Saturday, July 14, 2007

We Don't Bowl Together

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, began research on diversity nearly six years ago. He announced some initial findings in 2001 but the announcement was mostly ignored. This year, his findings on diversity were partially delivered in a lecture republished in Scandinavian Political Studies (full text available here), a rather small journal. The findings were, to say the least, controversial. Conventional thinking about diversity in the United States could have been wrong for several years.

The basics of the finding were simple but shocking. Diversity, defined here as heterogeneous ethnicity, had some surprising findings. Putnam claimed immigration-fueled diversity enhanced creativity, rapid economic growth in the developed world, and mild economic improvements in the developing world. Despite these positives, Putnam claimed diversity hurts the development of strong social networks or “social capital.” Diverse societies had less social capital in the short-term but diversity enhanced a society as individuals create new identities in the long-term.

The layperson tends to base diversity on “contact theory,” the idea of setting up encounters between different people would improve inter-group trust. Empirical data disagrees with this theory and supports “conflict theory.” Identity markers tend to change our attitudes about different people, particularly our out-group attitudes. The most dramatic example is the Stanford Prison Experiment (detailed in The Lucifer Effect, the most chilling book of the year). The Stanford Prison Experiment used mostly people of the same race and degenerated into severe mistrust and eventual abuse at the hands of “normal kids.” Heterogeneity creates more negative out-group attitudes but that was only part of the story, particularly if a researcher looks at race.

Ethnically heterogeneous communities are more likely to default on loans, allow infrastructure deterioration, raise fewer voluntary donations, invest in fewer public goods, and distrust others socially. People in heterogeneous communities are less likely to practice reciprocity in contrived situations like “the prisoner’s dilemma” or bona fide situations like carpooling. The lack of social trust and reciprocity in heterogeneous societies goes beyond distrust of others but heterogeneous societies also foster distrust in the in-group dynamics. In sum, heterogeneity lowers trust in the short-term.
Putnam found distrust cut across virtually all meaningful barriers and discovered few statistically significant factors that influenced the data. Large cities are no more trusting than small towns, the old and young are about the same, women and men are equally trusting, and red states are the same as blue states. Poverty causes some differences in the expression of trust but the level of trust but the level of trust was not different. Studies of government resources like parks or libraries as a factor, the “potholes-to-playgrounds ratio,” finds more of these resources in heterogeneous communities and government negligence is eliminated as a statistically significant factor. Conservatives are more likely to distrust than liberals but the level of distrust was still significant among liberals. The difference between liberals and conservatives may be due to self-reporting issues with liberals less likely to admit distrust of other ethnic groups.

The result of distrust in Putnam’s view was not conflict but withdrawal from community life. Putnam called this “constrict theory” but cutely described it as “turtling.” People tend to avoid social life, engage in fewer civic organizations, and feel more helpless in their community. “Race wars” were improbable in the study but declining social capital motivated de facto segregation. The helpless and isolation people felt could be solved by one thing; moving. Oddly enough, previous research demonstrated phenomena like “white flight” began with people claiming to be the most trusting of other races.

Is diversity all bad? Putnam’s slow release of the findings (he claims the rest of the findings will be published later) was believed to conceal the hidden agenda of protecting diversity programs. Some conservative critics of the diversity movement have claim this as evidence against the dogmatism of diversity. The problem with the political views of diversity is the demand that diversity programs be weighed as good or bad. The study demonstrates that diversity costs social capital and, like all capital exchanges, we should evaluate the benefits against the cost. Conservative objections to diversity ignore the benefits (and due to immigration, inevitability) of diversity. Liberals may need to concede diversity’s inherent value as higher than other costs. Instead of a good/bad problem, the better question is; “Is diversity worth the cost?”

The university is the hardest place to crack because universities are financially committed to diversity. Many public schools foster programs, offices, and employees to teach and protect diversity. These programs are based on the debunked contact theory and have little incentive (or legal leeway) to change. Years of legal wrangling to prevent discrimination has resulted in some progress but also a great deal of backlash. Even left wing people have pointed out that universities could learn from Putnam’s shining example; the U.S. Army.

World War II vets were an exception to the contact hypothesis, with mixed units having more positive feelings about desegregating the army than all-white units. The rule returned with high rates of inter-racial fragging in Vietnam. In the 30-years since, members of the military tend to have more heterogeneous friends than civilians. Putnam is unable to explain the change but believes this institution could indicate a direction for the rest of us. He claims military folks have a sense of shared identity that extends beyond race. It is one theory and requires greater study.

