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Vivian Gornick doesn’t get it either

December 11, 2011
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Vivian Gornick doesn't get it either

I hope the Emma Goldman in Gornick's mind's eye wasn't the original Emma Goldman

One of the really wonderful fortunes of my life is that I was an activist in the 60s and now with the Occupy movement. During the 40-odd years in between I was able to nurture a positive intuition of what was needed into a very rough but pretty robust vision as to the direction we needed to take for making a world that worked relatively well. This included some important practices we needed to adopt to start moving in that direction. I never expected anything like Occupy to burst open, so I couldn't quite trust it at first. Thankfully it has washed away my early skepticism, even though the challenges we face are enormous.

What thrills me-yes, thrills me-is how positive, imaginative, and creative the energy and action has been, and how reality-oriented we seem to be in the overall. (For example, not making specific demands.) It's what I refer to as looking through the front windshield as we go. (Hat-tip, Marshall McLuhan.)

What dismays me-yes, dismays me-is discovering wonderful activists of my age-like Arundhati Roy-revealing how they are stuck in the past, and are missing the real beauty of this amazing Occupy movement as it adventures forward into truly unknown territories. (What Marshall called "looking through the rearview mirror.") Worse, their negativity is blinding them to what is really happening.

So forgive me if this just seems to be a rant.

Vivian Gornick has taken this to a level way beyond Roy's in a recent editorial in the Nation. In that piece she attempts to reflect on how the inspiring character of Emma Goldman relates to Occupy. On the one hand, Rebecca Solnit has noted how Occupy is a fruition of the 60s. [1] On the other, Gornick demonstrates how the most distorting myths of the 60s produces not only a bad reading of the 60s, but a horrible and destructive reading of what is happening now as well.

I began to get exhilarated reading an early part of her editorial:

"Feeling" was a key word for Emma Goldman. She always said that the ideas of anarchism were of secondary use if grasped only with one's reasoning intelligence; it was necessary to "feel them in every fiber like a flame, a consuming fever, an elemental passion." This, in essence, was the core of Goldman's radicalism: a lifelong faith, lodged in the nervous system, that feelings were everything.

This was getting close to what is for me the heart of social change: personal transformation grounded in a life of transformative experiences. But then my excitement flatlined as she went on to say:

Radical politics, in fact, was the history of one's own hurt, thwarted, humiliated feelings at the hands of institutionalized authority.

To a large extent this is an accurate reading of the radical past. However, I would strongly argue that this is why it has been so weak and ineffective contrasted to the triumphs of exploitation. Gornick, however, is hellbent on glorifying passionate negativity: realizes that the '60s counterculture as a whole-and the liberationist movements in particular-resonated strongly with that sentiment...Thinking back, for instance-as this writer surely can-to the raging intemperateness of early radical feminism-"Marriage is an institution of oppression!" "Love is rape!" "Sleeping with the enemy!"-it's easy to see that the first feminists of the '70s and '80s were primitive anarchists. When asked (as they were repeatedly) "What about the children? What about the family?" they snarled (or roared) "Fuck the children! Fuck the family! We're here to declare our grievance, and make others feel it as we do. What comes later is not our concern."

She continues her ode to raw negativity:

In the '60s, when the ordinarily respectable citizen was being confronted (swamped, invaded, deluged) by social rebels-in your face morning, noon and night-the sheer concentration of their outrage took your breath away. There was in it something primeval: some undiluted purity in the naysaying that thrilled even as it dismayed.

Yeah! Right! And the working class moved in droves into the ranks of the Republican party. Hail, hail Richard Nixon and all that has come since.

In the final part she claims to know the spirit of the Occupy movement, and:

The remarkable extremity of thought and feeling now being acted on by those taking part in OWS is reminiscent of those years; similar, now as then, to the kind of free-floating anger that, having been so long suppressed, explodes with elemental force, as though to an awakening of something evil about life itself that is reflected in the inequities of organized society.

As a witness of the 60s and OWS, I say Gornick is giving us distortions of what is happening now that are greater than her distortions of the 60s. Yes, there is anger and rage, but what she hasn't grasped is that this is being constantly transformed into creative action and long-term visioning. Gornick doesn't get this at all. She knows that a driving spirit like this did not emerge on the political and economic fronts in the 60s and 70s, but she doesn't realize in the least that this was a major failure of those times.

Sometimes our friends can be more dangerous than our enemies.


[1] Solnit made this comment on a Salon panel discussion of the Occupy movement. Two older activists-Peter Coyote and Dan Siegel-join her and two younger activists in a discussion that is rich with perspective although it does a drag a bit.

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