January 23, 2017

Let Our Fame Be Great


"Isn't it terrible about Chechnya?

Going into this book, I was about as informed as Bridget Jones in the 2001 film, when she's preparing to meet Salman Rushdie and wants to sound smart, so practices asking, "Isn't it terrible about Chechnya?" Chechens came up for me again recently in the fantastic and frightening show Okkupert (Occupied), when the Russians want to extradite and kill a Chechen man for terrorism.

But who does know that much about the Caucasus, that in-between region east of the Black Sea?

Oliver Bullough, for one. He grew up in Wales, chased a passion for Russian into the field of journalism, and pursued his curiousity to write this massive mix of history and personal stories, published in 2010 as Let Our Fame Be Great. Maps, long quotations, statistics, and some notes of travelogue make it into this book. He continues writing for The Guardian, most recently a profile of Putin, and is working on a book called Moneyworld.

The title

Apparently the original people of the Caucasus region were asked by their god if they wanted a life of plenty but in relative obscurity, or a life of absolute struggle in which they would be tested and damaged, but famous for their courage – held up as emblems of heroic humanity. "Let our fame be great," was their defiant answer. Their god failed on his end of the bargain, though, because how many people know the history, and the decimation by the Russians/Soviets, of the Circassians, the Ingush, the Balkars, the Chechens?

Circassians

By one estimate, around the time of the 1864 exodus, 400,000 Circassians were killed, 497,000 deported (a third or more likely died in transit or upon arrival, mostly in what is now Turkey), and only 80,000 allowed to remain.

Americans and Brits visiting Circassian villages were scandalized to learn about the widespread slave trade, of sorts, in which poor villagers would sell their daughters to Ottoman harems and their sons to the Ottoman military, in exchange for goods and weapons that they could use to defend the homeland. The foreigners wanted to be enraged, but couldn't help but notice that the children were largely comfortable with the arrangement and understood the necessity.

Did you know that Circassians make up the Jordanian royal bodyguard?

Hearty, unreliable, and good

A traveler to the Caucasus, Florence Grove, who may well have been the first to climb Europe’s highest mountain – Mount Elbrus – wrote of the Katachai-Balkars:

Strong, healthy men as most of them are, well capable of doing a long day’s work without the slightest distress, it is wonderful how they loiter on a journey, and what frequent and protracted halts they may. Most irritating, too, is their procrastination. It will be seen then that, though the Caucasians are not always to be relied on, and at times try the traveller’s patience largely, the good much predominates in their character, and I think that those who have sojourned among them cannot fail to carry away a most pleasant pastoral remembrance of this simple pastoral race...

The importance of a literary movement

Before the events of the 1990s and 2000s, including the hostage taking and killing in the school in Beslan, a literary and cultural development bubbled up in the city of Grozny.

The shows that Zakayev’s theatre in Grozny put on in the 1980s had titles like Freedom or Death or There is Only One God, and these were to become slogans of the nationalist movement that was to explode at the end of the decade. The generation that the literary movement was to create would stand on the barricades with them.

What constitutes, I wonder, the current literary movement that will create the generation that will stand on the barricades–real or metaphorical–to come? Not for a nationalist movement, but for a movement for a world that we and our descendants can survive or even thrive in? Who is jumping in? Naomi Klein? Micah White? Zadie Smith? 

Although the number of people involved in these groups was small – just a handful really, compared to the mass of the nation – their influence would be disproportionately large.


December 23, 2016

Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World



Instead of buying this newish biography from a little bookstore in Kanab, Utah, I waited to borrow it from the Vancouver Public Library. I skimmed a lot of it, looking for the juicy bits to share. Here are a few:

Food for journeys

The mounted archers on campaigns mainly ate meat jerky, kept under the saddle where it could be massaged and tenderized, and dried cheese, which could be rehydrated in a water flask.

Different sense of time

Genghis Khan made a famous Taoist travel for four years to visit him, because he was interested in immortality.

Origin story

Genghis Khan killed his own brother for grabbing and eating a fish without sharing, which was in keeping with Mongol steppe acceptable recourse.

