A Good Kind of Chaos

Election '04

Over the past weekend I attended the Boston Social Forum held at the University of Massachusetts campus. Concentrated in three hulking brown buildings dedicated to the academic fields of social and physical sciences, dialects and dialectics pressed against each other in the cacophonous and crowded hallways, classrooms, and auditoriums. There were more than 600 events at the forum, covering every imaginable political issue.

The place was chaotic in an uplifting and exhilarating way. Most of the people I spoke with recognized the challenges of promoting their wide-ranging agenda, and were remakably willing to face the underlying general difficulties of events like the Boston Social Forum (BSF).

Despite the mix of focus on issues, attendees did seem to agree on one thing, though. No image was more (un)popular than Bush's. His face appeared on posters, in art works (one great one was a collage of religious images with Bush in the center in the shape of a mandala with a caption beneath that quoted Bush saying, "Our priorities is our faith"), and on buttons ("He lied, they died").

That Bush has become as much a cultural force as a political force, as much a uniter as a disuniter, was all apparent at the BSF, where I saw children with "Stop Bush" t-shirts and babies bearing buttons with big capital W's with a line drawn through them.

Diversity at the Forum

Though many of the issues debated and discussed at the BSF involved and impacted non-whites, attendance at the BSF – like attendance at most progressive events in this country – was overwhelmingly white; this despite the fact that in Boston and in most major U.S. cities – as well as most of the world – whites are a statistical minority. This disconnect between more affluent white progressives and "people of color" did not escape the few African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans in attendance.

Barbara Salvaterra, a BSF organizer, who was born in Brazil and attended the founding World Social Forum event in Porto Alegre, sees this disconnect as one of the primary obstacles to developing the common language among U.S. progressives, "The big difference between the Porto Alegre and other World Social Forum events and the BSF is that those events came about because the efforts of the movimientos de base, the grassroots movements. The social movements are already very developed while here in the United States it seems like they're not." Salvaterre speaks three languages and has a political vocabulary with a breadth rooted in a political culture that draws hundreds of thousands, even millions to World Social Forums and other events.

In this sense and in the context of the United States, Salvaterra is a political muse. "Change has to come and end with the base. You can't just have change from above – including in our movements," Salvaterre said, adding, "you also have to celebrate more with music, dance and culture."

Adopting the language of chaos

The subtitle of the Boston Social Forum was "Another World is Possible." The 75 local organizations that sponsored the BSF asked the more than 4,000 participants to showcase "their best analysis of the present, and their best ideas for the future, across the breadth of human knowledge – politics, economics, science and technology, culture and faith – in the context of corporate globalization."

This was the language that the organizers of BSF used as their alternative to the simplistic and religious binary code of the discourse and policies of the Bush administration (i.e. "You're either with us or with the terrorists"). While I regarded attention to these topics at the BSF as healthy and urgently needed, the breadth and scope of BSF's stated purpose laid bare for me the problem of coming up with an alternative worldview, and the language to describe it.

One of the thousands of flyers on the walls at the forum summed up the issue best, though it wasn't a BSF xerox; it was from the University of Massachusetts' physics department, advertising a course on the language of complexity and chaos theory. The course, the flyer advertized, would cover "...how to find equilibrium and a common vocabulary in a turbulent world that is dynamical and nonlinear, a world in which complexity grows exponentially while official explanations grow simpler and simpler."

Strolling the hallways and open spaces of the BSF it was clear that finding consensus, common language, and uniform information to guide political practice is much easier when you allow God to simplify the chaos.

In the shadow of a towering red and white Coca Cola vending machine at the end of the usually cold hallway of the second floor of the science building, a balding, pony-tailed middle-aged man with glasses and a sport coat dialogued with a tall, young white woman wrapped in a kaffiyeh. They had a heated search for common language about Israel and Palestine. "You're saying that some people matter more than others," said the young woman. "No," the man responded, "I said that in order to get to the world that we both believe in, we all need to give something up. We...."

And just when possibility of consensus seemed to blossom under the auspices of science, passion interrupted and summarily ended the discussion. The woman finished it with a flourish. "That's easy for you to say. Even though the world community is on my side, things won't change because the leadership – the people with guns – are on your side."

Aside from this garden-variety argument that you'd hear at just about any event like this, everyone I spoke with said they felt a really good vibe at the forum. I did too, feeling a little more motivated about the prospect of a real and honest alternative to mainstream society and politics – even if it would be a little more chaotic.

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