Category Archives: human rights

Dirty Wars (2013)

Jeremy Scahill gets out of the tank and walks with the locals 

Richard Rowley makes a good documentary – well shot, well narrated,  good storytelling – but there was something that kept nagging me throughout the showing. I finally put my finger on it near the end, when Jeremy Scahill was going over his revelations, his horror at how largely evil the world has become in the last 10 years. I remember being a bit of a smug huff at his crawling out of a tank in Afghanistan to explore the surroundings on his own, his anguish in facing a “boring” life back in Park Slope, all pretty normal for a documentary. Even the bloodied Somali corpses as props for Scahill to express appropriate disgust and horror is pretty par for course in an American documentary against an imperial backdrop. But what really had me was – really? What’s changed? Targeted assassinations,  kill lists, death squads, shadow proxy wars.. none of this is particularly new. Not even the part about extrajudically killing American citizens, either at home or abroad. I even asked the question to the panel at the end, maybe is the change something to do with the executive branch having more concentrated power? But this question was glazed over. Instead, we learn about how Scahill’s book (available for purchase by the concession stand) and this documentary were “piercing the veil” and how the New York Times calls it “riveting”. At one point, it was even compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was also credited with starting the Civil War, which is not only strange but a weird way of reading history.

But then, the scope was rather small. Even though the film describes 75 countries as suffering JSOC invasions and drone strikes, we are only presented with the theaters we understand a bit about already: Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. It was strange to me how Pakistan – being the main focus of these attacks – was somehow left out of the story. But either way, we are given “Islamic terrorism” and “drug cartels” as being the main reasons behind these attacks, with no broader scope as to the United State’s geopolitical and strategic capital interests. We get the feeling from the film that America needs to be doing something about these terrorist Muslims and drug lords, but perhaps it could be in a more humane way. After all, there is no dialectical relationship between the Taliban and the women and children slaughtered by Hellfire missiles. The link cannot exist because then we must see it also exists between Scahill, the Hellfire missiles being used to kill, and ourselves safe and sound in the IFC theater.

The finest part of the film is where a Somali general tells Scahill how Americans are the “masters of war” and “great teachers”. But the point is given in such a way where Americans watching have the chance to immediately settle back into the comfortable dichotomy of the Taliban vs. innocent Afghanis. Black and white, good guys and bad guys. No relationship, no history, just the sort of hogwash George Bush would hoot about on the radio. After all, we too must scramble to separate ourselves from responsibility. We too must be able, as Americans, to separate ourselves from our government – after all, we voted for Kerry in 2004 and did our part. In this film, there is no dialectical relationship between the people and power.  Surely there can be no connection between our relatively comfortable lives in the United States and children born without limbs in Fallujah – otherwise we really could do something about the violence done in our names.

It was a good documentary, as I said. It’s important that people know what’s going on, how the United States’s endless lust for war affects human beings all over the world. However it should not be understood as “groundbreaking” or something that will change the tide of politics forever in this country. Whipping out my checkbook or signing a petition is not going to stop America’s ravenous appetite for blood and gold. These sorts of things have always happened in American history, maybe not with so much executive power and technological gadgets, but the idea has remained the same for hundreds of years. The question elicited from the film shouldn’t be “what can I do?” but rather, “how does this happen?” Once we understand how the machine works, we can properly throw a wrench in the gears.

The other questions during the Q&A session were mainly concerned with calls to action, what is it that we can do? The questions sounded rather like the “we” meant a crowd of individuals as opposed to “we” the people. They brought up a journalist jailed in Yemen, petitions for his release as he was arrested while covering this story. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as well-off citizens nestled on the island of Manhattan, is there nothing more you can do than sign a petition? On your own? I guess not. In the theater, many of those watching the horrific catalog of violence wrecked by the American government probably voted for Barack Obama, the man whose voice on the phone actually demanded the Yemeni journalist’s imprisonment, the man whose order slaughters thousands of unnamed innocents. The viewer does not trust their own ability because she is limited by their view of the world where all one can do is sign a petition and vote the lesser of two villainous warmongers.

on somatophobia more generally, or, is “Food a haven for reactionaries”?

