Tools to Change the World: A Study Guide
by Dada Maheshvarananda and Mirra Price
Proutist Universal: Copenhagen, 2019
A review and appreciation by Bill Ayers
For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. ~~~Frederick Douglass, July 4, 1852
A few years ago I happily discovered Dada Maheshvarananda’s work, and later, when I read his book, After Capitalism, it was a further revelation. A broad and ambitious book, it sets out a comprehensive critique of the economic system that’s literally killing planet Earth as it distorts and destroys all life as we know it—call it the Death Ship. After Capitalism offers, as well, an alternative vision, a humane horizon we can begin to see through the soot and the smut, something to move toward as we engage the struggle against the Dark Angel. The book felt urgent when I first encountered it, and I gave it to friends and comrades everywhere. Its message is even more urgent today—the crisis deepens and the approaching catastrophe accelerates.
Dada Maheshvarananda is a monk and a social activist, an engaged intellectual and a gentle warrior whose wise words are born of his wide experience with social justice movements, his ceaseless travels, his restless curiosity, his vivid sense of wonder, and his deep awe for and love of life. His every gesture is somehow simultaneously a challenge and an embrace. He encourages us to go deeper, to become moral actors in the real world we’ve been thrust into, to engage everyone we meet, to agitate and organize, and to consistently choose love—love for the earth itself, love for all living things, and love for all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.
Now comes Tools to Change the World, written by Dada Maheshvarananda and his colleague Mirra Price, a wonderful companion to After Capitalism and a practical guide for activists and educators who are working to build an unstoppable movement for peace and justice. The Study Guide and accompanying Facilitation Guide offer resources, practical activities, and concrete steps that all movement-makers can take toward building a radical movement to transform the world from a place of fear and hatred and destruction into a cite of joy and justice, peace and balance—powered by love. These tools can be deployed in every imaginable venue: school or classroom, work-place or union hall, community center or church basement, farmer’s market or city park. It’s an essential books for dreamers and doers.
If we can imagine a world without predation and exploitation, oppression, abuse, and subjugation, we must also think through what’s needed to actually accomplish that visionary future against a vicious, nihilistic, and hyper-violent enemy. It will take more than the exhilaration of street demonstrations, more than the exuberance of mass action, more than militancy—even though all of that is necessary. It will take a strong force of comrades, thinking, planning, and rising together. Tools to Change the World is a handbook, a guide, and the broad outline of a map we will have to draw on the go—we are all citizens of a country that does not yet exist.
The book can help us learn to think and stand together—shoulder-to-shoulder—toward a common goal. Through words and deeds, study and action, we can discover a generic egalitarianism—we are all one, instrumentally identical in voluntary associations characterized by discipline and courage as well as enthusiasm and joy at being part of something larger than ourselves: we share a utopian vision. Our relationship—our political belonging—binds us to one another in anticipation of action. The object is to win, and we have to have each other’s backs.
We’re not exactly allies then—allies is the wrong word because allies tend to function in service to while we choose to act in solidarity with. Allies don’t want to be racist (or sexist or homophobic), and from their perch of relative social privilege, sincerely hope to do good work. Allies offer support to an oppressed group, but that work can carry the whiff of charity—reaching down to lift up the downtrodden. Allies confront prejudice and individual bigotry or backwardness, but rarely state power or the structures of racial, patriarchal capitalism—the field of action is individual and interpersonal, disconnected from social action; the operation is on-line or in the cafe, only infrequently in the streets. The distinctions matter, even if, to be fair, the self-designation, “ally,” covers a wider swath.
By contrast, we want to act collectively and strategically. We despise and oppose bigotry, but we refuse, for example, to embrace optics over justice, “multiculturalism” or “diversity” or “non-gendered restrooms” over an honest reckoning with reality. We need to think politically, and embrace the discipline of common work. We aim to overthrow capitalism and to dismantle the capitalist state, and that will require sustained mass mobilizations, planning, and disciplined organization.
The biggest obstacle to authentic comradeship in US history—the third rail of American radical politics—is and always has been white supremacy, and tepid (or non-existent) work toward Black Liberation. Comradeship in America can only emerge from a deep understanding of the super-exploitation and particular suffering of Black workers and communities, an unconditional embrace of Black Liberation, and a willingness to sacrifice for Black Freedom.
Tools to Change the World can be used as a textbook for organizers as we create subterranean schools, clandestine institutes, and secret academies. We operate beneath the surface as a result of engaging in insurrectionary activities intended to subvert, unsettle, and topple the established system. I had a large political cartoon fastened to my backpack during our fight to stop the invasion and occupation of Viet-Nam—the drawing depicts a high-tech, fully armored American soldier with a flame-thrower burning and destroying everything in his path as he strides purposefully across a barren landscape, while under him and out of his sight, an elaborate and complex root system flourishes and sends shoots out in every direction. Aboveground was all fire and fury, death and destruction; underground was life itself. Tools to Change the World is an underground workbook.
When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, I began posting a series of short reports documenting his early moves toward creating a fully-realized authoritarian government: “Making America Great Again, Step by Treacherous Step.” I noted that the base for a dangerous white nationalist movement is always present in the US—sometimes buried deep in the American soil, sometimes organized, activated, and out in the open. With Trump the white supremacist camp had found its perfect avatar: a charismatic con-man and buffoon who had mastered the art of manipulation through a new media, a character who could perform grievance for a mass of people disaffected from the establishment, a pathological liar playing up economic insecurity, racial and religious bigotry, and xenophobia. With Trump the white supremacist movement was consolidated, motivated, and living in the West Wing.
It was hard to keep up, and several friends noted early on that documenting the breath-taking pace of events would become draining—that was certainly true. And others were doing a better job of documenting Trump’s every move anyway, offering insightful and useful analysis toward naming this political moment—I relied (and still rely) on Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales at “Democracy Now!,” honest reporters and smart observers, Vijay Prashad, an outstanding thinker and writer, and Barbara Ransby, a wise and subtle scholar/activist. I kept current, but, sorry to say, I stopped posting. And now, almost three years later, it’s clear that what so many of us had feared has indeed come to be: the architecture of a new American fascism is in place.
Like the most dangerous and murderous authoritarians (both today and in history), Trump was legally “elected.” In spite of gerrymandering, wide-spread voter suppression efforts, Citizen’s United and unprecedented amounts of cash intent on buying a “free election,” it’s well-known that Trump lost the popular vote by close to three million votes, and that the Electoral College, an anti-democratic, worm-like appendage on the American political system, sealed the deal. Most people don’t know that Trump garnered a meager 25.3 percent of all eligible voters.
Representing a tiny fraction of the population, Trump spares no effort in claiming to enjoy vast popular support as he demeans and demonizes his political opponents, many of whom wilt and disappear under his gaze. He repeats a fantastic chant against “Crooked” Hillary from his 2016 campaign rallies: “Lock her up!” “Lock her up!” and he says our country is being “infested” with dangerous aliens, including Mexican rapists, and Africans from “shit-hole countries.”
Debasing opponents (real or imagined) of every stripe is a calling card—“disloyal bureaucrats,” the Environmental Protection Agency, comedians, Hollywood actors, athletes, the Justice Department, leaders of the FBI—but scapegoating Black people and other people of color is Trump’s reliable trademark.
It’s long been said that if fascism ever came to America it would come with a familiar face wrapped in an American flag and carrying a Bible. And here it is: a right-wing government that opposes liberal democracy (and, of course, Marxism, socialism, and anarchism) and attempts to forge national unity under an autocratic leader with a totalitarian program advocating stability, law and order, and more and more centralized power, claiming all of this is necessary in order to defend the homeland, and to respond effectively to economic instability. Fascist states attempt to mobilize a mass base through deliberately constructed fear and hatred as they prepare for armed conflict and permanent war by appealing to patriotic nationalism and militarizing all aspects of society. Fascists agitate “popular” movements in the streets, apparently spontaneous but in reality well funded and highly organized, based on bigotry, intolerance, and the threat of violence, all of it fueled by the demonization of distinct and targeted vulnerable populations—racial, religious, gendered—and the creation of convenient sacrificial scapegoats who are repeatedly blamed for every social or economic problem people experience. Fascist regimes promote disdain for the arts, for intellectual life, for science, for reason and evidence and facts, as well as deep contempt for the necessary back and forth of serious argument or discussion. And fascist states favor protectionist and interventionist economic policies as they entangle corporations with the state. Sounds familiar, right?
Tools to Change the World is a fascist-resistant resource. Dada Maheshvarananda and Mirra Price have created an asset for battling to upend the system of oppression and exploitation, opening spaces for more participatory democracy, more peace, and more fair-dealing in large and small matters. These are revolutionary times—Tools to Change the World can help each of us as we work to join the revolution.
Here is a quick review of the best of my summer reading. Perhaps you may want to add one or more of these books to your autumn reading table.
First, is the smallest book, half the physical size of a typical book, from Haymarket Books and the Intercept, and an absolute must read: Naomi Klein’s The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, published in late 2018. Another masterpiece from Klein, the book is the result of two visits she made to PR after Hurricane Maria smashed into the island in 2017. Klein was invited by a “self-appointed” group of five faculty calling themselves “Professors Self-Assembled in Resistance (PAReS). Klein asks two simple questions as she travels the island with community organizers: Who is Puerto Rico for? Who gets to decide? The book tells the stories of PuertoRicanyas on the ground, and how they scrambled to meet the needs of the injured, continued to feed their communities, rebuilt with solar and wind power, and resisted the legacy of colonialism. The book is just 78 tiny pages, and we now know that the people of PR are indeed fighting back yet again against the powerful forces who are eager to empty the magnificent island of its resilient people and turn it into a privatized enclave for the rich. And, p.s., all book royalties go directly to JunteGente, a gathering of organizations in Puerto Rico resisting disaster capitalism.
Chicago’s brilliant young writer, poet, activist and educator, Eve Ewing published her third book, 1919, a collection of poems about the Chicago “race riot” at the end of the dreadful 1st World War and in the midst of the Great Migration of African Americans to the North. The “Red Summer” comes alive with remarkable photographs from a century ago, and Ewing’s trenchant words bringing to life the Northern form of lynching: segregation via housing, factory labor, the Great Fire, organized bands of white men and boys attacking the Black community with fists, bombs, arson and guns. The spark for the “race riot” was the death of 17 year old Eugene Williams who went rafting in Lake Michigan in an area between unofficially segregated beaches, and drifted to a “white area” and white people began throwing rocks at approaching Black people. Eugene Williams drowned. Twenty-three Black people and fifteen white people were killed in the subsequent white riot; 537 were injured, and 1,000 were made homeless. Some 5,000 National Guard occupied the city. Ewing’s poetry boldly and lyrically unearths, and reminds us of the weight and consequences of a century of white supremacist violence. At the same moment, her words hold both her love and anger.
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, by Imani Perry, brings to contemporary sensibilities an extraordinary Chicago playwright who moved to New York City, became famous with the sensational success of A Raisin in the Sun, married, was openly a lesbian, a communist, a committed activist, and dear friends with James Baldwin and Nina Simone. She was a Black nationalist and an internationalist. She was under FBI surveillance during McCarthyism when she was newly in her twenties. She died at the age of 34. Perry has carefully plumbed Hansberry’s recently released papers, as well as her published plays and articles, to explore and bring to readers one of the most remarkable, complex and confident women of the last century. Lorraine Hansberry has been brought back to us with her full passions and her artistry. Perry’s book is blurbed by Alice Walker, Cornell West, Edwidge Dandicat, Donna Seaman and Jacqueline Woodson.
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. I know. I missed this groundbreaking book first published in 1989, in which Cisneros blends genres and mediums to reveal the vibrant life of a Mexican American community in Chicago through the voice of a young girl growing up in an impoverished and immigrant Chicago neighborhood. The book is dedicated, “A Las Mujeres, To the Women.” The “chapters” are a page or two and pull you forward with sharp vignettes and an insistent feminist edge. I love this book and will add it to my course syllabus. On the cover of my used book, the poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks describes Cisneros as “… sensitive, alert, nuanceful…rich with music and picture.”
How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, is a collection of interviews of three founding authors of the Combahee River Collective, a group of radical Black feminists who gathered to write about Black liberation and feminism in 1977: Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, as well as two contemporary Black feminist activists, Alicia Garza and historian Barbara Ransby. The book includes a powerful introduction by Taylor, the Combahee River Collective Statement itself (just twelve pages), and the five interviews. I think it is mandatory reading for all activists, and for white women who are radical activists in particular. It is essential to uproot the lingering notion that the second wave women’s movement of the 1970s was primarily, largely, or only forged by white women.
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States: For Young People, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese. Perhaps I can assume that everyone reading this piece has read the original An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, written by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and released in 2013. That book, wrote historian Robin D.G. Kelley, is “the most important book you will read in your lifetime.” It shattered, again, the notion that the US was a land “discovered” in the “New World.”
This new book is adapted for young people who, in the U.S. and on the continent, are still forced to imbibe a steady stream of white supremacist-drenched history that erases the indigenous people who lived on the land for centuries before it was colonized, and shamefully hides the bloody and explicit attempts to use irregular warfare (torture, starvation and genocide) to seize the land and its resources from the people who lived there. Give this book to all the adolescents and young readers you know, and to teachers everywhere.
Things that Make White People Uncomfortable, by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin. Okay, this is for all sports fans but also all those interested in how racism, police violence and capitalism work in a particular, powerful domain. And it is a thoroughly gloves-off look at white supremacy and racism in the US. Bennett is a savvy and courageous professional football player and Super Bowl champion who responds to Colin Kaepernick’s unrepentant action with total solidarity. Bennett, a father of three, grew up in LA and Texas, and credits his activism and his interest in the world to his teacher/mom who had him reading the encyclopedia and taught him to keep asking “why?”. And to his wife, with whom he matured as they rode the waves of NFL life and fame. The book, like him, is dazzling, eloquent, profound, and audacious.
The New York Times has published, remarkably, an essential resource for every American, young and old. The brainchild of the brilliant Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project tells the national story from the moment the first enslaved Africans were kidnapped and brought to these shores, 400 years ago this month, and illuminates key issues the country faces today—the state of electoral politics, democracy, criminal justice, housing, wealth disparity, education and health-care, and on and on—with the benefit of an honest and accurate reading of our collective history. Erasures are restored, distortions corrected, and the genesis of all we see and experience around us is brought into clearer focus. Search out the 1619 Project, read it, distribute copies to colleagues and family and friends. If you need further incentive, here is a review by “history professor” and “intellectual heavy-weight” of the Republican Party, Newt Gingrich: “The NY Times 1619 Project should make its slogan ‘All the Propaganda we want to brainwash you with.’” Gingrich’s comment affirms the words of the great Frederick Douglass in his famous July 4, 1852 speech: “For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
by Patrick Radden Keefe
Say Nothing provides a riveting narrative of the abduction and disappearance of a thirty-eight year old mother of ten during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1972. Patrick Keefe’s great strength as a writer is to focus unblinkingly on each tiny detail—to sketch breath-taking scenes and graphic characters—and to create a spiraling momentum with new discoveries and surprises around every corner. It’s an intensely intimate account that must necessarily open to concentric circles of context—political setting, economic condition, historical flow, cultural significance. And here’s where Keefe’s problems begin.
Some nonfiction writers insert themselves into their stories, revealing standpoint, perspective, and personal point-of-view, striving for both transparency and transformation. Others work hard to stand above or outside the action, aspiring to objectivity and offering, then, a god’s-eye view. Patrick Keefe is in the second camp.
This means that he never adequately examines his own assumptions about the tangled realities on the ground in Northern Ireland, his own received wisdom about Great Britain and its place in the world. These don’t require serious exploration or reflection because they’re simply common sense, the things that all intelligent and right-thinking people understand. The problem, of course, is that there’s nothing more insistent and dogmatic than common sense. And that leads to assured moral judgments without either serious self-reflection or accountability.
His curiosity and empathy—the foundation of understanding, let alone discovering any tentative “truth”—extend to the victims of the Provisional Irish Republican Army campaigns (including disillusioned soldiers like Dolours Price) but not to the Provos themselves. Brendan Hughes is a three-dimensional character; Gerry Adams is a cartoon (at one point Keefe nods approvingly as Adams is compared to Charles Manson).
Certain Provos are referred to as “terrorists” so often that the designation becomes practically a first name; the British at their most brutal are “troops” or “the Brigadier” or “the Prime Minister.” Patrick Keefe might have asked: What motivates the Provos? Describe. What do they think they’re up to? What allows them to inflict (and suffer) such pain? What is terrorism? What are the limits of political action?
Further: What is Falls Road? Describe. What is ethnic cleansing? What is a “minority”?
Interestingly Patrick Keefe opens with a marvelous epigram from Viet Thanh Nguyen, but he never grasps the hallmark of Nguyen’s work: the willingness to dive into rather than flee from contradiction. Keefe fails again and again to explore the contradictions that loom up right in front of him: What does it mean to commit oneself to a cause (or a nation or a religion) while retaining a mind of one’s own? In a landscape so twisted by violence, oppression, and exploitation, how does one live a life that doesn’t make a mockery of one’s values? How does one see a violent uprising in light of the conditions that ignited it? He doesn’t explore the deepest questions—What does it mean to regard one another deeply and hopefully? What are the consequences of our failure to do so?—because his curiosity and empathy have exhausted themselves running along a single track.
But as the friend who gave me the book pointed out, if I wanted a book to tell the story of Ireland from the 50s to the present from a progressive point of view, this isn’t it. And it really can’t be. Keefe told the story he wanted to tell, and he acknowledges that he spent less time on British atrocities than on the Provos—his book is about only one terrible tragedy among thousands—but in a way that’s a cop-out.
The title of Keefe’s book is taken from a poem about the Troubles by the great Seamus Heany: Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. It refers to the code of silence adopted by the revolutionaries. Patrick Keefe has said something (he’s a solid reporter), but not nearly enough. Fascinating book, skewed perspective.