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Michael Staudenmaier's talk Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Three Way Fight presented at the 2007 National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) uses an article I wrote for Left Turn magazine, Anti-Arab Racism, Islam and the Left, to critique what he refers to as a "bi-polarity" common on the left. Staudenmaier defines bi-polarity as "the dualistic and anti-dialectical tendency to reduce complex situations to two opposing, and static, sides." He says that I offer an "us" (anti-imperialists) vs. "them" (the imperialists) approach to analyzing events in the Middle East and Islamist movements more specifically. His main proof of this is my criticism of Defending My Enemy's Enemy, a posting by Mathew Lyons on the Three Way Fight blog during Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon in which Lyons characterizes Hezbollah as "essentially a right wing political movement." Staudenmaier singles out (and is particularly irritated by) my suggestion that Lyons' argument may one day be used by Hillary Clinton or Bush in justifying an attack on Hezbullah and/or Iran. However, the purpose of his talk seems to be more about showing the superiority of the Three Way Fight (TWF) theory in making sense of the world today, particularly with respect to the Middle East and US imperialism. Staudenmaier argues that the TWF approach is a much more dynamic and useful way of analyzing the world because it sees things not just in terms of "us" and "them" (a two way fight) but in terms of "us," "them," and "them" (a three way fight). In this three way fight, "the two sets of 'them'...represent the capitalists and the fascists, and the 'us'...the anti-authoritarian revolutionary left." So in the case of the Middle East, he argues, "Zionism represents a particular example of global capitalism, while some (but definitely not all) versions of Islamic fundamentalism serve as examples of contemporary forms of fascism." Therefore, what's needed and what TWF has to offer is both anti-fascism and revolution rather than just revolution, which is, according to Staudenmaier, a weakness of the position of Left Turn and others on the left.
Hezbollah Not Right Wing
Since Staudenmaier bases so much of his argument on my criticism of Lyons, it makes the most sense to start there. Not surprisingly, Staudenmaier conveniently leaves out my main argument against Lyons, which is to dispute his claim that Hezbollah's "guiding ideology is Khomeini-style Islamic fundamentalism," and that Iran is "Hezbollah's political ideal." My short response was: "Hezbollah gave up on fighting for a theocracy long ago. It is an established political party in a multi-ethnic and religious state in which they have the support and admiration of the other ethnic and religious groups and work closely with those on the left as well as the right" (I should've added that by "the right" I meant the Iranian and Syrian states and not right wing groups in Lebanon which I think is an important distinction to make when disputing the characterization of Hezbollah as right wing). As a result of similar criticisms, Lyons seemed to concur with the disagreements with his analysis of Hezbollah, admitting that "...the situation is more complex - and possibly more fluid - than what I presented before." Yet he still somehow maintains that Hezbollah is right wing. In another contribution written in direct response to an article of mine on Znet, he goes a little further in acknowledging problems with his analysis, saying "It's quite true that Hezbollah cooperates with members of many ethnic, religious, and political groups, and its day-to-day program is largely secular. The party has consistently argued that an Islamic state can only be established when a large majority of the population wants it." "But," he adds, "Hezbollah considers advocacy of an Islamic state to be a religious duty, and it regards Iran's brutal theocracy to be the closest thing to a perfect political system anywhere in the world," and that "although Hezbollah is far from being a puppet of the Iranian government, it is formally subordinate to Iran's supreme authority, who it considers the religious, legal, and political leader of all Muslims worldwide." Finally, he says, "Hezbollah-controlled areas are plastered with images of Iran's religious/political leaders."
