A Question of Billing

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From an installation by Tom Hirons at this year’s Uncivilisation festival

Dark Mountain has never been an activist movement, but among the writers we publish and at the events we organise, there are many who would call themselves activists. For some, this distinction has been a source of tension: Jody Boehnert, for example, argues that we have a responsibility to channel the energy this project generates into a social movement. For others, the reason Dark Mountain matters is that it offers a space where there’s no rush to answers or to action, in contrast to other movements in which they are active.

There are also plenty of people who have written for our books or taken part in events who would not think of calling themselves activists.

For me, that balance is one of the things that’s special about this project. At its best, it is a meeting point between worlds. It’s precisely because the Dark Mountain banner doesn’t exist for the purpose of collective political action that we have been able to bring such a range of voices into conversation: from Wikileaks hackers to Luddites, from bankers and hedge fund managers to survivalists and primitivists, not to mention one Guardian columnist, and one infrastructure engineer who has advised both anarchist squatters and the Pentagon. All of these people have engaged with Dark Mountain because something of what we wrote in the manifesto seemed worth taking seriously, but that is a long way from requiring people to sign up to a party line, or even seeking to achieve consensus. (By the same principle, when we publish someone or give them a platform to speak, that’s not a political endorsement of their work: it’s a judgement that they have something to say that’s worth hearing.)

Why am I writing about this now? Because of the shenanigans on Twitter a couple of days ago, when George Monbiot got into a row about the first Uncivilisation festival and one of his fellow speakers that weekend. I’ll admit, I’ve been torn between amusement at the spectacle of George locking horns with Vinay Gupta – who is big enough and daft enough to look after himself – and exasperation at some of the claims he made about Dark Mountain along the way.

When George wrote that we’d ‘billed [Vinay as a] Pentagon consultant, reporting on protest groups’, I told him that was nonsense. I’ve been back and checked the programme from the first festival, and it’s quite clear we said nothing of the sort. In further exchanges, it turned out that George was referring to something he remembers Paul saying in his introduction to Vinay’s talk. ‘I was astonished that no one else reacted,’ he wrote. ‘Shocked both by what I heard and by lack of audience response.’

There are two things that bother me here. First, George is saying that Dark Mountain gave a platform to someone we knew (and advertised) as an informer on protest groups to the authorities. And second, he’s saying that the Dark Mountain audience was untroubled by that.

Now, we don’t have a recording of that day’s event. Several people were filming or making audio recordings – you can watch Vinay’s talk online, and listen to the session I took part in with George afterwards – but among those I’ve been able to contact, no one has footage that includes the introductions. Perhaps it will turn up, although two and a half years after the event, I’m not particularly hopeful.

So, in the absence of the recording George is asking for, what can we say about what went on that afternoon?

First, I wasn’t in the hall when Paul made the introduction: I was outside, preparing for my session with George. And – just to add to the general tone of farce – Paul is on holiday this week and nowhere near the internet, so I can’t check his recollection.

But anything he said when introducing Vinay would have come from notes I’d given him. I’d known Vinay for eighteen months or so in London, whereas I don’t think Paul had met him before that weekend.

There is no way I would have told Paul that Vinay had reported on protest groups to the Pentagon. What’s very likely is that I said something about him having advised everyone from anarchists to the Pentagon on infrastructure. (I said much the same, in more detal, in the dialogue with Vinay in the first issue of Dark Mountain.)

This leaves two possibilities, both fairly plausible: either George misheard Paul’s words, or Paul had a slip of the tongue.

However, if it was the latter – and Vinay really was introduced as someone who had reported on protest groups to the Pentagon – I find it hard to believe that this would have gone without comment or reaction from those present. The audience included many who had been heavily involved in the roads protests, the anti-globalisation movement and Climate Camp. Even before what we’ve learned in the past couple of years about the activities of undercover police within UK protest movements, there was real concern about informers. It just doesn’t make sense to me that we could have presented one of our speakers as some kind of informer, without this becoming a major issue. (For what it’s worth, Vinay himself does not remember anything controversial being said about him during Paul’s introduction, either.)

Beyond being the kind of micro-drama for which social media was invented, does any of this matter? Well, possibly. I’ve heard from one friend of Dark Mountain who has been receiving concerned messages from activist contacts, wanting to know what’s really going on here.

The ability to create a space where different worlds come together, not for staged arguments but for serious conversations, depends on certain kinds of trust. The idea that we would want to be associated with someone who reports on protest groups to the authorities – well, I can understand how that would damage people’s trust. Not so much for those who have actually been to Dark Mountain events, but for people whose perception might be formed by the words of a prominent campaigner and journalist.

We all make mistakes, and we may never know for certain whether George misheard or Paul misspoke. While we’re at it, though, let me admit to at least one mistake that we did make in the billing for that weekend.

