is this what a revolution looks like?

I don’t want to pile on to the huge op-ed-fest regarding the phenomenon that is the rise of Trump and Sanders’ sudden rise in popularity in the presidential race, but I blog on my website for my own sake and I need to jot down some quick thoughts and reflect on what’s going on in this country for the sake of my own sanity.

(For the hands down best piece on Trump and his popularity, you should read this piece by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone if you haven’t.)

We’ve already been this frail…all that’s happening now is that the symptoms of our disorders are finally appearing.

Our political and economic institutions have failed the U.S. majority for so long. It might’ve been only a matter of time before something like this would happen.

The masses hitting back at the wealthy elite and their establishment that have ruled through their a puppet democracy for at least a generation. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are catalysts for the latent frustration and despair among the low- to middle-classes that are finally fed up with watching this charade.

There’s obviously major ideological differences between the movements growing behind these two candidates, but central to both is a drastic re-questioning of the economy, government, and the relationship between the two. All the mainstream political discussions about wealth inequality, corporate money in politics, trade agreements, etc. to me signals a beginning of a popular movement to upend entrenched systems of power.

Whatever ends up happening with the presidential race, I don’t think this popular rage and discontent could ever be bottled back up. People—both left and right, bigot or moderate—are starting to articulate widespread problems in a way that is going to make it almost impossible for establishment officials to try and sell their current scheme of governance to the public. Only people who feel comfortable within this current paradigm could say that the current system is fine. Most people are NOT fine, and enough people have now realized that they’re not alone in this, that this is a systemic failure.

So this feels to me like the beginning of a revolution. Trump’s brand of it is horrifying and bigoted, but alongside that is Sanders’ fiercely optimistic and cooperative vision for America. So who knows what’s going to happen, but at least these long overdue conversations about our society and how we want the government to work people is finally happening. That’s gotta mean power in this country is going to shift in a huge way, and very soon.

 

why do street protests?

As government officials grow depressingly less accountable to the public they’re supposed to represent, we have to resort to  other means to get them to pay attention and set them straight. Going out on the street en masse to air grievances is obviously one of the oldest tactics in the book. Sometimes, it works. It works when it grabs press attention, when it catalyzes others to take action, or when it’s really big and it causes officials to shake in their boots and actually change their course.

But most of the time, it doesn’t do any of those things…and if so, is it just a waste of time?

I thought about this a lot when I was in Washington D.C. for protest actions against the TPP this week and as I went to my third march yesterday in Oakland to perform with my protest dance flashmob group. I spent a pretty significant amount of time and energy preparing for the D.C. actions in the weeks leading to it, getting other organizations to endorse them and invite their members to come out and join us. My goal was to have as many people on the streets at the main action on Monday afternoon as possible.

And we did get a good number people out there (I first said on Twitter that I thought it was at least 1,000 people but given my knack for being horrible at guesstimating large numbers or sizes of things it was probably pretty off). I think it’s safe to say that we had 300~400 people when it was at its largest when we marched through downtown D.C.—apparently, that’s not too shabby for a protest action on the Hill. We had Flush the TPP lanterns shaped like rolls of toilet paper, some big light projections on nearby buildings, and actual rolls of toilet paper with facts about the TPP printed on them that we used to TP trees and statues along the route.

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On the following morning, we had another action to march to each of the 12 embassies of the countries involved in the agreement. It was way smaller (about 60 people) but we definitely made up for it in theatrics and props. We had a big Mr. Monopoly puppeteering the flags of the TPP countries and a massive blow-up globe that four people had to carry on their shoulders.

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Popular Resistance did an incredible job at organizing everything that happened last week. Not only did they plan out a dozen or so separate activities, they coordinated with people who came from all over the country, figured out how to house and feed 30+ people in a church which was our planning HQ, and most impressively of all, kept up their energy and had a positive attitude the entire time. The folks at Popular Resistance were the most impressive organizers I’d ever worked with.

Really though, I think it came down to that: the people you meet at these events. Obviously the goal of doing this kind of thing is to enact some real change but it’s really hard to quantify and measure that kind of impact. But if during the process, you meet and connect with people who share a common goal of resisting oppressive, backward government policies, I’d still say that’s a success.

It’s empowering to get together with a group of total strangers who come from entirely different backgrounds from you and recognize that you’ve got each other on your team. Protests and rallies are just as much about taking up space and creating a spectacle to call attention to an important issue as it is about celebrating your community.

