Futbol, War, & Jean Jaurès

LBJ signing Civil Rights ActThere are many interesting and important anniversaries occurring this summer. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Lyndon Johnson— a momentous step towards ending discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or national origin. Two weeks ago we remembered the 50th anniversary of the murder of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney— three young men who were registering blacks to vote in Mississippi. Those events were part of what we know as Freedom Summer.

This summer we also remember the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI.  It was on June 28, 1914 that Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Sophie were murdered by a Bosnian nationalist. This led Austria-Hungary to declare war against Serbia, and this in turn grew into The Great War, which enveloped all of Europe and eventually engaged the United States and Japan as well.  One of the deadliest wars in history, more than 70 million military personnel were mobilized, of which about 9 million died on the battlefield.

On July 31 we will remember the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès. Most Americans are not familiar with him, but his role in reshaping European politics was extremely significant. I have made no secret that Jaurès has been influential for me in my own political development. Who was he? Jaurès was a French parliamentarian; leader of the French social democrats (at that time called the French Socialist Party). He was a prolific writer, and editor of the French socialist journal L’Humanité. During his time, the socialist parties of Europe were dominated by classical Marxists who believed that capitalism would collapse due to its own natural excessive behavior. However some leaders in the parties concluded that it wasn’t going to happen and pushed for changes in strategy that included participation in electoral politics. In Germany, Bernstein led the way, but the government structure there didn’t allow for parliamentary elections. The story was different in France, and it was Jaurès who led the charge. His proposal was that Socialists should enter parliament and work in coalition with other parties representing other constituencies to achieve the socialist goals.  It was through his leadership that various socialist factions joined together to form the Left Bloc and push through legislation separating church and state.  His use of parliament to constrain the destructive behavior of capitalism while at the same time allowing a limited free market has been copied around the world. It is unfortunate that the impact was not immediately felt, but eventually it would lead to an enduring stability in western Europe when social democrats took charge at the end of WWII.

Jean_Jaurès_(1)In was at this time 100 years ago that France was getting ready to engage in a catastrophic war prompted by the murder of Franz Ferdinand. Jaurès was very vocal against the war. In fact, he was planning to attend a conference of the Socialist International in August where he would speak out against it. Unfortunately, a French nationalist would shoot him dead at a cafe in Paris on July 31. So ended the life of this great man. But his legacy lives on. Tomorrow, the French and Germans meet each other on the battlefield once again. This time it will be in the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. It is a wondrous development of civilization that replaces war with sports. While Tea Partier Ann Coulter may prefer that Americans express their nationalism by killing foreigners instead of playing soccer, I’m sure the members of the American Mens National Team are happy to live to play another day.

In Holocaust Education, Re-Emphasize Allied Apathy

When teaching children about racism and genocide, educators often focus on individual biases as the source of systematic racism and anti-Semitism.  For example, at my synagogue, teachers often ask their students to put themselves in the shoes of Christian German civilians during the Holocaust and consider whether they, as non-Jews, would have simply shrugged off anti-Semitic slurs and the sight of innocent people in yarmulkes being attacked by policemen.  Questions like this spark a discussion of bullying and anti-bullying in American schools today.  In the process, “racism” becomes a dysfunctional interpersonal phenomenon, and the Holocaust, as a result, becomes a simple amalgamation of millions of acts by individual racists who allowed their prejudices to get out of hand.  By the end of a course on the subject, many students assume that the only way to save Hitler’s victims would have been to speak out against incidental anti-Semitism before it escalated into genocide.  As the Anti-Defamation League notes, “challenging belittling jokes” and not “accepting stereotypes” are good ways to prevent a society from escalating into acts of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and then genocide.

Combatting individual prejudices certainly can help stop mass atrocities, but, in an educational context, this truism is incomplete because it ignores the systematic mobilization of hatred and violence by governmental authority.  Even though many German schoolchildren were too reticent in the face of schoolyard anti-Semitism and could have spoken up, we must not overstate the practical impact that several more German dissidents could have had once the genocide was actually underway, nor should we pretend that the world was helpless to stop the Holocaust once Germans’ prejudices had spiraled so murderously out of control.

