Richard Rorty’s 1998 work, Achieving Our Country, reads like the masterplan of Barack Obama’s successful presidential election campaign. In the book, Rorty calls for a reconfiguration of the American Left. He argues that, since the 1960s, progressives in the United States have been engaged in a cynical and detached ‘politics of spectatorship’. Inspired by Continental and poststructuralist philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault, left-wing intellectuals have become disillusioned spectators of their country, unable to have pride in any of its achievements and exhibiting deep cynicism about the possibility for any real change (short of a wholesale elimination of the United States and total rejection of all its social institutions). The Left portrayed America as an incorrigible genocidal, imperialist, racist, sexist and homophobic nation, and thus, undermined progressives’ will to meaningful agency in favor of a detached and profound skepticism: what reformist change could possibly matter when the whole enterprise of America is so beyond repair? At the same time, the American Left became a purely ‘cultural Left’ by focusing on ‘niche’ issues and ‘sadist’ social structures, such as racism, sexism and homophobia, while avoiding discussions about what really matters: economic inequality, selfishness and class oppression.

Rorty’s critiques of the Left’s ‘politics of spectatorship,’ and its sole focus on ‘cultural politics’ were adopted very successfully by Barack Obama’s campaign. From day one, Obama emphasized ‘hope’ for change and the ability of all people to exercise agency both for their individual gain and for the common good represented by their country. He also provided a replacement narrative of American history, which took pride in what the country had achieved (the Constitution, civil rights, and winning the Cold War), but viewed its ‘ultimate morality’ as still achievable, as expressed in the need to strive towards ‘a more perfect union.’ Thus, Obama restored a ‘will to agency’ to the U.S. Left: he provided a revision of the standard depressing and pessimistic left-wing historical narrative by portraying America as an ‘imperfect, but perfectible nation.’ Furthermore, he avoided divisive issues in the campaign, while focusing on the common good and bread-and-butter economic issues that had a high probability of diminishing some of the profound material inequalities that exist within the country. Overall, the Obama campaign seemed to follow – word-for-word – Rorty’s advice for the American Left: (1) restore hope in America and inspire people to exercise agency; (2) focus on economic issues and avoid polarizing ‘cultural’ debates.

While I agree with Rorty on the need to replace the ‘politics of spectatorship’ with a ‘politics of hopeful agency,’ some of his other claims are highly dubious. First of all, his insistence on a distinction between ‘real (economic) politics’ and ‘cultural politics’ is crude and will not help us achieve unity on the Left. Rorty implies that the ‘victim politics’ of queer rights, feminism, disability and racial justice is somehow secondary to (and separate from) ‘real’ concerns about economic inequality and caste stratifications in U.S. society. This view echoes Alan Sokal’s critique of postmodernism as supporting a trendy focus on superficial ‘identity politics’ that cannot concretely benefit the working class.

Nevertheless, the notion that ‘identity politics’ has no relation to economic justice is a false one. Take the example of queer rights: how could a movement that questions the sexual and gender restrictions that we place on ourselves not have anything to do with a critique of economic injustice and exploitation? As Judith Butler points out in her article, “Merely Cultural,” queer activism is important to a movement for economic emancipation because it undermines and problematizes one of the key institutions by which caste and class distinctions are maintained: compulsory dyadic heterosexuality. Why have sexual restrictions in the United States focused so much on limiting peoples’ ability to form intimate relationships across class and racial divides or within their own gender? Because such relationships could very well undermine the caste system on which economic inequality is based. To (re)produce this system, people cannot legitimately copulate with those that the system is designed to oppress: they must seek relationships among ‘their own kind’ (class and race), and those relationships must be heterosexual ones that can produce offspring to carry on and (re)produce the caste distinction. The queer movement’s questioning of the sexual restrictions we place on ourselves (and its re-thinking of the general purpose of sexuality) can, thus, legitimately contribute to action against economic inequality by opening up space for a breakdown of the sexual mechanisms by which classes and castes are (re)created.

Secondly, Rorty falsely blames the postmodernist or ‘cultural left’ for failing to engage with unions and the American poor, who have now become a hot constituency for Pat Buchanan and other radical right-wing populists. At least in the case of the queer rights movement, I do not think that the ‘cultural left’ can be blamed for this discrepancy. Radical groups, such as Queer Nation, Act-Up and Gay Men’s Health Crisis have focused considerably on critiquing social injustice in all its forms. It is the mainstream, assimilationist gay rights movement (which reached its zenith in the 1990s and 2000s) that has compartmentalized sexuality issues away from the broader Left-wing social and economic critique. As I demonstrated in this previous post, assimilationist gay activists have sought to portray homosexuals in the least offensive way possible: as a group that will not engage in ‘radical leftism,’ that will support the class and caste structures of corporate America, and that will not work to eliminate racial injustice and sexism. Thus, responsibility for ‘compartmentalizing’ identity politics away from forming broad alliances against social and economic injustices falls squarely on the shoulders of assimilationist social movements.

Overall, Rorty is right that a ‘politics of hopeful agency’ must replace the detached spectator-like cynicism of the American Left, and we are very lucky that President-elect Barack Obama has championed this agenda. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the work postmodernists and identitarians have done should now be pushed to the side in favor of a ‘real’ economic politics. In order to build unity on the Left, we need to develop an understanding of how the various injustices in our society – economic, sexual, gendered, racial, and disability-based – work together and reinforce each other. We cannot suppress our differences in order to build unity; we must instead build unity on the basis of our particularity and diversity. Only then, will a comprehensive and truly hopeful Left-wing politics be possible.


***For More Information***
Definitely have a look at Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country and Barack Obama’s campaign website for evidence of a reconfiguration on the American Left. For a very intelligent reply to Rorty and other critics of the ‘cultural’/postmodern Left, have a look at Judith Butler’s “Merely Cultural.”

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Jason Tseng joins us from The Bilerico Project:

At 6:30pm on W 65th St and Columbus, I joined thousands of fellow queers and their allies in a protest before the Mormon Temple in New York City. I didn't have extraordinarily high expectations for the night. I had a headache from work and wanted to sleep. But I felt compelled to participate in the growing national momentum in opposition of the recent passage of Prop 8.

Now, I consider myself an activist. I have worked at the local and national level for arts, queer, and gender advocacy. But all of my activist experience has been fairly white collar: writing grants, researching for reports, organizing service programs, etc. I had never been to an honest-to-god ol' fashion protest. I knew from the facebook event that had circulated like wildfire to expect around three thousand attendees. I was ready for that. I know what a crowd of three thousand people looks like.

What I was unprepared for was a much larger crowd (I've heard estimations topping at 10,000 with conservative estimates saying at least 6,000!) and the sheer scale of the demonstration. Pouring out over three to four blocks around the Mormon Temple, chants of "Shame on you!", "Tax this Church!", and "Gay, Straight, Black, White! Marriage is a Civil Right!" soared through the air. Even more amazing, this entire event was organized and constructed outside the formal endorsement or agenda of a large formalized organization. This is grassroots at its best.

The night was definitely an exciting one. I even caught a glimpse of a few celebrities in the mix. Whoopi Goldberg, being the most prominent... but I think I may have caught a few former Project Runway contestants and our good friend Andy Towle, over at Towleroad at the head of the march (video of Andy in Father Tony's post from today). As the protest swelled around the Mormon church, demonstration leaders led the raucous and lively crowd on a march down Columbus Avenue towards Columbus Circle. With police flanking the protesters with mobile fences and trying to herd the demonstrators into Central Park, members of the protest started chants like "Pens are for pigs!". Finally, all assembled together in the southwest corner of Central Park beneath an oddly homoerotic fountain statue, the protest reached a fever pitch as chants rippled through the crowd, spreading and multiplying as gay, straight, bi, queer, trans, and whathaveyous joined in the clarion call for equal rights.

However, being the perpetual devil's advocate and idealistic cynic, I was moved to question why this outpouring of outrage and civil action now? Why were we not mobilized like this nationally before we lost in California when it might have done some actual good. Showing solidarity in the light of an unfair loss isn't quite the same as mobilizing proactively to ensure victory. An activist friend of mine who accompanied me on the march and was a very strong, vocal leader in the crowd, taking the initiative to start the rallying chants, was impressed and encouraged by the turn out for this event, but wondered about where all these people were when activists try to mobilize for other important issues, like class, race, immigration, etc.

I thought my friend had a point. One of the more popular chants that rang out in the night was "Gay, Straight, Black, White! Same Struggle, Same Fight!" While I appreciate the sentiment of queer activists calling upon the history and energy of the civil rights movement, this has also been a very charged issue when dealing with communities of color, especially African Americans. Conflating these two movements (as many of these social justice movements tend to be rhetorically homogenized: from reproductive rights and suffrage, to Ghandi's anti-colonialism and King's civil rights movement) is problematic. Queer people do not face the same struggles and hurdles as the civil rights movement did. They may be similar, and are often times opposed with similar language used by the status quo powers-that-be, but we in the queer community should be careful not to try and co-opt the Civil Rights struggle as our own.

By doing so, I believe we ignore the very real problems with racism that the gay liberation movement - and the current gay rights movement - have been plagued with since their inception. Large swatches of the gay political electorate have been driven by "liberal" affluent gay white men who have historically directed the course of gay politics towards a distinctly generic "color-blind" philosophy which ignores the confluent problems with race and sexuality. The problem with being color-blind is that when you choose to ignore color everything tends to become white.

As a brief addendum to all those gay leaders out there: by working on diversity initiatives and with "communities of color," you have to work with more than just black people. There are many colors out their in the rainbow of our society that consistently get left out of the conversation.

But, all the rambling aside, I was really pleased and honored to have been able to participate in this call to action. For all my fellow New Yorkers out there, there will be another demonstration at City Hall on Saturday, November 15th at 1:30pm. Be there or be square.

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11.14.2008

James Bond

Quantum of Solace, the latest in the James Bond franchise opened on Friday. It was the usual Bond-fare - dreamy Brit actor, sexy women, fancy gadgets, big guns, high body count. It was the stereotypical straight man's wet dream, although I'm certain other people (like this straight woman) enjoyed it. But it still left me with a sense of defeat when it comes to gender roles in cinema.

One thing that was mildly refreshing in this Bond film is that it had a degree of revenge, over a lost love. Meaning in the world of Bond, women weren't just play things. But because of the way things turned out with that love (she betrayed him and then killed herself to save him), and knowing that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are supposed to be the beginning of the Bond story, perhaps that is supposed to explain why women are so expendable in the movies. I did get a small amount of satisfaction that in Quantum, the female lead not only had her own (tiny) back story, but that she also got to kill someone on her own (for her own reasons), and she didn't sleep with Bond. But she lived. The expendable minor female character that Bond did sleep with merely tripped a man down the stairs to help Bond, and she ended up dead. I'll admit that I'm no Bond expert, so I had to check with my husband to see if "sleep with Bond and end up dead" is consistent in the other movies, and according to him, it isn't. Whew. But the movies are still so overboard with gender stereotypes. Although I do appreciate Judi Dench's character, M. She seems to go against the stereotypical expectation. But maybe as gender roles have changed since the Bond franchise was first introduced, the gender roles in Bond movies can get a bit more progressive.


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11.10.2008

What's your type?

You can’t give a response to “What’s your type?” without having to answer to race.

The usual responses I hear include personality traits (like “funny,” “laid back,” or “intelligent”), facial hair attributes (such as “clean-shaven” or “five o’ clock shadow”), and occupational affiliations or interests (for instance, “someone who likes to cook” or “not a lawyer”).

But then things start getting tricky. People try to dodge the question of race by talking about skin tones: “light-skinned,” “dark-skinned,” “brown-skinned,” or “caramel complexion.” They worm around being explicit by mentioning attributes like “blue eyes and blonde hair” or social circumstances like “someone from the hood.” And my all-time favorite circumvention? Straight up without being straightforward: “Someone who looks like me.”

Sometimes, though, people try to be honest: I had a friend begin listing personality traits, interests, potential job positions before glimpsing around and, with his eyes low, moving his lips only oh-so-much to produce in the quietest little whisper, “White.” Why, I thought, should he keep his confident answer to himself? Why are we afraid to proclaim our preferences (and I do believe they are preferences, as opposed to orientations) if we are so, it seems, stubborn about them?

I don’t think I knew how concerned people were about the race of their mates until I went to college. When I was growing up, my parents would indeed make flabbergasting comments about the racial make-up of my friends; I am Asian, and most of my closest acquaintances were black, with a sprinkling of every other race and ethnicity to boot. They would advise me to be careful about whom I hung out with, that I should work more to find a group of friends that reflected my roots. Sometimes, my sister—much bolder than I am—would tease my parents: “What if I came home with a white boyfriend? What if I came home with a black boyfriend?” My mom would shake her head, release a touch of nervous laughter, as if to say, “Why would you say such a thing?” Certainly, I thought, this was a generational gap. My parents were simply too old-fashioned to understand my teenage ideal of a post-race dating society. I would need to go to college to be with peers who would understand.

Surprisingly for me, college provided me with the opposite of my expectation. Same-race relationships pervaded most of my small liberal arts community—so much for being liberal, I thought. “What’s your type?” was more rhetorical than inquisitive. In a social scene dominated by Greek life, I found that most whites dated whites, most blacks dated blacks, and everyone else needed to figure out if they were “more white” or “more black” to see where they would fit in. White European or Australian international students, for example, had for their dating pool both the larger white community and each other; a young Asian woman from the hoods of New York, on the other hand, gained street credibility among black students and was able to socialize in that world.

I remember noticing but two attributes that helped students transcend the prison of mate-racing: language and sports. Students who shared an interest in speaking a language—Spanish comes especially to mind—bonded with other students who also spoke the language; here, race played second fiddle to the assumptions of heritage or cultural awareness that came with linguistic talents, whether by birth or high school AP class. Similarly, students who played the same sport on separately gendered teams achieved camaraderie through practices and long-distance conference tours. While this forged a handful of interracial relationships—frequently between a black student and a white student—this also caused interracial-related drama: Why should a white student take a perfectly good black student out from an already limited black dating pool? Why would a black student give up mating options within his or her race for someone who represented the dominant Man?

From my experiences in college and beyond, I’ve found “What’s your type?” to be even more twisted in gay circles. I tend to fit responses I hear into two extreme poles: there’s almost always white, and there’s almost always fetishist. At one end, there fits the aesthetic type sold to us by Abercrombie, American Eagle, JCrew, Armani Exchange, and the rest of the big brand names: white, usually muscular, men. Yes, okay: sometimes there are tokens. But almost always: white. This is what people end up seeing on most of the major porn networks: Sean Cody, Randy Blue, Corbin Fisher—if it’s popular in gay porn, it’s probably white. On the other end, “What’s your type?” gets very specific: Asian. Thin Asian. Latino. Hung Latino. Black. Dark Chocolate. On this side of the spectrum, minorities become desired because they’re, well, minorities—but specifically, minorities with a certain typed physical presence. Men value them explicitly for everything that supposedly comes with being their race or ethnicity; behaviorally, this may come to obedience, machismo, or strength. While the most popular gay pornography sites may not celebrate these ethnic caricatures to the extent that they sell whiteness, searchable porn databases like Xtube drip with clearly-labeled fetishist options, creating categories like Asian, Black, or Latino. Easy access to whatever color—and stereotyped culture—that you want. The cultural baggage is important: if you fit the color but not the trait, then maybe you won’t be as popular among these ethnicity fans. Or, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll come off as mixed and straddle two potential ethnic markets—if you can pass as mixed white/black, for example, you might be viewed as a mate with training wheels for someone who wants pure white or pure black. No matter what, though, you still seem to be defined by your relationship to these umbrella categories of primary racial colors.

