Is now the time to go Under the Knife?

This week in North Philly Notes, Jennifer Graves and Samantha Kwan, coauthors of Under the Knife, write about cosmetic surgery in the age of COVID.

Despite many states banning elective surgeries because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cosmetic surgery industry is still booming. In fact, some cosmetic surgeons report a rise in patients amid the pandemic. This may be in part because many people are now working from home. Working from home allows people both more flexibility in scheduling procedures and the ability to work while healing. Some surgeons believe working from home has also led to an upswing in business because at-home workers have become increasingly self-conscious as they spend hours on end staring not only at their coworkers, but also at themselves, on various video call platforms like Zoom.

However, perhaps even more importantly, the ability to work from home, combined with the ubiquity of masks, has created an unprecedented chance for cosmetic surgery patients to hide their surgery. Specifically, working from home away from the prying eyes of coworkers and the opportunity to wear a mask in public allows people to conceal the fact that they have had surgery during the conspicuous post-operative healing phase. This ability to pass as surgically unaltered, we found, is paramount to those considering cosmetic surgery.

Under the Knife_smIn our interviews with 42 women who had cosmetic surgery in both Texas and California, it became clear that women who go under the knife are acutely aware of the potential stigma associated with cosmetic surgery. Specifically, they are aware that others may perceive them as fake, preoccupied with vanity, overly sexual, and more. Under the Knife: Cosmetic Surgery, Boundary Work, and the Pursuit of the Natural Fake explores the different ways women negotiate and manage this stigma.

Notably, one of the central ways women do this is by seeking out what we label the “natural fake.” Successful cosmetic surgery that embodies the natural fake means inconspicuous postoperative body parts that appear God-given. The natural fake enables women to pass as surgically unaltered while still conforming to hegemonic ideals of femininity, such as having a flat stomach, ample breasts, and a wrinkle-free face. This ability to pass as surgically unaltered, which is uniquely possible now in the age of COVID-19, helps women avoid any potential stigma they may encounter.

Alongside passing, our participants engaged in “boundary work.” For example, some defended their elective surgery as necessary, positioned their surgeries as “good surgeries” done by competent surgeons for the right reasons, and distinguished themselves from “pathological” cosmetic surgery junkies.

To expose the diverse meanings and experiences that come with cosmetic surgery, Under the Knife also explores the stories of women who exhibited a fraught relationship with cosmetic surgery. Their stories illuminate that cosmetic surgery is not always a cakewalk, and serves as a warning to those who might want to jump into surgery.

Ultimately, in addition to serving as an academic exploration of cosmetic surgery, our work serves as a resource for women contemplating surgery to help them understand the tensions associated with undergoing cosmetic surgery and the nuances of navigating the world in a post-operative body.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil, and COVID-19

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, coauthor of Living in the Crossfire, provides an interim report about Brazil during the pandemic.

Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on July 8. It marked López Obrador’s long overdue debut as a statesman in need of establishing international credentials. During nearly two years as president, his whereabouts did not include any trips, official or otherwise, outside of Mexico. He had consistently soft-pedaled Trump’s anti-immigrant insults and truculence, but there was an official agenda celebrating the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement that went into effect July 1. The meeting became an exchange of compliments, and a state dinner followed. There was no reference to common views held by the two chiefs of state on the COVID-19 pandemic. Had COVID-19 been on the agenda, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro might well have been invited. The three presidents stand out as world leaders opting for “life must go on as usual” (López Obrador’s quietly expressed view) in spite of COVID-19.

JAIR BOLSONARO AND COVID-19

Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to lead Brazil in the COVID-19 pandemic have shown mixed results. Numbers of deaths were high, but not everywhere in Brazil, and well below the U.S. as numbers per 100,000 (ca. 29 per 100,000 in Brazil [comparable to Brazil’s homicide rate] compared to ca. 39 per 100,000 in US). Then a new surge in numbers of deaths largely closed the gap with 44.7 deaths per 100,000 for Brazil, and 46.8 deaths per 100,000 for the US. These figures placed Brazil 5th and the United States 4th in COVID-19 mortality rates as calculated around the world with only Sweden (57.4), Italy (67.5), and the United Kingdom (69) showing higher rates. Eight state governors in Brazil have been or are ill with coronavirus. Governor Carlos Moises of Santa Catarina announced July 1 that he was ill. Santa Catarina had 26,341 cases but only 341 deaths. Official Brazilian statistics unlike in the U.S. give equal emphasis to number of cases, number of deaths, and number of people who become ill and recover. A Johns Hopkins study had Brazil with the largest number of people who recovered from COVID-19. In the U.S., preference is for a dichotomy: the number of new cases and number of deaths, and very little about the large number of people who recover.

