Oct 11

Isn’t That Your Job?

Your week probably did not start at 8:30 on Monday morning with a health care professional telling you that you were gaining too much weight in your pregnancy and that “if you keep this up, you’re going to look like the Michelin girl by the time you deliver.” At least, I certainly hope your week didn’t start that way. I’m sorry to say that mine did, and even more sorry that my response, rather than uttering an expletive or an eloquently worded rejoinder, was to burst into tears.

Of course, pregnancy may well explain that response, as well as my getting teary looking at BoingBoing just now (and damn, that was some fast CSS work on someone’s part) and reading my all the nostalgic Apple posts stream by on FriendFeed and Facebook.

But I didn’t set out, actually, to whine about pregnancy or reminisce about Macs (I’ve done that before) but rather to comment a bit on one of the other events of this apparently tumultuous week, the Occupy This, That, and the Other Place movement that started with Occupy Wall Street. Before the Steve Jobs encomiums started rolling in, most of the posts I saw online this week were either repostings of assorted Occupy signs (hell, I posted a few of them myself) or people complaining about the ways in which the movement, or the people involved, lacked focus, or direction, or goals, or objectives. Frequently these went together — Gosh, I love this sign! I sure wish they had a program!

Watching activism take place on the internet makes me feel very, very old, and weirdly nostalgic for the days when I was handing out flyers that said, “meet on the Pentacrest at noon and the Ped Mall at 5 the day the war breaks out!”, because of course we didn’t know when the war was going to start (this would be the “first” Gulf War), and we wanted to have a plan, and we couldn’t email everyone, much less invite them all to a Facebook event.

The group that made those flyers was called Operation US Out, and I attended its very first meeting, when I was fourteen. We had a program, or at any rate we had five Points of Unity, the idea being that if you agreed with these, you were part of the coalition, regardless of your position on, say, abortion or Israel. The only ones I remember now (1990 was some time ago, and I’d have to look the rest up) were “Troops Out Now” and “End the Poverty Draft,” but the idea was to create some simple demands we could all get behind and rally around, so that we could build a broad-based coalition and gather the maximum possible resistance.

That worked, to a point, the point in question being when a group of mostly women decided that OUSO was being dominated by either men or International Socialist Organization members, or ISO members who were men, and they thus decided to form a separate group called Women Against War. I stuck with the original group, as that’s where my friends were. I knew the people on the steering committee. Of course, they mostly were ISO members, as tends to happen with new activist groups on college campuses with active ISO chapters, if Chicago decides that’s where ISO members should focus their energies. The idea of a Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist group is, at least in part, that you’re creating a vanguard for the revolution, because when the time comes, you’ll need to have people who are organized and know how to get shit done. Consequently, ISO people tend to be very organized and know how to get shit done, and while everyone else is sitting around and dithering about whether the group is anti-war or pro-peace, or whether or not to include demands about Palestine, or what have you, the ISO folks are going around and booking meeting rooms and getting march permits and making and copying flyers and generally, well, organizing. But I digress.

The Points of Unity weren’t, as it turned out, enough to preserve a unified group, and I’m not sure at all that they were ever mentioned or covered in any newspaper story about our actions. As my friend Meg says, you can be sure that at a rally of a thousand normal looking people, the newspaper photographer will find the one guy on stilts, and that will be what shows up on the front page of the paper. I love the guys on stilts, and the people with the giant puppets, and the Radical Cheerleaders, and the people who go around doing guerilla plantings of organic pumpkin seeds, and all the other forms of spectacle we have on the Left, but I do acknowledge there’s a certain problem of media representation.

I’ve since been involved in various other struggles that had programs and demands. Students Against Sweatshops had three very specific demands, all of which had been endorsed by a remarkable list of groups and people and institutions (shouts out, Tom Harkin!). To this day, eleven years later, the University of Iowa has still only met two of them (joining the WRC and drafting a licensee code of conduct — they have yet to drop out of the FLA). The sit-in and its associated spectacle, and the years that followed, were specifically designed in an attempt to bring attention to these specific and particular demands, and they were covered, to some extent, in the stories told about us. But of course they were very complicated and involved understanding things about factory monitoring and labor standards and the right to organize and a great many other things that don’t make a good caption on a picture of a bunch of unwashed college students.

And yet we did accomplish some of our goals. There have been improvements. Mostly those were the result of a lot of grueling, irksome, behind the scenes work. But you know what happened that first day of the sit in? The administration joined the WRC, something they’d refused to do for months. I don’t think they did that due to reasoned demands. We’d already made those. I think they did it because there were a bunch of grubby college kids bike-locked together in their offices. (Well. People weren’t grubby yet. It was the first day, before we started camping out in the hallway.)

I’ve long been a fan of Frances Fox Piven’s Poor People’s Movements. If you’ve heard of Piven, you’re probably either an old lefty or a fan of Glenn Beck. Given that you’re reading this blog, I’m betting on the former, although you never know. I’d like to think my father would read my blog if he were alive, and after agreeing that “main ideas belong in main clauses and subordinate ideas belong in subordinate clauses” and that bourbon is preferable to Scotch, I’m not sure he and I would see eye to eye on anything. Piven’s book is about various mass uprisings of the poor, some of them organized somewhat but most of them simply the result of huge numbers of people reaching a breaking point.

The folks occupying Wall Street do not have a great deal in common with the tenement dwellers who went on rent strikes in Piven’s book, but there’s a quality of unrest that I think they share, and a quality of demanding something — even if it’s an inarticulate, intangible something — but something different from what they have.

I remember way back at one of those early OUSO meetings someone was trying to get people to pin down exactly what our solution to — oh, I don’t know, the global oil market? the problems of capitalism? — was. Another member stood up to speak and said, “You know, I don’t know. But you know, we elect this huge bureaucracy. We elect these people who are supposed to figure out how to make the things we want work. Isn’t that, like, their job?

And to a great extent, I think that’s what the Occupy movement is saying. No, we don’t have a solution to the global debt crisis or the student loan scam or the unemployment rate or anything else. But dude, people in government, captains of industry, leaders of the free world — isn’t that your job? To which I can only say yes, yes it is.

Sep 11

Remembrance and Change

The events I’m supposed to remember, the ones that are supposed to have changed my life, are 9/11 and the Challenger explosion. And I do remember them: I was in my fourth grade homeroom, getting ready for handwriting, when Mrs. Gale came to tell us about the explosion, and I was just out of teaching a rhetoric class when another grad student asked me where she could find a classroom with cable TV on 9/11. So I remember them, and I even had ties to them — one of the teachers at our school had been a finalist for teacher position on the challenger, and I had friends in New York, including one who saw the second tower fall outside her window the day after losing her job. But they aren’t the things that changed my world.

Those things were my father’s death, which I don’t remember the date and time of — I wasn’t there when it happened, and I was only five years old — but which I have a visceral reaction to every year on that date — and watching the vote on the “first” Gulf War come in on January 15, 1991. I was fifteen years old and sitting in a mess of sleeping bags and blankets on my best friend’s living room floor, and we were watching the vote on the tiny television we’d dragged in there to watch movies the night before. We had been organizing against the coming war, which we knew would happen but still believed, maybe, that somehow we could stop. But that January day, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we sat there and watched senator after senator vote to authorize the use of force in the Gulf. The air war started a few days later; the ground war began on my best friend’s birthday. The only dissenting vote from a Republican in either house came from our own Senator Chuck Grassley. I’m fairly sure it’s the only vote of his I’ve ever agreed with. He spoke at my high school when I was a senior, and I asked him about it, and he said that he simply felt that not every other avenue had been tried, and I respect him for that still, although I wasted no time at that event lambasting him with the rest of my classmates over gays in the military.

The war started for me that day, and it never really ended. We were bombing Iraq with some regularity all through the 1990s. Economic sanctions imposed on Iraq resulted in the deaths of thousands there during that decade. The Iraq war that started in 2003 seemed to me just a continuation, not a new event, and the war in Afghanistan that started a month after 9/11 seemed all just another part of what George Bush the first called the “new world order.” That’s what changed things for me.

My mother graduated from college in the spring of 1968. At one point in grad school round one, I was immersed in reading about that period as part of the research for a book I was then trying to write. I asked her one day what that was like. I couldn’t imagine the experience of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy being shot within weeks of each other. I thought it must have felt as though the whole world was falling apart. What did she remember about it, I wanted to know.

She thought about it awhile. “I was very absorbed with your father, and with worrying about getting into graduate school,” she said. (This was around the time she was also applying to secretarial school programs in case her PhD plans didn’t work out.) Finally she came up with something. After Dr. King’s assassination, Cornell University sent a letter to my godmother, my mother’s best friend, who had applied to graduate school there, saying they were establishing a scholarship for minorities, and did she belong to any minority group? Elizabeth, who is smart alecky as well as smart, wrote back and said yes, she was Phi Beta Kappa and a church-going Christian.

You can’t predict what will change your life. I’ve spent twenty years getting told I’m unamerican, that I should move to Canada or Russia or China. I’ve seen institutions I thought well of disappointment me again and again. It doesn’t particularly faze me anymore. The first cut is the deepest, and that’s as true of political betrayal as it is of romantic loss.

A lot of people will spend today in remembrance, and an equal number will spend the day trying not to remember. I think surviving is always a balancing act between the two. I’ll never forget my father; I’ll never stop trying to change the world, but I can’t spend my whole life on either one. Among other things, I’m going to have this kid to raise and take care of, and he will someday have to encounter his own losses. I don’t know what one does about that, except to keep on living.

