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Calling Out “Activist Tourism” and the “Progressive” Mainstream

(Image: Activist silhouette via Shutterstock; Edited: JR/TO)

Jared Ball is not just an academic. He is also an activist who realizes that systemic injustice needs to be addressed from the bottom up, without coercion or co-opting. As the author of I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto, coeditor of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and a professor of communication studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, Ball has some fresh and powerful insights into the construction of Black identity, colonialism and the politics of the mainstream press.

In an interview for Truthout, I asked Ball to weigh in on controversial topics surrounding civil disobedience, the mainstreaming of progressive thought, the construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the social construction of Black life in the United States.

Dan Falcone: Back in 1985, Professor Noam Chomsky wrote Turning the Tide, an optimistic title concerning US involvement in Central America. In that book, he warns that civil disobedience “may be only a form of self-indulgent and possibly quite harmful adventurism.” Do you think his words have any special meaning applicable to areas of activism today?

Jared Ball: I am not familiar with that particular statement of Chomsky’s but if I understand him it may indeed be that he is correct. At least one issue here is the definition of “activism.” Like “organizer” and many others, this term can almost have no meaning. If [President] Obama was a “community organizer” what then what was Huey Newton? It seems that this moment lends itself to a kind of self-indulgent adventurism – or what Baltimore-based member of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle Dayvon Love has called something like “activist tourism.”

I often feel the lines between activist, organizer and event planner are more than blurred; they are all but indistinguishable. Is activism getting arrested in pre-arranged spectacles? Is activism sustained organization building? Is one who advocates support for “lesser evils” in corporate/commercial elections an activist? Is one who writes essays or talks radical shit on his radio show an activist? Can an activist be pro-state? Or go to Starbucks?

Bashi Rose and I have been working most of the summer on our video mixtape, George Jackson: Releasing the Dragon, which is a stark reminder of where the standard for activism has been or can be – one that suggests most of us are involved in some form of self-indulgent nonsense. The role social media now seem to play in all this makes it easy for largely disassociated, unaccountable individuals to present themselves as activists while demonstrating nothing of what I was sort of politically raised to think the term meant.

The only way I know to correct for the potential in all of us to engage in ego-tripping radicalism is to belong to organizations that have protocols set for membership, public speaking and behavior. A revolutionary checks and balances, of sorts. And since it is clear we are losing, it should be understood that we have many adjustments to make.

The New York Times blog has been busy covering the views of notable authors, academics and public figures with articles, interviews and book reviews from people like George Yancy, Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Many of the insights and perspectives are quite good and incredibly worthwhile to read and contemplate. Do you worry, however, that certain messages and lessons get lost when progressive ideas and story lines become mainstream liberal ideas? In effect, I’m asking if we need to be skeptical when fashionable good ideas on paper do not match our actions or country’s ability to prioritize a social restructuring.

Well, I’m still the fool who argues against engaging spaces like The New York Times or MSNBC. I am very Carlos Cooks when it comes to this issue. Now, it may be that it is because the Times or MSNBC have never offered me more than at-best mild and easily avoided invitations, and I am an unapologetic hater, but I do think Cooks was right that revolutionary work and ideas should be kept from the mainstream whose presence can only distort, weaken or co-opt those ideas. And to my previous point, what does “progressive” or “liberal” mean anymore?

I would much rather that so-called radicals use and build up their/our own spaces for conversation, exchange, debate etc. Mainstream presses do not exist to allow for sustained focus on ideas that may actually impact a real leftward move. I am unaware of the positive value to “our cause” achieved by engaging those presses. Coates supported Obama as did West – who now also supports [Bernie] Sanders. I am unmoved by any of those “progressive” acts. I would much rather see those ideas debated in radical venues than paraded – adorned with radical-sounding language – in The New York Times. Again, if the Times is an appropriate place for so-called radicals to deal with, then what is Truthout?

I was wondering how you reacted to President Obama’s August 12 letter to the Times regarding the Voting Rights Act. It does not really emphasize that history comes from the bottom up. It sort of talks about the United States’ steadfast desire to always strive at being “more perfect.” The president, to his credit, appropriately stresses the need for continued voting reform and even calls for Congress to restore it. Isn’t it problematic though that again, voting is seen as more significant than popular understanding and institutional change?

Obama and his team have crafted this from the start, posing him as the culmination of a civil rights struggle that centers only the vote as a means to change society. And, of course, by voting, we are to understand that this means supporting the Democratic Party. All forms of protest must be funneled ultimately back to support for the Dems with Obama seen as the epitome of those politics.

