Monday, October 31, 2011

"Population" is a Code Word for "Eugenics"

Apparently the world's population has reached or will soon reach 7 billion people. Concern about the world's population and its growth has a long history, and it is very much intertwined with eugenics movements, to the extent that the two concerns cannot be considered as independent matters.

A CNN headline today read: "7 Billion Reasons to Empower Women." The article was about contraception. This was about as unsurprising to me as the sun rising, for the reason that contraception is also deeply interlinked with the eugenics/population control movement.

[For some interesting reading, you can consult:
Sex, Race & Science:  Eugenics in the Deep South by Edward Larson
Killing the Black Body:  Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts
Building a Better Race:  Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom by Wendy Kline
Reproducing Empire:  Race, Sex, Science & U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico by Laura Briggs]

Fears about unfettered population growth were deliberately created and exploited in an attempt to legitimize efforts at reproductive control. (There actually is no ironclad reason to believe that population growth is a threat.) And, as much as white feminists might protest, curbing reproduction has had far less to do with "empowering women" than it has with reducing the number of people of color on this planet.

Margaret Sanger, the feminist icon who most famously championed birth control as a means of "empowering women," was also an avowed eugenicist who supported the involuntary imposition of birth control on women of color.

In fact, women of color in the U.S. and abroad have been subject to all sorts of infringements upon their rights (reproductive and otherwise) in the name of "women's empowerment." For example, Puerto Rican women were used against their will and/or knowledge to test new birth control methods with uncomfortable, potentially dangerous, side effects.

For many women of color, reproductive rights means the ability to reproduce if they want to.

One of many things that bothers me about CNN's headline ("7 Billion Reasons to Empower Women") is that, grammatically, women are the subjects who are acted upon by someone else.  Some other agent is empowering them. (I am pretty sure women can empower themselves.)  More specifically, though, it appears to be a call for the "developed" (in this case read:  white) world, including white feminists, to empower all those other women in the world (who are apparently too stupid to know how to take care of themselves and their families). Shockingly, women of color are just as capable of empowering themselves, without the benevolent aid of white women. Furthermore, it is an even bigger and more dangerous mistake to suppose that contraception equals empowerment. For a majority of women in the world this is not the case. In fact, the refusal of contraception itself could be seen as an act of empowerment.

Could we allow women around the world to empower themselves by letting them use their reproductive capacities as they wish? (And we, of course, would view it as "letting them," because we always have ultimate power.)

One may argue that even if population growth and contraception were initially associated with eugenics movements, that does not mean they aren't relevant concerns that might validly be considered independent of eugenics today. Surely eugenics is an outdated topic.

Unfortunately, eugenics is not outdated. The ideas have persisted and the acts have continued, albeit with less fanfare. (Only recently I linked to an article about a not-too-long-ago victim of eugenics in the United States.) It is a mistake to think that eugenics is a concern of the past. More importantly, population growth and contraception can't be considered independently of eugenics. The terms and principles were born within a eugencist framework and are eugenicist through and through. The very idea that the human population can be managed through technically advised control of reproduction? That is eugenics, by definition.

Moreover, pretending that population/contraception concerns can be separated from eugenics allows people to continue eugenicist projects under more benign guises. For example, the Ford Foundation can employ rhetoric about population control that is divorced from eugenics - even more, implement real projects, affecting masses of people around the world, based on this rhetoric - so that they can claim that their prime concern is actually "economic development" in the Third World. But it is not too difficult to pull back the mask and reveal the clearly racist bent of the Ford Foundation in general, across all of its projects.

To suggest that population/contraception can be considered independently of eugenics is in many ways to claim that racism does not exist anymore.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Personality and Power

Today I was at a seminar in which the instructor discussed the "four personality types." There are many variations on the four personality types, though they are pretty much all the same. My instructor claimed that the idea came from the ancient Greeks, although this is patently false. The concept of "personality," as we understand it today, did not exist at that time and place. Our concept of "personality" is, in fact, a product of the modern social order, and more specifically, it is a prime mechanism of governmental power. I described in a previous post how "government" is a form of power that seeks to nurture, manage and produce - to enhance life, health, happiness, and efficiency.

The concept of governmental power (aka "governmentality") was introduced by the French philosopher/sociologist Michel Foucault. Foucault argued that government employs two contradictory modes of operation: it abstracts and manages humans as populations at the same time as it acts by penetrating individual consciousness and creating personal "essences." This is accomplished through the construction of "types" - the sorts of labels that we commonly apply to people. On the one hand, "types" are abstractions which can be used to describe populations (for example, in terms of percent makeup) without referring to any individual person. Yet, simultaneously, these "types" and their associated stereotypes become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and in that sense actually work at the individual level to shape behavior.

It is important to keep in mind that "government" is distinct from the state. The state does employ governmental strategies, but government extends far beyond the state. The "personality types," which has become a very popular corporate/organizational training tool, is one such example. Corporations invest in this training because they believe it will increase the efficacy of communication in the workplace. They can induce desired behaviors among their employees by assigning to all of them a certain essence and encouraging them to view their work relationships within the framework of these essences. It is easier to deal with someone when the complexity and unpredictability of their actions is eliminated.

This is most definitely a form of power, though it need not necessarily be harmful, in and of itself. Still, I must say that I do not like to be interpreted and responded to according to some label that does not represent who I really am. I, like everyone, am context-specific and complex. I first encountered the four personality types during a job training. I believe that it actually made communication with my coworkers more difficult because they mischaracterized me from the beginning and were quite apt to misinterpret my behavior.

I think it is useful to remember that the concept of "personality" is a tool of governmental power, and that the best way to get to know anyone is to learn all the nuances of their behavior across a variety of contexts. That is difficult work, but it is more accurate.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Being the skeptic that I am, I have never gotten too into the breast cancer awareness stuff. This month, I have gotten just downright annoyed. It was during a plane ride, when my beverage service was infringed upon by a breast cancer donation collection, that I decided that things have gone too far. Consequently, I felt quite vindicated by this recent On Point episode.

Not only have I argued that foundations (and this includes cancer research foundations) are essentially tax shelters for corporations/businessmen who want to build a positive reputation for themselves, and certainly the pink ribbon gimmick benefits corporations more than anybody, but I am also troubled by the way that these breast cancer awareness campaigns shape notions of gender and femininity.

Why is it that women's health has come to be represented by a disease that affects the breasts? Breast cancer is not the biggest health threat for women. Is it because we reduce our concern for women's bodies to their reproductive organs/capacities... is the idea of a woman losing her breasts (as opposed, say, to a liver or a kidney) that much more disturbing because it is transgressive of our image of womanhood?

And why the pink? To enforce the perception that breast cancer is inherently "feminine"?

That brings me to another point of contention, which is the whole concept of "women's health" and "women's issues." Yes, there are certain ways in which most females' bodies differ from most males'. (But even here the difference is not actually discrete. When it comes to biological sex, the reality is more complicated than our binary categories of male-female would lead us to believe.) Perhaps, even, the organs that one does or does not have can determine the types of afflictions to which one is susceptible. (On this account, it is important to note that men can and do get breast cancer; it is not only a women's disease.) All this means, though, is that you won't get prostate cancer if you don't have a prostate gland. It does not mean that the general conditions - social, economic, political, biological - that predispose certain people to certain types disease - are actually gender specific.

In other words, the focus on "women's health" locates the cause of specific forms of female suffering within the female body itself. It is women's own bodies - specifically the parts that are marked as feminine - that bear the responsibility for affliction.

Women suffer because they have breasts.

Nowhere in these "women's health" and breast cancer awareness campaigns is any attention paid to whether or not women have equal access to healthcare; whether they receive the same treatment/respect by health professionals (in terms of their personal ability to act and make decisions; the assignment of moral culpability; the risks that are taken; and the expectations as to their ability to cope and recover); or how social norms and gender stereotypes may affect women's attitudes toward their own bodies and health. Just examples.

When I see pink ribbons on products, I see coporations yet again exploiting women for profit.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Gaddafi Is Dead

In honor of Gaddafi's death, I will re-post (from April) MENA Dictatorships and Colonialism:

The recent history of the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) region has been characterized by three successive waves of colonization. First, by the Ottoman Empire, until the Arabs were "liberated" by the British and French. This inaugurated a period of British and French colonization, until the Arabs were "liberated" by the United States. The United States then took up the torch of colonization (under its fancy new guise: neocolonialism). It should also be mentioned that Israeli imperialism has been pereceived as an extension of European imperialism; and the USSR also made some in-roads before its collapse.

Two means of resisting imperialism have been salient in the capitalist era.Nationalism is an assertment of the right to self-determination and a challenge to the racist assumptions (re: the superiority of European culture) that undergird the colonial enterprise. Socialism is a reaction to globalization and capitalist exploitation. These movements have often been employed in concert with each other in liberation struggles all over the world.

In the MENA region, Islamic fundamentalism represents a third mode of colonial resistance. It is many ways a type of nationalism, as it an assertment of the superiority of traditional Islamic values over Western, secular culture. This is most definitely a challenge to institutionalized racism, particularly the scholarly enterprise of "Orientalism," which has portrayed Arabs and those of the Islamic faith as cuturally backward and prone to irrationality and liscentiousness.

Various combinations of Arab nationalism, socialism, and Islamic fundamentalism have been employed in resistance struggles in the MENA region. Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism have also been actively cultivated by, first, the British/French and then the U.S. to fuel resistance movements against OTHER colonial powers (the Ottoman Empire in the first case; the USSR in the second). 

At other times, the British and French created and encouraged religious sectarian rilvaries in order to effect divisions among the population and consolidate their own rule. Furthermore, the British, French, and U.S. have all had an interest in undermining socialist movements, overthrowing democratically elected governments (for example, in Iraq and Iran), and supporting (sometimes installing) dictators with whom they could "do business." In this way, these colonial powers have actively nourished instability, authoritarianism, and infrastructural weakness to maintain neo-colonial control over the region.

And for what ulimate purpose? The necessities of capitalism.

The MENA protestors are just as concerned about employment, wages, and social services as they are civil and political rights. In part (notwithstanding concerns about political repression and abuse), they believe that democracy is a means to effecting better socio-economic conditions. Yet, it is poverty that creates the conditions for dictatorship, and not vice versa.

Attempts at social and economic reform that would mitigate poverty and create more egalitarian conditions are routinely squelched by the U.S. and other capitalist powers. For it is in their interest to keep markets "open to foreign investment" (read: open to exploitation by multinational corporations).

In short, inequality and widespread poverty exist in MENA because it is a necessity for capitalist profitability. U.S. and European foreign policy in the region has revolved around creating and sustaining these conditions.

If the Arabs wish for a better life, it is capitalism and colonialism that they must continue to fight against. Not just the individual dictators.

What "Occupy" Can Accomplish

I guess I can't have a blog like this and not comment on the "Occupy" protests. Although I have been busy and vacationy, and haven't really felt like writing anything lately. Just a few sentences...

In a general sense, these types of occurances tend to raise the heart rate of Marxists/neo-Marxists, as it demonstrates the types of conflicts that, according to them, are inherently built into the system. These events indicate that people have some sense of the limitations and injustices of the current political economic structure, and the ways in which they are being exploited to sustain it. More than that, they are dissatisfied enough to try to do something about it.

Many neo-Marxists, who have been writing for the past few decades about the current period of economic contraction (beginning in the 1970s), and theorizing the necessity of large-scale structural change, have insisted that growing social unrest was bound to occur sometime soon. Now it looks more probable that they could be right.

On the other hand, in a less general sense, do I think these particular protests are going to result in anything significant? My gut says no. But it is a start. Perhaps this is the first ripple of a movement that could, in the longer run, really reverberate and result in some major changes.

But the biggest take-home point is that conflict/resistance/revolution does not necessarily (if ever) result in real liberation. The conditions of most people, particularly the oppressed, do not actually improve in the long run. In fact, the historical precedent has been for structural rearrangements to serve as the ground of conception for new relationships and instruments of oppression, which are almost always far, far worse than what came before.

Thus, there is hope. And that is something. But the worst could be yet to come.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Muslim Women Are a Tool of Western Imperialism

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced this past week that women would be able to participate in elections for the first time.  Of course, in the U.S. this news was used a platform for self-righteous sermonizing about the treatment of women in the Middle East.  On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart jumped on the bandwagon by making several insensitive jokes (for example, showing a picture of voting booths constructed out of women and their veils).

First of all, having the "right to vote" by no means signifies liberation for women in the U.S. or any country.  In fact, the focus on voting is another example of the way in which discontent is channeled into activities that ultimately support the system.  I would link to another post in which I made this point, but I feel like it is becoming a pervasive theme in this blog.  Voting is an illusory, symbolic privilege that ornaments a highly stratified, oligarchic global society.  (The fact that the Saudi king would be willing to allow women to vote as a sort of PR stunt - a response to regional instability - very well exemplifies the true nature of voting.)  Women may be able to vote and even hold elected office, but that doesn't mean society is any less patriarchal.

Moreover, there has been a long history of Europeans pointing toward Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern (undistinguished) patriarchy in contrast to the supposed liberation of European women (long before they ever got the right to vote!) as an excuse for the colonial project.  And it continues to this day.  The plight of Afghani women under the rule of the Taliban, for example, is used as a rationale for U.S. military involvement in the region, even though most women see the violence resulting from these operations as a greater menace than the veils they wear.

Some women like wearing veils and burkas.  It has spiritual meaning for them and serves as a form of agency, a means of self-discipline.  Who are we to tell them that they can only be free if they don't wear a veil?

Furthermore, where women do feel oppressed, they have the ability to act on their own behalf and fight their own battle.  They do not need or necessarily want us to liberate them.  They are not passive and helpless.  However, their vision of "liberation" may differ from the Western feminist vision of liberation. But Western feminists will not recognize it.  In this way, white feminists are actually denying agency to women of other colors and faiths.

But the bottom line is this:  whatever liberation movements may have occurred in different places and at different times, the system has not changed in its fundamentals.  All women are oppressed, and by the same systemic processes, though they may be oppressed in different ways.  It does not make sense to play the game of "who is more oppressed?"  Yes, women in some regions have to cover their entire body and can only appear in public with a male chaperone.  But women in other regions may feel forced to expose or sell their bodies, and are tortured daily with self-imposed starvation and feelings of inadequacy.  Is it any more liberating or honorable to be treated as an object and to hate one's own body?