Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Triumph in Boston: Thoughts on the Rally Against White Supremacy

Saturday's counter-protest (including the march and the rally that started at the Common) was an absolute, unequivocal, unqualified victory against racism and fascism. The numbers were staggering. And, it's important to note, a lot of college students, who swell the city's population during the school year and tend to be more liberal, weren't back in the city yet. The image was unambiguous: 30-40,000 counter-protests to 40-50 huddling in the bandstand despite the several hundred foot buffer the Boston police gave them in the surrounding area. (2017's relentless effort to produce metaphors of itself continued when a small group of loud-mouthed overconfident men were granted vastly more land in proportion to their population than a much larger more diverse group.) In fact, they packed up before most of us even got there. It took us two and a half hours to march about two miles from the Reggie Lewis Center to the Common and by the time we got there, the Nazis were long gone, having been escorted out for their own safety in police vehicles. It had to be humiliating and discouraging.

Perhaps even more importantly, early on the organizers tried to distance themselves from the Nazis at Charlottesville. Over and over again (because the media kept talking to them) the organizers pretended this was about “free speech” and that most of the speakers had at the very least ties to or demonstrated sympathies to white supremacy and white supremacist organizations was just, you know, a coincidence. Furthermore, unlike the “free speech” rally in Charlottesville, from the pictures I saw, the attendees in Boston didn't bring any overt symbols of white supremacy. I later learned that organizers actively discouraged attendees from bring such symbols. Furthermore, there had been statements earlier in the week that members of the KKK in Massachusetts were going to attend, but, as with the other symbols, if they did, they were too scared or too ashamed to show themselves. That, of course, is the point of these counterprotests. There is absolutely no redeeming value to white supremacy and anyone who harbors any shred of it in their souls should be too ashamed of themselves or afraid of the consequences to display it in public. And it looks like, at least to some degree it worked.  (Just going to pause here and throw in a “Fuck yeah, Boston!”)

But the biggest long-term victory came in the form of scare quotes. We are in this place right now, in large part because of how successful the radical right has been of controlling the media narrative. Whether it's the early framing of Trump's electoral college victory as rooted in “economic anxiety” or the long term myth of the liberal media, much of the responsibility for the destruction now being wrought by the Trump administration lays squarely with the media who kowtowed for decades to intimidation and manipulation on the right. But on Saturday, they began referring to the white supremacist rally as a “free speech” rally. Those scare quotes are short hand for “so-called.” For months and months (maybe years and years) white supremacists and fascists have been using the rhetorical technique of throwing the debate away from their reprehensible opinions to the nuance of free expression and, in doing so, have been able to continue to create platforms for recruitment and radicalization. But, by Saturday, the mainstream media were no longer having it. The media did not give them the benefit of the doubt. If the right wants to hold another “free speech” rally, rather than the left having to prove it is a thinly veiled white supremacy rally, the right will have to prove it's not. That is a huge victory, and as the Trump administration continues to unravel (and as Trump himself continues to unravel) inherent skepticism from the main mainstream media of right wing rallies, protests, and responses to the Mueller investigation or articles of impeachment or the 25th amendment or even specific steps by cities, states, and NGOs to counter the white supremacist policies coming out of the justice department, will go a long way in the helping the struggle.

Radical Fire
One of my first observations, as I walked from Roxbury Crossing towards the Reggie Lewis Center and while I thought back to the list of speakers at both rallies, was just how much more radical the organizers of these counter-protests were than many of the attendees. Along with antifa (more about them in another post), the place was just lousy with socialists, prison reform and abolition activists, indigenous rights activists, and Black Lives Matter activists. The speakers before the march itself were spitting fire that I doubt a lot of the attendees had heard before.

But that is, of course, how movements always start and how movements are always sustained. As much as moderates and mainstreamers like to argue for incremental change and cautious reform, almost none of those changes or those reforms would happen without the engine of radicalism organizing and fighting for so much more. The status quo only changes through immense force (whether activist, technological advance, or other) and immense force generally doesn't start with moderates. I mean, it is telling that Black Lives Matter and various Socialist organizations and not, say, the Democratic National Committee organized a protest against Nazis. But there were certainly, plenty of Democrats in the crowd.

