the Clinton years, despite the fact that Bill Clinton gutted welfare, pushed through NAFTA’s ratification, and initiated the policy of regime change against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. For all of Obama’s criticisms of Bush, there are numerous ways in which our current president’s policies are a mere continuation of his predecessors, as Michael Hirsh has so ably pointed out in his 7-31-09 Newsweek article “Barack W. Bush.” I’ve done a number of columns in the past about how there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, and I could do many more columns about how Obama is the nothing more than the ever-so-slightly-to-the-left-of-center face of the American ruling class.

What’s far more interesting to me is that such a modest shift in political emphasis within the American bourgeoisie would cause such a monumental tumult, as well as the disconcerting Left-Right reversal mentioned above. The Left bitches about Obama’s betrayals, yet falls into line behind the Democrats when push comes to shove. The Right claims the mantle of populist rebellion, yet gets its marching orders from its corporate Republican enablers. When the SEIU and AFL-CIO announced that they would counter the presence of the birthers, tea bag partiers and other fringe rightists at the August congressional town hall meetings devoted to discussing health care reform, I had visions of Weimar Germany, of Communists and Nazis battling each other in the streets. Then I remembered how well that turned out for the working people of Germany, not to mention for the Left, the Jews, Gypsies, and gays, let alone for the Poles, Russians, French and much of the rest of Europe. I have no doubt who would win in any scenario where there’s actual street fighting between Left and Right in this country. Concentration camp stripes do not become me.

One small incident did help restore my sense of sanity in the topsy-turvy political landscape of the past several months. On July 20, members of Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective (CWC) attempted to hold a Convergence in Pittsburgh. A group of Anarchist People of Color (APOC) converged as well and unceremoniously evicted the CWC folk five days later, condemning them for white supremacy in the anarchist movement, and gentrification of the surrounding impoverished neighborhood. Folks critical of APOC have used terms ranging from misguided and wrong to idiotic and racist to agent provocateurish and COINTELPRO in describing their actions.

By the way, I don’t give a flying fuck about Crimethinc or APOC either. Plug those two names into Google, and spend the next umpteen wasted hours reading the utter crap from both sides, and everything in between, about the incident. Don’t expect me to reprise the sorry facts here. The capacity for the anarchist movement to tear itself to shreds, to give sectarianism a good name, to make itself look the fool, is limitless. That’s reassuring. It’s what I’ve come to expect, given past practice.

I’m no longer a stranger in a strange land. I’m right at home.

I hear that APOC has denounced Food Not Bombs as white supremacist, and that the National Anarchists are using this anarcho-debacle to try to recruit disaffected white anarchists into their ranks. These shenanigans reaffirm that modern anarchism has become a pathetic joke. At a time when conventional politics seem to have turned upside down, it’s good to know that something like anarchism’s propensity for self-humiliation and self-destruction remains a constant upon which I can depend.

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