Last week was a tough one. A Kentucky racist kills two Black folks in a supermarket, after finding locked doors on the Black church he wanted to shoot up. A Nazi massacres worshipers at a synagogue, screaming “All Jews must die!” The Florida man behind a dozen half-assed mail-bomb assassination attempts on Democrats is captured.
Trump orders troops to the border to “protect us” against hundreds of Central American asylum seekers, now thousands of miles away. The secretary of Homeland Security refuses to rule out the massacre of same refugees if they decide to cross the border and seek asylum, their right under international law. Lots of news of Republicans trying to rig elections in Georgia and other places. Trump still fronting for the Saudis, covering up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump and the GOP try to erase transgender people out of existence. The Republicans say, once again, that their deficits can only be countered by cutting Social Security and Medicare. Amazon is working with ICE to institute facial recognition of immigrants. And soul-suckers like Kellyanne Conway go full gaslight on all of the above.
This negative shit comes at us rapid pace, and most of it is crucially important. However, to survive and move forward, we can not engage with every bit of news. It is too much. When we get sucked into the never-ending emotional/political call and response, our activism turns into reactivism. Something happens, we express sadness. Something happens, we get angry. Something happens, we get frustrated. Something happens, we get cynical and drop out. We play whack-a-mole and wind up in despair, exhausted and empty.
Always allow yourself emotion, but let it cycle through. Shy away from short-term reaction. Always keep in mind that politics is about the long game. Every election is important, every bit of legislation is important, every protest and strike are important, but no one event is all important — this includes horrific events and setbacks.
We are adults. By now we should know that life is not a straight line. None of us went from birth to walking to talking without shitting our pants a thousand times. We don’t go from grade school to high school to college without diversions and interruptions, some of us skip around, others don’t make it. There is still much to learn on and off the uneven path. What we learn on the playground from interacting with our peers often is more impactful than what teachers impart to us in classrooms. All of this is part of the long road.
Who among you is a magician or an astronaut? Larry Rodriguez is the only person I know who comes close to being both and I am not sure he set out to be either. Few of us are who we imagined ourselves as kids. Who do you know who jumped straight from childhood fantasy to adult reality? People I know went from gymnast to pre-med to journalism to researcher to waiter to student to doctor, interrupting the journey with radio and bands. They fought and failed and got stuck and dug out….and every step and misstep they learned something that informed their lives and built toward where they are now. That’s life. That’s politics as well.
This is not a left/right thing. This is a human thing. It is how we build and grow. Those of you who are teachers or parents or have worked in collectives know that to grow we need other people. Even the most talented, brainy, and insightful among us stall when we work alone. We need that interaction — be it nurturing collaboration or creative tension — to build on our ideas and root out the bullshit. We also need the solidarity of working together, people to talk to when we start running out of energy or hope, when we feel defeated.
To build solidarity, we must get from behind the screen and work with people face to face. While we don’t need to do person-to-person work every day, we have to make it part of our regular routine. We have two extreme recent examples of what happens when one’s interactions ping only between work-a-day life and the internet.
The synagogue shooter Robert Bowers and the right wing bomber Cesar Sayoc had no life outside of work. Their internet lives weren’t living, but a process of digital eating and shitting, the basest form of existence simulated in zeros and ones. They consumed (mis)information and defecated hate. Eventually, online anger wasn’t enough, so they turned their isolated rage into terrorism. Perhaps flesh and blood camaraderie would have tempered their actions. Maybe someone would have said to Sayoc, “Uh Cesar, buddy, bad idea. C’mon. Let’s work on our ‘Lock her up’ chants.”
In my book-learning and experience as an activist, When Lefties isolate, they generally don’t engage in external violence. Rather, Lefties drop out. They turn to cynicism, self-medication, and, for some, self-violence. They draw into themselves and start living an atomized existence (which sometimes pushes their politics right). I can’t say whether the self-imposed solitude leads to despair or vica versa. But it does happen.
I understand this: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve worked on creative projects mostly by myself — starting with sitting on the sidewalk with a pen and paper, drawing what I saw. I did my first punk fanzine in my teens. While it was a collaboration between me and my brother Tim, it was uneven. I was the editor and publisher, Tim was my assistant. I monopolized the work and had the final call on everything.
Writing has always been a solitary thing for me, even to the point of me self-publishing most of my stuff. I have a difficult time reaching out, and because of that my brain tells me that it is “easier” to work alone. I’ve done three record labels and, for the most part, they’ve been one-person operations. I try to deal with artists as equals, but when it comes to label stuff, I call the shots. I am Lil Hefe.
What this all means is that while I get to strut and fuss with my successes, the failures are all on me…and if you are me, you find failures even in your successes. I am constantly plagued by doubt. I question the quality of my work. I ask myself, “What’s the point?” My wiring keeps me from giving up. I can get bitter but do not fall into despair. I am not prone to depression. I have no taste for intoxication. I don’t look for comfort or support. I escape into work. I have to be doing something. Luckily for me, something includes reading, which means that I can sit silently for hours engrossed in a book.
This way of living and working is not healthy. The weight of success and failure is too much. Faux-individualism turns to self-flagellation and deep cynicism. I know this, which is why I seek out others and force myself to work in groups.
When I was in my early 20s, I got reacquainted to punk rock. As punk and post-punk turned predictable boring in the late-80s, I escaped in books and became a bad poet. In 1990, a friend dragged me to see Supercharger, the Trashwomen, and Von Zipper, and all my teenage punk excitement came back, especially after seeing San Francisco’s Von Zipper, who were the perfect meld of 60s punk and 80s hardcore energy. “That’s what I want to do,” I thought, so I did it. I got my brother Tim to play drums and my high school bandmate Paul to play bass. Then I tracked down Ed Hunter and asked him to play guitar because, even though we didn’t like each other much, I thought he was about as obnoxious as me so it would be a good fit…and it was.
Los Huevos went through many line-up changes over 8 years, but Ed and I stayed together, through fist fights, death threats (to each other), and a lot of fun. Anyone who was part of the 90s Sacramento punk scene will read the names some of the band’s main members — Soriano, Ed Hunter, Tristan, Patrone, Woodhouse — and think, “How the fuck did that exist?!! And for 8 years!!!” We were a collection of the most volatile, stubborn, wild, and mouthy fuckers in the scene. In spite of or because of the tension created by these personalities, we made a handful of good records, toured the NW and US, and had a fanbase that covered America, Europe, and Japan. We were never about that one Big Payoff. These were all “successes” that happened along the way.
We also had tons of conflict - screaming matches in the tour van, long uncomfortable moments of silence (like a drive from Central Washington to Sacramento where not one word was spoken), fist fights, fights with other bands, blackouts, getting banned from venues, tantrums, equipment trashed in anger, and one gnarly, temporary break up. But looking back, none of that was difficult. The hardest thing, the very hardest thing for me was making that first contact, coming out of my shell, getting up the nerve to ask Ed to be in a band with me. That one moment of reaching out was the one action that had to be done to make our band-gang happen. Facing that fear of rejection, of not fitting in, and of potential failure had to happen or nothing would have happened. I — we — had to come out from behind the “screen” and enter the real world.
This is politics, my friends. This is why it is important to reach out and continue to reach out. It is why we need to work together and accept that working together means conflict. We build the tools to resolve conflict by engaging in conflict. We gain insights and grow. This is what life is about. This is how we create change. There is no short cut. There is no easy answer. It is hard work that cannot be done in isolation. And, if we want a better, livable world, it is work that must be done.