Friday, June 26, 2009

"Men Live Better Where Women Are in Charge"

Not surprising really.

Ricardo Coler went to live among the Mosuo, a matriarchal ethnic minority in China. He talks about his experience in this Der Spiegel interview.

It would be interesting to get a more ethnographic account of this society (to flesh out what "living better" really means, how "work" is distributed and what the women think about the whole situation). But from Coler's description, it sounds as if the Mosuo live like the bonobos.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Revolution Will Not be Twittered: Some Skepticism on Twitter and Politics

Since most mainstream journalists have been neutralized in Iran, news of the protests pouring out to the world has come from social media, particularly Twitter. Twice now, previously in Moldova, and now in Iran, Twitter has become a tool for people to use in revolutionary political circumstances. It has helped to coordinate mass actions and to spread news about authoritarian repression.

But does it transform political action?

Mike Madden, in this piece in, thinks not. Social media has been useful in documenting what is going on, getting information out, but it has not been something that radically changes how political action is taking place. Indeed, he worries at how easily social media can be blocked and then subverted by officials to spread disinformation and confuse activists.

Michael Walzer (one of my favorite political thinkers) muses here that its not clear whether the internet has changed political action very much.

In order to change things, people need to get out and be organized. Twitter and Facebook can be useful in getting people information and mobilizing mass rallies. But mobilization is not the same thing as organizing. Getting a bunch of folks to show up to a protest can be a good thing, but really, what matters more is if you can get them to stick around afterwards to do what Walzer calls "scut work"--filling envelopes, handing out fliers, cleaning up the meeting place, and generally showing their dedication to a group ideal.

If you have people who are willing to show up to protests, you have activists. But activism is usually very "flash in the pan" kind of activity--going to a rally, signing a petition, writing a letter. These things are important, no doubt. But what I take Walzer to suggest is that a social movement, in order to challenge entrenched power, needs organizers--people who are willing to do the activism, but also the less visible, and less publicized/glamorous, work of fundraising, phone banking, door to door knocking, and scut. (For an excellent discussion of the difference between organizing and activism, see this essay by Mark Rudd)

Organizing work is more long term and about building relationships with people so that they become aware of an issue and of the group of people who want to do something about that issue. This is not quite the same thing as creating a network, which social media is really good at. To say that people are in a network does not really say much about the quality of the linkage (think of all the people who might be your Facebook friends or followers on Twitter--to say they are all linked up does not fully describe the differences or similarities between them all. After all, we are all networked or linked up to Kevin Bacon by six degrees of separation, but that really doesn't tell us anything very interesting about the power relationships in those links).

There is a really great story that, I think, really captures the difference between activism and organizing (and also hints at the tedium of organizing and why it might not be so interesting to many): Some young activists went to see Cesar Chavez to find out how he made the farmworker movement so successful--building a powerful union out of literally nothing. He replied: "Well, we talked to one person, and then another person, and then another person, and then another person." No, they said, what's the secret to organizing? He answered: "You talk to one person, then another, then another, and then another."

Organizing, then, creates a group solidarity among individuals through discussion and deliberation that they might not have had before. It gives them a sense that they can accomplish actions together (Hannah Arendt says this is what power really is). Instead of being simply an aggregation of bodies at a rally, they are are group of colleagues united in a cause, trying to construct new opportunities for different kinds of political action. Organizing creates those relationships. Social media, it seems, can help the work of a movement get done faster, but it cannot replace the need to raise consciousness and a sense of agency that is the essence of political action.

(Photo: By Kamyar Adl on Flickr)

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mark Rudd as Commencement Speaker? (or What can Kids today learn from a terrorist)

I can't imagine OSU ever doing this, but one can dream. Timothy Noah, over at, suggests that colleges and universities shouldn't recruit successful people to give the commencement speech at the end of the year. Instead, schools should get failures--people who have screwed something up in their lives and can talk about the wisdom they gathered from the experience. One of his examples is our old friend, Mark Rudd. Here is Noah:

"Mark Rudd. Rudd (author of Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen) is a refreshing departure from Weather Underground veterans like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, who continue to glamorize their radical past and to deny the Weather Underground's violent intentions. Rudd sees "very little positive" in the Weather Underground and much to be ashamed of, including its destruction of Students for a Democratic Society, the anti-war group the Weather Underground grew out of. He does not deny that the explosives that killed three of the Weather Underground's members in a Greenwich Village brownstone in 1970 were intended to kill soldiers and their dates at a dance at Fort Dix, N.J. He feels bad about the toll his life took on his parents. Worthwhile message: Don't intellectualize violence."

What a great talk that would be! (And I agree with Noah's review of Rudd's work in comparison to Ayers. Fugitive Days is a bore and a tad pompous. Rudd actually has some lessons for people about politics today)

Check out Mark talking about his new book on C-Span here.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, June 08, 2009

Satire and Social Justice: Racial Jokes, Racial Wisdom, and Richard Pryor as a Philosopher of Race

Warning: this post contains quotations and links that use language that might offend some readers.

From City Journal: an interesting article about Richard Pryor and how, over the long term of his career, he developed some very nuanced views about race and white racism. One of Pryor's monologues explains how he gained some insight into race dynamics in the United States after a trip to Africa:

"One thing that happened to me that was magic was that I was leaving, sitting around the hotel lobby, and a voice said, “What do you see? Look around.”

And I looked around, and I looked around, and I saw black people everywhere. At the hotel, on television, in stores, on the street, in the newspapers, at restaurants, running the government, on advertisements. Everywhere.

And the voice said, “You see any niggers?”

I said, “No.”

It said, “You know why? ’Cause there aren’t any.”

I’d been there three weeks and hadn’t said it. And it started making me cry, man. All that crap. All the acts I’ve been doing. As an artist and comedian. Speaking and trying to say something. And I’d been saying that. That’s a devastating word. That had nothing to do with us. We are from a place where they first started people. I left regretting ever having uttered the word on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. And so I vowed never to say “nigger” again."

I've mentioned before how use of humor, and satire, in particular, to explore and challenge dominant ideas in society is a particular powerful tool. But it's a very volatile one.

Recent studies suggest that satire is a form of humor that can challenge, but also reassure and confirm, one's own biases. In one study, liberal and conservative viewers were asked to assess the political humor of Stephen Colbert. Liberals tended to think he was using humor to poke fun of right wingers; conservatives thought he was using satire to make fun of liberals.

This kind of indeterminacy of satire as a tool of social justice makes me think about Dave Chappelle. During the last season of his wildly successful show on Comedy Central, Chappelle developed a series of sketches about racial stereotypes called the Pixie series. The idea was to show the kind of burden certain stereotypes impose on different ethnic groups. But he decided to abandon the show, in part, because he wasn't sure that his humor was having the effect he wanted it to have. He wasn't sure whether he was challenging the stereotype or, instead, retrenching the stereotype in the mind of some viewers. Here is a clip from the show:

Chappelle's Show
Pixie Stereotypes - In-Flight Meal
Buy Chappelle's Show DVDsBlack ComedyTrue Hollywood Story

Should people concerned with social justice trust humor, and especially satire, as tools to raise critical awareness about issues such as racism?

Labels: , ,

Friday, June 05, 2009

New Film on Cesar Chavez in the Works!

I received an email from director Dieter Heisig about a new biographical film on Cesar Chavez in production right now! Finally! Here is the press release:

Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott of the late 1960s will be the subjects of a new feature film to be produced by German production company MN Visionen. “This is a long overdue project on one of America’s great heros – the man who fought for the underdog, and who first popularized the famous phrase in the recent US presidential election: ‘Yes, we can!’,” said MN Visionen head Dieter Heisig. During the 1960s and 70s, Cesar Chavez – an American migrant worker and union organizer – helped create and lead the United Farm Workers Union. Using methods of non-violence protest inspired by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, Chavez and the movement labored against phenomenal odds under the slogan “Si, se puede!”. His fasts and the famous March on Sacramento in 1966 were honored by many, including Robert F. Kennedy, while the Grape Boycott received international attention. The completed screenplay for this powerful film is based on the contemporary biography Cesar Chavez: Man of the Migrants by Jeanne Pitrone. It tells the story of a man and a movement dedicated to gaining the same civil rights for migrant workers as for all other American workers. It is estimated that well over a million U.S. citizens are still employed today as migrant workers under bleak conditions, many of them children.

MN Visionen is a newly formed independent German production company. Company head Dieter Heisig has worked as a producer and publicist for countless film, music and television productions in Germany, France and Austria.

For more information on the directer, go here (for those who read German).

Labels: , ,

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Is Marriage Equality Radical Enough? Judith Butler on Same Sex Marriage, Polyamory, and the State

New Hampshire becomes the sixth state to legalize same sex marriage today. The New York Times calls it another step in "mainstream Amerca" coming to "accept" the idea of marriage equality.

Judith Butler, in this new interview in The Monthly Review, talks about the conservative trend behind the marriage equality movement. She worries about it having the effect of normalizing certain kinds of relationship configurations, namely two individuals in a special legal/romantic bond, while making other kinds of romantic bonds seem perverse or unnatural. Moreover, she also considers that the marriage equality movement reinforces the idea that recognition by the state should be something that our affective relationships require for validation. Here's an except from a really good read:

Butler :"Of course, if marriage exists, then homosexual marriage should also exist; marriage should be extended to all couples irrespective of their sexual orientation; if sexual orientation is an impediment, then marriage is discriminatory. For my part, I don't understand why it should be limited to two people, this appears arbitrary to me and might potentially be discriminatory; but I know this point of view is not very popular. However, there are forms of sexual organisation that do not imply monogamy, and types of relationship that do not imply marriage or the desire for legal recognition -- even if they do seek cultural acceptance. There are also communities made up of lovers, ex-lovers and friends who look after the children, communities that constitute complex kinship networks that do not fit the conjugal pattern.

I agree that the right to homosexual marriage runs the risk of producing a conservative effect, of making marriage an act of normalisation, and thereby presenting other very important forms of intimacy and kinship as abnormal or even pathological. But the question is: politically, what do we do with this? I would say that every campaign in favour of homosexual marriage ought also to be in favour of alternative families, the alternative systems of kinship and personal association. We need a movement that does not win rights for some people at the expense of others. And imagining this movement is not easy.

The demand for recognition by the state should go hand in hand with a critical questioning: what do we need the state for? Although there are times that we need it for some kinds of protection (immigration, property, or children), should we allow it to define our relationships? There are forms of relation that we value and that cannot be recognised by the state, where the recognition of civil society or the community is enough. We need a movement that remains critical, that formulates these questions and keeps them open."

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, June 01, 2009

Empathy, Equity, and the Wise Latina Judge: Sotomayor and the Supreme Court Oath of Office

The conservatives may have point about Sonia Sotomayor. Some pundits have pointed out that the oath of office for the Supreme Court seems to dismiss the kind of judicial attitude espoused by Sotomayor and Obama. That is, it seems to disallow "empathy" as a judicial tool, and certainly prohibits anyone from claiming that certain "standpoints" (perhaps such as those by a "wise Latina judge"--that now infamous phrase of Sotomayor's) ought to be epistemically privileged in legal decision making. Here is the text of the oath:

“I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as (title) under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God.”

One commentator (who has a philosophy degree from Stanford!) suggests that these words immediately disqualify Sotomayor from the Supreme Court. According to Bryan Fischer, she has said that she will take into account "persons" and will rule based on factors such as empathy with the identity of the petitioners in court, rather than strict impartiality as the oath calls for.

I don't know much about the history of the word-smithing behind this oath but the phrase "...I will administer justice without respect to persons," is a curious one. Given the clause that follows ("and do equal right to the poor and to the rich"), the phrase might suggest that a judge is not to allow the identity, or reputation, or influence of an individual in a case, to sway an understanding of the appropriate application of the law. This would be a general warning against bias or favoritism.

Yet, commentators are taking this wording to suggest that "impartiality" means not taking into account any particularities of a person's background or history. In laying out his criteria for choosing a justice, Obama said he thought we needed:

“... somebody who’s got the heart — the empathy — to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old — and that’s the criteria by which I’ll be selecting my judges.”

Jonah Goldberg, of The Nation Review, calls this deeply offensive, i.e, racist, and nonsense:

"The reasoning here is a riot of dubious assumptions. Obama and Sotomayor both assume that a firsthand understanding of the plight of the poor or the African-American or the gay or the old will automatically result in justices voting a certain (liberal) way. “I would hope,” Sotomayor said in 2001, “that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” This is not only deeply offensive, it is also nonsense on stilts. Clarence Thomas understands what it is like to be poor and black better than any justice who has ever sat on the bench. How’s that working out for liberals?"

These views seem to imply that the administration of justice is a mechanical thing. Law is like an algorithm: anyone can plug in a few variables and get the same answer. Indeed, some commentators are now using former Justice O'Connor's saying that a wise man and wise woman should come to the same conclusion as some kind of repudiation of Sotomayor and Obama.

If this is how the oath of office is to be interpreted, then I say so much the worse for the oath. It seems to assume a very simplistic idea of legal decision making that ignores a fundamental virtue of jurisprudence: equity.

As Plato and Aristotle understand it, equity is a kind of correction to the written law administered by real live judges.

In The Statesman, Plato writes against the idea of the law as some of kind of system of rules that can be applied like a logical proof:

"The differences of men and actions, and the endless irregular movements of human things, do not admit of any universal and simple rule. No art can lay down any rule which will last forever...."

Equity, then, is an art (or more accurately, the practical wisdom) of learning how to take into account certain details of a particular case and consider them relevant in deciding how a law applies. It is an art in the sense that it is not a codified science, but more like a knack, a practice, that seasoned practitioners know how to do.

Aristotle calls equity "justice that goes beyond the written law" and offers an example: Imagine a law that prohibits the infliction of wounds with iron weapons. X strikes Y while X is wearing an iron ring. In addition to the general assault, shouldn't X face of charge of inflicting a wound with an iron weapon? Aristotle says this is a case for equity--learning to see the case in a wider perspective that takes into account: "not to the action itself, but to the moral purpose; not to the part, but to the whole; not to what a man is now, but to what he has been, always or generally." Clearly, justice, according to Aristotle, can only occur if we have some sense of the people we are dealing with.

An oath is not necessarily a job description (even though federal officials can be charged with treason or high crimes for violating their oaths). But it seems that, in the case of the Supreme Court oath of office, we ought to reconsider whether we are committing judges to an unsophisticated kind of jurisprudence. We should recall Cicero who said that only "the crowd" identified law and justice with the written decree; true law has to do with reason and the wisdom that comes from experience interacting with persons in the real world.

Labels: , ,