Important vs. Useful

2018-06-12 08:53:17 +0000

Maybe it’s apparent from previous posts, my Twitter feed, or the things I’ve said in private, but I have many concerns about how the left move–or fails to move–toward its goals. This isn’t a debate about what these goals should be or even what tactics should be used, but the mindset leftists as individuals have and general trends among groups.

Also, if you’ve followed anything I’ve said, it’s clear I exist more on the outside of leftist circles, largely for the reasons discussed here. I say this so that you may choose to disregard my opinions as irrelevant since I’m not deeply embedded with “core” groups or organizers.

Growing up, I was told by my parents, teachers, and other village elders that I was a special snowflake, that I was destined for greatness. When we looked at history or math or science, we were told to revere the great work of the great individuals who advance their field or society. In sports, we were told to aim to be the next legendary. Even among my peers, we had drive to be rockstars with groundbreaking albums.

We were taught to be important in some way or another.

Post-Snowden in 2013 when I finally realized I cared enough about politics to become involved, I came in via Restore the Fourth and Noisebridge in San Francisco. Very quickly, I was told of the great technologists and great orgs and great activists. People always asked if I new some John or Jane Doe, and when, new to the scene, I inevitable responded with a no, the person who asked would tell me that they knew them and that I should too. Sometimes it felt like they were asking just to tell me that they have tenuous knowledge of someone, that by associating with that Great Person, they too were a Great Person.

However, I soon moved to Berlin and found myself in a city that was more hostile to outsiders, in part because of the culture, and in part because I was not “one of them” due to my shitty German. I realized that in this scene I would never be one of The Greats. This hurt at first, since my whole life I felt like I was pushed to make a name for myself, to be famous at whatever it is that I did. I was realizing that I would never be that person, and I felt like a part of me was dying and being excised. I felt like my life was with neither meaning nor purpose.

At the same time, I was unlearning the arrogance most white men acquire growing up where I assumed my opinion was wanted or even useful. I tried to listen more, and to be honest, joining Twitter was extremely useful in helping me do with. I could listen to people very different than myself from different parts of the left.

My opinions aren’t unique. They aren’t ground breaking. They are rarely something someone else hasn’t already said, and I might even say they’re never something someone else hasn’t said, and I doubt I even say it as eloquently.

The best I could do was keep my head down and try to do good work.

Yes, I understand the irony of not feeling the need to share my opinion yet writing it down here. This blog is more a place for those around me to know me than for me to publish biting treatises that advance the discourse or whatever.

After nearly three years of floating on the outskirts of left wing organizing in Berlin, I started to think that maybe it was for the better that I left SF and was forced into working alone. A recurring trend among, or should I say between, different groups is that of ego and importance. It feels that each group in Berlin thinks of itself as the singular vanguard of leftist ideals, narcissistically believing that without their existence, the left would crumble and fascists would run wild in the streets.

One of the behaviors that most exemplifies this is the excessive–and poorly threat modelled–paranoia and security culture. Groups and individuals seem completely reluctant to left in outsiders on the assumption that said outsider is a fed, and I always make me think of this Reggie Watts lyric:

I wear bullet-proof vests for no apparent reason
Other than to create a false sense of importance
Of which I could never retain on my own

I think it’s fair to say that if one is sufficiently important (for some definition of important) in activism, and especially radical left activism, then the government will become interested in them and likely want to disrupt their work through the legal system or some more underhanded Zersetzung.

People seem to think that the converse is true, namely that if someone is under surveillance or “on a list”, then they have done something to deserve that. This makes them important, so by assuming they are under surveillance they have elevated their own importance and social capital.

Aside: I see this with people in InfoSec who love to bring up their indictments as a badge of honor instead of being ashamed that they were sloppy enough to get caught.

The left’s pathological obsession with their own importance gets in the way of doing good work. This means missed opportunities for collaboration, or perhaps it’s just their fear of using technology that gets in the way of effective organizing.

Groups fork over ego which, so far as I’ve been informed, is the reason for three separate street medic groups in this city. Minor idealogical differences become a place where one can grandstand about how pure and noble they are in their beliefs, and by drawing a line in the sand and stating that they could never work with another person or group, other people and groups have established their holy perfection and reached Left Nirvana.

I’m not claiming that no one should be “important”–or at least not entirely–but we should be wary of importance. As anarchists, or whatever-the-fuck I am or you are, accumulations of power should concern us, and importance is certainly power. It makes one influential in a broad sense, but it also allow once to influence and coerce individuals.

A counter point is that important people become icons that can draw followers, and maybe that can help a movement. But still, I would suggest we focus on the Propaganda of the Deed. We should look at movements and their direct actions and extol those as great.

I said before that if one is important, they draw the ire of The State, and in doing so, they make themselves a valuable target. A decentralized movement is more robust against disruption. If your org has one important person, taking them our could crush your movement. For example, look at how the Traditionalist Worker Party completely collapsed when a couple of their key members got in scuffs with each other and were subsequently arrested.

My mantra, and it has been for a years now:

Be useful, not important.

If you have become important, ask yourself how you can change that. See how you can share your knowledge and how you can spread your tasks. Prevent yourself from being a single point of failure for your org. Train others to be as good as you.

If you want to be important, ask yourself why. Is it to stroke your own ego or to make it into the annals of history? Maybe you think you can be an effective leader, and if so, use that skill to quietly inspire others.

I am not important. This is probably a good thing. You probably shouldn’t be either.