Class in Ukraine

TW: antisemitism, anti-Roma violence and rhetoric

An interesting class-focused look at the on-going conflict in Ukraine was put forward today in an opinion piece by Vladimir Golstein, a Russian immigrant to the United States and Brown professor with a degree in Slavic studies. I won’t quite link to it yet, for reasons that will become clear, but I think the question it raises (what can we see when we focus on class in the recent political upheaval in Ukraine?) is one worth exploring more broadly.

Even the comparatively pro-business sources acknowledged the reality of an oligarchic retreat from Yanukovych’s government this winter. One article from Bloomberg News at that time noted that “Business oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest man who acquired control of state stakes in leading power generators in 2011-2012, had relied on ties to Yanukovych to safeguard control of large sectors of the economy”. Unfortunately, the looming possibility of repressing protest movements would “signal that Ukraine is adopting the model of next-door Belarus” and justify an international response like the EU’s “visa ban and asset freeze on [Belorussian President since 1994] Lukashenko and [other] top officials”. The many oligarchs involved in politics would have been directly affected, as would have their class as a whole because of how many of them have foreign investments or assets which would at least come under new scrutiny.

A bit more foreboding to the less wealthy Ukrainians who are typically more invested in their own country’s production, is that entering the EU would create a situation where the local markets would have “duty-free access to more than 90 percent of [the EU's] products”. The already anemic manufacturing base of the country, concentrated along its eastern border with Russia, would likely crumble in the face of EU integration, stressing an already beleaguered working class in the region.

The German paper Der Spiegel argued even more overtly that several Ukrainian oligarchs that had been essentially invested in the existing government abrupt switched sides, and actively supported the protesters in the middle of this February. As one piece explained-

Last Tuesday’s [February 17, 2014] bloody conflicts tipped the scales. On Wednesday both Akhmetov’s and Firtash’s [two oligarchs] TV stations changed their coverage of Independence Square: Suddenly the two channels, Ukraina and Inter, were reporting objectively on the opposition. The message of the oligarchs was clear: We’re letting Yanukovych fall. And in parliament — where the majority party had barely budged a millimeter in the past weeks — the mood suddenly changed: Suddenly they were looking for a compromise after all. It became clear on Thursday what this would mean: the forming of a broad coalition, the return of the old constitution and, with it, a reduction of the presidential powers as well as an accelerated presidential election.

That is the economic class and socio-political faction that Vladimir Golstein sees facing grassroots resistance from russophone and perhaps even russophile groups in eastern Ukraine. He asks-

But what about the heavily industrialised Ukrainian east? Those who think that it is Russia that pulls it back are deeply ignorant of the complexity of the region. The Donbas Region, which comprises 10 percent of Ukraine’s population and produces 25 percent of Ukrainian exports, is inhabited by Russian-speaking people who work in mines, steel plants, and machinery factories, and who have a less cheerful view of Westernisation.


Local workers hardly need Putin propaganda to know that many of their smoke stack plants will be closed once Ukraine joins the EU. It is sufficient for Ukrainians to look to other recent EU countries, from Hungary to Romania and the Baltic States, or even at Russia’s own economy that switched to the export of natural resources at the expense of thousands of closed factories to know what will happen to the big Soviet-style factories that still dominate the landscape of the Donbas region.

(Shaded in is the Donetsk or Donbas region of Ukraine, with the city of Donetsk itself marked with a red dot. It is one of Ukraine’s most densely populated areas.)

Golstein is entirely too optimistic about this class consciousness, particularly in the larger Donetsk (or Donbas) region, being removed from ethnic and even racial histories. He explained that they were united in the interest of maintaining their jobs, independent of whether they are “ethnically Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian or Hungarian”. In the past few days, there have been allegations of separatists engaging in antisemitic pamphlet campaigns and anti-Romani violence, hallmarks more reminiscent of fascism’s recent history in the region than Marxism’s. The broader issue of average Ukrainians having different political interests than their economic and political elites will likely leave Ukraine’s prospective government in a precarious position, but the unique flashpoint so far has produced not only class consciousness as Golstein notes, but also hints of a dangerous sort of ultra-nationalism.

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The Bundy Ranch: race, immigration, terrorism, and power

TW: racism, racist criminalization, anti-immmigrant racism, islamophobia, gun violence

Before we get into the heat of it again, I want to apologize for my long and unannounced absence. Life can get hectic, and writing about politics can be uniquely frustrating. One of the things I hope to do on this site is illuminate patterns in how many people approach and respond to certain issues, allowing those interested in improving things to anticipate their opposition. Unfortunately, that causes me to often feel like I’m needlessly repeating the same analysis, to the point that it gets stale, or even abstracted and confusing to someone who hasn’t been reading my posts here for months on end.

I’ll even admit I sometimes get concerned that I’m spotting connections that aren’t there or are less important than the context around them. Or maybe that my own biases are causing me to pick on people or otherwise get rather hyperbolically invested in a certain way of looking at an issue. A bit paradoxically, I’ve even been afraid of simultaneously showing off which news sources I prefer while more or less picking a fight with the journalists that I guess could be called my “favorites”.

So, hopefully I can avoid doing that when I say that Chris Hayes seems to have avoided looking at a crucial wrinkle in the recent controversy surrounding the Bundy Ranch in Nevada.

(The owner of the Bundy Ranch near Bunkerville in southern Nevada, has refused to pay fees for the use of adjacent federal lands for grazing since 1993. After a decade of court litigation and accumulating fines, the Bureau of Land Management attempted to repossess the ranch’s cattle these past few weeks, culminating in an armed stand-off. Image from here.)

Chris Hayes covered this initially from a variety of angles, but most interestingly invited Nevada State Senator Michele Fiore, a Bundy Ranch supporter of sorts, to speak on the developments. You can see the video of their exchange here.

