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September 01, 2007

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Robert Moses may have had this view... but the revolutionary movement of the 60s was quite "rock star friendly" and did not at all have the current small-minded punk hostility to those who are popular.

There was BOTH a reverence for rock stars and "movement stars" and a profound distruct for both. There was a tension between the idea of charismatic leadership and "Camusian, anti-authoritarian conservatism".

In the early 60s, SNCC used to make fun of Martin Luther King. They called him "De Lawd". He was a pompous, elite "leader" who always arrived on the scene late to take over something someone else had already started.

And where did King's bourgiousie status come from anyway? From his father shaking down elderly black women in church for a cut of their poverty wages.

On the other hand, King's "leadership" let the Civil Right's movement reach out to the elite on the upper West Side and in Hollywood (Harry Belefonte raised tons of money and stayed mostly in the background) in a way that a 20 year old SNCC volunteer wouldn't have been able to.

I think this process continued all throughout the civil rights and anti-war and black power movements and was critiqued all the way though.

If you read Marge Piercy's essay "The Grand Coolie Damn" in the anthology "Sisterhood is Powerful" it's a direct attack on "movement rock stars". And that was 1970. In fact, the early feminist movement was in a lot of ways an attempt to make the anti-authoritarian ideals of SNCC real across gender lines.

And it was perceived that the movement had been hijacked by movement stars.

I wouldn't necessarily take Cointelpro targetting a political tendency as a sign of its effectiveness. There's a long debate to be had on this. By the 1960s, J Edger Hoover was so completely batshit insane they started all sorts of persecutions of rock stars, leftist celebrities and movement starts that may have just done the ruling class more harm than good.

In the Clintonite 90s they learned how to coopt leftist celebrities easily.

srogouski

last post was me, forgot to sign in.

srogouski

I don't remember anyone "hating" on Chuck D for being a "movement rock star" even when he talked stupid Nation of Islam shit.

Because a lot of these left celebrities don't get heavily involved in the day to day running of the "movement".

They're off in the distance. When they make some contribution people are thrilled by it.

On the other hand there's a real destructive tendency when the will to power gets in the way of building any kind of a movement.

You get splits between people who should be working together. You get disruptive cults like the Sparts. You get anarchists who don't like anything because they're afraid someone else is going to steal the spotlight.

And you can explain this just as easily by saying

we need more leadership

or

we need less leadership

srogouski

Whole towns have criminalized sagging pants, which is then enforced on black youth or, I'm also sure, white kids who cross those lines.

Or you get zionists who go batshit insane anytime some mainstream clothing outfit sells kaffiyehs.

There must have been 5 or 6 very high traffic Pipes/Horowitz front sites on the internet directing a hate campaign against Kirsten Dunst because she was photographed wearing a "peace scarf" in an Urban Outfitters catelogue.

But does this make wearing a kaffiyeh a radical act or does it mean the Pipes/Horowitz crowd is just nuts and, worse, getting in the way of the natural capitalist cooptation of radical symbols?

Whities Advocate

Oh come on kaffiyehs are so played out. You might as well put on a trucker hat. 2007 is all about mexican shit my non-hip friend.

srogouski

2007 is all about mexican shit my non-hip friend.

I read more neocon sites than I read Minuteman sites I guess.

srogouski

Although what would have happened had those Mexican protesters last Spring waived Mexican and Red and Black Flags instead of American flags?

There's already a full fledged nativist backlash against immigration going on. And Congress is nowhere near passing an amnesty bill.

Those protests just came, waived some American flags and left the field to the Minutemen.

I DON'T see this Mexican immigrant chic you're referring to.

JB

Mexican immigrant chic... or Mexicans who won't take shit?

JB

Played out? Kaffiyahs?

This is the clothing of the basic Arab people. Not the sheiks who vacation with the Bushs in their tailored finery.

It's not in or out, it's here to stay. Kaffiyas also happen to be a near perfect scarf for mild New York winters.

Played out? People who get excited to shop at Barney's or wear Armani Exchange t-shirts because they can't afford the real thing.

That is totally played out, or looking sillier every day.

srogouski

Mexican immigrant chic... or Mexicans who won't take shit?

Posted by: JB | September 02, 2007 at 03:36 PM

Pretty Good. I think I'll go over to the Ron Paul blog and post it there :)

submarino

"Although what would have happened had those Mexican protesters last Spring waived Mexican and Red and Black Flags instead of American flags?"

I was at those marches in LA, and there were a lot of American flags, but there were a lot of Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, Filipino, and other flags too. A significant smattering of Red and Black as well. Every lefty march in LA inevitably features Korean drummers in traditional dress. Of course, the Minutemen crowd hates that shit, but I think they hate it even more when the "illegals" "co-opt" the stars and stripes.

"You could always use the Karl Dix solution and wear a shirt that says 'Revolutionary.'"

How different is that from wearing a Che t-shirt? Every chicana/o kid in LA has one of those, and yet there's not a whole lot of guerrilla warfare going on.

I'm not saying that culture (or "counter-culture), fashion, image, or rhetoric are completely irrelevant, but it's a lot easier to say or wear the right thing than it is to recruit and train movement leaders. A good rule of thumb, when you're fighting capitalism: if it's harder to do, it's probably more important.

Christopher Day

Its a lot easier to recruit and train movement leaders when you've got the winds of a real counter-culture in your sails.

As for "hard to do" = "more important," I don't think it works like that. Sometimes things are hard to do precisely because they are a dead end. And sometimes things feel easy precisely because they are in synch with world historical possibilities. Selling the "Workers Vanguard" has got to be hard. Joining the new SDS feels easy.

zerohour

Some random thoughts aspiring towards coherence:

It's important to distinguish counterculture from sub-culture. Counterculture seeks to transform mainstream culture, it seeks to become the mainstream. Sub-culture revels in its marginality and tends to suspect mass taste. No counterculture really exists, just many subcultures. This is reflective of the logic of fragmentation is encouraged by capital, and so celebrated by postmodernism. AFAIK, there is not even a will towards counterculture. As for music, punk and hiphop aren't the only games in town. You have rave/electronica culture, riot girl [ok that's related to punk], and the indie/alt-country scene too. These cultural enclaves are potential bases for radical politics as people here are developing their own codes of behavior and cultural meanings. In fact, there is some progressive sentiment in many of these scenes [riot girl obviously].

That is not to say that we can build a revolutionary movement mainly off this energy, but we can't build one without it.

Of course anything that goes through mainstream channels will come with contradictions and compromises. It reminds me of the debates when the Clash signed to Columbia: are they corporate sell-outs? What about Public Enemy on the same label? RATM? Why would a corporation propagate revolutionary ideology that would seem to work against its own interests? I won't re-hash all the arguments here, but on one level, they know that there is a real audience for this sentiment or they wouldn't spend time and money promoting it. On another, they are counting on social conditioning to keep the radical effects within the bounds of consumerist passivity. However, culture is more fluid and powerful than that. Since social contradictions are dynamic, culture tends to help people break out of acceptable bounds. The Clash knew this, at least Strummer did. And mass popularization was more important than abstract ideals about personal integrity.

Wearing Che t-shirts is a fashion statement, he was a photogenic guy, but it's better than Justin Timberlake. As society becomes more polarized, the stakes on cultural expression also get raised and you'll find less and less fashionistas with Che shirts - unless they've become politicized.

We can't be mechanical and dismiss people because they'd rather listen to Lennon than read Lenin. We can encourage them to turn their desire for something better into political action, but if not, we can still appreciate their efforts to transcend the disfiguring values and relations of capitalism. There are too many assholes in our society to push decent people to the side because they won't stand on a picket line.

I agree with Chris. Want to do something harder than revolution? Look at the utopians who tried to convince capitalists to fund socialism. Try this with Bill Gates and let me know what he says.

JB

Zerohour writes: Want to do something harder than revolution? Look at the utopians who tried to convince capitalists to fund socialism. Try this with Bill Gates and let me know what he says.

George Soros (cough).

