A Game of Thrones: Same old, same old.

How many frogs for a prince?

How many frogs to get a prince?

Gina Bellafante’s review of HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has stirred the ire of women fantasy readers given she termed it “boy fiction.” Worse, Bellafante asserts that perversions such as the incestuous plot-line seem to have been thrown in as an afterthought of the show to attract women.

Having picked up the first three volumes last summer, I enjoyed them to some extent. I would consider myself to be an avid fantasy reader and Martin is certainly a talented writer. At the same time, I couldn’t get past the rampant sexism and misogyny of his world. He threw us ladies some bones with a few strong women. Even then, he wrote about a heavily male dominated world in which belittling women is as commonplace as the long stretches of winter. Every other page registered a new slur or slight in the characters’ every day scorn and hatred of women.

Of course, fantasy literature set in a sexist world is nothing new. Sometimes authors are even smart about it. What boggles my mind is that a genre labeled “fantasy”, something that by its very nature aims to step outside of the bounds of “reality” so often hews to extreme gender roles. While the conception of a world with dragons or fantastic magic is no stretch of one’s imagination, authors often unthinkingly replicate and even grossly exaggerate patriarchal norms.

Martin failed to show me that the extreme sexism of his world had any sort of point in the first three volumes. While I bridle at the idea of labeling things “for boys” or “for girls”, I don’t think Martin’s intended audience ever included women readers. In the great majority of fantasy writing, male characters ascend and stand out in the face of all kinds of adversity. Isn’t it time we retired this one-dimensional trope of the token few women who manage to succeed despite (and according to how well they take on the mantle of) patriarchy?

The Women Men Don’t See*: James Tiptree Jr. aka, Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

Self Portrait in Snow



“I’d peeled myself down to the empty core. But then it seemed as though there was a little more of me after all. I found another onion.” – Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” – Robert Silverberg

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

I had been lusting after James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon for awhile, and in ‘celebration’ of my decision to read more women’s biographies decided to finally grab a copy. I know, so counter-intuitive, you would think I would have done so after actually having read a few but I find all sorts of excuses to buy books….

So… onto this book in which all lavish adjectives of praise fall short. I picked it up the day it arrived to read “a page or two” and never put it down. From the very first page, Phillips successfully envelops one in Sheldon’s life. It was my “go-to” book until I had about 100 pages left. At that point I began rationing it every night “wanting to spend a little time with Alli.” A little nuts maybe, but this book is such a perfect synthesis of the words of Sheldon’s through letters and journals, the relationships she built with writers and fans of science fiction and Phillips’ narration of her life. Of particular interest are her exchanges with women sci-fi authors such as Ursula le Guin and Joanna Russ (both of whom I want to know more about now) and reading their own efforts at navigating the genre as women.

The terrible thing is, when I get a letter (or a reaction) like that – from a man – I tend not to grow 10′ teeth but to start crying. Which makes me feel muddled, humiliated, grateful, humiliated that I feel grateful, and most of all – recognized.

Joanna Russ on the cachet that praise from men has, despite being fully aware of the power dynamic at play.

I feel like I “know” Sheldon, and what a beautiful, complex, flawed person. I felt utterly captivated and my heart ached for her as the book drew to a close. While one is aware throughout the book that she ends up committing suicide, I still couldn’t help but mourn, the breath knocked out of me as I read about it, feeling sick inside by the loss of someone I had just “met.”

Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.

While there is the opportunity to think about gender and writing throughout much of the book, Phillips weaves in a pointed meditation about the subject in its final pages. It goes to show how one’s opinions of gender inform the way one reads or receives a work (I can call up a particularly long winded critique about this after seven years of working in the book world.) and to my ultimate chagrin, is a conversation that rarely seems to go beyond feminist circles. In addition, it truly saddens me that Sheldon had so much trouble acknowledging her incredible accomplishments as a woman. She seemed a vibrant, passionate and intensely curious person (Gardner Dozois: “one of the most fascinating conversationalists I’ve ever met, brilliant, theatrical, far-ranging, strikingly perceptive.”) and yet she believed she was nothing without the veneer of a male persona. While I am certainly not foolish enough to believe it would have vanquished all of her demons, I wonder how things would be different if she had been much younger when the feminist movement occurred. She was incredibly perceptive about the structure of society and the way things work and yet lacked the affirmation that while patriarchy does not deem it as such, HER activities carried just as much merit as a man’s. Two of the passages that were such striking examples of this are below:

Moreover I suspect that most of the organised world activities are male-structured (as well as male-dominated) so I can’t believe that simply filling in the personnel-slots with women means anything real. And I don’t think things would get much different unless women had a chance to build their own world… which ends up like Russ’ “When it changed” and not Beyond Equality at all (My note: Beyond Equality was a sci-fi anthology of stories imagining what the world would be like once equality between the sexes had been achieved that Tiptree and Russ had been asked to contribute to.). Everything else I try just ends up with Golda Meier running a space station, the Heinlein jocks-in-skirts thing. [...] I REFUSE to fancy some stereotype like Women-Have-ESP or Only-Women-can-understand-aliens etc. etc.

- James Tiptree Jr. in a letter to Vonda McIntyre.

The distasteful proof that my sexuality is bound up with masochistic fantasies of helplessness [...] depressed me profoundly. I am not a man, I am not the do-er, the penetrator. And Tiptree was “magical” manhood, his pen my prick. I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was – though an aging intellectual – of those who own the world. How I loathe being a woman. Wanting to be done to. [...]

Tiptree’s “death” has made me face – what I never really went into with Bob [Harper] (my note: Sheldon’s therapist) – my self-hate as a woman. And my view of the world as structured by raw power. [...] I want power. I want to be listened to. [...] And I’ll never have it. I’m stuck with this perverse, second-rate body; my life.

- Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

It frustrates me that she did not have the benefit of a therapist that could help her explore what it is to be a woman in patriarchy but rather a man who seemed to regard her as an oddity, completely uncomfortable with a woman expressing or being angry. There is also the question of her sexual orientation, and it couldn’t have helped to be at a loss as to what one was feeling in a society that was(is) simply intolerant and did not allow language for that expression. I also wonder truly if she suffered from agoraphobic anxiety. I feel like this brilliant woman was completely failed by the time she lived in, and it makes me so sad.

I hadn’t been interested in reading her work as James Tiptree Jr. before reading this book, but now I will be sure to pick it up. *The title of this entry is the name of one of Tiptree’s stories.

“You can’t stop force with force.”

Bigots are American Too

September 11, 2010 - Tea Party sympathizers chant ugly slogans in an anti-Mosque rally while others slip behind them with signs such as Free Hugs, Love, and Bigots are American too.

I’m taking a course this semester called Communities and Conflict, which interested me due to its focus on civilians in war. I have long been deeply frustrated about the wars the United States wages in the name of “freedom” and “liberty.” We allow these pat phrases to gloss over the intense destruction civilians experience on the ground, resulting in a frightening lack of holistic perspective and an inability to grasp why our foreign policy is so problematic. A class on the anthropology of war with a focus on the civilian perspective seemed like a perfect start to help me begin to remedy this gap in my knowledge.

Parallel to this is my increased interest in literature, preferably written by women. Encountering an annotated edition of Virginia Woolf’s anti-war text Three Guineas in the bookstore the other day, I simply could not resist. I have been slowly absorbing the introduction to the book, written by Jane Marcus, with intense pleasure. I don’t generally consider myself to be a pacifist, but I find Woolf’s intention with Three Guineas to be fascinating in light of my own reaction to the texts I’m reading for Communities and Conflict. An interesting and integral feature of the book is the pictures of men who held positions of power in England at the time – a decorated general (and founder of the Boy Scouts), the President of Cambridge, an Archbishop, and a judge – she is prompting us to connect the dots between these interconnected seats of power and direct our ire towards the structure. Jane Marcus states that without these pictures, which many editions removed, one is not reading the same book. In addition (emphasis mine):