T’ai: I hadn’t even read the newest piece and I came to a bunch of the same conclusions about food politics today when reading this article on Gawker. Somatophobia and the fear of hunger.

Em: Yes, it’s horrible.

T’ai: Or rather, you don’t deal with the suffering or need by eliminating the instrument which suffers or needs. Wanting tasty food isn’t a curse. These people probably get angry when they involuntarily sneeze, or laugh. Optimizing nutrution is a great goal, but it’s really wrong to act like something that isn’t whatsoever pleasant to eat is anywhere near to optimal. It really does come down to a weird hatred of being bodied, or anything involuntary, like sneezing or laughing or orgasms.

Em: It’s a weird contradiction. Capital demands individual units, but people seek to discard their own units in an individualistic way. It’s possible that the individual desire to escape the body is the unfocused individual desire to escape capitalism.

T’ai: It’s true that it’s possible to be denied agency by immaterial things, like drug addiction. Which is why I think that “do what you want because it’s your body/drug politics” are stupid. But, like, that doesn’t make every single biological or psychological need a sort of oppression. Things like the need for food can be vehicles for actual oppression, obviously.

Em: Like through capitalism, commodification. All of those items: hunger, sex, disease, they have all been commodified.

T’ai: Yeah, there’s something very No Alternative about it. I feel like the sort of person who is into this displays a really weird desire to escape (and indeed destroy) the human body/condition as such; eliminating biological and psychological needs instead of fulfilling them, uploading one’s mind, and so on. There’s something that bothers me about a viewpoint that sees suffering human bodies (in whatever fashion) as a thing to be made obsolescent rather than a thing to be treated more respectfully and humanely.

Em: Even eliminating them! Eliminating suffering bodies is easier than treating them, for capital.

T’ai: Yeah…

somatophobic feminism I

Dying was the best piece of publicity Shulamith Firestone ever generated. A name I did not hear much in 2012 seems to be making a comeback in 2013. I could not grasp what made her so rehabilitatable at first. “Radical feminism” is almost a slur nowadays, while hissing at and even physically attacking “radfems” is quite  nearly applauded on the left. So when Laurie Penny tweeted about how fond she was of Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex” I had to finally raise my hand and ask why. The most memorable chapter I could recall was Chapter 5, “Rasicm: The Sexism of the Family of Man” which was one of the more shockingly racist things I’d ever read from a second wave feminist. Penny said her favorite was the chapter that comes after, on love, and that she could effectively divorce the underlying premises from the previous chapter. How? Even within that chapter we find abhorrent essentialism, totally unhelpful analysis based more on Firestone’s own life than on conditions women face.

The underlying theme to Firestone’s work – and part of why I think it’s been rehabilitated – is a very vicious somatophobia (fear of the body) that complements contemporary racist and classist feminism very well. On request, I emailed Penny to ask her what could be gleaned from such a feminism – she has not responded. This destruction of the female body – either from thinking sex work is “just like any other job” or from the surgical/chemical feminism that holds hands with liberal trans feminism – is rooted in a dangerous essentialism. The woman is unable to escape her body, therefore she must destroy it. Reminders of her body, e.g. birth, menstruation, voluptuousness etc, are considered traumatic.

Masculinity is being able to transcend the body by immersing oneself in the “world of the mind”, by utilizing technology, by challenging the mystification of the body, of reducing people to individuals and individuals to their individual parts. Federici writes on surgery theaters of the late middle ages, of women being cut open and their mysteries being laid bare as a kind of terrorism and disciplining of the female sex. The mystical experience of pregnancy and birth reduced to organs, the rearing of children (reproduction of labor force) reduced to individual events and biological needs, schedules and regimins. In Firestone’s technofetishistic fantasy of babies grown in vats and raised by the state we have made quite a leap. The oppression of woman under capital is found in her body that betrays her by swelling large with children, by losing its perkiness with age, by gaining wrinkles around the eyes. The betrayal trans people describe in the process of puberty is the same betrayal women face as they go through puberty, as they age. The solution to this oppression posited here (with Firestone) is to embrace the flesh and conquer it and shape it to our will using technology and surgery. By embracing  masculinity-through-technology we too can escape our oppressive bodies. The hate is turned inward, festers like an ulcer. We blame ourselves, our lack of spirit, our lack of ability to change our own situations. It is atomizing and alienating.

In this, liberal and pink feminists willfully ignore the forces that assign such values to the body that make us hate them. Infuriatingly, they say there is nothing to be done about this. They say that men will always want to buy sex, they say that women are programmed in their brains to be the way they are, that gender is an essential biological condition as opposed to a system of active oppression under capitalism.

Birth is a powerful thing. Reproducing society is essential to our continued existence. There is no shame in breast feeding, no shame in menstruation, no shame in pregnancy or varicose veins. These are positions of great power for women, it is male technofetishism and capitalism that have turned these things into cause for shame and weakness. That Shulamith Firestone hates the body, hates weakness in the self is understandable, considering the pain that women go through on a daily basis in being women. However, she is misdirecting her hate and fear, putting the blame on women themselves. Her essentializing logic is dangerous, and the fact that her ideas have once again found traction in a “new generation” of “feminists” is troubling indeed. I hope that women are critical when they read these works, that they critically ask their friends to what end they are fascinated by fantasies of birthless, bloodless womanhood. We must make a decision of what we wish to transcend: capital or the flesh?

Further reading:

Individuality amid Oppression

New to the blogosphere, I thought I would introduce myself by proposing a debate that I have waged in my head recently regarding dignity and morality amid repression. The latest emanation of this debate occurred after I watched an interview with Israeli journalist Amira Hass. A resident of Ramallah since 1997 and the only Israeli journalist living in the West Bank, read and addressed criticisms of her op-ed article advocating Palestinian resistance against Israel, especially stone-throwing. Within Israel, the response to the Ha’aretz opinion piece has escalated beyond hate mail to calls for her arrest for inciting violence.

As Hass expresses her feelings in conversation with Amy Goodman, the two clash regarding the issue of violent resistance against oppression. For Hass, her concern was not to discern the most effective or noble methods of protest, but to recognize the capacity of individuals to express their feelings about Israel, in particular, and life in Palestine, in general. It is this capacity for self-expression and communication that occupation effectively obliterates.

The question that remains with me after this conversation is, whether it’s possible for individuals to achieve their morality amid oppression? And if oppression stifles individual fulfillment and liberation, then how can one avoid surrendering to wretched circumstances? At this point, circumstance turns life, itself, into a battleground between aspiration and resignation.

Why doesn’t anyone talk about unionizing arms manufacturers? On the idea of sex worker unions

No one proposes ending war by unionizing arms manufacturers. Proposing to end violence against women in the sex trade by unionizing them is likewise untenable. The best way to end violence against women in the sex trade is still to end the sex trade. The unionization strategy is a reformist position – and the position that we would like to live in a world where there is no such thing as prostitution, strip clubs, pornography, while it might seem fantastical, is a revolutionary position and the correct line to have for a leftist who calls herself a feminist. It’s not moralistic hand-wringing to criticize the base assumptions of the military industrial complex; why then, is it just my “personal baggage” speaking when I criticize the sex trade?

First, we should look at the conditions in which women in the sex trade live, and ask ourselves if these conditions could be alleviated by unionization:

Seventy percent of women in prostitution in San Francisco, California were raped (Silbert & Pines, 1982). A study in Portland, Oregon found that prostituted women were raped on average once a week (Hunter, 1994). Eighty-five percent of women in Minneapolis, Minnesota had been raped in prostitution (Parriott, 1994). Ninety-four percent of those in street prostitution experienced sexual assault and 75% were raped by one or more johns (Miller, 1995). In the Netherlands (where prostitution is legal) 60% of prostituted women suffered physical assaults, 70% experienced verbal threats of assault, 40% experienced sexual violence and 40% were forced into prostitution and/or sexual abuse by acquaintances (Vanwesenbeeck, et al. 1995, 1994)… The prevalence of PTSD among prostituted women from 5 countries was 67% (Farley et. al. 1998), which is the same range as that of combat veterans (Weathers et. al. 1993). 

From Farley et. al.  (2003) “Prostitution in Nine Countries” 

Is this staggering violence a result of lack of unionization? Let’s see what the International Union of Sex Workers is fighting for:

All workers including sex workers have the right to:

  • full protection of all existing laws, regardless of the context and without discrimination. These include all laws relating to harassment, violence, threats, intimidation, health and safety and theft.

  • access the full range of employment, contract and property laws.

  • participate in and leave the sex industry without stigma

  • full and voluntary access to non-discriminatory health checks and medical advice

Here is where we begin to be mired in questions, a case by case judgment of “good” vs. “bad” prostitution. What defines coercion? What defines trafficking? What defines abuse? What defines empowerment? Certainly, the assumption of the IUSW is that the sex industry is a normal, neutral industry wherein women happen to be subject to incredible amounts of violence and poverty, where nearly half (47%) are under the age of 18 when they begin working. The idea of the IUSW and other unionists is that the trade is not the focus – the focus, as we so often find it when discussing sex work, is on the women themselves.

Unions often define themselves by their relationship with management – with the “boss” –  but for sex worker unions this is hardly ever the case. As the women are primarily seen as independent contractors for the sake of analysis, the john and pimps are left out of the picture. The culture surrounding the sex trade is not up for analysis, either. It is a neutral, unchanging constant.

The boss is the john, and to take action against the john or the culture that encourages him is to shut down business. Instead, the union is supposed to either challenge the state (to legalize prostitution) or to perform the functions of the state (provide protection, legal counseling, health services). Yet, these are reformist measures that simply serve to react to the conditions women live in, rather than challenging the very conditions themselves. Lest we forget: women are not raped and abused because of a lack of state regulation (or too much state regulation), they are raped and abused because the john, pimp and cop decide to do so, and exist within a system that shelters them from consequence.

Within the realm of the normalized sex trade, rape and abuse are no longer crimes against the person, but rather occupational hazards. In the blog, “Tits and Sass”, two articles underscore this quite well. The first, about rape, is written from the perspective that “unwanted sex” is still consensual when the woman sees material gain from the process. This agrees with studies of john behavior and attitudes, wherein a full quarter believe that the very concept of raping a prostitute is “ridiculous.

 It’s rare that I give authentic “enthusiastic consent” while I’m working. And that’s how I prefer it.

“Enthusiastic consent” was conceived in an effort to eradicate the so-called gray areas of sexual assault, so it’s hard to talk about without also talking about rape. While I appreciate the centering of desire and consent, it wouldn’t hold that every sexual encounter taking place without the enthusiastic consent of both parties is rape… But I still turn over plenty of work-related questions in my head: what does it mean for a man to keep paying to have sex with a woman who doesn’t give signs of enjoying it?

Another article, entitled “On Stripper Burnout” advises women who are tired of the verbal abuse that goes with stripping to buy new clothes, look at photos of money to boost morale, eat sweets, or work for a cruel booking agent as “fear can be a great motivator.” There is no advice here on leaving the sex trade – emotional, verbal and physical abuse in the normalized world of pro-sex work advocates becomes a grey zone, where the woman’s personal attitude is what determines the difference between occupational hazards and something that might contribute to PTSD – putting the onus of responsibility on the woman rather than on the john.

The practical side of unionization brings us back to the current, atomized-view of sex work in general. It is a localized solution which does nothing to address a global problem. Questions arise: Who do you bargain with? How do we unionize all women? If a woman was in the sex trade and did not belong to a union, would this be her choice? Are johns supposed to solicit union prostitutes out of a sense of guilt, a la consumer activism (fair trade hooking?). Do we really expect johns to spontaneously grow a conscience when they are told women are for sale and it’s okay to buy them? When it comes to women in pornography, the average career tenure is quoted in several sources at being between five months and three and a half years – how then, to unionize these women?  Same with prostitutes, who on average enter the trade when they are underage – how to unionize these women? What about pimps and madams, pornographers and mobsters – are they allowed in these unions?

Any leftist worth their red will agree that punishing women is the most counter-productive way to handle prostitution or sex work. Yet unions stop short at criticizing johns who, on the whole, generally acknowledge that women in prostitution experience homelessness, substance abuse and physical and emotional degradation. Johns know, on average, that women enter into it when they are underage and against their will. They buy sex anyway. Unionizing women will not end trafficking, will not end violent deaths – it simply turns what is a societal problem into an organizational problem. Like most unions as they exist under capitalism, a sex-worker’s union’s primary purpose is to keep the more politically-minded in line with the management. We should look elsewhere for solutions that liberate women.

east flatbush

Sixteen year-old Kimani Gray was murdered last Sunday, shot 11 times by two undercover police officers. The police claimed that Gray was armed and threatening them with deadly force. Neighbors say they heard him plead for his life. Eleven times is a lot of times to shoot somebody.

Accordingly, East Flatbush has exploded with anger. There might be plenty who just hang from their windows, or wave from the doorways, but the idea that a group of vulnerable young people – the most targeted members of this neighborhood – would go through the streets articulating some serious rage means that it’s already boiled over. There have been nearly 50 arrests so far, and the protests continue.

Despite the majority of the media coverage and spin to this is that it’s the case of a bunch of outsiders there to do damage, there are people from all walks of life at this protest. True, many travel from different parts of New York, but they travel from the Bronx. They travel from Harlem. They travel over an hour by train or longer by bus to get there and hold solidarity with East Flatbush. There are white people and there are Hispanics, students and the unemployed, the formerly incarcerated and those who have never been touched by a cop. There are still more from the neighborhood. Everyone is furious.

The NYPD killed 21 people last year. They have dragged unarmed young women into the streets by their hair and killed them. Even if there are a million excuses and reasons, dismissed hearings and slaps on the wrist, these children gunned down in East Flatbush were murdered. They were murdered from the moment they were born. By chance of birth they were born into a system that condemned them to death or jail – sometimes both. The young men of East Flatbush are regularly stopped on the street and frisked by the NYPD. The parents are tired of losing their children – either to death or to lost opportunity.

For sure, I spoke with a man on the subway tonight who told me he was without power for a month after the hurricane. His life was swept away from him on the Far Rockaways by Sandy. Bloomberg showed his face there and was heckled away by the crowd. It was sort of a joke when Manhattan was without power – people moved uptown and checked into hotels or went to stay with friends. It was an inconvienance at best. But in the Far Rockaways people’s whole lives were wrecked by a Category 1 hurricane, which is not a very powerful hurricane. The foundations their lives were built on were those of poverty.

It is the same in East Flatbush. I’ve had people tell me that you need at least $40,000 to live a year in this city, but there are those in places like these that live off of $9,000 a year. The disconnect is remarkable.

So for the time being, rage builds in East Flatbush. The police presence is overwhelming. They won’t let the crowd to within a block of the police precinct and have cops on horseback. They have arrested nearly 50 people thus far and they are serious about cracking down. Kimani Gray’s sister was arrested for crossing the street. In response, the cops are going to the hospital with wounds from thrown bricks and bottles. The stakes are rising.

Kimani Gray’s family asked for there to be no protesting two days after they lost their son. The protesters proceeded. To the organizers, this was not just about Kimani Gray. It was about the structures that brutally oppress them. It is and isn’t about the cops – for sure, they are responsible for the shooting more directly, but they representative of what protects the system that keeps people in Red Hook and the Far Rockaways without power a month after the storm has passed. The system that creates teen mothers and the system that kills and imprisons their children. The system that has 1.8 million New Yorkers on food stamps and 21,000 children homeless. People came from all over New York because they are tired of it. They are calling for the end of it in the streets of East Flatbush. They are protesting against racism, brutality, capitalism, poverty and the senseless killing of children.

postfeminism

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What is postfeminism? Allegedly it is the space where we can move past feminism, where feminism no longer holds appeal to women and where it can even be harmful to women. As Melissa Gira Grant writes: 

The patriarchy’s figured out a way to outsource hatred of prostitution. They’re just going to have women do it for them.

Grant, who  is a former sex worker (to be specific: not a pimp/madam) claims that patriarchy, an amorphous “they” not rooted in material reality, has outsourced the oppression of women to women themselves. This is an argument made by many who claim that women are the ones who cut other women in other parts of the world, who participate in forcing early marriage or abuse other women in the family. Then Grant gets more specific:

I wouldn’t advocate for a feminism that’s buttoned-up and divorced of the messiness of our real lives. Your feelings are your feelings, but you’re not going to litigate your feelings about my body. The feminist ethics that I signed up for were respect for my bodily autonomy, that my experience is my experience, and that I’m an expert in my own life.

What is postfeminism? It is a desire for control over one’s destiny. It is the hope that someday, no one will call you any names or discriminate against you based on your sex. Yet, when this individual oppression ends – the oppression against prostitutes, against trans women, against my right to choose, against me, will this have achieved female liberation?

The postfeminism of today is deeply rooted in neoliberal atomization. A single female’s experiences are just as valid as any other female’s experience. A wealthy white woman who “makes the choice” to become a prostitute – her choice is equally valid as the poor woman of color who “makes the choice” to become a prostitute. Postfeminism promises the liberation of individual women, but not females. These individuals are fighting against “patriarchy”, a concept that is not individualized or even rooted in material manifestations. Rather, it is as amorphous as its own concept: a male slapping a woman, a man cat-calling a woman, or a man who makes a sexist remark at work is patriarchy rearing its ugly head from the aether. Yet a culture of objectification, where women are plastered up like slabs of meat for sale in phone booths, where women dance for money, where women continue to make $.70 on the dollar; this is not considered a war against women. After all – a woman may now make the individual “choice” to engage in these acts, in these careers, may make the individual “choice” not to bear children to get ahead in business. Acts of violence against my body are crimes against women – but larger systems of oppression suddenly become more complex, more bogged down in uncertainty as we must learn to understand that these systems are made up of individuals who have the capacity to make “choices”. 

It astounds me that leftists who might otherwise deride the idea of free choice under a capitalist system make all sorts of room for women like Grant to write privileged accounts of the system of oppression called the “sex trade”. Broader women’s movements such as the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network  might feel as though an abolitionist stance on prostitution is right and good, but, as Grant would say, they are “privileged” in that their voices are louder than hers – the voice that enjoys prostitution believes that sex work is feminist work. Indeed, the other voices aren’t heard as loudly as the abolitionists “because they’re working”. This amorphous group of women who are pleased as punch to be working as sexual objects for sale are quiet, a silent majority cowed into silence by angry groups of feminist women who claim that 90% of women want out of prostitution.

If the voice of a “queer woman who dates women in her non-sex-work life and has sex with men for work” is not heard as much as the loud majority of feminists who want an end to prostitution, this is because women who “choose” sex work, who come at it from a political perspective of “empowerment” are in the extreme minority. But the individual reigns supreme over the masses in postfeminism just as it does in neoliberalism. When a woman demands her “right to choose”, she is demanding her right. She is situating feminism in a sphere where she does not feel fettered by her sex, where she personally has the ability to pursue whatever she wants. If she is a stripper and a man touches her inappropriately, this is a battle in the war against male domination – but the very institution that shapes his thinking is not in and of itself oppressive. Male domination is boiled down to the individual, becomes a question of one human exerting his will over another’s in an unfair way. It is no longer about systems of oppression, cultures of abuse, or industries of suffering. We are boiled down once again to our individual experiences.

A single person cannot change the world because change is the prerogative of the people. There is no such thing as a mass movement of individuals – they might all be walking in the same direction, but they are checking their smartphones and turning off onto a side street the moment they are required to check their egos at the door.

Melissa Gira Grant’s views are not just dangerous because they blame women themselves for their own oppression –  either as angry sex-negative feminists or individuals who just make “bad choices”. They are dangerous because they shift the blame away from male violence and domination and continue to trump the experiences of a privileged few over the many. Why won’t these leftist blogs and magazines run a counter article to this kind of perspective? Anything else would be hypocritical. Perhaps it is simply not what leftist men want to hear: that their individual enjoyment is not the purpose of female liberation.