Monthly Archives: August 2012

Weekend Reading

Boom, weekend reading strikes again:

On a Tuesday afternoon conference call, the campaign again hit Romney for having been wobbly on time limits, which deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter called “the core of the bipartisan welfare reform.”  (Hence politicians’ insistence on measuring the policy’s success by how many people ceased getting benefits, and their refusal to even track what happened after that.)  Campaign Policy Director James Kvaal fleshed out the free car attack in near-pornographic detail: Romney’s program “paid for the cost of their insurance, deductions, tax, title, registration, repairs, even their Triple A membership. And if the people who transitioned to work later lost their jobs and went back on welfare, they were allowed to keep their free cars.  In one year alone, Romney’s Wheels for Welfare program cost Massachusetts tax-payers 400,000 dollars.”

The Obama campaign didn’t explicitly state its opposition to “Wheels for Welfare,” (a follow-up e-mail went unanswered), but its words suggested as much.  Worse, they suggested that the campaign saw the program as inherently self-refuting, as if the perversity of taxpayers subsidizing drivers on the dole was just self-evident.  Never mindthat the cars were donated by non-profits, or that what the government paid for was contingent on submitting pay stubs, or that the beneficiaries had to be parents, with clean driving records, with the prospect of work somewhere unreachable by public transit.

The out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.

Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

We have a summer camp. In 2010 we had a camp celebration, a party for families. This cute kid, just graduated 5th grade, going to middle school, randomly asks me, “Do I tell them I’m Muslim?” I totally didn’t get it. I was like, “Well, if someone asks you, of course.” And he says, “What if they hurt me?” And I’m like, “Why would they hurt you? You don’t have to worry about that.” And he says, “Didn’t someone just stab that guy in that cab? He told a white man he was Muslim and the man stabbed him.” I’m thinking, you’re 10 years old and you know that story? I told him at school there would be security guards and teachers and not to worry. All of sudden, all these kids had all these examples like, “Oh, remember your brother was on the train and these kids beat him up and called him a terrorist?” And I just sat back and was like, wow. We’re talking about eight-, nine-, 10-year-old kids.

That we may have another year without undergraduate fee hikes in the UCs, and without cuts to schools and colleges, should be understood as an effect of recent rounds of uncompromising student protest, including the cascading strikes and encampments that shook California’s universities last fall. These protests demonstrated to the state and to the UC Regents that further fee increases would come with a cost, and helped build support for the original Millionaires’ Tax, of which the current tax initiative – formed out of a compromise between the governor and the president of the California Federation of Teachers – is a pale copy.

While we might be inclined to consider the possibility of a year without cuts to public education as a victory, albeit an uncertain one, there are other political dynamics shaping the current situation that make for a murkier picture. Governor Jerry Brown, in tying the fate of students to his tax initiative, is working to co-opt and neutralize student movements – movements that otherwise could further delegitimate state institutions enacting and enforcing austerity, and even potentially set off, as in Quebec, a period of generalized social unrest. This fall, it will be incredibly difficult for those active on campuses to resist pressures to put our energies into campaigning for the tax initiative, despite the fact that relatively little of the revenue would go to education (much is slated to “pay down the deficit”); that the initiative includes a temporary, regressive sales tax; and that electoral campaigns force us to engage on a terrain and in a mode of struggle that work to our disadvantage, in comparison to campus-based direct action and mass organizing. As we recently saw in Wisconsin, social movements that allow themselves to be entirely diverted into electoral politics risk massive demoralization, defeat in both electoral and non-electoral domains, and the fraying of bonds forged through collective struggle.

Weekend Reading

Read this, read that!

President Harmon and his lawyers don’t look me in the eye. They zero in on the eyes of Mama, as Harmon tells her that I am being suspended from Millsaps for at least a year for taking and returning Red Badge of Courage from the library without formally checking it out.

He ain’t lying.

I took the book out of the library for Shonda’s brother without checking it out and returned the book the next day. I looked right at the camera when I did it, too. I did all of this knowing I was on parole, but not believing any college in America, even one in Mississippi, would kick a student out for a year, for taking and returning a library book without properly checking it out.

I should have believed.

The FBI, which annually tracks every two-bit break-in, car theft, and felony, keeps no comprehensive records of incidents involving police use of deadly force, nor are there comprehensive national records that track what police officers do with their guns. Because of that we have no sense of whether such killings are waxing or waning, whether different cities present different threats, whetherincreased use of private security guards poses a greater or lesser danger to the public, whether neighborhood watch groups are a blessing or a bane to their neighborhoods.

Since launching my war, I have shown the following in lieu of an ID badge to pass security: a business card, my US driver’s license, someone else’s business card, my Brussels Air frequent flier card, and, I shit you not, an ‘invisible card’.

When asked to sign the security log, I have signed as: William Shakespeare, Whitey McBlanco, and Ban Ki Moon. I have represented: NASA, the White House, Bob’s Clam Hut, and Hollywood.

After carefully examining the school occurrence reports for the year, Nolan found that the majority of arrests and summons were, ultimately, the result of “insubordination” or “disrespect”; in other words, students ignored or resisted officers who told them to take off their hat, hurry up, or show their ID, and the situation escalated from there. These confrontations, which often stem from legitimate frustration at capricious and unaccountable authorities, routinely lead to arrest. (As Nolan shows, some officers appear to publicly humiliate and antagonize students for sport, yet students are expected to react like saints to provocation from their superiors. Taking umbrage is a punishable offense). The “crime” of breaking a school rule — not the law — lands students in court, which, in turn, further derails their academic progress, since they must miss school to appear before a judge.

The Word “Slavery” is in Shackles

A few days ago Vice President Joe Biden addressed a rally in Danville, Virginia. At one point, Biden criticized Mitt Romney’s plan to deregulate corporations, stating that “He [Romney] said in the first 100 days he’s going to let the big banks write their own rules, unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put y’all back in chains.” He has caught a lot of flak for using the “chains” metaphor, appended with a “y’all” in a former Confederate state, and it may have been in poor taste. Apparently the Right only thinks its okay to accuse the federal government of slavery and not private corporations or individuals.

The metaphor of slavery has persisted, and use of it is almost always vilified. But there are times when slavery rears its ugly head, and those are the times to use words like “chains.” While it may have needed a better context, Biden’s use of the metaphor seems pretty apt, because letting corporations run rampant will beat the middle and lower class down. It will condemn us to living and working without the power to have a say in our lives. And isn’t that a form of slavery?

I say this because Biden’s comments and the ensuing brouhaha about only talking about slavery when you’re talking about real slavery occurred while I was in the middle of reading “The Dangerous Thirteenth Amendment,” an article soon-to-be in the Columbia Law Review. In the article the authors, Jack Balkin and Sanford Levinson, from Yale and the University of Texas, respectively, argue that the Thirteenth Amendment’s definition of slavery is too narrow.

If you haven’t memorized your amendments, the Thirteenth is the first of the Reconstruction Amendments and it outlawed slavery. Specifically, it states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  As mentioned in the article, the other Reconstruction Amendments are interpreted rather broadly in the legal arena, especially when compared to the Thirteenth. Other amendments, like the Fourteenth or most of those in the Bill of Rights, have been interpreted broadly in a contemporary sense, leading to myriad changes in society from civil rights to the expansion of free expression. The Thirteenth, not so much.

History textbooks tell us that slavery was ended after the Civil War, but history tells us that things like slavery never totally go away. They’re always there, lurking under the surface. That’s how Balkin and Levinson looked at the Thirteenth Amendment. The language of the amendment mirrors that of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and so they look at the 18th Century context rather than the post-Civil War context. And in the times of Jefferson, slavery meant a lot of things. The authors point out that revolutionaries frequently argued that American colonists were slaves of Britain since the British monarchs had absolute power:

The colonial vision that opposed slavery to republican liberty held that slavery meant more than simply being free from compulsion to labor by threats or physical coercion. Rather, the true marker of slavery was that slaves were always potentially subject to domination and to the arbitrary will of another person.

The authors also find evidence that in the 19th Century some argued that limits on suffrage were a form of slavery, many contemporary feminists saw marriage as slavery, and some  workers saw wage labor as slavery. In the campaign for abolition of chattel slavery – what we today see as “real” slavery – abolitionists had to distance these other forms of slavery from their cause. And so the definition of slavery became narrowed so much so that activists for other causes were stripped of the word. The authors are onto something, though, when they say that slavery and its ties to republicanism have not gone away, and that the Thirteenth Amendment could stand to be expanded.

But we need more than just expanding the interpretation of the text. We need to change the text. The Thirteenth Amendment allows for slavery in America, and that’s not hyperbole. Slavery is illegal except if you’ve been found guilty of a crime, then by all means enslave away! Prison labor is a growing problem as prisoners are paid less than minimum wage to make license plates and flags and for-profit prisons are pushing for legislation that leads to more and more arrests. As long as prisons are allowed to enslave their prisoners, the Thirteenth Amendment isn’t good enough. It needs to be expanded, and then it needs to be expanded some more, and some more.