African Writers Speak

Friend of the blog and post-doc at UT-Austin Aaron Bady has interviewed African writers quite a few times. I’ve enjoyed much of it, and I thought I’d take a moment to link you all to something new that Aaron is doing: it’s called “African Writers in a New World” and it’s a series of interviews with African writers published at Post45. The series will be leading up to a Symposium for African Writers this December at UT-Austin.

From the series’ introduction:

If you ask them, a great many contemporary African writers will tell you that they are not particularly invested in being called “African writers.” I know this, because as part of the “African Writers in a New World” interview series that will be running here on Post45 for the next four months, I’ve been putting this question to as many “African Writers” as I can. I might even be tempted to call it a trend, except for the paradox of defining “African writers” in terms of disavowal. After all, if they’re not “African writers,” then who are these people who, collectively, aren’t calling themselves “African writers”?

Perhaps it’s a better question than an answer. It’s many different answers, in fact. Some actively dislike the category, some are indifferent to it, and some accept it without particular enthusiasm. Yet nearly everyone I’ve spoken to expressesin different waystheir sense that the “African writer” category is a necessary evil at best, accurate without being particularly descriptive. If it is unavoidable, it is also not particularly illuminating; “I’m a writer and I’m African, so yes, I’m an African writer,” as Laila Lalami put it. But the sum might be less than the total of those two parts. At worst, the term is a ghetto: by expressing their literary in terms of identity, African writers are not quite allowed to be writers. Instead, they are called on to “perform their Africanness,” as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello put it, to be Africans who write about being African until the novel becomes sociology, politics, ethnography, anything but literature (Coetzee 51).

As a person who is interested in African literature, but has barely dipped a toe into it, I’ve found these interviews really enlightening – both about the authors and about their works. At the very least, it has built me a reading list – and it’s always interesting to see what authors have to say about their writing, their field, “Africa,” and other relevant topics.

It looks like the series at Post45 will be posting interviews into the new year, so for those interested, I would suggest keeping an eye in that direction. There are already two interviews, one with Maaza Mengiste and one with Laila Lalami, posted on the site. And, duh, if you find yourself near Austin this December, you should go to the Symposium and tell me all about it.

In the meantime, I’m going to find me a new book to read.

Weekend Reading

I don’t care about making feminism more accessible to men. In truth, I don’t care about making feminism more accessible to anyone.

I care about making the liberties that men enjoy so freely fully accessible to women, and if men or celebrities claiming feminism for themselves has become the spoon full of sugar to make that medicine go down, so be it.

But it irks me that we more easily embrace feminism and feminist messages when delivered in the right package – one that generally includes youth, a particular kind of beauty, fame, and/or self-deprecating humour. It frustrates me that the very idea of women enjoying the same inalienable rights as men is so unappealing that we require – even demand – that the person asking for these rights must embody the standards we’re supposedly trying to challenge.

This carceral variant of feminism continues to be the predominant form. While its adherents would likely reject the descriptor, carceral feminism describes an approach that sees increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence against women.

This stance does not acknowledge that police are often purveyors of violence and that prisons are always sites of violence. Carceral feminism ignores the ways in which race, class, gender identity, and immigration status leave certain women more vulnerable to violence and that greater criminalization often places these same women at risk of state violence.

Weekend Reading

These readings qualify for a new insurance rate.

Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.

The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica’s analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring – 185, more than one per week.

Never in US history have so few companies held so much control over the meat industry. One hundred years ago, five meatpackers controlled between 75 percent and 82 percent of the market, prompting a wave of antitrust reforms that effectively broke up the meat cartels of old. By the 1960s, the top four beef packers controlled less than 30 percent of the market. But the lessons of the trust-busting era were eventually forgotten, and beginning in the ’80s a new way of thinking took hold. Federal regulators determined that the structure of the industry didn’t matter as much as the final price of the product; in other words, it was fine to consolidate as long as the companies could prove they were selling the final product for less. The big meat companies went on a merger-and-acquisition spree, buying up competitors while arguing that massive consolidation was the best path toward cheap meat.

Today, three companies control nearly 50 percent of the poultry market, four control 66 percent of the pork market, and four control 83 percent of the beef market. The consolidation makes it tough for shoppers to vote with their dollars. There may be a rainbow of brand names down the aisle, but if just two companies—say Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride—decide to adopt a company-wide practice, it will apply to 40 percent of chicken meat in the US. For consumers, these practices are often opaque. While 95 percent of Americans eat meat and poultry, few have heard of a chemical called peracetic acid, for instance, used to douse chicken carcasses as they go down the line at the slaughterhouse. The chemical bath is necessary because the birds live in a crowded barn on top of their own feces, and pathogens can follow them into the processing plant.