Vision, illiteracy, and making it up as you go along

Genghis Khan was the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. He and his sons vanquished peoples from the Adriatic to the Pacific. The Mongols eventually reached Austria, Finland, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Vietnam, Burma, Japan and Indonesia. 

[...]

All this was achieved by a man who seemed to come from nowhere; the only similar feat, though in a very different sphere, was that of Jesus of Nazareth. Genghis had no tradition to build on, for although there had been powerful steppe kingdoms and nations before him, he was unaware of them. Alexander the Great had a powerful military machine constructed by his father Philip of Macedonia; Julius Caesar had three hundred years of Roman military superiority to build on; Napoleon could rely both on the ancient French tradition of Condé and Turenne as well as the élan of the French Revoluation and the mass mobilization it unleashed.

In a real sense Genghis had to invent his own tradition and solve a plethora of political and social problems as he went along.  Besides his military and administrative genius and his uncanny ability to read men, Genghis was truly original in that he saw how it was possible for nomads, employing the quantum leap in military technology afforded by his mounted archers, to dominate civilised societies and extract tribute from them. All this he did while being illiterate and having no access through books to the wisdom of the ages.


Hunting

Every winter, a massive hunt or "battue" would be organized, taking up to three months for an ultimate animal massacre.

The battue was a central event in the Mongol calendar and it had a threefold significance, as military training, an important source of food and as a great social event that inculcated the idea of the organic solidarity of the nation.

All soldiers (i.e. every man, except those who wanted to be unpaid labourers for the empire) would start on a line up to 80 miles long. Eventually the ends would form a semicircle and then a circle. Each section of the circle was commanded by a commander of a minqan (unit of 1,000 men).


-->
Finally, the animals were contained within a narrow circumference, within which was a panicky melee of roaring lions, bleating stags, lowing wild oxen and the ululation and cacophony of scores of different breeds.

Genghis Khan and anyone looking to appear brave and capable would enter the melee, on horse or on foot, and begin the killing. They would let enough animals escape to keep up populations.


Trees

Before invading China, Genghis wanted to subdue the “Forest Peoples” in the northwest.

-->
Much of this vast area was an immense forest of birch, poplar, cedar, larch and fir, with an interpenetrating undergrowth of rhododendron, mosses and lichens.

Sounds nice.


Descendants

Geneticists have recently established that about 0.8 per cent of the population of Asia has an identical Y-chromosome, indicating the likelihood of a common ancestor, possibly some time around 1000 AD. This would imply that about 0.5 per cent of the world’s population has this common ancestor and that he has 16-17 million descendants.


Mortality

As he was dying:

-->
To his sons he reiterated the arrangements about the succession and the division of the empire, remarking sadly: 

‘Life is short. I could not conquer all the world. You will have to do it.’

November 12, 2016

Thanks for the tears, Micah White


I started crying last year after the 2015 Canadian federal election. It was not joy at Trudeau being elected, though I do remember tearing up with Karl on the phone as we read about the cabinet appointees, half of who were women. It was mainly the overextension of my nervous system, frazzled by organizing and mobilizing with the tactics I knew to get rid of pro-oil tanker MPs in British Columbia. That new experience destroyed much of the insulation between the world and my interior, ultimately cracking open my heart. I’m glad for it.

Cue Leonard Cohen, who left us yesterday:

There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.

Tracey and I went to a leadership training just a few days after the 2015 election; I burst into tears when I arrived late and the doors were locked, and again inside when the opening speaker described what led her to caring about change.

A year later, I can handle locked doors, but I’m still crying at so many stories: Christina embodying confidence as a new mother; Jordan having no words on Day 1 of a Trump win; Kath likewise not knowing how to face her high school students except with honesty of her own sadness; Jackie toasting Eoin on his birthday to celebrate not only 44 years of marriage, but especially the last four of intense, valiant climate activism that they have undertaken together; Naomi Klein including her son Toma in an article about the death of the Great Barrier Reef, because at the heart of climate change is intergenerational theft, the removal of immense biological heritage that was meant to be passed on.

Crying in these cases has nothing to do with hopelessness; rather, it's about connecting and feeling connected to something bigger than myself.


A moment of necessity


Author and book cover

This morning I cried at the end of Micah White’s book, The End of Protest, when he speaks to “the ones to come” – whether he means future children or emerging activists, I’m not entirely sure:

We are waiting for you.

