Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK Jr. Day

My understanding of what MLK Jr. was all about has changed quite a bit since I participated in a school-wide hand-holding circle in his honor at Dorchester Elementary School back in 1994. One of the most skilled orators in US history, King was one of the rare radicals with a mainstream voice. His contemporaries - arguably rightly - accused him of pandering to the honkies, but his contributions to altering the collective consciousness of the US populace cannot be denied.

My favorite King speech has always been "Beyond Vietnam," which he delivered at Riverside Church on April 4th, 1967, to a meeting of the Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. He advocates speaking out against the racist, classist military machinery that channels poor men of color through the armed forces for the purposes of killing other poor men of color in Southeast Asia.

"We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society," said King, "and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem."

He urged his followers to act against this blatant injustice, despite the hardships and dangers of such activism:

"Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on."

His words are especially relevant today, when tens of thousands of Marines are headed to Haiti to "help" with "aid efforts." The "restoration of law and order" appears to be the US priority in Haiti, and reports of "looting," "riots," and "chaos" serve only to legitimize the presence of foreign armed forces in Haiti. Never mind that these same reports came out during the Hurricane Katrina "aid efforts," and were used to substantiate the need for the National Guard to police the city under what I can only describe as martial law.

The looting of food supplies during a time of hunger is not unreasonable activity. People need to eat. If the Marines want to patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince, they should first set up water and food distribution stations, and assist the medical personnel with whatever operations require help.

One of the first actions the US took in Haiti was to seize control of the Port-au-Prince airport. French and Belgian official spokespeople have indicated that planes carrying aid supplies from their countries to Haiti have been unfairly delayed from landing at the airport because US military planes and personnel are given priority.

Structural change is of course what Haitians need. But the last thing they need is the imposition of US neo-colonial systems of dependence and exploitation. I worry that the presence of US armed forces wielding machine guns and Gatorade is not the best way to facilitate justice. "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar," King reminds us. "It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

An audio file of "Beyond Vietnam" can be found here.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Kolonialism for Kidz

I just finished my last college class everrrr, and I wanted to share part of the work I did for it. The class was called "Domesticating the Wild in Children's Literature." My assignment was to read The Story of Babar and come up with discussion questions for the class. I think half of my readers might be amused by / in agreement with (the other half being my mother) the interpretation I did of this text, which I read as celebratory of French Colonialism and The Patriarchy at large.

Anyway, here is part of my submission. It addresses Babar's ascension to kingship in the land of the elephants, after having spent time in the humans' city. The previous elephant king died after mistakenly eating a poisonous mushroom.

Goodness, and even greatness, in The Story of Babar is present when forest characters employ certain productive tools typically associated with the human physical capacity. The first example appears when Babar is described as a “very good little elephant,” apparently because he is using a shell to dig in the sand.

When Babar goes to the city, he is disciplined for not using the elevator correctly in the shopping mall. He appears to have learned from this experience because later in the story, Babar proves to be a “good pupil” because he studies hard under the tutelage of a “learned [human] professor.” He also learns to drive an automobile.
Babar's acquired skills in these respects make him eligible to be king of the elephants when the former king dies. It may be said that the former king dies because he did not have the tools, skills, or knowledge to distinguish poison from non-poison, or bad from good (at least by the human models of these concepts).

What is the significance of Babar’s ability to use tools and have knowledge in this way, with respect to his rise to power? Is this goodness something objective, or can it be construed as threatening to the established order (or the elephants)? Why might the city humans be invested in Babar’s acquisition of certain knowledge and skills?

I was interested in this conception of knowledge-as-power, because it seems to be inverted in Babar. That is, Babar's knowledge of the human world allows him to ascend to power in the elephant world. This type of outsider "knowledge" and, by extension, power have proven disastrous for elephant/colonized systems the world over.

Let me know if anyone's interested in starting a kids book series for the red-diaper baby set. We need some safer didactic texts.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

State Department Rep Liberates Puerto Rico

From Assistant Secretary PJ Crowley's 1/13 briefing on aid to Haiti:

"A number of countries have come in and offered assistance. I don’t – this is perhaps a partial list, but gives you a sense of the growing international response. This would include Netherlands, Iceland, Puerto Rico, Guyana, Brazil, Canada, Belize, Nicaragua, Cuba, Morocco, the Dominican Republic."

And the first exchange Sec. Crowley had with a reporter following the briefing:

Reporter: I’ve got two things. One, you mentioned Puerto Rico?
Isn’t that part of the U.S.?
Yes, it is.
Do they operate their own search-and-rescue teams?
No, I just have – I have – you are quite right.
Right. Okay. And the other thing is that one of your colleagues, Denis McDonough, was on the one of the networks a little while ago and was talking about how they’re trying to get – how you’re trying to get volunteers, including Peace Corps volunteers, in there. And unless I’m really badly mistaken, and unless the Peace Corps website is completely wrong, the Peace Corps program in Haiti ended in 2005.

So in sum, the State Department is run by a bunch of people who either don't know the history of their own country, or are just so exhausted weaseling Aid Attacks* on Haiti that they can't be bothered to bring "facts" to press briefings.

But for a moment there, Puerto Ricans were allowed to shake off the protectionist US armed forces and run their own show, a new - albeit imaginary - power which apparently was used to extend a helping hand to their Haitian brethren.

While the US is still trying to figure out how many citizens it has living (maybe) in Haiti, Cuba, having stationed hundreds of medical personnel in Haiti over the past 20 years, is pretty much leading the triage efforts in Port au Prince.

So, Cuban generosity versus:

Reporter: Apparently, some medical groups say they aren’t able to go [to Haiti] without clearance from the State Department. Do you know anything about this or whether there’s a line of people for it?
I don’t know anything about that. ----
*A neo-colonial economic trap in which donor countries tie aid packages to needy countries on certain conditions like economic restructuring through privatization of state-held resources and industries. This practice serves to further mire the recipient countries in crippling debt and actually lowers the quality of living for most of the citizens of the recipient country though its GDP may rise. Neo-cons/libs love this shit.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

On marketing a liberal arts degree

The New York Times recently ran this piece on the declining merits of a liberal arts degree, and the increasingly popular trend of universities' eliminating majors that few students choose for their major paths. These cuts include classics at Michigan State, and philosophy at the University of Louisiana - Lafayette.

Of course, people who study Latin have fewer career trajectory options than those who study biology, but I wonder who, if anybody, will be the knowledge-keepers in the upcoming generations if we are to so devalue whole disciplines? The abandonment of information is alarming, especially given the resource redirection towards the pursuit of economics and other lucrative "sciences," for example.

That is, students are not "choosing" so much to not study classics, but the economic climate and overall values system of our political/social order encourages - or better, coerces them - into pursuing more "useful" degree programs.

I know my degree in "Equality Studies" will not set me up for a six-figure salary anytime soon, but what I have learned in college is arguably as important as that which my peers have studied in business school. I have a broader perspective on history and the social "sciences." Most importantly, I understand and value the human element, something often (and tragically) lost in political and economic equations.

I joke with Gallatinista friends that we find jobs through which we try to undo the damage caused by people who make a lot more money. Thanks to the university structure, even finding these jobs is becoming harder. Our interests and sensitivities are delegitimized by the profit-seeking bureaucracy, but maybe that is the best training we could receive for entering the real world. At least our degrees will have Latin on them: maybe the last vestige of a well-rounded education.