Democracy & Protest

This semester I’m teaching one of my favorite courses on social movements! Teaching is always a tricky thing but it gets easier when what you say in the classroom can be connected with the world around the students. So teaching people about activism and social movements in the current political climate is going to be awesome!

Last weekend was the Women’s March which gathered huge amounts of people all over the world – even in Antartica! The main event was, naturally, in Washington but the sister marches were well attended. While the big marches are spectacular and easy enough to join I am always impressed by the smaller marches. You are very visible in a small march. Think about the town of Onley (Virginia) it has a population of 516 and still 50 people marched! Thats impressive!

Here are some pictures from the Philadelphia march

Donated signs for the oral history project

When introverts march…

March Like a Girl

Tweet Women as Equals

One of the goals of my course is to teach how a group of people with similar ideas form into a more permanent body and become a social movement. The Women’s March is an excellent example of how emotions like anger and concern can become a protest – and there is an ongoing discussion about what happens next. Will this become a movement?

Like I said – teaching is so much more interesting with relevant examples all around us.

Would Warren and Brandeis be Luddites?

Last week I taught “The Right to Privacy” by Warren and Brandeis. Their article was published in 1890 but is filled with sentiments and quotes that could be addressing technology today. The language is a bit aged but the ideas are still clear.

This could be about social media…

The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.

And their fear of technology

“Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ” what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.”

There is lots more. Their work reflects ideas found in The Shallows by Nicholas Carr or any of the later books by Sherry Turkle. People who we generally see, to a varying degree, as anti-technology. Usually when people go against the current technology we throw about the pejorative term Luddite!

And Warren & Brandeis may have faced similar criticism in their time. The article was well received. For example an article in the 1891 Atlantic Monthly wrote (from Glancy The Invention of the Right to Privacy Arizona Law Review 1979):

…a learned and interesting article in a recent number of the Harvard Law Review, entitled The Right to Privacy. It seems that the great doctrine of Development rules not only in biology and theology, but in the law as well; so that whenever, in the long process of civilization, man generates a capacity for being made miserable by his fellows in some new way, the law, after a decent interval, steps in to protect him.

But an interesting social critique comes from Godkin writing about the Right to Privacy article in The Nation in 1890

The second reason is, that there would be no effective public support or countenance for such proceedings. There is nothing democratic societies dislike so much to-day as anything which looks like what is called “exclusiveness,” and all regard for or precautions about privacy are apt to be considered signs of exclusiveness. A man going into court, therefore, in defence of his privacy, would very rarely be an object of sympathy on the part either of a jury or the public.

He also wrote about how their ideas were interesting but maybe belonged to a certain class of individual… (from Glancy The Invention of the Right to Privacy Arizona Law Review 1979)

” ‘privacy’ has a different meaning to different classes or categories of persons, it is, for instance, one thing to a man who has always lived in his own house, and another to a man who has always lived in a boardinghouse.”


Its much too easy to look at the past and judge it from the perspective of the present. But I wonder if I called Warren & Brandeis luddites if I had been around at the time?

How the political system fails its citizens

There are many posts online explaining what is happening in the crazy world of politics and many of them contain great details. I came across this one on Quora. Its long and it is trying to predict but the best part is the “why things are wrong analysis” which feels spot on. Check out Between Trump and Clinton who will win US presidential election?

The post addresses three main issues:

Trump’s rise stems from three major, interrelated factors.
1. The American political system has failed the majority of its citizens.
2. The American people, or rather large swathes of them, are politically ignorant. It’s important to not take this as an insult although I know many of you will anyway. There is nothing pejorative about the word ignorant. I for example am ignorant of many things- the rules of baseball, how to perform open heart surgery, how to express the likely path of a tornado as a mathematical equation and so on. Not knowing these things does not make me stupid or a bad person, I just never took the time to learn them.
3. The level of sophistry and distraction from real issues has reached such fever-pitch that few now trust anything that is said by media and politicians alike.

My focus of interest was on point 1 how the American political system has developed into the thing it is. Ian Jackson writes in an engaging humorous way and hits most of the main points as to why the system has become the way it has.

How to beat a Trump

Power is given, not taken.

If this is true then the most important thing for those with power is to make sure that it continues to be given to them. Early politicians were like royalty. Their right to rule was based on their belonging to – and being seen to belong to – a ruling caste. But two world wars have changed this. The right to rule shifts to the meritocracy and the best qualified shall rule. However, the meritocracy has cracked and the object is not to persuade the voters that they too can become kings or billionaires.

Adapting to change, politicians attempt to come across as folksier. They argue that they know what the common man needs, and they can provide it. We are currently at the point where this is failing. And Trump is the result.

Royalty does not need the populace to identify with them. They are there by the grace of god or some other power. In order to increase the distance from common folk they wear tiaras and crowns, gowns and sashes to distract people that underneath it all they are flawed individuals. The golden carriage is necessary if they are to remain in power.

The same is true of the pre-war(s) political elite. Yes, they needed votes but the system was corrupt enough and the populace confused enough to vote them into office on the basis of their arrogant belief in the right to rule.

The meritocracy has its own internal flaw. It’s built on the fallacy that everyone can achieve greatness through work. The meritocracy therefore attempts to argue that it’s not an elite. It is simply a club to which you currently don’t belong. But you may do in the future.

The meritocracy did not need to pander in person to the voters. They were quite obviously the right to rule since they had the right name, right manners, right schools, etc. However, the meritocracy has begun to crack. The political class is recognized to a much greater extent as a class.

The poor don’t get into the right schools, and if they do, they don’t get the right backing. Rarely do we see true class journeys in the political elite. Which means the elite must appeal to the larger group. For the last three decades the politicians belong to the elite but strive to show themselves to be “of the people”. They take of their ties, they role up their sleeves, they share beer recipes and eat common food. And if they fail, they do so at their peril.

Analyzing American presidential campaign ads can be fun. They are all sons of immigrants, they all appear in semi casual wear and they all promote the idea of their “commonness”. This is despite the fact that they mostly have gone to very exclusive schools, where they made invaluable contacts for the rest of their lives.

With Trump its different. Yes he is part of the elite and he has gone to the right schools and made the right connections, but that’s not what he is trying to do. He doesn’t role up his sleeves or take of his tie.

He is not telling crowds that he is a man of the people and has their best interests at heart. He is telling the voters that he is better than them. He is better than everyone. By his own boastful admission, he is richer, went to the best schools, has the best vocabulary, is the best negotiator, best businessman, and now, in what should have been predictable, he’s told the world on national TV that he has a big cock.

His appeal is not that of royalty, he is not the dream of meritocracy (you will never be as good as him), appeal is not to be the trustworthy politician that acts in the voters best interest.

His appeal is that he is offering the opportunity to bring people into the corridors of power. Once he is there the voter can live vicariously through him as he shouts at world leaders: “You’re fired”

This is why he can be racist, misogynistic, stupid, evil, and just plain rude without losing popularity. He is the uncommon man that offers vicarious life. He cannot be stopped by facts – there is more than enough proof to show that he lies about many things. He cannot be stopped by scandal – the man invites scandal through his life and language and speeches. The tools to stop each type of politician vary depending on the type of image they are trying to project.

  • To win an election against royalty = prove that they are common
  • To win an election against meritocracy = prove that the club is closed
  • To win against the “common man” = reveal the hypocrisy that political elites don’t care for commoners.
  • To win against Trump = prove that he will not take the viewers with him, and that his powers are an illusion. And when the cameras are on him, the experiences of the onlooker will be shame and defeat as the leaders of the world laugh at him.

In his own words: Nobody likes a loser.

Court supports Salaita; will organizations apologize?

Professor Steven Salaita was due to begin working at the University of Illinois. Days before he was scheduled to teach, he had quit his old job and put his house on the market. All in good faith that he had a job. He was fired for ‘Uncivil’ Tweets. The university argued that his position was still conditional on final approval and therefore he wasn’t actually fired – he was just never hired.

This created a lot of discussion. Individuals came down on both sides. In support of the university people argued that the tweets were just unacceptable and that the university was formally right. On the side of the professor was academic freedom, free speech, and that the university knew that he had relied upon their promises when he packed up and moved across the country.

Now a federal court has found in favor of Salaita and has allowed his lawsuit against the University of Illinois to proceed, and the chancellor who rescinded his appointment last year has resigned amid an ethics investigation.

This is good news. I make my position clear and I am happy that academic freedom and free speech are being valued highly.

My argument is not against those individuals who would disagree with me. I don’t mind or care that we are in disagreement. That is the whole point of free speech after all.

