Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Books of the Year: My Feminist Reawakening

Happy Christmas and a joyous new year to you all! I am shocked that yet another year has gone by; it's hard to say if the world is any closer to turning after 2012. Still we wait for the fires of justice, for the tears to be wiped away, for the kings to beware, for the tyrants to be struck from thrones. Watching Syria and Egypt's hopes of freedom crumble has been tragic; closer to home, seeing Occupy Wall Street's last sparks extinguished (at least in terms of semi-permanent encampments) has been sad. I personally have found out that the least bit of revolutionary expression will be met with immediate repression, which I am not good at dealing with. That is to say, many of us found out this year that freedom of assembly is a right that Americans no longer have. Surely some unfortunate experiences there have dampened my passion for blogging.

However, if this was not necessarily a good year for human liberation of the common people, it was a fantastic year for the imaginative powers of filmmakers and authors. Unlike in years past, every time my dear husband and I wanted to go to a movie, we had to choose between several appealing options. Moonrise Kingdom, Cloud Atlas, Casa de mi Padre, Prometheus and Skyfall were my favorite movies of the year so far, but there are literally dozens of other movies that came out that I am still waiting see (including Django Unchained, to be seen in the immediate future, Looper, Seven Psychopaths, a documentary about Detroit whose name escapes me now, John Carter, and a couple of appetizing Shakespeare adaptations). I have reviewed several of these films on this website, and all of them are a good way to spend a couple of hours over Christmas break.

Excellence in filmmaking aside, I enjoyed a busy year reading. In 2012 I rediscovered the joys of feminist prose; for the first time in many years the majority of books that occupied my time were women's writing. After years of wallowing in male discourse, no matter how excellent, it's comforting to return to protagonists that I can relate to, books where I am a primary member of the audience and not on the outside peeking in.

Probably my favorite new-to-me author of 2012 was Jeanette Winterson. Her gripping memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, came out this year. It's a beautiful follow up to her autobiographical novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit; she narrates her experiences of living lesbian, poor, and book-loving while in the grip of a severe fundamentalist sect. Her books restored my faith in the power of the novel and of claiming one's own experience. I also read her novel Sexing the Cherry, a gender-shifting romp among 18th century royalists and giantesses in London. She writes firmly into the tradition of British novels, with a strong appreciation for the literary giants and a concurrent fascination with fairy tales and the Bible. Her novels are so fiercely intelligent and inventive and true. I hope to read the rest of her oeuvre in 2013!

In a similar vein, Kansas writer Kelly Barth wrote a terrific memoir this year, My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus. She, too, writes of living lesbian, poor, and book-loving, but her writing focuses more on her experiences within the Church as she continues to live in communion with the body of Christ. Her story is especially relevant to all pastors and others who strive to recreate the church as space that welcomes all and loves all with Christ's abandon and acceptance. True story: she and I were traumatized by the very same end-times films from the 70s, which promised beheading to all who do not accept the mark of the Beast! Now she runs a great bookstore in Lawrence, KS, and her memoir is also great.

Another Lawrence writer, R.L. Naquin, published her delightful urban fantasy Monster in My Closet this year. Her enticing heroine Zoey is a wedding planner beset by her ability to feel empathy for everyone, including monsters! While this debut novel is a little lighter and more humorous than most of my reading list (motto: if I'm not weeping and ready to start the revolution at the end of the book, why bother?), it's enormously fun. I also note that Zoey is a feminist heroine. She is a woman who takes her career seriously. Her job also involves a lot of communication between women at different stages of life, a very real facet of women's experience that is often overlooked in "mainstream" fiction. And I think many of us in traditional "women's work" can relate to the draining sensation of offering up our empathy as part of our daily labor.

I have started reading science fiction by women again. This year's Among Others, by Jo Walton, was the most memorable of the lot--a tale of a book-loving girl, existing on the corners of society, with the witching hours also just along the edges. She has a complicated relationship with her mom and a love-love relationship with science fiction. The book is a little like Harry Potter in the tradition of boarding school fiction, although of course with more direct literary allusions and an adult audience in mind.

When I look at my list, it reminds me that no writer who works with women in mind ever went broke overestimating the complexity and ambiguity of our relationships with our mothers. These are all about the mothers.

My favorite single novel that I read this year certainly carried through that theme, although it is not science fiction, nor written this year. Ruth Ozeki's All Over Creation combined seed saving, roving anarchist bands, family politics, and potatoes with a stunning indictment of Monsanto-style business. My dear friend M. recommended to me, because if there is anything I like more than a hearty mix of potatoes and anarchism I don't know what it might be. If you enjoy good prose and important well-spun tales, and if you suspect that GMO companies are up to no good, you should read this book. If you don't suspect that GMO companies are up to no good, you should start suspecting that, and then read this book.

And, finally, one of these books is not like the others: David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years is neither fiction nor woman-authored nor particularly about relationships with mothers. It is the best non-fiction work of the year, though, and will dramatically alter the way any readers think about money. It offers little clarity but lots of information on the ways we conceptualize debt and morality, and by extension all money and the transactional economy. Graeber is an entertaining writer, especially for an academic, but for a change this revolutionary book is optimistic; when we fall into fiscal cliffs and debt crises every two or three months, it's terribly reassuring to remember that debt is a unfortunate fiction and not a tangible thing that must destroy us.

I look forward to reading many other people's analysis of top books of the year, and welcome recommendations in the comments. I also add that most of the books on this list were recommended to me by feminist friends, and reflecting on this year of reading in community brings me strength and warmth on this cold night. Adieu!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Skyfall: Bond Almost Achieves Class Consciousness

Given the rich panoply of films available this year, I may just turn this into a full-time movie review blog until Oscar season is over. We saw Skyfall last weekend (the new James Bond, third in the Daniel Craig era for those of you who aren't big fans) and enjoyed it a lot. I don't recommend it as heartily as Cloud Atlas (which you should see while it's in theaters, and then come over to our place the day it's released on DVD for the first of many communal viewings), but it's still a fine piece of action filmmaking. It reminded me of this summer's Batman movie in its use of a sympathetic villain with extra-monetary motivations. And, of course, it contained cogent discussions of workers' consciousness and how capitalism exploits us all. There are spoilers in the text below.

In Skyfall, a near death experience prompts Bond to question his own role in the order of things and leads to a questioning of the state monopoly on violence that pervades the film. When he's in a classic "battling the bad guy" stance on top of a moving train, M encourages a colleague to aim at the villain; she orders, and the agent shoots, despite the fact that doing so risks Bond's life and health. Somehow, he survives the bullet, but the service presumes him dead. He drinks away the betrayal in classic fashion with a beautiful woman on an island somewhere before returning to the service. But the Bond of the rest of this film is wiser than he was before. He made an devastating discovery--that the same state that uses him to kill others sees him as acceptable collateral damage.

For James Bond is a worker. Capitalism tries to glamorize the workers who do "important" work maintaining colonialist relations (like spies). However, those glamorous workers are no less expendable than the workers whose fruit stands and delivery mopeds were demolished in that first car chase.* Alas, Bond has grown addicted to the work, and allows MI-5 to start using him again because of patriotism or something. On his re-entry he receives not a hero's welcome, but an insulting battery of tests to demonstrate his fitness to keep on risking his life. These tests squarely align our hero with the working people in his audience--who doesn't have to endure such tests just for the privilege of performing the labor that sucks the marrow from our lives?

Lots of spoilers coming up.

This discussion of the exploitation of spies as workers continues when we meet the real villain, a clear foil to Bond. Like James, Silva (played oh so creepily by Javier Bardem and reason enough to see the movie) experienced pain and suffering as the byproduct of MI-5 goals (and specifically the actions of M); unlike James, he didn't return for more but struck out on a life of cyber-crime which threatens to bring down the whole system of secret agents. Silva has become the logical and perfect result of the spy agency, but he's stripped off the veneer of public interest to pursue pure capitalism. He hoards information and uses it for profit. He recognizes that humans aren't particularly secure embodiments of that information, though, and keeps it all on crazy-secure computers. The humans in his organization serve primarily as bullet absorbers, not information processors. He's taken in the values of the bureaucracy that screwed him over and now devotes his time to screwing over other people. And, naturally, he wants revenge on M, on whom he blames his months of torture.

M's character shades pretty darn ambiguous at this point. For Silva reveals that Bond was not really healthy enough to go back into the field, that she deceived him and ignored protocol (he failed those silly tests) because she needed an adrenaline junkie to take on this threat. M put him in harm's way for some nebulous greater good, just as she had put Silva in harm's way to gain the release of other agents. Both of them looked up to her and thought she was looking out for them; whether she was in fact defending the greater good or her own career is unclear.

