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Emergent Strategy book review

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing WorldsEmergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a powerful book. Though still young, adrienne maree brown has evidently lived many lifetimes at the vanguard of contemporary social movements. And she has earned a lot of wisdom through tough trials, a world of mentors, and deep reflection and practice.

Part call to action, part self-help book, part memoir, part transformative justice toolkit, Emergent Strategy is as intersectional in its genre and dimensions as it is in its politics. And these overlapping qualities embrace the concept of “emergence” at the heart of its narrative.

brown quotes leadership guru Nick Obolensky’s definition, “emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” She combines this concept and the underlying examples of emergence and chaos theory from nature with stories of movement building and her own deep study of Octavia Butler’s science fiction. Butler demonstrates for brown a way to use “visionary fiction” to articulate a vision of the world in which we practice a strategy for survival that is radically inclusive, democratic, and cooperative in lieu of the hierarchical, competitive, and militaristic articulations of post-apocalyptic society.

Sharing the stories of her own work as executive director of Ruckus Society, facilitator and organizational change strategist, doula, and dear friend and sister, brown illustrates the principles and protocols of emergent strategy: fractals (the relationship between small and large), intentional adaption (how we change), interdependence and decentralization (who we are and how we share), nonlinear and iterative (the pace and pathways of change), resilience (how we recover and transform), and creating more possibilities (how we move towards life). Having shared an early version of the book with colleagues, mentors, and friends, brown incorporates their wisdom and stories offered in response, which serves to strengthen and underline her arguments for how the personal and community capacities for emergent strategy can make the difference between growing movements and stifling them.

While there are several “how-to” sections to the book that offer specific “spells” for personal growth or tools for facilitation, Emergent Strategy is much more than a how-to guide and deserves to be read as a series of meditations. Really, this is a book about developing a visionary orientation. How can you change how you see the world and help those around you change how they see it? How can you build the relationships that make it possible for us to live and work together toward a better future? How can you be honest, humble, and willing to keep learning and practicing?

Too often activists and organizers are looking for tactics, when they need to be developing strategy. At the heart of organizing is the use of relationship-building to develop the capacity of individuals and communities to find a common ground strategy and make change when the moment demands it. The messy process that births a social movement is emergent strategy. While there has been a lot of terrific scholarship on social movements like the Civic Rights Movement, it’s still incredibly hard to put a finger on what makes something like that work—there is so much complexity. But our capacity to respond and iterate through that complex landscape and handle the chaos of real humans working at massive scales are skills we can develop intentionally. And perhaps the best starting point will be brown’s book—a must read for students of civic and political engagement.

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Talking to Strangers book review

Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of EducationTalking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education by Danielle S. Allen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Talking to Strangers, political philosopher Danielle Allen diagnoses the persistent problem of interracial distrust in America as a problem of defining and realizing democratic citizenship, i.e. how we are meant to act within our democracy. This is something that our country struggles with from its founding but is brought out most strongly by the Civil Rights Movement. Allen tells the story of how we developed this collective anxiety, diving into the choices of language, philosophy, and values that have led us here.

Starting with the iconic 1957 photograph of Black high school student Elizabeth Eckford being cursed by a white woman in front of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Allen illustrates how the civil rights movement marked a change in the experience of democratic citizenship among Americans. Brown v. Board of Education and later the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act upset a status quo preserving de facto and de jure White dominance. This represented a clear loss of power for Whites, especially in the South. The new law of the land demanded that Whites respect the rights of their fellow Black citizens and curb their deep-set norms of racial inequality. Arguing the Civil Rights Movement was effectively a civil war in the South, Allen suggests that social trust and political friendship at the core of democratic citizenship never recovered. Trust in the federal government declined after it was seen as usurping state and local control by Whites, and trust in fellow citizens declined as the polity was recast as the heterogenous and equal mix it was always meant to be.

In this same historical moment, Allen notes that the Pledge of Allegiance was revisited adding “under God” after “one nation,” emphasizing the idea of oneness. The success of this re-wording effort is more than just about religion, Allen argues, it put forward a strong vision of a homogeneous nation. (In the same way, the original pledge was developed to spur national identity during the rise of immigration in the 1890s.) Allen argues that the American predilection for oneness (cf. E Pluribus Unum) ultimately hurts the cause of democratic citizenship and interracial distrust. Because it matters “how democratic citizens imagine ‘the people’ of which they are a part” (p. 17). Customs and practices follow from this imagined body. Allen prefers “wholeness” as the metaphor we should be striving for because it allows for multiplicity, heterogeneity. The toxic reaction to Eckford’s attempt to attend her desegregated school illustrates a desire to reassert oneness.

Part the practice of citizenship as either oneness or wholeness is sacrifice. Voluntary sacrifice is a virtue of democratic citizenship. We give some of our liberty to the state for protection and accept policies and decisions that serve a majority we may not be a part of. To paint this picture in the age of oneness, Allen dives deeply into Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, reading its political philosophy as a meditation on Black political sacrifice. Eckford’s ordeal in Little Rock represents this same type of sacrifice. In her case, she gives her dignity in that moment to the cause of the larger civil rights movement. There is a long tradition of such sacrifice in the Black community. During Jim Crow, it took the form of subjugation to the domination of Whites. This is an involuntary sacrifice. In this form of citizenship, oneness is preserved through the unequal treatment of the minority. But as Allen argues, sacrifice should be seen as a virtue; it should be respected. A more just and productive form of democratic citizenship respects the sacrifices of others in a polity. Citizens in this case should let sacrifice be a guide to a more mindful politics; they should honor it by finding solutions that listen to the voice of the minority and seek justice for them too.

This is the foundation of trust and what Allen calls political friendship. She suggests that friendship should be our guide to what citizenship ought to look like. A friend would listen to another friend even though they don’t agree with them. A friend would consider their friend’s feelings and well-being when making a decision. When a citizen can generally count on another citizen to look out for their interests, this reciprocity is the foundation for social trust and for democracy. This requires that we change our cultural norms to embrace this ideal of citizenship. It also requires that we transform our institutions to enshrine this respect for the wholeness of our nation. Unfortunately, America has yet to change its norms and transform its institutions in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, we have retreated to ideological, and in many cases geographical, enclaves and maintained or developed postures of lost oneness.

Between these bookends, Allen develops a cogent philosophical critique of the underpinnings of American democracy. She finds a fatal flaw in Hobbes’s formula for government of the people and goes back to the Greeks and to rehabilitate rhetoric from its ambivalent reputation. Across his various writings, Hobbes successfully diagnosed the problems of human nature and politics and even points to how a culture of reciprocity might aid the effort of political agreement (p. 97). However, his prescription for the Leviathan form of government oriented citizens toward the sovereign institution of the state rather than toward one another, which is clearly illustrated in the frontispiece from his publication, wherein citizens’ heads are turned toward the sovereign.

This conception of the people—subjugating their own power to the sovereign in the interest of security and stability—contrasts with a one of equal, empowered citizenship. In American democracy we imagine the will of the people arising from equitably powered citizens themselves rather than the unitary voice provided by monarch or court. Locke and the founding fathers rejected this form of the social compact in which the people are ruled by the sovereign, and instead adopted a system of limited government. However, the perfectibility of Hobbes’s system is still seductive in light of his social analysis that consensus of the multitude’s wills is impossible. For Hobbes, stability and security can be achieved through repression. Alternatively, the promise of American democracy is that popular engagement may secure trust between the multitude and the institutions of government. And most often we see this as being through pure rational discourse among equals.

At this point, Allen goes on to propose a possible antidote to distrust and Hobbes’s view of the people. She defends the art of rhetoric, following Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s model of a perfectible republic, arguing for the fundamental imperfect nature of politics among individual citizens. In this, Allen also critiques of Habermas’s ideal of dispassionate, consensus-based political discourse. While having such a utopian vision is an important goal to strive toward, Allen notes that unanimity in consensus “idealizes the wrong thing and fails to establish evaluative criteria for a crucial democratic practice—the attempt to generate trust out of distrust” (p. 85).

Aristotle offers a favorable comparison between a rhetoric and medicine: “a doctor aims not only to cure as many patients as possible but also to treat properly ‘even those who recovery is impossible.’” “So, too, a rhetorician seeks not perfect consensus but maximal agreement coupled with satisfactory treatment of residual disagreement and those emotions in which it is often registered: anger, disappointment, and resentment” (p. 91). Allen concedes, that the utility of rhetoric can be used for good as well as for ill, just like medicine can be—the Greek debate over sophistry comes from concern over how rhetoric can exploit trust and distrust. However, without rhetoric we lack the foundation for an intersubjective experience of democracy—for reciprocity—whereby we consider the interests of others and appeal to both majority and minority, crafting our arguments through negotiation and affective feedback.

In practice, this is a citizenship of political friendship—an orientation toward each other, viewed as equals, and a willingness to empathize, to persuade, and to be persuaded. This also means an acknowledgement of histories of inequality and disempowerment, and an interest in pursuing a restoration of equity for our fellow citizens that can allow us to enjoy the wholeness of our nation. And Allen implores us to make this part of our everyday civic practice.

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Magic and Loss book review

Magic and Loss: The Internet as ArtMagic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The internet is more than a scientific and technical marvel or a communication channel, it’s also a cultural space, an art scene, and a work of art itself. In her book Magic and Loss, critic and journalist Virginia Heffernan offers an aesthetic history and appraisal of the internet. She looks at the various media of the internet’s multimedia in turn, reflecting on design, text, video, and audio. But she also looks at it as a whole, as a cultural movement with recurring trends and flows.

In the preface, Heffernan lays out her argument and invites you into her own experience. She offers personal view of the internet—specifically, her view over thirty years. Though she doesn’t belabor the personal versus public collapse that occupies many internet social scientists (something she implicitly disregards in the last chapter when she invokes Richard Rorty), Heffernan was personally and publicly transformed by the internet many times in her life. And for her, those moments are entangled with intellectual, affective, spiritual, and ultimately aesthetic currents.

She feels the internet in the same way she has felt literature and television, the high and the low cultural canon, and she also believes in it. Spirituality and aesthetics have always been entwined. And in the internet, Heffernan finds that the sum is greater than the parts. The irony of cultural progress, however, is one of “magic and loss,” which gives the book its name. The enchantment of the internet and its new pleasures necessarily come at the expense of something else—and these losses are tracked down and highlighted in the author’s critique. But what separates Heffernan from the other critics like Nicholas Carr is that she doesn’t dwell on the losses. She argues that they are part of the aesthetic experience.

For people familiar with the history of the internet, especially the web and internet culture through YouTube and Twitter, you might be quick to dismiss her retelling of it. But even an internet culture researcher like myself appreciated the way Heffernan brought out individual videos or forms of experience in new ways. She marshals a deep reservoir of literary allusions throughout the book that are refreshing and thought-provoking. For instance, a meditation on Twitter as poetry would seem obvious from the surface, but her rich dissection of the topic repeatedly surprised me. It helped me to think about art, as well as the internet, differently.

For some readers, the tone might strike them as odd. As it takes the formal literary criticism style of the New York Review of Books and applies it to the most mundane parts of the internet. What makes it work is her earnestness and her journalistic flow. She loves this stuff and is clearly excited to share that passion with her readers and fellow digital culture aficionados.

In the last chapter, she becomes deeply autobiographical. The book shifts from cultural artifacts to herself as evolving subject. You realize by the end that this is not only a work of criticism but also a memoir. This is the key to Heffernan’s argument that the internet is art. Because she illustrates the internet’s affect and effect on her in ways only a deeply powerful aesthetic experience can provide.

You might not agree with all parts of her argument or how she arrives at her conclusions. Even so, this book is a brilliant reflection on how the internet operates as a cultural space and how it has changed the way we experience art more generally. I highly recommend it.

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The Populist Moment book review

The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in AmericaThe Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America by Lawrence Goodwyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I must confess. I skipped to the end. Lawrence Goodwyn’s history of America’s Populist Movement in the late nineteenth century is an important contribution to our knowledge of social movements and American political theory. However, Goodwyn’s storytelling fails to live up to contemporary standards of political history from favorites like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert A. Caro, or the fast-paced accounts of recent history from Michael Lewis. That’s why after two chapters I skipped to the last one.

Goodwyn’s concluding essay “The Irony of Populism” is why this book is so important. This is where he lays out his argument for why the movement ultimately failed and why there hasn’t been a similar substantive and popular democratic reform movement since. So, what is the irony of populism? Well, in Goodwyn’s telling, it boils down to the nature of radical political change. It effectively needs an army—like the red armies of communism—which represent the vanguard of a countervailing power to the entrenched interests of existing governmental systems. These armies and the new political parties behind them necessarily need some sort of centralized committee. Thus it’s hard to construct the alternative power structure through nonhierarchical democratic means.

When you are organizing at the size of America, even in the late 1800s, this is an unwieldy project to manage through flat hierarchies and maintain communication channels across its breadth. It’s also at its core a cultural change project. And those cultures evolve and coalesce at different speeds across the movement. What made the populist movement work in the first place was a tenuous coalition of farmers from many different states who had a common background as “plain people” and a common need for self-determination in the face of economic elites building a rentier system on tenant farmers. Such a tenuous coalition is rife for capture by special interests or charismatic leaders that ultimately undermine the democratic goals of fighting the hierarchical, corporatist system of liberal capitalism and what would become “progressive” government in the early twentieth century.

Ultimately, and ironically, the populists lost because they lost. They poured the structures built for mutual aid, which first gave the plain people a sense of self-respect and dignity in the face of economic and political oppression, into the People’s Party and this third party lost in the election of 1896 even after various contortions and capture by other parties and special interests. This happened because the Republicans backing McKinley had the full weight of corporate America backing them financially but also because (ironically again) the populists didn’t have enough people. Their vision was an alliance between the farmers and the emerging class of laborers in industrial America. But labor wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be ready until the successful sit-ins of the 1930s and by then the defeated farmers were too impoverished economically, politically, and culturally to reignite an effort for radical democratic reform.

The winning movement became progressivism in the United States. Political participation waned as politics became more professionalized and hierarchies became deeper and more unequal in both industry and government. The American dream—a fable of rags to riches—was cemented by government and corporate propaganda and sold to children in public schools. The populists who had seen through this fiction in their own struggles lost the shared platform and ability to influence millions through their homespun civic education which had originally organized these poor farmers into powerful cooperatives.

Goodwyn argues that the socialists who succeeded the populists in making a case for radical democratic reform never understood the importance of developing a positive, genuinely American, cultural vision. And the success of the corporatist state on the back of liberal capitalist policies crowded out ideas of radical democracy and equality from legitimate political debate. And this is where we are at now. Where the latest populist movement again chose to side with a corporatist, charismatic leader. Goodwyn was right that the election of 1896 set the stage for everything to follow in American politics. And that’s why it’s worth reading his analysis of what happened.

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