Dancing with Emma Goldman

Sorry, we had a little hiatus here. I’m blaming it on the blizzard. It was pretty impressive as Vineyard blizzards go — you can see some photos in my Vineyard blog here — but it’s nearly all gone now. So back to work . . .

Long, long before social media, we had memes. We didn’t call them “memes” because the word meant something different then (“an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” says Merriam-Webster) and was too esoteric to be heard often in general conversation. But memes in the social-media sense (“an amusing or interesting item [such as a captioned picture or video] or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media”)?

We had those for sure. We shamelessly took quotations from famous people, often out of context, and spread them widely on T-shirts and posters.

Here’s an example:

Emma Goldman was an anarchist, intellectual, activist, and women’s rights supporter of the sort I admire but have my reservations about. I wouldn’t have wanted to sit down with Emma Goldman for fear that she would talk me into doing something I didn’t really want to do. She was almost certainly an accessory in her lover Alexander Berkman’s attempt to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick — something like that.

So the idea that the fearsome Emma Goldman loved to dance — well, that was irresistible. I loved to dance, though I recoiled at having a male lover or indulging in assassination. My experience in the antiwar movement had pretty much inoculated me against male-lefty adventurism — but Emma, unlike the male lefties, understood that women were oppressed and incorporated that into her analysis.

Getting deported at the end of 1919 by the likes of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover, who was then at the head of what eventually became the FBI, was a big plus.

Short version: I liked the T-shirt.

Thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web, I just turned up a 1991 article by Alix Kates Shulman about how this T-shirt came about. (Shulman clearly had the same version I do.) For the TL:DR crowd (don’t worry, I sympathize), the short version is that there’s no evidence that Emma Goldman ever said “If I can’t dance . . .” in so many words. The story does include an anecdote from her autobiography, Living My Life, that suggests Emma might have been OK with it. Confronted by “a young boy” who rebuked her, saying that “it did not behoove an agitator to dance,” she explains her response:

I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it.

I would not have liked to be that kid facing the wrath of Emma.

So I wear my vintage meme with pride, and honor Emma Goldman as a foremother, even as I find her more than a little bit scary.