Monday, September 2, 2013

Is the next stage of feminism to leave “feminism” behind?

At a very young age was made familiar with the word “feminism”.  It was made clear to me it was a positive term to be embraced, if it had certain connotations.  At the time those “connotations” were more of things like bra-burning, radical behaviors that might not be embraced by everybody. What was not clear to me, until relatively recently, was the exclusivity of the term. That is that the kind of feminism that I had been brought up on, rights to one’s own body/reproductive rights, promotion of women in the workplace, equal pay and the like, were a particular brand of feminism, specifically the white, middle-class kind.

I have always been around people of color, in schools, in my community, in my workplace. I have always taken seriously the issues of racism, and in college became familiar with reproductive issues beyond birth control and abortion, i.e. forced sterilization of women of color. However as I left college for a professional career my attention to these issues waned in my conscience.  I should add that I have worked in female-dominated environments with substantial minority representation (if not in positions of power). If on occasion I paid attention to feminist issues, and noted that the people were represented were overwhelming white my inherent tendency was to think it was an oversight. That maybe the women of color who also were involved with the struggle were busy that day. That there was not a systemic attempt to keep women of color, and issues most important to them, off the agenda. When the term “intersectionality” become a thing, I was a little confused. Were we not all on the same page already?

A few weeks ago the hash tag #whitesolidarityforwhitewomen, started by Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) became a thing. Most of the tweets under this hash tag could be described as complaints about white, middle-class feminism and the media outlets that support it, as well as ways women of color are marginalized, in society, in the media, and even in the activist groups that supposedly support them.  Regardless of the critiques themselves the fact that there was such an overwhelming response to such a thing should give white women pause.  Clearly, many women of color felt they were not being represented, that the “whiteness” of many women’s groups was not by accident, but by design, whether it was conscious or not. Clearly, if there is such a thing as feminist movement it is already divided, if so many women feel they are outside it.

There was an unfortunate tendency for some to complain, essentially, that the critiques were not “fair”. Can I just say I do not think any racial group uses the word “fair” more than white people? I think that it comes from the (imaginary) world that most white people live –where everybody is treated equally regardless of race, creed, and social status. The world where everybody has a chance to “climb the economic ladder”-it just takes hard work and education don’t you know! I feel that people of color, particularly women, tend to not talk about “fairness” but justice, what is right and what is deserved. It has to be fought for, it is rarely given.

You cannot help whom you are, where you come from. We all have benefited from who came before us, some of us much more than others. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t pay attention, and listen to others. If in this year of 2013, post-Trayvon Martian, post-Kiera Wilmot, you can say that “race” is trivial (as one tweet that came across my timeline did) I can’t help you. If you can look at the numbers regarding drug arrests, prison populations, recognizing that for every black man in prison there is at least one black woman suffering, I can’t help you. If you look at the losses of jobs and wealth in the great recession, so much more for people of color than white people, no tweet or hash tag is going to make sense to you. All of us who consider ourselves “women”, (regardless of actual anatomy) share many things in common, but if we cannot realize the different experiences we have as shaped by other factors, what is the purpose in “solidarity’?

Which brings me around to the point of this post, is the forth wave of “feminism” not to be “feminism” at all? The way” feminism” has been traditionally articulated, has an agenda that could be considered “corporate”, and as result has only been really embraced by a certain group of women. The idea seemed to be if we got enough women in positions of power—not to fight the corporate model but to change it by taking it over, to “lean in” this would uplift women.

Leaving aside for a moment the issue that for most women, the dominant concern is survival, how has this worked?  I would state for the record, that it has not. The most important issues to this cohort, (middle to upper-class women) reproductive issues, employment options (flexible work, paid maternity leave, childcare options) have changed little in the past twenty years. Work-life “balance," the middle-class woman’s mantra, is as elusive as ever. The response of the Sheryl Sandburg’s of the world seems to be, well we just to do a little more, to “lean in” and we can fix it, and really we can. The reality is, lifting up comes from below, and it does not trickle down.

The corporate model is not compatible with humanity; it values profit, the transfer of the public to private in the name of “efficiency” and “competiveness”. The corporate model leaves the handful of people who were not able to jump on that boat remaining at the shore, fighting over the scraps that are left. The women who have risen in this system generally embrace it—you actually have to do this if you are to rise—and beyond tooling around the edges these women are not interested in changing it. Therefore one could make the argument that you could have women in 90% of CEO positions, and little would change.

