Monday, August 29, 2011

Bradley Manning and the G Word

I first heard about military whistleblower Bradley Manning on Democracy Now! – where else? shortly after his arrest. Since then, DN! has done at least ten segments on Manning, including an hour-long interview with his friend and prison visitor, David House. As far as I know and can tell (by searching the transcripts, though I heard most of the interviews as well), no one – including the gay legal writer Glenn Greenwald, who has been interviewed about Manning a few times - ever mentioned that Manning considers himself gay and may also be transgendered.*
Whenever they had a music break during one of their segments, however, the accompanying video would always be the same two pictures. One of them shows Bradley, a small, delicate blond youth, holding a sign calling for EQUALITY: @ The House @ The Classroom, @ the Battlefield, Everywhere, decorated with rainbow flags. I knew what that meant, even if Democracy Now! didn’t. The other picture shows Brad – as his friends call him – arm-in-arm and cheek-to-cheek with another guy. This guy, I now know, is Tyler Watkins, Manning’s boyfriend, who identifies as a drag queen.

A few months ago, I asked a friend who works with Courage to Resist, the organization formed to support GI Resisters, which since his arrest has been focusing mainly on Manning, whether Bradley was gay. He said he didn’t know. He looked a little surprised that I was asking, and I explained that I had seen the pictures on Democracy Now! and that if he is gay and out, we might be able to mobilize support for him – and by extension do anti-war organizing – in the queer community. He nodded and said it seemed like a good idea, but he didn’t have any idea how to get more info.

Not long after that encounter, I heard an announcement for a Free Bradley Manning contingent in the SF LGBT Freedom Day Parade. I joined it, and it was pretty good – most of the marchers seemed quite straight, but there were a few other queer leftists and a sign that said something about Bradley being a “gay hero.” The response from the crowd was excellent. We happened – or maybe it was less coincidental than that – to be lined up on the block with the ACLU, Amnesty International and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and nearly everyone in those contingents wore a Free Bradley Manning sticker too, so along with the huge banners courtesy of Courage to Resist and World Can’t Wait, we looked much bigger than we were. There were also contingents in a number of other cities, including New York, London, and Chicago.

I asked another friend who has been involved with the case if she knew why this apparently well-known information was only being spoken now, a year after Manning’s highly publicized arrest. She didn’t, but speculated that his supporters hadn’t wanted to “distract” from the whistleblowing. She mentioned that the right-wing had recently been using Manning’s sexuality to discredit him, and guessed that that was why the left had decided it was no longer unspeakable.

I don’t know why it never occurred to me to Google “Bradley Manning gay” before that. If I had I would have learned that the hacktivist blog Gawker had published an article on June 23, 2010, less than a month after Manning’s arrest, stating that, “It's been speculated that alleged Army leaker, PFC Bradley Manning, is transgendered. We've found evidence that strongly suggests Manning has some sort of LGBT identity, and that the man who snitched on him exploited this to win his trust.”

Two months after that, the New York Times published a piece that began: “He spent part of his childhood with his father in the arid plains of central Oklahoma, where classmates made fun of him for being a geek. He spent another part with his mother in a small, remote corner of southwest Wales, where classmates made fun of him for being gay.

In an article published on August 1, 2010, Manning’s mother told the UK Guardian, “‘He was different from other kids. He was interested in girls but he could never really get them to be interested in him. When he was 13, he told me he was gay.’

Around the same time, the British Daily Telegraph on July 30, 2010 ran a story containing the line, “Mr Manning, who is openly homosexual, …”

These stories revealed that Manning was active in trying to overturn Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – a very popular activity among straight servicepeople, I’m sure. The Facebook pages he linked on his profile were “LGBT America, Gay Marriage, Equality Maryland, Dan Savage, Human Rights Campaign.” The photo Democracy Now! keeps using, from the anti-DADT rally, came from his Facebook too.

Turns out the only people who DIDN’T know Bradley identified as gay were those of us who were getting our news from supposedly progressive media and the antiwar movement.

The question of Manning’s gender identity is more ambiguous. From the logs that have been published of his fateful chat with Adrian Lamo, the bisexual agent who turned him in to the government and then handed over the record of their chats to Wired magazine, it sounds like he was still figuring some of that out. According to the Gawker piece, “Lamo—who was once appointed to San Francisco's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender, Queer and Questioning Youth Task Force … told the Times that ‘“It's [his queer identity] a personal matter for him, and I do not think it was one his family would want aired in the national media.”’

Did it occur to Lamo that Bradley’s family might not want their son held incommunicado at Quantico or Ft. Leavenworth?

Was shame over Lamo’s betrayal the reason queer organizations didn’t quickly rally behind Bradley, or was it, as LGBT historian Larry Goldsmith recently argued, because “Bradley Manning is not that butch patriotic homosexual, so central to the gays-in-the-military campaign, who Defends Democracy and Fights Terrorism with a virility indistinguishable from that of his straight buddies. He is not that pillar of social and economic stability, only incidentally homosexual, who returns home from the front to a respectable profession and a faithful spouse and children.”?

Or could it be that no one has asked them to get involved, because his sexuality and gender identity is a “distraction” that “shouldn’t be an issue”? I am not asserting that – I don’t know, but if my experience is at all typical, explicitly queer activism on Bradley’s behalf has not, until recently at least, been encouraged by the people mobilizing support for him.

So why should it be an issue? Should Ehren Watada’s Japanese ancestry have been an issue? Should Camilo Mejia’s Latino heritage, or the fact that Stephen Funk is a gay Filipino have been issues? No, except insofar as they helped to rally support for resisters, and to connect GI resistance to other liberation struggles. In our society, identity matters. And it’s clear that being gay and/or transgender is at least as important to Bradley Manning’s identity as the fact that his mother is Welsh.

Find out how you can Support Bradley Manning.

* Greenwald did finally mention Manning's "issues of sexual orientation and gender identity" in an article for on July 4 of this year.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Violence Up, Violence Down - Can Americans Really Be Getting Less Violent?

“Do you think there’s a lot more violence in this country than there used to be, or are we just hearing about more of it?” my coworker asked last week.

It’s a good question. The established answer – established by people I like to listen to, like the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, is that violent crime rates have been plunging for years, and continue to do so.

I have to say that I find that hard to believe. Poverty rates are higher than ever and climbing steeply, and inequality is growing exponentially. One in seven people is on some form of food assistance, and that doesn’t include the people who need it but can’t get it. Jobs are scarcer, more and more people are long-term unemployed, more and more have lost their homes – all of which adds up to a lot more desperation, and I assume that in this country as in nearly every other, desperation yields violence.

Moreover, our nation’s conduct in the world has grown ever more violent. In the last ten years, we’ve gone from no official wars to three. We’ve come to accept indefinite detention and torture as normal, and given up dozens of rights we thought were sacrosanct throughout the last century. We have more veterans coming home with PTSD, and added to that things like climate insecurity and fear of nuclear disaster. And we have, as we have for the last thirty years, an ever escalating prison population, which means an ever escalating population of damaged and traumatized people in our communities. We have unprecedented expenditures for “Homeland Security” and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) running checkpoints in front of elementary schools.

Yet, according to a New York Times article in May, “The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years.” The article goes on to give details: “Nationally, murder fell 4.4 percent last year. Forcible rape — which excludes statutory rape and other sex offenses — fell 4.2 percent. Aggravated assault fell 3.6 percent. Property crimes — including burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson — fell 2.8 percent, after a 4.6 percent drop the year before.”
So if they are not lying to us, what could possibly account for this stunningly counterintuitive reality?

The law & order people would certainly argue that our increasingly repressive criminal justice policies are bearing fruit. But that would run counter to the received wisdom of organizations like the ACLU which have demonstrated that increasing penalties does not lead to less crime. In fact, says Cal law professor Frank Zimring in the Times article, “As the percentage of people behind bars has decreased in the past few years, violent crime rates have fallen as well.”

People like Jeffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone founder) would argue that it’s programs like his, Head Start and charter schools inculcating groovy values in kids at younger and younger ages which is starting to pay off.

Or is it possible that things like Alternatives to Violence Projects, Community Dispute Resolution Centers and Men Against Violence have begun to have an impact?

I’d certainly like to believe these last two possibilities, and no doubt, there is some incremental shifts that have occurred. Physical violence, known as “corporal punishment” was a staple of most households and many schools when I was growing up. Now hitting as official policy is pretty rare among parents and school districts, though there’s certainly plenty of child abuse going on. Probably fewer kids are learning at very young ages that hitting is a legitimate way to get what you want, and that probably has some little ripple effect on the society.

But what I really believe is that it’s a question of finding what you look for. My light summer reading for this week is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It’s an extraordinary book, and one of the things it does masterfully is explain why the vast majority of law enforcement resources in this country are devoted to arresting nonviolent drug offenders, who account for over 60% of the prison population. While the rhetoric of the War on Drugs says that they are going after “kingpins” and “violent narcotraffickers,” the fact is that 83% of drug arrests are for simple possession, not distribution or sale. Since 1980, the number of people in prison for a drug offense has increased from 41,000 to 500,000; nearly half of drug arrests are for marijuana.

The War on Drugs has brought billions of federal dollars to state and local police forces, explains author Michelle Alexander: “Each arrest, in theory, would net a given city or county about $153 in state and federal funding. Non-drug-related policing brought no federal dollars, even for violent crime.” Not sure what that “in theory” is doing there, but we can see that “violence” may only seem to be decreasing because police departments aren’t investigating it and disillusioned and terrified community members are not reporting it. In other words, violence might be “down” because there’s no money in it.

The flip side of that interpretation of finding what you look for is that popular media increasingly looks for sensationalized violence to entertain us with. “If it bleeds, it leads,” and with people having so many more news sources available, all-gore channels have become more and more common (with, of course, the obligatory final moment of faux-lightness as the perky blonde anchorwoman tells us some heartwarming story about a cat).

A BBC News report on the falling violent crime phenomenon (which, note, does not actually say falling “violence”) poses nine possible explanations, ranging from Obama to the availability of abortion (obviously, the author of that study is not clued into realities, which are that abortions are getting less and less available) to this gem:

“A study released last month suggested video games were keeping young people off the streets and therefore away from crime. Researchers in Texas working with the Centre for European Economic Research said this "incapacitation effect" more than offset any direct impact the content of the games may have had in encouraging violent behaviour.”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Blockades Are Better in the Morning

Monday afternoon, I came out of work and saw a couple hundred people standing outside of BART.  I knew they weren’t a demonstration.  Must have been the fact that they were all on cellphones and had briefcases that clued me in.
“BART’s closed?” I asked someone.  He looked up from his iPhone.
“Yeah, those stupid protesters shut it down,” he said.  Up above, helicopters whirred.  It sounded like a war zone.
“Do you know where they are?” I asked someone.  From the number of helicopters circling over our heads, they couldn’t be far. I figured if I couldn’t get home anyway, I might as well join them.
“They went that way about ten minutes ago,” a woman said.  I walked a block in the direction she pointed but didn’t see or hear anyone except one lone guy in a Guy Fawkes mask with a megaphone.  I couldn’t make out anything he was saying.
I texted a friend I thought might be on the demo, but she wasn’t.  She didn’t know where they were.  I figured it was probably near over anyway – it was called for 5:00 and it was now past 6:30.  I walked four blocks to the temporary Transbay Terminal, where the NL bus, which goes near my house, was just pulling up.  I climbed on and got a seat, one of those four-tops with two rows facing each other.  There was a guy next to me and two women across from us.  They were all African American.  Two of them were trying to go to West Oakland Station, and someone apparently recommended that bus, which doesn’t go that close.  I’d like to believe there is one that actually goes to West Oakland, which is probably the most popular station in the East Bay, but I can’t be sure there is.  West Oakland, after all, is a poor, mostly African American part of town, and there have been big cuts in bus service in Oakland and Berkeley, another casualty of Proposition 13 and Schwarzenegger.
The guy next to me was in a big hurry and fuming about how long it was taking for the long line of passengers unfamiliar with the routine to pay their fares and get on the bus.  The two women were talking about how the protesters were.
“I hope they’re not doing this just because BART shut down cell phone service,” one said.  “I mean, how dumb can you get?”
“Well,” I said, “they did kill that guy for no reason.”  Two months ago, BART police killed Charles Hill, a drunk, homeless man who had been reported as acting unruly on the platform. The cops said Hill threatened them with a broken bottle. Witnesses said the bottle he was carrying didn’t break until he fell after being shot.  They also said he was moving slowly, and the cops shouldn’t have had any trouble subduing him without using their guns.
Every article in the mainstream press refers to Hill as “knife-wielding” but my understanding is that they found the knife in his pocket after he was dead; it wasn’t in his hand.
And of course, this is the third passenger killed by BART police in two and a half years.  21-year-old Oscar Grant was killed on the platform at Fruitvale Station on New Year’s Eve, 2009, and in a much-less publicized incident, Fred Collins was shot in the back at Fruitvale Station in July 2010.
BART’s reaction, rather than any expression of contrition or maybe a reorganization of their obviously troubled police force, has been to take drastic actions to quell protests of these killings.  The first protest at Fruitvale Station, where Oscar Grant was killed, was noisy but peaceful until the police shut down the station, not allowing passengers to exit there.  That prompted the march which turned into a mini-riot and ended in hundreds of arrests.
The occasion for Monday’s action was that the week before BART shut down cell phone service in four stations to foil “flash mob” organizing.  They claimed they did it because the protest threatened to become “chaotic,” a nebulous code word suggesting violence and disruption, where in fact the protesters were, from what eyewitnesses told me, only holding banners and leafleting.
The cell phone shutdown caught national attention in a way that neither the killing of Hill nor the light sentence given to the officer who executed Oscar Grant in cold blood did.  (Johannes Mehserle, the white cop who shot the African American Grant, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years.  He actually spent 12 months in jail.)
The ACLU was on every national talk show last week, proclaiming this the first time that the “U.S. government” has interfered with cellphone service in order to prevent protest.  They compared it to thegovernments of China and Syria shutting down internet access to quell dissent.  The hacktivist group Anonymous chose to punish BART by, along with taking down the website for several hours last Sunday, publishing names and phone numbers of people who did nothing more than buy a parking permit from BART.  BART responded to the hack by calling in the FBI, and Anonymous upped the ante by publishing the personal information of BART cops.
Meanwhile, the passengers on my bus could not be convinced that any of it was worth the disruption to their lives.
“There are other ways to do it,” said the guy who was so late.  “Call your congressman.”
“That never works,” I argued.  “Nothing has ever been won without protest.  Think of the civil rights movement, the labor movement, Social Security, all of it.”
One of the women across from me looked semi-impressed.  Her friend shook her head.  “It’s not worth it,” she said.
I mollified them by saying, “Well, back when I was organizing this kind of thing” (not that I’m done with my activist career, but they didn’t need to know that) “we always had a rule that we didn’t disrupt the evening commute.  Blockades and traffic disruptions should always be first thing in the morning.  Most people won’t mind if you make them late to work.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Five good things to read on Israel’s July 14 movement

People keep asking me when I’m going to write about the Israeli Tent Protests, which have been dubbed the July 14 Movement. I always shamefacedly explain that I haven’t said anything because I don’t know anything. So finally the other day I spent some time seeing what people I respect over there are saying.

Much of the U.S. and Israeli left have been quick to dismiss the protests as reformist and bourgeois, pointing out that they have deliberately avoided the issues of occupation and apartheid. One thing I do want to point out is that I did not hear those same critiques leveled at the mass mobilizations in Wisconsin and Ohio last spring. Those movements were also not left-wing. They did not have an anti-war, anti-occupation, anti-capitalist agenda. They did not call for funding education by eliminating prisons and the police occupations of Black communities – if they had, the police and prison guards would not have been participating in the demonstrations. They did not have a broad critique of institutionalized racism. That’s not to say there were not leftists, anti-capitalists and anti-racists involved, but they chose to be involved for the same reason that many Israeli leftists are choosing to be involved in a big-tent movement.

In fact, the July 14 Movement seems to me not very different from the Wisconsin revolt, except that 1) it has mobilized a much larger proportion of the country’s population (up to 10%), and 2) it is, at least, taking on core policies of neoliberalism. It is demanding a welfare state and includes demands for the unemployed, as well as for those workers lucky enough to have union jobs.

The other thing that struck me is that there's a peculiar symmetry between this protest - tents springing up all over the country, some huge, some tiny, and the tents that sprang up in every Palestinian village and town in 2004 to support the prisoners' hunger strike.  That makes it doubly ironic that the Israeli protesters are not engaging the issue of Palestinian self-determination.  But of course, appropriating Palestinian cultural memes is as Israeli as ... falafel.

I won’t bore you with any more of my unfounded opinions. Here are five pieces I found very enlightening, and each of them is on a different site which will provide you with more links to various perspectives.

Israel’s protests Part 1: a tragic wasted chance (Part I) and The revolution inside the Revolution (Part II): “While it’s easy to decry the insistent shunning of “politics” that leads this movement, there’s plenty to find and celebrate if you rummage around. … As and when the central events dwindle, the committed, political and mixed-race protests will become more vulnerable, but those remaining around them will be more politicised and committed. …There is already an anticipation of a crackdown. The politicians who have spent the past few years lovingly crafting increasingly racist laws to silence and intimidate the Palestinian minority must be itching to stop this blatant demand for their rights.… Many people are on edge, expecting trouble. Police and prison pay has been quickly hiked up by 40%.”

Tent 1948, by Abir Kopty, “If you are Palestinian, it will be difficult to find anything to identify with in Tel Aviv's tents’ city on Rothschild Boulevard, until you reach Tent 1948. My first tour there was a few days ago, when I decided to join Tent 1948. Tent 1948's main message is that social justice should be for all. It brings together Jewish and Palestinian citizens who believe in shared sovereignty in the state of all its citizens….”

The Tent Protests in Israel: Can They Break Out of the (Zionist) Box? by Jeff Halper  “…This is an uprising worth following. Not an Arab Spring perhaps but a promising Israeli Summer. A process of consciousness-raising has certainly begun amongst mainstream Jewish Israelis who for generations have been locked in "The Box" of conformist thinking.”

The people want a reset. by Amira Hass  “As the movement grows, some will continue to think and demand "justice" within the borders of one nation, at the expense of the other nation that lives in this land. Others will understand that this will never be a country of justice and welfare if it is not a state of all its citizens.”

Arab-Israelis should find an ally in the Israeli tent protests, by Asma Agbariyeh-Zahalka  “…I think the time for complaints has passed, and there is no point in boasting about our victimhood, about the fact that we are the more oppressed, as if our identity is bound up with our misery. It’s time to come out of the Arab closet. The Israeli protest movement has initiated and represents social and economic change. Arab society must ask, Are we in favor of such change or not? Can this movement which demands social change also open itself up to the Arab population? Does the movement have a rightwing, fascist aura, or is it left-leaning and democratic, able to include social justice for Arabs too?”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Throwing Down at 52

Friday was my birthday (I'm two years older than President Obama) and I decided I wanted to mix activism with celebrating.  Friday evening we had our monthly Women In Black vigil against war and occupation, so I saw a bunch of friends there and a few of us went to dinner after.  Saturday morning some other friends and I joined “Throw Down for the Town,” a community service festival in Oakland.  Throw Down is organized by Soul of the City, an initiative of the human rights nonprofit Ella Baker Center (started by Van Jones, the first casualty of Obama’s ability to be bullied by Fox News).  Soul of the City’s mission statement says, “Soul of the City places the well-being of Oakland directly in the hands of the community. We honor the important role that each person plays in creating a vibrant and thriving city.”  There were more than 15 service projects to choose from.  We chose to help clean up part of Laney College, the community college just on the other side of Lake Merritt from where I live.  We worked hard for about two hours, and then went for a lovely lunch.
The cleanup itself was kind of intense, because part of the area where we were working is a little woodsy, on the banks of a pond, and it’s obviously a place where homeless people go to relieve themselves, eat, sleep, and avoid police harassment.  I found muddy, waterlogged clothes and backpack straps, along with the usual petrified Wendy’s cups, bottles, cans, condom wrappers and toilet paper.  Fortunately, the organizers had borrowed those grabber things from the City, and they also had plenty of latex gloves.  Nonetheless, when I suggested we head to an Ethiopian restaurant, one of my friends said, “I don’t feel like eating with my hands right now.”  So we opted for Mexican instead.

Used under Creative Commons License from website
Chris Jordan

As I picked up all that detritus, I thought, “Maybe I really should work on banning plastic food containers in Oakland.”  Plastic recycling is one of the big boondoggles of the last couple decades, because the more people feel like they can recycle it, the more of it socially conscious people feel like we can use.  And in reality, very little plastic is actually recycled.  “Recycling” sounds like it’s melted down and reshaped into more plastic food containers, but in reality, the 6-8% of the plastic we use that can be recycled at all gets converted into indoor-outdoor carpeting and polyester car seats through an extremely toxic process mainly carried out inChina.  The Berkeley Ecology Center has a greatwebsite on myths about and alternatives to plastic recycling.  A woman who was at Hedgebrook with me, Victoria Sloan Jordan, is working on a project with her husband, Chris Jordan, who is a photographer, documenting the destruction of the albatross population from eating the plastic we discard.  The photos, which you can see online, are incredible because in some of them, you can’t tell what they’re of and it looks quite beautiful, and then you realize it’s this awful devastation. 
Banning plastic would not only be good for the environment and for the health of the people who live near the plants where it’s processed.  I just finished reading a book called Girls on the Edge, by Leonard Sax, who is both a pediatrician and a psychologist.  He talks about four factors “driving the crisis of today’s girls” and one of them is “environmental toxins.”  He presented extensive evidence that plastic food, beverage and lotion containers are a major cause of early puberty in girls (a 2010 study reported in the journal Pediatrics that almost 25% of African American girls have reached a stage of breast development marking the onset of puberty by age 7, as had almost 15% of Latina girls and more than 10% of white girls.).
At the same time, campaigns such as plastic bans need to be done in a way that is sensitive to all of the other social issues accompanying our purchasing choices.  If we force McDonald’s to sell coffee in paper cups, we need to first research where those will come from and how they are produced.  A few years ago, Berkeley banned plastic shopping bags from supermarkets.  Certainly, a lot more people are using nondisposable bags, but probably a majority of people are getting groceries in paper bags.  I can’t say how many times I have walked out without putting bags in my car, or gone into a store thinking I’m only going to buy a few things, and ended up needing a paper bag.  I’m not sure how much better that is than the plastic ones.  They biodegrade, yes, but we can’t pretend that forests are not being sacrificed for our paper bags.  Ideally, we would take our groceries in baskets or carts, and if you dropped in without your cart, you would be able to borrow one, maybe for a buck deposit or something.  Or even more ideally, we would all be shopping in small stores close to home, and the shopkeepers would know us and be glad to lend us a basket or cart, confident that we’d bring it back.
We would need to ensure that McDonald’s would not raise their prices to make up for the fact that we’re “making them” switch to more environmentally friendly materials.  It shouldn’t, of course, be more expensive to use compostable paper, because it’s incredibly expensive to produce plastic, but with subsidies and corporate economies of scale, those costs are skewed.
Ultimately, all of this still relies on the premise that capitalism can be made environmentally friendly and humane, and in fact, that’s probably not the case.  I heard a radio show the other day about a project that’s promoting sustainable seafood.  One of the participants in the MarineStewardship Council’s eco-labeling program is WalMart, and with the world’s largest retail store signed on, the Marine Stewardship Council has the leverage to convince their suppliers to adopt line-only fishing and other sustainable fishing practices.  It’s great, on one hand, that WalMart has become so convinced that their customers want sustainable food that they were willing to join this effort.  On the other, I thought, well while you’re getting WalMart to sign onto the line-only fish pledge, couldn’t you get them to sign a union contract with their workers?
Neither picking up trash nor banning plastic wrapping and containers will result in a livable community.  Seeing the evidence that people are using that fairly inhospitable area (I ended up with brambles in my butt) for a bedroom and lavatory reminds me how many people very nearby are without the basics of comfort and dignity.  I started thinking, well maybe we should build some composting toilets here so people don’t have to leave used toilet paper in the grass.  On the way to lunch, we passed a long line of elderly people waiting for food from the Lake Merritt United Methodist Church food pantry.  As we were parking, a guy who asks me for fifty cents every day when I’m going to line up for the carpool to the city yelled “Got fifty cents?” at our car as we sped around the corner.  “That’s not very effective panhandling technique,” I said to my friends.
What I did like about Throw Down was that it was real.  It wasn’t giving money to some nonprofit to hire people to do something about our social problems – which is also important, don’t get me wrong.  Abel Guillen, a young man who is currently on the Community College Board and now running for State Assembly () came by to campaign.  I asked him what his top issues were, and he said, “Creating jobs.”
“That’s right,” I said, “People could be doing this for money.”  He agreed.  I asked how he proposed to fund it and his answer made my little heart go pitter-patter:
“Oil severance tax.  Single-payer health care.”
“You’re obviously my guy,” I said.
It brought us into contact with young people from our own neighborhood that I rarely interact with, and gave us ideas about how to create more community.  My neighbor, Simin, had the idea that we should get some of those garbage grabbers at the hardware store and go out on our own street once a month.  It’s not really about the garbage, she said, but that if people see you doing something, they will come and talk to you.  I was reminded of a story I was told a few years ago by a friend of a friend.  She lives on a cul-de-sac in San Francisco, where there’s no street cleaning, so she started going out with a broom and sweeping the street.  At first, her neighbors thought she was crazy.  But after a while, a couple other women came to help.  Eventually they ended up starting a community garden, even getting a small grant to reclaim a park for their kids.
I hate getting notices from Facebook that I should pick a Cause and get my “friends” to donate to it for my birthday.  No offense to any of my Facebook friends who have done that.  The idea of making our special days not just about us is great.  I just hate the mechanization of it, the notion that we can build communities of people who never set eyes on each other.  Don’t get me wrong.  Obviously, this is a blog.  In the blogging class I took recently, I stated that “finding a community of like-minded people” was my top reason for blogging.  But today’s activity made me think about the limits of virtual community, and the value of getting our hands dirty.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Six Ways to Avoid News Fatigue

People who have known me for a long time will attest to the fact that before I had a car, I never listened to the radio. In fact, I hated radios; I don’t know why, but there was something about the disembodied voice that really annoyed me. But once I started driving, I started occasionally listening to KPFA, because it was easier than fidgeting with tapes with one hand on the steering wheel. Then came 9-11, and in my hunger for news and analysis of the changing political world in this country, I got hooked on Democracy Now! That first foray into public radio led me to This American Life, Against the Grain, As It Happens, and the occasional dip into Fresh Air. Somewhere along the line, I discovered the Sunday folk music shows on KPFA (Across the Great Divide is the best), followed by the Saturday afternoon lineup on KALW (Folk Music and Beyond, Thistle and Shamrock, A Patchwork Quilt, Bluegrass Signal), Michael Feldman’s What Do You Know and KPFA’s Voices of the Middle East and North Africa. Suffice it to say, I’m now a dedicated, if not consistent, radio listener.

A few years ago I started doing radio as well. So now when I listen it’s not only for the information they’re giving; it’s also to get ideas for stories (usually by noticing what gender angles or women’s voices are left out of the other shows), and to learn to do it better from people who have more experience and professional training.

But somewhere along the line, I stopped enjoying it so much. Of course, I still sometimes hear things that inspire, enliven, uplift or enlighten me, but more often, I turn it off feeling more despondent than I did when I turned it on.

What changed, the radio or me?

photo by 4rilla
 Probably some of both. When something is new, it’s exciting. I hadn’t known you could get all this information just by plugging in a little radio! How cool is that? It made me part of a community with my friends, who had been dedicated KPFA and KALW listeners for years. Learning to do radio has been one of the great privileges of my last few years, and since people kept criticizing my shows without giving any helpful advice, it was liberating to realize I had a classroom right on my desk at work. Now that I’ve been listening for a number of years, I realize I’m hearing the same people a lot, and I usually know what they are going to say.

But I also think that progressive community radio has been influenced by changes in the mainstream media more than we realize. Five or ten years ago, shows like Against the Grain, Democracy Now! and the KPFA Sunday Show used to interview a lot more activists than they do now. They’ve become more expert dependent, and the way you become an expert is generally by publishing a book or a New York Times op-ed or getting a Ph.D., and while you are doing those things, you’re probably not out organizing a social movement. As someone who’s trying to do both, I can tell you it’s nearly impossible.

In the first three days of last week, I probably heard or saw twelve hours of coverage of the debt ceiling deal, if you count Comedy Central. I heard eight economists, five reporters, three Congresspeople, the former Labor Secretary and the current press secretary (no partridges). I heard Dean Baker twice and Rick Wolff three times on two different shows. Not surprisingly, they said the same thing each time. Ultimately, none of them had anything to say I didn’t already know. It’s not that they don’t know things I don’t – they know a lot. But they all said the same things they’ve been saying for months because they’re being asked the same questions: why does Obama always give in to the Tea Party? (he doesn’t have enough experience standing up to bullies). What’s this going to mean for us? (bad bad bad). What would he have done if he were FDR or LBJ? (Tax the rich, create jobs, lay down the law to Congress.) Meanwhile the mainstream pundits kept repeating the mantra “You have to cut Social Security and Medicare,” without a peep from the likes of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

No one said anything about what those of us who want to see a different strategy can or should do to bring it about. Democracy Now! interviewed Terry O’Neill of the National Organization for Women, who spearheaded a campaign to get Congress to protect the needs of women, but they didn’t interview her until after the deal had been approved in Congress. I interviewed her the week before, when at least people could sign the online petition, but I don’t have the listenership that DN! has. I don’t say that it would have made a difference if another few thousand people had signed a petition, but at least it would have given people some way to participate.

Along about Thursday, a phrase flashed into my mind. News Fatigue. I’m not sure where I first heard of it, but I sure know I’ve got it. At a party the other night, I mentioned this to a number of friends and acquaintances, and nearly everyone said, “Oh, yes, I don’t listen to any of those shows any more.” A couple people mentioned things they’re listening to instead. Then Sunday evening, I happened to catch part of New America Now: Voices from the New Majority (Fridays at noon and Sundays at 3 pm on KALW 91.7 FM San Francisco). They were talking about redistricting, and the part that I heard went into depth about how prisons are used to give disproportionate influence to some very small districts. It was fascinating. I’d never heard that, it made total sense and it explained some things I had never understood. I was so interested, I sat in my car for fifteen minutes after I got where I was going.

So here are six shows I’m going to listen to instead of the daily news-oriented shows, and if you have News Fatigue, you might want to try them too:

1.  Fresh Air (KALW 9-10 am, repeated 6-7 pm; KQED 1-2 pm or 7-8 pm; podcast available): Terry Gross asks great questions and has interesting people on. It’s usually upbeat without being fluffy. Her guest on Monday was Charles C. Mann, author of 1493, which documents how Columbus changed the world by introducing Europe and the Americas to each other’s crops, animals and diseases. She's more progressive on most issues than you might think.

2. Your Call (KALW 10-11 am, repeated at 8-9 pm; available for download): Maybe it’s because it’s a call-in show, but they almost always have a more grassroots angle on whatever issues they’re covering. They bring in a lot of local folks you hardly ever hear elsewhere. (One week, their Friday media roundtable even included a guy from Socialist Worker!) A recent show I heard was “How Are Magazines Surviving” with editors and publishers of Bitch, Utne Reader and The Sun.

3. Are We Alone? Really cool science show on KALW (Tuesdays at 1:00 pm), also available for podcast or download. The last show, “Written in Code” explores “ENCORE Genes – what are they good for? Absolutely… something. But not everything. Your “genius” genes need to be turned on – and your environment determines that. Find out how to unleash your inner-Einstein, and what scientists learned from studying the famous physicist’s brain.”

4. This American Life (KALW Sundays 1:00 pm, KQED Saturday noon and 10:00 pm or by podcast): With rare exceptions, it’s interesting, funny and unexpected. The last one I heard (I podcast it, but I often forget to download the podcasts and they’re only available for two weeks) was called “When Patents Attack!” and was about patent trolls. Don’t know what that is? You want to find out!

5. Making Contact (Friday 1:30 pm on KPFA, or on the website): Unfortunately it’s only half an hour a week but they sometimes have extras on their website (they even put a piece of mine up once, though I can’t find it now). Last week’s show was called “Remixing Revolution: Art, Music and Politics”, excerpting a panel discussion called “The God’s Must Be Crazy: Reviving the Black Supernatural Experience.” Before that they had a two-parter on the Wisconsin workers’ revolt. Irresistible.

6. Rock en RebeliĆ²n (Sundays 5:00 pm on KPFA; check website for archives): I love this show ’cause I get to practice my Spanish by listening to people who often are not native speakers so they speak slowly. Plus it’s bilingue, so if I get lost, I can generally catch up when they drift into English, and the beats are great.

What are your suggestions to break out of news fatigue? What shows or other experiences do you love? (If you’re getting this by email, don’t email me your ideas! but go to the blog and post them as comments so other people can see them too.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Slut Walk and Porn Wars: What's Choice Got to Do With It?

Report from SlutWalk San Diego, posted on IndyBay by Zenger's Newsmagazine

Slut Walk has sparked some of the most vibrant political debates among feminists since Monica Lewinsky. For those who don’t know about it, Slut Walk is an international response to an incident in which young women at York University in Toronto were told by police that if they don’t want to be raped, they should not dress like sluts. Women have organized marches from Sydney to New York to London. San Francisco’s is tonight (August 6). The organizers urge women to come wearing whatever they want, to make the age-old point that no woman asks or deserves to be raped, regardless of what she wears. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media has proclaimed this movement “the new feminism.”

Rebecca Traister wrote in the New York Times Magazine that she is ambivalent about the message of the walks, an ambivalence I think a lot of feminists share. Jessica Grose, writing on, offered “kudos” for the piece, saying, “The tone of disagreements in the feminist blogosphere can be truly vicious—there can be a real tendency for other writers and commentators to pile on when you veer from the party line. … The push-back to Traister's piece has already begun…” hosted a thoughtful and spirited discussion among its bloggers, with Rebecca Traister joining.

Muslim women criticized the march for being uninclusive, and African American women pointed out that for years, they have been fighting for the right not to be called slut and ho.

This is familiar territory. How many rooms did I sit in through the eighties and nineties listening to feminists passionately arguing about whether sex work is liberatory or exploitative or whether it can possibly be both, whether we should embrace or deface pornography, or whether we could do both?

The transgressive nature of reclaiming pejorative identities is also something that resonates for me. In the early 1980s, groups I was part of were among the first to openly embrace the word “queer.” At antiwar demonstration, I was soberly lectured by any number of straight activists who didn’t understand why would want to be called by a word that was most often heard in the mouths of bashers. When our award-winning chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re not going shopping,” was expropriated and changed to “We’re here, it’s clear, we’re not going shopping,” we almost came to blows with some of our favorite heterocommunists.
So my first reaction to Slut Walk was great, you go, girls. I looked at some of the pictures and video and they are moving.

Young women want to be attractive, and in our culture, attractive means sexy, and sexy generally means showing a lot of skin. That’s cool. They should do what makes them comfortable. The problem with that, just like the problem with trying to differentiate “sex work” from “exploitation” or “trafficking” is that we live in a misogynist culture, and in a misogynist culture, a cigar is never just a cigar.

Our culture is both hypersexualized and anti-sex. Even little girls are expected, almost required, to show that they’re sexually available and interested. Victoria’s Secret has a line called “Pink” which markets frilly halter tops and short shorts to nine-year-olds.

A friend of mine recently figured out that his 16-year-old daughter didn’t want to go to a party because she was being set up to have oral sex with some guy she didn’t even know.

I said, “Did you tell her she’d have plenty of opportunities for coercive sex soon enough?”

He said, “Actually, that’s exactly what I told her.”

At the same time, our social policy is more and more based on punishing women, especially young women and women of color, for having sex. Whether you’re talking about abstinence-only education, welfare cuts, restrictions on abortion and birth control, refusing to fund HPV vaccines or criminalization of addicted women who become pregnant, the message is clear: women who have sex for any reason other than reproduction in the context of white, heterosexual marriage are bad and should suffer.

In this environment, it’s very hard to be sex-positive. When t-shirts bearing slogans like “Yes but not w u” are aggressively marketed to 13-year-old girls, can anyone say that they are really choosing to be “sluts”? Of course, they should be free to walk around wearing anything they want and not be harassed or attacked.

The question some of us older feminists are asking though, is, are they really wearing what they want to wear, or what patriarchal society wants them to wear? Do they want to be sluts, or is that another box that they’re being shoved into and then condemned for occupying, like whore, femme fatale, bitch and superwoman?
How did we get from burning bras and corsets (which I’m told never actually happened) to marching for the right to spend lots of money on clothes that are for the most part highly uncomfortable?

Rebecca Traister asks why this is the issue that has galvanized the most feminist activism in recent years. I would add to that, why is it the issue which has galvanized the most interest in the feminist blogosphere?
It doesn’t surprise me that the mainstream media fixates on a movement of young, mostly white women dressed in not much. But does the feminist movement have to help them? On one hand, a lot of good pieces have been written, a lot of good interviews given that would never have seen the light of day if they hadn’t been on a “sexy” issue. I just wish feminist Twitter and YouTube could have helped the demand of over 250 women’s organizations not to balance the budget on the backs of women go viral, maybe the New York Times would have written one word about it. (Didn’t hear about that? Check it out.) Maybe next time, some young college women can paint their bare midriffs with the names of immigrant women being deported away from their U.S.-born children.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

To Preserve the Welfare State, Fighting Racism Is Key

Last week I wrote about changes in Western Europe relating to the mass immigration of darker skinned and Muslim people. Steve Hill, author of Europe’s Promise, called my analysis shallow and “glass half empty.” I’m sure it is shallow – I’m a blogger, with a degree in political theory, not comparative European politics, while Steve has spent years researching European political systems. Since getting that feedback, though, I have sought out the opinions of a lot of European experts, and I haven’t really heard anything that contradicts the thesis I put forth in “Song of Norway” – that immigration and global economic conditions are pushing even the most progressive countries of Europe to the right (which doesn’t mean they are going to get there or stay there).

But I was not trying to paint a gloomy prognosis for Europe’s decline into nativism and fascism. Rather, I meant to point out that over the last half century, the most egalitarian countries in Western Europe have also been the most monocultural. As they become more heterogeneous, they might want to take heed of the experience of this country, where fear (or maybe just hatred) of the Other has been used quite disastrously to wage war on programs that promote equality.

One of the things we need to remember, when mourning the slow death of the U.S. welfare state, is that it was never motivated by compassion for people of color. Noam Chomsky points out that even in these anti-tax-and-spend days, a majority of white U.S.Americans actually favor giving more government money to poor people – unless those people are Black. They make a distinction between “supporting the (deserving) poor,” and “welfare”, which we have been trained to see as synonymous with “giving money to (undeserving) Black people or immigrants.” Not coincidentally, the attack on the welfare state grows in ferocity as the political power of African Americans is increasingly curtailed, by a combination of voter suppression, redistricting and gentrification of urban population centers.

In the mid-1930s, when the New Deal was enacted, the population of the U.S. was 88.7% white, 9.7% African American and 1.2% Mexican (in the 1940 census, Mexicans were recategorized as white). The only other groups counted were Native Americans, Chinese, and Japanese, who together made up 0.5% of the population. The electorate was well over 95% white, since 77% of African Americans lived in the South, where they could not vote.

White unemployment in 1933 was about 25%. In 1930, African American unemployment was slightly lower than that of whites (because their wages were much lower) but by 1935, it was nearly twice as high. Many African Americans were thrown out of work so that whites could take their jobs. At least half a million Mexicans were deported (“repatriated”) in the thirties, 60% of them U.S. citizens. Many of the New Deal programs, including Social Security, either expressly or de facto excluded African Americans. Nearly two-thirds of all African Americans in the labor force (as well as over half of women workers) were not covered by Social Security. Waiters, butlers, domestic and agricultural workers were all excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the minimum wage.

The New Deal was possible because so many white people were homeless and out of work that nearly everyone, with the exception of the wealthiest white Americans, had close friends or family members who needed the help. Today that’s not the case. We say that unemployment is 9.3%, and many commentators point out that it’s really more like 16%, but even those numbers obfuscate the reality, that certain communities are affected much more heavily and others scarcely at all. Even to say that white unemployment is at 8%, African American 16.5% and Latino 12% is misleading, because those rates are not constant across racial groups. For whites rural unemployment and poverty are much higher than urban, while 40-50% of young African American men in some cities are unemployed or marginally employed.

For whites with college degrees, the unemployment rate is 2.9% while for those who haven’t finished high school it’s 12%. Since in the 2010 midterm elections, the turnout was 78% white and college educated and only 13% of voters had family incomes under $30,000 a year, we can kind of see why we’re in danger of losing our Social Security.

By far the best news I’ve read in ages is in an article called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Be More Equal.”  Three psychologists have recently found that Americans are happier “when national wealth is distributed more evenly than when it is distributed unevenly.”

The bad news? The wealthiest 20% don’t follow the trend.

Neither the U.S. nor Europe has a long tradition of tolerance. Contemporary Europe was built by exporting people it saw as undesirable, while the U.S. was built by exterminating them. But let’s not forget that Europe has done its share of exterminating, both on its shores and abroad. If we don’t want to see those bloody histories repeated, we must – all of us – work on creating true multiculturalism, something none of our societies have ever had.