Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Disease Entities and Mental Health

In my series of posts on the capitalist approach to health, I noted, in particular, the relevance of disease categories. I suggested that lumping complex phenomena into discrete categories fit patterns of research funding and the proliferation of commodities (namely drugs) as interventions. I even noted Autism as an example of this proclivity.

Well, apparently, that’s how some mental health professionals are starting to see things as well. Of course, their alternatives are still pervaded with capitalist logic and a governmental focus on normality and pathology. Yet, they recognize the role played by those who fund research, the pharmaceutical industry, and even (this is something I previously neglected) the personal identifications and campaigns that have evolved around these disease categories. Imagine what would happen to that all-powerful pink ribbon breast cancer campaign once cancer is viewed more in terms of genetic composition and less in terms of bodily location. How will we define women’s health when we can’t pin everything on the breasts?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Most Terrorism is Not Islamic

The first person I talked to about the Boston Marathon Bombing - as soon as it came on the news - insisted it had to be jihadist.

Yes, everyone assumes that all or most terrorist attacks are carried out by Muslims.

When it turned out that the perpetrators were, in fact, Muslim, everyone immediately concluded (once again, in the absence of any evidence) that their religion must have something to do with their actions.  That could turn out to be true. But it is also possible that they were motivated by some Chechen liberation cause that had nothing to do with Islam (national liberation movements/sympathizers have committed more terrorist acts in the US than jihadists). And it is also possible that personal trauma (the best friend of one of the brothers was brutally murdered) or some other factor that has nothing to do with either their religion or ethnicity is really to blame. We just don't know. But the fact remains that all of the media discussions about the brothers' potential links to Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups just serves to reinforce the idea that all terrorists are Muslims and all Muslims are terrorists.

So I gave up on the media and started looking at the FBI's published lists of terrorist activity. What I found, overall, backs up the claim that about 6% of terrorist incidents in the U.S. are Islamic. I saw that there has actually been more Jewish terrorism than Islamic.  And just to give you a sense of how rare Islamic terrorism really is: there were more incidents involving the Earth Liberation Front in 2001 than incidents involving Muslims from 1980-2005.

Now, it seems as though the incidents that have involved Muslims have received proportionately more attention than any other religious or political group (and that's an understatement). That just shows how skewed people's perceptions can be as a result of dominant ideologies promoted by the media. However, the consequences are severe: Muslims (or anyone who looks Arab or Muslim to the undiscerning eyes of Americans) are discriminated against; they get detained for hours whenever they travel because they are deemed automatically suspect.

The reality as demonstrated by the FBI data makes it absolutely clear that Muslims are being treated unfairly.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Chivalry and Chauvinism

After an incident at my workplace, in which a male of high rank decided to act “chivalrous” toward a female colleague, I have initiated discussions with some of my friends about the historical and contemporary implications of chivalry. Unfortunately, the difficulty we face is the persistent belief (often shared among oppressor and oppressed) that stereotypes and gestures cannot be truly discriminatory if they are flattering. What’s wrong with saying that Asians are good at math? And isn’t it nice when a man holds a door for a woman?

The problem is, so long as any statement or gesture reinforces difference, and so long as difference always implies hierarchy (as it will until/unless the world is radically restructured), the act will bring to bear some applicable power relationship, some dynamic of domination. It works something like this. Say I am a woman waiting for a bus. I may be thinking about any number of things – what happened at work, what I plan to cook for dinner, how warm it is, and so on. As soon as a man steps aside to let me on the bus, I may still have a number of other things on my mind, but I am also now thinking, on some level, about the fact that I am a woman. And the man is also thinking, on some level, about the fact that he is a man.

That’s pretty harmless, though, right?

Well, for one thing, it adds up. As a woman, on the basis of these trivial actions, your gender is constantly being emphasized even when it’s not important or you don’t want to think about it (particularly in the workplace), and most importantly, you, as a woman, have no control over when this occurs. You realize that you never get to decide who goes in first or last, and this is yet another instance in which your ability to act is not equal to that of men. People argue that chivalry is just run-of-the-mill politeness. However, if chivalry were merely about being polite, it would not be the prerogative of men.

Furthermore, if chivalry were just about politeness, men would not feel insulted when women try to do the same for them. Although personal experiences here may vary, it is definitely true – and I have seen overwhelming evidence in support of this claim – that a good majority of men feel some degree of shame when women insist, “after you.” This shame comes from a perceived threat to their masculinity. They are, after all, supposed to be the “big, strong man.”

Finally, say what you will, chivalry does convey the message that women are weak and helpless. Historically, as these traditions emerged, the ideological justification for chivalry was expressed quite openly. And then it reinforced other existing forms of inequality. For example, women couldn’t even get into carriages by themselves, so they certainly couldn’t be entrusted with the privilege of voting. Some people argue that these historical facts aren’t applicable today. I counter that, first, it is important to remember that history is always relevant to the present. Attitudes and practices do not disappear nearly as easily as we think they do. Culture has a habit of reproducing itself. Second, I contend that ideas about feminine weakness DO persist, and are thus relevant today. That’s why we still have gender segregated sports. That’s why you hear countless women expressing their desire for a strong man who will protect them. That’s why men feel they need to open doors for women.

