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.

Oren Strategy

The competing claims on what Michael Oren represents, and over the appropriate way to handle his invitation to be Commencement speaker, fascinate me. How effective is the framing of different competing claims? Is their activism strategic and are their tactics well-thought-out?

I find this stuff fascinating. Here’s what I think is going on:

The competing claims

Regarding Oren, there are multiple groups struggling to define him and what his visit means, not just two.

On the general “pro-Oren” side:

–  enthusiastic self-identified Zionists / pro-Israel students
–  political conservatives and “anti-hippies”
–  the mostly apathetic annoyed by all this drama
–  the mostly apathetic that have a status-quo pro-administration bias

On the general “Pro-Unity” side:

–  those identifying as the pro-Palestinian / anti-Israel side
–  those identifying as the left on campus
–  those who don’t want to deal with the drama and want a unified commencement
– those who don’t have a deep personal stake in all this but respect their friends’  feelings and desire a unified commencement

And then there’s everyone else.

Now, these groups overlap and I’m not saying that they’re organized discrete units or anything, but they are separate.

What’s happened so far:

In response to the Oren decision, there was a lot of grumbling among students. I overheard people I’ve never spoken to before talking about how they were sad about how they felt forced to skip commencement. This was a real thing.

For a while, no one organized. On Sunday, Jon, a self-identified member of the left on campus decided to borrow some Innermost Parts online activism tools to create an “anti-Oren petition”. (Disclosure – I consulted on this) While it was conceptually initially conceived as such, the evolution of the framing and text of the open letter is interesting.

First off, it went from being a petition to an open letter. I think this was a valid and good strategic choice. Calling it an open letter makes sense – petitions demand change, letters express a viewpoint. The open letter didn’t make any demands, but instead was a venue for students to say “Hey, we’re thinking of skipping commencement because we feel so strongly about this.”

But the framing and the implied alliances are even more interesting. Instead of writing a fiery open letter talking about the “outrage” at the “unacceptable” choice of commencement speaker, (which would’ve appealed solely to the left and anti-Israel/pro-Palestine elements on campus), Jon chose a different frame. Instead, he made an implicit alliance with the third “those who don’t want to deal with the drama and want a unified commencement” group in order to make a more open coalition and vie for the support of the “are annoyed by controversy and division” masses.

This was a good move, I think. If you read the open letter (and allied facebook group) you’ll see language like this:

Commencement was supposed to be about us.
However, with the selection of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, commencement has been hijacked to serve as part of a debate about Middle Eastern politics. Whether this was the intention is not important: in our eyes and the eyes of the world, Brandeis commencement is a stage for partisan politics, not a celebration of graduating seniors.

We, students, faculty, staff, friends and family of Brandeis University, respectfully believe that the choice of Ambassador Michael Oren as commencement speaker is inappropriate. His far-right views are divisive and do not reflect the diversity of opinion on campus, and moreover politicize what should be an uncontroversial, inclusive role.

This language was clearly meant to both oppose the choice of Oren and appeal to the broadest possible audience. Activism always tends to annoy people – the gambit was to use that annoyance and, judo-style, turn it towards those disturbances to campus unity.

This challenge went up online, and then a few days later a competing facebook group went up: Those who are in favor/don’t have anything against Michael Oren. This, too, was a strong attempt to attract the “apathetic/easily annoyed”  masses.  Soon after that, a stronger “A Letter in Support of President Reinharz and Ambassador Oren” with accompanying petition started gathering support.

While this was happening, a separate anti-Oren group was coalescing. Instead of building off the list names of open letter cosigners and facebook-group members, this new group was starting from scratch. They decided to build off the energy of the Source/ReSource event and use it as an occasion to protest. Soon before the event, there were more sophisticated second thoughts: (reprinted from an email with permission):

  • Michael Dowling is an activist himself, and he realizes that Brandeis is a broken community, especially in the wake of the Rose Art scandal.
  • The Source/ReSource event, in the view of its creators, is not a tool of the administration to say that the Rose is fixed.  Instead it’s supposed to bring people from all aspects of the community to unite around this place of contention, and if anything it’s a message of dissent directed at the administration.
  • Instead of occupying this space and effectively claiming it before the event occurs, perhaps we should use the message of the event and relate it to ours after it’s finished.  People should be coming away from this ceremony with a sense of campus unity, and that’s the very thing we feel was disrupted by the choice of Oren as commencement speaker.
  • By taking over the space before this event, we could potentially alienate or make enemies of people who should be our allies.
  • In the messages we display and literature we hand out we should connect the Source/ReSource idea to the conflict.  We could say something like, (these are my words) “Brandeis students are a great Source and ReSource of peace, justice and coexistence in the world.  Commencement is the ultimate ceremony signifying our transition from Source to ReSource.  Bringing Oren to our campus to speak about this issue at this event is both unnecessary and inappropriate.”

Therefore at the hastily-planned Source/ReSource art event, the pro-unity group taped fliers stating their position on buckets and participated in the event. The symbolism was good, but what was the strategic impact? The action got written up in the Justice, but the Justice was sure to mention the low numbers of protesters.

Later,  similarly, the pro-unity side staged a protest outside Bernstein-Marcus on Friday. It was a more explicitly “anti-oren” sort of thing and they did go to Jehuda’s office hours. Again, I think it may have done more harm than good – highlighting their small numbers. A nice tactic is to have all 10 or 20 protesters go into office hours with Jehuda and speak to him at once. I don’t think they did that.

How did the small core of pro-unity activists spread their message? They fliered a bit about the protest on Wednesday, they sent a facebook mail to members of their group once announcing each of the two demonstrations, and they posted sometimes on Innermost Parts.

State of play right now

In this time, the pro-oren side had spread their petition to right-wing blogs and gained a lot of signatures. Now, many of these petition signers are generic right-wingers or random panicked Jews. So the “pro-oren” petition doesn’t have too many actual Brandeisians in it, and a  petition is easier to sign than an open letter that says “I am seriously considering not going to commencement”. Still, I worry that these fine distinctions will be lost.

Speaking of distinctions, the distinction between the “anti-Oren” and “pro-Union” groups that hasn’t really been fleshed out yet. That has been deliberate – the anti-Oren faction really doesn’t want to alienate campus and is therefore subsuming their very specific, yet polarizing critiques under the more vague “we believe in campus unity, Oren is a divisive figure” message. The problem comes up when people say “Well, why is Oren so divisive?” They cannot respond because they do not know what they can allow themselves to say.

The pro-Unity position is also hampered by the fact that it anticipated ugly attacks at the anti-Oren (or possibly from the anti-Oren) group and tried to preempt them by pointing at the attacks/division as a reason why the Oren selection for Commencement speaker was an unwise choice. The problem, of course, is that the anti-Oren group decided to subsume itself into the “pro-Unity” coalition, such that the pro-Unity folks were attacked on grounds of creating the division themselves. If they didn’t run around claiming that Oren was divisive, the “reasoning” went, then Oren wouldn’t be divisive.

Now, clearly this is bullshit. People would be hurt and upset by the Oren selection in the absence of any organized activity. Still, the pro-Unity coalition tried to strike a “sensible middle ground” but has been hampered by the fact that there’s no one out there (except Professor Mairson) making the case as to why exactly Oren is a bad choice on the merits, and why exactly he makes students feel alienated from their own commencement.

I’m not sure what the “pro-Oren” side has been up to. I’d be very intrigued indeed to hear what sort of decisions, planning, and actions they’ve taken behind-the scenes. I’m genuinely curious – once this is all over, if someone would like to give me that side of the story I’d be much obliged.

So this is the situation. If I could advise group of students meeting and planning the unified “pro-Unity” coalition, this is what I’d say:

Advice for future action on the pro-Unity front:

You have several advantages. Use them. Firstly, you have meetings and are making plans. That’s great. You have made the choice to spend your time trying to make a change, and that gives you power. You have access to 247 students opposed to Michael Oren as commencement speaker, and 135 students have signed a letter saying that they’re so upset they are considering skipping out of commencement.  Use them.

You have access to all these potential allies and volunteers and organizers. Email them, use them.

Your actions have some merit. Symbolically joining the Source/ReSource ceremony, going to Jehuda’s office hours, that was nice. It made sure that you got into the papers. Fine. Still, it shows your weakness. You held a protest and 15 people showed up. Don’t make that mistake again. If you hold a protest, you damn well better be sure that enough people will show up not to embarrass you.

It takes time and effort, and I’m sorry, but you have to organize. Knock on doors, talk to people in Usdan. Put a flier under every door with a link to your open letter. That’s how you grow your organization and get new supporters.

Remember that famous Alinsky quote:

For an elementary illustration of tactics, take parts of your face as the point of reference; your eyes, your ears, and your nose. First the eyes; if you have organized a vast, mass-based people’s organization, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power. Second the ears; if your organization is small in numbers, then do what Gideon did: conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does. Third, the nose; if your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.

Ok, now strategy.

You need an anti-Oren foil. You need someone out there loudly making the case for why Oren is so offensive after all, and why they are hurt by him. Now, it has to be a separate organization from you guys. You might not even agree with what this new group will have to say – but as they grow in power and influence, you will too. You will be seen as the “reasonable middle” that you are.

You also need a demand. I know, I know. Up till now you’ve strategically not made any explicit demands on the administration. There was sound reasoning behind this – you know and I know that Jehuda isn’t going to un-invite Oren. Even if he magically agreed with us, he’d feel too embarrassed to back out now. You decided not to make a demand until you got a lay of the land and saw what was possible and thought up a think that could happen to “cancel out” the Oren invitation. Well, you’ve waited long enough. Time to start organizing around a specific change. You have options. Let me suggest a two:

1. More student speakers at commencement. One graduating senior every year gives a speech at commencement. Would-be speakers submit drafts online, seniors vote for the top few best drafts, and then a committee of “adults” picks the final speaker. Don’t settle for this. We want a united community, not a divided one, right? To cancel out Oren’s divisiveness, why not have 3 student speakers, not just one. I know that the finalists this year are all inspiring brilliant people with great speeches. Who better to unite around than our beloved fellow classmates?

2. A more open process for choosing commencement speakers. Michael Oren was a bad choice. We can prevent more bad choices in the future by creating a better decision-making process, one that empowers and respects students and recognizes our legitimate claim that we should have some power over choosing commencement speakers and honorary degree-holders. I know this lacks the emotional satisfaction that you might be looking for (and honestly won’t help you at all), but it would be a nicer senior gift than any money could buy.

This is the state of play on the Michael-Oren-at-Brandeis related front as best as I understand or can articulate it.  As for predictions for the future – the pro-Unity group really needs to step up its community organizing game, and it needs to also start activating all those potential leaders and volunteers found in its facebook group and petition-signers. However, we are entering finals – there’s not enough free time to make this happen. Therefore I’m pessimistic. The best hope is to adopt one of those two proposals (more student speakers or reformed commencement speaker selection process) and see if it can go viral.

It’s not Michael Oren’s fault

So this whole Michael Oren thing – the line is that Oren divides Brandeis. People don’t seem to understand how that is true. But Oren divides me! Please understand, I’m a patriotic Israeli citizen. I love my country. I’m also a proud “left-ish,” and people on the left tend to be pretty harsh on Israel. This contradiction has torn my heart for years already.

Michael Oren brings this anguished internal monologue to the fore. He’s my ambassador. Much of the criticism leveled at him focused on his stint in the Israeli military. I feel pride in the Israeli military; right now I have leave from being drafted (seeing as how I’ve lived in the United States for so long) but I intend to go back to Israel and serve.  Still, just as I could love America during the Bush years but still be staunchly opposed to torture, invading Iraq, and everything else, I can love Israel and still support rule of law, human rights, and democratic pluralism.

I disagree with the Israeli government – but I love my country. Do you understand how hard this is on me? People in the states seem to be divided into two camps – “Israel is awesome and any criticism of their policies is motivated by either ignorance or hatred” or “Israel is evil and they are an oppressor and gleefully cackle as they pursue war crimes”. Sure that’s a caricature but that’s the state of our discourse, more or less. Is there room for me?

Is there room for people who think: “Israel is a great country and my family is from there. I was born there and my family left Israel because Saddam Hussein kept sending missiles during the Gulf War. My mom was freaking out because I was playing around in biohazard tents because no one knew if those missiles had biological or chemical weapons or not. If my cousin had gone to a disco 10 minutes earlier this one time he would’ve been dead due to suicide bomber in line. So I get the Israeli mentality, I think. I get how they have a legitimate case that the deck is stacked against them, and how the UN unfairly focuses on them. But I also keep reading reports on how the Israeli government has a file of all this Arab land that was illegally stolen but doesn’t do anything about it and I totally believe in the idea that “occupation corrupts”.  It does. And no matter how we got to this shitty situation and no matter how unfair it is that Israel gets saddled with this horrible image and “refugees” that by all rights should be Jordanian or Egyptian citizens, the clear problem is that Israel can’t be both a  democracy and a Jewish state and have all the territory it has now. And like, human rights abuses are wrong but they don’t define a whole country. ”

Is there room for people who sometimes criticize, sometimes defend Israel? Is there room for people who come from a position of love and anguish?

Oren divides. You know how I know? Because we’ve seen in the last week or so some ugly comments coming from members of the Brandeis community addressed to other members of the Brandeis community:

Shame on you. Don’t you liberal lemmings always cry “FREEDOM OF SPEECH”? Aha, only when it serves your self-hating, anti-Jewish purpose.

This group is an embarrassment

Do yourselves a favor and don’t embarrass Brandeis anymore than you already are.

Shutup, and deal with it.

You believe yourselves to be open minded citizens, but you are merely bigoted. Get your facts straight before you make your biased remarks. You obviously have done zero research into the UN or what Michael Oren stands for..and probably know nothing about Israel’s position in general for that matter.

I just hope that none of my money went to providing you with an education.

Wow lets all listen to ms radical mariel, shes really got a point. or not. get over it, hes coming just stop being dramatic about every little aspect of life when its in regards to israeli politics.

stop whining about people who bring on their own problems and think of gilad shalit: a far more worthy subject of social justice than the half baked a…holes for whom you attempt to seek justice. when you grow up and stop your self loathing jews will be better off.

It’s not Ambassador Oren’s fault, but there are assholes on campus. I appreciate Brandeis because we seem to have a lot less than other places, but they do exist. It is sad that his visit has exposed them.

There are people on campus who are legitimately hurt by this selection. There are people on campus who are legitimately outraged. There are also people who don’t want to relive these interminable battles of Israel, who want to enjoy a commencement in peace, who don’t want to worry about Brandeis’ foreign policy. Then there are people who aren’t even Jewish. What about them?

What about the people who aren’t Jewish, but now have to hear over and over again that  Brandeis is a Jewish school, that their presence here for the last 4 years is now somehow less legitimate?

Bringing Oren was a bad decision – a divisive decision. Theoretically, the selection process works like this: students (and others) nominate honorary degree-holders, the Board of Trustees narrows these nominations down and decides who gets a degree each year, and Jehuda chooses which of these becomes commencement speaker.

In practice, the process works like this: only one student nominated anyone for an honorary degree this last year. Students don’t know how and don’t know when to submit nominations.

We need a better process. We need more aggressive publicity for our power to nominate, and we need a more open process of choosing honorary degree holders. More students should have a say on who gets honorary degrees; perhaps there could be a more open/democratic process even for choosing commencement speakers.

To a real extent, this whole Oren thing reflects two ongoing stories at Brandeis. One is of course our tensions regarding Middle East politics. The other : students feel disrespected by the administration, and the administration doesn’t have a culture yet of valuing student input. Over and over again we see instances where more democracy, more respect and openness to students would have led to better policy. If the administration had spent time talking to students about the Rose, about Oren, about Budget cuts, then student energy would be spent working with and defending the administration, not opposing it’s autocratic decisions. I bet if we had a real campus conversation over the Oren decision, if students felt respected and included in the decision, we wouldn’t see nearly as much anger and betrayal as we see today.

We’ve seen a lot of ugliness lately, and I don’t like that at all. The decision to bring Oren does intensify fault lines at Brandeis, instead of uniting us in celebration. You can’t argue with that.