BroadSnark

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
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Commencement Controversies

May 13, 2014 By: Mel Category: Inequality

Johns HopkinsIt is commencement protest season again. Almost 3,000 people have signed on to a petition to get Chris Christie off the schedule at Rowan University. IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, has cancelled her commencement speech at Smith College after student protests. Condoleezza Rice will no longer be giving the commencement speech at Rutgers after protests there. Last year it was Robert Zoellick and Ben Carson.

Everyone who talks about these controversies in terms of free speech or academic freedom – just stop.

Everyone who pretends like they can both climb the hierarchies and not be morally compromised – just stop.

A commencement speech is not a conversation. It isn’t a debate. It isn’t an open platform. There is nothing free about it. A commencement speech is where an institution selects an elite to tell the fresh crop of social climbers coming up behind them how they can be better than everyone else. Selecting a commencement speaker is about confirming the social status of the speaker. When you select someone to speak, you are saying that they are someone worth emulating. It isn’t the same as having someone speak on a panel where their views and status can be questioned.

That said.

If you are in the university system, you are there to receive the credentials to continue being one of the privileged few. If that credentialing is truly important to you, then you are completely invested in the system that creates Robert Zoellick and Condoleezza Rice. If your goal is to gain a position of power over anybody – even in a liberal social work warm fuzzy sort of way – you are not morally superior to the people you are protesting against.

Anyone who thinks they go to a university that is somehow different from all the other institutions conferring power and privilege, please feel free to make your case. But remember how many universities are doing research for the military. Rutgers, for instance, makes military armor. And remember where university funding comes from. If you go to Johns Hopkins, I really hope you like Mayor Bloomberg, cause that is who is funding your studies.

Maybe people should stop protesting commencement speeches and start protesting institutions that perpetuate privilege and power. Or at least select someone to speak who might have something important to say. I bet the people who clean up after the students on campus would have a lot of insight.

The Problem With Gifted

May 14, 2013 By: Mel Category: Inequality

I’ve been catching up on some of my blog reading and came across this report about how Latino children are underrepresented in New York City public school gifted programs.

Data obtained by The Wall Street Journal shows that Latino children are dramatically underrepresented in the program, making up just 12% of the city’s 14,266 gifted elementary school students this school year. Yet Latino children make up about 41% of the 489,911 elementary students.

This controversy, about the homogeneity of gifted programs, has been going on since I was a kid. I distinctly remember a report (60 minutes maybe) where parents tried to get their children of color tested and the school system would not even test them. I’m fairly certain it was this controversy that was responsible for me being put in the gifted program in my elementary school.

I need to put a small caveat here. This is all my memory from more than 30 years ago. So I am not going to guarantee 100% detail.

When I was in first or second grade, and around the time our principal changed from a white dude to a black woman, the administration started asking teachers to submit students for gifted testing – particularly students who were not white boys. Because ALL of the students in the gifted program were white boys. That’s when I got IQ tested.

Here I could go into the controversies about IQ – the historic racism, the cultural bias…all that jazz. Perhaps someday I will. But even if you think that IQ measures more than privilege and socialization (I don’t), it doesn’t really impact my criticism of the gifted program.

I spent one day a week in gifted classes. While my other classmates were sitting in rows doing busy work, I was wandering around a trailer doing creative stuff. As a gifted student, I had access to the only two computers in my school. I got to make cool graphics using Apple computers that had pixels the size of your head. I made stop motion animated films and ceramic animals. There were plays and, if memory serves, a kooky report about the Bermuda Triangle.

In other words, I had the freedom to be creative and access to the tools that would let me do it. The gifted program was just a way to met out privileges to the already privileged.

As I got older, I dropped out of gifted and even honors classes. In part, I really wanted to coast through and smoke weed and be lazy. But I was also sick to death of seeing the same people in every class that I had. I went to a diverse middle and high school. But my classes were filled with the same disproportionately white, disproportionately Jewish, and disproportionately well-off people.

