Politics


I had a conversation last night about the responsibility to protect, and it’s a timely topic. The revolutions underway in the Middle East raise the issue anew, even as violence continues in the Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere. After World War II, humanitarians, the international community, and others all agreed: Never Again. It’s poignant that Argentina also adopted the phrase, Nunca Mas, for the investigation into disappeared persons and extrajudicial actions between 1976 and 1982 in Argentina – 30 years after the Holocaust of WWII. Those decades were devastating for much of Latin America. Similar repression occurred through much of the 3rd world – the battle field for contestations between the US and USSR. But it took genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda – with Bosnia’s proximity to Europe and the sheer magnitude of Rwanda – for the international community to consider a state’s responsibility to protect. The responsibility to protect asserts that a state has specific obligations to protect the people in its territory, regardless of citizenship, from the government’s own forces or other forces. A government cannot attack its own people, nor can it allow anyone else (like paramilitary troops) to freely or with impunity attack any people within its borders. The failure to do so undermines a government’s authority to rule. Sovereignty hinges on protection.

We understand states to be able to use and monopolize “the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.” We also consider legitimacy to derive from popular support for a government; in democracies, the populace supports and legitimizes government, whereas in hybrid or totalitarian regimes support may come from a core of loyalists. Increasingly, however, recognition of the international community is also relevant to legitimate governance. The recent Palestinian bid to the UN for statehood demonstrates this, despite the bid’s lack of immediate success. If legitimacy and the ability of the state to employ violence are linked, then if the state misuses violence, or is unable or unwilling to employ violence to maintain order, such actions similarly affect legitimacy.

We tend to conflate people, territory, and government, hence the nation-state. It can be hard to imagine one of these without the other(s). The US is not the people who live here, nor the geographic territory, nor the government, but the combination of these. If one component changes, the entire nature of the nation-state changes. Still, the international community can cease to recognize the government of a given people and territory. That’s what happened in Libya – the international community and NATO stepped in, violently, to maintain order. The responsibility to protect was enforced by multilateral actions that usurped the authority of the state to act violently, and in so doing, the NATO forces acted in the state’s stead – notable because the international community does not typically act like a state.

There are two looming questions that the intervention in Libya has raised. The first concerns the ability of one nation to manipulate a given response by the international community. If the US retains some hegemonic influence, how does the international community cope with the possibility that the US might wield UN forces for its own ends? This is clearly a concern for Russia and China. The second question is whether it is possible to intervene in order to protect without military means. The problems of military intervention are varied. For one, civilians always suffer. Less tangible is the negotiation of power. In Libya, the forces that overthrew Gaddafi have not been able to accrue legitimacy for themselves. It seems clear that either the Libyan people or the Libyan government would have succumbed to the violence. Which one would have succeeded without intervention, and at what cost, is less clear. To go back to the Weberian understanding of legitimate monopoly of violence – no one gained the monopoly in that conflict, leaving Libya with no identifiable, legitimate government to take over. Now, the forces that overthrew Gaddafi are fighting amongst themselves – and the populace – for that monopoly, which may undermine what legitimacy they may have gained by overthrowing Gaddaffi. Perhaps without outside intervention, one group would have achieved clear predominance. Conversely, the outcome might also have been even more catastrophic.

With Libya seemingly settled into smaller-scale internal conflicts, international attention is moving on to Syria, and to a lesser extent, to Bahrain and back to Egypt. In Bahrain, opposition never gained the foothold needed to effectively project its message to outside observers. Egypt is in serious danger of slipping into military rule. But Syria… the tragedy that is unfolding in Syria is heart rending. It also demonstrates that social movements can’t necessarily compete with a state’s military, and that the monopoly of violence can be  a fearsome and deadly authority.

It is unfathomable that in an age when information is readily available like never before, a state could cut its people off from so much of the outside world. Yet Syria has done this – as has Bahrain, as did Libya, as have others. It seems that without some outside attention that carries the possibility of punitive actions, social movements are unable to effectively achieve change. Our understanding of nonviolent civil protest in the US is heavily influenced by the Civil Rights movement; we must understand that the entry of journalists into the fray was one tipping point in that conflict. Another tipping point was the eventual unwillingness of individuals and government officials to tolerate violence against peaceful protesters. Syria may be under pressure of economic sanctions, but those individuals carrying out this repression and violence against the opposition are clearly not under enough pressure that it outweighs the pressure from within their government to act and to sustain the regime.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein needed to satisfy internal pressure to stand up against the west, while maintaining a totalitarian regime in the country. Meanwhile, he was also under the pressure of sanctions and international organizations to comply with monitoring and weapons destruction. We learned after the US invasion that the regime was effectively hollowed out by sanctions over time, and that Hussein had in fact complied with most of the demands put upon him by the international community. Yet Hussein continued to resist demonstrating his compliance; he risked losing face to his supporters. It is possible that US intelligence misinterpreted messages he sent, reading internal propaganda as truth and missing hints at the reality of the situation. More recently, we are in the position of trying to understand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un in North Korea, attempting to sort out nationalistic propaganda meant for an internal audience from what they are actually likely to do. Especially with leaders that seem prone to extremism, this can be really difficult, and requires a very thorough understanding of the different groups that interact with or pressure a government internally, often working towards disparate ends. In Iran, Ahmadinejad must resolve the demands of a democratic movement, pressure from religious authorities, the military, conservatives, reformists, other opposition, and that is just at a glance. Syria’s Assad is grappling with disparate and tumultuous elements as well, making him more and more likely to make risky, violent decisions. Now that he’s set his course, it is highly unlikely he would be able to change it easily, even if he wanted to. With regional elements getting involved (like Iran), his position is even more polarized, bodes poorly for the opposition.

