Thursday, August 30, 2012

Peggy Levitt: God Needs No Passport

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It's a common lefty thing to think that religion is any number of negative things; see if this rings a bell: bad, dangerous, backwards, regressive, oppressive, low-class, brainwashing, right-wing, etc. Some lefties want to pretend religion doesn't need to be discussed because it's so far "out there" and others think it is just a destabilizing force. I have a different feeling: I think that progressives (and everyone else) must discuss religion, as it's a huge force in so many people's life. Putting our collective heads in the sand is almost as bad as pretending to be a color-blind society. Religion is not something we'll all "get over," nor is it just "the opiate of the masses," nor is it just the purview of extremists- right wing evangelicals or Jews in settlements or pseudo-Muslim terrorists. Put another way: religious people are people, too.

Peggy Levitt goes a step further: immigrants are people. They're often religious people, and they're changing America. To freak out about it or to ignore it is to miss the potential for moving forward productively. Levitt argues for a new look at citizenship for (im)migrants: she is
interested here in migrants' subjective experiences than about how institutional arrangements constrain their ability to act on what they think and feel. The people who claimed religious citizenship understood it to work in a way that was similar to political citizenship. They used similar words and analogies to describe these two membership categories. In other words, the political limits to religious membership did not stop them from equating the two.
Essentially Levitt believes that citizenship legally means that one belongs to a "self-governing political community." Migrants who belong in what she calls the "global religious citizen" category often are connected to multiple countries, and are linked transnationally through their religious community. The transnational connections work both ways: they change the home country as well as America. She thinks of these as "religious passports," and argues that to understand immigrant communities, one must understand what's going on in religious communities both here and in home/sending countries. On the individual level, she argues, identity cannot be separated into citizenship status or country of origin and all other "subject positions": these subject positions must include religion. "Faith, directly or indirectly, permeates the lives of many people... [Some] assume, implicitly or explicitly, that imported faith comes in a one-size-fits-all package." It doesn't, and it's part of the immigration and citizenship discussions.

Levitt's argument is based in four communities that she seems to have studied intimately, though she doesn't explain her methodology- anthropology? ethnography?- which seemed a medium-sized flaw. She ties her argument nicely (at the beginning of "God Needs No Passport") to the bigger picture of the self-identity of America as a "melting pot":  the picture of we hold of America is that we create everything here wholesale, and that everyone should melt into good assimilated Christians. The truth is more complicated. Immigrants bring their cultures and religions (and always have) with them, and America changes with them. They also maintain strong ties (more so now than over with technological changes) with their home countries, changing America, whether the US will admit it or not. Levitt demonstrates how this works in communities in Ireland, Brazil, Pakistan, and India and their respective communities in the US. This, along with the lack of methodology, is a flaw with Levitt's book: it appears that Levitt is closely tied to Boston, and it's possible (though not explained) that these are very important sending countries in the Boston area. However, I have never encountered Brazilians Catholic/Evangelicals, Irish Catholics, or Indian Hindus of the sect she describes, and the groups are not contextualized at all. "God Needs No Passport" would have read better as a much shorter article without the details and short supporting quotes from group members, or as a much longer book with much more information.

Flaws aside, Levitt proposes (though doesn't expand) on a solution more progressives should consider: a "religious solution to the problem of religious diversity." Quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, she argues for each religion to act with humility and acknowledgement that "expressions of religious faith are subject to historical contingency and relativity." Mainstream America would need to drop the idea of the Protestant nation, and progressives will need to drop the snobbery of the backwards religious immigrants. It could happen...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Adam Winkler: Gunfight

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I requested this book at the library and a couple of days later a man went into a screening of a new movie, took out some guns, and shot a bunch of people.  I picked up the book at the library and a few days later a man went into a Sikh Temple and shot a bunch of people. One could see coincidence in this (don't think that I haven't) or one could see the timeliness and the scary fact of over-abundance of guns in the hands of the wrong people. My first reaction to both of these shootings was my typical reaction: Guns Are Bad, do away with all guns. Adam Winkler's "Gunfight" starts with the premise that this reaction is both impractical- Americans have too many guns- and unconstitutional."Gunfight" is a historical look at the laws regulating gun rights and control in America, as well as some of the societal and cultural feelings on them. It's a pretty mainstream look- without any of the context of the uses of guns for societal control that Kristian Williams gives orJoan Burbick's detailed connections between race and guns.

Winkler structures his book around a 2008 Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, where a group of libertarian lawyers sought to overturn a DC law banning handguns. The NRA and anti-gun-control groups tried to stop the lawsuit, fearing that a loss would be a win for gun control fans. The libertarians, confident of a win were sure that overturning this handgun ban would be the start of something big. Winkler has disdain for pretty much both sides: "one set on getting rid of the guns, the other determined to stop guns from being restricted in even modest ways." He demonstrates, aptly, that neither are what the Constitution had in mind, and neither are based in history. What he doesn't demonstrate, is why we shouldn't get rid of the guns. "Gun control diehards" as he calls people like me, "hope that the United States can eventually become more like the United Kingdom, where all hand guns are banned and long guns (shotguns and rifles) are uncommon." He gives short shrift to why this is "unrealistic" and also gives little discussion to why this dream might be something people aspire to. He doesn't discuss why gun control "diehards" are gun control diehards, neatly skirting around incidents like the shootings earlier this month and other mass shootings, and really almost caused me to close the book on page 29 when he attributed many gun deaths to "criminals shooting criminals shooting other criminals," as if that doesn't matter.

