Imagining a Time After Nations

July 20, 2018

“Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do.” – John Lennon

I was sitting in a refugee center in Leeds, England yesterday, listening to the story of migrants from many places, including Syria, Slovakia, and Kenya. Most are in a bind as the British nation decides what to do with the disastrous Brexit decision. The United Kingdom had been a part of the European Union, allowing Europeans to move freely about the continent. In 2016, while just enough Americans were voting (motivated, in part, by racist fears) for Donald “Would/wouldn’t” Trump, just enough Brits were voting (motivated, in part, by racist fears) to leave the EU.

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Would Polish migrants have to leave friends and family and move back to Poland? Italians? Slovaks? Is the Britain just for the British? And what about the Syrian dentist who now has to work as London cab driver because his dental school credentials were no longer valid after he fled the war zone with his family? Who was “English” in a nation that proclaimed the global empire of Britannia? The black Jamaican? The brown Hindu? Racist groups like the English Defense League chant “Britain first!” (and Trump retweets their Islamaphobic posts), but who is “English” in the land invaded by Romans and Anglo-Saxons?

There was a time when there were no countries. Dinosaurs didn’t live in “Switzerland.” There was no Switzerland (formed in 1291 C.E.). Humans have walked the earth for 100,000 years and countries have barely been around for 2000 of those years. We had “tribes” and “lands,” but nations didn’t begin to appear until Japan was founded in 660 B.C.E., then San Marino (in what is now Italy) was founded in 301 B.C.E., and China was founded in 221 B.C.E.. People didn’t need passports 2000 years ago or even 200 years ago.

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When I want to start my classroom discussion of the African slave trade, I draw on the chalkboard a picture of the Earth “upside down,” with Africa and South America on the top. The students are always confused and then I tell them that the little land mass pointing upward is Florida. They get it and laugh. The point is that white people created maps with their countries on top and black and brown people are “below.” North is “up.”

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I’m old enough to remember the pictures of Earth from Apollo 8, fifty years ago. I was Cozy’s age and wondered where all the lines were that divided states and countries. My state was the pink one. Where was “Pacific Ocean” imprinted in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Was this a picture of Earth before men built walls and declared the people on the other side to be “murderers and rapists?” Or was this a picture from our future, after nations became obsolete?

In science fiction, aliens live on planets, not in countries. Spock was from Vulcan, not some country on Vulcan. Luke Skywalker was Tatooine, and all Tatooinoids hung together. What do they know that we don’t? If the Klingons can have planetary unity, why can’t we? But there we go planting American flags on the moon. God knows what Trump’s SPACE FORCE is going to do to Uranus.

As I wrote last week, no nation is guaranteed permanence. There will be a time when the United States of America ceases to exist. (It feels like that might be sooner than later.) There is also a time coming when no nations, in general, will exist. The question is – will we be here to enjoy that evolution in human existence, when there is no need for man made borders? Nation states? Meh.

This work I’m doing in Europe has reminded me of the limitation of these political inventions called “nations.” It seems like we should be smarter than this by now. While fascists clamor for a new nationalism so they can push some group out, more people see themselves as global citizens. A 2016 survey of 20,000 people in 18 countries found that half saw themselves as global, instead of national, citizens (30% of Germans and 73% of Nigerians). As Cozy recently told me, “Daddy, we don’t live in America, we live in Portland!”

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So many of our problems are caused by the existence of these silly things called countries. That includes wars and economic exploitation. It’s OK that people suffer in factories to make our smart phones and other “can’t live without” items because they’re in other countries. It’s not like they’re real people. It’s us verses them, people (and non-people). Maybe we should go back to a time when there was only the various peoples of the Planet Earth.  Would that be such a bad thing? The Vulcans would deem it logical.

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Witnessing the end of the American Century from the former British Empire

14 July 2018

All good/bad things come to an end. It was 229 years ago today that the French revolutionaries, fueled by the principles of The Enlightenment (and the American Revolution), stormed the Bastille Prison in Paris, marking the beginning of the end King Louis XVI of the old regime. I’m on a train to London, watching the ripples of the Trump visit, which includes his slamming the Prime Minister and almost running over the queen to get his photo op. At least 250,000 people filled the streets of London to protest Trump but it seems almost pointless. Nobody has done more to overthrow King Donald of Orange than Donald J. Trump. I have a meeting at the U.S. Embassy on Monday and I just hope they’ve steam-cleaned the carpets.

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As we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in November, we will also be marking the beginning of the American Century. Centuries last one hundred years, so ours seems to be winding down quite nicely. We should have it wrapped up by November 11. They used to say the sun never sets on the British Empire and now what have they got left? Bermuda? All empires end and the world is watching the fading of America. The only remaining question is whether or not Trump will salute Putin on Monday when they meet in Helsinki. (After all, he saluted a North Korean general so why the hell not?)

I may be being a bit overdramatic. I’ve just seen the U.S. president floating through the air as a giant baby in a diaper. My emotions might be more in charge than my insight as a political scientist, but there is a theory at work here.

My very first academic publication was in the area of World Systems Theory. WST looks at the impact of the rise and fall of the global economy over centuries. Before I began studying Nazi skinheads, I was studying the birth of the world market by running complex statistical analyses of Dutch shipping records from the early 1600s. (I can’t begin to tell you how boring that was – Thank you, Nazi skinheads!) This theory sees global economic class devisions. Imagine “third world” countries as the workers of the world, selling their labor in the earth’s great factory, making shit for the enjoyment of those in the first world, known as the “core.”

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At the top of the ladder is the global hegemon, the top dog of both wealth and political influence. The top dog changes about every 100 years. In the 1600s it was Spain. In the 1900s it was the USA. Fairly accurately, World Systems Theory predicts that a country gets about a century at the top and then there is some global economic shake-up. Suddenly there is a new sheriff in town. The end of WWI saw the demotion of Britain as America and her mighty industrial economy (driven by some serious “Gilded Age” corruption, by the way) stormed through the clouds like Eddie Rickenbacker.

The United States of America won’t last forever. Other than China, most nations have a relatively short life-span. Germany only goes back to 1871. Yugoslavia ceased to exist in 2003. Whether or not you think God likes you best, there is no guarantee of a nation’s permanence. Even less sure is a nation’s dominance on the world stage. With our current buffoonery creating a vacuum of world leadership and only division at home, it appears the writing is on the wall for the once exalted “land of the free.” America first!

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There is a feeling of doom in the United States but it’s even more depressing witnessing it from abroad. I was having a pint in a pub in Luton, England last night. A patron, hearing my accent, asked, “What the fuck’s happened to your country?” I could only cry in my beer and try to assure him that good people will rally against this tyrant like we did against theirs two centuries ago. (They’ve got their own questions to ask about the passage of Brexit, which is already dismantling their stability. Maybe we can be buddies as the world watches us go down the toilet.) Trump is an embarrassment to us Yanks abroad. There were plenty of Americans in the streets on London yesterday (and up in Scotland today). As I changed my dollars to pounds and saw the devaluing of the buck to the bob, I figured the end might come sooner than we expect. Economists have been predicting that the Obama recovery looks to implode into a Trump recession at any minute. America first! the said as the ship sank.

Who the next global hegemon will be is anyone’s guess. WST predicts that it’s typically the ascendent economic power, so we might best learn how to speak Chinese. But Russia is in the running and with the recent indictments further linking Trump’s presidency to Putin’s power, my money is on the Ruskies. What will Vlad and Don talk about in that closed door session in Finland? Maybe where Trump will leave the keys to the White House in exchange for his new job as a Russian oligarch (and wife #4!). Russia first!

Sociologists are fond of saying that a fish doesn’t know it’s in water until you take it out. It’s hard for us to see the end of American dominance while the illusion of it still surrounds us. Both the Romans and the Nazis thought their reign was unbound by time. America might still have a few good years in it if we can replace the current kakistocracy with a vibrant participatory democracy, but odds are the Democrats will turn a cake walk into a mud bath. So you might be best served by thinking of options outside the USA! USA! Investing in rubles, perhaps.

When historians write about the madness of King Don, they will talk about how he drove a once great nation into the ditch, like a rich chauffeured brat who demands the keys to the car he has never driven. But he didn’t do it all by himself. We encouraged him because we thought it would be entertaining. And it was, until it wasn’t.

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We’re all intersectional (just some more than others).

July 6, 2018

I mentioned that I was developing a workshop on intersectionality on Twitter and one of my social justice-minded followers replied, “Why do you see yourself as a person who is qualified to lead a workshop about it?” The implication was, what would a straight white male know about intersecting forms of oppression? I deleted my snarky defensive reply that I almost posted, reigned in my white fragility, and worked her valid question into my workshop.

Intersectionality refers to the way forms of oppression can combine for people to create obstacles that are missed if we just look at things like racism or agism or homophobia in isolation. I’ve been lecturing about it for 20 years but recently learned it has an illustrative origin, which, like many important theoretical ideas, was born on a factory floor.

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Kimberly Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor was reviewing a discrimination suit filed against General Motors by a group of black women. GM had the case dismissed because they argued that they actively hired both African-Americans and women so, you know, they were good. But Crenshaw learned that the African-Americans that were hired were black men on the factory floor and the women that were hired were white women in the clerical pool. Attempts to remedy racism and sexism didn’t help black women. Their experience was something else, the intersection of racism and sexism.

Sometimes I will ask my students to describe the experience of Asian-Americans. It’s a prompt that is not meant to have a response. There is no Asian-American experience because there is no monolithic Asian experience in America. To equate the lived experience of a fourth generation Chinese-American to someone whose family came from Cambodia in the 1970s or a Muslim from Malaysia or a Shinto from northern Japan is just silly. There are too many important variables to conceive of for even one unifying theme. Throw gender into the mix and it gets even more complex.

Speaking of, the roots of this idea were in the 2nd wave feminist movement when it became clear that “feminist issues” were really just the issues of middle-class white women who wanted to take on sexual harrasment in the workplace and the empty promises associated with suburban housewife drudgery. When women of color said, “Hey, we want to talk about our experiences, too, so we need to discuss racism!” the core (white) feminists said, “No, this is about sexism not racism. That meeting is down the hall.” This led scholar bell hooks to write the founding text of the issue in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. In it she points out the convergence of racism and sexism was a key weapon of the slave traders to further devalue black women and persists to this day.

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Intersectionality has all kinds of dimensions beyond race and gender. Class, gender identity, sexuality, immigration experience, and many other measures add to the mix. Think of how a poor white male experiences white privilege or masculinity differently than a rich white male. Is a gay person with a physical disability going to experience their sexuality the same way as a non-disabled gay person? I can tell you that an undocumented immigrant who is white (like the 50,000 undocumented Irish in America) have it a hell of a lot easier than the undocumented people who are brown. Think of it as a complex Venn diagram where each intersection produces something unique, like the varied ingredients of a smoothie. And typically that smoothie tastes like multiple forms of oppression.

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There’s a lot of blowback on the topic, mostly from white men. Just put “intersectionality” into a YouTube search and see the dumb videos dedicated to “debunking” the actual experiences of others. They scream “Identity politics!” which is a common refrain among those trying to keep the playing field uneven and privileging themselves. Intersectional thinking is actually the opposite of identity politics. It recognizes what is unique about each of our struggles. A first-generation South Asian immigrant who is also Muslim, female, and gay is not served by being put into just one demographic box and should not have to pick any single identity. (“On Mondays I’m an immigrant. Tuesdays are gay days…)

The reason this matters is that marginalized people who have these intersections are even more marginalized because of them. People want to be seen and heard not pushed into the shadows even further. I’m doing these workshops because this has a real impact in the workplace. One study found that people who feel they can be their authentic selves at work are three times more likely to say they are proud to work at the company or agency and more than four times likely to say they feel empowered to do their best work. Being intersectional is good for business! That should get straight-white-male capitalist’s attention.

It’s easy for straight-white-males to dismiss this important issue. What a hassle to have to learn all these new feminist terms, right? I mean, it doesn’t affect them. Or does it? Good news, fellas, everyone is intersectional. Oppression intersect but so do privileges AND oppressions and privileges.

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In this workshop I used myself as example of the intersection of three identities; white, male, and Southern. As a child I learned being a southerner was devalued and did my best to lose any hint of a southern accent. (If you want to hear it, buy me a shot of Jack Daniels.) My whiteness intersects with my Southernness – Southern whites are supposed to be racist and pine for “Dixie.” My maleness also intersects with my Southernness – Southern men learn violence and anti-intellectual posturing at an early age. So you can imagine the learned identity when you put all three together. And that is my struggle that a white male from Oregon might not see.

We’re working at the next level of anti-racism and bigotry here. This isn’t about segregated schools and lunch counters. When we get to addressing micro-aggressions, implicit bias, privilege, and intersectionality, we’re making real progress. There will be the usual pushback from those who have a vested interest in not making equity a reality (“Hey, they had Obama for eight years!”), but I think even those folks can be brought into the conversation. When people are allowed to exist in their own skin, as complicated as it might be, everyone is happier.

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