Monthly Archives: October 2007

The Copernican Revolution

It’s been just a little over a month since I started this blog. It’s been great so far. I’ve dedicated myself to writing something new every Wednesday, and just the exercise of stars_small.jpgsitting in an armchair at the Green Bean and writing all day has been really invigorating. I’m enjoying this conversation with myself, and I appreciate everyone who listens in.

Another aspect of writing a blog has been fascinating. I’ve been a freelance writer for over twenty-five years, have written and published what must by now be millions of words, but I’ve never before been able to also listen in on other people’s hot-off-the-press and sometimes hot-under-the-collar reactions to what I have to say (granted, most of my career has been writing for decorating and travel magazines, so up until now there probably hasn’t been much to react to.) Most of the comments to what I’ve written in the last month have been reasoned and thoughtful, but, predictably, a few have been kind of mean. One has been remarkably mean. It was posted a few weeks ago on Stephen Dubner’s blog by someone who calls himself (or, I suppose, herself) “Silas”. I’ll quote it here in its entirety:

Liz Seymour/Anarchist Mom has never been middle class a day in her life. She comes from privilege and she will pass a substantial amount of monetary privilege on to her children. She opened her home to an “anarchist” community because she feared growing old alone. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just to say that I don’t believe her attempts at a home-based community are politically motivated. If she ever finishes her book her hypothetical Oprah appearance will mimic that of James Frey.

This must have written by someone I know, although it could simply be by someone who did a little Google snooping. These days that’s not hard to do. I was surprised to discover when I read the comment that I was puzzled by the little attack but not particularly bothered by it. In a way it’s helpful to have a couple of things brought out into the open. Basically Silas is accurate about the privilege part and wildly inaccurate about the not wanting to grow old alone part. The Oprah part is, of course, just weird.

I did grow up with a tremendous amount of privilege, a lot more than I recognized at the time. “Middle class” is a pretty subjective term; I suppose I could be said to have been born into the upper class, or in the more accurate term, the “owning class.” My father was the dean of Dartmouth College; I grew up in a beautiful little Ivy League town in New Hampshire with a lot of the securities and comforts that people have come to associate with the 1950s. My father’s father was a successful lawyer who argued cases in front of the Supreme Court and spent a year as president of the American Bar Association. I will indeed inherit some money eventually, and I certainly hope to pass it along to my children. Most of the money came from that grandfather. It was his money that helped me to get a very good education at Smith College, a women’s college of sloping lawns and beautiful gardens, of long meandering discussions and rowboats and a capella singing groups, and a sense that every student has a unique and shining destiny.

I also grew up happy, which is a privilege that transcends money. If money actually did buy happiness the celebrity gossip magazines would be out of luck, but unfortunately the kind of happiness that money buys often comes gift wrapped in fear1cutie-queen.jpg and guilt. The happiness I grew up with (and I do recognize that even if it wasn’t bought with money, it was eased by money) sticks with a person for life. My fundamental privilege is that I expect to be happy. Not everyone comes into adulthood with that expectation.

But like everything else, privilege comes with some baggage. Isabell identified it in the long essay she wrote for my family after she was arrested in Philadelphia. “I think a lot about my privilege,” she wrote. “I am extremely lucky for the opportunities I have, and the love and material assistance I have been given. It is these things that have partially made it possible for me to think through the ideas I outline here, and to take the actions I take in my daily life. This privilege means that I have choices that others do not have. At the same time as I have more choices, I have less vision. I cannot see through DuBois’ ‘veil.’ I am only one person, and everything that I think and do is informed by being an educated, white, middle-class woman. So I try to listen to other people’s experiences. To realize that I see the world only from one vantage point. This means that if a person of color tells me that he or she feels uncomfortable in a situation, I listen. I think, ‘Maybe they see something that I don’t see. Maybe they experience the world in a different way than I do. Maybe I feel comfortable in certain places that others do not because of who I am. Maybe I make assumptions.’”

