The Anti-Politics Machine

One year ago, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti killed hundreds of thousands of people.  A month later, a much larger quake in Chile killed only a fraction of that number.  As far as I can tell, what made the difference between the two was not geography or geology.  Instead, it was Haiti’s particularly harsh history of foreign intervention, dysfunctional government, and persistent poverty reinforced by unfair international economic policies.  In short, the difference was politics.

I’m fairly sure that every country in the world has some number of paranoid, violent schizophrenics.  Like earthquakes, crazy people are probably unavoidable.  But not every country’s paranoid, violent schizophrenics manage to shoot elected officials in the head and kill six others.  The difference rests, in large part, on whether their state and national legislators think that everyone—regardless of race, creed, or mental competence—have a constitutional right to buy a semi-automatic military-style weapon at their local sporting goods store.  The difference, once again, is politics.

This seems incredibly obvious to me, and yet as I have watched the debate on the Tucson shooting morph, I feel increasingly isolated in this position.  Friends and acquantainces have tweeted and messaged and posted all sorts of things about how important it is not to “politicize” the tragedy.  “Don’t try to use this to advance a political agenda!  Don’t change policy just because of one madman!”  Suddenly, I find myself on the defensive because I think that acts like this demand some sort of a response other than prayer, a few sad speeches, and a one-week pause in the House calendar.  That is to say, someone should legislate something related to this.  The speed with which our collective consciousness has moved on—and accepted that such things are sad, but inevitable—suggests that I am relatively lonely in this belief.

C. Wright Mills—familiar to anyone who has ever taken Sociology 101—clasically distinguished between private “troubles” and public “issues.”  Private troubles are idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and not something society can control.  Labeling something a personal trouble, then, is a powerful tool, because it simply takes it off the table as an object of public action and control.  This is what has happened with Jared Loughner; he has become sui generis, as if he has nothing in common with Seung-Hui Cho or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold or god-knows-how-many future assassins.

The argument is always that we have no way of knowing if stricter gun laws, or better mental health services, or more sane political rhetoric would have stopped this.  They very may well not have.  But the point of politics is not to make guesses about how to put an end to individual troubles; it’s to manage public issues.  Public action means playing the odds and managing risks.  I don’t know if what happened in Tucson would have been any better had the assault weapons ban still been in place; I would still like to know that from now on shooters will be limited to 10-bullet clips.  Some deranged people in England still manage to get their hands on guns and shoot people; given that they have around 1/700th the gun deaths we do, though, I’d still take my chances with their approach to gun control.

The anti-politics machine, though, seems to have won again.  Somehow women’s bodies and sexual orientation are public issues, but guns—that’s between the schizophrenics and their local Sporting Goods dealer.

Fill in the Blanks

“I am so ___ about the mass killing in Tucson this Saturday that I think ____ ought to be _____.”

The first blank is easy: I am mad.  I am mad, in part, because it seems almost impossible not to be.  And yet I’m also mad because, for all the talk of ‘taking it down a notch’, I think that only by being furious about what has happened are we likely to do anything to prevent similar things from happening in the future.  “Sincere condolences” and “heartfelt prayers”, however genuine, are cheap.  They ask nothing of us.  I’m mad because this tragedy was preventable, and so will be the tragedies of tomorrow and the day after that (let’s not forget that, to get to 12,000+ gun murders per year, you have to gun violence on par with that in Tucson every day).  Mostly, I’m mad because, in the end, I am sure that complacent sorrow will win out over righteous anger, and this shooting in a Tucson Safeway will teach us about as much as those that happened in a Colorado High School and a Virginian University–which is to say, absolutely nothing.

The second blank is no more difficult for me to fill in.  Obviously, Jared Loughner, the deranged gunman, deserves to face the lion’s share of our anger and the brunt of the law.  But, as a sociologist, I believe that none of us ever truly acts alone; we are always constrained by the options society offers us and motivated by the ideas society feeds us.  One of the country’s major parties has spent decades dismantling gun laws and the most recent election glorifying armed revolution against the government.  Is it really surprising that someone took this rhetoric seriously, and availed themselves of the violent options we have opened to them? And so, I have no problem inserting Sarah Palin—who “targeted” Giffords in the last election—or Tea Partyers like Sharon Angle—who suggested that “second amendment solutions” were necessary to deal with Democratic lawmakers—as individuals who also should share in the accountability for this event.  Along with them in co-responsibility should be lawmakers who eviscerated mental health services in the name of tax cuts in Arizona.

