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Introduction: Drop Your Weapons

We at Bad Subjects are willing to "drop our weapons" in response to the clear message that our symbols were standing in the way of the effective communication of our ideas.
Annalee Newitz and Joe Sartelle

Issue #4, February 1993

As those of you who are familiar with this publication will probably have noticed, we have changed the logo of Bad Subjects, removing the handgun graphics and the slogan, "weapons for consciousness." We did so in response to the controversy that erupted after we put out a special "Strike Extra" edition of Bad Subjects (entitled "Why We Strike") in support of the strike by the Association of Graduate Student Employees here on the UC-Berkeley campus, which began on November 19, 1992 and remains unresolved. The "Strike Extra" edition consisted of six brief personal testimonials by English Department graduate students, including ourselves, who were members of AGSE and supporters of the strike. The intention was to promote solidarity and confidence on the picket lines by having some AGSE members take a public stand in support of our collective action to seek recognition of our union by the UC administration. Several hundred copies of the "Strike Extra" were printed up (using this publication's funds) and distributed on the picket lines on Friday, November 20. We received a lot of encouraging praise and support for our effort from many people. We also received an unexpected public rebuke from the AGSE Executive Board at the general membership meeting held on the evening of the distribution day.

The rebuke came as part of a statement about the problem of "unauthorized publications." The problem, Executive Board member Deborah Gerson explained, was the use of the handgun graphics: she made some reference to the problem of people misunderstanding the meaning of our "symbolism." (She also dismissed the actual contents of the publication as "typically dense graduate student writing," thus insulting every member of a union composed by definition of graduate students.) There was no recognition given to the fact that this was a good-faith effort on the part of committed supporters of the union. Rather, we were lumped into the same category as the non-AGSE "revolutionary" youth group which had also been distributing its own handouts seeking to capitalize on AGSE's action for its own purposes. A few days later, we learned from one of the English Department stewards that at a meeting of the Stewards' Council, many members had been upset by the guns on our publication. As we understood the response, they were not worried that people would interpret the guns literally; they were worried about the kinds of symbolic meanings people might attach to the graphic design of our logo (as if we had some real guns waiting somewhere and we were prepared to use them). Yet we heard almost no feedback about what the contributors had actually written in their statements.

The practical result of this controversy is that we decided to drop the guns from the Bad Subjects logo (we are, however, keeping them as the markers at the end of each article). If little pictures of guns are keeping people from paying attention to the articles, then we'll get rid of them: maybe now these same people will engage with the substance of Bad Subjects and not its symbolism. However, we feel that there are some larger and more significant issues at stake in this matter than the packaging of our newsletter, and we want to raise them here. We realize that the AGSE leadership was right to be concerned about the dangers of possible misrepresentations of the union's official positions through unauthorized publications. We wish to point out, though, that none of the individual testimonials in the "Strike Extra" in any way presumed to speak officially for AGSE or conflicted with the union's official positions; they were statements of support by individuals representing only themselves. Moreover, we made a special point of consulting with a member of the Executive Board before we began distribution on the picket lines. This individual looked over our publication, told us it was a great idea and to go ahead with distribution. As it turns out, this person made a mistake in authorizing our publication without first consulting the rest of the Executive Board — but this was not our mistake. We asked for permission and got it. Absolutely no mention of this was made when we were chastised at the meeting that same evening.

This issue aside, there is still the fact that so many people were upset by the handguns in our logo. The original design of Bad Subjects featured computer graphics of handguns in order to suggest an attitude of militancy, something that we feel is sorely lacking among what passes for oppositional, progressive or leftist politics these days. But a surprising number of people seem to think that since guns are associated with violence, then the use of pictures of guns must somehow be an endorse ment of violence. However, to be militant is not simply the same thing as to be violent; to be militant is to be "aggressively active" in the service of a cause or set of principles. The great irony here is that earlier in the same meeting at which Bad Subjects was criticized for its "symbolism," we heard a speech from ASUC President Margaret Fortune in which she urged AGSE members to go and see Malcolm X, so that we could be reminded that it is right to be militant in the service of a just cause. For her stirring speech advocating militancy, Ms. Fortune received a thunderous ovation. For our suggestion of militancy, we have received criticism.

The response of so many AGSE members to our choice of symbolism reflects a more fundamental problem with the way in which the strike was conceived and carried out. Following the denouncement of our logo, we were forced to wonder how a group of people so upset by the possible consequences of being associated with pictures of guns could stand up resolutely against the professional bullying tactics of the UC administration. For it appeared that throughout the strike, many strikers were more worried about what people would think of us than about how effective our actions might be. In other words, somehow we wanted to fight and win without offending anyone, no matter how offensive our adversary chose to be. During the strike, the UC administration was unafraid to take a militant stance against unionization. Strikers were threatened with the loss of their jobs, health insurance and paychecks; the administration showed no hesitation or compunction about using every weapon in its arsenal, including its superior access to popular media, to intimidate strikers and discredit AGSE. In contrast, AGSE's idea of an effective "weapon" against the UC administration was the repeated singing of modified Christmas carols at the residences and offices of top UC officials. Like the "Strike Extra" edition of Bad Subjects, the caroling was initiated by rank and file members of the union, rather than the leadership. However, the caroling was publicly lauded and adopted as a centerpiece of strike strategy, while the efforts made by the contributors to Bad Subjects were censured. It seems clear that the caroling was so well-received because of its inoffensive and non-combative nature — even those it was directed against said they enjoyed it. But as we were continually reminded by the AGSE leadership, the University of California is one of the most ruthlessly anti- union employers in the state. In all seriousness, how can one expect to prevail against an enemy as powerful and cunning as the UC administration by singing cute songs?

Both the singing of carols and the use of handgun graphics are symbolic actions. The difference between these two symbolic actions, however, lies in the message each communicates. We chose handguns as a symbol for Bad Subjects precisely because we wanted to appear tough and determined in the service of our political principles. Given the ineffectiveness of AGSE's tactics thus far, the question must be asked: what kind of a message was communicated by AGSE's symbolic acts? We believe in the importance of this question because we believe in the righteousness of AGSE's cause. We at Bad Subjects are willing to "drop our weapons" in response to the clear message that our symbols were standing in the way of the effective communication of our ideas, but the change in our logo does not mean that we are no longer militant about our political principles. We simply wish to show that we can learn from our mistakes. We hope that AGSE will do the same.

Copyright © 1993 by Annalee Newitz and Joe Sartelle. All rights reserved.