Wednesday, September 26, 2012
What does a Jewish pagan atheist do on Yom Kippur?
I fast, for a complicated series of reasons – tradition, memory, connection with a community, and because I look forward to the spacey, open, vulnerable feeling at the end of the day. A friend and I begin and end the 25 hours with services but don’t spend the whole day there as I did when I was a kid. Usually in the early part of the day I read. I pull books off my shelves and look at them, reading snatches of this and that. Sometimes one catches my interest and I read it for a few hours; other times I just keep browsing my own library. It’s another way of reconnecting. Last night I pulled out a book called Reconcilable Differences:Confronting Beauty, Pornography and the Future of Feminism. I don’t think I ever read it closely, but I can see that I kept it on my bed for a while because the cover is all chewed up (meaning my cat gnawed on it for quite a while). It’s interesting, trying to grapple with some of the issues that have divided feminists over the decades. This morning I picked up Of Woman Born, motivated no doubt by the death of Adrienne Rich in the last year. It’s still so powerful after so many years. It’s a document of the early Second Wave women’s movement, yet still feels alive and relevant.
That made me start thinking about something I’ve been increasingly preoccupied with: the apparent disconnect between social progress and technological progress. Watching all the recent shenanigans to disenfranchise poor people and people of color through carefully crafted photo ID requirements, limits on early voting and same-day registration, I keep thinking, “How is this possible? People died for the right to vote in the fifties and sixties – we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. How can we be headed back where we started?”
I’m sure union activists are wondering the same thing about the attacks on the right to organize, and certainly abortion rights champions have been facing this rollback for a long time. We thought we had won those victories, but the people who opposed them didn’t think they had lost them.
The same, of course, was true of labor rights. Capital did not simply accept the Wagner Act once it was passed in 1935; they started looking for ways to weaken it (Taft-Hartley, 1947), get around it (JP Stevens 1960-74, Pittston Coal 1989), crush it (Phelps Dodge Copper 1983, Hormel Meat 1985), or effectively destroy it through anti-union appointments to the NLRB.
At the same time, the women who had fought to legalize abortion and provided underground abortion access got busy building their clinics. They incorporated and got grants and built huge fundraising networks. They took ads in the phone book and the newspapers, letting women know about all the wonderful services they could provide. They built international empires like Planned Parenthood, or community-controlled women’s health centers like the Berkeley Women’s Health Collective. The more radical among the activists fought medical schools to teach abortion techniques, and sued for publicly funded abortion. Some continued to do policy work, trying to block the Hyde Amendment, which eliminated all federal funding for abortion. When that failed, women established the National Network of Abortion Funds, to try to make abortion accessible to poor women.
The union leaders focused on organizing workers and negotiating contracts. That’s what unions are for, right? They built strike funds and trained stewards. After Reagan and PATCO, when they realized they were losing (perhaps not realizing they had already lost), some hunkered down and concentrated on how to keep from losing any more, while others branched out, aggressively trying to organize more and more sectors. They looked at the unorganized low-wage workers and explored new organizing models (community campaigns, worker associations like the Asian Immigrant Workers Alliance) that would be less threatening to workers and raise fewer red flags with employers.
The civil rights leaders of the sixties ran for Congress, became ambassadors, wrote books, won Pulitzers, got teaching jobs, started poverty programs. Some started institutes to spread what they had learned to other oppressed communities and movements. Some helped to organize anti-nuclear or anti-war campaigns. Some became progressive ministers, serving their communities in myriad ways, speaking out on a range of social issues.
I’m not trying to blame feminists, civil rights activists or unions for the backlash against them. But because technological progress is linear – steampunk aside and barring a cataclysm, I don’t see anyone giving up their iPads for stone tablets – we imagine that social progress is also. Social progress often flows from technological progress. Agrarian families needed more kids to work the fields, while wage laborers need to be able to limit the mouths they have to feed. Industrialization made slavery unprofitable. But that doesn’t mean that society keeps pace with technology. People continue to hunger for the bygone eras, even as I hunger for the well-read books on my bookshelves.
When I was in college, “new institutionalism” or “new structuralism” was in vogue. Under this analysis, structural or institutional change leads to cultural change, rather than the other way around. Thus, if you want to change society, you change institutions and “hearts and minds” will adapt to the new reality. It’s the basis for policies like integrating the military through executive order, which worked relatively well (though Danny Chen’s family might not think so). It’s also the basis for things like forced school integration through busing, which has worked notoriously badly. That seems to cast some doubt on the soundness of institutionalism as a premise, which might explain the predicament we are now in.
Of course, feminism, civil rights, labor did capture people’s hearts and minds. Very recently, over 50% of unorganized workers said they would join a union if they had the chance. 77% of the electorate believes women should have the right to an abortion. For whatever self-interested reasons, 43% of white Americans, and a majority of those under 30, voted for a Black president in 2008. The minds of the people most hostile to our goals are always going to be hardest to change, and can’t be our focus. But the anti-abortion movement was able to change the discourse in the country, so that abortion is now widely seen as a tragedy rather than a medical option. If we had been as organized as the right wing, they could not have done that so easily. (The most ironic expression of this is that the numbers of people identifying as pro-choice are going everlower, while the numbers who support the right to abortion stay relatively constant.) There would not have been more than twenty years without a single television character choosing abortion and going through with it. The anti-union establishment can foment anger against public sector unions because the vast majority of those private sector workers who would like to join a union never had the opportunity to do so.
Okay, but if we have to keep fighting every battle even after we’ve won it, how can we ever move on to anything new? There are only so many active feminists, so many civil rights activists, so many union organizers. Someone had to set up the clinics and the fundraising networks, train the doctors and organize the workers and negotiate the contracts, fight discrimination in schools and housing and employment, take on the prison-industrial complex.
Ultimately, the cultural shift – however you make it – is the key. If all women understood that reproductive rights are core to their ability to be free, there would be enough of us out there to keep the clinics functioning AND fight the right. We would be adding new voices and new talents all the time. If we – and I say “we” loosely, because I was never really part of this – had kept doing consciousness raising through the seventies and eighties and nineties, we would have a whole lot more engaged feminists now. We would not have lost a generation of women who gladly took the gains feminism had won but didn’t identify with the movement, didn’t even see that they wouldn’t be able to be a lawyer-mom, a lesbian fire fighter or a woman boxing champ without those humorless, dowdy feminists everyone loves to hate. They would have passed the values of the movement on to their daughters, instead of haranguing them about their weight and offering them boob jobs and facial surgery for their sixteenth birthdays.
The movement itself would have evolved too. We would have grown bigger and broader, deeper and stronger. Working class women and women of color would not feel (or be) invisible in the movement, and Wal-Mart wouldn’t be as easily able to exploit and underpay them. We would have helped women in China and Vietnam organize for higher wages so offshore sweatshops wouldn’t have been such easy tool to break U.S. unions. Sisterhood would truly have been Global and Powerful.
The theme of a lot of the Yom Kippur liturgy is that it’s never too late. On this day we acknowledge our shortcomings, atone and renew our commitment to what’s right. It would have been good never to have stopped doing consciousness raising and transformative cultural work, but it’s not too late to start again.