Somewhere out there, perhaps, are still the three installments of The New Rambler I wrote in the weeks after 9/11. That was back in the days before blogs, when The New Rambler went out as an email, and I got around to putting it up on the website when I had the time. I never got around to it with those issues, and they were lost when the computer I wrote them on died. If anyone reading this happens still to have copies, I’d be grateful if you could send them to me, for the sake of the historical record.

May 11

A Woman and A Courier: On the Death of Osama bin Laden

I heard the news at 7 in the morning, driving home from my boyfriend’s house in that half-asleep 7 in the morning way. I was looking at the trees which seemed to have budded overnight, half listening to whatever overplayed thing they were playing on KSUI. Then the news came on. Osama bin Laden was killed by US troops at a compound in Pakistan. One of bin Laden’s sons and a woman and a courier were also killed.

The report went on. The President was pleased. The United States acted alone in this endeavor, without the knowledge or cooperation of other nations in the region. Bin Laden wasn’t actually living in a cave! He was in a multi-million dollar compound! The President talked in his sonorous way about the closing of a chapter, about a small group of US forces acting on his orders, with great care.

By the time I got home, they’d moved on to speculation and history. Would it really be possible to get aircraft into the compound unnoticed? Was Pakistan actually in on the arrangement because they were sick of dealing with bin Laden? A reporter talked about his childhood and his education and his turn to radical Islam. The 1998 attacks on the World Trade Center were mentioned. Bill Clinton spoke about that, out of the past, via a clip, sounding rather young. September 11. Tora Bora. Manhunt. Movements.

Then there were the celebrations — people singing the National Anthem outside the White House, people chanting USA! USA! USA! at a baseball game. My email brought a newsletter from a wine store urging me to raise a glass to the death of bin Laden.

No one mentioned the woman and the courier. I started to wonder if I had misheard. Maybe it was just the big guy, and I could worry simply about the ethical implications of assassination and not about what they call collateral damage. But no. The BBC says it was two couriers, two couriers and a woman. She was trying to be a human shield. She was like a woman in the Bible — no name, no job, just a tiny role in history. A woman at a well. A human shield.

Sometime on the afternoon or evening of September 11, 2001, after I finally dragged myself off my couch, where I’d felt pinned all day by Neal Conan blasting NPR listeners with the news, and even chastising one who suggested perhaps revenge was not the best option, I made a peace sign with masking tape on the window of my apartment. It stayed there till I moved out two years later. I felt ill that day because I knew we were going to war. I feel ill today because we did, and because we are still there.

People tend to regard pacifism as foolish at best and morally unforgivable at worst. Friends and strangers have told me it is a lazy philosophy. I suppose it is lazy, in that the answer to “should we go to war?” is always no. But it is not an easy philosophy to live with. You have to live with the idea of evil. You don’t get to think, “Well, of course I would have taken a shot at Hitler if I’d had a chance.” You feel sickened when your country kills someone, and you feel alienated from your country because everyone else seems. . . happy.

Lest there be any doubt, let me note for the record that I do not think bin Laden was a good guy. I do not defend his actions or his beliefs. But neither can I rejoice at his death, just as I cannot ignore that throwaway line at the end of the news report I first heard: a woman and a courier were also killed.

The passive voice takes away agency, but it cannot take away responsibility. The deaths caused in the name of one’s country are also one’s own. I’ve never learned how to handle that.

May 10

On Mother’s Day

So it is Mother’s Day again. I am generally opposed to holidays that seem to exist primarily to support the greeting card industry (I know, I know, Mother’s Day started as an anti-war thing, but let’s face it, it is not celebrated that way any more). The other day, though, I saw my friend Jenna soliciting advice on Facebook for a reproductive rights place to which she could donate on behalf of her step-mother, who had asked for such a donation in lieu of a Mother’s Day gift.

As it happens, I’d been thinking just the other day about how grateful I am that I have never been pregnant and thus have never needed to get an abortion. And that got me thinking about what I would do in such a situation now that I live in the boonies. I grew up in Iowa City, home of the fabulous Emma Goldman Clinic, which currently makes its home in the building once inhabited by my pediatrician’s office. My sophomore year of high school, I joined 400 or so other Iowa Citians outside the clinic when 40 members of Operation Rescue came to town to protest. Someone across the street put Madonna on their boom box and aimed it out the window, and a bunch of us went over to dance to “Papa Don’t Preach,” an odd choice, I suppose, in the circumstances, except that it does contain the line, which we all yelled loudly, “I made my CHOICE!” There’s a newspaper photo of me standing at a Roe v. Wade anniversary rally on the history wall there, and when I used to go there for an annual exam, they’d all say how much they’d liked my most recent column.

Well. I do not live a few blocks away from Emma anymore. In fact, as it turns out, in order to get an abortion, I’d have to go to Billings, two and a half hours away and in another state. I’d have to take a day off work, and get someone to drive me up there, and come up with the money (given that my health insurance won’t pay for psychiatric care, I can’t imagine that it would cover abortion). It would be a pain, but I could do all that. I have money, and friends, and sick leave. Not everyone is so lucky.

Shortly after the passage of Roe v. Wade, my great-grandmother, Harriette Glasner, had a similar realization, and she started Emergency Medical Assistance, a fund that still helps poor women in Florida get abortions. It is one of many such funds around the country, many of them small and local, dedicated to trying to provide the kind of options that I have always taken for granted to women who have never had those options.

So this year for Mother’s Day, with their approval, I made a donation to the National Network of Abortion Funds in honor of my mother and grandmother, and in memory of my great-grandmother. These are the women who raised me, a child who was very much wanted and who was loved and helped out at every turn. My wish for Mother’s Day is that every woman be able to make the choice to become a mother, and that every child be wanted as I was, and have mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers like mine.

May 10

Me & Bill Ayers: In Which I Pal Around With Terrorists, Remember My Father, and Reaffirm the First Amendment

my autographed copy of Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers

me & Bill Ayers

The picture you’re looking at is my copy of Bill Ayers’s memoir Fugitive Days, inscribed to me in early November of 2001. The inscription reads

To Laura —
With hope — wounded but alive — for a world at peace and in balance.
Bill Ayers

Ayers’s memoir is only in part an account of his fugitive days. The rest of it is a political autobiography — the story of a person who was born into enormous wealth and privilege after World War II and who went from rather pedestrian boyhood concerns to being concerned with, and appalled by, his country’s involvement in a place called Vietnam, and its callous disregard for those who lived in poverty, those who were born with the wrong color of skin, those who lived and died for his country’s mistakes.

Some readers of this blog will know of Bill Ayers from back when this memoir was published; others from even before that, but most Americans know who he is because his name came up so frequently in the 2008 election. He’s the terrorist Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of palling around with. He was a founding member of the Weathermen, later the Weather Underground (whoo hoo feminism!), which is what part of Students for a Democratic Society became after its disastrous 1969 convention in Chicago.* The Weather people were responsible for a string of bombings of various targets, including the United States Capitol, although the only lives they ever destroyed were there own, in a botched bomb-making attempt in a New York City townhouse. They were, as terrorist organizations go, actually extremely careful not to take lives with their bombs, although it’s not entirely clear that that was the original intent. The bomb that killed three of their members in that townhouse was packed with nails — it was their imitation of the same kind of anti-personnel bomb that the United States was using in Vietnam.

Ayers’s book was published on September 11, 2001. I interviewed him, by phone, for what had been planned as a simple review of his memoir for a local alternative paper, a day or two later. The first thing I remember doing, after learning about the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, is making a peace sign in the window of my apartment out of masking tape. It stayed there for the next two years. The next things I remember are lying on my futon sofa, listening to NPR and realizing that any chance for peace was far flimsier than my improvised sign. I remember sitting on that same sofa and talking on the phone to Bill Ayers about what a terrible, terrible time it was.

Last Wednesday, April 28, Bill Ayers spoke on the campus of the University of Wyoming, on what would have been my father’s eighty-seventh birthday. Few people are in a position to realize both the irony of that coincidence and its deep appropriateness.

Ayers had been invited to speak earlier in the month by the Social Justice Research Center at the University of Wyoming. Protests poured in — to the University, to sundry officials, even to the governor, and as a result, the Center’s director withdrew the invitation. Shortly thereafter, a University of Wyoming student invited Ayers back to speak on campus. The University of Wyoming said they would not allow him to speak. The student booked an alternative venue, just in case, and Ayers and the student sued the University. The Casper Star Tribune has a collection of articles on the controversy; WyoFile has a more succinct account with links to the final decision by Chief Wyoming US District Judge William F. Downes, a decision which will cheer you greatly and give you hope for the future if, like me, you are a fan of the First Amendment. “When the Weather Underground was bombing the Capitol of the United States in 1971,” Judge Downes writes,

I served in the uniform of my country. Like many of my fellow veterans of that era, even to this day, when I hear the name of that organization, I can scarcely swallow the bile of my contempt for it. The fact remains Mr. Ayers is a citizen of the United States who wishes to speak. He need not offer any more justification than that. The controversy surrounding the past life of Professor Ayers and the widely held public perception of his past conduct cannot serve as a justification to defrock him of the guarantees of the First Amendment.The Bill of Rights is a document for all seasons. We don’t just display it when the weather is fair and put it away when the storm is tempest. To be a free people, we must have the courage to exercise our constitutional rights. To be a prudent people, we have to protect the rights of others, recognizing that that is the best guarantor of our own rights.

In April 1969, when the Weathermen were not yet a fully formed idea, some students at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in rural Iowa, decided to turn the American flag upside down as a protest against the Vietnam War. The move, in the context of that time, was not even that radical. The Iowa Young Democrats — Democrats! — had passed a resolution at their convention earlier that year stating that all schools should be encouraged to fly the flag upside down, at half staff — the signal for a ship in distress — for the duration of the war as a symbol of a country in distress. The Grinnell chief of police, however, did see it as a radical act, and he, along with the Poweshiek County sheriff and two sheriff’s deputies came to campus to confiscate the flag. Students organized quickly, with one group going to talk to the President of the college, one group going to write, print, and distribute flyers explaining their action in the community, and one group going to law enforcement headquarters to recapture the flag.

The flag did arrive back on campus, only to be turned upside down and then righted again. My father spent the next two days, from dawn to dusk, standing vigil next to that flag to ensure that no one could turn it upside down again. Some of his students came to stand with him, and eventually convinced him to let them take turns so he could get food, or at least use the bathroom.

My father is generally described as “making the John Birch Society look a little pink around the edges,” and while he did not live long enough for me to solicit his opinions on the Weather Underground, I can guess with great assurance that his opinion would be, if possible, lower than that of Judge Downes. But I like to think that he would have agreed with Downes in another way: I like to think that he would have agreed that Ayers should be allowed to speak, and I like to think that he would, as an academic, shared my disgust with the University of Wyoming for refusing to allow the speech.

I am an odd case for a radical. I was raised on dead white men, and I chose to study them when I got to college. I read the same texts my father did — sometimes from the same books he read — but I came to utterly different conclusions about the world. When I was little, I liked to imagine that heaven was a sort of endless tea/cocktail party, set in brownstone buildings on cobblestone streets, where like minded — and un-like-minded — people would gather to converse and argue. I always liked to imagine my father hanging out with Plato and Aristotle and Samuel Johnson and Thoreau. This is a vision of heaven that I think could only be dreamt up by a faculty brat, and I’m sure it’s far from many people’s ideal. I like to think that someday, though, I may sit around a coffee table with my father and Judge Downes and Bill Ayers and hash over all these things.

In the meantime, I, too, wish for a world at peace and in balance.

*The Weathermen are often blamed for the downfall of SDS, but they don’t deserve all of the credit. I’ve read far more history of student activism in the 1960s than any sane person should, and it’s evident from many accounts that the tactics of the Progressive Labor Party were at least as destructive as the Weathermen were at that convention. As it so happens, I watched the same group use exactly the same tactics to attempt to derail the national convention of United Students Against Sweatshops in the same city thirty-two years later.

Apr 10

The Sit-In, Ten Years Later

My friend the Rev. Sara says that she doesn’t care whether a service is high church or low church so long as it is not sloppy church. I always tell her that she probably shouldn’t come here, because sloppy church is about all we ever have. We are a tiny church in a tiny town, and our priest drives full time for FedEx out of Billings, which is several hours away, and we rely a lot on lay people, and we fumble from time to time, but we manage.

This morning’s fumble was that the person appointed to do the first reading inadvertently read the second reading, so when it came time for me to do that, I figured I’d better read the first one, and I’m glad that I did, because it might have passed over me otherwise. The sermon dealt almost exclusively with the Gospel, which was the story of Doubting Thomas, but it was the first lesson, from Acts, that caught me.

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

We are witnesses to these things. That was the line that struck me: We are witnesses to these things, and we must teach about them.

This past week marked the tenth anniversary of the Students Against Sweatshops sit in at the University of Iowa, in which I participated and about which I wrote at great length at the time; the week was covered much more succinctly by the UE News (I am third from the left in the photo). Many of us who were involved did a little reminiscing about it on Facebook on Thursday, the anniversary of the arrests.* Several days later, I am still thinking about it.

The sit-in did not mark the end of the struggle, which continued for more than a year and, which continues today. A few weeks after the sit-in, we held a silent protest in front of Jessup Hall every day at noon for a week or two. We each wore taped to us a sign identifying a worker who had been abused in a sweatshop, and we wore red tape over our mouths to signify the various ways in which we, and they, had been silenced. I have a picture from one of those days, May 4, 2000, which was also the thirtieth anniversary of the killings at Kent State, and one of our number had made a sign commemorating those students, and the ones killed at Jackson State a few days later who are so often forgotten.

Today’s Gospel lesson is perhaps more relevant than I had first thought. Most of us had not seen sweatshop labor firsthand, and yet we believed. We were trying to stand as witnesses, that others might believe.

Mostly they didn’t, or rather they did but they didn’t think our solutions were the right ones, or they thought our solutions would cost the University a lot of money. At that time, the head basketball coach, Steve Alford, had a contract with the University and Nike guaranteeing him a base salary of $900,000 a year, a third of which was to be paid by Nike — unless for any reason Nike did not feel like paying, in which case the University had to make up the different. Kirk Ferentz had a similar contract with Reebok. We wanted the University to hold the people who made Hawkeye apparel (there are, or were, even Hawkeye coffins!) to certain basic standards: people who made the stuff should be paid a living wage and allowed to take bathroom breaks and not forced to take pregnancy tests and allowed to form unions and not have to work twelve hour shifts or work in buildings without proper fire exits. All of that and more still goes on, and we never thought we would end the practices single-handedly. The anti-sweatshop movement targeted collegiate apparel for strategic reasons — it’s a huge market, and the people who produce it are licensed to do so by schools, schools that frequently have human rights policies and thus a sort of lever that we could push. Of course, as you’ve seen, they also have hundred thousand dollar contracts with companies who are very interested in the status quo. The battle at the University of Oregon, alma mater of Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, was particularly wrought: Phil Knight pulled a planned $30 million donation to renovate a stadium because of the University followed through with one of the protesters’ demands.

I was explaining the whole situation, or as much of it as could be explained during idle post-church coffee hour chat, to some people today, and they asked if we got what we wanted. That’s a hard question to answer. We had three demands; the administration gave in to the first one during the sit in. Over the course of the next year they gave in to the next one, sort of. (It dealt with drafting a specific Code of Conduct for licensees; the Code was written, but six companies (including Nike) were allowed to sign a “clarified” Code, one with modifications that stripped it completely of its purpose.** Our actions, and those of the many other students at many other schools, and our many allies, eventually resulted in changes at one factory in Mexico. It’s not much.

But, as the song goes, I think many of us got what we needed. We were fighting not for ourselves but for others, for people we had never met and never would, and I would like to think our efforts had some effect, and that our movement was one of solidarity and not simply of privileged white kids play-acting at revolution, although there was inevitably a certain amount of that. If you asked the administration or the jury that convicted us, that was all there was.

As I wrote way back then, though, that movement, and the ones that followed, and that follow to this day, gave us back tenfold what we gave to it. My work in SAS is part of who I am; in many ways it made me who I am. My understanding of bureaucracy comes from that movement, but also my understanding of courage, of camaraderie, of solidarity, and of hope.

Those of us who participated in the events of ten years ago aren’t currently occupying any buildings, at least not that I know of. But many of us are still working on the same things that led up to that occupation and that followed it — the bitter, hard, day-to-day work of teaching people and talking to people and being witnesses to these things, to poverty and exploitation, to intransigence and willful ignorance. We are witnesses to these things in a figurative sense, as we were then: we know they exist even if we have not stood on those factory floors. But we were witnesses literally to our own experience at that sit-in, to our own calling to obey an authority we considered greater than that of the building we sat in. We were witnesses to these things, and we are still here.

*Among other things, we were reminiscing about what changes technology has wrought. Back then, we had a borrowed cell phone, and to send out email updates, I had to unplug a phone in order to connect my 28.8 modem.

*I can provide documentation about the “clarified” code, but at present it would require going through some boxes and doing some scanning, as the newspapers that covered it don’t seem to have archives of the events online. (Some smart librarian will probably prove me wrong; please do post a link in the comments if you find one.)

Mar 10

Democracy is Coming

Planning a near-daily routine is all very well, but when the second week of that routine involves daily rehearsals that add a good four to five hours to your day, it does not work that well. I’m happy to say that the play went off splendidly, but, much as I love it, I am glad to have my evenings back. . . except that I don’t quite have my evenings back.

Last night I attended, in its entirety, a nearly four-hour special school board meeting to which the public was invited and encouraged to give feedback. The public showed up, in force. Our official town population is 342; our town plus the outlying areas that make up our school district brings us up to perhaps 600, and there were, I would guess, fifty or so people at last night’s meeting.

Our school, which is a K-12 school that is also its own school district (and thus we have, for our 109 students, a superintendent, a principal, a business secretary, and three other secretarial staff, which seems somewhat insane but which is apparently not the cause of the current problems), is in the same uncomfortable position as a lot of other entities in the country these days. They either have to spend $374,000 out of their reserve fund or cut 4.17 positions — or some combination of those — in order to keep going next year.

The school, like the state of Wyoming, is of course much more fortunate than many other entities. The school has a reserve fund, which many places do not. People are tearing their hair out over the idea of the University of Wyoming raising tuition this year, the first in-state tuition increase the state has seen in some time (I’d look for the numbers, but I have to head back to the school shortly for, believe it or not, another meeting). During the five years I lived in Iowa after I finished college, tuition went up by double digits every year. In many ways, I am tempted, for perhaps the first time in my life, to quote my fathers most obnoxious line: “I understand, but I don’t sympathize.”