Christopher Day

Here's a HOT labor day video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Dr05tXktSo

Paul Potter wannabe, eat your heart out. ;-)

submarino

I agree with Chris and zerohour that some things (selling irrelevant newspapers, sweet-talking capitalists into funding socialism) are hard because they're dead ends.

Notwithstanding that caveat, however, I stand by my (admittedly mechanistic and reductive) formula.

I'm talking about things that are hard because they involve considerable risk. Recruiting movement leaders is hard because both the recruiter and the recruit risk (depending on the situation) being ostracized from their community, getting fired, not being able to feed the kids, getting evicted, getting thrown in jail, getting deported, and/or getting killed.

Wearing a Che t-shirt (or even pronouncing Maoist or Trotskyist or anarchist slogans on the street corner) carry none of these risks, precisely because they pose no threat to capital or capitalism.

Perhaps some day these things will be perceived by the powerful as threatening, and will therefore become risky. But that will be because the images and slogans have mass organizations to back them up. Those mass organizations will be built by massive recruitment of leaders among the exploited and oppressed (and among students and other sets of potential allies). This recruitment will be accomplished by a deep confrontation with the very real fears of millions of people.

As for joining the new SDS, perhaps joining is easy (as it should be), and joining is a good first step, but what really matters is what people do after they join. That determines what the organization will accomplish.

I'm not saying we should dismiss people because all they're doing is wearing the t-shirt or talking the talk, or because they just joined SDS yesterday, and only because their friends dragged them to the meeting. Far from it. I'm saying we can't overestimate how much has already been accomplished by these people's words, or fashion choices, or attendance at a few meetings or demonstrations. And that we've got to push them forward.

There is undoubtedly a role for energy, enthusiasm, momentum, peer pressure, etc, in the building of organizations and movements. But after the "moment of the whirlwind" dies down, there will be hard, unglamorous work to do. There already is.

submarino

Nice video Chris. I was personally happy to see the Congress Hotel strikers, the South Central farmers, and lots of immigrants' rights marchers featured. And to all the other brothers and sisters in the video: proud to be on your side.

r. john

Submarino writes:
"Of course, the Minutemen crowd hates that shit [mexican flags etc] , but I think they hate it even more when the "illegals" "co-opt" the stars and stripes."

Many things have been said I'm thinking through.

But (just in passing) I gotta say, this remark is profoundly off.

At the march of hundreds of thousands in the city i live in, I saw trade union organizers try to get the crowds of workers to change "USA, USA!" and wave those american flags that organizers had handed out.

A few small knots around the union banners tentatively chanted "USA!"

The rest of the workers were roaring "Si se puede!" -- not in conscious opposition to the "prescribed" chants -- but because that's who they are, and what they think!

The illegality is an outrage. The superexploitation of these workers is intolerable. Their growing courage and soliarity is one of the few positive things crackling in this fucked-up pisshole of a country.

But, do you think it's "cooptation of the flag" for them to wave the bloody rag of imperialism?

Do you think it is discomforting to the powerstructure for the most oppressed workers in society to be urged to chant "USA, USA" (that well-known mindless mantra of ignorance, chauvinism and genocide)?

I think that would is self-deception (at best). You CAN'T coopt that flag. It is what it is.

A flag is a symbol, and what this flag symbolizes is two only-relatively-distinct things:

(1) the most vicious machinery of human oppression in history, -- the main pillar of a system that rapes and plunders of the whole fucking world (INCLUDING of course Mexico and Guatamala and...)

and...

(2) a whole cluster of illusions about that empire, about its bourgeois democracy and history, about what "America really stands for" and about "what it could become."

Here are millions coming here with direct and infuriating experience with the underbelly of this system -- and they are told to offer a symbolic pledges of patriotic American loyalty in the belief that such political submission (whether sincere or not) may increase their own chances of stable admission to the fat side of the empire.

Is that what the world needs these workers to do?

Is that how the struggle against this fucked up two-tier society should be focused and framed?

Do we want in, or do we want out?

srogouski

Wearing a Che t-shirt (or even pronouncing Maoist or Trotskyist or anarchist slogans on the street corner) carry none of these risks, precisely because they pose no threat to capital or capitalism.

