Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Dangerous Deification of Voting

From the time Americans begin school,they are taught that their civic duty is to vote. The message is reiterated in every public school social studies course, and amplified further once you take civics or government. Outside of school the same message continues to reverberate. At concerts you encounter Headcount, working to register others to vote. Tune into comedian Craig Ferguson, and you just might find him excoriating nonvoters as "morons." And when presidential elections happen, you would think that important events ceased to occur, as the media drops everything to focus on every word and scandal surrounding the leading candidates. The message is not that electoral politics is one way to influence the policies of your government, but that it is the way to influence the policies of your government.

Recently I have seen this attitude illustrated on both sides of the aisle. Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times op-ed column: "Just to be clear, progressives would be foolish to sit out this election: Mr. Obama may not be the politician of their dreams, but his enemies are definitely the stuff of their nightmares." From an admittedly far less influential right wing figure, a friend of a friend on Facebook who claims to be a "freedom lover" wrote of neocon airhead Sarah Palin, "I would pick her over Romney in a heart-beat. Other than Ron Paul and maybe Christie, who is there for 2012?" And just yesterday I saw it on the left again, with an Obama supporter brushing aside my list of Obama's war crimes and civil liberties violations on the grounds that Republicans are worse.

These figures of the left and right strike me as obsessed with which flavor of corporatist warmonger holds power, and unfortunately, the attitude that this is all politics is leads most people to either embrace the partisan pursuit of power or become utterly apathetic and inactive.

But most of the great achievements in our country's history have been made through non-electoral means. The era of Jim Crow did not end because some Democrats were elected, it ended because of civil disobedience, boycotts, sit ins, and court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education. Women won the vote through the courageous civil disobedience and demonstrations of the suffragettes. Women have choice on abortion not because of Democratic lawmakers, but the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade. And the relevant public opinion change that made that ruling possible was again not a result of elections, but the activism of the likes of Moses Harman and Margaret Sanger, who were often jailed for their "obscene" writings on birth control.

It's these non-electoral approaches which have the potential to solve the most pressing problems identified by the left and the right (Although I will ignore the cultural right's concerns with "moral values" and immigration, as I deem these non-issues).

Having just insulted the right, I suppose I should address their legitimate concerns first, and why I feel they can solve them through non-electoral methods. Let's talk free markets. Property rights are under assault in this country. Licensing laws, regulations, and other bureaucratic red tape make it difficult to run a business, particularly a small business. So, should we vote Republican? Certainly not if your goal is economic freedom. Even most conservatives today acknowledge the government expanding nature of the Bush Administration. But what about Ronald Reagan, the hero of the limited government right? The website of The Ludwig von Mises Institute, a free market think tank, has several articles documenting the protectionism, deficit spending, regulations, and other big government policies that belied Reagan's free market rhetoric. My two favorites are Murray Rothbard's The Myths of Reaganomics and Sheldon Richman's The Sad Legacy of Ronald Reagan. But Democrats don't even pretend to support free markets. So what can be done?

Some of the best advocacy of economic liberty is currently being done by The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. They file lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of superfluous licensing laws (Seriously, why the fuck should you need a license to be a florist, train yoga teachers, perform cosmetology [even if your type of cosmetic work is never dealt with in the licensing process], repair computers, or call yourself an interior designer, just to name a few). They fight for property rights in cases of eminent domain abuse, and while they lost the infamous case Kelo v. City of New London, the awareness they've brought to the issue through their Castle Coalition has led to meaningful reforms, as explained in this video. Other economic liberty cases fought by the Institute for Justice may be found here.

Another concern frequently brought up by the right wing is the threat campaign finance law poses to free speech. Contrary to the opinions of some of my fellow leftists, such laws do pose a very real problem, as left wing blogger Glenn Greenwald explained here. But the 2008 Republican candidate for president, John McCain, was a co-sponsor and has his name in the title of the most infamous campaign finance law. How were these laws changed on a national level? Through the masterful arguments of attorneys like Ted Olsen and Floyd Abrams before the Supreme Court in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, as well as briefs by groups like the Institute for Justice, the ACLU, and the Cato Institute in that same case. And who challenged (And continue to challenge) local threats to free speech from campaign regulations? Again, public interest legal groups like the ACLU and the Institute for Justice.

Another very legitimate right wing concern (Which many on the left care about too) involves politically correct universities squelching the academic marketplace of ideas through unconstitutional speech codes. The only people solving this problem are the civil liberties activists at FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. In addition to litigation they draw awareness to these issues through a YouTube channel and a Speech Code of the Month award.

While right wingers do have other legitimate concerns, it's time to talk to my allies: The left. Comrades, we agree on a hell of a lot. Whether it's war, classism, corporatism, immigration, queer rights, misogyny, the prison system, racial privilege, or the Bush administration's abuses of power, I'm probably left of you.

So, let's talk the war crimes and power grabs that characterized the Bush administration. Have Barack Obama or the Democratic Congress reversed the tide on this? Hardly. The Democratic Congress has re-approved the PATRIOT Act, granted immunity to telecom companies for spying for the government without a warrant, continuously renewed funding for the futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and amended FISA to weaken privacy rights. Barack Obama now claims the authority to assassinate an American citizen with no legal due process, his Justice Department has won him the power to detain people without even minimal habeas corpus protection, and he has increased the use of drone bombing campaigns, even in countries on which we have not declared war.

What are the non-electoral methods for dealing with this dire despotism and senseless violence? The bravest among us may choose to follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay taxes in protest of the Mexican American War. But for those who prefer a route less guaranteed to lead to incarceration, there are still many solid options. The ACLU and the lesser known Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) have filed lawsuits addressing most of the worst civil liberties abuses started under Bush and expanded under Obama. Most of what we now know about the brutal Bush torture programs comes from documents released due to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests filed by the ACLU. On the other hand, Barack Obama has sought to block the release of such information. The other major force against war crimes and related human rights abuses is Wikileaks, a website which analyzes and releases classified information from governments, corporations, and church hierarchies, and protects the whistleblowers who provide the documents. Two leaks which have catapulted the site into the public eye are the Collateral Murder video, and over 90,000 pages of documents known as the Afghan War Diary. Both leaks reveal the brutal, cruel, counterproductive, and often criminal nature of U.S. wars abroad. Both contradict a narrative of American Exceptionalism which has been propped up through secrecy, censorship, and propaganda. So, of course, the United States government wishes to destroy Wikileaks. A classified document detailing this desire and plans to bring it about on the part of U.S. intelligence was released by Wikileaks in March 2010. Bradley Manning is currently being prosecuted by the United States government for allegedly leaking the Collateral Murder video and other classified information to Wikileaks. Why does Wikileaks arouse such fear, loathing, and action on the part of the military industrial complex? Because, like the ACLU and CCR, they do more to counter the America's imperial hubris than any politician ever would. And unlike those civil liberties law firms, Wikileaks can't be stopped by courts.

Another key left wing issue, and one which hits me closest to home, concerns LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer [or Questioning]) rights and equality. While the Democratic Congress passed the Matthew Shepard Act, adding sexual orientation and gender identity to hate crimes law, some queer activists rightly ask whether hate crimes laws work and whether any principled leftist can respond to a problem by granting more power to our racist, classist criminal justice system. The two greatest queer victories on a national level have happened in, you guessed it, the courts. Both the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8 have been found unconstitutional this year. And on a local level, positive change often comes from outside government entirely. In my own state of Utah, the moralistic Mormon majority has not stopped the Utah Pride Center from making this a better place for queers. The Center runs an LGBT youth center, where young adults whose identities are often reviled by their parents and communities can truly be themselves. Support groups abound, including for identities often misunderstood and feared even in the LGBT community, such as transgender individuals. One Pride Center group, TransAction, engages in activism for Utah's trans community. One event I found particularly inspiring was our pool party and barbecue. For obvious reasons, many transpeople are uncomfortable using pools and locker rooms. At this event, I saw one transwoman swim for her first time in about a decade. The importance of organizations like the Utah Pride Center is obvious: They allow often marginalized queer individuals to function among like minded people, and be treated as full fledged human beings rather than second class citizens and freaks. This certainly beats occasional pandering by politicians.