This lack of change could also be seen in the recent article “Opting out”. The purpose of this article was to interview women who has “opted out” to stay with their kids, 10 years later, to see how things had changed, or not. What women found difficult was not their children per se, they all had all appreciated the chance to be home when their kids were young, but dealing with the (lack of) sharing of household duties with their husbands, and the difficulty of returning to work.  The response to this from a predictable right-wing source, Meg McArdle, was basically oh that’s just the way it is. If you want to be at the top, male or female, you need to put the hours in—that’s the way the system works. But the writer of the piece quite specifically points out that the “elites” of her group had no problems returning to work. The women who had problems were not looking for the corner office, they were not looking for “career plums”, they were just looking to get work that was in the neighborhood of where they had been. They understood they had stepped off the train; they just wanted to get back on. The idea is one should be able to return to work roughly where one left off, maybe a little behind if things have changed but roughly in the same spot. But these women, frequently, were just looking for work, any kind of work where they could make enough to justify being away from their kids. What they found was significantly below what they had before, which predictably resulted in increased stress on the whole family.

The best way to solve the problems articulated in this article is not a endless round of dumb-ass questions/discussions regarding stay-at-home moms versus working moms, is daycare harmful to children, what do women have to do to get ahead etc. The best way to solve these problems is to enact policies that provide for full employment and reduce economic equality.

The dramatic changes that have occurred in the workplace since the “recovery” began-less benefits, increases in part-time work (when people want full-time work), the relentless wage drop/stagnation, the complete disregard for employee health-are occurring because corporate American can do it.  There is no housing bubble, it’s a little harder to make money out of nothing through “financialization” but corporate America still needs to support the 1%. That support is coming directly from the 99% in these changes in the labor market. Even so unemployment is high, as a result there are always workers ready to fill spots—unemployment is high in every job area. When you hear nonsense about a “skills-gap” that’s corporate America trying to cut wages. As a result inequity under the Obama administration has accelerated and grown larger.

In addition to full employment there needs to be a continued push for single payer health-care in some kind of form, and guaranteed income. We can raise the minimum wage, and support the fast food workers fight for fifteen movement. In short, could spend a lot of time persuading companies to “do the right thing” or we could say fuck it, we are going to make sure people have enough to live on, and be able to go to the hospital when they need to, without worrying about going bankrupt.  We have the money, it’s not technology’s fault either.

If we are serious about engaging women fully, it starts with economic equality issues, which naturally dovetail with others. While considering anniversary of the March on Washington Michelle Alexander made a recent statement regarding the need to "connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism". Focusing on economic equality, pushing for "a radical structuring of society"will do more for feminism than anything else. We could all do with "getting out of (our) lanes" and demanding a brave new world where we all valued, women most of all. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fruitvale Station-some thoughts

Fruitvale Station, the story of Oscar Grant’s tragic death, is out in wide release now. I saw it last week it’s a beautiful movie that tells the story of his last day, death, and brief aftermath of his family and friends grief. The movie is quiet, almost European in the way it lays out Grant’s story, which for me brought to mind other movies and cultural touchstones.

The movie is very much a celebration of family-the one we are born with and the one we make with our community and friends. The majority of the characters are people of color, and while there certainly are conflicts there is such overriding feeling of love and concern that I could not help being reminded of.  .  . the TV show The Cosby Family. I know that Bill Cosby is considered to be persona non grata for many in the black community for his emphasis on “personal responsibility” and one can take apart The Cosby Show in all kinds of ways. But I think it needs to be said the show was a milestone of sorts-a highly (the highest for years) rated TV show with an exclusively black cast (in terms of the main cast) doing the same kinds of things and facing the same kinds of issues that white people faced.  It certainly showed a middle-upper class existence but it was an incredibly positive image of blackness that white people do not see enough of, not to mention that the cast itself off-camera served as positive role models as well. I was thinking this when somebody retweeted to me a picture of the black men in her family, sons, husband, and brothers with the reminder that they were precious. If anti-blackness is a problem, there needs to be more pro-blackness, in all shapes and forms.

The theme of family also made me think of “The River Runs Through It” based on Norman McLean’s novel of the same name. “River” is the story of two brothers in Montana who would take very different paths, one tragically.  It takes place in an entirely different culture, time, and location. But family is family, and just as Norman’s brother kept aspects of his life at arm’s length from his family, so does Grant. The movie portrays Grant at a key point in his life, making significant decisions, just beginning to open up to the ones he loves. Not completely, however, as he shields them from important issues in his life. “River” is heavy with these themes as well, as Norman’s father says towards the end of the film, it is the ones we are closest to us that elude us, but we can love them completely, without complete understanding.

