Monthly Archives: January 2010

New classes

I finally have my new classes for the spring semester ready.

One, which I’ll be teaching at the Graduate Center, focuses on racial formation in modern Britain.  The course begins with Shakespeare’s representation of the New World in The Tempest, continues with texts written during the eras of abolition and high imperialism in the 19th century, and closes by looking at racial formation in post-1945 Britain.  Here’s the syllabus.

The other class, for undergraduates, focuses on imperial and anti-colonial texts of the 19th and 20th centuries.  The idea here is to give these students some perspective on current U.S. imperial culture using the lens of preceding representations of empire, as well as texts that represented the multifarious damages wrought by imperialism.  Here’s the SYLLABUS for this course.

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A Corporation is Not a Person

Two days ago the Supreme Court issued what is perhaps its most calamitous ruling in a century.  In a 5-to-4 ruling in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court’s reactionary majority ruled that the government has no right to ban political spending by corporations in elections.  The decision thrusts the U.S. back, as an editorial in the New York Times the day after had it, to the robber-baron era of the late 19th century.

The logic adopted by the conservative majority in order to legitimate undoing over a century of legislation and legal precedent intended to stem corporate power over electoral affairs is particularly noteworthy.  For the reactionary majority, government attempts to limit corporations’ power to buy politicians is an unfair interference in their right to free speech, a right protected by the First Amendment.

But why should corporations have a right to free speech?  Isn’t this something guaranteed to citizens rather than corporate entities in the Constitution?  The recent decision in fact hinges on the idea that corporations have the same rights as individuals.  This slide towards corporate personhood can be traced back to Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company (1886), in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the right to protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Fourteenth Amendment, one of the Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the Civil War, forbids states from denying to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.  Twenty years after this amendment’s passage, it had become colonized by increasingly powerful corporate entities such as railroad companies, while its use to protect the rights of former slaves lagged as Jim Crow laws were put into effect.

This week’s outrageous court decision takes this slide towards corporate personhood to a radical extreme, in clear violation of a century of Congressional attempts to limit bribery and corruption in U.S. politics.  In addition, it flies in the face of a century of legal precedent in which corporations have been classified as artificial creations of the state, created in order to achieve particular economic ends and with exceptional rights related to these ends.  In his dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the ruling threatens democracy and does profound damage to the Supreme Court as an institution.

Obviously citizens must lobby Congress to legislate against this unjust ruling.  Concrete steps could include fixing the public finance system for presidential elections and establishing a public system for Congressional elections.  Such steps are unlikely, however, to challenge the underlying slide towards corporate personhood that has gotten us into this fix.

What we really need, as Jamin Raskin recently suggested, is a citizens’ movement for a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not persons entitled to the rights of political expression.  For details of the building mass movement, go here.

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Explaining racism to my daughter

Amid the many trials and tribulations of life in New York City, one of the quotidian boons has been the fact that my daughter has grown up with an African-American best friend.  In fact, my daughter has always seemed color blind to me; she essentially takes this form of privilege for granted.

How different from my own experience.  Most of the institutions I’ve inhabited since arriving in the U.S. from South Africa in the 1970s have been informally but nonetheless pretty thoroughly segregated.  For instance,  I currently teach in the largest urban public university in the world, the City University of New York (CUNY).  According to a 2007 survey, New York City is 44% white, 25% African-American, 12% Asian American, and 17% Other; Hispanics and Latin@s, who may belong to any of these ethnic groups, make up 27.5% of the above classification.  CUNY’s undergrad population is currently 27.2% white, 28.8% African-American, 27.4% Latin@, and 16.4% Asian Pacific Islander.  CUNY’s student body, in other words, is even more diverse than the city’s population in general.  CUNY faculty, however, are not.  64% are white, 16.5% are African-American, 10% Latin@, and 9.3% Asian Pacific Islander.  As an African-American colleague of mine recently put it in an acerbic moment, the only time he spends all his time around white folks is when he’s at work.

