Considering the Criticisms

by Stephen Hahn on September 15, 2013

At the end of August, Pham Binh resigned from the North Star website. I don’t need to go into the details, but suffice to say personal stuff came up for Binh and it wasn’t possible for him to continue working on the website. Since that time, public comment has suggested that North Star has been hijacked, that it’s strayed from its mission and it’s begun to censor its own community. Clearly things are changing, but I think it would be helpful to talk a little about what I’ve seen behind the curtain.

Binh invited me to advise and edit the website last year, shortly after announcing the “New Direction” for the North Star. After becoming a rising star of the unaffiliated left, Binh, and with him Ben Campbell, wanted to expand on the success of his essays and try to create the sort of space he said was sorely needed in the US—it was pitched to me as a kind of LINKS in North America.

The original core (Binh, Ben and Ismael) invited more than a dozen people to North Star to try and kick off the project. Initially, I declined: I thought that Binh was bringing up important discussions, but his style was too in-your-face and alienated a lot of good people. I eventually became an advisor, weighing in on editorial questions and bringing in the occasional piece, but it was never my full-time project. Despite the long list of editors and contributors, the main direction and content came from Binh and Ben, which got tricky as time went on.

Ben became focused on a dispute with the Platypus Affiliated Society, which he had recently left, and eventually exhausted himself doing too much for North Star; he left the project in the Spring. After the decline of Occupy, Binh started to champion interventionism in the Arab Spring, which made most everyone else working on the site uncomfortable. Binh was never insistent upon having a “line” on Syria and Libya, and in fact invited rebuttal, but since he was able to put in so much time writing, compounded with his prestige, the site became overwhelmingly associated with his positions. The take of most involved with TNS was that we were always suspicious of interventionism and, maybe more importantly, that we simply didn’t know enough of what was happening to take any definitive position. For me, the politics of taking on that crusade was more damaging than anything—it was a divisive question for something that we would ultimately have little if any impact upon.

After Ben quit TNS, the editors had to start talking about how to organize the site so as not to overburden (and burn out) a single person. Given that most people knew each other only through the internet, it didn’t lend itself well to re-organizing, so things mostly continued as they were. After Binh’s personal crisis and departure, there became a sort of vacuum in the site and all the problems that we’d been talking about for nearly a year imploded.

In the last three weeks, the people who were left in the “editorial group” inherited a complicated project largely associated with one individual’s personality. There isn’t a clear sense of purpose or direction, and we have to be honest about that. Whose project is this now? For the time being, the priority is to just keep things running. Editorially, there’s an effort to try and steer away from some of the things we were uncomfortable with, namely Syria, but on the whole the remaining group is only loosely connected in terms of where we want to go. We redid the masthead and scheme, which had been in the works since April, but it signifies a commitment to not looking like shit rather than an editorial reorientation. There are technical issues to oversee without a large pool of people to help work it out: the website’s a mess, the spam filter sent too many actual commenters to the bin, and there are design limitations to facilitating discussion. I doubt that will get fixed half as quick as we’d like.

None of this has been particularly thankful, either. There have been some pretty uncool blog posts naming out and attacking people, and we’re getting emails and FB messages from people all demanding their particular, conflicting desires for the site. At least as far as submissions go, I’m not sure people understand that this shit is volunteer, so we’re not going to get to everything on your timetable—which has unfortunately been chalked up to censorship.

That takes us mostly to now. The site was set on Pham Binh’s personality and agenda, which made something like North Star possible for the first time in a long while. The problem, I think, was that the associated notoriety created a lot of baggage for the wider politics of recreating a far left. That kind of celebrity status, whether he wanted it or not, isn’t a good place to push off of to create a renewed left discourse, as I think we’re all painfully aware of. As a result, Binh’s preoccupation with the ISO and the Arab Spring had greater weight and consequence, which I suspect kept some people at arm’s length, frustrating the site’s aim. On the back end, while trying to gather a group of diverse voices, the website never worked out an actual editorial structure or organization, so North Star did not land on its feet after August.

