Thinking Beyond Our Choices
[Written to share with the people at Centro de Estudos Socials, at Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal, October 18, 2012. Dedicated to the anti-austerity activists in Portugal and Spain]
Let me clarify my grounding, a kind of genealogy of sorts. All the moments mentioned here took place within a week of the first presidential debate between Romney and Obama, October 3, 2012. Immediately after it concluded Mitt was declared the victor and I thought victor of what except maybe telling lies, fabrications, and creating deceit. And Obama? I thought how could he not mention anything at all to save a bit of democratic life here? Not even a whisper against the "war on women", the "war on the 47 percent", the absolute right to health care. How dare he not say more that mattered to save "us" and this planet.
Romney was said to be an energetic doer, Obama, a plodding (academic) thinker. The entire election appears as a charade that is different than saying that the outcome does not matter. Elections have always been about endorsing power brokers but I am not sure that they mean exactly what they used to. As the nation state has changed, as the global structure of all economies become more complex, as the president pretends to rule over our discrete nation, economy or racial and gendered structure as we once knew it, the election facade soothes and makes us dumb(er). The transnational state and global capitalist economy has relocated power and the shifts are not all that clear to most of us. The new locations need deciphering; as does the very contours of where power lies.
I cannot critique this election by simply talking about it - because then I am limited to its lack of agency and urgency. So I have to begin differently. Too often it is almost impossible to think beyond the limits of our surrounds and power divides and either/or choices. It seems like it has almost been forever that the reform/revolution divide has stunted the way that we can think really newly about radical possibilities. People are depicted as doers or thinkers; actors or critics; authentic or frauds when I think we are more usually a bit of both.
Romney and Baines Capital protect the new economy of transactions rather than production. Obama speaks more of bringing production back without much mention that robots will and already do much of the work. Production and its factories no longer mean lots of jobs for a middle class. Apple product maker FoxConn in China has just ordered one million new robots for their factories.
No wonder that facts are not abundant today. Instead there are more readily available fantasies and untruths. There are small differences to choose between and with them small promises and small hopes. This is the other side of a vicious and cruel world where punishment replaces understanding. Yet, we must live making choices even if they do not matter as much as we wish they did, or whether they only reflect small differences. Acting and thinking have effect even if not enough and even if not in the way we wish they did.
Obama does not matter enough, but he matters for some enough to matter to the rest of us. Nelson Mandela did not matter enough to the destruction of racial apartheid in South Africa, but he mattered. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky tells an important story of sex trafficking throughout South East Asia and Africa and yet it is not insurgent enough. I am beginning to thread a method here so stay with me.
Sometimes things just happen at close hand to each other and they begin to whisper a narrative. There is also the connection that just occurs simply through simultaneous time frames or geographic location and they then matter to each other even if randomly. Maybe these events/moments arise because similar conditions put them in view, or pull them to the fore. Any string of events/moments constitute a day and reveals a significant array of power events.
I recently visited the "Rise and Fall of Apartheid" exhibit at the International Photography museum in New York City and thought about the ending of legal racial apartheid and the beginning of post-legal economic racial apartheid. Each and both are intimately woven into the normalcy and abnormalcy of life. Apartheid law reminds me of post 9-11 security protections – new enemies and others; sabotage and terrorism written both places. I return to Ithaca and see the film Dear Mandela about the continuing poverty and homelessness of Blacks today when each was promised a home by the ANC (African National Congress) of the new South Africa. Still in 1994 the Slums Act is passed and I see a sign along the road in the film that used to read free Mandela and now reads hang Mandela. I just happen to be reading Medical Apartheid that traces the racist history of medicine to the complicit arrangements between doctors and slave owners in the early years of U.S. history.
Life today has become more difficult for many, or differently difficult for some - more complex and differentiated. Classes run through races and Blacks can now oppress Blacks. Homogenous races and genders are more differentiated into heterogeneous races and genders and although a majority of Blacks may be poor, they also have the promise of becoming rich. This is similar for a woman of any color although the color will distinguish one more fully. There is a legal sexual apartheid in places like Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Saudi Arabia although the completeness of the homogeneity of class is not the same as in the legal apartheid of racial slavery.
Half the sky, the new documentary film based on the bestselling book by the same name, shown to much fanfare on PBS just two evenings before the first presidential debate - also produced to much fanfare - exposes the sex trade of young girls as unacceptable and actionable. India, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Afghanistan et al are put on notice for the unfair treatment of girls and women as prostitutes - women's bodies are supposed to be their own, to control and determine. The promise of education and opportunity are seen as solutions and offerings.
