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31 May 2011 @ 10:33 am
Back from Wiscon  
My brief flirtation with a panic attack aside, I had a fantastic time at wiscon . I roomed with nwhepcat , who introduced me to gwynegga and general_jinjur , among others. I attended several really interesting panels, went to the vid party, and sang all of BtVS "Once More, With Feeling" in a room full of other Buffy fans.

Some thoughts from Wiscon:

An underlying theme of Wiscon is revolution. How do we change the world? How do we become activists or support activism in others? How do we ally ourselves with other activists when our goals don't fully align?

I have never been an outspoken, active activist. I'm a lifestyle activist, operating from a harm reduction model. I've been vegan for 15 years, I never got a driver's license, I try to live as low-impact as I can. I'm a consumer - who isn't? - but I try to be conscious of what I consume. I try to be aware of the example I set.

This is the word that keeps sticking in my head: accessibility. I mean this in the way you might expect out of Wiscon (accessibility for the differently abled, etc.), in ways that are clearly consistent with Wiscon (accessibility for people living at and below the poverty line), and in ways that are less obvious (accessibility for people whose lifestyles and values seem opposed to feminist/leftist goals).

I spend a fair amount of time talking about the second usage in discussions on food politics. As a vegan, I know a lot of people who are very invested in buying local and organic farming (which are not always the same thing), and I know people who put a lot of effort into community gardening. I know people who are activists about nutrition and environmentally friendly eating. It's hard to have a long conversation on this topic without somehow shaming the fast-food eater, the styrofoam take-out box consumer. These conversations often neglect the reality of food deserts, or areas where the residential communities are not located near any source of fresh, nutritious food. People who live in these areas are often very poor. If distance, energy, and money make fresh vegetables and home-cooked meals inaccessible, it's only natural that they look for the highest amount of calories for the least amount of money. Educating a person in a food desert about good nutrition is nice, but it doesn't make the nutritious food more accessible. Community gardens in these neighborhoods might help, but they're a patch, not a solution. The problem is structural, and needs to be addressed as such.

The third usage is what I'm really fixed on right now. Again, this links back to being vegan. I really, really hate most of vegan social culture. It's obnoxious and self-righteous. I know a number of sane, thoughtful vegans (my husband and sister included), but most of the other vegans I run into have this rabid streak to them. They can't stop talking about food, and they love to shame meat eaters. They perpetuate an us vs. them mentality, and that's exactly what I have a problem with. Establishing lifestyle activism as a lifestyle runs the risk of making it inaccessible to people who might be interested, but don't fit the lifestyle. My in-laws, for example, are a lower-income evangelical Christian couple who live in a single family home in an economically depressed residential neighborhood in Flint, Michigan. Strict veganism isn't accessible to them because of financial and other practical obstacles. Good vegan food tends to be more expensive, and there's not a lot of it in Flint. But for them, money and physical access aren't the real barriers. They would never consider veganism because it's not in their culture. They see it as a lifestyle that does not fit with going to church and having family meals with their siblings and all their nieces and nephews. For them, it's something young urban people might do. For better or for worse, being vegan is something that sets you apart from others. If you can't casually share a meal without passing on a list of your restrictions beforehand, you can't enjoy simple, uncomplicated communion with your companions. Choosing to be an outsider is antithetical to being the kind of Christian family my in-laws try to be.

The challenge I'm trying to wrap my head around is how to make my lifestyle culturally accessible. I am not going to back down from or downplay the personal importance of my veganism, but I want my veganism - and feminism, and leftism - to seem like reasonable, viable options to people who are not young, affluent urban dwellers.

This touches on my problem with modern politics. Everyone bitches about the partisan divide, but people on the left and right are equally quick to demonize the other. I'm guilty of this as much as anyone. But I can't stand it. I hate getting into political conversations because even if I completely agree with the person I'm talking to, I loathe this tendency to depersonalize the opposing party. I lived in Texas for two years under Governor George W. Bush, and spent the following eight with him as President. Believe me, I know what it's like to feel great personal and political dislike for an elected (or appointed, as in 2000) official. But frothing at the mouth about how evil Bush, Cheney, and Rove might be does not win allies. My parents, who are hard-core Democrats now, are quick to point out that right wing Republicans view willingness to compromise or acknowledge fallibility as weakness, and therefore there's no point talking sense to a Republican. What you see as reason, they see as you admitting defeat. My parents might be right. It still doesn't justify the perpetuation of us vs. them, and it doesn't address the ocean of people in the middle who are taking their cues from what they see in the media. If you tell people they have to pick sides, they will.

I keep coming back to my in-laws. I have a lot of problems with their religious dogma, but I genuinely do not see why their exclusion of me from their afterlife has to equal my exclusion of them from my ideal society. A lot of the ugly, intolerant beliefs they have are only reinforced by the perception that they have to defend their position. They feel attacked by liberal culture, and that makes them cling harder to their values. I have to wonder what their belief system would look like if it wasn't operating under siege. The responsibility for change lies with me as much as it lies with them. I want them to feel comfortable enough to step outside, look around, and then decide from a position of autonomy and self-ownership which of their values are genuine and true, and which belong more to fear and defensiveness. I want them to feel like they can live in a world that is free and green and egalitarian without having to completely abandon the faith by which they have defined themselves for their entire lives.

Whether the revolution is immediate or incremental, it must above all be accessible. It must address both structural and cultural issues, and create a space for all people, including those in opposition. The revolution must be accessible if it hopes to be sustainable.

That's what I've been meditating on for the past few days at wiscon .