Is it possible to bring more international pressure on Assad’s regime? Surely. If it were possible to increase outside awareness through media and other sources, that would be significant in building support for other governments to intervene in some fashion. However, the US likely won’t be seen as an unbiased defender of human rights, but rather as undermining Assad’s regime because of the relationship between Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. Moreover, it is entirely possible that increased pressure will further polarize the situation, making the outcome less predictable and increasing the chances of an even more negative outcome. It seems that there are several conflicts that all overlap each other, and they are all playing out at once: political alliances between religious groups; grassroots movements against totalitarian regimes; and even old school east meets west ideological conflicts that are as much about power as about liberal democracy or economic systems. More than a responsibility to protect, we also have a responsibility not to promote totalitarian regimes because they suit our interests. Unfortunately, that opportunity passed decades ago. The US is losing its status as a relevant authority in these types of conflicts (and post-conflict issues); if we want to regain a relevant voice, we should genuinely and sincerely join the conversation about how to grow effective democratic governance – not as the world’s authority on our brand democracy, but because we are invested in improving democratic governance, abroad and in the US.

http://www.livestream.com/syrianfreedom?t=410001

http://www.livestream.com/newsyria

I keep hearing about overseas manufacturing versus goods that are made-in-America. Barack Obama raised the issue in the State of the Union address last night (full text found here). Obama described incentives to bring manufacturing jobs back the the US:

Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores. Technology made businesses more efficient, but also made some jobs obsolete. […]  Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last — an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values. […] Now, this blueprint begins with American manufacturing.

Obama went on to describe how the auto industry, especially GM, Chrysler and Ford, has rebounded, adding “nearly 160,000 jobs” in the process.

We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.

What’s happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. […] We can’t bring every job back that’s left our shore. But right now, it’s getting more expensive to do business in places like China. Meanwhile, America is more productive. A few weeks ago, the CEO of Master Lock told me that it now makes business sense for him to bring jobs back home. (Applause.) Today, for the first time in 15 years, Master Lock’s unionized plant in Milwaukee is running at full capacity. (Applause.)

Obama outlined three tax dis/incentives to encourage businesses to bring manufacturing back to the US: no tax deductions for businesseses that outsource jobs – instead, tax deductions should be for companies that bring jobs back to the US; multinational companies should pay a basic minimum tax, rather than avoiding taxes “by moving jobs and profits overseas” – and again, money instead should be for companies that stay and hire in the US; and finally, American manufacturers should get bigger tax cuts, while doubling tax deductions for high-tech manufacturers, with financing assistance for new plants, equipment, or training when moving to certain communities.

So my message is simple. It is time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America. Send me these tax reforms, and I will sign them right away.

Simple, okay. The New York Times considered a similar problem in its article, “Apple, America, and a Squeezed Middle Class,” which described why Apple has moved its operations to China.

It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.

The article points out that Apple does not directly employ many of the workers who assemble Apple products. Instead, Apple turns to subcontractors for manufacturing. Apple may directly employ the person who writes the software for the iPhone, but probably not the worker who cuts the glass front. That worker is probably employed by a subcontractor instead. I’m not convinced Obama’s call to tax multinational corporations would impact the decision to hire an overseas subcontractor.

Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher do a great job for The New York Times in describing a central dilemma for Apple: Steve Jobs demands a different screen for the phone, one that won’t scratch. It has to be GLAAA-A-A-ASS! (Surely I’m not the only one who read that interaction as a kind of Jobsian temper tantrum?) What this explains is how Global Commodity Chains work. Normally I would link to Wikipedia’s page for Global Commodity Chains, but there isn’t one – presumably because it is a part of some other theoretical construct and I just forget which. Instead, I will wrack my brain for that sociology course I took in… Spring 2009? Global Commodity Chains specifically describe the way goods are produced in a globalized market. A chain begins with the source of the raw materials. Common examples of raw materials might be wood, minerals, metals, “rare earth metals,” crude oil, etc. Those materials go to manufacturing facilities, where workers turn them into parts. The parts are assembled into products. The products ship out to the (usually big box) stores that will retail them, so that consumers can then buy them. Every stop along the chain is thought of as a “node.”

