Fans of Science-Fiction Should Rejoice

I have already mentioned repeatedly that I am a huge fan of science-fiction, which I see as not separate from sociology. Said it before, say it again: good science-fiction is good sociology.

So, it seems to me that fans of science-fiction should rejoice because there have recently been quite a few good scifi movies (in addition to good TV revival shows, such as Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who). Let me just mention a few examples of things that I thought were great.

Of course, the scifi movie of the month is Inception. Love it or hate it (I liked it, didn’t like the end but was not bothered by the fact that this is not a movie about getting attached to characters, thank goodness for that actually), it has an intriguing storyline, neat special effects. In many ways, it reminded me of Dark City (another good recent scifi film). Exploring the dimension of human consciousness and mind is not a new theme for science-fiction. When Dark City came out, Roger Ebert declared it the future of science-fiction films”

“”Dark City” by Alex Proyas is a great visionary achievement, a film so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like “Metropolis” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” If it is true, as the German director Werner Herzog believes, that we live in an age starved of new images, then “Dark City” is a film to nourish us. Not a story so much as an experience, it is a triumph of art direction, set design, cinematography, special effects–and imagination.”

Quite frankly, I am not sure whether the space opera sub-genre of science-fiction has much left to offer, since Star Wars sorta killed it (although the latest Star Trek movie gives me hope), so, quality in scifi movies has to be found elsewhere, and both films do that: telling you an intriguing story you have not seen before, which is more than most movies have to offer (you know, the kind where you can tell not just the ending, everything that is going to happen between opening and end credits just by watching the trailer).

In addition, in both cases, great care has obviously been taken regarding cinematography, special effects, set designs and soundtrack. Going back one step further in film history, I would argue that both films are the descendants of Brazil, minus the sarcasm and dark humor. Brazil remains an all-time favorite of mine.

In all three films, a lot of the has to do with dark urban settings (whether real or imagined or manufactured / and re-shaped on a regular basis) and characters struggling with reality (such as it is and pushing back against its oppressive nature, and sometimes paying a price for it. In all three films, the city is a dehumanized environment, impersonal or hyper-capitalized where other urban denizens are anonymous figures, easily interchangeable. Holding on to one’s individual identity gets tricky and a form of resistance.

In terms of construction and malleability of reality, I should mention the very scary, highly intriguing Spanish film Time Crimes even though one might argue it is not strictly science-fiction, it involves (very short) time travel, so, to me, it counts although I would concede that it straddles the fence between science-fiction and horror, not that there is anything wrong with that.

And when there is time travel, there is always the question of whether one can change the past to right some wrong (even if the wrong took place just an hour or so in the past) or whether such attempts keep making things worse. It is a movie that was probably shot on a shoestring budget but it grabs you and does not let go until the end.

Moving on, science-fiction has also always explored “what if” scenarios, exploring what happens after the big disasters that we fear actually do happen. In this post-apocalyptic genre, one can find zombie movies (the old living dead movies of the 50s reflecting on the fear of Soviet invasion, or the post-nuclear holocaust sub-genre). More recently, of course, the disaster genre has focused on environmental devastation whether due to climate issues or planetary “malfunctions”. More interesting, from a more strictly scifi point of view are a couple of films related to the scarcity era: once we run out of vital resources, then what. I think two movies stand out:

Moon is not an artistically elaborate film. It is actually quite simple but deals with what it means to be human. I like it precisely for its simplicity. And it is more entertaining than Solaris (yeesh, I never got that one, old or new). The movie also involves the consequences of the commercialization of everything and how far economic and labor exploitation can go.

The other movie, of course, is Pandorum. I am usually pretty good at figuring movies out and solving enigmas. So, I especially appreciate a movie that keeps me guessing for a while, and this one did. It does deal with being forced off the Earth for various reasons and what happens on the way to getting to some other planet. Along with ethical issues pertaining to being the only humans left.

So, I guess, my main point for fans of intelligent science-fiction, there are a lot of interesting things going on right now in movies and on television (as opposed to crappy, misogynistic, homophobic and reactionary adaptations of comic books), and not just from the US, but from Europe as well.

And I may have mentioned before how much I liked this animated film as well. Again, a simple and relatively short story but very well done and carefully crafted (even though I did not like the end, seemed like a cop out to me).

I don’t know whether we can speak of a “renewal” or “revival” of the science-fiction genre and its various sub-genres. That might be pretentious but it just seems to me that there just has been a series of interesting films that show that young directors with distinctive artistic visions are interested in scifi and its narrative possibilities.

I am just glad to see there is still life in that genre (as opposed to romantic comedies, and doods movies) because quite frankly, wizards and hobbits and superheros are annoying.

Labor: Over- and Under-Compensated, Unrelated to Performance

Two items seem to me to be related.

First, on Le Monde’s financial blog, Demystifier La Finance, George Ugeux reviews the compensation of American CEOs over the past ten years and notes the absence of correlation between compensation (astronomical) and performance (variable, from very profitable in the case of Steve Jobs, to abysmal in the case of Lehman Brothers or Countrywide, to stagnant in the case of Colgate or Starbucks).

As Ugeux notes, these 25 individual CEOs collectively received $14 billion (a little less than the GNP of Ivory Coast or Cameroon), but they have not created value, which means that, based on the data, the correlation between value creation and CEO compensation is not significant, random. Only 5 of the 25 companies that provided such extravagant compensation did better than the Dow Jones. Which means that corporate governance structures either have abdicated their responsibility or are marked by what the French would call “copinage” (a mix of interlocking directorates and “old boys network”, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours… yes, they’re all men).

Interestingly, one of the commenters to the post notes that French CEOs often argue that their also, but not quite as extravagant compensation is due to the fact that they need to remain competitive internationally. Except that, for them, “internationally” only means copying American practices. After all, if they chose a different standard of comparison for international competition, for instance, Japan, they would find that compensation is not the same at all.

On the same topic, ChartPorn reports on major CEO payouts (the infamous Golden Parachutes):

This is what should be mentioned every time someone gripes about merit pay for teachers and complains about how tenure protects bad teachers from being fired and how, in the private, non-unionized sector, where real performance is rewarded and poor performance not tolerated, things are so much more fair and just and profitable.

In these discussions, it is as if (1) 100% of education personnel was tenured (not really) and (2) as if tenure was unique to education and higher education (not really either).

But that is what goes on at the top of the social ladder. What about other categories of labor? Let’s talk about wage theft:

“Billions of dollars in wages are being illegally stolen from millions of workers each and every year. The employers range from small neighborhood businesses to some of the nation’s largest employers—Wal-Mart, Tyson, McDonald’s, Target, Pulte Homes, federal, state, and local governments and many more.

Wage theft occurs when workers are not paid all their wages, workers are denied overtime when they should be paid it, or workers aren’t paid at all for work they’ve performed. Wage theft is when an employer violates the law and deprives a worker of legally mandated wages.

Wage theft is widespread and pervasive across all types of companies. Various surveys have found that:

• 60 percent of nursing homes stole workers’ wages.
• 89 percent of nonmonitored garment factories in Los Angeles and 67 percent of nonmonitored garment factories in New York City stole workers’ wages.
• 25 percent of tomato producers, 35 percent of lettuce producers, 51 percent of cucumber producers, 58 percent of onion producers, and 62 percent of garlic producers hiring farm workers stole workers’ wages.
• 78 percent of restaurants in New Orleans stole workers’ wages.
• Almost half of day laborers, who tend to focus on construction work, have had their wages stolen.
• 100 percent of poultry plants steal workers’ wages.

Although wage theft is the most pernicious when employers steal money from workers earning low wages, wage theft affects many middle-income workers too, including construction workers, nurses, dieticians, writers, bookkeepers, and many more. Wage theft affects young workers, mid-career workers, and older workers. Although some of the worst wage theft occurs when immigrant workers aren’t paid minimum wage or aren’t paid at all, the largest dollar amounts are stolen from native-born white and black workers in unpaid overtime.

Millions of workers are having their wages stolen. Two, possibly as many as 3, million workers aren’t being paid the minimum wage. More than 3 million workers are misclassified by their employers as independent contractors when they are really employees, which means their employers aren’t paying their share of payroll taxes and many workers are being illegally denied overtime pay. Untold millions more aren’t being paid overtime because their employers claim they are exempt from the overtime laws, when they really aren’t. Several million more aren’t being paid for their breaks or have illegal deductions made from paychecks. The scope of these abuses is staggering.”

So, over-compensation, not related to performance at the top, and under-compensation at the bottom. That is a structural feature of the American labor system.

In Which The WSJ Discovers The Sapir-Whorf Thesis

Without mentioning it:

“Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? Do they merely express thoughts, or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express?”

And no Wittgenstein mentioned either, or all the work done by a lot of people on this very topic (linguists, analytical philosophers, etc.). Hence this:

“These questions touch on all the major controversies in the study of mind, with important implications for politics, law and religion. Yet very little empirical work had been done on these questions until recently. The idea that language might shape thought was for a long time considered untestable at best and more often simply crazy and wrong. Now, a flurry of new cognitive science research is showing that in fact, language does profoundly influence how we see the world.”

Note to self: when the media suddenly “discovers” something that social sciences have researched for decades, it automatically annihilates ANY and all research done prior to said discovery.

The Dimensions of Patriarchal Control, Explained in Three Steps

One of the things I tend to emphasize in my patriarchy posts is the idea that patriarchy is about control of women’s bodies at different levels of society and culture. There are multiple dimensions of patriarchal control at work on a global basis. Despite the cultural differences, it is a global pattern.

For instance, patriarchal control is promoted through cultural products, such as movies, that tell stories and contribute to overall cultural narratives about gender. Doctor Phil (no, not THAT doctor Phil, the REAL doctor Phil, Ph.D, sociologist, non-Opraj promoted, non-phony) provides this analysis of Sin City (the movie), after reviewing all the instances of gendered violence that are the heart of the film (violence against men is peripheral to it):

“The portrayal of women in this film doesn’t send the most empowering of messages: if you’re a woman and you have sex, male violence is sure to follow.”

There is no question that patriarchal control does involve strong attempts at controlling women and girls sexuality, from FGM, to child marriage, to purity balls, a great deal of cultural and social energy is dedicated to ensure that such sexuality remains under patriarchal control and is not freely and independently enjoyed by women and girls. And if they dare try, consequences follow, in the form of violence, in many movies.

Patriarchal dominance also means that any man is entitled to exercise such control over any woman perceived to have strayed from patriarchal requirements of virginity or marital fidelity. That is the individual level of patriarchal control. Take this story, for instance:

“A Texas bus driver who refused to bring a woman to Planned Parenthood is suing after being fired.

Edwin A. Graning worked for the Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) near Austin, Texas, for less than a year before he was let go in January. At the time, he told his supervisor that, “in good conscience, he could not take someone to have an abortion,” according to the lawsuit. Graning is an ordained Christian minister.

…He is seeking reinstatement, back pay, and compensatory damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress.

Right…because I’m sure the woman he shamed and refused to drive (which was, you know, his job) wasn’t pained or distressed at all.  This reminds me of extremist pharmacists arguing they shouldn’t have to dispense emergency contraception or birth control pills if it goes against their “conscience.”  It’s bullshit; do your job.  Women’s legal right to access medical and health services trumps some anti-choicer being made to feel uncomfortable.  Even if you have compassion for folks who don’t want to act in a way that compromises their conscience – the fact is that their refusal to do their job could seriously impede someone’s access to care.  And there’s nothing more important than that.”

It is interesting that such moral invocations are only seen as legitimate when they involve controlling women’s sexuality. So, if a woman has sex, there are consequences: violence, but also pregnancy, both presented as punishment. Therefore, it is unconscionable that a woman be allowed to escape the consequences of her sexual activity either through contraception or abortion (the whole “pro-life” argument is a joke and a cover-up).

The next step into this is that once a woman gets pregnant, her body becomes public property, and subjected to multiple forms of control, more likely in institutional form, backed by the authority of state agencies. For example:

“The health watchdog NICE has issued new guidelines encouraging women in England to attain a healthy weight before they get pregnant.

It also advises them against eating for two once they conceive.

It says almost half of women of childbearing age are overweight or obese, which could harm their child.

Many women feel they are offered confusing and conflicting advice about their health during pregnancy.

The guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence are aimed at cutting through that. They discuss weight and exercise before, during and after pregnancy.

(…)

If a woman is obese during pregnancy, she has an increased risk of developing serious complications like pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, miscarriage and stillbirth. She is also more likely to have a Caesarean section.

NICE says women with a body mass index of more than 30 should be encouraged to lose weight before they become pregnant. During pregnancy, losing weight can be harmful to the unborn child, so women are advised to eat healthily and to do gentle exercise.

After they have given birth, women are told they should lose their baby weight gradually. Experts from NICE say celebrities who regain their pre-baby figures very fast can put unrealistic pressure on ordinary mothers.

“Women should understand that weight loss after birth takes time, and physical activity and gradual weight loss will not affect their ability to breastfeed,” said Professor Mike Kelly, NICE public health director.

“Losing weight gradually can actually help women maintain a healthy weight in the long term.””

Note that this is not just during pregnancy to protect the fetus: it’s before, during, after, and long term. Also, how high are these risks, exactly, compared to the general population. They might be higher but not significantly so. Equally, it has long been established that BMI is not a measure of health. It is one of these fitness measures that have changed over time, that are culturally used to define standards of bodily acceptability.

And of course, patriarchal control also extends to parenting and marital health.

The bottom line is that control over women and their bodies and sexuality is exercised at multiple levels: culturally, individually and institutionally, It is a tightly-woven web of symbolic, interpersonal and structural violence from which there is limited escape.

The F!@# You Conception of Control – Broadband Edition

In totally unsurprising news

“Britons are not getting the broadband services they are being sold, suggests a government report.

Ofcom’s analysis of broadband speeds in the UK shows that, for some services, 97% of consumers do not get the advertised speed.

It also shows a growing gap between the claims ISPs make for broadband and the speed being delivered.

To fix the problem, Ofcom is revamping the code of conduct for ISPs and asking for changes to how broadband is sold.

(…)

Unveiling the figures Ed Richards, chief executive of Ofcom, said the survey revealed a “growing gap” between what people are sold and the reality of their broadband service.

“The gap between the average headline speed and actual speed has increased in this period even though the actual speed has risen,” he said.

In 2009, he said, when actual speeds for broadband were 4.1mbps, the average that those services were being advertised for stood at 7.1Mbps. In 2010, when people are generally getting 5.2Mbps out of their broadband, ISPs are claiming they will support speeds up to 11.5Mbps.”

And the industry’s rationalizations are actually quite funny.

Book Review – Bad Sports

I confess to knowing next to nothing about Americans’ favorite sports, football, basketball and baseball but I had heard of Dave Zirin thanks to the Grumpy Sociologist. I had read a few columns from him and enjoyed his writing. So, I decided to read Bad Sports – How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love.

I should note that I also picked it as my first non-fiction Kindle reading, hoping that it would not be too scholarly and would be a good start in the process of doing all my reading on Kindle (that is, based on what is available since academic books seem to be underrepresented on the e-book market).

Bad Sports is a quick read. The writing is quite pleasant and informal. Obviously, Zirin enjoys throwing a few punches around. The book is about how extremely wealthy team owners make like bandits by blackmailing cities into getting them brand new (and obscenely expensive) stadiums and arenas, and gorge themselves on public monies while delivering lousy results, squeezing the fans for as much money as they can, all the while promoting ultra-right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity.

It is the story of mostly white men who got enormously successful (often by inheritance, almost always with political connections) in a variety of businesses and decided that being successful in one area would translate easily into another. So, they bought themselves teams (it does not look like which sport is involved actually matters, Zirin covers football, basketball, baseball and hockey), and then ruined them while laughing all the way to the bank at the expenses of the taxpayers and fans.

The book exposes the sense of entitlement, arrogance and condescension these men display. Somehow, they reminded me of the Wall Street CEOs after the collapse of 2008. In many ways, this is the same story. These men use their political connections to make a lot of money. They make a lot of really bad investments. Taxpayers are left to pick up the tab and watch the ruins. And, based on what Zirin writes, it is not like these men are really good at being sports team owners: they recruit the wrong players, fire competent coaches and managers, and hire toadies in their stead, and have nothing but contempt for the fans and the day-today workers of their team. In many ways, from the way Zirin tells it, they behave like the dictators of failing states. Good things these sports can’t be outsourced to the global South because otherwise, Americans would be watching their beloved sports on Tv with games played in peripheral countries.

This story represents one small aspect of what has happened to the economy in the past 30 years or so: the triumph of neoliberalism with massive redistribution towards the top of social ladder, and flat income lines for the vast majority of the population. It is the story of the triumph of the transnational capitalist class and its capture of the nation-state institutions that now work almost thoroughly as funding and enforcement arms of a corporate regime:

“During the economic boom of the 1990s, the longest period of economic expansion in U.S. history, publicly funded stadiums became the substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. These stadiums, ballparks, arenas, and domes were presented as a microwave-instant solution to the problems of crumbling schools, urban decay, and suburban flight. They are now the excrement of the urban neoliberalism of the 1990s, sporting shrines to the dogma of trickle-down economics. In the past twenty-five years, more than $30 billion of the public’s money has been spent for stadium construction and upkeep from coast to coast.” (Highlight Loc. 211-16)

And even this, stadium construction as public policy, does not work. It is just another form of plunder, or as Zirin puts it, a form of “shock doctrine”:

“This, remember, is the best-case scenario for stadium development. Recently, sports economists Dennis Coates of the University of Maryland and Brad R. Humphreys of the University of Alberta asked whether building new stadiums spurred the local economy. In their study—which spanned nearly thirty years and examined almost forty attempts to lure teams—they failed to discover a single example of a sports franchise jump-starting the local economy, including of course, the Camden Yards example. In fact, they uncovered the opposite trend: “a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area. . . . Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy.” This is seen ever so clearly in the service jobs created not only by the gentrification that surrounds Camden Yards but the stadium jobs themselves. They are poverty-wage occupations where $7.00 an hour is the going rate.” (Highlight Loc. 2026-34)

It is though a form of blackmail: if owners do not get a taxpayer-funded arena, they take their ball and move to another city. As Zirin puts it, it’s “your money or your team“. This is another aspect of these owners that Zirin emphasize as well: they are vindictive and love to punish everyone and anyone who does nor bow to their will, again, from moves in the middle of the night, to blackout policies, to shutting out of critical reporters.

For Zirin, most of what ails sports (including steroids and other drugs) can be laid at the feet of these owners. The buck stops with them even though they often get away with a lot, and the blame gets assigned lower on the sports stratification ladder. Political connections are useful in that respect.

So what is the solution? When an owner ruins a team, athletically and financially, then, the community should be able to take over, in the form of a Green Bay Packers model kind of ownership and management (even though it is not possible, as the masters of the game have ruled it out of their by-laws). Zirin is a populist when it comes to sports: the fans matter, the players matter and that is what makes the heart of the game. Corporatization and its strongmen have ruined it.

It is quite an entertaining read even for someone like me with non-existence knowledge of the subject. Zirin is quite an encyclopedia of sports. He is a true fan of the sports he writes about. But don’t be fooled by the punchy writing style, there is a lot of information and analysis in the book and a lot to learn. As I mentioned above, count this a another datapoint in the triumph of neoliberalism and corporatism with the same effects in sports as in other economic areas.

Highly recommended even if one is not a sports fan.

New Wars Uncovered – The Afghan War Logs

I am not done going through this but it is a must-read: the leaked Afghan War Logs, leaked to the Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel by Wikileaks. Beyond a detailed account of how war is waged in Afghanistan, they perfectly illustrate the logics of new wars.

In the Guardian:

Der Spiegel:

And the New York Times:

The Patriarchy Continuum – Breast Ironing in Cameroon

(Via Atheist Media Blog) And yes, it is patriarchal practice even when i involves only women. It is part of all these cultural practices one finds in many parts of the world where bodily modification and mutilations are used to “protect” (i.e. control) women from sex and pregnancy. This is very similar to FGM. One could consider wearing a veil, burqa or niqab as similar in that the body is not directly mutilated but still under patriarchal control and hidden.

And yes, any cultural practice that involves involuntary mutilation is wrong.

Also, this:

“Like any 12-year-old, Jamelia was excited at the prospect of a plane journey and a long summer holiday in the sun. An avid reader, she had filled her suitcases with books and was reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when her mother came for her. “She said, ‘You know it’s going to be today?’ I didn’t know exactly what it would entail but I knew something was going to be cut. I was made to believe it was genuinely part of our religion.”

She went on: “I came to the living room and there were loads of women. I later found out it was to hold me down, they bring lots of women to hold the girl down. I thought I was going to be brave so I didn’t really need that. I just lay down and I remember looking at the ceiling and staring at the fan.

“I don’t remember screaming, I remember the ridiculous amount of pain, I remember the blood everywhere, one of the maids, I actually saw her pick up the bit of flesh that they cut away ’cause she was mopping up the blood. There was blood everywhere.”

Some 500 to 2,000 British schoolgirls will be genitally mutilated over the summer holidays. Some will be taken abroad, others will be “cut” or circumcised and sewn closed here in the UK by women already living here or who are flown in and brought to “cutting parties” for a few girls at a time in a cost-saving exercise.”

Women In Refrigerators

This is a pattern I had not noticed but now, I see it in A LOT of movies (even Up) but isn’t it mostly an American phenomenon?

“10 years ago, comic writer Gail Simone coined the phrase “women in refrigerators” to draw attention to the number of wives and girlfriends that die to aid male character development. She was talking about comic books, but it’s no less true of movies. Disposable female characters who die just so that male characters are allowed to go on emotional journeys are legion. The director Christopher Nolan features heroes grieving their wives’ tragic demise in a good number of his films: Memento, The Prestige and Inception. But he’s not alone: Hollywood films contain more dead wives than Bluebeard’s basement.

This Dead Wives’ Club is so large it takes us from gory movies such as Gladiator to family-friendly Finding Nemo. James Bond picks up his membership in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – or if you count love interests instead of just wives, in every film. The ultra-deadliness of getting jiggy with 007 is blatant enough to be a throwaway gag in Austin Powers. The same goes for Martin Riggs’s killer kiss in Lethal Weapon, who also starts the first movie with a dead wife. I know Mel Gibson’s hardly a feminist icon, but while we’re here, Braveheart begins with the death of William Wallace’s wife.

In Se7en, Gwyneth Paltrow‘s character doesn’t die until the end of the film – but her death is the pivotal deux ex machina that will affect her hubby enough for him to be overwhelmed by a desire for revenge. Sure, Paltrow is irritating, but could anyone’s macrobiotic diet be infuriating enough that their movie character deserves to be turned into a head-in-a-box just so Brad Pitt’s character can be shown to feel something? We are meant to be thinking, “Oh, poor guy!” Poor guy? At least his spine and skull are still in the same postcode.

I don’t want to sound like I’m down on any film or filmmaker in particular, just this godawful trope. Inception is an intelligent, thoughtful film that self-reflexively challenges ideas about narrative. But sometimes it seems like enjoying popular culture and being a feminist seem mutually exclusive. I don’t want to have to turn my feminism off in the theatre just so I’m not niggled by the fact that instead of being treated as human beings with their own unique subjectivity, women in films are cheerfully shoved into white goods just so the hero can react to it with his best-ever acting and broody, brooding brood-face.”

I would argue that it allows writers / directors to have it both ways: you have a feminine character, but being dead or ghost-like makes it more passive and obviously a reflection or projection of male characters. The narrative view point that dominates then, and reconstructs the dead woman, is the male one. It also allows male characters to have other romantic relationships in the film, ans that is then seen as therapeutic.

Does the opposite happen in films? I can think of “La mariée etait en noir” but that is about it.

Extreme Masculinity, Extreme Religion, Extreme Violence

I recognize I’m stepping on The Grumpy Sociologist‘s turf, but I found this connection between extreme masculinity, extreme religion and extreme violence both unsurprising and horrifying:

“One of the most astonishing religious stories on the web at the moment comes from Mexico, where a particularly brutal and feared drug gang, La Familia Michoacana, has been buying up the works of a Colorado evangelical, John Eldredge, and making new recruits read them as part of their induction process.

According to Religion News Service, “Family values and religion are emphasized during the recruitment process, [to La Familia] which includes daily group prayer sessions and mandatory readings.”

Then they get taught to chop people’s heads off; that is the signature of the gang. All the Mexican drug gangs are notoriously violent, but La Familia is the only one to use decapitation so much that the local Catholic clergy have had to get guidelines for burying bodies without their heads attached. There have been twenty in one town alone this year.

La Familia’s leader, known as El Más Loco (the craziest one) started off as a small-time assassin, but dealing cocaine in the USA in the 90s was very impressed by the evangelical preachers he heard. Since then the gang has grown until it now supplies about half the the $20bn methamphetamine market in the USA.

El Más Loco wrote his own little book of Thoughts (vanity published, but no doubt he got very good terms from the publishers) but he is also greatly impressed by John Eldredge‘s book Wild at Heart.

“Eldredge’s theology is based on a ‘muscular’ view of Christianity, one that emphasizes an ‘authentic masculinity’ that has been lost” according to Religion News Service.”

Of course, this toxic combination is not really that different from the Taliban and other fundamentalist movements (and weren’t the Taliban also involved in heroin trafficking?). Movements such as gangs and religious revolutionary movements have to find ways of disciplining the young men they recruit (and these are almost always young men, of course, emphasis on strong religion and violence are translated into masculine rituals) but also ways of systematically unleashing violence in ritualized and spectacular (as in generating a visual spectacle) ways.

And pardon me for taking exception to the author’s contention that functionalists would love this. For one, if that were so, then functionalism is definitely no longer a useful theory but a bankrupt ideological construct. Also, the author fails to note that both religious fundamentalist movements and gangs often direct q great deal of their violence against women (Ciudad Juarez, anyone? And need I say anything about the Taliban and gendered violence?).

Also, both groups are likely to flourish in failed and/or hollow states.

Erik Olin Wright on Real Utopias – Part 2

Picking up from where he left off in the first part of the interview, Erik Olin Wright, in this second part, focuses more on social transformations per se. More specifically, he distinguishes between three types of social transformations:

  • Ruptural transformations – “smash the capitalist state” – are radical departures through political confrontation such as revolutionary changes.
  • Interstitial transformations – “ignore the capitalist state” – refer to the finding of niches and cracks in the system where one can produce gradual and small-scale change (think community gardens or urban / roof agriculture, coops). There can be an anarchic element to this.
  • Symbiotic transformations – “use the capitalist state” – involve entering existing institutions to try to expand the domain of social empowerment and justice. This is the more social-democratic model.

Here again, these are ideal-types. One can find hybrid forms, especially mixes of interstitial and symbiotic transformations.

What are the potential obstacles to social transformations? Wright identifies three specific problems:

  • Time horizons, especially the time horizon of political engagement, the time horizon of scientific discoveries affecting our way of life (think dealing with the coming energy crisis and global climate change) and the time horizon for social change. These are three different time horizons that may conflict with each other, the first one being rather short-term (one’s lifetime), the second one middle-term and the third one long-term.
  • Fractured solidarities (and I would add, especially as incarnated in individualization, as conceptualized by Beck and Bauman), that is, the fragmentation of social classes along identity lines which contribute to divisions and competition, if not downright hostility.
  • Dealing with a hegemonic system: the global capitalist system is a hegemonic system, sustained by political and ideological forces. It is individually internalized and thoroughly embedded in our daily lives.

As a result of these three issues, which transformations have the most potential for success? Because of the hegemonic nature of the capitalist system, for Wright, ruptural transformations are pretty much out of the question (see how radical change in financial and health care institutions was instantly ruled out by the elites even though the critical context made such change politically possible, no, necessary). So, social transformations have a greater chance of success in their interstitial and symbiotic forms to advance social power (through some of the concrete measures mentioned in the first part of the interview).

“This means that strategies need to mainly revolve around combination of symbiotic and interstitial transformations. In these terms I think the a promising (“a” rather than “the most”) way to think about this is to see symbiotic transformations as specifically directed towards opening up more space for expanded interstitial transformations.  For example, solidarity funds are a way of reducing the geographical mobility of capital by increasing the social control over the allocation of investment funds directly to small and medium enterprises. State policy can facilitate the expansion of solidarity funds in all sorts of ways. This is symbiotic insofar as it helps revitalize local conditions of capital accumulation, but also interstitial, insofar as it allows civil society organizations to increase their role in the regulation of local and regional economies.  More generally, a wide range of public policies can be imagined which would strengthen what is broadly called the social economy or solidarity economy and create greater space for bottom-up initiatives of expanded social power.”

Ignoring Sociological Research Makes for Bad and Ineffective Policy

Here is another example that makes my blood boil: when newspapers suddenly discover something that sociological has long established. Here are a few notes I jotted down during an ASA plenary session in 2008:

“Bottom line: the current immigration situation is absurd: the backlog at the INS, the stupid wall, the militarization of the border, the raids, all these things, according to Doug Massey to increasing illegal immigration into the US… before the current trend of nativism (which increased after 9/11… never mind that Mexico has never been a base of terrorism, no terrorist has ever come from Mexico… as far as terrorism is concerned in North America, the US should look North: Canada… there are real cells there and there is recruitment going on).

How has this increased immigration? Because the strengthening of border controls makes it difficult for Mexican to enter the US but it also makes it hard for them to go home the same way. Before the current situation, individual men would come, work here for years, send back remittances. Some of them would settle but many would return. Now, it is entire families who come undocumented, because they know it is going to be hard to return. This situation creates hybrid families as far as immigration status is concerned. One spouse may have a visa but not the other, some of the children were brought over from Mexico (therefore undocumented) while others are born in the US.

The result is that whereas the Latino population used to be concentrated in the Southwestern states (where there are still in large numbers), they are now in the 50 states and especially in the South (Massey conducted studies in North Carolina, among other states) where nativist reactions have been quite strong.”

And here is an excerpt from a WaPo article from a few days ago:

“But will more boots really seal the border? Immigration reform has a long history of unintended consequences: More than two decades of increased enforcement since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 has done little to reduce the number of illegal immigrants. In fact, its seems to have increased their numbers. Meanwhile, the question of jobs, which are the true driver of legal and illegal immigration, has been largely neglected.

Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey pointed out nearly a decade ago that measures to secure the border seemed to produce almost the opposite of what was intended. By making the northward crossing more dangerous and expensive, Massey and co-authors Jorge Durand and Nolan J. Malone wrote in 2002, the border buildup discouraged seasonal laborers from going back to Mexico when they were not working.

With increasing border enforcement, workers who used to shuttle between jobs in California or Texas and home in Zacatecas or Michoacán simply began to stay put and sent for their families, becoming permanent, if sometimes reluctant, residents. According to Massey, post-IRCA border enforcement may have increased the size of the permanent Mexican population in the United States by a factor of nearly four.

More unintended consequences: The anti-immigrant backlash that sparked Arizona’s string of anti-immigration legislation — the new law seeking to drive illegal immigrants out of the state most famously among them — was produced in large part by tighter border controls in Texas and California. That enforcement squeezed the smuggling of immigrants and drugs into Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and mountains.”

Well, Massey has been working on this for over a decade, why does the newspaper suddenly discover this? How many journalists actually do keep up with sociological research on issues they cover or specialize in? Even further back, at another ASA annual meeting, Barbara Ehrenreich deplored the lack of database of sociologists + topics that journalists should be able to tap into when they conduct research. This was a great idea and I don’t know that it has happened. Part of the problem is often that journalists probably do not think of consulting sociologists all that often. They consult psychologists, economists or political scientists. Sociologists? Not so much.

But the result of this lack of public hearing for sociological research (either in the media or the political arena, although they are increasingly the same “Village”) may very well contribute to bad policy.

And to wake up to research done over ten years ago and consistently validated since is way too late because by then, the debate has been framed in a faulty fashion.