Brazilians are very open about expressing fears of dying. The feeling seems shared equally by men and women. Summoning courage to face threats or problems, Brazilians will identify the enemy as in the expression: “Ou ele ou eu,” “It’s either him or me.” (Portuguese nouns are either masculine or feminine. Ending in a consonant, the Portuguese word virus is masculine.) Bolsonaro has made himself the face in identifying COVID-19 as a threat to Brazil, its people and economy. It has been an uncovered face when he appeared in large public gatherings without a mask. But the message was clear: “It’s the virus or us.” Bolsonaro brought an unusual personal history having been nearly fatally knifed at a presidential election campaign rally in 2018. Subsequently, he underwent three serious operations to resize his slashed intestines. The experience seems to have spiked an “I’m not afraid of anything” attitude with displays of over the top virility. Also reignited has been his presumed homophobia. He joked with a group of visitors that wearing a mask was “a thing for queers.”*

Bolsonaro’s aim is to move Brazil out of its erratically applied COVID-19 lockdown which he thinks further shrinks a national economy mired in recession since 2014. Even as recently as July 6th, he continued down this path and vetoed parts of a new law sent to him by Congress. Struck out were provisions that masks must be worn in prison, and that instructions for social distancing must be posted on churches or certain other places where people gather. In the vetoes, he remembered federalism: laws already exist that assign responsibility to the municipal and state in these matters, not the national government.

Layout 1Bolsonaro’s bravura public appearances in mixing with his followers have not won universal approval. Critical and outspoken Brazilians may be found among groups with high and low incomes. The upper middle class and upper class elites voted for him for president in large numbers, but many have lost their enthusiasm, and some now despise him. Low income Brazilians living packed together in dense communities in large urban agglomerations such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have been unable to practice social distancing, and have little good to say about the government, authorities in general, or presidential antics. The coronavirus is with them, and infection and illness are widespread. Reports in the large circulation daily A Folha de São Paulo (which low income Brazilian cannot afford to buy) record widespread, growing levels of infection in low income neighborhoods, but tend to provide little information about numbers of deaths.

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO HAS CORONAVIRUS

On July 7, a test confirmed that Brazilian President Bolsonaro had coronavirus. He took the test with symptoms of low fever and cough. Though insisting he felt “perfectly well,” people were instructed to keep a suitable distance from the president. A prominent Brazilian journalist welcomed the news in his column: “I’m cheering for his condition to worsen and that he may die.” His editors wrote to the contrary that they were cheering for recovery, and that the experience would change the president’s attitude about the “greatest public health crisis that Brazil has faced in many generations.” Eighteen days later on July 25, Bolsonaro announced that he had tested negative and was free of the virus. The president celebrated driving a motorbike to a store where he spoke with various people. He wore a mask and only removed it briefly to put on a biking helmet.

Despite being ill, Bolsonaro has not abandoned the positions he took at the beginning on the COVID-19 pandemic: that coronavirus is flu, that many people will be infected, some will become ill and recover, but very few will die. An exception are the elderly, the age group with a far higher incidence of mortality than any other who must do social distancing, wear masks, etc. A vaccine is not available, but several available drugs are that speed recovery. Bolsonaro himself announced he was taking repeated doses of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as recommended by his doctor. While science had not verified that hydroxychloroquine works as a cure, “it’s a matter of observation” he declared, “that many people seem cured, and it works for me.”

Lockdowns are wrong because they stop or slow economic activity and can lead to more business failures, and to more unemployment in Brazil whose economy has been long stagnant and is still contracting. These have been Bolsonaro’s positions during the coronavirus pandemic—he hasn’t wavered, and it seems certain he will stand by them. As for masking, while Bolsonaro had appeared prominently in public without a mask as at mass rallies of his supporters, at other times was seen wearing a mask. Since the diagnosis of coronavirus, he has been using a mask.

Bolsonaro’s hard core supporters elevated him to mythic status, and like to chant “mito” (myth) at rallies. Their reasons include that he survived near death following knifing by a would be assassin, that he easily won the presidential election after having been completely discounted at the outset, and that he served 28 years as a federal deputy without enriching himself. Elected politicians in Brazil are widely seen as corrupt, but Bolsonaro apparently isn’t, an important fact for his supporters. That he is now apparently recovering from coronavirus can only strengthen the mythic status conferred by chanting followers. Masked and recovering, he is in a position to provide constructive leadership and policy making. Of course, he has never been able to act or speak in a manner that suggests attributes of a statesman.

Surgeons at a public hospital successfully sutured his slashed intestines and saved his life in a delicate emergency procedure following the knife attack. This might have prompted a statement strongly in support of Brazil’s often maligned SUS (United Health System) public health system, but did not. Articles 196-200 of the 1988 Constitution require the state to make health care available to all Brazilians, though a private system is allowed to complement SUS, and excellent private hospitals are available to serve the elite, usually paid for by high cost private health insurance. SUS meanwhile has been chronically underfunded and suffers from various shortages. A minister of health in the Michel Temer government (2016-2018) which immediately preceded Bolsonaro’s recognized the limitations with the dismal declaration that it might be necessary to forget about certain social rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Nevertheless, SUS has carried the burden assigned it, and treated 75% of Brazil’s COVID-19 patients. Bolsonaro himself only expressed gratitude to the members of the staff who saved his life, and later offered the hospital some left over campaign funds which it turned out was illegal. His entrenched positions on coronavirus, like other positions Bolsonaro has taken though often supported by his followers also allow numerous critics to continue to believe and assert that the president is something akin to a moronic know nothing, or a clown which leads them into name calling such as Bozo or Bozonaro.

*In November, 2019 before the arrival of COVID-19, Bolsonaro declared he was no longer homophobic. He met with Diego Hypolito, Brazil’s multi-medal winning gymnast shortly after Hypolito came out as gay. The meeting included a photo op with Bolsonaro’s arm around the athlete’s shoulder. According to São Paulo state deputy and Bolsonaro defender Douglas Garcia who is a gay, black, and hails from a favela, Bolsonaro’s homophobia is the result of spending half his life as a soldier—he retired with the rank of captain—in an environment of virility. Garcia added this didn’t mean Bolsonaro would go into the streets ready to shoot at all that’s gay. 

If at first you don’t succeed…

This week in North Philly Notes, Ann O’M. Bowman, author of Reinventing the Austin City Councilwrites about the persistence of Austinites to change an electoral system.

You know how sometimes you try to change something and it doesn’t succeed. And then later, you try again maybe once or twice more. At that point, you might be tempted to throw in the towel, taking some solace in the fact that at least you tried more than once. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be, you tell yourself. Well, in the case of the efforts to change the way city council members were elected in Austin, Texas, it was the seventh attempt before the efforts were successful. Six previous times, ballot propositions that would have replaced the old electoral system with a new one were defeated by voters. Then came lucky number seven.

But it wasn’t luck that changed the outcome. Instead it was perseverance and commitment. And a plan. And sure, maybe a little bit of luck.

Reinventing the Austin City Council_smReinventing the Austin City Council tells the story of how Austin replaced its election system and what the change has brought about. At its heart is the issue of representation. In at-large elections, which Austin used for more than a century, candidates competed citywide and voters could vote for as many candidates as there were seats. A large number of local governments continue to elect their governing boards in at-large elections. In district elections, which Austin approved in 2012 and implemented in 2014, candidates compete in geographically-defined districts and voters who live in that district cast a ballot only for a candidate running for that district seat. This creates a more direct representational connection between the city council member and the constituent. Because of this, district elections are increasing in popularity in localities across the United States. Why does this matter?  Because the electoral system affects who gets elected to the city council. And who gets elected affects the policies that the city council adopts.

In Austin, a grassroots organization, Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), was the engine that propelled the district election issue to victory in 2012. AGR was an amalgam of individuals and groups, some of which had been on opposite sides of political issues in the past. But they shared a belief that a district system could be beneficial to their interests in rapidly growing Austin. AGR worked tirelessly to develop a bottom-up campaign, keeping the district question in front of local residents. Organizers hammered away at the issue of fairness, showing that for many years under the at-large system, most council members came from the same part of the city. Many parts of Austin, especially those in which African Americans and Latinx lived, had never elected a city council member from their area. AGR made the argument that this was unfair, and that the concerns of residents of those areas were often unheard and seldom prioritized by the council. Some opposition to AGR’s district proposition emerged, but it was unsuccessful in defeating the ballot question. On November 6, 2012, after rejecting a district electoral system on six previous occasions, 60.2% of Austin voters approved the district plan supported by AGR. In 2014, for the first time since the early 20th century, the city held district elections for the council.

The proverb, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” seems especially apt.

A musical journey with Psychobilly author Kimberly Kattari

This week in North Philly Notes, Kimberly Kattari, author of Psychobilly: Subcultural Survivalwrites about the significance of subcultural music communities.

Since seventh grade, my identity has often revolved around my interest in some genre of popular music. First it was heavy metal. The first cassette I bought was Metallica’s self-titled album (known as “The Black Album”) and the first song I learned to play on the guitar was “Nothing Else Matters.” Then came grunge, then punk rock, and many other styles, all of with which I resonated strongly. I’d signal my interest in that style of music through my fashion and style choices—long thermals under band shirts or flannel for grunge; dyed hair, fishnets, and safety pin “jewelry” for punk. It felt great to be on the same wavelength with others who shared my passion for that style of music, were invested in what the lyrics were about, and felt that our musical taste said something about who we were.

I think my deep desire to be part of a musical community stemmed from the fact that I was once completely not in touch with popular music. As a kid, I was mostly exposed to the classical and world music my parents listened to. I regularly attended concerts with them at university concert halls, the Hollywood Bowl, and the philharmonic. In the fourth grade, while my peers danced in the schoolyard to songs by New Kids on the Block and giggled about which member of the boy band they had a crush on, I was clueless. I was listening to Robert Schumann, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (an a cappella group from South Africa), and KODO (a taiko drum ensemble from Japan). By the beginning of seventh grade, I still hadn’t branched out from the music my parents listened to. On the first day of my English class, the teacher asked everyone to introduce themselves and share their favorite musician or band. I froze. I didn’t really know any “popular” bands that someone my age would like. I blurted out the only musician’s name I could remember—Rod Stewart (my mother was a fan). Let’s just say this was not a “cool” choice. My classmates laughed. I was completely embarrassed.

After that day, I started to pay more attention to the music that my peers listened to. I still love classical music and “world music” too. I went on to earn my doctorate in ethnomusicology after all (and began to understand why the term “world music” problematically reinforces colonialist legacies). But I also became fascinated with understanding how and why people identify with different types of popular music, why we resonate with one type and not another, and how we feel connected to others who share our musical interests because we usually have more in common than just our musical tastes. Music says something about us.

