Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Movie Moles review Toy Story 3, a story of job loss and collective solidarity
Jan Haaken and I reviewed Toy Story 3 on the Old Mole Variety Hour July 5, 2010: a story of job loss and collective solidarity.

Most of Andy's toys from the first two films are back, including Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and cowgirl Jesse, but some have been lost to yard sales. Andy hasn't played with them in a long time—in fact he's about to go off to college and has to decide their fates. He packs Woody in the College box and plans to store the other toys in the attic. But there's a misunderstanding, and the toys get put out with the garbage. From there, they flee to the box of things being donated to the day-care center, where Andy's sister has already left Barbie. Sunnyside Daycare looks great at first: they're welcomed by Lotsa-Huggin Bear, and Barbie finds Ken. But Lotsa sends the new toys to the Caterpillar Room, where the younger toddlers mistreat them. Eventually, after various adventures including a harrowing trip to the waste-disposal facility, Lotsa is tossed out, and Ken and Barbie lead a new and groovy Sunnyside, where toys take turns being played with by the terrifying toddlers. Andy's toys get home, and end up getting a new home with one of the children from the day care, who's the right age to play with the toys.

The Teamsters leafletted the opening of the film in several cities because of the hazardous PVC content of several Toy Story toys sold at Toys R Us.

Ms. magazine blogged about the androcentrism & homophobia of the film.

Several bloggers have commented on the film's economic critique. General agreement that the film is about job loss—tapping in to the anxieties about a collapsing economy. Early in the film Woody calls a "staff meeting" and says, "This job is not about being played with! This job is about being there for Andy." But there's less agreement on how to map any political allegory—which is probably just a mark of the film's mainstream-ness, it's politically useful ambiguity.

One commenter says,

It should give you nightmares. Two futures are presented in this film, one that will soon be familiar to the cast-aside -- a nightmare of being used, tortured and ruled over, without respite, until you're broken and finally gone -- and the other for those who have found some way to sculpt themselves to be relevant -- another couple decades of feeling vital to the future of the American dream. ..."It's vintage!": for safety, another clue to abandon your status as a hipster, and possibly as a homosexual.

Another observes,

Toy Story 3 is a dark movie, for dark times. Don’t kid yourself: this is a movie about the long recession, the psychic trauma of unemployment, the false promises of flexible employment, the specter of our useful lives as workers ending in being dumped, and above all, how labor’s self-discipline becomes insanity when there is no job to be disciplined for. . . . . . for the first time, Woody is wrong to insist on fidelity to Andy, not merely wrong, in fact, but positioned as being in actual denial of reality. For the first time in the franchise, the other, less privileged toys assert that their self-interest compels them to look for other options, and his refusal to accept that possibility is positioned as somewhere between clinically irrational and sociopathic, heartless.. . . . the ending is really not the point, being only the fantasy resolution of a problem whose insolvability was what made the narrative work in the first place. Here, the problem of identifying as a worker in a time and place where “worker” is an identity evacuated of meaning is the true thing the movie shows us: Woody is in denial, but the other, less traditionally privileged toys understand what he does not and have even reached a certain kind of acceptance of their own mortality (which he, in the incinerator is the last to share).

And another suggests,

The film begins with Woody trying to defend a crumbling system of feudalism.... Back at Sunnyside, the toys overthrow the dictatorship by working together, harnessing the collective power of the working class and . . .  they together overthrow the capitalist Lotso…. Meanwhile, Ken and Barbie have seized control of Sunnyside, turning it into a “fun and groovy” socialist utopia. Having risen up and overthrown Lotso, the toys can now operate on the basis of mutual equality. A happy ending for everyone.


Friday, July 14, 2017

reproductive health equity

The Oregon Legislature has passed the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which will ensure that Oregonians, regardless of income, citizenship status, gender identity, or (with a few exceptions) type of insurance, will have access to the full range of preventive reproductive health services, including contraception, abortion, and postpartum care. This victory offers important lessons about how to continue making gains for equity and empowerment in the face of the national government's push to the right, and the law offers important ground for building toward further health equity, including single-payer.

Although the Reproductive Health Equity Act, like the Affordable Care Act, includes an exemption for "religious employers," it largely moves counter to the trend in many other states and at the federal level to restrict access to reproductive health care.

With this bill, Oregon will become only the second US state, after California, to require private insurers to cover all abortions. In contrast, 25 states restrict abortion coverage allowed in plans offered through their state insurance exchanges.

And funding is only one method of restriction. Just this year (according to the Guttmacher institute), legislators in 28 states have introduced 88 measures that would ban abortions completely or under certain circumstances, while another five states have already adopted 10 major new abortion restrictions.

The federal government, since the 1976 Hyde Amendment, has prohibited using federal funds to cover termination of pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment to the life of the mother.  The common exception for rape, of course, helps reveal that a driving concern in controlling access to abortion is less the purported life of the fetus, than the right of women to choose to be sexually active.

Anyway, federal funds have been supporting other forms of reproductive health care. Medicaid is indispensable for ensuring that low-income people have coverage for family planning, pregnancy-related care, STI testing and treatment, and other reproductive health services. But right-wing policymakers are seeking to undermine or even dismantle Medicaid, the source of health coverage for 74 million U.S. residents, including 13 million U.S. women of reproductive age.

A contributor to Forbes calculated that the republican health bill will provide about 3 million dollars in tax cuts to the wealthy for each person who dies because of loss of access to health care.

Even if the Republican bill passes, the Reproductive Health Equity Act will make safe, legal abortion more affordable and more accessible for about 43,000 Oregonians whose insurance plans have prohibitively high deductibles.

But the Reproductive Health Equity Act concerns more than just abortion; and it includes access provisions for non-documented women and anti-discrimination protections for transgender Oregonians.

It will remove barriers that hinder access to essential reproductive health care services, including prenatal care and lifesaving cancer screenings, for transgender and gender-nonconforming Oregonians.

It will expand postpartum care to about 48,000 Oregonians who have coverage for labor and delivery that drops immediately after birth.

It will help almost 19 thousand Oregon residents who are forced to pay out-of-pocket costs for preventive health services, including contraception, and it will continue to ensure that all Oregonians receive the full range of preventive reproductive health services at zero out-of- pocket cost, even if the Affordable Care Act is overturned.

And it will safeguard the right to abortion even if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

This legislation is not just a response to the Trump administration. The bill was developed, written, and supported, over the last three years, through the work of people directly affected by these obstacles to health care, and through the work of organizations that have been building the knowledge, capacity, and community to develop legislation, educate voters, petition the state, lobby legislators, and get out the vote.

Like the Cover All Kids bill--which also passed the Oregon House this past week, making Oregon the seventh state in the nation to provide healthcare for all children, regardless of residency status, and up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level—the Reproductive Health Equity Act is the product of long years of work on the part of many, many groups and individuals.

The success and value of such legislation requires the thoughtful and long-term work of a wide and diverse coalition of activists. The steering committee of the Pro-Choice Coalition included not just reproductive healthcare organizations – the state groups for NARAL and Planned Parenthood—but also legal and community organizations, and racial and gender justice groups, including the Oregon Latino Health Coalition; the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO); the ACLU of Oregon, Family Forward Oregon, which works at the intersection of family and labor issues for family friendly workplace policy; and the Western States Center, which works to connect and build the power of community organizations . . . to achieve racial, gender and economic justice.
The list of supporting groups is even longer and more diverse, but special mention should go to We Are BRAVE, a project of the Western States Center led by women on color and focusing, as the acronym indicates, on Building Reproductive Autonomy and Voices for Equity.

The Director of Programs and Strategies at APANO, Kara Carmosino, describes the work that began three years ago to make the bill a success. In those three years,
APANO members and staff have supported a truly coalitional effort that collected nearly 10,000 petition signatures, gave dozens of workshops on strong families and reproductive justice, created art and collected stories to include transgender and gender-nonconforming people, as well as immigrants and refugees, in the narratives around who needs reproductive health care. 
[They] launched a Mend the Gap report that directly challenged the myth that everyone in Oregon already has access to the reproductive health care they need. And [they] built a policy and a campaign that centered the stories of those who need this win the most.
APANO also has a handy link for thanking the legislators who passed the bill. But, as Carmosino notes, the "victory belongs to ... many people, from those who canvassed events two summers ago, to those who bravely shared their stories, to those who signed petitions and lobbied in the capitol."

The importance of that wide and diverse coalition goes back to the origins of the bill and its design. Collaboratively developed to address the needs of marginalized communities, it was written by and for those who have been most impacted by the gaps existing in reproductive healthcare, to address the things that those communities themselves said they needed.

Although some of the arguments brought to bear in support of the bill pointed to economic questions—highlighting the fact that birth control is cheaper than maternity care, for instance. But saving money is just part of a strategy, never the goal; the goal is better healthcare—and thus better health and lives.

By lifting up the voices and supporting the advocacy of the least advantaged, these organizers have helped improve the lives of tens of thousands of Oregonians, and have demonstrated that the intersectional approach is not just ethical but effective. Their work has provided examples of how to expand access to healthcare, and have taken further steps toward getting health care for all.

If you're interested in working for a state single payer system in Oregon, you might want to check out the work of Health Care for All Oregon. They're offering a free screening Wednesday at noon at the Multnomah County Health Department 426 SW Stark, in the tenth floor conference room, of the video "Sick Around the World: Other Rich Countries Have Universal Health Care. Why Don't We?" HCAO's calendar on their website, lists other events and meetings around the state.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Why the Handmaids were White (supremacy)

Among the literary portraits of American fascism garnering renewed interest since last November, Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale is probably the best known.  Indeed, its nightmare of reproductive injustice is so familiar that signs at the Women's March earlier this year could simply allude to it, with slogans like "Make Margaret Atwood fiction again" or "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" (also a popular tattoo).  Activists in Texas recently protested proposed further restrictions on abortion access by dressing as Handmaids.

The novel has been variously banned, translated, and adapted, including multiple dramatic adaptations for radio and stage, a ballet, an opera, a 1990 feature film, and most recently, a ten-episode series on Hulu.

The Handmaid's Tale  describes a near-future American theocracy in which environmental pollution has led to widespread infertility. The patriarchal regime that takes over portions of the United States and renames it Gilead imposes a totalizing system that dictates clothing, ritual, and family structure: the few women who are still fertile are assigned as 'Handmaids'  to the families of powerful Commanders.