One possible solution for the university is “school spirit,” a new identity that people could use above race. School spirit could enhance the conflict theory between schools but could improve the climate on individual campuses. Studies have shown that people are more likely to donate money to a university if they felt “connected” while at school. The problem with this theory is that schools already spend a lot of time and money raising school spirit and the method of connection. Events like pep rallies, football games, and spirit weeks are expensive to promote and hold. Schools that want to increase diversity may need to weigh the costs of promoting school spirit.

Despite conservative comments, Putnam’s study doesn’t call for the elimination of programs like women’s studies or African-American studies. These programs may facilitate turtling but it’s unclear if these programs cause turtling. People without these programs tend to feel threatened, enhancing backlash and apathy toward the results of conflict like discrimination. Diversity is valuable but we may need a different approach to discrimination than contact theory.

If the Senate can accept other religions, can all Americans do it?

On Friday, for the first time in its 218-year history, the United States Senate invited a Hindu cleric to lead the Senate in its usual opening prayer - and this time, all 100 Senate members followed Mr. Rajan Zed in saying a simple Hindu prayer, despite the arrival of protesters who opposed Zed's presence.

The full text of the prayer was released by the Congressional Record, and seems fairly nondenominational to me. The following words seem to me as though they could be a prayer applying to any faith:
Let us pray. We meditate on the transcendental Glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky, and inside the soul of the Heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds.

Lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening. May no obstacle arise between us.

May the Senators strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world, performing their duties with the welfare of others always in mind, because by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. May they work carefully and wisely, guided by compassion and without thought for themselves.

United your resolve, united your hearts, may your spirits be as one, that you may long dwell in unity and concord.

Peace, peace, peace be unto all. Lord, we ask You to comfort the family of former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Amen.
All was not well, however: conservative Christian groups were in uproar; some even came to the Senate to protest. Reverend Flip Benham, head of the group Operation Save America, released a press release about the incident, saying that the Senate "was violated by a false Hindu god. The Senate was opened with a Hindu prayer placing the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the One True God, Jesus Christ. This would never have been allowed by our Founding Fathers. Not one Senator had the backbone to stand as our Founding Fathers stood. They stood on the Gospel of Jesus Christ!"

Three protesters tried to shout down Zed as he led the prayer, yelling things like "This is an abomination!" and "We are Christians and patriots!" All three were arrested and charged with disrupting Congress. But it is very disheartening to see the degree of intolerance that some people in America have towards others, despite all the progress we thought we had made.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, summed it up best. He said that the protest "shows the intolerance of many religious right activists. They say they want more religion in the public square, but it's clear they mean only their religion."

To me, this whole incident seems to beg the question: is prayer appropriate in the Senate anymore? The Senate has been opening each morning for 218 years with a prayer. But in today's increasingly diverse and secular society, this may have become an outdated custom that needs to be changed. America may have been built by a group of people who happened to be Christians, but today, we are not a Christian nation; we are a secular nation that is supposed to be welcoming and tolerant of all faiths. If we truly want separation of church and state, doing away with prayers in Congress altogether would be the right move; however, welcoming in a clergyman of another faith - if only for a day - is at least a good step in the direction of religious tolerance. Will we see a Muslim cleric next? I can only imagine the protests against that would be much worse, sadly...

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), himself a Mormon, should be applauded for inviting Zed to the Senate. He defended his decision after the protesters had been removed, saying: "If people have any misunderstanding about Indians and Hindus," Reid said, "all they have to do is think of Gandhi," a man "who gave his life for peace. I think it speaks well of our country that someone representing the faith of about a billion people comes here and can speak in communication with our heavenly Father regarding peace."

It is a big step for the US Senate to invite a clergyman of another faith, a faith that is foreign to most Americans, into their chambers and allow him to lead them in prayer. It is one way in which the Senate has actually been able to stand as a shining example to the rest of America, at a time when Congress's approval ratings are low. If the Senate can be this tolerant and accepting of other faiths, is the rest of America not far behind? I hope so.

WAY awesome Bangladeshi kids (OR: Community Power and the Domestic Sphere, if that's more your style)

Utterly swamped with work over the past couple days, I hate that I left whatever readership the fledgling blog (can I call it a blogling?) has acquired at this point on a bit of a hiatus. But someone's got to make sure that crazy people don't become the Surgeon General. All the worse, I left y'all on a down note with the post on domestic violence. But fear not, I'm back and I have good news.

In an incontrovertible display of badassery, local Bangladeshi children intervened to stop one of their classmates from being forced into marriage by her father.