Unfortunately, the stress of the present is taking its toll on my daughter.  As she feels the intense pressure of competition with her peers to get into high schools in the city and surrounding region, I see racial animus coming out in my daughter.  In what seems to be an argument that she’s rehearsed through conversations with friends, she recently railed against the fact that her best friend has been more aggressively courted by some of the same schools she’s applying to, and expressed anger that this was presumably because of her ethnic background.  My attempts to explain the tokenistic character of what remains of affirmative action policies in the U.S., and the persistent structural racism that affects people of color in this country, have been met with mounting scorn.

I believe that my daughter will have access to life situations and educational resources that will transform this worrying trend in her thought.  I’m certain that her life so far has prepared the foundations for anti-racist thought and behavior as an adult.  But I nonetheless think that the recent animus that she’s expressed is characteristic of very disturbing trends within the U.S. and on a global scale.

The conditions are ripe for significant forms of racial backlash.  A recent production by Big Noise Films called “White Power U.S.A.” tracks the resurgence of the white supremacist movement today.  The film makes the point that although contemporary neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups are relatively few in number (30,000 hardcore supporters and 250,000 active sympathizers, according to watchdog organizations), they are actively and successfully building bridges into more “mainstream” wings of the conservative movement in the U.S.  The film highlights, in particular, the broad resonance of anti-immigrant politics during a period of economic downturn, looking in detail at the Minutemen movement in Arizona, which is populated many hardcore white supremacists.  A recent report by the Department of Homeland Security also warns that white supremacist groups are organizing with increasing success within the U.S. military, and notes that Right-wing extremism currently represents the greatest terrorist threat to the U.S.

The election of Barack Obama figures particularly prominently in contemporary white supremacist rhetoric.  At meetings and marches of the Tea Party movement, the rhetoric of white ressentiment is everywhere apparent, in more or less coded form.  The argument that Obama is not an American is pretty common at such rallies, as are calls to “take back America” (implicitly from the people of color who have captured it).  This sort of rhetoric gets massively amplified when it is picked up by commentators on talk radio and the Fox channel.  Precisely the issues that should be galvanizing a progressive movement – the economic melt down, the Wall Street bail out, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – are, according to white supremacist activists quoted in “White Power U.S.A.,” bringing people into their organizations.

I saw precisely the same conditions while living in Italy two years ago.  There, the economic downturn and the splintering of the Left led to the reelection of Silvio Berlusconi, whose electoral coalition included the explicitly xenophobic Northern League in a much-empowered role.  In fact, in the weeks after Berlusconi’s victory at the polls, I saw carabinieri, the Italian paramilitary police force, swoop down on a family of Roma window washers at a traffic light near where I was living.  The inevitable outcome of this upwelling of race baiting politics was evident last weekend when race riots ripped apart a town in Calabria where organized crime syndicates was keeping immigrant laborers in sub-human conditions.

Given the strong likelihood that the downturn will endure and even intensify for average people in the U.S. and Europe, it’s pretty certain that we’re only seeing the beginning of this latest wave of racism.

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A Civics Lesson, Part II

Day two of jury duty was anti-climatic, but in a good sort of way.  There were no cases, so after taking attendance, the clerk disappeared into his room and left all the prospective jurors to sit cooling their heels in the various blank rooms at the civil court.  I sat wondering how close we were to the legal office where Bartleby did his scrivening.

To pass the time, I read James Holston’s Insurgent Citizenship, which meditates on the forms of differential and inegalitarian citizenship that prevail in Brazil and on the urban social movements that strive to reclaim space and citizenship.  After a few hours of this, I took a break to look at a magazine provided by the clerk to stave off collective madness.  A guy in the seat next to me asked if he could have it afterwards.  We started up a conversation; he turned out to be an artist who designs sacred spaces.  His name is Tobi Kahn; here’s his site.