W.E.B. DuBois said that it is the people without privilege who can see things most clearly. Because the culture of the privileged dominates, the people under its shadow can see both that culture and see their own, but for those of us skimming along the top, the only world we see looks an awful lot like us–and we think it’s the whole world . That’s what DuBois called “the veil.”

I lived behind that veil for five decades. Occasionally the veil would tear a little and I could see something that didn’t quite fit the world as I knew it, or the veil would ripple and for a brief time I could see that the veil was there, but for the most part I lived, as Isabell said, with more choices and less vision. And then for whatever reason it wasn’t enough. As my own experiences brought me closer to people who hadn’t gone to expensive colleges, who hadn’t been cushioned in financial security, who hadn’t grown up inside a protective fence of benign adults, my vision began to clear. I fought it at first; there were things I didn’t want to see. But, bidden or not, the spectrum of visible light expanded and a new landscape, both internal and external,1beds.jpg presented itself to me. Then, even stranger, as my vision cleared some corresponding thing deep inside me began to uncramp and stretch. It was almost as though I underwent my own little private Copernican revolution: when I and the people just like me stopped being the center of the universe, the universe got bigger.

So what do you do when the universe expands? You change. I changed. I changed, and this collective house is one of the results. I didn’t want to waste any more energy trying to believe that the sun and the planets revolved around me, which is just another way of saying I no longer wanted the kind of power that comes with being at the top of the heap. Ultimately that’s a very lonely kind of power. I no longer wanted power over. I wanted power with. So I suppose in a way Silas is correct—I turned my house into a collective house because I didn’t want to grow old alone in the cushy uneasy aloneness that leads to gated communities and averted eyes and “they hate us for our freedoms.”

Sunday nights we take turns fixing dinner for each other, and often that’s the night we invite guests over, but on a particular Sunday night a couple of weeks ago it happened that it was just the house members eating. We kept sitting after we had finished eating, just sitting around the living room talking. After a while Mark picked up his homemade bass, the body constructed of two trash can lids, and started to play. Jodi went into her room and brought out her banjo and joined in. Crystal went upstairs and got her accordion, Will brought out an African drum, Skye got her violin. I was the only without an instrument. I’m not a musician, but I went into the kitchen and found a pair of tongs, and snapped a whispery accompaniment to the others.

As we played the odd assortment of instruments began to mesh, and then Crystal began to sing—she’s got a deep rich voice like an old fashioned lounge singer—no words, just tone. Then Skye and I joined in, singing long low notes that I could feel vibrating in my chest. I don’t know how long it went on, twenty minutes, forty minutes, an hour. And then it was over, and everyone put their instruments away, and I put the tongs back in the pitcher on the stove, and we all went on to whatever else we had to do.

Oh Silas, it was glorious. I wish you could have been there.

The poster above is from CrimethInc. The image is by Nikki McClure, cut from a single piece of paper with an X-acto knife!


Filed under anarchism, collective living


In addition to being an amazing drummer Will plays the kora, a 21-stringed African harp. I love it when he practices in his room.


Filed under movie of the week

Dear College Republicans,

In Brief: Cakalak Thunder, Greensboro’s internationally renowned radical marching band welcomes you to the world of activism. In that spirit we officially l_55da670a75a66956e9397e27e93f840e.jpgchallenge the College Republican Booster Band (you have one, right?!) to a friendly beat battle.

Where: In front of Jackson Library.

When: Friday, March 30th, 2007 ….High Noon!

Greetings College Republicans and welcome to the edgy and exciting world of grassroots activism! We can see that you are really “getting your movement on” this week! For years we activists have enjoyed the “DIY” (do it yourself) community organizing style that you find yourselves drawn to. We commend you on your deft use of “people’s movement” mainstays like “handing out fliers”, “serving free food,” “showing informative movies” and “hosting knowledgeable speakers.” We share your belief in fighting for causes. And we see that you’ve got extra heart to come out so boldly in favor of issues that the largest and most powerful government in the world already has your back on!

With your fingers now on the pulse of the street we’re sure you haven’t overlooked the “little people’s” basic need for a band, a marching band! Marching bands have always supported messages like yours. It has been noted by historians that Mussolini loved a parade! And really, what’s better than that ole BOOM BAP to give thump, groove and general danceability to an essentially boring political message? We can tell from your solid grip on the rudiments of activism that your marching band must also be top notch. By the end of your morals week you will certainly be ready to enter the next dragon of street-level activism. Yes! You will be ready to battle Cakalak Thunder and receive a fresh sonic whipping by the east coast’s premiere radical marching band. Because we welcome you warmly as you join the activist community, but we happen to disagree with your agenda point for point.

See you Friday!

Beats and Peaces.

Cakalak Thunder
“Drumming Fear into the Hearts of Tyrants since 2001”

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Filed under anarchism, protests

Chaos Theory

A couple of years ago I taped some little notices up by our front and back doors. They are headed “IN CASE OF POLICE RAID” and they give instructions on what to do if the police show up and want to come inside. It felt a little strange at first, but in these post-Patriot Act, martial-law-on-demand times they seem more and more like simple household precautions, kind of like the fire extinguisher in the pantry or the smoke alarm in the upstairs hall. I put the notices up after a friend visiting from Indianapolis described the August night when the police, fire marshals, and ATF agents came into the radical bookstore/collective house where she was living and tore the place up. A national governors’ meeting was about to be held in Indianapolis; a spokesperson for the Indianapolis police department said after the raid—whichwill.jpg found no weapons or anything else illegal in the house–“Seattle was nearly burned to the ground and Montreal suffered millions of dollars in property damage when the WTO met there. This is the same type of anarchist group, and that simply was not going to happen here.”

Last weekend I went to a conference on the theories of Carl Jung. I didn’t know much about Jung when I began, and I’m still not anywhere close to an expert, but at least I can now say the words “animus” and “archetype” without worrying that someone will challenge me to explain what I’m talking about. The centerpiece of the conference was a paper presented by a Jungian analyst using examples drawn from the dreams of one of her clients. Her client, she explained, was about to retire after a successful professional career and had found himself confronting a long featureless emotional landscape. He experienced neither sorrow nor joy, neither terror nor ecstasy, and he wanted help.

The first dream the analyst recounted to us went like this: the dreamer approaches his home and discovers a rowdy group of strangers eddie1.jpgdancing and laughing on the sidewalk. He tells them to leave immediately but they refuse; one of them asks him for money. He gets angry and goes inside to call the police.

The analyst stepped away from the podium and looked out at all of us sitting with our notebooks on our knees. “Who are these strangers?” she asked.

“His emotions!” several people shouted at once.

She nodded and went on. In the second dream the strangers have made their way into the house and once again are dancing and laughing. The dreamer orders them out and after an argument they leave. They take their furniture and pictures with them and the dreamer cleans up the house until everything looks the way it was. “He and I joke about it now,” the analyst told us, “but when he brought me this dream early in treatment he thought I would be proud of the progress he had made.” Everyone in the room laughed.

The rowdy strangers kept returning, becoming more aggressive and more dangerous as time went on. And in waking life the man was getting worse. “He developed obsessive-compulsive behaviors,” the analyst told us. “He became anxious, he had trouble sleeping, he was afraid to get on an airplane. I began to question myself, to wonder whether I was the right therapist for him. I began to be afraid I was doing more harm than good.”

She didn’t, however, have any doubts about the outlaws who populated the dreamer’s dreams. They could be found in one of Jung’s mostdrums1.jpg powerful archetypes: the Stranger or the Trickster, the outsider who streaks like a meteor across our individual and collective unconscious defying everything from the laws of decorum to the laws of gravity. As I sat there watching the analyst switch out the transparencies on the overhead projector I had one of those insights that come with such force that they bring tears.

