Thursday, December 28, 2006

Review: Passionate Politics

[Charlotte Bunch. Passionate Politics: Feminist Theory in Action. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.]

Charlotte Bunch is a middle-class white lesbian woman who was a prominent organizer and theorist in the heart of the second wave of women's liberation in the United States, and who remains active and vocal today. She came out of a radical Christian space, and was involved in the civil rights movement and in opposing the U.S. invasion of Vietnam before feminism burst on the scene and into her life. Soon after that transformational event, she came out as a lesbian and was active in doing and theorizing separatist lesbian-feminist politics during the height of the gay-straight split in the U.S. women's movement. She went on to be very active in feminist media production and in what she termed "global feminism," or the building of bridges among feminists around the world.

The book is a collection of her writings from her entry into the women's movement until 1986. I read this book for two reasons. The first is that the chapter I am pretty much done rewriting is about two gay liberation activists. Bunch did some important early writing about heterosexism, and someone pointed me towards her as a source to flesh out what I had written on the subject. (A useful device she used in encouraging hetero women to think about heterosexism was to get them to be lesbians for a week, in fact or at least as a thought experiment -- to go around only with women, tell your friends and family that you are a lesbian, and so on, and see how life was different.) The other reason I read this was that two or three chapters I hope to get to sometime next year involve activists from the Canadian women's movement. One important aspect of doing justice to the words and work and lives of the people I have interviewed is not only amassing a suitable collection of relevant facts, but also developing a sense of the feel of the times and movements in which they were active. Though Bunch is from the U.S., it is my sense that there were enough similarities in the women's movement in North America across the diverse physical locations where it blossomed that her writing will be useful in helping me develop that qualitative sense of what it was like.

As is so often the case, I found much more in the book that was interesting and useful, even if not directly applicable to my work. First of all, it succeeds admirably in conveying something of the spirit of the time over which its essays were written. As well, it is useful for understanding some of the more material aspects of the history of the U.S. women's movement as well, and the various stages through which it passed in those years. It is particularly poignant to read some of the things Bunch wrote early in the Reagan era, and how spectacularly unsuccessful the women's movement and other progressive movements in the United States have been at turning back the offensive of the New Right that was already horrifying to her in the early '80s. Perhaps less visible but even more disturbing is how the changes in material conditions brought about by a quarter century of victories for the right (including, for the most part, during the Clinton presidency) is how it has taken the radical edge off of so much of the activities and rhetoric by the women's movement and other movements in the United States.

Different essays in the book also tackle questions relevant to many different movements in many different eras. There is attention to social movement pedagogy, for example, and to the building of media institutions that are related to or integrated into social movements. As well, she wrestles with important questions about the value, in certain circumstances, of splitting from a movement that you previously saw as being your home, of building movements across divides of power and privilege, and of allying with other movements. I found material of that sort to be particularly interesting, because her quite radical flavour of feminism and her experiences of opprsesion as a lesbian within the women's movement provided her with an early and powerful sensitivity to the category of "woman" not being monolithic. Over the time period covered by the essays, as she moves into her focus on global feminism, you can see this understanding expand and become more sophisticated. At the same time, when read from a basis of anti-oppression politics in the early 21st century, her writings in this area are a real mix -- sometimes it feels like she really hits the nail on the head, but at other times (often in the same essay) it reads lilke the same problematic sorts of things that most white or otherwise privileged progrsesives would have been writing back then and that they/we write in the blogosphere today. She'll say some great stuff, then seamlessly transition into the depoliticizing concepts/language of "diversity". She'll talk about the importance of not just adding token representatives of excluded groups to whatever movement is under consideration but actually being proactive about being changed by the politics of the heretofor excluded group, and then she'll write about unity of feminist women across lines of race, class, and nationality as almost a given rather than a social accomplishment that comes only from hard political work and a commitment to undermine their own power to dominate by privileged women.

The book also helped me understand a particular way that I have read and heard feminist women, particularly of Bunch's generation, use the word "feminism" and "feminist," which has previously somewhat puzzled me because it does not reflect any social reality that I have seen or that I have heard about from feminist women of my own generation, or how most of them use those words. I'm not sure I can capture exactly what I mean, but it has to do with assumptions of unity and political cohesion that really were reflections of the more energized and movement-y movement of that era (as well as being indicative, at least to a certain extent, of exclusions from and marginalization within that movement).

The later essays also began to take on a particular flavour, to reflect a particular tone that I associate specifically with the political culture in the United States. Again, I'm having trouble defining it, but I think it is peraps a reflection of the loss (at least in white communities) after the 1970s of much of a social base for any non-right politics not infused with liberalism, unless you wanted to be totally marginal. And I hesitate to say those things, because they are quite harsh words and I'm not sure I mean them -- to whatever extent they are true, it is important that they are not meant to be understood as reflecting personal failings but rather material changes in political realities.

Given the limited time and space that most people have in their lives to read about social movements, this might not be the number one book I would recommend coming out of the second wave of the women's movement. However, for particular people with particular interests, it is very useful. Specifically, I would recommend it to people looking to understand the development of that particular movement in North America. As well, I think it contains useful reflections grounded in actual movement building on important questions that continue to plague social movements, and readnig this could certainly be part of a deliberate program of attempting to learn from the successes and mistakes of our elders.

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

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

On Liberals

A nice post from Z-Net blogger and radical historian Paul Street on the frustrations that those of us further to the left often have with those who identify as "liberals."

A sample:

My special distaste for liberals and Democrats isn’t just about closeness and power within the various liberal-run institutions I’ve inhabited over the years. It’s also about honesty and straight shooting.

Liberals would like this --- it fits their tendency to lump left radicals together with the right (as two peas in the same fanatical and overly "ideological" pod) --- but I've long tended to get along better with Republicans and "conservatives" (with the crucial exception a particular and rare kind of Republican: the ex-leftist turned reactionary) than with "liberals" and Democrats.

I’ve found Republicans more willing than Democrats to appreciate hearing a talk or even taking a class from an openly left and anti-capitalist speaker or teacher. They tend not to mind a presenter or professor who takes an openly political, forceful, and confident position about past and current events. They tend to agree on the basic nature of the underlying socioeconomic systemic: rapacious, selfish, business-dominated, exploitative, oppressive, racist, militaristic and imperialistic state capitalism crafted for and by the privileged few – the difference (yes, it's a big one) being that they want to get rich under that system and I want to overthrow it. They don’t mind conflict – open, honest, and forthright contestation about basics. When they disagree they do so openly, honestly, and (usually) respectfully and don’t act as if I were a threat to everything decent on earth.

Things have been different with liberals. They’ve tended to be very uneasy with the taking of open, confident, forceful and unambiguous positions. They recoil and shrink from honest and forthright discussion of the dominant, underlying system and its terrible imperatives, insisting on trying to put some sort of human face on horrific structures: Neoliberalism/State-Capitalism Lite; Racism/White-Supremacy Lite; Imperialism/Militarism Lite; Nationalism Lite; Ghettoization and Mass Incarceration Lite; Sexism Lite, etc. They warn about the horrors of “extremism” – one of their favorite words to describe the left project of furthering the ideals of classic liberalism by advocating true social justice (literal equality) and radical-democratic transformation.

Read the whole thing!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas as Weapon

So this isn't the usual sort of thing I write about. Usually this stuff is a kind of rhetorical battering ram as well as a not-so-cunning but still effective trap laid by the U.S.-based right for liberals, who usually jump into it in ways that result in it accomplishing more or less what the right wants. But as Lisa Duggan has argued, the right engages in "culture war" tactics not out of sheer perversity but because it helps them accomplish their broader goals, and a genuinely left response to such tactics that recognizes what is actually going on can be helpful. Not sure I can claim to be doing that, but I've decided to say something.

The key thing is to remember is that it is all about exerting power over public or social space.

The issue: Apparently an airport in a U.S. city, I think Denver, had a Christmas display. A local rabbi complained that Judaism was excluded, and from what I heard threatened legal action. The airport authority took down the display and said they would reevaluate their policies for next year. I can't be bothered searching out the original article because, really, the details don't matter much -- it's a story that the right has been using in various forms to mobilize outrage for their own purposes for quite some time.