Some people try to integrate research in Global Commodity Chains with World Systems Theory, in order to explain the relationships between countries: some primarily produce and export raw materials – usually the Developing World or Periphery, some manufacture goods (sometimes these are also producers of raw materials) – the Developing World or Semi-Periphery, and the countries where people buy the finished products – the Developed World, or Core. I find this especially important – remember, I’m in Latin American Studies – because those relationships are often one-way, wherein materials from one country are bought in another country. Because of government (and corporate) corruption, concentration of wealth and ownership of land, the technological investments needed to extract those materials, among other reasons, the benefits of raw material exports tends to be limited to a handful of wealthy individuals in the country that exports the materials. Sometimes, the materials are extracted by foreign companies that may not have a real interest or stake in benefiting the country where they extract materials – so wages suffer, the environment suffers, etc. In some cases, the corporations disrupt the ability of people to live independently of an income, in order to create a labor pool. It is this scenario that characterized development in Latin America, and is also the reason why the US is often seen as a pariah.

In the case of Apple’s manufacturing, the company considered sourcing its glass screens in the US, but the costs associated with developing the product were high. Instead, Apple went with a company in China that already had the facilities and resources to carry out testing. I think of those facilities and resources as the infrastructure of manufacturing. The New York Times article points out that in terms of worker wages, paying US wages would add $65 to the cost of each iPhone. It’s not about the wages – it’s the infrastructure needed to coordinate a global supply and commodity chain. You have to include shipping materials, components, and products. It seems that today’s factories are increasingly specialized as well, which is understandable considering development officials have long promoted comparative advantage, and it makes sense that you would see factories acting similarly by focusing on making one type of product very, very efficiently. The manufacturing infrastructure is what makes all these factories able to coordinate in a way that streamlines shipping and overall production as well. China is in a great position to achieve such infrastructure, because the government continues to subsidize its industrial development, in a socialist market economy that seems to blend command and market economies. In much the same way that foreign corporations built Latin American transportation infrastructure, China’s government is subsidizing it’s manufacturing infrastructure. The US would need a large level of investment to reconstitute our own manufacturing infrastructure, as well as an ability to incentivize doing so – and I suspect it will take more than tax breaks (especially when you consider that the US has many free trade agreements that limit the subsidies and incentives it can offer).

With all that in mind, the problem with using US labor has never been just about the wages. The thing that unions have done, to the apparent chagrin of people like the Indiana state republicans, has been to not only raise wages but to improve the working conditions in our own factories. US workers can make time-and-a-half for overtime – which kicks in after the 40 hour work week. We don’t put our children to work in factories. We no longer lock our poor inside factories during the work day. We also enforce environmental standards so that factories don’t turn our land into a wasteland. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not heralding the US or its unions as the end all and be all of labor standards. But when Apple points to the Chinese factory’s willingness to roust 3,000 workers from sleep in the middle of the night to start putting in the shiny, unscratchable glass screen, I don’t stop to wonder what went wrong with US workers. Instead, I wonder why the hell Apple can’t wait 12 hours to restart production. What I’m left with from that story is a narrative of a corporation that wants its product perfect, on the timeline of an arrogant and demanding caudillo, with more regard to profit than to the workers producing its product. And Apple isn’t even responsible, because it isn’t Apple’s plant that produces that product – it’s an unaffiliated subcontractor.

If the US is serious about reconstituting its manufacturing sector, we need to be serious about rebuilding the plants that make those little, seemingly-insignificant products that provide the components for the fancy gadgetry. The developed, core nations are understood to be so because they excel in high-tech industry. The US, as the uber-core nation, or (waning) hegemonic power, or whatever you want to call it, has kept at the forefront of the high-tech industry and innovation. The US rose to that position largely because of manufacturing innovations in the auto industry. But in the recent economic troubles, it is the semi-periphery that has (so far) stayed steady, while the US and Europe flail to regain their footing. The professor of that sociology class in 2009 described the flaw in betting that the finance industry would ever constitute a replacement for true high-tech industries, and I think his words ring even truer today. The thing is, the semi-periphery isn’t mid-tech industry somewhere between low tech and high tech; the semi-periphery has some remnants of low tech industry and some influx of high tech industry. That’s where China is currently successful – by using it’s lower tech industries to support its higher tech industries to make products extremely efficiently and cheaply. Maybe what the US needs is a renewed appreciation for the low tech (with updates). We still need our mills and our gasket manufacturers and our component factories – at least, if our goal is to stay at the forefront of global industry. These can be small, local(er) businesses, which is also cool. Maybe, while we’re at it, we can reconsider the worth of our shiny gadgetry, pay our workers a livable wage, and consider how to scale back our wanton consumerism so that, instead of boatloads of cheap crap, we focus on quality items that we recognize for what they are – luxury goods.

Every so often, I can’t seem to fall asleep. Last night was one of those nights; I have a cold and my head hurt, my back hurt, my legs hurt, and trying to sniffle quietly is not especially effective. Finally at about 1am, I came downstairs so my partner could sleep without starting every time I “quietly “sniffled. When I can’t sleep, I browse the internet. Usually, I browse the Cheezburger sites because they are interesting enough to pass the time, without being so engaging as to keep me awake once I am ready to finally fall asleep with my face mashed into the keyboard. Lately though, even the most casual of internet sites has picked up the anto-SOPA mantra,  making it that much harder for me to disengage in the wee hours.

Sure, the Indiana legislature is back in session, with an impending selection of mind-numbing, facepalm-inducing, terrible, horrible proposals to ensue. “Right To Work” (AKA “Right-to-Work-for-Less”) is just one of many lining up to make my head explode in astonished fury this year. But first: SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act; it’s buddy is the Protect IP Act. Piracy in this case does not refer to pirates terrorizing the high seas (nor, unfortunately, to the amazingly ironic rescue of Iranian fishermen that included a helicopter from the USS Kidd, member of the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, on the heels of Ahmadinejad’s warning to stay the hell out of the Persian Gulf). I assumed when I wrote the last sentence that this, the next sentence, would begin: “Instead, online piracy refers to…” followed by a legal definition. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a clear legal definition. Online piracy does not appear in the bill’s definitions section. I searched Google (possible thanks to SOPA’s current, non-yet-implemented status) for [“Online Piracy” legal definition]. That query worked for intellectual property, and I found this page with a definition (generally: property covered by copyright, patent, etc), examples relating to relevance, and numerous links. I did find a reference outlining piracy: defined under the law of nations, and requiring robbery at sea… I also found arguments relating to how poorly SOPA defines the crimes it seeks to combat, under Wikipedia’s “Arguments Against” section. I will uncomfortably assume that online piracy refers to stealing someone’s intellectual property in the cyber realms – a space so illusive as to necessitate reference to piracy rather than theft. Meanwhile, Congress continues to pirate porn.

Many of us are familiar with film and music industries’ efforts to prevent people from stealing their intellectual property. Those my age may have discovered Napster just in time to panic about getting sued over it, as comprehension of the differentiation between “sharing” and “theft” was just beginning to dawn. I won’t cover all the arguments that suggest the industries overestimate their losses, because other people do that better than I could, because it just makes intuitive sense that corporations would set their losses as high as possible in order to recoup as much as possible, because it also makes intuitive sense that greater losses mean they have more to lose and are thus more importance/relevance, but mostly because I promised I would clean up the disaster that winter vacation wrought upon our house and there just isn’t time in the day to do both those things. I will say that I am one of those people who, facing the decision to steal, buy, or go without, generally won’t steal because it is complicated, won’t buy because it is expensive, and so go without because I am too poor lazy busy to do otherwise. If, however, Google puts together an easily searchable section of free stuff like they did with out-of-copyright books, I’m all about it. Suffice it to say, no, I don’t believe the industry heavies are losing over $12 billion annually to intellectual property theft.

I do believe the internet is really, really important. I occasionally stop to remember that I only learned to send email when I was in college; my childhood was pre-internet. I even used floppy discs – and had to type in instructions to tell the computer to run the program on the disc! But I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose the trove of accessible information the internet represents. And not just information, but increasingly the platforms for social networking that internet applications offer – tools to disseminate and make use of the internet’s information. The revolutions in Africa and the Middle East are but one brilliant example of how humanity can flourish when it is able to communicate and access information. The horror of SOPA isn’t simply that it would limit first amendment rights to free speech, but that it would hamper the ability of regular people to access information and communicate with each other. No, of course, that isn’t SOPA’s goal, but when the majority of websites that host internet applications are in danger of being blocked by service providers because you posted an illegally copied video/image/piece of property on your profile, that is an easily anticipated outcome of SOPA. Have you ever looked inside your computer? Without those internet applications and the platforms that you use to share information, that’s what the internet looks like – coils and wires and metal. Oh, maybe a fan, too.

Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist (because that’s a thing you can be, apparently) wrote an op-ed arguing that the internet is not a human right. (Cerf quibbles about human versus civil rights; I refer to basic rights because I am less concerned with what is legally recognized than I am with what people deserve.) The argument that it is up to technology creators to empower, support, and protect people on the internet totally, absolutely, unequivocally misses the point of the ongoing revolution-and-SOPA-inspired discourse. Cerf is thinking of ways to make the internet a better tool, which is fantastic. But the argument about the internet and human rights that should accompany any such discussion is that fundamental rights should be protected on the internet. If a government shuts down that resource to the detriment of people’s ability to come together and share information, that infringes on their ability to perform those acts (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc). Such rights are not simply ideas; people must be able to exercise or act out their rights freely, or they are for naught. Cerf asserts: “For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.” He misses the forest for the tree, even while transportation and freedom of movement remain vital elements of fundamental rights and freedoms. Access isn’t only about making something available, it also means not denying someone the ability to use the thing in question.  If someone denied you the ability to have a horse in that historical frame, it would have been tantamount to denying you the ability to make a living. Back to the internet: we should protect the tools and forums people employ to exercise their rights and freedoms as vital components to the rights and freedoms themselves. Take away those tools, and you remove access effectively diminish one’s ability to exercise their right, even if you do simultaneously pay lip service to supporting those rights.

Ultimately, the internet provides open forums and tools for people to gather, discuss, share, dissent, dissemble, and so forth. The ability to do so, to exercise those freedoms is more important than piracy or the entertainment industry’s ability to turn a buck. The government already fights “online piracy” – I’ve gotten nearly a dozen emails about ICE/Homeland Security’s success shutting down Ninja Video, seizing their domain names, and charging the operators. Presumably, then, SOPA escalates the ability to prosecute while broadening the range of who is responsible while increasing penalties. But it would do so at an unconscionable cost, by limiting the ability of the public to use the internet for legitimate and purposeful ends.

In case you had some need for even more links:

Hilary Clinton on Internet Freedoms: http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/02/156619.htm

Stephen Colbert on SOPA: http://boingboing.net/2011/12/02/stephen-colbert-explains-sopa.html

In my neighborhood, the new year comes in with a bang – literally. It is as though my neighbors set out to fulfill every stereotype around about gun-wielding Americans. Amidst the volleys of semi-automatic weapons fire, fireworks mortars exploded close enough to our house that we could hear the fzzs that followed. Of course, from a half mile over you wouldn’t know the mortars were fireworks, and a friend-of-a-friend wondered on Facebook just what kind of explosions they were.

It all posed a… let’s say, particular… background for my new year’s reflections. In many ways, recent months have been increasingly tense, as though we all are on the verge of some dramatic event that will shape the coming era. Maybe I’m just noticing the changing millennium, or am picking up on my partner’s over-developed fears of the end of the Mayan calendar – and zombies. (Side note:  the Mayan calendar marked out a complete cycle – set to *renew* this December, as the Maya understood time cyclically. It makes learning the grammar awesome, too. I’ll reserve the rant about the “mystical Maya” for another day, though.) Living in a country where Evangelical Christianity inserts apocalyptic glee into every level of politics, especially the Republican presidential primary, only adds to the sense of impending doom. But at its core are key economic realities.

For some time now, students of history, economy, and politics have incorporated, to varying degrees, a Marxist-based understanding that capitalist society has followed a particular evolutionary path that incorporates specific social tensions and progressions. That understanding incorporates the idea that money – or the production of goods in industry – are the drivers of social structures. Hence, democracy and capitalism are linked, yet capitalism trumps democracy – which enabled US policy makers to promote one of the most perplexing paradoxes of US affairs by supporting the removal of democratically elected leaders around the world, even as the US trumpeted the benefits of democracy, because democracy hinged on capitalism – according to a Marxist-influenced paradigm that those same officials formally eschewed. Capitalism reigned victorious when the Soviet Union collapsed in the last decade of the 20th century. Much like the mysterious Mayan calendar, no one knew what, if any, cycle would follow – Marx never got past capitalism v. communism. Francis Fukuyama phrased the moment concisely in the title of his essay-come-book: The End of History? There was perhaps some vague hope for an golden era of capitalism-induced peace. But capitalist societies have not exactly shone in recent years, either. Neoliberalism perpetuates the skewed power structures of previous market relationships, while promotions of the free market in fact maintain restrictions in the form of subsidies and tax brakes that sustain big business and mega-corporations to the detriment of new or local enterprises.

The housing bust brings to question the value of allowing market actors to determine national economic realities. “Market actors” are the investment professionals who make their living investing (others’) money, and it is notable that they make more money on risky investments that they do on safe, predictable investments. Their motivation is thus contrary to, well, safety. Yet those same market actors are in charge of the great national banks. Capitalist economy depends on their investment to fuel industry, especially in the US where the Federal Reserve replaces a more typical central bank.

In other ways, the banking crisis reflects a deeper conflict in the US between proponents of centralized versus decentralized authority. It is easy to forget that only recently has the US moved towards a centralized federal government, and that we maintain a strong sense of the original, decentralized, federation-style government. While conservatives in the US are promoting family values and social values, in Europe conservatives promote austerity measures. The Euro Zone demands austerity measures that governments may be willing to enforce, but that people may not be willing to accept – raising questions about the democratic process of economic mandates from a centralized institution like the European Central Bank (that is, if you didn’t already have those questions because of World Bank/IMF policies over the last three decades). A New York Times article about debt incurred in Spain’s autonomous zones ends with a quote from a 17-year-old high school student: “…There are all kinds of cuts. This didn’t even happen under Franco.” That’s Franco, the Fascist dictator; the student compares the current austerity measures to policies under the one European Fascist dictator to outlast WWII, and suggests that current austerity measures are worse. Developing nations, meanwhile, have barely made headlines, but there are some indications that the rising BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – are rising ever faster, even as the economic core wavers. It is also notable that the BRICS nations do not universally represent rising democracies, in yet another challenge to the presumption that the liberal, democratic nation-state will predominate in the future.