The final movie that came to mind is “Clockers” a Spike Lee movie based on the Richard Price novel. I have not seen “Clockers” since it came out more than ten years ago but what I remember was a story of a black man trying to move up and out-and being pulled down by a variety of forces. The story is technically about a murder, but really I found that secondary to the stories of the characters themselves, and how they were managing. Some the problems were certainly systemic in nature, but some were personal. I want to make it clear I completely agree with the narrative that if we want to improve impoverished communities of color we need to talk about broad-based, economic solutions. I know it doesn’t matter what a black man wears if the operating assumption is that he is a criminal, and that parenting skills are of no use if the parents can’t get jobs and truly support their family.

But, there are few things you can do, like show up to work on time. I remember watching “Clockers” and finding the main character reminiscent of the young black men I treated in rehabilitation, post-spinal cord injury. Most had been in gang related activity, I am sure some committed crimes. They were generally friendly, hard-working, nice guys. It was easy to imagine them doing positive things with their lives, it was also easy to see how their own demons pulled them down.  You just wondered if they had somebody just to provide a little bit of guidance, and little bit of toughness, could they make things happen. Because you know they have the ability, they are not lacking in intelligence. I understand the greatest problems come the outside, but still you just wish they could pull it together just a bit more.
The movie has Grant at this point-ready to move forward. But of course it was not to be, which is why every scene is touched with a little sadness, as you know it is the last time that thing will happen. The pitch-perfect cast helps the simple, straightforward narrative.

It’s subtle, and not fleshed out, but the role of prisons is also in the movie. It is only in two scenes but it both vividly illustrate the dehumanization of the prison process itself, and how difficult it is to truly leave even when technically you have. It is the violence of these scenes, partially real, partially implied, set against the quiet meditative aspect of most of the movie that make them stand out and stick with you.

Finally there are the police. The obvious question is how does an unarmed, non-threatening person (it’s clear Grant was not aggressive in any way during the police encounter) get killed by a police officer? But in the movie, it’s frustrating simple to see how this happened. I have always thought that a characteristic of a great story with a major conflict (or conflicts) is that there are no villains. I think Fruitvale Station accomplishes this, because, while not excusing the actions in kind of way, I did not see the police as villains. They are not presented as monsters-I think it is completely believable that they did not want to kill Grant and regretted the death. But it is painfully clear, to me anyway, by the way the police chose to manage the situation, the outcome was not only inevitable it was logical.  What is seen as the “villain” is the system, which resulted in the process that led up to the death. It is impossible not to ask yourself how could have this been done differently? It really isn’t about the people; it’s the larger issue of how as society we have allowed things to get this point. If we want to live in a world where this kind of thing happens, and probably happens regularly, we need to insist that changes, at every level, happen, and the word reform is really not enough. There needs to be a complete overhaul and everything needs to be on the table.

It’s worth noting that justice, of a sort, was achieved in this case. Major figures resigned, the offending officer did go to jail, if for a short period of time. As imperfect as this was, I can’t help comparing it to Chicago where similar cases have not led to any changes whatsoever. As people grapple with the Zimmerman verdict, as more people come to the understanding that increasing economic inequality hurts people of color disproportionately I can only hope that art like Fruitvale Station can expand people’s consciousness and lead to change. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

White people and “Justice” Thoughts and a Request post-Trayvon Martin Verdict

I came to twitter last night about 20 minutes after the verdict was read. The response, as you might expect, was fast and furious.  There was anger, sadness, and resignation-because most people, especially black people, who had been following the trial, were expecting acquittal. This was in large part to the high burden of proof that a guilty verdict would have required. It is important to remember that the only reason that there was a trial is because of serious protests. As Andrew Cohen writes there are real limitations to the court system-regardless of the case or racial overtones. Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that as unpleasant as the reality is, the jurors did not have much of a choice.

But I feel safe in saying that even for those who predicted it, is still comes as harsh, cruel reminder that for all the allure of idea that we live in a “post-racial” world, where we are treated equally we do not.  As many in my twitter feed stated, the (criminal) system did “work”. That the “system” itself is, by design, an instrument of power. People of color are not, and have never been, part of that power.  When we talk of “institutional racism” this is an easy example.  It is simply the idea that the institutions that make up our civil society were wholly conceived and implemented by white people, usually white people with money. It has only been in the last 50 years or so that PoC (people of color) have been allowed in. Specifically, they had to protest, boycott, put their lives on the line (many did not get those lives back) and raise hell to get those doors to open. Even when those doors were open it has been a relentless fight to stay there, to “prove” they should be there.

It is interesting to note that while many (white) people easily comprehend the idea that we have an economic system that favors the few, that is not “fair”, this does not translate as obviously to the criminal justice system. Broadly speaking it is a certain group of white people who really, really, wanted a guilty verdict, to be able to say the “system worked”.  The narrative of “justice for all” is powerful, it is ingrained in the Western psyche-it goes back to the foundations of the West.  It is like breathing. It is hard for those of us to who have the privilege of not being targeted for the color of our skin to leave it behind. It has served us well.

But, if we really say we care about humanity, we need to recognize it is killing our brothers and sisters, literally and figuratively. You can pick any criminal statistic you want, any amount of similar cases you like, the evidence is clear. Blackness is a crime. People fighting for prison abolition, reforms of the criminal justice system, wonder why so few white people are not there. It’s very simple, white people live in an alternative universe where the same things that happen to black people don’t happen to white people.

I don’t pretend to know what to do right now. I feel new to this particular fight, I feel right now I need to listen to those who have been on the front lines, those who have had to fight every day just to survive. The 40+ years of indoctrination I have been subjected to are of no help right now. There are many people out there who have been working on these issues; they will not be on CNN or on any television set. They will be where the people without power always are, in the cracks and margins. You can find them if you try. It is my suggestion, to other (white) people, that you try to find these voices, listen to what they have to say. Consider what is going on in your own sphere of influence, and try to imagine something different than your whiteness.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Blogging through Dirty Wars, Chapter 12, Anwar Awlaki update

Chapter 12 takes us back to Awlaki’s story, in 2003 beginning in the UK and ending in Yemen. Awlaki was just as successful in Great Britain as he was in the US.  He also was becoming more militant, and he had a very receptive audience.

Scahill does not get into this at all but it is my understanding that Muslims in the UK tend more toward radical ideas. Many dissidents I think (and by dissidents I mean from all ends of the spectrum) from Arab countries wind up there. A long time ago (10  years maybe?) there was an entire Frontline show on Saudi Arabia dissidents.  Personal story, a friend of mine who came from a Muslim family in India described to me how her brother became much more conservative after a stay in Britain. Like most Indian Muslims my friend and her family, while religious, were fairly mild-mannered which probably has to do with the unique history of Muslims in India. Anyway my friend’s brother, an engineer, fell in with a certain crowd, and next thing her family knew he was talking a lot about religion (and how they should change). It actually made marriage arrangements more difficult for because most female Indian Muslims were not down with the full body coverage, walking behind the husband, and no pictures.

Why is this the case? It is my understanding (translation: not claiming any expertise) that the UK society is more exclusionary; in essence there is more racism. For all the problems in the US, it is the rhetoric that everybody is an immigrant (to some extent), everybody has an equal chance, and our diversity is our strength. This is not exactly true of course but it is the mantra. Most white people completely accept it, and I really think many people of color, especially immigrants, buy in to it to some degree.  It’s a strong narrative. Honestly I think you can see evidence of this by the fact that we have not seen a real “home-grown” terror plot by US Muslims. (I’m not counting the ones that the FBI basically made up.)

While Awlaki was careful not to call for actual violence, his words and sermons came very close. The movie “Dirty Wars”, which I saw a few weeks ago focuses a lot on the Awlaki story. A lot of pictures, a local TV (!) clip of his family (the all-American Muslim family) and extensive interview with his father. And his father describes the shift, from the time when Awaki seem to have real faith that he could be a Muslim in America, and personified the American Dream, to the place where, if in his heart at least, he decided to wage jihad.  Even in his jihad calls however, from what Scahill reports, there was nuance to his criticism. He quotes Thomas Friedman:

. . . the hidden hand of the market cannot survive without the hidden fist. McDonalds’s will never flourish without McDonnell Douglas . . . ” Awlaki continues to describe a “global culture . . . that gives you no choice. Either accept McDonald’s, otherwise McDonnell Douglas will send their F-15s above your head. It is (a) very intolerant culture that cannot coexist with anything else
Awlaki defines Islam, as the only force to take on the “global culture” Awaki’s pitch was that if only Muslims could take over all would be right. While he condemned Christians and Jews even here he was particular:
The important lesson to learn here is never, ever, trust a kuffar (a non-Muslim” . . . Now you might say . . . my coworkers are fabulous people . . . but brothers . . . this person that you know is not the one calling the shots . . . when the Quran talks about the ‘nonbelievers’, it talks about their leaders . . . those who are pulling the strings.