Publicity for the series has stressed its timeliness while acknowledging its updating.  But while many of the inevitable changes from the book work well, displacing and condensing elements for clarity and visual impact, dramatizing  moments unrepresented in the novel, and elaborating on the experiences of secondary characters, one problematic change has been evident since the previews revealed the protagonist's friend Moira is played by Samira Wiley, best known from Orange is the New Black.  The attempt to make the setting post-racial runs counter to the political history of the United States, the details of the novel, and the ostensible goals of the change.

Among the small number of writers to critique this choice, I'm drawing here on points from Susan Rensing on Nursing Clio, Soraya McDonald on The Undefeated, Priya Nair in Bitch Magazine, Jane Hu in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and blog posts on Fangs for the Fantasy and by Ambereen Dadabhoy.

In the novel, the Gilead theocracy is racist as well as sexist and homophobic.   The excuse for the imposition of martial law that leads to the Gilead takeover is a supposed threat of Islamic terrorism.  African Americans are relocated to the Midwest, to homelands imagined as resembling those of apartheid era south Africa.  Dissidents of various sorts are either executed—their hanged bodies often displayed for days as a warning to others—or are sent to clean up the toxic wastelands known as the Colonies, apparently a slightly slower sort of death sentence. 

But only white women become handmaids. 

Some critics have faulted the novel for this.  The book gets some of its frisson from imposing on white women some of the oppressions imposed on enslaved Black women in the antebellum South and the tropes and imagery of US chattel slavery:  Women in Gilead are forbidden to read, write, or congregate. They are treated as property, valued for their reproductive capacity, and named for their owners—the central character is called Offred because her commander is named Fred.  Those escaping to Canada are helped by a secret network known as the Underground Femaleroad, and many of their allies are Quakers.  Offred's narrative, like many 19th century slave narratives, originates in oral form. 

But while Atwood's novel thus arguably obscures the intricate relation of racism and sexism by silently transposing races, centering a white woman's experience by taking what happened to African American women under slavery and imagining a near future where white women experience forced breeding,  the book does acknowledge the racism of Gilead. In the far-future epilogue, an historian looking back at Gilead notes that the regime's “racist policies … were firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period, and racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did."

For the Hulu series, however, executive producer Bruce Miller decided to cut out the white supremacist ideology of the Republic of Gilead, saying that he "made the decision that fertility trumped everything." 

But of course concerns over the birthrate and population have always been about whose fertility and the fear of being overrun by someone else’s babies. The religious right first got traction as a political movement not in trying to stop abortions but in trying to stop racial integration. White supremacist groups worry that interracial marriage constitutes "white genocide" because it taints Aryan purity. Stormfront and similar sites fret about whites being outbred  by non-whites, and the "Quiverfull" movement encourages Christian white women to breed incessantly. 
The reaction of an oppressive, White Straight Male, religious patriarchal society to a fertility crisis is most certainly not going to be “let’s breed more Black/Latino/Asian babies!”. The womb wars are a very real thing among this movement - outbreeding the “other” is a campaign for them. These people are not going to see a declining birth rate and think “all of humanity is in peril, come people of all races unite in joint purpose to produce multi-racial babies by the score!”. They’re going to see a decline in White babies and panic. 

So the change is implausible  in relation to real history. 
It also works badly in relation to Gilead rituals, as Soraya McDonald points out.
When a pregnancy results in a birth, there’s a special chair devised for Wives and handmaids once a handmaid goes into labor, one that positions the handmaid (rather uncomfortably) below the wife and between her legs. Wives are encouraged to experience birth days as if it is they who are going through labor to deliver a child.
All of this serves to reinforce the idea that the handmaids are merely ambulatory wombs. They serve one purpose, which is to pop out babies, then give them up as soon as they’re weaned. And so introducing the idea of nonwhite handmaids prompts a question: What happens when a black woman gives birth to an interracial baby who serves as a daily reminder to a Wife that she’s not the child’s biological mother when so many rules and ceremonies have been created to obscure that very reality?

Moreover, the producer's attempt to suggest that this is a post-racial world is implausible. 

 where are all the Asian handmaids? Given the show’s rhetoric of concubines and its reflection on outsourced female labor and reproductive carework, postracial America is strangely devoid of any Asian women.

 If this were truly a world devoid of white supremacy, would all of the wives of the commanders be icy blondes or pale gingers? We have only to look at the ruling elites to know that this is a mere fiction or palliative for those of us who demand some form of diversity from the entertainment we consume.

Compounding this is the fact that other than Moira, the other black and brown bodies are both scarce and light-skinned.

....In fact, if “fertility [did] trump everything,” then I suspect that we would see a lot more brown people than we do. It’s not as though there is evidence that white women are more fertile than others. At the very least we would see equal distribution of races within the ranks of the handmaids. Finally, the lingering and loving gaze of the camera lets us know how much the narrative is invested in white suffering and white pain. We are treated to long close-ups of delicate white faces forced to wince and blink at unspeakable atrocities. It is their pain we are asked to witness and with which we should identify.
We are asked to identify with the suffering of these women on a fundamental level, on a universal level, and on a human level.
In trying to rationalize the series'  casting choices, producer Miller asks,

What’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show? Why would we be covering  [the story of handmaid Offred...], rather than telling the story of the people of color who got sent off to [the Midwest]?

