Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Archive for October, 2009

In Defense of Graffiti and Teen Angst

October 30, 2009 By: Mel Category: Art, Core, Stratification

This Week in Race published a post titled Does It Still “Take a Village?”: Multiple Perspectives on a Chicago Encounter.  In it, Stephen tells how he witnessed “three young Black boys — maybe 13 years old — tagging the station walls with spray paint” in a Chicago subway.

Stephen decided to confront the boys and got an earful of cursing in return.  He was torn about what to do.  Should he have reported them to the authorities?  Should he have ignored them?  He didn’t want to be the great white savior, but he felt a responsibility to do something about the boys behavior.

Several people were asked to respond to Stephen’s dilemma, but amazingly nobody challenged the basic assumption Stephen was making.  All the responders seemed to agree that graffiti was degenerate behavior that needed to be corrected.  At best, the boys had “gone astray” and at worst they were “ignorant thugs.”

Is graffiti really a sign of thuggery?

Graffiti is beautiful.  (If you don’t believe me, check out some graffiti archeology.)  Graffiti is social commentary, self expression, public conversation, or grassroots support.  It’s free public art in opposition to a culture that commodifies everything.  For many artists, it is also part of an historic tradition.

Granted, Stephen said these kids were tagging and not painting works of art.  But art is in the eye of the beholder.  And if tagging isn’t art, what is it?  It is a way for kids to make a mark, to say “I’m here and I exist.”  Who among us didn’t do that growing up?  Even my friends who didn’t tag still wrote “Tammy is here” on bathroom walls, folders, sneakers, blue jeans…whatever was handy.

And who can blame kids for wanting to shout that they exist in a world that ignores them so completely – unless, of course, they violate some rule or social convention?   I’m not so old that I don’t remember what it is like to be a kid and have nobody listen to you.  The whole world wants to judge you, mold you, try to make you into whatever serves their interest.  If anybody needs a means of self expression it is a teenager.

True, I would not want someone tagging the outside of my house.  But who is more degenerate, the kid who tags or the society that constantly values property over people?  How many people are happy to spend money on police to keep graffiti off their walls but don’t want to spend a dime on education or other social programs to give those kids options?

Adults are often incensed that kids don’t respect authority like they used to.  But why should they respect authority, particularly when it doesn’t usually respect them? I’m 36 years old now and I can say with absolute certainty that, when I look back on my sixteen year old self, 90% of the adults I was supposed to listen to didn’t know shit.  And I was right not to pay a damn bit of attention to them.

Happily, many of the responders did point out that kids were unlikely to listen to any adult unless there was a previous relationship of trust.  Kids have plenty of people jumping in to tell them what they should do or not do.  What they don’t have is people who listen to what they have to say.

Who knows, those kids you want to save may see the world even more clearly than you do.

Some Things You Might Have Missed

October 28, 2009 By: Mel Category: Misc

None of the posts I’m working on are ready for prime time yet, so I’ll share a few of the things I’ve been reading.  (I’m going to try out a Mon, Wed, Fri posting schedule and see how that goes.)

The Economist had an interesting article about the effectiveness of less punitive policing.  (I know, I know.  I’m an anarchist, I am against policing.  But this moves in the right direction – less punishment, more community.)

A Division By ZerO is hoping we can burn the Tragedy of the Commons Myth

Molly brings to our attention one of the more ridiculous laws on the books.

Adam Horowitz points out the parallels between attitudes of Zionists and the supporters of Jim Crow.

And on Empty Wheel, there is extensive coverage of how the Cook County prosecutors are targeting the Northwestern students who investigate death row cases.

Until Friday.

Watching Your Tone

October 26, 2009 By: Mel Category: Seeking

What’s the best way to communicate ideas?

There was a blogger I was following until recently.  We disagreed on some very fundamental issues, but I don’t read things for confirmation of my beliefs.  I read to be challenged.  And I wanted to understand her point of view.

She wasn’t an easy person to read.  She is young and full of rage.  She has, from what I can tell, good reasons to be full of rage.  And she has every right to use her space to scream and curse and yell and direct that rage out at the world.

The last thing I am going to do is be one of those people who tries to shut others up by telling them to watch their tone. But a reader is only going to stick around and be raged at for so long.

I edit the hell out of some of my posts.  Other posts I don’t publish at all, because I don’t see anything productive coming out of posting them. And sometimes I am torn about the self editing.

But I don’t just want to use my blog to vent.  I don’t just want to find like-minded people (although it is a big perk).  I want to debate.  I want to open my mind to new ideas.  And I want to explain myself well enough so that people who disagree with me will at least understand my position.

Raging won’t accomplish that.

I was reading a blog post today.  Fofi tells about how one trainhopper/hitchhiker advised her to get people laughing in order to ask them for money.  My father, the consummate salesman, gave me the same advice when I found myself having to sell legal services to attorneys.

People are more responsive when you put them at ease.

Unfortunately for me, I’m only funny once or twice a year.  (That might explain why I was such a shit salesperson.)  But I can try to get my message across in a way that people will hear it.  It won’t always work.  And it won’t always be possible.  But it’s worth the effort.

Fallen off the Face of the Earth

October 20, 2009 By: Mel Category: Misc

Sorry for the temporary and unexplained absence.  My other life is taking up all my time, but I will be back next week.

Mobility and Social Change

October 15, 2009 By: Mel Category: Seeking

In his 1995 article about Mexico, Jorge G. Castañeda discusses the tension between U.S. worries of Mexican instability and Mexican immigration.

Any attempt to clamp down on immigration from the south — by sealing the border militarily, by forcing Mexico to deter its citizens from emigrating, or through some federal version of California’s Proposition 187 — will make social peace in the barrios and pueblos of Mexico untenable.

Mobility, in other words, can be a safety valve.  And it isn’t just a safety valve for people migrating to a different country. Migration within the U.S. has often eased tensions too.

Americans who were not making it in eastern cities escaped westward.  Just a few generations later, many of those very same homesteaders packed up again when faced with the Dust Bowl.

Whenever there is a crisis, political or environmental, a very American response is to pick up and move.    And American government, fearing the instability that comes with desperation, often encourages it.

Even when there isn’t a crisis, Americans have tended to move around a lot.  Few people I run into are from the state where they live.  Most have moved for jobs or school – for opportunities.

But American mobility may be starting to change.  According to a new article by Joel Kotkin in Newsweek,

Americans actually are becoming less nomadic. As recently as the 1970s as many as one in five people moved annually; by 2006, long before the current recession took hold, that number was 14 percent, the lowest rate since the census starting following movement in 1940. Since then tougher times have accelerated these trends, in large part because opportunities to sell houses and find new employment have dried up. In 2008, the total number of people changing residences was less than those who did so in 1962, when the country had 120 million fewer people.

The Newsweek article speaks about this change in terms of localism.  Kotkin surmises that people who move around less will be more likely to support community organizations and local businesses.  And he speculates about how this new rootedness might effect our politics.

There are well over 65,000 general-purpose governments, and with so many “small towns,” the average local jurisdiction population in the United States is 6,200, small enough to allow nonprofessional politicians to have a serious impact.

Let’s say his assumption is correct, that these more rooted Americans will begin to participate more in the governance of their local communities.  The question is, what kind of impact will that have on our politics?

Will we become more cooperative?  More insular?  What if our economy continues to decline or stagnate?  How will communities react when 10 – 15% of the citizens who are actively looking for work cannot find it?  What will happen if those out of work citizens start directing that free time toward political and social change?

It is possible that a crap economy and a new rootedness may just be an incubator for radical change.  People who no longer see the opportunity, or have the desire, to move on to greener pastures may just start to get pissed off and organized.

That could be very interesting.

The Nuclear Family is a Failure

October 13, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Culture

According to a study by Paul R. Amato, children  “who grow up in stable, two-parent families have a higher standard of living, receive more effective parenting, experience more cooperative co-parenting, are emotionally closer to both parents, and are subjected to fewer stressful events and circumstances.”

Amato admits that, while his research shows a relationship, it cannot show a causal relationship. But lets assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a causal relationship between two-parent households and positive indicators for children.  And lets assume that single parent households have a harder time providing the stable environments that help kids to thrive.

What do we think should be done?

Like many Americans, Amato concludes that “the importance of increasing the number of children growing up with two happily and continuously married parents… is self-evident.”  The U.S. government seems to agree.  Under the Bush administration, a program called the  Healthy Family Initiative was started to encourage marriage and to provide relationship skills training.  The Obama administration is continuing the initiative.

There is nothing wrong with a stable two-person relationship.  However, we seem to be offered only two choices for raising children – the “healthy” two-parent family or single (usually) mothers struggling along in poverty.  But the nuclear family is not the only structure for raising children in this world.

The Europeans who stumbled upon the Americas came from a culture where a man was only responsible for the children he fathered within a marriage.  He had no responsibility for children he fathered outside of wedlock, much less for other children in the community.  Many Native American communities, in contrast, had very different ideas of who was responsible for the community’s children.  In Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz tells of how one Jesuit reacted to the sexual freedom enjoyed by native women.

One missionary warned a Naskapi man that if he did not impose tighter controls on his wife, he would never know for sure which of the children she bore belonged to him.  The Indian was equally shocked that this mattered to Europeans.  ‘You French people,’ he replied, ‘love only your own children; but we love all the children of our tribe.

Other native societies believe that every man who has sex with a woman while pregnant “contributes a part of his biological substance to the child” and has responsibilities toward that child and the mother.  And in some societies, it is not the biological father but the mother’s brothers who take responsibility for the child.

All of which is to say that structures for child rearing are cultural not immutable or “natural.”  And these structures of responsibility are as much about abdicating responsibility for “other people’s children” as they are about taking responsibility for “your own.”

The two-parent family is a structure that relies on two people. Half of all marriages end in divorce.  Parents get sick.  Parents die.  And (all too often in the U.S.) parents go to prison.  Ultimately, that means that many children are not going to have that two-parent family.  Rather than trying to bury our heads in the sand, wouldn’t it make more sense to question the cultural beliefs that lead us to only take responsibility for children on such a limited basis?

The nuclear family is a weak institution.  When one parent is taken out of the equation, as so often happens, the children suffer.  Kids need more than two people that they can rely on in this world.

Ideas are Funny Things

October 08, 2009 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Ideas don’t know boundaries of time and place.   They can be disproven or discredited.  They can be hidden or forbidden.  But they will still manage to seep into unexpected areas and pop up at unexpected times.

I was watching a program about James Baldwin once (my favorite author).  One of the guests was a professor speaking about the influence of Russian Jewish thought on Baldwin’s writing.

I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if my adopted family was Russian.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if one of the reasons that Baldwin’s writing spoke to me so strongly was because we had both absorbed some of the same ways of looking at the world – he by going to school with Russian Jews, me by being adopted by them.

My father never spoke about his family’s background.  He was from the Bronx and that was that.  His father died when he was only eleven.  He didn’t talk about him, presumably because he didn’t remember much.  He spoke about his mother, but never about where she originally came from.  But I did remember a cousin of his saying something about Russia once.

Happily, in the age of the internet, I was able to solve the mystery a few moments after it popped up.  There it was on the 1930 census.  My father’s father was Russian.  My father’s mother’s parents were also Russian.  Practically the entire building in the Bronx where my father lived was Russian.

And I thought, how cool.  How cool that I could feel such a strong connection to someone with such a different background and life experience.  How cool that we are connected by thought.

I tell you this because I have been thinking a lot about thought, about world views, about debate, and about writing.  I’ve been thinking about how frustrating it can be to butt up against people whose ways of seeing the world are so fundamentally different than your own.  And I’ve been thinking about how it sometimes feels like an effort in futility to argue.

I have a particularly hard time arguing with people who accept authoritarianism.  In fact, many people seem to relish it.  Alicia over at Last Left Turn before Hooterville has a great post about the authoritarian tendencies of the republican party.

In the comments of Alicia’s post she says that she doesn’t think that die hard conservatives are amenable to liberal arguments and she prefers to spend her time trying to get progressives to become more active. That is a completely rational view from a liberal/progressive standpoint.  There are many others liberal/progressives out there.  You have a wide audience.

When your political views are more radical, the options are more limited.  After all, the changes I would like to see are as drastic for most liberals as they are for most conservatives.  At times it can seem hopeless.

But then I remember that you never know where an idea can go, once you put it out there.

Love it or Leave It

October 07, 2009 By: Mel Category: Stratification

None of us has control over the place or time of our birth.  We come into this world subject to the rules, whims, inequities, and injustices that those who came before us imposed by force.  Is it truly a democratic society if you are compelled to obey rules you never agreed to?

I objected to the idea that we are compelled to follow those rules in response to a blog post by Doctor Biobrain.  The doctor’s response was that my parents had actually agreed to the rules on my behalf and that, by staying here past my eighteenth birthday, I too was agreeing to them.

I objected to having to abide by the decisions of corrupt representatives in a fixed system.  The response was that, by staying here, I had agreed to abide by whatever they decided.   Any objection I made – about corruption, about non-inclusion – was met with the same answer.  If I don’t like it, I can leave.

Love it or leave it.  Or, at least, deal with it or leave it.

Where exactly are we supposed to go?  Is there anywhere on earth that is outside the grasp of the Eurocentric, racist, patriarchal system that has used violence to exclude most of us for hundreds of years? More importantly, are people really so unquestioning of violence and coercion?  Dr. Biobrain says,

so it’s part of the agreement that anyone who breaks the agreement can be severely punished. And anyone who seriously attempts to permanently end the agreement can be put to death. And again, this is all in the agreement. And if you choose not to follow the agreement, yet don’t want to face punishment, you have only one option: Leave.

Over and over Doctor Biobrain insisted that it was my choice to live here, as though everyone on this earth has equal opportunities to go anywhere they want.  As though everyone has the resources to start over.  As though everyone is free of attachments.  As though immigration laws in countries around the world weren’t written by classists and white supremacists too.

And when exactly did this love it or leave it rule begin to apply?  Does it only apply for rules made after women and minorities received the right to vote?  Or are we really saying that rules imposed by a tiny faction are sacred?  Are we really saying that our only recourse is a corrupted election system – a system complete with gerrymandering, felon disenfranchisement, corporate media, and impossible financial barriers?

Love it or leave it is a cop-out.  It’s a way for people to avoid the fact that the system was designed for the benefit of a few at the expense of the many.  Love it or leave it is a lie.   It is a pretense of freedom where little exists.

But the sad fact is that Doctor Biobrain is not wrong about how our “democracy” works.  He is exactly right.

Where Doctor Biobrain is wrong is in suggesting that it is the best we can do.  The doctor is wrong in accepting that “might makes right,”  wrong in saying that our system is “EXTREMELY fair,”  and wrong in believing that what we have is truly a democracy.

Dr. Biobrain is wrong, but not alone.  In fact, I would argue that the central conflicts in our society aren’t between democrats and republicans or between conservatives and liberals.  The central conflicts are between those who feel the system was meant for them and works for them and those that don’t.

Those of us for whom the system does not work, and wasn’t meant to work for, cannot accept “love it or leave it.”

Sen. Ensign Thinks Criminals Have it Too Good

October 06, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Politics, Stratification

Senator John Ensign would like to put prisoners to work.   No, this isn’t some post prison project to integrate former inmates back into society.  He wants inmates to work.

S. 41
To require a 50-hour workweek for Federal prison inmates, to reform inmate work programs, and for other purposes.

Inmates would work 50 hours per week for federal contractors.  Their salary would be split

  • 25% to “offset the cost on incarceration of the inmate”
  • 25% for “victim restitution”
  • 10% held for the prisoner upon release (in a noninterest bearing acct)
  • 25% “paid directly to the inmate for mandatory expenses and for daily basic needs while the inmate is incarcerated.”  Although if they have child support obligations, they wouldn’t get that.  No explanation of how their “basic needs” would be met in that case.
  • 15% to any state and local jurisdictions that also force their inmates to work

Prison labor is a touchy subject.  Back in 1998, congress held hearings on forced labor in China.  There was widespread condemnation of the practice.  But that’s prison labor in China.  If it is here in the United States, the rules are a little different.

Section 1761 of Title 18 (chapter 85) imposes penalties for anyone who knowingly transports prison made goods (from out of the country or between states).  But the code also allows for gaping exceptions when it comes to the labor of those in U.S. prisons.

According to the Democratic Leadership Council, U.S. prison labor output is $2.4 billion annually.  Prisoners have, according to this Mother Jones report,  done everything from sew Victoria Secret lingerie to package Starbucks holiday coffees.  Prisoners even set up an event for John McCain during the presidential campaign.

Defenders of prison labor say that it is a win-win.  Prisoners get income and learn job skills.  (Cause cleaning roads and packaging coffee have a real future.)  Even better, companies and governments get cheap labor.  Governor Jodi Rell of Connecticut claims that prison labor is saving the state $2.2 million dollars.

Businesses don’t have to provide any benefits.  They don’t have to worry about unions.  When some Colorado prison inmates staged a walkout (after their wages were cut from $.85 to $.60 a day) Sterling Correctional Center just put them in solitary confinement.  That’s a corporate wet dream.

It’s too bad we mostly like to send people to prison for petty theft and drug use.  If this were a place where powerful people went to prison for gross violations of ethics, Sen. John Ensign’s recent ethics snafu might actually get him in trouble.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if he ended up working 50 hours a week in a prison because his own bill passed?  Except now I have a visual in my head of the senator hunched over a sewing machine, stitching together Victoria Secret panties…Creepy.


Anarchism and Civil Disobedience

October 05, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core, Seeking

I recently finished reading Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory by Uri Gordon.  It’s a great book and a must read for anyone interested in contemporary anarchist thought, action, and dilemmas.

Like many anarchists, Uri emphasizes direct action, “action without intermediaries, whereby an individual or a group uses their own power and resources to change reality in a desired direction.” Direct action can entail blocking a roadway or tearing down a wall. It can also be creating something new within the old system, like a worker-run cooperative.

Direct action is not civil disobedience. Uri explains,

It is important to distinguish between direct action and a related concept, ‘civil disobedience’. I take the latter to mean any conscious collective defiance of the law, either for moral reasons or in an attempt to mount pressure on the authorities to respond to one’s demands…Thus civil disobedience is essentially a confrontational form of political dialogue between insubordinate citizens and the state, which does not challenge the basic legitimacy of the latter (since the state is expected to act in response to the disobedients’ demands – changing an unjust law, for example).  Often civil disobedience is accompanied by rhetoric that calls on society to live up to its professed ideals, reinforcing rather than challenging the status quo on society’s basic relations and institutions

I see Uri’s point, but I believe the picture he paints is incomplete. Often, the primary dialogue is not between the insubordinate citizens and the state, but between the insubordinate citizens and other citizens (either of their own country or of other countries in the world).

Actions by Gandhi and Martin Luther King were specifically designed to demonstrate the violence and injustice of the state.  MLK chose Montgomery, Alabama because he knew that the particularly brutal authorities would take action that would shock people, people who were not necessarily allies to that point.  Civil disobedience is theater as well as dialogue.

Anarchists could learn from their example.  It is a fact that there will never be anarchism without widespread commitment to anarchist principles.  Anarchists need to be more aware of how their actions will be perceived from the outside.

Anarchists should anticipate how their actions will be presented to the public by authorities and media.  And anarchists should be ready to respond to that presentation – clearly and creatively.  Unless we learn to do that, people will not be receptive to what we are saying.