Must-Reads and Thoughts on Being Brave

From Gaza to labor showdowns, alarming developments along the southern border, AI-generated articles jamming up Google News, and how we talk about fascism and atrocity, here are some important stories you may have missed this week.

Palestinian Women and Children Don’t Deserve to Die in Gaza. Neither Do Men by Sa’ed Atshan. “Many Palestinians cherish our feminist commitments alongside our commitment to the Palestinian national struggle for freedom and dignity. We know that despite the harshness of the realities in Palestine, countless Palestinian men hold onto tenderness each and every day, as they care for the wounded and traumatized, as they document atrocities, as they attend to the ruins in their midst, and even as they attend to their pets.”

Versions of Denial by Conor Gearty. “In States of Denial, Cohen was highly critical of the way liberal culture had accommodated Israel’s actions. He discussed three versions of denial: literal denial (it never happened); interpretative denial (it’s not what you think it is) and implicatory denial (we have to do it/it’s terrible, but it’s not our fault).”

Texas refuses to comply with Biden administration order on border access by Gloria Oladipo. “Texas officials have refused to comply with an order from the Biden administration to allow American border patrol agents to access a part of the US-Mexico border that is now under the state’s control.”

"As folks freeze to death in Milwaukee, Ohio pastor charged for offering shelter | Opinion" by James E. Causey. "Chris Avell, pastor of Dad's Place in Bryan, Ohio, was arraigned in court last Thursday because he kept his church open 24/7 to provide warmth to the unhoused."

Metaphors Journalists Live By (Part I) by Rick Perlstein. “This is the real deal. There’s a real fascist movement. And I don’t think we have on the table all the storytelling tools we need to counter it.” (You can find Part II of the discussion here.)

‘It is a time of witch hunts in Israel’: teacher held in solitary confinement for posting concern about Gaza deaths by Emma Graham-Harrison and Quique Kierszenbaum. “The evidence compiled by police who handcuffed him, then drove to his apartment and ransacked it as he watched, was a series of Facebook posts he’d made, mourning the civilians killed in Gaza, criticising the Israeli military, and warning against wars of revenge.”

A Death at Walmart by Jasper Craven. “On a chilly Sunday afternoon exactly two years ago today, Janikka Perry arrived for her bakery shift at a Walmart supercenter in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Once she began working, she started to feel unusually faint. As the hours wore on, she told her co-workers she wasn’t feeling well, and retreated to a bathroom for rest. But the store was short-staffed, and her manager allegedly told her to ‘pull herself together.’”

Google News Is Boosting Garbage AI-Generated Articles by Joseph Cox. "The presence of AI-generated content on Google News signals two things: first, the black box nature of Google News, with entry into Google News’ rankings in the first place an opaque, but apparently gameable, system. Second, is how Google may not be ready for moderating its News service in the age of consumer-access AI, where essentially anyone is able to churn out a mass of content with little to no regard for its quality or originality."

How Illinois Housing Banishment Laws Push People into Homelessness and Prison by Shawn Mulcahy. “It often plays out like this: A person can’t report their address because it’s not legal. Without a legal address, they can’t register. When they don’t register, police pick them up and charge them with a new crime.”

SCOTUS Will Hear Starbucks Case Arguing Against Key Labor Law Enforcement Tool by Sharon Zhang. “If the Supreme Court, with its conservative supermajority, sides with Starbucks, it could have a widespread chilling effect on union organizing across the country, giving more leeway to employers to act against unionizing employees with fewer potential consequences.”

You Should Also Check Out…

I am not sure how to categorize this effort, but I am in love with it. A Choreography of Being in Good Relation: Rehearsals for Living Book Review Forum exists in concert with one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. Rehearsals for Living by Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a remarkable book, and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend checking it out. (It’s currently available for 20% off from Haymarket Books.) You can also find me in conversation with the authors in one of my favorite episodes of my podcast, Movement Memos, from last year. 

A Choreography of Being in Good Relation is described as “a poetic speculative letter, an archive for future ancestors of how abolitionist activists leaned into world-building amongst a series of world endings through breath, love, and communion.” The effort includes offerings from William C. Anderson, Harsha Walia, Andrea Ritchie, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and more. These are thinkers whose work should never be missed, but given the project’s connection to such a beloved text, I am excited to engage deeply with each offering.