I like to think of it as a pot of boiling water. The change that bubbles to the surface, whatever form it takes, is fueled by the radical fire on the bottom. Whether it's overtime pay, weekends, clean air, free public education, curb cuts in sidewalks, Social Security, or any other now obvious reform that makes your life better, you can thank the radicals of our past for fighting against the status quo and putting their jobs, bodies, even lives on the line for what they believed in.

Because, when you really start to drill down into what radicals on the left fight for, and what more moderate people believe is just and good for the world, the difference isn't really so great. As one of the socialist speakers put it, sure there might be differences in specific policy, there might be disagreements over nuances of theory, but when you're fighting Nazis you want to present the widest possible front. So when you start asking (or repeating) questions about socialism, Black Lives Matter, prison abolition, reparations, guaranteed minimum income or any other policy or idea that is considered “radical” I urge you to take a few minutes and research the roots and reasons for it. Is the idea of reparations today any more radical to us than the idea of the weekend was when it first proposed? Is the idea of a guaranteed minimum income really that radically different from Social Security or welfare? It is amazing how many policies you can agree on and how much change you can enact when you realize we're all starting from the idea that all human beings are valuable.

Why Boston Was Safe
When I was talking to people before the march, I told them I was 83% certain it was going to be perfectly safe. Not the strongest percentage when we're talking about physical safety, but still, pretty safe. And the reasons for my assessment were born out.

First and foremost, these men are cowards. They are perfectly happy to bang their shields and swing their sticks and shout their nonsense and attack people when they have such a numerical advantage that not a single one of them assumes any meaningful risk of harm. But, despite how vital the First Amendment is to freedom or whatever, not a single one of them was brave enough to stand within a hundred feet of the crowd of protesters and make their case. Now, I'm not saying their fear was unreasonable, but I am saying that Nazis are cowards and that, from what I saw, not a single white supremacist in Boston on Saturday displayed a fraction of the courage showed by UVA students and counter-protesters in Charlottesville. I want you to really internalize this point and think about what it means, especially when I discuss antifa later: when the left outnumbers the right in contentious and confrontational rallies, said rallies are much more likely to be safe. If the numbers are roughly even (as in Berkley and Charlottesville on the Saturday) or if there are more white supremacists (as in Charlottesville on the Friday night) there is a much greater chance of violence. That it was about 400 counter-protesters to every white supremacist meant that there was no meaningful risk of harm.

Second, every year Boston hosts at least two events that require managing tens of thousands of people: the Boston Marathon and the Fourth of July, so the city and the police force have long institutional knowledge for dealing with crowds. As boring as it might be, crowd control logistics play a big part in whether or not protests are safe. Where you put barriers, how far apart they are, how many officers you have and where you put them, are all boring, technical details that can have huge impacts on whether or not a protest is safe. You can see the value of police experience with logistics because of the stark contrast between Boston on Saturday and Phoenix on Tuesday. If I'm being very generous, I suspect the sudden use of tear gas, pepper spray, pepper balls, and flash-bang grenades by the Phoenix police came from the goal of keeping the counter-protesters and the Trump rally attendees separate, but the police were simply not prepared. I'm sure many of them will believe that tear-gassing a crowd of ten thousand plus peaceful protesters who had been standing in the heat for hours and hours was the safest option, but, they were either totally unprepared or totally unwilling to actively manage the crowd exiting the rally. Their lack of crowd control experience created an extremely dangerous situation and we are very lucky no one was seriously hurt either directly by the police (all of those "non-lethal" weapons can be very dangerous to the elderly, the very young, and people with specific conditions like asthma or allergies to any of the ingredients in the chemical weapons) or in the chaos created when tear gas suddenly shows up and thousands of people start running. (My less generous interpretation is that the same thing happens whenever tear gas is deployed. A few things were thrown at police in body armor, helmets, and riot shields, so they overreacted.)

But, on the police side, at least as importantly was that it was made clear, at least from my interpretation, that the police were willing to arrest the white supremacists as well. It matters that the white supremacists were told they were not welcome. I know it sounds weird to say that committed to arresting people who commit crimes was important, but Charlottesville got so dangerous because the police did not intervene in situations when the white supremacists were assaulting people. We don't know what would have happened if violence had erupted, if the Boston police force would have stuck to their statement and arrested people on both sides or if they would have done what police departments usually do and just arrest the nearest black person to the incident, but the fact that they gave that impression was important.