Psychobilly_smFast-forward to 2007. I had just finished writing my Master’s thesis on reggaetón, exploring why fans across the United States felt that the music expressed their bicultural identity and values. Then a friend invited me to a show featuring a psychobilly band called Nekromantix. I had never heard of “psychobilly.” Intrigued, I went to the show and was stunned by what I saw. The fans blended aspects of 1950s rockabilly and punk rock. They looked like a hybrid of Elvis and the Sex Pistols. Some had a greased-up pompadour, while others had an exaggerated flattop mutated with a Mohawk. Clothes and tattoos featured symbols that signified an obsession with the macabre—coffins, bats, skeletons, monsters—done in a cartoonish, horror B-movie camp style. The music matched the fashion: it sounded like a harder, faster, more “punk” version of rockabilly with lyrics about “getting horny in a hearse” and running scared from the “gargoyles over Copenhagen.” The lead singer played a stand-up bass (a rockabilly staple) but it looked like a coffin. He rolled his eyes back into his head, looking psychotic, while growling lyrics about dancing with the dead in a graveyard (“Dead MoonWalkin”) (2004, Dead Girls Don’t Cry, Hellcat Records). Here, in a dive bar in Austin, Texas, was a whole subcultural community I never knew existed. I was having flashbacks to being in seventh grade: how could I be completely clueless about this whole other world that some people were clearly committed to? I was intrigued to learn more about why people identified with this particular combination of vintage rock ’n’ roll, punk, and campy horror.

Psychobilly: Subcultural Survival explores how and why members of this subcultural community identify so strongly with it. I spent more than ten years interviewing musicians and fans about their participation in this scene. Above all, psychobillies expressed to me that this scene gives them a place to freely express their non-mainstream identity. As one interlocutor put it, “Psychobilly is the only place where I feel like me.” Most of my interlocutors said that they don’t normally fit in with others and have been socially and/or economically marginalized in a variety of ways. So they free themselves from normative expectations at psychobilly events: they “wreck” (erratically mosh around in a pit while throwing their fists every which way); they dress in ways that might scare “normal” people; and they sing along with tongue-in-cheek songs about killing the cheerleader (which aren’t meant to be taken seriously but still express a defiant and rebellious attitude).

The hybridization of stylistic elements of rockabilly and punk started to make more sense to me as I talked to members of the subculture: psychobillies combined aspects of two genres that had each represented working-class expressions of rebellion against the status quo. But psychobillies rebelled even further by rejecting the clichés that characterized rockabilly and punk by the early 1980s. Instead of singing about pink Cadillacs and bopping on a Saturday night (typical rockabilly) or political rage (conventional punk), psychobillies celebrated their defiant attitude in songs like “Scum of the Neighborhood” by Batmobile (Batmobile, Kix 4 U Records, 1985): “We’re the scum of the neighborhood, going out tonight / We like to walk in small streets and get messed up in a fight / Crushing skulls and pulling knives, we care for nobody’s life.” Influenced by horror and science fiction, the lyrics allowed fans to escape reality and fantasize about an imagined world where they yielded the power and inverted social and economic hierarchies.

This book not only illustrates how subcultures represent important spaces for people to resist hegemonic expectations and imagine an alternative to their daily lived experience, but also how they help participants stake out their own way to survive tough times. Having been rejected or excluded from traditional avenues for economic success, many psychobillies lean on each other for social and economic support.

In short, this under-the-radar subculture exists because people rely on it in meaningful ways. It’s an important vehicle through which members of this community express a non-normative identity and draw on the support of others who share their experiences, values, and interests. The subculture survives today because it helps people survive. It allows them a place to be—in their own way and on their own terms.

Activism by Parents of Children with Disabilities and the 30th Anniversary of the ADA

This week in North Philly Notes, Allison Carey and Pamela Block, two of the coauthors of Allies and Obstacles, write about the accomplishments of parents in the disability rights movement as well as how disability activists are coping with COVID and Black Lives Matter. 

July 26th 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One of the nation’s most important and innovative civil rights acts, the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability across many spheres of public life, including in education, work, transportation, telecommunication, and the provision of public services. In doing so, it also mandates the provision of accessibility and accommodations to enable full participation in society by people with disabilities. Upon signing the ADA into law, President George H. W. Bush declared, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Allies and Obstacles_smThe anniversary of the ADA calls for reflection on where we were and where we are now. In our book, Allies and Obstacles: Disability Activism and Parents of Children with Disabilities, we detail the struggles of many disabled children and their families prior to the ADA, times when disabled people were systematically excluded from access to transportation, communication, education, and employment. We also document the ways that parent activists worked together with disability activists to bring the ADA into being. Thanks to these efforts, parents raising children in a post-ADA world experience a different landscape—one with far greater attention to access and that is more likely to recognize people with disabilities as full citizens worthy of inclusion.

Despite the incredible efforts of activists, however, we have a long way to go to actually achieve equity and inclusion. Parents are both allies and obstacles along this path. For example, in Olmstead v. L. C. (1999), the Supreme Court drew on the ADA in its finding that people with disabilities have a right to live and receive services in the community and to avoid unnecessary institutionalization. Many parents have fought for deinstitutionalization and to build community services, and they praised this decision. Other parents, though, fought to preserve institutions. Indeed, the language of Olmstead prohibiting “unnecessary” institutionalizations bows to the pressure placed by parents and professionals to leave intact the idea of necessary institutionalization as determined by professionals and parents/guardians with almost no avenues for disabled people to challenge their confinement. Data from 2011 indicated more than 89,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and more than 178,000 people with psychiatric diagnoses still reside in large-scale, congregate settings (National Association of State Mental Health Directors, 2017; Scott, Lakin, and Larson, 2008).

