Sunday, 24 February 2013

Rant about AA

There is racism everywhere.  What I’m most familiar with is white-on-black racism, as it occurs in Europe (since this is where I live) and North America (since that is where lots is written about it).  It has always been blatantly obvious to me that racism is very different on the two continents.

In Europe racism is often about fear.  Fear of the “other”, of the “unknown”.  Although Europe as a continent is pretty heterogeneous culturally and linguistically, we all traditionally look quite similar, believe in the same divinity and have a broadly similar system of values.  Enter the “other”: someone who doesn’t look like us, speak like us, dress like us and holds values that may be alien to us.  Clashes were inevitably going to occur.

While the United States suffers from some of the same symptoms and problems as Europe, it appears to be, as the “melting pot”, more comfortable with tolerating, even when not embracing, differences.  American racism is in a way a “purer” form of the illness.  It stems from a long-held belief that the value of people is determined by the colour of their skin.  The traditional stance being that black people may talk the same language as us, believe in the same god as us, have the same values as us, but they’re not like us ... because they’re black.

The experience of my friend K is illustrative:  Having lived several years in different European countries, she moved to the US.  Her black colleagues were baffled when she did not want to join the African-American club at work, telling them that since she was not, in fact, African-American, she did not feel the affinity that united the members of the club.  In the US "blackness" can be much more as well as much less than "just" skin colour.  It is a shared identity that relies heavily on a joint heritage of discrimination and survival.  At the same time, it "labels" people as presumably sharing that identity purely based on their skin colour.  K told me she had never "felt as black" as she did in the States.

Europe’s answer to the problem so far has basically been threefold: (1) Ignore it.  (2) If someone suggests that there is a problem, deny it.  (3) If you absolutely have to admit that there is a problem, tell people to stop it.  Tell them not to be racist.  Then go back to (1).

Not the subtlest or most sophisticated of approaches, I would dare say.

The United States has tentatively embraced affirmative action instead.*  Some of the main reasons were summarised by Justice O’Connor of the US Supreme Court from the testimony of Michigan Law School Professor Richard Lempert in Grutter v Bollinger et al, 123 S.Ct 2325 (2003).  According to Prof Lempert the school sought

“... students with diverse interests and backgrounds to enhance classroom discussion and the educational experience both inside and outside the classroom. ... When asked about the policy’s ‘commitment to racial and ethnic diversity with special reference to the inclusion of students from groups which have been historically discriminated against,’ Lempert explained that this language [purported] to include students who may bring to the Law School a perspective different from that of members of groups which have not been the victims of such discrimination.”

Now I may be a bit dim, but I don’t actually see how someone’s skin colour enhances the educational experience of those around her.  Nor do I see how the fact that people with skin colour like hers have been discriminated against in the past makes automatically her “perspective” different.

However, I DO see that the argument put forward above is perfectly valid where the individual in question truly brings “diversity” and a “different perspective” to a university class, workplace etc, because she IS in fact different – different NOT by colour, BUT by culture, custom, religion, etc.

In other words, affirmative action sounds like a better tool to attack the European than the American brand of racism.  Why has it not even been considered here?

* “Tentatively” not only because not everyone believes that affirmative action works, but also because some measures have been struck down by the Supreme Court as contrary to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.  Predictably the Court has been bitterly divided in some of these decisions, including in Grutter v Bollinger.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Rant about Impotence

North Korea is in the news again, but for all the wrong reasons.

We are so bombarded with images of misery and despair that the natural human reaction is to become jaded and stop caring.  That is why I was almost surprised at myself when I read a long piece on the Guardian website about the experiences of Shin Dong-hyuk, the so far only known escapee from the North Korean gulag system who had been born into it.  The article was based on and promoting his book, Escape from Camp 14, written by Blaine Harden.  I would have desperately wanted to link the article, but it is no longer available on the website as its copyright has apparently expired.  Here is a shorter and less harrowing review of the book.  The book is also now available in Finnish, in September it topped the best-selling list for non-fiction.  Here is a link to the short article in Helsingin Sanomat reporting on Mr Shin’s visit to Helsinki.

I was absolutely aghast upon reading the article.  The matter was probably made worse by the fact that I had only slightly earlier finished Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, the definite account of the Soviet Gulag system written from the viewpoint of a former victim, and later Nobel-prize winner.  The one thing that kept me from having nightmares when reading Solzhenitsyn was the thought that “this was in the past, we wouldn’t let it happen now”.  Well it is happening now and we are aware of it and letting it happen.

I was at a loss.  I felt I needed to do something, but didn’t know what to do.  So I wrote to Amnesty International, the organisation that I’ve supported for years and whose (original) mission I firmly believe in asking them why THEY weren’t doing anything in the face of possibly the worst human rights violations our world was witnessing.  (As an emergency treatment to any kind of moral guilt, I recommend blaming someone else, preferably those close to us and actually doing something worthwhile...)  The UK and Swiss sections both replied to my e-mails admirably swiftly (take note all companies, public bodies and any other entity to which I may ever have addressed a customer/citizen query).  They explained that they had ran a campaign in late 2011 (that I had somehow missed entirely), and were increasing their lobbying with the appointment of the new “ultimate leader”, which is usually a moment in time when changes are more likely in a totalitarian regime.  Nothing seems to have come of it, though, as recently recognised by UN’s Navi Pillay, who is calling for an inquiry into what “may” amount to crimes against humanity.  Understatement of the year.  Meanwhile it is business as usual for the estimated 200,000 political prisoners in the gulags.

The Economist also ran an editorial deploring the situation, attacking nuclear-scared Western governments, the UN and China for their inaction.  The last one of these, the only government that actually COULD do something, is of course deaf, if not worse, to pleas from Western magazines or HR organisations.  Instead of putting pressure on North Korea to stop the abominable practice, China returns escapees to the hands of the North Korean authorities.

The feeling of impotence has certainly not gone away.  Apart from donating money to Amnesty’s North Korea campaign, and raging at some of my closest people (F and mum the most obvious targets...), I have done nothing.  This is largely because I have heard no good ideas.  Amnesty has a few, so I’ve supported them.  The Economist didn’t mention anything that an individual could do, nor did the Guardian or the UN.  Most depressingly, Mr Shin himself has not been reported giving any practical tips of what we can do with the very painful, personal information he is touring the world spreading.

Ideas more than welcome.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Rant about Feminism

I’m going to be ranting a fair bit about this thing called “feminism” on this blog, so let me give you a quick overview of where we are with that, and why and what I will be ranting about.

I don’t exactly know how many ”waves” feminism has gone through altogether as an ”ism”, but I’m pretty damn sure that it is currently surfing on the crest of a different one than when I first started reading up on it in the dying years of the last century.  

The first feminist oeuvre I ever read was a book that I picked up from my college library’s “women’s studies” section, because I saw it on the shelf and it intrigued me.  It was Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography.  Soon after that a friend lent me her copy of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s almost as interestingly named Bitch.  You would have thought that with titles like these feminism was the coolest kid on the ideology block, but it was most decidedly not.  I got funny looks if I tried to bring up the topic in conversations, and when I carelessly left Bitch lying around my desk at my summer job, I got an incredulous, almost horrified, “don’t tell me that you’re a feminist or something” from a colleague. 

Those early years were dark, but at least I felt righteously that I was on to something.

In the following years I watched in dismay as feminism went (from my perspective) down the tubes with anything and everything that was about women making money becoming “feminist”.  And way too often women making money was about their bodies, one way or another.  I mean, for Christ’s sake, there was a time when Jenna Jameson, a porn star, and Katie Price, a tittie model turned self-obsessed-media-personality, were considered “feminist role models”.

Then came not only Spice Girls with their “girl power” (on which I may have something to say later), but from my perspective much more importantly Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs.  As far as I’m concerned, the name was just as cool as those of the earlier books I had read in college.  But more importantly, the content was expressing better than I ever could have the discomfort that I had felt about female sexuality having turned into female sexiness, and the fact that if women weren’t taking part in wet t-shirt competitions screaming in delight, they were boring tight-asses who didn’t know how to have a blast.  I mean, what better sport could there be for a woman than pole dancing?

And via all that we’ve landed ... here.  In the happy place where people no longer cringe when I tell them that I’m a feminist.  Where my significant other (F) doesn’t cringe when I tell him that HE is a feminist.  Where feminism is still about the old things of pay equality and women having control over their own bodies, but also about the honest admission that even privileged white women CAN’T have it all.  Good old body hair is also back in the trenches.  The job is not done, but there are various ways of doing it, and we don’t all have to agree on how to do it – nor even on what “it” is.  Also, we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously... not all the time anyway.  Feminism is a diverse, mature, self-confident ideology.  Just like the women who were fortunate enough to have grown up under its benign influence, enjoying the fruits of its labour.  The lucky gals like me.