Saturday, December 25, 2010

Junk Media: Protest Black-Out

Apparently about 500 or so veterans and friends descended on D.C. on December 16 to protest U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and drone attacks on Pakistan and Yemen).  135, including Vietnam War-era whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, were arrested.  Police blocked out the protest, making it difficult for citizens to get a clear view, and police also recorded protesters as they were protesting, and later, being arrested.  

Leaving aside the chilling, deeply disturbing, deeply undemocratic 1984-ness of recording protesters at events (London police do it too, most recently at the student fees protests), let's focus on mainstream media coverage of the event.

Oh wait.  There wasn't any.  Well, that isn't strictly true.  There was coverage from many alternative media organizations, such as Truth-Out and Democracy Now!, and from small papers (you can see this if you google...i.e.  And to their credit, CNN ran a small story online (though of course focused on the 'arrests!' part rather than the 'veterans for peace' part).  

But the New York Times?  Nada.  The L.A. Times?  Nope.  Wall Street Journal?  No. Washington Post?  Decidedly not.  Fox News? Hahaha.  No.

This speaks to two facts:

1.  We must protect the rights of non-mainstream (read: non-corporate/government handmaiden) news organizations to report the actual news.  They're the only ones doing it these days.  (And they need a neutral net to do it).  

2.  We must not support, purchase, or lend credence to non-credible corporate media.  Mainstream media, particularly the New York Times and Fox News, are not credible.  They should not be sources for serious citizens seeking serious, truthful news.  As long as we allow corporate media to spoon-feed us our news, we will continue to be an ever more ill-informed Junk Citizenry.  

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Junk Sex: Molestation is Fun! (Facebook Edition)

I just read this on facebook:

Friend's status update:  hoping I don't get sexually molested by a TSA agent at the airport tonight.

Republican man: least you'd sleep well on the plane....

Sigh.  Everywhere, all the time.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Gender Junk: Tips for Responding to a Few Common Anti-Feminist Sentiments

I'm afraid posting will continue to be light for the rest of the year.  I have a dissertation to finish (so close!) and a mother coming to visit (fun!), so despite my desire to write and write and write (rant and rant and rant), I really must focus my attention on these other things.  For now, a short post.  Often, men (and women) will throw out objections to feminist criticism, or defenses of toxic patriarchal thinking.  Here are a few statements I've heard too often, and my response to them:

1.  "You look for things to get angry about."- There seems to be a common, but quite incorrect, notion that feminists look for things to get angry about.  Trust me, this is not the case.  In fact, it is the opposite.  I could be engaged 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the rest of my life, with being angry about the things that happen every hour of every day to women around the globe.  I would also be so deeply and profoundly depressed by this that it would be difficult to get out of bed.  It is extraordinarily difficult even as a healthy, privileged woman to find the psychic space to breathe and be happy in a misogynist world order- trust me, I do not wish to make this task more difficult by 'looking for' things that will only make it more painful.  When I get angry and write a rant, or, in my personal life, go on a tear, it is because I cannot keep quiet about it.  It is because the pain, rage, and sadness of whatever I am on about- whether it seems 'big' or 'small' to others- is too much for me to shrug off.  But do trust that I am, in fact, shrugging off quite a lot of ugliness that I see, hear, read about, etc. every day.  In fact, one of these days, if I am up to it, I think I shall write a list of everything that I encounter in a single day that is misogynist- just as I go through my daily routine.  I'll take off my handy blinders and look around fully and report the results- and perhaps this will illustrate that, in fact, what bubbles out of me in words written or spoken is only the tiniest fraction of what could spill out if I didn't make a tremendous effort every day to ignore the sexist sludge that we all swim through. 

