Exemplary IMCs, in no particular order, that make me proud to be an occasional Indymedia reporter:
Bolivia: Many collective members are involved in the day-to-day struggles of the region and have earned the trust of social movements. They broadcast a weekly radio news program in association with community-run Radio Wayna Tambo in El Alto, and provided all-day live coverage of last year's national referendum on natural gas, with around 15 reporters calling in with updates and interviews from 7 cities across the country. They also host video screenings. I went to one that was attended by about 80 people, 95 percent of whom were indigenous Aymara. Before the screening, the IMC organizers poured several pounds of coca leaf on a table--much appreciated by the audience. In addition, they are working to get donations of computers from the United States, not for their own use, but in a true act of solidarity, to give to an Aymara community on the Altiplano that requested them. http://bolivia.indymedia.org
India: An interesting site, though not frequently updated, and with a fairly low level of participation. Certainly, internet access is a luxury on the subcontinent, and only 60 percent of the over-15 population is literate. Content is almost exclusively in English, also a luxury. So though I don't think that the site accurately represents what's happening in India and who is making it happen (a near-impossible feat for any one site to do), it still has good writing, generally constructive engagement in comments sections, and information I would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. http://india.indymedia.org
Urbana-Champaign: After buying a downtown post office and transforming it into a community center, organizing successfully to prevent the local police from buying tasers, and playing an instrumental role in voting out a corrupt mayor, it's exciting to imagine what the folks at this IMC might do next. Well, actually, next up they are helping launch a community radio station that should be broadcasting in June. Their website covers local and global issues, and often features people signing what seem to be their real names to their work. Overall, they are truly embedded in their community, and provide valuable resources in terms of trainings, open debate, and lots of media. http://www. ucimc.org
Global: An excellent overview of the world's Indymedia, this site is incredibly useful, perhaps in large part because there is no open publishing--all posts are selected by editors. The editorial collective is accessible and responsive to stories pitched to them, and they are in the process of refining this process to make it even easier. With both Spanish- and English-language features teams, and with the birth of US Indymedia siphoning off a lot of US-dominant traffic, this site has truly gone global. http://www.indymedia.org
North Texas: With broad relevance to a diverse population, the site has everything a good community paper should have--news, book reviews, opinion pieces. The quality of writing is consistently high but not academic, using accessible language without lingo or mysterious acronyms. Coverage is primarily of local events, with a smattering of regional, national, and international items. It also serves as a message board, with announcements about such things as community garden plots available and biodiesel fuel for sale. http://www.ntimc.org
San Francisco Bay Area: With a carefully edited website laden with news, Enemy Combatant Radio streaming, and the year-old monthly newspaper Fault Lines, the Indybay IMC is one of the best. The site is well organized, easy to navigate, and provides broad coverage of issues. Many collective members are involved in a slew of local struggles, and it shows. http://www.indybay.org
NYC: Publishes The Indypendent, a biweekly newspaper with a circulation between 12,000 and 15,000. Its editors are highly skilled and work closely with writers. Their war coverage has been some of the best in the country, scooping several stories that even daily papers with high-salaried staffs missed. The website receives similarly attentive editing. http://nyc.indymedia.org
Ecuador: Covers a broad range of local, national, and international news, with minimal reprinting of corporate articles and very little spam or diatribe. Frequently updated and carrying excellent coverage and discussion of major issues, such as the recent ousting of President Gutierrez and the rise of neighborhood assemblies. http://ecuador.indymedia.org
Manila: Very well-written articles predominate on this site, and people actually sign their names to their work! Lots of radical analysis and less focus on protests is a welcome change. http://manila.indymedia.org
UK: With a weekly radio program on a community arts station in London, an erratically published newspaper, the Offline, and frequent video screenings, the UK (that stands for United Kollektives, by the way) team is on the case. Web stories range from action coverage to analysis to announcements and updates, with thorough coverage of national issues, and a broad smattering of international news. This site often features the lovely convention of an independently written article followed by links to corporate media coverage of the same topic, for folks wanting contrast, more info, or confirmation of facts and data. I wish others would do this more. They also encourage people to correct mistakes in the comments section, and, if notified, the editors will post the correction in the original article when appropriate. The UK site has also been, since its inception, the place to go for resources on longer term organizing of mass actions, whether they be local May Day protests, international days of action in other countries, or the upcoming G8 summit in Scotland. The writing is excellent, even on the newswire. Though its vigorous hiding of articles not meeting their editorial guidelines has been controversial in some circles, could it be that having the newswire tightly edited may push people to do better work in order to get published? I find the UK IMC site to be consistently one of the best. Though I do wish it weren't pink. http ://www.indymedia.org.uk
Argentina: In Buenos Aires, Indymedia set up shop for a while in a squatted building-formerly a bank and now a community center opened by the Cid Campeador neighborhood assembly. The association with the political birth of the squat has meant that participation among the unemployed, as well as the neighborhood, is high, although the physical site has shut down. Since the financial collapse in late 2001, participation on the website has come from a broad sector of the population, who have used it in their efforts to govern their own communities. http://argentina.indymedia.org
Brazil: One of the few Indymedias to do proactive investigative reporting, it's truly a political force in the country, to which municipal and state governments must occasionally respond. The center column is translated into three other languages (including, incredibly, Esperanto). They have a broad network of reporters, translators, techies, and radio stations spread across the enormous country. http://brazil.indymedia.org
Heather Rogers' film, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, explores the "sinister success" of capitalism by looking at the life cycle of our waste. In the span of 20 minutes, the film examines the realities of planned-in obsolescence and waste-by-design in our market economy, asking deep questions from a fresh perspective. In the film, Rogers contends that recycling is far from an actual solution, and is at best a Band-Aid approachÃ¢â‚¬â€a much harder look, she argues, needs to be taken at our addiction to waste. She recently spoke to us about her film, her forthcoming book of the same name (to be published in Fall 2005 by New Press), and the limits of "green capitalism."Ariane Conrad Hyde: What inspired or motivated you to make Gone Tomorrow?Heather Rogers: Two things: I wanted to know what happened to my garbage, because it seemed like it disappeared, but I knew that it didn't. I wanted to find out where it went. I also realized that "waste disposal" is a process through which the market's relations to labor and nature is made apparent. [The film] is a way of understanding that garbage is something everyone makesÃ¢â‚¬â€everyone can relate to it. It's a way of connecting daily life and our daily interaction with waste to larger environmental crises.In your film, you document several of the major shifts that occurred in the attitude towards garbage in the U.S. Can you talk a little bit more about the most significant shifts?It's not so commonly known anymore, but in the 19th century there was a huge amount of re-use going on. A lot of it came from the fact that people couldn't afford to buy manufactured goods because they were so expensive. One of the big shifts came with the Industrial Revolution, when commodities suddenly became much cheaper. The spatial component of the Industrial Revolution transformed the way people lived, so that suddenly people were leaving the countryside and concentrating in cities, to go work in the factories. They didn't have places to save and store their waste like they had in the countryside, so it wasn't as easy to save fat, for example, or scraps of materials to re-use and repair. That, in conjunction with commodities becoming cheaper, meant that people bought more of the things they needed instead of making them themselves. At the same time, there was a transformation in land use practices, because garden markets also grew up around cities, and geography became more important to farming. Formerly, the colonial land use and farming practices entailed using a plot of land until it was exhausted, then moving on to another plot of land. But with the growth of cities, and needing to be close to cities in order to market fruits and vegetables to the people in the cities, farmers had to suddenly start tending their soil in a different way--they started fertilizing. Wastes were sent out of the cities to the country, and produce and hay was sent from the countryside to the city. There was what Richard A. Wines, who wrote a great history of fertilizer (Fertilizer in America: From Waste Recycling to Resource Exploitation), refers to as an "extended recycling system" between the city and the countryside.Then, after the Industrial Revolution, that connection between where resources come from, and where they go, and the symbiotic relationship between production, consumption and wasting began to break down. Commodities became much more affordable, and people started consuming a lot more. The 1841 version of Catherine Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy explains how to make candles and soap; her 1869 edition of the same book tells you to just buy those things instead of making them yourself. So there was this big shift in the use and re-use of discarded materials and resources. But even though there were these transformations going on, industry still used a lot of waste like metal and rags from households. A lot of the collection work was done by men with carts who would go around to houses in the city and the countryside collecting waste from peopleÃ¢â‚¬â€waste that had been sorted, like rags and different kinds of paper, board, metal and rubber. They would take those things to the city and sell them to factories, so there was still this connection between what people discarded and what was produced. There was a direct line where household discards could be re-used in the manufacturing process.The next big shift came with World War II. During that time, there was a massive streamlining and perfecting of the production process. Along with that came mass production and the concomitant mass consumption. The byproduct of all that was a lot of waste. One of the great inventions of the postwar period was the disposable commodity. A lot of disposable commodities like paper towels and cups and disposable cans and bottles had been invented in the early years of the 20th century, but weren't marketed for various reasons. One reason for that was that producers didn't understand how profitable it was to make things that got immediately thrown away, and production wasn't as perfected as before World War II. After the war, there was real forced production, and cooperation between labor and capitalÃ¢â‚¬â€enforced by the government. And businesses had to cooperate with each other in unprecedented ways; they had to share information and they had to give in to this overarching discipline of churning out the goods for the U.S. military. When they emerged from that, they were so highly productive that, suddenly, making commodities that were meant to be thrown away made sense. It was economical, it was feasible, and there weren't controls on natural resources like there were during the war. So there was this boom in disposablesÃ¢â‚¬â€packaging was part of itÃ¢â‚¬â€and the market share of disposable packaging has only grown since then. Also, obsolescence was a key development after World War II. It meant that durable goods began to be made to die faster than they previously had.And that was a conscious decision on the part of industry?Yes. Built-in obsolescence wasn't a new idea either, but there was this confluence of resources and comprehension of marketing and productive power that came together after World War II that made it all possible. Incomes were also high, and people had buying power they didn't have before the war.And shortly thereafter, as you point out in the film, there's the establishment of one of the first industrial front groups, Keep America Beautiful.Keep America Beautiful was established in 1953, it was the first of the green-washing corporate fronts. It started a few months after the state of Vermont passed a law that outlawed disposable beverage containers. Ironically, the Vermont law wasn't formulated by some kind of early environmentalist movementÃ¢â‚¬â€it was passed by a state legislature comprised of two-thirds dairy farmers. What was happening was this: people had been tossing their [disposable] empty containers on the side of the road. These containers were ending up in the hay that the cows were eating, and the cows were dyingÃ¢â‚¬â€so these farmers were losing their livelihood, and they passed this law. At that point, disposable containers were still a new thing, and most beverages were distributed in refillable bottles. So they thought, fine, we can just stick to the refillable containers and we won't have this problem. Within months [of the law passing] the industry created Keep America Beautiful (KAB).What KAB proceeded to do was to form themselves into a very public relations-savvy beautification group. They identified a new political category of garbage called "litter," [a term which] had existed before, but not with the same meaning that KAB imbued it with. They connected with the federal government and regional governments, through politicians, local businesses, and the education system. They created this civic organization that [on the surface] was just against throwing litter on the side of the road. [Essentially,] they said that the problem isn't all of this garbage that's suddenly proliferating everywhere; the problem is that individuals don't understand what to do with it! To quote a film called Heritage of Splendor, which KAB made in 1963 (and which Ronald Reagan narrated for them): "Trash only becomes litter when it's been thoughtlessly discarded." Their idea is that the problem isn't what industry's doing, the extraction of natural resources at an ever-increasing rate or the destruction of the planet on a scale that had never happened before. No, the real problem is all of this garbage that individuals keep carelessly throwing around. They've stuck to that message and it's been very effective for them, because it displaces all responsibility from the people who make garbageÃ¢â‚¬â€the producers of disposable commodities and commodities designed to wear out faster than they need to. It shifts the responsibility away from production, and onto the individual consumer.And didn't KAB also help popularize recycling?They didn't embrace recycling until later, not until the late '70s and '80s. They only took that up when they had to, and that was because of the rise of the environmental movement. They were very sophisticated: while they were doing this kind of PR work, getting out in front of the problem, they knew that garbage was going to become a huge issue. In the early 1960s, a magazine called Modern Packaging had a cover story [on] "the crisis of garbage." [The article predicted] that we're going to get to a point where consumers and municipalities are [questioning] all this waste.So they worked not only on the public relations front, but also worked to undermine legislation across the country. Vermont's law was the only law of its kind ever passed in the United States. No law banning disposable packaging has ever passed again. It sounds radical now. The fact that is sounds radical now says a lot about how effective KAB has been not only on the moral front, but also on the legislative and policy front.You mentioned this 1960s publication called Modern Packaging. Is that the first time packaging was spoken about as "packaging," this product that is not quite a commodity?I don't think so. The thing about packaging that is so interesting is that it is a commodity, but it's barely perceptible as a commodity. People accept that it's a commodity that's designed to be immediately thrown away. It again speaks volumes about how successful industry has been about training us to accept disposability, which has been a very concerted project that they have been engaged in for the last 100 years.Some of the first packaging arose in the late 19th century. Some of the earliest packaging was for Uneeda Biscuits. They were packaged in a box with wax paper that sealed in the biscuits so they wouldn't go stale. Packaging was all about easing distribution for producers, because before that, everything was sold in bulk containers. The transformation of production and distribution as well as retail salesÃ¢â‚¬â€going from mom and pop stores to the chain supermarkets we have todayÃ¢â‚¬â€means that packaging represents the automation of the distribution system. I think producers are very conscious of how helpful packaging is in helping them centralize their businesses. In doing that, they get to downsize and streamline and create economies of scale that they couldn't create if they didn't get to consolidateÃ¢â‚¬â€which is what a lot of the drive behind switching from the refillable to the disposable bottle and can was about. The beer and soda industries consolidated massively in the post-war period, and the number of producers shrank dramatically. And this massive consolidation in both of those industries was facilitated by the switch to disposable containers. The industry no longer has the necessity for regional bottling plants where trucks can only go so far to deliver the products because then they have to go retrieve the empties. Now they can just drive straight through, one way, and they don't have to take anything back. They can go to the next central hub, pick up more stuff, keep driving and drop it off.So what's different in countries like Germany? What makes them able to continue their refillable bottle programs?The state intervenes and regulates industry. In Germany, the government says that 72 percent of your bottles have to be refillable; there are quotas. If the industry doesn't meet those quotasÃ¢â‚¬â€which actually happened last year in Germany -- the government comes in and imposes penalties on them. When you think about how the basic regulation of industry actually does work, in Germany, Denmark, Holland, and other countries in Europe, the popularity of refillable bottles is [obvious]. The vast majority of people prefer to take their bottles back to the store.In the U.S., the industry always says that they had to switch to disposable containers because customers demanded it -- that [consumers] want the convenience of disposability. Actually, there have been numerous polls done over the last 30 years asking people if they want deposit laws, which means that they would then have to take their bottles and cans back to some central location to get their deposits back. The vast majority of people always say that they would prefer for there to be a deposit law. This directly contradicts what the industry always says, which is that they've given in to consumer demand for convenience.When you see it working in these other countries, when countries like Denmark have 98 percent of their beverage containers refillable and they have something like a 98 percent participation rateÃ¢â‚¬â€almost a hundred percent of the people are taking their bottles backÃ¢â‚¬â€it's really hard to say this system doesn't work. The companies that are making those beverages are profitable! They haven't gone out of business, jobs haven't been lost, and the industry hasn't gone down in flamesÃ¢â‚¬â€which is another thing the beverage industry argues here in the U.S. The direct opposite has happened. They're doing well, it's good for the environment, the public likes it, and it works. It's totally realistic to do something like that, to reinstate the refillable bottle.I'm wondering if you'd care to reflect on the semantic shift that occurred: it seems like it went from "garbage" and "trash" to "waste." With your use of the word "garbage" in your title; are you taking a stand against use of the word "waste"?I use the word "garbage" in the title because I think it's really recognizable to people. I think that's what most people call their waste or their discards. That's why I use it; it's not a statement of my political or ideological stance on the issue of discards. A lot of people feel very strongly about choosing the right word, and I really respect where that comes from. I think that what we call the things we throw away is very important and it does relate to the way that what we throw out is constructed as dirty and not okay to touch or to consider as having value or being a resource. There are a lot of people like Mary Lou Van Deventer from Urban Ore (a "creative re-use" business in Berkeley, Calif.), who insists on calling everything that gets thrown away "discards," and I respect that. Because it's true: everything that gets thrown away is a resource that can be re-used. In the waste industry, especially the corporate waste industry, there's been a real conscious deployment of specific words to describe what gets thrown away. Often they'll call it the "waste stream"Ã¢â‚¬â€they always try to sanitize it. They want discards to be off-limits, but also they want what they do to be perceived as environmentally innocuous. So they call all of the trash that they get from households and cities "municipal solid waste." They try and transform it into a technical problem, which blankets over the tougher questions about why are we throwing away so much stuff, and what's in there? Why are there so many resources getting crushed into the ground, or getting burned in the incinerator? Why are we wasting so much? The semantics are a really big part of how the system works and manages public perceptions of it.What do you think about green capitalism? Is it going to be industry vs. environmental justice, or can there be some kind of compromise, in your opinion?Companies like Waste Management Inc., which is the largest trash company in the world, tout their environmental sensitivity because they use all of these [environmentally friendly] technologiesÃ¢â‚¬â€all of which, they never tell you, are required by law. They act like they're doing it voluntarily. But when you go to these facilities and you see the wealth of resources used to destroy commoditiesÃ¢â‚¬â€obliterating them, annihilating them, making them disappearÃ¢â‚¬â€it's important to ask how many resources could instead be going into making the system that we've got more sustainable.In terms of how that happens, there's a lot of room for improvement, because the system we have is so bad right now. Obviously, it's better to recycle than to not recycle, but it's not a long-term solution. You're still producing all the wasteÃ¢â‚¬â€you're just treating it differently at the end. One thing I feel would really make a difference in environmental and human health would be to go in and look at how capitalism worksÃ¢â‚¬â€because it needs waste. I don't think that you can just make a few technical changes to parts of capitalism and expect it to work, or expect it to be an environmentally responsible system when at its core, capitalism needs unfettered access to natural resources and it needs to use them up. If you don't intervene in that cycle, you're never going to be able to deal with global warming, to stop de-forestation, and the endangerment of life on the planet. That isn't going to stop unless you change the economic system that we live under, because it has this fundamental characteristic of needing to consume nature and needing to produce at an ever-increasing rate. If there isn't an intervention made on that, it will just continue."Green capitalists" like Paul Hawken and William McDonough have some great ideas, like creating commodities that can be entirely disassembled, recycled and re-used. They say companies should do that voluntarily, that companies should just re-design their production systems and the raw materials they use so that they can be infinitely recycled and infinitely re-used. The thing is, that costs more at this point. If a "green company" is competing with a company outsourcing its labor to China and getting subsidies for raw materials extraction from some part of the U.S. government, as well as tax breaks on transportation, the green business is not going to be able to compete, and they're going to go out of business. It might be nice for a couple of yearsÃ¢â‚¬â€it might make the owners of the green business feel good to do what they're doing, and it might make people feel good to buy those products. But at the end of the day, if they can't compete, they won't be around. The use of natural resources is incredibly profitable, and that's what will continue if there aren't regulations and controls put on production.Do you think that the U.S. can achieve a sustainable level of consumption? That a shift can occur given how entrenched the systems of capitalism are?I think that people like to consume because there's something really gratifying about it. In making changes like [reducing consumption,] there's a much greater chance of change coming about if we open up other channels [instead of] using the same pathway of relating to the individual consumer and their individual choices. And it's a bit problematic to say, "the state should just intervene," because the state has been intervening. They've funneled mass amounts of money to streamlining and perfecting the plastics industry, for example. The state helped create the disposable society that we have today. So it isn't enough to say the state needs to interveneÃ¢â‚¬â€a democratized state needs to intervene, and people need to have more of a say in how much of our collective resources are being used, and how responsibly they're being used.I'm curious as to whether the spectrum of options that includes recycling, producer responsibility, re-designing of products, using different materials, refillable bottles ... all of these strategies, when added together: will the equation yield zero waste?All those things you mentioned are important changes that people are working toward. The Zero Waste movement has some great goals, in my opinion. What they aim for is to not actually throw anything away. They believe that nothing is waste, that everything continues to have value, and that everything that gets thrown away is a resource. I think that's an accurate reading of the situation. They are similar to green capitalists, [in that] they want to re-design the production system so that commodities and materials get re-used over and over again, but they actually believe there needs to be enforcement of that; it's not something that's going to happen on a voluntary basis. I think that's a more realistic approach. I think what they're doingÃ¢â‚¬â€groups like the Grassroots Recycling Network, and the Institute for Local Self RelianceÃ¢â‚¬â€are working on different fronts to make real change happen. They're working on public opinion and perceptions of garbage, and they're also working on the policy level.What about population control. Does that figure into it?I don't think that's a real issue. Like I said before, the problem the current economic system we live under has isn't being able to produce enough to supply everyone with food and the things that they need. There are enough resources and food for everyone on the planetÃ¢â‚¬â€it's just a question of what bodies and mechanisms stand between people and the things that they need to live. And that is often the market, and the market's need for profit.I'm curious about the links between the issue of waste and racial justice. I know there were lawsuits filed against Waste Management Technologies by African-American and Latino communities, because these communities were unfairly bearing the burden of waste sites ...Environmental racism is a very real thing, and it has been all along. In the 19th century, the poorest of the poor were forced to work in, eat from, and live in garbage. In many ways that's still true today, and it reveals the realities of a fundamentally unequal system that produces so much wealth, poverty and environmental destruction. Inevitably, the people who have to live in the most toxic conditions are the poorest people. New York City, where I live, has the highest concentration of transfer stations (where garbage gets taken after it gets collected and before it goes to the recycling center, the landfill or the incinerator) in the South Bronx, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York. They have some of the highest asthma rates in the country, and they deal with real environmental fallout on a daily basis. They deal with the diesel exhaust; they deal with the rats and the roaches that are everywhere because there's garbage everywhere. They deal with the [garbage] trucks rolling down the street where kids play. And they deal with it in a vastly disproportionate amount than the people who live on the Upper East Side. And New York CityÃ¢â‚¬â€the country's largest garbage producer, and one of the wealthiest cities in the countryÃ¢â‚¬â€ships its waste to poor, rural areas in Pennsylvania. The poorest regions in the U.S. get saddled with all the waste.Internationally, you've got loads of toxic waste getting shipped overseas to countries like the Philippines, India and China. The EPA did a study showing that it's 10 times cheaper to "recycle" a computer in China than it was to "recycle" one in California. There's an economic imperative to ship waste to [countries] where labor is cheaper. What that means is that those people have to live with the toxicity of that process. The environmental and labor laws are more lax, and again the poorest people end up with the greatest amount of filth and hazardous conditions, because it serves the interests of the wealthiest in the world.Is there anything else you're working on for the book that you want to talk about?Just briefly: in 1976 a law was passed called the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act. It stipulated that the EPA was to oversee states' setting safety standards for their landfill disposal sites, and it took several yearsÃ¢â‚¬â€a decade, basicallyÃ¢â‚¬â€for that to actually happen. So in the mid '80s, something like two-thirds of all landfills in the U.S. were shut down, because they didn't meet the new safety standards. You may remember the Khian Sea garbage barge that floated around the East Coast and then went down to Haiti, and ended up mysteriously offloading its cargo somewhere in the Pacific. Because of the landfill crisis, there was a need to find other solutions. The garbage industry and some of the old-line environmental groups like the Sierra Club endorsed incineration. But a really impressive grassroots resistance to incineration grew all across the country in Brooklyn, and Philadelphia, and Los AngelesÃ¢â‚¬â€there were coalitions of mostly working-class residents who lived near where the incinerators were going to be built. They joined forces and taught themselves to understand how incinerators worked and what the potential toxicity risks were, and they ended up getting help from National Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Barry Commoner, and Neil Seldman from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. These groups successfully fought incineration; now incineration is only responsible for about 15 percent of waste disposal. That's an example of how grassroots activism works in deciding policy and deciding what happens to our waste. It's really instructive. A lot of environmental consciousness was raised out of those movements.It sounds like that's where you draw hope from.Yeah. And on the policy side, I do think the Zero Waste movement offers some good and realistic solutions. They want to get rid of landfills and incinerators. They want to re-design the production process so that everything is designed to be re-used, so that toxics are removed from the process as much as possible. This would be enforced through government intervention and regulation, which means reaching back into the realm of production and telling industry that it can't just endlessly extract resources and design things to be thrown away within minutes of purchase. If you buy a bottle of water, within minutes of buying it you throw it away. Even if it goes to the recycling center, it usually doesn't get recycled; only 5 percent of all plastic gets recycled today. The Zero Waste movement is very hopeful, and they have a lot of good and realistic solutions. We can't just leave this up to the industry, and we can't just leave this up to the marketÃ¢â‚¬â€we need to intervene, because there's a fundamental lack of democracy in the use of our resources. We need to democratize the way that the state intervenes, and the way that our collective natural resources are being used, so that they don't get wasted and destroyed for this and future generations.
Aidan Delgado was a Florida college student looking for a change when he decided to join the Army Reserve. He signed his enlistment contract on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. After finishing the paperwork, he saw a television broadcast of the burning World Trade Center and realized he might be in for more than one weekend a month of low-key service.
In the ensuing months, Delgado became dedicated to Buddhism and its principles of pacifism. By April 2003, when he began his year-long tour in Iraq, he was openly questioning whether he could participate in the war in good conscience. Having grown up in Cairo, Delgado spoke Arabic and had not been steeped in the racism that drove many of his fellow soldiers. When he surrendered his rifle and declared himself a conscientious objector, he was punished by his officers and ostracized by his peers.
His unit, the 320th Military Police Company, spent six months in the southern city of Nasiriyah, and another six months helping to run the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. Now 23, having served his tour and been honorably discharged, Delgado is speaking out about what he witnessed. He says the prison abuse broadcast on 60 Minutes last spring was the tip of the iceberg; brutality, often racially motivated, infected the entire prison and the entire military operation in Iraq.
Why did you decide to join the Army?
It was not for high-minded reasons. I was in school, but I wasn't doing all that well. I was stagnating. I wanted to get a change of scenery, do something different. I signed up for the reserves, because in the pre-Sept. 11 world, the reserves meant you work just two days a month; you get to be in the army, but you don't have to do anything. I signed my contract the morning of Sept. 11 and then all of a sudden my reserve commitment meant a whole lot more.
How did you feel about your decision to join the army in light of what happened that day?
At the time, the whole country was riding high on this surge of patriotism, so I felt vindicated, that I had made the right decision. Because I joined before Sept. 11, I felt morally superior – I joined before it was popular to do so. Afterwards, when I saw the Sept. 11 feelings being redirected – Afghanistan was one thing, but then they started turning it towards Iraq – my feelings of patriotism waned.
It wasn't long after 9/11, maybe six months, before the Bush administration started publicly building their case for invading Iraq.
Yeah, that's what I thought was very striking. I felt like they had made a very strong case for attacking the Taliban and the whole Afghanistan campaign. But when they started talking about Iraq, I said, "Wait, there isn't any proven connection, and there are several facts that seem to indicate they were not connected."
How did Buddhism influence your feelings about the army and the war in Iraq?
My Buddhism developed parallel to being in the army. I wasn't a Buddhist before I joined the military, but after I signed on I had a couple of months before I went to basic training. That's when I started studying Buddhism intensely, doing research to cope with the stress of being in the army. I went into advanced training the next summer, and that's when I became really serious about Buddhism. I became a vegetarian. I started talking to my sergeants, saying, "I'm not sure the army's right for me; I'm a Buddhist now."
Within a few months of arriving in Iraq, I told them that I wanted to be a conscientious objector and I wanted to leave the military because of my religious beliefs. It ended up taking over a year to get my status, so I served in the whole conflict as a conscientious objector. I finally got conscientious objector status after my unit returned to the U.S.
How hard was it to get conscientious objector status?
Extremely difficult – there's a huge burden of proof. You have to do an interview with an investigating officer who grills you on your beliefs to find out if you're just making it up or if you've really thought it out. You have to have some kind of documentation. I think one of my strongest points was that I had a lot of military paperwork showing that I had gradually identified myself as a Buddhist. I also had a lot of conversations with my superiors where I talked about being an objector and being a Buddhist, and they went on the record and said, "Yes, he's talked about it progressively throughout the deployment." That really did a lot to establish my sincerity.
