Monday, June 6, 2011

WisCon 35 Panel 102: The Self-Reflective Revolutionary

Just as with Panel 65, I wish I had a more thorough account than I do; and, just as with Panel 65, I was not as unhappy with it as B.C. Holmes, which I again fear might mean I set the bar too low. I think B.C. is right about a lot, including her implication that the voice of one of the panelists tended on a couple of occasions to dominate and others weren't sure how to frame disagreements with her. It seemed to me that two of the panelists, Paul Bietila and myself, were kind of tentative on accounta we'd never been on a con panel before; and that another, Timmi Duchamp, was not at the top of her game 'cause she hadn't slept the previous night and had just thrown a lot of energy into moderating the "What Democracy Looks Like" panel. And the room was really dimly lit. The moderator came prepared to approach the topic from various angles; indeed, all of us had prepared, with some lively email discussion in the ten days before the con; nonetheless, as B.C. notes, there were a number of long pauses and thematic jumps where one might have hoped ideas would be pursued more thoroughly. Nu, here's what I remember and can reconstruct.

Moderator Ian K. Hagemann introduced the topic. He explained that he is a revolutionary because it will take a revolution to create a world that works for everyone. He's seen stuff that he regards as political work being dismissed as "personal," including the work he does on redefining masculinity. And he's been struck by biographies of revolutionaries that show people being criticized because of some areas where they're not sufficiently self-reflective. R. Elena Tabchnick said that without inner work, outer work is actually destructive. Paul Bietila said that the perils he faces as an educator include both complicity with the oppressive demands of the educational institution and the temptation to set oneself up as The Expert conveying The Truth to students. L. Timmel Duchamp said, "All my life I've had a problem with authority" and, citing her Marqu'ssan Cycle, said that self-reflection is necessary for her characters to avoid doing terrible things. You can't just decide not to think about it when your partner has joined a death squad: the consequences will come back to haunt you. And reacting is not the same as reflecting— we may think that reactive decisions based on the progressive values we formed long ago guarantee that we'll do the right thing, and they don't. I acknowledged Paul's concern about bringing a didactic approach to teaching or a philosophy that alienates the students, but expressed concern that when I taught unreflectively, I fell into the opposite trap, becoming a liberal in the sense of someone too open-minded to take his own side in an argument, or taking the Jon Stewart both-sides-are-too-strident position, or just ventriloquizing the dominant discourse when I could have argued for the perspective I believe without being intolerant or inflexible.

Elena talked about being a Benedictine monk and listening, in accord with that order's Rule. The order's promises include Obedience, which is etymologically connected to listening. And you try to figure out how to deal with the most damaging and scary Other who is going to come into your personal space. How do you see the torturer who is breaking your leg as a fellow human? How do you receive that person as yourself and as your greatest beloved? And you learn that the scariest person is yourself. And you go through terror, grief, and anguish–fortunately, monasticism is a practice: you don't have to be good at it–you use your relationships and your service to others as a practice for the mirror, and you remember Ananda's caution to the Buddha. HH the Dalai Lama is an ordinary man who has to deal with his anger at the Chinese every day. And thank God it's a process, 'cause you keep falling down. But a sense of unity among everybody is a real possibility. The Sufis say "The vessel breaks and all is one." You acknowledge your fear and pain, and the sum of the calm of the whole is increased. Especially when you're out there doing the work of helping.

Sue, in the audience, was critical of the religious basis of this perspective, arguing that Christianity, with its concept of Original Sin, promoted the counterproductive practice of continually flagellating oneself. Elena, unhappy with that characterization of religion, said she was sorry Sue had been wounded in that way and that she herself didn't believe in sin: to be a positive growing thing takes a lot of introspection, with honesty but also with love, which you need to avoid that self-punitive approach.

Ian raised the issue of flawed revolutionaries: King, Malcolm, Gandhi. How do you balance your evaluations of how people live in the world? In thinking about the revolutionary leaders one might be attempting to emulate and in dealings with oneself. I said a lot of what bothered me in the discussion of revolutionaries' lives was the way some people used their flaws as a basis for being dismissive of them—the "How can people admire Pete Seeger after the way he treated his family?" perspective, which I think is constricting [A few hours later, I had a conversation with Dan Dexter, in which he pointed out that Gandhi posed the biggest dilemma: MLK was not going around advocating philandering as part of the freedom movement, but Gandhi saw his treatment of his family as part of his revolutionary praxis]. Paul said we can't just rely on individual leaders. And people get upset not so much about leaders' failings as about hypocrisy.

