Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Canadian Military Creating New Guidebook For Attacking Oppressed Populations

Here is a depressing article called "Canada's Counterinsurgency Strategy" by Jon Elmer and Anthony Fenton, which documents the latest stage in Canada's transition from its longtime quiet complicity in war and empire to a more active, openly bloodthirsty, "out" kind of complicity.

The article's focus is a new counterinsurgency manual that will soon be released by the Canadian Armed Forces. This is the first time the Canadian armed forces have had a formal guide for how do participate in the violent suppression of what the article says that the manual characterizes as "local and often popular movements". However, it is a long Canadian tradition -- for example, the lead author of the manual has in the past cited the armed suppression of the Metis nation and their allies in 1885, a classic example of a white settler state militarily crushing indigenous peoples who do not particularly wish to be colonized, as a historic counter-insurgency by Canadian forces. Needless to say, this does not appear to trouble him.

The article talks about three current counter-insurgency efforts of various levels of intensity in which the Canadian forces are participating: the recolonization of Afghanistan, the support of the government in Haiti installed after the U.S.-sponsored coup against the democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the enforcement of colonial relations in Canada against indigenous insurgencies.

I found some of the quotes from senior Canadian military officials to be particularly chilling, things like this:

"It is a fascinating time to be a Canadian soldier," Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie, head of the army, told journalists at a recent policy briefing at the Fraser Institute, a conservative research institute in Vancouver.

"We are no longer a blunt instrument relegated solely to watching from the sidelines or inter-positioning ourselves between two formerly warring factions," Leslie said.

Canadian generals such as Leslie, Chief of Staff Rick Hillier and retired Maj. Gen. Louis MacKenzie have been outspoken critics of the accuracy and utility of the long-fostered national self-image of the Canadian military as a neutral middle-power and "blue-helmeted" peacekeeper.

While the Canadian Forces commitment in Afghanistan is currently slated to end in February 2009, "Let's not kid ourselves," Gen. Leslie said. The enormous resources invested by the government in the transformation of Canada's armed forces are clearly not for Afghanistan alone, he said, adding: "It is logical to expect that we will go somewhere fairly similar to Afghanistan and do much the same sort of activity."

Well, I do agree that we shouldn't kid ourselves. But these men should not just be fired, they should be locked up and provided with access to free psychological care for their casually cruel boosterism of Canadian complicity in murder, torture, and other oppressive violence against (mostly racialized) human beings.

The fairly open complicity of the Canadian International Development Agency, which used to have a few quite progressive corners from what I've heard, is also interesting. Particularly telling is the list of countries receving the greast aid, which are defined as "countries of strategic importance for Canada": Afghanistan, Haiti, and Iraq. why could they be "of strategic importance for Canada"...hmmm....

Read the article.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Review: Canada's Economic Apartheid

[Grace-Edward Galabuzi. Canada's Economic Apartheid: The Social Exclusion of Racialized Groups in the New Century. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 2006.]

One of the most useful questions you can ask yourself as a writer is, "Why am I doing this?" or, in different words, "What do I hope to accomplish by the text I am producing?" This question can cut through all kinds of confusion and hesitancy about where to take a particular piece of work.

I suppose the asking of such questions is really just a piece of common sense and I suspect that we all ask it as we work, whether or not it ever reaches the level of consciousness. However, I think the two years I spent doing writing and research with a non-profit agency in the social service sector (while independently engaged in similar but very different activity as part of a funded, community-based anti-racism project) helped me to appreciate the value of asking this question more explicitly. This was not because the culture of the agency that I worked for encouraged it -- it was more because it did not, and because I came increasingly to realize that both the organization and myself personally could be more effective even within the constraints that bounded us if we would only ask, and if we accepted no illusions in our answers. I don't think I figured out good ways to ask that question and put my answers into effect before I left that job and moved on to other things, but the lesson has stuck with me.

I think that one of the things that encouraged me to a more politicized asking of "Why? For what?" was the anti-racism project I was also a part of at the same time. That sector, not surprisingly, seemed to include ways of work that involved many fewer illusions about the potential benevolence of the state even when the project itself was state-funded. The consciousness of document production as carefully calculated political intervention was quite matter of course. (It was also in the context of that project that I first encountered Galabuzi's work, through an earlier report he had done on the same theme as this book in cooperation with the Centre for Social Justice in Toronto.)

All of this history leads me to read Canadian Economic Apartheid not as the dry academic publication for which it could easily be mistaken, but as a cannily crafted political act. I can only speculate of course but I think Galabuzi has made deliberate choices about why he is writing and how his text might have an impact once released into the world, choices based on an understanding of both the benefits and constraints flowing from the ways he has answered "Why?"

Now, one fairly common response to documents such as this book is the quite sensible observation that it is not reports, books, studies, and research, research, research that is going to change the world -- only organizing will do that. On the one hand, this is completely true. Any bureaucratic relations that wish to avoid open authoritarianism become adept at churning out documents that give the appearance of acting on some problem of public interest while in fact doing the opposite. The Canadian tradition of the Royal Commission often raises this to an art form, but the run-of-the-mill output of state and para-state institutions can do much the same. The binge of federally-funded research on homelessness beginning in the late '90s -- funded to manage the potential problem, understood as existing at the level of public relations by those who make such decisions, of the federal government being partially responsible for causing the upsurge in homelessness to begin with -- is a prime example of this (and one which paid me a salary for awhile, I must admit).

At the same time, this cynicism about the role of documents can easily be taken too far. Carefully crafted written words can have a tremendous impact. Saying this is not buying into the liberal mythology of social evolution as a process of continually refining ideas and then imposing them on the material world, of some sort of cerebral comptetition among concepts as the ultimate shaper of reality. Rather, it recognizes that the production and consumption of text are just as much a part of material reality as any other task, and (leaning on the wise analyses of Dorothy Smith) those acts are integral to translocally coordinating human activity. This coordination can happen because a text has some sort of official status and letting one's activities be guided by it is subject to some sort of enforcement, or it can be because the text captures the imaginations of people who are not otherwise obliged to activate it. A well-timed, well-written fiery pamphlet can bring thousands into the streets, for example, at least in certain times and places.

Choices Made

Canadian Economic Apartheid is not such a pamphlet. Galabuzi could have written one, I'd imagine, but one of his deliberate choices in producing the book was to select a rather differentmechanism of action -- a different set of people targeted to take up the ideas in different sorts of ways and shape their actions accordingly. In modern industrialized states, documents can also be targeted at an elite audience to try to create change. This approach can make things happen without the difficult conflict inherent to the fiery pamphlet route, but obviously the costs are high: To have a hope of actually encouraging change, a document must accept serious constraints. It must be written to make it at least minimally acceptable to the elites whose actions it wishes to shape, for example. It must accept certain conventions in terms of the information that it generates and presents, and the kinds of arguments it uses. It must meet quite mainstream understandings of rationality and, probably, quite mainstream theories of knowledge. It probably shouldn't be too angry in tone. Whatever policy recommendations are made should come across as something that "might work", given the preconceptions of the target audience. Moreover, it should appeal to the target audience's self-interest in some way, even if only via providing them with a path they can travel to affirm their self-image as benevolent. It must understand the existing elite-acceptable discourse on the subject, and respond to it in some way. It must understand who will read it, and why, and what their constraints are.

I hope it is obvious why producing a text to launch into such an environment in a deliberate, manipulative, illusion-free way is preferable to doing so in a less critical way. Neither will bring the revolution, of course, and both are really quite icky, because you have to restrain yourself from talking too much about what is really going on. Both, in fact, depend a lot on things happening way beyond the realm of elites who write reports to one another to determine what actually happens. However, the former gives you a better shot of nudgings circumstances in directions that might, just might, ease suffering in your community in ways that are not revolutionarily sexy, but can make a difference in real people's real lives.

It should be noted that such report writing has a long history on the social democratic left in Canada. One of the most important non-party institutions of the early social democratic left (just before and just after it started to actually have some influence in this country) was the League for Social Reconstruction, closely affiliated with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. They produced a number of key policy recommendations ultimately taken up by the Mackenzie King (and later) Liberals. Some of their other material was politely ignored because it did not fit the ideological preconceptions of the audience with the power to implement them. And lots of other important stuff did not get considered by the LSR authors at all. They were probably largely unwilling/incapable of recognizing some of the important factors underlying their ability to write reports that might be taken up by more elite elites to create policy and shape state relations and so on -- things like the origins of Canada and the resources to create a welfare state in colonialism and genocide, and the importance of the space created by revolution in Russia (however flawed) and the threat of radical ferment world wide to getting even their most modest proposals (however flawed) treated seriously by Canadian elite. Still, it was a certain kind of intervention, and it did make a difference to (some) ordinary people.

Anyway. Canada's Economic Apartheid is a book that enters into the tradition of trying to influence state policy through analysis. (The space created by anti-racism and other movement in Canada over the last few decades means that some of the blindnesses that marred early social democratic report writing are no longer mandatory, even if there are still limits on how they can be addressed). As part of its effort to adhere to conventions that would allow it to be taken seriously by elites, it is very, very quantitative, and its framework is very traditionally structuralist sociology. It does give a nod or two to critical race theory, but not much more. All of this means that it is a slow and not always terribly exciting read -- statistics can be portraying the most horrific kind of misery and oppression, but even the most talented writer cannot prevent them from becoming a bit mind-numbing. This means, of course, that this book is an absolutely crucial resource for the basic "facts" that you might need in discussing racism in the economy, whether the forum for debate is Parliament, a street corner, or Easter dinner. The value of having and using this kind of resource should not be underesetimated.

Another requirement of this sort of document is that it address policy debates as they currently exist. For this book, it means, for example, feeling obliged to meet messed up racist arguments that really do not deserve the time of day but that often catch the ears of policy makers. One of the key debates in which it intervenes is the contest to explain the fact that racialized people in Canada consistently (and often increasingly) make less money, have a higher unemployment rate, a lower employment rate, and have less wealth (with these things usually experienced in gendered ways) than white people, on average. There are a number of ways that different authors have tried to explain this over the years, while the research has been at different stages. One common explanation is the "immigration lag", i.e. that newcomers to Canada tend to do less well economically for the first number of years they are here, and on average racialized people in Canada are more likely to be relatively recent immigrants. This has been dismissed by more recent research (though right-wing analysts still often try to use it) that point out that while such a lag has always happened and still does, it has somehow ceased to be something that is overcome within a predictable, finite span. This shift has happened as the pool of immigrants to Canada has become increasingly racialized. And, of course, racialized people who are not immigrants face a gap as well, so the immigration lag, however real, is not explanatory.

When all of the various factors are taken into account, all the other possible explanations that analysts can grasp for, there is still a significant residual difference between racialized and non-racialized groups in Canada in these core economic readouts. It's a bit more complicated than this, but in essence the right tries to argue that the explanation for this residual is that these groups, for social and hisotrical reasons, tend to have less "human capital," are therefore "less productive", and therefore do less well in the supposedly perfect competition that is the labour market. Which boils down to a fancy way of claiming that people of colour and indigenous people just don't measure up to white people, with plenty of five dollar words thrown in so as to pretend that the argument isn't grossly racist.

The anti-racist rebuttals tend to talk about racialized (and gendered) segmentation of the labour market, empirical evidence of discrimination by employers, and overwhelming qualitative evidence of racism as reported by those who experience it. There are plenty of statistical arguments, too, based in more fine-grained examination of census data and the like. A key one is that educational attainment is often a key proxy for "human capital", and racialized people in Canada have, on average, higher educational attainment than white Canadians yet still do significantly less well in the labour market. To use the neutral, academic language, the process of racialization means that people are marked in such a way as to ensure that the human capital that they have is consistently underestimated and devalued by the people and organizations that tend to control hiring, evaluation, promotion, and so on.

This particular policy debate, and the choice of the book to participate in it, was one of the things that really made me conscious of the book as deliberate political calculation. I can't claim to know the author's mind and I, unlike him, do not experience racism so it is a dangerous area for me even to speculate, but I'd imagine it must be pretty galling to experience a lifetime of employers and co-workers devaluing your "human capital" (and your very self) in racist ways, yet to feel obliged to treat seriously and respectfully academic arguments that boil down to attempts to tell you that you and yours either aren't as good at stuff or don't work as hard as white folks. (And, yes, I know there are less crude versions of the various tortured attempts to find a way to explain the gap without admitting the existence of racism, but even so...)

A separate foray into the world of policy debates, and one that I quite enjoyed, was Galabuzi's take-down of "social inclusion" theory. It has become increasingly favoured over the last decade in a lot of official, funded spaces that cannot or do not want to continue ignoring the existence of oppression completely. It tends to be very liberal in its assumptions, to focus on things like "diversity" and "tolerance" and (not surprisingly) "inclusion", to erase the existence of privilege, and to pretend that you don't need to examine the mechanisms and history of exclusion. I knew I didn't like it when I first encountered it in the agency sector but I was not immediately able to articulate why, and I didn't run across any written critiques of it at the time, so it is nice to see Galabuzi's. He counterposes it to "social exclusion" theory -- sounds like it is related, but it isn't really. Rather than social inclusion's "accentuate the positive" gloss that lets people avoid the tough issues while claiming they are dealing with them, social exclusion theory places a great deal of emphasis on mechanisms, roots, and details of exclusion. It brings up the "divisive" issues that social inclusion theory ignores. It is based, from what I understand, on European work focused on class; some work has been done to make it more broadly anti-oppressive, though more needs to be done. It seems to be a useful framework for reading anti-oppression politics into academically acceptable language without completely losing their teeth.

The heart of the book is, of course, what it has to say about the growing apartheid character of Canada's economy. In the course of the book, through heavy use of statistics, Galabuzi demonstrates a number of key points. He shows that class relations/relations of production in Canada are becoming increasingly racialized and the labour market is becoming increasingly segmented along lines of race and gender. This is interconnected with increasing geographical segregation in Canadian cities, something that has historically been much less marked than in U.S. cities for various reasons.

The book explains the changes that it documents as being part of an interaction between longstanding historical patterns of racist social exclusion in Canada, originating in the founding myth of Canada as a white nation, colonization and genocide of indigenous peoples, the deliberate exclusion of people of colour from the country for many decades, and early choices to admit people of colour often through mechanisms involving overt economic subordination (such as migrant worker and domestic worker programs). It connects the economic dimensions of exclusion to other outcomes in terms of health, media, criminal justice, and national security. It does include some examination of qualitative experience, focusing particularly on women of colour and internationally educated professionals and tradespeople.

It is solid, it is rigorous, and anyone's understanding of Canada-as-it-is and their ability to argue and act for that which we wish to be here instead will be enhanced by reading it.

Two Quibbles

I have two minor-ish quibbles with the book, one aesthetic and the other semantic.

The first is about the number and size of call-out boxes used in the text. In principle, I agree that they are a good thing because they provide opportunities for different styles of engaging with text. The way they were used in this book also allows additional voices to be heard, because many included excerpts from other books on racism and anti-racism in Canada, including by such well-known academics in the area as Frances Henry, Carol Tator, and Peter Li. I appreciate all of those things and would probably, in the abstract, agree with the decision to use call-out boxes as they have been used. But, speaking just from my own individual experience of reading, I found they disrupted the flow of the text, and I would rather the material had been included in some other way.

The semantic quibble is with the use of the word "racialized." That's another term I first encountered while working on the project I mentioned above. I think the in originates in a book by British academic Robert Miles published at the end of the 1980s, but I think it was only coming into common use in Canadian anti-racism work in the late '90s or early '00s. Its political value is that it emphasizes that the subordination of non-white people, their construction as "Other" and as "inferior", is an active social process that actually happens rather than something innate, natural, or unchangeable. Now, I have understood this term to include all people who experience racialization, which would include both indigenous people (people who are both racialized and actively experiencing colonization on their own land) and people of colour (people who are racialized and live in diaspora from the part of the world their ancestors called home). There are important reasons to continue to have terms that recognize the standpoints and political projects of those two groups are distinct because of different relationships to the land. But, as far as I understand it, both do experience racialization as an important part of their oppressions.

Galabuzi, on the other hand, uses "racialized" as a synonym for "people of colour", and deliberately dis-includes indigenous people. This is all done quite openly and honestly, and unlike the wishy-washy, half-articulated ownership of scope in the book I recently reviewed on racial profiling in Canada, it is quite clear and up-front, which is definitely the way to make such choices. And I'm just some white guy with a blog and Galabuzi is a leading Canadian expert in the field, so my opinion may not be worth a whole lot, but I'll share it anyway: I have no issue with the choice of scope for the book, and in fact it is not at all my business, as a white would-be ally, when and how indigenous and people of colour politics should come together and when they should stand separately. But I have discomfort around the choice of language. I worry that the tendency to use the term "racialized" as a functional equivalent of the federal census term "visible minority," however convenient that might be for talking about statistics from this single most important source, will lead to what is powerful about the former term being leached away. I worry that this helps disconnect the term from pointing to the social and historical processes it is supposed to point to because it fails to include some of those people who experience their own particular variants of those processes. And I worry that such a disconnection would ultimately erode the sharpness and power of our political language. I freely admit I may be making too much of this, and I may be making a point in contrast to a shift in usage that has already reached a consensus, but I'm still not sure it's the best way for the language to evolve.

Like I said, quibbles.

Pushing the Envelope

Any good piece of progressive social policy analysis or research, even when geared towards entry into elite policy discourse, will include information and analysis that is useful to social movements. This is true of the better material produced by government funded agencies and even some material produced in the more progressive arms of the state itself. Canadian Economic Apartheid definitely does this -- it isn't the fiery pamphlet, but it sure contains a lot of stuff that will be useful to you if you want to write the fiery pamphlet.

However, part of what I really like about this book is that it goes beyond this. Not so far that it leaves the realm of policy discourse -- it names capitalism only a handful of times, it doesn't directly enter into discussion of how to build necessary movements, it doesn't talk about dynamics within racialized communities that might help or hinder such movement building (such as class stratification within communities), it doesn't point to models of organizing in Canada or elsewhere that show promise. At the same time, it goes farther in certain areas than many mainstream progressive policy analyses.

One thing I liked is that it repeatedly and insistently links the dynamics it traces to neoliberalism and the shifting role of the state -- it talks about capitalism mostly without having to name it, if you like:

Late 20th-century intensification of racial segregation in the labour market is located within the context of the neo-liberal restructuring of the global economy. The shift toward neo-liberal forms of governance and labour market deregulation aimed at flexible labour deployment is calculated to achieve maximum exploitation of labour. Because of persistent historical structures of systemic discrimination, the growing dominance of flexible work arrangements in this liberalized environment, facilitated by the state deregulation of the labour market and the reversal of state anti-discriminatory polices and programs, has disproportionately impacted racialized groups. [p. 7]

Another key feature is that it tackles the problem of elite motivation more effectively than a lot of material produced by progressive policy analysts. Many such analysts still have not come to terms with the fact that the era of the social democratic compromise is long over, that the space opened up by revolution and the threat of revolution has closed dramatically and Canadian elites simply are not interested in, say, reducing homelessness in this country or reducing gender inequality because they do not have to be interested. This book, however, invokes (in suitably understated academic language) what elites have to lose if they do not make policy changes that address the problem outlined -- fairly non-specific references to "disorder" if current trends are allowed to continue, that immediately for me brought to mind the recent riots in France; and a number of mentions of the potential of radical renewal for the labour movement if it were to reorient its organizing energies and aggressively pursue anti-racist practice, which reinvigorates the old threat of revolution if things don't get better.

Galabuzi is more restrained in his section addressed to the labour movement in the final chapter of recommendations, but he lays out on pages seven and eight what I think will be the key in determining how the trends discussed in this book shift over the next three decades:

But while racialization of class formation furthers the oppression of racialized groups by intensifying their social exclusion, it also makes it possible to engage in a racially conscious class-based struggle and workplace-based politics of resistance in response to the neo-liberal political project. Ironically, the racializing of the division of labour may serve to undermine the neo-liberal project by mobilizing racialized workers in solidaristic formations based in workplaces where they predominate, but share with other non-racialized workings [sic], and by tapping into their shared experience of class-based social exclusion. The contradictions of the late 20th- and early 21st-century capitalist accumulation make possible a process of class formation rooted both in the common experience of precarious wage relations and in the cultural experience of racialization.

Like I said, he didn't write the fiery pamphlet -- that was a deliberate political choice. Instead, he wrote a book that refuses to cede the ground in policy discourse to the right because policy discourse does feed into what happens in real life, and he wrote a book that those of us interested in fiery pamphlets and related activities can take up and use to deepen our understanding and to enhance our efforts.

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

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Evangelical Christians Promoting Revolution?

Apparently, there is "a broad, explicitly nonviolent, anti-imperialist and anticapitalist theology that is surging at the heart of white, suburban Evangelical Christianity." Who knew?

This is according to Zack Exley and his article, "What Lessons Can Progressives Learn from Evangelicals?", published at AlterNet.

There are a number of interesting things to learn from this article. For one thing, I didn't really know about the existence of such a vibrant left-ish movement within U.S. evangelicalism. I'm aware of the existence of a broadly Christian left, of course, and have worked with its members and occasionally pointed people to material about them via this blog. As well, I kind of knew there were progressive evangelicals specifically, because I used to read a blog by one on occasion, though I found his tone irritating so I haven't been back in a long time. But the extent to which there is an emerging social gospel movement, of sorts, amongst the sector generally thought of as the ground troops of the Christian Right is interesting and could eventually prove to be extremely important.

One basic point, perhaps a more important one to make in the U.S. than Canada though useful here too, is that this movement shows it is possible to use strong language to denounce the evils of what is and call for the bringing of what might be and not alienate people. However, contrary to the title, the article does not really provide enough detail, or at least the right kind of detail, for the left to learn many practical lessons from this success. I suppose one point that Exley elaborates is important, though, and that is the importance of the creation of alternative ways of meeting human needs in building a vibrant movement. In fact, he almost seems to miss its importance -- he laments that these left-ish evangelicals are largely quiescent when it comes to "real" politics, and talks about how important the act of building alternatives is for their momentum, but he does not seem to make the connection between having those alternatives in place and having a real place from which to resist if/when confrontation with the state begins in earnest.

In the end, I think I need to learn more. The way that this article is written, it is hard to judge where exactly the boundaries lie between hype meant to sell an article, and useable political analysis. Some of these radical evangelical ministers use language of being against war, against globalization, even against empire and capital, and the language of "revolution" permeates the article. It's hard to tell what exactly that means. Those words can all be very slippery, and I did not come away from the article with the feeling that I really knew what they meant by them. I would be interested in reading a more detailed analysis of their theology and politics. In particular, I found it strange that an article on progressive Christianity in the United States, and more specifical progressive evangelical Christianity, made no mention of African American churches. As well, the author makes clear that these "revolutionary" evangelicals tend to be socially conservative in many ways, and are not in any way wavering from the evangelical commitment to being anti-abortion and anti-queer. The author frames this as a different "morality" from mainstream U.S. America and from the left, and does not explore what this might mean for differences in politics beyond a nod to the difficulty of working together when one's goals are different. As well, though this section of the evangelical community is apparently being proactive in promoting the leadership of women, there is a lot more to anti-patriarchal politics than making sure the chair of the church board has a uterus, and what does this proto-movement think about all of those other things?

Anyway, it has left me with lots of questions, but if it isn't just hype, this material could end up being pretty important to what happens in North America over the next few decades.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Anxieties Around Debt and Ownership

I have always been instinctively averse to debt. I may not have understood what exactly debt was when I was a kid, but I knew I didn't want any part of it. I grew up in a small town, and my best friends in my grade school days were the sons of farmers -- I had friends who were middle-class town kids like me, too, but they were much more likely to treat me lousy, catch me up in stupid masculine proxy-penis-size pre-adolescent status games that I could never play worth a damn. But I digress...this relates to debt because debt loomed around those farm friends' lives. I never really remember it being talked about much, and I still don't really understand the details, but it was something about going hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt to buy machinery and then something about skyrocketing interest rates in the '80s, and that leaving their families in very bleak financial situations. Or maybe I'm just inserting stories to explain my aversion, and it really has more to do with my personal tendencies towards caution across many spheres of life.

Regardless, it is not a new feeling.

This was strongly reinforced because of one of the biggest decisions to date in my own life: Deciding, after doing an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, that what I really wanted to be doing was writing. And changing the world, if I could manage it. There are all kinds of ways that privilege of various sorts played into creating the space for me to make that decision in the way that I did, but one of the most obvious was that I graduated from university without any debt. Oh, it wasn't so simple as my parents paying for everything -- I think they paid for somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of my school and living expenses over those years, and the rest I paid for from money saved from highschool employment, good scholarships, and really good jobs in summers and work terms (my degree was a co-op degree), and all of those things (except perhaps my dishwashing job in high school) intertwined with privilege in important ways as well. The fact that I graduated just under a decade ago doesn't hurt either -- a university education in Ontario is much, much more expensive now than it was then. But even so, even then, lots of people graduated with lots of debt. Maybe I would have found my way to my current path anyway eventually, but it certainly would not have been via a path that gave me nearly as much flexibility in terms of deciding how, when, and to what I extent I would submit the use of my time to the determination and discipline of the market. And there's a chance I wouldn't be a writer at all, that I'd have a job much like my partner's job (which she loves), and that I would be very good at it and I'd earn lots of money but I'd hate it, but I'm very good at pretending otherwise at least for awhile and wouldn't the midlife crisis years be fun then?

I managed to avoid assuming any significant debt until just under a year ago. It's jointly held debt, but still. We bought a car. Used, certainly, but in tip-top condition and not nearly as cheap as I assumed a used car, by defintion, would be. This was a very anxious thing, for me, partly because of the debt and partly because of a visceral political distaste for automobiles and the environmentally and socially destructive political economy in which they are embedded.

I knew this was just a prelude, of course, to the Big Show: Buying a house.

Not long after we bought the car, half of a duplex went up for sale across the street from us. It was cheap and we were given a shot at it before it was officially listed, but we knew nothing about buying a house, we may not have been able to quite yet practically speaking, and I was nowhere near psychologically ready for another move, even if it was only a move of fifty feet. Of course, some of that reluctance was about the whole buying thing too. And not just the debt, not just the buying, but the owning.

I remember being in a discussion many years ago, in fact with the guy who had recently taken on the role of graduate supervisor for my partner. I don't remember how the discussion got there or where it went after, but I remember his scorn about how "you North Americans" felt the need to own a piece of dirt. At the time, he himself owned a sizeable and swanky piece of dirt with a sizeable and swanky house on it in the poshest part of the city, but he grew up poor in urban Barcelona, son of a man who had fought with the anarchists against Franco, and it was was this continental, urban culture that he was drawing on in his puzzlement with the centrality of owning a single-family dwelling to the dominant North American norm of how the "good life" should be defined. I remember this, I think, because I felt both indignant and affirmed -- I was probably the only North American in that discussion who felt at the very least ambivalent about that norm (though I was quite keen at the time to be able to grow my own vegetables).

We are told that by owning our housing, we are buying a certain kind of security, a certain kind of insulation from the ravages of a difficult world. There are important ways in which this is true. The mythology attached to ownership easily exaggerates the power and security that it entails, but of the kinds of relationships that you can have right now to other people with respect to the space in which you live in North America -- and that's what ownership is, a kind of relationship to other people enforceable by state violence -- ownership as it currently exists does give you the most room to manouver. I can imagine plenty of circumstances in which that would not be a true statement, but I think it is now.

But it's the mythology that is the most important tool for capital in constructing the "good life" norm, I think -- the material advantages help, but it's the mythology that sells it. He didn't use this language, but my sense of what my Catalonian conversation partner was so disdainful of was the ways in which ownership was a way for North Americans to flee the social, to get away from other human beings: "This is my land, and anyone set foot on it is gonna get a taste of ol' Bessie, here," [pats shotgun]. And this is almost universally seen as a plus, such that the real estate agent who gave us a tour of Sudbury when we flew up here to find an apartment nearly two years ago could take us through several large tracts of land where the only thing that was not a single family dwelling in the entire area was a convenience store (and even that was far enough away from much of it that you would likely have to drive), and where the dominant pattern was people in houses or in cars with almost no pedestrians and no street life, and glowingly refer to it as a "community" -- not only that, "a great community to be in with a small child."

My sense is that this desire to flee humanity has always been greater in North American than in the rest of the world. Perhaps it was inherent in the process of settlement (via conquest) as it occurred in this part of the world -- after all, many of those who came here were fleeing nasty things done to them by their fellow human beings back in Europe. And they were coming here to create a new social that would displace the indigenous social order, so acts relatively independent of any pre-existing social were valourized.

I don't want to universalize this orientation to ownership and choices about living, however. In a conversation with a friend, she contextualized her desire to own a home (even a suburban home) in the ways in which that sort of living arrangement would give her more space to relate as a full member of her community, the South Asian diaspora in Toronto. For her, the pull towards ownership and suburban living is a pull towards people and not away from them.

Nonetheless, in the dominant, EuroAmerican yearning for flight from our fellow human beings, I definitely see at least a symbollic connection between this tendency and the colonial origins of the states and cultures that dominate in North America: In Europe and elsewhere, even if the details are forgotten, there is some continuity between ordinary people today and those ordinary people who lived with and on "the commons" before it was stolen by the rich and the state. In North America, non-indigenous "ordinary people" were the ones who benefited from the theft of the commons from its original collective owners, and do not have any link to any sort of cultural unconscious connection to the commons being stolen from us.

And certainly in the last century or so, capital has invested immense amounts of money, time, and effort into shaping the culture to encourage fleeing the social as a dominant norm. This cultural shift has happened in dynamic relationship with shifts in our material ways of living thaat have enabled and encouraged it. If I remember correctly, at least some of this has been documented as quite deliberate as a strategic, long-term response to labour militancy in the early parts of the 20th century.

A big part of this is illusion, of course. You can flee people to a certain extent but you can't flee the social. "Ownership" of your plot of land is not sovereignty over it. Building codes apply. Criminal law applies. Particularly given the changes in the law since 9/11, it is easier than ever for police or intelligence agencies to enter or snoop at a distance into "your" land. And they can take it, if they want it -- I'm thinking particularly of an indigenous woman of my acquaintance who is likely to have her land and home expropriated so a road can be widened, and who very well may never be able to afford her own home again because of the specific circumstances. And we all depend on services and are integrated into very complicated social relations of all different sorts.

But if you have enough money, you can find ways to close your eyes, plug your ears, and yell, "Nah, nah, nah, I can't hear you." You can pretend you are an atomized individual. And you can kind of act like one, so long as you have enough money and your desires for living fit within certain bounds.

It goes beyond being a colonially-derived cultural trait deliberately accentuated by the minions of capital, however. Owning your own home is not just valued for the "good life" it can give you, but for the status it gives you. That same real estate agent who gave us our initial tour and lavished praise on cookie-cutter suburbs with nothing but rows of boring houses and cars was also quite blatant about pointing out the older, poorer parts of town and telling us we didn't want to live there -- she didn't explicitly tell us that the people living there had cooties, but it was that shared understanding saying-it-without-saying-it kind of thing that people "like us" (like she presumed us to be, that is) did not live there. I can think of countless examples of people in my life talking about home ownership in ways that is, usually unconsciously, deeply intertwined with class desire and/or class insecurity, from one friend's tales of his family of origin's painful efforts to perform middle-classness through various crises in his childhood, to another friend's occasional tendency to use the expression "grown-up" as a norm-imposing, privilege-flautning adjective that really means meeting middle-class standards for acceptability.

There is nothing secret about this connection between owned housing and status. For example, the book Buying and Selling a Home For Canadians For Dummies, 3rd Edition by Tony Ioannou and Heather Ball, has a section labelled "Joys of Ownership," which lists some of the positive things about owning your own home.

It includes open disdain for poor and working-class people like the following:

Your sense of community deepends.... Belonging to a community can be a wonderful feeling. We recommend that you buy a home in an area where the majority of people are homeowners -- they tend to care more about the neighbourhood than tenants do. [p. 10]

As someone who has been a tenant for almost 15 years, I say a big "bite me" to that. I mean, would those homeowners who "care" be the ones in downtown Hamilton who kept organizing to oppose the allocation of new services for people living in poverty in their ward? I guess if you mean "caring" about property values, there might be some truth to the above statement, but not if you mean "caring" about the life experiences of the actual people in your immediate physical community. And would those tenants who supposedly don't care about community be the people in poor, often racialized neighbourhoods across the continent who organize against gentrification of their neighbourhoods because they know that all the rhetoric in the world about "mixed use" and all the quaint, boutiquey stores they can't afford won't make up for an already existing, densely-interconnected human community being forcibly destroyed by city councils and developers?

The list of the "Joys of Ownership" also includes this:

You're a better person. Or, at least, people think you are. Ownership of a home translates into people thinking wonderful things about you: you're mature, you're dependable, and you're stable... [p. 11]

And you're middle-class. Because that second sentence is there, they are not openly saying that tenants are worse people, but they are being quite open about the social status associated with owning a house. And by implication, about the perception of people who are tenants: not mature, not dependable, not stable...not middle-class. Not "good people", in some sense or other.

Again I say, bite me.

I think if I spent more time thinking about it I could probably come up with other reasons, or do a better job of articulating these ones, but I think I have at least made some substantive points about why my own relationship to the act of buying and owning a house is ambivalent. I certainly don't take a generalized, moralistic position that owning is counter-revolutionary or anything like that -- being able to own is indicative of privilege and being able to renounce ownership by choice rather than necessity (and thereby also feel comfortably able to reject the actual material benefits it entails) is also indicative of privilege. Neither consumer choice is going to "smash the system," as no consumer choice ever does. At the same time, just plunging in to the standard, North American, middle-class ways of relating to home ownership isn't an option either.

I raise all of this for very immediate, personal reasons. Our brush with a real estate transaction a year ago got me to stop avoiding thinking about it. In the last three months we've been having more grounded, future-oriented discussion for other reasons, and that has included careful consideration of our options around housing. Then, slightly more than one week ago, I got a phone call from our landlord. He is not a full-time collector-of-rents, but rather a young guy who works as a teacher and also owns a few small rental properties. He has not always been very reliable, but he's a nice guy. Anyway, he called and said he was thinking of selling, made it sound very unsure -- he had an opportunity to buy some property that was near his parents' place, or something, and was looking around for ways to afford it. And could we let his realtor have a peek through our half of the duplex so he could recommend an asking price. And if he did decide, well, we could have first shot at it (the whole building, not just the half we live in) before it was officially listed, save everyone a little money. With respect to the last bit, I said that we weren't sure if we would be interested or not, but to definitely give us the chance to say yes or no once things were definite, and to keep us posted.

Well, he didn't do that. We found out that it was being sold because a "For Sale" sign appeared on the house some time between L and I getting home from wherever we were out to on Monday afternoon and my partner getting home from work. Several groups of prospective buyers were trooped through the place on Wednesday and Thursday. (The legal obligation to cooperate, even minimally, with a process that could lead to our eviction if the buyer herself wishes to live in our unit, and to welcome uninvited people into our home, is another example of the fewer rights held by tenants than those who own their own living space.) It stressed me out, to be honest -- we had no interest in being excluded from our home over the dinner hour, so we tolerated the uninvited-by-us guests. I tried to be cordial but I think a certain gruffness leaked through, particularly during the first series of intrusions. By Wednesday, we had decided we did not want to own the building -- I like living there but not enough to sign up for the five years that they say you should count on living in a house you buy as a minimum, and the prospect of being a landlord at all, or at least for that length of time, was not one either of us liked.

For the time being, exactly what is going to happen in the next few months is unclear, but this has certainly accelerated our own decision-making around seeking a house to buy. I remain conflicted about it. I am still wary of the ways in which debt can be a chain. Because of all the baggage attached to home ownership around class status, respectability, some sort of frontier ethic "independence", and a messed up understanding of community, I think even the most politically astute person can become drawn into problematic practices and ways of thinking upon making the transition between tenant and owner. But still, there are sound material reasons for doing it if you can. And there are even potentially sound left reasons for (and ways of) owning if you can. As with anything in life, I suppose, you have to live it from where you and the world are rather than where you wish things were, and you have to enter it critically.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Review: Split Decisions

[Janet Halley. Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.]

The place to start with this review, I think, is by acknowledging that there is a lot of book in this volume's 402 pages. I found it all a little bit overwhelming. So this is going to be a long response.

The Book

If all I had to go by was its title, I would never have bothered reading this book. I do my best to be pro-feminist in my politics, and I doubt it would have occurred to me that it would be possible to write a book with this title that was not just some tired restatement of the anti-feminist feminism of the likes of Camille Paglia, Wendy Shalit, or Christina Hoff Sommers, or worse. I would imagine some of its critics probably lump it in the same boat anyway, but I think it is a much more subtle and powerful intervention into theory, and one that poses important questions and problems.

I first encountered this book in the multiple enthusiastic postings on a blog known as Bitch|Lab (or, more recently and for awhile, Queer|Dude, a temporary shift in the spirit of this very book). The owner of this blog is a theory junky who often has interesting things to say, and the impact this book had on her made an impression on me. As well, I have mentioned before that my work will involve doing some writing that touches on topics that are subject to bitter struggle within feminism, and I am still reading widely to figure out how I can most appropriately write this stuff. What B|L/Q|D had to say about this book made me think it might be useful in this regard. And finally, I have a longstanding personal interest in theory related to sexuality, as a source of potential insight into my own particular instances of the issues around sexuality that plague almost all of us in this culture in different ways.

The basic structure of the book is simple enough. It begins with an extended introduction that summarizes the book's argument, defines some terms, and describes how it is going to proceed. Then the bulk of the book uses a genealogical approach to look at theories of sexuality described by the author as "left-of-center" in the last three decades in North America, including numerous feminisms, Foucault, gay identity theory, queer theory, trans theory, and a few other bits and pieces. The author is a legal scholar, so the book closes by applying the idea of Taking a Break From Feminism to legal analysis and evaluating the potential costs and benefits of such a break.

There are a few ideas that are central to this book that I think have the potential to be very useful, regardless of where you fall with respect to the challenge implicitly posed in the subtitle. For one thing, there is her minimal definition of feminism as it has existed in North America over the last four decades: m/f, m>f, carrying a brief for f. That is, that there is a meaningful difference between "m" and "f", that "m" currently is positioned as having more power than "f", and that feminist politics means working for the liberation of "f". Exactly what these letters stand in for -- maleness, men, masculinity, etc., or femaleness, females, femininity, etc. -- and how they relate to biology, the social, and discourse all vary greatly among feminisms. But those three basic propositions do seem to apply to everything identifying as feminism in the time and place under study, from the most straightforward structuralist theory to the most obscure postmodernist approach.

Another important distinction is between theories that are "convergentist" and those that are "divergentist". Is a theory's approach an attempt to invalidate or incorporate all other theories, to be normative, to be prescrptive (now or in intent), and does it claim to have or claim to want to have (or to underly) all the answers? Or does it recognize limits, focus on being descriptive, and incorporate a sense that there are probably other valuable ways of approaching the same problem? Any given theory, and any given user of theory (person or movement), probably incorporates elements of both of these at different times and places. No theory is immune to either approach. And if, as Halley argues, the problems that feminist theorists have identified within feminism in the last two decades have their root in commitment by many feminists to uncritiqued convergentism, there are also plenty of examples of feminist divergentism. And if queer theory styles itself as being fundamentally anti-normative and divergentist, a close reading of key texts in queer theory show that it has plenty of convergentist moments at its core as well, and at least part of why this has not been quite so apparent may just have to do with the fact that it hasn't been around as long.

I find this binary to be very powerful. Though the terms were new to me, I think I have always had a serious distrust of at least the strongest versions of convergentism. The initial generation of this distrust within me came not with respect to feminism but with respect to Marxism. I suspect that an instinctive distrust of the orthodox Marxist claim to explain anything and everything, even in the face of decades of argument demonstrating that it (again, particularly in its more orthodox forms) does not, might have been part of what pushed me towards an instinctive anarchism during my early politicization.

Interestingly, this past fall, because of a course I was auditing, I participated in sustained engagement with John Holloways text, Changing the World Without Taking Power (of which I wrote a very incomplete review). It was my first serious encounter with heterodox marxism. There was lots about it that I liked. In fact, one way to summarize what I liked is that it is very effective in extracting from Marxism powerful ideas and tools while dispensing with many of the features I have always found more objectionable. However, as I expressed it during the session in which we provided a final sort of feedback on the book to the teacher of the course, there was still something about it that I found "totalizing." I worried that my use of that word was a bit unfair, because it is extremely open to autonomously derived struggle and articulations based on that struggle, and it does not presume to close off different ways of doing things in the same way as more orthodox marxisms. At the same time, it still claims to explain everything, to have the key to tying all of these disparate sites together, and that makes me wary. And now I would label that of which I am wary as being Holloway's convergentist aspirations (however loose they might be).

I think, again at a level I could never quite articulate, this distrust of at least the more obvious and total versions of convergentism have shaped my reaction to some approaches to feminism as well. A few strands of feminism seem to have adopted some related unsavoury-to-me features of orthodox marxisms (even while being quite critical of Marxism's patriarchal content), including their own version of convergentism. I would also suspect that an instictive yearning towards divergentist approaches explains a part of my rather rosier initial view of Richard Day's Gramsci is Dead than I hold now, after reading further critiques of the work (though I think my view of it is still more positive than those critiques themselves).

At the same time, I also know I am very capable of convergentist approaches, as are we all. My response to in noticing the absence of consideration of a particular political consequences of an analysis or action (e.g. unanalyzed racism) will often be/seem to be a moralizing prescription to converge in an absolute way rather than a situational management of/response to divergence. And, frankly, I think there are definitely times and places where that is a good thing (especially times and places where convergence is clearly possible, where ways to do it have been clearly demonstrated in the past, and failure to do so and thereby exclude or remarginalize whole groups of people is a political decision based in indulging privilege rather than a result of necessarily incommensurable theory).

For an interesting discussion of convergentism and divergentism by Bitch|Lab, aka Queer|Dewd, see here.

In some ways, perhaps the most useful part of this book to me was the genealogy. It is a dangerous technique, of course, because it gives a great deal of power to authors in reading the works of others. Your ability to engage with the author of the genealogy depends in part on whether or not you have also read the material that she is presenting her own reading of. In the case of this book, I have only read very sporadically from her source material, which means I feel it necessary to be a bit more cautious about accepting her readings at face value. Nonetheless, she generally does seem willing to read in considerate ways even when she disagrees with what she is reading. And notwithstanding all of that concern, even an imperfect map is still useful as long as one is not fooled into thinking it is definitive.

Taking A Break

Halley summarizes her intent for the book as follows:

So I hope to elicit your desire to think that no one theory, no one political engagement, is nearly as valuable as the invitation to critique that is issued by the simultaneous incommensurate presence of many theories (past, present, and still to be made). We decide immense questions of social distribution and social welfare -- substantive, strategic, and tactical -- when we commit to one of these theories over another. I am promoting a left-of-center political consciousness that makes such commitment perpetually contingent on redecision at the level of theory. I am urging us to indulge -- precisely because we love justice but don't know what it is -- in the hedonics of critiqute.

She argues for a different way of relating political practice to theory. Because it has been a part of Halley's own journey, she does not present this argument in general but with respect to the specific case of feminism and sexuality, and most specifically with respect to the application of feminism to legal theory related to sexuality. She argues that any given theory is, by definition, going to see certain things and not others, give voice to certain experiences and realities and not others. To the extent that this is true, following one theory without the kind of Taking a Break and approaching critique from other directions that she advocates will result in consequences and distributions of benefits and harms that reflect what that single theory sees or does not see, voices or does not voice. She argues that, in the complex world we live in, this seldom comes down to anything quite as simple as just redistributing good in more just ways for the oppressed, as it is often schematically argued, precisely because of the world's complexity. She argues that, in order that we be best able to see the consequences of our political choices, we should have some willingness to see what they might look like from more than one place.

She says,

To do that we (or at least some of us) have to be willing to Take a Break from Feminism. Not kill it, supersede it, abandon it; immure, immolate, or bury it -- merely spend some time outside it exploring theories of sexuality, inhabiting realities, and imagining political goals that do not fall within its terms.

This is, obviously, explosive stuff.

I think what I need to do now is talk some more about my own gut-level relationship to the ideas in the text. At the risk of putting words in her mouth and/or assigning identities to her body that aren't necessarily articulated as she would, my sense of the more personal level of the source of B|L/Q|D's enthusiasm is that this text helps provide conceptual tools for theorizing her own experiences as a working-class white queer woman who has often found her experiences of sexuality not voiced or even actively opposed in many conventional feminisms. (See her talk about this powerfully here. For lots of reasons, I do not approach the book from anything close to the same place.

I would argue that in my experience, for me, Taking a Break From Feminism is never a choice -- by definition (or, perhaps more accurately, in order to abide by certain basic political responsibilities that I am not able to see as optional): I can never Take a Break, but at the same time I am always Taking a Break.

Let me explain. I do (and have always) identified as male, so the kind of relationship I can have to feminism is quite different, it seems to me, than if I were a woman. There are debates about semantics, but it seems to me that there needs to be some sort of conceptual distinction between those whose liberation is directly tied to a movement (or theory), and those who that movement or theory sees as privileged in some way. To put it in terms derived from Halley's book, if what you are relating to is defined by m/f, m>f, and carrying a brief for f, if you are m then even if you support carrying a brief for f you are still coming at it all from a different place than if you are f. This is actually a very complicated statement because exactly whose "liberation is directly tied" to feminist movement, and who and what "f" really is, has always been a subject of debate and struggle -- surf around and have a look at debates around radical women of colour and feminism or transwomen/genderqueer people and feminism in the feminist(ish) blogosphere, for example. But as it applies to me, it is not complicated at all. Which is not to deny that the systems or structures or relations or discourses that feminism struggles against don't injure men as well, because they do in certain ways, and understanding that is very important, but they give us power even as they injure us. The way I see it, though there is definite self-interest (of a very particular sort) involved in me supporting feminist goals, at the core of what it means to be pro-feminist is the decision that it is necessary or important to be politically accountable to others, in this case feminist women, in both a generalized way and in very concrete, specific ways. For someone for whom feminism is (or claims to be) a description of their experience and a central resource for their own journey towards liberation, the choice to Take a Break is a choice about one's own interests, one's own liberation. For somone like me, whose relationship to feminism is in a sense one step removed and includes as a core component political accountability to other people whose demands my actions are a response to whether I want them to be or not, Taking a Break would mean something very different -- it would, in fact, mean abandoning people, abandoning commitments, abandoning being accountable for privilege which shapes my life. That is politically unconscionable. Hence never. (Keeping in mind, of course, that I have a lot of power to decide what my accountability means functionally and how it is enacted, so perhaps the politics of Taking a Break might have some (dangerous?) impact there.)

On the other hand, there is always. This also turns on the fact that I am someone who engages in political activity on the basis of being privileged in almost every way -- not quite, but almost. This means that not only is feminism not something that can be "home" to me because it is not, at its heart, about my liberation -- in no sense do I qualify as "f" -- but neither can anything else. I have never felt a natural, comfortable, seemingly total "home" of that sort, where I could say, "this movement and its theories speak to and for me" in some sort of comprehensive way. Again, I don't want to deny that progress in struggles against patriarchy or white supremacy would allow me space to be more fully human, so there is definite self-interest in supporting such struggles, but the relationship is very different. There is also the fact that even middle-class men are not owners of capital and so, in the broad sense of "working class" used in some heterodox marxisms, it is reasonable to say that the struggle is for/about me, but that has always felt to me like a bit of an excuse (even though I don't entirely disagree). Also, I don't want to pretend that privileged men have not found ways around this -- there is a long history of privileged men assuming a faux worker identity, for example, and a somewhat shorter history of us attempting to assume a primary relationship to feminism. These are deeply problematic stances, it seems to me, because apart from being somewhat dishonest, they also involve the implicit idea that we cannot or should not engage in politics from where we already are and that we must somehow pretend (in an abstract political sense) to be who we are not. Which seems dubious and silly.

So that leaves two choices for constructing your politics: You can just remain oblivious to it all and go about doing, doing, doing without much reflection. This is generally where young privileged men who are politicized while in university start, and it is where I started. Many never see any reason to do anything else. I don't think this is a good solution because you end up hurting a lot of people and reproducing power-over in lots of ways. So the other option is that you can base your politics very heavily on listening, both to specific people and to texts, as an ongoing approach to making your politics (understood as ideas and actions, not just ideas) responsive to experiences that you do not have while not pretending to be someone or something that you are not. I'm not claiming any great success in doing this, and I'm not claiming it leads to Truth in some absolute sense -- it is just a process or path. But it is where I try to work from.

Now, to tie this back to always: If that sort of listening is central, and if you are (like me) privileged on most axes, then you have a lot of different people and ideas to listen to. And it becomes clear very quickly that these ideas do not always fit easily together, they are often mutually inconsistent or at least in local conflict, and that you (I) have no right to make decisions about how these inconsistencies and conflicts should be resolved in any but the most provisional, situational, personal, context-dependent ways. You can't stop listening, you can't claim some sort of authority to decide once and for all "X trumps Y", you can't fail to exercise political judgment, you can't fall back into uncritical liberalism through claiming "it's not up to me", and you can't just sit back paralyzed and refuse to act in the world. You just have to muddle through.

In other words, if the path that I have outlined as the only reasonable one I've been able to discover for doing politics from a place of privilege means I can't not listen to feminism in an ongoing and respectful way, it also means I can't not listen to a bunch of other things that may or may not be feminist, too. I have no choice but to "flicker" (to use a term that Halley borrows from Denise Riley's usage in a different context). (And if all of this sounds like I'm saying, "Oh, poor me," it shouldn't, because I'm not. This is not trying to set up some beleagured, backhanded "poor middle-class white guy" argument. In fact, this is privilege in a very fundamental sense -- being able to bracket, even for a moment, one particular approach to liberation while listening to another, without, even for a moment and even just in your own head and body, having to risk reentering a space where one's own desires for liberation are not visible.) This means that I started my reading of this book from a position where the "politics of theoretic incommensurability" (p. 5), though I had never articulated it in that way, were something that I have long decided at a practical level I have to recognize and navigate all the time. And they are also something I am in a place to navigate without feeling much in the way of risk, a privilege obviously not available to everyone.

All of which is to say that, the general relationship between political practice and theory embodied in this book is one that I have a great deal of sympathy for because, in my own practice, I do something similar all the time anyway, even if the form of Break advocated by Hally is not necessarily relevant to my circumstances.

As for Taking a Break at the level of feminist legal theory, I am much more hesitant about what that might mean in practice. In general, the idea of listening to many different theoretical approaches is one that would appeal to me, but I'm not sure I feel able to weigh in on the issue of how and when and why and for who that listening should occur. In the book's final section, Halley applies a divergentist approach to rereading multiple times a number of court cases related to sexuality. I find this fascinating and it was certainly educational for me. But because I've never engaged in the doing that is legal analysis and law-related political practice in this way, I have trouble assessing its pros and cons. The idea of being able to see broader ranges of experience and consequence seems positive to me, but where I feel unable to comment is that I do not have enough independent experience to be able to fully commit to Halley's analysis that feminist legal theories tend to erase, in general, certain kinds of experiences and consequences that we perhaps should be considering.

Frankly, some of her rereadings of cases left me quite uncomfortable. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it certainly should not be taken in and of itself as a problem with rereading in this way -- at least some is a product of my own struggles around sexuality, gender, power, desire, and repression as experienced by me directly. However, some of it is a visceral recognition of the risks involved in Taking a Break, risks that she acknowledges but that I'm sure many other people would evaluate in different ways. I don't know if I could defend this view, but I did have gut reactions that perhaps she underplays the risks on occasion.

At the same time, I think it is good for me to confront the discomfort that comes from the complexities that she presents: Certainly her rereadings gave me a lot to think about in terms of a number of situations of threat or injury pertaining to sexuality that have been related to me by women that I know, situations which I have sometimes instinctively read into fairly simplistic domination-subordination frames. They, who are all feminists of one sort or another, have often reacted to framings of their experiences in this way as erasing their agency in the situations -- not absolute, abstract, liberal agency, but situated, contextual, limited-but-still-real agency -- and have had analyses of their own experiences that were much more nuanced and willing to understand power in more complicated ways (even though invokation of a theory of power in these discussions was usually implicit rather than explicit). In other words, the kinds of rereading and rethinking that Halley describes as Taking a Break have the potential, along with whatever else they might do, to make me better at listening to feminist women I know.

Perhaps the biggest concern I had with this book is the same concern I have with every book which tends to separate theory from the political practices associated with it. That tendency was not absolute in this book. Certainly the discussion of some of the early feminist material in the genealogy felt at least lightly connected to a movement and its tribulations. However, that feeling was lost as the book dealt with later material. Perhaps this is a sign of the changing relationship between movements and theories (feminist, queer, and others) over that time, and a reflection of the disconnection between high theory produced in the academy and what people are doing on the ground. Though, on second thought, I don't think it is exactly disconnection, but rather transformation of connection -- perhaps greater distance, but not infinite distance. In any case, when she was relating the many ways in which U.S. feminist academics in the '90s were extremely concerned with the perceived "paralysis" of feminism, it left me kind of puzzled precisely because the discussion never escapes the domain of high feminist theory in the U.S. academy. I became politicized on a Canadian university campus in the mid- to late-'90s, and I saw around me lots of feminist women of various generations involved in lots of different kinds of things, making choices, taking action, and it is not at all consistent with my experience to attribute a blanket "feminist paralysis" (or inaccurate feminist self-perception of paralysis, which is how Halley reads the situation) to that time period.

At the same time, I don't want to swing too far the other way, and to seem to be engaging in some sort of anti-intellectual, anti-theory argument. I, sometimes to my shame, quite like theory, and I do think it can be quite important to political practice, provided you have an expansive understanding of what theory is and who produces it and how it can be/is used. In fact, for Xmas I got a book that is a collection of ten years of cultural criticism from Bitch magazine, and I have been sporadically reading pieces from that magazine before and during my engagement with Halley's text. As well, I read feminist and pro-feminist blogs all the time. And it seems to me that, though complaints of paralysis may not reflect the broader movement or broader society, a lot of the same sharp-knived battles going on within/among/between feminist theory and its feminist and non-feminist offspring can be seen in the pages of a popular magazine like Bitch and in blogs, albeit usually in muffled, mystified forms. It seems to me that that the frequent inability or refusal (on all sides) to map the divergences in these conflicts in terms of things like different theories of power, of agency, and of the social leads to articulating these differences in terms of the stupidity and cupidity of those who do not share your views rather than in terms of the content of the differences. To that extent at the very least, more theory used more widely would be valuable. And I think well beyond that, too.

That said, I think discussion of Halley's analysis would benefit immeasurably from detailed analyses of the ways in which these various theories have been taken up in practice by real human beings in their individual lives and in collective political settings, beyond just the rather restricted domain of the writing of legal theory. What has all of this looked like on the ground? What scope is there for a "politics of theoretic incommensurability" as we try and reinvigorate social movements? How might that weaken us? Or, how might it provide greater clarity in trying to engage in coalition and alliance across difference infused with power?

As for me personally, I am very glad to have engaged with this book. As I have already discussed, approaching it from where I do means it does not feel like an invitation to change, as it would be for many, but rather it helps me articulate more clearly where I already am -- I began at never and always, and there I remain, but I have better language to say so now. But that clearer articulation and the tools involved in making it have the potential to be more broadly useful to me as I go on my way muddling through conflict at the level of discourse and dilemmas in political practice, not because they offer pre-packaged answers but because they can help me see a little more clearly what is going on.

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

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Questions for Minimum Wage Forum

Last night I attended a public meeting that was part of the campaign for a $10 minimum wage in Ontario. While I think that raising the minimum wage is a very positive thing, I think there are aspects of this specific campaign that deserve some deeper reflection from those of us who approach social and political issues from the left but in a way not tied to the fortunes of a specific political party.

The event was held at a hotel in downtown Sudbury. While this may not have been the most accessible venue for people living on low incomes, I suppose it could have been worse -- in a small, poor city like Sudbury the phrase "downtown hotel" does not have any connotations even approaching the kind of swank and grandeur that it might invoke if you are talking about Toronto or New York. There had been a similar event earlier in the day held at Laurentian University. There was a small media presence at the evening event but, I'm told, a much larger one in the afternoon.

The event was organized by the main forces behind the campaign, which are the labour movement and the Ontario New Democratic Party (who are, for the benefit of non-Canadian readers, our social democrats). In a way, even though their politics are not exactly mine, it was nice to see the social democratic left actually doing something, because as far as I have been able to tell they have done very little beyond direct participation in election campaigns in the year and a half or so that I've lived here. To give a sense of who was there, according to my (always imperfect) casual observation: everyone was white, the gender profile seemed evenly distributed, the median age was probably a good few years older than me but there were some young people as well, and there was a mix of middle-class and working-class people. From what people said and from the comments of the two people I was with who have been politically active in Sudbury much longer than I, the bulk of those in attendance had some sort of connection to the labour movement, the NDP, or both.

The event was chaired by the president of the Sudbury NDP. The panel featured Cheri DiNovo, a former United Church minister and NDP MPP who last fall won a by-election in Toronto in a riding that voted quite solidly Liberal in the previous general election. It is her private member's bill in the provincial legislature that is the focus of this campaign and she has been personally spearheading it. Also on the panel were the executive directors of two local social service agencies that deal with people in poverty, a university student who is also a part-time low-wage worker (and an organizer with the New Democratic Youth), and Gerry McIntaggart, a former city councillor and the newly nominated NDP candidate in the Sudbury riding for the next federal election.

To get a sense of the campaign (or to send an email to your MPP and the premier in support of it), click here. They also have some background material. The need experienced by people who depend on minimum wage jobs can be disputed only if you are willfully blind or deliberately cruel. The arguments that such an increase would ultimately hurt the people that it intends to help seem to be scare mongering in this instance, not to mention morally bankrupt in the general case (see below). Corporate profits are the highest proportion of Canadian GDP in history and most low-wage workers are employed by big box stores, chains, and temp agencies, all of whom can afford it. The president of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, which represents many, many thousand street-level small businesses in the City of Toronto, apparently has endorsed the call for a raise to $10, as has the Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation daily newspaper.

But I have three reservations about the campaign. All three, I realized after I started to try and articulate them, have to do with the general problem of how to fit immediate, winnable demands into a larger analysis and framework for action.

No. 1

This one did not occur to me until this morning; it was not on my mind and did not shape my actions at the meeting last night.

How can and should we reconcile immediate, social democratic demands of this sort, which do respond to real human need and so do have importance, with the fact that the resources that we are using to meet this need have their basis in theft of land and natural resources from indigenous people? I have no immediate answer to that because, like I said, it only just occurred to me. But I think it is crucial that we answer it because there is far too long a history in this country (and other settler states) of the mainstream white-dominated left being mainly concerned with how equitable the distribution of stolen goods is among the settlers rather than the fact the they were stolen, and colonialism continues unabated. In thinking how this might have been raised in a context like last night's meeting, any approach I can think of would have resulted either in heartfelt applause accompanied by zero critical reflection and forgetting the issue three seconds later, or in people taking offense and rolling their eyes at the supposedly off-topic, unrealistic radical in the corner. My initial sense of how to deal with this is that it is a mistake to approach it at the level of a single campaign rather than settlers who seek to be allies of indigenous peoples taking a step back and challenging other settler political spaces to take up the issue in a more general way. That's still full of vague, though.

No. 2

I raised this issue when I posted about the minimum wage dispute before. It did not really enter my thoughts last night, but I still think it is important.

We -- meaning those of us who are concerned about creating a world that actually meets people's needs -- need to be aware that even though this particular effort to redistribute resources a little more equitably will not have the disastrous consequences that its opponents predict, sooner or later they will be able to legimiately answer our attempts to address human need by saying, "It will hurt the economy, and that will hurt ordinary people." Of course, that is just a mystifying way of talking about class struggle, and what it means is that if you create the threat of real social justice past a certain threshold, then capital will push back by disinvesting. And perhaps by encouraging its minions to engage in state repression or even a coup, depending on the specific circumstances. Refusing to seriously address the threats implicit in the neutral-sounding observation that a given social justice initiative will "hurt the economy" is accepting that the need that surrounds us does not really need to be met. So what are we going to do?

No. 3

This one is the most directly related to last night's meeting.

What sense does it make to talk about raising the minimum wage while not talking about raising social assistance rates? There is no shortage of data, qualitative and quantitative, that shows how disgustingly inadequate social assistance rates in Ontario are. It would take an increase of around 40% to bring them up to the level they were at in 1995, and people were talking about and organizing around their inadequacy even then.

Interestingly, DiNovo addressed this issue in the first couple of minutes of her first opportunity to speak. On the one hand, she argued political realism in a blunter fashion than I expected to hear. She talked about another NDP politician, Tony Martin, who ran in a very poor riding on a campaign focused around raising social assistance rates, and he lost. She said, "You would lose on that basis today." And she's right, I think. For all the reports and media releases and anguished testimonials over the last decade, most of middle-class Onario simply doesn't care how awful social assistance is, with a mixture of ignorance, willful blindness, and stereotype as justification.

A big part of DiNovo's justification for focusing on minimum wage but staying away from social assistance issues is that the former is winnable and the latter is not -- the former plays well in the media and is getting a solid positive response while the latter is still poison. I would qualify that division of the two into "winnable" and "not-winnable" by making some of her assumed context visible: that distinction applies to the kind of campaign she is willing and capable of engaging in, as a social democratic MPP. But in that context, she's not wrong. She was a bit less forthright, though others in the audience who spoke were a bit more clear, that this issue is a winner for the NDP -- if her bill passes, it's a triumph for a small opposition party, and even if it doesn't, it's a great way to split left-liberal voters from the Liberals in the upcoming general election. I can't say I care much about this, but again I think it is an accurate assessment.

She did not stop at political realism in justifying the decision to be deliberately silent on social assistance issues while advocating for a jump in the minimum wage, however. An important rhetorical weapon in the NDP arsenal in this campaign is moralistic invokations of justice. When she pointed to 14% of GDP going to profits and the average top-level CEO receiving $9 million a year, while people are struggling to get by on minimum wage, she described it as "simply ethically wrong, simply morally wrong". I agree, and have no problem with moralism of that sort. But it obviously means that the realpolitik of the "winnable"/"not winnable" distinction has to be supplemented, lest the speaker appear inconsistent.

The supplementation consisted of reasons why this campaign will utlimately help social assistance recipients as well. From a couple of audience members, though not directly from DiNovo, was the very simplistic notion that this will help the NDP elect more members and the NDP cares about social assistance rates and therefore this issue will help people on social assistance. At least as it stands, this argument does not hold -- if raising the rates is a vote loser, why would the NDP be more likely to embrace it later than now even if they had more MPPs? It also overlooks the fact that though the worst changes in social assistance happened under the post-1995 Conservatives, shifts in negative directions actually began to happen near the end of the mandate of the previous government, which was an NDP government. This was in response to the rising winds of neoliberalism in Canada, and if anything these winds are stronger today than they were then.

DiNovo's answer went a little farther. She argued right at the start of her speech that the positive coverage and positive public response the minimum wage issue was receiving was putting poverty into the public consciousness, and this greater visibility for poverty issues would ultimately help those on social assistance. She said, "It is the wedge issue that will get poverty on the front pages of all our newspapers soon." That, in turn, would end up benefiting social assistance recipients, presumably because it would change the current reality of raising the rates being a vote loser.

During the Q&A session I questioned this logic. I prefaced it all nicely with support for the goal of raising the minimum wage and for the idea of available resources actually meeting human needs. I also was not the first to raise issues related to social assistance, as a couple of the more labour/NDP-y types in the audience had already done so, albeit in a slightly different way than me. I pointed out the long history of dividing people living in poverty into "worthy" and "unworthy", "deserving" and "undeserving". I argued, not quite this directly, that this campaign was receiving positive feedback because it was targeted towards helping the "worthy" and "deserving." In a sense, by doing so while remaining silent about social assistance, not only is it leaving out those in greatest need (a serious moral problem) it is potentially strengthening in the public mind the distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" (a serious political problem). The very division between "winnable" and "not winnable" that DiNovo raised is very directly based on the perception of people as being "deserving" and "undeserving", and itis not at all clear how a generalized media focus on poverty does anything to undermine that. Given that public (and, more importantly, media) attention can shift in very fickle ways, I think it is more likely that a year from now, even if this campaign succeeds, attempts to broach the social assistance issue will be met by disinterest (if not outright hostility) from editors, and lots of middle-class Ontarians will say, "Didn't we just do something for poor people not long ago? Why don't they all get jobs, the lazy bums?" This risk of reinforcing stigma by focusing one's remedies on the portion of people living in poverty who are already considered "deserving" and "worthy" was nicely illustrated by McIntaggart, who made repeated disgusting associations in his remarks between people living in poverty, particularly those living in deep poverty, and things like drug addiction and street crime. It was really offensive. (I mean, seriously...this guy has been an NDP politician for 15 years or more...don't they have "don't say dumb and offensive stuff" training sessions that they send their people to?)

My question met with quite a positive response from the audience. Several subsequent questioners made reference to it, and it was addressed by DiNovo and one of the panelists from an agency. I kind of made a sideways reference to McIntaggart's offensive remarks, and I'm not sure how many people understood what I said as doing that, but the main point was my skepticism that even down the road this campaign would have any benefits for people on assistance. The mantras of more NDP MPPs and greater public visibility for poverty issues in general were repeated, and my query about reinforcing the "worthy"/"unworthy" divide and not doing anything to change the vote losing character of issues pertaining to the "undeserving" section of people living in poverty stayed unaddressed.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Random Rules and Health Cards

I am only passingly familiar with the work of Franz Kafka, but from what I recall of the bits and pieces I have read, seen, or read about, a common theme (perhaps in general, or perhaps just in The Trial, I don't remember) is the protagonist being buffeted about by bureaucratic rules that they do not know and that noone will explain. It was really a fairly benign manifestation, but I think perhaps Kafka's ghost happened by and sprinkled a little fairy dust on me yesterday and today.

In Ontario, to get the health care benefits that you are entitled to as a resident of the province, you need to have a card bearing a unique number issued by the provincial government. At some point a decade ago or so they started a program under which all residents would have their old cards replaced with new ones. The old ones had just your name, the number and a signature, whereas the new ones had all of that plus your address and a photo. At some point during this transition it was decided that the whole business was costing too much, so they would terminate the program and just let anyone who still had the old cards keep them.

My partner and I both still had the old orange and white cards. When we were doing the million and three stressful things that needed to be done in 2004 before our move from Hamilton, Ontario, to Los Angeles, California, we had no idea that we needed to do anything with respect to our health cards. We did not even know that we needed to notify them of a change of address -- we had changed our driver's licence addresses, which are also issued by the province, and our health cards didn't even have addresses on them, so it didn't occur to us that we might need to.

So yesterday I went into the Ministry of Health office locally to get a new health card for L, our three-and-a-half year-old. The card we got shortly after his birth had expired awhile ago and we knew we needed to get a new one but just hadn't done it yet. I explained the situation and was informed that they had tried to mail us something about his card and it had been returned, so they had cancelled the card completely. I did not just need to renew it but to get an entirely new card. And to do that, I needed to have his birth certificate, which I had not brought, so I would have to come back another day.

Okay. Fine.

I also mentioned that the reason the mail was returned was because we lived outside the country for awhile. It was then that I learned that we should have filled out a change of address form, and I should bring that back whenever I came back to get a new card for L.

The change in demeanor of the person I was dealing with was quite noticeable over the course of our short interaction. When I was some guy there with a cute kid doing a routine piece of business, it was all warmth and smiles. It was still professional at the end, but as it became clear that I had failed to obey bureaucratic dictates that I did not know existed, and was therefore a Silly Person, the person dealing with me became somewhat more brusque and cold.

So today we went back. We dealt with someone else, who was warm from beginning to end, but not because I was in any way a less Silly Person today. Apparently we had even done potentially illegal things. Apparently -- and you are just supposed to know this by osmosis, I guess -- if you are intending to live outside the country for more than seven months but you intend to move back at some point, you are obliged to notify the Ministry so that they can change the status of your relationship to the provincial health insurance program without terminating your enrollment in it. If you don't tell them, you get booted off after seven months. I'm not clear where exactly the illegality comes in, but she did use that word a few times. Anyway, today when I submitted our change of address forms, I was informed that in fact we had to fill out different forms in order to be retroactively booted off the rolls and then readmitted with new numbers and new cards.

I'm still not clear on what all of this might have meant. It is a looooong time since I have been to the doctor and, despite our connection to medical institutions in this city via my partner's job, we still don't actually have a family doc. But does all of this mean that the provincial health insurance program would not have covered me if I had had some sort of accident in the year and a half that we have been living back in Ontario because I didn't fill out the right forms at the right times, even though I would've met all the conditions for coverage?

It's a scary thought.

Still better than some of the run-arounds we got from private sector insurance in LA, however.