Thursday, December 30, 2004

Review: The Regulation of Desire

The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities, 2nd Edition by Gary Kinsman. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1996.

This book is a history of the regulation of sexuality that focuses on Canada but also includes material on the United States and Britain. I found its content to be interesting but its theoretical approach to be fascinating and invaluable.

The author of the book is a sociologist (and activist) at Laurentian University in Sudbury and he applies some of the conceptual framework of sociologist Dorothy Smith to the writing of history. I first encountered this set of ideas at a conference at Laurentian in November 2002 -- a conference of which Kinsman was a central organizer and which Smith attended. The only one of Smith's books I have read is Writing the Social, so I'm not sure I can do them justice, but I'll present the central idea very briefly.

The core idea in Smith's work, as I understand it, is as follows: You begin by starting from lived experience in all its uniqueness and particularities. You look at how that experience is constrained by institutions, cultural practices, and texts. These work together to function as "relations of ruling" which shape different experiences at different local sites in a connected and coordinated way. Looking at the individual and shared experiences of people who experience oppression as well as the texts and institutions shaping those experiences provide a powerful tool for understanding the world.

For example, this post applies that general concept in a fairly slapdash manner, starting with my local experience and drawing informally on research by others on the ways in which neoliberal capitalism creates and uses space to make some assertions about the broader implications of my experience. I have seen it used to investigate, in a rigorous and academic way, disjunctures between the managers and "clients" of a para-governmental agency supporting people with disabilities and older adults, starting not from the assertions of the managers about how their organization worked but from obvserations of and reported experiences from people who use the service as interpreted in the context of the texts governing the organization and a the ways in which such texts are operationalized by frontline workers.

The reason why I am so taken with Smith's work is that it seems to deal with some thorny problems in a more satisfying way than I have seen elsewhere. In particular:

  • it incorporates an understanding of text and discourse in its analysis of the world;
  • it does not divorce text from the material world
  • it maintains an active and engaged subject, rather than draining all agency to discourse or to macro-level forces;
  • it conceptually links across scales of existence from the individual to the social, and pays attention to mechanisms by which scales are linked;
  • it starts from personal experience but is all about the links between different experiences at different local sites, and thereby avoids the uncritical liberalism that can result from foregrounding experience without a framework.

The Regulation of Desire uses this approach to look at history. It does not treat "gay history" as being purely about things which are, in retrospect, interpreted as having been "gay" but rather looks at the changing experiences of men who wish to engage in same-gender erotic practices, and the changing informal and formal institutional and textual frameworks shaping the experience of all flavours of sexuality. It is not the creation of some specialist, obscure niche of history, whose trivia is of interest only to a few, but an attempt at incorporating an analysis of how sexual regulation works together with other forms of social control around class, gender, and race to shape Canada over time (though it is particularly weak when it comes to issues of racism, as the author acknowledges). I can't really convey the full impact of this, so please read the book, but I will talk a bit more about a few themes I found interesting.

One theme that this book is effective in illustrating is the socially constructed nature of gay and lesbian identities. I've always bought that idea, but this book made it much more real by connecting identity to social practice, lived experiences, spaces, and constraints provided by ruling relations. People have engaged in same-gender erotic practices in every human society, but identities like "gay" and "lesbian" really have only taken on meaning in social contexts in which self-sustaining networks of people engaged in such practices can exist more or less independently. In other words, in pre-capitalist Europe there were lots of opportunities for such practices in male-only institutions like the army and monastaries, and probably more freedom to create favourable personal circumstances among the aristocracy, but there was no opportunity for significant numbers of people to live outside of family or rigid institutional structures. But with the growth of the market economy, wage labourers could live outside of or at the periphery of family networks. They could begin to define their identities in other ways, and could form networks on bases other than family. Of course, given the gendered nature of the labour market and the family, such networks took several decades longer to form among women, and functioned in different ways. As well, all such networks (and related identities) have evolved a great deal over time.

Another interesting theme in the book is the law reform of 1969. This is usually identified as the "legalization" of homosexuality in Canada, but in fact that was only the legalization of some practices for some people in some situations. This shift in how sexuality is regulated in Canada is based on creating (or at least emphasizing) divisions between public and private, and between adult and youth. Of course it is the state that gets to define what those terms mean. In so doing, the new framework continued to criminalize things that do no harm, and also practices that have historically been central to how gay networks have formed, as well as activities of some gay and lesbian people (and others who do not identify as such but who engage in same-gender erotic practices).

In the conclusion, Kinsman begins outlining a position that is a synthesis of the polarized extremes emerging from debates on sexuality that were at their most feroucious in the early '80s but which still rage on today. In these debates, liberal feminists and one subgroup of radical feminists tend to have their rhetoric coopted by conservative religious and state forces, and tend to see sex as a site of danger but not so much as a site of pleasure. On the other extreme, a different subgrouping of feminists and other progressives (including many gay male writers/activists) who have seen sex primarily as a site of pleasure and not so much as a site of danger tend to take a libertine position that leads to de facto or even deliberate alliance with the exploitative and oppressive mainstream corporate pornography industry under the banner of "free speech." Instead, Kinsman argues for a position that is grounded in the realities of sex as pleasure and sex as danger, and which focuses on empowering oppressed people in the context of sexuality (and everywhere else) rather than empowering the state to further regulate the sexualities of women and gay men.

So...not a very cohesive review, I know, but hopefully it encourages you to check out this very interesting book.

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

Monday, December 27, 2004


I've grabbed a little time here and there to work on the next substantive post, but still not there has been a vomiting toddler to contend with (though he seems to be quite content when he isn't throwing up).

Anyway, I just wanted to pass this on: A friend passed on word that a group of South Asian bloggers has set up a website that provides information on how you can help aid victims of the tsunami in South and Southeast Asia:

How you can help:
1. Please pass this URL around.
2. You can use it to post any info you have on

  • where to send money
  • what kind of help is needed
  • aid organisations
  • helplines
  • infolines
  • email addresses
  • phone numbers
  • news updates

If you're a blogger, please get in touch with any of the contributors to help with this small effort.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Anti-War Link, Personal Update

Hi...still visiting and blogging in Ontario. I haven't managed to add stuff as frequently as I had hoped. I have a big posting partially done, but was unable to finish and post it yesterday because of weather-inflicted changes in plans.

Anyway, I just wanted to add a link to this interview with anti-war and anti-imperialist activist and U.S. Special Forces veteran Stan Goff.

Happy holidays, and I'll get that big post up in the next few days.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Free Your Mind

I think phenomena at the individual or psychological level is often neglected by many activists. There are understandable historical reasons for this: individualizing and psychologizing and pathologizing various experiences are important tools via which the potential for social struggle is diverted, neutralized, and strangled. An uncritical turn to individual wellness can certainly lead to becoming excessively inward-looking, and to seeing only the individual manifestations of a sick society rather than the social manifestations. But I think many activists (some more than others, of course) go too far the other way and ignore individual experience in a way that can become oppressive in and of itself.

I am feeling particularly drawn to this issue at the moment because I have been wondering how the process of internal decolonization happens, and also wondering why that topic isn't more commonly talked about among the friends/allies/colleagues that I interact with.

For one thing, I may not be choosing the best label when I use "decolonization." That's applicable in some instances of what I mean, but perhaps not all. What I'm talking about is based in the recognition that the structures, cultural practices, and narratives that control and shape our everday experience are not just external, because our commonsense (or our "gut") is formed in a context shaped by those things. Therefore we internalize a whole lot of oppressive stuff. Obviously what this means and how it plays out varies a lot depending on where you are in relation to the hierarchies of power and privilege that structure society.

As anyone who is the least bit self-reflective should be able to see in their own history, intellectual understanding of something does not automatically translate into one's commonsense. Along with my own experience, I also tend to think of a couple of people I know who come from quite conservative families of origin and dispositions but whose life paths have led them quite far from those starting places, yet whose initial, gut reactions to certain kinds of things (but not their final responses, after due intervention by intellect) are still very conservative in some ways.

At the same time, one's commonsense is not fixed in stone. I know that mine is not the same as it was a decade ago. I know in general that it has changed due to some combination of knowing more, experiencing more, and knowing more people, but I really have no better sense of mechanism than that. How has my commonsense changed? How can such change be consciously facilitated? To what extent is such change limited?

I don't have even provisional answers for those questions, but I think I'm going to start asking other people that I talk to about their experiences and see if I can learn from that.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Gay History Tidbits

I've been reading The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities by Gary Kinsman, a history of the social regulation of sexuality that gives particular attention to Canada. Here are a few interesting facts I have learned:

  • It is fairly commonly known that the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement was sparked in 1969 by the Stonewall riots, resistance to a police raid on a gay bar "ignited by Puerto Rican drag queens, bar dykes and street people." But that was hardly the first time such resistance had occurred: Kinsman quotes historian Alan Bray as writing that when "a molly house [the slang term for the functional equivalent of a gay bar in urban England at that time] in Covent Garden was broken up in 1725, the crowded household, many of them in drag, met the raid with determined and violent resistance."

  • The first official record of same-gender erotic behaviour among the colonizers in what later became known as Canada was a judicial document talking about a man in New France being convicted for engaging in such activities in 1648.

  • In 1838, just after the Upper Canada rebellion, George Herchmer Markland, Inspector-General of Upper Canada, was forced to resign for engaging in sex with other men.

Don't learn any of that in high school history, now do we?

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Living Politics Through Life

I've always been a true believer in the idea that the personal is political, (and that the political is personal). Generally I do my best to live my politics as do many other people around me. Most of these people, however, are similarly aged as myself and in similar places in their lives--they're college students, graduate students, getting their first jobs, mostly members of some minority group or another, mostly without seroius relationships, completely without children (and the accompanying parenting responsibilities), and mostly without the responsibilities of homes and mortgages and car loans and home improvement loans, etc. I wonder, however, if living one's politics, though, is a privilege of only the young, the childless, the well-educated, the middle class, etc. How much more difficult must it be for two forty-somethings who have a home and children and a dog and two jobs and all of that to live their politics. Who really has the energy when they've got all of that to deal with?

The above quote comes from a posting at another blog (another one that I read at Feminist Blogs, as a matter of fact). The post continues with some examples of people in her life not being able to live politics that they genuinely hold due to some of the constraints that she mentions above, and is well worth a read.

I have often angsted about similar issues in my own life. I was initially politicized as a university student and not much bothered me more than the suggestion that my politics were purely a result of my phase in life and that I would "grow out" of them and/or "grow up." I still deeply resent the suggestion by smug older people that I will "understand when I'm older" and it sets my teeth on edge when I hear someone quote that old racist and imperialist Winston Churchill as saying (approximately) that if you're not a socialist when you're young you have no heart, but if you're still a socialist when you're old you have no brain.

Except now I'm a few steps beyond where I was when those issues first came up for me. I am a stay-at-home parent of a 15 month-old toddler (16 months in three days!) and I am trying to write a book. My reality right now is that I am strapped for money and strapped for time, not to mention living in a new city (one difficulty) that is not particularly friendly to those of us who try to live without a car (another difficulty) and that is also in a new country (yet another possible barrier). All of this means that I am not nearly as able to devote time to being publically and politically involved as as I could three or four years ago.

Does this mean I was wrong? Does this mean that the "life phase" argument of politicization is true?

I think a more useful way of looking at the dangers that I worry about still, and that are identified in the post that sparked me to write this, is as dangers of incorporation into the structures and narratives of middle-class (and, to a certain extent, working-class) North American life. It's a combination of doing things you have to do to get by, doing things you think you have to do to get by, not wanting to give up class privilege, and doing things that inherited narratives have told you that you are supposed to do. And that's powerful stuff.

In the constellation of living examples of various phenomena that I have in my head is one person I know who has done a lot of activist stuff I respect but who is, for me, emblematic of complete surrender to this maintenance of class-privilege and uncritical buy-in to hetero/white/middle-class "normalcy" in way that presents it (in this person's personal manner and narrative) as being inevitable and not even a particularly bad thing. As I have entered into parenthood, I have been pretty determined that I would not follow that example, but scared that I would do so despite myself.

I think there are a number of ways to avoid that. The first thing is to be deliberate in trying to do so -- as an individual, as a member of a partnership, and as a member of a local social network, it is possible to subvert these normative narratives and to resist these structures. Individual choices can't make the compulsive elements disappear, but they can help you cut through the ones that only give the illusion of being compulsions. Personally, I have made some choices that are resistant and others that are complicit, and it is certainly not as easy as it was to be happy with all of my choices and their outcomes as when I was an unfettered university student. But I can still choose.

Part of that choosing is taking an oppositional stance towards the forces that constrain you even if you can't change them. When I first became politicized, it was very important to me to define politics (and ethics) as something you do, not as an abstract position you take over beer in the grad pub. This was important because it was a step in the direction of resisting the tendency in our culture to treat politics exclusively as a matter of opinion or preference -- to be a disembodied, discourse-only kind of thing. However, I am gradually coming to appreciate how that position rests in part on having a fair amount of privilege to control one's own circumstances. If you keep that position in an uncomplexified form, it can result in an individualistic puritanism when it comes to politics. It has done so for me, though generally applied in its most stringent form only to myself. Therefore it is important to recognize the value of oppositional consciousness even if there is not a lot of space to express that in action, and it is important to see politics as both what you do and how you relate to your constraints.

To be a little abstract about it, activists who come from a position of privilege tend to see a failure to live one's politics (whatever that might mean to them) as a sign of completeness and insufficiency, whereas I would argue that it makes more sense to see it as a sign of incompleteness but sufficiency. What does this mean? We tend to treat the conceptual entity "my politics" as something that is finished, separate, complete, and treat it as if it can exist purely in the context of atomized individualism. When we fail to live our politics to our own satisfaction, we blame it not on a misunderstanding of what politics is, but on a personal insufficiency, on being "not good enough." I do this all the time. I would argue that, instead, we need to see "my politics" as being an inherently incomplete concept, and as being in constant dialogue with things larger than "me." That helps us to see ourselves as sufficient, even when forces beyond our control mean we can't live our politics the way we would like.

In other words, we have to see our political beliefs and actions in terms of our own local context -- or, to use terminology stolen from Canadian feminist sociologist Doroty Smith (whom I think I'll blog more about soon), in the context of the "relations of ruling" that structure our everyday. All of this means that I cannot live an anti-oppressive life until society is transformed. Politics are not an exercise in purity, but a messy and ongoing effort to change the larger world.

So I would say that living your politics, as I first understood that phrase, is perhaps, "a privilege of only the young, the childless, the well-educated, the middle class, etc." But I think it is important to get beyond that and have a broader understanding of what it means to live our politics -- something I am still struggling with myself.

I have had the privilege of interviewing 50 long-time Canadian activists, some of whom come from privilege and others who definitely do not. I would say, based on that experience, that privilege gives a person some protection from the abuse that power structures tend to heap on those who seek social change, but it is not at all a necessity for living your politics. Some of the folks I interviewed have never known much privilege, and they live their politics in ways that I can only aspire to.

And I also have examples that are more personal. Though I have the example I presented above of the person I know who surrendered to hetero/white/middle-class North American normativity and to neutralization of their politics, and it still scares me, I also have another important example that gives me encouragement. I have friends who have kids and who have radical, radical politics and polticial practice, one of whom I have heard on several occasions say something I hope I'll be able to say truthfully in thirty years time: "The older I get, the more radical I get."

Monday, December 13, 2004

Not Watching Earthsea

In a galaxy far, far away, when life and its landscape were so different...when I was in grade one or two, we were driving home from church (yikes!) one Sunday, and my father was talking to my mother about a book he was teaching in one of his high school English classes. He must have noticed my intense focus on the conversation, because at the end of the drive he asked if I wanted it for my bedtime story next. I had long been quite capable of reading whatever I wanted for myself, but then and for a number of years after, a bedtime story from him was part of the daily ritual. It wasn't the first "real" book that I got read as a bedtime story -- I think there was some Mary Renault historical fiction, a couple of books in the Arthurian tradition, possibly others, that came before -- but Ursula K. LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea was an early one. I remember in grade two during recess and at lunch hour playing make-believe games based on the characters with my friends. It was one important step in the path that made science fiction and fantasy the staple of my reading until I was an adult, and something I still enjoy when I feel I can indulge.

(For those of a political bent but not much into scifi/fantasy, LeGuin also wrote The Dispossessed, a novel about a planet whose social organization is anarchist -- I read that one much later in life.)

Each time an ad for the mini-series based on LeGuin's Earthsea books has flashed across the television screen I have watched intently, often with an amusing (to my partner) frown on my face. "Should I watch it?" and "Will it do right by the books?" and "What on earth is that? I don't remember anything like that in the books!"

A posting by Brutal Women (whom I read at Feminist Blogs) led me to this statement by LeGuin herself on the mini-series. And that decided it: I'm not watching it.

I probably wouldn't have anyway, though -- I mean, the Lord of the Rings movies were amazing, and there was lots about them that I liked, but the liberties taken with the story, and in particular with the mythology of Middle Earth, grated on me increasingly through the series.

Two Gems from IMC Hamilton

Here are two feature stories of general interest from Hamilton's Independent Media Centre:

  • As I have mentioned before on this site, the Canadian state has decided it is okay to put people in jail without laying charges, publically presenting evidence, or having a trial. Five Muslim men are currently imprisoned in this way. As lawyer Johanne Donyon, who represents secret trial detainee Adil Charkaoui, has said, "It's Kafkaesque, this secret evidence." As well, Montreal Gazette columnist Sue Montgomery has said, "Kafka would have loved it!" Well, according to this latest feature, in a ludicrous and ironic twist, detainee Hassan Almrei has now been denied access to Franz Kafka's classic story, "The Trial."

  • And the other is an interesting short article featuring New York based radical educator John Taylor Gatto, from the folks at Radio Free School.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Canadian Complicity

Just a quick link to a brief post on The Angry Arab News Service reminding us of Western, including Canadian, complicity in supporting and equipping then-friend, dictator, and thug Saddam Hussein back in the days before 1990. Prof. Abukhalil quotes the memoirs of Iraqi physicist and dissident Husayn Ash-Shahristani as saying:

For history, I say this: Neither the USSR nor the Eastern camp had any role in the development of Iraqi nuclear energy program for non-peaceful uses, but the European countries, US, and Canada are the ones that played the major role in transforming Iraqi nuclear energy from peaceful purposes to strategic military purposes. And when we say countries, we refer to those companies within those countries, around 700 American, Canadian, and Western European companies...

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Interesting Reading

Some things I read today that you might be interested in:

  • How Google Works -- It can never hurt to have a better understanding of the workings of tools you use every day. (Found via Left is Right)

  • Recordings from a teach-in about secret trials in Canada. The Canadian state has taken for itself the power to detain people without arrest, without trial, with minimal judicial oversight, and five Muslim men are currently being held.

  • A post by Justin Podur about Canadian immigration policies and protest against them. It also includes reference to security certificates and secret trials.

  • Giraffes yesterday? Rhinos today. A really good piece on the culture of fascism in the United States. (The rhino reference is to a Eugene Ionesco play from 1959.)

