Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee, with Carol Mithers

We read Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee for my class on social justice this fall–it was the last book of the course, and it was a nice way to personalize some of the very abstract ideas we had been working with throughout the course. The memoir format gave us a lot to work with because it allowed us to take a look at how she viewed the events of her life along with our own intuition and theories. Gbowee was a young Liberian woman from the middle class whose parents were successful rural tribespeople–not the elite in Liberia who were the descendants of American-born slaves who established Liberia. The descent into civil war begins for her right about the time she is graduating from high school, and she goes from being a pretty, hopeful high school girl with her eyes on college to having to run her parent’s house as refuge against the fighting. She goes from the terrors there to the terrors of a violent marriage and motherhood, very young, in a place that continues to be ravaged by war. As time goes on, she finds the ability to move out of the marriage and try to go back to school, which prompts her to take an internship at a social justice/advocacy organization where she begins to work with women who need to speak about their experiences in war-torn Liberia. From this work, the Liberian’s women’s peace movement emerged.

There are parts of the story that I marked as particularly interesting:

  • She notes the uselessness of the global media who, when she attempted to speak with them, lost interest in her when she said she hadn’t been a rape victim. If true, that’s a terrible indictment of the way journalists further abuse rape victims in global conflicts. Also interesting is that she does not consider herself to be a rape victim even though her husband violently forces her to have sex. A construct of marriage: it can’t be rape if it’s your husband. Yes, it can.
  • The United States is both entirely there, yet entirely not there, in its corporate presence throughout conflicts, but there is no support to protect civilians throughout the process.
  • There are hard and bright hierarchies in her family between the “rich, urban” and the “poor, rural” parts of it, including the notion that in order to live with the “rich, urban” family, members of the “poor, rural” family can just be expected to act as servants in order to “earn” their keep in the city.
  • The daughters in the marriage have unequal access to their father, who is unequivocally a difficult man, setting up his daughters to see their worth entirely related to via male valuations.
  • One daughter becomes married to a Lebanese man. During the first round of fighting, when the soldiers are coming through and the family is taking the children into the house, the rural grandmother (her paternal grandmother, I believe) shoves the four year-old child of the Lebanese/Liberian parents back out into the street, into the danger, and shuts the door in her face. That’s some cold, considering this is her great-grandchild. The other oddness: Gbowee never tells us what happens. We don’t know what happens to the child, whether she makes it through the attack, and we never find out if there are family repercussions for this action for her grandmother.
  • The major sacrifices made for Gwobee’s activism are granted by her children and her sister, Geneva, whose own life becomes dedicated to being Gwobee’s helpmeet and parent to Gwobee’s children.
  • By far, the most harrowing parts of the book concern how to heal child soldiers, and what happens you valorize evil among young teenage boys who are screaming for their own power and independence, who resent maternal control, and who see girls as capriciously withholding sexual gratification.
  • Shared faith plays a pivotal role in the women’s movement, which has its benefits and costs. Faith is a major part of Gbowee’s life, a source of strength and inspiration. However, relying on faith means that there are going to be barriers organizing across faith. (There are ways to work across difference, and the women’s movement does so.)
  • Being a celebrity advocate and western media darling, too, has its costs and benefits. On the plus side, you get grants from international aid organizations. On the minus side, others resent the credit you are taking for the scarifices and work of an entire network, and that can drive a wedge in the effort. Leadership is difficult in a world where you are allowed only madonna/whore or bitch/mother roles.
  • There is the persistent question of what should happen with war criminals. Gwobee resents the Hague and its trial of Charles Taylor, maintaining that Liberians should have been able to meet their own justice to the deposed dictator–entirely understandable. The trial was another example to her of the violations of Liberian sovereignty of European and American institutions. Nontheless, many of these wars have ethnic tensions at their bases, Liberia’s was no exception, and putting the leader of one ethnic group on trial at the ends of another is fraught prospect which can easily go wrong in its meaning and symbolism surrounding justice. It’s possible Liberians could have managed that process brilliantly–we will never know. But there is also some value to letting everybody resent Americans here instead of risking further divides within the country on what should happen Taylor. (After all; he still has supporters there.)

My alma mater (the University of Iowa) does something interesting

Reading through Jezebel this morning I happened upon this story about the University of Iowa asking students to voluntarily disclose their LGBTQ status as a means to get information about what level of services they may need to provide for support. The comments are enlightening (for a change!), ranging from people who are nervous about the prospect of disclosing, notes that LGBTQ kids may not have much clarity about their status yet, and support.

Max Stephenson on our Senate’s failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Max Stephenson writes about members of the US senate scoring some rather cheap political points by refusing to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

This sad episode tarnishes once more the nation’s standing as a leader in human rights and democracy in the world community. That this negative vote occurred at all is testimony to the much-discussed “broken character” of our politics. That it apparently occurred for the reasons it did is doubly distressing as it signals a deeper corruption of the democratic choice-making process in the United States. In the present instance, that process was hijacked neatly by a profoundly misguided, but well-positioned and vocal set of actors who, apparently, for their own narrow political purposes have managed to tar their nation in the eyes of the world and once more to deny the nation’s disabled even a symbolic claim to equal standing with their fellow citizens. This Senate action must be reversed. It not only is morally and substantively indefensible, but also profoundly anti-democratic.

The whole essay is worth reading.

Sigh. I understand the frustration with the UN that many on the right feel, that it is a mechanism for entangling the US with other countries. In my class on social justice, we examined the Texas secession movement and looked at various proposed constitutions, all of which had some provision specifying that the Republic of Texas would have no dealings with other countries except for trade. That kind of backseat governance sounds great in theory, but it didn’t actually work for Switzerland. Are there other examples where isolationism actually works?

Thus the question comes down to what type of entanglement are you going have?

The pragmatist in me thinks it would be more useful to support the UN when it is doing something it might actually be good at such as brokering voluntary agreements about cosmopolitan human rights questions, and to hold out when it wants to send your troops into hairy peace-keeping situations. The US seems to be doing the reverse: rather routinely sending troops to places that make little sense to our democratic populace, with their Black Hawk Down scenarios.

IOW, I don’t actually envision the US ever sending troops to Faroffistan to deal with their failure to provide wheelchairs ramps and government materials in braille. Rights covenants tend to be attempts at expectations- and example-setting and idea diffusion more than policy enforcement. Those seem like very good uses of global governance, even for conservatively minded people to me.

Because you should always read anything by Stephen Coll that you can

Here is a terrific piece in the New Yorker on Why Do Americans Believe in Muslim Rage? A great quote:

Some of the protests appear to have been organized by fringe political parties and radical activists; for them, “Death to America” is a mobilizing strategy. The rioting they encourage is about Muslim rage only in a tautological sense: raging Muslims do the burning and looting, but they do not typically attract even a large minority of the local faithful. The faces on American screens are often shock troops, comparable to Europe’s skinheads or anarchists.

Go read.

Conversations on Social Justice at the Price School

We launched a series of conversations about social justice and social welfare. You can find them here.

  1. Richard Green, Professor and Director, Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California, discussing housing, the Community Reinvestment Act, and the foreclosure crisis.
  2. LaVonna Lewis, Teaching Professor at the Sol Price of Public Policy, on communities and health
  3. Manuel Pastor, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and Director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, on immigration and cities
  4. La Mikia Castillo, community development practitioner and organizer for Get on the Bus, one of my favorite programs for prisoners and their families
  5. Sacha Klein, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Michigan State University, on child welfare policy and practice in the US.

Michelle Malkin and racism directed towards Asian women

I guess now we’re all supposed to understand that Rush Limbaugh was “just making a joke” and the real misogynists are those nasty liberals. Michelle Malkin uses this point to castigate President Obama for calling Ms. Fluke, as a means of “inserting himself” into the fray, and then goes on to describe how nasty liberals have called her and other conservative women horrible names which she claims are worse than being called a slut, but actually aren’t, at least not in my nomenclature. Being called a “female impersonator” is petty and, I’m sure, hurtful, but it’s a different epithet hurled at somebody in a much more powerful position than Ms. Fluke.

I think I’d be pretty safe in saying that Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer have been called horrible things by misguided people on the right. I don’t have time to assemble the litany Malkin does, as I don’t have a staff of assistants. But–my God, people–have you not seen what commenters have called both Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin alike?

Let’s suffice to say that I’d prefer a political discourse where–let’s just get wild and crazy here for a second–we don’t use ad hominem at all, let alone the basest and most vulgar forms?

As to Rush, if that was a joke, grow the hell up, dude. That stuff is unattractive at best and evil at worst in 16 year-old men, let alone old farts like us who ought to know better.

What I find utterly shocking is the blatant racism directed at Malkin in the ad hominem attacks on her, and which she doesn’t seem to acknowledge as such. I pretty much have never agreed with her, but there is a lot in the vitriol directed at her that occurs because she hasn’t been everybody’s compliant little Asian doll. While she is a public figure, and those of us who put ourselves out there know that we’re going to get our licks, racism and sexism should named for what they are. She deserves to be able to express her ideas without having her humanity and identity degraded.

And while Malkin wants to castigate Barack Obama, the truth is, he’s always been a complete gentlemen as far as I can tell. I was a Hilary voter until the end of the deal, and even so, I had to admit that even when he was criticizing her politics, he treated her with decency and respect. So, too, John McCain, even though his personal life hasn’t always been so nicey-nice.

Brenda Simmons on Martin Luther King, Jr

So worth reading: On Martin Luther King Day, Ask ‘Where Art Thou?’
Brenda Simmons, co-founder of the African-American Museum of the East End and assistant to the Southampton Village mayor, delivered this speech on Rogers Memorial Library on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2008.

These lines are particularly moving:

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.

We have a MLK Day parade here in Los Angeles: The parade will begin at 11 a.m. at Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard and Western Avenue. From there it rolls west along King Boulevard until it takes a left turn south onto Crenshaw Boulevard. It then marches down Crenshaw to Vernon Avenue, where the parade takes a final turn and ends with a gospel festival at Leimert Park. There will also be lots of food booths and fun things to do throughout the afternoon and evening at the park.

Or if, like me, you social phobias keep you inside, ABC will be live-casting it here.