Monday, June 25, 2012

When some folks get more votes than others, that's not democracy

As expected, the Supreme Court declined to take another look at its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. You can (and should) read about the decision here to get some information on why this case is back in the news today.

I've already written on the case in an op-ed in The Lamron (I swear I didn't write it as one long paragraph! For some reason it shows up with a couple of kinks online...) when the decision was first made two years ago, so I won't re-hash that. Rather, I want to make one small, quick point.

In a country where how one spends one's money is equal to an expression of free speech, economic inequality is in fact antithetical to the very core of democracy itself. And by extension, I believe we can see that capitalism and democracy do not in fact conceptually fit together as nicely as they seem to.

Let's consider. As citizens of a democratic republic, we each have the right to have our voice heard and opinion counted, and no one of us has a voice that counts more than another voice. Since we are all equal citizens, we all ought to have equal say in political discourse. One citizen, one vote. Right?

But what happens when we consider influential political speech other than votes? What happens when we consider the fact that monetary contributions to campaigns and advertisements are forms of political "speech" insofar as each dollar sent to a political campaign is an expression of support for that campaign? I think we get a picture where a dollar spent on politics is a kind of vote.

And the more I think about it, this analogy between dollars spent and votes cast isn't so strange. I mean, we live in a kind of capitalist economic structure in which consumers vote on which products they want to survive and which ones they want to let die out with their dollars that they spend or don't spend. This is the theory behind boycotts. If a business makes use of practices which consumers find unacceptable, consumers can elect to stop spending money on that business, thus putting pressure on the business to change its policies or die out. That's voting. Consumers are saying that "We don't approve of you, so we're going to vote for your competitor by spending our money there/on their product instead."

But another fact of a capitalist economic structure is economic inequality among all of the members of the society which it organizes. So some people have more dollars than others. But if dollars are in very real ways equivalent to votes when it comes to both the commercial market and the political arena, then one result of capitalism is that some folks get more votes than others. But a central tenet of democracy is equal citizenship merits equal voting efficacy. That seems like a bit of a contradiction to me. How can some people get more votes than others and we still call it a democracy? How can the opinion of a huge corporation matter more than the opinions of thousands of individual citizens insofar as its opinion carries more weight because it's expressed by more money contributed to political campaigns and we still call that a democracy?

I don't think we can unless we admit that the tenet that in a democracy all people are equal citizens deserving of equal say in their government is a sham. Unless we admit that some people/organizations matter more than others -- not because they're more educated, intelligent, or informed, but simply because they have more money -- we cannot continue to call this a true democracy.

Either we admit our hypocrisy or we admit our mistake and SCOTUS reconsiders and reverses the Citizens United decision. But right now, we exist as a country of conceptual contradictions so long as this decision remains validated.   


Monday, June 18, 2012

Real Americans taking their country back: the Tea Party, heckling, and our black President

In a CNN article headlined "Obama interrupted: Disrespectful or latest in 'era of incivility'?" Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, is paraphrased near the text's conclusion: "But as the nation's first black president, the nature of Obama's heckling often feels as if there is something else lurking beneath the surface."

Ya think?

In an op-ed on the same site, Dean Obeidallah comes closer to calling it out: "But this is all not about Munro -- he is just a small cog in the right's campaign to diminish the legitimacy of Obama's presidency. I'm not talking about people disagreeing with policies. I mean specifically the campaign to paint Barack Obama as less than American -- as an "other"--as someone whose presidency is not entitled to the same respect as that of the presidents who came before him."

But Obeidallah doesn't actually explicitly say it's because President Obama is black.

