Monday, November 30, 2009

The White Man on the Left

This kid in my Black Intellectualism class has been giving me problems since the course started. Today he decided that his "post-modern dialectic" enabled him to dismiss not only feminism but gender, race, and class as things that are "non-real." I asked him whether the rubric of post-structuralism might better apply to his opinions, to which he retorted, "That's part of post-modernism." Perhaps, but that's debatable even when limited to temporal consideration. That is, the historicity of modernism is debated, so how can post-modernism - as a response to modernism - lend itself so easily to such delineation?

But what really gets me about this kid even more than his half-baked interpretations of major intellectual movements is his White Male Privilege. It is mighty convenient for him to dismiss race and gender as mere and meaningless social constructs, seeing as he is a white male and thus the recipient of major social privilege. This is, of course, the same kid who told me I was rude to interrupt him during a speech he was making about bell hooks, a speech that was self-indulgent and betrayed a lack of basic information acquisition (ie: he didn't read the book) as well as a misguided and wholly inappropriate analysis. I pointed out that hooks advises men that the most important thing they can do in combating sexist oppression is realizing their own male privilege and how it exploits others, namely women. Moreover, I explained, whiteness is always privileged in our social reality, so the acknowledgment of one's white privilege is the crucial first step in deconstructing and eradicating it. "Well, hooks is saying we overcome these privileges with compassion," he retorted. But actally she isn't. Compassion is one of those tricky emotions that, based on perceived empathy, lends a moralizing quality to a relationship. That is, to feel compassion for someone or something is to pity it.

My dear Bessarabian princess, you may say, that is indeed exceedingly annoying. But what did this man do today? Well, it was a bit more benign than what his class friend said last week, which was that Haitian people are uncivilized. When asked how he defined "civilized," he said, "you know, like when people can behave without killing each other." Aha! So by that logic, our great nation of the USA is not civilized. Inroads, mayhaps?

I've noticed before that this student and his friend like to talk between themselves while others are speaking. I saw today that their private conversations happened exclusively while females were addressing the class. For an individual so committed to his own transcendence of sexism and racism, this student was being exceptionally rude. At one point I told him very quietly that I found his side comments distracting. I said exactly, "I find your side comments distracting. " He looked at me and said, "Are you fucking kidding me?"


To dismiss an objection to one's transgression of classroom etiquette is, I think, a tall expression of one's privilege. The fact that this individual values his personal conversation over another's ability to listen to and thereby participate in classroom discussion exemplifies the individual's internalization of self-importance based on his whiteness and his maleness. This self-importance is validated by the media, by political structures, and pretty much everything else in our societies. That in itself should not produce surprise at this student's actions and attitudes. However this particular individual fashions himself to be somewhat of a Leftist radical. He therefore should be attuned to the realities of privilege and discursive power. I have encountered many men like him on the Left (like the guy at the Brecht who was shocked at my being "so smart, also so pretty" - like, thanks, douchetard, for realizing that girls have brains, and also for reminding me that my worth as a human being is entirely dependent on his and other men's judgments of the aesthetic value of my body), and each time I feel more and more disenchanted by the purported radicalism of the movement. Men seem to think that if their surface politics are lined up, they can still take advantage of the male privilege afforded to them by mainstream society. But how can we resist hegemonic structures of oppression when we ourselves recreate and thus legitimize them?

What bothers me most about this episode is that this young man - if he even retains a memory of the incident - will remember me as a nag, a scold, someone to be dismissed as a mild annoyance, when in reality, I was calling him out on something much more profound and referential to the macrostructure. We women of the Left really have to get our acts together on this because it seems that some men aren't willing to question the role they themselves play in our suffering.

It's too bad this reflection won't happen in the Gallatin(TM) classroom. The end of this particular class witnessed a casual mention of "jungle fever" and the merits of the World Music section at Barnes and Noble, topics which deserve, but unsurprisingly did not receive, thoughtful discussion.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Every vegetarian's favorite holiday

On this happy "Thanksgiving Day," I would like to dedicate some weblog space to the people who lived on the land here before land became something that could be owned. These people have suffered and continue to suffer from the patriarchal capitalist exploitation imported from Europe and instituted here under the auspices of a "people's republic" now referred to as the United States of America. I am speaking of course about the indigenous people.

