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My kind of “hoax”

Disclaimer: As an older organizer who rarely participates in online activism, several friends asked me about my decision to participate in yesterday’s facebook “check in” at Standing Rock. I have no special authority on this topic, nor am I disparaging anyone else’s choice: this is really a response to several conversations, instead of writing four long emails to explain why I took the action I did.


My first reaction when I saw the call to “check in” was skepticism that this tactic could subvert online surveillance of activists. Like many corporate campaigners, I disabled location tracking for most apps long ago because social media surveillance is not a new tactic for law enforcement and the same types of private security companies who are perpetrating harassment and violence against the water protectors in ND.

But even without a clear source for the ask or an easy way to measure the impact, I couldn’t see the harm in participating in a gesture of solidarity to raise visibility and galvanize the movement. After months of donating, divesting, demonstrating, reading, listening, speaking out and showing up, I still wake up every morning in a warm bed, not a cold campsite or a fenced-in cage. In my journey to decolonize my own mind, perfectionism has been one of the hardest ideals to unlearn: letting go of the idea of a “right” way of doing “enough.” Of course, I want to be responsible for any harms my actions may cause – intentional or not – but beyond that, the worst choice for me is silence and inaction.

Often, I don’t take online actions because the time and energy it takes this old dog to think through new tricks can feel disproportionate to the value, and face-to-face organizing can be a better use of my time. But I keep returning to these potent paragraphs by Ricardo Levins Morales who wrote, “there are things in life we don’t get to do right.” For me, this was such a moment: it wasn’t a perfect action but it seemed potentially helpful, with little potential for harm, so I chose to act by checking in, although I linked to additional readings and action steps, rather than the copy/paste explanation about subverting law enforcement.

Since the Sacred Stone facebook page could not confirm who started the tactic, it’s impossible to know if their intentions were sincere solidarity or attention-seeking, half-baked or deeply thought out. But I’ve been around long enough to know that when any mobilization builds power, detractors always step forward to criticize the tactics, if not the goals, of the participants. Before long, I began to see the comments questioning the efficacy of the check-in, even calling it a “hoax” based on a Snopes designation as “unverified” because Sheriff’s spokespeople denied using check-ins for surveillance, and no source for the action could be verified. The word may apply, but if so this felt to me like the best sort of hoax.

I’m the last person to judge those who do or don’t participate in a given tactic. Most of my organizing is never reflected on social media because I overthink the performativity of those spaces, and my best contributions are made in face-to-face work. The speed with which online actions are shared often precludes depth and accountability, and an action about Standing Rock which may not have originated there is politically questionable, to say the least. I’m not sure if checking in was a good or bad choice, but for some, the action may have served as a step towards becoming active accomplices with the movement for indigenous sovereignty.

I’d rather spend my energy planning the next action instead of agonizing over the last one. But most organizers will agree that when thousands upon thousands of people take action to publicly stand in support of your movement, that is a moment of strength and opportunity. As Dallas Goldtooth reflected on the check-ins, while this tactic is “not the gamechanger you may think it is,” it keeps folks engaged, keeps the movement fresh, and “helps show the racist arses at Morton County police department that we are more than just some rabble rousers in a field… we are a fucking global movement of pipeline fighters. So check in and come see the view.”

I have no interest in policing anyone else’s tactics, but I have made the mistake of being overly skeptical in the past, and being on the “other side” of this one felt like progress for me, personally. It’s easy to point out the flaws in any strategy, but for me it’s harder to let go of being “right” and trust in the collective power of movements. I do wish people would fact-check more before rushing to share the latest viral meme, and I will always prioritize organizing over easy gestures like changing a profile picture, or checking in. No one believes that a single facebook action is “enough,” but the speed with which this idea took hold proves that people are hungry for new tactics and ways to help. People of conscience around the world are invested in this struggle and seeking ways to stand together: and we can only find those ways by focusing on our goals, not on judging the “authenticity” of our friends’ harmless tactics.

Anyone who has been building this movement, who has spent more energy seeking liberation than debunking others’ tactics, has every right to critique the check-in and push us all to do more. But as a reformed naysayer, if that’s all you’re bringing, I urge you to try harder. As Kelly Hayes recently wrote, “Being an organizer is about understanding that, whenever possible, lateral critiques should be aimed at helping everyone – including you – to do better, rather than honing the membership of your clubhouse.” The facebook check-in is easy to critique, and I have total respect for the choice not to participate, but if you want to tell me why my choice was wrong, please also bring me a new idea of how we are going to win this fight. Because while I’m working on my perfectionism, I still know that everything I can do is not nearly enough. Let’s do this.

Defeating my cigarette addiction

Giving up cigarettes a year ago was an enormous achievement for me. Since I smoked heavily for over two decades, several friends have asked me how I did it. In honor of completing a year without one, here are my top three tips for anyone thinking of quitting.

First, and definitely most important for me, is to build up your own determination. Every time I’m struck with a craving, I think: “I want a cigarette, but I want to not smoke even more.” Before quitting, I listed out all my reasons and made sure I always had them accessible in rough moments. We probably all share many reasons in common (health, financial, political, etc.) But I recommend writing your own. Success will come down to your own commitment to your goals and priorities, so these reasons will be your foundation.

Second, when really tempted to cheat, I would think: “the cigarette is the problem, not the solution.” The drug is creating the addiction and the withdrawal, not satisfying it. Even if you cave and have a smoke, it won’t actually fulfill what you want, it will actually just make your next craving worse. But if you push through the moment without a smoke, your cravings will gradually become less frequent and less severe. A year in, I still get the occasional craving, and I still use the misery of that moment to remind myself “I don’t want this to be for naught, I don’t ever want to go through this again.”

Finally, remember you’re not alone: more than a million people quit every year. If you know what kind of support you need, there are tools to help.

QuitIt app tracks my progress
QuitIt app tracks my progress

I use one of these apps to track my progress, but I have also used music as a support. Letting go of something that has comforted me daily for most of my life felt at times like a real loss, so I created a “freedom” playlist to help me re-frame it as a gain. Listening to these songs fortified me against momentary cravings by grounding me in the liberation I was winning through my persistence. I’ll just choose one song to leave here: for anyone trying to break free of cigarettes, get Breathe, by Sara Tavares, into your playlist. You’re welcome.

World Poetry Day

Today we celebrate UNESCO’s World Poetry Day, recognizing poetry as cultural heritage and “the song of our deepest feelings.” For many years, I found poetry difficult to read. As a painfully logical thinker, I like to “get to the bottom” of things, and the best poems have no bottom. The longer I live in this world, however, the less I need to find a singular reading. Each time I listen to these three poems, they activate new strands of thought, passion, meaning and commitment. Since I have not yet exhausted what I can get from these, perhaps others would like to join me in making meaning through listening to these poets speak their truth.

Since corporations are a preoccupation of this blog, I start with one of my favorite poems on that topic:

I first saw this clip about a year ago when I had the good fortune to attend a small workshop on poetry for social change. I’ll never say what a poem is “about,” but his relationship to his voice and the need to speak still takes my breath away:

Finally, this piece takes a well-worn word and allows me to hear it anew, one of the most important words that should always be a living act, not just a political buzz-word. There is so much power in this 2-minute performance, it makes everything seem possible:

Emotional Solidarity

Five years ago this month, I lived through the most traumatic experience of my life. I incurred major losses, both material and intangible, and before I could heal, I needed space to feel that pain and integrate my shock, which meant a couple of years of deep depression.

That summer, I moved to Boston, the home of Life is Good, Inc., a company dedicated to selling clothing and accessories with optimistic mottos. Almost daily, I saw someone wearing or carrying a branded item bearing what felt like an admonition. From friends to strangers to store windows, the message blared: “Life Is Good!” As if I was alone in going through a rough time, and if I couldn’t see the goodness in life, that was just one more failure on my part.

The first hand accounts of depression on the blog Hyperbole and a Half illustrate very personally what it feels like to be depressed.
Hyperbole and a Half describes the experience of depression powerfully.
Read the full posts here: Part One: Part Two:
Read the full posts here: Part One and Part Two.







Therapy, supportive friends, reflection and writing, and a couple of years of anti-depressants helped me move beyond despondency and build a new life for myself. I’m happier today than I’ve been in years. But I don’t regret my depression: I believe it was an acceptable part of my process of healing, and an understandable expression of my grief, anger and loss.

I don’t impute bad intentions to the makers or wearers of Life is Good. In fact, several friends who wore this brand were among the most supportive and helpful in my healing. They listened to my experiences non-judgmentally and helped me feel connected, valued, and eventually able to see a path forward. In truth, life is good. It is also, in the immortal words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Life is unfair and full of danger, and while controlling our outlook can be a source of strength, choosing to see life as good is not always the best coping strategy.

Recently, activist Anil Vora expressed a similar ambivalence about the It Gets Better Project. Sharing words of encouragement to help LGBT youth feel less alone and spark a conversation about bullying and discrimination are laudable goals. But as Vora points out, “for many LGBT people it only gets different, not better, and for many others it actually gets worse…” People who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned and people whose love is not exclusively heterosexual continue to face institutional, structural, legal and cultural barriers to equality. Minimizing that reality runs a risk of alienating or erasing some people’s experiences. A more powerful approach is to celebrate people’s ability to make choices that support their lives and transform society for the better. In fact, winning equal rights takes activism and movement-building which are only possible after facing the reality of the problem, coupled with faith that things can change. To me, that is the wisdom of Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

This is not a condemnation of good intentions but a call to empathy. A caution that such declarative language can be discouraging for those whose experiences at any given moment might not be good, and whose feelings are still valid.  That summer, I needed to feel my loss, to process my experience and find a way forward that respected the lessons I had learned. I can’t even count the men who told me to smile during that time; seeing the ubiquitous message that “Life is Good” felt like an accusation that I was wallowing, and it made me feel more alienated and alone than I actually was.

You can make your life and the world better and there is good in life aren’t as pithy, but universalizing statements can do more harm than good. To encourage others and help them feel hope, in my experience really listening and connecting is always more effective than telling someone how they should or will feel.

I’ll close with a few Google searches that make me feel less alone in my ambivalence: