Yid Lit: Courtney Martin

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Published December 06, 2010.
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“Saving the world” is a loaded proposition. The children of the 1980s and ‘90s, who heard that phrase have come of age and are often called apathetic, self-absorbed and quietly glued to their screens.

Not the case, says Courtney Martin, an editor at Feministing.com and a senior correspondent for the American Prospect Online. Her new book is “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists.” In it, she profiles eight young change-makers from across the United States. Among them are Rachel Corrie, the Washington state peace activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003, and the Jewish filmmaker Emily Abt, whose work grapples with socio-political themes. Abt’s feature film, “Toe to Toe,” about race, class and female friendship, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009.

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An excerpt from the interview:

Courtney Martin, author of “Do It Anyway.”
Nikolai Johnson
Courtney Martin, author of “Do It Anyway.”
Emily Abt, director of the film “Toe to Toe.”
Emily Abt, director of the film “Toe to Toe.”

Allison Gaudet Yarrow: Why does Generation Y get such a bad rap when it comes to activism? Is it undeserved?

Courtney Martin: I think it is undeserved. My interpretation is that we’re overwhelmed and we are managing to do some things, but they may be a little more strategic, a little less “fight the power.”

Rachel Corrie’s profile opens the book. You write about her not as the controversial political idea she has become, but as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romancing faraway causes and underestimating the violence of war. Why did you want to tell her story?

CM: There’s this sense that you’re born with privilege and you want to make the world better but you don’t know how, so I think there is this tendency to grasp onto the most extreme example that you can find.

Rachel’s story has been so propagandized. The Palestinians have used her image as this martyr; Israelis have said she was brainwashed. I wanted to pull her story out of that propaganda and say, What did this young woman really feel and think about what she was doing? And why did she do it? And, thankfully, she’s left behind tons of beautiful writing, so I was able to do that through her own words.

What is [Cornell West’s idea of] “good failure”?

CM: One of the things I’ve noticed in my own life, and I think is representative of our generation, is these overblown expectations. We were all raised with a self-esteem education and we’re all these perfect little snowflakes and we’re going to save the world and it’s much harder than we thought — it’s complex, globalized, bureaucratic. I loved this idea that it’s not holding yourself up to some irrational standard of what success looks like but it’s actually about trying to fail more exquisitely, more authentically every time.

Emily, you’ve made two documentaries and one feature film that probe needed social change and reveal pain and suffering. Your subjects include welfare families, AIDS patients and young women whose friendships highlight race and class tensions. Why do these subjects speak to you?

Emily Abt: The sense that public service was important was very much a current through my upbringing. I’m a filmmaker, and some may not connect public service and filmmaking, but they really go hand in hand.

You grew up white and Jewish in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The subjects of your films are mostly black. How did you come to care about and make your work about issues that seem to disproportionately affect communities other than the one you came from?

EA: My father is Jewish and my mother is not, so I’m actually a little bit shiksa. My father [was a] refugee from Nazi Germany. Because of that personal family history, my parents have always been very committed to helping people less privileged than themselves. They were very involved in the civil rights movement, and my father, within the company that he started, was focused on promoting minorities. He saw his own struggle with anti-Semitism imbedded in the struggles of other minorities.

This Yid Lit Podcast was produced by Nadja Spiegelman and Allison Gaudet Yarrow and edited by Meredith Ganzman.


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