Friday, September 28, 2007

Review: Feminist Organizing for Change

[Nancy Adamson, Linda Briskin, and Margaret McPhail. Feminist Organizing for Change: The Contemporary Women's Movement in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988.]

In responding to this book I think the place I need to begin is an exploration of why I expected reading it to be something of a chore, and why it ended up being a pleasure.

The first reason for my low expectations was the fact that I misunderstood the nature of the book. I was expecting a fairly traditional sort of history, with lots of detail and an aim to be comprehensive -- something like Robin Winks' classic (if sometimes politically problematic) study of the history of African Canadians or Tom Warner's history of the queer movement in Canada (which I didn't get around to reviewing on this site when I read it, I'm afraid). Though these sorts of books can be a fair bit of work to read, they are tremendously useful in my own work.

It turns out, however, that this is not that sort of book. There is one quite substantial chapter devoted directly to history, but the rest is much more analytical, though it is usually analysis with a historical grounding. This book was published almost 20 years ago, and a lot of the basic groundwork for the history of the second wave of the women's movement in Canada had not yet been done. The authors tried to make their history chapter as complete as they could but they had to work with the sources that existed. They did draw out some quite interesting points, like the complex and not always direct links in terms of organizational and ideological continuity between the first wave and the second wave of Canadian feminism -- a continuity that was quite important despite the fact that at the time the second wave burst onto the scene, the history of the first wave had been largely buried and not yet exhumed.

Also introduced in the history chapter was the standard typology of liberal feminism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism. I quite appreciated the book's efforts at showing some of the limitations of this scheme, which I have always felt to be a bit simplistic, and prone to obscure more than it reveals in some situations. They layered on top of it a distinction that was less based in political philosophy and more reflective of material circumstances and tactical choices -- that is, grassroots feminism versus institutional feminism. Still, it would've been nice to see an even greater effort to move away from, or at least complexify, the standard typology.

The second reason I was expecting this to be a relatively uninspiring read was because of a couple of other books that I have read that I understood as coming from a similar place and a similar era, which were quite useful and had some really powerful contributions but which, for the most part, did not excite me. This was also unfair of me. Those other volumes that I am thinking of were about women and feminism in the context of the Canadian labour movement, and they were academic books, albeit with a strong movement relationship. This book, on the other hand, is grounded in the standpoint of the long-time socialist-feminist activists who wrote it, and it is very much a movement book.

Those may seem like subtle distinctions, but they are not; they are crucial. This book is about the second wave of the women's movement in Canada, but its aim is not turning the movement into an object for the dissection of outsiders, as so many studies of social movements do. Instead, this was very clearly an exercise in reflection and self-criticism grounded in a standpoint from within the movement and designed to inform and support the woman who might want to make its further activities a reality. The book examines what had been accomplished to that point, and assesses choices and efforts and successes and failures around things like organizational structure, group process, unifying political principles, key issues, and key divisions. This sort of written reflection on issues of practical concern to movements still in motion is something we see far too little of in North America today (which, admittedly, is probably more a reflection of the state of our movements than anything else. My belief in the importance of this sort of detailed, written reflection is part of the reason for my involvement in this project, though.) Though it comes from a specific movement and a specific historical moment -- that is, two decades ago -- many of the issues this book discusses are still very relevant to activists in a wide range of settings today. What are the pros and cons of consensus decision making and how has it actually worked in practice? What ideologies about the process of change in general hold sway over ordinary Canadians and play a role in preventing the specific changes that movement X or movement Y might seek? What organizational forms have different strands of the movement tried? What have the strengths and weaknesses of these forms been? And so on.

The third reason why I was expecting the reading of this book to be something of an effort has to do with the particular distance between my current view of the world and what I was expecting to find in this book. This is a bit of a simplification, but generally speaking political writing that is very close to my own view of things tends to be an easy read, and political writing that is quite distant is also easy, but there is a middle point where the intellectual and emotional effort required for reading reaches a maximum. I assumed that this book would be somewhere close to that point. In particular, there have been a lot of pretty intense debates in the women's movement in the two decades since this was published. I'm obviously not a part of that movement, but learning from those debates has been pretty important in my own political development. I think what was going on was that I misunderstood the timing of some of these debates, and made mistaken assumptions about what a book written at this time might say. In particular, I was pleasantly surprised by the foregrounding of difference, of the political importance of multiple oppressions, and of the need to proceed from complex understandings of categories like "woman" and "sisterhood" -- and I say this not out of some sort of patronizing, moralistic approval, but a practical recognition that these are analogues of issues I struggle with all the time, and it was great to find more in this book than expected that spoke to things I want and need to learn about.

As a bit of an aside, it is intriguing to speculate about the various hints this gives about how the actual historical processes of the debates and shifts in feminist practice around difference, around power and privilege beyond gender, around theorizing and acting from an awareness of one's status as oppressor as well as oppressed, around intersectionality, have occurred in a material sense within the women's movement. And are occurring, since no endpoint has been reached. On the one hand, the authors' awareness at that time of the political challenge from women of colour seems to be fairly recent, and certainly their discussions of multiple oppressions make much less (explicit?) use of writing by women of colour than I would expect a similar book written ten years later would have done (even if some of the most important of those writings did already exist). The imperative to politically analyze one's own experiences of privilege and as an oppressor was not yet clearly articulated. There is also probably much that could be criticized around how they specifically take up issues of race and racism, even at the level of discourse. But even so, as I said above, the basic framework for understanding multiple oppressions in a feminist way is already very developed, perhaps because of earlier internal struggles around sexual orientation and class. Yet it is very hard to know how widespread such an analysis was within various kinds of feminist spaces, and it is also hard to get a sense of the inevitably uneven processes by which it has been turned into practice. I say this because even though this analysis is written in a way that makes it clear that it does not expect to be shocking its readers by saying such things, which means these sentiments must have been relatively widespread, some of the stormiest struggles to date around privilege and oppression along axes other than gender in the context of the Canadian women's movement had not yet happened at the time this was written. What does that mean for how movements struggle with these issues? What does it mean for those of us struggling with them in the present? I know there are women who are trying to put together some of that history/herstory, and I look forward to reading more of the nitty-gritty details as they become available.

The more compatible political distance than expected between me-of-2007 and this book-of-1988 is not so much a matter of the latter agreeing with the former -- there are still all sorts of differences related to our different standpoints, eras, and so on -- as a sense that dialogue between those two could easily proceed from basic mapping of each others' politics and on to more productive and interesting things.

There are things the me of today would challenge. For instance, though native women are mentioned on occasion, there is no analysis at all of colonization and what it might mean to create an anti-colonial feminism. As well, the authors and myself all have critical analyses of the state, but there would definitely be differences, with me being quite a bit more skeptical of the capacity of even a transformed state form to meet the requirements of truly just and liberatory social relations. I also had the sense that as thoroughly as the authors were self-critical of their own socialist-feminist strand of the women's movement -- which, I should add for U.S. readers, has been a much, much more important stream of feminism in Canada than in the U.S., in terms of numbers and political influence -- they were somewhat unfair at times to the radical feminist stream, I think.

Anyway, those were my three reasons. Perhaps the conventional and comprehensive history I expected would have been more directly useful for my immediate work needs, but in the future as I reflect and write about what I think movements I am a part of should be doing, I will come back to this book. I am glad to have my assumptions proven so wrong.

All that aside, perhaps one of the coolest things I took from this book was that it really captured the feel of being in the middle of a social movement -- in particular, the sense of never being sure, of doing things on the fly and by the skin of your teeth and making it all up as you go along no matter how much experience you have or study you've done, of second guessing and changing course, and the way the actual practice of doing social change work doesn't feel at all like the directed historic whole that you often read about in history books. It was actually pretty encouraging to see that reflected here. I mean, if that's what it felt like in the heady days of the height of the second wave of the Canadian women's movement, then the fact that it feels like that in various heres and nows isn't something to be discouraged by. After all, look what they accomplished.

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

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Justice With Dignity: Still Waiting for Action on Poverty

The following is an article in the local daily, which I found reproduced here. Note how elementary mathematics are reduced to a matter of opinion, with the journalist tacking on "committee members argue" to the sentence pointing out that social assistance rates are currently 44% below what they were in 1995.

Justice With Dignity: Still Waiting for Action on Poverty
by Harold Carmichael, published in the Sudbury Star

Five years after the inquest into the death of Kimberly Rogers, Greater Sudbury's Justice With Dignity Committee says it is still waiting for serious action to increase Ontario's social assistance rates.

So, what better time to renew the call for rates to be hiked than during a political election?

"At this point, we are not endorsing any political party, but we are calling on the parties to raise the rates," said Laurie McGauley, committee chairwoman, following a press conference Wednesday at St. Andrew's Place.

"It was a very specific recommendation that came from the jury. This was crafted very carefully by a jury of their peers. They came to the conclusion the rates needed to be raised."

Members of the Justice With Dignity committee were expected to attend and ask questions at a Sudbury riding all-candidates debate meeting last night St. Andrew's Place, and a Nickel Belt riding all-candidates meeting 7-9 p.m. Thursday at the Lionel Lalonde Centre in Azilda.

The two meetings were organized by the Social Planning Council of Sudbury, one of the organizations represented at Wednesday's press conference.

The Justice With Dignity committee says that, after the former provincial government of Mike Harris cut social assistance rates by 22 per cent in 1995, rates were only boosted by five per cent by the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty from 2003-07.

Since the cost of living rose by 27 per cent over the past 12 years, current rates being paid out are 44 per cent less than in 1995, committee members argue.

In August 2001, Kimberly Rogers died in Greater Sudbury while under arrest for committing social assistance fraud - receiving both social assistance and a student loan at the same time. The Justice With Dignity Committee was formed in September 2001 as a consequence of Rogers' death.

Sandra Lacle, acting chief executive officer of the Sudbury and District Health Unit, said low incomes translate into poor health, lower self-esteem and less opportunity.

"At every rung up the income ladder, Canadians have less sickness, higher life expectancy and improved health," she said. "Living in poverty creates feelings of social exclusion and isolation, people feeling they do not belong, cannot participate in community decisions."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Talking Poverty, Feeling Peculiar

I came face to face tonight with the fact that I'm, well, a little peculiar.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, nor even one that is a particularly new awareness, but a thing it is, and a thing deserving of some reflection.

See, I went to a forum on poverty -- I'll talk more about the details in a minute. At least on a certain level, pretty much everyone in the room wanted the same thing. We were all people who understand that poverty exists, that with poverty comes a great deal of suffering and pain and downstream consequences of various sorts, and that we have a social responsibility to end poverty. This sort of coming together with people of like mind to deal with a common concern should have been uplifting, empowering, or at the very least encouraging. Yet I left in a bleak and cynical state of mind, ranting to a friend as we made our way home.

There were three components to the evening.

The first was a talk by Marvyn Novick, someone I had never heard of but who is an academic and apparently a prominent long-time contributor to progressive social policy in Canada. He recently published a report under the auspices of Campaign 2000, a Canadian NGO devoted to ending child poverty, called "Summoned to Stewardship: Make Poverty Reduction a Collective Legacy." I have only skimmed the report and am responding just to the talk.

Though he did not use this language, his basic point was that Keynesian economics and social democratic social policy that is politically fairly traditional but technically innovative, applied at the level of the state and the level of the community, is the key to ending child poverty.

There were a number of components to his argument, some of which were useful and some of which were less so.

He presented the frame for his speech in left nationalist terms by emphasizing the upstanding social values that we as Canadians have demonstrated in the past. This is something that is guaranteed to irritate me, so it was not a good start. Though it does not necessarily invalidate whatever else he has to say, I dislike this approach intensely because it plays into a tendency common across most of the political spectrum which invests the notion of Canada with a certain smugness and inherent superiority, usually with reference to the United States. While we should not deny social gains in northern North America, this constant reinforcement of left nationalist sentiment often serves to prevent Canadians from taking a truly critical look at the Canadian state -- its colonial and genocidal origins, which continue to shape people's lives today, and its role in other forms of oppression, for example. If we use the evidence of what "Canada" has actually done and allowed within its territory, then Canada's collective values include things like white supremacy, colonization, and misogyny. Any politics beginning from a place that does not state these things outright is going to run into trouble.

Then he went on to talk about history a little bit, in particular the social democratic gains in the three decades following World War II. I did not agree at all with the understanding of history that he presented. In particular, he connected those accomplishments not to acts but to values (things like generosity, sacrifice, and patriotism) and called on us today to follow that example, while failing to mention anything about the resurgent labour movement and capitalist fear of revolution in the late thirties and forties, and the generalized uprisings of students, women, indigenous peoples, and at least in places rank-and-file workers in the '60s and '70s, that were so central to whatever victories that were won in those eras. There was also what seemed to me to be an excessively rosy understanding of how successful the social democratic gains had been in actually dealing with poverty and suffering (which isn't to deny that they had real impacts, just to be realistic about how far they extended) and an even less accurate representation of the supposed unacceptability of everyday racism and homophobia in public discourse in Canada today -- as the person sitting next to me muttered, he only needs to spend ten minutes in any schoolyard to see that everyday homophobia continues to be rampant.

Also troubling was the fact that there was no analysis presented of why poverty exists. I'm not saying he had to have presented the same analysis as I would, but if you don't talk about where it comes from, how can you expect to choose actions that will get rid of it?

However, there was useful stuff too. For example, he responded in general terms to some of the key ideologies that people use to avoid dealing with poverty. He cited (in a lay sort of way) research on social determinants of health and their connection to relative poverty and other forms of social exclusion as well as absolute poverty, to blow away the sorts of denial of the very existence of poverty in Canada that you get from right-wing nutjobs like the Fraser Institute. He identified, albeit in terms that were weaker than I would like and in a way that named the particular targeting of women and youth but did not mention the targeting of racialized people, the ways in which blaming people in poverty is used to deflect attention from real solutions. He hastily dispatched the silly notion that a rising tide raises all boats. He also made some points that I think were not without value but that were overly simplistic about the potential for coexistence between a strong economy and a robust welfare state.

The goal of this campaign, which is being conducted at a provincial level and locally in many cities, is to encourage governments to set targets for reducing child and family poverty -- no one made clear why this rather artificial segment of poverty was chosen, but I presume it was because it's an easier sell politically than poverty in general -- and to create action plans for doing it. Novick's report contains a series of actions that the state needs to take, and the second stage of the evening involved a local social planner talking about a report that they have done proposing local initiatives to fit into the plan. In the final segment of the evening, we broke into small groups to discuss ways that different sectors of the community could contribute to making the community-level plan a reality. This was a nice idea, and some people in the group that I participated in, which was focused on the "community sector", made some excellent points from their own experiences of living in poverty, but the time for dialogue was nowhere near enough to really discuss things effectively or to get beyond narrow specifics tightly tied to individual experience.

