Yes, It’s Racist

Good grief (also, what is it with the Bruce Lee-ish / Kill Bill-ish yellow tracksuit?)…

And yes, it is most definitely racist because there are many non-racist ways to make the same point (a larger union is stronger). Meanwhile, we get this ad that basically states that only a multiplication of white people can contain and control the savage and aggressive non-white hordes. So much for this 21st century thing.

The Power of Negative Thinking and Weak Ties

Remember the meetings we all have to attend in a lot of professions where we are enjoined to brainstorm on particular topics, with no negative thinking allowed, no criticism, only the power of positive thinking that brainstorm can unleash? Yeah, that does not work:

“In 2003, Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, divided two hundred and sixty-five female undergraduates into teams of five. She gave all the teams the same problem—“How can traffic congestion be reduced in the San Francisco Bay Area?”—and assigned each team one of three conditions. The first set of teams got the standard brainstorming spiel, including the no-criticism ground rules. Other teams—assigned what Nemeth called the “debate” condition—were told, “Most research and advice suggest that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Freewheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas.” The rest received no further instructions, leaving them free to collaborate however they wanted. All the teams had twenty minutes to come up with as many good solutions as possible.

The results were telling. The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated nearly twenty per cent more ideas. And, after the teams disbanded, another interesting result became apparent. Researchers asked each subject individually if she had any more ideas about traffic. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven.

Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.

According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.””

Another problem is the weakness of strong ties (versus strength of weak ties):

“Uzzi wanted to understand how the relationships of these team members affected the product. Was it better to have a group composed of close friends who had worked together before? Or did strangers make better theatre? He undertook a study of every musical produced on Broadway between 1945 and 1989. To get a full list of collaborators, he sometimes had to track down dusty old Playbills in theatre basements. He spent years analyzing the teams behind four hundred and seventy-four productions, and charted the relationships of thousands of artists, from Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Uzzi found that the people who worked on Broadway were part of a social network with lots of interconnections: it didn’t take many links to get from the librettist of “Guys and Dolls” to the choreographer of “Cats.” Uzzi devised a way to quantify the density of these connections, a figure he called Q. If musicals were being developed by teams of artists that had worked together several times before—a common practice, because Broadway producers see “incumbent teams” as less risky—those musicals would have an extremely high Q. A musical created by a team of strangers would have a low Q.

Uzzi then tallied his Q readings with information about how successful the productions had been. “Frankly, I was surprised by how big the effect was,” Uzzi told me. “I expected Q to matter, but I had no idea it would matter this much.” According to the data, the relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success. When the Q was low—less than 1.7 on Uzzi’s five-point scale—the musicals were likely to fail. Because the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas. “This wasn’t so surprising,” Uzzi says. “It takes time to develop a successful collaboration.” But, when the Q was too high (above 3.2), the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation. According to Uzzi, this is what happened on Broadway during the nineteen-twenties, which he made the focus of a separate study. The decade is remembered for its glittering array of talent—Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and so on—but Uzzi’s data reveals that ninety per cent of musicals produced during the decade were flops, far above the historical norm. “Broadway had some of the biggest names ever,” Uzzi explains. “But the shows were too full of repeat relationships, and that stifled creativity.”

The best Broadway shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of social intimacy. The ideal level of Q—which Uzzi and his colleague Jarrett Spiro called the “bliss point”—emerged as being between 2.4 and 2.6. A show produced by a team whose Q was within this range was three times more likely to be a commercial success than a musical produced by a team with a score below 1.4 or above 3.2. It was also three times more likely to be lauded by the critics. “The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that the artists could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with each other, but they weren’t too comfortable.””

Go read the whole thing. I would note that all this validates the ideas behind interdisciplinarity versus disciplinary departments hermetically separate from each other, as is the case in many institutions of higher education.

I find it ironic though that this article is titled “groupthink” but does not mention the term in the body of the article and does not go over some of the basic research on groupthink, especially Irving Janis’s work on the subject.

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – 2

[This post is an extension of my book review of Paul Mason’s book as well as a response to Lambert’s post over at Corrente, in which he is much too kind to call me a scholar.]

So, we are having of them cross-blog dialogue on Paul Mason’s book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions and Lambert has produced a first response to part of the book and my review and some commenters have chimed in. So, here is my disjointed response to his response.

The occupation thing: the Occupy movement did not invent occupation, of course. It has been part of the repertoire of contention of landless peasants and indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, but especially, and more recently, in the Sem Terra movement. The crucial difference is, of course, that the point of peasant / indigenous occupation is to occupy land ill-used or not used by private owners or governments and to occupy it in order to use it for sustainable farming and survival, but also as alternative form of governance (something that the Occupy movement has tried with sometimes weird results). Similar occupations occurred in Chiapas as well. Again, it has been a major tactic of indigenous peoples (1) precisely because land ownership is the problem, but also (2) as protest against what kind of land management neoliberalism leads to.

The quest for historical precedent is useful because it is a matter of using the right framework to think about current movements. The 1848 revolutions were centered on class conflict and one of Mason’s points is precisely that last year’s movements brought back social class to the forefront. This is why comparisons with 1968 are inaccurate as 1968 was the beginnings of identity politics, which contributed to shoving off class off the stage (until now) to the great benefits of conservatives, opening the era of major union-busting across the US for instance.

And all the examples that Mason provides in the book as lead-up to social movements point the end point of neoliberal governance without any systemic opposition. So, sure, gay rights and all, but those identity-based movements rose on the ashes of the labor movement, which facilitated the neoliberal institutional consolidation.

