From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. In 1965, he wrote about the power of demonstrations and "legislation written in the streets."
Two months ago, I wrote a piece for the "The Los Angeles Times" proposing that Afghan civilians who had lost relatives, limbs, homes and businesses due to e...
George W. Bush wants to drain the Social Security trust fund, with a proposal to divert more than $2 trillion in Social Security and Medicaresurpluses over the next ten years.
George W. Bush wants to cut 30 percent of the funding from the federal program that trains doctors at children's hospitals.
George W. Bush wants to cut Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Programs that help Americans heat their homes in winter by 15 percent.
Rare is the evening when we would suggest that turning on the television set could represent the best way to study up on a vital issue -- especially so complex an issue as the damage done to workers, the environment and democracy by the North American Free Trade Agreement. For the most part, we would argue that reading a newspaper or magazine would be the better route to knowledge.
Â Â Â Â Â Â But Tuesday, February 5, is different. Â Â Â Â Â Â Author and commentator Bill Moyers, whose rare, documentary-style reports are the closest thing to serious investigative reporting on broadcast television these days, will focus his attention on one of the least-examined stories in America today. "Bill Moyers Reports: Trading Democracy" (PBS stations on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 10 p.m. EST, check local listings) examines the way in which NAFTA restrictions on barriers to trade are being used by multinational corporations to overturn environmental protections enacted by governments in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Â Â Â Â Â Â "When the North American Free Trade Agreement became the law of the land almost a decade ago, the debate we heard was about jobs," explains Moyers, in a discussion of the program. "One provision was too obscure to stir up controversy. It was called Chapter Eleven, and it was supposedly written to protect investors from having their property seized by foreign governments. But since NAFTA was ratified, corporations have used Chapter Eleven to challenge the powers of government to protect its citizens, to undermine environmental and health laws, even to attack our system of justice."
Few presidents in the history of the United States have been given the opportunity handed George W. Bush to lead the nation to higher ground.
No president, with the possible exception of the current chief executive's father, has ever blown so great an opportunity so completely.
Maintaining an approval rating that "popular" presidents such as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton would have gladly traded a vice president to register, Bush could have used last week's State of the Union address to turn a moment of rare national unity and resolve into the stuff of greatness.
The death on January 23 of the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu came as the American chattering classes were busy checking the math in Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline--an unintentional parody of sociology in which Posner presents a top-100 list ranking writers and professors according to the number of times they turned up on television or Internet searches. Bourdieu, whose heaviest passages crackled with sardonic wit, would have had a wonderful time exploring this farcical project, which takes for granted that Henry Kissinger (No. 1), Sidney Blumenthal (No.7) and Ann Coulter (No. 74) are in the Rolodex because they are leading the life of the mind--why not include Dr. Ruth or, as one wag suggested, Osama bin Laden? In tacitly conceding the fungibility of celebrity even while decrying it, Posner confirms Bourdieu's gloomy predictions about the direction modernity is swiftly taking us: away from scholarship and high culture as sources of social prestige and toward journalism and entertainment.
Bourdieu himself argued that scholars and writers could and should bring their specialized knowledge to bear responsibly and seriously on social and political issues, something he suspected couldn't be done on a talk show. His involvement during the 1990s in campaigns for railway workers, undocumented immigrants and the unemployed, and most recently against neoliberalism and globalization, was the natural outgrowth of a lifetime of research into economic, social and cultural class domination among peoples as disparate as Algerian peasants and French professors, and as expressed in everything from amateur photography to posture. It's hard to think of a comparable figure on the American left. Noam Chomsky's academic work has no connection with his political activities, and it's been decades since his byline appeared in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times. One friend found himself reaching all the way back to C. Wright Mills.