The last blank, though, is hard.  I’m mad as hell, and a great deal of my anger is directed at that ever-so-nebulous entity, “the government” and a few people associated with it, like Jan Brewer, Arizona’s “Guns-in-Bars-and-Campuses” Governor.  In fact, I’m so angry that I really think these people ought to be…

Ought to be what?

Shot?  Maimed?  Threatened?  Intimidated?

My great frustration now is the realization that there seems like practically no productive way to act on my anger.  I live in Arizona—even Gabrielle Giffords supports gun rights, so I am skeptical of voting as a mechanism for change.  I doubt the big donation I am sending to the Brady Campaign today will be any match for the thousands of NRA supporters who are no doubt marshalling to protect their Glocs and Tec-9s.  And so, I am left with no option but to take options into my own hands and…

And do nothing, I suppose.

Strangely, I think this inertia is why I am proud to be on the left.  The counterattacks of the Republicans against those who have blamed vitriolic political rhetoric for the violence are, in a sense, correct: nasty rhetoric and anger at the government are things shared by both sides.  The issue is how we fill in that last blank—how we act on it.  I’ve spent two years researching radical anarchists, many of whom are on FBI lists as part of “Number One Domestic Terror Threat”, and yet never heard even one offhand remark about harming an elected official.  Can we really imagine that the massive 1999 protests in Seattle—with their incumbent police violence and property destruction—would have passed without a single death, if leftists shared conservatives proclivity for firearm ownership?

I’m mad as hell… and, to gramatically pervert the phrase, I AM going to take it anymore, because that’s what makes us not like them.


What left-leaning blogger isn’t writing one of these?

I expected a lot of things when I woke up this morning and, thanks to the time difference, opened my New York Times to catch the electoral news.   I anticipated seeing the GOP make massive gains, and I knew that, for all my “they’re-all-the-same” cynicism, I would feel totally despondent about it.  They did, and I did.  I did not expect, though, that I would wake up, by all accounts, a member of the tea party.

I cannot bring myself to accept the legitimacy of last night’s election.  I cannot accept it because I do not believe anyone who believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim is of sufficient mental competence to cast a vote.  I do not accept an election where, in my home state, squads of Tea Partyers lingered around polls under the auspices of checking identification, an act that deters not only naturalized Hispanics but also Native Americans, many of whom lack citizenship documents.  I struggle to see functioning democracy in the myriad races where margins of victory were much smaller than the number of disenfranchised ex-felons in the district.

I do not want Barack Obama or his chastened Democratic allies to reach across the aisle.  The much-vaunted moderation that voters claim they want is worthless.  I do not believe that allowing gay men and women to openly serve in the military is an issue on which there is any space for compromise.  I have very little interest in a more middle-ground occupation of Afghanistan.  I do not want half of the uninsured to have health care.  I hope that Barack Obama never finds the “Third Way” that led Bill Clinton to support welfare reform.  I’d love to see Bi-Partisanship, insofar as it involves Republicans abandoning their shitty principles and policies in favor of our good ones.

I wish for our newly elected House majority to find itself stymied at every turn.  I dream of a minority Democratic Party that votes in lockstep against every goddamn tax cut, cut to essential social services, or act of irresponsible deregulation the Republicans bring up. I want John Boehner to be humiliated politically and personally.  I’d like to see his tenure to be one of complete failure.  I’m curious if he can be made to cry genuine tears of frustration, not just contrived tears of gloating.

Like I said, I am the Tea Party.  I deny that the winners have a mandate; I will brook no compromise with them, irrespective of their electoral victories; I’d rather see us deadlocked in acrimonious debate than moving forward.

Reflecting on this, of course, makes me wonder what I was thinking three days ago, watching the Rally to Restore Sanity.  If only they would be civil and reasonable and moderate – if only we could just sit down and talk.  Forget it.  The problems that confront us are not the tone and volume of politics.  The problem is the content of politics.  For all the associated detritus, elections are ultimately about values.  The wrong values won last night.  Now is not the time for the eternal platitudes of losers (“Now let’s see you govern!”) or searching for some “We’re all patriots” bonhomie.  It’s time to do what they did, which is make a compelling case for why our values—tolerance, comunitarianism, social equality—are better than theirs.

