Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Citizen's Dilemma

Image Courtesy of

While the 2014 Senate elections are several months away and the 2016 Presidential elections are even farther off into the future, the media is still hyping these up as if they are going to happen any day, most recently with the Chris Christie bridge scandal. However, the time has come for us to question as to why we vote, why we engage in this current system that oppresses us. We must realize the citizen’s dilemma.

Again and again, every election cycle people are encouraged to vote and millions turn out with the hopes that voting in a new politician will change the current system. Unfortunately that is currently not true and has not been true for decades. It would be false to say that there has not been major reform in the past, such as with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, but overall we have seen that the government has become more and more oppressive over time while becoming less and less responsive to the people. We only need to look at what is currently going on with the NSA spying on Americans to Obama having signed the NDAA in 2012 which allows for the indefinite detention of US citizens. Yet, we need to look at the roots of this problem.

In the US education system we are embedded with a number of ideas from a young age but two stand out the most: 1) The US is a democracy and 2) Voting is extremely important. Many continue to believe in this for the rest of their lives and eventually align with either the Democratic or Republican parties and continue to support one of the two parties throughout the rest of their lives. We are caught in this idea that voting is important and voting will effect real change, all the while ignoring that time after time, voting doesn’t actually do much at all.

While most Americans identify as independent they still go and support either one of two parties, election after election. This is an extremely strange phenomenon when Congress currently has historically low ratings, even going so far as to be less popular than cockroaches and traffic jams. Both political parties are criticized on a regular basis for looking out more for their own political interests rather than the interests of the nation as a whole.

The US government has continued a number of policies that are constant, no matter what party is at the presidential helm, namely war, ‘free’ trade, and the surveillance of Americans. While there are differences between Democrats and Republicans, on a majority of major issues they are the same. The government does not truly care about its citizenry, rather it cares much more about corporations and themselves, as can be seen by the fact that they have taken time to line their own pockets by repealing most of the STOCK Act and that they are bought and paid for by corporations. There is a further disconnect between the people and Congress as many in Congress are millionaires and thus their personal interests align with those of the upper class and corporate elites rather than their constituents.

While may argue that the way to fix the system is through reform, namely campaign finance reform such as repealing the Citizens United case and by enacting term limits on both chambers of Congress, however even that will not work as it has to be enacted by the very people who are benefitting from the status quo.

The situation doesn’t get any better when one factors in that the two political parties actually go against their espoused values on a regular basis, rather they actually agree on many things that go against their values. The NDAA 2012 which allows for the indefinite detention of US citizens and the Trans Pacific Partnership are two recent occurrences that go against the Democrats stance of wanting to do away with the security state that former President Bush created. The Republicans, too, support the surveillance state as they recently praised him on his defense of NSA spying, something that goes completely against their ‘small government’ agenda. No matter if the administration be Republican or Democrat, we have consistently seen a number of policies remain the same, namely war, supporting corporations under the guise of ‘free trade,’ and the increased monitoring of the populace.

Thus, the American people find themselves in a dilemma in which there are a myriad of problems facing them, but the current political structures refuse to address the problems, rather they only serve as a valve in which to unleash steam. Voting does not help. Reform will not be enacted. It is time for Americans to begin to create new structures that work for the public rather than to continue engaging in a revolving door.

Friday, January 10, 2014

On Bearing Witness

Image Courtesy of Hurt 2 Healing Magazine

Seeing the bombings, killings, and general injustices committed in the US and around the world are extremely disheartening and discouraging. Hopelessness and a general feeling that nothing can be done can easily overwash a person. It is even more so if you are in a situation where you are unable to attend protests, rallies, or marches. However, there is something that we can all do: bear witness. By that I mean that we keep abreast of what is going on in the world and make a point to discuss important issues and topics with people in our everyday lives, especially those who may not be too interested in politics. To discuss this in more detail, I recently had an email interview with Melissa R and Geoff W about bearing witness.

