Saturday, July 30, 2005

Unsolicited Advice

As anyone with even a cursory awareness of U.S. politics knows, George Bush has nominated some guy to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the United States Supreme Court. There are nuttier folk he could have nominated, and it sounds like the Democratic Party and the big liberal and progressive lobbying organizations haven't quite decided how hard they're going to fight the nomination. However, from what I've read it looks likely that many millions of dollars will be spent by such organizations as they buy the means to participate in the process.

As a Canadian who doesn't even live in the U.S. any more, I am aware that I need to be cautious in offering advice on internal politics in the United States. However, I offer this as a friendly suggestion, for discussion, and fully accepting that "butt out" is an acceptable response.

It is my humble opinion that this nominee is not going to be defeated. For one thing, he is not as gratuitiously offensive as, say, John Bolton for U.N. Ambassador. More importantly, the Right wants him to pass, and they have the majority of representatives who will be voting to approve him, more money, and a much more highly organized and effective movement on the ground. Because of the symbolic centrality of this particular victory to the right-wing quasi-social movements in the U.S., this is a fight that the White House will throw all its resources behind, and though the Bush administration is in a relatively weak state at the moment, that is still a non-trivial commitment.

I think most of the liberal and progressive lobbying organizations know that he is not going to be defeated, but they see it as an opportunity to further chip away at Bush's credibility and political capital. If they play it right, this can be a way to mobilize the liberal base and to illustrate in stark terms for the passive centre-right (white) majority in the U.S. the ways in which the values and methods of the radical right extremists in the White House are out of step even with them and not just with progressives. In other words, they are playing not to win this particular battle but to win points that will play into Democratic Party victories in the mid-term elections in 2006.

This may, indeed, work as predicted. I think the record of the Democratic Party and the major liberal and progressive organizations in this regard are not particularly encouraging, but they might be able to pull it off.

But should they?

I would argue no.

I would argue that this is a golden opportunity to refuse to play the game. I would argue that this is a chance to fake out the opposition, and to sink some serious resources into building long-term, movement-style infrastructure by conceding defeat in a fight you know you're not going to win anyway. I would argue that the money that liberal and progressive lobbying organizations -- mostly controlled by middle-class, white, professionals -- would be spending on this campaign should instead be handed over to grassroots organizations focused on organizing constituencies that are exploited and oppressed. I got an email from MoveOn the other day encouraging me to "Create The Slogan That Will Take Down Karl Rove," which made me feel faintly ill -- the Right isn't strong because it has cooler slogans, it is strong because it has very well organized movements (as well as great, greasy buckets of cash) behind it. A slogan or a slick media campaign may win a particular fight, but it is only with revitalized social movements that even quite moderate and liberal change will occur in any kind of sustained way, let alone the more radical changes that some of us might fantasize about.

My first instinct is to suggest sinking it into labour organizing, though I can forsee some objections to that. For one thing, who would it be given to, now that the AFL-CIO has split? I don't want to get in the middle of that fight. I'd suggest giving it to the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, with the only condition being that it be used specifically for organizing. They could partner with whoever they wanted to in spending the money. That would give the CBTU some leverage in dealing with the two white-dominated trade union centres and it would ensure that a progressive wing of the labour movement was making the decisions about how to use the money.

Of course another criticism of giving it exclusively to labour would be that one of the big issues at stake in the Supreme Court nomination is reproductive freedom, and assigning the money in that way would be a way of paying attention to class oppression at the expense of gender. That's a fair enough critique, so maybe the CBTU should get some of it, and organizations centred around the theme of "reproductive justice" rather than the whiter and more middle-class "choice" should be the recipient of some of the money. Or perhaps grassroots feminist political organizations in the more right-wing areas of the country, like the Deep South.

All of this is, as the title says, unsolicited advice -- unsolicited advice posted on a tiny blog that no one will need to even bother dismissing. And perhaps, tactically, this is not the specific time or place for shifting significant resources from immediate, massified, highly media-driven, electorally-focused politics to the kind of long-term movement building that will be necessary to shift the balance of power in the United States in a decisive way. But a serious shift in how power works in the United States, or even a shift in the balance of power among existing elites in a more liberal direction, will require building anew over the long-term and not just heavy investment in particularly critical campaigns in the moment.

Review: The Social Passion

(Richard Allen. The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada 1914-28. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973.)

As far as the word "classic" can apply to any work of academic history of progressive social and political movements in Canada, I think it applies to this book. In what I've seen in my other reading to date, few works have been noted as consistently as being significant for breaking new ground in understanding pieces of history with contemporary relevance. Of course the construction of something as a "classic" should be treated with some suspicion, and in this case I think it is not only because the book contains important and interesting history -- which it does -- but also because it served a role in constructing a noble historical narrative for a major and relatively mainstream institution, the New Democratic Party, and the Canadian centre-left more generally. Indeed, the back of the book contains a strong endorsement from none other than Tommy Douglas, the "father of Medicare," the posthumous winner of CBC's soft nationalist and sexist "Greatest Canadian" competition, and (as both an NDP luminary and a former Baptist preacher) the most prominent living product of the social gospel in Canada at the time.

However, that cynicism having been vented, it is still an important book. It is a discussion of the role of the social gospel in progressive Canadian social change between 1914 and 1928, during and just after its years of peak influence.

The social gospel was a religious movement that swept Protestant Christianity in the English-speaking world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It pushed many churches and many churchgoers to shift from the atomized individualism that had dominated mainstream Protestant thought up until that point, into seeing the collective aspects of society. Most importantly (from my point of view, anyway) it made engagement with social change an imperative of faith and endorsed collective solutions to social problems. Its most complete (if temporary) triumph was a struggle that hardly seems progressive today, and indeed it was the more central concern of the more conservative wing of the movement: prohibition. But the social gospel also played a role in the winning of suffrage for women, and its positions on other social and labour issues, particularly those of the progressive and radical wings of the movement, were important even if victories in those areas were rather less spectacular. Under the influence of the radical social gospel, the statement on social issues by the Methodist General Conference in 1918 was one of the most radical ever passed by a mainstream church in an English-speaking country. The key paragraph read:

...the triumph of democracy, the demand of the educated workers for human conditions of life, the deep condemnation this war has passed on competitive struggle, the revelation of the superior efficiency of rational organization and co-operation, combine with the undying ethics of Jesus, to demand nothing less than a transference of the whole economic life from a basis of competition and profits to one of co-operation and service.

As well, a number of the leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 were prominent social gospellers.

I find the history of the social gospel movement interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, there is a tendency in the current environment to associate religion exclusively with the right, even though I know people who actively practice various faiths who are deeply involved in progressive social movements in Canada today, and even though a significant slice of middle-class NDP support still comes from progressive people of faith. So as not to alienate our allies who are people of faith, I think it is important to understand and respect the contributions that people motivated by faith have made to the history of social change. As well, as I noted in a recent comment, I find it kind of amazing that ministers of the sort like Salem Bland and J.S. Woodsworth actually existed, because they feel like such a contrast to the Protestant Christianity that numbed and alienated me, both through completely uninteresting and disconnected churches that I attended growing up, and through narrow-minded and bigoted followers whom I encountered at school.

On the other hand, though the contributions of the social gospel should be understood and respected, so should its rather mixed character. The more radical fringe of the movement was the one that ended up surviving (e.g Woodsworth went on to be the founding leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, predecessor of the NDP) and, in some ways, making the most lasting contribution to society. Some of those people might have had a somewhat different take on this issue later in their careers, but in the period of time covered by this study probably 98% of the social gospel spectrum still spoke of "evangelizing" and even "Christianizing" the nation. They generally were not immune to problems that were pervasive in society at large and in the broader left in that era: a very monolithic and uncritically modernist understanding of the flow of history and of social change, a lack of attention to oppressions other than that based in class, an almost unquestioned conservatism around issues of sexuality and personal conduct, and a host of other things. Again a few radicals aside, most of the social gospel leaders had no difficulty giving their full enthusiasm to support that orgy of bloody imperial stupidity, World War One. In fact, most followed the lead of the majority of members of the British Fabian Society (an important think-tank of democratic socialists in the UK) who endorsed "social imperialism" in supporting the South African War in 1899-1902. Most Canadian social gospellers took World War One as one more part of the great crusade for reforming the world.

The social gospel also had a certain tendency towards enthusiastic moral or ethical positions on social issues that were not fully grounded in the realities of power governing a given situation. When there was greater resistance than anticipated, or more complexity, or a need for more radical (to-the-root) solutions than a particular segment of the social gospel or a particular religious institution could easily support, there was often ideological retreat. For example, when the practical difficulty of achieving a co-operative commonwealth became clear in the early '20s, the divisive nature of the massive labour uprising in those years had its impact, and the willingness of much of the owning-class to do whatever it took to prevent such social change was demonstrated, other than the radicals, much of the social gospel suddenly discovered interest in an approach that tried to encourage employers to be socially conscious rather than trying to create a system in which the whims of a handful of men would be irrelevant to the wellbeing of most people. Indeed, the combination of changing theological currents (which I had trouble understanding fully, to be honest) and the inevitable political tensions among the different strands of the social gospel lead to its crumbing as an active political force in the country by the end of the study period, though its contributions at the time and its legacy in terms of subsequent flavours of socially engaged Christianity and leftist political thought in Canada are certainly significant.

There are aspects of the book that I found disappointing. I wish it had talked more about the rise of the social gospel, instead of just about its peak and decline. I wish it had a more coherent narrative unifying the book -- it sometimes felt disjointed. I wish, strangely enough, that it was designed better; this may be a product of having a long-time partner whose family has been in the printing trade for 150 years. I wish it took the time to explain some concepts more fully, particularly theological ones which those of us with a more secular bent might not already get. But on the whole, this book is a solid look at an important piece of history.

(See also my review of The Evangelical Century.)

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

US Anti-war Grannies Arrested

I love the Raging Grannies. Apparently, members of the Tuscon, Arizona chapter went to a recruiting centre, asked to enlist so as "to replace the young who are in the firing line," read a statement, sang some songs, and left. Once they were well away from the site, they were arrested for trespassing. And why were they arrested? Because recruitment is where the U.S. war machine is most vulnerable at the moment, and the state doesn't want any other grannies getting any crazy ideas that might get in the way of it conning more youth into "volunteering" (or even actually volunteering) for the imperial meat grinder. (Via an email from Toronto Action for Social Change.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


"Opposition is the path to peace, and the sharper and deeper the opposition, the more complete and lasting the peace. That is the law of human progress."

-- Rev. Salem Bland, Methodist minister and a leading Canadian proponent of the radical wing of the social gospel in the early 20th century

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Review: Enlisting Women for the Cause

(Linda Kealey. Enlisting Women for the Cause: Women, Labour, and the Left in Canada, 1890-1920. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.)

As the headache of moving 3000 miles and settling into a new city begins to recede, I am now able to return more of my energy and attention to my social movement history project. For the forseeable future that is going to mean lots and lots of reading interspersed with occasional periods of writing. And that means I'm likely to go back to posting reviews of books about Canadian "history from below."

The book that is the subject of the current post is not actually one that I have much to say about. It covers a time period roughly from the decline of the Knights of Labour as an important force in Canada to the rise of the Communist Party. Through official records, organizational archives, the press, and other sources it examines the relationship of women to the labour and socialist movements in Canada. It is very thorough, very detailed, and in some ways epitomizes the academic monograph as a way of preserving the past -- we need to have books like this, but they aren't exactly the most exciting read in the world, even for lefty book nerds like me.

The general points advanced by the book are not particularly surprising, for the most part. They demonstrate how women have always been involved in Canada's labour and socialist movements, a handful as visible spokespeople and leaders but mostly in subordinate and supportive capacities because of the frequent ambivalence and occasional hostility of much of the male leadership and membership towards full and equal participation. Over the period in question more women entered the paid labour force, particularly due to World War One -- in the 1890s it was still possible for the labour movement to argue for paid labour by women to be banned because women were paid less and undercut the (largely unrealized) ideal of the "family wage" paid to male workers. By the end of the study period, while there was still opposition to the incursion of women workers into traditionally male-dominated areas due to WWI, this opposition was coupled with advocacy for equal pay for equal work, minimum wage legislation for women, and (by some unions) efforts to organize women. Nonetheless, women workers staged spontaneous strikes, organized themselves into unions, and formed autonomous labour and socialist bodies either within or distinct from existing parties. Even among socialist women, often the question of gender oppression was explicitly subordinated to the struggle to end class oppression, but there were always at least a vocal minority of such women who spoke out to insist on diverse ways of seeing the world that were (in essence if not in name) both socialist and feminist.

The book looks at the important labour struggles in which women played a part in those years, as wage earners, as organizers, and as support activsts. It profiles the few women who were able to overcome the barriers they faced and become organizers, speakers, writers, and leaders within the movements. I was particularly struck by a couple of Canadian women who wrote for socialist newspapers in the first decade of the twentieth century and who had what would still be considered quite radical views on sexuality, family, and nonmonogamy; most women and men in left-wing movements in this era had analyses of such things that would appear to be quite conservative today. The book examines how the state, employers, and the male-dominated hierarchies of the parties and unions regarded women in the paid workforce and in politics. It describes the depressingly rare instances of active solidarity with working-class women's struggles demonstrated by middle-class women or working-class men, and the all too common lack of same. It occasionally touches upon the role of race and racism in structuring work and workers' movements in those years, though I have the sense a more complete history is waiting to be written.

Anyway, this is important history, even if it is presented in a very dry way.

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

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Review: Crash

I don't have much that is novel or insightful to say about Crash, I don't think. But I do want to reiterate what I have heard and read from a few other folk: While not particularly radical, it is a sophisticated portrayal of diverse lived realities as structured by the white supremacist institutional, economic, and cultural forces that dominate North America. It is well worth watching. It is set in Los Angeles, which made it of particular interest to me given my recently completed period of residence there, but if you think the realities it shows are somehow unique to LA, you are deluded.

Watching it made me reflect on the ways in which political complexity in mass-consumed texts like movies translates into uncontrollable complexity in people's responses. For example, the lived experiences of most white people in North America are far removed from the lived experiences of people of colour; our lives tend to be sufficiently segregated that us white folks, however liberal our intentions, are generally pretty clueless about what it means to live a life shaped in part by the experience of racial oppression. Given that, and the tendency of white privilege to blind us to racism even when it is before our eyes, what will be the range of understandings in white audiences of portrayals of racism that are nuanced and complex rather than sledgehammeresque? I could imagine some folks selectively reading the film (i.e. just not seeing stuff that is right there in front of us) in ways which reinforce some stereotypes even while others are being challenged. I could imagine some people who are approaching it with a framework that understands racism as purely a phenomenon of individual prejudice taking the film as confirmation that "they" do it too, and totally missing the broader context of a system which privileges whiteness and disempowers people of colour setting the ground in which personal prejudice, as well as all sorts of systemic factors, shape peoples' lives. I could imagine other people approaching the film with a somewhat more sophisticated but still basically liberal framework for understanding racism -- one that still downplays or ignores the structural dimensions of oppression -- seeing the film itself as racist because it shows hard truths about the ways that racism impacts communities, which can only be properly understood as being about more than individual or group "failings" when that more systemic piece of analysis is included. I'm sure there are plenty of ways in which I have reacted to specific content of the film that just plain doesn't get some aspect of how racism was at play.

Moreover, we don't get much opportunity to deal with complex media narratives about anything in our culture, so we don't have much practice thinking outside of simplistic things like the division between "good guys" and "bad guys." As media consumers we are seldom expected to seek explanations for why characters are the way they are that are larger than the individuals. How does that shape the public reaction to movies like this one, where everything is written with a consciousness of how we are all slotted into particular patterns of oppression and privilege by society's institutions, which then shapes the range we have available to us for exercising individual agency?

In saying all of this, I'm not rejecting complexity or criticizing the film. In fact, I wish much more of our media embraced complexity and an awareness of how power and privilege shapes all of our lives. But complexity is, by definition, complex.

What the film lacks is portrayal or substantive discussion of collective resistance to white supremacy. I think one of the young African American men mentions the Black Panthers once, and that's about it. On the one hand, this shouldn't be surprising since this is a Hollywood movie and it is being made in a time where liberation movements in North America do not have the same visibility and momentum that they did when names like Huey Newton and Angela Davis were bringing if not fear then at least unease to the hearts of powerful white men. The backlash has been long and sustained and the many and important struggles still being waged by communites of colour in North America are often more fragmented and, by necessity, defensive. But the fact is, collective forms of struggle always have and always will exist in oppressed communities, whether they are visible to those of us outside of them or not, and it is disappointing that a film that shows such awareness of the impact on individuals of the structural nature of racial (and, to a lesser extent, class and gender) oppression has nothing to offer about attempts to change those structures.

Anyway, I would definitely recommend seeing this film. Then I would recommend making a point of discussing it afterwards with whoever else you can find who has seen it. Often the most important aspect of cultural interventions into political issues of this sort is the sparking of discussion -- the destabilization of existing assumptions in the audience, however partial that might be, creates an opening for changes in consciousness, however limited that might be. It encourages people, including those who would not normally think about such things, to explore the issues raised and, perhaps, raise our consciousness a little bit. In fact, a friend of mine who has done anti-racism trainings for years mentioned that she is trying to come up with ways to use bits and pieces of the film in future trainings for exactly that reason.

So go see it!

Friday, July 22, 2005

Antipsychiatry Link

Here's a link to a new and interesting antipsychiatry organization based in Toronto called the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault. The link was forwarded to me by one of the participants in the group, a long-time antipsychiatry activist who also happens to have participated in my social movement history project.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Name Change

Now that the grand relocation from SoCal to NorOnt -- the slick lingo just doesn't work so well with the latter, does it? Just call it Sudbury, Ontario -- is complete, I have changed the name of this site to reflect that I am no longer living in the United States of America. I solicited name suggestions on a few occasions, both online and in person. I received some responses, though fewer than I had hoped. After much pondering I have decided to go with a suggestion forwarded by rabfish: "A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land."

I like it because there is some continuity with the name that this blog held for the first 15 months of its existence. I also like it because it has multilayered and complex political implications. If I had not started this blog while living abroad, I would not be emphasizing my own Canadianness in the title, so I feel a little funny about leaving it in there now, but I suppose juxtaposing "Canadian" with "Occupied Land" in that way does demonstrate a rootedness in a particular political economy but an internationalist orientation via the understanding of "occupation" described below.

Anyway, though most of the time and for most of its inhabitants it is not in the same league as sites of active military occupation like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, there are still important ways in which "occupation" is a useful conceptual tool to understand the situation of northern North America. Certainly from an Aboriginal perspective, this land is occupied by a settler state that is historically derived from and is still actively engaged in colonization and cultural genocide. I am not Aboriginal, of course, but I think any radical politics based in this part of the world has to be rooted in an awareness of that reality -- I'm not saying my political ideas or practice deal with it adequately, but I try, and the title of this blog tries to acknowledge that and keep it at the foreground of my own attention.

As well, there are very real ways that any advanced capitalist political economy -- both economic institutions and the state -- amounts to forces of occupation in any territory under its control and to all people in that territory. In this sense, most of the world is occupied by hostile forces. Particularly in the capitalist heartland, either you are oppressed or you are unavoidably implicated in the oppression of others or both. There is no way to escape this in modern industrial states, no room for an escapist self-determination that lets you wiggle out of the confines of this social system; only social transformation that liberates us all can liberate any one of us. Though my particular identity is, in most ways, one which the political economy of northern North America and the culture to which it is linked tend to privilege, I am no less embedded in these structures of occupation. Indeed, this makes me both occupier and occupied. And this leads to the idea that occupation is not just a series of structures, but it is also the ways in which those structures distort the perception and consciousness of everyone they touch -- they make us believe oppressive lies so deeply that sometimes our gut reactions are still captive even when we think our minds are free. Not only are our geography and our society settings for struggle against this occupation, therefore, but so is our consciousness. And this blog will continue to be, as it has been for the last 15 months, a series of notes and thoughts and ramblings from my own journey of struggle against those multiple occupations, as occupied and occupier, both within and without.

Ahhhh, Junk Mail

I managed to connect to the internet from our new Sudbury home about half an hour ago, so regular blogging will now resume. Hooray! I have a number of things I want to blog about -- activists being told to "get a job," the move to Sudbury, Harry Potter, and changing my blog name -- but I'm too tired to do any of that tonight. Instead, let me start off by quoting a flier that arrived in our mailbox today. At the top of the front panel in large type it reads:

Not All Victims of Drunk Driving Are DURNK! (emphasis and spelling in original)

While drunk driving=bad and some kinds of "carelessness can kill" (as the pamphlet says later on), thankfully writing pamphlets while stoned has much milder consequences. Though laughing at it did give my partner a tummy ache.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Disney Sponsoring Racism

According to this post by Paul Street, which reprints an action alert from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Disney has just signed a 10-year, $100 million deal with a radio commentator who only two weeks ago was speaking with open approval of genocide against Aboriginal peoples, slavery, and the massacre of Japanese civilians through nuclear weapons. Look at Street's post and let Disney -- the company that wouldn't release Farenheit 9/11 because it was too political -- hear what you think about their lucrative sponsorship of out-and-out, unreconstructed, Old South-style racism.