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The Strange Case Of Vahid Brown
November 12, 2013 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Is Vahid Brown An Agent Of The State, Or Are Portland Anarchists On A Witch Hunt?

Seattle Free Press: The Strange Case of Vahid Brown, Counter-Terrorism Trainer and Clueless Hipster and Watch Out For FBI Trainer Vahid Brown
THE STATE: The Problem Of Vahid Brown
Willamette Week: Whack-A-Mole - Portland activists may have outed the wrong guy as an FBI snitch—here’s why they still should be paranoid.
posted by the man of twists and turns (64 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I swear to god I thought this was a "Vice is Hip" headline. If you don't follow Vice is Hip on Twitter, your life is incomplete....
posted by lattiboy at 8:40 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


My first thought when reading the article was "Christ, what assholes." But then I realized they kind of have a point. If you were a Tibetan or a Uyghur or a member of Falun Gong putting together an anti-China protest, for instance, would it be worth potentially exposing yourself to surveillance or worse so that some guy who used to teach history to PRC soldiers can feel included? Probably not. I feel a major twinge of empathy for Brown, because pretty much anyone educated and intelligent and in the professional class is going to come up against these quandaries eventually, but...accountability, man. I definitely don't think the guy should have his image tarred and feathered all over town, but I can understand if people don't want to do political things with him because his background makes him a potential liability or threat.
posted by threeants at 8:45 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait, does this or does this not violate Betteridge's law ?

(And I like the 1984-styled name "Committee Against Political Repression" .. )
posted by k5.user at 8:54 AM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


anararchism in the tags might need a spell check.
posted by vozworth at 8:57 AM on November 12, 2013


The dream of Nineteen Eighty-four is alive in Portland.
posted by codswallop at 9:00 AM on November 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


Kristian Williams' article in the Seattle Free Press is very solid, I think.

Among the other unintended consequences, his stint at West Point made Brown a dangerous person for radicals to know, and reduced his own ability to work for social change. That has nothing to do with him being a good guy or a bad guy. It doesn’t even depend on his being a snitch, or a mole, or an informant, or an infiltrator. But actions have consequences, and sometimes good intentions aren’t enough of an excuse.
posted by threeants at 9:01 AM on November 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


The person pushing the most radical agenda, suggesting the group step-up its activities, be more confrontational, engage in property destruction and count ceremonial coups in the street square off with "the Pigs"... this is the person whom the declassified files X years down the line will show was the agent provocateur.

This thread should be cross-referenced with the No Snitching thread. Occupy Oakland absolutely had a policy of "OOmerta", and it seems the anarcho-knuckleheads up north drink the same kool-aid.

(And I like the 1984-styled name "Committee Against Political Repression" .. )

In Oakland it was the "Anti-Repression Committee". It's basically
"Keep our revolutionary comrades from getting arrested while throwing shit at the cops, breaking shop windows, and wearing masks engaging in diversity of tactics."
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:01 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Is a group of citizens exercising their freedom of association really the same kind of "political repression" as that practiced by a lavishly funded, intensely secretive, historically aggressive arm of the most powerful government in the world? Really, y'all?
posted by threeants at 9:05 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


You can be living in some pretty-damn-near actual freaking 1984 shit and of course it's the activists with the awkwardly-named committee who are a bridge too far.
posted by threeants at 9:07 AM on November 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


Perhaps some confusion with OOmerde, which in the original Fleming books was a Licence to Shit.
posted by biffa at 9:17 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


That I'm supposed to accept Williams's jaundiced and clenched interpretation of the US Army's or the FBI's or anyone else's motives in counterinsurgency operations as gospel, and then further accept his insistence that it's relevant to local Portland social movements is just... sad? Hilarious? Deeply dumb? WTFEver, dude. Try not to stroke out in the middle of one of your selfrighteousgasms.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 9:21 AM on November 12, 2013


I had the same thoughts that Brown did (from the Willamette Week link):
All of this was easily found on Google and his Linkedin profile—something he would not have allowed, he says, if he were an FBI mole.

“I can’t figure out why the FBI would choose to use someone who has a very public association with them,” Brown says.
Unless you believe in some sort of eleventh-dimension chess the FBI is playing here ("We'll put an obvious mole in place, and then Undercover Agent X will denounce him, and that'll cement Undercover Agent X's place in the group."), Brown is most likely what he says he is.
posted by Etrigan at 9:31 AM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


"We don't need a better educated ...more sensitive FBI. This institution cannot be fixed; it must be destroyed."

Heighten the contradictions! That strategy has always worked in the past!
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:45 AM on November 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Unless you believe in some sort of eleventh-dimension chess the FBI is playing here

That seems like it would be SOP. Not only does it fast-track their cred, it might put them in charge of rooting out future moles.

Could there even be a better mole than the counter-intelligence guy?
posted by codswallop at 9:47 AM on November 12, 2013


I was a member of the Minneapolis anarchist community at the same moment my brother was applying to the Secret Service.

Never affected me, although I think his association with me might have led to him not even getting an interview.

I also once had a roommate who claimed to work for the FBI, although there is great likelihood he was either a compulsive liar or suffered Delusional disorder. But, I dunno, maybe it was true.

I'd like to think I am nonetheless a good lefty.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:05 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh man, I can relate. Not that I've ever been involved in teaching coppers how to be smarter or anything, but I can totally relate to being suspected of being an informant. Back in the 1990s, wearing the wrong shoes was considered suspect, showing too much interest, being too suburban looking, too old, not being social after meetings, being too Red, not Red enough... When I was participating in Earth First! gatherings, I saw plenty of whispering, and participated in it myself.