Classmates of a 13-year-old Bangladeshi school girl due to enter a forced marriage have united to stop the ceremony going ahead, police say.

Around 50 pupils in the town of Satkhira took to the streets to demand that Habiba Sultana's wedding be called off, they say.

Pupils even submitted a petition to police urging them to take action.

Apparently, the police actually acted on the demands of the children. After summoning the father and ordering him to cancel the marriage, they forced him to sign a bond in which he agreed not to wed his daughter while she was still a child. Child marriages are illegal in Bangladesh.

Though I certainly don't want to be read as saying that arranged marriages are morally equivalent to domestic abuse, I think there are grounds for comparison between what went right in this instance and what so frequently goes wrong in addressing domestic violence through the courts in the United States (see the post below for more on that).

In both instances, a powerful male is enabled by familial power dynamics to exert nearly uninterrupted power within the home. The article about Sultana notes that she did not resist the marriage herself because she was too afraid. Fear of violent reprisal from the abuser is a frequently cited reason for not resisting domestic violence - and a good one: women who attempt to fight with or flee from their abuser are more likely to be seriously injured or killed.

What makes all the difference in countering male power in the domestic sphere is the existence of a community power structure that women and children can access. The United States' divorce and custody courts, as the past article showed, are all too frequently not part of such a power structure. When they decide not to investigate claims of abuse, they cut off women and children from the possibility of intervention and leave the abusers power unchallenged. What went right in Bangladesh was that the police were willing to do just the opposite (although under considerable pressure - 50 of anyone at your local police station, even 13-year-old children would be difficult to ignore). But that also goes to show the importance of informal community power dynamics in protecting victims of mistreatment within the home. Because Sultana could relay her fear about her father and the marriage to her classmates, they could intervene on her behalf. Ultimately, what made the community power structure a benefit to Sultana, rather than the hindrance that community and state power structures so frequently are, is that there was synergy between Sultana's immediate social network and the state agency, which made the police susceptible to the demands of the community.

I think the moral of this story may well be the (not terribly surprising) revelation that democratic community power structures can alleviate domestic violence by permitting women and children to seek interventions which balance out the inegalitarian power relationships of the domestic sphere. Letting bureaucrats and judges make top-down decisions without any accountability simply doesn't give women and children the stake in the system that they need. So democratization all the way down, all around. (Though all said I'm not entirely thrilled by imagining a world where you can get your abuse claims promptly investigated but only provided you can marshal a batallion of angry women to kick ass at the courthouse). So that's the moral if your a theory hack anyway. A less academic lesson is simply that those kids are made of 100% awesome, and its always uplifting to see young people organizing to give power to the powerless. I hope their parents are proud.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Defending What's Theirs: Men, Control, and Custody

Marrie Tessler, of Woman's eNews, has written a piece on the legal obstacles that keep children in the custody of abusive parents. It reads like an article pulled from any newswire, dryly relating the research on each side of the issue, but the unadorned prose still packs an immense emotional wallop derived entirely from the unsettling facts.

It opens with this claim: "Research indicates that abusers seek sole custody more often than nonviolent parents, and they succeed about 70 percent of the time."

At first I was shocked. But there is really nothing surprising about that sentence. The psychological research that has been done one abusers makes one thing clear - control is at the center of the abusive mentality. The two most common types of abusers are "cyclically emotional volatile perpetrators" and "over-controlled perpetrators." The latter group seeks to maintain control in the family, and utilizes psychological abuse more often than physical violence. The former develop emotional dependency on their victim, but (possibly as a reaction to an actual or perceived inability to maintain attachment) experience intense feelings of shame, fear, abandonment and anger toward the victim which are dispelled through acts of violent aggression. These are the abusers most likely to display contrition between violent episodes. They are also the most likely to commit violence of escalating severity with each cycle.

The possessive, controlling and emotionally dependent nature of the abuser would explain the increased likelihood to fight for sole custody of the child. And the abusers often win, because courts are unwilling to spend the time or money to investigate claims of abuse:

"It's very common for people to make recommendations in child protective cases and child custody litigation without ever looking at clinical evidence of child abuse, spouse abuse or trauma," says Robert A. Geffner, who directs the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego's Alliant International University.