Reminder: Zoom Chat with Shane Burley Next Week for Paid Subscribers

Just a reminder that next week, on January 25 at 6 p.m. CT, I will be chatting with my friend Shane Burley,  who is the author of Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the ApocalypseFascism Today: What It Is and How to End Itand the upcoming book Safety Through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism.

If you are a paid subscriber, you can find more information about how to sign up for that event here.

Thoughts On Courage Amid Chaos and Collapse

Today would have been my father’s 74th birthday. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about my dad, or what he would have said or done about something. I have a pretty good sense of what would have made him proud, what would have made him laugh, and what would have led him to shake his head and offer no comment. I often think of the lessons he taught me, some of which no longer fit my life or worldview, and some of which have only become more important with time. If you know me well, you have probably heard me talk about how my father responded to me being bullied as a child. Put simply, it wasn’t the response I was hoping for, and not all of it is fit to print. 

One sentence that I have carried with me as I have gotten older, and as the world has gotten uglier, is this: “We don’t let people hurt us and we don’t let people hurt our friends.” 

My father was telling me to hit back. He was telling me that if someone truly meant me or my friends harm, it was my job to stop them. He told me he would stick up for me if I took violent action in defense of myself or others, and he was true to his word. At the time, I was about six or seven years old, and wholly ill-equipped to respond to cruelty. I was gentle and awkward. If I’m being honest, I’m still pretty awkward. But I got harder with age, and by the time I was in high school, no one had any illusions about what it would mean to put their hands on me. They might win the fight, but my presence would be felt. 

My father and I sometimes disagreed about the battles I chose, and when my stand-offish approach lent itself to verbal altercations with authority figures, he questioned my discernment, to put it mildly. However I do know my father was proud of the fact that I was a protective person who had no patience for bullies or bullying. 

As I reflect on my father’s emphasis on friendship and self defense, I think about what it means to protect ourselves and others in these times. The fascist MAGA cult appears poised to re-elect its leader, and President Biden seems determined to assist them in this matter. I am also thinking about Rick Perlstein’s contention that, “The most salient question to answer may well end up being not how many people will vote for Donald Trump, but how many are willing to take up arms for him.”

Regardless of who is president, we are living in catastrophic times, and as we all know, crises can bring out the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. Some people respond to crisis by doubling down on binaries and hierarchies, and the enforcement of those norms. Crisis can foster cooperation in the most loving and humane sense, as people rally around and care for one another. It can also lead to another kind of cooperation – one that can be hard to fathom or forgive – as people submit to systemic edicts about who should be cared for or defended, and who should be deemed expendable.  

In his discussion of Stan Cohen’s work, States of Denial, Conor Gearty wrote: 

Cohen was highly critical of the way liberal culture had accommodated Israel’s actions. He discussed three versions of denial: literal denial (it never happened); interpretative denial (it’s not what you think it is) and implicatory denial (we have to do it/it’s terrible, but it’s not our fault).

I have been thinking about how these various forms of denial lend themselves to inaction, and drawing moral maps in my mind, charting the paths between justification, acceptance and cowardice. This is a terrible time to traverse such paths. We live in a collapsing box, and if we deny, rationalize or make excuses for its subdivisions and exclusions, we will become the maintenance workers of empire.

“We don’t let people hurt us and we don’t let people hurt our friends.”

What does it mean to live those words in these times? 

On a personal level, I miss the self defense classes my collective used to organize. Our instructor is a young mother now who no longer has time for these things, but I cannot tell you how much I miss rehearsing the physical work of survival alongside some of my best friends and closest co-strugglers. We need more spaces like that, where we can find joy while learning together. This year, I hope we can find opportunities to build safety together, whether we’re learning how to preserve food, prepare go bags, or use our bodies to protect each other in dangerous situations. There is no substitute for this kind of shared practice. 

