Mumbai 29 November 2008Posted by Todd in Democracy, Inequality & Stratification, Islam, Modernity and Modernism, Multiculturalism, War & Terrorism.
Note: I am no expert in Indian history or politics, so this is just a casual reaction from an outside observer. I would love to hear from readers who are better informed or have deeper analyses to offer.
There is a lot of really good commentary floating around the interwebs about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, this past week, and I have been trying to sort out all the intricacies of what happened. The social scientist in me (and my base personality) goes quickly to trying to understand such an event, the structures, attitudes, and practices that would lead us to such a show of violence. Unfortunately, much of the early analysis drew facile parallels with Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism(s), but I really don’t think that works. Although global Islam is (loosely) connected, it seems that this Indian event is much more deeply tied to a particularly Indian inter-communal conflict, one that has been brewing and boiling over for decades, if not centuries. Whereas terrorism born of Saudi malcontents is anchored in an anti-modernity and anti-Americanism, that is, a long post-colonial history, it seems that the Mumbai violence, while certainly connected to British imperialism, has as much to do with internal inequalities. It looks to be a domestic terrorism only loosely (perhaps even ideologically) connected to global interactions. Although Pakistan and India are separate countries, which makes it look like an “international” affair, I think that the partition of Pakistan from India in the late 1940s is evidence of internal divisions within the subcontinent more than of an international conflict.
To me, then, the terrorism in Mumbai looks far more like a failure of pluralism, or more pointedly, a failure of plural democracy. One of the key weaknesses at the origins of the modern state of India, which Ghandi warned of, was the imagination of India as hindu, and all others as Others. The national imagination of the Indian state wove into it the pre-existing communal conflicts between Indian muslims and Indian hindus, and really hasn’t ever allowed for a true and equal pluralism to develop. See “India’s Muslims in Crisis” by Aryn Baker for a brief primer on the status of Muslims in India.
Unfortunately, the global Ummah is made up, partially now, of a culture of terrorism, where injustices (perceived or real) are dealt with through direct violence against anyone perceived as benefiting from or participating in the oppression of muslims. It is perhaps far beyond this now, but maybe not: Is there no Ghandi for Indian Muslims? Are there no other ways for Indians to demand their full equality within the modern Indian state without resorting to violence of this kind? Or am I just naive and idealistic?
The Sticky Problems of Ethnic Identity in California 21 February 2008Posted by Todd in Commentary, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity, Teaching.
Tags: california education, california immigration, children of immigrants, education and race, ethnic enclaves, ethnic identity, racism
NOTE: This is one of those moments when I’m definitely weilding my “hammer”; but I want it clear that I’m thinking out loud. I know that this can be highly charged and controversial; I’m hoping to invite thoughtful and detailed consideration and dialgue about this issue. As an educator, it is of vital importance to me. Edited for clarity, March 1, 2008.
As a university teacher, I often find students resisting me not at an intellectual level, but at the level of identity. Can I, a gay white male, possibly be an effective mentor or teacher to a Mexican American? An African American? An immigrant from India? A straight man? A Christian? A Republican? Are our identities so incommensurate as to dehumanize us beyond mutual understanding, compassion, trust, sharing, and simple interaction?
Sociologically, I have been trying to understand the racial and ethnic dynamics of identity in California since i moved here, mainly because my own values on the topic are from a typical multicultural perspective: celebrate and respect differences. But I’m also of the first Sesame Street generation, so my mulitculturalism is more liberal than radical, and I find myself saddened that what I experience in here in California isn’t the integrated world I was promised by Bob and Susan when I was a child. Now, everyone’s hybrid/creole/mestizo/mixed, but pretending they’re not, and drawing what feel like ever-tightening boundaries around their various communities, reifying differences (in some cases inventing them) for the sake of difference itself.
I have questioned the practice of multiculturalism on this blog in the past, if not its values; and continue to struggle with the lived effects of multiculturalism as it is practiced here in day-to-day life, and that I see in California’s political, social, and educational life. I wonder if there isn’t a need to revisit the ideas of having a shared identity in addition to all these others, in order for a democratic state to function well and for real communities (with caring, sharing, trust, and participation) to form. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, let me start with the huge caveat that I’m saying all of this already assuming for a knowledge of the past, the racism and forced assimilation policies of the U.S. government and the travesties of the dominant culture; meaning to say that I’m not naive. I also understand social privilege and white privilege and how it might be informing my position here.
As a sociologist, I can step back and see California’s ethnic identity intensification relatively dispassionately as a confluence of a) a massive proportion of the population of CA is immigrant; b) immigrants already feel beseiged in their receiving countries; and c) American culture’s reification of cultural differences and fetishization of identity. These three factors have produced since the late 1960s–in addition to the old-style “white flight” (not to mention middle-class of color flight) we’re all used to–an intensification of self-ghettoization of immigrant communities, where living in ethnic enclaves has become the desired norm. Californians, when polled, often prefer it (I’m trying to hunt down the cite for this; it’s been a couple years since I read it); Californians of all colors [seem to] prefer living in segregated (college educated, middle class respondants of all races/ethnicities are the exception). Nearly 1/2 of all immigrants to the U.S. live in California, that is, nearly 1/2 of all people born outside of the U.S. who now live in the U.S. live in CA. [This number was from before 2005, the first year that the majority of Mexican immigrants went to destinations outside of California; I don’t know what the current proportion of total immigrants to the U.S. living in CA is now.]
Immigrants in the past also lived in enclaves, but they were smaller, not constantly fed by new arrivals (in increasing numbers) and they pushed their children to succede in American culture. Most of the civil rights battles of Latinos and Chinese Americans, for example, here in CA before 1970, were about having equal access to the institutions, fair and equal treatment under the law, and about becoming Californian. Now the cultural emphasis is really different: Parents want their children to stay in the enclaves and ‘be’ something else. The civil rights battles seem to have shifted to the right to stay separate, culturally and socially (e.g., the current battles in San Jose over what to name the new “Vietnamese” district). On one hand, I think democratically that the right to free association gives people the right to form enclaves if they want; I’m not convinced, however, that it’s the best decision to make; and I’m pretty sure at this point that it serves to reproduce racist discourses by reifying the racist identifications with cultural identities and communal associations, rather than undercutting and eliminating racism, which in my opinion should be our goal.
This gets even more complicated when you look empirically at how the children of immigrants live. In the past, COIs were “bicultural” and could move easily in “American” contexts. The key here is that all indicators are that this trend continues, even in the larger, more permanent enclaves of today. In other words, COIs still integrate into larger American culture. The one differences researchers are noting is that it may take a bit longer and that COIs retain much more of their parents’ native culture, not because of their parents, but because the enclaves are constantly being fed new immigrants with whom they interact. So I see a contradiction in our insistence on cultural difference and identification with those differences, and the empirical realities that the COIs and 3rd gen are relatively completely integrated into American society. What do we get from the values having shifted to emphasizing the identity difference rather than social justice; or to say it a different way, what are the consequences of this shift, where the right to identify as different seems to have supplanted all other older arguments for real social justice in the law, education, housing, etc.
As an illustration: I have many COI students who grew up in an enclave of (pick an) immigrant community, but who listen to the same music as most American kids, speak English with that irritating California terminal upspeak, are mostly secular, follow American sports, watch American Idol, etc.; but when asked if they are American, they wrinkle their noses and say no. They are filipino/mexicano/vietnamese/chinese/etc. So empirically, they are living lives similar to most Americans of their age, but they refuse the identity.
As a teacher, I often see this manifested in a really destructive way among some of my Latino students, for example, who in the privacy of my office have confided that they are going it alone, because their friends and sometimes even their families think that going to college is “acting white” and that they are betraying their heritage by getting an education.
As an educator, these are symptoms of a problem that is troubling to me. If we are at all concerned about the COIs being able to succeed in American society at school and in the workplace and becoming fully participating members of the American democratic sphere, then it seems we need to revisit how we are doing “identity”. Perhaps the model we adopted from the early 1970s, which has gone uninterrogated for the past 35 years, is no longer adequate or working.** I’m not suggesting anything particularly radical here, just that in addition to our identifications with ethnicities, religions and cultures of our immigrant ancestors, we should also be thinking about what we have in common. The fetishization of difference to the exclusion of what we share has made it increasingly difficult for a more desirable kind of multiculturalism to develop.
Because of our (bad) history of ethnic inequality here in California, we are very touchy about “assimilation” and the dynamics of assimilation, so no one wants to talk about how this might be handicapping the children of immigrants. In a freaky (ironic?) sort of way, we have ended up back in segregation land, but through different social dynamics from the segregation of the past. [And this leaves aside the whole issue of social cohesion so necessary in a democracy (see Robert Putnam’s research from last year on how diversity increases social distrust, depresses social/communal participation, and reduces democratic dialogue).] And so how do we re-theorize this new kind of segregation, where racism is still a factor, but a much more complex and multi-directional racism (i.e., not a simply white v. black racism of 50 years ago); and how do we think about where we want to go from here? Is separatism really the only answer, the only way for people of color and COIs to find meaningful identities in America? Is America really that far beyond redemption? Is the Sesame Street (and for that matter, Barak Obama) version of mutliculturalism really just a lie?
**In a larger sense, and too big for this discussion here, I often find that our theories of race and gender are still based on assumptions that worked well in the 1950s and 60s when they were formulated, but don’t match the world we live in now. I think it’s time for a rethinking of our theories of social inequality and stratification writ large.
States Rights Is Not the Answer 13 July 2007Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Gender, Inequality & Stratification, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity.
In debates about abortion, gay rights, multiculturalism in general, the U.S. by virtue of the Constitution’s devolution of powers leaves open the argument that such decisions should be left up to the states to decide. However, for democratic societies, this leaves open the possibility of differentiated equalities depending on the state you live in. [The E.U. is currently having this problem with abortion (i.e., Ireland and Poland) and gay rights (i.e., Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania), where individual member-states are picking and choosing which of the human rights conventions they want to adhere to.]
When a group of people is set apart as a class by the society and fundamental human rights are taken away, your democracy is at best, “in process” and at worst a failure. Either you agree as a society that women/gays/ethnic minoriteis are FREE and EQUAL, or you don’t. Making it a “state based” issue means that you as a society have agreed that women/gays/ethnic minorities aren’t EQUAL and do not deserve EQUAL PROTECTION throughout your entire society.
In the U.S., kicking abortion to the states is a cop out to appease anti-abortion moderates who would be happy being able to control their own little backwoods corner of the world. And it leaves women out in the open without universal protection under the law, where their very status as citizens, their ability to choose their own embodied destiny, is not equal throughout the ‘democracy.’
As gay marriage is basically a state-issue at this point, notice how gay couples who travel to different states magically lose their standing once they cross the border, how companies who use out-of-state insurance are not bound by in-state laws requiring same-sex spouses by covered, how power of attorney and wills have to be made separately and strongly despite having a state-level union, because no other state is obligated, thanks to Bill Clinton’s caving to the fuckhead Gingrich on DOMA, to recognize the rights of gay citizens.
To be even more stark here, consider the state-by-state solutions to SLAVERY and JIM CROW.
State-by-state solutions on questions of the equality of citizens are by their very nature the source of inequality, the disenfranchisement of entire groups of people who then are confined to certain states that grant them a simulacrum of freedom and equality.
Placating the Religious Right 25 June 2007Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Islam, Multiculturalism, Religion.
I’ve often mentioned here my discomfort with some forms of multiculturalism. Whereas I believe that a democratic, free society should protect an individual’s right to free association and expression, I do not believe that all cultures or identities are of equal value, and indeed, it is obvious that some are even dangerous to the very tenets upon which a free society is built.
In the United States, we have a minority of conservative Christians called “dominionists” who do not believe in tolerance or rights, who explicitly desire to constrain and limit the assembly and expression of many of their co-citizens (not least of whom, “the gays”). While these people’s rights to believe what they believe (i.e., that the U.S. is evil and that they are called of God to overthrow the government) should be protected, they should not be allowed to actually harm other people (i.e., infringe on others’ rights). So far, this is a no brainer in the United States, but not so elsewhere (and the U.S. has other problems, to be sure).
There is much to admire in the ways that Canada and many European nations (mostly the Western, Atlantic EU members; not so much the Eastern European states) deal with cultural diversity, but as I’ve said many times before, there are also some dangerous trends, not least of which is the belief that pluralistic tolerance should actually mean respect, that there is no way to judge the relative value of various beliefs and practices, and that a democrat is obliged to “respect” intolerance. I have called bullshit on this idea on more than one occasion.
Nick Cohen in this weekend’s Observer comments on British foreign and domestic policy of the Labor government, which has followed a policy of playing nicey nicey with anti-liberal loons whose explicit purpose is the destruction of the core values of democracy. Cohen’s commentary gives reason to hope that British politics have, at least, turned the bend in this regard. (I’m still reeling from the German court decisions that have basically disenfranchised Muslim women in a wrongheaded effort at multicultural understanding; and the fact that Canada even considered allowing Muslims to be subject to separate shariah courts.) But Cohen points out that the change is still fragile, and if the comments section following his commentary are any indication, we’ve got a long way to go in educating people about what democracy really means and what the limits of tolerance must be for democracy to survive.
Government policy is now to support British Muslims who uphold liberal values and oppose those who do not. Rushdie’s knighthood was a sign of the changing mood. Labour politicians might have tried to impose a veto a few years ago; instead, they said: ‘Are we going to allow British policy to be decided by dictatorial bigots, who want to inflame religious passion to divert attention from their own corruption?
‘There is only one possible answer to that question and it remains astonishing how many people who profess liberal sympathies refuse to grasp it. […]
If a liberal intelligentsia that is neither liberal nor noticeably intelligent and a Liberal Democrat party that can’t stand up for liberalism and democracy want to attack the government [for refusing to placate religious fascists], let them. They will pay a price for their moral cowardice one day.
Free Speech & Insulting Religion 20 June 2007Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Multiculturalism, Religion.
I have often spoken here on the hammer about a fundamental principle of free speech:
You do not have a right to be sheltered from insult. In a “marketplace of ideas” or a “free public sphere” (however you want to frame it), ideas, all ideas, including insulting, infuriating, degrading ideas, may be expressed; and protection falls to the side of the expressor. Real harm is not “hurt feelings” or “insult to faith” or even “racism”. Harm is in the abridgment of substantive rights.
The recent renewal of the fatwa against Sir Salman Rushdie and the whining of people who say he insulted them is childish on its face and an extreme misapprehension of what freedom of speech and rights mean. Although someone may have ethical qualms about “hurting someone’s feelings” and that is a legitimate conversation to have; it is not nor should it ever be part of the debate about free speech. [See Oliver Kamm’s great discussion here.]
This is for the good of society. The radical free expression of ideas allows a society to continually evaluate itself, confront falsehood and dangerous ideas head-on, prevent stupid people from becoming martyrs for their squelched stupid ideas, and allows us to be constantly vigilant against becoming too comfortable in our received beliefs. Radical free speech, in fact, claims that making people uncomfortable is precisely the GOOD that comes from having free speech in the first place.
Do not allow religious or any other kind of fundamentalists reframe this foundational principle of a free and open society. Free speech must be held sacrosanct. Full stop.
Muslim Victims or Paranoid Victimhood? 16 June 2007Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Islam, Multiculturalism, War & Terrorism.
Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-Egyptian muslim, recently denied a visa to live in the United States while he was a visiting professor, wrote a piece for the Guardian last week in which he argued that Britons should stop looking at British Muslims for the answers to violence and start examining their own liberal values. He argues that integration is not the answer and that Muslim violence is the fault of the actions of the majority in Britain and elsewhere in Europe and America.
In response, David Goodhart, editor of Prospect and longtime defender of Ramadan against his alarmist critics, takes the European-Muslim intellectual to task for falling into simplistic clichés, victimhood, and misplaced identification. Goodhart acknowledges the difficulties faced by strangers (i.e., minorities) in any culture, as humans tend to distrust the unknown, but argues that British Muslims enjoy a degree of freedom and prosperity unknown to them virtually anywhere else in the world, including in Islamic states. He further argues that Ramadan falls into tired habits of mind that see muslims as perpetual victims and refuses to take responsibility for its own actions.
In all, it’s a great pair of readings and raises some of the most important questions of our time about multiculturalism, religious pluralism, and democracy. In the past, I have been mostly impressed with Ramadan and have seen him as a possible hero for European muslims. But this latest piece gave me pause and concern. The continued identification with outsiders instead of co-citizens is disastrous for liberal democracies. Goodhart does an excellent job of pointing out the weaknesses in Ramadan’s latest arguments and calling for a rational discussion of responsibility and social integration.