The current system is fairly sophisticated as far as this goes.

It's almost as if they have an outer perimeter and an inner perimeter.

Wear a Kaffiyah, waive a Mexican flag, do what Dennis Kunich did a few days ago (visit Syria) and you can drive the Minutemen, neocons, the Michelle Malkins of the world to fits of rage.

That will filter out some of the weaker, more afraid kinds of people.

But what happens if you say "fuck you right wingers, I'm wearing this Kaffiyah, this Mexican flag. I'm going to that anti-war protest and I'm selling communist newspapers".

Well, then the neocons and minutemen and right wingers in general no longer matter. But you meet the second line of defense, the more sophisticated, liberal Clintonian elite.

"Oh you're wearing che shirts, selling Communist newspapers, waiving red flags, well hell, I used to do that myself. You'll grow out of it. In the meantime, we'll be glad to market all that stuff if it sells."

srogouski

A flag is a symbol, and what this flag symbolizes is two only-relatively-distinct things:

The protests I've been to over the past year where you absolutely did not see people waiving American flags were the Sean Bell protests, not the ones in Manhattan with the mainstream Dem politicians (and police barricades) but the ones in Queens.

LINK

On the other hand, there are some quite good, quite radical people (Vietnam Vets Against the War, Iraq Vets Against the War) who do in fact waive flags and who do in fact do a lot of the hard work of organizing protests.

Take the Iraq Vets against the war. These guys have just come out for open resistence in the military to the war (not a position that's without risk) and I've seen them with flags (although not as many as with the older anti-war vets).

r. john

i think you are raising two important observations:

First, Black people are generally far less open to waving the flag -- because of their experience, and their indignant sense of entitlement after 400 years of oppression. They are (generally though not universally) just not as into slavish statements of loyalty and submission. [There are, of course, countercurrents -- not just the highly bourgeoisified forces among Black people, but also the engorged current of Black association with the military, which has trained some people to see "USA, USA" as a symbol of a "single nation" in which they are to be accepted.)

Second: There are, and will be for a long long time, progressive people who think they are "the real representatives of America." That is what they believe. That is what they will say. And certainly nothing I'm saying contradicts the fact that such people can play an important role, or that large numbers of such people (whole sections of the white population in particular) have to be a major component of any struggle that emerges.

However the flag waving of such vets is precisely an example of what I called "whole cluster of illusions about that empire, about its bourgeois democracy and history, about what 'America really stands for' and about 'what it could become.'"

A point:

Your correct observations is an opportunity to make a distinction between "spontaneous illusions" and "consolidated reactionary political programs."

The fact that flag waving (and attempts to "reclaim the flag") emerge from many corners of the people (especially from the best-situated workers for historical reasons) is NOT the same thing as the political forces who want to codify that, impose that, encourage that, demand that as part of their whole worked-out political schema.

I suspect that one reason there are more flags among the "older anti-war vets" has to do with the influence of the CPUSA (and similar forces) among groups like "Vets for Peace."

In other words, this is not just the spontaneous expression of patriotic illusions and hopes -- it is tied to programs of consolidated and aggressive ANTI-revolutionary and pro-system politics.

To put it in a self-consciously crude and exaggerated way:

When some immigrants agree to wave the flags -- it is an illusion. When national political forces insist on handing those filthy flags out (and trying to ban mexican flags and spanish chants) it is a political road that is antithetical to what we need.

No one argues we should "march with" people who are sincerely waving the flag. I'm arguing we should understand the profoundly destructive impact of trying to impose flagwaving and slavish patriotism as an imposed norm and face of popular resistance.

r. john

sorry, I of course meant:

No one argues we should *NOT* "march with" people who are sincerely waving the flag.

I'm arguing we should understand the profoundly destructive impact of trying to impose flagwaving and slavish patriotism as an imposed norm and face of popular resistance.

JB

Without getting into the importance of which slogans one would proverbial shout from the street corner, I have to ask Submarino if s/he's done that work?

The idea that agitating around the "whole enchilada" is simply slogan-mongering is one way we've disciplined ourselves never to speak our dreams, and particularly in "labor" work to drown ourselves in "winnable" demands (that rarely get met in any case).

I have to say, I've stood on corners (or in front of schools or working class commercial districts) and "pronounced slogans" – and not only met some amazing people glad to hear it, but actually helped to change the realm of the perceived possible in various locales.

I still remember running into people from PIRG telling me that nobody wanted to hear "that stuff" while they went on about seatbelt laws. They actually think that kind of "bread and butter" shit is what people care about, when our experience of the world and understanding of ourselves in it is so much more profound than the incremental steps Alinskyite (and labor-Democrat) organizations literally enforce on their own rank and file.

I'm not singling you out for doing the admirable and hard work of salting workplaces, I'm just questioning the assumption that communist agitation as such is slogan-mongering (whether Maoist, Trotskyite or anarchist).

Just got back from the West Indian Labor Day parade/carnival in Brooklyn. Quiet! and I swear there must be tens of thousands of police working the streets. Packs of them! Like its normal. Then again, last year I saw a 15-year-old kid laying dead on Flatbush Avenue after he got shot for wearing the wrong color t-shirt.

srogouski

As a matter of fact, there's really a dramatic difference between the young Iraq anti-war vets and the older anti-war Vietnam vets.

There's very little flag waiving on the Iraq Vets Against the War site. There's also very little overtly radical imagery.

LINK

And Veterans for Peace has plenty.

LINK

submarino

R John,

I have no interest in defending the American flag, and I mostly agree with your points about the oppression and the illusions that it symbolizes.

My main argument in this thread has been that it matters a lot less than many people think whether people wave an American flag, a Mexican flag, or a red flag.

Mexican flags may piss off some wackos, but where I live, half the population has one stuck to their bumper, and it's no big deal. My upstairs neighbors hang one off the fire escape every time Mexico plays the US in futbol, and no one gives a shit. (I don't think there are any Minutemen living in my neighborhood, but whatever.)

For whatever it's worth, the "si se puede" chant was popularized by a union (the UFW), and my union very deliberately carries it on. I've heard people chanting "USA, USA" at immigrants' rights marches, but whoever starts those chants, they ain't no compañeros of mine. I don't want to get defensive, but implied categorical jabs at "trade union organizers" don't advance the discussion much.

As for whether we want in or want out, that's nowhere near as simple a question as you make it out to be.

I take you to be arguing against blatant opportunism: "I got promoted to supervisor, so there's no need to stick with the union" or "we've got a pretty good union contract, so it doesn't really matter to me how other workers are doing" or "we're willing to support American foreign policy in exchange for a piece of the pie." I'm with you at least that far.

However, it's important to remember that all those immigrants who marched last Spring (and continue to march, albeit in smaller numbers) crossed the border because they wanted IN. Not because they believed whole-heartedly in the American dream, or because they had faith in the benevolence of the American government, but because they wanted (needed) a better shot at giving their kids a good meal and a chance at a decent life. They (we) march in the streets because, on the inside, they've continued to face poverty, humiliation, and brutal exploitation, but also (and this is most immediate reason for the huge numbers in last Spring's marches) because ICE and the Minutemen want to KICK THEM OUT.

This is not to say we shouldn't work hard to expand people's consciousness beyond where it's at already. We need to do political education, we need to push workers to strike not only for their own contracts but for other workers' right to organize, and we need to push our unions and other organizations to take strong anti-imperialist stands. We need to build a revolutionary movement.

But the problem is not that people want in (or need in), it's that some people forget about their brothers and sisters as soon as they get their own little feet in the door. Not only do they lose their souls when this happens, they're also likely to get kicked right back out again when they least expect it. (This is how I see the history of the conservative AFL-CIO politics that prevailed during the Cold War, and the American labor movement's subsequent decline.)

To recognize this danger is good and important. But to dismiss the masses' needs and desires is self-defeating. Not only does it make us incapable of organizing anyone who isn't already a revolutionary, it blinds us to the subversiveness and the potential of a crowd of illegal immigrants marching in the streets of our cities waving American flags in the government's face.

We're comin' in, all the way in, and we're takin' the place over for all our brothers and sisters.

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