What follows are the words of Ohcumgache (Little Wolf) of the Northern Cheyennes, who were made to migrate from their ancestral homelands to barren lands in the western parts of this country. The desire to "go north" refers to the Northern Cheyennes' 1877 attempt to escape what was basically the concentration camp where the settlers made them go. The Northern Cheyenne, along with all the indigenous peoples of the earth, are a violated people: their culture, language, bodies, lifestyles have all been violently subjected to the greed and racism of the colonial "settlers." They have been coerced into poverty and shame. As they have little to no recourse for their losses, the least I can do is mention their plight on this day when we are meant to celebrate having "befriended" them.

"We have been south and suffered a great deal down there. Many have died of diseases which we have no name for. Our hearts looked and longed for this country where we were born. There are only a few of us left, and we only wanted a little ground, where we could live. We left our lodges standing, and ran away in the night. The troops followed us. I rode out and told the troops we did not want to fight; we only wanted to go north, and if they would let us alone we would kill no one. The only reply we got was a volley. After that we had to fight our way, but we killed none who did not fire at us first. My brother, Dull Knife, took one-half of the band and surrendered near Fort Robinson...They gave up their guns, and then the whites killed them all."

- from Dee Brown, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West." (New York: Washington Square Press, 1970.)

The images of helpful Squanto sharing corn with the Pilgrim settlers, and of Sacagawea generously guiding Lewis and Clark across the Missouri riverbanks - these are misleading, and serve only to obscure the true history of the indigenous peoples of this country.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I am so unpopular in the Gallatin(TM) School

I'm taking this "Colonies and Empires" class at the Gallatin(TM) School, and so far it has been a bit of a disaster for this Leftist individual because of hostility from the humanitarians in the class. Now, I'm all for justice and equalitarianism, but I have been trained well by Antonio Lauria, so I know a nuance when I see it. And I see a lot of them.

Anyway, we have these weekly assignments in the class to post online our responses to the week's readings and class discussions. The blog can be found here. Anyone unfamiliar with the Gallatin(TM) School might be surprised by the untourniqueted bleeding of hearts and, in some posts, the general lack of logic.

On Thursday, we had a discussion about "women's rights" and how "we" can "help" "them." We talked about an article that detailed Mavis (wife of Jay) Leno's involvement with the anti-Taliban movement. Mavis was opposed to what she viewed as the oppression of Afghani women through their forced donning of the burka, the garment that fully covers the body and face. One student in the class argued that it was good of us to help these women by overthrowing the Taliban. However, data indicate that the women affected by the burka edicts were those in the urban areas of Afghanistan, and that under the Taliban, the number of violent sexual assaults against women, including instances of rape, significantly decreased. While I happen to think that a revolution in consciousness is a better approach to eradicating sexual assault, the burka cannot be discounted as a positive factor in this effort. Also, since most Afghani people live in rural regions, the anti-burka brigades often lose sight of just whom they're trying to help, and tend to sensationalize what they see as a broad - and not local - social problem.

However, with a few exceptions, this week's responses on the blog were not entirely welcoming of this perspective. I argued in class that Mavis Leno's movement demonstrates the interconnectivity of the political and commercial elites and ruling powers of this country. Moreover, the imposition of the "Western" lens onto the Afghani women's lives was (and continues to be) highly innapropriate and in fact a show of hegemonic intervention, especially in its later military manifestation. Perhaps an examination of our conceptions of liberation would be useful here, as we associate it with overt sexualization and objectification of women's bodies. Are not both systems "oppressive" in this model?

This is an excerpt from my posting:

"Mavis Leno’s anti-Taliban 'feminist' efforts exemplify the danger of such misperception. Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood’s article 'Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency' explains that humanitarian “relief” directed at the headscarf or burka are symptomatic of a more general Western demonization of Islam. Leno’s organization has a myopic and underdeveloped vision of women’s realities under the Taliban; it ignores the political history and culture of Afghanistan and Islam in general, most disastrously overlooking the US’ role in this history, particularly as related to the US’ Cold War regional motives and strategic tactics. With Leno’s help, women in burkas become helpless victims of a brutal political force. These women are denied agency over their own lives and their own definitions of freedom and religious expression."

I am looking forward to more negative feedback. Class is so much more interesting when everyone's feisty.