Finally, Massachusetts has strict gun control and prohibits open-carry. I don't care what you say about the Second Amendment, carrying a fucking assault rifle in a public place in general, and to a protest specifically, is a fucking threat. It is a confrontation. It is a tactical act of intimidation. It is an assault on free speech. It is an act of violence. Furthermore, we know whose side the men playing soldier are on. As overwhelming numbers bolster Nazi confidence for violence, so does knowing they essentially have a militia armed to the fucking teeth ready to step in and “act as peacekeepers” or “protect free speech” if it looks like those who oppose white supremacy might have the upper hand. Furthermore, just at an emotional and psychological level, a bunch of dudes walking around with fucking assault rifles inherently raises the stress level, and thus greatly raises the odds that adrenaline overrides clear thinking. Which means that perhaps the easiest way for cities to prevent violence, at all significant levels, at their protests is to ban open carry at them. Because, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the First Amendment (you know, what this is supposedly all about) has no meaning when the Second Amendment is given free rein.

Final Takeaway: Saturday Kicked Ass But This is Far from Over
There are a few images that will stick in my mind from Saturday's march. The “Ruck Neo-Nazis” sign from the Rugby Players Against Racism group. The live-action demonstration of intersectionality as, along with the more generic condemnations of racism and white supremacy, there were signs for Black Lives Matter, refugee rights, immigrant rights, prison reform, LGBTQ rights, and dozens of other groups and ideas threatened by white supremacy. People swing dancing in the empty street to the music from the marching band. The number of Porter Square Books customers I saw in the crowd. (Good job, team!) The strange energy when we finally got to the Common and thousands of people who had geared themselves up to drive Nazis from their fucking city found themselves with beautiful free Saturday afternoon in Boston. But the image that hit me the hardest was a middle-aged to older black woman, who had climbed up the side of a dumpster to get a better view, filming the march with her phone, saying over and over again, “Thank you. Thank you all.”

But it's important to note: white supremacy is the idea that white people have the right to do whatever the fuck they want. This fight is far from over. And though they may not use “free speech” rallies as a cover for recruitment events going forward, the most radical and most dangerous of them will certainly apply lessons from Saturday. There were reports of people taking pictures of DSA women to dox them later. I definitely saw two white men, walking perpendicular through the march filming people. Maybe they were innocently documenting a historic event, but I got a weird vibe from them, and it is just as likely they were recording the faces of the “enemy.” White supremacists see themselves in a war and they will take the lessons of this defeat and apply them to their next actions. Furthermore, because of the white supremacists in the federal government, like Jeff Sessions, our resources for fighting this specific kind of terrorism are being greatly curtailed. I am so lifted up from Saturday's march, but I am also profoundly afraid at what will happen next.

Boston is a weird place. Despite being the cradle of the abolitionist movement, it is still profoundly racist. And whether that racism reflects itself in busing policy, gentrification, school funding, or the n-word, it is still something we will struggle with. But Boston made a statement on Saturday: white supremacy is not welcome here. Maybe it wasn't the bravest statement. Maybe it wasn't the most enlightening statement. Maybe there can be further discussion about how to make these statements. But it was an absolutely necessary statement and because Boston made it, it will be easier for other cities (like Phoenix) and other places to make their own version of it.

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P.S. There were a ton of antifa at the counter-protest on Saturday and seeing them helped galvanize my thinking about antifa. Look for those thoughts later this week or next week.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reading is Resistance: On Free Speech & Nazis

As of writing there is a rally planned by a bunch of white men for Saturday on Boston Common and, as of writing, the supposed theme of this rally is “free speech,” and I guess it will be just coincidence or something that only white men and maybe a few white women will attend this rally. As a bookseller and a writer, the idea of free speech is not just important to me, it is vital to who I am. Protecting and providing access to ideas I disagree with is one of the fundamental responsibilities of being a bookseller and the ability to express whatever is in my mind in whatever manner I see fit, whether other people like it or not, is fundamental to being a writer. Furthermore, there is power in being around ideas that make you uncomfortable, that challenge your world view, that you disagree with and, both as a bookseller and as an author, I do feel it is also my responsibility to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be uncomfortable. But (so no one has to be nervous while I build my argument) the First Amendment right to free expression does not, in any way shape or form, apply to Nazism or white supremacy.

