Saturday, July 23, 2016

PLEASE, Canadians: Don't share pieces on the US election


I want to make a simple request to everyone in Canada who thinks of themselves as in some sense or another part of the left. I don't actually suppose that anyone will listen -- after all, who am I to ask such a thing? -- but I will ask nonetheless. And my request is this: I want all of us to commit, for the period between right now and November 9, not to write, publish, or share anything to do with the elections in the United States.

The basis for making this appeal is a bit different than some readers might assume, so I'm going to start off by talking about what my reasons are not. Then, I'll explain what they actually are.

What I don't mean

The first thing this request is not is an expression of left nationalism. It's not based in smug Canadian we're-better-ness. It's not based in a commitment to reinforcing borders as naturalized demarcations of belonging and action. I hope that if I have demonstrated anything over the last 20 years of writing and making media and otherwise acting in the world, it is a distaste for Canadian nationalism, left or otherwise, so even if this request seems superficially to be in line with such a position, it really comes from rather a different set of political commitments.

This request is also not an assertion that the elections in the US don't have an impact on us; they most certainly do. They always and inevitably do, given...what's the quote from Trudeau Senior about being a mouse on the back of an elephant? Anyway, you get the idea. I also have the sense that there are some dynamics specific to this election. There are lots of people who know more than me about electoral politics and about the right in Canada, so I may be wrong about this, but here's my take: The electoral right, federally and at least in Alberta and in a different way in Ontario, is in a bit of disarray at the moment. However, the grassroots right-wing social movement that brought the Harper Conservatives to power -- and my thanks to a Hamilton anarchist for first introducing me to the idea of right-wing electoral success in Canada as resulting from a highly organized grassroots base -- is still around. It has never been as strong as its counterpart in the US, and the more terrifying and openly white nationalist elements within it have not generally had as much influence as they do south of the border right now, or at least not since the Second World War. But the grassroots right in Canada is still stronger now than it was in the second half of the twentieth century. The electoral disarray is not due to grassroots decomposition, and that means that once the specifics of electoral circumstance that have resulted in that disarray have passed, they will have no trouble rebuilding to challenge once more for state power. There are no doubt lots of factors determining what kind of electoral expression that resurgence will find, and what sort of flavour within the right-wing coalition comes to dominate, but I suspect that one factor is the fate of the openly white nationalist, misogynist, xenophobic Trump campaign south of the border. If he wins, that element of the right in Canada will be energized...even more than they have already been by him winning the Republican nomination. So, yes, the election down there matters up here.

And finally, it's not an expression of rad left puritanical anti-electoralism. I wrote years ago about my take on electoral politics. I continue to combine both a sharp critique of the limitations and dangers of electoral and other uncritically state-focused politics with a strong commitment to pragmatism. Electoral politics can make only very narrow and specific kinds of changes to people's everyday lives (particularly in the absence of powerful extra-parliamentary movements), but those changes can still mean a lot in terms of people's experiences of violence and suffering and access to the resources they need to live. Given that, why not invest half an hour every four years to have a tiny role in shaping that? And I'm at least open to discussing more collective left interventions in elections as well, though my skepticism increases sharply in relation to the resources and attention required, and how that might either detract from or contribute to movements. In any case, I don't see voting as an expression of existential self, as avid proponents and die-hard opponents of voting both so often make it out to be, but as a small tactical intervention. Spending a lunch hour on someone else's picket line isn't going to end capitalism either, but it similarly can't hurt and might help a tiny bit. In a way, I see voting as a sort of harm reduction measure. All of which is to say, I welcome ongoing conversation about how best to relate to elections and to state-focused politics, and I'm not taking the position at the heart of this post out of any sort of conviction that paying attention to elections is uniformly Bad.

What I do mean

So why do I wish that Canadians (and perhaps all non-USians) would stop posting and tweeting and sharing and opining about the elections in the United States?

Well, there are a couple of pieces to that. One key element is that even though the elections affect us, even though I'm not turning my nose up just because it's an election, and even though I don't think looking and feeling and thinking across borders is an intrinsic problem, we can't actually shape the outcome. We can't vote. We can't donate. We can't knock on doors. We can't phone bank. We can't do any of the other things that might make a difference to who wins. All we can do is watch the spectacle in horror and talk about it. Which isn't, on its own, necessarily a problem -- I'm all for posting and chatting about all sorts of things purely for the sake of knowledge or entertainment or edification or debate.

Until, that is, you think a bit more about what exactly the spectacle does.

So. I think our efforts to change the world, considered in their entirety, must begin from people's lived experiences and then proceed through efforts to understand how and why people's lived experiences got that way as we seek ways to make change that gets to the roots of problems. While there will inevitably be small steps and hard decisions and compromises on the way to get there, our overall vision has to encompass the entirety of the problem. Reducing poverty a little bit is a positive step, for instance, but the endgame has to be transforming the social relations that produce poverty. Any individual campaign may only win, say, a modest increase in welfare rates, a handful of concrete changes to reduce racist police violence, a single pipeline stopped, but those campaigns have to happen in the context of overall political visions of a world without poverty, a world without white supremacy and the prison-industrial complex, a world in which Indigenous sovereignties are respected and planet-destroying carbon-based capitalist industries are transformed. We can't make good decisions within movements and communities-in-struggle about the steps along the way if we don't hold on to the big picture.

One of the most pernicious impacts of electoral politics is the way that they get inside us and shape our imaginations of the future, of what's possible, of the world that we want. The range of things that can be changed through purely electoral means is narrow, and the degree to which they can be changed is usually small. Like I said, that still matters, because people's lives and wellbeing are at stake. But because of the incredible amount of resources invested in electoral politics, because of the huge amount of space they are given in the mainstream media, because of the massive legitimacy with which they are treated in mainstream discourse, and because of the power of the spectacle that results, this narrow spectrum of issues and narrow range of possibilities exerts tremendous power over people's political imaginations -- over our sense of what's important, what's possible, what's desireable, what we can and should do. Many people have had hardly any opportunity at all to imagine anything outside the narrow range of the electoral spectacle, and even those of us who try to act with a more expansive movement-based vision in mind still cannot help but be shaped by it.

Now, it's one thing to navigate that when it's an electoral contest where you live, that will have an impact on your life and your community, and that you can, at least in a small way, intervene in (or deliberately not). How do you intervene? Where do you put your energies? What non-electoral things should movements be doing too/instead? How do you recognize the real-life consequences of electoral politics while still fending off the dangerous impacts that the spectacle has on our sense of overall political possibility? It's all difficult and a mess, but it's an unavoidable one because it's not a matter of "false consciousness" but of a hard-to-navigate material situation.

But that's not what I'm talking about here. In this case, no matter what we know or discuss or decide, we are not going to have any influence on the outcome. For those of us not in the United States, as relevant as this election is to our lives too, all we have is the spectacle. All we have is the way that the spectacle shapes us.

And make no mistake, it does shape us. I don't know about you, but I find myself reading and thinking and talking about this election. Even though I know full well that it hasn't magically appeared from nowhere and is the product of a long history, I am finding myself emotionally shaken by it. It is under my skin, and it is taking my attention and my energy -- taking them, that is, from things that I could actually do something about, taking them from a kind of engagement with the world that is, yes, interested for the sake of interest at times but dynamically related to interest for the sake of acting, and instead focusing them on a political car accident that I can do nothing to change but can't look away from.

In the world of 21st century social media, there is a kind of active economy of socially organized attention and affect that is very different from back in the day when daily newspapers delivered to every door were the prime mechanism of creating publics and the public sphere. Now, our knowledge systems are produced much more through our unapid labour of clicking, sharing, liking, tweeting, +1ing, and so on. The democratizing potential of this more active role is greatly overestimated in some quarters, I think, but it still means we have some potential to shape at least our own and our local spheres (bubbles?) of content. That is, we have at least a little bit more control than a generation ago over how we relate to and reproduce that element of electoral politics that is the spectacle that deforms our collective political imaginations.

So I guess what it comes down to is that I'm not saying don't pay attention to and don't care about Trump vs. Clinton. I'm not saying don't read articles if you feel like reading them. I'm just suggesting that it might be a politically useful discipline not to share them, to opine on them online, to circulate them. I've been doing my best to do that, and even just at the individual level, it helps to interrupt the circuit a bit -- to get into the habit of thinking, no, I'm not going to pass that along, I'm going to stay attentive to things that are more directly connected to things that I and that the various wes that I'm a part of can actually do something about. And, like I said at the beginning, I don't expect this call to resonate, because after all who am I to make it. As well, I know how empty it can be to call for individuals to change what amounts to a consumer behaviour, when it is systems and institutions and social organization that are really to blame.

Nonetheless, wouldn't it be great if every time some lefty in Canada thought about sharing an article on how horrible and authoritarian and racist Trump is or how awful and neoliberal and imperialist Clinton is, they just stopped and shared something about...well, maybe about how awful the Canadian state is and Canadian corporations are. Or, even better, what if instead we focused on sharing material about movements and communities-in-struggle on Turtle Island (both north and south of the border) that are already taking action every day to challenge and change all of these things.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

To make social change, knowledge is never enough


It shouldn't be news that knowledge alone is never enough. Ignorance isn't the root cause of oppression, education won't singlehandedly change the world, and uncovering just the right fact will not be the catalyst that leads to global transformation.

Just because that liberal conception of knowledge-as-social-panacea is foolishness doesn't mean knowledge doesn't matter, of course. Events near and far have been hammering that home for me in a whole bunch of ways lately, but I was particularly struck by it last week when I went back and listened to an episode of Talking Radical Radio from May that features my interview with Robyn Pitawanakwat and Sue Deranger of the Colonialism No More protest camp. (For the latest from the camp, click here.)

In this episode, Pitawanakwat and Deranger talk about the protest camp outside the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office in Regina, Saskawtchewan; about the suicide crisis in Attiwapiskat; about the wave of #OccupyINAC actions through which Indigenous activists and their allies in some cities responded in solidarity to that crisis; and about how the crisis is so much broader than just Attiwapisakat and how it is grounded in histories and ongoing realities of Canadian colonialism.

It's all very clear, very straightforward. Nothing is obscured by academic jargon. The various ways that the interviewees, their families, their communities, and communities of people out on the land who look like them face violence from the Canadian state are laid out plain as day. They don't say it directly, but it's clear -- powerfully clear -- from how they talk about their own paths in this work that efforts to challenge this violence have been going on for generations. They present immediate, direct steps to begin changing these colonial realities.

It's only a 28-minute show, and at least part of the point was exploring the immediate context and the current actions being taken by this particular group of Indigenous people and allies in Regina, so it certainly doesn't present an exhaustive history or complete contemporary description of colonialism. There is lots more to learn about how it plays out, and lots more to think about in terms of how to end it.

But here's the thing: The core is there. You don't need a lot of background knowledge. You don't need specialized vocabulary. You don't need to do a lot of other digging (though hopefully you feel inspired to do some). All you need to do is listen to these Indigenous women talk about their lives, their communities, and their struggles, and to believe them. If you are a white settler person and you do that -- really do it, really take up the gift of the knowledge that's on offer in that interview -- then you are left with a clear path to thinking way more groundedly about who you yourself are and about the country in which you live. That's not to say it's easy, or that there's no need to do a lot of talking to figure out what to do next, but the outline of the path is there.

Even more important is the fact that, as pleased as I am with this interview, it's really pretty ordinary. Sure, given that we have mainstream education and media systems that have only very recently started to inch away from a near-complete exclusion of Indigenous voices, and that still dramatically underrepresent and distort, you do actually have to look a little bit to hear about this stuff. But you know what? You only have to look a little. It's a complete myth that it's hard to find or that it's hard to understand; it's really not.

So why doesn't the fact that this knowledge is out there and that it points in a simple way towards a very different understanding of "Canada" and what it means to be "Canadian" actually result in a kind of collective "Aha!" moment that spreads like wildfire among non-Indigenous people in this country? Well, the simplest answer -- not fully explanatory but certainly encapsulating a core truth -- is that there are always ways for us to not-know things that it is in our material interest to not-know.

For some purposes, that explanation is enough. Certainly those at the forefront of anti-colonial struggles have better things to do with their time than dissect out the details of consciousness of those who don't support them. But I think perhaps examining the how of this not-knowing is relevant to the secondary but still important work of building solidarity with Indigenous struggles among settlers (and I can probably speak to this most clearly with respect to white settlers). So how does this not-knowing actually work?

I don't have any definite answers, just a few areas that merit further investigation. I've already alluded to one: What knowledge gets produced and circulated by the knowledge systems that reach the most people is shaped by power, and this kind of unvarnished Indigenous truth is not something that has much access to those systems. Exactly how that exclusion is maintained varies with context, but it's pretty consistent. Even the relatively small barrier of having to look for such material rather than having it just show up in front of you has a significant impact.

Here's another: We're not passive vessels into which knowledge gets poured. We take it up actively or we don't, actively. And that decision about whether we enter into particular kinds of encounters that could lead to particular kinds of knowledge -- whether we click a link or not, read an article or not, go to an event or not, watch a show or not, participate in a conversation or not -- depends on how we feel about it. Philosopher Sara Ahmed uses language like "orientation" and "proximity" to get at this. It boils down to whether that cluster of feelings we have in response to the possibility of one of those kinds of encounters makes it feel close to us, relevant to us, about us, or not. This is mostly not particularly conscious or explicit, it's more of how we are steered by fleeting gut feelings. Also relevant in that moment of decision is a kind of unconscious prediction of how the encounter itself is likely to make us feel; often something that we expect will make us feel bad, in general or about ourselves, is something we'll avoid. We all have limited time and energy, and we're much more likely to engage with material that we feel close to and that will make us feel good, so often the knowledge that's out there about these bare-bone basics of colonial Canada just gets...passed by.

Even once we've engaged with whatever encounter might lead us to this knowledge, there are other ways that we sometimes manage to not-know: There's the matter of actually believing it. When we have some sort of encounter with a person or an object or a text and we are actively producing knowledge from it, part of that process involves matching this new knowledge up against the knowledge we already have. Sometimes it fits, and it's easy enough to take it up. Sometimes it doesn't fit, but for whatever reason, we are transformed by it, or at least unsettled by it, so we adapt our existing knowledge to fit with what we have just learned. Or it doesn't fit, and we dismiss or disbelieve it. Part of how many of us who are white reach that place of disbelief in this sort of instance is about deep-down sedimented stuff that we learn about the world from growing up in a white supremacist, settler colonial context. Even when we sit in the more liberal parts of the context that would be horrified at hearing this expressed explicitly, there are still all sorts of subtle messages that we are bombarded with over our lifetimes that Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour aren't quite, or aren't yet, or aren't really fully human, or they are but they aren't as trustworthy or as knowledgeable as you-know-who. That may sound over the top, but it's a big part of how the knowledge that winds through white supremacy and settler colonialism is maintained -- how easy it is to disbelieve and ignore what Black, Indigenous, and people of colour say about their own lives and about the world.

Connected with that but not quite the same is the fact that part of this matching up of new knowledge with existing knowledge is dealing with places where they don't fit neatly together. And when you're hearing about the colonial realities of Canada for the first time, odds are they aren't going to fit with your existing (mis)understandings. That misfitting is uncomfortable, dissonant. A lot of people are pretty attached to an understanding of "Canada" and "Canadian" that is completely at odds with truly reckoning with our colonial past and present -- and when I say "pretty attached" I mean viscerally and intensely. One way to deal with the discomfort of that dissonance is to just dismiss the new knowledge, and to then go on a search for excuses to justify your dismissal. Of course the systemic dehumanization and disregard mentioned in the last paragraph helps with that. Another way to deal with this dissonance, however -- and this is one that I think is a specialty of liberal multicultural Canada -- is to accept it and compartmentalize it. You say, "Oh, okay, that's your reality. That's really hard. I empathize with you and I want to support you." But you keep that knowledge neatly segregated such that it remains entirely about the speaker or writer who originated it, and the fact that it has deep implication for you the listener or reader is studiously avoided. Of course it isn't always this stark, either. In fact, I think a lot of white settlers in the huge expanse from left-liberals to the far reaches of the anarchist and marxist left fall into a milder version of this, where we know a bit about colonial realities, and we even know that it says something about us and about the country in which we live...but we don't know quite what, or what it would mean to end it. (And I think this notional solidarity with partial comprehension is a difficult and dangerous dynamic in which lies the seeds of future white supremacist settler colonial backlash. But that's a different post.)

And one other piece of how this all works is the way in which our knowledge systems deprive us of a good sense of how the social world is actually put together, of how it all works. There are demonstrable material ways that the world around us is socially organized, but not only are we given little opportunity to learn the details of that, we're also largely deprived of the concepts that would be the building blocks of learning those details and derailed into a nearly useless liberal conception of atomized individuals in a structureless massified social whole. That means that even if we have the right encounters, we don't turn away, we actually believe what racialized and colonized people say about their own lives, we don't dismiss the uncomfortable new knowledge, we know it has something to do with us, and we commit to doing the work to figuring out what this all has to do with who we are and where we live, it's not always easy to make anything useful with the knowledge. And because it's not easy to do, the alternative of giving up in dismay is certainly appealing. Or it's easy enough to do some of the work and get somewhere, but then to get stuck or distracted.

I'm sure there is lots that I've missed -- this is just a preliminary sketching of some of the ways that not-knowing happens. It's also not completely clear to me how to turn these ideas about the mechanics of not-knowing into actions that might contribute to building real solidarity. Certainly some part of that has to rest on a recognition of knowledge production not as some heroic individual task that we succeed or fail at, but rather a collective and dialogical process. In other words, this is not something that can proceed in any meaningful way by us individualistically sitting in front of screens or with books in our hands. Rather, there has to be deliberate collective engagement and challenge of some sort on these questions. But what is certain is that the very active character of not-knowing re-affirms that there is a lot more to it -- a lot more challenge, a lot more need to unsettle, a lot more need for dialogical and consistent engagement -- than simply transmitting information.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Tell me about grassroots history-from-below projects in Canada!


Perhaps the most obvious way to summarize a great deal of the work that I've done over the last two decades -- including the books and radio show of the Talking Radical project, but also a lot of things that haven't happened under that banner -- is the tag-line that I put in the header of the Talking Radical website: "historical & contemporary voices from social movements in Canada."

That's accurate and important, but it's equally true to describe all of that work (and perhaps even more of what I've done than that phrase captures) as being about trying to intervene in what ever small critical ways I can in our dominant stories of here and we -- sometimes meaning the dominant stories of "Canada" and "Canadians," but leaving it open to mean a lot of other things as well. For instance, I began the two oral history-based books that I published with the idea that I was mainly contributing to histories of movements, but over the many years of working with the material it became clear that it was at least as important for me to think about movements and communities-in-struggle as an entry point for history-from-below that that was trying to disrupt dominant narratives of this country and those of us who live here.

Recently, I've been thinking more about that, for a bunch of reasons. Partly, it's because a particular tangent within the Talking Radical project that I put a lot of energy into earlier in the year is probably not going to happen after all, so I've reverted my attention to some work that I suspended late last year that is focused on drawing from the interviews of Talking Radical Radio to do precisely this sort of intervention into dominant stories of here and we. Partly, though, it's because I recently went to the 18th annual Allied Media Conference in Detroit, and found that a significant proportion of the workshops I attended either directly or indirectly got me thinking about related questions -- the most exciting of these was, perhaps, the Chicana por mi Raza Digital Memory Collective, but there were lots of others. As well, as I approach the one-year mark in my new-again home of Hamilton, Ontario, I still have not found a satsifactory way to regularly engage politically in the community, but I'm becoming increasingly excited about the possibility of doing that via a specific local history-from-below project that a friend is trying to get going, that fits very well with these overall priorities. And then, finally, there is just the whole state of the world right now, where in so many contexts we seem to be constrained to a soul-wrenching binary for understanding here and we -- the empty and oppressive neoliberal imaginary of Trudeau/Clinton/the mainstream Remain campaign in the recent EU referendum, or the terrifying xenophobic right-nationalism of the Canadian Conservatives of the 'barbaric cultural practices' tip line/Trump/the mainstream Leave campaign. We absolutely need to be working on narratives of here and we that challenge that horrid binary and open space for more radical and liberatory re-imaginings of our world.

For all of those reasons, and to better think through my own future work, I've decided that I want to put together a list of existing projects in the Canadian context that are doing this kind of work. I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to do with this listing...maybe just learn for my own use from the various projects I discover, though I may also end up writing something about engaged, extra-academic history-from-below in the Canadian context.

Specifically, I'm looking for projects that are:

  • historical;
  • focused on movements, communities-in-struggle, or places;
  • organized around some kind of critical politics and a from-below orientation;
  • actively engaged with communities and/or movements in how they are done, whether or not they are also connected with a university context;
  • working to catalyze those active practices that are part of generating critical historical memory (and therefore critical understandings of the current world) among non-scholars, whether or not the project is also engaging in original research -- in other words, movement-based events and conversations focused on history that do not themselves produce new research are also part of what I want to hear about.
I am definitely not looking for:
  • local history that lacks critical politics -- and to be clear, I would categorize projects that go as far as liberal state multi-culturalism and no farther as lacking critical politics;
  • academic projects that are about all of the things that I mention above but that do not engage beyond the academy.
I'm aware of a handful of projects that seem to meet these criteria, though I'm sure there are many more. Here's what I know of so far:
  • the AIDS Activist Oral History Project;
  • the work of the Graphic History Collective;
  • the collaboration between the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre and Local 832 of the United Food and Commerical Workers (though this may have ended)(UPDATE: Apparently it's still happening.);
  • the No One Is Illegal - Coast Salish Territories Inhereting Resistance Project (though I think this too has ended);
  • the BC Labour Heritage Centre;
  • the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre in Hamilton, Ontario;
  • some of the work of McGill University-based activist scholar Aziz Choudry (though I'm not sure how much of his current historical work is focused on Canadian movements -- at least some is focused on South Africa);
  • a place-based one in Kingston, Ontario, that I heard about recently and think might fit these criteria but that I don't recall clearly enough to find;
  • something called the Toronto Worker History Project, that I believe is still in the discussion phase;
  • the website ActiveHistory.ca (though with all due respect to the great people who publish great work there, I'm not sure how far its readership extends beyond other academic historians...I'm keen to be proven wrong, though); and,
  • the OPIRG McMaster History project.

I'm sure there must be others, so send me an email to scottneigh[AT]talkingradical.ca, leave a comment, be in touch via social media, or send me a carrier pigeon with your suggestions!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Review: A Labour of Liberation


[Baijayanta Mukhopadhyay. A Labour of Liberation. Regina, SK: Changing Suns Press, 2016.]

This is the first book that I've read from Changing Suns Press, a new independent publisher with anti-authoritarian politics based in Regina, Saskatchewan. When they were crowdfunding for their start-up money, it was a no-brainer for me to choose this book as the thank-you for my donation, as I had interviewed the author last September (not about the book) and been very impressed by his radical, thoughtful reflections, as a physician who practices mainly in remote communities in northern Ontario and Quebec and who is active on issues of health justice.

The book itself is very short, and made up of a series of brief, thoughtful, readable meditations on practices and systems of medicine in today's world, and on how power pervades them. There is lots of specific content that I could draw out and reflect on, but I think I'll stick with making two main observations about what this book does that you don't often find elsewhere.

The first is the kind of insight it provides into questions of medicine and health. There's a lot of writing out there about health that claims to be coming from one or another sort of critical place, but in my opinion a lot of that, particularly a lot that aims for a lay audience, leaves a great deal to be desired in a number of respects. Often, such writing is very arbitrary in terms of what it is skeptical about and what it accepts on faith. It is also quite common for it not to have much at all to say about power, or to have things to say about power but to demonstrate relatively little understanding of how power works even in general -- so, for instance, to be rightfully concerned about the power that pharmaceutical companies hold within the health system, but to make claims about their behaviour that really don't make any sense with respect to how large capitalist enterprises work. Of greatest concern to me is the fact that such writing often seems to have little insight in particular into how health systems and practices work, and how that relates to social relations of power and oppression. Now, given the nature of the society we live in, the combination of an impulse to resist how medical systems subordinate us with a lack of knowledge about how they actually work is pretty understandable, and there is a tendency to be scornful in the face of such stances that we really do need to keep in check. That said, though, just because it is understandable doesn't take away from the fact that such approaches can easily translate into courses of action that aren't necessarily very useful, or that are even actively harmful. In contrast, this book is relentlessly critical and very accessible to lay readers, and it is grounded in a really solid understanding of how power works in general in our society and of how the practices, discourses, and relations that constitute the medical system work.

Part of how the book does this ties into the other feature I want to highlite: It models a kind of critical reflection that we all can and should engage in, but that we so seldom actually do, about the systems and circumstances we find ourselves embedded in. What better way to develop a radical analysis of the world than to follow the example of this book and start from where we are, from the systems and practices and encounters and relations that fill our everyday lives? The book combines careful attention to the author's own experience as a physician with an active openness to the experiences of people who are differently situated in the same contexts, particularly those with less power within the medical system -- both other professionals and patients -- as well as to a range of critical writings about it. Crucially, Mukhopadhyay demonstrates a tendency towards humility in situating his own experience with respect to these other sources of insight, and a willingness to admit his own complicity in systems that dominate, which I think is absolutely central to building a politically solid picture of how the world works and deciding how to intervene to change it. Both for those of us who are writers and want to develop knowledge for broader circulation, and also for those of us who are more focused on informing the decisions we all have to make about our own lives, this kind of situated critical reflection is an inspiring example that we can all learn from.

The book has a mildly melancholy feel to it, which perhaps not everyone would prefer, but which to me felt very appropriate to the content. My main source of dissatisfaction about the book was that I wish it was longer -- much longer! -- and I definitely hope that the author continues to find time in amidst his medical work and his political work to write. In any case, I hope it gets read widely, and that many are able to benefit from the way it combines being short and readable with presenting a kind of grounded radical insight into health and medicine that is far less common than it should be.


[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Friday, June 03, 2016

Review: Lunch-Bucket Lives


[Craig Heron. Lunch-Bucket Lives: Remaking the Workers' City. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015.]

Back in March, I was travelling far away from my new-again home of Hamilton, Ontario, and as I often do when I have a spare moment, I was reflecting (obsessing?) about the path that I want my work to take. I won't bore you with the chain of connections that got me there, but some part of this thinking about what I want to write led to me thinking that I might like to read more things about where I am and where I came from. Which does not point towards any particular interest in writing, say, local history, but it does point to a desire to read some. After I returned home, I did some poking around to find a relevant book, and this recent publication by a well-known Canadian labour historian jumped out immediately as an obvious choice.

Lunch-Bucket Lives is a massive, detailed look at the social history between 1890 and 1940 of working-class people in Hamilton. As I often find with the sort of methodical, detail-attentive writing necessary to do good social history, it managed to be both an interesting read and rather a slow one. I don't bring any formal disciplinary expertise to the reading of history, but I have read a fair bit of it and written some, and I was pretty impressed with this book. I really appreciated the rich and well-documented sense that it gave of everyday life for working people in that era. I appreciated the breadth of topics that it covered. I very much appreciated how thoroughly considerations of gender were integrated into the length and breadth of the book, and how central spaces of reproduction were made to the telling of this history, in contrast with how labour historians of earlier years might have focused purely on production and the public sphere. I appreciated how effectively some complex ideas about how the social world works and how power works were presented not with inaccessible language and abstraction, but with patient, detailed description of the actual course of actual events. For instance, I really liked the chapter on caring-work and health-related labour, and the one on education, and how they both showed the uneven but relentless push through which the state came to take a bigger and bigger role in working-class lives (or, to express it slightly differently, how working-class people were increasingly organized into state practices). I appreciate how in discussing working-class response to everything from education initiatives to popular culture, the book stressed the agency of working people in the face of social forces, and the active and negotiated ways in which they were incorporated into communities and lives.

There isn't much that I would ask the book to do differently or to cover in greater depth. Perhaps the only thing that stood out for me in this regard was the contrast between how gender was handled versus how race and sexuality were handled. As I said, the gendered character of experience and the gendered aspects of social relations were carefully considered throughout. Questions of racial background and white supremacy (not to mention settler colonialism) were much less thoroughly integrated. In part, I suspect this is a response to the major contours of social life in Hamilton in that era: Indigenous, Black, and Chinese presence in the city were, precisely because of how white supremacy and settler colonialism were playing out, very small in those years. The most palpably present Other against which dominant identities were formed in the Hamilton of that era were the much larger Eastern and Southern European immigrant populations, which are indeed given plenty of attention in the book. And certainly those three colonized/racialized communities were not ignored, nor was the role of what David Roediger wrote about in the US context as the 'wages of whiteness' in the identity formation of the Anglo-Celtic portion of the Hamilton working-class. But these things were not integrated nearly as thoroughly into the book as gender. And as for sexuality -- well, the book did give some consistent if low-key attention to shifts in heterosexual relationship forms and practices over the era in question. And I completely understand that historical resources for understanding manifestations of queerness in that era are not necessarily easy to come by, especially (as the book itself notes) outside of major metropolitan centres that had more developed networks and spaces for same-gender erotic practices in those years like Toronto and New York. On the other hand, I know from reading a few pieces years ago by Canadian historian Steven Maynard, things like urban planning in Canadian cities in that era were very much informed by the impulse to foreclose possibilities for men to have sex with men, so I can't help but wonder whether more attention than the scant few paragraphs it received in this book might have been possible. Anyway, as much as those are real questions, it is always easier to ask for more than it is to actually do it; this book does a tremendous amount and does it well, and I don't want to detract from that.

I think the last feature of this book that I want to draw attention to is one that is perhaps difficult for people committed to social movements and to struggle, but one that I think it is extremely important for us to be totally honest about as we decide how to engage in collective efforts to push for change. There was an earlier generation of labour history that focused very much on strikes and riots and union drives, and on other forms of confrontation in the workplace or the political realm. And, certainly, those are talked about in detail in this book. But they are talked about in a way that refuses to do what those earlier historians did, and detach these generally pretty rare instances of collective and confrontational mobilization from their context. This book is very, very clear that while such collective resistance mattered a great deal to a great many people in certain moments, most of the time the collective agency exerted by the vast majority of working-class people in response to crushing poverty, hostile capitalists, and an indifferent state was in the form of everyday resistance and mutual aid. This is not to dismiss the project of organizing -- of seeking to support the combining of moments of everyday resistance into more overtly collective and confrontational resistance -- but it is perhaps to encourage folks on the left to think more carefully about how to better relate to the just-as-collective but much differently organized responses to harsh conditions that working-class people have engaged in much more often than the sorts of movements we often treat as the be-all and end-all.

Anyway. This is a great book, and I'm very glad I read it, but I'm a little cautious about recommending it -- it is, as I said, physically massive and a slow read. If the themes I've identified in this review speak to you, though, and particularly if you also live in Hamilton, then by all means don't hesitate to put in the time it will take.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Monday, May 30, 2016

What shapes what we care about and do politically?


How do we come to care about the things we care about, do the things we do?

Sometimes, about some things, it's a slap in the face, a punch in the gut, that makes us care. We care because the world makes us care, or at least makes the work of not-caring active and hard. Of course, within this caring, when the world seeks our blood or demands our sweat and we hate it, hate it, hate it, there isn't just one way to respond, so even then it's a question of how we decide what it makes sense to do. But we have to do something.

Sometimes, though, it doesn't hit us at all. For some of us, it's going on over there somewhere, and it doesn't seem to have anything to do with us, or at least not anything we can see. What makes us care about that? Especially, what makes us care enough to do something, to be open to seeing we're connected (and not in a good way), to re-think who we are and how we want to move through the world?

Over the years, I've had the chance to ask hundreds of people about how they started turning the impulse most of us have to push back in little, individual ways against unfairness in our own lives into more shared and deliberate efforts to change things. I've heard a lot of different answers, too, from people starting from a lot of different places. I was particularly struck by the answer I heard from Jackie McVicar in our recent interview about the work of the Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network -- not because it's an unusual answer, but because she articulated it so clearly, and because she started from a place very like the place I started: white, not-poor, and living in small-town Ontario.

She said, "Growing up in a rural community, I cared about people and I saw injustice ... but I didn't have the language or the understanding of how or why it was happening. I could see my own community's poverty, and so I might volunteer to, you know, help people, but it was hard for me, until I got to university, to understand how structural injustice impacts people, depending on class and race and gender and many other reasons." She did a degree in international development studies, with a minor in environmental studies, and she had "professors who helped [her] grow and learn a lot, in terms of that analysis."

Perhaps even more important were the experiences she had after she graduated, once she began work in the international NGO sector. That work involves spending regular time in Central America, working and building relationships with people in struggle, often against resource extraction projects being pushed ahead by companies based in Canada. It was, she said, "an opportunity for me to connect with people and see how injustice was happening in their lives ... [and] how people in their own communities are struggling for justice every day." These experiences and relationships were "a big part of my political formation" and a big part of "deepening that learning and deepening that understanding" to see how struggles in the north and south are "interrelated" and how decisions and institutions created in the north have "extreme impacts sometimes for people living in the Global South."

At the beginning, "There was still this image of, 'We're Canadian! We're the good people!' -- I definitely grew up thinking that. I think that was part of who I was." But time in Guetamala had alreay pushed her to start learning and thinking critically about such things, and then she returned to the country for a more extended stay. She was taking a bus from northern Guatemala, and all traffic on the road stopped because of a major protest blocking mining equipment from reaching a mine that communities were vigorously resisting. This mine was (as so many in the Global South are) owned by a Canadian company. The traffic was stopped for a long time, and eventually military and police attacked the demonstrators and initiated a riot in order to get the equipment through to its destination and allow this quest for profit by a Canadian company to push forward over the local community's clear understanding of its own interests.

"We ended up running into the cornfield. There was tear gas everywhere. People were hurt. There was a man killed that day." She went into a store to use the only public phone in the area, and someone asked where she was from. "I remember looking quickly up on the wall and there was this hand made poster that said, 'Canadians go home!' and I said, 'Oh, I'm from Canada.' I was trying to say it low and keep a low profile. He said, 'Ooohhhh, you must be the boss of this mining operation.' And he started to laugh. I was, like, twenty-three so obviously he was joking, but he said, 'No, but seriously...if anybody asks you, you should just tell them that you're American.'"

She continued, "I remember I looked down. I had this little change purse and I had one of those lapel pins that had 'Canada' and it was stuck on my change purse. I remember taking it off and putting it inside. And I feel like that has still been really symbolic to me about how I feel about my identity now as a Canadian. This goes much deeper, now, as I understand better so many things also that have happened in Canada -- genocide of Indigenous people here [and so on]. As I have grown and learned, I definitely have never taken that pin out of my change purse. I don't even know where that pin would be, but that idea of that national pride is not something I even really think about any more. It was transformative for me to think about who I am in this world."

One way to summarize this journey might be that she began her life in an environment that taught her values that included paying attention to and caring about the wellbeing of people around her. Then she had opportunities to develop tools for thinking about the world and about power as being social, and socially organized. Then she had opportunities to hear about the experiences and struggles of people very differently situated from herself, and not just in a way that involved learning information but in the context of building relationships and coallborating and that leading to qualitatively different kinds of experiences, all of which led in turn to a situation where not only did she 'know' new things in an intellectual way but that listening, and those relationships, transformed her sense of how the social world works and her sense of herself. The symbollic removal of the flag pin might have happened in a one-time encounter with a stranger, but it seems clear that the basis for the shift in consciousness and self-undertanding that it represented was laid in the longer-term bonds of affection and solidarity she was building on an ongoing basis with people in struggle in Guatemala.

I like the way that scholar Aimee Carillo Rowe writes about these things, in a book called Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances (Duke University Press, 2008). She interviewed a bunch of women's and gender studies academics in universities in the United States, and used those interviews as a basis for thinking about things like the institutionalization of women's studies and about how power works in universities. In particular, she was interested in how women in those contexts do or do not enact alliances across the divide between those who experience racial oppression and those who don't. The details of that are a bit beyond what matters here, but what's important is her insight into how important our relationships and our affective investment in the "we's" we belong to are in shaping the things we care about and the things we do.

A neat way of framing part of this that I ran across recently -- it was in the context of an interview I happened to see pre-publication, so I can't link to it, but the interviewee attributed it to a scholar at University of Toronto called Alissa Trotz -- made the point that all of us have a root and a route. That is, we start out somewhere, but we also shift and change and become something else, someone else, along the way.

Partly, that route is about our sequence of experiences -- who we are changes as we experience different things. Those experiences aren't random, though. They have patterns, and those patterns are woven through with power. So, for instance, for me some part of my experiences -- likely reactions from police to my presence, say, or how much attention I'll have to pay on an everyday basis to risks of being targeted with sexual violence -- will always be connected to moving through the world as a white guy, and that will always shape my sense of myself and of the world. But some things will shift depending on where choices and circumstances take me, and those different experiences will sediment into a shifting sense of the world, shifting analyses, and a self that's not quite what it was before.

What I really value in how Carillo Rowe talks about this is her emphasis on the emotional part of that, on "belonging" -- both in the sense of where do I feel my place to be, but also where and what and who am I drawn to, where and with whom does love bind me. The spaces we'll end up in, our paths, the experiences we'll have, and therefore our selves are formed in these relationships; the active uptake and reflection that leads to our analyses, our sense of what matters in the world, come to be in the intense emotional field of who matters to us, of the relationships that shape our experiences, of who we are drawn to be near and to be.

Carillo Rowe writes, "Whom we love is political. The sites of our belonging constitute how we see the world, what we value, who we are (becoming)" (25). As well, "Politics, experience, consciousness, and subjectivity emerge as mutually constitutive moments" and it is important to "theorize experience and agency as collective processes" (10, emphasis in original). "The range of options available to the subject -- for experience, interpretation, and agency -- arise out of the collectivities into which we insert ourselves or are insreted" (ibid). This means (to use Trotz's language) that while we can't change our root, it is possible to intervene in our route, and (according to Carillo Rowe) to "cultivate a consciousness, a set of experiences and modes of agency that run counter to the social forces consititutive of [our social] location" (11). A big part of this for her is about the relationships and collective belongings we cultivate. She goes on to argue that the reified, simplistic, individualized way we have come to understand things like 'social location' and 'identity' erase "the relational conditions productive of that location" and she wants to "render these conditions visible" (28) and "reveal the daily practices and affective ties through which such categories emerge" (46).

In other words, how we come to care about the things we care about and do the things we do has a great deal to do with this path that is shaped by our relationships and our sense of belonging. McVicar's account of her journey illustrates some of this, I think, and it is easy to imaginatively fill in the finer-grained steps -- the dynamic interplay of "mutually constitutive moments" of emerging "politics, experience, consciousness, and subjectivity" along the way, and the "relational conditions" (and shifting senses of collective belonging) productive of each.

Often on the left, our default ways of talking about it imply that politicization is a trait or even a sort of possession of an individual, and a sign of personal enlightenment or virtue. But I think it makes much more sense to recognize that our caring and our acting in the world is not purely a product of individualized intellectual effort, nor purely an individualized yet mechanistic product of identity categories (understood simplistically and in reified ways), but an emerging property of the relationships and practices and collectives through which we come to understand ourselves and the world. Neither voluntaristic nor crudely determined, it emerges through our path of engaging with and taking up collective experience. Encouragingly, it is therefore something that we can (partially, sometimes) intervene in.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Help me read more of what I want to write!


I read a lot.

I write, I think, because I have always read a lot. At some point, even prior to any explicit consideration of "What will you be when you grow up?", I decided that what I got out of reading was pretty great, and what could be cooler than doing that for someone else. There was a falling away and a return to that as an actual commitment, but the feeling itself has always been there.

My reading practices have changed over time, because of course. How, when, what, how much, for what purpose -- all of these things continue to evolve. Right now, it's quite a bit less bookish and more screenish than I'd like, and because of the state of my various writing and making commitments, it is less directed and more joyfully eclectic than at some other times.

In my making-things time these days, I do radio and I write. Without getting bogged down in backstory, the writing part of that currently involves a return to a trajectory of work set aside at the beginning of the year for a tangent now (probably) abandoned, and therefore a process of experimentation, play, and work on smaller pieces to build capacity for that larger project begun but paused because of uncertainty about how to do it. That means I'm paying lots of attention to "What do I want to say?" and "How do I want to say it?"

One piece of writing advice that I mostly agree with is that if you want to write, you should read broadly. Read lots of different writers doing lots of different writing, and learn about your craft and your tastes and yourself. Within that, be sure to read lots of the sort of thing that you want to be writing. If you want to write mystery novels, read lots of mystery novels. If you want to write personal essays, then seek out as many examples as you can. If you want to write poetry...you get the idea.

It came as a shock yesterday morning when I realized what a tremendously bad job I'm doing of following that advice at the moment -- not the "read lots" part, but the "read what you want to write" part. I realized that almost none of the many words I read each day is the kind of writing that moves me the most or the kind of writing that I most want to be doing myself. And of course there are good reasons for reading lots of different kinds of things, so it's not in any simple sense a waste of my time to be reading these other sorts of pieces. After all, I need to be reading news articles and current events-focused think pieces and different kinds of analysis centred on movements, because all of that is important and interesting and relevant to aspects of my work. I even write some of that, from time to time. But those are not the kinds of writing I most want to do. So what does it mean that I'm reading so little of that at the moment? How does that affect my ability to actually write what I want to write?

It's also telling that when I sat down to think of examples of writing that made me say, "Yes! That is what I want to be doing!" it took some effort to get there. What I came up with was mostly writing I had encountered in book form, and much less that I'd found online. I wonder if perhaps part of that disparity is that the books in question sit on shelves a few feet away from me and I can remind myself about them by turning my head, whereas a random essay in a random online venue by someone I'd never heard of before that I read three years ago is less likely to have stuck with me. So I'm not sure whether my sense of so little of my daily online reading consisting of this kind of writing is because I don't retain as much of it, because it is actually rare online, or because it's there but I just don't look in the right places and/or my online reading practices are aimed at doing other things.

I also want to emphasize again that these are very far from the only things that I find to be worth reading. There are lots of writers and lots of books and lots of shorter pieces that I find politically important or interesting or entertaining or worthwhile that don't make this list not because there's anything wrong with them, they just don't quite capture everything that I want to be aiming for myself.

So with all of that palaver and preamble duly noted, what I determined is that I am most moved by and most interested in doing writing that is:

  • radically engaged, in a to-the-root sense, with the social world;
  • thoughtful, which I mean in the sense of interested in exploring ideas and in embracing complexity rather than sticking with description or rushing to polemic or falling into simplification because it's politically easier to do so;
  • attentive to writing craft, which might mean experimenting with how the writing is done or it might just mean taking evident care in what is produced as a writer and not just as a scholar or a thinker or a radical; and,
  • embodied in some sense, which might mean writing that incorporates or flows from lived experience in a fairly obvious way, but which also includes a range of approaches that are more abstracted than that but that are still grounded somehow in real bodies, real lives.
I came up with lots of examples. The first thing that sprang to mind was a collection of essays I first read many years ago that was published in the '90s by Dionne Brand, who is most prominently known as an amazing writer of fiction. Bread Out of Stone: Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics is the title, and it is a great mix of all of those things I just listed. Anything I've read by Gloria Anzaldua fits the bill. Though I've heard some people grouse about his writing, for me anything I've read by John Holloway needs to be on this list too. bell hooks, of course. Eli Clare's Exile & Pride. Some of the writings of scholars like Himani Bannerji and Dorothy Smith belong there, though not all of them. Inga Muscio's Autobiograhpy of a Blue-eyed Devil. In a different way, the work of politically insightful storytellers and personal essayists like Ivan Coyote and Bear Bergman do the trick. For all that her work has sometimes fed into political strands that are not the same as the strands of feminism that I am most likely to look to for guidance, I think some of Andrea Dworkin's work fits. In a different way, sometimes Rebecca Solnit's politics don't completely speak to me, and sometimes the jumps of connection she makes in her essays leave me behind, but she's a great writer and she belongs in this category. Some of how Peter Linebaugh and Markus Rediker write history-from-below meets these criteria. Though some of it veers towards the less accessible, Ladelle McWhorter's Bodies and Pleasures is on the list, and some of Jose Munoz's work. Some of it is clearly more academic than I want to be doing myself, and sometimes it feels like she is indulging in cleverness for its own sake, but Sara Ahmed's writing has definitely moved me. It has been awhile so I could be mis-remembering, but I think Eduardo Galeano, too.

This is a somewhat hasty and arbitrary list, and I'm sure I'm leaving lots of people out. Still, it encompasses a lot of different kinds of writers who do a lot of different kinds of writing. I am a little disturbed by the relatively high proportion of academics, though most of those manage to make the list precisely because there is something a bit different from standard academic writing in what they do.

What might it mean to spend more time reading this kind of writing? Do I want to make a point of shifting back to more bookish and less screenish reading? Perhaps. More importantly, I'd be interested in hearing other people's recommendations:

Are there any online venues where you consistently find writing that meets the four criteria above and feels like it fits with my list of examples?

Are there any writers or books or periodicals or essays that fit and that you would particularly recommend? Are there, in particular, any written by non-scholars, or by scholars but in a clearly non-scholarly mode?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Struggles for social change in which there is no clear, singular enemy


When I look around me, when I tally up my own experiences with what friends tell me about their lives and what books and films and articles tell me about the wider world, it leaves me with no doubt that there are complex but consistent patterns of how different people benefit and are harmed based on who they are. Trying to figure out how it's all put together and how to act to change things, though, is quite a bit trickier, especially in situations where there is no obvious culprit to name and challenge.

Sometimes, of course, you can identify a single institutional culprit for a particular pattern of harm or oppression, often the state. It may or may not be a root cause or the only cause, but in these cases it organizes enough of what's going on to make it a reasonable focal point for efforts to make change. You're a married woman in Ontario before 1872 and you have no legal right to your own employment earnings? You're an African American in the US South in the era of Jim Crow? You're a dude who likes getting it on with dudes in early 1960s Canada? In all of these historical examples, state practices organized through the law were, while not the only source of oppression, certainly a central and visible one. If you look around today you can see plenty of instances where it's clear that the state plays a central role as well -- from the ways in which policing targets Black and Indigenous people, to the national security state's treatment of Muslims, to the ways in which migrant workers in Canada are organized into what organizer Evelyn Encalada recently described to me as a "parallel universe with limited rights" that makes them "virtually stateless" while in this country.

The role of the state has changed in a whole lot of ways over the last few decades. Often this is part of what gets called "neoliberalism," though that word tends to get used most often to point towards the economic or class-focused ways that things have changed -- the gutting and privatization of public services, de-regulation, and so on. The social world isn't easily broken into bits, though, so there have been corresponding changes in how other aspects of our lives and communities are organized as well, in terms of things like racialization, gender, and sexuality. As well, neoliberalism is sometimes treated as being a withering of the state, but in fact it is more accurate to think of it as a shift in role and emphasis. So, for instance, the neoliberal state in the US may have dispensed with explicit Jim Crow laws, but the immense and vicious prison-industrial complex that targets communities of colour -- very obviously, to anyone paying attention, but now without naming it as such -- has grown up along side. Writers who talk about things like homonormativity and homonationalism show how queers that meet a certain profile have their lives hemmed in by state violence to a much smaller degree these days than they used to, while queers who do not meet that profile because of nation or racialization or class still often face intense state-organized harm in their lives. So the state remains a source of great violence for a great many people.

There have always been, however, instances of patterns of undeserved harm and unearned benefit that don't work like that. There's a pattern, so it's clear that some kind of socially organized something is at play, but it's a lot harder to see some obvious, unitary institution at the heart of it. You can even make a pretty convincing case that, as part of the neoliberal transformation, there are more instances like this today than there have been in the past. So, for instance, many of the struggles by feminist organizers within the dominant society, both in the late-19th/early-20th century phase and in the post-1960s phase, focused on making changes in the law. They certainly didn't win everything they set out to win, but much of the explicitly discriminatory law -- law that restricted the rights of women in a way that was openly named as such -- was changed. Yet, somehow, in all the ways that feminists today continue to identify, women continue to experience various forms of harm, constraint, and marginalization. Similarly with white supremacy, you see fewer laws in North America now that are explicitly about subordinating some racial group. The changes in the social organization of white supremacy in the neoliberal era have been written about by people like Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (who writes about "racism without racists") and David Theo Goldberg (who writes about the privatization of racism and even "racism without racism") and I'm sure many others. The trajectory of lesbian and gay experience in Canada over the last 50 years also illustrates this very starkly, from the deciminalization of sex between (two) men (in private) in the late '60s, to inclusion in human rights protection, to access to state regulated relationship privileges. Yet even beyond the ways in which some queers continue to be targeted for state-centric violence, dispersed manifestations of harm like bashings, suicides, firings, disproporotionate youth homlessness, and so on continue. (This is true despite a growing mainstream tendency among liberal straight folks to presume that queer, though not yet trans, experience is mostly fine now.)

Or to give three examples I'll address in more detail below: There is no law banning African Nova Scotians from particular stores, but consumer racial profiling pervades the experiences of Black people and other racialized people in Nova Scotia and across the continent. No legislature in Canada has passed laws outlining the ways in which mothers (and other primary caregivers) are to be constrained in their living and their choices (and confined to significant social isolation), yet it happens. And sexual assault -- well, you can argue with this as with the rest of these examples that the state doesn't do enough to stop it from happening, and certainly some kinds of gendered violence (particularly against Black and Indigenous people) is deeply embedded in state practices, but there is also a significant element of sexual assault and the rape culture that supports it that is reproduced in a very distributed, de-centralized way that cannot easily be linked to any single institution.

Naming these differences in how different kinds of harm and oppression are organized is important, partly because I don't think you can change anything without understanding how it works. It's also important, however, because at least some of our movement spaces aren't always very good at thinking outside of the the situation where there's a clearly defined, singular institution that can be reformed, overthrown, or transformed. In some circles, any organizing that is not oriented in this way is seen as less important or even (to use that most dreadful of leftist insults) as liberal. I certainly wouldn't want to argue that we don't need to-the-root transformation of the core institutions of our society, because we do; rather, this is just another way of approaching the insight that many other people engaged in many different struggles -- particularly those experiencing and fighting against gender, sexual, and racial oppressions -- have had that we can't just wait until after some imagined future revolution to challenge the more dispersed ways that harm gets organized into people's lives, and we can't presume that some sort of institutionally-focused social transformation or revolution along one axis will then magically end all the bad stuff along other axes or things organized in more dispersed ways. We need to take seriously, right now, questions of challenging harms and oppressions organized in more dispersed ways.

Part of what's tricky about this is that it's not always clear how best to do it. I certainly don't claim to have any final answer, either. But as I noted towards the end of a recent post about something else, I think the most important place to start with all kinds of questions related to social change is with what people are already doing.

Three Examples

With that goal in mind, here are three different ways in which three differently situated collective efforts are challenging harms that happen in de-centralized ways.

I'm getting the first example from my experience of talking with Ann Divine and Pastor Lennett Anderson about efforts to challenge racial profiling that happens in consumer contexts. Divine used to work for the Human Rights Commission in Nova Scotia, and she was one of the authors of a study a few years ago which demonstrated what Black people and other racialized people in Nova Scotia and around North America already knew: consumer racial profiling is common and painful. Anderson talked about the case of Andrella David, a woman in his congregation, who experienced a blatant instance of racial profiling at a grocery store in 2009. From their accounts, there have been two parts to the response to that incident. One was David's efforts to navigate the long and challenging process of taking a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. One way to think about the Human Rights Commission is as an artifact of earlier generations of social movement struggles against racism and other forms of oppression that can, albeit not always easily or quickly and within certain limits, be mobilized to respond to some kinds of individual experiences of dispersed oppression. David won her case, but the store is appealing, which will prolong the burden for her, and in response Anderson's congregation mobilized in the form of a demonstration at the store to ask that they drop David from the appeal and address the Human Rights Commission only. This mobilization, it seems to me, is an effort to apply public pressure to a private institution, and also is a sort of public educational intervention that, according to what was said in the interview, may be the beginnings of a larger effort along those lines to change public conscioussnes.

The second example comes from my interview with Candida Hadley, Susanne Marshall, and Andrea Smith about the work of the Halifax Motherhood Collective. They are a small collective of mothers who have been working to start from their own experiences to develop radical politics around mothering. As I write in the linked post, these experiences include "an incredible weight of social isolation, personal constraint and intensely regulatory expectation." This work -- which has drawn on feminist writers like Maria Mies and Sylvia Federici to connect everyday experiences of motherhood to interlinked histories of capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism -- amounts in part to figuring out ways to name and talk about these experiences and to understand them politically. They have also organized public events which have brought mothers (and other caregivers) with different sorts of experiences together to talk and to learn from each other. They talk about wanting, in the future, to challenge some of the social isolation that comes along with particularly the earlier years of mothering by engaging in a sort of direct action and having mothers (and other caregivers) and young kids occupy public spaces that they are usually excluded from. So in this case, because it is an area where we don't already necessarily have well developed politics in our movements and communities, the response has involved collective consciousness raising, and in the future may involve direct action to take up and at least temporarily challenge restrictive expectations built into public spaces.

The third example I want to talk about is responding to sexual assault. I recently interviewed Erin Crickett, who works at a sexual assxault centre. That organization provides direct support to survivors of sexual violence (of any gender) and engages in both individual and collective advocacy work. We talked in detail about the campaign that Crickett and a number of allies at other sexual assault centres in other places developed for the day that the verdict of the Jian Ghomeshi trial was to be announced, which included vocal support at the courthouse itself that foregrounded pro-survivor messages; dispersed small self-care events allowing folks having a hard time to hang out and support each other on a difficult day; a hashtag campaign organized around #WeBelieveSurvivors and #IBelieveSurvivors; a rally later that day in Toronto; and encouragement (plus resources) for people to offer support to survivors in their own lives. In terms of a longer-term vision for change, Crickett talked about going beyond changes in the legal system, which are of course necessary, to include fostering broader understandings of what healing and justice can mean; pushing for a transformation from a rape culture to a consent culture, through popular education and other approaches; and challenging organizations and institutions of all kinds to deal with sexual violence in ways that are more supportive of survivors. So in this case it was a combination of directly supporting people who have been harmed, publically visible interventions supporting survivors and calling for others to do likewise, a broad range of kinds of challenges to state and non-state institutions to change their practices, and an overall goal of changing the culture through educational means.

In these three cases, then, the collective responses to harm and oppression that is organized in dispersed ways include:

  • mobilizing state resources against the harm in question, perhaps through channels shaped by earlier struggles;
  • consciousness raising among affected people;
  • demonstration or direct action in public space to both challenge particular instances of harm and to educate;
  • direct personal support of affected people;
  • more conventional pedagogical work (e.g. workshops, trainings) to try to push cultural change;
  • multi-pronged challenges to institutions to change their policies and practices.
This says nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses, advantages and limitations of each approach. It also says nothing about how all of that might shift depending on the specific context. But it is a start at sketching out some of the ways that people are already collectively responding to these kinds of harms and oppressions.

What do you think about these approaches? What kinds of organizing along these lines have you been involved in?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Let's Pause and Reflect on the Outrage at Canada's Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia


There is something heartening about just how much mainstream public outrage there is at the decision of the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau to finalize approval for the massive sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding liberal (and Liberal) mythologies that downplay and deny it, Canada has a lot to answer for (1, 2) when it comes to war, militarism, and empire -- from our founding on the basis of conquest and genocide; to our significant past and present of profit-making (and wage-earning) based on manufacturing machinery of war and death; to our support of or active involvement in overthrowing elected governments; to participating actively not in all, but in many, US-led imperial military interventions that have brought death and chaos to civilians. So, believe me, any active outrage at Canadian complicity in war and militarism is very welcome.


At the same time, there is something suspiciously selective about this outrage. I know that those who are most involved in this issue in grassroots ways are quite clear about their outrage at all manifestations of Canadian complicity in war, militarism, and empire, not just this one. I also know that there are features of the Saudi regime's behaviour that are distinct and that deserve to be specifically named and deplored. But why is Canadian complicity in the Saudi regime's oppressive violence met with an outrage that is expressed and resonates far more broadly than, say, outrage at Canadian complicity -- both direct and through all sorts of support (including arms sales) to the US -- in the horrific violence inflicted on the world by the Western bloc? (And why does even the act of making that comparison no doubt come across as ridiculous to so many Canadians?)

There's a lot going on there, I think. The violence and harm done by the West (including Canada) is organized quite differently than the brutalities of the Saudi regime. (Though, frankly, the brutalities of the Saudi regime definitely count towards the Western tally, as there is no way the House of Saud would've lasted as long as it has if it was not propped up by the West.) The violence and harm done by the West is also treated quite differently in the mainstream media, and much of it is ignored, so it shouldn't be a surprise to us that people regard it differently. But both bound up in those things and functioning independently are white supremacist and colonial reasons as well. The image of "barbaric" brown men has been a staple of the Western imperial imagination for at least a couple of centuries, so it's no wonder that violent, oppressive behaviour by them can be named more easily and evokes a more powerful response among many white Canadians than the substantially more impactful violent, oppressive behaviour by us. And it is also central to the imperial imagination that violence and harm done by us and by our allies is by definition at least given the benefit of many doubts if not automatically assumed to be justified, whereas violence and harm done by them -- and despite still formally being an ally, the Saudi regime has definitely fallen into enough disfavour with enough elite opinionmakers in North America to at least provisionally count as them, even without the racial, cultural, and religious othering in the mix -- is much more easily recognized as a problem.

Now, pieces like this that respond to some progressive or left initiative by saying "But what about...!" can sometimes feel like a form of posturing, and their impact can tend towards the demobilizing. I really don't want to be doing those things. So I want to be clear that I'm not saying we shouldn't be outraged by the Canadian sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, or that we shouldn't do whatever we can to stop it -- we should, and we should. I also want to be clear that the question I'm raising is more than one of individual political rhetoric or choices, though it is that as well -- this flows from how the issues and the imagery and the ways we have readily available to us for responding to them are socially produced and organized. It's not just about us fish; it's about the sea we swim in too.

What I am suggesting, though, is that we pause for a moment and reflect. What does it mean that our quite reasonable and valid political goal -- stopping this arms deal, as we should stop all arms deals -- is getting a boost in this case from these larger oppressive narratives (and the social relations they exist in conjunction with), and therefore is also reproducing and reinforcing them? What do we need to be doing and saying differently, to take this into account and respond to it in politically responsible ways? How do we need to be framing Saudi crimes differently? How do we need to be framing Canadian, US, and broader Western crimes differently?

I have no easy answers to these questions, but I don't think we're doing anyone any favours by failing to ask them.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Frustrating Search for Ways to Act Collectively in the World


Like so many of us, I feel a need to act, to do something.

I can pass this feeling through all sorts of screens and frames and analyses to give it specificity and detail, and I have years of practice of translating it into fancy words, but at heart it's a feeling – a matter of experiencing life, of seeing the world around me, of hearing stories, and knowing that things cannot stay as they are, that they can change, that they must change.

I know that I can act as I, and that acting as I matters. We all do it – without naming it, without separating it from "normal life" by calling it "political," we (some, by necessity, much more than others) resist little indignities and harms in little ways, and big indignities and harms in little ways, as individual people living our lives. Whatever else happens to make change, that everyday resistance, those little cracks in the social systems that organize injustice and harm, are the most basic building blocks.

I feel drawn, though, towards acting not only as I but as we. This is not to disrespect the individual and everyday, but a recognition that even a small we does so much more than the sum of the I's that compose it – even just half a dozen people moving in the same direction can accomplish far more than six individuals on their own, and for larger collectivities to be truly effective in pushing for change (rather than amounting to passive agglomerations of individuals), they must in some sense be built from active collectivity that happens at a scale we can directly experience. Our need, the world's need, is urgent, so we need we's. And it is a recognition of humanity as social: Contrary to liberal and libertarian fantasy, there is no I in the absence of or prior to we.

So I search for we's that I'm already part of. I look around me, examine the spaces and the moments that I move through, the encounters that I have and the relationships that they make. I see relations of reciprocity and care, relations through which the mostly-unwaged labour of life-making gets its expression. These are a form of we, and especially for those marked as disposable in our world, their role in survival and thriving makes them radical. And for all of us, as a clever person recently remarked to me, they are "the stuff of life," the very core of what it means to be human, and we all must participate in them.

I can feel the utter centrality of these webs of we; it's not just a cerebral nod, but a genuinely embodied sense of how meaning and joy and power in life flows from this sort of we, and how much of my energy and time is invested in them. Yet as necessary as they are, they are not enough. I feel the need for more.

So I keep looking. Soon enough, I see other kinds of we, more distant kinds, more dispersed kinds, some might say imagined kinds. Some of these I feel, but some are abstractly known rather than felt – membership in polities, shared identities, demographic groupings, populations of broadly similar interest. These, too, are we. They matter, both those eagerly embraced and those reluctantly acknowledged. They can even be a starting point for building the kind of we that I'm talking about here, the kind that can act together in a practical way. But they are not that intrinsically, and not without further work.

I look some more. Though I currently am not part of such a formation, most people I see around me are part of hierarchical collectivities whose actual activities they may or may not care about, organized via the wage relation and made compulsory by the logic of the market. This is not the kind of we I mean, or at least it is only occasionally and incidentally so. As well, many people belong to other sorts of collective formations that they have not necessarily chosen, exactly, but because of who they are – forms of we that at least in theory can be a practical basis for acting politically in the world against domination and exploitation. I mean, of course, collectivities like churches (or synagogues or temples or mosques) and unions. Yet even they are in decline, and because of the work that I do and the path I have led through life, I am not currently and not likely to become a member of either of those.

I continue to search, to reflect on things I have done and things I have heard about since moving to my new-again city. I look, I listen, I think, I feel...and I find little. There is not a complete absence of we's, but there are few, and none whose call evokes enthusiasm.

Is this landscape of we really it? It sounds suspiciously like what Margaret Thatcher once said: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." Of course she posed it as descrpition when in fact it was her aspiration, her goal for the struggle in which she was immersed. But three decades later, has Thatcher's aspiration won out? Is this sense of lack of opportunities for collective political engagement a quirk of mine, a legacy of personal baggage or flawed perception? Or does it reflect something more?

Certainly it reflects left commonsense about the realities of life under neoliberalism. This doesn't necessarily make it accurate, but the breadth of this impression among a range of thinkers, writers, and do-ers that I respect carries considerably weight for me. As I've mentioned this impression to people that I know personally in the last few weeks, most have agreed with it. As well, the chance to occasionally interview people involved in various kinds of collective political projects in Quebec drives home for me how much more common they are there than in at least the white-dominated, English-speaking spaces of North America. There is some social scientific evidence too: My hazy memory of reading it 15 years ago is that there was a lot about how he tried to explain it that felt dubious, and he didn't particularly focus on grassroots political collectivities anyway, but Robert Putnam's careful documentation in Bowling Alone of the decline of voluntary collective life in North America seems relevant.

Still, I hesitate to turn my impression into a firm conclusion, and I certainly have no interest in just giving up on the possibility of a landscape richer in paths towards collective action. For one thing, while the majority of activisty types I've mentioned this sense to have concurred, not all have, and that dissent is worth paying attention to. More significantly, it is beyond common for people, particularly privileged people who think of themselves as rad in some sense or other, to look around and say "Wah! Nothing political is happening!" when really the problem is their narrow and self-centred definition of "political." Is this what I'm doing? My gut-level sense: Perhaps in part, but not entirely. But my gut is no more immune to such distortion than the rest of me, so who knows.

All of which has got me wondering about other people's experiences. I'm a firm believer in starting – whether you're talking about writing or analaysis or action – from what people are already doing.

Do you, too, feel that there are few opportunities to act collectively these days?

What do you already do in your life – however large or small, however shared or individual, however practical and material or imagination-focused and idealistic – that you think of as being in whole or in part to create change of some kind?

What would you like to do to make change? Most especially, what would you like to do to make change with others, if you had the opportunity and if circumstances made it possible? What would those differences in circumstance be?