New challenges also continue to arise, built on long-standing inequalities. The spread of the Coronavirus hit the disability community especially hard, exposing stark and persistent inequities. People with disabilities were infected with and died from COVID-19 at higher rates than the general population (Kennedy, Frieden, Dick-Mosher, & Curtis, 2020; Turk, Landes, Formica, & Goss 2020). In New York City, residents of group homes were more than five times more likely than the general population to develop COVID-19 and almost five times more likely to die from it (Hakim, 2020). Despite the high risk for disabled people, medical ethicists created guidelines for medical triage and technology access that restricted access to lifesaving measures to some categories of disabled people. Disability rights groups had to sue, drawing on the ADA, to defend themselves against medical discrimination. Throughout the pandemic, parents have fought for additional funding and clearer guidelines to ensure the delivery of support services in the community, including adequate testing and protective equipment to protect their loved ones and the support staff. But parents-led organizations are also among those that continue to run congregate care facilities and failed to protect people from the risks of congregate care including the rapid spread of disease.

Attention to police violence by Black Lives Matter activism put a spotlight on the fact that disabled black, indigenous and people of color are especially vulnerable to being hurt and killed by the police. Those who should be protecting  the rights of disabled citizens, instead use “unexpected” and “noncompliant” behavior to justify violence and pre-existing conditions to excuse fatality that occurs in the course of that violence. Here too we find parents on the front lines of these struggles.  Activist and blogger Kerima Çevik, for example, recognized years ago the dangers her son, a mixed race, autistic and nonverbal teenager, might face if he encountered the police. She works with a range of organizations to build community capacity to protect him and others. The work of minority activists, however, for too long was overlooked and de-prioritized by national parent-led disability organizations, which have majority white leadership and membership. These organization tended to sideline issues of concern to minority communities, such as police violence and the disproportionate labeling of minority youth in special education, and instead focus on an agenda seen as most politically palatable.

These examples highlight that, although the ADA opened many doors and created many protections, there is still much more to do both legislatively and in regards to resisting and changing societal prejudices and structural inequalities. Parents play a complex role in this struggle. They often ally with disabled activists to fight for inclusion and empowerment. However, continued support for congregate care and dismissing the intersectionality of race and disability contribute to some of the most pressing problems we face today.

Allison Carey, Pamela Block, and Richard Scotch are having a virtual panel to celebrate the ADA’s 30th anniversary on Aug 6th at  7pm. Visit: https://mi-ada.org/ for more information

Living amidst constant disruptions that keep on taking new forms.

This week in North Philly Notes, Ghassan Moussawi, author of Disruptive Situations asks, What kind of everyday life strategies can we use in these times?

Since March 2020, we have been living in uncertain and troubling times due to COVID-19, where our lives, everyday routines, and sense of safety have been heavily impacted. However, as we have witnessed, the global pandemic has and continues to affect peoples’ lives differently, where the most precarious people have most been affected by the pandemic. For example, there are higher death rate among communities of color, especially Black, Indigenous, undocumented, queer and trans people of color and communities in the U.S.

What came as a shock to many is the sudden interruption of everyday life as we know it. People are lost, confused, and mourning the loss of their routines and the stability in their lives. While some might say, we are living in “a new normal;” the definition of “new” and “normal” keep changing to the extent that the term “new normal” fails to account for the moment we are living in. The majority of people living in the U.S. today have not encountered such sudden shifts and disruptions in their everyday lives. For queer people and communities of color, however, pandemic and government neglect are familiar; the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s wiped out an entire generation while the Reagan and Bush administrations looked the other way.

We think of these as exceptional times, however, how do scholars account for people’s lives in places where everyday life disruptions and uncertainties about the present and future are normal and normalized? What kind of everyday life strategies can we use in these times?

Disruptive Situations_smMy book Disruptive Situations answers the question above, by looking at the everyday life strategies of LGBT people living in post-civil war Beirut. I ask readers to take a step back and think about what it means to live amidst constant everyday life disruptions that keep on taking new forms. Disruptive Situations comes at a time when we are all experiencing a sense of loss and disorientation, and my hope is that the book might shed light on how people survive constant and imminent disruptions, caused by wars, civil unrest, and everyday violence.

The idea for the book started in 2009, when I found many Euro-American media outlets advertising Beirut as a new destination for gay tourism. Though life in Beirut remains highly precarious, such representations downplayed such realities. My book looks at the period 2005-2016, which was marked by a series of assassinations, an Israeli war in 2006, suicide bombings, a shortage of basic services (such as electricity and clean water), and a garbage crisis. Drawing on fieldwork I conducted in Beirut among LGBT people between 2009-15—during the height of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s suicide bombings in Beirut and Lebanon—I ask how we can account for people’s everyday lives amid uncertainty and violence that has no beginning and no end. People in Beirut have devised the term al-wad’ or “the situation” to capture the complexity of these everyday violence and disruptions.

