Back at Harvard, I learned two twin currencies for liberal political engagement: prestige and critique. In order to make the most important, sophisticated contribution to your community, you should try to do one or the other. (Or, in my case, kind of switch back and forth between them.)
Prestige meant planning events with lots of endorsements by student and Real World groups; generating lots of publicity (including Real World media, if possible); and generally capitalizing on linkages with nodes of power, with the aim of Getting Big Things Done.
Critique meant showing up to a prestigious event and eviscerating it with progressive analysis. Pointing out that it reifies X Y and Z oppressive dynamic, invizibilizes A B and C communities, and generally fortifies neoliberalism and hierarchies of privilege.
Something like that. Now, I’m not saying that other approaches didn’t exist at Harvard (Harvard Progressive Action Group was probably doing things at least a little differently; and same for the Student-Labor Action Movement), but these were the ones that most affected me, in my thinky liberal way of moving through the world.
And so, yesterday, when six of us from the Marxist-Feminist study group arrived at a Bay Area Pro-Choice march armed with flyers that we had each played a part in creating, I thought to myself, This is a good offering. We chanted, we participated, we were a part of what was happening, and I felt tremendously grateful to all the people who have fought before us for the right to legal abortions. Some of the signs people carried gave me chills: “ABORTION ON DEMAND, WITHOUT APOLOGY”; “Rape Survivor For Choice [because I didn’t have one]”; and of course, the iconic coat hanger. At the rally, women shared personal stories about terminating their pregnancies, making real and visible the object of our shared struggle. No doubt, there was bravery here. This was something we wanted to support.
We were not, however, blind to the limitations of the event. A narrow focus on defending abortion rights completely overlooked the ways that austerity measures here in California are generally pummeling working-class people’s access to sexual health care. This myopia has long been a problem of largely white, middle-class reproductive rights movements. Surveying the crowd and listening to the speeches, I felt a little pessimistic about how our half-sheets would go over, fingering capitalism as a major part of women’s oppression and choicelessness.
But instead of standing on the sidelines hating (read: critiquing), we engaged. When the organizers opened up the stage for anyone to take the bullhorn, two of us got up and articulated our comparatively broader analysis. And the crowd was feelin it!
After that, flyering was easier and less awkward. People came to us.