Anyone who has watched the conversation I filmed with David Abram, or read the dialogues I’ve published in the Dark Mountain books, will know that pugilistic debating is not really my style. For one thing, it never seems to change anyone’s heart or mind, or lead to anyone learning anything. I’m more interested in exploring ideas together, figuring out what someone else has seen that I’m missing, and vice versa – rather than rehearsing positions and scoring points. And for another thing, there are plenty of people who are better at point-scoring than I will ever be!

When we were planning the first festival, there was a discussion about which of us should take part in the session with George. Part of the reason I ended up doing it was that we hoped to get away from the back-and-forth of the Guardian debates that he and Paul had been having, into a more interesting conversation. But I screwed this up when, a few weeks beforehand, I recorded a video where I said I would be “grilling” George, an expression that then went onto the festival website and into the programme.

I remember, moments before we went on stage, saying to George – who I’d never met before – that I hoped we could make this a conversation rather than an argument. “Oh,” he said, “so you’re chickening out?” Well, fair play to him. He’d worked himself up for a fight, and I’d made the mistake of billing the session in those terms.

Still, the question lingers, would he have been capable of any other mode of engagement?

It’s a question that came back to me, in the middle of this week’s palaver on Twitter. “I’m not suggesting he’s a spy,” wrote George in one of his replies, “but that I had doubts about which side he was on.”

You see, it seems like it’s obvious to George what the two sides are here – but it’s not obvious to me. And I can’t help thinking that there’s a connection between the assumption that the world is divided into two sides – Us vs Them – and the assumption that important questions are best settled by staging a boxing-ring style argument.

I’m not saying there are no situations in which it’s helpful to think this way, but I think it often gives a very distorted picture. More than this, the style of argument which automatically frames everything in such oppositions increasingly sounds to me like something from another era. In its place, I’m seeing another style, less interested in setting out a position and defending it as if one’s ego depended on this.

There’s a passage I wrote in Despatches from the Invisible Revolution which seems relevant here:

I wonder if this willingness to rethink out loud, to voice our uncertainties, might be emblematic of a generational shift which leaves the winner-takes-all polemic of Hitchens or Dawkins looking suddenly old-fashioned: an intellectual Maginot Line, built for a kind of war we no longer fight? Among those whose thinking holds my attention, there is a fluidity to the way ideas emerge, flowing in and out of the projects, actions and movements with which we become involved. Careful thinking is valued, but being right is less important than contributing to the unfolding of the conversation, and discovering something you hadn’t seen. This reflects the habit of publishing our conversations in real time, thinking aloud in written form, sharing our ideas in progress through blogs and Twitter exchanges that weave into our face-to-face encounters, and formal publications that crystallise out of the wider conversation.

Even if I’m onto something here, it’s far from obvious how this new mode of thinking – which thrives in pockets, stitched together by networks – could ever transfer to the mainstream media. Newspapers and broadcasters live by staged oppositions: their debates may not achieve much, but they create a spectacle. However, I can think of one example that offers a clue.

In early 2011, Paul Mason, the economics editor of Newsnight, came to speak at the Really Free School, a squatted space in central London set up by activists involved in the student protests. Afterwards, he spent two hours with a few of us in a nearby pub, and the next day he wrote a blog post which would later grow into a book, ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere’, one of the best things that’s been written about the wave of networked protest that broke across the world last year. It’s far from the final word on the subject, and the conversation continues, but Paul’s role is an example of how networked thinking and action might relate to old-school media.

Paul Mason came to the Really Free School and listened. He got a book out of it – but more importantly, my impression is that he continues to have the respect (which is not necessarily the agreement) of those who were part of the conversations that fed into that book.

George Monbiot came to Uncivilisation and had a fight. Two and a half years later, he’s throwing around damaging accusations based on what he thinks he heard. I share responsibility for framing the conversation with George as a fight, but I wish he showed more signs of engaging constructively with others who are thinking seriously about the same issues that he writes about.

 

An Invitation to George & Vinay

Having got to the end of this post, I have to say that I had better things to do this week than deal with all this nonsense.

Starting next Monday, along with some of my friends who were involved in the Really Free School, we’re running Redrawing the Maps – a week of open conversations, collaborations, screenings and workshops inspired by the work of John Berger, at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London. As I wrote last week, one of the things I admire about Berger is his ability to ‘hold together paradoxical truths which others might separate into oppositions’: that’s one of the ways in which he’s had a huge influence on me and on my contributions to Dark Mountain.

So, in that spirit, if George is interested in having a conversation that’s not simply a staged showdown, I’d like to invite both him and Vinay to take part in a session during next week’s events. My only condition is that both of them leave their boxing gloves at home…

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