As I said, both the state-level and local actions basically amount to a return to Keynesian economics and politically traditional, if somewhat technically innovative, social democracy (minus the emphasis on empowering organized labour). At least judging from the talk, the most immediate policy goals seemed to be targeted towards people who are living in poverty despite being employed, and I have serious concerns about not prioritizing increases in social assistance rates and serious reforms to remove at least the most punitive features of the system instituted by the Harris Tories. Even beyond that, if I was coming up with a series of goals, I suspect mine would be different. But to be honest, I'm not sure how much I care about that. Provided the shortcomings with respect to social assistance were addressed, I would be able to live with these goals, which sympathetic experts say could have a significant impact on poverty. But only if I had any faith at all that they might actually happen.

For me, that was the crux of the matter. The goal here is to reduce poverty, right? I have my own ideas of how the world works and what goals we should have and all of that, but I really don't like politics that are too sectarian and that fail to keep in touch with immediate, practical impacts even as they strive to address root causes, so if there was a significant move towards imperfect goals that I had faith would still have a significant impact on people's lives, then I could get on board. It might be critical support -- I think support of anything, any time should be critical -- but it would be support. But in order to convince me of that, there has to be some attention paid to mechanisms of change, to the political realities that might permit or prevent implementation. If, as it appeared from last night, the proposed mechanism of action is having a set of solid, well-supported arguments that we can use, and having groups of people come together in contexts centred around public education, dialogue that is fairly narrowly focused, and standard liberal-democratic lobbying of politicians, then there needs to be some evidence advanced that this might be successful. The implicit argument that this is just how change happens in our society is not good enough -- there are lots of ways that change happens or fails to happen, so why will this approach work in this instance?

This is particularly important to answer here and now. As I have articulated in other posts on this site over the last couple of years, it is my understanding that the gains in the decades after World War II had to do with a particular conjunction of the state of the world and the state of social movements. The world has changed and movements are very weak in North America right now, and it is my expectation that substantive, positive reforms will not be gained today using the same approaches that might have worked in 1970 or 1980. Even as limited and problematic (and based on theft and plunder in various respects) as that space was, it has now closed. So even if your goals are social democratic, it seems to me that your approaches to social change have to be radically rethought.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece of almost-evidence presented by Novick was the British example, where apparently a set of targets and timelines for poverty reduction coupled to concrete strategies has had a significant impact on levels of poverty in that country in the last five years or so. Unfortunately, this was not accompanied by any examination of what was done, how it was done, or why it happened. What were the political circumstances? What do anti-poverty activists in the U.K. have to say about these reforms? Did New Labour have space to make modest reforms that does not exist in Canada because of the legacy of the harsh transformations of the state by Margaret Thatcher in the '80s and left unreversed in many important ways by the Blair government? Does it have to do with the general revulsion for Blair's foreign policy and feeling an electoral need to buy off some segments of Labour's traditional base with a few crumbs for poor people? Was it coupled to other mechanisms of social control and workforce discipline that simply concentrated the burden on particular groups or shifted economic hardship to other types of hardship? I have no idea, but I know that lots of folks in the U.K. who are resolutely committed to fighting poverty have very little positive to say about Tony Blair's time as Prime Minister, and if his actions are the one piece of solid evidence that effective, sustainable reform in this direction can happen without reinvigorated social movements, then we need to really understand what was going on.

Though I am open to hearing other perspectives, I remain unconvinced that even modest social democratic goals -- goals which themselves should be examined critically and carefully -- will be attainable in North America in the forseeable future without the sorts of movement and community-based uprisings that convinced elites to grant concessions in the mid 20th century.

And that was a big part of what took the wind out of my sails last night -- the firm belief that even if you accept their goals as the standard for success and even if there is significant success in creating the sorts of actions they wish to use to convince the state to make change, I see very little chance that the state will actually do what is desired in the absence of other factors. Lots of other areas of difference I feel very matter-of-fact about, but this one felt key, and it was not a pleasant feeling. Along with a feeling of disconnection from others in the room -- including a few I know a little and like, and lots more that I'm sure I would given the opportunity -- there was this weird dissonance between the relative certainty I felt about my assessment of the approach being proposed and the sometimes overwhelming uncertainty I feel most of the time about the more general question of "what is to be done". I'm definitely not "blueprint guy", and I think we all need to muddle through and figure out as we go.

It was more than that, though. It wasn't just knowing that a thorough discussion of the related issues would reveal huge differences within the room underneath the apparent consensus, including revealing my own understanding as being a statistically uncommon one. It was the sense that I would speak a very different language from most of the other people present, that my conceptual universe would be significantly different, and that this would make communication difficult on a level far beyond just outlining areas of similarity and difference. And that recognition is a very dangerous thing, because it is a short step from there to seeing one's self as "special" or "better" or "having all the answers", or a short step in another direction to resigning one's self to irrelevance. Both of those are unpleasant things to feel pulled towards, and both are highly politically objectionable.

In a lot of ways, this is nothing new and the practical ways to respond amount to common political truisms about relationship building, respect, active self-criticism, balancing forthright presentation of your own analysis with lots of honest and active listening, and all sorts of other stuff about the everyday practice of a connected, non-sectarian, but radical politics. But I still find it easy to forget that though many of the broad values that I bring to my politics are widely shared, a lot of my understandings of the world are quite specific and uncommon even amongst people who share those values at a big-picture level. Like I said, this isn't necessarily bad, and I definitely try to spend more time exploring my uncertainty than I do occupying pockets of certainty about what has happened, what is happening, and what we must make happen, and only through acting and reflecting and talking together will we find a path towards transforming the world. But it is easy to forget how broad the differences in framework that separate even those who seem to share the same values can be, and it can be a disconcerting thing to be suddenly confronted with.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

CBC Pushing Paranoia About Mexican Refugees

So the question is, how many indications of white settler paranoia about immigrants with brown skin can you fit into a single article? According to the CBC, quite a few.

Let's start with the title and the lead sentence:

Windsor stressed by Mexican migrants

The city of Windsor, Ont. is struggling to deal with a surge of Mexican migrants from the United States.

The title begins by presenting the main protagonists in this story: "Windsor", as an undifferentiated corporate whole where the main state administrator (the mayor) is presented to speak for the city as a whole and in which there is no distinguishing among the various groups, classes, genders, races, or individuals that compose Windsor; and "Mexican migrants." The former is an approximate stand in for "Us," which implies "ordinary Canadians," which is definitely imbued with whiteness; the latter is a very clear "Them." A seemingly essential conflict in interests between these two groups is the grounding of the article.

There is some minimal complexification of the players later on in the article, with the admission of some conflict between the local and federal faces of the state as to some of the details of where to get the resources to respond to this situation, but at no point is the basic frame that "they" are presenting a problem for "us" that should be journalistically examined from the standpoint of that corporate "us" ever called into question. At no point is the "us" complexified in ways that show that the corporate unity in fact erases the existence people who would frame the issue much differently -- that is, they don't talk to people who are currently Canadians who migrated to this country from, say, Mexico via the United States at an earlier point, and they don't talk to people who are active in immigrant rights struggles in either country.

A basic feature of anti-immigrant discourse, of course, is the idea of the ravenous, barbarian hordes outside the gate that will consume all of our resources and destroy our civilization. The article could have been framed with the title "Neoconservative Federal Government Denies Resources to Address Need in Small Number of Human Beings Fleeing Oppression." Instead, the power dynamics are presented as the opposite of reality -- the local branch of a major industrialized state is presented as "struggling" and "stressed" and it is the oppressed racialized migrants that are "surg[ing]" and thus causing these conditions. Of course the word "surge" is presumably technically accurate in that this influx represents an increase over the regular level of newcomers from Mexico via the U.S. claiming refugee status in Windsor, but it is a political weasel word precisely because it invokes the long history of white settler panic about those outside our gates as a tide that could surge above the high walls of our border and overwhelm us. As well, the main use of "surge" in the news lately has been in the context of war and conquest, which this use cannot help but invoke as well.

The article goes on to say that these newcomers were "lured by assurances on websites that they can live and work in Canada without difficulty." The next sentence reassures readers: "But the Mexicans...have no special rights in Canada." Not only is "special rights" a commonly used right-wing code for any effort to extend rights that are rhetorically posed as universal to groups previously denied them, but this use of language implies pretty openly that to "live and work in Canada without difficulty" for "Mexicans" comes under the category of "special rights." Well, now, we certainly wouldn't want to give the impression that racialized people can come to this country and "live and work" without having to put up with some difficulty first, now would we?

In contextualizing the choice of flight to Canada, the first sentence is, "The Mexicans said they had been forced to leave the U.S. because they were illegal immigrants there." This puts the emphasis squarely on their presence in the abstract, state-defined category "illegal" without questioning that category at all and with almost no exploration of the actual lived experiences of the people thus categorized. The only nod in that direction was a quote from an individual in this group of new arrivals who said that "U.S. immigration authorities 'were chasing Mexicans, sending them back home.'" This does little to explain the situation of so-called "illegal immigrants" in the United States, including the fact that they are a category of person actively desired by some powerful interests in the country and tolerated for their now essential role in the U.S. economy that springs from the heightened exploitation that is possible because of the extra-economic state-based oppression that can be focused in their direction by being in the category "illegal". The inclusion of the quote with that usage of the word "home" also panders to white Canadian ideologies about immigrants, because the word can be easily transposed from how it was likely meant by the speaker -- that is, 'the place from which we came originally' -- to the way that many white Canadians will read it -- that is, 'the place where you belong and where you really should go now.'

Then we settle in for a few paragraphs talking about how they are a drain on "our" resources. Of course there is nothing even hinting at the problem of how the Canadian settler state is in a position to have these resources (land theft, genocide, slavery) or what indigenous nation's land these migrants were actually entering -- something I don't actually know myself. And even aside from that, though there is an allusion to this fact it is not really made clear that the amount of resources required by this very small number of people is hardly an insurmountable obstacle. It isn't even a blip, really. It's just that the part of the state that has adequate resources to respond to human need in this instance is categorically refusing to do so -- that is, it is not some numberless horde that is in danger of taking everything that the settler nation has (read: built on theft and murder), it is a small number of highly oppressed people whose needs could be met in the brief period before they found jobs with complete ease and no hardship on anyone if the federal state so wished.

The article ends with a paragraph further delegitimizing the presence of these refugee claimants: "The odds of being accepted as a refugee are not good. Fewer than 500 of nearly 3,500 Mexican applicants were successful in claiming refugee status in Canada last year." In other words, there is a presumption that the system is appropriate and fair (if this was right-wing media, the presumption would be that it is too generous, but this is the good ol' liberal CBC) and because most of these people likely won't qualify, the implication is that they really shouldn't be "surging" and causing poor "Windsor" to be "stressed" and "struggling."

It would be nice to think that this orientation is a result of a memo that came down from the Prime Minister's office to the CBC, but I'm not so foolish as to think such a thing -- the ideologies present in this article are much more reflective than that of the dominant interests in the white settler nation in Canada.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Parenting is Not a "Thing"

The title of this post was my first confused attempt last week at expressing what I think is one of the more important things I've learned about parenting as I have done it.

I was having dinner with a friend I don't get to interact with very much any more when I was down in Toronto last Friday. She is a few months away from having her first kid, so the conversation turned to children and to parenting. There was a lot of interesting stuff that came up, but I want to focus on this one particular point, in large part because it should've been fairly easy for me to communicate, because it has been at least implicitly present for quite some time in my thinking and in things I have written. However, it actually ended up being fairly tricky for me, and often writing about things helps me clarify what I think so that it becomes easier for me to communicate about them verbally in a clear and concise manner in later conversations, so that's what I'm going to do. The basic idea is that it has been my observation that parenting gets treated as a discrete sphere of human activity, a separate thing if you will, but that is not terribly accurate and perhaps even actively harmful.

Part of the difficulty in communication came because this way of trying to communicate my point actually captures two related but discrete things and, particularly given the context of the broader conversation in which this occurred, which was largely focused on various things related to gender, my conversation partner quite naturally understood me to be talking about issues related to gender socialization. By this I mean the fact that people socialized into masculinity tend to have greater expectations about a right to time that we consider our own than people socialized into femininity, and this can result in men not responding well to demands for our participation in caring labour that impinge upon these feelings of entitlement. We also grow up without much encouragement to integrate caring labour of various sorts into our lives as a whole, so at least some men -- particularly those in households with traditional heterosexual social organization around the division of labour -- can get away with seeing parenting as something that happens between, say, 7:30 and 8:30 pm rather than something that should be expected to radically reshape our entire lives.

Speaking personally, I don't think I was ever under the delusion that having a kid would have a limited, sequestered impact on me, because the deal had been all along that I would stay home with it for a significant period. Still, fully integrating that into my gut-level expectations and into my and our practice was neither quick nor easy. There was most dramatically not a balance in caring labour in the first nine months of L's life. This had to do in part with presence or absence of the equipment for nursing, but I could definitely have done a much better and faster job of getting with the program. At that point, though, I actually took on the role of being L's primary caregiver during weekdays, and things have generally been balanced at a functional level since then, though each of us were at times jealous of the kind of time that the other had that was not primarily devoted to care provision -- that is, I was jealous of my partner having regular, sizeable blocks of prime work time during the day because I felt absolutely starved for such a thing, and she felt jealous of me having time that was more broken up and less easily useable for sustained work but that was more fleixbly available for non-work activities that could serve in the preservation of sanity. And though we have largely been successful in maintaining that practical balance of the labour of caring, I know that I still deal on an ongoing basis with feelings of entitlement to "my" time.

All of which is to say, there are very important gendered aspects of expectations and (once the blessed event occurs) practices with respect to parenting, some of which have to do with masculine expectations that the impact of having a baby might be quarantined into a tidy corner of our lives. Actually organizing our lives to fulfill those expectations of quarantine can only be an expression and reproduction of gendered relations of power, so obviously it is something we need to overcome.

However, as important as that is, it isn't what I had in mind when I first made the point. What I meant is likely experienced in gendered ways, as is almost everything, but I have observed it happening in a variety of ways that are not particularly associated with masculinity. In particular, I was basing my point on observations about discourse related to parenting, both informal discourse in settings dominated by the identity "mom" and in mainstream written discourse about parenting, and in comparing that to my own ongoing wrestling with questions of how to be a parent.

My basic observation is that it is very common to talk about parenting in a way that kind of dissociates it from the rest of life. I don't mean this in the sense above of having delusions about the sort of impact that having kids will have on your life, but rather the idea that asking questions to guide our parenting practice is somehow naturally separated from thinking critically about what we do more generally and the context in which we do it. Parenting is generally something we learn to do as we do it as adults, so there is greater incentive to engage in talking and thinking about choices and practices and ethics and all sorts of things like that. However, this almost invariably happens in ways that fail to see how choices and practices and ethics about parenting are integrated into choices and practices and ethics about our lives more generally, and that, in my experience, it is very hard to come up with good answers about the former in the absence of asking good questions about the latter.

One implication of this is that we often fail to appreciate the ways in which our everyday practices shape our children even in the face of deliberate choices we make that we hope to have an opposite impact. For example, it is easy to underestimate the ways in which thus-far unprocessed nonsense that we still carry with us related to our own gender socialization gets passed on through the little things we do unconsciously every day, even in the face of more explicit things we might try to do to counter patriarchal gender socialization.

It also means we tend to ask questions insufficiently broadly. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote about parental media regulation when it comes to kids (my thinking may have evolved since then but it still says some useful stuff, I think). That's an issue where a lot of the supposed range in different approaches to parenting have to do with substituting different items on a checklist that will be permitted or not, depending on whether our orientation is more conservative or more liberal, but I have very seldom encountered situations in which parents or mainstream written parenting resources recognize that making good choices around their kids and media consumption is really integrated into the larger issue of our own understanding of what the media is, how it works, and how we relate to it. Also largely neglected are questions about the extent to which it is really a positive thing to have a policing relationship with our kids and to what extent we want to have other sorts of engagement with them on issues around media consumption.

Sexuality is another prime example -- both myself and my primary partner were far, far more powerfully shaped by the "hidden curriculum" of what we learned about sexuality from our parents than anything they might have explicitly told us on the subject, and I think that is pretty common. Yet often when you see or hear discourse about parenting and sexuality it has to do with what you tell them and when in a very simplistic way, or how to deal with potentially awkward explicit questions from children of various ages. There is seldom any discussion of the ways in which the current place that you are at in your own sexual journey relates to how you are able to parent around this issue, or about the ways in which the sexual and relationship practices that you model have an impact on your kids. And beyond a few simplistic moral platitudes, in discourse about parenting there is seldom any explicit critical discussion of sexuality in a broader social context. Yet how on earth can we fool ourselves into thinking that anything we say about parenting and sexuality will be remotely useful if we don't deal with these things?

I suspect that this shape for parenting discourse also has to do with the ways in which talking about our lives tend to be so privatized in broader discourse -- we learn to talk about ourselves in very individualistic ways, and it can be quite difficult to recognize our integration into a social landscape in how we talk, particularly if the conversation is intended as casual and informal.

Anyway, it wasn't until I was actively parenting myself that I really appreciated the ways in which we tend to treat parenting as a discrete set of activities in how we discuss our choices and approaches, rather than seeing parenting as just one more arena in which our larger understandings of how to act in the world receive their expression. And I think what makes it so hard to communicate is the very fact of its expression in the discourse that we fall into around parenting, both in written material and in how we talk casually.

I still don't feel like I'm expressing what I mean entirely effectively, but it is a start.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Review: Domestic Violence at the Margins

[Natalie J. Sokoloff and Christina Pratt, eds. Domestic Violence at the Margins: Readings on Race, Class, Gender, and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.]

I'm afraid I don't have time to do as thorough a review of this book as I usually try to do, but it is a fairly important book and I haven't actually posted a book review in an abnormally long period of time for me, so I want to get something up.

This book is a collection of essays on the experiences of domestic violence of women who tend to be marginalized both in the context of society as a whole and often in the context of mainstream theory and practice around domestic violence as well. This includes women of colour from various communities, but there are also essays that focus on working-class white women, queer women of colour, and other locations where there is important specificity to experiences of domestic violence. The book is almost entirely focused on the United States, but much of the material can be read with relevance to Canada.

There are a number of different sorts of contributions, including some obviously coming from activist spaces -- for example, the excerpt of Andrea Smith's book that is reprinted, the joint statement by Incite! and Critical Resistance, and the contribution by Julia Sudbury. However, the vast majority of the essays come from very academic spaces and are tightly locked in very discipline-bound frameworks for presenting their research and ideas. This is not necessarily a terrible thing, and often the papers were selected because they were a critical intervention introducing new ideas and new politics into the academic literature on domestic violence. But because of the way that disciplinary norms shaped so many of these pieces, I found a lot of them quite boring even if they had important things to say, and a few of them, no matter how innovative they might have been for the context in which they were published, they still contained ways of talking about the issue that I found to be politically problematic.

I would say that it is worth being aware of this book and its contents, and if this was the first time I had encountered some of these ideas I would probably be more excited about the book, but for most people the key ideas and politics that it presents can be found presented in more readible and engaging ways elsewhere. That said, if you are doing a lot of focused reading on violence experienced by women and struggles against it, then this would still be an important volume to put on your list.

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

Friday, September 14, 2007

More Canadian Colonialism

The Canadian settler state once again lived up to the name by voting against a non-binding U.N. General Assembly resolution recognizing indigenous rights.

Kind of makes me think of the reservations the Canadian state made when it ratified the convention on genocide many years ago -- anything which we couldn't deny doing to indigenous peoples in northern North America, we didn't want to be defined as genocide.

Here is a mainstream news article reporting the event -- a victory for indigenous peoples around the world, even if the four main British-descended settler nations showed their true colours in how they voted (from an email form A.L.). Here, here, and here are a few other bloggers objecting to the Canadian state's position.

Okay...I'm outta town for a few days, but I may get to post something short on Saturday, we'll see.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Surveillance, Control and the First Day of School

Yesterday was L's first day of junior kindergarten.

In a lot of the conventional senses it was not terribly traumatic for either him or me. After all, he spent a fair number of half-days at pre-school last year so he has done something kind of similar before. JK is full days here, but over the summer he spent some weeks at home with me and some weeks going to day camps that lasted for the entire day, so he is not completely unfamiliar with absences of that length. We even had a chance to go in and meet his teacher and see his classroom last week, so it wasn't completely unfamiliar territory. Yet I retain the unease I have felt since before L was born about the prospect of participation in the education system.

You see, in my mind, the best way to do education...well, the best way to do education would actually be some sort of resource centre model, I think -- something like community-based spaces that were sort of based on souped-up public libraries. Participation would be flexible, organized around meeting the needs of the community and of individual parents and children, responsive to diverse schedules and diverse desires for learning while still presenting opportunities and environments and information that said individuals might not have known they didn't have. It would be socially funded and would employ people with experience in working with radical pedagogies who might on occasion teach but would spend much of their time advising, facilitating, supporting, and accessing or creating resources for people, and in this way the centre would be a site for youth and adults to create individual and collective spaces for learning for themselves and each other.

But that couldn't happen without some fairly major social reorganization. In the world we currently live in, the best way to do education, in my opinion, is some variety of home schooling. I believe that mainstream schools encourage obedience and conformity, provide overt curriculum that reflects dominant lies about how the world works and hidden curriculum that reinforces relations of domination and subordination, and stifle creativity, originality, and spontaneous expression. Their main function has always been training youth to become workers that fit into the slots that social relations have apportioned to them, rather than critical thinking or liberatory personal and social development. Home schooling, unschooling, and various other types of non-institutional pedagogy can do better. So can other types of non-traditional institutional schools, like Waldorff or Montessori, but I have a great deal of discomfort with private schooling for other reasons.

Anyway, we're not doing home schooling with L, and that bothers me some. We're not doing it because I know that I couldn't. I would come to resent it fairly quickly because it would require enough of my time over a large enough block of years that I would feel a serious lack in terms of space for writing and other creative endeavours -- that may not reflect well on me, but I know myself well enough to know that is how things are. And that sort of resentment would not be good for anybody. As well, I have the sense that home schooling works best when the parents have a skill for proactive cultivation of social networks of various sorts for themselves and for the children, and I tend to be socially reserved, even socially anxious, and I doubt I would be able to do a good enough job of that side of things.

Which leaves the public school system. Far from ideal, but I'm approaching it from the stance of working to provide L with the tools to navigate it in ways that minimize the damage it does while taking advantage of the opportunities it offers. That's the theory, at any rate. In twenty years, maybe he can tell me how well I've done. :)

Anyway, like I said, the first day went fine, but the reason I started this post was to share some of the material in the school-wide newsletter that was sent home with him yesterday. It is a very simple document, with little blocks of text and little desktop publishing graphics sprinkled on both sides of two 8.5 x 11 sheets.

What struck me about this document was the overwhelming presence of discipline, surveillance, and control in the matters it concerns itself with. I mean, like I said, mass education has always been about those things, but I get the sense that it is significantly more severe now than when I was a kid. I'd imagine it is the educational corollary of things like food banks -- institutions that did not exist in any significant way when I first stepped into a public school in 1979, which were initially responses to a particular crisis, and which have never gone away. Except rather than responding to the bodily needs of people in the context of increasingly harsh oppression and exploitation, the increase of surveillance and control is a response to the ways in which young people respond to those shifts in the context of institutions.

The front page is largely free of this material, but it starts coming hard and heavy on the second page. There is a blurb on school safety, with issues like checking in at the office and getting visitors' passes (which, I have to say, I don't object to). There is a blurb on absences and the need to notify, including a not terribly veiled threat that if parents are not successful in coercing regular attendance from their kids then the state will harass the parents -- the "Attendance Counsellor for our school...will become involved immediately if there are concerns regarding attendance."

Along with information on the school council -- I'm thinking of participating, however ornamental and cooptive the intent -- and on allergies, the third page contains one of the most outrageous items in the newsletter. Apparently it is mandatory for any children in Grade 1 or higher to pay a supplementary fee for an agenda book, and to have that book initialled on a daily basis by their teacher and parent. Could you get any more open about the fact that you don't expect what you do to widely engender spontaneous love of learning and participation purely for that reason, and that ensuring work discipline acceptable to the capitalist employment market for which students are being prepared requires overt, daily surveillance and coercion by authority figures? Unbelievable.

And the final page includes a blurb about riding the bus, which is entirely devoted to issues of discipline, and then a section explicitly on the institution's "Positive School Discipline Plan." This includes very explicit controls on the movement of students into, out of, and within the building -- like "line up and be escorted single file down the right hand of the stairs" level of controls. It also says, "We will continue to emphasize with our students how to talk politely, how to dress appropriately and how to act respectfully at all times." I think respect, if understood in the right way, is a good thing, as long as it is nonhierarchical and reciprocal, which is not my experience of schools. I can imagine all manner of ways in which "politely" and "appropriately" get constructed in ways that are more about ease of management of subordinated people (i.e. students) than about any critical understanding of what they can mean, and that those words smuggle plenty of opportunities for oppression into that statement.

The real kicker of that section -- and, no, I'm not making this up -- is that the school has a "Planning for Success Room to help our students learn appropriate behaviour." This disgusting euphemism for a detention room becomes all the more poignant when you realize that this school is in a largely working-class area of a city in which any students who do not manage to get into the mining sector or the broader public sector have little option but insecure, minimum wage, service sector jobs to look forward to -- more than 60% of jobs in Sudbury pay less than ten dollars an hour. In that context, exactly what kind of success are these kids to plan for as they are being disciplined?

Anyway. I'm sure I'll write more about school-related stuff over the coming years, as I try to figure out an orientation that will be best for supporting L and, perhaps, for contributing to efforts to make change.

And as a palate cleanser after all of that, here is a sweet, vaguely relevant anecdote: The other day L and I were playing with stamps -- not the kind you put on envelopes, but the kind you put ink on and then press onto paper. I ran upstairs to go to the bathroom or something like that and in the couple of minutes I was gone, my newly four year-old kid had started a new page and written on it "TO DAD" and then "FUM LIAM" in letters that took almost the entire page, and added a little fishy stamp. It was pretty cool.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Queer Issues in the Ontario Provincial Election

This guide to key queer issues in the election was put together by the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario, a group with a long history in queer politics in the province that describes itself as "working towards feminism and bisexual, lesbian and gay liberation."

Here it is:

Queer Issues Election 2007

During the 2007 Ontario provincial election, ask the candidates who want your vote where they stand on these issues

No tax funding for faith-based schools

The Progressive Conservative Party proposes to provide tax funding for non-Catholic faith-based schools. They say it's an issue of fairness and will help to integrate Ontario's increasingly diverse student population into the mainstream. We say it will provide tax money, including the taxes paid by queer people in Ontario, to finance the perpetuation of homophobia by schools controlled by the religious right. Many of the denominations that run faith-based schools view homosexuality as sinful, evil and abnormal and promote life-long celibacy for queer people who refuse to be cured. It's bad enough that tax funding is already provided to Catholic schools, when Catholicism also promotes these views. Fairness does not require that more tax money be provided to promote homophobia and intolerance. Fairness requires that no tax funding of any amount be provided to faith-based schools, whether Catholic, other Christian denominations or other faiths.

More proactive measures to eliminate homophobia and create queer-positive environments in all schools

The provincial government must make it a priority of the Ministry of Education to ensure that all schools are free from homophobia - whether expressed in attitudes and beliefs, systemic biases or as acts of harassment and violence - and are safe and welcoming for queer students, teachers and staff. School safety and anti-violence programs must specifically include anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia initiatives. There must be a requirement for ensuring mandatory responses to reported incidents of harassment and violence and effective provisions for enforcement and disciplinary action. School equity policies and programs that specifically prohibit the inequitable treatment of queer students, teachers and staff must be mandatory and must include effective measures for monitoring and ensuring compliance.

Reinstate sex reassignment surgery for coverage under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan

Ontario Health Insurance Plan coverage for sex reassignment surgery was eliminated in 1998 under the former Progressive Conservative government and has not been reinstated under the Liberals. As a result, a fundamental health need is inaccessible to a majority of trans people who seek to have sex reassignment surgery because of prohibitive costs. The Ontario government must publicly fund sex reassignment surgery and related medical procedures, including access to hormones, electrolysis, and counseling, and whenever possible, ensure that these services are delivered in community-based settings.

Amend the Ontario Human Rights Code to include gender identity as a prohibited ground of discrimination

Trans people in Ontario have no explicit legislative human rights protections. In 2000, the Ontario Human Rights Commission recommended the inclusion of gender identity in the Ontario Human Rights Code to ensure that trans people have the same protections in respect of employment, housing and access to services as do other Ontarians. The failure of the Government of Ontario to act on this recommendation is unacceptable. The next government must commit to immediately amending the Code to include gender identity.

Make Your Voice Heard and Your Vote Count!

Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario
Box 822, Station A
Toronto, Ontario M5W 1G3
(416) 405-8253
e-mail: clgro(at)

(Via GK.)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

About Sudbury Anti-War/Anti-Occupation Group

The following is a short draft of a "who are we" statement by the Sudbury anti-war/anti-occupation group so far known as the March 17th Committee, though that will be changed to a less painful name shortly. All participants in the group are invited to read over the draft so that comments on this document, on a new name, and on other matters related to the focus of the group can be brought to our next meeting:

The March 17th Committee

Who are you?
We are a group of Sudbury residents that are opposed to war and occupation.

What have you done?
The group formed in early 2007 to plan an event for the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq on March 17th. We wanted to create an opportunity for people in Sudbury to voice our ongoing opposition to the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly the involvement of the Canadian military and Canadian corporations. As our focus has evolved, we have come to place increasing emphasis on talking about the fact that Canada itself exists as an occupation of the lands of indigenous peoples and on supporting indigenous struggles for self-determination.

Our actions so far have included:
  • tabling at the Earth Day fair and the Northern Lights Festival
  • screening the film 500 Miles to Babylon about life in occupied Iraq, including a Q&A period with the director
  • screening the film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance to show support for the National Day of Aboriginal Action in June
  • supporting the local War Resisters Support Committee in their work to help U.S. soldiers who seek shelter in Canada
  • supporting the defense of indigenous activist John Graham through the documentary on his situation by Native Youth Movement activist Billy Pierre

Who can join?
Anyone who is opposed to war and occupation is welcome. People in the group come from different political perspectives and different backgrounds, and our activities at any particular moment depend on who is involved. We are always looking for new members and are open to branching off in new directions related to our focus on war and occupation, so please check out our web site at, email us at ?????, or come to a meeting!

(Crossposted at the Anti-War/Occupation Sudbury web site.)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

And Speaking of Climate Change and Social Change... is an interesting column (found via Lenin's Tomb) published in The Guardian, a relatively progressive but far from radical daily newspaper in the United Kingdom, called "It's capitalism or a habitable planet - you can't have both" by Robert Newman.

Newman observes:

We are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of climate change and peak oil. Once we pass the planetary oil production spike (when oil begins rapidly to deplete and demand outstrips supply), there will be less and less net energy available to humankind. Petroleum geologists reckon we will pass the world oil spike sometime between 2006 and 2010. It will take, argues peak-oil expert Richard Heinberg, a second world war effort if many of us are to come through this epoch. Not least because modern agribusiness puts hundreds of calories of fossil-fuel energy into the fields for each calorie of food energy produced.

Catch-22, of course, is that the very worst fate that could befall our species is the discovery of huge new reserves of oil, or even the burning into the sky of all the oil that's already known about, because the climate chaos that would unleash would make the mere collapse of industrial society a sideshow bagatelle. Therefore, since we've got to make the switch from oil anyway, why not do it now?

After talking in broad terms about some possible approaches to dealing with the crisis, he concludes:

To get from here to there we must talk about climate chaos in terms of what needs to be done for the survival of the species rather than where the debate is at now or what people are likely to countenance tomorrow morning.

If we are all still in denial about the radical changes coming - and all of us still are - there are sound geological reasons for our denial. We have lived in an era of cheap, abundant energy. There never has and never will again be consumption like we have known. The petroleum interval, this one-off historical blip, this freakish bonanza, has led us to believe that the impossible is possible, that people in northern industrial cities can have suntans in winter and eat apples in summer. But much as the petroleum bubble has got us out of the habit of accepting the existence of zero-sum physical realities, it's wise to remember that they never went away. You can either have capitalism or a habitable planet. One or the other, not both.

Read the whole thing!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Elite Calls for Green Direct Actions

There are things about it that I am lukewarm about, but this is an interesting article for a couple of reasons.

It starts from the observation that both former Vice President of the United States and elite anti-global warming activist Al Gore and NASA's top climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, have advocated nonviolent direct action in response to global warming, particularly against coal-fired power plants. And even if the author of the article is doing a little bit of "active reading" to get that specific meaning from Hansen's statement, it isn't really that big a stretch, and Dr. NASA is still saying something pretty strong for someone who currently draws a U.S. government paycheque.

Gore said: "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers, and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants."

Hansen said: "It seems to me that young people, especially, should be doing whatever is necessary to block construction of dirty (no CCS) coal-fired power plants."

The article goes on to talk about what this implies for the urgency of the situation, supported by further new data which indicates -- as so much new data seems to do -- that the problem is worse than even the mainstream green consensus admits. The article also points out the hypocrisy of dumping all of the responsibility for wratcheting up the struggle on the backs of young people.

The fact that these statements are being made by such august personages is worthy of note, which is why the author of this article could, in fact, make an article out of it. And it makes me wonder exactly what the two of them really meant by their statements.

One possibility is that they don't mean them at all in any literal sense, and that advocating nonviolent direct action by youth is some sort of literary device meant to create an impression of urgency among listeners but not actually meant to be acted upon. I don't think so, though. I'll talk more below about what I think elites like Gore and Hansen could get out of such actions, but I also come to this conclusion just based on a gut-level feeling about how rhetoric tends to get used by mainstream players in elite politics in the U.S. I mean, within certain circles that I have experienced, such as institutionalized expressions of social movements like student organizations and labour organizations, you hear that sort of thing -- for example, some blowhard speaking at a student rally or a Day of Action about "closing X or Y down" if the political opponent of the moment does not grant a given demand, when you know damn well that they haven't done and are unlikely to support doing anything resembling the sort of organizing it would take to carry through on that threat. But that isn't so much a part of the politics where Gore and Co. hang out, and in a very instinctive way it just does not fit for me as an explanation of where they are coming from.

So I think it's safe to say they actually want something to happen. The question is, what?

This is a question worth asking in part because the language used by Gore and Hansen, even as narrowed by the author of the article, could mean a number of quite different things. See, generally in North American liberal discourse and practice, "nonviolent direct action" (NVDA) and its synonyms tend to be invoked with a much narrower meaning than those terms actually have to have. This liberal understanding of NVDA is often based on a romantic misunderstanding of a few pieces of history, in particular Gandhi's campaigns in India and the civil rights movement in the southern United States, and it tends to be explicitly based in a disobedience that is ritualistic and grounded in a larger loyalty to particular forms of social relations that are inextricably linked to domination. It breaks a law or two, but the overall political logic followed by those who practice it often is quite consonant with the political logic of those relations of domination, such as capital and patriarchy and the state and so on. It does not see itself as fundamentally striving for autonomy from and confrontation with ruling regimes. It is incidentally disobedient but fundamentally obedient; it violates laws created by liberal democracies with no greater goal in mind than tinkering with liberal democracy. It sees no need to elaborate a logic for political action and a larger logic for living that is independent from and in conflict with the logics that spring from social relations of domination.

Many liberals and some people/groups who understand themselves to be "more militant" than people who focus on NVDA often (and uncharacteristically) agree with one another in the assertion that this is the essence of NVDA, that there is nothing else it can be. It places the essential political divide along the line of particular sorts of differences about tactics, with all liberals and all people whose practice focuses on NVDA on one side, and all people who understand their tactical orientation to be "more militant" than NVDA on the other. While debates about tactics are important and should be ongoing, I don't think this captures the key political division. Rather, I see a division which places all liberals, many practitioners of NVDA, and quite a few in the self-identified "more militant" camp on one side, and some practitioners of NVDA and some self-identified "more militant" types on the other.

