Yesterday some friends took me to the annual conference co-sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change and by the International Socialist Organization. The conference is called, quite simply, Socialism 2012.
Now. I am not in any way, shape, or form a socialist. However, I’ve always been curious why that particular political affiliation carries such a stigma, especially in the United States. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who sympathize with Marx or with other socialist thinkers and keep those sympathies meticulously secret.
In my own life, socialism has been presented to me as Very Very Bad and Very Stupid. I have parents from the former Soviet Union, after all. Whatever value socialism may or may not hold, I will never, ever begrudge them for hating it, because it (however inadvertently) turned so many people’s lives into a living hell all over the world.
(Yes, yes, I know that wasn’t “real” socialism. But it’s pretty hard for people to stay objective when their friends and family are dying, so I’m not going to be the asshole who minimizes their suffering by telling them that.)
That said, I generally prefer to learn and experience things for myself. I don’t buy for a second the argument that one should stay away from these things for fear of being “brainwashed,” which I’ve heard many times before. In fact, I’m actually pretty insulted when people tell me that. I think everyone should know by now that if there’s only one thing I’m good at, it’s thinking for myself.
So, let it be known that I did not come back from this conference a changed woman. I’m not any more a socialist today than I was two days ago.
What I do have is a new appreciation for socialists and for the spaces they create. It must be nice to belong to a collective like socialism. Everyone there seemed to know each other, and I saw people from all walks of life–young people like me, middle-aged respectable-looking people, aging college professors. There were people of all shapes and colors. Tons of queer people. People with various interesting hairstyles. Aside from the issue of their politics, I felt somewhat at home.
I went to a talk on Marxism and queer theory, which, amazingly, I understood most of. While this is nothing all that different from something I might come across in a class at school, there is nonetheless something special about the fact that hundreds of people got together to talk about this on a Friday night. Not for a grade. Not for their resume. Certainly not for social approval, since going to a conference on socialism is pretty far down on the list of things people do to fit in.
The most amazing part of it, to me, was that I had entered the sort of space that I consider sacred–a space in which “serious” discussion is the norm, not the exception. A space in which it’s normal, upon first meeting someone new, to ask them about their views on a particular political issue. A space in which nobody thinks you’re weird if you’re checking out the bookstore and freaking out with your friends about all the great books you’re finding. A space in which politics is something to get emotional about, something to loudly, clearly express your emotions about, whether by cheering, clapping, hissing, booing, shaking your head, snapping your fingers, or putting your fist up in the air.
And I, who have been told ever since childhood to “calm down” and “stop getting so emotional about it” and “go get a life,” felt comfortable among these people with whom I otherwise disagree quite strongly.
That disagreement, which lurked beneath my consciousness for most of the time I was there, surfaced strongly during a break between talks, when people were chanting. Most of the chants were exactly of the sort that you’d expect–one amusing one went like this: “One, two, three! Fuck the bourgeoisie! Four, five, six! Fuck the bourgeoisie!” And so on.
But then there was a chant that repeated the word “Intifada” over and over. I don’t remember exactly how it went because I tend to block these things from memory somewhat. I’m Israeli by birth, and Israel is something I almost never write about for various personal reasons. My stance on the issue is even-keeled and probably in line with that of most American liberals and progressives and so on. That said, I will tell you that it is incredibly alienating and deeply painful to hear a room full of people chanting something that, to you, could mean the deaths of friends and family. I know that’s not what it means to Palestinians. And it’s especially not what it means to white American socialists. But that is what Intifada means to me.
I know where they’re coming from. I’m quite well-versed in the “terrorist as freedom fighter” line of thought. They’re entitled to their opinion as I am to mine. But shouting something like this seems gauche and callous, like chanting “USA! USA!” when America invades another country, or like gathering to watch a public execution as entertainment. I’m choosing to believe, though, that these people are well-intentioned and believe that what they are chanting about is some convoluted form of peace.
This is not a political statement. This is not a statement about equivalency, who’s right and who’s wrong, whose land it is, who committed more war crimes and human rights violations, etc. This is a statement that is entirely moral: I believe it’s wrong to glorify killing innocent people, no matter to what end.
And, just for the record, I’ve been in countless pro-Israel spaces before, including an AIPAC conference, and I’ve never heard an equivalent sort of chant there. I’m sure it happens, but I’ve never seen it. And when it does happen, whatever the setting, I would find it as disgusting and wrong as I found this Intifada chant.
In any case, I was determined not to let that spoil the whole evening. It was a reminder, though, that it’s not only my lack of socialist politics that ultimately makes me unwelcome there. It’s something as incidental as the circumstances of my birth.
It would be nice if, someday, I find a group with this sort of energy and passion that I do actually agree with. But I’ve long given up seeking a spiritual, political, or cultural home anywhere.
For now, it’s enough to occasionally go to things like this–and things like Pride and Occupy Chicago and Friday night Shabbat dinners–and witness other people experiencing that feeling that I want so badly for myself.