October 2012, Week 2


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Mon, 8 Oct 2012 00:08:44 -0400
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Thinking Beyond Our Choices
by Zillah Eisenstein
Distinguished Scholar in Residence , Prof. of Anti-Racist
Feminist Theories; Ithaca College; Ithaca New York
October 4, 2012
Published by Portside

[Written to share with the people at Centro de Estudos
Socials, at Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal, October
18, 2012.  Dedicated to the anti-austerity activists in
Portugal and Spain]

Let me clarify my grounding, a kind of genealogy of
sorts. All the moments mentioned here took place within
a week of the first presidential debate between Romney
and Obama, October 3, 2012.  Immediately after it
concluded Mitt was declared the victor and I thought
victor of what except maybe telling lies, fabrications,
and creating deceit.  And Obama? I thought how could he
not mention anything at all to save a bit of democratic
life here?  Not even a whisper against the "war on
women", the "war on the 47 percent", the absolute right
to health care.  How dare he not say more that mattered
to save "us" and this planet.

Romney was said to be an energetic doer, Obama, a
plodding (academic) thinker. The entire election appears
as a charade that is different than saying that the
outcome does not matter.  Elections have always been
about endorsing power brokers but I am not sure that
they mean exactly what they used to.  As the nation
state has changed, as the global structure of all
economies become more complex, as the president pretends
to rule over our discrete nation, economy or racial and
gendered structure as we once knew it, the election
facade soothes and makes us dumb(er).  The transnational
state and global capitalist economy has relocated power
and the shifts are not all that clear to most of us.
The new locations need deciphering; as does the very
contours of where power lies.

I cannot critique this election by simply talking about
it - because then I am limited to its lack of agency and
urgency. So I have to begin differently.  Too often it
is almost impossible to think beyond the limits of our
surrounds and power divides and either/or choices.  It
seems like it has almost been forever that the
reform/revolution divide has stunted the way that we can
think really newly about radical possibilities.  People
are depicted as doers or thinkers; actors or critics;
authentic or frauds when I think we are more usually a
bit of both.

Romney and Baines Capital protect the new economy of
transactions rather than production.   Obama speaks more
of bringing production back without much mention that
robots will and already do much of the work.  Production
and its factories no longer mean lots of jobs for a
middle class. Apple product maker FoxConn in China has
just ordered one million new robots for their factories.

No wonder that facts are not abundant today.  Instead
there are more readily available fantasies and untruths.
There are small differences to choose between and with
them small promises and small hopes.  This is the other
side of a vicious and cruel world where punishment
replaces understanding.  Yet, we must live making
choices even if they do not matter as much as we wish
they did, or whether they only reflect small
differences.  Acting and thinking have effect even if
not enough and even if not in the way we wish they did.

Obama does not matter enough, but he matters for some
enough to matter to the rest of us.  Nelson Mandela did
not matter enough to the destruction of racial apartheid
in South Africa, but he mattered.  Nicholas Kristof and
Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky tells an important story of
sex trafficking throughout South East Asia and Africa
and yet it is not insurgent enough.  I am beginning to
thread a method here so stay with me.

Sometimes things just happen at close hand to each other
and they begin to whisper a narrative.  There is also
the connection that just occurs simply through
simultaneous time frames or geographic location and they
then matter to each other even if randomly.  Maybe these
events/moments arise because similar conditions put them
in view, or pull them to the fore.  Any string of
events/moments constitute a day and reveals a
significant array of power events.

I recently visited the "Rise and Fall of Apartheid"
exhibit at the International Photography museum in New
York City and thought about the ending of legal racial
apartheid and the beginning of post-legal economic
racial apartheid.  Each and both are intimately woven
into the normalcy and abnormalcy of life.  Apartheid law
reminds me of post 9-11 security protections - new
enemies and others; sabotage and terrorism written both
places.  I return to Ithaca and see the film Dear
Mandela about the continuing poverty and homelessness of
Blacks today when each was promised a home by the ANC
(African National Congress) of the new South Africa.
Still in 1994 the Slums Act is passed and I see a sign
along the road in the film that used to read free
Mandela and now reads hang Mandela.  I just happen to be
reading Medical Apartheid that traces the racist history
of medicine to the complicit arrangements between
doctors and slave owners in the early years of U.S.

Life today has become more difficult for many, or
differently difficult for some - more complex and
differentiated.  Classes run through races and Blacks
can now oppress Blacks.  Homogenous races and genders
are more differentiated into heterogeneous races and
genders and although a majority of Blacks may be poor,
they also have the promise of becoming rich.  This is
similar for a woman of any color although the color will
distinguish one more fully.  There is a legal sexual
apartheid in places like Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and
Saudi Arabia although the completeness of the
homogeneity of class is not the same as in the legal
apartheid of racial slavery.

Half the sky, the new documentary film based on the best
selling book by the same name, shown to much fanfare on
PBS just two evenings before the first presidential
debate - also produced to much fanfare - exposes the sex
trade of young girls as unacceptable and actionable.
India, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Afghanistan et al are put on
notice for the unfair treatment of girls and women as
prostitutes - women's bodies are supposed to be their
own, to control and determine.  The promise of education
and opportunity are seen as solutions and offerings.

