Archive for the ‘U.S. politics’ Category

So. Julian Assange.

Is that guy blond, or what?

There have been plenty of smart people who’ve written plenty of smart things about the allegations of rape against Assange. I may or may not have something smart to add to the conversation, but first I want to link to the two best pieces I’ve read on the subject so far, which each approach it from a different—and worthwhile—perspective: the first is from bfp at flipfloppingjoy, and the second from Maia at Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty.  They’re both excellent posts, but I’m grateful for bfp’s in particular because it led me to interrogate my own feelings on this subject a bit more closely and to understand what is and is not valuable about the way I’ve approached it.

My response when I read about the allegations, and the reaction to them, was entirely reflexive. The part of me that hates the way that we talk about rape, and rapists, and rape victims—the part that wrote this post—went straight into myth-debunking mode. And while I think that’s useful and appropriate, for reasons I’ll elaborate on in a bit, it’s also something that requires some deliberation. Because that discussion cannot be about criminal retribution. I agree with bfp completely—and have said as much in the past—that an appeal to the state to dispense justice carries with it terrible consequences. Ultimately, whatever power we invest in the state is power that will, as bfp said, be used against us.

But that doesn’t imply that consequences shouldn’t be discussed at all, because consequences can be part of prevention. What I think it does imply is that we should work to redefine those consequences as something to be enforced by the community, rather than by the state.

And that means talking about rape culture.

Rape culture attempts to protect rapists from social consequences, e.g. shame and isolation, by normalizing, minimizing or flat-out denying instances of rape. This is made easier or more difficult by the rapist’s power relative to the victim’s, because power bestows an assumption of credibility and credibility determines who will be believed and supported. So to some extent rape apologists work to widen that power/credibility gap, and anti-rape activists work to narrow it. One way this often plays out is that victims are slandered and made unrapeable. This is why rape prevention so often focuses on deconstructing narratives about victims, e.g. what they look like and how they act, because those narratives exist to narrow the definition of “rape victim” until it excludes almost all women and precludes the possibility that they will be taken seriously if they step forward.

But there’s another way to widen that gap, and it can be even harder to confront because it relies not on defaming victims (something which runs the risk of being perceived as unjust) but on delineating the boundary of “those who commit rape” in such a way that all assumedly-decent people will fall outside of that boundary. This implicitly strengthens the credibility of many men who are accused of rape by stipulating that rape is not something they could possible have committed. Put another way: if rapists are terrible people, it simply follows that people who are not terrible cannot be rapists. And thus men who are viewed positively by their communities as a result of their social privilege— “good” men; “family” men; “pillars of the community”— cannot, by definition, commit rape. Which not only robs their victims of the chance to be heard and believed, but also ensures that rape accusations will only ever be taken seriously when leveled at men with very little social privilege to begin with. And this simply reaffirms our belief that those men, themselves, are hardly human.

We’ve essentially defined rape out of existence except to the degree that acknowledging it suits our purposes, and allegations against men like Julian Assange and Roman Polanski provide an opportunity to confront that dynamic in a way that can receive wide exposure. So I do think that this is an important discussion to have. Undermining rape culture is a necessary part of, as bfp says, “ending rape to begin with, rather than punishing after the fact.”

But. While this discussion is important, I also think it’s a bit of a red herring.

Because Julian Assange is not WikiLeaks.

The former is being held without bail in Sweden; the latter is the focus of a far more ominous and dangerous campaign being conducted in the form of denial-of-service attacks, the freezing of accounts, and government disruption of the public’s attempts to support the organization financially (whether online or via snail mail). The fact that Assange has been subjected to politically-motivated persecution (and he clearly has; to believe otherwise would require some fairly naïve assumptions about the importance typically given to the prosecution of rape as a crime) is in large part a result of his success at making himself the face of WikiLeaks. This was arguably a bad decision on his part, and it’s not one that we, the public, are required to affirm by continuing to conflate the individual and the organization.

WikiLeaks would be stronger, and Assange himself would likely be safer (though I suppose the damage is done on that count), if the two were thoroughly decoupled. If we’re invested in the fate of WikiLeaks as an organization, we need to be aware of the threats being posed to it directly. Concern for Assange is understandable given the possibility that he may be extradited to the U.S. and forced to stand trial for espionage, so I’m not advocating that we all maintain a position of cold indifference to the risks he faces.

But we can’t preserve transparency by defending Julian Assange any more than we can end rape by punishing him.

Images from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/r_sh/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/nigsby

Advertisements

I was lucky enough to see Angela Davis speak at San Jose State a few days ago. What an amazing woman. Also, I thought, an excellent speaker: careful and deliberative in her word choice, which I appreciate, and her commentary was interesting and thought-provoking and even amusing throughout. I forgot to bring something with me to take notes on, but when I got home afterwards I figured I’d do my best to write up a summary, both to help myself retain it and to detail it for those who might be interested.

The bulk of her talk centered on social justice and organizing, with a particular focus on the evolution of our understanding of freedom. She stressed the importance of always allowing for our notion of what freedom means, and who is worthy of it, to be challenged and expanded. In fifty years, will we look back on this period and wonder how transpeople, or immigrants, or the disabled, could have been treated—even by social justice activists!—as less worthy of that freedom? How can we ensure that our movements are truly all-encompassing and continue to evolve with our understanding of equality?

She mentioned that her generation tends to look down on today’s youth, to condemn them for their apathy, for their lack of involvement and organization and activism. But she continues to place her faith in the younger generations; she contrasts their greater understanding of the connections between racism and homophobia and sexism and all forms of oppression with that of the activists of the 60s, who had a much more limited view of who truly deserved civil rights. She’s also impressed by the tech-savviness of the younger generation, by their utilization of the internet and social networking as powerful organizing tools. She feels that young people are still passionate and motivated, but that their activism simply looks different from what her generation might expect.

My friend Juliet, who saw the talk with me, pointed out that Davis remains “the inveterate optimist”. Powerful interests have tried to silence and intimidate and imprison her; she’s been targeted by counter-intelligence programs, fired for her political associations, even put on trial for murder. But she’s still an idealist. And her idealism isn’t blind, but rooted in pragmatism and an understanding of history.

She used Obama’s election to illustrate the danger of blind idealism. So many pinned their hopes and dreams on his election, which she believes is characteristic of the American desire for messiah figures. We designate and elevate one particular charismatic individual and wait for him (always a him) to effect change, rather than acknowledge that, historically, change has come from the unnamed organizers and activists and citizens, those forgotten by the historical record. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be the name most associate with the civil rights movement, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful as a result of the collective actions of female service workers. How many of their names can we recite now? But we need to acknowledge them, not least because we need to remember that the poor and the powerless have agency, and that, collectively, they can challenge even the most powerful interests.

But once we’d elected Obama, we felt we’d earned the right to rest on our laurels, no additional action needed. We waited—avidly, impatiently—for him to dispense justice and realize equality. And what did he do? Increased troop presence in Afghanistan. And where was the outrage? Where were the protests and the marches? We had failed to hold our messiah accountable.

And, in the end, “What good is it to have one black man in the White House when we still have a million black men in the big house?” Davis spent some time discussing the prison industrial complex, which is self-perpetuating insofar as it devours the resources that could be used to prevent the future incarceration of young people who can see no future for themselves. She allowed that there is a need to remove from society those criminals who have committed acts of violence, but this, of course, excludes the majority of the incarcerated. She cited a fairly alarming statistic: eighty percent of the women in prison are there on drug-related charges. She then flatly stated, to wide applause: “They should all be released. Now.”

She mentioned that prisoners are often voracious readers; as she put it, this is often the first real chance many of these men and women have to truly live a life of the mind. She contrasted this to the reality of university, particularly graduate, education. Today’s graduate students feel intense pressure, almost from the beginning of their studies, to market themselves, to publish, to professionalize and monetize their academic path. A main culprit of this shift has, of course, been the privatization—and subsequently the increased costs—of education. Education is now financed by sizable loans which need to be repaid; students therefore see themselves as, primarily, future members of the workforce. Thus has education become a commodity. She commended the success of the March 4th protests, particularly the use of the internet to broaden the scope of the movement from the local to the national stage, and shared a pretty amusing anecdote about how, when she was a young activist, a planned national protest had to be cancelled because the group didn’t have enough money to make the long-distance calls needed to organize the demonstrations.

Many of the questions posed after the discussion were quite thought-provoking. One questioner challenged her on whether we can really hold students accountable for (what some see as) their lack of activism given the barrier she’d mentioned. If students are expected to focus so heavily on professional development (and on working to pay their way through school), is it therefore fair to judge them for their inability to devote themselves to political activism? She clarified that she intended not to reproach younger generations, but to acknowledge the difficulties they face. And she believes they’ve risen to the challenge in their own ways, by changing the feel of activism from something deadly serious to something fun and accessible, something that incorporates art and music and humor and joy. She implied that youth has something to teach even the most hardened civil rights veterans: “After all, we told you to give up on the idea of electing a black junior Senator named Barack Hussein Obama to the White House.”

Another questioner asked how he could ensure that he avoided abusing the power he’d been bestowed through his activist work. She answered that the truly effective leaders are those who have scrupulously represented their constituencies, who have remained connected to the desires of the people. The abuse of power can be avoided by working closely with the groups one represents, by truly hearing and respecting their voices, by allowing oneself to be challenged and informed and changed by their struggle.

Another questioner, Fred Hershaw (whom she knew personally and described as one of the activists most dedicated to securing her freedom during her trial), drew a parallel between the Dred Scott decision and the current rhetoric around immigrants’ rights, and she acknowledged the similarity and briefly discussed the new immigration bill in Arizona and its function as a justification for racial profiling. “What does it mean for a person to be illegal? And we’re all immigrants. We’re all motivated by a desire for a better life.” And, as she pointed out, most immigrants are simply fleeing the poverty in their own countries, the poverty which exists as the grim offspring of NAFTA and global capitalism. Immigrants’ rights, in her view, is the most important civil rights movement of our generation.

If I’d had the guts, I would have asked her about the issues Brownfemipower discussed in her post on Feministe, about the convergence of sexual violence and our designation of certain bodies as “illegal”, particularly as it relates to the law in Arizona. This new legislation has particularly ominous implications for immigrant women, who face the threat not only of racial profiling but also of sexual assault and rape by law enforcement, and I would have been interested to hear her thoughts on how feminist and anti-racist organizations can best address that. But, alas. I was too intimidated.

I think I’ve summarized her talk fairly well here, though I’m sure I left some important things out. I didn’t really add any of my own commentary, so it’s fair to assume that everything written above (save the paragraph preceding this one) originated with her comments, though obviously I paraphrased like crazy. At any rate, I hope that this will be interesting reading to some!

I heard we passed some sort of bill related to healthcare, or something? I still don’t really believe it, because right-wing pundits promised me that such a thing was impossible, and people who get invited to talk about stuff on TV are never wrong!

Conservative reaction to The Bill What Shall Not Pass has been fun to watch; as my gentleman caller tweeted, “Every Republican speaker in the House has a world-class sad.” If the right is good at anything, it’s offering a united response, even if said united response is flying the flag of the Republic of Whinelandia. I think they dropped the Waterloo thing, though. Probably a good idea. Because, as the lefty bloggers (and even David Frum) have been quick to point out: whose Waterloo, guys?

(Bonus hilarity points: McCain going on the record with threats of “no cooperation for the rest of the year” from the GOP. Shit. America’s screwed. Next thing I know, someone will close my Swiss bank account with the 10 million Euros in it, force Clive Owen to break up with me, and take away my pony.)

Progressive and radical reaction to the bill has been pretty mixed, from what I can tell. Not surprising. There’s something in it for optimists, pessimists and pragmatists alike. I don’t believe I’ve yet seen anyone take the position that passing it was worse than not passing it would have been, but that says more about how utterly broken our current healthcare system is than it does about the bill’s strengths. A bill that gave everyone a $50 Viagra subsidy and required that the CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield be whacked in the head with a Styrofoam bat would have been an improvement over the current system.

Here are a few of the more interesting takes on the subject I’ve seen, thus far:

1. Noam Chomsky takes the “better than nothing” position but, predictably enough to anyone familiar with his work, is very quick to single out the bill’s function as a giveaway to the insurance industry. And rightly so. Reasonable people can disagree on whether the bill will help individuals or improve society as a whole, but no one can deny that it’s beneficial for insurance companies. They’ve already seen a spike in their stock prices. Some of their worst excesses have been curbed, but mandatory coverage with no real competition is still money in their pockets.

I do appreciate Chomsky’s point that the public option had widespread public support, and that it’s, er, suspect that “widespread public support” somehow did not translate to “political support”. Makes it pretty clear who our elected leaders are (and are not) working for, doesn’t it?

2. I kind of love this statement by Planned Parenthood and the fact that it focuses on the real, tangible ways that women will be helped by reform, rather than the meddling of the anti-choice Democrats. Make no mistake: Stupak deserves no end of criticism for his role in the process and for the fact that the resulting Executive Order, while largely symbolic*, still amounts to the President’s signed agreement that women are dirty sluts. That’s not something we should take lightly. But its importance also shouldn’t be overstated, not least because Stupak ended up with egg on his face and has been giving hilarious interviews where he tries to convince reporters that no, really, the EO is like totally meaningful and it totally doesn’t just say “Meet the new law, same as the old law. Signed, President Obama.”

The bill, as it stands, represents a real improvement to many womens’ lives. But this runs the risk of being overlooked given our tendency to trivialize anything we view as relating primarily to women, whether helpful or harmful. Shady insurance practices often hurt women more than men due to gender discrimination; reform’s a clear improvement in this respect. Feminists have an obligation to ensure that this reality is part of the discussion, as Planned Parenthood is doing.

Their statement didn’t mention this, but I think there’s also room for optimism in that Stupak’s proposed ban has likely had the unintended effect of increasing awareness of the Hyde Amendment and its effects. And his antics really highlighted how gross it is to see a bunch of old white dudes sitting around in expensive suits and fervently discussing fetuses.

Oh, and the “babykiller!” thing was just awesome. Thanks, Rep. Neugebauer!

3. This post by Glenn Greenwald was actually written before the House vote, but it’s still a good analysis of the tactics used by the Administration to get reform passed, as well as a bucket of cold water on the head of anyone who thinks that passage somehow represented a marginalization of industry interests. Closed-door dealmaking with the drug and insurance industries to make the bill palatable to their tastes is what got this thing passed, and there’s room to disagree on whether this was necessary, but as Glenn says, there’s no doubt that it’s what happened. Celebrate the historic nature of the bill, yes. But let’s not pretend that its method of passing wasn’t business as usual.

So those are my thoughts, or, at least, my thoughts on the thoughts of other people much smarter than I. More later, perhaps.

*Katha Pollitt disagrees on this, but doesn’t elaborate, unfortunately.