As with so much of the reaction to what's happening this piece will be a little raw and I can't promise the best structure or that I have considered and accounted for all possible counter arguments or implications of my argument. Furthermore, in terms of a bookseller's specific role in how and what information and opinions are accessible in their communities, I will honestly say that I still feel a tension between the authors around the edges of this movement and with those who might be considered enablers of this movement (Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reily immediately spring to mind), who don't explicitly talk about white supremacy, who I, personally, wouldn't want to stock on my shelves and that responsibility to get whatever book a reader wants for them, without any judgment. There is a point where the debate becomes more nuanced, when the arguments around free speech and bookselling become more fraught and when we'll be faced with either/or decisions without an obvious answer (and I'm not counting the "do I need to make this money" as part of this nuanced point because, well, I don't believe that money has any real relevance whatsoever to this issue) and I'll be honest right now, that I don't explore that point in this post. Even in a brain dump like this, I just don't have it all settled in my head enough to share. 

A lot of you who read this will already agree with me, and if you've been following this issue, you'll see a number of familiar points, some of which have been made far more eloquently than I ever could by cartoons and other images and tweets. As a white dude, I see it is as my responsibility to talk to other white dudes and as writer I see it as my responsibility to create prose that might pull someone back from the edge, refine another white dude's understanding of what they are doing in the world, tweak an attempted-ally's behavior, or, at the very least, add the privilege of my voice to existing arguments. Finally, I also recognize that, historically, the types of ideas and expressions that are censored by the government have been those that I would consider protected under the First Amendment. Most of the time, when the government (or whoever) seeks to restrict expression, their goals have been to either silence dissent or police sexuality. With all of that said, I'll say this again: The First Amendment right to free expression does not, in any way, shape or form, apply to Nazism or white supremacy.

I think it's important to start by exploring exactly why the First Amendment and the right to free expression is important. Then I'm going to talk about the types of speech we already restrict. Finally, I'm (hopefully) going to pull that all together into something coherent. Finally, (for real this time, sorry for all the preambles) I should probably reiterate that this post (and really all my other posts, tweets, etc) reflect only my opinion. OK.

On a political level, there is inherent value in allowing for competing, disagreeing, divergent, even mutually opposed ideas to be expressed freely and without restraint. Debate, discourse, conversation, are the laboratories of human political, social, and artistic ideas. Allowing dissenting views to be expressed leads to better policy and creates the opportunity for consensus in a way that is simply not possible when ideas are restricted by the government. Furthermore, there is value to interacting with ideas you disagree with even if you don't reach consensus. Not only is your idea strengthened and your understanding of it deepened through your defense of it, you are able to see the nuance that makes the opposing idea legitimate and perhaps adjust your own assumptions and assessments of the idea, even if you don't agree with it. In theory, something positive could come from debating the value of an idea I agree with, like a federally administered minimum income, with a “small-government” republican even if we never reach a consensus or agreement.

Free expression is also vital to a society, because, ultimately, humans are communication animals. Our lives are defined by what, how, and who we communicate with. It is absolutely vital to our personhood that we be able to express ourselves. (Hang on to that word, “personhood.”) Not being able to express who you are is fundamentally identical to not being able to be who you are.

But, even with that, American jurisprudence, and well, basic common sense acknowledge that you can't say always say whatever you want whenever you want. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is, of course, the go-to example, because when you shout “fire” in a crowded theater, you risk causing a panic that leads to physical harm or death. (It should also be said, that even if everyone knows there is no fire, you still interrupt the experience the audience and your asshole ass should be thrown out even if maybe it shouldn't be arrested.) But you can also can't tell lies about someone that hurts them. Depending on the person, you also can't even share true things (like, say, a sex tape) if sharing that true thing causes them harm. You also can't call someone up in the middle of the night and threaten to kill them. You also can't (I'll throw in a “technically” here, because dudes get away with it all the time) tweet rape threats at people. Another classic ethical formulation is “You have the right to swing your fist right up until it hits my nose,” and we, as a society, have decided that some speech counts as hitting a nose.

