In the Land of the Crazy, the Sane Man is Nuts

I wandered down to the New College of California to take in a “moderated panel discussion focusing on ways in which activists with differing tactical approaches can strategically work together to increase the impact of civil disobedience and direct action work.”

The NCC is “an accredited institution of higher learning whose mission is to integrate education with creation of a just, sacred and sustainable world.” (“by ‘sustainable’ we mean we aspire to a world in which all human activity is expressive of an ecological sensitivity that assures the extension of a just and sacred world to all of existence across the dimensions of time and space.”) If you’d like to major in “women’s spirituality,” “poetics,” or “creative inquiry,” NCC is the place to go.

Did I mention that I live in San Francisco?

Anyway, most of the panelists and many of the members of the audience were students in the college’s Activism & Social Change program.

Because I’d been reading a lot lately about how the theory and tactics of direct action in the United States had developed in the pacifist and civil rights movements, I’d forgotten that to today’s activist, particularly to today’s young activist, the phrase “direct action” is more often used to describe violent protest tactics, as in the phrase: “Are we just going to stand around and chant all day or are we going to engage in some direct action?”

So while most of the audience was there expecting to hear bold, romantic tales of bolt cutters, slingshots, molotov cocktails, and battling cops in the streets, I was taken aback at first at the casualness with which the option of violent direct action was being discussed.

A panelist named Starhawk (and before you giggle, realize that in San Francisco even Republicans have names like this) tried to inject some reality. I paraphrase, since my notes are spotty: “I tend toward pacifism myself, although I think pacifism is better practiced than preached. When I hear someone delivering a sermon about pacifism I just want to punch them. [Laughter]. I’m not encouraged by the prospects for violent direct action, and this isn’t because of any moral qualms on my part but simply because let’s face it: we’re vastly, completely, hopelessly outgunned. If we try to win a battle of violence we’re fools.”

Most of the talk on the panel was of an abstract nature like this — not, as advertised “ways in which activists with differing tactical approaches can strategically work together to increase the impact of civil disobedience and direct action work” but “four people’s opinions about direct action and what’s good about it and why it’s important.”

After an hour or so they opened it up to questions from the audience. Questions typically in the form of “here’s something that I think is important or some insight that occurred to me” with “what does the panel think?” tacked onto the end so as to fit the formal definition of a question.

After hearing a couple of these, and in the middle of an especially uninteresting one about activists “acknowledging their race and class privilege” I decided that if I was going to keep this from having been a complete waste of my time I’d have to do something about it myself.

So I stood up to “ask a question,” but instead of asking the panel, I turned to the crowd and asked ’em to raise their hands if they were paying federal income tax. About three quarters of them admitted to it (I would expect no less from folks who can afford $6,676 per semester for a masters in activism). Having started off with a question, I felt free to launch into my speech:

I’d like to suggest that before you can start opposing the government and what it’s doing, you have to stop supporting the government and what it’s doing. Getting below the tax line and stopping your support for the government isn’t all that hard. It takes some commitment and some attention, but so does any conscientious direct action. It may not be as dramatic as bombing the federal building or chaining yourself to a fence, but do you want drama or do you want…

And then the moderator asked “do you have a question for the panel?” And I got suddenly sheepish and said “okay, I’ll end my speech.”

I thought to myself: “It’s finally happened. I’ve become a wingnut. I’m surrounded by people debating armed insurrection at a school that wants to extend a sacred world to all of existence across the dimensions of time and space and they’ve just listened patiently to a pagan named Starhawk talk about leading a group of witches at a protest and now that I’ve gotten up to speak they bring out the hook. Have I become like the guy who always brings every conversation around to his favorite Kennedy Assassination theory?”

But I got a thumbs-up from one audience member on my way back to my seat, and then the more I reviewed what I said the less I thought it was particularly nutty (of course, the wingnut is the last one to know how nutty he sounds). I think I broke two rules — one, rather than “expressing concern” for some abstract issue or other I tried to actually promote a specific direct action tactic, which oddly enough seemed off-topic; two, I addressed the audience directly, rather than pretending to address the panel.

I think it’s the second bit that got me, because future “questioners” got away with wild deviations in subject matter and format — one rambling on for ten minutes about whether or not the Italian government was responsible for the cooption of the Italian autonomist movement of by armed revolutionaries, another wondering aloud for a while what we should replace capitalism with should we succeed in overthrowing it.

Addressing a soliloquy to the audience while facing the panel and adding a token question to the end preserved the panel’s authority, while addressing the audience directly challenged that authority.

That’s my theory anyway. I’m keeping “I’m a wingnut” as a backup, though.