Recently the governor of Mississippi opined that the reason our schools have declined is because "mothers started working" instead of staying home. He is very, very wrong on many levels, but let's just tackle one for the moment: Mothers have always worked, and I don't just mean at being mothers. The idea that there was ever some kind of golden age when all mothers spent their time frolicking with their children and making home-made play clay is a collective delusion, one created almost entirely by literature, movies, and television.
The last time the majority of women worked exclusively inside the home was before the Industrial Revolution, over two hundred years ago. At that time, the majority of men also worked at home...as farmers, merchants and craftsmen who lived above their shops, etc. Women were generally full participants in whatever their family was doing to bring in money....during the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, back through the medieval period into antiquity. In hunter-gatherer societies, women generally bring in the bulk of food, while men are in charge of securing high-quality protein (eg, hunting). Men and women usually have different traditional skills in terms of providing material needs for survival (making clothes and tools, etc) but everyone contributes essential items. There is no reason to believe that our remotest ancestors were any different.
The Industrial Revolution meant more work outside the home, for men and women, but it was the relative independence that women (especially young women) gained from cash wages that freaked everyone out. The Victorian cult of womanhood/motherhood and the notion of the "angel in the home" (against which Virginia Woolf railed so eloquently) was a reaction to all that, verging on propaganda. Throughout the nineteenth century, the majority of women worked for wages...as seamstresses, laundresses, factory workers, and servants. At the very apex of the Victorian ideal of the home reigned over by a gentle, nurturing, ever-present and self-sacrificing mother, it was more myth than fact.
The "angel in the home" of the Victorian era was also an artifact of the new social mobility and class aspirations. It was in some ways the first big re-shaping of cultural mores to come out of the middle class...and like many similar cultural attitudes since, it tended to erase everyone else's reality in the process. Upper class women didn't work, but they didn't mind their own children either...they had governesses for that. Upper class men had business interests, but generally not a daily job. Both men and women lolled about hunting inedible animals and inventing complicated sports such as polo and dinner parties. Working class people, on the other hand, worked...men and women, fathers and mothers, often long hours under brutal conditions. Children, too, as soon as they could. Children too young to go to the mill or coal mine were looked after by elderly relatives or a neighbor, or in some cases left to shift for themselves. Mothers with infants did stay home...but generally took in washing, sewing, or some other kind of piece work in order to make ends meet. Since laundry in the days before the invention of the washing machine was also brutally hard work, as was hand sewing, one can not imagine that "staying home" for these women meant any time to play with their children during their brief babyhood, or do anything much more than try to keep those children alive.
The model of the husband who earned a living while his wife stayed home and attended exclusively to the domestic sphere was and is uniquely middle-class...so much so that it is a marker of middle-class status, especially on the lower end of the income scale. This is the origin of the notion that it isn't quite "nice" for a woman...especially a married woman...to work. Lower class women worked; upper class women didn't have to...and so middle-class women didn't work either, if they could help it. For those without independent wealth, someone had to bring in money, but one half of the married couple staying home and living like the leisured class was the biggest and most emphatic statement a family could make that they were "doing well." This class aspirational aspect still has cultural relevance, as for many African-American women whose mothers and grandmothers worked the luxury of staying home with their children is a sign they have moved up in the world. This holds true for other women from working-class backgrounds as well...but again, this is not a return to some kind of golden era of the past, but a new phenomenon.
The biggest changes to this state of affairs wrought by the first wave of the feminist movement in the 19th century was first to allow women to own property and legally keep their own wages rather than turn it all over to their husbands, and second to open up education and the professions to women, rather than solely low-wage traditionally feminine jobs. The biggest change created by the second wave in the 1960s and 70s was that women started demanding to be paid the same as men for the same work. This did motivate more middle-class women to enter the work force, but they were merely joining the vast numbers of working class women who were already there.
Yet if you read nineteenth century novels, or watch 1950s TV shows, you'd think that all women stayed home and baked cookies and dispensed warm, diplomatic wisdom to their children all day. That is because both of those art forms were created by and for the middle class and...even more importantly...they are fantasies.