This constant effort to connect Hezbollah to Iran is not surprising because his claim that Hezbollah is right wing rests entirely on its relationship to the Iranian state rather than on specific policies and practices of Hezbollah (the two brief examples he does provide - persecution of gays and anti-Semitism - he himself either questions the veracity of, in the case of gays, or explains away, in the case of anti-Semitism). His argument is basically this: 1) Iran is clearly a reactionary state; 2) Iran is a model for Hezbollah; 3) Hezbollah must therefore be right wing. The fact is that, while there is a relationship between Hezbollah and Iran, it's changed considerably since Hezbollah first emerged in the early 1980s. Despite its bloody consequences for the Iranian left, the 1979 Iranian revolution had a huge impact, not only on Shiites but on all muslims around the world. As the Iranian state failed to radically transform the lives of the majority of Iranians, the appeal of the revolution and the ideal of an Islamic state diminished for most Shiites. After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, many Shiite clerics (particularly those in Arab countries) began questioning his model of an Islamic state - Wilayat al-Faqih, or rule of the clerics with one supreme leader, the Ayatollah - and became more critical of Iran's human rights abuses. One of these was the Iranian born Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Another is the Marjaa - or spiritual leader - of Hezbollah, Sayed Mohamed Hassan Fadlallah. Fadlallah, who challenges most stereotypes of a Muslim cleric, is generally considered a liberal because of his views on women, society, and culture. I'd give him more credit and say he's further to the left because of his consistent opposition to and criticism of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and their imperial backers. In other words, there's a big difference between his views and religious rulings or fatwas and those of Khomeini and, now, Khameini. And while he's no longer officially referred to as Hezbollah's spiritual leader, many of the Shiites in Lebanon, and also in Iraq and other Arab countries, look to him rather than Khameini for guidance on religious as well as political issues. So while Hezbollah looked to Iran as a model in its early years, today its ties to Iran have more to do with strategic interests and financial backing than with any ideological or even religious affinity. However, this backing does not mean that it is a tool of Iran, let alone its puppet.
Fighting for the Oppressed
Lyons' insistence that Hezbollah shares Iran's right wing ideology seems to imply that Hezbollah has a hidden agenda that includes setting up an Islamic state. There are others on both the left and the right that share this view. If this was the case, what better opportunity for Hezbollah to seize power than at the beginning of its current political standoff with the pro-US/pro-neoliberal government of Fuad Siniora. It had just scored a major military victory against Israel, the fourth most powerful military in the world, and was still in good enough shape to undertake the massive reconstruction and relief work needed in the aftermath of the war. Moreover, it was riding a wave of domestic, regional, and international support not seen in the Arab world for decades. It could have seized power, or at least tried to, then. Instead, it chose to form a multi-confessional alliance that included significant Christian (Free Patriotic Movement) and leftist (Communist Party) forces and relied on mass mobilizations to bring down the government. The demonstration on December 10, 2006 was the largest demonstration in the history of the country, and brought out more than 1 million people - a quarter of the population.
To build on the success of the demonstration, Hezbollah set up a huge encampment in Beirut's central square with numerous tents similar to the Poor People's Campaign of 1968 here in the US. In its early days, the encampment maintained a very festive atmosphere without taking away from the seriousness of the situation. In addition to regular rallies, there was poetry, music, and other cultural events in the various tents. The event had an almost carnival-like atmosphere with families from different sects intermingling. Apart from the tents in which people slept, there was no separation of men and women. Moreover, no moral code was imposed on people at the encampment and demonstrations; supporters of Hezbollah can't be easily pigeonholed. It's no coincidence that the opposition chose the insanely posh city center as the backdrop for the encampment. The assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Harriri and his public-private company, Solidere, had driven Lebanon into massive debt (it now has one of the highest debt to GDP ratios) to rebuild the area after it was destroyed during the civil war and made billions in the process. Just as the US Poor People's Campaign focused on class issues (as opposed to just racism and civil rights), the demonstrations, encampment, and the very significant general strike that shut down the country in January all highlighted the economic factors and class dimension of the current standoff (as opposed to just the oppression and occupation the Shiites have faced).
It's no surprise, then, that poor and working class people from all of the different sects have identified with the opposition and participated in the demonstrations. At the "World Conference to Support the Resistance" held in the aftermath of the war in Beirut and attended by some 400 representatives of mostly leftist groups from around the world, Hezbollah's Secretary General Na`im Qasim opened his speech with a variation on a quote from the Communist Manifesto, saying "Oh, poor of the world, unite. Oh, downtrodden of the world unite." He went on to say that Hezbollah doesn't impose its ideas on others, and that "The radical Islamic groups' practices mutilate the true image of Islam. They don't recognize other religions except theirs, as if God gave them keys to heaven and they are the ones who pick who goes there or not." Also of significance - although maybe not for TWF partisans - is Hezbollah's placement of several large banners throughout the hardest hit areas of Beirut thanking Hugo Chavez for his support during the war. Hezbollah is clearly not trying to establish a theocracy. Nor is it trying to impose its religious beliefs on anyone. Moreover, its critique of and opposition to the government's neoliberal economic policies doesn't come from the kind of right wing populism characteristic of the fascist groups in Europe that are opportunistically exploiting the issue of globalization. On the contrary, as the demonstrations and the general strike clearly show, Hezbollah is committed to supporting workers and the poor with more than just rhetoric. Finally, while Hezbollah hasn't articulated an economic program or platform, it does have a vision of an alternative, more just, society.
Islamism Is Not Fascism
Lyons' mischaracterization of Hezbollah doesn't simply stem from a lack of understanding of the Shiites, Islamism, and Lebanon but from the TWF's own reductionist and undialectical analysis of Islamists, which suggests that they are essentially fascists. Just as Lyons had to back-track on some of what he asserted in his original argument, so has Staudenmaier. After stating that, "Al-Qaeda was the most prominent example [of fascism] in the period immediately after 9/11," he stated that he was not sure if Al-Qaeda could be characterized as fascist after all. It's odd that Staudenmaier accuses me of "reduc[ing] complex situations to two opposing, and static, sides" when the main point of my arguments in the articles already referred to has been to challenge the tendency on the left - including among many in the antiwar movement - to lump all Islamists into one homogenous, fascistic, monolith. I have spent a considerable amount of time showing not only just how different the Islamist groups are, even among the Shiite parties in Iraq, but how they've changed considerably over time in the context of a fluid political situation. In short, I argue what many have begun to argue in recent years: that "Islamism" or "Islamist" are no longer useful terms to use when discussing these groups and social movements. Staudenmaier is so fixated on my criticism of Lyons that he misses the crux of my argument. It is therefore worthwhile to repeat it here:
While only a minority of Muslims might consider themselves Islamists, a large number, maybe even a majority, support them. This is especially the case among the poor and marginalized. As Islamists steadily filled the vacuum created by the disintegration of the left (a direct result of US intervention in the region), they took on some of the language and politics of the left, and became the main force resisting poverty, imperialism, and authoritarian rule. As a result, they have also gained the support of some non-Islamist political activists and co-opted others, becoming the hegemonic force in opposition to various ruling regimes and their imperial backers.
This is not to suggest that all Islamists are progressive but simply that they are not uniformly reactionary. Moreover, each Islamist group or party differs from the other in significant ways. They are products of their own distinct histories, shaped by different colonial experiences, class struggles, and relationships to imperialism. For example, Hamas and Hezbollah reflect the experience of a much poorer and oppressed population than Al-Qaeda. Because of the character of its leadership and because it is not based in any one country, Al-Qaeda says and does very little for workers and the poor. In contrast, Hezbollah takes positions against privatization and neoliberalism and for workers rights that have historically been advanced by the left. Moreover, like some of their fellow Shiite Islamists in Iraq, Hezbollah is not trying to create a theocracy through an Islamic revolution but rather to work within a democratic system to advance the rights and aspirations of the Shiites, the most downtrodden in Lebanese society.
In contrast, groups that hold or have held state power, like the Islamists in Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan, are more right wing and authoritarian and ruthlessly suppress any resistance. Almost all the groups allowed to operate openly - or, in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, semi-openly - provide a wide range of social services to the poor. Hamas and Hezbollah have also been shaped by a resistance struggle against Israeli occupation and US imperialism. In Iraq, the Sadrists took up arms against the US occupation while their fellow Shiite Islamists in the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) supported it. Hezbollah, and now Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, all participate in elections while Al-Qaeda and other Islamists reject them. Even on the question of women's rights there are differences. The level of involvement of women in the day-to-day activities of each group serves as an indicator of how supportive they are of women's rights. In the cases of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and among most of the Islamist groups in Iraq, (both Sunni and Shiite), there is little or no involvement of women and little or no support for women's rights. On the other hand, Hamas and the Egyptian Brotherhood have run women candidates; some have even won. And women are openly involved at many levels in Hezbollah.
To give a current example that many on the left have been following, consider Fatah Al Islam - the Al-Qaeda-type group based in the Palestinian refugee camp of Naher al Bared in Tripoli, Lebanon that the Lebanese army has been battling since May of 2007. This is a group of several hundred fighters, with no popular base whatsoever, imposing itself on a Palestinian camp by force. Not only do they not direct their efforts at fighting Israel and those in the Lebanese state that support Israel, but they say that the more pressing problem is the loss of religious faith on the part of Palestinians and Arabs. They do not run any social services and, given that they care little about issues of poverty and oppression, they probably have no desire to. They're just as hostile to Shiites as they are to Christians and Jews and would welcome any opening to start a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, which is probably why - in their effort to counter Hezbollah - they have had no problem accepting money and support from the Saudi government, the US, and their lackeys in the Lebanese government.Compare this with Hezbollah or with the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey's ruling Islamist party, for that matter - and you begin to see why it's absurd to equate Islamism with fascism.
My first question to Staudenmaier following his talk at NCOR was about his definition of fascism. Nowhere in his talk, his blog, or the TWF blog, is a straightforward definition of fascism given. One would think it would be important to have a clear definition of fascism if you're building an entire theory around the idea that fascism is on the rise and that fascists have become significant political players that must be taken into account in any political analysis. In a discussion involving several people following the talk, Staudenmaier did offer his short definition of fascism. He said that fascists were revolutionary, populist, and mass-based. In this article and others I think I have clearly shown how Islamist groups differ; some are revolutionary (Al-Qaeda related groups), some reformist (Hezbollah, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), and others somewhere in between (Hamas, Mahdi Army).
In terms of being populist, many of the Islamist groups exhibit some form of populism since they're not guided or driven by any consistent ideology. But the only ones I would characterize as populist would be the AKP and possibly SCIRI. The Al-Qaeda groups, however, don't care much about mass appeal and, even when they do raise issues like poverty or imperialism, they frame them in religious rather than political terms. This may explain why none of the Al-Qaeda groups have anything resembling a mass base. In fact, up until the war in Iraq, most Islamist groups, with the exception of Hezbollah and Hamas, were marginal in terms of their political influence. So none of the major Islamist groups, not even Al-Qaeda, fit Staudenmaier's definition of fascism. In his article The Lie that is Islamofascism, Stefan Durand does the best job of discrediting the idea that Islamists are fascists by advancing a thorough definition of fascism. He says that:
...Islamism must be seen as a contemporary phenomenon, both new and distinct. It is true that Muslim fundamentalist movements exhibit certain traditional features of fascism: a paramilitary dimension, a feeling of humiliation and a cult of the charismatic leader (although to a relative degree, and scarcely comparable with the cults of the Führer or the Duce). But all the other fundamental ingredients of fascism -- the expansionist nationalism, corporatism, bureaucracy and the cult of the body - are generally lacking in Islamism. In addition, Islamist movements are often trans-national and far removed from the integral nationalism characteristic of the European fascism of the 1930s. Fascism was by nature imperialist and expansionist. Although Al-Qaida cells operate in many countries and some Islamist movements do dream of reconquering Andalusia or Sicily and restoring the caliphate, organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah - however disreputable their religious ideology and armed operations - are struggling against territorial occupation. The religious absolutism of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan made it more like medieval obscurantist theocracies than the fascist regimes that emerged in industrialized countries after the First World War. The corporatist dimension inherent in fascism, its almost total merger of state, industrial enterprises and professional bodies, is lacking in the Islamic context... The existence of a "partisan state" is a necessary condition for the exercise of fascist power, but these Islamist groups are most often non-state organizations marginal to, or persecuted by, the authorities of the countries in which they are based... Islamist movements make an instrument of religion and try to use it as an ideology, but they do not intend to create "a new man," as was the case in fascist Europe. They propound archaic religious and social precepts rather than an overall coherent ideology. The popular success of these movements is often due to factors unconnected with ideology.
By not providing such a "sophisticated understanding of the term" fascism - as he claims he and the TWF theoreticians have done - Staudenmaier feeds into the very abuse of the term, as a synonym for "very, very bad," for which he berates radicals.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time responding to the long and confusing discussion of the Euston Manifesto - a statement signed by British liberals and social democrats essentially arguing that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic - that Staudenmaier uses to suggest that my argument (and others like it) "is the flip-side of the argument advanced by some Euston signatories" because it sets up that same "us" and "them"/ "this" or "that" dualism. The first problem with introducing the Euston Manifesto into the argument - and why I find it confusing - is that I wouldn't even characterize this group as progressive, let alone on the left. So why use them to make this point? The only thing I can think of is that it's because Staudenmaier sympathizes with them. He does, after all, laud the "...profound awareness within the Euston camp of the need for an anti-fascist politics." I think this gets at one of the main problems with the TWF: its over-emphasis on anti-fascism. His tendency to view all things through the lens of anti-fascism (which is essentially reductionist) prevents Staudenmaier from seeing how someone could be conscious of and opposed to anti-Semitism and still be a racist. I'm sure if you dig deeper into the politics of those behind the Euston Manifesto you'd probably find some of the same anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism you find on the American left. In fact - and in response to Staudenmaier's subsequent statement that "It is unclear how much traction this approach [where any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic] has within the US left" - I would argue that plenty of people on the US left in fact share this view. However, because it's such a widely accepted idea in the US, I don't think they feel the need to issue a Manifesto defending it. The other reason I think that Staudenmaier identifies with the Euston Manifesto on some level is because he repeatedly accuses the left in the US of anti-Semitism. While there clearly is anti-Semitism on the American left, it's minimal - particularly in the anti-globalization movement, which is the example Staudenmaier uses. My experience in the anti-globalization movement - most of which was in a group called Stop US Tax-funded Aid to Israel Now (SUSTAIN) that focused on bringing Palestine solidarity work into the movement - was that initially many agreed with the idea that anything critical of Israel was anti-Semitic. They were - ironically - therefore very hesitant about including Palestine-related issues in their message of "global justice." Moreover, I have never come across groups in the movement who talk about how "the Jews" control the IMF and World Bank. The problem is that Staudenmaier, as well as the many others who accuse the left of anti-Semitism, never offer any concrete examples to back up their accusations. Books like Norman Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah and Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair's The Politics of Anti-Semitism do a good job of responding to this and the accusation of anti-Semitism that Staudenmaier and Lyons level at Hezbollah. In the essay "What is Anti-Semitism" in Cockburn and St Clair's book, Michael Neumann explains that:
the progress of Arab anti-Semitism fits nicely with the progress of Jewish encroachment and Jewish atrocities. This is not to excuse genuine anti-Semitism; it is to trivialize it. It came to the Middle East with Zionism and it will abate when Zionism ceases to be an expansionist threat. Indeed its chief cause is not anti-Semitic propaganda but the decades-old, systematic and unrelenting efforts of Israel to implicate all Jews in its crimes.
If they're not already there, the Euston folks and possibly some who subscribe to the TWF are headed in the same direction as the antifas - the anti-fascist tendency within the German autonomist movement that became the anti-Deutsche and came to support imperialism. With the threat that imperialism, particularly US imperialism, poses to the world today, we should be more concerned with the antifas/anti-Deutch and Euston Manifesto folks - and others who give left/humanitarian cover for imperialism - than with the Islamists who are actually fighting and, in some places, defeating it. The TWF's exaggeration of fascism and characterization of Islamists as fascists actually plays into the politics and racism of groups like those around the Euston Manifesto. It confirms for them the need and urgency of wiping out the Islamists, even if it means supporting the worst imperialist atrocities - the US bloodbath in Iraq, the Israeli war on Lebanon and Gaza, and an attack on Iran (by either the US or Israel) - because, according to them, such atrocities pale in comparison to the holocaust that the Islamists are hoping to carry out. Durand sums up the consequences of such thinking well:
By crediting the idea that the West is fighting against a new fascism, new Hitlers, they are preparing public opinion to accept that war can and must be 'preventive,' and that the 'fascist threat' requires a massive response that is justified whatever the cost in human lives. 'The allies bombed Dresden' was the neocon response to criticism when Israeli F-16s dropped hundreds of fragmentation bombs on residential districts in Lebanon.
