Democracy on the Floor

- By Shemon Salam

This article is not about names, academia, or famous people. This article is simply about a dream that we had all agreed to fight for, but now that dream is faltering. I have woken up from my sleep, away from fantasyland where I thought solidarity and integrity were the glue between reality and fantasy. This article is about a dream that once was and now is being slowly buried in the shadows of academia, stardom, and activist personalities. Will this small dream for a better world be lost in the hallways of America's prestigious universities, will it be left in a bin of chads during election season in November, or will it be forgotten in the lime light of our great American progressives?

I have watched my fellow progressives listen with glossy eyes to PhDs and noble diplomats, but shun working class people with the attention span of a toddler when they raise their voice, only because they do not have the correct political line, or the PhD tag at the end of their names.

I have watched working class Americans disrespected and my own peers in the movement slighted for the voice of someone who is an authority. I have watched the confidence of many young people shot down because the American Left is so strife with arrogance and contempt for those who do not measure up to prescribed activist standards. The Left talks of democracy but at the conferences a few keynote speakers set the tone and dominate the discourse. I have seen this time and time again and have heard similar stories from other activists at other conferences.

The lack of accountability is impeding the growth of a healthy and vibrant Left. The Left is structured in such a way right now that certain figureheads command considerable influence. They have a way of affecting the political landscape that is highly undemocratic. For all the applause of a decentralized structure of the latest anti-war movement, I believe that it was very structured, very authoritarian, and very centralized, but with an anarchist/ decentralized friendly veneer. Academics in general held a sway over the movement that affected the whole political landscape of the movement. The latest examples can be seen in the electoral drama in the last few months by the "anybody but bush" arguments that have effected the entire Left, but originated from a precise set of locales.

To be more precise, it emanated from the pulpit of some of America's most prestigious universities from people who are not involved in day-to-day organizing. These people used their positions and the movement's ambiguity to accountability and transparency, to manipulate the movement towards the most conservative, establishment-oriented direction possible.

More and more I hear from activists that so-and-so came to speak at some teach-in, yet they departed no new information-just another regurgitation of a book they wrote in the past. Don't get me wrong, historical knowledge and analysis is important, but to be buried by it is a trap. It is especially dangerous when it creates the dynamics where activists will not pay attention to working people.

The last thing I want folks to do is interpret my argument for less debates, intellectual activism, and thinking-as if everyday Americans are not capable of any one of those skills at the highest order. What I am arguing for is that these skills need to be developed at the street level. This can only happen when there is respect for activists and people who do not hold degrees from universities, but have taken the time to do research themselves or speak from life experiences. Most importantly historical analysis needs to be applied to the problems people face today. History cannot be confined to a conference or a classroom, but needs to be used to help us create a better future.

This is as much of a personal letter to the Left as it is a critique of some of the most serious flaws in the movement right now. I am not going to throw away my life trying to organize America's intellectuals. I want to dedicate my live organizing America's poor people, people of color, S. Asians, Muslims, and LBGT communities. I do not want to get involved in the academic world of prostituting my ideas.

It seems the Left is more interested in organizing the handful of radicals into their sectarian groups instead of organizing the millions of Americans that are crushed under capitalism. It seems the Left's strategy is entirely aimed at organizing people who are in the know-a part of some cliquish progressive community. Reality check-a few thousand radicals will not make or break this country, especially ones that fawn over every word from "activists" in Harvard, MIT, Berkeley; and in the meantime the working class people who have something to say are told to get in line for the ten minute Q&A.; Well here is another reality check, working class people, people of color, women, and LBGT deserve a little more than ten minutes of pity time.

Instead of these conferences with undemocratic structures, why not setup conferences that still allow for these professors, intellectuals, and theoreticians to participate but us equals instead of Gods. Why can't they raise their hand and share their ideas like everyone else? Why can't they wait patiently to speak? Most importantly why can't they learn to listen and respect the ideas of everyday Americans?

The defining difference between the struggle of the future and the struggles of the past is the level of democracy and empowerment people will find. But the Left has created a different world where holding a doctorate has become a prerequisite to speak on the floor. The average working person has little chance of being confident to the many degree-holders of this subject and that subject. Conference after conference has keynote speakers with an audience passively sitting and listening instead of thinking and communicating.

The Left does not value the voices of moms, dads, young people, workers, or the unemployed. The Left has the rhetoric of being for all people, but in reality is a clique for the elite and educated who have carved another world from themselves.

At conferences, the sterility of academia dominates the environment. Conferences must reflect the nightmares and horrors of the world and at the same time the brightest and most beautiful dreams of humanity. They cannot be the jargon and paintings of academia. Conferences need to draw in horrible experiences that people have experienced and the few joyous moments that people find in this world. Conferences need to reconcile the death of mothers, the hunger of children, the poverty in our lives, with the celebrations of birthdays, the joys of birth, and the happiness of our own private moments. These moments cannot be provided from a classroom or a book, but only from real people who have experienced them.

You do not need a doctorate to experience real human emotions and to understand how capitalism has affected your life. You do not need to have a PhD to organize a protest or figure out your means of liberation, nor do you need someone who holds a title to tell you how to do what you already know.

Conferences need to be a place where people on the bottom can communicate with one another, in structured environments, and in informal settings. Being lectured at is something everyone experiences whether watching TV, being at school, or being at work in front of the boss. But communicating and participating in the creation of our future, in local and global communities, is something that millions of people are left out of.

So far the Left has recreated the same capitalist dynamics that millions of people experience at their workplaces, schools, on the street, and when they watch TV. Will the Left accept some of its own weaknesses and be willing to change?

I don't know if this article will ever be printed any "leftist" journal. Like the corporate media the Left has its own set of filters and its institutions that it needs to protect. It has its own hierarchy based on intellectual gigantism that needs to be sheltered from the harsh criticisms from the street. Either way, if the Left never publishes this article, I will know I was onto something, but if they do, many more people will be introduced to some of the glaring contradictions of the Left.

I remember being told by a revolutionary not to voice my criticism of the Left. I bit my tongue as this revolutionary told me that I am a little person and that the world is a big stage for little people like me. Looking back on that advice, I am filled with anger. Who is supposed to raise their voice? What type of democracy are we trying to build? What are we trying to build? It took me a while to figure it out. When I get my PhD, then it will be acceptable to raise my voice, in effect drowning out the next generation' s demands and opinions. Thanks but no thanks. No more!!

I chose not to name individuals in an effort to keep the focus on a method of organizing and a status quo that maintains their influential position behind a curtain of decentralization and democracy, which is a lie. More so, the lie is a method of control, in effect a way to keep thinking to a minimum, a tactic that the ruling classes use all the time. This critique is an attack on a set of institutions, beliefs, structures, and practices that no one individual is the summation of.

The movement has hidden behind a shroud of rhetoric such as decentralization when in fact some of the most important ideas are set forth in a highly centralized manner. As a revolutionary, I am highly critical of such practices, not only for its authoritarianism and centralization, but its dishonest practice of democracy and decentralization.

The current problems highlight the biggest problems anti-authoritarians face today, which is accountability and transparency. "Leaders" are ambiguous in decentralized structures which creates a problem of accountability. If we are going to have leaders in the movement, lets recognize it, instead of deceiving ourselves, lets have some accountability in the movement, or the alternative; lets actually practice democracy not just on paper, but on the street and in our interactions.

Shemon Salam, 22, attends Wayne State University, and is part of the League for Direct Democracy and a member of Students Movement for Justice - Wayne State University. He can be reached here.

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