Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Process Stories

Over the past weekend, I've watched two-thirds of the fourth season of West Wing in one sitting (why can't Martin Sheen be the real prez-oh-dent?!?) and one of the episodes I watched was called "Process Stories", hence the inspiration for the name of this post. In that episode, President Bartlett has just been re-elected, and suddenly the focus shifts not to the results of the election but, through the self-serving actions of a no-name regional organizer, all media eyes shift to the "process story": the media story detailing how President Bartlett's party did it. Throughout the episode, we watch as Ron Silver's character, the guy who is the real process story emphasizes how unimportant the process is, while other characters (including President Bartlett) underscore that the real growth is in the process. Which leads me to the topic of tonight's post. Over the past few days, there's been some generous discussion on various topics, greatly aided by you wonderful readers who have graciously lent your time to discussions in the comments section. However, over the course of the past few weeks, there've been at least a couple of points when a solution has been demanded, most pointedly by Wizard in this post in which he says:

So, I guess my post leads to this: you're good at pointing out problems, but dish out a solution. How are we to truly change the paradigm? How can we change the system when it's so hard to gain the understanding necessary to shake shit up?
Well, I must immediately wonder why a solution must be "dish"-ed? What are readers like Wizard looking for when they enter into political discussions like this? The topics I tend to favour on this blog are ones that involve identity politics and the relationship between the mainstream and the minority. Inequality is part of the history of America, as well as part of the lives of a number of people who call the United States their home. And yet, minorities have only recently reappropriated discussion of their own identity, with movements to claim names for themselves and discover their own roles within the larger American diaspora. Given our new intellectual "empowerment", the clash that today's America must face is how to reconcile a history of oppression, the existence of a mainstream white culture with a number of clamouring, deserving minority voices. It's a problem that is long-overdue to be addressed. And it's one that has no right answer. Like it or not, we're not going to see the resolution of this struggle within our lifetime, nor within our children or even our grandchildren's lifetimes. I daresay we may never see the kind of race-blind culture so often touted in the rare utopic science fiction fantasy; after all, what would that look like? A world in which the Jewish man forgives the German man for the Holocaust? A world in which the Black man forgives the White man for slavery? A world in which woman forgives man for centuries of domestic oppression? A world in which we call it all water under the bridge, hold hands and sing "Kumbaya"? Call me a pessimist, but this Angry Little Asian Girl, standing on the brink of a new millennium, cannot imagine ever forgiving anyone for the suffering of my people. Forgiving is too much like forgetting. Racial harmony is one of those tricky concepts everyone wants to aim for but couldn't convincingly describe when asked. For true racial harmony, race would have to become invisible, all people would have to be equal and therefore the same, and cultural difference and racial history would in essence become lost. I'm not sure there's any way to have a society in which minority identity is seen and recognized without once again introducing all the stuff that creates oppression in the first place. Meanwhile, the question becomes this: if that's the case, what do we activists strive for? If we're working towards the end of racism, are we on a suicide mission towards destroying the very identity we've worked so hard to create? Well, I would postulate that the endgame doesn't necessarily require that end of racism begets an unrealistic racial harmony. We can do away with negative discrimination without losing racial difference, but for difference to survive without racism requires increased understanding of different minority groups, increased dialogue regarding those groups, and increased challenging of mainstream thought. It's in that vein that I created reappropriate in the first place. Wizard points out that I'm "good at pointing out problems" -- but if solutions to oppression issues could be summed up in a twelve-step program, don't you think activists would've jumped on that bandwagon? Honestly, beyond the fact that I don't know what a solution would look like, I don't think the process of getting there can be simply laid out in some sort of Cosmo flowchart (20 Ways to End Racism and Better Please Your Man In Bed). It's too much of a cop-out to imagine that the solution is there, like giving up red meat or turning your sofa 90 degrees counter-clockwise, facing west -- it's the kind of demand that the liberal pseudo-activist professionals who jump on the issue-of-the-minute do when they don't want to really imagine that changing the world might require lots of work with very little visible result. Like all symptoms of the instant gratification generation, you can't expect racism to end overnight or that through the sheer power of your will you can immediately escape the existing, institutionally discriminatory boundaries of our society to live a bias-free life with a single stroke. However, what I do know is that minorities have been greatly disenfranchised specifically because our own political awareness and intellectual empowerment has come so late in the history of modern civilization. For over a century, the history of America has been the history of the White Man; and with the advent of the technological age and the ability to amplify a single voice to hundreds of computer terminals, I believe one way of combatting institutional inequality is to promote the very dialogue I refer to above. Without being patronizing, the fact that K -- or Kaptain Privilege as he is now, henceforth, to be known -- Wizard, Shel, electroman, and everyone else on this blog who I know in real life and don't, can come together across geographic distance to create a forum of debate representing vastly different backgrounds and viewpoints I think is the closest I can envision a movement towards a paradigm shift. Electroman summarized it aptly: sometimes you have to do what feels right in the moment, that makes society good for all now, and wait for the "harmony" to evolve on its own. My solution, Wizard, is the post itself -- asking the questions to stimulate discussion. Sometimes the point really is in the struggle of the process.


Blogger James said...

Excellent post, Jenn. I agree with the sentiment that the drive for unified solutions tend to dismember useful debate on identity politics.

My only contention with this post is the assertion that people of color, across the board, came to political understanding of their particular oppressions in the U.S.A. late, or rather, after the White male controlling majority. ("However, what I do know is that minorities have been greatly disenfranchised specifically because our own political awareness and intellectual empowerment has come so late in the history of modern civilization." - Jenn)

African American political history emerged before America congealed from 13 independent colonies into a federalized nation. Thinkers like Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Harriet Jacobs and others spoke on the African American condition from some of the earliest days of the Republic.

Further, these early strains of African American political thought continued in an unbroken tradition to the present day. Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Fredrick Douglass, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. King all benefited from the early African polemics and preachers who spoke on our oppression before this nation's infancy.

Given this, I believe that while it may be true that some group have come to political awareness at later times for other cultural and historical reasons, African Americans in my opinion do not fall into that category.

6/29/2005 06:23:00 PM  
Anonymous different anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, Jenn, but you've basically proposed that the point of the discussion is to describe the problem, rather than to propose steps towards any sort of a solution. (That's someone else's department, right?)

I don't think that anyone believes that these are simple problems, or that the solutions would be simple, either. Certainly, it's not a turn-the-sofa scenario.

That said, if your notion of dealing with the status quo is simply to go on describing it (complaining about it), without trying towards an improvement in such, then this truly is a waste of bandwidth.

If on the other hand, your opinion is that in identifying these problems, and teasing them out and trying to penetrate the complexity, you are making a contribution (i.e., saying something new) to the discussion, and that that something new might help move matters towards some sort of solution, then that, at least, is a step. Hopefully, even a step in the right direction.

But that wasn't the impression I got from this entry:

"It's a problem that is long-overdue to be addressed. And it's one that has no right answer."

In other words, we should really talk about this, but you'd be a fool to actually want to work towards a solution? I'll grant that this is not a case of "if we think hard enough, we can fix this by Tuesday!" But surely some structure, some purpose to the discussion — even such a lofty one as ameliorating the situation — can't hurt?

One a completely unrelated note, with regard to the "American diaspora"... you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

6/30/2005 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Kaede said...

@ James:

Perhaps what Jenn meant was that African-Americans have come later to the FULL realisation of political awareness, not the fact that you were politically aware from the start, as it certainly was the case, given the sources you've cited. The very fact that it's taken so long to become politically recognised...I am not aware of enough recent American history to know why that is, just that it is. You can have all the brilliant thinkers of any race, but if they are not recognised as such, and the political (and business) establishment do not recognise it, it still won't get you very far, no matter how hard you try. That is a sad fact today in anyone's culture.

As long as there remains the very fact that there are minorities in any culture, you're going to find that at some point in time, they were not recognised as being worthy of recognition (if that makes any sense) and thus not worthy of sharing any political (or other) identity. (there is a better word but it just escaped me...) Again, there's more I wanted to say on this but my mind's gone blank. It's been a long day...

@ DA, Jenn

Diaspora in most contexts means something along the lines of the dispersal of citizens - ie the Irish diaspora in the US (the transplantation of Irish during the 1800s to present) or the Chinese during the gold rushes of the same period, used as virtual slave labour to build railroads in both the US and Canada. That collection of displaced or dispersed citizens is commonly referred to as a diaspora. (I even looked it up to verify...*is anal that way*)

The problem is still being defined in my humble opinion, as there are so many parts to it. How do you propose to find a solution to so many different parts of the same problem that is acceptable to everyone? There are ALWAYS going to be people who will resist it tooth and nail to protect the status quo, mainly because it is so far out of their comfort zone and people hate change. (and let's face it, there are always going to be ignorant people.) It is not burying our heads in the sand to recognise that if it is ever solved, it certainly won't be in our lifetimes, although we will certainly give it a try, I'm sure.

I would have to say that in my experience, we've had both the worst and the best of people in these times that we live in. The very fact that we can have discussions like this is testament to that. We're fairly free to write as we will (or not) and we're certainly free to teach our children (and anyone else who will listen) about other cultures and identities.

It's a huge paradox really. The more we come to know about the world around us, the cultures and races that make up this planet, the more we're going to find that we come into conflict with each other, yet at the same time, learn enough that we can live together in at least tolerance, if not total harmony. The act of discussion certainly helps to get these views out there, get people learning about it and thinking. Thinking is a HUGE step in change, y'know.

I tried to come up with a 12-step solution but dammit, I can't think of any past step 8. I think it's all an over-simplification anyway. People are always going to be stubborn, difficult and closed minded. That doesn't mean that we have to give up or anything. We just need to recognise that it's gonna take a lot of time and actually start doing it, which I think we're doing pretty good job of it right now, don't you?

/Knackered ramblings....

6/30/2005 07:16:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Haven't read the rest of these comments but:

DA said: "One a completely unrelated note, with regard to the "American diaspora"... you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

A slightly more derived definition of diaspora, commonly used in identity politics discussions is to reference an extremely diverse or disconnected entity, usually language or culture, held together by common origin or by a common, sometimes tenuous, thread, such as "the African diaspora" which includes anyone in the world from Africa, and the "African American diaspora" part of the larger African diaspora, which could include anyone who is both Black and American.

It is often used rather than the word "community" to reflect how these groups are often not as unified and single-minded as outsiders would portray us to be.

But tell me, DA, what do you think "diaspora" means and how do you think it cannot be applied to the American people?

6/30/2005 10:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

Love your words, Jenn. Thanks for putting in writing what we tend to vocalize when we all get together.

I think the biggest problem with the discourse of "solution" is that there really are people out there looking for a solution. To what, exactly? All forms of oppression? When people say they are looking for a color blind society, what they really mean (sometimes unknowingly) is an end to diversity. In the U.S., we grow up in a world where white male identity is ubiquitous, and the words ethnicity and diversity are code for everything-but-white. Come to terms with that (and the significant differences in U.S. history depending on race, ethnicity and class) and the society may get closer to a harmony that speaks to the true value of difference. but I believe peace will not look anything like color blindness. And thank God for that.

7/01/2005 08:55:00 AM  
Blogger Karlos said...

Kaptain Privilege says:

I looked up "diaspora," and, according to Webster, it describes a people who were once unified - at least geographically - and are now dispersed or transplanted.

The "African diaspora" would refer to people with African heritage, who, though their ancestors once lived exclusively in Africa, are now spread across every continent in the world (except Antarctica - I think black people just watch us go down there and laugh at us).

The "African American diaspora" would refer specifically to those people with African heritage who were (or whose ancestors were) transplanted to America.

The "American diaspora" would seem to refer to Americans who have relocated outside the country or to the spread of Americans into other countries. However, in a less literal sense, it could be used to describe Americans moving into more diverse - or disjointed - schools of thought, sub-communities, etc. I assume this disjointedness is the theme Jenn meant to evoke...?

I must believe this was her intent, because, Jenn, make a mistake? Inconceivable!

Ok, so she did try to use the (non-)word "irregardless" the other day; that was a little disappointing. Other than that, though, we're college graduates, so we talk English good.

7/01/2005 11:17:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

"However, in a less literal sense, it could be used to describe Americans moving into more diverse - or disjointed - schools of thought, sub-communities, etc. I assume this disjointedness is the theme Jenn meant to evoke...?"

Yes. "Diaspora" is used more widely in the non-literal sense now.

"Ok, so she did try to use the (non-)word "irregardless" the other day;"

Yeah, shaddup, Kappy. ^_^

7/01/2005 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

James: I suppose I would have to agree with you on that, perhaps I have a tendancy to over-generalize based upon my experiences and frustrations with the infancy of my own community's identity.

That being said, even though African American thought has been around since the inception of America, I think we can both agree that it hasn't been given the kind of serious treatment (or at least attention) in mainstream American debate that White history and culture has.

DA: I think you mistake what I'm saying. I'm not saying we should sit around bitching. I'm saying this -- the problem with trying to fight racism in a day is that most people are too solution-oriented when we're still at a point where most of America doesn't recognize that there is a problem. First, I think there needs to be increased debate in order to bring the idea to mainstream American thought that there is a problem to be addressed (I mean, hell, most people think that racism no longer affects people of colour in America... and yet most people also don't know that Japanese Americans were interned only a generation ago), and second, I think a solution will emerge through the debate, i.e. increased debate = increased awareness = working towards a better society without losing all the nice things about diversity.

It's really that simple. I'm basically saying that bringing a bunch of unique viewpoints into one place to talk about identity is the point, that that, in itself, is worth the bandwidth costs.

you said: "In other words, we should really talk about this, but you'd be a fool to actually want to work towards a solution?"

No, that's a terrible paraphrasing, although it seems to be another in a litany of recent mischaracterizations of my points from you, lately. You wouldn't be a fool to work towards a solution, you would already be working towards a solution by talking. You could look for a higher goal, and there's nothing wrong with having ambition towards improving our society (that's what motivates all of us), but I'm saying I think the talking is the higher goal. Especially given how it's pretty hard to work towards "a solution" when, even in these comments, nobody can agree what the problem is. Everyone's so gung-ho to "fix" racism, that nobody is willing to consider that maybe the fact that the talking could be enough of a fix...

kaede, i agree with your assessment that as long as there are different cultures, there will always be racial disjointedness. that's kind of my point -- having diverse cultures isn't in and of itself a bad thing. I personally think it's something to be cherished and people who think all of this discussion are all in search of some sort of racial utopia rarely discuss exactly what that might mean in terms of diversity.

R said: "In the U.S., we grow up in a world where white male identity is ubiquitous, and the words ethnicity and diversity are code for everything-but-white. Come to terms with that (and the significant differences in U.S. history depending on race, ethnicity and class) and the society may get closer to a harmony that speaks to the true value of difference."

Here, here, R, I can only say "Amen". Again, I just have to say it's hard to be so "solution-oriented" when people are so quick to attack the possibility of there even being a problem.

7/01/2005 04:13:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

One more point, which I felt deserved its own comment-y post, DA, is this:

You may feel the bitching is kind of useless, but I suggest it might be because if you identify with any particular minority community, you feel you've pretty much figured out the problems ailing that community. It's never as simple as all that, or people wouldn't be able to make a living continually writing about new ways to understand oppression within particular communities.

However, from my perspective, talking is even more useful because Asian Americans are an extremely recent political community (did you know the term Asian American was coined roughly thirty years ago and that we were given rights to naturalization only fifty years ago or even that, even though we were a community, our political spirit was not galvanized until the mid-80's? Most universities do not have an Asian American studies department and if you were to look for an APIA studies or APIA literature section in any bookstore, you would be sadly disappointed).

We cannot and should not piggy back off of other communities, we are still coming to grips with ourselves, our oppressions and our identities as displaced Asians in America. For us, especially, this post is particularly true: our solution is in the process of discussion -- we cannot even hope to run off half-cocked looking to right all wrongs if we don't understand who we are.

Moreover, many of America's most famous movements towards social change came about through coalition-building that had its foundation in just such discussion -- as we build ties and recognize similarities and differences within disparate groups, we lay the foundation for developing a more unified understanding of how we can help one another in the struggle, even if we don't have a specific issue we can all rally behind now.

To suggest that we need to stop bitching is a surprising ignorance of the importance of knowing one's own community in order to foster the unity and understanding needed to create and maintain that community as a political force. It also has an air of belittling minority self-determination that I'm not totally comfortable with.

7/01/2005 04:23:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

And of course, the last point, or the star on top of the tree -- everyone wants an end to racism or increased racial tolerance?

What is racism but ignorance or deliberate misunderstanding of racial difference? It's a problem with accepted American thought (and actions based upon thought). Why is it so hard to imagine that the solution to intolerant thought might not be found in increasing public discussion and increasing debate between different communities such that people can have their preconceived thoughts and notions challenged?

7/01/2005 04:37:00 PM  
Anonymous unfurling said...

Apologies for going right back to the start and sidestepping your debate entirely, but I wanted to comment on The West Wing.

I live in London and watch US presidential politics with horror, and watch The West Wing with equivalent horror.

It's oh so slick, entertaining, liberal comfort blanket TV. For Liberal minded people like us, this is wish fulfillment TV, but when the reality is so much uglier, does the West Wing serve as an anaesthetic? Further, do the US populace blur the line between art and real life, enjoy the soma of Bartlett et al, and somehow miss the hideous coctail of vested interest and brutality that is the real presidency?

7/02/2005 06:29:00 AM  
Anonymous sheldiz said...

ah the West Wing -- near and dear to my heart. you're right about it. sort of. i'm going to have to say it falls into the 'we know its not reality but its well written and good entertainment' category. the things you say about it are true, but so what? just like any show that has its roots in reality (law and order, ER, etc...), its not going to be completely accurate and its going to draw on what people WANT to see. It doesn't have to be completely real. It just has to be entertaining. From time to time it throws in digs about our current government or brings up topics that cause discussion, and that's great. But it doesn't have to do that either. It happens to be a drama about politics. Just like ER is a drama about medicine. I don't think its trying to fool anyone into thinking its anything different. The people that i know who watch this show just take it for what it is.

7/02/2005 11:39:00 AM  
Anonymous unfurling said...

But Sheldiz, I accept the argument about the intrinsic value of entertainment, and the fact that there is no reason why it should be a faithful recreation of the real presidency.

My point is that with this particular subject matter, admittedly in a small way, it becomes soma for the people.

7/02/2005 12:57:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

My belief is that The West Wing is going to reverse its course in the upcoming season. If what you say is true Unfurling, then the election of Alan Alda's character to the Presidency would promote a nice 'what if' for the other 50% of Americans, those who voted for Pres. Bush II.

Think of it: a show about a liberal Republican President emerging from California - popular, articulate, and sensible about the role of American government and the frailties of his own party.

But that's just my guess. In general, The West Wing is not soma for anyone. It's edutainment for all those who pretend that liberalism has no place in modern American politics. If only a Democrat could prove that again in real life. Sigh. Well, there's always '08.

7/02/2005 08:22:00 PM  
Anonymous different anonymous said...

Interesting redefinition of diaspora... not something I had come across. (Do you have references for that? It's something on which I would like to read up...)

It still seems that "American diasporas" (or however you pluralize it) would make sense, to convey the idea that you're talking about the American populace consisting chiefly of emigrants from other cultures...

7/03/2005 10:56:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

immigrants from or emigrants to? i.e., you think diaspora would be more relevant as a definition of america as a culture of immigrants or diaspora would be more relevent as a definition of american expats?

as far as examples, i can't think of a specific paper you could read that discusses the term "diaspora" and the way it is being used here, but i'll get back to you.

The West Wing, unfurling, that's an interesting point - I hadn't thought of the potentially cathartic effects of the show on the liberal voter's mind. I had thought if anything it would energize the voting base into seeing how good things could be with a smart man in the white house. you know, one who can actually pronounce the word "nuclear".

7/05/2005 10:35:00 AM  
Anonymous different anonymous said...

If you're referring to people living in America, then you're evidently dealing with immigrants (to America) who have emigrated from elsewhere. Hence, the plurality: you have the Jewish-American diaspora, the African-American diaspora, etc. that, cumulatively, might be called the American diasporas. In that sense, it's very much a "culture of immigrants" notion...

But going back to what started this: diaspora is by definition (repeated misuse of a word does not necessarily a redefinition make) a word referring to people with a common heritage, but no longer living in their ancestral neck of the woods. Therefore, it makes much more sense to me that "American Diaspora" would refer (I guess this is what you mean by "more relevant") to the expats.

As for references, it doesn't have to be a published academic paper or anything... just a conversation somewhere that deals with this would be fine.

7/10/2005 11:15:00 PM  
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