Well, I'm going to: All of the heckling, all of the "take our country back" and "real American" rhetoric spouted at Tea Party rallies, all of the disregard for traditional decorum, all of the blatant disrespect we see aimed at the President of the United States these days is at least somewhat attributable to the fact that he is black. Give him a different name and white skin and change nothing else - I'm talking the same policies, the same ideas, the same resume, the same oratory skills -- and we wouldn't be talking about a reporter interrupting a statement on policy, a Representative interrupting a State of the Union address, a President of the United States being asked to produce a birth certificate to prove his citizenship like an enslaved person being asked to produce his note of permission to travel by a random white person to prove he wasn't a runaway fugitive, or people who go to rallies with signs like these:  
From before he even took office, Obama has been attacked by racist rhetoric deeply embedded into the culture of the United States. I remember a campaign stop by Senator McCain in 2008 when a woman grabbed the microphone and voiced her concerns about Obama being a Muslim. McCain, being the class act he is, took the microphone away and immediately corrected the woman's ignorance, refusing to bring it into his campaign (something Mitt Romney won't do re: Donald Trump  and his birther craziness, by the way). But despite his best intentions, the language he used to rebuke her statement is troubling. McCain's counter to the woman was to tell her that Obama is " a good family man." WHAT?! How the hell is that diametrically opposed to being a Muslim?

Because the language of racism, like the language of oppression and privilege in general in this country, is coded. Kind of like how "family values" actually means "we oppose same-sex marriage," "Muslim" apparently signifies something un-American, while being "a good family man" brings you back into that category of "real Americans" so central to so many of Sarah Palin's comments on the campaign trail back in 08 and subsequently so central to Tea Party rallies around the country in the coming years.

As the Tea Party grew, all those (very white -- though not exclusively white. I'm not in the business of denying facts: there are non-white folks who identify with the Tea Party movement) "real Americans" in the movement embraced the rhetoric of "Take our country back!" Well, from whom? Who stole the country? Oh, the black man sitting in the POTUS seat.

And before you scream at me for simply playing the race card and tell me that they want to take the country back from a President who is driving up the deficit and spending at historic rates and that his left-leaning policies make him un-American, tell me: Where were all these folks when President Bush was in office? You know, the guy who increased spending at a rate much higher than Obama has done, started the endless War on Terror, and enacted many of the very policies which contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession? I know, I know. The left did a very good job of attacking Bush for basically anything and everything he did while in office. But nobody asked him to prove he was a citizen. And while an Iraqi journalist did in fact throw a shoe at him, nobody ever interrupted his press statements, let alone his State of the Union addresses. And while people called him an idiot, nobody questioned that he was an American idiot, as opposed to a village idiot from Kenya.

Also, let's consider that these two strands of rhetoric -- "real Americans" and "taking our country back" -- were perhaps at their strongest at one particularly racially-charged moment in our history: the American Civil War and Reconstruction. In Race and Reunion, Yale history professor David Blight writes about southerners who called on "the real Americans" to take their homes/local governments [or country, sometimes] back from emancipated black people and northern agitators. It is no coincidence that in the moment when the country elects a black president, these strands of rhetoric have suddenly become so powerful again.

It might seem kind of crazy how without skipping a beat I moved from heckling to the Tea Party, but I don't think the two are really disconnected. We are anything but a post-racial society, and we're seeing that now as the country copes with a President who happens to be black. There is something in our cultural scripts which allows us to read black people as less than legitimate, as having to prove their value/efficacy/agency/citizenship/sincerity with some kind of outside sources before we view them as true brothers and sisters. Like how a slave narrative in the nineteenth century needed a preface by an outside source to legitimize the story within before readers would believe it, we are still not at a place in history where we can all see black Americans as full citizens in their own right without a bit of skepticism. And while it is true that racism has been so entrenched in the history of the United States -- essential to its founding, even -- and while it is true that we have never actually had a national discussion of race that was totally honest and open (not that I know of, at least), and while it is true that racism knows no single political party, I have to point out that these strands of rhetoric and disrespectful behaviors are coming overwhelmingly from the right. And that's not just because there's a D after Obama's name.

So what's my point? I don't want to be misconstrued, because I know in my anger (it is impossible for me to write dispassionately about stuff like this) I have probably stated a couple of things in more absolute terms than I should have. As a quick summation, then:

I truly believe that the blatant disrespect we see for the current President in the form of heckling and breaches of decorum is parallel to the rise in the "real Americans" and "take our country back" strands of rhetoric central to the Tea Party, and that both of these dimensions are so strongly a part of our national conversation at least partially because President Obama happens to be black. And I think that is unacceptable. And so I want to say that we have to nullify any and all attempts to construe Obama's presidency as a signification of a post-racial stage in our history, and continue to educate ourselves and each other of these kinds of cultural scripts and the historical precedents for them so that perhaps we can get past them one day. We have to keep talking, honestly talking. We have to recognize that where we are is not the Ideal set as the goal of our country to be a more perfect Union, and we have to do what is necessary to reach that ideal.   