The command was extremely hostile to me, and there were all kinds of punitive measures. They wouldn't let me go on leave. They took my ballistic armor away – they told me that I didn't need the hard plate that goes inside your flak jacket, the part that actually protects you against bullets. They said that because I was an objector and I wasn't going to fight, I wouldn't need it. This proved not to be the case; when we got to Abu Ghraib, there was continuous mortar shelling. I did the whole year's deployment without that plate. I really feel that was more maliciously motivated than anything else.
Also, I was socially ostracized. A lot of my fellow soldiers didn't want to eat with me or hang out with me or go on missions with me. They felt I was untrustworthy because I was critical of the war and I was a Buddhist. My command "lost" my CO [Conscientious Objector] paperwork or misdirected it. They'd say, "We lost your copy, you'll have to do it again."
I eventually got my home leave back because I threatened my commander that I was going to have them prosecuted for discriminating against me on religious grounds. My company commander, my company first sergeant, and my battalion commander had all decided they were not going to let me leave – they said I couldn't go home on a two-week leave because I wouldn't come back. My stance was that they were just doing this because I'm a Buddhist and they didn't agree with my beliefs, and I was going to get the ACLU and the World Congress of Buddhists involved. Ultimately, they decided it wasn't worth the headache.
You were a mechanic, right? Were you going out on patrols?
Yes, I was a mechanic and I primarily worked on vehicles. But because I spoke Arabic – I was the only one in my company who spoke any Arabic – I ended up, especially in the south, doing a lot of mission support with military police (MPs) to speak to local people, usually to buy things or trade or exchange money. I would also help MPs get around in the city. I got to meet a lot of local Iraqis and see a different side of things. After Nasiriyah, I didn't do any more translating because by that point I had made my CO status request. I had been very critical of the war and the command knew I was not going to play ball, so they kept me far away from Iraqis and prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
Let's talk about Abu Ghraib. When you first arrived there in November 2003, wasn't that right around the time all the abuse that eventually made the papers was taking place?
We heard about that in late December or early January. We heard that someone had sent a tape to CNN and they had been abusing the prisoners in some way. We didn't know how, so the nature of the abuse was a shock. But that they were abusing [prisoners] was not news to us – we had known about that for a long time.
What kind of abuse did you witness?
There were prisoners who were beaten severely – to within an inch of their lives – for various infractions like disrespect or refusing to move. [They were] horribly brutal beatings.
There were a number of prisoners that I know of who were killed for throwing stones during a riot. I shouldn't say riot; it was more like a disturbance. I talked with a guy who shot several of the prisoners. The prisoners were protesting the conditions – lack of food, lack of cigarettes – and they were marching around the yard. Some of them started picking up stones and throwing stones at the guards. They deployed extra military police to quell the disturbance. At first, they had rubber bullets and tear gas, but they ran out of that, and it wasn't really effective. At some point – I'm not sure who authorized it – the guards requested the right to use lethal force and opened fire with a machine gun, and ultimately killed several prisoners for throwing stones. The guards testified that they felt they were in danger, so they opened fire. The military accepted that. There wasn't any inquiry, and no one glanced an eye at the dead prisoners. This was for throwing stones. The world community has roundly condemned Israel for shooting Palestinans for throwing stones. And that happened at Abu Ghraib.
Did you personally witness the incident in which the prisoners were shot?
Actually, I wasn't there. I was segregated in the motor pool when it happened, but I ended up getting photos from people who shot the prisoners – [the photos] were treated as trophies and were circulated in our company. It was not a secret; everyone knew about it. All the members of the unit were passing [photos] around, and they posted them in the command center for everyone to see. This was something they were proud of. It was a very macho thing to shoot unarmed prisoners. One guy was a local hero for the week because he'd killed X number of prisoners – one of the prisoners he had shot in the groin had taken three days to die. This was something people were laughing and joking about. This guy was strutting around after having killed these prisoners and I remember just being utterly sickened. We were soldiers, and to shoot an unarmed, caged prisoner was not something to be proud of. Abu Ghraib and all the prisoner abuse [came out of] this atmosphere of brutality.
Can you give more accounts of the day-to-day brutality at Abu Ghraib?
We talk about the Geneva Conventions a lot, but most people haven't read the Geneva Conventions and don't know what they say. [One thing] they say [is] that prisoners can't be held in an injurious climate. Abu Ghraib was extremely cold, and one of the ways guards used to control prisoners was to remove their clothing and tents, leaving them exposed to 30-degree weather. That's a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Another provision of the Conventions is that prisoners have to be protected. We were taking constant mortar and artillery bombardment [at Abu Ghraib] from the insurgents outside the prison. Of course, [the prisoners] weren't protected; they were in open tents, and over 50 of them were killed because they were out in the open, they couldn't flee, and they had no cover. I remember fearing for my life many times – and I had a flak vest, a helmet, and shelter. I can't imagine being a prisoner, hemmed into a barbed-wire lot with no overhead protection, no protective clothing, and no air raid shelter. When there were bombs falling, they just had to sit and hope they didn't get killed.
I'm not really interested in naming names or getting culprits caught; I'm just interested in letting people know that what happened in Abu Ghraib was not an anomaly. It was virtually standard operating procedure.
Another incident I heard about was that a prisoner had shot a guard in the chest with a smuggled-in handgun. The guard didn't die, but [the guards] retaliated by shooting [the prisoner] in the leg and the side with a shotgun. His leg had been broken by the shotgun blast and was hanging off by an odd angle. They were taking this guy to a hospital to get medical treatment for his broken leg, and dragged him on his snapped leg and then threw him into the back of a truck. Granted, this was a man who had attempted to kill a guard. There was no question that he was a dangerous individual – but he was not dangerous at that moment, handcuffed, with a bag over his head and a broken leg. To drag him on that broken leg and to toss him in the back of a truck was additional brutality that wasn't professional and wasn't humane.
What else did you witness at Abu Ghraib?
I worked in the radio headquarters of Abu Ghraib for a while. They were once again trying to punish me by putting me in an undesirable job. While I was there, I ended up reviewing the prisoner records and looking over the offenses of the people who were in Abu Ghraib prison. I found out that most of them were actually not there for anti-coalition offenses. They weren't insurgents. Most of them were there for petty theft, drunkenness, forged documents, really minor crimes.
Who would arrest them for these kinds of crimes?
We were the depository for the Iraqi justice system; they didn't have their own prisons. Iraqi judges would sentence criminals, and a lot of them would end up coming to Abu Ghraib prison. The military would also do random sweeps if they received fire or were attacked from a certain area; they would just arrest everyone of a certain age in that area and take them to Abu Ghraib for questioning. Most of them would be cleared, but the process took so long that you'd end up being in Abu Ghraib for six months to a year before being released. I felt very vindicated last week when a report came out from the Pentagon that talked about the reasons the Iraqis are so upset. One of the reasons [had to do with] these random sweeps and detentions. Family members or friends would get taken to a military prison for a year, for nothing. That was definitely highly immoral, if not illegal – and counterproductive, because of the animosity it generated.
How many prisoners are at Abu Ghraib?
I can't say exactly, because I might get in trouble with the army, but several thousand. It would fluctuate on a daily basis. There was a shuffling going on between Abu Ghraib, Basra, Umm Qasr, and lesser prison camps along the way. There was a continual shifting of prisoners. That would really upset the local Iraqis because sometimes relatives would be shuffled around between these prisons. Someone who was arrested in Baghdad might be sent out to Basra in the far south of the country and be out of contact with their relatives and in the process of being shuffled around. A lot of the paperwork got mishandled or mismanaged, so people wouldn't know where their relatives were. I encountered that routinely in the operations command. Relatives would come, trying to track down a prisoner, but we didn't know [where he was.]
How many of the guards or others working at Abu Ghraib are prison guards or police officers in the United States?
A relatively high percentage. Out of my unit of 140, I would say at least 30 were police officers or correctional officers.
Do you think a connection can be drawn between the criminal justice system and the prisons in the United States and the people who were working at Abu Ghraib?
I don't have much direct experience with corrections in the U.S., but what I hear from news reports is that the corrections system in America is rife with brutality and misconduct as well. So I'm not really surprised that they transplanted the misbehavior from American prisons overseas. At least in America there's some sense of responsibility; a prisoner has some recourse to seek redress. Over there, they are literally anonymous prisoners, and there is nothing they can do. The guards have absolute authority – life and death authority.
One of the things that disturbed me about Abu Ghraib was that the soldiers [claimed] they didn't know it was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. They said they didn't know that it was wrong, they didn't have experience in handling prisoners. But if my company was indicative of the rest of the guards at Abu Ghraib, there was a high percentage of police officers and correctional officers; there was plenty of experience with felons. They knew what the standard was for humane treatment of prisoners. That sort of defense rings hollow.
Did you ever try to report these kinds of incidents?
No, I never did – I didn't have good credibility in my unit, because I was known to be a liberal. I was a pacifist, I was against violence, and I was very critical of the war, so no one took me seriously. My command was very hostile to me because I was in the process of trying to get my conscientious objector status. I thought that what they did was immoral, but I thought that if the command was sympathetic they could easily find some legal basis for it. So I decided that nothing would happen [if I spoke out] because the command accepts what they did. There was no outrage about what they did, so there was not going to be any punishment. What I needed to do was to go home and try them in the court of public opinion.
You spent most of your formative years in Egypt. Here in America there has been a lot of racism against Arabs for a long time and it really increased after 9/11. How did that affect the army?
I think racism is a key motivating factor in the war. We witnessed a Marine kick a six-year-old child in the chest for bothering him about food and water. People in my unit used to break bottles over Iraqi civilians' heads as they drove by in their Humvees. A senior enlisted man in my unit lashed Iraqi children with a steel antenna because they were bothering him.
The only way people can do these sorts of things – which would never be acceptable in America – is [because of] the notion that Iraqis are somehow related to terrorists and 9/11. We completely dehumanize them. I used to come into conflict with other members of my unit who were doing these things, and [tell them] it was wrong. It made me really unpopular, the radical notion that you should treat Arabs or Iraqis as human beings.
Why did you decide to speak out about your experiences in Iraq?
At first, I just wanted to live quietly and leave the whole experience behind me. [But then] people started asking me about my war experiences. In a way, my first discussion was a response to all these people. I thought I would have a forum and talk to everybody at once and I would never have to tell anyone else ever again. As I went along, it snowballed and I gave a talk to [my] community – and that's when 400 people showed up.
After I spoke, people were really moved by what I had said. I received several offers to speak on college campuses in Florida. I don't think the American people are bad or willfully making wrong decisions. I think they're making misinformed decisions. If they had some more information, they wouldn't support the war and their views would change. That's really my goal, to create a sense of critical thinking, of disbelief, a sense of responsibility for the negative consequences of the war.
Have you made any links with other veterans who feel the way you do?
Yes. St. Pete for Peace is a group I've worked for, also Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Common Sense. My concern is that some of these groups haven't been very effective in creating a cogent movement. I feel that if I can personally draw 400 people with a slideshow, there's no reason why a group like Iraq Veterans Against the War shouldn't be able to draw an audience of thousands. I look around America and am dismayed by how the war is on the back burner for people – it's not in their consciences. I want to make it something that's on the forefront of peoples' minds every day, rather than something you see occasionally on the news when something particularly bad happens.
A few weeks ago, a young man approached me after a speech I had given at his college and handed me a small piece of paper with the name of a book he thought I should read. Given that the student and I had previously gotten into a bit of a row over the issue of racial profiling of Arabs, I didn't have high expectations about his recommendation.
I suppose it's a good thing I was prepared for what I got: the name of a book by black conservative Larry Elder, whose only real claim to fame is that he does a bad imitation of Judge Wapner on a pedantic little courtroom reality show called Moral Court.
Oh, and that white folks like the student in question really like him. Which, as it turns out, is all it takes to become a bestselling author in this country.
Elder – like Shelby Steele before him, and Walter Williams before that, and Ken Hamblin before that, and Thomas Sowell before him, and Clarence Thomas always – says the kinds of things that most white folks love to hear: essentially, that blacks are the source of their own problems in life. Black cultural pathology and bad behavior, according to these types, explain everything from black poverty rates to black incarceration rates.
What about racism?, you may ask. What racism? To the Larry Elders of the world – and to the whites who have made them media stars entirely out of proportion to their scholarly credentials (or decided lack thereof) – racism is just an excuse black people use to explain away their own internal shortcomings.
Lately, two of the more popular arguments made by black conservatives and the white people who love them are, first, that blacks spend too much money on luxury items they can't afford, refusing to save money the way responsible white folks do; and second, that blacks place too little value on education, preferring to critique learning as selling out or "acting white," and thereby sabotaging their own achievement.
That the evidence for both of these positions is utterly lacking makes little difference, it seems. After all, when one is saying what the Man wants to hear, the Man requires no footnotes or actual corroboration.
Black Consumption and the Myth of Black Profligacy
Arguments that support the dominant culture easily become popularized myths, bordering on legend, after which point they are almost impossible to assail. Black profligacy has pretty much attained that status, what with the regular portrayal of blacks as obsessed with "bling-bling," within mainstream TV and other media. While it would have been difficult for whites, on their own, to get away with presenting this one-dimensional, supersized cartoon of black spending, they have had help from folks like Yolanda Young. Young, like Elder and all the rest, is an African American who specializes in the kind of self-flagellating drivel that appeals to the sadistic side of white America's racism. We get a taste of her forthcoming book, SPADE: A Critical Look at Black America, in a recent USA Today article.
In her USA Today piece, Young claims that blacks have been spending exorbitant amounts of money lately, despite the tough economic times in which the larger black community finds itself. In other words, instead of rational belt tightening, African Americans have been going on a spending spree: the implication being either that black folks are irresponsible with their money, or at least that they are "motivated by a desire for instant gratification and social acceptance," caring more about their own selfish desires than "our future."
To back up her claims, Young turns to a group called Target Market, a company that tracks spending by black consumers. But a careful glance at the source of her claims makes it apparent that she is either incapable of interpreting basic data or that she deliberately deceives for political effect. In fact, not only do the figures from Target Market not suggest irresponsible spending by blacks in the face of a bad economy, they tend to suggest the opposite.
