Category Archives: Social justice

How BDS Risks Going over to the Dark Side; or, Why I am Ashamed of My Association

I get the logic of economic boycotts for political reasons.

In high school, I stopped buying grapes to support Cesar Chavez’ protest of the slave-like working conditions of Mexican farm workers in grape vineyards.

I also stopped buying Saran Wrap, to protest Dow Chemical’s manufacture of napalm for killing civilians in Vietnam.

Dow Chemicals Boycott

When I became engaged, I informed my fiancé that I was disinterested in a diamond ring, to avoid supporting the apartheid regime that produced much of the world’s diamonds.

DeBeers Boycott

Since the 1970s, I haven’t bought gas at Shell stations—to protest the corporation that was supplying oil to the apartheid regime of South Africa, as well as polluting the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, where it has destroyed the livelihood of Ogoni fishers and impoverished surrounding communities.

Shell Boycott

In the 1980s, I stopped buying all products manufactured by Nestlé, to protest the aggressive marketing of infant formula to impoverished women in the global South, sold by saleswomen wearing white uniforms that made them look like nurses.

Nestle Boycott

Until 1989, I avoided buying cars made by Ford, which supplied military and police vehicles to the apartheid regime of South Africa.

All these economic boycotts make sense to me.  In every case, they involve refraining from buying products that have ethical issues deeply implicated in their manufacture.  Damaging a corporation where it most hurts—their bottom line—is also pragmatic.  Corporations make decisions based on profits.  Punishing the source of the ethical quagmire in the way that hurts that source the most seems an optimal fit between means and end.

There are boycotts . . . and then there are boycotts. 

The boycott of Israeli academic institutions that a majority of members of the American Anthropological Association present at the AAA Business Meeting in Denver recently voted to submit to the full AAA membership, for consideration of a AAA-sponsored statement, is a boycott of a different sort.  This is the right boycott of the wrong target.

In this boycott, we would target those who are among the most vocal opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands—the very occupation that supporters of the boycott likewise oppose.

This upside-down logic is reminiscent of the “death penalty.”  Killing killers–to make a public statement that killing is wrong–makes as much sense as does boycotting opponents of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, in order to oppose Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The claim that the boycott targets “institutions and not individuals” is disingenuous at best.  As anthropologists, we are trained better than just about anyone else to pay attention to the human effects of institutional processes.  Indeed, that’s our stock-in-trade.  Unless an institution is devoid of humans, boycotting an institution means, by definition, boycotting those humans who work with and for the institution.

In the case at hand, if a majority of AAA members votes to support the proposed boycott, faculty and students at Israeli academic institutions, for example, would no longer have access to journals published by the American Anthropological Association that are supplied by AnthroSource.  They would not be permitted to participate in the AAA’s Career Center or Graduate School Fair.  They would not be listed in the AAA’s guide to departments of anthropology.

What next steps would individual scholars take, in solidarity with the spirit of the boycott? Shout down Israeli LGBT activists at a gay rights conference and then block them from existing the room?  Refuse to debate Israeli students in campus debates?  Prevent pro-Israel student groups from being allowed to exist on campuses?  Vote down Jewish students from joining student councils because of their religious affiliation?  In fact, all these troubling occurrences are already documented, with a recent report chronicling “54 percent reported instances of anti-Semitism on [US] campus[es] during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year.”  The AAA resolution would legitimate such actions, and hence expand the trend.

The AAA’s full membership will begin voting on the BDS resolution on April 15, 2016.  The resolution directs the American Anthropological Association to “refrain from any formal collaborations or other relationships with Israeli academic institutions, including the Israeli Anthropological Association.”  If it is passed by a majority of AAA members, will we see refusals by US universities to admit Israeli graduate students to their doctoral programs?  Will US scholars feel motivated, or pressured, to sever ties with Israeli co-authors and collaborators?  Will we see invitations to Israeli researchers to speak on US campuses or at US conference sessions rescinded?

In short, anthropologists who are affiliated with Israeli institutions would be considered non-persons as far as our scholarly universe is concerned.  The slope toward out-and-out anti-Semitism begins to appear ever more slippery.

Assuming all these effects would actually be upheld legally (and some might not, given, for example, the AAA journals’ publication by Wiley publishing company, which has its own legal requirements), how would they possibly further the cause of Palestinian rights?

Beyond the specifics of this misguided boycott lies an even more important issue: the broader political question of global ethics.

If we are to hold scholars responsible for the unethical and brutal policies of their governments, why stop at Israel?  Why not include all scholars based in, say, China?  All scholars based in Myanmar?  All scholars based in Saudi Arabia?  Syria?  Sudan?  Russia?  When we start voting for our favorite repressive regime on the basis of human rights violations, the candidates start multiplying alarmingly.

If we really take this imperative seriously, will we have any colleagues left in the world with whom to engage?

Hell, what about those of us in the US?  Should we not boycott our own academic institutions of higher learning for being complicit, both in the past and present, with objectionable policies?  Take your pick—racist “stop-and-frisk” practices,Human Rights Abuse-Ferguson

Iraq/Afghanistan bombing, TSA over-reach, (nutritious/fresh) “food deserts,” shameful incarceration rate of black men, below-poverty minimum wage,

 

WAGE nws kg 1ÑBrian Verdin, of Milwaukke holds up a sign as part of a protest of the lack of a minimum wage increase in the last three years. Low-wage workers joined with government officials, along with hundreds of supporters launch the campaign to raise minimum wage. PHOTO BY KYLE GRILLOT/ KGRILLOT@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM

WAGE nws kg 1ÑBrian Verdin, of Milwaukke holds up a sign as part of a protest of the lack of a minimum wage increase in the last three years. Low-wage workers joined with government officials, along with hundreds of supporters launch the campaign to raise minimum wage. PHOTO BY KYLE GRILLOT/ KGRILLOT@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM

health care system still in crisis, absence of sane and enforced gun ownership laws, ever-widening racial achievement gaps in education, unacceptable lack of meaningful jobs in inner cities—there’s plenty to hold American scholars accountable for, if our tactic is to equate scholars and scholarly institutions with their governments’ failed and abusive policies and practices.  But wasn’t anthropology the first discipline to point out that condemning abusive policies and practices in other societies is hypocritical when we don’t first protest our own societies’ abusive policies and practices?

Racism as Terrorism

In short, if we want to be consistent—and, surely, that’s one of the scion aims of strong scholarship in general, and a hallmark of social science in particular–where should an academic boycott end?

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I get the feelings of frustration that impelled my anthropology colleagues to vote for this motion to boycott our Israeli colleagues.  But frustration over the lack of progress in ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands does not justify targeting colleagues who have nothing to do with that policy and, in many cases, strongly oppose it.  As an association, we need to go back to the drawing board and design measures that will have appropriate effects relevant to our goal: ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

And we need to remember the basics of Social Protest 101.  In designing any sort of political action, it’s crucial to keep the goal front and center.  Losing track of the goal risks imitating the behavior we aim to condemn.

 

Time for a New National Anthem?

Whatever the political and economic rationales existing beneath the surface, the modern nation of the US was created by European refugees fleeing religious prejudice. The Huguenots and Puritans arriving on the shores of New England helped create a new nation founded with the ideological goal of religious freedom.

Donald Trump is either ignorant of his nation’s history or wishes to rewrite it. If his proposal to exclude all visitors to the nation on the basis of their religious affiliation is taken seriously, the US risks losing its motivational moorings.

With a President Trump, would our national anthem boasting of “The home of the free and the land of the brave” have to be replaced by a new anthem extolling “The home of the bigoted and the land of the afraid?“
Trump Banning Muslism?

