Friday, May 31, 2024

Assuming Your Positions

 Some thoughts on the pros and cons of taking a stand.

For a little of the more immediate context, I've spent much of the past eight months writing songs or other things that have sought to raise awareness of the horrors of the genocide the Israeli military is carrying out in Gaza, which is ongoing.  I've been writing songs along these lines for the past 24 years or so.  Not coincidentally, in 2020 I wrote a lot of songs about the still-widespread problem in the US of cops killing people for the crime of being Black.  The first song I wrote on that subject was around 1993.

I mention these things just to attempt to establish that I am a very opinionated and even prolific proponent of the rights of the Palestinian people to exist, and the rights of African-Americans to walk down the sidewalk or drive down the highway or go shopping without being tortured to death or summarily executed, among other causes.

I love to see people organizing events, taking to the streets, occupying buildings, blocking ports, going on strike, etc.  Social movements and collective action get the goods, history has demonstrated over and over again.  And the sustained, successful social movements have been inclusive, welcoming, vibrant, musical, big tent kind of movements.

How to build a movement like that is a big challenge, and if it were easy, there would be a lot more of them.  One of the tactics that, by my observation, seems often to have more drawbacks than benefits, is that of taking a position on a controversial subject that may not be directly related to building the movement or organization you're part of.

Looking back at 2020, it starts to seem like it was a methodical, strategic thing on the part of those seeking to nip in the bud the social movement that might have been developing at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown period.  There were so many organizations that I hardly ever heard about anymore unless they were announcing some new political position they now agreed on, after much internal struggle.  So many organizations seemed to become paralyzed by the constant internal debates over whether they should announce their support for the abolition of police or not.  And if not, were the opponents to police abolition white supremacists?

I'm seeing what looks like this kind of circular discussion playing out in various places around the genocide in Gaza as well.  As urgently as we all need to be opposing Israel's hourly war crimes somehow, in practice, engaging in endless discussions that risk weakening an organization in order to strengthen its principled stands on important issues seems like a bad option.  If the other option might be to keep on building an organization, while keeping its positions on different issues less defined, that seems better.

Then, instead of dragging down and diminishing an organization with internal strife and ending up with a principled position on something, people passionate about stopping this genocide can apply their efforts more directly towards that endeavor -- join those groups who are organizing blockades of the ports, marches, occupations, boats to Gaza, etc.  If you're a communicator, use your communication skills to reach the broader public around these things, instead of spending your time arguing with your board of directors.

I know that in a time of genocide it may seem terribly trite to say this, but it seems evident that there is more power in unity than in purity, and it's better to agree on common denominators rather than dividing over controversial questions.  Whether the issues at hand seem controversial to us or not, this isn't for us to define.  If it's controversial for the membership of your organization, it's controversial, and there may be negative consequences to taking a position.

And if your organization fails to come up with a statement denouncing this genocide, does that make the leadership or the board or the membership a bunch of genocide supporters?

There would seem to be a significant number of people out there these days who would answer "yes" to that question.  And that orientation, it seems to me, is one of the heaviest chains weighing us down in the modern era.

I'll illustrate the point I'm trying to make with an older example.

Many people I know and admire have been involved with the Irish Republican movement in that part of the United Kingdom officially known as Northern Ireland.  The biggest Irish Republican group was the Irish Republican Army, represented by the political party, Sinn Fein, which has become the biggest party throughout the island of Ireland, on both sides of the imposed border.

Sustaining an armed struggle against an overwhelmingly more powerful foe for years in an urban environment (or any other environment) is nothing short of an incredible feat, requiring absolutely astounding degrees of dedication, organization, and solidarity with the general public.  The IRA's goal was to win the hearts and minds of as many Irish people as possible, and also, crucially, to keep the support of the Irish emigrant diaspora throughout the world, in places like the United States.

In the Republic of Ireland, abortion is basically illegal.  Many Irish progressives, like progressives in other countries, would rather abortion be legal, and there is a movement in Ireland working towards that end.  The IRA, however, despite internal debate, did not make any statements supporting the rights of women to have abortions.  The clear concern, even among those who would have been supportive of such a statement, was the loss of many of their members and supporters, both in Ireland and overseas.

In many popular online environments today there's no doubt the IRA leadership would be condemned in progressive circles as misogynists, regardless of their genders, for failing to support a woman's right to choose.

There are some fairly large organizations that basically collapsed under the weight of internal debates over racial reckoning and white supremacy circa 2020.  Others are currently engaged with similar internal debates around Israel's genocidal war in 2024.  There's no particular point in getting into the details of these internecine conflicts, even if I knew about them, but they always involve lots of accusations and they rarely seem to result in strengthening organizations in the long run.

There are a couple examples I'll mention, though, just to have some current examples to point to, in the hope of avoiding confusion about what I'm trying to say.

I hear on the local news here in Oregon that the Oregon Food Bank has lost some of its biggest donors due to the leadership of the food bank's declaration of solidarity with the people of Gaza being systematically starved by the Israeli occupation forces.  I completely agree with the Oregon Food Bank's statement and their desire for making it, and their desire to in some way play some kind of role in highlighting the genocide that is underway.  I didn't hear about the statement they made until it became a news item because of some Jewish donors pulling their funding.  Now the organization may be diminished in its ability to do its work, and we're left to wonder whether making this statement had any other impact.

An organization that I've had a lot of involvement with over the decades, the People's Music Network, is currently engaged in an ongoing discussion over making a similar statement.  There is a general lack of consensus, not, I glean, because of people supporting Israel's bombing and starvation campaign, but because of different views on the whole context of the war, and what words to use to describe Israel's actions.  If it were me making the statement, I'd be making statements like the ones the faction most critical of Israeli genocidal policies, like I make any time I get in front of a mic anyway.  But given that there is serious division within PMN on this question, given that PMN stands to lose members and drag itself down by continuing with this internal debate, and given that PMN's core mission is to be a big tent kind of forum for people that identify with the concept of music within social movements, it seems to me the organization and its membership would be best served by PMN continuing to do what it does, and members who want to bring music and messages to the various online and physical gatherings PMN puts on should be encouraged to do so.  We could all form a faction, or a committee, or an organization of artists focused on opposing the genocide -- or build on organizations that already exist (there is an international group of musicians already organized in some form called Musicians for Palestine, for example).

In conclusion, I'd say when thinking about drawing a line, make sure the line you're drawing isn't the one that the surgeon is going to use when determining where to make the incision to initiate the amputation of your limb.

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