I can say that I definitely needed the inspiration and hope that we still have a chance (see previous bleak blog post for reference). It was an intense few days with the several dozen people who stayed at the church HQ and were involved in all the action.

There was the kindergarten teacher-turned-activist in her 60’s who got teary-eyed with me as we both ranted about how hard it was to make more people care about the TPP. She said she starting doing activism when she realized she couldn’t bear the thought of her kids’ futures in the world the way it was.

There were the 20-something-year old brothers from Michigan who run an organic farming business on their property. They were there because they’re against GMO’s (which we disagreed about) and think Monsanto is an evil company that should not be empowered any more than they are already are (which we agreed about).

Then there was the guy who flew all the way from Washington, from the northern most county in the state. He’s an organizer who managed to turn his entire district Democrat with his grassroots work to rally thousands of people to turn out for local elections.

These and the other people I met this week are, in their various communities, doing whatever they can to be an active participant in re-shaping the future for the better. I hope they went back feeling as pumped and re-energized as I did. We got a pretty good team going, but to win in the long term, we’re going to have to keep building this community bigger, stronger, and with more love and common respect.

Having said that, I think I’m good on going to any more street actions in the near future… 😛

centering & creating opportunity out of crisis

First, it was at an event put on by the Asia Foundation where I was speaking. I met a leading feminist and human rights organizer from Mongolia who put on the first production of the Vagina Monologues there (and to much controversy).

Later that week, I spent three days with two fellow digital rights nerds in the Sierras. We cooked, explored, chatted, and made sense of our community with each other. Both of them incredibly hard-working, passionate, hilarious, and thoughtful people.

With them, I visited and slept in an old schoolhouse of a ghost town recently purchased by a woman my age, who was one of the most gorgeous, elegant people I’ve met. She’s re-building this long deserted town into a sustainable community centered on organic farming. So far it’s inhabited by a dozen or so happy humans, dogs, goats, pigs, and chickens.

I had lunch with one of my colleagues who I consider an influential mentor. She almost single-handedly built an international project to create legal principles that would guide surveillance policies so that they could fall in line with international human rights. It has been too long since we hung out and talked about life.

All of this came after spending the last few weeks reading the entirety of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. The book blew my mind in its comprehensive explanation of why climate change is an urgent crisis that must be addressed immediately, but in the same vein, an opportunity to re-think many aspects of governance, the economy, and the ideologies that underpin both social structures. She manages to make someone, like me, who has peripherally cared about this issue into an evangelist for direct action against carbon-based fuels and demand subsidies for renewable energy programs.

These past few weeks, I’ve encountered these and other inspiring women who are putting their all into fixing this broken mess of a world in varied but individually stunning ways. Despite how fucked things seem lately, thinking about them and their work help me shake off the despair and get to work. Just as Naomi would say, we can take a crisis and turn it into an opportunity. Whether or not they’d admit themselves, these individuals are doing this through their day-to-day work and are committed to making things more just and sustainable.

I’m preparing myself for a busy few months as TPP negotiators may announce tomorrow morning that they’ve concluded this sprawling trade deal once and for all. If they do, I’ll be laser-focused on killing this agreement dead because it goes against everything I believe in. I hope to soon do more work that involves building towards positive, equitable institutions, rather than having to fight this bullshit neo-liberal/private-interest-captured policies. But in this crisis, I’ll be looking for new opportunities. In this work, I’ll try and emphasize ways of organizing that will make people feel more connected and responsible to their society and global community. Who knows what the hell that looks like but I’m gonna do my darnedest and I’ll take a cue or two from these bad ass women who’ve come into my orbit.

rise of the third place

The late architect Victor Gruen is called the grandfather of the American mall.

It was distressing for him to see people increasingly consumed by the automobile in the 1950’s and 60’s. He said: “their threat to human life and health is just as great as that of the exposed sewer.” Yup, he *hated* cars. So he wanted to bring cohesion to the suburbanite lifestyle by giving rise to a “third place,” outside the home and workplace. He wanted to build mixed-use spaces that could serve as a place for leisure and community.

He eventually became disgusted by the very thing he helped create—these climate-controlled private spaces, national monuments to American consumerism.

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We celebrated him, and the rise and fall of the modern mall, on Gruen Day yesterday at the Bayfair Center in San Leandro. It was the fifth mall he had designed.

