Four End of 2015 Thoughts

1. Shouldn’t reparations be one of the next big progressive causes?

Everywhere I look, people are singing the praises of Ta-Nehisi Coates, including many white liberals. Perhaps they are having “tough conversations” about the “difficult” issue of racism. But not many of these people – ostensibly, allies of African-Americans – are loudly demanding that their political representatives take one simple action to advance the cause of racial justice: co-sponsor the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. It’s a simple bill. Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations.” He says this bill is “the vehicle” [emphasis added] for moving toward reparations. If every person who read Coates’ books or attended his talks or fell all over his or herself to celebrate his writing – or, for that matter, every person who attended a Black Lives Matter protest this past year – e-mailed, petitioned, or protested to get the Obama administration, Congress, and presidential candidates to support it, we might get somewhere. Progressives have made causes out of gay marriage, pot legalization, and gun control in recent years. Reparations – if the bill were to pass, a mere study of how to reparations should work to begin with – should join this roster. Enacting them would certainly set the bar for taking further national action on the scale needed to deal with racism and brutality in policing.

2. What is the straightforward, superior alternative system to capitalism that I can explain to my grandparents in a few minutes? Does it have a name?

Capitalism organizes society around whoever can best profit off somebody else, which seems fundamentally sociopathic and incompatible with the finite Earth we live on. Billions live in bleak poverty, suffering needlessly, while men like Donald Trump have more money than they know what to do with.

But seriously, what is the answer to this question? Socialism? Anarchism? This jumble of ideas? Those aren’t likely to fly with my grandparents – poor Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany – who built a family and amassed wealth in the United States. I think they and many others could be convinced that capitalism is not the best system, but it would take a relatively simple explanation with overwhelming evidence behind it. And sure, the political views of my grandparents and their generation are becoming more marginal as time passes. But in the absence of a clear answer, I don’t think we’ll make much headway on a big system change (anything beyond the softer capitalism of Europe) anytime too soon.

Radicals are fond of this Emma Goldman quotation: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Which is lovely, but what about, “If I can’t have the next generation of smartphone, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”? The vast majority of humans love new technologies, and we perceive them (both for better and worse) as key to improving our lives. The new system has to be able to keep up with, or at least approach, capitalism’s rate of technological invention. I don’t think many people could be convinced to believe in something that didn’t. (What’s that new awesome thing that an anarchist collective invented recently? I can’t think of one.) I know Einstein, for example, was a socialist. I know that George Orwell felt exhilarated “breathing the air of equality” in the parts of revolutionary Spain controlled by anarchists circa 1937, and that alone helps me keep the faith. But those are mere anecdotes.

3. An “all of the above” approach to social change:

In the American context, “all of the above” is not a good slogan for a national energy policy because that policy will accelerate global warming, not slow it. But when it comes to movements for progressive social change, virtually everything under the sun – whether it’s passing a law, holding a rally, marching peacefully, writing letters, or targeted property damage – is worthwhile if it undermines kyriarchy in some way. With the exception of physical violence against people, for obvious reasons.

It makes little sense for political allies to spend much time and energy arguing about one method versus another. It’s unlikely that any one principled action sets a movement back more than helping it onward – even if the action might be unpopular with one segment of society, it often energizes another segment or catalyzes some other political shift. What’s more, one shouldn’t expect groups from divergent socio-economic backgrounds to pick the same set of tactics. They’re bound to do different things.

I’ve heard liberals bemoan #BlackLivesMatter attempts to shut down a Christmas tree lighting ceremony or interrupt a Bernie Sanders speech. I’ve heard radicals bemoan attempts to spur reform of police departments by coming up with stronger oversight policies or critiquing police union contracts. But both efforts are running on parallel tracks in the same direction (to make it harder for police to kill innocent people and get away with it), making for a multi-pronged attack on the status quo.

I sometimes wish that progressive social change could be as streamlined a process as building a widget (see the next item), but it isn’t. My reading of history is that big changes are usually achieved by emergent coalitions, or patchwork alliances, between various groups with overlapping political concerns and different strengths, all agitating and working in the same general direction until something gives. So, all of the above – it’s all good.

4. Maybe social justice warriors need their own network.

This powerful reclamation of the phrase “social justice warrior” (SJW) by the British journalist Laurie Penny, in reaction to all that #GamerGate bullshit, has stuck with me. I identify as an SJW. Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t you want to fight for social justice? Anyone who’s a warrior for social justice and wins is a legit hero. A lot of my friends are SJWs. I’m proud of that.

Most SJWs rely on Facebook and Twitter, both of which are thick with trolls and hate speech, for much of their work. I see a lot of SJWs using Facebook to spread information or organize events. Police monitor these networks closely.

Maybe there should be a social network developed by and for SJWs, adapted to their needs, so they can find each other, fight together, and recruit their friends – an online Social Justice Warriors League (or, more crudely, Facebook for SJWs).

This only exists in my head, but I tend to imagine it like this: You log in and you see a menu of options, e.g. Petition, Send a Letter, March, Sit-In, Direct Action. Each one includes a short blurb, perhaps a tooltip that pops up when you hover over it, describing how each tactic works. Expand it and it’ll take you to a page with successful real-world examples, illustrated with pictures or videos or testimony from well-known SJWs. You attach these social justice events to broader social justice campaigns, tagged with a location. There’s a field where you identify the objectives of a given campaign. An editorial staff with experience in social justice campaigns curates and verifies them (similar to Twitter’s verification feature), to make sure the campaign actually would advance social justice and to certify that it’s a real thing. You can attach passwords to certain events that you don’t want to be public, then send private messages containing the password to the users who you want to invite. When you sign up, you’d identify which areas (e.g. racial, economic, and/or housing justice) you’re interested in. The homescreen would show you which campaigns are relevant to you locally or nationally, the ones you’ve already joined, and perhaps identify which ones are close to completion (with unique visual cues to identify them) where you can pitch in to push it over the finish line. Et cetera.

There would be understandable fears about the centralization and surveillance of this network. But the few people I’ve talked about this with seem to think it’s a niche that should be filled. It would need to be heavily encrypted. I imagine one could invite select activists with a track record of accomplishment at first, and pilot the network with a specific campaign in a specific community to start out, then go from there, depending on the results. I have no idea how it would make money or if it should at all. Just an idea! Lemme know if you’re interested.

Sunset in Seattle.
Red clouds in Seattle.

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