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In a time of conflict, returning to the beauty of Jean Toomer's Cane

While I don't wish to write out certain details of family life in a blog, I do want to talk about what happens when conflict persuades us to return to literature.

In my current case, conflict between other members of my immediate family has left me in an awkward position where I am asked to be a communicative link between non-speaking parties, a receiver of stories and emotional baggage, and a validation of an individual's self-perceptions. This has left me feeling boxed into a position I didn't ask to be in and I find myself resenting the requests to listen to someone else's stories of pain and disappointment, especially when I have to perform a forgetting of a painful past in order to offer the self-validation this individual is looking for.

So yesterday I picked up my copy of Jean Toomer's Cane and re-read the short story/play "Kabnis" that closes the work. While there are numerous ways to interpret the story -- for example, there is a good argument that it can be read as an autobiographical account of Toomer's own internal struggle to write --I wanted to return to the story because of how directly it investigates the dimensions of giving and receiving stories.

Two of the main characters, Kabnis and Lewis, are northern black men who have come south and are learning from the southern black people with whom they live and work about their lives and experiences in the red soil of Georgia. At one point in the story, Kabnis runs away when he cannot handle the stories of violence anymore, and at another, Lewis "plunges through the workshop and into the night" when he can no longer hold the pain he sees in Kabnis and his friends, even though he thought he could.

Are they cowards for running away? Is Lewis foolish to have thought he could hold so much pain from so many people? What happens when we can't hold stories anymore?

Of course, as I read and though about these questions, I realized Kabnis and especially Lewis were in positions where they seemed to be executing a lot of their own agency in selecting to receive these stories. So I then recalled a novel in which a character has stories thrust on him when he doesn't want to hold them. In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, the protagonist Milkman on multiple occasions has thrust on him stories about his family's past. In one case, he punches his father for hitting his mother and his father replies by confronting him with a story and the declaration that "you better have knowledge behind that fist" before you throw it next. The story which Milkman receives here is too much for him, and completely reconfigures his perception of his mother. Later in the novel, he hears an account of the same story from his mother, and the details are completely different. Milkman is overwhelmed by these stories, among others, but instead of running away he runs towards his past, to learn more.

Is Milkman more noble than Kabnis and Lewis? How does he transform a lack of agency into a presence? When one hears a story which is itself part of something larger, does one have a duty to pursue the larger story?

As I think about these questions, I find myself questioning my own resentment of the requests of this individual for me to hear her stories and validate her perspective in a conflict in which I believe she was very much at fault. Perhaps I should have knowledge behind the emotional fist of my resentment. Perhaps I have a duty to listen even if I don't want to, and perhaps I have a duty to seek the bigger story.

But what happens when I am a part of the story? And what happens when the validation being sought requires me to forget my own subjective perception of the details of the story?

It's easy for me to take refuge in my own righteousness, to remember the ugly which contradicts the validation being sought, and to resent the request to listen. It's easy to refuse to see the complexity and the beauty -- yes, the beauty -- of struggles between perspectives. There is one passage in "Kabnis" that I find particularly moving every time I read it:

"Kabnis is about to shake his fists heavenward. He looks up, and the night's beauty strikes him dumb. He falls to his knees. Sharp stones cut through his thin pajamas. The shock sends a shiver over him. He quivers. Tears mist his eyes. He writhes."

The mixture of beauty and pain in this passage so poignantly captures the complexity of the human experience that every time I read it I'm forced to reassess my own resentments and enshrinements of other human beings.

So I didn't really get any answers in returning to Cane and thinking again about Song of Solomon. But I did do the necessary re-thinking of my position and am now asking myself important questions about what it means to be part of a story that I hear being mis-remembered, when that mis-remembering is necessary for the emotional well-being of another individual. This is not to say I have lost sight of right and wrong, good and bad. There are certainly still things in these stories that were wrong or right, and there are better or worse things I can do in response to hearing them. But the point is that these moral "opposites" may not be so separable, kind of like the pain and beauty of being confronted with the star-lit night sky as your knees are scarred by sharp stone.


