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Surfacing
Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Different perspectives on Obama's speech
Topic: Politics

While I was focused on a few narrow aspects of Obama's speech that crystallized for me why I have not found him an energizing leader, other people found a whole lot more to comment on.  I want to share what I've been reading, because my post was a narcissistic take on an important moment in the public conversation about race in this country.  I'm going to leave the post up because it was an important moment for me, but I wanted to point to more important things being said about Obama's speech.

On La Chola, BfP found Obama's speech stirring, but thinks that "Obama’s candidacy hangs on a thread at the moment. ... His patriotism, his loyalty–they are all suspect, and they are all suspect because Obama KNOWS somebody who believes in racial justice."  Read the comments, too: these are just a few I'm chewing on.

Anxious Black Woman describes Obama's speech as a call to conscience (and also has an excellent comments conversation - this post in particular raises some substantive, but fair, critiques of Obama's rhetoric).  She subsequently pointed to Cynthia McKinney's response, "A Conversation About Race Worth Having."  If you can't read the whole thing, here's the thought I would like you to carry away right now:

I am deeply offended that in the middle of a Presidential campaign, remarks–be they from a pastor or a communications mogul, or a former Vice Presidential nominee–are the cause of a focus on race, and not the deep racial disparities that communities are forced to endure on a daily basis in this country.

Myriad reports and studies that have been done all come up with the same basic conclusion: in order to resolve deep and persisting racial disparities in this country, a public policy initiative is urgently needed. A real discussion of race, in the context of a Presidential election, ought to include a discussion of the various public policy initiatives offered by the various candidates to eliminate all forms and vestiges of racial discrimination, including the racial disparities that cloud the hopes, dreams, and futures of millions of Americans.

... when Harvard University/The Kaiser Family Foundation did a study on White attitudes about race several years ago, it found that Whites have little appreciation for the reality of Black life in America, from police harassment and intimidation, to imprisonment, to family income, unemployment, housing, and health care. But without an appreciation of the reality faced by many of our fellow Americans, the necessary public policy initiatives to change those realities will find difficulty gaining acceptance in the public discourse.


10:01 PM BST | Post Comment | Permalink
Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Why Obama leaves me cold
Topic: Politics

"I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of [sic] children and our grandchildren."

I have trouble getting excited about Barack Obama's campaign.  I have this difficulty with presidential politics in general, but in an election year where Obama and Clinton are polarizing so many of my friends, I find they both leave me cold.  Reading the text of today's speech on the NYT website helped me clarify why I have that reaction to Obama:  I don't find him a persuasive thinker.  In fact, I object to Obama's deployment of false unity and the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. 

What do I mean by that?  The quote above is an example of false unity: "we all want to move in the same direction - towards a better future for our children and grandchildren."  Not only do I believe that there are plenty of people who don't give much thought to their own futures, let alone those of their children and grandchildren, I'm skeptical of the idea that a critical mass of people share the same vision of what the future should be - I'm pretty sure they don't share mine, for instance.  In a microcosm, isn't an election (theoretically, at least) about a struggle among different ideas of what the future ought to be?  In Obama's rhetoric about "being a unifier" I tend to see a failure to honor difference and creative tension among people.  Perhaps that's too complicated a concept for the campaign trail - but it puts me off Obama.

What puts me off even more, though, and what I see as a curious point of tension with the support that Obama has generated among expatriate Americans and people around the world is his deployment of the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, as when he says things like:

I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

Actually, this is a story that could, at least in theory, have occurred in Britain, or Canada, both countries where men of ancestry that includes African forebears have achieved excellent educations and entered high political office, and could have married women who number slaves and slaveowners among their ancestors.  Now, the legacy of slavery in the UK and Canada is different - neither economy was as dependent on the enslavement of Africans and their descendents within national borders for as long a period as in the United States - but Obama's point here is not to try to reframe mainstream perceptions of slavery (that it was bad, that it's over, and that the playing field is pretty level now since it's all in the past and America is such a great country).  What makes Obama's story exceptional is the extraordinarily negative impact slavery had on American society, especially descendents of African slaves, and the fact that that impact is not a thing of the past.  Obama's choice to frame his story as a triumph without situating it in that context (though, to his credit, he does address the ongoing legacy of slavery later in his speech) is to my mind an attempt to make America seem like something more than it is. Frankly, statements like these veer far too close to jingoism for my comfort.

Also, this passage bothered me:

"a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."

There's a lot wrong with the US.  I think dealing with it sometimes requires people to point that out in pretty stark terms.  And one of the things I have problems with is some of the support that the US provides to Israel.  The state of Israel should not get a pass on its policies that are detrimental to peace, any more than the leaders of Palestinian extremism should.  Again, this framing, though carefully modified (Obama is, after all, an astute politician), swings close to the "Israel good/Islam bad" dichotomy that has poisoned US portrayals of politics in the Middle East for quite some time. 

Moments like these are why I find it hard to see Obama as more than an accomplished politician, and accomplished politicans - while far more interesting to watch work than the thugs and bullies that make up most of our current administration - are not the sort of people who generate a lot of excitement in me.


10:26 PM BST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 19 March 2008 4:06 PM BST
Tuesday, 5 February 2008
Super Tuesday
Topic: Politics

I really don't have anything invested in the Democratic primary - I don't even remember which state I'm registered in, having flipped back and forth between Maryland and New Jersey and been out of the country for so many elections. I think I'm registered as Independent, too. I couldn't be bothered to sort out where I'm registered and what I'm registered as and whether I need to change my registration to vote in the primary by now (though I will figure it out by November, to be sure). Especially when from the beginning, I've felt that nearly any Democrat, and most Republicans, would at least be less disastrous than Bush. So the preliminaries just aren't all that interesting to me, personally.

Votes are mostly amusing to me as opportunities to play the spoiler. No mainstream candidate (especially not at the national level) is ever going to espouse policies that will win over my heart and soul, so I cast my vote with the aim of messing with things and encouraging underdogs.  For instance, I briefly entertained the thought of registering Republican to vote for Guliani in the primaries to do my bit to drive the Moral Majority from the Republican fold. And unless something changes dramatically between now and November, I will probably be casting my vote for the Green party, because the Democrats need shaking up, in my opinion.

All that said, I still felt prompted to share this endorsement of Obama, because it's the most convincing I've yet encountered, in no small part because it comes from someone who seems to think very much like I do:

I wish I had a slew of good policy reasons to support Obama over Clinton. I don’t. Both are articulating economic and environmental policies I can live with. Both endorse civil unions, but neither has been brave enough to support gay marriage. Frustrated as I am with Clinton’s vote to allow Bush’s endless war in Iraq, I can’t find huge distinctions between her plan to end the war and Obama’s. Frankly, I believe either would be a solid, competent leader, and would be a damned sight better than the last seven years we’ve suffered through.

But my friends from overseas have a point, and it’s a point I agree with. America’s image abroad has suffered incalculably under the Bush 43 presidency. It’s going to require a huge overhaul for America to be viewed as a desirable partner in international affairs and as a force for positive change. I’m not sure Hillary Clinton has the power to change America’s image that profoundly; I think that Barack Obama does.

Obama is a born globalist. He’s the child of a first-generation immigrant; he’s lived and studied abroad; his family tree helps reflect the diversity and complexity that characterizes our nation.  read the rest


7:38 PM GMT | Post Comment | Permalink
Monday, 4 February 2008
Television brings rage
Topic: Politics

I should really stop watching it until election season is over.

At the moment, there are a bunch of really loathsome ads about these guys running constantly. They're all Republican candidates, competing for the a seat in the House of Representatives; naturally, the ads are all about asserting the candidates' conservative credentials. Which they mostly do by treating "liberal" like it's a filthyfilthyfoul insult and describing their opponents as "liberal" in every other sentence. I guess the district is safely Republican, and whoever wins the nomination doesn't have to worry about currying favor with liberal-leaning independents in order to secure the seat, because 8 months of watching this would certainly make me vote for whichever Democrat runs against the eventual "winner" - if I got to vote and were undecided, which I don't and I'm not, so mostly I'm just really really irritated by that aspect of these ads. 

What brings the rage, and what I am sure will upset me more and more as this year wears on, is that these ads make a point of casting "illegal immigrants" as the great scourge that only one of these brave, stalwart, paper-pushing, glad-handing privileged white men has the courage to face down in order to defend OUR WAY OF LIFE.  I hate everything about this rhetoric, especially the crafting of immigrants as the enemy. I shudder to think what we're in for, as the economy struggles and the election year rolls on: "[f]ear thrives in a bear market, as we try in vain to trade our fear for security; and fear is the currency of war propaganda.

The propaganda about illegal immigration is at a ridiculous pitch, and so much of it is wrong, ethically and factually.  In a recent interview, Amy Goodman described taking on Lou Dobbs (who she aptly compares to Father Coughlin): "We asked Dobbs about assertions he continually repeats, like a third of our prisoners are illegal aliens. Well, it’s just not true: 6 percent of prisoners in the state and federal systems are immigrants. And that’s divided between legal and undocumented, well below their representation in the population."

Another popular lie: that undocumented immigrants are freeloaders draining national resources.  In fact, migrants often purchase fake social security cards in order to acquire jobs, making contributions that most of them will not end up accessing. In 2002 an estimated "3.8 million households headed by illegal immigrants generated $6.4 billion in Social Security taxes.More than one scholar has argued that the benefits of illegal immigration outweigh, on balance, its detrimental effects.

And the jobs that undocumented immigrants take? Just read this. It prompts a few questions from me: 1) How many Americans would tolerate working under these conditions? 2) Given #1, who benefits most from the status quo? Who would pay the price if working conditions were safe, health risks minimized, and the pay was sufficient to tempt large numbers of American workers to take the jobs? Who benefits from increased border checkpoints and patrols? Who benefits from building prisons to house undocumented immigrants - from a whole industry springing up around controlling illegal immigration without regulating or stopping it? 

It makes me sick that this exploitation of workers fuels our economy, and the demonization of immigrants fuels our political debates. Bad enough that we cultivate ignorance about the conditions they work under, or the conditions in their home communities that make immigration to the US the most viable alternative. To add insult (and injury) to (insult and) injury, we allow our leaders to make undocumented immigrants scapegoats for crime, overtaxed public services, and economic woes. I would emigrate to get away from this if I thought it would do any damn good.  

Amy Goodman, again:

This drumbeat against immigrants has really turned many Republican Latinos against the Republican Party. They feel like this debate has crossed the line to anti-immigrant and racist, as opposed to a legitimate debate on what we should do about immigration.

I wish I felt like the Democrats were better than the lesser of two evils in this debate. Especially certain Democrats. I am not looking forward to what I will be hearing in US political discourse for the rest of the year. 


8:30 PM GMT | Post Comment | View Comments (2) | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 5 February 2008 4:59 PM GMT
Tuesday, 22 January 2008
Recommended post-MLK Day reading
Topic: Politics

BfP knocks this one out of the park, with some handy assistance from commenters: she starts by pointing out some key flaws in Jonathan Farley's recent Guardian commentary on the failure of the civil rights movement in the United States.  Then she goes on to present some background on Ella Baker - one of the many civil rights activists whose contribution to the movement tends to get lost when the Civil Rights Movement is conflated with Martin Luther King, Jr.  And throughout the post she weaves a powerful description of what it means to be involved in a community movement confronting injustice.  There are some excellent follow-on comments and elaborations, as well.  Go read.


8:20 PM GMT | Post Comment | Permalink
Friday, 6 July 2007

Topic: Politics

Those of you without incentive to keep half-an-eye on events in Australia may not know about the release of a report on the sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities in Australia's Northern Territory, and the controversial government response to the report.  The report describes the problem of child sexual abuse as "serious, widespread and often unreported", and speaks of this abuse as a symptom of the severe breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society in the Northern Territory.  It calls for "urgent, dedicated and collective action from the entire community. The Inquiry’s recommendations are intended to offer advice to the Government on how it can best support and empower communities to prevent child sexual abuse now and in the future" (emphasis added).

The federal government quickly announced a plan and moved into action.  The extent to which Aboriginal communities feel that this response is supportive and empowering?  Well, the community of Santa Teresa is asking the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and his "stormtroopers" to "Please leave jackboots here".  Perhaps because the Howard government's plan pretty much entirely ignores the recommendations proposed in the report, opting instead for a response that Hoyden About Town has fittingly categorized under "authoritarianism" (see that link for an excellent series of round-ups of commentary, primarily from Australian media and blogs).  With little to no consultation with communities, the government proposed increased policing, changes to welfare payments, compulsory medical examinations for Aboriginal children, and a variety of measures that reduce Aboriginal communities' ability to control their own land.

The Hoydens have done a thorough job of documenting critiques of the government's actions that express skepticism about why the government has chosen to recognize the urgency of the problem now (upcoming federal election) and why they have chosen to undertake certain actions (undermining Aboriginal control over land that industry wants access to).  And Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony described how the public debate would go: 

1. The Howard government and their supporters have offered a set of measures as a matter of emergency. This is undoubtedly a Good Thing.
2. Many people will examine the detail of the messages and suggest that many of them are half-baked, insuffiently funded, likely to cause further trauma, or likely to punish an entire population and maybe even make things worse.
3. The right-wing noise machine will say that this is proof positive that the pomo multi-culti leftist luvvies are Soft on Child Abuse (if not positively in favour of it.)

It's a bit difficult to know how the debate in the media has proceeded - I haven't seen much on the internet in terms of commentary from the government, aside from Prime Minister Howard's denial that the response is an election stunt.  And I suspect a lot of the "noise machine" commentary would be taking place on radio and TV, rather than the internet.  Although, Elsewhere notes that:

it was interesting to see that once the Prime Minister had declared his national emergency, suddenly everyone in the Australian blogosphere was an expert on Indigenous affairs.  Which made me think two things: (I) political blogging really is parasitical -- i.e. dependent on mainstream journalism and (2) people were reacting to the Prime Minister, not to the Indigenous situation.

She goes on to provide this on-the-ground look at local discussions in Alice Springs, NT:

When I've asked anyone black or white, in Darwin or Alice, during the last week what they think about the National Emergency, they've usually paused and said something like, 'Well, something had to be done.'

People are generally wary, generally skeptical about the Prime Minister's political motivations, suspicious that it's all about land, curious and doubtful about the level of detail in the proposed agenda. But there is tacit acknowledgement that the situation couldn't (or maybe shouldn't) continue as it was -- and that the women had been asking for more policing on the Lands for years.  There are also some concessions that much of the social justice culture here is moribund and ineffectual.

And she raises a point that I haven't seen another Australian blogger address in such explicit terms (although perhaps I haven't read widely enough - I do know that BfP tore into it when the government's plan was announced) - the role that the government has had, and continues to have, in creating the problem of community disintegration by the way it has portrayed and treated Aboriginal people:

There was an interesting comment from an aboriginal Canadian on the Law Report this morning. Direct intervention, armies of social workers and police, hadn't worked in Canada, she said, as those involved had tended to act as if nothing was there, instead of recognising and building on the existing culture.

One of the effects of the culture wars waged by the Coalition over the past ten years has been to paint a wholly negative and depraved picture of Aboriginal people and communities.  Much of the Coalition's platform on Indigenous issues has been couched in terms of a litany of vices in need of address: grog, violence, child abuse, welfare dependency, itinerancy, etc.  These issues are in need of address, but if you start from such a ground zero approach, if you refuse to find anything of value about these people and their culture, how can you work with them to restore a sense of autonomy and control over their lives?  It's potentially a further form of cultural ravishment.

Nothing that the government has yet proposed would recognize anything of value in existing Aboriginal cultures and build on that to address the problem of communities disintegrating and being unable to effectively address issues of neglect and abuse.

When I started writing about this, it was more to provide a summary of what I've read so far for myself, but Elsewhere's observation about the devastating effects of the negative portrayals of Aboriginal people and communities resonates with a lot of the posts below about the portrayal of the countries and people of the Global South, particularly Africa, and how they pose impediments to addressing social, economic, and political problems.  I'm not sure why I feel the need to highlight this over and over again.  I think it has something to do with the last paragraph here, although I'd need more time to unpack it than I have at the moment (sorry).


6:32 PM BST | Post Comment | View Comments (4) | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 7 July 2007 11:29 PM BST
Thursday, 5 July 2007
How to intensify a disaster
Topic: Politics

Specifically, How to Destroy an African-American City in 33 Steps (via WoC Blog), by Bill Quigley

Step Thirty Two. Refuse to talk about or look seriously at race. Condemn anyone who dares to challenge the racism of what is going on – accuse them of “playing the race card” or say they are paranoid. Criticize people who challenge the exclusion of African-Americans as people who “just want to go back to the bad old days.” Repeat the message that you want something better for everyone. Use African American spokespersons where possible.

It makes me ill that this willful refusal to address the impact of racism continues to be the major problem in discussion of the response to Katrina (what discussion there is over a year and a half later - see Step Thirty One).  I remember that people had hoped that the plight of New Orleans would mean a change in the way race and poverty are addressed through discourse, policy, and action in the US.  Even my cynical soul hoped that , at the very least, sustained discussion of the systems that perpetuate urban poverty and racism might become part of the national discourse after the disaster in New Orleans.  It is really disheartening that the aftermath of Katrina wasn't enough of a shock to bring about that kind of change.


I am speechless with sorrow and rage
Topic: Politics

To the Editor:

When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he presided over more than 150 executions. In more than one-third of the cases — 57 in all — lawyers representing condemned inmates asked then-Governor Bush for a commutation of sentence, so that the inmates would serve life in prison rather than face execution.

Some of these inmates had been represented by lawyers who slept during trials. Some were mentally retarded. Some were juveniles at the time they committed the crime for which they were sentenced to death.

In all these cases, Governor Bush refused to commute their sentences, saying that the inmates had had full access to the judicial system.

I. Lewis Libby Jr. had the best lawyers money can buy. His crime cannot be attributed to youth or retardation. He has expressed no remorse whatsoever for lying to a grand jury or participating in the administration’s effort to mislead the American people about the war in Iraq. President Bush’s commutation of Mr. Libby’s sentence is certainly legal, but it just as surely offends the fundamental constitutional value of equality.

Because President Bush signed a commutation, a rich and powerful man will spend not a day in prison, while 57 poor and poorly connected human beings died because Governor Bush refused to lift a pen for them.

David R. Dow

Houston, July 3, 2007

The writer is a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who represents death row inmates, including several who sought commutation from then-Governor Bush.

From the New York Times' July 4th Letters to the Editor 


5:45 PM BST | Post Comment | Permalink
Tuesday, 29 May 2007
International Day of UN Peacekeepers
Topic: Politics

Today, in honor of the fourth International Day of UN Peacekeepers, Refugees International is calling on US Congress to make good its funding commitments to UN peacekeeping activities.  The US does not contribute troop units to UN peacekeeping missions, currently owes $500 million in arrears to the UN peacekeeping budget, and stands to accrue $500 million more in the next year.  This, despite the fact that the US has voted to approve or expand most of the existing UN peacekeeping operations and the White House Office of Management and Budget has given US peacekeeping contributions a high effectiveness rating in terms of cost-efficient use of funds and achievement of U.S. goals.  And while I do have my questions and concerns about the UN and its peacekeeping operations, I also believe that in most cases, it's the body best positioned to address complex conflict situations, from conflict resolution to rebuilding.  So I signed the Better World Campaign's Price of Peace petition to Congress.  Check out this fact sheet, and the rest of the site, and if you agree that UN peacekeeping is important to security and stability in the world, sign the petition. 


9:43 PM BST | Post Comment | Permalink
Friday, 26 January 2007
Wouldn't it be lovely...
Topic: Politics

if more coverage of successful women in politics read like Barista's reflections on two of the big winners in Saturday's federal election in Australia:

Then she says something that really strikes me - that all the vivid images and the excitement of Saturday night, when the ALP swept the Tories away so convincingly, belong to the women. To Julia Gillard, under the gun and the camera in the tally room, focused and poised and never fazed, her mind and tongue active and accurate for a whole evening on a tumultuous merry-go-round of hope and fear. To Maxine McKew, making the most human speeches of the evening, laughing, intoxicated with the joy of the moment, defeating the Prime Minister in his own seat (or so it seems…)


12:01 AM GMT | Post Comment | Permalink

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