Archive for January, 2011

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Today the Supreme Court will decide whether AT&T is people, too.

January 24, 2011

From my view of the world, corporate personhood (and its continued expansion) causes serious problems–not least of which is it’s application in the Supreme Court decision Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission.

That said, Dahlia Lithwick does a great job of tracking a small setback in the advance of corporate personhood at the Supreme Court this week.  The whole thing is worth reading; here’s a taste:

But AT&T felt, passionately, that turning over these materials would violate the corporation’s “personal privacy.” One of the exemptions to FOIA—exemption 7(C)—provides that records may be withheld if their release would represent an unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy.” But since this exemption has only ever been invoked to protect human privacy rights, never corporate ones, AT&T has to persuade the courts to extend the right to “personal privacy” to corporations as well as people. So it’s a big day: Because today the Supreme Court will decide whether AT&T is people, too.

Speaking of, I’m interested in all this enough to read more than the Wikipedia article on it.  Does anyone know of a respectable defense of corporate personhood?

Jonas

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Is the labor movement anti-freedom?

January 20, 2011

Today’s entertainment was a panel discussion entitled “Employer Reaction to Union Organizing,” in which a professor of labor policy, a labor and industrial relations historian at the University of Minnesota’s business school (of all places), the regional NLRB director, and an attorney representing management interests in collective bargaining all talked about the future of the Wagner Act and U.S. unions in general. I’m afraid that I don’t have a coherent set of thoughts to present about this panel, in part because it wasn’t the most coherent panel ever – but it was still fascinating and there are some tidbits to share and ponder over.

The most interesting recurring theme, albeit one that was more of an undercurrent than an explicitly discussed idea, was that of collective good versus individual rights. In one of the few times this was made explicit, the NLRB regional director mentioned that infighting among Democrats and Republicans within NLRB often revolved around rhetorical/ideological conceptions of whether or not collective bargaining infringes unnecessarily on the rights of individual workers.

In State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein discusses how the rise an individual rights-based set of employment protections, which grew out of the civil rights movement, the second wave of feminism, and all the legislation from that time period dealing with discrimination, workplace safety and so on, has actually undermined the concept of collective action. By giving primacy to individual rights, the idea of collective action, in which a greater good takes precedence over individual freedom, can be painted as restrictive and frankly “un-American.” (Lichtenstein is careful to note that he is not denigrating all the achievements of these movements and pieces of legislation, but believes that it is important to note the trade-offs that were made, consciously or otherwise.)

I wondered whether it would behoove pro-labor folks to try to skirt this frame: instead of labor as a collective entity under which individual rights are subsumed, talking about it as a broad, inclusive social movement for the empowerment and betterment of the majority of people. The most interesting comment on this invoked the fact that labor and management alike were in favor of some form of collective bargaining in the Great Depression, when the problems of the U.S. economy were fundamentally seen as stemming from underconsumption. Giving workers higher wages and more buying power was seen as a solution to the problem of underconsumption, and a necessary precondition for the revival of the economy. Perhaps if labor today can be reframed as a movement aimed at increasing the buying power of the poor and the middle class and thus addressing growing inequality and many of our current economic woes, this might go some way towards fighting the perception of “big labor” as a parochial special interest (“unions are businesses,” the management attorney insisted) rather than a working people’s movement.

As I said, a somewhat incoherent set of thoughts and ideas, none of which are original, but something to chew on nonetheless. My background in labor history and philosophy is rather thin, and I’m very much enjoying putting in the effort to beef it up a little.

ADDENDUM: One neat thing I learned was that the local labor newspaper, the Minneapolis Labor Review, has a complete online archive of all of its issues since 1907 in searchable PDF form. Awesome!

Flying Whale

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Hope

January 19, 2011

I’m committed to being deeply engaged this year.  I fell off the wagon, so to speak, last fall and I want back on.  But I have to work with what I’ve got, and engagement often means living smack in the middle of hate, ignorance, and conflict.

So I’m also committed to being hopeful.  And I’m planning to chronicle some of the things that bring me hope here.

Individual kindness and generosity are not in short supply in my experience, but in groups, I tend to like people a lot less.  The book I’m reading pulls me back to the middle of the last century, a time when groups of angry white Southerners gathered to lynch black men and other groups of white Southerners pretended they couldn’t do anything about it.  In late December, mobs in Haiti lynched 45 people accused of being witches and spreading cholera.  Today’s news tells of about the group of men who beat Bobby Beltran for being gay.

