Overcoming Isolation in the Great Depression

This week in North Philly Notes, Abigail Trollinger, author of Becoming Entitled, writes about how workers in the 1930’s shed the stigma of unemployment and gained a sense of entitlement, and what we can learn in the age of COVID.

Unemployment is often hugely isolating, even when it happens en masse. It was for workers in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. And considering recent debates over unemployment insurance, it seems that COVID-related unemployment has left many jobless workers facing economic insecurity alone.

Becoming Entitled: Relief, Unemployment, and Reform During the Great Depression tells the story of jobless workers and the urban reformers who worked to redeem them. It was an uphill climb: in the 1930’s, workers faced an American culture that was slow to defend the jobless and a federal government that was unwilling to fund the relief they needed, situations that only seemed to reinforce a jobless worker’s feeling of personal failure. As one worker described in Chicago of that year, “I was out of work two years last month. I have never gone for charity. I was ashamed to go.”

In 1932 Chicago reformers rightly sensed, then, that an unemployed worker’s first step toward survival might be the small step of seeing others like them and shedding their sense of shame. Which is why, in Chicago, the newly founded Workers’ Committee on Unemployment (WCOU) hosted seven hearings across the city that allowed workers to tell their stories, and to hear the stories of their neighbors, their landlords, their grocers, and their kids’ teachers. Once workers saw themselves as part of a group, rather than part of the problem, they were able to craft solutions to the economic crisis facing them. As members of the WCOU, workers offered collective action to solve both immediate and long-term problems.

Was a jobless worker’s electricity shut off suddenly, leaving their family in the dark? A formerly employed electrical worker could come turn it back on! Was a family unable to pay rent and thrown on the street? A WCOU member with a truck could help them move! Was a caseworker routinely cutting clients relief funds? The WCOU was there—protesting at the relief site! And were the state and federal governments failing to provide relief where it was highly deserved and much needed? The WCOU was ready to protest—like the 1932 silent march through Chicago.

What emerged from the hearings, the mutual assistance, and the protests was a sense of worker entitlement, or the belief that jobless workers had the right to ask for protection from the state—that when the economy fails, the state is responsible for preserving the dignity and livelihood of those most impacted. As a WCOU pamphlet on declining relief budgets said, “You are entitled to live.… We can not beg all the time. We must ask and demand.”

Unemployment and isolation. These are not unfamiliar concepts for many Americans right now, as the nation has faced unemployment rates between 8-14% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jobless workers in the U.S. have had support in the form of the CARES Act and some stopgap emergency funds, and yet they, too, face questions about how much relief they really need. Debates in Congress over stimulus plans (the Heroes Act and the Heals Act), in which legislation has stalled over how much weekly income the unemployed should receive (ranging between $200 and $600 a week), suggest that either jobless workers have a miraculous economy of thrift or that they earn more than they say. And on October 5 the Wall Street Journal reported that some states are requesting that workers who were inadvertently paid more than they were allotted should return as much as $8,000 to the state.

Workers in 1932 did not have a pandemic to reckon with, but their story is a reminder of the fact that entitlement is not a given, even in the midst of national crisis. As we approach the 2020 election, let us call for a generous entitlement that offers both relief and dignity to the many thousands of Americans who currently feel isolated in their economic insecurity.

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by showcasing our Latino/a Studies and Latin American/Caribbean Studies titles as well as books in our Studies in Latin American and Caribbean Music series. (And EVERY Temple University Press book is 40% off until October 31. Use the code FALL4TUP at checkout.

Accessible Citizenships How disability provides a new perspective on our understanding of the nation and the citizen

Afro-Caribbean Religions A comprehensive introduction to the Caribbean’s African-based religions

Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music The life and times of one of Cuba’s most important musicians

The Brazilian Sound An encyclopedia survey of Brazilian popular music—now updated and expanded

Caribbean Currents The classic introduction to the Caribbean’s popular music brought up to date

Chilean New Song An examination of the Chilean New Song movement as an organic part of the struggles for progressive social change, deeper democracy, and social justice in Chile in the 1960s and early 1970s

The Coolie Speaks A remarkable examination of bondage in Cuba that probes questions of slavery, freedom, and race

Daily Labors Examining the vulnerabilities, discrimination, and exploitation—as well as the sense of belonging and community—that day laborers experience on an NYC street corner

Democratizing Urban Development Examining how community organizations fight to prevent displacement and secure affordable housing across cities in the U.S. and Brazil

Dominican Baseball From the author of Sugarball, a look at the important and contested relationship between Major League Baseball and Dominican player development

Fernando Ortiz on Music Selections from the influential Fernando Ortiz’s publications on Afro-diasporic music and dance—now available in English

From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia A history of Puerto Rican immigration to Philadelphia

Globalizing the Caribbean Now in Paperback—how global capitalism finds new ways to mutate and grow in the Caribbean

How Did You Get to Be Mexican? A readable account of a life spent in the borderlands between racial identity

The International Monetary Fund and Latin America Chronicling the sometimes questionable relationship between the International Monetary Fund and Latin America from 1944 to the present

Latino Mayors The first book to examine the rise of Latino mayors in the United States

Latinos and the U.S. Political System An analysis of American politics from the vantage point of the Latino political condition

Latinx Environmentalisms Putting the environmental humanities into dialogue with Latinx literary and cultural studies Read a blog entry by the editors

Liberation Theology How does the church function in Latin America on an everyday, practical, and political level?

Merengue A fascinating examination of the social history of merengue dance music and its importance as a social and cultural symbol

Música Norteña The first history of the music that binds together Mexican immigrant communities

New Immigrants, Old Unions A case study of a successful effort to unionize undocumented immigrant workers

The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation A landmark history of the New York Young Lords, and what their activism tells us about contemporary Latino/a politics

Not from Here, Not from There/No Soy de Aquí ni de Allá A lively autobiography by a community activist, judge, and public advocate who blazed a trail for Latinos in Philadelphia

Revolution Around the Corner The first book-length story of the radical social movement, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party

Selecting Women, Electing Women Offers an analytic framework to show how the process of candidate selection often limits the participation of women in various Latin American countries.

The Sorcery of Color An examination of how racial and gender hierarchies are intertwined in Brazil

Sounding Salsa Inside New York City’s vibrant salsa scene

Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants A comprehensive analysis of changes in immigration policy, politics, and enforcement since 9/11

Temple University Press Fantasy Football Returns!

This week in North Philly Notes, Temple University Press acquisitions editor Ryan Mulligan writes about this year’s Fantasy Football League, COVID, and masculinities. Let the games begin!

In March 2020, a month when certainly nothing else happened in the world, Temple University Press released Whose Game?: Gender and Power in Fantasy Sports by Rebecca Kissane and Sarah Winslow. The book looks at the online world of fantasy sports. The authors argue that while the disembodied space of online gaming might theoretically provide an opportunity for men and women to engage in sporting competition and fan culture on a level ground not found in in-person competition and fandom, in fact, male participants have a tendency to overinvest in the activity and gender it as male. The authors find that many men find in fantasy sports an opportunity to live out boyhood values that they feel increasingly out of their reach as they grow older: a proximity to highly masculinized activities and figures, the illusion of managing other people (in particular athletic bodies), a performance of coldly weighing statistical value over emotional investment, and a competitive play that invites bragging. Thus, while men and women both participate in fantasy sports and enjoy it, the authors found that many of their subjects described their leagues as masculine spaces and the men in their leagues as obsessed to the point where their league distracted and detracted from other aspects of their life.

Against these somewhat foreboding findings, Temple University Press decided last year that in order to prepare to publish this book, Press employees might become more familiar with its subject if the Press were to have its own fantasy team. Who would a university press compete against in fantasy sports? Why not other university presses? So as the 2019 NFL Season kicked off, Temple took to the Association of University Presses email listserv to recruit other university presses to compete in a University Press Fantasy League. The response was enthusiastic. A great many people wanted to show that their nerdiness extended from academic publishing into sports nerd-dom. Unfortunately, some presses had to be turned away. The league opened with fourteen teams. Given the findings of the book, it was heartening to see that four of those teams boasted at least one female manager. The league was highly competitive and all teams remained extremely engaged throughout the season, but there was no trash talk to speak of in the league’s forum. Bonnie Russell and Julie Warheit of Wayne State University Press were crowned champions.

