Chris Crass isn’t a funny as Abbie Hoffman, though his name is. When I first heard it, I couldn’t help thinking about all those nifty motor boats that carried the storied trademark “Chris-Craft” and seemed as abundant in American waterways as were the rubber inner-tubes used by children near the stony lakesides closer to my home. As a youth, I imagined racing toward Miami Beach or maybe heading out to Santa Catalina in one of those spiffy little racing boats.
That was a while ago. Things change, sometimes when we’re not paying attention. I didn’t pay attention to Chris-Craft for over fifty years. So, I didn’t even know that the company had been taken over by a conglomerate of sorts in 1962. Alas, Chris-Craft is no more. Chris Crass, on the other hand, wasn’t even born then. In fact, he wouldn’t make his appearance on the planet for another eleven years. Time flies.
Crass holds a degree in “Race, Class, Gender and Power Studies” from San Francisco State University. It sounds like one of those programs that Fox News loves to hate and that would have rendered Allan Bloom apoplectic. In fact, it was (I’ve tried to track it down, but it seems to have been rebranded as “Race and Resistance Studies” which sounds even worse).
After graduation, Crass became an organizer with Food Not Bombs, the resolute anarchist group of the 1990s that was well described as part of the direct-action anti-capitalist Left. He is still concerned about “leadership for liberation,” but he now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he is a member of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. He might be portrayed as a Saul Alinsky for the twenty-first century. You get the picture.
Towards Collective Liberation is unabashedly anarchist in its origins, inspiration and overall orientation. As such, it is as joyful, optimistic, open, and sensitive as any contemporary political tract can hope to be. Contrary to corporate and state propaganda, anarchism is the most innocent of ideologies, which may make it also the most dangerous; but, that’s another story.
In the book, Crass espouses democracy above all, but he also advocates a loose coalition of any and all people who have been victims of systems of oppression, suppression, repression and depression (economic or psychological). He has in mind a kind of rainbow-coloured common front. What the book lacks in theoretical sophistication (often confused with opaque language and an abundance of polysyllables of decidedly Germanic origin), it more than makes up in anecdotes (also known as case studies when they appear in the Harvard Business Review) about successful organizing. It is widely praised by people who have benefited from reading it. Had their ages been reversed, Barack H. Obama might have learned a thing or two when he was a community organizer in gritty old Chicago.
An enduring theme in the book is the connection between the personal and the political, expressed as variations on the environmental slogan: “Think globally, act locally.” Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, an obvious fan and the founder of the Institute for Multiracial Justice, is full of praise. She tells us that Crass operates “on a very personal level that invites us all to experiment and practice the way we live our values while struggling for systemic change.”
Why should we care? After all, on the surface, Chris Crass is merely one of thousands, if not tens of thousands of people in North America alone, who have examined their society critically and come to believe that its major economic and political institutions are bound up in a pattern of belief and behaviour that is contributing to unspeakable human and ecological devastation. No one needs to be reminded of the terrible poverty and hideous wars in which we, as a civilization and as educators within it, are complicit. We do need to be reminded, however, of how easily we assent to the claim that we are powerless, as individuals and as communities, to alter what seem to be preordained patterns.
Of course, many of us do what we think we can to improve conditions and to assist others in their personal lives. We are attentive to our students’ needs and make sure that we appear caring about their chances of success. Many of us vote for political candidates and political parties that are not demonstrably evil. Some of us donate to food banks and volunteer with organizations from local hospitals to children’s charities as our way to give to our compatriots. Some of us pay close heed to national and international affairs, perhaps sending donations to worthy organizations such as medicines sans frontiers or UNESCO. I do not mock these individual initiatives. I have been known to do so myself—without embarrassment.
Chris Crass, however, does more, and his book is a collage of life events that are unthinkable for the majority of us for whom family, job and snippets of leisure-time for reading, jogging and net-surfing pretty much exhaust the twenty-four hours allotted to us each day. The kind of dedication and energy that Crass exhibits is more than we could reasonably expect of ourselves or others. Besides, most of us have never dabbled in, much less become dedicated to, political alternatives represented by either Marxism or Anarchism. Most of us would be scared silly if, like Chris Crass, we were to be praised by people like Zakk Flash, the irrepressible editor of the Central Oklahoma Black/Red Alliance (aka COBRA). After all, even reading Flash’s highly complementary assessment of Chris Crass in the alternative Internet news source “Truthout” is probably enough to get us noticed by the US National Security Agency, the Communications and Security Establishment Canada and Interpol, to say nothing of our local Internet Service Provider—in case any of them care.
Our Facebook “friends” aside, to tell the attentive world about our political anxieties, errors as well as our personal opportunities for psychological and political growth, to bring on board as published supporters some of the people our parents most pointedly warned us against, and to share public company with the indefatigable Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Professor Emerita in Native American Studies at California State University and dedicated Marxist revolutionary, would lose us all credibility with friends, families and especially employers and bankers of last resort, sending us heading for the liquor cabinet, the confession box, or both in turn.
Yet, for all our timidity and chronic angst—to say nothing of our wholesome family values, our fiscal and/or social conservatism, our belief in “law-and-order” and our conviction that there not only isn’t but that there ought not to be a “free lunch”—there is something of value here that all citizens, regardless of political proclivities, can usefully learn from Chris Crass.
For one thing, as a purely human story, Towards Collective Liberation is a fascinating read. Unlike most autobiographies by people in public life, it is not an exercise in narcissistic autoeroticism and fatuous dissembling or, less politely, outright lying about an abundance of achievements, a dearth of failures and an unimpeachable character that combined wisdom and virtue on the path to becoming President, Prime Minister, Military General, Cabinet Member or super-rich tycoon. It contains admissions of uncertainty and occasional episodes of heartfelt sentimentality.
“Sincerity,” I have been told by those who claim to know, “is the most important virtue; once you can fake it, you can get away with anything.” I’m going out on a limb here, but I think Chris Crass is sincere and that Towards Collective Liberation is a truthful, humble and ultimately inspiring piece of work. It is also of practical value for those among us who have no desire to transform society, but who would like to tweak some of its nastier bits. For those of modest ambition, Crass has plenty of practical advice to share. It is advice that has come from direct experience. Among his wishes, he says, is “to build broad support for anti-racism in white communities and feminism among men.” Those of us who are women and therefore continue to confront sexism, and those of us who are people of colour eager to see white society live up to its expressed principles of harmony and multiculturalism will both learn lessons from Crass’ experience and, perhaps, gain some wisdom as well. Of course, if those lessons were also to be parlayed “into active participation in a multiracial, feminist movement for democracy and socialism,” Chris Crass would be even more pleased.
Now, not all of us are happily ensconced in a “progressive” corner of the world where we get to pick our battles or to choose to remain safely out of the fray. Indeed, it would not surprise me to discover that some readers of The College Quarterly are hide-bound reactionaries who would be delighted to learn that Chris Crass and all his admirers had been rounded up and sentenced to long terms as fast-food servers or Walmart Associates. Even for this part of the CQ constituency, though, something of consequence may be found.
One of the major symptoms of our political arrangements is what’s called the “democratic deficit.” Part of it includes abuses of power by the authorities, but another part is the apathy and alienation that many people show toward their democratic institutions. The most obvious empirical indicator is the shrinking percentage of people who deign to cast ballots in municipal, provincial/state, and national elections; but, there’s even more evidence to be seen in caustic letters-to-the-editor of local newspapers and displays of disillusionment around the water cooler. Our contempt for political life is matched only by our unwillingness to help fix it.
In Towards Collective Liberation, we have a record of a public life, a life that looks outward from the comfortable little oekos (home) and toward the polis (community). Whether or not we find his opinions congenial, Crass shows what it is to be a responsible citizen. He offers a demonstration of an engaged life that may discomfit us, but mostly because we have strayed so far from the model of democratic citizenship for which my uncles were said to have fought in World War I, a cousin almost died in World War II and both Canadian and American friends served in Korea and Vietnam. Never mind that, as the Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525-456 BCE) and many others since have pointed out, the first casualty in war is the truth, the fact is that a tremendous amount of cannon fodder offered itself up for what it deemed to be the noblest of reasons. It does no harm to be reminded that some people have kept faith with those who perished.
Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political thought at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.