Tag Archives: social justice

On Culture and Power

This essay originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly feature in my newsletter. It has been edited slightly for this format.

Like many of you, I’ve been preoccupied by the issue of power in the United States. I’ve been thinking about how cultural change and policy interact; how power is conferred and reinforced, and how exactly to understand where our national cultural is at this moment in time. The last preoccupation is likely impossible until historians get a crack at things a few decades from now. Things are moving so fast that it’s difficult for social scientists to get a true handle on what’s going on.

Knowing full well that distrust of institutions is partly what contributed to our present, incomprehensible reality, I find myself wary of those with institutional power who have failed, over and over, to push back against the unilateral directives coming from our Executive branch. Deep down, I had more faith in both parties, and perhaps especially in the party with which I most frequently disagree. Surely Republicans held the sanctity of our national narrative in higher regard than this. Surely they would be the ones to say, “Enough” and take action to protect, if not the people being harmed, then the Constitution. I didn’t realize how much I was counting on them until I found myself shocked, again and again, by their lack of action. Here I was, assuming they were the party who truly cared about America. And now I’m not sure they even have the power to do anything, much less the will.

Power is tricky. At once simple and complicated, it can be easy to locate but difficult to trace. The origins of power are distinct, yet related to, the execution of power. But where is power located?

  • In individuals whose actions have consequences for others. An individual’s authority is granted by the populace over whom they have power – either explicitly (via democratic elections) implicitly (via cultural tradition) or by violence (see “military might,” below). Leaders have a social contract with the public over which they have power – without the public’s support, an individual cannot impose their will without additional sources of power (see below). Authority is earned and can erode if the social contract between the public and the individual leader is broken.
  • In institutions that provide the scaffolding of civil society. A few days ago, I read in the LA Times that the Getty released a statement condemning the recent executive order that resulted in a travel ban. The fact that an arts institution wrote a statement commenting on a federal action, released it, and was taken seriously by a media organization speaks to the power that institutions have within our society. But institutions, like individuals, also owe their cultural cache to the unspoken acknowledgment of the public, who confer upon them the status of institution within the broader social landscape. Institutions are authorities when it comes to certain types of knowledge, leaders by virtue of their reputations as depositories of society’s “best.”
  • The media is a special type of institution that has enormous power of information and the dissemination of knowledge. They often steer the direction of public discourse by choosing how to represent reality, and as such act as intermediaries between the state and its citizens. But the media, too, is dependent upon the public for their authority. The power to produce information as knowledge is granted by the people who interact with this institution and its knowledge. Once people distrust a source of information, that source’s power is diminished.
  • In military might – physical power. This is related to the power of individuals and the state/institutions, in that most state power is underwritten by the possibility of military force. That is, the threat of violence. I don’t agree with everything in this sobering Politico article, but this line illustrates the primacy of violence to any system of power: “We must (re)accept the notion that hard power is the guarantor of any international system: security is a precondition for anything (everything) else.”
  • In capitalist societies, power also lies in money. This is why you are often addressed as a consumer, and called upon to exercise your power by buying or refusing to buy certain items produced by certain companies. This is why the Citizens United decision was so important. Why people are up in arms with billionaires gaining direct access to government through cabinet appointments. The power that accumulated capital has over our institutions cannot be overstated, and it’s the reason – and it pains me to say this – a corporate response to the federal government may be our best hope to stop the deterioration of our national institutions and social structure.
  • But there’s an important location I’ve failed to devote separate attention: the public. The public is a consistent source of power, as many of the entities where power is located draw their authority from the complicity of the people. So ultimately, power is located in society.
  • In culture. People who shape policy respond to public sentiment, to cultural shifts. To shift the execution and consequences of power, culture must shift. Understandings of what power is, who or what can wield it, and in what ways, can change and thus alter the social fabric.

Our social fabric is partially held together by the nation-state and the ideologies it reinforces. The nation and the state are distinct, yet interrelated, entities. The nation is a cultural entity – comprised of its citizens. The state is the institutionalization of that national culture, backed by military might. Our national culture has always dehumanized people arriving from different places. Our state has always afforded different strata rights and privileges to groups of people arbitrarily delineated and made distinct from the un-marked “white” category of person who is automatically afforded full rights and humanity. How do we change culture and enact policy that aligns with our values and serves everyone; treats everyone as fully human?

Our nation has always been broken. Our country exists because of colonialism: we are colonizers, reaping the benefits from land stolen from people white colonizers considered sub-human. Anthropology is itself a product of colonialism, and we have a moral responsibility to do no further harm with this form of knowledge production. That means listening to the people we aim to understand, ensuring they speak for themselves, bringing their truths to light. Deconstructing the many meanings of cultural practices.

We are constantly creating and reinforcing aspects of our society and culture as we go about the practice of living. This means we all have some power to shape reality, to effect change. I’ve been thinking about what I can do, besides calling my representatives, to help heal our nation. How cultural change can influence policy. It’s my duty to expend effort in service of the greater good, especially if my efforts can benefit those who have been repeatedly disadvantaged by our government, institutions, and other social systems.

After spending the past year half-heartedly trying to be a freelance writer, and falling back into grant writing and nonprofit communications, it’s clear that what I need to do is draw on my training in the social sciences and get to work. I’ll be looking for ways to contribute to organizations that are working for social justice, and that means acknowledging that while my experience of obtaining my MA was traumatic, it in no way negates the social science training that I have at my disposal. It’s my obligation, and my desire, to apply my training to the betterment of society.

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies

The 2011 Protester and Occupy Movement Uptake

A few weeks ago, Time magazine revealed its Person of the Year (a trope that has gained a lot of self-aggrandizing authority over the years as a touchstone of the state of the world and America and all that) to much mass-mediated fanfare. It was The Protester. A masked one. The image was a little sinister. To scare the white “normal” American public that reads Time and takes it seriously.

Who is the “protester” for Time, anyway? The cover is confusing and exploitative, simultaneously raising up and trivializing and making a public menace actual protesters…and differently for different audiences. How to even think about this?

Now, to be fair, the story that goes along with the cover is a little more nuanced and gives good space to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but the protester on the cover image seems to be more of a young American anarchist.*** And readers should fear this anonymous being with its dark eyebrows and hand-knit cap and bandana-hidden face standing in front of a red back-drop, ready to charge at your magazine-reading self. That protester is going to set fire to your lawn and ask about social justice. RUN!!!

The cover of “Time” magazine for the week of December 26th 2011/January 2nd 2012

Time‘s “Person of the Year” (the protester) was being reported by local and national news websites, TV stations and radio stations as if this yearly revelation were news, but Time magazine itself purports to be news. How incestuously layered, congratulatory, and self-promoting. Its own advertisement. Making itself an event by framing itself as such and getting other news outlets to do the same. Saying it makes it true: yay, performativity! We (some of the “normal” public and the mass media it listens to) wait with bated breath to find out who Time thinks is the person of the year, thus giving it the authority to say with definity who it is.

Not news at all, but another way to sell more magazines. Capitalizing on the major mass-mediated news stories of 2011 (the revolutions big and small, international and local) by turning it into another mass-mediated message. And the “normal” public eats it up. Or at least is exposed to it over and over.

The “revolution” has been televised. And thus, the real revolution has been largely silenced in terms of how many “normal” ears its message falls upon. Its message, its narrative, was co-opted almost immediately by those in power, those of the establishment, those of the mass-media. The mass media, after all, is where most “normal” Americans go for their answers, for their news. What “normal” person has time for much else than those neat little soundpicturebites? They trust the familiarity of the mass media–not the chaotic voices of those in the trenches.

It is difficult to say with any certainty how these mass-mediated messages are received by the “normals.” But since many of them seem to fill their conversations with regurgitated sentences and viewpoints heard and read from mass-mediated news sources, I feel it safe to say that they take up much of the repeated narratives without a lot of questioning. They believe the mass-mediated narratives of what’s going on around the world. Their opinions are not their own. (And in a society that is ostensibly all about the unique and sovereign individual, that would seem to be a problem, wouldn’t it?)

And in this mess that is the ownership of narrative, who speaks for the actual protesters? The varied ones that the image on the cover of Time is supposed to represent. The “normal” public certainly does not let them speak for themselves. Not for long. (It could be argued that at first, the Occupy movement really did change the conversation, or at least brought more attention to the massive dissatisfaction Americans were feeling about the state of the nation and their own lives. The mass media even seemed sympathetic with the movement at first. But then it went on too long. It got bored and started reporting it from the perspective of the 1 percent that owns the news outlets. The conversation went back to the status quo, and the movement lost its ability to speak for itself to the “normal” public, at least through the mass mediated outlets that many of the “normals” turn to for guidance. Turn to to make sense out of what’s going on. Turn to to find out what’s going on, even if it isn’t. Even if they leave a lot out.)

No, the “normals” prefer the mass media to wrap up the complicated messages in easily digestible sound-bites of recognizable size and flavor: Crazy hippies. Bored rich kids. Rioting poor people. Naive college students. Uppity and inarticulate African-Americans. Dangerous and dirty transients. Entitled Native Americans. Basically, everyone who’s not falling into line. Not playing by the white, upper-middle-class rules.

The Occupy movement is doomed (assuming they want to affect change on a scale larger than themselves) if the “normals” keep listening to the mass-mediated take on what’s going on and investing these sources with the authority to speak for the movement. If the “normals” keep tuning out what the people on the ground, the actual protesters/members of the movement, are saying. If they keep letting the media speak for the many complicated and different individuals on the ground trying to call attention to the many issues our large society has. It’s easier to think that these issues don’t exist, or that they can be solved by placing even more stock in the status quo. It’s easier to listen to the mass media.

We really do have an impressively strong hegemony here. We think we’re free, that our society is  free, but the minute someone questions the status quo, the citizen police are out in force, squelching the questions with blindly accepted structure. This is the way things are; get a job. Stop ruining city hall’s lawn. We’ve decided it’s time for you to stop questioning the status quo: stop protesting and go home.

Because it’s not 99 vs. 1. The 1 may have all the money, but most of the 99 are helping to keep the structures that allow for the rich 1 to exist strong. Many of the 99 believe so deeply in those structures that they cannot see them–these structures have become naturalized: it’s just the way things are. And we must all operate within this system if we are to keep on keeping on, never mind get ahead. And this deep-seated belief in the invisible structures is one of the reasons the Occupy movement is in so much trouble. They aren’t speaking for the 99; most of the 99 are unwittingly in cahoots with the 1.

The Occupy movement can’t gain traction without the “normals” who are (now half-heartedly if at all) gazing in on them either listening seriously or joining. And the “normals” won’t do either when the messages of the movement have been co-opted by the mass media. As a closeted radical on the outside of the movements that are happening around the country, I feel (ashamedly) more in touch with the perspective of the “normals” than I do with the movement that I politically and socially identify with. So allow me to speak a little for them (they have no problem at all speaking for you, after all, and you won’t like what they say).

The normals hear what the media says about the movement and lets the media speak for it. The movement is too “radical”, too “disorganized” for them. “What do they want? If they just had an agenda…/Why are they wasting time holding up signs when they could be out looking for jobs? Why do they hate America?” etc. For the movement itself, I think it’s great that it’s somewhat lacking in clear leadership, instead thriving on some disorganization, anarchism. It seems invested in listening to everyone’s concerns. But for things to change–or for the national conversation to permanently change in any meaningful way–the movement needs the “normals” on board, and the “normals” like the very structure that the movement is trying to question.

Which leaves us at a stalemate. What kind of strategy can overcome this divide? Can we look to the relative successes of the revolutions of the Arab Spring for any tactics and strategies that can be adopted for our own cultural context? How can the movement get the “normal” public to join them in a conversation that isn’t mediated by the mass media? Is that even possible?

Where do we go from here?

***A Tardy Update: a link and a digression into self-critique***

Over at Al Jazeera, Larbi Sadiki has a different interpretation of the Time image as he deconstructs its many meanings. The various issues and details he points out are interesting and I think the piece is worth a read. He also pays attention to the fact that the image on the cover “veiled” the protester, and what implications that visual choice has, given the climate we live in and the many conflicting associations veiling has in the Western world (not to mention the cultures that actually wear variations of a veil).

Perhaps I’m implicitly guilty of demonizing the veil in my own interpretation when I talk about the image as a “scary” one of the hipster-anarchist…for which I apologize. That was not my intent, but it nonetheless points to the negative associations our culture has when it comes to images of people with their faces partially or fully obscured. Veils, burqas, bandanas and the like shouldn’t be signs that incite fear, because then this fear is displaced onto the person wearing these pieces of fabric and can often, as Yoda taught us, lead to hate. But for many Americans they are signs that incite fear. And when I interpreted the visual cues of the Time cover in this way, I was tapping into that negative stereotype that has been harmful to particular populations, especially post-9/11. Even though the dark red cover is also a menacing sign, I do believe I was wrong to not see that the image, as Sadiki points out, is also one that indexes Americans’ fear of cultures and populations who wear variations of a veil. I apologize for my insensitivity.

All of which goes to prove that meaning is located in the one who does the interpretation, not necessarily the one who produces. Intention has little weight. Uptake! Use! How can we determine what the producers of this image intended it to mean when there can be such radically different interpretations of it? Obviously, the producers of the image operate within the same systems of symbols that allowed for both Sadiki and my interpretations of it…but it is difficult to critique them without knowing which (or both?) the producers meant to “speak” to their readership. Either way, both of our interpretations find it problematic that the image contains overwhelmingly negative signs that cause the (white?) American viewer to call up culturally negative associations.

And I’m going to stop before this discussion spirals out of control in a vortex of fractally circular argumentation.

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Filed under Contemporary, Media, Power