It is disturbing how little voice women and children have in our judicial system when the demands of expediency in resolution issued by men suing for sole custody can convince a judge to ignore the likely fact they will be sentencing a child to spend the remainder of her or his youth in the care of a pathological abuser. The need to standardize judicial procedures for investigating abuse claims is apparent. But as the article points out, moves by "fathers' rights" activists oppose much of the legal work being done in that area, claiming that it unfairly puts fathers on the defensive when claims of abuse surface. Even when children themselves are willing to testify - often an excruciating experience that entails reliving the shame, degradation and physical pain of abuse - some are discredited based on the APA-rejected theory of "parental alienation syndrome", which holds that mothers brainwash their children to testify against their fathers.

This bizarre rhetoric underlies the proprietary lens through which many men view family: as an acquired signifier of social status or achievement, which he has a right to maintain control of once he has labored to build or earn it, as though familial bonds were governed by some twisted Lockean scheme of patriarchal acquisition. The data on abusers points toward such a mindset. Consider the psychological profiles, in which men feel embarrassed or hurt at their lack of attachment to their family. Whether or not this is consciously viewed as an injustice akin to theft of property, the violent response suggests an active desire to reassert the level of attachment that the male perceives to be proper. That men who control more of a family's income than their spouse are more likely to commit violence verifies that the concepts of ownership, input, desert and power have places in the psychology of abusers, as does the fact that men who are dissatisfied with their perceived power in relationships are more likely to commit abuse. The overlapping issues of economic power, emotional dependency, attachment and control that underly abusive relationships suggest that patriarchal conceptions of property and family are perfectly relevant to the intractable problem of domestic violence.

Moreover, the intervention of "fathers' rights" activists reminds us of a crucial fact that can never be understated in discussing abuse: most abusers are men. One commenter on Alternet accuses the article of spreading "the same old anti-father lies that we've been hearing for years", and angrily objects that "the abusers are not only men." And the second part, at least, is true. Domestic abuse is a crucial issue no matter who commits it. But a well-regulated and consistent process for investigating abuse would not do anything to hurt men, and would, in fact only help men who were living with abusive women.

Meanwhile, the reverse-victimization rhetoric employed by many men obscures the facts that violence is overwhelmingly committed by men against women and children, and that women are more likely to be economically dependent on the male abuser and thus less able to flee with their child. The response of men to the domestic violence that their gender overwhelmingly commits cannot be defensiveness, nor can it be to make clutches for legal power to silence the claims of women and children. It seems ridiculous to state that rule bluntly, but when men respond to the violence that results from their desire for familial control by reasserting their desire for legal control, I feel that it has to be said.

Via Alternet.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

AgriAmericanism: Deconstructing Development

Nezua's post at Feministe is an exemplary exercise in bandito fusion philosophy, splicing proletariat outrage with dead-eyed analysis of the interlocking systems and mindsets that keep the machine running. As he lays out his wrath on the McDonald's-industrial complex he spares no cog its comeuppance, checking off each complicit part like a name on a hit-list: the corporations that peddle biased consumption manuals to public schools in lieu of textbooks, the policy-makers who won't shell out enough for said schools to afford anything else, the culture of competition that crowns greed, the government that subsidizes corporate obesity-mills and watches the health system sink, and the bloody carnivorism of the meat industry (in case you haven't been paying attention – meat is still murder).

And yet for all of the indubitably righteous fire he spits, Nezua still lets agribusiness off easy. The crooks he's out to expose are not just profiting from the deaths of American animals (non-human and otherwise), but also from the starvation of the world's poor. The very lexicon of economic development is an arsenal of loaded words, all triggers squeezed tightly by the white-collar kings of multinational capitalism. Think about the measures of economic development used by the World Bank, the IMF. They ask us to observe GNPs per capita, population stability, labor force structures, urbanization, consumption per capita, infrastructure – rhetorically constructing a metric of evaluation where the amount of money generated, or in the best cases, how it is made and distributed, is all we need to know to see if a country is “growing”.

But what about hunger? Is it possible we have built systems, repeatedly cited studies, that claim to measure material progress without even ensuring that the basic material necessities are accessible? Most frequently, GNP per capita is the end of the discussion. The UN's Human Development Index at least factors in life expectancy, which would result in some indirect acknowledgment that malnourishment and starvation are not signs of a healthy economy. Even the most progressive measures of development tend to include “caloric intake” only at the end of a long list of social conditions. But caloric intake doesn't venture to ask what is being eaten – how many billions are malnourished even as their country “develops”? In India, the middle class was growing and multinational fast food providers were making a killing – all evidenced by the blossoming fast food industry, which was growing at a voracious annual rate of 40% as 2005 approached. Yet through those trends over 25% of India's population was malnourished. That number had remained disturbingly consistent throughout the past decade.

Even when some of that developing dough does trickle down to the pockets of the poor, malnourishment isn't staved off. In much of the global South, fruits, vegetables and other sources of vital nutrients are luxury items for the wealthy. This is because the agribusinesses that buy up huge proportions of the arable land in the developing world export their products to the lucrative markets in developed nations, leaving only enough behind for choice consumers to bid for. During the Irish Potato Famine, Ireland was still sending wheat and grain to England. During the 1984 famine, Ethiopia was shipping green beans to Great Britain. The structures of colonial domination have ossified, not withered, under globalization, their durability a distressing testament to the uninterrupted history of exploitation that is still being written.

The huge amount of food, and especially meat, that Americans eat takes a toll on the world, just like our European compatriots in neo-colonialism. Foreign agribusinesses make a convincing investment for the developing world – they need the big ticket revenue to pay back their debts. And oftentimes, their unwanted competition is impossible to eschew: there are political and economic costs for the opponents of neo-liberalism's fetish for open borders. Large scale production sees agribusinesses purchasing arable land in hectares, out of the hands of local farmers who could grow vital crops to feed their countrymen. Instead, the vast majority of the land is used to grow feed for short-lived livestock headed for American slaughterhouses. Agribiz giants like Monsanto and Cargill claim to be bringing business opportunities to farmers in the developing world. But if the political economy of agriculture is such that there is no market for affordable, nutritious food in the workers' country, then the scant wages handed down to them are even less likely to add up to proper food on the dinner table. The dominance of feed production in Third World agriculture is a deathtrap, solidifying the structures of starvation so that the ever-increasing First World demands for dairy, poultry, eggs, and meat can be satisfied. Monsanto made billions marketing fodder plants to poor farmers in the developing world. How many mouths did they feed?

The economic discourse on food politics still favors overlooking the factors that matter. Monsanto expects accolades for decrying the fall in global food production (despite their careful cultivation of the feed market's eclipse of the food market), proposing to export its bio-foods as a solution. But what good does food production do if the food must be exported immediately? If too few farmers own land independently of agribusiness, how can they hope to take advantage of miracle crops? The solution to starvation is not to make a global underclass of poor who barely subsist on FrankenFoods meant to obscure the inhuman results of multinational exploitation. The solution is to empower local farmers to produce the food their malnourished nations need. Protecting local agriculture from multinational meddling is crucial, as is encouraging governments to prioritize measures like decreases in starvation and malnourishment over GNP. Such a solution would only be feasible if the giant debts that much of the developing world labors under are lifted.

Forget Fast Food Nation. This is Fast Food Empire, agri-imperialism with millions of casualties. The equitable participation of people in their own economies, and the equitable distribution of goods by those economies cannot be achieved in the developing world so long as our machinations for McWorld domination continue to take economic self-determination off the table. The political process must be part of this battleground, the opposition to NAFTA, CAFTA, the WTO, and the maintenance of debt must grow into alliance that will not indulge at the expense of the world's starving poor. But in influencing corporate politics our wallets are our ballots. We must change our habits of consumption, refusing to patronize fast-food, rejecting the meat industry – hitting agri-business where it hurts. And we must rework the lexical Orwellianism of development rhetoric: record “development” and stagnant rates of malnourishment should never be coexistent, as they were so recently in India and are in so many countries. We must demand a humanitarian development of discourse that takes the material improvement of lives and the fostering of human capacities and freedoms as its central task. The economic engines of the developing world can longer be fetishized at the expense of those they serve.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Talk About Talk

A new study from the University of Arizona, published in every newspaper and wire service, claims men and women talk the same amount. Reports and headlines everywhere claim that the “chatty wife and taciturn man” myth was dead like Apollo pulling the sun across the sky. The study finds “no significant statistical difference between men and women” but found a large gap between the most chatty and least chatty.

Deborah Tannen, claiming the new study lacks qualitative analysis of contexts, could help explain the results. Differences in the communication between men could help explain the similar quantitative results with different qualities. Men tend to use communication as status-holding, independence asserting, and competitive behavior. Women use communication to gain support, intimacy, and consensus. The basic analogy is the difference between war and negotiation. The latter seems to require more communication but war requires propaganda, counter-propaganda, strategizing, campaigning, orders, and false transmissions in addition to diplomatic and political communication. High competition requires each person to communicate in order to jockey for status. The context, for both men and women, is important in the study of communication and that should be the focus of the story.

While the study makes an interesting piece of information in attempting to understand men and women, we should consider a few caveats. First, the lab setting is placed as an objection. The samples were taken in different years, with different subjects, and with one sample coming from Mexico. Results from each sample were similar across time and space. Laboratory measures may affect some participants but the lab setting will not affect participants in the same way. Finding a repeated pattern across samples tends to indicate the lab setting was not a factor in this study.

Second, we should consider the previous studies. A study based on self-report will have problems in reporting. People often adjust their responses to fit a perception of themselves or to project an image to the researcher. Some people may alter a self-report to seem “normal” while others might change the data to seem “special.” If all the readers in blog-land want to find contrary studies, be sure to check if the method is self-report rather than recordings. Researchers can make errors but the tapes rarely lie.

The most important caveat is the age of the subjects. This study used college students and that is the most interesting piece of data. Pronouncements that women talk more than men might be premature because the age of participants is fairly uniform. Empirically, the study proves college-aged men talk the same as college-aged women. This study, like most studies released by colleges, tends to have limited research dealing with people outside of the university. Odds are good that many of these students were undergraduate volunteers looking for extra credit in a communication class, the most common subject we gather at Arizona State University for communication studies.

This new could indicate many things rather than disproving conventional wisdom. First, this could indicate behavior among college students as opposed to the general population. A college male could have a different view of communication than a male outside of college. The number of men currently enrolled in college against the general population is a rather small number. Second, we should consider the status of college men. If men tend to view society as a competition, college-men are engaged in a high-competition environment, battling for jobs, sexual partners, grades, and other things. College environments, for all the talk of the democratic classroom, encourage competition and this would allow males to perform highly. By contrast, women in this environment may be more reticent than their counterparts outside of college. Women tend to talk less than men at the workplace, something Tannen believes comes from the desire for women to avoid open opposition. Third, we could see this as a generational shift. The quiet man is slowly being replaced by the communicative man. The future professional woman might learn the power of withholding information.

A man talking the same amount as women has little political advantage for anyone when discussed in quantitative terms. The content of communication is more compelling than the number of words discussed. The new study confirmed one stereotype; men talked more about things and women talked more about people. We should be careful about the findings of a study. The study might be intact and valid but the implications will be up for grabs. Implications, in Aristotle’s terms, are the artistic additions to the inartistic proof of statistical data. The study may be dialectic but the news reporting is rhetoric and we should not confuse the counterparts.

This Ain't Your Parents' Student Movement

I just found out about a seemingly-awesome evening class on student activism to be hosted tonight by the Institute for Policy Studies' SALSA program for organizers. I don't think I have time tonight, but I'll certainly keep my eyes (and schedule, inasmuch as I can) for upcoming events and courses. Invigorating student movements is certainly a project I sympathize with, if only because I see it as a crucial part of the success of so many other social justice projects. And part of my motivation is, admittedly, a little cross-generational peer pressure. Every so often I hear today's youth movements compared (unfavorably) to the heroic rebels who marched against imperialism in the era of Vietnam. Where are our marches? Where's our rage? Our unity? Our impatience for peace? Speaking as a proud student activist at the Brown of the Midwest, whose academic adviser spent the sixties at Berkeley, I've often wished that my fellow classmates would put down their books and beer cans long enough to make some noise with me.

But thinking a little harder, its pretty difficult for me to feel bad about my generation. We're politically progressive and almost casually multicultural. This isn't to say that injustice and difference are behind us, just that we're dealing with them head on. In my opinion, the politics of student activism have changed.

One major shift has been the emergence of identity politics. Many powerful and effective student groups have taken to advocating against material and cultural inequalities as they effect specific sub-sections of the population. Queer students organize against discrimination, black students for inner-city revitalization, Latinas and Latinos for immigration reform, women for reproductive freedom, and multicultural alliances of many types for the acknowledgment and reversal of the institutionalized privilege enjoyed by wealthy white heterosexual men. There are also environmentalists, students concerned with local poverty and homelessness, students fighting for humanitarianism in Darfur. These movements are certainly large, but don't have the built-in constituency of identitarian movements. With so many options, students are presented with a hyper-market of causes to choose from, reflecting the consumption patterns we learned from Ebay, shopping malls, and

I am skeptical of my activist elders who advise modern student activists to turn away from identity politics and produce a truly united front. Typically, people who take this tact tend to tout a "real issue", and state that the solution to "real issue" will bring with it the answer to all of the (ostensibly, comparatively minor) issues that distract us from the "real issue". For some, the "real issue" is class, for others, the war. I refuse to believe that there is any comprehensible way to compare the saliency of a foreign genocide, an institutionally racist legal and economic system, and a broken and often inhumane immigration policy. I do believe that the perceived saliency of each issue is inseparable from a given activists experience, privilege and identity, and would be very skeptical of, say, a white environmentalist telling black students to ignore inner-city poverty and focus on the "real issue" of global warming. Which is not to say that calls for united action must come from people blind to institutional inequalities. No less a champion of human dignity against institutions that rob poor people and minorities of life-chances than Jonathan Kozol once expressed his frustration with the "intellectual promiscuity of the Left", which he saw as frustrating the idealistic energies of activist youth.

