Culture & Conversation

Confessions of a Lightning Rod

THIS IS A BOOK WITHIN A BOOK. The main narrative explores the evolution of leftist politics, in all its diverse manifestations, from the anti-globalization movement of the nineties to the grassroots campaign which catapulted a young black senator into the White House. It is filled with illuminating anecdotes, improbable characters and startling statistics. Yet the ideas it puts forth are not nearly as absorbing as the honest depiction, tucked strategically within its folds, of the author’s personal transformation.

Rebick’s central thesis is that it is not enough for leftist parties to win power, but that “we must change the very nature of power” – from hierarchical to flat, patriarchal to nurturing, representative to participatory. She argues that “our political system has become more and more centralized,” contrasting the power of political protest in the 60s to the impotence of worldwide antiwar protests in advance of, and during, Bush’s occupation of Iraq. She amply demonstrates the effects of neo-liberalism in eroding our sense of community, and points out that left-leaning politicians have often furthered this erosion. Obama’s election, she writes, “is just the tip of the iceberg;” the question is how much, now that he is on the “inside,” he can involve the citizens who drove his candidacy.

Though we willingly play Toto to Rebick’s Dorothy — as she travels, starry-eyed, from international fora to spiritual retreats to conversations with individuals named Velcrow Ripper and Starhawk – it is hard to shake the feeling that we’ve heard it all before. Occasionally, the obviousness of her prose devolves into sheer parroting, as when Rebick writes: “It is a positive sign of change when the politics of hope replace the politics of fear; when a desire for unity replaces a savage partisanship…”

Unlike most people, Rebick is much more interesting when she talks about herself. In a chapter which explores various types of leadership, she writes: “[I]t didn’t take long for me to realize that my way of leading…was oppressive to other women…” and “I’ve been effective as a leader…but I’ve paid a terrible personal price. I covered up who I was, I was stressed all the time, I was sick a lot, I was upset a lot, and because of that I got angry a lot, which sometimes made me difficult to work with, and also set me up as a lightning rod for an entire generation of right-wing men.” The book’s ideas, one slowly realizes, are reflections of Rebick’s transformation from domineering, old-style leader to one who listens and tries to nurture leadership in others. Not only are these moments of introspection, which are scattered throughout, winning in their courage and candour, they make for far better reading than the shopworn phrases littering the book’s pages.

It is unfortunate, then, that they are rare. One cannot help feeling that the book might have been more successful in conveying its message if Rebick had used her life as its major vehicle. Overall, however, Rebick’s good faith, entertaining anecdotes, and substantial knowledge still make this a worthwhile read.

Judy Rebick will speak at the launch of the book, 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25th, Samuel Bronfman Building, Concordia University, 1590 Dr. Penfield (corner Cote-des-Neiges).

Aparna Sanyal is a Montreal writer. Her story “The Nine Hundred and Ninety-Ninth Beggar” appears in the spring issue of Ravng Dove.

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