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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy Boxing Day 2012

Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel

When a poor man came in sight

Gath’ring winter fuel

“Hither, page, and stand by me

If thou know’st it, telling

Yonder peasant, who is he?

Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence

Underneath the mountain

Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine

Bring me pine logs hither

Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”

Page and monarch forth they went

Forth they went together

Through the rude wind’s wild lament

And the bitter weather….

I hope that all who celebrate it passed a happy Christmas holiday yesterday. For some, the holiday goes on, for today is Boxing Day. Falling on December 26, Boxing Day, also called St. Stephens’s Day, is mostly a Commonwealth holiday. I became familiar with it via my British Virgin Islands in-laws. On this day, it is said, the poor received the contents of church poor boxes, collections for the poor, and the servants of great houses, who often had to work on Christmas day, received gift boxes from their masters.

While Christmas Day is a solemn time for many, Boxing Day is often more raucously festive, filled with home visiting, parties, horse races and other sporting events. My fondest memory of Boxing Day was on a hot, sunny day in 2006 in Tortola, British Virgin Islands when my family and I gathered at the home of my late beloved father-in-law, Ta. When we arrived, inside the small house where Ta had been born early in the last century were several members of his church who had come to visit, laugh and pray with him. As his parlor was small, we stayed out on the porch, overlooking the seemingly endless bay. 

To accompany the talk and prayers inside, we began singing Christmas carols and hymns. Some of the church people inside joined in, their voices merging with ours through the open, unscreened door that led from the porch to the darkened, windowless front room where Ta sat, his face etched with joy. He spoke but little that day, uncharacteristic for him. Ta, like Stephen for whom this day is also named, was a man with an active tongue and wit.

Also like Stephen, Ta was a man of grace, wisdom, courage, intelligence, and perhaps above all, justice. Over his long and blessed life, Ta told many stories and jokes, and in the jokes lay the truth, sometimes told straight, sometimes told sideways until it could be told straight. Ta was a lion, of the breed about which abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote in a now famous letter to Frederick Douglass: You remember the old fable of 'The Man and the Lion,' where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented 'when the lions wrote history.' I am glad the time has come when the 'lions write history.'”

The wind blew gently and strongly that Boxing Day, and we sang on. From time to time we looked out at the vast ocean beyond the bay, dreaming of truth, dreaming of history, and the dream was life and life was the dream.

Happy Boxing Day to one and all! Dream well.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Bakhtin’s Theory of Literary Carnival Meets the Mighty Sparrow

I found myself explaining Bakhtin’s theory of literary carnival to my ten-year-old daughter yesterday. She has been reading over my shoulder as I write about the concept and she finally asked what I was talking about. I decided to make an effort at an explanation, figuring that if I could frame it out for her then it might advance my efforts to explain the concept in my work.

Bakhtin’s carnival, like many ancient and modern social carnivals, is a way of looking at the world that unifies, merges or subverts norms and ideas that are typically thought of as opposites. I describe carnival in more detail in an essay I wrote for the NYU Review of Law and Social Change. I also blogged about the concept previously here.

Carnival often involves subversion of mainstream social, legal, economic or other norms.  In carnival, privileged figures are sometimes mocked, demoted and subverted by the oppressed who then assume power, even though only in pretense and usually for only a short while. Carnival is a sanctioned blowing off of social steam that, while riotous and even sometimes offensive, is often ambivalent in its goals: in carnival the lowly sometimes secretly admire and yearn for the respectability and privilege of those whom they mock.

Bakhtin’s carnival is related to historically instantiated folk carnivals such as pre-Lenten celebrations. Bakhtin’s carnival is also, however, sometimes much more metaphorical in nature, and occurs within certain types of language forms, such as in parodies or satires that are unconnected to any particular instance of a folk carnival. Sometimes the material and metaphoric dimensions of carnival come together, such as in some Caribbean carnivals where raucous folk festival is characterized by carnivalesque songs, poems or chants.

My daughter was frowning in puzzlement at this point so I offered an example of a genre of carnivalistic discourses: calypso songs. Calypso songs provide a duel purpose explanation of Bakhtin’s carnival—they frequently form a part of pre-Lenten or other festivals in much of the Caribbean, and the songs themselves offer a rich tradition of satire and parody that challenges mainstream ideas and figures in society. In my explanation I used a calypso song that my daughter knows, Mighty Sparrow’s “Mr. Walker.”  This was a particular favorite of my late mother-in-law and we sing and play it a lot as we reminiscence during the Christmas season.

Here are the words and a link to the song:

She ugly yes, but she wearing them expensive dress
The People say she ugly, but she father full of money
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Oh, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

After the wedding day, I don't care what nobody say
Every time I take a good look at she face I see a bankbook
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Hmm, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

Apart from that, they say how she so big and fat
When she dress they tantalize she, saying monkey wearing mini
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Oy, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

All I know, is I don't intend to let she go
Cause if she was a beauty, nothing like me could get she
Oh Lord Mamma, woy woy

Good morning Mr. Walker
I come to see your daughter
Oy, Mr. Walker!
I come to see your daughter
Sweet Rosemarie, she promise she gone marry me
And now I tired waiting!
I come to fix the wedding.

My daughter is especially amused that the song seems to offer open insult to the woman being described all while prefacing the insults with a particularly Caribbean aspect of social nicety: “good morning.” Part of her amusement is because this rang true for her. During many of our visits to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands it has become apparent to my daughter that little can be accomplished in business or social settings without starting with a requisite good morning, good afternoon, etc.  However, because of the outlandishness of the insults, my daughter is also clear that there is no way under the sun that a potential suitor is going to show up and say such offensive things to a woman’s father while claiming that he wants to marry her. She also understands that part of the humor lies in the demand from such a seemingly disempowered suitor. So, my daughter reasons, the song must be intended as a never-could-be, sly extended joke.

A troubling part is that the singer seems to assert that the unattractiveness of the woman potentially lowers her to his level. Listening from the perspective of Bakhtin’s carnival, however, my daughter starts to understand that the singer, though he seems to assail the “ugly” woman and her rich father, is partly laughing at himself. The plaintive tone of the music in some sections hints that the singer likely means the OPPOSITE of much of what he says and probably greatly admires both the woman and her father. That the singer says that he will keep the woman is perhaps best understood not as a plan to keep hold of the desire of his head (or wallet) but the desire of his heart.

Ah, this does the trick for my daughter. “Mr. Walker” is Bakhtinian carnival.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

From Oz to Bethlehem: Romney's Post Election Take (Or, Gifts that Keep on Giving)

According to a post in The Caucus blog in the New York Times Mitt Romney attributed his recent election loss to the fact that President Obama had “followed the ‘old playbook’ of wooing specific interest groups — ‘especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people,’ with gifts. 

Wow, are we still doing new versions of the 47 percent and  “makers and takers” even after the election? Apparently so.  A Romney breakdown of the “gifts” given to the various groups by President Obama:

To young [white] people, “a forgiveness of college loan interest was a big gift,” said Romney. An added gift was Obamacare since it “also made a difference for them, because as you know, anybody now 26 years of age and younger was now going to be part of their parents’ plan, and that was a big gift to young people.”

To young college-aged [white] women in particular: “Free contraceptives were very big with young college-aged women.”

To black and Latino voters:  healthcare, because “[y]ou can imagine for somebody making $25,000 or $30,000 or $35,000 a year, being told you’re now going to get free health care, particularly if you don’t have it, getting free health care worth, what, $10,000 per family, in perpetuity, I mean, this is huge.”

To Latinos in particular: “amnesty for children of illegals, the so-called Dream Act kids, was a huge plus for that voting group.”

When I read the report of Romney's comments I thought maybe this was some kind of comedic riff, perhaps a take-off on The Wizard of Oz where young white women, young white men, blacks and Latinos, in the guise of Dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion, are all in a self-satisfied post election haze, not because of magic poppies, but because each has received the gifts of their hearts’ desires from Obama the Magic Negro, er, wizard. 

Or, maybe, I thought, this almost being the Season, perhaps this was an inverted, postmodern retelling of the Nativity story where there is one magi, played by Obama, and where there is no gold, frankincense or myrrh. Instead, Magi Obama gives three gifts to not one but three infants: young white people, blacks and Latinos. They all turn out to be political babes in mangers instead of the political babes in the woods that the Romney people thought they were. Those babes are politically anointed ones and grow up into a full-fledged holy electoral triumvirate.  

It’s kind of hard to know if we’re in Oz or Bethlehem; either could work I suppose. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Video Surveillance as White Witnesses

There has been a tremendous media kerfluffle about Mitt Romney’s 47-percenter comment several days ago. While speaking in an ostensibly private setting Romney asserted that there were 47 percent of us who could not be persuaded to vote for him because we lack certain core values such as a will to self-sufficiency. This 47 percent, said Romney, “will vote for the president no matter what,” believe that they are “victims” and that government “has a responsibility to care for them.” Most sobering, perhaps, is Romney’s assertion that his job “is not to worry about those people.” Ouch, that really hurts if Romney was planning to cast himself as a candidate for all of the people.

This politically painful moment came to light only because some member of the coterie made a video and then provided it to the media.  The source of the video has thus far succeeded in remaining anonymous, citing fears of lawsuit and professional concerns; the possibility of blacklisting comes to mind. Perhaps one of the most interesting debates arising from this is whether comments that were offered in “private” should have been spread “publicly.”  There are, I suppose, two ways to look at this. On the one hand, it is appropriate to expect privacy at a dinner party in a private home, which was the setting here. On the other hand, a person running for president of the United States arguably gives up routine notions of privacy from the moment s/he enters the race, especially when making remarks directly about the campaign, as was the case here.  So, seeing the dinner party as effectively public can potentially assuage any qualms one might have about breaches of privacy in this situation. In short, the public/private frame must be restructured or done away with altogether in order to make public consumption of the footage ethically acceptable.
Lest we be concerned about disrupting privacy norms, it is important to recall that privacy has never been uniformly available to all persons nor has it been uniformly understood or valued in the same ways. The association of privacy with notions of freedom and autonomy is an association promoted by those with power and authority, in short, by those who are by definition public people. Public people dwell at the center of the public square. They deploy power both by observing and by being observed; they dismantle and erect visual barriers by shaping laws, rules and norms. Given their heightened ability to see and be seen, public people long for the respite of privacy now and again. 
In contrast, private people, in this context those possessing little power or authority, dwell in limited spaces outside of or at the margins of the public square. They see little and are little seen in all of their actual attributes. Private persons are often barred from a fuller vision of the lives of the powerful and themselves are so little seen by the powerful as to exist only in the incompletely theorized, factually sparse articulations of the powerful (hence the tale of the 47 percent). Their relative inability to see and be seen sometimes makes these private people long for a broad, seemingly dispassionate gaze such as video surveillance. Such a gaze might tell them more about the powerful. It might also show private persons to be good workers, good parents, good citizens, and good people. While video surveillance may diminish the privacy of public people who frequently are at the center of society’s gaze, video surveillance sometimes provides much needed valorization for these less regarded private people. This is because private people are far more often lied about, lied to and deemed liars. Hence private people often lose in battles of opposing narratives with public people about what has occurred. In such cases, video surveillance becomes a mostly neutral, unlikely to lie, legitimizing witness.  For many of these private people, especially women, people of color or other relatively powerless people in society, video surveillance is the modern day white witness.

There was a time in this country when there were widespread racial requirements for offering testimony in official proceedings. Blacks, Asians, Native Americans and others were often formally barred as witnesses. For instance, during slavery and for some years after it ended, in many jurisdictions blacks who sought to testify in courtrooms or many other types of official proceedings were often limited in their participation, forbidden altogether or permitted only if white witnesses could not be produced. The white witness requirement became an article of federal law in the 1892 Geary Act that required Chinese residents to obtain certificates of legal residence and, if they could not produce one, subjected them to immediate and summary deportation unless they could offer at least one white witness to confirm that they had lived in the United States at the time of the passage of the Act. 

Even where there were no formal bars to non-white witnesses, attorneys routinely pointed to the non-whiteness of a witness as a reason to disbelieve his testimony. In some places along with a white witness requirement was a requirement of male witnesses. For instance, in Louisiana in the late 19th century only men could witness wills; this was premised on the civil law tradition. In such matters white and/or male witnesses were deemed superior because of their presumed ability to offer disinterested testimony and to understand the import and substance of the proceedings and of truth itself.  Such provisions diminished the rights of people of color and women in many cases, rendering them and their observations less valid. But not surprisingly this understanding about the heightened quality of white male testimony often made people of color and women desirous of having white men bear witness for them when such testimony was in their favor.  
Contemporary video surveillance video fulfills a similar valorizing function for people who would be little likely to be believed in a battle of divergent recollections. This is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the case of video surveillance in retail stores. While the presence of such technology may upset some people, I am oddly comforted by it. Fairly often I am the object of close human observation when I enter such stores. I am, more often than I care to acknowledge (it is embarrassing, really) followed by store security or subjected to insincere offers to “help” me that are intended as a means to hasten my exit. Twice in my life I have been directly accused of theft; the number of accusations is higher if I count innuendos indirectly suggesting that I had stolen something. In the case of the direct accusations of theft I had already purchased the item that was allegedly stolen.  In both cases I either was given no receipt or had misplaced the receipt before leaving the store.  

In the case where I had no receipt the goods, a bag of potato chips, were seized from me, compounding my humiliation at having been stopped and accused of theft.  In the second case where I had misplaced the receipt, I was marched back to a sales clerk from whom I had purchased the item where, much to my relief, she confirmed that I had indeed purchased the item. What if she had honestly forgotten me or had chosen to say that I had not paid for the item? I had paid cash in both cases (the use of a credit card would similarly have helped me, given the electronic record of such use) so I had nothing to confirm my account. Surveillance footage could in these instances have protected me, given the fact that popular imaginings about the propensities of people like me for theft may often supplant actual occurrences. Smarting from such treatment, and given that video surveillance, while ubiquitous, is not omnipresent, I now demand a receipt even for cups of coffee and or newspapers, and I safeguard the receipt immediately. I don’t resent video surveillance in retail sales settings; I am grateful for its confirmatory gaze. Video surveillance is my white witness.

Positing video surveillance as white witness may help to explain just what is disquieting about it. Like white witnesses, video surveillance can and does get it wrong sometimes. Because video surveillance, like the white witness of old, is often controlled by the powerful, it may be withheld altogether, or may be deployed chiefly in their favor, offering sometimes noncontextual, incomplete or even intentionally misleading views of events. However, just as in the case of white witness provisions of the past, the contemporary powerless private person sometimes has the opportunity of producing her own personal video white witness via sousveillance--making her own video.

Sousveillance is the observation or recording of an activity from the perspective of a participant in the activity. The term also refers to the recording or monitoring of real or apparent authority figures by others, particularly those who are generally the subject of surveillance. David Brin, in The Transparent Society, decries the loss of true privacy as a result of the increasing use of surveillance by those in power, and suggests that the only way to temper dangers of surveillance is to create a society wherein all persons have equal opportunity to engage in surveillance. In such a setting, we are all inferior beings, subordinate to the technologically superior video surveillance white witness who alone understands truth and can tell it. 

Perhaps there is something to be said for this shared oppression of video surveillance. It many cause us to acknowledge that both publicity and privacy as we have traditionally understood them are unequally available in our society.

This blog is drawn from the author’s working paper titled “Video Surveillance as White Witness.”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Roots of Oppression

I took my daughter to the doll hair salon at American Girl Place recently. We brought along Kanani, the 2011 American Girl doll of the year. Kanani received a much-needed salon and spa treatment consisting of hair detangling and styling, body washing, body tightening (her stuffing was showing!) and ear piercing.  We also obtained a mani-pedi kit for her. The whole notion of a store that exists to sell dolls, matching clothes for the dolls and their human owners and salon services for the dolls seems to some like a true example of conspicuous consumption and over-indulgence. I can truly see that point of view. But, as I watched a store full of girls and women (along with, I am pleased to say, some boys and men) of all races and ethnicities enjoy the fantasy world of dolls, I could only be delighted from an entertainment perspective.  I also had a great deal of admiration for the marketing skill that created a commercial world wherein there are almost no parity products and little need to conduct much conventional advertising because of significant consumer choice “stickiness” and strong word-of-mouth advertising.

I could, of course, be critical of the notion of a doll beauty salon, given the way in which beauty culture can and does sometimes operate as an oppressive regulatory regime for women. This is perhaps especially true for black women, who, according to some scholars, spend anywhere from two to three times as much on beauty products and services as other demographic groups. Black women and other women of color sometimes face particular pressures to conform to mainstream standards of beauty.  Such standards often function as disciplinary forces in the service of racial, gender and sexual identity hierarchies. The (nappy) roots of beauty standard oppression are firmly entrenched in opinions and attitudes that, while shaped by the broader society, are frequently mediated and reproduced by women themselves. Witness some of the online chatter about Olympic gold metal winner Gabrielle Douglas’ hair and how it somehow did not meet some people’s ideals of beauty. It was disheartening to see that some people didn’t get it that beauty cannot possibly be about conforming to a set of hairstyling norms.

What I find empowering about the notion of a doll beauty salon is the way in which it literally and figuratively diminishes certain aspects of beauty culture, reducing them to miniature proportions. The dolly gets her hair done and goes back into the case and onto the shelf, one of the smaller pleasures of an owner who does algebra, writes music or works out on the uneven parallel bars in larger parts of her life.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Title IX, Single Episode Sexual Harassment and Telling Stories Out of School

This June marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Its principal provision reads as follows:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”

Educational institutions from primary schools to universities who receive federal funding are subject to the law. Title IX is best known for having transformed the arena of women’s sports. Title IX, however, has a much broader reach: it applies in a number of other key areas, including sexual violence, sexual harassment and gender-based harassment. The latter may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex-stereotyping, even if those acts do not involve conduct of a sexual nature. One of the  controversial aspects of Title IX jurisprudence is that sexual and gender-based harassment is not only defined by persistent behavior but may also be found in a single episode. This latter fact is the subject of numerous critiques. But what is sometimes missed in such criticism is the full nature of even a “single episode” of harassment, especially within educational institutions.

According to social theorist Anthony Giddens, all social life is episodic. By this Giddens refers to specific beginnings and endings, and to particular sequences within those beginnings and endings.  Even seemingly small single episodes usually effect main institutions within a social totality. This is nowhere more true than in the case of sexual or gender-based harassment in educational settings. Social dominance and hierarchical organization are key features of many educational settings; the relationships between students, teachers, support staffers and administrators are characterized by power and authority, distinction and subordination. Combined with these are hierarchies that exist well beyond educational settings: stratifications of gender, race, class and sexual orientation are just a few.  These conditions may easily give rise to episodes of sexual or gender-based harassment.

Despite the seriousness of such events, they are all too often deemed of little importance in educational settings. As scholar Robin Patric Clair notes, incidents of sexual harassment rarely receive "the same public exposure, legitimation or respect" as other sorts of problems in institutional settings. This may be especially true in the context of education. All too often such concerns are deemed plebeian, mean and  inimical to the storied liberal values, high-minded erudition and studied self-reflexivity thought to prevail in many educational institutions.  Hence, narratives of sexual or gender-based harassment may be, according to Clair, “sequestered”—intentionally segregated from the mainstream and rarely considered an appropriate subject of publicly shared anecdotes.  Because exposure of sexual or gender-based harassment may be harmful to dominant interests in such settings, such narratives are frequently re-framed by rhetorical devices that influence interpretation of the incident without being part of the content of the incident. In such re-framing, victims are often said to have harmed institutional interests, and/or to have misunderstood the harasser and/or to be “too sensitive” to the natural, harmless, and socially appropriate ebullience or humor of the harasser. Finally, re-framing may deny the occurrence of harassment altogether. In short, re-framing can and does make claims of sexual and gender-based harassment “go away.”

Given the climate of sequestered stories of sexual or gender-based harassment found in many educational settings, employing Title IX in such cases can be a challenge since liability is typically triggered only once an institution knows or reasonably should know of the claimed sexual or gender-based harassment. Victims must therefore be empowered to tell their stories, whether of persistent or single episode harassment--in school and out.  The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights April 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter” was a needed reminder of the responsibility that educational institutions bear in addressing claims of sexual harassment, gender-based harassment or sexual violence under Title IX. While not a solution to the these problems, when deployed Title IX can offer push-back to re-framing and allow victims yet another means of articulating the legal and ethical wrongness of such behavior.

[Versions of this article are cross-posted at the blog of the American Constitution Society and the blog of the National Women's Law Center]

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Loving is as Loving Does

On June 12, 1967, in the case Loving v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court unanimously struck down Virginia's anti-miscegenation law, thereby invalidating such laws across the country and allowing interracial couples across the nation to enter into legally recognized marriages. The plaintiffs, Mildred Delores Jeter Loving and Richard Perry Loving, were arrested in the wee hours of the morning in June 1958, confronted in their marriage bed by police officers and arrested for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. The couple pled guilty, received suspended sentences and were barred from the state. Several years later they reopened the case, leading to the now famous ruling. Click here to see a short film about the Lovings.

Many people celebrate June 12 as Loving Day, the day when racial barriers to marriage equality were toppled and when African Americans came a giant step closer to achieving full civil rights. Today is perhaps a particularly poignant celebration as we debate the status of same-sex marriage by recalling that less than fifty years ago whites and blacks (and people of some other racial backgrounds) could not marry in almost one-third of U.S. states. For decades, there has been a political and legal debate about the meaning of Loving and its implications for the status and rights of same-sex couples in our society. Some have argued that Loving, while useful to the same-sex marriage debate, is not a matter of simply or impulsively matching familiar figures in a test of legal reflection. Maybe not,  maybe so.

The case of the Lovings was not necessarily simple or straightforward, either in law or in fact. At the time that the Lovings were arrested, the legal parameters of equal protection and due process doctrines did not fully resemble their modern forms. The factual backstory of the plaintiffs was equally as opaque. Few people realize, for example, that Mildred Loving, while identified by several documents, by some people in her community and by the justice system as black, did not necessarily consider herself black, but rather, as white and Native American. According to one author, her marriage license, hanging on the wall of her bedroom when she was arrested, identified her as "Indian." In an interview she gave in 2004 Mildred Loving was said to have identified her mother as full-blooded Rappahannock and her father as Rappahannock and white; she went on to say that as far as she knew “no one in her family was black.” The Rappahannock, like some other Native American groups, were sometimes described as being of mixed black and aboriginal blood--despite their own claims of pure aboriginal identity. One account suggests that Mildred Loving may have publicly accepted a mixed Native American-black designation in order to allow the case to proceed on firmer, more compelling grounds. In a case founded on race, the race of one of the parties was in no way clear cut. 

One thing was clear in Loving: the case helped to dismantle racial boundaries and lessened law’s ability to serve as a tool to naturalize racial hierarchies and ideologies of racial purity. Whatever their racial backgrounds Mildred and Richard Loving were prevented by law from forming an intimate and social partnership with each other for reasons that defied logic. Anti-miscengenation laws, regardless of their targets, have long worked hand-in-hand with larger-scale regulatory regimes to limit the rights of citizenship to narrow classes of persons.  Here the analogy is clear: permitting same sex marriage, like permitting interracial marriage, is a step on the path towards full civic membership for all.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sarkozy, Hollande and a Sunday Kind of Feeling in Paris

Last night marked the finals of the election between Sarkozy and Hollande, with Hollande winning. I have never experienced such a public political culture, with huge numbers of people turning out to vote, people in the streets all day yesterday (Sunday), and an atmosphere like New Year's Eve after last night's announcement. I suppose to some extent it could be likened to the election of Obama in terms of the change in government that Hollande’s election represents. Women and people of color seem particularly energized, not the least because Hollande enjoyed hearty support from George-Pau Langevin, a black woman member of the National Assembly elected from mainland France. Hollande and Langevin posters are everywhere, especially in this arrondissement that Langevin represents (the 20th arrondissement). However, the Obama comparison is a very loose one.

Yesterday afternoon before the results were announced I went to a huge neighborhood vide-grenier (attic sale) and festival with hundreds of people walking, pushing, and crowding around vendors of everything you could imagine. This is a fairly working-class neighborhood also with a number of artists, writers and intellectuals in residence (sort of like Greenwich Village before Greenwich Village became a “happening” place I suppose). So, the vendors were an eclectic mix of everything from elderly ladies who were selling stuff that looked as if it were from the de Gaulle era all the way to local bouquinistes (second-had book sellers—a good thing; the cost of new books is enormous.) I came to the local public nursery school (yes, preschool is public funded here) where people were crowding in a huge line.  I thought it was some great exhibit or solde (sale).  I wanted to see! (By the way, local public libraries here, including the one a few doors down from me where I do some of my work in the evenings, often have great free exhibits--it is a museum kind of town). I asked a lady coming out of the nursery school, “what's going on in there?” She said, “it’s the voting, it’s a good time now, before the line gets any longer.” (I could not imagine that; I have never seen such a line at a poll).  She was so excited and serious about it. They seem to take their civic duty pretty seriously here.  I think that the two-phase election (the first round was on April 22) is perhaps part of it, and there are laws strictly forbidding publishing exit poll data before the polls close (though outlets in other countries and on Twitter were doing it; it helps that they are on one time zone here in metropolitan France). Also, I believe that having Sunday elections truly helps turnout and engagement.  Pretty much every business is closed here Sunday except for some small food grocers and some restaurants.

It was a real Sunday kind of feeling.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Café au Lait Bien Chaud (“Vous êtes quoi?”)

Je bois un bol de café au lait bien chaud (est-ce qu’un café au lait ever really hot?) and je pense de la question that has confronted me since my arrival in Paris: “Vous êtes quoi?” What are you? I know that part of what prompts this question is apparently my accent when I speak French.  I take pride in trying to master the sound if not the fluency of native French speakers, so my pride is a little bit wounded to think that I am revealing myself to be foreign when I talk. But as one woman told me in a small boutique today where I went to buy a scarf, the ultimate fashion accessory here, (scarves are, mercifully, often inexpensive yet they add a real air of the Parisienne to every outfit and of the Parisien as well; many men of all ages are artfully slinging scarves around their necks in this chilly, wet weather) it’s not how I speak. “C’est votre couleur de peau.”  There, she said it.  It’s my skin color. She pauses patiently as she unrolls the now familiar list: Vous êtes Martiniquaise? Vous êtes Guadeloupéenne? (that’s what she says she is—I took her for Cuban or Venezuelan from her looks and the sound of the Cuban music playing in the background of the store). Vous êtes mulâtresse? WHAT did she just call me, snap?

I have long been familiar with how people in many other parts of the world deal more frankly with skin color than United Statesians. Here in Paris, some people seem to take discussions of national or racial heritage as an early to medium-stage intimate pleasantry (the conversation usually starts in this direction after we have had several minutes of chatting to establish a foundation for such inquiries, such as with my apartment building concierge when I moved in).  I have been especially surprised at being asked if I am a mulâtresse (female mulatto.)  I thought that word went out around 1920, along with Negress (my spell-checker can’t even handle the latter word and it is in English, lol!) I have to set about figuring out just how widely mulâtresse is used here. Maybe it is an in-group thing. All of these conversations have occurred with other women of color, such as when I asked a prosperous looking (avec un véritable sac de Chanel; even in the semi-darkness I can tell that those two c’s seem to be lining up just the right way) tan-colored woman the other night for directions to La Nation metro stop. I was on about my fourth walk around a rond-point and I still couldn’t figure out what direction to go in. We were almost two miles away and after she told me the way she offered to walk with me part of the route as she was going in that direction also. After a few minutes walking and sharing chitchat she offered that she was from Mauritius and asked “D’où êtes-vous?” Where are you from? This is different from what are you, but at its root is the notion that you are not of this place.

The woman in the boutique today was visibly puzzled when I responded, “Je suis Americaine, de la Californie” to her inquires. She went on “Mais d’où êtes-vous vraiment? La Martinique, la Jamaïque …”  No, I said, mostly just American, “depuis au moins 200 ans”  I added.  There, I said it. It is true; I have researched one branch of my mother’s family back to 1803 in Virginia where my first known female ancestor was born.  It dawned on me like a ton of bricks (a really apt mixed metaphor) that this makes me really pretty American. I didn’t know how to feel. Proud? No, just amazement, since I don’t usually have casual national identity conversations in the United States and I have rarely stated these facts out loud.

The lady in the boutique sees my Pierre Nora tome peaking out of my obligatory market sack. I have re-learned, after many years away from Paris, to carry a bag everywhere in case I have to stop for groceries or some other small item.  And I stop a lot, both on account of having a tiny fridge and in order to buy small amounts in different places to sample as much as possible. She asks if I am a student.  I say “oui.” For I have only recently stopped being a PhD student and I am here to learn about the intersection of memory and identity and law—there is no need to expand on my really somewhat complicated professional identity.  For the moment la couleur de la peau et un livre suffit à définir une communauté. After all, comme dit Nora, seule l’histoire confère une identité.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Of the Digital Divide, Information Superhighways and the Human Tool

Systematic and automatic is the attitude.
The human is like a little piece (on a mechanism)

Who can find the truth, when all of us are confronted?
This is the way to serve to preachers of lies.
Human tool.

Some of you heavy metal/Goth fans may recognize these lyrics from the song “Human Tool” by the Argentinean band Vampiria.  You can hear it here. 

I thought of this when I read a story in the New York Times about how homeless people had been deployed as human Internet hotspots at a technology conference in Austin, Texas.  You can read about it here.  The gist of it is that a marketing company equipped homeless people with mobile Wi-Fi devices that offered conference-goers Internet access in exchange for donations by the users.  The homeless people were paid $20 per day and given business cards and T-shirts. They were also allowed to keep donations. It was part of a larger “Homeless Hotspot” project that the company hoped to offer in other areas where heavy demand on cellular networks caused problems with access. Most striking is a photo of a 50-something black man wearing a T-shirt that reads “I’m Clarence, a 4G hotspot” along with instructions for how to SMS Clarence for access.

It is not news that there is a national and global digital divide wherein there are inequalities in access to, use of and/or knowledge of the diverse and proliferating resources of the digital world. As much research suggests, these inequalities are often heavily influenced by economic status, race, gender, nationality and culture. Economic and social outsiders often find themselves with little or no access, and even when they do have access, there may be divides in the purpose for use of Internet resources, such as entertainment versus research, for example, and in the sophistication of use, such as retrieval and passive consumption versus interactivity and contribution to media.  Perhaps one of the most commonly conceived of divides is the divide in access to the digital world and the corresponding divide in the means and nature of use.  This is often expressed in discussions of connecting or not connecting because of differential access to equipment or service.  This also has to do with the place of access such as at work or in public spaces versus connecting at home, or connecting via dial up (yes, believe it or not) versus using high-speed services.  This all raises the related discussion of a term that gained prominence back in the 1990’s: the information superhighway.  The information superhighway referred in its most fundamental sense to the physical route for the transfer of data, such as fiber optic cables and other hardwares that were going to connect businesses and households to the Internet. The information superhighway also had more metaphoric import as the transport mechanism for ideas and information.  Whether in its literal or figurative sense, the information superhighway was touted as an amazing new way to bring together people as both consumers and providers of information.

It is becoming quickly apparent, however, that just as in the case of the development of physical superhighways, there are casualties of the construction of information superhighways. Physical superhighways often displaced poor and racial minority neighborhoods even as wealthy and white neighborhoods, often the prime users of the superhighways, were able to preserve their own neighborhoods.  Superhighway entrances and exits were often strategically placed to benefit business centers and wealthier neighborhoods. Superhighways also displaced public transit in some communities.  Take Los Angeles, my hometown (please.  I couldn’t resist the joke.  Really, I love L.A.).  We used to laugh sadly about how even though the highway ran right thorough some neighborhoods we had to practically stand on our heads to get on or off of it anywhere near the neighborhood. My grandmother and mother used to wax nostalgic about the public transit  “red cars” of their youth, a network of rail lines and electric streetcars that connected L.A and nearby communities.  These were just memories by the 1960’s and 70’s when major highways were built. The poor and other people without cars were all but stranded by the new highway transit system that depended on driving.  As a poor child living in L.A. in a household that didn’t have a car for many years, I was going, perhaps both literally and figuratively, nowhere.  The superhighways availed me nothing.

Like the physical superhighways, the information superhighway is going right by and right over some people and some neighborhoods. Homeless people as Internet hotspots makes the point in a weird, cynical, dystopic way.  It sort of reminds me of the old, old pre-digital days when people sometimes had to hold the television antenna in order to insure reception for everyone else watching.  You only hoped that you would get a turn watching and not holding.  But with the digital divide being what it is, the homeless people featured in the article are little more than human tools—I don’t know that they are going to get a turn as users of the services they are providing for others. They are collectively, in this regard, maybe more like Atlas holding up the heavens.