Saturday, June 2, 2007

More thoughts on the Romance of the Revolution panel

Before I leave town for an intense week with the Rio Hondo Writers Workshop, I’d like to address an issue of the Romance of the Revolution panel that has emerged in the commentary on the panel as well as in the comments posted on the commentary. (The Feminist SF Wiki is keeping track of this .) The specific point around which most of the commentary has focused is Chris Nakashima-Brown’s “Pol Pot comment.” Laura Quilter took notes and has posted a partial transcript, but it isn’t verbatim (as a transcript from an audio recording would be), but an on-the-fly distillation (with some verbatim material). Her transcript gives us this:

aud (F): i was wondering if you could talk about revolution in non-am non-european countries and how that works.

chris - i like the pol pot revolution - scraping everything clean. kill all the people and start from scratch.

LP - i hope you're not serious.

chris - well of course - i'm serious sort of - no it's a horrible thing. but i'm serious in that you can't retrain people, you have to start from scratch. it has a sort of sick cogency to it.

My own memory of the panel is seriously jumbled by now, but I had the impression at the time Chris made that remark that he was addressing my earlier elaboration of the need for people to change how they think: as a collective process of trial and error that must be ongoing with no fixed endpoint in view. When I posted my report on the panel earlier this week, Chris replied to my question of what he meant to convey by his remark:

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!

It is Chris’s explanation of his intent that I’d primarily like to address here, but I feel it’s important also to discuss what some might dismiss as a mere matter of style. Chris says that he was being “deliberately provocative.” Because the Khmer Rouge’s genocide (and by “genocide” I mean not only the massacre of huge numbers of people of a single ethnic group, but also an attempt to extirpate and annihilate a culture), is among the worst atrocities in recent history, it (like the Nazi Holocaust) requires being treated with care, rather than as a rhetorical hand grenade. I don’t believe that exempting certain subjects from flippancy is simply a matter of “good taste.” (I tend to think the whole idea of “good taste” and “bad taste” is a cover concealing insidious underlying assumptions, but that’s a subject for another day.) I’m not saying that such subjects can’t be treated satirically: only that off-the-cuff flippancy is insidious and contagious and worst of all, superficial; rather than provoking anyone to think more creatively or seriously about the subject, it most often helps to encourage flippancy in others (simply because most people are desperately eager to blow off distressing subjects). You may of course disagree with this. (I’m sure that Chris does.)

Moreover, Chris’s remark was a response to a question from an audience member, asking the panel to include non-European revolutions in its discussion. Given that context, and given the longstanding racist stereotype of non-Europeans as not valuing human life (the way the masterminds of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo supposedly do), such flippancy is bound to carry powerful racist overtones, regardless of Chris’s intent. This offers us another strong reason for exempting certain subjects from use as rhetorical provocations.

As for Chris’s intent re the Khmer Rouge’s method: [It’s] “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.” This is what I actually suspected lay beneath the remark, and this is what I’d like to take issue with now.

All through the second wave of feminism (and by most reckonings, we are currently in the “third wave” of feminism) feminists had to struggle with the rhetorical tactic employed by people distrustful or hostile to feminism of throwing worst-case scenarios in feminists’ faces every time they proposed any sort of change to the status quo. With the ERA, for instance, it was unisex bathrooms and the military conscription of women as well as men. (Yes, my friends, those were the Phyllis Schlaffley-promulgated Horrors of Horrors that convinced legislators to oppose ratification of the ERA in the mid-1970s.) With the development of tactics for dealing with sexual harassment, it was the possibility that men would constantly be under attack for just being men. With the arrangement of separatist cultural spaces, it was the fear that everyone would be branded as man-haters (or would naturally become man-haters simply by hanging out in a woman-only space). More generally, we’ve seen the right wing use this tactic to discredit the entire idea of providing universal health care to everyone in the US.

People buy this tactic. And buy it. And buy it. In the US, at least, it’s inevitable. And the algorithm is painfully simple: since nothing is scarier than change (not even the wretched outcomes we have reason to believe we’ll face if we don’t change), merely alluding to the worst possible outcome of a proposed change (however unlikely), and all serious discussion of a desired changeincluding discussion about how to prevent such bad outcomeswill vanish.

Perhaps this is a generational thing. In second-wave feminist sf, “utopia” was about creating not a blueprint, but a method of thinking about what kind of world we’d like to live in and what we might do to get there. Now “utopia” is a dirty word. When the worst-case scenario is all anyone can think of, the unstated assumption is that “utopian aspiration” automatically leads to dehumanization and totalitarian regimes and slaughter of massive numbers of people. It doesn’t matter that the assumption isn’t stated or even intended: it will be read as given.

I read constantly that in these postmodern times, “history” is dead. Maybe that’s the problem. See, when you pay attention to history (which is what one-off flippant remarks emphatically don’t do), you have to agree with Jameson: “History is what hurts. It is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis.” That is to say, we aren’t merely individuals living independent of all that humans have been and over time become: we are a product of our collective history. All those wars, all that oppression: the very thinking and habits and “instincts” that generated all those horrors, that’s inside of each of us, like a collar around our necks attached to a leash, leading us on. You ignore history, you ignore the leash. (Isn’t that what everyone prefers to do: to imagine they’re independent of the past?) But just pretending our history isn’t in charge of where we’re going isn’t enough to get free of it. To do that, we have to challenge the hold the past has on uswhich means consciously working to change how we think and live. Is doing that dangerous? Sure. But it makes a hell of a lot more sense than repeating the horrors of the past. And who can deny that at the beginning of the 21st century, awash in a swelling tide of fanatical religious fundamentalism, we’re doing just that?

Look. Conversation is hard, especially when it's not conversation between intimates (who can talk in shorthand). It’s not just that we misunderstand one another constantly. But there’s all this other, subliminal stuff that’s constantly getting in the way of serious considerationdeflections from the painful, hard-to-think-about things; defensiveness; slowness to make connections; and above all hidden assumptions we might not agree with intellectually but are emotionally pushed by nonetheless. That’s why the conversation has to be ongoing and reflexive. And if it’s uncomfortable? Well hey. That just means we’re getting warmer.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

I have just started Water Logic, in which the characters are struggling to develop a society in which both former oppressors and the formerly oppressed can live together in peace. It follows on from Earth Logic, which clearly turned the concept of the successful revolution on its head. I was stunned and thrilled by the twist in the previous book, and now am very pleased to find that the new one opens with people struggling to work together despite much opposition on all sides -- including some very powerful and dangerous opposition from people who were once among the oppressed. I suspect this is one situation where fantastic fiction deals with the subject in a more useful way than real life, because human beings love revenge so much. We need many more books like those Laurie Marks writes to give us new ways of looking at how to live with each other.

Josh said...

But . . . But . . . I have it on the best authority that "Every magazine that today calls itself 'progressive,' including The Progressive, the Nation, Social Text, Oktober, Zmagazine, and the Village Voice, tens of thousands of professors in American universities alone, the intellectual avatars, models and instructors in virtually every Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Chicano Studies and Cultural Studies program in America, the heads of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the Modern Language Association — all were either apostles of [Stalinism] in its own time, or are apostles of the same utopian idea that gave it birth, along with the same anti-capitalist, anti-American social analyses and the same anti-Western, anti-American historical narratives that produced the lies and their attendant atrocities in the first place."

In other words, how can this man Chris be wrong with David Horowitz in his corner?

Eleanor said...

I rode the elevator with the young Asian-American woman who spoke several times from the audience at this panel. She was furiously talking to a friend about the panel's treatment of Asian revolutions. She was especially angry with Paul's monologue about India, which began with the terrible shape that India was in when the British arrived. The Brits tidied the place up, and then the Indians wanted to take over. They would never have managed it, Paul said, except the US pulled the loans it made to Britain during WWII; and Britain was so broke that it could not maintain its empire.
So we have one guy (Chris) who talks about an Asian revolution that ended in utter horror; and another guy (Paul) who appears to be saying that Asian revolutions can only succeed when white people are divided and weak. The young woman in the elevator felt the ability of Asians to run their own lives and make their own societies was being rather badly dissed.

It was an odd panel.

Eleanor said...

I wrote my comment before reading Timmi's earlier post, where she talks about Paul Kincaid's description of Indian history. She seems to have heard what I -- and the young woman -- heard and found it as disturbing as we did. I couldn't tell if Paul was being ironic.

I don't like any analysis of history which gives all the power to the bosses and none to ordinary people. I don't think it's accurate, and it encourages despair.

I read a fantastic book years ago: A Man to Match his Mountains. I picked it up in the public library because I recognized the mountains on the cover. They were the mountains of northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I was in Afghanistan (briefly) as a kid.

The book was about Badshah Khan, an ally of Gandhi and a Pathan. He was a pacifist, who managed to get tens of thousands of Pathan tribesmen to take vows of nonviolence. The Pathans regarded him as a saint, and I figure he probably was. Getting Pathans to be nonviolent is a miracle. The British did everything they could to provoke the Pathans into breaking their vows, insulting them and dishonoring them. The Pathans kept their vows.

This is an amazing -- almost frightening -- achievement. I'd rather hear stories like this than heard that history is entirely about bosses.