I'm glad there was no Internet chatter then or I'd have probably had my uncomfortable exchanges with various people made public. In days of paranoia, people get twitchy, and it can be really disturbing if you have a sincere heart to have people give you the side-eye.

It sucks, but that's what happens. How you prove yourself is by repeatedly just Being There. If that means exiling yourself from sensitive meetings, well, there you go. Stupid, but people are just trying to protect themselves.

As you can see, I have mixed feelings.

The way we solved it, though, was just generally following the law, and acting in all cases as if we had an informant in every meeting. If you make clear that no discussions of illegal activities are acceptable in "public" then you should be okay. (Not maybe these days, I don't know. I'm off the grid.) The more radical your activities, the more likely you are to have a "buddy" who isn't your buddy at all. You just have to assume they're there. Calling them out makes you look stupid if you're wrong, and makes the FBI get a new employee if you're right. Why not just deal with the one you've got?

And never listen to someone who seems like they're all too eager to put you in the front line of a demonstration, or someone who tries to persuade you that vandalism makes you a true radical. Pushers should always be perceived as provocateurs. That's what they do.

I always operated on the thought that you should never do anything illegal you weren't willing to go to jail for or admit in the newspaper. This leads to rational reasoning out what you're doing. If you're going to break windows or spray paint a building--or, more stupidly, burn it down--be prepared to defend yourself for what you've done. Be proud. If you're not proud, then you shouldn't be doing it.
posted by RedEmma at 10:18 AM on November 12, 2013 [23 favorites]


Where would anarchy be without a government and snitches and the other accoutrements of paranoia? It wouldn't be a self respecting movement without enemies, no legitimacy if not taken seriously enough to infiltrate. Anarchy the ultimate utopian disillusion. A more self important group you will be hard pressed to meet.
posted by pdxpogo at 11:16 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I imagine a Portland Witch Hunt as a search for wise women of the woods who reward you with pre-chewed artisan candy made of berries and tubers.
posted by klangklangston at 11:23 AM on November 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I imagine a Portland Witch Hunt as a search for wise women of the woods who reward you with pre-chewed artisan candy made of berries and tubers.

It is the rare witch hunt where being a practicing Wiccan actually makes you less suspicious.
posted by Copronymus at 11:38 AM on November 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


A more self important group you will be hard pressed to meet.

This is entirely inconsistent with my experience, which, as an activist in the Twin Cities community, lasted a decade. Most were people who genuinely wanted to see the world a better place and genuinely believed that the establishment of hierarchic systems is undemocratic and likely to lead to power imbalances. Sure, there was a small group of real maniacs, delusionals, and paranoiacs, but I imagine most of us can say the same about our own families, every year, at Thanksgiving, when talk turns to politics.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:48 AM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


So a friend of mine from one of my occasional jaunts through higher education was from Dominica (NOT the Dominican Republic, she would repeatedly make clear) and used to tell this story about how she came to be suspected of being a Japanese spy.

Dominica is a little Caribbean island that doesn't have a lot going on economically, but is an actual sovereign state. And like a lot of other small and poor states, they used to monetize their "just as good as the big countries'" votes at various international bodies by backing Japan on whaling-related issues in exchange for aid. (They appear to have started backing away from this in the last few years, so go Dominica.)

So from time to time the Japanese would send various fisheries types around to Dominica on some project or another. And while she didn't speak Japanese, my friend did have an undergraduate degree in Marine Biology and was at the time stuck back home without any meaningful job, so she was hired to be a liaison for them. And seeing her running around the back country with a bunch of Japanese carrying laptops and weird scientific instruments and taking lots of pictures and water samples and who knows what else apparently led a bunch of local people to conclude that my friend was a Japanese agent spying on the Dominican countryside.

Those people were pretty useless too...

That story contests for the title of "My Favorite Story about My Friend X" with the time a bunch of us were talking about the movie "Leaving Las Vegas." She just heard Nicolas Cage and Las Vegas and stirred up the movies in her head until we were talking about "Leaving Las Vegas" and she was talking about "Honeymoon in Vegas" - neither of which she had actually seen and knew only from the trailers. She was so horrified to hear that Nicolas Cage dies in that movie, and asked in her shocked voice if it was when he jumped out of the plane with the Elvises.
posted by Naberius at 12:08 PM on November 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm pretty middle-of-the-road in terms of direct action (I tend to think that smashing a Starbucks just makes more work for the folks who work at Starbucks, and my solidarity is with them), but I've got friends that are further out than I am, and one of them had done a lot of work down in New Orleans after Katrina. One of the guys she worked with down there, the guy who was always pushing them to do more "direct action," including a plot to molotov something or other, he ended up being an informant, and managed to get a couple of people up on federal charges.

So, these folks are out there, but that doesn't mean everyone who's had a cup of coffee with a fed is a narc.
posted by klangklangston at 12:15 PM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Klang, was the guy in New Orleans the guy profiled in Better This World?
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:19 PM on November 12, 2013


Here's the thing about this: it doesn't sound like he was trying to be part of the "Portland Anarchist Community." I mean, if he were, it would be sort of understandable that they might want to keep him out of planning meetings, etc. Not so much because he was a potential informant, but because they believe that it's an "institution [that] cannot be fixed; it must be destroyed," and it sounds like his values may not be in line with theirs.

But this guy was pretty much just going to public gatherings that appeal to a wide variety of progressive and leftist folks - rallies and things like that. The only evidence I see of him getting more deeply involved is canvassing against coal exports, which was for an environmental group, not the anarchists, and which is a very mainstream issue here in the northwest (disclosure: I work for one of the groups leading the charge on this issue).

So basically, by being the target of this witch hunt, he's being effectively barred from attending public events, because his actions and values are not necessarily in line with the most radical group of activists.

That is messed up and really, really, really not healthy for progressive/leftist causes in Portland.
posted by lunasol at 12:23 PM on November 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


What bemuses me about the whole agent provocateur thing is that, on the one hand, the first person to suggest breaking windows should be assumed to be a narc, but on the other hand, it should also be obvious that breaking windows is also stupid and destructive and not even remotely helpful. It is not even "direct action", unless we redefine "direct" to mean "indirect", or unless one's true target of ire really is just the window, and not anything else for which the window may be a synecdoche.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:28 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


So basically, by being the target of this witch hunt, he's being effectively barred from attending public events, because his actions and values are not necessarily in line with the most radical group of activists.

It's not like people have a problem with him because he wants them to join the Democratic Party. This is a guy who went out and trained FBI counterterrorism agents. These are the same people who have been targeting activist and anarchist circles for years; they are the people who have inflitrated multiple environmentalist groups in the Pacific Northwest in the past decade, and targeted and jailed members of Oregon's anarchist community. Why does Brown get to feel comfortable at "public events," while many other people in the crowd are currently being investigated, targeted, and harassed by the same FBI agents that he helped to train?
posted by twirlip at 12:54 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Vahid is a family friend of mine.

He is an incredible scholar of language and culture, and it's a shame that he has been so widely misrepresented in the media like this, to be reduced to such a small thing, to be known in such a pitifully ignorant way.

I've been off of facebook for a few weeks, but when this story broke, he posted on his page about how shocked and surprised he was by these vitriolic stories, and mentioned that he didn't feel comfortable attending political rallies or meetings. I think it would mean a lot to him if folks on metafilter gave him encouraging words over Twitter.

In a sea of hate, compassion and understanding is all that keeps us afloat.
posted by oceanjesse at 1:02 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


At least it's good to know that the far left has excellent models for conducting purges. I wonder though, where would they put a gulag in Portland? Would they just fence off one of the Starbucks?
posted by happyroach at 1:17 PM on November 12, 2013


Why does Brown get to feel comfortable at "public events," while many other people in the crowd are currently being investigated, targeted, and harassed by the same FBI agents that he helped to train?

Because he didn't train those "same FBI agents" to "investigate, target, and harrass them"? I mean, if you personally feel that anyone who has had anything to do with the FBI shouldn't go to progressive events, that's your right to feel that way. But that doesn't mean it's OK to intimidate and harass someone because of that belief, which is what's happening here.

And again, the Occupy movement was supposed to be a big-tent movement for lots of different strains of progressives concerned about economic injustice, the financial system, etc. And the movement in the Northwest against coal exports most certainly is a big tent, encompassing everyone from traditional enviro groups to Native Tribes, to faith groups, and even some Tea Partiers.

Because here in the northwest, we're trying to hold the line against tons of coal being shipped through our communities on its way to be burned in Asia. We need that tent to be as big as it can get, and I am really, really not OK with a small group of ideological purists trying to say who is and who is not allowed to be in that fight.
posted by lunasol at 1:18 PM on November 12, 2013 [14 favorites]


"Klang, was the guy in New Orleans the guy profiled in Better This World?"

Yep. I had no idea a documentary was made about it, so thanks.
posted by klangklangston at 1:38 PM on November 12, 2013


I sometimes feel like people don't grasp that anarchism means something, radical politics means something. This Vahid character (and I think I've been hearing bits of this through informal channels for a while) actually did train FBI agents. No matter what his intent was, it's a fairly standard anarchist and all-purpose-radical premise that we don't do the cops' work for them, even if doing so means that we'd get to act as quieter, nicer, politer cops. We tend to feel that the drawbacks of this kind of "reform" outweigh its benefits by a fairly large margin.

Many of us have actual lived experience with trying to make nice with the cops and having it used against us. It frustrates me that when people who have actually been harassed by the FBI or illegally detained say things like "wait, actually making nice isn't a good idea because you cannot trust them", then a lot of folks who have no experience with the FBI get very shirty. Most people don't have lived experience of scary state repression. (Even most US anarchists haven't been at the sharp end - but I have several friends who were held at gunpoint by cops, including one who had a gun held to their head in a dark, isolated space and a cop tell them that the cop would like to kill them. This for either literally nothing illegal or for nonviolent offenses! And that's enough sharp end for me.)

Anyway, the point is that folks who have not actually encountered how all this works tend not to have a very good idea of how unpleasant, exhausting and dangerous it is. I certainly did not in my younger years.

Vahid is free to teach the FBI whatever he wants, of course. But he doesn't get a pass from people who feel that this behavior is both immoral and foolish. Just as folks say a lot on metafilter, you can say whatever you want but that doesn't mean that everyone needs to like it.

Anarchism means something. It's not the same as liberalism, or left liberalism; it's not the same thing as calling yourself a progressive. It is very tempting for lots of us - both anarchists and others - to try to all get along all the time and to paper over our actual, meaningful disagreements. This has the effect, eventually, of evacuating all our politics. Some people believe that the FBI means well but is misinformed. Some of us believe that the FBI may contain people who are benign but misinformed, or even good, moral people, but the structure of the FBI and its larger purpose mean that the FBI will always default to doing fucked up stuff. The two groups aren't the same.

There are smart liberals and dumb liberals, smart anarchists and dumb anarchists - the point is that it's not smartness or dumbness that separate us, but a set of beliefs about how power structures work. It is not a "witch hunt" to say "hey, this dude did this thing that we feel is harmful and he should not be welcome in groups who also feel that what he did was harmful." This is uncomfortable - a lot of people (including, sometimes, me) try to steer things away from political conflict and back toward the mushy middle, especially if the people in conflict are basically nice. But it's the real of actually believing things and trying to live by them.

I think that because this country has no real left, people are always surprised that anyone would believe their beliefs enough to call someone out for their actions.
posted by Frowner at 1:41 PM on November 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


I add that everyone is totally free to support trying to reform the FBI. That's not where I'd put my precious hours, but whatever, maybe it will pay off, a world revolution will quietly happen and I'll have to recant my anarchism in the face of y'alls overwhelming success. I'm just saying that you and I can't pretend that there isn't a big, important difference in belief between us.

It sucks when you hit this limit with friends. I assume, in fact, that this is why people tend to default to the "this is just a witchhunt" narrative - it's much more comforting to assume that there's either a misunderstanding or some interpersonal bullshit going on than that folks actually have a real, unresolvable difference.
posted by Frowner at 1:47 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I sometimes feel like people don't grasp that anarchism means something, radical politics means something. This Vahid character (and I think I've been hearing bits of this through informal channels for a while) actually did train FBI agents. No matter what his intent was, it's a fairly standard anarchist and all-purpose-radical premise that we don't do the cops' work for them, even if doing so means that we'd get to act as quieter, nicer, politer cops. We tend to feel that the drawbacks of this kind of "reform" outweigh its benefits by a fairly large margin. "

Anarchism means something, radical politics mean something, but frankly, this statement is part of why I think what they mean is largely dumb and reactive (not "reactionary," as a term of art). That's further true when you're trying to make a statement about something like anarchism meaning "something." Anarchism has more flavors than a fractal Baskin Robbins.

The benefits and drawbacks here aren't being weighed carefully; they're being asserted through dogma.

You don't do the cops' work for them? Oh, so you don't avail yourself of the resources of the state when it comes to sexual assault? You wouldn't support giving police officers more cultural competency training for dealing with rape victims?

Or to pull more directly from my experience, you wouldn't talk to prison guards about safeguarding the civil rights of LGBT people, and training them to know that a transgender person is different from a person who is gay, etc.? Not even if it could reduce the rates of assault on LGBT people in prison?

And that's a federal prison where we've done work. To say that you won't do the cops' work for them is to assert a dogma that will forever be used in an uncritical, reflexive way even when it prevents doing work that will help more people.

So, sure, there are smart anarchists and dumb ones. No one would say that Noam Chomsky was unable to think critically about social institutions. However, the idea that training FBI agents to deal with terrorism threats in a smart way is a betrayal of anarchism or left organizing or liberal politics is profoundly dumb.

I'll also point out that this is why a lot of regular political and organizer folks think that anarchism and radical politics are a luxury for people who care more about saying, "Smash the state," than accomplishing substantive improvements for people, especially poor people, whom the leftists ostensibly represent.

"I think that because this country has no real left, people are always surprised that anyone would believe their beliefs enough to call someone out for their actions."

Yeah, and the dominant strain of anarchists and radicals just doesn't grasp that these call-outs are a symptom of a hidebound, incoherent theory of politics that never has to bear the burden of actually being implemented. Liberals get surprised because they thought radicals realized that the dogma is not the goal.
posted by klangklangston at 2:00 PM on November 12, 2013 [26 favorites]


What is harmful, foolish, or immoral about having educated FBI agents? I completely understand the need to be wary of secret government informants in activist organizations. But a sloppy smear campaign like this? How is that warranted? Vahid never made secret his associations.

If you had his credentials and educational background, how would you put them to better use?
posted by oceanjesse at 2:05 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


On the one hand, Frowner is completely right about where Brown would stand with anarchism.

On the other hand, I don't see where Brown presents himself as being an anarchist. There are several invocations of him hanging around generally "radical and activist" circles, as well as Occupy Portland, but these things are not the same as being (or pretending to be) an anarchist.

...

Either way, the last line of the Vice article sums it up pretty well: "Repression is a particularly effective strategy when police can depend upon the radicals they target to finish the job." Law enforcement creates the paranoia: it is human nature for the feedback loop to intensify itself.

...

I think that because this country has no real left, people are always surprised that anyone would believe their beliefs enough to call someone out for their actions.

Reminds me of the conceit in Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross, in which an atheist and a Catholic duel with swords as they debate their views. After all, if one's understanding of the whole of reality isn't worth fighting for, then what is?

On the other hand, Chesterton was lifelong dear friends with G. B. Shaw, and he did not in fact ever desire to kill him with a sword. (That, and many people accuse Chesterton of being a crypto-fascist sentimentalist.)

...

Because here in the northwest, we're trying to hold the line against tons of coal being shipped through our communities on its way to be burned in Asia. We need that tent to be as big as it can get, and I am really, really not OK with a small group of ideological purists trying to say who is and who is not allowed to be in that fight.

Repeated for emphasis.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:10 PM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have worked for 2 separate defense contractors, a fortune 50 energy company, and a Goliath semiconductor company. I've generally found that people who think that I'm a bad person, just for where I used to work, are probably not worth knowing.
posted by Dr. Twist at 2:27 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


You don't do the cops' work for them? Oh, so you don't avail yourself of the resources of the state when it comes to sexual assault? You wouldn't support giving police officers more cultural competency training for dealing with rape victims? Or to pull more directly from my experience, you wouldn't talk to prison guards about safeguarding the civil rights of LGBT people, and training them to know that a transgender person is different from a person who is gay, etc.? Not even if it could reduce the rates of assault on LGBT people in prison?

It just so happens that I've been on the periphery of prison support for a trans prisoner, and I've seen exactly how "education" has gone on this topic. It hasn't been "education" that's worked in getting hormones, etc - it's been actual political pressure, sometimes at the "we are sick of our switchboard getting flooded" level and sometimes fancier. "Education" supposes that the system is interested in working in some kind of benign way - if we just tell the prison system nicely enough that trans women are women, then they'll see the point. In fact, my impression as someone who did a little volunteer work with the group was that mere education - no matter how polite - actually brought about more harassment.

My impression is that cops don't stop sexually harassing or assaulting women because they learn that it's wrong, either; and that cops don't get better about sexual assault because of learning. They get better about it because they come under political pressure to change. Some of this political pressure comes in the form of publicity which may be rolled in with education - you start showing up to talk to them about sexual assault and they realize that people aren't totally ignorant about how they roll.

There is a difference between political pressure and education. Political pressure may incidentally have the effect of education - such that, for example, a prison nurse may learn more about hormones since she isn't going to be able to get away with withholding them - but political pressure isn't premised on the idea that prisons are bad because the people who work in them are merely ignorant.

What I'm saying is that, again, we believe different things. You're very eager to assume that because we believe different things I am stupid or malign or cause harm in the world.

Please don't assume that I haven't thought about these things - or don't have lived experience with some of them.

As far as reporting sexual assault to the police - that hasn't been something that the anarchists I know have been willing to do, and I actually have had friends who have been sexually assaulted and chose not to go to the police. If I had a friend who wanted to report a sexual assault to the police, I would support that friend to the best of my ability in her dealings with the police. Because, basically, I'm not an asshole. I've helped a friend get welfare, too, even though that meant making nice to some really loathsome and openly racist people. But that was because the only choices on the table were really bad.

If you're really doing purely educational work and you feel that it's working and you feel that your other choices are really terrible, yeah, you do what you do. I don't think that helping the FBI is nearly as urgent or overdetermined as situations of sexual assault. It is not obvious to me at all that providing education to the FBI is a good tactic, or that it's an urgent tactic, or that it's even close to the only available choice in ending the War on Terror. Vahid Brown proactively chose to do what he did because he believes certain things about the FBI that I don't believe, that's all. And I happen to think those things are important.
posted by Frowner at 2:33 PM on November 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's all or nothing, damnit!
posted by ethansr at 2:41 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I mean, if you personally feel that anyone who has had anything to do with the FBI shouldn't go to progressive events, that's your right to feel that way. But that doesn't mean it's OK to intimidate and harass someone because of that belief, which is what's happening here.

People who are likely to be targeted by the FBI have a right to know when a potential fellow activist has deliberately provided direct material assistance to the institution that is targeting them. That right outweighs Vahid Brown's right to feel comfortable at a rally.

I don't particularly care whether he goes to progressive events or not. I just think his comfort is a lot less important than the actual threat of state repression that other activists face. I sure as hell wouldn't want to work with someone who has provided direct material assistance to the FBI, because I know I can't trust someone like that.

(For what it's worth, I have been under police surveillance, and I have worked with someone who turned out to be an informant.)

We need that tent to be as big as it can get, and I am really, really not OK with a small group of ideological purists trying to say who is and who is not allowed to be in that fight.

You want a big tent that has room for everyone except "ideological purists" -- and that's totally fine. People should be able to make free, informed decisions about who they want to organize with.
posted by twirlip at 2:43 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have worked for 2 separate defense contractors, a fortune 50 energy company, and a Goliath semiconductor company. I've generally found that people who think that I'm a bad person, just for where I used to work, are probably not worth knowing.

Yeah, probably not. I mean, it's disappointing - maybe we share a taste for feminist science fiction or ice skating - but yes, if we have substantially different values, we're probably not going to be best friends.

See, this is what I'm saying - what we choose to do has meaning. I'm not saying we need to have a cage match to the death about it, but there's this thing I've observed among college educated white collar folks, where we all agree to bracket every moral choice because it would be just too uncomfortable to take things seriously. Fred may run unsupervised drug trials in the developing world; Tina may specialize in giving legal advice to companies anxious to prevent unionization; Joe may do research on primate pain; Clara may run a cleaning service which routinely forces its staff to work unpaid overtime - but whatever, we won't mention that at the dinner table and we're all great friends.

I'm assuming that you don't mean that you had no other acceptable job options. If someone is mopping the floor at the Defense Department because they have to keep the lights on, well, we do what we've got to do. But if you're saying that you like contributing to the development of defense technology, yeah, we're going to part company on that one.

As I say, it's not the funnest reality in the world.

I do find the slippage from "this dude pro-actively worked with the FBI to help them make the War on Terror more efficient" to "I worked [in some capacity] for a large and unpleasant corporation" pretty interesting. The premise as stake is not "we must all be utterly morally pure or we are utterly denunciation-worthy"; it's "because of specific historical circumstances, working for the FBI is reprehensible, especially when you don't have to do it and ought to know better".

I think it's a mistake - and certainly one that I commit! - to try to generalize out giant moral principles from very specific historical circumstances.
posted by Frowner at 2:44 PM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I add that I am cool with people not wanting to be my friend because they don't agree with my political choices. Honestly, I'm pretty sure there are people in town who find my politics really compromised and wishy-washy, and I know for a fact that there are people who find my politics on [particular local issue where the question isn't "wishy-washy versus hard core" but rather "specific strategic choices that don't map that way"] to be totally unacceptable, and I know I don't get invited to their parties. That's the breaks. I think it's healthier to get those differences on the table than to pretend they don't exist.
posted by Frowner at 2:58 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anarchism means something. It's not the same as liberalism, or left liberalism; it's not the same thing as calling yourself a progressive.

That is very true.

However, once again: the causes that this guy was supporting are not anarchist causes. Anarchists may be involved in these causes, but they do not own them. Again, the Pacific Northwest is facing an extremely serious threat when it comes to coal exports. And the opposition is unbelievably well-financed: they spent millions on dollars to buy a freaking county council race (but they lost! yay!). If there are anarchists who want to be involved in this fight, awesome. But, just like anyone else in this fight, they should be willing to accept that they don't own it, and they don't get to decide who is involved in it, any more than I get to decide that.

You want a big tent that has room for everyone except "ideological purists" -- and that's totally fine. People should be able to make free, informed decisions about who they want to organize with.

Again: this guy was not organizing with anarchists. He was not going to anarchist organizing meetings, or trying to cozy up with key organizers with anarchist or radical groups. He was going to public protests, with his kids, and canvassing with an environmental organization.
posted by lunasol at 3:02 PM on November 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


It must feel weird to be a somewhat small circle evil person. "Yeah, I had this job and I felt like I was educating people and now my picture is everywhere with people talking about what a shithead I am. I had no idea.".
posted by josher71 at 3:09 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I add that I am cool with people not wanting to be my friend because they don't agree with my political choices. Honestly, I'm pretty sure there are people in town who find my politics really compromised and wishy-washy, and I know for a fact that there are people who find my politics on [particular local issue where the question isn't "wishy-washy versus hard core" but rather "specific strategic choices that don't map that way"] to be totally unacceptable, and I know I don't get invited to their parties. That's the breaks. I think it's healthier to get those differences on the table than to pretend they don't exist.

I'm pretty sure that we wouldn't be friends IRL, and that's fine. when my choice of employer gets in the way of being on the same team regarding a social issue that we both care about. I'm not fine with that.
posted by Dr. Twist at 3:09 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It must feel weird to be a somewhat small circle evil person. "Yeah, I had this job and I felt like I was educating people and now my picture is everywhere with people talking about what a shithead I am. I had no idea.".

What's more, he does not feel the least bit evil, and now there's a dust-up centering around the Portland anarchists, by way of the Committee Against Political Repression. This foofaraw does not appear to have helped anyone.

On the other hand, if I was against the general cloud of interests represented by the various radical, activist, etc. groups of Portland, then I would be extremely pleased by these results.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:17 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know who else thought everyone had to be either with them or against them?
posted by Naberius at 3:18 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


> Anarchy the ultimate utopian disillusion. A more self important group you will be hard pressed to meet.

Do you actually know any anarchists?

> At least it's good to know that the far left has excellent models for conducting purges. I wonder though, where would they put a gulag in Portland?

Anarchists are not "the far left" and they hate gulags at least as much as you do.
posted by languagehat at 3:23 PM on November 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


"What I'm saying is that, again, we believe different things. You're very eager to assume that because we believe different things I am stupid or malign or cause harm in the world. "

Actually, it seems more going the other way, where you're advocating the leftist purity test (which I recall you doing about "queer" too). I think some of the things you believe are dumb and counterproductive, but I've said nothing about you.

This is especially true because, again, there are more flavors of anarchism than grains of sand on the beach. And weird because this is one of those places where the putative anarchists are finding friends with the Maoists and other state communists.
posted by klangklangston at 3:29 PM on November 12, 2013


I'm pretty sure that we wouldn't be friends IRL, and that's fine. when my choice of employer gets in the way of being on the same team regarding a social issue that we both care about. I'm not fine with that.

But it would depend on the social issue and the tactics, right?

For instance, some anarchists with whom I am associated organized people to vote against a voter suppression measure in the last election, despite the fact that anarchists are not generally big on voting. Folks felt that for specific racial justice/solidarity reasons and likely immediate bad outcomes, it was really important to block this measure. Perhaps we would have both worked on that, because it would be a short term, simple thing with a well-defined outcome.

I think it gets so much harder with more complicated and long term issues, and I think it's very easy for everyone not to think through the larger implications of what we advocate. I mean, if we both hate how undocumented immigrants are treated but you want to create more effective and less abusive border security and a faster reject/accept process for refugees and I want to do away with immigration restrictions altogether, we can't really work together. We could probably fake it for a while until both of us felt like we were betraying our real goals and beliefs - I've certainly had that experience.

I think a healthy political ecology has room for diversity of approach up to a point. (Of course, it's locating the point that is so difficult.) I don't think that anarchism is the only way to build a functional society, or that the ideal world would involve everyone living like a bunch of white vegan punks. I do think that anarchism is the response that makes sense to me for a bunch of problems of imperialism and racism, and that those are the problems which appear to me right now to be foundational problems. Maybe I'm wrong - that's one reason why I don't want a political monoculture. But as long as I am giving it my best shot, I have to believe what I believe and act on my beliefs, running the risk of being wrong, and setting some limits on what I am willing to do.
posted by Frowner at 3:38 PM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]




I think some of the things you believe are dumb and counterproductive, but I've said nothing about you.

That's slicing and dicing pretty fine, isn't it? I believe things that are dumb and counterproductive but they're just sort of aesthetic, not part of who I am?

As you say, there are lots of varieties of anarchism; very few of them involve doing workshops for the FBI. I suppose if you include Daoism maybe, or some of the more robust variants of nihilism, where people would just think that any kind of directly political action was a waste of time so it was all a wash?

I don't quite remember what I said about queerness, but IIRC it was pretty much that if you were heterosexual in lifestyle and attraction, you shouldn't call yourself queer even if you practiced BDSM or nonmonogamy. I don't think that's especially purist, even though it certainly is something that we can disagree seriously about. I think it's one of a couple of pretty standard angles on the question.
posted by Frowner at 3:52 PM on November 12, 2013


I don't quite remember what I said about queerness, but IIRC it was pretty much that if you were heterosexual in lifestyle and attraction, you shouldn't call yourself queer even if you practiced BDSM or nonmonogamy.
What about non-cisgender folks who are hetero? Does that make you not queer? Who gets to decide who's queer and who's not?

You know what I find irritating about (m)anarchist discussions? They invariably end up devolving into whatever white cis men have to say on a given topic. Which, of course, is why misogynists make great informants.
posted by cowboy_sally at 4:09 PM on November 12, 2013


So if teaching the FBI that what they’re doing may be wrong and harmful is a bad thing, what’s the good thing again?
posted by bongo_x at 4:36 PM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh right, they don’t want powerful government organizations to change, they want them to destroy them and make them bow down before them.
posted by bongo_x at 4:39 PM on November 12, 2013


You know what I find irritating about (m)anarchist discussions? What about non-cisgender folks who are hetero? Does that make you not queer? Who gets to decide who's queer and who's not?

Well, except for the fact that I'm not a man, was not assigned male gender at birth, and I'm not cis. I am white, and I am an anarchist.

I think that the term "queer" has a particular political history and serves particular political purposes. I don't think those purposes are especially well served by straight people calling themselves queer. Mostly, this comes from my experience in political circles where people who had every single form of straight privilege wanted to describe themselves as queer because they thought it sounded like a pleasant/novel/non-mainstream/dissident identity, and from my own experience before I came out and when I was working through some stuff - I felt hesitant to call myself queer while living a life of complete straight privilege because I felt that it would come across as point-seeking, like I wanted to live a completely straight life and yet have this additional special identity. To me it felt like I'd be insulting people who did not have my luxury of self-describing as queer when it felt fun and safe while still living as a straight person.

I admit that trans* identities are a lot more complex than heterosexual/not-heterosexual, and I think you're right on that front and I'm wrong. But I still just don't think that if you're a cisgendered person who identifies as straight that it is especially politically helpful to start calling yourself queer.

I add that I don't have any power to compel anyone to call themselves anything. We disagree. I assume that if we actually meet, through some bizarre circumstance, we're not going to challenge each others' statements about identity. We're just going to disagree. I also have no interest in the creation of any group or strong social rule governing who calls themselves what. It's just that I have a set of beliefs based in my experience and understanding of the world.
posted by Frowner at 4:56 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


"That's slicing and dicing pretty fine, isn't it? I believe things that are dumb and counterproductive but they're just sort of aesthetic, not part of who I am? "

If I believed you had any real power to, say, impede the FBI from learning that Al Qaida is mostly hype, I'd think you were likely causing harm over a dumb bit of dogma, and would judge you as such. Without that power, yeah, if you feel the need to separate between aesthetics and identity, it's aesthetics.

But really, aren't you trying to have it both ways here? If your radical politics "means something," you're the one imposing that purity test, and then resenting being judged for it.

"I think it gets so much harder with more complicated and long term issues, and I think it's very easy for everyone not to think through the larger implications of what we advocate. I mean, if we both hate how undocumented immigrants are treated but you want to create more effective and less abusive border security and a faster reject/accept process for refugees and I want to do away with immigration restrictions altogether, we can't really work together. We could probably fake it for a while until both of us felt like we were betraying our real goals and beliefs - I've certainly had that experience."

See, that's dumb. I don't think that people's travels over borders should be restricted, especially not more than capital. Fundamentally, I'd like to see them abolished.

However, since I deal with real people who are right now affected by the cruelties of the immigration system, I'm happy to support comprehensive immigration reform. I would rather work on something that has a chance of making progress in the immediate future than invent a fantasy where the U.S. is anywhere near to declaring borders null.

That doesn't betray my beliefs — it gets me closer to actualizing them.

And because I live and work with people who suffer from our broken immigration system every single day, I'm not willing to retreat into my privilege and only deign to help them when it's properly pure. That kind of ineffectual radicalism is a luxury that people suffering don't have. How am I gonna look my friend in the eye and tell him that I'm not going to support the Dream Act that would keep him in this country because I don't believe in borders to begin with?

Call it a betrayal of ideals all you want — I don't really give a fuck about that. I care about getting things done and making the world a better place through participatory politics. Often, that means working with radicals, but I judge them by what they can accomplish, not the philosophy that leads them there.

"I do think that anarchism is the response that makes sense to me for a bunch of problems of imperialism and racism, and that those are the problems which appear to me right now to be foundational problems."

