How might you determine which adults are most deserving of care while waiting for federal funds? Would a Democratic voter registration card be sufficient to keep you in the hospital?
It’s a pretty familiar meme by now. After the explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant in West, Texas, some progressives couldn’t wait to weigh in on how Texans had deregulated business, implying that the 15 dead and 200 injured deserved what they got. Respectable journalists didn’t usually take things quite that far, but this was the lesson many heard when the articles went viral on social media.
When Moore, Oklahoma was devastated by a tornado more than a mile long, thousands of people tweeted to remind us that Oklahoma senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn had voted against Hurricane Sandy relief in New Jersey and New York. Host Cenk Uygur echoed this sentiment on The Young Turks after responding to President Obama’s quick response with a quick, “Yeah, that’s not what I would’ve done. He continues:
As I read the stories, nine kids were killed, and there are these heroic stories about the teachers covering up the kids so they wouldn’t get blown away… So I feel tremendously for the people of Oklahoma, but, uh, their two senators are the most vile, ignorant senators there are in the country. And James Inhofe and Tom Coburn consistently vote against relief for other states. They did it on Superstorm Sandy, and they do it all the time. In fact, there was a $12.9 billion for future disaster mitigation which might’ve helped Oklahoma that they voted against. So if I’m President Obama, I would be tempted to say, ‘I will give this disaster
relief to Oklahoma because I’m the President of the United States and I represent everybody. But I will do it immediately after Coburn and Inhofe come out here and give a public apology to the rest of the nation for consistently voting against federal aid when you needed it. But they come begging to me for federal relief.
You can see the entire video here:
This interview was published on May 22, but be assured that similar sentiments were going viral even as Oklahoman first responders dug bodies from the ground. The Huffington Post was one offender, but by no means the only one.
Let’s pause here and consider the subtext of these statements. They seem to say, “I am sorry for the people of Oklahoma but only because I have a generous and magnanimous soul. I don’t really think the people of Oklahoma deserve my compassion.” This kind of “compassion” is offered for the sake of appearances – and allows the speaker to maintain his own sense of personal benevolence while dehumanizing entire segments of population and blaming the people of Moore, Oklahoma for their circumstances. For Uygur and those like him, the victims and survivors of the storm are nothing but the “deserving poor.” For secularists, the thinking gets pretty Old Testament – even children must pay for the sins of the fathers.
So, I’d love to hear from Uygur and others who have taken this position: When precisely would you halt the rescue mission while waiting for an apology for Inhofe and Coburn? Would you finish digging corpses out from the rubble? Would children be allowed to continue receiving emergency hospital care, or would that depend on their parents’ voting records? And how might you determine which adults are most deserving of care while waiting for federal funds? Would a Democratic voter registration card be sufficient to keep you in the hospital? What if some registered Democrats are Old South Dixiecrats who voted for the senators? Or should everyone who lives in Oklahoma pay for the votes of some once the local funds run out?
Uygur is promoting a really disgusting logic here – and one that should never, ever be confused for progressivism. He’s suggesting that the masses of people who are represented by two senators should receive assistance based on whether or not two of their elected officials show sufficient contrition. Never mind that most Southern states – and states thought of as “red states” in general – are usually far more politically divided than people realize. Up until the most recent election, more than 40 percent of voters chose Coburn’s opponent in every election of his life.
In 2010, only 29 percent voted against Coburn but in this case, the Democrats ran a virtually unknown candidate with little funding – policy analysts in Oklahoma tell me it was never a serious campaign, just a placeholder to keep a name on the ballot. Likewise, Jim Inhofe has never won an election by more than 57 percent. That’s a lot of Democratic voters.
But. And this is important: Even if every single Oklahoman had been unified behind the right, you would still be a soulless piece of shit for thinking of Oklahomans as Republicans rather than people worried about their friends, families and neighbors this week.
New York and New Jersey residents who are new to storm relief are incensed that their cities are still rebuilding. Well, so the fuck is New Orleans. And Princeville, North Carolina – the first town in the United States incorporated by African-Americans – was flattened by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and it will never be rebuilt at all. Of course New York will be rebuilt.
It will not happen equitably – and undoubtedly poor people and people of color will make the most sacrifices. But forgive us for noticing that the magnanimous white liberals of the Northeast didn’t give a shit when our towns were destroyed – and have probably never, let’s face it, even heard of Princeville.
I live in North Carolina, an evenly split purple state – perhaps the most purple in the Union – commonly viewed by outsiders as red. I am certainly as liberal as anyone in America. We get both powerful tornadoes and devastating hurricanes here in the Southern Mid-Atlantic. I am not going to forget that when tragedy struck the people of Oklahoma, many liberals in the Northeast were more interested in using victims and survivors as object lessons rather than demonstrating meaningful compassion for them. I’m not going to forget, next time someone I love is harmed in a powerful storm, that your sympathy for my loved one who loses her home is contingent on her voting record. Nor will I forget that you might just think she shouldn’t be pulled from the rubble if she happens to be a Republican. And I certainly won’t forget the nausea I felt considering the fact that so many people on my political “side” will be self-satisfied and smug next time any of us in the Southern part of the country suffer a mass tragedy. You thought we deserved this all along. I’m not planning on expecting much from you – even now I remember that, when my state passed Amendment One, you were a lot more interested in making “cousin marriage” jokes than showing meaningful solidarity with LGBT people here.
What so often gets lost in these discussions is the fact that politicians are not mirror images of the people. If a far-right candidate gets elected anywhere outside the South, the media provides ample analysis and context explaining why. The Democratic Party in the district imploded and left a power vacuum. The Democrats ran a shoddy candidate and couldn’t get their act together in time to win. Lots of money from the Koch brothers and other far-right billionaires flowed through the state to buy the election.
We do not get the luxury of the benefit of the doubt when we make regressive political choices in the South. Even though our states are disproportionately poor, it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that it might be easier – and cheaper! – to buy an election in a poor state than a rich one. What it costs for Art Pope to influence an election in North Carolina is far lower than what it might cost in New York. We are easy prey, and our people are the ones who suffer most because of it.
Then, to add insult to injury, progressives cast us as America’s deserving poor every time they’re not using us as punchlines. I do vote for the more progressive candidate in each election, and I’ll keep doing so because I support progressive policy no matter how smug, arrogant and unhelpful I might find Cenk Uygur, Bill Maher or any other number of smug Northeastern liberals who cannot bring themselves to view the residents of “red states” as fully human citizens whose deaths are as tragic as those left in the wake of Sandy.
I did not condemn Sandy relief efforts on the basis that Princeville was not rebuilt. Instead I checked on my friends and family in the path of the storm system. I’d love to see residents of poor states in the South receive the same basic courtesy. Cenk Uygur and others could even show solidarity with meaningful progressive activism ongoing in Oklahoma. That would be much more useful than showing up to make cruel, inhuman pronouncements over barely cold
dead children, just like the members of Westboro Baptist Church.
Photo by the National Guard, licensed under a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution license.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that a lot of very bad things happen when people have good intentions”
“Fiercely intelligent” is the phrase used by a recent acquaintance, whose husband worked on “Shadow Dancer,” to describe the film’s director James Marsh. It’s a spot-on assessment that I couldn’t agree with more. The Oscar-winning filmmaker behind “Man On Wire” – who I last interviewed for Global Comment in 2011 about his follow-up doc “Project Nim” – is an artist drawn to exploring the complexities and puzzles in life, rather than to providing grand conclusions or even any solutions. Such is the case with Marsh’s latest narrative feature, a nail-biting, Belfast-set thriller (starring the dynamite duo of Andrea Riseborough and Clive Owen) about a single mom forced to choose between going to jail for her involvement in an IRA bomb plot, or turning government informant and spying on her hardliner family. I spoke with the British-born, Denmark-based director prior to the flick’s NYC theatrical release on May 31st. (“Shadow Dancer” will also be available on iTunes and On Demand everywhere else.)
Mothers play a role in their childrens’ lives, yes; but they are not blank cardboard cutouts with nurturing expressions and no political awareness.
Try this exercise: What’s the last thing your mother said to you?
If you can’t remember, you’ve got company: I failed that exercise myself. The power of a mother’s voice is undeniable; it comes from a place so deep and ancient that the actual words she speaks are often overlooked, fogged over by a misty emotional aura. Politicians often invoke images of their own mothers, or the mothers of their children, to add to the mythmaking about their own journeys to power or to simply score political points. Pollsters cite the “soccer mom” demographic in elections, as if this were a real group with real positions on issues (it isn’t).
The question here wasn’t if the building was going to collapse, but when, and how many workers would be trapped when it did.
Today marks International Workers’ Day, and many marches, actions, and activities around the world as most of the globe’s workers and families celebrate labour and fair rights for workers. (The glaring exception being, of course, the US, which observes a separate Labour Day in September rather than joining in with May Day celebrations.) Tremendous strides have been made in the field of labour rights in the last century, but in other ways, it seems like workers are stuck on a treadmill, unable to progress much further from where they were in 1913, or 1863, for that matter.
This is a man whose time has come.
Slavoj Zizek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Verso, 2012.
The work of Slavoj Zizek is by now a genre of critical theory in itself, complete with its own distinctive characteristics. These include: discussions of Hegel, Marx and Lacan; analysis of recent political events interspersed with sections on recent popular culture; David Lynch and Hitchcock; counter-intuitive reversals of liberal, leftist and feminist prevailing wisdom; and large segments copy and pasted from previous books. All of these, with the exception of Lynch and Hitchcock, feature in the slightly uncharacteristic new book from Zizek.
The subject, as the title suggests, is the recent post-recession social movements across North America and Europe – Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the right-wing fascist movements that have also emerged in Europe. Topic is always a little blurry with Zizek – one cannot always say a book is “about” any one thing in particularly – but The Year of Dreaming Dangerously sees Zizek strangely energised and focussed.
Some of the chapter on Occupy was initially delivered at Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park using the “human microphone,” repeated one phrase at a time. The systemic crisis in capitalism world-wide, from the North American stock market crisis to the Eurodebt debacle, gives new urgency to the Marxist Zizek’s political writing: this is a man whose time has come. “The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are,” he points out.
In an excellent chapter, Zizek argues that the television series The Wire shows the systemic failure of the Baltimore micro-economy – a failure at every level from police to courts to schools to politics. In The Wire’s Baltimore, politics proper cannot take place. Zizek quotes Wire creator David Simon, who says that “I accept that [capitalism] is the only viable way to generate wealth on a wide scale.” Zizek rejects this pessimistic diagnosis, in contrast arguing that the dreams of the Occupy movements et al chart a different way out of the current predicament.
Yet these are not altogether safe times. Zizek has longed noted the increasing authoritarian nature of liberal democracies – what he sees as the becoming-Chinese of capitalism in squishing dissent, “capitalism with Asian values.” In another chapter, he delves into the emergence of right-wing movements in Europe. The Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivek proves a useful barometer for nationalist sentiment – a xenophobic murderer who aimed not at the racial Others he abhorred, but his liberal mutlticulturalist political opponents. Zizek points out that Breivek’s politics are embedded in state violence against Others, as well as the odd combination of Zionist anti-Semitism of the extreme right-wing that comes in the support of Israel’s apartheid policies against the feared Muslim Others (Breivek, of course, thought that there are too many Jews in the United States). The danger, Zizek points out, is that Europe could fall into fascism again – a not unwarranted warning given the situation in Greece with the neo-nazi party Golden Dawn, for example.
The Year of Dreaming Dangerously is not Zizek’s most theoretically audacious work – for that you must turn elsewhere, particularly to his work on MIT Press. However, it is the most focussed popular writing that Zizek has written for years. Highly recommended.
The suggestion seemed to be that people hadn’t survived at all, really. They’d just been handed disability as a life sentence.
In the wake of the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon, media commentary splintered in a thousand different directions in the United States, many of them terrifying and troubling. For example, in a highly racialised culture, speculation about the race and religious affiliation of the suspects began before they’d even been identified. This led eventually to the false identification of an utterly innocent man as people hastened to attribute the crimes to a non-Christian man of colour.
After spending almost three months reporting on what feels like invisible, daily violence, I can’t help but wonder why some of these stories garner so much more attention than others.
When I heard that two bombs had exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, my heart sank.
Please, please don’t be an Arab-American. Please, please don’t be one of us.
Helping and discussing are not mutually exclusive, and we must have both.
In the wake of the bombing attack on the Boston Massacre yesterday, one quote by the late Fred Rogers went viral. It said:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with fashion or sassy writing, but the exclusive focus on these things gives the impression that this is a shallow movement without room for serious problems women face.
A new report just released by firm Valenti Martin Media called #FemFuture: Online Revolution recently defined Online Feminism as a movement that centers on “[h]umor, pop culture, fashion, and the punchy, sassy writing, tweeting and memes that online feminists deploy.”
But the movement that refers to itself as “Online Feminism” is actually a clique of 10 or 12 millennial-to-late-gen-X white, class-privileged women based in New York City. Between them, they run—or helped found—all of what those in the know refer to as the Big Feminist Blogs: feministe, feministing and Pandagon. Their politics are centrist or just slightly left-of-center. That is, they are mainstream, but for the fact that they focus on rather arbitrarily defined “women’s issues.”
From here on out, I will refer to this movement as Mainstream American Feminism or, for shorthand, Mainstream Feminism. As you might imagine, it alienates a lot of women who consider themselves feminists. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with fashion or “sassy writing,” but the exclusive focus on these things gives the impression that this is a shallow movement without room for serious problems women face, like institutionalized racism, domestic violence, poverty and any number of other oppressive forces. And it ensures that a small handful of feminists continue to dominate the online feminist discussion, which is actually far broader than the institution known as Mainstream Feminism acknowledges.