But I have a problem with the organizations. Academic groups who spoke out in favor of the University of Illinois. Many of their members were in agreement with them but many of their members were very angry with their organizations supporting the university over the individual academic freedom.

Now that the federal court has found support for Salaita and the concept of academic freedom and the need to protect speech – what are these organizations going to do? Isn’t it time that they apologized? No, they don’t need to apologize to Salaita (even though I think that would be a generous move that demonstrates growth) but I do feel that they should apologize to their members.

Take for example the letter from the American Sociological Association

We write as elected leaders of the American Sociological Association to express our support for your decision not to hire Dr. Steven G. Salaita as a faculty member at the University of Illinois. Although some sociologists disagree with your decision, as a previous letter indicated, we wanted you to know that some sociologists, including leaders of the American Sociological Association, support your decision. We personally feel if a job candidate openly disparages an entire minority group it is a good reason not to hire him or her as a new faculty member. Dr. Salaita’s public expressions of hatred and his public endorsement of violence have no place in the University of Illinois.

The problem is that the university HAD hired him. They were dismissing him. The rhetorical and legal loophole is fake. Most hires are subject to approval and if we were to wait for such approval then the hiring system would grind to a halt. The “elected leaders of the American Sociological Association” spoke for their organization and their members. Now the court has shown them the error of their ways: will they now finally apologizing to their members?

Academic organizations are there to raise awareness about the subject they represent and also to ensure that the academics who make up their organization can carry out their research and teaching without being harassed. They failed. They came down on the side of censorship and they should, at the very least, apologize to the people they claim to represent.



Screens & Maps: Is seeing believing? Notes on a lecture

The idea behind today’s class was to begin to explore the concept of reality as it is presented via screens. The fact that we believe anything we come across on our screens is really strange when we think about the many, many things that will influence what is presented there.

There are some things that are accepted despite we know them to be false (Columbus discovered America), some things are warped through advertising, some are limited by technology and (theoretically) someone could be manipulating my screen. Not to mention all the false information but out by trolls and jokers online. Despite all this, we have developed an ability to discern truth from fiction online (sometimes it fails).

In order to focus the presentation and to illustrate how falsehoods and politics change the information upon which we build our reality I decided to focus on maps as the example of this presentation. It turned out really well (everyone seemed to enjoy the discussion and minds were blown!).

I began by asking three questions:
Which country has the worlds largest proven oil reserves? Which country has the largest Muslim population? and where is the largest democracy? (Answers: Venezuela, Indonesia, India). The point of these questions were to show that the answers we tend to associate with oil, Muslims and democracy are most probably wrong. To add to this I asked the group to point to the countries on a blank world map.

By establishing that some of the things we “know” about the world are inaccurate I then introduced them to Jerry Botton (author of A History of the World in 12 Maps)

“All cultures produce a world map that puts their own interests and concerns at its heart. Even Ptolemy said any world map must make decisions about what it includes and what it leaves out. Some of those can be sinister decisions, but more often they’re simply practical ones. Do you need to show the North and South poles if you don’t think you’ll ever go there? Probably not.”

1024px-Ptolemy_Cosmographia_1467_-_world_mapPtolemy’s map in a reprint from 1467

The interesting thing is that the map is recognizable. The known world is there. But the middle i.e. the center of power is not what we are used to. Western Europe is in the periphery and the center of the world is focused on Asia. The map is both a representation of what is around us and a representation of what is important to us.

In order to better demonstrate the ways in which representation and politics are connected I showed a picture of the world as represented by the Flat Earth Society

Earth is a disc with the Arctic Circle in the center and Antarctica, a 150-foot-tall wall of ice, around the rim.

Earth’s day and night cycle is explained by positing that the sun and moon are spheres measuring 32 miles (51 kilometers) that move in circles 3,000 miles (4,828 km) above the plane of the Earth. (Stars, they say, move in a plane 3,100 miles up.) Like spotlights, these celestial spheres illuminate different portions of the planet in a 24-hour cycle. Flat-earthers believe there must also be an invisible “antimoon” that obscures the moon during lunar eclipses.

There are other ways in which the power of representation can be discussed, and in order to get everyone in the discussion mood I showed a series of maps which we briefly commented on:

worldwide_driving_orientation_by_country-1Countries driving on the left or right

paid-maternal-leave-by-countryPaid Maternity Leave

map-of-countires-that-use-metric-system-vs-imperialCountries not using metric system

enhanced-buzz-wide-7224-1361483168-3Google Autocomplete

There are several interesting collections of maps online this and this and this are probably the best.

Following this I handed out a blank map of Europe and asked them to try to identify as many states as they could. Naturally, I apologized for this and reminded them that I could not name most of the American states and that I am easily confused by all the straight lines making up the “square-sies”. This exercise was enjoyed by most and the point was to help them understand that they could identify many of the countries which are of little or no importance to them. This is because we are now still in an Euro-centric world view where many minor European countries are given more attention than several larger countries in the world.

In order to develop the discussion of politics, social equality and maps, I introduced the Mercator Projection and juxtaposed this with the Gall-Peters projection. This can neatly be illustrated by a clip from The West Wing (season 2, episode 16)

Aside from the incredible nerdiness of the fictitious Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality I think the best bit is in the end when the cartographers flip the world upside down and the White House staffer says:

You can’t do that!
Why not?
Because it’s freaking me out.

The map they are looking at at the time is:

map-of-world-upside-down-south-pole-on-topEurope is most definitely in a minor position, in the bottom right corner, and the whole concept of the world is redefined. Sure political power does not follow representation but a world that does this brings much of our per-established norms into question.

Of course today it is not only the political players that get to decide what is up and what is down. Our technology has begun to support (or distort) alternate world views. Take for example the app that is designed to help people avoid “sketchy” neighborhoods. This raises so many questions as to what it means to be a good/bad area and whether or not these apps create the areas they define as bad?
A recent example of the ways in which geography could be used to present a version of reality is the so-called catcalling video. The video purports to show a woman spending 10-hour walk in Manhattan and being harassed by men. The video has been criticized for what it shows – and more importantly – for what it does not show.

“The filmmakers claim to have shot this video while walking the streets of Manhattan for 10 hours, but over half of the shots in the video are actually taken from just one street, namely 125th St. in Harlem. It makes one wonder whether the filmmakers intentionally chose to concentrate their filming on a couple of neighborhoods, or if, out of many locations, these are the only places where harassment occurred.”

In a more practical use of geography I moved on to the way in which political parties to distort representational elections using Gerrymandering. Wikipedia has an interesting illustration for this where we see three districts where the blues are all in the majority. If the districts were allowed to vote in this way then the government would have an all blue politics. However, if the voting districts are redrawn in either of the other examples then we see that the blues are in a majority but the parliament is not without reds.

For the penultimate part of the discussion I wanted to introduce the concepts of nationhood and orientalism. It is sometimes conveniently stated that the nation state was “invented” by the peace of Westphalia and along with this the nation as a special interest group was established. With the nation state came the concept of the continent and the ability to establish a greater level of them and us. Naturally all these things did not simply spring into being but the progression can be said to have been accentuated in this way.

On the invention of Europe and continents in general we had an interesting aside attempting to position in which continent the countries of the Middle East lie. Is Turkey European? Is Israel Asian?

When the nation state was established as a primary organizational form (with rights and duties) it became important to establish what a nation state was. For example today there are around 30-35 million ethnic Kurds. They do not have a nation state and therefore they do not have a voice in international affairs. The Vatican City has a population of around 800 mostly (all) celibate people and they do have a voice (and a vote) in international affairs. So when deciding on conventions on the rights of Women or Children the Vatican gets to vote, but does not reproduce while the Kurds can reproduce but cannot vote.

The creation of nation states is a matter of history and tradition. Therefore despite the noble words of statesmen such as Woodrow Wilson

“National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action. . . . ”

the reality is that nationhood is not granted to peoples but, more often than not, to established western nobilities and their allies. An example of this is the Sykes–Picot Agreement where interestingly straight lines were drawn to define French and English spheres of interest over the needs and hopes of the peoples who lived there. Africa is a similar case. The lines drawn by European imperialists are one of the primary reasons for the conflicts that remain in these states.

In a discussion on perspectives and interests I used the example of the Gaza strip to demonstrate how some conflicts are the focus of huge interest “worldwide” (i.e. in the West) while other conflicts are easily and regularly ignored. Who remembers the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh? Or many other conflicts that only appear as brief blips on our media radar (if at all). It surprises many to see the size of the Gaza strip. When superimposed over recognizable cities the impact of this region is understood in a different manner. Examples here.

Naturally this discussion would not be complete without a further discussion on the role of technology.

While the analogue map places us either in the center or in the periphery depending upon where we are from an artificially chosen spot. This spot is usually the space where we are supposed to see the most important place in the region. A digital map, in particular the one in our smartphones, places us in the center of the map. No matter where we are geographically – we have now become the center of the universe.

In order to create this, our technology has worked a great deal with the personalization of technology. The world has to be arrayed around us and according to our needs or interests. We have to recognize that we are in the middle of a filter bubble (Eli Pariser) where the Internet shows us what it thinks that we want to see – not what we need to see. The “it” in the last sentence is naturally the organizers who provide our technology.

So we go back to the words of the people who provide our technology. For example former CEO of Google Eric Schmidt who talks this way about personalization:

“It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them”

Or even more strangely from Mark Zuckerberg:

A Squirrel Dying In Your Front Yard May Be More Relevant To Your Interests Right Now Than People Dying In Africa

The people providing the technology are not interested in an objective reality. Since we have created an Internet model where many services are based on marketing which in turn is based on surveillance and giving users incentives to remain online – we have created systems which are not necessarily about objective geographical truths but variations of the same.

In an interesting exchange about geolocation a Google representative is supposed to have explained:

Google Maps search results are based primarily on relevance, distance, and prominence. These factors are combined to help us find the best match for your search. For example, our search technology might decide that a business that’s farther away from your location is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer.

Seriously! Look at that last part again: our search technology might decide that a business that’s farther away from your location is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer.

Geography is not about distance, its about politics and power. And Google just redefined distance to suit its needs.


The slides I used for the presentation are here

We are free and powerless

Once again futuramb has a quote that I just need to steal and post here. Well done Martin!

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman neatly summarised the paradox of our era as: “Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless.” We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticise religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance – freedom of this kind is prompted by indifference. Yet, on the other hand, our daily lives have become a constant battle against a bureaucracy that would make Kafka weak at the knees. There are regulations about everything, from the salt content of bread to urban poultry-keeping.


Humor as Disobedience

The class today was on the use of humor in political protest. Last week we discussed the fundamentals of civil disobedience and this week the students presented different examples of the uses of humor.

So the basics of disobedience are usually described as having different components to differentiate them from “just” lawlessness. For example H. A. Bedau argued in Civil Disobedience in Focus that in order for disobedience to be legitimate it should be

“committed openly…non-violently…and conscientiously…within the framework of the rule of law…with the intention of frustrating or protesting some law, policy or decision…of the government.”

As the examples of humor show, they fail many of these components and do not pass as civil disobedience. In most cases they are either not breaking any rule, regulation, policy, or social norm and in other cases they are not protesting the ruling authority or government.

However, the examples demonstrate the complexity of society by realizing that it is not only the government that regulates and that disobedience need not only be the breaking of rules.

The presentations today included The Pink Chaddi Campaign where Indian women sent pink underwear to the leader of an orthodox Hindu group to protest it’s misogynistic worldview. The De Grote Donor Show ashocking critique of popular culture intended to raise awareness about organ donation. The John Howard Ladies Auxiliary Club, a group of performance actors who adopted characters parodying 1950s Australian housewives and claimed to be the Prime Minister’s fan club. They would use his own conservatism against him in their parodies.

In The Snatchel Project the goal is: “Let’s make a uterus or VJJ* for each male rep in congress! If they have their own, they can leave ours alone!”. Participants knit or crochet female reproductive organs and send them to legislators. The Barbie Liberation Organization hacked talking Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls and switched their recorded messages. This would make Barbie say “vengeance is mine” while G.I. Joe would exclaim that “The beach is the place for summer.” The goal was to show that gender stereotypes are just that – stereotypes.

The sheer variation of these activist campaigns ensured that we had interesting and lively discussions ranging from fears connected with organ donation to misogyny in Australia. A lively class indeed.

An interesting aspect of looking at these studies was to refer them back to the theories. Where they political actions since they were aimed at non-political players? Where they disobedience when they were not breaking any rules? What we could see was that the activists (even if they may not all have defined themselves as such) set about non-conforming to social norms and protesting the message of a dominant player.