Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Indigenous Identity and Elizabeth Warren

Cherokee NC--West of Asheville
One of the big controversies now circling around this upcoming election is from Massachussets where Scott Brown is trying to smear working people's financial advocate and Harvard Law School professor, Elizabeth Warren. The big reveal is simply the fact that she has listed her racial identiy as Native American and claims a grandmother of Cherokee/Delaware descent. Warren was born in Oklahoma, a place with a very large indigenous population.

Native American ancestry is pervasive in this country and is, probably more than other ethnicities, a complicated business. Tribes, who sometimes share profits from gambling enterprises and other financial stipends, have a convoluted system of "enrollment" which involves things like percentage of native blood and other markers for inclusion.

As a full-blooded, not quite passing, member of the Russian-Jewish tribe, I have attended many pow-wows and other indigenous gatherings. At these events it is impossible not to notice the large number of people of all colors who identify themselves as having native ancestry. While some folks resemble relatives of the chief with the feathered headdress on the US nickel, many more do not.

When I was a young person in the feminist movement, we talked a lot about race. Ther was one woman, my age, who identified herself as Native American. She had pale skin and light brown hair and looked like any other WASP to me. I asked her about her identity one day after a meeting. She said simply, "I grew up on a reservation in North Dakota." I realized then that when it comes to racial identity, visual perception is only a small piece of a much larger story.

The toll of passing should not be underestimated. In accounts of Jews in Europe during the Nazi era, many who later suffered the greatest amount of psychological damage were those who "successfully" passed for Aryan. With the definition of Jewish descent consisting of only grandparent, I'm sure that Jewish faces were not readily apparent. The entire concept of "race" in modern society is no more than a social construct, albeit an extremely powerful one.

Elizabeth Warren's work in setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Agency has been dedicated to helping families decimated by foreclosures and unemployment has been absolutely stellar. She stands up to the hegemony of big business with a clearly populist voice. As far as her ethnic ancestry is concerned I need only to quote Rhett Butler, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Class Consciousness and Pride

Mitt Romney's obnoxious plutocratic ramblings combined with the one year birthday of the Occupy Movement have got me ruminating about rising class consciousness in America, specifically my own. 

I was raised to believe that ours is a classless society and anyone at all can make it here with a little elbow grease and some sturdy bootstraps. My father was a salesman and my mother, a secretary. I knew that my family was deeply in debt because whenever they gave me a credit card to buy clothes, it would get repossessed by the cashier. 

Yes, like most Americans,  my family spent a lot of time worrying about money and how they would pay their bills. But we lived with most of the trappings of middle class society: a mortgaged house, financed cars, a refrigerator full of food and a large wardrobe of second-hand and bargain basement clothing. Looking back on it now, I see a lower middle class (upper working-class?) family that had bought into the American dream at the expense of their own personal peace of mind.

The upper middle class kids at school did not accept me or my group of friends but, with my rebellious nature, I perceived that as a badge of honor. It's only recently that I have begun to explore the feelings of inferiority that I've harbored and internalized. 

In personal terms, coming to terms with class and vowing to fight for equality for all is a positive thing. It is true that the early acquiring of awareness sometimes translates into resentment of those whose situation was cushier, more supportive, different. In any movement for liberation, a degree of hostility always plays a role in the early stages of consciousness.I experienced this both as an activist in the women's movement and the LGBT movement. Awakening is often born with pain. Later, realization dawns that feelings of inferiority do not indicate actual inferiority. Hopefully then it becomes possible to move on. 

The scars of our early lives follow us everywhere. Sometimes, when I'm depressed, I believe that part of me still lives in high school. The trick is to acknowledge those feelings when they arise, let them wash over me, and then to let them go. Or let them provide the impetus to do something even more productive like write about them. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chicago Teachers Strike Hope in the Hearts of Workers

Chicago Teachers
and Supporters
Who would have the chutzpah to go out on strike in a vicious anti-worker climate like this? The answer, has now been made loud and clear as the Chicago Teachers with support from their union and a large percentage of parents in their districts is out on strike for a third day.

Wages are not even their main grievance. They are protesting the pressure to teach solely to obtain test scores rather than overall education. Teaching has become a humiliation fest for those educators in the most difficult schools where getting students to memorize answers and inane details of a culturally insensitive exam has become increasingly irrelevant. One of the latest techniques in New York City has been to publish the names of teachers along with their test scores in the paper.

Other issues of concern include unwieldy class size, lack of job security (teachers have been turned into temp workers), the rising cost of health care and the attempted privatization of the US education system by the spread of charter schools that employ young, non-certified idealists for a couple of years until they are burned out and move on to their "real" careers.

Obama, contrary to Romney's statements, has not expressed support for the strike and, in past speeches, has echoed the prevailing opinion that teachers' concern for these issues along with fair pay, job security, healthcare and pension benefits is nothing but selfish blather. Perpetuating this attitude of bullying and mistreating teachers is his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Now, as the mayor of Chicago, Emanuel has been a driving force behind the vilification of unions and the teachers they represent.

A system that treats its teachers as no more than machine parts, a collection of implements of instruction that can be used and discarded, will not encourage a generation to engage in critical thinking and analysis. It will only serve to create a minimally literate underclass and deepen the ever-widening abyss of economic inequality.

So onward Chicago teachers! We wish you the best and are inspired by your determination.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Obama Shines With More Promises

Obama's Many
My Grandma used to say, "If wishes were horses than beggars would ride." With the advent of cars that slogan became dated, but even so, her point was evident. Obama's words shone with promise last night, a good start, but unfortunately given the nature of capitalism they are no more than words.

I was pleased to see him mobilizing the 99% and holding the line on continued tax cuts for the wealthy. He mentioned scapegoating with a list that included immigrants and even gays and I love the way many speakers have quoted Romney's brilliant statement about if you need money to start a business, just ask your parents. 

But what can the Democrats do, besides play a good verbal game, that can actually change working people's lives for the better. Obama could have instituted a single-payer health care system instead of making deals with big pharma to fund the insurance companies. He could have sent corporate criminals to jail and closed Guantanamo. Not issuing death warrants for Americans abroad to be assassinated without trial would have been a nice touch. And forcing banks to modify home loans instead of going full speed ahead with foreclosures could have saved a lot of heartache.

Yes, it matters who is selected for the Supreme Court. It matters that  people of color are not deterred from voting, immigrants be treated fairly and queer folks be accepted as full citizens. But as long as the destruction of unions and middle-class jobs is allowed to proceed unimpeded, as long as corporations are people and our country is committed to endless and ever-increasing warfare, the unobstructed economic down-slide of the US into a third world economy will continue.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Romney/Ryan and the Republican Reichstag

An Earlier Convention
The video clips I saw from the Republican Convention were absolutely terrifying. Well, Clint Eastwood interviewing an empty chair was laden with unintentional humor and pathos, but nonetheless the speeches and the audience comprised a scene reminiscent of Germany in 1933. 

Yes, the Democrats are hypocrites too and are unapologetically leading this country into financial ruin (witness Jerry Brown's recent "pension reform" proposal), but the gathering storm of Fascism in the Republican repertoire is absolutely appalling. To hear them champion equality and freedom while trumpeting the "sanctity" of marriage made every Jewish hair on my body vibrate with racial memory. 

How far would a Romney/Ryan administration go to remove the civil rights of LGBT folks? Make same-sex marriage illegal, ensure job and housing discrimination in the name of "religious freedom?" Possibly work toward re-criminalizing same sex pairings altogether? 

We know about the economic consequences of an administration that wants to remove medicare, social security, pensions and all other Roosevelt-era protections of our feeble "safety net." Yes, and also rescind a woman's right to decide what happens to her body. These are all grave and serious concerns. Still these genuine threats pale in the face of the open advocacy of dehumanizing a minority faction of the population. Economic devastation creates the perfect environment for the bacteria of hatred to thrive.

So, hang on to your seats because here we go on to Charlotte with the Democrats. Yes, that's North Carolina, a state which, by a sweeping vote in May of this year, made same-gender marriage and partnership illegal. Could you imagine the Democrats holding their convention in Alabama or Mississippi in the early sixties, before the Civil Rights Act abolished the Jim Crow laws?

Neither can I.