broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Intersectionality as a Tactic

Intersectionality as a Tactic

H. Bradford

7/18/17

Both the Feminist Justice League and Pandemonium have met this month to discuss the important topic of intersectionality.  I myself have read dozens of articles in an effort to clarify this concept so that it can be used to strengthen these organizations.  However, even the most basic questions about intersectionality remain elusive.  Is it a theory?  Is it a metaphor?  Is it an action tool?  Is it a methodology?  Is it all of these things?  If so, how it is in defined?  What do critics have to say about it?  In short, what is intersectionality and how can it be used in organizing?  The following is based upon my recent readings, but also conversations with activists such as Adam, Lucas, Jenny, Chris, and Pamela.

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To begin, I first heard about intersectionality in graduate school about five years ago.  I was a latecomer to the concept, probably owing to the fact that I had never taken Women/Gender Studies courses in college or plainly hadn’t been paying attention.  I heard about it at an LGBTQ event on campus.  I didn’t care for the concept at the time, since although it addressed interlocking oppressions, the speaker explained it as if these oppressions exist in an ether of power.  The concept of power was so diffuse that the analysis did not connect these interlocking oppressions to capitalism or any particular institution within capitalism.  Since then, I have encountered intersectionality many times.  Sometimes I have felt that it is a buzz word or a badge that activists can hide behind to see more legitimate and inoculate themselves against “white feminism.”  Other times, I have scratched my head, waiting for something more.  I want a meatier definition than what I am offered.  This has finally sent me on a quest to figure out intersectionality.


My readings have made it very clear that intersectionality originated with Black feminists in the late 1970s and 1980s.  These feminists believed that mainstream feminist analysis at the time did not address how racial oppression intersects with gender and class oppression.  Of course, there were considerations to gender and race by feminists earlier in history, but through a genealogy of concepts such as interlocking systems of oppression, borderlands, and multiple jeopardy, intersectionality was brought to birth.  It was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, a legal professor at UCLA in response to Degraffenreid v. General Motors.  In this case, five black women sued GM for discrimination.  However, they had trouble demonstrating in court that they had been discriminated against since not ALL female workers had faced discrimination and not ALL black workers had faced discrimination.  Thus, the discrimination they faced was the outcome of both their gender and race, yet the legal system did not recognize these compounding oppressions.  The heart of the concept is that oppressions interlock with one another.  Kimberle Crenshaw herself said that it was meant to be a metaphor and not a complete theory.  Of course, this creates a challenge for me, as I am used to operating in the world of theories and actions based upon theories.

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I have felt frustrated and befuddled by the vague and incomplete nature of intersectionality.  I want to understand it because I don’t want to fall into the trap of “white feminism.”  For instance, many activists and organizations call for intersectionality, but don’t actually define it.  When it is defined, it is usually very simply, again referring to interlocking oppressions faced by individuals of multiple identities.  Identity is an important word that is often used in the definitions that I have seen.  This has led some activists to write off intersectionality as an extension of identity politics or incompatible with a materialist world view.  In my own opinion, of course identities are socially constructed, but they have real world meaning and consequences.  Identities are not incompatible with a materialist world view.  After all, if someone wants to organize the working class, it certainly helps if people identify with and as members of the working class or workers in general. (As opposed to “middle class” as is the common, watered down, socially encouraged identity.)  Identity helps individuals to see themselves as having common interests and develop demands based upon these interests.  Has there ever been social change without identity of some kind?  The important part is rooting identities in history and economics.  Thus, the aspect of framing intersectionality that I struggle with is that identity is more than a label.  It is also a social position or place within a system of power.  Therefore, a person is not oppressed because they identify as female or bisexual or both, but because being female, bisexual, or both disadvantages one in a patriarchal capitalist society that empowers men while promoting heterosexuality in the interest of maintaining control over property and reproducing labor.  This is why I have felt that some of my readings on intersectionality have been an incomplete sentence.  Alright, oppressions intersect.  I agree.  But, why?  How?  By what mechanism?  By what institutions?  Complete the sentence.  Oppressions intersect because of systems of power within CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY.   They could intersect because of feudal patriarchy.  They could intersect in a slave based economy.  But, since we are living in a capitalist system, it makes sense to connect oppressions to their place and role in capitalism.

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In an overview of my readings, there are a range of critiques of intersectionality beyond identity politics.  Some activists find that intersectionality had radical roots, but was tamed over time by white feminists.  The Black feminist history was forgotten and it has become a meaningless buzzword.  Other critique has suggested that it has sucked up all of the air in academia for other feminist theories.  Some activists feel that the strength of the theory is that it is incomplete, since that lends itself to debate, discussion, interpretation, etc.   Others argue that it is postpositivist, making it hard to study or measure.  On the other hand, I read an article which used multiple regression to tease out how self-reported identities (as variables) correlate to particular political actions.  In this case, intersectionality was measurable in a statistical sense.   Perhaps the best response I read to the whole debate was one from an anarchist feminist group in the UK.  The group (sorry I forgot the name), admitted that intersectionality is debated and has some limits.  They approached intersectionality tactically.  It is a popular word.  It means a lot to many people and in the simplest sense, it means considering how oppression is interconnected.  Keeping in mind how some groups may feel excluded, unwelcome, forgotten, or unsafe in a social movement or social movement organization, only serves to strengthen and broaden the power of an organization/movement.  I completely agree!

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Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March in Pittsburgh

Of course, approaching intersectionality tactically is not without its challenges and problems.  For one, no organizations can be everything to everyone…at one time.   The point of social movement organizations is usually to organize around an issue that impacts a particular group of people.  For instance, the Homeless Bill of Rights Coalition is organizing around passing an ordinance that would give more protections to people experiencing homelessness.  Surely, homelessness is connected to many intersections such as race, class, family status, criminal background, disability, health, etc.  I think that the group does a good job, since meetings usually occur at a location that houses homeless people and free food is always provided.  But, child care it not provided (to my knowledge) nor is there sign language translation or Spanish translation.  There is no mini van that roams the city, picking up people to attend the meeting.  By not providing these things, it is very possible that someone in the community could be excluded.  This is not the fault of the coalition, but should demonstrate that social movement organizations are limited in both their financial and personnel resources.  There may not be enough members for childcare, not enough money for a van, not enough members to provide everyone with rides, etc.  While in a perfect world it would be wonderful if social movement organizations could provide supports so that every single interested person can participate in the movement, in practice, this puts demands on individual activists which are better directed at the state (with far more resources).  You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.  Perfect intersectionality in the context of capitalism is impossible as few of us have the financial wherewithal to make it possible.  But, this creates new possibility for new intersections.  We need social movements to fight for free daycare, socialized health care, and public transportation to make it possible for the broadest swath of society to participate in capitalism’s overthrow.

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Another tactical limitation of intersectionality is that it is alright for there to be autonomous social movements/organizations.  It is alright for there to be a black feminist group.  It is alright for there to be a trans group.  It is alright for there to be an environmental group that focuses on mining or another that focuses only on fighting pipelines.  Again, there are so many issues and so many ways that people are oppressed that it makes sense to divide up the work.  Not only is this practical, it benefits those involved.  A bisexual/pansexual group is useful since it helps build identity, leadership, and demands (which helps strengthen the larger, broader struggle against heterosexism).  Of course, all of these individual groups should be mindful of how their issues intersect.  Forming coalitions, working together, planning broader events, co-sponsoring, pooling resources, etc. are all benefits of working intersectionality.  But, at any given moment, a group that fights pipelines does not have to address agism, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and every other ism in one fell swoop.  Sometimes it is enough just to fight pipe lines.  Yet, any effective organization will make an ongoing effort to address some of these things.  This builds power in the movement.  Again, a single organization cannot be everything to everyone all at once.


I have said it before but the biggest barrier to intersectionality is capitalism.  Those who are the most dedicated members in the Feminist Justice League face multiple oppressions.  We are all working class.  Many of us are women.  Some of us are survivors.  Some of us have disabilities.  Some of us have criminal backgrounds.  I know that I personally make an effort to connect gender oppression to other oppressions.  I know I have failed.  I also know that our organization does not perfectly create space and opportunities for everyone.  We are activists, but we are also oppressed.  We operate within the limits of capitalism.  We have no budget as an organization.  I personally do not have time or the emotional resources to be a taxi, nanny, or nurse to a social movement.  I am a socialist, but I am not socialism.  Certainly our failures to be intersectional can be attributed to some personal and organizational failures, but I would say that the biggest barrier is the lack of access to resources in capitalism.  Capitalism itself divides various sectors of the working class.  It obscures class politics and the meaning of class.  Capitalism divides people along racial lines.  It incarcerates and kills in the interest of profit and property.  Capitalism creates gender roles that ensure that no profits are diverted into caring for children or the elderly.  It limits access to abortion.  Everyone woman will produce the next generation of workers and soldiers, or else.  It destroys the environment and makes us believe that we are its chosen people, so that our Have Nots fight the global Have Nots.  This is the power of capitalism, which impacts us all in different ways and to varying degrees, but, the bottom line is that it impacts us all.

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Not a Happy Camper

Not a Happy Camper

H. Bradford

7/15/17

Back in May, I went on a short camping trip at Wild River State Park to enjoy International Migratory Bird Day.  I enjoyed this little adventure, as it gave me the opportunity to do some birding and hiking.  Well, I thought that it would be a good idea to do another little camping trip.  I have some post-travel blahs and this would be a way to enjoy nature.  To combat these blahs and take advantage of my time off, decided that I would head to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park for a little camping adventure.  As it turns out, it was a miserable time!

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The Plague of Traffic:

Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is about two hours from Duluth and located in an area steeped with Native American history.   The earliest signs of human settlement in Minnesota are found in the Mille Lacs area.  As for the lake itself, it is the second largest inland lake in Minnesota.   Like many state parks, I haven’t visited it, so it was another incentive to visit the area.  Thus, I set off for a short adventure.  It was raining when I left Superior, but the forecast indicated that the rain would stop.  It didn’t.  Most of my drive involved driving in the rain.  I took my time since there was no point arriving in the rain.  The rain did eventually stop, but I did not predict the enormous traffic jam by Mille Lacs Lake (which seems odd to say Lacs Lake, since it is “lake lake”).  It has probably been over a decade and a half since I was out by Mille Lacs and even then, it was never for anything tourist related.  The towns dotting the giant lake only have a few hundred people, yet, I was stuck in traffic for an hour as trucks with boats tried to merge into one lane.  I watched time pass by.  I watched the lake.  I felt annoyed by the mass of fishermen and women who were scrambling to return to the Twin Cities.  I also felt annoyed with myself for choosing to camp on a Sunday (when everyone else is returning home from the weekend).  Considering the throngs of traffic, it is no surprise that the lake is empty of walleye (well, that and climate change warming the lakes). DSCF7140DSCF7152DSCF7183DSCF7186


The Plague of Flies:

After suffering through the traffic, I set up my tent.  Despite the crowded herd of slow moving trucks, the park itself was nearly deserted.  There were very few campers in the park that night.  This was encouraging.  I decided that I would spend several hours hiking, so I went to the trail center and picked a trail that looped around one of the lakes in the park.  I immediately found that the trail was rather muddy and infested with swarms of flies.  The flies surrounded my head, buzzing loudly and getting tangled in my hair.  I picked out pieces of dead flies from my hair, swatting the others who seemed equally determined to meet their death in the snarls of my black and blue tresses.  It occured to me that perhaps I could use my super duper DEET 100 to deter them.  So, I doused myself in DEET.  The DEET was so concentrated that it took the nail polish off my nails.  I suppose this provides makeshift beauty advice.  While camping, DEET can be used to take the varnish off your nails.  While it removed my nail polish, it did not remove the flies.  The flies seemed completely indifferent to the chemical stench wafting from my body.  I even sprayed a handkerchief with DEET and wore it on my head.  The flies did not care in the least.  This cut my hike short.

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Not pictured: a plague of flies.

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(What could possibly go wrong?)

 


Instead of hiking, I made a detour to climb a fire tower.  I figured that if I couldn’t hike, I could at least climb up the tower.  This was a good challenge for me, since I really hate heights.  And, I actually had to tell myself out loud to keep going up after I was above the tree tops.  I focused on looking up and made it to the top without incident.  Though, on the way up I imagined getting stuck up there…too afraid to go back down.  Since I was all alone, it would begin my new life.  My new life on top of the fire tower.  It was completely fine.  The view from the top allowed me to see Mille Lacs Lake and several of the lakes in the park.   I felt a little accomplished. DSCF7119 DSCF7115 DSCF7122


After clambering down the fire tower, I thought I would take a short hike on the Interpretive Trail.  The flies continued to harass me, but at least I was distracted by the various signs about the history of the park.  It was interesting to learn that many of the campsites in the state park were places were Native American villages or camping sites were also located.  The park also contains burial or ceremonial mounds that date back to 3000 BC.  The park is filled with archeological sites, including the remnants of settler homesteads.   It was also interesting to learn about the ecological history of the park.  From about 300 BC to the late 1800s, the area was dominated by white pine.   The white pine forests were ended in less than 50 years with the arrival of white settlers and logging companies.  Deeper in history, the park was Oak Savanna, Aspen, and other variations of forests.   The park was at the edge of the glaciers of the last ice age, which carved out the lakes of the area.   Another highlight of the trail was seeing a catbird.  I heard a strange, crying noise from the bushes and spotted the catbird tucked into the foliage.

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  The Rain:

Since my hikes were thwarted by flies, I decided that I would venture out of the park back to the town of Garrison.  It would offer me the opportunity to take some photos of Mille Lacs Lake and explore some landmarks.  This went wonderfully.  I enjoyed the evening taking photos of the lake and watching some purple martins catch insects by a boat landing.  I even saw an immature eagle in a dead tree.  I watched the birds and lake until near sunset. Little did I know, that back in the park, it had rained.  The glossy pavement as I approached the park was a sign of the isolated shower.  I wasn’t worried, as my tent…should be water proof.  This would have been the case but part of the flysheet on the backside of the tent was not pulled down far enough.  Somehow this tiny slit had let a deluge of water into my tent.  I was astonished by the lake that had formed in my tent, soaking my sleeping bag and forming puddles on one side.  Thankfully, I had two emergency blankets in my car.  I was also thankful that I had a spare towel in my car as well.  I sopped up the soggy mess, but was not happy. DSCF7189DSCF7188DSCF7179


I went on to make a fire, where I sat and journaled.  I also spent some time reading various articles on a Marxist critique of Intersectionality.  I will try to write up my thoughts on these articles on a future blog.  Writing and reading restored by sense of peace.  I decided that I would devote several hours to hiking the next day and studied the map to see which trail I would chose.  There was something peaceful and restorative about taking time to delve into those articles.  I stayed up late, took a shower, admired the nearly full moon, then headed into my moist tent.  Yes, it wasn’t perfectly dry.  Sopping up the water had made it moist at best.

 

 


Then I sat there, tossing and turning, bumping elbows with something wet.  I pushed my soggy sleeping bag into the corner.  I stared up at the ceiling of the tent.  It rained again.  Even when it didn’t rain, the forest sounded like 1,000 leaky faucets.  I felt that somehow the moisture outside had penetrated by bones, making me feel chilled and uneasy.  The raindrops continued to pound the tent, drop by slow, torturous drop.  When it became clear that I wasn’t going to sleep, I took a Tylenol PM.  I hate taking these because they have been connected to dementia.  But, they work very well.  I dozed off and slept.  The next morning I continued sleeping.  I slept and slept…and slept some more…missing the opportunity to hike.


When I finally forced myself to get motivated, I decided the adventure was done.  My tent was still wet on the outside.  I packed it up, picking off a few slugs.  I felt wet and dirty putting everything away.  I had a feminist meeting later in the day anyway, so I was okay just leaving the park.  I was disappointed, but there were some highlights.  I enjoyed the fire and my time reading and writing.  I enjoyed my encounters with birds.  I can add purple martin to my life list, as I have not seen one since I started birding about two years ago.  I enjoyed climbing the tower.  So, even though I wasn’t a happy camper, I didn’t regret my mini-adventure.

 

A Feminist Wonder Woman Review

A Feminist Wonder Woman Review

H. Bradford

7/14/17

Sometimes it is hard to enjoy movies.  It stems from my political leanings, education in sociology, and life as a social misfit.  So, I really didn’t expect that I would like the new Wonder Woman movie.  Especially when my brother gave me two spoilers: she falls in love and she fights the Germans.   Nevertheless, I do like superhero movies.  And, the movie is important since it features a female superhero.  Thus, I thought I would give it a try.  With that said, here is my review of the movie!  Of course, is it not the review to end all reviews…


 

Feminist Feudalism:

The film begins in Themyscira, the hidden island homeland of the Amazons.  The Amazons have been sequestered on this island for thousands of years following a battle between Zeus and Ares.  The island itself was made invisible by Zeus before he died.  Themyscira is populated entirely by women, which makes it a little reminiscent of Herland, the short novel by Charlotte Perkin’s Gilman.  Unlike Herland, the women of Themyscira do not reproduce (in Herland they did by parthenogenesis).  But, similar to the novel, the women are strong, educated, and beautiful (though in Gilman’s novel, this is the result of eugenics).  In both, the women must deal with the challenge of the arrival of men to their hidden abode.   Gilman’s book was written in 1916 and the Wonder Woman film takes place in 1918.   The similarities end there, as Herland was more imaginative in depicting an all-female society.  Themyscira is pretty dull.  Although the women are thousands of years old, they live in what appears to be sort of feminist feudalism, governed by a queen.  Wonder Woman herself is a princess.  While Wonder Woman later compared Candy, the secretary, to a slave with disdain, there is clearly social hierarchy within Themyscira.   Also, Wonder Woman/Diana is the daughter of the Queen Hippolyta, who is protective of her and refuses to let her sister train her to be a fighter.  This indicates that although there is only one child in the whole island, she is not raised equally by all of the women.  Instead, she belongs to her mother.   Despite the thousands of years of isolated female community, there has been little social experimentation towards more equal social relations.  Further, although there are Black women on the island, the leaders of the Amazons are all Caucasian.  Again, the island does not seem to be very imaginative or utopian, which is disappointing since it would have been an opportunity to explore gender, gender roles, and social inequality more seriously or even draw from utopian fiction from the film’s era. Image result for Herland


World War I:

The film is set in World War One.  I like this as it draws attention to the 100 year anniversary of the war and where the world is today.  War is a major theme in the film, since the main villain is Ares, the god of war.   In the mythos of the film, Ares will return and start a great war.  It is Diana/Wonder Woman’s task to stop him and end World War One.  Now, World War One is not as popular in American history, identity, and memory.  When I was a student teacher, the students groaned about having to learn about this war.  They wanted to move on to WWII, as that was the exciting war. Because World War One is not given the same attention, but certainly reshaped the globe and caused vast and horrific loss and suffering, I liked that it was chosen as the setting.


Within the film, the Amazons have a “just war” philosophy about conflict.  They want to avoid conflict, but feel that they must train and fight when it is necessary.  When Diana is told about the millions that have been killed during World War One, she feels that she must spring into action.  Unfortunately, the film makes many mistakes in how WWI is presented.  Firstly, the Germans are introduced as the villains via Steve Trevor, the American spy who crash landed in Themyscira.  But, there really were no “villains” or World War One or there was a shared villainy between every imperialist country that participated.  While imperialism SHOULD be the villain in the film, it is beyond the scope of a mainstream comic book movie to show war as the outcome of imperial gamesmanship.  Portraying the Germans as villains draws upon Nazi tropes, that there are crude, uniformed German accented villains plotting some horrible thing against the West.  In the film, the Germans are working in collusion with the Ottomans, who in are not really portrayed, other than offering Germans arms and a place to develop their weapons.  Again, I found it unsettling that the villains were conveniently the Germans and Muslims. Image result for germans in wonder woman

Those villainous Germans….


As the film progresses, Diana/Wonder Woman sees that the British are senselessly sacrificing lives and that Ares was never General Ludendorff, but the weasely British cabinet member:   Sir Patrick Morgan.  Diana also learns from “Chief” (eye rolls) about the genocide of Native Americans.  This muddies the water a little as she realizes that many countries act as villains.  She continues to frame this as the cause of Ares, God of War.  There is a brief moment where she must consider that humans cause war, but the movie sabotages this by having Ares die and the conflict end.  However, this is still not a serious consideration of the causes of war.  The film pits the evil of humans vs. the evil of a god as the causes of war.   Again, I am disappointed that the film does not suggest any other cause of war…such as well, economic motives.


Finally, the film is set primarily in Europe and even then, only the Western Front.  The underlying message is that only Western European lives matter.  The fact that for thousands of years the Amazons waited for a “great war” to herald Ares return…and this great war was World War One is extremely Eurocentric.  I wish that “Chief” would have asked Diana why she didn’t intervene during the genocide of Native Americans.  It is hard to know the exact death toll, but the Spanish conquest of Peru may have taken the lives of 8 million people alone.  Mongol invasions, Tamerlane’s invasions, the expansion of the Mughal Empire all cost millions of lives.  It may have been nice if the Amazons would have mobilized during the conquest of Africa.  Wonder Woman might have taken on King Leopold II before he killed 10 million Congolese.   But, Black and Indigenous lives don’t matter even in the fantasy world of comics.  British, French, Belgian and American lives do.   Nevertheless, I liked that WWI was chosen as the setting.  It makes a great backdrop for a film about the horror and pointlessness of war.  Unfortunately, I didn’t like the Eurocentric narrative created around this setting. Image result for king leopold

Why can’t he be the villain?

 

Racial Stereotypes:

There is a character in the film called Chief.  Chief is a stoic, Native American smuggler who finds himself in WWI.  He is one of Diana’s allies, but has very few lines.  The only thing that he adds to the movie is that he informs her that her love interest’s people killed his people.  Again, he is called Chief and not really given any backstory.  The character seems shoehorned into the setting.  If the film maker is going to add a Native American helper character into the mix, he should at least have a little personality and a name.  It might also help if he didn’t make smoke signals… Image result for chief wonder woman


Sameer, the French Moroccan master of disguise is better developed than Chief.  We learn that he is a womanizer, knows many languages, and wanted to be an actor (but could not because of racial barriers).  Still, he is not allowed to be equal to Steve Trevor, the Caucasian American.  He finds Diana to be attractive, but is never taken seriously as a love interest.  He is even nicknamed “Sammy” which Anglo-sizes his name, but also makes him more childish and non-threatening.  When he speaks another language, it is usually French, the language of his colonial master.  Granted, I suppose it is nice that the film included a Muslim character as a “good guy” but in order to be good he must be silly, with clownish masculinity.  Also, why does Sameer want to risk his life fighting for France?

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Dr. Poison:

Many people have written about Dr. Poison, the chemist working with the Germans to create dangerous gases.  She has been widely critiqued because she is a villain with a facial deformity.  This continues the stereotype that people with disabilities or deformities are evil, tragic, and should be pitied.  I found it odd that her real name was Isabel Maru and that she was Spanish.  Spain was actually neutral during World War I, though different sectors of society sided with the Allies and Central Powers.  Dr. Poison is not a well developed character, so who knows what brought her to side with the Germans.   If she sided with them for political reasons, perhaps she was upper class/reactionary/conservative.  On the other hand, perhaps Spain did not offer her many employment opportunities in the field of chemistry.  Perhaps she went to Germany for employment in their chemical industry.  Who knows, maybe she even immigrated there during peaceful times to apply her knowledge to a more benign part of the chemical industry, such as producing dyes.  With the onset of war, maybe her dye making factory was converted to manufacturing gases.  OR, she was just a villain who liked to kill people by making poison gas.  I like to imagine her as a working woman who had to adapt to the demands of the war or face unemployment as a disfigured, immigrant, woman.


Honestly, I found Dr. Poison to be the most relateable character.  I am not gorgeous, fearless, fluent in 195 languages, etc. like Wonder Woman.  There is a scene wherein Dr. Poison is hit on by Steve Trevor.  In a rasping voice she says she doesn’t drink!  I don’t drink!  It is also clear she has zero game.  I have zero game!  If an attractive guy started to chat me up, I would also probably say something weird and off-putting.  That’s why I love Dr. Poison.   Of course, I don’t want to kill people with poisonous gas, but the film does not really develop her motive or the life events that brought her to that point.


As for her passion for poison gas, I felt that this fit in well with the WWI setting.   Popular Mechanics has a really great article about the history of gas warfare in World War One. http://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/movies/a26769/world-war-i-poison-gas-wonder-woman/ Interestingly, the first use of poison gas dropped from an aircraft was actually the British fighting the Bolsheviks in 1919.    This is in contrast to the film, wherein the Germans try to send a plane loaded with gas bombs to London. Another interesting article, discusses the history of women in WWI.  Women actually did work in factories that produced gas masks and there were some prominent female chemists during WWI who later sought to ban chemical warfare.  Information regarding this history can be found here: https://blog.oup.com/2017/07/wonder-woman-and-world-war-i/ Image result for dr. poison

Wonder Woman Herself:

I thought that Wonder Woman/Diana was a likeable character.  Although I could not relate to her, owing to the fact that she was too powerful, beautiful, and intelligent to be realistic, she was not an off-putting super hero.  She spoke her mind.  She wore what she wanted to wear.  She criticized or mocked social norms.  She showed compassion and struggled to understand the world and make things better.  She was generally much easier to like than Bruce Wayne or Superman.


Although she fell in love in the film, this did not make me want to barf in my mouth.  It wasn’t really sappy.  Her love interest died trying to destroy the gas bombs en route to London.   I didn’t think that Steve Trevor was particularly interesting or compelling.  I also find it a bit annoying that Diana ends up falling in love with the first guy she meets, even though she says that the Amazons have concluded that men aren’t necessary for pleasure.  It would be interesting if she was portrayed as a bisexual character.  Instead, the movie plays it safe, making her monogamous and heterosexual.


As for Gal Gadot, she is certainly beautiful as an actress…but politically ugly in her support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.  She served in the Israeli Defense Force (which adult Israelis must do unless they consciously object) and supported Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed over 2000 mostly civilian Palestinians.  In protest of her overt pro-Zionism, Wonder Woman has been banned in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Qatar.  The film itself does not explicitly take up the issue of Israel, although the British took control of Palestine after WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Wonder Woman does fight alongside the British against the Ottomans and Germans.  So, in a very subtle way she plays a role in shaping the future of Palestine in the film. Image result for gal gadot israel

Ares:

A final point I will make is on the lesson learned from Ares in the film.  The film leads the audience and Wonder Woman to believe that General Ludendorff is the human guise that Ares has taken.  At the end of the film, he is unceremoniously killed by Wonder Woman.   It turns out that he was just an ordinary guy!  The real Ares is Sir Patrick Morgan, a mustached British man who sought armistice.  This is disappointing.  He is not at all imposing.  He has a silly, ginger colored mustache and the physique of a scarecrow.  Even when he dons a giant, dark suit of armor….he still has that awful mustache.  Perhaps he represents the grotesque power of men in patriarchy.


He is not at all villainous looking.  He looks like he could be Ron Weasley’s father (though he played Remus Lupin).  He is thin…very white…mustached…ginger haired (no offense to redheads) and British.  Nothing about him is imposing or particularly evil looking.  Even when he transforms into Ares in Armor, he looks like a scrawny guy in a giant metal suit.   He floats in the air and shoots lightning from his hands.  All the while he looks ridiculously weak.


In the end, maybe this was a good casting choice.  In order to be Wonder Woman, a woman must speak 195 languages, leave her homeland, train with Amazons, be gorgeous, and the daughter of a God.  In order to be Ares, you can be some pasty, thin British dude.  Most women are not Wonder Woman.  So, they are oppressed.  Only by being so astonishingly exceptional can Wonder Woman defy social norms and overcome the limits that women face.  As for Ares…he just has to be some dude who works his way into the Imperial War Cabinet.  He is far from the most clever, charismatic, attractive, compelling villain.  He’s a forgettable white guy.  Well, he is memorable for his mustache.

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Conclusion:

There you go!  That’s what I thought of Wonder Woman.  Now, I am sure there is more to say or something that I forgot, but I think I hit on the main points.  Despite this critique, I actually did find the movie enjoyable.  It was better than I had anticipated and pretty good for a DC movie.   Obviously the movie could have been improved upon, but if movies were made to suit my taste, Wonder Woman would have fought with the Red Army and fallen in love with a loaf of rye bread that slightly resembles a human face (maybe it could become her sidekick…Wonder Bread).  Her love interest would represent the isolation and misery that are romantic attachments in an indifferent universe full of temporary things.  My brother said that my version of the film would feature a 45 minute pre-movie documentary about the historical locations used in the film and the characters would debate things like cultural appropriation.  So, take what I say with a grain of salt or …a few crumbs of rye bread and feminism.

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Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

H. Bradford

7-13-17

I was excited to travel to Turkmenistan.  I had read that there are only 9,000 tourists who visit the country each year.  By comparison, over 100,000 tourists travel to North Korea annually.   Of course, comparisons to North Korea are abundant on travel websites.  The idea of traveling to such a mysterious place filled me with fear and excitement.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Some travel websites warned that tourists had been denied visas upon arrival or faced harassment from the police.  Documentaries about Turkmenistan (from Niyazev’s rule) made it seem like a bizarre country where in women could not wear makeup on television, video games, opera, and the circus were banned, everyone had to get off the streets by 11 pm, and government officials were made to go on grueling marches once a week to ensure their health.  These kinds of stories made me worried that something might go wrong.  I began to feel real anxiety as my trip approached, as I would be spending a few days in Ashgabat alone before joining the group I would be traveling with.   If Ashgabat was truly like Pyongyang, as some websites suggested, it was a worrisome thought.  I was afraid that I might accidentally break a law.  The fear was unfounded.  The visit to Turkmenistan went beautifully.  Still, during my time there, I reflected on my privilege and my desire to see strange places.  Thus, this post is about both my experience in Turkmenistan but also the dark urges and privileges of a tourist.


The unusual nature of Turkmenistan began with my flight.  The flight from Frankfurt to Ashgabat made a stop in Baku.  I had never been on a flight that stopped to let off passengers before.  The plane landed and to my surprise, let off almost all of the passengers on the plane.  When we continued from Baku to Ashgabat, there were probably less than six people on the flight.  All of these six people were foreign tourists.  It was bizarre to be among the few remaining passengers and that all of us were foreign.   Foreign travel is somewhat restricted in Turkmenistan, as in order to travel the country a tourist must have a local guide and a letter of invitation.   However, tourists are able to travel to Ashgabat on their own without a guide.  As for locals, the economy of Turkmenistan is built upon oil and gas.  There is a wide gap between the very few rich and poor, with an unemployment rate of about 60%.   Poverty is almost certainly one of the reasons there was no one from Turkmenistan on my flight.  As for myself, I had a letter of invitation and a local guide accompanied our tour through Turkmenistan.  Thus, I breezed through customs without incident.  However, I arrived late (at midnight) and was one of very few people at the airport.  This meant that my bag was inspected for a long time.  After it was put through the x-ray machine, several workers sifted through my belongings.  They studied each medication, opened them, looked at the contents of each bottle.  They also took special interest in my snacks, making commentary to each other about my belongings.   I suppose they might have been bored.  I think my snacks were probably disappointing.  As for the thorough inspection of my medicine, opiate drugs are banned in the country, even with a prescription so I can only assume they were looking for banned medication.


Once I passed through customs and the baggage inspection, I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay and that I’d worked myself up watching too many documentaries or reading travel horror stories.  I was met by the local tour guide and driven back to the Ak Altyn Hotel.  By then, I was sleepy from my 20+ hours of airports and flights.  So, I barely paid attention to the city.  I dreamily looked back at the airport, a giant white structure shaped like a bird.  I also took note that there were other cars on the road, despite the 11 pm curfew.  I was informed that shops close by 11pm and also warned not to smoke outdoors (as it was illegal…though I don’t smoke anyway), but there were no other immediate signs of dictatorship.


The following day, I decided I would set out by myself and explore the city.  A few other tourists from the group arrived, but I gave them a cold welcome.  I was more interested in my own agenda of seeing the city than getting to know my future travel companions.  So, with a guidebook, map, and to do list, I set out walking.  I decided to walk because the buses seemed confusing (as there was no central map of routes).  It was hot.  I was disoriented at first and spent some time walking the wrong direction.  When I found my bearings, I turned around and set off for the statue of Lenin.  It was located about an hour or so walk from my hotel, provided one does not get turned around.  My walking brought me to a random amusement park with rides, a Japanese garden, and dinosaur statues.  People seemed to be having fun, though each few blocks seemed punctuated by a police officer.   Some meandered through the parks as well.  It seemed that despite the 60% unemployment rate, there was no shortage of police jobs or jobs sweeping or cleaning the many monuments.   Still, the city did not really feel like Pyongyang at all.  The fact that I could travel freely and solo, made it seem very different.  And, after wandering the streets alone for two days, I was only approached once by a police officer.  When it happened, my heart began to race, but…it was only to check the time.


Once I found Lenin, I spent several hours exploring other monuments and parks.  Lenin was only important because of my politics…but also because Turkmenistan has sought to distance itself from its Communist past.  Although Niyazov was a communist leader during the Soviet Union and his party was the reincarnation of the communist party after the Soviet Union collapsed, the iconography of communism as well as remnants of Russian colonization have been dismantled.   The Turkmen script was changed from Cyrillic and statues and images of Marx and Lenin were replaced with the images of Niyazov.  The guiding ideology of the nation was set forth in the Ruknama, a book by Niyazov on the history of the Turkmen people and himself.   Gas revenues were invested into creating a showpiece capital.  Thus, almost all of the buildings in Ashgabat are new and made of Russian and Italian marble.  The city is full of well kept parks and monuments.  It really is unique.  Still, despite the changes, a statue of Lenin remains…not far from the American embassy, in a less visited park.

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I spent the day visiting parks and viewing buildings.  Towards the end of the day, I visited the National Museum of Fine Art.  I was the only tourist in the three story building.  The staff seemed surprised to see me.  This was a common occurrence in Ashgabat.  The museum was filled with interesting Turkmen and Soviet art, such as giant carpets.  There were images of rivers, workers, giant melons, tractors, and happy people with musical instruments.  On the way back to my hotel, I wandered through Inspiration Alley, a park of various statues of Muslim scholars.  They were unfamiliar men, owing to my lack of knowledge of Muslim history.  The history is so foreign to me, it is hard to imagine that Al-Zamakhshari or Abu-Biruni might be household names and that not knowing them would be the same as ignorance of Einstein, Shakespeare, or Newton. Image may contain: sky and outdoor


The following day, I set off to visit the Botanical Garden, as I thought it would provide a nice opportunity to watch birds.  The Botanical Garden was closed.  This is a theme of my life.  When I went to Minsk the garden was closed.  When I went to Bishkek, I also found that the botanical garden was closed.  I feel that I somehow have very bad luck with botanical gardens.  Anyway, I instead visited the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral.  It was a very hidden and modest orthodox cathedral.  I didn’t stay long as it was hosting a service.  Later I visited a bazaar and did some more walking, revisiting some sites I had seen the other day.   I was approached by two Russian speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I was actually curious to talk to them (for the first time ever), but our conversation was cut short by two police officers and I was quick to walk away.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are illegal in Turkmenistan.  In all, the city is quite large and spread out, so I found it impossible to see some of the major sites by foot.  These had to wait until my tour actually began, as we were promised a sight seeing tour by bus and a night time tour to see the city lights.


The bus tours offered a wide array of strange sights.  We saw the largest indoor Ferris wheel in the world, the Arch of Neutrality, and the largest fountain in the world.  Once again, it is unsettling that the largest fountain in the world is in a country that is 80% desert!  The Ashgabat fountain is guarded by stern statues of the ancestors of the Turks: Orguz Khan and his sons.  We even passed by the Walk of Health, where government workers were expected to trek the 23 mile path through the Kopet Dag mountains once a year.  Perhaps the grand finale of the eccentric was a visit to the Turkmenbashi Mosque.  The mosque holds the remains of Niyazev and his family (his mother and brothers died in the 1948 earthquake that struck the city).  It also features quotes from the Ruhnama on the walls of the mosque and the eight pointed star.  The eight points represent the eight pillars of Islam.  Niyazev added three more pillars to Islam, including reading his book and visiting local holy sites in Turkmenistan.  These revisions were not welcomed by Saudi Arabia and consequently, Wahhabism is also banned in Turkmenistan.  We revisited the city later in the evening, when every building was lit up and the city looked like Las Vegas. Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor


All of this probably sounds pretty astonishing.  I thought it was astonishing.   Although Niyazev is dead and some of his monuments have been shuffled around, the country is still considered one of the most repressive countries in the world (by Human Rights Watch for instance).   Yet, as a tourist, it was…well, fascinating.  My detached position from it all and speaks to my privilege.   I believe that when we travel, we consume the exotic.   In Turkmenistan, it was the experience of dictatorship and the legacy of Niyazev.  If we consume the odd food or threat of danger, we can take on the qualities of the fearless or the bizarre.  Just as the flamingo becomes pink from eating crustaceans and algae, the traveler consumes experiences to become something more colorful.  As travelers, our privilege allows us to migrant from experiences.  We are not mired in the same realities of oppression.  When a tourist goes to jail or becomes very ill, the reality of the world returns.  This painful reality is framed as shocking.  It is framed as a bad travel experience.  Anything that is too real or too inescapable is not travel…it is a crisis or tragedy!  Hence, the case of Otto Warmbier in North Korea or Bakari Henderson, who was recently killed in Greece after taking a selfie…are not viewed as part of the travel spectrum.  Travel should be cushioned from the world’s harshest realities.

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Perhaps the exotic should be made normal.  In Turkmenistan, it may seem exotic that drivers are fined for having dirty cars.  But, are our own laws any more rational?  The fundamental assumption behind both is that laws exist and breaking them results in state administered punishment.  An alien might find little difference between the marbled fantasy land of Ashgabat and the red carpet of Hollywood or neon glow of Las Vegas.  One was built as a dictator’s legacy, the others built upon a similar fantasy of wealth and beauty.   The weird mosque of Turkmenbashi is only unusual because “legitimate” religion must be at least a few hundred years old.  But, these too were created by individuals and interpreted by other individuals until they were made normal by legitimizing power structures.  The excess seen in Ashgabat…with giant fountains and white marble statue are no more heinous than the same excess that is commonplace in advanced capitalist countries.  What about our giant malls, thousands of Walmarts and McDonald’s, and mountains of garbage?  Turkmenistan is a country smaller than Spain with a GDP that is smaller than Croatia’s, Lithuania’s, Kenya’s, and well….87 other countries and a population of less than five million.  Surely, even with its excess…the country has an ecological foot print far less than much of the world. Image may contain: sky


At the same time, differences do exist.  We are not all perfectly the same.  To glaze over difference by normalizing the strange, fails to recognize the social conditions which brought about a particular set of traits.  It is terrible that so much gas wealth was put into building the show case capital than building schools, hospitals, or housing.  It is also unfortunate that wealth and power in the country is concentrated into the hands of so few.  As for the social conditions that brought about Niyazev’s dictatorship, that is a long complicated story that I don’t have the time or knowledge to answer.   The political/economic development of the country…and the very existence of the country itself as a unique entity with a unified identity is a Soviet construction.  But, even this construction is a dialectical process as it was constructed in a world at odds with the Soviet Union.  Prior to this, its development was shaped by Russian imperialism- and that itself was shaped in reaction to British imperialism.  There are always bigger forces at play.  No dictatorship exists in a vacuum.

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Returning to privilege, to some degree, all travelers must exist in the fantasy land of their own ego.  My ego is hungry for experiences.  This is in part so I can patch together an identity that is not a disappointment to myself.  An identity that siphons as much living out of the world as possible.  The truth is, I am not wealthy and free.  I am oppressed.  I am a worker.  I will live and die like a billion humans whose stories will fade into the blurry memories of a few close friends or family members- before disappearing entirely.  In the grand scheme of things, I am not even here.  I never existed.  My importance is so minuscule, that for all practical purposes I am already dead.  Isn’t this the epitome of privilege?  Exerting what little power and freedom I have for the purpose of living selfishly?  The rest of the world be damned.  This is something all travelers do.  Many loath to return to work.  The most privileged don’t have to.  So, while we are privileged enough to enjoy some ego driven escapism, what are we escaping from?  For me, the gravity of wage slavery will always draw me back home.  Thus, I think my travels are fueled by escapism, ego, and existential crisis.  It is a combination that makes it hard for me to be perfectly mindful of my impact on the world and in this case, the wanton consumption of dictatorship.


So here I am.  Chronos eats its children.  Every human eats its reality when it becomes aware of its existential crisis.  Yet, we don’t all have the power and privilege to be titans.  Every titanic consumer is a blight on the environment, the lives of others, and the world around them.  There are moments when I am a titan.  But, usually I am just a proletarian.  I don’t know how to remedy this contradiction.  I love to travel.  I love a chance to get away.  When I am at home, I work very hard as an activist, worker, and human being.  I try to be engaged and mindful.  Then, when opportunity permits, I escape for a bit and consume piece of the world in the form of leisure and a particular form of selfish living.  I am hungry for the darkest, strangest bits.  Dictatorships, nuclear accidents, and spectacular tragedies.  Maybe there is a little cult of personality in each of us.

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Feminist T-Shirts: Severing the Thread between Capitalism and Feminism

 

Feminist T-Shirts: Severing the Thread between Capitalism and Feminism

H. Bradford

7/5/17


I’m not going to lie.  I like to wear things that advertise my politics.  It’s terrible.  It’s hypocritical.   But, it is also a way to tell the world that I am weary of the status quo and sometimes it’s a way start a conversation.  It is also an expression of self (which itself should not be idealized) and a message to others like me that they are not alone.  Recently, when I saw a really cool feminist t-shirt at a store at the mall, I really wanted to buy it.  I didn’t.  Still, I am not a saint and my wardrobe is made from the blood and sweat of exploited workers.  Thus, this piece of writing is not a call for people to be perfect.  Certainly, I have a lot of room to grow.  Instead, it is a call to analyze a disturbing trend in feminism with the hope that this knowledge can shape our organizational tools and demands.  The trend this piece examines is the rise of the feminist t-shirt and the accompanying ideology of corporate feminism.  To this end, this topic is July’s educational component of the Feminist Justice League’s “feminist frolic.”  Many topics have been discussed over the past year and it seems appropriate to explore how feminism has been appropriated by capitalism, while doing some small act to combat this trend: making our own t-shirts.


This year has seen an increase of feminist activism.  Locally, there has been an explosion of feminist events to partake in.  Nationally, between three and five million people in the United States participated in the Women’s March, making it the largest single protest in American history.  More people participated in the Women’s March than are members of the U.S. military.   This burst of feminist activism is certainly a welcome development.  Feminism is cool right now.  As a result of the rise in popularity of feminism there has been an increased demand for feminist t-shirts.  T-shirt with slogans such as “Feminist AF”, “The Future is Female”, and “Nevertheless, She Persisted” are a few examples of popular mantras this year (Spinks, 2017).  While it is great that feminists proudly wear their politics on their sleeve or chest, the trend is problematic in that it may ignore the working conditions behind the production of these shirts and reduce feminism to a profit making fashion statement.  For instance, in 2014 women at a sweatshop in Mauritius were paid 80 cents an hour to make t-shirts that said, “This is what a feminist looks like.”  In all, they earned less than $155 a month working at a factory which produced over 40 million t-shirts a year for Urban Outfitters, Next, and Top Shop.  Further, women who did not produce the quota of 50 shirts a day were subjected to discipline (Ellery, 2014).  At their meager wages, it would take the workers about 72 hours to buy one of the shirts produced at the factory.  The workers themselves share a cramped room with 15 other women.  The women often lived in the dorms for months without seeing their families overseas.  The iconic shirt was worn by celebrities and politicians, and was even featured in Elle magazine.  Astonishingly, the shirt itself was used by Fawcett Society, a nonprofit that promotes the labor rights of women.  When confronted by the conditions of the Mauritius factory, the non-profit argued that the garments were ethically produced (Bianco, 2014).

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The case of the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt is appalling, but it is far from an isolated incident.  Beyonce, a self proclaimed feminist, also came under fire because the clothing in her company, Ivy Park, was produced at a sweatshop in Sri Lanka.  Workers made less than 65 cents an hour and would need to work over a month to afford the leggings that they produce.  Similar to the women from the factory in Mauritius, they worked 60 hours a week and stayed at a boarding house, as many came from rural areas (2016, Euroweb).   Dior sold a $710 t-shirt with the slogan, “We should all be feminists.”  The quote was from an essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer.  Some proceeds from the shirt were donated to the Clara Lionel Foundation founded by Rihanna (Ngabirano, 2017).  The investment of some proceeds of an over priced shirt to a celebrity foundation should raise some eyebrows.  All of these examples illustrate how corporations have sought to profit from the popularity of feminism, but also offer insight to the troubling nature of clothing production. Image result for dior feminist shirt


Globally, around ¾ of all garment workers are female (Spinks, 2017).  The garment industry has historically been dominated by women and has traditionally been very dangerous.  In the United States, one of the deadliest industrial accidents was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which took the lives of 123 women and 23 men.  The accident occurred on March 25, 1911 when a fire erupted in the 11 story building near the end of the workday.  A fire that is believed to have originated in a scrap bin quickly consumed the building.  There were no alarms in the building and the doors were locked to prevent theft.  Many people jumped to their death on the streets or elevator shaft, as the tallest ladder from fire fighters only reached the seventh floor.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is noteworthy because it radicalized the labor movement, generated demands for more safety regulations, and was important in the founding history of International Women’s Day.  Yet, little has changed since 1911.  While clothing production has shifted away from industrialized countries like the United States, the working conditions are is inhumane as a century ago.  The Tazreen Factory Fire of 2013 in Bangladesh illustrates this point.  The massive fire killed 112 Bangladeshi workers at the Tazreen Factory which produced clothes for Walmart, Gap, and Disney, among other companies.  Walmart refused to offer compensation to the survivors and families of victims.  Just like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the factory doors were locked.  Victims had to break windows to try to escape the inferno.  When a foreman told workers that there was a fire, a manager told the workers that there was no fire and they should continue working (Survivor of Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory Fire Urges U.S. Retailers to Stop Blocking Worker Safety, 2013).

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While there are many accidents each year in the garment industry, another startling example of the horrors these workers face was the Rana Plaza collapse, also in Bangladesh.  On April 24, 2013, the eight story Rana Plaza in Dhaka Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 workers in the largest garment industry accident in history.  JCPenny, Walmart, Benneton, and other brands and stores were connected to the garments produced at the factory.  Since then, North American companies signed a safety plan that they call Alliance to ensure safety standards in Bangladesh.  However, the accord has been criticized as industry driven and not transparent.  Companies must pay for inspections, but are not obligated to pay for upgrades related to safety concerns.  Instead, Alliance signees have financed loans to suppliers for safety improvements (Kamat, 2016).  This is surely a boon to brands who can make more money from loans than they can from investing their profits into safety improvement.   The safety issues are not a matter of bad luck, but characteristic of capitalist production.  Bangladesh is one of the cheapest places in the world to make garments.  It is number two to China in garment exports and employs 5 million people in the garment industry (Kamat, 2016).  The low cost of production comes at the expense of safety.  Since October 2015, 3,425 factories in Bangladesh have been inspected, but only eight have passed the inspection (Tomes, 2017). Image result for rana plaza collapse


Many feminists are mindful of the horrific conditions of the garment industry.  Officially, merchandise for the Women’s March was made and printed in the United States, but there were knock offs or other organizations which made have produced garments not made in the United States.  However, simply because a t-shirt was made in the United States does not mean that it was ethically made, since a t-shirt has many inputs (Spinks, 2017).  At the same time, Made in the United States does not necessarily mean sweatshop free as 50% of sewing shops in the United States fit the definition of sweatshops, i.e. they break one or more federal or state labor law.  85% of sweatshop workers are women aged between 15-25 years old (Feminists Against Sweatshops, n.d).  To make matters worse, even if a person purchased clothing from an ethical source, the cotton used in the clothing itself is made with extremely exploited labor.  In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, hundreds of thousands of citizens are mobilized to pick and grow cotton under the threat of loss of land, punishment, and public humiliation.  The governments of these countries maintain monopolies on cotton production, selling it at under the cost of production to remain competitive (Skrivankova, 2015).  US cotton is heavily subsidized, as US cotton farmers receive a total of about $490 million dollars in subsidies.  The Chinese government offers 8.2 billion dollars in subsidies to cotton farmers.  The large subsidies makes it harder for poorer countries to compete, which in turn increases the level of exploitation to maintain profits.  Beyond the human cost of this, there is an environmental toll.  Although cotton is grown on only 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it uses 16% of the insecticides and 7% of the herbicides used in agriculture.  It also requires huge amounts of water.  In central Asia, this resulted in the destruction of the Aral Sea, once the 12 th largest lake in the world and now 10% of its original size (Organize Cotton, n.d.).  In India, where cotton has been cultivated for thousands of years, 400,000 children under the age of 18 work in the cotton industry.  Children are often employed in pollinating the cotton by hand to increase yields.  The children are said to have nimble fingers and girls are preferable to boys, as they require less punishment to work. (Neal, 2014).  Of course, these same arguments have been used to justify the exploitation of women in the garment industry.

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It is difficult to know the conditions under which a t-shirt is made or all of the inputs that went into the t-shirt because we are alienated from labor.  That is, in Marxist terms we are not in control of how things are produced.  A t-shirt might have labels that offer clues to the working conditions, but because we are estranged from production, we never see the entire process.  This makes it easy to mindlessly consume.  It also makes it challenging to ethically consume goods.  At the same time, consumers are individuals who exist in a social world.  Focusing on consumption atomizes social problems to a matter of consumer choices.  Thus, while it is important for feminists to consider where and how a shirt is made, it is also important to consider the dynamics in the world which produce exploitative labor conditions in the first place.  This is where the situation becomes far more complicated.


To begin to unravel this, let’s first examine the role of women in the labor force.  The vast majority of garment workers are women.  This is the case in 2017 as much as it was in 1917.  The relationship between women and labor is complex.  On one hand, women’s access to waged labor is a basic demand for gender equality.  Women’s entrance into the labor market has allowed women to support themselves without male support.  This was a historical gain for women, as it allowed women to access such things as divorce, their own housing, their own careers, etc.  That is, wage labor has allowed women to be something more than just the property or dependents of men.  However, it has also subjected women to harsh working conditions, sexual harassment, and lower wages than their male counterparts.  Women can participate in society, but they are still not equal and still dependent upon men.  Work alone did not liberate women, it simply subjected them to the oppressions that wage workers face, combined with the gender oppression of patriarchy.  Within capitalism, women continue to perform a larger share of unpaid labor, which has resulted in a second shift for women as they do unpaid household labor as well as paid labor.  Since paid labor is well, paid, it is given more value in society.  Unpaid labor is invisible and taken for granted as part of the role of women.  Thus, paid labor has also created a dichotomy between labor that matters and labor that does not.  The problem is not with wage labor, but the conditions of labor in capitalism and the challenge of connecting the struggle with women with the struggle for worker’s rights.  To make matters worse, wage labor v. unpaid labor has sometimes created an antagonism between women who work at home and those who do not.  These sorts of antagonisms are useful in blinding people to their common oppression.


Some writes such as Leslie Chang and Naila Kabeer have argued that waged work, even in third world sweatshops, liberates women.  It allows women to contribute to their families and find economic independence.  Schultz (2015) argued that this position ignores the dynamics that create the exploitative conditions in workplaces of the global south.  Free trade policies create a race to the bottom for wages and conditions, generating pressure for countries to have the cheapest labor or production costs.  Longer hours, lower wages, and greater environmental destruction are all outcomes of fast, flexible production.  At the same time, because of the lower social position of women, they have less ability to resist and organize for better wages or make demands.  Thus, they often make much less than men and find themselves discriminated against without much option for social mobility.  These exploitative conditions grant super profits to capitalists, while denying the most basic human rights to the workers (Schultz, 2015).  This dynamic answers why women are part of the garment industry to begin with.  It is an industry that seeks to profit by seeking out the lowest wage workers.  Women are not equal to men in society, which puts them at a disadvantage in the labor market.  Women in some developing countries may even be new to wage work, having instead grown up in communities that still earn a living from farming.  Since its origin, capitalism has pushed farmers off their land into wage work.  This dynamic is still at play in the developing world and will only increase with climate change.  Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change as it is a low-lying country that is often battered with powerful cyclones.  This creates pressure on rural populations to move to cities and seek work there.  Bangladesh was not always a major producer of clothing, but became one due to free trade agreements which incentivized a focus on exports, ended textile quotes, and set up export processing zones in the country.  This combined with war, famine, and natural disasters resulted in the development of its sweatshop economy.  So while sweatshops may provide women with jobs, the working conditions are not the inevitable growing pains of development.  They are instead constructed by trade organizations, trade agreements, and the larger dynamics of global capitalism.  The working conditions within the garment industry can be analyzed, understood, organized against, and changed. Image result for bangladesh union fight

(Bangladesh workers struggling for a union at the Orchid Sweater Factory)


While the right to paid labor is a basic feminist demand, this demand has also been used by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to justify women’s employment in export processing zones.  Export processing zones are free trade zones wherein businesses are exempt from taxes, tariffs, health and safety regulations, etc.  Since the 1960s, these special economic zones sprung up in Asia, spreading to Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.  Once again, some feminists have argued in favor of work in EPZs as a means of escape from patriarchal family dynamics.  This argument is unfortunate because it accepts the inevitability of capitalist oppression.  EPZs do nothing more than replace the patriarchy of their family with the economic exploitation of capitalism.  Women who work at Haiti’s Ouanaminth free-trade zone making Levi’s jeans, face verbal abuse, beatings, interrogation, and threats with guns.  Women who work at EPZs in Mexico are subjected to health screenings for pregnancy, personal questions about their sex lives, short term contracts.  EPZs are only liberating in the same way that capitalism is liberating compared to feudalism (Eisenstein, 2015).  As absurd as it seems for a feminist to support sweatshops and EPZs, many feminists did not make the connection between Hillary Clinton and the exploitation of working women.   This is either symptomatic of the lack of anti-capitalist analysis in mainstream feminism or the fear wrought by the lesser evilism and abysmal candidates of the two party electoral system.  Hillary Clinton’s first high profile job was on the board for Walmart at a time when the company was enmeshed in a lawsuit over gender discrimination (Barrett and Kumar, 2016).  Yet, she was endorsed by NOW and viewed by many as a feminist candidate.  ⅔ of Walmart employees are women, and yet, during labor disputes, Clinton kept quiet while serving on the board.  She also accepted campaign donations from the Walton family which were much higher than the average wage of a Walmart employee.  She also bragged that welfare rolls had dropped 60% while her husband was in office, but this was not because of an accompanying decrease in poverty.  Clinton also supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement to open new markets for American business in Asia (Young and Becerra, 2015).  Bill Clinton supported the passage of NAFTA, which forced Mexican farmers from their land into maquiladoras, or sweatshops along the border with the United States (Barrett and Kumar, 2016).  Despite her support of policies which create the conditions for sweatshops and service to Walmart, which actually uses sweatshop labor, Hillary Clinton was viewed as a feminist candidate.

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Hillary Clinton was not elected president and perhaps it is unfair to target her more than any other ruling class candidate.  She is simply an easy target because she exemplifies “corporate feminism” so well.  “Corporate feminism” wants to see more women in board rooms and as leaders.  But this brand of feminism can never be intersectional and can never truly liberate women because it encourages women to partake in the exploitive mechanisms of capitalism.  Capitalism will never allow the feminist struggle to be intersectional as capitalism itself pits men against women, white workers against people of color and immigrants, etc.  The problem with the “Girl Boss” feminism is that girl bosses exert power over other women.  Consider the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall street, wherein a young girl stands up to the iconic bull of the market.  The statue is meant to depict female power and send a message that there should be more female leaders in Wall Street.  Yet, this panders to the basest, most atomized version of feminism.  Feminism is not simply about girl power.  Bell hooks very simply defined feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” (Sow, 2017).   Feminism envisions women as leaders on Wall Street lures and distracts women from connecting feminism to other social struggles to end oppression.  One such struggle was the Occupy Wall street movement wherein thousands of protesters occupied parks and other public spaces in protest of the growing economic inequality in America, wherein the wealth of the top 1% increased 450% since the 1970s.  It was movement in protest of bank bailouts and costly wars.  Corporate feminism with celebrity endorsements and a women equality that is based upon an equal share in capitalist leadership, feeds into the oppression of women.  Of course, a simple t-shirt is not a statement of alignment with the ruling class, but it is a subtle and insidious expression of the corporate appropriation of feminism. Image result for occupy wall street


What is to be worn?

A woman should not be shamed if she choses to wear a feminist t-shirt.  Many people are new to feminism, may like the message, may not know about the labor conditions, may not have the money or access to other clothes, or any number of other reasons.  Feminism should not be a war against each other, but a war against capitalist patriarchy.  To this end, there are a number of things that are far more productive than policing the clothes worn by others.  Feminist organizations can certainly be mindful of where and how their t-shirts are produced, but the alienation of labor makes this rather difficult.  Feminist organizations can host events that involve crafting, clothing swaps, or DIY t-shirt making as an alternative to buying clothes.  This is a way to use recycle clothes while building community.  However, this is limited because it does not do much to challenge the conditions of capitalist production.  To broaden the impact, feminists can connect with anti-sweatshop groups or labor organizations.  This tactic can amplify the impact of feminists and feminist groups by challenging institutions through boycott and protest.  Connecting with labor organizations can broaden the impact as some may have connections to workers in other countries and may even be involved in organizing them.  The global organization of the working class is a key to improving global working conditions, as capital is extremely mobile.  Factories can easily move in search of the lowest paid, most complacent workers if workers try to organize for their rights.  The goal must be to make this difficult through solidarity and fierce organizing.  Beyond this, feminists can challenge free trade agreements and organizations and the status quo of American imperialism.  The ruling class should fear putting the word feminist on their shirts.  The word will not be a trend, but will spell their doom as part of the untamed, un bought, intersectional expression of the unyielding power of working people to create a better world.

 

 

 

Sources:

 

Barrett, P., & Kumar, D. (2016, November 4). The Art of Spin: Feminism, Privilege Politics and the Clinton Campaign. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Feminism-Privilege-Politics-and-the-Clinton-Campaign-20161104-0005.html

 

Bianco, M. (2014, November 05). There’s a Horrifying Secret Behind Those Trendy Feminist T-Shirts. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://mic.com/articles/103260/the-truth-about-these-trendy-t-shirts-reveals-the-biggest-problem-with-mainstream-feminism#.DTtsefqYW

Eistenstein, H. (2015, July 17). The Sweatshop Feminists. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/kristof-globalization-development-third-world/

 

Ellery, B. (2014, November 01). 62p An Hour: What women sleeping 16 to a room get paid to make Ed and Harriet’s £45 ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirts. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2817191/62p-HOUR-s-women-sleeping-16-room-paid-make-Ed-Harriet-s-45-Feminist-Looks-Like-T-shirts.html

 

Feminists Against Sweatshops. (2014). Retrieved July 4, 2017, from http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html

 

Kamat, A. (2016, December 15). Bangladesh’s Factories Might Have Safer Buildings Now. But the Conditions for Workers Are Still Deadly. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_grind/2016/12/bangladesh_s_apparel_factories_still_have_appalling_worker_conditions.html

 

Neal, J. (2014, February 23). The task of protecting India’s child cotton pickers. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-26294513

 

Ngabirano, A. (2017, March 22). Are women being played by ‘feminist’ ads? Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/03/22/have-companies-taken-over-feminism/98706852/

 

The risks of cotton farming. (n.d.). Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://organiccotton.org/oc/Cotton-general/Impact-of-cotton/Risk-of-cotton-farming.php

 

Schultz, E. (2015, March 24). Exploitation or emancipation? Women workers in the garment industry. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://europa.eu/eyd2015/en/fashion-revolution/posts/exploitation-or-emancipation-women-workers-garment-industry

 

Skrivankova, K. (2015, October 02). Why you could be wearing cotton picked by forced labor. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/opinions/uzbekistan-turkmenistan-cotton/index.html

 

 

Sow, A. (2017, January 19). Buying Feminist Merch Is Not Political Action. Racked. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from https://www.racked.com/2017/1/19/14317912/feminist-merch-political-action

 

Spinks, R. (2017, March 7). Was Your Feminist T-Shirt Made by Factory Workers in Exploitative Conditions? Slate. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/3k8bav/was-your-feminist-t-shirt-made-by-factory-workers-in-exploitative-conditions

 

Survivor of Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory Fire Urges U.S. Retailers to Stop Blocking Worker Safety. (2013). Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.democracynow.org/2013/4/25/survivor_of_bangladeshs_tazreen_factory_fire

 

Tomes, J. (2017, April 24). Why cheap fashion remains deadly. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.dw.com/en/why-cheap-fashion-remains-deadly/a-38565592

 

Young, K., & Becerra, D. (2015, March 9). Hillary Clinton’s Empowerment. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/03/hillary-clinton-womens-rights-feminism/

Young and Becerra, 2015

The Lesson of the Landscape

The Lesson of the Landscape

H. Bradford

7-4-17

(This is a poem that I wrote on my last trip.  My poems aren’t that great, but sometimes I feel inspired to write them).

Enchantment evaporates with knowledge,

the cure-all for all sorts of infatuations.

It lifts like a fog, sending droplets of fantasy into the heat of the day.

When only a scorched landscape remains, it becomes clear what was a mirage

and that an oasis only presents itself to certain people at certain times…

with certain emotions and certain minds.

But, when the illusion is gone, one can appreciate the ways a desert shifts-

from dunes, scrub, cacti, and Karroo.

What is real, austere and severe.

That is the lesson of the landscape.

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(A photo I took last year in Namibia)

Asleep on the Deserted Sea

Asleep on the Deserted Sea

H. Bradford

7/1/17

One of the draws of travel to Central Asia was the opportunity to visit where the Aral Sea once was.  I learned about the Aral Sea eons ago.  It was one of the few things I remember reading in my “Weekly Reader” as a first or second grader.  I am sure that I have learned about the Aral Sea in every environmentally focused science class since.  Decades have passed since the sunny autumn days at Wright Elementary School, but the sea continues to disappear.   I believe that the sea was about 40% of its original volume when I was in the first grade.  Today it is less than 10% of its original volume.   I was told by a fellow traveler that the sea continues to shrink by a yard each day.   Really, it is sad to think about the death of a sea.  Living next to Lake Superior (the second largest lake in the world by area to the Caspian Sea), it is hard to imagine a giant body of water just disappearing.   It would be as if in a few decades, someone from Duluth would have to drive to Marquette, Michigan to see the shoreline of Lake Superior.   While I did not spend a long time visiting what was once the Aral Sea, the sea shaped several days of my trip.

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My trip began in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, a city lush with trees and fountains.  The many fountains and white marble create the illusion of serenity and coolness in the midst of the punishing heat of the Karakum Desert.  The miracle of endless water for fountains, well watered trees, and shiny clean cars and buildings is made possible by the Karakum Canal.  The 850 mile canal was built by the Soviet Union to divert water from the Amu Darya River to the hungry fields and cities of Turkmenistan.   Apparently 50% of the water the passes through the canal vanishes to evaporation.  Still, the canal is large enough to be navigated by boat for most of its length.  Ashgabat requires its own blog post, but suffice to say that my journey to the Aral Sea began with a visit to a water hungry and water wasteful city in the desert.  The city served as a brush stroke in the painting of a vanished sea.

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Between Ashgabat and Uzbekistan, there was little water at all, spare a salty lake en route to the Darvaza Gas crater.   However, as we neared the border with Uzbekistan, the landscape began to change.  The sandy, white blonde desert morphed into a less arid desert made of sage scrub.  This gave way to fields and trees along the legendary Amu Darya River.  Beyond this, hours along bumpy roads brought us closer to the sea itself, or where the sea once was.  We stopped at Moynaq, which was once a fishing town on the Aral Sea.  The fishing and canning industry in Moynaq employed over 30,000 people at its peak.  Art at the Savitsky Museum in Nuukus depicted various scenes of Moynaq in its heyday.  Paintings of fishermen, burgeoning nets of fish, and pastel sunrises over the pier decorated the walls of the museum.   However, when I visited, the town seemed small and empty, with just a few thousand residents remaining.   There was nothing pretty, pastel, or burgeoning about Moynaq.  The city reportedly has high rates of cancer and respiratory disease from the polluted remains of the sea and all of the chemicals used to grow cotton and other things.  None of this was apparent from a brief visit.  The people did not roam about like zombies, but carried on like any other village or town we had visited.  My traveling companions munched on five cent ice cream bars from a shop with a hodgepodge of supplies.  We’d intended to visit a museum to the Aral Sea, but much like the sea and most of the people, the museum was gone when we arrived.

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At first I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any sign of the sea or anything unusual in the dusty town.  However, once we boarded the truck, we set off for a memorial to the sea and the sea bed itself.   Just up the road we came upon an expansive basin- an empty bowl of sand and brush that extended to the horizon.  It was a dramatic crater that spread over 200 kilometers to meet the muddy shoreline of the shrinking sea.  The rusty wrecks of ships dotted the landscape.   Cows trod along, stomping over grass, sand, and broken seashells.  When I finally saw it, I was impressed by the astonishing melancholy it invoked.  After somehow negotiating with the local police, we managed to camp in the ship graveyard.  This did not prevent the fire department from paying us a visit to check on our campfire.  Otherwise, the camping was without incident, spare the swarms of mosquitoes.  Camping in the sea bed was certainly surreal.  In an alternative history, it might have been a beach resort and in the near history, it was a way of life.  I couldn’t help but feel angry.  It has to be the worst thing that humans have done to the planet.  At the same time, it is a cautionary tale of what could happen if climate change is not stopped.  We will see the Aralization of the planet.