On success, there is still so much that up for grabs what with the collapsing European countries, the French election (which seems to crystallize issues beyond just France, with, for instance, the unprecedented Merkel intervention in a foreign election), the British dismantling of the welfare state, and with still a lot of unknown in the Middle East. And there is not much to hope from US Democrats. At the same time, there are no real alternative models of institutional governance (and “back to the local” ain’t gonna do it).

Actually, Lambert, for the 1%, success or systemic failure is still in the air because if movements were successful in at least some degree of systemic reform, that would be a failure. But this is truly a test of the capacity of the power elite to flex its muscles and regain control over discourse (as power, to go all Foucault on y’all), whether it means some shock doctrine and structural adjustment (which is what austerity is) or more meaningful change that will most likely come from emerging nations (Brazil), collapsing nations (Greece), or some labor revival (out of Asia). What seems to be the success though, is that austerity policy with turn states left with only their repressive and aggressive functions (police for domestic repression, and military as main foreign policy tool), which has always been a conservative dream.

The social movements themselves are composed of large numbers of people who have grown up in the era of individualization and networks. It remains to be seen how networking and individualizing really prove the strength of weak ties beyond being able to organize demonstrations and flash mobs to evade police repression. The cases of Egypt and Libya certainly offer reasons to be mildly pessimistic.

But who knows, maybe the end of Winter in the Western hemisphere will bring back some activism.

On the technology thing: there is no way around the digital divide. Ultimately, the strength of these movements will be on the streets (and street success may very be due to the presence of labor on the street alongside the students with their cell phones). Sure, technology will provide neat tools to organize, coordinate, etc. But at some point, there has to be street presence. Let’s see if that Kony 2012 thing works, then we can talk.

Cranky on International Women’s Day

So, the Kony 2012 campaign is trending like nothing else. The campaign has been roundly and thoroughly and rightfully critiqued in various places, so, I have nothing to add to yet another example of “white people save Africans from their own savagery” film and campaign with a touch of cyber-utopianism so dumb I initially thought the beginning of the 30 minute video was an ad.

Thanks for hijacking International Women’s Day, guys, whether through your filling up our Facebook and Twitter timelines or because a lot of people had to take time out to explain why your campaign is questionable.

And I am not the only one who is cranky on International Women’s Day, so is Marie Duru-Bellat, about all the little forms of androcentrism as micro-power and how these penetrate into women’s conscience at all times.

On a more macro side of things, let’s not forget this:

“The ‘feminisation of poverty’ is now an undeniable reality. Worldwide  , women are more likely to be poor, employed in precarious, low-paid labour, and less likely to have access to land, credit and education. Not only do they suffer disproportionately from the effects of poverty itself and the human rights denials that accrue  from it, but also from the increasingly heavy-handed way in which poverty is governed across the world.  Being female and poor subjects you to unique forms of stigma and control, as well as forcing you to bear the brunt of supposedly gender-neutral policies.

The gender-specific and demeaning measures of control and containment that are applied to women overwhelmingly focus on their bodies and reproductive capacity. In many countries  in the world, including most of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East abortion remains illegal except in very proscribed circumstances. Prohibition does not deter women from seeking abortions, but forces them submit to more unsafe abortions, putting their health, fertility or even life at risk. Planned Parenthood estimate  that 19 million women and girls worldwide resort to unsafe abortions every year; 70,000 of them will die as a result, more than 96% of them from the world’s poorest countries (in many of which abortion is illegal).  For example, in Argentina, each year  , between 460,000 and 600,000 women have an illegal abortion; abortion complications are the main cause  of maternal death, with an estimated  400 deaths each year.  Clearly, it is poor women, without any hope of access to a private doctor or international travel who are most exposed  to these risks.  Thus such policies, targeted to control female reproductive capacity (as if men were not involved), promote a selective penalisation of the poorest women.

(…)

To be female and poor in itself attracts a unique stigma. The 1980s saw the remarkable rise of the ‘welfare queen’  as popular bogey (wo)man of choice in the USA. This was fuelled by Reagan  ’s ideological crusade against an ‘excessive’ ‘soft’ welfare system and driven by racist and sexist  stereotypes of ‘lazy’ African-American women, often single mothers.  Indeed, the single mother is a recurring motif in the rhetoric surrounding welfare and benefits across the Western world.  The idea that single women ‘churn out’ babies in order to generate more income or obtain free housing is commonplace in the UK  and was a core part of the vivid American ‘welfare queen’ stereotype. Attacks on the integrity of single mothers are common; they are portrayed as less capable parents – despite evidence  to the contrary – and are improbably blamed for a host of social ills, including, predictably, the riots  that took place in the UK in the summer of 2011. The prevalent stigma borne by poor females in many societies is viscerally illustrated by British newspaper columnist James Delingpole who described several of the “great scourges” of contemporary Britain: “aggressive all-female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye” (The Times newspaper, April 13, 2006 ). Disturbingly, the stigma of female poverty and single motherhood has become embedded in public policy  in many different countries: women are all too often the ‘accidental’ victims of supposedly gender neutral measures, such as budget cuts and welfare reform.”

And then, there is Turkish sociologist Pinar Selek, living in exile in France, wrongfully accused of terrorism, three times acquitted by Turkish courts, verdicts that always get appealed by the prosecutor who want life imprisonment for her (even though the supposed terrorist attack of which she is accused was shown to have been an accident). This is political, of course: her work focuses on the underdogs: homeless people, street children, LGBTs, Kurdish minorities and antimilitarism. The police wanted her to give them her sources and she refused, even after torture. So, she has already spent two and half years in prison. Sociology is a combat sport indeed.