In just about every other case of bigotry the non-electoral approach continues to prove its superiority. Feminism and African American civil rights were briefly discussed at the beginning of this post, but what about the rights of Latin Americans, and undocumented immigrants in particular. In spite of all the hullabaloo surrounding Obama's plan for immigration reform and opposition to Arizona's SB1070, deportations have increased under Obama. The real groups fighting for the rights of Latin Americans and immigrants are grassroots organizations like the Brown Berets, United Farm Workers' Union, Alta Arizona, and (Yes, I'm sure by now I sound like a broken record) the ACLU.

Another key issue for the left is corporate power. But the mainstream progressive reforms tend to support corporate interests. The corporatism of health care reform has been thoroughly documented by Glenn Greenwald in articles like this. Timothy Carney's column provides some of the best analysis of the corporatist nature of progressive legislation around today. In addition to fighting anti-competitive regulations as the Institute for Justice does, one can bring awareness to often secret corporate misconduct, as Wikileaks does, or lead workplace activism, as the radical union Industrial Workers of the World does.

The best ideas of the left are predicated upon the fight against violence and hierarchy, and thus cannot be achieved by voting particular leaders into an intrinsically hierarchic and violent organization. The best ideas of the right are built upon principles of individualism and emergent economic order, and thus cannot be realized by voting different leadership into a centrally planned collectivist institution. In order for the best ideas across the political spectrum to realize their true potential, they must realize electoral politics for the distraction it is and focus their energies in real, meaningful activism.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Kyriarchy All Up in This Bitch Good Movements

Many left libertarians, particularly of the feminist variety, use the term kyriarchy as an umbrella term denoting intersecting structures of domination and power. For instance, I spend a lot of my time critiquing the kyriarchy that results from an intersection of statism, militarism, nationalism, transphobia, ageism, ableism, homophobia, misogyny, puritanism, racism, corporatism, class divisions, and other such phenomena.

Well, lately I've been noticing that one of the main problems with kyriarchy is that specific liberation movements end up plagued with many structures of domination.

One great example is this article by Courtney Desiree Morris, describing gender violence in radical left and anti-racist movements, and how this enables state violence against such movements. The entire article is well worth reading, but I'll post a few key excerpts below.

To save our movements, we need to come to terms with the connections between gender violence, male privilege, and the strategies that informants (and people who just act like them) use to destabilize radical movements. Time and again heterosexual men in radical movements have been allowed to assert their privilege and subordinate others. Despite all that we say to the contrary, the fact is that radical social movements and organizations in the United States have refused to seriously address gender violence [1] as a threat to the survival of our struggles. We’ve treated misogyny, homophobia, and heterosexism as lesser evils—secondary issues—that will eventually take care of themselves or fade into the background once the “real” issues—racism, the police, class inequality, U.S. wars of aggression—are resolved. There are serious consequences for choosing ignorance. Misogyny and homophobia are central to the reproduction of violence in radical activist communities. Scratch a misogynist and you’ll find a homophobe. Scratch a little deeper and you might find the makings of a future informant (or someone who just destabilizes movements like informants do).

Then, she provides an insightful historical perspective in which to ground discussion of gender violence in leftist and anti-racist movements.

Reflecting on the radical organizations and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s provides an important historical context for this discussion. Memoirs by women who were actively involved in these struggles reveal the pervasiveness of tolerance (and in some cases advocacy) of gender violence. Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown, each at different points in their experiences organizing with the Black Panther Party (BPP), cited sexism and the exploitation of women (and their organizing labor) in the BPP as one of their primary reasons for either leaving the group (in the cases of Brown and Shakur) or refusing to ever formally join (in Davis’s case). Although women were often expected to make significant personal sacrifices to support the movement, when women found themselves victimized by male comrades there was no support for them or channels to seek redress. Whether it was BPP organizers ignoring the fact that Eldridge Cleaver beat his wife, noted activist Kathleen Cleaver, men coercing women into sex, or just men treating women organizers as subordinated sexual playthings, the BPP and similar organizations tended not to take seriously the corrosive effects of gender violence on liberation struggle. In many ways, Elaine Brown’s autobiography, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, has gone the furthest in laying bare the ugly realities of misogyny in the movement and the various ways in which both men and women reproduced and reinforced male privilege and gender violence in these organizations. Her experience as the only woman to ever lead the BPP did not exempt her from the brutal misogyny of the organization. She recounts being assaulted by various male comrades (including Huey Newton) as well as being beaten and terrorized by Eldridge Cleaver, who threatened to “bury her in Algeria” during a delegation to China. Her biography demonstrates more explicitly than either Davis’s or Shakur’s how the masculinist posturing of the BPP (and by extension many radical organizations at the time) created a culture of violence and misogyny that ultimately proved to be the organization’s undoing.

These narratives demystify the legacy of gender violence of the very organizations that many of us look up to. They demonstrate how misogyny was normalized in these spaces, dismissed as “personal” or not as important as the more serious struggles against racism or class inequality. Gender violence has historically been deeply entrenched in the political practices of the Left and constituted one of the greatest (if largely unacknowledged) threats to the survival of these organizations. However, if we pay attention to the work of Davis, Shakur, Brown, and others, we can avoid the mistakes of the past and create different kinds of political community.

And of course, on these matters racial privilege ends up plaguing even explicitly anti-racist movements.

Race further complicates the ways in which gender violence unfolds in our communities. In “Looking for Common Ground: Relief Work in Post-Katrina New Orleans as an American Parable of Race and Gender Violence,” Rachel Luft explores the disturbing pattern of sexual assault against white female volunteers by white male volunteers doing rebuilding work in the Upper Ninth Ward in 2006. She points out how Common Ground failed to address white men’s assaults on their co-organizers and instead shifted the blame to the surrounding Black community, warning white women activists that they needed to be careful because New Orleans was a dangerous place. Ultimately it proved easier to criminalize Black men from the neighborhood than to acknowledge that white women and transgender organizers were most likely to be assaulted by white men they worked with. In one case, a white male volunteer was turned over to the police only after he sexually assaulted at least three women in one week. The privilege that white men enjoyed in Common Ground, an organization ostensibly committed to racial justice, meant that they could be violent toward women and queer activists, enact destructive behaviors that undermined the organization’s work, and know that the movement would not hold them accountable in the same way that it did Black men in the community where they worked.

But then awareness of the racial privilege can end up turning into a form of rape apologism when the violence is committed by men of color.

We often worry about reproducing particular kinds of racist violence that disproportionately target men of color. We are understandably loath to call the police, involve the state in any way, or place men of color at the mercy of a historically racist criminal (in)justice system; yet our communities (political and otherwise) often do not step up to demand justice on our behalf. We don’t feel comfortable talking to therapists who just reaffirm stereotypes about how fucked-up and exceptionally violent our home communities are. The Left often offers even less support. Our victimization is unfortunate, problematic, but ultimately less important to “the work” than the men of all races who reproduce gender violence in our communities.

Of course, the problem isn't just in anti-racist movements. Sexual liberation movements have been plagued with problems of perpetuating kyriarchy for years. As a privileged white male, I'm relatively ignorant of racism in these movements, but here's the Wiki on racism in the LGBT community for your perusal and privilege checking. However, I have noted various sex and gender issues that plague our communities and movements.

Take, for instance, transphobia. Among lesbian feminists, particularly in the 1980's, transphobia has been rampant. Janice Raymond even published a book called The Transsexual Empire in which she argued that transwomen were infiltrating feminism, and even compared them to rapists. Transgender rights activist Patrick Califia writes in his book Sex Changes that back when he identified as a lesbian he participated in witch hunt style behaviors regarding transwomen. Even when not displaying this sort of outright hostility, the overall LGB(t?) movement has often pushed transgender concerns under the rug. We are often so interested in issues like marriage equality and convincing straight people that "we're just like you," that we push things deemed harder to normalize, such as deviations from gender norms, out of the spotlight. Well, maybe it's that I'm genderqueer and quite a few of my friends are outright trans, but these issues are just as important, if not more, than marriage. Sidestepping the rights of an entire segment of our community is not pragmatic, it's callous and simply entrenches transphobia.

Bisexuals and pansexuals often face a similar stigma within the queer community. For people who experience attraction pretty much exclusively to one gender, those of us who can lust and love across the gender spectrum seem like an anomaly. So, many people brand self proclaimed bisexuals and pansexuals "closet cases" who refuse to admit that they're gay. Bisexual females are often suspected of simply being straight girls claiming bisexuality for experimentation and to appear sexy (the sad part is that many straight girls do this, breaking lesbian hearts and giving honest bisexuals a bad name). Bisexual males are often deemed suspicious for STD's, and have even been suspected not to exist. Elena of Women's Glib wrote a great post on these issues, albeit not specifically as they apply within the queer community, fairly recently.

Another problem that I've seen in our community is the pervasive nature of slut shaming. Now, my thoughts regarding the slut/stud dichotomy and judgmental attitudes towards sex in general are made clear in this video and in my founding of the Facebook page Rational people against puritanical and misogynistic "slut" shaming. I have never encountered a community completely free of this sort of sexual prescriptivism, however. Even when I'm with far left, or godless, or queer, or feminist, or even blatantly sex positive friends, I occasionally encounter some variant upon this sexual taboo, this dichotomous judgment.

Now of course, this post is far from an exhaustive discussion of how bigotry pervades movements that seek to fight it, how kyriarchy's branches entangle themselves in groups that seek to kill aspects of it. Hell, I haven't even mentioned how reformist wings of most movements seek to simply moderate the police and prison system's attitudes towards groups, while I think police power, and indeed the power of the state itself, is oppressive regardless of inequities. But one post cataloging every example of such unfortunate kyriarchal structures in movements is both impossible and unnecessary.

Because the real task belongs to each of us involved in such movements and communities. As we work together to fight oppression in society as a whole, we need to take a serious look at oppression that happens in the corners that are already "ours." And then, as Gandhi said, "we must be the change we want to see in the world."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Striking the Roots of Racism

Several days ago I had a fascinating conversation with a good friend regarding the origins of racism and the optimal methods for ameliorating its impact. The following post is largely based on that conversation, but also draws heavily from my study of such anti-racist thinkers as Tim Wise, Arthur Silber, and Cornel West.

Due to the human tendency towards "in group" and "out group" thinking, just about every human is to an extent racist. This does not mean they hate people based upon race, or that they harbor any ideological racism. But they do hold some emotional bias. This unconscious, unintentional racism has been confirmed by studies. As they say on Avenue Q, "everyone's a little bit racist," even far left, anti-racist bloggers like me.

And so, if we're all racists, whites make up the majority of our population, and whites are conferred with greater power than blacks thanks to years of slavery and Jim Crow, economic inequities between races should not be surprising. It should disturb you that a study by economists at MIT and the University of Chicago found that resumes with "white" sounding names were 50% more likely than the same resumes with "black" sounding names to lead to call backs for interviews. But it should not surprise you. It likewise should not be surprising that when minimum wage laws decrease the amount of people businesses can profitably employ, blacks are the ones hurt most (And in fact whites are often helped). But it should certainly give you pause.

Power of course only exacerbates the problem, particularly power involving authorization to use legal force, break the law with nearly guaranteed impunity, and imprison individuals. Yes, breaking news from the department of "Fucking obvious, but unremarked upon by respectable politicians": The criminal justice system is really racist. Michelle Jones thoroughly documents this in The New Jim Crow, specifically focusing on the war on drugs and the mass incarceration state to which it contributes. A few damning facts she points out include:

*There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

But there's a problem with all these facts: Humans want to consider ourselves and the things we love good and moral, and in our society, racism is deemed the height of evil. So we resort to denial. Admit to racism? It's hard to save face with that confession. Unpack the invisible knapsack of privilege? We might no longer feel we earned all we have.

And so, the white establishment must smear those who challenge their delusional vision of a fair and equitable America. Why, accusing white people of racism? These "civil rights activists" must be racist! Conservative firebrand David Horowitz wrote an entire book based on this premise titled hating whitey.

Similarly, employment difficulties of blacks must be denied. The truly skilled white privilege denialist will here play the victim, noting affirmative action programs as a form of "reverse racism."

The most illustrative example of the vehemence of our racial denial is the debacle surrounding Jeremiah Wright. Many politicians on both sides of the aisle are connected to preachers who compare my LGBTQ friends and I to pedophiles or who wish death upon us. Billy Graham had connections to multiple presidential administrations and had a repeated record of explicit racism against blacks. Yet when Reverend Wright told the reality, albeit in an incendiary manner, of American imperialism, war crimes, and racial oppression, that was too much.

And so the denial permeates our political spectrum. Even that radical socialist Barack Obama, known for his "deep seated hatred for white people", operates on the factually dubious assumption of a post-racial America. His most famous line of oratory hinges upon this PC delusion: "There's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." As Arthur Silber wrote yesterday on this matter:

Second, and of equal significance, is the fact -- acknowledged by almost no one, and certainly not by good liberals and progressives -- that Obama himself is a notably vicious racist: "All this means that it is Obama himself who has adopted the white racist framework. Yes, I repeat that: Obama has adopted the white racist framework with regard to every issue of importance."

This is true because Obama denies the truth of American history in some of its most essential aspects and fully embraces the myth of American exceptionalism -- which is a myth of white American exceptionalism. It is also true because Obama has intentionally adopted more particular racist tropes, such as the myth of "irresponsible" black fathers. (And follow some of the many links provided near the beginning of this article for much more on this topic.)

Please don't say Obama can't be a racist because he's black, or half-black, or however the hell you want to describe it. Just don't. I know you can be smarter than that, if you'll only try. In America today, the fastest path to power is via the white, male ruling class. Obama wanted and wants power, period. So in every way that matters, he identifies with the white, male ruling class. Now he's the leader of that class. See how that works?

So, how do we deal with all this racism? Certainly addressing symptoms such as the drug war and poverty would help. However, with deep seated problems, we must strike the root. This requires that we view racism not as an epithet to hurl at political opponents, but instead as an idea and structure of domination to seek out and ameliorate. For how else can we honestly find the racism lying latent in our psyches and our favored institutions? And if we can't even admit to the problem, it will be damn hard to solve.

Connor Boyack on Immigration

Over at Connor's Conundrums, Connor Boyack presents his views on immigration. Boyack is one of my fellow Utah residents, and is a libertarian, Constitutionalist, and Mormon writer. While I disagree with him on religion and overall have more radical views than he does, he is easily one of the most thorough and rational bloggers I've encountered. It shows in this piece. Boyack first presents a detailed history of immigration law in America, offering a persuasive case that originalist and libertarian interpretations of the Constitution would make our current restrictive immigration laws unconstitutional. He also offers well sourced rebuttals to the economic and crime based anti-immigrant arguments.