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Being Radical is a Skill
And an outlook, one that we can develop if we practice
I’m having some trouble getting into this, and I’m not quite sure why. I think it’s related to the conversations I’ve been having in recent weeks, with people I organize with in my neighborhood primarily, about how doing good doesn’t mean we’re doing enough. What I mean by that is a lot of organizations and groups and individuals do a lot of good in this world, helping a lot of people to eat or get clothed or get fed, but that doesn’t mean their work is shifting or moving towards shifting the systems that create and perpetuate the problems of hunger or homelessness or policing. The clearest example, to me, is that a lot of mutual aid groups help a lot of people to survive, and that is unequivocally and clearly good. But, if mutual aid work doesn’t take on a political edge and contribute to changing the systems that put so many in the position of being hungry and unhoused in the first place, they could continue their work for an eternity and the underlying problems would persist. And that’s not enough. We need to fundamentally dismantle the systems that harm us, while simultaneously building alternatives.
And again it’s hard to write this. Some wonderful people reading this might take what I’m saying as an attack on their work. Specifically, immensely dedicated and thoughtful folks who do more organizing work than I do come to mind, and if you’re seeing this just know I’m not attacking you and your work. What I am doing, or trying to do, is give a broad critique of one or two aspects of our movements on the left. This train of thought is largely inspired by reading Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century by James and Grace Lee Boggs. One of the themes that jumped out at me was the importance of “self-critique,” in the context of revolutionary movements. It stood out because of how we, and I’m very much including myself here, struggle with critique and criticism. Maybe because of social media callout culture, or maybe because of the broader individualism that runs rampant in the U.S., a whole lot of people react to even friendly critique as thought it’s an attack. And of course it can be hard to figure out if a stranger on the internet is being friendly when they give feedback on an idea or project or organization you’ve poured a lot of time and energy and love into. I know I don’t read comments online much, and the more I care about something the harder it can be to bring myself to engage with critiques of it.
But let’s set some of that aside, for now. Grace and James talk explicitly about self-critique, in our organizing and within ourselves. And a lot of us struggle with that too, from what I can see. I wrote recently about how I grew up wanting to be perfect, and often sought confirmation that I was doing the right thing or living up to that unreachable standard I had somehow set for myself, which of course I couldn’t consistently reach. Thankfully, a good chunk of that has gone away, thanks both to internal work and loving community, but plenty remains in insidious and subtle ways. Nowadays it often looks like logically knowing that my ideas are imperfect, my writing is imperfect, my organizing is imperfect, but still struggling to take feedback without feeling like my ego has been bruised. But slowly, particularly as I get deeper into a great neighborhood and the wonderful organizing happening here with people who have experienced lots of trial and error before, I’m learning that if I’m a part of a trusting and loving community we can critique each other from a place of kindness and with an eye towards what benefits all of us, which inherently means setting some of our ego aside.
In this context I want to explore one specific issue that has been coming up again and again for me recently. I see it in tweets and headlines and sometimes in conversation with people I care deeply about. That issue is radicality. A word thrown around, like many others, without much regard for its meaning. A word that should be fundamental to the left, but which can’t be if it isn’t understand, and practiced. So I’m going to talk briefly about what it means, and just a little less briefly about putting it into practice.
One dictionary definition of the word radical is, “Relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something,” and that starts to get us where we need to go. It starts to help us see that the radical is not the superficial, it is not what sits at the surface, it’s something deeper, something fundamental. What I find to be more helpful is the classic line from Angela Davis which says, “Radical simply means grasping things at the root.” I find this definition so helpful because it guides us both to the meaning of the word, and towards how we should implement our understanding of the word. We should first be grasping at the root of the issues we choose to confront, and grasping implies pulling, so the quote also implies to me that we should be working to pull the systemic problems we face up by the root.
The need for a widespread understanding and adoption of true radicality, of reaching for and grasping problems at the root, is everywhere we look. I can’t count the times I’ve encountered discussion of the important issues we face and seen people respond only be engaging with the information immediately presented, rather than looking at what might have motivated the scenario, what dominoes may have lined up and toppled over in the buildup to the final event that we’re discussing. The discussion of crime, broadly, is maybe the clearest example. People see someone hopping a turnstile, for example, to avoid paying the subway fare, and a few reactions typically follow. The conservative response is to arrest them and fine them heavily, accompanied by a call for more police involvement in public transit. And that response appears to guide policy in most cities across the U.S. But, there are other ways to respond. A moderate response may be that they shouldn’t be arrested, but should face some sort of fine, and most importantly they really should pay for the subway next time because we need people to pay for public transit in order for it to function.
