Friday, September 28, 2012

An Anarchist's Yom Kippur - If Not Now, When?

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.
It’s been well documented that the minute Roe vs. Wade became the law of the land, the Church and the right wing started organizing to overturn it.  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.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Teen Dating, Arranged Marriage, and Hating on Women's Bodies

Two best things I've read this week:  

An Anti-Teen-Dating Diatribe

Syrian-born, U.S.-raised author, poet and scholar Mohja Kahf, on the double standard applied to "teen dating" and "arranged marriage" in the West.
Teen dating supplanted family-based courtship in the U.S. fifties. Sure there was dating before, but only for adults. Whole industries spawned to support teen dating, and now the entire culture seems to assume it is a universal human right.
Cotillion pressure begins early in Aunty Mohja’s Southern hometown. Mothers gussy up eleven-year-old daughters in strapless gowns to be pawed awkwardly by boys at a school dance where lights are low and paper decorations evoke adult notions of “romance.” Fathers grin and push seventeen-year-old sons out the door with car keys and hotel reservations for this bizarre ritual called “prom.”  Oho, Aunty Mohja went to American high school and knows all about prom night.
This, but delicate sensibilities are shocked, shocked, at traditions of teen marriage among some sectors of Muslims. Aunty Mohja is not saying early marriage is best. But compare the two customs, both acknowledging teen sexuality. For Muslim parents to provide a nubile woman with a reliable life partner, with whom she can build a home as well as satisfy her sexual desires—someone who bears witnessed responsibility if she conceives a child, in a union nurtured by surrounding family—this is oppressive, while parents providing ill-prepared teens with the means for furtive groping amid all sorts of conflicting messages about what they are to do in this badly set-up ritual, that’s benign?
This is a must-read

Tennis: Serena Williams and Taylor Townsend - Race, Weight, USTA, and US Open

Cliff Potter on why the #1 junior tennis player in the world almost didn't get to play in the U.S. Open.  Funny, I watched a lot of the Open and heard nothing about that.  Why?  Could it be because Patrick McEnroe, who made that horrendous decision, is part of the broadcast team?  Can you say "conflict of interest?
Serena Williams has a body that is bodacious in all respects. Totally dissimilar to most bodies on tour, men and women.
Williams' physique is shared with Taylor Townsend, a 16 year old African-American and the number 1 seed in the girl's juniors in singles. Taylor lost on Friday in the junior girl's US Open singles tournament, but won the US Open girls doubles title.
Like most of us, you would have thought nothing of Taylor Townsend's weight or race.
But you are not the USTA and Patrick McEnroe, at least as to weight.
Read about what happened to Taylor, her response and how Serena Williams stood up for her and made the federation back down.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Four questions about elections

Warning:  This is not a blog for those of you who are already sick to death of election talk ...

The other night I went to the 30th anniversary party of Urban Stonehenge.  It’s a peeling pink house atop Potrero Hill, right at the intersection of 26th and Wisconsin.  In 1982, a group of anarchists, many of them veterans of the campaign to shut down the nuclear weapons production facility in Rocky Flats, Colorado, moved in there, and it’s remained a collective house ever since.  There are more or less four bedrooms upstairs and a basement which was once a church (the baptismal font is still recognizable), is now a den, and in between housed hordes of traveling activists, punks, squatters, slackers and such like.  I lived there for a year around 1985-86, in a room that had no windows.  If it hadn’t been across from the kitchen, I would never have known when it was time to get up.  A few years later, my friend Sheila moved into that room and put in a window, a skylight and a loft, rendering it quite charming.

The people who live there now have much better cooking and cleaning habits than the household I was part of, which might be why someone who moved out last year had lived there for seventeen years.

Maximum Rock n Roll reporting on
the DemCon protests in 1984 (I was there)
One of those Rocky Flats veterans and founding collective members, now a lawyer, was at the reunion wearing a t-shirt that said, “I’m Organizing for America.”  I knew I recognized the slogan but couldn’t quite place it.  When I asked him, he said, “Well, it has to do with the Obama campaign.”  I was pretty surprised, because let’s just say that when I last saw him, the Democratic Party wasn’t on his Christmas card list.  We didn’t get too deep into why he was doing it (though I did ask kind of incredulously, “Do you believe in Obama?”), but we did talk about what he is doing – organizing phone banks in Berkeley and Albany to call up voters in Nevada and New Mexico.  He said one thing I found very interesting.

“There are no undecided voters,” he said.  “It’s all about getting out the vote.”

He overstated it a bit, but the general point is correct:  there are many fewer undecideds than in previous elections and despite what they claim, the campaigns are not really trying to appeal to them. Instead they are trying to motivate their bases to come out and volunteer.

My acquaintance went on to say that the most effective way to get an iffy voter to the polls is a face-to-face meeting with a volunteer.  The second most effective way is a phone call from a volunteer.

“Television ads have virtually no impact,” he said.

I wondered if that was true.  It certainly flies in the face of the now-commonplace assessment that whoever raises the most money is most likely to win an election.  Big bucks are important for big ad buys, not for recruiting droves of volunteers to go door-to-door.  I decided to look into it.

Question 1:  Is major media advertising ineffective in getting out the vote?

The effectiveness of in-person get-out-the-vote efforts (GOTV) is undisputed, but the question of the how and whether mass media advertising, positive, negative, partisan or non-partisan, effects turnout is hotly contested.

Looking at evidence from the 2008 elections, Matthew Holleque and Sarah Niebler of the University of Wisconsin political science department conclude:
Laboratory experiments, like the ones conducted by Ansolebehere, Iyengar, and their colleagues (1994; 1997), find that exposure to negative advertising decreases the probability that people will turnout to vote.  Negative campaigning, they argue, turns people off from politics and angers citizens about the tone of politics. This demobilizing effect translates into as much as five percentage point drop in voter turnout, disenfranchising approximately six million potential voters. Ansolebehere and Iyengar (1997) conclude, “In election after election, citizens have registered their disgust with the negativity of contemporary political campaigns by tuning out and staying home.”
Contrary to these findings, subsequent observational studies show no evidence that political advertising—even negative advertising—depresses voter turnout. Numerous studies posit that campaign advertising actually stimulates voter turnout, although these effects are sometimes conditional. For example, Freedman, Franz, and Goldstein (2004) find that exposure to advertising can raise the probability of turning out by as much as 10 percentage points.
Hillygus (2005) finds that all campaign effects (including television advertising) raises an individual’s probability of voting by at least 10 percent. However, despite these findings, the jury is still out on the question of whether campaign advertising affects voter turnout at all.
Many studies find that campaigning advertising has no effect on voter turnout…. While it is safe to say that campaign advertising is probably not causing millions of people to stay home on Election Day, it remains debatable whether or not campaign ads actually mobilizes citizens to head to the polls.
Question 2:  With such questionable return, why are all these super-PACs so hot to spend millions of undisclosed dollars on TV ads?

Here are a few theories scantily clad in facts to back them up, but not for lack of looking:
  • They may not accept or even know of the hypothesis that there are not many voters to convince.  When the electorate is less polarized, advertising is potentially more effective.  At least one study of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections claims to find that eliminating advertising would have cost Bush 22 electoral votes in 2000, giving Gore the election.  (I say “claims to find” because not being a geek, I can’t begin to understand whether their methodology is sound.  I just skip from theAbstract to the Conclusion.)
  • Consultants tell them they advertising is effective. “Television and Politics – Nothing Makes a Bigger Impact,” is the headline of a 2009 article in the online magazine ElectWomen .  The article is largely a rehashing of the political advice of a guy named Doug Heyl, who is, not surprisingly, “a political media adviser who develops campaign media strategies, develops and creates commercials and directs the purchase of television and radio airtime.
R. Michael Alvarez wrote in a 2011 article in Psychology Today:

… do voters pay attention? Does this barrage of political ads influence the outcome of an election?
Candidates and political consultants think the answer to both questions is yes. For example, candidates running for office in big states like California pump amazing amounts of money into their television advertising budgets. … Recently we had a contested city council election in my home city of Pasadena, and in that race our incumbent city councilmember produced and aired a television ad in his re-election bid, and this was an election in which about 4,000 votes were cast.
But many political scientists have questioned the extent to which television advertising --- indeed, pretty much any type of campaigning --- changes voter perceptions and election outcomes.
  • Ads are more important in races where the candidates are less well known.  Says Ezra Klein,
If in the final days of the presidential campaign some hedge fund billionaire begins a multimillion-dollar assault on Obama, some Hollywood billionaire will probably help the president out. Either way, the ads would have a limited effect. By the end of the presidential campaign, most voters will have made up their minds. They’re not waiting for one more black-and-white clip narrated by another grim voice to push them over the edge.
In contrast, even at the end of the campaign, many potential voters will know very little about their congressional candidates. They will be susceptible to ads telling them terrible things. Some of those candidates won’t have the resources to fight back.
Didn't see this on MSNBC
There’s even some speculation of a “reverse coattail effect,” that if people get revved up to vote against down-ticket candidates of a particular party, it will subtly affect the presidential race.  Everyone who has tried to find such an effect has failed, but as we know “fact-based politics” is not that fashionable in some circles.
  • They hope to discourage voting by demoralizing the people who favor the other guy.  Though polls keep finding that negative campaign ads don’t depress voter turnout, people who want to thwart democracy are nothing if not persistent.
  • They keep the base energized and worried about the people who might be planning to vote for the other guy.
  • They make the candidates believe they are beholden to the people who paid for the advertising.
Question 3:  If it’s all about getting out the vote, why are the Democrats (and the Obama campaign in particular) so unworried about the people who came out for them in droves in 2008 and are clearly not enthused about them now? 

People keep saying that African Americans, labor, Latinos and progressives have “nowhere to go,” but the fact is that nowhere is a place, and those folks are very likely to go there.  Especially since for many of them – the Latinos and African Americans in particular – it’s getting harder and harder to vote, something the Democrats seem fairly laconic about challenging.  My acquaintance at the party claimed that wasn’t true, that the Demos have filed suits in every state where there are photo ID laws and discriminatory restrictions on absentee and early voting.  If that’s so, they sure are being quiet about it.  I keep hearing that the reason 11% of eligible voters don’t have photo ID (!) is partly that they can’t get to wherever they need to go to get it.  So you would think that MoveOn and David Axelrod and all those other annoying people I get emails from would be sending out pleas for volunteers to go drive people to the DMV.  Maybe there are sending them to someone, but none have seeped through my spam filter.

Question 4:  Why is racism so pernicious?

As NYT columnist Bob Herbert said the other day, the semi-secret Republican subtext in this campaign is race race race.  Whether it’s “jokes” about “I was born here,” or comments about the “food stamp president” or calling Obama a Marxist who wants radical redistribution of wealth (would that it were true), it all adds up to the same thing, and it’s all they need to say to trigger the deep fear of middle-class white older (and not so much older) voters.

Now the people who study these things claim that “race” as a concept has only existed in human history for a scant six hundred years or so, that “whiteness” never existed before the importation of slaves from Africa to this continent.
In the middle of the 20th century, a new generation of historians began to take another look at the beginnings of the American experience. … Their research revealed that our 19th and 20th century ideas and beliefs about races did not in fact exist in the 17th century. Race originated as a folk idea and ideology about human differences; it was a social invention, not a product of science. Historians have documented when, and to a great extent, how race as an ideology came into our culture and our consciousness.
Dr. Audrey Smedley, Virginia Commonwealth University Professor Emerita, Understanding Race
The role played by America is particularly important in generating and perpetuating the concept of "race." The human inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere largely derive from three very separate regions of the world—Northeast Asia, Northwest Europe, and Western Africa—and none of them has been in the New World long enough to have been shaped by their experiences in the manner of those long-term residents in the various separate regions of the Old World.
It was the American experience of those three separate population components facing one another on a daily basis under conditions of manifest and enforced inequality that created the concept in the first place and endowed it with the assumption that those perceived "races" had very different sets of capabilities. Those thoughts are very influential and have become enshrined in laws and regulations. This is why I can conclude that, while the word "race" has no coherent biological meaning, its continued grip on the public mind is in fact a manifestation of the power of the historical continuity of the American social structure, which is assumed by all to be essentially "correct."
Dr. Loring Bryce, Does Race Exist?
According to Theodore Allen, the knowledge, ideologies, norms, and practices of whiteness and the accompanying "white race" were invented in the U.S. as part of a system of racial oppression designed to solve a particular problem in colonial Virginia. Prior to that time, although Europeans recognized differences in the color of human skin, they did not categorize themselves as white. I will provide more detail later. For now, the important element of his theory is that whiteness serves to preserve the position of a ruling white elite who benefit economically from the labor of other white people and people of color.
Judy Helfland, Constructing Whiteness

So why does such a relatively recent, artificial concept have such enormous staying power, not only in this country, where it was (ostensibly) born, but in many places around the world?

More on that some other time, unless one of you can supply me with the answer.