Using the concept of al-wad’, or “the situation,” I raise questions about spaces beyond Beirut, by asking what it has to say about queer life in contexts where precarity and disruptions are the conditions of everyday social and cultural life. Though the book draws on LGBT people’s strategies, these queer strategies are not necessarily enacted only by LGBT people.

Disruptive Situation highlights these and other issues:

  • How and in what ways has Beirut been marketed as a “gay friendly” destination? For whom, is it “gay friendly? It is class and race—and not gay friendliness—that determines who is able to experience Beirut as “gay friendly;” In Beirut—as now amid the COVID pandemic—race and class primarily determine who gets to experience safety and precarity
  • LGBT individuals’ various negotiations or “queer strategies” in navigating everyday disruptions, with a focus on mobilities and access to space. These includes movements within and across the city, to crossing neighborhood borders, and access to “gay-friendly” spaces and communities of organizing
  • Queer strategies that people use, like accepting contradictions, and creating bubbles as both metaphorical and physical spaces of respite to negotiate life
  • What can everyday queer tactics tell us about the local and regional politics, and everyday life violence and uncertainty? This current pandemic also illustrates how it affects LGBT communities differently based on race, class, gender, and documentation status. Similarly, State and interpersonal violence in the U.S. remain heavily determined by marginalization, with Indigenous and Black communities particularly targeted even in the midst of the pandemic
  • What does it mean to conduct ethnographic research at times of violence and disruption? What does it mean when one’s research gets constantly interrupted and one has to leave their research site due to violence and bombings?

I hope Disruptive Situations will help us better understand both how people negotiate constant major life disruptions and how we can come up with creative ways to conduct research when we live in uncertain times, such as the ones we are currently experiencing.

What the American Irish faced in the nineteenth century

This week in North Philly Notes, Howard Lune, author of Transnational Nationalism and Collective Identity among the American Irish, writes about Irish immigrants in America.

Before I got too far into my early research on Irish nationalism, and before I had recognized the nature of transnational organizing efforts in supporting the long campaign for Irish independence, I was curious about the surprising success of the American Irish in public service fields such as police and firefighting squads. The answer to that puzzle turned out to center on fairly straightforward jobs-for-votes deals with the Democratic Party. But looking into widespread anti-Irish, anti-Catholic activism in the United States in the nineteenth century I was stuck by two patterns. The first was that the language and tactics of “othering” the Irish strongly resembled the tactics used to deny African Americans freedoms and citizenship rights at the same time. The second was that the same ideas have been resurrected with only slightly different language to attack other immigrant groups and African Americans under the present American regime. The continuing existence of discrimination is not surprising. I guess I just expected that we would develop more sophisticated forms of it.

The essential starting point for all of these organized acts of hostility is to present an unquestionable assumption that whenever we say “we” in America we all know that “we” are white, Christian men. Of course, in the 1800s, Christian meant Protestant while Catholic was part of the other, but they still preferred the term Christian. Few nativists ever argued that America was supposed to be white. They simply argued that the non-whites were “invading,” “taking over,” and “replacing” us. They never had to say “our kind” is supposed to dominate in all social, economic, and political institutions. They only had to say that “those people” would be infiltrating all of our spaces if we didn’t stop them. This business of the unexamined “we” sounded like a call to community, solidarity, and fellow-feeling while actually building walls, mobilizing violent mobs, and, especially, preventing others from voting.

Transitional Nationalism_smOther familiar patterns followed. “We” destroyed their schools and claimed that we couldn’t help them when they were so ignorant. We denied them jobs and claimed that we didn’t want such poor people bringing down the quality of life in our cities. We held up the example of the most successful of the whole (in this case, the wealthy Irish Protestants) in order to claim that the rest could obviously succeed too if they weren’t so lazy, or criminal, or whatever frightened us at the moment. We relegated them to slums and then said that no one who lived like that should be trusted with civic responsibility. We passed new laws about labor, vagrancy, and debt to target them, and then declared that they were mostly criminals and scofflaws. Our people raise families. Their people “breed.” And, in the more extreme publications that were commonly read but rarely acknowledged, we lamented the threat to the sexual purity of our white women if those people were allowed to run free.

In the 1800s we depicted the undesirable other as drunks. Today we describe them as probably using drugs.

These patterns, and so many others, demonstrate that the white, Protestant, male center of American life hasn’t really got any tangible complaint with any particular other group. If it did, then we would focus on different supposed attributes of each group pertinent to any given time period. Rather, it seems that the privileged core of the nation desperately fears having to share with others. This fear seems to be just as strong among those who have too much and those who have too little. Either way, the smallest excuse, the least supportable claim, and the most minor differences are enough for members of the culturally dominant group to band together to collectively degrade anyone and anything that could threaten the idea of their dominance. We are willing to allow anyone into college now, as long as they don’t get to be our bosses. We feign shock at each and every obvious example of racist violence but we hate it when people try to address “systemic” inequalities. We admit that the justice system isn’t always just, but we built it up that way in order to keep other people in their place, and we’re not planning to change that. We don’t hang signs that say “no Irish need apply” anymore, but try getting a corporate job interview without a white-sounding name. The Irish are accepted as white now, which almost implies that we have improved as a culture. Yet, with increasing globalization, we have no shortage of “other” people to casually disregard or openly hate. As a people, we are remarkably similar to our forebears, in the worst sense of the comparison.

