The master’s tools might not dismantle the master’s house -- but what does it take to build a better one?
October 4, 2019
Everywhere I go in progressive diversity activism these days, people are talking about revolution. Tear down the patriarchy! Defeat white supremacy!
I think sexism and racism are major problems, that they are embedded into structures and systems, and that those things need to change. But I guess I’m more of a reformer than a revolutionary.
The main reason is that virtually no revolutionary I know takes the building of a better system as seriously as the tearing down of the current one. I’ve heard lots of people quote Audre Lorde’s classic line “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” but too few demonstrate expertise with tools that build a brand-new better house from the ground up.
Let me illustrate with a story.
I was initiated into activism by a Marxist Vietnam vet professor at the University of Illinois. I read my first Noam Chomsky book in his class, went to my first demonstration based on his encouragement.
When I was a sophomore in college, at the height of my romance with tear-down-the-system activism, I asked him about where this protesting and critical theory was all leading. Here’s how he explained the theory of change:
“When we protest and raise our voices in critique, we are pushing against the system. Even now, as we speak, the system is bending. And one day it will bend so far, it will break.”
I think my reaction at the time was, Wow -- that’s rad.
It sounded storybook romantic. We enlightened few could take down a system with our brilliant critique and forceful protest.
Now I’m like, What? That’s total craziness.
Let’s leave aside the question about the efficacy of protests and simply focus on this: What if “the system” did fall? Is there a better system waiting in the sky ready to replace it at the precise right time?
My professor and I were having this conversation over lunch in the cafeteria in Allen Hall. Think about all the complex systems and groupings -- the farms, the factories, the trucks, the roads, the cooks, the cleaners, the health inspectors and everything else -- that went into making that single cafeteria operate.
If all those systems broke tomorrow, who or what might replace them? Does any revolutionary you know have a plan that you trust enough to run the experiment?
In A Thousand Small Sanities, Adam Gopnik calls preferring liberal reform to revolutionary change taking the rhinoceros you know (an ugly but extremely functional animal) over the unicorn that only exists in your imagination.
I thought about this a few weeks back when I was in Mexico City looking at Diego Rivera’s political murals. Perhaps the most famous one, Man -- Controller of the Universe hangs at the Museu del Palacio de Bellas Artes and contains a series of images depicting the corruption and fall of capitalist society leading to the rise of a utopian Communist order.
Except those Communist orders didn’t turn out to be that great after all. Gopnik calls this ghost Marxism: using the language and symbols of that period in the 20th century when revolutionaries created new orders (Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba) while totally ignoring the horror of the actual regimes.
In Gopnik’s language: better the serviceable rhinoceros of liberal reform than the vicious monster of Communist regime.
The great Mexican writer Octavio Paz was for many years like many of his contemporaries, a proud Marxist revolutionary. He traveled to Spain in 1937 to support the republic, spoke the power of “lucid violence” and said things like revolution is “our point of view.”
When Paz was 60 years old, he read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago about what actually happened in Russia after the revolution. It changed him. He wrote, “Now we know that the splendor that seemed to us a new dawn was that of a blood-soaked pyre … our errors in this respect have not been mere errors … they were a sin in the ancient sense of the word … I say this with sadness and humility.”
He might also have read the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who wrote of the Soviet Union, “Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelet, though, makes me vomit.”
Most small-scale revolutions -- the overthrowing of the leadership of a university, say -- don’t lead to horror. But they also don’t typically lead to utopia. Don’t all of us know people who have brilliant 30,000-foot critiques, but when they are given something modest to operate -- a school, a nonprofit organization, an academic department -- they run it into the ground?
It turns out that running something is hard. It takes serious knowledge, skills and discipline to articulate a vision, develop a strategy, home in on a message, build a budget, raise money, hire staff, manage that staff, recruit a board, design programs, find participants, locate space, execute, evaluate to see if things worked the way you hoped … and then do it all over again.
And that’s just a small organization I described, something a gazillion times less complex than a whole society.
If you can’t run a small organization well, what makes you think you are going to be good at running a whole society?
There is a great scene in the film Neruda. A poor woman confronts the poet of love and revolution in a fancy restaurant. Her question: After the revolution, Pablo, will the people live like you, or like me?
Neruda pauses for a second, and then says, with total confidence, “Like me.”
I laughed out loud in the theater.
That word that Octavio Paz used seems so important: humility.
Let’s exercise a bit of that -- be a little gentler, recognize that there are wrongs to be righted and work together to make the imperfect improvements that we can to help people live better lives.
I like Gopnik’s phrase for this a lot: a thousand small sanities. I feel like I will have lived a good life if I contribute one or two to the world.