Posts Tagged ‘Identity’

Everything that gets written on this blog is stream-of-consciousness. I sit down, I start typing, and at some point I stop typing. That’s it. Which is why there are typos, which is why it is sometimes way beyond dull, and which is why these little posts are, at their best, unpolished and kinda rambly and, at their worst, incoherent babble. But so be it.

It’s interesting though, how little thoughts turn into one another, the process of weird association in the brain that leaves us thinking what we are thinking. Today, then, an example of how such strangeness happens, this being the true story of my own brain’s journey along a few meandering pathways. (more…)


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Been on a bit of Jesus thing lately. Thinking about religion, considering the role it plays in our understandings of the world, its function as an ethical code, a yearning for something more, a mark of community boundaries and so on. And generally considering the importance that religious symbols and religious communities have had at various time in my life. (more…)

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I am a communist, and an anarchist, and – despite the fact that I have not the slightest hint of belief in God – a Catholic. There are some, I’m sure, who find the last particularly worthy of ridicule or contempt, but so be it. And many who will wonder at how I identify as both communist and anarchist at once, some simply puzzled and some presuming this must be indicative of a failure to understand what either term really means. Again, so be it.

This post is not ultimately not about me. But as I think about political engagement, resistance, the incredible risings across the Middle East and North Africa, the re-igniting of labour’s spark in Wisconsin, and recent conversations fireside with friends from a wide range of communities and associated great breadth of political struggles, I can’t help but reflect upon my own identity as a radical, where it comes from and where it finds me now. But for now, I am thinking about the human relationships of struggle, and how hard it sometimes is, for those of us whose lives are largely defined by our political struggles, to distinguish bonds of love and respect among our friends from bonds of alliance and support in our politics. Or, to frame it from the other end, how common it is for what we believed were friendships and loves to go up in smoke because in a particular moment a particular political or strategic disagreement seems insurmountable, seems a symbol of profound betrayal. (more…)

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Like everyone of us stumbling across this earth, most days I just live. I do what needs to be done, I entertain odd little thoughts and wonders and fantasies that meander in and out of my brain, and I make it to the next day without any real conscious thought about how I am and where I am and what I am in the world.

Then are the stand-out days – not because anything happens, really, but because I feel strong and capable and smart and desirable and generally all-round confident in my life and my value.

And, of course, the days of struggle – the days I feel vulnerable and insecure, ugly and weak, andcertain that everything I think is good must be only a trick of the light.

Sometimes it is hard to trust in our own value. Sometimes it is hard to believe that anyone else sees any good in us. Sometimes it feels like we are tolerated, allowed, put-up-with, and that any moment now all that we have will crumble when the people around us realize there’s something better, someone better.

We all have these days, and for each of us there are different aspects of our lives that are more often confident and others that are more often insecure. I’ve often thought about this in the context of the University, where I work. I’m a Union rep here, representing faculty in their employment struggles, alternating many times a day between legal advisor, counselor, confidante, strategist, organizer. But I’m also an academic myself at heart, having subjected myself to far more formal education than is good for anyone. And I notice each and every day how the whole institution of the University is permeated with a tremendous imposter-syndrome.

Academics make their lives from the idea that they are smart, that their minds can come up with important ideas that can change the world. Academics make their lives on the generally-accepted premise that they are somehow brighter and more creative and more insightful that the rest of the population. It is the single most-important myth of the University, the foundation for everything that happens at this place, and the myth appealed to as much by faculty in their role as workers as in their role as scholars.

Now, when I was in school, reading my books and writing my papers and doing my presentations, I consistently felt like a fraud. And that wasn’t just me, but is a feature of most student life. We pretend we know more than we do, we try to put on an air of confidence, we find ways to turn questions and discussions around to subjects we know slightly more about, all in order to keep up the act, to prevent our teachers and other students from realizing what we ourselves know to be true – that we are confused and muddled and certain of very little, and that we are nowhere near as well-versed in literature and history and scientific principle as we pretend.

I realized that all students felt this when I was in grad school. And I realized through my job as faculty union guy that pretty much all profs feel the same way. It’s a collective myth sustained by a collective pretending to mask a collective insecurity and a collective fear of that inevitable day that someone will catch on, someone will realize that we’re not all that smart after all, that that book, that article, that argument, that turn of phrase, or even that Nobel Prize was a freak accident, a bluff that somehow hasn’t yet been found out. But it will be, one day, somehow. Every academic feels that. Every academic fears it.

But y’know, none of that really makes a difference. Sure, it matters for individuals, who it hangs over day after day, and occassionally torments to the point of incapacity. And, yes, the myth itself is a problem in that it sustains elitism and classism and is so often used as a hammer to silence other voices. But at the same time, the myth actually does serve a purpose, I suppose. I mean, if we all went around puddles of tears or knots of insecurity, not a hell of alot would get done, would it? In academia or in relationships or in parenting or in sports or in music – in absolutely every moment of our lives – if we ever dropped the myths, dropped the pretending, we would be a more honest planet but certainly not a sustainable one. So, I suppose at the end of the daythough an awareness of the illusion is helpful, and allows some self-reflection as well as a greater understanding of what others are dealing with, we can’t really afford to drop the illusion altogether, or stop pretending. Cause living is so much acting. Living is all about carrying on despite the fear and weakness, carrying on through it.