The contrast I would draw with the liberal version of NVDA (that many liberals and "militants" see as its absolute definition) is with political practices by individuals and collectives that do seek to create autonomy from and, if and when necessary, conflict with ruling regimes. They seek to create relations and political logics which spring from them which refuse relations and logics of domination and subordination, which seek to identify and oppose relations and logics of domination and subordination wherever they exist. They reject allegiance to capital and state and white supremacy and patriarchy and heterosexist domination; they understand laws because it is materially useful to understand consequences but not as in any way relating to ethics or morality, though in many cases laws of the state will accidentally agree with appropriate courses of action by whatever other logics are elaborated. Ideally, they seek to create spaces which take on sustained, oppositional existence and which can be generative centres for specific actions and campaigns. Of course, this orientation is always imperfect, always in-progress, always open to criticism from self and others, always partial (though one of the prime dangers to getting anywhere is losing sight of this fact). This is because there is no "outside" -- we cannot escape the social relations of which we are a part and the logics which they spawn, so the distinction between two paragraphs back and this is not "inside" versus "outside", it is "within and in support of" versus "within and against." Which means there is no single path, no purity. Which means this grouping encompasses people whose political practice could very well focus on a particular understanding of NVDA and it also encompasses some people who often identify their orientation towards tactics as being "more militant" than that, while others who so identify embrace markers of supposed militancy while their actions fail to do much of anything to challenge logics of domination in any significant way. And, to a significant extent, each individual and group contains elements of both sides within. Because there is no "outside", these attempts at autonomy and resistance always exist in tension with and to some extent are permeated by relations and logics of domination, and it is very easy for hard-won spaces that are created by and provide some modest shelter for different ways of knowing and being and doing to be sucked back into the orbit of domination. (At the most obvious levels, for the subset of this grouping oriented more exclusively towards NVDA, this can happen via cooptation of some sort while for those who self-identify as "more militant" it can happen through strategic state use of violent confrontation to push the group, through supposed necessity, to adopt logics and practices that are indistinguishable from the state and thereby defuse the political threat even if the claim to militancy and opposition are nominally maintained in spectacular ways. Of course, puritans on both sides tend to say that these different but related forms of cooptation are inevitable for the other, which I think is not only inaccurate but plays into the hands of those who wish to keep us divided.)

All of which is a rather long theoretical diversion to point out that a call for NVDA can actually mean a fairly wide range of different things. Do Gore and Hansen want a few instances of ritual disobedience within the overall logic of capital and the state, perhaps as a source of a little more rhetorical fuel and a spectacle of the "radical-but-pure" to stimulate greater liberal activity in more traditional reform-oriented activities, like opening pocketbooks, writing letters, and visiting elected representatives? Or do they actually want to see the blossoming of more genuinely oppositional spaces that would have sufficient capacity to make a serious impact through action, both direct and indirect, that would function independent of Democratic Party politicians and liberal establishment NGOs?

The kneejerk pseudo-radical (that is, radical sounding but not really to-the-root) answer to that question is that of course they want just the former. Certainly that is possible. The U.S. political environment is a very strange one in many ways, and particularly for people isolated in its more elite spaces, it is entirely possible that the second option in the paragraph above may not even occur to them as possible. But I don't think that is necessarily the case. I mean, I guarantee you they aren't calling for the kind of challenge to capitalist relations of production that some, including some coming from a solid history of non-revolutionary politics are increasingly seeing as necessary to deal with the oncoming catastrophe. But I think it is entirely possible that they would be quite happy to see a certain amount of the second option.

And here's why.

Though liberals throughout history have violated these standards in systematic ways for the advantage of the powerful, in terms of how people of that worldview engage in knowledge creation and in choices about action (and in constrast with the more explicit anarchy-of-the-powerful advocated by Bush et al), they value rules. Often messed up rules, when viewed through various critical political lenses, but rules nonetheless. Science as it is currently practiced is among the relations of knowledge creation based in liberal epistemologies, so generally speaking (again with lots of exceptions when it violates self-interest), the knowledge thus created gets listened to, or is at the very least considered legitimate input for debate. And science says this whole climate thingy is real and serious, and could pose substantial threats to the ongoing smooth functioning of societies organized increasingly around the generation of private profit, so the Gore-Hansen wing of elites have begun to take this threat seriously. That's one important thing that is going on.

The divisions within the capitalist class and their elite hangers-on when it comes to serious threats can roughly be divided into (a) we'll just ride it out and do what it takes to stay on top even if that means leaving lots of people to die or shooting them, and, (b) let's actually learn from what's going on and adapt, even if it means some tactical compromise, so as to make our survival at the top of the heap more likely...and beyond what is necessary to do that, we will still leave people to die and shoot them if necessary. The former is the right-wing position and the latter is the liberal position, to divide it up crudely.

In the past, the believers in the (b) approach have not flinched from using and compromising with the energy of politics originating in within-and-against, somewhat autonomous, non-elite political spaces to accomplish their goals. The particular example that springs to mind is Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. He wanted to save capitalism and thought that the hardline Wall Street position would result in disaster, so he made a deal with the Communist Party U.S.A. and its fellow travellers (which were quite strong at the time), saved capitalism, and incidentally made the lives of a certain segment of the white settler working class considerably better, at least for a few generations. I don't want to make that sound quite as baldly cooptive as it does above -- it is quite possible that compromise was the best that the left could manage in the circumstances, rather than a fulfillment of the perennial Trotskyist cry of betrayal by bad leadership, I don't know. But the point for this post is that from the elite liberal perspective, in a crisis, turning to a political force that is, at least intially, beyond your control is seen as a legitimate action. For this reason, I think Gore and Hansen would legitimately like to see radical action with momentum being generated by spaces that had some capacity to sustain themselves and that were beyond immediate elite control.

The other factor I see at work has more to do with electoral branding, in a sense. You see, though there were lots of ways that the New Deal compromise played out differently in Canada -- one being the existence of an independent social democratic party, another being the fact that both the right and the big-L Liberals saw no need for anything resembling the New Deal in Canada until after the Depression was over and World War II was well underway -- there was both a certain tendency towards alliance between the Communist Party of Canada and the Liberal Party (kept alive in the "united front against the right" orientation that the CPC has held almost uninterrupted from 1935 or so, perhaps excepting their brief anti-war period during World War II, until today) and a well-documented Liberal Party history of poaching ideas from various groupings to their left. This has been a remarkably successful approach for the Liberals, but it is becoming increasingly difficult as the global push towards neoliberalism -- that is, liberalism bereft of its social democratic accretions -- leaves less and less space for this move. They haven't completely abandoned it, but you can see in Canada where they are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from the right that do not involve impinging even slightly on privileges that capital is increasingly insisting are inviolable at this point in history. Gay marriage has been a perfect example in Canada. I think in the U.S. context I've read queer theorist and feminist scholar Lisa Duggan making a similar point, about how supporting gay marriage is an endorsement of a form of formal equality without having to do anything that redistributes resources away from elites, and is a perfect way for neoliberals to distinguish themselves from their more right-wing siblings. I think some green elite liberals see environmental issues as having a similar potential -- while the green reforms so far proposed by the mainstream are not quite as cost-free for elites as gay marriage, they are substantially less burdensome than more openly social democratic ideas. I don't think they are necessarily right about that, and I suspect the next decade will show that even the pretense of doing something that will make a difference environmentally speaking will require much sterner action, but I think the currently dominant idea is that they can brand themselves as "green" in contrast with the "grey" elites to their right while at the same time attempting to address the problems using market-based mechanisms that do not impinge on the privileges of capital in even the modest ways that Canadian social democracy managed at its peak. So having some real grassroots momentum for environmentally-focused social change, whether it is purely ritualistic or more substantive resistance, is an electoral advantage for liberal elites because they can present themselves as the moderate answer for those segments of the population who have some sympathy with the protester but no interest in too much (read: enough) substantive change.

In some ways, for people who are already active and striving to find ways to be within-and-against, to create spaces for non-elite politics that try to wrestle in meaningful ways with relations of domination and subordination, this is all academic. The fact that some elites have called for what we think should be done anyway is pretty irrelevant, and the fact that they will want to capitalize on whatever we accomplish is hardly news to anyone who knows anything about history. But I think reflecting on these calls for action by Gore and Hansen is worthwhile precisely because of what they say about how urgent the situation is -- a point the original article made, but that I hope I have expanded on a little bit in useful ways.