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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Reading the February 17th Christian Science Monitor story Gun control: Future hangs on misunderstood majority of gun owners, I found an interesting quote: “In 2008, America quietly became a majority pro-gun country, according to Gallup. Scholars like Ms. Carlson [Jennifer Carlson, PhD candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley, incoming assistant professor at the University of Toronto in 2013] contend that majority is part of a new, emergent social contract in which the balance of power and social responsibility has slipped noticeably toward the citizen.”

I’m not convinced about the balance of power shifting toward the citizen (I’ve argued that it’s a shift from the state to capital. Also, social “contract” is problematic when generally contracts require the knowledge and consent of the contracted parties), but there is definitely a shift of responsibility toward the citizen (and I don’t just mean the socialization of risk despite the privatization of reward).

This is a logic that has been identified by many scholars as neoliberal, and it’s based on the assumption of the calculating, entrepreneurial and self-promoting individual with no help from the state who succeeds or fails on his (usually his) own merits.

This raised a question for me: In thinking about guns, how can we parse the distance between “it’s your job to take care of yourself; the government isn’t going to do it” and “the government won’t protect you; in fact, it’s going to tyrannize you”? Where on the spectrum does the neoliberal dogma of self-sufficiency and not relying on the state shade into paranoia over state power?

On the face of it, the tyrannical government argument for gun access seems patently absurd. It seems obvious that no matter what kind of arsenal a civilian has, the actual military will be better armed and better trained. Nobody’s arguing to give civilians fighter jets and tanks and drones and nukes. Well, nobody credible. I’m sure someone is.

There are ironies aplenty here: the same conservative political genre that advocates unrestricted guns for citizens also includes those who want to always beef up the military and never cut a dime from it even if it means pitching the poor into misery (or especially if it does, to get them to “stop being freeloaders and work”). This, then, is completely contrary to the alleged goal of preventing tyranny.

Additionally, I saw a great quip in the comments section of a news story ages ago, maybe after the Aurora, CO shooting, but I can’t find it now. Something like, “I for one am more afraid of the guy who has warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention, and drone surveillance than the one who wants to restrict guns.” That is, the fear about guns in particular and not these other things seems odd, and again these “antiterrorism” measures are often supported by pro-gun folks.

The space between self-responsibility and paranoia turns up seemingly at every turn. Elsewhere, the article says that “Race complicates the debate, starting with research showing that the Madisonian roots of the Second Amendment sprang from racial fears, or at least from fears of slave revolts. It’s a small historical leap from there to gun-purchasing inspired by fear of crime in black urban cores, and on to the first White House push for gun control in two decades being led by the first black president.”

As described in The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery, the early push to have the second amendment and gun rights was a fear by slave owners that the federal government both could not serve the role then being played by state slave patrols and might refuse to do so because of anti-slavery sentiment in the north. The government won’t protect us, and might actually do things that harm us, so we need guns.

With respect to the “fear of crime in black urban cores” factor, “protect yourself” gets expressed more like “the police can’t stop the crime,” and paranoia is something like “black people are always-already criminals and the state gives them welfare money rather than stopping them” (I’m finding it hard to even pin down what that particular crazed view is, but it’s something like that).

Again and again, this pair of things: Morris Fiorina, professor of political science at Stanford, is quoted in the piece as saying:  “Part of it is I think this sense that authorities can’t protect you.”

And then, “the Pew survey on personal rights and freedoms found that the share of Americans who feel ‘threatened’ by the government has gone from 38 percent in 1995 to 53 percent today” and “Obama’s election and reelection both spawned frantic runs on guns and ammunition,” and if that’s not a fear of government (and black folks) I don’t know what is.

The point here is that I really don’t think the self-sufficiency idea and the gun-loving are coincidental:

“There is this sense that America is locking and loading because of Obama being elected … and threats Obama may or may not pose,” says Carlson, at the University of Toronto. “That may be true, but this transformation where Americans are turning to guns started in the 1970s, and as quickly as these shootings happen, gun culture has not transformed so quickly.”

The other thing that started in the 1970s (albeit the late 70s) was the shift that made neoliberalism the dominant political ideology in the U.S. That was the start date on the move of the  mainstream away from Keynesian ideas that the state needs to manage the market carefully to make sure it’s working; the ideology of completely free, unregulated markets (except of course when regulations like intellectual property law protect their interests, then they want more-more-more!) has held sway ever since. (Contrary to Tea Party hysterics, Obama’s not a huge shift away from this.)

Fearing the government will actively hurt you, then, is possibly just an intensified form of fearing that the government will make a mess of things if you let it run them. And both of these ideas have been intimately involved with gun culture in the U.S. since its inception. That’s really interesting. And really scary for those with an investment in reducing gun violence.

If this is in our national DNA, there’s no getting rid of it. And I don’t know what the way forward is then. Evolution, I guess: waiting for demographic change to run its course and those folks to die off or be outnumbered.

I still think that the culture that glorifies violence and says that’s how one ought to be manly has a lot to do with why people engage in violence (as discussed in my post Discouraging Victim Mentality or Blaming Recipients of Violence?). But the fact that Americans have guns with which to enact this idea of power (which other cultures that have the same ideas about violence don’t, at least not at the same rates) may well be an intractable problem.

I have always been perplexed by the insistence that the word “American,” unmodified, should not be used to refer to citizens of the United States.

Certainly, the alternatives are decidedly less than euphonious: U.S. American, United Statesian, and North American (to refer to the commonalities between the U.S. and Canada, which is sure to irritate both Mexico and francophone parts of Canada) are all wildly awkward. But though I’m a sucker for well-named things, that’s only a tiny portion of my problem with it.

I’ve heard the complaint about “American” mostly from or in reference to folks from Latin America, and the argument is that the Americas are a big place and the U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on the term. As a scholar of unmarked categories like whiteness and masculinity, I know the power that being the default holds, so I understand the impulse from that angle. Refusing the way Anglo folks get to be “American,” full stop, and everyone else is hyphenated makes a lot of sense, particularly in the age of automatic suspicion of any Latino in places like Arizona.

But I’m not sure that the people who contest the way “American” is currently deployed would actually benefit from access to this word.

I get the feeling that most of the world doesn’t have very positive associations with “American.” There’s the “Ugly American” tourist idea. And then, election cycle upon election cycle has appealed to “real America” as white, socially conservative, religious, and inclined to gut all government but super-size the military. And anyone who thinks otherwise is a traitor. “American,” that is, seems to refer to this type of image: Merica

Too fat to walk but still eating junk? Flag-waving and militaristic? Sounds about right. This is the stuff of the ‘Murica meme for a reason–it’s both distinctly “American” and ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t share this particular mindset.

I’d imagine the common attitude, if you did a global poll about the word “American,” is inflected by the logic driving this image. The stance is likely at best mild irritation—and obviously some folks have stoked that into outright hatred to further their own ends (certain terrorist groups and antagonistic nations come to mind).

This then begs the question: Why is anyone who is not hailed by the image of the true, patriotic “American” beating down the door to be associated with this word?

Indeed, the battle for “American” seems to possibly be the mirror image of the ethnocentric American assumption that everyone wants to be American. Seeing this tweet the other day solidified my intent to blog about this issue: american

Lots of people surely want access to the economic opportunities and legal protections available in the United States, to the point where they risk their lives to get them—even though ultimately opportunity is highly stratified and not nearly as available as it’s made out to be. In the State of the Union address on February 12, 2013, President Obama discussed how people he met in Burma hoped that U.S.-style justice and rule of law might be coming their way soon. The nation definitely has things to offer that some other places lack.

(I was late in watching the SOTU, but the enhanced version was pretty cool. Though I could have used a bit more Pop-Up Video style trivia to label the people in the audience who were apparently important enough to show on camera. Elizabeth Warren, Eric Holder, and Tammy Duckworth I got, but some help would have been nice.)

But “Americanness” as a cultural identity is not so widely championed. Indeed, the only people I know of who attach a positive valence to it other than not-yet-disillusioned immigrants are “Americans.”  That is, it’s popular with a particular subset of people who live in the U.S.—not coincidentally often those demanding cultural and linguistic assimilation of immigrants. Those who’d put flags on their socks but find it offensive to burn one, etc.

Valorizing the state of being “American,” that is, seems to go along with a particular version of patriotism and conservatism and flag-waving and red-state-ness. It’s certainly meaningful to those people, but I remain baffled as to why anyone who didn’t share those demographic and political characteristics wouldn’t just say “actually, we really don’t want that word, we’re going to find something that talks about us in a way we like.”

In the first part of January, there was an exchange over the email list of the Association of Internet Researchers that started with a scholar looking for pointers to sources on social-media-based tribes. In addition to responses that just answered the question came some that were critical of the racist/colonialist underpinnings of the term “tribe” itself.

(I’m torn here between giving those contributors credit and respecting that what they said was not, strictly, public, particularly given AoIR’s long history of thinking about online research ethics and protecting the identities of one’s sources. So I’m erring on the side of not naming names or even quoting, since that would be Google-able).

The conversation about “tribe” raised a question for me: Can we separate out the usefulness of “tribe” as a type-of-social-organization term from its racist/primitivist history? And if we can’t, how can we talk about those forms of social organization?

It just so happened that I had an upcoming meeting of my queer studies reading group that was going to look at queer indigenous studies, so I put the topic on hold in anticipation of the insight that reading and group discussion would provide. And, sure enough, it did.

(What follows is heavily influenced by having read and discussed excerpts from Scott Lauria Morgensen’s Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization, but in a way that makes it hard to point to specific page numbers. So, this is both a blanket citation and a blanket disclaimer that he may not think about this the same way I do. It might be more accurate to say, like those old anti-drug commercials: This is my brain on Morgensen.)

It seems clear that “tribe” in online contexts works in much the same way as it does in other white folks’ appropriations of nativeness. It gestures toward an untainted, pre-civilizational past upheld as pure and superior, which seems like a positive representation until you realize that it relies on a primitivizing logic and on actual indigenous people disappearing into the past.  (Which I wish advocates of a certain mascot on my campus could comprehend.)

Because of what I’ve read recently, in terms of appropriations of nativeness I’m thinking primarily about gay, lesbian, and transgender social movement uses of indigenous histories of gender and sexual diversity here (I’m not aware of any bisexual organizing using this tactic, but I’m happy to be corrected), but one of the AIR-L contributors mentioned the use of Native American imagery to demonstrate masculinist pride and martial prowess through things like “Apache” helicopters.

Like these uses, the use of “tribe” or “neo-tribe” to describe online forms of social organization both grounds a way of being in a historical, “natural” and so uncontestable, precedent and perpetuates the subordination of the both the thing it defends and the precedent.

How does that work? Well, in saying that “tribal” groupings are legitimate because they have a precedent in real, live indigenous people somewhere, this logic perpetuates the idea that such groupings need a justification rather than being legitimate on their own merits. This is then advocacy for “premodern” forms of social organization without contesting the ways “modern” forms of organization—bureaucracy, say—are considered inherently good. This perfectly demonstrates Morgensen’s contention that “impersonating indigeneity and believing in colonial modernity are noncontradictory acts” (p. 17).

On top of this, and more importantly, the valorization of supposedly spontaneous and natural ways of being aligns nativeness with nature rather than culture and constructs indigenous peoples as the antithesis of civilization, a logic which played a major role in justifying dispossession and genocide in the first place. It relies on a primitivist—or, indeed, primitivizing—logic. So much for this being a sign of respect.

Morgensen discusses this dynamic as establishing “anthropological authority to determine Native truth while leaving their desire for it unexamined” (p. 15). People decide what indigeneity means and then either want to eliminate it or celebrate it (and mourn its elimination), eliding their own process of construction and not questioning the logic that makes nativeness a screen for those anxieties or desires.

But I want to take a step further.

Even if we stop using these loaded tribal logics and languages, we have to also examine the desire for historical legitimacy itself. On one hand, that is, to be able to point to people who have done things differently disrupts the naturalization of contemporary norms—“it doesn’t have to look this way, look, someone else did it differently!” Authenticity begets authorization. But this slides very quickly into resting the legitimacy of one’s difference on there being a precedent rather than making a robust argument for difference as inherently legitimate.

This contention perhaps sounds familiar, as this is the same structure by which people claim homosexuality is biological to legitimize it. What Shannon Weber calls biological homonormativity, in using nature as a cover, supports the idea that no one would ever choose same-sex desire if they weren’t compelled, and in the same way the appropriative logic of tribal authenticity relies on a belief that collective organization is lesser but legitimate because “pure.”

And instead of participating in these logics, I think the arguments in favor of diverse forms of human community need to be much queerer.

This isn’t, of course, to say that indigenous folks can’t or shouldn’t make arguments about authenticity and authority with regard to their own cultures and histories in order to make claims to things like land. I’m not legislating a queer approach to everything or for everyone, because it’s not for everything. (Also, it would be radically unqueer to do so.) Queer is a screwdriver, and sometimes you need a hammer; not recognizing that will lead to trying to screw everything when sometimes it needs nailing.

But I am arguing that appropriating “tribe” to legitimize collectivist forms of organization is not only racist, primitivizing, and reproductive of the crimes of colonization—which would be enough reason to dispense with it—but it’s actually not even productive for the purpose to which it’s set.

I first saw the story on January 19, retweeted to me by @kouredios from the Twitter of band They Might be Giants: jocotmbg

Briefly, independent artist Jonathan Coulton covered Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” in a distinctive style, and Glee’s cover of the song is virtually identical to Coulton’s, causing uproar from pro-Coulton and anti-Glee forces on the Internet under the hashtag #JoCoGleeGate. Both Coulton and Glee licensed the intellectual property of the song—the lyrics—from the appropriate parties, but Glee did not license Coulton’s arrangement from him, nor even inform him before recording and releasing the song.

jocoCNN This series of events seemed unfortunate, of course, but it didn’t arrest my attention at first. Until it made it to CNN a week later:

By the time Mythbusters co-host and geek-chic internet celebrity Adam Savage got into it on January 28, jocosavageI had also gotten around to reading Casey Fiesler’s 2008 piece Everything I need to know I learned from fandom: How existing social norms can help shape the next generation of user-generated content, and I knew I needed to write about it.

What we see from Glee’s decision and the ensuing (mini)scandal is the way in which the copyright system fundamentally fails at distinction. To reuse the quote from Fiesler that was my structural guide last week, “at one end is completely original material (no threat to copyright owners), and at the other end is wholesale copying (obvious infringement)” (p. 757), and the huge gray area in the middle is where current copyright law has no answers.

This is because anything other than “no threat” gets collapsed into “completely owned by the original rights-holder.” As Fiesler explains earlier in the piece, “legally, only copyright owners have the right to prepare [derivative] works. This applies to anything from the slightest modification to something so transformed that the original is hardly recognizable” (p. 737), which are, in the eyes of the law, all equally derivative.

Though Fiesler argues that “derivative works are transformative; basically, they incorporate copyrighted aspects of the original without being carbon copies of the original” (p. 737), that is, it’s actually the case that the transformativity or “adding new material” aspect is not something the law can account for very well, and this needs to be taken much more seriously.

Fiesler relegates the point to a note: “as it stands now, if, for example, someone attempted to profit from someone else’s fan fiction, the original fan fiction writer would probably not have a legal remedy, as they did not hold the copyright in their work in the first place” (759 n. 182), but it’s a pretty big deal. After all, it’s pretty much exactly what happened to Jonathan Coulton in a different medium.

Coulton added significant aspects to the song, but because it was based on another source song, he would seem to have no legal claim. As CNN explained, “the rights to ‘Baby Got Back’ belong with songwriter Anthony L. Ray, also known as Sir Mix-A-Lot, and his music publisher, Universal, who have apparently given proper licenses to Fox and ‘Glee.’” Coulton, despite his contribution to what Glee ultimately produced, does not factor into the equation at a legal level. He didn’t own the words, so he seemingly loses his claim to the music as well.

jocoiTunesIf that seems messed up to you, you’re not alone. Though Coulton apparently has no legal standing, he does have a moral one. It’s obvious to everyone that Coulton’s creativity went unacknowledged in this process, and as Adam Savage’s call to action quoted above suggests, people are rallying behind Coulton to the degree that his version is outselling the Glee cast recording:

The irony that it should be Glee, with its track record of supporting diversity (albeit in a sanctimonious, oversimplified way), that’s stomping on a small-scale music maker has also not escaped anyone. As Coulton complained in the CNN piece, “Glee has a reputation for being a show that celebrates the underdog [ . . . ]. It’s the anti-bullying show. But this is a bullying way to approach this.”

(Of course, Glee is a product of a massive media empire, and no one would be surprised by Rupert Murdoch bullying anybody, which is a whole other bait-and-switch and reputation-scrubbing issue.)

But regardless, the lawyers at Fox presumably knew the lay of the legal land, and knew they could get away with it either because they’d win in court, possibly immediately because there’s no standing in copyright law for Coulton, or because they knew Coulton didn’t have the financial wherewithal to sue them in the first place. Either way, it’s ultimately the weird ways that copyright has become wildly top-heavy that are at root here. So much for underdogs.