Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Systems We Create are Us

I've written in another post that I think that #OWS protesters will have to acknowledge that a warped American Dream is part of the reason for the current state of financial distress and discontent, and will, at some point, need to redefine that Dream in ways that have less to do with what material items you have, and more to do with the relationships you create.  I still think that's true, though that idea doesn't seem to be a part of any of the discourse that explains the movement.
I was reading one of Glenn Greenwald's latest posts in which he devotes a long section to why a young activist has devoted so much of himself to the movement at great personal expense.  Jaime Omar Yassi says, "The camp has given my life real purpose, and brought out the best in me and allowed me to befriend the widest breadth of human experience anyone can imagine."  I think what Mr. Yassin expresses is important because it helps to understand what is missing in American society, in general. I think that #OWS happens to be the forum (at this particular moment) in which he has found what is missing, but it really goes beyond the particular message of #OWS. That is, it isn't the message or mission of #OWS that is so important to him, but the solidarity and sense of community and connection between people working towards a common cause. For a long time in America, we've been working, through corporations and capitalism and consumerism, towards a society that is designed to isolate individuals so that they don't have to deal with/rely on their neighbors and communities.
It's an important distinction, and one that hasn't really been a part of the discussions about the significance of #OWS, as far as I can tell: the message is important, of course (the banksters should be jailed), and resonates with many people in this country, but the actual THING that people are hungering for is connection.  I don't think the general sense of malaise and discontent would really be resolved with jailing the banksters, though it would certainly satisfy some of the bloodlust.  I don't even think that reforming the rules of finance and implementing more regulations is going to solve the problem either.  It goes much, much deeper than that.  The state of the economic system is merely symptomatic of the more profound issue. 
'Connection' is instrumental, of course, but it is also political and brings with it power. A consumerist society is designed to keep us separated and isolated and dependent on (i.e. slaves to) the material goods that allow/encourage us to live isolated lives, though we mistake that for 'independence' and 'autonomy.'  That's why this can't just be a wake up call on reforming financial institutions and asking the government to implement systems to re-distribute wealth.  The fix has to permeate every aspect of social life, and it requires active efforts by all of us in our daily lives. Regular people need to make an effort to live more communally,* and to reduce their dependence on such a system. To some extent, that requires withdrawing from the status quo by living locally (e.g. using local banks and credit unions, buying food locally, participating in local politics, going to local businesses). It's profoundly democratic, and doesn't completely eschew capitalism; it just reconfigures it and instills it with something more meaningful than a monetary transaction.  We are the systems we create, and the systems we create are us.  So, who do we want to be?

*Communally is not the same thing as being a Communist.  Just sayin'.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Power of Woman-ness

Jon Stewart had Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee, on "The Daily Show" the other night.  What an amazing person. What I was most struck by, and this is probably because I'm struggling how to best theorize this in the context of my research, was how her 'being a woman' was really an integral part of what she and her sisters did, and are doing, to seek peace and justice in such a devastated, war-torn society.  I often get the feeling that the talk and promotion of gender equality in international development somehow seeks to make one's biological sex unimportant - that one's sex shouldn't matter to the opportunities one can pursue, or how one interacts in the world. I also get the feeling that gender equality advocates too often conflate an African woman's position in society with powerlessness and victimhood.

But, here's a case where women, by leveraging their woman-ness, played (and play) a critical part in promoting peace and reconciliation.  A man could not have done what they did and are continuing to do.  These women drew on, and re-invented, their collective identities as women to do what they saw needed to be done. Listen to her story about how she threatened to remove her clothes in the face of arrest. That action drew on deeply held cultural beliefs about women, and resulted in one of many victories. Listen to her tell how rural women elegantly leveraged their subordinate position in society, and gained the support of their men, via a 'sex strike.'  They all turned power on its head, and they did it by being women...or, maybe it would be more precise to say, they did it by doing woman-ness.  Even more important to understand, they did it by being Liberian women.   This is a particular story at a particular moment in time in a particular place that illustrates the way gender differences can be drawn upon to promote social change.  In fact, I might even be so bold to say that the gender inequality itself was critical to the struggle and to ending the war. Please don't read that as an argument for perpetuating inequality.  I say it to draw attention to the ways in which people negotiate the situations in which they find themselves, and cause change to come about, by drawing on what is and who they are.  Power is fluid and multifaceted and not solely the province of the powerful.

And, kudos to Jon Stewart for getting it, and for being interested and for hosting a forum where these kinds of stories about Africa can be told.