Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A post-WisCon report

I’d (foolishly) hoped I’d be able to blog from WisCon, but I lacked not only a single spare moment in which to write about my thought and experiences there, I also found it impossible to process most of it. (The exceptions, I think, were the occasional one-on-one conversations, which are a special pleasure of WisCon.) In situations like this one, where I’m being bombarded multifarious stimuli, I often seem unable to fully take in what is happening in the moment it happens. I usually spend the travel day and the first few days home reviewing, remembering, and mulling over it all. Yesterday was my travel day, but rather than spending it sifting through the jumble of fresh memories crowding my mind, I mostly tried to catch up on my email. This morning I woke with a sore throat and running nose and the realization that I had a lot to do before leaving town again, on Sunday, to attend the Rio Hondo Writers Workshop. I did, though, spend some time yesterday (in the air over Montana and Idaho) thinking about “Romance of the Revolution,” on which I sat as a panelist. I’d like to talk a bit about that here, but before I do, I’d like to take note of a piece I read online this morning that’s highly relevant to the discussion that did and did not take place at that panel.

Ashifa Kassam has a piece titled “South Americans Wage Battle Against Economic World Order: Continent’s People Optimistically Continue Fight Largely Abandoned by Western Activists” that was originally published on the CBC News site and is reprinted on I want to a few bits from it:

Across South America rages the battle the rest of the world forgot.

It’s a battle for a change in the way that the world does economics. Its symptoms mark the beautiful cities of the continent: In Quito, Ecuadorians protest daily against a proposed free-trade agreement with the United States, while Colombians graffiti their cities’ walls with slogans decrying privatization.

In La Paz, roads are blocked daily by Bolivians with strong opinions on foreign-owned oil companies. In Buenos Aires, factory workers flaunt a world without bosses as one factory after another is turned into a co-operative.

Their battle isn’t confined to the streets. It’s manifested itself in the politics of South America, as left-leaning leaders continue to dominate and be broadly supported.

And, since she’s writing for North Americans, Kassam notes:

Two years after their first appearance in Seattle, the same groups brought down Quebec City. They stunned the meeting of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas with the largest protests Canada has ever seen.

From their movement stemmed the World Social Forum, an annual conference where the people behind the movement gather to plan international campaigns, formulate strategies and articulate their issues.

But while a few Western activists continue to be involved in the movement, the bulk of them have moved on. The recent World Economic Forum in Hong Kong was protested by people from Korea, India and Brazil, but Western protesters were far and few between.

South Americans are well aware that they have lost many of their allies in battle. Far from dampening their motivation, the loss has made them more adamant in their struggle. They have turned to new strategies, from political leaders to natural resources, to accomplish the changes they want to see in the world.

The specific instances mentioned above (and in the article) merely scratch the surface. The southern portion of the Western Hemisphere is seething with activist-driven changenot “revolt” as we commonly think of it, but sustained, determined movement pushing back hard against “late” (or “global”) “postmodern” capitalism.

Now, to the panel:

In authors ranging from Heinlein to Macleod, Spinrad to Cordwainer Smith, the revolution is glorified -- sometimes a violent one, sometimes (but far more rarely) a peaceful one. How do we avoid making the same errors of glorifying violence and hero worship when coming at things from a revolutionary perspective in fiction? (Some people may not find these to be errors -- they're welcome to come discuss that POV too. ;)) Lyn Paleo, Chris Nakashima-Brown, L. Timmel Duchamp, M: Paul Kincaid

Perhaps I ought to begin by saying, for those who have never attended such discussions, that they tend to be passionate and even urgent rather than detached, academic (in the sense of being without personal consequence to the discussants). For certain readers, science fiction of political change (where the political change is not merely one rather trivial aspect of the world-building that is not particularly well thought out, which is common in run-of-the-mill space opera, for instance, or in hard sf in which the author does not consider political, economic, and social systems of real extrapolative importance) is not simply entertainment, but rather an emotionally and intellectually engaging way to think through current realities and future possibilities: a way, in fact, to affirm that what is is not what must be. Late capitalism in general and the post-Reagan US political regime in particular have promulgated the belief that what we have nowthe commodification of every aspect of our lives, the privatization of every social and governmental function, the insistence that every choice and decision should be determined by “market forces” regardless of the dehumanization and degradation that necessarily follows when human life itself is openly subordinated to the entitlement of the wealthy to make every buck there is to be madeis the only choice since nothing else, according to the dominant voices in US society, “works.” (Shall we ask the people driven out of New Orleans how well privatization and market forces have “worked” for them? Or the millions of USians who have been personally bankrupted and rendered homeless when a major illness struck a family member?) The powerful southern hemisphere drive to challenge the doxa that most people in the United States believe (rather despairingly, I believe) to be written in stone should make it obvious that what is need not be, but few people have any idea of these challenges and when they do are inclined to follow the mainstream media’s lead in saying it won’tor can’tlast because the fall of the Soviet Empire “proved” once and for all that nothing works but Reaganesque versions of capitalism. In any case, although I heard mention of Hugo Chavez in various contexts around the con, I found no consciousness of the many concrete examples of truly powerful grassroots activism, much of it feminist in character and intent, flourishing in the southern hemisphere. (Perhaps we need a panel devoted entirely to that subject in next year’s programming? Anyone willing to take it on?)

Rather than try to reconstruct the panel’s hour and fifteen minutes of discussion (which I don’t think I could do, since I didn’t take notes or record it), I want to focus on what I see as three critical nodes around which much of the discussion knotted up or, conversely, flowed (in order to go around and skirt it).

My own particular interest was in talking about revolution not as a discrete moment of political changewhich is usually how we use the word “revolution”but as a process to be figured out and learned as we go. (This idea lies at the heart of the Marq’ssan Cycle, after all.) Revolution often means regime change more than anything else (though obviously it doesn’t always mean just that), and accomplishing getting from here (where we are now) to there (a place in which every human being can flourish) requires change on the individual level, which is something that doesn’t happen with mere regime change. Paul remarked that if I was talking about “permanent revolution,” that Maoists had already tried that. I then attempted to differentiate my idea of a long, learning process of change that is continuous from that of the Cultural Revolution (though one that has room for self-critical thinking“self-criticism” that is not used as a hammer), and Paul suggested that a better word for what I’m talking about might be “evolution.” On reflection, although I like the idea of harnessing the notion of humans adapting themselves until finally learning to live well together, I think that most people tend to infuse their understanding of “evolution” with an inherent sense of teleology, which is something I strongly believe we must resist when thinking about how we can make our world. And for those who dissociate the word “evolution” from Darwin’s use of it, “evolution” simply denotes a gradual rather than radical change, and that’s not at all what I’m talking about, either. The perception of people engaged in the kind of process I’m thinking of couldn’t possibly perceive it as gradual or “incremental” (another adjective used when we discussed this, and which I rejected on the spot).

It was in the course of discussing rates of change that one of the most unsettling moments of the discussion occurred. I’m not quite sure what led up to it, but I believe it originated in a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s proposal that we totally reinvent government every twenty years* because, Jefferson insisted, “this world belongs, solely, to the present generation.” Here’s Gore Vidal, elaborating what Jefferson had in mind:

[E]very ten years or so, new laws should be promulgated at a constitutional convention. A grown man, he noted in his best biblical parable style, should not be forced to wear a boy’s jacket. Gore Vidal, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson

Chris remarked that the most effective way to change the way people think is the Paul Pot methodkilling every adult in sight and starting with a blank slate with the children remaining. An awful silence descended on the room in the wake of this remark. I remember thinking to myself, he’s probably being ironic, but I don’t get in what way precisely. Is he suggesting that the idea of changing how we think is tantamount to massacring millions and brainwashing the remainder and therefore critiquing the entire idea of changing how people think and interact and thus is arguing in favor of changing only the forms in which we are governed? Or is this an expression of despair and hopelessness, based on the belief that humans are immutably awful? Or is this supposed to be funny? Or can it be that there’s something I’m not getting because it’s too subtle for my feeble feminist brain? After a beat, Lyn turned to him and said, “I hope you’re joking.” I don’t exactly recall his response, but whatever it is, it didn’t clarify my confusion over what it was he was actually intending to convey by that remark. I still don’t know. And I have no idea what anyone else was thinking, because after a moment the discussion flowed on around it as an object standing in its way. Although such conversational objects must sometimes be gone around to keep from sidetracking the discussion, it seems to me in retrospect that attention to the remark would not have been a sidetrack at all and might have taken us to places we needed to go. Chris, if you are reading this, I would appreciate your explaining exactly what (if anything) you intended by the remark.

Another uncomfortable (and for me unclarified) area opened up when Paul, talking about revolution in colonialist and post-colonialist contexts from his educated British perspective, made the firm assertion that revolutions succeed only when rulers are weak or allow the revolutions to succeed because they don’t have the will or heart to crush them. He casually tossed out the example of the American Revolution (which rather bemused me, partly because I thought that this view would be a surprising one to most Americans) and then, in more detail, the revolution on the Indian subcontinent led by Gandhi and others, implying that the British would still be running India if the US hadn’t pulled Britain’s loans after World War II. As the discussion continued, I spent the next five minutes trying to decide what I thought of the idea, then had to put it aside to get back into the discussion.

It often happens that chasms of comprehension open up in conversations I have with certain (though not all) Brits, usually, I think, where on one side the received educated opinion and perspective is so taken for granted and on the other side that same opinion and perspective is so foreign and new that I’m thrown off balance and need time to find my footing, at least partly because where an opinion and perspective is received, it carried far-reaching implications and contains layers and layers of underlying assumptions that are largely invisible and therefore impenetrable to the outsider. Surely, I thought, he doesn’t mean to dismiss all successful revolutions as coming about simply because the oppressors let it?

The first counterexample that popped into my head was Viet Nam. The French (first) and then the United States were neither weak nor faint-hearted. The US never pulled its punches and was quite willing to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of its youth. (The CIA’s ruthless, sweeping attacks against the civilian population as well as the constant aerial bombing were carried out on a horrifyingly grand scale that argues anything but “unwillingness” to do everything they could to destroy the Vietnamese revolution: the only thing they didn’t try was nuclear warfare.) Other instances come into my mind. Paul mentioned South Africa. Yes, the apartheid regime “gave up,” but that was because it had become too costly. If that isn’t a definition of being defeated, I don’t know what is. The revolution entailed expenditures on both sides: the opposition to the apartheid regime paid the price in lives and blood, the regime paid the price in lost income, prestige, and moral ease. What I’d like to ask now, Paul, is this: in what sense did the apartheid regime allow its opponents to win? The opposition to that regime finally made it impossible for them to preserve the rule and economy and set of values that they were fighting to uphold. If there had been no sustained, utterly determined opposition, the apartheid regime would still be in place. If the regime was “weak” at the end, that was because their opposition weakened them. If the US cannot rule Iraq and could not rule Viet Nam, it’s not because the US is weak but because the opposition is sustained.

Is this a matter of mere semantics? No. It’s a matter of perceiving agency when subalterns are exercising it.

*I have an essay forthcoming this summer in Margaret Grebowicz, ed., Sci-fi in the Mind’s Eye exploring how sf writers might use Jefferson’s proposal to create numerous very different sorts of stories.

I’ve much more to say about WisCon (and of course there much more that could be said about the “Romance of the Revolution” panel) and hope to do soproviding I can find time to write about it before the weekend. In the meantime, I hope other members of this blog will post on their WisCon experiences as well. And to everyone else: I welcome comments and guest posts.


Niall said...

Interesting report, thanks.

As to this, and how to read it:

Chris remarked that the most effective way to change the way people think is the Paul Pot method—killing every adult in sight and starting with a blank slate with the children remaining.

I wasn't there, and I'm worried I'm missing some context or nuance that is self-evident to you and everyone else who was there, but ... isn't that just a statement about how horrific totalitarian regimes can be? I mean, yes, if you can kill all the adults and indoctrinate the children, I imagine that probably *is* going to be an extremely effective way of changing how a population thinks. (Hard to implement, probably, but ultimately effective.) It's just that it's also self-evidently abhorrent. I can't imagine he was advocating such a course of action, certainly.

Chris Nakashima-Brown said...

Thanks for mentioning this intentionally provocative comment of mine. My point was that, if the purpose of a movement's revolution is to completely expunge all traces of the former society, the literal approach to accomplishing that implemented by the Khmer Rouge has a certain sick logic. One that is self-evidently evil, devoid of any trace of humanism, and inherently doomed to failure. But also one that merits intellectual vetting as an extreme example of how one might actually try to accomplish a utopian aspiration of creating social conditions in which the better nature of humankind might more explicitly manifest itself. Please let me know if that gives you a better idea of where I was (am) coming from. Thanks!

Rachel Swirsky said...

The Pol Pot comment has drawn some criticism elsewhere as well, apparently.

Ted said...

I wasn't at the panel, but when I read your account of Chris's Pol Pot remark, my first thought was of a quote attributed to Max Planck: "Science advances one funeral at a time." Underlying that statement is a despair about the possibility of changing people's minds. Combine this attitude with a disregard for human life, and violent revolution follows.

lquilter said...

FWIW, my take on Paul Kincaid's Indian revolution comment was that England would still be fighting to be a colonial power in India, not that they would be ruling, per se. The nuance is, I think, important, because the one suggests that there was no action on the part of the Indian population; but my understanding was that he wasn't commenting on Indian resistance, but on British willingness for their occupation to be increasingly bloody/obviously unjust.

His larger point seemed to me that superior force will win unless something else turns the tide: nonviolent civil disobedience, external economic factors, etc. That may be the case, but I'm not sure that it's the right assessment for that struggle, because fighting for your homeland, against a smaller number of occupying forces, can turn the tide despite "superior" weaponry. The Privilege of the Sword, Denied panel hit some of the same ground -- it may be worth reading for those interested in the issue.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the loud, pushy voices from the audience . . .
For those who weren't there -- there was a lot of comment and conversation from the audience, to the point where few people got to speak more than once. Probably most of it from people who have known each other for a long time.

There was one comment from the back, from an Asian woman, asking about non-European revolutions. I found her and a friend later at the parties, and am encouraging them to push for more focussed panel topics next year! I'm already encouraged to expand my collection of archetypes beyond Washington and Jefferson.

(I'm terrible with names, but both women are on LiveJournal. I think this is from the friend: Oyce's LJ - Wiscon 31: Romance of the Revolution. The other is (if I get this right) vito_Excalibur.)


Paul Kincaid said...

Coming to this late, and for what it's worth, I wasn't saying that colonial powers 'allowed' revolutions to happen, but that some debilitation in their power, usually though not always economic, meant that they were not in a position to fight the revolution with anything like the overwhelming power they might otherwise have employed. In South Africa, for example, factors such as international isolation had reached the stage where, for the rulers, it no longer even seemed worth while to oppose the ANC.

And I raised this not because I wanted to take anything away from the revolutionaries. But all the discussion to that point had been exclusively about the revolutionaries - and, particularly from those recalling the 1960s, from a remarkably romantic perspective. I wanted to point out that simply having a revolution was not, in and of itself, sufficient to sweep all before it. In appraising how revolutions succeed or fail, you have to take cognizance of the state being revolted against. India (or, rather, portions of Indian society) had risen up against British colonialism countless times from the early 19th century onwards, but these attempts at revolution always failed, until Britain itself was too exhausted by war and economically weakened by the withdrawal of US loans to put up any resistance.