Prosecute the Police

Vice recently ran a piece by Molly Crabapple that seeks to answer the question of how to stop cops from beating and killing people all the time. It’s an important question, given that police really do beat and kill people all of the time. There’s no national database, but there are many who have tried to keep an eye on police violence – but how can we stop it?

In the piece, Crabapple expounds on the fact that police aren’t held accountable for their actions, even when this involves injuring or killing civilians. Watchdog groups and accountability processes are toothless and impossible to navigate, and police departments quickly engage in cover-ups and character assassination of victims to discredit any allegations that there was police misconduct. In the rare occurrence that a police officer actually faces punishment, usually he is merely given paid leave or a desk job while the city or county pays out huge fines or settlements to victims and their families. The actual officers face little punishment at all.

In a country where daily life is increasingly criminalized—especially in poorer communities—police officers are protected from the consequences of their actions. Instead of being jailed, their punishment might be getting assigned to desk duty.

“It is virtually unheard of for police officers to be arrested and charged for assaults committed against ordinary civilians. It just never happens.” Scott Levy, a lawyer who is director of the Fundamental Fairness Project at the Bronx Defenders, told me.

[...]

The money for settlements comes from taxpayers, not the abusive officers or the police departments that employ them. In New York City, payouts for Bronx detective Peter Valentine’s illegal raids cost taxpayers nearly $1.3 million. Valentine, meanwhile, continues to “serve” the city.

If a victim accepts a settlement, the cop generally does not admit wrongdoing, which means the assault that led to the payout will not be held against him if and when he attacks others.

Crabapple’s solution is to police the police:

These meta-cops could be given quotas of officers to arrest each month. They’d no doubt lean heavily on quality-of-life violations, arresting cops who made communities unpleasant by groping black teens or hassling street vendors. As cops do now, these meta-cops could be promoted based on their arrest numbers. They might sometimes detain cops for rudeness, or failing to present ID, but that’s to be expected. Their jobs would be stressful. They’d have to lay down the law.

Of course, cops who used force against citizens would be handcuffed immediately, held for up to 72 hours in order to be processed and charged. If they didn’t plea out to a lesser crime, they’d be brought to trial, to determine if force was really used in self-defense or defense of others.

She admits that it’s a facetious idea, but the idea of using the police’s tools to crack down on their violence is not unthinkable. Reining in their impunity would require some kind of enforcement.

Reading through her piece, though, I was reminded of something I wrote a long time ago, about private criminal prosecutions. In some countries, civilians could bring criminal charges against state officials (such as police) in an attempt to hold them accountable where the state had failed. Given that, as Crabapple admits earlier in her piece, states attorneys are just as complicit by refusing to prosecute renegade officers and politicians are just as complicit by always supporting their boys in blue, perhaps accountability is better in the hands of the people.

The idea of using private prosecutions to hold police accountable is in the same vein as “meta-police,” in that we use the state’s usual channels for perpetuating violence (stats, quotas, lawyers) to try to curtail it. While “meta-police” may be better than allowing police to police themselves, any police overseers are still police. Any government attorney still works for the government. Taking action in the courtrooms, but outside of the state’s bureaucracy, could be a more sure way to hold police accountable.

Obviously, changing a fundamental piece of our judicial structure isn’t exactly an option on the table. And, as one person featured in her article states, the best solution is to abolish the police. In the meantime, finding ways to hold police officers accountable is an important thing to do.

Weekend Reading

Whose readings are these?

“Don’t tell me it’s about peace,” a 29-year old Congolese peace activist, Micheline Mwendike, said of the Akon gig. Her letterbox-red nails flashed as she gesticulated with frustration. “It’s about dancing and singing. To sing and to take a moment of joy is good — but you have to choose your moment. We are killing values for this short moment.”

In choosing to dance, instead of use Peace Day to talk about good governance, she said, a valuable opportunity was being missed: to talk about justice and impunity, to talk about the diabolical state of North Kivu’s roads, to talk about the leaders who show no interest in providing basic services, to talk about the obstacles to peace. “If there are no solutions, the future generation will be in the same position as today,” Mwendike said.

Josiana Nzuki, a 15-year-old sucking a red lollipop on a break from school, took a deep breath, and started to speak almost in a whisper before finding her voice. “My mother used to tell me, if there’s a problem, don’t look at the impacts, look for the roots. Here in Goma, you won’t find the roots,” she said. Nzuki thinks Akon and Jude Law should be out in the countryside, seeing the armed groups’ fiefdoms for what they are. “This festival is useless. I’m not interested.”

During the thirteen years of the “war on terror,” actions of the United States government have consistently and predictably strengthened anti-American terrorist groups. To chalk this all up to stupidity — rather than unstated imperial imperatives — is to choose ignorance.

The American “war on terror” has been terrific for jihadist groups. According to famed FBI interrogator Al Soufan, Al Qaeda had about four hundred operatives on 9/11. Today, the group numbers well into the thousands, with thriving affiliates in several countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Its wayward cousin, Islamic State, rules over millions of people in territory the size of the United Kingdom.

Weekend Reading

ACC occupied the Colgate admissions building around the clock for more than a hundred hours. Their list of demands was long and ambitious. The instigating events behind their protest were mocked by more than a few people as insubstantial. But at no point did the administration ever — to my knowledge — threaten or even consider criminal charges, police involvement, or disciplinary action. Instead, the sit-in was handled the way campus sit-ins were typically handled a generation ago — as a negotiation between members of the campus community.

In the last few years we’ve seen campus administrators use batons and pepper spray and mass arrest against peacefully protesting students. We’ve seen guns drawn and bones broken. We’ve seen students coerced into promises not to exercise their First Amendment rights for the remainder of their time on campus. Some of these tactics have been effective in smothering student protest, at least in the short term, at least on some campuses. But they’re reprehensible, and they’re poisonous. They’re a violation of the obligations of administrators toward their students, and they’re a violation of the fundamental principles on which a campus should be founded.

For most of American history, it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation. When building capital, it helps to know the right people. One aim of American policy, historically, has been to insure that the “right people” are rarely black. Segregation then ensures that these rare exceptions are spread thin, and that the rest of us have no access to other “right people.”

And so a white family born into the lower middle class can expect to live around a critical mass of people who are more affluent or worldly and thus see other things, be exposed to other practices and other cultures. A black family with a middle class salary can expect to live around a critical mass of poor people, and mostly see the same things they (and the poor people around them) are working hard to escape. This too compounds.

Weekend Reading

Had the Economist actually engaged the book’s arguments, the reviewer would have had to confront the scary fact that the unrestrained domination of market forces can sometimes amplify existing forms of oppression into something more horrific. No wonder the Economist abandoned its long-standing intellectual commitments in favor of sloppy old paternalism on Sept. 4, because if it hadn’t, Mr./Ms. Anonymous might have had to admit that market fundamentalism doesn’t always provide the best solution for every economic or social problem.

 

From the start, Mann imagined teaching as women’s work, and not just any women: “Mann depicted these cost-effective female educators as angelic public servants monitored by Christian faith: wholly unselfish, self-abnegating, and morally pure.” Women weren’t just cheaper to hire; they were also assumed to be naturally nurturing and pious enough to teach godly behavior. “Teaching,” Goldstein writes, “was promoted as the female equivalent of the ministry: a profession whose prestige would be rooted not in worldly rewards, such as money or political influence, but in the pursuit of satisfaction that came from serving others.” In other words, you can pay teachers in work.

Weekend Reading

As I slowly get back into the Weekend Reading routine, here are some links:

[W]e should be skeptical of calls for police reform, particularly when accompanied by cries that this (militarization) should not happen here. A close look at the history of US policing reveals that the line between foreign and domestic has long been blurry. Shipping home tactics and technologies from overseas theaters of imperial engagement has been a typical mode of police reform in the United States. When policing on American streets comes into crisis, law-enforcement leaders look overseas for answers. What transpired in Ferguson is itself a manifestation of reform.

From the Philippines to Guatemala to Afghanistan, the history of US empire is the history of policing experts teaching indigenous cops how to patrol and investigate like Americans. As a journalist observed in the late 1950s, “Americans in Viet-Nam very sincerely believe that in transplanting their institutions, they will immunize South Viet-Nam against Communist propaganda.” But the flow is not one-way: these institutions also return home transformed.

When Jill Abramson was fired from her position as executive editor at the New York Times, reportedly after she confronted the paper’s publisher over her discovery that her pay was less than that of her (male) predecessor, among the many outraged reactions from feminists was the response that leaning in doesn’t work after all. Abramson’s experience, similar to that of so many women, seemed a rebuke to the idea, promoted in Sandberg’s book, that individual women were holding themselves back. It reminded us that no matter how hard we try, sexism—sexism in the workplace—cannot be defeated individual success story by individual success story.

One of the insidious things about neoliberalism is how it has managed to absorb our vibrant, multifaceted liberation struggles into itself and spit them back out to us as monotone (dollar-bill-green) self-actualization narratives. The way this has happened to feminism is particularly instructive. As I wrote in Dissent last winter, the so-called “second wave” of feminism fought for women to gain access to work outside of the home and outside of the “pink-collar” fields. Yet in doing so, as Barbara Ehrenreich has written, some feminists wound up abandoning the fight for better conditions in what had always been considered women’s work—whether that be as teachers and nurses, or the work done in the home for little or no pay.

On the Social Condition in War

I recently finished Stephen C. Lubkemann’s Culture in Choas: An Anthropology of the Social Condition in War, and there’s a lot there for interested parties. The book is a dense brick of a book, but there is a lot crammed in those pages, and I found the different directions that Lubkemann goes in really fascinating.

The book is based on about a decade’s worth of research into the numerous ways that people adapted to war in Mozambique. I don’t know that much context about the war, but the narrative that Lubkemann strings together and the arguments he makes are fascinating to scholars of any part of the continent (or indeed anywhere there’s conflict). The backbone of his research is this:

[W]arscapes are often treated as interrupted societies in which the myriad social processes and life projects anthropologists investigate are treated as if they have been suspended. In such contexts coping with violence often becomes the only social task that analysts investigate. Such approaches strip warscape inhabitants of the social multidimensionality that is assumed to shape behavior and inform agency under less dramatic conditions.

[...]

War-time social existence in Machaze was never merely a matter of coping with violence; instead, as in peacetime, it centered on the pursuit of a multidimenstional agenda of life projects and “other struggles.” Throughout the conflict an array of “other” forms of gendered and generational social struggle continued to inform interests and orient behavior – migratory or otherwise. In fact, far from exercising singularly determinative force in shaping war-time behavior or proving capable or overwriting prior social and cultural difference, both the meaning and deployment of military violence itself tended to be reshaped by the specific sociocultural problematics that had long oriented the social life of the myriad and highly differentiated local groups throughout Mozambique (323-4).

With that as his jumping off point, he finds all sorts of interesting things in how people pursue life goals throughout the war and even after. The most interesting parts are his work on wartime mobility – displacement and otherwise. This includes the ways that men relied on decades-old migratory patterns (mostly to South Africa) to escape the violence, the ways that women tried to leverage war-time displacement to free themselves from the constraints of bride-prices, how men who remained in South Africa after the war ended tried to negotiate (or not) the dual life of keeping wives in Mozambique but careers (and even other wives) in South Africa, and the back-and-forth that all of these people navigated when trying to deal with ancestors and witchcraft to shield themselves. It’s all fascinating stuff, and at the heart of it is his decision to separate the life pursuits of people (and the contexts in which these are pursued) – what he calls a “lifescape” – from place. People pursue their lives in multiple places, in single places, or along routes between places, and his discussion of this (im)mobility during and after the war is really worthwhile.

One other thing I’ll focus on here is his reconceptualizing of Albert Hirschman’s “exit, loyalty, voice.” Hirschman’s initial idea was that there were three ways that people reacted to a situation that they were discontent with: loyalty, efforts to reach your life goals within the parameters set; voice, efforts to do this by modifying the parameters; and exit, refusing to participate and instead finding other ways to achieve those ends. In his book (mostly chapter 9), Lubkemann adapts Hirschman’s concept by framing loyalty and voice not as two of three distinct categories but by placing them on a continuum – reactions can be more loyalty or more voice, but they rest on a spectrum of participation within the terms.

In the context of this work, Lubkemann uses the continuum to analyze men who attempt to justify transnational life by living in South Africa more and more but maintaining ties to their ancestral land and their families back in Mozambique. Some men returned home after the war; others remained in South Africa but sent remittances or planned infrequent visits to placate families and ancestors; others sought to slowly leave Mozambique behind – one even argued that he had convinced his ancestors’ spirits to move to South Africa with him, thus freeing him from needing to return to his home. These variations of playing-by-the-rules are a useful way of looking at how people navigate these types of situations.

Anyhow, this is preliminary blogging for sure – I just finished the book this morning and felt the need to at least drop a word suggesting it for those interested in these topics. I’ll have to sit on it for a bit as I figure out just how much of the work can be applied elsewhere, but surely Lubkemann’s call for anthropologists to shift the way they study conflict is useful – to all disciplines.

Quiet on the Front

If you’ve been missing your Weekend Reading fix, I am very sorry, but hopefully I can make it up to you soon. The last half of August has been a busy time – I’ve finished my small-time job at the library, started a new job at a secondary school, and packed up and moved across state lines – but I’m aiming to get back into the swing of things soon. This is just a terse note to let you know things are on the up and up, and hopefully the linkages, random posts, etc. will be arriving soon.

I recently began a long-term substitute job at a high school teaching freshmen and sophomores social studies, so expect me to slide back into my educator-type posts, as well as trying to keep up on the research/academia side of things. In the mean time, do your Labor Day forefathers proud and don’t work too hard. I’ll catch you after the revolution.