social justice teachings, part 1

I’ve been spending the last week doing a lot of thinking about activism, social justice, and the need for a fundamental socioeconomic “revolution” given a world that’s become increasingly insecure and violent. Mostly it’s been an exercise in re-evaluating this work: how it can be done more effectively and what I can be doing to improve my approach in the long run.

There are a couple things that I’ve seen and read this week that I’m digesting: two films and an article. I still haven’t come to any conclusions for what they might mean but I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts.

The two movies I watched this week, The Internet’s Own Boy and American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, are documentaries about two very different people from very different eras and backgrounds who both committed their lives to social justice. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to try to briefly describe their varying approaches to addressing social injustice.

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Aaron Swartz (whom I’ve written about before) was a renaissance man. Incredibly smart and brilliantly driven, he was able to find groundbreaking solutions to old problems and articulate these issues in a way that drove people to take action in an astoundingly effective way. For lack of a better word, I’d call him a “thought leader” of my tech/Internet-seeped generation. As someone who was boundlessly curious and passionate, the Internet gave him the access, the platform, and the opportunities to express this energy. But it also had some major limitations for him.

I can’t say for certain because I didn’t know him personally, but from what I’ve read and heard he was fundamentally disappointed in how people around him spent their energy. Specifically, those who were more interested in making money than work to improve the world. By the end of him life, I think his disappointment in society in general—in our institutions and the rule of law—was what broke him. Again, I don’t know if we can simply attribute his suicide to depression, but we can’t ignore the fact that the broken, shoddy system that he was attempting to fix was exactly what crushed him, deliberately and systematically.

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Grace Lee Boggs is a 99 year old Chinese woman who was heavily involved in the Black Power Movement with her late husband, James Boggs. As an organizer of racial/economic struggle throughout the 20th Century, she seemed to have committed much of her energy into sparking conversation. She wrote several books with/without her husband about how and why we must bring about a revolution that would fundamentally change the nature and role of labor, work, and community. At least now (maybe she didn’t before), she doesn’t believe it can be violent whatsoever, and instead must be grounded in a revolution of ideas and values. This is likely why she tried to do everything she could to poke at society’s seemingly rigid, capitalist-grounded institutions and ideologies.

I wrote about her before
after I saw her speak with Angela Davis in Berkeley. Her discussion with Angela shook me to the core. Questions about the overarching ideologies of my society, of US society, has begun to creep into me. This talk made me re-think things that I took for granted in a way I never had. I somehow forgot since I wrote that blog post two years ago that they dropped some incredible wisdom that day that I really ought to regularly revisit. There were many parts of their conversation that struck me, but one does a good job of summarizing her approach to social changes:

We can’t think anymore that all we have to do is to act, we have to do a lot of thinking. We have to do a lot of imagining. We have to do a lot of visionary organizing. We have to see every crisis as a both a danger and an opportunity. Its a danger because it does so much danger to our lives, to our institutions, to all that we have expected, but it’s also an opportunity for us to become creative. For us to become the new kind of people that are needed at such a huge period of transition.

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The third thing that affected me was the transcript of a lecture I read by George Monbiot. It’s pretty long and there’s a lot to unpack (and besides…it’s starting to get a bit late so I can’t go into it too much in this first draft of this blog post), but the jist of it is him critiquing the environmental+sustainability movement for caving to capitalist ideology and adopting its rhetoric to describe the value of our environment. By doing so he says, they are conceding to losing the debate, and therefore, the fight over all.

The main thing that I got out of it was the idea that we need to carve out an alternative language to describe the necessity and value of protecting the environment. By adopting the ideological framework for what is important, advocates fail at addressing the fundamental institutional, and yes, the ideological underpinnings of societal beliefs that lead to us to continue to poison and destroy the planet that we inhabit.

And I think that’s true for all social movements. Despite the enormous problems we still have in enabling women to have secure, sexual and physical autonomy over themselves, I do think the seeds of the movement have already been planted. Namely, the idea that women have the right to control what happens to them and what they can do to it themselves, and that this freedom must be enabled by the law. The other is we must value reproduction above all else, and that human life is (most) sacred even when it is in the womb. Clearly, the debate is between two very different perspectives on how we should live and what must be valued.

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I don’t yet know how to properly make of these thoughts but I’m still chewing on ’em…

notes on reading The Subterraneans

I feel the most inspired to write a blogpost when I disagree with someone, and I get a raging itch to make my argument into the void.

Don’t remember where I was or how it came up, but we were talking about long sentences. I was making the argument that shorter ones are generally better, but sometimes there can be some beautiful ones mixed in if the writer knows that they’re doing. Like Jack Kerouac, I said, who completely overuses run-ons but is still a good writer despite it. The person in the conversation said, “Yeah well Jack Kerouac is a super overrated author anyway.”

So here’s me now briefly explaining why I like the current book I’m reading, The Subterraneans, by Kerouac because I feel like I need to make the case to no one in particular.

The book takes place in 1950’s Post-WWII San Francisco, around a group of hipster writers. It’s about Leo, a taller slightly buff writer who’s new to town and sorta peripherally a Subterranean, and his summer love with an intellectual, sensitive, gorgeous and petite black+Native American woman, Mardou Fox.

So the way he describes the setting in this early era of San Francisco is really full and lovely without beating your head with it. The fog shrouding the city most nights, or the gusty oceany winds during the day, with the rare appearance of a creepily warm still summer night. Most of these weathers play with the character’s complicated relationships. I love that I recognize those San Francisco nights.

He sets moods really well. Across moments he remembers in flashback, he describes spaces perfectly. Mostly he captures the energy and style of the characters, and most of all the relationships and tensions between them. His writing might be sprawly (as Beat writing usually is) but he does have this down.

I love the quiet thoughts, rants, and day dreams he chooses to narrate. In the protagonist’s inner guilt over some of his misogynist and racist tendencies, especially when it came to Mardou, the honest confessions give you an intimate look into the awkward maturing of mid-20th Century society around race, sex, and gender (which I will say, is still far from over). And Mardou’s rants and stories about her life contrasted with the seeming carefree hipster vibe of the other white, male Subterraneans who don’t seem to come from as much poverty as she.

Anyway, I’m not done reading it yet but I really enjoy it so far. Sometimes I resent fiction books for not explaining moods and emotional geography of the characters involved. And while Beat writing can be a tad exhaustive to read, it’s worth it for how it transports you to the lifestyle, psyche, and societal anxieties of the time.

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Side note:

I was curious to see if there was a film adaption of the book so I looked it up. To my absolute horror: They did make one in 1960, but instead of casting a black actress for Mardou, they just made it with a white female. WTF.

But at least the 1960 adaptation looks pretty godawful…? =_=