Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The shell of the old

Katie comments:

[M]y reasons for being politically engaged in a different way than many politically engaged men include:

-Finding "male egos" in activist groups tiresome. I think this relates to the way men are socialized to have their personal worth conflated with roles like leader or expert. These are things related to the emotional aspects of gender roles. I've seen dudes repeatedly have this emotional need to have social status in the group. I just find it an uninteresting and time consuming distraction from the work at hand, when anyone of any gender brings their ego needs to an activist project.

-Another turn off for me has been that males in a group or in political circles will actually not include me in conversation unless they find me sexually attractive. It's the "be desired or be invisible" thing.

-Things I'm turned off about when it comes to left wing political subcultures in general which are perpetuated by both women and men are: rigid, inflexible thinking, an uncomfortable emphasis on political purity, judgmental attitudes towards ourselves and others on degree of purity. That has been my experience over 15 years of association with left/progressive/activist realms.

All of these kinds of things are reasons why I now participate only very selectively. These things have just not made it very appealing to be involved.

Katie is a good example of someone who shares the values of IWW-style organization (i.e. non-hierarchical direct action) but nevertheless finds herself estranged from initiatives of this sort.

This is significant because lots of people likely share these values and would jump at the chance to pursue them in a constructive way. But more often than not, the obstacle to lasting involvement in such organizations is an internal culture which does not adequately anticipate the needs of its members, who aspire to something positive when so much of their lives is spent navigating the negative.

In my experience, it is too often the case that progressive political organization is in fact much more negative than even the sort of nonsense I have to tolerate on the job. At least on the job there is some coherent structure of expectation: I know how to avoid drama if I want to. But bring a group of people together on a voluntary basis around purportedly social objectives, and it seems there is no limit to the ignominy one party will resort to in asserting its dominance over another!*

Working class organization could benefit by administering to itself a simple working class test: After a long day at work, do people want to invest what limited time they have in our organization? Or do they purposefully stay away?

*Notably true when it is done in the name of non-domination.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Membership has its privileges

Since my last post I've been thinking a lot about political guys and socially engaged gals, and now I think I'd like to turn the focus on myself as one of these political types of guys. I can speak as someone whose political development has happened in large part because I was able to single-mindedly focus on one thing over a long period of time. When I look at other guys like me, there's a similar sort of pattern. We've managed to specialize in one particular area very well -- like theory, for example -- and having done that, we want to remain in that space because that's where we feel in control. Everything outside of this space is suspect; for radicals, it's too commercial or too low-brow or whatever. So you end up insisting that everyone should arrive where you already are -- and insofar as they don't, or won't, they're dumb.

What's funny is that I see this pattern replicated in all kinds of cultural activity between men and women, where the men have invested huge amounts of time in trying to excel at one thing, in order to ensure that they can be seen as the best or the go-to guy or at the very least not be questioned in whatever it is they do. It literally doesn't matter what the activity is. It can be yoga or cooking: rest assured, there will be some dude who spends the bulk of his time trying to be just as good as he humanly can at one thing, while spending the rest of his time working to ensure that he only does that one thing around other people. Think about how this plays itself out in the business world, for example.

What immediately separates women from men in this regard, however, isn't that women can't be just as good in any particular capacity, but that women by and large don't spend the bulk of their time invested only in one thing. The reality of women's lives is that they don't have the same luxury to do this. In fact, when I reflect on my own life, it is precisely the fact that women were constantly taking care of lots of things around me that I was able to focus so singularly on what I liked to do. This kills me about gender -- how many times guys get really good at something because women are fielding everything else. Totally random examples: I'm reading a biography about Sophia Tolstoy, and it's all the same; if you watch the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, about street artists, it's the same once more.*

Let me reinforce the fact that I am totally this kind of guy, and the more I understand about it, the more it makes my skin crawl. Not because I'm a bad person or because I haven't done useful things with whatever talent I have -- and that's important. Guys who focus narrowly in particular areas frequently have lots to give that everyone can appreciate and celebrate. The problem for me comes when someone like my partner, who works more than full-time, hears what I, someone who only works part-time, have to say about some current affair, only to declare that I'm "so smart" because she had no idea what was even going on. There's a reason for that, and it has zero to do with intelligence, but a lot to do with privilege.

* Yet another documentary where only men go to extreme lengths at the expense, if also with the admiration, of their families can be found by the title Kings of Pastry.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Demonstrating the relevance of ideas

When I think about the formal political organizations I've been involved in on one hand, and the overwhelming majority of socially aware women in my life on the other, the two just don't fit together very well. The women I know are active doing interesting and constructive things, if not expressly political; while many of the very intelligent "political" types I know are men with whom one can have a very interesting discussion just so long as you both hold the same views in the first place.

Between the two, the political type is always engaged on some level with the broader culture, whether in their "political" capacity they ever bother to admit this (for instance, as an online persona): they participate in mainstream life whether they like it or not; but the women I know don't participate in formal political activity, or eventually move away from it, because they simply don't like it. Why they don't like it has nothing to do with any lack of social awareness on their part, but instead reflects an honest appraisal of their options and a judgment in favor of the kinds of activities that are most fulfilling to them. By and large I have found that the tendency does not draw them toward hanging out with overtly political dudes -- again, my experience -- and the organizations they populate.