2.  "Women in other countries have it worse."- I doubt very much that women who are raped, murdered, beaten, prostituted, trafficked, etc. in Western countries deserve to hear that their problems aren't really worth hearing about because women in non-Western countries are subjected to forms of violence that we consider non-normative.  Why do we consider men cutting off women's noses in Afghanistan so much more abhorrent and deserving of our outrage than men burning or dismembering or strangling women in our own backyards?  What a terrible question.  Both are unacceptable.  Both are expressions of woman-hatred.  Both should be condemned.  And men and women around the world should be dedicated to eradicating such practices wherever they occur.  At the same time, women and men around the world should be equally dedicated to the eradication of seemingly "softer" forms of everyday woman-hatred- pornified pop culture, unequal treatment at work, in sports, in schools, etc.- because the same contempt for women that relegates us to the sex class and to unequal pay/play/education is the very same contempt that justifies our rape, abuse, and murder.  

3.  "It's just the way it is, and it's never going to be any better."- I am well aware that misogyny is the oldest and most enduring hatred.  I am well aware that it shows little sign of abating.  I am well aware that even as some things have improved, others have become much worse in women's lives.  But I cannot bear, as a woman, to live in a world where I cannot at least *imagine* a better future, and do my bit toward realizing that future- even if my bit is tiny and seemingly entirely inconsequential.  It gives *me* the space to live in a world that would otherwise, quite frankly, be unbearable.  I can't do much about free market fundamentalism, either, but I have to read and rant and take action when and where I can just to be able to sleep at night and get through the day.  Period.

4. "Why are you so mad?  That's just so banal/stupid/harmless."- Sometimes I get really pissed off about something that seems really quite small in the grand scheme of things.  Why fuss about yet another nearly naked, photoshopped woman on a billboard when women are being raped in epidemic proportions in Darfur?  Because, quite simply, it is the ubiquitous, normalized banal/stupid/harmless little stuff that reinforces a culture in which the big stuff happens.  Also, go tell the girls and women engaging in forms of self-abuse such as cutting and starvation that those billboards are just banal/stupid/harmless.

5.  "They're just being ironic."- This one is sort of situation specific.  I have been told, at times, that the young girls wearing 'Eat Less' t-shirts from Urban Outfitters, or the young girls wearing 'Future Trophy Wife' shirts, or the parents who dress their daughters in tiger print bikinis or underwear with words like 'Sexy' and 'Flirt' blazoned across them, or the 9 year olds who want to go to costume parties as Katie Price- are simply being 'ironic'.  I do not deny that these sorts of things can be done with irony.  For example, an adult woman with a body that does not conform to the beauty ideal might wear an 'Eat Less' t-shirt for irony and laughs.  Or a woman who does not believe in marriage and does not groom herself to the standards associated with the stereotype might throw on a "Future Trophy Wife' t-shirt.  But I contend that it's hardly ironic when companies sell t-shirts to young girls and women reinforcing the dominant social messages sent to us every day in thousands of ways, and I doubt most girls under the age of 10 are making empowered, feminist declarations of irony when they dress up as Katie Price or put on sexy clothes. 

6.  "It's just that women's bodies are so beautiful."- Sometimes people will justify the pervasive sexualized display of women on the grounds that women's bodies are just so beautiful.  Well, sure, they are.  So are men's bodies, but they aren't on sexualized display in any way remotely comparable to the display of women's bodies.  But more to the point- if it's just a case of women's bodies being so beautiful, why don't we see greater varieties of women's beautiful bodies on display, or hell, even women's *actual* bodies, instead of the cartoon ones that are surgically and digitally enhanced?  Why always the same body?  Why not fall into fits of desire at the sight of a woman's beautiful body in motion, or the way a piece of fabric falls over a curve, or the gorgeousness of strength and health in a vital woman's body, or the laugh lines around her eyes?  Because, in fact, pervasive sexualized display is not at all about women's bodies being "just so beautiful".  The sexualized display of a falsely 'perfect' woman's body is about inequality and reinforcing our status as the inferior class.

I know there are many more to add to this list- anybody out there want to tell me about anti-feminist, pro-patriarchy sentiments you commonly encounter, and how you deal with/respond to them?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Junk Citizens: Welfare Cheats, Freeloaders, Frauds Everywhere! (A Rebuttal)

A phrase I hear a lot: "I know loads of people who are committing welfare fraud".  This phrase is usually followed with a flurry of moral judgments and bad logic.  Generally, these loads of welfare frauds are driving Escalades, buying PlayStations, having oodles of children, drinking, smoking, doing drugs, drinking too much soda, eating too much McDonald's, having breakfast out every morning on the taxpayer's dime- in short, being lazy, no good spendthrifts, living a lifestyle of luxury while you, the taxpayer, suffer an austere, self-disciplined, and generally morally superior existence.

The myth of millions of dirty rotten welfare cheats fleecing the public seems, like so many of our nation's ills, to have risen to prominence along with the rise to prominence of Ronald Reagan.  In 1976, Reagan made a speech in which he claimed a "welfare queen" from Chicago's South Side had been arrested for welfare fraud: 

"She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting Veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.  And she is collecting Social Security on her cards.  She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.  Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000."

This woman did not exist.  While popular media such as Reader's Digest had been printing sensationalized stories about welfare fraud since the early 1960s, it was Reagan who gendered and racialized the stereotype- and so it persists today, with the alleged frauds almost invariably black mothers (in Europe, substitute any other racial minority).  

Like Ronald Reagan, the people who spout this sort of nonsense are no more than mouthy establishment puppets offering incorrect opinions on a subject about which they, obviously, know very little.  Such ignorance is a basis of Junk Citizenship, and when confronted with a Junk Citizen, informed, compassionate citizens should be prepared to do factual (verbal) battle with their toxic views.  

Ergo, how to respond to someone who claims they personally "know loads of people who are committing welfare fraud" in 5 easy steps:

1.  Stay calm.  Granted, I just called such people "Junk Citizens" and "mouthy establishment puppets".  In truth, I do get a bit frustrated with hearing the same old nonsense all of the time, and I do wish people would do their research before trying to join the discourse.  But sometimes, people are poorly informed for good reasons (i.e. overwork, lack of resources), yet are still reasonable and intelligent human beings who might be open to an alternative point of view.  So stay calm, be patient, don't call them ignorant puppets or junk citizens (it's disrespectful and alienating), and just try to make a few factual counterpoints.  Of course, if the dialogue goes absolutely nowhere, you might privately mutter "puppet!" to yourself or denounce Junk Citizenship on your blog that no one reads.

2.  The first appeal I like to make to those who know "loads" of welfare cheats is the appeal to compassion and humanity.  It goes something like this:  The government provides different kinds of welfare to poor people, middle-class people, the super rich, and corporations.  So these loads of people you personally know who are committing welfare fraud- are they middle class or poor people (since, despite what the Supreme Court says, corporations are not people, and most of us are not and do not know any of the super rich)?  There may be some hemming and hawing at this point and you might have to make the case for middle-class welfare (tax cuts and benefits such as those for home ownership, etc.).  But pretty quickly it will emerge that these "loads" of welfare frauds are to be found among the poor.  

You might then point out that the largest welfare program (for individuals) in the U.S. is Social Security- a guaranteed minimum income program for the elderly.  And that another large client base for welfare programs is children (public education, health insurance programs for poor children, WIC, etc.).  Is it poor children and low-income older people who are defrauding the system while living a drug and booze-addled lazy luxury lifestyle?  No?  (Now you're, most likely, back to the stereotype- it's the mothers of poor children, particularly the black ones).  

Now for the appeal to compassion and humanity:  Grant them their stereotype:  There are going to be *some* welfare cheats out there, even among the poor.  Some poor black moms (and white dads and white moms and black dads) might be gaming the system.  Any bureaucratized system is open to some level of abuse.  Available evidence indicates that the problem of "welfare fraud" is, however, vastly overstated.  And it's not like poor people are living anything remotely resembling a luxury lifestyle- really, would you want to have to get by on the meager benefits offered to the poor by the U.S. government (and incidentally, cash benefits have a 5-year lifetime maximum)?  Would you like to trade places with any of these masses of fraudsters?  Are you seriously begrudging a poor person a trip to McDonald's or a soda?  

