Monday, January 29, 2007

"The Suppression of Collective Joy"

Here is an interesting article (actually annotated excerpts from a recent talk) about a new book by Barbara Ehrenreich that looks quite fascinating. She uses the phrase "collective joy" to capture all the different ways that human beings have bonded, have physically created moments of ecstatic togetherness. She describes these as "ritual, organized ways that people can make each other not only happy but joyful, delirious even ecstatic... Dancing, music, singing, feasting -which includes drinking- costuming, masking, face paint, body paint, processions, dramas, sporting competitions, comedies..."

One of the features of modern society is that it has been quite successful in suppressing opportunities for collective joy. Festivity has been replaced by spectacle, doing by watching, actively creating by passively consuming. Yet human beings still yearn for it -- to do, to create, to be together rather than apart -- and it leaks through the social barriers in all sorts of ways all the time.

This speaks to me about the deep connections between what some consider to be the separate spheres of so-called "cultural" political issues and more obviously "economic" political issues. At heart, they all about the use of the brute force of necessity ('cause we all gotta eat) and the insidious training of religio-capitalist "should" to get us all doing what people with power want us to be doing rather than what we ourselves wish.

Ehrenreich said:

Why is there so little collective joy today? Why is our culture bereft of opportunity for this kind of thing? Mostly, we sit in cubicles at work and we sit in our cars. If you mention 'ecstasy' people think you're talking about a drug. The cure for loneliness and isolation and despair is Prozac... The simple answer is: the ancient tradition of festivities and ecstatic rituals was deliberately suppressed by elites -people in power who associated this kind of frolicking with the lower classes and especially with women...

Most of us don't have much time in our lives because of this ridiculous cultural expectation that you should get up every morning and work. And work defines you, it's the measure of your worth as a human being...

Elites fear that disorderly kinds of events could turn into uprisings. And this fear is justified. Whether you're looking at European peasants in the late middle ages or Caribbean slaves in the 19th century, they were using festivity and carnival as the occasion for revolts.

A second reason that comes with the industrial revolution is, of course, the need to impose social discipline. It's hard to take agricultural people or herding people and convince them that they should get up and work six days a week, 12 hours a day, and then spend the seventh day listening to boring sermons in a church. To discipline the working class and slaves was a huge enterprise.

Personally, I have deeply internalized the protestant/capitalist training against such collective, ecstatic doing. I'm not sure I would or could easily participate if I were to stumble upon such a thing. But I sure feel the revulsion at the atomization to which we are subjected and a powerful pull towards the kind of celebratory, collective, creative, yet individual-affirming social that a return to such collective joy would (have to) entail.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Review: The Caribbean Diaspora in Toronto

[Frances Henry. The Caribbean Diaspora in Toronto: Learning to Live with Racism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.]

Frances Henry is a Canadian academic with a long history of focusing her professional work in support of anti-racist struggles, particularly those by African-Canadians. Before reading this book, I was aware of (but had not read) her extensive work looking at the racist portrayal of African-Canadians and other racialized people in the Canadian media as well as her work in collaboration with the Urban Alliance on Race Relations in Toronto doing groundbreaking work that empirically demonstrated racism in hiring in Toronto in the '80s. In fact, I had actually assumed that she herself was Black, but in fact she is a white woman.

I read this work because the current chapter that I am working on focuses on the story of a Trinidadian Canadian lawyer who has long been politically active in Toronto. Obviously this book is relevant background material.

The book is a very standard academic study of the Caribbean diaspora in Toronto -- or, more particularly, those within the Caribbean diaspora who would trace their heritage to Africa rather than South Asia. It combines quantitative data obtained from sources like the census and other Statistics Canada instruments with extensive use of interviews, observation of people in situ, and other elements of qualitative ethnographic study. The statistical information that is presented is definitely out of date. However, while I think the detailed descriptions of community realities presented in the ethnographic material, which comprise the bulk of the book, have probably evolved in important ways in the 15 or so years since this work was done, it is probably still relevant to understanding the experiences of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Canada today.

The study covers many different spheres of life. It talks about the immigration process, adapation and mechanisms for coping with a new society and with racism in that society, education, employment, family organization, religion, leisure and social life, the "illegal subculture", and interactions with the criminal justice system. It is not completely comprehensive, of course.

For example, one area that was lacking was attention to politics. Not that it was completely absent -- a few pages describing a community service organization here, a throw-away reference to continued attachment to homeland politics there -- but it was never really a focus. Even mainstream electoral politics got rather brief treatment. And I know that there is a long history of social movement-style organizing within the Black community in Toronto that received a passing mention at the end of the chapter on police-community relations, and that's it. It would also have been interesting to me to hear about the derivations of political thought in the community, and its relationship to things like anti-colonial movements in the Caribbean in previous generations and movements by Black but mostly not Caribbean people in the United States, for example.

Also, it does not include any material on the experiences of queer people in the Caribbean diaspora in Toronto. Certainly the continuing importance of secrecy as a survival strategy for many queer people of all backgrounds adds additional complications to documenting queer experience. Still, I can't help but contrast that absence with the success that the study team had in documenting the realities of a small group of people in a subculture focused around illegal activity -- surely a rather secretive bunch.

My biggest concern with the book is its enthusiastic adherence to very traditional disciplinary norms. For one thing, I appreciate the exhaustive effort and the great care that goes in to presenting information from qualitative research in ways that is resistant to mainstream challenge even when the findings are contrary to mainstream assumptions, but it does result in a style of writing that is quite boring.

Beyond that, this book is a good example of disciplinary norms pulling the text in directions unintended by the author. There were examples of this in the sections on criminal behaviour within the community as well, but for me it stood out the strongest when it talked about family forms. Henry went out of her way to emphasize that she was not endorsing a blame-the-victim analysis, and given her long history of alliance with the African-Canadian communities in Toronto, I have no reason to doubt her. At the same time, a basic thesis of the book was as follows:

In summary, the differential incorporation of Caribbean people in Canada can be explained in terms of two major forces that affect the community: (1) the maintenance of cultral patterns that impede mobility in Canada, such as some family patterns, relations with education, social and leisure patterns, etc.; and (2) racial discrimination.

This sentence was followed immediately by another strong disavowal of blaming the victim. Yet because the data are grounded in observations of the community, the community becomes the object, and the implicit or explicit answer to "why", at the centre of understanding point (1) whether the author intends this or not. You can even just look at the construction of that sentence: "maintenance of cultural patterns that impede mobility." There is no explicit recognition that whether or not a given cultural pattern will "impede mobility" or facilitate it is dependent on which group has power to impose their cultural patterns as a norm -- in other words, item (1) boils down to a particular material expression of white supremacy, but the book does not extend its analysis to include attention to how cultural norms are constructed and enforced and what that should mean for those seeking social change. I was able to see it partiuclarly in the context of the discussion of family patterns because embedded in the passive voice observation that high frequences of things like single mother-headed households "impede mobility" is a completely untroubled domination by hetero/sexist norms, an enforcement of what "family" is supposed to mean via punishment through "impeded mobility" when you don't meet that. It's hard to see what "not blaming the victim" means in this context, except maybe that we (agencies? governments? societal elites? Caribbean-Canadian community leaders?) should intervene in changing these cultural practices in supportive rather than judgmental ways. Which sounds to me a lot like blaming the victim, but just being nice about it. There is certainly nothing there that would lead a reader to what I think are the more appropriate responses, which would generally involve working to challenge the rather narrow range of ways of doing family and relationships that are possible without risking social punishment.

I don't want to be too hard on the book. As I said, it is thorough and careful. It is also quite clear in naming racism as one of the prime factors shaping the experiences of the community, and those of us who do not experience racism can certainly learn from this documentation. Even beyond that, it contains lots of valuable information. But at the same time, it should be read with careful attention to the implications of what questions we ask, how we try to answer them, and how traditional practices of academic disciplines serve to shape those answers towards politics that can be quite troubling and leave them open to easy use by people with politics that are even more troubling and oppressive.

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

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Reading Recipes Critically

You can start pretty much anywhere if you want to explore how the world works and find politically interesting things.

Take recipes, for example.

You could probably write an entire book looking at what can be learned about the world from recipes. For one thing, there is the fact that they even exist as they do: in written form, widely distributed in books and magazines and on television. There is, in fact, an entire industry focused around selling us recipes. This is one specific example of the ways in which, in twenty-first century North America, at least some of the skills to navigate our everyday lives are no longer primarily passed from person to person as an organic part of living. They are conveyed in a way that disconnects them from direct interpersonal relationships by making them written or broadcast text and disseminating them through a complex of Official ExpertsTM that are deeply embedded in the capitalist marketplace. This is an indictment of the state of our human communities, though there are up-sides as well -- being able to access information and resources beyond your immediate human environment can be important, at least in some areas of life. However, one result of the integration of this method of conveying food-skills and food-knowledge is that such knowledge is almost invariably in harmony with the social relations by which food is produced. In other words, the recipes that we are most likely to encounter are ones which help us navigate rather than challenge existing industrial food systems, which, though open to vegetarianism and organics, still predominantly involve inhumane industrial processing of animals and the use of environmetnally unsustainable chemicals, often employ highly exploited labour, and almost universally depend upon the input of cheap, global warming-causing, non-renewable, hydrocarbon-based energy.

I should add that, though I have been a vegetarian for some time, I am just as much a part of that as anyone else.

Another interesting aspect of recipes that can be explored is the relationships they demonstrate between white North Americans and the cultures of the rest of the world. I try to be cognizant of cultural appropriation, but -- and I welcome comments that challenge this -- I don't generally have the sense that cooking in the metropole with recipes that come from the so-called periphery, so-called Third World, the formerly colonized regions, is really that big a problem. Nor, I think, is experimenting, blending, changing, adapting. Those are certainly connected to problems -- it would not be a longstanding white British tradition to go for a curry after downing several pints if it wasn't for empire, for example -- but it is not necessarily a problem per se. Admittedly, I may feel this way because so much of what you find in vegetarian cookbooks in North America is in some way derived from the cultural practices of people in the rest of the world, particularly various regions in Asia.

That said, it can still be problematic. For example, a fetishization of a particular nation's cuisine can be fed by and feed into the kind of exoticizing Othering that is particularly characteristic of the racist construction of many Asian cultures in the white North American imagination. It can also help create the facade of equitable, multicultural harmony that helps distract so many putatively progressive white North Americans from seeing the actual state of relations between themselves and racialized people on this continent and racialized nations around the world. It can also help create a delusion of actually having any knowledge whatsoever about those cultures and those relations. And I have also seen an openness to or facility with non-European cuisines used by middle-class white North Americans as a way to mark (or even actively reinforce) their class status, vis-a-vis white working-class people. To be honest, I've probably engaged in the more passive version of that myself, in earlier years.

So there is a great extent to which I think being politically mindful and respectful can more or less make it a reasonable thing to cook and eat whatever food you happen to enjoy. (At least in this respect -- the more fundamental problems of our food system require much more than individual change to address.)

But I think one thing that such mindfulness and respect should include is a critical reading of cookbooks, cooking magazines, and cooking shows. To that end, I present the pre-ingedient chit-chat of the dish that I cooked for dinner last night, taken from a cookbook that focuses on recpies that are both vegetarian and low in carbohydrates:


A classic Moroccan dish, tagine is the name of both the stew and the clay pot in which the stew is cooked. Traditionally, tagine contains a variety of dried fruits (which are not low carb) and meats (which are not vegetarian) and is often served over couscouse (which is not a whole grain). This version, containing no meat and only a miniscule amount of dried fruit, is delicious served over freshly cooked brown rice, quinoa, or other whole grains.

First of all, I should say that the food you get out the other end is quite yummy -- I had made it once before, quite awhile ago, and been ambivalent about it, but I was very happy with last night's version.

But come on.

First of all, "virtuous"? Did no editorial staff pick up at all on the vibe that this implies that original version, cooked by "them" -- those racialized Others "over there" -- is not virtuous, but don't worry because we have cleansed the recipe and made it suitably virtuous for you, the mostly white, mostly middle-class North American reader.

And it is just so ridiculous. Why on earth is it called "tagine" at all??? You are naming a dish with no meat, almost no dried fruit, cooked in a metal sauce pan, and served on a whole grain after a dish that is basically meat and dried fruit cooked in a clay pot and served on couscous. You might as well make a lentil salad, throw in a handful of oatmeal, and call it haggis*. Presumably, it was called this rather than "North African-spiced Vegetable Stew" -- which I think (though I don't know anything about North African cooking, so I cannot be sure) would be both an honest nod to the dish's culinary genealogy and an accurate description -- so that white North American vegetarians flipping through it in a bookstore would stop on this page and say, "Ooooh. Tagine...I've never heard of that! How exotic!" rather than "Ah. Yet another vegetable stew."

Anyway. This whole post started as an excuse to share that paragraph. And to put to good use some of the too-many thoughts going through my head as I actually cooked the Supposedly Virtuous Vegetable Supposed Tagine.

I say again: You can start pretty much anywhere if you want to explore how the world works and find politically interesting things.

[[* -- Actual vegetarian haggis is, in fact, available in some places. Why this is considered to be a positive addition to the universe of vegetarian consumables, I have no idea.]]

Monday, January 22, 2007

Review: The Wretched of the Earth

[Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 2004. Originally published in French in 1961. Translated by Richard Philcox. Includes commentary by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha.]

One of the crucial distinctions in how we orient ourselves towards any big oppressive nasty is whether or not it is something that we have no choice but to feel deep in our body every day.

Feeling it doesn't necessarily mean being able to name it, and being able to avoid feeling it most definitely does not mean we're not shaped by it, but that question of perpetual visceral awareness has everything to do with how we can and should relate to the phenomenon in question politically.

As a temporarily-abled, middle-class, white male citizen of a rich country, I obviously fall into the "not" category in most respects. The impacts of sexism do not cause me to ache each day in my bones. Psychic injury from racism does not lodge everyday in my gut. I don't have to always taste the anticipatory tang of future rage that yet another community event might be scheduled where my wheelchair can't get in. Not that I am not affected -- socialization into masculinity, say, or whiteness, tend to be connected to the damaging of certain capacities that make us fully human. But we don't tend to feel such awareness day in and day out.

We can never feel what we don't experience, of course. But human beings are creatures that have imagination and empathy, when privilege and bad tv haven't burned them out of us. Part of the struggle of people with privilege for our own liberation is the struggle to continually move forward in the transition from having some sense of oppressive social relations and our role in them in intellectual ways, to having some sense of that in genuinely internalized, visceral ways. (That ever-imperfect visceral sense is not the same as those on the receiving end of said social relations, but of necessity can only come from where we are at.) Sometimes this embodiment process happens gradually and we don't notice it as it occurs. But sometimes there are sudden, unexpected flashes of awareness of how absolutely monstruous the current state of things is, and it can be a bit overwhelming.

Wretched of the Earth, if read by white citizens of European and EuroAmerican states in a way that is open to what it has to say, is very capable of giving such a flash. The "Preface" by Jean-Paul Sartre is quite clear that this book is by a colonized man written for other colonized subjects, not for the white citizens of the metropole. At the same time, he demands that we read: "You who are so liberal, so humane, who take the love of culture to the point of affectation, you pretend to forget that you have colonies where massacres are committed in your name... Today whenever two Frenchmen [or other Europeans or EuroAmericans] meet, there is a dead body between them." Though formal decolonization has taken place over much of the globe (albet with some important pieces of land recolonized, like Iraq), it has not taken place in Canada or the United States. And even despite formal decolonization, the relations constructed by colonialism between Europe/EuroAmerica and the rest of the world have not transcended their bloody origins, even if their mechanisms are obscure trade deals more often than bayonets these days. And they are the modern equivalent of bayonets often enough, whether employed directly by our armies or by proxies.

A phenomenon connected to the visceral flash of horror that the truth of this book can and should give Western readers is the fact of distance. The physical distance involved in being part of anti-war, anti-imperialist, or anti-colonial struggles (other than solidarity with indigenous peoples) adds a layer of complication not present with struggles that are physically close even if socially distant. This means, I think, that I found the realities it portrays to be more revelatory and more alien to my experience and understanding than when I encounter equally powerful material focused on oppressions here in North America.

The distance is not just a physical one, however, but also a temporal one. I have the impression that this book has often been read in an abstracted way, a philosophically idealistic way, an ahistorical way. Indeed, given the bits and pieces I had absorbed about it from the political culture that surrounds me, I was expecting a book that was primarily an exercise in giving directions, a series of impassioned pleas that "We must do this and this and this that we might be free!" There certainly is effort to share insight into potential political choices, but by and large this book is really a very historically grounded description of the decolonization processes that Fanon had participated in or was aware of, mostly in Africa. He talks about the ways in which the colonized society has been changed by colonization. He talks about the ways the struggle has generally progressed, its dynamics, its risks. He talks about the ways in which anti-colonial organizations have come together and functioned. He talks about how struggle has shaped national consciousness and culture. He -- a trained psychiatrist who practiced in Algeria during the independence struggle there -- talks about how the war of national liberation, as necessary as it was, was profoundly damaging to those who had to go through it.

Homi Bhabha's "Foreword" also seems to recommend a historicized reading of the text, but emphasizes that this does not make it at all irrelevant to other and later struggles. In fact, he suggests that Fanon was writing of one stage of struggle while the current realities faced by Third World countries, though not identical, are a later phase of struggle against later versions of global relations of power that have evolved and regrouped, and that Fanon's prophetic anger and analysis might be a source of insight. Certainly the approach that Fanon takes, of doing his best to describe what actually happens from the standpoint of those resisting and in a way that might be useful to others resisting, is important to apply to wherever we are active. As both a revolutionary and a psychiatrist, he is constantly connecting different scales of experience -- the social to the "psycho-affective realm" -- which I think is very important and too easily neglected by those of us whose privilege allow us/push us to live mostly in our heads.

Historically, perhaps the most contentious issue about Fanon's classic text when read in the West has been his embrace of violence. I have to confess that I am not untroubled by it -- it is not for me to judge out of context how others have chosen to resist, but I think it is a question we should find difficult if we are not to lose sight of the liberatory human ends for which we struggle. I think, rather than dismiss his profound insights because of this stance as many white North American progressives have done, it is important to read it carefully and to confront that which may cause discomfort that we might learn from it. For one thing, outright romanticization of violence is actually more a feature of Sartre's "Preface" than Fanon's text itself. Be that as it may, Fanon was strongly convinced that revolutionary violence by the colonized was the only possible mechanism of both social and psycho-affective transformation. I'm not sure whether a more complete history of the era of classic decolonization vindicates this confidence or not; I don't know the history nearly well enough to even bother guessing. Certainly the success of that transformation, however achieved, has not been as complete and enduring as he hoped. However, even if later analysis of the decolonization struggles of his era might provide a somewhat different answer, his analysis is both grounded and nuanced. He does not downplay the difficulties to be faced after independence has been won. He does not deny for a second the horrible after-affects of violence, not only on those who suffer it but on those who engage in it. In fact, Bhabha cites someone or other as asserting that, deep down and on a personal level, Fanon loathed violence, but he saw it as unavoidable in a situation as deeply steeped in the violence of the oppressor as colonized Africa already was.

Certainly his own statements about violence and non-violence were not meant in the abstract, but as observations of the social organization of struggles that were actually happening or had recently occurred. At least some of the times that his works have been used to justify tactical choices by radical but privileged youth in North America, the arguments end up being more aesthetic than material, and much less attuned to the different ways in which the material course of social struggle and the impact on the pscyho-affective realm can be related in different historical circumstances. At least at times, it feels like such sloppy reasoning -- so unlike Fanon's own careful and honest material assessment -- does a disservice to the horrible sacrifices made in the struggle to throw off the yoke of colonialism.

There is a great deal to be learned from this book. It is not perfect. Some of its aspirations and predictions have turned out to be wrong. It is quite inattentive to the very gendered ways in which national liberation struggles are (from what I've read) experienced. But it brings to life the absolute barbarousness of the overt colonial processes that were for centuries integral to the material, intellectual, political, and spiritual development of the West, and if it can give you even a single visceral surge of empathy and revulsion at the ways in which those relationships persist, then reading it will have been well worth it.

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

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Quote: Colonized Minds

Imperialism, which today is waging war against a genuine struggle for human liberation, sows seeds of decay here and there that must be mercilessly rooted out from our land and from our minds.

-- Frantz Fanon

Written four and half decades ago, in Africa, by and to the colonized. Interestingly, relevant in a different way to those who benefit from colonialism and imperialism in twenty-first century Canada.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Reflections on One Year of Harper

It is close to a year since the election in which the Conservative Party (under Stephen Harper) won enough seats to form the federal government for the first time since the early '90s. With this anniversary pending, I have been reflecting on what might be learned from this year.

I should begin by pointing out that in many ways this is not terribly well informed reflection, at least not in the ways that most people would think mattered. I read mainstream daily news only sporadically. I have not followed every twist and turn of Parliamentary drama. I have not developed wonkish familiarity with every nuanced evil on the current legislative agenda. I had actually half expected that last January's triumph by His Creepiness would spark me to greater attentiveness to mainstream news on mainstream Ottawa-related topics, but it has not. It is actually quite sad and an indictment of the media how not ill-informed you can be just by reading the headlines and the occasional post by a blogger who pays attention to such things, so long as you have invested longer term effort in learning how things work. But then, I have long been a fan of J. Frank Harrison's observation that "It is well said that the attempt to follow socio-political events by reading the newspaper is like trying to tell time by looking at the second hand of a clock."

However, what is most worthy of comment about Harper's first year in office is actually not the doings of politicos in Ottawa, as much as many of those doings deserve to be condemned. What strikes me as more important are the doings -- or, more accurately, the lack of doings -- by ordinary Canadians across the country. With the exception of some signs of life from the women's movement, and fewer from the politically moderate national faces of queer organizations, there has not even been a scent on the wind of generalized, sustained mobilization by popular movements in Canada against the resurgent right.

I judge this, first of all, on what I have heard and read from across the country. There are social movement-y things going on, because there are always things going on even if those of you who depend on the dominant media rarely get to see them. But activity and momentum are low, and the prospect of a scarier federal government does not seem to have done very much to change that. Speaking of the scenes I have more direct connection with, here in Sudbury social movements are in a pathetically low state. Though things are less uniform in Toronto and Hamilton, what I heard from friends there when I was down in late December wasn't exactly encouraging either.

Though I continue to struggle with how exactly to word it, and my choices have definitely changed in the last year, my basic position is much the same as it was when I wrote my pre-election series in late 2005 and the beginning of 2006: the vanilla neoliberals that run the Liberal Party and the radical right that is currently in charge of the Conservatives are largely similar and both quite horrible but the latter are still non-trivially worse. Though neither are unwilling, the latter are much more enthusiastic about changing the role of Canadian state relations, from quiet complicity to enthusiastic cheerleading for and active support of empire abroad, and the connected harsh steepening of hierarchical relations of power (via wealth and other mechanisms) at home. Though putting it this way risks treating political parties as isolated, equivalent units that can be compared in the abstract across time rather than integrated into broader social relations, it is probably not inaccurate to say that Harper's Conservatives are the most right-wing party to form a federal government in Canada since at least the early 1930s.

So what's going on? Why aren't people in the streets, or (again, with the few exceptions noted above) engaging in the many other sorts of activities that make social movements move?

Perhaps I should back up a step, though. Perhaps it is important to substantiate why these are worthwhile questions. Why should I expect some sort of boost in social movement activity when a right-wing government takes power? Well, obviously, looking across time and place, it doesn't always happen. I'm sure U.S. readers could look at the last three decades of their own history and find examples where it has not (though all it would take would be a look south to Mexico in the last year, for example, to see that it can).

The point of comparison that makes me think the questions are worth asking is the province of Ontario in the years after 1995. The Tories ran Ontario from the end of World War II until 1985. They were largely "red Tories" by the end of that time. Then there was a Liberal minority government (said by some to be the most progressive government in Ontario history, though I don't know enough to confirm or deny), a Liberal majority government (reputed to be corrupt and largely despised), and then an NDP (that is, social democratic) majority government. The neoliberalization of Ontario began in the last days of the NDP government, but it was the election of some very blue Tories under Mike Harris that really kicked things into high gear, in combination with the infamous federal budget by Paul Martin that accelerated in a serious way the neoliberalization of the federal level of the Canadian state the same year.

Progressive sectors in Ontario responded to the Harris attacks on gains won not only under the NDP government, but also the preceding Liberal governments and even the Bill Davis Tories, by getting into the streets. Over several years, ten cities across the province saw mass mobilizations, some including a one-day city-wide general strike. I missed the early mobilization of 100,000 people in Hamilton because I was living in Ottawa for a brief period, though I got to know a number of the key organizers later. But I was part of the quarter of a million people that filled the streets of Toronto not long after, and I took part in the action in St. Catherine's, the first mass strike on May Day in North America since the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago that defined the day over a century before.

So it is largely in comparison to that environment -- the environment in which I was first politicized, by the way -- that I think it is worth exploring the possible reasons behind the relative silence and passivity in response to the election, a little more than ten years later, of the most right-wing federal government this country has seen in decades.

The first thing to look at, I think, is the nature of the change that went along with the change in government in each instance. Though neoliberalism had been rising globally and in Canada since the '70s, until the mid '90s it was possible in Canada to maintain the illusion that the social democratic compromise reached after World War II still existed and would continue to exist indefinitely. The election of the Harris government came after a decade in which progressive elements in Ontario society had, at least relatively speaking, been doing pretty well in terms of provincial politics. The gains were the sort of pallid, imperfect gains that one should expect from left-liberalism and social democracy, but they were nonetheless real: an anti-scab law, modest improvements in the welfare system, stronger environmental regulations, some efforts to address the needs of racialized communities, and so on. Progressives, I think, felt quite a shock in 1995 -- though I think the true substance of it was slow to sink in (and I'll come back to this below), it was a transition from a world in which the slow, steady accumulation of reforms seemed like a plausible path to a better world, to one in which the rules were changed and the momentum shifted decisively in favour of neoliberalism. In 2006, in contrast, we had already endured a decade of neoliberalization under the Chretien and Martin Liberals. Analyses vary about how much worse the Harper Conservatives will be (and it is broadly understood that they will be worse) but there is a big psychological difference between going from slow gains to quick losses, and going from losses that would have seemed quick in the context of 10 or 15 years ago under Chretien/Martin to ones that will be even quicker under Harper. We're already stretched, and don't have new resources of outrage that can be easily mobilized.

The second reason also has to do with momentum, I think. And that is the changed context in North America as a whole. Since 9/11, notwithstanding the massive mobilizations against the recolonization of Iraq in 2003, both actions taken directly by the state and shifts in the general culture have taken away momentum and space from progressive movements.

A third reason might be that the Conservative government is a minority government. This has meant that the Conservatives have had to be cautious in implementing their agenda -- they have had to seem sane and reasonable to the many voters who do not actually share their hard-right values that they have to get to vote for them if they want to form a majority government. This is in contrast to the Harris Conservatives, who had a solid majority and were able to get to implementing their horrid agenda as quickly as possible. The fact that it is a minority government also means that the illusion of electoral relief can be vividly held by left-liberal and social democratic folk, including those few that are in a position to direct significant resources towards mobilizing people (from above).

The final possible reason that occurs to me for the lack of movement activity this time is actually connected to my understanding of what happened in the late '90s. Under the terms that had congealed in Canada for the post-war social democratic compromise, especially since the late '60s, some combination of lobbying and putting bodies on the streets in a symbolic way was generally enough to win some sort of incremental reform, even if only a pathetically inadequate one, in the direction of whatever demand that you happened to be making. Particularly in the late '60s and early '70s there were mobilizations that were more substantive, that had more radical politics (both in terms of analysis and in terms of actual social organization) backing up their demands, but over time the radical basis faded and the ritual remained. The government gained from small concessions to ritualistic mobilization because it helped ensure that moderates remained in control of movements, and it also provided a useful way of getting input into what governments needed to do to keep people happy enough to vote for them and to keep bureaucratic systems from functioning too poorly. The movement leaders gained: they could keep their leadership because they could show gains, even if small. And many of the rank-and-file were happy because, after all, even small gains can make big differences to people's lives.

A feature of the changes that happened under the Harris Tories in the late '90s (and probably a feature of the neoliberal transformation of state relations in rich countries more generally) was that this tacit agreement was unilaterally cancelled by the state. However, the agency-based and labour-based social democratic left didn't realize this. They figured that an adequate response to a big nasty agenda would be a big symbolic mobilization of people. So that's what they did. I suspect, especially in Hamilton and Toronto, the mobilizations were significantly bigger and people were significantly angrier than this leadership had expected. This spontaneous anger helped the left within the labour movement push for events that included political strikes and not just demonstrations -- political strikes kept under careful control so they did not turn into direct confrontation with the state, but nonetheless actions with a bit more oomph behind them than just standing in a large group and shouting. Still, it was all largely symbolic, and though it was explicitly not electorally focused in the beginning, later on the more conservative elements of the labour movement got their wish and managed to insert the NDP into things. At no point, at least in my experience as someone who was not involved in organizing and just went as a participant, was there any sense that it was being treated as important to use these large, energetic, but ritualistic gatherings to build something beyond...well, beyond the next somewhat less big, somewhat less energetic, ritualistic gathering. I remember seeing no commitment to building consciousness that would lead to further, autonomous action by people and to ongoing struggle, and no widespread efforts to encourage people to develop analyses beyond "the evil Tories" (except the sectarian Marxist grouplet papers, which often manage to find other ways to be alienating and irrelevant even when they have good stuff in them). And, needless to say, the attempts by the left in the community and, of more relevance, in the labour movement to push for even a limited one-day province-wide general strike did not come to fruition, let alone the yearnings on the part of some that an honest-to-goodness, to-the-death kind of general strike might result.

I'm sure that once historians have access to the cabinet memos of the day, evidence will be found that the mobilizations did play a role in the Harris Tories not going any farther than they did in doing nasty things. But they went pretty far. By and large these mobilizations did not achieve their goals. They did not force the government to back down in any substantive way that we could see from out here in the public. They did not result in even symbolic public compromises with the demands of the movement. They did not even help the opposition parties do much better in elections, and the Tories remained in power until quite a bit later, after Harris had left and the government had exceeded its best-before date and was due for a change anyway.

My take is that much of the left-liberal and social democratic left were and to a certain extent remain highly demoralized by this failure. They grew up in an environment in which lobbying, policy briefs, and symbolic mobilization were mostly likely to make some headway. The rules changed, the old forumlae didn't work, and ever since they have been left despondent and not quite sure what to do instead. Some have ceased to be active at all, some have responded with a renewed commitment to strictly electoral politics, and some are buried in trying to keep alive the services that neoliberalism is constantly eroding from under them, or in trying to maintain their dues-paying membership as that is eroded out from under them. Oh, and they write the odd policy brief.

It is a mistake to try and provide a single answer to why there is not more social movement activity going on. The answer will inevitably depend on power and privilege, and there are certainly lots of people out there across Canada who would dearly like to do something about the oppressions and exploitation they face on a collective level but who have little space in their life to do much more than combat their oppression on an everyday, personal level, work, and keep themselves and their families together. It is also important not to answer it in a way that focuses too much on the government of the day -- being unable to see past that level of analysis is one of the problems that has locked the liberal-left and social democratic left into their current paralysis as far as extra-electoral activities go, I think. Any movement that is going to be able to persist in the face of current obstacles will have to have a broader target.

All of that said, the relative lack of response by Canadian social movements to the electoral resurgence of the right is not encouraging. As I have maintained in other posts, even if there is an election tomorrow, the contest will not be over whether things get better or worse in the next few years, but how fast they get worse. Though it is a good sign that much elite opinion in the United States seems to have turned against Bush -- some sort of retreat by the most right-wing elements of U.S. elites, even if it is in the face of their almost equally horrid neoliberal elite brethern rather than because of movements, may help to limit the extent to which Harper will be able to imitate his mentor.

But you'll have to excuse me if I'd rather we not depend on that. I'd much rather we, ourselves, were in a better position to set the terms of the debate. And we need to keep working towards that, no matter who resides at 24 Sussex Drive a year from now.

As for how -- well, I make no claims to having answers and this post is long enough already. But perhaps a good start would be to look to those amongst us who are already doing something, whether it is directly focused on Harper or not, and take that as a place to start.

Monday, January 15, 2007

"Children of Men"


The movie "Children of Men" is many things. It is well acted. It is visually powerful. It is well written. It is emotionally difficult to watch in parts. It may not, as this article claims, be "the best movie of the year -- possibly the decade," but it is quite good. But I'm not sure, even though many would disagree with me, that it qualifies for the label "political movie."

"Children of Men" is a big-budget, sci-fi, near-future dystopia directed by Alfonso CuarĂ³n. It is set in England in 2027. The premise is that 18 years before the movie, the human race inexplicably ceased being able to reproduce. Neither cause nor cure has been found. This has caused a great deal of social upheavel, as one might imagine -- the viewer is given the impression of some sort of generalized chaos outside of the United Kingdom, and a fairly openly fascist state which has closed its borders and labels all non-Britishers as "refugees" within. These refugees are routinely rounded up and stuck in camps. It is not made explicitly clear what happens to them then, though it is not unusual for the characters to pass by without remark fields with piles of still-smoking bodies as they drive through the green English countryside.

The main character, "Theo", is played by Clive Owen. Many years ago he was a political activist and married to "Julian", Julianne Moore's character. Their young child died in a flu epidemic shortly thereafter, splitting them up and pushing him into cynicism and alcoholism and her further into the movement. Julian has become the head of an underground group that struggles for the rights of refugees. It appears to be a small, secretive organization of both English people and refugees, with many contacts among refugees but without a mass base. This group abducts Theo in order to ask him to get illicit transit papers for a woman from his cousin, who is a government minister. He does so (apparently both for the money and for another shot at the long-estranged Julian) but only manages to get papers that would let both him and this woman travel together. He meets up with the guerillas again. They are beginning their journey, there is an ambush, and Julian is killed. The rest of them retreat to a rural safehouse. Theo discovers that the refugee woman they wish to transport, "Kee" (played by Claire-Hope Ashitey), is miraculously pregnant. They want to get her to the coast for a rendez-vous with a ship belonging to a very secret organization of scientists and "wise men" called The Human Project who are working in secret on the infertility problem.

Quite quickly, Theo figures out that it was Julian's lieutenants in the guerilla group that arranged the ambush and her murder so they could take over the group, divert Kee and her baby from the Human Project, and use the baby -- remember, the first on earth in nearly two decades -- as a banner to ignite armed struggle by the refugees. Theo, Kee (who trusts Theo implicitly because Julian told her to), and another woman who is a member of the anti-government group and was a midwife back when women still had babies contrive to break their way into a refugee camp in order to get to the point on the coast where they are to meet the ship. An armed uprising begins, which they somehow navigate, and the ship shows up to pick up Kee and her newborn just as Theo dies.

Before I get into the weightier stuff, a number of the minor characters deserve mention. The midwife, played by Pam Ferris, is an amusing mix of grim determination and a particularly English brand of new age flakiness, with a mix of appropriated pseudo-Hindu patter and a belief in UFOs. Michael Caine plays "Jasper", an eccentric grower of high-quality weed and also an old friend of Theo. Both hilarious and chilling is Peter Mullan's "Syd", a caricature of the kind of working-class, psychotic, Scottish "wee hardman" who has been filling out the lower ranks of English colonial armies for generations.

The Present, The Future, and Urban Warfare

There are a number of things about this film that are worth talking about. The first is how depressing it is. One of the things I find hardest about watching near-future dystopias like this, even though I generally like them, is that I find them all too plausible. Sure, the no-babies premise in this one is unlikely, and the regime in V for Vendetta was a trifle cartoonish, but the general trend that they extrapolate in terms of social organization not only seems possible, but in my darker moods seems likely.

Red Jenny wrote an interesting post on the movie, and said that in viewing such movies she is "struck by how much they reflect the past and even the present." I think that is right on the money. She comments in particular on the scenes of urban warfare in the refugee camp later in the movie, which could be straight out of Palestine or Iraq. Personally, since the style of the uniforms and equipment were very much British Army, I kept flashing back visually to evening news scenes of the Northern Ireland of yesteryear, but I also couldn't help thinking of the pending massacre among the two and a half million residents of Sadr City, Baghdad (being openly planned by the U.S. state and tacitly endorsed by the Canadian state). Red Jenny opines that, "Perhaps these movies allow us privileged folk who live in relative peace and prosperity to begin to visualize how terrible war and related atrocities actually are. These films succeed in communicating with wide audiences, and reach us a gut level in a way that newspaper articles often don't." I hope so. I know that these scenes wrenched me out of my suspension of disbelief in very visceral ways, accompanied by thoughts like, "This is happening somewhere right now and my government is supporting it!" But still I worry about the highly trained capacity among privileged North Americans to be blase about cinematic violence and to avoid connecting it with reality at all, let alone our complicity in that reality.

Perhaps another way of connecting the speculative dystopia of "Children of Men" to past and present is in how it depicts space. Back in the middle of the twentieth century, anti-colonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon wrote,

The colonial world is a compartmentalized world...The colonialized world is a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police station... In capitalist countries a multitude of sermonizers, counselors, and 'confusion-mongers' intervene between the exploited and the authorities. In colonial regions, however, the proximity and frequent, direct intervention by the police and the military ensure the colonized are kept under close scrutiny, contained by rifle butts and napalm... The 'native' sector is not complementary to the European sector. The two confront each other, but not in the service of a higher unity.

He could be writing about Baghdad today, and a few other places, though in the intervening five decades some details of the spatialization of power have changed in much of the world even if the underlying relations are much the same. Still, physical division of spaces with very different physical realities and very different relationships to power are the rule, and those divisions are currently getting steeper and sharper. The world is still "compartmentalized" and "divided" in this sense despite formal decolonization in much of it, and "sermonizers" and "rifle butts" are still allotted accordingly -- within many cities, across regions, between countries, or even according to the same indigenous/settler divides Fanon writes about in still-colonized countries like Canada.

In "Children of Men", the demarcations of kinds of space are very sharp -- sharper than within most places in rich countries today, but on a credible extension of current trend lines. Theo exists in "normal person" space, which is bleak and depressing, full of propaganda and evidence of police power, but still relatively functional. It takes him past another kind of space all the time, the space of refugees -- cages, cops with vicious dogs and assault weapons, sorrow and violence. On his trip to see his governmental cousin, a limousine takes him through an area for the elite of the elite, where all is golden and musical and the refugees and the proles are safely out of sight, as are the fences and soldiers and artillery that keep them out of sight. Really, the lines are simlilar in character to lines that exist today; they just stand out for us in the film because the locations of the lines are different, and they are drawn a bit more clearly for us.

Using Racialization/Racism For Narrative Effect

A second thing that did not clobber me over the head quite the same way the scenes of urban warfare did, but that became more and more clear the more I thought about the film, was the ways in which the studio's choices around use of racialized actors and other markers of racialization seem to purposefully invoke (and therefore reinforce) racist narratives common to the culture. (By the way, I often find it easy to misjudge the significance of this kind of stuff. I mean that not in a right-wing or liberal, "Aww, it's just a movie" kind of way, but as an acknowledgment that the "racial illiteracy on the part of white people [that] is part of the hegemonic power of whiteness" not only helps us keep from seeing stuff, it also keeps us from easily developing a sense of how much energy and outrage various manifestations of current white supremacist social relations in the realm of popular culture really deserve. Sometimes we say the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet. So comments, as always and about everything, are welcome.)

I can think of three examples.

Example #1: I'm least sure of this example. Kee, the pregnant refugee, is the only Black woman, in fact the only woman of colour at all, to have a speaking part in the film. Though it also invokes a quite reasonable nod to Africa as the original cradle of human life, the fact that the only woman on the planet capable of bearing a child is an impovrished African refugee and she also happens to be the only Black woman allowed to speak in the film also risks triggering narratives about Black women and sexuality and reproduction, a la the hateful "welfare queen" ideology.

Example #2: Julian, the white woman who is initially the leader of the anti-government group, has ended bombings as a tactic by the group (or she claims to have, anyway), and is pursuing a humane, idealistic approach with Kee in trying to get her to The Human Project. The scheme to kill Julian originates with two of her lieutenants (one, "Luke", played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I first encountered and very much liked as "The Operative" in "Serenity"), the only two racialized men in the film with speaking parts. They are obsessed with using the baby to trigger an armed uprising by refugees which they can then, with the legimtiacy given them as guardians of this miraculous baby, hegemonize. So the only men of colour in the film are shown as obsessed with creating violence, and as committed to using a woman of colour to accomplish it, in contrast to the benign white woman who preceded them and who only had the woman of colour's best interests at heart, and the white male main character who also only has the woman of colour's best interests at heart. Lots of colonial stuff here. The minion that actually kills Julian for them is a white youth, but interestingly enough he is also symbolically racialized, because he wears his long, thick hair in dreads.

Example #3: As one might imagine, there are lots of shots of refugees -- refugees in cages, refugees in transport buses, refugees in slum-like dwellings, refugees in camps. When the refugees are presented in ways obviously intended to humanize them, they tend to be presented in appearance and imagery as Eastern Europeans. When the refugees are presented in ways that are intend to show anger and violence or potential violence, the appearance and imagery tend to be Arab or Muslim.

Political or Not?

The final thing I want to talk about is my impression that this, despite all appearances, is not a political movie.

Whether or not you agree with that statement has everything to do with how you understand the adjective "political" in that sentence. The most common understanding would probably take it to mean a movie in which context and conflict are explicitly linked to the social, to the collective, especially if one element of that context and conflict involves state relations. By this measure, "Children of Men" is most definitely a political movie. You might also consider it political is something about it, even just imagery rather than explicity narrative, pushes viewer contemplation of issues of current political importance. I could see that.

However, another definition is possible. I would argue that a movie is made political not by its use of spheres of life that we might label the social, the collective, or the political in defining its context and conflict, but rather by its endorsement of the idea of deliberate, collective intervention into those spheres of life in order to make things better. In other words, it does not just plunder "the political" for imagery, but it presents a story which shows "the political" as a legitimate and even advisable direction for the exertion of human agency. This is not some sort of cultural Stalinism: I am not insisting that it must show one type of struggle, one model of change, one core axis of conflict. The space left open is very broad. I ask only for a story that endorses, even subtely or in conflicted ways, the idea of actual political doing (broadly understood). By this definition, "Children of Men" is, I would say, decidedly anti-political.

I have several reasons for saying this. First of all, the viewpoint character, Theo, has renounced political engagement. At one point he even says something to the effect that way back then, when he was active and with Julian, it was Julian that was the real activist and not him. Now, I read that line as being more about providing characterization of the path their relationship took after that, and about the kind of latter-day rewriting of self that we all engage in. But the fact is, however much the man whose gaze defines our entry into this world hates the current state of social relations, he is profoundly alienated from the idea that there is any point in trying to do anything about it. This is not to judge the character -- cynicism and passivity in his situation would be eminently understandable -- but it is an accurate description, and it shapes how we are shown things.

A second crucial element is the way that those who do engage in struggle are portrayed. No effort is made to make the choices by the underground anti-government group understandable to the audience. Admittedly, given that detailed exposition tends to kill a feature film and that most North Americans know next to nothing about the basics of social change, this is a tall order. However, whatever the reasons, the filmmakers are able to get away with showing radical social change activities as more or less unmoored from processes of rational decision-making as ordinary people would understand them.

For one thing, the only social change activities which are shown or even named are violent ones. Early in the movie, a cafe is blown up, and Theo is almost caught in it. When Theo is abducted by Julian's people the next day, he confronts his ex-wife about it. Her response is not, "What on earth could we possible gain by blowing up a coffee shop? We hit military targets" or something like that, but rather, "We don't do that any more," implying that these irrational activists once did delight in blowing up ordinary English people to further their cause of refugee rights. Her claim that they don't do it any more, which seems at least somewhat credible given events later in the film, does not counterpose any concrete action to that which they no longer do -- a vague "talking to the people" is all she offers, and that seems to be enough for Theo. Later in the movie when the uprising in the refugee camp has begun, the only markers of resistance to oppression are gun battles or preambles to gun battles. The imagery of the very powerful scenes of urban warfare draw heavily from images of the Palestinian intefada in the Western consciousness, but the only aspects of resistance they show are the bloody ones than Western media makes familiar to us rather than the complex and multifaceted resistance that has actually occurred. Not only is it a tremendous failure of imagination on the part of the filmmakers to show bombs and gun fights as the only possible answers to "What is to be done?", but it is profoundly unreaslistic -- in various times and places those tactics are taken up, for better or worse, but they are almost inevitably integrated into a spectrum of far less spectacular activities which from the basis of the resistance of which the violent stuff is the most visible, and not necessarily the most effective, face. Resistance to oppression, even the harsh, directly oppression shown in the film, is an everyday activity, but the way it is portrayed keeps it safely disconnected from the everyday, and associates it only with one of its possible components -- of course the component most likely to alienate most viewers from resistance as an actual activity.

(An aside: I should add that I do find something positive in the fact that the filmmakers resist the immense cultural pressure to give the male lead even a single scene of venting his rage at some oppressor or enemy or "bad guy" by picking up a machine gun and going all Rambo, or a pair of knives and going all V (for Vendetta, not the UFO mini-series from the '80s). Not that I'm saying rage in the face of oppression is at all a problem. Nor am I sitting on my privileged behind and passing judgments out of context about how any particular person should resist. But it is kind of nice to see a Hollywood hero, especially one shown as socialized into masculinity, responding to a situation of violent conflict in some other mode than righteous and horrible violence. It's even kind of nurturing, albeit with problematic "save the (racialized) damsel" overtones.)

The final anti-political element to the story is the goal that gets constructed as "good": getting Kee and her baby to The Human Project. Judging this course of action in the context of the options presented in the story, it is an eminently sensible choice. However skewed its portrayal of struggle in general, intra-group violence a la Julian's death at the hands of her lieutenants and a masculinist fetishization of open armed struggle as the One True Way regardless of circumstance are not, regrettably, implausible, and responding to those with an attempt to escape and get what may be the only hope for human survival to safety seem like a good way to go. However, by constructing the story in this way, a better tomorrow is put in the hands of experts, sages, and "wise men" who are beyond the fray. Salvation will come from outside. Efforts to create a better future ourselves result only in bloodshed, and are shown as being driven hardest (the occasional benevolent white woman notwithstanding) by violence-prone racialized men.

Despite all of my critical words, I like the film. I'm very glad I went to see it, as difficult as parts of it were to watch. And, as Red Jenny suggests, perhaps there was political value for me in those excruciating moments in which the urban warfare scenes pierced a little more deeply than usual my first world comfort that persists despite knowing intellectually that such things go on "over there" all the time. But I'm still not sure it is a political story.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review: The Invention of Heterosexuality

[Jonathan Ned Katz. The Invention of Heterosexuality. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.]

It is perhaps a measure of a book's importance that it causes a stir when released but readers who encounter it years later wonder what all the fuss was about because its ideas have become common sense. Among the general public, the idea that sexuality is socially constructed would still probably be met with blank stares and then hostility, but there are (and I tend to inhabit) circles that one might label as lefty, para-academic, and queer-positive or queer where it's a pretty common ideas, even if there is little consensus about what it actually means. Given its status as a fairly key text in the development of such ideas, I was initially disappointed that I did not feel both more challenged and more changed by Invention, and that I was left feeling that a great deal remains to be said. In part, however, I think that is a measure of its success.

Katz sets himself a task that turns out to be simpler than it first appears. He is responding to the historical dominance but relative invisibility of heterosexuality. At the time of his writing, gay and lesbian historians had already made great strides in making visible the histories of people who have desired those of the same gender. However, despite various writings taking partial steps to problematize heterosexuality (by feminists, by early gay and lesbian liberationists, and by Michel Foucault, among others) it had remained remarkably resistant to even being seen let alone tagged as being in just as much need of explaining as homosexuality and then fully analyzed. Katz takes a simple approach: he traces the evolution of the term and associated concepts.

The story runs something like this: In the early 19th century, words (and even categories by other names) corresponding to hetero- and homosexuality did not exist. Rather, the EuroAmerican conceptual universe related to sexuality revolved around those acts which could result in reproduction and which were therefore "good", and those which could not result in reproduction regardless of the genders of the participants and which where therefore "bad." There was no conception of an other-gender-focused, pleasure-based eroticism that deserved to be honoured in its own right and which existed in contrast with (and domination over) a same-gender-focused eroticism associated with stigma and shame. That distinction came about in the late 19th century, probably before the actual words came into use, and seemingly related to the formation and development of the middle class. Initially, heterosexuality was not a gold star type-term that signalled something socially endorsed and the avoidance of perversion by its opposite, but was itself theorized by some as a perversion because it promoted eroticism for its own sake rather than strictly for reproductive purposes. However, by the second decade of the twentieth century, the conceptual framework that is still part of our Western commonsense was firmly in place.

Katz traces the evolution of the term and concept through Freud and other early modern theorists of sexuality, in the mainstream media and literature through the century, through the beginnings of its destabilization in a sampling of (white and middle-class) second wave liberal feminist, radical feminist, and lesbian feminist critique. I particularly appreciated the survey of feminist stuff, as a way of learning a little bit about a few writers I have heard of but whom I have never read. I also appreciated the glimpse of Freud, but I think I would have gotten more out of it if I had more of a grounding in his work already.

As I said, I am not someone who really needed much convincing of his basic thesis, and I was glad to have a chance to encounter this particular sort of evidence. However, I was disappointed that I was left with the feeling that the task had only been begun. I think this book leaves lots of room for analysis of other relevant texts and even more for exploration of the actual social organization and regulation of sexuality (admittedly a tall order when you are talking about history). I thought that perhaps Katz stated his conclusions more strongly than warranted by the evidence he presents in this volume, though not necessarily than the evidence accumulated before and since in the field will bear. I also felt he fell into an all too common hole in presenting a relatively shallow and simplistic entry into the discussion of how biology figures into things -- I've sort of come to expect that most blatant biology-determinists will refuse to engage at all with the social, but I really do think that those of us who do appreciate the significance of social construction would serve ourselves and our theories well by investing time in developing and articulating a more sophisticated treatment of biology. That treatment might not change a lot in theories like Katz's, but it would make those who read and supported them much better able to fend of simple, misguided, but often nonetheless effective-with-many attacks by bio-determinists.

(This actually makes me think of another book called Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire (Edward Shorter, University of Toronto Press, 2005) which is just such a bio-determinist attack. I read it late in our stay in LA, I think, but, oddly for me, didn't finish it. I'm caricaturing a bit because the details have faded with time. It consisted of a rather interesting exploration of how desire has been written of in (Western) history. Each chapter consisted of an introduction containing some combination of attacks on social constructionist theories of sexuality (without actually describing them or engaging with them seriously, and sometimes misrepresenting them), snide remarks about radical and lesbian feminists from the early second wave, and generalizations about the march of Western history and "civilization" consistent with the associated orientalist, colonial, and self-indulgent ideas; then followed by interesting research and writing that mostly seemed to support social constructionism but were presented as if they did the opposite, which most readers would have to take the author's word for, which most lay readers would because he refuses to present the ideas he is opposing while his own position gets clearly articulated and is closer to most current commonsense anyway; and concluded by a recap of the introductory diatribe as if the research presented had proven his points. Like I said, I am caricaturing it, and I only read about 2/3 of it, but it was a very peculiar book.)

Invention remains an important book. If the idea of a socially constructed sexuality, including heterosexuality, is new to you, it's a great place to start. But if you want to know the issue in an exhaustive way -- and I certainly don't claim that I do -- this cannot be a one-stop way to do that.

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

Monday, January 08, 2007

Review: Color of Violence

[Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology. Boston: South End Press, 2006.]

Women engaged in anti-violence work hold a unique place in my slowly progressing book project, which uses the stories of long-time Canadian activists to bring to light histories of Canadian social movements and slices of historical and current reality in Canada that tend to be erased and excluded. Though the book project will be able to use in a major way only a subset of the interviews, I originally compiled 47 oral history interviews with a total of 50 activists. The only essential characteristic of the participants was that they had been active in social movements for at least two decades, preferably more, and at least some of that time was in Canada. They were selected to cover as broad a range as possible of geographical locations within the country, identities, eras, and movements.

Given that mandate for breadth, it is perhaps a bit surprising that of the 29 women that I interviewed, 6 have had extensive experience in organizing in response to violence -- or, perhaps given the reality of endemic violence faced by women from both men and from the state, this is not surprising at all. Regardless, though there might be other areas where I would consider such duplication to be a sign of poor planning on my part, I am not at all disappointed in this instance. Given the amount of material, the importance that I personally attach to the issue, and the range of stories from these women, I have tenatively planned that this will end up being the only issue which is the focus of not one but two of the twelve chapters. These women have been active in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Woodstock, Toronto, Montreal, and Yellowknife. One is a white woman who has been involved in that aspect of the movement since early in the second wave and is still a prominent voice of (pardon my adoption of simplistic typology) radical feminism in Canada today. The other five women are racialized, four South Asian and one Metis. Of the former group, one approached the issue from an Islamic standpoint, two have a long history of involvement in a secular but specifically South Asian women's organization, and one (who also identifies as a lesbian) has been involved both through white-dominated women's movement spaces and in a multi-racial women of colour organization. The Metis woman has been active primarily in the far north. I have no idea yet how I'm going to structure it, but there is plenty of material that covers enough stories, facts, and themes to fill two chapters without becoming redundant.

There is hardly a chapter in the book where this isn't an issue, but obviously the fact that I am a middle-class white guy who gets to make decisions about what to include and how to frame this material -- material based in at least four quite different and sometimes conflicting politics among these six women -- has some serious potential to be politically problematic. Nothing can make that go away, and I hope the chance to bring important ideas and voices to new audiences is worth the risk that I might do something idiotic. But me doing lots of the right sort of reading can perhaps help me navigate the challenge more effectively and help me deal with a maximum of respect with the words with which I have been gifted.

Hence me reading this book.

Color of Violence is an anthology of essays by radical women of colour involved in the organization Incite! Women of Color Against Violence (a group with which one of my favourite bloggers is active, as a matter of fact.) This vibrant and effective organization focuses on an analysis of violence that covers both gendered interpersonal violence and gendered violence from the state. Incite! argues that the white-dominated women's movement tends to neglect the latter, especially as it is experienced by racialized women, while movements based in communities of colour that oppose state violence from things like prisons, policing, and border militarization very often lack an analysis of the former.

One contributor is, I believe, a British woman who currently has an academic appointment at a Canadian university, but the vast majority of the book is very clearly U.S. American. This means that a lot of the factual details are from that context and therefore not directly applicable to my work. As well, the particular spectrum of experiences of gendered racialization among the contributors are somewhat different than if a similar anthology was produced in Canada -- particularly, just because of the relative sizes of the communities, I suspect there would be fewer essays by Latina women and more by South and East Asian women in a Canadian volume. None of those differences, however, make the book any less useful. What matters to me is to learn about the politics, and my sense is that radical women of colour in Canada would have much the same range of analyses as their sisters in the United States. And this is a great, great volume to learn about those politics.

Talking about specific content in collections like this is always difficult. There was strong representation from West Asian and particularly Palestinian women talking about the Palestinian struggle. There were essays bringing a critical analysis to things like choice (as used in a feminist context), adoption policies, and disability. I quite appreciated Andrea Smith's essay "Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy," which uses an analysis similar to things I've heard from experienced anti-racist activists from Toronto. It links current experiences of racialization to the historical organization of the oppressions of different groups, in particular the genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans, and the colonialism (Smith uses "orientalism/war") experienced by other people of colour. I also found Andrea Ritchie's essay "Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color" to be very powerful. Perhaps the most interesting section of the book, however, is the final one, which focuses on essays related to movement building, many of which should be of interest to anyone doing any sort of grassroots organizing.

As I said, I read this book with a very particular project in mind. However, I like to choose my reading for that project such that it also will end up, as much as I can manage, giving me the sort of general radical political education I would want to have anyway. Particularly for those of us with relative privilege, it must be an integral part of our politics to challenge ourselves with material produced from other standpoints, that takes us out of what we know and have participated in directly ourselves. Despite the absense of any specifically Canadian content, I think this book can be a crucial piece of political education for any activist in North America.

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

Sudbury Welfare Hunger Striker Named Newsmaker of the Year

A local Sudbury newspaper named Sara Anderson their Newsmaker of the Year for 2006. Anderson is an Ojibwe woman living on social assistance who went on a hunger strike in early 2006 because of the province's oppressive welfare regulations. After hearing about her decision to take this action, the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty was active in supporting her.

Here is the article:

Reluctant activist starved for cause

Date Published | Dec. 22, 2006

A woman who embarked on a arduous 16-day hunger strike to protest the province’s welfare system is Northern Life’s Newsmaker of the Year for 2006.

Sara Anderson, 45, says she has no regrets about her hunger strike, which started the first week in April and continued for more than two weeks.

When asked to comment on whether others might follow in her footsteps to denounce government policy, Anderson said her hunger strike was an act by a desperate woman who was sick and tired of living in abject poverty.

Spiritual guidance provided by a native elder made Anderson reconsider and call off her hunger strike.

“My elder spoke to me and told me it’s not time for me to die...If I continued much longer, I think I probably would have died soon and my elder convinced me it’s not my time. I’m not ready to go,” said Anderson back in April.

Days after ending her hunger strike, Anderson was granted the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits she had been denied on numerous occasions in the past.

Being accepted for a disability pension had “nothing to do” with her decision to quit her hunger strike, said Anderson, who was preparing for an appeal hearing to receive ODSP in May.

Anderson demanded the provincial government dramatically increase social assistance rates and reinstate the monthly dietary supplement clawed back against tens of thousands of recipients. She also demanded more people with legitimate disabilities be accepted into the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

Anderson, who suffered a bullet wound in her hip while working as a truant officer on a native reserve in northwestern Ontario several years ago, said she could not afford to eat properly or provide any quality of life for herself and her daughter while living on Ontario Works benefits.

“I don’t regret a thing,” said Anderson, who was in very good spirits the week before Christmas.

While her life has improved since getting ODSP benefits, it hasn’t changed dramatically, she said.

“Me and my daughter don’t go hungry any more, but besides having more food in the fridge, my life isn’t much better,” she said. “I still don’t see a big difference.”

She is looking forward to the holiday season and has saved enough money to provide a good Christmas for her 16-year-old daughter Sheryl, who she credits for being “her rock and inspiration” during the hunger strike.

Anderson said she’s strongly considering returning to college for high school upgrading courses early in 2007 and would eventually like to pursue a career in journalism.

“I love to write,” she said.

When informed she was Northern Life’s Newsmaker of the Year, Anderson said she didn’t do what she did for fame or notoriety.

She simply wanted to show that poor people, who rely on Ontario Works benefits, don’t have any kind of quality of life and many lose all hope, which shouldn’t happen in a country like Canada, said Anderson.

Anderson survived on water with lemon for her entire 16-day ordeal.

“My body is very sore right now and my head feels like it’s going to split open,” said Anderson, one week into her hunger strike. “I knew this wasn’t going to be easy and it’s not, but quitting is not an option.

“I’m having a lot more difficulty dealing with being off medication for my arthritis than I am going without food, but I’m determined to carry on.”

Nickel Belt MPP Shelley Martel detailed Anderson’s plight 10 days
into her protest by making a public statement at Queen’s Park.

“People on social assistance in monetary terms are worse off now
with the Liberals in power than they were under the former Tory government,” said Martel.

The Liberal government and Premier Dalton McGuinty must change its
policies and gives people on social assistance enough to afford the most basic necessities of life, said Anderson.

Days after calling off her hunger strike, Anderson said she looked forward to eating her first bannock burger, a favourite among Aboriginals, consisting of a spiced hamburger meat patty placed between two pieces of bread.

She’s had many bannock burgers since, she said.

“I’m much healthier and stronger and I’m afraid to say I’ve eaten a few too many bannock burgers,” she said.

The only regret she has about her hunger strike was the affect it had on her daughter, especially when she became very ill after a dozen days without food.

“I was pretty sick those final few days and she was very worried about me,” she said. “My daughter has a dream to become the first Aboriginal fighter pilot in the Canadian Armed Forces and I’m going to try and help her achieve her dreams,” she said.

[Thanks to GK for the forward.]

Friday, January 05, 2007

Reference re. Canadian War-On-Terror Legislation

Don't have time to read it in depth, but based on a quick scan, this (in PDF format) seems to be an important critical reference by a prominent Canadian legal scholar, W. Wesley Pue, and published in the Osgoode Hall Law Journal in 2003. I would imagine it would be a good source for anyone doing research or writing on the topic, with lots of useful references to the legislation itself and to other sources, as well as for anyone seeking to understand how our liberties have been eroded in the so-called "war on terror."

The abstract reads:

This article assesses Canada's principle legal response to the challenge presented by terrorism in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Untied States. A review of major federal "Anti-terrorism" legislation reveals a legislative response that fundamentally violates core constitutional principles while failing to significantly enhance public safety.

Thank-you, Chretien Liberals.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Movement History Site Update

Just posted another of the infrequent updates to my Movement History project site. Here it is:

At the time of my last update I was working on a substantial rewrite of Chapter 3 with a rewrite of Chapter 6 next in line. I had hoped to finish both by the beginning of December. However, the work on Chapter 6 involved adding more new material than I had expected, which consequently involved more research, so it was mid-December before they were done. I took printouts of both of those chapters with me when we headed down to southern Ontario for the holidays and had a look over them, and though both need to have a few tweaks and to have a few very specific bits of information added, I am quite happy with them. In reflecting on this past year of work, I realize that I have not produced as much new material as I had hoped because re-visioning and rewriting -- once for some stuff, twice for the rest -- took up so much of my rather limited writing time. Nonetheless, I feel I have moved ahead, because last year at this time I was groping for a cohesive, compelling approach to presenting the material, and I now feel I have found one. I now have an Intro, and Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 6, all in that form and relatively polished, and in the last couple of days I have begun writing Chapter 4. I may be underestimating yet again how long things will take or overestimating how much time parenting will leave me for this work, but I am hoping that this year will see me finish the majority of the writing that remains to be done on this project. As well, I also took time this past year to re-work my book proposal, itself a fairly substantial document, to fit the new vision for the project. I delayed sending it to a new publisher because of another option presented by a friend and ally of the project -- an option which was well worth trying but which has not resulted in any real contact, unfortunately. But that means that my proposal is ready to send off to the destination I previously had in mind, and I will do so some time in the next week. So I think it really is a happy new year for this project!

I also changed the frontpage article link on that site to "Blinded by Ideology: Why is Harper pulling the plug on Vancouver's Safe Injection Site?" by Peter Dodson, published at the Briarpatch Magazine site.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Few Thoughts on the Minimum Wage Flap

The last couple of days, a storm has been a-brewin' among some members of the Progressive Bloggers as to whether it is appropriate for Ontario's minimum wage to be raised from $8/hr to $10/hr. A rising young Liberal Party star (who seems, based on the general tone of his writings and politics, to have his eyes on some political career-related prize) has twice decried the notion of such an increase. Others on the PB have taken various sides, including strong words in favour of such an increases here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

(On a side note, the original anti-raise poster, Jason Cherniak, seems to be upset that people have used strong language in disagreeing with him, and seems to attribute it all to NDP partisanship. It's kind of sad, really, that partisanship is the only reason he can come up with for why someone might feel strongly in favour of a raise in the minimum wage and the only reason why people might be engaging in online political writing. Does he think that noone living on minimum wage (and therefore having trouble feeding their kids and staying housed) has a blog? His delusion that politics is best understood as "a civilized policy debate between people who respect the differing opinions of others" is kind of precious. I'm all for "respect" but he means something quite different by that than I would mean, I think. To me, it means proactively engaging in the kind of humble, open learning that this post talks about, rather than feeling comfortable with off-the-cuff dismissal of the realities of those with whom you are in a structural relationship of domination. Using "respect" to mean "empty civility" as seems to have been done here is just plain oppressive. It is amazing the vast swaths of the population whose political realities are erased by his seeming insistance that rage at one's own oppression (or the oppression of those near and dear or oppression in general) should be stifled if one doesn't want to risk rendering one's self somehow inadmissable. Sigh. Well, at least the fact that I am posting after he had already posted this childish rant means that I at least won't be falsley accused of being a New Democrat, as a number of his other targets were.)

I could try and address the many problems in the original anti-raise posts, but others have done that adequately, as referenced above. I would only add that his suggestion that the minimum wage is principally earned by high school students is particularly laughable to me, living as I do in a city where a report last year found that 60% of jobs pay less than $10/hr.

However, in reflecting on this debate, it seems to me that there are two other points that are missing from the discussion.

The first has to do with the false choice that has been posed by Cherniak between raising the minimum wage versus having more resources for social services. As others have noted, it is not clear why this is being posed as an either-or thing and those posing it in such a way have refused to provide a substantive answer. But beyond that is the need to problematize the centre-left tendency to characterize social services as only and always good, as being _the_ answer. Which is not for a moment to say that services are bad -- certainly, in the context of current social relations, I would rather have resources going to services than to profits. However, we need to recognize the fact that in many instances, people living in poverty experience services -- services which they absolutely need to live and therefore cannot simply walk away from -- as institutions which regulate their behaviour in ways that people with more money do not get regulated, as sites where whatever non-economic oppressions they happen to experience (racism, heterosexism, colonialism, ableism, lots of others) get reproduced and reinforced, and as institutions that demand that they perform poorly rewarded and alienating work (broadly understood). This is not meant to feed into right-wing arguments that people should be left to drown without bothering to throw them a rope, but it is to try and make the point -- a difficult one for those of us whose lives are not quite so thoroughly defined by bureaucratic services -- that services are not a panacea and at least in some cases are hated by the people who depend on them.

The second is to maybe reconsider what Cherniak means by the various ways he has said "We can't afford it" or "It isn't practical" and what people mean when they counter that yes we can. The generalized version of that question is, given current social relations, how much can we redistribute resources downwards before it makes simple business sense for those who make decisions in the service of capital to do things with their money that result in the Ontario or Canadian economies, and by extension workers in those jursidictions, being hurt. As far as I can tell, the debate is mostly between those who think that raising the minimum wage crosses that line and will ultimately cause harm, and those who think that raising the minimum wage will not cross that line. I do not have enough specialist knowledge to provide a good technical answer to that question, when posed in those narrow terms, though the answers provided by other bloggers in this debate make me think there probably is room in terms of "economics", just not in terms of the hypocritical balancing act that is Liberal Party politics. In general, my feeling is that we have more room to do such things than we are lead to believe, but we also have substantially less room than before the global rise of neoliberalism tore apart the post-WWII social democratic compromise. But I think that way of framing the question is really offensive because it is accepting without question and therefore providing legitimacy to the idea that capital/business/elites/ruling relations have a right to dictate that some people here must suffer, must be exploited, must be oppressed, must lack food, must lack housing, must have their land stolen, must be raped, must be bashed. I don't accept that. I don't think anyone who considers themselves to be a progressive should accept that either. When neoliberals like Cherniak (or, in the unlikely event they should ever get a real say in such things, even Hampton or Layton) tell us we can't afford to have people no longer going hungry, no longer becoming homeless, what they really mean is that capital will resist if we try to do that. So we need to think long and hard about what we want to do, knowing that we will hit that barrier eventually, even if it isn't this particular proposal for raising the minimum wage.

I have no magic answer, though I think building power outside of state relations, and outside of para-state institutions like political parties which reward faux-progressives like Cherniak and keep even their vaguely more liberal members safely marginal, will be key. And that means building social movements. Because sooner or later, the argument that we can't institute policy X, Y, or Z without retaliation from capital will be an accurate statement, and the only way to change the ground upon which such decisions are made is to have anti-oppressive social movements that can push for social relations that are truly responsive to human need and human desires for liberation.

Being "civilized" -- and I hesitate to even try to reclaim the word, given its horrid colonial baggage -- is not about being polite on blogs while people in Ontario go hungry (and suffer in so many other ways), it is about genuinely committing to an Ontario, to a world, in which noone goes hungry.