Why I'm sticking to the union (and other queers should too)

Bayard Rustin (Library of Congress) and Randi Weingarten (Julia Standovar) - Via Dissent

Bayard Rustin (Library of Congress) and Randi Weingarten (Julia Standovar) - Via Dissent

New blog post, fresh off the tree! Up at Dissent, my review of Miriam Frank's Out in the Unionhow the labor movement strengthens queer rights, and why the lgbt movement needs to talk about class. 

Choice cuts:

Troll the annals of news analysis too long, and opinions morph into conventional wisdom. Especially in light of the 2013 and 2014 Supreme Court sessions, two such reigning orthodoxies hold that the gays are winning and unions are losing. Gay marriage is sweeping the country, President Obama has pledged to protect federal workers from discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender, and our parade is sponsored by Diet Coke. Meanwhile, union membership is dwindling, the fastest growing pool of workers have been dubbed “partial public employees” exempt from dues, and protections for workers are so abysmal that even the neighborhood barber has to sign a non-compete agreement. These stories aren’t unfounded, but they have been churned through the media with such frequency that to challenge them would border on heresy.

Enter Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, a surprising new book by Miriam Frank. Starting roughly in the 1970s and ending close to the present day, Frank chronicles a history of LGBT unionists transforming the labor movement by demanding union policies and then labor contracts that protected queer and trans workers from discrimination and substantially improved their material conditions. She draws on an impressive oral history archive to portray the vibrant internal dynamics of the labor movement as queer and trans members and leaders forced it to grapple with their rights and needs. Most crucially, Frank notes that in many places a union contract is the only thing protecting LGBT workers from discrimination, given the lack of federal legal protections and court silence on the issue.

[Read on]



I wanna be where the feminists are...

Shirley Jackson famously wrote that "no live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality." But that's exactly what Ruth Graham wants us to do, according to her harangue against adults reading Young Adult fiction in Slate this week.  "Fellow grown-ups," says Graham, "at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this." As evidence she cites the fact that she wasn't personally brought to tears by The Fault in Our Stars, and that young people might not aspire to read grown-up novels anymore. At first glance it's not much more than typical elitism, wrapped in cultural critique.

But buried amid the scolding is her real argument: that unlike grown-up fiction, "the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia." She writes,

"YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults...

"Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering."


In essence, she thinks adults should reject YA because we know better. We know that the oceans are rising, guns kill people, and you're unlikely to find true (heterosexual! monogamous forevah!) love at sixteen. Unless it accurately accounts for the deep cynicism necessary to keep trucking as an adult, we shouldn't be reading it.

Graham has it backwards. As one of the wretched adult readers of YA, I can tell you it's precisely because we know what's out there that adults are turning to these novels. More to the point,  it’s the decidedly feminist content that keeps us coming back for more YA. In a country where a woman is beaten every nine seconds, of course we find refuge in a genre full of badass female protagonists, and the Bechdel-test-busting megamovies they spawn. We want to be where the feminists are, and if that’s in fiction aimed at teenagers, then so be it. The prose may not sparkle, and the plots may be bumpy, but the women speak to one another about something other than a man, and sometimes that’s all we need.

Feminist adults can feel like the moments of inspiration and joy are few and far between. To paraphrase Reina Gossett, fiction is one of the few places where we can escape the constant outrage mill, to open up our imaginations to the possibilities of a better world. If we were to take Graham at her word, we’d have to abandon not only YA but also Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler for daring to allow readers an escape to places where sex and gender operate differently.  

Graham’s second charge, that YA is lazy nostalgia for adults, also fails the feminist test. When I read about Katniss suspending romantic concerns to fight dictatorship, I’m not filled with nostalgia for my own teenage years, but excitement, call it a nostalgic hope, that today’s teenage girls might have something brighter to imagine than I did at their age. It’s the same impulse that has me reading Tavi Gevinson’s wonderful Rookie Magazine, explicitly by and for teenage girls. Even if I had been a savvy teen, which I wasn’t, I was too young to have read Sassy or been a Riot Grrl. Of course in my adult life I don’t think stickers or glitter are “literally the best thing ever”, but I read Rookie or watch Frozen because I’m curious about the sound advice, humor and yes, feminist confidence that teenage girls can now access. Just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean I can’t get pleasure out of it, something Graham seems not to grasp.

Graham remarks that over half of YA is bought and read by people between the ages of 30 and 44. Some of this is certainly adults indulging fantasy, but it’s also adults reading along with young people. A happy biproduct could be that holy grail, a new way to talk about sexism, a challenge to the socialization that creates such stifling gender-based expectations. In recent days there has been an explosion of forceful feminist prose insisting that we recognize the pervasive and toxic grip misogyny has on our culture. Feminist YA provides a remarkably easy way to translate that dialogue off of twitter and into conversations with the teenagers in our lives. If anything, today’s YA should be required reading.




Google's Soft Power, an Update

I just came across some reporting that dovetails nicely with my piece about Google's foray into international affairs. Under the guise of promoting gay marriage, I wrote that the company is

'shrouding corporate expansion in the rainbow flag, but it is meddling in the domestic policies of sovereign nations. Appropriating gay rights to earn cultural capital is not new, but it is usually associated with states, not companies.

Pinkwashing, as the practice is known, has become the perfect tool for political misdirection: it is hugely popular with progressives and easy to accommodate, since the pillars of the mainstream gay rights movement pose no threat to the economicmilitary, or political status quo. Supporting gay marriage or the integration of gays in the military is no longer controversial in multinational boardrooms, and can put a positive spin on the otherwise banal corporate drive for bigger markets and more power.


“Legalize Love” isn’t the only site of Google’s mission creep. Google Ideas, a “think/do tank,” holds “summits” on pressing international issues to “accelerate project development with strategic partners,” and “research to provide fresh insights and develop interactive data visualizations to bring information to life.” But Google is not a think tank, it is a manufacturer of consumer products, and however well-intentioned these projects to map “illicit networks” and “empower citizens in fragile states” may be, they will be employed to serve company interests.' (Full piece here)

Back in February 2012, Wikileaks released a huge cache of emails from Strategic Forecasting, Inc, or Stratfor, a Texas-based "global intelligence" company. You can have fun comparing the company's About Us page to the withering description over at Wikileaks

In the sorting and digging that followed the dump, a few sources identified particularly troubling conduct on the part of Google execs, who finked on their own Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas. Apparently Cohen was getting a little too close to the White House/fomenting 'regime change'/being bad for business. There's some hard core antisemitism in the mix, just in case you weren't already nauseated. 

I wish I'd known about this sooner so that it could have made its way into the original piece, but at least this horrible stuff confirms that the pinkwashing and Google Ideas offensive is exactly what it looks like. 



Consequences without Cages

via google

via google

I'm about done with Matt Taibbi's rabid indictment of the criminal justice system, The Divide. Stylistically it is most reminiscent of a semi-drunken dude yelling at me over the din of a loud bar. You want him to stop, but in this case, the content of his diatribe is compelling enough to stick around. Stuffed between unnecessary sports metaphors and righteous (and it is righteous) indignation, Taibbi tells a tale of two justice systems, one for communities of color, low-income communities, and immigrant communities, and another for the elite white collar workers in banking and related financial service industries. The former are subject to racist harassment, profiling, and abuse; the latter get off with "win-win" settlements.

He assumes that readers are well-off white people like him, and that they're not already familiar with the perverse, racist practices of law enforcement. Anecdote after anecdote is piled on as we watch cops giddy on Comp Stat and S-Comm binges terrorize people for standing in front of their apartment buildings, or on the corner, or reacting badly when they are grabbed suddenly from behind by a plain-clothed cop.

In Georgia, Taibbi takes us to communities where cops hang around outside churches on Sunday in Central- and South-American immigrant communities, pulling people over for not having one tiny break light properly installed. If they're lucky, these people will be fined an absurd $1,000; if not, they could end up like one of the nearly 400,000 people deported in 2011 alone. While in immigration detention, Taibbi also takes pains to point out, prisoners don't have the same legal protections as inmates in traditional criminal facilities, meaning that their cases aren't properly defended and they can't necessarily contact their families. 

Against this story of inhumane harassment, he juxtaposes the masterminds of the 2008 financial crisis, whose crimes lost billions for investors like Long Beach, California, innumerable pension funds, and of course millions of homes and jobs.

Despite the damage they had done to the economy, not to mention lying to the public and the courts in numerous cases, none of the key players has been charged with a crime.

If the book's organizing principle is a bifurcated justice system, prosecuting bankers becomes Taibbi's one policy prescription.  If justice were equally administered, he believes, then the bad guys would be in prison and the good guys would be left alone. The inequality in the justice system, rather than the degrading fact of incarceration becomes the primary target. 

It's a myopic assessment, but of course he is not alone. Recently the New York Times Magazine published "Why Only One Top Banker Went to Jail for the Financial Crisis," Jesse Eisinger's updated version of Taibbi's tale. The piece follows the successful prosecution of Kareem Serageldin, a Credit Suisse exec who is serving 30 months for lying about the value of securities. Like Taibbi, Eisinger is concerned with how DOJ policy has lead to a decline in white collar prosecution, down to 9.4% in 2010-2012 from 17.6% in 1995-1997. Story goes that the Bush DOJ brought in Michael Chertoff, an aggressive prosecutor, who made an example of Arthur Anderson's involvement in the Enron scandal but never recovered from the backlash at having cost Anderson's 26,000 employees their jobs. From going after corporations by offering settlements only if they waived the right to corporate lawyers (the Thomson Doctrine), DOJ settled on the Holder Doctrine, which placed "collateral consequences" literally above the law. If the DOJ thought that prosecutions could hurt the economy, they would go straight for a settlement. Little wonder these banksters were derided as "too big to fail." 

For Eisinger, DOJ impotence is the rule, not the exception, as "Federal prosecutors almost never bring criminal charges against top executives of large corporations, from banking to pharmaceuticals to technology." He goes to wonder if ,"Perhaps one reason Americans have come to begrudge the wealthy is a resentment of their culture of impunity." Perhaps!

Despite forceful marshaling of evidence, both Taibbi and Eisigner condemn their enemies to the fate of their friends. The overwhelming moral of the story is that the wrong people are in jail, when in reality the problem is that jailing doesn't work. It obviously doesn't work for the millions of Americans whose "crime" was being victimized by racist policing, and it wouldn't work if all the bankers in all of Manhattan were sent upstate. The DOJ's complicity in financial crimes makes me sick, but the solution is not to exile and cage another person. In the case of Stop and Frisk and Secure Communities, the obvious recommendation is to reverse those policies and remove law enforcement's broad discretion to do whatever they want to whomever they want. We must all agree that it is morally and legally repugnant to treat immigrants "like ATMs."

In liberal circles, the consensus position has moved toward greater sympathy for the millions of Afro-American men who have been victimized by racist policing, just as it would easily condemn all of Wall Street to prisons upstate. 

Allow me to play the heretic. Taibbi and Eisinger are right that we need a dramatic re-envisioning of financial regulation and criminal justice, one which doesn't condemn a young man walking home from school to worse fate than an executive who steals millions of dollars. Condemning a few particularly bad actors to wasted lives is simply not a step toward that goal. At bottom it's a question of responsibility and accountability - how to ensure that powerful actors use that power responsibly and are accountable to the greater public? 

Prison abolitionism, the idea that prisons replicate the violence they are meant to control and should be replaced with a different system of justice, addresses this very question. In a recent set of conversations for BCRW, Reina Gossett told Dean Spade that "abolition means that no one is disposable, no one is expendable, we are no exiling people or punishing people in order to solve our problems."

As Taibbi and so many others have elaborated, you can get thrown in jail for just about anything right now, and if you're not white or undocumented, chances are that you will be. As the tide is starting to turn against harsh and arbitrary sentencing, it seems easy to agree that we shouldn't jail so many people. 

But what about the dangerous people? This is the question Gossett and Dean tackle so beautifully. Taibbi and the anti-bankser crusaders are trying change the target, demonstrating that our definition of dangerous is rigged and racist, but Gossett and Spade skillfully redefine the terms of the debate. Citing Ruth Gilmore, they respond that the distinction between guilt and innocence is false, and that on some level we are all innocent, and we are all guilty. Gossett says, "there are some people who are held accountable by the state for doing that kind of harm and there are some people who will never be accountable by the state for doing that kind of harm." Much like Taibbi, Gossett and Dean see that "we're giving our power to hold people accountable over to the state" and then "they create zones of total lack of accountability."  Instead of fighting over who should be caged, Gossett and Spade challenge us to find a solution where truly "no one is disposable."