Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Quote On Enemies

Couldn't help but think of the "Toronto 17" arrests and various other state-driven shenanigans when I read this -- we have no evidence one way or the other whether the fact of the arrests served only this function, but certainly the ham-handed melodrama of their form and coverage was tailored to add immediacy and urgency to the construct of "the enemy" in the Canadian imagination, as described below:

The constant presence of an enemy and the threat of disorder are necessary in order to legitimate imperial violence. Perhaps it should be no surprise that when war constitutes the basis of politics, the enemy becomes the constitutive function of legitimacy. Thus this enemy is no longer concrete and localizable but has now become something fleeting and ungraspable, like a snake in the imperial paradise. The enemy is unknown and unseen and yet ever present, something like a hostile aura. The face of the enemy appears in the haze of the future and serves to prop up legitimation where legitimation has declined. This enemy is in fact not merely elusive but completely abstract. The individuals invoked as the primary targets -- Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Mu'ammar Gadhafi, and Manuel Noriega among others -- are themselves very limited threats, but they are blown up into larger-than-life figures that serve as stand-ins for the more general threat and give the appearance of traditional, concrete objects of war. They serve perhaps as a pedagogical tool (or mystifying facade) by presenting this new kind of war in the old form. The abstract objects of war -- drugs, terrorist, and so forth -- are not really enemies either. They are best conceived rather as symptoms of a disordered reality that poses a threat to security and the functioning of discipline and control. There is something monstrous in this abstract, auratic enemy....[T]he enemy is an example or, better, an experimentum crucis for the definition of legitimacy. The enemy must serve as a schema of reason in the Kantian sense, but in the opposite direction: it must demonstrate not what power is but what power saves us from. The presence of the enemy demonstrates the need for security.

-- Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Fundraiser For Six Nations Land Reclamation

I'm going to be heading to southern Ontario tomorrow, mostly to hang out with family. But I just found out one of his grandmas is able to look after L that evening, so I'll be driving down to Hamilton for this:

a benefit concert to support 6 Nations' land claim at Caledonia

Thursday, July 6, 2006
(Hamilton ON, 306 King Street West at Queen)
all proceeds to 6 Nations

featuring performances by:
Tiny Bill Cody
Kim Koren (and friends)
The Ray Materick Band
Tim Gibbons
Linda Duemo
Katie Caron
and more...

Let us be the generation that supports justice for aboriginal people

all ages

production 666
Hamilton Action for Social Change
905-525-9140 ext. 26026 or hamiltonaction(at) for more.

Come on out if you're in the area!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Direct Action Case Work Victory in Sudbury

Yesterday, L and I took part in a piece of direct action case work at the Ontario Disability Support Program office here in Sudbury with a woman on ODSP to support her in her struggle to win some badly needed food money.

The background is this: Last year, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and the Ontario Common Front were working with health professionals around the province to get people more money. The ODSP and Ontario Works rules at the time allowed health professionals to determine, using their professional judgment, whether a person needed more money to buy food for health reasons. Increasing numbers of health professionals were responding to the mountains of data that show that poverty is a central determinant of ill-health, in part via its impact on ability to meet nutritional needs; and to both the lived experiences of recipients and the easily accessible numbers showing that, despite the rhetoric to the contrary that comes from our provincial Liberal government, social assistance rates do not allow for most recipients to have access to adequate, healthy food. In response to this campaign winning millions of dollars for people living in poverty, the provincial government changed the rules so that people now have to fall into pre-existing diagnostic categories in order to get any supplement -- simply having your health ruined by being poor was not good enough to qualify for the money you might need to actually eat well. There are additional problems with the new regulations, including the fact that people are now forced to diclose private medical information, including things like HIV/AIDS status, to the state.

The group I am involved with, formerly the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee but recently renamed the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty, was involved in getting people signed up for the special dietary supplement under the old rules. We never managed to have a full scale "hunger clinic" here in Sudbury, but through taking folks down to Toronto and helping people educate their private doctors, at least a few local people were able to get more of the food they need to live. Since the rule change, we have been involved in both political action to try and change the special diet rules and/or get a general raise in social assistance rates -- the province raised them an insulting few percent in the most recent budget, but they are still more than 30% below what they were in 1995, in constant dollars, and were widely regarded by anti-poverty activists as being inadequate even at that time -- and in some direct action case work.

Direct action case work has always been one of the things I have liked the most about OCAP's approach to social change. Of course it didn't originate with OCAP -- I've heard OCAP members say they model it on actions that were common during the Great Depression in response to evictions and abuses of people who were "on relief", to use the language of that era. The idea is that a person comes forward with some situation in which they have been unfairly treated by the welfare bureaurcracy or a landlord or the immigration bureaucracy or some other authority. OCAP figures out what basis there is for restitution, complaint, or better treatment, sends a polite letter demanding that the issue be addressed, and then backs it up with things like office occupations by lots of unruly activists. This has proven to be very effective over the years, to the extent that often these days all it takes is the initial letter to win appropriate action. It is founded on having a solid knowledge of the rules of whatever institution is being confronted, both at the level of the texts that shape that institutional space and at the level of the actual practice of the people who put those texts into effect; a sufficient base of activists to disrupt the normal functioning of an office or other such action; and a proven willingness to refuse to cooperate with authorities.

There are groups that use this model in other cities in Ontario, many of which are part of the Ontario Common Front. I have also heard about groups in cities beyond the province using this approach, though I'm always surprised that it isn't much more common than it is, given how effective it can be both in winning immediate victories for people and in getting people connected to each other and thereby building capacity for other kinds of struggle.

There is some history of direct action case work in Sudbury. SCAP was a functioning organization for awhile, disintegrated about two years ago, and is now getting going again (with some of the former membership and some new membership, including me). We are focusing most closely on activity related to the special dietary supplement and the more general campaign to raise social assistance rates. I have not yet been particularly involved in the case work, largely because it often requires a kind of flexibility and ability to dedicate significant blocks of focused time that I don't have because of my caregiving responsibilities to L. I have been in on the preliminary stage of a visit to ODSP before, but L got cranky before we actually got to the office that time. But this time, he was content to go through the whole thing.

Here is a report from another SCAP person on the action:

A delegation of about 10 SCAP folks occupied the ODSP office yesterday morning until a meeting was had with a worker and a decision made in favour of special diet supplement recipient, Michele.

Michele had been cut back in March to a miserable $20 with the new form. The devastating cut imperiled both her health and medical plans since she couldn't eat properly and continued to lose weight at an alarming rate. A new application subsequently submitted and now approved gives her a substantially higher amount as of this month. It is blatantly clear, however, that Michele's health situation existed all along and the cut should never have happened.

Raymond Boucher set the precedent for retroactive payments in situations where a second new form with a higher amount than the first is approved.

This is what Michele with SCAP's help demanded and won. The higher amount of $$ will apply back to the month of the original cut, March.

The fundamentally punitive changes in the new form, the systemic practice of failing to provide adequate instructions to medical professionals and lack of an attached fee schedule make it impossible for applicants to get a decent special diet supplement. SCAP has developped a flyer to help get information and relevant tips out to people. The flyer is posted on the SCAP website. Perhaps this can be helpful for other folks.

The word "occupied" probably makes it sound a bit more dramatic than it actually was, but the presence of those people was central to coming out of the meeting with Michele's dietary supplement paid the new, higher amount retroactively back to the date it was cut.

It is interesting how actions like this work. As simple an act as letting the frontline workers and managers know that they are being watched can be tremendously important. I was involved with an initiative in Hamilton that did not do advocacy but merely accompanied recipients to meetings with the bureaucracy, and the people who were accompanied consistently reported a difference in treatment because someone else was there. And that feedback came from experienced activists/advocates who were themselves recipients as well.

In this particular case, it was not merely an extra pair or ten pairs of eyes that made the difference. It was the fact that Michele and the two SCAP members who actually went in to the meeting with her were very clear on what she was entitled to and refused to be distracted -- there were several attempts by the worker to make us just go away without giving any money, includings things like trying to insist we get a note from a doctor saying he had made a mistake in how he initially filled out the new form, vague promises to get back to us, and hints that it would take hours to get to see a manager to get her/his permission, and so on. But being very clear that retroactive payment had already been set as a precedent, that we would not be distracted by being sent somewhere else, and that we were not going to leave until the demands had been met made a difference. The worker left the meeting and five minutes later was back with her manager's approval. It also didn't hurt that two recent cases involving similar issues in which SCAP was involved garnered substantial local and even (in one instance) some provincial media attention. So it was clear to the bureaucrats that we knew what we were talking about, that we were perfectly willing to engage in actions that we said we would engage in, and that we are able at least sometimes to generate a response from the media. In this instance, I would imagine the fact that they had significantly cut back food money for a woman with serious medical issues related to her ability to absorb food, and done so to such an extent that she had lost so much weight that she had to postpone needed major surgery, also contributed to the decision that they didn't want us making a fuss about it.

L and I (and a couple of the other SCAP members and supporters) played with toys in the lobby through most of this. For a government office, it wasn't badly equipped -- some puzzles, a bus, a transport truck, a few books.

Again, it all goes to show how little the Ontario social assistance regime has to do with the actual needs of actual people, whatever the Liberals in Toronto might claim.

Anyway, direct action case work is an important tool, and I hope folks in other jurisdictions who read this consider taking it up in their struggles.

(Action report from CL.)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

What Men Can Do...

Here is an essay written by Julian Real, a gay white man, with support from Jennifer McLune, a feminist woman of colour, called "What Men Can Do To Help End Male Domination of Women and Children", which is posted on Stan Goff's site.

Real can sometimes come across as a bit self-congratulatory when it comes to his own pro-feminist credentials, and sometimes as a bit pompous in his writing. Or so it seems to me, at any rate. And there are certainly items on this list that different feminist women that I know and care about would have a range of different responses to. As well, I think men dealing with the emotional and psychological damage done to us by socialization into masculinity in a racist, patriarchal, capitalist, heterosexist society is a pretty big thing that this list doesn't really talk about (and which is discussed in a wonderful post I linked to ages ago on the now blog-departed Darkdaughta's site). So I'm not claiming this article has all the answers, and I welcome comments both supportive and critical, and encourage people to read the extensive comments on the original post and add to them if they wish.

But I'm not so foolish as to think I have nothing to learn from this posting, nothing to be challenged about, nothing to be reminded of. And I suspect that would be true of most men who struggle to be pro-feminist.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Short Imperialism Quote

Imperialism, in whatever form, is a global process -- it occurs across regions and nations -- but even in its most marauding forms it necessarily takes hold in and through the local.

-- Jane Jacobs

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Review: Journeying Forward

[Patricia Monture-Angus. Journeying Forward: Dreaming First Nations' Independence. Halifax: Fernwood Books, 1999.]

Among the many books on politics, society, history, and theory that I have read recently, some of those that seem to be making the biggest impression on me have something in common: they place a great deal of emphasis on starting (politically, practically, analytically, theoretically) where you are, understanding that, and moving on from there. I'm gradually getting to a point where it is starting to seem strange that such a thing need be said at all, but it is a long process to get out of the habit of reflexively leaping to occupy an artificial standpoint that claims the label "objectivity" and a nonexistent location outside of the world, but that actually just provides legitimating camouflage for knowledge generated in dominant standpoints and, by its claim to be "above the fray", makes actual respectful dialogue across difference in opinion and/or difference in standpoint (power and privilege) to be more difficult.

This advocacy of a very grounded, situated approach is one way to read some of the fairly dense theory in Gramsci is Dead, for example, as well as Decolonizing Methodologies. It is a central point in Looking White People in the Eye and applying the idea in a new and more rigorous way was a crucial learning for me from that book. It also plays a somewhat different but equally important role in Sociology for Changing the World. But in terms of this principle being modelled in a text in a way that is organic and seems deceptively simple but that utterly permeates it, I can't think of a more striking example in my recent experience than the work of Patricia Monture-Angus, in both her first book, Thunder in My Soul, and in this one.

Monture-Angus is a Mohawk woman and a legal scholar who currently works as part of a Native Studies department at a Canadian university. Her first book was a collection of essays on a variety of topics; this one is a focused look at the relationship between indigenous dreams of independence (or self-determination) and Canadian law, particularly constitutional law. This book is a dialogue, a tension, between the Mohawk ways of knowing and being and doing that are at the core of how Monture-Angus exists in the world, and the very different ways of knowing and being and doing that are part of the Canadian legal system. She does the difficult walk between these two places, both of which she is intimately familiar with, to try and map out the opportunities and dangers for pursuing the project of indigenous self-determination in northern North America in the context of the Canadian settler state's legal system.

In some ways, the focus of this book surprised me. In her earlier work, Monture-Angus is quite negative about the possibility for liberation for indigenous peoples via the law. She went into law with the hopes that such a thing could be found, but was inexorably drawn to the conclusion that the settler state's laws were and are one of the most significant sources of colonial oppression and simply could not be transformed through their own logic into a tool for true self-determination. But in other ways, this focus was not surprising, because it is not as if she has suddenly become more optimistic on this score -- rather, this book is an opportunity for her to describe her concerns much more comprehensively.

It is fascinating, particularly for someone like me with no background in law, to trace the ways in which colonialism remains an active, living part of the Canadian legal system. Things as simple and integral as the rule of precedence makes sure that cases today, even if they are not argued by the state on the basis of explicitly colonial ideas -- though often these are just below the surface in any case -- are decided in part based on precedents that did come out of explicitly colonial laws and assumptions. In fact, a theme throughout the book is the ways in which many of the assumptions made by judges to this day in their decisions are based, in one way or another, on ideas of European superiority which also still permeate the culture at large. She also points out that a central difficulty, both for the courts and for indigenous peoples using litigation as a strategy to recover at least some facets of their independence, is that there has yet to be articulated a comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding Aboriginal rights cases in Canadian courts. Generally, courts, including the Supreme Court, have dealt with cases on a very ad hoc basis, often in recent years including flowery rhetoric about affirming Aboriginal and treaty rights and then including stipulations or modifiers that erase most of the substantive benefit that indigenous peoples might derive from the decision.

After setting a theoretical basis for the book, the remainder is spent looking at some of the highlites of the history of this sort of litigation. It is not an exhaustive examination of the case law, but it does make an effort to look in detail at the cases that have been most important. She divides the history into three sections: up to 1990, 1990 to 1995, and 1995 to the present. She divides the history at these points because of landmark cases, one which opened up some potential space for progress in 1990 and another which seems to have closed much of that space that was decided in 1995. An interesting point that she makes about the impact of colonialism when contextualizing supposed court victories by indigenous peoples in Canada is that it makes both the mainstream media and many indigenous peoples themselves, who are starved for any kind of progress, see what has been accomplished as larger than it really is.

As always when I read the work of staunch indigenist scholars like Monture-Angus, Taiaiake Alfred, or Linda Tuhiwai Smith, though their ideas are often grounded in speaking to and about their own nations while pointedly not telling white-dominated settler nations/states what to do outside of the demand for space for indigenous self-determination, I always get to wondering how the features of the Canadian state that are reproducing the colonization of indigenous nations in northern North America are also distorting the ability of those of us who are settlers to live free, just lives of harmony and respect, in balance with each other and nature. And always I find it a daunting task to even begin answering the questions that such musings give rise to.

But I think there is at least a glimmer of an answer in one simple idea, related to the traditional Mohawk concept that roughly corresponds to the English terms "self-determination" or "independence". Though it could easily be misunderstood (by both those who agree and those who might disagree) as being an embrace of liberalism, I think there is some profound, radical, anarchist-ish wisdom in Monture-Angus' assertion that "Being self-determining is simply about the way you choose to live your life every day." That is not, as a liberal reading would assert, an argument to disregard the ways in which our lives are shaped by institutions, by texts, by ruling regimes, and to live by the insipid question, "Can't we all just get along?" Rather, it is a recognition that challenging those institutions, those texts, those ruling regimes is something that can -- no, must happen at every level at once, and that understanding them and challenging them however possible at the personal level is integral to the production of emergent collectives that challenge them at other levels. But as always, a central problem for non-indigenous and particularly white people in North America is how to collectively ground that everyday self-determination, that quest to decolonize our lives and our communities, given the atomizing realities of neoliberal capitalism and the fact that we remain settlers on stolen land.

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

Erase Racism Carnival

Edition number two is up and running. Check it out!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

People's History Posters

I rarely post links to sites where the primary intent is to encourage visitors to exchange money for some sort of product or service. However, I think people should check out the Celebrate People's History Posters, and maybe buy a few and hang 'em at home or stick 'em up around town -- they are only a few dollars each (plus shipping and handling) and all the money goes to pay for the printing costs.

Here is how the site describes its mission:

The Celebrate People’s History poster series is an on-going project producing posters that focus around important moments in “people’s history.” These are events, groups, and individuals that we should celebrate because of their importance in the struggle for social justice and freedom, but are instead buried or erased by dominant history. Posters celebrate important acts of resistance, those who fought tirelessly for justice and truth, and the days on which we can claim victories for the forces of freedom. In the past 7 years over two dozen posters have been produced on a variety of subjects, from the Battle of Homestead to Fred Hampton, Mujeres Libres to Jane, an underground abortion collective.

These posters have been and will continue to be posted publicly (i.e. wheatpasted on the street, put up in peoples’ home and storefront windows, and used in classrooms) in an attempt to help generate a discussion about our radical past, a discussion that is vital in preparing us to create a radical future. I have also been using this project to create a loose network of artists interested in creating radical public art and showcasing the work of lesser known artists that want to create art that is functional, carries a social message, and doesn’t get buried at the bottom of the heap of the capitalist “art world.”

Admittedly, most of them are focused on events or people in the United States, but I recently got two. One features Metis leader Gabriel Dumont. I'm actually a little disappointed in the design of this one now that I've seen it in real life, but only a little, and it is the only one directly relevant to Canada. I definitely like its content. The other, which unfortunately seems to have disappeared from the list of options since I ordered it, celebrates the Mujeres Libres, an anarchist women's organization in Spain in the '30s that I learned about in Martha Ackelsberg's wonderful Free Women of Spain and that definitely deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

Anyway, have a look!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Ten Thousand Texts Before Lunch

or, "A Half Day in the Life After Re-reading Some Dorothy Smith"

I hear a small, cranky voice saying, "Go downstairs! Go downstairs!" beside me in bed and I wake up.

I am in a bed. A bed. A material object come to be through human beings working at specific times in specific places to cut the wood and harvest the cotton and extract the oil, to cut and process and sew and lift and move, their circumstances of work regulated and coordinated by local laws and company policies and the documents that ensure the ongoing functioning of global capitalism, the need to do such work compelled by the whole mess of texts that work together to allow the social world to be produced as it is and ruled. A material object brought by local activity from sites of manufacture to site of purchase. A material object purchased by a woman in Santa Monica, a woman who slept on that bed, cried on that bed when her grandmother died, hosted lovers on that bed. A material object purchased by me from her, with the invisible assurances of centuries of common law shaping process and expectations of the implicit contract. A material object moved by she and I onto a truck, a truck whose rental was shaped by one set of regulations, whose operation is shaped by others, across roads built and maintained by human hands, roads enabled by a century of urban zoning ordinances and taxation legislation and spending bills in council chambers and legislatures to facilitate the movement of people and goods in the service of the imperative to reproduce capital. A material object later moved north in accordance with the stipulations of agreements and regulations around the transportation of household goods across the U.S.-Canada border. A material object transported all of that distance because of policies at an academic institution in Canada's near North which will give money to newly hired faculty to move household objects but not to purchase new ones, even if that might be more practical, cheaper, easier.

The bed is in a house, half of a duplex. A construct of brick and wood and concrete and wire and plastic and glass, made by human beings 50 years ago, or maybe 75. A construct which we occupy under the terms of the mis-named Ontario Tenant Protection Act, and by the terms of a lease that is valid under that law and which only had terms which violated that law removed because I knew that and objected to them. A construct that exists where it does because of all of the texts that have coordinated human beings active in the discovery and exploitation of ore rich in nickel, which created the possibility of enough human beings making their living in this location for a city to take shape. A construct located here because of the needs of capital, because of a century of texts governing local land use. A construct we can pay to occupy because of that local academic institution employing my partner as junior faculty, a process governmed by provincial employment law and institutional policies and, soon, a collective agreement. A construct which we can pay to occupy because the state made that institution possible and funds it generously, because knowledge production organized around the idea of "health" (however divorced from local everyday experience) is organized such that people employed by state and non-state but highly regulated institutions solicit applications for funding, make decisions about funding, send out funding to allow activities to occur in semi-automous laboratories at institutions like this in many sites around the country.

L is beside me, wakes me. I wake at the whim of a pre-schooler because the ways in which work is organized and remunerated are such that I can afford to be at home with him and work at home giving care and writing for no pay rather than having to seek a place to exchange my labour for money.

We go downstairs and cuddle for a bit on the futon couch. I make some toast for L, some coffee for myself, and put on a tape of the Teletubbies dubbed into French.

The futon. Another object. Bought new, dependent on laws of incorporation in Sweden, but present and available for sitting and cuddling because of textual coordination of primary resource harvesting, manufacturing, transportation, and selling, much like the bed. And again with the television (in our possession because the organization of academic sites in the United States made its previous owner choose to switch to a particular east coast school, and the availability of Section 8 housing vouchers made it possible for her to do so). And the coffee (with particular attention to the texts which mean that (many) consumers in the North can afford what they want while commodity producers in the south are perpetually poor and vulnerable to extreme price variations, not to mention nasty men with guns if they get stroppy) and the freezer which held it and the coffee maker which made it.

Electricity animates these objects. Coordinated human activity over long periods of time made electricity possible -- producing wire, laying wire, early local enterprises for generation, the state responding to struggle and finding ways to make it public in Ontario early in the 20th century, and responding to other forms of coordinated local activity to partially privatize it again more recently. Regulation of production, regulation of coal burning, regulation of nuclear power, regulation of the building of dams, regulation of prices, though none of it necessarily to ordinaryperson advantage.

Teletubbies. People behind cameras and in too-hot chubby pseudo-toddler suits and in editing rooms working in coordination to produce visual text, the resources hooking in to those same old texts that allow capitalism to happen in a coordinated way, and copyright laws and international agreements that control the distribution and make library borrowings possible. In French because, responding to whatever pressures and incentives and coordination, francophones settled here in significant numbers as well as anglophones, and long years of struggles brought local institutions to respond to francophone needs as well as anglophone needs, and L doesn't seem to care the language of the videos he chooses so why should we. Haven't seen any available in Ojicree or Cree, of course.

We get dressed. Again with the objects, our non-nekkidness connected with the labouring activities of women of colour in Canada or abroad, as determined by the texts of neoliberal capitalist globalization. The stroller we use, another object.

We go to a parent-toddler drop-in for a couple of hours. A public space deliberately created. A public space enabled by funding and textual coordination from the state, designed by bureaucrats and policy wonks and politicians in their stuffy rooms to respond to needs more middle-class than poor and avoid providing socialized childcare while still being able to claim to have responded to texts produced by experts pontificating on the importance of the early years of life and parents demanding, demanding, demanding because they have to demand because of the demands put on them by what they have to do to eat. A public space shaped by people enacting ideologies of "childhood" and "family", by people carrying out laws and regulations of child safety, by people whose practice has been shaped by the professionalization of early childhood education. A public space provided by people coordinated as a not-for-profit private institution affiliated with an organization that is institutionally descended from the wing of the Communist Party of Canada of a particular Eastern European ethnic group, the existence and path of which was shaped by migration coordinated by agents of the Canadian state, persecution by human agents of the Canadian state of both Communists and non-anglo ethnic groups in the early twentieth century, and persecution of that ethnic group in Stalin's Soviet Union. A public space produced as gendered by the multiple subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which paid and upaid care provision are still mostly constructed as "women's work".

We go to the grocery store. Again, diverse texts connecting the production of objects by other people to a space that I can visit, and other texts producing my ability to exchange currency for those products in that space.

Walking home I think about work I have to do. I have not yet spent more than a few moments at my computer, the smooth materialization of the distal coordination of so much human activity my brain can hardly hold the thought of it -- infrastructure produced in many local sites initially at the behest of U.S. imperial military organizations, governed internationally in many ways by legislation and regulations passed in Washington, possible because of hardware and software produced by countless humans putting bits-and-pieces or letter-and-numbers together, even just the diverse local sites hidden under the smooth workings of Linux and Firefox and OpenOffice and all the other bits of software that I use are mindblowing, and reading blog posts and articles produced in immediate "heres" around the globe (though more in the imperial centres than the colonized peripheries, of course), and even with this embarassment of access to text and its production I use a text-coordinated, human-produced-and-transported-and-sold pen to write in a text-coordinated, human-produced-and-transported-and-sold notebook. I write texts. I write texts for no eyes but mine. I write texts accessible by all that labour and text turned to wire. I write texts to one day meet approval of those whose labour turns words into books, for circulation to local sites where books are sold and on into local sites in which books are read, their text activated by human eyes and brains, and consciousnesses thereby modified.

But first I open the mail and make lunch for me and L.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Two More Toronto 17 Links

I would particularly recommend the first one. In it, Walia concludes:

We are left with the realization that there is no quick solution to the spirals of violence in the world today. The government’s right-wing agenda merely reinforces a racist and crusading Western dominance. Instead it is time for us to delve into history and begin at the beginning of time to lay bare all the incidents of terrorism and brutality. We should turn our fear into strength otherwise we will live with a perpetual sense of fear and be plagued by our own false victimhood. We should have the maturity to realize that everyone -- not just us -- deserves to be safe from terrorism. We should understand that our proclaimed innocence is offensive if we do not recognize that most of humanity -- including those within our borders -- live with this tireless source of pain and anxiety everyday. We should develop the capacity to imagine what this world must feel like for individuals, communities, entire cultures who witness our apathy and our complicity. And we should fight with the millions of people across the world who deserve justice.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Loney in Xtra

Just found this article about James Loney -- someone I met a few times years ago, survivor of four months of captivity in Iraq, peace activist, anarcho-Catholic, and gay man. The article, which is published in Xtra and was found via Direland, begins to paint a portrait of the side of Loney's life that those waiting for his return had to hide for fear that it might lead to him never returning.

Loney and partner Dan Hunt are receiving Pride Toronto's "Fearless Award" at a gala on June 20.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Review: Sociology for Changing the World

[Caelie Frampton, Gary Kinsman, AK Thompson, Kate Tilleczek, eds. Sociology for Changing the World: Social Movements/Social Research. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2006.]

The only time I had been in Sudbury before it became likely that I would move here was three or four years ago for a conference called Sociology for Changing the World. It was designed to bring together academics and activists, and it was centred around approaches to sociology of which I -- as an autodidact with minimal background in sociological theory at the time -- had never heard: institutional ethnography (IE) and political activist ethnography (PAE).

Last week, after living in Sudbury for close to a year and being politically involved in the community with one of the editors/writers for much of that time, I was lucky enough to attend a book launch for a book that came out of the conference and shares its name. Well, I kind of attended -- my partner was out of town so I was with L, and his patience didn't allow for chats longer than a few minutes each with the editors and a couple of other people before we headed out. But it did allow me to get my hands on a copy of the book.

Though the conference was interesting, and being forced by weather to spend an extra night in Sudbury with a number of luminaries in the field was educational in different ways, the biggest impact of the event on me was not so much individual presentations as buying a copy of Dorothy Smith's Writing the Social from the book table. Smith is a renowned feminist sociologist who taught for many years at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and the originator of institiutional ethnography. I devoured that book. What I understood, what I really internalized, and what I have retained from that encounter with text are all uneven, of course; that's always true. But if you look at the ways of seeing the world that I confronted for the first time in that reading and then look over the writing on this site over the last two years, there are certainly plenty of places, both acknowledged and not, where the influence of Smith's ideas has peeked through. These ideas resonated with bits and pieces of things I had already thought, questions that concerned me, gaps that needed filled -- again, in ways partial and fragmented, but with some significance. I think I liked the fact that her approach is materialist but seriously addresses real flaws in more traditional liberal and Marxist ways of dealing with the world; that it addresses issues of the different scales over which things happen in the world in a way that feels like it makes sense rather than just being arbitrary; that its emphasis is on learning about the world in order to change it from how it actually is rather than on categorizing the world based on how it was long ago or how it is to those in charge or how we might like it to be; and that, for all its materialism, it places great emphasis as well on texts and how they shape our lives.

Sociology for Changing the World has given me a chance to encounter these ideas again and to do so in a more accessible form. I think I understand this way of seeing the world the better for it.

This approach is based on the idea that the social world is brought into being by human beings doing, that it is human beings acting and interacting in countless local sites that produces anything of larger scale that we might label "society", and it is in this interactive production of the social that individuals -- thereby recognized as inherently social, not abstractly atmoized as in liberalism -- are constituted. An important consequences of this way of understanding the world is that it explicitly avoids the tendency of many other ways of seeing the world to reify (or "thingify") abstractions like "society" or particular "systems" or "structures", a process that often leads to those abstractions being treated like active agents in and of themselves independent of the human beings whose actions constitute them.

This approach is deliberately materialist in how it seeks to understand the world, and rejects philosophical idealism. It argues that most (Western intellectualized) ways of knowing place concepts at centre stage, and the world of real experience gets erased or fragmented or regimented and, ultimately, regulated. Idealistic knowledge can mask the standpoint from which that knowledge is created, and the power to dominate others that is assigned to that standpoint. It can trap us in dead-ends in our efforts to change the world.

Dorothy Smith started down this path by noting how common it was to find disjunctures between the everyday experiences of women and the ways in which male-dominated sociology explained the world. This has been expanded to many other ways in which oppressions are experienced as disjunctures between how the world is experienced by oppressed people in everyday/everynight lived situations and how it is explained in academic, popular, and/or state-based discourse.

You start with a standpoint. Not, the book emphasizes, standpoint as has been elaborated by some feminist theorists, in which the objective epistemology of positivism is replaced by a purely subjective epistemology, but rather it suggests an epistemology that is reflexive -- knowledge is produced socially in local interactions. If you look at experience from a particular standpoint across multiple local, specific sites, then you will find patterns in that experience, and it is those patterns that give a clue as to how human beings are regulated and organized translocally. This organization and regulation is, in the present day, mostly accomplished through texts. Texts, like copyright laws or welfare regulations, get activated by people doing things at local sites. It should be emphasized that they get activated in certain ways that might not be evident just by looking at the texts themselves but that can only be understood by looking at people's experiences. In activating those texts, the people participating in the ruling regime in question -- welfare case workers, for example -- have their actions shaped and thereby shape the experiences of those who share a given standpoint in similar ways, such as a single white woman with children on welfare. By looking at the ways in which experiences are organized similarly across different specific, local sites, and seeking explanations in the texts that coordinate behaviour translocally, you can begin to map out a picture of how human lives are regulated, of how "ruling regimes" function, of the map of social relations, of how power flows in very real and concrete ways. It treats oppressed people not as an object to be researched but as subjects whose standpoints provide the orientation for research, and it is the ruling regimes which shape people's lives that we should be seeking to understand.

This was the base for political activist ethnography, an elaboration by George Smith (no relation to Dorothy). It takes the insights of institutional ethnography and applies them more directly to moments of collective resistance. It asks what we can learn through our interactions and confrontations with ruling regimes in order to understand and change them through social movement activity. George Smith's classic example was the struggles of the Right to Privacy Committe against the police raids on gay bathhouses in Toronto in the early '80s. By starting from the experiences of the men who were arrested and of those who were working to support them, it was possible to make deliberate effot to understand the texts and activation practices which lead to this oppressive outcome in ways grounded in what was actually happening, rather than knee-jerk answers proposed by many activists who initially fell into explanations like "homophobic cops" or "evil Tories" that were to blame. Both of those things, which function as labels but not materially grounded explanations for events, may have been operative, but by mapping out the relations of ruling it was possible to orient the resistance towards making changes that might actually shift the everday/everynight experiences of gay men in Toronto.

Sociology for Changing the World does a number of things. It introduces some of the key concepts of these approaches to developing knowledge about the world (in a more complete and coherent manner than I have done above). Some of the essays advance the ideas of political activist ethnography by talking about direct action as a tool for research about ruling regimes, the kinds of research that a movement in support of poor communities might wish to do, and a start on talking about how this approach might be used in combination with ideas from autonomist Marxism to map out relations of ruling and social relations of struggle at a global level. Other essays are concrete examples of how these approaches to sociology can and have been used to understand the world, from a look at the ways in which gender is regulated from the standpoint of F-to-M transexuals in Quebec, to the ways in which relations of ruling have shaped the experiences of workers in the Canadian garment industry. The book concludes by asking some questions and providing some initial thoughts on issues relevant to future directions that these streams of sociology might take, and the ways in which social movements might take up research practices to make themselves more effective in changing the world.

There are a number of things in the work that I think are worth commenting on. For one thing, at a theoretical level, I am unsure about the particular theorization of standpoint in institutional ethnography. I'm not sure if I just don't understand it well enough or if there really are things that I think are important in a politically useful approach to standpoint that it omits. Institutional ethnography seems to claim that people who do not personally occupy a particular standpoint can still participate in the development of knowledge based in that standpoint, and can base their actions in knowledge developed from other standpoints. To a certain extent, the idea of being an ally, which I see as politically central, is based on an understanding something like this -- basing one's political actions on knowledge developed in a standpoint which you do not occupy. But some of the ways that standpoint is articulated in this book might go farther than I think is warranted in talking about the role that someone who does not personally occupy that standpoint can go. I think this is important given some of Sherene Razack's observations about how our history of experience of oppression and privilege (i.e. specificities in how our everyday/everynight realities are shaped by ruling relations, to use language from IE/PAE) impact in very basic ways on how we can know the world. An example she uses is the very different ways that a story about an experience of racism shared orally in a local space gets activated by people of colour who are listening versus white people who are listening. I'm just not sure that the understanding of standpoint in institutional ethnography really deals with the fact that, for example, I, as a white man, will not only experience different things in my everyday than a white woman or a woman or man of colour, but my ability to see and relate to some experiences grounded in one of those standpoints will be different than that of another person who shares that standpoint.

I am also not clear on the ways in which institutional ethnography deals or fails to deal with other sources of social regulation. In particular, I know that there are situations in which my behaviour is not regulated directly by a particular ruling regime -- i.e. an "institution" brought into being by people in diverse local settings who are behaving in ways set by regulatory texts -- but rather by more nebulous stories and narratives and practices in the culture that have shaped my gut level commonsense and the ground from which I am able to make deliberate choices. There are ways in which I know I have practiced and experienced gender and sexuality that are related to larger cultural narratives and not governed by specific written texts, for example. How are such everyday realities related to the ways in which institutional ethnography and political activist ethnography work and allow us to understand the workings of power?

And I'm not sure I understand the ways in which the materialist versus idealist distinction that is important to institutional ethnography actually works in practice. I would need to think it through more clearly to really articulate what I mean, but I have a sense that there may be theoretical limits to this distinction. As well, there definitely seem to be limits in practice. Certainly in things that I have read by Dorothy Smith herself, for example, and a few others, there is a very through application of the ontology and epistemology of institutional ethnography in a way that permeates their writing. But a number of the essays in this collection seemed to use some of the ideas of IE but to remain very vested in particular frameworks that still seem steeped in philosophical idealism. Is this a problem? Is it inevitable? Is pointing it out just another unhelpful way of encouraging the creation of a "party line"? Where exactly do the boundaries lie?

Probably the most disappointing part of the book is that the area that I find most exciting, the explicit embedding of such research into social movement practice, largely remains to be explored in practical ways. The reprinted classic from George Smith, "Political Activist as Ethnographer", presents fascinating material that is both methodological and concrete, and was clearly grounded in actual organizing by an actual social movement. All four original essays that were oriented more towards concrete application were good, useful, and interesting, but none felt as if they did as much as I might like to see in carrying out the diverse visions described in the three original essays oriented more towards visioning of methodology. Two of the former four were very firmly grounded in the approach that is the focus of the book but the other two seemed to make somewhat more partial use of it, and even those first two, perhaps more because of the expectations of academic writing than the actual circumstances of their production, felt a little more distant from the everyday of struggle than I would ideally hope to see. Though it is important to add that I think even the more academic articulation of this approach has the potential to be of great use to movements.

Perhaps the most interesting stretch of the book for me came in the lengthy afteword by the four editors, in the section attempting to "explode" the insider/outsider binary, both as locations for social change activity and as starting points for research. I won't try to summarize the discussion here, but it certainly provided clarity for me, given that I have long had a certain attachment to "outside" as the "best" location from which to engage in the change that needs to happen, an everyday reality that I recognized as "inside" to varying degrees, and an intellectual dislike of the entire dichotomy that I was not able to really articulate. Part of the summation of this section reads:

Political activist ethnography provides us with a means to move beyond the limitations of both abstract 'moral' exteriority and abstract 'realistic' interiority. Political activist ethnography re-affirms that another world is possible, not from a position of exteriority, but from the inside out. It is rooted in struggles currently going on within and against 'the system.' The debate between the 'lunatic radical' and the 'reformist pig,' the debate where both are right and both are wrong, therefore finds its resolution in a mode of investigation that enables us to envision forms of counter-power as practical social accomplishments -- whether it is thousands of people marching on Yonge Street in Toronto to protest the bath raids, people converting an abandoned building into housing for the homeless or the successful blockading of the WTO meeting in Seattle. Counter-power, in this instance, does not take exteriority as its precondition but rather locates its source in social relations, organization and struggles....It is through our own practices, relations and struggles that capitalist social relations are produced, and we have the social capacities to transform them. We are both within and against this 'system.'

Though it may not be evident from this quote, I also found this discussion useful because it felt like it had analogies with some anti-oppression analysis and the advice it gives to folks with privilege: the point is not to try and deny or renounce the place you occupy in terms of your privilege (particularly privilege that is not simplistically about having dollars in the bank) but rather to recognize where you are (and can be, for privilege tends to bring some level of mobility) located within a 'system' that you cannot escape and to begin your efforts to create change from a very grounded understanding of that location.

How these ideas might relate to my future work, I'm not so sure. Certainly I am interested in how this ontology and epistemology might be applied to the study of history, given that my present work is related to social movement history. I have read and reviewed one book that starts to explore this by doing it -- in fact, it was written by one of the editors of Sociology for Changing the World. But that book is just one initial foray, I think, and I would need to do a lot more thinking and writing and reading before I could make my own arguments with any confidence. Certainly my own project provides certain symbollic resonances with how IE/PAE might be applied to history, because it does attempt to enter history through the standpoints of interview participants from diverse locations, but I don't think it quite fits the bill. Perhaps a more focused use of the oral history technique, which would allow for an exploration of the relations of ruling and struggle in one specific movement in a more thorough manner than the more survey-oriented approach of my project, might be one way.

And of course I'm not convinced that I am going to want to stick with a focus on history after this particular project is complete. In any event, I do know I will be sticking with social movements, and I suspect I will, in different ways at different times, be engaged with research and writing related to them, so I think it is likely that bits and pieces of this approach to understanding the world will continue to pop up in what I do.

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

Robert Fisk: The Case of the Toronto 17

"This has been a good week to be in Canada--or an awful week, depending on your point of view--to understand just how irretrievably biased and potentially racist the Canadian press has become."
-- Robert Fisk, world renowned journalist for Britain's The Independent

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Proud (of) Niece

It made me happy to hear just now that my almost-four year-old niece, whose hair is currently in the style known as a "Mohawk" (a term that I'm sure has a colonial derivation, though I'm afraid I don't know the history), was dancing with abandon at the front of the crowd at the K-W Pride celebration and was invited up on to the stage to dance with some drag queens, which she did with great delight. When the crowd was asked to select who was the best dancer, she was chosen.

Apparently, later at her grandmother's house she put on a wig and some sunglasses and a giant straw hat that happened to be lying around and when asked what she was suposed to be, she gave the name of one of the drag queens with whom she had earlier been dancing.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Special Diet Victory in Sudbury

Here is an article from the newspaper Northern Life about the case of a local man whose access to the Special Dietary Supplement had been reduced despite serious and acute need. The Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee, which recently decided to change its name to the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty, was active in supporting Boucher in his struggle with the Ontario Disability bureaucracy.

'Little Guy' wins fight against bureaucracy


It only took 10 weeks, but it's time to chalk-one-up for the little guy.

With his June pension cheque in hand and his special diet and transportation supplements reinstated, Raymond Boucher says he's back on his medical diet, taking his medications and has begun a new treatment schedule in preparation for surgery in mid-June.

Spokesperson for the Hunger Organizing Committee and member of the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty, Clarissa Lassaline, says she is happy for Boucher.

"It's a bit of a victory. Raymond got the full amount for his diet supplement and they made it retroactive to February. We're proud of our efforts on his behalf. It's a shame he had to go about it in the way that he did...when you have to fight that hard for something that shouldn't have been cut back in the first place."

Diabetic and waiting to undergo dialysis, the 54-year-old Sudbury resident, who is too ill to work, had stopped taking medication and refused medical treatment in mid-March to protest what he saw as unfair treatment by the Ontario Disability Pension ODSP).

Boucher had been receiving a special diet supplement of $147 a month from ODSP for several years. His April cheque was less than he normally received.

The $42 transportation supplement, which helps him get to his medical appointments was cut off, and his diet supplement was reduced to $97 without explanation.

With barely any reading and writing skills, Boucher was overwhelmed by government bureaucracy and in the middle of a run-around with ODSPs staff and doctors.

Gary Kinsman from the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee reviewed Boucher's files and sent a letter to ODSP asking it re-examine the case. With no response from ODSP, Kinsman and supporters met in Memorial Park May 10 and made their way to the ODSP office to demand the government re-examine Boucher's situation. After a 90-minute wait, the group met with Boucher's caseworker who agreed to accept yet another special diet form from Boucher's medical team.

Without admitting responsibility for the confusing letters and forms, ODSP accepted the special diet supplement request form filled out by a local dietitian.

The dietitian was able to decipher the form, which is something neither Boucher's doctor nor his specialist at the Sudbury Regional Hospital had been able to do.

"I know I could have never done it on my own. I was falling apart," Boucher says.

He says a special thanks is owed to Dawn, in MPP Rick Bartolucci's constituency office. According to Boucher, she helped him to get his transportation supplement reinstated.

This is just one of many examples across the province that demonstrate that the McGuinty government's rhetoric about the social assistance system meeting people's needs is just rhetoric. Even in as acute a case as Boucher's, whatever steps that were made in addressing his needs happened not because of a benevolent system that is finely honed to recognize and meet them, but because he was able to stand up and refuse to take the abuse, and because he had access to support in that struggle. How many other people do not have the resources to resist and are suffering and experiencing irreperable harm because they have no choice but to rely on a system that refuses to provide them with sufficient means to live healthy lives?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Notes on Politics in Two Movies With Ian McKellen


If your read my post of memories of LA, you might have picked up that I go to the movies a lot. I'm not sure why, exactly, but it seems to fit well with what I need to get out of the limited purely-for-leisure time that I have. I even go to a fair number of movies that are, on the whole, not great movies.

In the last few weeks I have been to two different shows. The only thing they have in common, other than being large Hollywood productions, is that Ian McKellen was in both of them. I have a few random things to say about each, both as movies and as texts that can be read in political ways, and some of those have to do with his characters.

The DaVinci Code

I haven't read the book and do not intend to, though many years ago I did read a nonfiction book that talked about some of the evidence for things appropriated by Dan Brown for his story -- things like Jesus Christ marrying Mary Magdalene, moving to France, and having a few kids. In fact, the father of a good friend of mine growing up belonged to a small church that believes that this actually happened.

I was not originally planning on seeing the movie, but ended up doing so on a whim. It was pretty boring, on the whole. I have a longstanding dislike of Tom Hanks, but found him inoffensive and unremarkable in this movie. I like Audrey Tautou, but while they went out of their way to make her adorable in this movie, they really didn't give her much to do. I have nothing against plots that centre around conspiracies and secret societies but the script was not at all compelling.

The only interesting part of the film was Ian McKellen's character. He gave a charmingly eccentric performance, for one thing. However, the character was also a good illustration of the political foolishness that can result from taking the positivist epistemology that is intertwined with political liberalism to extremes, and expecting a "fact" to act as a social agent that will change the world. (I was reading Decolonizing Methodologies around the time I saw the movie, so epistemology was on my mind.)

The premise of the movie is that there are living descendents of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene in the world today, and that there is an ongoing war between a secret society that is sworn to protect both those descendents and the actual tomb of Christ, and a secret formation within the Roman Catholic Church that is sworn to find and kill them in order to protect the Church. It turns out that McKellen's character has devoted his life to uncovering the identity of the descendents of Christ and the location of the tomb in order to use DNA sequencing technology to prove that the Church has been lying for centuries and thereby, in his view, liberate humanity from the grip of at least one hierarchical human institution that exerts its power in the name of faith.

I don't have anything to say about the character's goals, but his intended methods are interesting because they are so foolish but they echo the methods of some liberals and progressives in the aftermath of 9/11. In the context of the movie's premise, McKellen's character might be able to accomplish his goal of producing a "fact" that was credible to him in demonstrating that the Church's version of history is untrue, in a supposedly objective way -- I'm not convinced to what extent some of the scientific details would be meaningful, because any single person alive today would probably have at least a million ancestors who were alive at that time, and any person alive in that time who procreated probably has millions of descendents, but we'll ignore that. But it is a fallacy to think that producing that "fact" in that way would necessarily have any social impact whatsoever. Knowledge comes to exist socially, and I seriously doubt, if that "fact" were produced in the context outlined in the movie, that it would have much of a social or political impact of any sort at all. It might generate one flash of media attention and then be ignored as an old crackpot making strange and unlikely claims. Or it might not even do that. The fact that organized Christianity would engage in a well-funded and highly skilled public relations campaign to ensure that this "fact" never became commonly accepted knowledge would probably be decisive. I do not identify as a Christian, and if I were to see a story like this on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper I would immediately decide it was unlikely and unintersting and not give it another thought. Not only does McKellen's chracter show a striking ignorance of how social knowledge comes to be, but he also shows an unwarranted positivist faith in the history he has, in the story, uncovered. For this "fact" to function as he wanted, it would require not only people believing that the DNA tests weren't faked, but that the very shady and marginal and esoteric history linking the DNA to Jesus Christ was beyond any doubt. Most people would see a living person related to some mouldy bones that could've belonged to anyone, and go about their business undisturbed. One "fact" cannot change the world on its own, only people can.

This immediately made me think about the ways in which a certain subset of liberals and progressive responded to 9/11. Generally speaking, from what I have seen, these people lack an analysis of power. In dealing with the extreme psychological disjuncture that 9/11 created in the minds, hearts, and bodies of many (especially privileged) North Americans, and which the Bush administration has manipulated with great skill, they did not have a social analysis that could explain it so they turned to unlikely conspiracies and individual villains. They seem to be convinced that uncovering the right "facts" will reveal that the Bushies were to blame in a way that will turn people against them. Never mind that their manipulation of data often enough is inconsistent even with the very principles of positivist epistemology, rationalism, and scientific methodology to which they claim allegiance: I find it highly unlikely that, even if they were to find a string of obscure "facts" that did, in fact, relate to culpability for 9/11 by the Bush Admininstration -- something I do not believe to be true -- that this string of "facts" based in specialist knowledge and competing claims of interpretation would be of any use in changing the world. If we cannot change the world based on the much more easily verifiable facts about institutions in which we are complicit engaging in oppression, conquest, and other imperial adventures, then I don't think a harshly worded analysis of a dubious videotape will make much difference even in the unlikely event that such an analysis were, in some sense, "true."

(And I should hasten to add that this dismissal of "conspiracy theorizing" is much different from those who try and dismiss the very kinds of analyses of power that I am advocating by unreasonably calling them "conspiracy theories," such as those who try to use this label to dismiss Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's analysis of the functioning of the North American media, for example.)

My other political complaint about the film has to do with the portrayal of figures in the Roman Catholic Church. Now, it is a very real and very worrisome political fact that quite right-wing forces are in control of the Church at a time when, I have read, it probably has more influence on the secular world than it has had in 200 years. Though I usually think it is important for me to stay out of the doings of collectives to which I do not belong, I am very concerned that this right-wing-dominated political power that is in the hands of the Church hierarchy will have a negative influence on the world, despite the fact that there are pockets of wonderful, progressive thought within the Church and some delightfully liberatory readings of Bible. The fact that this political reality has the potential to have an impact on my life and the lives of people I care about make it legitimate, I think, for me to talk about it and express opinions, even while I do wish to avoid the trap that many liberals fall into of going beyond an analysis of politics and denigrating people's faith. In that light, it is important even for non-Catholics to have some understanding of the right-wing forces that are currently in charge of the church. As such, having such forces portrayed as cartoon villains, as was done in The DaVinci Code, is profoundly politically unhelpful. I mean, seriously, I kept wondering when the Evil Bishop that got shown a lot was going to paste on a handle-bar mustache, cackle maniacally, and tie Audrey Tautou to some railway tracks. This kind of ridiculous portrayal allows the right within the Church to rally even those who do not necessarily support their agenda to their cause in the name of supporting the faith as a whole from attack, and has the potential to be used as a tool for further marginalizing progressive critiques within the church.

X-Men 3

I have developed a slowly growing interest in comic books as a medium for storytelling as an adult, but neither growing up nor recently have I read any of the X-Men comics. Well, I think I maybe read one issue of one series at my piano teacher's house while waiting for my lesson when I was twelve, was completely confused by it, and never thought to seek one out again. Nonetheless, I do like speculative fiction as a genre in general, and I have had some modest affection for the film incarnation of this franchise. Admittedly, some part of that is probably an expression of a more general enjoyment of people who are or who appear to be English stage actors doing more popular kinds of projects -- Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in these films, but also people like Judy Dench, Alan Rickman, and John Hurt in others.

This film was okay, but I was disappointed in it. From things I have read, one of the problems with the X-Men comics in a number of eras has been spreading the story far too thinly across too many characters and too many storylines, with unrealistic expectations of reader continuity across large numbers of issues. I thought that the emotional impact of the film was similarly (though not to the same extent) diluted -- too much of why we should care about these characters was assumed from past installments in the series, and was spread across too many different storylines in the present installment that did not really get knit as effectively as they could've been into one overall narrative flow.

I was also displeased with issues of representation in the film. The "politicized" mutants are divided into two camps, the moderates centred around Dr. Charles Xavier and the militants around Magneto. The way the films are written, it is obvious that though we are meant to have some limited sympathy for the militants on some occasions, by and large the moderates are to be read as the "good guys" and the militants are to be read as the "bad guys." I wish they would show more of the actual complexities that would result from such a division, but this is Hollywood and it is a relief that they do occasionally in the series show any complexity at all, as with the still-existing friendship and sense of shared cause to a limited extent between Xavier and Magneto. But in particular in this third film I didn't like how membership in each group was coded visually. Both have members that are more visibly mutant than most, i.e. by being blue and hairy, but the human-looking members of the "good" mutants are all coded as middle-class and straight, whereas some of the members of the "bad" side are visibly poor, working-class, "freaky" (in their human atributes), and/or queer. That's not so cool.

More important, though, was that the film was politically unrealistic and vapid. It is even more important in speculative fiction, because of the inclusion of elements of the fantastic in the story, to portray basic things about how human beings behave and interact, at the individual and social levels, in ways that will be credible to the audience.

In this film, part of the premise was that a corporation, with government support, had found a mutant whose biological tissue could be used to produce a "cure" for being a mutant -- something that suppressed the mutation, and made mutants back into normal human beings. There were quite reasonable concerns about this development on the part of many mutants early in the film. The relationship between mutants and the state in this universe has been rocky, and though there is currently a "liberal" administration, politically savy mutants on both sides of the divide in their movement are aware that this can easily change. And then...the problem is portrayed as no longer being a problem. At the end of the film, after a battle with tangential relevance to the central motivating problem, the writers felt no need to deal with the fact that the underlying problem of control over mutant identity, which can easily be administered involuntarily and/or in a weaponized way, is in the hands of a corporation and a state that may only be tolerant temporarily. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, with the militants defeated, the moderates are shown as being happy with the situation. There was no conception that there might, even among the social democratic mutants, be further demands for community control of this important tool that goes to the basis of mutant identity, for its removal from private sector control, for the renunciation of its weaponization by the state, or anything else. One mutant is appointed ambassador to the United Nations and everyone is happy.

What's more, Ian McKellen's character -- Magneto, leader of the militant faction -- is written as being stupid. He is arrogant and evil, no doubt, but stupidity is most definitely not in character. In organizing his movement as a whole, and in the assault on the "cure" production facilities on Alcatraz Island that provide the climactic battle scene for the movie, he is shown as having no idea how to do things that are based in history and might actually win. I'm sure this is because either the writers themselves have no idea how such a thing might be done by someone who is doubtlessly a student of political uprisings throughout history, or they are counting on the fact that the vast majority of their audience has no idea so they don't need to bother being credible. And I'm not arguing that the militants be shown as "good" -- I want realism and nuance, not partisanship. I want them to be shown credibly.

Though I have thought, particularly in the first movie and in this one, that it would be nice if the storyline could get beyond shallow Cold War-era polarization in the portrayal of the mutant side of things, and show that it is possible to have a position that both rejects the integrationist and liberal tendencies of the moderate wing and the more cartoonish and gratuitously violent aspects in which the more militant wing is shown to indulge. I know that would be removing the stories from some of their key moorings in the popular imagination in North America, but of course I see that as a good thing.

And....there you go. No conclusion, no attempt to turn this into a unified narrative. Be on your way!


Sunday, June 04, 2006

Promoting Writers

Back at the beginning of March I mentioned that someone I know won a literary prize -- Ahmad Saidullah won second prize in the short story category of the CBC Literary Awards for "Happiness and Other Disorders." As I said at that time, I like to promote other writers whom I know, which I'm taking the opportunity to do once again...the story was just published in enRoute and can be read here.

And while I'm doing this, I found out a couple of weeks ago that one of my sisters has had poetry published in an anthology called Shift & Switch. I haven't had a chance to actually get my hands on a copy yet, but it apparently "offers a unique alternative: radicality, innovation, and experimentation with sound, visual elements, mathematics, surrealism, and ’pataphysics, in convenient book-form! Crack the spine to discover Canada’s emerging, evocative avant-garde poets and their electrifying poetry."

Check 'em both out!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Listen In...

On Monday, June 5 at 4 pm PST or 7 pm EST you can listen on KPFK to hear Eric Mann and Damon Azali of LA's Labor/Community Strategy Center interview renowned academic Manning Marable about the life of Malcolm X.

I'm relaying this partly because I want to make a point of listening and having put something up here will remind me, and partly because the Strategy Center is the sponsor organization of the LA Bus Rider's Union, which I briefly (and shallowly) tried to connect with during the first half of our stint in Los Angeles. Plus, Marable is a very important left voice from African America and it'll be interesting to hear what he has to say about Malcolm. And I've also heard Mann speak and read one of his books, and I think pretty highly of his politics as a long-time white anti-racist activist, even if he is a bit more traditionally Marxist than I tend to see myself -- although it's a very engaged and activist Marxism, not academic or sectarian, so I've always felt I had stuff to learn from that too.

Anyway, I'm going to try my best to listen in over the net, and I bet I'll learn a lot.