I encountered this story in two very distinct location. One was a blog post by a blogger claiming the mantle "progressive," about a month ago. Again, I don't really feel like looking it up, and I'm not sure it matters much, because there were probably dozens that were similar. The other was in a pub in downtown Toronto last weekend where I was having a quick pint before my movie started. The speaker in the near empty house was a young white man who seemed to be some sort of minor functionary in the business world -- judging by appearance and words, he could well belong to either of the two dominant political parties in this country (the Liberals and the Conservatives, for non-Canadian readers), but if he is a Conservative then he is more likely to be in the vestiges of the Joe Clarke wing of the party rather than among the hard-right nutters around Harper. (The guy with whom he was conversing and whom he seemed to know and be friendly with, appeared to be -- and such guesses are always risky, of course -- an older gay white man with somewhat nonconforming gender presentation, which also seems to me to be an indicator that our speaker was just some dude and might even think of himself as liberal, and not a committed reactionary.)

Both the post and the person said much the same thing -- so much the same that I suspect they were echoing Fox News talking points, even though I have not seen (and, again, do not care to see) the original source of the story. They disparaged the original request for inclusion. They named "political correctness" and disparaged that. They made a big deal about how impossibly, terribly, unbearably hard it would be to respond to every such request for symbolic inclusion in public space. They talked about "people" attacking Christmas even though removing Christian symbolism was not the point of the request, and a sense of "why can't they just leave us alone." Neither did this from a particularly religious standpoint.

The first thing worthy of comment, though I suppose not surprising, is that both sources of this stuff are at most centrist, and at least one, perhaps both, would think of themselves as liberal. Both are also young, white, middle-class men, which may be more relevant. It shouldn't, after all these years, but it still surprises me how easily such things spill from ostensibly liberal tongues.

I remember the first time I encountered it: I was early in my process of starting to think critically about the world. Some small town liberals of my acquaintance related at around this time of year how one of the few Jewish families in town complained to the local school that their child was in had an exclusively Christian and Christmas-y pageant and they wanted a dash of Chanukkah to give their reality a little visibility and their kid a little affirmation. The school started off in this direction, but some fundamentalist Christian parents objected to including anything that wasn't Christian, and so the whole pageant was scrapped. These liberal folk, who wouldn't object at all if the Jewish content were included without a fuss, did not blame the fundamentalists for refusing to allow Jewish content but blamed the Jews for asking. And I think the phrase "political correctness" did come up.

The second thing that jumps out at me is how quick these two guys were to throw up their hands and say, "This just isn't practical!" This seemed to be one of their central arguments. It became a silppery slope kind of thing. The version of the rant that I heard in person actually included the following racist dialogue, with its sad attempt at reductio ad absurdem through linking Blackness with a symbol chosen because it signals primitiveness: "Okay, so you hang a menorah. Fine. But what about Kwanzaa? What do you hang for Kwanzaa? A goat?" In any case, both post and person seemed passionately committed to the idea that we live in a world in which people can be sent to the moon, the resident hyperpower can produce a functionally useful budget accounting for funds in the trillions each year, we are on the verge of machinery measured in nanometres, and skillfull analysis can allow marketers to target the narrowest of market slices -- and they have the gall to claim and probably actually believe that their objections to hanging a menorah when asked are technical? "We just can't be exected to account for everything"? It's ludicrous.

Like I said, it all boils down to the control of public and social space. That's why it is useful to the right to blow up such controversies, because they stir emotions to push people not otherwise explicitly in their camp to support their side, without making the real issues visible. Who has power to control a given space? Who gets excluded? What happens when the excluded ask to share? In the sarcastic words of Phil Ochs, a liberal is someone who is ten degrees to the left of centre in good times, and ten degrees to the right if it affects them personally. By invoking something treasured even by many non-religious people whose heritage is Christians and making it seem to be at risk, the right can push privileged liberal (and other) practices in responding to the demands of oppressed groups, which already reflect a very shallow patience for such things, to the right because it feels like it affects them personally. Then the ideology of "political correctness" as mobilized by the right kicks in, and is used to take this focused, instinctive rejection of sharing power in one particular situation and expands it to a rejection of sharing power in all sorts of areas.

Of course, like I said, they don't really have to be pushed far anyway. "It's too difficult" or "They shouldn't cause a fuss" are really just liberal ways of saying (and feeling comfortable about saying) "This is ours!" They are a way of saying, "Public space's character should not be determined by who it is that constitutes that public in a respectful and collaborative fashion -- we stole this space fair and square and anyone else is here by our good graces so they should just up." It is a way of saying that momentary discomfort or the need to actually make some effort on the part of white, often middle-class, and even a lot of the time liberal folks is more important to avoid than Other people being wholly erased from public or social space.

It is a way of motivating hearts against challenges to those who already control public space. It is a way to encourage those who are the same as those in control in some ways to act out of that sameness and to get used to acting out of that sameness, rather than to act on our sameness with others who are excluded in different ways from us from access to comfort, security, power.

A part of the pub rant was about defending his right to say "Merry Christmas," something threatened only in the fevered imaginations of Republican political consultants and those they manipulate. What he was actually objecting to was not someone standing with a gun to his head and making him say, "Happy holidays." Rather, what was being suggested and resisted is the idea that the people around us be engaegd with and social space be treated as inherently needing to be negotiated. These rants affirm the right not to care about the holidays of non-Christians amongst us, not to figure out with the people in our lives how to navigate these things in ways that allow both/all of us to be who we are, feel seen, feel respected. This isn't tricky, it just takes a little effort and a willingness to be challenged. More importantly, it assumes a willingness to relinquish the power and privilege to determine the character of a particular space, something that is almost never done willingly. And, again, the emotive power that even a purely cultural Christian such as myself still associates with the season is poked with the stick of "political correctness" so it bleeds into all sorts of other areas, reinforcing an instinctive rejection of demands to share power -- from a former queer co-worker in a reasonably queer-positive workplace using language that would be completely unremarkable in a queer space being informed in different language but in no uncertain terms, after a straight woman heard it and complained, that queers were welcome but were not allowed to determine the character of the space; to middle-class activists (and, in different ways, activists socialized into dominant forms of masculinity) refusing to function in ways that reflect ways of work different from our own; to men of my parents' generation reacting badly to the changes in expectations of the women they married in terms of relationship roles; to people of all generations feeling smug in their refusal to question the narrow and boring range of relationship categories/scripts handed to all of us by the culture.

That's what it comes down to: Democracy in its purest form means that any shared space, from the interpersonal to the most massively social, must be continually renegotiated as a matter of course. By invoking high twitch issues like Christmas, the right can keep lots of people thinking about what they might lose if things actually worked like that -- unearned and oppressive privileges, for the most part. The thing is, most of us have a lot to gain, too -- a lot more, in my opinion. Not only could we gain a potential for richness in our lives, for greater human connection, but if we subject everything to that perpetual, equitable renegotiation, then the vast majority of us, in our workplaces, our communities, and our homes, would ultimately be much farther ahead. Our workplaces would no longer be dictatorships, our communities could define their own standards for the use of public space, our families would be flexible in form and democratic in practice.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Another Update on Police Violence in Sudbury

Just received the following info on today's court date, which I was unable to attend due to L's napping schedule, involving the charges laid against two Sudbury youth who experienced violence at the hands of the local police last summer:

Okay, so today we were expecting the prosecutor to announce their decision as to whether or not they would drop all the charges, or decide to have some or all of them stick and go to trial.

Suprisingly, this did not happen. Instead the prosecutor postponed their decision.

We found out that the prosecutor is stalling and continues to try and figure out whether it would publically look better for them to drop the charges or go to trial. They are feeling some pressure and want this case to go away out of the public eye. They want it out of the media and for us to stop making clear that the police harassment and brutality that Shawn and I experienced happens all the time to marginalized people.

About 14 supporters came to the courtoom and piled pressure onto the prosecutor making it clear that people are still watching how this case is handled, and demonstrating that people have not lost interest or turned away from the case. Stall tactics are not going to make people forget about routine police violence and harassment.

In their time of indecision, we put pressure on them to DROP THE CHARGES!

We held a media conference before and after court on the steps of the courthouse, where people held up pictures of my injuries to denounce the disgusting actions of police brutality and routine harassment that is frequently used against sex workers, street kids, poor people, queer people, native peoples, people of colour, and other marginalized peoples.

We will send out another email to let people know what is happening for the next court date which is on January 17 at 1:30 pm in Courtoom B.

in love and rage,


I'll try and post any mainstream media coverage that might result from the media conferences if I have time, and of course I will post further updates on the court appearance in January as it approaches -- keep your calendar free!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ontario Liberals Continue to Starve Citizens

I got forwarded the following article, "Poverty is a medical condition", by a couple of different anti-poverty activists I have been active with. It was published in the Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation daily newspaper. It is yet another of many demonstrations of how the Liberal Party of Ontario and the province's middle class really could care less about the suffering upon which their success and affluence is based.

Poverty is a medical condition
Dec. 15, 2006. Toronto Star

According to the Toronto department of public health, a single mother with two school-aged children needs $412.70 a month to feed her family properly.

She has to be a thrifty shopper. She has to prepare most meals from scratch. And she has to be able to get to a decent grocery store. If she is living on social assistance, all of that is difficult. But there is a bigger problem. She has an income of $1,184 a month. That includes $582 for housing and $602 for everything else. The trouble is, there is no housing in Toronto for $582 a month. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,052 a month.

So she has $132 a month left for food, clothing, toiletries, transportation, utilities and possibly heat.

For this mother -- and thousands like her -- the health department's "nutritious food basket" is a cruel joke. A group of Toronto health-care professionals believes this constitutes a medical and moral crisis.

This week, while MPPs rushed through legislation awarding themselves a 25 per cent pay increase, a handful of doctors, nurses and dietitians held a "special diet clinic" at a community centre in the Davenport West neighbourhood. They filled out forms requesting supplementary nutritional assistance on behalf of about 100 welfare recipients. For most, this will mean an extra $10 to $50 a month.

Such clinics infuriate the provincial Liberals.

They sprang up 21 months ago, when the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) discovered a little-known provision of the welfare regulations allowing clients with health-related nutritional needs to apply for a special dietary allowance of $250 a month.

The lobby group recruited about 30 local medical practitioners to register social assistance recipients for the benefit. Other anti-poverty groups followed its lead. The number of Ontarians receiving the allowance rose dramatically.

Last fall, Sandra Pupatello, who was then minister of community and social services, cracked down. Denouncing the "rogue advocates" behind the scheme, she tightened the rules, making it much harder to get nutritional assistance.

New forms were drawn up, requiring health professionals to specify a client's precise medical disorder. Provincial bureaucrats would then determine whether to top up his or her welfare cheque.

An individual with heart disease would typically get an extra $10 a month. A person with diabetes would receive an additional $42 a month.

Someone with AIDS could be awarded the full $250 supplement, provided his or her body weight was falling.

A mother with hungry kids wouldn't qualify for any discretionary help.

"If you don't have conditions that are on the form, it's impossible to get the supplement," said Gary Bloch, a family physician with St. Michael's Hospital who participated in Wednesday's diet clinic. "It's really restrictive."

Most welfare recipients do suffer from chronic conditions: high blood pressure, diabetes, anemia, osteoporosis, arthritis or some combination.

But their real problem is poverty. They can't afford healthy food. They live in substandard housing. They are easy prey for drug dealers and loan sharks.

Jonah Schein, the community worker who organized this week's diet clinic, admits that wresting a few extra dollars out of Queen's Park on a case-by-case basis isn't the answer. Neither are food banks, soup kitchens or Christmas hampers.

What welfare recipients need is enough money to buy life's necessities.

As a step in that direction, Schein and his colleagues are calling for a permanent nutrition allowance, pegged to the cost of a healthy diet, as determined by each community's medical officer of health.

In Toronto, for example, the allowance for a man would be $155 a month (adjusted for age and family circumstances). A woman would be entitled to $120 (likewise adjusted). A pre-schooler would get $70 and children and teens would be eligible for amounts ranging from $100 to $180.

The chances of Premier Dalton McGuinty implementing this proposal are slim to nil.

Since his government took office in 2003, the real incomes of welfare recipients have fallen. (Social assistance rates have gone up by 5 per cent; the cost of living has risen by 6 per cent.) Food bank use has increased by 7.2 per cent. Queen's Park continues to claw back 75 per cent of Ottawa's child benefit from welfare parents, despite McGuinty's pledge to end the practice.

The Liberals say they are doing as much as they can.

Strangely, they had no trouble finding the cash to offer every MPP a $22,000 salary increase. That would buy a mountain of fresh vegetables, whole grain bread, meat, fish and fruit for Ontarians who can only dream of such luxuries.

(Received via email from both WR and AR.)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Quote: Radical Continuity

Radicals often lack a sense of connection to the past, seeing ourselves as breaking away from the old rather than as continuing the best ideals of certain traditions. I think that we can gain strength from recognizing ourselves as carrying on a tradition we inherited from the abolitionists and trade unionists as well as the women's and peace movements of the past century.

-- Charlotte Bunch

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Review: The Age of Light, Soap, and Water

[Mariana Valverde. The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991.]

I still have a good year and change of hard slogging on my current project before I need to have something else to do with my time, and that's assuming I manage to sell it and the writing goes reasonably well. Still, "What next?" has floated through my brain on not a few occasions. One possibility is pursuing related work in a more formal academic context, but it is a possibility of which I remain wary -- some things I see and hear make me think it might be useful, but others make me think I'm just as well staying a free agent. There is all kinds of academic stuff I've read over the last few years that I have found interesting or useful for my purposes but that I would have no desire to spend my life producing -- because it is unanalytical, because it is esoteric, because it looks like writing it was deathly dull, because it is so inaccessible that only a handful of lefty book nerds like me would ever bother to read it, or for some other reason.

The Age of Light, Soap, and Water is none of those, and in fact it belongs to the much smaller category of kinds of material that I think I could engage in producing and feel like I was doing something interesting and useful. It looks at the social purity movement in late 19th and early 20th century Canada. This movement is an underexamined side of the religiously inflected social movements of that era, including the social gospel movement (which was one strand of thought and action that eventually fed into English Canadian social democracy) and the first wave of feminist movement. All of these movements were also tightly tied to the beginnings of social work, social planning, and sociology as disciplines and discourses. More interesting, perhaps, is how the book looks at these things. It is about synthesis rather than narrow focus or hidebound adherence to disciplinary boundaries. It embraces complexity rather than shying away and prefering the unimaginative refuge of simplistic completeness. It feels no need to ignore ideas and discourse and stick to "real" history with a narrow view of materialism, nor does it get lost in discourse determinism or purely intellectual history, but instead treats discourse analysis as one tool among many, and sees ideas and words as just one more materially produced facet of the social reality of the time. It does all of this and still manages to be short and easy to read. (What is more surprising is how hard it seems to be to find -- I have seen it referenced in at least three very different areas in the reading I have been doing over the last few years so it is not an unimportant book, but it is long out of print and even used copies seem hard to come by.)

A key idea presented in this book is that for the social gospel and feminist movements in early twentieth century Canada and for the process of Canadian state formation in the years under study, moral regulation was absolutely central. The social purity movement was not identical with the social gospel or with first wave feminism, but they were all highly interconnected and overlapping, both in outlook and in personnel. At times at the behest of the state but more often dragging the state along with it, the middle-class reformers of these movements were committed to responding to social issues such as urbanization, immigration, poverty, excessive alcohol consumption (often a proxy for male violence within the family, though this could seldom be directly named), prostitution, and other things with an open commitment to fostering the formation of a Canada that was not just white but Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, as well as morally pure. The reformers saw moral purity weaving through all of these issues, with sexual purity and racial purity and the strength of the nation all blending into each other in discussions of immigration, for example, or of prostitution. They pushed for the development of the scientific study of social problems and did not see this as at all inconsistent with interpreting everything through a lens that was all about personal purity, and communicating their ideas in a florid moralistic prose that is ridiculous to twenty-first century eyes. Other things that I have read about the reformers of this era have failed to really demonstrate the depth of the difference in how issues were constructed then and now.

I appreciated its complex characterization of puritanism not just as a caricature of stodgy old repressed preachers thundering "thou shalt not" but as containing a rich, positive (in the sense of being for certain things and not just against) vision for individual and nation, with the combination of some things modern lefty types might still agree with and many others which we would find to be deeply offensive. One overriding feature of the vision of righteousness that informed the reformers was the seamless integration of the provision of needed support and resources with the assumed right of the reformers to regulate, police (such as the deaconnesses who would lurk around city train stations to identify and waylay young women newly arrived in the city and prevent the slightest chance of them making decisions of which church matrons might disapprove) and punish (like the non-governmental reform organizations that not only helped immigrants but for a time had the power to deport immigrant women found guilty of "impure" behaviour in Canada) the poor, immigrants, women. Though it is often a bit less obvious just because there is no distance in time to make the contradictions stand out, this combination of a desire to help and an oppressive disregard for the agency of the helped is all too common today in a number of spheres. I'd be interested in seeing how the organization of this tendency, both socially and in discourse, has evolved over the years. Indeed, a broader question that would also be worth examining is the ways in which the oppressive side of the reform movements might have fed into the more modern movements that trace their lineage to them (and who usually only emphasize the good stuff).

I was particularly struck by some of the material on J.S. Woodsworth. He was a Methodist minister and a leading figure of the radical wing of the social gospel movement. Though overshadowed by Tommy Douglas in the current version of the mythology, he was a central parent of modern social democracy in Canada through his role as a leader in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, the leader of the "ginger group" in Parliament in the '20s, and the founding leader of the Cooperative Commonwelath Federation, which later became the NDP. He also has a somewhat saintly reputation among some older pacifists because of his courageous stand in Parliament for the pacifist position during the debates about Canadian entry into World War II. When he is remembered, it is generally these things that are remembered. Yet he wrote that Asians and Blacks, as "essentially non-assimilable elements are clearly detrimental to our highest national development, and hence should be vigorously excluded."

Valverde writes that in Woodsworth's writing,

[t]he exclusion of non-whites is implicitly related to the exclusion of the non-moral. Woodsworth noted that Canadian immigration law already excluded criminals, beggars, and prostitutes, but he claimed that enforcement was not tough enough; he suggested employing Canadian immigration agents at European ports and having these agents investigate prospective immigrants to root out "paupers" and "prostitutes." He also suggests that in any case the law's provisions should be broadened, to include "persons of poor physique, persons mentallyh deficient, the hopelessly incapable, the morally depraved."

People of colour were assumed to be potentially if not actually depraved: this is the implicit premise behind Woodsworth's claim that blacks and Asians are non-assimilable. [References in original]

Many first-wave feminits expressed similar sentiments. It is important, as we construct histories and mythologies for our movements, that such contradictions not be erased. Exploring them, discovering complexity in our political ancestors, using their mix of liberatory and oppressive practices to learn our own history and as a way of probing our own flawed and complex attempts to change the world, are all essential.

Another resonance with modern debates on certain issues was the moral panic created at certain points around "white slavery." It was never actually shown in any convincing way to exist in a significant way, but it served as a powerful rhetorical focus for anxieties about sexuality, race, gender, and nation in the context of increasing numbers of young women seeking to exist in urban environments seen as inherently prone to promoting immorality. I couldn't help but think of some of the panic that the internet has aroused in certain circles -- it usually gets framed in terms of dangers of predation via this newish medium, which I'm sure does happen but which often gets supported by unreferenced and implausibly high statistics about the frequency of predatory behaviour. I think it often covers for conservative patriarchal fears about those they wish to control having enhanced access to information, options, avenues for self-expression, and other freedoms, and for many it also provides a way in which the danger can be named (even if it is exaggerated) without the risk of naming its basis in gendered relations of power, which might expose the complicity of many of those who raise the concern to begin with.

The potential connections between moral regulation as experienced a century ago and the ways that it is relevant today remain to be explored in detail. Valverde concludes (and remember she was writing this in 1991) by writing,

Moral reform is hence not a singular stage in the history of capital accumulation: if secular modernity had been as powerfully successful as both Marxist and liberal accounts would have it, advanced capitalist states would not at the end of the twentieth century be undertaking moral projects to strengthen the family, remove prostitutes from city streets, and build character in post-permissive schools. Neither is it an ideology explainable through its functional role in the capitalist system of class relations. Moral reform, like moral regulation generally, seeks to construct and organize both social relations and individual consciousness in such a way as to legitimize certain institutions and discourses -- the patriarchal nuclear family, racist immigration policies -- from the point of view of morality. Its relationship to production, or for that matter to the state, cannot be theorized a priori, for these relations shift with change sin social regulation generally. The fact that there have been such shifts -- for instance, in the reformulation of "the problem" of immigrants as an economic rather than sexual/health threat -- shows that moral regulation does not occupy a social space distinct from that occupied by "the economic" or "the social": it is a mode of regulating social and individual life generally, not pretagged moral issues. In the present day, the scope of moral reform has been narrowed, and only issues such as abortion (which was not, interestingly enough, a major concern of the social purity movement) are perceived as constitutive of the nation's moral character. An examination of social purity and philanthropic moral reform shows that practically every social issue was understood as moral in a not very distant historical period, which implies that all these issues can potentially reonceptualized as moral.

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sudbury Police Violence Update

Received the following just now, re. the event that occurred on Monday, which I was at part of, and another court appearance -- this one probably the most important yet in terms of whether or not the charges against the two youth who were beaten up by the cops will go to trial or not -- on December 20th. Here it is:

Can people please help spread the word and forward this email to others

The Pre Trial went well with about 15 people coming to show support. Upon arrival, we learned that not only was it closed to the public, I was not allowed into the meeting with the Judge, Crown, and lawyers. The purpose of this meeting was to determine if the crown and defense could resolve the case before it went to trial (it's also a place where they can speak without constraint because it is ‘off the record’).

We sure surprised the lawyers with our presence in an otherwise empty courthouse! Not only did we make our presence known to the lawyers, we reminded police and other courthouse personnel that there are still a lot of people who are angry about police violence and harassment who are continuing to pay close attention to how this case is handled even though it has been out of the media for some time.

The upcoming courtdate is next Wedneseday, December 20th at 1:30 in courtroom B, which is open to the public. This is when the judge will read their final decision -- whether the charges against Shawn and I are dropped, or whether the charges stick and the case goes to trial.

This is probably the most important court date so far so we're trying to get as many people to come out to it as possible so that we can put pressure on the crown to drop all charges, and make clear to the media that people are angry with the routine Police Violence and harassment of poor people, native people, youth, people of colour, etc. that occurs so frequently in Sudbury and other communities.

Let's make them drop the charges!

in love and rage,
for S-CAP

Be there if you can!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Riot in the Sudbury Jail

Ahhhhh, the dominant media...

I heard today, through something that one might accurately label "the grape vine", that within the last week or two there was a riot at the Sudbury jail. The causes were supposedly to do with overcrowding and with issues related to the prisoners' diet. Apparently hostages were taken and people were hurt.

And I cannot verify this because I, myself, am at best a sporadic consumer of the local media menu offered in this glorious municipality, but apparently there has been nary a peep on the subject in any of the local outlets.

I mean, both the prisoners and the staff are people who have friends and family in the community. They experience a significant, acute, violent incident -- something that is undeniably news in a slow-moving burg like this -- yet nothing is said. Moreover, that incident has to have come from somewhere. Personally, I would say that a riot should probably be read as a signal that seriously negative conditions are being experienced by the prisoners in that institution, and those prisoners are people who have mothers and fathers and sisters and lovers in the Sudbury community. But conditions serious enough to spark a riot by people loved by people in the Sudbury community are not worthy of news coverage, apparently.

Of course, though I do not at present have any hard data to confirm this, given research on the Canadian legal system in general I think it is probably a safe bet that the people who end up in the Sudbury jail -- not the people who actually do things that cause other human beings harm, understand, which is related to incarceration in complex and only very partial ways, but those that actually get locked up -- are disproportionately racialized (which in Sudbury means disproportionately indigenous) and disproportionately poor. Which may have something to do with the lack of dominant media attention to their realities.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Conversation, Difference, and Neoliberal Frames

The current shape of my life does not allow me much opportunity to talk to people in situations which do not assume that either there will be significant similarities between our worldviews or that "serious" talk is verboten so potential areas of dissimilarity should be studiously avoided.

For example, I have some involvement in anti-poverty organizing in the city, which provides a welcome opportunity to talk radical left politics with other folk who are similarly engaged. Though it can be puzzling to people who are not themselves involved in such things, those of us on the broadly defined progressive/radical/lefty spectrum can disagree among ourselves with just as much vim and vigour as we can disagree with anyone else, perhaps more so. In some ways, squabbling among ourselves is easier because our political vocabularies and internal libraries of ideas and symbols are at least partially overlapping so communication takes less work. At the same time, being part of a reasonably stable group means (or should mean) that you develop informal understandings about how such conversations are to occur and they generally happen in an environment of greater safety than one might usually experience in other places because, after all, you are pusuing a common goal, and there is at least some level of sustained interpersonal engagement to serve as context.

I also get a chance to be with other people in spaces where the core identity is "mom". As I have written before, I tend to feel the exoskeleton of normative expectations pressing around me with extra constriction in such circumstances, and tend to be very, very tentative about talking about the world at all. I probably take that reflexive disengagement farther than I need to, but it is not as if I hear such conversations going on around me and refuse to participate -- they are just absent, even when things that would be very topical to the space, like socialized daycare, are hot items in the news.

And finally, this semester, I audited an undergraduate class in political sociology. The content was great, but one of the things I had hoped for was a chance to have regular engagement on political topics with people who were not already activists, and unfortunately, for various reasons beyond anyone's control, the class did not feature such discussions with any regularity.

So I'm out of practice at conscious, productive engagement across difference and disagreement. Which is too bad, because I think it is a tremendously important political skill -- presenting what you think with clarity and respect, and creating a climate where those with whom you are talking can do likewise, and listening to what they say, is one of the core moments in both the informal and formal spheres of trying to lead a politically engaged life.

Though I don't get as much chance to do as I'd like, it is something I have been thinking of over the last couple of days just because of some recent experiences. One was making a bunch of phone calls to people I didn't know to let them know about this event. The purpose was not substantive engagement on the issues at hand and the phone list was largely people who had already expressed interest back in the summer so it was hardly a hostile audience, but there was still the potential for this kind of discussion. And the other was a social event attended primarily by colleagues of my partner, which involved plenty of opportunity for conversation with people I had never met before or that I only know very casually.

Particularly in the latter event, I was really struck by the ways in which casual conversation is structured to exclude engagement with whatever the topic at hand might be in ways that are at all social or political, i.e. that recognize substantive difference of experience or opinion and seek to understand the nature of this difference with reference to concepts that go beyond atomized, individualized experience. Our basic conversational frame is neoliberal, privatized. Often content that is implicitly social or political is included as background -- not as something offered up for discussion and debate, but as a piece of setting the stage for the content that is central, which usually is about the individual's experience related as testimonial. Because this is how the delivery of the content is automatically structured (with the focus on privatized individual experience and any material that directly or indirectly comments on the social relegated to background) it is quite easy for any attempt to shift the focus onto the background material and problematize underlying assumptions, however gently, to come across as rude. While there is an extent to which it is possible to see this as hypersensitivity to avoiding conflict that is part of middle-class propriety, and I think even more so for Canadian middle-class propriety, it also flows quite naturally from the way the conversation is structured because very often such an effort to refocus the discussion really would involve an implicit disregard for another person's experiences. It involves a forcible shifting of frame -- a frame that is initially constructed in privatized, neoliberal terms so that any attempt to introduce the social might be felt as a disregard, a disrespect for the person whose privatized, neoliberal experiences start out at the centre but are no longer the all and the only once the shift has taken place.

It is not just about the privatized nature of the intial frame, though, but about the ways in which many of us have learned to engage in discussion about the social, the political. It is about how we are trained to intervene. As someone socialized into white middle-class masculinity, I have been trained to fall very easily into a sort of universal, faux-objective subject position: "This is how it is" rather than "These are my grounded experiences and feelings, what are yours?" This is something I've been aware of for a long time so I do work at trying to do the latter instead of the former as much as I can, but it adds additional complexity to shifting the focus of conversation in the particular ways mentioned above. If you fall into the trap of producing discourse that erases who/what/where you are, not only is such a shift a disruption of a neoliberal, privatized frame for discourse -- an intervention to tell someone that you don't want the conversation to be all about taking turns producing discourse organized around "all about me" -- but it becomes about changing the focus from "him/her" (meaning the other speaker) to "this/that". This may make the approach to discourse less privatized, less focused on an isolated individual, but it also tends to erase people -- the speaker, the listener, people generally -- and human experience completely. This is not necessarily much of an improvement, and an instinctive reaction against such an attempt to switch focus is kind of understandable. Perhaps an improvement over a transition from "him/her" to "this/that" is an engagement of "him/her" with "me" to make the frame "you and I". "You and I" is a very basic unit of the social and it can be a window that is much less alienating for introducing broader thoughts and feelings and experiences relating to the social, and at the same time inviting your interlocutor to do the same. People remain visible and respected, but the social is introduced. Without necessarily theorizing it quite this explicitly while doing it, I have had some success doing this over the years, and have noticed with appreciation when other people have done similar things, either to/with me or with others. Of course, there are limits -- no matter how good you are at doing it, it is not always possible. The act of refusing a neoliberal conversational frame, no matter how skill or how much sensitivity to keeping people from being erased by reified concepts and faux-universalized subject positions are displayed, it still often violates those unspoken rules of middle-class conversation. I'm sure someone more knowledgeable than I could, in fact, convincingly connect this neoliberal frame for casual conversation to the ways in which middle-class life in North America is socially organized and to traditions of classical political liberalism that are associated with capitalist social relations.

Of course an engaged, people focused approach is not always the best way. Sometimes it can be risky. I am thinking particularly of an instance in the class that I took, in which a series of really politically offensive things were said. Because I felt that there was no way in the moment that I felt I could respond without coming across as a big meanie, I was silent. And not just a big meanie, but one who was able to respond that way because of privilege based on age and gender. Sometimes, about some things, I would have spoken up anyway, but in this instance I did not think I could do so productively. So I held my tongue, and later on the matter was firmly but tactfully addressed by another person present in the classroom in a way that avoided concrete grounding in specific people as a way of avoiding targeting the individuals involved while still refusing to leave the politically offensive statements uncoutered.

I find that a practical issue in all of this is surprise. I'm not sure why it is so often surprising to encounter areas of difference and disagreement. I mean, they happen all the time and with everybody, even the closest of friends and intimate partners. On a certain level, life would be boring without them. Yet it is still easy to get caught in a moment of "Oh my goodness, how can they think that" and thereby lose an opportunity to engage on the issue in a way that feels natural and organic and therefore is less likely to come across as disrupting the flow of conversation and polarizing the atmosphere. I can think of one conversation in particular at the social event I was at in which the little data I had about this person before we began to converse should have been enough to tell me that certain assumptions about class would probably be displayed as we talked and that I should be prepared for that. But I was still surprised, and I ultimately ended up responding by disengaging. Which is understandable at times, of course, but it isn't always the most useful thing. I think perhaps the most useful approach to dealing with this is to just make it universal: to always assume that the person to whom you are talking will say something with which you disagree, that merits further discussion to flesh out areas of difference or disagreement, and to always be present in ways that make doing so possible. And I know people who are very good at this, so I know it is possible.

The downside of this is that it can be quite hard work. I have always tended to be introverted, so to a certain extent I always experience conversation, even fairly intimate conversation, as performance and therefore as work. Sometimes quite enjoyable work, and work that I actively seek out, but work nonetheless. Consciously working to disrupt the assumed neoliberal frame that contains most conversation and to avoid the trap of discussion of the social that erases self -- a common trap for activist boys no less than anyone else socialized into dominant forms of masculinity -- is hard work. But I think it is important work, and work that can be one part of the process of forming human connections that struggle to be deeper, more intersubjective, more interesting, more equitable, more fulfilling, than passive acceptance of lives and discourse that are organized in ways that reflect and constitute neoliberalism and various social relations of power.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Male Violence Within Activist Scenes

Yes, it happens here too. Of course it does -- it shouldn't be surprising, unfortunately. Personally, I'm not aware of it happening directly in any group I have been a part of, but that is probably more about how unsafe it feels for women and other gender oppressed people to talk about it to those directly connected to the spaces than it is about how wonderful and spiffy the groups have been -- I do know, however, of one instance where it happened peripherally connected to a group I was a part of, and of two friends to whom it happened in the context of groups I was never a part of. So, yes, it happens, and we don't usually talk about it much or well.

Here is a post (found via The Carnival Against Sexual Violence #12, found via this post at Taking Place) that deals with one woman's observations of this phenomenon in activist scenes she has been a part of (and see also the comments section for more insight and shared experiences).

And while we are on the topic of male violence, here is an article written by two young feminist activists in Ontario, Sarah Ghabrial and Laurel Mitchell. Though its analysis of gendered violence could be broader, it is a strong response to an "odious" newspaper column by an anti-feminist woman that ranted in Canada's most right-wing national daily newspaper against the annual December 6 commemorations of the Montreal Massacre. The authors of the response say that the original column argues that "Gender-based violence is a lie, or perhaps a plot; whatever it is, it is sinister and whiny and bad for national morale."

They lament:

Considering the immensity of the problem, that the popular media cannot even afford one day of the year to render some degree of solemnity to the countless women who've endured violence for being women is outstanding. That one journalist took the opportunity to deny this pandemic is disgusting.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Support Survivors of Police Violence

If you are in the area, please come to this event on Monday and support youth who experienced violence at the hands of the Sudbury police last summer:

Community Gathering to Support Ander Reszczynski and to Oppose Police Brutality

Monday, Dec. 11th, 11:30am . Outside the Sudbury Court House on Elgin.

On December 11, 2006 Ander Reszczynski (aka Amber) will appear for a meeting at the Sudbury Court House on Elm Street (This is not the preliminary hearing as was previously suggested). The Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP) and community supporters of Ander are asking all people opposed to police brutality to gather at 11:30am for a 20 minute community gathering outside the Court House to support Ander and to oppose police brutality.

Five months ago on June 26th Ander and Shawn Pelltier were verbally harassed and then physically assaulted by the Sudbury Police. Before the Police physically assaulted them, Ander and Shawn asked the police if they had prior permission to patrol the area, or if they had recieved a complaint. The police answered no to both questions. It is important to note here that the Grotto only put up a no trespassing sign three days after the arrests took place, and the police only acquired permission to patrol the area after the arrests took place.

That night, the police took it upon themselves to smash Ander's face into the slag-filled driveway causing deep bruising and facial scarring, to slam Shawn's head numerous times against the hood of their cruiser, and to throw them both around. They were falsely arrested on a trespass charge. After searching for more charges to back up their violence, the police charged them with 'mischief,' 'resist arrest,' and charged Shawn with 'assault on an officer.'

We know that this kind of police profiling of young people that look poor, people who sleep outside, sex workers, people of colour and native people, queer people and people with disabilities is commonplace becaue we have heard countless stories from people who have experienced this as a reality in their lives. What the police did to Shawn and Ander is just one small example of their violent street sweeps, oppressive practices and routine harassment against people in our communities.

Let us show the police and the Crown that we will not accept routine harassment and beatings in our community! Come out on December 11th, at 11:30 outside the courthouse on Elm!


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Practice Lists" and De-Weaponizing The Phallus

From time to time on this site I have linked to or reposted a particular type of content that might be accurately labelled the "practice list." In such a piece of writing, a particular progressive or radical political goal is identified and a list of individual behaviours or individual political practices is enumerated that can contribute to achieving that goal. In this post, I want to consider both this form in general -- its pros, its cons, its uses, its limits -- as well as a specific example of this form from a post by Stan Goff called "The Weaponized Phallus (and five easy-to-remember steps)" (which you can read as just linked on his site, or with lots of sexist comments from supposedly progressive men on a liberal U.S.-based news site here).

Just barely below the surface of this particular form of document lurks a disjuncture, or at least a potential disjuncture, between what it claims it wants to achieve and how it sets out to do that. In other words, what exactly does it mean for a piece of writing to claim to want to create social change while pontificating about individual practice? What connection between individual and social might such documents presume? How might those of us with other analyses of such connection engage with such documents?

There are probably two stereotypical examples, polar opposites in some ways but very similar in others, that serve to paint a picture of the range in which most people's answers would fall. The first is an unsophisticated liberal analysis (also found among some sorts of Christians who may or may not be liberal in the colloquial sense): the social is comprised of atomized individuals, so all we need to do is individually convert enough people through education to our ways of doing things and the world will be painlessly changed for the better. Often this is put in words that sound a little less simplistic, but this is what it boils down to. Now, obviously I don't buy this, but lots of people do, from which I think we can conclude a couple of things. The first is that the very fact that the practice list is easily understood as "reasonable" by a great many people who see the social in something like this way makes it a useful political tool -- particularly if it is written in a tone that does actually encourage engagement, challenges people, invites people to be dialogical with the text, rather than just saying "do this or you're bad", then it is engaging people where they are at, engaging them in a way that introduces potentially valuable political challenge but that is not so far outside the framework through which many of us already understand the world that it just gets tuned out. The other thing we can conclude is more a recommendation to people who write practice lists: write them recognizing that some people will engage in them with this assumption but do not assume yourself that this is how the world actually works.

The other stereotypical extreme would include fairly orthodox, structuralist Marxisms, and also probably some more sophisticated versions of liberalism that work in similar ways at least in this respect. Under these understandings, individuals exist over here [extends left arm out with hand in a fist] and the social exists as independent structures over here [extends right arm out with hand in a fist] and they interact by those structures imposing themselves on inidividuals and shaping their lives. People whose ontologies work like this fall into two camps. I would guess that a minority, perhaps a small minority, are openly disdainful of anything that smacks of apolitical individual change-thy-self-ism -- they are anti-PL. I would further guess that most people who fall into this category would see some value in practice lists -- they are pro-PL -- but, true to the way the ontology works, however valuable they might find it to be on an individual level, any explicit connections they might draw to change in the social would be fairly and might just boil down to the understanding of the first example given above, and they may not able to explain convincingly why they see a connection there. In the pro-PL group, you have an audience fairly open to practice lists in general; the anti-PL group would be more resistant, obviously, and would be unlikely to be convinced by any explanation the pro-PLers in this category might advance. As well, intense resistance to the specific practices recommended in the list on the part of members in the pro-PL group could be operationalized by shifting, in the particular instance, to the claims of the anti-PL group -- turning "I don't like what this is asking me to do" into "Well this isn't going to change anything anyway." (And, yes, even those of us who think we think about things are quite capable of doing this and maybe not even realizing it.) I think that for some folk in the pro-PL group, though they are unlike the "simplistic liberal" group described in the preceding paragraph in that they do have some sort of analysis of the social, are probably quite like that group in that whatever valuing (or not) they might give practice lists in a particular instance may be based to a certain degree on moralistic individualism. Which isn't necessarily bad, but it should be recognized for what it is.

So here is my take, which I think avoids for practice lists the traps of "they are everything", "they are nothing", and "they are definitely of moral value and maybe political value but I can't really explain why and if I don't like the specific content well then maybe they don't have any value in general."

Over the last year and, in different ways, the last five years I have come to know more about ontologies of the social that are explicitly reflexive (we create the social together by our doing) and that also embrace anti-fetishism or anti-reification (whatever exists in the social world does so because of people, and "society" and "institutions" and "structures" have no existence independent of sensuous human doing -- people are at the centre, not things). One of the many appeals of this sort of ontology is that it elegantly and simply overcomes the apparent irreconcilable divide between the individual and the social. On the one hand, it is the sum total of all individual actions that constitute the social, so they are not disconnected -- there is a clear causal connection there. On the other hand, this recognition is about as far as you can get from liberal atomized individualism, where some sort of mystical unstructured addition of individuals is what creates the social: Rater, social doing is regulated and constrained by texts and other discourse that is activated as social doing itself by individuals in local sites, so a campaign based on education or individual conversion is inadequate, and doing that is socially organized to produce oppression must be collectively challenged. Though it is something I have learned less about, a branch of sociology called ethnomethodology has shown in experimental ways how human doing reflexively constitutes the social -- its early practice involved what were known as "breaching experiments", which basically involved individuals behaving deliberately differently than expected and seeking to understand how their immediate social environs were put together by looking at how their differences in behaviour changed things.

From this ontology (and from a dash of fairly basic sense about social change) we can conclude a few reasons how practice lists can, if carefully written and depending on the specific contents, be useful. This shows that changing our individual behaviour is not just individual change, but also contributes to changes in our immediate social environment. Practice lists can help us shift our contributions to the constitution of the social world. This is, inevitably, small and local, but because it can prompt resistance and conversation and talking and listening, it can be one important mechanism for us learning more about our social world and for contributing to changes in it. Obviously on its own this is inadequate, and collective action to change the ways in which human behaviour is regulated on larger scales is necessary too, but even at a level that some might dismiss as purely individual, anti-racist or anti-sexist or anti-heterosexist practice contributes to creating the social and to at least making visible and perhaps in small ways subverting the ways in which these oppressions and others are socially produced.

This has very concrete, practical implications. This ontology argues that only collective challenge will change the larger scale ways in which human doing is coordinated to produce oppression. By definition, "collective" means it can only happen through working together, though the exact social organization of this working together may take many different forms. Working together is a form of political practice, and as such it can potentially be improved by suggestions related to individual practice. For example, the list provided in the specific example that I will be considering below is not only important for men figuring out how to treat the women in our lives with personal respect and acting in ways that shows support for their struggles for their own liberation, but also has very concrete implications for working in a social change group: Doing the things it recommends, and/or other things like those, could very well be useful in practicing sustainable "working together," presuming you don't want to exclude women from your group and that you want to allow the possibility of serious functional alliances with feminist women's collectives.

I have said in a number of places that the specific content of the list matters, which should be obvious. If the recommendations are bad, then the practice which they would inform would be bad. Obviously you need to engage with the content, analyze it, think about it, decide whether it is, indeed, a potential contribution to liberatory practice. As always with that kind of work, listening, particularly to those who experience nasty stuff that you do not (while not renouncing your own capacity for judgment) is a key to making that engagement meaningful.

At least one or two general distinctions can be made between categories of content in practice lists, however. The first is perhaps trivial: I am obviously talking here about practices which are not directed purely inwards but that have manifestations that are social, that reveal themselves in interactions with others. The other is more significant: The kinds of relations with others that are impacted by these shifts in practices make a big difference. Of primary interest to me are practice lists that talk about direct interactions between human beings. That is where our impact on the social can be most direct. However, you can find practice lists that are about recommending what you should consume. These, too, are about relations among people -- relations between you and those who produce the products that you consume. This is not irrelevant, and certainly getting money into the hands of a feminist collective of coffee growers instead of a big nasty company is a positive (if very small) contribution. However, those of us who tend to be pulled to this sort of practice list -- indeed, to this sort of practice -- tend to be those of us who are actually able to engage in it, and only a tiny slice of the world's population is really able to engage in this sort of progressive politics of consumption. Perhaps more importantly, excessive focus on this kind of practice helps those privileged enough to do it delude ourselves into excessive attention to the limited change that can occur by engaging with other people via market relations and neglecting our inevitable embededness in the many and multifacted social relations in which we exist as more than just consumers of goods and services produced by other people's work.

The final general theme that I want to touch on with respect to practice lists is the general approach we use to engage with them. To do that, I want to introduce the specific example I'm using here. To see the full post, go here. Excerpts are reprinted below, interspersed with some specific comments from me. After that, I will use one specific point to segue back into more general comments.

[S]o-called “progressive” men (people really should look up the sordid history of that modifier), those who claim to stand for justice and against domination and exploitation, engage in the self-same, woman-hating, weaponized-phallus trash-talk as right-wing men.

In fact, here is a critique of a specific Canadian example in an older post at Marginal Notes.

And here is a small step I am proposing to left-wing men. Stop that. Stop it right now, and never do it again.

Here is a short list, with explanation, that I’d like you to stop:

(1) Stop using gendered language thoughtlessly. There is a politics to language... When you use male nouns and pronouns to describe human, you are reinforcing the idea and practice that makes male the norm. Calling the species homo sapien “Man” is a problem. Calling land and ships and other things “she” and “her,” that men are seen to control, is a problem… because it assigns the controlling role to males. Saying that “it is colder than a witch’s tit” is a sexist turn of phrase. Using the term “balls” to describe courage, and making courage a male characteristic, is a problem. Calling people who lack courage or strength “pussies” is a devaluation, as well as objectification, of women.

(2) Stop saying things that are homophobic, and stop tolerating homophobia. Homophobia, as Suzanne Pharr once pointed out, is a weapon of patriarchy. When you make jokes about prison rape, that is homophobic, as well as buying into a notion of rape as legitimate tool for social control, and masculinity constructed as sexual revenge. The ideological basis for men’s control over women is what Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality.” Policing people based on the masculine-feminine binary is policing a binary of domination and subjugation.

I would quibble a bit with the explanation here -- certainly homophobia supports the subordination of women in general, and that is poorly understood by many people so it is important to draw it out, but it seems to me including some condemnation of it because it supports, oh, say, the subordination of the people it most directly targets, i.e. queer women and men, might make some sense too.

(3) Stop saying clueless shit about sex that makes sex an unmitigated good (in reaction to the theocratic right’s squeamishness about sex). It might sound liberated if you are still trying to shock you aging parents, but it erases women’s experience of sex as often obligatory, manipulative, humiliating, and even frightening — one of the practices in a system where they are on the wrong end of social power. ... [S]ex has been experienced as violence by millions of women… imposed by men who took physical pleasure from their violence.

Crucial, crucial, crucial. I might have phrased it differently in order to make more clear that there is diversity within women's experience and within the ways they exert agency in response to that experience, but even if it is not monolithic it is still overwhelming the extent to which many women (in different ways, and particularly those who consensually have sex with men) " as often obligatory, manipulative, humiliating, and even frightening." So, yeah...stop erasing that!

(4) Stop reinforcing the devaluation of women by measuring them by some media-concocted version of what they are supposed to look like. This is a tough one, because we het-men (and even gay men) have been trained very early and very thoroughly to cast the pornographic gaze on women first… judging her “fuckability” (think about that term before we inquire about anything else). This is a form of oppression, and until we make an intentional effort to stop that, everything we say about relieving oppression is hypocrisy. If we say we are for justice, and we say we are against oppression, and we judge women this way, we are frauds… and we deserve to have no one listen to us, ever.

I'm going to come back to this one.

(5) Stop thinking it is okay to attack the “enemy’s women” based on their gender. When you make a sexual remark to put down Anne Coulter or Condi Rice, or crack on them about their appearance, you are attacking them based on their status as women… which implicitly attacks all women. That shit is not cool. It doesn’t make you a more effective progressive (or whatever). It makes you an oh-too-typical male misogynist. You are still engaging in sexualized revenge.

See also the example from Marginal Notes linked above.

This just scratches the surface, but I don’t want to overwhelm anyone. If you want to add one more step, start calling others out when they do this stuff, too.

Time to de-weaponize the phallus; let it revert to the humble pollination device it was designed to be. You’d be surprised at the implications.

There you go. By and large, despite my quibbles, I think the specific content of this list is politically sound, that a certain level of disruption and subversion of gender oppression would occur simply by large numbers of men embracing these practices in their everyday lives, and that social movements would be definitely strengthened if the men in the movements were to do these things (and, hopefully, the many other sorts of things that discussion of these points might lead us to).

Now back to (4). The first reason I want to go back there is to echo a couple of the leftist men who commented in Goff's comments section: For me, at least, all of the other items on this list are no-brainers, and while I make no claims to perfection, they are, more or less, already part of my practice. But (4) -- well, let's say I'm not immune to it, I am very ashamed to say in this public forum. This particular post is hardly the first time I've encountered the idea that resisting our deep training to do this is a politically important practice, and it is something that I have put effort into doing. But, while I certainly do not do it all of the time, and there are implied qualitative elements in Goff's characterization of it that do not necessarily resonate with my experience of doing it, I certainly have not yet fully thrown off this particular part of my training into masculinity.

Beyond that, though, I want to focus on (4) because I think it provides some fairly important examples of the limits of the practice list as a form because of the likely approaches to reading them that they will encounter, particularly with stuff that is as deeply ingrained as this.

A key defining feature of the practice list, at least most that I have seen, is that its items tend to be quite short. This has advantages, certainly -- it means that the document is more likely to be read, for one thing. Despite this brevity, it is still often enough to spark the kind of dialogue on the topic at hand that is probably more often than not the immediate goal of the author.

At the same time, texts that are spoken or written or broadcast or projected do not erupt from nothing into the middle of a blank field, they enter into a preexisting mish-mash of competing discourses. It is a truism that the farther the point you are making or the language you are using is from the dominant discourses and dominant commonsense, the more you have to say to make your point (or the less accessible your language has to be). Therefore practice lists, since they are meant to challenge conventional commonsense but are short and accessible, are very prone to being swept up in discourses that mean they get read in ways that distort their intended meaning. This is especially true when they are being read by people whose privilege is being challenged, because there is a sort of visceral and emotional reaction against really hearing such challenges even at the best of times, and dominant discourses that provide enough static to allow credible misunderstanding are often useful semi-conscious tools in achieving this.

One discourse that is particularly easily imported into the reading of practice lists is puritanism. After all, this particular form of document calls to mind a certain other list of ten instructions that a number of the powerful faith traditions on this continent tell us were handed down from on high. There are a number of different approaches to understanding the ethics and morality of human behaviour that trace some lineage to those two stone tablets, but puritanism is a very powerful one in North America, no less in secular left spaces than in more overtly religious ones.

Item (4) can be read in this tradition as being solely about a fairly narrow behavioural proscription, a formulaic telling that you must obey or you are "bad". This discourse can easily overwhelm whatever consciousness the rest of the article tries to create or broader analyses that readers might have about how this is not a judging for the purposes of directing towards eternal reward or perdition, but rather a deliberate intervention into social relations of domination and subordination. The individual choice to do or not do in this case, or in any generic practice list item, is obviously something judged politically by the author. But that is not the same as the oh-so-easy automatic reading of it into this massive and oppressive tradition by which the only reason for behavioural injunctions is to sort human beings into "good" and "evil". By such a reading, readers are then trapped into either embracing or resisting the particular scheme for sorting, and set themselves up for accusing the author of simplistic thinking, when all along the author intended it as a doorway into a complex and much broader series of questions. In the example I'm using, there are far larger questions about masculinity, sexuality, interpersonal capacity, and the damages that masculinity does to those socialized into it that mean that (4) need be read not only as a narrow "thou shalt not" but also as a single piece of a path towards a rich field of possibility -- possibility of what men ourselves might gain, in our selves and our relationships, from genuine progress in the struggle to put an end to the intertwining of masculinity and power-over, masculinity and violence.

In the case of my example, it is not only the form of the document that evokes puritanism, of course, but also the content of this particular list item because it is at least tangentially related to sexuality. It may be hard for some to understand this based on what is actually written, especially if you read it generously and as it was intended, but I suspect a very common reading of this item by men (perhaps only second to, "Aww, man, but this is harmless fun!") is as a blanket rejection of masculine sexuality and a blanket rejection of the body, and perhaps as a shaming that they/we automatically associate with all of the other attempts to shame us about sexuality that permeate our society. I mean, in my head is stuff like the paragraph or two below, and my gut still sometimes throws reactions like the above at me. I think this happens, by the way, not just by reading the practice list into puritanism but also into another powerful social discourse: dominant ideologies of masculinity, i.e. That's Just How Guys Are. In that (mis)understanding, guys are always thinking about sex (which is understood in ways that erases guys who don't, women who do, and often any kind of queer sexualities); that such constant evaluative looking is a natural and inevitable consequences of desire; that it's all the fault of the ideological construct known as "hormones", which bear only a passing resemblance to the actual biochemical compounds that bear the same label; and because it is seen as so natural and inevitable and tightly linked, asking men to break ourselves of this habit is tantamount to demanding that men renounce desire, or at least embrace a kind of bloodless, almost body-less facsimile of it.

Of course I do not presume to know intent, and some people who make injunctions like (4) probably do intend it in a somewhat puritanical way. And it is certainly reasonablye that even feminist women who make such demands and do not intend even a whit of puritanism should not have to waste time and energy holding men's hands and telling us how else we might understand and act on them. And I don't want to presume to speak for the author of this particular pracitce list. All I can present is how I have engaged with (4). Perhaps one of the biggest resons why (4) is not about denying desire or denying the body is because the practice that it is opposing, at least as far as I have experienced it, really has very little to do with embodied, in-the-moment desire on more than a formal level most of the time anyway. It is ritualistic, it is banal, it is superficial, it is about consumption; it is not about passion, ecstasy, unencumbered engagement with the physical, or mutual co-production of delight of any sort. And I do not think that seeking to break that behaviour, and to embrace a general everyday practice that is animated by the spirit behind the attempt to break that behaviour, at all requires renouncing attraction, denying or denouncing desire, pretending that desire exists in nice tidy compartments in life, or necessarily seeing oppression in the mere fact of reacting in embodied ways to the embodied beings around us. One of the greatest benefits for me in hanging around mouthy, bold, aggressive, feminist, sex-positive queer women has been an appreciation of the fact that it is entirely possible to be blunt and open about experiencing attraction and desire and reacting in embodied ways to embodied people and acting on all of these things in conventional and unconventional ways, and never losing a sense in language and action that it is all about engagement with people. Not always but often that sense of engagement with people flickers in and out or disappears entirely when it is hetero men who are making sexuality, relationships, love, and lust the focus of spoken discourse or other sorts of action. In fact, the very specific form of gaze that (4) objects to is not about embodied practice at all, it is about systematically removing one aspect of the bodies of women around us from physical reality and embedding it in social (and internalized psychological) discourses very tightly tied to use and largely divorced from actual social context and from actual bodies. And this is not, as it may sometimes be intended and more often than that is read, some kind of recommendation to pretend that only some kind of untainted, quasi-spiritual desire is legitimate; rather, it is an injunction to strive to treat people as whole, complex, physically embodied, and socially embedded, as you experience whatever emotional, physical, intellectual, sexual, political, spiritual, or other experience that their presence and actions inspire in you. And to allow critical political interrogation (within yourself at the very least, and perhaps in safe social spaces) of the ways these responses have been socially constructed within us, and how best to enact them (or not).

In conclusion, I think I will continue to occasionally post stolen or borrowed practice lists. Their use is limited because their brevity and accessibility makes them prone to being read into dominant oppressive discourses (like puritanism and dominant ideologies of masculinity in the example given). However, they still serve to provoke discussion, and provide an entry into discussion for people who are able to advance more complete, sophisticated analyses of the politics on which the lists are based. As well, treating seriously the content of such practice lists is really just one part of recognizing that our own political practice as individuals is not purely a moral question, as some on the left treat it even if that is not the language we use, but a question of intervening in the everyday production of the social in ways that, though they are local and small, still have an impact and can contribute to or inhibit our efforts to create larger, collective movements to challenge oppression and exploitation.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Some Good Analysis of Afghanistan

Sorry about the relative lack of original writing on this site over the last couple of weeks. I'll see what I can do about that. In the meantime, here is a post at Lenin's Tomb with some good background that is highly critical of the brutal U.S./NATO occupation of Afghanistan...doesn't mention the Canadian role specifically, but it does show what kind of process Canadian troops are over there supporting.

The author concludes:

Becuase the [U.S. and NATO] occupiers rely on this network of patronage and bribery to suppress the population, but also to prevent the central government from becoming too independent, they embed localised wars in the social fabric.... Given the bolstered power and prestige of the warlords; given the ongoing exploitation of Afgan people by this class of comprador gangsters; given the mass starvation that has resulted; given the daily violence of the [U.S. and NATO] occupiers and their brutal clients; and given the failure of the state to be genuinely representative - given all that, an insurgency has developed and grown, and (as I have pointed out elsewhere) is not delimited to the Taliban and its supporters. NATO forces can only keep the country by becoming even more brutal, killing ever more people, destroying more houses and utilising more of the repressive techniques of the warlords whom they employ. US Special Forces in alliance with mercenary outfits like the Afghan Militia Force have already done their best to turn residents of Afghanistan into insurgents. According to the Senlis Council, the "conflict in the Southern provinces of Afghanistan has shifted from a traditional military opposition to people warfare." That is, it elaborates, an increasing "guerilla war" with deepening roots in local communities. Up to ten thousand Afghanis died in the first few months of war alone, according to a study by Aldo Benini and Lawrence Molton for the Journal of Peace Research. We have no indications at the moment how many excess deaths have resulted from this particular occupation, five years on. Nevertheless, as the people's war widens widens, the military response will widen, and the calls from liberal warmongers for the annihilation of the insurgents will amplify proportionately.

Canada out of Afghanistan now!

[Edited for political clarity 12:30 pm Dec 4/06.]

Friday, December 01, 2006

Progressive Catholicism

Though secular in outlook myself, I am always intrigued by discussion of progressive politics grounded in various religious traditions. I also have a longstanding fascination with the Catholic Church despite being raised in a Protestant household. Here is an article by Ted Schmidt, a former editor of progressive Catholic journal Catholic New Times, which recently ceased publication after almost thirty years, on the history of the journal, the shifts in his faith over the last several decades, and his projections for the future. I'm not sure I buy his position of cautious optimism, not so much because I have any sense of dynamics within the Church but because I'm not sure my sense of where society at large is headed is terribly optimistic. Nonetheless, it is interesting to read what he has to say.