Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Review: Womanspirit Rising

[Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, editors. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979.]

For the next installment in my random jaunt into feminist theology -- which I am doing in the service of my social movement history project and not because I identify as Christian -- I went back to what seems to be something of a classic early survey of the field. It is a high energy mixture of reprinted material from names that even I have heard, like Mary Daly and Starhawk, and original material from young activist-scholars struggling to synthesize their faith and their politics. With sections on the feminist critique of existing theology, examination of relevant history/herstory, efforts to reform existing religious traditions in feminist ways, and exploration of creating radically new traditions, it feels like an attempt to put together a reasonably complete crash course for feminists newly searching for answers.

Many of the things that stood out the most for me in reading this book are, I think, features of the era in which it was produced. They were particularly visible in direct comparison to the somewhat more recent volume I just reviewed. Both volumes, for instance, acknowledge kinship between Christian feminist theology and post-Christian (often Goddess-oriented) feminist theology as well as real differences, but this volume includes much more of the latter and seems more interested in treating them as different answers arrived at by different women who started from much the same place and are on similar journeys. I would imagine this reflects a gradual erosion of the sense of common purpose among feminists who made different choices about how to deal with experiences of disjuncture between their faith and their feminism. As well, though both volumes are political by any meaningful standard and both contain scholarly material, this one has a much more boisterous, activist tone to it, while the later one is definitely more academic. It is not uniform across all of the essays, but in this one there is more of a sense of feminism-as-movement, while you can see a significant shift towards feminism-as-shared-discourse but less centrally as movement (at least for the authors) in the other.

A number of political problems with this book also take the visible forms that they do in part because of the era in which it was written. A key example is the subtitle: A Feminist Reader in Religion. If taken literally, this phrase might create expectations of a much broader project than the volume actually realizes. Though it claims the general category "religion," it is specifically a book about Christianity, Judaism, and Goddess-oriented spiritualities that some women from both of those traditions have adopted. And though this is always a risky area for speculation when noone self-identifies, it seems pretty clear that all of the voices that it publishes from within those traditions are the voices of white women. As well, and not surprisingly, it deploys some key feminist concepts from that era -- things like "sisterhood" and "consciousness raising" -- in ways that do not account for subsequent challenges to how they do or do not deal with diffference among women.

That said, there was something about the energy of the book that I found quite engaging, even though it was kind of disorienting for me. It was disorienting, I think, because of the passion many of the contributors felt for answering questions that I feel no particular impulse to ask. The book, while recognizing that this is an oversimplification, roughly divided feminist efforts to transform religion between those which aim to reform existing traditions and those which it describes as "revolutionary," which seek to found new traditions. On the level of relating to imagery, text, and doctrine, I find the "revolutionary" approach much easier to understand as a strategic choice. But I really do not understand the need which drives it. At the level of experienced need, I have a much easier time understanding the need that the "reformist" contributors exhibit to remain a part of the traditions in which they were raised. At least in part, that need is a social need, a need to belong, a need to remain meaningfully connected to loved ones and to a larger social community. I get that. Of course, the "revolutionary" contributors experience that social need as well, and find it met in the new communities which they form. But they also make more visible that all of these contributors experience not just social need but also a need that is filled by ritual, myth, imagery, and collective stories. That is what I find harder to understand. And I'm not sure why. I mean, on an intellectual level I certainly get how important all of those things can be. And I can even see how I meet those needs in myself by looking to spaces and practices that are not religious, so perhaps it is just that the places that they look feel unfamiliar to me. But I think it is not just lack of familiarity -- they seem to feel a need for a coherence in ritual, myth, imagery, and collective stories that I don't experience, and a need for some sort of metaphysical content that I not only do not feel like I need but that I would find actively off-putting.

All of that takes on a more collective, political dimension when I connect it back to reflections about the era in which the book was written versus the present day. It is quite clear from the ways in which these women write about their spiritualities that they see themselves as doing that work in the context of a broader movement, and creating resources that will provide spiritual sustenance for individual women in that movement as well as creating opportunities for greater cohesion and therefore greater political accomplishment for the movement as a whole. But I'm not sure it has really worked out that way. I know they made important inroads in certain aspects of mainstream Protestant Christianity in Canada at an institutional level, and have created resources that Christian feminists in various denominations have found useful. I also have known women with a committed, Goddess-centric religious practice of one sort or another. So the work done by these pioneers persists. But given the ways in which feminist movements have changed in the intervening years in terms of how they are socially organized and what they do, I think these resources are currently used only by isolated pockets and not in the generalized way that I think their creators hoped. Why is that? Perhaps just a shift in the times. Perhaps the creators just dreamed too big, as I think all creators should do. But it may have to do with what it means to do work at the level of myths and symbols in the service of social change...and I'm not quite sure what I mean by that, but I think it means both accepting that such work is an important part of social change but also recognizing that shared myths and symbols can really only emerge organically through shared struggle, and even then it will happen in unpredictable ways. As well, we need to recognize that political collaboration in the absence of that kind of sharing is going to be fundamental to any project of social transformation -- there is no way that everyone we will need to work with is going to think like us at that level. So investing too much hope in cohesion through shared myth and symbol is also a political risk.

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

Short Quote: History

History, therefore, is nothing but a compilation of the depositions made by assassins with respect to their victims and themselves.

-- Simone Weil

Monday, April 28, 2008

Six Nations Spokesperson re. Solidarity Blockade of Highway 6

Check out this short interview with a spokesperson of the Six Nations of the Grand River Men's Council (sorry I couldn't catch his name from the recording). He talks about the blockade that Six Nations people have put up at their reclaimed territory in Caledonia, Ontario, in solidarity with the Mohawk people of the Tynedinega Territory, who have recently been subjected to police attack.

The interview was done yesterday by members of the CUPE 3903 First Nations Solidarity Working Group, and was originally posted on the Upping The Anti site.

Colonial Reporting

First, read the article. Here is the text of a story from CBC reporting that indigenous activists from Six Nations have put up a roadblock at the site of land to which they have been asserting their rights in Caledonia, in solidarity against police attacks on activists at the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory:

Renewed Six Nations blockade pushing residents to the brink: Caledonia mayor

A renewed Six Nations blockade of a southern Ontario highway is pushing residents to the brink and is paving the way for a repeat of violent clashes between protesters and town residents, the mayor of the beleaguered town said Monday.

As the Opposition calls for the Ontario government to immediately break off all talks with Six Nations until the roadblock comes down, Haldimand County Mayor Marie Trainer said some Caledonia, Ont., residents have already talked about taking the law into their own hands.

The frustration comes after Six Nations protesters closed the town's highway bypass to show support for fellow aboriginals in eastern Ontario.

After more than two years of living with the Six Nations occupation of a former housing development in the town, Trainer said people have had enough.

"This shouldn't be allowed," Trainer said in an interview. "Enough is enough. Something has to happen. This nonsense can't continue."

In eastern Ontario, provincial police removed a roadblock Monday set up by aboriginal protesters on a rural road near the town of Deseronto.

The protest west of Kingston escalated on the weekend when police arrested Mohawk leader Shawn Brant at a traffic stop. Two officers were injured and a cruiser window was smashed after Brant's supporters rushed to the scene and clashed with police.

On Monday, the Highway 6 bypass around Caledonia remained blocked by Six Nations protesters in a show of solidarity and said they won't remove the blockade until police back down around Deseronto.

In 2006, the bypass, the town's main road, and the rail line were all blockaded after police raided the occupation site. The weeks that followed saw a number of clashes, some violent, between Six Nations protesters and Caledonia residents.

