Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review: Policing the Planet

[Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, editors. Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. London UK and New York NY: Version, 2016]

Smarter people than me have observed since last Saturday's Women's March -- in which millions came together to oppose the intensified harm to ordinary people that the incoming Trump administration has quite openly promised -- that mass mobilizations are complicated. They are always full of contradictions and imperfections and really great things as well as troubling things. They are politically messy, always and inevitably. For some people, situated in some ways, the cost of having to wade through oppressive nonsense at such an event outweighs the benefits of participating, despite holding broadly shared goals, and can end up taking away from whatever important work that they are already doing to win justice for their communities. But for many of us, those contradictions and imperfections -- and that nonsense -- should be taken as a reason to engage with even greater vigour.

Take, for instance, the issue of policing. From the ways in which local Women's March organizers in some locations framed and implemented their events, to lots of the social media conversation about how it all went after the fact, it's pretty clear that this is a site of sharp and troubling political disconnection among those who oppose the agenda of the new administration in the US. This isn't the only way that it breaks down, but I'm thinking specifically of how the broader tendency among many white people of liberal, progressive, and left inclination to refuse to really grapple with the reality of police and other state violence, particularly against Black and Indigenous people, has been no less present in this context than it is in general. This is not a slam against the Women's March in particular, but it is a call for those of us who are ourselves white and who have a more critical understanding of policing and of state violence to figure out how we're going to engage with that political disconnect.

It seems to me there are two broad areas in which we really need to be asking questions about how our politics must change if we (as people not directly affected) are to take seriously the ways in which policing is experienced by Black and Indigenous communities. One is around the practical doing of grassroots politics. What demands and goals would follow from a solid understanding of the role of policing under patriarchal white supremacist settler colonial capitalism? How would existing demands change? What implications would that underestanding have for how we organize our actions? For how our actions relate to the police? For who we invite to speak? For how we understand the differences in police conduct and media coverage with respect to different grassroots actions? It's not that the answers to these questions are simple or singular; there is not just one right way to do things. It's just that not enough of us who are not ourselves directly targeted by police in our everyday lives are asking them.

The other area is more theoretical. It's about those of us who aren't targeted going from the experience of, for instance, seeing lots of reports of police killing of Black people and recognizing that it's an important issue, to actually doing the work to start figuring out what's going on beyond what the media shows us, and how it relates to all of the other important issues and struggles going on in the world. How do these horrific high-profile cases relate to more mundane and everyday experiences of policing by Black and Indigenous people? Of homeless people, of trans people? How are they a product of the historical origins of policing and of the ways that policing is currently socially organized? How do the bits and pieces of racist police violence that become visible to those of us who don't experience it relate to histories of white supremacy and settler colonialism? What about to histories of capitalism, and to the development of neoliberalism? And what about militarist and imperial violence that the US and Canadian settler states are involved in -- how does policing connect with that?

I think for anybody wishing to think through those kinds of questions, and wishing more generally to develop a critical analysis of policing today, Policing the Planet is a good resource. Now, it's important to keep in mind that some, perhaps most, of the refual to deal seriously with all of this on the part of a lot of people who aren't harmed by the current order of policing is not really about "not knowing" in any simple sense -- it's about not wanting to know, about a refusal to know. A book, on its own, will do little to change that. But what a book can do, and what I think this one does, is help equip those of us who already want to wrestle with these questions (and of course those who have no choice but to do so) with better tools for doing it.

Policing the Planet is a collection of short pieces by different people about policing and about popular struggles responding to policing in the era of Black Lives Matter. It is particularly concerned with what gets called "broken windows policing," which emphasizes punitive police responses to small infractions and even to non-illegal phenomena that get understood as "disorder." It is the dominant mode of policing in the United States and is very common globally as well. The book also has some sharp things to say about other approaches to policing which sometimes get posed as alternatives to "broken windows" but which are not, in fact, much different in their end result -- things like "community policing." Under all of these approaches, policing is about maintaining order and the (oppressive) status quo. Blackness, indigeneity, visible poverty, homelessness, and gender non-conformance, among other things, are framed in our society, in different ways and to different degrees, as inherent markers of threat and disorder. This is true regardless of how people who bear those markers behave, and as a result they are disproportionately targeted for police harassment and violence.

I particularly like the mix of pieces in the book. I mean, none address the Canadian context, and it would've been nice to see at least one do that. But I really like how seriously the editors took their mandate to ground the book in movements. Often, when it comes to collections like this, the topic emerges from a movement of some kind, but the logic governing the writing and the selection of pieces feels like it is more about scholars getting a chance to publish things of interest primarily to other scholars. This is very much not like that. The authored pieces seem largely to be by people who are pretty grounded in movements themselves, whether or not they also work in universities -- both people with familiar names, like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Vijay Prasad, Robin D.G. Kelley, Rachel Herzing, and others, as well as people I hadn't heard of. And it combines these with short, punchy interviews, mostly with organizers who are doing this work on the ground, and not just a token one or two such interviews but around ten of them.

The book certainly doesn't do everything, and for those of us trying to educate ourselves around this stuff there is lots more to learn, but I think it does a pretty solid job of starting to answer some of the questions I posed above, or at least giving us the raw materials to answer them for ourselves. It explores how policing works today, and where that came from. It connects that to how racism has shifted in the last few decades, and how capitalism has shifted in that time, and so on. I think that, in particular, it is important for white leftists to understand how austerity and increasingly repressive policing, with its disproportionate targeting of Black and Indigenous people and its enmeshment with white supremacy and settler colonialism, are tightly bound together. As well, the book gives multiple, easily accessible windows into how people are engaging in collective struggles to try and change things. As a result it will, I think, be a useful resource.

Moreover, for those of us who are not directly harmed or even benefit from the current order of policing but who clearly see its injustice, I think the book presents us with resources that we can use to inform our conversations as we engage with other people like us in our organizations, communities, and mass mobilizations about the oppressive realities of policing.

[For a listing of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review: Light in the Dark

[Gloria E. Anzaldúa. (Edited by AnaLouise Keating.) Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality. Durham NC and London UK: Duke University Press, 2015.]

I feel uneasy writing this review.

I feel uneasy because I'm not sure quite what to make of my relationship to this book, and to this author's work more generally.

That is not, I hasten to add, about a lack of enthusiasm or regard. I think Anzaldúa is a brilliant thinker and an amazing writer. A particular piece of her writing, which I first read 15ish years ago in a collection and which is also used as the concluding chapter of this book, had a profound impact on me when I was going through a difficult time. One of the very first posts I ever made on this blog, way back in 2004, was noting and mourning Anzaldúa's passing. And other things that I have read since then by both Anzaldúa herself and by the editor of this book, AnaLouise Keating (who draws very explicitly on Anzaldúa's body of work) have made major impressions on me. I don't claim that I've taken up their ideas in ways that these writers would recognize or approve of, but they have affected me. And, frankly, though we are situated very, very differently, I think Anzaldúa's experience as someone who did radical thinking mostly outside of the academy and who was also very committed to the craft of writing is an inspiration to me, as someone who aspires to my own version of those two commitments -- not that I delude myself into thinking I have even a fraction of the capacity for those things that she had, but still she inspires me.

At the same time, I feel very keenly aware that there are other elements of her writing that don't speak to me in the same way -- that either don't move me in the same way or that are addressed to kinds of experiences that I just don't have. In a situation like that, I know that it is very easy to read such that I end up extracting what I like, forgetting what feels less personally relevant, and thereby internalizing a simplified, whitewashed, and ultimately very disrespectful version of her ideas. In terms of this book specifically, there were elements of it that I thought were powerful and profound and that resonated in a visceral way, while there were other elements that...well, that I respect, but that I cannot take up in the way that she means them (for various reasons that I'll get into below) and that I must therefore respect from a distance.

I think this is far preferable to refusing to engage with her work at all, or to not being fully honest about the contours of my relationship to it, but it all makes me uneasy, because while it seems better than any alternative I can think of, I'm sure this approach to encountering her work has implications that I am not able to fully grasp.

With that proviso in mind, let me talk more about the book. Gloria Anzaldúa was a well known and influential radical thinker and activist. She was involved in the women's movement in the US context, in Chicano/Chicana liberation struggles, in queer organizing, and more, and she initially became widely known for her role in co-editing the foundational women of colour feminist text This Bridge Called My Back, which was published in 1983.

Light in the Dark is her final book. She was not, in fact, done it when she died. She had a rigorous, intense, lengthy writing process, and when she passed away from her long-term serious health isssues, she had taken this book most of the way through that process, but not quite all the way. AnaLouise Keating is a scholar and activist who had worked with Anzaldúa for years, including as a collaborator but also relating to Anzaldúa as a mentor, and she has carefully and thoughtfully taken the manuscript to a stage where it, she hopes, would meet Anzaldúa's exacting standards for both analysis and craft. Keating includes, where she has determined that it is relevant, an account of the trajectory of the work that ended up in this book, as well as other fragments and versions that were part of the writing process.

It's hard to summarize the work done by this book because it covers a broad and diverse range of issues, and not in a way that fits neatly into conventional categories of Western thought. One way to think of it might be as a sweeping exploration of world-making, knowing, self-making, and creating. A hallmark of Anzaldúa's work is how she would take up imagery and figures from the Indigenous side of her mestiza heritage as ways to organize powerful ideas and the writing through which she presents them. So, for instance, she talks about a process of coming undone and re-forming yourself in a different configuration (I think particularly with reference to experiences of trauma as a colonized/racialized person, but also more broadly) through the figure of Coyolxauhqui, a goddess who is dismembered yet returns to wholeness. One of the most important concepts in her work is that of nepantla, or the border areas between various sorts of difference, and nepantleras, those who exist in those areas and take on a deliberate kind of political and spiritual work made possible by being thus situated. Along with presenting these and other important ideas best understood through consideration of the book as a whole, particular chapters analyze things like imagination, various forms of artistic making as political practice, her own writing process, a sophisticated and powerful take on identity formation, and a sort of synthesis of all of these that is about how the world exists, how we intervene in it, and how we are shaped as people.

The element of this that I feel most keenly like I must respect from a distance is how it sketches out a very distinct ontology -- that is, a way of thinking about how the world exists. I don't even know that I would have read it as being about ontology if that hadn't been pointed out so emphatically by Keating's introduction, because it is written in such a way that those of us inclined to understand these figures and ideas primarily as metaphor for phenomena in the social world and as imagery can certainly do so and still feel like we're reading something important and powerful. But as Keating points out, this was not actually what Anzaldúa was doing. She really was invoking a world in which these spiritual realms, these realities beyond the dead matter of most Western materialism, this Indigenous-informed but not Indigenous worldview, were very practically real. Not, I hasten to add, in the kind of fluffy appropriative escapism of so much white North American New Age-ism, but as part of a spiritually-infused and materially-grounded call to see the world as it is and act to make it better.

I respect that understanding of the world, but I'd be dishonest if I tried to take it on as my own.

What that leaves me with is the question of what I can take up from this work, and how. I'm not sure I can give a final answer to that, and I know I can't give a satisfying one, but I have a few thoughts. The most obvious piece that feels directly relevant to my own life is one chapter's powerful auto-ethnographic account of her writing process. It's pretty different from mine, but it feels like something I can learn from and be inspired by. One very immediate lesson is in her slow intense rigour, and its contrast to the pressure those of us immersed in the world of social media feel to publish quickly, frequently, and as a result often shallowly, but there are many more insights than that to be gained from her deep exploration of her process. I will definitely re-read this chapter in the future, in moments when I'm going through one of my periodic re-thinkings of how I do my work.

And even if I can't take on all of her ontology, even if my inability to do so is disrespectful -- I hope not, but I'm open to hearing that it might be -- her ideas on subject formation, identity formation, and how we exist as selves in the social world can be taken up in ways that can integrate with my sense of how the world works. I think her theorizing that responds to the necessity but limits of reified approaches to identity politics (particularly when read along with Keating's work, my review of which I link above) is so much richer, so much more sophisticated, so much more a possible grounds for creating the 'we' that might accomplish collective liberation than the reinvigorated smooth-tongued class reductionism of a growing (mostly-white) section of the anarchist and socialist left. As well, in a bit of a different vein, the fact that the final chapter managed to have such an impact on me years ago despite my inability to fully take up (or even, at that time, fully recognize) its ontology is, I think, fodder for future reflection about...well, about what it means to learn about the world through encounters across significant difference.

