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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Reparations and Aspirations: In Response to Coates and Connolly

June 25, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change

Acoma Pueblo New MexicoThanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates, people are talking about reparations. Which is great. But we appear to be dancing around what facing our history would necessarily mean for our future. And we don’t appear to be able to talk about doing anything outside of lobbying the very same political system that got us here.

One reason reparations seem impossible is that we cannot wrap our heads around a conception of justice that is meant to repair harm. We live in a society focused on retribution, not restoration. We send people to prison for decades for selling weed. We let poor women die in prison because their kid skipped school. We put the mentally ill in solitary confinement. We barely blink when the imprisoned are raped by guards, even juveniles. As a society, we stopped talking about rehabilitation a long time ago. Now we only talk about “paying” for crime and compete with each other to see who can be more cruel “tougher”.

Is it really surprising that people are afraid of what justice would look like?

What if, instead of retributive justice, we had restorative justice? In a society where people can only think in terms of retribution, an honest accounting is impossible. In a restorative justice process, an honest accounting is the first step toward repairing the harm done to individuals and the community. A restorative justice process is meant to transform the participants in a positive way and decrease the chances of future harm. Unlike our current system, the aim of restorative justice – including reparations – is not to make the perpetrator(s) suffer.

To talk about reparations is to acknowledge our need for an entirely new conception of justice, one that applies to all of our society. But we also need a hell of a lot more than that.

I found myself nodding in agreement to part 1 of N. D. B. Connolly’s response to Coates’s article. How did reparations to Israel from West Germany turn out? Not so great for the Palestinians. How often are relatively wealthy black people participants in the subjugation of poorer black people? A lot. What happens when you try to address one injustice without addressing the others? A mess. What became of our government’s attempts to look at the history of its crimes? Nothing much.

Our systems are systems of subjugation. Success within our society is dependent on oppression. It is essential but not sufficient to try and repair the damage done by slavery and white supremacy. We live in a complex hierarchy where your position is determined by your race, hue, ethnicity, gender, class, possessions, sexual preference, physical abilities, mental abilities, certifications… If all reparations try to do is bring more black people into the current definition of success, we will fail miserably. There will still be workers having their paltry wages stolen by McDonalds. There will still be migrant farm workers dying of sun stroke. There will still be poverty and an epidemic of teen suicides on reservations. We will still be drone bombing brown people in countries around the world.

In part 2 of Connolly’s response to Coates he makes some suggestions on what we should do about our toxic system. Unfortunately, despite his recognition of how problematic is the “tendency…to propose modest solutions within established government structures,” that is just what he did. It isn’t that I am against reinstating felons right to vote. It is that we should be talking about prison abolition. It isn’t that I don’t recognize the problems with the castle doctrine and stand your ground. It is that the castle doctrine and stand your ground have little to do with the epidemic of police violence (and police kill many more people than vigilantes do). It isn’t that I cannot see the value of removing the need to show discriminatory intent. It is that suing for discrimination does nothing to transform our injustice system or to put our workplaces in the control of the workers.

No amount of constitutional amendments or court cases are going to transform our government and economic system to one that is not based on hierarchy and subjugation. We need to think bigger. We can have a society based on cooperation and mutual aid. We can have community control and direct democracy. We can abolish prisons, democratize the workplace, and dismantle the military industrial complex.

I know many of you think I am too radical (or maybe delusional). But there is no other way. We cannot repair any part of our damaged society without a radical transformation of its values and institutions. Conversely, for those of us who have been working for radical changes, we cannot be successful unless we face the white supremacist core of everything we are trying to change.

You cannot, for example, talk about the prison industrial complex without acknowledging that it is part of a continuum from slavery to present. The thirteenth amendment said “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.” And today we have millions of people, disproportionately of color, laboring behind bars for pennies an hour to make some of the richest companies in the world even richer. And if that 37 cents an hour isn’t enough to cover your overpriced commissary tampons for the month – too bad for you.

Perhaps this seems overwhelming. Perhaps you are wondering where would we even start. The good news is that we have already started. You just might not have noticed yet.

There are already restorative justice organizations all over the country. There are already schools taking different approaches to conflict resolution. There is already a movement for change being led by tens of thousands of people who are incarcerated. We already have workers who refuse to just roll over for the owners, workers who are taking control and democratizing their workplaces. We even have communities with truth commissions.

No real radical change has ever come from above. The kind of change we need has always started with communities, churches, communes, and street corners. Processes that are grounded in community are based on and build relationships of trust. They are processes where the people are participants and not just spectators. And if our movements are rooted, they have a chance of withstanding the inevitable onslaught by those who don’t want real justice.

Also, processes that are grounded in community can adjust to local history and circumstances. Because restorative justice in Birmingham is going to look very different from restorative justice in Acoma Pueblo. We need to talk about what happens on reservations and on the Mexican border too. We need to remember that the history of the United States is not only the history of following Europeans as they crossed the continent. It is not just the history of that portion in the East that we call North and South.

There can be no repair without a radical transformation of our society. There can be no radical transformation of our society without an honest accounting of where we have been. And there can be neither repair nor transformation from the top down. In fact, we should be aiming to eliminate the hierarchies that got us into this mess to begin with.

A Note on Land Rights

April 30, 2014 By: Mel Category: Inequality

Casita in Copan HondurasSomehow my last post devolved into a twitter argument about whether or not some parts of Nevada were devoid of people when white people got there and so were open to be homesteaded. I’m not going to jump into that argument or write much about it. But for those of you who attach your ideas of legitimate use of resources to the idea of homesteading, I would like to throw out a few questions.

  1. Why do you feel the need to argue that there were some empty spaces when Europeans tripped over the Americas?
  2. Why is it that people can only seem to conceive of the replacement of previous people and their way of life, rather than integrating into what was already there?
  3. Are you aware that about 98% of the people in the Americas were killed by disease and that we are still discovering vast societies in areas that were (according to the colonizer) supposedly pristine wilderness?
  4. Does the fact that a person might not have had to kill or displace a specific set of residents change the overall narrative of colonialism?
  5. How does homesteading account for different ways of living? I’ve written before about pastoralists whose territory is so large it takes years to return back to where they started.
  6. How do you reconcile a right to resources based on making them “productive” with the need for places on this earth that are not cultivated?
  7. How does the conception of homesteading apply to the use of resources in the ocean or the air…?

I have nothing against rights based on use or need. I just think the concept of homesteading is very much rooted in an agricultural, European, individualist culture/history and it is grossly inadequate.

Tobacco, Taxes, and Thuggery

August 21, 2013 By: Mel Category: Inequality, Politics

Back when I started smoking I could get a pack of cigarettes for around $1.35.  Ah, the good old days when I could kill my lungs on the cheap. When the mega taxing of cigs started, I could just hop over to the Seminole reservation and get a carton for $18 or so. No more it seems. Monumental, greedy douchebags like New York State Senator Carl Kruger (who should still be serving his sentence on corruption charges) couldn’t stand missing out on a little revenue from the reservations.

Reservations are supposed to be sovereign. “States have no authority over tribal governments unless expressly authorized by Congress.” Of course, nothing stops people like me from hopping over to a reservation and taking advantage of tax free cigs. State governments, especially New York, sent themselves into a tizzy about it. They argued that non-native people shouldn’t escape the tax. (Never mind that, if I go to another country and buy the shit out of some cheap cigarettes, I am totally allowed to bring them back.)

I’ve been following this story for a while, as I am

1. Addicted to cigarettes

2. Think it is about damn time we stop screwing with indigenous people

3. Like any story that makes unquestioning, liberal tax love inconvenient

4. Love the DIY FU response from the Oneida

5. Think the drug legalization movement needs to pay attention to people being prosecuted for smuggling legal things

Of course, people are getting around the taxes in all sorts of ways. And, of course, the government is getting thuggish about it – like confiscating truckloads of cigarettes made on one reservation and bound for another. In March, a few Indian smokeshops were ordered to pay more than $10 million for selling untaxed cigarettes.

Then today I come across this AP article that conveniently leaves out any context when telling about a couple from Independence, Kansas that is under a 43 count indictment for smuggling cigs to be sold on reservations. (Side note: I’ve been to Independence, Kansas. Not a lot going on there job wise.)

I haven’t seen a whole lot of people paying attention to this. And I’m wondering why. Is it because the normal small government and anti-tax crew don’t give a shit about what happens on reservations? Is it because the gooey liberals who claim to care about indigenous people love taxes and forcing “healthy behavior” on people? Is it because conservatives like state government and liberals like federal government and almost nobody really cares about preserving any kind of freedom from both? Or am I being to complicated. Is it just that most people don’t even know indigenous people exist anymore?

I’ll leave you to decide.  I’ll also leave you with this Dave Chappelle snippet. Enjoy.

 

 

Don’t Be Like Che

March 17, 2011 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Seeking

Che Guevara is everywhere.  He is on t-shirts, sneakers, bags, bedazzled boots, and even children’s books. The bedazzled boots don’t really bother me so much. Not likely that the person wearing those has actually read any Che and they probably won’t be mistaken for someone who is about to go traipsing through the jungle to start a foco.

It is all the attention from the radical left that really irritates me. At first I thought, maybe they just don’t know what he was about. Maybe they’ve never read his work. Maybe they don’t know what he was doing in Bolivia. But as I watch some of the people who love Che, I am beginning to see that they probably like him for exactly the reasons that I don’t.  Because I keep seeing people in our communities emulate all of Che’s most problematic characteristics.

Guevara was a privileged, white kid from Argentina whose parents were about as close to blue blood as you could get. He eventually became politicized, hooked up with Fidel Castro in Mexico, and joined Castro’s revolutionary movement – a movement that had lots of support, even amongst many of the middle and upper classes who now claim to have always hated Fidel. It was a revolution rooted in community, history, and cultural understanding. And it was the only thing Che was involved with that wasn’t a total failure. (I’m not romanticizing the revolution here, just acknowledging that they achieved their goal.)

After the revolution, Che was in charge of the economic policies in Cuba. And he fucked it up royally. This is not my opinion.  Guevara got on Cuban television and told the people he had designed “an absurd plan, disconnected from realty, with absurd goals and imaginary resources.” (Castañeda 216). He did some other awful things in his post-revolutionary Cuba days. He was instrumental in setting up the labor camp where dissidents and homosexuals were sentenced to hard labor for their “crimes against revolutionary morals.” (178)

Guevara decided to go back to what he thought he did best. He took off for the Congo to participate in the anti-imperialist fighting there. Che should have known better. Even as Castro’s BFF, the fact that he was not Cuban was an issue during the Cuban revolution. Now Che was off in Africa, a place he knew jack shit about, trying to lead troops of Africans.  Many were incredulous at best. Egyptian President Nasser “expressed his astonishment and attempted to dissuade him, explaining that a white, foreign leader commanding blacks in Africa could only come across as an imitation of Tarzan.” (283)

The Congo mission was a failure, as Che himself admitted. But instead of learning from his mistakes, he headed to Bolivia to start a continent-wide South American revolution. Nobody seems to be sure why Bolivia was chosen. The country had a relatively popular elected president. The people had been through a revolution only fourteen years earlier. The 1952 revolution led to some land reform, a lot of food shortages, and the virtual economic takeover of Bolivia by the United States. Nobody in Bolivia wanted a revolution repeat.

The communist party in Bolivia was not supportive. Che claims they backed out. Mario Monje, Secretary of the Communist Party of Bolivia, claims that the Cubans lied about Che’s intentions.  Either way, when Che saw he had virtually no local support, he should have turned around and went home. But he did not. He and his group, virtually no Bolivians amongst them, planted themselves in a country not their own and determined to start a war. So here he was, some white dude from Argentina, wandering around indigenous communities in Bolivia and trying to instigate violence that would force those campesinos to take his side.