1. How do you define this idea of 'bearing witness?

Melissa: I think of this in a broader sense so that it includes practices of mine as well as what I imagine would be a more common interpretation. By a more common interpretation I mean those interactions with other people that involve sharing experiences, knowledge, and ideas without the religious missionary aspect. In my broader explanation it's really about developing a wide ranging base of knowledge and ideas without being locked into any so that others are off limits. There is self study and education at the core. I suppose that bearing witness would come in again to personal practices of mine would in conversation, observation, conflict resolution, and then again sharing information and ideas. For me it isn't about changing someone's core ideas or bringing them over to a team but more about giving them an impetus to consideration on their own.

I also take bearing witness to mean putting thoughtful attention to what is going on around me or in the world. One could on a level know that there is a drone program and maybe even know details of it to the extent they are available. Many people do and yet choose to turn off at the junction of seeing the testimony of the families who were fortunate enough to have survived, such as Rafiq ur Rehman and his two children. They came to D.C. to testify about the drone attack on Waziristan in which Rafiq's mother was killed and children injured. Only five “lawmakers” and very few journalists showed. Hearing and spreading these truths be it pretty or harsh is a form of bearing witness that is essential, in my opinion.

Geoff: Christians have the best definition, "to share the good news." Unfortunately, not everything lefties bear witness to can be considered remotely close to "good," so we must adopt our own definition.  Let the truth be said, then. At the least, let your truth be said.

2. Why do you think that bearing witness is important?

Melissa: So many are in debt to extend their education, didn't complete their high school education, or are engaging in self education because they don't want to add to debt in order to go to college. In addition to these means of education bearing witness can be educational moments as well. Even if this is watching documentaries, listening to programs, talking to people of varying opinions, a new takeaway can be gained. I think there is also something gained for both parties when a compassionate or attentive audience is present for particularly important moments. It doesn't have to lead to a change of mind or an urge to move. It could just give someone perspective or give one person a sense of dignity for being recognized.

Geoff: Bearing witness startles people. I can't speak for humans globally, but in America we tend to segregate ourselves based on personal beliefs.  When an individual has the opportunity to say something contrary to their peers' opinions, there is a small moment where people have to decide either to dismiss the new opinion out of hand, or think critically about both options presented.  It's that latter action we as activists should hope to prompt.

3. How do you go about doing this in your own lives?

Melissa: I feel in addition to having a wide base of knowledge we also need to take in a wide variety of experiences and kinds of life, not necessarily through having them ourselves. We can do this by earnestly communicating them with other people. It's never been easier for this to take place than in this time of instant mass information. One problem that I see is what I call “teaming” which is really just tribalism. The corporate media is only distributing limited information and even within those there are sides to be chosen. Even with so much information available many people still choose to wall themselves off in these reinforcement chambers.

What I think we can do in our own lives is just engage with people, read a wider variety of information with a critical eye, but not with the intent of moving from one side to another. This whole notion of “sides” is problematic and exactly what enhances power structures. Be with people and give them compassion. Smile at people who flick you off in traffic.

Geoff: I'm a student and an activist, so an overwhelming number of opportunities to discuss controversial issues are made available to me.  They run the gamut, from voicing an opinion in a classroom to directing weekly workshops.  My university is in a fairly conservative region, so many people are unfamiliar with concepts of neocolonialism, of queer theory, feminist thought, racism, and most all of the anti-prejudice work radicals in left-leaning areas take for granted.  As a queer transgender individual, I find myself most often bearing witness to my own experience, through questions asked by professors and students alike.  It's not something I can keep on all the time, eventually any person becomes weary of defending their own existence.

4. Would you consider bearing witness a form of activism?

Melissa: The label of activism has been contested over the past few years in such a manner that it is constantly changing but that happens with language so I do and I don't. In certain situations, I can see where it could be applicable but I don't seek that label out. There is a real problem with language policing even among more conscientious people so I don't really think too much about if I am being an activist today or not. I do think that the spreading of knowledge and information is an act that is so important that it is activism even if you aren't outside with a microphone, especially when you don't have the means or opportunity to do other things. Arthur Ashe said “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” It's simple but it says it all.

Geoff: Is bearing witness a form of activism?  Yes.  Unabashedly, whole-heartedly yes.  The first time I realized how important bearing witness is as a form of activism, I was fresh into college.  A professor had decided we'd spend the quarter having a variety of conversations around controversial issues, and would let the students work things out between ourselves.  For one day of class, affirmative action was the topic at hand.  Unsurprisingly, no one in the class supported (or had bother reading up about) affirmative action, except for myself and one woman.  The conversation quickly devolved from any constructive discussion of the policy, or even of systemic prejudices, into one peppered with seriously racist commentary.

As a white person, this would have been an opportunity to cash in my privilege card and step back.  Instead, I decided it'd be better to "bear witness." The woman and I spent the entire 50 minute class period arguing against 33 other students.  It wasn't fun, nor did it feel terribly productive.  It was after the class, however, that the significance of what seems to be a small action was explained to me.  The woman, whose name I have since forgotten, pulled me aside and thanked me.  It turns out, this wasn't the first time she'd had to discuss racism in class, but as a woman of color in a predominantly white campus, she was always forced to be the sole defender of anti-racist, anti-discriminatory policy.  She'd gone into the discussion expecting to play the role again, but having a second person there to back her up, and to call out bullshit as I saw fit, meant that the burden of proof was shared.

In a similar vein, every time an issue in classes or conversation comes up that relates to me specifically, I wish desperately that I'll not be the only person defending the politics I align with.  Because it's isolating, exhausting, and downright demoralizing to be the only person in a class of 60 who speaks up in defense of transgender people.  It puts minority groups on the defense, and perpetuates a campus environment that effectively excludes us.  This can be applied to the workplace, social spaces, activist groups, and more.

5. How would you contrast it with more traditional ideas of protesting such as marches and rallies?

Melissa: Marches and rallies seek to bring masses together. What I'm talking about is examining everything and not taking a single issue focus, which is one of the things that has bothered me. It should be noted that I do not live in a large city that is noted for even good turnout at protests. The few that I have been to were very disheartening. I do see that among protests taking place when they do happen they are single issue focuses and it appears that nationwide there is a problem with this. Another thing that keeps me from participating with causes I would mostly agree with is their tactics. I'm not going to go and join a PETA protest outside of Barnum and Bailey's Circus even though it is a tortuous affair because I don't see how dousing a naked person in fake blood on a busy street for children to walk by conveys that message. That is just the tip of the disaster that is PETA.

I'm not trying to downplay the work of activists; I am speaking from my perspective as someone who thinks that there should be a broader focus. The handful of Gay Groups receiving millions in funding pushing marriage initiatives are a prime example of single issue focus. They completely leave out the trans community, issues of elder rights, job protections, and have written off Chelsea Manning as if she isn't still serving a prison sentence for telling the truth. This is just my perspective as one queer person.

Geoff: Rallies and marches are effective tools for changing top down policies.  Campus administration, corporations, and especially governments are more responsive to a rally and other forms of direct action.  I don't know how effective they are at changing the hearts and minds of people.  In many instances, just making your opinion known is a radical action.  Ideally, traditional forms of activism and bearing witness should go hand in hand.

6. Some would criticize this as doing nothing and not having any major impact. What would be your response to such an argument?

Melissa: Doing nothing will have no impact. Like I mentioned before, use what you have and do what you can. I didn't know about Leonard Peltier until a teacher of mine in high school told me his story. I learned about Leonard Peltier, AIM, John Trudell, read Malcolm X's autobiography, and began relearning history. You never know the thing that will be a catalyst for change whether for yourself or someone else. It could be a book, a documentary, being with a person through an experience, living through intense trauma or bullying just to name a few.

Geoff: I would say the people arguing against it need to step back and think critically about their position. There are many people who cannot safely do more than voice their opinions.  There are even more people whose opinions are unsafe to voice.  In some areas of the country, probably more areas than people in urban areas might believe, bearing witness can and does result in a job loss, isolation, and violence.

Melissa R is a queer woman living in the southern United States. She works full time in healthcare and encourages self education.

Geoffrey W is an activist and economics student in Washington State. He is the president of his campus Queer-Straight Alliance, and enjoys spending his time attempting to overthrow the the colonialist, patriarchal, discriminatory powers that be. When asked for comments, one person said Geoff was, "...born in the cesspool of multiculturalist liberal propaganda."