A controversy erupted a few days ago involving myself and some fellow members of the IWW and as I think back on it, I think that there are some issues here which relate to the new communications technologies — and to what it means to be a Wobbly. We are living in a new era, one in which cutting-edge technologies are quickly adopted (often a good thing) but we are sometimes slow to understand their ramifications.
Here’s what happened: Somewhere buried deep in the massive IWW website was a page which included RSS feeds, among them a feed of links to entries on my personal website. For those who aren’t up to speed with terms like “RSS feeds”, this simply means that my personal website has a file listing the recent material I posted, and the IWW webmaster had cleverly found a way to read that list and publish it to the Wobbly site.
The reasoning was, I guess, that as I am a member of the IWW, what I write on my personal site will be of interest to fellow workers. This is generally true. This article and every other article I write for “Industrial Worker” is on my personal site, as are my columns for other publications, such as the British-based journals “Labour Research” and “International Union Rights”.
I use my personal website to keep an archive of the articles I write, but I also use it — sometimes — to express my views on current events. This is what most people who have personal websites do.
A word about my personal political history is in order here: I grew up in the Socialist Party in the United States — the same party that so many famous Wobblies were also proud to be members of. But the party I joined back in 1971 was a rather different one than the party of Eugene V. Debs, himself a founder of the IWW. This was a Socialist Party changed by the events of the intervening years — a party that had grown to reject totalitarianism in all its forms, and particularly Stalinist totalitarianism which falsely called itself “socialist”. The party had also grown to be very sympathetic to the state of Israel.
My own sympathy for the Jewish state grew over the years and by 1981, I had chosen to move there and live on a kibbutz. I remained there for more than 17 years before coming to London in 1998 to launch LabourStart.
Why does all this matter? Because it might explain how my views and those of many in the IWW may have diverged over the years. And this divergence is what caused the problem with the RSS feed on the IWW website.
In recent weeks, as the Middle East erupted into armed conflict again, I expressed my views on my personal website. Those views are shared by some on the left, here in Britain where I live, elsewhere in Europe, in Australia, and perhaps even in the US. But I realize that the majority of those on the left do not share my views. Fair enough — I was happy to be invited to debate one of those groups here in London recently, and we had an amicable and comradely discussion not only of our differences, but also of the issues on which we all agree.
I am convinced that it is possible for members of the IWW to hold different views on current events. Some members, for example, might show a real sympathy for the emerging democratic trade union movement in Iraq. Others may label those unions as puppets of the occupiers. Some of us may be sympathetic toward Castro’s Cuba, recognizing its achievements in the face of decades of US hostility. But others may feel that the Castro regime is simply a form of Caribbean Stalinism, and would welcome the democratization of that country. I could go on, but my point should be clear: what unites us in the IWW is our belief in a different kind of trade unionism, and in the values expressed in the preamble to the IWW constitution — which does not mention Iraq, or Cuba, or Israel.
Some of the fellow workers were upset when they found links on the IWW website to articles I had written — articles with which they profoundly disagreed. When I was informed about this, I wrote to the IWW suggesting that all links to my personal website be removed. I had not asked for those links to be there in the first place, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to think that my views on controversial subjects were necessarily those of the IWW itself. As I wrote, “I suggest that this feed be removed at once from the IWW site and hope that this settles the matter.” The feed was immediately removed. But it did not settle the matter.
One of the fellow workers wrote to me saying “I’m glad it won’t be on the IWW website because that is not acceptable … but it doesn’t settle everything for me because what you are publishing is something I find very offensive and warped. You ought to consider not printing this sorta thing in the first place, regardless of where it appears. You sound like every right wing bastard on the planet …fuck israel!”
More than a dozen fellow workers, including IWW branches around the world, were copied into this message.
An earlier message from a different IWW member — also sent to a long list of email addresses — referred to the effort I was making to help the Lebanese teachers unions raise money. Working together with the Education International, I am proud of our effort which has so far raised over $4,000 in support of Lebanon’s teachers. What the fellow worker wrote was:
“Given this guy’s expressed opinions, how do we know that he’s not going to take this money and give it to Israel to buy more cluster bombs and white phosphorus?”
I don’t actually know how many cluster bombs and white phosphorus one can buy with $4,000, but I’ll have a look on eBay.
I can understand how a webmaster might rush to use a new technology (RSS feeds) and inadvertently create a problem by linking to articles which maybe shouldn’t be linked to. Fair enough — those links should be removed, as I suggested.
But the tone and indeed the content of the messages I just quoted — widely circulated within the union — cause me some concern.
The IWW should welcome a diversity of views and encourage an exchange of opinions — and we should not stoop to the level of racist and anti-Semitic abuse.
The web gives each of us the chance to make our views known, even when they are unpopular views. The IWW should welcome such diversity and not try to suppress it.