The problems of big banks, global development and democracy seem distant, if not looming. When contemplating the effects of these problems on my personal life, my initial impulse is to minimalize them. After all, we are not wealthy, and therefore would seem to have little to lose. Yet, I have recently begun to realize that we are, on the one hand, less poor than I imagine – my partner has full time work in a middle class job after all, even though I do not. At the same time, that status does less for us than I once would have imagined. Much of our current financial success, I think, comes from the fact that neither of us realized we were beginning to succeed – which we have only done with the assistance and good graces of my mother-in-law (and we are not yet able to declare total financial independence, either, much to what I can only assume to be her chagrin). In another time, it is possible that we would have been completely reasonable to expect financial stability or even mobility from one income, even with a house and two kids – in fact, I think that would have been standard. So perhaps times really are changing for those of my generation. Maybe I just assumed that student debt and financial pitfalls were nothing new, even while I thought my own struggles were the exception to an otherwise simple enough rule – make good decisions, and succeed (whereas I made some notably unsound decisions).

All of this brings up an additional question: what of my children’s generation? Can they succeed in an urban, public school? What kind of jobs will they have access to? Will they live in a free and open society? These reflections and pondering are ultimately questions about what the future will bring. The new year forebodes a new era, and what it will bring remains unclear.

As a general rule, I am not a subscriber to any of various the -isms and -ists. I identify with some of the more radical ideologies, but I often find the -isms and -ists to be more rigid than I prefer. Anarchism appeals to me for its espousal of equality and social justice; I think it is implicit that for society to be able to self-govern, its members must stand on equal footing. To accomplish that, anarchists would break down the structures of inequality. But variations of anarchism become much more specific. Anarcho-syndicalism promotes the worker and industry, while anarcho-primitivism concerns the environment, and anarcha-feminism emphasizes patriarchy as the enforcer of social hierarchy. (To be clear, these descriptions are both bare-bones glosses and a reduction to basic elements that don’t allow for combinations or complexities of thought.) As with other -isms, when presented generally, some seem very appealing, but when broken into specific sub-isms, they become more stringent. Anarcho-primitivism conflicts with the industrial elements of anarcho-syndicalism, and strains of anarcho-primitivsm conflict with each other – I’ve known people who espouse the destruction of the human race as a virus on the earth, whereas others promote coexistence among humans, animals, and the environment. After several years, a lot of workshops, and countless conversations, I gave up on specifics and deferred to an attempt to make positive choices for myself and my family. I’ve sometimes thought of it as lifestyle activism, but then I’m probably not fulfilling all the requirements of that particular -ism, either. Sometimes I’ve thought of it as being old, tired, a parent who can’t go to jail in demos, and other variations on those themes. Yet I continue to try to identify ways that I can work in my own small-scale way to undermine the established structures of social inequality.

I am reminded of that because I lost my morning to feminism. I encountered a brilliant blog, Blue Milk, thanks to our midwife.  The blog is great for really looking at the underlying social issues; the author is able to unpack connections between everyday concerns to clearly identify their meaning or importance – a rare enough talent. Many of her posts link to other blogs, and today’s post links to a critique of reddit comments at Skepchick.

The article at Skepchic, on the Reddit boards and the treatment of a 15-year-old girl there, caught my interest by reminding me that even such seemingly-meaningless drivel should be identified for what it is; casually speaking of abhorrent acts makes it easier for society to tolerate them in practice, which should never be acceptable.

I was surprised, however, to read the author admonish “those of you” who would dismiss the comments as to be expected: “You? You are awful, too.” She offers no room for redemption, no possibility of change, only criticism that doesn’t answer the charge she predicts. If she is not content with that dismissal, then we must assume that she thinks/hopes that even the internet can be a place of change, even Reddit can apply standards of not extolling the rape of 15-year-olds, but that it will only happen if rational people demand they do so. Unfortunately, the sarcasm and rhetorical disdain evident in the comments condemn even those who proclaim their sympathies to be with the author’s argument. Rather than opening discussion, the comments promoted an insular reading of the situation that abjectly precluded any other opinion. One reader suggested that while the situation was sad, the girl might avoid such conflict in the future by creating a new, anonymous account that would hide her gender and age. Rather than disagree with his suggestion because no women should have to hide her gender, they attacked the commenter himself.   The author stated that she only “approved this comment so that you’d be able to reread it and think about it and maybe realize how awful and point-missing it is.”  That statement is shaming and implies there is no reason to even discuss such a comment. From there, the other commenters take over with incredulity and sarcasm, lamenting how anyone could be such an asshole as to make such a suggestion. When someone steps in to agree with the suggestion, they are admonished to NEVER. POST. EVER. AGAIN. 

As a passing reader unfamiliar with the author or site, the whole thread left a sour taste in my mouth. The person who made the suggestion was clearly sympathetic to the girl and opposed to the Reddit comments. Rather than encourage him to consider a new perspective, the other readers shut him down. I did browse the rest of the site a bit, and the trend of the articles seems to be that they are relevant, but not universally insightful – if I am going to read criticism, I’m looking for an explanation and hopefully recourse, not just condemnation.

I did find a reference in the comments of another post about women in the secular community that suggested that while some women find it hard to attend secular groups, they also find radical feminism to be off-putting, and turn instead to womanist or chicana groups. That sparked my interest, and eventually I ended up here.  And then, I found this. If you don’t want to click through or read through all of it, Margie clearly states that a transgendered person who was born with male genitalia can never, due to poor medical technology, be *truly* female (lacking a uterus and the ability to bear children. By claiming to be so, they are imposing a gender-normative, patriarchal privilege on women, along with a binary gender paradigm. I assume that she refers to their claim to be female, as opposed to something between or claiming belonging to a special “intersex” category (her word, not mine).  Beyond being transphobic, she is setting up a framework for “female” that obscures a complicated reality of gender and sexuality by using technical and obtuse language, or more specifically, with her reification of “female”. She is subverting the intent of such language – to be clear and specific, and avoid derogatory stereotypes – employing it instead as a rationale for exclusion: trans women aren’t “female,” therefore they do not belong in her group of “feminists.”

I have often noted the absence of feminism in revolutions. I think the first critique I read was in a fictional account of the Irish Rebellion. Right now, today, women in Egypt are fighting to remain a vocal part of the revolution there. I never really considered though that the exclusion may work both ways, with feminists deliberately keeping themselves separate from other isms and ists. Perhaps I was fortunate to come of age in post-left anarchism (I learned that word today, trying to remember the word “syndicalism,” which I was mixing up with solidarite) which at least incorporates feminism as a basic principle, even if without absolute success. I was never really privy to the feminist waves, either, which always seemed a part of an earlier brand of activism. I’ve realized more and more lately that my own generation of activists in no longer current, as Occupy Wall Street has made me aware. Unfortunately, while OWS seems to have taken a lot of notes from my generation (like consensus and the general assembly-style meetings) the emphasis on corporate greed and class seems to have overtaken other concerns – like feminism.

Synchronistically, the Diane Rehm Show came on as I was writing this post with an interview with Peggy Orenstein, author of the book Cinderella Ate my Daughter. As the mother of a 6-year-old girl, I am all ears when people start discussing media and corporate portrayals of princesses and, as such, femininity. At about 3 years old, my daughter came home from preschool utterly convinced that pink and purple were the best things of all time. She later learned that boys have short hair, while girls have long hair. Most recently she came home describing how gentlemen open doors for women (rather than the lesson that respectful children don’t push each other, as the situation warranted). And yes, she very definitely wants to be a princess. She knows that I dislike the concept, and I’ve prattled on at length about serfs, privilege, and the repugnant roles that princesses typically play. But she stills thinks it would be cool to be a princess. She found The Backyardigans on Netflix, and while usually pretty unobjectionable, the show did manage to get in an episode about an Egyptian princess who has to learn how to share and say thank you to her servants… Then, we finally found that disc we lost months ago and returned it to Netflix, and (forgetting to cancel the DVD portion in time) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind showed up in the mailbox. Now we have a princess we can both get behind (even if she does cry an awful lot), and we had a great conversation about empathy and compassion, which my daughter can really relate to as well.

Thanksgiving has been… well… it’s over. It was nice, but once again, the break flew past without pausing long enough for us to really appreciate it. I wanted to take time to talk to my 1st grader about what Thanksgiving is – and what it isn’t. Instead, she opted to watch Big Cat Diary on Netflix, and ultimately I’m just happy that she took the time to read a book or two.

Friday the 18th was her last day before the break. I picked her up and asked how her day was. She was really excited, because they got to watch a movie in class – Pocahontas. Disney. At least it was thematically appropriate, but I am still cringing that her big takeaway about Thanksgiving ended up being Disney’s take on Pocahontas. I’m sure they talked about other things – her spelling words were Thanksgiving related – but she didn’t mention any of that. Just… Pocahontas.

This is a big thing for me. My interest in Latin America started with Free Trade and the Zapatistas, but even before that was my burgeoning understanding that history and myth often tell us different stories. This is true in Latin America, and it informs my studies of the region. It is also true in the US, and Thanksgiving always reminds me of how disparate our myth of the founding of this nation can be from the history.

We all know (I hope?) that the European arrival to the New World brought about cultural tensions, displacement of people, wars, and dramatic changes in the way of life for all groups. We celebrate the positive aspects of that encounter during Thanksgiving, when the best of our nature is represented by our ability to come together and share the fruits of our labors. We gain much from emphasizing those positive tendencies, but we undermine ourselves when we ignore or hide the negative aspects. History proceeds by the accumulation of events, and our interpretation of those events, as we incorporate them into our personal and social narratives. We don’t unmake events by ignoring them when the consequences reverberate through society. Prevailing attitudes and biases do not shift unless and until they are brought into the open and investigated through all levels of society.

Generally, the idea of social or national memory is a bit fuzzy; how can we remember something we didn’t experience? But it is clear that we tell our children stories about our society, and the story of Thanksgiving is both integral and primary in our roster of national stories. We know, perhaps vaguely, that Washington chopped down a cherry tree, that “Honest Abe” didn’t lie, and so forth. But Thanksgiving remains a story of people who came together to sit down to a feast. I learned as a child that the American Indians helped the Pilgrims to have the food they needed, not only to celebrate the harvest, but to survive the coming winter – it was through this generosity that the Plymouth colony succeeded. This story feeds our perception that we are a “melting pot,” a nation in which disparate peoples come together and flourish, a nation that welcomes immigrants and the poor who would improve their lives through honest labor. We build on that narrative with Manifest Destiny, as the US pushed into the west with god-granted favor (all the while quietly continuing slavery and genocide).

Now that her school has opened the narrative with Pocahontas, what story do I tell my daughter? My first step was to caution her that Disney doesn’t teach history, or truth, but rather stories and tales. But what to replace it with, now that seed is planted? So much detail informs the story of the Americas, where does one begin? Even taking Thanksgiving as  a starting point: is this a story of religious persecution versus religious freedom (bearing in mind that my Quaker ancestors might have a unique perspective of the religious freedom in colonial New England); a story of the generosity and bounty that would shape an economic powerhouse; a story of American Indians who paid dearly over generations for their generosity; or perhaps a tie to ancient heritages celebrating the harvest? Knowing my daughter’s predilections, perhaps the story really does begin with Pocahontas – what we do know about the woman who came to be known as Pocahontas, how she became a part of our national identity, and how even that became a simple love story when Disney got a hold of it.

The economic crisis in Greece has been so much at the forefront of the news that I’m not even going to try to provide thorough links to examples. A couple interesting points come up in the conversation about Greece. On BBC’s World Have Your Say, host Ros Atkins asked whether people in the US found the conversation to be relevant to them. Professors Backhouse and Bateman wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times on the absence of the grand narrative analyses of economic systems.

For my own part, I have attempted to maintain an understanding of the grand economic theories as they are applied by governments and institutions. In that sense, my interest is primarily in the implementation and outcomes of these economic systems. To be sure, I do envision global economic relationships in a way that is heavily influenced by world systems theory and dependency theory, among other conceptualizations – the representation of power in economics is necessary to understand the nature of regional geopolitics. Hegemony also is a key concept for me. At the same time, current research in history repeatedly reminds us of the ways that people (and governments) work outside the bounds of the system (dominated by others) to achieve their own ends.

We are talking a lot about Greece, and it is clear that the fate Greece and of the Euro is intimately connected to the US. We saw that when the housing bubble collapsed, which seems to have kicked of the current economic instability in Europe – just saying. But overwhelmingly our focus is on the core / developed / industrialized nations. It is, I think, significant that the most core /developed / industrialized nations have all followed the same course in which finance has been understood as a leading high tech industry. Significantly, there is no tangible product that finance produces, so of course the most funktastic mathematics have prevailed – we have been measuring abstract success, not a tangible outcome. So it’s no surprise that some people cheated  employed creative arithmetic to achieve the appearance of success. Even for those with the most advantage, the development models don’t seem to be working.

This is the other side of the grand narrative coin – if someone develops a narrative that tries to explain the processes that brought us to a certain point, someone else will inevitably apply that explanation as a teleological template for bringing about the same result. This is certainly true of economic development theories, at least. Dialectics became a template for the evolution of capitalism, and at some point that notion conjoined with a methodological nationalism. Keynes laid the groundwork for theories of development that the US would promote throughout Latin America, in the wake of WWII and the Cold War, that were equally intertwined with ideas of western government and ideology. When these proved devastating – if not economically then certainly in light of the social catastrophes of the 1970s and 80s in Latin America – we moved on to a new set of economic ideas hinging on neoliberalism and free trade. Perhaps the biggest difference between these current economic constructs and those of the 20th century is that free trade has arguably hurt the US economy as much as anyone else’s. Free trade certainly perpetuates into the 21st century the resource extraction that has been the basis of the regional economic relationships since the 19th century, but it also incorporated the maquiladoras and mechanized industry into the bargain. Even as the global financial institutions seem to recognize the failings of early versions of their neoliberal mandates, they don’t seem to have identified an alternate trajectory. Perhaps this is the absence of an economic doctrine to which the two professors refer. After all, the IMF is apparently going to be the arbiter of Italy’s recovery – significant if only in that the IMF is not usually heavily involved in the developed economies. Yet it seems unlikely that the development of a new doctrine will profoundly change the way nations and institutions enjoin global economic relationships.

Any real grand narrative would then necessarily be an analysis of how different methods of development and economy merge at a global level, and how those relationships are formed and maintained. The US has many representatives in the global market, from individuals who participate in global institutions, to government representatives who forge trade agreements, to corporations and individuals who compete in the global market. Even as those actors shape the market, they are also shaped by it in a reciprocal relationship. Depending on unique situations within a nation or a locality, the effects of the same events in the global market can vary widely, with different economic and political outcomes. Certainly, political and economic outcomes are linked. In the 20th century, civil wars contested economic ideology and political representation. Today, criminal networks bloom where government is weak – and government is weak where local economies cannot support government infrastructure. In the rising economies, that blend of poor infrastructure and weak government combine with crime and corruption, and those problems – and their solutions – are distinct from those the more developed economies face, like credit and debt bubbles. While grand economic narratives can describe the relationship(s) between nations, it must also convey the way in which unique problems and barriers shape those relationships in a reciprocal relationship between individuals, communities, local governments, through national governments and institutions to the global market and its related institutions, as well as the relationship between the variations in economic and political forms.

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