An audience member asked, isn't the goal of revolution to have the freedom to cultivate the inner self? The Arab Spring used community as a force for revolution—don't the inner reflections come afterward? Another pointed out that indeed the Arab revolutions were not about leaders. Timmi said that the "leadership" thing may not be the right model and indeed may militate in favor of Thatcherite individualism. Elena pointed out that leadership was not the right model for the Civil Rights Movement either: the canonization of Dr. King was very much a post-hoc mischaracterization of a collective achievement. Ian noted that another black revolutionary had specifically pointed that out, saying "You put Martin Luther King alone in Selma, you get a very different story." I appealed to Timmi for help reconstructing the Russ line about models, peers, and a context; she couldn't remember it [some sujet qui sait you turned out to be, Duchamp!]; I suggested that it might offer a way, using the concept of "models" for us to address the achievements of the past without falling into the belief that we need leaders.

Ian asked, what is a revolution? Timmi said it is itself a process; Ian said that it's a state-change in experienced reality that was not predictable on the "before" side; I said that I didn't know what a revolution was, but you could tell that there'd been one because there was a change in the thinkable. The Reagan Revolution has created a situation in which there's unlimited money for killing foreigners and none for helping our country's people: even disaster relief is beyond some people's ability to comprehend—vide people asking "Why did they blame Bush for a hurricane?" On a happier side, we're in a place with gay liberation that was unthinkable forty years ago. Paul said that some kinds of revolution—look at working people being able to take over the government, the means of production—did create an opening-up space for people being able to think differently. "I never thought I'd be inspired to take action in Wisconsin by people in the Middle East!"

Returning to the issue of hypocritical icons, Ian, channeling Oscar Wilde, said hypocrisy was a bit of a red herring: avowing standards that you end up flouting beats being completely amoral. But how do I know what I'm doing right? I'd want to do a praxis test. Elena said history offers us a lot of those: we need to look at what level of change has occurred and what level of self-investigation accompanied it, and we'd see that reflectiveness was a sine qua non of effective change. Carolyn, a historian in the audience, said that she thought the people who actually brought about revolutions were very egotistical. Are we asking about how to negotiate that fact with the self-doubt and self-reflection that keeps us from falling into traps? I agreed that sometimes you need a Chomskyan ego to keep up the fight. An audience member said, Listen to others. I offered a thought on how listening to others is inevitable, and how realizing that can help us understand "peers" in that Joanna Russ formulation: I opened my Chandler Davis book and read a passage from Gramsci: "[W]e must conceive of individual man as a series of active relationships, a process, in which his individuality is not the only element to be considered, though it is of the greatest importance… [We may address the centrality of the individual’s self-consciousness] provided that the individual is always conceived not as isolated, but one full of the possibilities offered to him by other men and by nature." Another audience member said maybe the problem is not a lack of self-reflection and self-criticism but a lack of self-confidence and solidarity: arrogant revolutionaries aren't the problem—it's that we're so damn beaten down. Ian cited Nader's point that you have to have a line in the sand.

An audience member cited voudun as a religion that teaches radical agency. Elena said spiritual practices yield compassion and a need to alleviate the suffering of others. Paul pointed out that in Egypt we've seen the religious working with the secular at coalition-building. Carolyn returned to the contrast between contemplative self-examination and the requirements of revolution: it's actually the flinty and unyielding people who create the revolution. Paul said that at this stage a good revolutionary is someone who can listen to others. Timmi asked how we can characterize the revolutionaries' vision. Elena acknowledged that the thoughtful and the less thoughtful have changed political structures, but the former'd effected better outcomes. Picking up on that, an audience member asked, does the egomaniacal flinty revolutionary carry the seeds of another revolution by blocking out the spaces for other, non-charismatic individuals or modes of revolutionary change? Another spoke of how much recent revolutions, and our understanding of political change, had been helped by change in the way we get news and see the world.

An audience member quoted Margaret Mead on how a small group of committed people change the world and suggested that still happens in our time, when change has changed and communication has changed. Another said we've omitted to mention moral judgment and bad revolutions. Even with introspection, some people come up with the wrong answer. Timmi characterized that problem as being on autopilot, or succumbing to groupthink. Audience member said, but Eichmann turns out to have really thought about these things: we see him, when Himmler or one of his colleagues questions the killing of children, reflecting on it and coming up with an argument for its moral necessity. An audience member said, inchoate emotions get rationalized in something that resembles a reflective process. Ian said he's learned that anger is a response to a violation: if there's no violation, there's something else going on there. Wrapping up, Ian quoted The Revolutionist's Handbook: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

A couple of people after the panel told me that I'd taken meticulous notes, listened attentively, and made sure, when responding to others, to ask whether my paraphrase of my interlocutor's point was accurate before offering my perspective. "Panels work best when people are attentive and responsive to their co-panelists' statements" was advice I'd gotten from Ray Davis.

The Russ sentence turns out to be: "Without models, it's hard to work; without a context, difficult to evaluate; without peers, nearly impossible to speak."

ETA: King. Malcolm. Gandhi. Seeger. Chomsky. Gramsci. Gautama Buddha. HH the Dalai Lama. Shaw. Is it possible that Joanna Russ was the only female radical mentioned by name at this panel, or did someone say "Ella Baker" and I forgot?

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