But surely there is potentially a great deal of difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show, and the possibility that Miller presents this as a rhetorical question should cause concern.   In the terms Miller tries to set up, there is indeed no good reason that Offred herself need be played by a white woman.  Moreover, since we've begun to see the series develop scenes and characters not followed in the novel, there is no good reason we would not follow those who were exiled to some homeland. 

In short, the series effects a denial of the continuing significance of white supremacy. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

It Can't Happen Where?

image via wikipedia

It's the #1 bestselling work in the "classic American literature" category on Amazon dot com—though it's also available for free through Project Gutenberg Australia or the Multnomah County Library.  Salon dot com called it "the novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump's authoritarian appeal."

It Can't Happen Here was written in 1935 by Sinclair Lewis, who in 1930 had become the first U.S. author to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Lewis was  known for his 1920s novels like Babbitt and Main Street, which lovingly excoriated the vacuity of middle-class, middle-American, small-town Rotarians.

Although it's not considered his best book, It Can't Happen Here became Lewis's best-selling novel, and when he turned it into a play the next year it was widely performed in multiple languages.  More recently, the novel has gained renewed attention, becoming an online bestseller, and the topic of frequent commentaries. 

The satirical narrative features a demagogic presidential candidate who wins support among economically distressed voters with mesmerizing speeches full of anti-elitist populism; racist, sexist, anti-Semitic nationalism; inconsistent proposals; and authoritarian promises to "make America a proud, rich land again." He's published a ghostwritten book combining boastful autobiography and contradictory policy, and he slams the press as a bunch of liars. 

So, you can see why it might be of interest.

But the crass and charismatic Berzelius Windrip—known as Buzz—is of course not the result of any clairvoyance on Lewis's part, but a riff on the dictators of his day.  Lewis was married to the journalist Dorothy Thompson, who interviewed both Hitler and Huey Long in the early 1930s, and whose work may have provided both impetus and material for Lewis's novel. 

Huey Long, in particular, provided a model for Buzz.  The Louisiana Democrat had been compared to Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, and intended to challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the 1936 nomination.  Instead, Long was shot to death a month before Lewis's novel appeared, and its explicit references to him were quickly revised into the past tense.  

Pundits on the political right have snarked about the comparisons of Buzz Windrip to Donald Trump,  because not only is Windrip a Democrat, but also his platform, among its various and often conflicting items, proposes economic redistribution, limits to the size of individual fortunes, caps on dividends, and five thousand dollars per year to be given to every family.  But it's worth noticing that in fact, this is not what he does once he's elected.  Instead, Windrip's capitalist supporters were well aware of the loopholes and qualifiers in his platform, and generally find themselves much more satisfied than his working-class supporters. Buzz promotes and protects big business, bans strikes and labor unions, and, aside from thus heightening exploitation and adding new layers of graft and corruption, he mostly enables economic business as usual. 

Windrip does follow through on the one item in his fifteen-point plan that he has presented from the start as most important: the consolidation of power in the executive branch.  When Congress refuses to approve his demand for complete control of legislation and suspension of any interference from the judiciary, Windrip declares martial law, and has troublesome congressmen arrested for "inciting to riot."  His edicts are enforced by an informal citizen militia he has regularized, known as the Minute Men, or the MMs.  Within the first year, he has terminated all the older political parties and replaced them with just one, the American Corporate State and Patriotic Party, whose members are widely known as the Corpos.  Soon there are concentration camps, filling with a lengthening list of dissidents, including "such congenital traitors and bellyachers as Jewish doctors, Jewish musicians, Negro journalists, socialistic college professors" and so on. The racist and anti-Semitic planks in Windrip's platform are, like his insistence on centralized executive power, also "vigorously respected," in their case because "Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on." 

"Every Man a King" was a motto of Huey Long's, the title of his autobiography and his theme song.  Unlike Buzz Windrip, Long seems to have followed through on some of his populist promises, taking on the Standard oil trust, and expanding hospitals, schools, roads, and bridges in public works programs across Louisiana.  Though his methods were autocratic and his power exercised through patronage, his campaigns helped pushed FDR's New Deal further to the left.

But the mainstream in the 1930s was already further left than it is today.  Windrip's redistributive platform reflects a widespread consensus, and explicitly references Huey Long's Share the Wealth program, FDR's New Deal, Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California, and Townsend's social security plans, among others.

When opposition to the Corpo state gets organized under the leadership of the Republican former candidate, he declines contributions to the cause from an oil tycoon and tells him that,  whatever happens,

you and your kind of clever pirates are finished. Whatever happens, whatever details of a new system of government may be decided on, whether we call it a 'Cooperative Commonwealth' or 'State Socialism' or 'Communism' or 'Revived Traditional Democracy,' there's got to be a new feeling—that government is not a game for a few smart, resolute athletes like you . . .  but a universal partnership, in which the State must own all resources so large that they affect all members of the State....

It does take a while for that opposition to get organized, because, as the title suggests, so many people believe the US immune to fascist tyranny.

The main center of consciousness in It Can't Happen Here is the newspaper editor Doremus Jessup,  who recognizes himself as a "small-town bourgeois Intellectual,"  a  "rather indolent and somewhat sentimental Liberal."  He prides himself on his broadminded detachment, right up until he's taken to jail for his own protection, after he publishes an editorial critical of President Windrip.  Then he thinks the "tyranny of this dictatorship" is the fault of "all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest."  Thus the novel criticizes Jessup's indolent complacency, and the narrative trajectory requires his rebellion.

But despite acknowledging Jessup's flaws, the book aligns us sympathetically with his perspective, and seems to share his resolute anti-Communism, despite its critiques of the capitalist inequality that can generate support for fascism.  To some extent it also shares some of his other limits of vision. African-American and Jewish characters are few and relatively minor, and the only apparently queer character is Windrip's behind-the-scenes policy-and-propaganda chief, his Steve Bannon figure, if you will. 

More useful, perhaps, are the observations of the Communist character Karl Pascal, who points out that grinding poverty existed in the U.S. in the supposedly prosperous times before the Depression, and that "Buzz isn't important—it's the sickness that made us throw him up that we've got to attend to." 

Of course the novel is neither a prophecy nor a blueprint, but a satire and a warning, and it remains worth reading for the provocations offered by its funhouse-looking-glass reflections of American history, economy, and culture.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Policing the boundaries of gender

bodybuildre with nail polishfor the Old Mole Variety Hour 31 August 2009

Earlier this month, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced that they will be verifying the gender of South African runner Caster Semenya, who won the women's 800-meter event at the Berlin Games.

The incident raises a host of issues:  the incompatibility between conventional femininity and athletic prowess, the pressure on women athletes to be heterosexually attractive, the racism of dominant western culture and its beauty standards, the presumption of male athletic superiority and the question of gender segregation in sport, the invasion of Semenya's privacy by leaking the news of testing before the results are in.

But the point I want to concentrate on today is that the binary structuring of gender in our society is a social, not a biological fact. As Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna noted many years ago, if we consider a list of items that differentiate females from males, "there are none that always and without exception are true of only one gender." Or as Alice Dreger pointed out more recently in the New York Times, the panel of doctors charged with verifying Semenya's gender "are not going to be able to run a test that will answer the question. Science can and will inform their decision, but they are going to have to decide which of the dozens of characteristics of sex matter to them. Their decision will be like the consensus regarding how many points are awarded for a touchdown [or] a field goal — it will be a sporting decision, not a natural one, about how we choose to play the game of sex."

Let's consider a short history of sex testing in sport. In ancient Greece, the Olympic games were closed to women athletes, and the ban was enforced by the simple expedient of having the athletes compete unclothed. In the twentieth century, the initial strategy for gender verification was pretty much the same as that used by the Greeks—visual inspection of genitals. Judging from online comments, many people still believe this is an appropriate test. But doubts were raised about the reliability of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s use of that method, perhaps because of the increased availability of surgical and hormonal procedures to reshape bodies, or perhaps because of increasing awareness that not all societies surgically alter the genitals of newborns to make them less ambiguous.

In the US, about 1 in 2000 births—about 5 per day— according to the Intersex Initiative, require specialists to assign a child’s sex. Once that assignment is made, the practice for many years has been for immediate cosmetic surgery on the infant to produce genitals that the parents can feel comfortable with. That means that any child born with a clitoris longer than one centimeter is likely to have it cut down to a size considered to look more feminine.

In 2006 the journal Pediatrics published a consensus statement signed by 50 international experts on the treatment of intersex conditions, also known as disorders of sexual development, or DSDs. The Consensus, responding to activism as well as to the lack of medical research showing positive outcomes of this genital surgery on infants, instructs doctors to discourage families from rushing into surgery, but the statement's vagueness allows for these practices to continue.

You can hear more about intersex issues on the May 2009 episode of Gender Blender, archived on the KBOO website.

Anyway, by the early seventies, a genital check was no longer felt to be a reliable test for gender. So the IAAF and the IOC switched to a test done for chromosomes.

It's worth noting here that even though the criteria for determining gender membership shifted—from genitals to genes—the notion that there was a bright line somehow persisted.

But chromosome testing, too, though also still apparently a point of faith for many, is not a reliable boundary marker. Not everyone is XX or XY—some people are XO, or XXX, or XXY, or XYY. People may have a mosaic of chromosomes, because of mutations during development, or may have two sets of chromosomes, in what's known as chimerism, when two fertilized eggs merge to form a single individual. Further, as Dreger points out in the Times, although the gene called SRY usually appears on the Y chromosome and makes the fetus develop as male, it can also turn up on an X chromosome, or not work on a Y chromosome, so that there may develop XX males and XY females. Given these uncertainties, the IAAF and IOC both abandoned these tests in the 1990s.

Chromosome testing was problematic not only for those born with many of the intersex conditions or DSDs, but also for transgender athletes. Current IOC and IAAF policy allows participation of transsexual athletes who have had surgery and hormone therapy as long as the transition occurred either before puberty or at least two years before the competition in question. Also allowed to compete as women are those found to have a select list of intersex conditions or other DSDs. Policies on other medicalizations of human diversity are unclear. But the ruling on transsexual athletes suggests that the new gender boundary is being sought in hormones, even though, again, no hormone is unique to one gender.

Kai Wright, in an essay on The Root, observes that, whatever decision the IAAF panel comes to about Semenya's gender, her "humanity has already been sacrificed to Western culture’s desperate, frightened effort to maintain the fiction of binary, fixed gender. . . . We cling to this lie of binary genders for the same reason we fantasize about the essential nature of race: to make unjust social hierarchies seem natural. But they’re not. They’re [human constructs], and competitive sports have long been a tool for keeping them in place."

Those constructs are, like competitive sport itself, also deeply enmeshed with capitalist marketing.  As transsexual lesbian playwright Kate Bornstein observes in her play Hidden: A Gender, "Once you buy gender, you'll buy anything to keep it."

I urge you not to buy.

update, more recently:

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Monsters of the Market reviewed

The Angel of Socialism

David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Caplitalism.  Haymarket Press, 2012.

A shorter audio version of this review was broadcast on the January 7, 2013 Old Mole Variety Hour.

Vampires and zombies abound these days in popular culture and in the culture of the market. In 2009, journalist Matt Taibbi famously dubbed the investment bank Goldman Sachs "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." Some consumers face "zombie debt" that creditors continue to demand long after it has expired or been written off.

Regular listeners to the Mole may recall the long history of these metaphorical horrors, including Karl Marx 's description of Capital as "dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." But if capital is vampiric—like the aristocratic Count Dracula with his new property in England—then members of the laboring class are historically associated with zombies. These emerged in Haitian Vodoun, where the zombie is a reanimated corpse, enslaved to a zombie master. In folk culture, peasants have sometimes explained their wealthier neighbors as zombie masters. The 1932 movie White Zombie features Bela Lugosi as a mill owner whose workers are zombies.
These associations go some way to explaining why zombies and vampires are among the monsters that concern David McNally in his timely and engaging book, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism, available in paperback from Haymarket Press. McNally affirms that vampires and zombies "need to be thought conjointly, as interconnected moments of the monstrous dialectic of modernity. … the vampire and the zombie are doubles, linked poles of the split society. If vampires are the dreaded beings who might possess us and turn us into their docile servants, zombies represent our haunted self-image, warning us that we might already be lifeless, disempowered agents of alien powers” (253).  McNally has little to say about the flesh-eating ghouls of George Romero's movies, and nothing at all to say about the sparkly vampires of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight or their ancestors in the suffering aristocrats of Anne Rice stories, though his argument has provocative implications for understanding these figures.

Instead, McNally addresses the ways that corporeal horror emerges from the nature of capitalism, including from the denigration of the physical inherent in the notion of abstract labor and of value as an abstraction from the physical form of any commodity. McNally locates the emergence of corporeal horror in historical eras of enclosure and the fragmentation of space and the body. The first of his three long central chapters surveys the history of early modern Britain, the process of the enclosures of common land and privatization of common resources, and the use of public dissection and anatomy as punishments for the poor. People were cut off from access to land, and thus forced to become wage workers, detached parts, as in the expression "factory hands." Those who resisted the market were criminalized for "stealing" the very things to which the common folk had once had recognized rights.

Fears of graverobbers and protests at the gallows in sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century England came about in part because the bodies of those who were executed were used for public dissections, in a days-long spectacle that McNally notes served not scientific exploration but as "a civic display of bourgeois rule enacted on the bodies of paupers and criminals, a ritual designed to inscribe social control over the bodies of the laboring poor" (28). The relevant monster in this chapter is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, notably quite different from his cinematic incarnations because he not only speaks, but speaks eloquently, and the novel ends with a successful rebellion by a group of sailors against their captain.

The third chapter of Monsters of the Market surveys recent anthropological work on the stories of witchcraft, vampires, zombies, and other body horror in parts of the world more recently drawn into the globalizing capitalist process, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, Nigerian cinema—Nollywood—is now the world's third-largest film industry, and has produced hundreds of voodoo-horror movies that turn on stories of blood sacrifice and ritual dismemberment in the interests of accumulation. Drawing on the work of historian Luise White, who has noted that "many of the African terms that denote vampires derive from words used for specific groups who performed highly-regimented work routines" (196), McNally concurs that the twentieth-century African tales of vampires and other monsters are ways of trying to understand the mysteries of capitalist relations, in which land is enclosed, privatized, and commodified; time as well as space is fragmented and regularized; and individualism and market relations supplant traditional systems of kinship and community.

In between these two chapters, McNally reads Marx's use of gothic metaphors as crucial to his account of capitalism as an occult system, one that makes work invisible. In non-capitalist class societies, the appropriation of wealth by the ruling class is evident: peasants and others hand over part of their labor, their product, or the money-equivalent, in the form of rent or taxes. "But, in bourgeois society, it is capitalists" (or job-creators, as they'd like to be known) "who pay workers, offering them wages as pay for their labor. Yet, this visible exchange conceals the invisible counter-exchange from which capital profits. For, once they purchase labor-power as a commodity, capitalists can squeeze more from it than the value of the wages paid. They do so by obliging laborers to work longer than the time required to produce the value of their wages. Everything beyond this constitutes surplus-labor, to use Marx's terminology, a surplus-value above and beyond the capitalist's costs of production" (144-145). This monstrous exploitation of living labor occurs in the hidden abode of production, where the sale of life-activity as commodified labor-power alienates the workers from themselves. Moreover, not only do "human beings [come to] relate to their life-energies as alienable fragments of personhood, as dead things that can be sold off" (147), but also, "In dividing labor-processes into ever-smaller motions that can be repeated with ever-greater speed, capitalist manufacture anatomizes the laboring body, fixating on specific organs, muscles, and nerves. Capital 'mutilates the worker,' writes Marx" (139).

The value embodied in the manufactured commodity or the commodified service is an abstraction from the things themselves or the concrete labor involved in them. "The capitalist economy thus effects a real abstraction in which products become bearers of an invisible substance (value) and concrete labor becomes the bearer of labor in the abstract" (123). The Latin root of the verb to abstract means literally to "separate, detach, cut off" (123). This abstraction is what Marx calls the secret of the fetishism of commodities, and among the tropes of cutting, dismemberment, disembodiment, and bodily horror woven throughout Marx's account of capitalism and McNally's account of the monsters of the market.

The book's central chapter also contains as clear an account as I've seen of the processes of financialization and the mechanisms of hedge funds, derivatives, credit default swaps, and other mysteries of financial speculation. Stressing that “beneath the esoteric circuits of finance lie material practices of plunder of the world’s resources and its laborers” (171), McNally elucidates the nature of fictitious capital—that which is derived not from the congealed labor of the past but from the possible labor of the future, the interest-bearing capital that hides its detour though work that has not yet been done, surplus value that has not yet been extracted, "claims on future wealth … that may, or may not, be realized" (154).

In making visible these mysteries, tales of vampires and zombies, like Marxist theory, can help us see the truly monstrous nature of capitalism, and in seeing it, move to change it. Theory-heads may be disappointed (not to say annoyed) that McNally dismisses great swathes of twentieth-century thought as "postmodernism" (referring us to an earlier book of his own), similarly rejecting the work of Michel Foucault by erroneously assimilating it to the dualistic body-spirit paradigm that informs the Marxian tradition of critical analysis of capitalism. But Monsters of the Market has much to offer lovers of monster stories interested in their early roots and global resonance, as well as anyone looking for a lucid account of the more mysterious manifestations of capitalism. Not for nothing was Monsters of the Market awarded the Issac Deutscher award for a book ‘which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition’.

Near the end of Monsters of the Market, McNally writes,
Marx saw the key to unions and workers' organization not in their strictly material achievements but, rather, in the spirit of opposition they cultivated. Without struggle, resistance, and international organization, he argued, workers risked becoming 'apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production'—in short, zombies who cannot awaken. Until that awakening, monstrous utopia lives on in stories, dreams, music, art, and moments of resistance that prefigure the grotesque movements through which the collective laborer throws off its zombified state in favor of something new, frightening, and beautiful. (266)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Documenting Animal Commodities: Activism or Advocacy

The Northwest Film Center  in Portland, Oregon, recently presented three films for Northwest Tracking Farm Edition: Industry and Animal Husbandry. Milk Men, directed by Subversive Storytelling's own Jan Haaken (2015) explores dairy farming through several family farms and one industrial farm in Washington state. Loose Horses, directed by Kathy Kasic (2015), focuses on an intermediary auction pen in Montana by which unwanted domestic horses might either find a new life or be sent to the slaughterhouse. Boone, directed by Christopher LaMarca (2016) follows three farmers on a small goat farm in Southern Oregon. Shown on three consecutive nights, the films constitute diverse instances of activist rather than advocacy documentary.

The genre of documentary is huge and various—it includes everything from television news segments through avant-garde work by Trinh Minh-ha; from Triumph of the Will through Fahrenheit 9/11. Considering some debates about documentary and recurrent issues in documentary studies can help audiences to approach not just the content of films but the ways that content is presented. There are questions of the status of realism—the status of documentary as nonfictional, but also questions of how the portrait of reality is shaped by the film—and interrelated questions of ethics and of style.

The Northwest Tracking Farm Edition series moves from Milk Men, which includes voiceover by the filmmaker and her on-camera interviews with her subjects; through Loose Horses, which does not include the director but does have interviews with participants in which they directly address the camera, answering questions we don't hear but can often guess at; and ends with Boone, arguably an example of what's known as "direct cinema," in which we seem to be a fly on the wall, following various actions rather than interviews with the subjects of the film. Thus the documentarians in the films in this series become less and less visible.

Direct cinema or observational cinema is also sometimes equated with cinéma vérité, although cinéma vérité, French for cinema truth, has also been distinguished from direct cinema as involving more confrontational, participatory, and self-reflexive techniques by the filmmaker. Developing in the 1960s with the greater availability of lightweight cameras and synchronous sound that made it more possible to follow subjects and capture events in process, both the French cinéma vérité and the American direct cinema traditions are invested in presenting truth or reality.

Now, you might think that that is what all documentary is supposed to be about: documentary films are generally understood as nonfictional, about real people, real situations, real places. But they also have traditions of using techniques associated with fictional narrative features, stylistic strategies developed to make films easier to watch, conventions that clarify spatial relations, or temporal continuity, for instance, and investments in narratives that may reinforce the status quo through their very familiarity.

Direct cinema sought to remove some of those artifices and to show a more authentic glimpse of the world as it is. John Grierson,  an early British documentarian and theorist of documentary, suggested that documentary is "the creative interpretation of actuality," and direct cinema was in some ways a reaction against what were perceived as the biases of the "creative" side of that formula—against filming events that had been staged, for instance, as Grierson's films sometimes did.

But that view was also critiqued, because the filmmaker is always making choices—what to shoot, how to shoot it, and how to edit it together. So in contrast, films that foreground their active intervention in the process of representation were argued to be more truthful, precisely because they make clear their investments.

On the other hand, having a filmmaker participating in the film doesn't necessarily make things more true, and indeed many people have critiqued Michael Moore's work in that light. But if one of the critiques of Moore is sometimes that he's "biased," we can also critique that idea, in turn, since just as there isn't a sharp line between fictional and nonfictional films, there isn't any way that a film can be entirely "objective." The truth it presents is a different sort of truth.

And Moore's work might illustrate another sort of documentary that has become increasingly popular in the last 20 years or so: the advocacy documentary, in which the filmmaker presents a clear position and asks the audience to take some sort of action—as, for instance, An Inconvenient Truth ends with the url for a website giving suggestions on how to reduce your carbon footprint. Among animal documentaries, a lot of these have been advocating for animal rights in various ways—like the exposes that are referenced in Milk Men, or The Cove, which calls for an end to dolphin hunting, or Food, Inc., which calls for an end to factory farming.

But the Northwest Farm series films are not advocacy documentaries in that sense. Milk Men is quite explicit in positioning itself in opposition both to early Dairy Board propaganda and to anti-industrial farming exposes. Loose Horses is less explicit in its presentation of the debate it engages—there's no authorial voice-over—but features the people it interviews arguing both that people who sell their old horses at auction are being lazy and selfish because they don't simply shoot and bury old horses but instead put them through a traumatic experience; and, in a counterpoint to that, arguing that not everyone has land on which to bury a horse, and some people need the money they can get from auctioning their old horses. In Boone, the very intimacy of the presentation foregrounds both the primal satisfactions of farming and the grimly arduous labor involved.

None of these films ends with a clear "ask," then, but they all engage or respond to a number of troubling issues—about the difficulties of farming, about the economic pressures on farmers, about overproduction in the global economy, about the situation of animals who are also commodities, about the status of regulations such as those about the siting of slaughterhouses or the sale of raw milk to consumers.

And like all documentaries they raise questions about the relation between the filmmaker and the subjects of the film. So in addition to the degree of explicit intervention by the filmmaker and the open directing of our understanding or response through narration or choices of interviews, there's also the question of the ethics of how the filmmakers interact with their subjects. Documentarians tend to have some substantial access to resources, and their subjects, or characters, are often less privileged—as in Hoop Dreams, or Born into Brothels, to take some relatively recent examples, but also in documentaries Grierson produced in the 1930s about working-class Britons, or in ethnographic films going back to Robert Flaherty's 1922 Nanook of the North, about Eskimos.

The people in the NW Farm series films are not ethnic or cultural Others to the filmmakers—not indigenous Inuit or Bengali children. But they are rural rather than urban, and given the economic stresses of farming that we see in all these films, they are often economically pressured. And certainly insofar as the filmmaker is the one telling the story, there are always questions about the filmmaker's responsibility to those whom they represent and on whose participation the film depends.

There are also questions about the ways that stories are told—what's included and excluded (aside from the filmmakers themselves), and how that presentation is accomplished. For instance, we can think about setting: Milk Men uses aerial shots to connect the various farms we visit and to give an overview of the size of the different farms, whereas Boone and Loose Horses each focus on a single location, with more or less information about what lies beyond the immediate setting—where people and animals we see have come from and go to.

Or, we could think about the use of close-ups. In all three films, for instance, close-ups of the animals, particularly of their faces and eyes, may prompt us to understand them as sentient beings with subjectivities. But the films also use close-ups of equipment. An udder-eye-view of the automatic milking machines in Milk Men invites amazement at the technology, and also suggests the intimacy the cows may come to feel with the machine that gives them some control over milking. In Loose Horses, close-ups of fences and chute walls convey a sense of the constraints on the horses and the narrow possibilities for their futures. Close shots of broken machinery in Boone emphasize the difficulties and frustrations of farm labor, while a view from the underside of a tiller suggests the fragility of life so easily cut down.

And finally, we might consider the question of sound. Direct cinema initially emphasized synchronous sound, but all of the films in the Northwest Farm series complicate the relation of sound and image, at points using off-screen voices and sounds in combination with images that influence our response. Moreover, both Boone and Loose Horses give us an immersive soundscape, pushing forward the sounds of their settings. Kasic describes her film's style as "sensory-vérité," evoking the work promoted by Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, but resisting that school's embrace of entirely open-ended, digressive, even confusing mess. Instead, like the other films in the NW Farm series, Kasic's reaches the audience sensually, emotionally, and cognitively, to promote not a quick change of lightbulb or letter to the editor, but an ongoing and nuanced engagement with the complexities of human relations to sentient animals potentially both loved and commodified.