But what I want to talk about here is not the rightness or wrongness of any particular plan of action. What I want to talk about is democracy.

Last night’s meeting was full of misunderstandings, of ancient grudges, of personal agendas — of all sorts of things that tend to derail our political discourse. But it was, for all that, remarkably free of what we now refer to, disparagingly, as rhetoric. In actuality, of course, there was lots of rhetoric, but it was rhetoric in the non-derogatory sense: it was speech that was both considered and impassioned, both personal and political. It was speech that, on more than one occasion, resulted in applause.

One of the teachers in attendance told me today that her husband said, “Gee, I’m glad we got rid of cable — this is way more entertaining!” I’m not sure that he really wants to do this sort of thing every night, but in it was entertaining. And it was important. And despite being kind of sick of four hour extensions to my 8.5 hour work day, I am glad I went.

I’ve been attending meetings of various sorts for almost twenty years now, and I am almost as fascinated by the process and organization of meetings as I am by the content of the meetings themselves. One thing I like about living here in my insanely small town is how personal a view I get of the meetings I attend here, and the way they end up emphasizing just how much I am an insider as well as just how much I am an outsider. I can’t say much more specifically about that without impugning people’s privacy in a way I don’t want to do, and so perhaps this won’t mean much at all to the people reading this. But I am, in some weird way, looking forward to heading out to tonight’s meeting, because it’s not very often that you get to see the cogs of democracy quite this close, and even though they’re a tremendous mess, they’re also, to me, an irresistible puzzle.

Mar 10

On Help

First, a quick programming note: apologies to all of those whose comments were held for moderation until just now. My spam program was, unbeknownst to me, set up in the most aggressive fashion possible, and for some reason I did not receive email notifications of comments and thus did not see them until I logged in. All that should be fixed now, I think.

Earlier today I read Vanessa Bush’s Likely Stories blog post about a project she attempted that involved interviewing white families and their black servants, these many years later, about their experiences — only while she found the white families eager to talk, none of the black servants have been willing to be interviewed. At the time I thought, “Huh,” and contemplated what one could say about that in relation to Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller The Help, which is a novel written in three voices, one that of a young white woman and the other two those of, you guessed it, black servants in the early 1960s. I enjoyed the book but was troubled, as I often am, by wondering if I liked it because I am white, and the narrative is one that allows me to feel superior and enlightened as compared to many whites in the South in the early 1960s. That’s all well and good, but if it doesn’t translate — and sometimes I worry that it doesn’t — into present day anti-racism, then it’s not really doing much good.

This evening, as I was casting about for a topic, I suddenly thought, “Well, of course, Vanessa Bush should interview Annie!” And then I stopped dead, because Annie has been dead for many years now, and because I would guess she would not talk to an interviewer either, whereas my family, I’d guess, would be quite happy to. After all, I am talking to you.

Annie worked for my great grandmother and later for my grandmother. When I knew her, she came to the house one day a week to clean, or to help my grandmother clean, or to clean under the direction (often somewhat confusing to outsiders — “iron the dining room” translates, in my grandmother’s household, to “vacuum the living room”) of my grandmother. As the years went on, they spent less time cleaning and more time fussing about cleaning, but cleaning days always involved lunch, which was always soup and sandwiches.

It’s easy for me to fall into sentimentality about all of this, to think of Annie as a family extension, but I think that way only when I remember her through the eyes of my six or seven or eight year old self. By the time I got to be twelve and thirteen and fourteen, I became more uncomfortable, and I rather dreaded visiting my grandmother during cleaning day, because I began to notice things. I noticed that Annie — whose last name I do not remember, if I ever knew it — always called my grandmother Miz Wallace and me Miz Laura and my mother Miz Judith. I noticed that she nodded a lot. And — and this will seem like the stupidest thing ever — I noticed that she was black.

I knew that, of course, and I could have told you that even when I was younger, but its full import did not come to me until later. I was raised on the Civil Rights movement: my mother’s best friend in high school marched on Washington in 1963, my grandmother had, at one time, a subscription to a newspaper put out by the Black Panthers, and the only time I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime as a child was when there was a special about Martin Luther King Jr. on television. But that was all abstract. I was educated but I was not experienced; I grew up in a very white state and went in the summers to a very white camp. I had ideas about freedom and equality and the brotherhood of man, but when faced with the situation of a black person in what was clearly a subservient role in my own family, I did not know what to do.