The renewed blockade is forcing motorists to go through Caledonia, straining a heritage bridge which is up for repairs in a few weeks, Trainer said.

It's putting even more strain on residents, some of whom have gathered near the occupation site to discuss taking action on their own, she said. The blockade was enforced by more than 100 people, along with fires on either side of the road, Trainer added.

"I don't know what to do," she said. "I'd have a sit-in in front of the prime minister's office or the premier's office if it would help. I don't know what to do anymore."

Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said the Liberal government has allowed the situation to escalate by tolerating law-breakers in Caledonia. The province should suspend talks with Six Nations and send a message through the courts that blockades aren't tolerated, he said.

"The government can send every signal that it possibly can — we're not going to put up with lawless behaviour and we're not going to sit at negotiating tables with people who break the law," Tory said. "They have encouraged this sort of thing to spread."

Six Nation protesters have been occupying the former housing development site in Caledonia for more than two years, saying the land was wrongfully taken from them by the Crown two centuries ago.

The province, federal government and Six Nations are trying to negotiate an end to the occupation and resolve the land claim. Six Nations recently rejected a $26-million federal offer to settle the flooding of aboriginal land along the Grand River 179 years ago during the building of the Welland Canal.

This reporting is colonial because:

  • Settlers -- that is, those of us who benefit from colonization in material ways -- are permitted humanizing emotional rationales. Settlers in Caledonia have been "pushed to the brink" by the land reclamation, and are experiencing "frustration." Nowhere is any attempt made to portray humanizing emotional rationales for the indigenous people involved...nowhere does the article explore in a sympathetic way how they might feel after several centuries of cultural genocide, everyday racism, violation of treaties by settlers, and unremitting land theft.

  • Only settlers are directly quoted in the article. No indigenous people are quoted.

  • The events in Tyendinaga, to which Six Nations people are responding with the renewed blockade, are described completely inadequately. The viciousness of the police treatment of indigenous people there is left out. As well, the underlying colonial injustice to which activists in Tyendinaga have been responding is also not mentioned.

  • It portrays the settler population as monolithic in its opposition to struggles by indigenous peoples, which is nonsense. I know that there is a group in Caledonia that has been organizing in support of Six Nations -- don't know much about what they've been doing lately, but I know they exist and they have a track record. Not all settlers have as little concern for justice as those quoted in the article.

  • John Tory's points about "lawless behaviour" are what has become standard right-wing talking points in response to indigenous struggle. There is also a standard response to it, which points to the long history and current reality of settlers and the institutions which supposedly represent us breaking treaties, stealing land, stealing children, policing indigenous communities in racist ways, destroying cultures, legislating apartheid, and lots of other things, and those same institutions refusing to stop those oppressive behaviours which continue in the present and refusing to undue the damage to indigenous peoples caused by criminal settler behaviours which happened in the past. Just finding someone to make this point would only have created the sort of superficial balance that you often find in the media, rather than the deeper sort of responsibility to facts that is theoretically possible, but even superficial balance was apparently beyond this reporter.

  • The final paragraph includes the line about the Six Nations refusal of money offered in a settlement with little context. Not sure if this is the case in the situation they describe or not, but if it was cash offered for extinguishment of title then it is hardly surprising that it was turned down no matter how large it was. Turning down the cash isn't about greediness, it is about a particular relationship to the land and about a vision for long-term survival of nations which is seen to depend upon that relationship to the land. Mentioning it the way this story is likely to activate racist stereotypes about native peoples in the settler imagination -- things like "lazy" and "greedy" and "never satisfied."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

More Political Prisoners in Ontario

Another example of the more blatant side of 21st century colonialism in Canada:


Ontario Jails Five More First Nations People Involved in Land Struggles

(Sunday, April 27, 2008 -Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory) Five men from Tyendinaga are in jail today bringing the total number of First Nations people in Ontario jails for defending their land to 12.

Ontario, it appears, has opted for the incarceration of First Nations people over the resolution of outstanding land issues as their status quo.

As for the Ontario Provincial Police, it appears the adoption of Justice Linden's Ipperwash Inquiry recommendations is experiencing some delay. While in custody at the Napanee Detachment several different officers repeatedly informed Shawn Brant that they were going to "slit his throat" and that he was a "dead man."

This followed a similarly disturbing incident that occurred on Monday, April 22nd during the road closures in Deseronto when an officer on the scene clearly and audibly commented to her colleagues "we should just shoot them (Mohawks) all."

Meanwhile, road closures continue in Tyendinaga and Six Nations until, as one man said, "We finish the job."

Contact: Jay Maracle: 613-243-4993

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Peak Oil, Agriculture, and Practical Resistance

Check out "The Politics of Food is Politics" by De Clarke and Stan Goff.

Shows I should pay closer attention to mainstream media...I hadn't realized that certain implications of peak oil plus the financial crisis that began with the subprime mortgage fiasco had been showing up in mainstream media stories...I knew they had already been causing misery and that more is rushing towards us, but I hadn't realized that circumstances had pushed the dominant media to actually pay a bit of attention...things like food riots and folks at the centre of the financial system predicting gas at $1.40/L in months and $2.25/L in a few years.

I find it very easy to let the bleakness of this future picture fall from view -- a mark of extreme privilege on a global scale if ever there was one, but also a byproduct of the magnitude of it all. Clarke and Goff point towards "the beginning of the collapse of the air travel industry and a global crisis of food-price inflation." It is probably three years since the first time I mentioned something on this blog about thinking related things were likely to happen sooner or later. But on the level of lived I said, it easily fades before the bustle of the everyday. It's hard to guess what the full spectrum of downstream consequences might look like, but pieces of it are all too clear -- class divides here in Sudbury (and globally) will sharpen as food costs skyrocket and welfare cheques stagnate, and as physical mobility is tied ever more tightly to class privilege; the state will turn to the gun more quickly in conflicts with indigenous people over land and resource extraction; open violence will become more central in maintaining global social relations, and the space for Canada/Canadians to pretend we have nothing to do with that violent enforcement will evaporate. Those are just off the top of my head.

Anyway, the real focus of the article is on the agricultural industry. It was particularly interesting, given that I live in a city that exists because of mining, to see the authors point out the ways in which all other industries, especially agriculture, have taken on the logic of mining over the last 200 years. This has resulted in a food system which is heavily dependent on fossil fuel inputs and produces food that is inferior in taste and nutrition. It also means that the vast majority of us in industrialized countries can be held hostage by the threat of starvation: our only access to food is through the market, so we are entirely dependent on the wage. In all sorts of circumstances, from strikes to wife abuse, "Food dependency has always been the most essential weapon of the oppressor." A key factor in future resistance will be decoupling food from money in very practical, on-the-ground kinds of ways: "There is quite simply no independence, and little hope of a sustained resistance, without food security. Nor is there any way to get there (to a state of food democracy or food security) without relocalization as our most fundamental precondition" [emphasis in original].

They write:

Past revolutions began not with ideas in isolation; they began with facts-on-the-ground. By the time the French overthrew their aristocracy, that aristocracy was already moribund except for its political power. In every other realm, the businessmen who led the revolution were already dominant. The revolution evolved through the Kairos of history -- through slowly maturing metatrends -- which then interjected itself into the here-and-now Chronos of politics. The Kairos of history, in our time, is the long arc of fossil fuel depletion and the inevitable collapse of intricate profit-taking systems and hyper-extraction strategies predicated on unlimited cheap energy. "Just throw petroleum at it" is not going to work any more, This means that deep contradictions and crises papered over by desperate energy-intensive bandaids will become visible and painful (and they are, already).

The industrial food system is riddled with such crises and contradictions, barely papered over by throwing ever-more petroleum at it. It has reached a breaking point, and popular discourse is not unaware of this (as we may infer from the groundswell of popular nonfiction books highly critical of the system). The exposure of these fault lines -- and the intimate nature of food, for us social primates -- can be highly politicizing for large numbers of people; and whatever the ideological effects, the praxis of food autarky and community-through-food can only enhance our chances of survival and resistance during a period of (potentially) extreme dislocation.

The kitchen garden -- the "victory garden" -- represents not only the ability to sustain resistance (or aggression) against a foreign enemy, but the ability to resist domestic authority and to withdraw, at least partially, from the money economy and the wage-slavery and debt on which it is based.

Capitalism began by kicking people off their land and forbidding them to grow their own food; the end of capitalism may come when people who grow their own food and share it with neighbors are able to say a resounding No to capitalism's end-phase exterminism.

Read it.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: Women's Voices

[Teresa Elwes, ed. Women's Voices: Essays in Contemporary Feminist Theology. London: Marshall Pickering, 1992.]

My work-inspired, non-Christian but shaped-by-Christianity and aiming-to-be-respectful exploration of feminist theology continues with this book. It collects works from feminist theologians working in academia in the U.K. All but one are working in Christian traditions, and the other is Jewish.

For the most part, the essays in this short collection address quite specific topics, though the final two were clearly staking out positions on differing sides of the Christian feminist theology versus post-Christian feminist theology debate. The other essays looked at questions like the use of "Father" in Christian discourse, the doctrine of the Trinity and how to relate that to feminism, the relationship between different feminisms and different Mariologies, and a feminist Christian look at theodicy (the problem of evil). The one Jewish contribution examined women in the creation stories in Genesis. Overall, I enjoyed most of the essays, though my experience of reading them was certainly shaped by the fact that I am approaching this topic with little background and am not invested in the field's various debates. My favourite contribution was "Feminism and Christian Ethics" by Linda Woodhead, which managed to say things that resonated with debates very central to my own life journey despite locating at least part of its grounding in Christianity, a tradition with which I do not actively identify. There was also one essay which I found utterly appalling -- it was basically an exercise in anti-trans bigotry, which more or less openly equated transness with mental illness.

Because this is only the second book I've read in what will be a fairly scattered and random exploration of feminist theology, most of the things that it made me think about were not particularly specific to its content but more general responses to the entire enterprise of feminist Christian and post-Christian theology.

One element of that was a certain amount of respect for the ease with which this tradition seems to deal with life across a broad range of scales. At least based on my limited sampling, a recognition of the importance of the micro, the macro, and what lies in between seems to come quite easily to feminist theology. I suspect it owes this both to its feminist roots and its theological roots. My reflection on this placed it in implicit contrast with the secular left, where relating micro and macro is often more tortured, if it is prioritized at all. This is partly because, though there can be some overlap in the micro between these traditions, the theological versions of the macro often have a certain elegance and coherence that secular left macros could not and should not want to match. But I think there is also something in there about differences in priorities that perhaps secular leftists who claim to prioritize politics beginning from whole, embodied people could learn from.

A larger part of the thinking sparked within me by this book was about different ways of relating to texts. It would be hard to come up with a generally accepted definition of "Christian" that did not include some sort of respect for the authority of the tradition's governing text, the bible. Certainly the form of that respect varies immensely, and can be one of the key points of conflict among different versions of Christianity. But it seems to me, and I think to most Christians, that in order for claiming that label to make any sense, some sort of connection to the bible as a primary document must be maintained.

In one way or another, it seems that much of feminist theology is about figuring out how to construct a relationship to that foundational text that maintains sufficient relationship to claim the label "Christian" while at the same time making it a liberatory relationship for women. The tricky thing about this is the fact that feminisms are bodies of ideas, discourses, and practices that do not have any necessary sympathetic connection with Christianity, so creating a synthesis of the two is a major undertaking. A key question is how compatible they really are. I can see how some feminists have taken the position that it is not possible to synthesize the two in any satisfactory way, or that it is just not worth the effort. I can also see how others, while acknowledging the magnitude of the task, feel that their experience of both will be enriched by the other.

Despite that sympathy for different feminist responses to synthesizing their feminism and their Christianity (or Judaism), when I relate it all more directly to my own political practice I am filled with suspicion about any need to cling so tightly to a particular foundational text. Which is kind of a complicated reaction, because it is not like I treat all texts in a uniformly tentative, distancing sort of way -- some I embrace and integrate deeply into my view of the world, others I hold on to as provisionally useful but subject to a more active sort of constant reevaluation, while still others never get past the lobby. I think my suspicion is not in response to people having sustained regard for a particular text, but from that regard being felt necessary as an essential marker of legitimacy rather than because of a utility, beauty, or challenge contained in the text itself -- the kind of relationship you can find in some Christians and some Marxists for their respective founding documents, where they are searched for wisdom because of the reverence in which the searchers hold them a priori rather than holding them in reverence and searching them because of the wisdom (beauty, challenge) they continue to demonstrate. Which is not, I want to emphasize, a comment on either set of founding documents, but on how some people relate to them.

But then again, maybe it is that as well. After all, both of those sets of foundational texts have been involved in the organizing of some pretty oppressive sets of relationships and practices, including patriarchal ones, in the real world. When you look at the role of the bible in organizing patriarchal relations for two millenia or (for some parts of it) more, it becomes easy to lean towards those feminists who wish to continue to explore spirituality but do it in a post-Christian context. It is tempting to conclude that despite the efforts of Christian feminist theologians to synthesize the two traditions to which they are loyal, it is hard to believe that with that record of the last two thousand years that any result of that reclamation is really integral to the founding document. As someone outside of that tradition, it isn't for me to say, but I certainly wonder. On the other hand, perhaps the reasonable insight here is not about Christianity being any more irredemable than any other collection of discourses, practices, and relations that emerge from spaces that are patriarchal and oppressive in other ways -- which is to say essentially all human-produced discourse, practice, and relations. Perhaps it is more indicative that any organizing text of sufficient complexity will have such a breadth of possible relationships to embodied practices and relations in the material world that it can be taken up for both oppressive and liberatory purposes, and therefore using a particular text as the ultimate arbiter of worthiness and its opposite is a dead end. Perhaps it is an argument for treating texts as tools rather than authorities. Perhaps it is a sign that the best bottom line is human experience and that we must ultimately hold texts accountable to that experience rather than the other way around.

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

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What Would It Mean To Win?

Check out the video that is embedded at the bottom of this page. It is a 40 minute documentary (mostly in English with French subtitles) called "What Would It Mean To Win?". It was shot on the barricades at the anti-G8 protests in Heiligendamm, Germany, last summer. It contains a lot of thought provoking analysis by the participants about what they are doing, why they are doing those things, and, ultimately, what it means to win in struggles against global capitalism. It doesn't preach ultimate answers, but it asks questions upon which we all need to be reflecting as we move forward in our everyday struggles. (Thanks to GK for the link.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Review: Jesus was a Feminist

[Leonard Swidler. Jesus was a Feminist: What the Gospels Reveal about His Revolutionary Perspective. Plymouth, UK: Sheed & Ward, 2007.]

As I recently wrote my work means I will, for the next little while, be reading some material about relationships between feminism and Chrisianity. I do not identify as Christian but it is part of what has shaped me, so I am eagerly anticipating the challenge of responding in meaningful, respectful ways to writing that I relate to much differently than to most of what I review on this site. (For more about where I'm coming from in this area, read this.)

Leonard Swidler is a liberal Catholic who published an article of the same title as this book in 1971. It received a lot of attention, particular from feminists and pro-feminists in various Christian denominations who were coming to feminist consciousness and struggling with how that related to their faith. Much has been written in the intervening decades, and Swidler himself consciously moved on to writing about other things as increasing numbers of feminist theologians have intervened in their faiths, but he recently decided to revisit the topic and treat his original thesis in more depth.

The book is divided into three sections. The first provides integrated analysis of the situation of women in the ancient world and how Jesus talked about, taught to/about, and related to women in that context. Then follows a detailed, passage-by-passage analysis of all major mentions of women in the four gospels. The book ends with a briefer treatment of passages about women in the rest of the New Testament, and a very quick survey of the misogyny that came to dominate Christian theological writing in the centuries immediately following the era of the New Testament.

Swidler reaches a number of conclusions. He declares Jesus (whom he refers to at Yeshua) a feminist. He asserts that the Gospel of Luke was based on a proto-document that he hypothesizes was written by a woman, and that the gospel usually attributed to John was based on a preliminary document by (and produced by a nascent faith community organized around) Mary Magdelene (a biblical figure). He says that without women followers and their efforts, Christianity would not at all resemble what it is today. And that Jesus' feminism was quickly supressed in the generations that followed him and is only now being rediscovered.

As I said, this kind of work is new to me. One implication of this novelty is that it was not always clear to me what in Swidler's text is idiosyncrasy and what is accepted practice in the field. The exceedingly close reading of the four gospels, apart from being repetitive and disjointed at times, felt to me like a very peculiar way of relating to text. It was like a cross between a certain kind of orthodox Marxism and a fussy lawyer with a practice in contract law, but not that either. Sometimes the arguments made in this way felt plausible. Sometimes they really didn't. I'm no stranger to reaching broad conclusions by actively relating written words to the contexts that produced them and in which they are read, but doing that at two millenia distant seems potentially sketchy.

I also wonder about the politics of projecting language and concepts and categories back so far. That's an issue when looking back 50 or 100 years too, which is the timeframe I'm more used to dealing with, but it seems to me it looms larger as distance increases.

A minor example of this is one extremely unconvincing line of argument Swiddler uses for Jesus' feminism. He takes a number of paired characteristics that are stereotypically associated with masculinity and femininity, demonstrates that Jesus exhibited both in each pair via quotes from the gospels, and concludes Jesus was androgynous -- that is, exhibited the full range of human characteristics -- and therefore embodied the feminist imperative to overcome the patriarchal, hierarchical, gendered dualism represented by those paired characteristics. I have trouble believing this approach demonstrates much of anything, though. You could probably find quotes from any person with a reasonably documented life that "proved" the same thing, regardless of their politics or practice of gender. More significantly, though he makes a big deal in the text of how these characteristics are socially constructed, he takes no account of how "normal" ways of doing gender must therefore be historically contingent so you would have to figure out how gender was organized way back then to even think about doing this sort of analysis in a meaningful way.

I also wonder about the implications of projecting "feminism" back 2000 years. Certainly there were gendered relations of power back then; they ebbed and flowed with social change; and there was struggle related to them, albeit organized very differently than in, say, twentieth century North America. Such a phenomenon needs a label and what better name than "feminism" and "feminist"?

At the same time, using those labels too uncritically seems pretty dangerous to me. It risks flattening the real and important differences in context. If we do that, we end up with a poorer understanding of the past and a less grounded sense of how the past might be relevant to the present. Moreover, using "feminist" in this way is one ingredient towards framing the basic quesiton as "Was Jesus a feminist?", and getting a binary yes or no answer that has little room for understanding what that really means. Applying that label gives us the illusion that we understand what it means, when really we should assume that we know almost nothing about how it might be applicable 2000 years ago without close examination. Instead, the book should ask, "How did Jesus' teaching and practices contribute to undermining patriarchal relations in his era, and how did they leave patriarchal relations undisturbed or even reinforce them?" This lack of nuance through dehistoricizing use of the term "feminist" was made even worse because the author said little about the political content of the feminism he embraces in the present, so we have to guess what exactly is being projected backwards.

The main approach Swidler uses to show that Jesus deserves the label "feminist" is to contrast his words and actions as recorded in the gospels with the existing norms of the society in that particular time and place. This avoids rather than addresses the issue of what complicity Jesus and his teachings might have had in patriarchal relations, if any. I'm a firm believer that you cannot end up with good analysis unless you make a point of considering not just virtue but also complicity. However, provided the contextual material is accurate -- and I don't know enough to say either way, but I don't see why it shouldn't be -- then the book does successfully demonstrate that Jesus' approach was considerably more open to gender equality than the social context in which he was operating, or than most Christian theologians and churches since that time. This is not an unimportant conclusion, and could be a useful tool as feminists and their allies within various denominations struggle for reform. Still, a less historically flat approach to the analysis could potentially yield a lot more insight.

Also of concern is the danger of theological anti-semitism contained in this approach. Now, I don't know much about theology, so I probably would have trouble telling theological anti-semitism from my elbow, but from what I understand one way that it has historically manifested is by Christians emphasizing the great things that Christ brought by denigrating how Jewish culture/religious practice did things before that point. A very common example is the simplistic "Old Testament = barbaric and brutal" vs. "New Testament = compassionate and enlightened" dualism that is so much a part of much Christian-derived commonsense about the bible, and is even reflected in widespread figures of speech. Though Swidler explicitly says at one point that he is not intending to do this sort of thing, I think it is at least possible that he ends up doing it anyway. And this is partly because or organizing the book around a fairly one-dimensional question and a fairly flattened, dehistoricized usage of the word "feminist," whose applicability is evaluated as a sort of gold-star, presence or absence, merit badge sort of thing...that approach invites the simplistic understanding that implicitly denigrates Judaism.

In terms of Swidler's other conclusions, I'm not sure I'm qualified to pronounce upon them in any definitive way, but I certainly have gut reactions. His arguments about the authorship of two of the gospels were interesting -- I found the one about Luke quite uncompelling, though the one about John, which he refers to as "the Fourth Gospel," to be somewhat more plausible. I'm not sure he really proved his point about the essential role women played in Christianity becoming what it is, but I'm not really sure he needs to because it seems patently obvious to me -- no large-scale human endeavour would ever have amounted to anything without the labour of women. And his observations about the misogyny that quickly took centre stage in Christain theological writings seem similarly unoriginal but accurate.

So I would say -- again, keeping in mind that I am not approaching this as an expert -- that this book does some sound and politically useful work, but it also includes some stuff that feels less sound to me, and is politically troubling.

A couple of final observations: It was interesting to see how this book illustrated the fact that patriarchal relations are socially constructed, historically contingent, and imposed, even though there are ways that it does not deal with such things in as nuanced a way as I would like. This interests me because of how easy it is to fall into the trap of assuming that everything that existed before 1970 was uniformly and ahistorically patriarchal, and it is only through struggle since then that any changes in the primordial patriarchy have been won. But lots of things that we easily project back from the middle-class white U.S. of the 1950s to the entire rest of human history were imposed in specific times and places by specific people, and have always been the subject of different sorts of struggle. In the case of this book, Swidler shows that some of the most blatantly sexist aspects of Christianity, which generations have been told were "just how things are," were not natural, not inevitable, not inherent in the religion, but imposed in an active way.

It was also interesting to see to see the occasional flash of evidence of the growth of Christianity as social process -- the fact that there were nascent faith communities, often organized around a leader or small circle, which grew and gradually cohered into "the church" through active conflict and negotiation, or were expelled into heresy. I'd like to learn more about that process, if for no other reason than because it seems pretty clear that these early Christians could organize like nobody's business.

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

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The One About Religion

The chapter of my social movement history project on which I recently started to work focuses on the story of a woman who played an important role in bringing feminist challenge to mainstream Protestant Christianity in Canada.

This means that I will be reading books and articles related to that theme, which means I will be thinking about it, which means I will most likely be writing things on this blog that are related to it. Now, I do not identify as Christian, nor does religion play any explicit role in how I think about the world. Yet I have deep respect for many people who ground their social change work in their faith, and I do not actively embrace the label "atheist" either. (Or "agnostic," for that matter.)

The purpose of this post is to situate myself with respect to a topic I don't usually think or write about. Partly, this is for my own benefit, as a way to explore some things as I gear up to write the chapter. Partly, it is to create something I can refer back to so that in any posts I might write on the topic over the next few months I don't have to keep repeating assurances that my view of the world is not evolving in new and unexpected directions for those who know me, and guidance about who I am and who I am not for those who don't.

So here goes.

# # #


The first thing to note about religion's role in my life is my indifference to it.

You don't have to go too far back to find people in my family who took religion quite seriously. One of my grandfathers was an elder in his Presbyterian church in Scotland. The other was put through university by his Lutheran congregation in southern Ontario, on the understanding that he would become a minister, though before going into his final year he changed his mind and went into teaching instead. That grandfather's father-in-law was a lay preacher in the Methodist church, and a more distant ancestor of uncertain connection was the founding pastor of two or three Lutheran churches in the Perth County region of southern Ontario. (At the funeral of a great-aunt in 1995 or so I was in one of those churches...a picture of said Reverend was on display, and it looked strikingly like my father.)

I grew up attending mainstream Protestant churches, first a Lutheran one and later Presbyterian. We went semi-regularly -- not every week, but certainly not just at Christmas and Easter, either. This provided occasions for me to think about religion. And I did, a bit. I made two attempts to read the bible cover-to-cover as a kid, both of which stalled in long lists of "begats." When I was old enough to convince my mother that I would get more out of sitting in church than going to the Sunday School, which I couldn't stand, I actually did listen to and reflect on the words of the sermon, at least when I wasn't distracted by making up stories based on the images in the many stained glass windows of the church we were attending at that point. I even went to confirmation classes and was officially confirmed into the Presbyterian Church, though this was more out of a sense of obligation than any active desire or sense of real connection to (or even interest in) the teachings I was supposedly embracing. In the home in which I grew up, we said grace when certain older relatives were over for a meal, but not otherwise. Religion was not a topic for reflection or conversation; church was just some place we went on Sundays. Though the minister in the last church I attended was a good speaker and an intelligent man, I didn't feel like I was getting much in the way of personal meaning from being there. It wasn't meeting any need for community that I might've felt. I certainly never felt any particular need to buy into the metaphysics that were on offer, even if I absorbed other aspects of the teaching (see below). At some point in my earlyish teens I quietly stopped going, with little struggle or fanfare. The only member of my immediate family of origin who still actively participates in a faith community in any regular way is my mother, who now attends a Unitarian Universalist fellowship -- that's a peculiar denomination that has its roots in liberal Protestant Christianity but is now a creedless faith with modestly progressive (and occasionally activist) inclinations (though sometimes, in my opinion, a troubling and appropriative relationship to other traditions).

In my life today, I don't embrace, but my rejection is passive rather than vigorous. I never ask what Jesus might have done. It would never occur to me to relate my choices to scripture. I don't read books about religion for fun or enlightenment. I ask "what does it all mean" with, I think, unusual regularity, but it takes me places other than Christianity. I don't attend church and I don't in any sense miss attending church. I have not been afflicted by that strange-to-me need (experienced by many people at my age who are not particularly religious) to reconnect with some sort of church, ostensibly for "the sake of the children." I don't seek to explain my life or the world via religious ideas, nor do I use religious concepts when passing commentary on life and the world.

On the other hand, my perception of self and life and world is not primarily organized around embracing a vigorous rejection of religion, either. I don't call myself "atheist," though I suspect at least some who organize their lives around the identity "Christian" would see little difference. Some on the left seem to have a cultivated contempt for religion, even when found in people who also seek a just and liberatory world. I understand the kinds of harm done in the name of faith that can give rise to that attitude, but I have never understood the way that some people allow knowledge of another's religiosity get in the way of the usual process of making grounded personal and political judgments about how to relate to them.

Mostly, at least in the course of everyday life and at the level of explicit words and frameworks and ideas, I just ignore religion.

# # #

Indifference As Privilege

Being able to be indifferent to the faith of one's forebearers, at least on the level of everyday life, is a privilege.

To have the space in which indifference is even an option, it helps to not be facing oppressions that push towards identification with ancestral religion as a tool of mutual aid, struggle, self-defense, or solidarity. It helps that there is absolutely nothing to make me feel that by failing to embrace this part of my ancestry I am somehow agreeing with a dominant culture that hates that part of my ancestry and my self, precisely because that ancestry is the dominant culture. It helps that there is nothing to make me feel that, through my indifference, I am betraying in very real ways people that I care about and whose good opinion matters to me and who depend on my solidarity.

To have the space in which indifference is an option, it also helps not to have experienced the kind of deep, personal wounding that some people experience -- a wounding that means they cannot just be indifferent, they must either embrace or vocally resent and refuse. Or, sometimes, both embrace and resent/refuse, since it is all so complicated. Not that I am unbroken in ways related to my religious heritage (see below) but it has never had the direct, visceral quality to it that I have seen in many others wounded by their faith of origin. (Though it does occur to me that perhaps feeling that visceral rejection would help in overcoming the negative ways in which it has shaped me...hmmmm...)

One outcome of the privilege of indifference: Three or four times in the last year I have put my foot in my mouth because of it. Not that I have said things that are outright contemptuous or dismissive of particular faiths or religion in general, since that just isn't how I feel. It is more that I have momentarily forgotten that lots of people take religion a lot more seriously than I do, and for reasons that usually should not be disrespected even if sometimes they ought to be challenged, and I have said things rather more flippant than I should have. I regretted saying (or, in one instance, writing) those things the next minute. Most times, about most things, I avoid that kind of mistake. Which makes me think it is a privilege I need to process a bit more.

# # #


Another aspect of my relationship to religion is that I do have a certain interest in it.

It isn't really an interest that has to do with a search for personal spiritual fulfillment, though there were probably flashes of that when I was a kid and a teenager. No, it is more related to my interest in politics and history. Christianity has been central to the political life of Europe and European-derived settler societies. It has been central to colonization. Religious institutions are politically fascinating in their own right. Liberation theology is intriguing, as is the social gospel. The complexity and messiness and contradictory nature of it all is fascinating too. And the social power it all has, at least sometimes.

Some of that could probably be defended as a practical interest because it is relevant to social change today. But some of it is a more abstract kind of curiosity too, or a sort of social and historical nosiness.

I also tend to be fascinated by people and what makes them tick, and for some people religion is pretty central to that ticking. There are people I have known personally who have done things that I consider to be pretty awful and defend it in the name of Christianity. I also know people who do pretty cool things and their motivation is, if not entirely attributable to, at least tied up with being Quaker, Mennonite, Catholic, or some other flavour of Christian; Buddhist; traditional indigenous; Muslim; Unitarian; Wiccan. Other people I know have been seriously hurt by one religion or another, sometimes in a very direct and personal way and sometimes in a more indirect, collective, but no less painful way. Or both. So to understand all of these people, I need to understand religion.

# # #


Notwithstanding what I said about indifference above, I do have moments of anger when it comes to religion. Because my ancestral faith, at least since the ancestors that painted themselves blue before going naked into battle against Roman legions, is Christianity and because it is deeply embedded in the cultures which have directly shaped me, most of those moments of anger are related to Christianity, though not all.

