Monday, January 15, 2018

Pushing back against the claim that ending harassment will end romance

I've been thinking, over the last few days, about this piece – "Ending Harassment Won't End Romance" by Sarah Jaffe.

It challenges the absurd claim that keeps popping up in the mainstream that #MeToo and the current wave of challenge to sexual harassment and sexual abuse "will, somehow, end flirting, fun, and romance." Jaffe links several pieces that make such claims. Or there's the more recent statement from 100 prominent French women making similarly ridiculous claims about how the post #MeToo moment threatens sexual freedoms.

Jaffe's piece points out that this concern and its variants seem to be premised on the idea that "men are incapable of interpreting signals from other people about sexual interest." This incapacity is assumed to be inherent and just how things are. Flowing from this (incorrect) premise is the (incorrect) idea that men plunging forward with advances, innuendo, touches, kisses, in the absence of knowing that they are welcome is an unavoidable part of sex and romance. End one, you end (or seriously impede) the other.

It would be hard to overstate how utterly silly this idea seems to me, not to mention dangerous.

Jaffe challenges it by going after the premise that she has identified. She argues that whatever gendered imbalances exist in capacity to interpret signals are not inevitable but about power, socially enforced gender roles, and the gendered public/private divide, and that men are perfectly capable of acquiring these capacities. Which means that sexual/romantic cultures that are premised on ongoing mutual nonverbal and verbal signalling of interest, and engaged mutual seeking, reading, and acceptance of those signals, are entirely possible.

I agree with her.

Moreover, I agree with her as someone who is colossally bad at knowing when someone might be interested in me. I know this incapacity is not absolute and inherent, but for me has a specific origin and is amenable to change with work and time. I know this because, in general, I'm actually pretty good at reading people and relationships and situations. It's just that, for me, social anxiety and various flavours of shame get in the way when it comes to knowing if people are interested in me. That's one etiology among many, of course, and I suspect what Jaffe describes is more common, so the kinds of work required to resolve this incapacity will vary. But, regardless, absolute and invariant it is not. (And for the record, I have rarely if ever been a "plunge forward" type, notwithstanding a few embarassing choices when I was younger. Mostly, I assume no one is interested and act accordingly.)

I also think that the premise Jaffe writes about is not the only faulty premise bolstering the fears that challenging sexual harassment and abuse might lead to the end of romance, flirting, and sex. I think, drawing on things that feminists identified decades ago, that it is also premised on sexist narratives of women's experiences of desire being absent or weaker or passive or inherently more subject to containment by propriety than in men. Men pursue, women are pursued. Men are beasts, women are the guardians of morality. Etc. Sure, there's a longer discussion to be had there about the micro-politics of initiating relationships and encounters -- women face much more intense surveillance and social punishment for their choices, and of course the ubiquity of sexual violence itself shapes how it all happens. But the idea that men obliviously plunging forward in the absence of enthusiastic encouragement is the only source of energy and initiative from which romantic and sexual fun can spring is...well, again, very harmful and kind of silly.

I wonder, though, whether some of the vehemence with which some men disparage the kind of sexual culture imagined implicitly in the Jaffe piece and much more clearly in lots of other writing is also about something beyond masculine sexual entitlement.

Let me take a few steps back to explain what I mean:

One very common idea of freedom, of what life should be, boils down to maximizing your space to be able to do whatever you want, unencumbered by constraints from other people, rules, the state, etc. This is the freedom of right-libertarianism, of classical liberalsim, of neoliberalism, of the MRA, of the sexist gamer boy, of the man-child, of the tech start-up bro, of dominant masculinity. The targets of its complaint and the degree of insistence that it should be absolute, versus willingness to balance it with other goods, varies with its precise flavour and kind. But in all of these cases, freedom is treated as being about getting you out of my business.

In contrast, insisting that it be normative to invite, actively seek – early, at every scale, continuously – signs of interest, or not, in sexual and romantic contexts is precisely the opposite. It is saying that I must invite you into my business. It is not only saying I must respect your boundary when you set it, but it is inviting you to play a role in shaping my conduct, my choices, even my desires, before they bump into a hard boundary that you have set. It is deliberately and consistently going out of your way to make sure that your every space, every relationship, is co-created by the others who are in them. It is inviting others – in ways and degrees attuned to the specific relationships and contexts – in to co-create you.

Which is not to say that it is easy or simple, or that there is just one way to do it. Rather, it is a different starting point for navigating all of the inevitable complexities of relating to those around us. It is also not to argue for a surrender of self or of principle – it is co creation, not obedience.

To those whose only vision of a good life is maximizing the disconnected autonomy of the liberal self and/or the rigid impermeability of dominant masculinity, this is a tremendously threatening idea in ways that go far beyond romance and sex. It is an attack on an important micro-level building block of how gendered power is reproduced in our everyday lives. It touches every aspect of how our families, our friend groups, our activist formations, our classrooms, our workplaces function.

So I don't think this idea explains everything – many of the objections to a robust ongoing challenge to sexual harassment and abuse are definitely about nothing more than masculine entitlement to women's bodies. But this is part of the mix.

And as for it ushering in a new age of sexual puritanism – again, that's a dangerous and silly suggestion. For me, at least, realizing this mode of relating to others requires connecting to desire and vulnerability through the powerful block of shame in a dynamic, fine-grained, ongoing way that is precisely the opposite of the puritanical "No!" and "Bad!". It holds the potential to lead to an equitable rather than a dominating/misogynist anti-puritanism.

And to me that's a pretty enticing possibility.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Eduardo Galeano and the telling of resistant stories

At the moment, I'm in the middle of reading Hunter of Stories by Eduardo Galeano (translated by Mark Fried). Galeano, who died in 2015, was an Uruguayan writer and public intellectual of global renown. I haven't read his early classics Open Veins of Latin America or the Memory of Fire trilogy, but I've read a couple of his later books.

Hunter of Stories was written in the years before he died and was only published posthumously. Like others of his later books, it collects very short pieces of story – almost all shorter than a page, in what I've read so far, and most considerably so. The title of the book refers to Galeano himself, who – like any master storyteller – collected stories wherever he went. The pages are filled with what he has found, and then distilled, polished, and presented. He has, it seems, taken fragments from dusty books, from ancient myths, from the pages of newspapers, from his own life, and from a thousand conversations with the people he has met in his travels. In his choices about which fragments are worth extracting and re-telling, and his ever-so-minimal approach in doing so, he makes them his own...but, as storytellers often do, he sends them out into the world to be told and shared again in turn.

I don't actually know much about him or about his process of working, but for some reason I imagine him in conversation with my partner's maternal grandfather – a rural working-class man, devout and conservative, who did hard manual labour his whole life. And also a storyteller. He was the sort of storyteller who would start at random, proceed at length, and reveal only by a glint in his eyes just before he dropped the punchline that this was not an anecdote from his day, but a joke he'd heard, re-packaged, and re-told just for you. So though the two were very different men – different lives, different politics – I for some reason am drawn to imagining the joy in the Spanish-accented and Pennsylvania-Deutsch-accented Englishes as stories fly back and forth over coffee at a kitchen table.

But I digress.

The book is remarkable for two reasons. The first is its craft.

The stories do many things. Some are pointedly political, others more subtley so. Some are general observations of the world, others are narrativizations of self. Many are told with humour, while many relate the tragedy of a violent, oppressive world. What is amazing is how effectively Galeano does all of these things with so few words – just a few lines, often, and rarely more than a few short paragraphs. I also happen to be reading a science fiction novel by Cixin Liu right now, and in it one character talks about Chinese landscape paintings that capture an entire scene in very few brushstrokes. I feel like Galeano does that with his stories.

But what is perhaps even more remarkable about these stories, and what I had trouble identifying for awhile after I started reading, is the rare way it brings together the conversational and the resistant in print.

There are a limited range of ways that we get used to encountering words that honestly name the colonial and capitalist domination of the world, and the things that people do to survive and thrive. Many of us have little opportunity to encounter such words at all. They are mostly not in the media that most of us view and hear and read – people's realities sneak in anyway, but they are rarely matter-of-factly present. Others of us encounter them primarily in written form, but it is the written form of the polemic, the dense novel, the ideological code-word, the (quasi-)academic decoding of the social, all of which are important but all of which are boundaried, limited. It's not that we don't need those things – we do. But they are knowledge with built-in walls. They name what we have been deprived of the tools to name, which is great, but that means many will be unable to understand them without other kinds of work. And a few of us encounter honest naming of colonial and capitalist domination through the people around us relating and reflecting on their lived experiences. Which is crucial – it's how communities-in-struggle make and re-make themselves, it's how moments of everyday resistance are shared and circulated. And, frankly, listening to such moments is a big part of the work-life I've constructed for myself. But everyday conversation is bounded as well, not because it won't be understood, but because it won't be heard. Chatter over a water cooler or kitchen table by definition reaches only those others gathered around the same object.

What Galeano does, here, is takes all of those resistant knowledges that he has encountered – the polemic, the shared everyday conversation, the obscure incident in the dusty book, the anecdote, the myth – and makes them story. The language of story, the circulability of print – it allows a kind of naming of the world that is so often kept restricted to certain spaces or to inaccessible forms, or forced to pre-emptively defend itself, to feel broad and normal and ordinary.

That's precious and rare, and the chance to experience it is making me glad that I'm reading this book.

Anyway. I look forward to reading the rest of it, in particular the later sections that I think feature more stories drawn from Galeano's own life. I'm always keen to learn about the teller as well as to hear the tales. :)

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Sameness, difference, and cold dangerous winters

I am visiting Sudbury, Ontario, at the moment. I lived here for about a decade, and moved away two and not-quite-a-half years ago. This is my first visit back in more than a year. As such, my mind is turning to questions of sameness and difference and to cold, dangerous winters.

I am very conscious that I could tell a story about my life between when we moved and today that shows that my life is essentially the same, and I could tell another story about my life between when we moved and today that shows my life is very different.

Both would be true.

Sameness, in brief: The people in my life are much the same, even if I'm physically farther from some and closer to others; the work I do is much the same – Talking Radical Radio is still my biggest ongoing project, and a book emerging (in a broad sense) from the work on the show is still a central (if intermittent) commitment, and social movements are still at the heart of what I do; and, I am still involved in grassroots political work in the community – not as intensively as when I was 25, certainly, but to the extent that I can be, I'm still engaged with collective efforts to push for change.

Difference, in brief: Materially, other than my primary partner and my kid, who I actually spend time with and how that time is organized is quite different than before we moved, and I've met many new people, plus three (of not-many) older Neigh relatives have died in that time; the show is the same, but the book project emerging from it has changed drastically, and I'm also involved in something new, the Red Hill Stories of Struggle project; and in terms of my political involvement, I no longer do grassroots media organizing (as opposed to grassroots media making, of which I still do plenty) but I am now involved in climate justice work.

If I did that over three pages each rather than one short paragraph each, I could turn these differently emphasized data points into narratives that feel much more dramatically different. But both true.

That's the key: We make different stories out of the same complex situation by choosing which facts to include, which to emphasize, which to downplay, which to omit. That can be done responsibly (e.g. grassroots journalism centering the voices of ordinary people who are most directly affected by an issue, while not knowingly leaving anything major out) or irresponsibly, but it is inevitable when making narratives about the world.

And I know that what I did above for a life can also be done for a place. So as I visit and chat and sip tea, I'm on the lookout for ways that Sudbury is the same, and different, over the last two-and-a-bit years. I honestly haven't been able to identify much. But I do know one major difference is that for much of the time I lived here, there was an active direct action anti-poverty group, often but not always called the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP), and now there is not. The story of why it no longer exists is one that makes me sad, but it isn't mine to tell. Instead of thinking about the causes of its absence, though, I've been thinking about the consequences.

I feel very aware of its absence because of the messages coming out in Toronto this last week about the dangerously inadequate shelter system in that city in the middle of a sustained cold snap, which is putting lives at risk. We've seen the city administration in Toronto working very hard to keep the inadequacy of the shelter system there as one of those facts that just doesn't get mentioned in narratives of 'Toronto,' that isn't present in mainstream/middle-class consciousness of the city. And we've seen action by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, street nurse Cathy Crowe, and a lot of other people refusing to let that happen – insisting that a shelter system so inadequate as to be life-threatening *is* part of Toronto's story.

When S-CAP existed, its presence and loudness and persistence similarly forced the mainstream media, city hall, and middle-class people in Sudbury to bring into their narratives of this place aspects of the complex social whole that they would otherwise have ignored. Their work also pushed other progressive groups in the city to take up and talk about poverty issues, social assistance, and homelessness in new and more vigorous ways. They didn't bring the revolution, sure, but they forced real improvements in the systems that keep marginalized people alive, and they did it in a movement-building way aimed at building capacity to win bigger and potentially more transformative fights in the future.

So as I think about sameness, difference, and cold dangerous winters, I'm thinking about what we don't notice because there isn't a persistently loud collective forcing us to notice. We've heard lots about how the shelter system in Toronto is inadequate. But what about in Sudbury? What about in Hamilton, where I now live? What about in other cities that do not currently have a militant anti-poverty group? And, yes, these cities have lots of people concerned about and working on poverty, some of whom I know, and many of whom do wonderful work. Some of these folks are, no doubt, saying what needs to be said. But that's not the same as having a collective (like S-CAP, OCAP, or something else) that will make these uncomfortable but vital facts unavoidable – that amplifies voices in a way that the powers-that-be and the comfortably-not-knowing cannot ignore, cannot leave out of their narratives, however much they would like to.

And it makes me wonder: What else about how I'm perceiving sameness and difference – between places, across time – is missing the mark because of the absence of groups able to make a fuss to bring harmful, oppressive realities unavoidably into our collective narratives?

Monday, January 01, 2018

New year, new writing practice

It's an arbitrary division, but even so, like many other people, as one year draws to a close and another begins, I like to spend a bit of time in focused reflection. I think back over what I did, what I accomplished, what went well, what went poorly in the year just ending, and I look forward to how I might approach things differently in the new year. I don't make resolutions, but I do often come up with a few things – personal, political, work-related – that I want to keep in mind as I move forward, and sometimes a small change or two in my routines and practices.

This year, the work-focused component of my reflection has been a bit more muted than usual. I had a bit of a mini work crisis a couple of months ago, which triggered some intensive reflection that kind of pre-empted the year-end version. Namely, I realized that I was a bit bored with rather a lot of the work with which I fill my days. Almost all of what I do fits under one or another of a few big ongoing projects. I'm committed to all of them and I have no intention of pulling back from any of them...but, still, working only on Big Things can be disheartening and, yes, boring.

As a result of that mini-crisis, I made a few changes. One was that I resolved to get back into experimenting with video – mostly talking-head stuff, often bookish, sometimes bloggish, occasionally something else. I had no time to add video dabbling to what I was already doing, but the prospect excited me, so I did it anyway. I still haven't found a definitive way to use it that feels quite right, but I continue to play.

A little after that, I also came to the conclusion that I needed to significantly re-orient one of my major projects. I won't go into detail on that for the moment, but it involved a change in focus and emphasis, a need to do a lot more reading, but also a very exciting sense of the new approach fitting better with what I have to offer as a writer. (One part of this is that I will be doing a lot of thinking, reading, and writing about the politics of listening, understood broadly and complexly, over the next little while, some of which may show up here.)

Anyway, I thought that, with all of that already done, my year-end reflections about work were likely to be pro-forma and relatively uninteresting. Except, as I've journalled about these things over the last few days, I've realized that's not quite true. I've realized that my decision to dabble in video was in part a desire to make smaller things on a more regular basis. And I've realized that the re-orientation of the book project was in part about doing more to make sure that what I am creating flows a bit more directly and organically from my own predilections, preoccupations, activities, and life. And I've also realized that I'm still not quite satisfied with my efforts to meet those two desires. Add to that a recognition that when I started blogging back in 2004, I did it casually, informally, regularly, and precisely to break up the monotony of a couple of major multi-year commitments, but that over the years my blog has become a place for writing that is longer and more substantial, and not always exactly polished but no longer as casual and informal. The online world has changed a lot since 2004, and I have no interest in going back to what I did then. But I want to do something analogous that fits the context of today.

And here's what I came up with: On some kind of regular basis – less than daily, more than weekly – I want to engage in casual, informal, short, quick, thinking-on-my-feet making-of-things. It will begin from thinking about something I've experienced, something I've seen, something I've read. It will emerge from me, but it will often involve a sort of dialogical engagement of whatever sort beyond myself or thinking through things I've learned from others.

It will not attempt to be profound or novel, though it will try to be thoughtful.

It will attempt to stay limited to one thought, reflection, or question, considered in a relatively open and unfinished way, rather than plunging down the rabbit hole of attempted depth and completeness.

Each instance will probably start as either a Twitter thread or (maybe, we'll see) a short (4 or 5 minute) video, but will also end up as a short post on this blog. Doing it this way will push me to keep it simple, casual, conversational. At least I hope so.

It will in a broad sense be oriented as a practice that will support and feed into my major projects, though that may not always be visible from the content.

I am going to actively try to push back against the ever-present urge to limit what I talk about based on some pre-set idea of "this is the kind of thing I'm supposed to write about", and stay grounded in "this feels interesting and important to me in the moment" or "this is what I'm thinking about today."

It may or may not result in anything of direct interest to other people – I hope it does, at least sometimes, but it needn't in order to be worthwhile. It is, first and foremost, a writing practice meant to support my broader work and to keep me not-bored.

And will I maintain this quick, casual blogging practice longer than a week, in the face of the full new year onslaught of regular work routines? Only time will tell! :)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

All of my 2017 book reviews!


In the spirit of looking back on the year that was, this post brings together all of the full book reviews I did in 2017. All are nonfiction books about the social world. Check 'em out, lefty book nerds!


  • Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality by Gloria E. AnzaldĂșa and edited by AnaLouise Keating (Duke University Press, 2015) -- WRITTEN REVIEW // VIDEO REVIEW

  • Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton (Verso, 2016) -- WRITTEN REVIEW

  • Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure by Eli Clare (Duke University Press, 2017) -- WRITTEN REVIEW

  • Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism by L.A. Kauffman (Verso, 2017) -- WRITTEN REVIEW // AUDIO REVIEW

  • Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals by Jonathan Matthew Smucker (AK Press, 2017) -- WRITTEN REVIEW

  • Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle by Silvia Federici (PM Press, 2012) -- WRITTEN REVIEW

  • Dancing on Our Turtle's Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence by Leanne Simpson (Arbeiter Ring, 2011) -- WRITTEN REVIEW

  • What Love Is: And What it Could Be by Carrie Jenkins (Basic Books, 2017) -- WRITTEN REVIEW

  • Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed (Duke University Press, 2017) -- WRITTEN REVIEW

  • In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe (Duke University Press, 2016) -- WRITTEN REVIEW

  • From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Haymarket, 2016) -- WRITTEN REVIEW // VIDEO REVIEW

  • Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn Maynard (Fernwood, 2017). -- WRITTEN REVIEW // VIDEO REVIEW


Friday, December 15, 2017

Review: Policing Black Lives


[Robyn Maynard. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Halifax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2017.]

I commented in some social media context or other before I had read this book that I thought it would likely be one of the most important books published in Canada this year. Having read it, I can now say so unreservedly.

Policing Black Lives was written by Robyn Maynard, a Black feminist writer and a long-time anti-authoritarian organizer based on Montreal – and, I hope, a future guest on Talking Radical Radio. (She has expressed interest, but so far the scheduling hasn't worked, though I remain hopeful that we'll be able to figure something out for the new year.) The book is a very straightforward presentation of exactly what it promises: a look at the trajectory of state violence, in particular anti-Black state violence, in the Canadian context from the early days of colonization – those long centuries in which slavery was as Canadian an institution as maple syrup and cold winters – to today. The book's importance and power derives both from its relationship to the context into which it is entering and from the way that it does its work.

The context is absolutely crucial to what the book is doing. Maynard quotes radical scholar Rinaldo Walcott (check out my interview with him and one of his colleagues here) as describing the experiences of Black individuals and communities in Canada as "an absented presence always under erasure" (4), and talks elsewhere about Blackness in Canada as hypervisible and oversurveilled yet resolutely and consistently denied space in dominant narratives of here. This means that despite the fact that there have been dedicated, mostly Black scholars, writers, and activists in Canada writing about and working on these issues for many decades if not longer, a common theme in the (admittedly quite plentiful and favourable) media and popular response to this book is to characterize it as completely new rather than as an important advance built on the solid foundation of all of that earlier work by others. Not sure whether this was intended by Maynard or not, but it does feel like the book is using the attention made possible by this sense of novelty to disrupt the erasure that is the basis for it. And to put it more in a movement context, part of why this book is so important is that, even granting all of the work done in decades past, most white-dominated social movements and communities-in-struggle in the Canadian context have a relatively shallow (and in some cases completely absent) understanding of anti-Black racism and its place in constituting "Canada" and in constituting us as white settler Canadians.

As for how the book does its work, it starts from a small number of powerful and important ideas, and carries them through a methodical, rigorous survey of both the history of anti-Black state violence in Canada, and key ways that state violence shapes Black lives in Canada today. The important ideas include a really thorough feminist commitment to paying attention to how other aspects of experience and identity intersect with Blackness; attention to the interrelation of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism that is not exhaustive but still more substantive than anything I've seen from the white left in this country; an expansive understanding of state violence that looks not only at the violence of police but also the less visible violence of other elements of the state like child welfare services and the social assistance system and schools; and a constant circling back to the ways in which the shape of anti-Blackness in Canada today has emerged from long histories originating in slavery here. Along with being quite open about the fact that more work needs to be done exploring the interrelated character of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism, the book also freely admits that it doesn't talk much about resistance – some, but not a lot. As well, part of the absented presence of Blackness in Canada means that there are lots of areas where data that considers racialized impacts just doesn't get collected, and lots of other areas where specific research that is done routinely in the United States is much more sparse or even absent here. Nonetheless, the book carefully collects and considers what has been done, and weaves it together in a theoretically rich and accessibly presented whole.

It is really encouraging to see how broadly this book is being taken up. Of course it is never a good idea to underestimate the resilience of white Canadian refusal to take anti-Blackness seriously – including on the left, including on the radical left – but I think this book is an important contribution to the upsurge of radical Black activism and organizing in this country in recent years, and (among other things) I think it's an excellent tool for those of us in predominantly non-Black movement contexts tool to inform the kinds of hard conversations that we need to be having.

I've also done a video version of this review. Check it out:


[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation


[Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago IL: Haymarket Books, 2016.]

If you are on the left, you have probably encountered some version of what has become a pretty standard account of the history between the end of the Second World War and the present. It follows the social democratic compromise between capital and labour after the war, the rise of the welfare state in conjunction with unprecedented (if nowhere close to evenly distributed) prosperity in Western countries over the subsequent two decades, the capitalist crisis of the early 1970s, and then the rise of the neoliberal assault on all of those gains that continues today.

It's a useful history. It captures a lot about what matters, a lot about what has changed, and a lot about the growing precarity and violence organized into people's lives over the last few decades. But this fairly standard marxist approach leaves a lot out as well, along a lot of different axes. For instance, it often fails to capture how the uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s were a reaction to multiple forms of exclusion from access to the growing wellbeing of the post-war years. Or you can read Vijay Prashad's The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations as a re-engagement with that history centering the nations of the Global South during the heady promise of the end of formal colonization and subsequent reimposition of obedience via the neoliberal model. Or there was an observation I saw just the other day on Twitter from Vancouver-based migrant justice organizer Harsha Walia noting how conventional accounts of neoliberlism so often ignore how the weakening of the state's ability to redistribute and regulate is integrally tied to strengthening carceral and punitive state power.

Which brings me to this book: It's not the book's explicit goal, but some of it can be read as a re-telling of bits of that history in a way that centres African Americans. The whole book is an exploration in the US context of the intertiwining of white supremacy (particularly anti-Blackness) and capitalism, with lots of attention to how both racial oppression and Black resistance shifted over that time. So during the uprisings of the 1960s, Black struggle, in all of its militant diversity, "pushed mainstream politics to the left" (45) and opened space for thinking about poverty, racism, and anti-Black oppression in terms of systemic injustice rather than in the racist terms of personal and cultural inferiority. In the 1970s, the fading of street-level militance and the elite counter-offensive closed this space in the white-dominated mainstream, amplified law-and-order politics, and reconfigured white supremacy around the colourblind logic that dominates in North America today. In particular, Taylor explores the profound shifts that Black politics underwent between the civil rights era and today, with attention to the shift in emphasis from mass street-based politics to focusing on electoral victories by Black politicians. As understable as that change was given the context, Taylor shows how the dramatic increase in Black people holding elected positions over those decades has accomplished certain kinds of things but has had a limited impact on the central issues in the lives of poor and working-class Black communities, due to how the electoral system and the state more broadly work, and how that has also been part of fundamentally reconfiguring the landscape upon which the Black freedom struggle operates today. The book then zooms in on the justice system and questions of mass incarceration of Black and brown people. It talks in a more focused way about the Obama years and the profound limits on what the now-mainstream Black political establishment can accomplish, again principally in terms of core concerns for poor and working-class Black communities. Then there is a chapter about the Black Lives Matter movement to that point, and finally a chapter outlining Taylor's vision for moving forward with a politics that fully integrates anti-capitalism and opposition to white supremacy and to anti-Blackness.

The most valuable part of this book for me is its engagement with history. There were bits and pieces that weren't new to me, but many more that were, and I learned a lot from its reformulation of some elements of 20th century history. I also really value its account of African American struggles in the decades after the 1960s, which is something that those of us who are connected to movements but are not part of those communities don't necessarily know much about. For all that I'm reading this in the Canadian context, and the shape and historical trajectory of anti-Blackness isn't the same here – the next book I plan on reviewing will likely talk about that a bit – I still think this was a worthwhile read for me. After all, the Black freedom struggle has in some sense been the core of overall movement momentum in the US for a long time, and struggle in the US often circulates in significant ways to the Canadian context. So this feels quite relevant to me, here.

As I said at the start, one of the core goals of the book is to show how we need an analysis and a political practice that integrates anti-capitalism and anti-racism. This isn't a new idea, but it is an important one, and I think that it is very timely to be forcefully arguing for it. In the last couple of years, electoral dynamics in the United States have created a toxic and to my mind entirely unnecessary polarization between those two – I think because of a mix of deliberate efforts to do so by neoliberal forces in and around the Democratic Party as part of fending off challenges from the left, but also because of a lot of really boneheaded moves by said left, including bad choices around race politics by prominent figures and initiatives like the Sanders campaign, as well as the growing embrace by a subset of both socialist and anarchist grassroots anti-capitalists of politics that, when unpacked, boil down to a form of class reductionism. Taylor is very emphatic that this is not inevitable – anti-capitalism is not at all inherently class reductionist – but in a lot of instances when it is white-dominated anti-capitalist groups, that is what happens.

That said, I was a bit disappointed in the book's final chapter, which serves as a sort of manifesto and vision for working towards the promise of the book's title. Like I said, I think the book's vision for a politics integrating anti-capitalism and anti-racism is important and timely, but its articulation in the final chapter felt kind of closed, perhaps even a bit doctrinaire. I know there are other approaches to understanding and resisting white supremacy and anti-Blackness that are radical or revolutionary in character, and other ways of thinking about how fighting capital and white supremacy have to go together, that are not the same as what is articulated in this book. And the final chapter feels a bit dismissive of all of that. Admittedly, some of my discomfort may just be about differences in political sensibility – it has always made the most sense to me to engage generously with a range of political traditions, and take up what's useful to you while doing your best to be able to learn from and work with the rest. So I think things like the critical and radical scholarly work on white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and on efforts to resist them, that are being articulated in academic spaces and are not necessarily quite as grounded in struggle on the ground as this book are still really important and still things that I want to learn from, and that I want the movements I'm in to learn from. And I know that there are some quite different approaches to thinking about and working against anti-Blackness that come from quite a different place, that are (among other things) often quite a bit more skeptical about working in coalition, and I don't think our movements can afford to not engage seriously with those approaches.

To put it all a bit more sharply, I think white anti-capitalists need to be careful how we read and mobilize this book. Definitely I think we should be using it to counter the toxic polarization that is trying to tell people that anti-capitalism and anti-racism are incompatible. But we should resolutely refuse to use this book to evade anti-racist critiques of how instances of white-dominated anti-capitalist organizing are happening, right now, on the ground – these critiques are not always going to use left language, and that doesn't mean we should just dismiss them. And we should not be using it to dismiss or to justify not seriously engaging with other forms of radical and revolutionary anti-racism that don't happen to fit as easily with our already-existing anti-capitalist politics.

So, yeah...this is a very useful book that I think should be widely read. I hope we can let its engagement with history transform our understanding of the last half century and inform our political choices in movements today, but I hope that white anti-capitalists in particular deploy it with political care and respect and don't use it as an excuse to close ourselves off in various ways.

For a video version of this review that is a bit less detailed than the written version, check this out:


[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thinking about how cis men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence


I've been thinking a lot in the last month about how cisgender men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence and gender oppression.

I've been thinking about this for some obvious reasons and some less obvious reasons. The obvious ones should be – well, obvious. In the last month, these issues have received unprecedented mainstream attention. And not only that, there has been a critical mass of pressure that has resulted in powerful institutions that would normally ignore or dismiss or attack survivors being forced to take some meanintful action in response. There are all sorts of limits to this, and there is a great need for ongoing pressure to sustain and deepen this moment, but it has nonetheless been quite significant.

I have also been thinking about this because the whole situation has made me feel a lot of difficult feelings. Not because I'm a survivor of sexual violence – I'm not, and I know what I've been feeling is a mere fraction of what survivors have been feeling. Neither have I sexually assaulted anyone. But I am, as a cis dude, complicit in various ways in sexual violence and gender oppression. And related issues have wound for years through my own ongoing efforts to work through some of the central challenges in my own life. Hence the many feelings.

One of the things that I've been feeling is a certain sense of political obligation to speak publically on the issue. But I've also been feeling a complicated hesistance, and on reflection I think that some of that hesitance is warranted and some of it is not. So I've been thinking through how I can and should be speaking.

Acting in the World

Acting politically in the world inevitably begins from where we already are – the spaces we're already in, the groups we already belong to, the workplaces where we are employed, the informal networks we're already part of, the activities we already do. Taking action can change our trajectory, bring us into new places, create new opportunities for acting – ideally collectively, becuase I think collective action is what is most needed – but inevitably, in any given moment, our choices about acting must begin from where we already are.

I think perhaps the single most important thing for us cis guys to consider as we reflect on speaking publically – whether that's a Facebook status update, a piece in the New Yorker, a speech in Parliament, or a comment in an activist group meeting – about sexual violence and gender oppression is that if we really take seriously that acting politically starts from where we already are, then speaking publically must be only one small part of how we act. A much bigger, and arguably a more important, part is the political choices we make in the rest of life – all of those things that so many pieces published in the last month, and so many more published in the last 50 years, have named. How do we enact complicity in sexual violence and gender oppression every day? Because assuredly we do. So how do we challenge and change that? How do we relate to the partners, friends, co-workers, family, and other people in our everyday lives? How do we listen, how do we speak, how do we communicate about sexual violence and gender oppression with all of those people? How do we act in small, non-visible ways to support public initiatives led by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders? And when it comes to the public circulation of knowledge, rather than leaping to spewing our own (perahps dubious) contribution, what can we do to read, watch, and listen to more material on these issues produced by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders? And in this social media age, where all of us can play a role in amplifying knowledge, what can we do to make sure all of that circulates more too?

It varies with context – if you have a co-worker who, right now, is being attacked for speaking out about abuse she has suffered, then speak up publically and support her! – but I think for most of us in most situations, more of our effort on these issues needs to go in directions other than speaking publically.

That said, however, speaking publically (in an expansive sense) is one element of what I already do. Not that huge numbers of people listen to any individual instance, of course, but writing and making media of various sorts that I send out into the world for people to engage with has been central to my work for a long time. And given that it is what I already do, it makes sense, I think, to reflect on doing it better around questions of sexual violence and gender oppression.

Political Responsibility

So here's what I came up with: In order for speaking or writing publically about sexual violence and gender oppression by cis men to be useful, it must be organized and informed by a logic of political responsibility. That is, in making decisions about when and how to speak, we have to prioritize a recognition that what matters here is the broader issue, and the struggles by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders to challenge practices of sexual violence and transform the social relations of gender oppression that enable those practices. We have to work at understanding those struggles, and choose our moments and methods of speaking publically such that they feed into those struggles. That's what matters, full stop.

Of course, that's still not a guarantee that speaking publically will be a good choice or will in any way be useful, but it at least avoids guaranteeing the opposite. When that logic of political responsibility gets displaced by other logics in shaping how we decide what we say and when we say it, we need to step back and look critically and closely at what we're doing. We need to be on the lookout for that ourselves, and we need to be able to hear it when other people tell us that's what's going on.

So at the most immediate level, and at the broadest applicability, that means that if there's even a whiff that speaking in a given moment is really about me in some sense, then maybe I just shouldn't. For instance, for cis guys speaking on these issues, it easily turns into performance. And if you're about to say something and you have even a faint suspicion that it's really more about performing a certain kind of politics in order to play activist status games or in hopes of getting into somebody's pants or whatever else, then it's probably best to stay quiet. Another example that has cropped up in the last month has been a handful of progressive men who engage in a certain kind of generalized public confession of complicity. Not that strategic and careful examination in public of elements of one's own complicity is necessarily bad – I haven't seen much of it, but I suspect that it can be quite useful in unpacking the how of complicity in grounded ways, which doesn't happen enough. But while generalized public confession may seem like it follows a logic of political responsibility, I think often it is more about meeting some kind of need in the person confessing and doesn't necessarily contribute much to broader struggles.

Or take a much narrower instance: I think that, in general, if a given instance of speaking publically about sexual violence or gender oppression is attached to opportunities to make a living and/or build a career, cis men should be very hesitant about taking those opportunities. By definition, doing so introduces a logic other than political responsibility to the choice to speak. I'm not going to say they should never take them – though others would, and I wouldn't argue with them – but especially if there is even a hint that those opportunities and the attached resources could go to a woman, trans person, or nonbinary person who is doing this work, in most scenraios I can imagine the politically responsible thing for a cis man to do is to step back.

As narrow as that instance is, though, it connects to something much more broadly relevant. One of the weird dynamics of how this plays out is that cis men get affirmation, recognition, and social reward for even minimal acts of public speech against sexual violence and gender oppression that is vastly greater than any affirmation, recognition, or rewards that women, trans people, and nonbinary people get. In fact, often we get applause for saying things that bring them nothing but scorn and abuse. Moreover, this easily crystallizes from a moment of excessive affirmation into a sort of personal branding as "a dude who gets it" or "one of the good ones." Now, this isn't entirely under the control of the cis dude in question, but nonetheless there is an obligation to refuse and disrupt this branding.

Partly this is because there is a long and awful history of men who behave abominably towards women and trans people in their private lives in part protecting themselves by building a public reputation as a progressive guy who "gets it." Think of the Canadian media personality with the initials JG, a certain prominent male women's studies prof (HS) who went down in flames a few years ago, and a certain comedian in the news right now. Part of defusing that predatory tactic is to constantly trouble, to the extent that the individual in question can, how this affirmation is allocated and the ways it gets turned into a brand.

More broadly, though, it's important because it is a crucial way that a logic other than political responsibility manages to sneak its way into our decision-making. Because it is seductive to get this kind of affirmation. I mean, I can't say it has come up often for me in the last few years, but even so I can think of three or four times in the last year and a bit where the particular context led to enough of that kind of excessive positive feedback that I felt its pull (as well as its icky-ness). And it very easily leads to saying and doing things publically that are much more about one's own needs than about what would flow from an honest assessment of political responsibility. So to preserve our ability to make good decisions, we need to push back against this tendency towards excessive social rewards and consequent personal branding, and to work to not become attached to receiving them.

And the final thing I think we can do to speak publically from a logic of political responsibility is to work really hard to do so from our whole selves. Which may sound strange and abstract, but I think it might well be the most important point that I'm making here. We can't just pick one issue that we recognize in an intellectual way is important and focus on getting good at talking about that in a public way. Our reference point can't be "Oh, well, I think gender is important so I'll learn about that and talk about that." Rather, we need to recognize, even if we can't fully articulate, the totality of what we're implicated in. We need to start from all of who we are, from a recognition that we are simultanously immersed in social relations organized in a huge number of ways, along many different axes, that organize violence into some people's lives and unearned benefit into other people's lives in a whole lot of different of ways, always and all the time. There's an all-at-onceness to who we are as people and to the social relations that we're in. Acting from a logic of political responsibility, including that slice of it that involves speaking publically, means always starting from how we exist in relation with all of that. Not necessarily talking about all of it, all the time – I mean, you couldn't, right? – but grounding our decision making about what and when and how, in that big picture. It's huge and it's messy and it's hard, and it's so big that it makes any kind of political purity or performance of being "good" pretty much impossible, but we need to stay in it.

There are lots of reasons why this is important. I think emphasizing starting from all of who we are, all of where we are, all of what we're already doing helps to maintain that logic of political responsibility because it involves always going back to that bigger picture of the social relations that surround us, that we create, that create us, and asking, what do we need to do to act with responsibility here, now? I think it helps us remember that speaking publically is only one narrow part of what we need to do when it comes to acting from where we already are, because even for those of us whose work involves (in a broad sense) speaking publically, it really amounts to a pretty minor part of life. I think it can be useful in disrupting the risk of personal branding, because it forces us to constantly confront how it is all so big and multifaceted and messy, so it makes it that much harder to fall into cultivating a reputation (or believing our own) for 'getting it' on any particular issue. I think it leads to better politics, because it's a better accounting of how our world actually works and a better grounding for making decisions – single issue understandings are always limited. And it also leads to better politics because it pushes us to learn from political traditions that already have this understanding of the world, whether that is the long Black feminist tradition and Kimberle Crenshaw's concept of "intersectionality," works that integrate marxist insights about the social world with analyses of patriarchal and white supremacist social relations like Sylvia Federici and Himani Bannerji, or any number of other radical theorists like Dean Spade or Eli Clare or Sara Ahmed. And, personally, I think grounding efforts to act from a logic of political responsibility in our whole selves creates space to be putting that responsibility into some kind of healthy relation with our work for our own liberation, and for a vision of a better world that includes space for pleasure, desire, and joy rather than the moralistic grimness that can (especially among cis guys who take the politics seriously) so easily result from devotion to some sort of abstracted future.

So. Those are a just few incomplete thoughts on how cisgender men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence and gender oppression in the current moment. I haven't really said much about the content of what we might want to be saying in this moment, but I'm keen to hear what others think about that. What have you been saying, in this moment of difficult but vitally important heightened mainstream attention to sexual violence and gender oppression? More importantly, what have you been doing beyond that narrow slice of life that involves saying things in public?

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In line with some of the work that I did on book reviews in late 2016, right now I'm experimenting with producing video versions of various kinds of writing that I'm doing. I think the written version above is a bit clearer than the video version, but I make essentially the same points in both, so if you are someone who would rather watch than read, check this out:


Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Work-in-Progress #1: An overview of my current projects


So I recently realized that I'm a bit bored with the big projects that take up most of my work time. Not wavering in my commitment to them...just a little bored. Now, I already feel that I don't have enough time to do the things that I need to do, or at least to make progress on them as rapidly as I'd like. Nonetheless, the thought of revisiting my experimentation with video, which I indulged in about a year ago, gives me the sort of feeling of enthusiasm that I hope will be a good counter to my boredom. It's entirely possible that enthusiasm will fade by next Tuesday, but...my current idea is to make bookish, bloggish, and work-in-progress kinds of videos (all of the "talking head" variety that is common on YouTube). So to that end, here is the first work-in-progress video. Most will be about one quick, narrow thing, but this is a bit of an overview of the different projects I'm involved in right now:



Friday, October 27, 2017

Reading *The Lorax* to Enbridge! (And opposing the Line 10 tar sands pipeline expansion!)

My first effort at making a video that's more than just linear editing of a talking head. It's a little rough, perhaps, but it's a chance to see some of an action that took place in Hamilton, Ontario earlier today in opposition to Enbridge's Line 10 tar sands pipeline expansion project.

Check it out: