Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Long Quote: Origins of Welfare

It is both fascinating and enraging the way these aspects of the origins of welfare continue to swirl around so close to the surface of what are ostensibly the very different social assistance regimes that are common in industrialized countries like Canada more than four and a half centuries later.

Here's the quote:

[I]n the decades between 1530 and 1560, a system of public assistance was introduced in at least sixty European towns, both by initiative of the local municipalities and by direct intervention of the central state. Its precise goals are still debated. While much of the literature on the topic sees the introduction of public assistance as a response to a humanitarian crisis that jeopardized social control, in his massive study of coerced labor, the French Marxist scholar Yann Moulier Boutang insists that its primary objective was "The Great Fixation" of the proletariat, that is, the attempt to prevent the flight of labor.

In any event, the introduction of public assistance was a turning point in the state relations between workers and capital and the definition of the function of the state. It was the first recognition of the unsustainability of a capitalist system ruling exclusively by means of hunger and terror. It was also the first step in the reconstruction of the state as the guarantor of the class relation and as the chief supervisor of the reproduction and disciplining of the work-force.

...it was with the introduction of public assistance that the state began to claim "ownership" of the work-force, and a capitalist "division of labor" was instituted within the ruling class, enabling employers to relinquish any responsiblity for the reproduction of workers, in the certainty that the state would intervene, either with the carrot or with the stick, to address the inevitable crises. With this innovation, a leap occurred also in the management of social reproduction, resulting in the introduction of demographic recording (census-taking, the recording of mortality, natality, marriage rates) and the application of accounting to social relations...

Along with this new "social science," an international debate also developed on the administration of public assistance anticipating the contemporary debate on welfare. Should only those unable to work, described as the "deserving poor," be supported, or should "able-bodied" laborers unable to find a job also be given help? And how much or how little should they be given, so as not to be discouraged from looking for work? These questions were crucial from the viewpoint of social discipline, as a key objective of public aid was to tie workers to their jobs. But, on these matters a consensus could rarely be reached.

...across differences of systems and opinions, assistance was administered with such stinginess that it generated as much conflict as appeasement. Those assisted resented the humiliating rituals imposed on them, like wearing the "mark of infamy" (previously reserved for lepers and Jews), or (in France) participating in the annual processions of the poor, in which they had to parade singing hymns and holding candles; and they vehemently protested when the alms were not promptly given or were inadequate to their needs. In response, in some French towns, gibbets were erected at the time of food distribution or when the poor were asked to work in exchange for the food they received. In England, as the 16th century progressed, receipt of public aid -- also for children and the elderly -- was made conditional on the incarceration of the recipients in "work-houses," where they became the experimental subjects for a variety of work-schemes. Consequently, the attack on workers, that had begun with the enclosures and the Price Revolution, in the space of a century, led to the criminalization of the working class, that is, the formation of a vast proletariat either incarcerated in the newly constructed work-houses and correction-houses, or seeking its survival outside the law and living in open antagonism to the state -- always one step away from the whip and the noose.

-- Sylvia Federici (original emphases; references in original)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review: Women Challenging Unions

[Linda Briskin and Patricia McDermott, eds. Women Challenging Unions: Feminism, Democracy, and Militancy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.]

I think it was reading snippets of a book by Esther Newton, a pioneering anthropologist of queer spaces in North America, that I came across her remark that she had been scolded for using the concept of "sensibility" in her work. Her reply was that she would switch to some other term if anyone came up with something that captured what she meant as effectively.

Generally speaking, with the things that I think and write about, I have not had much need of the concept of "sensibility" or any substitute, so when I read those words by Newton I had an intellectual idea of what "sensibility" meant but not really a feel for how I might use it. However, shortly after that I had the opportunity to see a few episodes of a particular children's show that I had never seen before, and I was struck with the sense that here, indeed, I was witnessing a bona fide sensibility. I'm not sure how others might define such a thing, but I would understand it to mean a multifaceted and complex collection of choices given coherence through a shared aesthetic feel.

There is lots worth saying about Women Challenging Unions for itself, but one thing that struck me in reading the book was that it exhibited a particular and very familiar sensibility consistent with its origins. It has to do with originating in a hybrid space somewhere in between older, established social movements and academia, I think. This is not a space that has "sold out" or is disconnected from the movements it claims to talk with/for/about in any simple sense -- it is partisan about its movements of origin and uses those movements as starting points for determining its orientation and assessing its success, and it reserves the right to engage in good, old fashioned boosterism here and there, as well as criticism of dominant practices in those movements from more progressive positions. But not only have negotiations been made with the requirements of academia, which sets some bounds on what gets talked about and how, but those negotiations were far enough in the past that the edges have worn off and it all feels kind of natural. I don't mean this to come across as a dimissal of a book that talks about important issues and has important insights to offer, just to give my impression of the feel of the book and the boundaries that implies for its politics and contents.

I want to get past my main political criticism of the book right away. Particularly given that I recently reread this book by Himani Bannerji, which in one section talks about this very sort of problem with this very sort of book, I felt very conscious of the inadequacies of the current book in terms of how it deals with racism and how it relates the category "women of colour" to the category "women". Its editors and many of its authors obviously know the political importance of figuring that question out, and this sense of urgency shows, but it just doesn't happen in any consistent and rigorous way -- basically, gender and patriarchy are treated as fundamental features of social organization, whereas race and white supremacy's presence in the text, despite occasional specific mentions to the contrary, is effectively in a frame of "difference" without integrated attention to how those things have organized the lives of white women and women of colour (and white and racialized men) as workers and as a activists in the labour movement. Discussion of whiteness and its associated privilege is particularly absent.

That said, there is a great deal to learn from this book, even though it is fifteen years old. As always in collections of this sort the quality and interest of the particular essays varies a lot, but there were three sorts of essays in the book that I particularly liked.

One sort was essays that talked about the ways in which deeply integrated features of the social organization of workplaces and of the labour movement itself play important roles in perpetuating the oppression of women in both sorts of spaces. Judy Fudge, for example, writes about the ways in which aspects of labour law that are gender neutral on the surface work to the disadvantage of women, in particular the ways in which traditional Canadian labour law practices around determining "natural" bargaining units are not suitable for the kinds of workplaces in which women disproportionately work, resulting in fewer unionized women and weaker bargaining units. Anne Forest's essay is a stinging rebuke of the academic field of "industrial relations" and its refusal to treat gender as an axis upon which social power is organized, including many of the "New Left" labour historians who emerged in the 1970s and who have probably written some of the things that most of us who try to learn about Canada's labour history have read. Karen Messing and Donna Mergler write about the ways in which gendered occupational segregation and sexist ideologies about occupational health and safety have combined to make it very difficult to get governments and many unions to treat seriously occupational health and safety hazards that are particular to "women's work". And Pat Armstrong destabilizes what can sometimes seem as "natural" ways in which workplace oriented collective entities come together and function by talking about the competing tensions that professionalization and unionization have had on how nurses stand up for themselves, and how neither model exactly fits the needs of nurses or of service sector workers (who are disproportionately women) more broadly.

The second group of essays that particularly interested me talked about the importance of separate organizing -- that is, the role that organizing by women as women in the context of workplaces and the labour movement has had in advancing the interests of women workers. Actually, my feelings about these essays were mixed. On the one hand, I think separate and autonomous organizing is an absolutely crucial issue in many, many social movement spaces, and it is often difficult to get people, especially privileged people, to talk about it, so finding not just one but several essays foregrounding it was important. However, despite the focused attention, I was a bit disappointed that a lot of what I consider to be interesting and important about the issue did not get talked about, including a thorough discussion of some the ways that power as understood in a more complex way affects separate and autonomous organizing, and attention to politics of alliance both within and beyond separate and autonomous spaces. Perhaps one or two entries with a more dialogical form might have been useful, too.

The final class of essays that I appreciated in this volume, and the ones that are worth reading even if none of the other stuff interests you, are those that describe the actual experiences of women workers with particular instances of organizing and striking. Some of Armine Yalnizyan's discussion of community-based organizing strategies in her essay on the garment industry in Canada were interesting as was Patricia Baker's essay on two different approaches that have been taken to organizing bank workers. But for me at least it was the two opening essays of the book, in which strikes by Eaton's employees in southern Ontario and nurses in Alberta in the '80s were respectively described in detailed ways, that were the most inspiring.

In any case, there is a lot of useful and even exciting material in here but there is also a lot that is quite dry. Particularly given that and given the fact that the volume is on the old side, I would imagine for most people it would be useful as a resource for finding specific kinds of information rather than something to read cover to cover.

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Quote: We Are Not Special

The most terribly destructive idea on the left is the idea that we're special, that we're different. We're not -- everybody rebels in some way: our problem is to recognize rebellion and to find a way of touching it. The most profound challenge of the Zapatistas is when they say 'we are perfectly ordinary people, therefore rebels': that is perhaps the most important thing -- to understand the everyday nature of revolution.

-- John Holloway

Monday, May 21, 2007

Support Burning Passions Theatre

I just got an email announcing the upcoming tenth anniversary of Burning Passions Theatre, which operates out of Toronto. They are asking for donations to support their ongoing work of theatre in the service of social change.

The group's web site says:

Burning Passions Theatre was formed in 1998 as a woman-positive theatre company devoted to telling the stories of women and youth, and to the issues of social justice. A registered charity, Burning Passions Theatre is committed to equality in gender relations, cultural diversity, and community empowerment. Burning Passions Theatre is operated by a volunteer board of directors, and guided by Artistic Producer, Laurel Smith

The only BPT production I have seen was Ontario, Yours Too in 2002, but I know they have put on lots of other great stuff over the years and have several exciting projects currently in the works which you can learn more about by poking around their web site. In addition, I have worked with a few of the folks associated with BPT in other political contexts, and they are niftysupercool, so I hope you can support their work in this area!

You can donate by cheque: mail the form with your cheque to: Burning Passions Theatre, PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. W., Toronto, ON, M6C 1C0. You can also click on the "Donate Now" button on the web site.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Critiquing Green Themes in Children's Television

I would need to do quite a bit more research to be able to talk with complete confidence about the history of including environmental themes in North American television programming aimed at children, but I have some impressions and some guesses that I think are worth sharing, as well as some analysis based on my own observations.

I do not, for example, know much about the origins of such things. If I had to guess, I would speculate that it first showed up in a major way in the '80s in the context of the relatively short-lived upsurge of green concern in society more broadly in that era. I would also expect that it fell off a bit after the initial surge of interest, but I would also not be surprised to learn that green themes remained more visible in kids shows than elsewhere prior to the great popular resurgence in awareness of the green that happened in 2006.

Regardless of the rhythm of their presence and absence, though, I think certain features have remained quite common. On the one hand, such shows have carved out space to engage in consciousness raising of a sort about the environment that has been much harder to create and maintain in children's mass media spaces around almost any other issue of proressive or radical concern. At the same time, the shape of that concern has tended to be based on ideas of innocence and rescue, which at best have deeply ambivalent political implications and at worst are actively harmful to the goal of creating the massive changes that we need.

My own encounters with shows of this sort have, of course, come about via L and his library borrowings. There are episodes of Magic Schoolbus, Dora the Explorer and the newer spinoff focusing on her cousin Go, Diego, Go, and Reading Rainbow that I am thinking about as I write this. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have to search too hard to find other shows to which this analysis applies.

I think I can guess at the political environmental aims of those writing and producing the shows. They want to capture the interests of children in green ideas on the assumption that if you get 'em young, you've got 'em for life, and beyond just getting kids interested they often try to get them thinking about what they can do. On the surface, these are good ideas. I think the more people whose attention is focused on our impact on the earth, the greater our odds of actually surviving the next century as a species. I think the emphasis on acting, on doing, is crucial as well because I am becoming increasingly convinced that beyond specific barriers to facilitating certain kinds of consciously politicized collective doing, the current realities of most of our daily lives, including but far from limited to our media environment, is a kind of generalized inertia against almost any kind of doing -- I need to think more about it, but I think it has to do both with the powerful grip that internalized and socially policed normativities have on us, and on the material necessities and ideological training we, particularly those of us with some privilege, receive that mitigate against approaching the utilization of the limited but real space for agency we all have in our lives with an orientation towards even relatively apolitical and individually oriented critical thinking and doing rather than a sort of passive, aesthetically oriented compensation-for-alienation-via-anaesthesia being both modelled on and materially based in being primarily a consumer.

That said, you don't have to go far to bump up against the limits of how such things are actually done in mainstream children's television. Usually, the premise when it comes to environmental issues is some sort of problem in which the characters (or the viewers, in shows or segments without characters) are not themselves implicated as causing, benefiting from, or otherwise being complicit in -- innocence -- and which characters and/or viewers either do solve or are encouraged to solve -- rescue.

In Dora and Diego, this often takes the form of an animal, frequently a baby animal to make it additionally cute and worthy of rescue, that is in some sort of distress that the title character then resolves. This is explicitly the premise of Diego, as he and his family are actually "animal rescuers" who run an animal sanctuary in a jungle environment, but it also happens in a more incidental sort of way in Dora. (The gendered ideological dynamics involved across the two shows are also worthy of analysis. For example, in Diego, which is explicitly targeted at youth trapped in the privileged compartment of the gender prison -- boys -- the rescuing is professionalized, shown as work, and more explicitly framed as rescue. In Dora, which is assumed to be more oriented towards residents of the oppressed compartment of the gender prison -- girls -- the rescuing is in the context of relationships, of informal caring and helping rather than rescue-as-professional-task.)

In Reading Rainbow, for example, you have an episode focused on whales and another on manatees. The additional worthiness of the objects of rescue is created not through emphasizing adorableness but by paying attention to how cool and amazing the creatures in question are. In both episodes, the emphasis is on human beings saving animals who are beached or otherwise hurt or stuck. There may be some vague reference to human being creating circumstances that endanger these animals more generally, but there is no hint that the viewer herself might be implicated in these relations of harm in any way, and there is little attention to exploring what these broader problems might be and how they came about and what might be necessary to address them.

Magic Schoolbus, perhaps because its core target audience is a bit older, is the most sophisticated of the four shows used as examples in its treatment of these issues, to the extent that it sometimes avoids endorsing rescue. However, it never escapes its reliance on innocence for framing the issue. In general, though its main characters are almost universally annoying, the pedagogical philosophy underlying this show is great, but that is not enough to escape this problem. The premise of each episode is usually some sort of problem or "what if" scenario that the (animated) kids in the class have to figure out, with the help of the titular magical bus that allows the kids to bend and break the laws of physics in their explorations of the world.

Episodes relevant to this post include ones that ask: What if recycing didn't exist? Why is this cocoa tree no longer producing cocoa pods? How do animals surivive in deserts? Where should we look for a pet frog that has fled, presumably to its natural habitat? These episodes show that waste is a serious, human-created problem; that ecosystems are complex webs of relationships that human beings can disrupt; how animals and plants survive the scarcity of deserts; and what habitats are and how they are suited to the animals that live there. The example episodes vary as to whether or not they contain vague and relatively unexplored implications that human beings as an abstraction bear some responsibility for environmental problems, or that one foolish but educable person does, but in none is there any deviation from the viewpoint characters -- those via whom the target audience members are meant to read themselves into the text -- being constructed as innocent. Two of the four episodes cited follow the model of innocence and rescue (the recycling ep and the one about the cocoa tree) while the other two explicitly disclaim rescue (the one about the desert animals and the one about the escaped frog). However, in so doing the latter two are warning against the idea that humans need to rescue nature from nature, which is a somewhat different question -- it is good advice, but the message ends up being that maintenance of innocence in this instance requires passivity rather than any exploration of a better model for how human beings should be responding to human-created problems.

Some of you may be wondering why, exacrly, framing green issues in children's TV via "innocence" and "rescue" is a bad thing at all. My understanding of the use of the posture of innocence as a way for people to avoid seeing their own complicity in oppression and therefore to avoid asking the very difficult, potentially self-disrupting questions required to create serious social change comes from reading various writings by Sherene Razack. She writes on page 10 of this book:

[P]luralistic models of inclusion assume that we have long ago banished the stereotypes from our heads. These models suggest that with a little practice and the right information, we can all be innocent subjects, standing outside hierarchical social relations, who are not accountable for the past or implicated in the present. It is not our ableism, racism, sexism, or heterosexism that gets in the way of communicating across differences, but their disability, their culture, their biology, or their lifestyle. In sum, the cultural differences approach reinforces an important epistemological cornerstone of imperialism: the colonized possess a series of knowable characteristics and can be studied, known, and managed accordingly by the colonizers whose own complicitly remains masked.

Particularly given the connection that others have noted between gender oppression and the domination of the natural world, and between colonial oppression and the domination of the natural world, it is easy enough to read this into the environmental context -- an approach which focuses on educating us about the other as its main mechanism of action keeps us from having to examine our actual complicity in the problem.

I think in places Razack talks about rescue as well, but in my own thinking about the idea I have a wider spectrum of places I trace it to, even though it can't really function without the underlying idea of innocence. You can find it in a very old but still valid left criqitue of charity: that it is a piecemeal effort to rescue a small minority of people who are in need, need that exists precisely because people are exploited and oppressed by those with the resources to do the rescuing. This helps those with feel better about themselves and is a tool for dividing and regulating those without. You can also find it in colonial contexts from the old British Empire to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, in which white liberals, including white liberal feminists, have justified various nastinesses on the need to rescue women of colour from men of colour. You can also find it in efforts by private philanthropists and state welfare initiatives to justify their regulation of the lives of people living in poverty, particularly poor women. You can find it in lots of places, and it is a problem because it is still an expression of power over, even when there is genuine and much needed help mixed in, and it serves to obscure the need for a fundamentally different relationship between the parties involved.

My understanding of why discourse in mainstream children's television stays largely confined to narratives of innocence and rescue is actually not very interesting. Or, at least, not very surprising to anyone who has thought much about the media more generally. Some combination of explicit ideological gatekeeping and the pressure to either generate profit or not offend those who need to generate profit function to police the boundaries of the acceptable in the context of the institutional relations in which mainstream mass media gets produced, including children's television. In the first bunch of paragraphs of this post I talk about it in the context of Hollywood movies -- there would be differences for small-scale television production, but largely similar dynamics. And this boundary-keeping functions to prevent too much branching out from innocence and rescue in terms of green issues because any fundamental breach with that model would require asking "why" in ways oriented towards politics or even basic social organization. Even if done halfheartedly, it would be hard to follow such questions to places that were not anti-neoliberal, in the sense of the need to impose regulation on profit-driven rapacity, and I think a more thorough asking would lead to more radically oppositional questioning of social relations. In fact, the reason that green themes can avoid at all the squelching faced by most other issues in childrens shows -- except for the shallowest liberal takes on "diversity" and "inclusion", and not even always those -- is precisely because it can be framed in ways that emphasize science and individual conduct, which are usually constructed in mainstream discourse as being something other than political.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sudbury Upping the Anti #4 Launch Event

I have been remiss in posting information about the latest issue of the radical political journal Upping the Anti. There have already been successful launch events in Toronto and Vancouver, and one is planned for a week tonight here in Sudbury -- see below for details as well as the table of contents for the new issue and its Introduction. I have not yet read it cover to cover, and in fact only got a hardcopy of it tonight. However, as a relatively recent addition to the publication's advisory board I have had a chance to read bits and pieces along the way and I'm excited to dive into the whole thing. I have to say that I'm not sure the editorial deals with its subject matter at all the way I would, but there is a lot of really great stuff in this issue's contents. Most of it is not available online and will not be for awhile, so if you are interested, please order a copy. In the meantime, one of its pieces, an interview with radical theorist John Holloway, can be seen at Z-Net.

Sudbury Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action # 4 Launch Event

Join us to celebrate the release of Issue 4!

Thursday, May 24th, 4:30pm -6pm, 4th Floor Resource Centre, St. Andrew’s Place, 111 Larch Street. * This is a wheel-chair accessible location.

*Speakers will include:

Tom Keefer, member of the UTA editorial group, the Community Friends
for Peace and Understanding With Six Nations, and author of "Six
Nations and the Politics of Solidarity" in the latest UTA on building white solidarity with the Six Nations struggle

Activist videos and music.

Copies of the new issue of the journal will be available for $5 or pay what you can.

Refreshments will be available (water, mango juice, ginger beer) and we will be ordering in vegetarian (chick pea and potato) rotis for $8 and also chicken rotis at $8 and beef or goat rotis for $9. Please pre-oder these by [contacting me so I can put you in touch with the right person] by May 22nd.

For more information about the journal, please go here.

“Upping the Anti” is a radical journal published by a collective of activists and organizers from across Canada. We are dedicated to
developing and publishing radical theory and analysis, debates, roundtables and interviews on questions facing struggles against capitalism, imperialism, and oppression.

Childcare subsidization funds are available.

* Below please find the Table of Contents and the Introduction, and click here for an interview with John Holloway, all from the 4th issue of Upping the Anti.




Letters to the Editor

Editorial: Becoming the Enemy They Deserve- Organizational Questions
for a New “New Left”


Robin Isaacs: Living my Life

John Holloway with Marina Sitrin: Against and Beyond the State

Dan Irving: Trans Politics and Anti-Capitalism


Richard Day: Walking Away from Failure

Carmelle Wolfson & Lesley Wood: Two Dispatches from the World Social Forum

Tom Keefer: Six Nations and the Politics of Solidarity


Prison Abolition Roundtable with Peter Collins, Emily Aspinwall, Filis Iverson, Sonia Marino, Julia Sudbury, Kim Pate, and Patricia Monture

Vancouver Housing Roundtable with Kat Norris, Jill Chettiar, Anna Hunter, and Cecily Nicholson


Erica Meiners on Angela Davis, Julia Sudbury, and Karlene Faith

Kimiko Inouye on bell hooks and Amelia Mesa-Bains "Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism".

Scott Clarke on Sheila Wilmot's "Taking Responsibility Taking Direction: White Anti-Racism in Canada"



We are happy to offer up a new, fourth, issue of Upping the Anti. Unlike last time, we don’t have to apologize for being behind schedule. What’s more, thanks to increased sales and better distribution, we have been able to print this issue without going any furthur into debt. We’ve also been kept afloat by the generous contributions of our subscribers. At a time when radical media projects are needed more than ever, we are reminded by the demise of excellent publications like Clamor and LiP Magazine how important it is to keep nurturing projects like UTA. Now, more than ever, we need to cultivate those precious spaces where we can come together for argument, debate, and alliance building. We’re happy that you, our readers, have recognized Upping the Anti as one such space. We will do our best to hold up our end of the bargain.

There have been some changes to the editorial crew at UTA. Dave Mitchell has stepped down as reviews editor, but will remain a member of the advisory board. Erin Gray, formerly of the editorial collective, will replace Dave, while her spot on the editorial collective has been taken up by AK Thompson. We would like to welcome the new additions and thank those stepping down from different roles for all of their hard work in getting and keeping UTA off the ground.

As in past issues, UTA 4 begins with a letters section. We are pleased that our readers are engaging with the things we publish and are responding to them in a thoughtful and spirited manner. What struck us most upon reading the letters submitted for this issue was how each one seemed to move beyond polemics and venture into the realm of proposition.

So it seems fitting that our editorial this time around deals with the question of organization. Now, we know that might sound played out. Bolshevik. Menshevik. Mass. Anti-mass. Boredom. Confusion. Regret. But you would never believe how many people have organization on the tip of their tongue these days. In Canada, public intellectuals like Judy Rebick and Sam Gindin (each operating with quite different premises) have added to the buzz. Across the pond, Hilary Wainwright has aligned herself firmly with the new generation of “network” builders. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In order to make sense of the current resurgence of interest in the organizational question, we’ve tried to sort through some of the history and current manifestations of the debate and to trace out the implications of various positions. And, since we’re precocious, we’ve advanced a few propositions of our own.

Much of the content in this issue addresses the theme of organization in some way. In the first of our interviews, Dale Altrows joins long-time anarchist activist and person living with AIDS Robin Isaacs as he recounts his experiences of coming out and coming to anarchism in Toronto in the 1980s. With a keen memory of his experiences as a participant in radical organizations and tremendous knack for storytelling, Isaacs encourages us both to draw inspiration and learn from the not-so-distant past. In our second interview, Marina Sitrin discusses the question of movements and organization with John Holloway. Encouraging us to consider the possibilities that exist “against and beyond” the state, Holloway traces out some broad dynamics underlying the radical resurgence in Latin America. In the third interview, Gary Kinsman speaks with trans activist and teacher Dan Irving as he explores the intersection between trans issues and class politics. Arguing that trans politics are shaped by class experience (and vice versa), Irving proposes to make both Marxism and aspects of post-structuralist theory relevant in a context where they are often viewed with suspicion.

In our articles section, Richard Day (author of Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements) continues with the theme of organization by responding to his book’s critics. Addressing AK Thompson’s polemic published in UTA 3, as well as those penned elsewhere by Ian McKay and William Carroll, Day suggests that if our question is ‘what is to be done?’ the answer must not involve a repetition of our worst failures. Following Day’s rejoinder, Carmelle Wolfson and Lesley Wood recount their experiences at the recent World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. Their accounts provide a critical assessment of an event that has come to be seen as one of the most significant international forums for networking and strategizing in the struggle for global justice. Moving from the global to the local, we close the articles section with an essay by Tom Keefer which explores the dynamics of non-native solidarity in the struggle at Six Nations. Arguing that the concept of “taking leadership” with which many non-native activists have approached their solidarity work is inadequate, Keefer proposes a provocative alternative. Drawing upon Black Power, the classic SNCC-era text by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, Keefer argues that in order to develop real coalitions with indigenous activists fighting for sovereignty, white activists must organize within their own communities to build a meaningful social base.

Our roundtable section in this issue contains two pieces. In the first, Caitlin Hewitt-White has brought together prominent prison abolition activists Peter Collins, Emily Aspinwall, Filis Iverson, Sonia Marino, Julia Sudbury, Kim Pate, and Patricia Monture to talk about the politics of the prison-industrial complex and the difficulties of working both within and against the system. In the second roundtable, Vancouver-based activists Kat Norris, Jill Chettiar, Anna Hunter, and Cecily Nicholson explore the problems and promise of housing activism in the Downtown Eastside in a roundtable put together by Krisztina Kun and Nicole Latham. This discussion makes clear how serious the housing situation in Vancouver is becoming and reveals how divisions on the left are hindering our ability to respond as effectively as possible.

As in previous issues, our book reviews section provides activists with an opportunity to respond to debates and discussions happening in other published works. In the first review, Erica Meiners investigates the prison abolition writings of Angela Davis, Julia Sudbury, and Karlene Faith. Next, Kimiko Inouye reads bell hooks’s Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism. Finally, Scott Clarke responds to Sheila Wilmot’s Taking Responsibility, Taking Direction: White Anti-Racism in Canada.

As always, we invite responses from our readers to the content we publish. Argument is our lifeblood and we look forward to hearing from you. The submissions deadline for Upping the Anti 5 is August 1, 2007 and you can email articles and article ideas to uppingtheanti[AT]gmail.com.

After publishing UTA 3 with funds drawn from meagre life savings, we knew we were in deep. Resolving not to go any further into debt, we vowed to make the money to print this issue upfront or to never publish again.

It paid off, so to speak. We sunk our energy into a subscription drive and promotion campaign. And we learned how to stomach working on the “accounts receivable” side of our ledger. We’re not out of the hole yet. But we didn’t sink any new money into this issue. What’s more, we have more subscribers than ever before. A few of these are coveted lifetime subscribers - people who give us $250 and make us promise to keep producing this thing.

If you are not already a subscriber, we encourage you to become one. If you are already a subscriber but want to make sure that UTA continues to be a feisty little firebrand well into the future, then please consider taking out a lifetime subscription. You can find out more information by contacting us.

And if you’re one of those people who still owes us money for back issues, we need to talk. Capitalists have got the market cornered on contractual obligations and petty forms of coercion, so we won’t resort to them here. Instead, we would like to encourage both those who owe us money and radicals everywhere to begin taking ourselves as seriously as our opponents sometimes do. After all, we have a world to win…

In solidarity and struggle,

Aidan C., Tom K., Sharmeen K., and AKT.

Toronto, April 17, 2007

If you happen to be reading this within an easy journey of Sudbury, please come and check out the event. If not, you can still get your hands on a copy of the journal!

Monday, May 14, 2007

ProgBlogs and Process

I have other things I should be doing tonight. But there has recently been some conflict at ProgressiveBloggers, a progressive Canadian blog community to which I belong, and it happens to be catching me in a phase in which my always uneasy relationship to and ever fluctuating perception of the actual political significance of blogging is such that I feel some political responsibility to contribute. I don't intend to say a whole lot on the immediate conflict, but to reflect a bit on the larger political implications.

This community has almost 350 affiliated blogs at last count, covering a very broad range of political opinion (something I will talk more about below). There are a small number of authors of affiliated blogs who volunteer their time to be moderators of the community, who apparently conduct their discussions about issues related to their work in closed forums. Recently, as described here and here, and at least alluded to here and here, there has been some conflict amongst the moderators involving political differences and what seems to have been an attempt to silence them, followed by one moderator -- one who is on the left end of the spectrum covered by the community, and who is a feminist -- deciding to try and spark broader dialogue about dysfunctional process in the community by talking about the conflict publically. This was, I understand, in the context of longer term conflict around issues of politics and process. She has subsequently resigned as as a moderator.

There are a number of different and not necessarily directly connected things that this conflict has been making me think about. I am just going to ramble on about them without trying to turn this post into some sort of unified whole.

The first is on the political content of the dispute among the moderators, which focused on the World Bank. I obviously do not have direct access to who said what to whom, and no wish to rehash it. Given the political range covered by the community, I am not at all surprised to hear that some members of PB are supporters of the World Bank, while of course some of us think that (though it may have very smart and very nice people working for it) it is a horrible institution, one of the three central global instutions in charge of coordinating certain aspects of the pillaging of the Global South by capital and by rich Western countries. What does surprise me is that an up-front critique of the World Bank was considered to be beyond the pale by one of the moderators -- not just something he disagreed with, but something so unacceptable that he thought it should be changed, retracted, or deleted. It was not so long ago that North Americans were gathering regularly in their tens of thousands to protest the various organizations which have been coordinating global neocolonial capitalism and promoting neoliberalism, so I find the complete unacceptability of even admitting this position to discussion to be very concerning. It seems like it might be be connected to the fact that a third moderator is actually employed by the World Bank, and wanting to hush up political differences for the sake of harmony, but that is pure speculation, and there are probably other dynamics going on that I am not positioned to be able to see. In any case, as far as I understand it from comments in the posts linked above, this was resolved with admissions that mistakes were made, but the fact that it happend to begin with is still of concern.

The second thing that is interesting comes from a close reading of the posts linked above and the comments on them. In her original public airing of the controversy, Polly made it clear that in doing so she was treating both the content of the disagreement and the process issues as political. In other words, this was being done to draw attention to aspects of how power was working and how the community to which we belong is functioning. There has been a tendency among those comments that are not supportive to completely refuse to engage with it as a political question, and to treat it solely as a matter of interpersonal conflict and a sort of depoliticized (or professionalized) ethics. I'm not sure how much is really to be gained by a continued focus on the specifics of the incident, as this post from a third party demands, though I wouldn't object if there is significant sentiment to do so. Rather, I think what it might be fruitful to address would be the more general issues raised around transparency, participation, and process. (To those of you familiar with the ways in which these things tend to play out in activist groups in real life, some of the unsympathetic comments on Polly's posts that claim that her concerns about process are distractions from the real political work we should all be doing will sound awfully familiar.)

Third: So what about process issues? See, I've never paid much attention to how PB works. I think I had just assumed that the moderators only did technical stuff -- and I've never had any problems in that regard, so that side of things is definitely well done -- and so I didn't figure it mattered much who they were or how exactly they operated. It appears I was mistaken. And, to be fair, I suppose I kind of did know. There was some sort of bru-ha-ha a while ago about an affiliated blog being given the boot because of comments labelled anti-semitic, which I was vaguely aware of at the time but paid no attention to so I have no opinion on the accuracy of the charge. Certainly anti-semitism should be taken seriously and addressed. I understand that a policy is being developed for the community on related issues, though I know little about it. Is it public yet? How was it developed? Does it attempt to incorporate anti-oppression principles and recognize things like power and social location? I have no idea. This could be crucial stuff, because, okay, there was that one instance related to anti-semitism and a response to it, but there is stuff grounded in and reproducing oppressive social relations in blogs affiliated to PB all the time. Of course there is. (In fact, I seem to remember the moderator who just resigned pointing out some sexism in some things that were happening back last fall, and not getting a particularly supportive response in a lot of quarters.) So issues around drawing lines, and around when it makes sense to engage and when someone should be kicked out, and all of that stuff are very complicated. Plus, there is always a danger that such policies can be used to target people whose analysis is farther from the mainstream of the community.

Okay...got sidetracked there a little bit. In any case, I was originally leading up to the admission that because I haven't really paid much attention, I have no idea what the moderators actually do. I am not aware of their role described in print anywhere. I am not aware of any way in which they must be accountable to the broader membership. I am not aware of how they are selected. I am not even aware of enough of the details to know if any of this matters very much, politically speaking. My main indication that it does, apart from stuff I said in the last paragraph, is that the moderator who just resigned seems to think it is of political significance, and based on stuff of hers that I have read over the last couple of years, I'm inclined to trust that assessment. I am particularly concerned about why the process amongst the moderators needs to be a closed one. I mean, I know that tends to be the default way in which executives of any organization in this society operate, but generally speaking I think it is not only unnecessary but it is politically undesireable. We are not some sort of capitalist enterprise that must keep its trade secrets to aid in its competition against other corporations. So why not just make it all open for everyone to see? And, though I obviously am inclined towards open processes, I am really asking if anyone has any reasons why that might not be appropriate in this instance. (And if the answer is something about a risk of compromising the political mission of the PB, I have to ask whose politics and whose mission. And whose compromise.)

Which brings me to my last point. In a couple of spots in the posts linked above, Polly relates her ambivalence about being in a community such as the PB at all, given the range of its politics. Personally, I see the logic as being something like the logic of the united front -- that's an Old Left term having to do with building the broadest possible coalition to face down a clear and present danger from the Right. Historically, for example, you can see it in Canadian politics during periods when the Communist Party allied itself with the Liberals and fought against the CCF, at least officially on the grounds that the Liberals were the best opportunity for defeating the Right though the actual reasons were often more complicated and more self-serving than that. In the present, the anti-war movement in Canada (such as it is) tends to operate on the united front model.

In real life I am quite ambivalent about united front politics for a number of reasons that I won't get into now -- certainly not against them completely, but in favour of viewing them with a more critical eye than often happens. But in terms of a blog community I have much less problem with them. Oh, I'm not saying I'm a super enthusiast about all of the results. I get kind of depressed when I see how overwhelmingly many of the posts that come through the PB top page have to do with electoral politics, and how few are about social movements or about personal/political stuff or about politics grounded in oppressed communities. I also get the sense that a lot of the material that does come down the pipe that is social movement-oriented and/or farther left than the NDP often does not get a whole lot of attention from too many members/readers.

In fact, though one or two of the identifiers would technically include me and there is more vague language that would do so farther down the page, I don't feel that the current version of the opening sentence of the commumnity wiki that describes the basics of PB particularly speaks to me or my politics:

Progressive Bloggers is a group of Canadian bloggers who firmly believe that this great country needs to move forward, not backwards. Be they Liberal or liberal, New Democrats or democrats, Green voters or voters who want a green country, or even Red Tories searching for a home, these bloggers believe that Canadian politics should move in a progressive direction.

But, frankly, I'm not terribly concerned about any of that. I think a community like PB is useful because it allows me to easily encounter material that I would not otherwise search out and it allows people who would not search out my kind of stuff to see what I'm up to. Though it is easily romanticized and too often presented in an understanding of politics steeped in philosophical idealism, there is still importance to the thus-far underutilized potential implicit in communities like PB for actual dialogue and debate across difference to happen. I'm not sure what could be done to get some of that happening deliberately at the community level, or if there would even be much interest in such a thing, but it will continue happening on an individual level, and I think that's important too.

And as Red Jenny said in the comment thread of one of the posts linked above, "Without us lefties, the libs will keep thinking they actually are progressive. It's important to keep pushing, I think."

Saturday, May 12, 2007

"Spider Man 3"

Though a mediocre movie in almost every respect, if seen in the right light "Spider-Man 3" can provide an unintentionally honest glimpse at the sickness that is our society.

I am a bit of a sucker for comic book movies. I'm not sure why, since I never read comic books as a kid and have only gradually come to appreciate the comic book and graphic novel form as an adult -- and since comic book movies are often not particularly good. I think it might be because I have long had an affinity for the combination, in any medium, of speculative fiction with content or writing that is politically interesting or stylistically provocative or emotionally compelling or whatever. Of course most comic book movies don't do any of these things, but there's always a chance they might, so I'm often suckered in.

"Spider-Man 3" is, like the rest of its franchise, a profoundly uninspired movie. Some cool effects and dazzling action sequences, and not much else. The acting is not particularly great. Kirsten Dunst has always been a mediocre actor, and I have been much less willing to give her the benefit of the doubt since I saw the visually stunning but politically gross "Marie Antoinette". Tobey Maguire does fine as the affable nerd-slash-superhero at the centre of the film, I suppose, but there really isn't much that is actually very interesting about his performance. There are moments when James Franco oozes a good vibe for a son of the ruling class turned comic book villain, but there are many more moments than that when he isn't compelling either. And the writing isn't great -- lots of places where characters' emotional and behavioural shifts just seemed to sort of happen to move the plot ahead, not because it made any internal sense within the context of the character's trajectory to that point. The writers try to pack too much in, but at the same time you get the feeling of a world painted mainly in primary colours and with large brushes, so to speak. (And, no, that is not just an unavoidable artifact of the comic book form, which can be used to create quite sophisticated worlds and stories.)

So why write anything about it?

I haven't been able to articulate why until this film, but there has been a feature of the "Spider-Man" film universe that has always bothered me. It is far from unique to the "Spider-Man" films, but it is a bit more exaggerated than in many other places, and therefore easier to see. Namely, a few cosmetic modernizations aside, the "Spider-Man" movie universe adheres so powerfully to dominant norms you'd think it was some sort of conservative's never-never wistful fantasy of the '50s. No one swears, no one has sex, there is no hint that anyone queer exists, and drinking is only for bad guys. Men rescuing a damsel in distress is a frequent central plot point, marriage is the only conceivable goal of romance, and people of colour are strategically placed in the background of shots to perform "diversity" but they are kept safely away from any major parts. All of this may be an attempt to evoke a certain kind of feeling from super hero comics of yesteryear. I suspect it is also has to do with needing to keep the film as acceptable as possible to consumer demographics with the most money, so as to make back however many hundreds of millions of dollars went into making it. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

But wait. There is one thing that absolutely saturates the film that a mythical 1950s Sunday School teacher probably wouldn't like: a whole boatload of violence.

What to make of this slavish embrace of conservative versions of dominant normativities, but the presence of this one feature that dominant norms would at least officially disapprove of? Why create this world where people can be pummelled to the brink of death and noone bats and eye, but the person being pummelled can't experss their distress via a potty mouth?

There is, of course, the "South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut" answer: hilarious, brutally honest about the hypocrisy of standards of propriety for films and, often, for children in general. But personally I think it is more than that. I think "Spider-Man" is an unwitting moment of honesty in our popular culture. I think it is an accidental admission that all of the hierarchies and norms that permeate real life, and that are slavishly adhered to in the movie in ways that make them seem completely natural and completely good, also happen in real life in a context completely saturated with violence. I maintain that on a certain level most privileged people in North America are aware of this, but they work very hard to avoid dealing with it consciously, including reacting with silence or hostility when it is drawn to their attention, because it is such an awful truth.

Oh, sure, the violence in "Spider-Man" is carefully sanitized and does not make it clear that there is a tight, mutual, causal link between those norms and hierarchies and the violence in the real world, which helps privileged viewers maintain our all-important innocence of our place in the world and our complicity in genocide, war, empire, and all sorts of other nasties. But I think the complete comfort and naturalness of the movie's juxtaposition of slavish devotion to dominant, oppressive mythologies about the world with its unproblematized, ubiquitous violence is only possible because for most of us it resonates on some level as being completely real and normal.

And some of the connection between oppression and violence is made a little more visible in the film, too. After all, Peter Parker deliberately publically humiliates Mary Jane Watson, at that point his ex, and even hits her, albeit unintentionally. But don't worry, he gets to get back together with her at the end because, aww, shucks, he's good folks and he's learned his lesson and the cosmic space goo made him do it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Railways and Colonialism

CBC reports that CN Rail is jumping on the police bandwagon and targeting Shawn Brant and the rest of the residents of the Tyendinaga Territory of the Mohawk Nation: they are launching civil suits against Brant, against the Tyendinaga band council, and against others involved in the recent blockade of their rail line that was mounted in response to the foot-dragging by the Canadian state in settling a local land claim, part of the long-term settler state strategy of consolidating past theft by obstructing justice around land issues at every turn. Though rail blockades have been sporadically used by strategically placed First Nations in the past, this is the first time that CN has taken such a step.

As Brant is quoted as saying, "We've sort of looked at this as being a warning to other First Nations communities across the country as well as ourselves that they're quite willing to make our miserable lives more miserable." This is especially in light of that a national day of action has been called for June 29, and "many First Nations are already planning [blockades], with talk of a co-ordinated targeting of key infrastructure, from rails to roads," according to this column

There are a number of things worth noting about this. For one thing, it is yet another indicator of the fact that it both capital and the state are integral to colonialism. This seems to me to be kind of an obvious point, but I mention it because on more than one occasion I have heard ways of talking about colonial oppression that foreground the role of the settler state but have little critical to say about the class relations or relations of production with which it is integrated. This is one small sample of overlap between the drive of a segment of private capital to safeguard its profit and the drive of the nation state to eradicate anything it sees as competition for legitimacy and sovereignty within the boundaries it claims.

The second is the historical resonance of the entity choosing to contribute to the enforcement of colonial relations being a railroad, because railroads were central to the original colonization of much of Canada. The particular area where Tyendinaga is located was, as far as I understand it, initially colonized in an era before rail transportation played much of a role, but it was vital in the colonial transformation of the huge stretch of the country between northwestern Ontario and the already-existing small British colonies in the lower mainland of what is now British Columbia and on Vancouver Island. I actually haven't read much of this history recently or in any critical form, but anyone who has taken Grade 10 history in Ontario can probably remember the big deal made of railroads in the unit covering Canada in the late 19th century. A little strategic reframing can reveal a lot even from partially forgotten remnants of the completely uncritical mythology that is high school history. It was the promise of a rail connection that brought the colony of British Columbia into the Canadian confederation. The railroad cemented Canadian/British claims to the territory in the face of dreams of Manifest Destiny in Washington. After the first Riel Rebellion, in which Metis people with Cree allies rose up against the encroaching settler state, there was an additional imperative to be able to get troops out there easily. And of course it was railroads that transported land-hungry settlers -- a population carefully and deliberately kept almost entirely white by Canadian immigration policy -- that were integral to the state's plan to make their colonial control of the land a practical fact by transforming it from "the land" as understood by its indigenous inhabitants and into "property" as understood in the context of the common law and capitalist social relations. As a consequence, large sums of government money were used to subsidize private corporations in building and running several transcontinental railroads. I forget the details, but I know that it resulted in far more rail capacity than anyone had any use for, and one government fell because of a corruption scandal related to the process.

All of which is to say that the railroads were a BIG DEAL in that era because of their importance, both material and symbolic, in early Canadian state formation -- state formation that of course was entirely dependent on land theft and cultural genocide.

Incidentally, from what I understand the companies that eventually formed CN were not directly involved in creating the original transcontinental lines -- that was mostly Canadian Pacific -- but at least one element was central to creating the system of branch lines used to reinforce colonial control of the province of Manitoba and was heavily subsidized by the provincial government.

It is also worth understanding the history that lies underneath the naming of the band council in the lawsuit. Band council government was created by the racist federal legislation called the Indian Act and more or less forced on most First Nations, sometimes at the point of a gun, sometimes through deception, and sometimes through other forms of bullying. I don't know the specific history in Tyendinaga, but it seems clear that naming the band council (which had nothing to do with the blockade) in the lawsuit is a way of fostering the old colonial strategy of divide and rule -- push the segment of the colonized people over which you have some leverage to act as your enforcers against the segment of the population over which you have little and who are therefore more militant.

The final thing that occurs to me is to wonder about why now was chosen by CN to take this step. The obvious answer is the one given in the quotation above, as a warning against others planning similar actions on the upcoming day of action or at other times. But I also wonder if this is part of a larger tactical shift by the settler state, as part of the push by Harper and Co. to shift things from straight neoliberalism to a more blatantly Bush-like model. The state has been perfectly willing to use uniformed people with guns against indigenous resistance in the last few decades, but by and large it has preferred, when possible, to put a liberal face on cooptation and delay and keep it all as invisible as possible. One good example of this shift is the residential schools issue. The Liberal strategy seemed to be to hemm and haw and concede it was an awful situation but do the absolute minimum materially and symbolically to continue seeming progressive to a poorly-informed white-dominated liberal base. The Conservative Minister of Indian Affairs, Jim Prentice, seems to have opted for a reversion to a denial of the problem so blatant that it would be laughable were it not for its pro-genocide implcations.

He said,

I've said quite clearly that the residential school chapter of our history is one that was a difficult chapter. Many things happened that we need to close the door on as part of Canadian history, but fundamentally, the underlying objective had been to try and provide an education to aboriginal children and I think the circumstances are completely different from Maher Arar or also from the Chinese head tax. [emphasis added]

A senior official from the Department of Indian Affairs in the early twentieth century was much more honest.

The department's purpose was clear enough: as enunciated by [long-time deputy superintendent-general Duncan Campbell] Scott, it was 'to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.' In other words, as one observer put it, the extinction of Indians as Indians. [Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, Third Edition. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 308]

That was specifically with reference to a short-lived power to deliberately remove "Indian status" from indigenous people at the Minister's discretion, but its matter-of-factness is telling of the department's historical orientation more broadly.

In any case...it makes me wonder if perhaps there is some backroom coordination going on. The shifts under Harper are certainly not fundamental, as the goals of the settler state have never really wavered when it comes to indigenous people. but it would not surprise me to learn at some point down the road that CN got a go-ahead or even a nudge on this point, given that the Canadian settler state seems to be resuffling its tactical options with open repression closer to the top of the deck.

This is just off the top of my own head, and does not come from an active solidarity group let alone from the people most directly affected, so act with caution. But I can't help but think that perhaps a good practical approach to solidarity for people living in cities that have CN corporate offices -- their national headquarters is in Montreal, and unfortunatley their northern Ontario office appears to be in Saul Ste. Marie rather than Sudbury -- might be to pay them a collective visit of some sort. They should hear from people, including and perhaps especially settlers, that they should drop the civil suits and that they are pressuring the wrong party around the blockades. If they want to avoid any future risk of lost revenue they should pressure their buddies on Parliament Hill to act quickly and decisively to create a just settlement of land claims in Tyendinaga and across the nation.

Personally, I think direct action is called for, but for those of us at a distance, letters can be sent to:

President's Office
CN Headquarters
935 de La Gauchetière Street West
Montreal, Quebec
H3B 2M9

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Anti-War/Anti-Occupation Film Night

A U.S.-based independent film maker is doing several showings in Canada of this documentary about the city of Fallujah in occupied Iraq. We are presenting both film and film maker here in Sudbury on May 24, along with a couple of shorter film clips to tie the event into Canadian involvement in Afghanistan. There is also a showing in Toronto somewhere around that date, and possibly in other cities as well.

500 Miles To Babylon, a film about Occupied Iraq

With film maker David Martinez

A one-hour documentary not about soldiers, not about governments, but about Iraqi civilians and a handful of independent journalists in a country turned into hell. A cinema verite narrative of daily life, disintegration, and the humour that ordinary people adapt when living in a warzone. Includes rare footage from inside Falluja, April 2004, and a Choubi music soundtrack provided by Sublime Frequencies. Unlike any Iraq movie you have seen!

Short video clips on opposition to the war and occupation in Afghanistan will also be shown.

Thursday, May 24th, 7pm, 4th Floor Resource Centre, St. Andrew’s Place, 111 Larch Street. * This is a wheel-chair accessible location.

Organized by the March 17th Anti-War Committee with the support of the Centre for Humanities Research and Creativity at Laurentian University.

For more information, contact me.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Klein on Tyendinaga and Solidarity

Here is a column by Naomi Klein that begins by describing the latest colonial indignities inflicted on the people of the Tyendinaga Territory of the Mohawk Nation, including the targeting of vocal leader Shawn Brant, and ends with a call for solidarity by settlers with indigenous struggle.

She concludes:

The budget blow prompted Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine to call for a national day of action on June 29. Though Mr. Fontaine insists he is not calling for cross-country blockades, many First Nations are already planning them, with talk of a co-ordinated targeting of key infrastructure, from rails to roads. “It's the same notion as a general strike,” Mr. Brant explains with a smile.

If the blockade strategy goes ahead, one thing is certain: There will be rivers of ink spilled explaining that, while native grievances are legitimate, there is no excuse for such disruptive tactics. Protesters will be told they are discrediting their cause, and they will be described as “violent” whether or not violence takes place. Mr. Fontaine has taken this finger-wagging to heart. “Let's face it, if you irritate Canadians, they're not going to listen to your message,” his spokesperson said recently.

Mr. Brant has a different message for non-native Canada — don't just listen to us, join us. He points out that Canadians, even those who tell themselves they support native rights, “still treat them as a government problem.” But that's not how social issues ever gain the kind of critical mass that leads to real change. “The environment is an issue right now because people told the government it was an issue,” Mr. Brant says. “If they said our concerns were an issue, they would be addressed too.”

Right now, everything is lining up for June 29 to be a day for natives to act and the rest of us to whine about late trains and traffic jams. But listening to Mr. Brant, it struck me that it could be something else: a day of action on native rights for the entire country, one when we all refuse to shut up.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Dissecting Ideology in a Mainstream Canadian News Article on Afghanistan

Witness ideology in action.

That link is to a truly gross puff piece from the Canadian Press wire service about 'our boys in Afghanistan', to borrow some dated sexist lingo that fits with the feel of the piece. Now, I don't read mainstream media that often, and I read this article more or less by accident. I had heard that there had been a shift from bad to worse in the Canadian media's approach to the U.S.-led Global War For Dominance Via Control of Oil (commonly misnamed the Global War on Terror) over the last year or two, as more openly bloodthirsty voices like General Hillier and Prime Minister Harper came into their moment of dominance over the hypocritical neoliberal Liberals within the machinery of the Canadian state. This article does nothing to contradict that assessment.

Normally, upon reading such a wretched piece of pseudo-journalism, I would turn up my nose and move on. However, this scant few hundred words is such an easy target for taking apart some of the ideologies that keep Canadian involvement in Afghanistan feeling like it "makes sense" to a significant portion of the population, I thought maybe I'd do just that. Well, that and my pre-schooler is having an afternoon nap for the first time in months, so I have an unexpected block of time.

The piece begins by focusing our attention on one Canadian soldier, a teenage white Canadian man from a small village in Newfoundland. My concern, by the way, is not with this individual or any of the others in the article, but with the way they are used in creating the web of images and stories that make up the article.

By beginning with a very humanized picture of this young fellow, the author is setting out to create a powerful sense of innocence, of virtue. There are all sorts of things that go into creating this sense. For one thing, there is this soldier's Canadian-ness. In the dominant Canadian narrative, Canada and its inhabitants are assumed to be innocent, to be virtuous actors at home and on the world stage who may not always be able to talk sense into their belligerent neighbours but who, by definition, are good. As Canadian legal theorist Sherene Razack has described, there is also a powerful ideological fusion in dominant narratives between whiteness and notions of innocence, and this functions both in discourse and in the beahviour of individual white people around issues of racism. There is a sizeable literature on Canada as a settler state which shows a tight intersection in the dominant imagination between whiteness and "Canada" as well, from our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald's declaration that Canada would be a "white man's country" on up to somewhat more subtle forms in the present. The fact of the central subject's youth and the fact that he is a small town guy are both attributes that also tend to be associated with innocence and virtue, at least in some situations, and in this article they serve to reinforce those ideas.

From this focus on a single individual, the article expands outwards to a more collective focus. This collective is in fact a unit of Canadian soldiers currently stationed in Afghanistan, but functions rhetorically to stand in for the Canadian presence in Afghanistan more broadly. The strong sense of innocence and virtue established at the level of the individual is fairly easily expanded to encompass the group.

There are a number of features of this group that are not necessarily advancing pro-war sentiment directly but rather serve to normalize -- or, when disected, to illustrate -- some key components of the militarism that is being wratcheted up in Canadian culture today. The first is the intimate connection between militarism, with all the attendant hierarchy and violence, with masculinity. Everyone in this piece is gendered male except for the mother of the soldier the piece started with, who is obviously at a physical remove from the actual imaginary space being created, and the generic reference to a common leisure pastime among 'our boys': "talking trash and discussing their favourite subjects - girls, guns and cars, in that order." In other words, women are permitted in this piece only to function as providers of care for men or objects to be discussed by men -- presumably at least at times sexualized discussions, as anyone who has been exposed to such 'boy talk' can attest.

Of course, the quote about what these guys talk about for fun also reinforces that it is not just any kind of masculinity that is present but a very conventional, dominant form of masculinity, because of the stereotypically masculine subjects they discuss. The inclusion of "girls" in that list also functions to slip in a particular, dominant notion of "sexually normal", which papers over the realities of soldiers serving abroad. Again, I'm not claiming anything about these particular individuals, but there is plenty of documentation in Western militaries in recent history of (a) desire and sexual contact between men who are serving, which there is nothing wrong with but which would, if admitted, destabilize the oppressive (heterosexist, patriarchal) basis of the particular kind of image of collective innocence and virtue that the military and this journalist are working to create; and (b) purchase of sexual services by occupying soldiers from local women, something that, given the context, it is hard to understand as anything but oppressive even if your analysis of the world allows for the possibility of non-oppressive exchange of money for sex in some circumstances, and also something that militaries try to hide from the folks back home in order to preserve that image of innocence and virtue.

And, for all that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar and the association of the phallus solely with masculinity arguably has an air of heterosexism about it, the prominent placement of quotations emphasizing our original innocent individual subject's enthusiasm for firing his "big guns" can't help but put a dominant form of masculinity front and centre in the reader's experience of the piece. "It's a big rush to fire the big guns. That's why I like it."

This intimate connection between our innocent subject and the joys of firing artillery also serves to prevent us from paying attention to what it actually means to fire artillery, a specific example of the piece's overall use of innocent subjects to distract from the violence being done by Canadian involvement in Afghanistan. Most people who have died in wars in the last century have been civilians. That is surely true in Afghanistan. The larger and more destructive the weapon, the more likely it is that it will kill civilians. That is not to make any accusations about this particular soldier, but it is notable that the article does not address this reality by showing in a detailed way what the unit is actually doing and how it is operating, but by distracting us with innocence and virtue.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the article, because of what it shows about what the author expects readers to unquestioningly accept, is the icky juxtaposition of words like "family" and "care" and "love" with this situation. Not to deny the fact that an ethic of care and significant emotional bonds form between men in such a situation. But what does it say about our dominant (patriarchal) notions of "family" and "love" that they can be grafted so comfortably onto a situation that is explicitly hierarchical and organized around creating violence? Where a "a fierce, profanity-laced rebuke" from a father-figure is accepted as a normal part of this "car[ing]" "family" environment?

A final notable feature of this piece is the understated way that the Canadian mission is framed by situating our innocent collective with respect to Afghanistan itself. Afghanistan, in fact, is almost completely absent from the piece except as a passive back-drop for 'our boys' that is given a bit of exotic (that is, Orientalist/racist) inflection by mention of "nasty 10-legged creature[s]" and such. The fact that this is a small group of Canadians dropped into an already-existing vibrant, complex society, and the fact that a proper understanding of their role can only be gotten by a sophisticated understanding of the existing social relations in the country and how the Canadian presence is placed within them, are erased. There is one mention of "locals", which is contrasted to several mentions of "the Taliban", and that is it for acknowledging the existence of Afghani society.

Despite this minimal acknowledgment, it is enough to create a powerful frame for the Canadian mission. I don't feel I know enough to completely dissect the ideology of "Taliban", but I can at least paint some broad strokes. It is, first of all, a very powerful word, saturated with all sorts of imagery of evil, in part thanks to state-led propaganda campaigns in the West going back at least six years, and in part because the people who actually embrace the label do have quite oppressive politics. There is quite a divide between the actual organization, with particular ways of doing things and a specific history, and what the word has come to mean in the Western media, however. Even just the use of "Taliban" to designate the enemy is highly misleading -- as Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis has pointed out on multiple occasions, the opponent being fought by the Canadian forces appears to be not one political organization but an entire ethnic group, the Pashtuns, within which the Taliban is only one force. At least some of the people being fought by the Canadian Forces are probably more accurately described as "locals" than "Taliban", in fact.

The article creates a powerful binary between the innocent and virtuous (and humanized) Canadian presence, and the abstracted and inherently evil Other, the "Taliban". This binary is sufficient to completely erase any additional complexity in the situation, including the fact that the government of Afghanistan was installed by the United States, that it does not really function in much of the country anyway, that our allies are often warlords with horrific human rights records who make huge amounts of money from supplying most of the world's poppy-derived narcotics, that our allies also include the U.S. military with all of the baggage it carries with respect to well-documented use of torture and killing of civilians. It also obscures the fact that there is significant dissatisfaction even in the non-Pashtun areas of the country with the imposed regime, the occupying troops, and the ongoing killing of civilians by Western soldiers. In short, the simplistic binary creates an implicit narrative of good and evil that is completely without foundation in what is actually happening in Afghanistan but that serves to prop up support for the mission in the Canadian public.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Review: Thinking Through

[Himani Bannerji. Thinking Through: Essays on Feminism, Marxism, and Anti-Racism. Toronto: Women's Press, 1995.]

I start from my experience of reading. I start from the fact that Bannerji's book -- the third and last of my recent indulgence in re-readings, and the one originally read the longest ago -- does not just click intellectually but feels powerful and right and useful on some level beyond just that. In other words, in my gut, I like this book and the writing and ideas it contains.

As usually happens in such situations, this immediately triggers suspicion, of a sort -- an intellectual impulse not to be swayed by the untrustworthy barometer of my intestinal reaction, but to restrict my intake of new theory, with all that implies for potential modification and refinement of my own internal critical apparatus, solely to that admitted by and for reasons that are defensibly "rational" ideas that can be expressed easily and in a linear fashion in written language. In other words, the first impulse of my head is to deny my gut any input.

This can be analyzed at the level of individual experience -- the psychological level, I guess. In fact, I think you could map this onto more formal ideas about different parts of self as described in psychoanalytic theory, but I don't really know much about that so I won't try. But in my own shorthand, I feel a distinct difference between what I label my "head", which tends to deal with things intellectually and with a focus on "I should", and what I label my "gut", which is more visceral and affective and tends to be more of an expression of "I want" or "I desire." The path of my own journey has been from scarcely recognizing the existence of "gut" and "want", to recognizing they exist and are legitimate but still having to work hard to stop "head" and "should" from their traditional practice of intervening at such an early stage in the process as to make me unable even to identify wants and desires in that sense. And, when I am able to identify them, having to figure out what to do with them.

Read only on this level, it can be seen as a narrative of some sort of "true self" being unearthed so that it might take up its role as autonomous agent that can go on to interact with the social. With only this framing, my response to reading this text could be seen as a sign of the persistence of repression of that "true self."

But of course it isn't that simple. There is no "true self" unsullied by outside influence that can be excavated, because self and all of its component parts are created from day one through our experience of the social world. One of the implications of this is that our becoming occurs in a bath of hierarchy, masked and unmasked violence, and oppression. This cannot help but do unfortunate things to us, those who benefit unearned as well as those who are oppressed. This is true of both "head" and "gut". However, the former, by definition, allows for deliberate, rational effort to decolonize self, whereas the latter has only a process of slow osmosis by which to change. There are therefore good political reasons, at least sometimes, for the now politicized version of head-based shoulding to regard signals from the gut with grave suspicion. I know that there are times and places in which my gut reacts in oppressive ways, and my head can (sometimes) identify that and compensate, or at least react in some other way.

So there are two conflicting impulses here, one saying that my head should stop being such a tyrant, and the other saying it had better watch out or my gut will have me doing all sorts of idiotic things. There are all sorts of situations, big and small, where this complexity could be explored: whether or not to purchase a chocolate bar, how to spend my Saturday afternoon, how to interact with that rather attractive-to-me person across the room, and so on. But the case in point is a particularly interesting one -- namely, how to deal with gut-based reactions to material whose main purpose is, if it is deemed worthy, to further elaborate and refine my head-based apparatus for engaging with the world in politicized way. What does my gut know about theory anyway? Who can say that this gut-based reaction, this liking, is not unduly responsive to aesthetic concerns rather than substantive ones? Or -- though I have trouble seeing how this could be the case in this instance -- what if, unbeknownst to my conscious mind, my gut is not embracing X because it represents a clear and liberatory way forward but because it is a radical-sounding way of avoiding something else that is more difficult for me? I could dredge up a dozen other "what ifs", many of them silly but none definitively discardable.

Interestingly enough, I believe Thinking Through, and by extension the related texts that I have read at other times, offer some insight into this question.

Let me change gears for a bit and describe the book. It is a short volume of essays, most or all published originally in other venues over a number of years. Bannerji is a Canadian academic whose politics are, as the subtitle would indicate, feminist, anti-racist, and Marxist. It is, however, a particular kind of Marxism, as much of her work develops themes from the work (and the particular reading of Marx) of Dorothy Smith (see this review for some basics). In particular, it is the ontology and epistemology underlying the work of both Smith and Bannerji that I find particularly compelling, especially the ability to begin from local experience and push towards larger, translocal relationships without having to subsume the specificity of the local in abstraction. When I first read this book in the late '90s, it was very powerful for me but a lot of it was over my head and I didn't retain much; when I encountered Smith's work years later, I didn't make the connection.

There are a number of important issues that Bannerji tackles in the book. The first major essay looks at the relationship between identity politics and class politics, and presents a way of thinking that gets past the false opposition often seen between the two. There are a few essays that deal with anti-racism and feminism, including a very useful critique of the epistemologies underlying several of the most important strands of thought to emerge from white-dominated feminist spaces in North America. Some of my unresolved uncertainties about the work of Dorothy Smith and others in the same tradition that I have engaged with in the last year or two has to do with its unique conception of standpoint, and this essay responds to some of those concerns as well, though I have not yet decided whether I am completely satisfied. Then there is an essay reflecting on her experience of many years of post-secondary teaching, which I also found very powerful, followed by a detailed examination of a particular case of racialized sexual harassment and consideration of how to construct an analysis that understands both race and gender in its organization, and finally two essays reflecting on life and cultural production as a racialized woman who is part of a diaspora in the West.

I like the way that the pieces in this volume seamlessly combine the telling of strong personal truths, useful analysis of the social basis for those truths, and the creation of a compelling sense of whole through not just the ideas but also the writing. I like the fact that the approach represented in this work provides tools to build knowledge, to understand any number of different phenomena starting from any number of different places, and, unlike many important left theories, it does not a priori write out other realities. I like, as I said, the sense of unity and connection to larger patterns that does not erase specificity, and the related ability to articulate meaning across vastly different scales of existence.

This sense that Bannerji's approach can tie so many things together without loss of specificity is one of the key sites of my simultaneous liking and distrust-of-liking. I can relate my distrust to the ideas of convergentist and divergentist theory as described in my review of Janet Halley's Split Decisions, and my distrust of the claims of at least some convergentist theory to claim access to all the answers. Such a claim is a red flag for me, a sign to look for how the theory making such a claim is puffed up in its own self-importance. I'm not sure if this is really accurate in this instance, though, precisely because Bannerji's approach does not need to erase specificity and experience to access less immediate levels of analysis and to tie disparate sites together. In fact, it makes me think of Halley's actual specific recommendations, which she justifies in large part by extensive warnings of the dangers of convergentist theory, for approaching legal theory in ways that are attentive to all of the details, all of the actual material impacts of a law or a decision. In fact, one of the objectives of the ontology and epistemology of Smith and Bannerji is that it wishes to provide a way to build knowledge that can undermine the sort of "objective" concepts, terms, and labels that confine us, and allow active agents to explode imposed categories.

One of the central tasks Bannerji embraces in the theory she writes is undermining the polar binaries that define so much Western and patriarchal thought. She lists a number of the key pairs, and then says

The efficacy of any social theory is determined by its ability to demonstrate and theorize adequately the formational (i.e., non-oppositional) interplay between these different moments of social cognition. The explanatory, analytical and descriptive/ethnographic task of social theory requires that it be able to dis-cover the mediations of different social moments in non-polar terms, and bring out the "specificity" of any fragment of experience by providing it with a general name as well as with a particular authenticity at the same time. That is, it must show how any situation/experience is distinctively, particularly, locally itself and yet/also constituted by and exemplary of social forces which lie in, around and beyond it. [pp. 66-7]

Given this, and given Dorothy Smith's admonition to begin investigating the world from disjunctures in consciousness, perhaps Bannerji's book itself can help me understand my response to it. After all, the head/gut binary that I have constructed really does not feel that far away from the mind/body or mental/emotional binaries which are so central for the Western understanding of the world, both of which are also very connected to the public/private and social/individual divides.

Though so far I have conceded a role for the social in shaping what I am calling "gut", I think perhaps I am still relying at least in part on treating it as not-social, that it is somehow a less valid starting point, that experience only becomes fully admissable into "serious" consideration once it has been extracted from the body and placed firmly in the realm of the mind.

However, one of the points made in the book that has been important to giving me a better understanding of how Bannerji and Smith deal with standpoint, and how they construct their epistemology as a whole, has to do with the idea that experience is completely social right from the beginning, rather than being created by the social in a restricted, private realm, and then readmitted to the social by intellectual activity.

Bannerji writes

Marx speaks of such a historical-cultural materialism which posits an interconstitutive relation between the mental and the social, implying thought and expression in and as social relations between people, as well as creativity, through the concept of conscious labour. The social is fundamentally communicative and formative and it negates solipsism. The meaning is always implicated in organization and practice as "practical consciousness" becomes evident for Marx through the very existence of language, which is both a result and a condition of being "social." Everything that is "social," then, has a conscious producer or an agent who stands between creating and mediating throught and practice, as simultaneously a bridge between and a source for both the personal and the social.

For an individual, her knowledge, in the immediate sense (which we call "experience") is local and partial. But, nonetheless it is neither "false" nor fantastic. It is more than the raw data of physical reflexes and feelings. It is the originating point of knowledge, an interpretation, a relational sense-making, which incorporates social meaning. This "experience" creates and transforms. It is a continuous process of relating with the world as "our world" (not a "good" world, necessarily). To cut through the conventional dualisms of gender-organized mental and manual labour and their philosophical forms, we would have to recognize and validate our own ability to experience, and the experiences themselves, as the moments of creativity and the embodiment of formative, rather than dualist, relations. Experience, therefore, is that crucible in which the self and the world enter into a creative union called "social subjectivity." [p. 86]


In this theorization experience is not understood as a body of content indicative of a seamless subjectivity or psychological totalization, but rather as a subject's attempt at sense-making... Any...experience of alienation holds in it the double awareness of being "self" and the "other", our personal and public modes of being. [p. 88]

Bannerji is talking in the last paragraph specifically about the experiences of women of colour, particularly in classroom settings. But the idea of dual modes of consciousness and their utility as a starting point for theorizing is more broadly relevant as well.

In this post I started from a Dorothy Smith quote on the gendered social production of different modes of consciousness and went on to talk about the ways in which becoming a stay-at-home parent both made me more aware of these modes of consciousness and shifted my experience of them.

In reflecting to write this review, I think my dual experience of liking and suspicion-of-liking this text -- or any other text which I like in such a way -- and of apparent necessary opposition between "head" and "gut" has to do with those same two modes of consciousness. The former begins from within ruling regimes, and is what Dorothy Smith describes as "that extraordinary form of modern consciousness that is capable of agency in modes that displace or subdue a local bodily experience." The latter, on the other hand, is the mode of consciousness and the kind of sense-making and knowledge-making which begins from experience as already social, as "the originating point of knowledge, an interpretation, a relational sense-making, which incorporates social meaning."

The point is not some sort of rejection of the "mental" for the "instinctive" or "emotional" or "physical", an embrace of the other half of the binary. Rather, it is a recognition that their seeming polar oppositeness is not necessary. Suspicion and skepticism by "head" of "gut" is a way of maintaining the binary and its hierarchy. But what is needed is not an abandonment of the critical faculties that get unfairly and inaccurately lumped in with "head." My commonsense is still shaped in privilege, i.e. the social that shapes my "gut" and that informs the social experience that is its basis is still grounded in the seeming naturalness and normality of my unchosen existence in a relationship of domination and privilege with respect to most people on the planet. But the point is not using that to undermine a supposedly lesser part of self, but to allow all of the faculties of self to engage in an integrated approach to sense-making. The fact is, denying the roles of the visceral and affective faculties in shaping what I've been calling "head" is a denial of how consciousness actually evolves. I still can't escape the feeling that relating to some instance of theory in part because of, say, aesthetic or life-history/psychological reasons isn't a bit dubious, but it is inevitable, so the thing is to recognize it, understand it, see how it shapes knowledge production. And things like visceral and affective reaction to instances of gross oppression can be just as crucial for the evolution of consciousness as reading a bunch of books and taking them in via the "head", and knowledge production that is so suspicious of experience, of "gut", cuts of access to those reactions and that crucial source of anti-oppressive pedagogy. I know this because it is true of me.

Anyway. Figuring out how to shift how I think about my inner workings will take more than a blog post that is already so long that noone will ever read it, so I think I'll stop here.

Oh. I, um...I like this book. Just so you know.

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