June 25, 2008

The Most Popular Video on the Internet--What's It Mean?

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This is kind of an action survey, for those who are likely to show up at this blog, generally folks with a pretty sharp critique of late capitalism, neo-liberal globalization and US culture. Or to put it another way: lefties, hard lefties and the handful who think the hard lefties are soft as baby poop.

This video has been up online for about five days now and quickly became the most watched video of the week in the US and probably globally. If you are young and spend much time on teh Intertubes, you may well be sick of it already. If you're over forty, you probably haven't seen it or even its predecessor videos, hits in their own time.

So do me a favor. For real. Watch this little video. Now. It's four and a half minutes long and, while I can't promise, I suspect you'll find it pretty likable. Then go "below the fold" (i.e. click where it says "Read more!" right below the video) where I pose a couple of thoughts/questions I've been chewing on. I hope you'll feel like weighing in--just click at the end of the post, where it says "comments" in blue and enter same. Even a couple of lines will be much appreciated.

Okay--thumbnail background: slacker Matt Harding (who evidently went to the same CT high school I did) is videoed by a friend doing an extremely dorky dance in Hanoi. A couple years later the snip becomes a spontaneous YouTube smash and some gum company bankrolls him to travel around the globe getting videoed, doing the dorky dance in diverse, colorful and remote locales. One is made (remade, actually) in 2005, one in 2006, and now this. His girlfriend, Melissa Nixon, is a partner in the project.

I found myself tripped up and unexpectedly moved when, after Iceland, it suddenly moves away from the relative solipsism of the earlier videos and of the first minute of this one, with Matt dancing by himself. As others participants rush to join him from all sides, it suddenly becomes an intercontinental celebration of dorky dancing. Did you find it had that effect on you? (I'd also be interested if it really startled other folks who had seen the earlier videos.)

It doesn't bother me that he got to do this because he got backed by some gum company, especially since their presence is not heavy-handed. You?

The message is heartwarming--the global commonality and interconnectedness of humanity--and it is rather obviously meant to be. Need we steel ourselves against this message as mush-minded liberalism? And if we don't, how can we integrate that sentiment into an internationalism that is deeper and more about solidarity than vibes?

More problematic for me is the question of advanced-country privilege, what my fellow FotM blogger Napolitana-Piemontese calls the "narcissism of empire." It is a bit creepy that Matt, good-hearted doofus though he seems, feels entitled to ramble around the world without having to make a living, doing his li'l shuffle wherever he feels like. On the other hand, he was evidently invited to most of these places by locals who know him through the Internet and he seems pretty welcome by almost everyone everywhere, well, except for the Korean border guard and that one wave. How does this strike you?

(If you go to his website, you'll find a video entitled "Where the Hell is Afunakwa?" that shows Matt's clear understanding that he does have dues to pay, and suggests some of the limits of that understanding, at least so far.)

You can throw male privilege in there, too. I can look at this, imagine myself in Matt's shoes and think, "Boy, that looks like fun. If I weren't so much worse a dancer than he is, I could do that!" I'm not so sure how easy that is for women to imagine. Anyone?

Finally, there's a lot here to think about in terms of the global reach and impact of the Internet. His video has had 2 and a half million hits in the last five days and that's only on YouTube! His early ones have inspired scores of others to do it themselves, some in pale imitation, but many more as witty or imaginative variations, including earlier explorations of collectivity than Matt's own. The blog at his site is full of comments; except for a couple irate Zionist cranks going on about "What West Bank? What East Jerusalem?" nearly all are enthusiastic.

I don't know where to start to think about what all of that means, and in many ways, it is really the important question, moreso than just trying to appreciate and understand and critique a single engaging cultural artifact.

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June 24, 2008


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[Once again Jeri Reed has forwarded me an important article, like the one here a few months ago. Once again she has pulled my coattail to something by Casey J. Porter, the Iraq Veteran Against the War member who has been videoblogging live from outside of Baghdad. This time it's just words, but what powerful words!]

By Casey J. Porter

I feel pretty lousy as a human being today.

I had to turn away this Iraqi man at our gate here at the outpost. At some point the army took over this factory in the industrial part of Baghdad and we've been here ever since. He was an older man, diabetic, with multiple folders of paper work to show. He didn't speak any English and wished to talk to an interpreter. I was guarding the gate and was the one to call it in. So they send out the "Terp" as we call them.

This older man was not looking for a handout. He was the former owner of a paint shop that is built right up the building we now occupy. He was asking for compensation for his workers because they are no longer able to work now that we are here.

Why can't they work? Because they are terrified of us. Also, when we get rocket or mortar attacks, they don't always land where the insurgents want them to. Sometimes they fall short or overshoot their target. So when we set up shop, the people that can afford to leave, do.

He wasn't like the younger Iraqi Police Force guys. They get so much free stuff from you, the taxpayer, that it's insane. Then they always ask us to give them stuff. They are like children with AK-47s. This man was not like that. He was looking out for his workers. The translator was telling me what he was saying when things got confusing. The Iraqi man was saying: "You are the United States, human rights for all, etc., etc."

I'm not sure what else he said after that since it was clear that the Terp changed gears right after that. But that older gentleman wasn't being hostile about what he was saying, and I was all ears. Within his paper work he had forms and documents that proved he was the owner and operator, among other aspects of his business I'm sure. With the exception of the language, it looked a lot like the paperwork my father had for his business.

I called it up to the commander and the reply was to tell him to fuck off. He couldn't hear any of this because we keep the radio in the truck. I wasn't going to do that to this man. We screwed him over, and he was just looking out for his people. I told the Terp to translate the following:

"I can not authorize any money to be given to you. I also can not promise that anyone will see you. All I can tell you is to keep coming back until someone takes care of your needs."

He finally said that he would come back in about a week or so. Before he left I had the Terp translate one more thing.

"I'm sorry for what we've done to your country."

The man said "Thank You" in English to me. I hope that even though we had to talk through an interpreter that he understood that I felt for him, and was not blowing him off.

Either way I felt, and still feel, pretty rotten about the whole thing. I'm not supposed to be the bad guy.

Casey J. Porter

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June 18, 2008

The Young and the Leftless: An Open Letter on Organization

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[The following is a newly published open letter by some of the younger members of Freedom Road which is getting a fair amount of circulation. The authors of this blog encourage you to read the statement, and if you have anything to say in response, please visit the main site for the statement and join in the discussion.]

A Struggle Paper. That's what our elders in the movement would have called what you are about to read. But not a lot of young folks use the words "Struggle Paper," so consider this a love letter. It's a poignant prod at the sectarians and a come hither nod at the independents. It's a potluck discussion and a midnight session, and if we could play something hot in the background while you read this, we would. It's a challenge, because we love you, to think about what it's going to take to actually start building a revolutionary movement in the belly of the baddest beast this Earth has seen. We've got some thoughts about ORGANIZATION, and we want to know what y'all think.

First Things First, Who We Are:

For the sake of transparency, we are young leaders in Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad, a revolutionary organization with members throughout the United States.

But more importantly, we are you…the Young and Left.

We claim ancestors and homelands from all over the globe, genders from across the spectrum, and, well, let's just say our sexual identities are diverse and open for suggestions. Some of us grew up poor and know what it means to struggle; others never knew hunger but have a bad taste in our mouths from all the inhumanity of this system. We're from the cities, the suburbs, and the country; from the cold and rainy to the hot and sunny.

We are young and Left and frustrated just like y'all. We work long hours in grassroots organizations working to end imperialism, war, and gentrification; fighting to abolish the prison industrial complex; building power for workers and immigrants; and creating a world free from sexual violence. But big wins are few and far between.

We are busting our tails building workers' movements, but we're burnt out by traditional union practices. We are in grassroots community struggles, in intense local fights, but feel disconnected from the broader movement because the day-to-day is just so consuming. Some of us organize for exciting non-profits and community organizations, but we know the revolution will not be funded. We are waiting tables, cleaning rooms, watching kids, and making stuff that somebody else is going to get rich off of, and having a hard time trying to win our co-workers over to fight against our bosses. We're studying and teaching about really important stuff, but feel disconnected from the movements that feed us.

We are young and Left and have babies to feed, partners and family members to support, loans to pay off, and these gas, food, and rent prices are killing us. We're not going to "grow out of this" and do something "more responsible" than trying to change the world. We know that there's an island of trash twice the size of Texas that's floating in the Pacific Ocean, and wonder when, how, and how hard the ecological crisis is going to come down on us, our children, and the generations that will follow. We love Hip-Hop, punk rock, feminism, YouTube, and some of us even go to churches, temples, mosques, and quiet parks on peaceful mornings.

We work and live here in the U.S. most of the time, but know that we are part of an international movement that is facing many of the same struggles.

We all got here differently, but we share one conclusion: this system we're in cannot be reformed…it's got to go.

Our Generation, Our Dilemma

This is a scary new world we're in. The economic and political conditions around the world, as well as the state of people's movements, are quite different than those that our elders faced. The ideas that we're exchanging are constantly shifting; and the future looks a lot different from here than it did in the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Capitalism is shooting more steroids than the New York Yankees, and, despite inspiring and critical pockets of resistance to the Washington Consensus, neoliberalism is a force unlike any that people have ever faced.

We're standing on the shoulders of our elders, and they continue to push and support us, but it's time for us to recognize the unique position we find ourselves in. Chief among these differences facing our generation of the Left in the U.S. is:

There is no Left in the U.S.

Well, that's not entirely true. There are lots of little Lefts. There are collectives here, study groups there; small Left organizations scattered about; pockets of revolutionaries working in unions, community organizations, non-profits, and schools. We have much more in common politically than we differ on, but we don't have a consistent venue for sharing, for strategizing, or working on projects together.

Historically, that's been the purpose of Left organization in the U.S. and across the globe: to pool the collective insights and resources of revolutionaries and build a fighting force. Identify and support new leadership from people's movements. Study the problems, envision long-term solutions, and create a program to organize for the changes we need. In these organizations, everyone doesn't have to be everything; cultural workers stand side by side with organizers and people who are talented administrators as everyone works to fill in each other's gaps. Support and love each other. Coordinate and amplify. By creating a venue where revolutionaries can connect across diverse movements and geographies, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Revolutionary Voltron.

But our generation is scared of many types of organizations, and rightfully so. We've heard the horror stories from our older comrades. A lot of these organizations marginalized people of color and claimed that feminism and queer liberation were separate from, and should be subordinated to, the class struggle. Brutal criticism/self-criticism and crippling struggles over positions and power. They've pushed folks aside, and broken a lot of hearts: there's a lot of healing to do.

Plenty of times, they've mimicked the worst of the dominant system and tragically eaten themselves up in orgies of hierarchy, competition, isolation, and violence. All centralism, no democracy. The state has exploited these weaknesses as they've wrought their deadly havoc.

Which Way is Left?

But we have to differentiate between babies and bathwater. After all, as ugly as these movement organizations got at times, this is the generation that spawned the Black Power, Chican@, Gay Liberation, and Women's movements, among others. And we're standing on their shoulders. Avoiding the lessons of a sometimes painful past doesn't do these histories any justice. We're supposed to learn from the mistakes and move forward, armed with knowledge, to generate new solutions. If the conclusion that we draw from these stories is avoidance, we're missing the picture.

The reality is: we need to be more connected. We need to be in regular dialogue about what's going on in the world and how we can change it. We need to be sharing lessons and teaching one another. We need more strategy, more summing up and sharing, and more collective action.

And now more than ever, as this period is ripe with contradictions for our political picking. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the neoliberal transformation of New Orleans, the whole Gulf Coast, and every major city in the U.S.; the attacks on immigrants; mass incarceration and criminalization of African-Americans and other people of color; looming economic crisis and a price pinch that is killing all of us; climate change and ecological catastrophe: each of these issues could catalyze major moves. And they are. There are surges here, breakthroughs there-like the Social Forum and growing projects like Right to the City. Then there's the Obama campaign and what it may or may not represent. But what is out there to connect all of us in a sustainable movement? Where can collective analysis and strategy come from? There is no place to regularly debate and make decisions together. How do we make sure that we're headed in the same direction?

The loose networks that we have right now just don't facilitate that process. They are good for periodic bursts, but then recede as we go back to the daily grind of our local struggles. We need a mechanism to connect our fights and share analysis about what is working and what isn't. We must use our limited resources and abundant technology to shrink the distances between East and West, North and South.

In other words, we need organization.

Without it, our vision will remain just that. Organization is key to making our vision a reality. There certainly are other components, but they are hard to develop AND sustain without organization and a means of bringing us together for collective action and struggle. We need theory, a program to match it, and the commitment and numbers to make it happen.

Whether it's Marx or Marcos; Ella Baker or Anne Braden; Malcolm, Mao, or Che: the people who have influenced us have always stressed the need for oppressed people and freedom fighters to have organizations. Our local struggles, social movement organizations, unions, and non-profits are not enough. If we don't start connecting the bigger dots, and connecting with each other, we're going to keep on struggling in vain. We work too hard to keep doing this. There's too much at stake.

So let's take all of our mistrust for Left organizations, combine it with an ambitious hope for collective liberation, and talk about this together. Let's talk about what we share and how we can work together. Let's come up with 20-year dreams, 10-year plans, 5-year goals, and 1-year strategies. Let's patiently rebuild what we're all afraid of, but we all know is irreplaceable: organization.

We're proposing any and all of the following five steps as a place to start. Try something out, and hit us back so that we can really start to make this thing move. Together.

1. Study. All over the world, people have been struggling with this question for generations. What was wrong with the Soviet approach? What structures did the South Africans have? What happened in China, when millions all over the world had been inspired by their revolution? What about the Venezuelans? Palestinians? Cubans? Zapatistas? What's working and what isn't? What about the history of the Left here? Get together with folks that you believe in and do some research.

2. Make spaces at regional/national/international gatherings for conversations about organization. How do we stay connected with each other and move towards our goals collectively even if we're spread out in social movement organizations, community organizations, unions, schools, non-profits, and revolutionary organizations? What kinds of formations can help us coordinate and amplify our local and issue-based work into a coherent, unified, approach towards total liberation? Many of you attended the "Which Way is Left" and "Another Politics is Possible" workshops at the US Social Forum or elsewhere to have these very conversations. Continue these conversations in your home towns. Then get together nationally just to generate vision and strategy.

3. Build a common project or campaign with folks who are in social movement organizations, community organizations, unions, schools, and revolutionary organizations. Base the project on local investigation of issues that folks can develop and work on together. We need more base-building, more mass movement. That's how we create space for people to change their own realities. Revolutionaries, together, have a big role to play here. Doing this kind of work with those that we haven't before will help to build trust and lasting political relationships that can take us to a higher-level of struggle.

4. Join an existing Left collective, organization, or network. We might recommend one if y'all asked (www.freedomroad.org, in case you're interested). Find a group that has good ideas and good work on the ground, and get your feet wet. Are they organizing, or just talking? Do you respect the people involved? Is there room for change? Bring other organizers and activists with you and push these organizations to be better. Hell, join them, transform them, and change their directions. Utilize the resources and networks that exist to create the structures we're going to need.

5. Start a new collective, organization, or network. But be careful, one of the failings of the previous Lefts is that they were too fractured, too disconnected, too many. If you're starting something new, think about why. Do you need to build a new house, or can you find one that is structurally sound, move in, and make the changes that need to be made? If you have to build something new, how will you connect with allied organizations? Have this in mind before you begin.

As young members of Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad, we believe that organization is absolutely necessary if we're going to make these changes. We know that this is going to have to take new forms, and a variety of forms, but it has to happen soon. Think this over and get back to us. We've got some work to do together.

Peace and struggle,

Kim Diehl, Michelle Foy, Bryan Proffitt, and Claire Tran

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June 17, 2008

Bite Size Bad News 7--Gas Stations

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[posted for our friend Jimmy, who wrote this] I saw something rather startling in Northwest Connecticut on the weekend. Each pump at the local gas station had a handlettered sign taped to it, informing customers that all purchases must be paid for in advance. I asked Michael, behind the counter, if he had a lot of customers drive off without paying. "Not anymore," he deadpanned.
Mind you, this is an area where many people don't lock their houses; hell, some locals don't even have locks. But drive-offs have become a national problem as soaring gas prices in this car-dependent society have more and more people desperate. Up 60% this year in the Lynchberg, VA area. 10% in Pell City, AL. Almost doubled in Bismarck, ND.

This hits gas station owners pretty hard. As a rule they make a profit of 1.5 to 3 cents per gallon -- at best -- on gasoline sales. So if somebody guns it out of the station after topping off the tank with $60 on the pump, they have sell an extra 2-4,000 gallons to make up for it.

And drive-offs can be controlled by demanding pre-payment, like Michael has been forced to do. Station owners face other, less tractable problems. Soaring fuel prices have meant that more drivers are using credit cards to buy gas, because they simply don't have 50 or 60 bucks in their wallets. On top of an initial transaction fee, the credit card companies charge 2-3 percent. In a low-margin, price-competitive business like selling gasoline, that's a nasty bite. The Robinson Oil Corp. of California, for instance, is no mom and pop operation--they own 34 stations. At six of them, credit card fees are the largest single expense, more than rent or labor!

Perhaps the biggest problem of all for station owners is operating capital--they need more. They are paying twice what they did a year ago to fill their storage tanks, but competition keeps the profit per gallon in the same 1.5 to 3 cent range. They just don't have the dough on hand to handle the increased nut. Suppliers resist giving additional credit or stretching out payment schedules, and, as you may have noticed, banks aren't doing much lending these days.

To rub salt in the wounds, the owners have to listen to jokes about how rich they're getting with the higher prices. But thanks to the magic of the free market, the picture isn't totally gloomy. True, drivers are in a world of hurt. True, the small businesspeople who own most of the gas stations are being stretched beyond their limits. But, hey, look on the bright side: Exxon Mobil's take last year was $40.6 billion, the largest corporate profit on record, and they are on track to beat that number this year.

Oh, yeah, company spokespersons announced Monday that Exxon Mobil will be selling all 2,200 of the U.S. gas stations they don't license, but own outright. Just not profitable enough, the company says.

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June 13, 2008

Bite Size Bad News 6--The "Staycation"

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I know, I know, the last thing you need is another reason to hate Wal-Mart. But check this out.

Last month Wal-Mart management filed with the US patent office to scarf up the trademark rights to a neologism (one they had nothing to do with coining, incidentally): "staycation."

The idea is pretty clear--what with layoffs, inflation, a recession and $4 a gallon gas, many of us aren't going to be doing much vacation traveling this summer, so let's hang around the crib and Have Fun! It's a "Staycation"!

Rand McNally, the map people, did some polling in April: 57% of American families are trimming their vacation plans this summer, with only 15 % intending to travel for more than five days. One in ten are canceling their plans altogether.

With the trademark application still pending (track it here), Wal-Mart went ahead yesterday and rolled out a widget you can install on your home computer so that every day you can see a nifty new suggestion for Big Fun on your stay-at-home vacation. Most of them, oddly enough, involve the purchase of a barbecue grill, an "inflatable outdoor movie screen" or some other piece of crap from Wal-Mart. (See the press release at this business site--I'm not linking to the swine.)

I wonder what they'll come up with if millions of us find ourselves on permanent "staycation" as the economy continues to go pear-shaped. Waterproof cardboard box liners to keep your new residence dry? Lightweight plastic trays to sell apples and pencils from? 2 for 1 squeegees for the entrepeneurially-minded?

Have a nice "staycation"...

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