All that gets to a central tension for the North Star. For a site that has tried to be a place of left dialog and ultimately renewal, the foundation doesn’t seem to have been set right. We can identify all sorts of problems, but inheriting the site has been trying to figure out what the spirit of the North Star is in order to keep it running and push it along. The ending place is that while its messy, The North Star has enough value that I think I’d rather try and repair the structure built than to scrap the thing and start all over again.

This is going to be a process with a lot of negotiation, and speaking for myself at least I can say that hopefully the community that’s found a home in North Star will see this through with us. I can say that there hasn’t been a coup d’etat here, like a group was secretly plotting and just waited for its moment to strike. There’s been plenty of discussion and argument about how to move forward, and we’re trying to figure out what the implications of having these kind of pluralistic politics is. In the interim, I put together a few questions that I think frames the situation of trying to create a unity-oriented socialist publication.

  1. What is the purpose and mandate? Who is the site targeted at, and what does it want to accomplish? There should be a working idea, neither too specific nor too broad. Being just an open forum clearly isn’t enough, and there is a limitation to dialog for dialog’s sake.
  2. How should it be organized? Realize that this is the internet, which presents its own issues and opportunities. The working idea has been to follow a magazine’s structure, with a group of people responsible for keeping the thing going as “editors”. It’s an open question whether it’ll follow the ordered model of an editor-in-chief, subject editors and the like, or if it’ll be more loosey-goosey collective management. Both have their merits. We have no staff to direct, so anyone with experience in these things knows that those with the time are going to win out on most of this stuff.
  3. What are the rules of composure? At the most reductive, the value of TNS has been that it has open comments. It’s a simple but powerful merit, since most socialist publications are one-way communication. We want to get the right balance of “openness”, but since it’s the internet it tends to attract opinionated assholes who have too much time to troll the comments section. We have to hit the sweet spot so that conversations can happen organically and productively.
  4. How does it stay accountable? A publication isn’t a democratic organization. And as I’m sure has been the case with those reading this article, people don’t want to know how the sausage gets made. So how do you have a stable, regular publication that fulfills its mission without becoming ossified?
  5. Who the fuck is going to pay for it? The Internet means you don’t need paper, but the revolution will in fact be funded. One thing the North Star has had going for it is that its not sponsored by any organization; this website runs basically on good will. But you can see how much better production quality is with sponsorship. If we want it to expand and work as it should ideally, it needs funds.
  6. Lastly, where is it going? This obviously isn’t an end in and of itself. Tying a publication to any single project would be a kiss of death, since things have their ups and downs. But we want to see something greater than ourselves and still be here tomorrow. I think.

For myself,

Stephen H.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

John Gulick September 15, 2013 at 3:39 pm

By necessity this will be short. Just wanted to say I appreciate the disclosure and at first blush, anyway, the questions you openly pose are good ones. FWIW, as someone who somewhat frequently visited TNS — at least until 2013 — I thought the single best piece I read here was Chris Maisano’s piece on Occupy. It may have been one of the two or three top pieces I read on Occupy, period. I’d like to see more stuff like that here, in terms of the range of concerns it addressed. And I don’t even share Maisano’s DSA politics! Also, I liked the crappy looking old masthead, but whatever…

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Ben Campbell September 15, 2013 at 5:30 pm

“Ben became fixated on taking on the Platypus Affiliated Society”
—–
This is just complete and utter nonsense, and I am rather disgusted to see North Star post something like this.

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Bruce September 16, 2013 at 8:42 am

I am a graduate student in China and research the ecological thought of Paul Burkett all the time,so I want to translate the article’Nature and Capital: Interview with Paul Burkett’ into Chinese,How can I do it?

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Pavel Dubrovsky September 16, 2013 at 8:48 am

please contact us at [email protected]

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Bruce September 16, 2013 at 9:31 am

I have sent e-mail to it,thank you.