For any girl who has literally tried to compete on an equal playing field with boys, it is clear that boys do not tolerate girls who aren’t athletically inferior to them. Boys feel threatened when girls show them up. Boys insult each other by comparing their abilities to girls’. Because boys still learn that they are supposed to be physically superior to girls. Then those boys grow up and start pulling out chairs and opening up doors for women, just so they can remind themselves of that superiority.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Sanctity of Small Businesses

I have written previously about the concept of the “middle class” and how it is strategically used by politicians to create divisions and distort reality. The concept of the “small business” works in a very similar way, and I think it is important to highlight its function in political rhetoric. This is on my mind particularly because pretty much every political discussion I have heard lately has had some sort of appeal to the effects of various proposals on small businesses.

If anyone were unfamiliar with American society, a few hours watching any cable news channel would be enough to show them the great reverence in which small businesses are held. In fact, it seems that the most effective attack one can launch on any proposed policy or regulation is to demonstrate its negative impact on small businesses. One would think that small businesses must be the engine of the American economy.

They are not. Of course, it is not hard to see why everyone likes small businesses: they are the exemplars of entrepreneurialism, individualism, and free market laissez-faire capitalism. They stand in opposition to the corruption, human rights abuses, and political finagling of large corporations. Even the most die-hard capitalist apologists have a hard time defending those evil multinational corporations who ship American jobs overseas. Thank goodness there are small businesses to salvage the ideals of capitalism.

So part of the political usefulness of the concept of small business lies in its very appeal. People see capitalist virtue embodied in small business. The “small business” is a loaded ideological symbol which, as a discursive element, conjures up associations with cherished values and some old-timey nostalgia to boot. This can be compared to the appeal of the “middle class,” though the latter also draws its discursive power from the fact that most everyone identifies themselves as members of the middle class.

However, like the concept of “middle class,” the notion of the “small business” serves an important ideological purpose in addition to those more immediate and practical ends. The constant references to small businesses bolster false images of capitalism. It counters the reality that capitalism’s nature is to increasingly centralize capital, to nourish monopolies, to exploit and dominate. It discounts the importance of mega-conglomerates in economic, political, and social spheres. Moreover, it reroutes conversations away from analyses of the ways in which corporations secure their wealth and manipulate social structures, and focuses discussion instead on misguided notions about the inherent conflict between government and business.

The truth is, that capitalism has been the greatest threat to free markets and small businesses.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Hactivism: The Nonviolent Revolution

It’s hard to be a cynic. I do appreciate the fact that it prevents me from occupying myself with ultimately futile activities. However, cynicism can too easily turn into hopelessness, which begets apathy. I don’t want to be apathetic. How do I reconcile my ideals and my desire for social change with the reality that the ideologies and relationships that constitute power permeate every single aspect of life, including institutionalized movements for change? Including revolutions?

I am opposed to violence. Violence is a function of structures of inequality. It is the basis of patriarchy and slavery and capitalism. Yet, is it possible to transform our world without violence? How?

I don’t believe in the “political process” – whatever that means in reality. There is no boundary separating corporate and financial interests from the institutional apparatus of sanctioned violence and social coercion that is the state. Trying to re-shape the system from within the system is like trying to dry yourself off in the shower. When is the last time that a boycott or a petition created lasting, meaningful social change? Even the protests that constituted the so-called “Arab Spring.” What is fundamentally different in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya, aside from greater poverty and more weapons floating around? Yet, if I take violence and politics off of the table, what is left?

I have long held that technology would be the “creation of the system that ultimately destroys the system.” I have talked a bit about the potential of the internet, in particular, to subvert and escape global capitalism. Yet, I have never given too much thought to hacking, as an aggressive action against the system. It’s getting hard to ignore these days. For one thing, we now live in a world where cyber attacks and cyber security are a solid reality. We have WikiLeaks providing us with classified documents. And we have groups like Anonymous, who hack corporations, governments, and other groups to make social/political statements.

We don’t need weapons to dismantle capitalism. Its entire infrastructure is digitally based, and totally vulnerable to cyber attack. We don’t need to engage in endless debates about the nature of power and the government, trying in vain to convince people that democracy is a sham. Hackers can pull away the curtain and show us who’s really back there and what they are doing.

The only problem is that, currently, hactivists tend to be stuck in the old mindset. They employ a “rights” framework and fight for isolated “freedoms.” They protest against particular governments – governments that are under the thumb of industrial powers, no less – without seeing the larger forces that are responsible for the actions of these governments. Overall, they retain a very reformist attitude, and they are not able to keep sight of the larger picture: the particular articulation of capitalist relations, liberal discourses, bureaucracy, and governmental power that orders global and local social structures.

Hactivism could be a very effective nonviolent form of resistance. It just requires a very clear definition of the enemy, and a will to complete transform society.