But every now and then, a group of people come together to live out compassion and empathy and love.  And it brings hope.  And it belongs on this blog.

For today (though the story is a week and a half old): Egyptian Muslims attending Coptic Christmas Eve Mass to act as human shields for their fellow citizens:

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

In the days following the brutal attack on Saints Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead on New Year’ eve, solidarity between Muslims and Copts has seen an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent – the symbol of an “Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one..

Jonas

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The overlap of migration and military policy. Or how the Hmong came to the US.

January 18, 2011

This history lesson is a little long.  If you want, skip down to the longish quote from Fadiman and start there.  For those who are game, here’s a quick run through:

The Geneva Accords of 1954 recognized three states in what had previously been French Indochina.  These were Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam (temporarily divided into North and South, intended to be unified later).  Laos was supposed to be neutral and, according to the Geneva Conference of 1961, the US, Soviet Union, North and South Vietnam and several other nations agreed to respect that neutrality, agreeing not to send in “any foreign troops or military personnel.”

Except that the we didn’t really want to respect that neutrality (to be fair, no one else did either).  The US had been providing covert support to the anti-communist Royal Lao army since 1955 as they struggled against the Communist Pathet Lao for control of the country.  But we wanted to step up our game, because Eisenhower, and then Kennedy after him, believed that if Laos fell to Communism, Thailand, Cambodia, South Vietnam, and Burma would be right behind.

And so, a cadre of CIA advisors were sent in to train a secret guerrilla army of Hmong soldiers to fight the war by proxy.  Continued under Johnson and then Nixon, this secret army eventually grew to more than 30,000 strong.

There is a lot about this story that is complicated.  Some call the Hmong mercenaries.  And, for the most part, they were paid.  But it was $3 a month compared to the $200-$300 per month an army private in Vietnam received.  Not all of them signed up voluntarily as many villages had solider “quotas” they had to fill to avoid punishment.  And displaced from their farmland by the bombing in Northern Laos, few had real alternatives.

For a more detailed (and better!) summary, Anne Fadiman gives a stellar primer on the subject, as I alluded to here.  The story actually first broke in 1987 when a British investigative journalist wrote The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos (which I haven’t read, but is supposed to be good).

Regardless, in 1973, the US signed the Paris Agreements, pledging to remove all forces from Vietnam.  In 1975, the Communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic took control, the party’s newspaper announcing that the Hmong “must be exterminated down to the root of the tribe.”

American planes airlifted between 1,000-3,000 high-ranking army officers and their families to Thailand, leaving tens of thousands of vulnerable Hmong behind.  After the last American place took off, many of those remaining began the long and dangerous journey to Thailand, where they would spend years, even decades, in refugee camps along the border.    Others tried to stay and survive the Vietnamese persecution.  Some were successful, others ended up following the first wave to the Thai border.

About 10,000 Hmong eventually emigrated to France, Canada, Australia, Argentina, or elsewhere.  But most, because of what the Hmong refer to as “The Promise,” set their sights on the US.  For this, I’ll just quote directly from Fadiman as she says it better than I could:

Every Hmong has a version of what is commonly called “The Promise”: a written or oral contract, made by CIA personnel in Laos, that if they fought for the Americans, the Americans would aid them if the Pathet Lao won the war.  After risking their lives to rescue downed American pilots, seeing their villages flattened by incidental American bombs, and being forced to flee their country because they had supported the “American War,” the Hmong expected a hero’s welcome here.  According to many of them, the first betrayal came when the American airlifts rescued only the officers from Long Tieng, leaving nearly everyone else behind.  The second betrayal came in the Thai camps when the Hmong who wanted to come to the United States were not all automatically admitted.  The third betrayal came when they arrived here and found they were ineligible for veterans’ benefits.  The fourth betrayal came when Americans condemned them for what the Hmong call “eating welfare.”

And so.  We ended up with a sizable Hmong community in the United States.  And, well, no one really knows (or remembers) that that’s why they’re here.  Because we asked them to fight a war for us so that we could avoid international condemnation for violating the Geneva Accords we had, in fact, signed.

I don’t know; I wasn’t there–but I’d bet good money that when the CIA was enlisting the first Hmong military leaders, promising that they’d help if the war turned against them, they had no idea what more than 200,000 Hmong refugees and immigrants in the United States would mean 50 years later.

Military decisions catalyze migration decisions.  We’re terrible at anticipating them ahead of time.  But it’d be nice to at least see them acknowledged in hindsight.

Jonas

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 17, 2011

I was planning to write a post about how the man we celebrate today was a true radical activist whose image has been thoroughly sanitized for mass consumption. After all, it’s “Martin Luther King Day of Service,” not “Martin Luther King Day of Action.” But my friend over at Banalogies, as someone who has studied the black freedom struggle in depth, has done it (twice, sort of) far better than I can. So I’ll just leave off with an MLK quote I once used as an epigraph to a series of essays:

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

I wonder what those conservatives claiming some ideological affiliation with MLK would make of this statement.

On a slightly different but related note, I recently finished Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union, which is what seems to me a fairly radical reading of the history of the U.S. labor movement since the Great Depression. While there are many things to say about this book (for now, I’ll just say that much of what Frances Fox Piven had to say a few months ago seems to line up perfectly with Lichtenstein’s viewpoint), one thing that struck me peripherally was how backwards and obstructionist the South, or at least Southern Democrats, were in preventing any social change that undermined existing structures of racial oppression.

Why did this strike me? Only because I grew up, and received my K-12 education, in the South. I had an excellent AP U.S. History teacher – possibly the best teacher I had in high school and one of the best I’ve had in my entire academic career – yet I don’t remember really, viscerally, learning about the role of the South in U.S. race relations. There wasn’t an outright denial of the South’s racist legacy or anything so obvious as that; we learned plenty about the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement (though, of course, only in the context of civil rights), and no one respectable called the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression. But I have the sneaking suspicion that things were generally sanitized. The clearest example is that the only thing I remember from my education about Reconstruction is that there were “Northern carpetbaggers.” I had no sense that the failure of Reconstruction meant ongoing oppression of African-Americans at the hands of an obdurate South.

All of which is to say, while I think I have a decent grasp on U.S. history, there are some things I should probably revisit in light of where I received my primary education. Perhaps I’ll start with Eric Foner’s book. Any other suggestions?

Flying Whale

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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

January 17, 2011

I just finished reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

As you can see, the front cover says, “A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures,” which is a rough but fair summary.

The Hmong child is Lia Lee, born with severe epilepsy; the book’s title is the literal translation of the Hmong phrase for the condition.  Since it was published in 1997, the book has been well-received (and rightly so); no excuses for why I’m so late getting to it.

I’ll start out by saying that it’s a well-written, well-researched, insightful, and compelling book.  But there is a lot that makes it exceptional.  There are a multitude of angles at work: Lia’s parents’ interactions with her doctors in the 1980’s; the subsequent efforts of the author to gain the trust of both the Lee family and the medical community to research the book; an ethnography of the Hmong belief system; a history lesson of how the Hmong came to migrate to the US in such large numbers (more on that later);  and a complex look at the process of assimilation–for both immigrant communities and the communities that receive them.

Unfortunately, discussions of Lia’s story often describe what happened over the course of her medical treatment as a series of tragic miscommunications and misunderstandings.  And, in part, that’s true.  Yes, miscommunications happened when an interpreter wasn’t present (or even when an interpreter was present as the Hmong language lacks vocabulary for even the most basic organs).  And minsunderstandings based on false information abounded on both sides.  But Fadiman’s writing reveals another layer beneath language and facts–what are often fuzzily called “cultural barriers.”

I can think of several instances when I was living abroad or working with immigrant or refugee communities here in the States when despite what I thought was a crystal clear explanation, followed by another crystal clear explanation, preceded and followed by lots of questions on my part and that of the other party to ensure comprehension, the other person then went and did the exact opposite of what I expected (or I did the exact opposite of what they expected).  Every now and then, I managed to unravel what happened.  But usually, I just walked away frustrated and confused.

Fadiman takes years of these interactions, after which both parents and doctors are so confused and frustrated that  their willingness to share their story at all is a miracle, and pieces together what happened in the spaces between expectation and disappointment.

Lia’s parent’s “non-compliance” with her medications serves as an example.  Fundamentally, Lia’s parents believed that her epilepsy was the result of soul loss that occurred when Lia’s sister slammed the door too loudly and Lia’s soul was frightened out of her body.  While they didn’t want their daughter to suffer unduly, epilepsy also confers status in the Hmong culture as it increases the likelihood of the child becoming a shaman.  So while they wanted medical attention for Lia when aspirating a food particle during a seizure lead to pneumonia, they didn’t actually want the epilepsy completely cured and thought that medicines with negative side effects were unnecessary and, well, almost cruel.  The parent’s worst fear (that Lia’s soul would never return) and the doctor’s worst fear (that Lia would enter into a continuous unstoppable seizure) were so far apart that the pursuit of each worked at cross-purposes with the other.  Even absent Lia’s parent’s suspicion of the American medical system (which the side effects helped to fuel), they simply didn’t believe the doctors knew what was best for their child.  In return, the doctors’ lack of faith in the competence and care of Lia’s parents eventually escalates into her temporary removal from their care by Social Services.

With Fadiman’s careful unpacking, it all makes so much damn sense.  And, as the reader, you find yourself deeply empathizing with almost everyone.  But the narrative is long and complex, and Fadiman is unfailingly evenhanded–throughout the book, you can see her choosing phrases and frames with the utmost care.  I don’t think I could have made sense of the story without such a skilled guide, and that admission reminds me of how far I have to go.  I–and so many others who work across cultures–need to read more and more of these accounts, until the two-way decoding becomes an in-the-midst-of-chaos instinct.

I’ll be deep into migration over the next four months.  Next up on the reading list are The Warmth of Other Suns and Arrival City.

Jonas

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Dani Rodrik’s new world order

January 13, 2011

Heterodox Harvard economist Dani Rodrik recently posted a list of seven New Rules for the Global Economy. I generally find Rodrik pretty compelling, but this list is particularly fantastic. The whole thing is well worth reading; here are a few of my reactions to individual points, including a rather large open question.

First:

Markets must be deeply embedded in systems of governance. The idea that markets are self-regulating received a mortal blow in the recent financial crisis and should be buried once and for all.

A crucial piece of any necessary reform of the global economy. I continue to believe that reform-minded activists missed a huge opportunity when the financial crisis hit to push for broad changes in the global economy and in the ideological domination of markets in the public consciousness. The moment hasn’t entirely passed, though, and having high-profile intellectuals like Rodrik continue to cite it as an impetus for reform is enormously helpful.

For the foreseeable future, democratic governance is likely to be organized largely within national political communities. The nation state lives, if not entirely well, and remains essentially the only game in town.

Neocons and liberal internationalists alike share a certain “one world” rhetoric that sounds great but has profound implications for the way policy is made. I like Rodrik’s formulation of this idea, in that he doesn’t claim that independent nation-states are necessarily the best form of governance, but he strongly advocates that since they’re not going anywhere, we should respect their sovereignty. That’s a statement that sounds common-sensical but has far-reaching implications.

Countries have the right to protect their own regulations and institutions [… and] Countries have no right to impose their institutions on others.

And these are some of those far-reaching implications. The first part of this should seem fairly straightforward, I hope, although in today’s political climate it is nevertheless a fairly radical thought. The second part, however, is a bit trickier. Certainly it sounds agreeable, but it also perhaps conflicts with Rodrik’s seventh and final rule:

Non-democratic countries cannot count on the same rights and privileges in the international economic order as democracies.

While Rodrik isn’t arguing for the outright imposition of democratic institutions on countries, he’s certainly arguing for a certain kind of international pressure for democratization, which seems to go against the above rule. Also, there are numerous examples of policies that progressives would consider “good” that involve the imposition of values or the imposition of an anti-institutional value system – for instance, the procurement rules and boycotts used to provide international pressure against the system of apartheid in South Africa, or the junta in Burma. Would Rodrik condemn these policies in the same way he would condemn “trade sanctions or other pressure to alter foreign countries’ labor-market rules, environmen­tal policies, or financial regulations”?

While this is a criticism from a logical standpoint, it may not be one from a normative standpoint – I’d probably agree that there are real differences between imposing values that prioritize global commerce and those that prioritize (for example) democratic process or human rights. But it’s not necessarily a completely straightforward, logically airtight argument to make.