Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Anti-Feminist Mystique?

I think I must be the worst feminist journalist/blogger in the world, or at least the country.

It’s tempting to pretend that I was just too cool to write about 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique’s publication, but the truth is I had no idea.  I somehow managed to get left off the list for review copies of the reissued volume, no one invited me to be on a panel on its impact, and goddess knows my friends weren’t talking about it.

In fact, the date might have slipped by me altogether if I hadn’t bought a Kindle last week and celebrated by spending even more money on a subscription to the New York Times.  So yesterday, on my way to work, I read an article by Janet Maslin reflecting on the book’s impact, and it had links to a piece that had appeared a couple days earlier and that referred to another piece – you get the picture.

Everyone, it seems, was celebrating this momentous day except for contemporary feminist activists.  Amitai Etzioni diaried (is that a word? Why not if “diarist” is?) about it on The Daily Kos.  Historian Peter Dreier wrote about it on The Huffington Post and Truth Out.  New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Gail Collins, who wrote the introduction to the 50th Anniversary edition, hosted a video round table and gave an interview to The Atlantic.  (The Atlantic, incidentally, has had no less than six articles about the book in the last few months, most by men and fairly uncharitable).  Third-wave feminist Kathleen Parker wrote a snotty “Who needs it?” column in The Washington Post.

So what’s left to say?  Not too much except that:

(1) A surprising number of the major pieces were written by men, and many of the ones by women – especially the hostile ones  – mainly quote men;

(2) Nearly all the comments on the aforementioned video debate – which is highly entertaining and I recommend it – are by irate men who clearly have not read the book but think they know what it says;

(3) It’s amazing how much outrage the book still provokes – again, mostly by people who never read it, as Stephanie Coontz documented in her book A Strange Stirring; and

(4) People are, as always, quick to condemn prominent feminists where they would be more forgiving of almost any other icon who was but a product of her time.

I only saw Friedan in the flesh once.  She came to speak at my college.  All the feminists on campus were there.  A Black woman – that’s how they identified then -- got up and asked a question, I don’t remember exactly what it was but basically she was taking Friedan to task for ignoring the specific oppressions of women of color and poor women.  Friedan reacted like a skunk whose tail had been stepped on.   

“Don’t make me the enemy,” she screamed. 

 The woman she was screaming at, a friend of mine, ran out of the room in tears, followed by other Black women who gathered around her.  I and some of their other white friends followed.

“That’s why we’re not in the movement,” I heard one Black woman say to the woman who’d been the target of Friedan’s venom.

I was so humiliated.  I couldn’t believe she’d done that – this woman that we all looked up to.  It was just a terrible day all the way around.  It was doubly shocking because obviously that wasn’t the first time Friedan had been challenged on racism.  It’s kind of like how angry Bill Clinton used to get when feminists criticized his policies or his mediocre record on appointing women to high positions.  You always think that years of being publicly criticized would make people grow a tougher skin – or maybe even be able to listen and hear what people are saying.

Given that experience, it’s surprising that I feel like defending Friedan now.  Or maybe it’s not.  Maybe I’m remembering times when I didn’t behave well in public.  Or maybe I’m thinking ahead to a time when something I did or said that seemed groundbreaking is going to seem antiquated and even counterrevolutionary.

Either way, it’s hard not to scream when I read something like Ashley Fetters’ “4 Big Problems with The Feminine Mystique,” in The Atlantic.  Fetters begins with “It’s racist. And it’s classist.” (quoting the estimable bell hooks for the specifics) but quickly moves on to quote biographer Daniel Horowitz to support the claim that, “It’s founded on a lie.” The lie in question is Friedan’s choice to deny her past as a union organizer and “radical leftist” (Horowtiz’s phrase).  So are we supposed to disrespect Friedan because she was concerned about working class women, or because she wasn’t?  Or are we just supposed to disrespect her -- because?

(Because I know how very interested you are in the minutiae of my life, let me just mention that this is the first blog post I've been able to do completely from home, having finally gotten my place wired on Saturday.  It's fabulous.)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

16-Year-Old Protester Killed as Bahrain Uprising Turns 2

It's hard to believe that a year ago, I was in Bahrain. I haven't had time or strength to write anything about that, but wanted to share this update from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. It's so sad that one year later, people are still being killed by the regime in their freedom struggle. Yet inspiring that they continue to rise unabated. When people say, "Well, no wonder the Occupy/Decolonize movement died down, look at how violently it was repressed," I can't help thinking of the Bahrainis. According to the NYT blog, at least 88 people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising two years ago today. Bahrain's population is roughly equivalent to that of the city of San Francisco. What if 88 Occupy protesters had been killed? And our government continues to arm to Bahraini monarchy.

All I can say to my Bahraini friends is, I continue to be amazed and inspired by you all.



February 14 Summary
of an

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights Releases below a summary report of the first major day of protests to mark the second anniversary of the pro-democracy movement. At the time of writing, major protests are still ongoing through the night in Bahrain. European arms are assisting in the brutal repression that already claimed the life of one young, unarmed and peaceful protester today.


Date: 14 February 2013

(Bahrain) – The human rights situation is rapidly deteriorating in Bahrain on the second anniversary of the pro-democracy movement. Security forces in full riot gear have swarmed the streets with armored vehicles and helicopters; many streets are filled with tear gas. The government’s response has been, throughout the day, wildly out of proportion to the largely peaceful demonstrations.

Since the earliest hours of the day around dawn, protesters took to the streets in large numbers, groups of hundreds gathered in all parts of the country, the vast majority of which were peaceful. Protesters have established roadblocks of their own to prevent riot police from driving at high speed into the villages. The security forces used consistently excessive and disproportionate force against protesters across Bahrain throughout the day.


Photo: Hussain Al-Jazeeri photos

Due to the culture of impunity being practiced by Bahrain authorities and the continued use of excessive force, a 16 year-old protester, Hussain Ali Al-Jazeeri, died this morning as a result of a close-range direct hit from a police officer’s shotgun to his abdominal area which led to sever lung injury & pneumothorax. He was shot while he was peacefully protesting in the area of Daih. There is no evidence that AlJaziri was representing any kind of threat to the policeman who fired on him and killed him. Al-Jazeeri died in the ambulance before reaching the hospital. This video shows the medic who was trying to rescue Al-Jaziri in the ambulance ( ). The Bahraini riot police continue to use the birdshots against the peaceful protests in Bahrain even after 2 years, during which dozens were killed with shotgun, including the first man who was killed on Feb 14, 2011, Ali Mushiama.

Photo : Above : Shotgun Injuries, Below: Extensive use of Teargas

Dozens of injuries were documented today, including tear gas suffocation, shotgun pellet injuries, fractures and bruises. The number of shotgun pellets injuries have rapidly increased today. Many of those injuries were in vital areas of the body including the face and chest.

Photo : A protestor getting arrested.

The Bahrain authorities arbitrarily arrested a number of peaceful protesters during the day. In an attempt to prevent information on human rights abuses from spreading; agency photojournalists Mazen Mahdi (DPA), Hassan Jamali (FP) and Mohammed Al-Shaikh (AP) were arrested this morning while they were covering the protests despite the fact that they have valid ID; they were released several hours later without any explanation of why they were arrested.

Due to the fact that there are many protests organized during the night and in the coming days, the BCHR fears that the escalation of the violations will continue. The security forces continued the widespread use of pellet shotguns, despite the fatality that occurred this morning.

The birdshot canisters, which were found on site where AlJaziri was killed today, are from Cyprus Victory Starlight cartridges. In other areas, Italian manufactured weapon (Benelli M4 Super 90 shotgun) and German-owned South African Tear Gas canisters were spotted as being used against protesters.

The BCHR also calls on the United States, the United Kingdom, the UN and all other allies and international institutions to put pressure on the Government of Bahrain to stop its use of excessive force in response to the continued peaceful protests, and to consider a meaningful solution to resolve the persistent political issues of instability in the country.

The BCHR calls on the European Governments and other ally Governments to Bahrain to stop supplying the government of Bahrain with arms that are used against peaceful protesters, which cause severe injury and death among them.

Read more in BCHR two-year anniversary report:

Deaths and Detentions:
Documenting Human Rights Abuses During the Pro-Democracy Movement in Bahrain

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Strong to the Finnish - Commies and Finns and Jews, O My!

A couple months ago I heard a guy named Michael Kazin interviewed on the radio.  He’d written a book about how left-wing movements in the United States, despite appearances of having failed dismally at most of what they tried to accomplish, actually significantly influenced the politics and culture of the nation.  I was skeptical – don’t we have the most entrenched plutocracy in history, with skyrocketing inequality, deep-seated racism and widespread misery mitigated only by our position as a global empire with unprecedented firepower and technology?  Nonetheless, I thought the book would cheer me up and I had an Amazon gift card to use so I bought it.

American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation was interesting but of course practically every chapter ended with “They failed to realize their goals but did have a social impact,” which for me blunted the feel-good experience I was hoping to have.  The main lesson I drew from it was that nearly all mass left-wing movements in this country have sprung from immigrant or African American communities.  That in turn made me reflect on how effectively the U.S. elite was from the beginning and remains to this day able to substitute white racial solidarity for class solidarity across racial lines.  (That has made me watch with new enthusiasm the increasing militancy and effective action of the Dreamers and other immigrant organizers.)

But leaving aside that sweeping generalization, by far the most interesting piece of information in the book was this:  In 1923, 40% of the membership of the Communist Party of the United States were Finnish – the largest ethnic component with about 7000 members.

Huh?  What about the received wisdom that the core of the Party were Jews?

Well, timing is everything, for one.  In the late twenties, about half the Party membership was Jewish, a fact apparently lamented by the leadership, which felt that would keep it from developing an “American” identity.  To counter that problem, says Kazin, no Jew was ever elected to lead the national party in its heyday.  There was a Finnish general secretary – Gus Hall (born Arvo Gustav Halberg).  (As it happens, just before reading the Kazin book I read the autobiography of Peggy Dennis (born Regina Karasick), who told the story of how Hall finagled to assume the leadership over the dying body of her husband, Eugene Dennis (she was Jewish, he wasn’t).)  There was, apparently, in the twenties, something of a battle between Jews and Finns for the soul (or for control) of the Party.

That aside, I didn’t even know there were 7000 Finns in the U.S. in 1923.  In fact, I never thought about there being a Finnish community at all, though why would there not be?  I started reading up on them.  In the process I found out most of what I thought I knew about Finland and its neighbors was false.

Before I started, what I knew about Finland was:

They have the “best school system” (whatever that means) in the world.  They provide free meals at school and kids don’t learn to read until they’re seven.  About two-thirds of kids go to college and only the top 10% of college students get to become teachers.  (That stuff is true, as far as I know.)

They speak an idiosyncratic language unrelated to any other European language (false: it’s related to Estonian, Hungarian and some other Baltic languages like Livonian, Votic, Karelian, Veps, and Ingrian).
The scene in the movie “Reds” where Diane Keaton scales snow-covered cliffs to crawl over the Finnish border into the Soviet Union was historically inaccurate.

Here’s what I learned from my research:

Sweden – known for its excellent health care and social welfare programs, home of the Right Livelihood Award and Ingmar Berman, was a major and pretty vicious imperial power from the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries.  Swedish crusaders invaded Finland on their way to Russia, and for four centuries frequently battled Russia, and sometimes Poland and Denmark as well, for control over Finland and other parts of the Baltic.  Sweden moved settlers into southern and western Finland, and the kings gave land grants to their allies in Finland’s coastal areas, thus creating a Swedish-speaking Finnish elite.

The Swedish empire lost big during the Napoleonic wars, and Sweden ceded Finland to Russia, which controlled it until Lenin recognized Finland’s independence in December 1917.  The Russian general strike and attempted socialist revolution of 1905 had a counterpart in Finland.  Some Finnish socialists made their way to the U.S. in the aftermath of that revolution, as did some Russian Jewish socialists.  Others fled to escape increasing conscription into the Tsar’s army – the same threat which brought my grandfather to this country.

In 1906, the Tsar implemented some reforms in efforts to forestall future uprisings.  One of those established the Finnish national Parliament and the Finns insisted that it be elected through universal suffrage, making it the second country (after New Zealand) to give women the right to vote.

The period between 1870 and 1930 is known as the “Great Migration” of Finns to North America.  They concentrated in the upper Midwest, especially Michigan, where they currently constitute 16% of the population of the Upper Peninsula.  There’s a television show broadcast there called “Finland Calling.”

Many became mineworkers and steelworkers, and they were heavily organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  When 160 IWW activists, including Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood were arrested and charged with treason during World War I, five of the defendants were Finns.

The Finnish Socialist Federation (FSF) affiliated with the Socialist Party in 1908, at which time they made up 12% of the Party’s members nationwide.  In 1922, the FSF (later the Finnish Workers Federation) changed its allegiance to the Communist Party, which was then called the Workers’ Party.

The U.S. government, at the deportation trial of labor organizer John Swan, introduced the argument that Finns were actually related to Mongolians, therefore were subject to the Asian Exclusion Act.

After the Russian Revolution, about 10,000 “Red Finns” left the United States and Canada to settle in Finnish areas of the Soviet Union.

Not actually Berkeley - it's Butte, Montana
courtesy drbutoni
In the first half of the twentieth century, the West Berkeley area around University and San Pablo was known as Finntown. There never were really that many Finns there – only about 650 at its peak, but they built institutions including the Finnish Hall at Tenth and Addison, where we used to hold various radical meetings in the 1980s.  Finns also started the Berkeley Consumers’ Cooperative Stores, which when I moved to Berkeley in 1980 had four massive stores (down from a high of twelve) – groceries at Shattuck and Cedar (now Andronico’s), Ashby and Telegraph (now Whole Foods), University and California (now vacant, after sojourns as Living Foods and I can't remember what other chain) and a hardware store on University.

Famous Finnish Americans include actors Matt Damon and Christine Lahti (whose grandmother, Augusta Lahti, was an early American feminist), Clan of the Cave Bear author Jean Auel, and Dr. Amy Kaukonen, who in 1921 became the first woman elected mayor of an Ohio town (Fairport).