Leftist Listening Points
By Matt Meyer
What would life be like if the left could actually learn to listen? In all of the current talk about the possibilities of this being a “teachable moment,” even those of us committed to a Freirian approach seem to have forgetten that the best educators are those who acknowledge that we’ve still got lots to learn. What if, instead of spending our time hashing out the “correct line,” or figuring out the necessary wording to keep together the temporary coalition long enough for one more big action, or trying to get the appropriate angle on “talking to the masses” at this historical moment, we were instead to air all the questions and confusions that are currently, honestly facing us? For those who must engage in some of the above, and some of it-I admit-is crucial, we might at least agree that we are attempting to organize during a period in which genuine dialogue might genuinely produce a stronger (and more truly American) movement in the long run.
Some quick thoughts on what to be admitting to, and listening for in response:
- a) We believe that justice should be done in regards to those responsible for the heinous acts of September 11, 2001 . . . but we’re not sure exactly how this can take place! International tribunals, the ICC, bilateral courts, United Nations gatherings-all these have pros and cons which don’t dissuade us from the basic concept that September 11 was a great tragedy, and that those responsible must be held accountable in some way.
- b) We are scared, and we want terrorism in (and of) the U.S. to end, but we don’t think that war is the best way to do this. In fact, we believe that globalized justice-economic and political, ecological and cultural-is the only guaranteed way to effectively limit terrorism . . . but we’re really just beginning to figure out practically what a decentralized, globally inter-connected world might mean. We’re in favor of feeling more secure-most of us don’t mind tightening airport security a whole bunch-but we’re pretty sure that stripping our civil liberties is a whole lot worse than taking our chances with the Bill of Rights and constitutional amendments and the International Declaration on Human Rights. Empires and rogue states are bad, some believe that nation-states themselves are also bad, but we’re not sure what that good thing instead might look like.
- c) Being anti-war, some of us are pacifists, some of us are not, and a great deal of others are uncertain about political philosophy and life-style . . . so what the heck does that mean??? An Indian author, in the weeks just before 9/11, wrote about four different types of Gandhi iconized in the modern world, and reflected that the actual, real-life Mohandas K. Gandhi would have had trouble fitting in to the image portrayed by any one of the four. If Gandhi wasn’t a “good Gandhian,” and the rest of us have no desire or possibility to achieve sainthood, or to become the head of the Central Committee or the Chief Spokesperson for the Council of Spokes People or the Staff Coordinator for the Coalition, how do we think we can actually change the world and our government? The Year 2000 National election suggested something interesting about electoral politics to most U.S. citizens, and the history of the 1950s through 1990s have clarified much of our collective thinking about self determination and self defense (we’re in favor of them), but we’ve still got many questions about means and ends and making lasting change.
- d) We’re anti-racist in principle, but have few voices from North Africa, West Asia and the Middle East to listen to for leadership in this key period. Even saying “Arab” or “Muslim,” of course, is too generic and confusing at this time, and equally confusing is the variety of opinions we’re likely to come across if we solicit input and opinions. But many of us are not even in touch with what the notable progressives of this region have been saying-sometimes to their own people. Columbia University-based Edward Said, looking generally at the Middle East, recently wrote: “Speaking as a Palestinian . . . we must start thinking about ourselves as responsible for the poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, and repression that have come to dominate our societies, evils that we have allowed to grow despite our complaints about Zionism and imperialism. How many of us, for example, have openly and honestly stood up for secular politics and have condemned the use of religion in the Islamic world as roundly and as earnestly as we have denounced the manipulation of Judaism and Christianity in Israel and the West? How many of us have denounced all suicidal missions as immoral and wrong, even though we have suffered the ravages of colonial settlers and inhuman collective punishment? We can no longer hide behind the injustices done to us, any more than we can passively bewail the American support for our unpopular leaders. A new secular Arab politics must now make itself known, without for a moment condoning or supporting the militancy (it is madness) of people willing to kill indiscriminately. There can be no more ambiguity on that score.”
Were that the U.S. left today had someone as brave, or honest, or strategic. Our tasks, of course, are different from those of our sisters and brothers of the global south. For us, we have barely begun to acknowledge, learn from, and listen to those who have taken great risks from the past generations of struggle: the U.S. political prisoners and leaders of the Black/New Afrikan liberation, Puerto Rican anti-colonial, Chican@/Mexican@, Native American and white anti-imperialist movements of the 60s and 70s and beyond. We seem to, quite literally, be building a movement to fight once again the wars of the last generation, with but a few modifications and minor adjustments regarding tactics, leadership, and political angle. For my “own people,” the vast Jewish Diaspora so present here in New York City (now a critical place not just because New Yorkers think of ourselves that way, or because the world financial center spins around our 24/7 orbit, but because we are in the unusual circumstance of being the victims), as U.S. Jews we still seem to be stuck in fighting for our place in a world half-a-decade old. Whatever the comparisons one might make between Hitler and Bin Laden, New York Jews are so reactive regarding the state of Israel that we know almost nothing about what is actually happening “in our names” in a country whose current Prime Minister is commonly acknowledged (even by most Israelis) as a war criminal and a terrorist.
We may have much to say, but we’ve also got a whole world of people we must surely listen to.
Matt Meyer, Multicultural Coordinator of New York City’s Alternative High Schools and Programs, is co-convener of War Resisters International Africa Working Group and co-author of Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-Africanist Insights in Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation. A member of the local collective Resistance in Brooklyn (RnB), he has worked for amnesty for U.S. political prisoners for over ten years. Meyer also serves as national co-chair of the newly merged union of U.S. peace studies organizations. email@example.com