And I think that generic anarchism is mostly a fantasy based on the ideals that come with a system never implemented. It's about as realistic as libertarian plans to lash together a raft and float into the Pacific. Generic narchism is great for small communities of interest that don't have to administer anything complex or need to make decisions quickly. And it's certainly no antidote for imperialism: The UN, and international law in general, is anarchy — a voluntary, self-constituted body that represents the interests of members.

"But as long as I am giving it my best shot, I have to believe what I believe and act on my beliefs, running the risk of being wrong, and setting some limits on what I am willing to do."

Yep. And the rest of us have to tell you when you're wrong, and when the limits you're setting are dumb and counter-productive. And replying with a testament to the sincerity of those beliefs doesn't make them more right.

"As you say, there are lots of varieties of anarchism; very few of them involve doing workshops for the FBI. I suppose if you include Daoism maybe, or some of the more robust variants of nihilism, where people would just think that any kind of directly political action was a waste of time so it was all a wash? "

1) Dude's not an anarchist. Holding him to anarchist standards is dumb. 2) Chomsky, who has identified as anarcho-syndicalist, gave a lecture at West Point on "just war." Content of the lecture matters, and saying that because someone has lectured at the FBI, they can't be an anarchist is dumb.

I don't quite remember what I said about queerness, but IIRC it was pretty much that if you were heterosexual in lifestyle and attraction, you shouldn't call yourself queer even if you practiced BDSM or nonmonogamy. I don't think that's especially purist, even though it certainly is something that we can disagree seriously about. I think it's one of a couple of pretty standard angles on the question."

Yeah, that was it. It's not my word to define, so I don't, and I don't generally disagree with you on the point, however I think that's a byproduct of queer theory rather than queer identity, given how I see it used. (And got a little chuckle because the next week, a radical queer came through and gave a training and explicitly included poly and BDSM as part of the queer community. It's totally a legit point for you to disagree on, I just didn't expect to see it so quickly after the discussion here.)
posted by klangklangston at 4:57 PM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]



You know what I find irritating about (m)anarchist discussions? They invariably end up devolving into whatever white cis men have to say on a given topic. Which, of course, is why misogynists make great informants.


I'm also not totally enamored of the suggestion that I'm more likely to be an informant because you're saying that I'm a misogynist because I disagree with you over how queer is defined. That's doubly frustrating to me because I have a couple of friends who actually have suffered from the depredations of informants, one of whom is mentioned in that article.
posted by Frowner at 4:58 PM on November 12, 2013


Yeah, it's not super awesome to imply that people are untrustworthy informants, simply because they approach sociopolitical problems in a different way than you do.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:06 PM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


(Also, could this thread please not become a referendum on anarchy itself, or of any particular person's views on LGBT* issues?)
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:07 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


But really, aren't you trying to have it both ways here? If your radical politics "means something," you're the one imposing that purity test, and then resenting being judged for it.

I think we're talking past each other. I wrote that because I found it funny that you seemed to be trying not to judge "me", as if what I believed were separable from who I am.

However, since I deal with real people who are right now affected by the cruelties of the immigration system, I'm happy to support comprehensive immigration reform. I would rather work on something that has a chance of making progress in the immediate future than invent a fantasy where the U.S. is anywhere near to declaring borders null.

Actually, I was just making up that example. I have done some support work for some aspects of immigration reform - not all, and not without a lot of skepticism. But honestly, there's a lot of nominally wildly nutty radical approaches (prison abolition, for example) where I've become convinced over time because I feel like the organizing around this seemingly "impossible" demand actually has achieved stuff.

As far as the sincerity thing goes - my point isn't that you can't tell me you think I'm wrong because I'm sincere; my point is that I accept that I might be wrong - but since I don't think I'm wrong right now, I'm still going to do what I believe. I am totally serious when I say that I am open to being convinced that I am wrong, which is why I am widely known in certain circles as really wishy-washy and why I do a lot of only-marginally-anarchist things.
posted by Frowner at 5:16 PM on November 12, 2013


(Also, could this thread please not become a referendum on anarchy itself, or of any particular person's views on LGBT* issues?)

And on that note, I'll only comment more in this thread if I have anything to say that is directly about its topic.
posted by Frowner at 5:19 PM on November 12, 2013


There are institutions that are so corrupt, so violent, and so awful that you could probably argue that any involvement at all is evil and bad. But those are extreme and unusual examples -- Stalin's secret police or Rwandan Interahamwe, say. The FBI doesn't even come close to that.

It's certainly part of a systemic state apparatus of control, but it does so largely within the bounds of elected legislative and administrative control -- the problems with the FBI and similar agencies comes from the directives and incentives they are given, not from such deepset internal corruption that a hired lecturer becomes contaminated for life. That's just silly.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:31 PM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm also not totally enamored of the suggestion that I'm more likely to be an informant because you're saying that I'm a misogynist because I disagree with you over how queer is defined.

If you're not a white cis man, then the article isn't contextually relevant to your behavior. I wasn't trying to imply as much and I apologize if it came across that way.
posted by cowboy_sally at 5:41 PM on November 12, 2013


(Also, could this thread please not become a referendum on anarchy itself, or of any particular person's views on LGBT* issues?)

Well, we could always follow the lead original article and start accusing participants of being FBI plants. Personally, I'm waiting for someone in Portland t show up with a list of 205 known FBI informants working in the anarchy community. The situation seems right for that.
posted by happyroach at 6:01 PM on November 12, 2013


happyroach: At least it's good to know that the far left has excellent models for conducting purges. I wonder though, where would they put a gulag in Portland? Would they just fence off one of the Starbucks?

They'd demolish the Pearl District and put it there.
posted by gucci mane at 10:40 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


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