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C. Derick Varn September 15, 2013 at 6:37 pm

To be fair to Ben Campbell: his issues with PAS, and his devotion to the North Star were separate except that they involved myself. He was devoting larges amounts of time to public fora and a relaunch at the same time as his disengagement campaign, and at no time did he demand that other North Star members involve themselves in the campaign, as even though I too was an ex-PAS member, I did not sign off on that. This should be stated in fairness to him. Ben was doing MUCH in private for a relaunch that did not happen for personal reasons that had little to do with PAS, but the acrimony from PAS/PAS disengagement did eat up his public time more than his work on the North Star did (which was all behind the scenes, sometimes even to people involved in the editorship), which was largely behind the scenes and a lot of it was wraggling cats.

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Darwin26 September 15, 2013 at 8:16 pm

wranggling cats oh gawd that’s awful ~ i hate cats and even moreso their impudent arrogant owners (probably Leninists, Trotskies, Republicans or Liberals) but anyways i do like TNS before and so far after Pham.
I’ve had horrible issues with Word Press not recognizing my passwordsssssssssssss over the last 3 months ~ seems every other day i’m booted from WP products then they don’t recognize my pswrd for months on end!!! i reset over and over, it still will not accept my log in; How i’m here, i do not know? but if anyone has a connection to WordPress please tell them their fn’g website sux and it’s abandon NO ONE operates or is responsible for the inner workings no one cares about users IE commenters in the WordPress charade.
Carry on NS

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John Gulick September 16, 2013 at 1:09 am

I think there are acceptably transparent ways of explaining to NS’ readership what went on as the “old” NS wound down, without psychologizing the actions of former editors (Ben was “fixated” on Platypus, etc.). That just starts up the destructive gossip mill again.

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Anthony Abdo September 16, 2013 at 4:14 am

I really don’t have a criticism of North Star at this time, as long as moderators now actually do stay off the delete button. The problems of civil discussion AND what material to post as commentaries here should begin to resolve itself more, as long as tolerance to hearing all Left opposing opinions is well respected.

There really are only 2 MAIN English language Left sites allowing posted readers’ comments at this time imo. And both are into the ‘lesser of 2 evils’ rut. One of these censors those opposing that pov continuously, and removes dissenting Leftists pretty quickly offsite (commondreams). The other one (alternet) does not do that, and as a result, I think it now has far surpassed commondreams in real value to the general Left as a Left political discussion center.

I do think that North Star should never try to be everything for all people though. In that I am will say quite straight and bluntly that I believe that a site that generally appeals to the Europeans and Australians, is not going to be much a site that appeals to the North Americans, and vice versa. Sure, there should be interchange and discussion of all issues wherever they may be happening, but my feel through the many decades I have been an American based Leftist, is that European marxists are rather clueless about US politics and that Americans also are rather clueless about European discussions and issues. It is not usually productive to have Europeans involved in American discussions of our politics, and neither is it productive to most Europeans to have Americans discussing their issues that much either.

If anything , I would favor more profound interchange with Latin American Leftists despite the language issues involved, than with the North Star making an effort to spend half its time on British and Australian political issues, and what often seems to amount to the purely sectarian infighting seen in those 2 places.

US and Canadians need to know much more about Latin American Left opinionsthan we do, and nobody has really been bridging the gap in that direction. The reason that is so is simple. What the US does in foreign affairs is much more brutal to Latin America than it is to Europe, and what we do South in the Americas punches us back in the gut very quickly. In fact, Mexico-US affairs are primary to political discussion in both countries, yet both countries are utterly lacking in any real Left interchange. Even worse is the situation between the US and the other LA countries,

Peter Camejo’s life and actions are inspiration for this site, and nobody on the Left really represented this political interchange between South and North Americans more than he did. North Star should turn more to engaging Latin Americans in influencing and interacting with our US based discussions, rather than allowing a flood of British marxists to ever begin to direct this site. And we in turn need to much more hear what they in Latin America have to say, rather than just so much hearing over and over again what British marxists have to say about Labor and Tory politics and their own sectarian divisions.