Now what I would ask of you, if you’re discussing a scenario like this, is to start first by going to the root, grasping at the root causes and issues before passing judgment. First, that entails knowing that in this country public transit is used far more by the working class than the ruling class. Second, it involves looking at why fare evasion is considered a problem. It’s considered a problem because we fund public transit precariously, meaning we underfund it and force the system to rely on millions of small purchases. Yet other vital public services are not funded this same way. We don’t force folks to give small or large fees for police and fire and public education, despite some conservative efforts to change that. So why should the trains or busses that are the primary, often only, means of transportation for millions of working class people be reliant upon endless small expenditures from those who generally have far less to give? They shouldn’t. At the root of this issue of fare evasion is the fact that there should be no fare to be evaded. That radical idea, the idea we arrive at when we go to the root of the problem, is what should guide us. After we travel down to the root, we should return to the issue at hand leading from that place of genuine radicality. In this case that is to say we should be working for a country where public transit is free.
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If you don’t want free public transit, or don’t think it’s realistic, I understand. I might argue that we’ve been told and conditioned to believe that a very narrow range of possibilities are realistic, and that society can be formed and built in so many other ways than the world we currently know, but I really do understand. The expansion of the imagination is one of the hardest tasks before us, in my opinion. It takes a tremendous amount of unlearning and openness and bravery to transcend the limited visions we’ve been taught and envision both a radically better world and the path that could take us there. At the same time what I would ask of you, and what I would ask of anyone who wants to build a better world, is that we develop the muscle of radicality, that we develop the skill of going to the root regardless of what we currently think is realistic. And we have the opportunity to practice that every day. When we see headlines telling us that a company laid off workers “because of the economy” we have the opportunity to think, hey that company’s worth $55 billion dollars (like Norfolk Southern), and they could definitely afford to keep more people employed is they wanted to. In engaging in even this short thought process, and in talking to others about it, we dig towards the root, which in this case is the capitalist profit motive that places generating money for the wealthy above human needs. When we see a university strip striking student-worker’s healthcare (like Temple University just did) we can take a quick look and see that their endowment is nearly a billion dollars, and that they really, really didn’t have to strip their own students’ healthcare for going on strike. Which can then lead us towards the root of the problem, which is something like the neoliberal for-profit-a-fication of the university, and the capitalist system that incentivized that.
Some of what I just said might seem obvious, but I just hope those examples are clear. However, there are also many murkier examples. A lot of recent conversation around Covid and masking and the relationship between systemic abandonment and individual choices in a deeply flawed system gets tricky, for example. But again true radicality becomes an invaluable north star. Have many people made individual choices that I disagree with? Yes. Do I see that as the root of the problem? No. I see a culture of individualism interconnected with the pursuit of profit and a malicious neglected by a government captured by the wealthy as much closer to the real root of the issue. And that doesn’t mean individuals have no role to play, quite the opposite. But what you’re equipped with when you first grasp for the root is an empathy and understanding that people have been subjected to difficult cultural, economic, and political circumstances that make addressing complex societal problems very difficult.
If you disagree with me here, or think I’m discounting individual agency, I understand, and I don’t believe minds are often changed by one article. To be clear I do think individual actors and our decisions matter, but I believe that our individual actions must be informed by the root of the issues we seek to address, and that without this skill and approach we fall into surface level ‘solutions’ that can actually perpetuate or even exacerbate our problems and punish individuals instead of changing systems.
And changing systems takes time, and a whole lot of people. Changing ourselves and our approach to the world takes time too. Sometimes there are dramatic, catalyzing events, but more often it’s a slow burn, gradually learning more and getting involved in organizing and talking with a lot of people about this stuff. It takes time to build the muscle of radicality in ourselves, and to really get into this work we have to help others build the muscle as well, I think. Just yesterday I was talking with a grandma in my neighborhood about the police. We were both at a community event, and she asked about the organization I was representing. I mentioned a few things, but said we’re largely focused on defunding the police. She immediately said,
“I don’t know about all that, but they definitely should be doing their jobs better. I see them on the phone doing who knows what all the time and they definitely not doing their jobs playing games on the phone.”
I replied, “I couldn’t agree more, my thought is just that instead of paying them to sit on their phones we spend a lot more on housing and education and stuff like that, then maybe a lot of the crime won’t even be happening, and people won’t think we need to pay them to be sitting there on the phone.”
We went amicably back and forth and she mentioned how little has changed with police being unresponsive even since her mother was raising her decades ago up the street, but then she said, “You know, the police pulled a gun on me once. I was crossing the street, and he told me to stop, but I wasn’t doing anything so I just kept crossing, and he pulled his gun on me. On my daughter too.” And after she had told me more about that experience I half-jokingly said that maybe we could start the defunding with that guy. She laughed, and after a little longer the conversation ended with her saying “Well maybe it’s a little of what you’re talking about and a little of what I’m talking about.” And that felt fair. So I hope you take a little of what I’m saying, and if you blend it with a little of what you’re saying, that feels fair.
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