In our case, American students today must know that our government, even without changing the hearts of individual anti-Semitic Germans, could have saved many more of Hitler’s victims and that fighting prejudice, though immeasurably valuable, would not have been enough to compensate for the Allies’ failure to intervene on the victims’ behalf.

The US government’s shameful policy of proroguing on the Holocaust was underway by December of 1942 when President Roosevelt met with a Jewish delegation imploring him to stop the genocide. Although Roosevelt intimated at the meeting that his administration “shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment,” the proceeding few months panned out much differently.

In February of 1943, the Rumanian government suggested that it would transport 70,000 Jews into Allied territory in exchange for roughly 130 dollars per refugee. Though such a proposal probably would have required further examination and negotiation, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles simply dismissed it out of hand, lambasting it as a hoax of “the German propaganda machine” to “create confusion and doubt within the United Nations.” The Nuremberg trials elucidated, however, that the offer was sincere and that, with only a little bit of extra research, the State Department would have known to capitalize on the offer.

With that in mind, perhaps we should be asking students what their forbears in the United States could have done to pressure their government to act on the Rumanian proposal.  When organizations pushing the United States to accept Rumania’s offer were denigrated as inflammatory and overdramatic, how could our forbears have normalized the struggle for genocide victims and defended the efforts of those who were advocating positive action?

It is no exaggeration to say that the Allies’ “efforts” at saving Hitler’s victims were laced with unconcern and faux-outrage at most key turns thereafter.  To the world, our leaders were “devastated” by what was happening to European Jewry, but, in private, they were much more insouciant about the matter. In fact, to absolutely no objection, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden once said outright in a 1943 meeting with President Roosevelt that “we should move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria.  If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany.”  When Eden expressed concern that “Hitler might take us up on any such offer” and that the Allied Powers would have to find new homes for Jewish refugees, he was greeted with nonchalance and tacit agreement.

Today, students of the Holocaust or any other systemic atrocity should not ask themselves only how more people could have acted individually to condemn incidental bigotry, as important as that question is; they should ask how thousands upon thousands of people could have acted in tandem to pressure their governments to save thousands upon thousands of victims.  We should remember that the Holocaust was not only an exercise of individual prejudice but also an exercise of systemic governmental apathy and an exhibition of societies’ unfortunate tendency to shrug their proverbial shoulders amidst large-scale suffering.

 

Annual CEJ Awards Dinner in Buffalo

Rick D'Loss (left) SD National Chair and Michael Mottern, Chair of YSD

Rick D’Loss (left) SD National Chair and Michael Mottern, Chair of YSD

Each year the Coalition for Economic Justice holds a dinner to celebrate the efforts of various groups and individuals. The CEJ is an amalgam of groups who work together on the behalf of workers, the poor, the disabled, immigrants, and the environment. I was pleased to attend along with Michael Mottern, our local leader in Buffalo. Admittedly, it is an easy drive from Pittsburgh to Buffalo (a little less than 4 hours). The weather was great.  Mid week, mid day travel presented no traffic obstacles except for road construction (thank you PA legislature for finally passing a transportation funding bill that puts people to work). The awards dinner was this past Thursday evening, everything was well organized, and Michael and I had a wonderful time. Not only did we get to promote Social Democrats USA, we refreshed relationships, and were genuinely encouraged by the efforts of so, so many people. We even had time for a couple of beers.

Barbara Young, organizer of domestic workers in NY

Barbara Young, organizer of domestic workers in NY

The key note speaker was Barbara Young. It’s easy to remember her name because Barbara comes from Barbados. She came to NYC 20 years ago to be a domestic worker. After working in the business and networking with other domestic workers, she realized that working conditions desperately needed to be improved.  But organizing thousands of individual contractors is a lot more complicated than organizing the workers at a single plant with a single employer.  Barbara realized that she would need to go beyond traditional organizing.  There were three important components to her strategy— lobby state legislature, lobby the employers, and be persistent.  Lobby the employers?  Yes, indeed.  Many of the domestics in NYC work for Jewish families with two working adults.  Barbara learned that Jews are generally sympathetic to leftist issues, so she decided to work that angle.  She pressed the argument that these domestic workers are taking care of America’s most precious assets: our children and our elderly.  These Jews formed Shalom Bayit (peace in the home); an organization that helps organize domestic workers. They promoted it through a network of synagogues. Then together, Domestic Workers United and Shalom Bayit took the matter to Albany, and after 8 diligent years were able to get a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010— the first such legislation in America! Barbara deserves a lot of credit for seeing a problem, devising a solution, and not giving up until she was successful.

Richard Lipsitz (center) leads the Western NY Labor Federation

Richard Lipsitz (center) leads the Western NY Labor Federation

I had a few minutes to speak with Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western NY Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. Richard was keynote speaker at our 2012 Convention. We reminisced over that event, which was held at Rust Belt Books.  With a big smile he told me what a great time he had, and that if we ever hold the convention in Buffalo again to make sure we invite him. Although Richard is not too far away from retirement, he continues to do great work for organized workers in Western NY. At the CEJ dinner he was honored to give remarks about new efforts to work with people outside the normal constituency of Labor. We recall during the national AFL-CIO convention when we heard Rich Trumka tell us that all of us are under attack and that the 99% can no longer view itself as a multitude of constituencies, but instead must realize that we are all in the same boat. Environmentalists, trade unionists, gay right activists, civil rights activists, immigrant rights activists— we must work as coalition if we are to make any progress. We saw then for the first time non-trade unionists speaking at an AFL-CIO convention. We see now trade unionists supporting gay rights. There is a sense of cooperation that I’ve never seen before.  I come from Western Pennsylvania, an area where union members are not liberals. They didn’t support civil rights, they didn’t support immigrant rights, they didn’t support gay rights. But now they realize that if we don’t all work together, we’re pretty much screwed. I think trade unionists are seeing the light, and I am optimistic about the current direction.

Michael LoCurto accepts award for progressive elected official.

Michael LoCurto accepts award for progressive elected official.

We also had opportunity to connect with political leaders in Buffalo.  Michael and I sat at the table with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and compared issues in Erie County (Buffalo) and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), including Marcellus shale drilling, welfare administration, parks, and airport authorities.  We also got to spend a few moments with Michael LoCurto, City of Buffalo Council member.  Michael is a well known progressive and received an award at the dinner for his efforts. We also established a relationship with Betty Jean Grant, Erie County Legislature member (district 2). She was very open to our message of economic rights and jobs for all.

Lastly, I want to mention Beverly Newkirk. She leads an organization called “It Takes a Village”. As a young woman she had the incredible privilege of working with Bayard Rustin (our chair during the 70’s), A Philip Randolph, Ernie Green, and other notables in the civil rights movement. At the time, she was an apprentice in the Recruitment and Training Program. The function of the RTP was to recruit and train minorities for jobs in the construction industry. Randolph was Chair and Rustin was Vice Chair. Their annual conference was an important calendar event for anyone in politics. She says the experiences of those times changed her life and she is eternally grateful.

Looking forward to next year.

SDUSA Chair Rick D'Loss and "It Takes a Village" Chair Beverly Newkirk hold a picture of Bayard Rustin

SDUSA Chair Rick D’Loss and “It Takes a Village” Chair Beverly Newkirk hold a picture of Bayard Rustin

Richard Lipsitz talks about the future of worker rights

Richard Lipsitz talks about the future of worker rights

Michael shows off the SDUSA table

Michael shows off the SDUSA table

Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant endorses the SDUSA economic proposals

Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant endorses the SDUSA economic proposals

SDUSA Chair Rick D'Loss and Buffalo Council member Michael LoCurto

SDUSA Chair Rick D’Loss and Buffalo Council member Michael LoCurto

Best wishes for full health to National Committee member Steve Weiner in Ashland, OR

Best wishes for full health to National Committee member Steve Weiner in Ashland, OR

Neoconservatives Use Moral Relativism to Blame Progressives for Genital Mutilation

This article was originally published for Foreign Policy in Focus and at tommyraskin.org.  

The neoconservative camp, always eager to wrestle with imaginary positions of their opponents, is now bravely challenging another belief that no one holds, which is that “all cultures are equal.” George Mason University Professor Walter Williams has jumped aboard the “Western values are superior to all others” bandwagon and asks, “Is forcible female genital mutilation, as practiced in nearly 30 sub-Saharan Africa and Middle Eastern countries, a morally equivalent cultural value?” The neoconservative Clarion Project’s Douglas Murray takes the campaign directly to progressives by asking, “How many young girls’ clitorises had to bemutilated while they busily curated their left-wing credentials?”

This arrogant cultural trope is nothing new. The neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay have promoted the “inequality of cultures” idea throughout the War on Terror to justify militarism, invasion, torture, and systematic violation of international law. Sliding from “culture” to politics to statecraft, their ideological conceit is that “we,” the West, have an enduring tradition of protecting women, while “they,” the Middle Easterners, are so barbaric that they cut the clitorises off of women, and therefore our “culture” should govern their “culture.” But their sudden passion for Middle Eastern women’s rights—indeed, any women’s rights—must be taken with a shaker of salt.

Obviously, not all cultural values are equal in a moral sense. For example, a political culture of militarism and war, the kind that produced hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Iraq War, is inferior to a culture that prefers non-violence, diplomacy and peace, the kind that you might find in, say, Canada. Furthermore, where it occurs, in both Islamic and non-Islamic communities, female genital mutilation is indeed barbaric, savage, and backward and should be condemned as such.

But neoconservative fake-feminists only play the “pro-woman” game when it comes time to bash fanatical Islamists who happen not to be on our side in whatever war the neoconservatives are pushing. Thus, when our side made deals with Afghan tribal warlords who were none-averse to female genital mutilation, the neoconservatives fell silent, for their militarist “realism” always prevails over their rhetorical feminism.

Moreover, the neoconservatives are distinctly anti-woman when it comes time to allow grassroots democracy to flourish in the Mideast. I’ll show you what I mean.

They argue that “they,” the Middle Easterners, mutilate girls’ genitals and that “we,” the Westerners, don’t. What inanity. The West’s insipid, criminal Iraq War mutilated the genitals— not to mention the faces, necks, arms, and legs— of thousands of Iraqi women and girls, all after years of sanctions that killed thousands of Iraqi girls every month. Some may insist that these were necessary means to a righteous, democratic end, but the only meaningful “ends” thus far produced by the Western aggression in Iraq have been unyielding sectarian violence, car bombings and refugee camps. Please forgive me for not jumping up to high-five the feminist “liberators” who created this violent mess.

Ever since the Iranian Revolution, and especially since the induction of pre-Iran War hysteria, neoconservatives have also been fond of bashing Twelver Shiite misogyny as a decidedly backward, anti-Western phenomenon. Yet their beloved CIA, a beacon of Western “democracy building,” helped oust the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and enthrone the Shah, a far-from-enlightened dictator whose secret police force, the SAVAK, “tortured and murdered thousands” of political dissidents. Where were their sympathies for brutalized, displaced, and widowed Iranian women when that was happening?

Oh, and while they do the newly fashionable thing of bashing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s very real chauvinism, it might be worth mentioning that the West has been siding with anti-female Egyptian tyranny ever since 1919 when, amid an anti-colonial struggle which eventually killed 800 Egyptians, Woodrow Wilson backed the British rule in Egypt even as native women “testified that British troops ‘leveled their weapons at us’” and violently suppressed the protests. Fast-forward to less than a decade ago when the United States decided to purchase Egyptian “stability” by propping up Hosni Mubarak’s government during its “systematic arrestand harassment of peaceful political activists” and “lethal” crackdown on both male and female asylum seekers. As we see, the long-standing tradition of Western devotion to democracy and feminism isn’t so pure.

Yes, we should condemn FGM and misogyny whenever it occurs at anyone’s hands in any culture. That’s not the dispute here. The dispute is whether or not the military interventions championed by the neoconservatives have proven more conducive to women’s empowerment than feminist and human rights struggles. Though it may be noise to pseudo-feminist militarists’ ears, the answer, resoundingly, is no.

The Myth of the Able-Bodied Man as Man

This article was originally published at goodmenproject.com and tommyraskin.org.

We need to fix the game of manhood.

Our society’s exclusive image of the ‘real man’ leaves us with a disgruntled majority of boys who view the coveted prizes of masculinity as out of reach. Although most boys are bound to feel painfully inferior at one point or another, our game is particularly skewed against certain boys, like those with physical, developmental, and mental disabilities.

Young disabled men often begin to feel distanced from manhood when the social emphasis on gender kicks in during adolescence. Boys are frequently taught that athleticism belongs to the able-bodied and that sexual attractiveness, portrayed in everything from clothing catalogues to violent, misogynistic pornography, too belongs to aggressive, physically dominant, able-bodied men. “Charm” also tends to follow able-bodied guys without psychological abnormalities, those whose looks, interests and proclivities are considered “normal.”

And we double down on this arrangement, first, by blindly prizing assimilation, and then “integration,” as the antidotes to disabled boys’ hardships. Even when our boys don’t like sports and suck at them, we urge them to go out for the baseball team. We tell them to change their cinematic, musical, and literary interests simply to fit in.  When that doesn’t work, educators try forcing friendships between able-bodied and disabled students, which ultimately doesn’t work either.

That’s only half of our failed approach though. Without offering our boys long-term opportunities to cultivate the interests and talents that can give them real self-confidence as young men, we simply send them off to counselors and therapists to be told that they “don’t have to be like other boys.” It’s a valuable message but an incomplete one nonetheless.

For years, as both a student and co-teacher, I cringed at many disabled (and otherwise excluded) boys’ affected efforts to fit in socially. Indignant about their inability to measure up to their ingrained conceptions of manhood, these boys would, for example, act like chauvinistic players. On one occasion, a camp friend of mine put on his ‘man face’ and broadcasted to a large group of guys that he likes to “use and lose” women, even though, in reality, he had never kissed a girl. Clearly, after numerous rejections, he was searing with resentment and, in a last-ditch effort to prove his manliness to himself and other boys, veiled his insecurity with ugly chauvinism.

Such affectations of masculinity were not always girl-oriented though. I remember one of my middle school students, a so-called “nerd” with a developmental disability, striking up a conversation about the NFL with some peers during recess. After five minutes, the other boys laughed him off when it became clear that this young man had no idea what he was discussing.

Alas, when other outcast boys pulled this kind of stunt, by acting up in class or pretending to love typical ‘boy things,’ they were usually called out for “trying too hard” or “being annoying.” Sometimes, their parents—usually their fathers—would push them to participate in stereotypical “male” activities, like videogames and roughhousing. But no matter how persistently these boys tried to be “real” guys, they usually couldn’t rid themselves of that fundamental differentness, that less-than-boyishness, that disabled-ness in the eyes of the boys who they were trying to impress.

Conscientious teachers would pick up on this social ostracism and, with the best of intentions, try to integrate ostracized students into groups of able-bodied, gleeful, popular kids. They would concoct project workgroups and assign class seats with the obvious purpose of bringing together students from different social circles. In grade school, they would encourage popular kids to hang out with unpopular kids during recess. Content with simply having done something, the teachers would then wash their hands of this unsettling business and declare: “Job well done!”

Sadly, they missed the mark entirely.

John Calmore’s critical understanding of racially integrative housing reforms in recent decades provides the necessary framework for understanding ability-based integration in school: “the ‘integration imperative’ legitimates the emphasis on desegregation rather than on simple nonsegregation and free choice as to where to live,” and, in this case, where and with whom to play and study. As a co-teacher, I wanted students of all abilities to be in the same classes, but I didn’t think that kids of different social groups should be forced to sit near each other, work together or play together, especially when these integrative arrangements left disabled students feeling even more isolated than before.

When teachers entirely re-configured classes in this way, disabled students were often separated from the couple friends they had and were forced to work with peers who detested these teacher-imposed social structures as much as they did. Usually, the less popular students were less confident, and their dissatisfaction was only made worse when they were forced into intimate situations with other students who seemed unenthusiastic about working with them. As a result, students in different social circles constantly complained that yearlong workgroups took them away from their friends.

At the end of it all, many disabled boys were, and still are, directed to a counselor or teacher to talk through their social difficulties. Having that adult backup is certainly helpful, but it isn’t enough for most boys. Right after putting them in social situations in which they are forced to worry about what others think of them, we, in a bizarre reversal of course, tell our boys with physical and psychological abnormalities that they actually shouldn’t worry about what others think of them, that the kids who don’t give them the time of day “aren’t worth it anyway,” and that if they simply maintain a positive attitude, everything will be OK.

Unfortunately, after all of the mixed messages, feel-good therapy sessions and naive integrative measures, many boys with disabilities aren’t OK. In fact, a lot of them are hurting pretty badly. The physically disabled are often troubled by the fear of their physical limitations in an able-bodied society, children with learning disabilities are still “more likely to have negative perceptions of the self, their environment and the future,” young men with intellectual disabilities are at an increased risk of depression, and children with severe disabilities are prone to display “irritability, anger or screaming, self-injurious and aggressive behavior.”

Young men with disabilities neither are nor should be convinced that they can be happy without social lives and fulfilling hobbies. I have found that if there is anything in the flawed model of masculinity that we ought to keep—and are anyway forced to keep—it’s the natural human longing for confidence, love, and enjoyable work (as Freud taught us). Guys don’t need to play COD, hang out with the cool kids, look like movie stars, have vision, be neurotypical, or be able to walk in order to be “real men,” but we all need passions, for passions give us the productive energies that make us attractive to ourselves and others.

Our emphasis, then, has to move away from the broken assimilation-integration paradigm. No boy has actually ever boosted his self-esteem by taking on false interests and false credentials in order to fit the “man” mold, and the top-down friendship model has rarely worked. If we are serious about giving disabled students equally gratifying social lives, then we should stop forcing them into uncomfortable situations and instead focus on giving them opportunities to self-actualize among those with similar interests.

Educators can spur this process by establishing in-school outlets for isolated children to pursue their goals. For example, when a teacher discovers that a shy, excluded student is a budding musician, the teacher should give him music-oriented assignments that can help cultivate his abilities. If no such opportunity exists in the classroom, the teacher should refer him to an extracurricular musical band. Ideally, the boy would eventually gain enough confidence to present his work to the class and discuss it with his peers openly and confidently.  The social integration would thus come after the boy has achieved the self-esteem associated with meeting a personal goal.

Guardians should also resist the temptation to force their boys to participate in activities simply because the activities are typically male. Eventually, the dissonance between the boys’ true interests and his parents’ interests will surface, and the boys will only be further destabilized. Guardians, like teachers, should instead encourage boys to pursue their true passions.

As for the rest of us, let’s remember that a man need not look or think a certain way to retain his masculinity, that if he finds purpose and esteem in a less-than-expected lifestyle for a guy in the 21st century, he nonetheless deserves our support and validation as an ever-elusive ‘real man.’