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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Identity, Decolonization, and Justice

April 15, 2014 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Change, Violence

Anti-Colonial Anarchism or Decolonization

A friend of mine posted this to facebook. One of the commenters asked how far back we are supposed to go.

The thing about colonization, land grabs, genocide, slavery, gentrification – whatever manifestation of deciding you want something from people and just taking it – is that erasure is a key component. Which means the people that can go the farthest back are the people who are writing the wrong history.

A few years ago there was a post on Womanist Musings about how she could not trace her family history because she is the descendant of slaves. I also cannot trace my history. I am adopted and information about my biological relations is not available to me. My adopted family has a trail that ends in the holocaust or the pogrom. Who knows where all those wandering Jews wandered/were exiled from.

Getting to the origin of things is impossible. But we should still try. Because if you think about how hard oppressors have worked to destroy the histories of people, then you know just how important it is to protect and resurrect as much of it as you can. There is a reason why the Spanish destroyed the codices.

But when it comes to seeking justice, it is the present that is the most important thing.

The thing about this graphic, and the post that went with it, is that it is so easy to interpret it as referring to family history rather than current power imbalances. The history of one Spanish descended person in South America is not the important thing. The important thing is the unequal power of that descendant in the here and now. The important thing is the wealth that was extracted and continues to be extracted. They are injustices that have roots in history, but would still be problematic if they were new.

I agree that roots are important. I agree that we should be undoing our collective mindfuck – whether that is reclaiming indigenous beliefs or coming up with new ones. But identity and history are incredibly complicated. How do the principles outlined in this graphic get applied when the Cherokee nation decides to expel the descendants of black slaves who took the trail of tears with them?

For me the question is always about what is happening right now. What is most important to address right now? Who is suffering right now? What is the history that got us here, in all of its complexity, and how do we stop the bleeding?

On Facts and Truth

February 10, 2011 By: Mel Category: Politics

Our book group just finished reading The Whites of Their Eyes by Jill Lepore. Lepore is a historian and spends a lot of time focusing on historical facts that contradict the tea party narrative. So the group spent some time discussing whether or not there is such a thing as verifiable fact, whether the truth is really knowable.

It is common in U.S. politics for the left to assert that they deal in fact, while the right deals in mythology. You can certainly make a case for that when it comes to, for example, sex education or evolution.  But when I got home from the book club, I started thinking about another, similar discussion I had about facts and truth.

Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia is the testimonio of an indigenous Guatemalan woman.  Menchú lived through Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war, a war that resulted in an estimated 200,000 killed or disappeared and more than one million displaced. The book recounts the torture and murders of her family members and her journey from unknown indigenous woman to Nobel prize winner.

But the book caused controversy when anthropologist David Stoll started investigating some of the details.  He found, for example, that witnesses claimed Rigoberta’s brother was shot rather than burned to death.  He discovered that she had more education than claimed in the book.  And he brought out information about an intra-indigenous land dispute that was not mentioned in the story and which he thought pertinent.

People on the left rushed to Menchú’s defense.  They claimed that indigenous people had different senses of history and fact.  They said it was common in testimonio to mix together stories of what happened to you and what happened to others, that there was not the same sense of individuation that we have.  They claimed that whatever facts might be off, the overall story that she told is accurate.  Her book conveys how the war effected indigenous communities.

Although I was one of the few people in class who actually sympathized with some of Stoll’s arguments, I also had to admit that the facts in question didn’t really matter much to the overall truth of what she said.  As a writer, I know that there are some truths that I could probably only face in fiction.  And I suspect that Arundhati Roy, in the introduction to Field Notes on Democracy, is onto something when she says,

As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on.  Does it eventually mask a larger truth?  I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we really need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry.

I believe that.  I believe sometimes you can get mired in the details and lose site of what is important. And I believe that your belief system, your narrative, your ideology – they determine which facts you pursue.  So the motivation behind the pursuit is often more important than the facts themselves.

The reason that the left reacted so violently to Stoll is that they wondered what his motivation was in going after Rigoberta Menchú in the first place.  As I thought about that, I realized that one of the reasons I really disliked Lepore’s book was that I was suspicious about her motivations for writing it. And my suspicions were very soon confirmed by how she approached the issue.

She mocks the Tea Party.  It isn’t the kind of obvious mocking that you would get on The Daily Show. In fact, she makes herself seem like a very reasonable person who sat down and talked to them.  It is a subtle, intellectualized mocking where she points out all the facts they get wrong and glosses over or trivializes the things they get right.  Right at the beginning of the book she says,

But the Tea Party’s Revolution wasn’t just another generation’s story – it was more like a reenactment – and its complaint about taxation without representation followed the inauguration of a president who won the electoral vote 365 to 173 and earned 53 percent of the popular vote.  In an age of universal suffrage, the citizenry could hardly be said to lack representation. (emphasis mine)

Really?  I think there are about 5 million people in prison or felon disenfranchised who might disagree.  There are millions of undocumented immigrants who might disagree.  There are lots of young adults under 18 who might disagree.  And most of us eligible voters don’t feel represented by the customary choices of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.  That’s why we don’t usually bother to vote.  But thanks for dismissing us with one fell swoop of “facts.”

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I have a somewhat different take on the Tea Party crowd.  I think the Tea party is right that they are not represented.  I think they have been hella slow figuring it out.  I don’t know how to reach some of those people, but I am certain that combing through their words to find every fact they have wrong is not the way to do it. Inconvenient facts are great for winning a debate, but not necessarily helpful for reaching an understanding.

I am not claiming that facts do not matter at all.  I won’t go so far as to say nothing is knowable.  But I do think that we select what facts to go after and what facts to use.  We can as easily use facts to obscure the truth as to uncover it.  Facts and truth have a more complicated relationship than might seem to be the case and sometimes you have to go beyond facts to get at truth.

Does Culture Disappear?

April 26, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc, Religion

I often hear people express fear of losing their culture.  Sometimes, I sympathize with them.  I sympathize with indigenous people who are fighting for their dying languages.  I sympathize with the French farmer who led a revolt against McDonalds.  And I sympathize with Jews who – after surviving inquisitors, pogroms, and the holocaust – fear losing their culture to secularism and intermarriage.

But more often, the people who fear losing their culture don’t invoke much sympathy in me at all.  I have little sympathy for those who see immigration as a threat to their culture.  I have little sympathy for those who want to hang confederate flags to celebrate their culture.  I have little sympathy for people who defend misogynist, homophobic, racist or other hateful practices in the name of culture.

When I ponder the question of whether or not culture can disappear, my first response is – damn, I hope so.  I hope the culture of racism disappears.  I hope the culture of patriarchy disappears.  Rape culture, homophobic culture, materialistic culture…I hope all of it disappears. Of course, pondering those cultural relics just goes to show how difficult culture is to get rid of.  Culture, good and bad, is pernicious.

Culture mutates like a virus.  And it is that infinite mutability of culture that makes arguments about protecting culture completely nonsensical.  The fear that people have of losing their culture depends upon the belief that culture is isolated and stagnant.  It depends upon a belief that what you practice as your culture today is what it was yesterday and what it should be tomorrow.

Not true.

What is Jewish culture?  To my mother it means having Friday night dinner and celebrating the high holidays.  To my friend it means making obligatory visits to the holocaust museums and eating lox at kosher delis.  But to Hasidim on Miami Beach it means wearing the same clothes Jews wore in the Eastern European ghetto.  They have decided that preserving their culture means freezing it in a moment in time.  Why that moment?  Jesus was a Jew.  Why not wear loose robes?  It would make a lot more sense in Miami.  I mean wool in 90 degrees, oy vey.

What is authentic culture?  Is pizza authentically Italian when tomatoes are indigenous to the Americas?  Is apple pie authentically American when apples are indigenous to Central Asia?  Is the horse culture of the Plains Indians authentic, even though they only had horses after the Spanish brought them?

When I visited the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, our guide felt the need to explain to us why the pueblo houses had modern looking windows and doors on some of them.  “We shop at Home Depot too,” she said.  Clearly, some previous visitors had been disappointed that the Acoma people were unwilling to forgo modern conveniences so tourists could have an “authentic” experience.

When people try to hang on to culture, they are trying to hang on to culture caught in a moment in time, as interpreted through their memories or imaginations.  It isn’t real.  It isn’t possible. It isn’t desirable.

Don’t get me wrong.  It saddens me when I hear about lost cultures.  It saddens me to know that people in Tierra del Fuego only have a few native speakers left and that their language is dying.  But what is sad about lost culture is not that it is lost, per say.  What is sad is that, all too often, culture is lost because of force.  When the Navajo adopted the horse and changed their culture of their own volition, it was not sad.  When the Navajo were sent to schools to beat the Navajo out of them, that was not just sad, it was criminal.

The difference is force.  It is power.

Each individual must be free to chose which cultural things they think are useful and which they don’t think are useful.  If the things you are hanging on to are seen to be valuable by others, they will stick around.  Otherwise you just have to accept that not everyone shares your loves and values.  It’s a difficult thing to accept, but what else can you do?  Force acceptance down the barrel of a gun?

Of course, when people talk about losing their culture, what they often mean is they fear losing their identity.  They fear losing a label.  They fear losing a connection to a group and history that makes them special.  I can understand that fear.  But who you are is not so fragile.  Culture is not so fragile.

Here is the truth.  Many of the things that you cherish today will not be cherished, or even remembered, by future generations.  Many of the beliefs that people hold today will someday seem as strange and archaic as believing the world is flat.  You cannot stop that process.  That’s just life.  New cultural beliefs will form and their production will require cultural destruction.

But culture often survives in some small way despite itself.  In Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, there are many families descended from Spanish conversos.  There are Northern Mexicans who have been lighting candles on Friday nights for years, unawares that their tradition has roots in their Jewish heritage. And some of these people are rediscovering that heritage.  Hundreds of years of oppression and silence and yet a little flame remained.

Culture is stubborn.