Fiore immediately summarizes her perspective as one that rejects the governments response to the Bundy case as essentially heavy-handed, but very quickly makes it clear that she doesn’t disapprove of the government having those powers for supposedly distinct situations. She explained, “Generally when my-  when our federal government comes in armed, we expect a bigger problem, maybe terrorist crossing the border, not an unpaid bill”. She later clarified, “If we literally sent our federal government to the borders to secure them against terrorists crossing, hey I got that, but they want to come here with arms because cows are grazing?”

Her perspective is, essentially informed by the idea that not only is the Bundy Ranch not a problem, but it is not a problem because of inescapable comparisons – to a violent other, understood as different from the speaker probably in terms of race, religion, and national status. The idea of who qualifies as a terrorist, as the balking over calling the Bundy Ranch supporters domestic terrorists shows, is difficult to separate from toxic ideas about exactly those ways of distinguishing people, and the political systems that have elevated White people, practitioners of “Western” religious traditions, and US citizens over others. Fiore and others expressing that viewpoint basically want to play a rigged game.

This is a pattern of thought I’ve been talking about for a while now. Especially in contexts that could be described as having to do with “security”, a new way of thinking about those issues has begun to emerge, which is often called “libertarian” or a new sort of “third way“. It’s often discussed as challenging established power, but when examined closely it prioritizes limiting state power and only in selective ways. Typically, the restrictions that remain are designed to be brought up in a racially and ethnically neutral way, but that reflect biases and prejudices that will allow a backdoor profiling to occur. The implicit idea behind these politics is that state surveillance and aggression need to be curbed, in order to better concentrate on the correct populations (this is the part where the person arguing for them winks or says, “you know“).

Now, the question is, how can people wanting to point that out respond to that? Hayes later explained his decision to invite on Fiore, saying that he wanted to create a place where people can interrogate her ideas and better understand her potential disagreements. I applaud that goal, but I have to say, he unfortunately failed in the moment to get her to address the existence of non-violent people of color who are subject to very militarized state aggression that she doesn’t care about.

His even later analysis (with Michael Eric Dyson) is interesting, but fails to call out the fact that she seems to know what she’s doing – she raised the comparison before he did. There is worth in pointing out (to people who simply aren’t aware of it) that the Bundy Ranch probably wouldn’t still exist if people of color had pulled that stunt, but that doesn’t directly address that that’s exactly how Fiore (and those who agree with her) seems to think it should be. Dyson helpfully points out something quite powerful:

“When people have guns who we think should not have guns, our sense of the social order is- is dramatically changed. Think about the big brouhaha occasioned by Thelma and Louise. Here are two women who took up a few guns and had,you know, if you will, a kind of reverie, and of course ultimate, the potential, suicide. But there was more violence in the first five minutes of Lethal Weapon 1, than in that entire movie, but because women, who are the ordinary victims of gun play, are now the agents of gun play, this is seen as toppling the social order. And when race, and gender, and class, and generation get involved, it begins to change our perception of who legitimately has a gun.”

But Hayes responds to that by asking how liberals (here seeming to mean people who hope to challenge that sort of thinking about who is and who isn’t a threat) should react to that distinction working towards a peaceful solution. He was offered up eloquent commentary on the same sort of distinction that Fiore obviously had working from the beginning of her argument for the Bundy Ranch’s perspective, and rather than pushing his guest to make it even more relevant to the arguments he supposedly had on to engage with, he countered it.

Hayes said in fact, that he’s concerned that the good in the government’s (temporary?) backing off has “gotten lost in this”. That’s admirable, and perhaps we should take a moment to be glad when these sorts of situations are resolved peacefully. That said, Hayes didn’t unfortunately seem as concerned about losing his own thread with analyzing exactly what type of unequal policies Fiore was advocating, and which has for the time being been reflected in how the government has treated the situation at the Bundy Ranch.

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The threat of the executive order

If you’re on the Howard Dean-affiliated Democracy for American email list, you’ve probably already seen this image, which they sent out seemingly yesterday to their thousands (if not million plus) of subscribers:

(Literally anything?)

Huh. Now if that isn’t a symbol for our times. Not in that executive orders are more common (they aren’t), but that they’ve become necessary for basic political functions. In the 1980s and 1990s (and even the often called dysfunctional Bush years), the United States paid its bills, kept the lights on, and even updated the image of who was working and living in the United States. The legislature had it’s moments of inane or counter-productive behavior (Clinton’s impeachment seems like it shouldn’t be forgotten), but on the hold, governance was shared between a presidency, a congress, a high court, and numerous other functional elements to a political system.

That no longer exists. The threat of a executive order has been one of the sticks shown off in attempt to force congressional action on the debt ceiling, and similar attempts have now been made with regards to policy on indefinite detention, immigration, and now even the minimum wage. In a twisted way, the president has come to rely on (among other persuasion techniques) threatening to do everything himself in order to goad Republicans in Congress into action, which unfortunately only convinces them to dig in their feet harder (the better to oppose his “radical” policies!).

We’ve lost any semblance of a consensus that we as a country are viable in our current form, mostly because of rising conservative alternative theories. The resurfacing popularity among many Republicans of establishing a golden standard, of dismantling the Federal Reserve, of reversing Civil Rights victories, of overturning Roe, and of letting the US default on its debts and watch its federally-insurance banks go belly up in order to cleanse the economic system do not exist in isolation from each other. They tell a story of a long-negotiated political consensus about how the US economy and political system can and should be set up suddenly finding itself under attack in innumerable ways. It is likewise not an accident that secession is suddenly on the table again.

Within the context, it’s not just a useful threat to say that the President will keep those previously agreed-upon systems running. It’s also comforting to the people who would be protected by them. And it becomes unfortunately necessary to note that, comforting or not, executive orders have largely remained an overly polite bully pulpit for Obama, rather than an actual tool used to maintain (or even broaden) basic equalities and freedoms. Detainees are still waiting for their freedom in Guantánamo. Employees of anyone other than government contractors are still waiting for a raise. And the debt ceiling fight is threatening to come back again.

