Friday, April 22, 2016

John Stoltenberg's and Cristan Williams' The Conversations Project: Some Final Thoughts

graphic is from here
Note: When I heard Prince died earlier on Thursday, what I recalled was how much Andrea Dworkin loved his work.

The message in the above graphic was never anything 
The Conversations Project endeavored to do. 
Yet they insisted they were a radical feminist group.

I may be writing more about this, but just wanted to update you that after four months of very engaged involvement, I've been purged without notice from The Conversations Project Facebook group, started by John Stoltenberg and Cristan Williams, although John was largely absent.

Here are a few concluding thoughts:

1. The group was steadfastly anti-radical feminist, but couched this as
anti-T--F, as if those radical feminists who are against the liberalism and male supremacy in trans politics should and can be separated out from those who are or were not.

2. There was consistent refusal to admit that they were misusing and misunderstanding the early work of Andrea Dworkin while ignoring all of Dworkin's later work (like, at least 11/12ths of what Andrea wrote). The only passages of hers they ever referred to (a lot) were Dworkin's most liberal points in Woman Hating about multisexuality and androgyny. They refused to acknowledge Andrea's mid-70s discussion of androgyny was something that wasn't specific to her, and something that was of political interest during that decade, but never thereafter. (As was the case for so many white feminists in that period: Millett, Firestone, and Piercy, for example.) They refused to consider why Andrea later rejected the last section of Woman Hating as politically and intellectually problematic. They clung to a few early ideas because dealing with anything else--such as pornography, prostitution, male privilege, male power, white and male supremacy, the process of subordinating female bodies such as through intercourse, battery, and rape--would have been harder for them to embrace: it would have implicated some of their own politics as more overtly pro-patriarchal and white supremacist. The only snippets of Catharine MacKinnon's work they paid any attention to were from an grossly overly-steered interview Cristan did with Catharine. As if that's what MacKinnon's thirty plus years of radical feminist activism should be reduced to.

3. There were less than five pro-radical/pro-feminist people in the group. One person, a white trans woman, left the group only after about a week being there due to the incessant liberalism, anti-radicalism, and anti-feminism. Now there are no radical feminists in the group, although one member, Margo, a white Lesbian feminist, has consistently advocated for feminist values and sisterly approaches to dealing with the Turf War, and I respect her very much for that. And one man has been consistently affirmative of radical feminist perspectives on gender and sex. When Margo posted things that called for respect and regard for all feminists, few to no members "liked" her comments. Cristan and John never "liked" them.

4. The group was so white (how white was it?) that the only posts made about women of color, or even more generally, people of color, were exploitive: John and one other member, early on, posted links to Navajo understandings of gender, not because he ever discussed or linked to how to end white colonialist-patriarchal genocide, but, disturbingly, just because such ideas might be useful to or of interest to whites.

5. The white members of the group (the great majority) refused to center women of color (trans or not). They refused to center an examination of how their race, sex, and class privileges shaped their views, their values, and their agendas. Doing so was considered "off topic". Supporting white, class privileged trans women was always "on topic". No one white and trans in the group ever made it a point to name how they had white privilege. Let alone male privilege.

6. They always positioned some radical feminists as THE enemy. They did not critique or focus on white men (as a structurally positioned enemy class). When white men were critiqued, it was without the same disdain and derision as they demonstrated for some white radical feminists. (I call that blatant misogyny and anti-feminism.) They never, ever considered what anti-trans feminists were arguing against or for. It was always only viewed as "hatred" and "wanting us dead". As if white and male privilege and power--including theirs--doesn't result in the deaths of all kinds of women.

7. The group was never committed, even vaguely, to an anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, or anti-colonialist agenda. Never. Ever. Ever. In this sense and others, the group was willfully and determinedly liberal, yet tossed the term "radical" into their title twice and felt being called liberal was an insult, for reasons which remain unclear. (If it is so blatantly what you are and is all you want to be, own it and be proud of it, for god's sake.) I conclude they valued the term "radical" because it allowed them to discuss liberal points of Dworkin's and MacKinnon's as if those were radical. When I linked to useful ways to understand historical radicalism (as an actual political stance against institutionalised oppression), they rejected or ignored them. There was nothing about their perspective that was radical. Nothing. And their name revealed this from the start: no group that is seriously radical (that I've ever been aware of) makes a point of stuffing the term into their title twice.