The Spanish photographs of mutilated “dead children” and of “ruined houses” are ruthlessly referred to over and over again in the book. They are like a red flag or (perhaps) a Republican banner running through her agonizing argument that you can’t stop force with force. She notes disapprovingly that the Madrid bombing photographs incite one to anger. She will not print them, lest they incite more volunteers to go off to war. But what are we to do with these bewigged and bemedaled men we see in the photographs in the book before us? (lxi)

It seems I would garner Woolf’s disapproval as I can’t help but read Carolyn Nordstrom’s book, A Different Kind of War Story, without feeling despair, helplessness and rage. It chronicles the coping strategies of civilians in the Mozambican Civil War. Layers of violence characterize their lives – from the acute (physical) violence that is typically showcased in accounts of war to the cultural and structural violence that continues to impact Mozambicans in the ensuing upheaval. I can’t help but think “raze it all” when thinking about the perpetrators, an “instinct” (?) to strike back with some sort of violence in response. Something that really gripped me was Nordstrom’s point that one of the essential facets of war is the obliteration of a culture and one’s vision of the future:

The Mozambican scholar Sergio Viera once said to me that the aim of the war was to create a nonsociety, and that is why tactics like castration are employed. The spectacle of violence cannot be detached from its experience, its aftermath, its enduring reality. Dirty war specialists know the actions of today define the truths of tomorrow.

One of the most insidious and powerful targets of violence is the very sense of future that gives definition and direction to people’s lives. In an uncertain present, a future is impossible to determine. But to be human is to have a future, and this lack of future, people said, can fuel further violences…

I think what fascinates me so much about these two texts is the alternatives outlined in respect to the urge to continue the cycle of violence. Nordstrom reveals the coping strategies that Mozambicans have created to stop the violence of the war, stating “it is my opinion that average Mozambican citizens instituted a series of conflict resolution practices that are among the most refined I have seen anywhere in the world” (p. 40). While one may regard Mozambicans with possessing more of a “right” than anyone to fight violence with violence, they employ alternate mechanisms.

For instance, villagers kidnapped and reintegrated soldiers, rehabilitating and accepting them back into community life. Both victims of violence and participants were encouraged to farm plots of land to reestablish their connection to the community and the land in an effort to promote healing. A number of different kinds of ceremonies were held in order to promote this healing process. It seems to me that these ceremonies, conducted by the community as a whole, were integral in recreating the bonds that the violence targets and severs through the promotion of very specific acts. Rather than respond and continue the cycle of violence, Mozambicans invested in the well-being of others and worked to restore the sense of future that had been destroyed. War and violence were treated as a disease that needed to be cured and “taken out of people” (p. 144) rather than an innate part of human nature.

My own exploration of cycles of violence has never gone beyond power dynamics, but I’m finding that I obviously have a lot to learn about subverting that cycle. As illustrated by the protests sweeping the Middle East, pacifism need not be passive and has the potential to be incredibly powerful. I am still astonished to have learned (thanks to the ALOUD podcast with Slavoj Zizek) that the phrase “turn the other cheek”, so often used to promote taking abuse willingly, had another meaning when Jesus invoked the phrase. Rather, it meant to demand equality, creating a dilemma for the person who meted the abuse. With that, I’ll end with a final but captivating quote from Nordstrom’s book:

Ultimately, the Mozambicans who forged systems of resistance to war remind the rest of us that violence is not a fixed entity, a “truth” to be dealt with, but instead it is a social, political, and cultural construction that noncombatants – the targets of most violence – can redefine to assert their own political will. In de-legitimizing violence, people reconstruct a new political culture, one that delegitimizes the politics of force. Such political reconstructions are a serious threat, for they simultaneously delegitimize the political systems that rely on force to maintain power. They remind us that violence crushes political will only if people believe in its ability to do so. When people take the definition of violence into their own hands, they are affecting political will. (p. 143-144)

The Vote to Defund Planned Parenthood

V for Vendetta

Pro Democracy rally in Hong Kong: We are all V



Let’s dispense here and now with this silly fiction that we live in a representative Democracy. Rather, we live in a country which is run by an elite cadre of mostly white men, one of whom, Steve King, has characterized Planned Parenthood as “ghastly and ghoulish.” The incident he cites, that of someone acting like a “pimp” and seeking advice concerning his “girls” to incriminate Planned Parenthood is baseless. The offending counselor was fired and Planned Parenthood promptly called the police – a far cry from engaging in and condoning behavior that was subsequently covered up. And yet King uses this incident in a bid to link them with illegal immigration and “child prostitution” for political leverage when the heart of these issues couldn’t be further from an organization like Planned Parenthood. In addition, none of the federal money Planned Parenthood receives goes to funding abortions.

I have thought about whether I should attach my name to this and while I am wary about doing so it gives a measure of credibility. I’d also like to think that I live in a society that will not penalize me for this, however much I know that it is untrue. I want to know how many men who voted to defund Planned Parenthood took it upon themselves to speak to those of us who have taken advantage of Planned Parenthood’s services. I want to know how many of them sought to get a balanced perspective, rather than choose to continue this sickening vendetta.

Having been brought up in a rather extreme Christian household, Planned Parenthood was the first supportive environment I encountered where I could talk to someone about sex. It was the first environment where knowledgeable adults expressed true care and concern for my sexual well being, the first place I could open up and put my issues with sexuality on the table. I was 24 years old and I was terrified. It began an incredible healing process for me, and I feel truly devoted to the organization given the help I received from their staff. In addition, it is where I went for years to get birth control so that I could prevent the need to get an abortion. Planned Parenthood allowed me to make responsible decisions about my future without the shaming, unnatural dogma of abstinence education.

And even with the incredible testimony of Jackie Speier illustrating that perhaps not all Democrats are spineless sell outs, the vote to defund still passed. This all out vendetta against reproductive services for women is becoming less and less about abortion and more about women’s sexual freedom. And somehow I doubt her speech, nor the words of any of us will matter as illustrated by the House vote. Male lawmakers will continue to boil the debate down to abstractions, accusing women of being “cavalier” in the choice to abort while at the same time blowing off the very real issue of women’s health (Remember McCain’s air quotes?) and such situations as rape, incest, and the inability to truly care financially for a child.

I’ll be watching what the Senate does with bated breath.

Book Review โ€“ The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability by Laura Kipnis

I can't decide if the shadows make for an interesting shot or if they're just plain distracting.




The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability by Laura Kipnis

As I read my way through the first chapter, I felt like I was reading a Cosmo or Glamour for feminists, a little trashy and a lot of fluff, but just enough to have some bite. Several times I almost put it down, but I’m glad I kept reading due to taking some perverse pleasure in it.

To some extent, it’s a frustrating read. It is just as dichotomous and contradictory as the subject Kipnis seeks to explain. Her sweeping statements about how great women have it “post-feminism” are irksome (Though she states from the beginning that she is speaking from a middle-upper class white woman’s perspective.). She hits upon some great insights but rarely has the analytical depth to take it further. Instead, the first chapter is replete with mocking swipes at feminists who invoke patriarchy to explain social behavior and the structure of society. To say that a woman’s behavior is influenced by patriarchy is not the same as denying her agency – though Kipnis seems to think so.

Sex and Dirt, the central chapters, are the strongest and quite captivating. An interesting mix of science, history and culture mixed in with her own theories on the subjects at hand. It’s this perfect synthesis, and resulted in one of my favorite quotes in the book regarding women and sex:

As if all that weren’t enough, factor in the whole tedious millenial saga of female virtue, modesty, shame, repression, male ineptitude…in short, a cruel combo of anatomical inheritance and sexual inhibition for the gal set; a nature-culture one-two punch, right to the female pleasure principle.

By the time I was through with them I was eager to read more and genuinely interested in hearing more of her theories.

Unfortunately, Vulnerability went downhill and I felt it was as weak as the first chapter. I thought her analysis of anti-porn feminists and the issue of rape to be way off, both for the same reason. Her discussion of prison rape misses the mark because she maintains that feminists put forth that rape is about violence. This is a glaring mistake, and I’m somewhat appalled that she wrote a whole rebuttal to feminist thought that hinges rape and violence. The feminist mantra about rape is that it’s NOT about violence but about power. Perhaps power and violence are synonymous to her, but when viewing all forms of rape through a lens of power, particularly with a focus on misogyny, the dynamic she scoffs at makes a lot more sense.

She also skewers feminists who have been affronted by the sexual advances of men in power as “female wounded bird syndrome.” Also thought this was way off – it isn’t about expressing delicacy and fragility and “refeminizing” oneself so much as it is about wanting to be seen as a person rather than a conquest. My question in the case she describes of a professor who invites a student to meet with him to “talk about her poetry” and instead makes sexual advances towards her – if the student had been a man, would her professor have taken her body of work seriously rather than blowing it off and using his position inappropriately? At times the last chapter had me pretty infuriated.

Despite my issues with the book, I’d recommend it. There were instances when I definitely felt challenged, and she gave me some things to think about. I genuinely enjoyed it and at times it was hilariously funny. It takes a lot for me to laugh out loud when reading a book, and she had me cracking up.

Bibliophilia – 50 in 2011

50 in 2011

 

As an incessant collector of books and a bibliophile (Another might go with the much less delicate “hoarder.”) I often find I’m swimming in them – negotiating a constant mess of piles. I’ve decided that I want my reading to take a more goal oriented approach in an effort to make progress in reading books I own. For instance, I have an ever growing collection of biographies about women but most of them have gone unread. Same with fiction that doesn’t have a science/fantasy element to it. This could be a laughable endeavor given I seem to acquire a new stack of books weekly, but I like impossible challenges!

Methodology: I selected fifty books that I’d really love to get to this year from my collection. I’m not aiming to read them all so much as using them as a guide to prioritize what to pick up. I will probably keep the list at 50 throughout the year – once one is read on the list I will add another to replace it. I’m also not requiring that I read only what’s here, I know I’ll be reading many other things though they will probably be lighter reads.

Classics
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
Lolita – Vladimir Nabakov
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
She – H. Rider Haggard
Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
Dubliners – James Joyce

Biography
Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabakov – Stacey Schiff
Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi – Katherine Frank
Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life – Caroline Moorehead
The White Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong – Terrill Ross
Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA – Brenda Maddox
Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle
Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis – Ralph Freedman
A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII – Sarah Helms
Geisha: A Life – Mineko Iwasaki

Politics, Current Events and Economics
Anarchism: From Theory to Practice – Daniel Guerin
Man Made Language – Dale Spender
Women, Culture and Politics – Angela Davis
Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform – Sharon Hays
Zapatista Reader – Tom Hayden
The Cost of Living – Arundhati Roy
Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace – Vandana Shiva
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty – Dorothy Roberts
Juki Girls, Good Girls: Gender and Cultural Politics in Sri Lanka’s Global Garment Industry
Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East
The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy – Raj Patel
Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda – Peter Uvin
Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives – Cynthia Enloe
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World – Mike Davis

Various Non-Fiction
A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present – Howard Zinn
An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales – Oliver Sacks
The Cosmic Serpent – Jeremy Narby
In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development – Carol Gilligan
Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi
The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit
God is Red: A Native View of Religion – Vine Deloria Jr.
ADDED: The Frailty Myth – Colette Dowling

Fiction
House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski
The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula LeGuin
Mistress of the Art of Death – Ariana Franklin
Petals of Blood – Ngugi wa Thiong’o
The City and the City – China Mieville
Surfacing – Margaret Atwood
The Glass Bead Game – Hermann Hesse
Still Waters in Niger – Kathleen Hill
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

Universal Human Rights: Child Marriage

"Citizen of the World" - 9/11 Memorial Wall

Criticism means accountability, it means that you take the other person seriously… For me, marriage at the age of 9 for women is not my culture… I feel if that is my culture, then segregation is the culture of this country [US]. – Azar Nafisi on Aloud, at the Los Angeles Library

Working my way through a stack of law journal articles on child marriage, I put them down in disgust, feeling somewhat disillusioned as it became obvious that the sole “best practice” seems to be tax incentives. Now, don’t get me wrong – one of my primary interests is the impact of economics on human rights and poverty and this certainly falls under that category. In addition, child marriage has as much to do with poverty as gender inequality and it is important to address that factor to insure long term change. At the same time, I can’t help but feel that this is a dismal, unsustainable solution that fails to offer a holistic approach to the problem. Of course, to look at the issue in depth reveals a many headed hydra as one’s head spins at being utterly overwhelmed.

While getting my cultural anthropology degree in undergrad I flirted with the idea of cultural relativity. During my time in the discipline, I definitely “tried it on” and did my best to think from this perspective. In retrospect this is something I could never truly subscribe to. Cultural relativity is important to a point. This is a debate that is often hashed and rehashed in graduate classes – and one that I love to tackle regardless of how many times it has come up. Where is the line between imposing one’s values and that of a universal set of rights? Where is the line in which one steps back for the sake of “culture” or where one says “No, this is wrong.”? A long held frustration for me is that the cultural relativity argument is often used to shrug one’s shoulders at issues that impact women. Rather than calling out and denouncing abusive practices, they are written off as “culture.” This is certainly one of the places where I draw the line on cultural relativity.

I was dismayed by a heated debate in which people were criticizing the project to decrease the practice of child marriage as an imposition of culture. It’s extremely important to continuously question one’s practice, and the project merits criticism given it is designed in a top down fashion. At the same time, this is a practice that more often than not has horrific consequences for the girls that are married. While I can see the need to significantly retool the approach, I can’t simply step back on the grounds of cultural imposition. Human rights are universal. Women’s rights are universal.

A Retrospective

1,000 Buddhas Temple in Hong Kong - This place was just breathtaking. And thank you to Mike for photoshopping out a distracting point of light!! One of these days I'll need to learn to do that myself...

It’s been a month and a half since I returned home from Hong Kong. The place has taken on this strange sense of unreality to me in my mind, as if perhaps it never happened. At the same time, I think things have slowly been percolating under the surface. I had the privilege of talking about my experience last week and it called to mind all the amazing things I observed and learned over the course of the trip.

I had a pretty horrible return home, in truth. Things did not turn out at all as I thought they would and while I don’t want to speak too soon, I believe I’m well on my way to recovery. Regardless, it’s just another challenge that I’m proving to myself I’m strong and resilient enough to get past – it sounds strange, but things really couldn’t have turned out better. I’m fortunate, and I know I’m going to see that in the future. I find myself treasuring little moments at random and it feels good.

I’m slowly reorienting myself to focus on things to come and I can feel the excitement building. Thanks to my summer experience, I’m planning on applying to law school. My daydreams currently focus on moving to California to attend Berkeley, my first choice, but I’ll be applying to NYU and Columbia as well. I’m actually really looking forward to beginning the application process, the likes of which I used to utterly dread. I feel like the work I’ve put into my life in the past two years has truly brought about fundamental changes and the future looks bright. It was a real privilege to spend the summer in Hong Kong and the experience helped show this to me.

I’ve started to slowly sort through the pictures I brought back with me, and it’s such a blessing to have them. There’s a small part of melancholy at recalling the undercurrent of excitement at returning home… but so many other things as well. It’s such an amazing chronicle of the things that happened to me during my trip, what I was feeling and thinking.

Lastly, this semester will be great but tough I’m sure. I’ll have to have three “deliverables” by the end – a group consultant project on reducing child marriage, a human rights and poverty case study and a research paper. I think I’ve settled on the case study topic, which will use the massacre of the migrants in Mexico last month to look at the broader issues of trade policies such as NAFTA and CAFTA and the dangers that the migrants face in their efforts to get to the US border and subsequent treatment once they are here.

As for the research paper, my head is swimming with so many topics and I’m seriously frustrated about the idea of having to pick just one!! I originally wanted to focus on aspects of US development agencies to study whether their projects truly help or if “development” is simply another political weapon. I’m skeptical that I’d have enough serious resources to go on this. In addition, the development world tends to get few things right in general, so who’s to say it’s not typical failure rather than outright malevolence? So I’m pondering other topics instead -

The impact of the Catholic Church on the birth rate in the Philippines (birth control policy) and its resulting impact on migration for economic reasons.

A look at economic sanctions, particularly in Iraq – and whether it affects people disproportionately – causing poor people to suffer for lack of resources with little consequences to elites.

The question of structural violence in development and what must be done to raise awareness about it, especially in first world countries. (I got the idea from reading Peter Uvin’s discussion on structural violence in Rwanda as a result of development aid and the part it played in starting the Rwandan genocide.)

What are the limitations and impacts of legal advocacy as a tool in cases where human rights and economics intersect?

As usual, my brain is working overtime and I can’t settle on any one thing…. And I need to, FAST!!

The hostage crisis in the Philippines and Institutional Oppression

Workers on the march at the Pro Democracy rally on July 1

Hearing of the resulting backlash against Filipinas in Hong Kong following the hostage crisis made me feel hollow inside. It illustrates so many examples of the problems with the way we think today and the way we frame issues. I was speaking with my mom about the incident and she kept saying that “it only takes one person to ruin it for everyone” in reference to the gunman. This way of looking at it frustrates me so much because it completely divorces the incident from the roots of the problem and the systems of institutional oppression that are at work in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

The backlash towards Filipinas is not about one gunman. It’s about the racism and discriminatory opinions that Hong Kong people harbor towards them, emerging in full view for all to see. It is about the fact that “othering” Filipinas – regarding them as less than human – allows their employers to take advantage of them, often meting out abuse in a variety of forms and have no compunction about it. It is the use of unequal power dynamics to define a whole group based on the actions of one person, and feeling as though you have license to make those people suffer because of it. It made me sick inside to hear that a Hong Kong politician announced publicly that she fired her Filipina domestic helper due to the incident and was encouraging others to do the same.

While I have read a lot about it, my experience in Hong Kong illustrated to me first hand the concept of institutional oppression – the combination of culture, law and the manner in which society’s institutions uphold discriminatory practices against groups of people. So often we have no understanding of what institutional discrimination actually is. We make a big deal about blatant sexist, racist or homophobic incidents, patting ourselves on the back at a job well done for being so aware and progressive. Discrimination is regarded as existing within a vacuum – a series of events like blips on a radar screen rather than a continuum that permeates our daily lives and the way our society continues to be structured.

The rage in Hong Kong towards the Philippine people calls to mind an event closer to home right now – that of the Park 51 project near the World Trade Center site. In the same vein, people are using their power and privilege to assign a diverse group a series of negative characteristics. It deeply frustrates me that people can sit here with what seems like this need to make a group of people pay due to an event that was carried out by self-identified Muslims. If one continues to insist that Muslims were responsible for the terrorist attacks, then one must also insist that Christians assisted with and aided in carrying out the Rwandan genocide. Groups with the privilege and power to do so choose and shape their own identities, ie “true Christians” would never do that. By the same token, they do the same for groups with considerably less power. I’ll end with a quote from Sankaran Krishna regarding Orientalism and how defining the “other” is so essential to the shaping of one’s image:

A set of rules that ostensibly describes Iraqis is also inescapably an act of self-fashioning and the reproduction of the idea of the United States as a bastion of democracy, equality, trust, freedom, rationality and pragmatism.

June 1

July 1 - Indonesian Muslim Domestic Helpers

July 1