Thursday, April 14, 2005

Announcing the "Solidarity in Debate" Awards

I'm pleased to announce the formation of a new award to honor service in the intercollegiate debate community. Starting in the spring of 2006, the University of Wyoming Debate Team will sponsor the Solidarity in Debate awards. These awards (two or three of them each year, depending on the number and quality of nominations) will be presented each year to individuals (coaches, directors, debaters, alumni, etc.) who have done significant things to help economically disadvantaged people succeed in debate.

I am honored to report that the following people have volunteered to serve on the inaugural awards committee:

-Gina Lane, Director of Forensics, William Jewell College
-Ed Lee, outgoing Director of Forensics, University of Alabama
-Emily Cram, 2005-06 parliamentary debate coach, University of Wyoming
-Joe Bellon, Director of Forensics, Georgia State University
-and of course, me

Who might qualify for Solidarity in Debate awards? Some initial thoughts:

- Directors who aggressively recruit and find sources of financial support for poor and working-class debaters;
- Coaches, debaters, or directors who operate low-cost summer institutes or debate cooperatives;
- Scholars and activists in the debate community whose scholarly research and/or political advocacy significantly advances understanding and amelioration of poverty;
- Debaters or coaches who make economic access issues a significant part of their argumentative work;
- Alumni, directors, coaches or debaters who help resource-challenged programs stay alive, or resource-challenged debaters keep debating.

But this list should NOT be seen as exhaustive! Indeed, the process of award selection, and criteria for these awards, will be shaped by the nominations received, meaning those doing the nominating (you in the debate community) can help define what economic solidarity means by nominating people you believe are worthy of the awards.

Beginning this September, I will periodically issue calls for nominations. The awards will be decided by March of every debate season, and I will personally fund the (inexpensive) trophies and deliver the awards to the recipients (donations to that end are certainly welcome). The winners will be announced publicly on intercollegiate debate list-serves and (with the permission of relevant governing bodies) at national tournament awards ceremonies. Winners' names will also be forwarded to administrators, news organizations, and campus public relations officers.

Please feel free to forward this announcement to any of the many intercollegiate debate listserves or organizations. Any questions or suggestions about the philosophy and process of the Solidarity in Debate awards may be directed to me, via one of my many email accounts.

In solidarity,

Matt Stannard
University of Wyoming

Thursday, April 07, 2005

On Identity Politics

This is reprinted from my MA thesis, and I'm posting it mostly as a gesture of solidarity with Emily, who will have some personal things to say about her own encounters with "identity activists" when she finishes a long post over at Fiercely Feminist.

Identity-based radical politics argues that the best way to fight systemic injustice is through organized resistance by those groups most clearly marginalized within the system. These same proponents, however, reject class as a ground for identity because it seems to "erase" other identities—race, gender, sexual orientation—which they see as more victimized by the system. In turn, they view class affiliation as ineffective as a basis for political organization. In a recent issue of New Left Review, Michael Lind writes: "At the end of the twentieth century we now have enough examples of democratic regimes to know that parties based on class affiliation rather than other aspects of identity—regional, ethnic, linguistic, religious—are the exception rather than the rule" (99). Lind concludes that this fact delegitimizes Marxism:

In many democracies, then, class alignments are fairly weak, compared to
‘primordial’ ties, particularly where there are deep and enduring cleavages
among sub-national communities defined by race, religion, region or other
non-economic factors. Marxists may wish that most democratic party systems were
organized around debates over the means of production, but they are not, and it
simply will not do to dismiss all of the non-economic concerns of real voters in
real democracies as trivial diversions by "bourgeois" parties—particularly given
the fact that many of the intellectuals and activists of "proletarian" leftist
parties are so seldom proletarians themselves. Confronted with the fact that the
majority in most democracies, including a majority of the working class, rejects
radical leftism, middle-class leftists often console themselves with the thought
that the "people" have been brainwashed by "the capitalists" or "the interests."
Of course, if the people are really so stupid and vulnerable to propaganda one
must wonder whether they are capable of self-government at all. (99)

One sees in Lind’s argument many of the metaphysical assumptions that characterize an identity-based retreat from socialist politics: the "primordial" nature of these other identities, the inevitability of capitalism, and the tacit denial of the role of establishment rhetoric in erasing class-consciousness.

Moreover, Lind’s dismissal of Marxism contains an implicit (and undocumented) argument that most Marxists are not really "working class" but rather bourgeois academics. Solidarity activist Justin Schwartz concludes from his own political experience that nearly "all socialist theorists and leaders have been middle class, as are almost all socialists in the U.S. today." He adds: "try talking to workers about socialism" (40-1). Proponents of identity politics believe that anti-oppression movements must abandon both class and socialism: class because people do not recognize it the way they recognize their racial, ethnic, spiritual, or sexual identities; socialism because it offers only an economic structure, and does not proceed from the metaphysics of identity and difference.

However, critics of identity politics contend that the movement’s aims and achievements are not nearly as far-reaching as the anti-capitalist struggle. Mary Marcel argues that many one-time radicals have chosen "to privilege one area of oppression and stick with it, to the exclusion of any other ‘distracting’ matters." As a result, she claims, "the specific category of class oppression has often gotten transformed or subsumed within the structure and praxis of some other kind of liberatory movement, while losing the overt language of the critique of capitalism" (n. pag.). The reasons for the move away from class struggle have been more material than critico-theoretical, since

to some extent the success of liberatory movements, or perhaps I should say
their partial or nascent success, at moving at least some of their number from
the positions of absolute economic and social marginalization has weakened or
blunted the solidarity of such movements, to either keep fighting until everyone
else is free and the revolution has been televised, or, to form coalitions and
totalize the efforts of what may have begun as a single-issue agenda into an
all-encompassing one. Not all liberatory movements critique the capitalist
system in which their specific oppression is created. Many seek merely a more
comfortable place within that system, and are satisfied once that has been
accomplished. (Marcel n. pag.)
Identity politics are "easier" to mobilize around than class politics. Since it is possible to satisfy many of the immediate, reform-oriented material demands of particular identity groups (while it is impossible under the current system to liberate an entire working class from wage oppression), identity movements win small victories. Political scientist Michael Parenti sees these victories as winning "limited to changes in procedure and personnel, leaving institutional class interests largely intact" (13). Other critics complain that attempts to introduce class into discussions of movement theory or strategy are discouraged—forbidden, in a manner of speaking—in forums from classroom to meeting hall "by Right and Left alike" (Spivak 294-5).

To summarize, identity-based politics reject the notion of history as material struggle, positing in its place a concept of oppression based on the ideas of race, gender, sexuality, religion, language, or other signatory identity. These movements affirm a struggle over resources, but they see these resources as consisting of the consciousness of identities, ideologies such as racism or patriarchy, and only indirectly connected to the system of resource distribution. Moreover, identity-based movements dismiss class struggle; they believe most anti-capitalists are not workers anyway and that class is a poor basis for political organization. Finally, identity-based movements believe that theory-building can only occur within particular identity groups, rejecting attempts to universalize or combine divergent causes and types of oppression. Identity politics are a material, as well as an ideological, retreat from Marxism.

Works Cited:

Lind, Michael. "Why there will be no revolution in the U.S.: A Reply to Daniel Lazare." New Left Review, January-February 1999: 97-117.

Marcel, Mary. "The Marxian Afterlife: The Vanishing Category of Class in Cultural Politics." Paper presented at the annual conference of the National Communication Association, New York City, 22 November 1998.

Parenti, Michael. "Reflections on the Politics of Culture, Monthly Review, 1 February 1999.

Schwartz, Justin. "The Final Goal and the Movements." Against the Current, May/June 1994, 40-41.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakrovorty. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988) 270-295.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Moral Myopia: "Cultures" of Life and Death

The same Republicans who postured about Terry Schiavo are now (and have for a long time been) blocking legislation that would help others in the same situation as Terry--victims of eating disorders. Read Jane Fleming's short article here.

No need to isolate the Republicans for "culture of life" hypocrisy, though. Don't forget that it was Democrat Bill Clinton who smugly condemned the Columbine shootings on the same day that U.S.-led NATO warplanes began bombing Kosovo. Clinton's showmanlike return to Arkansas six years earlier to watch the execution of Ricky Ray Rector similarly greased the wheels for the pro-life hypocrites who've followed since.

Here is the pattern: Condemn localized, individualized acts of violence and death, while condoning, facilitating, and accepting large-scale, systemic death.

Support the death penalty but not environmental regulations. Condemn school shootings but carpet bomb Baghdad. Condemn Ward Churchill for insensitivity about 9/11, but conveniently ignore Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson for same. Or, condemn Ward Churchill and maybe even Falwell and Robertson too, but support a system that results in the functional equivalent of a dozen or more 9/11s every week, somewhere else in the world.

Or, if you're our dearly departed pontif Pope John Paul II, condemn war in very abstract and unworkable terms, but oppose the distribution of condoms (condoms!) and in doing so set the stage for millions of agonizing AIDS deaths in poor nations.

It's called moral myopia, folks. Looking at the world through a keyhole. Both bourgeois parties do it. The powerful routinely do it. But hey, a lot of them go to church, so it's okay.

Don't be afraid to call them on it.