Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reflecting on the US Social Forum

I spent a good piece of last week @ the 2010 US Social Forum in downtown Detroit. It was an energetic gathering of social justice advocates from around the country and indeed many parts of the world. Part of the World Social Forum process begun in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001, this was the second national-level social forum to take place in the US. (The previous one was in Atlanta in 2007). It was perplexing then to take note of the virtual news blackout on it in the national media. For example, The New York Times didn’t have a single story on the Forum even though the attendance was far above (more than 10 times) any of that of the recent Tea Party frauds, which have been copiously covered.

There was some local media reporting, mostly negative. The local NBC affiliate WDIV trashed the Forum on its evening newscast (before it even opened) and then posted a survey on its website asking if people thought “the protesters” coming to Detroit was bad publicity for the city. (In political-research parlance that’s called a “push” survey, one whose purpose is to game the response by manipulating the range of answers to a pre-determined outcome.) An exception was the Metro Times, the weekly alternative tabloid that interviewed members of the national organizing committee.

One piece I found especially irritating was Nolan Finley’s editorial screed in The Detroit News of June 20. A craven right-wing tool, Finley was more interested in using the grassroots gathering as part of his ongoing smear campaign against Barack Obama than he was in actually reporting on something as mundane as the facts. (Something journalism once did. But, hey, don’t let tradition stand in the way.) Perhaps most ludicrous was his use of the term Luddite to describe the attendees. The term was meant to indicate that the participants were against the “progress” being brought to the world courtesy of global free-market capitalism. But that framing, like Finley’s tired ideological agenda, was seriously behind the curve.

In fact in terms of media sophistication, the Forum was exceptional. There was a full-service media center that streamed video, published photographs and other art, and posted a virtually continuous set of blogs. The USSF technology group worked with Cobo Hall management to upgrade the wireless capabilities of the facility to boot, free of charge. The USSF website contained a totally searchable database of hundreds of workshops and other events and news, continually updated throughout the week. What was particularly amazing was that it was pretty much all self-organized as was the workshop programming and other activities.

If Finley weren’t so busy trying to paint Obama with the socialist brush (an asinine allegation but that’s another story) and had actually taken the time to find out what was really happening, he would have seen that there was a lot going on that he might agree with. First of all, it wasn’t government largesse being put to work at USSF 2010 but the bootstrapping efforts of individuals and groups who worked mostly on a volunteer basis. The sessions started bright and early in the morning and ran well into the evening, a pace that even a hardnosed sweatshop manager might be challenged to keep up with.

All of the workshops I attended were extremely well managed, started and ended on time, and productive. I made a lot contacts, handed out many business cards, and collected a ton of information. I was most impressed by the younger people who ran many of these sessions. I worked for 25 years in the corporate sector, including in a senior management position. I would have been thrilled to have any one of them on my staff. Indeed, the whole operation was managed in such a way that I’m convinced that the group could efficiently run any corporation in America.

So, Mr. Finley, all I can say is you should try to get out onto the street once in a while instead of waiting in your office by your computer for the latest Republican Party talking points or corporate press release to tell you what to think. You might learn something. Or is it that real democracy from below is just too scary?

BTW, the highlight of the Forum for me was Thursday morning’s conversation between world-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein from Yale and Detroit activist/philosopher Grace Lee Boggs. It was as classic an example of the think global/act local dialectic as you could hope for. My favorite quote from the session: “Democracy is not just a bourgeois concept."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Global & local @ USSF

One of the highlights of the US Social Forum in Detroit was the conversation between world-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein and community activist Grace Lee Boggs. The conversation ranged between global perspective and local action. Two amazing intellectuals in dialog. The auditorium was totally jammed. One idea is community gardens as a way to resist commodization. More anon...