Interestingly enough women in the United States have
been "victims" of the Republican right-wing tea party
attack on women.  Women's bodies are not their own when
it comes to the right of abortion.  Endless attempts at
the state level seek to enforce vaginal ultrasounds and
other restrictions on contraceptives and reproductive
rights.  As for the globe, Kate's breasts are exposed to
all and the Royal family sues.  Women's bodies are at
issue everywhere - because they are key to all things

Half the Sky is about doing, acting, making a difference
when some critics wonder whether the difference Kristof
and WuDunn and their crew make is not enough.   The
story of rescue is said to be self-serving - individual
girls and or women are saved from the forced
prostitution that they have been conscripted into.  As
one of Kristof's aides says: its not enough to help just
individual girls when the problem is so big, but to the
one girl that has been rescued it is all the difference
in the world.

There is not much emphasis on the big picture - the
problem of global capitalism and its tourism that
nurtures prostitution and is its life force.  There is
no criticism of the capitalist initiative to turn all
things, including humans, into commodities for sale for
profit.  There is nothing said of the deeply embedded
racism of the global first world/third world divide.
Instead these are silenced givens and normalized as such
and WuDunn focuses on the need to create opportunities
for these girls, especially education, so that they can
escape from prostitution.  But "opportunity" exists
within the structural requisites of misogyny,
patriarchal labor and its roots/routes in capital. Half
the Sky is a rescue for individual girls in a systemic
abyss.  Yet, it has begun an expose that can be
radicalized. So let us radicalize it rather than dismiss

The undermining of traditional female cultural practices
by global capitalist needs has led to a ramped up
prostituting of young girls.  Enlarge the expose to the
commodification of human life and the exploitation of
the 99 percent across the globe.  Misogyny is not simply
cultural, it is transnational and polyversally true.
Afghanistan may be an extreme, but let us dismantle our
own right wing Tea Party forces here at home first.

The imperial gaze is more complex and mixed today than
pre-1970.  Colonialism was built with more separateness
and therefore more homogeneity - empire/colony;
legal/economic; white European/other colors.  Today
imperialism is complexly both inside and outside each
locale.  Geographies are more mixed and fluid - the
third world is here; and the first world is in the third
world. Imperial acts, though still punishing and
powerful, is more nuanced and complex.  The radical
democratic promise of individual choice and freedom is
an important critique against misogyny but the misogyny
must be recognized as structurally necessary.

Reforms are not simply complicit.  Revolutionary reforms
are needed as are reformist revolutions.  Radical
aspects of liberalism especially when it comes to
feminisms of all sorts must be embraced. You never know
when you might be making a revolution.  I have written
many years ago about the "radical future of liberal
feminism" - that feminisms cannot be contained by
individualist imaginaries although they are often
started there.  Feminism in and of itself requires a
sharedness in view, and without the seeing of the
collective of women - no matter their variety - there is
no understanding of feminisms.  So the very notion
cannot be contained by its origins in the case of
liberal feminism. Today it is important to find and then
act on the tensions found between feminisms, liberal
individualisms, and imperialism and it is in these in-
between spaces that radical meaningful change starts and
mobilizes a new radicalism.

Progressives need to find and demand a really democratic
vision of democracy that is not based on the exclusion
of any human being from wherever they are migrating.  No
one will be abandoned - the mentally ill, the hungry,
the poor, the middle class, the child who seeks comfort,
the person who dreams of total completeness.  We will
end the cruelty of the one percent. The first step is to
hope for this - then to speak it - then to build it
forward together.

This is the new in-between that locates us inside and
against simultaneously; recognizing both and all instead
of either/or; inside/against.  So let us make a radical
politics by recognizing and acting on the limited
choices that exist but moving beyond them to their
structural connections. Immobilized by either anger or
doubt we stagnate and the cruelty simply grows.

If you have ever attended public school, driven on a
federal highway, received unemployment benefits, been
assisted by FEMA after a flood or hurricane, utilized
water from a federal dam or visited a federal park, or
used an airport you have received an assist from the
government that is bigger than simple individualism.  If
you have ever received veterans benefits, Medicare,
student loans, used the GI bill, received medical
disability or food stamps or a farm subsidy or an NIH
grant you are one of many many people who have received
an assist even if it is not enough.

And so I will vote for Obama.  And all the while I will
also work alongside anti-austerity activists at home and
abroad, and inside/out for a more decent world.


1. Nicholas Lemann, "Transaction Man", The New Yorker,
October 1, 2012, pp. 38-51.

2. Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid (New York,
Anchor Books, 2006).

3. Melissa Gira Grant and Anne Elizabeth Moore,
"Nicholas Kristof: Half the Sky, All the Credit",

[Many thanks to Prof. Eisenstein for submitting this to
Portside, so that it could be shared with Portside


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