I do think that those who ask us to depart from identity politics as though it were easy (or even possible) forget that student anti-war activism in the days of Vietnam was a form of identity politics for many. Students and young people were the one's being asked to risk their lives for America's quixotic venture. And they responded together, "Hell no, we won't go!" They saw their own faces on the bodies of young men and women returning lifeless to American shores. In short, they knew that the looming threat of Vietnam was most acute for them, that of all Americans they would disproportionately bear the cost.

Examples of broad-based, mass-mobilization student movements can still be found today. Very recently, student activists in Chile have marched against the General Law of Education, a policy that, in its current incarnation, provides public funds for exclusive schools with selection processes that are not transparent. Student activists have called this a publicly-funded private school system, one which guarantees that asks for public money to provide an education for the most privileged Chileans, while leaving many (predominantly poor and minority students) out. Here the student movement is clearly centered around an issue that effects students-qua-students, or at least young-people-qua-young-people, much in the way that Vietnam did.

So should student activists rally around student issues in the United States? Perhaps. There have been successful organizing efforts at Carleton to restore need-blind admissions in the interest of a more class-egalitarian admissions process. Such movements show, at the very least, students privileged enough to be at school with consciousness enough to challenge the structures that they are, in many cases, benefiting from. I would not be disappointed to see (or hesitant to join in) a concerted push for strong affirmative action policies. But affirmative action is still incredibly divisive. Overwhelmingly popular with people of color (70% of blacks favor it, 63% of Hispanics) but supported by a minority of whites (49%), the issue would not have universal appeal. The relative homogeneity of Vietnam-era campuses may have facilitated mobilization that students did not have the experience in coalition-building to address, but any student pushing for a broad-based movement today must have the ability to address student difference as well as wax eloquent about student unity.

In the end, I would hesitate to say students are apathetic merely because they don't protest as loud as frequently as their heritage might suggest they should. Today's students activists work internships, network online, distribute their own media through Web 2.0. They attend conferences with like-minded students. They lobby, door-knock, fund raise, and organize events for others to do the same. They educate, by blogging and mailing and postering. For many students, activism is a full-time commitment. Rather than making history with marches, they dedicate themselves to long campaigns of education, research, constituency-building, and concerted political pressure. In these types of campaigns, mass mobilization is but one weapon in the arsenal, a sometimes-snack for the media when the movement needs exposure (or for the activists themselves when they need a big event to generate energy within). It is too their credit that they do not fetishize the unruly, sign-waving mass of demonstrators, but instead pursue innovative ways of making change.

This might sound too optimistic, so I'll note in closing that I'm not perfectly content with the state of student activism. I would like to see more unity between student activists, but I don't think that end is reached by finding a code-issue or getting a whole lot of people to show up at a single event. What I would like to see, in terms of unity, is the solidarity of students willing to appreciate and contribute to the struggles of others. Networks between anti-war students, anti-racists, anti-capitalists, anti-sexists, and all others working against the varied forms of domination that define the social field would have rich benefits for the strategies and souls of young organizers. But this must be done within a context that respects the heterogeneity of student causes, not within a context in which students see the struggles of others as obstacles to be overcome in achieving their own critical revolutionary mass. Today's student movement is decentralized but increasingly networked, intellectually heterogeneous but observing a progressive consensus. At its best it promises to produce a conscious class of people across disciplines and professions animated by a love of justice, thousands of covert agents working diligently against structures that perpetuate human misery and inequality, integrated throughout the social fabric rather than acting as separatist evangelists for a distinctive counterculture. If their potential can be actualized they will promise something truly revolutionary: to bring social justice into the mainstream.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Struggling to Be Part of the Story

This thoroughly researched but ultimately unrevealing resource from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force probably won't make any waves in the debate over same-sex marriage. If anything it is a testament to the fact that political deliberation over the topic really has stalled out. In rating the crop of 2008 Presidential hopefuls on a handful of crucial LGBT issues, the conclusions of the Task Force are nowhere near groundbreaking. Kucinich emerges as the clear champion for LGBT people. He and Gravel are the only candidates to support same-sex marriage, but Gravel is ambiguous in his support for transgender inclusive hate-crime laws, adoption by same-sex couples, and robust HIV/AIDS policies. Other than that the Democrats nail each issue with the conspicuous exception of full same-sex marriage rights, and the Republicans are categorically miserable on all counts. There is no way to equivocate when a genuine bipartisan consensus emerges: the political mainstream, left and right, is opposed to same-sex marriage. A whole six senators openly support same-sex marriage, a number that belies the growing support for marriage equality amongst voting Americans.

The opponents of same-sex marriage have been successful in large because they have managed to frame the controversy as a "moral issue" - the type of issue that centers around beliefs, beliefs which cannot be authoritatively challenged or established. LGBT activists and their allies obviously see the issue as one of discrimination and social policy. But the language of inequality rarely makes it into mainstream discussions of same-sex marriage, even in the apologia of lefty candidates.

For example, John Edwards on same-sex marriage. He has described it as "the single hardest issue" and the site of many "personal struggles." He has told audiences that supporting same-sex marriage would be a "jump" for him, but that, ultimately, he is "not there yet." Obama's stance is similar. He writes in The Audacity of Hope that,"It is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided."

Consciously or not, Edwards and Obama play directly into the interpretation that sees same-sex marriage as nothing more than a "cultural" or "moral" question, akin to asking whether an explicit piece of art is lewdly pornographic or genuinely expressive. And in this sense, their framing of the debate is oddly similar to that of the religious right - the issues is another battle in a culture war, in which the real questions are not about people or policy, but about what culture we will produce, consume, and tolerate. Their meditations on the issue make the straight-speaker the primary subject of the political narrative on same-sex marriage. Rather than telling a story about people who suffer indignity, social marginalization, and deprivation of economic privileges that are often crucial to the functioning of family life, the Democratic front-runners are making the moral odyssey of the oppressor the center of the debate.

This is surely a trend to be resisted. The debate over same-sex marriage should not be about the soul-searching of privileged heterosexuals, and whether or not they have strength of introspection to extend equality to same-sex couples. The narratives of queer women and men struggling for equality should be inescapable when the issue of same-sex marriage is raised. Thats why projects like 10Couples are so important. They show same-sex couples of varying positions in structures of racial and class privilege, all living lives that are somehow marred by exclusion. These types of narratives are hard to shrug off. Oregon's Supreme Court decisions show the exact types of legal contortions that must be conceded in order to make a case that discrimination in the arena of marriage is constitutionally acceptable - and even then, the Court was not convinced that barring same-sex marriages constituted effective or humane social policy.

People like Obama and Edwards who take themselves to be allies of the queer community should be pressing the conservative opponents of marriage equality as hard as queer activists are pressing the courts. But beyond merely disappointing LGBT constituents with soft stances, they themselves engage in an unacceptable kind of oppression, akin to cultural imperialism, when they monopolize the policy debates with their own stories and leave no space for narrative representation of the oppressed. bell hooks has observed similar trends in feminist conceptions of solidarity. White and middle class women, she argues, claim sisterhood with women of color and working-class women. But those privileged women continue to control the movement, to focus on their own goals and narratives. At best, acknowledgment of privilege comes as an intense catharsis - but even then, the focus is on the emotional experience of the privileged, not on a substantive political challenge on behalf of the underprivileged.

True allies do not behave in such a manner. Real solidarity entails a willingness to make political action for the oppressed the priority in a movement, even taking actions that don't seem comprehensible from within one's own narrative because they are the only way to genuinely treat the claims flowing from the narrative of the Other. Genuine solidarity is much like an ethic of service, a commitment to do for the oppressed what they cannot do for themselves. It is not about understanding the narrative of the other 100% - such a total comprehension of the subject position of one differently situated in structures of privilege. When we occupy the position of privilege within a movement, we should see the ultimate test of our solidarity in our willingness to act for the oppressed on the basis of precisely those things which our privilege prevents us from grasping entirely.

Or to phrase it in the language of organizing - Rule number one of being an ally should be: Check your privilege at the door. The system is built for you, and takes the validation of your experience as given. This is a movement to challenge that system. As a result, this movement is not about you. It is about justice for the oppressed, and the stories of their oppression should never have to compete with the history of your alliance for centrality.

I phrase the rule thusly speaking to the heterosexual allies of the LGBT movement. When I theorize as a feminist, an anti-imperialist, or an anti-racist, the lesson is mine to learn as well. To serve in solidarity is the price of privilege.