First, that Friedman quote is the most truthful, insightful thing that man has ever said. It does not excuse the enormous amount of crap he has written, but that line is as good as any linking imperialism (i.e. US foreign policy) and capitalism. Absolutely, capitalism needs an army to back it up; there are no US foreign policy entanglements which do not have a corporate component.  As somebody who really believes in equality, in people and religions, I do not believe Christianity is to “blame” for capitalism any more than I “blame” Islam for terrorism. I think that power can corrupt Muslims as well as Christians and you don’t have to look far to see this.

But, no questions there is truth here, substitute “US corporate interests” for “global culture” and there you go. And I find it fascinating that he took the time that, even when discussing the godless heathens (non-Muslims), he took the time to note it was about the power. In spite of his success Awalki returns to Yemen to be with his family.

Reading these passages make me think, again, back to that time post 9-11 and how different things could have been. At the time, I was fairly full of myself, but have to ask what did people do to reach out to American Muslims at that time? I of course did nothing special and I remember stories here and there but was there any serious, political overtures? Maybe there were and I missed them, maybe they would not have been welcomed anyway. It is really a failure of the West, that is supposedly all-inclusive and enlightened that any major group should be so removed from society they would feel called to wage war.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What Part of “My Body” Don’t You Understand, Thoughts on Reproductive Freedom

If you are a woman, a significant part of your existence is focused on your “ladyparts”. This is regardless of whether you plan to use your uterus for its intended function or not, as a woman’s reproductive system is set to the “on” position from roughly ages 12-45, if left on its own.  Even if no sperm makes a visit, you still have to, on a monthly basis, take care of things. So the idea of essential reproductive rights—that is the ability to control one’s own reproductive system—is never far away.
Nevertheless the predominance of these necessary rights changes throughout one’s life-for myself, as I got older, out of college, established in my career, an unintended pregnancy lost the scariness that it had when I was in high school. In high school, even college, it was the worst thing imaginable. When I got married and wanted to have kids I had very different reproductive concerns.
“Reproductive freedom” encompasses much, a 12 year old getting a papillomavirus vaccine, a 19 year old contemplating an abortion, a 25 year old gender-questioning woman, a 28 year Native American woman being encouraged to undergo sterilization (probably by a white doctor) an 18 year old African-American woman sterilized against her will for “lack of intelligence” (again, decided by a white man), a 41 year old considering a hysterectomy and breast removal to avoid cancer, a woman in her 50s contemplating her best treatment for menopause. All of these can fall under the rubric “reproductive rights”, and I would also add women’s childbirth choices and early childhood/infant choices. All of these rights can be covered by one simple rule; a person has right to make her/his health decisions about her/his own body.  A person has the right to research-based medical advice, essential reproductive health care-be it an abortion, homebirth, surgery or no surgery.
This is inherently a women’s issue, or more specifically anybody with a female reproductive system because frankly, the male system is not much, and the only time it *does anything* is when it interacts with the female reproductive system. And once it’s in the female reproductive system that is all. I know an embryo has half male DNA but the ENTIRE birthing process, from prenatal through early infant care, is completely female. It is the female who has to bear the pregnancy, which can have real health consequences, the birth process-which has a higher mortality rate than abortion, and really, the child-rearing process. We can talk all we want about shared parenting, men have come a long way and that’s great for everybody.  But the simple fact is by design the post-natal process, named the “fourth trimester” by some is really about the mother.  To a large extent in most families mothers by choice, do the majority of child-rearing even after the immediate post-natal period. Frankly, I think this is hard-wired to some extent, part of nature’s way of continuing the human race. Women have to choose this, not have it forced on them.
People who claim to be “pro-life” have a rather narrow view of “life”. In their eyes “life” is most precious at the prenatal stage, when arguably, it is not life really at all. “Life” does not extend to the pregnant mother-whether her health is a concern, whether the process to create the thing inside her was by her choice, or that her life with a new child might be impossible if her financial situation is precarious. I heard little outcry regarding the case of Reyna Garcia, who miscarried while working under unsafe-for her pregnancy-conditions. More than 3,700 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the EEOC last year, in spite of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. Because of this continued discrimination, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was recently reintroduced to address these issues. You’ll be shocked, shocked, to know that the House Republicans, while having time to pass a bill to restrict abortions after 20 weeks, do not have time to pass a bill aimed to protect pregnant women.
Having a child is expensive, and raising a child is expensive. Women who are denied abortions, because they do not have the money or missed the magical 20-week point-of-no-return deadline suffer in terms of health and in terms of financial status. And by financial status I am not talking about a car payment, I’m talking about food, housing. Do you know who the poor people of the world are-they are women and children. Yet “pro-life” politicians are generally the same politicians who want to cut food stamps and limit health care access-either by restricting Medicaid funds and/or limiting Medicaid expansion under the ACA. Again, it’s funny how important that “life” is when it is inside a woman. Once it gets out, not so much.
“Pro-lifers” have no qualms about forcing a child on a woman, and make no mistake when you make contraception education non-existent, contraception, and early abortion alternatives such as plan B or RU486 difficult to get, and/or expensive YOU are forcing a child. This one of the many reasons pro-choice woman simply cannot take “pro-life” people seriously. If you really want to limit abortion it’s not difficult.  You educate young people early; you provide safe, reliable, affordable contraception. If you want women to have babies maybe you could strengthen the “safety net” instead of constantly cutting it. Let’s be clear, these restrictions will only hurt the most vulnerable women. White, wealthy women will always have a doctor to help. They always do.
As somebody with no current reproductive worries I have not been very emotionally invested in this issue until recently, when apparently with no other pressing concerns, the collective legislatures of Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina decided that restricting a woman’s right to her body was necessary. With more than 100,000 people I watched the You Tube stream of a huge crowd demanding to be heard on the right to choose. No matter what happens in Texas, and odds are the anti-abortion bill will pass in some form or another, that kind of organization is incredibly inspiring and will hopefully lead to good things in some form or another.
Why these battles have to be constantly fought is a question those of us pushing reproductive freedom have to ask. I think a part of it, as I alluded to earlier, is broadening the coalition. Freedom of your reproductive system includes many things, including forced sterilization, which has been a larger issue affecting women of color. North Carolina, while seeing fit to punish woman who desire to end pregnancy, have not done justice to the thousands of women sterilized against their will. Addressing health access broadly, and not allowing controversial issues to be isolated, linking reproductive freedom with the many issues it crosses paths with, could this help?
To those of you “pro-lifers” please JUST.STOP.ALREADY. Please freedom-lovers, give us our freedom-nobody has ever explained to me why liberty ends at my uterus. In West Texas where the fertilizer explosion was that leveled the town, there was no fire code, hence no sprinkler system or firm alarms (via @MikeElk). So while safety regulations are too much, apparently there is no end to the restrictions to what a woman can do with her own body. We can’t regulate corporations but uteruses? Yes, yes we can.
As for the “life” question. -I do not question what is inside a pregnant woman is “life”. But yeast is “life”, so is a tree, a mushroom, a cat. We do not treat all form of life the same, and the concept that the mass of differentiated cells inside a woman’s body should preempt that woman who is an independent, living breathing fully formed person  . . . no. You can show me all the dismembered fetuses you want, you can tell me all the Kermit Gosnell stories you want-it does not matter. Because what I see is a women’s choice to protect herself, to maybe even save herself. Every child a wanted child, and every woman’s life is more important then what her body makes. Period.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Dirty Wars chapters 10 and 11, Somalia and Yemen

Chapter 10 details the US involvement in Somalia after 9/11, specifically late in 2002 when the US government officially threw themselves with the worst of the warlords that were running the country in lieu of a nearly non-existent central government. There is a little background to the beginning of US involvement with Somalia under Clinton.
The story of our involvement reads like any other US intervention, only the names and places change the practice is the same.  So, on one hand you have intelligence officers, CIA, military etc. talking up the idea that East African was becoming a haven for terrorists. On the other hand you have Somalia experts, i.e. academics, people who had spent their lives studying the country, questioning this narrative. Yes, maybe you had some AQ people running to Somalia from other places but there did not appear any kind of underlying support for radical Islam. You did have country that over the past 10 (now 20) years ravaged by war and a population (guessing here) mainly concerned with survival.
In theory you had a choice here, you could pay a major warlord to do your work.  This would be taking the risk that said warlord, now flush with unlimited cash and weapons support, might just take it upon themselves to interpret the “war on terror” in their own way. The other option might be the take that cash and, oh I don’t know, strengthen the central government? Increase safety, access to food and water, and in the process infiltrate the country to carefully weed out the terrorists that were never part of the community anyway. While the second option sounds more labor-intensive it would not have to be “nation-building”. The biggest issue with Somalia has always been safety; I’m thinking that plenty of international groups would do most of the heavy lifting if a skeletal military force were there and people were not worried about being killed-if the CIA was going to be all over anyway couldn’t they help out with this as well?
Needless to say the first option was exercised, and the warlords quickly engaged in the game of let’s grab anybody remotely Islamic or who we don’t like, and see if the Americans will give us a check. This, in addition to general destabilizing activities, made a bad situation worse. But, they hate us for our FREEDOM. The fact is you will get AQ recruits much faster in a destabilized, poor, under-attack community.  An interesting note in this chapter was a description of how, under Clinton, members of Islamic Jihad, including Ayman al Zawahiri (Bin Laden’s number two), were sent to Egypt through “extraordinary rendition” and tortured. Not long after al Zawahiri published a letter in a British paper vowing revenge against America in “a language they will understand.” Days later the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were carried out, killing 224 people (12 Americans).
It has to be asked, what if these guys were arrested, and put on trial? A public trial, with redactions, closed parts as necessary, but relatively open, so that the world could see were serious about our principles? Now I don’t have any illusions that such a case would be easy, nor do I have a good answer to what is an appropriate punishment for terrorists, and I do not think your committed AQ member can be easily rehabilitated if at all. But you have to wonder how that might “shake up the field” so to speak. If the US walked the walk when it came to bringing suspects to justice what kind of effect would that have on AQ recruits, and their support networks? I think trials need to be done on moral grounds but there are real, practical reasons to do them. Tragically I do not think these ideas ever enter the minds of those in Washington.
Chapter 11 Yemen
Chapter 11 describes the period in Yemen 2003-2006, beginning after the major terror attack in Saudi Arabia, which included the US defense contractor, the Vinnell Corporation. After the ensuing crackdown most AQ members fled to Yemen.
During this period the US took its eye off of Yemen, satisfied that the Saleh had arrested many key AQ figures, and the most elite hunter-killer forces of JOSC were in Iraq. But in 2004 there was a major uprising of the Houthi minority in the north, and Saleh utilized all he had to put in down, which included massive Saudi help as well as easing off AQ to put down the insurgency.
Saleh also used AQ suspects and members as leverage against the US, refusing to hand over suspects, prosecuting and sentenced in Yemen. Hundreds of Yemeni suspects would ultimately be released back into Yemen, essentially allowed to do what they wanted as long as it was not in Yemen. So really, this was period for AQ to gather strength, which I believe is still the case today.
As it has been for a while, Yemen is complex place. But, again, playing the “what if” game you have to wonder if military involvement has stopped at Afghanistan, and there could have been a proper focus on Yemen and Somalia. Now, you certainly could argue that countries are better off when the US ignores them but in both of these cases the US ‘s only interest in these areas would be getting the terrorists out. In theory the US could, especially in the case Yemen, put pressure on through Saudi Arabia to get the terrorists out and possible help broker something of a peace agreement between the various groups. Yes, I know, there is not really any history of the US playing such a role in any conflict-that is usually the US pushes its agenda and tells everybody else to go fuck themselves. But I strongly believe you have to imagine what you want to see to make it happen, or even to try limit bad alternatives.
What if instead of looking inward after 9/11 the US had looked outward-tried to really mediate some of the conflicts that helped perpetuate the terrorists strength? What if the US had tried to demonstrate of the values of the constitution instead of tossing in the garbage? What if?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Dirty Wars chapters 8 and 9-the US Officially Embraces Torture, Stanley McChrystal