I thought back in my own life to a time six or seven years ago when my conventional middle-class existence was coming to an end, though I didn’t know it yet. I thoughtwalk.jpg about the unlikely friendships I developed then with punk kids less than half my age, about the travelers and train hoppers and anarchists who had begun to fill my world. It puzzled me and worried me at the time, but I couldn’t contain my fascination with their lives; it seemed that they didn’t so much rebel as ignore convention altogether. When Isabell and Margaret moved beyond the margins of the known universe themselves—when they started hopping freight trains and sleeping in abandoned houses and eating out of dumpsters–my deep concern was mixed up with something I can only call envy.

And now listening to the analyst at the conference it suddenly made sense to me. If Jung is right, I was very much like the man whose dreams we were studying. Like him my range of emotions had narrowed, but instead ofrepubs.jpg summoning the Tricksters in my dreams, I invited them into my real, actual, everyday waking life. And as I watched them walk through the invisible boundaries that I had thought were made of triple-tempered steel—walk through them as though they weren’t there—the margins of my own life stretched. I began to feel my own joys and my own sorrows, and after awhile I began to feel a part of the sorrows and the unquenchable joys of the whole world.

A couple of years ago I went to another conference, this one on anti-war activism. The speaker stood in front of an easel with one of those big flip pads. “Here’s how it works,” she said, and she wrote THE STATUS QUO in the lower corner of the paper. “The status quo is established and remains in place even if it’s not working very well; as time goes on people become invested in it and resist any attempts to change it. repub.jpgUntil…” and she wrote NEW INFORMATION at the top of the paper with an arrow swooping down. “Until new information comes in that makes the status quo impossible to maintain.” She scribbled a confusion of spirals. “Chaos ensues and stays until a new status quo is established. This is true in our lives, in our organizations, and in the world, and we’re scared of it because it’s uncomfortable and unpredictable.” She turned back to the paper and tapped on the scribbles. “But this—this—is where the action is. This is the important place. Always look for the chaos, because that means something is happening.”

I spent the whole of my Jung weekend thinking about the Trickster archetype, and I’ve been thinking about it ever. I see now that the chaos-makers appeared in my life when I needed them, sometimes in unexpected and even unappealing disguises. Sometimes they were the people I loved most in the erica.jpgworld. Sometimes they were strangers. Sometimes the chaos really hurt. Sometimes it was terrifying. Sometimes itarm.jpg introduced me to parts of myself I didn’t know, or parts that had been buried so deep I forgot they were there. And something changed.

The world is stuck right now. A lot of people are unhappy, and a lot of the unhappiest people are the very ones who look to their neighbors to be successful, prosperous and secure. New information is washing in on all of us like a monsoon; the psychic effort to maintain the status quo has become almost unbearable. At the stress points where new information and the status quo meet, chaos begins. Chaos and police raids. But despite the chaos, despite the police raids, despite the Patriot Act, the Tricksters aren’t giving up. The outsiders and the strangers, the protesters, the gadflies and the pranksters are tremendously important. That’s where the action is.

The analyst gave us one last dream, a more recent dream than the others. A stranger rides into town on a motorcycle and all the townspeople sam.jpgare afraid. They try to chase the motorcyclist away, but then someone runs up to say that a boy is hurt and needs his help. The stranger hurries over on his motorcycle—There’s been a guts spill someone says. The stranger picks up the boy and carries him to the hospital, where he is gently put back together again. “Notice that in this dream the dreamer is an observer, not a participant,” the analyst explained. “That doesn’t mean he’s absent, though. Quite the opposite, it means that he is present. This time he’s the stranger and he’s the little boy–the little boy who spilled his guts and needs to be put back together again. Something is beginning to change.”

I put up my hand. “Can you tell us how he’s doing now?”

The analyst smiled. “He’s a courageous man,” she said. “He’s stuck with it. The phobias and the obsessions have gone away again and he’s living a richer life than he was before. It’s still not always easy, but he’s determined to see it through.”




Filed under anarchism, the big picture

Becoming The Trickster

Seven years ago my older daughter Isabell was arrested, along with 420 other people, protesting at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. She didn’t even get a chance to protest: she was standing on a teaparty.jpgsidewalk with a walkie-talkie in her hand before the protests began. In the end virtually everyone arrested was acquitted, but the police’s aim to silence, or at least inhibit, dissent had been accomplished. At least in the short term.

In the longer term, however it failed. Isabell is still out there making her voice heard, as are many of the other people who were arrested in Philadelphia. And now so am I. My world view was shaken to its roots when we got the call that Isabell was in jail. The political system, the justice system, the social system that I had always thought of as flawed but essentially fair had showed another and much more troubling side. A lot of questions began for me that day.

Isabell spent the next couple of months off and on writing an explanation of her beliefs to distribute to her family and friends to help answer the questions that I and others were asking her. She has allowed me to reprint her explanation of direct action here.

I have come to believe whole-heartedly in direct action myself. And the more deeply I understand it, the more broadly I define it. Direct action is not only about participating in a protest, or even only about confrontation. It simply means acting under your own agency and by the dictates of your own conscience, and not waiting for permission or direction or for “them” to take care of things. Everyday direct actions can be as simple as picking up trash on your walk, or stopping to speak to someone who looks disoriented, or talking honestly with a friend about something that’s bothering you. We all do it all the time. And every time we do we shake things up a little, we create a little ripple of surprise in the fabric of everyday life, even if its just in our own private sense of what’s possible. We make a space for chaos. We become the Trickster.

People considered radical in their own time brought us the eight our day and the weekend, the women’s vote, the abolition of slavery, the end of segregation, the beginning of this country, the end of child labor at US companies in this country, free breakfast programs in schools, and the list goes on.

I want to do more than just talk and write about what I believe. I want to act. I believe in direct action to bring about change. Every single one of the movements that brought about the changes mentioned above used direct action. Direct action means “speaking truth to power”, as the Quakers say. It means directly confronting problems to solve them, rather than appealing to the aid of others. It is a tactic to use when moral appeals, reason, discussion, and mediation have not worked. When two groups’ interests are opposed, and one group has much less power than the other, oftentimes the only way to get the powerful group to change is by using direct action. Strikes, riots, civil disobedience, flooding an office with phone calls, property destruction and taking a protest to the street are all examples. The Boston Tea Party is a classic case. There were two groups: the colonists and the British monarchy. Their interests were opposed: the colonists wanted permanent settlements, the monarchy wanted a colony to make money. The colonists had much less power: they were taxed without representation, they could not elect their own governing bodies, they had very little control over their own affairs. The colonists wrote letters explaining what they wanted, what they felt was unfair. No moral or logical appeal changed the king’s actions. The colonists got fed up and a few radicals held the Boston Tea Party. They believed so strongly in their ideals, and saw that the king would not change through talk, so they needed action. This famous event was the spark for an already growing social movement for independence and the founding of this country.

Of course life is never simple, it was these colonists who imported slaves and murdered thousands of indigenous people. Slaves, former slaves and their ancestors as well as indigenous people have used direct action to combat their own oppression. As the IWW motto said “Direct Action Gets the Goods”.

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20 Questions

My housemates Jodi and Mark are members of Invisible. Mark is co-creator of the Selectric Piano (and the dancer in this video); Jodi is at the keyboards. This description is from Invisible’s MySpace page:

“Here’s a Video of the song 20 Questions, performed earlier this year at 1001 in Greensboro. It features Jodi on the Selectric Piano, an instrument built by Fred Snider and Mark Dixon that interfaces a typewriter with a piano. notes and letters. The video was shot by Jon McLean and edited down by Bart Trotman.”