It seems to be an empty shell of what it once was. The woman who leads the management for the space repeatedly decried the use of the term “mall,” calling it a four-letter word in the industry. Everything the management does now is geared towards de-malling. They want to gut it and completely re-design the interior so it can house offices, maybe even residences.

Gruen, who gave rise to the mall and became one of its fiercest critics, would probably be thrilled to see this happen to his own creation.

p.s. ICYMI: 99% Invisible did a great episode about him.

 

a peek at monsanto's evils.

I don’t have a problem with GMOs, but I do have a problem with Monsanto.

First I heard about the multinational agricultural biotech firm was in high school, when my dad told me about how they’d sue farmers for having crops that contain traces of their patented plant genes—including threatening their neighbors, for simply having their farm nearby a farmer who used Monsanto seeds, the genetic traits of which could get transmitted through pollen that floated or carried over to them by bees. I just did a quick search to find out about their other evil doings, and found these:

  • They’ve continued to sue farmers for having “improperly reused their patented seeds.” Yes, they have invested millions into their R&D for their products, but it’s perverse for them to go after farmers for reusing seeds when that’s what farmers have done for literally thousands of years. Farmers are under ever-increasing pressure to yield more and more crops (esp. corn and soy beans), and making these farmers dependent on Monsanto’s products to remain competitive seems dangerous and unsustainable..

Sooo on Saturday, I ended up going to the March Against Monsanto in San Francisco. Food safety and anti-pesticide activism isn’t one of my fights, but I deeply respect those who’ve taken up the cause. It also happened that one of the dances that my political-dance-flash-mob does, Toxic, fit perfectly with the demo’s message. On some level, I felt bad that I suddenly showed up to perform (which as I said in an earlier post, feels more like activism-cheerleading than anything else) and join their protest. But I think it’s actually okay to be peripherally involved in a cause like this, especially if you’re already focused on a different one.

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There’s only so much anger one can muster in a week. My day job is to wrangle with a massive trade agreement that could obligate its signatory countries to various bad awful digital regulations, and really threatens to upend public interest policies from across the board. It’s already been a struggle for me to try and stay positive and focused on the things that we can do to stop the TPP, so I have to be okay with letting others lead and fight in those trenches to do what they can on issues I also care about.

Anyways, I’ll just end this post with this awesome video on Youtube, “Lobbyist Claims Monsanto’s Roundup Is Safe To Drink, Freaks Out When Offered A Glass.

And a photo of me in a gas mask, which was really fun dancing to Britney Spears with. 🙂

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Citizenfour and the Power of Narratives

I saw Citizenfour this week, the new Laura Poitras documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations. It’s a momentous, chilling piece of film making that shines a glaring light on the disturbing folly that’s become of the US in the post-9/11 world. The hours of raw footage that Laura filmed throughout the week she and Glenn Greenwald first met Ed are intimate in a way that makes you, as a viewer, feel like you are part of the history that unfolds on the screen.

And that’s what struck me most about Citizenfour. The historical relevance of the Snowden revelations not only lies with the truth that he chose expose about the government, but also in the way he did it. It was the way he partnered with Glenn and Laura to curate the release of state secrets, and to do it in a way that they could maximize the impact of the truth and trustworthiness of his actions.

But as anyone who follows the work of Glenn and Laura knows, they aren’t ordinary journalists. They are part of a new crop that reject the ideal of objectivity in journalism—a farce, I believe, that only works to hide the inevitable subjectivity, the motives of the presenters and the producer of the news story. And they are overt about their motive: to shed light on the truth and to expose the dangers of unchecked state power in an effort to inspire change.

To Glenn and Laura, it may have first been surprising, but also strategic to help Ed show his face to the world. In the film, they make it seem as though their main motivation for doing this was for his safety. Making him known to the public makes it much more difficult for any powerful entity that felt threatened by him to snuff him out. He was a guy who did this for the sake of the greater good, not out of some egotistical need, some narcissistic urge. By presenting him as the heroic individual that he is, they were able to ensure that the public would stand by him and his action. What they don’t say is that his publicity would, and likely already has, inspire others to follow his lead as a government whistleblower.

