Archive for the ‘activism’ Category
The teachers’ strike in Chicago in in its fifth day at the time of this posting. The coverage has divided into roughly two parallel narratives. One decries the overreach of the teacher’s union, led by Karen Lewis. According to this viewpoint, it is a public relations disaster at best. In these economic hard times, the unions are pushing back against the elimination of automatic pay raises and other job protections. The teachers look like they are not willing to their part in sharing the sacrifices like other workers. The other story about the strike worries aloud about the state of the roughly 350,000 students in the public school system whose largely working class parents have to scramble to find accommodations for them during the strike. Both storylines are incomplete because they overlook important complexities. There are extraordinarily high stakes embedded in this strike because educational inequality is the civil rights struggle of our time. The Chicago teachers have drawn an important line in the sand in a fight for the future of public education.
First, the teachers’ strike demonstrates that union power is alive and robust in the twenty first century. They have always been–and continue to be–a necessary counterweight to management’s interest. The idea that teachers are the enemy is a fallacy. My first and most enduring professional identity is that of a teacher. I began my career as a history teacher in 1999 at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, a public high school in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. With over ten years experience in the New York school system as a teacher and administrator, I can attest to the necessity of unions to exercise its power to improve the bread and butter issues of working conditions, salaries, and tenure. I found it incredibly useful that I had the freedom to teach U.S. History courses to my students that principally included the voices of people of color, women, poor people, and folks of all sexual orientation in a critically engaging manner. Due to union protection, I taught a curriculum that challenged the great (white) man’s version of American history without fear of reprisal from my supervisors. Read the rest of this entry »
About 10 years ago, in May of 2002, as a college freshman, I wrote an op-ed in The Harvard Crimson titled “An Arab Peace Movement.” I wrote:
Palestinian peace advocates should do two things. First, they should organize. Second, they should protest suicide bombings in addition to the Israeli occupation.
A model for Arabs to follow is Peace Now, an organization founded by Israeli reserve officers in 1978. With branches in the U.S., Canada and Europe, it is the foremost Jewish peace organization. It organized massive protests throughout the 1980s and 1990s that influenced Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Even Israel’s Labor party under former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak eventually adopted many of its views. In response to the current conflict, Peace Now advocates a withdrawal from the occupied territories, a two-state solution and an end to violence.
There is no Arab or Muslim equivalent to Peace Now.
I actually think this article holds up pretty well. It’s true, there is plenty of non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, though still perhaps not enough. But that’s not the whole of it. Palestinians cannot simply adopt the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They need to advance the only pragmatic end goal: a peaceful, two-state solution.
This is the crucial point. Calls for a one-state solution are de facto calls for the destruction of Israel. Even Norman Finkelstein (Norman Finkelstein!), a critic of Israel so vociferous he makes Noam Chomsky look like a Likud party apparatchik, recognizes that the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement is simply a front for a group dedicated to Israel’s peaceful destruction.
As I wrote ten years ago:
Some non-violent anti-occupation Arab organizations do exist, including Addameer, LAW (a Palestinian human rights organization) and the Arab Association for Human Rights. But compared to Peace Now, these groups are tiny.
More importantly, Peace Now does not exist to oppose Hamas; it opposes the Israeli occupation. There is no broad-based Arab equivalent.
Today, in addition to Peace Now, there is also J-Street. There remains no Palestinian equivalent. If there are, I haven’t heard of them, and you probably haven’t either. Their voices are muted, and their members can meet in a phone booth. They need better PR. And they need a better message. Remember, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just preach non-violence, he told whites what they wanted to hear, namely, that his goal was peaceful integration, not separation.
In this instance, Palestinians must peacefully advocate the opposite goal. They must say: we recognize Israel, and we simply want our own state, and we will do anything peaceful to achieve that result.
As I concluded my article:
Peace comes through compromise, admission of guilt and self-criticism. Arab progressives need an organization like Peace Now. No such organization exists, and Arab voices of peace are reduced to whispers.
I’m proud of what I wrote 10 years ago. Things have gotten worse since then. But I don’t think the answers have changed. We still know the way forward, even though it seems even farther in the distance. But we still have to try to get there.
Is student loan debt a ticking time bomb? At $870 billion dollars, the money owed on student loans in the United States now surpasses total credit balances. In Canada, the average student debt for a university graduate totals $27,000. Two million Canadians now owe around 20 billion dollars in student loans. Growing levels of student debt in both countries represents part of a larger phenomenon of governments passing off educational costs to individual students rather than funding them as part of the public good.
While part of an international trend, I’ve witnessed how much response to these tuition hikes can vary from place to place. In 2005, I moved from Montreal to Ohio to complete a master’s degree. Even then, tuition rates were rapidly expanding at Ohio’s state universities. The apathetic response to tuition hikes that I encountered among students amazed me. The reason for my surprise was because at that exact same moment in my native Quebec, over 200, 000 students had gone on strike. They had done so because the provincial government had cut loans and bursaries. Even with these cuts (which were unsuccessful due to student mobilization), Quebec tuition would still have remained about half of what it was in Ohio.
Today, the gap between the student movements in Ohio and Quebec seem just as stark. In Ohio, average costs for state residents at the main campuses of four-year universities stands at $ 9,600 a year (a 56% increase over the past decade). Ohio State, which has increased annuals charges by 72% over the past decade to $13, 081, even warns its prospective students that they should expect to pay an additional 5% to 10% every year that they attend. Three weeks ago, around 100 Ohio State students marched in protest. In contrast, three days ago in Montreal, tens of thousands of students showed up for a demonstration that spanned over 50 city blocks. They were protesting the Liberal government’s plans to raise annual in-province tuition fees from $2,500 to $4,100 over the next five years. Since mid-February, more than 300,000 students have stopped attending classes to challenge this policy.
Although many believe that college education is an investment into one’s future—which individual students should play a substantial role in paying back themselves—upon closer inspection the arguments for state tuition increases don’t sound very convincing. Increased fees deter financially disadvantaged students from applying to university, lead to worrisome debt loads for anyone whose family isn’t already well off, and neglect the obscene growth in administrative salaries at college and universities in recent years (which actually do waste money). They also tend to encourage the view that higher education is nothing but a commodity designed for individual advancement, rather than a system that promotes the common good through its original research and teaching.
In cases such as Quebec’s, the tuition increases also represent a drop in the bucket when compared with overall spending on higher education. The tuition hikes seem designed less to pay for needed expenses than to encourage the principle that individuals—rather than society as a whole—should bear the financial burden every time they use a government service. That is, in the name of austerity, they should get used to more regressive taxation.
As the size of student protests in Ohio and Quebec demonstrate, student culture matters in shaping responses to tuition increases. While the Canadian media has relentlessly reminded its readers that Quebecers pay less in tuition than anyone in Canada, they have neglected to highlight to that they also pay considerably higher income taxes in part because they expect more social equality. Since the late 1960s, Quebec students have launched a number of successful petition drives, strikes, occupations, and mass demonstrations that have helped keep costs down. This commitment to student solidarity helps explain why Quebec’s student debt load is by the far the lowest out of all of Canada. In Ohio, on the other hand, not only do you find a political culture that places less of a premium on social equality, but you also have a complex system of higher education that makes organizing protests much more difficult.
Culture and institutions, of course, are malleable. Many in Quebec support increased tuition fees. Its student movement may very well fail to stop the current government’s agenda (as was recently the case in London). At the same time, they might help inspire others. My own, admittedly utopian, hope is that the activism in Quebec encourages students in places like Ohio (just as the negligible tuition fees in places like Norway and the Netherlands have motivated many in Quebec). As universities around the world consider abandoning their missions of serving the common good for the promise of neo-liberal economic efficiencies, the response should ideally be international as well. Indeed, many in the Occupy Movement have turned crushing levels of student debt into an organizing issue. While I like seeing 100, 000 people marching against tuition increases in Montreal (or London), it would be a great thing to see in Columbus, Ohio too.
Scholarship and politics don’t mix. At least not according to literary theorist and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish, who has been arguing for years that professors should “save the world on their own time.” Just last week, he reiterated this point in a column about a conference he attended on “originalism,” the contentious legal doctrine that judges should interpret the Constitution as the framers had originally understood it. Despite the subject matter’s obvious implications for hot-button issues like immigration and the health care mandate, Fish happily reported that conference participants stayed focused only on matters of academic concern. They never waded into the territory of political partisanship. As he explained,
It would be an understatement to say that these questions provoke heated discussion in the world at large, but at the conference they were not themselves debated; no one stood up to say that he was for or against the individual mandate, or that citizenship standards should be relaxed or tightened. Instead participants argued (vigorously, but politely and with unfailing generosity) about where and with what methods inquiry into the questions should begin. Actually asking and answering them was left to other arenas (the arenas of the legislature, the courts and the ballot box) where their direct, as opposed to academic, consideration would be appropriate.
While Fish’s insistence on the stark distinction between partisanship and scholarship might strike some as unrealistic, it comes out of his broader view on the nature of academic freedom. From his perspective, academic freedom differs fundamentally from the free speech rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Unlike most workplaces, colleges and universities don’t have the right to fire their academic staff because of their opinions. More accurately, they don’t have the right to do so if they operate under the academic freedom guidelines established nearly a century ago by the American Association of University Professors.
How did faculty members gain these special protections? In the United States, academic freedom began to gain institutional support during the Progressive Era, a period in which many placed a high value on the ability of disinterested expertise to solve social problems. Academic freedom was originally designed to advance such expert knowledge. The AAUP argued that faculty members needed professional autonomy in order to remain free of the corrupting influence of business interests, religious groups, political parties, and labor unions. To advance knowledge, only accredited specialists could judge the merit of academic work: this explains the necessity of peer review.
By politicizing their work, Fish argues, faculty members weaken these philosophical justifications that protect academic freedom. If the broader public believes that professors at the universities they support promote a political agenda—rather than disinterested scholarship—the public will then have reasonable grounds to insert itself into decisions about research and teaching that had once been reserved for academic experts. The rationale for academic autonomy crumbles.
Not long after reading Fish’s recent column, I happened to come across a speech on academic freedom written by the militant historian, Howard Zinn. As anyone at all familiar with Zinn’s work will have probably guessed, the speech promoted a vision of the academic enterprise diametrically opposed to the one articulated by Fish. Delivered to an audience of South African academics in 1982, the speech implored all scholars to fight against the temptations of political complacency. For Zinn, academic freedom had
always meant the right to insist that freedom be more than academic –that the university, because of its special claim to be a place for the pursuit of truth be a place where we can challenge not only the ideas but the institutions, the practices of society, measuring them against millennia-old ideals of equality and justice.
From Zinn’s standpoint, any understanding of academic freedom that urged scholars to remain aloof from contemporary social struggles remained hollow to the core. Professional autonomy might have its place, but at what cost?
American higher education, Zinn insisted, had historically served the interests of wealthy elites that dominated the worlds of big business and the state. As long as faculty members quietly went along their business—training the middle managers and professionals that would keep the deeply unequal society running smoothly—the powers that be would grant them a degree of autonomy and prestige. Should scholars really be content with this state of affairs?
Zinn also maintained that in attempting to remain apolitical, academics actually performed a disservice to scholarship. Under the guise of objectivity, academic standards often masked support for the status quo. These standards encouraged social scientists to put on blinders when they examined issues of racial, sexual, and class inequality. In the name of supposed neutrality, professional disciplines such as engineering and finance often eschewed questions of values all together. This kind of thinking, he believed, helped encourage the mindset that led American academics to play important roles developing weapons and providing expertise for the Vietnam War.
Zinn used his own experience teaching courses at the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1950s and early 1960s to illuminate the limitations of a narrow view of academic freedom. The Spelman campus, he remembered, was beautiful. Ideas were openly discussed within college walls. However, faculty and students were expected to publicly remain silent on segregation. If they had publicly expressed themselves on this issue, it would have caused a scandal and threatened the college’s vaunted autonomy. With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Zinn explains, a critical mass of students and faculty stopped self-censoring themselves. They had realized that a measure of academic freedom within the college meant little if it was not accompanied by the right to fight for justice and equality on the outside too. In stark contrast, to Fish, Zinn concludes,
I did not think I could talk about politics and history in the classroom, deal with war and peace, discuss the question of obligation to the state versus obligation to one’s brothers and sisters throughout the world, unless I demonstrated by my actions that these were not academic questions to be decided by scholarly disputation, but real ones to be decided in social struggle.
Zinn practiced what he preached. He served as a faculty advisor to SNCC in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, he engaged in sit-down strikes with campus workers at Boston University. In 1980, he produced one of the most famous and contentious works of revisionist scholarship in American history. Throughout his career, he devoted his writing and public life to exposing injustice. Due to his outspoken activism, he was trailed for decades by the FBI and at least one high-ranking member of his university tried to have him fired.
Is there a middle road between the radical commitment demanded by Zinn and the academic formalism celebrated by Fish? It seems to me that academics often produce first-rate scholarship that also happens to promote a political agenda. There are many works based on meticulous research and judicious reasoning that also make clear interventions into contentious public debates. Just in the past year or two, this appears to be the case in books as varied as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Takes-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, and, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. The authors of these books have all received praise (and criticism) from their peers in academia, while also making important and pointed contributions to debates of major public significance.
Fish is right to the degree that the academy shouldn’t be a place that promotes political propaganda. On the other hand, it would be a sad state indeed if at least some academics didn’t also heed Zinn’s advice. We need more, not less, rigorous works of scholarship that deepen an often shallow public discourse on issues of crucial concern.
I’m pleased to once again be able to introduce a great guest post from friend-of-PhD-Octopus, Mircea, who takes on the case of the mythical Syrian lesbian blogger, Amina, and its personal and geopolitical fallout. –Luce
It’s been not 24 hours since the mystery behind detained Syrian lesbian blogger Amina Abdallah Arraf Al-Omari has been solved. What began as an international outcry over the arrest of a popular blogger giving voice to the queer side of the “Arab Spring” quickly turned into a frenzy of Internet investigations, carried out by journalists and bloggers, that has reached a sad and predictable end – there was never an Amina in the first place. The blog, and even more disturbingly, an entire online identity going back almost four years, was the creation of a 40 year-old American man from Georgia now studying in Edinburgh, Tom MacMasters, and his wife Britta. In what follows I’ll quickly recount the story, from first suspicions to this morning’s denouement, then offer a few thoughts on what this might mean in the larger context of queer politics and the Middle East.
It all began with this post detailing Amina’s capture by Syrian security forces, ostensibly put up by Amina’s cousin Rania Ismail. The response was swift, with several newspaper reports and a flurry of “Free Amina” facebook groups, like this one and this one, mobilising concerned people around the world. But within a few days, as reporters and State Department officials in Syria attempted to contact Amina’s family, doubts began to emerge. No one, it seems, had ever met or spoken to Amina, not even her girlfriend in Montreal, Sandra Bagaria (they had only communicated via e-mail). One of the first to publicly question the story was NPR’s Andy Carvin, who was sceptical yet cautious to declare that she didn’t exist. Maybe she was simply very good at concealing herself, as all activists living under repressive regimes must be. But then a Croatian woman living in London, Jelena Lecic, noticed that the photos of Amina being circulated were actually of her. There were hundreds, including all the photos on Amina’s personal facebook page, all apparently stolen from Jelena’s facebook. Troubled, she went on the BBC to prove her identity, and wonder how all this had come about. The evidence was increasingly pointing to an elaborate hoax.
I began following the controversy at Liz Henry’s blog, where commenters took to the Internet to uncover as many details about Amina as could be found. The mass of details was confusing, and involved an extensive cast of characters, some real and some fictional. Amina had stated she was born in Virginia and went to high school and college in Georgia. She had a previous blog where she declared her intention to mix fact and fiction; she had also been active in posting on alternate history Yahoo mailing lists, declaring her interest in medieval Byzantium. There were several online dating profiles, one in which she listed her language as Hebrew. Some used pictures of Jelena Lecic, some of another woman. Her cousin Rania Ismail’s facebook page turned out to be a likely fake; no one had been able to contact her either. Anything seemed possible. Was she the creation of Rania, a married Syrian woman looking for an escapist fantasy? Did Rania even exist? Was Amina a creation of Sandra Bagaria, the Canadian girlfriend? Or perhaps it was Jelena Lecic herself, whose first statement to the media was released through a suspicious P.R. agency? These theories may seem ridiculous in retrospect, but only through this kind of free-thinking exercise could all options be considered. The truth, when it came out, was perhaps stranger still.
Parallel to Liz Henry’s and Andy Carvin’s efforts, which later turned out to involve e-mail communications with someone likely to be the person behind the hoax, the website Electronic Intifada and the Washington Post were putting together a story based on two concrete leads. One came from Paula Brooks, an editor at the website LezGetReal (which was the first to introduce Amina’s blog to a wide readership). She provided two IP addresses used by Amina, both in Edinburgh. The other came from Scott Palter, a moderator on the alternate history boards, who had once gotten a mailing address from Amina in Stone Mountain, GA. This, it turned out, was Tom MacMaster’s home. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place: MacMaster was born in Virginia, had lived in Georgia, currently studies in Edinburgh, and plans to write a thesis on medieval Byzantium. He is a pro-Palestinian activist, and his wife Britta, a Quaker, was involved in organising events on Syria and Israel. Britta is a fellow at St. Andrews in the Centre for Syrian Studies, writing a thesis on the Syrian textile industry. She had posted pictures of her travels in Damascus, the same ones also used by Amina. The game was up.
MacMaster’s so-called apology on the blog, posted this morning, is a remarkable display of narcissism, self-delusion and self-righteousness. He declared, “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground,” with the exception, of course, of all the key facts on the blog – that a gay woman, living in Damascus, was experiencing the revolution and had been detained by security forces. He had the gall to claim that, “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone.” Let me count the ways:
- Closest to home, it was Sandra, the Canadian girlfriend, who had been privately lied to for months. Reading her tweets from before the abduction story, one is struck by the sincerity and passion with which she speaks of Amina. She had to endure constant media questioning, when it became clear just how deep the deception went. Interestingly, the abduction story was posted only a few days after Sandra attempted to call Amina at home in Syria and got no answer. That day Amina wrote about security forces visiting her family and her subsequent need to go underground. It may be that this is the point at which Tom and Britta freaked out and looked for a way to take their character off the stage, at least temporarily.
- Everyone else who had an online relationship with Amina, and who has been affected by the investigation. The website LezGetReal, for example, was subjected to intense scrutiny because Paula Brooks and other editors, who have families working for the federal government and do not wish to be outed, write under pseudonyms; they, too, were suspected of being fake.
- Finally, most obviously and most importantly, this is a devastating blow to queer activism in Syria and everywhere else in the Middle East. These furious reactions from actual Syrian activists give a sense of the damage. Not only does the hoax make it more difficult for Syrian bloggers to be heard in the future without undue suspicion, but it puts LGBT activists currently in Syria under the spotlight of the authorities. In every way, MacMaster has done about as much harm to the Syrian revolution as could be imagined from a computer in Scotland.
It is, however, the following sentence that deserves the greatest outrage: “This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” Not only is MacMaster not apologising, he is in fact blaming everyone else for the very sin he has committed. In a sense, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” was the perfect instantiation of liberal Orientalism, wherein Western audiences are enjoined to sympathise with a young, attractive, Westernised and courageous individual battling against the forces of dark, oppressive Islam. If Amina didn’t exist, one would have had to invent her. MacMaster’s twisted activist vision piled on all the desirable characteristics for what he thought the West should know of the Middle East, but didn’t bother because of the biased, Zionist media. The cruel irony is that in not finding a real Syrian who could represent some or all of these things, he confirms the very fantasies he set out to dismantle are just that, fantasies.
It is also troubling, it must be said, how those sceptical of Amina’s story from the start have slipped into the same traps of Orientalist fantasy. One of the earliest arguments for the hoax was that, “No one in Syria would ever kiss their girlfriend in public,” or speak so freely, etc. Though this may be in a very general sense accurate, it further adds to the erasure of the public presence of LGBT Syrians. Another argument from a commenter on one of the investigating blogs was that MacMaster had wished to show that being gay in Arab countries is not so bad, when in fact he had proved the opposite. There could be no one as free as Amina in Syria; but, the commenter added for good measure, there could be in Israel. It was MacMaster’s anti-Israel bias that made him paint such a rosy picture of an Arab country. Both Amina’s blog and the arguments of the sceptics are symptomatic of a wider set of highly debilitating discourses. In effect, it is becoming impossible to speak of what being queer in the Middle East is like without falling into one extreme or the other.
All of this brings to mind Jasbir Puar’s extraordinary theoretical work Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, in which she tracks the complex ways in which queer activism in the West has become implicated with imperialist projects and mindsets. One effect is the erasure of Muslim queer sexuality, and its converse — Israel’s propaganda efforts to brand itself as the only “gay-friendly” country in a homophobic region (known as “pinkwashing”). One of her tasks is to affirm the voices of queer Muslims and queer Arabs speaking out against state violence, against religious intolerance, and against US and Israeli colonialism all at once.
This is the kind of person whom MacMaster, no doubt familiar with this literature, wished to concoct. Two of Amina’s blog posts, for example, were on the phenomenon of “pinkwashing.” What this odious, despicable individual has managed to do instead is produce the perfect mockery of queer scholarship and activism, a farce that feeds right back into the very discourses he sought to resist, feeding them to the brim and sustaining them for years to come.