There's a lot more I could say about this book and about the various lines of reflection it has inspired in me, but I think I'll restrict myself to just one more: It has really made me think about the boundaries we put around who we listen to, who we read, and what work we take seriously. (This line of thought is also inspired by things I've seen online from feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed about citation practices and how we construct our intellectual/political lineages.) The most acute end of this for me is a recognition that there are people whose thinking and political work I really respect -- and I'm thinking most directly of certain mostly-white marxist and anarchist men, but not only them -- who would be very unlikely to read this book, who would be (privately) scornful of it if they did read it, or who would give it a tokenistic nod of respect but never really take it seriously in their own writing or political practice if they didn't just dismiss it. Now, though this reflection was sparked by this book, obviously it isn't really about one book or one person's work. Just as obviously, there are without a doubt ways that I too enact a similar kind of refusal-to-learn, so I'm not trying to be smug here. I also know that we all have limited hours in our days, and we all need to make practical decisions about how to move forward, whether that is in writing work or in organizing on the ground...but even so, I think that the kind of swift dismissal of differences in radical practice that is so endemic to how graduate school trains people to relate to radical ideas, and how correct-line political formations (be they marxist or anarchist) train people to relate to ideas and to practices, will ultimately be unhelpful in building the "we" that we need to make progress towards collective liberation -- in going from "nos/otros" to "nosotros," to borrow language from Anzaldúa. But even so, I don't claim to have any good answers about how to act differently...just a sense that pushing ourselves to have a more complex and generous sort of response to the radical ideas and practices of others that don't mesh easily with our own -- a sort of response based in respectful engagement even in the face of complexity and disagreement and unease -- has to be part of that.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Mirrors

[Eduardo Galeano. Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. New York: Nation Books, 2009.]

Earlier this year, I came to the rather startling realization that relatively little of the what I read bears much resemblance to what I want to be writing. I want to be writing things that are thoughtful and social and radical (in the sense of to-the-root) and writerly, yet online most of what I read is either journalistic or polemical or analytical without being particularly thoughtful, and offline much of the nonfiction that I read ends up being too scholarly or too plain or not quite enough of one of those things that I really want. I have good reasons for reading all of these things, certainly, but it doesn't change the fact that there is definitely something counterproductive about not reading more that experiments with craft and form and the like in ways that I find interesting and challenging, rather than exclusively for content.

I came up with a number of ways to try to change that, one of which was to brainstorm authors whose writing I knew or suspected might fulfil those requirements. One of the people who ended up on that list was the late Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, and the book of his that I semi-randomly decided to read was this one.

Mirrors is a history of the world, but of a very specific sort. It is "from below and to the left," certainly (to re-purpose a slogan from the Zapatistas), but it does things with craft that are very different from either left historians in the academy writing for the discipline or most movement-based historians (whether autodidacts or deprofessionalized) writing for a lay audience. This book is written from the sensibility of the storyteller. It clearly emerges from vast amounts of research and reading among more scholarly and conventionally historical sources, but it aims for something more and different than simply adding to the ranks of those sources. One way to say it might be that it aims for accessibility, but that is an inadequate description, because accessibility on its own often ends up plain and boring, whereas the focus here is being entertaining and mischievious and clever and engaging.

The almost 400 pages of this book are packed with brief, carefully crafted stories, most shorter than a page. They begin from the ancient world and its myths, and proceed to the present day. They draw from all parts of the world, and they centre the overlooked, the downtrodden, the forgotten.

These little stories take a range of forms -- a moment or a tangent or a list of key points from a life or a telling conjuction of facts or a poetic vignette -- and they have the feel not of written history but of stories told aloud. They are put together with a master storyteller's ear for both rhythm (for which translator Mark Fried surely deserves some credit as well, and not just Galeano himself) and for exactly the right details to create an effect and to convey an essence, with no attempt at giving an exhautive accounting of anything.

You could quibble, of course. You could insist that such-and-such is not adequately nuanced, that this detail over here is not the one you would have chosen, that the anecdote on that page leaves out too much. You could also probably critique the selection of stories, because for all that it pushes back against Eurocentrism and patriarchy (among other things), it perhaps could do more and better.

Nonetheless, it is delightful to read, and its politics are clear and powerful (if sometimes more heartbreaking than inspiring).

As for whether it is the kind of writing that I want to do, I'm not sure. In some ways, that kind of misses the point if asked too narrowly. My goal with this somewhat reoriented approach to reading is not find forms to mimic, but to find examples and explorations to inspire. This book is most definitely thoughtful and social and radical and writerly, and it feels like it falls very much within the scope of the kind of writing that I want to be reading more of, and learning from, as I plod forward in my own projects.

[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here.]

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Complaint vs. Ontario judge who celebrated Trump victory from the bench

On Friday, The Globe and Mail and The Hamilton Spectator reported that Ontario Justice Bernd Zabel wore and then prominently displayed a pro-Donald Trump baseball cap in his Hamilton, Ontario, courtroom. I know of a number of people who are filing formal complaints at this behaviour, and I have decided to join them...and I encourage you to do the same, at the address below. Note that I'm not a lawyer, so I have no idea if I have framed or worded my complaint effectively, but the guidelines make it seem like the system is meant to deal with complaints from lay people. Also note that I have my own deep misgivings about the legal system that are much more fundamental and systemic than I express in this letter, and I am also pretty skeptical about what in-system complaints mechanisms are likely to achieve. For me, however, an important part of taking this small action (and making it public) is as a gesture towards refusing the normalization of white nationalist politics, which I think is important. Anyway, here's what I said...I'd be keen to see what you say in your letter.

The Ontario Judicial Council
P.O. Box 914
Adelaide Street Postal Station
31 Adelaide Street East
Toronto, Ontario
M5C 2K3

Re.: Conduct of Ontario Court Justice Bernd Zabel

Dear Madam/Sir,

I am writing to lodge a complaint about the conduct of Ontario Court Justice Bernd Zabel, as reported in The Globe and Mail ("Ontario judge's pro-Trump baseball cap causes courthouse uproar," Nov. 11, 2016) and The Hamilton Spectator ("Hamilton judge under fire for donning Trump hat in the courtroom," Nov. 11, 2016). In those articles, it was reported that, in his courtroom, Justice Zabel wore and prominently displayed a hat bearing a campaign slogan of United States president-elect Donald Trump, "Make America Great Again."

I am not a lawyer, so I cannot speak to the formal rules of judicial conduct, but basic fairness and decency demand that this action be condemned in the strongest possible terms. As a resident of the city in which this action took place, I am asking that Justice Zabel be fired.

If all that was at issue here was a judge, in normal political circumstances, expressing a political preference from the bench, I would be content with a milder reprimand. These circumstances are not normal, however, and history teaches us that we must resist pressures to normalize them.

In the course of the campaign, the president-elect was shown as admitting that he had assaulted women and gotten away with it; regularly engaged in brazenly sexist, racist, and xenophobic behaviour; campaigned openly on doing harm to marginalized groups; and made statements at various points calling into question his commitment to the rule of law. History teaches us that this is a very dangerous combination.

The open celebration of these stances from the bench calls Justice Zabel's ability to do his job -- his ability to adhere to the standards of impartiality that the judicial system proclaims as central to its legitimacy -- into fundamental question.

To cite but one example, given that the campaign in question opened with the candidate labelling Mexicans as "rapists," what does the celebration of that campaign say about the ability of Justice Zabel to preside fairly over proceedings involving Mexican-Canadians? Countless similar examples involving many other marginalized groups could be listed.

Jusitce Zabel's conduct is an embarassment and a disgrace, and he should be fired immediately.


Scott Neigh

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: Coming Up Short

[Jennifer M. Silva. Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.]

Coming Up Short sets out to ask what it is like to come of age as a working-class person in contemporary North America, and ends up answering -- or at least exploring in a much more grounded and empirical way than most other writing I've seen -- how the changes that get grouped under the label "neoliberalism" have completely reshaped not only that side of life we usually reify as "the economy," but also the most intimate and personal aspects of how working-class people experience, understand, and navigate life.

Sociologist Jennifer Silva did in-depth interviews with 100 working-class young adults -- men and women, Black and white -- from a couple of different post-industrial cities in the United States. She got the interview participants to talk about their lives and about their transitions to adulthood, and uses these detailed accounts to develop a rich understanding of how institutions and broad social relations shape the biographies, the choices, and the very selves of the people she interviews, as well as of the strategies that they use to navigate and make sense of it all. It's this careful examination across scales, this attention to the dynamic interplay between aspects of the social world that we usually segregate as "individual" and "social", that makes this book feel important to me. It not only attends to the neoliberal transformation of society as more than "economic," which is rare enough, but it really focuses on trying to figure out how the laundry list of broad changes we associate with neoliberalism are having an impact on ordinary people. I think that's tremendously important and we need lots more work like that.

The writing falls into that flavour of scholarly prose that is unexciting, but very careful and relatively accessible. The ways in which interview material was woven through the analysis was particularly well done, I thought, and the storytelling that the book does based on the interviews is very effective at not only conveying fact but at painting pictures of the lives of those who were interviewed in a way that draws the reader in.

Given the magnitude of the changes that have swept across North America in the last 50 years, it should be no surprise that this book finds that coming-of-age trajectories and even core elements of selfhood are very, very different than those found by classic sociological studies of similar things in decades past. During the heyday of the post-war economic boom, working-class men (particularly white men) could reaslitically expect stable employment that paid a good wage. The transition to adulthood generally involved a fairly set series of markers like graduating high school, getting a job, getting married, and having kids -- and, increasingly starting in the 1960s, going to college sometimes fit in there too. Social life tended to be marked by fairly strongly enforced gender norms, a broadly stoic attitude towards hardship, and often a sense of collective commitment and responsbility. This is definitely not to romanticize that era, but just to note that in amidst the more rigid white supremacy and patriarchy of that time there was also (allocated in highly racialized and gendered ways) reasonable material plenty, reasonable stability, and a sense of collective belonging and possibility for at least some segments of the working-class that simply doesn't exist today.

Now, granting that there are definitely positive things about such rigid and oppressive norms losing sway in the last few decades, it is still the case that one of the key aspects of neoliberal change is that the kinds of working-class jobs that made that kind of life possible largely no longer exist in many areas of the United States. Because such a high proportion of employment is low-wage, temporary, precarious, and non-union, the majority of working-class youth simply don't have the option of meeting those stable markers of adulthood. But neoliberalism is more than intensive downgrading of working-class employment -- it is also about major changes in all of the other institutions that shape our lives as well. And it is major changes that, even more intensively in the US than in Canada, have meant that institutions that were in large part outcomes of working-class struggles waged a few generations ago have either been completely destroyed, or have been so defunded and distorted that the devil's bargain that combined material support with intrusive moral regulation at the height of North America's limited experiment with social democracy has now become much more about regulation and not so much about material support. Education, social services, and health services have been experienced by the interview participants in this study nearly universally as inadequate, opaque, untrustworthy, and harmful. A key lesson that almost all of the participants internalized in a deep, deep way was that you can't count on anyone or anything but yourself, and if you do, you're going to be betrayed. This is because they can't count on any institutions, whether employment-related or social support-related, and because the lives of everyone around them are as precarious and subject to change and instability as their own, they can't count on peers or family either. This is a very different set of circumstances for figuring out who you are and what life means than existed for much of the working-class 50 years ago.

Perhaps the most fascinating and disturbing finding of the book is about how working-class youth make sense of and navigate this reality. Now, there isn't just one way. A small subset of (mostly white) men still had access to stable, well-paying working-class jobs, primarily as cops and firefighters. A significant proportion of the youth from all demographics opted to go into the military, for lack of other options, but it was mostly white guys who were able to parlay this into access to these uniformed, stable forms of employment, and this subset had ways of navigating and understanding the world much more like older forms of working-class masculinity. As well, though they were far from the only ones who identified in some sense as Christian, it was a small subset of Black women in the study who narrated their experience very strongly through faith.

Pretty much everyone else in the study (including most white men and Black women) developed an understanding of themselves and of the world that the author characterizes as "therapeutic." That is, they see the task of growing up primarily in terms of identifying and overcoming various sorts of emotional, psychological, family-of-origin-based traumas, not so much in any way that leads to material security, but to self-awareness and a sort of emotional self-responsibility. And that's primarily how they see themselves, too.

There are a number of things that are sriking about this. One is how quintessentially neoliberal it is, in that it's intensely individualistic and self-focused, and it makes everything about changing you and how you feel about your circumstances rather than about anything social or about any collective effort to change anything out in the world. (And I want to be clear that I'm not blaming people for this, because it really is an approach that fits with the moment.) As well, it is very, very different from what existed a couple of generations ago, where that kind of individualized, psychologized, feeling-focused presentation of self was almost a marker of class difference, in that (an earlier version of) it existed to an extent among middle-class people but was largely rejected by and/or inaccessible to working-class people. It wasn't necesarily the politicized version of socialist fantasies, and it had its downsides for sure, but there was a kind of presumed 'we' that permeated the experiences and outlook of a lot of working-class people. Of course the therapeutic approach doesn't entirely work for most working-class people now, either, because for it to really fit seamlessly and frictionlessly, you need to have access to material resources and stability that most people just don't have. But there really is no social space for anything else to be easily imagineable -- again, it's a product of a lifetime of betrayal by (neoliberal) institutions and other people (whose lives are similarly unstable because of neoliberal realities), and a sense that really it's pointless to try to change anything but yourself.

And most significantly, it is precisely these various institutions that are largely experienced as unhelpful and negative that offer these tools -- they don't offer much in the way of material resources, but schools, health-related settings, and social services all offer therpeutic tools and resources and advice that amount to disciplinary mechanisms that produce people as therepeutic subjects. So in a real way, various kinds of neoliberal changes to institutions, from de-industrialization to the vastly reduced and re-oriented neoliberal welfare state, have created in a very material way the basis for a diferent kind of working-class self. "We'll make it impossible for you to get a decent job, and we'll make school really hard to access and not super relevant to what you need, but we'll offer you ways to process your feelings about all of it instead."

This, of course, has political implications as well. The book points to this rather than exploring it in any detail, but it certainly begins to get at some of the many aspects of working-class experience that middle-class lefties tend to completely mis-read, and to potential problems with approaches to organizing (used by folks of all backgrounds) that presume and draw on traditions based in earlier moments of working-class experience. Appeals to collective solidarity and to collective mutual support don't resonate in the same way they might have once upon a time because the institutions that shape working-class lives have worked hard over decades to produce circumstances where they won't.

I'm not really sure lessons to draw, and I worry that the way I've summarized the book here is a bit simplistic and caricatured, but I think this kind of attention to how people narrate their own experiences is crucial to building movements for change, and I think the specific findings in this study are things that those of us who do not directly experience them (as a middle-class guy who is a bit older than the interview participants here) need to think long and hard about.

And it is important to point out that the author is very clear that none of this is absolute or complete or inevitable. She points to the single interview participant in her study who had a very different way of making sense of his life and of the world -- a working-class white guy, who through a range of circumstances and choices, ended up with a political consciousness he describes himself as "revolutionary socialist." Working together for radical social change is still very possible, but we need to recognize that the route to get there isn't necessarily going to look much like what 50- and 100-year-old blueprints tell us.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Review of Two Graphic Histories

[Edited by the Graphic History Collective with Paule Buhle. Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.]

[Robert Kristofferson and Simon Orpana. Showdown! Making Modern Unions. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.]

How do you do history in ways that allow it to move, travel, and engage people in non-university contexts? I've thought about that a lot over the years, and I still don't feel like I have any firm answers, but I think it's possible that these two graphic histories point towards at least one possible way of thinking about doing that.

The first books is Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle from the Graphic History Collective. It features nine different stories of working-class struggle drawn from Canadian history and presented by a range of different historians, writers, and artists. The content goes from the Knights of Labor in the 19th century to much more recent history, like the Days of Action in Ontario in the late 1990s and the struggles of migrant domestic workers. Some are about specific conflicts, like a 1935 coal strike or a battle by dock workers on the west coast; others are more biographical, like the one about iconic trade unionist and feminist Madeleien Parent (who is famous in Quebec but little-known in the rest of Canada) and itinerant radical Bill Williamson (whose name I'd never heard, but who cropped up in many important radical contexts in Canada and internationally in the first half of the 20th century); some focus on a particular organization, like the small socialist-feminist union that did some important work in British Columbia in the 1970s and 1980s; and some on particular groups of workers, like the story of Indigenous workers in the west coast fisheries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each comic had a short introduction, mostly written by left historians, labour studies profs, social movement scholars, and so on. And the book itself has a great intro written by the Graphic History Collective that situates their work in the history of activist comics.

(I should also add that I was surprised and pleased to see my own name included in the acknowledgmenets sections -- one of the first episodes ever of my radio show, Talking Radical Radio, featured a member of the Graphic History Collective, back when this book was still early in the planning stages, and I'm touched that they thought that worth mentioning. Thanks, GHC! :) )

The other book is Showdown! Making Modern Unions written by Rob Kristofferson and illustrated by Simon Orpana. It is an in-depth examination of one particular strike that rocked the steel industry in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1946. This conflict merits a full book's worth of attention because of the context: There was a wave of strikes in Canada that year that played an important part in establishing the power of organized labour and cementing a new labour relations framework in the post-Second World War era, and this strike was one of a handful that were absolutely crucial to that process. The book, while in one or two places feeling a little over-the-top in its declarations of the strike's historical significance, makes great use of it -- it draws readers in through its wonderful portrayal of the drama of the strike itself, including direct use of voices and images that emerged from it directly, while carefully including the broader historical context in which this year and this strike were key turning points.

Beyond my interest in the content and the quality of the work, it is that potential to engage people who otherwise might not pay much attention to history-from-below that really excites me about these two books. I've done grassroots history-from-below work myself, and am just embarking on a new project in that vein, and I'm feeling particularly conscious that just doing the work is not enough. We are entering the project with a wide open sense of what we might produce the other end, depending on what will be most useful to movements and communities, and to those engaged in related struggles today, but even at this early stage of consultation, I'm beginning to think there isn't a clear answer to that. Generally speaking, lots of people who are involved in movements and communities-in-struggle agree in principle that we need to know more about movements of the past and that which movements have faced, but that rarely translates into creating space for such thinking and learning to happen. Most of us, most of the time, take up knowledge about the world via practices that are habits -- yes, our media consumption practices change over time, and in specific circumstances can even change abruptly, but mostly we learn about the world today in much the same way as we learned about it yesterday. And given that most movements have no deliberate collective practices of learning from the past, and most individuals (whether active in movements or not) do not have such practices either, an ungrounded good will towards remembering past movements does not easily translate into doing anything about it.

I don't really know what the answer to that problem is. I have a sense that part of it involves creating collective proccesses or events or mechanisms for engagement -- mechanisms that are not too onerous; mechanisms that are perhaps arranged by people friendly to but not necesarily in the movements or communities themselves, so the work doesn't detract from pressing organizing; and mechanisms that are appealing in their own right, and don't count on "should"-based sentiments to generate participation. But artefacts are important too, not just processes and events, and I think these books seize on that last principle to experiment with the kinds of artefacts that might be useful -- that is, ones which are engaging and entertaining in their own right, and convey grassroots historical knowledge via that engagement.

When I think about what all of that might mean for my own work, I remain quite uncertain. But as myself and my collaborator continue to puzzle that out, in consultation with other folks in the community, I hope that it will be possible to keep tabs on these two books, to get a sense of the ways in which they are engaging people, the spaces that they are reaching, the excitement that they are generating, so that we might learn from that.

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Monday, October 03, 2016

Review: Extraction!

[Frederic Dubois, Marc Tessier, and David Wdigington, editors. Extraction! Comix Reportage, 2nd edition. Ottawa ON: Ad Astra Comix, 2016. (First edition published by Cumulus Press in 2007.)]

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the how to convey grassroots, critical, against-the-dominant-commonsense knowledge about the world. Just in this post, you can see this attention to method and medium by the presence of an embedded video -- as I explain here I'm experimenting with combining my longstanding practice of reviewing nonfiction books related to social issues and social movements, my longstanding Talking Radical project, and a new interest in developing at least rudimentary skills for working with video to augment my written book reviews with video book reivews. I'm also a fan of comics-based narrative. I didn't grow up reading them, which is a bit surprising because I think I would've liked them, but I've come to appreciate them as an adult. Also, despite my complete lack of anything resembling artistic ability, I have thought a bit about the potential for comics to convey the sorts of ideas and knowledge and information that form the core of my own work. All of which means that I find the combination of journalism and sequential art in Extraction! Comix Reportage, 2nd edition to be intriguing and exciting. I feel somewhat cautious in reaction to it, too, but as I'll explain below, that's really not about the book itself.

Extraction! was first published in 2007. It sold out quickly, and the publisher folded in 2008. This second edition was put out by Ad Astra Comix, a publisher in Ottawa specializing in social justice-related comics, in 2016. The book tells four stories, each bringing together a different journalist with a different artist, and each reporting on a different instance of a Canadian resource extraction company doing its thing -- gold mining in Guatemala, uranium in Quebec, bauxite in India, and the tar sands in Alberta. There is also some text-y frontmatter and backmatter that talk about the project and the process.

I like the art. I appreciate the skill of the writing. I've done some grassroots journalism myself in the past, though unlike the reporters who contributed to this volume it has never been my primary focus, and I appreciate the evidence both of their journalistic skills in general and of the work of thinking through how best to apply them to a medium with quite different strengths and weaknesses than the written word alone. It was also good to see that there were at least a couple of different approaches to doing that represented.

The book, as I said, isn't new, but for the most part that didn't bother me. Fables of corporate social responsibility notwithstanding, violence to people and the earth are endemic to the Canadian mining and broader resource extraction industries, and these stories felt well worth telling and worth reading even if they're a few years old. The only one of the four that felt a little bit off, perhaps because it's the one of the four that I went in knowing most about already, was the one about the tar sands. It felt a little dated, as it was written before what has been a pretty change-filled decade in terms of basic facts and impacts and political dynamics. Still, it does a pretty good job of introducing some of the history and the environmental outcomes, and I think would be a good tool to get senior elementary and high school students thinking about the issue. More concerning, though, was that it talked almost exclusively about the environmental impacts, with almost no attention to the colonial character of the tar sands, and I think that's pretty politically troubling.

Even given those concerns, though, I liked the book, and thought it was well done. I think it can be a tool to introduce critical material about the impacts of capitalist resource extraction to people who might otherwise not encounter such material, and I hope it gets used that way.

But that brings me to the side of my reaction to this book that's hesitant. And, really, this reaction isn't about the book at all -- it is more about my own two decades of experience with both the power and the limits of grassroots media-making and knowledge production. On the one hand, it's work that I am committed to because I know that it can reach people and it can be an important element in supporting struggles for a better world. I know that consistent, solid work on an established project or form can do this, and I know that investing energy in exploring new possibilities, new media, new forms can do it too -- I wouldn't remain determined even after three and a half year to meet a time-consuming weekly radio deadline if I didn't believe the former, and I wouldn't be playing around with video for the first time ever if I didn't believe the latter. At the same time, the scale and reach of dominant institutions and practices of both media-making and knowledge production are vastly larger than anything that we're capable of at the moment, and it's hard to simultaneously hold onto both excitement for what we are able to do along with sober recognition of the sharp limits of our reach and the harsh realities of what we can't do.

That concern is about far more than mainstream news media, but I'll lay it out with reference to that because that's what's most relevant to this book: Dominant institutions and practices of mainstream journalism incorporate particular kinds of silences and biases and erasures into the core of their work, even at its best. The fact that initiatives trying to enact radically transformed institutions and practices for knowing the world are nowhere near the scale they would need to be to functionally replace mainstream media institutions, however, means that struggles to change the world still depend on mainstream journalism's ability to do certain kinds of things dependably and well, whatever its limitations. Except even that has been hollowed out over the last twenty years -- just last week, there was a report in the Toronto Star about the crisis in Canadian news media. And while I disagree profoundly with the solutions being suggested by Canada's media capitalists, the fact that the largest circulation daily in the country has cut its newsroom from 470 journlists to just 170 in the course of a decade, and that many other papers have done similar things or closed up shop entirely, is the sign of a major problem, and one that is very relevant to social movements and to communities-in-struggle, however vigorous and justified our criticisms of the mainstream media might be.

Like I said, this hesitance isn't at all about the book. Rather, it's a reminder -- to myself as much as to anyone else -- that even as we need to celebrate the things that we make that are grassroots and critical and committed to a vision for a better world world, like this important book, we need to keep an eye on that bigger picture and not get lost (as I know all to well can happen) in a neoliberal celebration of novelty and innovation and creativity when, as lovely as those things are, our bottom line really needs to be social justice and collective liberation.

So please do read this book. It's a solid journalistic introduction to the realities of Canadian resource extraction industries, which are known by far too few people given how central they are to colonial capitalism in the northern half of Turtle Island. As well, the book is an important experiment with a new approach to producing and circulating knowledge about the world that, despite my indulgence in broad pessimism above, I really do want to see develop and grow. In fact, I want our grassroots media-making and knowledge production to grow until it really can offer an alternative to the institutions that dominate and distort how we know the world today.

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review: How Queer!

[Faith Beauchemin, writer and editor. How Queer! Personal narratives from bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, sexually-fluid, and other non-monosexual perspectives. Atlanta GA: On Our Own Authority Publishing!, 2016.]

Though the title emphasizes the personal narratives, this book actually combines its fourteen short personal narratives by non-monosexual people who are not professional writers or activist superstars with several essays by the editor. While I have some suggestions in terms of what might have strengthened the analysis in the essays, as someone who is also committed to paying close attention to how everyday lived experience is a starting point for theory and to generating understandings of the social world and our struggles to change it in non-academic contexts, I am a big fan of this book's project.

First, the narratives: I have a soft spot for this kind of personal storytelling, partly because of my sense of the broader political significance it can have but to a large extent because I really like hearing from people about their lives, particluarly about how sexuality and gender and relationships work in their lives. (I'm much less enthusiastic about talking about how those things work for me, but I'm working on it....) The fourteen stories captured here manage to be both an interesting range of different experiences while also (inevitably) being just one arbitrary and limited slice of the vast territory encompassed by people who are in one sense or another non-monosexual. Which, in the overall context of bisexual erasure, is still a pretty great thing. There are a couple of Canadians and one young woman in India, but it is mostly people from the US, with the core being (I think mostly white) people who grew up in conservative religious families. The range of experiences includes a mix of the recognizeable and familiar (accompanied by all the complicated reactions and feelings that can carry with it) with things that feel less so. In particular, it was a reminder of how deeply variegated and often painfully oppressive the social landscape remains, especially for youth, beneath the thin veneer of supposedly already-accomplished liberal tolerance that tends to get presumed by (particularly non-queer) denizens of many urban Canadian contexts to be both universal and sufficient.

The essays, which don't draw directly on the personal narratives but serve as a sort of contextualization and a theorization based on the kinds of experiences the narratives present, bring together in a short, accessible way many of the main ideas found in the rad side of 21st century queer politics in North America, with a non-monosexual emphasis. What this means is that if you're already familiar with those politics, you probably won't encounter much that's new here. However, because it is packaged and presented in a way that is short and accessible, and because the book foregrounds the personal narratives, I think it has a good chance of conveying these politics to young queer readers who otherwise might be less likely to encounter them, and that it has a shot of blowing some new-to-this-stuff minds in a really great way.

Saying that, of course, is not at all the same as not having any opinions about what might strenghten the book's analysis, of which I have plenty. For instance, there are definitely points where the book's account of the social world feels a bit schematic -- a politically important and useful schema, but still more abstracted from the sensual messiness of lived experience than I think we really need. In quite a few places it falls into talking about identities in fairly reified (as opposed to relational) ways, which isn't at all surprising given that it is probably the dominant mode of thinking about identity these days, but it's still worth noting. As well, it feels like it consistently downplays the capacity of capitalism to recoup and put to work even radically intentioned and overtly oppositional ways of enacting diversity, difference, and transgression. Which relates (but is not reducible) to another tendency in the analysis that was concerning -- and that I think is not unusual in ceratin kinds of rad queer politics -- which at least some of the time seems to be framing the enactment of transgressive sexual and relationship practices as much more intrinsically threatening to existing social relations than I think they actually are, in the absence of conscious and deliberate efforts to use them as building blocks for projects of collective liberation.

It should be said that the author is pretty up front in the introduction about what the book does and does not do: It presents individual narratives and it presents some social and political analysis, but it does not try to answer "what is to be done" in a collective way, either through talking about existing collective projects or theorizing about what groups could and should do. Which on a certain level is fine, in that it is never fair to critique a book for not being a different book, but I wonder if taking on that piece and fitting it into what the book already does, and incorporating discussion of how existing collective efforts are being implemented and experienced in practice on the ground, might be one approach to beginning to address some of the limitations in the book's analysis.

Anyway. A neat little book that will go out into the world and do some good work -- it will be supportive and affirming to some folks who really need that, and it will take important and rad political ideas to people who might not otherwise come across them.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Keywords for Radicals

[Kelly Fritsch, Clare O'Connor, and Ak Thompson, editors. Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle. Chico CA: AK Press, 2016.]

For a long time -- longer, at least, than I've been thinking about such things myself -- one important element of both internal and external conflict involving the broadly-defined left has been questions related to language and vocabulary. Accusations of inaccessible verbiage and politically pointless quibbling about language are constantly used to dismiss either the left in its entirety, or whatever sections of the left the speaker doesn't like. While, regretfully, leftist arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin does sometimes happen, it actually happens much more in the fantasies of those doing the accusing -- whether that is Fox News reactionaries who wouldn't know the actual left if it bit them on the shin, or whether it is aging post-radicals complaining about how social justice-oriented youth conduct themselves on Tumblr -- than in actuality, because even if the issues are not always addressed functionally or directly, and even if that importance is never quite named clearly in the conversation itself, questions that touch on or weave together with issues of language and vocabulary are of larger political importance. And so various language-related questions do matter far beyond themselves. To name just a few: What is the relationship between language and the world around us? How should we approach naming the world in the service of justice and liberation? How should we relate to a particular way of talking and naming and explaining that has (or perhaps had) great power to help us understand the world in certain respects, that is perhaps fading from common use or is still around but whose limits are becoming increasingly clear? How do we navigate conflict among different (parts of) movements who use the same language in different ways...ways that really do reflect substantive political differences? Or among constituencies that potentially could be working in alliance but that are starting from vastly different language and politics? What do we do when politically careful naming of the world becomes in-group signalling that keeps people from engaging with ideas that we think are important?

Keywords for Radicals is a thoughtful engagement with language and the world, inspired in part by a similar but not identical project by English marxist scholar Raymond Williams called Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society that was published forty years ago. The newer book takes 50 terms that are important to social movements and social struggles in the early 21st century. These might be terms that are hotly contested, they might be terms that are so ubiquitous that we don't even notice that their meanings are muddy or multiple, or they might be terms that get deliberately employed to avoid debate rather than clarify understanding. They go all the way from "accessible" and "accountability," to "misogyny" and "nation," to "war" and "zionism." Each is then explored by a different radical writer.

The book is based on a materialist understanding of language that argues that the ways in which language gets used -- the conceptual practices which are thus conveyed -- are related to aspects of social organization. So when usage changes, when a given way of deploying a term goes from clear and mobilizing to contested and confused, say, or when new ways of framing and describing and demarcating social phenomena arise, it is not just whims of speakers but reflective, albeit often in complex ways, of shifts in the social world. So by historicizing and socially contextualizing the ways in which people engaged in struggle use language, we can build understanding of struggles and of the world. The goal of the book is not to resolve tensions in how words are used, not to establish stable 'correct' meanings nor to destabilize supposedly illusory consensuses, but to trace out how shifts and changes and tensions and contradictions have come to be and exist in the present, and to probe what we can learn from that.

Though each entry is written by someone different, and clearly the authors had some latitude to put their own stamp on things, there is also more consistency in approach and feel across the entries than you might expect for a multi-author collection. Most include a brief dictionary-based etymological accounting that goes into the deep past, as well as a more detailed exploration of more recent history and present uses of the terms in question. Though I'm sure many are not exhaustive, and specialists in particular areas would find things to add and expand, they do a good job of touching on key movements and theorists that have shaped the terms in question in the 20th century and more recently, and various tension and competing usages/politics today. I particularly appreciated those entries in which the writers were able to introduce some sort of novel insight beyond elementary description of the landscape of contemporary usage of that entry's keyword. I also appreciate that those who have been invited to contribute, though all are on the radical left in one sense or another, represent a range of political and intellectual traditions. However, because of the emphasis on breadth, completeness, and generous readings within each entry, as well as the editorial effort to produce a common tone, this doesn't come across as an effort to perform some sort of strained political balance but just as a recognition that thinkers from a range of traditions and politics have something to contribute.

That said, it's important to be at least a little bit cautious in how you read these entries. There were very few of the entries that read to me as if they were badly done, but at the same time it would be easy (particularly, I suspect, for readers for whom these ideas are newer) to read them as being more complete than they are. So, for instance, the entry on "class," which was not badly done but which left me with more concerns about completeness than most. As far as it goes, it deals with some important history and current tensions, but I think it leaves a lot of important things out when it discusses the contemporary tension that many radicals frame as existing between liberal identity politics and a more radical class-based politics. Most versions of that framing that I have encountered, including the one in this chapter, present what to me seems to be a very simplistic account in which liberal, reified identity politics are made to stand in for all politics that take identity and related phenomena seriously, thereby erasing politics that do so in ways that are relational, revolutionary, collective, anti-liberal, and non-reified. I see this as profoundly politically unhelpful, and as very common at the moment, so it's disappointing that this chapter didn't push beyond it. As well, in a related but not identical omission, it leaves out any consideration of critical marxist feminist interventions into the category of "class" (though other entries in Keywords for Radicals engage with some of that work) and of autonomist interventions that greatly complexify and expand what "class" captures. And to be clear, I still think it's a useful chapter...I raise this more as a caution about how the entries should be read than anything else. If you are someone who works with the ideas in this book -- and, really, if you write stuff about the social world from a vaguely left-ish perspective, then you do -- the entries in this book are quite useful places to start and pointers to important thinkers and movements and ideas. But they aren't endpoints, and shouldn't be taken as such.

Anyway. It's a sizeable book, and certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but it's very readable and, I think, full of really useful stuff. There's lots to pick apart and debate and discuss in the entries, which I think is valuable in itself, and the underlying theory of why and how language matters is super important. Though this is not it's primary purpose, I think the theory underlying Keywords gives us ways to think through how arguments about language and terminology arise within and beyond the left, and to perhaps approach them in ways that are more historically grounded and potentially useful.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Monday, August 15, 2016

Review: Normal Life

[Dean Spade. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2015.]

This is a classic of radical trans politics, written by legal scholar and organizer Dean Spade, and originally published by the sadly now-defunct South End Press in 2009 and re-released by Duke University Press in 2015.

A central premise for the book is one of the key divides in contemporary social movements. On the one hand, there are politics that focus on narrowly defined single issues, that don't really consider differential impacts of their agenda within or beyond their presumed base and that therefore centre the more privileged elements of that base, and that tend to lack any critical understanding of the state. On the other hand, there are politics that may be grounded in a particular set of experiences but that prioritize seeing the interconnections between different struggles and that aim for collective liberation, that are very attuned to the differential impacts that various reforms would have both within and beyond their base in ways that centre the most marginalized people within that base, and that are very clear (but not dogmatic or rigid) about the oppressive violence inherent in the state form. This is perhaps most clearly talked about these days with reference to queer struggles, and this book puts an emphasis on drawing lessons from past queer movements and applying them to present-day decisions in trans organizing, but it is a distinction that is relevant to quite a few movements.

Given that Spade is a lawyer and a legal scholar, a particular emphasis in the book is examining the role of law reform within movements. Again, there is a distinction that maps roughly onto the two broad kinds of politics described above. The former often ends up relying quite heavily on legal strategies, to the extent that they take on much more weight and significance, and absorb more resources, than more grassroots elements of struggle. In the context of lesbian and gay movements, these politics have tended to emphasize law reforms that constitute some kind of positive recognition -- most prominently equal marriage, hate crime legislation, and explicit inclusion in human rights law. The latter kind of politics, and the one Spade argues for, uses law reform as only one part of a larger, multi-faceted movement strategy, and is quite careful that grassroots, often base-building, activities are prioritized. He goes through each of those major legal achievements of queer movements in the United States and shows how they often don't have the promised impacts on queer lives, and that at least some have significant negative consequences on some (often racialized and/or poor) queer and non-queer people. He suggests an approach to law reform in movement contexts, with particular reference to trans struggles, that begins from asking what aspects of law have the greatest material impact on the greatest number of lives, and then seeking to change those things. In the case of trans people, he suggests that rather than following the lead of LGB movements in seeking things like inclusion in human rights codes and hate crime legislation, the largest impact on trans lived experience would actually be made by challenging how gender functions in administrative law -- which hate crime legislation and human rights codes mostly don't touch. He also argues that, again using the metric of actual impacts on the lives of trans people, it is crucial for trans movements to become part of larger coalitions challenging the prison industrial complex and various injustice related to immigration.

The book is scholarly, but very lucid, very clear in its argument, very easy to follow. I think what I like most about it is how grounded and practical it is when it comes to arguing for a sort of intersectional collective liberation approach to movement politics, and when it talks about state violence. I find that too often when activists or writers take those positions, particularly more privileged activists, they end up sounding radical but feeling pretty detached from lived experience in a way that allows single-issue politics and the downplaying of state violence to come across as the pragmatic and reasonable position. Spade does an excellent job of making clear that in fact politics that strive for collective liberation and that refuse to ignore state violence are not just too-the-root radical but also, when done right, the more practical alternative to making incremental improvements to people's everyday lives.

As a cis person, I have no standing to comment on the choices facing trans politics at this moment of heightened visibility and attack, but I think this book is one excellent way for those of us who do not have that lived experience to understand some of the ways that trans lives and gender more broadly are socially organized, and I think the political lessons in this book resonate through all of our movements.

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