REFLECTIONS ON THE PEN AND THE SWORD
Clare O’Connor, Editor in Chief
In 2006, I asked a new acquaintance for feedback on a first draft. We’d met through the alternative campus newspaper. In retrospect, it’s clear that I was on track to becoming a writer, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. I second-guessed myself often and felt intimidated by research tasks. It showed. My newspaper friend responded compassionately to my draft: “you break every rule George Orwell elaborates in his Politics and the English Language.”
When you’re just getting started, honest criticism is a bullet. I stared at the screen for half an hour before looking up Orwell’s essay. It was a thorough indictment of my writing impulses: to decorate unsubstantiated claims with vague concepts and unnecessary words and, above all, never to say anything new for fear that someone might ask me to explain.
Around the same time, political activism had wormed its way to the top of my priorities. Gradually, I learned about grassroots strategy by way of my more experienced peers’ muffled side comments, and by biting off more than I could chew.
Activism made my thinking more nuanced. Fighting power turned out to be different from endlessly talking about it, and there was never a shortage of offenses to redress. But although I was learning a lot, I was also aware that the urgency of battle sometimes made it difficult for us to convey the insights we’d learned along the way. Activists often become consumed by the campaigns in which they’re engaged. I couldn’t disparage these habits—persistence is often a virtue—but it was hard to deny that most people didn’t feel similarly compelled. Devising a winning strategy meant figuring out why this was so. It also meant figuring out how lessons learned in struggle could be conveyed to those who preferred the sidelines.
Sensing the enormity of the problem I’d stumbled upon, I started studying the social movements of earlier generations by reading the work of their respective journalists. Naomi Klein caught me up on the anti-globalization struggles of the late 1990s. Writing under the pseudonym Frank Talk, Steve Biko humbled me to the complexities of the Black Consciousness Movement and the student-led opposition to South African apartheid during the 1970s. Eqbal Ahmad earned my admiration as one of the post-war period’s most capable anti-imperialist analysts, especially in light of his 1998 prediction that Bin Laden would retaliate against the US.
There were others, too. While John Reed redeemed the Bolshevik Revolution from the sad shadow of propaganda tables, reading Norman Mailer’s account of the Chicago police riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 was enough to fill my nostrils with the acrid smell of tear gas.
Alongside the admiration I felt for their keen observational skills, political journalists such as these convinced me that clear writing was the very stuff of clear thinking. And though I didn’t agree with everything I read, it became clear that written arguments welcomed a kind of generative scrutiny that seemed antithetical to the activist culture of good feeling in which I found myself.
I returned to my own blank screen and began typing.
Writing was more challenging than it had been in 2006. But, because of my raised standards, I wasn’t surprised. Karl Marx, another journalist, reminded me how “the method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry.” You can’t start with a story and then look for evidence to substantiate it. Understanding is the precondition to all compelling stories, and understanding only arises through inquiry. “Only after this work is done,” Marx observed, “can the actual movement be adequately described.” My desire to understand the world trumped my timidity. Within a year, I had worn the letters off my keyboard.
Although the work of inquiry can never be completed, transforming the world demands that we constantly sharpen the line between the moment of clarification and that of presentation. Approached from this vantage, it becomes clear that many of our most taken-for-granted political concepts—“solidarity,” “resistance,” “community”—have no self-evident meaning. Such meaning cannot be asserted; it can only be discovered through inquiry.
Clear thinking is essential to clear political strategizing. But what enables clear thinking? There are undoubtedly many ways to answer this question; however, we should not forget how the struggle to write clearly demands that we subject our thoughts to ongoing, honest, and brutal assessment. The benefits that activists can derive from clear writing thus become clear. Publications like the Ryerson Free Press are not merely records of what’s happening in the world; they’re also part of the very process by which we learn to win.