A Challenge to the Bay Area Academe

Boots Riley emcees the Oakland Port Shutdown Rally on Dec. 12.

By Ezra Silk

On his well-read Facebook page, Communist Rapper Boots Riley has issued a broadside against ivory tower academics who criticize the Occupy movement without participating in it themselves. His critique appears to include all academics, not just fair-weather lefties who emotionally identify with Occupy. Riley is a big deal at Occupy Oakland, as you can see from the 120 comments, 173 shares, and 628 likes on the following post:

Ok. This may piss off some friends.

I think that if you’re an academic writing published critiques of modern day mass movements, the only way to be honest and scientific in your critique is to be involved, on a day-to-day basis, in organizing some kind of mass movement.

Otherwise- even if you are a “left” academic, the only thing you are doing is telling people why they shouldn’t be involved in… a movement while showing that the best thing to do is to simply remain an academic. Yes, you may point to the way other movements in the past did it better. Those movements faced critiques from academics who refused to be involved in movements as well. Soon, you will be teaching classes about the OWS movement. Will you be able to tell your students that you were involved? I hope so, otherwise they’d learn the wrong lesson.

Not being involved in a movement saves you from having to be self-critical as well as critical. It skews ones analysis. You can talk about what the better path is without actually being willing to take it (unless that path is one that doesn’t take actually engaging the community with a political program- because then we could all just present papers about the best way to defeat imperialism) and therefore without ever knowing whether that path would work better. Kind of like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show, the old men who sit up in the balcony and critique the show. Don’t do that. Get on the stage.

Separately, if you are involved in a mass movement and have a critique of it- please don’t use language that separates yourself from that movement in the critique. It is not sincere to include yourself when praising a movement (i.e. “Yay! We shut down the port today!”) and then separate yourself when critiquing it (i.e. “Those Occupy Oakland folks need to get their shit together. What’s wrong with them?”). Some of this may come from the actual process of the GAs themselves. People feel able to be involved, yet people that they strongly disagree with are involved as well. How this is articulated is important in order to not fracture it into groups of 10-20 ineffective groupings made up of folks who all agree with each other.

This is a movement which changes depending on who is and isn’t involved on a day-to-day basis. That fluctuates a lot. If you are there, you are the movement. The key to solving some of the valid critiques starts with us all realizing that. At that point we can develop processes to deal with the problems that we have amongst ourselves.

The second-to-last paragraph makes sense to me. Being a fair-weather Occupier is sort of lame.

But the rest of this is sort of silly, and I daresay, a bit totalitarian. Riley’s basic premise seems to be that, if you are a professor, you have to be currently participating in a modern day mass movement in order to critique Occupy. As far as I can tell, Occupy is pretty much the only game in town right now. So, according to Riley, you have to participate in Occupy in order to critique it. This is a bizarre, and slightly creepy mentality. I’ll let Alexandra Kostoulas, who commented on Riley’s post, take it away.

@Boots Riley. I agree with some of your points on this post, but I disagree with a few the way I read them: I will try to explain and organize my thoughts : 1) I don’t understand your argument that people necessarily have to be part of a movement to critique it. Isn’t that like saying you have to be a Nazi to critique Hitler? Obviously Occupy resembles the Nazis not at all (maybe that’s more like the Tea Party), but the argument, I feel still stands. You can be outside of a movement to critique it and still do important work. (2) I think it’s clannish to establish a line that defines us and them in a movement and I think that it’s hard to determine who is in a movement and who isn’t based on who shows up at a GA on a particular day. A lot of people who support Occupy might actually be working and unable to come to things. A lot of people might be talking about it or supporting it in their own way. A lot of people who write and observe it might be afraid of joining the movement deep down, but might in their stodgy academic way, be interested and secretly thrilled with it. A lot of people (not all) who write and edit for major publications or have tenure at top universities are very comfortable and they got to those tenured jobs and editorships by the luck of which social circle they grew up in. Maybe those writers are still part of the 99%, but maybe they are also part of the top 80%, and aspire (falsely) to a life of comfort and don’t see themselves as part of the movement because they have not yet had any hard knocks of financial reality. I think it’s hard to define who is truly analyzing the movement with vigor. But, it is counterproductive for the movement to exclude people. Establishing a purity standard of who is in and who is out is problematic. I worry that your above point could be contributing to this and I feel that this is problematic in my opinion because it seems like it could limit the support for occupy, a movement that is largely beautiful and has such potential to grow into real change. 3) As an educator and a writer/artist, I find your position as a successful musician to be a bit interesting because in a way you have become an unofficial spokesman of the Occupy Oakland movement because you are well known. You were on the stage at the gen. strike on Nov. 2. I saw you there. At the same time, how can you sit from a position of privilege and critique professors for critiquing? Also, isn’t it their job to critique and synthesize information and try to make sense of it and apply the lens of their own discipline to its analysis? Just like it’s the artist’s job to interpret what she sees, feels and hears into a work of art or song. While I commend you for being brave enough to be vocal and active in a movement as successful musician, I also have to disagree. Sorry this comment is so long.

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One thought on “A Challenge to the Bay Area Academe

  1. Joeie says:

    Plaesnig to find someone who can think like that

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