First, and many other people, usually people of color, have said this better than I have, but I'll put it in here anyway: there is no consensus between the idea “I am a person” and the idea “No, you're not.” There is no middle ground. There is no compromise. There is no negotiation. There is no chance to grow through debate between these two ideas, because one of them assumes the other doesn't actually have personhood to grow. Nothing the whole free exchange of ideas thing is supposed to do can happen between “I am a person” and “No, you're not.”

But more importantly, white supremacy is a death threat. As clear, as distinct, as dangerous, and as damaging as calling someone on the phone and threatening to kill them. Holding a Confederate flag is no different from standing outside the home of a person of color and dragging your thumb across your throat. The fundamental idea of white supremacy, no matter how apologizers and adjacents try to soften or mitigate it, is that white people have the right to kill other people. Naziism was based on the idea that white Germans had the right to kill Jews, Romany, homosexuals, and others. The Confederacy was based on the idea that white people had the right to kill black people. Every Nazi flag is a death threat. Every Confederate flag is a death threat. Every Confederate monument is a death threat. Every school, street, park, highway, whatever, named in honor of a Confederate general, soldier, politician, or hero is a reminder to all people of color that a whole lot of white people still want the right to kill them. The n-word out of the mouth of a white person is a death threat. Every racial slur out of the mouth of a white person is a death threat. And death threats are not protected by the First Amendment.

The debate over white supremacy is over. There is a reason why there are no statues of Hitler in Germany, why Mein Kampf was banned until very recently, why Nazi symbols are only in museums. No one gains anything from white supremacy's presence in our marketplace of ideas. And it's presence is a constant, relentless threat to well-being and lives of millions of Americans. If you want to argue that Nazis and other white supremacists have the right to express their white supremacy you need to look a person of color in the eyes and tell them they don't have the right to feel safe in their own country. If you can do that, well, then I guess I'm done exchanging ideas with you.

One final point on the legitimacy of the white supremacist free speech argument: do you really believe they would permit criticism of their white power if they took over our government? Do you really believe they would encourage a vigorous exchange of opinions in a free marketplace of ideas? Do you really believe a black person would be able to express themselves freely under David Duke? Of course, not. Protests would be outlawed the next day, monuments to people of color would be torn down, and every MLK street, school, and park would be renamed. They'd confiscate every history book, defund every college they accused of “indoctrinating” the youth, and arrest every activist of color they got their hands on. Because this has never, not for one second, actually been about free speech, and those who repeat that argument have (at best) been conned. Every argument about the sanctity of free speech is (at best) a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of building ideas in a society, but is far, far more often, a simple smoke screen to give them a chance to recruit more sad, scared, and angry white men to their hateful cause.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

There is a Story Here: On the Book of Disquiet

There is a story here. I know it doesn't look like a story, that it doesn't have the plot you expect from a story or the characters you expect from a story or the relationships you expect from a story or the arc of events you expect from a story, but I assure you it is a story. It is a story about the course of consciousness, the nature of thought, the self's consideration of the self, the existence of the brain in the world. It is a story about figuring shit out, about our inability to figure shit out, about the mechanisms of understanding both the grand abstract concepts that drive art and philosophy and the bullshit your boss does in the office, and it is a story about the limitations of those mechanisms, the gears of the mechanisms, the grease of those mechanisms.

The thing is, unlike most stories, we all experience this story every day. We all think about the shit that happened to us and we all think about the best way to think about the shit that happened to us, and sometimes we come to conclusions and sometimes we don't and sometimes we come to different conclusions later that make those first conclusions look really fucking stupid. This is a story about how we are and how we become meaningful. But to see The Book of Disquiet as a story, to see it as distinct from a fictional diary or collection of disconnected musings you need to learn to read it as a story.

Not all books can or should be read in the same way. This is one of those ideas that sounds strange, but once put into context, is almost obvious. You would read a collection of poetry differently than you would read the next installment in your favorite fantasy epic; you would pay attention to different details, keep different types of information at the forefront of your mind as you read, and react to your own reactions differently. You read a collection of essays differently from a collection of short stories, a work of literature differently from a work of entertainment, a work you have some doubts about differently from a work your best friend swears by. Furthermore, you can even read the same book differently, depending on the context. For example, you read a book differently when you read it for a class or for a book club from when you read it for fun. Some books, the books I often consider the greatest books, need to be read differently from every other book, and one of their responsibilities and one of the definers of their greatness is that they teach you how to read themselves. So The Book of Disquiet, rather than starting with some kind of introductory passage that would try to frame this as a collection of diary entries or, at least, as a collection of distinct units, begins with a story. A story about how the “author” came to meet “Vicente Guedes,” the “writer” of everything else that will follow. Furthermore, the opening image of the first “entry” is of a “hidden orchestra” and a “symphony” or, to put it another way, of a particular type of human expression in which a series of distinct acts come together to create a unified experience.

This is a story because, directly and indirectly, through confronting the concept and through atmosphere created by the prose, the book returns again and again to one particular idea, and explores how that idea describes the narrator's experience with the world. The narrator may not change, the events may not change, the rising and falling action we associate with a plot might not happen, but the nature of this idea changes and does go through the rising and falling action we associate with a plot. In a way, the book feels almost like someone worrying at a loose tooth, but that is a story. There is conflict, there is tension (will the tooth fall out?), and ultimately, there is resolution. The concept, of course, is disquiet. Disquiet is a mercurial idea, and the narrator rolls it around in his hands, bending and stretching into different shapes, but, if I had to define it in some kind of, uh, definite way, I'd say that Pessoa's disquiet is the parallax created by the separation between existence and observation, from the fact that observing what happens and how you feel about it is distinct from what actually happens and what you feel about what actually happens. Disquiet names the perpetual Heisenberg uncertainty principle that is an inherent aspect of consciousness itself. There is a synapse between us and the world and disquiet is the emotion we feel when we think about that synapse.

This is a story about disquiet in the exact same way that In Search of Lost Time is a story about memory. The difference, of course, is in the angle of approach. Proust takes the long way (perhaps, the absolute longest way), showing the accumulation of memory over the course of a life and how the force of memory guides and shapes a life as a way to consider the ideas that describe memory. It is a long, slow build up that climaxes when a small moment triggers the emotional experience of what the fact of having memory means. It takes Proust thousands of pages to set up this climax because memory is a book with thousands of pages. (I, for one, think it's worth it.) Pessoa just goes right at it, his narrator confronting the idea directly and rarely with any kind of “real world” connection. In a way, this makes The Book of Disquiet read more like a work of philosophy or even of literary criticism (there is a lot about the act of writing in here as well), but, in a way, you can arrange any good work of philosophy into a story about an idea if you want to.

But, just because this is a story doesn't mean you need to read it as a story. Along with teaching you how to read themselves, great books also support multiple reading methods, giving readers the power to find their own best experience with the text. You could also read The Book of Disquiet as a devotional or a book of hours. You could keep it at your bedside to read upon waking or before going to sleep. You could read it front to back like a story, or you could wander through it. I think you could also get tremendous value out of it, even if you never finish it, even if you just keep circling back to the passages that most resonated with you. The Book of Disquiet is a story, but it is a story that gives your the freedom to read it as though it is not.

I've dogeared hundreds of passages. I have had my breath taken away hundreds of times. The primary motivation for writing this post wasn't necessarily the argument that the The Book of Disquiet is a story (though I think it is and I think that argument gave me the chance to have some interesting thoughts about how we read and what we consider a “story”), but that when I experience this kind of brilliance in a book I want to write about it. But I didn't want to just essentially string of bunch of blurbs together and call it a post. There can be a kind of diminishing return when you gush about a book. At some point you don't really add to your argument and at another point people can start getting suspicious and at a similar point you can set expectations so high a first impression of disappointment will follow them throughout the rest of the book. The Book of Disquiet is a masterpiece, a cornerstone of much twentieth-century fiction, an often perplexing but also delightful book, and as much as it deserves praise, as much as it deserves blurbs and handsells, it deserves essays more.

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