8. The group never considered what it is that causes the mass deaths of marginalised women of color. It was beyond their vision, their call to action, to do so. All they could come up with is transphobia. As if.

9. It became crystal clear to me that Cristan, and more surprisingly John, did not understood the traditional political meaning of "radical" when it comes to radical feminism. Again, John was largely absent as an active member, although he read a lot of the comments. But what became distressingly clear was that he could not articulate what Andrea's Radical Feminism meant or was. He was and is only concerned with prioritising the points of view of white and/or male-privileged people, over and against lesbian feminists. He refuses to see that Andrea never divorced "woman" (the patriarchal construction) from what actually happens, oppressively, violatingly, demeaningly, to almost all female people from birth to death. Instead, he believes that what Andrea said about "multisexuality" in 1974, or this, from 1975: "it is not true that there are two sexes that are discrete and opposite, which are polar...", were in fact radical things to say. They were radical things to read--for him, a white man. What the group seemed to mean by 'radical' was post-modernly complex or intellectually ground-breaking. Radical only addressed acts of speech, or ideas in writing, not political campaigns, or efforts at social change. (For some discussion about Andrea's later abandonment of such 'radical ideas', please see the notes in a book called Without Apology: Andrea Dworkin's Art and Politics, by Cindy Jenefsky.) I repeatedly pointed out, if these are such 'essential' points of Andrea's, why do they never again appear in her work, over the next twenty years? Crickets chirped. This was a stubbornly anti-activist group. The only [allegedly radical] action John promoted was promoting the liberal idea of multisexuality among young people. Campaigns to end violence against women? Nope. Talking to college students about being colors in a color wheel: that's where it's at for John.

10. Also, members had no interest in supporting or working towards a truce between some white radical lesbian feminists and some white liberal trans activists. Only Margo, and the trans woman who left in disgust, did explicitly welcome this as a goal. The rest were intent on demonising some feminists (not just some of their views, but their personhood), while ignoring how their own political perspective was misogynistic, racist, and anti-trans.

Over four months, the discussions there were only intended to be "Liberal White-centered Trans and pro-Trans Conversations that Ignore What is of Radical Concern to All Women". Sad. And predictable. There's this old expression, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them." Yup. Everything I first experienced in that group in January proved to remain the case in April. Lesson learned.

The Conversations Project: The Radical Inclusivity of Radical Feminism should be titled:
"John and Cristan's Project: Ignoring Radical Feminism"


8 comments:

lauren said...

HI Julian,

I haven't read you in a couple of years, so I'm amazed that you're still here, as so many great radfem blogs have died.

It's brave of you to expose a star in the feminist theory world, and your critique of the group is very interesting. I'm curious about how you all exchanged ideas, and did you submit any of your work?

I was a big Prince fan in Minneapolis in the 1980s, in college and working for a record label and as a DJ. He was like nothing we had ever seen or heard, especially live. But a few years later I was shocked that I didn't see how misogynistic his lyrics were, and his videos. And to me, he hasn't done anything interesting in 25 years - which is a damn long time! I think folks are mourning in general (we have a lot mourn right now) and transferring it on to the unexpected death of a star.

Julian Real said...

Hi Lauren!! I am happy to "see" you again here! I was away for a while, and have come back. (Personal/family stuff.) I so appreciate your comment(s)--as they each had somewhat different remarks in them, I posted both versions. If you want to condense them into one, I'll post that instead, but it's totally fine with me this way. :)

I am still sad about how much John has gone off in a liberal, pro-whiteliberalqueer direction, although some feminists who have known him a very long time believe he was never radical. So, maybe I read too much into his early work. :P I think you might be especially interested to read Nikki Craft's account of dealing with him, re: Andrea's writings, if you haven't seen that as yet. Here is a link, if you have access to Facebook, but maybe this will open even if you do not. Let me know if you cannot access this, Lauren. I'll find a way to get it to you. Link: Altering Andrea: How John Stoltenberg Performs Editorial Surgery on Dworkin’s Sexual Politics, by Nikki Craft, March 2016". That is part of a series of related posts by Nikki. Let me know if you'd like to see the others.

As for Prince, it is curious what is and isn't being said about him since his passing. I found that when Bowie died, there were stories of a rape or two. I have to think at some point soon news will surface. I sense it is more complicated with him because of the ways he also supported female musicians throughout his career, who, as far as I've heard in media, hold his memory with great respect and gratitude for doing so. And: his lyrics, of course, shouldn't be beyond critique!

The story that comes most immediately to my mind is Sinead O'Connor's about him when she recorded his song, "Nothing Compares 2 U". I haven't found that yet. Due to your comment, I just did a search to see if she's made any public statements since he died. This is all I could find, which is quite something! (And I'd never heard this before now! So thank you!) Link: Sinead O'Connor talks about punch up with Prince.

lauren said...

Hi Julian!

I thought my first comment didn't get to you and it's poorly written, so please delete it if you can.

I will read Nikki Craft's piece. I didn't even know who she was until I started reading your blog.

When you were in this group, was it mostly writing on facebook?

I know the online world can be so open but also really cruel. In a way that people are less likely to be (or show) in person, talking to someone else.

I would so much like to be in a group where people meet in person. I really feel old when I realize how much easier this would have been even 20 years ago. But I find some solace that there's feminism in almost every woman I meet if you listen deeply. They just might not call it feminism.

I read about Sinead O'Connor and Bowies's stuff on Feminist Current.

I'm trying to start over in Northern California and sometimes do the 2 hour drive to Berkeley and Oakland. I went this past Saturday for a book fair, and got to hear Diana Block and Kate Raphael talk about feminist fiction. Starhawk gave the last presentation. She has such a great way of reaching all kinds of people and including them. I got a strong feeling listening to her that it will be a big loss when she's gone.

lauren said...

I just read the link and I feel really sick.

You never know - until you do.

Julian Real said...

Lauren, "You never know, until you do." Ain't that the truth!! Sad truth. :(

Here's a link to more about my dear, long-time (30+ year) friend, Nikki Craft. She brought on-going creativity and hilarity to Radical Feminism. For decades. See: The Nikki Wiki. After her political herstory was being trashed by anti-feminists, I once said, "What if you had your own Wiki! The NIKKI Wiki!" (I mean, really: meant to be!) It has given her a great deal of peace, knowing it cannot be tampered with.

Sorry I missed the question earlier. The group was a "closed" Facebook group. With members admitted and contents not public. So most of the conversations were not public. But it was initially intended to flow from a series of exchanges between Cristan W. and John S. that are entirely public. It is called "The Conversations Project" located at Cristan's website: radfem.transadvocate.com. She has another "anti-TERF" website too. I refuse to use the term, but did so here in case you'd never seen it before. "Trans-exclusive Radical Feminist/Feminism" is what it stands for. Nikki borrowed from that to come up with this: A NOTE FROM THE TURF WAR ZONE:
A RESPONSE TO JOHN STOLTENBERG
. Mostly the members ignored their conversation posts which came out of a months-long convo the two of them had, before embarking on this bigger project. If you check the posts here over the last three months, there are other posts about their project. See Feb. 19th and 21st, if interested in more of this mess. :P

Julian Real said...

How cool you got to see/hear Starhawk, Lauren!

Speaking of how old we are... ;)

Some of what I read in Dreaming the Dark back in 1982 or '83, in this early edition, is still with me strongly. Among others: power-over vs. power-within (and power with), the roots of anti-dark myths in Europe being part of an overall effort to conquer darker-skinned people, and how, while we cannot do everything, we can make our work picking up the garbage that we find in our path. A few seemingly small but key things for me.

I'm wishing you all the best (stability, joy, meaningful connections) in your new location in Northern California!! I so agree that groups in which people can see/meet in person are becoming a lost art!

lauren said...

The great thing Starhawk does is get folks visualizing what they want to create.
You can walk out of the room with those images, and even doing something small in your world is a lot better than dropping out. This is what's often missing in the more intellectual left analysis. Things are so overwhelming, and it feels impossible.

Do you know that she spent years doing ritual with protesters at WTO protests around the world?
And she still does work trades and scholarships for her workshops.

Julian Real said...

I didn't know she did that, Lauren! Cool! I think is so important for activists to find ways to be creative, and to also be financially supported. Nikki spent decades doing radical activist work full time, and was paid for none of it except for a rare donation. So, finding ways to fund radical activism is key, along with envisioning and practicing different ways of being, I think. No one I know who does radical work is paid. And people expect activists to do the work for nothing, sadly.