The Z Media Institute (ZMI from now on) is a week-long, ambitious and intensive seminar held every other year in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where the Z Magazine and ZNet are operated from. I’ve followed the site almost ten years regularly, and used it’s extensive, well chosen archive of material in a wide variety of political work. I had planned for years to participate in ZMI, and this year finally took time to do it. I had high expectations, and was still very positively surprised.
ZMI 2010 – Intense, awesome, serious
The core of the ZMI is the people that make it, the students, the faculty and the staff. One of the first thing noticeable at the ZMI was the amount of immensely talented, hardworking and compassionate people, willing to take most seriously the issues they face. I almost instantly had the feeling I was truly among the people who talk the talk and walk the walk; a confident, trusting feeling I rarely get whilst in the midst of the tiny sectarian groups and daily political struggles in Helsinki, Finland (a small city of 500000 people, the capital of my native country). Simply meeting and hearing in detail from people who put dedication and careful thought, as well as common sense, in their long-term political work was inspiring.
Of all the content during the week, the discussions over movement, vision and strategy formed a background and basis for all workgroups and lectures.
The situation that our movement has brought upon itself in the last few decades was justly given a lot of time, the point being in discussing new, credible paths forward. It was revealing to listen and talk about this broader situation in detail and reflecting on it with others immersed in the actual conflicts and problems in different groups in United States brought me a new sense of how the different mechanisms of exclusion and identity-building have damaged and marginalized what should simply be the decent, collective human effort to overcome the violence and inequality around us.
One thing we should be seriously questioning is the tactic of activism as a lifestyle, the creation of separate fronts and identities that provide us as individuals a "safe zone", a shared set of values, issues and a community to identify with. This tends to isolate the struggle for peace, justice and a more participatory society in to a fragmented collection of different groups, identities and individuals, who often spend more time arguing with one another around individual issues (and thus possibly venting their own frustrations created by the repressive society around us) than concentrating on the broad outreach and constant development of activity that has become a marginalized tactic in favor of the "more fun" actions (read: endless – in length and amount – meetings, strict guidelines of consumption behavior and competition around symbols of intellectual proveness) around the creation of a lifestyle.
More straightforward way of putting the situation: There’s everything wrong and alienating with the society around us, and we have a movement that’s claiming to make it different – someday, somehow. Do you want to join our movement? Great! Our movement can’t tell you where we are going, but join us anyway! You will lose job opportunities, you will be imposed strict codes of behavior and you will be judged harshly amongst us, but join us! It’s really, really important, so join us, even though you will have less friends, less money, less free time and probably less sex, but now really – join us!
And join what? Our movement talks of the situation around us like we are all part of a movement against gravity, or death – we have no knowledge of where we are going and not much credible answers to give, and our activities are stressful and require sacrifices and struggle. It is indeed no wonder, if getting people to join us is, to put it mildly, difficult. People aren’t stupid, it seems.
A way out of this situation would include aiming consciously to address the causes of it in a useful way, and starting to talk honestly about our lack of strategies and vision for a credible, better future, and start to think how that should be thought out in our efforts today. In short, we need hope and we need positive, more confident outreach that seriously listens to the problems of people around us, instead of imposing new rules or from-the-top fields of competence (eg. abstract neo-marxist theories and/or "anarchist" rules of conduct in an rally or community) for some particular group of people.
Central to this should be more conscious, long term outreach and strategies that provide new people space to discuss and strategize in equal manner, with focus and emphasis on networks, solidarity and concrete strategies and continous sharing of our experiences of this. As problematic and troubling as the lack of strategy and shared visions we have is, it is also encouraging – I sincerely believe that much can be accomplished with a little effort on keeping our lines of communication open, and finding at the same time new ways to unify our central goals and themes in useful ways, and consciously grow the movement with confident outreach. Our common values and aims are not too far apart for moving forward with a more coherent vision, really.
Overall, of all the content, discussion, music (you should definitely check out this epic, Parecon-inspired opus of a musical work by Lonnie Atkinson right now, story behind which is really inspiring and amazing) captivating lectures and workgroups during the week, much can and should be said, shared and developed further. There would still be just so much to be said about the dedicated, compassionate people of ZMI and the serious but warm atmosphere that was, apparently once again, so successfully created. Michael Albert’s recap of the week captures some of the most essential of this, the integral elements of the complexity and nobility of our real life struggles. What probably affected me most was to observe the capacity for compassion, solidarity and honor despite immense hardships and suffering. Despite systems of control that foster completely different traits and patterns of behaviour, we are still capable of inspirational greatness and compassion. Holding on to these traits and solidifying our networks and our confidence in our goals will help make all the difference – if we get to work, and be serious about it. So we will.