Chapter 8 begins describing another bureaucratic battle-this between the FBI and the CIA. Generally, the FBI favored interrogation tactics that were not torture, but parts of the CIA did, goaded on by the Pentagon. It’s important to note not all of the CIA embraced “enhanced interrogation”but generally those people were isolated (or even isolated themselves) or were not promoted. But even with the CIA moving in his direction that wasn’t enough for Rumsfeld, so he looked to programs in the DoD that he thought would be helpful.
These programs included the JSOC, the JPRA, and the SERE. The JSOC was previously introduced, the JPRA is the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency. This group was responsible for rescuing military personnel trapped in enemy territory, especially in “denied areas” which knowledge of their presence could cause a lot of problems. JPRA also prepared military personnel for capture by the enemy, this was the SERE program Survival, Evacuation, Resistance, and Escape. The SERE program kept a huge record of torture techniques, going back to the Civil War, and exposed military servicemen to these techniques. Rumsfeld’s idea? To officially use these techniques-“terrorists”remember this is stuff that the worst dictators we know used, that we know at least occasionally killed people-on. I think it’s important to put “terrorists” in quotes. I don’t question that there are people out there that want to do harm to the US, and that maybe it’s appropriate to do large sweeps in suspected areas, maybe it’s ok to take whatever the Pakistan government hands you. A lot of suspects were picked up this way, and I think its reasonable to assume many innocent people, or at least people who were not really that involved and not worth picking up, were taken this way. If you have been paying attention at all to the news at this time (2002-2003) and this chapter makes clear it was obvious that torture techniques were used indiscriminately. That is, if you were unlucky to get picked up, you were put through the mill.
Even if you think torture can be justified-I believe most people would identify torture as not an American value-there is plenty of evidence that torture DOES NOT WORK. Who says it doesn’t work? Is it pointy-headed liberals? Is it those dirty hippy peace activists types? Is it those who are “soft” on terrorism? No, it is veteran interrogators at the FBI, at the CIA. Did they state this clearly and unequivocally to the White House? Yes, yes, did. Did the White House show any sign they took the view of the professional seriously on this matter? No, they did not. They crafted a “torture” memo that basically said if you didn’t kill the person, it was not torture. See, legal! Fixed it for ya as the kids like to say. Congress was “briefed”-even if they were not fully informed I think its clear they didn’t ask any questions, so later they had some wriggle room to claim they didn’t know, in the off chance somebody cared.
I’m not going to describe the torture, which Scahill gives a general description of. All I want to say, if you treat somebody like an animal , you should not be surprised when they, or their family, act like one.
The rest of the chapter discusses the “gray” area of governance for military and intelligence operations. “Covert” operations require permission you might say, “clandestine” operations do not, if said operations are in countries with “anticipated hostilities”. In addition there was conflicting Congressional oversight. R and C of course, saw the whole world as their battlefield, so they used JSOC, which was kind of in-between anyway, and basically did whatever they wanted. But it wasn’t just the CIA and Congress that R and C wanted free of, it was military oversight as well. In essence R and C wanted to have a Special Ops to report directly to them, and to start killing many people right away. As before, there were plenty of military commanders who thought, um, maybe we ought to wait on some intelligence that seems useful, and then go kill lots of people. This was not enough for Rumsfeld, who as always as quick to dismiss anybody who did not agree with him, if you didn’t agree you were gone.  
R and C continued to push for independence, and aggressiveness of action. JSOC was “freed” from military oversight, and began working with an intelligence group known as Gray Fox. Even as Brent Scowcroft (chair of a 2002 commission, former Bush senior official), recommended pushing  more intelligence unit into the CIA, Rumsfeld went the other way.
In April 2002 Project Icon was established, funded by diverting Pentagon funds (not briefed to Congress), later known as Strategic Support Branch or SSB. This group was made up of teams of Special Ops units paired with intelligence personal. Gray Fox and SSB together were in essence R and C’s own army, with Stephen Cambone their main guy. Cambone would be further promoted in 2003 to a position that previously did not exist- undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Again, plenty of professionals in the CIA and military did not think this was a good idea, State department officials noticed a lot of people out of place- R and C did not think they needed to inform ambassadors and the like that operatives were in their cities. As one official says “We know the Geneva Convention was thrown under the bus, so to say, pretty early”. Some officials tried to stay away from it.
Chapter 9 Stanley McChrystal
Chapter 9 is a short bio of McCrystal. He is described as a good solider, a smart one, but also one who knows where the power lies. Actually, the overall description reads like the fawning over General Patraeus. McCrystal is a “warrior scholar” but can relate to his men. He comes off a smart and tough but there is nothing to suggest he possesses any remarkable skills.
The chapter runs through the early part of Iraq War, briefly describing the “leadership” of Bremer, the early, destabilizing decisions of “de-Baathification” and disbanding the Iraq military. “De-Baathification” left out the people most likely to lead the country—it was practically a requirement to join the Baath party if you were to get anywhere professionally. Disbanding the military put thousands of Iraqis out of job and pension-not to mention these were people who might know how to conduct armed resistance?
May 1st-the famed “Mission Accomplished” speech, and a few months later the guerilla insurgency started. Of course the White house tried to claim this was not happening but you can only deny reality for so long. On August 19th, the UN was bombed and most UN personal were gone by the time the UN was bombed a second time Sept 2003.
That same month McChrystal became JSOC commander and was charged with crushing the insurgency. Although Rumsfeld had grand plans for JSOC it became all consumed by fighting terrorism in a “nation that had no AQ presence before US tanks rolled in a year earlier.” The chapter discusses Zarqawi, the infamous deck of playing cards, and the development of JSOC’s High Value Targeting task force (HVT).   The chapter introduces William Raven, McChrystal’s right hand man, who ultimately would sustain a major injury and work to vet High Value Targets for JSOC to kill. The chapter ends noting the huge increase in the manhunt list, and “credits” the “improvement” in JSOC to Raven, McChrystal, and Mike Flynn (Flynn was an experienced commander in Afghanistan McChrystal worked with for a short time.)