Thinking about Lee Tusman

So, Lee Tusman. He’s a Brandeis alum, and a cool one to boot. He came to Brandeis last Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday during class, he talked about the sort of cultural-space activism he does. On Wednesday night, we met to plan a secret anarchist (though he never used that word) artist activist event for Thursday. On Thursday, we put our plan into action.

We threw a party. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. See, Lee’s big idea was that there are many “unactivated public/private spaces” that are theoretically and perhaps legally public or semi-public land and open to everyone, but in fact are unused by the community and in a sense empty and wasted.  We threw a party on an unactivated space; the plaza in front of the library.

So that was fun. We had students simply having fun doing the sorts of things in their comfort zone: playing foursquare, flip-bucket, bucket-pong, music, dancing, creating chalk art, frolicking, and taking cell-phone pics.

It was great, it was joyous. Everyone had a lot of fun, but almost in a self-consciously zany way. There were people in costume – one person ran around asking people if they wanted their picture taken with a cow.

The event itself ended, on schedule, after exactly an hour, and the only thing left of this rollicking party at 1:05 was the chalk on the walls and plaza of the library and the memories (digital and personal).

So that was the event. But the happenings of the event aren’t the interesting parts. The real question we must ask ourselves is not “What happened?” (the answer is here) but instead, “what was accomplished?”

Especially during Wednesday, I had several conversations with my peers on the same topic: “what’s the point?” Lee does this sort of stuff all the time, but it’s alien to our ideas of good activism. His lifestyle of arts/cultural activism: Is it scalable? Is it goal-oriented? Is it sustainable? We didn’t have the time to really discuss these questions with Lee (and he kept ducking our offers of lunch) so we never have a real dialog with him to address these concerns. Absent that, the consensus seemed to be that it was none of these

It took me a while to understand the point of Lee Tusman and what he represents. I think I can give it a shot now, though.

Lee Tusman keeps our soul alive.

We on the left long ago decided that there are two effective paths to doing good in the world. One path involves putting on a suit and working for a nonprofit or government and trying to use the levers of power to address policy. The other path means gritty community organizing and many one-on-one conversations and overwork with little pay. There are good reasons for this collective decision.

Lee is there to remind us of the spirit we have, of the joy inherent in the movement, perhaps of the reason we started in the first place. Lee is here to prefigure right now the society we hope to see in the far future.

Lee is relentless about documenting his actions. We had a whole team with the sole purpose of documenting our 1-hour party with different sorts of media. In class, later, we were asked to write instructions, tips, and lessons learned for a zine he’d distribute about what we’d done. His presentation to class on Wednesday was based off showing different examples of previous projects. This is no accident.

Lee’s purpose is not to have prefigured the great society in any given place – his purpose is to generate and spread the myth of this action/event/art/prefiguration. The broad social movement (if it can even be considered one) of the left is disparate, balkanized, inchoate. Lee generates the unifying myth, the tales that we can all draw inspiration from.

The class had the pleasure of meeting another great alum who goes by the name of Andrew Slack. Andrew Slack is the founder and executive director the Harry Potter Alliance.

I try to explain the HPA through a monologue that goes something like this: “In the Harry Potter books, when Voldemort is coming back and the Daily Prophet was studiously ignoring it or outright denying it, weren’t you confused? Didn’t you ask “what, these Wizards only have one paper?” That was a problem and we can do something to stop it in real life. Stop Voldemedia! The HPA partnered with Free Press to promote media diversification. What if we were members of a Dumbledore’s Army for the real world? We’d do things like stop genocide – it was wrong in the books and it’s wrong here, and that’s why the HPA working on Darfur issues. The HPA works with fan communities for the Harry Potter series that have hundreds of thousdands of hits per day, and activates them to do good as a Dumbledore’s Army for the real world. So yeah, cool right?”

People often miss the significance of the Harry Potter Alliance; the HPA is so special because it takes people who do not identify with political or social causes and activates them. Whereas the model of many DC-focused groups is one where you must gather the attention and loyalty of as many progressive activists as you can, the HPA is so special because it expands the number of activated progressives around, unlike, say which seeks to organize already-existing citizens more effectively. In other words, the HPA has found a way to take cultural energy and turn it into political energy.

Lee Tusman and people like him take  “potential energy” found in any community and turn it into cultural energy.

So far we’ve established that Lee’s purpose is to propagate a vision for the society we wish to live in, to motivate and energize the movement, to bring back the zest and spirit of a left that has signed a pact with the nonprofit industrial complex.

Lee’s visit had one more positive effect not discussed yet, one that can be found by examining the planning session before, and the unstructured discussion after the event. During the Wednesday night planning session, the way the session itself was structured showed us a new model of collaborate leadership. Lee definitely was in charge – he shot down ideas if he didn’t like them, he set the agenda, he set the questions. To be clear, we are still dealing with a variation on the old hierarchical model. Lee seized command of the conversation right away, and didn’t relinquish it. In this way, his leadership style is more authoritarian than one might find on any club on campus. However, with that control, Lee vigorously pursued the opinions, ideas, and possibilities presented by all students in class, especially the meekest. In this way, the meeting was more open and pluralistic than most found on campus.

Robin Dash, a professor who was guest-lecturing along with Lee, tried to take this a step further. By sitting where she wanted, interrupting, and forcefully advocating for her point of view, Professor Dash tried to induce all to enter a new world of more free and spirited discourse. I consider this initiative a failure. Very few or no Brandeis students emulated that style, so that her leadership by example came across badly when contrasted by the decorum and politeness that students were not swayed from.

Lee, I think, tried (but not too hard) to open up a new model of social interaction to the students in the class, and that failed. However, in a broader view, his visit did affect students in a way that is more durable than chalk on the walls of the Library. As soon as he left, a few students talked about replicating the “party in an unactivated space” model again in school once he was gone. A questionnaire passed around class asking “want to do something like this AGAIN?” gathered about 10 signatures of would-be organizers for the next event. In this sense, the memory and myth of the party at the library will perhaps grow to the point where it serves as a cultural touchstone and inspiration to this generation of Brandeis activists.