Systems are self-reinforcing, but only to a point. After a while, they need more than just a gentle nudge to keep them going. They need to be invested in and supported. How much longer will “good enough” be good enough?

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State of the Union 2014

As usual, please follow along with my comments on twitter to President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, at 9 pm Eastern / 6 pm Pacific.

There’s been a few hints as to what we can expect tonight, but the most solid are coming from the think tank Demos, which released this informational graphic today (warning it’s large):

Continue reading

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UC Davis meetings reveals conflicts surrounding agritourism

TW: abilism

Californian Assemblymember Mariko Yamada along with several other assembleymembers presided over an informational hearing about agricultural tourism at UC Davis yesterday, with testimony provided by university staff, local farmers, and county officials. Shermain Hardesty, a university cooperative extension specialist, opened the meeting with an explanation of how “agritourism” could help create ties between farmers and other Californians. Specifically, she expressed a hope that urban residents could participate in agritourism in order to gain an “appreciation of what a farmer is going through to produce these crops and the food for them.”

olive trees
(An olive grove and agritourism destination in Oak Glen, in Southern California, from here.)

Later speakers and public comments supported the possibility of agritourism strengthening relationships between agricultural workers and others, but also expressed how agritourism created or worsened disagreements within rural communities. Penny Leff, an agritourism coordinator with UC Davis, was the immediately following speaker, who spoke almost exclusively to how agritourism businesses often struggle with existing regulations. She drew attention to a 2009 survey of 332 agritourism operations, whose owners pointed to “regulations and legal constraints” as their main obstacle to running their existing businesses.

More specifically, she noted that zoning laws and building codes are rarely written with agritourism in mind. She explained that many farmers and ranchers stand to benefit from new legal definitions which would “include some of the low-impact visitor services as a part of their operation”. These zoning and coding laws and regulations are the outcome of “each county’s planning department legitimately trying to protect agriculture.” Their narrow definition of that, however, has produced “strict zoning regulations that prohibit a lot.”

Liability laws and insurance policies are similarly designed for different industries, according to Leff. She pointed to a few states where an agritourism-specific liability law has been passed which “allows a farmer or rancher to usually register somewhere, post a sign that the farmer or rancher is not liable for things that happen out of their control.” Within California, Leff noted that similar provisions exist at the county level in California in Butte, Sacramento, and El Dorado counties particularly.

One local farmer, Chris Turkovich, spoke about how contradictory and confusing regulations made it difficult for his family’s farm to upgrade and improve its facilities with energy efficient and environmentally friendly products and processes. He noted that those outdated policies are “disincentivizing younger, newer, and smaller farmers, because of the burden and overhead cost to getting projects like these off the ground”. That sentiment that many younger farmers in particular are interested in better state and county support for agritourism was later echoed by other members of the public that came forward to speak.

Supporting agritourism in typically rural areas was discussed as not only requiring a revisiting of zoning, coding, and liability standards, but improving and expanding rural roads. Noelle Cremmers, a director at the California Farm Bureau Federation, explained that agritourism carries with it the risk of allowing tourism to come into rural communities and either impact them negatively or stretch their services beyond their limits. Cremmers explained, “If you have a three-acre parcel and you are having weddings and you regularly have a significant amount of traffic, that could impact your neighbor.”

Michelle Stephens, the “farmbudsman” for both Yolo and Solano counties, likewise echoed that point about agritourism stressing underinvested rural roads. She explained, “a less discussed component of agritourism is the rural roadways” which are “often the only thoroughfares that lead to the farms, and are commonly cited by neighbors as unsafe and a reason not to allow agritourism activities in rural areas.” Stephens additionally called for more positions that like hers to be created, to guide farmers through regulations. She also argued, however, for a critical approach towards rethinking how agricultural and rural businesses could comply with regulations written with urban businesses in mind.

Assemblymember Brian Dahle, one of the other assembleymembers in attendance, expressed appreciation for Stephens testimony, but seemed to politely disagree. He explained, “I live 75 miles away from a Walmart, to give you an idea of how rural my area is. Now, half the people there want growth, that’s usually the storefronts, the realtors. And then the other half would just like it to stay the way it is.” He added, “We want to be left alone by the agencies and everyone else.”

“Decisions have to be made with planning, and how you’re going to strike the balance between what your community wants your community to look like and how you’re going to continue one with those sorts of practices,” he ultimately explained. When he expressed specific ways that those conflicts often come up, he cited the expectations created by particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA had been previously absent from Stephens’ testimony, both in what specific regulations she referenced and the general scope of her argument. Chris Turkovich and a vineyard-owning speaker, Ann Wofford, had both briefly referenced it, as had Penny Leff who explained it might “inhibit some tours”. The crux of speeches by the various experts on the situations of these businesses had been that improving roads and revisiting regulations, if carefully done, could lead to some benefits. Dahle, a farmer himself, moved the focus of the regulations on to how ADA or environmental regulations could be weapons for petty feuds in rural communities, and reduced roads improvement to an act of intrusion.

One urban farmer from Sacramento, James Brady, declared that the testimonies about the needed changes had, immediately after Dahle’s response, made him “afraid” for how regulations might work against him. The message that many of the speakers had delivered, of agritourism bringing people together, had been soured by what conflicts had been referenced and Dahle’s anti-regulatory concluding note. What had started out as a reason for optimism on the part of agricultural communities, or perhaps a difficult but attainable goal, had been lost in the fray.

