Richmond, a Work in Progress
Charles T. Smith’s letter to the editor [Aug. 4/11] about my article on Richmond, California, in the June 9/16 issue, accuses the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and one of its lead organizers, Mike Parker, of pursuing a “misguided, middle-class liberal agenda” that favors the city’s “gentrifying element” and furthers “class and ethnic divisions” at the expense of its “working class.”
My report, “Will Big Oil Retake Richmond?” is one of many in recent years to note just the opposite. The municipal reform movement, led by Green Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and other RPA activists like Parker, has been very successful in uniting diverse elements of the community in struggles for a higher minimum wage, anti-foreclosure protection for working-class homeowners, increased taxation of Chevron and safer operation of its Richmond refinery.
The RPA is not a sectarian left party of the politically pure sort that the letter writer might prefer. What makes it viable and influential—and its candidates (at least some) electable—is a “big tent” approach to community organizing. That means welcoming, as members and electoral supporters, Richmond residents who are Democrats, Greens, socialists, independents, lower- and higher-income, whites and people of color, trade unionists and unorganized workers.
When you link diverse constituencies like these into an independent grassroots movement that makes corporate domination a central issue, you still have disagreements on other topics, not to mention differences over tactics and strategy. When only a minority of City Council members belong to the RPA, the left has to work with others to win even partial victories, whether on the issue of business taxation or any other.
To claim that the RPA has “made a mockery of the term ‘progressive’” says more about the letter writer’s marginalized perspective than the track record of an effective local political movement.
I greatly appreciate Adam Shatz’s “Writers or Missionaries?” [Aug. 4/11], about the deceptive attractions of the human-rights movement and self-proclaimed democracy initiatives. Most useful is Shatz’s point that the open wound created by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only a skirmish among the many diverse dilemmas presented by the Arab world (and I speak here as an American Jewish Zionist with a deep commitment to ending the occupation and creating a healthy Palestinian state). But the article, while reminding us to understand the realities of current possibilities, should not deter us from remaining stalwart in our commitment to human decency; nor should it prompt us to judge too quickly the results of events like the Arab Spring that may take twenty or thirty years to work through.
Adam Shatz analyzes the nature of pro-Palestine activism—a litmus test for the Western left, but also a struggle that is “romanticized, even sanctified.” His article usefully takes down the “vulgar anti-imperialism” that often whitewashes the crimes of Bashar al-Assad, ISIS or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the name of Third Worldism and in an attempt to push back against media demonization or foreign intervention.
When Edward Said wrote Orientalism, it was to encourage the knowledge of nations and people in the fantasized Orient, requiring us to think beyond alienating concepts that ascribed to people more emotional and romanticized reasons for acting that were distinct from ours. In no way did he mean for us to reject some frameworks of interpretation entirely, but simply to think beyond them to acknowledge the complexity of the reality on the ground. Countering orientalism can easily become a knee-jerk reaction, dismissing the complexities of causes. That people in the Middle East do not act solely from religious or sectarian motives doesn’t mean that they don’t act that way at all.
As Shatz does well to denounce, there is a strand of contrarian anti-orientalism, but its original doctrine has not fully disappeared. In fact, anti-orientalism has tended to point out the historically incomplete approach to writing on the Middle East in the West, to complicate the way we look at it. Given the nature of the sensationalist mainstream media, sometimes pushback against a reductive account can have its uses.
Much writing about Palestine and the Middle East in general is writing against other writing, calling out blatant lies. The scarcity of nuanced articles in a crowded media landscape makes it difficult to draw readers’ attention to the rare ones that do exist. The urgency of issues makes instant replies sometimes necessary: Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss offer rapid correctives to the mainstream media’s coverage—often summed up in a one-line title or tweet, while not looking at the wider historical context. This defensive journalism simply attempts to bring out ignored facts.
Shatz reminds us that when one writes on the Middle East, theories of Third Worldism and Western intervention are not enough: we have to meet people there, discuss with them and understand what drives them individually.
On-the-ground reporting with a focus on facts and on human experience, as well as historical contextualization, have become more and more the norm on Palestine. Mondoweiss specializes in bringing facts and numbers to the forefront. Jadaliyya brings forth stories of resistance and daily experience in the occupied territories. Reporting from locals like Mohammad Omer in The Nation, or reporters like Sharif Abdel Kouddous or Max Blumenthal, and writing by Adam Shatz for years, have made Palestine much more than a theoretical issue.
new york city
Porking the Wuzzle
I was a reluctant convert to the Kosman-Picciotto puzzle team following Frank Lewis’s retirement, but converted I am! Their impishly clever style keeps my aging mind on the alert, and the challenge of solving their puzzles makes every issue an eagerly anticipated arrival in my mailbox.
new york city
FSM 50th Anniversary
Veterans and supporters of the 1964 Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California, are invited to return to campus September 26–October 2 for the fiftieth-anniversary reunion and commemorative activities. If interested, e-mail FSM50th@gmail.com or consult www.fsm-a.org for further information.
Lynne Hollander Savio
the FSM Archives board of directors,
Lee Felsenstein, chair