The thing about fighting power is that the powerful do an excellent job of hiding their motivations from the public. In the cases where the policies themselves are carried out in secret, talking about the secrecy itself is enough to rile the public and undermine their faith in their government. Secrecy is a major way they’re able to get away with these policies, but it’s also their greatest weakness. When their actions, and especially their objectives, are revealed to the public, their legitimacy shrivels up along with the faith and trust people had in them.

For activists, our strongest ally is the truth. But sadly the truth alone isn’t sexy enough. The truth can be dry, non-compelling, or confusing. Governments, corporations, and other entities of concentrated power invest a huge amount of their energy in the optics of their actions. When it’s a matter of public opinion, they’re adept at hiding even their most heinous acts by using lofty justifications or simply relying on the fact that the mainstream media won’t report it. Too often it’s because these stories are just too tedious to unpack for the viewers. As John Oliver said to describe the net neutrality fight, whether on purpose or by function, those in power have figured that “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.”

Which gets me back to Citizenfour and its potential to add a new wave of energy towards significantly reforming mass surveillance. What the global fight for digital privacy, and really any issue in social justice issue needs, is better storytelling. Stories are what inspire people. Stories are what frame big, complicated, boring issues in a way that humanizes them and makes them tangible for people. No matter how much something warrants newsworthiness because of its impact and relevance for people’s lives, it won’t resonate with them, and they won’t care about it unless they can see the narrative and place themselves within it.

We especially need stories at a time when things are seriously broken. Democracy is a joke. Corporations make and break the rules they want. And meanwhile the government is doing more and more to persecute and silence journalists and individuals who are fighting to fix the system. What Laura does with Citizenfour is tell Ed’s story, to show why a modest, every-day person would put their life on the line for the public-interest, and how they can, alone, put a giant wrench in a powerful, corrupt, and seemingly unstoppable system.

burning man: re-thinking privilege in a not-so-make-believe world

I wanted to experience it myself. No matter how many things I’d heard and read, I knew I wasn’t getting the whole picture. Wasn’t willing to listen to that little voice of judgment, and honestly, that cowardice that whispered:

“there’s no way you’ll survive out there.
the sun, the dust, the port-a-potties, and no showers for a week.
it’s gonna be seeped in privileged, extravagant, techie bro-ttitude …
it’ll be too much.
all of it will make you feel gross inside and out…”

for the last few years these murmurings stifled the pangs of curiosity I’ve been having about it.
But I didn’t want to care what other people said. I don’t hate on something until I understand what it is, and I only care or feel like I have the place to critique a thing until I do.

the day I was really convinced was when I was getting lunch with an old close friend of mine, Martina. I’m notoriously bad at keeping in touch with people so I didn’t even know that she’d gone. This person, one of my favorite people, was someone I didn’t really expect to go to a huge neo-hippie festival in the middle of the desert. It caught me off guard. As I listened to her talk about it, I kept prodding her with questions. She described things she experienced that seems so otherworldly, so unexpected, like a wacky sci-fi world. It suddenly sounded so fucking cool. If she was into it this much, the odds were I would be too.

When it started to become time to make the commitment, I started dating a guy who’d been going for the past several years. he sealed it for me. how could I not try at this point, when so many people, my people, were into it? I wanted to know if I could do it and survive. I wanted to know what the big deal was.

so, I decided to go to Burning Man.

It starts months and months before. At the time it seems like an ungodly amount of preparation, but looking back at it it’s really part of the experience. for your first time, the thing you need to focus on (and quite honestly, all you can really handle) is to figure out how to go and how to survive. Everyone warns you about the excruciating heat, the suffocating dust storms, and the unforgivingly cold, dark nights. I read almost every discussion board and took every random piece of advice I got from friends and strangers about what I needed for the trip. I hadn’t gone on a real camping trip in ages so I was pretty insecure about my outdoor survival skills.

Then there was the planning you need to do if you’re in a camp. I ended up joining Martina’s, which consisted of friends or friends-of-friends of the people who camped together the previous year. We were 60 people, from around the world, most of whom were complete strangers to one another. The process of organizing everything for this many people across 8+ time zones was a feat in itself. We had to plan our food, water, grey water disposal system, shade structure, seating area, signage, etc. etc. I wanted to do everything I could to contribute and be helpful…but I’ll be totally honest and say that I also did it too because I was worried things wouldn’t get done.