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The rising tide doesn’t lift all boats

TW: heterosexism, cissexism

A number of legal cases for marriage reform and the new state leadership in Virginia have combined to create the perfect storm in that state for the current ban on LGBTQ* marital recognition to be struck down. Elected only this past fall, current Attorney General Mark Herring campaigned on the basis of expanding marriage rights and in response to the various looming legal cases previously announced that he was “reviewing appropriate legal options” and has now filed alongside the plaintiffs in one Virginia case. This is a dramatic reversal to Virginia’s policy, which currently not only bans the recognition of those marriages but also the provision of any legal status to a same-sex couple with rights comparable to marriage.

Virginia joins a list of states, surprising to some, that have seen this issue recently come into question in spite of strict state-level bans. Both Utah and Oklahoma have in the past few weeks had federal judges strike down their policies, although granting same-sex couples marriage licenses has now been halted in Utah and not yet occurred in Oklahoma. All three of those states only had their sodomy laws, which banned sexual acts between same-sex couples, wiped out in only 2003 by the federal Supreme Court. To call this a quick progression seems like an understatement.

The expanding possibilities for many couples in all three of those states is highly limited, however, outside of the still uncertain changes to marriage laws. Housing discrimination against LGBTQ* people remains legal in all three. Likewise, none of those states collect or prosecute hate crimes against LGBTQ* people. Virginia is the only one of those states that has any protections against employment discrimination, which only applies to state employees and was only added earlier this month. All three also lack any sort of systemic protection for LGBTQ* people against harassment in schools or discrimination in accessing healthcare.

usa map - states with effectively no protections -
(The states shaded in above with red do not have any significant state-level protections for LGBTQ* people. They do not bar employment discrimination in either the public or private sectors for only cis LGBQ* people. They do not bar housing discrimination, again, even against cis LGBQ* people. They do not prosecute anti-LGBTQ* hate crimes, or even record them for federal purposes. Until this month, Virginia was also a member of this category.)

A common complaint in LGBTQ* activism is that the movement for recognizing their rights is overly focused on marriage and particularly avoids addressing the needs of transgender people. The evolving policies in these three states seems to suggest that, as they not only are far behind in protections other than marriage for LGBTQ* people, but they are among the most difficult states for transgender people to live in.

Oklahoma is among the few states that in a technical sense does not recognize transgender people – the state has no policy for or practice of changing the gender listed on a birth certificate. Utah and Virginia do modify birth certificates, but each with a catch. Utah fails to provide a new one, and simply “amends” an old one, which means that after modification it will come under increased scrutiny because of how it is “amended”. Virginia, alternatively, provides a new and authoritative certificate, but only after proof of an invasive surgery is offered. All three states fall far short of an ideal policy.

With one of several marriage cases already scheduled for January 30, majorities of Virginians in some polls supporting a turn from the current policy, and many legal experts comparing this issue to the push for legal interracial marriage (which was won nationally by a Virginian case), the next few weeks should hold some interesting developments. That said, Virginia, like much of the US, lags behind on the various other protections that LGBTQ* people find themselves in need of, particularly those most relevant to transgender people. Marriage reform is a necessary ingredient for resolving heterosexist and cissexist inequality in the US, but it isn’t sufficient on its own, which is among the “best” outcomes at the moment in those three and many other states. There may be a rising tide, but we’re seeing it fail to lift all boats at the moment.

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Let’s focus on Christie, starting with his past…

In the on-going realization that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was at least indirectly implicated (for systemically poor staffing choices, if not his personal involvement) in the illegal closing of most of the lanes of the George Washington Bridge, there’s been a shifting of sorts in how the issue has been discussed. With a large amount of information now released, and Christie’s office’s  intentional involvement confirmed, a lot of the criticism has actually moved from him and his staff towards those defending them. That’s not a necessarily counter-productive way of addressing the issue – after all, well-respected figures giving Christie a pass is an issue, but let’s not lose track of the radical revisiting of Christie’s record that this scandal calls for.

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For instance, what was the above? Was it really just a baffling endorsement? Or was it the result of a threat or fear of a threat? Beyond that and a million other odd “coincidences” that appear to have followed Christie throughout his years as governor, there’s also the small unknown matter of how he retained his job as a United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey. In that case, Christie’s political actions are documented, and in short, it’s been established that he maintained a fraudulent corruption case for as long as possible in order to harass a Democratic state Senator.

Political cartoon showing democratic donkey telling a sprinting Christie
(Let’s not even get started on this understanding of the issue, that ignores both the corruption and its defenders in the press, from here.)

The current scandal has brought many of these old memories up, of Bush-era venality which extends as a consistent pattern of corruption to this day. The political discussion should, at least to some degree, remain centered on Christie, but what’s more, we need to acknowledge how the situation has changed. The question we need to ask ourselves is no longer whether Christie is corrupt, but what corrupt activities he engaged in either personally or through his staff.

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The invisible racist

TW: racism, classism

Earlier today, Brittney Cooper published a thoughtful criticism of the way the Romney family was insulated from criticism about race, and in fact, Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor and television show host, was put on the spot to apologize for a segment she oversaw that poked fun at one of Romney’s son’s recent adoption of a Black child. It’s well worth the read, but at its core was a particularly enlightening comparison:

This faux-outrage on the right about MHP’s racism and insensitivity obscures exactly this set of truths about the right’s shoddy record on race. That both Mitt Romney and Phil Robertson have and love black grandbabies should remind us that racism is not primarily about individual attitudes. White folks can love individual black people and still build a world that is inhospitable to black folks. In fact, individual and exceptional black achievers are necessary to maintain the lie of racial progress. Their presence has very little to do with systemic change, though.

Phil Robertson (the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family who was called out for his heterosexist and racist comments) and Mitt Romney? To quote Pia Glenn on Romney’s new grandson: “One of these things is not like the others.” No, it’s not, and that’s the entire point of Cooper’s comparison. More of her readers rightfully can interpret Robertson’s actions and statements as racist, but Romney is a little bit harder for some to grasp their heads around.

Writing about this is tricky, because it’s actually not that Romney is more wealthy or socially powerful, so much as that Robertsons willingly set the markers of their wealth and similar lifestyle aside in the name of reality television. Even if it’s all an illusion though, the Robertsons are easier for many White people to mentally cast as racists compared to the Romneys who are whatever the US’s equivalent of the British “posh” is.

That’s a divide that has many outcomes. There hasn’t been an outcry over, for example, the Wall Street Journal publishing a wistful look back at the WASP dominance that once was, complete with half-century stale stereotypes of Irish Catholics as lecherous and a carefully unspecified non-WASP group of bankers as “greedy pigs” (golly gee, what could that mean?). Discontent with equating (perceived) moral failings with ethnic statues, the article likewise insists that corruption was non-existent during the days of WASP dominance. Given that according to its author, conservative writer Joseph Epstein, the Bush political dynasty “lost” its WASP status between George H W Bush and his son, it seems like corruption or failure disqualifies you from being a WASP, so as to keep the ethnic reputation intact.

(This article, the above image it contains, and millions of people around the world would disagree.)

That same sort of fence-post moving seems to be at play in the reasons why Epstein and the Wall Street Journal didn’t come under fire for quite literally implying that things were better under codified legal dominance by not only White people, but a very specific brand of White people. A few places passed around the article as an amusing demonstration of confusion and rudeness, but most carefully sidestepped labeling Epstein, his editors, or the publisher anything like racist. One article quoted a tweet that called the article “racist”, but without really agreeing, so much as noting that as an opinion. Another one only drops either of the r-words in relation to the articles contents (or its author, editors, and publisher) in saying it was “almost too transparent, resembling something closer to satire than to outright racism.” Quite literally, a privileged, educated and fundamentally well-off racist screed is easier to understand as poorly executed humor than an extension of racism.

None of this is to claim that if racist words had come out of not Robertson’s mouth but that of a distant relative or childhood neighbor it wouldn’t be racist (or, alternatively, that the racist ideas about a happy pre-civil rights past are not prevalent throughout the South and the US generally). Instead, it’s to question who we let off the hook when it comes to racist statements without even realizing it. More often than not, it seems like it’s well-off writers for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that are called out by fellow White people for classism, when racism is a clear factor as well. We’re too slow in picking up on and shutting down the racism of people who look like Robertson, but too many of us don’t seem to even realize the cruelties people who look like Romney regularly spew.

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Population determines proportion

In case you haven’t noticed yet, the past few years have seen national US media repeatedly comparing California and Texas, often in ways that are misleading if not outright wrongheaded. One of the key facts in the most recent incarnation of this is this one fact about internal immigration as referenced by Dan Balz in the Washington Post this way:

Nearly a quarter of the new, domestic immigrants to Texas between 2006 and 2012 came from California, which was by far the largest contributor of any state in the nation. Last year, according to the Census Bureau, 63,000 people moved from California to Texas, while 43,000 in Texas moved to California. [...] In a recent telephone interview, [president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard] Fisher exclaimed that Texas is “a jobs machine” and noted that Texas has seen an influx of migration from other states — the biggest being from California. “People vote with their feet, and right now they’re voting to come here — from New York and Michigan and California and so on,” he said. “Those are the facts, and one can apply value judgments.”

The reality that more people are moving from California to Texas than from Texas to California is an established fact, which is directly tied to political arguments over which set of the two state’s policies are more popular or leading to more stable and successful populations. But is there possibly any other explanation for the discrepancy between how many people are leaving California, compared to Texas besides that offered by Fisher?

Like, say, the comparative size of those populations? As long as we’re citing the census, let’s note what their most recent 2013 estimates for the number of people living in those states were. California supposedly had about 38 million to Texas’ just shy of 26.5 million. California is the equivalent, in terms of just the number of residents, of about 145 percent of Texas. The number of Californians moving to Texas is 146 percent of the number of Texans moving to California. The population flows are virtually identical to the existing discrepancy between those two states in terms of population. Proportionately, the same percentage of Californians are moving to Texas as Texans are moving to California – the only reason that’s not immediately recognizable is because of how much larger California’s population is.

The way that claim appears to have jumped from the mouth of one of the people interviewed for this story to the actual reporting in the Washington Post without even a cursory exploration of alternative explanations should give you pause, especially if you regularly read that paper. This is precisely what being a stenographer to power looks like – the failure to even conceive that a source could be wrong about or misleading in their use of a statistic.

(See here for an interactive version. The color indicates the state more people are leaving, with the size adjusted to reflect the number of them.)

Chris Walker presented the same sort of proportion-blind data, in an interactive graphic for Vizynary. I suggest checking it out, while keeping in mind that not all of the states shown have equal populations, so the direction of the flow isn’t necessarily an indication of something other than differing populations. It seems notable, however, that combined, Oregon and Washington are receiving more than ten thousand more migrants from California than Texas. In terms of the exist populations that those former Californians are joining, however, that’s a more significant change to the population that’s literally out of proportion. What hasn’t been asked is whether that reflects an interest in gaining the greater degree of economic security, particularly that found in Oregon where gas station laws create a more constant demand for basic service jobs and the lack of a sales tax helps create an impression of lower costs of living.

But discussing that wouldn’t fit a narrative of arguing in favor of business deregulation, now would it?

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The year that environmental racism started to get noticed

TW: racism, erasure of people of color, classism, colonialism, Israeli occupation

I wrote on-again-off-again about a phenomenon over the course of 2012, where historical and present realities of racism and colonialism created economic and environmental conditions for people of color that put them at greater risk in changing climates.

