An active emotion

Tariq Ali speaks at International Week
Tariq Ali gave the I-Week keynote address on Jan 30.

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the incredible stuff I’m part of that I don’t even have time to talk about it. This week is the culmination of many months’ work preparing for International Week at the U of A. After all the late nights, tears, and days spent making so many phone calls my phone died mid-afternoon, it’s actually all coming together swimmingly.

It’s funny being inside an event like this. It’s so big, with dozens of workshops sprawled across the week, that it’s impossible to take it all in. So I just get to catch little glimpses of sessions every day, and then see glimmers of the conversations that start churning afterwards. It’s gratifying to see people leaning against a wall debating what good governance really means in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tariq Ali’s keynote lecture on Monday wasn’t what I expected it to be. He’s a British-Pakistani journalist, historian, and filmmaker (and novelist, interestingly). He’s pretty well-known for his sharp writing in places like the Guardian, cutting Western governments to pieces for launching imperialist adventures. But his talk was less anchored to any specific political moments than I thought it would be.

Essentially, he laid out a map of the economic, ecological and political crises we’re all fairly familiar with. An economy divorced from any sensible idea of how to use it to make ecosystems healthier, chugging away on speculation upon speculation on the “fictitious commodity” of money (a term borrowed from our social theory friend Karl Polanyi). And of course a world run not by citizens, but by corporations and governments that pay lip service to our wishes through semi-regular rituals like elections.

“Hope is a very active emotion,” he said, though. “If you hope for something, it makes you active. In the struggle between despair and hope, I have all my life been on the side of hope. And I still am.”

Ali left with some observations about the frustration that leaves our generation with, feeling like we have no real choices except to vascillate occasionally between political masters who basically agree on the fundamentals of how markets and states should work. We are desperate for someone to answer our pleas when we take to the streets, he says, but there is no one out there to save us. It’s just us.

Sankofa by ~Drawn2theMoon
Sankofa (by ~Drawn2theMoon)

It seems like a bit of a nihilistic idea, but I think it’s also an empowering one. Anishinaabe activist and author Winona LaDuke brought up some similar ideas in her talk Monday night. She talked a lot about people on her reserve combatting the big energy issues by looking small, and trying to become more self-sufficient energy-wise through building small wind and solar projects on their land. Working with what they have. She also told stories about people working to heal their histories by going back and planting the seeds their ancestors did, and reclaiming the relationships they used to have taking care of the fish in their rivers. The stories said to me, whatever you lost, go back and get it.

There’s a Ghanaian proverb/symbol that says a similar thing: sankofa. It’s an Akan symbol that means — sort of — go back and get it. Reclaim what you lost.

There’s no one who can do that except us. If you can come to the rest of I-Week, running til February 3rd, I think you might pick up some great ideas on how to start.

It gets better, it gets worse… but guess what?

I really admire the spirit behind the It Gets Better videos. I had a lot of privileges growing up, and a compared to most queer people in the world, an incredibly supportive environment to come out into when I was younger. For kids who don’t though, it’s important to see positive role models out there, people to look up to who’ve made it through tough times and gotten stronger.

It really upset me seeing politicians starting to use this idea cynically, to make it encourage kids to look forward to a time when “it gets better” without acknowledging their power and responsibility to do something about it. So this is my spin on that idea.

Hope and groundwork

Man weaving kente in Eastern Region, Ghana

Hi there.

You might know me personally, or have encountered some of my other writing drifting around the world, or maybe you don’t know who I am at all. I’m someone with a lot of curiosity and a lot of passion for contributing positively to my communities in the ways I can. I’m embarking on a path into journalism as one way to do that. And I’ve decided to make this blog to get across ideas that don’t really fit anywhere else, and collect some of the things I’ve worked on.

I’ve been in the social justice and journalism worlds for a little while now, and I think work in both can do a lot to rattle us loose from feeling complacent about this world. One thing that really irks me about both too, though, is that we can very easily get sucked into the undertow of waves of sarcasm, skepticism, and cynicism. It’s so easy for us to fall into that trap of always criticizing action, and never proposing a new vision. Criticism and protest can become a refuge for us when we’re eaten up by intellectual cowardice.

Often when I write, I have Ishmael author Daniel Quinn murmuring in the back of my head. In one of his books, he says that vision is like the flowing river — meaning, to me, that criticism and opposition to a mainstream vision are like putting sticks in the middle of a river to stop its flow. You might, it’s true, eventually dam up the river. A much easier way to change minds though, he says, is to offer a new path, a new channel for ideas to flow through. Once a trickle starts, more will follow, until you have a flood.

I can see many people I admire groping towards these new visions. I am humbled by the courage of the people this year who’ve been beaten back in Tahrir Square, used tent cities to challenge economic orthodoxy, and tried to make us see our place among viruses and tectonic plates. I want to make sure to tell those hopeful stories, to lay the groundwork for what comes next.

I believe we need to build a world where we see ourselves as citizens of our human and ecological communities, with the right to live on this earth and the responsibility to make them more robust, more resilient. That means not just halting the species crash, but reversing it: contributing to spaces that nurture new life, expanding them. Not just giving aid to people in poverty, but reshaping our society so all of us have the power to reach our potential. It means making our “waste” streams a useful, healthy part of our ecosystems’ survival. And building a place for ourselves again amidst long-lasting, diverse communities of organisms with room to grow.

I won’t pretend I’ve got all this figured out. My aim, though, is to use this space as much to tell those stories as to ramble on about what I think you might find important to know. Criticism is important. It exposes hypocrisy, abuses, and inaction. But I think we can do better than just that.