broken walls and narratives

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

Archive for the month “November, 2014”

Childfree in the Free World (NOT!)

tumblr_n1b9zsWTUk1qd06aso1_500

In my observation, it seems there is a slight tension between women who are child free and women with children.  While this is not always the case, I have felt there is an invisible dance of quiet comparison.  Though I don’t usually receive much negativity in regards to my reproductive choices, I have been called selfish.    Some people seem put-off and uncomfortable by the word child free.  Perhaps there are some internet harpies who go too far in denouncing those with children as breeders.  There is also a certain ageism in the framing of “child-free.”  Imagine labeling yourself “elder-free” or “disabled-free” to denote the lack of elderly people or people with disabilities in your life.  This would come across as…well, quite offensive.  Childfree is a push back against childless.  The former is  meant to honor the choice of not having children, whereas childless denotes that something is missing.  So that is why it is used, though perhaps a better, less ageist term should be invented.

A few weeks ago, I was curious and decided to Google “Are child free people happier?”  In a brief overview of some articles, it would seem that yes, this is true.  At least, if happiness is measured as relationship satisfaction, child free people tend to be happier in their relationships.  Of course, this kind of casual internet searching is a bit pointless, since happiness and meaning are so subjective.  Nevertheless, I did come upon a blog which asserted that people without children live empty lives.  Since it has been sitting in my head for a while, I decided to address it.  http://thoughtcatalog.com/sarah-larson/2014/01/i-think-people-without-kids-have-empty-lives-and-im-not-sorry-about-it/

The main points of the blog are A. There are truths you can only know if you become a parent.  B. Parenting allows people to experience “firsts”, transmit values, and learn humanity.  C. Parenting teaches deep love and selflessness.  D. Kids create stability and center.  E. Children help you to live more purposefully.  There may be other points, but these are the ones that I will hone in on.

A: There are truths you can only know if you become a parent.  I think, to some degree this is true.  Just as there are some truths you only know if you are a member of a communist party or some truths you only know by studying sociology.  I don’t know what it is like to be pregnant or become a parent, just as I don’t know what it is like to go to war or be a man.  A parent may not know the truths of being a single, child free, feminists.  Certainly, experiences give insights.  So yes, parenting would give individuals certain insights.   I guess, where I disagree is that these truths are somehow more valuable or meaningful.  While these experience may give certain authority to speak on matters of parenting, just as being a veteran of war might give authority to speak on war, there is a diversity of experiences!  Some soldiers go to war, yet love their country and support future wars.  Some go to war and become life long pacifists.  I don’t believe there is any ONE truth of parenting, just as there is no singular experience of parenting.

B. Parenting allows individuals to transmit culture, values, and “firsts.”  Again, I can’t argue there.  However, teaching and youth work do the same.  A college professor, who meets young adults as they are leaving their families can also play a pivotal role in transmitting values…and even challenging values.  Volunteering, mentoring, teaching, baby sitting, coaching, etc. are each ways that adults can partake in the socialization of young people.  And while parents certainly play a central role early in life, as children age, peers, school, television, larger culture…and so on begin to replace the role of parents in this regard.

C. Parenting teaches deep love and selflessness.  Well, it can.  It is hard to measure deep love and selflessness, but there are certainly parents who are selfish, abusive, egotistical, and neglectful.  There are also parents who become parents not out of selflessness, but by accident or because they are lonely, want to control someone, hadn’t thought about it, or thought it would make life meaningful. These are not terribly noble and selfless motivations.  And, to the “good” parents, what option is there?  The dominant narrative of parenting is that it is a meaningful sacrifice.  It is thankless work done out of deep love.  So, parents who are not deeply loving and selfless (i.e. maybe they don’t want to buy so many toys, they want a vacation, they want to have their kid out of the house more, they don’t want their kid to play hockey or have braces, etc.) can feel guilty that they aren’t a martyr.  Really, this is a terrible narrative.  It is a narrative that is used to justify the unpaid labor of women and child centered consumerism.  It is also a narrative that makes parents compete with other parents in the production of childhood.  What is the production of childhood?  It is the tireless efforts of parents to produce a happy childhood for their children.  The children consume this childhood…entirely alienated from the sacrifices and work that their parents put into it.

D. Children create stability and center.  This may also be true, as having children does put a damper on some options.  It makes it harder to go on an Antarctic expedition, for instance.  Children create an extra consideration in life, which would lend itself to stability and center (resistance to change.)  I don’t really idealize these things, so I won’t argue there.

E. Children help you to live more purposefully.  Again, this is a generalization.  What is purpose?  What makes one person’s purpose better than another’s?  There are certainly purposeful people who do activism or volunteering.  Some nurses and doctors do work in developing countries.  Some teachers work in low income schools.  There are professors who teach in prisons and war zones.  There are researchers who develop cures for diseases.  There are advocates for people with disabilities, victims of abuse, those who have been trafficked, undocumented workers, and so on.  These all seem pretty purposeful to me.   Is the average parent more purposeful than the average cancer researcher?  How can these things be measured against each other when they are so different?

The truth of the matter is that these kinds of arguments and questions (who is happier? who is better?) create a false dichotomy between parents and child free.  They also lend themselves to antagonisms between the two.  To address the false dichotomy, although I am child free, I am not REALLY child free.  I have done a great deal of youth work and continue to interact with children/youth each day.   My past experiences with youth work required enormous personal sacrifices at minuscule pay. There were many parents who saw their children for an hour or less each day due to work schedules.  Teachers probably interact with children more than most parents as well.  Therefore, although parents bear the responsibility and martyrdom of parenthood, the care and supervision of children and youth is spread out across society to some degree.  It should be spread out more.  The burden of parenting, especially in terms of thankless, unpaid labor, should be shouldered by others in society.  With that said, no one should be child free, as part of living in society means interacting with people of all ages.  To avoid a certain age group, as I said before, is ageist.

As for the antagonisms between parents and non-parents, these serve to divide people and obscure commonality.  When I was younger, yes, I did look down on women who stayed at home and who had kids.  That was the opinion of an angry, young feminist.  Now that I am an angry, older feminist, I can see the error of my ways.  I looked down on women who stayed home and had children because to me, they were embracing a traditional gender role and turning their back on what women fought for.  We fought to be a part of the workforce and a part of the public sphere.  This fight continues.  However, the work force should not be idealized.  While the opportunity to work has allowed women some measure of independence from men, working women bear the burden of unpaid household labor as well as unequally paid wage labor (compared to men).  Work itself is alienating and exploitative.  Therefore, women can choose to be unpaid laborers (in the house) or wage slaves (workers/no kids) or wage slaves and unpaid laborers (workers with kids).  These are choiceless choices.  Women cannot be blamed if they would prefer their exploitation in the form of unpaid household drudgery.  (Yes, I don’t idealize diaper changing, dishes, and laundry….so sorry to those who may love these things).

The challenge then is building solidarity between the two camps, which really aren’t that different.  Common ground may be hard to find, as values and traditions…as well as narratives of martyrdom and selfless meaning, obscure the commonality.   Work conditions should be improved in terms of wage parity, an end to sexual harassment and rape culture, paid childcare and maternity/paternity leave, and free childcare options.  This would make work more attractive and enjoyable for women, but also more possible for parents who want to work but can’t because of daycare costs.  On the other hand, unpaid household work needs to be valued….and ideally, paid for.  Capitalism benefits from the free childcare, laundry, dishes, and cooking services that women are offering their families.  We should consider, why is this normal?  Why is this private?  Why do we consider this “good?”  What are the alternatives?  Socializing this labor requires a consciousness that thinks against tradition and gender roles.  Yet, because children and families are highly regarded in society, demands in this respect should honor these values and choices…while challenging them.  This is tricky.  How can the fight for women as workers be extended to women as unpaid workers?  Does the fight for one benefit the other?

In the meantime, what should childfree people call themselves?  How can we honor this choice without making the other choice seem inferior?  The range of words, from antinatalist to childlessness,  neither embody either the choice not to have kids  nor the notion that children should be supported.

Advertisements

Impressions of Eastern Europe: Part Three

Once again, here is a post about my trip to Eastern Europe this past summer.  Again, it is just an overview of my impressions.  I am not going out of my way to be sensitive or politically correct, so I do apologize in advance if anyone finds it offensive.  It is meant to be an honest overview of how I perceived the countries.

Greece:

Greece isn’t a part of “Eastern Europe” in my imagination.  It isn’t Slavic and doesn’t have a history of communism, so it is different from the other places that I traveled to.  Actually, Greece does have a history of communism, in that it had a civil war between communists and fascists/monarchists/nationalists after WWII.  I think you can imagine who the U.S. supported.  In any event, I saw more hammers and sickles (in the form of graffiti) in Greece than any other country I traveled to.  I really should have counted them, since I think I saw 25 around Athens alone.  Some folks just aren’t on board with austerity.  Anyway, as a kid I loved Greek mythology.  Greece was a place that captured my imagination.  It had the elements of my childhood imagination: mountains, monuments, olive trees, sea, and sunshine.  I visited Athens, Parga, Thessaloniki, and Meteora.   Of course, Athens stands out, since it was pretty amazing to visit the Parthenon, Acropolis, Temple of Hephaestus,  Olympic Stadium, Temple of Zeus, and so on.  It was strange to think that I was standing in the same places where Aristotle, Diogenes, or Democritus once were.  I will also say that I felt a sense of gender injustice, since although there were these great monuments and great histories, had I lived at the time, as a female I would have been home bound and excluded from this culture.  This is strange, considering there are statues of goddesses as warriors, hunters, and muses.  There are powerful women everywhere, but women themselves were treated as property.  Beyond that, what else can be said?  I think Greek food was the best out of all the countries I visited.  Also, Greek people were pretty extroverted, with dancing, breaking plates, singing, affection and so on.  I am not extroverted, but it was fun to watch.  Also, I felt bad for the Greeks, since the prices were the highest in all of the countries that I traveled to.  Sure, prices are higher for tourists, but still….I am not sure how Greeks afford anything when the prices seemed comparable to the U.S.

trip 389

Slovenia:

I was sick for 80% of my trip.  This is not a lie, as I wrote in my journal each day that I was sick.  I had a chest cold, which accounted for much of that sickness.  The rest was stomach ailments, which ranged from mild diarrhea to 12 plus hours of nausea and dry heaving while en route from the Czech Republic to home.  With that said, Slovenia was one of my favorite places.  One reason for this is that I felt relaxed.  Although I had some minor stomach issues there, I felt comforted by Lake Bled, which reminded me of home.  I walked around the lake twice.  It is hard to feel sick and miserable in the midst of forests, crystal clear water, a castle on a hill, and swans.  Also, Bled featured a Mexican restaurant.  I was happy to try the Slovenian take on Mexican food, which included a garnish of cabbage.  I also tried a rich, delicious Cream Cake…twice.  I hiked through the woods, enjoying solitude and a lack of direction.  I also visited the aforementioned Bled Castle, thankful for the clean, well-kept toilets.  Slovenia was like a fairy tale.  It reminded me of a Yugoslavian Switzerland.  Ljubljana, the capital, was also quite nice.

trip 504

Montenegro:  As the name suggests, there were many mountains.  I was in Budva and Kotor, which are both coastal areas hemmed by forested mountains from behind.  Budva had palm trees, white sand with pebbles, and an old town of Mediterranean architecture.   Kotor was a bay, also with Venetian looking buildings and squarish homes with red, clay tiled roofs.  It seemed that there was a lot of tourism and wealth.  For instance, I saw a yacht with a helicopter on it.  This was one of several yachts parked in the bay of Kotor.  Since I am not a beach oriented person (i.e. I don’t care for swimming and feel self conscious in a swim suit) it wasn’t my favorite place.  Though, hiking in the mountains could be fun.

trip 435

Austria:  I really only passed through Austria, so I won’t say too much.  I think…Austria seemed silly.  German looks silly in writing.  Maybe the main reason I thought that Austria seemed silly was because we stopped at a rest stop that had a slide to the toilet and a cluster of animatronic, singing animals.  This occurred at more than one rest stop.  We also stopped in Graz, which is the home town of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Somehow, this also seemed silly.  Sorry Austria.

trip 536

Czech Republic:  Probably the coolest things I saw in the Czech Republic were the church made of bones in Kutna Hora and the working class astronomical clock in Olomouc.  The former was cool since…well, where else in the world will I see a church that has been decorated with human bones?  The clock was interesting because it is a socialist realist clock…complete with workers instead of saints.  As for the Czech Republic, it was the first country I visited on my trip as well as the last.  Therefore, seeing as my frame of reference was Russia, I was surprised how green, clean, and developed it looked.  (No offense, Russia.)  I saw many windmills, attesting to some concerted effort to use renewable energy.  The towns did not show signs of monolithic communist housing.  Instead, the houses were small with orange roofs.  There were also churches with unique, witch hat shaped steeple spires.

DSCF0049

Duluth Day of the Dead: When is Cultural Appropriation Appropriate?

The short answer is never.

Duluth has a celebration for the Day of the Dead, though it is called All Soul’s Night.  I have not attended, so I am not certain if it is cultural appropriation.  Certainly, it seems gray.  Here’s why:

1.  To my knowledge, Mexicans are not involved in the celebration or planning process of this event.  While Duluth does not have a large Hispanic population, I think caution should be used when adopting images and elements of a holiday.  This is especially true since Day of the Dead, though Catholic, also draws from Aztec beliefs about death and worship.

2. Europeans celebrate All Soul’s Night, but images such as sugar skulls or artifacts such as ofrendas are not a part of this celebration.  Mexicans do not traditionally paint their faces like sugar skulls for Day of the Dead.  This face paint is inspired by the skulls, which are used to honor the deceased.  While these designs look interesting and exotic, what does it mean?  Why is it done?  If it is only because it is artsy, exotic, fun, or interesting, then perhaps it should be considered more deeply.

3.  All Souls Day and Day of the Dead are both similar in that both are holidays that synchronized polytheistic beliefs with Christianity.  This makes the celebration a bit gray.  Duluth, a predominantly white community could celebrate, the former drawing elements from European paganism rather than Aztec/Mexican images.  The Duluth celebration is meant to be mindful of death and put a positive spin on it.  This is not uniquely Mexican.  However, some of the images are Mexican.  In that case, why are they used?  What meaning do they have for white Duluthians?

4. Some areas in the United States do celebrate Day of the Dead and some Mexicans have supported the export of this holiday.  For instance, tourists are allowed to visit Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead and participate in the celebration.  Therefore, it does not seem to be a closed holiday.  Likewise, the Mexican embassy has supported and promoted the celebration of this holiday elsewhere in the world.  Yet, the Duluth celebration, to my knowledge, is not supported or promoted by any Mexican communities or institutions.

5.  Some Mexican American activists are offended by how this holiday has been appropriated.  This year, I saw sugar skulls and Mexican inspired motifs sold in Target.  The meaningless consumption of this holiday does concern some activists.  Others view it as innocent fun and others may think there are more pressing issues (such as immigration and drugs).  So, I am not aware of a united movement against white people celebrating this holiday.  Nevertheless, I think that extreme caution should be used when celebrating it.

6.  I think that Duluth could have a celebration of Day of the Dead or All Soul’s Night, but I think that there needs to be a LOT of transparency and communication on how it is NOT cultural appropriation.  A visible involvement of Mexicans or Mexican Americans might be a start.  I think that perhaps the celebration comes across as a fun time with some artsy and spiritual undertones.  While there is nothing wrong with being expressive and having a good time, it might be more meaningful if it addressed a social issue.  For instance, perhaps it could help fund raise for families or individuals who DIED while crossing the border or who DIED as undocumented workers involved in hazardous jobs.  In this sense, death would be connected to social issues and the celebration wouldn’t consist of artsty, spiritual, fun times…but an attempt at solidarity with Mexicans.

7. The Facebook page for the event mentions that the celebration draws from many traditions.  While I think that celebrating cultures and diversity is good…and it is also good that the point was made that this is not a specifically Mexican celebration, it leaves me with the question, when is it okay to borrow?  I admit it.  Somehow white celebrations and traditions seem boring.  They are familiar.  Even the exotic ones seem to involve too many starchy root vegetables and pickled things.  Where is the color?  Where is the spice?  But….do we have permission to borrow and draw from other traditions?  The world is globalized and society is pluralistic.  The exchange of ideas and culture is almost invisible….but then, so is the theft.  Like the liminal lines between life and death on Halloween (metaphorically speaking) there are liminal lines between exchange and theft (especially when power is hard to see).  Since we are the ones with power….we have to be pretty careful that the exchange is welcome.

I really am curious about the celebration.  I would like to attend.  I have not missed it for any political reasons, but out of a busy schedule.  Because I have not attended, I cannot say with any certainty that it is truly cultural appropriation.  However, it does seem a bit gray and it is something that should be taken seriously.  I want to have fun and I want to celebrate cultures, but….I don’t want to do it in a way that is thoughtless or hurtful.

So, do you think that Duluth’s Day of the Dead is cultural appropriation.  Why or why not?

Impressions of Eastern Europe: Part Two

Geography, something which seems so physical, is also deeply social.  What is a continent?  What is a mountain and how is it different from a hill?  At what point does a lake become an inland sea?  There are quantitative thresholds or physical characteristics which define these things, but they could have been defined differently.

What is Eastern Europe?  What are the Balkans?  What is Europe, for that matter?  Again, all of them are “other” places.  Some “other” places are more like the U.S. and some are less.  That is the mental framework that guides most of the perceptions of any U.S. traveler.  We can only judge, assess, and categorize things based on what we know or think we know.

With that said, here are some more impressions of “Eastern Europe” from my travels there.  I will use the term loosely, as member countries may not identify themselves as such.

Poland:

Seeing as Poland and Polish people are often the butt of jokes, a person might expect Poland to be a place of potato eating, backwards, peasants.  I’ve heard it said that no one is proud to be Polish.  Why?  In history, Americans are taught that Polish is a weak country that was easily defeated by Nazi Germany.  The defeat is treated as more comical than tragic, as horses meet tanks…or something of that sort.  Because my frame of reference was Russia, I expected Poland to be like Russia.  (Obviously, I know there are historical and cultural differences, but for the purpose of imagination…Poland looked like Russia in my fantasy.)  With that said, I was struck by the fact that industry and society seemed to be chugging along, without the same cracks and gaps that I perceived in Russia.   There was bland, capitalistic urban sprawl in some places…complete with KFCs, parking lots, storage units, and super stores.  However, there was also a lot of agriculture.  Many homes had garden plots, even within urban areas it seemed.  There was also concerted distancing from communism AND Russia.  Communist relics were not kept around for nostalgia and Russia seemed to be viewed as an oppressive, expansive country that stole their freedom after WWII.  Russia was also viewed negatively in light of recent events in Ukraine.  Catholicism, was of course, quite pervasive.  So, this is a country that among all the countries that I visited, seemed to be the most adversarial to communism and the most distanced from this part of the past.   As a communist of the Trotksyist ilk, it is a bit uncomfortable being a communist among those who really seem embittered by that experience.   Beyond politics, from what I saw, Poland was pretty, with thick, dark forests, but also fields and hills.  Krakow had a very medieval feel, due to the remains of walls, market square, and brick Gothic structures.  It is the first place that I have been that felt distinctly medieval.

DSCF0113

Serbia:  In some respects, Serbia seemed the opposite of Poland.  Of course, communism was experienced differently there and not as a system forced upon it from the outside.  As such, there are still monuments to Tito.  The fact that Serbia uses Cyrillic script also made it seem more Russian-like.  However, their Cyrillic script is slightly different.  There were some letters that I had to learn.  While there, I visited Tito’s grave, which compared to some resting places for communist leaders….was really pretty normal.  He was not embalmed in glass and there was no long, moving sidewalk to view his body.  There were gardens and statues, but his tomb was kept inside in what was once an indoor garden.  It was at the center of this room, but shrouded by some plants.  I didn’t even recognize what I was looking at, at first.  There were also fairly relaxed security.  I can’t say that this was a modest resting place, but the site was shared with a museum to Yugoslavian cultures.  Compared to the tombs of Lenin or Kim Il Sung, this grave and  visiting procedure seemed pretty modest.  Also, unlike Bosnia, there were fewer obvious war memorials in Serbia.  I had to hunt to find a memorial to NATO bombing victims.  Yet, bombed out buildings remained.  It is powerful to think that this was inflicted upon them by MY country.  I also visited the Tesla museum in Belgrade.  I must say, Belgrade sounds like a harsh word.  It isn’t a pretty word to English speaking ears.  The city isn’t all that pretty, but it is full of history and politics.  It is easy to imagine early humans settling there on the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Along the rivers are thick forests, adding to this sense of primeval history.  The people were friendlier than other cities I visited.  Everyone was welcoming and seemed happy to see tourists.  While privately this may not be the case, at least a stranger walked up to my group and welcomed us to the country.  Another stranger gave us a free watermelon from his cart.  He could have sold it to us and even marked up the price, but instead he just gave it away…even though we had the money and privileged to travel there.   That is another thing.  In Serbia, I saw long, flat fields full of watermelons.  I haven’t seen that many watermelons in my life!   As a whole, the country seemed very agriculture, with watermelons, sunflowers, and some corn.

trip 225

Slovakia:    Poor Slovakia.  Slovakia is to the Czech Republic what Superior WI is to Duluth Mn.  That was my impression anyway.  Whereas the Czech Republic seemed to inherit pretty German looking cities and twice the population, Slovakia was industrial, gray, and dim.  Bratislava has some medieval and baroque architecture, but seems more defined by massive, modern constructions, such as a monstrous wired bridge and a watchful, TV tower overlooking the city.  Even Bratislava’s castle seemed more boxy and utilitarian than ornate.  Prague is popular and pretty.  Bratislava is forgotten.  So, I am sympathetic.  Seeing as I live across the bridge from Duluth…in ugly, inferior Superior, I wanted to like Bratislava.  My impression was that the divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia did not benefit Slovakia as much.  Maybe I am mistaken.  I don’t mean to misjudge.  Really, I am not all that informed about Slovakia.  In any event, that was my impression.

trip 548

Impressions of Eastern Europe: Part One

This summer I spent a month in Eastern Europe visiting various countries.  My approach to travel is sometimes a Smorgasbord model.  I want to take in as much as I can as quickly as I can.  So, this summer was both a sample and a binge.

Prior to visiting Eastern Europe, I’d been to Russia.  So, my expectations were shaped by my experiences with Russia.  The cognitive schema for “Eastern Europe” was an imagined place with monolithic buildings, social decay, Cyrillic letters, and communist relics.  One thing that struck me was not only how different each country was compared to Russia, but how different they were from one another.  While this may sound naive and really it is, the imagination created Eastern Europe as a place “out there.”  It was a different place. A gray, potato consuming, “other.”   What is Eastern Europe anyway?  East of what?  Some countries would prefer to be called Central European.  Others are Balkan.  I lump them together as the exotic “other” of Europe.  They are more wild and less developed.  Most are formerly communist.

With that said, here are some of the observations of Eastern Europe.  These are not profound, enlightened observations…but the impressions of myself as an American tourist.

Albania:

Albania was uniquely Albania.  The language is incomprehensible and alien, sitting on a lonely branch of the Indo-European language tree.  It is an old language, with related languages that died long ago. The country seemed empty, spacious, mountainous, arid, and brown.  It reminded me of Montana or Wyoming.  It didn’t seem “European”…whatever that means.  In the imagination, Europe is crowded, urban, developed, and busy.  Albania was still.  It was also mostly Muslim.  The countryside was littered with domes.  These domes were shelters built for each family during the communist era for the purpose of protecting the populace from invasion.  700.000 of them were built.  My impression was that Albania seemed forgotten and alone in Europe.  Also, everything seemed to be falling apart.  And while some people used donkeys to pull carts, others drove fancy cars and wore ostentatious suits and jewelry.  There were cows and chickens well into the borders of Tirana, the capital.  The capital itself was full of begging children, eager to please and eager to latch on to tourists.  It was all very odd.  These superficial observations may seem offensive and certainly come from a place of privilege, but those are my honest thoughts.

   trip 421

Bosnia Herzegovina:

Like Albania, Bosnia is mountainous and mostly Muslim.  The mountains were different.  The air was less dry and hot and the mountains are greener.  The social disparity did not seem as stark and the country did not seem to be abandoned.  There was also greater delineation between country and city.  Bosnia did not remind me of any other country or place.  There were bullet holes in buildings and warnings of hidden mines off of trails and roads.  Sarajevo was framed by long cemeteries with white graves, each dated from the 1990s.  The once besieged city had memorials to children, but also a few remaining plastic filled impact sites from bombs.  There was also a small marker depicting where Arch Duke Ferdinand was assassinated….almost exactly 100 years prior to my arrival.  So, obviously, war still left visible scars on people, land, and buildings.  Still, the decayed Olympic stadium and mosque,  Orthodox Church, synagogue, and Catholic church…all so close to each other. attested to other narratives.   Bosnia, for me, was a time travel back to the 1990s and 1980s.  The giant orange snowflakes on the Olympic stadium reminded me of an ugly ski sweater.  The whole place reminded me of things I didn’t pay attention to when I was 10 to 14.

trip 149

Bulgaria:

My impression was that Bulgarians were Russians with a tan.  (Remember, my frame of reference was Russia, so this impression was based on the fact that the country used Cyrillic and the language seemed more similar to Russian).  Really, the country is layered with history, from Thracian, to Bulgar, to Ottoman, Roman, Byzantine, etc.) Bulgaria was wide and also seemed rural.  Roses are grown there, so it also reminds me of the smell of roses.  There were also long fields of sunflowers.  In this respect, it reminded me of North Dakota.    The Black Sea was amazing, though people seemed to wear whatever they wanted on the beach.  Old men and overweight men squeezed into black speedos.  Some women went topless.  Kids floated on alligators, dolphins, or donuts.  The sand was white and the water was dark blue.  In my imagination, the people seemed strong, sturdy, tan, and robust.  This is, of course, a stereotype.  Sofia was gray, square, weary, and unpretty.  However, there were abundant archaeological digs and random ruins within the city and many styles of architecture, attesting to the long and diverse history.  Sofia sits at the foot of Mount Vitosha.  Like the buildings, it is imposing, looming, and intimidating.   In any event, Bulgaria reminded me the most of Russia, albeit a Spring Break version of it.

trip 276

Croatia:

Everyone loves Croatia.  With its long coast line, cliffs, mountains, and forests it is naturally beautiful.  It also seems less Slavic than some other eastern European countries, inasmuch as it seemingly flaunts its similarities with Italy, Catholicism, and Roman history.  Tourists love it.  Split was awake all night with music and dancing in the street.  The many tourist sail boats added to the noise.  Split was lively.  Me, the introvert, wasn’t as enthused.  I don’t want to be on the “Croatia is fabulous bandwagon.”  I would rather be on the “Albania is awesome donkey cart.”  However, really, Croatia is a pretty country with dramatic views.   Dubrovnik, with its winding walls, Adriatic views, Game of Thrones tourism, pleasant breeze, cornucopia of gelato, was stupendous.  There is a part of me that only cautiously loves Croatia.  In the back of my mind, I have a stereotype that Croatians are Nazi collaborators.  The checkered red and white shield on their flag does not ease this stereotype, seeing as this symbol was used by the Ustase.  Of course, Finland was a Nazi collaborator and I don’t hold that against Finnish people.  So….     anyway, Croatia…very touristy…but for good reason.

trip 478

Silly bias, prisons aren’t for kids?

Today I attended a neato meeting at the Jefferson’s Peoples House.  The meeting was called “No Incarceration, Yes Education.”  The basic reason for the meeting was concern that many youth, especially those of color, are sent from schools into juvenile detention centers and prisons.  Many issues related to this were brought up, such as the inability of schools to accommodate diverse behaviors to how non-profit organizations meant to help youth often oppress them.  I will focus on the latter, as I have several years of youth work experience at the Boys and Girls Club, Neighborhood youth services, and Youth and Families in transition.

One of my frustrations doing youth work is that these organizations operate with a lot of unquestioned middle class, white assumptions.  One example is that while working at the Boys and Girls club, my boss used the example of a BGC in Texas wherein there was high crime.  Youth were often members of gangs and the club was situated in a “bad” neighborhood.  However, the staff had high expectations.  When the youth entered the building, they turned their hats around and pulled up their pants.  To me, this is respectability politics writ large.  To my boss, this was awesome, since it showed that the youth were respectful.  To me, it was kind of horrific.  Since, who determines what is respectable?  White people.  White people feel uncomfortable with low hanging pants and backwards caps.  So as long as you act like a white person, you are welcome.  Now, my boss was a nice guy who truly cares about youth, but in his mind, respectful looked middle class and white.  Likewise, in another incident, my supervisor began a staff meeting by showing us a video about broken windows theory.  The main idea of this theory is that if you punish the small things and keep a neighborhood tidy, people will begin to show pride in their community and crime will diminish.  I wanted to scream!   Basically, this says, nicely painted houses with well kept lawns…and lots of policing = less crime.  That’s the most middle class, white garbage I’ve encountered.  It was also plain old racist considering that broken windows theory, when applied to New York City, had a negligible effect on violent crime, but did result in 7.1 million police summonses (81% of which were directed at people of color). http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/summons-broken-windows-racial-disparity-garner-article-1.1890567

Nevertheless, we were told to keep the club clean and be consistent with behavior management.  Now, sure, clean is fine.  However, at that point in time I was rather overworked.  I had spent the year doing Americorps, putting in 50+ hours of work each week for less than minimum wage.  The idea that I should do more cleaning did not settle well with me.  Entropy becomes the norm when there is little prep time or time between areas to clean.  Worse, was the blame that the messes in the club were causing behavior problems was ridiculous.  Perhaps poverty, racism, hunger, annoyance with white staff, attention seeking, mental health issues, health issues, or a hundred gazillion other variables contributed to behavior problems.  But, messiness?  Maybe, just maybe, behavioral problems are subjective.  Granted, they don’t feel subjective when directed at me….but, with a really open mind and enough emotional support, standing on the table, swearing, or throwing things aren’t behavior problems as much as they are means of communication or different values concerning space and property.

There are many good things that the Boys and Girls club did.  There are enriching activities, free meals, staff supervision, and so on.  Without the club, kids might be home alone or hungry.  They might also be abused at home or may not even have a home.  With that said, I don’t want to critique the existence of such organizations.  However, because of grant funding, these organizations exhibit a certain conservativism.  Funders want results.  These results are improved graduation rates, grades, school attendance, club attendance, or other quantitative indicators of success.  However, in this world, success is measured by white, middle class measures.  Success is defined by white, middle class terms.  The long, diverse narratives of individual lives, where people may drop out, engage in crime, or runaway, spend decades struggling, but still find a modicum of meaning and happiness doesn’t matter.   To some, success might be rejecting narratives that a house, one child, and drug free life is good.  Success might be crime, a big family, or money from any means.  Is this okay?  What is okay?  I would want youth to determine for themselves what success means for them.  I have decided what success means to me.  To me, it is endless education, travel, and activism.  I am okay not having a house, kids, respect, or much money.  So, if I can define success differently, shouldn’t youth?

There are so many ideas that I could explore.  Today’s discussion was rich and interesting.  I sat aside and listened.  I heard radical people of color who wanted their own institutions.  They were tired of non-profit organizations run by white people, imposing white values.  Now, as a white person, certainly….I have some of these values.   But, at least I felt good hearing that there are other people who have those frustrations.  As a white person, it is hard to navigate how to serve and relate to minorities.  I don’t want to be a white savior, coming to bring social justice.  At the same time, I want to have a meaningful life where I help people.  I care about injustice and inequality.  I guess… it is a learning process.  Today was part of a listening process.  There are structures and ideologies that prevent non-profit organizations from helping minorities.  However, I think that these structures and ideologies are malleable.  With a mass movement, people can move against them and promote new ideas, discourses, reforms, and institutions.

In the Future, Cakes will be Robots: Technology and Education.

Well,  here goes another post about education.  Education has been on my brain lately because well, I am in an accelerated program working on a teaching license and teaching master’s.  So, here is my gripe of the week: education and technology.   The reason why I am upset about this is because my program, in many ways, has not challenged me to think deeply.  While the program has challenged me to do a large amount of work quickly, I am disappointed with the shallow level of engagement with ideas.  Granted, maybe my life is better because I can choose to challenge myself in this regard.  Nevertheless, we are taught from textbooks and websites, with little emphasis on exploring scholarly work.

I will illustrate this shallowness with technology.  As future teachers, we are encouraged to use technology in our classrooms.  The fact that teachers do not use technology is decried as a horrible thing.  What’s more, teachers are criticized for being laggards or for not implementing technology in meaningful ways.  After all, technology is everywhere!  This is a tech savvy generation!  No one can stand against the tide?  Who would?  Worse, teachers who don’t use technology are not preparing their students to work in the technology driven world!  So goes the unquestioned narrative of the technological boom and boon for classrooms.

As future teachers, we are taught a very narrow set of approaches to technology.  Mainly, we are taught technological determinism and instrumentalism.  Technological determinism approaches technology as something inevitable and everywhere.  You either adapt or die.  Agency to resist or interact with technology is ignored.  In fact, teachers who resist technology are viewed as laggards or old-fashioned.  On the other hand, technology is also taught from an instrumentalist approach.  This posits that technology is a tool.  It is neither good nor bad, simply a tool to be used by teachers.  Within these perspectives are various assumptions.  The first assumption is that technology is necessary for future jobs.  Therefore, failure to use technology is a disservice to youth.  While technology is certainly pervasive, tech jobs are not the dominant sector of society.  Hospitality, retail, health care, construction and finance are among the largest sectors.  Certainly a cashier or fast food worker use technology, but advanced technological training are generally not required of those jobs.  Another assumption embedded in mainstream approaches is that technology = progress.  What is progress?  Who benefits from progress?  These are the kinds of questions that are ignored within my program.  Finally, technology is only treated as positive or neutral.  Technology is treated as positive, inasmuch as it is supposed to enhance and support learning or appeal to student interest in technology.  Alternatively, it is treated as neutral, again as a tool to be used.

I can think of nothing in society that is neural.  Everything that is made has social consequences.  There are no neutral tools, as all tools exist for the purpose of supporting society.  Society is not neutral.  I can think of no neutral technology, as it is either made with exploited labor and with extracted resources.   Much of our technology is made oversees, often by women who work long hours under unhealthy conditions.  The materials used to make this technology are not kindly removed from the earth, but at times extracted in war-torn places by worn out people.  The removal is not gentle and sustainable, but violent and destructive.  But, supposing that a school buys “fair trade” technology or union-made technology, it does not mean that the technology itself is good.  There are pros and cons to technology beyond the social, environmental, and human consequences of their production and distribution.  Spell check may result in lowered spelling ability.  Does this ability matter?  Online discussion may improve writing skills, but diminish social skills.  Web browsing may diminish the ability to pay attention or focus deeply on one piece of information.  Technology shapes our patterns and frames of thinking.  While there may be some agency to resist or challenge this, there cannot be agency without some level of awareness and critical thinking.

I am not anti-technology.  However, I don’t want to be pro-technology simply because it is what is expected of me or the norm in teaching.  Technology should be evaluated for its consequences.  Assumptions that it is inevitable, all-powerful, and positive should be questioned.  Technology should be treated like a tool, but it is a tool that exists in a capitalist system.  What does that mean?  It means that there is conflict between workers and machines, in so much that machines replace and manage human labor.  Of course, there is also conflict between technology and the economy itself.  After all, replacing workers with machines results in a race for better, more efficient machines.  It results in more production, but also more investment into fixed capital.  In the end, this results in declining profits and a crisis of over production.  It also means alienation from production and products.  It also means that there is social inequality, and therefore inequality in technological access.  There is a digital divide based upon an economic divide.  At the same time, there is combined and uneven development, wherein people in Africa may have Smartphones but lack vaccines or clean water.  The World Bank might frame this as progress.  But, what is progress?  Who benefits from this kind of progress?

In my program, we always discuss teaching higher order thinking and critical thinking.  However, very little of our work seems to do this.  We really don’t question such things as classroom management or the role of technology in the classroom.  Granted, if we question too much we won’t get hired or parents won’t like us.  Maybe we’ll be fired.  We aren’t taught to be scholars and thinkers.  Scholars and thinkers are left to universities, where they can serve those students who get to go to college….and exist in an academic bubble, disconnected from the world.  No, that is an unfair generalization.  The main point is that the technological ideologies taught in this teaching program, and I imagine, all teaching programs, add to a certain technological momentum.  I just want to slow down the train!  Where are we going?  Why?  Is that good?  Is it bad?  Who benefits?  This doesn’t make me a Luddite.  I’m just weary of “rah, rah, how can we implement more technology into the classroom?”

Ethics and Education

images

While I was eating dinner today, I began to think about my thesis.  I am FINALLY going to defend it in two weeks.  While thinking about my thesis, I began thinking about research ethics.  When a student undertakes research involving human subjects, she or he must submit their research proposal for IRB approval.  The reason for this, or at least the reason we are given in Research Methods, is that this prevents harm to humans.  Of course, if some minor harm comes to humans but there is great social benefit to the research, it may still be approved.  History is full of unethical studies that caused harm to the subjects involved, such as the commonly cited examples of the Milgrim study, Tuskegee syphilis study, and the Stanford prison experiment.  I can’t think of any qualms with research ethics as it seems rather basic that research should not harm people and if it does, this harm should be weighed against a greater good.  (Of course, the greater good is subjective as is harm.)

With that said, institutions go to great lengths to make certain that research is ethical.  However, this seems to be an island of ethics.  Universities, or other institutions, do not account for ethics in much else aside from research.  For instance, the apparel that sports teams wear or that is sold in bookstores may be made in sweatshops.  The food that is served in dining services is likely sourced from factory farms.  The treatment of these animals would not (at least I think) be accepted for IACUC approval if treated that way in the name of an experiment or research.  There are also everyday, common place harms against students and workers at universities.   For example, 75% of rape victims are women under the age of 25, many of which are college students.  What structures and behaviors within campuses promote rape culture?  If nothing is done to curtail this, or, if these structures and practices are even promoted, can an institution be considered ethical?  When it comes to institutional decisions regarding everything BUT research, it seems that ethics are hardly considered.

That brings me back to my original idea.  Can institutions conduct ethical research, when other aspects of their institution are not ethical?  Research is submitted to the IRB on an individual basis, but the individual cannot be extracted from social context.  For example, could Nazi German scientists conduct ethical research?  While an individual Nazi may be able to conduct research that does not harm, if this individual is placed in broader social context it seems that ethical research is not possible.  This is an extreme example, but I hope this clarifies my point.  A research project that proposes that 350 women should be raped would be rejected, yet, in the broader social context, this does happen on campuses!  This isn’t to argue that universities do nothing about these problems, but I think that many ethical issues are not on the radar or are taken as seriously as research.  Ethics is squirmy- because right and wrong are debated concepts.  But, at least in research there is a working definition of ethics as causing no harm.  It therefore baffles me how ethics can be taken so seriously in some areas and not in others.  Beyond this, I am not certain that any research is ethical, so long as humans are harmed by the institution wherein or whereby the research is conducted.

I don’t want to freeze knowledge or the exploration of ideas.  I only want to call into question the compartmentalization of ethics.  Research ethics should not be idealized as there is always harm, somewhere in the process, after the process, or before the process even began.  Is harm inevitable?  No.  But it is an effect of larger systems of inequality and injustice.  It is also an effect of the atomization and alienation of everyone.  Our isolation and distance from the processes of how things are made or where things come from, render harm invisible to us.

What should be done?  Would an ethical university only buy fair trade foods, sweatshop free apparel, cruelty free foods/cosmetics, and sustainability grown paper products? Would an ethical university offer free tuition, safe chemicals to custodians, bus rides, sustainable powered buildings, high wages to student workers, etc?  There are many things that could be done.  Certainly some of these things would make these institutions more ethical.  But, at the end of the day, institutions are connected into the broader society- which itself is full of inequality and injustice.  The point is, there are no islands of ethics.  Researchers, institutions, communities, states, and countries are interconnected.  If the connection between them is a socio-economic system that harms people, then ethics are not possible.  This should not be taken with despair, but with the goal of enlarging ethics and branching out beyond research. Things can be better…and there can be less harm….but part of doing this is enlarging the circle.

In any event, that was my most thoughtful thought of the day and something I hadn’t considered before.

Walls Come Down

communist_dash_by_2snacks-d3j0nu1

Today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  On that date, Nov. 9th, 1989…I was a nine year old who loved My Little Ponies, botany, Greek Mythology, dinosaurs, drawing, and singing.  My best friend was Libby.   My mother was in college at St. Scholastica, studying teaching.  As I recall, she did an art project about the Berlin wall.  In this art project, she pasted black construction paper silhouettes of people onto brown sandpaper.  The paper was also decorated with colorful chalk graffiti.

Today, 11/9/2014, I am studying teaching at St. Scholastica through a graduate program.  I had class all day today.  I still like dinosaurs, drawing, mythology, and botany.  I could probably even watch episodes of My Little Ponies.    And, although communism collapsed around me when I was a child, I am a communist.   I also think that in many ways there are also Iron Curtains and Walls in my life.  These walls are constructed by anxiety and social ineptness…..as well as the fact that I am a horrible friend.  My best friend is not Libby.  She moved away long ago and had a family.  I could talk to her, as there is no ill-will, but like many people in my life I am content if they stay beyond the walls.

To begin, it is important to explain this communism thing.  Firstly, I am a Trotskyist and have been for about 12 years or so.  As such, I am a member of a party called Socialist Action.  Also, as such, I am not a supporter of the dictatorships of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, despite the earlier reference to the Berlin Wall.  Generally speaking, these are viewed as degenerated forms of socialism.  This distinction is important only inasmuch as I don’t want to appear too crazy.

I am mindful of appearing crazy.  I am a Marxist, which is critiqued from many angles.  On one hand, it is critiqued as an old idea that was proven to be unworkable by historical events.  (The age of an idea does not correlate with its validity and the exact malfunction of former communist countries can be pinpointed to a variety of social factors, not the least of which was a concerted effort of capitalist countries to destroy the alternatives).  On the other hand, it is critiqued as dogmatic.  While Marxism is a principled approach to social change and socio-economic analysis, it is not without debate and contention (hence the numerous parties and long debates within and between them).  Of course, it is also critiqued as godless, amoral, evil, etc.

Beyond these critiques are the notions that those who become involved in communism must be psychologically damaged, unthinking, conformity or non-conformity seeking types.

I became a socialist in college, when working on my first bachelor’s degree.   The more I learned about the world, the more I saw problems and themes.  One theme was that the United States did not play a benign role in history, but actually thwarted democracy and human rights.  This was evidenced by my growing knowledge of U.S. involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected governments (such as in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Democratic Republic of Congo, etc.).  Another issue was a growing awareness of the great problems of the world, such as the fact that most of the world was quite poor, with lack of basic access to clean water or medicine.  This problems were go great, that humanitarian efforts, charity, the UN, NGOs, fair trade, micro-loans, or whatever polite, nice, liberal solutions I was presented with….didn’t match the scope of the problem.   These solutions, while sometimes well-meaning, did not address fundamental problems with capitalism.  Perhaps all those socialist leaning leaders that the U.S. thwarted we on to something….

I became a socialist while studying abroad in Ireland.  I was probably a socialist before, but until visiting Ireland….I didn’t think that socialism was a viable solution.  I thought it was either crazy or a dead idea.  But, in Ireland there were socialists! People talked about socialism with less disdain!  Of course, the socialism I encountered was not revolutionary socialism, but it was enough to open me up to self-identifying as a socialist.

When I returned to the U.S., I was a changed person.  I think I underwent the largest changes of my life there.  Away from the influences of my family and those I knew, I could explore myself and open up to new ideas.  That fall semester, I checked online to see if I could find any local socialists.  I happened upon Socialist Action, which was involved in Commie Soccer.  It was a dream come true.  Beyond My Little Ponies, I like playing soccer!   So that is how I joined.

In this narrative, I was not looking for a family or friends.  I was also pretty mentally healthy having returned from a great semester in Ireland.  Therefore, I don’t frame my journey into communism as a descent into madness.

Of course, since then, some of my comrades are dear friends.  Two of my dearest friends are Adam and Mike, two comrades.  Being a Bolshevik with others certainly builds bonds.  Each week there are usually at one or two political events to attend, organize in an endless cycle of struggle against capitalism.    Last week was Palestine and Pro-Choice, next week is a socialism educational, Pro-choice picket, anti-war picket, and juvenile justice meeting.  This is not a flavor of the week approach to politics, but simply because of the inter-relatedness of these issues and their roots in capitalism.

In conclusion of this blog post, I want to blog because I want to break down my walls just a little.  I am reluctant to open up and share myself.  So, I have opened up to you about my relationship with communism.  But remember….hitherto, this blogger has sought to blog about her world, but the point, however, is to change it.

Post Navigation