And even granting the stereotype- if one tries hard enough, they can probably find some poor and lazy parent out there "freeloading", collecting benefits when they could and should be working (some low-income, no-benefit crap job that makes survival, perversely, more difficult)- are we really willing to punish the majority of honest, hard-working poor who desperately need help to survive in an economy and society that threw them overboard thirty years ago?

I, for one, am not.  I would much rather support (and pay for) benefits that try to equalize the playing field for the masses of poor (who have suffered enough), even if that means there is some no-good, Escalade-driving, PlayStation-buying, drinking, smoking, drug-taking, soda-swilling, McDonald's-scarfing welfare fraud laughing all the way to the bank on my dime.  Even if there are 10 of them.  100 of them.  1,000 of them.  10,000 of them.  

3.  The appeal to compassion and humanity usually fails.  So then I try the appeal for evidence.  It goes something like this:  Can you please make a list for me of all of the people *you know personally* who are committing welfare fraud, how long they have been doing it, and in what ways?  This request inevitably brings people up short.  Pressed for examples, they *will* struggle to provide more than one, and to provide much in the way of details at that.  You might get something like this:  "There's this woman I know with three kids and no job, living in project housing, and I see her every day eating a foot-long with chips and soda AND a cookie in the Subway at Wal-Mart.  Why is she spending government money (my money!) treating herself to Subway every day while I go to work every day, with a (virtuous) ham sandwich packed in my lunch bag?"  

4.  After you've caught someone up short on evidence, you can provide alternative evidence.  Like this:  You can start by raising some questions about the example they've provided:  Do you really see her *every* day?  How do you know she's spending money on that lunch?  Maybe there is an employee who feels sorry for her, or is her friend, and slips her the food for free (in which case that hard-working employee would actually be the marauding fraud)?  Or maybe she provides under-the-table childcare to one of the employees, who buys her lunch in exchange?  (Poor people often have networks of informal exchange that enable them to meet needs and scrape by).  After you've demonstrated that one has to be a bit more nuanced when judging other people, go for the statistical evidence:

Unfortunately, the government does not systematically collect evidence on welfare fraud, which leaves the practice open to a lot of conjecture and hyperbole (conveniently).  But there have been a few studies that quote actual evidence.  For example, a 2004 study from the Department of Justice looked at Social Security fraud- that is, fraudulent claims for old age, survivor's, and disability insurance.  In 2003, the SSA made payments to approximately 44.6 million claimants through these programs.  Between October 2002 and March 2003, the SSA received 51,311 fraud allegations (nearly half of them tip-offs from private citizens, the rest from law enforcement, SSA employees, and other public agencies).  Given that October-March is a six-month period, you might want to double all of these numbers.  (But still- 100,000 allegations out of 44.6 million cases?  Not exactly "loads of people").  Of those 51,311 allegations, the SSA actually opened 9,170 potential fraud cases (so most allegations are bunk), and of those 9,170 cases, only 2,677 led to arrests and indictments, and then only 1,008 of those led to criminal convictions.  1,008 out of 44.6 million (let's double it and say they got another 1,008 for the next six months)- 2,016 fraudsters out of 44.6 million claimants- not exactly an epidemic, is it?

Other evidence indicates that those convicted of welfare fraud aren't always exactly unsympathetic- this study (from Canada, alas) includes the case of a young pregnant woman who was convicted for receiving a student loan and welfare assistance at the same time (previously legal but now illegal under Canada's welfare 'reform').

And even if you troll through Wikipedia or LexisNexis, you will find precious few sensational cases of welfare fraud among the poor (much welfare fraud is actually committed by vendors).

5.  Finally, you can give them an alternative definition for welfare fraud.  Like this: The real 'welfare queens' are corporations!  Even if individual poor people have managed to defraud the welfare system, the cost of their fraud is *absolutely nothing* compared to the welfare fraud of corporations.  Corporate welfare runs into untold billions of dollars- tax incentives and breaks, bailouts, etc.  The Savings and Loan fraud cleanup cost taxpayers $125 billion.  The bank bailout cost us $700 billion dollars- and what a fraud that was.  The banks are back to record profits and luxury bonuses, while the latest figures show that 15.6 million Americans remain unemployed, another 9 million are involuntarily working only part time, and yet another 2.5 million have given up hope of finding employment ever again.  

Corporate welfare runs into the billions of dollars annually (and costs more than many of the welfare programs for the poor combined).  Corporations often receive subsidies and tax breaks (often no taxes for x number of years) to bring their business to American communities in exchange for the promise of decent jobs.  These same corporations all too often pull up sticks and move to another town (or country) when the tax breaks run out, or when another community offers a better deal.  

The welfare and bailouts given to corporations make these entities the real 'welfare queens' /cheats/frauds/freeloaders of American society.  To demonize the poor on welfare is to play foolishly into the hands of a status quo that does not have any of our interests in mind.

It is perfectly reasonable for middle- and working-class Americans to be angry.  We have seen our standard of living decline, our wages stagnate, our dependence on credit to survive intensify, and our jobs disappear, while the costs of education, healthcare, food, and housing have gone through the roof.  We are all only a tenuous thread above the very poor we demonize, and may all too soon find ourselves in need of a welfare "handout".

But to misdirect this justified anger at the bogeyman of a cheating, lazy, drug-addled poor person shows not only serious deficits of compassion and reason, but allows the real 'welfare queens' to continue truly wasting our money while ransacking our economy, our society, and our lives.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Gender Junk: Everywhere, All the Time

"Cross-culturally, unequal nakedness almost always expresses power relations: In modern jails, male prisoners are stripped in front of clothed prison guards; in the antebellum South young black male slaves were naked while serving the clothed white masters at table.  To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren't is to learn inequality in little ways all day long.  So even if we agree that sexual imagery is in fact a language, it is clearly one that is already heavily edited to protect men's sexual- and hence social- confidence while undermining that of women."- Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

You know, I get really, really tired of my sex being on near-naked or naked (and photoshopped) sexual display everywhere, every day, all the time.  It's especially annoying when many men (and some women) make claims that women's routine sexual objectification and display is "harmless", "fun", even "empowering".  If it was so harmless, fun, and/or empowering to be sexually objectified and displayed you can bet your last dime men would have cornered the market.  We'd see mostly naked men with digitally enhanced dicks on billboards, sides of buses, Tube ads, shaking their bums in tighty whities  to sell running shoes, in commercials, in supermarket checkout lines, fully naked and displayed on p. 3 of the tabloids, rows and rows of them on magazine covers in shops, etc. etc.  But in fact, it is not harmless, fun, or empowering, which is why men aren't signing up.  Men are not and will not be subjected to this practice in any way remotely resembling the way women are.  Because, in fact, our ubiquitous, photoshopped sexual objectification and display is a degradation and a mark of our inferior status.  "What women look like is considered important because what we say is not" (Wolf again).

Now as a woman who gets bloody tired of all of this, I do my best to avoid it.  Consumer power is pretty much the only power we have in a market economy, so it is of great importance that we "vote" with our dollars.  I do not buy fashion or celebrity magazines or tabloids, I do not watch television, I do not buy products from companies that have offended me with their crummy, sexualized, degrading ads.  I do my best to ignore all of the digitized, 'perfect' nudity of women in my daily environment- the ads on public transport, the billboards, the ads as I simply try to navigate the internet.  

But it is, truly, inescapable.  For example: Monday my partner and I went to lunch.  We rounded up the papers to check out the Wikileaks coverage.  Now, I am no fan of the mainstream media, and prefer to get my news with a healthy dose of critical analysis from thinkers (Reich, Chomsky, Greenwald, even Krugman).  But it can be interesting to see how the papers cover major news, and there is something nice about the routine of flipping through a paper.  That is, unless you are flipping through the first few pages of the main news section and are confronted with a nearly half-page ad of a woman in a tiny bikini advertising something or other.  Et tu, Guardian newspaper?