The campesinos were having none of it. Let’s try to imagine how many times in the last 500 years those people have seen some conquistador come in and claim they were there to save them. This group of outsiders knew nothing about the community. Che and his crew did not know the people or the language. They were so ignorant that they were trying to teach themselves Quechua. Too bad they were in a place that was Aymara and Guarani. And when the news got out that a bunch of outsiders were starting shit, Guevara just lied and claimed that the majority of the movement were Bolivians.

Every single month, Che’s diary of Bolivia tells how they were having no luck in recruiting locals. It tells how the people were informing on them. It tells how they took locals hostage, took their animals, forced the locals to feed them, and made the locals targets of the military. Again and again, Che describes how terrified the people were.

Not surprisingly, Guevara was turned in. He was murdered. Bolivians went on to have their own revolution, a relatively peaceful one. They elected an indigenous man, leader of the once-scorned coca growers union. And unlike with the post-Obama-election liberals in the United States, Bolivians have continued to raise hell every time they don’t like the policies that their government is supporting. Turns out those campesinos didn’t need some conquistador to come in and do it for them. Imagine that.

Every time I see some privileged person protest touring, I think of Che. Every time I hear about some insurrectionists starting shit in other people’s neighborhoods, I think of Che. Every time some twenty-something white dudes audaciously roll into a room like they have all the answers – summarily dismissing the experience and knowledge of everyone else there – I think of Che. Every time I see some supposed radicals who can’t recognize how inappropriate it is to “lead” or “save” or “help” the poor people or black people or brown people, without bothering to ask their opinion about it, I think of Che.

I do admire Che’s willingness to give up so much of his privilege, to suffer and sacrifice for his beliefs. But a person can never give up all their privileges. And he certainly didn’t lose the false sense of superiority that comes with having been told all your life that you are at the top of the food chain. We don’t need more arrogance, racism, cultural insensitivity, machismo, violence, and sexism. That might get your mug on a t-shirt someday, but it isn’t going to make the world a better place.

Imagine if Guevara had not made a new man the center of his philosophy.* What if he had stuck around to fix his fuck ups in Cuba? What if he took care of his official and unofficial kids? How cool would it have been if he had recognized that he couldn’t impose his beliefs on others? How amazing if he had said that it is time white dudes stopped trying to be in charge all the damn time? Now that would have been fucking revolutionary.

______________

* Guevara’s pep talk to the troops, “This type of struggle gives us the opportunity to become revolutionaries, the highest form of the human species, and it also allows us to emerge fully as men; those who are unable to achieve either of those two states should say so now and abandon the struggle” (Guevara 208). Apparently, I am unable to attain the “highest form of the human species” (not being a man). Guevara seems to have put himself in that category, above all the rest of us riffraff. How nice for him.

Castañeda, J. (1997) Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara. NY, NY, Vintage Books.

Guevara, C (2206). The Bolivian Diary. NY, NY, Ocean Press.

On Facts and Truth

February 10, 2011 By: Mel Category: Core, Politics, Seeking

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.

Is Education Overrated?

June 14, 2008 By: Mel Category: Stratification

Recently, John McCain opposed a bill requiring equal pay for women. He received a maelstrom of blogosphere criticism for his assertion that what women needed was “education and training.” Let’s, for the moment, set aside the fact that we were talking about women with equal education and training. Was what John McCain said really so different from the same tired lines we always hear about education?

Education as a panacea

Both Barack Obama and John McCain’s websites highlight our failing educational systems. McCain focuses on public schools “cultural problems” and lack of choice. (Read: Fearful parents should be able to remove their children from schools filled with the other.) Obama wants to provide funding, improve teacher pay and make a college education affordable for everyone.

Regardless of whose position you most agree with (and I admit that I agree with Obama’s), the implication remains the same. Without education, children will fail in life. They will not be able to get good jobs. They will be poor. They will always struggle. And all of this joblessness, poverty, and struggle will be the result of their poor education. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who will disagree with that statement. No one seems to question it at all.

What do we mean when we say education?

About a year ago, I was on a mini-tour outside of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. My boyfriend and I were on our way to some natural hot springs called Las Fuentes Georginas. Sharing the van with us were two other tourists, one woman from DC and one from Australia. As we drove the winding road to the hot springs, passing Mayan farmers working their fields, the Australian commented on the impressiveness of their mountainside agriculture. The American quickly responded that the Peace Corp had come in and shown them how to do everything.

Now, for those of you who do not know, indigenous people of the Americas have always been some of the most gifted agriculturalists in the world. Their efforts over centuries have brought an incredible array of foods that the world relies on to survive, most importantly corn and potatoes. In fact, recent scholarship has focused on how to undo some of the western agricultural practices imposed on indigenous people by our so-called experts and on learning about their much more sustainable traditional ones.

The point of my story being that the American could not conceive that someone without a formal education could know something. It was easier for her to believe that a twenty-something Peace Corp volunteer would know more than a 40 year old farmer who had centuries of knowledge passed down to him or her.

When we say education, we mean formal education. We mean education that comes with a piece of paper. We mean that someone who has already been certified as worthy confers on us this same worthiness. We can then show this paper to the world and say, you see, I deserve to make a decent living.

Is formal education just stratification?

For employers, the formal education system is, at best, a shortcut. Presumably, that piece of paper evidences a certain level of knowledge and ability that the employer can rely on. But since not everyone has the opportunity to get that piece of paper, it also acts as a barrier and as a means of conferring status from one generation to the next. If you are wealthy and one of your parents went to college, you are far more likely to go yourself.

Employers are not necessarily conscious of the prejudicial filtering effect of this system. Every nonprofit I have worked for has been chagrined at the lack of diversity in their offices. They often set up diversity committees to figure out what is going wrong. They think of elaborate ways to recruit a more diverse staff.

The reason non-profits are not diverse (ethnically or economically) is simple. Minorities are disproportionately poor. They have less opportunity to go to college. Since nonprofits require a bachelors to sweep the floor, they filter out good people who had less opportunities in life. (On top of which, the main entry point to the world of nonprofits and government is through unpaid internships, which no poor person can afford to take.)

What is societies responsibility to business and vice versa?

There was a time when business was required to provide training to their employees. Then, at least, if an employer was going to make money from your labor, they had to provide you the skills to do it. Today, we are expected to obtain the skills ourselves. Employers want society to provide education. They want their employees to have previous experience. For-profits don’t want to waste a penny of their bottom line on training. Non-profits use the excuse of few resources.

In fact, university education itself has changed. It is no longer about a liberal arts education. It isn’t about pondering the meaning of existence or critical thinking about the issues of the day. It has become, more and more, about simply providing the skills that businesses are looking for. If our entire education system revolves around what business wants, is it any wonder that business has taken over our political and personal lives as well?

Does an “uneducated” person deserve their fate?

When we were kids, my father used to tell my sister that, if she didn’t improve in school and go to college, she would end up flipping burgers in Wags Restaurant. (Wags was a lot like Denny’s, if you’re not familiar.) This was said with absolute certainty, without any doubt as to whether or not this most terrible fate would be deserved (or if it was a terrible fate at all).

When I was in high school, a classmate of mine was stabbed to death. During the trial, the defense brought up his poor performance in school as evidence of his inherent badness. The logic went that, if he performed poorly in school, he must be one of those bad kids. If he was one of those bad kids, he must have done everything that the defense said he did. They bought it and the murderer got off.

Whenever we hear about a farmworker making pennies and living in a cardboard box, or an inner city youth who can’t find a job, or an Appalachian former coal miner barely surviving, our response is that they need eduction. The implication is twofold. Without a formal education, it is acceptable that someone can’t even make enough to feed their family, regardless of how hard they work. And without a formal education, a person doesn’t have the ability, knowledge or skills to contribute to society in a way that deserves decent compensation.

What role should education play in our lives?

I’m not suggesting we all embrace illiteracy and ignorance. I’m saying that knowledge from a professor duly authorized by the university system is not the only kind of knowledge there is. Not only people with graduate degrees deserve to live humanly.

Perhaps we need to start questioning the motives of people for whom formal education is their answer to everything. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves how much our idea of education should revolve around certification of the skills some well-paying businesses want and more around how to produce a just society in which everyone can participate.