Wrote mostly about academics here, cause it is something I have often thought about. But actually today’s writing began with something much more personal, much more difficult to speak and to share, and that kept me up worried much of the night – a personal insecurity of my own that arises more frequently than any other, and that many times a weak creeps up and takes over my brain.

But is there really any difference what the particular issue is for each of us? I’m successful at work when I can convince those I work with and for that I know what I’m doing, regardless of my own confidence. That act puts them at ease, gives them confidence, and builds the foundation for actual success. In academia, the writing and speaking and teaching does indeed throw ideas out there and open debate, regardless of whether the initiator has her or his own doubts. And in relationships, the act of security and strength and desirability and capacity inspires in one’s partner the confidence and faith that it takes to keep things growing stronger and closer, and makes those things true.

The long and short of it? I’m a fucking mess much of the time. Truth be told, I am pretending each and every day, as we all are. Truth be told, behind all this I am scared, and weak, and confused. But at the same time, and with no less truth, I am all the strength and confidence I can muster, too. Because there really isn’t any meaningful break between the act and reality. The act is reality. That’s the nature of my humanity, and the nature of all our humanity.

Days of muddling and survival. Days of strength and confidence. Days of fear and insecurity. Each, I suppose, is all bound up with the other. Perhaps the changes in general mood are no more than slight shifts in the balance , reactions to little things that either tip the scales to an act successful or tip the scales to stagefright. And if that’s the case….well, that’s something I can deal with.

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The Israeli assault on Gaza continues. In the last few days, it is increasingly acknowledged that Israel is quite purposely directing attacks against civilian populations, actively hindering the work of international humanitarian agencies, and even shelling local offices of the United Nations.

What’s on my mind today, though, is something larger – the discussion that is beginning to take place about not only Zionism as a political agenda but about the whole idea of  ‘a people’, and how identity in general functions to both include and exclude.

My ex-father-in-law is a radical active in the Palestine solidarity movement. He also identifies as a Jew. Though non-religious and coming from a family of Jewish-American Communist Party activists, Jewishness is a key part of his identity, marking both a history of anti-semitism, a history of a particular set of struggles, and a particular intellectual and cultural tradition that is distinct. Together with other anti-Zionist Jews, he’s worked to build Independent Jewish Voices, an organization committed to solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and with challenging the all-too-prevalent notion that criticism of Israel or the questioning whether Israel should exist as a state is synonymous with anti-semitism.

Anyway, he works as a union researcher but is perhaps best known among radicals around the world for his massive email list, through which he sends out, across the globe, news and opinion pieces from around the world on a wide range of issues of interest to radicals. Lately, of course, the vast majority of this has been on the Israeli assault and the struggle for Palestine.

And two things in particular that have struck me.

The first is an article coming out of the UK’s Palestine solidarity movement. Here, Francis Clark-Lowes decides it is time to cross lines and force questions, no matter what accusations of anti-semitism might follow. He argues, basically, that Israel – and by extension Zionism – has been so overwhlemingly defended by Jewish communities in Europe and North America, that he cannot any longer distinguish ‘the Isreali state’ from Jewish public opinion. Meaning, basically, that it is no more wrong to say ‘Jews collectively are responsible for the genocide in Gaza’ than it is wrong to hold Europeans collectively accountable for colonialism.

Here’s  a summary, in his own words, of where Clark-Lowes believes we need to go:

·        A recognition that Jewish identity has become inextricably linked with Zionism.

·        An acceptance that Jews are collectively responsible for what is happening in Israel/Palestine, just as we [the British], as a nation, accept our responsibility for the empire and slavery.

·        A renunciation of the right of return and the right to Israeli nationality.

·        An acceptance that ‘the Holocaust’ (in inverted commas and with a capital H) has become a kind of religion, an instrument of propaganda, an abusive mythology.

·        A recognition that accusing people of hating Jews is usually a way of stopping them speaking.

·        A recognition that the Zionist project is incompatible with respect for the human rights of Palestinians. Israel has got to go.

·        A recognition that Jews, as a collective, exercise immense, and quite disproportionate, power in the world, and that this power is being abused.

It’s a strong statement, and one that is uncomfortable to read. Indeed, he states explicitly that it was uncomfortable to write.

Now, I’m not going to get into taking this apart and teasing out the various things Clark-Lowes writes. More interesting to me is that this came from my ex-father-in-law only a day after I read an interview he gave to Gilad Atzmon, jazz musician and anti-Zionist activist in London.

Atzmon has renounced his Jewish identity. For him, to identify as a Jew is to identify as a part of a ‘chosen people’ which is to support, however unwittingly, the Zionist project. For Atzmon, to define oneself as a Jew is to concede that Jews are different, Jews are special – a necessary foundation to the concept of chosen people and a main pillar of Zionist ideology. So the interview is really focused on this question of identity, and the relationship between identity and politics. For Atzmon, the only possible identity is universalist, and the first step to anti-Zionism is renunciation of one’s Jewish identity; for Sid, Jewishness does have meaning, and has a particularly important political meaning in the struggle against Israel.

An interesting discussion, and one I encourage folks to read. Obviously, it’s a discussion that goes far beyond Israel or Jewishness. It’s a discussion about identity.

We make our place in the world by identifying ourselves with certain things and against other things – whether those boundaries be marked by ethnicity, religion, politics, or preferred colour of socks. In anthropological terms, we form tribes – collective groupings that help us place ourselves in a world that is simply too big and too complex to understand. So. Are such tribes ultimately exclusionary and divisive? Or do such tribes ground us in the world? Is the drive to separate and identify something innate? Or something that can be abandoned? Or – more to my thinking – are tribes always and everywhere a muddling of all the above?

These are interesting questions to play with. Atzmon, clearly, has decided that a Jewish tribalism is inherently destructive – and I presume he would argue the same about any collective based on a religious or cultural or ethnic characteristic. OK. But what about political characteristics? Or cultural mores? Are these any less ‘tribes’, with any less significance to thier members and with any less possibility for exclusion? Or are they something different altogether? Can we distinguish tribes we believe are based on choice from those we believe people are born into? And if so, where exactly do we mark those lines between different categories of characteristics? Is there always and easy-to-see dividing line? Can we opt-out of communities we are identified with? What’s the relationship between how we identify ourselves and how we are identified by those close to us and how we are seen by the world at large?

All this is rolling around in my head today. I am thinking of Sam movies, Metal: a headbanger’s journey and Global Metal, in which anthropologist and metalhead Dunn talks about the global tribe defined by a music – a global tribe I count myself a part of. I am thinking of my own Catholic upbringing, and the fact that I still feel very Catholic despite the fact that I do not have any religous life to speak of. I am thinking about Noel Ignatiev and the folks around  Race Traitor who are grappling with how all these questions play out in the power and privilege of whiteness.

War, identity, power, collective, security, tribe. There is much here to consider, much here to challenge ourselves with, much thinking and re-thinking. But that is not to say there are answers. But that’s OK. I’m not really looking for answers. I am, however, very interested in the questions, and the ways in which different people confront these questions generally, and the ways particular activisits – Jews, non-Jews, former-Jews – confront these questions in the specific context of Israeli occupation and the Zionism that underpins it.

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Y’know, doing the union thing can be mighty strange, particularly when you come to it as a radical. The way various emotions are triggered, the competing and conflicting ideas and analyses and reactions you feel – it involves living with and in multiple identities. And I don’t mean putting on a game-face or playing a role, though there’s certainly lots of that. No, this is something else. You really do become different kinds of person in the process. Responsible and reasonable negotiator. Expert advisor. Enforcer of the law. Radical troublemaker. Pissed-off worker. Hurt employee genuinely wanting to be valued for your contribution. All of these come into play, often simultaneously. And that can be not only hard to manage, but hard to live with emotionally. It can throw you into some real turmoil.

Being a radical in the trade union movement ain’t easy, and it takes its toll. It is a constant struggle to hold onto one’s values, one’s critique, one’s politics while working in an environment and for a labour-relations regime whose very premise is the sell-out, whose foundation is opportunism and self-serving justification, and whose daily work involves the search for what is overwhelmingly a fiction – common ground with the boss.

But there’s another challenge as well, which has a more personal dimension. We remain workers, and though we may critique and rail against notions like ‘productivity’ and ‘value’, somehow still we carry those within us. Much as we know these concepts and the culture they arise from belong entirely to the boss, we somehow still feel pride in our work, and want our contributions to be recognized. We can scoff at this stuff on a collective or abstract level. But individually, it still matters. Alot.

I wrote here last Spring about a moment in which I faced all this in my own working life – in a conversation with my employer about my job, a dispute between us, my decision to quit that particular work, and the emotional toll it took on me. Well, last night it was the girl I love dealing with these kinds of feelings, that mix of rage and hurt, of fight-back and defeat, of seeing the boss act exactly as we know bosses do and yet still being floored by it, by that personal hurt that comes when one’s work isn’t valued, one’s dignity doesn’t matter, one’s contributions are not deemed worthy of any real attention. It hurts.

Cause though capital’s shit about values and teamwork and contribution is just so much garbage, the struggle of us as workers does indeed start from our labour, and the desire to re-define ‘value’ and ‘worth’ in new ways, collective ways, life-giving ways.


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