Friday, November 27, 2009

Last man standing

That was I.

This evening my Ottawa co-blogger and I decided to take in a public meeting with Malalai Joya, the brave young Afghan woman I have written about before (and defended against the trash-talkers on the Right). The event was sponsored/organized by the Ottawa Peace Assembly, an affiliate of the Canadian Peace Alliance. The place--a large church with two floors of pews--was packed.

I really wanted to hear what she had to say, unmediated. You don't get that kind of opportunity every day. Unfortunately, though, the acoustics were so bad that I could grab about one word in three. I thought it might have been my hearing, but those around me were in the same boat. So for us her presence became merely iconic. From time to time, usually when she paused, we clapped.

Joya was deeply critical of the Taliban, but also of the warlords and druglords sitting in the Afghan parliament today. She wanted the occupation (what we call "the mission") to end, because, as she put it, it's easier to fight one enemy than two. She made the sensible point that oppression in one country is rarely lifted by invasion and occupation by others. She talked about the terrible on-going civilian toll in Afghanistan, and attacked the misogyny that pervades the place.

I wish I could say that I learned something new from her this evening. But it was a set speech. Besides, Joya was tired after her three-month book tour. And she had another meeting right after this one. I'm not being critical of her.

These big meetings, though--what are they for? Perhaps in this case, besides promoting her book, to give us the opportunity to ask the central question about Afghanistan, the one we all ask in one way or another right across the political spectrum. The one that none of us, frankly, do very well in answering.

If the troops leave, whither Afghanistan? Here's Malalai Joya. She's on the ground over there.
She was an underground organizer when the Taliban were running the show.When she ran for parliament she received the second-highest number of votes in her province, and was seated, only to be tossed out on her ear when she criticized some of her colleagues too loudly. She knows the terrain and the people and the politics.

Maybe she could help us out.

We were supposed to have a Q&A session. The moderator, whom I know slightly, announced that we'd have two women and two men at the mics. I assumed that he meant two by two for gender parity--no problem there.

As it turns out, the mics got stacked by opponents. The first question was, however, quite reasonable--Ms. Joya, what do you want? In other words, The Question: how would you like things to unfold in your country if the troops leave? Problem was, she then began in a hostile manner to pepper Joya with more questions, not letting her finish. Joya rose to the occasion, becoming more animated and spontaneous, but I was left none the wiser for her answer.

Blame it on acoustics and the language barrier, but nothing coherent seemed to emerge. There was something about "the people of Afghanistan," but I used to talk that way myself. Obviously by "the people" she didn't mean the warlords, druglords, Taliban, their assorted
footsoldiers, their followers, their families and so on. So who, then? Is there a progressive movement we can pin our hopes on? Or is a spontaneous upswelling on the way, like all those revolutions in Eastern Europe, Orange, Rose, Velvet?

It was the level of vagueness that was causing me increasing grief, even if there are good reasons for it. As noted, big public meetings aren't the place (usually) for nuance. So vague it was, and vague it remained throughout.

The second questioner was a whiny little right-winger who kept yammering on,
never really getting to his question, if he even had one. He preferred to attack Joya with innuendo, suggesting for example that when she referred to 9/11 as a "tragedy," she didn't really mean it. Finally people began to object, leading inevitably to a further whine about "democracy." The man was, in other words, the living incarnation of an Internet troll.

Next up was another version of The Question, this time from someone more sympathetic. Again, words rocketed around the room, but nothing seemed to come together. And then a woman, who really just wanted to thank Joya for gracing us with her presence.

There were two of us left at the mic. The fellow ahead of me, alas, turned out to be a Truther. I was suddenly deathly afraid that Joya would turn out to be one too, but she deflected his insinuating question about bin Laden quite skilfully. He wanted to know if the man in the cave had really taken responsibility for 9/11, or was that just, you know, translation error, because the towers were actually brought down by explosives. She talked about bin Laden's terrible influence in her country.

I was all set to ask my question: a soft lob about Richard Colvin. But: "No more questions," barked the moderator. Joya summed up in a rush of words and everyone stood up to applaud her. Some lined up to buy her book, others headed for the exits.

The meeting, from start to finish, had lasted just over an hour.

Five, count them, five questioners, limited to one minute each to ask their questions. An old acquaintance outside made the mistake of teasing me about not being heard. I let her have it.

I don't like Stalinist control-freaky meeting organizers, I said. Why have a Q&A session at all, I asked. (Why not just intone The Line, commissar-like, from the podium, signal for applause, or wild applause, or prolonged and stormy applause, and let us out so we can go back to the evening shift at Grommet Factory #234?)

But this sort of thing has happened before, she said--meaning right-wingers at the mics--and they just wanted to keep a lid on it. The moderator knows me, I said weakly, giving her the opportunity to lecture me about privilege.

What I should have said was this: when I used to address numerous large meetings myself, union leader to rank and file, I often preferred hostile questioners to nice ones. Crowd apathy was my greatest fear. Hostility can mask a genuine desire to know, if not always. You can work with it. Admittedly a couple of questioners at this evening's meeting were jerks, but so what? We've got jerks running the country.

In any case here I am, left wondering about this meeting with Joya, where everyone played their appointed roles: guest-with-message, sponsoring-organization-with-shorter-message-and-buckets-for-donations, applauding audience (with, however, a sizeable dissenting presence), questioners, and organizers to make things run smoothly and contain the opposition.

Some money was collected for a project in Afghanistan about which we learned little. But nothing really happened. In a way, the bad acoustics were symbolic. Real communication, the lifeblood of organizing, was all but absent. The meeting was like countless others I have attended in my life, few of them memorable. When I was a teenager I used to feel daring going to them. Now I just feel frustrated at the lifelessness of it all.

We--and by "we" I mean the Left--need more. Much more than this. And I'd say the same thing, by the way, if I'd been allowed to ask my question.

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