It would be one thing if most of the world’s women and girls were simply ignored by
Mainstream Feminism. To be sure, the movement’s silences can be deadly, but sometimes it seems as if Mainstream Feminism goes out of its way to dismiss and scold its critics. Here are just three things that have gone down in the past six or seven weeks. Surely there are more, but these were some of the more egregious and most discussed examples:
February 24, 2013: On Oscar night, The Onion tweeted that nine-year-old African-American nominee Quvenzhané Wallis was a “cunt.” Mainstream Feminists pride themselves on critical analysis of pop culture, but they completely ignored a sexist, sexualized insult against a black girl child. You might give them a pass for being unaware of what happened, except we all know they were live-tweeting the Oscars and following The Onion that night. So, it seems more likely they were ignoring it, hoping none of their troublesome detractors would notice and ask them to respond.
No Mainstream Feminist could be bothered to write as much as a blog post decrying Wallis’ treatment. They couldn’t even manage to link someone else’s fantastic
piece explaining why so many women of color found the tweet hurtful and offensive.
March 7, 2013: Feministe editor Jill Filipovic penned a piece in the The Guardian instructing women not to change their names after marriage because (1) it’s un-feminist and (2) makes you harder to track down on Facebook. Never mind any of the complexities of name-changing or the absurdity of telling women that the truly feminist thing to do is keep your father’s last name—or, frankly, the absurdity of involving yourself in a personal decision like this at all.
It’s a simplistic thesis that garnered lots of page views and insulted a lot of women. Women who critiqued the piece were quickly shot down by Filipovic’s compatriots and accused of being “haters” (Did I mention that Mainstream Feminism is super emotionally mature?). Then, when blogs Flyover Feminism and Are Women Human? hosted a series of brilliant—and much more interesting—first-person responses about the variety of ways we approach naming, neither Filipovic nor her friends responded.
Entire Month of March: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote a book called Lean In that advocates for advancing the status of women through corporate culture. And mainstream feminism has no place for people who ask questions like, “Hm, are we so sure a culture that promotes wealth accumulation for the already wealthy is really where we want to center our feminism?” No less than Katha Pollitt, Joan Walsh, Jessica Valenti, Jill Filipovic, Michelle Goldberg and Linda Hirschman converged to shout down the few women who dared ask this question or worse, openly critique Sandberg’s corporate feminist message.
They were particularly nasty with the excellent Melissa Gira Grant, whose writing on sex
workers actually centers women outside the margins of mainstream feminism. Grant argued, “Women and our social movements do not need a better boss but a more powerful base, from which we can lead on our own terms.” Rather than engaging this point, they attacked her on the basis that it’s “sexist” to critique a successful woman. For focusing on the working class women, women of color and many others who are left out of Sandberg’s vision, Grant was accused of “skirting feminist self-parody.”
In some ways, the Sandberg firestorm provided a great chance for mainstream feminists to clarify their corporate vision for all to see. It gave us a pretty clear picture of what this movement values. And it came in handy just in time for the launch of the #FemFuture report.
There are so many things wrong with this report that I can’t possibly begin to summarize them here. It leaves out a lot of people: online feminists outside the United States, early online feminist writers and educators, feminist sex workers, queer feminists, feminists of color, trans feminists, feminists with disabilities and many more. Moreover, it fails to acknowledge the fact that many do not see their online work and real-life activism as separate entities. I could go on, but really, they left out everyone but themselves, save a side box reserved for trans women and a few name-drops for women of color and earlier online feminist writers.
One of the less discussed features of #FemFuture is its endorsement of feminism as a Sandberg-like corporate feminist movement. There is business-speak all over the report. Its Executive Summary refers to Mainstream Feminists as “movers and shakers.” It wants to provide “innovative” solutions for the problems facing Mainstream Feminism. Toward the end, the report lists more corporate sponsorships as part of its strategy moving forward. It explains:
Online feminists need to recognize that our skills are useful, not just to each other, but also to corporations who have the financial resources to pay for this unique expertise. We need to establish and foster these cross-sector partnerships where corporations hire us to help them create blogging platforms, video, photo-sharing and other digital media that we have mastered. We understand that not every corporation’s mission and operations would fit within the ethical and political framework that many online feminists demand of our partners, but there is still potential here for mutual benefit.
This is exactly what Gira Grant described as Sandberg’s trickle-down feminism, all over again. It’s not that women shouldn’t make money, but that profit-making within the context of a political movement entrenches the Mainstream Feminist hierarchy—and dilutes the movement until its vision mirrors that of the corporation.
I’m just so very tired of these conversations. I’ve been watching these things happen for so many years that I can’t even feel angry about all the people they’re ignoring. The thing that offends me most nowadays is how small-minded it is, how hard it works to make feminism seem “cool” to the masses, how facile its conclusions have become and how bland we have to make ourselves to fit in. How we have to be willing to cast ourselves as “sassy movers and shakers” and how we’re encouraged to treat activism as business. I’m tired of calling out the same ten people every few weeks, and watching people pour themselves into educating these women as if anything is going to change.
I’m tired because Mainstream Feminism is so ridiculously, laughably shallow. So, I’m not
having this conversation on their terms anymore. I’m done with dialogue. Actually, I’ve been done with that for some time. In a time of increased disparity between wealthy and poor, I could not possibly give two shits what they think about anything that matters. They’ve demonstrated time and again that they don’t spend much time thinking about anything that matters.
When I decided to start writing for pay, I took pains to distance myself from mainstream online feminism. Thanks to lots of blog-reading, I’d figured out by then that the movement is often insular, anti-intellectual, exclusionary and extremely averse to constructive criticism. I also discovered that it has the very same argument practically every other month. It goes like this:
A Mainstream Feminist will write something either hostile to or ignorant of differently situated women – that is, women who are not white, upper-middle class, able-bodied, cisgendered and/or heterosexual like they are. Women from the rightly offended community offer constructive criticism. The Mainstream Feminist dismisses the whole thing as a “kerfluffle” or something similarly trivial, and all of her famous feminist friends rally to put the critics in their place. They depict their Mainstream Feminist friend as a besieged and silenced voice. And on and on it goes.
I never wanted any part of this. I’m not merely tired of it. No, I’m aggressively bored by it. I’ve been watching it happen online since about 2006. So, I mostly write about things these mainstream feminists don’t care about: Poverty, education, religion, politics in the South and other assorted things. Obviously these things are relevant to feminism, but they don’t fall under the rubric of Approved Topics for Feminist Bloggers.
A brief primer for future reference: The Approved list includes fashion for white women,
abortion rights for white women, the sex lives of white women and popular culture for and
about white women. Mainstream feminists also tend to frame the whole of feminist discussions about sexuality as defenses of heterosexual hookup culture. And on another note, they often converge around supporting Very Powerful Women—including those who may not have actually advanced feminism, like Margaret Thatcher—based on thin “glass ceiling” analyses. If you’re not sure whether a post you’re reading counts as mainstream online feminism, look for cloying, cutesy, fake compound words with the word “lady.” Seeing words like “ladyboss,” ladyparts” or “ladybusiness”? Mainstream Feminism for sure.
None of this is new. But over the past several weeks, Mainstream American Feminism has been even more aggressively exclusionary and petty than usual. So, fuck it. It’s getting hard to keep ignoring them. I’ve deliberately cast them as a monolith here because they more and more frequently act and move as one. They champion the voices of each other, the ridiculously privileged white women they revere and people who can get them on MSNBC—and callously dismiss the voices of their detractors.
Oh, hey, was this “punchy” and “sassy” enough for you?
UPDATE: Just wanted to note that I draw a distinction between Mainstream Feminism as such, and the report. I do not intend to give the impression that any group of marginalized women often left out of Mainstream Feminism has a uniform position on #FemFuture or this group of people. Also, it’s important to point out that several women of color attended the convening and had ideas included in the report. Judging from online reactions, some felt “name-dropped and watered down,” but others did not. Even so, the report was written by Valenti and Martin, and is not, in my opinion, altogether different in kind from anything I have watched this movement do over the past eight years. But again, I do not want to erase anyone here, and I apologize for not recognizing that I might inadvertently be doing so in advance.
Ever since a prison guard was murdered in 1972, three Black Panthers who’d been vocal about conditions at a Louisiana penitentiary were blamed, and the “Angola 3” were placed in solitary confinement – where Wallace and Woodfox remain to this day, 40 years on.
When one thinks of American torture tactics, images of men subjected to waterboarding in some faraway Middle Eastern country are more likely to spring to mind than that of an inmate quietly biding time in a prison down south. But the plight of Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King has been on Amnesty International’s radar for decades. Ever since a prison guard was murdered in 1972, three Black Panthers who’d been vocal about conditions at a Louisiana penitentiary were blamed, and the “Angola 3” were placed in solitary confinement – where Wallace and Woodfox remain to this day, 40 years on.
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