It is essential that we prepare for crises and disasters, because the tumult that has defined our lives in recent years will not relent. We can work to improve conditions and take preventative action, but like gentle, awkward children on a bully’s playground, we are going to keep getting hit. We must cultivate spaces, skills and relationships that enable us to endure those moments of injury together. That will include intentional space for joy, rest and the appreciation of what’s beautiful and sacred to us, and it will also include practical work, like de-escalation training, community defense and safety planning, and disaster preparedness. It will mean electoral safety planning and trauma response initiatives. First and foremost, it will require a rigorous acceptance of the conditions we face. Because clinging to normalcy is not only killing us, it’s also killing the people around us. 

Here, in the imperial core, denial and moral cowardice are a deadly serious matter, not just for us, but for the world.

Every day, I see people practice various forms of evasion and denial, in the face of existential threats, and I understand the impulse. Most people do not want to know many of the things I’ve learned. I know this because some people have told me as much, and because I have watched people rebel in the face of facts that did not fit their expectations, worldviews, or emotional capacities. Sometimes, people get aggravated with me for talking about fascism, the climate crisis, the precarity of supply lines, or other trappings of capitalism. They don’t know how to function alongside such thoughts, while I can’t imagine ignoring the truth. From an organizing perspective, there are ways of negotiating with these tendencies, as Mariame Kaba and I discuss in Let This Radicalize You. But no matter how we package the truth, reckoning with it will ultimately require courage.

One of my dearest friends often points out that most people are not brave, and that our organizing must take this reality into account. I like to think of organizing, and direct action, as paths of exploration that can help people construct their own courage. After all, simply entering a new space, full of strangers and strange practices and ideas, requires a kind of courage. Taking any form of collective action, when we are not used to trusting or relying on others, requires some amount of courage. I think we build ourselves up, bit by bit, and that those smaller construction projects make our best moments possible. But, of course, nothing is guaranteed. Courage is not a fixed thing. I am capable of being brave, but I am not always brave. Some days, my insides shake at the thought of what we are up against, and I feel like I have nothing to offer. Some days, I want to curse people for not caring enough, and wash my hands of anyone who isn’t trying to do what I think is right. I want to cast blame, rationalize inaction, and declare the worst inevitable, so that I might be excused from the fight. Some days, I am just afraid.

My dad was afraid, too. He had the fears of a man who had seen what the barbarity of war can bring out in people, and what those traumatized by violence can do to themselves and others. He knew that in spite of his values, skills and determination, loss could not always be kept at bay. He had seen worlds burn, and he believed that the world as we know it would burn, due to environmental destruction. And yet, he still chose to raise two daughters, alongside a woman he cherished. My father loved despite the inevitability of loss. He knew heartbreak and he knew fear, but he acted from a place of courage, throughout his life. He was willing to risk his physical well-being, and his heart, for the sake of others, for what he thought was just, and perhaps, above all, for the sake of love.

We often disagreed, but he was a principled man, and he knew how to rise to the moment. I saw that, growing up, again and again. Now, in my 40s, I feel called by his example. My father did not believe in abandoning people or submitting to those who would harm us. He was a thoughtful person who practiced preparedness and hope, and who abided by his convictions. I hope I can live the whole of my life that way. 

As climate chaos and political instability continue, many of us will be tested in a variety of ways. When I am frightened and heartbroken, I hope I will be like my father, in all the best ways. I hope that I will look danger in the eye and say, “We don’t let people hurt us and we don’t let people hurt our friends.”

I hope that’s who I am. I don’t believe we can know, until our convictions slam up against catastrophe, what the moment will make of us, or what we will make of the moment. The best I can do for now is to fortify the things I draw strength from: my relationships, my skills, my preparedness, and the commitments that define my character. I hope that’s work we can all do together, because individual courage is not the stuff collective action or collective survival are made of. We will need each other’s grit and tenacity. We will need to look each other in the eye, and see a will to fight staring back at us.

When things get ugly, I believe that our relationships, our skills, our rehearsals and our commitments will determine whether we can muster whatever courage the moment demands. I do not believe we are ready for what’s ahead, but if we are willing to let go of denial, and embrace the work that must be done, I think we can find the courage we’ll need to face what lies ahead. So, let’s cultivate what we need in order to live our values. 

Let’s be brave together.

This edition of Organizing My Thoughts is dedicated to Michael Hayes (1950-2017). Ketapanen, Dad.

A watercolor portrait of sisters Leilane Linn and Kelly Hayes with their late father, Michael Hayes, painted by artist Dan Bellini.

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