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Questioning Revolution

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
Sep 30, 2021Last updated Jan 19, 20226 min read

Milly used to write for TSL. She regrets the writing she put out, though. On tight one- and two-week turnarounds, it was hard to be thoughtful and easy to cause harm. She now disavows journalism as a personal practice, drawn instead to the more intentional and focused process of knowledge creation through academia.

"Are you ever concerned about the limitations of the impact of your work if you were to go into academia?" I asked.

I viewed academia and media (especially news media) as part of the same pipeline for cultural, social, and political change. If maximizing change caused is the end goal, the bottleneck seemed not to be in the creation of knowledge and theory, but in its curation and distribution. Not many Americans, white or BIPOC, have a critical understanding of race; even among college students, a majority have probably not had much exposure to or engagement with ethnic studies.

With this value system and worldview, I've felt compelled to work with media and avoid academia, as this is where I found both fulfillment in the process (writing, filmmaking, creating digital information interfaces) and would maximize the impact I wanted to have according to my values. I write for an Asian American political newspaper, and aim to write for bigger publications and audiences. The most exciting work I could see myself doing, a vision I've had for years now, is to make popular explainer videos about powerful but largely unknown or politically distorted ideas from ethnic studies/other social sciences.

"I don't want my work to be widely consumed. That allows it to be co-opted and distorted and harm people," Milly pushed back.

"Don't you think it's worth it for the impact it can have, though?" The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 was on my mind, and conversations with POC newsroom veterans who spoke about DEI initiatives and conversations being taken seriously for the first time in their careers. Ideas surrounding Black liberation have certainly been distorted and weaponized against Black Americans: eight states banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools comes to mind as an obvious, if surface-level, example. But for this cost, we get more BIPOC folks in powerful industries and institutions across the board: surely this progress is worth fighting for in the long term.

Milly questioned the actual impact caused, though. "DE&I initiatives don't reduce the number of Black people killed by police." She questioned why I prioritized making a large-scale impact so much. "Why is helping local communities directly less valuable?"

I shared with Milly the loosely held understanding of changemaking that informed my beliefs and questions. There are two ways to make change: either you work with the systems that already exist and strive to change them for the better (i.e. through business, journalism, mainstream politics), or you oppose said institutions and strive to overthrow them (i.e. Marx and especially Lenin's understandings of social progress and revolution). To fall in-between seemed futile to me, complaining about the way that things are while still benefitting from and failing to meaningfully change them.

This was the core of my worldview; these were open questions on my mind -- verbatim from an entry intended for my question journal: "how much political/social changemaking should be aligning powerful institutions with your causes vs. working outside of/against them?"

Milly had a thought-provoking answer. "Let's start with changemaking. Your positionality, experiences, and worldview limit the change you can cause. You always need to start there," she said. Before asking if revolution is possible, question why you even think it's valuable. Who are you trying to help? More importantly, who do you want to be working with? These questions guide what you should change.

Focusing on existing institutions as the primary grounds of change plays into assimilationist narratives that society can and should only function through these institutions, Milly pointed out.

edited conclusion January 19, 2021

"Radical" means "root", but to constrain radical activism to opposing existing roots is to accept and center these roots. A deeper, more genuine radicalism necessitates the rejection of single-root emphasis and the celebration (and maintenance and creation where necessary) of multiple roots, especially the ones whose health and survival are threatened by the growth of others. To assert the non-centrality of the accepted "root", i.e. the hegemonic culture, institutions, theories, and other systems of the day, is not to ignore it: rather, it's to provide the grounding strength of positive radicalism that is the only way that meaningful struggle can be made and sustained.

I recognized that Milly had pointed out a major shortcoming in my understanding when we had our conversation, but I didn't recognize what this shortcoming was until months later, after Angela Davis visited campus and told us about making Black joy out of resistance, after Mohammed El-Kurd visited campus and told us his greatest source of inspiration was his family's laughter against Israeli occupation, after Amazin LeThi's words took on new meaning: "I’m so much more successful being my authentic self, being an unapologetic Asian proud queer woman who just shows up as myself."

Two passages from my Fall 2021 semester review come to mind. First, this framing of "revolutionary activism" without even thinking about my conversation with Milly:

Against backdrops of never-ending violence and forceful stifling of all efforts for self-determinism, the most revolutionary action you can take is to center the joy of yourself and those you care about.

Then, reflecting on my personal experiences putting this into action:

I've also found power in embracing the centering of my own identity in my social life and not feeling like I'm lacking anything. ... To center your identity -- in your social life, your politics, your thinking -- doesn't mean excluding consideration for others. Rather, it should provide a deeper foundation for solidarity than more surface-level support, and allow you to better tap into the kind of joy that El-Kurd and Davis described as energy for struggle.

So what's the verdict on TSL, DE&I, The Yappie, and Asian American Studies? I'm still part of TSL, and even applied for editorship this semester. I'm still planning to major in Media Studies and not Asian American Studies. But I'm doing so with a newly grounded perspective about what I actually want to view as my roots or others' roots that I want to aid in centering. Tools that tackle existing institutions are powerful and important, but they're just one set of tools among many.

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Notes on Lenin and other revolutionary/critical/whatever social theory I stumble upon