25 February 2008

Enough of exposé ~ Thoughts on the Need for Political Writing

"There are battles in the streets and then there are battles
over which metaphors and images will be used to tell those
stories and, ultimately, which version of history will shape
the memories and imaginations that guide and limit the future."
~ Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit and her brother David have a book forthcoming on the conflicts of interpretation surrounding the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle. The book is scheduled to appear in April, although that may be a stretch, since as far as I can tell the publishers - AK Press - do not even mention it on their web site. From what I can tell from on-line sources, the book will contain essays by the editors as well as primary documents that bear on the organizing and strategies of the anti-WTO protesters. The aim is to offer counterpoint to the standard depictions offered by mainstream media and political sources.

Later in the essay from which I lifted the epigram to this post, Solnit poses a question and offers us her reply:
What does it mean to be radical, to tell radical stories in our time, to win the battle of the story? The North American tradition seems to focus its activity on the exposé, the telling of the grim underside of what we know: the food is poison, the system is corrupt, the leaders are lying, the war is failing. There is a place for this, but you cannot base a revolution on the bad things the status quo forgot to mention. You need to tell the stories they are not telling, to learn to see where they are blind, to look at how the great changes of the world come from the shadows and the margins, not center stage, to see where we’re winning and that we can win something that matters, if not everything all the time.
Once again, I agree with her. I recently had a long conversation with my friend Susan Orr about the ways that "investigative journalism" promotes cynicism and skepticism precisely by clinging to the model of the exposé without offering a vision for the sort of political change needed to alter anything. We had just heard a local journalist talk about his latest book. In the follow-up Q&A several of those present stood to announce actions they and their groups were taking (e.g., fair election coalitions, and so forth) and the journalist recommended contacting one's elected officials. (This in a community where the Republican majority on county legislature acts as though citizen participation in public meetings is a threat to their physical safety. See story here.) To be fair, he also suggested a more modest but also more radical step, namely that people actually talk to their neighbors and friends and co-workers about politics. Perish the thought! But my sense, unfair perhaps, is that most people left the room tisk-tisking about the bad things that the journalist had revealed. His work became yet another confirmation that the ways of the world in business and politics suck. Full stop.

The point is not that we need a vision of revolution; instead we need a vision of things - of demands that can be articulated, reforms proposed, and aims presented - that might or might not be attained. No guarantee. Just some vision. I have been reading one of the long hybrid texts that Václav Havel produced prior to the overthrow of communism in Czechoslovakia.* He has produced others before and since. At the time, Havel seems to have been animated by a diffuse spirituality that I find foreign. But this particular text is useful because it offers a provocative series of examples of how, in circumstances more dire than those currently existing in the U.S., citizens undertook various initiatives to effect quite dramatic, radical political and social change. The book is laced with a political vocabulary of hope and solidarity that (the fashionable lip-service of current electoral campaigns notwithstanding) is nearly lost in the contemporary United States. And, like Solnit's own writings, it helps us recognize the indirect, open-ended, often surprising course that history and politics can take. Yet another exposé can provide neither the conceptual rehabilitation nor the historical perspective that our times demand.
* The book, Disturbing the Peace (Vintage 1990), is an extended, long-distance "interview" conducted with Havel by Karel Hvíždala. They exchanged questions and answers and revisions and clarifications over the better part of a year via illicit communication channels between Czechoslovakia and West Germany where they respectively resided. The text was first published as samizdat in Prague in 1986 and addresses events prior to that time. Paul Wilson subsequently translated it into English.

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Blogger Tom White said...

One of the most intriguing visions for a better social-economic system can be found at


25 February, 2008 16:13  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're not allowing for the fact that journalists are required to keep aloof from praxis by the nature of their role as reporters - journalists who advocate an outcome are seen as biased. Op-Ed columns are about the only form in which journalists are allowed to be subjective.

A lot of us do our own thing in our spare time to make a difference, and while we won't admit it, our choice of which stories to chase will often reflect our political sensibilities.

But we can't be overt, because then we lose our credibility as objective reporters of fact.

09 March, 2008 18:15  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

g - Thanks for the reponse. Unfortunately, I do not buy the notion that there are "facts" that speak for themselves. Reporters are and ought to be concerned with motives and causes and rationalizations too. And some are. But the notion that reporters don't succumb to interpretation and offer there own narratives of events is iimplausible. Think of Judith Miller and her "stories" for The Times re: the alleged reasons for invading Iraq. She was reporting "facts?" And she was only the most egregious of many, many journalists who simply put journalistic spin on administraiton bullshit. As I have mentioned here many times, my own local newspaper won't even print the Iraq casualty figures. They are facts, but publishing them might seem unpatriotic. So, while I agree that there are reporters who try hard, the notion that there are facts out there to be objective about and that the press aims at adopting such a stance seems simplistic.

The fellow I refer to in this post kept begging off the task of offering alternaitves because he is a "reporter" - but he was writing and peddling a book, not news paper/magazine articles. I found his excuses completely lacking in credibility. He can write anything he wants in a book. He just chose not to and in that way, I think, invites cynicism\ among readers.

09 March, 2008 18:52  

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