Friday, August 13, 2004

Internet Access and New Updates

Today we are moving out of the house we have been subletting since we moved to LA and making the final transition to the apartment which will house us for the remainder of our stay here. We have been in possession of the apartment for almost a month. We arranged a few weeks in advance with one company to have phone and internet services start a few days ago. In a marvellous demonstration of how hierarchical bureaucracy is just as silly and inefficient when it is a private (i.e. "free" market) tyranny, this company got it right with our phone service but nobody in the internet division bothered to check why our phone line wasn't up immediately after we placed the request. This confused said division. This means the request for internet services is in limbo, and may be in that state for up to two more weeks. There is an internet cafe about 20 minutes walk from our new apartment, so I will not be completely out of the virtual loop, but I may not be posting here as often as I would like in that period.


Racism, Space, and Resistance: Two Articles

I have encountered to interesting articles on racism, one a blog post by Paul Street which talks about the spatial (geographical, housing, community) manifestations of racism, and one an article by Manning Marable on neoliberal capitalist globalization and racism.

Two quotes from the Marable article:

You are not inventing models of social justice activism and resistance: others have come before you. The task is to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of those models, incorporating their anti-racist vision into the heart of what we do to resist global capitalism and the national-security state.

The anti-globalization movement must be, first and foremost, a worldwide, pluralistic anti-racist movement, with its absolutely central goal of destroying global apartheid and the reactionary residue of white supremacy and ethnic chauvanism. But to build such a dynamic movement, the social composition of the anti-globalization forces must change, especially here in the United States. The anti-globalization forces are still overwhelmingly upper, middle-class, college-educated elites, who may politically sympathize with the plight of the poor and oppressed, but who do not share their lives and experiences.

These two articles interest me because they, jointly, speak to things I have been thinking about since our move to Los Angeles. Because this city follows the pattern of residential segregation found in U.S. cities rather than the much less clearly defined pattern in most smaller Canadian cities, and because this city is physically immense even for one of its huge (10 million or so) population, issues connecting space and access to resources and the local nature of resistance to oppression are heightened, at least compared to what I was used to in Hamilton. In Hamilton there was considerable social distance between the activism of middle-class, white activists striving in one way for social justice, and activists who themselves were poor and/or people of colour who tended to be active in quite different ways. Of course the former tended to have more access to resources, and tended to act in ways that functionally excluded the presence and the concerns of the latter. But in Los Angeles that is compounded by the way the city emphatically physically segregates people along racial and class lines. (That is particularly challenging when trying to function in this city without a car, as we are.) It is one more obstacle in the path of building the kind of movement that Marable advocates.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Anarchy in the RNC

This article is about high tech, functionally anarchist protest methods that will be used at the Republican National Convention that is coming up soon. A refined version of this article apparently appeared in a recent edition of Adbusters. (Thanks to Wey Robinson in Hamilton for forwarding this to me!)

Monday, August 09, 2004

The Village


Like most of M. Night Shyamalan's films, The Village is worth seeing. Also like most of his films, it features intensely created mood and environment, some scares, and the gradual but surprise revelation of the film's actual premise. Thankfully it avoids having a ridiculous ending like the one that was so disappointing in his last film, the one with the aliens and Mel Gibson.

This is your last warning...turn back here if you haven't seen the film...

The device for this film is as follows: The setting to which we are introduced is a village which feels like a fairly unspectacular movie version of a pioneer or Puritan village somewhere in the wilderness of U.S. post-colonization history. The village is in the woods, and beyond its very clearly marked boundaries lurk horrible creatures. An agreement between the creatures and the villages means they do not trespass on each other's territory, and this has had the effect of making travel out into the woods into a taboo for the villagers. This is just fine, because the villagers are deliberately avoiding the decadence and violence of "the towns" which lie somewhere beyond the woods.

It is gradually revealed that the monsters are, in fact, the village's elders dressed in costume. The intent of this subterfuge is to create the taboo which keeps everyone isolated in the village. It is further revealed that this is not the 16th century or the 19th century, but early in the 21st century. One of the elders was the son of a billionaire who was murdered over money, and the others have similarly lost loved ones to violence in the present-day U.S. The billionaire's son used his wealth to create an isolated nature preserve with this village hidden within (even to the point of bribing government officials to ban overflights of the area) to have an enclave of peace and civility in a chaotic and violent world.

It seems to me that this village is the United States, both domestically and internationally.

The village is the ultimate gated community. On the outside there is no knowledge that they exist, and within the village there is no real knowledge of the outside, except for the elders. Those outside its bounds are demonized by those within, as either actual demons or people who are violent and corrupt. This is a story of wealthy liberals who deal with an oppressive and violent world by rejecting it, by using their wealth to buy their way out of the violence. And of course this is not just a class project, but also a racialized one -- the village is all white. And just as people who live in real gated communities, this group depends on the continued functioning of the system which generates the violence that they flee in order to remain safe.

The village is the historical United States. The founding myth of this country is good people, the Puritans, fleeing persecution and ungodly behaviour and founding the "city on the hill" -- separate and an example of virtue for the world, supposedly. That imagery resonates through political speeches to this day.