Interestingly enough women in the United States have been "victims" of the Republican right-wing tea party attack on women. Women's bodies are not their own when it comes to the right of abortion. Endless attempts at the state level seek to enforce vaginal ultrasounds and other restrictions on contraceptives and reproductive rights. As for the globe, Kate's breasts are exposed to all and the Royal family sues. Women's bodies are at issue everywhere - because they are key to all things economic.
Half the Sky is about doing, acting, making a difference when some critics wonder whether the difference Kristof and WuDunn and their crew make is not enough. The story of rescue is said to be self-serving – individual girls and or women are saved from the forced prostitution that they have been conscripted into. As one of Kristof's aides says: its not enough to help just individual girls when the problem is so big, but to the one girl that has been rescued it is all the difference in the world.
There is not much emphasis on the big picture – the problem of global capitalism and its tourism that nurtures prostitution and is its life force. There is no criticism of the capitalist initiative to turn all things, including humans, into commodities for sale for profit. There is nothing said of the deeply embedded racism of the global first world/third world divide. Instead these are silenced givens and normalized as such and WuDunn focuses on the need to create opportunities for these girls, especially education, so that they can escape from prostitution. But "opportunity" exists within the structural requisites of misogyny, patriarchal labor and its roots/routes in capital. Half the Sky is a rescue for individual girls in a systemic abyss. Yet, it has begun an expose that can be radicalized. So let us radicalize it rather than dismiss it.
The undermining of traditional female cultural practices by global capitalist needs has led to a ramped up prostituting of young girls. Enlarge the expose to the commodification of human life and the exploitation of the 99 percent across the globe. Misogyny is not simply cultural, it is transnational and polyversally true. Afghanistan may be an extreme, but let us dismantle our own right wing Tea Party forces here at home first.
The imperial gaze is more complex and mixed today than pre-1970. Colonialism was built with more separateness and therefore more homogeneity - empire/colony; legal/economic; white European/other colors. Today imperialism is complexly both inside and outside each locale. Geographies are more mixed and fluid – the third world is here; and the first world is in the third world. Imperial acts, though still punishing and powerful, is more nuanced and complex. The radical democratic promise of individual choice and freedom is an important critique against misogyny but the misogyny must be recognized as structurally necessary.
Reforms are not simply complicit. Revolutionary reforms are needed as are reformist revolutions. Radical aspects of liberalism especially when it comes to feminisms of all sorts must be embraced. You never know when you might be making a revolution. I have written many years ago about the "radical future of liberal feminism" - that feminisms cannot be contained by individualist imaginaries although they are often started there. Feminism in and of itself requires a sharedness in view, and without the seeing of the collective of women - no matter their variety - there is no understanding of feminisms. So the very notion cannot be contained by its origins in the case of liberal feminism. Today it is important to find and then act on the tensions found between feminisms, liberal individualisms, and imperialism and it is in these in-between spaces that radical meaningful change starts and mobilizes a new radicalism.
Progressives need to find and demand a really democratic vision of democracy that is not based on the exclusion of any human being from wherever they are migrating. No one will be abandoned - the mentally ill, the hungry, the poor, the middle class, the child who seeks comfort, the person who dreams of total completeness. We will end the cruelty of the one percent. The first step is to hope for this - then to speak it - then to build it forward together.
This is the new in-between that locates us inside and against simultaneously; recognizing both and all instead of either/or; inside/against. So let us make a radical politics by recognizing and acting on the limited choices that exist but moving beyond them to their structural connections. Immobilized by either anger or doubt we stagnate and the cruelty simply grows.
If you have ever attended public school, driven on a federal highway, received unemployment benefits, been assisted by FEMA after a flood or hurricane, utilized water from a federal dam or visited a federal park, or used an airport you have received an assist from the government that is bigger than simple individualism. If you have ever received veterans benefits, Medicare, student loans, used the GI bill, received medical disability or food stamps or a farm subsidy or an NIH grant you are one of many many people who have received an assist even if it is not enough.
And so I will vote for Obama. And all the while I will also work alongside anti-austerity activists at home and abroad, and inside/out for a more decent world.
Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Prof. of Anti-Racist Feminist Theories; Ithaca College; Ithaca New York
1. Nicholas Lemann, "Transaction Man", The New Yorker, October 1, 2012, pp. 38-51.
2. Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid (New York, Anchor Books, 2006).
3. Melissa Gira Grant and Anne Elizabeth Moore, "Nicholas Kristof: Half the Sky, All the Credit", http://democracyguestlist.wordpress.com
[Many thanks to Prof. Eisenstein for submitting this to Portside, so that it could be shared with Portside readers.]