I don't get angry easily or often about anything, so these moments are rare too. Looking back, it strikes in a couple of different situations. One is when I'm faced at an interpersonal level with a certain brand of hypocrisy, in which moral righteousness is claimed on the basis of Christian faith while that person is in the process of doing something horrible. The more frequent sort of instance, which I suppose could be seen as a subset of the first, is when Christianity is used to justify oppressive restrictions on or regulation of or condemnation of behaviours related to relationships, gender, and sexuality.

That just makes me mad.

# # #


My relationship to religion is not just indifference, interest, and moments of anger; it is much more contradictory than that. However absent religion is from my everyday life and as an explicit ingredient for how I interpret and interact with the world, I have been profoundly shaped by it.

Here is a quote that I came across in another context. The speaker is not a theologian or an activist, but an actor, Hugh Laurie. He is best known for playing "Dr. Gregory House" on the show House, M.D., but I first became familiar with him as the thick-witted "Prince George" in the third Blackadder series from the BBC. This is from an interview that Laurie did...not sure the date. He said,

Belief in God didn't play a large role in my home. But a certain attitude to life and the living of it did. My parents were -- they attended a Scottish Presbyterian church in Oxford. And my mother, I suppose, she was Presbyterian character. By mood. Pleasure was something that was treated with great suspicion. Pleasure was something -- I was going to say that pleasure was something that had to be earned, but even the earning of it didn't really work. To this day, I carry that with me. I find pleasure a difficult thing. I really do. I don't know what to do with it. I don't know where you put it.

Apart from the mention of Oxford, I could've said this. This "certain attitude to life and the living of it" has also played an important role in shaping my relationships to work and to ethics/morality. Not all of that is awful, but there are significant parts of it I wish I could just summarily eject from myself.

Interestingly, I think the space for indifference to religion also comes in part from this heritage. This is not a terribly well-informed opinion, but I have a sense that there is a longstanding strand within Scottish Presbyterianism in which one's behaviour and works are much more important to how one is judged than one's professions or visceral experiences of faith. It is certainly hyperbole to say that faith has historically been irrelevant to being a good Scottish Presbyterian, but it was regarded very differently by many Presbyterians than is common among, say, right-wing Protestants in North America today.

But my experience is also similar to the quote in that this relationship to the past was not instilled through the thumping of bibles or any particular emphasis on religion in the home -- it was more a result of everyday ways of being and doing that were connected to the "three hundred years of dour puritanism" (as a cousin of mine recently described it) that are intimately tied up with certain important parts of Scottish national culture. That is why I can speak of being shaped by religion in important ways, even though those ways were by and large devoid of explicitly religious content.

(I also don't want to come across as too down on my Scottish heritage -- in general, I don't feel that way at all, this just happens to be an aspect of it that I find more than a bit tiresome at this stage of my life.)

# # #

I Believe...

Nothing profound here, I'm afraid.

Nothing about the metaphysical framework of Christianity holds much interest for me, however much the deep structuring of my world view may still be gripped by certain aspects of a particular Christian-derived ethical framework repurposed in the service of a politics of justice and liberation. However, I also have a problem with the simplistic 19th century, clockwork-inspired, positivist epistemology that many liberals and self-proclaimed "atheists" use to counter Christian metaphysics. There are things about the universe that we as a species don't understand, and probably will never understand. There are far more things that I personally don't understand, or at least that I must relate to in ways that respond to how my knowledge about them came to be.

One framework that I have used, usually after too much beer, is the distinction between transcendent and imminent divinity. I have used this in the context of people who are much more familiar with theology than I am, and one of those was of the opinion that I was not using them at all correctly, but the others seemed to think it was fine. In any case, though I see no reason to hypothesize the existence of a transcendent divinity, on certain occasions -- they usually have to do with nature or with groups of human beings working together for a radical political purpose -- I do feel something that one could (but would by no means need to) categorize as imminent divinity. Traditionally that phrase is used to get across the idea that God is in the earth, in our bodies, in our selves, and is seen as complimentary to transcendent is less clear what this might mean in a view of the world that feels no need for a transcendent God along side, but it perhaps is one useful way to get across the idea that what matters, whatever deep meaning exists in this universe, is produced by our relationships with each other and the earth. And that this is not a rejection of wonder or a claim to human mastery, but a recognition of wonder and a humility before the amazingness and complexity of human beings and the world all around us.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Oppose Bill C-50!

Please read this important analysis of proposed amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that the Conservative government has buried in Bill C-50, which is supposedly a budget implementation bill. This is analysis is in the form of a joint statement from No One Is Illegal - Montreal, No One Is Illegal - Toronto, No One Is Illegal - Vancouver, and Solidarity Across Borders - Montreal.

Here it is:


Recently the Conservative government introduced a series of amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), buried in Bill c-50, a 136-page "budget implementation bill".

This fundamentally undemocratic move sneaks in critical changes to Canada's immigration policy without proposing any of those changes before Parliament. By making it a matter of confidence, the government forces Opposition parties to either accept them or call an election.

This series of amendments places more arbitrary power in the hands of the Immigration Minister:

- Under the existing s. 11 of the IRPA, anyone who meets the already stringent criteria to enter Canada as a worker, student, visitor, or permanent resident, shall be granted that status. However, under the proposed changes, despite meeting the criteria, the Minister will have the discretion to arbitrarily reject an application.

- Sec. 25 currently says that the Minister "shall" examine a Humanitarian and Compassionate application - this is changed to "shall" examine the H&C application if the applicant is in Canada, but only "may" examine the application if the applicant is outside Canada. Although the government claims will have no impact on family reunification, in practice it will have a serious impact on family reunification as H&C applications are one of the most frequent avenues for family reunification (for example separated refugee children).

- Proposed s. 87.3 of the Act will allow the Minister to issue "instructions" setting quotas on the "category" of person that can enter Canada - including quotas based on country of origin. This unprecedented modification of IRPA would risk putting in place implicit equivalents to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, the Order in Council of 1911 prohibiting the landing of "any immigrant belonging to the Negro race", that of 1923 excluding "any immigrant of any Asiatic race", or the "None is too many" rule applied to fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War.

- Ministerial power in deciding the order in which new applications are processed, regardless of when they were filed. This means prioritizing immigration applicants based on their ability to fulfill the needs of the Canadian job market, "whether it's people to wash dishes and make sandwiches, or whether it's the highly skilled engineers", as stated by Minister Diane Finley. This is a profoundly dehumanizing and racist conception of immigrants as disposable commodities.

- New sections 87.3 (4) and (5) of the IRPA would allow the Minister to simply hold on to, return, or throw out a visa application and deny any opportunity to review that decision in Court. This precedent is truly alarming, especially in the context of a deeply flawed appeals process, including the existing lack of implementation of a Refugee Appeal Division, despite being provided for under IRPA.

The Conservatives argue that these changes are necessary to "modernize" the immigration system and reduce the existing backlog. However, the true objective is clear from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's comments that the government seeks a "competitive immigration system which will quickly process skilled immigrants who can make an immediate contribution to the economy."

The major lobby behind these changes comes from employers' organizations and business lobbies. Indeed, Bill C-50 is being praised primarily by business associations. Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of British Columbia, has stated that the government is moving in the right direction by focusing on Canada's economic needs, "We need strong, young, willing workers to come, much like the people who built this country."

Mr. Hochstein seems to forget the historical exploitation of immigrant workers, the most well-known example of which is the Chinese railway workers. The estimated 17,000 Chinese workers who came to Canada from 1881-1884 were met with dangerous working conditions and discrimination upon their arrival. Chinese workers earned $1 a day, and it is estimated that anywhere from 1500-2500 Chinese migrants died during the construction of the railway. As soon as this dangerous work was completed, the message was clear: Chinese people were no longer welcome.

These proposed legislative changes come in the context of a global capitalist and nationalist reinforcement of labour flexibility as the guiding principle of immigration policy, where migrants are only as valuable as their labour. It is clear that the priorities will be relatively wealthy people applying under the skilled worker program and investor classes, as well as increasingly vulnerable temporary migrant workers. Immigration policy will serve the needs of Canadian industry by regulating migration and providing a flexible labour pool rather than upholding the dignity of migrants.

These changes are directly in line with Canada's commitment to the Security and Prosperity Partnership, which lays out the need for a rapid expansion of both "low-skill" temporary guest worker programs and "high-skill" professionals. In Canada today, the number of people admitted each year on temporary worker visas is greater than the number admitted as permanent residents. We must reject temporary migrant worker programs of indentured servitude and call for the unconditional right of migrant workers to permanent residency and labour rights equal to those of citizens.

At the same time, such changes comes at the deliberate expense of refugees, non-status migrants, or those seeking family reunification- who are seen as increasingly 'undesirable' and potential security threats in light of repressive post 9/11 controls. Decisions such as the $101 million arming of Canadian border guards; the establishment of Canadian Border Services Agency as an enforcement division in processing refugee claims that sends the message that refugee claimants are a threat to public safety; the ongoing unjust use of Security Certificates against on-citizens; the implementation of the Safe Third Country Agreement between the Canada and US which has drastically reduced the number of asylum seekers able to make a claim in Canada; and increasing rates of deportation to over 13,000 a year from Canada have all perpetuated a racist, anti-poor, and anti-migrant agenda.

This agenda is normalized due to the heightened racialized national identity of Canada that continuously places racialized immigrants (although not white immigrants) as 'Outsiders' to the Canadian nation. For example, much of the opposition to this Bill has challenged the secretive process behind the bill, while still accepting the norm that "Canada should be able to select its preferred immigrants", thus feeding into the commodification of migrants and the assertion of Canada's sovereign and racist right to select who it allows to remain, as reminiscent through the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese-Canadian internment, and Komagatamaru incident. Therefore although nothing new, in the post 9/11 climate, we are witnessing an escalation of attacks against 'immigrants'- the eternally hyphenated citizens- for example through the reasonable accommodation' hearings, the wearing of the hijab and turban, the phenomenon of "nippertipping" against Asian-Canadians, and many more. The constant questioning of immigrants (although most are long-time citizens) "ability to integrate", their "suspicious behaviours", their "overburdening of the system", and their "Third World traditions" reveals an incredibly shallow multiculturalism.

This mutual reinforcement of corporate and state interests - cheap labour and national identity, respectively - evident in the prioritization of labour market needs within the global War on Terror, is legitimized not only by recourse to colonial and racist discourse but also by the constant cultivation of fear in the hearts and minds of citizens. The production of migrants as disposable commodities goes in tandem with their construction as the dangerous "Other" or "The Enemy Within" as the threat they pose can be tamed through a process of commodification and the withholding of citizenship rights as a mechanism of social control. Fear of the "dangerous Other" thus underwrites the production of exclusivist nationalist identity (and therefore support for the state) while fear of the "commodifiable Other" (as "stealing" employment and eroding the social system) produces fearful and disciplined citizens vulnerable to increasing corporate exploitation and state repression.

Therefore, the general message to poor and working people of colour and their families- the overwhelming majority of migrants from the Global South- is that they need not apply as permanent residents unless they are willing to come as temporary workers in exploitative jobs and whose status will be legally reinforced as 'non-Canadians'. This is particularly revolting in a context where the Canadian government and Canadian corporations actively participate in the creation and reinforcement of a system of global displacement of migrants and refugees who are fleeing poverty, persecution, war and corporate exploitation of their lands.

In light of this reality, we call for an end to deportation and detentions and a comprehensive, transparent, inclusive and ongoing regularization program that is equitable and accessible to all persons living without permanent residency in Canada to ensure free migration and full rights for all those who seek them. We also call for the abolition of agreements such as NAFTA and the SPP, which are making Canadian borders increasingly open to capital and those who represent capital, while at the same time restricting the movement of those who have been displaced by these very same neoliberal policies.

At a most basic level, we must also challenge the notion that some migrants are more worthy than others; we believe that freedom of movement is a fundamental human right and we struggle for a world in which no one is forced to migrate against their will and where people can move freely in order to live and flourish in justice and dignity.



- Our demands:

- Our 12 principles for regularization:

We encourage allies across Canada to march in solidarity with all migrants and refugees to demand STATUS FOR ALL!: - in Toronto, join us on May 3 at noon at Christie Pits; in Montreal, join us on May 4 at 12:30pm at the corner of Victoria & Van Horne in Côte-des-Neiges (métro Plamondon). Other actions across Canada to be announced.

Organize an action in your community!

Writing Ambivalence

Real life is complicated, messy. In any given piece of writing, however, it is much easier to give the opposite impression than to do justice to that reality. Partly that is because words are finite while reality is not, so simplification is inevitable. Partly it is because cultural expectations for most kinds of text include a kind of cohesion and assumed wholeness that may be aesthetically satisfying but that is far tidier than the real world. There's probably something in there that has to do with the capitalist pressure to evaluate everything in very utilitarian ways, though I don't feel compelled to explore that angle at the moment.

I've been thinking about all of this over the past week -- at least, I have in the few corners of time left to me between meeting a deadline, dealing with a sick four year-old, and frantically trying to keep up with my paid employment commitments. The reason is that last Sunday a book was published that contains a piece by yours truly. In line with the observations above, books most often appear to be self-contained, complete, definitive, built out of individual pieces that are themselves self-contained and complete, if not quite so definitive. Most often, this is a distortion at best, a dishonesty at worst. I feel compelled to talk about the ways in which this book as a whole and my piece specifically feel messy, situated, and troubling to me.

The book is called Nothing But Red (buy it here, learn more about it here). It was inspired by an online rant by pop culture phenomenon and Buffy creator Joss Whedon in response to an "honour killing" in South Asia that received big press in North America, and in response to a Hollywood film that reached new heights of misogynistic violence. I submitted to it because (a) I was looking for something not bloggy and not worky to submit to last summer; (b) my other writing commitments meant I was already immersed in relevant sources at the time; (c) I thought it would be cool to have writing in a project that was somehow Joss-related, given that I like his work; and, (d) I suspected that submissions with a critical focus might be rather thin on the ground, and I thought I could write one. The project is mostly fiction and poetry, with a little bit of art. My essay is one of the few pieces of non-fiction.

I have an e-version of the final book and will obtain a print version. I have not read it thoroughly but I have read bits and pieces. I really appreciate the combination of DIY-ness and professionalism in the project -- it happened because a few people were determined to make it happen, though most of the contributors seem to be quite experienced writers. It contains some excellent writing that comments very powerfully on gendered violence, and for some authors at least that obviously comes from a place of resistance to oppression that they experience. The messy part is that it appears to be mainly white North Americans responding both directly and indirectly to violence experienced by a racialized woman in a non-Western country, and in the collection gender is foregrounded while race, nation, capitalism, empire, and colonialism remain largely unexamined. One moment from the rich and varied experiences of women in South Asia is used as the focus to which writers have responded. Though any moment can be a suitable place to begin an exploration of all social relations, the combination of the silence on these oppressive relations with this book's particular starting point lead in regretfully predictable directions. Even while it contains some great writing and some powerful pieces about gendered violence in various contexts, the collection as a whole is consistent with and implicitly reinforces some really troubling narratives about race and nation that pervade Western cultures. At least a couple of the specific pieces merit considerably sharper and more critical evaluation than that, too.

It looks neat, complete, definitive. I hope it is not read that way.

My essay, "Traps In Our Outrage," raises some of these issues, though I kind of wish now I'd made it more clear and more directly challenging. I'm glad it is in there, to provide a critical perspective that might otherwise be absent. But I am still uncomfortable.

I also have some mixed feelings about my essay itself for other reasons. I wasn't conscious of this while writing it, but in retrospect it is clear that this was a first attempt by me to take some ideas I've learned about political responsibility in an anti-oppression framework, as well as some ideas I've learned about how the social world is put together, and find new ways to communicate these that are more accessible and engaging than the academic forms in which I have encountered them. I think that is a worthwhile project and I think the steps I made in writing this essay were important ones, and I hope to build on them in the future. But I find that I often feel that work that is destined for the printed page has to feel complete in some absolute sense, in contrast to blog writing which is expected to have ragged edges and to feel perpetually in progress..."Traps in our Outrage" feels to me like it still a few ragged edges, and that it will take more experimentation on my part to take the project that it begins to where I want it to go. On the other hand, perhaps this response on my part is an expression of still not quite having shaken unrealistic expectations of what books really are.

The final bit of ambivalence that I've been processing is the ambivalence I feel about writing this post. It isn't the sort of unreserved cheerleading probably expected of contributors to a collaborative project like this, and I hope it isn't seen as ingratitude for the opportunity or disrespect for the hard work of others, for the good pieces the volume contains, or for the seriousness of the issue. In fact, it is precisely respect for the gravity of these issues that has compelled me to express my political misgivings in this way.

Neat pages, crisp text, unblemished spine -- these are almost always dishonest, though I delight in them still.

So by all means buy Nothing But Red, and read it. But please read it critically. Read it as if it were a messy, situated, contradictory, troubling text. Because, really, that's what all books are.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Culture and Life on the Left

I've been meaning to link to this article for a week or more, but haven't quite managed to make the time until now. It is called "An Open Letter to the US Left on the Relevance of Culture" and is by musician David Rovics. I know only a few of his songs, but I like those I know and I should probably know a lot more.

I want to draw this to people's attention for a few reasons. The first is the article itself. It may be addressed to the US left, but it is pretty relevant here as well.

He begins with a small but telling anecdote: On the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, he was playing at an event that involved a rally and a march. Before those, there was a festival, with a stage and lots of musicians and so on, organized largely by different people than those who organized the rally and march.

The musical program, scheduled to happen from 10 am to 6 pm, was being billed as the World War None Festival. The term "festival" was contentious, however, and Pdx Peace, the local peace coalition responsible for the rally, couldn't come to consensus on using the term "festival." In their publicity they referred to the festival as an "action camp." The vast majority of people have no idea what an "action camp" is, including me, and I've been actively involved in the progressive movement for my entire adult life. The local media, of course, also had no idea what an "action camp" was, and any publicity that could have been hoped for from them did not happen. Word did not spread about the event to any significant degree, at least in part because people didn't know what they were supposed to be spreading the word about. Everybody from all political, social, class and ethnic backgrounds knows what a festival is, but certain elements within Pdx Peace didn't want to use the term to describe what was quite obviously meant to be a festival (as well as a rally and march). Anybody above the age of three can tell you that when you have live music on a stage outdoors all day, that's called a festival. But not Pdx Peace.

Some people within the peace coalition were of the opinion that the war in Iraq was too serious a matter to have a festival connected to it. Because, I imagine, of some combination of factors including the nature of consensus decision-making, sectarianism on the part of a few, and muddled thinking on the part of some others, those who thought that a festival should happen -- and should be called a festival -- were overruled. My hat goes off to the World War None Festival organizers (a largely separate entity from Pdx Peace), and to those within Pdx Peace who tried and failed to call the festival what it was, and to organize a well-attended event.

As to those who succeeded in sabotaging the event, I ask, why is so much of the left in the US so attached to being so dreadfully boring? Why do so many people on the left apparently have no appreciation for the power and importance of culture? And when organizers, progressive media and others on the left do acknowledge culture, why is it usually kept on the sidelines? What are we trying to accomplish here?

Rovics goes on to talk about previous incarnations of the left in the US that had much greater understanding of the importance of culture, with brief mentions of other parts of the world. He talks about a few different ways he has seen culture shut out by various faces of today's left in the US, with attention given to outfits dominated by sectarianism like ANSWER, the more open and democratic elements in the anti-war movement, and the major independent and alternative media.

He concludes:

Radical culture needs to be fostered and promoted, front and center, not sidelined as people are gathering, or when the radio stations are doing station ID's. Because if the point is to inspire people to action, a song is worth a hundred speeches. If the point is to educate people, a three-minute ballad is easily equal to any book. (They'll read the book after they hear the song, not the other way around.)

It is often said that we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of this country. It is us versus CNN, NPR, Bush, Clinton, etc. In this battle, style matters, not just content. In this battle, it is absolutely imperative that we remember that it is not only the minds we need to win, but the hearts. At least in terms of the various forms of human communication, there is nothing on Earth more effective in winning hearts than music and art. We ignore or sideline music and art at our peril. It's time to listen to the music.

I think his message is important in its own right, and I would recommend reading the whole thing.

However, I would argue that the examples he cites connect with two other interrelated but distinct features of how most of the left understands political work, not just in relation to culture but in relation to life as a whole.

The first is the way that dominant (and decidedly unliberatory) ways of doing masculinity from the broader culture insinuate themselves into many activist spaces, at least sometimes and in some ways, often poorly hidden behind a thin left-inflected veneer. It is this approach to masculinity that colonizes our understanding of words like "serious" (as it applies to political work) and "anger" (as it applies to one of the emotions we should feel as we contemplate what goes on in the world). There is a certain valorization of grimness; an expectation of life lived with a distorted singular focus much like a CEO or high status professional rather than rich complicated balance; an unconscious mimicry of the kind of inhuman indomitability expected of the heroes of action movies; posturing and put-downs; and an instinctive construction of hierarchy based on one's willingness and ability to enact this kind of masculinity. This is part of the devaluing of culture in some left spaces, though sometimes culture is admissable if it is sufficiently grim and singular and careful not to appear too frivolous.

The other thing that Rovics' rant brought to mind -- it is related to what he says about culture and to what I just said about a certain kind of masculinity -- is the way in which we (meaning especially activists with relative privilege) so commonly see resistance as a discrete part of our lives and a separate sphere of human activity instead of a commitment that is present in all that we do. It is seen as something that gets diluted if we allow it to be contaminated with giggling, with changing diapers, with joy or sorrow or anything but flat singlemindedness. Activists who typify the approach listed in the previous paragraph aren't all against chilling out and having fun, they just want to make sure it is carefully sequestered from political spaces. One consequence of seeing political work as somehow separate is that we think we must choose between commitment and a rich and varied life, instead of seeing the challenge as integrating resistance into that richness, variety, and contradictory copmlexity.

I admit, in the interests of brevity I have kind of caricatured that which I am arguing against, and I don't like to do that. But I think that in reading what I've written, people will still see some resonance with their experience in spaces shaped by the left in both the US and Canada. And I should add that I am not claiming to be immune to these things. I don't think I'm really given to some of the more obvious sorts of masculinist posturing described above (though I know I've had my moments), but I still constantly wrestle with how to understand politics in my life and how to understand my life politically. After all, how many posts with a cultural focus have found their way on to this blog? Some, but not a lot.