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Darwin26 September 16, 2013 at 6:38 am

i like what anthony has put forth ~ i don’t mind hearing a bit about European action but we’d be missing our bet if we don’t hear a lot more what’s happening in CA & SA… and Cuba. i’m also wanting to hear more from the Palestinian Left / socialists.

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Pavel Dubrovsky September 16, 2013 at 9:22 am

It’s a balance. This site has European as well as N American readers and editors. If you can help us find qualified writers in S America and Palestine we’d be very interested in reviewing potential contributions.

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Arthur September 16, 2013 at 10:57 am

I’m witholding judgment. Due to lack of time I at the moment I cannot follow up much anyway.

Noticed that my comments on political economy all went through but most of my comments on Syria did not. I’ll assume that reflected random glitches and confusion during transition until certain otherwise. If the site does maintain open debate, and is honest in moderation it does not matter all that much what the views of the moderators are.

Unfortunately it is a simple fact that the dominant views on what calls itself the left these days are both hostile to open debate and, as a natural corollary dishonest. The expressed desire to be more accommodating to those dominant views and less “divisive” is certainly grounds for suspicion. Naturally people who go along with mainstream right-wing politics such as not wanting to actually do much about the Syrian people being mass murdered by fascists will feel less “alienated” if they don’t keep getting reminded, through open debate, both just how far they are from anything that resembles a progressive outlook and just how unconvincing their attempts to “debate” by merely offering “anti-imperialist” or even more openly isolationist “anti-interventionist” platitudes really are.

There’s no need for a “coup” for a site to degenerate into “more of the same”. As I said I will withold judgment, but if in fact the new team really does want to move away from “division” then I see little hope of it actually reaining a useful platform for open debate.

Left politics is divisive politics. That’s why it needs open debate. Conservative politics needs feel good “consensus”.

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Pavel Dubrovsky September 16, 2013 at 12:45 pm

We moderate comments in line with the commenting policy we have posted, available via the main menu.

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Anthony Abdo September 21, 2013 at 4:57 am

I suggest that if TNS cannot do much better soon in the future than it is currently doing in moderating and timely sorting out comments submitted for discussion, then it go immediately and get Discus to do a much better job of it then. What is being done now cannot be simply sluffed off as just occasional software failure. Why should readers’ comments that are not at all offensive in relation to anybody really simply just be disappeared fairly routinely into thin air? It keeps the site from being taken very seriously actually and there is no reason to continue in this manner. Do something else and Discus does it quite a much better than what is before our eyes at this time.

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Pavel Dubrovsky September 21, 2013 at 6:40 am

There is one editor moderating comments and manually going through the thousands of messages in the spam filter daily. Since none of us do this on a full-time, paid basis that means that there will be a delay between posting messages and seeing them on the site. Moving to different commenting software won’t change that since all comments will be moderated before being allowed to be posted.

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anthony abdo September 24, 2013 at 2:37 am

I note that TNS has just switched now to DISCUS, and I believe that to be a very good move indeed. HOWEVER, the censorship continues on this site, and it is hard to take seriously a site that has censored in the last couple of days, 4 whole posts that I have submitted expressing opinions about Syria and the calls to support antiAssad forces with US bombing and covert supplies sent to groups it supports. There are no ad hominem attacks on anybody in my posts, yet they are repeatedly kept offline.

There is no genuine and legitimate reason to be interfering with the ability to discuss this political point. It deflects greatly from taking TNS seriously when hours upon hours are spent writing to the site, simply to have the material in the posts not allowed online. It is very discourteous to those who try to take TNS’s stated mission seriously. I would hope that this sort of … uh… ‘moderation’ stops.

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