The village is the current United States, in which elites are fairly deliberate in distorting the information available to the majority of people who live here about the world beyond their borders, in order to generate fear and therefore control. However, this way of seeing the film also allows it to be seen as a liberal, anti-war film because instead of sending great violence to encounter the demonized others beyond their bounds, this village chooses to send a single blind woman. In other words, lies from the elite to create fear and control are okay as long as the elite are virtuous, not like those crude, uncultured Bushies that are running things at the moment.

The ultimate lesson of the film is also a strange one. The plot of the film revolves around events in which, even in this homogeneous place, isolated by privilege, and solidly indoctrinated in "good" values, senseless violence (as well as disease and accident) can take lives and create tragedy. Nonetheless, because they have been lucky and the events of the movie have not revealed their deception to the rest of the village, the elders decide it is best to continue. In other words, this enclave of privilege, this dream of isolation that depends on the oppression of others, does not work but it is somehow the right decision to continue on with the experiment.

By the way, I'm not condemning the film for these things. It draws skillfully on narratives that will get a response from middle-class, white America, and others who have been indoctrinated into the worldview with that reality at its centre. What I think is interesting, and what I think will not really make an impression on most viewers, is the ultimate failure of the self-imposed isolation (and the scarcely hinted oppression on which it depends). No matter how far white America runs, its demons will find it -- not the demons that its elites create for it, those phantom images of Al-Qaeda terrorists which have been painted over top of everyone and every thing that opposes domination by Western elites, but the infinitely more complex real people and real peoples that lie beneath those stories (people struggling for national liberation, anti-globalization activists, anyone who is poor and/or of colour and refuses to sit back and take what they're given, at least one pacifist grandma in Boise, not to mention a handful of actual terrorists). In other words, trying to run away does not get rid of those infamous chickens of which Malcolm X spoke; only real social change does that.


Saturday, August 07, 2004

Stan Goff

Goff served 26 years in the U.S. armed forces, most of them in the Special Forces. He is now a committed and articulate anti-imperialist, as both an organizer and a writer. His experience as one small part on the tip of a claw of the imperialist beast as well as his articulate and well-reasoned analysis have made him a semi-regular feature in the more radical wing of the U.S.'s progressive media outlets, and also someone I find both challenging and stimulating. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but what he says cannot be ignored.

Here is an interview with him on CounterPunch. And here are a couple of recent pieces of Goff's writing from the same site, a letter to U.S. troops in Iraq, and a rant written during the April 2004 uprisings in Iraq. I found this last one quite challenging, and think all progressives, particularly those of us who try to combine a life of relative privilege with an attitude of nonviolence, should read it -- again, I'm not saying right now what parts I agree with and what parts I don't, but we all need to deal with the issues he raises. The Freedom Road Socialist Organization web site also hosts two good articles that he has written on the military and masculinity: A Ramble Through Gender & the Military and Rape Culture and the Military.

I haven't read either of his books, but these last two articles have been written as part of his process of putting together a book called Sex & War, which will be out some time in 2005, and I definitely plan on reading that.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

American Empire and the Fourth World

American Empire and the Fourth World by Canadian academic Anthony J. Hall is a massive history of the 500-year encounter between European empires (and the settler states they spawned) and the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas. Much more than a catalogue of facts, it shows the continuity between the conquest that began in 1492 and the processes of neoliberal globalization that are bringing capitalist property relations to ever more corners of the globe and facets of life.

This is the kind of book I think everyone in North America should read. It paints a nuanced, if broad, picture of the history of the five centuries of conquest on the Aboriginal side of the dividing line, areas which were left blank or filled with simple colours by my public school education.

I learned both big concepts and smaller details in reading this book. Two insights particularly important to me were with respect to the place I have left and the place I now inhabit:

  • I had not previously appreciated the leading role played by the Haudenosonee Confederacy, or Six Nations, in the broader Aboriginal context at some points in history, in terms of dealings with the British. This is particularly relevant to me because Six Nations Reserve is the nearest reserve to Hamilton, and in the ongoing struggle against the construction of the Red Hill Creek Expressway in that city, the complicated politics of the Six Nations continues to play a role.

  • The book also really made me appreciate something I knew before but did not understand in its proper historical context: most people in the Americas have some Aboriginal ancestry. Of course I don't mean in Canada or the U.S., but rather in Latin and Central America. This genealogical connection (even though the majority of the people involved do not, I think, embrace an Aboriginal or mestizo identity) draws attention to the fact that the historical processes of U.S. imperialism in those countries today, and the experiences of a great many Latino people here in Los Angeles, are very much contiguous with the conquest and exploitation that began with Columbus.

Though the book covers a great deal of ground, its purpose is to provide academic, historical support for Aboriginal peoples in their negotiations and court battles with the settler states which surround them. At heart, it seems to be based on showing there is ample historical, legal, and constitutional precedent for the goal of reordering the place of Aboriginal nations within these states and in international law, in a way that is not completely separatist and perhaps can be described as engaged but autonomous. It strives to illustrate that the slavish devotion to possessive individualism, aka unfettered capitalist property relations, in the United States is antithetical to the preservation of Aboriginal culture and lands and rights, and that there are historical seeds in Canada of ways of being and doing that would make a First Nations-friendly constitutional order possible.

Hall very deliberately situates this work as moderate in terms of work based in the perspective of Aboriginal liberation. Of course, given how central the dispossession of the indigenous people of these continents is to the states that now occupy them, even this perspective would be beyond what most people would be willing to entertain, and its critiques and analyses are more radical and better grounded than most white progressives or leftists would advance around Aboriginal issues. In fact, though I would often use the term "moderate" in a dubious or even derisive way, I am not doing so here. However, it is fair to say that this moderate perspective and the goal of supporting real-life struggles in negotiations and courts leads the book to some themes that I am uncomfortable with.

The book disrupts the usual leftist assumption that the nearest mainstream standpoint to those which are "real" (whatever that means) bearers of equity and liberation is liberalism. Of course this goes back to the confused way the word "liberal" gets used, which leads to various kinds of confusion -- in this case, he is talking about classical liberalism, which is actually most aggressively advanced by neo-conservatives in this place and time. In any case, he shows that those embracing classical liberalism and the property relations associated with that have historically been more enthusiastic and ruthless in terms of theft of Aboriginal land and the associated cultural genocide, while those identified with a more conservative version of British imperialism, or more recently with Red Toryism, have at various points in history shown more willingness to allow Aboriginal peoples autonomy and land. To be honest, though I often cringed at his defence of a certain kind of conservatism and his bad-mouthing of liberalism, I actually think this is a useful argument for showing how the conceptualization of political opinion as a linear spectrum is silly. And it also reminds me of an important point I read many years ago in an essay by English and Canadian anarchist theorist George Woodcock, that the true anarchist is both radical and conservative; certainly there are thing we wish to conserve, and deserved opposition to those who dominate that label should not blind us to that fact. Still, the development of this line of thought feels incomplete without linking it to various strands of dissident thought in a more thorough way.

The book also feels like it is soft on both imperialism and Canada. In both cases, it is related to putting effort into illustrating that there is difference between the approaches to Aboriginal people embodied by two different strands of British imperialism at one stage of history, or by U.S. imperialism and British imperialism at a slightly later one, or by the U.S. and Canada at a still later one. I think he does illustrate that there is a difference. I also quite appreciate his linking of the urge to extend capitalist property relations and other aspects of possessive individualism on the frontier of the original Thriteen Colonies 200 years ago, and U.S. military adventures today. However, I have heard more than one Aboriginal activist over the years attack the idea that Canada treats its First Nations people any better than the U.S. in terms of dispossession, poverty, deprivation of culture, and all of those things. As far as I am aware, the lived experience of Aboriginal people in the two countries is not particularly different at this point. What Hall demonstrates is, rather, a difference in the legacies left by legal and constitutional texts -- in the U.S. legacy there is no space for anything but capitalist property relations, whereas in Canada there are at least some glimmers in such legal documents that could be elaborated to create real space for Aboriginal and treaty rights. On the one hand, I can see the political expediency of advancing this argument; on the other, if Aboriginal peoples are in the same place in the two countries, does it matter that much that the path they took to get there in the early years was moderately different? I can't answer this question. All am doing is relating my discomfort. Though evils wrought by British imperialism are not avoided in the text, there is an ambivelance to the book's orietnation towards it that also makes me uncomfortable. And as someone who tries diligently to dispel the myth of the great tolerant/liberal/peaceful Canada, I'm uncomfortable with an argument that can easily be used to support it -- in and of itself I think it could be argued that it is not saying that, but it could be easily distorted by people who were so inclined.

I cannot rebutt these themes. I cannot even state unequivocal disagreement, because I do not know enough. I support the text's goals, and wish to continue learning about these issues in the future.

There is one specific area where I do have additional knowledge, which spurs me even more strongly to learn more before forming more definite ideas. One of the people I have interviewed for my oral history project is a man named Daniel Paul and author of We Were Not The Savages, a history of the Mi'kmaq Nation, of which he is a member. Though Hall's immense and broadly focused narrative only touches on the subject of Mi'kmaq-English relations a couple of times, and briefly at that, his portrayal is much less harsh than Paul's, whose consistently negative portrayal of English treatment of the Mi'kmaq might make it hard to support a thesis comparing British imperialism in a favourable way to anything.

And yet American Empire and the Fourth World does not waver in its support for Aboriginal struggles against colonialism and imperialism, whatever their source, and it does not shirk at all from describing the horribly racist treatment of First Nations people by the Canadian state.

Sound contradictory? Well, it's complicated book. Go read it!

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

Monday, August 02, 2004

Fun Fact

According to U.S.-based researcher and writer David Korten, the world's 200 largest corporations at the end of the 20th century had combined sales equivalent to 28% of the world's entire gross domestic product, but they employed only one-third of 1 per cent of the planet's population.