Friday, June 8, 2012

On the death of Ray Bradbury, reflecting on why academics might read me more as an "activist" than a scholar

When I heard that Ray Bradbury died, my first feeling was surprise. My second was gratitude.

As far as I can remember, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was the first piece of dystopian literature that I read and was really enveloped by. Actually, the book terrified me. Not just the scenes where the protagonist burned another man alive or was hunted down by a mechanical bloodhound, but things like the earpieces and walls that functioned like television screens. And of course the book-burning.

But that fear I felt ignited (pardon the diction -- I couldn't resist) a passion for thinking about literature in more tangible terms. Rather than just think about how literature "spoke to the (psychological or universal) human condition" or other very general ideas, I began to think about how fiction related to the real world and gave us tools for thinking about our real world, maybe even tools for brainstorming ways to improve our literal human condition.

(To be more specific -- see what I did there? -- rather than just think about what it means in general for people to read less and for the entertainment industry to grow more, I wanted to talk about strategies for teaching children about reading in order to promote an enjoyment in literature and motivation to read as opposed to just watch or listen. That's the extra step: from the general concepts i.e. lack of reading books leads to less contextualized knowledge and an intellectually lazy populace to the more specific what can we actually do to prevent this?)

My English teacher at the time -- Mr. Boyle -- noted my interest in the book and how motivated I was by it, and he told me to read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. That is still one of my two favorite books that I've ever read. Like Fahrenheit 451, Orwell's novel scared me -- and again, not only during the scenes when the protagonist is being beaten or having his face attacked by rats, but in the moments when the reader can't tell if Julia is working for the Party or not, or when newspaper accounts of historical events are destroyed as narratives change. Again I wanted to ask questions about how what I was seeing in my country at the time I read the novel could be read in conjunction with Orwell's novel, and what could we learn from this? What could we learn about the War on Terror while thinking about the Two Minutes Hate or Emanuel Goldstein?

I went on to also read Thomas More's Utopia and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World before graduating high school, and took a class on dystopian literature during my freshman year of college. Since then, my literary interests have changed in terms of the primary content of the literature I read -- I'm a graduate student specializing in African American Literature and American Studies (at the moment at least; this, of course, could change) -- but my way of approaching literature remains profoundly influenced by my experiences with dystopian fiction which was really initiated by Bradbury's novel.

For me, the link between literature and politics (defined broadly: I'm one of those "everything is political in some way" people) is incredibly strong and I completely reject the premise that a work of literature is somehow a special autonomous cultural production which contains all of its meaning within itself. I approach literary works as pieces of a larger puzzle. I'm honestly not super interested in the question of "what does a piece of literature mean?" Yes, some interpretations are stronger (i.e. have more merit) than others based on evidence, but really, I find the argumentation about what the "correct" interpretation of a piece of literature is to be dull and boring. I'd rather ask the question (and credit goes to one of my Geneseo professors, Beth McCoy, for this formulation), "What happens when we read x that way?" Or "What does that reading do for us/what can we do with that reading?"

Ultimately, I'm interested in the world which created the literature, not the world the literature creates (not that these are neatly distinguishable or even categorically separate because of the special relationship of origins that they are wrapped into). I don't want to approach a piece of literature merely asking what it "means." I want to ask what it can do.

That doesn't mean I can't appreciate a piece of literature as an aesthetic object. Indeed, I am moved almost to tears by the beauty of the passage in Moby-Dick when Ahab laments what he's done to his family by being away at sea all the time. That image of his one tear dropping into the vast ocean is tragically beautiful and emotionally moving. And when I read Toni Morrison's description of the scene in Home when some men recall a boy killing his own father because the two had been forced to fight to the death, I weep with the boy in the text's memory as his father tells him -- implores him to kill him. And that is valuable and necessary. As William Carlos Williams reminds us: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

So it is not a matter of completely abandoning thinking about literature as aesthetic object. It is a matter of remembering that what matters is matter. Literature can help us to rethink our own material conditions and give us tools to reconfigure them. We can read literature alongside our current political and economic situations in order to better understand them and perhaps even change them. Literature can literally move us closer to the Just. And that's the kind of work that I want to do. If that makes me appear as an "activist" to some within the profession -- as I now know it does -- then so be it. I fundamentally reject the notion that activist and academic are mutually exclusive terms. Just read the literature.      

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

On recall elections, pay equity and symbolic political performance

There are two major political performances taking place on the national stage today that I'm personally paying very close attention to: the recall election of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and a procedural vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act in the U.S. Senate. Both of these performances* are working on multiple levels in terms of what's at stake.

In the case of the recall election, the material conditions of the citizens and labor unions of Wisconsin are at stake, as is the political atmosphere of a potential swing state in the 2012 Presidential election. In the case of the equal pay legislation, there is the fact that passing the bill would open up structural pathways for women to actually fight for equal pay (as opposed to the grossly unjust 77 cents to the male dollar they currently make for doing the same work as their male counterparts) alongside the equally relevant fact that in all likelihood the vote will fail along completely partisan lines, thus introducing the question of motive for bringing this bill to vote in the first place.

If you know me you can pretty much guess that I support both the recall of Gov. Walker and the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Rather than talk about why I support the successful completion of the expressed goals of these performances, I'd like to talk a little bit about ways of reading these events of today as multi-level performances.

 First, let's talk about the recall election.

In the middle of the storm of media coverage and commentators that talk about the race in the language of general political values and principles, it is important to remember that ultimately this election is about the people of Wisconsin -- what they want and what their lives will be like. As a New Yorker, I want to see Walker out of his seat because I believe he is ideologically bankrupt (i.e. he's wrong), but ultimately I do not have to live in Wisconsin with Walker as my governor.

Having said that, though, on another level, this recall election is a national performance at the same time that it is a state one. While what Wisconsin voters want is not necessarily representative of what American voters across the country want -- and thus the results of this election do not necessarily indicate the national sentiment about labor unions -- the political discourse surrounding the election is of national concern, especially because Republican (and some Democratic) governors across the country are on a similar mission to Walker in terms of dismantling the power of unions.** If Walker retains his seat, this could be an opening for more aggressive action across the country by governors and mayors in dismantling union power. It could also mean that Wisconsin may not be the safely blue state it's been for the last five Presidential elections. Since being soundly beaten on the national stage in 2008 in the battle for voter enthusiasm and mobilization, conservatives have been growing stronger in mobilization. If Walker retains his seat, this could be an affirmation that the advantage the left had in 2008 could be overcome in this year's nation-wide election, which in turn could also mean that the anti-union sentiment expressed by Walker's administration could find a nest on the national level with a Republican president who may feel indebted to the interests that helped Walker keep his seat. And that would be felt by all.
 From one performance whose conclusion is still up in the air to another that has come to an end: The Paycheck Fairness Act failed today in the Senate.

But we knew that would happen, right? So why does carrying out the performance matter if there's already a foregone conclusion?

Because performances have symbolic as well as material impact (and the divide between the symbolic and the material is often much less clean that my language there suggests). While ideally the bill would have been passed and the material conditions of women in the U.S. economy would have been changed, the failure of the bill sends a loud and clear symbolic message about the platforms of our country's two major political parties.

Specifically, the GOP re-confirmed for us (as if we needed re-confirming) that at its most fundamental levels, their ideology is rooted in a commitment to the absolute sacrosanctness of property and business at the expense of any and everything else. In a letter to Senate leaders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups wrote: "The Paycheck Fairness Act would impose unprecedented government control over how employees are paid at even the nation's smallest employers."  In line with this criticism, many Republicans opposed the legislation because it would make it too easy for women to sue their employers and would welcome in an influx of frivolous lawsuits. Of course, when women still only make three-quarters of what their male counterparts make for doing the same work, I think these lawsuits that (hopefully!) would have come along would have been anything but frivolous.

