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Dialogue to Solve Cross Cultural Problems 4 March 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, International Politics, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity, Social Sciences.
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This issue has come up twice for me over the past couple weeks. First, I was re-reading my doctoral exam on democratic theory in order to prepare for a discussion about social theory with some colleagues, and stumbled upon my critique of Richard Rorty’s idea of the “international bazaar”; and second, I introduced my students yesterday to the pragmatic critique of naive relativism and weak forms of multiculturalism.

Rorty’s proposal was derived from John Dewey’s theory of democratic deliberation and basically proposes a multicultural world of smorgasbord options and possibilities for dialogue. What I find most problematic in Rorty (and full disclosure here, I haven’t read him since graduate school and I only read a handful of articles on this topic) is that he doesn’t acknowledge the dramatic problems that can arise in cross-cultural dialogue. Dewey’s theory assumes that you begin with fundamental, shared values, namely tolerance and the dignity of the Other. In Dewey’s formulation, you cannot enter into a dialogue without that minimum, and rebellion is justified to get that level of recognition. Rorty fails to account for or theorize how to deal with dialogues with groups who don’t see you as fully human, or who don’t recognize your “rights” in any sense.

In my Nature and World Cultures course, we examine environmental problems (e.g., resource depletion, global warming, water polution, desertification, etc.) that arise from cultural misunderstanding of the ecosystem/physical environment, there is a point at which we have to be able to say that a given culture did something wrong in their environment. In weak multiculturalism or naive relativism, because all our values are “socially constructed”, or emerge out of a particular social environment through a transation between organism(s) and their complex environment (i.e., human environments are always both material and social), we draw the problematic conclusion that you can’t “judge” another culture by your own values (which is basic ethnocentrism).

I try to teach this by framing it as two separate but overlapping intellectual problems. On one hand is the social scientific problem (and in some ways, ethical problem in a pluralistic society), which is to understand or explain a cultural milieu or perspective different from your own. This requires a firm systematic relativism, a conscious effort to set aside one’s own values and perceptions in order to evaluate a culture on its own terms, to see it as it sees itself, to truly grasp what and how the culture works. It is in my estimation an impossible project, so it requires the peer-review process (or dialogue with others) to make sure that we aren’t being ethnocentric.

The second intellectual problem, however, is that we live in the real world where people of different cultures act in the world and have consequences in the world that extend beyond their own cultural boundaries. In other words, we have problems that are shared across cultural boundaries; and we have problems in culture A that are caused by actions of culture B. [I actually don’t think cultures exist in such stark, discreet units (problematically, people often experience them as if they do, but that’s another issue altogether); this is only a heuristic.] This discussion by its very nature necessitates the application of values: how do you know something is a problem in the first place if not because it violates your values? And if it violates your values, how do you talk to someone of a different culture about your values in order to solve that problem? This requires an intense and careful interaction that is often bypassed in favor of coercion.

As a side note, here, I find myself constantly wondering to what degree social scientists should be involved in this second intellectual problem. In fact, I find that much sociology is based in unspoken value propositions about equality, for example, already; and let’s be honest, there is often an value-driven litmus test for the worth and quality of research. I think that social scientists as a group should be more clear about these overlapping, but different intellectual projects. Explaining how a group came to be poor is not the same project as arguing for a solution to that poverty (which already assumes a value that says poverty is a problem that needs to be solved); and yet I find that often these two projects are blended together in problematic ways. But I digress…

My students in class are often confused by this discussion because they feel that a) it is bad to judge other cultures; and b) that when they do judge other cultures for practical reasons, they dont’ recognize it as such. Yesterday’s discussion went rather smoothly, compared to how it’s gone in the past; but one of my more engaged students wanted to push the issue of how to actually go about solving problems in the real world. That is really the issue that Rorty was addressing in his theory of the bazaar, and it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I delve into background research in global migration. This student emailed me earlier this morning, saying that he can’t see how to solve cross-culture, international conflict without resorting to coercion and that he can’t think of any examples in history when violent conflict has ultimately been avoided. In his view of history, solving big international problems has always come to blows. I think that his concern is a valid one and goes to the heart of the weakness of Rorty’s position; but it also ignores the multitude of examples of successful dialogue and negotionation and belies the value-propositions inherent in the argument in favor of cross-cultural dialogue rather than cross-cultural violence. Here’s my response to the student’s email query:

I think [the problem] comes from how one looks for evidence of successful dialogue. It is definitely true that dialogue often breaks down into violence, and historically, violence is the mode of choice for resolving conflicts. The whole idea of people who are different should talk to each other about value propositions and solution to each other is only about 300 years old, at most (although clearly, human groups have negotiated with each other for as long as we have recorded history). In order for this to work, all sides involved have to actually believe in having the dialogue. There are clearly many times when one or more parties is so convinced that they are “right” that it leads them to justify violence in their own moral-world (it’s a cliche, but the Nazis are a good example of this).

However, think of it this way: How many times a week are ambassadors working out international agreements without violence? It’s easy to look at just the conflicts that erupted in violence because they are what we study in school. But even just think of something like the Bay of Pigs, where we almost had a nuclear war (!) but the two parties negotiated their way out of it (most likely because no one really wanted a nuclear war). Or think of the negotiation for NAFTA, where international problems were brought to the table and hammered out (although I think their solutions have had horrifying results). Or think now of the ongoing (for over 10 years now) economic talks for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Or think in reverse, where violence has broken out and someone like Koffe Annan goes to Kenya and convinces them to stop killing each other and start talking. Are you following what I’m saying?

The real problem for me is a practical one: in the world as it exists, nations have dramatically unequal relationships. The united states has the biggest guns and largest consumer market; china controls the world economy by virtue of producing most of the cosumable goods; europe is quickly taking control of the financial markets… So that leaves us in a situation of asking really hard questions about whether or not a dialogue about values and solutions to real problems can take place between parties who are vastly unequal.

It further has the problem (this may seem silly, but I think it’s the biggest problem) that people you disagree with get to *talk back!* The nature of dialogue and debate is that people you don’t like, people you find immoral and reprehensible, people who espouse ideas that you find dangerous and offensive GET TO TALK and make arguments for their positions too!

This is at base the social complexity of democracy, right? You have to live with people you don’t like and still grant them rights (i.e., tolerance); and sometimes you lose. One of the problems with terrorist organizations is an odd duality: on one hand, they are angry and fanatically precisely because they haven’t been heard and taken seriously (in many but not all cases); but on the other hand, their fanaticism precludes their sitting down with people they don’t like and actually being willing to *lose* the debate. In other words, if everyone doesn’t already believe in universal dignity and tolerance, you can dialouge all you want, and someone will get violent or at least refuse to engage or use other forms of coercion.

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Kosovo—A Failure of Pluralistic Democracy 26 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, History, International Politics, Race & Ethnicity.
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[Both commenters and doing a bit of my own research have corrected some of my misinformation, so be sure to read the updates and comments  before allowing your head to explode.]
[UPDATE/CORRECTION II, below (thanks to anonymous commenter)]
[UPDATE I, below]

I had a student from Serbia in a globalization course a few years ago who added an always interesting perspective on ethnic conflict around the world. During the section on retribalization and ethno-nationalism, his presence in the room always forced the conversation into more nuanced and careful discussions. Although he was deeply critical of Milosovic’s policies against the Albanian-Kosovards, he never let us forget that the Albanians were, for lack of a better word, immigrants and so the dynamics were far more complex than they had been portrayed in the “West”.

Albania over the past few generations has been poor and oppressive, and Yugoslavia had allowed immigrants from Albania into Kosovo. (I do not know this history well, and so this is very surface-level and from the perspective of my student, a Serbian man. If I’m misrepresenting the history here, I’d appreciate factual and interpretive corrections in the comments.)

My student tried to get his classmates to understand that for the Serbians in Kosovo, it was about a complete loss of control, of culture, of governance; he said it would be as if Mexicans in Los Angeles suddenly decided they wanted independence and wanted to wrest control of the society from Americans; then the government of California instituted ethnic cleansing policies against them; then the rest of the United States came in, defeated California, and made Los Angeles county a protectorate and allowed the Mexicans to come back. Three years later, I’m sure he would add, then the Mexicans declared themselves independent and the rest of the United States recognized Los Angeles as an independent nation even though California refused to and claimed that Los Angeles still belonged to California.

The point here is, of course, not to justify the ethnic cleansing policies of the early 90s, but to explain that the ethnic tensions are much more complex than we were led to believe. And my position is to keep pulling my hair out in frustration over the continual reification of ethnic identities, be they Serbian or Albanian or Kosovard.

For me, the ultimate tragedy of Kosovo isn’t that the Serbs lost their majority sometime in the past, nor that Serbia is “losing” the region that was the birthplace of its form of Christianity. Rather, the tragedy is that around the world, various ethnicities believe that they cannot live together and form democracies together; that the only way for a democracy to function is for everyone to have the same ethnicity, or that every ethnicity must have its corresponding nation. [Philosophically, this is why I have a huge problem with the establishment of Israel historically; although now that Israel has existed for going on five generations, that critique is purely theoretical.]

This is founded on a deep misunderstanding of ethnic identities in the first place: That they are permanent and essential, that they transcend other social considerations, that they necessarily exclude interaction and cooperation with other ethnic groups. It reproduces dangerous notions of purity. It precludes cooperation and compromise in favor of complete control.

Ultimately, it forecloses the possibility for real, pluralistic democracy and creates a world of ethno-Nations, reinforcing the power of dominant cultures instead of mitigating them, and permanently ghettoizing ethnic minorities. This is the continued fragmentation of democracies along ethnic lines. And that is a failure of democracy itself, which has been designed for the past 200 years to accommodate differences and protect minorities. Replacing Serbian dominance of Kosovo with Albanian dominance is not a difference in kind, but a difference in flavor.

[Caveat/Question: Are the Serbian-Kosovards in favor of independence also? Is there a move to make Kosovo into something new that is neither Albanian nor Serbian? Or is this an Albanian-Kosovard political action?]

UPDATE: I heard an interview with a professor at San Francisco State this morning on KPFA and he clarified a few things and reinforced my feeling that this was a failure in pluralism and highly problematic for the future of pluralistic democracy.

1) The albanians and serbs have been fighting over Kosovo for a lot longer than I had thought, dating back to several skirmishes with the Ottoman Empire. So my student’s analogy of immigrants to Los Angeles ultimately falls apart, in my opinion. The ethnic conflict is far older and the borders far more fluid than the analogy allows. The Serbs have never been a majority in the region, for example.

2) The Albanian-Kosovards were supported by the Maoists in Albania against Tito. The Albanians were known for their brutality and repression of the Serbian minority.
3) Tito had brokered an odd deal of semi-autonomy for Kosovo, with the Albanian majority in control, but with Serbia still having nominal control of the region.

4) Milosovic was more or less an opportunist who used Kosovo to fuel ethno-nationalism for his own political ends startingn in 1989. His adminsitration sent “settlers” from Serbia into Kosovo to “reclaim” it. The ethnic cleansing began in earnest in the early 1990s, and the northern part of Kosovo, the Albanian majority was forcibly removed (today, that northern section remains Serbian controled and the Albanians never returned).

5) The Albanian-Kosovards think of themselves as Kosovard, and *not* Albanian. They are kind of like Irish, who speak English, but don’t think of themselves or identify as English.

6) When the U.N. brokered the semi-autonomy for Kosovo at the end of the Balkans war, the backroom chatter was that Kosovard independence would be an inevitability, a matter of time.

So I’m left with the same critique: The history of the ethnic relations in Kosovo are as tortured and as convoluted as Israel-Palestine, with both groups having deep historical connections to the land. But both are insisting that they simply cannot live together and that the only possible solution is an ethnically pure state? I’m less concerned about Kosovo breaking off from Serbia now, than I am about the fact on the ground that the establishment of a free and equal Kosovo with minority rights intact and protected seems slim to none. It looks like all that’s going to happen is, at best, a kind of mutual apartheid, with separate government, education, and medical services.

As a side note: More irritating is the commentary from the West which speaks of this in that irritating Huntington mode, as a “conflict of civilizations”. In fact, both the Albanian and the SErbian Kosovards are relatively secular and non-practicing. Religion becomes a disingenuous ethnic identity marker to justify and explain what amounts to a refusal of Tolerance, the fundamental value and practice necessary for a pluralistic democracy.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION II]

Demographic history of Kosovo:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Kosovo

The 1921 Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes population census for the territories comprising modern day Kosovo listed 439,010 inhabitants:
By religion:
Muslims: 329,502 (75%)
Orthodox Serb: 93,203 (21%)

Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Big Think 22 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Inequality & Stratification, Race & Ethnicity.
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Big Think is doing a series on African American heritage this month, and I just spent the morning listening to every segment by Princeton Professor Harris-Lacewell. One of the most important contemporary thinkers about race and gender, Prof. Harris-Lacewell offers summaries of her work on African American attitudes and perceptions and culture. I can’t recommend both her work and these Big Think interviewlets highly enough.   My favorite was her explanation of “what’s really going on” behind our attitudes about racial inequality today.

The Sticky Problems of Ethnic Identity in California 21 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity, Teaching.
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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 2007

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Gender, Inequality & Stratification, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity.
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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.

Meaning of Gay—My Research 2 July 2007

Posted by Todd in Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay and Lesbian History, Gender, Queer Theory, Race & Ethnicity, Sexuality, Social Sciences.
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Several people have emailed asking me about my upcoming book, and C.L.’s comment in the History thread below prompted this brief explanation of some of the conclusions I have drawn from my research about 1960s gay male culture:

One of the overarching conflicts among gay men (and women) is definitely between assimilation (or integration) and separatism, and that is definitely a common dynamic among all minority groups. This is one of the tensions I explore in my book, but as an overarching or meta-conflict. I only talk about activist strategies in one chapter. I explore instead on arguments within the community about particular practices such as cruising for sex in the park, drag performances, dating, anal sex, etc.

Gays and lesbians have a different relationship to these integration-vs.-separation dynamics:

1) racial and ethnic minorities are, by definition, socially created groups of people who can and do over generations integrate into the dominant culture. The dynamics are about ‘cultural preservation’ of something that is purely historical. Cultures of race and nostalgia for race among the minorities themselves are as much at play as the racism of the majority. Likewise ethnocentrism. When we talk about race and ethnicity, we’re not actually talking about a biological or essential part of a person, but rather, our cultural understandings of ourselves and others, and the beliefs, practices, and objects we use to create our lives.

2) women aren’t really a minority at all, and as long as they are intimately connected to men and children, they are already part of their respective culture. So women’s issues become about the internal structuring of gender. Unlike race and ethnicity, there are actual physical differences between men and women; but when we are talking about gender in society, we’re almost never talking about those actual physical differences, but rather about what those differences mean socially.

3) homosexuals come from all genders and ethnicities (and religions, classes, etc.) and are always a tiny minority (around 4-6%). Unlike “blackness” (a cultural idea), “homosexual” denotes same-sex desire (although not necessarily behavior). It is the thing itself. But like gender, the arguments about what that desire means socially are what we’re actually arguing about (although some anti-gay activists do strive for erasure of the desire itself, as in the ex-gay movement for example). Some societies create positive, productive roles for them; others create negative, scapegoat roles for them.

I see the primary dynamic of the past 200 years as LGBTs finding each other and congregating and forming mass cultures that allow communication with each other; however these interactions don’t erase all the other kinds of stratifications. Other kinds of meaning (racial, ethnic, religious, national, class, etc.) play a more central role in community and identity formation at the idnividual level, so any kind of queer community is necessarily fragile and tenuous at best.

In my research of the 1960s, where a gay male culture developed that was public and community-driven (a key combination), I found a proliferation of conflicts over the meanings of “gay”. That is, the 1960s represent a sort of apogee among gay men in their struggles to understand who they are in American society. By going public with those debates and by self-consciously seeking to form communities that were publicly visible and open, they changed the social relations wherein they could have the debates about what their gayness might mean. (It is important to note here that lesbians played a key role here and underwent a similar transition, but for lesbians, they had the added pressures and problems arising out of sexism, which made their particular battles, problems, and arguments substantially different from those of gay men, even though they were having these arguments side by side with gay men.)

The primary problem or issue is one of freedom for me, and this is really where my book ends up, is that despite the impossibility of queer community, the ongoing effort to create one and to identify with other queers across cultural boundaries is precisely what has enabled queers to define their own lives, rather than having meanings of queerness imposed from the outside (be they socially positive or negative). For that reason, I’m in favor of the continued existence and interaction of the debating factions within queer community, because it creates the social spaces necesssary for individuals to define their queerness for themselves. This is true even if they decide to withdraw and integrate; this is true even if the gay community itself doesn’t seem to give the definition you want. The freedom and ability to define one’s own queerness arises ultimately out of contexts of social interaction that open up the space for the question to be asked and answered in the first place.

And that, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of my research.

Please note that these ideas are copyrighted as a completed manuscript being readied for publication (2007 Lexington Books/Rowman Littlefield). If you want to cite or use any of these ideas, please contact me and I’ll tell you how to do so before the book comes out. Thanks. I try not to be paranoid, but given the cut-throat nature of academic publishing, I’ll admit, I’m a bit paranoid.

Freedom to Marry in 1967 15 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Law/Courts, Race & Ethnicity.
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This past week was the 40th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision that overturned antimiscegentation laws once and for all, the despicable institutionalization of blood-racism that prevented inter-marriage among the “races”. Although in early colonial America, the first 50 years or so, intermarriage was common, the rise of the plantation system and its concomitant need for cheap (read: slave) labor produced a more vile kind or racism and by 1700 complete dehumanization of people of African descent. By the 1860s, anti-race-mixing laws had spread to people of Asian descent in California. I won’t belabor the obvious parallels between people of different skin colors who wanted to marry in 1965 and people of the same sex who want to marry today, but clearly, the right to form relationships and have those relationships treated equally under the law should be clear.

Mildred Loving, one of the plaintiff’s in the 1967 case, prepared the following speech for the 40th Anniversary celebrations. It speaks to the stark simplicity of the issue, at both the humane and civil rights levels.

Loving for All

By Mildred Loving*

Prepared for Delivery on June 12, 2007, the 40th Anniversary of the Loving vs. Virginia Announcement

When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, DC in 1958, it wasn’t to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married. We didn’t get married in Washington because we wanted to marry there. We did it there because the government wouldn’t allow us to marry back home in Virginia where we grew up, where we met, where we fell in love, and where we wanted to be together and build our family. You see, I am a woman of color and Richard was white, and at that time people believed it was okay to keep us from marrying because of their ideas of who should marry whom.

When Richard and I came back to our home in Virginia, happily married, we had no intention of battling over the law. We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match. Isn’t that what marriage is?

Not long after our wedding, we were awakened in the middle of the night in our own bedroom by deputy sheriffs and actually arrested for the “crime” of marrying the wrong kind of person. Our marriage certificate was hanging on the wall above the bed. The state prosecuted Richard and me, and after we were found guilty, the judge declared: “”Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” He sentenced us to a year in prison, but offered to suspend the sentence if we left our home in Virginia for 25 years exile.

We left, and got a lawyer. Richard and I had to fight, but still were not fighting for a cause. We were fighting for our love.

Though it turned out we had to fight, happily Richard and I didn’t have to fight alone. Thanks to groups like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and so many good people around the country willing to speak up, we took our case for the freedom to marry all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men,” a “basic civil right.”

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the “wrong kind of person” for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over
others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.

* Together with her husband, Richard Loving, Mildred Loving was a plaintiff in the historic Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia, decided 40 years ago June 12, striking down race restrictions on the freedom to marry and advancing racial justice and marriage equality in America.

Virginia Tech and Ethnicity 17 April 2007

Posted by Todd in News, Race & Ethnicity.
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Update: A couple of smart commentaries have appeared about race/ethnicity and the shootings. Here are my two favorites.

Killer Reflections, on Salon.com & Virginia Tech, Day Three, on Positive Liberty.

First and foremost, my thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones to this tragedy. I don’t want to tread upon their grief.

Second, I’ve noticed an increasing trend in the news to refer to Cho, the assailant, as South Korean, and I’ve even seen a few news reports speculating on how Korean culture could have been behind this terrible event.

This begs some clarification. Cho came with his family to the United States when he was 8 years old. He was raised here, spoke English without an accent, and was a student at Virginia Tech. He wasn’t a foreign exchange student. He wasn’t an immigrant in most senses either. Research on young people who immigrate before age 10 is pretty clear: they are de facto second generation, and function in the society as Americans.

Cho was an upper-middle class, suburban AMERICAN, although his race may have played a role in his alienation, or whatever ennui it was that led to his becoming a brutal murderer. But for god’s sake people, he was a second generation American by culture, regardless of what his passport says. Get off the ethnicity angle and start asking the hard questions about why things like this happen in America.

Illegal Immigration & Social Security 31 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Inequality & Stratification, Politics, Race & Ethnicity.
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My mother forwarded an email to me today about how illegal immigrants may be granted social security benefits in the near future. It really pushed some of my buttons (this anti-immigrant hysteria is getting irritating in the extreme), so I wrote a detailed response and committed the internet faux-pas of replying to all. Here’s the original email my mother sent:

RE:  Soc. Sec. benefits:

Mom was a homemaker and Dad worked all his life and paid into SS.  Dad  has  passed away and now Mom can barely make ends meet.  While the possible  “illegal” alien in front of her at the grocery store buys the name brands, Mom goes for the generic brands, and day old breads.  She doesn’t have  out of state calling on her phone, because she can’t afford it and shops at the thrift shops and dollar stores.  She considers having a pizza delivered once a week “eating out”.  She grew up during the depression,  watched her husband go overseas to fight in WW II a year after their marriage,  and then they went on to raise,  feed and clothe 5 children, struggling to pay tuition for parochial schools.

The Senate voted this week to allow “illegal” aliens access to Social Security benefits. (Benefits they themselves don’t contribute to, but use nonetheless.)  I’m sorry, but how can the Senate justify this slap in the face to born and bred, or naturalized citizens.  It is already impossible to live on  Social
Security alone.  If they give benefits to “illegal” aliens who have never contributed, where does that leave us that have paid into Social Security all our working lives?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Attached is an opportunity to sign a petition that requires citizenship  for eligibility to receive Social services.  If you do not wish to sign the petition yourself, please forward on to anyone you think might be interested.

And here’s my response:

That email was so full of factual mistakes I don’t even know where to begin. But I’ll just give you the two big ones:

1) the vast majority of illegal workers in American work in SWEAT SHOPS and AGRICULTURAL STOOP LABOR, usually making (if they’re lucky) minimum wage and living in third world standards. They are not living high on the hog while grandma buys generic mac-n-cheese and can’t make long-distance phone calls. The rest of them are in non-skilled labor, such as washing dishes or pulling up weeds or raising middle class people’s children or cleaning their homes. Most of them send a large portion of their pay home to support their families in their sending countries. They live multiple individuals and sometimes families to every housing unit because they cannot afford anything else. They also on average WORK more hours a week than the average american. These are well documented and extensively studied phenomena, so such alarmist, nativist nonsense does nothing to help the real social problems caused by illegal immigration, but simply stirs up hate and fear. [It also may interest you to note that Latinos in the U.S. are the LEAST LIKELY to apply for welfare benefits, even when they qualify. WHITE PEOPLE are the MOST LIKELY to receive welfare when they qualify.]

2) If undocumented laborers are not employed in domestic labor (i.e., childcare and housecleaning for middle class people), they are actually receiving a wage and THEY PAY FICA TAXES. Contrary to the alarmism of the email, illegal migrant workers PAY social security BUT DON’T COLLECT the BENEFITS.

Let me end by saying that I’m firmly in favor of LEGAL immigration and *not* ILLEGAL immigration. However, the issue is a complex one, requiring FACTS, research and cool heads instead of punditry and alarmism. Americans today are feeling economically insecure (with good reason) and feeling the pressures of globalization, and instead of looking to the economic and trade policies of their government, they are blaming the migrants who are ALSO victims of those same global processes. For example, United States’ economic policies have decimated the economy of Mexico, destroying local markets (especially agricultural) and displacing millions of peasants in central and southern Mexico. (For example, our *subsidized* corn is allowed under NAFTA, but Mexico is NOT allowed to subsidize its corn production.) Displaced, unemployed peasants have migrated north over the past 15 years seeking jobs to feed their families. Meanwhile, U.S. industry loves and supports illegal immigration because it is cheap labor. In the low end of the U.S. labor market (i.e., unskilled jobs), the flood of workers has had two effects. First, it has dampened wages, but only on the low end of the market (that is, it doesn’t effect middle class wages at all).  Second, it has created new job markets: for the middle class, it has changed their lifestyles, allowing them for the first time to have access to cheap child care and housekeepers, luxuries that used to only be available to wealthy people.  Finally, “illegal” labor adds billions of dollars to the economy, through productive labor and through consumerism and yes, through TAXES; losing that would be a major blow to the U.S. economy and to the budget of governments around the U.S.

SOLVING the illegal immigration problem is not a matter of grabbing your lawn chair and your shot gun and going and sitting on the border with your fellow scared white retirees; NOR will punishing people who are doing their best to feed their children by denying them the benefits they have earned with their hard work do anything to help the problem.

Instead, it requires 1) fixing NAFTA, which has done nothing more than enrich a few hundred American and Canadian businessmen (with no consumer benefit in the U.S. or Canada, and with devastating effects in Mexico), so that Mexico can expand its economy and raise the standard of living of the 50% of its population who live in poverty; 2) being a good neighbor by helping the Mexican government fight corruption, gang wars (which have flourished as the Mexican economy has foundered) and establish a more open, more democratic society (historically, our policy has been to keep mexico unstable so they remain weak); and 3) addressing the business culture of U.S. firms who reap enormous economic benefits through illegal immigration and addressing the lifestyle culture of the middle class who are growing accustomed to having a vast pool of underclass brown people from Mexico to do their shit labor for them for substandard wages.

[I’ve focused only on Mexico here—although many asian countries and guatemala and nicaragua are also major sources of illegal immigration—mainly because Mexicans receive the brunt of nativist hysteria at the moment.]

Take home message: Illegal immigration emerges out of nexus of multinational economic and social relations and problems. It is not about individual evil immigrant actors coming “here” to “take your mother’s social security.” Please.

The Trouble with Diversity (Review) 11 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Inequality & Stratification, Race & Ethnicity, Religion, Reviews.
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[This post has been getting a lot of traffic this week, so I’ve bumped it back to the top of the blog for people looking for it.]

Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

A young Mexican-American couple live on the ground floor of my building with their baby boy, in a studio apartment. Neither speak English well enough to have a conversation with, although I try to be friendly and helpful when I can (last week I helped them move a couch out of their apartment, which was lots of fun accompanied by the broad grins and hand gestures of people working together who do not share a language). But ultimately, how much does it help this struggling couple for me to be friendly to them, to “respect” their differences as immigrants from Mexico? When I go into my apartment, they are still poor and struggling, whether I was ethnocentric or kind. What is the real disparity between me and them? What is the real inequality? And how exactly do we deal with it? Is multiculturalism enough?

When I started teaching a required undergraduate course on inequality in the United States, I came up against some kinds of resistance I hadn’t expected, not in my students, but in myself. I’d been educated in race and ethnic relationships, in cultural diversity and multiculturalism even as an undergraduate. In fact, these are pretty much the dominant culture of America today. But I kept feeling like something was missing or had gone terribly awry in the way we do multiculturalism. I have spoken at length about this here on my blog already, so I won’t go into details again.

Briefly, I find the multicultural obsession with difference to lead to some odd results: We tend to think of ethnic identities as being cohesive, consistent things that are easily identifiable and knowable; and we tend to create out of that notions of authenticity, that is, that there is such a thing as a real latino or a real black person. I object to this on two levels. First, it’s not empirically true. Ethnicities are social constructs that are inherently fluid and contradictory and change over time and from person to person. They are observable effects of social interaction, but they aren’t material or genetic or even heritable in any easy way. In short, there can be no ‘authentic’ qualities or aspects of an ethnicity, empirically; so to treat ethnicities as if they were real in that way is to enter into a world of make believe. Second, as a cultural sociologist, I’m inclined to want to describe who people actually live, what they actually do, and what they actually believe. Real people mix and match cultures (at least they do in pluralist societies) and move freely around and among them, and end up fully hybrid peoples. At the same time, they tend to, in our current way of doing multiculturalism, see themselves as being or having an ethnicity. Indeed, it’s more than a question of perception: it’s a deeply felt and experienced thing, down in the bones. Tell an individual who thinks of himself as “irish” that empirically, he lives like every other American middle class person, and you’ll have an empassioned battle on your hands.

Surely, in a democracy people must have the right to create the kinds of identities they want to; and in an immigrant nation, our culture is always-already hybrid and blended, and new generations of immigrants will have new relations to the cultures of their parents’ sending nations. Surely, in a democracy, we must tolerate those kinds of differences.

One of the fundamental tenets of multiculturalism is the inherent equality among cultures, that is, that no culture is better or worse than another. This kind of equality seems like a no brainer to me, ethically, in terms of creating a democratic society where people of multiple cultural origins and blended cultural configurations can blend and work together and participate in the society. Benn Michaels sees the problem (and I agree) here: that if all cultures are equal in value, then none should be privileged over the other.

For me, the logical conclusion of a multicultural ethical structure is that there is then nothing wrong with people abandoning their culture or creating new cultures to fit their experiences or of blending, mixing and matching as they see fit. But problems arise when the diversity becomes an end in itself; or to say it another way, if maintaining the diversity becomes the purpose of the democracy, then you may have a problem. First, you have to decide what counts as the ‘culture’ you are trying to protect, and then you have to have rules about which people, practices, objects, and beliefs count. And then you end up drawing lines around cultures, which empirically cannot work. Human beings’ cultural interactions are far more complex than that. And so your left with the question of what the relationship to a democracy should be to the culturally plural lives of its citizens.

So I agree with Benn Michaels that seeing diversity as an end in itself creates major problems for the democracy, but I would criticize him for giving such short shrift to the ethical purposes of multiculturalism in the first place, which is as a mechanism for teaching tolerance. Where he and I agree, however, is that tolerance and respect do not mean the same thing in a democracy, and shouldn’t. Indeed, all cultures aren’t equal, and there are cultural beliefs and practices that are repugnant in a democracy working toward freedom and equality.

But Benn Michaels goes further than I have in my critiques of multiculturalism. Whereas I have seen the empirical contradictions of multiculturalism and the problematics within a democratic pluralism, Benn Michaels sees the effects of multiculturalism systematically as being the cultural mechanism whereby we let ourselves off the hook for the suffering around us.

In a nutshell, Benn Michaels argues that multiculturalism has done two problematic things: 1) it has located and reduced all social problems to questions of respect, so that 2) we think all that is necessary to fix social problems is to learn to respect people who are different from us. The problem here is that the real suffering in American culture today arises out of economic inequality, out of that great hiss and byword of American culture, class, not in our racial and ethnic difference. (I would say that Benn Michaels needed to more carefully connect the racism of the past with his argument, because race and class have been so intricately linked in American history and because there still are inequalities based on racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, etc.).

In America, he argues, we pretend like there are no real differences between being rich and being poor; we excuse ourselves from seeing the real differences by thinking of them as cultural differences that we must respect. In one of the most mordant passages in the book, Benn Michaels asks how exactly it helps a poor person to respect their culture, as if poverty were just another among many equal cultures. Says he, “I love what you’ve done with your shack!” In reality, our focus and obsession with diversity and difference has benefited the right wing (we no longer talk about economic inequality) and the left (who are off the hook for fixing it). In other words, multiculturalism in its effect serves to allow the right wing to ignore real inequality and suffering by covering themselves with their ‘inclusiveness’ or their ‘respect for diversity.’ (Think of all the companies who have diversity programs, for example.) And it serves to salve the conscience of a nation living with 45 million poor people, the highest infant mortality rate in the industrialized world (not to mention poverty, access to health care, homelessness, etc.).

Finally, Benn Michaels makes a vitally necessary plea to resist the urge to think of religions as analagous to ethnicities. He argues that religions are beliefs, not cultures, and that religions by their very nature are making truth claims. Truth claims by their very nature, in a democratic society, are to be debated and vetted publicly. So Benn Michaels argues not that we should exclude or preclude religious discourse from public dialogue, but rather that it must be stricken from our notions of ‘respect’ and that it must be engaged as any other faulty truth claim in debate in the public sphere.

If it’s not obvious by now, Benn Michaels was preaching to the choir in me as a reader. But with his wry humor and good logic, he got me over my objections (mainly, I wanted a lot more substantive evidence for his positions, but that’s just me being a sociologist) to go along with his general thesis, which frankly, is so obvious I don’t know why i hadn’t seen it before, especially someone like me who is still a subconscious marxist. I will probably adopt this book next semester in my inequalities class and see how my very diverse bunch of Bay Area students will react to his arguments.