Anyway, it turns out that Silva is also mad at Bond for replacing him as M's favored agent, so a big battle at Bond's childhood home ensues. The last third of the movie is none too consistent or believable, but lots of stuff blows up and the inscrutable master spy gets a back story.

Most importantly, M dies at the hands of this assault. We mourn her death, but we are also left asking if her end was, perhaps, just, that she used people as ends and deserved to die an unnatural death . Her extinction on the decaying altar of Bond's family chapel represents the end of the old hierarchies that have governed his life: his church deserted, the old family home and lingering parental presence turned to rubble, his beloved boss/mother figure/mentor killed both in body and in reputation.

An ending credit promises us that James Bond will return: but can he? Will he ever be the same after recognizing his disposability? Can he swear undying loyalty to an organization that does not return the favor? Can he ignore the corruption in which he's ensnared? It's up to the next director to sort this out, but I suspect he cannot continue his life without becoming more like Silva. He will emulate those he kills more than those that he protects.

*This opening chase highlights the lack of concern colonialist information industries have for their host cultures. Bond lays waste to fruit stands and delivery mopeds alike in pursuit of the villain, the livelihoods of many people a small price to pay for the thrill of fulfilling the needs of the state. One wonders if he will be so willing to hurt innocent bystanders after he himself becomes an innocent bystander.

N.B.This summer I reviewed "The Dark Knight Rises," a film than genuinely infuriated me and required me to read it against the grain. I do not mean to insinuate the same for Skyfall, which succeeds on many levels and which I enjoyed. It is an effective action movie and celebrates the Bond genre even while questioning M's motives and the justice of spying. Unlike Bane, Silva is not a class warrior. He is the end which exposes the evil of the means. The above is intended not as a demolition of the film, but an attempt to read the film through the lens of labor.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cloud Atlas: Crochet plays prominent role in future!

We saw Cloud Atlas in the theater last night. It's magical, and if it's in your budget to do so, you should try to see it in the theater. If you haven't heard about it, it's a film by the Wachowski siblings (of The Matrix fame) and Tom Tykwer (who directed the beautiful Run Lola Run some time ago). Apparently, the novel behind the film was thought unfilmable, and this is a masterpiece of adaptation; I have not read it although now I want to. It features the same actors in different roles in six stories set in disparate eras. But this is much grander than other films with that same conceit, like Babel and Crash.

For here is a paean to human liberation, a clarion call for all those than yearn for freedom to and freedom from. Perhaps the strongest narrative is that of the two young men in 1930s England, so desperately in love and so tragically separated both by their forbidden affection and by economic uncertainty. The future-that-seems-like-the-past tale of the peaceful crocheting herdsman on a cliff is the tale that haunted me through the night and into this morning, the images of a future that is both magnificent and free and terrifying and doomed. And the story of Neo Seoul, with lots of whiz-bang technology and the accompanying horrific exploitation and underground, appealed to my science-fiction loving and anarchism-following sides like none other. This section, by the way, is probably the closest in theme and vision to The Matrix, if you liked that kind of thing. I thought the whole film was a refutation of its oft-repeated soundbyte "The strong eat; the weak are meat;" it inspires constant resistance to the ethos of competition and repression.

Unfortunate details about the film include the fact that, as magnificent and liberation-minded as this film is, it still barely passes the Bechdel test (two women talking to each other about something other than romance with men for 30 seconds or more). The two women actors, and the numerous gender-crossing performances, represent strong female and genderqueer characters, but this is mostly still a film about men (sorry, Lana). And I'm not sure the story about the young American man appalled by slavery in 19th century America worked, quite.

But still. Watching this film was exactly the opposite experience of watching The Dark Knight; like that movie, I went into this with high hopes for a good story, a liberating message, and ground-breaking visual magnificence. This time I was not disappointed. You probably won't be, either.

And not just every movie lists its knitters and crocheters in the credits. I'm calmed and delighted to see how significant crochet will be in the far distant future. Textile artists everywhere can get excited now!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Health of the State

[Trigger warning: The following contains descriptions of rape apologists and their positions.] As I confessed a few weeks ago, the drama of our national elections has drawn me in, regardless of my anarchist sensibilities. So I've been watching the debates with great interest. The Obama-Romney debate was painful to watch for me as for everyone on the left; Romney lies with fluidity (as he always has), and I was honestly surprised that he got a bump in the polls from his performance. But Obama underwhelmed, even as he avoided any campaign-ending gaffes.

Now, the Biden-Ryan debate was much more energetic. While I don't adore Obama or Biden, and I loathe Romney, I detest Paul Ryan, who co-sponsored bills with Todd Akin (of "the woman's body has ways of shutting that stuff down" fame) debating forcible rape vs. normal or unforced rape or non-forcible rape or whatever the hell those rape apologists think rape is if it isn't forced. Also, every time I look at him, I think "guy who actively wants children to be hungry" because of his attempts to slash food-stamp funding. So I had more of a desire to see Ryan publicly shamed and forced to admit that he's a lying bastard whose grasp of math is not nearly as strong as he claims. The debate satisfied my desire to see that happen. My favorite moment was when Ryan said, "Let's look at this from the allatoyahs perspective," and betrayed how easily he slips into a totalitarian theocrat viewpoint!

However, the joy of all Democrats at seeing this weasel embarrassed aside, the debate reminded me of something much more fundamental. Now, both "sides" of the "debate" have claimed that this election is a referendum on the role of the State, and they are not wrong; however, I would suggest that more than anything this is a referendum on how the State can be the most healthy--and the tragic part of this is that they are really talking about how the state can most effectively wage war. Indeed, issues of war consumed most of the debate--where are we at war? Where should we be at war? How can we use war to further American interests? Meanwhile, the issues of poverty, of prisons, of institutional racism and sexism, of repression, and the evils of empire slouch under a bipartisan invisibility cloak, waiting for the state to become ill enough to address them.

You see, anarchists have a saying, "War is the health of the state." While I am not completely against government as such, I do believe that centralized nation-states exist primarily to wage wars; the rest is window dressing. The Social Contract is not so much a contract as it is a bribe--the state has to figure out the minimum of rights and security it has to allow the people to have in order for them not to riot in the streets and demand their lives back from the war machine. You may have noticed that this year there were, in fact, a lot of people in the streets, rioting, demanding their lives returned. So we could hazard a guess that the State is not healthy, that its warmaking capacity is threatened.

Both Biden and Ryan depend on the health of the state, however; their job is not to serve the American People, but to revive the state. I think the Republican plan for invigorating the state apparatus is clear: vilify the Enemies (Iran, Liberals, the Gays, the 47%) to justify destroying all public works, so that the enemy can't use them (and yes, I am thinking of public schools here); to justify going to actual war with Iran; to justify removing people's rights (a la the Patriot Act) and then punishing any protestors vigorously. (On this note, I send a shout of solidarity to Leah Lynn-Plante, who the state deprived of her liberty yesterday. Read all about it.) The healthy state that Ryan envisions is pure--a profit-generating machine, dependent on classic government repression rather than bribes to keep the population in check; a tank to drive over any opponents of American business "interests;" the Emperor, without any clothes--and proud of it--a pure ruling power that knows no shame, that dominates and devastates all it touches.

The Democrats do try to clothe the emperor (to warp the usual metaphor a bit). In their healthy state, everyone contributes to and benefits from the war machine. They offer a better bribe to keep people off the streets. And don't get me wrong: the better bribes alleviate suffering, and as such they are much more moral than the alternative of cutting government down to pure capitalist bulldozer. But Biden is still focusing on the health of the state over that of human beings. Obamacare is offered up as a way to save federal dollars, instead of a way to save lives. The Democrats bailed out banks for the good of the economy, instead of people because they are inherently worthwhile. The campaigns both focus on the advancement of the middle class, and marginalize people in situations of poverty further by pretending they don't exist (while disenfranchising them if they can). Obama has authorized numerous, numerous, numerous drone strikes and argued in favor of detaining people at any time; are those acts good for people? Adamantly not, but it's good for the state. Any problem-solving discussion degenerates into squabbling over how to cut the deficit, not how to empower human beings to make their lives better. This, too, is for the good of the state; and by remaining focused on a healthy state over healthy humans, the Democrats are complicit in these evils.

Am I utopian in dreaming of a world where we don't have to support war and violence and domination in order to secure true prosperity for all humans? Of course I am. The various governments of the world aren't going to turn their swords into plowshares anytime soon; the erstwhile owners of the swords aren't going to return them to the common arsenal without a fight.

But I am not utopian in proclaiming our current bribe a terrible deal. The workers toil all day with little protection and insufficient compensation, doing overtime work that unemployed people could be taking over; one in seven households suffered from food insecurity last year; our soldiers die in unpopular wars; education is ever more privatized and unaffordable; hell, some places we no longer have clean drinking water. Are our life forces not worth more than this? We should up our prices, be in the streets and squares and courts and halls proclaiming that we will not overlook wars for the paltry service that the government does for us right now.

Alas, our only electoral choices are between the intolerable status quo and an unimaginably horrible surrender to the super-rich. These are not choices. This is a nightmare.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Gardening: The End Game

After that punishing summer, fall has arrived with a bit of a vengeance. So I had to clear our my tomato vines today, a bittersweet step for this gardener. But I, like Julie Andrews, have faith that spring will come again, and with it so will fresh tomatoes. Besides, we enjoyed such bounty this summer that even this tomato-lover accepts the concept of a few tomato free months with a hint of relief.

Still, a few ripening tomatoes survived the near-frost, so I made one last batch of tomato-basil soup:

Accepting gardening's possibilities of plenty means not mourning the end of one phase of gardening, for another phase shall soon begin. And indeed, my fall gardening has been quietly successful this year. The heat rendered my multitude of pepper plants dormant over the summer, but they perked right up with some rain and some cooler weather. I have harvested peppers regularly for the last month or so. My basil has also increased its magic regenerative powers now that it is not fighting heat, and we've enjoyed homemade pesto with gnocchi or spaghetti at least once a week, recently.

But the highlight of fall gardening was the sweet potato harvest!

I planted nine slips of sweet potato, and during September I dug up two of them to check on their size. Just this morning, I decided they had to come out regardless of if they had reached the gigantic proportions of my dreams (again, prompted by a near-frost). And how beautiful they were! I reaped 12-15 pounds of tasty orange tubers. They are kind of strange shapes, some of them, and a couple had encounters with garden slugs, but for an experimental crop I'd say they turned out great! We are going to make sweet potato and black bean burritos with them, this week, but it's a lot of orange goodness to enjoy. If you have any preferred recipes, please send them my way.

In the picture, you can see the green tomatoes at the edge. If you know anything awesome to do with them, too, I would be very open to suggestions. Right now I am planning to let them ripen on the kitchen counter and use them in the ordinary fashion, but some folks have suggested to me that fried green tomatoes are the best use of garden produce ever.

Thanks to my dear friend and kind seed sharer R., I also planted some beets and spinach really late last month. They have sprouted. I do not know if they can survive the cold long enough to mature, but they were worth an attempt.

Some pretty exciting fall volunteers showed up too; a purple lettuce plant I put in a full year and a half ago is not on its third generation of self-seeded plants. Its babies showed up over the winter last year and bolted in June. Now the new generation is everywhere, and tasty, although the plants are small.

And another lettuce plant from this spring has seeded babies, too; now if only they grow big enough to eat before a truly chilling frost! I still have hopes of planting some garlic and onions for the fall, but that kind of advance planning is not my strong suit.

By this fall, gardening has become a natural part of my life. The knowledge that I can produce a real quantity of food to help feed my family is a source of great pride and strength for me. I have a better sense of which plants are useful to grow, and how to grow them; a basic knowledge of common pests; went to plant; and how to use and preserve what I grow. My ultimate gardening goals (growing near all of our family's produce, and having enough to preserve and give away) are still a ways off, but building a bit every year, they seem achievable. I look forward now to a winter off before returning to the weeding and watering and digging that will take more time, but less mental effort, on every subsequent garden!


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Voting for Fear

This season, I have been thinking a lot about the problems of voting. I tried to stay out of the bipartisan hack jobs of national representative politics this year, but that effort was entirely unsuccessful. I have been glued to my beloved NPR for my usual 2+ hours a day, watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert mercilessly, reading many magazines, feeling deep disillusion and annoyance. However, as an engaged citizen throughout our electoral process, I feel that I've come to a better understanding of why anarchists are largely white and male.

Most anarchist thought condemns voting for politicians as a useless activity that simply legitimizes the existing power structure. And the acclaimed Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul condemns voting as a morally repugnant assent to a most unChristian system of exploitation and abuse. On the whole, I agree with this concept. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are sold out to corporate interests, both encourage a militarized society, both work to spread American empire abroad. Obama, with all his hope and change, has done a variety of dreadful things. Romney is despicable for many reasons, most prominently his casual classism. By voting at all, do I legitimate this system, these people?

I'm not going to dignify Romney with a discussion of why no one who makes less than Raking It In should vote for him. But people have asked me specifically why I would consider not voting for Obama, and those reasons are compelling and deserve some restatement.

My first pure fury with Obama came from his contempt for teachers, who voted for him IN DROVES. In 2010, he voiced approval for a school board that fired all the teachers in a Rhode Island district because the students had bad test scores. He threw educators under the bus. His education plans for public K-12 schools include charters and other privatization efforts; indeed, Romney's terrible plans are not so very different from Obama's. The current President has defended college education a lot more vigorously than his opponents; but that's no excuse for not valuing teachers and ignoring poverty's role in preventing kids from learning.

Then there's the fact that Obama has an extra-judicial kill list, people that his administration has concluded are such a threat that the government can assassinate them wherever they are found without benefit of trial or due process.

Obama stood by and watched during the police brutality that closed down the Occupy protests. He could have defended our freedom of assembly and our freedom of speech; he could have decried arresting journalists and macing peaceful protestors. He could have not let the Department of Homeland Security coordinate police attacks. But he didn't do any of those things. Did his staffers try to use Occupy to generate votes for him? Yes, yes, they did that.

Under Obama, the surveillance state has pervaded more and more of our culture; the drug war has intensified; deportations have increased; the crimes of the Bush administration and Wall Street have gone unpunished; bailouts have been delivered to corporations and banks rather than to struggling human beings.

This whole campaign revolves around fear--both parties promise that, no matter how bad we are, you don't fear us as much as the opposition, do you? On all the previous questions, undoubtably Romney would make still more oppressive choices than Obama has. Romney found the only words that did, in fact, turn me back into an Obama supporter, and those words were Paul Ryan. Romney and Ryan are running on the fear of a multi-racial future, a fear that the government might distribute some wealth and privilege into the hands of non-white people and non-Christian people. Obama is running on the fear that the government will take away all rights from women and non-whites.

Because, really, this is all either of them have. Both are predicated on the idea that the State grants or removes rights and wealth; neither acknowledges the collective nature of property and resources; neither is running on solutions to problems. I happen to think that both are accurate about the nature of their opposition--Romney/Ryan really do want to take all rights away from the non-white, the non-male, the non-wealthy, the non-straight, and Obama really does want to grant certain capitalist rights to all those groups.

And yet the real story is in the omissions here. Neither party gives a rat's ass about the imprisioned--after all, felons can't vote, so why on earth would you pay any attention to their plight? Neither party seriously addresses ending the slow violence of poverty, hunger, and homelessness (although I do believe that Ryan's plans would increase all of those, and Obama would merely try to "manage" them). No one is defending labor rights or unions; no one is seriously addressing income inequality, or the irreal questions of money and debt. The illusions of capitalism and its continuous growth, its unreasonable demands on the environment, the moral and emotional poverty of consumerism--none of these are discussed or answered. Possibly because these are not problems that electioneering can address.

As to the third parties and alternative candidates: I think Ron Paul is a nut job and a discriminatory SOB who would encourage runaway control by corporations, but after listening to one of his speeches I did understand why some young people with political convictions similar to mine support him. Ending all the wars and foreign occupation, and decriminalizing drugs, would both do a heaven of a lot of good, probably more direct and immediate good than any of the ideas that either of the major candidate has presented. And Jill Stein of the Green Party is awesome, more awesome than a presidential candidate deserves to be (and my husband has a great strategy plan for maximizing votes for Stein while not endangering a defeat for Romney--Dems in swing states, vote for Obama, Dems who are not in swing states, vote for Stein--a solid plan all around).

But to return to the original issues, that I can see now why most anarchists are white and male--I think the coercive power of the State screws all of us, and more specifically capitalism as enacted through false democracy screws all of us, man, woman, differently gendered, young, old, working, non-working, white, non-white, straight, gay, bi, questioning, celebrity, marginalized, etc. This is not to say that white men are evil or that their privilege prevents them from struggling. Those privileges don't eliminate the economic suffering amd the degradations of wage labor and capitalist society. But this election will have no effect on the structural issues that affect all of us--and so I don't think that many white men's lives will change as a result of this election. We can but choose between racist, sexist capitalism and less racist, less sexist capitalism. The universal indignities will not change.

However, if I were to say that my life as a woman will be unaffected by this election, that would be a lie. On a very basic level, it is an assault on the consciousness of women to have our national leaders refer to rape as just another method of conception. Under the Ryan regime, I see having to form illegal underground supply chains for birth control--for any right over our bodies at all. I see more women cast out of politics for daring to acknowledge that vaginas exist in women, not in the abstract. I see our ability to insist on equal pay with men eroding; I see the minimal rights that all of us in less-privileged groups have convinced the State to give us disappearing. No candidates will address most of our problems, but at least when Obama speaks about women, I don't get so demoralized I want to die.

I will vote for Obama, but only as an act of self defense. Not an act of empowerment, not an act of hope or belief that he or the Democrats in general will change anything. Not the belief that he will stand up for most of my rights. Not even a belief that voting is moral. But simple fear of the opposition that is our motor right now. This is a tragedy. It is all of our tragedy, and we should all insist together that this is the last time that our basic rights will be bargained for an endorsement of empire and war and corporate control.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gardening Midsummer

Greetings all! I have many deep and insightful things to write about, of course (not least of which is my fury at the most recent Batman movie), but today is not the time for that. I am outside for the first time in weeks. We finally had some rain last night, at last some moisture, and it is now below 80 degrees. Also for the first time in weeks. I'm sure most of you noticed the heat wave, though.

We are now smack dab in the middle of gardening season. I'm harvesting a lot from my plot, and starting to think towards what I can plant in the fall for a last little hurrah. For sure I will put in garlic to overwinter, and plant some more greens just for fall salads. I think spinach is a viable fall crop in these parts, too, but I wasn't very happy with my first experiment in growing it and might leave it alone.

Sadly, one of my last squash plants succumbed to the squash bugs earlier this week, making two years of failure in the squash growing department. Apparently I'd have to use pesticides if it were meant to be. I need to investigate my organic options before trying again. The unrelenting heat didn't help, either.

I harvested my first cucumber yesterday and am on board for another few today. They are not as happy as they could be, between the heat and the cucumber beetles. The sweet potatoes appear to be developing properly. The peppers are still alive, which is about all one can expect given the drought.

But the tomatoes are so very, very, very happy. I can't walk through the tomato jungle without smashing some poor little one underfoot! If I forget to harvest for just one day, they're rotting off the vines the next. And they have knocked over most of their wholly inadequate cages.

Yesterday I cooked this recipe with my glut of cherry tomatoes (canning, freezing, eating off the vine--nothing puts a dent in them. These suckers are PROLIFIC), and I have to say that roasting them is the best. The particular heirloom variety that I planted is almost sour if eaten raw, but sweetens fantastically with a bit of olive oil and a half hour in the oven. These guys would be delicious dried--maybe I'll have to look into a dehydrater.

We've been eating a lot of gazpacho and pizza, too. Anything to make use of the delicious tomatoes. But I think that Saturday will be another canning day, based on the rate this next round is ripening. Canning continues to be very effective, and I've almost filled up a self in our pantry two deep with tomato sauce, salsa, pickles, and jams. My canning recipes mostly come from the book "Canning for a New Generation." This particular book is neat because it has a lot of herbal additions to jams and jellies, a lot of pretty pictures, a low-sugar approach (more work but quite fun regardless), and recipes for how to use the canned products. I have tried:

  • Strawberry Jam
  • Strawberry Jam with Thai Herbs
  • Strawberry Rhubarb Jam
  • Pickled Beets
  • Spicy Carrot PIckles
  • Nectarine Jam
  • Classic Peach Jam
  • Peach Jam with Lemon Thyme and Almonds
  • Cardamom Plum Jam
  • Hot Cumin-Pickled Summer Squash
  • All-Purpose Tomato Sauce
  • Charred Tomato and Chile Salsa
And I still have several others to try (Tomato and Basil Jam, Red Onion Marmalade, apple butter, pear and ginger preserves, and perhaps Pickled Greens with Fresh Chiles, Grapefruit Marmalade, and the Cabernet Sauvignon Jelly). If you can't tell, canning is my new crochet--all absorbing, totally enjoyable, and a welcome product at the end of all the work. Also, it fits into my general effort to reduce consumption: I have bought almost no new clothes this summer, because canning fills the same place as retail therapy for me, but with less expense and a more useful product. Canning food from my garden is unalienated eating at its finest!

Finally, my dear husband has gotten into the preserving spirit. I got home from a trip to find that he had frozen kernels from a half dozen ears of corn from our CSA! I was so proud of him and grateful he took over a task I couldn't do! If the apocalypse hit now, we'd probaly have enough calories stocked up for, like, two weeks!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (with Class Consciousness and Spoilers)

We saw The Dark Knight Rises this weekend, and it's a fine and entertaining film, in some purely aesthetic ways. The plot and characters drew me into the action and I wanted to know what happened. But beyond that, it's a movie made by rich white men addressed to other rich white men. It's a warning about inequality--but not a warning to the suffering, oh no. A warning that if the wealthy do not take charge of the redistribution of wealth, the suffering masses will take it into their own bloody hands, so they better let them have some crumbs.

But guess what. We don't want the crumbs. We don't want loaves. We want the whole f****** bakery. (I quote a wise t-shirt.)

SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. Many leftist critics are describing this film as fascist propaganda. I am not sure if I would go that far, and I'm not ascribing it "Republican" ideals or anything like that; it's more status-quo enforcing, fear-mongering, anti-social movement lazy politicking. Heck, it is a screed against inequality, just from the perspective of the rich. But it sure as hell tries to demonize the masses and any movement that might come from them (most especially Occupy Wall Street). OKAY HERE ARE SOME SPOILERS.

Let's start with our most vulnerable members of Gotham society: the boys in the orphanage, the ones that Bruce Wayne used to support until his company ran out of money (and here is a lesson for us all: philanthropy depends on the largess and profit of the wealthy, and while it is better than untrammeled greed, it's still not a reliable way to feed the hungry and clothe the naked--still prioritizes profits over people). We see their seamless transition from children, spottily cared for by the state, deserving pity and charity, into impoverished adults, deserving scorn, imprisonment, and death. This is a real problem that happens in the real world. Drawing attention to it is good, except the movie participates in their criminalization. One day the kids are orphans deserving help escaping the city; they cross a magic age line, and become superfluous monsters who want to kill, maim, and destroy. The movie never allows those boys, once they become desperate adults, a moment of humanity, a spark of individuality. Poor kids are the object of pity until they become poor adults, who are criminals and thieves and will follow the first murderous thug who comes along and promises them anything. This demonization is necessary so that the audience continues to sympathize with Batman; it's also necessary for capitalism to maintain that poverty is a moral failing instead of a social structure failing.

And let's talk about that murderous thug, Bane. Indeed, his back story is so sympathetic that it's hard to understand why we shouldn't prefer him to Batman. For most of the movie, we believe he was the only escapee of a terrible jail; then we find out, even better, that he was the only person who loved and helped a small child in a terrible jail! How can you not cheer for that guy? He has a lot of good qualities that Batman lacks: he builds cameraderie among his peers, he protects his associates, and he tells the truth. The only way you could not like him is if, I don't know, you were working from a perspective of wealth, or if...I know! He has a nuclear bomb and is illogically going to blow everyone on the island, himself included, to kingdom come with it! Oh my goodness! That makes perfect sense!

The bomb makes literally no sense. I know that the secret society wants to destroy Gotham because of its decadence (which also doesn't make a whole lot of sense), but Bane has already helped some of Gotham's undesirables make a life for themselves, and all his reforms seem directed at that same goal. The bomb seems like a not-so-subtle poke at Iran (if they have nuclear energy, they will weaponize it and use it for destruction!) and more generally at attempts for clean energy. As well as a plot device. And a reminder that the poor just need a charismatic and crazy leader to tell them what to do, and they'll all help destroy the world through terrorism.

The tensions that wealth and privilege feel about Occupy Wall Street saturate this film. For starters, Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless movement, but this film is insistent that there must be leaders somewhere if a social movement asks for some redistribution of wealth. Such a cry could never come from the people! Of course, there's Bane, but there's also Scarecrow, the corrupt psychiatrist from the first movie, serving as a Robespierre-style judge killing off Gotham's elites. Not only is he a connection to the first movie and to the French Revolution, which is invoked numerous times, but he also stands in for the overeducated trust-fund radicals that stereotypically "lead" social movements, taking from the oppressed their sad acceptance of How Things Must Be and stirring up desires that can never be fulfilled.