Hand to Mouth

There are some interviews that I just know are going to be fantastic as soon as I walk into an office.  I got that feeling today, when I walked down a half-inundated alley and up some rickety stairs into the dank and decrepit lair of FOCAO, the Federación de Organizaciones Campesinas de Orellana.  Technically, the organization is a glorified farmers’ support group.  I quickly realized, though, that they more-than-dabble in radical politics.  The walls were covered in posters advertising days of resistance against petroleum exploitation, pan-Latin America conferences to confront neo-liberalism, and urging boycotts of Coca Cola.  In short, minus the humidity, I felt like I was back in New York, talking revolution with my freegan friends.

All of the posters and ads, of course, had a mildly anti-American flair.  Those vile corporations and the World Bank, after all, are headquartered in the U.S., and the caricatures of rich oligarchs destroying the environment were made to look awfully, well, gringo-esque.  This cut a somewhat stark contrast with the fact that every piece of electronic equipment in the room—bar none—had an American flag sticker declaring “US AID: Aid from the American People.” Even the $10 computer speakers were tagged.

I’m not sure which I appreciate more: the fact that the campesinos are willing to bite the hand that feeds, or that America is willing to feed the hand that bites.

The Long, Charming Reach of Racism

Being an EstadoUnidense* in Latin America should not be easy.  Forget Pakistan; there is no region of the world with more legitimate and longstanding grievances against the U.S. than Latin America.  Ecuadorians, for example, could complain about the CIA’s supposed role in the death of President Jaime Roldós in 1981, or, more concretely, the enduring impact of U.S.-imposed structural adjustment and neoliberalism on their country.

Despite all this, though, there hasn’t been a single moment here where I feel uncomfortable saying I’m from the U.S.  Most people don’t seem to have any problem separating people from policy, and realizing that I, personally, was not involved in the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954, am not an active part of Plan Colombia, and do not work for the IMF.  It helps, of course, that most people have family in the U.S., and designs on visiting or living there at least at some point during their lives.

Being from Arizona, though, is a different matter.  I haven’t actually lived in Arizona for two years now, and yet my first reflex is still to tell people that’s where I’m from.  As soon as I do, I can see people thinking, “Where have I heard that name before?” A second or two later, their faces tense up, and I quickly add, “Yeah, I’m from Arizona, but I don’t support that terrible immigration law.”

With SB 1070 partially going into effect tomorrow, there has been another wave of media coverage of the law in the last few days.  I have to say, I’m a bit astonished that, here in the Amazon, people are talking about what’s happening in a state that is—even by Red State standards—a backwater (we’re worse than Mississippi in education).  I’ve tried to explain a half-dozen times now why it is that Arizonans seem to dislike Latinos so much: “But we just want to work” is the refrain I get over and over again, or, last night, “What, are we so ugly?”

At first, I wondered what Arizona’s legislators would think if they knew how far this law reached and how deep condemnation of it runs.  If only they knew how strongly world opinion was against them. Then it occurs to me, though: the whole idea of conservativism—and the U.S.  exceptionalism they celebrate—is to be indifferent to the rest of the world.  Other countries think the death penalty is barbaric?  We’ll show them—we’ll execute people, and do it by firing squad at that!  We’re the only developed country without a public health care system?  Damnit, we’ll keep it that way, waste of money and lost lives be damned!  The fact that all of Latin America now thinks Arizonans are a bunch of racists is, by all accounts, a plus: good, maybe now they’ll stay home (and we can pick our own lettuce)!

In many of my conversations, I denounce Arizona’s law, explaining that I—unlike most of my fellow Arizonans—actually pay attentiont t the studies that show immigrants don’t really come to the U.S. to cause crime and steal jobs.  Unaware of the irony in what they saying, not a small number of Ecuadorians have responded to this by explaining to me that, “Well, here immigrants really do cause crime.” Many Ecuadorians, sadly, are also incredibly xenophobic: Cubans and Colombians are to Ecuadorians what Mexicans are to U.S.-ians and Poles are to the British.  It would seem that some of these things are universal and…

Jan Brewer, at least, would be proud.

…wait, what am I getting at?  Maybe the Republicans are right—sometimes it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks.  Xenophobia and racism and scapegoating are intrinsically wrong, whether or not the world community gets its act together to consistently denounce it.  And so, I say, fuck you Jan Brewer—fieldwork was already complicated enough before you made it harder.

*There’s no perfect translation, but “American” doesn’t sound quite right as a nationality in Latin America.

Three Cheers: A World-Cup-Patriotism Post-Mortem

Sometime around age sixteen, I pretty much gave up on patriotism.  The accumulated weight of bearing witness to a senseless “pre-emptive” war, the travesty that was the Bush Administration, and listening to one-too-many Anti-Flag records combined to squash much appreciation for the country where I was born out of me.  I wouldn’t say I was “anti-American”, but I certainly had lost faith in the myths of American exceptionalism drilled into me by public schooling and Boy Scouts.  Not even my hopes of a future political career could keep me saying the Pledge of Allegiance or make me lip-synch to the National Anthem.

There were few things about the student body at Princeton that annoyed me more than some of my peers’ complacent, uncritical patriotism.  A yearly confrontation with jingoism came every spring at Tower houseparties when, at some point during dinner, a group self-labelled “the assholes” would stand up and start chanting “USA!  USA!  USA!”  Emboldened by my Mohawk and a half-bottle of wine, I would join my friends Devon and Jordan in some sort of inane counter-cheer (“Anarchy!  Anarchy!” was a highly intellectual favorite).

I left for England safe and secure that I was a “different” sort of Yankee, the kind that avoided the brash nationalism for which Americans were, in my mind, known.  I had all sorts of aspirations to show people that we weren’t all small minded, gun-toting, flag-waving yokels.  What I discovered very quickly, though, is that—like it or not—I am very American.  When I first arrived and people asked me where I was from, I would respond “The U.S.”, which would usually prompt, “Yes, I know.  But what part?”  Either through accent, or volume, or sheer gregariousness, people just seem to know that I am American.

Over time, I’ve learned to simply accept and appreciate it, and be unabashedly loud and friendly.   Of course, my journey of changing national self-identification has been a bit more complex than just realizing that my lack of volume-control.  In such an international climate as Oxford, many of our conversations revolve around simply describing where we come from.  It’s in these moments that I realize my enthusiasm for the U.S.: I light up when I have a chance to describe the vast expanses of the Southwest, or have an opportunity to explain American marching bands, or even unwind the complexities of our system of government.  While I always shy away from claiming that the U.S. is better than country X, I’m increasingly unafraid to offer up differences and say “Where I come from, we do it this way.”

I got a bit of a shock a few weeks ago at Boat Club Dinner, though.  Towards the end of the night, it was announced that I was Worcester’s new Health and Safety Rep (a largely ceremonial position—I’m just hoping to get in on some undergraduate drama).  On my way up, my English friends started chanting “USA!  USA!  USA!”  For once, I didn’t feel any compunction to reply, but just took it as being appreciated for who I am and where I come from.

The World Cup is, of course, a time for all the nationalities of the world to join together in irrationally exuberant patriotism.  My housemate Christoph told me the other day that the World Cup is the only occasion when Germans will display flags without fear of any connection to Nazism.  Juxtaposed against Pride Week, I’ve been reminded that—pretensions to a universal humanity aside—we are creatures that appreciate being part of groups and communities.  And, within the understanding that these groups reflect differences not hierarchies, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

Nonetheless, when I sat down to watch the England-U.S. match, I wasn’t expecting it to be a great patriotic moment.  The English grad students in the Worcester common room were clad head-to-toe in red and white, while I was wearing the only thing I own with an American flag on it—a Propagandhi t-shirt with a tattered flag below which was written, “Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes.”  English people know that Americans don’t care about football, but don’t quite believe it: they peppered me with questions about the American team which I, not knowing the name of a single player, was ill-equipped to answer.  The game was, for me, a chance to watch people getting excited—but not an opportunity to get excited myself.

Ninety minutes later, though, my heart was pounding.  The U.S. was close to pulling England into a humiliating draw which, despite being likely to put my personal safety in jeopardy, would give me weeks of bragging rights.  When the whistle was finally blown, the other Americans in the room and I lept to our feet in celebration.  I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth:

“USA!  USA!  USA!”

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Jukebox: Bob Dylan – Things Have Changed

A Brief Sociology of Social Lubrication

It seems almost ridiculous that I’ve lived in England for eight months now and haven’t yet blogged about the one thing more British than bangers and mash: alcohol.  Having just barely survived “my” birthday garden party and finally recovered from last week’s Boat Club Dinner, I suppose now is as good a time as any to share a few thoughts on the U.K.’s “drinking culture” (or, as I’m going to argue, lack thereof—in multiple senses).

It's cultural.

There is a certain mystique about European drinking among Americans (or, at least, among left-leaning Americans who think Europe is populated by more than just namby-pamby effeminate socialists and would like to be able to drink before twenty-one).  The logic goes something like this: in Europe, the drinking age is lower, and kids are introduced to alcohol at a young age.  As a consequence, they learn how to approach alcohol responsibly, under the watchful eyes of their parents.  Ergo, Europeans don’t have the same problems with binge drinking and alcoholism as Americans, who live in a sheltered state of denial until they arrive at college and go absolutely ape-shit.

The standard narrative about the U.K., though, is almost the exact opposite (which maybe proves England is its own continent, after all).  My first concrete sign of the different way the British approached alcohol came while I was still in the U.S., when I filled out a National Health Service medical form.  In addition to standard questions about height and weight, the form askedme how often I drank alcohol.  While a similar form in the U.S. might have categories like “Never” and “One per month,” the British equivalent offered “one to five per week” as its minimum category.  My first week here, a Scottish friend asked me how I was finding the national sport.  I wasn’t sure what he meant, until he explained, “You know, alcoholism.”

We convince our econ professors to have some champagne... at 11 a.m.

Without a doubt, the “lower drinking age = more responsibility” equation doesn’t seem to hold, at least in the academic bubble in which I live.  Particularly at this time of year—with exams finishing—Oxford is a pretty messy shit-show.  It’s not just students, though: running along the Thames today, I was amazed at the number of people knocking back beers before noon. The English really do manage to incorporate alcohol into everything: encounters with academic advisers, open seminars, and club meetings all somehow seem to involve drinking.  I went to church with my housemate Nicola today, and on the way out, the vicar was dispensing champagne.

The other kind of "boat race."

I think, though, that all these differences are of quantity, not type.  While the statistics suggest that the English are, as a nation, a bit drunker than most (barring Australia and Eastern Europe), I’m not sure how much this can really be declared adistinctive drinking “culture.”  As far as I can tell (and my perception is definitely skewed by being in a university environment) the basic rules and functions of drinking here are pretty familiar.  People drink to celebrate holidays and to mark achievements; the one’s who are getting really drunk are the late teens and twenty-somethings; older people drinking heavily is frowned upon.  Sometimes, in fact, the parallels between drinking at Oxford and at Princeton become almost too weird: at Boat Club Dinner last week, it hit me that “fines” (“I’ll fine anyone who fell into the river this term”) was pretty much the exact same as the “chugs” we do at Band Bandquet (“Everyone from the West Coast: drink!”).

Many of my American friends here seem constantly aghast at how English students drink—blind to how similar their behavior was to our own when we were undergraduates.  Perhaps the differences are more generational than cultural: when I really reflect on it, in my travels, drinking has often been more a universal than a source of difference.*  Amidst the non-stop culture shock that was my trip to Uganda, drinking a beer at the end of the day with my research team members felt natural and familiar.  As for mainland Europe, I can say with quite a bit of confidence that our assumptions about their generally responsible attitude to alcohol is bunk.  After all, at my party, it was a bunch of Eastern Europeans who raged until the porters shut us down, and last month, it was Christoph’s German friends who managed to break our dining room table—while playing a game taught to them by an American.

Just a few Europeans behaving responsibly.

I suppose this is all an instance of how, if we look for difference, we can find it—to the extent that we might even miss some blatant similarities.  While my time here has made me a bit more skeptical about a lower drinking age as a panacea for America’s frat-party woes, I do like the idea that alcohol can bring the world together, bound by our shared irresponsibility and immaturity.

* Of course, I’ve never been to a Muslim country.

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Jukebox: Dropkick Murphys – Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced