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A Theory of Violence: In Honor of Kasandra, CeCe, Victoria, Savita and Anonymous

4 Jan

**trigger warning**

A few weeks ago, a young Indian woman went to the movies. On her way home she took a bus on which she was raped and brutally assaulted by six men. We don’t know the name of this 23-year-old student.  We do know that  she was tortured so badly that she lost her intestines and needed numerous operations. Six people – including the bus driver – have been arrested. On Friday, December 28 she died.

I don’t know her name. I don’t have an adequate response, but I feel I should say something. Because I was born in the city where she were assaulted. Because so many, too many, experience such violence. Because I spend most of my waking hours thinking about how we can create a world where women are safe. Because she wanted to live.

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This is both about and not about men. Here are some statistical knowables, true across most societies (just take a look at the extant research at both the global and national levels).

  • Violence against women and girls occurs primarily at the hands of men and boys.
  • Violence against men and boys occurs primarily at the hands of other men and boys.
  • Nations, statistically speaking, commit far and away, the most of the world’s violence via war and conflict. This involves military forces comprised largely of men and boys, who are both perpetrators and victims of this violence.

Gender, then, rises up as an undeniably important variable in regards to understanding violence. And though we might not have a shared understanding of this fact, sex and gender are different and there are more genders than two. Further, people who are gender-non-coforming, genderqueer, trans and/or those who complicate the gender binary experience violence at disproportionate rates.

In my work at Men Stopping Violence, our focus is on ending male violence against women. Far and away the most common first response to my explanation of our work goes something like this: “Yes, violence against women is a problem but, don’t women ALSO commit violence?”

Let me answer that question now: Sure, yes. Women are also perpetrators of violence. As are people of all genders, sexes and sexual orientations. But to refocus the question on women’s violence is to obfuscate the real problem. And that problem is violent masculinity. If all the above data has not convinced you yet, please note: According to the National Academy of Sciences, in the US, “Male criminal participation in serious crimes at any age greatly exceeds that of females, regardless of source of data, crime type, level of involvement, or measure of participation.” I say this not to pathologize masculinity as inherently violent, I certainly don’t believe it is. I say this to move us away from wringing in our hands in despair about a seemingly intractable problem (male violence against women) and move us toward naming the fact that this problem is deeply structural, rooted in patriarchy and colonialism.

The point here is this: violence in general and sexual violence in particular, like all social ills, is best approached with a multi-faceted and intersectional perspective.

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“Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of the individual: it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say someone is “in power” we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name.” —  Hannah Arendt, from On Violence

What is the function of violence?

Resisting essentialist notions about sex and turning to think about gender, there is something in pervasive understandings of masculinity or masculine identity that accepts if not encourages violence.  This begs the questions: Is masculinity itself violent? Is there a way to be a man/masculine without being violent? What causes violence? What sustains it? These are questions that I think about daily and with my colleagues around the country. At MSV we work with many different men who join in this conversation with us. For us, that involves honing in on the problem of men’s violence against women.

Let me be very clear here, because this is the bulk of my point: we fail at answering these questions if we think of violence as merely a symptom of something else. If you listened to the NRA press conference last week in response to the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, you might be lead to believe that the perpetration of violence is some elusive phenomenon, committed by the criminally insane, or at the behest of video games and violent movies. If you watched some of the Indian coverage of the Delhi gang rape story you’d hear lots of speculation that the young men who perpetrated this gruesome act, must have been intoxicated by drugs. I wholeheartedly disagree with this assessment of violence. It’s not merely a tragic happenstance. It is not something only done by those who have ‘lost their right minds.’ Violence is functional.

It is a means of asserting and securing power. When violence targets women in the dark of night it ensures, among many other things, that women stay out of the streets. When violence against trans women goes largely unreported in studies of violence against women, it is tacitly legitimated. When violence against white school children raises a national furor and violence against an innocent black teenager wearing a hoodie doesn’t provoke a national conversation about legislating guns, we can see the fault lines.  When a football player kills his partner and then himself and we find ourselves knowing his name but not hers, we see which victims matter.

Violence is functional and our response to that violence is also functional. Violence is functions by silencing those whom it targets. Let us not forget that most cases of rape and sexual assault go unreported. Let us not forget the stigma that survivors face. In the US only 24% of rape allegations result in arrest, never mind conviction. Whether it is perpetrated by an individual or made invisible by our social, cultural and political institutions, violence has an aim – to remove power and instill fear.

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The numbers can tell us most of what we need to know. But not all. What is lost in the statistical knowables, is the lived reality of women, LGBTQ people and others of us whose stories don’t make it to the headlines. Women’s lives bear out patterns, and patterns tell a story. If we ask intentional questions about trends – we can learn something about our social orchestration. Looking to recent stories, we might learn something about this functionality.

Kasandra Perkins was killed by her partner, a professional athlete, who had threatened to shoot her weeks before he did. No one was able to protect her despite the fact of his threat.

CeCe McDonald, a trans woman, faced violence in the form of a hate crime and for her retaliation was sentenced to serve her time in a men’s prison, denied the right to name a very basic fact of her existence.

Victoria Soto was a school teacher with her students in the classroom one day when she was killed in a massacre by a lone gunman with easy access to assault weapons.

Savita Halappanavar sought refuge from the horror of a wanted pregnancy gone awry at an Irish hospital which (legally) refused to save her life.

And then a few weeks ago a young woman in New Delhi took the bus home one night after watching a movie with a friend and was brutally raped and died, 12 days later, from her wounds.

When something horrific happens, near or far from home, we tend to ask the same questions: Why? How? So, what, then, are the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ in these cases and in inumerable others? There are few actual similarities in these cases, but there are many potential points of convergence: laws that do not protect, credibility that is denied, legislation that is missing, stories that are made invisible. If we are to change things, our belief systems, social structures, and institutional practices must come under the spotlight. And that is because these stories complicate the statistical knowables.

Interpersonal violence usually belies a whole host of social conditions that are hard to qualify and quantify (i.e. privilege, race, poverty, gender, oppression, resistance, wealth, cultural norms, etc.). In this, as in most things, historical context is key. The US has a long history of state sanctioned violence. Consider the genocide of Native and First Nations people, the ever-present legacy of slavery, the internment, without due-process, of those considered a threat, be they Japanese immigrants or detained in Guantanamo via the War on Terror.  These factors complicate our understanding of who perpetrates violence and against whom and why. Knowing the statistics is important. Knowing the stories, unearthing the legacies, speaking aloud the names of the victims and the survivors is just as important.

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Women’s bodies serve as battlegrounds: metaphorically and practically. “Western” feminists look toward the “East” and see beleaguered women facing oppression at the hands of savage (read:black and brown) men. Never mind that staggering and horrific violence happens in the “West.”  Never mind that the US has never taken a stand to ratify the global Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Never mind international conventions, the US is not able to muster the political will to pass the Violence Against Women Act, or gun control legislation. Never mind that we all have remained  unable to effectively address the phenomenon of rape as a tool of war, so as to prevent women’s bodies from serving as the actual sites of war and conflict.

Despite all these facts, in the wake of this story, outrage began seeping out from the US, the UK and Europe (which I am loosely defining as the “West” – the demarcations of and within these places could be a topic of a separate blog post) at the problem of patriarchal “Eastern” cultures. The narrative looks something like this: Those poor women suffering at the hands of those horrible men. We must loudly proclaim our empathy for those people, who either know no better or are unable to live by our enlightened social standards.

This narrative is racist, homophobic, sexist, heteronormative and imperialist.

And to step away from all that politicalese: it is quite simply just wrong.

Violence is global. It pervades all cultures and communities. Yesterday, in a brilliant conversation, Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and one of the main organizers of protests against sexual violence in India and Elora Chowdhary, associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, joined Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now to talk about the case and the way it’s being discussed here in the US as well as in India. Chaowdhary says,

So, on the one hand, we see in the Western media some reporters taking this moral high ground and pointing fingers and demonizing Indian culture, as though sexual violence against women is pervasive in only certain parts of the world and that it’s somehow reflective of deeply inherent cultural traditions of that part of the world. Of course, what that obscures is that both rape and domestic violence are pervasive in the United States, and domestic violence being one of the leading causes of injury to women, and exceedingly high numbers of rapes that, in fact, mostly go unreported in the United States. So, I think embedded in these kinds of reporting is a certain colonial mindset, of course, there’s a long history of that. And this kind of mindset that women are the measure of the progress of a society emerges from colonial practices, that these ideas were used to legitimize both colonization and also imperialism.

I don’t say all this to discourage global dialogue. Very much the opposite, in fact. We have much to learn from each other, by sharing our struggles and our victories. Such exchange is key to our success. What we cannot abide however is the reductive and disempowering narrative that allows some folks to offer no local, national or global context. What will not help is an essentialist narrative that paints all (or even most) Indian women as victims and all (or even most) Indian men as perpetrators, by virtue of their culture. We must banish these spectres of our colonial legacy if we aim to build an intersectional, transnational and transformative movement to end violence in our communities.

As I’ve said, violence, here in the US and abroad, is functional. Violence against women, is rooted in colonialism and patriarchy, in their varied and sundry iterations.  We’d do well to keep our eyes on that, and work like hell to dismantle the belief systems, social structures, and institutional practices that support it.

After the Love Has Gone: Some Thoughts on Radical Community After the Election

8 Nov

If you’re like me you’re probably geeked that the election is finally over.  I mean, now I can turn all of my attention back to Parks and Recreation, Scandal, and the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Finally!

Welcome back to the Wig Crypt, Crunkadelic!

But, seriously. I’m glad the election and the election coverage is over. Sure, I love a giddy Rachel Maddow gushing on MSNBC. Sure, I like the idea of chastened, sullen, defensive conservatives whining and licking their wounds, embarrassing themselves by saying increasingly stupid, pitiful, and asinine things, while all the while revealing to anyone with good sense that their ideology and policies are out of touch, retrograde, wack, and shamtastic. Their tears are delicious. So, yes, I’m not above putting the shade back in schadenfreude.

Mostly though, I’m really ready to be done with the in-fighting among the Radical Left. If you feel that Barack Obama is the antichrist because he has initiated moderate health care reform but are cool with his policies on Guantanamo and drones, I am yet lifting you up in prayer and inviting you to take a stadium of seats. Just sit this one out, boo.

Some folks voted for President Obama, albeit in a range from enthusiastic to reluctant support. Some voted for progressive third party candidates like Jill Stein, choosing to give the side eye to the binary of the prevailing two party system. Others abstained altogether, rejecting the notion that voting for the lesser of two evils is any choice at all.  The Radical Left is not a monolithic entity, but rather a diverse set of communities that approach the realization of justice in a variety of ways. I’m not suggesting that we become more alike, but I am concerned that the way we talk about our differences is not only unproductive but oftentimes a violent distraction from our shared goals.

While some folks are still popping bottles and dropping it like it’s hot to Jeezy’s My President is Black, others are shaking their heads at the complicity of supposedly progressive folks with the imperialism of the State, and, because of Sandy and now Athena, still more are just trying to get electricity and heat on in their homes permanently and aren’t exactly studying this ongoing family drama at the moment.

The past two years have been like a family reunion gone terribly wrong. Folks get drunk and start arguing, secrets get exposed, proverbial dirty laundry gets aired, people choose sides, and nothing gets solved. Then we do it all again in a couple of years. It’s not that we don’t love each other—we just got some major ish to work through. So let’s work through it. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but a few ideas to the get the conversation started.

  1. Let’s reject binaries: good/bad, Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative, revolutionary/uncle Tom. I think we experience and engage politics on a spectrum and trying to take a snapshot of someone’s beliefs from one action (e.g., voting and not voting) and then running around being like, “Aha! You’re not quite right because you believe in xyz!” is neither cute nor productive.
  2. Along those lines, let’s rebuke authenticity wars. I think the most recent fissures in the Radical Left should invite us to consider the ways in which the organizing and ideology coming out of the Liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s challenge/inform/undermine our current work. I see some folks wanting to eschew the call to honor the legacy of the civil rights movement, finding such calls often mean shutting up about their concerns in order to appear legitimate. Other folks warn that if you completely abandon the ideology and action of what came before us we are doing a disservice to history and not wanting to authentically connect to the struggle. I don’t think these conversations are completely at odds, but reducing the convo down to one about legitimacy just doesn’t serve us well.
  3. Let’s reject elitism and navel gazing. We are a part of complex communities and we don’t deserve to be leaders simple because we have degrees or work at certain organizations. Yet some of us treat our family, friends, and neighbors with condescension and disdain, acting like we are radical evangelists among ignorant heathens (h/t crunkonia). That’s why sometimes the folks we work with and serve don’t like and, more importantly, don’t trust many of us.
  4. Let’s be nuanced in our discussion of respectability politics. I’m all about calling out investments in dominant notions of what is normal and acceptable as a way to harness power, especially in communities of color and among queer folk. (I’ve spent the last few years writing a book about this very thing). But, sometimes the zeal in calling out respectability politics fails to recognize the complicated, ambivalent ways in which folks adhere to and/or reject what it means to be respectable. Also, see #3.
  5. Let’s recognize that pretty much all of us have some type of privilege and we should make pains to interrogate our ish and really listen to one another. Also, being an expert on racism, for example, doesn’t mean you always get the nuances of, say, ableism. But, thankfully, you—we—can learn. Our brains are awesome like that.
  6. Let’s passionately disagree with one another without eviscerating each other’s humanity. For real.

Ultimately, my thoughts are that we need to have difficult dialogues without cannibalizing each other. Let’s embrace our diversity in the movement and not call for a unity that steamrolls over dissension. We see how the Far Right is imploding, but the difference between us and them is that they have boatloads of cash and no scruples whatsoever and we have an abundance of ethical concerns, passion, and student loans we cannot ask our parents to pay for. They will rise again, but if we become too fractured it might be a different story for us. This is a call to keep our eyes on the prize—it’s not just about being right, it’s about working together for justice.

What are your thoughts on radical communities in the wake of the election? Please share in the comments.

Beat to Quarters*: An argument to register

5 Oct

Guest Post by Pat Hussain

Download your own We All Count sticker to personalize!

The 2012 elections will culminate with President Obama being reelected or replaced as President.  Some people have decided to vote in this election; others not to vote.  Whatever your decision I urge everyone who is eligible to register to vote by the October 9th deadline.

Every citizenship right we have has come after a protracted struggle: Pressure created by direct action and mass movement organizing provided the momentum for a successful vote in the halls of Congress, state legislatures, or polling places across the country. Not registering to vote feels like speaking passionately on the issues at hand; but on Election Day, placing our hands over our mouths.

After the Civil War the struggle for equality moved from the battlefield to the ballot box, as centuries old violence and intimidation tactics against Black people continued.  During Reconstruction, in 1866, the Radical Republicans took control of Congress.  Before the War ended, Rev. George F. Noyes had expressed his support of them, and restraint of former Confederates, during a sermon to the Union Army in 1862:

“When a man puts a knife at my throat, and I succeed in conquering and hand-cuffing him, shall I be so foolish as at once to restore him to his former position, knife and all? Let every man’s own common sense answer this question. The idea with some even at the North is that the South is to be acknowledged as an equal nation if triumphant, while, if she is subdued after the great and fearful struggle, she is at once to be invited into a front seat, and at once admitted to all her old privileges.”

In 1867, Congress replaced Southern civilian government with military districts, and enforced the enfranchisement of Freedmen.  Of the 22 Black members of Congress, elected during Reconstruction, 13 were Freedmen; all were Republican.  Of the 1st 20 elected as Congressmen, five were denied their seats.  Others had their terms interrupted or delayed.

At the 1888 Republican Convention, a new faction emerged within their party. Norris Wright Cuney named this group, the Lily-White Movement: An anti-civil rights response to African-American political and economic gains.  Their goal was to eliminate Black progress and get white voters back from the Democrats.  As it grew to an organized nationwide effort, most Blacks were prevented from seeking office.  Democrats and Republicans erected legislative barriers for Black voters: In the form of poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses.  George White was the last African-American in Congress for 28 years when he delivered his final speech in the House on January 29, 1901:

“This is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people – full of potential force.”

That drought was ended with the election of Oscar De Priest: the first African-American of the modern era and the last Black Republican representative for 56 years.

The 20th Century civil rights movement built on work begun during Reconstruction. Direct action changed and engaged our national conscience as we the people gathered and shone a light on unjust laws, rogue municipalities, and flaws in our Union. Our votes sent those we elected to represent us into the rooms where laws are made and changed.

African-American voting strength blossomed across the South from 1960-1966: in Mississippi – from 22,000 registered Blacks to 175,000, in South Carolina – from 58,000 to 191,000; and in Alabama – from 66,000 to 250,000. The number of Blacks in Congress doubled from five to ten as the 1960s drew to a close. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) emerged from that fertile ground in 1971, followed by the 1976 arrival of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. For the first time in this century, a presidential veto on foreign policy was overridden. When the CBC joined others in opposition to President Reagan, they helped bring about the extinction of South African Apartheid.

History reveals that laws enacted to create justice do not make justice happen. And that political party support, at best, is transient. Further struggle is required to make existing laws function – for example: penalties, criminal charges, and sanctions for noncompliance or violations. The thunder of feet marching and ballots dropping on Election Day; oars pulling together as our boat presses forward. Knowing that our need for justice is immediate, it is frustrating that our progress tends to be incremental. That is why I urge you to register to vote. We need you.

The nautical term is, “All hands on deck.” Something that you say when everyone’s help is needed, especially to do a lot of work in a short amount of time. If you have ever changed your mind, reconsidered a decision, or just like to keep your options open; consider registering. If you do register, you can still decide not to vote.  The decision of whether to vote or not just moves to 7:00 pm, November 6th when the polls close. But if you don’t register, that option, that oar, is left behind.

Rough waters and big waves have kept us from the shores of full equality and have tried to swamp our boat, relentlessly. It has required every tactic at our disposal, some created on the journey, to keep us afloat. Pack both oars: Direct action and the vote. Those who never had the right and those who lost it have needed us to pull that oar for them.

Election Day will mark our progress, lull, or decline; but not the end of our journey. Tsunamis of regressive, racist, mean-spirited political candidates and policies have raised the call for, “all hands on deck.” We need all who are able to give a two-fisted pull toward equality and our own visions of a just world. In the tradition of our struggle, join us.

*Prepare for battle (beat = beat the drum to signal the need for battle preparation).

Pat Hussain is a part of the We All Count campaign and participated in the Southern Movement Assembly two weeks ago in Lowndes County, Alabama. The Assembly brought together 25 delegations from over 40 organizations around the South. Pat is a beloved movement elder and one of six founders of SONG, Southerners On New Ground, an LGBTQ organization working for racial and economic justice. In 1996, Pat co-founded Olympics Out of Cobb County to bring attention to a resolution the city passed in 1993 condemning LGBTQ people. The successful organizing forced the Olympic Committee to remove all officially sanctioned events from the county.

Shade, Smirks, & Zingers

4 Oct

I’m too through. I should have watched some old episodes of Parks & Recreation rather than trying to watch this hot mess of a debate. To quote my fellow CF, watching this debate was like watching Jim Lehrer try to herd cats. Bless his heart; he needs to go have several seats and throw in the towel on being a moderator.

Also, maybe it was a mistake to watch the debate with my mama. She basically yelled at Gov. Mittens for 90 minutes.

In any event, what follows are my thoughts jotted down during and right after the debate.

My thoughts regarding Mittens:

-Why is your flag pin so big? Stop being so fucking obvious.

-You over talking everyone like you don’t have no damn sense. But some folks will actually think that you argued better. Style over substance, I guess.

-Why do you want to fire Big Bird? We all know that it’s Bert and Ernie who are the real threat. Damn Communists.

My thoughts regarding the president:

-Why do you talk so damn slow? You know our attention spans are short.

-I appreciate you being calm and collected, but damn homie, rhetoric and style matter. At the same time, I recognize that if you go ham on Romniferous you’ll be just be an angry negro. You can’t win. It’s a Sisyphean battle.

-Were you trying to take the high road by not talking about the 47% ? It didn’t work. Remind everyone that Romney gives very few %#$@ about most Americans.

On a more serious tip, I’m not sure how productive this debate ultimately was. Romney was smirking and generally being a condescending rich white man, and while President Obama was giving us some good professor shade, he was also getting filibustered severely. Plus, the fact that neither candidate discussed women’s health, LGBTQ issues, immigration, and other pressing matters, though unfortunately not surprising, was a major fail.

What are your thoughts on the first debate, fam?

Throwback Thursday: In the Meantime–Some Thoughts on Voting

6 Sep

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a progressive in a political world that mostly recognizes the binary of Republican and Democrat. Now that the Democratic National Convention is in full swing–especially after rousing speeches by First Lady Michelle Obama and former president Bill Clinton–the questions concerning the role of those of us on the far left in mainstream politics seem more pressing than ever. So, for this Throwback Thursday, I wanted to revisit a post I wrote in 2010 about voting.  What is your take on those with radical politics voting in our decidedly imperfect political model? *****************************************************************************************************************************

This was originally posted on November 4, 2010  

 

Though the gains the Republicans/Tea Partiers/general all-around fools have made this past Tuesday should be no surprise, they are, nonetheless, disheartening.  Living in Alabama where the electoral choices seem to be conservative candidate A v. ultra-conservative candidate  B, it’s hard for this crunk feminist to feel good about her choices. ‘Cause let’s be real: when you choose between the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil.

Nonetheless, with a heavy heart, I went down to my local voting spot to exercise my right and, to be honest, to show my damn face.  As I walked toward the entrance, there was a trio of law-abiding black folk sitting exactly thirty feet from the front door. One called out to me, saying, “My princess, here’s a sample ballot.” (Side bar: I don’t think I’ve ever been called “princess” in my entire life, but I’mma let that one slide since the sister was an elder and trying to do her civic duty). I noticed they were handing out sample ballots to every black person who crossed their path. I also noticed that they were getting some serious side eye from some melanin-lite voters. Sigh. 

I entered the building feeling a lot more sad than I did two years ago. Not that I was jumping up for joy in 2008 either, but I digress.  Once I got inside I noticed lots of black people voting. Like, a whole lot. Like, most of the people in the room.I’ll admit it. I had a sort of kumbaya moment seeing everybody.  Standing behind a sister, we exchanged greetings. I asked how she was, and she replied, “Blessed, really blessed. Happy to be able to do this.” She said this with a simple grace and dignity. All I could do is nod in reply.

Herein lies the rub. Black folks in Alabama have not the opportunity and safe conditions to vote in for all that long. The politics here are so retrograde that driving through this state sometimes I feel like I am not in the 21st century at all, but in some strange time warp. So, I can’t dismiss the mere right and opportunity to vote as something that is not particularly significant. At the same time, in a place like Alabama (and increasingly across the country), those of us on the left–shoot, even moderates!–are getting shut out as the Right/Wrong has a very successful political temper tantrum. So, what does it mean when 1) you have to choose between the lesser of two evils and 2)your “lesser evil” has no chance of even remotely winning. Let’s be clear, while fools like Palladino are dismissed in New York (for now), candidates in his vein (who are ridiculous, uninformed, and who spew hateful nonsense) summarily thrash their more moderate opponents in my neck of the woods.

In other words, what does exercising the right to vote mean when the system is so ridiculously effed up? I guess what I’m trying to figure out  is, what are the strategies those of us on the left (can) employ in the face of such rapidly encroaching/re-entrenching conservatism, both locally and nationally? For while I see the most efficacy in battling oppressions in our local communities, the fact of the matter is national de jure sanctions do affect the everyday lives of Americans. For example, I remember reading about so-called welfare reform as a kid in my social studies class and not soon after experiencing its effects in my own home, so the notion of opting out of the national dialogue does not ring true to me at all. At the same time, I’ve been known that hope is not a political strategy and that we are going to need more rigorous and radical applications for justice and social change. I’d love to hear your thoughts on voting, the election, and the state of progressive politics.

The Wait of the Nation II: Parent Companies, the “Bain” of our Existence!

16 Jul

On May 24th I posted the blog “The Wait of the Nation” in response to the four-part HBO documentary “The Weight of the Nation,” and I specifically focused on part three “Children in Crisis.”  My major concern is both the blaming of individual parents as the primary problem and the marketing of obesity clinics as a primary solution.  For the record, I do not believe parents have no role in children’s health and that health care clinics are not important,  however, I am extremely bothered by the trend of conflating weight-loss, previously considered part of the beauty and cosmetics industry, with fast growing health care industry.  I am also wanting to discuss the parents that are rarely made available for scrutiny in the popular “obesity” narrative.  Ask yourself, what does the private equity firm, Bain Capital whose co-founder and previous owner is Mitt Romney, have to do with “the weight of our nation?”

I started paying closer attention to the money behind the obesity framing and solutions when Style Network aired Too Fat for 15 in the Fall of 2010.  This reality series chronicled the lives of teenagers attending Wellspring Academy of the Carolinas, a weight-loss boarding school.

Dr. Oz featured one of the stars and success stories of the reality series, Tanisha Mitchell, identified initially as “supermorbidly obese” by Wellspring staff.  His two-part series on childhood obesity was entitled “Win the Fight Against Obesity” followed by “Is it Child Abuse to Have a Fat Child.”  To introduce the series Oz (and I do recognize that black women seemingly swear by Dr. Oz) makes this opening statement before introducing Tanisha…

If it’s child abuse to have an obese kid, then your home is the scene of the crime.  And sometimes the only option is to take them out of the abusive environment.  One school says they have the answer when parents run out of options.

Quick review of the Too Fat for 15: Tanisha Mitchell was diagnosed with Blounts’ Disease, a disability that made it difficulty for her to walk, as a child so she had more than a dozen surgeries on her legs throughout her childhood.  She had to be home schooled, was a fantastic student, an avid reader, a loving sister, and aspired to be a justice on the Supreme Court.

Mitchell’s mother was continuously depicted as the problem/the obstacle on Too Fat for 15 Season 1 and in follow-up talk show appearances like Dr. Oz.  Mitchell’s father was rarely addressed, which points to the gendered pattern of criminalizing of mothers as the blamed parents even when fathers are in the home.  But here is the major point, Mitchell’s father took $26K from his 401K plan to cover the cost of one semester at the Wellspring school Dr. Oz promotes.  Mitchell was at Wellspring for nearly two years.  Again, this is the cost for a private boarding school, not Harvard University–there are no marble columns.  In the reality series and talk shows parents are the problem and removing children from their home, according to Dr. Oz, and sending them to an obesity boarding school is marketed as a reasonable solution.

I chose to focus on the parents who are rarely made present for scrutiny, parent companies.  So if we look at Wellspring Academy they are part of the larger Wellspring family, which is owned by CRC Healthgroup.  The founder and owner of Wellspring is Ryan Craig, formerly of global management consultant firm McKinsey & Co not Dr. “such and such” from any part of the health care profession.  Bain Capital “acquired” CRC Healthgroup in 2005 and is therefore the parent company of Wellspring Academy (the $26K per semester private boarding school for the obese).  No big deal right?  Wrong! barnesandnoble.comA quick look at Bain Capital’s portfolio shows that they also own Dunkin Brands and from my research they previously owned Burger King and Domino’s Pizza (still have Domino’s Pizza Japan).  Burger King, according to Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids and founding member of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, has spent more than $80 million in one year on child marketing alone.  Marketing tactics have included the use of advergames, mobile phone ads, and celeb spokespeople like Sean “P-Diddy” Combs.  Surprisingly Mitt Romney is threatening that, if elected, he will advance policies that force PBS to include advertising on shows like Sesame Street.

No big deal -parents just need to police their kids phones, online usage, radio, television, schools, convenience store visits, birthday party experiences, afterschool program snacks, Scholastic magazine ads, textbooks that teach adding with M&Ms, food commercials with embedded action movie characters, and kids movies with embedded food marketing.  Also when they are done with that they should start a garden at their kids school, be on the nutrition committee, do a cooking program teaching them to cook healthy foods, start a Zumba club, and go jogging with them after work.  But that’s just it, Bain Capital has not only influenced the business and marketing practices of Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, and Dunkin Brands so that they are more profitable by targeting youth with food marketing but likely keeping food service jobs low-wage with poor benefits.

Domino’s delivered for Bain
January 26, 2012| By Beth Healy
The Boston Globe

They in conjunction with their big brother, Bain and Co., a global management consulting firm, take part in what Walter Keischel calls a “fiercening of capitalism” in The Lords of Strategy.  In this culture of fierce capitalism, Tanisha Mitchell’s mother is depicted as the villian, yet there were 21 Bain Capital parented fast food restaurants (BK, Dunkin Doughnuts, and Domino’s Pizzas) within a five miles radius of their hometown Suitland, Maryland in 2011.  Does anyone see anything wrong with Bain Capital making money in Suitland in the fast food industry and then gettin PAID in Brevard in the weight-loss/”health care industry?”  I do.   It may make good business sense, but it is poor “parenting” at best and morally unethical to say the least.

I’m waiting for the nation to start talking about corporate parents (especially private equity firms) and how their poor parenting is sustaining a state of crisis in America and globally in terms of unsustainable economies and incomprehensible health care.  In this neoliberal narrative individual households are being held accountable even though corporate parents are functioning like invisible vacuums sucking families at every angle from “cradle to grave.”  I am convinced the solutions will come from local communities, not money market investors, global consultant firms, Mitt Romney, or Wallstreet.

Here is a list of organizations doing good work with a broad health frame that I can certainly get behind.

The Praxis Project

Communities Creating Healthy Environments

Southwest Youth Collaborative

Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan

Power U for Social Change

Mary Queen of Vietnam (Aquaponics Project)

Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative

Malcom X Grassroots Movement

La Union del Pueblo Entero

Inner-city Muslim Action Network

Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments- Fort Yukon, AK

Chinese Progressive Association-San Fransico

Center for Media Justice

Brooklyn Food Coalition

Interrupted Attachments: On Rights, Equality and Blackness

17 May

Remaining attached to certain ideals even when – and sometimes, most especially after – privileges that accrue to such concepts have been pointed out and problematized, should force us to ask some serious questions about the relation of citizenship and subjectivity, the relation of citizenship as subjectivity, to ongoing processes of exclusion and violence. The questions would be something like: Who am I? Who do I want to be? Attachments to certain concepts rehearse, reiterate and revise – through an uninterrogated longing and desire to be an individual, a self-determined thing that seeks the power of the state for validation – the virulence of state power, its capacity to make of us all docile creatures waiting for an affirmation of what we already have, what we already do in perpetuity, as if we have nothing and do nothing without such recognition. And thus, we celebrated the announcement from the head of the United States – an historic, enduringly imperialist project of the uninterruption of violence, incorporating difference insofar as it consolidates the furtherance of capitalist inequity – while readily dismissing and setting at remove for a later date, a non-utopic future always approaching but never here. This is not about the possibilities of horizon, a queer manifestation of the liberational force of broken frame.

Attachments are deferral without demand, abeyance without appeal.

Attachments are the “wait until we have this,” which is never too far from hearts, minds and lips of uninterrupted celebratory posture, wherein what is continually inaugurated is an abstraction – in the name of a “we,” but in the service of nothing other than desired coherence, stability, stasis.

What is given here is an incrementalist approach towards citizenship rather than a radical commitment towards justice. We see trees but certainly, no forest. Incrementalist approaches are necessarily a solicitude of citizenship, and embedded within this approach is the implication that in just a few “short” years, we will all look back at the folly of what is now our present moment with derision, but also with self-satisfied joy. We need only wait. But the “we” who is called upon to wait is always a peripherality to, and obstruction of, thought.

This pic/meme of the opposition to interracial marriage and now gay marriage should be noted.

Noted not because of the framing similarities between the juridical discourse and public debate about gay marriage with interracial marriage; it should be noted because we have not yet dealt with – nor does it seem urgent for enough folks to do – the root causes of such inequitable distributions of rights in the first place. So in fifty years we will say how “backward” our now present moment was with regard to “gay marriage” but because we refuse to deal with the root – an imperialist political economy that necessitates inequities of all sorts – we’ll likely both be having this same conversation with a newly marginalized group while AT THE SAME TIME folks will still be discriminated against based on race, gender, sexuality and class. Because, you know, racism, sexism and classism aren’t really dead yet and aren’t promising to go anywhere soon. [This notion of the “backwards” has been stated about North Carolina and the overwhelming vote for Amendment One, lampooning the state as full of “rednecks,” “hicks” and conservative black Christians; this displacement does not even think about the exploitive political economy of the US, let alone NC – something like 2% above the national unemployment rate, for example. The self-satisfaction of those making the claim about NC, for example, while refusing to interrogate the political economy that creates the conditions of inequity is not a little bit intriguing.]

Anyway.

The normativity of monogamy married [pun? intended.] to the ability to receive financial aid and benefit and tax breaks, as well as the literal violence of the rhetorics of “same gender” / “same sex” to folks who are intersex, genderqueer and transgender compel the inquiry: who is this “we” and what is the “this” that is seemingly being attained? Of course, one could claim that a general public would need be educated about such queer variances and that what is most pertinent in our now moment is the celebration of the now moment, a prepositional displacement banishing the concerns of others for the now moment. But then the most we do is submit to – even if we’d rather critique – the power of the state, reinforcing its capacity to extend by excluding. It seems that everywhere, folks have aspirational attachments and none of us occupies a position where this could never be possible, though historical marginalization tends to be thought as shoring up against such aspiration. Thus, the case of the following curious picture should be noted.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that the first dude is white and the second anti-gay marriage dude is black. I think it’s the tight curly fro or something. [Even if he’s not, stay with me]. What this picture rehearses, beneath its very thin veneer is not simply the idea that black people in the US are more homophobic than others, nor simply the idea that blacks cannot see the connection between interracial marriage and gay marriage as both are concerns about civil rights. What is beneath the surface is an implicit, but more foundational, claim about the coherence of marginalized groups, about how historically marginalized peoples gain subjectivity: by the assemblage of fucked up things that have happened to them. The second panel of the image implies: “hey, black man! some bad things happened to you in the past and that bad stuff is the sum total of what, and – most importantly – who, you are!” The vivifying force of the image is the idea that that which marginalizes is that which makes or forms “subjectivity” [and I think subjectivity is a bad thing; more on that soon]. The implication in the image is that marginalized groups own that which marginalizes. When this attachment is operative, “community” [which some say is fiction, though I’ve not been convinced; I’m an agnostic who goes to church for a reason] is grounded in that which is offensive, that which wounds.