I do not think that my family were bad employers or were cruel or unfair in any way, and I don’t think we were quite as crazy as the sort of dysfunctional white family archetype that Bush describes. But if I try to imagine how Annie might have seen us, I fail. I can guess that her feelings must have complicated, a sort of mixture of affection and resentment, love and envy — but I don’t, and won’t ever, know. Maybe I can’t know: maybe those are stories that won’t ever be told. I like to believe that listening to stories helps us to apprehend the world, and that somewhere out there there is a story that would help us all understand, but I’m not sure such a thing exists — perhaps it is one that is yet to be made.

Jan 10

equal employment: having my say

NB This got posted first on my other blog, but I had a request to put it here, too, and so here it is until such time as I can collect my thoughts on everything else that has happened of late.

One of the many unpaid jobs I have had over the years was that of staff writer for an alternative monthly paper in Chicago called Third Coast Press. The first big story I did for them [available as a giant PDF, if you are really interested] was about a couple of studies done by a couple of professors from the University of Chicago and MIT and by the Chicago Urban League concerning race and hiring. The first study [PDF] used just resumes — some sent out with “white” names with addresses in predominantly white neighborhoods, some with “black” names and addresses in predominantly black neighborhoods. You can guess which set of resumes got better responses. The other study [PDF] involved sending white and black candidates, where the blacks were actually better qualified than the whites, to in-person interviews and, once again, the white candidates fared much better. What interested me the most, though, was that it was the largest corporations — the Targets and Wal-Marts and Gaps of the world — that showed the least discrimination in hiring. What all those places had in common was that they had very strict standard hiring procedures, and there were thus fewer opportunities for the interviewer to say, “Oh, you went to Valparaiso? So did my best friend!”

I was thinking about these findings again in the light of the much-discussed Clay Shirky rant wherein Shirky says that women should act more like men — or at any rate adopt more of what he sees as male traits: assertiveness and risk-taking, if you like what Shirky says, or arrogance and outright lying if you don’t.

I live in a state that has the highest disparity in wages between men and women. Wyoming calls itself the Equality State on the strength of having been the first territory to give women the vote, not on anything it has done since. Most initiatives in the state that seek to address that problem are focusing on getting more women into traditionally male professions, most notably the energy industry. While I believe strongly that women should be encouraged to pursue those jobs, I don’t think that getting women into the energy is the solution to wage disparities in the state. Women already hold important jobs as nurses, childcare providers, and teachers. These are all jobs at least as crucial to the functioning of the world as energy industry jobs, but we do not pay them accordingly. Until we do, until we recognize and support the vital work that women do, we will never have any kind of equality.

Shirky is probably right in individual cases: if a candidate in the resume study had lied and given herself a “better” address, she might well have stood a better chance of getting a job. If a woman acts more “male,” that may well help her break into a profession. The tide of assertiveness — or arrogance — will lift those two ships. But when it comes to improving conditions for everybody, which is what I am really interested in, I think Shirky is dead wrong. As long as we treat “lifting people out of poverty” as “getting them better jobs” and “getting more pay for women” as “getting them into traditionally male occupations,” we will never solve the problem of poverty or inequality. There will always be scut jobs that need to be done no matter what kind of economy you live in. I have a good job, and my interests lie not in getting everyone a good job but rather in making everyone’s job good.

Dec 09

The War

One of the best meetings I ever moderated — perhaps the best — was for people opposed to attacking Afghanistan in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The group that emerged from that meeting was called Iowans for Peace. I haven’t lived in Iowa since 2003, and I have lost track of much of what is happening there, but they still have a website, and the Iowa City Public Library association database has contact information for them as recently as last April. (How awesome is the ICPL? So awesome that they maintain such a database.)

I was overwhelmed by the anti-war movement that started in 2002 and 2003, opposing the war in Iraq. I had been opposing the war in Iraq since August 1990, when, the day I arrived back in Iowa City after a two year exile in Indianapolis, I attended the founding meeting of a group that called itself Operation U.S. Out. We started the group before the United States invaded Iraq, in January 2001, in a futile attempt to prevent that invasion, and the many years of bombings and sanctions that followed. By the time the US invaded (again) in March of 2003, all I was capable off was bringing vegan chili to the Peace Camp at the University of Iowa one night.

I was engaged in activist groups, on and off, from age 14 to age 30. Part of the reason that I moved to rural Wyoming is that I needed to escape, at least for awhile.

I’m typing this as I listen to the commentary on NPR in the wake of Obama’s speech on Afghanistan. I still can’t quite believe that we went there in the first place — I cannot believe that we cast that stone — and I cannot quite believe that we are still there, and will be for some time to come.

Starting in the late 1960s, Phil Ochs held a series of rallies called The War is Over, based on the premise of his song of the same name. The idea, he thought, was simply that people should declare that the war in Vietnam was over, and that somehow, that will of the people would make it so. That happened, eventually, but not before many more lives were lost, and only a year before Ochs took his own life.

I’d like to believe that the war is over, but it never seems to work that way.