And all of this is very healthy I think, because insofar as such organizations fail to demonstrate their relevancy to, say, working class women, why should they deserve to grow? The kinds of social activity that are most meaningful to people, or best meet their needs under the circumstances, are the ones that people are excited to be a part of. If the "one big union" is as relevant an idea today as I believe it has always been throughout the history of industrial capitalism, then surely there is a way of articulating its relevance to women (and other underrepresented workers) in their daily lives. It seems evident to me that we haven't quite hit on this yet in the context of a highly-saturated consumer culture, where commercial distractions can be counted on to obliterate whatever excitement might be found in the lessons of early 20th-century labor struggle. In my view, this is a place to come to, but not the right place to begin, depending on the audiences we want to reach.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Talking about feminism

It's important for men to talk openly about their relationships with women. That's always going to be the most important part of a project like this one -- just getting men to talk. By and large, this doesn't happen; so I think we have to look at it as a goal in itself, since little else can happen without it.

To some extent this means being flexible enough in focus to accommodate what men honestly want to say when reflecting on their relationships with women. For many men, trying to articulate themselves along feminist lines is daunting enough, without the added expectation of being fluent in considerations of class. So the emphasis for me is on making working class men comfortable in their pursuit of feminism -- in other words, class and feminism coming together in practice, if not immediately in theory.

As I reflect on my own role, I'm a little disappointed I haven't pursued this thinking more aggressively, because I think it's prevented me from saying very much around here lately. And that sucks! So I'm going to try to put more of the raw material from my own life out here, without worrying so much about where it falls or whether it will do any good. I think an inevitable part of being a "feminist man in solidarity with women" is that a lot of the time you aren't going to know this in advance; though this mustn't stop you from trying.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Interview with CDW

Guest contributor C.D.W. recently left her local branch of the IWW, she wants to stress, for several different reasons; she agrees to speak about one of them here. -- JRB

JRB: What first attracted you to the IWW?

CDW: I had been politically active for years before joining the IWW. I began to feel a sense of disillusionment stemming from Leninist forms of organizing. The Leninist party [model], in my opinion, was not honoring Marxism. I felt a disconnect between the workers and the “party.” My libertarian tendencies had me searching for groups that were less bureaucratic and more “worker” oriented. The IWW takes a nonhierarchical approach to organizing. The IWW does not consider itself separate, or better than workers -- they are the workers! The practice of direct action was also appealing. The IWW did not concern itself with selling newspapers or recruiting party members; it enmeshes itself in workers' struggles. The IWW has a rich history in the labor movement, and its philosophy of inclusiveness was among the first of its kind —- how could one not be attracted to the IWW?

JRB: Did you initially feel that this inclusiveness was extended to women workers?

CDW: I would be lying if I said no. I would never join an organization that is so obviously exclusive. I think most radical organizations have enough awareness about structural issues that they are not overtly discriminatory; most of these groups attempt to mask the inequities within. Power dynamics take time to surface, and are not always easy to identify. Although the composition of the IWW is telling. Women make up only a small fraction of its members. The organization needs to question why it’s not recruiting and/or retaining female members. While I was a member of my local branch, there were only two females. There was a third woman who left prior to my arrival. Although I do not know much about why she left, I know there were allegations of sexism.

JRB: Regarding recruitment and retention, I've often thought along similar lines: What are we doing wrong? Can you think of anything in the culture of the IWW, as you experienced it, that might have been alienating or off-putting for women?

CDW: I'll preface this answer by saying that I do not make any attempt to be a spokesperson for all women in the IWW. Albeit, my experiences in the IWW are not isolated cases within the movement, and may be emblematic of more systemic issues. I will speak more generally and will not use identifiable information -- as to not distract from the more salient issues of patriarchy.

First and foremost, women are vastly underrepresented in the IWW. Women's issues are seldom addressed and tactics to recruit women are almost never employed. The last National Conference was a huge success, and I value my experience and the people I met. However, I do have some complaints. I want to say this carefully, as to not devalue the input and participation of the two or three female speakers. The women who participated on a panel spoke about their “experiences,” whereas male comrades educated participants on theory and the historical struggles of the working class. I make this comparison because higher levels of prestige are associated with more academic types of presentations. During the planning stages of the conference, I expressed interest in leading a workshop on the theoretical basis for organizing in a post-industrial society. My suggestion was shrugged off and no one bothered to get back to me.

Female comrades sometimes fail to receive recognition for their organizing skills and strategic planning. I witnessed a male comrade receiving congratulatory remarks on a project that I worked on diligently. Needless to say, my involvement was not acknowledged.

Sexist attitudes and behaviors of male comrades are often dismissed as non-problematic or are labeled a “miscommunication.” Unfortunately, instead of providing a safe space to express grievances, women have frequently experienced hostility and alienation as a result of speaking up. I want to add that I do not think these incidences are indicative of any particular negative culture within the IWW, but more the remnants of patriarchy found within broader society.