While Winkler continues to lean away from the gun-control side, he seems to give an accurate and informative history of the debate, from what I can tell. Everything is consistent with what I've read, including the sharp right-ward turn of the NRA about 50 years ago. His discussion of the history second amendment as well as of the history of the interpretation of the second amendment is informative, and includes some discussion of the implications of the "right to bear arms" throughout American history. Some of his discussions left me confused, however, and unable to more clearly articulate my position on gun control. I agree with Winkler that the discussion is overly polarized, but for "Gunfight" to be successful, I should have left it with a more clear understanding of the constitutional law and the history behind modern interpretations of the law, thus being able to articulate where I stand more precisely OR to having changed my position to be more reasonable.  Neither of these things happened: I can recommend this book for people interested in reading up on the literature, as it's clear while you're reading it and gives lots of information for people like me, who are looking for the facts in the midst of a highly emotional discussion. On the other hand, if you're looking to be educated on the deeper issues, "Gunfight" will leave you hanging.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Sarah Schulman: The Gentrification of the Mind

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I have a fascination with, and a repulsion by gentrification, while full well knowing that I am part of the process/problem. While not quite an "urban pioneer" as my boyfriend calls it, I do live "hood adjacent" as my sister calls it, and now that I've read "The Gentrification of the Mind," I can see that I'm guilty of a whole lot more than neighborhood-theft. In her glorious, strange, and thought-provoking stream-of-consciousness connecting the loss of a generation to AIDS to gentrification, Sarah Schulman both keeps the lost generation alive and clarifies just what gentrification means. One of the moments that hit me hardest was when she quotes a dead artist friend, David Feinberg, as saying "You can't wear a red ribbon if you're dead." (You can read this section of the book in a different form.) For almost thirty years, I've worn an AIDS bracelet, taking the "until there's a cure" message very literally, and refusing to take it off. This, Schulman has convinced me, is the epitome of gentrification: I wear the silver bobble on my wrist, claiming identification with a generation of death, as if I understand at all, as if I'm making a difference. (Interestingly, the bracelet fell off for the first time ever right before I started reading "The Gentrification of the Mind" and I haven't found it.)

Schulman starts with a definition of "gentrification" from British sociologist Ruth Glass: "the influx of middle-class people to cities and neighborhoods, displacing the lower-class worker residents." She dispels the myth of gay people as gentrifiers using the classic example of 1970s and 1980s New York: when the city was facing bankruptcy in the 70s, her neighborhood, the East Village consisted of "Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Eastern European and Italian immigrants, lesbians, noninstitutionalized artists, gay men, and other sexually adventurous and socially marginalized refugees from uncomprehending backgrounds living on economic margins." At the same time as tax breaks for developers and incentives for more wealthy tenants, AIDS came along and killed off a generation of her neighbors. Rather than a conspiracy, Schulman calls this a "tragic example of historic coincidence," and sets out to show how the new tenants were "'privileged' in that they did not have to be aware of their power or of the ways in which it was constructed. They instead saw their dominance as simultaneously nonexistent and as the natural deserving order." Why shouldn't these neighborhoods be open to them? Why shouldn't those "others" leave?

As the gentrified neighborhoods become the norm, mainstream power centers reflect this: the "new" East Village is a center of cool, even as it becomes a center of banality. Movies, pop culture, fashion, magazines, etc, reflect the "new" culture. Gay people, rather than being able to live their lives in the cultural enclaves they have created, are expected to live in heteronormative spaces created for them, in private, and in culturally appropriate ways, such as in the fight for gay marriage. The arts also reflect this: Schulman spends a lot of time honoring artists that died of AIDS and have been forgotten and/or neglected.  She discusses Herbert Marcuse's idea of "repressive tolerance": communities become distorted and neutered by the dominant culture's containment of their realities through the noose of 'tolerance.' The dominant culture doesn't change how it views itself or how it operates, and power imbalances are not transformed. What happens is that the oppressed person's expression is overwhelmed by the dominant person's inflationary self-congratulation about how generous they are. The subordinate person learns quickly that they must curb their most expressive instincts in order to be worthy of this containment." In newly gentrified neighborhoods, the token gay people and outspoken artists are seen as attractions, reasons to move there, proof of "coolness," as they are driven out by high rents and ostracized for being "too" out there. Schulman tells the of the Amazon "glitch" (which I hadn't even heard) which categorized gay/lesbian literature as "pornography" and thus took it all off of the virtual shelves, thus rendering it invisible. The dominant culture doesn't change or acknowledge the power imbalance: the co opt the subordinate, and expect change from below.

Schulman is optimistic that gentrification is a thing of the past, or at least hopes it is. This is the most difficult part of her book for me to reconcile, especially when combined with some of the most powerful parts. She powerfully calls out queer activists and the "decline of revolutionary thinking," which stems from "the unexplored trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the loss of the radical culture of mixed urbanity." Gay marriage, she implores, is off the mark, for a variety of reasons, not least because "inherent in this assumption that everything else is great for gay people, and only marriage remains." I've never quite been able to put my finger on why fighting for gays being able to serve openly in the military or gay marriage felt like strange causes, but Schulman nails it: no nation-wide antidiscrimination laws, marginalization, and many other issues still exist, and focusing on these two mainstream issues is caving to cooptation. This book clarifies, without focusing on the failure of the movement, why there is so far to go, and how we got there. Even if AIDS isn't your thing, this book is a beautiful read. If you like neighborhoods, or queers, or history, or AIDS, read it.