That August, there was a bit of joking about global warming at the 2012 RNC that was primarily met with Democratic criticism that in the future that will seem foolish. At that time it seemed pertinent to remind people that global warming was already making indigenous Alaskan communities more food insecure, as fishing times and spots had begun shifting in relation to new weather. In Fall, with Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in Haïti, it seemed important to highlight how the poverty in that country meant that buildings and infrastructure were both more likely to fail and more likely to not be rebuilt. In fact the 2010 earthquake hadn’t been dealt with, exacerbating both the fallout from the hurricane and the subsequent cholera epidemic as untreated water became a normal backdrop in Haïti. After Sandy made landfall in the US, the media seemed to wholly erase what had happened years before to predominantly Black communities in the Gulf as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The intersections between global warming, systemic racism, and poverty were there, but were seldom being connected.

To a degree, 2013 was an improvement on that, with environmental issues and the realities of racism and classism sometimes being introduced in tandem. The Idle No More movement, originally founded in 2012 by First Nations (ie, indigenous) activists in Canada became an international phenomenon in 2013, which both attracting indigenous peoples to its activism in other countries but was widely reported on. By the end of the year, a common narrative had formed. The pattern of communities vulnerable to economic and environmental exploitation attracting companies, foremost minerals extraction ones, then facing police violence in response to protests had become established. Most painfully, against Mi’kmaq protesters in Canada in late 2013. The role that racism played in these communities being selected for environmentally questionable policies and actions and later the racism that informed the police response was unfortunately largely implicitly referenced in major media.

There were additional limitations sadly imposed on this type of story, however, with them often conforming to a set formula. Overwhelmingly, it was only indigenous groups, not other ethnically marginalized people who were covered, and the near exclusive type of exploitation highlighted was mineral extraction often in association with fossil fuel companies in Canada or the United States. Just as in previous years, the on-going reality of ethnically and economically marginalized populations in South and Southeast Asia whose their ancestral lands can and often are selected to be flooded as a result of damming projects have remained largely overlooked.

environmental racism
(From here.)

We still haven’t quite gotten to the point where the global connections between poverty, racist and colonial practices and histories, and climate change are part of typical media reporting on a number of events worldwide, but we’ve edged closer. Can we wait for more people to make this connection on their own, so that it’s not a shock to them for media to cover it in that way? While we’re sitting here, the reality the Philippines were hit by a hurricane categorically stronger than any storm on the planet in more than thirty years, which sounds silly until you read the stunning wind speeds recorded as it passed through a densely populated portion of the Philippines, a former Spanish colony and US territory. The Philippines’ Climate Commissioner released a petition in the midst of attempting to contact his family, but his request for not even any specific policy change but for the largest contributors to carbon emissions to “acknowledge the new climate reality” that the Philippines now know all too well. That garnered less attention than the disaster itself, however.

More recently, unusually heavy rains flooded the Gaza territory in Palestine, whose infrastructure couldn’t handle the crisis under the weight of Israeli occupation and other international factors. Our failure to connect these forces costs isn’t just threatening people’s futures, but presently costing lives.

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The year that class apparently stopped mattering

TW: classism, racism, nativism

2012 was a fascinating year, especially from a perspective within the United States. There’s a long history of residents of this country telling ourselves that we’re a classless society, or failing that a country where opportunity is ubiquitous and untainted by social and political biases. Last year, and particularly the presidential election over the course of it, seemed like something of an abrupt end to that, with Romney’s 47 percent video solidifying class as inevitably one of the salient identities and the post-election analysis often becoming fixed on how rapidly support for the Democrat Obama transformed into support for the Republican Romney at around $50,000 per year per household in most states.

romney in a pile of money

(It was also a golden age of photoshopped images of Mitt Romney, for obvious reasons, from here.)

This past year something else happened, however, particularly in how the media analyzed issues. In short, class completely disappeared from the conversation. In some cases, the absence of class in how representative sets of groups were selected was appalling obvious, with Ron Fournier’s perceived look into the heads of current students he expects to lead the country in the future being a particularly vivid example. That the class of those he talked to (never even directly about the issue, it seems important to add) was a force that could bias them to a certain view on government was something Fournier never broached in his article. While he could obliquely reference their class status as easing their launch into “public service”, he couldn’t imagine it as something that shaped their opinions, their experiences, and ultimately their politics. It’s not that the economic system is invisible, just people’s status (that is, class) that apparently was to his eyes and ears. Likewise, the result was that the differing positions held by poorer young people weren’t considered.

Fournier was just an undeniable example of this phenomenon. Earlier in the year, in fact, Obama’s State of the Union address reflected a similar disrecognition of how his language divided immigrants into those that worked desired jobs and hence were imagined to be “highly-skilled” and even “entrepreneurs” and those that, ostensibly, are neither of those things as a result of them being unwanted. The reality that many undocumented immigrants are badly wanted as laborers by US-based businesses, but precisely because they can be exploited economically and socially, wasn’t acknowledged in the slightest. Much like the high school students with less affluent backgrounds, their reality (and hence, their political interests and needs) were outside of the discussion.

This failure to consider how class intersects with nearly all political issues didn’t merely erase poor people from the discussion, but actively distorted a number of historical figures records while they were remembered this year. From Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr, the class politics of a number of Black political figures were totally removed from public political memory, often as a part of otherwise remaking them into figures useful to White commentators. The former was done an additional disservice before his death, by BBC reporting that disregarded the economic reality of historical and modern South Africa, largely again by means of erasing the poorest residents of that country (who remain the indigenous Black communities) in order to make a political point that seemed stolen from White nationalists.

In a lot of formal and official discussions, 2013 was a year of class needlessly receding from the discussion, which often took any type of look at the beliefs, ideas, and even existence of the poorest people with it.

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The year that queer politics imploded

TW: heterosexism, sexism, racism, nativism, deportation, sodomy laws, colonialism

As far as I know, no one else has said this yet, but we need to entirely rethink the way we talk and think about struggling against the social, political, and even economic power that straight people have (or more concisely, heterosexism). The past year has been a startling series of signs of that. Yes, there’s been the longstanding bigotries and attitudes that are unfortunately familiar. The lack of same-gender marriages being recognized in parts of the US making queer/LGBT families uniquely vulnerable to forced separations as a result of either immigration policy and civil suits. Likewise, a person’s sexuality is apparently still proof of their inferiority, and hence the invalidity of their writings and views. More globally, there’s been a dramatic rolling back of queer political rights in first Russia, and now India. There’s some political conversations where heterosexism is talked about as being “over” in some sense, when the reality is that anti-heterosexism politics are still all too necessary.

Just not the kind that we have right now.

Over the past year, the supposedly queer response to the reality that queer couples lack legal protections was often to trivialize what marital recognition means while as previously mentioned the direct link between penalizing cohabitation or actually separating such families with deportation continued to exist. A certain willingness to question whether that or other policies are the best ways of protecting ourselves is of course, important. But that line of thinking about and hopefully for queer people has become a common tool of straight and cisgender commentators – and not just those that seem to be intending to be genuinely mindful, but also those that are more dubious, or those that are outright trying to define what our politics can and should be. This sort of thinking that were originally designed by and for queer people to use to keep our politics healthy have, in short, been hijacked. They’ve been turned into mechanisms that straight and cisgender people now regularly use to police our politics.

The problem is much larger than the increasingly controlling role that straight and cisgender people have sought to have in queer politics over 2013. In short, there’s also the problems that accompany the Dan Savages of the queer communities. Or rather, a very specific queer community that’s near exclusively White and male (among other demographic specifics). The legal reality that marriage for queer White men very seldom means being liberated from the threat of civil suits by controlling former husbands or sperm donors seems to be the reason why that perspective on marriage is rarely offered. The rare references to how marriage eases immigration and can mean the difference between being allowed to stay with your family or deportation and separation are rare because of how unusual it is for that to affect that specific subset of queer people. The “frivolous” focus on marriage is a product of it being talked about as purely a sign of social inclusion and acceptability, which is frankly what it is for the group of queer people who are most visible within the US.

Looking back at 2013, queer politics were on a national (if not international) scale dominated by the concerns of that specific group. There were far more conversations this year about Dan Savage’s misguided (and honestly bizarre) boycott of a vodka company with a Russian name than Masha Alexanderovna Gessen’s experiences at the hands of Russian police. The limited look at what heterosexism is to queer White men (and generally speaking ones that live in the US or Western Europe and so on) is part of what’s given it the appearance of being a hazy mix of nonsensical consumer choices and other issues that seem fundamentally reducible to a specter of heterosexism that could be applied to them (while it is actually being applied to other queer people).

(Taking a momentarily broader look at the recent history of queer politics – it was largely White cis men like Dan Savage that made queer politics something straight and cisgender “allies” could feel comfortable engaging it, while at the same time it seems, they created the impression of it as superficial and “frivolous” which said “allies” can now use to control discussions about more “pertinent” politics. 2013 is merely a hopeful breaking point in this feedback loop that has a longer history.)

Ideally, queer politics don’t have to be that way. We can have conversations about marriage that notice that it’s not merely been a straights-only matter of whose relationships have been recognized, but such a club that was imposed as a part of European colonialism. In some cases, changing those laws can be a part of dismantling the still lingering sexual and gendered aspects of colonial domination. With the recent news of India’s effective reinstitution of sodomy laws, it seems important to note how reporting packaged for Western audiences failed to recall that the law was originally undemocratically instituted by British colonial rulers, while more globally-minded media has put that history front and center.

377 ipc 2
(Meanwhile, protesters in India simply referenced the penal code in question (377) and the decolonization Quit India movement to make their point, from here.)

But that very same dynamic of decolonization played out much earlier in 2013 in New Zealand, where again allies talking about the insubstantial or irrelevant nature of the marriage reforms also reared its head. While a White, cis, straight, male member of their parliament explained his support for the new law in terms of how little he saw it as impacting “the fabric of society”, Louisa Wall, the Maori and lesbian MP who had introduced the law, was honored with flowers from her colleagues and serenaded with a Maori love song by the parliament’s gallery. There’s many ways of understanding what happened in those moments, but it’s hard to deny something important happened there, with an indigenous and queer woman being celebrated in her ancestral language at the heart of the government that colonized her people and previously insisted that it would not recognize any relationship that she had wanted to be in. In short, it was a reclamation of space, and perhaps even power.

It seems like that sort of issue, as New Mexico and Hawaii – both states with large indigenous populations which like the Maori have differently conceptualized relationships and sexuality from their White colonizers – joined the portions of the US that recognize same-gender marriages. That, like many of the other more complicated aspects of marriage and other issues at the forefront of queer political thought at this moment, wasn’t acknowledged much over the course of this year.

A part of breaking the consensus between more enfranchised queer populations and the broader world of straight and cisgender politics that those sorts of reforms are largely window-dressing lies in recognizing those lived experiences and how important those supposedly small changes can be in terms of their personal meaning but also in many cases the political protections they afford people and their families. Many of the little political details that surround queer people in the US began rapidly changing over the course of 2013, but a significant amount of that has been invisible to people who are certain that queer issues are in and of themselves frivolous. We need politics that can, and can respond to those realities.

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The year a third mainstream security stance emerged

TW: racism, abilism, drone strikes, mass surveillance, imperialism

I wrote at the end of last year that gun control had, at least in some way, become a more visible issue within the US over the course of 2012. At the time, I didn’t realize the potential for a similar set of politics to emerge on other similarly security-focused issues. A number of events over the past year, however, suggest that we’re in the midst of a messy, shuttering political realignment on security issues – with risks faced by both major political parties and the two pre-existing main political camps. What started last year with rising interest in gun control measures designed to restrict access to weapons or ammunition for people of color and people with documented mental illnesses, has become a full set of policy prescriptions that indelibly reflect discussions about rights cloaking opinions about power and privilege.

The most obvious incarnation of this is the rise of the Rand Paul-style opposition to drone strikes, which is always careful to drop mentions of strikes being unnecessary on US citizens or within US territory, or Stop Watching US-style opposition to mass surveillance, which inevitably drops references to the invasive nature of spying on “suspicionless Americans”. The familiar debates of the Bush era have apparently disintegrated in the past few years, with the issue no longer being whether existing anti-crime and anti-terrorism systems were “keeping us safe” or had contributed to drastic restrictions on people’s rights. Against the by-the-book moderate politics of many Democrats and the more hawkish interest in more police and military actions that otherwise dominates US politics, a new third bloc has emerged. It’s radically opposed to the current state systems of policing and targeting people, but fundamentally only on a contextual basis.

(I am far from the only person who noticed this way of thinking about state power this year, from here.)

There’s been something of a Faustian exchange that’s happened. Criticism of the policies and systems that have been grossly misused and expanded in the past few years have suddenly coalesced into a viable and identifiable political wing, even in the US government. But that new political force is at its core separate from the far longer outcry against these systems that’s been a part of the politics of many marginalized populations for centuries now. This new political faction’s ideas seem to be about shoring up differences between people in how these laws effect them. Rather than critical of state power, they’re predicated on merely making its fallout more guided.

There’s a question we should all ask ourselves as this new force continues to disrupt the old conversation about security: is it drawing supporters and support from those that previously have advocated for more violence or is it taking from and taking over a nascent movement that could have challenged the violation of rights of non-citizens, of people of color, of the mentally disabled or ill?

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Pop culture is moving fast

TW: transmisogyny, sexism, racism

Today I just want to quickly draw your attention to two really radical developments in the past couple of hours. If you live in the US (and probably a good chunk of the rest of the world) you might have heard about Beyoncé’s unexpected album release last night. Her work is full of interesting songs working through some rather complicated politics (reflecting her various and fluctuating socio-economic statuses), but what seems to have caught a lot of people’s eyes is the song ***Flawless, which seems like a simultaneous rebuke of the marginalization of women of color from feminist spaces and events and the social and economic limiting of women to variously circumscribed “feminine spheres”. Here’s the thirty second promotion for the music video that’s been released:

The full video has, of course, been leaked, with numerous people finding it important how it highlights women of color dancing and otherwise inhabiting a modern punk-esque musical scene. In short, this is a huge declaration of women’s right to full participation in society with an underlining of that for specifically women of color.

(Stills from the video, from here.)

A little less publicly recognized, today was also the first release of THEM, a literary magazine for trans* writers and poets, and likewise trans* readers. You can read the excellent complication here (warning discussion of ableism and suicide as well), but I have to particularly recommend Joy Ladin’s poem on trans-exclusive feminism (on page 68), which ends on a particularly poignant note:

may binaries blossom in your follicles and fingertips
until you can’t conceive good without evil, life without death
self without others you disdain

There’s a lot of things happening with varying degrees of visibility within pop culture at the moment, and I think we should all acknowledge that today.

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The long shadow of Apartheid

TW: racism, Apartheid

Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95 years. For many South Africans he occupies an interesting political space – as both something of a founder of their present democracy and the embodiment of its limitations (namely to challenge the economic disparities created under Apartheid rule). From within US and UK politics, however, the present remembrance of Mandela exists in a different awkward context, with almost all figures lionizing Mandela, even those who worked against him and with the Apartheid government for decades. Although Reagan is no longer a living part of that number, there is a largely forgotten history of his and others’ support for that repressive, racist government:

The story doesn’t end there, but rather continues to include Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, and then his selective and incomplete enforcement of it after congress blocked his veto with vote margins unimaginable today. There are many reasons why the perpetual idolization of Reagan by many White, straight, and cisgender Americans is profoundly unsettling for others, but his insistence on negotiation with the settler colonial regime in South Africa should clearly be near the top of that list.

Of course, the story is not merely one of former officials who supported the Apartheid government who are with us only in memory, but familiar faces that remained in power long after casting votes in favor of inaction in that conflict and even the replacement of that state with another that actually allowed the vast majority of its population the right to simply vote.

Many prominent Republicans come to mind, but none more than Dick Cheney, who continued to serve in the Senate for three years after his vote towards the end even advancing to Majority Whip, a leadership position. Following that, he was promoted to Secretary of Defense under President George Bush (the first one). He spent most of the 1990s a well-regarded lobbyist, but returned, with minimal criticism, to politics as Vice President for eight years. He has within conservative circles remained so positively received that his daughter was taken as serious contender in a Senate race for no other reason than her relation to him. While it’s a bit early to tell, her campaign may ostensibly stay afloat purely as a result of his connections and still intact reputation.

Dick Cheney and Ronald Reagan during Reagan's presidency
(Guess that was another thing these two have had in common?)

In short, he has never been held accountable for his role in working against resistance to Apartheid rule. Unshockingly, that lack of accountability has led to him feeling that he was not in fact in the wrong on that, but all along was right in his course of action. Even now, Cheney stands by his record that Mandela and the ANC were “terrorists” and that any restriction on the government most directly opposed to them was to be delayed, hindered, or stopped.

Reagan famously explained his position on the sanctions against the Apartheid government as being motivated by an interest in opposing the government responsibly and not too rashly. If that’s the case, then why is this part of his and Cheney’s history so rarely discussed? Why was Mandela still listed as a terrorist by the US government until 2008? Why are defenses of Apartheid specifically and (neo-)colonialism in Africa more broadly still so prevalent among conservatives in the United States?

The United States (among other countries) has never examined its role in maintaining and supporting Apartheid rule. This is the fallout of that – that wide swathes of our country’s politicians and even many citizens still support that system built on the idea of White supremacy and Black servitude. So far, that reality has been inadequately challenged. Let’s change that.

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