Obviously, as both my dating and pornography options demonstrate, my teenage dreams of a post-race mating scheme didn’t quite play out as I had imagined. I think, however, that that’s a good thing. Years later, the idea of concocting a colorblind world is not only na├»ve, but also dangerous; not acknowledging that there are differences in treatment and perception simply based on the color of one’s kin is the absolute ignorance of, well, the history of the world. And to think that love, dating, and attraction are immune from these prejudices—or, worse, hide those beliefs with cushy syntax and fancy hints—is to simply perpetuate this post-race fantasy.

I’m not saying that we should assertively proclaim our mating preferences and publicly narrow our options down to our gut’s raced reactions to “What’s your type?” But what does need to happen, I think, is for us to say, “Well, this is my type…” and then it follow-up with the very personal acknowledgement, “And this is probably why…” For many of us, that will be a hard thing to do. It forces us to shed a thin beam of light on the tightly-stacked structures cemented within our social selves. And even more uneasy is the feeling of, “What now?” after we see what’s been built inside of us, oftentimes without our permission at all. I do not know where we go from there. I do not know what to do with the rubble that unsettles when we realize we’re programmed against our will to love who we love. Our responses to “Why?” will not take care of that; they do not justify what we do, but they do, at the very least, do something. “Why?” steps us toward a more productive conversation than one about the pinning down of necessarily (and, I still want to believe, unnecessarily) essentializing characteristics and markers.

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I know it's election day, and I hope you all voted. But I'm sure you're done reading about politics, so I won't talk about that.

According to a study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, "Teenagers who watch a lot of television featuring flirting, necking, discussion of sex and sex scenes are much more likely than their peers to get pregnant or get a partner pregnant."

In fact:

"Watching this kind of sexual content on television is a powerful factor in increasing the likelihood of a teen pregnancy," said lead researcher Anita Chandra. "We found a strong association."

Whoa - so because of a strong association, this is now a factor? And not just a correlation? Perhaps kids who watch a lot of sexy TV aren't very well supervised, and maybe these same kids don't get a real sex talk from their parents. Couple that with all this abstinence-only BS, and that means these kids may very well be getting all their sexual education from TV. So of course let's blame TV instead of the parents, and the schools that fail at actually educating teens about sex.


And many studies have shown that TV violence seems to make children more aggressive.

UM ... again ... these kids maybe be unsupervised, or just don't get the attention/discipline they need from their parents, and thus, they act out. WOW. Imagine that.

The study did not examine how different approaches to sex education factor into the effects of TV viewing on sexual behavior and pregnancy rates. Proponents of comprehensive sex education as well as programs that focus on abstinence said the findings illustrate the need to educate children better about the risks of sex and about how to protect themselves, although they disagree about which approach works best.

We need to educate our children. Imagine that. Saying "sex is bad and should be saved for marriage otherwise you will get AIDS or your dick will fall off", however, isn't education.

"We have a highly sexualized culture that glamorizes sex," said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association. "We really need to encourage schools to make abstinence-centered programs a priority."

No, we need parents to play an active role in parenting. I remember the sex talk I got from my parents ("Don't do it until you're married.") So I am so thankful that I went to public high school in the 1990s and got a real, comprehensive education about sex. Complete with charts and graphs and slide shows and worksheets comparing contraceptive options.

Could it also be that the kids who are watching more sex on TV are just watching more TV in general, because they have nothing better to do? And what do bored kids like to do ......? I remember when I was in high school, I was busy with homework and sports and band and piano lessons and other stuff, I didn't have time for sex (but I did have time to smoke pot ... but, um, whatever). So, maybe the lesson is, make sure your kids occupy their time with other activities.

The researchers recommended that parents spend more time monitoring what their children watch and discussing what they see, including pointing out the possible negative consequences of early sexual activity.

Hallelujah. Amazing. So perhaps we shouldn't put the blame on television completely??

I remember my mom would monitor some of my TV viewing - the only show that sticks out that she didn't want us to watch was "Married with Children." How racy. It also helped that we didn't have cable.



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Sincerely,
ts


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