From “who” to “what”, from branch to root

The Thoreau quote is famous and forever relevant: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” All public policy, all activism, all social justice effort expended lies within the tension between branches and roots. It’s a dialectic, where no answer is fully satisfactory. If the focus is entirely on roots, the branches of injustice will harm innocent people in the meantime. If the focus is entirely on branches, society can only tread water, the problem never ending.

Martin Luther King Jr. put the issue in different words, when he eulogized Rev. James Reeb (PDF), a Unitarian Universalist minister bludgeoned to death by white racists in Selma, Alabama. His death is treated with the gruesome, horrifying tone is deserves in Selma. To King, branches are the question of “who”, and roots are the question of “what”.

Hate crimes have tangible perpetrators- those that directly order killing or participate in the killing act.  Hate itself goes beyond the individual, into the very fabric of society itself. King is right- society is complicit in racism, sexism, homophobia, and inequity of all types. All evil exists within a world that we helped create. Today, as it was fifty years ago in Alabama, we are spending so much time performing triage. There is no shortage of suffering to soften if we wish to keep looking. Yet we cannot roll into bed exhausted each day, and not think about prevention. Helping the homeless is important, but not the same as preventing vulnerable people from becoming homeless in the first place. Exonerating the innocent about decades behind bars is not a substitute from preventing the innocent from being placed there.

The tension between roots and branches, between what and who, sits in a battle between past and future. Present society is habitually bailing out past society. At least a dozen times in my life, someone of an older generation has said that the world is in the hands of Millennials. They tried to save the world, failed, and there’s nothing left to due but transfer the weight. Mending past injustices has to be mixed with preventing present injustice, for each new tragedy compounds and worsens each tragedy that emerged before.

Psychologically, how does one deal with the truth that one cannot strike both the root and branches completely at the same time? How can we take both success and failure in the same moment? We cannot do everything, but the world needs saving. Tension will always exist, and each step towards justice has to be evaluated. The process encourages self-reflection, and there is always the threat of self-consciousness rising, to become overwhelming.

Between roots and branches,
between what is and who has,
between injustice, today, yesterday, and a thousand years ago, unremedied.

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Plan. Execute. Win. Activism and net neutrality

Net neutrality carried the day at the FCC. The years-long fight between certain sectors of business and a coalition in favor of an egalitarian internet is not over by any means, but a decision to treat the internet like a public utility is a clear win for activists.

FCC commissioners hold hands during a hearing on net neutrality today. February 26, 2015. Mark Wilson/Getty

As Waging Nonviolence writes, the grassroots campaign for net neutrality stands as an example of how to structure activism:

Today’s net neutrality rules would not exist without the tireless work of activists both in the streets and behind screens. Last year, I interviewed activists about how they planned to win on net neutrality, something that seemed impossible at the time. But they achieved today’s improbable victory by following those plans to the letter: having a clear and concise demand from day one, creating synergy between online and offline organizing, and framing net neutrality as a social justice issue.

Gene Sharp, which the New Statesman once dubbed “the Machiavelli of Non-Violence”, emphasizes one thing above all in his work: if you want to win, you need a strong, resilient plan (much of his works are available online for free here). In reality, most social justice movements are not fully planned out before they happen, but figuring out what the central demand is, what tactics will be used, and what the contingencies if there is a setback or repression is key. The move for net neutrality was impressive in its breadth and organization, and the structural basis for its success is what can be exported to other struggles.

As an activist states, this is just one step, and the fight to cement the victory continues with a new standoff:

“Our next goal is to undermine the telecom industry,” said Zeese. “We want to make them politically toxic so that anyone who does their bidding is seen as someone who is corrupted by a monopoly system.”

There’s always a next goal. Mobilization is power.

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Forever seeking solidarity

The big development in radical politics this week is the so-called Corinthian 15 (all interesting radical developments include a physical space and a number), who have refused to pay the debts they incurred at their now-defunct for-profit colleges. The New Yorker captured the promise of this action with their article title- “The Student-Debt Revolt Begins”. Given that there exists over $1.2 trillion dollars in student debt, a move towards nonpayment would take the initiative away from private loan companies and overpriced schools.

However, reading an online left-wing community, I was disheartened to see a sentiment that is common, but could fatally undermine mass action. Many of us see for-profit education for the expensive scam that it is, and are at least concerned about the population that goes there. But there’s also an urge towards thinking these people are dumb, and deserve the debt they accrued.

From the start, a potential rift between for-profit students like the Corinthian 15, and other students, plus the public at large. This goes against the basis for popular action in the left-wing ideology- solidarity. The success of the 15 depends on people who aren’t directly affected supporting and expanding the resistance. Contempt for for-profit students creates a hierarchy, where some but not all students are victims of their loan companies and boated universities. If capitalism really is the underlying problem of exploitation, then this split cannot persist. A lack of solidarity is the reason that the British left became a joke in Life of Brian- many groups with the same general goal, but refusing to work united due to minor differences.

If there is no solidarity, no mass action, then the differences are pointless. Arguing over the right path means nothing if the path is not walked to its conclusion.

Another troubling aspect is the trend online for left-wing commenters to say “solidarity from Ireland” or “solidarity from Ohio!” when reading stories or posts about protest activity. It’s harmless, but I feel it cheapens the term, which is about concrete mutual support. When the Gezi Park protests broke out, activists used Indiegogo to raise $100,00 from individuals, many not living in Turkey, to let protestors run a full-page ad in the New York Times. It allowed the movement to speak for itself, and didn’t smother the resistance with rhetoric from outsiders. That is true solidarity, and shows that even if you can’t physically participate, there are things you can do beyond a social media comment. We must becomes more creative

“Solidarity Forever” begins with one of the best encapsulations of what solidarity is and should be:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
For the Union makes us strong

There is nothing weaker than small groups that could be one large group. Even dedicated socialists and progressives can have elitist tendencies. That’s not surprising, but we have to teach ourselves to accept all exploited people, even if their plight might seem self-inflicted. There’s a world to win, and we must act united.

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Stopping stigma early

Mental illness as a topic is something society just has no idea how to handle. I’ve written about how mental illness is misused to score political points (usually by creating the illusion that a mental disorder is a prerequisite for horrendous crimes). Thankfully I stumbled across a compact guide, written by Margarita Tartakovsky, that tackles myths about mental illness and treatment. If you need to educate in a hurray, highly recommended.

The best section deals with the fact that children’s content is stigmatizing in a way that we don’t often consider. It’s not just murder-mystery hour-long dramas on CBS, the process of misrepresentation begins early:

Adult programs aren’t the only ones that portray mental illness negatively and inaccurately. “Children’s programs have a surprising amount of stigmatizing content,” Olson said. For instance, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast attempts to prove that Belle’s father is crazy and should be locked up, she said.

When Wahl and colleagues examined the content of children’s TV programs (Wahl, Hanrahan, Karl, Lasher & Swaye, 2007), they found that many used slang or disparaging language (e.g., “crazy,” “nuts,” “mad”). Characters with mental illness were typically depicted “as aggressive and threatening” and other characters feared, disrespected or avoided them. His earlier research also showed that children view mental illness as less desirable than other health conditions (Wahl, 2002).

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Debt revolt: education is a human right

Written for an organization I help run, Students for Free Tuition, regarding the student debt strike of former for-profit college students in the defunct Corinthian system. 

For-profit Corinthian Colleges are defunct, but the debt of its once-students lives on, almost impossible to discharge- even in bankruptcy.

Fifteen students have formed a collective action to not repay their loans, citing the violations of student rights by the college network.

While this strike are tailored to the particular brutalities of for-profit education, the potential is much larger and can apply to all schools deliberately underfunded, privatized, and run in concert with student loan companies.

Of special interest is an unused but applicable clause with the Department of Education:

“The department, the senators noted, has the power to cancel federal loans for students who attended institutions that violated their rights. In fact, they pointed out, the department’s federal-loan agreements with students go as far as to spell this out, if in fine print: ‘In some cases, you may assert, as a defense against collection of your loan, that the school did something wrong or failed to do something that it should have done.’

Sources: College Board, California Post Secondary Education Commission from <http://keepcaliforniaspromise.org/314/is-privatization-a-national-trend-beyond-our-control&gt;

What is the University of California system and the Board of Regents, if not institutions that have failed to do what they should have?

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Holding back the tide: English education here and now

One of my high school English teachers posted this article describing the struggle on the job, including ever-falling expectations and aspirations for students regarding the English language. My comment was as such:

English class is a battle between one person attempting to uphold a linguistic tradition and a couple dozen attempting to normalize their errors.

One of the examples given in the article is the abuse of “literally” in non-literal statements. Despite that being a gross misuse of vocabulary, I pointed out that Google in the past year has amended its definition of the word to acknowledge misuse.

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Such is the ongoing journey of English, which is reminiscent of the Geocities-era Internet- unregulated (unlike many other languages which have some sort of academy overseeing things), fragmented across space, and full of contradicting opinions. At some future point I’d imagine a post facto classification change, where what is spoken now is called Later English or something, and its rules and idiosyncrasies frozen in time along with Middle and Old English. What English instruction boils down to is a defense of a particular hill- what grammar, usage, spelling, and pronunciation were in a particular place at a particular point in time. Those students who don’t want to learn or don’t take lessons to heart will over time dictate what is current and what becomes archaic.

I once played a game of pool in a Portland bar, teams of two. One member of the opposing duo was from the Continent. He had grown up playing a very strict, organized rule set. My friend Gavin and I learned pool incorrectly from other kids (during summer camp, in my case) and had never figured out a set way to play the game. Thus dubbed “American Rules”, technical questions were not answered with “yes” or “no”, but rather “sure go ahead” or “maybe not”. English is a great example of the American Rules mindset. And I have immense respect for those that attempt to corral all the that chaos and teach an interpretation of English that promotes clarity and precision. In my not-that-long life, slang and vocabulary has undergone a radical change in the digital age, that increasingly departs from a English curriculum that hasn’t changed nearly as much. Every teacher has to drag students out of that universe and make them write something totally different.

Tough work, because the English language marches on, in a different direction in each place and with each community.

 

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If not racist, what? If not now, when?

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The new poll that finds almost half of UKIP voters admit to racial prejudice, but a large chunk of those don’t believe themselves to be racist. This goes beyond voters to the many UKIP officials at the local level who have been expelled for racist views, like Rozanne Duncan this month. Again, she says she’s not racist despite not apologizing for what she said.

This seems to be part of the larger devaluation of words in political discourse. If one can admit openly to prejudice but deny they are racist, the whole debate on what constitutes a racist loses its mooring and floats in the void.

Even more extreme individuals use terms like “racialist” or “racial realist” to describe themselves. People who use race to structure their view, and value one conception of race above another, find the word too toxic to apply. This is why language keeps migrating- political correctness has changed over the decades in part because terms gain toxicity from being used as insults, necessitating new, previously unused language. Racist is used as an insult in a way that racialist is not, because racialist was more or less invented in recent times. In that sense, words gain new meaning over time- and what constitutes a racist seems to change by the year. Apparently UKIP voters aren’t racist- they’re some new, replacement word.

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