Take Little Women, for example. It was one of my favorite books as a child, and my early ambitions to be a writer were probably heavily influenced by the travails and triumphs of Jo March. Though I also have to say that when I caught scarlet fever at seven, that book also helped convince me that I was going to die any minute. But who can resist the charming family life and noble struggles against adversity of the Marches? Or Marmee, who talks like a Transcendentalist while doing sentimental sewing projects?
Among their trials is that the Marches are poor. The author tells us so; the March girls complain about it (providing much fodder for funny incidents and earnest moral struggle); their family and friends say so, either diplomatically or rudely in the case of Aunt March.
Let us examine that. The Marches' poverty is one in which:
- They can't afford new silk dresses or kid gloves during war-time to wear to parties.
- They don't have a big enough house for a grand piano, and don't own one even though the youngest daughter loves to play.
- They sometimes have to economize on necessities (again during war-time) and often go without small luxuries such that they are a major (but ultimately affordable) treat.
- Jo and Amy (after Jo proves to be terrible at it) working as a lady's companion for their elderly aunt is essentially a covert means for said aunt to give the family money without offending them. Jo taking up writing trashy novels to earn money is something she is ultimately ashamed of and gives up, rather than a godsend source of much-needed cash. Marmee never even contemplates working.
- They only have one servant, a cook.
In other words, the Marches aren't poor at all; they only appear so in comparison to their very rich neighbors and extended family. They are what we'd consider middle class, or at worst lower middle class; able to afford the basics of life and bit extra. The only actually poor people in the story...the German and Irish immigrants consigned to the periphery...are mostly treated with pity or contempt. The working woman in their midst, the cook, is portrayed with sentimental condescension.
The travails of genteel poverty and triumph in the form of good marriage (read: to someone who has more money than you) or inheritance is also the plot of several Jane Austen novels and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Don't get me wrong; I love me some Bronte and Austen. But they (both, like Alcott, literary working women from precarious but educated backgrounds) were writing for a middle-class audience for whom the heroines had to be virtuous and familiar and also for whom a happy ending meant marriage and material comfort. Nobody should mistake any of that for a meticulous depiction of reality. This particular type of fairy tale, and the related genre of mid-20th-century sitcoms revolving around the daily scrapes of a lovable suburban nuclear family, represent how people wished to live rather than how they actually did. That isn't to say that nobody ever lived that way at all; only that they were always in the minority rather than the universal rule they are presumed to be. Those stories, however pleasing to some, are not our true past.
It isn't my family's past, either. My mother did stay home with me when I was small...but she went back to work the minute I entered kindergarten. Both of my grandmothers worked at least part of their lives, though they were born in 1888 and 1905 respectively; my paternal grandmother was a school-teacher until she married (at twenty-four, rather late for the era) and then was a cotton farmer's wife; my maternal grandmother worked in a garment factory and had a florist business. In any case, I was raised to think of this as so normal as to not even require comment, with the sole exception of my mother's recounting of her own mother's reaction to busybodies asking why she was "spending all that money to send Joyce to school, when she won't do anything but get married." My grandmother's response was pragmatic and telling: "She may never have to work a day in her life, but if she does she's going to be able to get a good job." It's also worth noting that my mother was a sixteen year old valedictorian of her high school, and went on to graduate from the University of Georgia at nineteen. I, a product of her working mother upbringing, was a National Merit Scholar and attended the Georgia Governor's Honors program, went on to college and then to graduate school. I now teach at the University of Georgia. My siblings, all suffering from similar neglect, seem to be doing all right despite the fact that our mother worked part of their childhoods as well. It's some kind of miracle, I tell you.
Fantasies are all right, though some (like June Cleaver vacuuming in her heels, or broody Mr. Rochester's tragic past including a secret wife he shuts up in the attic even when she is lucid) don't bear too close an examination. They are not, however, an explanation for anything in reality. They are certainly not a good basis for policy.
"What would give light must endure burning." - Viktor Frankl
I met him in 1985, at the Georgia Governor's Honors program. We were admitted in a particular major, based on nominations and competitive applications and interviews, then we could choose a minor. Six hundred high school students from across the state, and even in that crowd of bright and talented teenagers he stood out, like a shooting star wisecracking across the sky. We were Philosophy minors together. He was loud, alternately vulgar and erudite (sometimes both at the same time), fast-talking, vivid, good-looking, charismatic, and kind.
"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of someone else." - Judy Garland
He was also gay, and quite vocally so. This was Georgia, in the mid-Eighties; this was high school. Many of us had never met someone who was openly gay in person...even those of us who were gay ourselves. It didn't quite register with me then how brave he was to be that open; I think I just figured things were different in Atlanta. They were, but not that much. He was just fearless.
I remember him as a laughing, dark-haired dark-eyed boy, full of energy, one of the elusive Drama majors (they were always in rehearsal). According to him, I was so weird he decided I was going to be the next Flannery O'Connor.
I'm not Flannery O'Connor yet, and I'm in my forties. Like Spencer. Flannery died in her forties. Like Spencer. I still have time, maybe. I don't know. No one is guaranteed tomorrow. I think creative people fear dying with our art unmade, we scribble and paint and act against the darkness.
"Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliche or a smoothing down that will soften their real look.” - Flannery O'Connor
I am wary of making him out to be a saint (I can hear his voice in my head saying, "Why not? Go ahead and write me a fagiography, honey") but what I mean is that we polish real goodness up until it seems unattainable. Spencer as an adult was a chain-smoking, debaucherous enfant terrible with a scathing wit so sharp it could sever limbs. He could be maddening and, in the words of many of the descriptions of him written in the last few days, caustic. He was also a genuinely decent and compassionate human being who accomplished real, valuable and lasting good in the world, not merely for his immediate circle or community (which is the normal lot of even the best people) but for literal millions he didn't know and will never know. He was valiant. He looked killing bigotry in the eye, battled it and won.
You and I could be like that, even a little. We don't have to be perfect, be even-tempered, or have our closets organized before we are allowed to accomplish great and valuable things. Not everyone has his gifts, but I believe that he accomplished what he did through a combination of cussedness and moral compass. I believe those are available to all of us, like grace.
"All we can do is go around telling the truth." - Carson McCullers
Many of us who knew him when we were young have said that he changed our lives. He didn't do it with a self-help book or a weight loss program or a religion. I don't think he did it on purpose. He did it by being himself.
I was raised Southern Baptist when that was very different than it is now, at least in some places. They used to ordain women. My predominantly white church, in a tiny place in north Georgia that wasn't even a town, was attended by a black man. We had a copy of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret in our church library. The Fundamentalists had taken over the Southern Baptist Convention in 1981, the same year I was baptized, but had not yet consolidated their grip over the denomination or run the moderates out. This is context.
The local churches in Valdosta would come and get students from the Governor's Honors Program for services. I decided to go, possibly so that if my mother asked if I'd been I could say, "Yes." I had already experienced creeping Fundamentalism, mostly from my friends at school. People I had known since kindergarten were telling me that Satan was in rock music and role-playing games and starting to go to the Church of God and being loudly Christian in a way that made me want to bring up Matthew 6:5. None of that prepared me.
The church I went to first of all had posters on the wall of their Sunday School room depicting the racist interpretation of the Curse of Ham, which I had never seen before and it shocked me. I didn't feel sure enough of my ground to challenge anyone over it; I was conscious of being far from home and dependent on someone else to get back to campus. I remember wondering if there was a way for me to leave without causing a big stir.
There wasn't. I went to services, where the preacher proceeded to declare that America was fighting God's enemies and therefore all our wars were justified and therefore anyone who didn't believe that was against God.
Being the same person who stood up in my eighth grade class and told off the teacher when he said that women should keep to their place, I seriously considered standing up and saying something. But it was not my church. It was most definitely, decidedly, unequivocally not my church, and I was sixteen. I kept my mouth shut.
When I got back to campus, I was incoherent with outrage. I saw Spencer and made a beeline for him, because of all the people there I figured he would understand. I sputtered out some kind of report of what had happened, and expressed regret that I had not said anything.
He laughed, said, "Oh, I love you" and hugged me.
I was bemused. I wasn't sure what I had done to earn this praise. Generally speaking, growing up girl in the South means you get told to "be nice" a lot. Righteous anger in women is not viewed with favor by the world at large.
Spencer thought it was awesome.
It was just a little thing, but little things can be important. I was frequently ferociously indignant in the way that only an idealistic teenager can be, and most people tended to argue with me or temporize or smooth it over or present the other side of the story as if I didn't know it or generally let me know that it made them uncomfortable. My parents did not discourage me, but they didn't explicitly encourage me either. Spencer is one of the first people I can remember listening to me rave about something that was wrong in the world and expressing effusive approval. I mean, my eighth grade class applauded, but my teacher gave me the first D of my life and got away with it, so that reaction was mixed.
Perhaps more importantly, he did not offer a critique. He didn't tell me what I should have done, or what he would have done in my place. He loved my indignation and regret, and didn't second-guess me.
It was a shift in perspective, leading to a shift in thought, leading eventually to a shift in action. I came to believe that speaking up was not just OK, it was vitally important, and that in fact we have a moral obligation to speak up when things are not right. While many moments and many ideas have reinforced my convictions along the way, that conversation was one that stands out in my mind, twenty-seven years later. I'm pretty sure that Spencer was not trying to impart a moral precept. He was just being himself, true as an arrow.
This is what we mean when we say that knowing Spencer changed us.
"SILENCE = DEATH" -- AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power
They meant it literally, in the case of AIDS; the silence surrounding the disease, the unwillingness of politicians to even mention it except in opprobrium and bigoted rhetoric, the dearth of public outcry; all this meant that people were dying...and would continue to die unless something changed. That was a stark example of a universal truth. Much of the time it is more subtle. Silence in the face of abuse, of corruption, of injustice, of hatred, leads to death of the spirit.
Spencer and the other people who were part of ACT UP and TAG might have been fighting for their lives and in some cases losing them. Many of them died of the disease before the treatments he helped bring about became available. Spencer now is gone too.
But they were not silent. They acted up, they spoke out, they fought AIDS. Their spirits were and remain very much alive.
Speak up. It is the only way. Speak truth. It matters.
"How can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?"--Carson McCullers
First, let me emphasize that this is based on my own observations and experiences which are mainly limited to Occupy Atlanta. I do not pretend to encompass the experiences of women in Occupy as a whole, or even in Occupy Atlanta; there's far too much ground to cover, for one thing. My perspective is necessarily different from some other people's; but based on conversations with others, I am definitely not alone in my perceptions.
I do think that what I have to say is applicable; not only to Atlanta, or to Occupy, but to how sexism and patriarchy function in general. It's sometimes disheartening, but should not be surprising, that the dysfunctions of society are often most visible in situations where people are working hardest to make change. That's partially because we have higher expectations of people who see one part of the problem to see all the other parts (which may not necessarily be the case). It's also because in most of society, those dysfunctions seem "normal."
Secondly, let me make it clear that sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, and similar "isms" are matters of pattern. They are not (only) personal moral flaws; they are collective social evils. What someone meant by a particular remark or action is less important than the picture that emerges when we look at the pattern as a whole; that they didn't mean it that way, or that women do it too, or that the same thing happens to men sometimes, does not contradict the fact that the particular incident is part of a sexist worldview and power imbalance embedded in our culture at large and internalized by individuals which also manifests whenever we try to get together and do anything. An individual act might or might not be classifiable as sexist (or racist, etc.); the overall pattern IS.
This incidentally is why the Supreme Court ruling in the Lily Ledbetter case was so wrong-headed and stupid; they ruled that in order to have a case, she would have had to have filed within ninety days of the first, original incident of being paid less than a man for the same work. Aside from the fact that she didn't know until nearly twenty years later that she was being paid significantly less than her male colleagues, in order to prove discrimination in court you have to show that there is a pattern of behavior. That is, by ruling that a filing has to occur within ninety days of the first incident, the Supreme Court effectively made it impossible to prove gender discrimination at all. A singular incident does not make a pattern; out of context, it may not seem sexist at all. But what matters is the context.
That said, I can put the sexism I have either observed or experienced personally into three main categories:
- Assault. At least two incidents of apparent attempted rape (crawling into a woman's tent or into bed with her at the Peachtree and Pine headquarters), and another notable incident where a woman was grabbed by another Occupier right in front of someone who completely failed to react or help her fight him off.
- Attempts at physical intimidation. This includes someone getting up in my face at General Assemblies and yelling at me and other people, once while I was trying to facilitate. It also includes circling around the group in order to stand close behind me, using greater physical size to loom over me, or otherwise getting into my personal space. It also includes overt threats of violence.
- Name-calling and other forms of verbal abuse and harassment. Being called out by name repeatedly in GAs (which was supposed to be against the rules) and online; also campaigns of character assassination. One particular individual is a constant source of rumors and made-up accusations, some of which are quite serious, and which are nearly always aimed at women. I was told by one person (because I objected to his behavior) that I obviously had a mental problem and that he felt sorry for me. This is both ableist in the worst sense (using a disability as an insult) AND misogynist (calling women crazy has a long anti-feminist history; several early women's rights activists were locked up in asylums. Also, see a dictionary under "Hysteria, etymology of").
- Interrupting, talking over, or shouting down women trying to speak at the General Assembly or elsewhere. This was an ongoing issue; some individuals do it nearly constantly. It was brought up numerous times by several different women, but the group as a whole did not seem to take it seriously and did not address the problem in any consistent way.
- Objectification. This includes both inappropriate overtly sexual comments and more subtle "you're so pretty" type "compliments" which functioned either as a distraction from the serious point the woman was making, or an attempt to excuse bad behavior and/or deflect women's reactions to it. It may be hard for some people to wrap their heads around why I group this with bullying, but consider that in a discussion of someone's constant and egregious harassment of me, I was told "he said he wouldn't mind dating you," offered seriously as "proof" that he actually liked me. (And that I therefore shouldn't be angry at him for harassing me.)
2. Dismissing women's perceptions, experiences, knowledge, and words (aka "gaslighting," "mansplaining," etc.)
- Some of these were related to ageism. Older women are not listened to and given the same credence as older men, with regard to our previous activism/political experience or in general. Or a woman's word is disputed because it contradicts the popular and largely fabricated narrative about a division between "older liberals" and "young radicals." One person got very angry when I said I had worked with Food Not Bombs in the past, and not only called me a liar to my face but apparently went around telling everyone else that I must be lying because (apparently) none of the current FNB volunteers had seen me there. Never mind that the time I was referring to was a decade ago, and the people who were involved then DO remember me.
- Others had to do with women's reportage/complaints about bullying incidents; those usually took the form of "are you sure that's what he meant?" or "He seems like a nice guy to me" or well-meaning white knighting ("Let me talk to him!"). These can seem harmless at the time because a reasonable person does not wish to rush to judgment. The problem is what I call Schrodinger's Misogynist. That is, men all too often do not take even dangerously threatening behavior seriously until it happens to them or another man; they take the reasonable-sounding-to-them position of "well, maybe it happened, maybe it didn't; I don't know, I wasn't there" regardless of how many women say the same exact thing. And since the very nature of misogyny is that it is directed at women, the necessary preponderance of evidence required for a consensus that someone is a problem is never reached. The incident I mentioned of a man crawling into bed with a woman did not result in him being immediately expelled from Peachtree and Pine; that happened, but much later and because of other behavior on his part, which was not affected by the Schrodinger's Misogynist quantum indeterminability field.
3. Attempts at asserting a power hierarchy, with men above women as a matter of course.
- Numerous men took it upon themselves to attempt to boss me around and tell me what I ought to be doing, or to belittle what I was doing, had done, or was proposing we do. Quite often, the same idea suggested by a man would meet approval and zero flak. Committees where women had visibly strong voices, including Legal, Media, Arts and Literature, and on occasion Accounting, came under frequent attack.
- Inside the Media Committee when it existed, there was more than one man who tried to exert editorial control over what I wrote or sent out, but who vocally resented it if I attempted to exert any say-so over what they were doing at all. In more than one instance, they became belligerent because I insisted that they follow the same editorial process that we were all supposed to follow. No less than three of those men decided to go "over my head" to the General Assembly with an issue that was definitely within the Media Committee's area of responsibility.
- From both inside and outside the Media Committee, I was often treated like a secretary...the person who was supposed to keep track of everyone's contact information, schedule meetings, and post things to the website, generally by people who were perfectly capable of doing those things themselves but who had more "important" things to do and so relegated the boring, routine tasks to me or other women. In some cases, people refused to even learn how to post to the website because they "didn't like to" but thought it was perfectly fine to ask someone else to do it.
- I was also told to make coffee.* For real.
I hope it's evident from the examples I gave that this behavior came from a wide variety of people, of all ages, races, and political flavors; in some cases it came from women as well as men. As my explanations about internalized patterns at the beginning imply, that doesn't mean it wasn't sexist; if it fits the pattern, it is part of the problem.
Here's what I've noticed: 1 and 2 reinforce each other, and support #3. That is, intimidation serves to put women constantly on the defensive, raise their anxiety levels, and lessen their participation overall. I stuck it out for a long time but some women simply walked the first time someone got up in their face and plenty more left Occupy Atlanta as each woman's individual tolerance was reached. Fewer and fewer women participate at all. Gaslighting and other forms of dismissal undermine any attempt by women to fight the bullying or to assert a truly equal voice. All of this is in service to a shadow hierarchy of men over women; in a supposedly "leaderless" movement, women are far more often attacked for stepping up and taking initiative instead of following men. Men as a group are not subject to the same degree of hostility. I have seen some of the same tactics applied to individual men, but less frequently and when it happens it's for much the same reason: he is perceived to have "too much power" and therefore must be disempowered, belittled, and "put in his place." The difference is that while the group has little tolerance for one man holding "too much" power for too long, it has no tolerance for women doing so at all. Recently one woman, having attended the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street in New York, initiated making plans to have a similar anniversary celebration/action for Occupy Atlanta. Even though she invited everyone's participation and was as inclusive as possible, she was immediately mocked for presuming to think of herself as a "leader." Clearly, if you are a woman, in some people's eyes any power is too much.
"We are all leaders, or none of us are leaders." - the Occupy Atlanta General Assembly Pledge, long since abandoned.
That is a bitter pill to swallow in a movement based on the ideal of empowerment for all, just as being shouted down, or put down, or dismissed by other Occupiers is felt by me and other women as a uniquely painful betrayal. This is not what we signed up for. It's exactly what we were trying to get away from, in fact. If we want to be put down, betrayed, belittled, dismissed, have our safety and well-being be considered a matter of no import, and have our organizational work taken for granted while decisions that affect us are made with minimal input from us, we could go join any existing institution or organization you care to name, including Congress. Most of them would treat us better than this; not a few of them get more done. This problem isn't unique to Occupy, of course; it's not even an indictment of Occupy, except in the sense that we should expect and get a whole lot better than this. But this is the way the world is. All you have to do is look at how Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren (and Sarah Palin for that matter) get portrayed in the media, compared with male political figures. I personally have experienced all of the misogyny I have discussed here in other contexts, and worse. It should be news to no one that Occupy is a mirror. But if it ever hopes to be what it aspires to, it must do more than merely reflect the sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and other manifestations of arbitrary power which infest the society at large. To attempt to fight injustice while perpetrating it, to build a society around principles of shared power while exerting power over others, is a logical impossibility. "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." - Audre Lorde
Occupy must do better than it has. I think it can do better, and in Occupy Atlanta changes are already afoot. A women's caucus has formed, and also a feminist group for men; there was a workshop on addressing sexism in activist movements tonight which was apparently well-received. What happens next, I don't know. But in much the same way that Occupy is a mirror, if Occupy can dealt with these problems, it's a little more hopeful that the rest of the world can too.
*I have nothing but appreciation for all of the people who made and served food for us, including a plentiful supply of coffee, who in some cases saved food for me because I couldn't make it during the scheduled "dinner hour." However, there is a vast difference between doing that work because you volunteered to, and being told to do it by someone who thinks his time is more valuable than yours. It was a blatant attempt at putting me in my "place" which insulted both me and the work.
Here's the next iteration of my "action poetry" approach...Writing in the Park! Or the coffee shop! Or anywhere!
I know lots of people do that. But how many of them do it in such a way that invites participation from other people? What if you could walk up, talk to a writer about something, and have them come up with a poem right there?
Writing in the Park, and Everywhere...
A number of self-proclaimed radicals hang around the Occupy movement. Much like "honest" or "nice," if you have to tell people how radical you are, you aren't. Understand, I think our whole system and society is pretty well screwed and that we need to come up with something better. That makes me a radical by definition. I also think being a radical is a good thing, because without someone around going "Dang. This shit is messed up. What are we to do?" no good thing would ever be accomplished. That is more or less why I'm part of Occupy Atlanta in the first place.
However, from the vantage point granted to me by spending years running about marching in the streets and hanging out with the sort of people who also like to do that, and also due to having read some books, I have a few opinions about what being a "radical" is and especially how one can do so most effectively. Or not.
I've spent a lot of time with some very focused, organized and accomplished activists, some of whom know how to civilly disobey with style. I've also done my time in duress with many a poser. Here are a few tips on how to spot your garden-variety faux radical:
1. Capable of chanting "Off the pigs!" and asserting that this is a radical action without the faintest hint of irony or apparent awareness that that chant is fifty years old, and in that whole time it has accomplished nothing of note, but that it does tend to inspire revulsion in a large portion of the population. Unable to draw the obvious conclusion from this.
2. Prone to choosing actions, behaviors, and protests which serve to reinforce existing social and power structures, rather than the opposite. Rich white kids using very confrontational tactics is a good example; they can get away with it much more easily than African Americans and Latinos. This ensures that the latter will be marginalized, especially if those tactics become the central focus of the activist group and are seen as a source of authenticity. African Americans and Latinos may therefore feel pressure to participate in activities which are more high-risk for them; they are more likely to be targets of arrest and apt to be more harshly punished...thus further removing them from any influence. Bonus points if the "tactics" employed involve property damage, which is less of a concern the more affluent you are, and extra bonuses if the property damage is committed in a poor African American or Latino neighborhood. Not only does this demonstrate a finely honed disdain for working-class (always reframed as "bourgeois") concerns with how run-down a neighborhood appears and the relationship of that to safety, it also serves to ensure that none of the locals will wish to join the group, thus saving the trouble of having to address their concerns in person.
3. Thinks that being a Marxist makes you radical. I know tenured professors who are Marxists. They have academic journals and conferences. It's rather like how Hot Topic killed punk: If you can buy it in a mall store, it's no longer counter-culture. Once you can be peer-reviewed in it, it's not radical any more. I am sorry to be the bearer of this news, which is several decades old.
4. Prone to highly intellectual, theoretical discussions about "radicalism" and "revolution" while being allergic to any discussions of practical import; see Mouse council, re: Belling the cat. Sometimes this extends to not being able to make decisions about food or shelter due to the weighing of political implications and ideological soundness. Will write lengthy e-mails with footnotes and references about the plight of the worker under capitalism, but not do any actual work.
The ends shape the means; you cannot create profound change by reinforcing the power dynamics and narratives which support the status quo, even if you dress in black and shout hoary slogans from the Vietnam War era while doing it. Never confuse offending people with changing anything. Never confuse breaking stuff with changing anything. Never fall in love with your own rhetoric. Noise isn't action, theory isn't practice, and talk is cheap.