  • This is an interesting article advising Democrats to embrace economic populism to win elections. Fine, okay, right...actually addressing class issues would be a nice change. But I get feelings of potential creepiness in there, too. I think it has to do with the fact that it advocates serious consideration of issues of justice for purely tactical reasons. And race and gender issues aren't mentioned at all. Still interesting, though.

  • In fact race was central to the 2004 election.

Activism and Space

At the weekly peace vigil I attend, I was really noticing tonight the way in which the built form of the neighbourhood influences the nature of the event.

The vigil is held at an intersection. The corner on which we stand is at the edge of a large neighbourhood park. The blocks beginning at the other three corners are residential, mostly single-family homes. The neighbourhood as a whole is mostly residential, a mix of low-rise apartment buildings and single-family homes, with some strip mall-style commercial space at major intersections. It is very much constructed around the automobile as the primary means of transportation, and is not conducive to walking or to street-level activity and culture and people. (Stacey mentioned me last week that she'd seen an article in the LA Times stating that only 3% of people in Los Angeles walk as a significant means of transportation, yet 22% of accident injuries are pedestrians). In other words, the built form in the neighbourhood is not exactly pure suburban, but it is relatively suburban.

Suburban built form is very privatized compared to urban built form. There are fewer communal areas, and the density of people in areas where interaction with other people can be expected is much, much less. You have lots of people on the roads, but they are in those little, mobile blocks of privatized space called cars.

In an area with urban built form and high pedestrian traffic, a periodic vigil can be substantively communicative -- you give people leaflets, you get in conversations, you have human-to-human interactions. In a suburban area it is reduced to being largely a spectacle -- people see you as they drive by as an image with political content, and they ignore you, they honk in approval, or they flip you the bird and shout pro-Bush and/or pro-war slogans out their window. Apparenlty this vigil used to regularly produce handbills to give out, but hasn't in some time. There is little opportunity to engage in dialogue. A number of regular attendees respond to aggressive shouting from passing cars with their own aggressive shouting -- I'm not against political efforts that are primarily expressive in nature, as opposed to educational or dialogue-based, but I'm not sure how shouting is any more effective in expressing our message than being the spectacle that caused the passing driver to shout at you to begin with.

Anyway. I like the fact that this vigil is neighbourhood-based, so we're stuck with doing it in the context of this particular built form. Heck, most of LA is similarly suburban or semi-suburban (and car-centric) in terms of its built form. But it is still interesting to note how the insidious, ongoing, long-term erosion of the public and its transformation into the private by capital seeps into our political practice in ways we can't really help even when we can see and name them.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Giraffes in our Kitchen

The title makes sense once you read the link -- the point the post is making is an old one, a boring one, a tired one, but still a very relevant and important one, and it does it in a way that made me smile. It is about the inability of a certain kind of liberal to see what is right under their nose, and their tendency to have a severe double standard when it comes to their own country.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Bush in Ottawa and Reflections on Mass Action

The other day I received an email from a friend back in Hamilton. In the email I had sent to him the previous week I had asked whether he participated in the recent anti-Bush demo in Ottawa. His reply made me think about how being in a different context has impacted my perspective, at least in superficial ways, and has reminded me to think a bit more critically about the role of mass action.

My current experience as a lefty living in the United States means still feeling the remnants of the psychological impact of Dubya's victory in early November, and becoming more and more aware of the power and role of the radical right populist movement in this country, as well as its elite sponsors. I have been reading some liberal blogs that are no more encouraging -- pointless angsting about conspiracy theories around the election, unhelpful and alienating vitriol directed at residents of the "red states," and even some delusional cheerleading about how progressives are in a position to set the agenda now. A sober, grounded, left-oriented reflection is pretty bleak: We are going to see increased attacks on oppressed communities, the gutting of the few remaining social welfare provisions in the U.S., and so much need for defensive struggle that it's hard to even conceive of real progress.

In this context, seeing massive and boisterous resistance to Bush's presence in Canada was a fond hope of mine because it would give a small though much needed psychological boost to liberals and lefties down here -- no replacement for local struggle, but a nice piece of good news. It also might help to penetrate the illusion held by a majority of Bush voters (detected by survey before the election) that the majority of the world's population supports his policies. Of course I know Ottawa is not Rome -- the country is too big, the activist infrastructure not strong enough, and the political culture not sufficiently conducive, to do such a thing in the two weeks notice of Bush's visit that activists had -- but it would have been nice to see people turn out in the hundreds of thousands and the anger at a fever pitch. The actual event was a respectable ten thousand at least, which isn't bad given the circumstances.

But in response to my question about participation in the anti-Bush event, this friend was quite unenthusiastic, perhaps even dismissive, about the action. And it took me only a fraction of second of surprise to remember, hey, I agree pretty much with everything he's saying and would probably, in my Hamilton incarnation, have said much the same thing.

If I was living in Hamilton, it is unlikely I would've gone to Ottawa, particularly now that we have a 15 month-old toddler. I would have appreciated the spirit of the protest, but seen it as not terribly useful, a distraction from day-to-day organizing based in local communities, a tourist event for progressives with minimal impact on the world, and a means by which Canadians are able to seem progressive by ranting about an enemy they can't do anything directly about while further ignoring their own role in supporting and benefiting from imperialism and a host of domestic oppressions. I would have saluted those who went and wished them well, but probably stayed in Hamilton and devoted my precious resources in other directions.

I'm not against mass actions in principle. They can be important and useful and effective. But I think they should be treated with a skeptical eye. This attitude comes from a very definite personal history. I was just becoming politicized during the Days of Action campaign in Ontario. That was a combined labour and community effort to oppose the Conservative provincial government of that time in its draconian restructuring of the state along rather nasty, neoliberal lines. It involved one-day general strikes in what ended up being ten different cities across the province. The most significant in terms of numbers were the one in Hamilton, which drew an unprecedented hundred thousand people (and which I was not at because I was living in Ottawa at the time) and the one in Toronto, which was estimated at a quarter of a million people or more.

While they were an important demonstration of opposition, they ended up being treated as ends rather than means. At the ones that I attended, I remember no effort on the part of the organizing groups to convey any kind of practical wisdom about how to take the energy of the day home to build resistence in your own community -- there was no attention to pedgagoy or to next-steps beyond the ritual of having a speaker from every sponsoring organization. And I'm not even complaining that they weren't used to build up to a province-wide general strike to oust the government -- that would have been nice, but I'm not sure whether it would've been a good risk in the end, even if the big unions had been willing to do the massive amount of educational and organizational groundwork that would require (which they mostly weren't). I just think building resistance is more than standing in a big group and shouting, and that the Days of Action were wonderful but largely squandered opportunities to spark further local activism grounded in a realistic assessment of the material conditions of the time.

In saying this, it is important to keep in mind that the early years of the Harris government really marked a shift in the political culture that had existed in most of Canada for a couple of decades, where if you got enough people together and framed your issues right in the media it was fairly standard for most governments formed by most political parties to at least listen to you and give enough superficial concessions to sap your movement's energy. The main organizers, I would imagine, thought that would still work, and that bringing a quarter of a million people onto the streets of Toronto really would alter the course of the government's agenda.

It didn't, of course, and that has been a big lesson for those of us first becoming politicized at the time: Mass action on its own isn't enough.

The other formative experience in this regard for me (and my friend in Hamilton, I suspect) was in the aftermath of September 11. Our city had periodic peace marches in which, every couple of months, the same hundred people followed the same route and listend to similar, excessively long speeches at the start and the end (with often significant racism and sexism at play in terms of who spoke). On the one hand, particularly during those early months, I think it was important to do as a way of breaking out of the suffocating silence imposed on progressives by the 9/11 tragedy. And it did provide a good focus for actual organizing, i.e. getting out on the street in small groups beforehand and leafletting and talking to people -- that's something I think we don't do enough of. But once again, the mass action (and I use the term loosely, because some were pretty tiny) became a ritual, and was not really examined critically as a tool or augmented appropriately (most of the time) with other tactics.

In a way, consciousness of this more complexified understanding of mass actions was right in front of me and I just didn't see it, smack in the middle of my reasons for wishing the ones in Ottawa had been even bigger and rowdier. I wanted that action to be a symbolic but energetic response to the growing power and confidence of the radical right populist movement in the U.S. precisely because of the power of that movement, but without really reflecting on where that power comes from: They are able to accomplish things we can only dream of, but they rarely use mass action as a tool.

There are obviously lots of ways we don't want our movements to be like the radical right -- we want to eliminate the hierarhcies of power and privilege that structure our world, not strengthen them, and there are significant differences in values that should have consequences in terms of how we organize. As well, drawing analogies between the right and left movements movements is dangerous because the right can count on rich and powerful patrons among the elite, whereas we can be pretty sure that if we ever have such patrons at anywhere near the same level, we're doing something fundamentally wrong. But in some ways, the radical right movement in the U.S. is able to do things that we want progressive movements to be able to do -- it can constrain elites, it can win gradual and incremental policy changes in the direction it wants, it can build a strong and complex network of counter-institutions, and it can get its message to huge numbers of people. It can probably even bring down governments. As I read somewhere else recently -- I forget where so I can't link to it -- they failed when they tried to get rid of moderate conservative, enthusiastic Iraqi child starver, and letch Bill Clinton, but they're a lot stronger now. And they do all of these things with minimal use of mass action. Again, that's for all kinds of reasons, including the differeing culture and histories of the different movements, and different end goals. But they can take the streets when they want to, as in Florida during the 2000 election recount fiasco. They just realize that there's a lot more to transforming society than standing in a big crowd and shouting monotonous, silly chants.

So there we go. My message with respect to the anti-Bush protests in Ottawa: I'm glad they happened, my thanks from LA for those who went, and I totally understand the decision not to go. And with respect to mass actions more generally: Left movements have to be able to take the streets, both as demonstrations fully within the legal boundaries of liberal-democracies and as direct actions. We should not neglect that capacity nor ignore that particular tool. But we need to do a lot more than prove we can get people "dans la rue" if we want to be able to constrain elites, change policies, build counter-institutions, bring down governments, and transform the state.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Queer Canadian History Resources

From mid December until early January we will be heading back to Ontario to spend the holidays with family and friends. I won't have much chance to work on my social movement history project over that period (though I hope to continue blogging) so I am bringing with me a bunch of material to read that is relevant to one of the sample chapters I will soon be preparing. The following is a list of book-length resources relevant to the history of gay and lesbian movements in Canada -- I have read a couple, I will be reading a bunch more, and there are a few I probably won't get to or even be able to find easily. In other words, for most of them I'm not yet able to comment on their quality nor their usefulness for any particular purpose. Still, some folks might find the list useful.

  • Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada by Tom Warner. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

  • Lesbian and gay rights in Canada: social movements and equality-seeking, 1971-1995 by Miriam Smith. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

  • The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities, 2nd Edition, by Gary Kinsman. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1996.

  • Rights of passage: struggles for lesbian and gay legal equality by Didi Herman. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

  • Challenging the conspiracy of silence: my life as a Canadian gay activist by Jim Egan, compiled and edited by Donald W. McLeod. Toronto: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, 1998.

  • Are we ’persons’ yet?: Law and sexuality in Canada by Kathleen A. Lahey. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

  • Lesbian and gay liberation in Canada: a selected annotated chronology, 1964-1975 by Donald W. McLeod. Toronto: ECW Press/Homewood Books, 1996

  • The house that Jill built: a lesbian nation in formation by Becki L. Ross. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

  • Lesbians in Canada edited by Sharon Dale Stone. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1990.

  • Breaking the chains: the struggle for gay liberation and socialism by Susan Tyburn. Toronto: Worker’s Action Books, 1979.

  • Flaunting It! A Decade of Gay Journalism from The Body Politic edited by Ed Jackson and Stan Persky. Vancouver: New Star Books; Toronto: Pink Triangle Press, 1982.

  • Out Our Way: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Country by Michael Riordon. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1996.

I welcome suggestions from readers who know of other relevant resources.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Radical Division of Labour

A tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a division of labour amongst radicals, which made me laugh partly because I kinda sorta agree:

Yale-based anarchist David Graeber half-jokingly suggests "a systematic division of labour in which Marxists critique the political economy, but stay out of organising, and anarchists handle the day-to-day organising, but defer to Marxists on questions of abstract theory; i.e., in which Marxists explain why the economic crash in Argentina occurred and the anarchists deal with what to do about it."

(This is quoted from a Sustainer Commentary from Z Net called "Crunch time for US capitalism?" by Patrick Bond, available only by subscription so I can't link to the whole thing.)

Friday, December 03, 2004

Review: Gendering the Vertical Mosaic

Though it was not, in fact, the first study to expose in detail the reality of Canada as a class society [Marsh 1940], John Porter's The Vertical Mosaic [1965] was the first that was widely recognized and it shaped the discpline of sociology in Canada for two decades after its publication. It focused in part on describing the relationship between ethnicity and class, and how elites in Canada were primarily of British descent while people of other ethnicities tended to have fairly constrained possibilities within society. It seized on the notion, common even then, that Canada is a mosaic rather than the supposed melting pot of the United States, and argued that not all tiles in the mosaic are equal but, rather, they are hierarhcically arranged.

Much has changed since 1965, and many academics and other intellectuals have expanded the body of work on the interlocking hierarchies of power and privilege that define Canadian society. There is now a significant body of political economy-focused work discussing class in Canada in relational rather than distributive terms, as Porter did. Race and racism have received more focused attention in at least some recent analysis, contrary to their treatment as a minor aspect of ethnic exclusion in Porter's framework. There is also a great deal of material out there on the role of sexism in shaping Canadian society -- Porter's classic work largely ignored gender.

Gendering the Vertical Mosaic: Feminist Perspectives on Canadian Society by Roberta Hamilton looks at Canada's social hierarchies through a feminist lense, and, as the title says, genders the vertical mosaic first formally identified by Porter.

In responding to this book, it is important to keep in mind that though it explicitly links to the tradition of The Vertical Mosaic it is quite a different sort of work. Rather than a pioneering work of research, it seeks to bring together into one place knowledge and experience from three and a half decades of feminist scholarship and movements, in a straightforward and accessible way. It is an introduction and a survey. I think it would be most effective if used to teach people to whom feminist theory was new, or people to whom the idea of Canada as shaped by hierarchies was new, or both.

In general, I'm glad I read it. It contains a fair bit of content that was new to me. I appreciated the concise and contextualized pieces of herstory from Canadian women's movements. I also enjoyed the basic theoretical background that was provided -- much of it wasn't new to me but I think I still benefited from it being presented in such a straightforward manner. In fact, I think the idea of introducing both various strands of feminist theory and analysis of a real, existing society is a good approach to integrating the teaching of theory with the teaching of factual content.

My main concerns have to do with the inherent limits of the survey as a form, however. The obvious limitation is depth: the broader the survey, the shallower the coverage must be. This particular book does not just survey content, which I would expect from a work of this sort, but also surveys different theoretical analyses. On the one hand, this is true to the reality that feminism is not a unitary entity but rather a diverse grouping of interrelated but differieng and often conflicting theories and practices. Seeing this reality reflected is a good thing. On the other hand, trying to accurately reflect a number of distinct and conflicting analyses in the same text has some odd side effects, and I'm not sure the best choices were made in this paricular attempt.

One impact of this survey of analyses was purely aesthetic: it limited the unity of voice in the piece, which made it a less interesting and less powerful read.

A more substantive concern is that it became politically mushy. In other words, the way that different strands of feminist thought were presented was much the way that newspaper reporting seeks balance. In the press you will often see "He said X" and "She said Y" juxtaposed, without deeper examination of other sources which could leave the reader with a better understanding than just the fact that two people disagree. In this book, the different feminist analyses are often presented as, "Women of colour led the way in insisting..." or "Socialist feminists argued..." and juxtoposed with the previous norm they were reacting to rather than rigorously integrated. In other words, the different analyses are presented as being different, but the opportunity for deeper understanding is limited. Does class really matter? Was sufficient consideration of race ommitted in theory X, Y, or Z? What does that mean? How do these things impact social movements? These are important questions, and they are not completely avoided, but often it was just left with the idea that different feminists don't always agree.

Now, I agree that it would have been a tough dance to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of, say, liberal feminism without personalizing it or judging in a dismissive way, but I think the book really could have used a more sophisticated and grounded painting of the relationships between the different standpoints. This cannot be done by trying to stand above the different strands of feminism and be "objective" or "impartial" but must come through getting one's hands dirty and taking sides in an open and honest way.

In a way, this is where my aesthetic concern above becomes very political. There are flavours to the passion, the anger, the woundedness, the strength of, say, radical feminists or anti-racist feiminists I have known or read that this book does not do justice to. There is a pain to seeking alliance despite a history of exclusion, to seeing sisters in the movement doing things that look like selling out and leaving others behind, and I don't think you do justice to feminisms by omitting that pain, and by relating such conflicts in a relatively superficial and purely factual manner.

When I was considering how I wanted to write this segment, I thought back to last Christmas when I was given a chance to look at a zine produced by a collective of Women's Studies students from a small Ontario university. Mostly I enjoyed it, but what sticks out in my mind is one page whose title I cannot exactly remember but which was something to the effect of "Sisterhood is global." The content of that page was a line drawing of a woman in a burqa. A book that is quite possibly going to be introducing students to aspects of feminist theory and critique of Canadian society probably should lay the basis (even if it doesn't deal specifically with this example) for the learners to easily understand why a group of mostly white, first world feminists using a woman in a burqa as their exclusive symbol for global solidarity amongst women will completely infuriate many third world feminists and anti-racist feminists here in Canada. And I don't think this book does that.

In the book there was also some stuff specifically around race and racism that I found peculiar or even problematic. Whiteness was relatively invisible. The difficult position of, for examle, middle-class white women as both oppressed and oppressor was not ignored but I didn't get the feeling it was stressed enough to really challenge those who benefit from racial and class oppression to reflect deeply on our privilege. And I was puzzled why, though African Canadian women and Aboriginal women and even white Jewish women merited some specific discussion in the context of racism, Asian Canadian women (East, South, and West) were largely invisible.

I want to stress that much of what I've been criticizing is related to the structure of the book in a pretty intimate way. I don't know the details of the author's politics and I would suspect that, as a person, she has reflected on these issues far more deeply than I have. But the structure of the book as a survey of different analytical standpoints with insufficient attention to relating them in critical theoretical and practical ways makes the overall standpoint of the book tend towards uncritical liberalism, regardless of the author's intent. This interests me particularly because my own project is going to result in a document that could also be considered a survey of analytical and experiential standpoints. The goals are different and the raw materials are different, but I'm still concerned about piecing it all together and ending up with something that lacks narrative unity and falls by inadvertant default into liberalism. I have definitely learned from this book, both in terms of content and its illustration of form.


Hamilton, Roberta. (1996) Gendering the Vertical Mosaid: Feminist Perspectives on Canadian Society. Toronto: Copp Clark Ltd.

Marsh, Leonard C. (1940) Canadians In and Out of Work: A Survey of Economic Classes and Their Relationships to the Labour Market. Toronto and Montreal: Oxford University Press and McGill University.

Porter, John. (1965). The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

TV Networks: Church Insufficiently Hateful

This just in: CBS and NBC refuse to run ad campaign by progressive Christian denomination with 1.3 million members because it is insufficiently hateful towards gays and lesbians.