Now, are the Democrats purely heroes in this? Well, since we're talking about a party of politicians, probably not. It's fairly clear that this was mostly a political move to set up a dialogue where Democrats could appeal to women voters by pointing to Republican obstruction of women's rights legislation. But I'd suggest that playing politics is not as evil as we make it out to me. Just because a performance is done for no reason other than to gain political capital, that does not mean the performance is disingenuous or worthy of vilification. Take this bill. Symbolically, it is clear that the Democrats have equal pay for equal work on their party platform and it is equally clear that Republicans only support equal pay for equal work secondarily to protecting the interests of business owners over their employees (cf. some strains of anti-union sentiment, by the way). That is important information.

So are the Democrats just trying to get votes from women? Maybe. But when you look at what this performance means, it's pretty clear that there is one party willing to put forward legislation that would improve the material conditions of segments of the population even when they're sure to fail because of opposition and one party that is willing to kill any legislation that would impede on current freedoms of business (to discriminate if they so choose).

People versus businesses. That's the symbolism. Continued entrenchment in old privileges for men (and whites -- but that's another entry) while bullshitting about freedom and equality as core values of our country versus real, tangible equality in actual material conditions. That's the "real." And they're totally tightly connected.      

*note: When I say something is a "performance," I do not at all mean to invoke negative connotations such as insincerity or fake-ness. I read most actions, events, and even texts through the lens of performance, simply because in communication there is usually an audience of some kind that needs to interpret the performance. I mean to use the term as a neutral descriptor, then, not as an adjective loaded with a value-judgment.

**Just a link to an interesting opinion piece on re: labor unions. Like big corporations, large unions need to be watched for abuses of power, but they absolutely cannot be destroyed or dismantled to th extent that Walker wants to dismantle them. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Because I need to stop yelling at my friends

So I created a blog. That's right, after all my displays of just how incompetent I am re: any and all computer-related tools and how amazed I am by the simplest things a computer can do (e.g. my "Oh my god did you guys know Microsoft Excel can do math for you?!" 2009), I am creating an electronic blog.

So why now? Well, I recently graduated from SUNY Geneseo and ended my tenure as a student journalist after four years working for the school's student newspaper (since 1922!), The Lamron. While primarily a news journalist for my first three years, I was also a fairly regular op-ed columnist. I viewed this as an opportunity to encourage the campus community to engage in productive and honest conversations about pertinent issues, primarily issues of race, identity-politics, ethics, and difference. At the same time, I would be dishonest to represent my role as a columnist as removed from personal desire; I got a lot of satisfaction out of being able to have my voice heard (or, errr -- read) across the campus every week I wrote a column. I got to synthesize my thoughts on events and issues which I found particularly pertinent into (usually) concise arguments which I could present to a public readership. WOW! That was very important for me as someone who reads EVERYTHING in terms of macro-politics and who also feels a need to constantly speak his observations and thoughts out loud.

But that changed when I graduated. No more Lamron, no more columns.

And honestly, I've felt stifled. I need political discourse. I wake up in the morning and eat my breakfast while watching CNN. And I talk to the television -- out loud -- during segments.

And sometimes I even started talking at people who weren't even arguing with me. I was out to dinner with Sarah and one of us (probably me) brought up politics and I started to basically argue against an imaginary opponent. It was an imaginary conversation inappropriate for the actual conversational space in which I was currently engaged, and frankly Sarah did not appreciate it.

So I obviously need an outlet.

Hopefully, this will be it.

And I'm looking forward to it. I won't have a word count like I would in a print newspaper (though I should probably act as if I do since brevity is a problem for me). I can embed links within my writing, which will make citation much easier (I think). There will be no deadlines, so if I'm having a particularly motivated week, I can write three or four posts, and then take a week off if I'm not feeling the writing bug bite. Not everything has to be an argument, either, which means I can share my more exploratory thoughts before they're well-crafted arguments (not that I ever published a column in The Lamron that was less than thought-out...right?).

So yeah, this seems like a good idea. At least for me. I do still hope someone reads it once in a while and maybe even some good conversations get started. Because, really, my motivation to engage in political discourse is ultimately a motivation which springs from a desire to make the world a better place in which to live. At heart, I am a seeker of capital J Justice. And I think blogging can be a small way to do a little bit of the work necessary to find it.