An interview with author Ryan Pettengill about Communists and Community

This week in North Philly Notes, we interview author Ryan Pettengill about his new book, Communists and Community, which enhances our understanding of the central role Communists played in the advancement of social democracy throughout the mid-twentieth century.

You trace community activism in Detroit during the years 1941-1956, which is during the downslide of the American Community Party [CPUSA]. What accounts for this time frame for your book?
Quiet honestly, the CPUSA had always had a knack for community activism. There have been other scholars that have written about this topic, but much of their attention is concentrated on the period from 1935 to 1939. This era, known as the Popular Front period in which communists made important alliances with liberals and progressives in the struggle against international fascism, was thought to have ended by 1940, largely a casualty of the alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. While the CPUSA did, in fact, enter into a new period in its history, the activism it pursued – especially at the local level in centers like Detroit – largely remained the same. The alliances that communists made with religious and civic organizations that were dedicated to social and political equality remained intact. Moreover, the nature of their activism, in which they would flood City Hall with letters, march in demonstrations throughout neighborhoods, boycott bowling alleys that insisted on Jim Crow policies, or establish “labor schools” for the training of the next generation of activists remained the preferred mode of activism long after World War II ended. Taking this community activism into account helps us understand the CP in a different light. It also helps demonstrate that leftists were central in keeping militant activism alive in the postwar period before it would become much more visible in the early 1960s with the coming of the civil rights movement.

Can you discuss why you focused on post-war Detroit? Sure, it was motor city with a huge industry in America at that time, but what made this city a valuable crucible
Detroit is just…fascinating. I developed an interest in the city as a graduate student and it never really stopped. But to the point of this question, Detroit is outside of the local context in which American communism is typically examined – New York City.  Examining communists and the activism that they sponsored demonstrates that at the local level in places like Detroit there was a level of autonomy in which activists were afforded a chance address local challenges in the way they saw fit despite what the “party line” may have dictated.

Communists and Community_smYou write about how the CPUSA helped underrepresented groups, working toward socioeconomic betterment, creating multiracial workforces, and protecting the foreign-born. Can you discuss this little-known history of Communists playing a central role in the advancement of social democracy and civil rights?
I think communists, with their insistence on analyzing the role that class played in American life, were able to see the unmistakable connections to race. Other scholars have noted that the CP was the only predominantly white institution that took up the matter of systemic racism during the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s. To that end, it attracted civil rights activists like Reverend Charles Hill and Coleman Young, the first African American to be elected mayor of Detroit. As Young put it, the communists and Reverend Hill (an African American Baptist minister) were the only ones even talking about racism in the 1940s.  Young never apologized for running around with radicals so long as it meant the socioeconomic betterment of the black community.

There are interesting stories about housing projects, racism and racial segregation, police brutality, as well as issues involving wages and unionism, etc. What challenges, setbacks, and successes did the CP and its members have?
This may sound obvious but it was the Second Red Scare that accounted for the biggest challenges and setbacks for the CPUSA in Detroit and elsewhere. As I point out throughout the book, the Red Scare and McCarthyism compromised the alliances built between the labor-liberal-leftist coalition that had flourished in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Anticommunists like Joseph McCarthy had built careers on red baiting and liberals who had once been allies of leftists were forced to demonstrate their patriotism by ridding them from unions and civic organizations. That said, I think that what the communists achieved – especially throughout the 1950s – was keeping the concept of militant activism alive in the minds of Detroiters. The 1950s is so often portrayed as a politically tame period and it is no coincidence that McCarthyism was raging throughout the country at the time. The activism that communists sponsored in the postwar period helped lay the foundation for future activism in the 1960s and beyond.

 What observations do you have about the white ethnic backlash and rise of conservatism in the face of the CPUSA’s efforts? (Sounds kind of timely….)
In a perfect world, I would like my book to be read in conjunction with studies that chronicle the postwar economy, the rise of conservatism, and the long descent of the New Deal order. If you read Communists and Community in conjunction with, say, Daniel Clark’s Disruption in Detroit, for example, you can clearly see that the postwar economy was anything but stable and for the bulk of Detroit’s industrial workforce, simply having steady work took absolute precedent over the communist brand of activism that addressed the integration of Detroit’s neighborhoods or reforming policing practices throughout the city. If there is one thing writing this book has taught me is that the working class existed in the abstract and workers did not always want the same things. So, along comes someone like George Wallace who can speak the language of the working class in locales like Detroit and is able to portray himself as the “law and order” candidate and, thus, fracture the working-class coalition that the UAW, leftist activists, and other progressives worked so hard to establish throughout the war years.

How did the radicalism and politicization that gained momentum during that time continue in the decades after? You write that the decline of community activism within organized labor [is] a casualty of the Cold War; that anticommunism played a key role.
I generally think of Carl Winter, Helen Alison-Winter, Nat Ganley, and Billy Allan as placeholders for the future leftists who would come to mainstream protest and dissent in the 1960s and early 70s.  It wasn’t always easy to defend their radicalism but these individuals did so anyway.  When the Michigan Council for Peace led a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to petition the federal government to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union, they opened themselves up to all sorts of criticism from the right.  But Reverend Hill led the pilgrimage anyway.  By the 1960s, with the fading of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, radicalism was once again a permissible form of political expression.  The activists comprising what might loosely be called the “old left” essentially preserved the institution of community activism.

 

Stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past

This week in North Philly Notes, Manan Desai, author of The United States of Indiawrites about a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals.

In 1916, fresh off a tour across the United States, the exiled Indian nationalist Lajpat Rai penned what he described as a “Hindu’s Impressions and a Study” of America from his adopted home in Berkeley, California. After visits with prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Margaret Sanger, and Booker T. Washington, and stops throughout the country, Rai concluded that “the problems of the United States were very similar to those that face us in India.” As unlikely as that comparison seems, Rai was not alone in making it. During his time in the U.S., Rai became a part of a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, who actively imagined themselves as part of a shared project of anticolonialism. For the Americans with whom Rai and other Indian expatriates formed lasting friendships and alliances, the encounter with the Indian cause had shifted their perspective and left a lasting impression. Agnes Smedley, a working-class radical from Missouri who was mentored by Rai, would later write that her acquaintance with the Indian expatriate scene had led her to apprehend world events “through the eyes of men from Asia—eyes that watched and were cynical about the phrases of democracy.” W.E.B. Du Bois himself held onto the promise of Indian decolonization for decades to come, declaring in 1947 that India’s independence was “the greatest historical date of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” By comparing one another’s conditions, this band of writers came to reconsider not only how “the problems” of the U.S. and India were similar, but how such friendships and affinities formed across national and racial lines could foster new visions for a decolonized future.

United_States_of_IndiaThe United States of India reconstructs this network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, and examines vision they shared, during and immediately after the First World War. Organizations like the New York-based India Home Rule League, the radical San Francisco-based Gadar Party, the Friends for Freedom of India, and national student groups, produced periodicals, newsletters, pamphlets, and books, advocating for the rights of Indians under colonial rule as well as Indian migrants in the U.S.

But one of the critical goals in this book is to take seriously the contradictions that such comparisons opened up, how imagining one form of freedom at the expense of another. To return to Rai, for instance, we might ask: How could a white settler nation at the cusp of global dominance actually resemble a British colony in the East? What real comparison could be drawn from the structures of colonial dominance in India and the metropolitan world of the U.S.? What gets left behind in such comparisons?

These contradictions are particularly important when considering the relevance of early histories of South Asian America to our contemporary moment. To name just a few explored in the book: We see how in navigating discriminatory laws, Indian immigrants like Bhagat Singh Thind formally made claims to whiteness, but in doing they espoused a “racist response to racism,” as Sucheta Mazumdar describes it, that reinforced a system of white supremacy. We see how upper-caste Indian writers would acknowledge the violence of the caste system (from which they benefited), but just as quickly disavow it by foregrounding their experiences of racism in the United States and India. Lajpat Rai, who could be so sharp and cutting in his critiques of colonialism, also upheld Islamophobic ideologies and forms of Hindu nationalism that we see horrific repercussions of today.

As important as it is to engage the stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past, it may be an even more critical task to engage its contradictions, because they continue to persist and shape our present.

Books that can start the conversation about race

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase a selection of Temple University Press titles about understanding racism. Get 30% off these and other books about race on our website: tupress.temple.edu/subjects/1092 (Use Promo Code T30P at checkout) 

Silent Gesture
The Autobiography of Tommie Smith
Tommie Smith and David Steele
Sporting series
The story behind an image of protest that will always stand as an iconic representation of the complicated conflations of race, politics, and sports.

The Possessive Investment of Whiteness
How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Twentieth Anniversary Edition
By George Lipsitz
An unflinching but necessary look at white supremacy, updated to address racial privilege in the age of Trump

The Man-Not
Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood
Tommy J. Curry
Black Male Studies Series
“[A] provocative discussion of black masculinity by critiquing both the social and academic treatment of killings of black men and boys in the US….”—Choice  

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party
Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century
Keneshia N. Grant
Frames the Great Migration as an important economic and social event that also changed the way Democratic Party elites interacted with Black communities in northern cities

Invisible People
Stories of Lives at the Margins
Alex Tizon, Edited by Sam Howe Verhovek
Foreword by Jose Antonio Vargas
Epic stories of marginalized people—from lonely immigrants struggling to forge a new American identity to a high school custodian who penned a New Yorker short story. 

Look, a White!
Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
George Yancy
Returning the problem of whiteness to white people, Yancy identifies the embedded and opaque ways white power and privilege operate

Resurrecting Slavery
Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France

Crystal Marie Fleming
Bringing a critical race perspective to the study of French racism, Fleming provides a nuanced way of thinking about the global dimensions of slavery, anti-blackness, and white supremacy

FORTHCOMING IN NOVEMBER

Do Right by Me
Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces
Valerie I. Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo
A conversation between two friends—about how best to raise black children in white families and white communities—after one adopts a biracial son 

ALSO OF INTEREST

Tasting Freedom
Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America
Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin
The life and times of Octavius Catto, a civil rights pioneer [felled by a bullet] fighting for social justice issues and voting rights more than a century ago

 

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