My inherent issue with Facebook solidarity

So I didn’t change my Facebook profile picture for Paris. Or Beirut, or Syria, or Kenya, or anywhere else. Nor do I have strong feelings about what people should or should not do after a tragedy, as long as it’s not rooted in bigotry. For me, I have an issue because I know Facebook solidarity is incomplete, and that my friends only focus on certain types of events.

First, as people have pointed out before, there are many places on Earth in perpetual crisis. Syria recently, but also the Rohingya refugee crisis that extends from Burma into Bangladesh and various surrounding territories. Central Africa has been in a series of ongoing conflicts where rape is a major weapon of war. Billions of people are in varying degrees of poverty, most of which is long-standing. There is something ethically troubling about showing visible solidarity with other people when there is an acute incident. Haiti has never recovered from the earthquake several years back- we had a brief period of solidarity, money was raised, and much of the humanitarian crisis was not solved. It still hasn’t been, but our Haiti Facebook pictures have long since been taken down.

Second, since I am an American (along with my race, class, sex . . ) I have a bias towards places and people I can directly relate to. I’ve been to Paris, I’ve never been to Beirut or Nigeria. The entire way I receive information about the world is skewed, and even with wonderful outlets like Al Jazeera English, the lack of coverage of Africa, south Asia, etc. creates an unconscious tendency to think that even when atrocities are reported from there, they aren’t as important as events of a similar magnitude in the developed world.

Which is a long way to say that I feel not changing my profile picture is not a signal that I don’t care about terrorism and imperialism. Rather, it’s an acceptance that the world is immensely fucked up all the time, and only recognizing a tiny portion of the new evils introduced to the world seems somehow wrong. It goes without saying that ultimately fighting global problems on an individual level is about donating money, donating time, and standing against imperialism and exploitation. But don’t lose the past when the unpleasant present roars into view. Because the Haiti crisis is still here, and they don’t get their flag on social media anymore.

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.

Occupy Hong Kong: A coalition of resistance takes shape

A collection of University of Western Ontario students show solidarity with protestors in Hong Kong.

The Nation is reporting that some 10,000 union workers in Hong Kong have decided to strike in solidarity with the Occupy HK movement.

Just a week ago the protest movement was catalyzed (and moved forward in timescale) due to student action. Now older citizens of all stripes have joined in, including businessmen and women, as this liveblog update catalogues:

In Admiralty, the crowd began to swell, fuelled [sic] by many working in Central who came out during their lunch breaks to voice support.

Clad in a stripped shirt, Lampson Lo Ka-hang, 33, said: “They are doing the right thing because someone needs to pressure the government,”

He said most of his colleagues were supportive of the movement.

Another man in his 30s, surnamed Yu, who works for a financial firm, said: “I just want to take this time to support these students.”

This is joined by large solidarity protests all around the world, including in regions dealing with similar problems, like Singapore.

And now there is a burgeoning strike movement. Given Hong Kong’s centrality to the global economy, the greatest power protestors possess (besides moral rightness) is the ability to disrupt the way China does its business. The mainland is known for sacrificing many things to keep factories running and capital moving. The PRC government has its hands tied on one of their usual solutions to unrest- appalling violence- and thus has to face the umbrella-wielding activists on unfavorable soil.

The fight will be long, for Beijing is used to besting social movements, as this year’s 25th anniversary of the June 4th massacre shows. But there is a built-up call for more political rights and economic justice. Heartening stories have been relayed, of mainland tourists showing support, amidst the expected skepticism and contempt. Events will always tilt towards those areas where protest is least constricting, and despite the tear gas and pepper spray, Hong Kong is still that island for which the issue of democracy for all of China will ultimately begin.

Each aspect of Hong Kong society is joining together, joined by the huge diaspora across the world, and other allies- many in their own battles against oppressive institutions. The bundle of sticks does not break when bent- it stays strong, and cannot be destroyed.

A history of outside agitation: the role of UUs

Marker for Viola Liuzzo, murdered by the Klan, March 25, 1965. Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
Marker for Viola Liuzzo, murdered by the Klan, March 25, 1965.
Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer; with it, a chance to reflect on the history of outsider agitators. That term gained currency in reaction to movements like the Freedom Rides and the Summer, where northerners of all races came to break down segregation and Jim Crow. This was portrayed as dangerous, much like the old antebellum South and its fears of slave insurrection. In March,1965 a UU minister, James Reeb was killed while working with Dr. King, Jr. Two weeks later, another UU named Viola Liuzzo was murdered by Klan thugs. In every way they were different than the communities and people they were trying to help, but their sacrifice was important. That is because they were agitators, and agitators help justice triumph- no matter is they were ‘outside’ or not.

Marker remembering Rev. James Reeb, murdered March 9, 1965.
Marker remembering Rev. James Reeb, died March 11, 1965.

 

The role of outside forces, especially white leftist activists, has been hotly debated. I’ve shared some discussion on the matter. What we have is an old quandary- how can you help, without making things worse? The sandpit that makes outside agitators difficult, and even dangerous, is one of selfishness. If outside forces pour into Ferguson, or Sanford, Florida, or indeed Mississippi and Alabama fifty years ago, their level of self-interest helps determine their use. Put bluntly, joining a protest in St. Louis and throwing rocks at the police is a great way to get on TV. That kind of behavior sabotages local efforts to press for change, and draws attention to a small minority, to the detriment of larger grievances.

Though there are moral principles at stake here, the question those who wish to help need to ask is “if we can, how can we help you?” versus “I know what can help you.” Respect for autonomy, whether in the black community, or indigenous peoples fighting Chevron and mining companies, or whatever group is engaged in struggle, is important. Part of the Freedom Summer was allowing the oppressed to gain political tools to use against their oppressors. Supplying power to others, not using your own power in their name.

Here I stand

Here I stand

Erdem Gunduz engaged in a form of protest that emphasizes power not by motion, but by the lack of motion. For eight hours he stood silently in Taksim Square- which had been violently cleared out by riot police earlier. Passers-by went from indifferent, to annoyed, to amused, and finally began to emulate him. By the time police moved in at 2am, there were three hundred people standing still, looking at the Ataturk Cultural Center- where a large picture of the famous secular president is displayed.

He is now called “duran adam,” Turkish for “standing man.” Many followup actions throughout Turkey take his lead.

The revolution will not be organized

As a member of what most people would consider the political left, I am often flabbergasted and let down by my colleagues (or in this context, my comrades). The history of leftist coalitions is one of faction and division. The 1960s and the aftermath of all its rage and radical politics showed little progress, in some cases facing strong backlash. The United States began a forty year turn to the right, joined by many European democracies. 1968 saw a devastating defeat for anti-Vietnam elements and the rise of Richard Nixon. There were also setbacks in the student’s revolt in Mexico, and the events of May in France; a series of unprecedented general strikes created a socialist opposition to Charles De Gaulle that took his government to the brink of collapse. Yet a few weeks later the conservative establishment was in firm control of France, convincing winners of snap elections.

Continue reading “The revolution will not be organized”