The true test of any theory is whether or not it can make sense of the world around us. As I've hopefully shown, the TWF gets it wrong when it comes to the key issue of the day: US imperialism and resistance to it in the Middle East. But it also fails to make sense of everything from globalization to fascism, its supposed strong point. Part of the reason for this that the TWF's analysis is based on some faulty premises. Staudenmaier says that the 9/11 attacks challenged the antiglobalization movement's "previous understanding of neoliberalism and globalization":
[M]ost of the former anti-globalization movement became convinced that "globalization" was suddenly less pressing than regional geo-political power struggles characterized by terms like "terrorism" or "imperialism," or "war for oil." Especially during the build-up to the Iraq War, many radicals came to believe that divisions within global capital, often described using the old left jargon of inter-imperialist rivalries, had over-powered the global capitalist unity that we believed had characterized the various summits at which we had protested.
Just as there are those in the anti-war movement with a narrow understanding of war, there were those in the anti-globalization movement who didn't see neoliberalism and globalization as being connected to capitalism and imperialism. I think even the more conservative elements - mainly the large NGOs - understood that neoliberalism and globalization were part of capitalism but chose not to address them in that context for strategic reasons. That's why they and their allies - a minority - abused the consensus process to kill any effort to transform the fall 2001 protests against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, DC into protests against the war on Afghanistan and, more broadly, the war on terror. The point is that most of the movement didn't become, as Staudenmaier claims, "convinced that 'globalization' was suddenly less pressing than regional geo-political power struggles." Most of us saw the connection between globalization and imperialism and were ready to take on the war (and, in fact, a number of us had already been doing so by bringing the issue of Palestine into the antiglobalization movement). Unfortunately, we were outmaneuvered.
Fascism Not Key Factor
The biggest problem with the TWF theory is its exaggeration of fascism as a key political factor to account for when analyzing today's world. As Staudenmaier puts it, not only have domestic fascist movements grown increasingly dangerous and radical, other movements around the world have come more and more to resemble fascism. Staudenmeier quotes J. Sakai to the effect that, even if we hadn't been thinking about fascism in the period before 9/11, "fascism was thinking about us." First of all, even if you buy into the idea that Islamists are fascists, most of the groups were small and isolated (hence their reliance on terrorism) until they were bolstered by the war on terror and the Iraq war. They had more pressing things to think about than us - like how to avoid being locked up, tortured, or killed by their respective states. One could say the same thing about the real fascists in the US. The KKK has seen a resurgence because it has been able to take advantage of the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of 9/11. Before that they were in tatters, barely able to mobilize a handful of people for their rallies. In general, fascists continue to be insignificant politically. One of the most prominent groups - the National Socialist Movement - is a regroupment of many of the neo-Nazi groups that fragmented in the 90s, including the Aryan Nation, which had totally collapsed. Note that even Staudenmaier himself doesn't say that fascists have grown in size and influence but that they have "grown increasingly dangerous - and increasingly revolutionary."
At the moment, imperialism poses a much greater danger to humanity than fascism. And Islamists - not the left - are the main force resisting it in Western Asia, where it is most brazen and barbaric. This does not mean that the American left can't criticize Islamism and Islamists, but to do so by mechanically applying a "theory" derived mostly from white anti-racist work in North America to the Middle East on the basis of little knowledge of the history, politics, and social movements of the region is highly problematic. The result is a reliance on generalizations, a lack of concrete examples (historical, current, or even personal experiences) and, therefore, little context - all of which contribute to racism and Islamophobia. This is not to say that Lyons, Staudenmaier, and others who subscribe to the TWF are racist. But their lack of, to use Staudenmaier's phrase, "a sophisticated and dynamic political analysis" of issues related to Arabs and Muslims does nothing to fight racism and may even contribute to it.
Rami El-Amine is a longtime Arab/Muslim activist in the DC metro area. He is a founding member and former editor of Left Turn and, currently, a member of Left Turn's website collective.