According to Young, blacks spent nearly $23 billion on clothes in 2002, and this, one presumes, is supposed to signal a level of irresponsible profligacy so obvious as to require no further context or clarification. But, in fact, the very tables on which Young bases her position indicate that from 2000 to 2002 (the period of a slowing economy), black expenditures on clothes fell by 7%, even before accounting for inflation. In other words, as the economy got worse, blacks reined in their consumption.
It's useful to watch how the pros at this dissing game make it work. Young consistently bases her arguments on raw numbers, counting on her readers to marvel at their size, while ignoring the comparative data that makes sense of those numbers. For example, Young tweaks blacks for spending $3.2 billion on consumer electronics, but fails to note that even before inflation, this is down roughly 16% from 2000, when blacks spent $3.8 billion on the same. She chastises her black brothers and sisters for spending $11.6 billion on furniture in 2002, but fails to note that black spending on furniture actually fell by 10%, even before inflation, and by 2002 was only a little higher in current dollars than it had been in 1996.
In other words, blacks did exactly what would make sense in a tightening economy: They spent less on the kinds of presumably frivolous items that Ms. Young claims her people just can't resist. Not so irresponsible after all, it seems.
Next, Young berates blacks for their consumption of cars and liquor, which she labels "our favorite purchases." Unfortunately, the "evidence" she marshals to support such silliness is embarrassingly weak. She notes that although blacks make up only 12% of the population, they account for 30% of the nation's scotch consumption. But what does that prove? It certainly says nothing about overall use of alcohol by blacks, which is actually quite low. Indeed, contrary to Young's claim, liquor is not among the favorite purchases of blacks, ranking instead behind 18 of the 25 categories listed in the tables from Target Market that she relied upon for her article.
In fact, in the past year alone black expenditures on alcoholic beverages fell by almost one-fourth, scotch consumption or no. And, of course, blacks spend far less than whites, per capita, on alcohol, and drink far less often and less heavily than whites according to all the available data from the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes on Drug Abuse and others.
As for cars, Young's "proof" of black profligacy in this area is limited to the fact that Lincoln had P. Diddy design a limited edition Navigator for them, with DVD players and plasma screens all around. And yet, the amount spent by African Americans (not P. Diddy, mind you, but the other 35 million or so black folks) on various vehicles still amounts to less than that spent, per capita, by whites, whose consumption of such items is roughly 27% higher that of blacks.
Race, Wealth and the Myth of Short-Term Orientation
Next, Young insists that blacks fail to save money the way whites do, the implication being that this – and not racism and unequal access to capital – explains the wealth gap between whites and African Americans.
Young cites the 2003 Black Investor Survey from Ariel Mutual Funds and Charles Schwab to suggest that black households with comparable upper-middle-class income to whites save nearly 20% less than whites for retirement. Furthermore, she notes, blacks are far less likely to invest in the stock market, thereby hindering their own ability to develop wealth. Yet a look at the Ariel/Schwab data – which itself is limited to 500 individuals with upper-level incomes from each racial group – indicates a far different set of conclusions than those reached by Young.
The report does suggest that whites are more likely to have an IRA than blacks. Yet it also reports that overall rates of retirement investment are essentially identical for whites and blacks: While 89% of whites have money in a retirement program, so do 85% of blacks.
As for the amounts of money being saved among this upper-income group, although whites do indeed save more, on average, the difference is not – according to the report itself – statistically significant. Indeed, whites are a third more likely than blacks to be saving nothing for retirement at this time, and roughly two-thirds of both groups are saving at least $100 or more monthly for retirement.
As for investments, while there are small differences between upper-income blacks and whites, the methodology of the Ariel/Schwab study makes it clear that those differences in monthly investments and savings are, once again, not statistically significant: amounting, as they do, to less than $60 per month.
This kind of "behavioral" gap hardly explains the fact that upper-income white households, on average, have about three times the net worth of upper-income black households. Instead, that is the residual effect of generations of racism that restricted the ability of blacks and other people of color to accumulate assets, while whites were allowed, encouraged and even subsidized to do the same.
While it is true that black investment in the stock market lags behind that of whites, the reasons for this can hardly be decoupled from the history of racism. After all, even upper-income blacks tend to have far less wealth to begin with than whites of similar income. As a result, the level of wealth they are willing to put at risk is going to be less than for those with more of it to spare.
Especially in the last few years, the volatility of the stock market has tended to scare away all but the most experienced investors, and certainly those whose assets are limited from the get-go. Surely, this describes much of black America, which has never had the excess wealth available to whites, that would allow them to roll the dice on Wall Street in the same way.
If black savings lag behind white, it is not because of black profligacy; it is because of a legacy of racism that left even well-to-do black families without the assets and resources of white families.
The Myth of Black Anti-Intellectualism
The second myth black conservatives love to promote is that blacks have not gotten ahead in the race of life because they devalue education. From Shelby Steele's early '90s bestseller The Content of Our Character to Berkeley linguist John McWhorter's near-hysterical rant in Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, right-wing black commentators have turned cocktail party chitchat into social science research for the sake of peddling the antiblack myth that blacks devalue education.
The evidence, of course, for those who still care about such things, reveals the duplicity of these hucksters in their crusade to blame blacks for their own academic and economic condition.
First, high school graduation rates for blacks and whites are today roughly equal to one another. In fact, as sociologist Dalton Conley demonstrates in his 1999 book, Being Black, Living in the Red, once family economic background is controlled for, blacks are actually more likely to finish high school than whites, and equally likely to complete college. In other words, whatever differences exist in black and white educational attainment are completely the result of blacks, on average, coming from lower-income families. Comparing whites and blacks of truly similar class status reveals greater or equal educational attainment for blacks.
Although it should hardly have been necessary – after all, the entire history of black America has been the history of attempting to access education even against great odds and laws prohibiting it – there have been a number of recent studies, all of which prove conclusively that blacks value education every bit as much as their white counterparts.
For example, a recent study conducted by the Minority Student Achievement Network looked at 40,000 students in grades seven through 11; it found little if any evidence that blacks placed lesser value on education than their white peers. Instead, they found that black males are more likely than white, Hispanic or Asian males to say that it is "very important" to study hard and get good grades; white males are the least likely to make this claim. The researchers also found that blacks were just as likely to study and work on homework as their white counterparts.
Even in high-poverty schools, disproportionately attended by inner-city students of color, attitudes towards schooling are far more positive than generally believed. Students in high-poverty schools are four-and-a-half times more likely to say they have a "very positive" attitude toward academic achievement than to say they have a "very negative" attitude, and 94% of all students in such schools report a generally positive attitude toward academics.
In their groundbreaking volume The Source of the River, social scientists Douglas Massey, Camille Charles, Garvey Lundy and Mary Fischer examine longitudinal data for students of different races who were enrolled in selective colleges and universities. Among the issues they explore is the degree to which differential performance among black and white students in college, in terms of grades, could be attributed to blacks or their families placing less value on academic performance than their white and Asian counterparts. After all, this claim has been made by some like McWhorter, Steele and a plethora of white reactionaries who seek to explain the persistent GPA gaps between blacks, in particular, and others in college.
What Massey and his colleagues discovered is that the black students had parents who were more likely than white or Asian parents to have helped them with homework growing up, more likely than white or Asian parents to have met with their teachers, equally likely to have pushed them to "do their best" in school, more likely than white parents to enroll their kids in educational camps, and equally or more likely to have participated in the PTA. Black students' parents were also more likely than parents of any other race to regularly check to make sure their kids had completed their homework and to reward their kids for good grades, while Asian parents were the least likely to do either of these.
Likewise, the authors of this study found that black students' peers in high school are more likely than white peers to think studying hard and getting good grades are important, and indeed white peers are the least likely to endorse these notions. Overall, the data suggests that if anything it is white peer culture that is overly dismissive of academic achievement, not black peer culture.
While many of these studies have focused on middle-class-and-above African-American families, and while it is certainly possible that lower-income and poor blacks may occasionally evince a negativity toward academics, this can hardly be considered a racial (as opposed to economic) response, since low-income whites often manifest the same attitudes.
What's more, such a response, though not particularly functional in the long term, is also not particularly surprising, seeing as how young people from low-income backgrounds can see quite clearly the ways in which education so often fails to pay off for persons like themselves.
After all, over the last few decades, black academic achievement has risen, and the gap between whites and blacks on tests of academic "ability" have closed, often quite dramatically. Yet during the same time, the gaps in wages between whites and blacks have often risen, sending a rather blatant message to persons of color that no matter how hard they work, they will remain further and further behind.
In other words, to the extent that blacks, to any real degree, occasionally manifest antieducation attitudes and behaviors, the question remains: Where did they pick up the notion that education was not for them?
Might they have gotten this impression from a curriculum that negates the full history of their people, and gives the impression that everything great, everything worth knowing about, came from white folks?
Might they have gotten this impression from the tracking and sorting systems that placed so many of them, irrespective of talent and promise, in remedial and lower-level classes, because indeed the teachers themselves presumed at some level that education-at least higher-level education-wasn't for them?
Might they have gotten this impression from the workings of the low-wage economy, into which so many of their neighbors and family members have been thrown – even those with a formal education?
Or, better yet, maybe they got this impression from the black conservatives who regularly bash them: people who demonstrate that an education doesn't necessarily make you smart after all.
Busting Up the Black Conservative Hustle
None of this is to say that the black con-artist conservatives are entirely irrational. After all, their hustle has paid enormous dividends. Black conservatives, by dint of their hard work on behalf of institutionalized white domination, have managed to obtain access to the halls of power, and even occasionally positions of power themselves. On the one hand, this kind of step'n fetchit routine can be lucrative and professionally rewarding: for those willing to play the game, or convince themselves of the beneficence of their white cocktail party friends, it can mean foundation grants, endowed chairs at right-wing think tanks, radio shows, syndicated columns and regular appearances on Fox.
But one thing it will likely never bring is acceptance from one's own community, and this self-exiled condition, combined with an eventual recognition that one is being used, can lead to near-complete personal and professional meltdowns.
Consider Glenn Loury, formerly a shining light in the black conservative firmament, who eventually came to the conclusion that his friends and supporters really didn't like black folks much. After all, the same conservatives at the Bradley Foundation who hawk vouchers in public school so as to "save black children" also helped fund the writing of The Bell Curve, which says, among other things, that there's pretty much nothing that can be done for black folks, due to their congenital predisposition to ignorance, sloth and crime. Enough of those contradictions, and even the most hardened black conservative may come around.
Or maybe not. But luckily there are antidotes to the hustle emanating forcefully from the black community, such as the hard-hitting commentary and exposes at the Black Commentator, which have skewered not only the voucher con, but also the individual players from Powell to Rice to lesser-known but rising figures on the black right. What they and the bulk of black America knows well, and what the rest of us must learn, is that the propaganda dispensed by black conservatives is not only poisonous in its implications, but it is based on utterly false analysis, distorted data and the hope on the part of its purveyors that the rest of us will never wise up to their game.
Hot chicks kicking celluloid ass are far from a new phenomenon. Varla, the outrageously busty, menacingly sexy antiheroine of Russ Meyer's seminal 1965 Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, isn't even the first in a long line of killer babes that includes the original Charlie's Angels, Alien's Ripley, Terminator 2's Sarah Connor, The Long Kiss Goodnight's Charly Baltimore, Buffy of vampire-slaying fame, Out of Sight's Karen Sisco, any number of Pam Grier characters and, of course, Thelma and Louise.
The past half-decade or so has yielded a particularly abundant crop: Tomb Raider's Lara Croft, Alias's Sydney Bristow, the new Charlie's Angels, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's double whammy of Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu, and, most recently (and, perhaps, spectacularly), Kill Bill's the Bride. Such images are becoming both more common – just look at the pileup since 2000 – and more mainstream. Varla and Foxy Brown kept company in the ghetto of exploitation, but Lara, Buffy and Syd have moved well beyond their culty roots. And as for Nat, Dylan and Alex, well, Charlie's Angels and its sequel grossed more than $490 million worldwide.
To put it bluntly, there's something going on in the culture that makes the Ass-Kicking Babe such a hot property. I would love to argue that we're seeing a feminist influence on the way that femaleness can now be combined with power. Unfortunately, I can't: These contemporary babes' uberfemininity combined with competence in hand-to-hand combat may be refreshingly free of Varla's dubious "my sexuality is out of control and can kill you" appeal, but that doesn't mean it equals a feminist statement. It's a cliche at this point to even mention the way that Lara Croft, in both her pixelated and Angelina Jolie incarnations, is little more than silicone-injected eye candy with which to decorate action sequences in a new way (or, conversely, that action sequences are simply replacing Playboy-style cheesy canopy beds as a new backdrop against which to view silicone-injected eye candy). She may be the most extreme example, but all these ladies traffic in a similar appeal: the too-obvious use of stereotypical ideals of attractiveness in order to camouflage their physically threatening nature.
So while this puts quite the fly in the feminist ointment, I'm not ready to count those AKBs out as my allies. Representational violence, for all its flaws, does have political promise. When we see fictional violent women, it forces a shift in our ideas of what women are capable of both in real life and onscreen. As Martha McCaughey points out in 1997's Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women's Self-Defense, "Self-defense disrupts the gender ideology that makes men's violence against women seem inevitable." Thelma and Louise, for example, presented a vision of behavior that was both inspiring and deeply satisfying to a large number of viewers: Someone rapes you? Shoot the asshole. Criminally underseen independent films like Freeway and Girls Town went a step further to explore not just the power of fighting back, but the potential effect of conscious alliances among women willing to do physical harm to rapists and other abusers.
Then there's the way in which filmic violence acts as a response to the history of represented femininity – it asserts that our bodies are about more than passivity and display. Plus, it's an expression of anger that is all too often culturally trained out of us. Last but certainly not least is another of McCaughey's points: " The presumed inability to fight in part defines heterosexual femininity." As should be obvious, anything that can fuck with the culturally normative straight girl is a useful tool.
But, as should be equally obvious, cultural norms tend to fight back. It's no coincidence that the recent depictions of violent women onscreen have been accompanied by a refiguring of the catfight. Women are fighting more on film, yet they are increasingly fighting not male evildoers but one another.
Furthermore, such images take the AKB's sexualization to a whole new level. In the same way that "lesbian" porn made by and for straight men (you know, those movies featuring fake-titted high femmes with long, long fingernails) turns the notion of an autonomous female sexuality into a display dependent upon and intended for male consumption, today's increasingly common type of filmic catfight turns women's anger and violence into a show for the boys.
This is partly due to the problem I've already mentioned, that any woman with the physical characteristics necessary to be entrusted with headlining a Hollywood film will generally be considered "hot" by most male viewers; however, that's far from the end of the story. Girl-on-girl violence borrows not just its raison d'etre but its visual cues and costumes from the world of pornography. Evidence of this connection abounds. My video store has a shelf full of bikini-wrestling titles (FYI, it's right below the Russ Meyer section and to the left of the actual porn), which feature '80s-style starlet wannabes in "bouts" choreographed to get legs splayed, crotches grinding and bikini tops ripped off. AKBs love to do things like jump from rooftops while wearing stilettos, and their directors love to include foot-level closeups of the landing. In the neonoirsploitation Wild Things, Denise Richards' attempt to drown Neve Campbell, her partner in crime (and threesomes), culminates in face-caressing, finger-sucking and hot-and-heavy smooching.
The result is hobbled potential, a visual library with the political potential leached out in favor of cheap sex. What could emerge alive and kicking to channel women's anger ends up stillborn. Nowhere is this clearer than in the phenom's most prominent example, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. In their second outing, Nat (Cameron Diaz), Dylan (Drew Barrymore) and Alex (Lucy Liu) find themselves up against former Angel Madison Lee (Demi Moore) – and pornographic iconography pervades the film from its opening scene to its, um, climax. The opening set piece alone – Diaz, dressed in pigtails and a white fur-trimmed snowsuit, spouting faux-naivete in a Swedish accent and riding a mechanical bull; butch, card-playing Barrymore; Liu clad in a leather catsuit and stilettos – would be porno enough to make my argument. (Let's not forget that Swedish girls are a porn class all by themselves.) But that is literally just the beginning. We get Diaz and Moore in bikinis, leaning in to each other in an almost-kiss. We get Moore in a fur coat, bra and panty set, heels and a gun. We get the Angels fighting their final confrontation in a leather jacket and pants with a studded belt (Barrymore), low-riders with an off-the-shoulder midriff shirt that laces up the sides (Diaz) and a tiny skirt with fishnets and a little leather top (Liu).
But it's not just the costume choices that echo dirty movies; the film's precisely choreographed nature (featuring fight scenes that mimic sex acts) and its reliance on set pieces – including one that puts our gals on the stage of a retro-Teutonic burlesque strip bar – reveal a structural similarity to porn that can't be ignored. The "plot" here is nothing more than a thin glue to hold these pieces together so audience members can pretend they're watching for reasons other than pure gratification of the senses. And then there's the money shot: When Moore is finally vanquished, she falls through the floor of the final battleground, breaking a pipe as she goes and causing a spectacular ejaculation of water.
By comparison, Kill Bill has genuinely entered new territory, managing to dodge many of the gendered pitfalls that plague other AKB vehicles. Most superficially, the styling choices make clear that this is no jigglefest. While of course Uma Thurman, Vivica Fox, Daryl Hannah and Lucy Liu are still Babes, Tarantino doesn't put them in anything resembling the Angels' skin-baring low rider/halter ensembles or Alias's undercover-girl fetishware-inspired getups. Instead of stilettos and skintight leather pants, there's an iconic yellow tracksuit. When the Bride (Uma Thurman) fights, she gets disheveled, dirty and bloody. She's more about acting than appearing. (The Angels, even when they're acting, are really just appearing.)
Perhaps most refreshing is the way that gender often doesn't matter. It's ridiculous that we have to feel grateful for this at all, but when gender so consistently determines the range of female characters' motion and emotion, a celluloid scenario in which this isn't the case is to be treasured. Take, for example, the Bride's encounter with famed swordmaker-turned-sushi-chef Hattori Hanzo. A lifetime of filmgoing has prepped the viewer for a "what's a nice girl like you doing looking for a sword like that?" reaction to the Bride's request for Hanzo steel – but it never comes.
Furthermore, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 successfully gets at some of the powerful potential that screen violence holds. As the Bride lies supposedly helpless in her hospital bed, attendant/rapist Buck prepares to pimp out her unconscious body as he has presumably been doing without consequence for years; instead of a cheap thrill, the rapist/customer gets a grisly death, as does Buck. And then there's schoolgirl-turned-assassin Go Go Yubari. In her pigtails, short skirt and kneesocks, she embodies a pornographic icon even more common than the Swedish girl. The film itself, however, refuses pornographic logic even as it deploys the iconography: Witness Go Go sitting at a bar engaging in a grotesque mock flirtation with a drunk guy who's drooling all over her. After she not-so-coyly asks him if he wants to fuck her, and he admits that he does – perhaps thinking that she's making an offer, as she would be if this scene were taking place in a porno – she sticks a knife in his gut. Like Thelma and Louise's rape-revenge shooting, this is both a powerful reply to film history and a viscerally satisfying moment for many in the audience.
Unfortunately, Vol. 2 manages to turn the Bride into a different but equally overused feminine archetype – not porn star but fierce mama, fighting to protect her family. The film's second half reveals that it was the Bride's thwarted maternal instincts that set in motion the chain of events leading to her desire to kill Bill in the first place; its coda ensconces her and the kid in a tidy little mother-daughter dyad, sans threatening violence. It shores up this use of the maternal by reproducing the powerful fiction that women share a transcendent bond of sisterhood stemming from their potential to bear children: Just after the Bride has discovered that she's pregnant, a rival assassin shows up to prevent her from finishing her next assignment. The Bride saves her own life by pleading for that of her unborn child.
The simplistic questions to ask are if these images make for good role models, and whether they're good or bad for feminism. But what we need aren't better role models, or images that can easily be labeled "good" or "bad." Once pornographic iconography thoroughly saturates women's film violence, we'll be stuck with that tired old depoliticized sexualization clouding our vision whenever we watch it. What we need is substance beyond the pornographic. What we need are conceptions of female violence that preserve the potential of the threat that our rage and our power represent.
Since 1887, the U.S. government has been entitled to lease Indian lands and utilize their natural resources for everything from logging and mining to grazing cattle to pumping oil.
Today, the government does a brisk business in leasing, as royalties from the use of the land add up to more than $1 billion annually.
According to the Interior Department's own figures, 56 million acres of Indian land are now held in "trust" by the U.S. government, which is charged with redistributing most of those royalties to the individuals and tribes whose lands are being leased. Altogether, the Department of the Interior manages over 100,000 leases for approximately 236,000 Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders--in addition to 1,400 tribal accounts.
Individuals and tribes alike depend on these trust fund disbursements for rent, food, and the basic operation of social services in Indian Country.
The problem: Sometimes those checks arrive, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the checks might arrive for hundreds or thousands of dollars, and sometimes those checks might only amount to pennies on the dollar. On Indian reservations, the problem has reached crisis levels; a check written out for a smaller amount than expected--or no check at all--can mean the difference between housing and homelessness.
All the while, the Interior Department's officials have made it clear that they're not sure how to fix a broken trust disbursement system, much less how much money is missing, or where the missing funds have gone. For their part, lawyers representing hundreds of thousands of Indians in the largest-ever class-action lawsuit against the government have put the cumulative total at $137.2 billion owed.
No matter what the final figure, there's no doubt that the nation's single most impoverished ethnic group could use a bit of that cash.
It's for this reason that a group representing 300,000 Indian plaintiffs have spent the last six years trying to get the Interior Department to account for all the money that they are owed. The plaintiffs, led by Elouise Cobell, an outspoken female banker and member of the Blackfoot Nation, insist that the Interior Department's officials and employees have broken the "trust" relationship between Indian people and the Federal Government, and are therefore neither fit nor equipped to continue overseeing the vast sums.
Even the federal judge overseeing this landmark case, Cobell v. Norton, has called the BIA the most "historically mismanaged federal program" in the U.S. In February 2002, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth had these, sharp words for the Interior Department and Secretary Gale Norton: "[T]he department has now undeniably shown that it can no longer be trusted to state accurately the status of its trust reform efforts. In short, there is no longer any doubt that the secretary of the Interior has been and continues to be an unfit trustee-delegate for the United States."
In November 2001, when Gale Norton became the second consecutive Interior Secretary to face contempt charges in a federal court for failing to provide an accounting of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) management of IIM accounts, its unlikely she or her co-defendant, former BIA director Neal McCaleb, a Chickasaw Indian, anticipated the emotional force and organizational unity of her detractors.
Both Norton and McCaleb were held in contempt in September 2002 for failing to heed the court's orders to fix trust oversight problems. (McCaleb, the nation's highest-ranking American Indian, resigned three months later, citing the "contentious and litigious environment" ahead of him.)
Norton and McCaleb were not the first government officials to be held in contempt for the handling of Indian trust monies: President Clinton's Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin had his turn at this dubious honor as well. Government officials who let down their constituencies and mismanage millions should be held accountable.
For the Interior Department, the accounting and management of the IIM trust fund has been an exercise in acronyms.
From the perspective of the department, Secretaries Babbitt and Norton have legitimately tried a variety of approaches to reconcile and improve a broken system as quickly as possible .
On January 6, 2003, the Interior Department met a court-imposed "compliance plan" deadline, assuring the court that it took the responsibility of meeting the conditions of the 1994 American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act (ITRA) seriously.
The 16-page document (intended to demonstrate to the court what kind of progress the Interior had made in meeting its fiduciary trust obligations) announced a reorganization within the BIA and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. According to the document, the Interior was also undergoing a "reengineering of Interior's trust business processes" and the implementation of a strategic plan formerly known as the Indian Trust Business Plan, and now entitled the Comprehensive Trust Management Plan (CTMP).
The CTMP, in turn, would be administered under the "leadership of the Office of Indian Trust Transition (OITT)."
After a while, the Interior's proclivity for the use of acronyms, appointed offices and grand restructuring plans begins to jumble together into a steaming, swirling bowl of alphabet soup.
In 2001, Norton had already proposed the creation of a new agency, the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM), to manage IIM accounts. Tribal leaders chafed at not being consulted about her plans, but BITAM remained the Interior's buzzword will into 2002.
In the spring of 2001, Norton proclaimed the staffing of a new division, the Office of Historical Trust Accounting (OHTA), which was supposed to perform a limited accounting of owed trust monies. But in a July 2002 Report to Congress on the Historical Accounting of Individual Indian Money Accounts, the dozens of employees and contract workers hired to work in the office concluded that it would take them 10 years and $2.5 billion to actually do that job. And even then, they admitted, such research and accounting would not necessarily produce usable results.
Similar examples of expenditure without result riddle the Interior's recent history. Thirty million dollars spent on data cleanup, for instance, resulted in a computer specialist's admission, in court, that he could not certify that a single account had been cleaned up despite the fact that tens of millions had already been spent.
In their own "Compliance Action Plan" submitted to Judge Lamberth on January 6, 2003, Cobell and her peers point out that the government now has a genuine opportunity to redeem itself to Indian trust beneficiaries by taking quick and decisive action.
In doing so, plaintiffs took the opportunity to excoriate the Interior Department's tactics: "[The] defendants are forever reorganizing themselves, moving organizational boxes around on a chart, devising new acronyms, and renaming tasks and entities in deeper and deeper bureaucratic jargon in a pathetic effort to create the phony impression of, if not progress, at least movement."
Unwilling to wait for the Interior to make real progress, the plaintiffs asked Judge Lamberth to consider their own proposal: Take trust management out of the hands of the Interior altogether. Key to the proposal is the idea that the IIM trust accounts should immediately be taken over by an "unconflicted" trust administration solely devoted to fixing and administering the trust debacle.
Cobell and lead attorneys from the Native American Rights Fund have emphasized that such an administration, made up of non-governmental employees, and funded with permanent appropriations, could hire the competent staff and supervisors necessary to ensure the proper management of trust money.
As Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians told the New York Times in early January, "This isn't taxpayer money. This is our money that the government took, and they have to give it back."
Because of their statistically small numbers, the majority of congressional representatives outside of states like South Dakota, New Mexico and Arizona can safely ignore all but the most cursory issues pertaining to the modern struggles of American Indians. For U.S. politicians, the benefits of pushing for meaningful reform of federal Indian policy are negligible.
Between American politicians whose interest in Indians is tangential and inconsistent, and a majority non-Indian citizenry whose awareness of Indian realities is minimal, at best, the categorical failings of the BIA and Interior Department are simply allowed to pile up, year by year.
"Where has Congress been while this mugging has gone on for nearly six years?," asked Cobell of the House Resources Committee in 2002.
One saving grace has been increased attention from Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Tom Daschle (D-SD), and Tim Johnson (D-SD), who introduced S. 2212, the "Indian Trust Asset and Trust Fund Management and Reform Act" in April 2002.
The "discussion" bill--so entitled to encourage comment and modification, as warranted--focuses on the creation of a Deputy Secretary for Trust Management and Reform, and specific provisions for tribal participation and self-determination in the trust reform process.
"There is no more important challenge facing the tribes and their representatives in Congress than that of restoring accountability and efficiency to trust management," said Sen. Daschle when the bill was introduced.
Added Sen. Johnson, "Of all the extraordinary circumstances we find in Indian Country ... I do not think there is any more complex, more difficult and more shocking than the circumstances we have surrounding trust fund mismanagement."
But what happens from here, of course, is anybody's guess.
Will the Interior Department continue to invent an endless stream of new proposals and official acronyms to conveniently skirt their fiduciary obligations? At least in the near future, such a strategy seems likely, even predictable.
Will Cobell and her fellow plaintiffs eventually wear the government down? Anything is possible. Even now, signs are emerging that the White House itself wants to push the Interior Department to settle to prevent the additional costs of further litigation, as noted in a June 2001 letter from the Office of Management and Budget to the Interior Secretary.
But such settlement seems furthest from the Interior's agenda. J. Steven Griles, Deputy Interior Secretary, had this to say to the New York Times: "I am not settling a case with taxpayer money for billions of dollars when there is no supporting evidence that the money they say they lost ever existed."
In fact, a critical June 2002 report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) seemed to point toward the Department's "bunker mentality" where trust reform is concerned. "The Cobell litigation has so embroiled and angered those involved that they cannot see or think clearly in order to make a correct decision," as the OIG reported. "Every effort is thwarted by internal discord, distrust and a dysfunctional reluctance to assume ownership."
And so while a legitimate accounting of monies owed by the Interior becomes less and less likely, hundreds of thousands of Indians continue to go without what they're owed.
From the standpoint of Indian trust account holders, the trust debacle is but the latest insult in what amounts to a historical miscarriage of decency and justice toward the descendants of America's first inhabitants.
"Many of the intractable problems the tribes and federal policy makers wrestle with today stem from the wreckage caused by these misguided policies of the past," Senator John McCain noted while introducing S. 2212 last year.
"It took over 100 years to create the problems we now confront with the Indian trust funds and assets," he added. "The Indian people did not create these problems. The Federal Government did."
Silja Talvi and Brian Awehali are the editors of LiP Magazine.
"One of the things that is just difficult to overlook as a criminologist ... is that criminal justice policy in the U.S. is about race," says Welch. "Most anyone who has really examined the situation has reached that conclusion."
An author of several books addressing issues of social control and the criminalization of protest, Welch began to take an interest in a growing trend: the detention of undocumented immigrants in the early 1990s.
In 2001, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spent roughly $900 million on costs related to the detention of immigrants. And those figures are only likely to grow in the aftermath of 9-11, particularly as the widespread arrests and detentions of immigrants have saddled the agency with additional responsibilities it seems ill-equipped to handle.
In this exclusive interview, Silja Talvi talks with Professor Welch about his new book, Detained: Immigration Laws and the Expanding I.N.S. Complex, and explores how anti-immigrant sentiment--and crisis legislation--feeds off ethnic stereotyping, notions of cultural supremacy, and moral panic.
LiP: Criminal justice and corrections have been your areas of expertise for some time now. Given the plethora of criminal justice issues in the U.S., why did you decide to focus on immigrants?
MW: As an expert in incarceration, I was puzzled that other criminologists were not taking a look at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), since they were really running their own incarceration project ... it's an incarceration phenomenon that should be taken seriously. The INS is not even conforming to the Bureau of Prisons in terms of their standards of confinement. So I approached the study of the detention of immigrants from the point of view of a criminalization campaign, that being an immigrant or an undocumented foreigner in the U.S. is one that's been framed along the lines of criminal justice. It has criminalized these people and their situations, and by incarcerating them they're reinforcing the notion that these people belong behind bars.
In a nutshell, my approach to this is two-fold: It's an examination of the criminalization process and it's also an examination of how this process is racialized.
LiP: Are certain groups of immigrants treated differently by the INS?
MW: What is going on in the INS--which parallels other forms of racial profiling--is that [they are relying on] constructs that are based on stereotypes.
Back in the 1920s, Walter Lippman and said that stereotypes are pictures in our heads, and those pictures in our head correspond to profiling ... These are constructs developed to suggest that these people are menacing and can be easily generalized because they're reinforced by old, tired stereotypes ...
So when you ask people about illegal immigrants, they think primarily of Central Americans, Africans, Mexicans, Chinese, but they don't often think of Irish, Canadians, Austrians, or the English. These are constructs being based on stereotypes of what the problem is ... and the problem has a face, and the face is that of a non-white immigrant. There's enormous uneven treatment of the "illegal alien." There's greater public concern over "non-whites" than there are of "white" immigrants.
I draw a lot of parallels to the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs is putting more cops in bad neighborhoods, focusing on guys selling $3 rocks. They're not busting in the doors of wealthy, middle-income residents who are engaged in the recreational use of cocaine.
LiP: How do the conditions of confinement differ in INS facilities from those of prisons?
MW: Overall, the conditions of confinement are not great, and in some cases, they are abysmal. It's inherent in the problem of farming out detainees. The INS only has so much room or capacity to house their detainees, so they've embarked on this huge, complex system of utilizing as many as 900 county jails, state prisons, and private facilities. [Detainees are welcomed] because the INS pays twice the rate.
They're being detained while their hearings are being processed. By and large, they're not being detained for reasons of flight, because the INS knows that these people are not going to flee. These people want their day in court. Secondarily, the INS knows that these immigrants are not a threat to the community, because if they had committed a criminal offense, they would be processed through the criminal justice system.
The housing of them in county jails and other prison facilities only reinforces the criminalization process. Because once they're in the county jail, those who work in the jail don't know who their [captives] are. Prisoners have to obey the rules, regardless of their circumstances.
So on the one hand, you have conditions that aren't great, but anyone who has been locked up knows that being confined is really next to torture and death. Locking someone up is arguably one of the worst things a human being can do to another.
We're locking up people who don't need to be locked up ... we have a culture that has a very cavalier attitude toward locking people up ... in an effort to avoid complex issues. This is particularly atrocious when you consider that we do the same for asylum seekers. I refer to a couple of cases in my book about the survivors of torture who are detained in county jails, and who don't understand the language, or the nature of the situation. You can imagine the terror that these people experience.
Overall, things aren't great. And especially in light of the alternatives, which are to release them into the community, allowing them to continue to work, support their families and relatives, and reduce the financial burden on the INS and the taxpayers.
LiP: In conducting your research into the treatment of immigrants and the implementation of immigration laws for this book, what findings or themes surprised you the most?
MW: Nothing really surprised me as much as confirmed a lot of my suspicions ... The situation for the INS detainees is in large part because the INS really doesn't know what's happening to their [detainees]. And I don't think they really care ... they seem to have the approach that if there's a problem, there will eventually be a criminal investigation, and then they'll look into it.
[My research also] confirmed the central component of race. Racializing the phenomenon also makes it a little bit easier to live with the situation facing immigrants if you're a mainstream white American. If we were mistreating middle income white people the same way in immigrant detention or in the criminal justice system ... there would be moral outrage.
I think we still live in a racial hierarchy and non-whites are criminalized very easily if they have a minor brush with the criminal justice system. Individual acts are very easily seen as emblematic of that person and their [ethnicity] ... And the more the INS looks like a criminal justice system, the more socially acceptable it is for the agency to continue to rely on incarceration and detention.
LiP: On any given day, how many people are being held in INS detention?
MW: In my book, I offer the estimates from a couple of agencies, including the INS. And the ballpark figure is roughly 24,000 people, including juveniles.
LiP: In the past, the anti-immigration movement has easily been categorized as a partisan issue spearheaded by political conservatives. But you make the case that the growing national trend of detaining and deporting "undesirable" immigrants has drawn supporters from both parties, from conservatives and self-described liberals alike. What's given rise to this kind of bipartisan anti-immigrant sentiment?
MW: The debate over immigration is a very complex one.
You will have, on the one hand, some political leaders who talk the talk that we're a nation of immigrants and we should adhere to the principles of accommodating new arrivals. Once you see who they favor in terms of restrictions and enforcement--I'm speaking in general terms--it's often that they change their tune. Then instead of immigration, it's a criminal justice or a national security issue.
LiP: And were those some of the arguments that were being made in 1996 when the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) were signed into law during Clinton's presidency?
MW: Yes. There were rumblings years before that, when the World Trade Center was first bombed in 1993. That contributed to the stereotype that immigrants--especially from the Middle East--were terrorists. And that was a slow burning issue that then escalated with the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
LiP: Even though that had nothing to do with immigrants whatsoever ...
LiP: As I recall, within minutes, reporters and commentators on television news were speculating that Middle Eastern Muslims were involved ...
MW: Absolutely. In fact after McVeigh was apprehended, there were many journalists who were still writing that we had the wrong guy; that a white guy who served in the Persian Gulf War could not be responsible for this, and that it had to be a [foreign] terror network.
LiP: You write in Detained about the "moral panic" that has contributed to a "disaster mentality" about immigration, including refugees and asylum-seekers who now seem to elicit little sympathy compared with decades past.
Could you expand on the concept of America's "moral panic" where immigrants are concerned? If there's no real threat to our societal values and interests, why the hysteria?
MW: Moral panic is a sociological theory that I borrow from British criminology in the 1960s. Moral panic refers to a turbulent and exaggerated response to a social problem. The disaster mentality component of moral panic draws attention to a sense of urgency, and that's why moral panic or hysteria over any given issue explains why it so easily and quickly manifests in legislation and social policy. It's easy to pass legislation when people are worried sick ...
Moral panic is a construct that helps us understand how that anxiety is experienced at the collective level. The disaster mentality is easily seen in the rhetoric used by politicians ... and they contribute to a sense of urgency that something has to be done now.
LiP: And where immigrants are concerned, how is that sense of urgency or disaster mentality being manipulated?
MW: Let's go back to the internment of Japanese Americans. You probably couldn't find a more docile group than Japanese Americans in the 1940s. They cooperated with the internment, they lost their homes and businesses, and they were still demonized by American citizens and political and military leaders.
Nowadays, with the roundup of Arabs and Muslims, the experience very closely parallels the interment of Japanese Americans. They are people who are easy to identify, and easy to dislike. They're non-white non-Christians in a prevailing American culture that places great emphasis on whiteness and Christianity ...
Along with the racial component, the religious component is very difficult to overlook. They're not rounding up Presbyterians.
LiP: You've stated that mass arrests and the continued practice of detention of immigrants actually erodes the efforts to try to track down terrorists hiding out in the U.S. How so?
MW: The government inadvertently defeats its own policies and practices by resorting to tactics that erode public trust.
The INS is an agency that has two mandates: on the one hand it has to coercively control people and on the other, it has to control people in less coercive manners--providing services and helping them pursue naturalization and so on.
In the specific case of the "war against terror," those policymakers continue to make public announcements that citizens should be mindful of suspicious activity. Now the only people who can really detect suspicious activity by other immigrants are people who live in those communities.
And so that's one of the great ironies of this kind of social control; it erodes the cooperation of these immigrant communities. Those who have access to attorneys are unwilling to cooperate with the government without their attorneys present. This turns the whole process into an adversarial relationship.
When a government sets out to interview thousands of young Arab Muslim men, I think that they're publicly announcing that they don't have a lot to go on and that they're embarking on a fishing expedition ... we don't have a lot of clues, so let's go after everybody. And that exhausts resources.
When you tell law enforcement agencies that they have to round up this many people rather than honing their investigation, they're going to spend a lot of time dealing with people with minor visa violations who are not a threat to the community. Those cases still have to be investigated, reported, written up, and [that's less] time to pursue concrete clues. It strikes me as a very large, very poorly guided fishing expedition.
LiP: In the December 2001 Los Angeles mass detention, the INS apparently rounded up at least a few Iraqi and Iranian Jews ...
MW: The code word is "Middle Easterner," for sure.
I think that's a dark side of American culture. America is really globally isolated by two oceans--and really doesn't care what happens to the south or north of us. We're really culturally disinterested in other people and other languages and other religions and philosophies.
Anything that is different than us is experienced as something bad. That's a concept that sociologists use called ethnocentrism: looking at our culture from a point of view of superiority.
LiP: Some European legislators have made the case that although a kind of moral panic may exist--whether about terrorism or some other form of crime--that their legislation does not move as quickly through their parliaments as our legislation can move through Congress--and therefore the issues involved receive far more consideration.
MW: The response to September 11th is found in European legislation as well. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have followed such legislation very closely--those laws that have made it easier for the authorities to detain foreign nationals. In many ways, these laws resemble the USA PATRIOT Act. The United States is not alone in this regard.
Moral panic is a phenomenon that can and does take place in other countries and societies. But back to your point about European politics ... What you do find in Western Europe is that the parliamentary system is one that has many divergent voices of labor, conservatives, the Greens, and they have to work together as a coalition.
The European Union as well as the UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany have passed legislation similar to the USA PATRIOT Act, but generally, their laws are developed with a little bit more consideration because you have so many different voices that must be heard. I think that if we had more political choice in the U.S., we wouldn't have such bad legislation ...
LiP: In August 2001 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report about the treatment of immigrants since 9/11, noting that the Justice Dept. "flouted regular procedures" to keep non-citizens in the custody of the INS on the off-chance that they would be linked to terrorist activities.
These practices are considered a form of "preventative detention", according to HRW. In your opinion, is this an accurate assessment of what's going on?
MW: The work of Human Rights Watch is profoundly important. They do really terrific work ... They know what they're doing and they don't back down. They are one of many human rights groups that have added significantly to a larger resistance against these policies.
In terms of preventative detention, I'm don't think that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sees it as a form of preventative detention. My sense is that this is such a large dragnet that I find it hard to believe that the DOJ believes that everyone they detain is a potential risk. I think that they've dragged the net so broadly that they know that they're picking up people that don't belong in that net. That's their own flawed program for law enforcement.
What I see going on is the INS and law enforcement agencies just rounding people up. They don't know who they're picking up. It could be a Christian from India, or a Sikh. They don't care. They're not providing evidence to justify these detentions.
The DOJ has taken a very strong stand on protecting its secrecy. This is the most secretive administration in recent memory ...
While there are some people who are being individually targeted, on the whole, I think that they're just rounding people up. For instance, inviting all those eligible to adjust their status at an INS office, and then handcuffing them and carting them off.
I'm not critical of the use of the term "preventative detention," but I see it more as a roundup than a selective process. It's a roundup that is driven by race and perceptions of religion.
LiP: What about "indefinite" and "secret" detention? Before 9-11, hadn't the Supreme Court ruled that indefinite detentions were, in fact, unconstitutional?
Are substantial numbers of immigrants being treated this way in the U.S.? And if so, how is this legal?
MW: You're absolutely right ... The "Ma decision" (ed: a Supreme Court ruling on two related cases, Zadvydas v. Davis and Ashcroft v. Ma), applied to Vietnamese, Cubans, Palestinians, Cambodians and others who were considered undeportable "lifers" in the INS detention facilities because their countries of origin would not take them back.
In the Ma decision, the Supreme Court ... ruled that the INS could no longer hold these men indefinitely, and that they must be released. Here we are, a year and a half later, and most of them are still behind bars. So, even though the highest court in the land has ruled against the executive branch, those who are locked up are at the mercy of the government. The judiciary has a difficult time getting immigrants released, and has cited the Ashcroft administration's failure to comply with court orders. So, the law of the land has been changed in terms of indefinite detention but these guys are still locked up.
That's one of the dangers of bad legislation. Very often, Americans have a cavalier attitude toward legislation, thinking that if it really becomes bad enough, we can change it by taking it to the courts. But federal and state legislatures do not have good records of changing their own bad policies ... and in the meantime, what do you tell people who are sitting in [indefinite detention]?
LiP: Did the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act make the use of secret evidence and indefinite detentions even easier for Ashcroft and law enforcement officials?
MW: Yes. We can expect a Supreme Court decision this term, maybe as early as May, on an attempt to settle on the use of secret evidence.
A Cincinnati Court ruled against the Ashcroft policy, starting that [the DOJ] didn't have the authority to engage in secret hearings. The Philadelphia decision said that, for the most part, the US Attorney General should not engage in secret evidence and hearings, but under certain circumstances, he could.
LiP: You've argued that the incarceration of immigrants is the next, highly profitable frontier for private corrections companies like Wackenhut and CCA, among others.
Advocates of privatization would argue that privately-run facilities save taxpayers money while abiding by INS regulations about the treatment of immigrants. Why should Americans be concerned if private companies are getting into the business of detaining refugees and immigrants?
MW: First of all, we should confront the myth that privatization saves money. The books of these private correctional facilities have been examined by the General Accounting Office and other agencies, and there is not a savings passed onto taxpayers.
This goes back to government accountability. We're allowing government to abdicate its responsibility to care for and house people that the government detains, and passing it onto the lowest bidder. We're passing this problem into an economic framework that is driven by revenue and maximizing profits.
The detainees are raw materials, and correctional companies have to cut operational costs, and cutting operational costs is a code word for reducing labor costs. So they hire the fewest number of corrections officers and they compete against the fast food industry for workers. These are not professionally trained corrections officers who see themselves as career officersincluding the many whom I've known at correctional facilities around the country. These are people who have a job for $5.50-$7.00 an hour. They think, "My job is to make sure that these guys don't leave and are kept in line." That's the economic environment in which these detainees are being placed.
Cutting corners, in some cases that I documented in my book, are even done in terms of food. Detainees left to fight for food. Or, in some cases, cutting corners means reducing clothing. One of the institutions that I discuss in my book ... in there, during the cold weather, they decided that the detainees are not allowed to go outside because company would have to purchase coats.
It contributes to the dehumanizing process of being detained. They're being criminalized and treated as lawbreakers. Compounding matters, they're treated as raw material there to generate revenue.
LiP: What hopes do you have, if any, of the restructuring of the INS under the new Department of Homeland Security? Are you optimistic about the upcoming split of enforcement and service responsibilities where immigrants are concerned?
MW: One bright spot--and I'm very cautious in my optimism--is the plan to move juveniles into another agency, the Office of Refugee Settlement in the Department of Health and Human Services. That's one positive thing. The other split between enforcement and service, we'll have to see how that unfolds.
The whole dual mandate has been a problem from the beginning. The lion's share of resources and interests go into law enforcement, in effect compromising services to immigrants who are entitled to them.
Still, it's a step in the right direction. I don't think that necessarily means that life is going to be easier for immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. I think things will remain difficult for these populations ... There have been some steps in right direction, but I think that until we really democratize our government, poor people, racial and ethnic minorities will be discriminated against. The problems that we see in the INS are reflective of larger social problems.
Democracy is a rough-and-tumble form of social and human organization. It's not for the squeamish. And that's the brilliance of democracy, that is has diversity. It has divergent points of view. I quote Nat Hentoff in my work--he's a great constitutional journalist--and he says that the First Amendment gives you the right to tell people what they don't want to hear, and that's the nature of democracy.
Imposing secret hearings and secret detentions is undemocratic. We should demand that the government be accountable and tell us who they've locked up. Where are they and what are the circumstances?
Silja J.A. Talvi is a freelance journalist and winner of the first-place magazine feature writing award from the Western Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that someone as oft-quoted as Martin Luther King Jr., might occasionally have his words misinterpreted, misunderstood, or taken out of context. King's status as something of a secular saint only magnifies the willingness and desire of writers, academics, political commentators, and elected officials to expropriate King's words to advance one or another agenda.
Nowhere is the tendency to "play the King card" more apparent than in the claim by dozens of contemporary writers and theorists that King's principal goal was "color-blindness" and that he viewed the development of such a legally codified visual disability as the avenue by which racism would best be attacked.
To support this view, these writers rely principally on one line, from one speech--and it's not only the most famous line delivered by King, but also one of the few most folks have probably heard: namely, the one from the 1963 March on Washington, wherein King proclaimed his "dream" that one day persons "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
For many, this is proof that King, were he alive today, would oppose race-conscious policies like affirmative action, since, after all, such efforts require targeted outreach, recruitment, and hiring goals for people of color previously locked out of opportunity in education, employment, and contracting.
Shelby Steele, in his 1990 best-seller "The Content of Our Character" presents a harsh critique of affirmative action efforts, claiming they have "done more harm than good" and implying that King would agree. Steele seeks to prove this not only with reference to the Dream speech, but also by recounting a 1964 presentation in which King implored black youth to "run faster" to get ahead: the implication being that King was an apostle of self-help and hostile to special efforts to provide full opportunities to people of color.
Clint Bolick--one of the leading critics of affirmative action--writes in his 1996 book, "The Affirmative Action Fraud," that King did not seek "special treatment" for blacks, and, as with Steele, mentions the "content of their character" remark as justification for his position. Tamar Jacoby, in her 1998 offering "Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration," says King's "dream" was color-blindness. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, in "America in Black and White," make the same claim as part of their critique of race-conscious programs, as do Terry Eastland, in "Ending Affirmative Action," and Paul Sniderman and Edward Carmines, in "Reaching Beyond Race," who say "the civil rights movement...took as its ideal a truly colorblind society, where, as Martin Luther King Jr. prophesied, our children would be judged..." by you know what.
Even writers not particularly hostile to affirmative action often make the same argument. Consider John David Skrentny's historical survey of race-conscious programs, "The Ironies of Affirmative Action," in which the author writes: "Martin Luther King believed in color-blindness and...also sensed that affirmative action would be counterproductive to the long-range goals of civil rights groups."
Similarly, Richard Kahlenberg--whose book "The Remedy" calls for a reorientation of affirmative action from a race to a class focus--argues the move to race-conscious affirmative action was a "changed direction" by the civil rights movement, after King's assassination, and that this shift has pushed America "further than ever from King's vision of a color-blind society."
Perhaps the most extensive articulation of the notion that the modern civil rights movement has betrayed King by supporting affirmative action comes from Dinesh D'Souza in his 1995 book "The End of Racism."
D'Souza says affirmative action "seems to be a repudiation of King's vision, in that it involves a celebration and affirmation of group identity." He then claims "black leaders are the strongest opponents of King's principles," which he defines as the doctrine that "race should be ignored and we should be judged on our merits as persons." Oddly enough, despite the faint praise for King's "vision," as he understands it, D'Souza then calls for the repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguably the crowning legislative achievement of the movement King led.
Yet, despite the wealth of literature claiming that Dr. King principally sought color-blindness and would have opposed affirmative action, an examination of his writings makes such a position difficult to maintain. From the beginning, King placed responsibility for the nation's racial inequality squarely on whites.
In a 1956 article, collected in James Washington's superbly edited collection, "Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.," King said that whites had "rejected the very center of their own ethical professions...and so they rationalized" the conditions under which they had forced blacks to live.
And in his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963), King specifically criticized white ministers and white moderates, who he faulted for being "more devoted to 'order' than to justice," and whom he said were perhaps more of a barrier to true freedom for blacks than the Klan.
In short, King was hardly color-blind. He was clear as to who the victims, and who the chief perpetrators of racism were, and he said so forcefully.
King was even more clear on so-called "preferential treatment"--what we now typically refer to as affirmative action. Although it is true that King called for universal programs of economic and educational opportunity for all the poor, regardless of race, he also saw the need for programs targeted at the victims of American racial apartheid.
In 1961, after visiting India, King praised that nation's "preferential" policies that had been put in place to provide opportunity to those at the bottom of the caste system, and in a 1963 article in Newsweek, published the very month of the "I Have a Dream" speech, King actually suggested it might be necessary to have something akin to "discrimination in reverse" as a form of national "atonement" for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. The most direct articulation of his views on the subject is found in his 1963 classic "Why We Can't Wait," in which King noted:
"Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up."
In his 1967 volume, "Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?," King was even more explicit when he said "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis."
In a 1965 Playboy interview, King spelled out what "something special" might entail, and it was far more substantive than affirmative action. In fact, King stated his support for an aid package for black America in the amount of $50 billion. As King explained:
"...for two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages--potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America's wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation."
Although some might consider the differing interpretations of King's views regarding affirmative action or color-blindness to be mere debate, the fact is that the claims of King's hostility to any race-conscious effort--claims which are evidently counter to his true beliefs--have had an impact on public policy and the national debate over affirmative action. For example, during the ultimately successful campaign in California to eliminate racial "preferences," supporters of Proposition 209 conjured the image of King repeatedly and, until criticized by the King family, had been planning to air a TV spot showing the "content of their character" segment of King's "Dream" speech.
According to Lydia Chavez, in "The Color-Bind: California's Battle to End Affirmative Action," the voiceover for the ad said: "Martin Luther King was right. Bill Clinton is wrong to oppose Proposition 209. Let's get rid of all preferences."
Similarly, Louisiana Governor Mike Foster eliminated certain affirmative action programs in that state upon taking office in 1996. According to Ellis Cose in "Color-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World," as Foster signed the legislation outlawing a handful of race-conscious programs, he noted: "This just says we've got to be color-blind...Dr. King believed all men should be judged by their character, not by the color of their skin."
Foster went so far as to say that he "could find nothing in King's writing" that would indicate King would have disagreed with his actions that day, leading one to wonder just how much of King's work the governor had actually read.
Of course, in the end, how people feel about affirmative action or other race-conscious efforts to remedy the legacy and ongoing problem of discrimination is up to them. No one should assume that simply because Dr. King appears to have supported such efforts that this necessarily makes King, and those who support affirmative action today, correct. But it is telling that so many feel the need to link their views to King in an attempt to roll back such programs; to claim the mantle of moral authority provided by the words of this particular individual. It is an indication of how powerful a figure King remains, even 35 years after his death. But at the very least, regardless of the debate over the legitimacy of affirmative action, it seems only fair to insist that we present King's views honestly and completely and not attempt to use his words for purposes he would have found unacceptable.
Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, lecturer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every year, as Thanksgiving approaches, I am filled with profound ambivalence. Even as a child, the standard Thanksgiving story always seemed too simple, too wholesome, and too peaceful to be true or truly American. Finally, past the faux-historicism of school textbook-styled Pilgrims and Indians, I was able to delve into the actual construction of the story of Thanksgiving. And, in this way, I learned just how fabricated and utterly bizarre this American "holiday" really is.
In 1621, at Plymouth Plantation on Massachusetts Bay, 50 Pilgrim settlers joined with at least 90 Native guests in a three-day feast which is now traditionally cited as the "First Thanksgiving."
In reality, this seasonal, quasi-secular New England harvest celebration was not repeated in Plymouth and was in fact forgotten until a reference to it was discovered almost 200 years later, in a contemporary book known as "Mourt's Relation."
Contrary to the widely accepted, idyllic account of two cultures sitting down to share a meal in harmony, most 17th-century colonial images relating to Native Americans depict violent confrontation. It was only around 1900, when the western Indian wars had largely subsided due to a shortage of Indians left to kill--and when it was safe for Euroamericans to supplant fear with nostalgia--that the romantic Thanksgiving narrative most Americans today are familiar with took hold.
Thanksgiving Day provides an ideal opportunity to consider the formation of national identity and the concept of a civil religion. It's also a living metaphor of the prevailing American model for immigrant assimilation and the ways in which history can be reinterpreted, and indeed wholly reinvented, to serve competing ethnic, patriotic, religious, and commercial ends.
A Host of Victory Thanksgivings
An overview of historical documents reveals the many uses to which various thanksgivings have been put. The Continental Congress declared the first national day of thanksgiving on November 1, 1777, to celebrate an American victory over British general John Burgoyne:
Forasmuch as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for benefits received, and to implore such further Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defence and Establishment of our inalienable Rights and Liberties... It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES, to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for the Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise: That at one Time and with one voice, the good People may express themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor.Did such a weighty declaration to the Divine Benefactor cement the basic contours of the holiday? Hardly. Then as now, political struggles (electoral and military) were often interpreted as theaters for the enactment of divine will, and so victories great and small led to a rush of thanksgiving declarations. The Confederate Congress proclaimed separate thanksgiving observations in July 1861 and again in September 1862, after the First and Second Battles of Bull Run. And it wasn't just the South. President Lincoln similarly set aside days of thanksgiving in April 1862 and August 1863 to commemorate the important Union victories at Shiloh and Gettysburg. These ad hoc decrees fell in some cases on Sundays (a common day for religious observance) and in other cases on Thursdays. Lincoln declared yet another Thanksgiving Day in 1863, for the last Thursday in November--and it has been celebrated annually in late November ever since. In his proclamation he drew attention to affairs both national and international:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.It was not until 1931, when President Herbert Hoover made his proclamation, that any of the presidential declarations of thanksgiving mentioned the Plymouth Pilgrims and the 1621 harvest festival as a precursor to the modern holiday. By this time, yet another willfully amnesiac reinvention of Thanksgiving was under way.
Industrialization, Commercialization, Assimilation
The general anxieties of the 1920s and 1930s provide telling insights into the creation of Thanksgiving Day as it is generally practiced and taught in the present-day United States. Elizabeth Pleck, writing in the Journal of Social History, asks why it's historically important that "domestic occasions" like Thanksgiving be old-fashioned:
Thanksgiving eased the social dislocations of the industrial and commercial revolutions... The growth of commerce, industry, and urban life created a radical break between past and present, a gap that could be bridged by threshold reunions at the family manse. Nostalgia at Thanksgiving was a yearning for a simpler, more virtuous, more public-spirited and wholesome past, located in the countryside, not the city. In gaining wealth, the family and nation, it was believed, had lost its sense of spiritual mission. Perhaps celebrating one special day might help restore the religious morality of an earlier generation.
In the aftermath of World War I, at a time when many Americans were concerned both with preserving and promoting (in Pleck's words) a "close-knit, religiously inspired [Protestant] community," and, not coincidentally, with the "Americanization" of Northern and Eastern European immigrants, Thanksgiving Day provided a compelling occasion for emphasizing civil religion, the quasi-religious belief in national institutions, purposes, and destiny. Furthermore, the model of the Pilgrim as the archetypal "good" immigrant, peacefully coexisting in prosperity with other ethnic communities, proved all but irresistible. The ideal of the "melting pot" in the United States -- often less about relishing a diverse mix of ethnic elements than about reducing ethnic culture to an assimilated national identity -- also exerted a powerful influence. By the time of Hoover's 1931 proclamation, the codification of Thanksgiving as the fundamental American holiday was essentially complete.
Which is not to say that Americans were done tinkering. One noteworthy and almost quintessentially American reformulation was ushered in by the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. This commercial pageant began in 1924 as the Macy's Christmas Parade because, as Elizabeth Pleck observes, "The department store wanted to stage a parade as a prelude to the Christmas shopping season." Pleck also notes that even in the 1920s, the parade did not exist in the shadow of the family feast or the church service, but in very real competition with another Thanksgiving tradition: the afternoon football game.
Football was clearly the more significant of the two forms of out-of-home entertainment, as changes in the timing of Macy's parade in the 1920s indicate. Initially, Macy's parade offended patriotic groups, who decried a spectacle on "a national and essentially religious holiday." Macy's hired a public relations man, who decided the critics could be placated if the parade in the morning was postponed until at least after church services had ended. The parade, pushed to the afternoon, began at the same time as the kickoff for most football games. Customers and football fans complained. By the late 1920s, Macy's had returned to an early morning parade, presumably so as not to compete with afternoon football games.
The parade featured different groups of immigrants demonstrating their American cultural fluency with floats that echoed and reinforced the core Thanksgiving origin myth. At about the same time, schoolchildren were being exposed to similar ideas about celebration, national history, customs, and cultural symbols, all of which came together to form the narrative that persists more or less intact to this day.
Lies, Half-Truths, and What a Nation Will Tell Itself
Perhaps, given the patent falsehood of the Story of Thanksgiving, one of the better questions to ask as the holiday approaches is what, in fact, it really stands for. As a Cherokee, I have never felt much like celebrating an event that essentially commemorates one of several stages in the genocide of Native Americans by European settlers, a process which continues to this day in the form of environmental racism, structural poverty, and lack of educational resources. There were times, to be sure, when I appreciated sitting with my family and devouring an embarrassment of culinary riches. But those I hold separate from the holiday itself.
For me, this now agreed upon Thanksgiving symbolizes first and foremost the alarmingly subjective nature of history, which, as Howard Zinn reminds us, is almost always written by the winners. It symbolizes the triumph of football over religion, and of American commercialism over virtually everything standing in its wasteful path. And perhaps most importantly, it symbolizes the lies and half-truths on which a profoundly diverse country must depend in order to prop up the specious concept of a broadly shared civil religion or national identity.
Thanksgiving, then, symbolizes that there is still great work to be done before a nation that readily prides itself in its goodness, honesty, and wholesome relationship with Divine Grace will actually resemble the stories it tells itself.
Brian Awehali is the publisher and co-editor of LiP Magazine.
What's wrong with this picture? The world's lone superpower, fearful of being attacked by one of many real or perceived enemies, sets out to solve the problem by increasing weapon sales and military aid to the world, but not just to existing allies. Indeed, in the wake of Sept. 11, the race is on to arm governments formerly considered unstable or otherwise "off-limits" due to gross human rights violations, on grounds that these nations are assisting in the sweeping "war against terrorism."
If that sounds illogical, then perhaps you're beginning to understand the perverse logic that pervades the U.S. arms industry. After Sept 11, the industry has -- with the support of the Bush Administration -- stepped up its efforts to further reduce oversight and regulation of arms sales and military aid. This, despite a clear track record of providing weapons to the very forces now portrayed to a frightened public as threats.
In the process, the administration is apparently jettisoning efforts to use military aid as a carrot to encourage the advancement of human rights. In the past year, restrictions on military aid and arms sales to formerly off-limits regimes have largely been eliminated. Of the 67 countries which have received or are set to receive U.S. military aid, 32 have been identified by the State Department as having "poor" or worse human rights records.
"Two key [FY2002] Defense Department funding allocations -- $390 million to reimburse nations providing support to U.S. operations in the war on terror and $120 million 'for certain classified activities,' according to a report in the Arms Sales Monitor (Aug. 2002), can now be delivered 'notwithstanding any other provision of the law'."
In other words, Congress has approved a staggeringly large sum of military aid for regimes fighting an ill-defined "war on terror," and is working to ensure that there will be little or no public scrutiny of how such aid is spent.
The central question is: does this makes the world a safer place for anyone but arms manufacturers and the politicians who love them?
Conflicts of Interest
From 1991 to 2000, the U.S. delivered $74 billion worth of military equipment, services and training to countries in the Middle East, according to a Sept. 2002 General Accounting Office (GAO) report. You might expect that a majority of that military aid went to our staunch ally in the region, Israel, which has been cited repeatedly by the U.N. and Amnesty International for human rights abuses. However, military aid to Saudi Arabia -- where a majority of the terrorists reported to be involved in the Sept 11 attacks were from -- topped $33 billion for the period, outpacing aid to Israel by a more than 5-to-1 margin.
What's more, there is ample evidence that arms sales to the Middle East are, in fact, destabilizing and dangerous.
"Foreign [military] assistance to the Middle East," noted West Virginia Democratic Senator Robert Byrd in 2001, "virtually ignores the spiraling violence in the region."
In a Nov. 9, 2001 interview with Pakistan's Ausaf newspaper, none other than Osama bin Laden justified the Sept. 11 attacks by noting that the U.S. sells to Israel advanced weaponry that it uses in the military occupation of Palestinian territories. Bin Laden was specifically discussing the sale of Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighter planes. It's worth noting that Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice-President Dick Cheney, was on the board of Lockheed Martin from 1994 until 2001, and would have been involved in overseeing this sale.
On July 13, 2002, the New York Times also reported that Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer, the Halliburton Company, is "benefiting very directly from the United States' effort to combat terrorism." From building cells for detainees at Guantanamo Bay ($300 million) to feeding American troops in Uzbekistan, the Times reported, "the Pentagon is increasingly relying on a unit of Halliburton called KBR, sometimes referred to as Kellogg Brown & Root." KBR is the "exclusive logistics supplier for both the Navy and the Army, providing services like cooking, construction, power generation and fuel transportation."
And then there's the Carlyle Group, described by the The Industry Standard as "the world's largest private equity firm," with more than $12 billion in assets. A Washington merchant bank specializing in buyouts of defense and aerospace companies, the Carlyle Group stands to make a substantial sum of money from a global "war on terror." Former U.S. President George Bush, Sr. -- whom current President Bush is known to consult about policy matters almost daily -- works for the firm.
According to the Baltimore Sun, so do former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Bush Sr. campaign manager Fred Malek. Former Republican Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci (a college roommate of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld), is the Carlyle Group's chairman and managing director.
The bin Laden family, hailing from Saudi Arabia, is also heavily invested in the Carlyle Group. On Sept. 27, 2001, the Wall Sreet Journal published an article entitled "Bin Laden Family Could Profit From Jump in Defense Spending Due to Ties to U.S. Bank." The "bank" in question? You guessed it: the Carlyle Group.
Cold War Communism vs. New World Terrorism
One of the more disturbing aspects of post-9/11 arms sales is the wanton redefinition of various dissident groups around the world as "terrorists." Even longstanding conflicts such as the 38-year-old civil war in Colombia have been re-cast as a war between our Colombian allies and "terrorists."
In the Phillipines, "counter-terrorism aid" has been released to fight a band of Islamic militants, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), despite the fact that even government analysts admit the ASG poses no credible threat to the U.S. In Nepal, counter-terrorism aid has been allocated to help the Nepalese military quell Maoist dissent, despite State Department testimony that there's no evidence that these dissidents are connected to al-Qaeda. Military aid flowing to Central Asia under the auspices of fighting terrorism seems equally ill-justified, with virtually every country in the region receiving increases in U.S. military aid despite connections to the war on terrorism that are, at best, tenuous.
What seems clear from a close look at military aid policy over the past year is that the U.S. military is using the threat of terrorism to garner support for its ambitious goals for extending its reach around the world, and that it doesn't mind arming unstable or anti-democratic regimes in the process.
The "weapons against terror" rationale is strained even further by a 2001 report released by the Centre for Defense Information, an independent non-profit research group. The report, entitled "US Arms Exports to Countries Where Terror Thrives," found the following:
"There are 28 terrorist groups currently operating in 18 countries, according to the State Department's bi-annual list of active foreign terrorist organizations...In the period of 1990-1999, the United States supplied 16 of the 18 countries on the State Department list with arms....In addition, the U.S. military (and CIA) has trained the forces of many of these 18 countries in U.S. war fighting tactics, in some cases including individuals now involved in terrorism."
In sum, the U.S. has sold weapons or training to almost 90 percent of the countries it has identified as harboring terrorists. A severe restructuring of U.S. arms export policy is in order, but little or nothing is being done to ensure a safer future.
Guns and History in the Middle East: Why Insecurity Sells
Perhaps nowhere is the correlation between arms sales and violence more apparent than in the Middle East, where the U.S. sells an enormous amount of weapons.
According to an Aug. 6, 2002 congressional report on arms sales to developing countries, "The Persian Gulf War....played a major role in further stimulating already high levels of arms transfer agreements with nations in the Near East region. The war created new demands by key purchasers such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for a variety of advanced weapons systems."
"The Gulf states' arms purchase demands," the report continued, "were not only a response to Iraq's aggression against Kuwait, but a reflection of concerns regarding perceived threats from a potentially hostile Iran."
The U.S. dominated the arms market in the region from 1994-2001, selling more than $13 billion worth of weapons to Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Russia and China also sold $8 billion worth of weapons to Iran, Algeria, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Judging by numbers alone, it's hard to miss the parallels to Cold War-era geopolitical strategy.
Also hard to miss is the profit motive. 2001 marked a slump for arms dealers, as sales to developing nations dropped 43 percent, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. Peace, obviously, is not good business for the "defense" industry.
Why would countries siphon money from all manner of social programs in order to purchase expensive weapons systems if they didn't feel threatened? The reason has more to do with insecurity than fiscal logic, as evidenced by the fact that Israel, despite a declining economy, was the number one U.S. arms importer in 2001, purchasing, among other weapons, 52 F-16 fighter jets and six Apache helicopters.
Given that Israel has repeatedly violated international humanitarian law with its advanced U.S. weapons systems, it's clear that profits -- and geopolitical advantage -- trump human rights when it comes to selling weapons.
Focusing on the War, Not the Battle
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed," proclaimed former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. "The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children... This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
Fifty years later, the figures seem to back Eisenhower up. The 2002 Federal Military Budget stands at a mind-boggling $343 billion. Consider that the same budget allocates a comparatively paltry $39 billion to children's health, $6 billion to the Headstart program, and $1 billion to combat world hunger. It's estimated that it would cost just $6 billion a year -- or approximately 1/57th of the military budget -- to provide healthcare for all uninsured children in the United States.
Given the broad bipartisan support for a war with Iraq, and considering the largely abysmal quality of most mainstream coverage of the subject, even the encouragingly large number of spirited anti-war protests around the world may not be enough to prevent an attack. However, there are battles and there are wars: The battle to prevent an attack on Iraq might fail, but the war to end a global arms race and U.S. militarism can still be won.
The U.S. military-industrial complex is a giant enterprise, employing hundreds of thousands of people, raking in billions of dollars in profits every year, with a veritable army of lobbyists and Washington insiders to maintain its dominant position in the U.S. economy. As such, the struggle to wean the country from its dependence on the defense industry has been -- and will continue to be -- a difficult one.
The good news is that the defense industry is not a monolith, and that opposition to U.S. arms sales is actually a popular, majoritarian stance. The problem is not so much one of educating the public on why arming the world to the teeth is a bad idea, but what can be done about it.
We can start by supporting efforts to end export subsidies on U.S. arms sales. Ever year, defense contractors receive billions of dollars in subsidies, taxpayer money poured right into the pockets of arms dealers; this needs to stop. Defense industry types claim they need these subsidies in order to remain competitive around the globe, but at a time when U.S. arms sales dwarfs our nearest competitor -- Russia -- by a margin of more than 9-to-1, this argument simply demonstrates the greed and lack of restraint that defines the defense industry.
The Bush Administration has been working, with relative success, to end all export controls on weapons in the name of fighting terrorism. Rebuffed in their efforts to completely eliminate weapons controls, they have turned to a strategy of incrementalism, successfully weakening or circumventing a host of weapons export controls, including the Export Administration Act. All efforts to weaken the control, oversight, and regulation of arms exports should be challenged vigorously.
Most importantly, the defense industry must not be allowed the secrecy it seeks. Public servants of both major parties must be scrutinized for conflicts of interest, and barred from public office if such conflicts come to light. This should include virtually everyone in the Bush Administration.
The agency once called the Bureau of Export Administration, which controls weapons exports, recently changed its name to the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS). The BIS is part of the Commerce Department, and although lip service is paid to the office's responsibility for controlling arms exports, the BIS is also charged with promoting arms exports.
Politicians cannot simultaneously serve the interests of peace and war, nor can an office like the BIS serve two masters well. This office must be restructured or split in two if the concept of arms "control" is to be taken seriously. Instead of crowing on its website about its Defense Trade Advocacy Program generating "high-level, government-to-government advocacy on behalf of U.S. firms," helping them "succeed in today's highly competitive global defense market," and supporting "$22 billion in U.S. [weapons] exports since 1994," the BIS might instead make it its business to actually help stem the flow of arms to the rest of the world.
In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge uttered the famous line, "The business of America is business." However repugnant a truth that may be, fighting over the long haul against U.S. arms exports to the world -- and diminishing the political influence of the defense industry -- is important if we, as a nation wish to avoid the continuation of an even uglier truth: that the business of America is the business of war.
Brian Awehali is co-editor of LiP Magazine