Obama’s “reforms” are only that it be easier for people to vote, not that they have more control over the process by which candidates are selected by their parties, which parties might even be allowed to thrive or what those candidates might do once elected. It is more of the same hustle. Were it to imitate and amend the now classic line of Rick James on “Chappelle’s Show” it might read, “The appearance of choice and participation is a helluva drug.”

What are your thoughts on how US society categorizes “Black topics” or tries to categorize Black experience in a way that comforts whites. For example, I recently went to Barnes & Noble in downtown DC and they had a table designated as “African American Books,” with assorted unrelated topics and authors, all Black – and then a table marked “Books to Make You Think,” with predominantly white authors. Am I looking into this too much or is this emblematic of something in your view?

We recently had Ishmael Reed on our radio show to discuss his new book The Complete Muhammad Ali. A lot of what he talks about is the persistent problem of tokenism or the idea that whites can determine for themselves and others which few Black people will be permitted access to relevance. Whites still attempt a monopoly of not only violence but of authority. So real thought is white; all else is hyphenated and ancillary. So I don’t think you are reading too much into anything. Real books are just books in selected topic areas. The rest need special sections, Black, Native, Latino etc. It is one small example of symbol extending the logic of white superiority.

I finally wanted to ask you about the new construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on 14th Street near the Mall in Washington, DC. My own thinking is that the United States should have a Genocide Memorial for Native Americans and a Slavery Memorial for Black People. I realize that the Holocaust Memorial in DC is largely an offshoot of our post-1967 Middle East policy and hence drove the project, but aren’t these Smithsonian exhibitions that showcase Native Americans and Black Americans a little “Disney-esque” and silly?

So first of course, all museums, art and culture are political. They do not exist in a vacuum. I’ve always thought that, in addition to the point you raise about the geopolitics involved in the Holocaust Memorial, that such a museum is acceptable to this state because it is often (not entirely accurately) disassociated from those crimes. “Those Germans did that.” Plus, the US has reconstructed the history of that war positioning themselves as heroes (as opposed to, for instance, the Russians who truly defeated Hitler).

No true memorial to the Afrikan Maafa [the atrocities committed against African people through colonialism, slavery and ongoing racial oppression] could be erected here because its impact would demand immediate – even violent – revolutionary action. This country and most of us here, regardless of background, have not even begun to consider what has really happened here – what continues to happen here – to Afrikan people. Those who genuinely engage that history are often called to activities that render them marginalized, harassed, imprisoned, exiled or assassinated. Such a memorial could only be developed post-revolution because memorials or museums are essential to the process of creating acceptable memories. Memories or recognition of what continues to happen to Afrikan people here would disrupt the state as currently formed and, therefore, are useless.

In fact, in one of my favorite essays on the subject, Deborah Atwater and Sandra Herndon talk about “How Museums Reconstruct and Reconnect Cultural Memory.” At least part of what I take from their work is that museums often serve the function of shaping a national sense of history and can – though not always – suggest to attendees a false sense of progress, national concern or even innocence. “Sorry for all that slavery and genocide dear boy, but here is an architectural tribute to our victory over you and your ancestors.”

Though, not long ago I accepted (in quite a contradiction) an invitation to cohost a panel at the Native American Museum. Feeling that contradiction, I did consult Tara Houska – a strong Indigenous activist – about her thoughts of the museum. She felt that largely the museum did a pretty good job in offering some truths about her peoples’ experiences and that the place is well designed. I deeply respect her and her work, and don’t want to be seen as challenging her, but I find it difficult, for instance, to watch even a documentary like The Canary Effect and then find any room to accept a museum as some kind of advance or in any way acceptable, especially when most Native Americans live on less than $2 a day.

If the goal is to honor the past then make the present right. Collective national reparations carried out institutionally for everyone would make far more sense to me. Fuck a museum. Cancel debt (student, mortgage, credit card, all of it), make all medical needs, housing and education free and correct those processes of education so that these histories are centered. Assure the right to unionize, hire more people and pay them all more so that all working people are able to work less and have more. Redistribute wealth, resources and land.

Then nationalize professional sports and fire the owners so that not only are team names changed, but the profits they generate are used to improve the material conditions of the communities providing most of the players and former mascots. This would be simply a decent start and all of this is easily possible once our standards are appropriately adjusted and we organize around them.

Again, Malcolm X is still right that you cannot plunge a knife nine inches in my back, pull it out half way and claim progress. Look at the conditions of most of us. The knife is still in and is being twisted all the while we are being encouraged to look at the big screen in the room (or the little ones in our hands) and not focus on the pain or who is causing it.

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