Is there really no space that isn't colonized by the digitally-enhanced sexualized degradation of women?  I get damn tired of this.  Damn, damn tired of it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Junk Government, Junk Citizens: On Wikileaks and Citizens

On Monday, the latest Wikileaks revelations hit the papers.  After the Iraq War Logs, we now have the Diplomatic Cables, and next year we can hopefully look forward to the Bank Revelations.

I think Julian Assange and Wikileaks are doing work that is fundamentally important to democracy (a rapidly declining currency) and to building resistance to criminal, corporatist governance (as knowing what is actually going on- you know, facts- is an important first step to articulating demands for actual change).  

But much of the world, it seems, disagrees.

One would more or less expect politicians to condemn Wikileaks/Assange- they are the ones who are, at best, embarrassed, and at worst, revealed for the criminals they are- by the organization's publications.  It's not like anyone suffers the delusion that politicians actually care about transparency and free speech.  

However, the hysterical calls by politicians and their lapdog media alike for Assange's capture, prosecution, even assassination are beyond out of bounds.  Classifying the good citizenship that Wikileaks/Assange practice as 'terrorism', the organization as 'terrorist', and Assange as an 'enemy combatant' is also nuts, and a scary precedent.  But that's just America, you might say.  Just Americans being American- hyperbolic, bloodthirsty, ignorant.  (The assassination call came from an advisor to the Canadian PM, actually).  

I would argue that our hyperbolic, bloodthirsty, and hopelessly ignorant mainstream political discourse is a fundamental flaw in modern American society and is contributing greatly to the demise of the country as a functioning democracy, but that's just me.

As ominous as the cries of 'terrorism' and 'assassination' against Assange/Wikileaks may be, they pale in comparison to news that Joe Lieberman had Amazon cut service to the Wikileaks website in America.  That's right, a politician is deciding what American citizens can and cannot read.  An American politician has deemed that Americans have no right to read what their government is up to (unless they read the NYT filtered lapdog coverage)- material that the rest of the world is freely reading.  If the censorship of political material on the internet cannot galvanize Americans, I suppose we really are lost.

Which brings me to my second point:  

So our Junk Government is up to it's usual tricks.  But what about our citizens?  Well it is difficult, as I am abroad, to gauge what is going on in America, but I try nonetheless.

It is my contention that the country is circling the drain (which causes me great sadness and pain, however angry and vitriolic I might be), and that far too many Americans are sort of like Nero, fiddling while Rome burns.  Some of them are busy spreading ignorance and hate (Tea Partiers, I'm looking at you), others are just hopeless celebrity-happy numpties consuming a steady diet of gadgets, shoes, and reality tv, others still are probably just too exhausted, depressed, and confused by their economic devastation to mount any sort of defense of the democracy or their citizenship.

But whatever the reason, far too many Americans are not even *talking* about what is going on.  When Wikileaks revealed the Iraq War Logs, I tuned into facebook to see the reaction.  There was none.  None.  300 or so American friends living American lives, and not one had anything to say about the Iraq War Logs.  I asked friends and family back home if it was a big topic of conversation, or getting much attention.  "No", "not really".  With this week's Diplomatic Cables, I again turned to facebook (I have well-informed, politically minded liberal fb friends in addition to the blowhards from high school who usually delete me for my lefty views).  Everyone was going on about some actor's death.  (To his credit, one friend did pick up the story from me and do his bit).  Again, I asked friends and family if anyone was talking about it in their work/social environments.  "No", "not really".  Facebook and asking friends/family may not be the best tools for assessing current political temperament and engagement in America, but they aren't exactly the worst (my friends often post about current events they care about, and work/social environments should be rife with discussion).  

And if they are any indication at all, it's disengagement as usual back home.  Junk Citizenship. Consumerism and celebrity obsession on one end,  ignorance and hatred on the other.  In the middle, the exhausted, vulnerable citizens who pay the price.

If you think my cries of Junk Citizenship in America are unfounded, read Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, in which he tracks the dispiriting trend of civic decay in American society over the last few decades.  

A Junk Government is bad enough, but if we persist in Junk Citizenship, we will lose our democracy.  The writing is on the wall, but it seems no one is reading.