If you want to maintain that the film is not commenting directly on OWS, well, let's look at the first crime Bane commits in the public view: on Gotham's stock exchange. Bane takes the stockbrokers hostage, in a way, and they are forced to come out to the police, hands held high, a dream of many an Occupier--that the real financial criminals would be forced to take responsibility for their crimes, embarassed in front of the nation they hurt, thrust into the spotlight as the villains they are (recognizing, of course, that the guys down on the floor are probably the youngest and most vulnerable members of the firms they represent, and possibly only lackeys for the criminal class, not necessarily the criminals themselves). But all too soon, Bane and his people are recognized as the 'real' criminals. The progressive fantasy of the police actually arresting financial criminals is popped immediately, and the desire for that to happen is equated with hostage-taking. I was reminded of when a very rude U.S. representative apologized to BP for Obama insisting they should pay for some damage of the oil spill.

But the very worst, and most direct, anti-OWS attack comes near the end, when the police come out of the sewers and attack city hall. Yes, yes, they are trying to stop the killing in the context of the story, but the footage of the brawl itself reminded me so much of the brutality filmed at Occupy Wall Street that my innards twisted up at that point. See for yourself--there's an abundance of footage on You Tube of the police in NYC and California (specifically Berkeley and UC-Davis) getting out the batons and beating the heck out of peaceful protestors, and that footage looked exactly like the movie (except that Bane's army is well armed, and I don't know of any armed OWS protestors). I heard rumors that Nolan originally wanted to film at OWS but didn't get the chance. I was so excited when I heard that, last summer--little did I imagine he wanted to film in support of police brutality and against the occupiers.

The only bright spot in the film, for me, was Catwoman, who spoke frankly about the devastating effects of inequality on her and hers. She also spoke with a friend of hers, briefly, which was as close as the movie got to passing the Bechdel test (do women speak to each other about something other than men for more than 30seconds in the course of the movie). It wasn't more than thirty seconds, and men were involved in the conversation, but that was as close to humanization as women got in this testosterone-fueled capitalism junkie ride. However, I thought she was lesbian until the heteronormative ending kicked in; I would have liked there to be something off limits to Batman and was disappointed that she changed because of her romantic interest rather than because she wanted to do the right thing.

I will say that Batman also was not quite as bad as the rest of the film. He did follow the biblical edict for how a rich man can be saved: give all he has to the poor. He wanted to help and inspire people with his example, no matter how misguided I think that might have been at times. As an audience memeber, I wanted him to get better and escape from the jail, and I wanted him to save Gotham from the bomb. He tried to work with other people. He's just not very good at it.

But finally, this was a very violent movie that sought to discredit social movements, especially Occupy Wall Street. It was made to keep the masses complacent and waiting for a savior from above (literally--all that flying) while rejecting any leader from below (also literally--sewer and pit jail anyone?). It celebrated hierarchy and oppression. And nothing not discussing global warming has any right to be as damn depressing as this was.

Don't bring me down, Bruce Wayne.



Saturday, July 7, 2012

Garden update

Cucumbers before I leftI returned from the relative coolness of northern Minnesota to oppressive heat here in Kansas. But dear husband kept the garden watered enough to survive in my absence. That is, except for my oregano, which is wilting and sickly looking. These oregano plants have never before done anything but provide enough herb for seven or eight hungry households; their suffering communicates the plant reality of drought.
Cucumbers Today
Anyway, the rest of the garden is doing pretty well. My cucumbers have grown a lot in just a week. They don't really like the poles I set up for them and are climbing nearby tomato cages. And I don't actually have any little cucumbers yet, but they are in bloom.

Pests are a problem but not so bad as last year (so far). Right before I left, I found two of the biggest tomato hornworms I'd ever seen, attacking a couple of beloved tomato plants. I was so worried about leaving them alone with the pests, but no more appeared in my absence and they are thriving, huge, unbelievable.

Tomato Varieties

I'm growing several varieties of tomatoes this year, including some traditional red ones and red cherry tomatoes, but also golden cherry tomatoes and Cherokee purple and some other strange green and pink striped tomato that Rachel gave me. The first couple of pounds have come in and many more are ripening quickly. Actually, most of them have completely overwhelmed their cages. Some are strung out on the ground, having pushed the cages over and lifted them out of the earth. Others have simply exploded over the tops. Who could be so silly as to think plants would contain themselves in these tiny little cells we give them? Anyway, I'm going to have to figure out how to can the cherry tomatoes, for they are numerous beyond the stars.

Nearly all the onions came in, several pounds from such tiny little bulbs to start. In the end, growing onions was very easy. Next year I hope to plant them in rows alongside a sidewalk going up to our front door and grow enough to use and store too. In the meantime we enjoy going outside and digging one up every time we run out!

The sweet potatoes are poking out of the ground already. Their vines are spreading like crazy and I can almost taste the sweet potato enchiladas, fries, and soups that are to come. This makes two successful root vegetable ventures this year.

At this point, the most resounding failure of the year was kale, which I didn't manage to protect from marauding caterpillars, and carrots, which I didn't water enough and did some other bad stuff to. I fear that my squashes may suffer the same fate as last year; a few squash bugs have appeared, despite my best efforts to kill them promptly, and managed to lay eggs. At least I now know enough to crush the eggs immediately and check for them every day. And despite these setbacks, the garden is turning into a great success this year. Now to figure out what to do with the bounty!


Experiments in post-capitalism

I'm just back from a week in northern Minnesota, at an IWW event called the Work People's College. Labeling events as life-changing seems a bit trite when they won't especially change one's daily behavior, but this was still a pretty spectacular week for me. If you have ever experienced a very good week at Bible camp, with all the late night conversations and the intensity of being around a terrific, supportive community of like-minded people and out in nature somewhat isolated from the doldrums of life in ordinary time, then you'll have an idea of the setting. An exquisite lake formed the backdrop for our camp, and we swam or canoed near every break. Of course, we weren't discussing theology but political praxis most of the time, and we sang labor songs around the campfire.

How was this post-capitalist? We still depended on grocery stores in the nearby town to supply our food needs, of course. We were not able to extract ourselves from the capitalist economy as it stood. But we were able to carve out six days of liberty, of learning, and of mutual aid. We took turns cooking and cleaning up; we all watched out for the children in our midst; we practiced respect of our fellow worker human beings. We were able to trust each other and live simply out of tents. We strove to delegitimize the divisions down the lines of race, gender, and perceived class that the bosses use to separate the workers from our deserved control of the economy.

I have heard that in Barcelona, before the Spanish Civil War wherein the communists and fascists alike killed the anarchists, people were able to look each other in the eye and live with a sense of great equality, greeting each other as Comrade regardless of profession. And indeed in this space we all introduced ourselves with little aplomb. My fellow workers were the best-read group of people I have ever met (bearing in mind that I went to grad school in English, that is saying quite a bit), all knowledgable in some dimension or another of the situation of working people.

For security reasons, I'm not going to go into specific tales online. I learned a lot about IWW culture and process, all of which would pretty boring to non-Wobblies among my readers, and reduntant to Wobblies. But I have decided on a few ways that my life needs to change as a result of this camp.

First of all, I need to pay less attention to the news. I've been a very well-informed citizen indeed for the past few years (what with my two hours a day of NPR), and resultantly depressed and despairing. During the past week I had very limited news access, and I was happy and productive. The actions of the capitalist state are always going to be against the working people unless we apply massive amounts of pressure. The laws in Kansas are horrible, discriminatory, infuriating, and compel good people to do deeply immoral things. But that is always the status of law imposed by a state for the good of the bosses. Most important liberation must be done by ordinary citizens, anyway, and we can never depend on law or justice in the capitalist legal system to fight discrimination--that must be done on the ground. Laws on the topic are nearly irrelevant. If a community wants to work against the various supremacies that divide us, it will do that work regardless of laws uphold them. If a community remains mired in those supremacies, no law can compel it to embrace our common humanity. So I am going to practice ignoring the abominable legislative attempts to justify oppression, and focus on the work I can do against it.

Secondly, I want to camp more! I proved to myself that I don't have to be inside and recently showered at all times, and that I can set up a tent (although not keep it sitting on the ground and relatively dry--that lesson must come later) and sleep on the ground. There's a certain freedom from possessions and acceptance of nature's commonality in camping and I want to practice those acts more often.

And finally, I need to reduce my consuming tendencies further. For the past three months, I've tamped down my impulsive wishes for new clothing more effectively than usual. When I get depressed, buying clothes is my most effective retail therapy. But I must recognize that the whole system is designed to pull me into consumption by causing alienation, and seek out other ways to bolster the spirit.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Neighborhood Project, Evolution, and Anarchotheism

Wilson, David Sloan.  The Neighborhood Project:  Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.  Boston:  Little, Brown, and Company, 2011.

Superior subtitles for this work:  
Better Living through Evolution
Diversity in Life Cycles of Evolutionary Biologists
What David Sloan Wilson (hereafter DSW) has been thinking about recently

Number of books from the bibliography that I will probably read: at least 4

Gifts and talents of DSW:
Radiant and contagious enthusiasm for evolutionary biology
Wide network of acquaintances among evolutionary biologists

Gifts that DSW did not bring to this book:
Appreciation of the wide diversity of non-evolutionary biologist human life
Coherent political philosophy

Grade I would award this book based on the criteria of "Prove your thesis" (here defined as the subtitle): C-

Grade I would award this book based on the criteria of "Take something you care about a whole lot and make it interesting to other people": A

The above snark aside, I really enjoyed this book, all scattered, disorganized 21 chapters of it.  The author comes across as warm, witty, and nerdy in the best way--caring deeply about his subject material, and wanting the reader to care also.  His book left me wanting to know more about several of his subjects, especially the recently deceased Elinor Ostrom (only woman ever awarded the Nobel in Economics, and a scholar of the management of the commons) and Pierre Teilhard (a Jesuit priest whose work in evolutionary biology and ecstatic Christianity was subject to Vatican censorship).   But those two will have their own entries after I read their books.

Anyway, throughout reading this I thought a lot about my relationship to evolutionary biology, as a theist, an anarchist, and just as a confused pastor's daughter from rural Iowa.  As many of you know, I attended a Christian high school where evolution was part of the Evil World trying to destroy our Christian worldview.  Fortunately, our science teachers explained this to us carefully for about three weeks, discussed the great diversity of creationist scientists, long-day creationism (theistic evolution by another name) vs. short-day creationism vs. intelligent design, etc., then spent the rest of the year teaching the scientific method and real information about the natural world.  So they did the very best they could in an environment of censorship and lies.  (No, I loved my high school! Really!)  But I didn't know much about evolution, and didn't take science classes in college.  So I continued in my ignorance until graduate school.

There during a class on evolution and the novel we actually had to read Darwin's Origin of Species. To my surprise, it was eminently readable and reasonable and focused on nature; it was hardly the straightforward attack on divine origins I had been led to believe.  In the course of that class, I began to understand the immense explanatory power of evolution and how it transformed scientific thought.  Now I appreciate Darwin's work, and the tasks of many scientists who came after him.

So, evolutionary theory explains an awful lot about life on this planet: check.  It's cool and interesting: check. I don't particularly see a disjoint between accepting evolution's role in the development of life and practicing a religion that posits an ultimately divine beginning to that life.  Existence is still miraculous and beautiful and puzzling, regardless of how thumbs developed or the immune system responds to natural selection.  However, as a theist, sometimes I have felt the evil atheist biologists strike back with an unnecessary force against what they perceive as the lies of religion.  We heard Richard Dawkins speak a couple of years ago, and even though I sort of agree with him on a lot of things (the idiocy of religious war, for example), I found his assertion that raising a child in a faith tradition is child abuse a bit much. And David Sloan Wilson, even though he is himself an atheist, agreed. He chronicles how several evolutionary psychologists have attempted to develop an understanding of religion as cultural parasite (a view he says has little to no scientific basis--and i'm happy to accept him at his word), while he advocates for understanding religion as a group-level cultural adaptation (Chapter 18). I guess some purists might still find this offensive, but I much prefer to interpret my life practices as a reasonable adaptation than as involvement with a parasitic system.   You might say that this is a faith-friendly book about evolution.

Indeed, the explanation of evolutionary psychology in this book seems downright Christian and anarchist at the same time. I have always thought of evolutionary psychology as that stupid field of study which attempts to justify gender stereotypes in the name of science (cf. a study that claimed rape as a biological adaptation--that men really are programmed to rape). But DSW explains it as the practice of treating unusual behavior not as pathology but as an adaptation.  Treatment, then, involves figuring out what is triggering this adaptation and how to make the environment friendlier for the person afflicted.  This has the potential to really treat each human being with dignity, avoiding the crippling labels of sinner/saint or sane/insane.  (I read this as anarchist in its potential to alleviate the illegitimate hierarchy of the "normal" over the "abnormal.)

Sadly, DSW does not mention the great anarchist response to evolution, "Mutual Aid," by Peter Kropotkin.  Even more sadly, I have not read this tract from the turn of the last century; more cheerfully, its ideas have wrangled their way into contemporary evolutionary theory, according to The Neighborhood Project.  Kropotkin wrote against the social darwinists of his day who insisted that the most fit individual would and should survive, the rest of the world be hanged.  He argued, instead, that groups of people could increase their own survival by cooperation and helping each other; indeed, Darwin discusses this concept in some of his later writing--evolution sometimes rewards competitive individuals who seek only their own gain, but there is at least as much competitive advantage for individuals to cooperate in groups and act for the good of all.  Individual adaptation vs. group-level adaptation.  And it is from this perspective that DSW writes with great hope, that humans are capable of great cooperation--that perhaps this is the greatness of humanity, that we can work together to achieve great things--and we can harness this for self-government.

DSW doesn't focus quite as much as the self-government angle here.  That is my spin. But it is heartening to learn of research (especially like that of Elinor Ostrom, may her memory be honored) contributes both good models of alternate societies founded on cooperation and mutual aid, and hope that those societies could lead to a better future for humanity. 

On a final note, DSW recounts the life stories of several colleagues of his.  These interested me, but I felt like woven throughout the book was his presupposition that our society makes good use of individuals and their natural abilities, as is the case for so many of those colleagues.  Out here in the non-academic world, that is decidedly a false statement.  Outside of academia, I know many acquaintances who know their gifts and skills to be under-utilized, whether because of unemployment, student debt, or ubiquitious slashing of jobs in human-serving professions for the favor of mammon-serving ones. And I wonder about the evolutionary adaptability for survival of a society that wastes its human resources as abundantly as ours does.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: The New Jim Crow

Alexander, Michelle.  "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."  New York: The New Press, 2010.  Revised edition 2012.

You have probably heard about this book, if you listen to NPR or PBS, or read the New York Times, or interact with sundry other vaguely lefty sources.  Michelle Alexander has been on the lecture circuit for a couple of years after the publication of this book.  Its thesis, quite baldly, is that the major social justice and civil rights issue of our time is the mass incarceration of American citizens of color, the system of control that has replaced legalized racial discrimination of the Jim Crow era. This situation exists as the end of the desire for politicians and police to look "tough on crime," and carrying out that desire on the bodies of (especially but not exclusively) black men.  Whether or not intended to deprive impossibly large percentages of the male population of color of their voting rights, housing rights, working rights, etc., this is the effect of the incarceration. 
Alexander's research is thorough, and the statistics she amasses to back up her thesis astounding.  Up to half of black men in many cites are in prison or involved in the criminal justice system; one of her major themes is that it is not enough to look at the currently imprisoned population, but we must also examine the lot of those released--who immediately lose their rights to vote, to live in public housing, to not be discriminated against for private housing, to hold many kinds of jobs...rights that, she notes, parallel the rights explicitly denied black people under the regime of Jim Crow post-reconstruction.
The Supreme Court comes out as quite the villains, abandoning their purported role of the last protectors of justice in our fair land. What most surprised me in this book was how impossible SCOTUS makes it to prove racial bias in the law-enforcement system.  You may recently have read of the immense problems with the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policies, where the percentage of white people stopped was negligible, but over 100% of black males in the city were stopped during a year (that is, every black male in the city, on average, was randomly searched more than once a year); this, even though the times they did search whites were MORE likely (not less) to yield illegal firearms or drugs.  Well, according to SCOTUS, no amount of statistical evidence of racial bias can be used to demonstrate discrimination unless the judge or police-person involved in a case explicitly says s/he is using racist criteria to sentence or try the person accused.  For example, and I quote, "Georgia prosecutors...sought the death penalty in 70% of cases involving black defendants and white victims, but only 19% of cases involving white defendants and black victims" (pg. 110). But in 1987, SCOTUS ruled that this type of evidence showing systemic racist bias could be not be admitted.  Only direct admission of racism qualified. 
The war on drugs then created a profit motive for police to find and prosecute people with drugs (via federal grants for "effective" departments, etc.). Alexander argues that, to yield massive racial disparity in rates of arrest and incarceration, this did not so much require actual racism of the "white people are just better than black people" variety, but simply that our population didn't pay much attention as huge and unprecedented percentages of our citizens of color went behind bars.  Now, did most of those people behind bars break the law?  Sure, most but not all. Legal defense is expensive, and many cannot afford it; the lengthy mandatory sentences that many victimless crimes (i.e., drug possession) involve often scare the innocent into taking plea bargains. And actual rates of crime commission are startlingly similar across racial lines.  But, if you stop 50% of black people in a town and check them for drugs--and only 3% of them have drugs on them--well, now 1.5% of that population is in jail.  If you only stop 10% of the white population, and the same 3% of people (not people stopped, but white people in general) are carrying drugs at any given time, well, you've only got .3% of the white population in jail.  
Alexander explains all this much more eloquently than I can.  Her writing is direct and fluid, and I finished the book in just a couple of days of casual reading.  If you work anywhere in the social justice system, the religious support system, in social work, or in the educational system, you should definitely read this book. I think she demonstrates her thesis with mind boggling (and enormously depressing) amounts of evidence.
Now, this book has gotten panned a lot of places, mostly for what she doesn't do.  She doesn't connect her call for prison reform to the prison abolition movement or radical politics.  This is frustrating to me, as someone involved in radical politics, that she is basically taking ideas from very radical sources and trying to make them palatable to a large audience--in the process, discounting their radical nature and continuing the problem of moderate writers claiming good ideas for moderation, allowing the right to keep saying we are crazies.  I mean, prison reform/abolition is something that anarchists and socialists and civil-rights groups of all stripes and churches and even a lot of fiscal conservatives (keeping people locked up is expensive) and, well, everyone except those directly profiting off the prison-industrial complex (a disturbing array of characters) should get behind.   And Alexander is positing that it is so important that we should all overcome our differences and coordinate efforts to make it happen, forgetting other causes for the moment until this is sorted out. 
Which I actually kind of agree with.  I work with kids who suffer the effects of mass incarceration and racially biased sentencing, and those effects are significant, and I want them liberated from these oppressions.  But then, I'm a big-tent anarchist and happy to work with any people or group of people who want a more just world where people can flourish.  And I think a lot of other people are unwilling to participate in this kind of movement because their other causes wouldn't get credit for dealing with it.  But I am annoyed that she doesn't ground some of the analysis in the devastating COINTELPRO FBI assassinations of Black Panthers and other leaders in the black community in the 60s, a system of violent oppression that set up the current situation.  Also, she doesn't address the questions of violent crime, focusing mostly on drug use violations. I am with her in believing that an awful lot of violent crime can be tied to the violence of mass incarceration and to drug prohibition, but this is a case that needs to be made explicitly.  Many people have done this; including a couple of those arguments in the book would have strengthened an already strong analysis.
The most cogent (and accurate) critique of the book is its near-exclusion of class-based analysis. Alexander does comment on the fact that nearly all people in jail are people in situations of poverty, but that is not the focus of her book.  She "brackets" the question of poverty except as it relates to race, since that is not the focus of this book.  I think she is right to limit her focus, though--this would not have been as digestible if she had done a thorough race/class/gender/sexuality based analysis of the prison system of control.  She is seeking as broad a base of support as possible for the movement, by limiting her analysis to the race-based discrimination that nearly all the above-mentioned groups find unacceptable.  
Unfortunately, I think this broad focus will actually detract from building the movement.  Of all the social justice oriented groups at work in the US, many are willing to make prison reform/abolition a secondary plank in their platform, but few, I expect, will make it their primary focus.  Anarchists (and Occupy groups, etc), at least theoretically might get behind it--but we are few and do not herd well.  And right now everyone is so concerned with the dreadful horror of economic problems that it is hard to return to a problem (systemic racism) that most right-leaning people are happy to ignore, and most left-leaning white people think was solved a long time ago.  
On the upside, though, I think we have found that a new American revolution will not require a guillotine.  No, we already have a system that will do quite nicely to bring justice to the exploiters of labor, the politicians who got rich by violating the rights of others, the torturers and the lawyers who justify their actions.  Prison, followed by the social isolation and economic oblivion that awaits so many young black men now, would be quite sufficient for them.  I look forward to the day when those who have wreaked so much injustice will suffer the same fate as they have wreaked on so many human beings.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Review: A Wedding in Haiti

Alvarez, Julia. A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012.

I enjoy Julia Alvarez' work, occasionally, and I respect her as an author, but I hadn't really sat down with any of her work since college. So when her most recent book, a very short memoir, showed up at the library, I thought she was overdue for some of my attention. A Wedding in Haiti is probably one of the few books on my list for the summer that everyone who reads this blog would enjoy, and as such I highly recommend it for a light-hearted but socially conscious reading experience.

The book narrates Alvarez' two trips to Haiti from her native Dominican Republic. She and her husband (and their trusty pickup truck) attend the wedding of their Haitian friend and employee, Pito, in the first half of the book. She ruminates on human relationships and the relationship between the two countries on the island of Hispanola, with their dual legacies of colonialism.

Her experiences reminded me of my time in Argentina--the minor culture shocks, the unfamiliar gender roles, seeing yourself in a culture that is close to a familiar culture but at the same time totally different. I found her subtle discussion of cross-class friendships especially worthwhile. She captures many of the difficulties of genuine connection with people from a much different economic position than hers. She also captures many of the joys of traveling with her husband. Her wry observations will ring true to anyone who has ever had the privilege of traveling to uncomfortable cultural situations with one's spouse!

One of the book's refrains is "There is a bottom line between which you cannot go and remain a human being." I appreciate Alvarez' acknowledgment of the responsibility of witness. Whether one witnesses a wedding, and implicitly promises to help a new couple adjust to married life, or one witnesses the remains of a devastating earthquake, and implicitly promises to help in all possible ways, one cannot "merely" be a witness. Acknowledging another's reality and another's needs changes the observer and obligates the observer to get involved in situations. This becomes very concrete for Alvarez when she visits Haiti again, after the earthquake.

I am embarassed to admit that when I picked up the book all memory of Haiti's devastating natural disaster had faded for me. The situation of poverty in Haiti remains one of the great shames of the western hemisphere, and the international response to the earthquake was--well--I think individual people were moved, but most governments (and Pat Robertson) will never forget that the nation began from a successful slave revolt. Anyway, Alvarez brings the situation to life with a vision inaccessible to journalists, as she explores the earthquake's effects on Pito and his family.

The book bears witness without sanctimony, and displays good humor without frivolity. If you have any interest in Hispaniola, the earthquake, or cross cultural experiences in general, A Wedding in Haiti
is well worth the couple of hours it'll take to read.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fear Mongering: Bad. Fresh Food: Good.

I have heard some most unflattering descriptions of anarchists in the news, recently, and feel that I must bring the blog out of retirement both for summer and to defend us. I am not going to dignify the ridiculous entrapment of the anarchists in Cleveland (although I will provide this link if you are curious and want to know more about how the FBI is keeping you safe by instigating violent plots) with any further discussion. But last week on NPR I did hear a statement that ignited my fury, in a discussion about the expected protests against the NATO meeting in Chicago: "Most of the demonstrations are expected to be peaceful, but authorities are preparing for the possibility of violence, as some anarchists have been promoting violent confrontations online."

I am not interested in going into the fascinating anarchist history of propaganda by the deed, the relative morals of breaking windows of corporate buildings, and of the relatively few incidents of violence and/or property destruction in anarchism's past. I am not interested in defending those actions, or impugning those who were attempting something they believed vital to building a more just world. (I am currently reading David Graeber's Ethnography of Direct Action, and have learned that even Emma Goldman struggled with how to discuss these actions in public) What really bothered me was the use of the label anarchist to preemptively justify police violence. There was quite a bit of it at the protests (and if you are interested, go ahead and google NATO protests in Chicago). The presence of anarchists in a crowd does not justify violence by supposed keepers of the peace, and people should be much more afraid of the people with industrial grade weapons and severely loosened constitutional restrictions on how to use them.
But if you are still more afraid of the anarchists...well, probably the most common thing that comes up during anarchist conversations, in my limited experience, is not bomb making or window breaking. It is gardening. Many of us are passionate about food production and preparation, be it for survivalist or self sufficiency reasons or for wresting an important part of existence back from commercial interactions or to root ourselves more firmly in the natural world, or to have better access to fresh tomatoes. Whatever.
I suggest in circumstances like these, where the word anarchist is being used as a scare tactic, you try substituting "freedom loving gardeners" in place of anarchist, and see if it makes any sense. "See, there were freedom loving gardeners in the crowd! We had to fire on them!" "And then he suggested to the freedom loving gardeners that they blow up a bridge, and he would sell them explosives." "And then the freedom loving gardeners threw a pot luck and schemed how to surreptitiously plant lettuce in the park."

Another way we like to put it is, gee whiz, you think anarchy is violent. Try Capitalism!

Not that all anarchists behave impeccably, just like not all policemen behave impeccably, like not all librarians behave impeccably, not all clergymen, etc., etc. Nothing is right or good just because an anarchist does it. But my anger is at using anarchism as a scare tactic. Most of us are freedom loving gardeners.

And on that note...

My garden is in, at last. I dabbled in spring crops this year (carrots, peas, lettuce, spinach, kale). They were not my favorite. The butter crunch lettuce was completely delicious, but the rest I probably will not plant again. The kale was completely eaten by some unidentified caterpillar. The spinach bolted too quickly to be very tasty--I think it was just too warm for it. The carrots simply did not sprout, probably again because of the weather. And the few peas I got were tasty, but the plants got stressed early and never recovered.

But now we are on to summer, and the great fight for tomatoes has begun. I have been out killing the tomato hornworms at least twice a day. My fifteen plants plus two volunteers are thriving, thankfully, and most have little green bulbs that will soon turn into big, juicy, delicious tomatoes. I have a big bed of various kinds of peppers, too.

Thanks to my dear friend Rachel, I also planted several sweet potato plants this year. This is a new experiment for me. I won't know how successful it is for several months.

I have a crop of onions bordering one of my beds. We have some stray cats that love their greens, so they look pretty sloppy, but I still have high hopes that they will taste good! A full contingency of squashes and cucumbers is installed as well. Most of them are still just sproutlings and as cute as can be. This year, I will kill all the squash bugs before they can hurt my precious plants. It will not be like last year where I didn't get a single zucchini or yellow squash. No, no, no, not this time.

But now that I am free for a few months, I should be able to blog much more often. Expect fresh observations and vegetables at least a couple times a week from here on out!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

2012: The Garden Update!!

Spring came early to Kansas this year, very, very early. In a couple of months, I have a feeling that we'll be less delighted about this, but the winter was dreary, warmish, generally indeterminate but certainly no fun. So we love the budding trees. AND I was able to get my garden started several weeks ahead of the projected dates!

Since the political news is STILL universally horrifying (example: Kansas is in the process of passing a bill that legalizes discrimination against various groups of people for purposes of housing, employment, etc., as long as you have a religious reason for discriminating. Jesus must be so proud.) I am planning to spend the next six months firmly focused on the beauty of birth and rebirth in my garden.

The lettuce that I planted almost a month ago is ready for its first harvesting! Additionally, some purple lettuce that I didn't plant has sprouted and will also go into our salad tonight. See, last year I planted some purple lettuce that didn't do well at all, and I let it go to seed. But those seeds took root and didn't die thanks to the mild winter, so a couple of them sprang up unsummoned.  This means there are three varieties of lettuce and a few kale plants preparing delicious greens for us.

Also, I have a couple of dozen sprouted spinach plants.  I need to thin them.  But pulling up baby plants is so hard! They are so cute!  Still, it's fun to come home from work and check on their progress every day.

Onions and garlic are in the ground; I have to wait quite a while to check on them.  They are some of my experimental plants this year.  I don't know how they'll turn out, but they're very inexpensive to try out.  I planted orange, white, and scarlet carrots, too, in the root veggies category, and just this morning their first little feathery leaves popped out of the ground.

Mint, oregano, sage, and thyme are already producing voluminous amounts of fresh herbs.  I have started brewing up fresh mint tea (boil mint leaves, add some sugar, lemon juice, and orange juice concentrate, and pour it over ice) So this year's garden season promises to stretch eight or nine months! I have sixteen different varieties of veggies and herbs in the ground so far, and intend to diversify a lot in the upcoming months.  I also intend to freeze or can a lot more, and make good use out of everything my plots produce.  Since any positive revolutions appear hard to come by at present, viva la garden!  Grow green and prosper.

PS For some reason my images aren't posting today, so I'll put some garden pics up on Twitter.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Memoirs: Knowing the Ending

Gilbert, David.  Love and Struggle:  My Life in the SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond.  Oakland, CA:  PM Press, 2012.
David Gilbert was a member of the Weather Underground, and his new memoir has appeared as a result of widespread interest in the 2003 documentary of that movement (which I reviewed here).  His memoir complements other fine discussions of that period, including Bill Ayers' Fugitive Days; Ayers' and Gilbert's lives ended up intersecting frequently, and their memoirs discuss many of the same events from similar perspectives.  I much preferred Gilbert's memoir.

An important element of the memoir genre is knowing the ending.  When you pick up a memoir, usually it's because you know the writer was famous for something   already.  I read Angela Davis' autobiography, recently, and I know that at the "end" she becomes a famous, well-respected professor who commands handsome speaking fees.  At the end of Fugitive Days, Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn get married, he becomes an education professor, they end up assuming a committed, prosperous, happy life.  It is ultimately a success story.  Love and Struggle is not that, for the ending is that Gilbert is writing from prison, where he has been for nearly three decades and probably will remain until he dies.

Gilbert's discussion of the years 1968-1980ish parallels Ayers' accounts, and others of the period.  An academically successful Jewish boy from a middle-class family channels his anti-racist and anti-war values into the Students for a Democratic Society's work against Vietnam.  When massive above-ground and non-violent protest have virtually no effect on the government's mass murder of the Vietnamese  people, and while groups like the Black Panthers experience severe government repression, with their leaders murdered by the FBI and city police, a group of SDS leaders decide to go underground and start armed revolution.  Together they blow up some things, try to draw attention to important causes, somehow manage not to kill anyone except three of their own, and all surrender a safe resurfacing with minimum prison time for any of them by the late 1970s.

The main contribution of Love and Struggle to this oft-covered domain is Gilbert's focus on race as the major tool of oppression; on the increased police persecution of anti-racist groups; the aforementioned murders of Black leaders; and on problems of racism even within Whites in the civil rights movement.  He also discusses factionalism within the Left, recounting how groups of revolutionary thinkers threw people out if they disagreed with a popular ideology, and warning against fractioning ourselves off too rapidly. 

I found his take on those years to be more humble than Ayers', and his discussion especially of the sexual promiscuity of those days more humanizing.  I guess that's the difference if your story ends up with prestige or in prison.

Around 1978, Gilbert's story takes a strong turn from the usual; he decided that even as a committed feminist and anti-racist, he was not doing enough above ground, so he returned to the underground as a militant with the Black Liberation Army.  Before discussing the sad events that followed, a disclaimer:  I do not now, never have, and never will advocate for violence against human beings, even if that violence has revolutionary ends. And I don't think that David Gilbert ever intended to hurt anyone, either--but actions in which he participated did hurt people.  His story is also a cautionary tale to any activists who don't think through all the ways in which people could be hurt by actions.

Anyway, while working with the BLA he formed a domestic partnership and had a baby with his partner.  Then, while preparing to resurface and seek a "normal" life, they both participated in "fundraising:" robbing $1.5 million from an armored vehicle.  The robbery went wrong, a shoot-out ensued, and three police officers were killed.  No, Gilbert didn't have the gun; but he was partially responsible for those deaths.  He admits it and expressed considerable regret.  

However, the ensuing trial was a mockery; he only attended most of it from a cage underneath the courtroom.  He was handed down a very long sentence, and remains in New York correctional facilities today.  He's continued work on AIDS and other important social problems while in prison; Bill Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn were his son's guardians.

There were three major ideas that I took away from this memoir:
1)  Gilbert didn't participate in his own trial partially because he thought it was illegitimate, and he believed that political prisoners would be freed in the revolution to come.  But the revolution didn't come, and our (in)justice system is just as racist as ever, and political prisoners of all stripes remain behind bars, forgotten.  His actions in the case where the police officers died may have been wrong, but he was acting because he believed that nothing else could bring about justice.  Those of us outside did not fulfill his hopes for revolution, and we have not found another way to bring about justice.
2)  Gilbert has suffered a lot more than most white activists from the 1970s; he also has focused almost exclusively on the massive race-based injustice of our system.  
3)  Gilbert helped rob $1.5 million dollars from the rich to give to the poor, with the motive of justice.  He'll be in prison for the rest of his life.  Wall Street bankers, and Dick Cheney and other politicians, stole billions of dollars from the American people (via bailouts, deceptive lending practices, military contracts, basic corruption, etc.); they killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and citizens of Afghanistan; they kill people without healthcare every year; all with the base motive of greed, and not a one of them is in jail.  Our system rewards stealing with greed as the motive, and punishes redistribution with the harshest punishments imaginable; using laws written by the powerful for their own benefit.  David Gilbert is a dreamer and a visionary, and we on the outside must try to follow his dream, if not all his methods, towards a world of racial justice and self-determination for all.