The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Anarchy 101

by Tricia Dower


If anarchist Emma Goldman made it into my high school history texts, she probably found it hostile territory. In those days, criticizing capitalist values and fomenting dissent was more dangerous than admitting you thought about sex. Anarchistic principles were linked to communism, and communism was the scariest monster under your bed.

Until last week’s Second Annual Victoria Anarchists Book Fair, I had not revisited the beliefs I formed about anarchism way back when. But there I was, among mostly younger folks, many bearing multiple bodily piercings and t-shirts with defiant or satiric messages. We participated in workshops about conditioned obedience vs. free will, pirate radio, the poetic tactics of shock and surprise, challenging colonial mentalities, non-violence and eco-defense. The printed program cautioned against taking photographs without explicit permission. It's still not safe to be openly anti-authoritarian. Terrorism, not communism, is now hiding under that bed and in the closet, as well.

As only fitting for a book fair, literature was available for sale or barter in one huge room at the event site. Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Howard Zinn were three author names I recognized. Canada’s Arsenal Pulp Press, Black Cat Press, Fun is Free Press, Red Lion Press and Spartacus Books were there. You could find something on almost any topic supporting the event’s stated values of “mutual aid, direct democracy, direct action, anti-authoritarianism, autonomy and solidarity” or opposing “capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, colonialism, statism and all other forms of oppression.” Also available were patches, t-shirts and hats offering messages to suit your own brand of rebellion: Thinking is unpatriotic. Revolt. Disrupt. Cops rule. Property is theft. Remember when racism ended?

My primary motivation for attending was to gather research for a story I’m writing. (Is there ever another reason? I’m pathetic.) But as I took notes, some of the concepts started to make sense. I am loath to even jaywalk yet I began to see the logic in more rebellious positions. Why should media conglomerates decide who gets to speak or perform on radio? There’s plenty of room on the airwaves. Why should large corporations have the right to damage our environment while those who try to stop them are branded criminals?

An intense discussion ensued during the workshop on non-violence. “Violence is not effective in achieving anarchist goals,” the facilitator stated. When he made a grudging exception for self-defense, one woman spoke emotionally about her belief that fighting what the “system” does to us is self-defense. A man who had been imprisoned said violence inflicted by the government against him had been quite effective in limiting his resistance. Others were similarly passionate, and I recalled a younger self who railed against injustice and experienced genuine grief at the suffering of others. Exactly when did those ideals transmogrify into don’t make waves...work within the system…get along...keep your nose clean...mind your own business?

I like to think of myself as a defender of the defenseless, but what do I actually do besides pontificate in privileged comfort? How bad would injustice and oppression have to get for me to risk imprisonment or death by defiant action? Would I have stood before that tank at Tian’anmen Square?

I don’t want to answer those questions.

Photo: A determined looking 21-year-old Emma Goldman in New York, 1890, by Komow and Landa photographers. Here’s a link to the teacher’s guide for a PBS documentary about her. I’m encouraged by its suggestion that students explore Goldman’s statements and writings in relationship to present-day issues, including the war in Iraq and restrictions on civil liberties. Goldman died in Toronto in 1940.

7 Comments:

Blogger MelBell said...

Sounds like a fascinating event, Tricia. Thanks so much for sharing. Ever read Carol Bolt's play, "Red Emma"?

Thu Sep 13, 12:05:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Wow- I picture Emma as Maureen Stapleton in "Reds", pretty chubby and lively. Young Emma looks more school-marmish than anarchist-y!

I was deeply into the anarchists when I was in grade eleven. I couldn't think of who to do my project on and my teacher suggested Prince Peter Kropotkin. I was thrilled by the whole intellectual world and social experiment of those times- Kropotkin, Bakunin, Proudhon, others I can't remember, but Emma, too. She's probably one of the people in history I'd most love to meet and hang out with!

Thu Sep 13, 12:35:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I Haven't read that play, Mel. Thanks for mentioning it. I did see "Reds" years ago, Andrew, and I recall Maureen Stapleton's wonderful performance. I should rent it one day and see how it affects me now. The intellectual I was enthralled with in my younger days was the consummate capitalist Ayn Rand, although I'm not on her wave length these days.

Thu Sep 13, 12:54:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

I'm out of anarchist steam, although I'm not sure I ever had any. You are a research demon, Tricia!

Thu Sep 13, 02:45:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

As always, a thought-provoking post, Tricia. Thanks. I too am not sure I want to think about what I'm willing to stand up against. We live in a pretty cushy society, so I'm thankful I don't have to fight against much. How different we would all be were we to have to fight against bigger machines.

Thu Sep 13, 05:39:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Steve...I think.

Tamara, do you mean actual machines or how different it would be if we weren't the dominant species in terms of impact?

Thu Sep 13, 08:37:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Yes, I was speaking metaphorically. Or trying to :)

Mon Sep 17, 01:09:00 pm GMT-4  

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