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From Ideology to Dialogue: The Left and Y2K

The following is a dialogue between my good friend Kenoli Oleari and his friend Osha. It has some fascinating insights into the political Left -- its gifts and limitations, and how it could change for the better through the challenge of Y2K. -- Tom Atlee

Dear Osha:

Here is something I just sent to our Y2K group about our talk last night. I would be interested in your feedback... -- Kenoli

I had a discussion recently with a "lefty" friend about the skepticism of
left groups to working with Y2K and he voiced his own skepticism about the
simple act of building community without a conscious understanding of how
power is distributed and used in America. He was concerned that
neighborhood organizing that is not based on such an understanding is to
isolate communities around local interests (getting rid of homeless people,
how do we look out for our own, etc.). He was concerned that emergency
preparedness can too easily lead to a "look-out-for-our-own" mentality and
wondered how organizing around an event so finite in time can support
continued community. The perspective we have chosen, to build community
around the value of community itself is compelling, but may not be readily
grasped, either by neighborhood groups who already have a kind of "gated
community"- neighborhood watch approach or by more progressive organizers
who distrust the past tendencies of neighborhood groups to gravitate in
this direction. We don't live with a history of faith in the wisdom of the

I think this is something it might be useful to grapple with. Would it be
useful to discuss more directly -- in common language that can be used in
local organizing -- how Y2K is a result of skewed power relations in
society and how we can use it to understand the possibilities for systemic
social change. Doing this might also help to attract organizing allies
from the many groups on the left who have a deep committment to social
change but don't really have a form or context for effective organizing.
We might be able to recruit these voices in helping with this definition.
The deeper skill here would be to integrate this voice with other voices
(e.g. the business community, more locally minded neighborhood groups, city
government) from which it has remained isolated.

This could, in fact, be a useful regional function. I could imagine some
large format meetings of a wide range of stakeholders (possibly a future
search or open space conference or custom designed conference) that could
focus on discovering the common ways in which Y2K can unite previously
disparate voices for substantive social paradigm shifts.

It would be exciting to see voices that usually don't talk convened in an
effective manner. I think the Natural Step meeting that was convened a
year or two ago in Berkeley was a step of this sort. In that conference,
strong voices for social justice came together and began to talk together
with people whose main focus had been a sustainable environment. This talk
got off the ground but I don't think went much further. There was a little
email excahange following the conference.

Maybe Y2K could catalyze such a significant integration. Could a regional
group help support this? It would certainly add an important dimension to
what we are doing.

What would our fears be in approaching this? What are the ups? What are
the downs? There is certainly the fear of politicization. What else?
Actually testing our values in arenas in which they have not bee respected
in the past? Are we up to this?

The left has shitty process and excellent analysis. I think what we bring
to the table is the beginning of a union between process and analysis.
i.e. process that reflects both values and content, things like inclusion,
collaboration, diversity, cooperative decisionmaking. These are certainly
values that have been espoused, but generally not practiced, by progressive
social movements forever. We recognize the capacity of this mergence for
creating new and exciting social models that have the potential to actually
manefest these values. And we see Y2K as a hopeful catalyst. This is not
something that either the common citizen or lefty even begins to
comprehend. The business world -- ironically, I would say -- has explored
some of this territory, not because of its commitment to these values, but
because it exists in a context in which people are forced to work together,
even if it is in the service of profits and exploitation.

An organizing group that has skirted with this integration is the diversity
community. Even so, it is also quite divided between those who focus on
correct analysis and those who believe in the transformative power of
mutual experience and truthtelling. Do we have keys, skills, the will, to
take some leadership and delve more deeply into this integration between
"theory" and "praxis"?

We say that the deepest tragedy is that things might remain the same after
Y2K? What do we mean by this? What do we want to change? How? There is
an implied anaysis in our approach. How do we want to move that into


Dear Kenoli,

I'm impressed.
Some quick responses:

1. "Lefty" (even in quotes), as a characterization of me, in the first
sentence, and of groups in the body of the text grates. The quotes do
not save it from having a slightly disparaging, condescending tone. I'm
not sure that is a helpful place to begin a discussion. What are lefty
groups? Copwatch? Earth First? La Pena cultural center? Is there a left
in the United States? I think it is better to unpack the term. What
does it mean? What do the various groups that perhaps you're thinking
of have in common? I'm not saying we have to give up characterizing a
spectrum of opinion, but perhaps it isn't only one spectrum, a single
band heading from "left" to "right"

2.It is not a question of whether or not you trust "the masses (the
masses? Whose a lefty now?), but when do you trust them - when do they
speak with the voice of their genuine self-interest, and when with the
voice that is the ingested "internalized" voice of an oppressor.

3. The problem I see with the diversity community is not so much that
it is split between those concerned with correct analysis and those who
believe in "the transformative power of mutual experience and truth
telling" but that it is too often divorced from any action and
organizing for social change. It too often fails to confront
institutionalized power, it too often limits itself to analysis and the
sharing of experience.

You've seduced me from a million chores and duties.
It was good talking.
Good seeing you.