And one more reason to be cranky, this should be trending, not Kony 2012. I just watched it on HBO and it is short but very powerful.

This should be going viral.

I hope this one goes to DVD quickly so I can put my hands on a copy to show my students.

Book Review – Dear Fatty

Well, no, this is not a sociology book, but as the French (see what I did there?) saying goes, une fois n’est pas coutume. Also, I am a die-hard French and Saunders fan, Vicar of Dibley fan, so, of course I decided to read Dawn French‘s Dear Fatty. And once I started, I could not put the cocking thing down. Can’t help it. I loved Dawn French before reading the book. But reading it made her more awesome.

The book is a series of letters (fake or real, who cares) to a variety of people (Fatty, for those of you ignorant of all things French and Saunders – a shameful category to be in, to be sure – is her nickname for Jennifer Saunders, her comedy partner of 30 years) that roughly follow chronological order, and the main milestones of her life.

The book might as well be titled “Letter from a free woman” because that is truly what comes through from the book. Also, sex. Geebuz, lots of it. But that goes with the free woman thing. Dawn French is a lefty, a feminist, a gay supporter, virulently anti-racist, having been on the receiving end of quite a bit of that when she married Lenny Henry:

“Knowing you has shown me a whole raft of mainly insidious, quiet racism that I had no knowledge of before. Those tiny, constant snidey jokes at industry gatherings, like ‘I know the invite said black tie, Lenny, but that’s taking it too far, sonny’ from a much respected older comedian. Strange how the reference to you as ‘sonny’ is the more painful dart in that jibe. I remember you being interviewed on radio by a presenter who consistently referred to you as ‘this little black boy from Dudley’ throughout. Stealth racism. Fast and low and quiet. And always present. The references to me in the papers as ‘his blonde girlfriend’. I’ve only ever been blonde once, for three weeks. It meant ‘his white girlfriend’. Of course, we have had the big showy stuff too, the excrement smeared on the front door, the scratching of racist names on every panel of the car, the lit petrol-soaked rag through the letter box, starting a fire on our doormat at 3am. Luckily, I smelt it in time. The many letters with lurid racist obscenities sent to both of us. The most memorable of which came to you at a gig, threatening to kill you after the show because ‘you are a filthy cone’. Racists can’t spell so well, it seems. Remember when a Jiffy bag dropped through our door and it contained a broken tile with the image of a knight on one side and on the reverse it said, ‘You have been visited by the Ku Klux Klan’? No we hadn’t. We hadn’t been visited. Visitors make themselves known. And stop for tea and cake. People who drop something hateful through your letter box and scurry off into the night aren’t called visitors. They’re called cowards.” (Loc. 4053)

The whole freedom and independence also comes across loud and clear in the self-deprecating way in which she addresses the weight thing (kinda moot now that she’s lot a big chunk of it), and the corresponding clothing line she developed with Helen Teague.

The book covers most of her life and career (up to now, that is) as a series of encounters. For her, it’s the people that matter and make the milestones, rather than the milestones themselves. But most of all, the book is guided by her relationship to her father who committed suicide when she was 19. So, as fun as the book is (and it really is, just the writing is a riot), there is a constant underlying element of sadness (but not self-pity).

The writing is, of course, witty and a delight and I learned quite a few new words and expressions that I plan on using liberally, such as “anyroadup” or “doobonkerslally”. No, seriously.

Also, I did not know that she almost got the part that Julie Walters ended up playing in Mamma Mia, the movie. Apparently, it did not work out because she can’t sing and because she didn’t like the story that was made up around the ABBA songs (me neither, it was stupid but I love ABBA, so, I tolerated it).

I say, it’s a good thing, because, otherwise, this little piece of awesomeness would not have been possible:

Part 1

Part 2

The random shaking of the scarf gets me every time.

But this not-working-out thing because Dawn can’t sing also led to this:

“In defiance, and an effort to reclaim some self-esteem, we decided to sing ‘Thank You for the Music’ at the end of our show on tour every night. We sang it loud and proud and I was gradually, nightly, clawing my way back out of the pit of zero confidence voice-wise and was really enjoying performing it with gusto until someone told me there was a reference to the song in a review which said we were ‘hilariously out of tune’.” (Loc. 4352)

This is what she is referring to (and it’s great, of course):

This is the end of their last tour. It’s all there: the pop culture “détournement”, the classic pattern of Dawn ruining Jennifer’s song, and the trademark punch. But, from the book, you get a lot more of the depth of their friendship (I seem to remember Dawn calling Jennifer her soul sister on the Graham Norton show). I love this description of Jennifer:

“Fatty is a consummate daydreamer. Unlike most of us amateur daydreamers though, she doesn’t visit woolly, blurry places where your mind can have a little dance and a rest, or if she does, it’s only for a short time. No, her mind whisks her off to vivid, fresh places where she can live at the pace her brain is constantly working at, which is quite a lot quicker than most mortals. She is constantly running a cynical, internal parallel tape of her real life, what she sees, hears, reads, eats, loves and hates, and it never ceases to amuse her. It’s this sharp skill of observation that gives her the comedy spurs she uses to jolt her mind on from a trot to a canter when she is improvising or writing. On the surface, though, all is calm. Calm to the point of catatonia, while she floats in a warm sea of procrastination until the moment the urgency kicks in. It’s usually a deadline that provides the fear and that is the cue for her to switch to shark mode. It’s as if she has smelt the blood in the water, her eyes focus and she swims very fast, very skilfully towards the target, using all the muscle of a new idea that’s been slow-cooking during her reveries, as the power to thrust her forward. It’s an awesome talent to witness. Back then, though, I thought she was a snobby git.” (Loc. 2971)

And another thing I didn’t know (what with not living in London and all) is that Dawn was cast in a speaking part (she can’t sing, remember?) in the opera La Fille Du Régiment (in French!):

She’s a woman, hear her roar as she leaves the stage.

Which led to this wonderful moment:

“During the run, I kept complaining that I would finish my time at the opera house having never sung a note. Surely, I ought to be entitled to one note?! Then I’d be able to claim for ever that I had sung onstage at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. My final exit each night from the stage was a big huffy flounce off, accompanied by a loud angry roar because my character had been thwarted. It comes about three minutes from the end. So, on the very last night, instead of roaring I decided to sing that last moment of fury. I waited, I waited. The moment came, and I sang out loudly, one note, one word, ‘Merde! ’ – and exited.” (Loc. 4391)

Is there anything the gal can’t do? Well, she’s in a new kinda-sitcom with Alfred Molina, that she wrote.

A remarkable indeed.

I just have one regret though: I wish the !@#$ Kardashians had gotten the French and Saunders treatment.

Anyroadup (told ya), read the book.

Neil Gross Does Some Nice Debunking in the NYT

I know, I know, exposing Rick Santorum as hack, a hypocrite, and a pompous know-nothing is like shooting fish in a barrel but some people seem to believe he makes sense but the whole myth that commie college professors brainwash their students (if only!) and turn them into liberal socialo-feminazi zombies is so widespread that it is still worth debunking. It is a dirty job and someone has to do it. Neil Gross does it today:

First, the facts:

“But contrary to conservative rhetoric, studies show that going to college does not make students substantially more liberal. The political scientist Mack Mariani and the higher education researcher Gordon Hewitt analyzed changes in student political attitudes between their freshman and senior years at 38 colleges and universities from 1999 to 2003. They found that on average, students shifted somewhat to the left — but that these changes were in line with shifts experienced by most Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 during the same period of time. In addition, they found that students were no more likely to move left at schools with more liberal faculties.

Similarly, the political scientists M. Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker analyzed data from a survey that tracked the political attitudes of about 1,000 high school students through their college years and into middle age. Their research found that the tendency of college graduates to be more liberal reflects to a large extent the fact that more liberal students are more likely to go to college in the first place.

Studies also show that attending college does not make you less religious. The sociologists Jeremy Uecker, Mark Regnerus and Margaret Vaaler examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and found that Americans who pursued bachelor’s degrees were more likely to retain their faith than those who did not, perhaps because life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder can be rough in ways that chip away at religious belief and participation. They report that students “who did not attend college and two-year college students are much more likely — 61 and 54 percent more, respectively — than four-year college students to relinquish their religious affiliations.””

Then, the explanation:

“Conservatives have been criticizing academia for many decades. Yet only once the McCarthy era passed did this criticism begin to be cast primarily in anti-elitist tones: charges of Communist subversion gave way to charges of liberal elitism in the writings of William F. Buckley Jr. and others. The idea that professors are snobs looking down their noses at ordinary Americans, trying to push the country in directions it does not wish to go, soon became an established conservative trope, taking its place alongside criticism of the liberal press and the liberal judiciary.

The main reason for this development is that attacking liberal professors as elitists serves a vital purpose. It helps position the conservative movement as a populist enterprise by identifying a predatory elite to which conservatism stands opposed — an otherwise difficult task for a movement strongly backed by holders of economic power.”

Of course, none of this analysis will matter to an audience that listens to words as emotional triggers rather than parts of logical arguments, which is why the Republican audience seems to be doing. Which is why it is somewhat pointless to think that points are scored every time a lie gets debunked as the truth has become irrelevant. Truth is what makes them feel good and righteous. And these feelings are sustained by activating anger and resentment not through facts (the Tea Party people belong to privileged demographics) but through emotional trigger points, as when Senator Kyl told a while back that 90% of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion. It was easy enough to debunk and Kyl quickly admitted that he did not mean the statement to be factual. And on that he was right. The statement was an emotional trigger. It worked. That is the way we should interpret Republican rhetoric.

This is why, again, it is pointless to think points have been scored by showing the truth to be, well, not conservative. It is important to do it for the record and, hopefully, for public discourse (the mainstream media are rather hopeless in that department, I am afraid). But no one in the conservative side will change their minds based on a logically constructed argument supported by facts.

Book Review – Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere

[This review is the opening salvo of a blog-to-blog dialogue on the subject of current anti-systemic social movements between this humble blog and the Mighty Corrente building. Corrente has been following the Occupy movement pretty closely, so I expect Lambert will have plenty to say on the subject over there. I also highly recommend David S. Meyer’s blog, Politics Outdoors, a solid blog on the sociology of politics and social movements.]

In case  you haven’t noticed, things have indeed been kicking off everywhere in the past year, between the Arab Spring, the Indignados, the British riots and the Occupy movement, to name only some of the most visible social movement of the past year. So, of course, this makes Paul Mason’s book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions highly relevant. Mason claims that the book is journalism, not social science, but he certainly makes use of sociologists of social movements throughout the book. The book itself is an easy and quick read in which chapters alternate between reporting from the ground and analysis from a variety of places where things have indeed been kicking off. So, as much as he might reject the designation, I would consider the book to stand solidly in the sociology of social movements. My only reservation is with the cyber-utopian stance that he adopts towards these movements. I am more of a cyber-crank of the Morozov kind. But again, the book is quite an interesting read and well-worth anyone’s time. Indeed, it is hard to put down. I read it over one weekend.