But blackness is not reducible to “bad shit”; black community did not subsist and thrive in the face of the violence of slavery and Jim Crow by gathering around and deciding to be more fucked up and by believing that those things that others pathologized in us were bad. Black community was and is an incarnation of blackness, characterized by the joy of living in the face of institutions and systems that seek to diminish the very possibility for joy, for life, for love. The image rehearses the iterability of the narrative that reduces blackness to discriminatory things done to black people, that regulates blackness to bad shit, as a particular kind of historicizing purity, a coherence at the heart of our definable moments [e.g., the violence of Middle Passage rather than mati, affectional bonds created during Middle Passage that exceeded the horror, exceeded the violence, and allowed thriving life]. And, thus, the critique of black folks by Robin Roberts in her interview with Barack Obama wherein she bespoke the “especiability” of black homophobia such that Obama’s change would be grave “…especially in the black community”; thus the critique of Barak Obama by black clergy like Jamal Harrison Bryant and by religious groups such as the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). The above image, thus, is the presentiment of the various critiques from multiple directions – both for and against “gay marriage” – as they each assume blackness is reducible to historic marginalization, and that those historic conditions are the grounds for a coherent, stable identity that can be easily and readily identifiable. In this formulation, blacks would have to be “more homophobic” just to identify the antithetical position of necessarily nationalist, patriotic sentiment, or as Hortense Spillers argued otherwise, this black homophobia would have to be invented [and in some ways, it seems to have been]. This is a problem of, fundamentally, attachments.

What is most vulgar about uninterrogated attachments is that it causes us to contend with institutions like COGIC and its restatement of their opposition against gay marriage, requires us to respond to Jamal Harrison Bryant’s statements about gay people, while leaving intact and uninterrupted the violence required for citizenship under these American skies. Roberts’s statement of black homophobic “especiability,” COGIC’s oppositional restatement, and Bryant’s resistance to gay folks all articulate, at bottom, a concern about what it means to have personhood in the face of uncertainty, incoherence and instability. However, the problem emerges from, and is an attachment to, the fact that subjectivity is created by a violent move out from the incoherent, it is an aspiration toward stability and certainty. In that way, Roberts, COGIC and Bryant simply participate in the ever-expansive goal for subjectivity. But as the very idea of subjectivity is sustained by the logics of self-determination, I fail to find the utility; these are western philosophical concepts, placing “European man” as theological-philosophical-spatial center, and the “others of Europe” (as Denise Ferreira Da Silva calls it) can only journey toward a determined “self’ … subjectivity is defined by the ability to be fully possessed of oneself, to be closed, stable, anti-social, to be wholly determined; it emerges through violence and violation, thus i’m not persuaded that it is a worthy pursuit. The attachment is to a particular mode of violation against the social, a violation that yields the articulability of the individual. We might say that “gay marriage” is articulable in our present moment as a desire for citizenship that necessarily moves out violently from the incoherence and instability of queerness, sets those who cannot easily be – or those who do not want to –  “same gender” or “same sex” in the zone of deferral and abeyance. No demands, nor appeals here.

Maybe detachment is what we need. But how can we get there? Is an anti-political politics possible that thinks the world differently? One possible reply, which here may show up as a peculiar conceit, is to ask – and daily inquire intentionally and diligently – who do we want to be? Certainly not a novel question though it is ever-pertinent. Do we want to perpetually reinstantiate the conditions of inequity, only ever-so-slightly increasing who gets to count as normal, enlivening and refreshing the violence of the state, allowing such violence and violation to go uninterrupted in some otherwise location [e.g., the Prison Industrial Complex; Palestine; Wall Street]? Or do we want to radically transform our world by asking tough questions about our own, personal, private propensities for comfort over and against the safety of others? What world have we been given and what world do we desire to make? Southerners on New Ground does this work: to make bonds that do not diminish difference but builds coalitions based on collective struggle for a world full of radical, affirming love. SpiritHouse, Inc in North Carolina does this work: to lament the loss of black life but, as importantly, to affirm the life still here: to care for this life through joy, song, prayer, dance. This affirmation, this coalition creation, comes about through asking: what do we want to be, today, everyday? This affirmation, this coalition creation, comes about by relinquishing attachments to ideas, philosophies and theologies that we – even if they would have us – should interrogate because they would not, nor could not, have us fully whole, fully human, fully alive without relegation or repression. And maybe detachment from certain violent and violative concepts would allow us to fully attach, both to our deepest and most foundational humanness, and thus, to the world in which we abide, with others, in joy, in love.

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