Dear Osha (Now you seduced me from my chores and duties),

Thanks for your note. Sorry for the characterization. I guess you noticed
that the "" around "lefty" indicated my uneasiness with the term also. It
is certainly the term that I have identified with for a long time, though I
have noticed myself using the term "progressive" more in the last bunch of
years. The problem is, of course, as soon as we put a name to anyone it
sets the stage for disparagement. You also know that I have never blown
fuses trying to use language in the most accurate way possible. You are
right, of course, the thing to do is to unpack the concept and say what I
really mean.

In this case, I mean two things. One is those of us who have identified
with and committed to (to at least some degree) fundamental social and
political change in the world. I also mean a particular voice in that
arena (which I largely identify with and which can in its worst form can
get kind of fundamentalist) which acts from a particular power analysis and
a particular posture in relation to that analysis. It is important not to
be disparaging, to myself or anyone else, because, the fact is, that we are
all, no matter who we are or what we believe, going to have to figure this
out together.

I am interested in what you said about the diversity commmunity. A friend
characterised the philosophy of Joanna Macy to me as having three parts in
relation to social change.

1) The holding actions (protest against injustice, environmental defense,
police oversight, peace and anti-nuclear work, labor work, etc.)

2) The basic paradigm shift, the social analysis and action that supports
action towards new institutions and paradigms. (Deep social analysis,
challenges to corporate power, third parties, alternative economics [etc.])

3) Personal transformation. The change that needs to take place on a
personal level in order to act in new ways, be able to see and embrace new
and yet unknown possibilities. I think this is more than just
re-programming, the kind of thing we did trying to get rid of our sexism or
racism. I think it is enlarging our capacities and shifting in some
fundamental ways....

I think the history of the left has seen movements get focused on one of
these or another. I think when they can become collaborative developments,
they feed each other and greatly enhance all three dynamics. I think the
diversity community has found a strength in the third (Equity, Stir Fry) in
a large degree, and some groups in a kind of analytical version of the
second (People's Institute). I have heard lots of discussion and
frustration, especially among whites, in the diversity movement about how
to act. It has been a hard one to figure out.

The spiritual crowd obviously tends to get stuck in the third, the
environmentalists in the first, and the marxists in the second. ( How's
that for another quicky and inadequate characterization?) What I really
think is that we tend to get stuck on what has worked for us personally and
to have a hard time maintaining a broad and inclusive perspective (and
practice) over time. We are all looking for something that takes the pain
away most quickly.

I think the third point speaks to your question about how to know what
voice we are hearing, our own true voice or some internalized implant.
This is hard and there are no tests. What I have noticed, however, and
what I hear described by others who do certain kinds of work with groups is
a kind of paradigm shift that takes place in the way people see each other,
talk to each other and commit to each other when they begin doing things I
call speaking the truth, engaging authentically, or just plain getting to
know who others really are. What I believe is that we all basically want
the same things. We want to feel good, we want security, we want people in
our lives with who we share deep beliefs, we want be able to realize our
true being in our daily lives. What happens as these things are frustrated
is that we bury our real needs and subvert them into belief systems that
manefest as everything from obsessive work to bigotry and mass murder.
When a context begins to allow us to tune into our deeper selves, to tell
that truth to others and to hear other people (especially people we have
cast as alien) being similarly truthful, maybe saying the same or similar
things, we can begin to let go of the things we have bought and act in ways
that begin to create supports for our "real" truth. I think the indicators
are that guards go down, that people start to identify with each other
instead of defining themselves in opposition, that hope starts to arise and
action begins to grow out of a common foundation rather than a belief

The trick is, do we know how to inititate these shifts? In what ways do
these shifts manifest in action? How can these shifts and committments to
action be supported? Thrown into this mix is the interest in how we might
begin to create self-organizing or learning structures, structures created
or supported in ways that tend to support sustained effort, growth and

What would a society that supported our dream vision look like? Would it
be a society of law (the right laws this time)? Would it have the perfect
system of representation? Would it be one large citizens' forum linked by
technology? Would it grow out of a different way of coming together that
we have not yet, or, maybe, are beginning to discover? Do self-organizing
systems exist? I think Anarcho-syndicalism was a stab at this (at least it
was for me -- a reprieve from heirarchy, feeling it in your blood with some
others instead of having to figure it out).

I am intrigued at what might happen if we could bring together a disparate
group of voices that usually see themselves as adversaries (in the deepest
way), not give anything up (no compromise), but agree to enter into a true
inquiry into each others truths. No intended outcome but going through
this process together and then assessing what it felt like and what action
or commitment might grow out of it. I don't know what would happen, but I
don't think anything new is going to happen that is not based on some
action similar to this.

The revolution is not going to come when any of us finally convince
everyone else to see things the way we do. It is going to have to come out
of a vision that none of us yet hold.

Thanks, for the dialogue,


Kenoli Oleari
LEAP (Long Range Education, Empowerment and Action Project)
Voice Phone: 510-601-8217, fax: 510-595-8369