So, why is it kicking off everywhere? The story starts in Egypt, where, surprise, surprise, some degree of neoliberal policy was involved in heightening the discontent already present there, after decades of corrupt authoritarianism and cronyism:

“For sixty years, the zabbaleen had run Cairo’s trash collection system. They picked up the waste door to door, fed their pigs with the rotting organic matter and recycled the rest for cash, trading with a traditional caste of middlemen. But in 2003, as part of a privatization programme overseen by Mubarak’s son Gamal, three sanitation companies—two Spanish and one Italian—were brought in to ‘modernize’ the city’s waste collection. These outside firms were given cleaning contracts valued at US$50 million a year. Instead of door-to-door collection, they placed big plastic bins on street corners. Instead of recycling 80 per cent of solid waste—as the zabbaleen had managed to do—their contracts required that only 20 per cent be recycled, with the rest tipped into landfill. The transformation of Cairo’s refuse system was to be crowned by the eviction of the zabbaleen, whose slum was adjacent to a new residential property development planned by friends of Gamal Mubarak.

(…)

But the new system wasn’t working. Cairo’s residents refused to use the bins; in fact, many of the high-grade plastic containers were stolen and, with poetic justice, ended up being shredded and recycled by the zabbaleen. People began to dump their rubbish onto the streets or into the disused and abandoned buildings that scar Cairo’s streetscape. So, the new system needed an extra push. When the global swine flu epidemic broke, in 2009, the Mubaraks spotted an opportunity. The Egyptian parliament, circumventing its own health ministry and in defiance of UN advice, ordered all the zabbaleen’s pigs to be slaughtered. There had been no recorded transmission of swine flu from pigs to humans.

(…)

Across Egypt, an estimated 300,000 swine belonging to zabbaleen households were slaughtered; the government paid between $15 and $50 per pig in compensation, compared to the $80 to $300 they’d been selling for on the market. Soon, two things happened. With no pigs to eat the rotting food, the zabbaleen stopped collecting it, leaving it to pile up on the streets. Then malnutrition appeared among their children. For, says Guindi, though the multinational companies were getting $10 a tonne for waste, and the middlemen $2 out of that, the zabbaleen received nothing from the contract—only what they could make from the sale of recycled waste, and their pigs. Now something else happened, equally novel: the zabbaleen rioted. They hurled rocks, bottles and manure (there was plenty of that to hand) at the pig-slaughtering teams. In response, Mubarak deployed riot squads into the slums—followed, as always, by Central Security and its torturers.” (Loc. 170 – 90)

This, of course, is very reminiscent of what happened in Bolivia when the water got privatized under the aegis of the World Bank: service deteriorated, people got poorer (albeit for somewhat different reasons), livelihood got threatened, people took to the streets, governments react with violence. The Bolivia example is not mentioned in the book but here is a quick reminder:

And part 2:

It seems pretty obvious that the same causes lead to the same effects: see – austerity all over Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, especially). But Mubarak had been in synch with the rest of global elites who meets every year in Davos. Actually, most dictators who have been removed from power in the Arab Spring were good friends of Western power. Which is partly why Western media and political classes did not see it coming and were slow to react (I remember the initial reaction of the Sarkozy administration, via the Defense Minister, offering Tunisia’s Ben Ali riot control assistance in the early days of the uprising only to backtrack later in shame and embarrassment). Why?

According to Mason, two reasons explain this blind spot: (1) a stereotypical concept of the Arab world that would make Edward Said turn in his grave (passive but violent, squeezed between terrorism and religious fundamentalism), and (2) when was the last time the mainstream media had a solid discussion of class? For as long as I lived in the US, any suggestion that gross and growing inequalities were going to be a problem at some point was shot down as “class warfare” (as if there had not been a class war since the Reagan era, one that, as Warren Buffett has told us, his class has won already). More broadly, this failure is the inability to conceptualize a systemic failure of capitalism (so, analysis of the crisis was reduced to accusations launched against the lower classes – but not class warfare! – and minorities). The events of the past year, for Mason, reveal the utter failure of capitalist realism but also of the mainstream left.

“If the rule of men like Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad had been seen as somehow separate from the rule of free-market capitalism, maybe political science would not have become trapped in the same fatalism as economics. But support for these pro-Western dictators—or more especially for their sons—had always been sold on the basis that they were ‘liberalizers’: freeing up their home market for corporate penetration and, one day soon, reforming their constitutions. This was the theme of the famous essay by Anthony Giddens, which declared Gaddafi to be a follower of the Third Way and Libya on the road to becoming ‘the Norway of North Africa’.” (Loc 557)

Mason also identifies three major precursors to last year’s social movements: (1) the Greek student riots of 2008 after a police shooting and (2) the Israeli invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead, December 2009) and (3) Iran, of course, where Twitter got its political street creds. In terms of social movements, all three were defeat for the weaker parties but they created a context where populations got galvanized by the capacity of such weaker parties to defy oppressive regimes. These precursors put together the components of the future social movements: secularized, educated youth facing massive precarization, repressed workers’ movements, the urban poor and social networking technologies. These four elements would coalesce more fully a bit later in many more countries. For all these categories of people, the promises of capitalism were not fulfilled, they actually turned out to be lies. From the other side of the table, after decades of outright repression or propagation of an individualistic ideology through the media, leaders probably thought there would be no resistance even in the event of a collapse.

Finally, for Mason, the last reason why no one saw this coming is that all these movements are really something different:

“First, probably, it’s because there is no ideology driving this movement and no coherent vision of an alternative society. Second, the potential for damage arising from violence is larger than before: the demos, when they get violent, immediately expose the participants to getting jailed for serious offences, so they will go a long way to avoid getting angry. Third, and most important, it seems to me that this generation knows more than their predecessors about power. They have read (or read a Wikipedia summary of) political thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, Dworkin. They realize, in a way previous generations of radicals did not, that emotion-fuelled action, loyalty, mesmeric oratory and hierarchy all come at an overhead cost.” (Loc. 791)

This, of course, takes place in a larger context of crisis of legitimacy, intensified by the economic crisis because the close ties between political and corporate power have been brutally exposed in its full disconnect from the rest of the population. And when the youth in London rioted, the lack of comprehension was extreme (I wrote quite a bit about that):

“All across the developed world, the generation that leaves university in the 2010s will have to work longer because the guarantee of a comfortable income in retirement can no longer be met, either by private investment or the welfare state. Their disposable income will fall, because the financialization of public services demands a clutch of new debt repayments that eat into salaries: student loan repayments will be higher, private health insurance costs will rise, pension top-up payments will be demanded. They will face higher interest rates on home loans for decades, due to the financial crash. They will be burdened with the social costs of looking after the ageing baby boomers, plus the economic costs of energy depletion and climate change.

(…)

For the older generation it’s easy to misunderstand the word ‘student’ or ‘graduate’: to my contemporaries, at college in the 1980s, it meant somebody engaged in a liberal, academic education, often with hours of free time to dream, protest, play in a rock band or do research. Today’s undergraduates have been tested every month of their lives, from kindergarten to high school. They are the measured inputs and outputs of a commercialized global higher education market worth $1.2 trillion a year—excluding the USA. Their free time is minimal: precarious part-time jobs are essential to their existence, so that they are a key part of the modern workforce. Plus they have become a vital asset for the financial system. In 2006, Citigroup alone made $220 million clear profit from its student loan book.” (Loc. 1141 – 6)

And individualization ultimately proved it had failed as well as any form of domination will generate resistance, as Richard Sennett (cited a lot by Mason… which is good) noted:

“The sociologist Richard Sennett describes how, starting in high-tech industries, a particular type of employee has become valued by corporations: ‘Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions … a self oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability [rather than actual skill], willing to abandon past experience.’3 For employers, Sennett writes, the ideal product of school and university is a person with weak institutional loyalty, low levels of informal trust and high levels of anxiety about their own competence, leading to a constant willingness to reinvent themselves in a changing labour market. To survive in this world of zero loyalty, people need high self-reliance, which comes with a considerable sense of individual entitlement and little aptitude for permanent bonding. Flexibility being more important than knowledge, they are valued for the ability to discard acquired skills and learn new ones.

(…)

However, Sennett observes, such workers also need ‘a thick network of social contacts’: their ideal habitat is the global city, at whose bars, coffee shops, Apple stores, dance clubs and speed-dating events they can meet lots of equally rootless people..” (Loc 1157 – 66)

And these conditions of resistance were:

  • the global city as major site for social unrest (paging Saskia Sassen) – this is where networks are and where gross inequalities coexist along with the three components of these new social movements (slum dwellers, precarized educated youths and the working class);
  • the “graduate with no future” as Mason calls hir, is by definition is global denizen (students have participated in these movements practically everywhere); one of the consequences of globalization is the diffusion of a global culture based on disillusionment that is easy to spread all over Twitter;
  • and there are more college students than ever before. Quantity does matter.

The urban poor and the working class have been important components of these movements but it is students who have kicked them off. Add to this the power and networks and communication technology and all the ingredients are there. Mason is a big believer of the network effect (what gets created as additional product of people’s interaction). So, Twitter, pay-as-you-go access, photo / video-sharing services and blogging were essential tools of social movements. As a result, journalists were also engulfed in the crisis of legitimacy as their status carried limited weight on Twitter (much to the dismay of some media celebrities). Again, Mason is much more cyber-utopian as I am.

Mason then goes on at length on the economic crisis itself. There is not much that has not been already written about this, so, I won’t belabor this. One thing I had not read before is the assertion that the Federal Reserve precipitated the Arab Spring with QEII, which led to the rise in commodity prices, which led pushing a lot of people in the global South into deeper poverty.

Another interesting analytical point that Mason makes is to postulate that the correct historical precedent for these current social movements is the European Revolutions of 1848 (especially what led to the French Second Republic):

“On 22 February 1848 the ‘men in smocks’—the Parisian workers— overthrew the monarchy and forced the middle class to declare a republic. It was a shock because, like Saif Gaddafi and Gamal Mubarak long afterwards, King Louis-Philippe had counted himself something of a democrat. In 1848 a wave of revolutions swept Europe: by March, Austria, Hungary, Poland and many states of the future Germany were facing insurrections, often led by students and the radicalized middle class, with the small, mainly craft-based, working class in support. Elsewhere —as in Jordan and Morocco in 2011—riots and demonstrations forced beleaguered monarchs into constitutional reform. Within months, however, class conflict tore the revolutionary alliance apart. In Paris, the newly elected assembly was dominated not by the radicals who’d made the revolution, but by social conservatives. They hired a general to crack down on unrest; that June, he crushed the working class in four days of intense barricade fighting.

(…)

But by 1851 the revolutionary wave in Europe was over, its leaders exiled or dead. A military coup ended the French revolution, the president rebranding himself as Emperor Napoleon III. The Prussian army crushed the German states that had voted for radical democracy. Austria defeated the Hungarian uprising, put down its own and enlisted Napoleon III to suppress the republic that had sprung up in Rome. In each case, the survivors observed a similar pattern of events. Once the workers began to fight for social justice, the businessmen and radical journalists who had led the fight for democracy turned against them, rebuilding the old, dictatorial forms of repression to put them down.

(…)

Eighteen forty-eight, then, forms the last complete example of a year when it all kicked off. As with 2011, it was preceded by an economic crisis. As today, there was a level of contagion inexplicable to governments. But in hindsight, it was actually a wave of revolution and reaction, followed pretty swiftly by a wave of war. Even if today’s situation defies parallel, the events of 1848 provide the most extensive case study on which to base our expectations of the present revolts.

(…)

The demographics of 2011 resemble those of 1848 more than any other event. There is an expanded layer of ‘graduates with no future’, a working class weakened by the collapse of the organizations and lifestyle that blossomed in the Fordist era, and a large mass of slum-dwelling urban poor. As today, 1848 was preceded by a communications revolution: the telegraph, the railway and the steam boat formed part of an emerging transport and communications network clustered around the cities that became centres of the social revolution. As today, 1848 was preceded by the rapid formation of networks—in this case, clubs and secret societies. The students, worker-intellectuals and radical lawyers who led them were indeed part of an international network of activists. As today, 1848 was a revolution in social life as well as politics.” (Loc 2992 – 3038)

That is not very encouraging because these movements ended badly. And indeed, Mason anticipates some possible negative outcomes (such as the military / religious alliance and crackdown in Egypt):

  • There will be a time where the middle class will break the class alliance with the working class and turn against it (as indeed happened in 1848) and the social and economic justice agenda will tone down basic labor demands;
  • The rise of ‘strongmen’ from within revolutionary ranks, comparable to rise of the organized criminal networks after 1989;
  • War or authoritarian backlash.

On top of this, Mason sees the culture war in the US and Israel as additionally worrisome.

And then, where is the left?… *sounds of crickets chirping*

So, where does that leave us?

“Everything depends on the outcome of the economic crisis. Before 2008, globalization ‘delivered’ in a rough-and-ready way to the poor of the developing world. It dragged one billion people out of rural poverty and into urban slums, and created an extra 1.5 billion waged workers. It provided access to life-changing technology. And it offset the decline in prosperity and status for the manual workers of the rich world with unlimited access to credit. At the same time it made the rich of every country richer, and inequality greater—even in the developing world, where real incomes rose.

(…)

What becomes of the present wave of revolts—political, social, intellectual and moral—now depends completely on what the global economy delivers. If it is nothing but heartache and penury, we are in the middle of a perfect storm.” (Loc. 3353 – 68)

As I stated earlier, if you can stomach the sometimes hyperbolic cyber-utopianism, I highly recommend the book… also, it shows sociologists are the most relevant social scientists to read.

The Walking Dead – Still Awfully Misogynistic

So, the second half of Season two is now on the way and it is getting from bad to worse in the misogyny department. Everything I wrote in my previous post on the subject still holds and I would not retract anything. And last Sunday’s episode was especially awful in that respect.

The earlier post is reproduced below.

The latest episode – 18 Miles Out – was neatly gender segregated with two highly gendered storylines. In the first one, Rick reasserts his alpha male status against Shane. Apparently, Jon Bernthal has such an infinite range of submissive postures, I expected him to roll on his back and expose his belly at some point while Rick was browbeating him. Said browbeating was only interrupted by a bunch of walkers. Then Rick saves Shane and Shane accepts his lower status in the wolf pack the group.

The other storyline  consists in Lori reasserting her alpha female status against Andrea. At this point in the series, Lori is pregnant with no choice thanks to the fact that Glenn betrayed her trust, affirming his loyalty to the men of the group. In this episode, she browbeats Andrea for not properly fulfilling her gender role. Andrea has been taking shifts guarding the farm, something the men usually do, because it involves handling guns and rifles, which, as we all know, women can’t do (and as Andrea has already proven).  Lori lectures Andrea, telling her that she is not needed in these shifts. The men can handle it. She should be doing women stuff: washing, cleaning, keeping things together, you know, the whole homemaking and nurturing thing.

The other reason that Lori is complaining to Andrea is that Andrea thinks women and girls should have choices whereas Lori thinks they should not. Young Beth has decided that, after the barn slaughter, she does not want to live. A rational position to have in this context. Andrea thinks it should be her choice. Lori does not think so and berates Andrea for even suggesting otherwise. Andrea then makes that choice available to Beth. Beth does not kill herself. The other women yell at Andrea.

I swear, why don’t they get Tony Perkins and Michelle Bachmann to play Rick and Lori.

Why do I keep on harping about this. Well, (1) those amounts of rank sexism and misogyny are just vile, and (2) this is a show that could / should be great and it sucks instead because of terrible writing and character development.


Seriously, people, I really wanted to like this series. I like horror stuff, I like zombies and end of the world kinda themes. It’s like this series was made for me… except it is a gigantic pile of sexism and misogyny so far. I have watched all the episodes so far and let me share with you what I learned.

1. Bitches are bitchy

They are. I learned that in the very first scene, after the intro, where the two main cop dudes share their mutual doodly pain inflicted upon them by women. Rick, the future alpha male of the series, knows his marriage is collapsing and the bitch is SO cruel.

And you know why bitches are bitchy? Because, as Glenn helpfully explains to us, they have their periods. And he read somewhere that when many women get together for a long time, their cycles get in synch and they all get crazy at the same time. Because there can’t possibly be any other reason why he, lil’ virgin, no-date, Glenn can’t figure them out.

2. A collapsed world is a world where men can, finally, be men again

This is a trope I have discussed multiple times already. I was hoping this series would be different but no. In The Walking Dead, as with many collapsed world movies and series, once institutions that push men down, to the benefit of women and minorities (like education, workplace that equalize relationships), men can reclaim their “natural” leadership positions and women have to accept this leadership for their own good. The main group we follow is initially led by Shane. Once Rick finds them, he becomes the alpha male (which leads to conflicts of masculinities as the two of them compete for who gets to be the most hegemonically masculine). Of course, such leadership can only be exercises by white men (so, sorry T-Dog… because all black men have funny names like that, and sorry Glenn… or “Asian boy” as another hegemonic white male – Hershel – calls him).

And so, it is back to a natural order of things: men carry the big guns, stand guard and protect the groups while women wash clothes and cook.

BUT, there is such a thing as bad masculinity in The Walking Dead, and it is illustrated by white supremacists Daryl and Merrill and especially Ed Peletier, all of them get their comeuppance. All of them pushed hegemonic masculinity too far, through domestic violence and racism. So, when Merrill beats up on African-American T-Dog and forces Glenn (Asian American kid) and two women to submit to his authority, Rick shows up puts him back in his place and puts himself in leadership position.

3. Uppity women need to know their place

Look women are good at washing clothes but you always get one that gets all uppity. Take Andrea, for instance, college-educated Andrea (but that college education is now worth nothing, of course, as only masculine skills are useful… except cooking and washing clothes), who, after the death of her beloved younger sister, wants to learn to use a gun and to the protecting thing. Well, she cannot be allowed to even have a gun, as Dale makes a point in enforcing. But the bitch does not know her place. She gets a shotgun, uses it, and, of course, makes a terrible mistake (almost killing Daryl).

If only she had waited for one of the men to teach her, then she would have realized how great she would be once she accepted her subservience to more competent men.

4. Women’s ideas are irrelevant

Watch as almost every time a woman makes a suggestion, it is swiftly discarded. Lori does not like the idea of young Carl starting to use a gun. After all, if the men are so reluctant to let grown women use a gun, surely, they would not want a child using them either, right. WRONG! Carl is a boy, he can be taught to use guns, learning to respect the weapon. Which is opposite to Andrea who gets good with guns once she stops being emotional (cuz that’s how bitches are). So, Lori relents and later comes to see that the men were right, as they always are.

Not only are women’s ideas irrelevant, but their ideas about their lives also are. Take Andrea, for instance. After her sister’s death, she is quite despondent (which is, you know, normal). So, when the group gets to the CDC and the doctor them offers a painless suicide as opposed to a permanent race against time and walkers and ultimately a very possible painful death or becoming walkers, Andrea, decides to accept that. So does Jaqui, but she’s black, so, she does not count.

So, Dale takes it upon himself to convince Andrea to not kill herself and blackmails her into helping him get out. Jaqui, though, he is not interested in. So, her character dies in the explosion of the CDC. So long, black lady, we hardly knew you. Dale, incidentally, takes it upon himself to try to control everything about Andrea, treating her like a teenager in need of guidance and surveillance (and chastising Dale for their quickie in the woods because he’s also in charge of Andrea’s sexual life, apparently), but all in the name of caring about her.

5. Women’s trust is irrelevant

Once at Hershel’s farm, two women confide in to Glenn. Lori needs him to get her a pregnancy test (because the slut had sex with Shane when she thought Rick was dead, and, as we all know, the punishment for sluttiness is pregnancy). And Maggie Greene needs him to keep secret the presence of her relative and friends (who have now turned into walkers) in the barn. But Glenn decides, with the helpful advice from patriarch Dale, that these women’s trust is irrelevant and men can do what they want even if it involves betraying such trust.

5. Patriarchs make all the decisions, otherwise, bad things happen

It is in the order of things for alpha males and patriarchs to make all the decisions. If other group members accept it and let it happen, then, everything is fine. It is when some of them get it into their heads to do what they want that bad things happen. Which is why, throughout season 2 (so far), Rick (the alpha male of the transient group) spends quite a bit of time in negotiations with Hershel (the Bible-reading patriarch who is in absolute charge of his flock and has especially a bee in his bonnet about his stepdaughter getting it on with the “Asian boy”). All the important decisions are made between these two.

And the terrible ending of the last episode is because the other group members decide to override the decision progressively being worked out between hegemonic males and do what they want. Slaughter ensues, leaving it up to Rick to make the hard decision, because that is hegemonic man’s burden. And FSM knows that Andrew Lincoln’s (over)acting never lets you forget what a BIG and painful responsibility it is to be in charge. It’s lonely, at the top of the patriarchy.

And then, there’s Lori’s pregnancy. Sure she gets the morning after pill. And someone needs to tell the writers that the morning after pill is NOT an abortion, which is why it is so stupid when Rick, upon finding the pill box, yells at her “you’ve known for days, weeks??” Geez, If she had known for weeks, the morning after pill would have been useless, wouldn’t it. But this is the US, so, of course, Lori will go through the pregnancy. And you can bet that she will be lectured by one man after another regarding what she should and shouldn’t do. Heck, she has already been lectured by Glenn who was still a virgin until a couple of episodes ago.

I can’t wait for the rest of the series. But you gotta keep a sense of humor about the absurdity of certain scenes: