Journey to the Land of "F"

tale of traveling toil by club med-o

I've become obsessed with the F-word these days. Like every healthy, sentient creature I want to be F'ed fully and frequently. Indeed, without F there could be no life. And everyone truly alive strongly identifies with the pursuit of F in all its peculiar forms the world over. But an awful disease is killing our desire to F and be F'ed. AIDS is clearly one manifestation but not the disease itself. The disease is really the fear of F and our willingness to settle for something less than the complete, oceanic, full body F we all deserve.

I've always been an outspoken advocate of free-love including the freedom to (sometimes) be love-free. Now everyone seems to laugh nostalgic at that and misuse the F-word so that it means the opposite of what it should. I say it's high time to get the F-word out of the closet and proclaim loudly and passionately: "FREE me! Yes, FREE me baby, FREE me good! Free me, over and over again!!"

I know this sounds full of acne and adolescence, but I'm seriously concerned how the word freedom has been fucked with. It has been seriously victimized through a pattern of continuous abuse. In preparing for a trip to Eastern Europe in April, 1990, every second word one hears is "free" markets or "free" elections. What an absolutely vulgar, retrograde use of language; what an absurd vicious joke. Please tell me one thing that is free in the capitalist marketplace. Toilets used to be but even that costs now. Has any U.S. senatorial campaign been waged for less that $1 million in the last two decades? This kind of free-dom is precisely that—dumb—just another word for "fuck you sucker."

It's curious, but I stumbled upon this thorny doublespeak around freedom through reflection on one of my most valued personal freedoms. Something unavailable to probably 90% of the world's population. That is the freedom to travel to distant places and different cultures. This desire to visit an exotic people distinct from your own culture is a particularly American (western) phenomenon. Foremost, we have financial/political opportunities very few have. But it is more than that, we also have a singular cultural flexibility and ambiguity. During a year stay in Africa, I'll never forget how "Wye" Katende, a seventeen year old Ugandan living in a remote village in the foothills of the Ruwenzori mountains, innocently questioned the notion of freedom through travel: "Mr Mike, why did you come here? You are so far from your home. You must cry at night for your family."

For better or worse, family and other ties do not bind us, especially the traveling types, as strongly as elsewhere. This was strikingly expressed by a young Masai cattleherder I became friends with in Tanzania. By using Swahili we could converse fairly well, and one day I asked him if he would like to travel. He let me know he would never consider traveling any further than he could walk with his cattle. He then asked me who was taking care of my cattle back home. When I replied I had no cattle he was incredulous. This was unimaginable. Since I was an American he probably imagined I had dozens. At first, he thought I was joking; he really didn't believe my story. When I convinced him it was the truth, he started crying he felt so sorry for me.

I've always put great effort into finding ways to avoid being the casual tourist who blitzes the local highlights while replicating the lifestyle of home. I try to fit in and be up front that I'm an American visitor. I've often made my trips "working holidays," partly for the money but mostly as the best way to gain real contact in people's everyday life. Getting a job certainly immerses you in the fray instead of the role of culture vulture scavenging on local prime rib. But working is impractical many times and undesirable in most places. Sometimes I have posed as a student, once as an anthropologist, and both seemed to open doors that would otherwise be closed.

Over the years I've moved away from the "working holiday" approach toward the "political holiday." We're not talkin' work brigades to Nicaragua here—which are long on work and short on holiday. By "political holiday" I mean partly a vacation and partly an opportunity to observe and participate in a time of radical social change. For me this includes learning about customs and social interests that aren't (overtly) political as well as the radical culture in contention with the powers-that- be. The latter has usually been my primary interest. This means mostly watching what's shaking down; it's also important to exercise a critical eye and express your own opinions rather than just following the "correct" revolutionary party or mass movement.

This has some qualifications, however. During a 6 month stay in South Africa in 1988 just after their second state of emergency (the inversion, "emergency of the state" is the more accurate phrase) I quite willingly chose to work uncritically with the ANC. I even temporarily became an Anglican missionary, despite 32 years of devout anti-Christianity, since working with their material aid programs (food, health care, education) was the only way I could gain access to the townships. While I was (and am) critical of the ANC, such criticisms made no sense within the context of ruthless state repression. This is the usual problem; it is only after a resistance movement has toppled the existing regime that there is a space to make useful criticisms. For this is the true point of departure in which real differences between oppositional groups concretely emerges.

I've been taken to task for being that too-critical-radical-from-afar more than once. The usual banter "How can you as an American, from a position of privilege, not support the call by the homegrown opposition? They know the situation best—if you don't uncritically support them you are aiding their oppressors." There is some truth to this criticism about being too critical. I am (globally, though not nationally) privileged by the very fact I can choose to travel to such places and situations. I am also neither directly a victim nor a natural outgrowth of resistance there. Indeed, it is tremendous fortune to be an internationalist, not just theoretically, but practically, by directly experiencing social ruptures and change the world over. This is precisely why a "privileged" outsider might have a fresh, useful view regarding what's coming down.

This will be tested in a few days when I leave for a two-month stay in Eastern Europe. Besides simply appreciating and learning from the different people and cultures I am (and will be) disturbed about simply replacing authoritarian communism with an equally (but less transparent, more diffuse) authoritarian capitalism. As I tell friends and acquaintances, my desire to warn Eastern Europeans about the sham of free markets, free elections and capitalism in general, many let me know this is incorrect/inappropriate. For instance, "They have materially/politically suffered for so long they just want to make life better—(they) want the good things of the west. It is wrong for you to tell them that desire is wrong." (There is nothing wrong with the desire for a better, materially richer life. What is wrong is believing the false promises that western capitalism actually fulfills these desires.)

This complaint goes hand in glove with another common criticism: "Well if you're really so damn radical stay home and help change the U.S. After all, it is your turf and truly the world's worst enemy." True enough. I'd be deceiving myself if I didn't acknowledge my initial attraction to Eastern Europe was the speed and quality of change there is a helluva lot more inspiring than the bleak vortex of social change in America. Even though I was born and continue to reside in the U.S., I've never identified with being an American but rather a world citizen first.

Admittedly, the U.S. plays a dominant role in world aggression and deserves special attention from radicals. So I definitely do a lot to try to change the planetary work/war machine here—after all, this is where I live most of the time. But I feel no special duty to entrench myself exclusively in the American theater. This seems to be a peculiar kind of nationalism, just as twisted and bigoted as the religious, ethnic, or statist varieties—if you believe you must completely tidy up your own cave before stepping out into the light of the world. It is one half a common guilt trip for radicals. Either stay home or martyr yourself in some type of work brigade. Both are based on heaps of guilt, work and sacrifice. Not exactly the stuff real freedom is made from.

The flip side of this, one felt by the vast majority of Americans, simply says: "Have a good time! Forget all that political shit. Just relax. Get a nice tan. And by the way, bub, you might come back and entertain us with an exotic slide show of natives spearing colored fish in a pristine coral reef." Besides the goldfish bowl syndrome (you are the goldfish looking out of the bowl at the surrounding world, while the locals gather round to stare in, and each inhabits an environment the other can't breathe in) I find it exceedingly alienating and boring to be isolated from the political forces at hand. I am looking for full enjoyment and radical deployment.

This trip to Eastern Europe will be my second "political holiday." I've never planned a trip so much as this one. Two other PW'ers and I sent letters and copies of PW to scores of independent radical groups and individuals throughout Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. We have also made our own personal Anti-Business cards for each language to make ties with indigenous corporate insultants. We also made similarly confrontational T-shirts to give away while there; boxes of stuff have been shipped ahead.

One fruit of all this planning has been the response received even before leaving. A radical from Szcecin, Poland, not only extended a warm invitation ("We could arrange meetings for you with greens, trade unions, anarchists...") but also apprised us of what to expect: "I don't know how much you know about Poland, but let me warn you that even among so-called radicals or alternatives you can find strange minds." Concerning popular Polish attitudes to the west and western leaders, he warns that most people see George Bush and Margaret Thatcher as "great politicians," explaining that "the slogan `Enemy of my enemy is my friend' suits very well here." I also got a sense of the ennui people must feel there when he quipped, "So do not wait, friends, because we are waiting."

We too are waiting but in a different way. In the U.S., it's not only history but the present that's a nightmare we have yet to awaken from. The speed and degree of recent changes in Eastern Europe is inconceivable here today. There is little fire, much fear and stability. A few on the margins try to startle the sleep inmates. So while we wait, there is time to share and learn from each other's struggles. This we do not have to wait for.

—Club Med-O