Here’s a short video of Tal Ben-Shahar, Psychology Lecturer at Harvard University, posted on the Big Think blog on “Five Ways to Become Happier Today.” While I tend to believe that “happiness” is our original state, our “pre-existing condition” that gets messed with by some nasty thought viruses and other harsh environmental factors, this video is a reminder our how we might seek to restore some balance in harmony in our lives. A good transformative practice as we work toward integral personal and social liberation, too.
[This is a response to Integral Life’s recent blog post, “The Need for Men’s Liberation,” a summary of the talk between Dr. Warren Farrell and Ken Wilber “about power, oppression, and the urgent need for men to begin redefining their roles for today’s world” (accessed 25 feb 2010, http://integrallife.com/node/68177). In this response, I do not attempt to evaluate or critique Dr. Farrell’s work nor his dialogue with Wilber (especially since my multiple attempts to access the audio recording resulted only in an error message). Nonetheless, being familiar with both liberation and integral perspectives, and moreover, being committed to these, not merely as intellectual pursuits, but as orienting principles that guide my ethico-political work, I felt moved to respond.]
“The Need for Men’s Liberation” points to the negative impact of sexism on men. Indeed, sexism—the systemic imposition of a presumed male superiority (at the intersubjective/cultural level) and the systematic oppression of women by men (at the objective/institutional level)—does have very negative effects on boys and men in our societies, especially at the personal level (physical, mental, spiritual and emotional aspects of being). Some of the examples shown in the embedded “The Daily Show” video clip, in Dr. Farrell’s audio response to the show (interview with Integral Life’s Corey W. deVos), and in blogged comments posted by men illustrate how we, personally, experience individual limitations as a result of our socialization in, and acculturation into, the prevailing cultural norms regarding gender identity. These examples include how we, as men, are hurt by societal messages, like “Real men don’t cry” nor otherwise express vulnerability, and that we are expected to be the primary household providers and be successful in the public arena, to name just a few.
From what I can tell from my admittedly limited exposure to Dr. Farrell’s position on this topic, his work shared in the Integral Life website brings to light evidence of men coming into the “resistance stage” of male social identity development. The resistance stage, Hardiman & Jackson’s social group identity development model (1997) tells us, is the third of five developmental stages. The first, the “naïve” stage, is where as very young children we have no awareness of gender differences and, therefore, have not yet developed an identity as a “boy” or “girl.” The second stage is “acceptance,” where we psychologically internalize the prevailing social norms regarding gender within the dominant culture thus accepting or taking on ideas, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and values of maleness and manhood as part of our core identity or self system. [By the way, during the acceptance stage, both boys and girls internalize ideas, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and values concerning gender that are “acceptable” within male dominant society.] This stage continues throughout childhood and, typically, into adulthood.
As we mature, we may face events that make us aware of contradictions between how we were raised and how what we now think, believe, and feel, or begin to ask ourselves about what it means to be a man. We may enter the “resistance” stage when our social group identity, in this case as men, develops to where we are capable of realizing: “Hey! Just wait a minute here! I know that this is what I learned about being a man, and this is what is expected of me as such by family and friends and employers and community and institutions and society at large. But this is NOT really or totally who I am! No! I RESIST!”
This developmental stage is what I see being addressed here by Ferrell.
The resistance stage, however, presents some significant and difficult challenges. The first one is that this realization tends to get us men pissed off. And getting angry, a normal and healthy (neurophysiologic) reaction to perceived or imagined danger, causes us to contract emotionally, withdraw relationally and, too often, to prepare for battle (among other things). This emotional contraction also comes with its cognitive counterpart, which in gendered social contexts tends to be that we, as men, get stuck in the “me,” in our individual experience, and in our individualized perspective. If these felt experiences and partial perspectives are combined with a lack of emotional and social intelligence to address that which triggered these feelings [after all, in male culture, we are not encouraged to examine and manage our feelings], it is not difficult for us to arrive at the “logical conclusion” that “Hey, I am the victim here.”
Now, with time, as we become aware that it is the women that are, in fact, the primary and intended victims of this social power arrangement, we then become capable of realizing that “Well, I, too, have been hurt by sexism.” As our consciousness within this stage of resistance to dominant culture develops further, and we also begin to perceive, recognize and understand how the ideological and behavioral patterns of socially constructed manhood are played out in and around us, we then may become more fully capable of a profound insight: “We, men, collectively, all of us, have been hoodwinked by sexism, male supremacy and patriarchy! Just like women, though quite differently!” [Indeed, very differently in any number of ways and degrees, but that’s another conversation.]
I believe Farrell’s work, unwittingly, alludes to the resistance stage in the process of male gender identity development and, to some extent, brings attention to a men’s movement in the US that goes back at least 30 years.
However, in what is expressed in the Integral Life posts, presents another major problem. That problem is in confusing or mistaking men’s felt sense of “powerlessness” with “oppression.” To be clear, when feminists (and other anti-oppression scholars and practitioners) define “power,” they/we try to be very explicit in the difference between “personal power” and “structural or institutional power.” [Notice that in using “we” here, I have contextually expanded my perspective to include both my social group identity as a man AND my social role identification as an “anti-oppression scholar-practitioner.”] So, when we make statements such as “Women are the victims of sexist oppression of men,” what we are stating is that an overarching historical pattern—a general rule and operating principle within our society—is the women collectively have been excluded, exploited, underserved and misrepresented by the systems and institutions that were created and are controlled, to this day, by men as a group, collectively. What is being named in analyses such as this one is that sexist oppression is the dynamic of institutional power that overwhelmingly has benefited men at the expense of women. It is certainly NOT about women’s personal power as individuals to resist the psychological internalization of their presumed inferiority to men nor about their collective power as a movement to struggle to change institutional practices that perpetuate inequitable outcomes for women as a social identity group.
So, when as men we experience a felt sense of “powerlessness” it is important that we clearly examine what we’re really talking about. Are we talking about how we are limited and hurt by the culture of male dominance and our own participation with sexist oppression? Or are we talking about how, in spite of the privileges conferred upon us by virtue of being male, that we still may not enjoy full participation, access and power in society to get our needs met—but by virtue of being poor, working or middle class, or because we also happen to be a man of Color, or that we are gay or gender-non-conforming, or because we are Muslim, or of our membership in one of the other subordinated, and truly oppressed, social identity groups? The complexities of social group identity are enormous. So, before we start making statements like “Men are being oppressed,” let us take a serious look at what words like “power,” “powerlessness,” or even “empowerment” really mean.
Of course, we can attempt to redefine what “power” means and, perhaps, as men, we can dare to redefine what “feminism” is, or maybe even try to instruct women on the true quality, nature and meaning of their experience. After all, a key pattern of men’s cultural dominance and institutional power has been, precisely, to define reality and, then, redefine it as is convenient to our purposes of maintaining power and privilege. But, as a sociologist, Dr. Farrell well knows that he cannot actually get to singlehandedly redefine these important sociological concepts. Not even with a little help from his friends.
Actually, I don’t believe Farrell, or Wilber for that matter, needs to redefine power in order to have men move to the next stage of social identity development (or a “higher” stage of consciousness development). That next stage of social identity development is, by the way, the stage of “redefinition.”
Having resisted and rejected the definition imposed collectively onto us as gender-identified beings, and after collectively coming to deeply understand just how we as men figure into the complex dynamics of social and institutional power, we can begin to move into the redefinition stage of social identity development. The clearer we are about just how we have been hurt—and in some measure, dehumanized—by cultural sexism and by our unconscious and unintentional participation in the sexist oppression of women, then we can effectively and positively and collectively move toward redefining what it is to be “a REAL man.”
And while, surely, this is a process to be undertaken and led by men, given the unconscious nature of our internalized sexist patterns of thought and behavior, it is absolutely necessary that we undertake this process with the strong support and wise guidance of women who have also travelled the developmental process of healing from internalized patriarchal oppression.
Through our struggle with other men in redefinition and our intentional relationship to conscious and truly liberated women, we can move to the internalization stage. In this fifth stage, a new definition of men and new patterns of thought, feeling and behavior in relationship to women and to other men, become progressively below conscious awareness to become second nature (true nature?). Not that we cannot and will not slip back to old sexist patterns; remember, to transcend means to embrace the old and include the new, and all of it is ever-present. Yet, this new way of being is more readily available to us.
I believe that understanding social group identity development, social power and oppression at all levels, stages, perspectives, perceptual positions and dimensions is a centrally important, and sorely overlooked, aspect of integral theory. I believe understanding gender, race, culture, class and other social power dynamics can facilitate movement into integral consciousness. Actually, I suspect our development into second tier ultimately depends on it.
More importantly, however, the major issues of our times—all of them—from personal health issues to health care issues, from the US economic crisis to the global climate crisis, from local politics to foreign wars are either caused by oppression in its many forms or are compounded by it. Without a doubt, viable and sustainable solutions to the problems of humanity, and to our survival, cannot be reached and implemented without true liberation from oppression and the radical transformation of human culture as we know it.
I am pleased to announce a major new phase for c-Integral and its unique transformative work for people in social justice and transformation movements.
For the past several years, c-Integral’s work has been to support a new kind of leader and to foster a new kind of leadership for social justice and transformation. This work has been based on the consciousness-in-action approach, which I developed from work in communities of struggle over the past twenty-plus years.
Beginning with the founding of the Institute for Latino Empowerment and later Ilé: Organizers for Consciousness-in-Action, this work focused on anti-oppression leadership development and anti-racism organizing in Latino communities in the United States and Puerto Rico. Over the years, particularly as I researched and wrote Consciousness-in-Action, Toward an Integral Psychology of Liberation & Transformation, this approach has continued to evolve, as my vision both expanded and deepened. While the core purpose of fostering integral change—cambio integral—has remained constant, the focus of my work has shifted to include people of all social identity groups, to address core dynamics driving all forms of oppression, and to explicitly explore a psychology, an ethic and a spirituality of liberation that is applied simultaneously to personal, social and cultural transformation.
Now, clearly, this is a big vision. And it’s certainly bigger than me! Fortunately, it’s not a vision that is exclusively, or uniquely, mine. Actually, over the years I have come to know or meet an increasing number of people who share, at least to some extent, this vision of integral change. In fact, the person who is now joining me in leading the next phase of this work is someone I met and began to collaborate with almost twenty years ago.
Rose Sackey Milligan and I first crossed paths when I submitted a grant application to the Peace Development Fund. As Director of Grants & Programs there, she became well acquainted with and supportive of our early work. Eventually, she became a personal donor, advisor, board member, and even a participant in one of our cultural programs. Rose also made sure to invite me to participate in events of an emerging spiritual activism movement, like the 1991 Compassionate Awareness and Social Action Retreat with Ram Das, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and others. Years later (2005), while Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society’s Social Justice Program, she also invited me to take part in a gathering of spiritual activists at Garrison Institute. Soon afterwards, she had me offering presentations and workshops on consciousness-in-action at C-Mind and collaborating as a mentor and co-facilitator of the Social Justice Program’s spiritual retreats for community organizers and activists.
Beyond being a constant supporter and frequent collaborator, Rose has also always been a source of inspiration, and when asked, of wise guidance. I am truly hard-pressed to think of anyone of greater integrity, someone as committed to balance and harmony in life, who seeks to respond appropriately to incongruence and conflict, and who is dedicated to an engaged spirituality for the liberation and well-being of all beings.
That is why I am so pleased to be joined by Rose as Co-Director of c-Integral, Inc.
Now, as a non-profit education and research organization, c-Integral’s purpose will be to educate, train and mentor social change agents in an integral approach to liberation and transformation. We will seek to develop integral awareness, deepen critical understanding, nurture liberating visions, and foster transformative practices among change agents addressing social injustice in its many forms. Moreover, we will seek to promote the application of the principles and practices of integral libratory-transformation throughout our communities and, more broadly, into our social, economic, political and cultural institutions.
Rose and I will be offering presentations, workshops and leadership retreats in our approach to integral leadership throughout the year. We will also be available for consultation to people and groups seeking to benefit from our experience. We will do this, in part, with grant support from The Seasons Fund for Social Transformation of the Jewish Funds for Justice. And until we obtain our own official tax-exempt status, we will be operating under the fiscal sponsorship of Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico; through this support, we will also be able to receive tax-deductible gifts from individual and institutional donors. This and other grants and gifts we expect to receive throughout the year shall allow us to operate and offer our work at affordable rates, as well as offer partial scholarships to those whom may such support. The financial support we receive from all sources are and will be central to becoming an economically viable, self-sustaining, community-supported effort for long-term transformative work.
In the following weeks, we will be posting news and announcements regarding our programs, activities and events. I’ll also be updating the c-Integral.org website and blogs, and will be making some changes to this space. So, please stay tuned. Better yet, contact us and find out what’s happening and how you can get involved in this important work.
Peace to you!
Here is my first post in a while. And it really isn’t even written by me. I wish it was, because it is simply excellent. It was written by my friend, Ricardo Levins Morales, who besides being a gifted artist is also a committed labor activist, a brilliant thinker and a powerful writer — all at the service of advancing an out-of-the-box progressive perspective for liberation, social justice and transformation.
I don’t know if I would call Ricardo an “integral” thinker; I doubt he has even hear of integral theory, Ken Wilber, AQAL or any of it. (Unless, of course, he actually read my book.) But as you read his piece below, you will see how he provides a powerful analysis of forces at work and an insightful critique of the fragmented approaches—and timid attitude—of the US Left, and then offers up a strategy to move to a higher “altitude” (as Wilber might say), a broader perspective, a unifying view from which to make the practical and moral arguments for radical, positive, integral change.
So, while Ricardo might likely be dismissed by Wilber-integrals as living within the “mean green meme,” as far as I can see (and how far is that?), Ricardo’s insights and recommendations must certainly not be dismissed by organizers and activists to whom critical consciousness, an ethics of liberation and practice of transformative action toward integral well-being is a chosen path.
Revolution in the Time of Hamsters
“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto,” Dorothy shared her suspicion with her little dog as they peered out onto an unfamiliar landscape. Still reeling from her own climate crisis, Dorothy could recognize a new strategic reality when she saw it; one which would force her to rethink her capabilities, her goals and the alliances she would need to pursue her interests under radically altered conditions.
We in US left and progressive politics are experiencing a “Dorothy moment.” Pressures that have been building for decades along underground political fault lines are combining to produce political tremors that cannot be ignored. Words do feeble justice to the dramatic scope of the changes: the steep decline of US imperial power; an unraveling financial sector and disintegrating social support systems such as housing, health care and nutrition; receding glaciers, rising sea levels, extreme storms and droughts, collapsing fisheries and agricultural systems; re-emergent infectious diseases, increasing hunger and burgeoning migrant flows.
Most of what passes for the US left, however, is content to believe that we are still in Kansas; that it will be sufficient to do what we have always done but more so: “redoubling our efforts” to protest abuses, fighting to expand the “political space” and hoping that more favorable conditions will someday allow us to address fundamental issues. These comments are meant to challenge that complacency. I will argue that the very way that protest and advocacy are structured ensures that our impact will be safely contained and that working twice as hard at flawed strategies will not bring us closer to a humane and sustainable future. I suggest that the tired leftist mantra, “we are weak, we are powerless,” reflects a learned helplessness that prevents us from seeing, let alone seizing, a world of opportunity that surrounds us.
Our inability to think in bold strategic terms or to appreciate the abundant resources within our grasp is not an accident. It is the structural legacy of the mass movements that peaked forty years ago and the methods employed to disperse them. Brutal police repression was directed against the militant organizations of the darker communities while millions of federal and corporate dollars were directed into a fast-growing “non-profit” sector. Their emergence represented both a victory for movements that had demanded resources be directed toward the services and organizing efforts they had initiated and the success of the power structure in stripping them of their radical content. The aspirations of civil society would now be channeled through these closely regulated entities whose mandates are to advocate for specific constituencies or seek to limit the damage from particular corporate or government practices. Questioning the sanctity of corporate rule itself is not on the table. Accepting these constraints qualifies an organization to maintain its tax exempt status and compete for corporate and government funds. This provides an outlet for discontent but ensures that even when we win hard-fought victories they do not impact the overall balance of power.
This set-up can be likened to an array of hamster wheels. They do generate energy and often provide vital and necessary support to those most in need, but within limits that they usually cannot see. Struggles for homeless shelters, side agreements to treaties, pollution standards, welfare rights, media access and civilian police review boards, after all, are not struggles for justice. They are struggles to mitigate, limit and regulate injustice. Challenges to the structures of oppression (not just individual perpetrators) are quickly deemed “beyond our mission” and certain to alarm funders. Meanwhile, our adversaries work on a larger scale, molding the broader landscape upon which a hundred thousand hamster wheels doggedly spin. The non-profit focus on limited goals is reinforced by the lingering trauma of the Red Scare, which has made leftists exceedingly shy about articulating an alternative moral vision.
This devil’s compact has precedents. The Wagner Act of 1935 (and its 1947 step-child, Taft Hartley) conferred recognition on unions’ right to organize for narrowly defined purposes while declaring broader political and class issues off limits. A year before Wagner, the Indian Reorganization Act conceded a truncated “sovereignty” to Indigenous Nations in exchange for their submission to federal authority. The establishment of the “Commonwealth” of Puerto Rico (1952) fits this pattern.
The Oval Office operates within similar constraints. A President may seek reforms that do not threaten the sanctity of corporate power. Policies that express the current consensus of the corporate elite as a whole are known as “bipartisan” issues and are beyond the reach of a mere President to tinker with. Policy papers from the Rand Corporation or the Council on Foreign relations or Wall Street Journal editorials are generally a better predictor of future Presidential policies than any promises made on the campaign trail. This is why today’s major policy initiatives, be they about health coverage reform, financial regulation, housing, climate change or foreign policy, all have the protection of corporate interests at their center.
The current effort to invite the progressive non-profit sector into the imperial coalition follows the route taken by the labor movement over the last half century. In exchange for a bargaining relationship with domestic employers, the AFL-CIO assisted a US offensive against activist unions worldwide. The resulting suppression of union militancy in the poorer countries facilitated outsourcing of manufacturing to these now-pacified regions, followed by an all-out assault on those pesky US unions. As Tecumseh argued two hundred years ago, individual bargains with the empire don’t tend to end well.
This structural overview tells only part of the story. Need produces innovation and there is no shortage of viable and exciting solutions to the crises afflicting our essential life support systems. What is lacking is what former UN Development administrator James Gustave Speth calls “a new operating system” which could integrate these initiatives into a new, sustainable social paradigm. That would require a radical shift of power from the corporate/financial elites to democratic structures rooted in civil society. The world can be a sustainable home for all who reside here or a giant ATM for the insatiable few… it cannot be both.
Uniting a multitude of fractured mini-struggles into a powerful movement requires a vision broad enough to embrace them all. This can produce both short-term and long-term benefits. People’s movements won more progressive reforms under Richard Nixon than under Bill Clinton because mass movements were in the streets making “unthinkable” demands. The liberal establishment was spurred to make concessions to Martin Luther King Jr., knowing that more militant Black Power forces to his left were gaining influence.
Believing that the President is the “organizer-in chief” for a people’s agenda has led labor and progressive leaders to seek influence rather than build power. Bill Clinton demonstrated where such a strategy leads: he paid eloquent lip service to labor law reform (including banning “replacement workers”) but reserved his real political capital to pass NAFTA and “end Welfare as we know it.” A glance at the current line-up of forces suggests a similar fate for the Employee Free Choice Act. The rabid attacks from the right against even the most tepid reforms – and by extension the Obama White House — is causing the liberal left to mobilize all its capacity in defense of tepid, corporate-friendly bills.
If the road we are on leads to a precipice, then a shift in our strategic orientation is overdue. If the Obama administration proposes modest green-oriented initiatives and then waters them down to mollify corporate interests, we will still (it can be argued) end up further along than we were to begin with. If we envision ourselves as advancing across an expanse of open field, then we can measure our progress in terms of yardage gained and be satisfied that we are least moving in the right direction. If, instead, a chasm has opened up which we must leap across to survive, then the difference between getting twenty percent versus forty percent of the way across is meaningless. It means we have transitioned from a system of political letter grades to one of “pass/fail.” We either make the leap or not.
Organizing is a form of public story-telling as the right wing has devastatingly demonstrated. At its best it transcends specific grievances to point to a compelling vision. Students in 1960 risked their lives to integrate lunch counters because it was part of a larger narrative about dignity and equal rights.
To achieve that kind of resonance our reform struggles must transcend the hamster-wheel model of addressing narrow grievances on behalf of single constituencies. Instead they should serve to illustrate the commonality of our dreams so as to foster grassroots alliances. In the 2006 strategy paper Beyond Marriage, its 17 authors propose a radical framework for challenging conservative “family” politics. Rather than a narrow focus on legalizing same-sex marriage, they articulate a broadly defined, pro-family agenda that encompasses legal protection for a wide range of deliberate domestic relationships (romantic or not): the right of immigrant families to be reunited (and an end to the raids that break them apart); mutual care agreements among elders; support for families with incarcerated members; nutritional support for school children and so forth. The Arizona Repeal Coalition in Arizona takes a similar approach in their campaign to roll back all anti-immigrant legislation, demanding “Freedom to Love, Live and Work Anywhere We Please.” What emerges is a strategy that organically links constituencies that can otherwise be played against each other (witness Proposition 8 in California).
A radical, narrative approach to organizing can open new strategic possibilities. Reframing the issue of immigration, for example, might include blockading the Mississippi River with small boats to block the barges hauling subsidized GMO corn to Mexico where it undercuts the subsistence farm economy, driving farmers off the land. It would illuminate the common interests of immigrant and other workers, farmers (on both sides of the river), and consumers all confronting the same corporate interests. Targeting the logistics of trade would expose a vulnerability in the system and open attractive avenues for youth participation.
The expanding financial crisis offers other promising arenas for organizing around immediate human needs. The emerging movement against home foreclosures in the US includes in its tactical arsenal blocking evictions and moving homeless families into foreclosed houses. This directly challenges the legitimacy of the “bankocracy,” asserts the primacy of need over greed and demonstrates the power of collective direct action. Like the landless movement in Brazil it combines protest with reclaiming vital resources for those who need them. Most significantly it embodies a transfer of sovereignty from the suites to the streets.
The tired dichotomy between struggling to improve people’s real-life conditions vs. fighting for fundamental change will not serve us now. If the advancing ecological and social crises increase the urgency of bringing about systemic change, they do the same for essential reforms. For progressive administration insiders such as Hilda Solis or Van Jones to make effective use of their window of opportunity, they will need a stronger wind at their backs than that which blows from the oval office. That wind will not come from corporate power centers but must emerge from the streets in the form of demands for more far-reaching changes than are currently “thinkable.”
If we raise our sights from our advocacy struggles, to take in the entirety of the dominant system, it becomes possible to notice its weak points. Of particular significance is the dual strategy of population management: the exponential expansion of a color-coded penal system to bring the African-American population substant6ially under the control of the criminal justice system (today’s version of the “Black Laws”); and the restructuring of immigration policy to replace the vast, undocumented workforce with a documented but highly monitored labor pool with limited legal rights, subject to inescapable employer control. In other words a new domestic order is under construction that straps the two populations who for historical and demographic reasons are best positioned to mount a major political challenge, into a straightjacket of legal vulnerability. This should suggest that targeting these repressive systems – and reducing that vulnerability – is a key to unlocking the political power of these constituencies. For other indicators of weak points in the system, look to what paths have been closed to us through legal or bureaucratic means: unions meddling in broad class issues, civil organizations addressing the causes of oppression and direct action which interrupts the functioning of commerce and empire. What clearer invitations do we need?
This larger perspective can also reveal strategic resources that are invisible from the hamster-wheel world of single-issue advocacy and contract management. The one growing sector in the collapsing newspaper industry, for example, consists of publications serving communities of color. These outlets are more progressive than the corporate press and enjoy the confidence of their readers. With Black newspaper circulation at fifteen million, Latino dailies at sixteen million and Chinese language papers reaching one million (to give only a partial picture), they constitute an established network of relatively independent media rooted in thousands of communities. These under-resourced outlets are often receptive to alternative news and analysis but rely on the wire services because they are easy to access. Offering a steady harvest of movement material to these papers along with neighborhood and local labor council press, can help shape the national discourse in way that is hard to do if we wait for New York Times to transmit our story. Such a strategy might have kept the battered Gulf Coast from slipping off the national radar even as it became the central battle ground for corporate land grabs and ethnic replacement. We may not have the media sound system of the corporate class but shouting down a canyon can make hella noise!
There is more and in many ways more sophisticated organizing taking place today than at the peak of the mass movements, but without a unifying vision it does not constitute a movement. It is as though we had suffered a traumatic brain injury that severed our strategic vision centers from our functional capacity. This issue –the connections between our vision, our voice and our on-the-street capacity – defines the difference between generating energy and accumulating power.
No one knows what will trigger the next wave of mass struggles, what frame of reference will unify them into a movement or what organizational forms will emerge to embody their aspirations. Movement experience suggests that there are still things we can do to improve their chances for success. The most urgent of these tasks is to “decolonize our minds.”
Is it sensible to speak of revolution in the time of the hamsters? Some experienced movement heads are counseling the opposite. They argue that after decades of bombardment by the right wing sound machine it would isolate us to present any ideas too radical for our time. We would be vulnerable to reactionary attack and ridicule. That is true of course, but the right will attack as fiercely no matter what we offer and nothing excites them more than the scent of timidity. When conservative activists regrouped following the electoral defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, they wisely began their march to power by establishing a clear right wing pole around which to organize. They did not water down their vision because the left was dominating the public space. An unfavorable political culture is a thing to change, not accommodate to. The left intellectual strata have largely fallen into a paradigm of learned helplessness. When liberals are in power we are compelled to defend them lest the Republicans return. When the right is in power we must replace them at all costs, which means backing the Democrats. Logically that means there will never be circumstances that would justify building a movement that speaks with its own voice. The absence of such a voice makes us even weaker at each new juncture and that fact becomes an argument for further timidity. With no countervailing pole to the left of them the Democrats continue to move right in the Republican wake.
A strategy of timidity today will only reproduce the pathetic spectacle of the health care “debate”: orchestrated, right-wing mobs launching attacks against a tepid, corporate-friendly “reform” that sets no one on fire (despite mass public support, single payer is declared “off the table” by the ruling Democrats). If things have deteriorated to the point that the selections on the political menu range from neo-liberal to neo-fascist it is past time to proclaim another option rather than select among those offered. After decades of rightist propaganda people are hungry for someone, anyone, to unapologetically declare for cooperation, generosity and solidarity. That’s what they thought they had found in Obama. Millions of people stepped up to support what they thought was a radical turn toward justice, peace and compassion! Does that seem noteworthy?
Leaders do not create movements. Movements create leaders. When there is no movement, there are no movement leaders. In such a time the job of activists is to prepare the soil for both. Steps that can be taken include probing for volatile pressure points around popular grievances (remember the Montgomery bus boycott); instigating radical/narrative strategies in popular struggles (as in the examples above); strengthening our fragile web of movement institutions (the right figured this out a long time ago); learning from sister struggles in other places and times; encouraging the practice of concrete, rather than symbolic, solidarity; and continually exposing the oppressive structures underlying our people’s suffering.
Most important of all, we need to talk. This cannot be overstated. In other times that called for movement renewal we have turned to study circles, consciousness raising groups, freedom schools, popular education encounters, and other means to tap the creative reserves of the grassroots. Resetting the strategic compass for a movement is not something we can leave to a self-selected few. The changing correlation of political, economic and natural forces calls for a wide-ranging, complex, strategic discussion at every level of our movement and in our communities. This process, which is beginning to crystallize, should become an explicit priority for radical activists of all political tendencies. It is a process that can merge into organizing if discussions are initiated around people’s concrete experiences, such as food prices, gang violence, housing and homelessness, jobs and workplace power, war and the economic draft, and so forth. When community people share their stories of police brutality it quickly becomes apparent that the problem is bigger than “a few bad apples.” Through such collective, participatory engagement we can begin to shape the activist theory and organizing language we will need to break away from the hamster wheels of Kansas and reclaim the struggle for that other world we like to say is possible.
Henry A. Giroux’s important analysis on the “new racism,” or how clever white men like Gingrich and Limbaugh attempt to redefine and reframe racism in our times, is a must read for people grappling for deeper understanding of its complexities.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor and the New Racism: Getting Beyond the Politics of Denial
Thursday 04 June 2009
by: Henry A. Giroux, t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Judge Sonia Sotomayor with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)
While many liberals suggest that with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency the United States has become a post-racial society, many conservatives have now taken the opposite position, prompted by the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, that racism is alive and well in the republic.(1)According to many right-wing pundits and politicians extending from Rush Limbaugh to Newt Gingrich, Judge Sotomayor is a “racist” and a “bigot” because of a largely decontextualized 32-word quote abstracted from a speech she gave in 2001 in which she stated: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Gingrich ignored the broader context in which the quote appeared, arguing for critical reason over biography, going so far as to suggest that it was symptomatic of a new type of racism, exclaiming in Twitter-like fashion, “Imagine a judicial nominee said ‘my experience as a white man makes me better than a Latina woman’ – new racism is no better than old racism.” All of this saber-rattling rhetoric about the emergence of a new kind of racism, which insists rather ironically that whites rather than people of color are the real victims of personal and institutional racism, does more than suggest a kind of historical amnesia that actually rewrites the meaning of racism. It also points to a long-standing fear among many conservatives that diversity rather the bigotry is the real threat to democracy.
What the ongoing attack on Judge Sotomayor suggests is that the public morality of American life and social policy regarding matters of racial justice are increasingly subject to a politics of denial. Denial in this case is not merely about the failure of public memory or the refusal to know, but an active ongoing attempt on the part of many conservatives to rewrite the discourse of race so as to deny its valence as a force for discrimination and exclusion either by translating it as a threat to American culture or relegating it to the language of the private sphere. The idea of race and the conditions of racism have real political effects and eliding them only makes those effects harder to recognize. And yet, the urgency to recognize how language is used to name, organize, order and categorize matters of race not only has academic value, it also provides a location from which to engage difference and the relationship between the self and the other and between the public and private. In addition, the language of race is important because it strongly affects political and policy agendas as well. One only has to think about the effects of Charles Murray’s book, “Losing Ground,” on American welfare policies in the 1980s.(2) But language is more than a mode of communication or a symbolic practice that produces real effects, it is also a site of contestation and struggle
The charge that Judge Sotomayor is a racist suggests something about the changing vocabulary about race and racial injustice that has to be both critically understood and politically engaged. In fact, there is something called a new racism and it has been brilliantly explored by a number of writers including David Theo Goldberg, Elizabeth Ansell, Howard Winant and Manning Marable, among others, though not in the way conservatives are using the term. Unlike the old racism, which defined racial difference in terms of fixed biological categories organized hierarchically, the new racism operates in various guises proclaiming, among other things, race-neutrality, asserting culture as a marker of racial difference or marking race as a private matter. Unlike the crude racism with its biological referents and pseudo-scientific legitimations, buttressing its appeal to white racial superiority, the new racism cynically recodes itself within the vocabulary of the civil rights movement, invoking the language of Martin Luther King Jr. to argue that individuals should be judged by the “content of their character” and not by the color of their skin. What is crucial about the new racism is that it demands an updated analysis of how racist practices work through the changing nature of language and other modes of representation. One of the most sanitized and yet pervasive forms of the new racism is evident in the language of color-blindness and the ideology of privatization. Within this approach, it is argued that racial conflict and discrimination is a thing of the past and that race has no bearing on an individual’s or group’s location or standing in contemporary American society. Color-blindness does not deny the existence of race, but the claim that race is responsible for alleged injustices that reproduce group inequalities, privilege whites, negatively impacts on economic mobility, the possession of social resources and the acquisition of political power. Put differently, inherent in the logic of color-blindness is the central assumption that race has no valence as a marker of identity or power when factored into the social vocabulary of everyday life and the capacity for exercising individual and social agency. In an era “free” of racism, race becomes a matter of taste, lifestyle or heritage, but has nothing to do with politics, legal rights, educational access or economic opportunities. Moreover, as politics becomes more racialized, the discourse about race becomes more privatized. Veiled by a denial of how racial histories accrue political, economic and cultural weight to the social power of whiteness, color-blindness and the privatization of racism deletes the relationship between racial differences and power and in doing so reinforces whiteness as the arbiter of value for judging difference against a normative notion of homogeneity.(3) For advocates of color-blindness, race as a political signifier is conveniently denied, relegated to the historical past, or defined merely as an individual prejudice or simply a matter of individualized choices, allowing many conservatives to ignore racism as a corrosive force for expanding the dynamics of ideological and structural inequality throughout society.(4) Color-blindness is a convenient ideology for enabling whites to ignore the degree to which race is tangled up with asymmetrical relations of power, functioning as a potent force for patterns of exclusion and discrimination including. but not limited to, housing, mortgage loans, health care, schools and the criminal justice system. This is the issue missing from the current debate about the new racism being put forth by Gingrich and others.
If one effect of color-blindness functions is to deny racial hierarchies, another consequence is that it offers whites not only the belief that America is now a level playing field, but that the success that whites enjoy relative to minorities of color is largely due to individual determination, a strong work ethic, high moral values and a sound investment in education. Not only does color-blindness offer up a highly racialized (though paraded as race-transcendent) notion of agency, but it also provides an ideological space free of guilt, self-reflection and political responsibility, despite the fact that blacks have a disadvantage in almost all areas of social life: housing, jobs, education, income levels, mortgage lending and basic everyday services.(5) In a society marked by profound racial and class inequalities, it is difficult to believe that character and merit – as color-blindness advocates would have us believe – are the prime determinants for social and economic mobility and a decent standard of living. The relegation of racism and its effects in the larger society to the realm of private beliefs, values, and behavior does little to explain a range of overwhelming realities–such as soaring black unemployment, the stepped-up resegregation of American schools and the growing militarization and lock down status of public education through the widespread use of zero tolerance policies, whose most egregious effects are on poor minority youth.(6) Or the fact that African-American males live on average six years less than their white counterparts. It is worth noting that nothing challenges the myth that America has become a color-blind, post-racist nation more than the racialization of the criminal justice system since the late 1980s. As the sociologist Loic Wacquant has observed, the expansion of the prison-industrial complex represents a “de facto policy of ‘carceral affirmative action’ towards African-Americans.”(7) This is born out by the fact that while American prisons house over 2.3 million inmates, “roughly half of them are black even though African-Americans make up less than 13 percent of the nation’s population…. According to the Justice Policy Institute, there are now more black men behind bars than in college in the United States. One in ten of the world’s prisoners is an African-American male.”(8)
As one of the most powerful ideological and institutional factors for deciding how identities are categorized and power, material privileges and resources distributed, race represents an essential political category for examining the relationship between justice and a democratic society. What the Sotomayor debate suggests is that far from being relegated to the past, racism in its various forms can be resurrected for both attacking minorities of color and for appropriating victim status for whites, while suggesting that people of color are the “real” racists. How else to explain Newt Gingrich’s charge that Judge Sotomayor is a “Latina woman racist” or Karl Rove’s charge that she is “not necessarily” smart, resurrecting elements of genetic racism. Rather than simply defend Sotomayor against such racist charges, it may be time for progressives and others to take the debate about racism a step further and engage in a real dialogue about the historical legacy of the new racism and how it functions in American society, particularly as it seeks to suggest that the main victims of racism in its various rhetorical and institutional guises are white men.
Bob Herbert has recently responded to the attacks on Judge Sotomayor by arguing that:
Here’s the thing. Suddenly these hideously pompous and self-righteous white males of the right are all concerned about racism. They’re so concerned that they’re fully capable of finding it in places where it doesn’t for a moment exist. Not just finding it, but being outraged by it to the point of apoplexy. Oh, they tell us, this racism is a bad thing! Are we supposed to not notice that these are the tribunes of a party that rose to power on the filthy waves of racial demagoguery…. Where were the howls of outrage at this strategy that was articulated by Lee Atwater as follows: “By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.”(9)
Herbert is only partly right on this issue. The right-wing attack on Sotomayor is about more than “the howling of a fading species.” It is about how racism takes on different forms in different historical contexts and the need for it to be challenged critically and politically. Of course, Herbert is correct in suggesting that the conservative appropriation of the new racism is not just disingenuous but hypocritical, and that even a minor lesson in history reveals the bigotry behind the strategy. But he is remiss in not suggesting that we actually take up the discourse of the new racism and do it in ways that give it real meaning and substance, so it can be both easily recognized and politically challenged in terms not set by conservatives.
(1) For a critical summary of the ongoing racist and sexist smear campaign waged against Judge Sotomayor, see Faiz Shakir, “Right-Wing Hate Machine Launches Vicious Campaign of Racist and Sexist Attacks On Sotomayor,” AlterNet (May 30, 2009). Online: www.altenet.org/story/140248.
(2) Charles Murray, “Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980” (New York: Basic Books, 1985).
(3) This issue is taken up brilliantly in David Theo Goldberg’s, “The Racial State” (Malden, MA: Blackwell Books, 2002) and David Theo Goldberg’s, “The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism” (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
(4) Manning Marable, “Beyond Color-blindness,” The Nation (December 14, 1998), p. 29.
(5) For specific figures in all areas of life, see Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era” (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001), especially the chapter “White Supremacy in the Post-Civil Rights Era,” pp. 89-120.
(6) I address these issues in detail in Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
(7) Loic Wacquant, “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the U.S.” in New Left Review, (Jan-Feb 2002), p. 44.
(8) Paul Street, “Mass Incarceration and Racist State Priorities at Home and Abroad,” DissidentVoice (March 11, 2003), pp. 6-7 Available on line at http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Articles2/Street_MassIncarceration.htm. See also, Jennifer Warren, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008” (Washington, DC: The PEW Center on the States, 2008).
(9) Bob Herbert, “The Howls of a Fading Species,” New York Times (June 2, 2009), p. A23.
Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. Related work: Henry A. Giroux, “The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence” (Lanham: Rowman and Lilttlefield, 2001). His most recent books include “Take Back Higher Education” (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (2007) and “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed” (2008). His newest book, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Beyond the Politics of Disposability,” will be published by Palgrave Mcmillan in 2009.
© 2009 TRUTHOUT