In the end, my camp came together remarkably well. It was satisfying to be able to rely on a bunch of total strangers. Everyone was expected to contribute and work collaboratively to build what became our home for that week. pretty much everyone pulled through where it mattered. I was proud that we all created a way that we could all live together on a square plot of dry hard dust, and that we managed to not be a total mess.

In some ways, I guess I should’ve expected this. Burning Man isn’t a place for people who just talk about doing things. It doesn’t matter what you say or plan to do, all that matters is that you did it. That goes for anything you bring to the Playa, to what you end up doing when you’re there. It’s an opportunity to flex cooperative abilities and your giving abilities. At the same time you’re challenged in your willingness to be creative and open to new opportunities, you need to be socially and environmentally aware.

It’s all held together by some basic, intuitively sensible rules. Leave no trace and pick up any Matter Out Of Place. Respect each other’s boundaries. Give and receive whatever you can. You respect these rules because they’re not arbitrary. They’re designed out of utility for the security and happiness of the people who choose to be there. In this way they’re freeing, not inhibiting. These basic rules reflect the event’s slow evolution. I was told that they were the result of lessons learned from tragic accidents and the inevitable necessity for more structure as the city grew and grew each year.

And as it grew, it seems that it became more and more like the world people came there to escape.

That ability to escape is really only something privileged people can do. You need to have the money to spend, and the ability to get time off to disconnect from your job and your other responsibilities. But even then, why Burning Man? Why not spend the time and the resources to go on a relaxing vacation? Why not go into the mountains, surround yourself with thick rustling trees or sprawl out next to some cool peaceful beach?

it’s because the challenge of it’s thrilling. It’s novel to be part of something so big and cooperative. There are few places in this world that invite you to participate and engage in the creation of a shared experience. It forces you to push your comfort zones in ways you never would’ve conceived.

but, as nothing really is, it’s not removed from the real world. Or what Burners call the “default world,” and the very real inequalities in power, influence, and money.

You see it all around. there’s the turnkey camps, where people pay others to set up a camp for them, sometimes coming as a package with expensive chefs, butlers, and the like. Apparently, some of them compose their camps so no one can walk through their whole set up. I saw small clans of segways zoom past me. Sometimes I noticed art cars or camps with older white men sitting at a throne or up high, higher than anyone else, flanked by what I can only imagine to be paid models and dancers in coordinated burner-esque outfits.

It’s gross, for sure, but I was also fascinated by how wealth was manifested there. I guess the point of being in one of those enclosed, turnkey camps is that you get to be all cushy and comfortable while experiencing the dense sensory barrage that unfolds in the desert.

but to me what that shows is two different things:
either, these people are just cowards who don’t think they could handle the harsh environment of the Playa like most do, or they’re just unable to be self-sufficient or work with others well enough to do it themselves. A huge part of being out there is what you do for survival, whether you do it by yourself or with a group. if you’re completely unprepared there are some ways for you to rely on others to get by. But the whole deal is that you think about the basic needs you have, and make sure you take them with you. in theory, the rest of it is about giving and sharing.

What those turnkey camps signify is how its inhabitants don’t know how to be self-reliant. If they do, it’s silly that they’re coming to an event in which that is one of its core principles, and instead, choose to be observers, non-participants. What’s gross about it isn’t that it seems unfair that they “get” to have those set ups, it’s that they’re exploiting the cooperative nature of the Burning Man experience and using it as a backdrop for the cushy vacation they could really have anywhere else.

Decommodification
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

In the default world you can never ignore the existence and power that money quantifies and signifies.
one goal out there is to try to suspend its grip on our lives, for just a few days. thousands go to play this game of make believe.

people go to be extravagant in their own way. you can’t ignore the privilege, the wealth, because you can’t go unless the time, the resources, the ability, AND the desire for relentless, expressive, experimental energy that’s all been taken to its absurd extreme. everyone who goes is privileged in this way. the layers of pre-existing, institutionalized power inequities always give certain people access to more things, and out there, to more of those extremes. but to me, it seems like the people who choose to drag their privilege out there with them lose out from actually understanding the point of burning man. i’d imagine it’s hard to experience the raw, unpredictable intimacy of a place where respect and trust comes from being able to be happy to give as much as you are happy to receive. you can’t be as grateful for those surprise gifts if you isolate yourself and bring too much comfort out there with you.

So. I’m glad I got to go and see what it’s like when people are free to question all previous spoken and unspoken rules….how you’re supposed to dress, speak, act, relax, connect, feel, and express to others, it’s all thrown out the window and we’re all dared to rebuild it from scratch. I truly believe it could do more to challenge our default norms, especially our socio-political ones. Since no one in particular is in charge of that, I’m thinking of doing it myself somehow.

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…

embracing this thing called feminism (AKA: i've been a twit for too long)

I was at a meeting last week in Port Dickson, Malaysia on “Gender, Sexuality, and the Internet.” The goal of this meeting was to come out with principles for a feminist internet, and around 40+ women were flown from around the world, mostly from the global south, to hammer out a starting framework for what that would look like. It was an incredibly honest, productive conversation that took place over 5 days. It was one of the most intellectually demanding AND rewarding conferences I’ve ever been to, and by the end of the week, I had immense love and respect for everyone who was there.

GenderSexInternet Working Group

The thing is…I had a bit of cold feet before the meeting. Mostly, it’s my continued awkwardness around the word “feminism.” For a long time, I’ve carried some significant personal critiques about the name for this movement (which I will go into in another blog post). It was with these criticisms that I was able to justify my lack of engagement or even discussion of gender and sexual inequalities that are found in almost every facet of social relations.

But I realized last week that was a total bullshit cop-out on my part. I realized, after some considerable self-reflection, that I was taking comfort in the privileged upbringing I had not to talk about or even acknowledge sexism as a discernible fact in our institutions and in our day-to-day interactions.

Whether or not I actually did face it, I never felt wronged or disadvantaged because of my sex and gender identity. I continued to live my life from bubble to bubble, in places where there was both an acute awareness of gender, but was occupied by strong role models who were women or identified as GLBT—in my family, my schools, and all the offices where I’ve worked. In those spaces, sexism and heteronormativity didn’t present itself as a glaring injustice.

Whenever I faced a circumstance where I felt threatened by someone, whether in a long-term, not-so-long-term, or random sudden situation, I dealt with it and moved on. Even though I’d heard the statistics, knew that sexual abuse wasn’t just these one-off things, I went on convinced that it was just something wrong with those particular people. When it was my dear friends who were targeted—and too often, the same ones again and again—I was annoyed that they didn’t stand up for themselves, that they would get themselves in these situations in the first place by letting those toxic people in their lives. I even remember saying things like we weren’t alone, that millions of women face horrible sexual abuse every day. But the way I said it, it was almost like I was suggesting it was an unavoidable aspect of our society.

Yes. I was totally. Clueless. And the worst part about it was that I’ve been willfully so. This makes no sense because I fucking politicize everything around me. If I made any effort, I could see power and structural injustice in almost anything. But sex and gender? Ooh, it was just too exhausting to go there.

Another major way I justified disengagement was that I was convinced I was working on “bigger” issues. I wanted to think about our political economy, about how we’re screwing the commons, about why and how democracy is broken and what we can do to fix it. I truly thought sexism wasn’t “my fight” and that having to think about and address those issues was beyond the capacity of my work.

** Please know that I am sincerely ashamed of all of this. **

Attending this conference forced me to face my own ridiculous, lazy, justifications for why I hadn’t confronted the deep horrible fact of institutionalized, socialized forms of sexism. Of course it was uncomfortable for me to come to terms with it, and I had to get over my damn ego to accept it. Hearing the work that the other participants are doing around the world—empowering women’s economic autonomy through the internet, giving various kinds of support to sex workers, providing young queer kids a loving community, and working towards having sexual orientation and gender identity recognized as another variable to human rights abuses in international law…it was this kind of work, this pragmatic, direct form of feminist practice that shook me out of my willful disregard.

I now feel dutifully obligated to do more to address this issue in a way that I never have before. I’m completely at a loss for what that entails, and what I can do to personally add to this feminist movement…but that’s okay. I know that’ll take some thinking. In the meantime, I really need to come to terms with what “feminism” even means. As I said before I still have problems with calling myself a feminist, even though by it’s best, most inclusive definition, I should consider myself one big ragin’ one.

The next thing I write about this is gonna tackle that. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated.

Yuji Kawabuchi

photo 2

I’m laying, dazed, in bed at my family’s house in Chiba, Japan, nursing a horrible head ache. Yesterday was my grandpa’s funeral.

It all began the day after I got back from South Africa. It was a 28 hour trip and I was excited to be back home in San Francisco to get some work done before the holidays. Then my sister Hanami IMed me during Staff meeting.

“Gigi’s in a coma. He had a heart attack.”

The rest of the day I was distracted at work. Later that afternoon, I went to a birthday party for Chelsea Manning outside in the Castro to perform with my flash mob a piece we did for the Manning contingent at Pride parade. Right before we performed my sister called to tell me he passed away.

Fujisan and Gigi

We spent almost every summer with him when we’d come to Japan, but I never felt close to him in the normal let’s-share-laughs-and-feelings kind of way. He was tall, stern, practical, and a man of few words—unless that is, you got on his bad side. If you tried to make small talk, he’d ignore you. If you did something he thought was irrational, he’d let you know immediately by giving you one of his lectures about why you’re not making any sense and that you should think about how not to be an idiot. He valued pragmatism over all else, within his own established structure of duties and obligations.

For him, his highest duty was to his family. After spending World War II as an airplane engineer and seeing the horrors of the Tokyo firebombing, he had an arranged marriage to my grandma, a beautiful, tiny girl who escaped her family from the countryside. They had three children, my mom being the oldest. They were poor, really poor, as most families were in post-WWII Japan. He worked crazy hours for years to build a chain of successful pachinko businesses and pulled them out of poverty. He was known to be forthright, but never to be played for a fool.

photo 3

But he showed his love in his own way. When we were little, he always took us to the Chiba zoo and amusement parks. We’d be home watching TV on a hot day, and he’d slowly saunter in and drop a big bag of ice cream bars or rice balls or fireworks on the table in front of us and walk away. We’d scream “Thank you Gigi!!!” in Japanese and he’d just grunt back. Sometimes, he’d come and suddenly announce that he made reservations at a hot springs hotel for a few nights and demand that we were all going. Sometimes we’d already have other plans but there wasn’t any way to argue with him.

Two days after he died, Hanami and I got on a plane to attend the funeral. It was a Buddhist ceremony. Like my grandma’s funeral eight years ago, its rituals didn’t feel gratuitous at all, but each felt meaningful and purposeful. After the monk’s prayers, each person in my family went up to pray and say our farewells to his spirit as we lit incense next to his body. Our whole family filled his coffin with flowers until only his face showed through a mass of white and dark pink petals. I whispered to my sister that he’d probably think this was humiliating.

Entrance

The most haunting and most important part is the cremation process. After the prayers, we all drove to the crematorium. There, we each said our goodbyes for the last time. They then took him into a hall with a line of elevator-like doors, and placed his coffin into one. After about 2 hours they took us into a room where they wheeled in a silver table covered in bones. We were given long silver chopsticks, and in pairs, we lifted his bones into the urn. After we each did so, the cremator guy told us which pile of bones came from which part of his body. As I said before, he was really tall for a Japanese man, so his bones barely fit into the container. We all watched as the he had to struggle to break up the pieces with his silver chopsticks. When he apologized for having to do this, my aunt told him to do what he had to do to fit him in there. A few of us laughed out of the absurd morbidity of the situation.

At the end, the pieces of the skull are placed into the container—so as to recreate the alignment of the body. I don’t think there’s anything at all that reminds you of how ephemeral life is until you’re made to interact with human death in such a direct way.

When I told my friends and colleagues why I was going to Japan, they gave me their condolences. I was sad, am sad, but he was so hard to love. Despite everything he did for the family, his inability to express his feelings, to compromise with others, and to just be able to have a simple conversation about anything in life all made it so hard to be near him. It makes me sad that he had to build his cold exterior as a defense mechanism, and that this was expected of a man in his generation…that this caused so much pain for everyone around him and led to him living alone.

While he never once showed any weakness to anyone, you can see his gentleness in his paintings. He was a landscape painter. It was a skill that, pretty hilariously, he acquired from watching hours of Bob Ross on TV. His works are all of peaceful scenes of the Japanese countryside. I wish I got to know that side of him, to get a chance to talk to him about his painting technique, or at least about his thoughts about art. But that just wasn’t the kind of relationship he had with anyone.*

Pathway

(*) My sister just read this and said, “Oh I painted with him this one summer. He was trying to teach me but he kept yelling at me that I was doing everything wrong. He even corrected my painting after I was done…with oil pastels. He was being such a huge asshole.” So there you go.