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When Congress might not be the best target

Monday, November 20, 2006 by Jeff

Clearly, some policy reforms are more plausible than others. Take for example the "Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act," passed by the House last week and now awaiting the President's signature. You know all those animal liberationists running around releasing mink, vandalizing McDonalds restaurants, and threatening vivisectors? Well we already have laws targeting them. But...why miss a golden opportunity to shore up your political base by expanding the reach of these laws in the name of the War on Terror?

Sure, civil libertarians may quibble with the sweeping breadth of the new bill (animal rights tactics that threaten a company's profits - e.g., nonviolent civil disobedience - will be treated as terrorism), but you're not likely to find many politicians willing to risk political capital on a bill like this (silly Rep. Kucinich!).

Championing prisoners' rights - you know, the little stuff like voting or protection against rape - may not be politically expedient but these issues do seem to be becoming thinkable. 16 states have already loosened their disenfranchisement policies in the past ten years, and with 80 percent of Americans in support of restoring voting rights to former felons, surely politicians are clamoring to introduce such legislation, right? Uh-huh.

On Saturday night I attended an event artfully dubbed "Whores Not Wars." It was at once an anti-war and pro-sex worker fundraising event for Food Not Bombs and the local Sex Workers Outreach Project:

...featuring provocative live performance art, whore stories, lap dances, sexy soldiers, and anti-war, pro-whore activities...Prepare to be titillated, disturbed, outraged, pleasured, stimulated, and shocked! Bastardized military gear, pro-peace costumes encouraged!
Legalization of prostitution and the de-stigmatization of sex work are top priorities for this group of current and former sex workers. Without saying anything about the group's abysmal success at organization-building, I can say with some confidence that achieving their stated goals will be a herculean political task. It's easier to imagine prostitutes at the center of a political scandal than at the center of legislation to protect their rights.

The political process has a way of pushing minority voices to the margins...and then outlawing them. Once they're outlawed, it sometimes takes away their rights to protest, or vote. It's times like these that social insurgents might want to reevaluate the targets of our campaigns. "Rights" don't always come down from the government but sometimes have to be taken up in other spheres like the economy, education, and religion. This is not to say that change will come necessarily come more quickly there, but some issues seem more apt for political campaigns than do others.

Follow-up (11/22/2006): Animal protectionism is on the ballot in the Netherlands today and stands a damned good chance of winning. That country's Party of the Animals is widely expected to become the "first animal rights party in Europe to have its own lawmaker," as it has been polling between 130-140,000 votes (50,000 are needed to gain a seat in the legislature) [1]. It certainly is amazing how a proportional-representation system can change the possibilities.

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There is nothing funny about this

Wednesday, November 15, 2006 by Jeff

Crime is a serious matter. It doesn't pay. No one wins. Especially not this guy.


Enlightenment as Mass Destruction*

Sunday, November 12, 2006 by Jeff

I'm told that my great grandparents, a Jewish family from Northern Europe - Germany (then Prussia) and Poland region - immigrated to the U.S. around 1900, effectively evading the Hitler's genocidal wrath before it emerged. The families they left behind were not so lucky.

Art Spiegelman's family also came from N. Europe (Poland), but not until after the war. Spiegelman was 29 in 1977 when he began interviewing his father about his experiences in the Holocaust. I just finished reading his Pulitzer Prize-winning, 2-volume comic, Maus: A Survivor's Tale (Pantheon Books, 1993) that recounts those interviews with his father. Well worth the read. It has provoked in me a morbid curiousity about my own distant relatives who didn't survive the war.

Spiegelman's father and mother were living and eventually hiding in Poland when they were captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz for the final year of the war. As the Allied troops advanced, his father was made to dismantle the massive gas chambers and crematoria amidst the Germans' hasty retreat. Through stories such as these, Spiegelman writes with remarkable detail about the constant threats on his father's life and the survival strategies that kept him out of the camps for so long as well as those that kept him alive once he could no longer avoid them. [See a sample page from the book here.]

As if to drive the point home, tonight I saw Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat, the much talked about and critically acclaimed story of a Jew-hating Kazakh journalist who traverses the U.S. provoking outrageous and unscripted reactions from anti-semitic, racist, sexist, and homophobic Americans. The anti-semitic humor ("In Kazakhstan, three main issues: economic, social, and Jew.") - made even more perverse by the fact that Cohen himself is Jewish - is both hilarious and sickening, as when the gun store clerk suggests which types of guns would be best for hunting Jews. In this film, it should be said, the "-isms," and the people who espouse them, are the ultimate butts of the joke.

Given my reading of Maus, subsequent thinking about my family's heritage, and now seeing Borat, it's been an odd and thought-provoking week. I find that I'm still coming to terms with the recency of those 11 million horrific deaths - it was only 60 years ago! In that light, the current American animosity toward Jews, gays, Muslims, and women unearthed in the film is a grim reminder that we may not have changed as much as we'd like to think. If the film reveals our discrimination, Abu Ghraib and the debate(!) about torture expose our willingness to act. If the world slips into more fighting among nations for the top spot as some social scientists predict, will we see another Holocaust? Is it realistic to think that genocide will never happen here? Have we really come so far?

* The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944).

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Now the Democrats are in. So what?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006 by Jeff

It's a serious question with less than obvious answers. While journalists and pundits across the spectrum are trumpeting the election as a damning referendum against Bush and the war in Iraq, visions of what the future holds are confused, nowhere more than on the Left.

Will the Iraq War come to a grinding halt under the Democrats' watch? Tom Hayden, founder of the influential 1960's anti-war group Students for a Democratic Society and former representative in the California state legislature, insists that "the Iraq War will not end. The administration will continue the conflict into the 2008 election year." Sociologist Immanuael Wallerstein predicts "that the United States will be forced to withdraw from Iraq before the presidential election in 2008." As if to summarize, In These Times senior editor, David Sirota, warns, "For the better part of 20 years, Democratic divisions have seethed under America’s political surface...The situation is ready to explode."

In contrast to the tempest of speculation about developments in the war, there seems to be widespread agreement that, as Slate's Jacob Weisberg puts it, "free trade has definitely left the building." Protectionism is the watchword here and once again we find a divided Left. In contrast to Weisberg's dire tone, the glee is palpable in the words of Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair at Counterpunch who have their own spin on the election results:

The voters want the US out of the Iraq and they want decent jobs. Who are the Democrats who will speak to these concerns? Not Hillary Clinton. Not Joe Biden. Not Barack Obama. Maybe John Edwards, if he listens to his wife. What triumphed on Tuesday was not the Rahm Emanuel platform but something far closer to what Ralph Nader spoke for in 2000 and 2004.

We may indeed see some tangible changes in domestic policy that are being overlooked in all the anti-war noise. Ron Pollack of Families USA, a liberal heathcare advocacy group, is excited that "some issues—such as expansion of children’s health care coverage and improvements to the Medicare Part D program—will receive a tremendous boost when the new Congress convenes in January." William Greider, writing in The Nation, foresees myriad positive changes coming from the new Congress, including raising the federal minimum wage, cutting subsidies to oil companies, lowering prescription drug prices, expanding funding for higher education, and reigning in predatory lending practices.

I, myself, am more ambivalent about things to come. Will the war come to an end soon? I doubt it. Will the new Congress follow through on allegations that President Bush illegally fabricated evidence and misled in the run-up to the Iraq War? Fat chance. Should they? Of course. As others are quick to point out, many of the new Dems in Congress espouse or lean toward social conservativism, providing a whiff of that intra-party explosion that Sirota warns about. I expect Bush's lofty goals to go nowhere and the Democrats lofty hopes to give way to cautious centrism as they eye the big election in 2008. In the end, I am sorry to say that I share this dismal, pessimistic feelings of Joshua Frank at Counterpunch:

Whether or not you're feeling good about last night's results, you can rest assured that the Empire is still in tact. Impeachment of this outlaw administration isn't going to fall down within the next two years...Deaths in Iraq will continue to mount and no exit strategy will play out in the coming months. Global warming will still not be addressed. Nor will our position on Israel, the war on drugs, free trade, or privatized health care. Basically things are still damn bleak despite the liberal take over of Washington.

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Jeff A. Larson
Sociologist, Arizona.


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