Tech info on the Selectric Piano:

“To begin with, the IBM Selectric typewriter is a marvel of engineering! The typewriter is 100 percent mechanical and employs a 6 digit binary coding system to direct its type ball to the proper latitude and longitude for each character that the typist types. To access that six digit code we placed tiny light sensing switches at each of six bars that transfer the keystroke to the type ball. The shift command adds another switch and thus a seventh digit to the code. That code is “cleaned up” electronically by circuits we mounted on the typewriter itself. The code is then sent via a printer cable to the piano playing assembly. There we use chips called ‘demultiplexers’ to translate the seven-digit binary code into a base-ten number between 1 and 88. Amazingly, the IBM Selectric types exactly 88 characters — that’s the number of notes a piano plays! That demultiplexed signal is amplified to 33 volts on its way to to contract the appropriate solenoid. Each key has its own dedicated solenoid and ‘finger’ assembly made from our plastic cutting board, some hard maple and brass rods for pivots. The piano-playing assembly sits in front of the piano on a bench. It is not permanently attached to the piano. Jodi applies sustain via a douglas fir two by four which is attached to the piano’s sustain peddle using two bent nails.

“Incidentally, some of the first ‘letter quality’ computer printers were IBM Selectrics that were rigged to computers in the exact opposite way as described above. Solenoids operated the typewriter’s six bars, shift and return functions. This was available as a package conversion but many old school hackers like Fred, one of the makers of the Selectric Piano, made their own at home.”


Filed under movie of the week

The Gift Economy

Our neighborhood book group met again last night. When we started in September we agreed that we would read a book (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), watch a movie (The Power of Community), and reassess where we were in six weeks. Last night was week six. We had all come to the group interested in building a little bit more community into our lives, and we’ve succeeded. We’ve decided to disband as a formal group, at least until January when some of us will come back together again to read The Great Turning, but informally we all have new friends and a list of new things we want to do: 2rrfm7jpg.jpgSteve and Cindy are planning to go out this Thursday to the film series Sarah helped to organize; Betsy’s going to bring her boys out to try the vegan chili that Jodi and Mark are making for the Westerwood Neighborhood chili cook-off on Sunday; a lot of us are planning to attend Renee’s dance performance in early November. It’s nice to be reminded that it doesn’t take much to dig your roots deeper in your own neighborhood.

The moon was a fuzzy crescent behind a thin scrim of clouds as Jodi, Crystal, Mark and I walked down the street to Betsy’s house last night. We haven’t had a real rain in weeks and Greensboro, along with the rest of the Southeast, is in a serious drought, but the dry warm October night was perfect for sitting on Betsy’s front porch with the candles lit. One of our members had had to miss most of the meetings because on Tuesday nights she’s often with a family she works with through her job. Last night she was free and I got a chance to learn a little bit more about what she does. Sitting cross-legged on the porch with the autumn night behind her, she spoke with deep compassion about her work to keep families together and to help mothers and fathers become better parents.

“If you could change one thing to make it easier for them, what would it be?” I asked.

“The first things that come to mind is that there just aren’t enough resources in their community,” she said. “They need so much but there just aren’t enough places for them to go when they need help. That’s not really it though….” She paused and opened her hands wide in front of her and looked down at the floorboards. “There’s something bigger than that. 2rrfm6.jpgThe family I’m working with has two parents and they’re both working, working ten and twelve hours a day. When both of them are working there’s enough money for what the family needs and sometimes enough left over for something extra like going out to eat, or filling the car with gas and driving the kids somewhere for the day, but if anything goes wrong, if one of them gets hurt or sick, it all starts to fall apart. And when they’re working the parents are always exhausted, exhausted and stressed. It’s hard for them to be the kind of parents they’d like to be. I’ve thought for a long time that this system didn’t work, but now I see it close up and every day. ”

I grew up on the privileged upper edge of the middle class with so many layers of safety nets suspended under me that I would have to work very hard to hit rock bottom. But through the people I’ve gotten to know at Food Not Bombs and elsewhere I’ve seen the same things that Renee has seen—seen people try to negotiate capitalism’s high wire act without the safety of a net underneath. I’ve seen first hand the resilience of spirit required to keep intact one’s own dignity and self-respect intact when the money dries up. And I’ve seen what happens when the resilience finally fails and the anger and despair take over.

2rrfm4.jpgMy friend Nego is the chief songwriter for her band Boxcar Bertha. In her song “Disconnect Me” she says “Nothing is just the way it is/ Everything’s the way we make it.” It’s easy for us in the middle class—particularly those of us reclining atop a tower of safety nets—to hear about families like the one Renee works with, or the people I know from Food Not Bombs who sleep out of sight and risk arrest every time they sit on a park bench too long, and say “it’s a shame, but that’s just the way it is.” It’s not. It may be the way it is now, but it’s not the way it’s always been, and it’s not the way it has to be. We live in a very particular economy of our own making, an economy that benefits far fewer people than it harms, but that keeps us all in a kind of hypnotic trance—or so exhausted and fearful that we can’t imagine anything different.

Reading Jared Diamond helped me to see things through a longer lens. In an essay he wrote 20 years ago entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist points out that as human beings we have spent most of shared history as hunter-gatherers: “If the history of the human race began at midnight,” he says “then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture.” He turns conventional wisdom on his head and explains what agriculture brought with it: “recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

Each hunter-gatherer society has its own cultural markers of course, but what they have in common is that they are all organized around a gift economy. In hunter-gatherer societies respect is not awarded to those who own the most; 2rrfm10.jpgit’s given to those who share the most. The concept of haves and involuntary have-nots is nonsensical; self-interest includes living in a healthy, functioning community, which means that the members of the community should be as healthy and functional as their companions can guarantee. Organizational consultant Gifford Pinchot has written: “Defining success by what one gives rather than what one has is neither a new practice nor an overly idealistic view. It is rooted deep in history and human nature, and is more basic than wealth or money.”

The gift economy stands in sharp contrast to the exchange or commodity economy we live under now. Of course all of us live in multiple economies, and one of them is a gift economy. It’s the rare parent, for instance, who presents his or her children with a bill for the time and money that went into their raising. Twelve-step programs such as AA operate as gift economies. Blood banks can only exist as a gift economy. The scientific community has many of the earmarks of a gift economy: scientific knowledge has very little value until it is shared. Open source software is distributed in a gift economy, public libraries are in some ways a gift economy, the internet is one vast gift economy. Right now you are participating in a gift economy—I’m not charging you to read, and WordPress, bless their hearts, is not charging me to write what you see here.

I saw a wonderful gift economy at work on Sunday when a Really Really Free Market was set up in the parking lot at the HIVE. It was the first one held there, but the concept is always the same: people who have something to share, whether it’s goods, services, performances, knowledge, or whatever bring it and anyone can take away whatever he or she wants. 2rrfm8.jpgThe HIVE is in a neighborhood where many people are living the same kind of economically distressed life that I was hearing about last night. I saw a lot of families there on Sunday picking out clothing and toys with their kids; I had some extra cans of soup and some bread that had been donated to Food Not Bombs so I put them out on a table and they went pretty fast too. I looked around myself to see if there was anything I wanted to take home. It feels strange at first to look at goods laid out on a table and discover that the only question you have is ”Do I want it?” Not “Can I afford it?” or “Does the price seem fair?” or “Do I want it enough to pay what they’re asking for it?”, or “If I buy this now will I wish I hadn’t when I see something I like better?” Just the simple question ringing in a strange inner silence: “Do I want it?” And if the answer is yes, you take it.

Really Really Free Markets have become pretty common (Carrboro has a very successful one every month) but the concept is only a couple of years old. The first one was held in Miami in November of 2003 as part of a massive protest against a meeting to implement the FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Miami was a bloodbath—the federal government gave the city $8.5 million for security and they used it for tear gas, rubber bullets, armed personnel carriers, and helicopters. My older daughter Isabell was there and described, among other things, seeing a riot cop in full gear pepper spray an elderly auto worker in the face; Nego was there also—her song “Miami” is well worth listening to. On the fifth day of the protest organizers set up a festival they called a Really Really Free Market, both to give protesters a little relief and to demonstrate the gift alternative to the decidedly un-free “free market” economy represented by the FTAA. That first Really Really Free Market included massages, food, music performances, medical aid, puppets, paper hats, dancing—all of it, of course, really really free.

I didn’t go to Miami, but I was at the second Really Really Free Market, held the next summer in Raleigh, the North Carolina state capital. I was one of the organizers. The day, June 12, was chosen to follow on the heels of another gathering of high muckity-mucks, 2rrfm2.jpgthis time the G8, which was meeting on a well-guarded island off the coast of Georgia. We got a permit to hold the festival in a little park in downtown Raleigh where schoolchildren eat their bag lunches when they are on school field trips. It’s a nice little park with picnic tables, benches and trash cans, convenient to the visitor’s center across the street and the state archives building next door.

My daughter Margaret and I drove over early on Saturday morning to set up. Things had changed a lot since we had checked out the park a few days before. The picnic tables were gone, the benches and trash cans were gone, all the parking meters had little hoods over them, and the 2nyc05.jpgvisitor’s center and the archive building—all the downtown museums—were closed. Bike cops circled through the park as Margaret and I unloaded the buckets of wildflowers I had clipped the night before. A woman drove up and handed us a basket of tomatoes and green peppers from her garden; the whole transaction was recorded on videotape by a policeman who was visibly filming us from six floors up. Mounted police rode by in pairs on big brown horses. When Margaret and I drove off to pick up some old rugs and books that had been stored in someone’s basement we passed a buff-colored school bus retrofitted with grillwork over the windows, and a mobile command unit set up in a park two blocks away. It was weird.

The market itself was wonderful. Someone gave free haircuts; someone else brought a massage chair. There was homemade banana bread and sandwich makings and lemonade. An old time string band set up under a tree, and people danced. All the time a helicopter circled low over the empty and locked downtown, the sunlight glittering off its canopy as it banked. We found out at the end of the afternoon after the last box of old books and bags of tomatoes and bunched of flowers had been taken away, and the last remnants of mess had been carried across the street and put in the dumpster, that forty fully geared-out riot cops had spent the day in the archives building waiting for the call to deploy.

I don’t believe in an armed revolution. I wouldn’t want one. By my reading of history, in an armed uprising the most vulnerable people always the worst of it and in the end a powerful bully is simply replaced by another powerful bully. I do believe, though, that it’s possible to simply ignore a bad idea out of existence. I’m not saying that dismantling capitalism is easy, but I think the more we exist beyond it, above it, around it, outside it, the more unsteady it will become. Maybe some day it will just fall over from its own weight. After all, we carry with us the deep memory of thousands and thousands of years of a gift economy. And no one has ever needed armed riot police and teargas to keep a gift economy in place.

I’d like Nego to have the last word. 2rrfm1.jpgShe wrote a song called “WEF” about her experience protesting yet another economic body, the World Economic Forum. Nego wears a patch pinned to her hat that reads Ni Fronteras, Ni Banderas—no borders, no flags. In the song she recounts getting into a conversation with a bus driver who says he wished that were possible, and asks how she would go about it.

“One person at a time,” she says.

We’d move closer and talk like family,
It would be the way that this life could be.
Loving imaginations,
Facing the music that we are making.

I ain’t waiting on no revolution,
No, I’m living one every day.
It’s in the food I eat and who I eat it with
And where the food comes from…

I’m with Nego. I’m not waiting on a revolution, I’m living one every day as best I can, and trying to use the time and energy I save to open up that revolution to anyone else who cares to participate. Nego’s song is posted in its entirety on Boxcar Bertha’s MySpace page.

Go ahead and give it a listen. It’s free.


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