This was just the sort of random fortuitous encounter that urban life at its best makes possible.  At least in a place like New York, which is not automobile based like most U.S. cities and not fragmented into fortified compounds like many cities in the global South, including the ones that Holston writes of in Insurgent Citizenship.  This set me thinking about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Amores Perros and the networked structure of the social that many cutting edge narrative fictions are unraveling. Emergent fictions of the global, Rita Barnard calls them in a recent article in Novel.  In this article she writes about Latin American novelists like the Chilean Fuguet and Edmundo Paz Soldán, as well as British author David Mitchell’s novel Ghostwritten. Globe-spanning narratives that seek to capture a mercurial transnational subjectivity.

Back in the space of the nation, though, the court clerk informed us that the New York Supreme Court had no further use for us, and I fled from the courthouse into the cold sunshine of January.

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A Civics Lesson, Part I

I’ve been summoned for jury duty in New York.  Happens every six years.  Although it eats up precious time, it’s an amazing opportunity to rub shoulders with New Yorkers from totally different walks of life, and also to catch a glimpse of the wheels of formal governance as they turn.

The assembly room was in a fairly anonymous office building downtown.  I sat down in one of the only available chairs, next to a guy dressed head to toe in fatigues with a tissue stuffed up one of his nostrils and a cap pulled down over his eyes.  He didn’t seem to be feeling the civic love.  Shortly after I arrived, a court clerk picked up a microphone and began playing M.C., explaining that we were in the “civil term” of New York Supreme Court lawsuits.  No criminal cases, in other words.

The opening ceremonies really began, however, with a film that kicked off with a man being drowned in a medieval European trial by ordeal.  The film then went on to trace a linear narrative of progress up from such barbarism in which the jury figured ever more centrally in the dispensation of justice and the maintenance of democracy, from Charlemagne’s blatantly biased jurare to the Zenger trial in colonial America that established jury independence to the admission of women to juries following World War II.  The film interestingly also focused on the trial as a performative site, with various dramatis personae and other elements of dramatic structure such as conflict and resolution.  The rousing conclusion of the film suggested that jury service is our “opportunity to seize power,” which begged the question of why we are only entitled to power every six years.

During my first day, jurors were called for three different trials.  I was ineligible for the first two since I work for the city of New York, which was being sued by someone in the cases under consideration.  The third trial, for which I was picked along with around thirty other people, involved a lawsuit over asbestos poisoning (more details at  This would have been very interesting to be involved with, but we were warned that it would take approximately four weeks.  At that point, everyone except six people in the jury pool begged off.  So it seems that in really complex cases only people who are unemployed, retired, or otherwise unoccupied are really able to mete out justice.  This rather undermines the claims about the representative character of juries that were so carefully set out in the film screened during our introductory ceremonies.

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Digital Activism

Activists are increasingly turning to online resources to help bring about progressive, grassroots-empowering social change.  Clay Shirky wrote about the power of social networking in accessible and thoughtful terms in Here Comes Everybody.  In a more scholarly vein, Jeff Juris’s book Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalization explores the global justice movement’s use of networked technology and horizontal organizational forms.  More recently, Social Text organized a moderated forum on the role of networked dissident technologies in Iran following the disputed election of summer 2009.

I recently learned of two interesting initiatives to build awareness of the possibilities for networked activism.  The first comes in the form of the Tactical Information Collective’s film Ten Tactics for Turning Information into Action.  The film, and the website that supports it, offer a kind of DIY manual on how to use digital media to bring about social change.  There are some fascinating case studies included here, and the organization’s non-Eurocentric orientation is particularly impressive.  Another strength of TIC’s work is their emphasis on thinking carefully about the ethical implications of digital activism, including the danger that online interventions by human rights campaigners can be tracked down and used against them by abusive regimes or individuals.

Also of note along these lines is a recent report from the United Nations Foundation on the role of New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts.  The emphasis here is on the use of networked technology in improving responses to emergencies and conflicts, as well as in rebuilding efforts.  Like TIC’s film, the UN report offers some fascinating profiles of organizations that are developing the potential of digital activism in interesting ways.


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