Just that line, right? We are waiting for you. He continues:

A great mission rests on your shoulders. I know you did not choose to be born under this shadow of a collapsed earth, at a time of unrest. Yet history has selected you all the same. Remember that without our present faith in your future coming, civilization will slide into the madness of scorched earth consumerism. I do not know how long we must wait for you. We shall prepare for you to emerge like lightning.

Shortly before this passage, White envisions the world as it can be. Although it seems anachronistic to articulate it here, with so many people rightly sad and fearful about the cruelty and violence on display in the United States since Tuesday alone, I think it’s valuable:

Hear, people of the world, I bring glad tidings to you. Tomorrow will be better than yesterday. Your family will prosper. Songbirds will serenade. Eagles will soar. Life will flourish. The bumblebees will return and the destitute will be fed. Your neighbour will be your friend. Your communities will be rich with medicine and universities. Work will be plentiful, jobs fruitful and art revered. The tyranny of leaders has ended; the rule of the people has begun. The good times are ahead!

We are the people formerly scattered and divided into distinct creeds, nationalities and classes. We once fought among ourselves. No longer. Now our humanity is evolving. We are finding universal common cause and we are uniting, driven by an unconscious existential necessity, into one social organism with a will to fight for survival. This is our destiny.

I have addressed this epistle to your heroic self. I pray it reaches your heart. Each word is an invitation to accept your fate as a partisan in the people’s revolution, an ancient spiritual insurrection that is necessary for the survival of our families, friends and communities. True democracies–people’s democracies–emerge in moments of crises when everyday people are required by historical necessity to fend for one another, self-govern their communities and look after their collective survival. You are in one of those moments of necessity.

We are in a moment of necessity.

White spends most of the book describing what has not been working to achieve true democracy and what he thinks is mostly likely to work in the years to come. I synthesize them here, not in a perfectly summarizing way, but with attention to what caught my eye. 

What has not been working

 


1. Typical protest


Western democracies will not be swayed by public spectacles and mass media frenzy.

White uses the Occupy movement and the anti-Iraq war marches as prime examples of a failed theory of change. The theory was that if enough people stood up together in visible, mass, urban, non-violent events, that Western nominally democratic governments would change their ways. Enough people showed up; the governments did not change their ways.

Protests have become an accepted, and therefore ignored, by-product of politics-as-usual. Western governments are not susceptible to international pressure to heed the protests of their citizens.

Moreover:

Repressive democracies encourage forms of protest that are least revolutionary and most ineffective. The ideal situation for a false democracy is to have frequent ineffective protests that give the illusion that dissent is tolerated while discouraging any tactics that might actually change the legal regime.


2. Rejecting the spiritual


White invites us to stop being so intolerantly secular. Of the four revolutionary frames he outlines, he suggests that we give less attention to voluntarism (belief that individuals make revolutions) and structuralism (belief that socio-economic forces cause revolutions), and more to subjectivism (inner transformation is necessary) and theurgism (divine intervention plays a role).

3. Leader worship


The story of the twentieth century was the mysterious obsession that developed among the people for a Leader. Across the political spectrum, the people wagered their aspirations on a single all-powerful living Father. We invested Him with omnipotence and prayed for benevolence. The result? Holocausts, famines, death camps on both sides. And the final proof humanity needed that absolute power corrupts (even the good) absolutely.

It's not going to be a single leader that saves us from climate change or global economic crisis. 

I think of the successful language exchange programs that I have started, and the significance of the absence of leaders or even teachers – there are facilitators, but the real work is done by partners that show up for each other. I think of Dogwood getting rid of an executive director position, and the times when I have been frustrated by an absence of top-down directives, but how it has forced me to figure things out or try things.

4. Ignoring the imagination


Activists of the future thus must be mental environmentalists, as concerned with the health of our interior world as we are about the natural world… At the most basic level, this is imperative because when our minds are polluted by commercialism, and our imaginations stunted by toxic advertising, we are unable to conceive of a better way of organizing society.

The future of activism is a struggle to capture the imagination of humanity.

What might work



1. Attention to intergenerational storytelling


Thomas Jefferson is quoted:

“The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it.”

Revolution is akin to building a cathedral in medieval Europe. The architects who designed it and the masons who built it did not live to see their work completed… as you are not able to choose which part of the multi-generational cycle you’re born into, it may be that you will live your entire life in preparation for a revolution that your grandchildren will finish.

Part of our work, then, is to lay down the stories, narratives, myths, and memes that future humans will need to be heartened, emboldened, and capable. 

A couple years ago I watched How To Change the World with Stephanie at Queen Elizabeth Theatre – a documentary on Greenpeace’s origins in Vancouver. Watching the original boat push off the same dock at Granville Island where I chased pigeons as a toddler, sparked a small revelation: I’m part of a lineage. I also felt I'd been denied my heritage – why hadn't I been told these stories before? Mythology is essential.

From the perspective of a long-term vision, today’s protests aren’t failing: our protests are setting in motion a victorious process that will take generations to unfold. Activists must be patient and willing to wait hundreds of years, just as the early Christians endured persecution until a rare cosmological occurrence triggered the conversion of Constantine. Contemporary activists tend to overestimate the effect of a protest in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. Activists of the future will privilege tactics designed to impact the world a hundred years after their death.

I don’t think that the rally this Saturday November 19th against Kinder Morgan will change Justin Trudeau’s or the cabinet’s decision, but that does not mean it is unstrategic; for many people, the rally will be a crucial source of morale and solidarity, or even the start of a different life path. The stories that people hear and the relationships that people make on the 19th will be like rocks dropped in a lake; the ripples extend outward.


2. Rural, cross-sectarian, electoral wins


Writing from the small town of Nehalem, Oregon, White is pretty specific about where he sees the potential leading edge of successful revolution: Cascadia.

The rural uprising begins when revolutionary activists distribute ourselves into pre-existing micro-cities in Cascadia, ensuring that in each place there are enough of us to sway every local election. And we embrace the hard work of self-governance. We aspire to master city administration.

The rural populist strategy that I am proposing will require laying aside sectarian divisions between left and right. These distinctions are no longer relevant in our struggle as we seek unification and cooperation. The left and right have a lot to learn from each other.

A unifying platform that works across the political spectrum, White argues, is based on the motto of the Grange, a rural secret society that is still active in Nehalem:

“In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty; In All Things, Charity.” 

(White suggests "mutual aid" in place of "charity".)


3. A World Party led by women


I can feel that women are on the brink of rising up against a male culture that has been fatally poisoned by pornography and video games… I wager that the greatest social movement of the future will be the fight for a global matriarchy–a post-feminist social movement to transfer sovereignty to a supranational government led by women.

In concrete terms, carrying out the mundialization strategy would involve building a women’s World Party that wins the elections of the world in chronological order.

I love the specifics of this last part, and I see it already starting with people I know traveling to different cities, provinces, and countries before elections to help win seats for smart, kind, capable people:


For example, the first election of 2015 was in Uzbekistan. Four days later, presidential elections were held in Sri Lanka and three days after that Croatia’s citizens went to vote. Nine days later Zambia chose its presidents. In this way, the elections of the world can be organized on a movement timeline. If the World Party were to win in Uzbekistan, the attention of the world would turn to Sri Lanka, sending resources and support, giving local activists a massive boost in time for a landslide. Attention would then shift to Croatia and so on. Each country’s World Party would aspire to gain a higher percentage of the vote in the preceding election. The electoral social movement would hop around the world from victory to victory.


4. Faith


Backed by the people’s will, all things are possible. Look historically and see that amazing transformations have happened in a generation or two. During the World Wars of the twentieth century, tremendous social changes (food rationing, conscription, new wartime social rituals) happened in the span of months. Occupy was launched in weeks. The next movement may arise in days. Mobilizations on a scale rarely seen in human history can strike at any moment, if the people are awake.

...an open embrace of people power is secretly what we desire, if not need.

Kai wrote, "This might make of my colleagues nervous, but I trust the citizens of B.C. I trust our people. I love every corner of this province." With the results of Brexit and with the results of the U.S. election, many are afraid of what can happen when we invite the population to vote. But I am with Kai on this. If we do capture imagination of how society can be, then I trust the people around me.