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Seeing the Aral Sea certainly made me angry at the Soviet Union for prioritizing cotton production over the environment.  Of course, it also made me angry at the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia for continuing to grow cotton…(and now rice!) at the expense of the sea.  It is a tragic loss for the planet.  The sea is only 24,000 years old, young in geological time, but it vanished in less than 50 years.  Of course, it is easy to blame the Soviet Union and post-Soviet countries.  Since I have no control over history and these countries are impoverished, it is hard to blame them for continuing what is cheap, easy, and provides income.  Thus, it raises the question of what I can do as an American.  Really, there is precious little I can do for the Aral Sea.  However, rather than blaming the Soviet Union or Central Asian countries, it is more useful to draw lessons from the Aral Sea which can be extended to current water use practices in the United States.   For instance, aquifers in the United States have been depleted by about 25% over the last century.   56,900 million gallons of water are used each day in the United States for irrigation.  32% of the depletion (over the last century) of the Ogallala Aquifer in particular occurred between 2001-2008.   Someday, we might look upon the loss of the Ogallala Aquifer as a tragedy like the Aral Sea…something entirely preventable, wasteful, and irreplaceable.   Corn (and beef fed by corn) could easily be our cotton, something that future generations will look upon as wasteful and too thirsty for the landscape.  The truth of the matter is that all countries pursue easy profits over environmental sustainability.  It is the nature of the system and dooms us to environmental catastrophe and economic instability.   One of the greatest ecological mistakes seems to be the assumption that resources are endless.  While we are drowsy, we consume too much water, too much oil, too many passenger pigeons or Greak auks.  So, while the Aral Sea is particularly sad, it should be a wake up call to continue to organize.

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The Politics of Travel to North Korea

The Politics of Travel to North Korea

H. Bradford

6/29/17

I was recently on a vacation.  During this time, I avoided social media and the internet in general.  I wanted a break from my life.  So, I didn’t get much news while I was away.  The only piece of news that I heard about while I was gone was that Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in a vegetative state.  I didn’t even know that he had died until after I returned.  This news haunted me.  It was horrific and mysterious.  What happened to him?  Why hadn’t he been released sooner?  Would he recover?  In a way, I became haunted by the fragments of the news story.  At the same time, now that I have returned, I have been able to read the news regarding his release and death as well as how it has been politicized.


I traveled to North Korea in 2010 without incident.  I was impressed with how clean the country was and how the sky was blue and free of air pollution (at least in places that I visited).  The roads were empty.  The country seemed empty.  I was there for over a week and saw many monuments, the mass games, Kaesong, the USS Pueblo, the DMZ, etc.  It was a memorable, amazing time in a very unusual and misunderstood country.  I felt extremely safe the entire time.  Of course, it was an enormous privilege to travel there, just as all of my travels are an astonishing exercise of privilege.  2010 was the first year that Americans were allowed to travel to North Korea year round.  I felt privileged to go there just as the doors to tourism were expanding for Americans.  I also felt that as an American, I could break some stereotypes about us.  After all, I am anti-war and anti-capitalist….anti-American.  When North Koreans learned that I was American, they seemed shocked, curious, and confused.  I sang The International on the bus with the guides.  The other tourists treated me like I was one of “them” (a communist), even though there is a enormous political difference between North Koreans and myself, a Trotskyist.   Nevertheless, I wanted to see what North Korea was like.   After studying in South Korea, I wanted to see the other side of the story.   I am eager to visit any country that has experimented with/experienced socialism in one form or another. No automatic alt text available.


Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as well, but with a much different outcome.  We were both similar in that he probably also went there out of curiosity, a sense of adventure, and bragging rights.  Though, unlike me, he was not anti-capitalist or anti-American.   He wanted to be an investment banker, was a Zionist, and was athletic and popular.  I am a tee-totaling, socially awkward, socialist.  He and his tour group went drinking and celebrating the New Year.  One member of his group even went missing for several hours.  I would have spent the New Year quietly reading or journaling.  He took a sign and was detained on his way out of the country.  I left without any incident or perception of danger.  Although I was very careful to follow the rules, it might have happened to anyone.  And, even if he did make a mistake by taking the poster, the punishment of 15 years of hard labor and his ultimate death is grotesquely unjust and deeply disturbing.  I feel terrible for him and his family!  I feel horrified by the mysterious circumstances of his death.


His death has resulted in some controversy and debate.  On one hand, the Left has been accused of hating Otto Warmbier for questioning his privilege and treating him like an ignorant, white, frat boy.   Interestingly, his career goals in investment banking and Zionism has not been as central to criticisms about him.   It is frustrating that so much discourse is focused on privilege, but does not connect this to the larger mechanisms of capitalist exploitation.  At the extreme of the privilege discourse, he is believed to have gotten what he deserved.  Those words cost Katherine Dettwyler, a professor at the University of Delaware, future employment with the college.  While it is not a kind thing to say, it is disappointing that the college did not honor academic freedom.  Personally, I don’t think that anyone deserves to come home in a vegetative state or get sentenced to hard labor for any offense.  Surely, there are more compassionate ways to express frustration with racial and class privilege.  But, at the same time, oppression is real and does not express itself with kind words.  We live in a brutal, violent, frightening, world wherein the majority of humanity has been immiserated by systems that grant power to a few.  For most humans today and throughout history, life is not a hedonistic quest of self-actualization but a struggle to meet basic needs.   Unfortunately, travelers such as myself,  are looking for a distraction, indulgence, or adventure.  The cost and context of this is often ignored.  Even to those who might be a bit more socially minded, must compartmentalize any modicum of pleasure derived from travel as it most surely has negative impacts either on the planet or other humans.   In any event, there should be the social space to speak freely about privilege, even if it is expressed in unpretty ways.


On the other hand, the right has called for banning American travel to North Korea and some kind of action against the country.  In this narrative, the Trump administration is viewed heroically for securing his release and taking more initiative on the matter than the Obama administration.   Americans should avoid North Korea because we are hated there.  This narrative portrays North Korea as a brutal, horrific pariah state which deserves a dose of American retribution (a.k.a regime change, liberation, etc.).   While certainly North Korea is a frightening dictatorship, this narrative does not uncover why we are disliked and feared by North Koreans.  It ignores the fact that during the Korean War, the United States killed 20% of the population.  The United States targeted refugee populations during the war and General McArthur ordered the destruction of every village, means of communication, factory, and city in the north.   Long before the famous famines that North Korea faced in the 1990s, the United States starved the country by flooding farmlands through destroyed dams.   The United States dropped more bombs on North Korea during the Korean war than it dropped in the entire Asian theater of World War II.  The country was punished with bombs and napalm in a destruction more complete than Germany and Japan faced as a result of WWII.  So, North Korea does have rational reasons to dislike the United States.  Our foreign policy since the Korean War has not done much to dispel the notion that we are not a peace loving nation.

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This raises the question of if Americans should travel there at all?  Assuming that one believes in travel, I don’t think that Americans should impose a ban on travel to North Korea.  Each year, around 6,000 Western tourists travel to North Korea, but around 100,000 in total (mostly from China).  For the most part, these tourists, like myself, travel there without incident.  While Americans have been detained in the past, this has typically been for religious activity or illegal entry into the country.   Of course, our own foreign policy plays a role in the safety of travelers there (just as it plays a role in the safety of travelers to many countries).  Our foreign policy regarding North Korea seems particularly aggressive at the moment.   I have no illusions that somehow travel opens minds or spreads peace.  Travel can be colonizing and damaging to the planet.  So, I don’t believe that travel will somehow liberate North Korea by introducing new ideas or new people, nor should it.  Yet, at the same time, I think it can be useful in seeing The Other and learning something new, even if it is skewed by minders and propaganda.  In a way, it also normalizes North Korea.  Normalizing North Korea is useful in creating an anti-war movement that can stand against U.S. foreign policy.  This isn’t to argue that human rights abuses should be normalized, but rather that U.S. aggression against sovereign countries should not be normalized.  Recognizing the right of other countries to exist is important to thinking against the norms of U.S. imperialism.  Of course, a person does not have to travel to North Korea to come to that conclusion.  A travel ban distracts from the “why” of U.S. and North Korean relations.  All travel involves some risks.  A traveler should consider these risks, of course.  A dark skinned traveler to the United States could be shot by the police.  An American traveler to North Korea could be detained for political reasons.  While there are plenty of compelling reasons not to travel at all, travel is a part of normal relations between countries.  If the government is concerned about the safety of Americans, our safety is best ensured by scaling back our military power around the world. No automatic alt text available.


The death of Otto Warmbier is terrifying.  I hope that someday there are more answers regarding what happened to him.   I don’t think that he deserved to die any more than a woman who drinks too much deserves to be raped.  The world is made unsafe by many things.  Crimes such as theft, sexual assault, gun violence, etc.  Preventable disease.  Terrorism.  And, in Otto’s case, detainment by a repressive regime.  Yet, all of these things…sexual assault, terrorism, preventable disease, etc. have causes and solutions.  While the solution for North Korea is complicated and not something that the United States can or should solve, admitting our own role in history as well as the political landscape of the present is important to understanding why Otto Warmbier died.

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A Little Solo Camping

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A Little Solo Camping

H. Bradford

5/21/17

I was feeling a little stressed out last week, so I decided that I was going to go camping.  The stress stemmed from the fact that I felt that my plate was a little full.  I sometimes put in a little too much effort into some activist activities.  For instance, I devoted more time than I should have to researching pollinators and Frida Kahlo for recent presentations.  While these papers were for informal settings with friends, it made my week feel a little like finals week!  I needed a little break, so I set off on a solo camping adventure.  Honestly, I have never gone camping alone before.  Really, until just last year, I had never even gone camping before.  My first real camping experience was my trip to Africa last summer.  I will be camping again this June in Central Asia.  Go big or go home, I guess?  Local adventures are also fun (and cheaper).  For a small dose of adventure, I checked the Minnesota State Park’s website and decided to go camping at Wild River State Park because the park was hosting two birding hikes in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day.


Wild River State Park is located about fourteen miles east of North Branch, MN on the St. Croix River.  I don’t recall visiting the park before, but I may have visited it while I lived in Cambridge, MN as a teen.  It was about a two and a half hour drive from Duluth.  I left on Friday at around noon and arrived by the late afternoon.  I stopped for lunch along the way and also picked up some DNR approved firewood outside of the park.  I had reserved a campsite that was several sites away from other reservations, as I wanted to be alone.  Upon arrival, I checked in, set-up my tent, and read a little from the Frida Kahlo biography.  The campsite was fairly busy, with many of the sites reserved.  I was a little surprised to see so many massive RVs, complete with trucks, bicycles, grills, and scampering hordes children.  From six to nine pm, each of the campsites seemed to be a Thanksgiving feast of grilled foods.  The campground itself was a little too chaotic to be relaxing.  I walked around a little to orient myself, then hiked for the next three to four hours along the various trails near the campsite.   Thankfully, the trails were quiet.  I only saw a handful of hikers once I was away from the campground.  I was immediately struck by the bountiful birdlife.  The forest was alive with the sounds of numerous birds, which flitted by with frustrating speed.  I noticed several bluebirds and a rose-breasted grosbeak during my hike.  I also heard an owl later on, but could not identify it.  Another highlight was a pair of noisy ravens.  Beyond the birds, the forest was teeming with trilliums and other wildflowers.  Since it was warmer than in Duluth, the season was further along, with more flowers and foliage than in the north. DSCF6175 I wore myself out with walking and settled back down at my campsite.  I build a fire, but didn’t actually pack any foods for cooking as I was only going to be gone for less than 24 hours.  Instead, I nibbled on the snacks that I had packed while watching the fire and listening to the sounds of the forest.  It was very calming and empowering, since it provided me mental space from the daily demands of work and activism.  It was empowering in that I felt proud of myself for hiking alone, driving there myself, setting up the tent and fire, and entertaining myself with my own company.  The only downside was that it would have been nice to pack a lamp or candle so that I could have written in my journal after sunset.  I also forgot to pack extra batteries.  I also managed to forget to pack my glasses and a pair of flipflops.  My headlamp went dead and it made using the restroom difficult.  Despite these shortfalls in my planning, I enjoyed staring at the fire and remained with it until it died.  I then retreated to my tent for sleep.  Even after using the bathroom twice before bedtime, I inevitably awoke in the middle of the night to contemplate answering nature’s call or trying to wait until morning. DSCF6192 DSCF6208 My sleep was uneasy.  I certainly felt worn out, but I tossed and turned.  My mind was full of thoughts and ideas.  I was also excited about my mini adventure.   I am not sure how many hours of sleep I managed to obtain.  By five in the morning, the birds were singing in full force, so I abandoned my efforts at sleeping.  I woke up early, packed up all of my things, and nibbled on granola while studying bird books.  I found a used book on warblers of the Midwest from the Superior Public Library book sale.  At about seven in the morning, I left the campsite for the boat landing on the St. Croix river, where a bird walk was scheduled.  I was the first birder to arrive.  Two seasoned birders began their work listening for songs and scanning the treetops.  They adeptly identified birds by their songs and picked them out even as they zipped through the sky.  I was not very skilled at identification, but at least saw some familiar birds and took notes on what the others saw and heard.  I am not sure how every birder I meet is so skilled.  There must be beginners like me.  It takes years of studying to identify birds.  Where are all of the novices?

(Some of the photos are blurry, but it should depict a Scarlet tanager, black and white warbler, American red start, yellow rumped warbler, and Eastern bluebird) Once more birders arrived, we hiked around for two hours.  The goal was to record all of the species of birds we saw that morning so that the data could be compared to other International Birding Day counts at the park.  There were bluebirds and Baltimore orioles.  We saw tree swallows living in bluebird houses.  A female wood duck flew overhead.  An Eastern kingbird showed off the white markings on its tail feathers.  A few house wrens had taken up residence in some ramshackle abandoned bird houses.  We also saw many warblers, including a blue winged warbler, yellow warbler, golden winged warbler, palm warbler, black and white warbler, and American redstart.  The warblers were quick and kept to the top of the trees.  A flash of yellow would sail by overhead and everyone immediately knew what it was.  Faint chirps were also readily identified.  I stood there, stupefied by the variety of quick moving, similar looking, yellow birds.  Since this hike, I have gone out birding around Duluth and Superior and managed to identify some more warblers.  Maybe someday I will know them as well as the other birders.  In all, I wrote down over twenty birds that were new to my life list.  The group counted over fifty birds for the total species count.


Following the count, I decided to go on a final hike.  I drove to the visitor’s center, where a scarlet tanager was hanging out in a treetop.  An ovenbird sang in the distance.  The visitor’s center was soon visited by a young black bear.  I wandered along a trail for a short final hike.  Along the hike, I saw several more scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles.  I also saw a yellow bellied sapsucker and a group of cowbirds.  With the final hike out of the way, I set off for the two hour drive home.  But, the birding adventures had helped me with my bird identification skills.  For the past several evenings since then, I have tried to memorize bird songs.  Auditory bird identification is not a skill that I have spent any time developing and I can see how useful it is.

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Learning to identify birds is challenging.  There is a lot of information that one has to gather in a short amount of time.  Birds are very quick, so size, color, beak shape, flight pattern, song, behaviors, etc. are some of the data that one must collect within a few seconds.  The reward is a better understanding of the inhabitants of the natural world and a keener eye for the hidden details around us (at least in regard to birds).  Another bonus is the ability to add a bird to a life list.  I like lists.  They make me feel accomplished, since it allows me to quantify and organize some aspect of my reality.     Even camping adds to my lists, as it added to my list of state parks I have visited.  More than an odd obsession with quantifying my life, camping offered quietude and self-efficacy.    It also offered a relatively low cost sample of adventure.

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Travel and My Fears

 

Travel and My Fears

H. Bradford

5/21/17

I am getting ready for another trip and I feel a little afraid.  This time, I am traveling to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan for three weeks.  Like always, I will go alone, though I will meet up with a group of strangers after a few days in Ashgabat.  From there, we will embark on an overland camping trip through the stans.  When I first fantasized about the trip, I imagined the wonder of seeing the dehydrated remains of the Aral Sea.  I imagined myself following the Silk Road through ancient, exotic cities.  I would traverse the rugged formerly Soviet states, admiring mosques, monuments, and a few remaining statues of Lenin.  It seemed very intrepid.  All winter, the trip was abstract.  I read books about the history of the region.  But, now that the trip is less than two weeks away, a new reality is setting in.  I am going to have to bush camp in the desert with scorpions, cobras, and several days without a shower.  I am going to have to navigate Ashgabat alone as a solo female American traveler.  Turkmenistan gets a fraction of the tourists that North Korea gets each year (about 9,000 compared to 35,000).  I am also moderately terrified of contracting dysentery, typhus, or any number of food or waterborne diseases.  (I do have some antibiotics from last year’s trip and was vaccinated last year against a variety of illnesses).   Also, ATM use in those countries is unreliable, so, I will have to carry a lot of cash and hope it is enough for the duration of my trip…and that I don’t lose it or have it stolen.  Internet is somewhat patchy in those countries and my cellphone does not work out of the country.  I have faced that same dilemmas before and fared alright, but, it does make me a little worried.

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The Darvaza gas crater in the Karakum desert- one of the places where I will be “bush camping” in just over two weeks from now.


Fear is not new.  I’ve always been afraid of travel.  Usually, there is this brave person inside of me, who is full of fantasy and confidence.  That person decides on some adventure, which looks great as a portrait in my imagination, but is not as fun as a lived reality.  Let’s call that person “Brave H.” For instance, when I was 19 years old, I decided that I would go to London and Paris alone.  I came from a town of 250 people and had never been on an airplane or road in a taxi.  Go big or go home, Brave H. says…until I am actually trying to figure out how airports work, on my first plane ride, and going across the ocean.  In retrospect, it is really no big deal.  That sort of travel seems easy.  But, to 19 year old me, that was a pretty big deal.  Over fifty countries later, I am still afraid, but the fear changes with new challenges.


Last year, I went to Southern Africa for an overland camping trip in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.  As the plane took off, I was pretty terrified.  I was terrified before then.  I had never actually gone camping, but somehow Brave H. signed me up for three weeks of it…in Africa.  I was afraid of being alone.  I was afraid of being the victim of crime- sexual assault in particular.  I was afraid of becoming very ill.  I was afraid that I was not up to the challenge of camping or the long days on bumpy roads.  I was a little afraid of insects, snakes, and animals.  Somehow, it wasn’t as bad as I feared. In fact, it was wonderful, fun, and even much easier than I imagined.  It took a few days of camping to come to the conclusion that I was going to make it.  Any small hardship was more than compensated for in the form of astonishing landscapes and animals.

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(A view of Victoria Falls from a helicopter.  I had a lot of anxiety as I had never been in a helicopter before.  But, overcoming fear and anxiety does have its rewards).

I was afraid the year before when Brave H. decided it was a good idea to visit Belarus and Ukraine, entirely alone.  After all, Brave H. wanted to see Chernobyl.  Brave H. wanted to visit a nature reserve outside of Minsk and partake in the weird splendor of the Cold War remnant.  So, that is where I went.  I don’t regret it.  Kiev was really beautiful and there was so much to see.  Minsk was not really pretty at all, but unique.  Neither place was teeming with tourists, adding a sense of bravery to my adventure.  I only spent a few days in each place.  I think that traveling often has waves of fear.  For instance, there is the anxiety of getting from the airport to the hotel without being ripped off or taken advantage of by a taxi driver.  Upon arriving at the hotel, there is elation after overcoming the first challenge.  After that, there are anxieties around finding a currency exchange, navigating the metro system, walking alone in the park, the other individuals staying in the hostel, the mysterious military parade, getting turned around, trying to find the monument to Baba Yar, etc.  It is like this on every adventure.  The ups and downs of figuring things out and staying safe in unfamiliar places.

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I have felt at least a little afraid during each of my trips.  I don’t particularly like being afraid, but I do like the feeling of accomplishment from figuring something out or successfully completing a task or adventure.  I suppose it makes me feel stronger and braver.  Of course, this only serves to inspire Brave H.to dream up bigger adventures and greater challenges.  I am not a robust, energetic, extroverted adventurer.  I am cowardly.  I like books and birds.  I enjoy museums and botanical gardens. I don’t really care for being dirty, lonely, terrified, tired, or sick.  Brave H. won’t stand for that.  Nope.  Life is too short.  I want to see interesting things and test myself.  Granted, there are people who test themselves far more.  For instance, there was a woman in her 60s on my last trip who went scuba diving with alligators in the Zambezi river.  Brave H. wants to be her.   Normal, nerdy, cowardly H. does not like water or all the pressure from being under water.  The same woman climbed mountains and scuba dived all over the world.  She also traveled to the “Stans” for an overland trip.  I will never be one of those amazing adventurers that I meet when I am out traveling.  The ones who inspire Brave H. to concoct an adventure or dream of new challenges.  I will always be afraid.  As I test myself, the boundaries of the fear extends to the next horizon.  I hope that horizon takes me to interesting places.  Maybe I will trek up mountains (at least smaller ones that don’t require actual climbing gear).  Maybe I will learn to scuba dive.  Maybe I will never do those things.  Maybe there is a limit to how far the boundary can be pushed.  It may be limited by experiencing disease or a discomfort so great that it pushes me back into my comfort zone.  Whatever happens, it is my hope that I can one day be that old lady who inspires others with her fearlessness and zeal for life.

dscf4256Brave H. thinks she is a bad ass.   Well, maybe someday it will be true.

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