Once I started going to “regular” classes, the horrors of school really hit me. No matter how creative or curious you are. No matter how much potential you have. If you sit in a box doing mind-numbing worksheets while some babysitter socializes you to be a Walmart cashier, it is going to make you stupid. At least I felt like I got stupider every minute that I was in school.

My point, after all of that, is this. We do not need to make gifted classes more diverse. It does not, in the end, really help us to have a more gender balanced and multicolored group of privileged people. It is true that a person in a position of power may change the rules a little for a few people – like the new principal of my school. And it is true that there is value in diversity – particularly in having relationships that cross all the barriers of gender, race, class…

But in the end, all kids need the freedom and resources to pursue their interests and to do the kinds of creative and mind-expanding things that gifted kids are allowed to do. Asking for more Latinos in gifted is the same as asking for more Latino CEOs or black generals or women senators. We don’t need a more diverse hierarchy or a less obviously racist and sexist way to met out privileges. We need to get rid of the hierarchy and the privileges.

Schools Teach Shame and Bullying

January 23, 2013 By: Mel Category: Inequality, Sex

I came across this news story yesterday. Some school official told a girl’s mother that, if her daughter wanted to end the harassment she was subjected to, she should get a breast reduction. Because, you know, how dare you have a body that might make people think of sex.

And then there is the video posted up at Womanist Musings a little while back.  Teens were shown the story of Amanda Todd – the girl who was harassed, stalked, slut-shamed, abandoned by her friends, and eventually killed herself. Because god forbid you show your tits or have sex. And if you don’t have anything to show, you will get shamed for that too, as one of the girls in that video tearfully describes.

The school official that suggested a breast reduction isn’t some anomaly. @Pliny_theElder put it perfectly.

@ "shouldn't have dressed that way" reaches its logical conclusion: "shouldn't have been born that way"
@Pliny_theElder
Eugene V. Dubstep

School is all about control and shaming. And the kids learn to shame and bully just like the adults. Look at some of the tweets that went out yesterday with the tag #IGoToASchoolWhere

#igotoaschoolwhere the dress code is more important than the education. DON'T SHOW YOUR SHOULDER IT DISTURBS OTHER CHILDREN TRYIN TO LEARN
@TheDummiee
MarioPerez Jr
#IGoToASchoolWhere the teachers care more about what trousers/skirt you're wearing, than what grades you get.
@DaniChivers
Daniellee
#igotoaschoolwhere the uniform being worn properly is more important then the education
@kristenshepley
Kristen Shepley

Is it really a shock that, when a school spends all their time monitoring how much skin you are showing, you end up with comments like:

#igotoaschoolwhere some girls walk around half naked but demand respect from guys. #no
@sami_bourjas
sami bourjas

(92 retweets last I looked. The number of girls who retweeted that makes me want to vomit.)

People hear about Amanda Todd and ask what we should do about bullies in school. Administrators need to crack down. Parents need to get involved.  We better do away with free speech because of bullies. We should put students in jail for filming a fight, because that is cyberbullying. Kids are so mean and out of control. How can we better control them?

Kids are mean. They are mean precisely because parents, administrators, teachers, and every other adult they grow up around teaches them shame, shaming, and bullying every day of their lives. They are mean precisely because people are constantly trying to control them – their sexuality, their thoughts, their appearance, their dreams.

And the tinier the box we push kids into, the more nasty they will be in trying to keep other kids smashed into those same boxes. You want to know how adults can stop bullying? Stop being bullies.

P.S. That pic is from a story by Dick Gregory about how he learned shame in school.  Read it.

Thanks NRA

December 24, 2012 By: Mel Category: Inequality, Violence

On Friday, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA held a press conference about the school shooting in Sandy Hook. Naturally, his suggestion was to put armed guards or police in every school. The liberal internets were immediately abuzz slamming one of their favorite bad guys. But nobody seemed to be mentioning the fact that this “crazy” idea from the “far right” NRA isn’t an idea at all. It’s already here.

“In 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68 percent of American students reported the presence of security guards or police officers, or both, in their schools,” says the NYT. But those students aren’t being protected by the “good guys” with guns. They are being abused.

A Houston cop broke a kids jaw on the school bus. Another Texas 12-year-old was arrested for spraying perfume. In Connecticut, a kid was tased for allegedly trying to steal a Jamaican patty in the lunchroom. A California 5-year-old was arrested and charged with battery on a police officer. (Yes. You read that correctly. A 5-year-old.) Another California child, this time 7, was pepper sprayed for climbing on a bookshelf. A New York 12-year-old was arrested for the terrible crime of doodling about loving her friends.

These are not isolated incidents. During a three month period in 2011, an average of 5 students per day were arrested in New York. The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing Birmingham schools for their consistent use of pepper spray on students. Civil rights attorneys are suing Meridian, Mississippi for abusing their students’ civil rights so egregiously that even our sad justice department had to intervene. And then, of course, there are all the students and parents who end up in truancy court.

I could spend the rest of my year finding and posting stories like this, despite that fact that most of the incidents don’t get media attention and juvenile cases are sealed for their “protection”. Not that getting rid of school police and security would make all the abuses go away. The Government Accountability Office found hundreds of cases of kids being abused or killed by school staff.

Some students are far more frequently targets for school cops and administrators. More than 90 percent of arrests in New York in the 2011-12 school year were of black and Latino students. All over the country, students of color and students with disabilities are arrested and disciplined at higher rates“Gay and transgender youth, particularly gender nonconforming girls, are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment by school administrators than their heterosexual counterparts.” 

And if those kids are unlucky enough to end up in juvenile detention, the abuse will only get worse. 12 percent of youth in juvenile facilities say they have been sexually abused, most often by staff. They are also beaten up, denied access to medical care, denied education, put in restraints, locked in solitary for days or weeks at a time, and sometimes killed. This state by state summary is just the tip of the iceberg.

After everyone started commenting on the NRA press conference, I tweeted that New York Times article and said, “Hey buttheads: 68% of students already have sec guards or police in their schools and it is a fucking disaster”. It got more retweets than anything I’ve ever put out there – by a landslide. I followed that up with some of those incidents above and people even tweeted those.

The thing is, I tweet and blog about these things all the time. In fact, almost everything in this post I have put out before. Nobody pays any attention. It seems people only care about this stuff if the NRA says it is a good idea. So thanks, NRA. Perhaps if you had a press conference every day to suggest that we inundate schools with police, arrest all the students of color, and torture kids for not being perfectly socialized automatons then people would notice. Maybe they’d even want to do something about it.

Obey or Pay…Unless

August 26, 2012 By: Mel Category: Inequality

Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller's Day OffI came across this truancy scare video the other day. The video talks about how truancy leads to dropping out and how dropping out leads to a “lifelong inability to find gainful employment (and) make a meaningful life.” It has kids talking about how they were rebellious (the horror). They talk about abusing drugs, about violent boyfriends, about being homeless.

And then there is this asshat. She’s a clinical psychologist who is trying to scare twenty-somethings into getting serious about their lives. Apparently, if you don’t get your shit together by the time you are 25, you will be playing catch-up forever. And by playing catch-up she means that your career, house, spouse, children, dog, and picket fence will be a few pottery barn items short of perfect.

Did you get the message everyone? Are you clear on what success looks like? Are you fully convinced that education overcomes everything, as the woman in the truancy video claims? Oh, and about that 50% of recent grads who are unemployed or underemployed. No need to worry about that, says the asshat, you just focus on getting yourself into that other 50%. Fuck those other people.

We are inundated with messages every day about how we as individuals can end up on top (or at least not on the bottom) of this big, hot mess we are in. We are told that, if you do the right thing, you will be rewarded. Maybe, as in the case of that video, some people with their hearts in generally the right place will acknowledge that there are social circumstances that lead people to “end up” in the criminal (in)justice system.

People don’t just end up in prison. They are targeted. You will not be rewarded for doing the right thing. In fact, you will generally suffer for it. You might be rewarded for obeying the rules, depending on who you are. Or maybe, if you just stay in your place and don’t raise too much hell, people won’t actively go after you. You might be congratulated if you define success as some formerly truant kid going back to school with a desire to join the Coast Guard. (Hey, now instead of going to jail, that kid can spend his life putting drug runners and immigrants in prison. Success!)

As someone who made truancy into something of an art form, when I first watched the video I just wanted to write a post telling people how much bullshit school is and to fuck up all they want. I did not skip school because I was suffering outside of school. I skipped school because I was suffering in it. It was boring and authoritarian and I was not going to waste any more precious minutes of my life in that place. I don’t regret for one minute any day that I ditched for the beach. If I had to do it all over again, I would have been absent all 45 days that one quarter instead of just 43.

Despite skipping school, getting kicked out, and generally doing my best to fuck up as much as possible, I’m not in prison. I’ve managed to support myself since I was seventeen. I haven’t killed anybody or overdosed on heroin.

Do you know why I am not in prison? I’m not in prison because, when I was caught stealing or drinking or smoking or… (well let me keep some secrets), the police were usually not called. Even when they were called, I never saw the inside of a police station. At worst, they called my parents. Usually, they didn’t even do that.

These kids are not “ending up” in prison because they have a bad home life and are not staying in school. They are ending up in prison because the criminal (in)justice system targets them in ways that it never targeted me. Our schools are filled with cops just itching to get more fodder for the prisons/work camps/torture chambers. They are arresting kids for throwing paper airplanes and six-year-olds for tantrums.

Some of us can fuck up quite a bit and still make a reasonably comfortable life. Some of us can spend a few decades with whiskey and cocaine and still go to an ivy league school and become president. And some of us can get busted one time with a few joints and have the rest of our lives ruined for it.

The grand trick is that we pretend like there are rules that apply to everyone. But they don’t. Uber-privileged people ignore the rules and are fine. Marginalized people get fucked even when they obey them. The rest of us are impregnated with fear of fucking up and misdirected into pursuing some illusory goal of personal achievement instead of focusing on the obedience training system that funnels us into our proper place.

I can’t in good conscience tell people to just go forth and fuck up. Some of us don’t have the luxury. But don’t respond to the unemployability of dropouts with criminal records by making some half-assed attempt to get some of them back into the funnel. Question what the hell is going on with our criminal (in)justice system. Ask why people without alphabet soup at the end of their names can’t make a living. Get pissed that half the people with alphabet soup at the end of their names can’t even get work.

Disobey as much as you possibly can.  The rules were not made for your benefit.

On Jewish “Success”

February 18, 2011 By: Mel Category: Inequality, Religion

It’s hard to have a reasonable conversation about the apparent “success” of the Jewish community. For one thing, we Jews have an understandably defensive gut reaction to accusations of success.  And they are often accusations.  To quote the Illinois Holocaust Museum,

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis augmented this (Middle Ages idea of Jews as Jesus killers and userers) with a 19th century myth that emerged as a backlash to European Jewry’s emancipation and consequent involvement in and numerous contributions to European cultural, social, economic and political life in numbers disproportionate to its numeric presence in the general population. This myth stressed the existence of a “secret” Jewish plot to dominate the world through economic and political control.

So when people start saying that Jews have a lot of money or control the media, the hairs start raising on the backs of our necks.

But that doesn’t mean we can deny the statistics.  Jews in America are better off than other groups.  Only Hindus come close to having as many people making over $100,000 a year.  Forbes 100 richest people included 30 Jews.  That’s a third of the top 100 for a group that makes up less than 2% of the population.  And while FAIR has thoroughly debunked the whole Jews own the media bullshit, there are a lot of Jews who work in media.  In 2009, the Atlantic came out with a list of the top 50 bloggers.  By my count, 27 of the 50 bloggers are Jewish.  That’s more than half.  That’s a hell of a lot.*

When confronted with Jewish “success” (and I put that in quotes because I don’t believe getting on the Forbes list is something to be proud of), many people will tell you that it is because our culture values education or because Jewish people take care of each other.  The implication being, of course, that less “successful” minorities don’t look out for one another or value education.

It is complete bullshit, of course.

How do you measure how much a culture values education?  How do you measure whether it is that they value education or simply don’t question the socialization?  How do you know it is not that another culture faces more obstacles to obtaining an eduction?  Besides, are only those people who have alphabet soup at the end of their name deserving of a living wage?

And isn’t it convenient how the education narrative conveniently ignores all the radical Jews who protested, picketed, boycotted, and otherwise scrapped in the streets?  Isn’t it convenient how that narrative ignores that Jews in America aren’t a target of the authorities like other minorities are, or like they themselves were in other places and other times.  It’s a lot easier to “take care of your own” when the prison industrial complex isn’t breathing down your neck.  How many Jewish women do you know who had to take in their incarcerated relatives kids?

Nobody knows I am Jewish unless I tell them.  People might not like Jews, but I’m a lot more likely to get past a prejudice.  More importantly, while Jews weren’t always considered white, most of us are white now – at least, white enough.  And if you don’t believe that privilege has anything to do with who gets to be a “success,” if you think that it is all hard work and commitment to education, let me ask you something.  Why is that entire list of Jewish gazillionares on Forbes all white men?  Maybe you can brush off the white part. There aren’t that many Black, Latino, Arab, or Asian Jews in the U.S.  But last I checked, about half of us are women.  Are women somehow immune to these supposed cultural proclivities that make Jews so “successful?”

So why am I writing this?

One of the bloggers I follow has now twice been accused of antisemitism.  Once, she was accused for daring to include a Jewish category in a post where she breaks down minority representation in the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans.  And now recently she was accused of antisemitism for calling out the hypocrisy of Dan Snyder suing City Paper for a picture that supposedly depicts a prejudiced stereotype – when he owns the fucking REDSKINS!

And that really pisses me off.

It isn’t just that the accusers are wrong, or that people shouldn’t spew knee jerk accusations.  It isn’t even about how those accusations can shut off conversations.  Ultimately this is not really about Jewishness.  It is about privilege, white supremacy, male supremacy, the illusion of equal opportunity, and the American mythology that weaves it all together.

Jewish success fits in nicely with America’s ideas about itself.  Here you have an immigrant group who came here fleeing persecution.  And while they faced prejudice, they were able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

What’s more, America’s embracing of Jews is in direct opposition to the Nazis – the enemy of all enemies. World War II was the good war, the war used to justify all other wars.  And despite the fact that many Americans supported the Nazis, despite the fact that the U.S. didn’t even max out its immigration quotas in the war years, we like to think of ourselves as the anti-Nazi.  We are the saviors of the Jews and of the world.

So this Jewish success narrative buttresses all our myths about heroic Americans, good wars, equal opportunity and all that crap.  It is a minority mythology that does not challenge white supremacy or male supremacy.  In fact, it actually provides cover for it. We Jews are used as a silent indictment of other groups, as cover for people who don’t want to change the power structures and hierarchies that privilege them.

Our inability to discuss Jewish “success” is an inability to challenge the hierarchies, prejudices, and myths that need to be challenged.  I don’t want to provide cover for white supremacists.  I don’t want to provide cover for greedy bastards who use accusations of antisemitism to deflect from their douchebaggery.

That doesn’t mean that antisemitism isn’t alive and well.  (I’ve seen Glenn Beck’s list of Jews who have ruined the world.)  It means that we have to be honest about the fact that this supposed “success” is really just a measure of how thoroughly a person has bought into and benefited from the American lies.

_____________________________

*Even more common than a Jewish background was attendance at Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia, or University of Chicago.  At least 30 of the 50 attended one or more of those schools.

Who Will Notice?

August 12, 2010 By: Mel Category: Inequality

I met a Palestinian woman who came to the United States for her graduate degree.  She picked the U.S. because she wanted to see imperialism from the inside.  She wanted to understand the richest, most powerful country on earth.  Imagine her surprise when she learned that the kind of economic development programs she worked on in Palestine were needed as much in Appalachia as back home.

I was thinking about that conversation as I read Glenn Greenwald’s piece on What Collapsing Empire Looks Like.

The truth is that a whole lot of people aren’t going to notice the cuts in basic services that Greenwald wrote about.  Cutting public school hours doesn’t make much difference to people who send their kid to private school.  And it doesn’t make much difference to the 18% of U.S. Latinos who won’t graduate high school (26% in California.).

Cutting off street lights won’t be noticed by the people who live in gate-enclosed McMansion communities.  And it won’t be noticed by the 14%  on Indian reservations who don’t have electricity in their homes.  Total lack of public transportation won’t be noticed by people with three luxury cars in the driveway.  And it will barely be noticed by people who live in places like Liberty City or Little Haiti, where residents have been relying on private jitneys for years.

People keep talking about the United State’s decline, but I wonder how much of it is more of an unveiling.

Some Stuff You Might Have Missed

November 13, 2009 By: Mel Category: Misc

I really liked this post over at Reconcile.  It’s time we start talking about higher education.  We shouldn’t just accept “get an education” as an answer to all our social ills.

And speaking of school, sometimes (just for a moment) I forget the horror that it was to be a teenager.  Then I read an article like this and that feeling of being strangled by socialization comes flooding back.

May as well stay on the subject of being oppressed in school.  I’m still livid about those Innocence Project kids being targeted by the prosecutors office.  I don’t know how she sleeps at night.

Finally, if you hadn’t heard, the DC Catholic Archdiocese says they will stop providing social services in DC if DC passes the same-sex marriage law (which also requires them not to discriminate).  So typical.

Conflict Resolution as Core Curriculum

July 28, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Change, Violence

When I tell people that I am an anarchist, that I imagine a world without hierarchy, they often dismiss me as naive. They cannot imagine how government would function without a dude in charge. They seem to find it even harder to imagine workplaces functioning without hierarchy.

If the skeptics provide any reasons, they generally point out conflicts that we currently resolve through coercion. Two people have a dispute at work, the boss makes a determination and coerces the parties to comply. Two countries have a dispute, and the more powerful country coerces the other.

The essential obstacle to a society based on cooperation is not that people have disputes, it is that we have so few tools to resolve our disputes peacefully. It isn’t entirely our fault. And it isn’t some malfunctioning human gene. It is that we have no training in dispute resolution or peaceful conflict management.

Amazingly, it is only in the last fifty years that conflict resolution has been brought into schools. And it is only since the 1980s that organizations like Educators for Social Responsibility have been promoting conflict resolution as core curriculum.

Despite the fact that conflict resolution has been shown to increase academic achievement and cooperation and to decrease violence and drop-out rates, too few schools have implemented conflict resolution into their programs.

Imagine if every school child (from kindergarden forward) had problem solving and peaceful conflict resolution as core curriculum. Imagine if it were given the importance of math and language. How much better equipped would we be for our relationships later in life?

It isn’t that people are hopelessly unable to resolve conflicts without violence or coersion. It is that we are not learning the skills we need.

Clothing Mandatory, From Burqas to Bandanas

July 23, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics, Religion

We have too many damn laws, rules, regulations and customs dictating what people can and cannot wear.

Schools require kids to wear uniforms. Work – from military personnel to the nearly identical suits most desk sitters wear – requires uniforms. Clubs have dress codes. Restaurants have dress codes. Cities and even countries have laws governing what their citizens can and cannot wear in public. Why?

Admittedly, it’s easier to pick out a cop if she is wearing a uniform. And you could probably make a case for health issues when it comes to wearing some kind of covering in a restaurant kitchen. But mostly, clothing rules are about social control. We want to be able to identify people. We want to know whether or not they subscribe to the dominant culture’s attitudes, prejudices, gender roles, and power structure.

Schools support school uniforms for the same reason the military requires them, because uniforms denote obedience and conformity. Clubs have dress codes to enforce dominance by class and race, from country clubs that require a suit and tie to dive bars like Kokoamos (sued for refusing entry to people with dreadlocks).

Cities also get in on the action. Riviera Beach, Florida is arresting people for baggy pants. Other cities have ordinances against your underwear showing. In New York, you can get arrested for covering your face during a protest. Why? Because minorities wear baggy pants. Because political dissidents cover their faces during protests.

Of course, the most stringent codes and social norms relate to gender. It starts with the first pink or blue onesie someone gives you at the baby shower. For the rest of your life, what you can wear safely in public is determined largely by whether or not you were born with a penis.

School uniforms are uniform only by gender. One school in South Carolina has said a girl will not be able to graduate if she wears pants to her graduation. Prom means wearing a dress for girls or a suit for boys. Transgressors will be denied.

And while most (if not all) laws against cross-dressing have been taken off the books, that doesn’t stop harassment. One man is suing the New Orleans police department for threatening to arrest him for wearing a kilt in public. (Note to self: Naked breasts strewn with plastic beads, no problem; wearing traditional and mildly gender-bending Scottish garb, not so much.)

Transgender people cross the gender line and face discrimination at every turn. Most workplaces in the U.S. can legally discriminate against transgendered people, as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act does not protect them. Far worse, at least one transgender person is murdered on average each month of the year. And the murders of transgender people all too often remain unsolved.

Most cisgender women have a little more leeway in the choice between pants and skirts. (Although, Conservative Christian group Focus on the Family just started allowing women to wear pants this year.) But women have to worry about “modesty.” Women must walk that fine line between whore and oppressed. Wear too little material on your body and people will say you are asking to be attacked. Wear too much clothing on your body, a burqa for instance, and people will say you are oppressed.

Islam isn’t the only religion to dictate dress. Orthodox Jewish women must cover their elbows, knees and head in the name of modesty. Sometimes they wear scarves. Other times they cover up their hair with wigs. Meanwhile, Hasidic Jewish men, in 90 degree Miami heat, dress in wool outfits meant for winter in the Polish ghetto.

Monks and nuns wear robes not very different from a burqa. Certainly, they are equally desexualizing. True, nuns no longer wear the restrictive habits of the middle ages, some even wear no habits at all. The Catholic Church; however, isn’t happy about that and is reportedly conducting an investigation into nuns’ lapses.

How are any of these regulations legitimate?

The idea that women must dress modestly holds women responsible for mens’ behavior, as though men are wild animals who can’t be expected to have self control. Assigning clothing by gender is only an attempt to clearly delineate who gets what privilege in society. Forcing minority groups to dress like the majority is just the majority exerting its dominance. And requiring protesters to be identifiable just makes it easier for authorities to find and intimidate them.

During the holocaust, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and homosexuals forced to wear pink triangles. Slaves in the United States wore tags. Indigenous people in colonial Guatemala wore intricate patterns that told Spaniards what village they came from (clothing used in the civil war of the 80s to identify “subversives”). In Iran today, women are forced to wear headscarves, but Laila Al-Marayati and Semeen Issa, of the Muslim Women’s League, remind us that in 1979 veils were prohibited in Iran.

Whether the society is marking people for oppression or forcing them to conform, it all amounts to coercion. And coercion is wrong.

Dominant groups often make claims that their rules are for some higher purpose. French President Sarkozy says the burqa is a symbol of oppression and a barrier which makes women “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” He claims that his burqa ban is about the rights of women, despite the fact that many women who wear the burqa say that it is a personal choice.

But does Sarkozy’s claim hold up to closer inspection?

Are not burqa wearing French women still French women with all the rights of French women. Isn’t it the job of the French government to make sure their citizens know their rights and are able to exercise those rights?

Sarkozy would be more believable if he started a campaign to advise all French women of their rights. According to Amnesty International, France falls far short when it comes to protecting the rights of domestic violence victims. If Sarkozy is so interested in protecting women, wouldn’t making sure French women know their rights (and fully funding programs for victims of domestic the violence) be a more appropriate priority?

The burqa ban is not about the rights of women, any more than forcing women to wear skirts at work is about the rights of women. It is about symbolism. The French government does not like the symbolism of a people setting themselves apart. Many feminists do not like the symbolism of the burqa. But if we are going to start banning symbolism, we can’t stop just there. How about banning $60,000 French couture dresses – symbol of the criminal disparities in wealth in this world.

There may be some cases where requirements about what people put on their bodies are necessary. But life and death cases are few and far between. Anyone trying to impose their will on others better have much better reasons than the ones they’ve come up with so far.