Bourdieu, who loved intellectual combat, called himself "to the left of the left"--that is, to the left of the ossified French left-wing parties and also to the left of the academic postmodernists aka antifoundationalists, about whose indifference to empirical work he was scathing. Reading him could be a disturbing experience, because the explanatory sweep of his key concept of habitus--the formation and expression of self around an internalized and usually accurate sense of social destiny--tends to make ameliorative projects seem rather silly. Sociology, he wrote, "discovers necessity, social constraints, where we would like to see choice and free will. The habitus is that unchosen principle of so many choices that drives our humanists to such despair." Take, for example, his attack on the notion that making high culture readily available--in free museums and local performances--is all that is necessary to bring it to the masses. (In today's America, this fond hope marks you as a raving Bolshevik, but in France it was the pet conviction of de Gaulle's minister of culture, André Malraux.) In fact, as Bourdieu painstakingly demonstrated in Distinction, his monumental study of the way class shapes cultural preferences or "taste," there is nothing automatic or natural about the ability to "appreciate"--curious word--a Rothko or even a Van Gogh: You have to know a lot about painting, you have to feel comfortable in museums and you have to have what Bourdieu saw as the educated bourgeois orientation, which rests on leisure, money and unselfconscious social privilege and expresses itself as the enjoyment of the speculative, the distanced, the nonuseful. Typically, though, Bourdieu used this discouraging insight to call for more, not less, effort to make culture genuinely accessible to all: Schools could help give working-class kids the cultural capital--another key Bourdieusian concept--that middle-class kids get from their families. One could extend that insight to the American context and argue that depriving working-class kids of the "frills"--art, music, trips--in the name of "the basics" is not just stingy or philistine, it's a way of maintaining class privilege.
Although Bourdieu has been criticized as too deterministic--a few years ago The New Yorker characterized his views, absurdly, as leading "inexorably to Leninism"--he retained, in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence, including much gathered by himself, a faith in people's capacities for transformation. He spent much of his life studying the part played by the French education system in reifying class and gender divisions and in selecting and shaping the academic, technocratic and political elite--the "state nobility"--that runs France, but he believed in education; he railed against the popularization and vulgarization of difficult ideas, but he believed in popular movements and took part in several. In one of his last books, Masculine Domination, he comes close to arguing that male chauvinism is a cultural universal that structures all society and all thought; he is that rare man who chastises feminists for not going far enough--but the book closes with a paean to love.
Bourdieu's twenty-five books and countless articles represent probably the most brilliant and fruitful renovation and application of Marxian concepts in our era. Nonetheless, he is less influential on the American academic left than the (to my mind, not to mention his!) obscurantist and, at bottom, conservative French deconstructionists and antifoundationalists. Perhaps it is not irrelevant that Bourdieu made academia and intellectuals a major subject of withering critique: You can't read him and believe, for example, that professors (or "public intellectuals," or writers, or artists) stand outside the class system in some sort of unmediated relation to society and truth. The ground most difficult to see is always the patch one is standing on, and the position of the intellectuals, the class that thinks it is free-floating, is the most mystified of all. It was not the least of Bourdieu's achievements that he offered his colleagues the means of self-awareness, and it's not surprising either that many decline the offer. His odd and original metaphor of the task of sociology holds both a message and a warning: "Enlightenment is on the side of those who turn their spotlight on our blinkers."
In the modern Greek dictionary, the word "Filipineza" means "maid."
If I became the brown woman mistaken
for a shadow, please tell your people I'm a tree.
Or its curling root above ground, like fingers without a rag,
without the buckets of thirst to wipe clean your mirrorlike floors.
My mother warned me about the disappearance of Elena.
But I left her and told her it won't happen to me.
The better to work here in a house full of faces I don't recognize.
Shame is less a burden if spoken in the language of soap and stain.
My whole country cleans houses for food, so that
the cleaning ends with the mothers, and the daughters
will have someone clean for them, and never leave
my country to spend years of conversations with dirt.
When I get up, I stand like a tree, feet steady, back firm.
From here, I can see Elena's island, where she bore a child
by a married man whose floors she washed for years,
whose body stained her memory until she left in the thick
of rain, unseen yet now surviving in the uncertain tongues
of the newly-arrived. Like the silence in the circling motions
of our hands, she becomes part myth, part mortal, part soap.
In the next few weeks the Senate will hold hearings and vote on legislation that would outlaw the cloning of human embryos, either for the purpose of medical experimentation or the birth of a human being. The House already passed a similar bill in July. Until now the cloning debate has been viewed in Washington and the media as a classic struggle pitting social conservatives, antiabortion activists and the Catholic Church against the scientific community and progressive forces, with Republicans lined up on one side and Democrats on the other. Below the surface, however, another reality is beginning to take shape. Although reluctant to acknowledge it, some social conservatives and some left activists find common ground on the cloning issue [see Ralph Brave, "Governing the Genome," December 10, 2001]. An example of this convergence is a statement issued by sixty-seven prominent left progressives on January 23 supporting legislation to outlaw the cloning of human embryos.
The progressives backing this legislation worry that the market for human eggs that would be created by such research will provide unethical incentives for women to undergo health-threatening hormone treatment and surgery. They are also concerned about the increasing bioindustrialization of life by the scientific community and life science companies and are shocked that clonal human embryos have been patented and declared to be human inventions. On the other hand, few, if any, on the left oppose research on adult stem cells, which can be taken from people after birth and which have proved promising in animal studies and clinical trials. This approach poses none of the ethical, social or economic risks of strategies using embryo stem cells.
What about cloning a human being? Most members of Congress on both sides of the aisle would oppose a clonal birth. But for many in Congress, and in the scientific community and the biotech industry as well, opposition is solely based on the fact that the cloning technique is still unsafe and could pose a risk of producing a malformed baby. Far fewer members of either party would be against cloning a human baby were the procedure to become safe and reliable. After all, argue proponents, if an infertile couple desires to pass on their genetic inheritance by producing clones of one or both partners, shouldn't they be able to exercise their right of choice in the newly emerging biotech marketplace? Moreover, we are told not to be overly concerned, because even though the clone will have the exact same genetic makeup as the original, it will develop differently because its social and environmental context will be different from that of the donor.
What unites social conservatives and progressives on cloning issues is their commitment to the intrinsic value of life and their opposition to what they perceive to be a purely utilitarian perspective on biotech issues. To be sure, the social conservatives and left activists differ in the "life issues" they embrace and champion. The former crusade for what they regard as the rights of the unborn and family values and rail against infanticide, euthanasia and pornography. The latter speak out on behalf of the poor, women, abused children, fellow animals and the global environment. Both groups come together in opposition to cloning--but for different reasons.
Many on the left argue that with cloning the new progeny become the ultimate shopping experience--designed in advance, produced to specification and purchased in the biological marketplace. Cloning is, first and foremost, an act of production, not creation. Using the new biotechnologies, a living being is produced with the same degree of engineering as we have come to expect on an assembly line. For the first time in the history of our species, we can dictate, in advance, the final genetic constitution of the offspring. The child is no longer a unique creation--one of a kind--but rather an engineered reproduction.
The left also warns that cloning opens the way to a commercial eugenics civilization. Already life science companies have leaped ahead of the political game being played out in Congress and the media by patenting human embryos and stem cells, giving them upfront ownership and control of a new form of reproductive commerce, with frightening implications for the future of society. Many on the left worry that human cloning, embryonic stem cell research and, soon, designer babies, lay the groundwork for a new form of biocolonialism, in which global life science companies become the ultimate arbiters of the evolutionary process itself.
Neither the social conservatives nor the left activists are entirely comfortable with the new alliance, and they will continue to disagree in many areas. But on biotech issues both of these groups will increasingly break ranks with their traditional political affiliations--the social conservatives with market libertarians and the left activists with social democratic parties.
The biotech era will bring with it a very different constellation of political visions and social forces just as the industrial era did. The current debate over cloning human embryos and stem cell research is already loosening the old alliances and categories. It is just the beginning of the new biopolitics.