Interview With Mark Lance

(TFC) – Mark Lance is a professor of philosophy, and professor of justice and peace, at Georgetown University where he teaches courses on philosophy of language, logic, political philosophy, nonviolence, etc. He has been active in movements for 30 years, including work around nuclear weapons production, South African apartheid, Central American solidarity, anti-war mobilizations, LGBTQ rights, Palestine solidarity, poverty, prisons, local school and housing work, and more. He has taught at the Institute for Social Ecology, been a board member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies, served as co-chair of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation as well as the Peace and Justice Studies Association, was a founding member of Stop US Tax-Aid to Israel Now, and a key organizer of two major DC protests against international financial institutions. For the last three years he has worked with the Truth Telling Project – an educational initiative out of Ferguson Missouri, currently serving as co-chair of the advisory board. He has lectured and led popular education events throughout the world on a wide variety of peace and social justice topics.

1. How did you first start engaging with activism? How did you start considering radical thought?

I came to this from a super-geeky angle. I was raised with lots of values that I took seriously, but also with a sort of standard American brainwashing about the role of our country, the way our society functioned, etc. (My parents were mainstream republicans ca 1960, which would be sort of Clinton centrist Dems today. Or maybe closer to GHWB.) So after some time in music I became a philosophy student, and one of the core values of philosophy is that you have to take the argument seriously, even if it seems absurd. So one day another student told me I was pig ignorant of all sorts of features of my society. I thought that was crazy, but decided I had to check it out. He suggested I read Chomsky and Zinn. I did. And after a few months of reading and checking out footnotes to see if they were bullshitting, I concluded (a) that they weren’t; (b) that the world was deeply fucked up; and (c) that I had a duty given my relatively privileged position and status to engage to do something about it.

Then I sought out good movement mentors, learned skills, etc. Started on the path.

2. What do you think we can do to combat sectarianism?

Ah. Be pragmatic. Within pretty broad parameters, I’ll work with any group that is doing effective work and treating one another decently. I don’t really care if the folks are marxist, anarchist, liberal, christian, muslim, jewish. Are they addressing a real issue in a way that looks to be effective, and in a group that is functional? Then I’ll try to help. I think that’s the right attitude. Of course I have my own broader long-term politics, and I’ll talk to people about that. But I’d rather talk about anarchist society to a group of cooperative, effective liberals working to improve neighborhood schools in a way that simultaneously empowers the local community than I would to a group of contentious, self-righteous, anarchists who spend all day debating where to buy the most politically correct vegan pizza and which windows to break along the way.

That was sort of a nasty joke, and I emphasize that I’ve worked in some very wonderful life-affirming practically useful spaces that self-identified with anarchism. But the joke isn’t just a caricature either. I’ve seen many utterly disfunctional anarchist spaces, and I don’t feel any affinity just because they use the same political analysis I do.

Beyond this, always try to be intersectional in your organizing. Connect issues and communities whenever you can. Bring groups together in your education. (I once did a speaking toiur with Vernon Bellacourt of the American Indian Movement, back during the first Intifada. I was doing a lot of Palestine work at the time, so we structured our discussions around colonialism and ethnic cleansing in North America and Palestine and brought in issues of militarism, racism, statism, etc.

So no grand answers here. Just lots of local practical decisions that break down barriers, while trying to build communities that can talk to one another respectfully.

3. What is some of your favorite radical art?

Hmmm. Music and literature are the two forms of art I engage with the most. I’m a big fan of lots of politically engaged music – music that lays bare social issues. I’m less taken with polemical music. I like David Rovics and sure liked the Dead Kennedy’s, but more I listen to people like James McMurtry, or the best work of Springsteen, Neil Young, Toshi Reagan, Tracy Chapman, Dar Williams, John McCutcheon, Woody and Arlo, Pete, etc.

In literature, when I’m not reading academic stuff, I tend to read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. And there’s some great radical work: Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, NK Jemison, Justina Robson, China Mieville, Kim Stanley Robinson, etc.

4. Can we actually stop near term mass human extinction or is it too late?
I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does either. And this isn’t really the important question – given the extraordinary complexity of the relevant system. We have to try. Because even if we can’t, it is better to go out having worked with comrades to build and preserve life than it is to go out having given into nihilism and despair.

5. What, in your estimation, does a successful defeat of empire look like and is it achievable?

I think this too is kind of the wrong question. I mean a world without hierarchical coercive control among communities. Many worlds within a world – as the Zapatistas say – or a world federation of free democratic communes. Libertarian municipalism. I mean the details can vary, but why sweat that when (a) a world without empire is so very far away from anything you or I are going to see in our lives, and (b) the people who are several steps closer to it will be far better placed to work out the details than we are, fuck up as we are by all the oppressive hierarchical dimensions of this world? So of course I oppose militarism, imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. And more important, in my view, I try to build local forms of life that are other than that, that are horizontalist and cooperative. And I try to find ways to link those local experiments with others so we can all support one another and maybe survive the inevitable reactionary attacks. But a world without empire? The final utopian condition? Sure, sometimes I fantasize, but I don’t take my fantasies very seriously. That’s farther than it is useful for me to try to see.

6. What movements, activists, and organizations do you draw inspiration from? Would like to signal boost? And can you describe their work?

Ah, gee. So many right now. The broad movement for black lives, rather obviously. Specifically I work with something called the Truth Telling Project that has produced educational resources on White Supremacy led by voices of family members of black people killed by police, and I’d love folks to make use of that. The various groups around NoDAPL stuff and generally organizing within first nations in the US. I still think a lot of the work of the Institute for Anarchist Studies. I’m intrigued by Redneck Revolt, though only know a few folks. No justice, NO Pride is a DC group built around the LGBTQ… folks largely ignored by mainstream groups like HRC. I haven’t worked directly with them, but follow their work and think it looks powerful. The US Campaign For Palestinian Rights is doing amazing work, connecting with others. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, various local rapid response networks around refugees, immigrants, muslims, etc. I’d encourage folks who might not be naturally inclined in that direction to think about connecting with the Catholic Worker Movement. On the more NGO side, I’d throw out Advocates For Youth which I think is doing amazing work.

7. What do you recommend for self-care and burn out prevention/ therapy?

First and foremost, whenever possible, work with groups of people who are decent, caring, and mutually supportive. My chosen extended family is almost entirely made up of movement people. People I’ve worked with in the movement are honorary aunts and uncles to my kid, they are the people I talk to when I’m down, we love each other. That’s essential. And sometimes it means deciding that you can’t work with certain folks, at least not for a long time. (One can do limited stuff with anyone. But the really serious work, for me, needs to be with people who I trust and care about.) even with this, you need to be self-aware and honest with yourself. Sometimes you need a day off, or a week. Some years you can work constantly; some only a few nights a week. Lots of things affect this.

8. What are your thoughts on the anti-fascist movement in the states right now?

It needs unity on lots of dimensions:
across various communities. Muslim organizations protecting their community are anti-fascist; the movement for black lives, progressive jewish groups, poor people’s movements,
across tactics: we can’t be snotty about any dimension of resistance, not protest, not electing better candidates, not serious disruptive nonviolent civil disobedience, and not well thought out property destruction and community defense.
Timelines: we need work that is short-term confrontation and shut-down, and work that is long-term community building, education, etc.
And all these need to be coordinated.

I actually think that we are doing fairly given the really horrible state of things, the huge fascist movement, the many underlying social and economic changes that it feeds on, and of course the support from capital and government. In the face of all that there has been some very impressive resistance. that’s not to say it is bound to succeed, or that we don’t need much more, but we are making a start.

9. What sorts of questions should we be asking each other about how to act where we are that maybe you don’t have answers to but are interested in learning?

We need to figure out how to hold one another accountable in ways that take process seriously – yep, it is not incompatible with horizontalism or radicalism to think that we need to seriously determine what is true when shit happens in our work – that is loving and restorative, and that recognizes some of the very bad shit that happens in movements, listens seriously to those who are victimized, etc. I think our movements are mostly doing a terrible job at this at the moment. I know some examples of doing it well, and more of doing it terribly, and have no great answers. But the sorts of sloganeering and posturing that dominates most of this isn’t fucking helpful. I know that.

10. Any final words of wisdom?

True revolution, in my view, is not destroying the oppressive structures of society. it is the much harder slower work of building alternative just, loving, humanly productive ways of being together and learning as a community to live in those ways. Revolution is always constructive. Sure, we have to defend the things we construct from attack, have to prevent authoritarian institutions from harming people, must create the space to allow everyone to create. But if we think of the confrontation and destruction as itself the revolution, we end up reproducing the things we fight in some other form. Because we’ll just be the kinds of people who now how to live in fucked up capitalist militarism patriarchal white supremacist societies and to fight. And neither of those is a set of skills that is conducive to life and mutual aid. As the IWW said: we must build the new world in the shell of the old.
Everywhere we can.