Sunday, July 29, 2007

Review: Resisting Discrimination

[Vijay Agnew. Resisting Discrimination: Women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean and the Women's Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.]

One metaphor used by certain marxists to capture some of the important features of the capitalist world system is the idea that it has a "centre" and a "periphery". I don't know the history of this particular terminology, I'm afraid, and my appreciation of it as metaphor might not perfectly reflect its technical use or the historical conflicts over its content, but as far as I understand it this way of talking about the world is useful to get across both the idea that geographically disparate regions of the globe are in fact tied together by the relations that are part of capital rather than being completely discrete, as well as the idea that those relations tend to empower and benefit some regions (the centre) and disempower and impovrish others (the periphery) in ways that are interconnected.

I don't read or think or write much about what happens at that rarified level. However, once upon a time when I was struggling to find a way to write about how power and privilege can shape social movements, it occurred to me that the metaphor of centre and periphery is a very apt one in many cases. I welcome counter-examples, but it is applicable to every instance of North American social movements that I can think of. Movements coalesce in response to some sort of pattern of grievances or exploitation or oppression. Often what begins as a vibrant but self-contradicting jumble becomes more internally consistent and coordinated as the movement grows in breadth and power and challenges the oppression in question. In that process of becoming consistent and coordinated, almost invariably the specific experiences of a subset of the people who experience the grievance, oppression, or exploitation in question become the guiding standpoint for much of the movement. Almost invariably, the subset at the centre is more privileged in some or several ways than the subset whose specific experiences of that grievance, oppression, or exploitation are relegated to the periphery of the movement or, in some cases, cast out entirely.

As I said, it is much more difficult to find examples where this has not been true than where it has. For example, the inspirational moment for queer liberation in North America at the Stonewall riots was initiated mostly by working-class gender non-conforming, women, and trans people, including many who were racialized, yet the form of the queer movement in North America today centres politics based on the experiences of relatively privileged gay white men (and to a lesser extent relatively privileged lesbian women) and those whose ways of doing queerness are somewhat less in conflict with the dominant norms. Or look at the labour movement, which has a long history in North America of excluding completely or including but subordinating -- that is, making into the periphery -- white women and racialized women and men, and people who work but not for a wage, and basing its politics on various versions of the white working-class man who receives a wage or a subset thereof. There have been lots of efforts to change that in the last few decades, including a powerful trade union feminist movement that first emerged in Canada in the 1970s and movements against racism within unions that first became visible in their modern form in the 1980s, and certainly pockets exist where significant transformation has occurred or is in progress. However, there are many more union spaces that have changed little, or at least far from enough, and the overall struggle is far from won.

One of the most interesting-to-me examples of this phenomenon is the women's movement and its relationship to racism and to indigenous women and women of colour -- whiteness, of course, has historically been at the centre of the movement in North America, just as with the labour, queer, peace, and plenty of other movements. I think the particular historical and ongoing struggle in the context of the feminist movement is one that all of us need to learn from whether it is a space in which we have been active or not precisely because it is probably the movement that has worked the hardest to meet the challenges from its own perihpery, and those of us in other movements need to learn about how that hard work has happened. And we also need to pay attention to it because despite those many years of hard work, many racialized women continue to point out the ways that there remain many spaces and places across North America (and online) rooted in the white-dominated women's movement that still fail to adequately deal with racism and to de-centre whiteness from their politics.

It is because of this general political interest as well as its relevance to the next couple of chapters of my work that I read Resisting Discrimination. It is measured in pace and tone but quite readable for a text that comes out of academia. It begins with some useful history/herstory that I was not expecting, of issues of race in the context of the first wave of feminist movement in Canada. Then it goes on to explore race and gender in mainstream feminist practice in the '70s, including a critique of consciousness raising groups, and in the '80s, with a focus on efforts at coalition politics like the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and the Toronto International Women's Day committee. It moves on to considering how these issues have played out at the level of discourse in a variety of ways, and the way that systemic racism has always been a part of Canadian immigration policy. The latter in particular, though the basics were not new to me, presented the material in a more rigorously gendered way than I had seen it before.

Much of the original research in the book was based on interviews with women of colour active in women's organizations grounded in African, Asian, and Caribbean communities in Ontario, as well as attendance by the author at events and meetings of those groups over a few years. She talks about the form that those organizations have taken and their relationship to the state, with attention both to the troubling impact of the tentacles of state control exerted through funding and efforts by women of colour and white women to challenge policies around things like language training and domestic workers. The final chapter looks at how women's organizations in these communities had begun, by the period of the research, to address issues of violence against women.

The book presents some important pieces of the past and records some important information about how women of colour have organized themselves in Canada, as well as the obstacles they have faced from the state, from their own communities, and from the mainstream of the women's movement -- as well as the opportunities and resources that each of those three have also at times provided. While as a former employee of a mainstream non-state but state-funded organization I appreciated Agnew's open appraisal of the ways in which control flows with dollars, I was disappointed that the academic research orientation of the text prevented a more creative exploration of how women of colour and, by extension, other organizations might struggle against or even escape that. I also quite liked the way Agnew presented her reflections on her methodology because it was done in a more thorough and nuanced discussion than you usually see even in feminist texts. It included a recognition that many of the women of colour in many of the groups that she studied were dismissive of the value of academic research; I wish she'd taken that as an opening to talk at more length about various issues connected to knowledge production and social movements.

Overall this is an unexciting but useful book that traces some of the important aspects of the experiences of African, Caribbean, and Asian women in Canada up to the early 1990s. It does not attempt to tackled the full question of social movements, their centres, and their peripheries, but it is one important input when considering such questions in the context of the crucial example of the women's movement in Canada.

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Review: Obsession, With Intent

[Lee Lakeman. Obsession, With Intent: Violence Against Women. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005.]

My recent reading has included a lot of material about the ongoing epidemic of violence experienced by women at the hands of men and the state, because the next two chapters of my project, which brings to light aspects of Canadian history through the stories of long-time activists, will focus on the subject. This book is perhaps one of the most directly relevant to my purposes that I have yet read because its author is herself one of my interview participants and her words will feature heavily in one of the upcoming chapters.

This book has a rather unusual but fascinating genesis. It began with a five year research project by the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, or CASAC, which defines itself as

a Pan Canadian group of sexual assault centres who have come together to implement the legal, social and attitudinal changes necessary to prevent, and ultimately eradicate, rape and sexual assault. As feminists we recognize that violence against women is one of the strongest indicators of prevailing societal attitudes towards women. The intent of the Canadian Association is to act as a force for social change regarding violence against women at the individual, the institutional and the political level.

From my understanding based on reading the book, the goals of this project were two-fold: it was intended to increase understanding of the ways in which the criminal justice system functions in ways that prevent the conviction of men who have committed sexual assault, and it was intended to make use of the very few resources that are available for women's equality-seeking groups in the current era to help build not only knowledge but functional political relationships among feminist women active in anti-rape and anti-woman abuse activities across the country. It seems to have been quite successful in both of these aims.

Lakeman emphasizes that her organization does not see the criminal justice system as the only or even the main avenue by which violence against women will be ended -- at the very least, the increasingly disproportionate poverty experienced by women and the retreat of the neoliberalized Canadian state from redistributive goals are also central to allowing that violence to continue. However, CASAC also believes that as long as so much of our lives are shaped by the state, women have the right to demand that the state fulfill its commitments as expressed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations Conventional on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Womenm (which the Canadian state has accepted and ratified) to create substantive equality for women by using its powers to address the scourge of male violence against women. To that end, given that there was a rare opportunity to obtain federal resources to do useful work in the service of women's equality, CASAC jumped at the opportunity. The research combined a thorough review of documents from the criminal justice system in jurisdictions around the country with interviews with 100 women who had been raped and chose to pursue the matter via state intervention, as well as the reported experiences of many frontline workers in anti-rape organizations. Most women never report the violence they experience to the authorities, and for reasons explained in the book the women interviewed in this project tend to represent greater persistence in their attempts to overcome the barriers thrown in their way by the state than is generally true even of women who report, according to the everyday experience of sexual assault centre staff. Nonetheless, this allows for a powerful and depressing picture of the way the criminal justice system betrays the equality rights of women who have been assaulted by men.

The book began life as the final report of this project. Photocopies of the report were widely circulated and used by activists within Canada and even internationally, and the decision was made to turn it into a book.

Now, the fact that it began life as a report for a funder has an impact on the form of the document -- I've written such documents myself, and I know it is its own kind of writing with its own kind of rules. This means, for example, that in the book there are sometimes references to events, legal precedents, and bits of history that I experienced while reading as not being explained as thoroughly as they might be. While this was occasionally distracting, the political ideas in the book are communicated strongly and clearly, and its overall message should still be very accessible whether you have been part of the movement in question or not.

What is more significant about the path that this document took from initial discussions among feminist women to book form is that it is a rare and powerful Canadian example of knowledge generated by and for a social movement. This is not academic research that can be partially appropriated for the benefit of movements and it is not government research that can be read into activist frames; rather, it is knowledge production that responds directly to immediate needs of a collective of collectives of feminist women who are trying to change the world. They are not interested in proving to supposedly disinterested peer reviewers that X or Y is "true" according to some sort of abstract standard that really just hides gender, class, and racial bias. Instead, their standard for validity is how well this knowledge supports their efforts to push for reforms and ultimately for transformations necessary to end violence against women.

Pursuing knowledge creation of this sort is a powerful, powerful tool that is not understood even by many activists. Part of that is that such work is quite resource intensive, so even though activists and oppressed people more genreally do it in uncoordinated ways every day, even when activists are aware of the power to be found in greater coordination and deliberate collective effort, often we just don't have the resource to do it. This book is an inspiring example of a movement finding ways to do it anyway, despite lean and hostile times.

The biggest political learning for someone not in the movement is the detailed illustration of how profoundly the criminal justice system fails women. At every step of the process, women who have experienced violence and who call upon the state in their search for justice and freedom from male violence face barriers in the attitudes of professionals and the polices and material realities of institutions that shape their environment.

Also of interest was reading this so soon after reading Andrea Smith's book and other material that has come out of the movement of which Smith is a part (exemplified by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and related groupings, I think mostly in the United States). Both books and the movements from which they spring share a radical commitment to ending the violence that brings misery and terror to so many women's lives, and both are highly critical of the state. However, the two take those things in somewhat different directions, both in terms of how they elaborate their analysis of gendered violence and how they orient their social change work with respect to the state. It would be interesting to witness or read some sort of substantive engagement between these two perspectives. As well, though I wouldn't expect it from this particular book because it is outside its purpose, there are a number of other areas where it left me feeling that I (and probably others) would benefit from engagement across different feminist analyses in ways in which all parties are committed to giving the views of their opponents as sympathetic a reading as they can in critiquing them as a way to explore the roots of such differences, as well as a more thorough discussion of the ways in which power and privilege inevitably threaten to shape the centre, boundaries, and internal functioning of any movement.

But of course this book is not about me or my needs, and that's a big part of its value -- as a source of important recent herstory of parts of the Canadian women's movement and of radical feminist social analysis in the Canadian context, its power comes precisely from the fact that it is grounded explicitly in the needs of women who have experienced violence at the hands of a man, women who have been failed by the Canadian state, and women who have committed themselves to collectively challenging both of those things and forcing the state to meet its commitments to women's equality.

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

Sunday, July 22, 2007

"Support Our Troops"? (Complete)

Sooner or later, everyone who opposes Western imperial adventures in western Asia will be forced to declare their orientation towards those people who are making it a reality on the ground. It might be a supporter of the war demanding rhetorically "Do you support the troops or not?" to score political points. Or scattershot hostility might spring all of a sudden from someone you try to hand a leaflet -- someone who has a child or partner bearing arms right at that very moment in Afghanistan or Iraq for whom the understandable emotional intensity of the desire that their loved one return safely leaves little space for any other consideration.

How should we, as people opposed to war and empire, approach this issue?

By far the most common answer to this question among anti-war activists is the slogan, "Support our troops, bring them home!"

On the surface, this slogan has a lot to recommend it. The rhetorical power to delegitimize that flows from the accusation that someone is not supporting the troops is a result of a double barrelled shot: The person so accused is seen thereby as attacking the imagined nation to which accuser, accusee, and troops all belong, and which the state of the same name spends massive resources trying to foster as the primary attachment in its subjects so they can more easily be mobilized in the direction that the power politics of the moment dictate. And they are also seen as attacking ordinary people -- little Johnnie Appleby from down the block (don't you remember when he was knee high to a smurf?) and poor Mrs. Macdonald who has got both her boys away to war, bless her.

"Support our troops, bring them home!" allows war opponents not only to advance a version of support that might be compelling to loved ones of soldiers because it is predicated not on the possibility of their death but on the assurance of their safety and life via their removal from the arena of combat, but it also allows you to introduce the evidence that the other side really doesn't support them at all. In Canada, that evidence might consist of showing how the state is putting Canadian youth in harm's way (and in a situation where they will inevitably be complicit in violence against innocents) to advance the interests of owning-class and other elite Canadians by sucking up to the fool emperor who lives next door, and the complete dishonesty about the nature of the mission to get the rest of us to go along. Or, in that emperor's more direct territory, by the even more massive catalogue of lies told in his name to get the whole affair going to begin with, the sheer incompetence of inadequately equipping the troops, and cutting health and other benefits that are supposed to support them once they are discharged.

And, to take a slightly different tack, it also gives the appearance of being more reasonable and less ideological -- in the sense of obscuring what's actually going on by deploying abstractions -- because it admits Mrs. Macdonald's boys as human beings rather than as faceless instances of an ideal type, i.e. "troops". This refusal to overlook the humanity even of people who are doing things we don't particularly like has a certain moral appeal as well -- one that some might dismiss, but that I think has value even if I would interpret it in my own idiosyncratic way.

"Support our troops, bring them home" is a slogan that is seldom subjected to much scrutiny, however. A little more reflection reveals it to be politically iffy and even nonsensical.

This may appear to be a minor example, but it has larger implications, I think: this stance by the anti-war movement, such as it is, set up a recent tactical defeat for anti-war organizers in Toronto. Since October, emergency response vehicles in the city have been sporting "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers. Once this was actually noticed it touched off something of a political firestorm, especially since it had been done without approval of city council. Because the vast majority of people who identify as anti-war are wrapped up in being perceived as supporting the troops even as they oppose the mission in Afghanistan, there is no already-built critique of the notion of supporting the troops that is easiliy accessible in public discourse. And that means that even though everyone concerned knows this is a piece of pro-war messaging, those people who enacted it and who support it could pass it off as politically neutral without looking like idiots because, "Hey, you people say you support 'em too, right? Heh-heh, heh-heh." They take advantage of all the hard work that anti-war activists have done to show that they support the troops too. (And to any readers who point out that "Support our troops" is technically a neutral statement, even without any deeper analysis of the content I feel very confident in saying -- based on the fact that I spend a great deal of my time thinking about how people will take up, understand, and respond to language -- that it will function in pro-war rather than neutral ways for the vast majority of readers.)

I have also come across a couple of other left writers recently who have challenged the slogan.

The first was Michael Neumann, a Canadian academic at Trent University that I know very little about -- I see his stuff occasionally at CounterPunch, and I often find things in it to disagree with but it also usually challenges me to think about things in new ways. He addressed the slogan in a couple of paragraphs in a larger essay arguing that even if you accept the motives for Western involvement in Afghanistan, you still must oppose the actual actions because the resources committed to achieve them are so inadequate to the task -- at least an order of magnitude too little -- that failure is inevitable and disaster is the predictable result.

He takes on the slogan by subjecting it to a little bit of materialist scrutiny. He points out that it is meaningless to declare abstract support for the troops.

[T]he entire opposition to the Afghan war worships at the altar of Supporting our Troops (Bring Them Home!). This is either hypocrisy or nonsense. If you support the troops, you must support them where they are, not where you might wish them to be. So someone might ask: do you or don’t you wish that the troops who are in fact now in Afghanistan remain safe? If you do wish that they remain safe, you wish them to possess that huge military asset, invulnerability. You want their armor and air support and heavy weapons to protect them. This can only mean that you hope they kill any Afghan who threatens their lives. Push come to shove, you want them to win all their battles. This, as an anti-war stance, is nonsense. “Support our troops, bring them home” is not an anti-war slogan, it is mere evasion. But if you don’t wish them to remain safe, then you don’t really support the troops. You’re a hypocrite: you can’t support them if you don’t hope to keep them from harm. No one I know admits to this attitude.

His materialist disruption of the philosophical idealism in the slogan, in other words, focuses on a physical and immediate situational where.

The other work I encountered that addresses this is a commentary by U.S.-based writer and activist Rahul Mahajan -- permalinks to each post don't seem to be working on his site at the moment, but if you just scroll down the top page to the July 2, 2007 entry you will find what I am referring to.

Mahajan's attack on the slogan is also materialist, but focuses more on what (or, if you like, where in a social and institutional sense).

[P]erhaps it is time for the left to put to rest the nonsensical slogan, “Support the troops, bring them home.” It is true, as crafters of this slogan have been at pains to point out, that the other side makes precious little sense either. Supporting the troops by not anticipating the dangers, waiting years to adapt Pentagon procurement practices so that they’re equipped as well as possible, and having psychologists deny them rights to combat-related disability benefits because of claims that their PTSD actually results from when their parents didn’t take them to the circus is not exactly in accord with the vernacular definition of “support.” I wouldn’t deny this. But I think their version still makes more sense than the antiwar movement’s version.

“Support the troops, bring them home” sounds a lot to me like “Support the policemen, make sure they don’t have to fight crime” or “Support the ballerinas, keep them from performing dangerous dance steps that could lead to serious joint injuries.” If your daughter was a doctor fighting, say, a malaria epidemic, would you be “supporting” her by trying to get her called away?

Of course, it is true that, unlike said doctor, many of the soldiers want to leave. Do you mean “support the soldiers’ wishes?” Do you really think decisions about war and peace should be made by polling the military? I imagine not.

For whatever reason people join the U.S. military, the truth is that it exists to fight wars abroad. If we fought lots of noble wars abroad from disinterested humanitarian motives and nobody was killed (except, of course, for “bad guys”), and the countries we bombed were transformed into Sugar Candy Mountain, then perhaps that would be a noble goal. As it is, the last war we fought in which our participation was unequivocally a good thing (with lots of horrors embedded within it, of course) was World War II and at the start of that war we barely had a standing military.

I think I would challenge his characterization of World War II, but overall I think he is on to something important.

See, most discussions of "Support our troops", whether or not they dwell on the anti-war addendum of "bring them home!", revolve around the word "support." This whole thing comes out of the right accusing a lack of support and left-liberals and others falling all over themselves to demonstrate that they support, and it's more support, and better support, because it is support based on a more accurate understanding of support, and don't forget about that support. Even Neumann's commentary, decidedly not liberal at all, is based on taking the blinders off about what "support" would really entail.

This is important stuff, no doubt, but it does not exhaust the possibilities for discussion. What Mahajan does is move the focus to the word "troops." This, I think, is a very important move, though the commentary leaves a lot of questions unresolved.

You see, little Johnnie Appleby and the Macdonald boys are those sweet kids who grew up in your home town, and we shouldn't just forget that. But that's not all they are; they are also "troops." "Troops" is not just an abstract category. It is not a badge that can be put on and taken off as simply as a "Support our troops, bring them home!" button. It is not a taste adopted nor a fashion worn. "Troops" is something done to human beings, a deliberate process to prepare them for a role that human beings generally do not wish to fill, as killer or killed. And "troops" is located within a particular web of relationships that shape their actions and define how they function in the world.

As is the case about so many things, more information is easily available about the United States than about our own country, but from what I understand, even allowing for some variation between armies, the phenomenon of "basic training" is a standard feature of turning citizens into the kinds of soldiers needed to wage the kind of war that modern industrial states wage. And basic training is awful. It dehumanizes those who go through it, and forces upon them "an idealized military masculinity based on the denial of attachment and compassion" that ensures they are able to kill when told to. The kinds of experiences that are part of being "troops", including but far from limited to basic training, have a lasting impact. For example, you can read about a U.S. Department of Justice study that found veterans to be twice as likely to be incarcerated for sexual assault as non-veterans. I have seen related numbers about rates of violence by male soldiers against their intimate female parters on U.S. bases. I cannot paint a complete picture of the kinds of impacts that being "troops" has on the individual human beings who are forced into that category, but this should give you a sense. How can we support that?

And as much as the right pushes us to see Johnnie Appleby just as Johnnie Appleby, once he is in that uniform he takes up a very particular place in social relations as well as remaining himself as an individual. He is obliged upon threat of serious legal sanction to obey orders, and it is the path of those orders that ties him in. He cannot see where they flow from, but flow they do, through him and out into consequences in the real world. I once quoted Jane Jacobs on this site as saying, "Imperialism, in whatever form, is a global process -- it occurs across regions and nations -- but even in its most marauding forms it necessarily takes hold in and through the local." And it is through Johnnie that this happens. And, yes, part of that is the mission. But part of that is inherent to being "troops" connected to particular forms of human organization that predictably and reliably turn to violence against ordinary people to protect and enhance the power of the already powerful.

Now, some might counter this with all manner of mythology about Canadian benevolence in general and about the benevolence of the Canadian military in particular. This is, for the most part, hogwash. The fact that the Canadian military has not been as deeply implicated in horrific doings as the U.S. military over the last century is not about virtue, it is about privilege -- the privilege of not mattering in the world system, and therefore not having to play as direct a role in defending it by force. Disaster relief activities are noble, but whatever organization you have to respond to things like the Red River flood and the great ice storm of a few years back does not need to be armed or trained to kill, so some other institution could be created to replace the military in that capacity. At home, since Confederation, the Canadian military has also been used on many occasions to break strikes and to enforce colonial relations on indigenous peoples, and even if the former hasn't really happened since the first half of the twentieth century, the latter has happened much more recently and is envisioned by the hawks in charge as being a prime component of what the "troops" are supposed to do well into the future. At the international level, the resources devoted to peacekeeping were always a very small proportion of the military budget in Canada -- I'm afraid I don't have the number handy, but it was not large -- and in any case peacekeeping has always had colonial overtones, as Sherene Razack's work on the Somalia Affair has illustrated. And as Canada's chief general, Rick Hillier, infamously said a year or two ago, "We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people."

In short, by being so hung up on showing that we support the human beings who are "troops" for Canada, we end up falling in to supporting all the bad things that go along with "troops". We get to oppose the mission, but we do not get to mount a critique of the institutional circumstances that created the mission in a way that is not about a particular bad politician but is about organizations, institutions, social relations. Our admirable instinct for human connection is used to pull us in to support phenomena that are as profoundly anti-human as you can get.

This does not leave us with a simple, easy way to orient ourselves to the troops. I saw somewhere -- I forget where, or I would link to it -- the idea of "Free the troops!" as a slogan. Again, this has a certain appeal, but I still don't think it quite captures what is at stake. Perhaps more importantly, I doubt its meaning would be widely legible, particularly in the absence of involuntary conscription. "Detroopify the troops!" captures more of what matters in the situation, I think, but not only would it not be easily comprehensible to most people, it sounds silly and it would be completely unable to activate most of the advantages that flow from "Support our troops, bring them home!" as outlined above.

So there is no easy slogan. We can do our very, very best at avoiding all of the things that the war mongers still manage to accuse us of whether we actually do them or not; we can listen, we can foreground the humanity of those trapped in the imposed (to a certain extent even if chosen) category "troops", we can be Buddha-like in our compassion; but we still have to face the fact that there are powerful social and psychological forces at work that will mean a great deal of hostility from many military members and their families (even though, as the author of the article linked admits in his newer preface, he has probably undersold the capacity for resistance among vets and families -- sometimes the guards do revolt). This is unavoidable.

I still don't think that means we should give up. Nor does it mean that we should revert to simplistic slogans that make no sense and commit us to lousy politics.

I'm not sure how to do it, but I think one important avenue is beginning from our own complicity. Part of what makes this whole issue so difficult is the disjuncture between the individual and the relations into which they are socially organized. Yes, this disjuncture can be particularly acute with individuals who are part of the military. But it is hardly unique to that context. Who on this planet is more wrapped up in violence, for example, than white middle-class North American men, even if we have never raised our voice in anger, never committed an act of interpersonal violence, never voted for a right-wing politcial party? (Other experiences marked by significant privilege are similar.) Who I am and what I can do has been shaped by all manner of violence, from the epidemic of sexual and other intimate violence experienced by women and other gender oppressed people that gives me privilege as a man, to the superexploitation of workers in the so-called Third World who make possible my significantly less severe exploitation, to the indigenous nations whose colonization gives me a place to live and a resource extraction industry that functions to the benefit of the settler middle-class in my city, and so on. This is not a matter for personal guilt, but recognizing the pointlessness and paralytic potential of guilt on a personal level does not change the fact that it is violence of that sort that creates the boundaries in which the individual agency and potential of my life is experienced.

This means that approaching the question of "our troops" from a pose of innocence, whether that is followed by unrelenting criticism of them or a pledge to support them by bringing them home, is a lie. No, I'm not saying that we should fail to hold individuals accountable for actions and choices -- those individuals who commit atrocities should face consequences, for example, and even more so the powerful people who create the atrocious circumstances to begin with. But what I am saying is that "troops" may be the edge of the imperial sword, so to speak, but that does not give we who carry along happily as part of the imperial body any valid claims to superiority, let alone innocence. We are in it, we are part of it. We are struggling against, striving to get beyond, but we are still very much within. And that's where we have to start. We have to start by foregrounding that shared complicity. It is not an easy place to start, and is perhaps a pointless one on a very immediate level when faced with Mrs. Macdonald's fear about her sons channeled into anger. But it is all we have. We must allow it to cure us of the urge to point unreflective fingers at people, many of whom may have had fewer real choices in their lives than the more privileged among us. And we must engage in radical experiments with using it as a starting point to form connections that can expand our struggles against that which entraps us all.

And yet there's still something missing in all of this. Others have pointed out that focusing too much on "the troops" can itself be a trap, no matter what stance we take in so doing, because it can detract attention from other aspects of war and empire. In particular, it can make us lose sight of the fact that the disproportionate burden of war and empire is always, always borne not by troops but by non-combatant women.


Sorry, for those of you who read this stuff on a feed...I bumped "enter" and a draft of something I'm working on about the slogan "Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home" got published before it was done. Please don't bother reading it, but wait for later tonight or early tomorrow to see the real deal!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Quote: Struggle Mightily, But Ideologize Ye Not Confrontation

Struggle activates capacities, resources, ideals, and solidarities. As such, it tells us about a vital disposition, about dignity. In struggle, death is neither pursued nor desired. That is why the meaning of dead comrades is never clear, and always painful. When confrontation is ideologized, this dramatic character of struggle is banalized to the point of being postulated as exclusionary.

When this happens, there is no room for research. As is generally acknowledged, ideology and research have opposite structures: the first is constituted from a set of certainties, the second only on the basis of a grammar of questions.

Nevertheless, struggle -- the necessary and noble struggle -- does not in itself lead towards the exaltation of confrontation as the dominant meaning of life. There is no doubt that the limits may appear somewhat narrow in the case of an organization in permanent struggle, such as a piquetero organization. Yet to take this point for granted would be to prejudge.

Unlike the militant subjectivity that is usually sustained by the extreme polarization of life -- by the ideologization of confrontation -- the social practices that seek to construct another sociability are highly active in trying not to fall into the logic of confrontation, according to which the multiplicity of experience is reduced to this dominant signifier.

Confrontation by itself does not create values. It does not go beyond the distribution of the dominant values.

The results of a war show who will appropriate existence -- that is, who will have the property rights as they relate to existing goods and values.

If struggle does not alter the 'structure of meanings and values,' we are only in the presence of a change of roles, which is a guarantee of survival of the structure itself.

-- Colectivo Situaciones

(This group is a collective of people in Argentina that identify as "researcher-militants." To avoid a potential misreading to which I think this quote might be prone when read in certain contexts different from that which produced it, my understanding is that it is not advocating blanket avoidence of confrontation per se in the course of struggle, but rather warning against the ideologization of confrontation and its exultation as the supreme value of struggle.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Review: Conquest

[Andrea Smith. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Boston: South End Press, 2005.]

Something happened.

A point experience of human suffering, a node of harm -- it happened.

Yes, its very occurence may be contested by those who dominate and those who don't but who cast their lot in that direction nonetheless. But let's ignore them for a moment and consider those who would resist domination, or at least claim to oppose it -- for us, then, the individual experience of suffering, the node of harm, is accepted as the starting point for resistance.

Of course, a starting point only gets you so far, which is not very far at all because it is a point. It exists in the vast field that is our tremendously complicated world, that web of relations, that torrent of causes and effects and intruding randomness, and it is produced by them. Analysis is the process by which we try to see lines. We try to understand how this point was produced by this field, web, torrent -- a necessary part of acting if we want to intervene in ways that make sure similar points are never produced again. What points are the same? What points share related origins and similar experiential quality? What other points is this one connected to? How is it connected to them? What patterns do these connections form?

The starting point for Andrea Smith's work is the experience of sexual violence, and her touchstone for going from this point to an analysis is a commitment to putting indigenous women and women of colour, particularly the most marginalized among them, at the centre. She challenges the ways in which the mainstream white-dominated women's movement and the often male-dominated anti-racism groups based in racialized communities have historically understood and responded to sexual violence.

She begins the "Introduction" by writing:

Women of color live in the dangerous intersections of gender and race. Within the mainstream antiviolence movement in the U.S., women of color who survive sexual or domestic abuse are often told that they must pit themselve against their communities, often portrayed stereotypically as violent, in order to begin the healing process. Communiteis of color, meanwhile, often advocate that women keep silent about sexual and domestic violence in order to maintain a united front against racism. In addition, the remedies for addressing sexual and domestic violence utitilized by the antiviolence movement have proven to be genreally inadequate for addressing the problems of gender violence in general, but particularly for addressing violence agianst women of color. The problem is not simply an issue of providing multicultural services to survivors of violence. Rather, the analysis of and strategies for addressing gender violence have failed to address the manner in which gender violence is not simply a tool of patriarchal control, but also serves as a tool of racism and colonialism. That is, colonial relationships are themselves gendered and sexualized.

The book begins by demonstrating how sexual violence was and is a primary tool of genocide and colonization in North America. Sexual violence was used to mark indigenous bodies as inherently rapable or violable, and as part of the process that constructed ideologies of inferiority, savagery, and uncleanliness around indigenous peoples in the settler imagination. It was one lever for forcing the radical reorganization of gender relations in indigenous societies, many of which were very egalitarian and even matrilineal before contact, and forcing them to adopt the violent European patriarchy, which was important in subordinating indigenous nations as a whole to European/white settler domination -- "Thus in order to colonize a people whose society was not hierarchical, colonizers must first naturalize hierarchy through instituting patrarchy" [p. 23]. Smith also talks about how the heightened oppression experienced by indigenous women and women of colour has functioned to enhance the control of white women by white men. Despite this, many strands of white-dominated feminism (a prominent recent example being the disgraceful behaviour of the Feminist Majority Foundation in the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, with plenty of others visible in the blogosphere over the last couple of years) have accepted colonial logic uncritically. While Smith centres the experiences of indigenous women, she also connects her analysis to the experiences of women of colour in the United States as well.

Much of the rest of the book is devoted to elaborating an expanded understanding of sexual violence and how it functions as a part of broader oppressive relations. The book talks about residential schools, environmental degradation, systematic attacks on indigenous women's reproductive health, the use of indigenous communities for medical experimentation, and the connection of appropriation of indigenous spiritualities to sexual violence. Smith then devotes a detailed chapter to potential directions for anti-colonial responses to sexual violence. She calls for a move away from the kinds of state-based responses that have been central to the agenda of the mainstream antiviolence movement, particularly ones that empower the so-called justice system and end up strengthening state attacks on racialized communities while never really performing as advertised to protect women, especially women of colour. At the same time, she does not downplay the challenges of creating new models, models that are truly liberatory. Most interesting of all, she makes frequent reference to currently ongoing efforts to build models and movements that oppose gender violence in anti-colonial and anti-racist ways. She ends the book with an argument for why anti-colonial struggle by indigenous nations within the United States needs to see itself as connected with broader struggles against U.S. empire and the capitalist heteropatriarchal organization of domination within it, and why all such efforts need to name and challenges how power works while at the same time building holistic, grounded alternatives.

I have been reflecting on how to apply the lessons in Smith's book to my own activity. I have never begun from the place that Smith begins -- that is, from the experience of sexual violence understood in ways that centre indigenous women and women of colour. Nonetheless, I think think there are lessons that can be applied to social change work that starts in other places as well.

Perhaps the most obvious lesson (though not necessarily the easiest to act on appropriately) is a reminder that whatever point or points I start with, and however I go from that to build an analysis of how those points came to be, I cannot forget the broadly understood sexual violence she writes of -- it is guaranteed to be relevant in some way to the various issues of poverty, homelessness, racism, war, empire, the environment, indigenous solidarity, and the media that I have been active in over the years.

It is also useful to go beyond that lesson, which is about what, and see what Smith's approach to going from her starting point to her analysis can teach about how. Her approach to how begins by centring the experiences of those who are most marginalized in any situation. In the specific case the book talks about, she explains this by pointing out how centring sexual violence against indigenous women leads to a more complete and accurate picture of how sexual violence actually works, socially speaking -- in particular, it allows for an understanding of the role of sexual violence in colonial oppression and not just in patriarchal domination.

However, I think there is another aspect to her particular commitment to centring as well. She doesn't say it in this way, but I think it is in part a commitment to recognizing the right of people to engage as whole people in struggle that shapes their lives. For example, for women of colour to enter into a struggle against sexual violence and against their oppression more generally purely under the terms reflective of the standpoints of white feminist women or of anti-racist men of colour means having to endure a fragmentation of self as a precondition for entering into a process of struggle that ideally should lead to a recovery or healing or enhancement of self. I'm sure it isn't always so simple in practice, but I would imagine that it is often experienced as a strength of women-of-colour spaces created based on the approach that grounds this book that they create at least a possibility for proceeding from a sense of wholeness and an empowerment of self.

However, most -- not all, but most -- of the spaces in which I have been politically active have been at least partially centred around experiences of power and privilege that are very far from the most marginalized. The details of why this has been the case and how it has played out have varied a lot -- in some cases, for example, it hasn't been true of the external focus but it has played a role in the internal functioning -- but generally it has been true. This isn't necessarily a terrible thing, because we all have to start from where we are at. However, the idea of centring the most marginalized in the sense Smith advocates, and of being very expansive in the search for connections and tracing down oppressions to-the-root, has quite a different impact in such spaces. Certainly there is the potential for the same experience of wholeness: my whole-personness includes my own role in racial relations of power, in gendered relations of power, and so on, and coming to a point of being able to act consciously from those spaces of privilege can be profound in a way different from but related to how Smith and the women she works with and writes about experience wholeness in the spaces they have created. However, while that is possible, it is not likely to be the consensus response from a group of randomly selected activists with privilege of whatever sort. In fact, resistance to such an approach can destroy groups quite easily, though it needn't.

Part of this is the defensiveness and resistance we all feel when challenged to begin basing our viewing of the world and our acting in the world on a conscious recognition of our own privilege as well as whatever oppressions we experience. There's all kinds of stuff in your head and your body to navigate in trying to do that, and at times it is neither easy nor pleasant.

However, it is not just that. I would connect it to a tendency that I have experienced over and over again in different ways in different contexts. There is this powerful, uncritical impulse towards a certain kind of politics that in different times and places I have thought of as united front politics, shallow coalition politics, and politics of politeness (that is, avoiding difficult conversations for the sake of preserving a group whose ability to act in the world in liberatory ways you have just compromised, perhaps fatally, by avoiding difficult conversations). Such politics may be the best path sometimes, but in my experience they are rarely chosen consciously. One of my frustrations with political involvement I had in a number of spheres when I lived in Hamilton, for example, was this tendency to automatically fall into shallow coalition-style politics even when there were no functional base collectives/affinity groups to act as the basis for a real coalition. I have encountered a different but related tension again here in Sudbury as the anti-war group that has formed recently has been talking about its direction -- we haven't necessarily done as well as we could at having those discussions, and certainly there are things I wish now I had done differently, but I think it is fair to say that one of the underlying (and never really articulated) tensions in some of those discussions was between a vision based in united front politics and a politics that is not the same as Smith's but that shares with her an interest in centring the most marginalized and in actively exploring connections. The former seeks to have a clear and narrow focus to attract as broad a range of groups and individuals as possible, and it is how most of the anti-war movement in Canada is organized, for very practical reasons whose appeal I can certainly understand. The latter may not have as wide appeal at first glance, but it has the potential to be more dynamic and to spark other folks to do their own thing too if one particular group doesn't suit, and road to a deeper sort of coalition politics down the road.

Now, in all the spheres in which I have experienced permutations of this issue, I know that many people would regard trying to move towards a politics such as Smith elaborates to be divisive and even sectarian. I am thinking back to stories I have heard from people centrally involved in organizing a huge event a number of years ago. There was disruption from white leftist men who were behaving in patriarchal and sectarian ways, and actually getting anything done required finding ways to not let them dominate the process. However, my impression is that the same impulse to get things done and avoid divisiveness resulted in communities of colour being excluded from the process once again. I can think of countless other spaces where gestures towards a broader politics were met with negativity at a very micro, inerpersonal level. I also know I have done similar things, as unlearning the middle-class white Canadian tendency to just avoid it if it might be difficult is a long and ongoing process. The thing is, fostering such a politics can function in sectarian ways, in ways that alienate people who are not already in that headspace, and I know I've done that too. I'm not sure the political spaces I have been in so far in my life have trained me to do it all that well, either -- to do it in ways that put the focus on people and on builidng/organizing sustained relationships between people for the purpose of creating change and as a context in which ideas can be discussed and acted on and that doesn't require political muzzling for the sake of unity, rather than to focus too much on ideas and on talking the "right" kind of game in a way that isn't always conducive to building the (liberatory forms of) relationships that are the basis of any collective action.

I think I've wandered a bit in my effort to explore connections between various point experiences. Sorry about that. To return to the book itself, I hope it gets read far and wide, both because of its expansive and radical analysis of sexual violence, and because of the window it provides into a powerful model for doing social change. Doing radical politics won't necessarily look identical where I'm socially located, and it shouldn't necessarily, but the vision presented in Conquest illustrates a way of acting in the world that has a lot to teach me, and a lot to teach everyone who has been socialized into the kind of politics that usually happens in more mainstream radical spaces.

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

Monday, July 16, 2007

Understanding "Taliban"

Just a quick post to point people towards this post at the English blog Lenin's Tomb, which tackles the question "Who are the insurgents in Afghanistan?" It takes a look at the political landscape in Afghanistan, including touching on the Taliban and non-Taliban opposition to the occupation and the almost equally unpleasant figures that Canadian youth are over there killing and dying to support. I still feel I need a lot more depth on this question, but this post provides a useful sketch for those of us wishing to get beyond the usual simplistic "white hats vs. black hats" framing in the dominant media.

NOII Montreal and Anti-Canada Day Action

In advance of the action, I encouraged people to support a demo in solidarity with indigenous struggle targeting the CN Rail headquarters in Montreal.

While I was out of town, one of the organizers of that event forwarded me an email that talks about what happened at the's a little on the late side, but I wanted to be sure to post it. It also includes a link to the flyer they handed out and to some photos of the event:

MONTREAL, July 1, 2007 -- About 75 demonstrators gathered in the main hall of the Central Train Station in Montreal in an "Anti-Canada Day" protest against CN Rail.

Demonstrators highlighted their opposition to CN's current lawsuit against three Mohawk activists at Tyendinaga, and expressed their support for indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

-> The text of the FLYER that was passed out in the hundreds to passers-by is below and linked here.

A large banner reading: "When Justice Fails, Block the Rails!; Quand CN attaque on bloque la track!; Solidarity with native resistance" was raised with over one-hundred red and white helium balloons in the main hall of the station. Another banner reading: "CN: Drop your racist lawsuit" was also unfurled.

-> PHOTOS from the protest are linked here.

Several members of the Kahnawake Mohawk community, south of Montreal, attended and spoke at the picket, as well as a member Inter-tribal Youth Council, a speaker from Six Nations, and a special guest from the Skwelkwek'welt Protection Center in British Columbia.

The Canada Day demo follows from actions on Mohawk territories near Montreal on June 29. In the early morning, Highway 30, and then highway 138, was blocked. Later in the day, the Mercier Bridge between Montreal and the South Shore was shut down for a period of time. In Kahnesatake, it was reported that the main road from Oka to the reserve was blocked for most of the day.

The July 1st Anti-Canada Day demo was also part of local mobilizations against the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) -- a NAFTA plus Homeland Security model for Canada, the USA and Mexico. CN Rail's CEO is part of the North American Competitiveness Council, a group of CEOs that "advises" the SPP leaders. Those leaders -- George Bush, Stephen Harper and Felipe Calderon -- are meeting just 90 minutes from Montreal at the Chateau Montebello this August 20 and 21.

The July 1st Anti-Canada Day picket was organized and supported by: Block the Empire-Montreal, Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement, Liberterre, No One Is Illegal-Montreal, Pointe Libertaire, Solidarity Across Borders, Tadamon! Montreal, and others.

I would also encourage folks to check out No One Is Illegal-Montreal's blog. Along with material about actions in Montreal and Quebec, they regular post descriptions of and links to downloadable versions of the group's radio show, including this one that announces their July 5, '07 show talking about the recent National Day of Action and Anti-Canada Day events by and in support of indigenous people, as well as links to a number of other shows they have done showcasing voices of indigenous resistance over the last year.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Critical Tourist: Four Days in D.C.

The Hotel

Expensive soap with the scent of white tea and a bathtub suitable for battleships were the highlites, but the essence was the pervasive servility. Service industry obeisance is perhaps the single most common type of relation between individuals in our society and I have been on both sides of that detestable arrangement: I hated it when I had to engage in robotic scripted politeness as a gas station attendant, I hated it last month when I was targeted by the passive-aggressive pseudo-helpfulness of a certain big box technology store's employees and I hate when the woman who runs the cafe in the cool downtown magazine store in Sudbury falls all over herself to tack "sir" to the end of every sentence.

There was, however, something qualitatively different about it at this hotel -- easily the swankiest I have ever been in, chosen by default because it was hosting the conference my partner was attending and because her employer was paying. Perhaps it was because it was more obviously racialized than I encounter in everyday life in Sudbury. There were people of colour among the guests and there were white people among the frontline employees, but very few; there was no doubt about the core identity for each group. But it wasn't just that, I don't think. It was also the degree to which it was taken. One result of the particular profile of privilege and oppression that each of us experience as we grow up is what we learn to expect that the world will and will not do for us with little or no effort on our part. Obviously, mileage varies significantly. My whitemiddleclassnorthamericanness means I am able to assume far more than most human beings throughout history, but it was obvious that the high octane, proactive, servile enthusiasm disciplined into the employees of this hotel was calibrated for much higher expectations than my own. I'm not sure it really matters the extent to which this is an actual reflection of the ways in which global and North American elites experience the world versus a reflection of their desires played up as part of the competition among high-end hotels -- whether they really expect it or just desire it, it is still creepy.

the city

I was in four distinct kinds of outside space in D.C., probably none a reflection of the lives of most of the people who live there. The first was the neighbourhood in which our hotel was located, Foggy Bottom. This space is filled with low rise buildings, a few of which were definitely offices but most of which appeared to be hotels, apartment buildings, and condos. (To give a sense of the money in this part of the city, one bedroom condos in the area start at $350,000). Not far away was the city center, also dominated by low-rise buildings, most of which were offices, most of which were related to government. And in the middle of that area is the imperial monument park, which includes the White House, the Capitol Building, the National Mall, many Smithsonian museums, the National Phallus (aka the National Monument), and various other nationalist displays. And, finally, I spent some time in the area around Du Pont Circle, which was the closest area to our hotel that had significant presence of street-level commercial enterprises.

I was surprised at how not tacky everything was. There is a certain strand of mainstream U.S. culture that is given not only to excess but to a kind of excess that appears embarassing and bizarre to those of us who grew up at even a slight remove from it. I thought that D.C. might exhibit this tendency, given its role as the capital and as a focal point for what might euphemistically be described as a rather robust nationalism, but it does not. You could argue that certain monuments and pieces of architecture display a certain imperial arrogance and excess of a particular sort, but it is not at all tacky.

I was also surprised how few restaurants there seemed to be. Foggy Bottom and the city center both have built forms that lead to dense concentrations of people, many of whom have plenty of money, but there are relatively few restaurants to be found in either of those areas. And D.C. is a city like Toronto or Ottawa where lots of people of all classes take public transit (unlike places like Los Angeles, Hamilton, and Sudbury, where transit is used mainly by working-class and poor people) so it's not like the city is built around the assumption that everyone who can afford to is cocooned in an automobile. There were a few more restaurants in the DuPont Circle neighbourhood but especially considering that area also serves as the geographic centre for niche capital that has latched onto the visible aspects of gay public life, there are still far fewer restaurants than I would expect.

My strongest impression of the imperial monument park, which I felt in a more muted way in the city centre more broadly, was how profoundly this space was not about itself. Which is kind of an odd thing to feel. Even in my brief stint living in Hollywood I didn't feel that as strongly -- you certainly felt it, walking everyday on streets whose names have been made famous in movie and song and seeing evidence of that space's centrality in dominant mass cultural production -- but there was still enough evidence of 'normal life', whatever that might be, to temper it with a sense of genuinely local, about-itself life as well. Not so in the imperial monument park at the heart of D.C., and only slightly so in the rest of the city centre: that is space that is about the rest of the U.S. settler state and about the projection of U.S. state power throughout the world. I have been to other spaces that felt like this too, like the Parliament at Westminster or the Colliseum in Rome, but it has usually only been a feature of one particular site rather than an entire area of a city.

Related to that was the feel of the relationship between the imperial monument park and the rest of the city centre. The former is largely about nationalist theatre of one sort or another but it includes focal points of actual power in the White House and the Capitol Building. Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that all of it, including the extravagant displays of security around the White House, were really part of a smoke and mirrors show so that U.S. Americans on their pilgrimage to this secular shrine of nation and state pay all of their attention there and miss the significance of the block after block of imposing (and largely unguarded) buildings that comprise one of the most important functional cores of the relations that rule in an administrative sense in the U.S. and beyond.

the folk festival

The first day that I was walking around exploring D.C. was the last day of the Smithsonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival in the National Mall. I was happy to have stumbled upon it and spent a few hours walking around, looking at the displays, and listening to music.

The way this festival is organized is that each year it focuses on three different areas. This year it concentrated on Northern Ireland, the Roots of Virginia, and the peoples living in the valley of the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. My first impressions, both confirmed on closer inspection, were (a) it felt weird for this celebration of life and music to be happening in a space that is, as I said, a high shrine to a predatory nationalism, and (b) it struck me as a bit odd to do Northern Ireland and Virginia in the same year given that the dominant culture in both traces its roots to Scots-Irish people.

The first area I went to was the one about Virginia. Now, I have never been to the southern U.S., nor have I ever done much learning about or exploration of white southern culture. So I knew intellectually that many of the working-class white people in the south are descended from Scots-Irish settlers, but until I heard a young bluegrass group do their thing on one of the larger stages, I had not really appreciated the obvious connection between the musical culture of the white south and the Scottish musical culture with which I was raised (having, as I do, a Scottish mother and a Canadian father for whom retirement from highschool teaching has meant turning what had always been his second career -- bagpiping -- into his first career.) Its hard to explain the connection that I felt watching that group -- it had to do with the manner of the musicians, the instruments, the spontaneous step-dancing that would occasionally break out on stage or in front of it, and just the whole feel of the thing. But it was kind of an eerie thing to experience, because as I was feeling this connection I was also very conscious that the music that I was listening to evolved in a context of slavery and lynchings. This obviously complicated my gut-level identification with the music, because a big part of me (quite reasonably) rebels at identifying in any way with the outcomes of a space of such naked white supremacy. But then I thought about it some more, and I realized that indignation was really just me not wanting to see the role of me and those who trace their heritage to the same part of the world in oppression and exploitation. After all, the branch of Celtic culture organized around the great highland bagpipe, which is the one I was immersed in growing up, has the shape that it does today in Scotland and around the world in large part because of its tight ties to the British imperial armies over the last couple of centuries, even if little that is visible to your average highland games attendee makes that clear. And that is not at all any better, politically speaking.

After listening to this bluegrass group for awhile, I wandered off to check out the rest of the Viriginia section. I discovered that it was not only celebrating the dominant Scots-Irish contributions to Virginia culture, but also African and indigenous contributions as well. This was, as I said, in a space pervaded by settler state dominance, so it was still a kind of imperial multiculturalism with the non-white cultures clearly coded as subordinate, but it was still interesting. I came across a smaller performance area -- unlike the bluegrass group, they didn't rate an actual stage -- in which some dancers from indigenous nations in Virginia were performing. This heightened my feelings of contradiction between the imperial nature of the space and the letsallgetalongism of the festival, but I sat down thinking that not only might I learn something, but there might also be some contestation of the domination of the space.

Now, I have no business passing judgment on how people whose oppressions benefit me choose to resist. Or, in particular moments, how they might decide stealth is more important than defiance, how they assess their own safety, what they judge can be gained by being circumspect. Still, I don't remember encountering before an organized indigenous presence, and one which foregrounds the fact of indigeneity, that did not voice at all the legacy of colonization as a grounding for current realities, including the process of recovering traditional culture. Different indigenous people and groups have widely differing politics about what to do now, and in my experience there is usually a far greater willingness to engage in dialogue and to have patience in the face of oppression than I can easily understand, but I have always sensed that grounding. It was discomfiting not to sense it here (though, to be fair, I was not present for the whole performance, so I may have missed important stuff). When the leader of the group identified as a Vietnam vet, explicilty honoured veterans of the U.S. imperial armies (my term, not his), and then explicitly honoured the 60,000 U.S. dead in Vietnam without a single critical word and without so much as a nod to the 2 to 3 million Southeast Asian people killed by the U.S. invasion and occupation, despite the fact that a few hundred feet away were people from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other locations performing their cultures in the same white-dominated imperial shrine, the contradictions were interfereing in my ability to appreciate what I was seeing/hearing, and I decided it was time to move on.

I also spent time in the Northern Ireland and Mekong sections, though I have less to say about them. I thought the contrast across the sections was interesting: In the performance of the bluegrass group, culture was clearly recognizeable in its dominant North American form, as a slick commercial product. In the performances I saw in the Mekong section, culture became framed as an oddity, a marker of exoticness to which the most visible white North American tourist response was the asking of stupid questions. In the Northern Ireland section, the "culture" that was performed seemed delifhtfully amateur and was the closest to what I consider culture actually to be: "just what people do." There was less evidence of the deliberate self-productization of culture seen, say, from the bluegrass group, or the tension that I think I saw in the Mekong section between the productization of local cultures by the self-interested states that rule over them and the slotting of all of it as markers of Otherness by a completely disconnected audience (in which I include myself).

the museums

The last element of the trip about which I have come up with anything to say is the experiences I had in going into two of the Smithsonian museums that surround the National Mall. The first was the Hirshhorn Museum, which hosts an extensive collection of modern and contemporary art, and the other was the National Museum of African Art, which houses both contemporary and historical African art, though mostly historical. Both are excellent galleries and both are free, and what I observed as I went through them is really true of all museums and not just these two.

I came to both of these museums knowing very little about the contexts that produced their content. I know a bit about twentieth century European and North American history in general -- though it is not stated explicitly, the Hirshhorn collection is mostly European and North American -- and I have gone to museums featuring modern and contemporary art before, because I like it, but I know next to nothing about art history and do not have even basic concepts and vocabulary to really engage with the work at a level more sophisticated than elementary liking or disliking. My knowledge of African history and culture is even more marginal. So I entered both of these spaces in ignorance.

Now, the actual experience of viewing objects in a museum or gallery is a very particular one. There is usually a gesture towards creating a relationship between the viewer and the creator of the object, through a gallery guide or an information card or what have you, but usually the information provided is so minimal as to make the viewer-creator relationship a token one at best. Instead, the main relationship is between the viewer and the object. What that relationship entails depends very much on what the viewer brings with her. If the viewer brings significant knowledge, the object can act as a trigger for what the viewer already knows about the human context in which it was produced, the living flow of making and doing that gives it form and meaning. But if the viewer brings mostly ignorance, as I did and as I suspect most people who go to these two museums do, then the relation between viewer and object is purely one of aesthetic appreciation. Such appreciation is important, of course: If I see a painting, say, and I find it beautiful or powerful or shocking, that interaction can be both valuable for the experience itself, and an input into better understanding my aesthetic world and myself, and into elaborating ideas about both of those things. But there is still an odd feeling of absence, of incompleteness, when witnessing such a thing, and knowing that behind this object there was passion, talent, ideas, conflict, love, oppression, privilege, but not knowing any details or how they relate to the object itself. This is perhaps even more important when witnessing not objects intended for aesthetic consumption from the point of conceptualization through to display, but objects with functional purposes within a particular cultural setitng that are then removed from that setting and turned into an aesthetic experience for privileged people far away. (Museums have always been colonial, and I'm not saying anything remotely original by pointing this out.)

I'm not sure what to feel about all of this. On the one hand, I appreciate the opportunity to engage with the world at an aethetic level in a concentrated way, because it is often something I pay inadequate attention to in my daily life. The focus it provides can also be a prompt for further learning, even if the form of musuems themselves is a relatively poor tool for pursuing that learning on its own. On the other hand, I can't help but feel that the overall impact of such museums -- given, as I said, that most of us who go to them do so from a place of ignorance -- is to reinforce the reification of culture, our understanding of culture as being about things rather than about people and doings. The impacts that this reifciation has is different in the two instances that prompted this reflection. The reification of a different culture -- its presentation through objects with little context -- functions to reinforce the idea of other as Other. Even when the presentation is done well and sympathetically, I suspect it is often taken up by viewers in ways that reinforce the ideologies that sustain our tendency as white north americans to see as natural the benefits we derive from the domination of the globe by our elites. The reification of the dominant High Culture, on the other hand, reinforces our alienation from our own culture, by encouraging us to understand it as something done by special people in special circumstances rather than fostering a participatory vision of culture.

final words

I have no grand conclusion, just a warning for U.S. American readers who are not familiar with other writings on this site: Please step back and check what I'm all about before you get indignant about the things I've said. I don't write from the space that so many left nationalists in Canada do, of constructing supposed Canadian virtues by talking about actual U.S. vices; much more often, Canada is the critical focus of what I write, or North America as a whole. In this case, I'm writing about the U.S. because that's where I was, and that focus should not be read as an implicit claim of innocence for the identity "Canadian."

Oh, and I should add that the other main activity in which I spent my days in D.C. was going around to look at independent bookstores. I only bought one book, though, because I already have a huge backlog of reading to do, mostly work related, and I want to plough through that as quickly as possible. Look forward to lots of book reviews posted her eover the next month!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Getting Back

Hey kids...I'm back from the U.S. but won't be in Sudbury for a couple of days yet. I know I said something a week ago about a review of Conquest, which is partially written, and I also received some interesting material by email that I'd like to link to/talk about...I may even write a quick post on my four days in Washington, D.C. However, I make no promises about timing for any of this. It's possible that some of that may make its way onto the site in the next day or two, but it is also possible it will not see the light of day until after we are settled in back at home.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Quote: Utopias

There is a time and place in the ceaseless human endeavour to change the world, when alternative visions, no matter how fantastic, provide the grist for shaping powerful political forces for change. I believe we are precisely at such a moment. Utopian dreams in any case never entirely fade away. They are omnipresent as the hidden signifiers of our desires. Extracting them from the dark recesses of our minds and turning them into a political force for change may court the danger of the ultimate frustration of those desires. But better that, surely, than giving in to the degenerate utopianism of neoliberalism (and all those interests that give possibility such a bad press) and living in craven and supine fear of expressing and pursuing alternative desires at all.

-- David Harvey

Monday, July 02, 2007

Review: Intercourse

[Andrea Dworkin. Intercourse, The Twentieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Basic Books, 2007.]

from whence i read

I arrived at this book in a state of (perpetual) inner conflict.

I grew up in a family that was liberal in most ways but in which sexuality was silenced, erased. The implicit frame that I internalized was simple and moralistic: sex is bad and shameful; it only happens between women and men; women never want it and when men refuse to leave it silent and invisible and do want it, they are Bad. Full stop.

Fast forward a few years. I had begun to learn about power, politics, oppression. I had unconsciously manouvered myself into a place where I was free to be paralyzed -- not ignorant or inactive, necessarily, but paralyzed in significant ways -- about sexuality on a personal level. I still flinched from it as a topic so my consideration of how sexuality and power intersected remained fairly shallow and simplistic, and I basically just read my new political language into the old moralistic frame. While this may have helped me to acknowledge and deplore some of the brutal realities of gender oppression expressed so often in and around mainstream ways of doing sexuality, it also avoided the complexity of the real world, smuggled in a particular kind of (hetero)sexist thinking, and didn't give me any space to even imagine, on a personal level, life beyond the particular space of paralysis I inhabited that was not just indulgence in oppression.

Fast forward to the present. Personally, the paralysis has been shown not to be absolute and life beyond it not to be impossible, though that is realized only sporadically in practice and the paralysis is always looming all the same -- a target of loathing but also of yearning, because at least it was simple. The ol' time moralistic frame is not completely weeded out and the excessively simplistic anti-sex pseudo-politics retains more of a hold on my gut than I would like, even if my head has largely moved on; there is a competing cacophony of different analyses swirling around within that deal in different, often contradictory ways, with trying to navigate in anti-oppressive ways a social environment that hates women, hates healthy and anti-oppressive sexualities, hates queers, imposes norms, and uses shame as a weapon. So there is at least engagement, however difficult and internally conflictual, with complexity, with the real world, with individual people about their experiences and analyses, with texts from different perspectives and traditions -- in short, with oppression and with possibility, both at once.

Andrea Dworkin has a reputation as the very scariest of feminists. She is said to epitomize the man-hater, the castrator, the unreasonable radical that is the real cause of all these problems. You learn pretty fast on the left not to believe the mainstream hype about any radical, of course, and I have long intended to read her -- the fact that one of the participants whose interview material will be used in the two chapters I hope to start writing soon is a big Dworkin fan provided an excuse. Nonetheless, the prospect of injecting such a potent salvo of political intensity, which (quite rightly) has no interest in catering to the conceits of masculinity -- including masculinity that strives to be pro-feminist -- into my own uncertainty and conflict was somewhat intimidating. I know I have a desire to be seen as someone who "gets it", but what if I just have no stomach for the "it" on offer? And how to deal with the fact of the bitter polarization on these issues even among feminists? I also know I really need to believe it is possible for me to lead a sexual life that is personally satisfying and politically liberatory and anti-oppressive. What if this book tells me that isn't possible? What if I agree? What if it triggers my tendency towards shame about things which really should not be shameful, or if my reaction against a sense of being shamed leads me to take less seriously very real oppressions?

(You might get a sense of how the paralysis I mentioned above manages to keep itself around as a relevant factor...)

Anyway, the obvious answer is just to read it and see. Which I did.

the book

This edition of the book begins with a foreword by feminist Ariel Levy. It is very cleverly written to disrupt the mainstream hype about Dworkin. It made me laugh out loud a couple of times and it made me rather like the image of Dworkin that it painted -- her mouthy radicalism, her embodied intensity, her relentless living of life. The description of her navigation of her own sexual journey was a particularly interesting and powerful grounding for the rest of the text, from the sexualized violence she experienced in rape and in being prostituted as a young woman, and on through her intense sexuality with men (despite identifying politically as a lesbian), including a long term non-monogamous partnership with a gay man and including a refusal to reject casual sexual interactions. Not the image of the sex-hating, man-hating, puritanical monster that often gets portrayed, certainly.

The first thing to understand about the bulk of the book itself is that Dworkin is a brilliant writer. I have been reading too much plodding academic text recently, and this book was a refreshing antidote. Dworkin's writing goes from one intensity to the next in a whirlwind of skillfully deployed language, both literary and passionate. Sometimes the text is bitingly humorous, while a lot of the rest of the time it is just biting, but regardless it leaves you absolutely no doubt that this was not penned by some uninspired academician but by a writer.

The second thing that deserves note is the complexity of the approach she has taken in putting the text together. It is not linear, it is not simple. At least as far as I could tell, it weaves among discourse, experience at the individual level, experience of women as a class, and issues of social organization, and it sometimes makes you guess whether it is talking about material causation, dissecting metaphor or ideology, or engaging in deliberate provokation. This is all done very effectively and it says what it has to say by painting a three dimensional, qualitatively vibrant picture of what it means, even when you might wish for more mundane, clearly spelled out answers to questions like "How?" and "Why?".

This complexity has a number of implications, though. For one thing, it leaves the book open to an even wider range of readings than your average text is inevitably susceptible to. It may make things easier for those who wish to misread the text and slander it in misogynist or just plain unfair ways because it provides them with a lot of easy ammunition, for example. I suspect it also allows those who would understand it as part of their own ideological ancestry to read it in a variety of ways too -- for instance, I have encountered feminist writing on the internet that I suspect would trace its lineage in part to Dworkin that does not share with her the same sense of sexuality as relentlessly embodied and that does not seem to acknowledge possibility in quite the same way.

Another implication of this complexity is that I found it very difficult to understand what her analysis of resistance is -- the possibility for resistance, the way to approach it, the means, and so on. Sometimes the text reads as if it is assuming an absolute, deterministic structuralism, but at other points it is very clear that resistance is not only possible but imperative. What is not clear, at least from this particular book, is Dworkin's vision for how resistance can and should happen. Though I appreciate that no piece of writing should be expected to do everything, I still find this to be a serious problem in any radical text.

intercourse in a man-ade world

The first five chapters of the book comprise a section called "intercourse in a man-made world." These chapters take the interesting tack of elucidating some of the key features of intercourse under patriarchy via literary criticism. Dworkin takes texts by big names like Tolstoy, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Kobo Abe and investigates what they have to say on the subject. This takes works of literature written by male voices that have been given status by the male-dominated establishment. This is a clever approach because literature of this sort is, by its very nature, not intended to convey empirically derived individual "facts" about the "real world" but rather to be complex, imaginative constructions whose personal, interpersonal, and social dynamics are accepted as plausible by readers whose standard of judging such things is their own understanding of the "real world". Thus by exploring these works you also explore what the writers and the readers who have historically had the power to designate "great books" consider to be plausible descriptions of how the world works. In Dworkin's hands, this results in a complex, embodied, relentless showing of the texture of patriarchal domination in sexuality, but I still got a sense of hopefulness from it, too -- there were glimpses of what sexuality could be and can be, and it is not at all bounded by the usual markers of "good" and "bad".

What I find difficult with this approach is that it effectively illustrates the heart of something, but it does not concern itself overly much with describing that something's extent. What are its boundaries? What are its details? What are its internal contradictions that feminist women can use to their advantage? What are its important specificities in different times, places, and social locations? If you read the comments about this book on the web sites of the main online book vendors, you will find lots of misogyny that seems to take this consequence of the author's choices as an excuse to just refuse to listen to the argument at all. That, of course, is foolish. At the same time, this vagueness about extent leaves a lot of uncertainty. Even accepting the general shape of the oppression she describes in these five chapters, it leaves me unsure in some (though certainly not all) cases about how to understand in reference to this picture my own experiences and those of friends of all genders as articulated by them.

the female condition

Then comes a section called "the female condition." Though this section contains only two chapters, in many ways it is the heart of the book. One of these chapters focuses on the nature of intercourse itself, particularly the implications of penetration as the essence of sexuality as currently understood. While there is a lot of rich description of various sorts in this chapter, a lot of it leads up to Dworkin's hypothesis that perhaps the act of penetration itself is a foundational cause of patriarchy's existence. It is something that needs to happen for the continuation of the species, yet by its very nature it results in women having less bodily integrity, less privacy, less ability to maintain clear boundaries of self, and this in turn provides a foundation for the many other sorts of domination built atop it. In other words, even in the absence of the sexualized violence that is the abuse of intercourse, its regular, non-abusive use still creates circumstances of domination. This combination of domination, destabilization of the female self, and the presence of sexual pleasure, often quite intense, as part of the woman's experience leads in turn to many women eroticizing domination and being seduced (as it were) into complicity in and collaboration with their own oppression. Now, she does not quite go so far as to maintain that all of this is unquestionably true, particularly the part about the act itself being inherently productive of domination in a kind of pre-social manner, but she obviously considers it to be a very strong case.

Personally, I am dubious about this hypothesis, or at least about its core, though I say that with at least two provisos about where I say that from. The first is that I have no basis in personal experience to evaluate the psychological outcomes of penetration, and while I don't think any one person's experience is enough to truly evaluate an assertion like this, it would at least provide more of a basis for imaginative modelling of the experiences of others, and I don't have that. The other, though, is that I say fairly confidently that my reservations are not some sort of cloaked refusal to consider criqitue of dominant models of socially and interpersonally organizing sexual practice.

My reservations are on a couple of different fronts. For one thing, I am not clear that the psychological impact of the act itself, the damage to sense of self cause by the mere fact of consensual penetration or even an awareness of its near inevitability as part of being a woman in our society, is as universal as she claims even under current conditions of gender oppression. I find it plausible that many women in our society experience the outcomes she describes, but given what I have heard from people directly and read in texts over the years -- and, perhaps more importantly, my own more general analysis of how "systemic" and "structural" forms of domination actually work in the complicated real world that surrounds us -- I am dubious about the asserted universality. (It is interesting that this way of organizing the argument can lead to an irresolvable impasse: I am not claiming one way or another whether Dworkin would herself have said such a thing, but I have seen people in the blogosphere respond to a woman claiming experiences that do not fit in the schema outlined above (or something similar) by accusations that that person has eroticized their own domination and that their experiences do not contradict this framework but instead they are just collaborators. While I won't deny that something like that probably does happen in some cases, the whole way the discourse is organized means that, if someone wants, they can take up the theory in a way that is completely resistant to new inputs purely by defining all challenging inputs as inadmissable because of 'false consciousnes' or the like, and that is dangerous. It also can lead, I think, to a slip-slide into a feminist version of the faux-objective standpoint at the heart of male-domianted ways of seeing the world, and of using that standpoint to erase or devalue choices about resistance made by other women from where they actually live.)

I am also reluctant to buy into the suggestion that the outcomes are inherent in the physical act, again based on more general analyses of how things happen, of how the physical and the social interact and so on. In my understanding, sensations cannot be experienced without interpretation. Interpretation is not something that is purely cerebral, but something that happens in the body as well. I would argue that the phenomenon she describes around how (many) women experience (even consensual) penetration says more about the social organization of sexuality and the ways in which violence against women by men is ubiquitous and so on. And Dworkin does allow for this possibility, but she makes the point that, okay, fine, well prove it -- transform society to end the domination of women and then see how women experience intercourse. Which is fair enough.

So I don't think I can accept intercourse as inherently the "first cause" of patriarchy. However, I definitely can accept it as a focus, a node, a site for the domination of women by men that is particularly powerful, both because it has been such a relentless focus for the social organization of gender oppression in many ways over many years, and because it provides a mechanism by which women's own sexual drives can be harnassed to bind them to accept non-sexual aspects of patriarchal relations that they might otherwise feel they had the space to resist or reject.

A related issue is that of objectification, which comes up throughout the book. There is a lot about the analysis of objectification that I agree with. I know that men do often relate to women as objects, even by such a simple thing of how we gaze upon the world. I know this because, even now, I sometimes fall into it myself. And I know this can have consequences in terms of how interpersonal interactions occur, and how women experience public spaces, and so on. I also agree, though I don't think it has been a part of my experience, that men can go through interactions with women that include sexual interactions in which the women never rise above the level of objects in the consciousness of the men. However, I am not sure I agree with the very polarized picture of sexual interactions based in objectification versus those based in a true meeting of selves that Dworkin seems to paint, and that I have seen in other feminist writing. I don't feel able to propose a different model, but it seems to me that the dissolution of self into bodily experience that is inherent in intense sexual experiences means that, at least at points, any individual will be responding not to the other self (or selves) involved in the sexual interaction but to the physical experience itself, at least at moments. Is that objectification? Is it inherently oppressive? Or, perhaps, is it the overall relation in which it is embedded that determines whether or not it is oppressive? I'm not sure, I need to think more about it.

The other chapter within "the female condition" outlines virginity as integral to the rare, inspiring example of historical resistance to patriarchy of Joan of Arc. This chapter provides a very interesting illustration, in parts directly and in parts just by implication, of how the social institution of heterosexuality can pull women into a web of oppressive relations and how rejection of the social institution of heterosexuality can function as resistance to that. It also presents an image of virginity or celibacy not as the passive rule of Victorian prudery but as a means to actively embrace a different field of action as resistance. I think it is important that Dworkin talked in detail about the potential for resistance in such a rejection, because too often liberal spaces glorify sexuality in a way that obscures issues of power and thereby ends up endorsing not women's self-determination but women's sexual activity in the absence of any real consideration of what self-determination can mean. However, though the chapter is careful to note that renunciation of sexual activity is not the absolute and only essence of resistance, it does not really go into any detail to spell out what that might mean. This contributes to the tendency of the book as a whole to universalize, and to erase important areas of specificity in women's experience. It also, I think, facilitates readings of this text, and the lines of political thought that would claim those readings of this book as part of their canon, that go beyond the recognition of rejection of the social institution of heterosexuality as a form of resistance to a kind of overall embrace of cultural conservatism (including, at times, the decontextualized judging of the sexual choices of other women when they do not conform to this conservatism). That is not the only possible reading, and it should not be used, as many have, to dismiss this insights of this book in their entirety, but it is still a danger.

power, status, and hate

The final two chapters of the book are in a section entitled "power, status, and hate." The first looks at the ways in which sexuality has been socially organized through law to perpetuate male domiantion of women. This is a very important aspect of the whole topic to understand, I think. I would argue that it is important to look at forms of social regulation beyond just the law itself. I would also assert that it is useful to have an understanding of this phenomenon that is much more fine-grained than is possible in the course of a single chapter, and also one that also pays attention to the specificity of such regulation in different eras, and what that means about opportunities for resistance. And the final chapter looks at how intercourse as a crucial site in male domination of women leads to sex, to human genitals, and to women as a class all being socially imbued with taint, with dirt, with stigma, with a sense of being unclean.


It should be obvious that I consider this to be a powerful and important book, though there are undoubtedly ways in which I will continue to approach the world differently than it does. I think the way that it is put together has a somewhat universalizing effect that is not necessarily warranted, in that I think it considers a powerful core of the way that many women experience sexuality and how that experience is produced, but I have the sense that it does not capture or adequately explain all experiences of sexuality, even by women. It is also universalizing in the sense that it constructs a vision of gender oppression and how it happens, in general and in the context of sexuality, that may not entirely reflect the ways in which other oppressions might work with gender oppression at the site of sexuality to organize the experiences of women with different social locations. I am also disappointed that there was not more attention paid to resistance, and to diverse modes of resistance.

All that said, the power of this book in painting a picture of the role of the social institution of heterosexual intercourse in the organization of gender oppression is undeniable. I may not agree that intercourse plays quite the same causitive role and I may feel that the implicit model in this book for the connection between oppressions organized at the level of society as a whole and individual and small-scale collective agency leaves important things out, but no attempt to build a radical understanding of sexuality can neglect this book.

And as for me personally...well, it stimulated new reflection but did not stir up debilitating levels of self-doubt. I agree with more of it than I disagree with, I think, and still find within it much more of a space for affirmation and possibility than I had expected, despite the heavy social weight of the gender oppression that gives me privilege.

I leave this book in a state of (perpetual) inner conflict.