Trump Furious

As Usual, The Devil’s in the Details; or, Why Ethnography Matters for Everything

A new study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee fail to achieve any long-term gains. Republican lawmakers are already seizing on the news as evidence that pre-K programs don’t work in general, and should no longer be funded.

By contrast, the same study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Boston are achieving significant long-term gains. Democratic lawmakers will no doubt seize on the news as evidence that pre-K programs do work in general, and should be further funded.

As usual, the devil’s in the details.

The Tennessee program emphasizes passive classroom strategies that are dull even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children sit and listen while a teacher talks.

Students Sleep in Lecture
The Boston program emphasizes active learning strategies that are tried-and-true even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children learn to measure distance by measuring the shadows their bodies cast on the ground, and brainstorm about making their city a better place by using skills they learn in reading, math, art and science to present a proposal to City Hall.

Boy Measures Own Shadow
My conclusions:

1. Conclusions are only as good as the data they draw from.

2. “Think global, study local” should be the official Congressional mantra.

3. Everything is better with ethnography.

Social Change: One Petition at a Time?

As a high school student, I remember the excitement of going door-to-door to solicit signatures on petitions of various sorts.

Adding one’s name to a list of other names on a single piece of paper may not seem consequential.  But when that sheet joins hundreds or thousands of others, suddenly the list has the potential to gain notice.Sign the Petition! Clipboard

One petition I promoted urged people across the U.S. to boycott buying table grapes, in support of the Latino/a grape pickers on strike in California.  Organized by legendary union leader, Cesar Chavez, the movement united farm workers to demand a living wage and decent working conditions.

In the case of the United Farm Workers, such petitions contributed to what became a national boycott of table grapes (lasting from 1965-70).  Although many contemporary farm workers still suffer unacceptable working conditions and low wages, the boycott produced the first union contracts for farm workers, who began a national conversation about better pay, benefits, and protections–a conversation that continues today.

green-grapes

In those days, collecting thousands of signatures for a petition meant having a well-organized, healthy cadre of footsoldiers.  Nowadays, websites such as Change.org make the process infinitely easier.

Take the case of Amazon.  A current online petition urges Amazon to change the name of the Amazon Mom program to Amazon Family.

Sure, names are just one (small) part of the problem of challenging gender stereotypes and expectations.  But “starting somewhere” to promote social justice means just that: starting somewhere.  And changing the very public name of a very popular program is a great start.

At the individual level, we all know how names matter to our sense of personal identity. The case of a nine-year-old girl from New Zealand is instructive.  Desperate to change her name, she found legal redress: In 2008, “a judge in New Zealand made a young girl a ward of court so that she could change the name she hated – Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.  Judge Rob Murfitt said that the name embarrassed the nine-year-old and could expose her to teasing,” such that the judge termed the name a “social disability.”

At the corporate level, CEOs know how names matter to a company’s bottom line.  In the U.S., despite the enormous expense and hassle involved, over 1,900 companies changed their names last year.  They had diverse reasons for doing so, but whatever the motivations, their directors decided that the benefit of changing the company name outweighed the cost. Financial managers would only undertake such an ambitious and complicated shift if the symbolic resonance to names mattered.

And they do matter.  While changing the Amazon Mom program to the Amazon Family won’t solve the problem of patriarchy in the modern world, that corporate name change will give boys who consider what kind of fathers they want to become (inseminators vs. hands-on parents?) one more model of where they might see themselves as involved fathers (as part of an “Amazon Family”) . . . and one less model of where their masculinity is not welcome (as an “Amazon Mom”).

mega-man-pram-manly-baby-stroller-3-1

Besides, from Amazon’s perspective, such a name change would make good business sense.  If a dedicated father can “see himself” in an “Amazon Family” program (but not in the “Amazon Mom” program), he’s more likely to commit precious resources–family funds–to buy consumer goods on that website, and not another.  And in a capitalist world, promoting business ethics from the standpoint of the financial bottom line may (for better or worse) be our most realistic option.

You can sign the Amazon petition here.

Why Not “Je Suis Lassana”?

Much of the Western world has expressed solidarity with the right to publish offensive cartoons by identifying with the cartoonists at the iconoclastic weekly, Charlie Hebdo, who were killed by Islamicist fundamentalists.

To date, the Je Suis Charlie Facebook page has garnered some 315,000 “Likes.”

Multilingual “I am Charlie” mottos abound.

I am Charlie-Multilingual

“I am Charlie” bumper stickers and buttons flood the global online market.

I am Charlie Bumper Stickers

I am Charlie Buttons

Meanwhile, another living Parisian hero has received far less attention.

Two days after the attacks against the Charlie Hebdo journalists, a young immigrant named Lassana Bathily saved the lives of fifteen people trapped inside a Kosher supermarket, Hyper Cacher, after another armed Islamicist militant, Amedy Coulibaly, invaded the shop in which Lassana worked.

A practicing Muslim from an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, a teenage Lassana had left Mali in 2006 to join his father in Paris. Completing high school and qualifying as a trained tile worker, Lassina had overstayed his tourist visa to live as a working but undocumented immigrant until 2011, when he finally received working papers, but not citizenship.

Lassana Bathily

After gunfire rang out while he was working in the supermarket, Lassana immediately led five adults and a three-year-old down to a walk-in freezer in the basement. Lassana turned off the lights and raised the temperature. Cold and scared, the group nevertheless remained safe from the gunman (who had already killed four other customers).

Then, while the supermarket’s attacker remained at large inside the store, Lassana fearlessly used his knowledge of the building to exit (at high risk) through an elevator shaft and a fire escape, the goal being to help police free those still captive inside.

As soon as Lassana emerged onto the street, police immediately held, handcuffed, and questioned him for an hour-and-a-half under the mistaken impression that he was another attacker. (Dare we allege unconscious racism?)

Finally convincing them that he was, instead, a supermarket employee trying to help save the lives of his customers, Lassana effectively sketched the layout of the supermarket and gave the police a door key.

With the building design and key supplied by Lassana, the police were able to surreptitiously enter the supermarket (rather than storming the edifice, which would have alerted the attacker to their presence and further endangered the lives of the hostages). This quiet entry allowed the police to kill the gunman and free every one of the 15 live customers who had remained as terrified hostages.

Supermarket Hostages Released

In a television interview, Lassana later explained, “Yes, I helped Jews get out. We’re brothers. It’s not a question of being Jews or Christians or Muslims. We’re all in the same boat. You have to help each other to get through this crisis.”

In his home country of Mali, Lassana was recently welcomed by the nation’s president, foreign minister, and population at large as a national hero.

Lassana Bathily Arives in Mali
And in France, after having had several previous petitions for citizenship rejected (most recently in 2011), Lassana has finally received French citizenship.

Lassana Bathily with French Passport

Two lessons to take away from Lassana Bathily’s acts of courage:

1. Labeling someone a “Muslim” says nothing about the likelihood that s/he will kill–or save–a non-Muslim.

2. In an “othering”-crazy world enamored by the tendency to bifurcate everything and everyone into simple good/evil dualities, it’s still possible to raise human beings to transcend stereotypes and see the common humanity in species-mates.

And two questions:

1. Currently, immigrants in France wait an average of 14 years to be naturalized. Will all future undocumented migrants living peacefully in France, and contributing productively to the nation’s economy, have to undertake similar life-and-death acts of heroism to attain French citizenship in under 14 years?

2. As a small group of scholars who specialize in the study of Mali and surrounding populations have recently suggested in an online conversation, instead of “Je Suis Charlie,” why hasn’t the global meme been “Je Suis Lassana”?

 

P.S.  On March 24, 2015, Lassana Bathily was awarded a Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an “international Jewish human rights organization that fights anti-Semitism worldwide.”   If only this micro Jewish-Muslim collaboration could serve as a model for the Mid-East . . .

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