A month after the close of the NFL season, as baseball players prepared to take the field, Whose Game? released. And suddenly, sports were put on hiatus as the world confronted COVID-19. Baseball was postponed, the Olympics were put off to another year, and basketball and hockey were interrupted. Moreover, workplaces closed, shoppers stayed home, and families went into quarantine. (Temple University Press continued to operate with all employees working from home, which continues to this day and seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.) The virus shut down working life and recreational life all at once. Many academic books will emerge about this unusual period of American life and as a sociology editor, I am hopeful that some of them will look at how hegemonic American masculine identity complicated families’ adaptations to domestic life in this period. Denied work, and denied sports, what was left to do and still be a man? Is it any wonder fireworks sales spiked? Is it any wonder an American president driven by a tragically inflexible sense of masculinity would encourage sports leagues to restart as quickly as they could? Is it any wonder that Dr. Fauci would applaud the move as important for Americans’ sense of normalcy, purpose, and even mental health?

The pandemic has thrown a curveball to academic publishing as well, through our buyers, readers, and other stakeholders. Many of the events and mechanisms that we normally rely on to sell books are still unavailable, and while we’re doing as well as we can, control feels fleeting at best. So as sports returned and a new NFL season rolled around, I started getting emails from managers of last year’s participants in the University Press Football League. The University Press Fantasy League is back for year two of fantasy football. Three new teams would replace competitors from last season and some presses passed managing duties between colleagues. In this moment of controlling the uncontrollable, Fantasy makes a game of uncertainty and adaptation. And it feels normal and rewards a little bit of extra insight in a way that is fleeting outside of the league. The league is not exactly the same, though. Compared to last year’s 10 out of 14, this year, 12 out of 14 teams have only male managers.

Our Next Big Political Challenge (It’s Not the One You’re Thinking Of)

This week in North Philly Notes, John Kromer, author of Philadelphia Battlefields, writes about the upcoming elections.

The November 3 presidential election will continue to capture our attention, as it should, until the votes are counted and the (possibly inevitable) legal challenges are resolved. Whenever that happens, however, another big challenge awaits us.

Whichever way the presidential election turns out, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be entering into a period of national stability and widespread harmony anytime soon. The polarization that we’re experiencing now has been years in the making, and it will take years for our country to heal.

This doesn’t mean that nothing good can happen after November 3—it just means that restoring tolerance, civility, and compromise to our political environment won’t be quick or easy. And it’s important to recognize that much of the constructive political change that needs to happen is not likely to originate in the White House or the Capitol. At the federal level, bipartisanship has been a rare phenomenon, and gridlock may continue to be Washington’s default position for the foreseeable future.

Instead, the best new public policies are likely to emerge as initiatives that are introduced and tested at the state and local level, then authorized by the federal government and expanded on a national basis. The best-known example of this policy development sequence is the Affordable Care Act, modeled after the 2006 health care reform law that was approved in Massachusetts during the administration of then-governor Mitt Romney.

In addition, more state governments are taking the initiative to formulate new policies that don’t require federal-government authorization or conflict with federal mandates. For example, New Jersey and other states are creating health insurance exchanges that are fully administered by state agencies, using their own enrollment platforms in place of the HealthCare.gov platform established by the federal government.

Some policy innovations have emerged at the local and county level as well. To address widespread concerns about health and safety problems associated with blighted vacant properties that had proliferated in many urban and rural communities in Michigan, the state legislature authorized the creation of county and municipal land banks to facilitate vacant property acquisition and development. After witnessing the positive results that land banks had produced in Michigan, many other states subsequently adopted land bank legislation, giving themselves a more systematic approach for rehabilitating or eliminating blighted properties. In Pennsylvania, some of the leaders who were most responsible for securing land bank authorizations were Republican elected officials representing largely rural districts.

The months and years following the presidential election are not likely to be easy—but there’s good news: some of the changes that need to happen in order to enable our society to improve and prosper are already beginning to take place. While staying focused on the need to improve governance at the federal level, we as citizens also need to look for opportunities to bring about constructive changes closer to home.

Teachers’ unions strike back

This week in North Philly Notes, Lesley Lavery, author of A Collective Pursuit, writes about teachers’ unions’ response to COVID, arguing that despite decades of legal and political effort, teachers’ collective efforts will save lives.

Teachers in Detroit just authorized the first potential “safety strike.” Three week ago, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, told members that the union’s leadership would support “safety strikes” if health precautions are not met amid calls for schools to reopen as coronavirus cases surge. This declaration of support is striking, not least because it pushes longstanding legal boundaries.

Under current federal statutes, teachers must still report to work even if they believe that local officials have not sufficiently prioritized their health and safety, along with that of their students. The degradation of a teacher’s right to demand such basic and fundamental working conditions is the result of a decades-long effort by education reformers to isolate teachers from their unions—a movement that has praised the individual actions of educators while disparaging their collective calls for higher pay and better working conditions.

An assault on public sector unions began in earnest in 1979 with a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Federation of Teachers. Attempting to strike a delicate balance between government and individual interests, in Abood the court established a nearly 40 year precedent in teachers’ unions’ ability to collectively bargain by noting a distinction between the unions’ economic and political work.

Following the Abood ruling, teachers and other public employees could not be compelled to join unions so long as they paid the documented costs of contract administration and negotiation. Post-Abood, unions could capture a “fair-share” fee from all potential members but must refrain from spending agency fees on political activities. While in theory this appeased both individuals whose political interests ran counter to their unions’ and unions who might otherwise face a “collective action problem of nightmarish proportions,” in practice, the line between bargaining interests and political interests was difficult to discern, enforce or object to.

Collective_PursuitIn April 2013, after nearly four decades of relative labor peace, ten public school teachers in California, backed by the right-leaning Center for Individual Rights, took a straight shot at the Abood precedent. In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, Rebecca Freidrichs and nine California colleagues argued that attempts to separate bargaining from unions’ political actions were moot because bargaining covered so many fundamentally political topics. Like Abood, Freidrichs eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. There, in 2016, the attack on unions stalled following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. But the reprieve was temporary. On June 27, 2018, a final, decisive blow arrived via Janus vs. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.  

By February 2018, eulogies for many local teachers’ unions had already been written. But mere months before Janus transformed all states to right-to-work states and those eulogies could be delivered, West Virginia teachers from every one of the state’s fifty-five counties walked out of their classrooms to demand higher wages and showcase their concern regarding a bill to lower teacher-certification standards. West Virginia educators’ activism inspired similar actions in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Colorado. School bus drivers then walked off the job in Georgia.

By the end of the year, the AFSCME, Janus’ direct adversary, reported seven new dues-paying-members for each additional non-paying free-rider (a total increase of 22,000 newly organized workers). The AFT added 88,500 members. And though they expected dire defection rates, the National Education Association gained 13,935 members.

The Janus ruling meant to cut unions off at the knees, but as we watch the reopening debate play out right now, it is clear that “reformers’” wins weren’t enough to mollify teachers’ desire to be heard or sever the relationships they’ve been building with their communities. By declaring it too difficult to determine the line between teachers’ economic and political interests, the courts have inadvertently emboldened a generation of educators to take a stand in the debate of their life (pun intended).

Over the summer, as part of an ongoing 12-state 100+ district study on teachers’ unions’ response to COVID-19, my colleague Sara Dahill-Brown (Wake Forest University) and I have interviewed nearly 30 teachers’ union representatives from urban, rural and suburban districts about their involvement in COVID decision-making and planning. Though comfort with plans to “reopen” schools appears to vary based on population density, demographics, decision-making processes (or lack thereof), and the status of school infrastructure, across the country the teachers we’ve interviewed are increasingly desperate for local, state and federal officials to heed their calls to reopen safely.

I spoke with a union leader from a right-to-work district a few weeks ago. After years of struggling to recruit new union members, she and others we spoke with described rapid increases in unsolicited membership. Teachers are asking if they can go on strike. In many locales, they can’t. But they can protest. They can picket. They can stand outside six feet apart with a sign and a red t-shirt on. And they’ve been working diligently for the past several years to ensure that their communities understand teachers’ and students’ shared interests.

Now, with their lives on the line and individual social media posts, letters to administrators and elected officials, and op-eds in local newspapers unanswered, we’ve left teachers with little recourse. Despite decades of legal and political effort, COVID shows that “reformers” have failed to separate teachers from their unions. The union is the only voice that can aggregate and elevate educators’ anxieties and fears and force all of us to take stock of our duties and obligation to children and public education. We must get behind the nation’s teachers and face “COVID-19, a sagging economy and calls for social justice” head on, together.

 

Crossing the bridge with John Lewis

This week in North Philly Notes, José E. Velázquez, coeditor of the forthcoming Revolution around the Cornerremembers the late John Lewis. 

On July 17, 2020, we mourned one of America’s greatest heroes, “the conscience of the nation,” civil rights leader and Congressman, John Lewis. His well-deserved six-day memorial services included being the first African-American to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. The entire country relived that fateful Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 where civil rights marchers gathered to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery, in a campaign for the right to vote.

It has been 55 years since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and some may have forgotten how under the mantle of “states rights,” local governments repressed the right to vote of African-American men granted by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (1870), and to African American women by the 19th amendment (1920). After the “Compromise of 1877,” southern Confederates who lost the Civil War ended “Black Reconstruction,” “took back the South,” and regained political power. Under the U.S. federal system, the administration of elections is a power reserved by state governments, who subsequently instituted a system of American apartheid and Jim Crow laws aimed at limiting African American voting rights. These included outlandish literacy tests to register to vote, poll taxes, and outright physical repression. In what became known as “grandfather clauses,” poor and uneducated whites were exempted if their descendants voted before 1867.

This was the reality during what became one of the most important non-violent civil disobedience battles of the civil rights movement: the Selma to Montgomery march. The strategy of massive, non-violent civil disobedience sought to rally forces against a superior power, by awakening the conscience of the nation, and forcing the Federal Government to intervene against the repressive forces of state governments. It

also aimed at overcoming real fears in the African American communities, produced by decades of subjugation, to confront the system head on. This is exactly what happened on that Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 when Alabama State Police blocked marchers from crossing the Pettus Bridge, attacking them with horses, tear gas, and billy clubs as the protestors knelt in prayer. John Lewis, at the time a leader of the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), at the front of the march had his skull fractured and his life almost extinguished. Despite being severely injured, he returned to lead the other attempts to march.

With the advent of television, the entire world saw this vicious attack on marchers who were only asking for the right to vote, shaking the conscience of the nation. In the process, after a second attempted march on March 9th, halted by a temporary court injunction, a white minister, James Reeb, was killed that night by a Ku Klux Klan mob, adding to the country’s indignation. On March 21, 1965, under pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers in their third attempt. Hundreds of people came from throughout the nation to join the march, this time with National Guard protection. The close to 8,000 marchers crossed the bridge and arrived at the Alabama State Capital on March 25th, their numbers swelling to over 25,000.

Revolution Around the Corner_smOn August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, allowing for federal intervention to protect the constitutional right to vote, and beginning the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, poll taxes, and other regulations which made registering and voting nearly impossible for African-Americans. Just as the 1964 Civil Rights Act began the end of de jure segregation and expanded the rights of women, and other people of color, including Puerto Ricans, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did the same throughout the country. For decades, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, confronted English literacy tests and physical confrontations aimed at limiting their right to vote. The 1965 act was subsequently amended to include protections for non-English speaking voters. In 1970, in Newark, NJ when the Black and Puerto Rican Convention aimed to elect the city’s first African-American mayor, they were met with armed white resistance, necessitating the intervention of federal observers mandated by the Voting Rights Act.

For me the spirit of John Lewis was personal. After the assassination of Malcolm X in February 21, 1965, my first political experience at 13 years old was as a member of the SNCC Black Youth Congress, organized in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem). A

group of young African-Americans and Puerto Ricans met at the East River Projects, in a study group led by SNCC leaders, Fred Meely and Phil Hutchinson. SNCC was considered to be the radical wing of the civil rights movement, and one its leaders, Stokely Carmichael became the voice of a new “Black Power” movement. I must confess that at the time, maybe not being from the South, or because of youth and legitimate anger, our group did not look favorably at the strategy of non-violence. But historical time has demonstrated the power of massive non-violent civil disobedience to bring down even the most powerful governments or empires. I am proud, like Sammy Davis, Jr., Roberto Clemente, José Ferrer Canales, Gilberto Gerena Valentín, and many other Puerto Ricans, to have walked hand-in-hand with this movement.

What is the legacy of John Lewis as the nation today honors those who were considered radicals in the past? John Lewis, the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, who was constantly arrested and beaten as he led protest movements, talked about starting “good trouble” and exercising the right to vote until his last days. Yet today many do not exercise this simple effort, preferring not to vote, while allowing a wealthy minority to run the country.

Today, the Voting Rights Act is endangered, as certain provisions require reauthorization, and some state governments have renewed their attempt to repress voting rights. In Puerto Rico, the process to register to vote is still much more difficult than in many other jurisdictions. Those who took the streets in the summer of 2019 in Puerto Rico, may find their activism betrayed if they don’t register to vote, and vote for real change. The same holds true to those who have joined the massive Black Lives Matter protests in the streets of the United States. In November 2020, we face one of the most important and decisive elections in our lifetime. What would John Lewis say? Make “good trouble,” and vote out those who reject his legacy.

Observations on the anniversary of the Partition of India

This week in North Philly Notes, Kavita Daiya, author of the forthcoming Graphic Migrationswrites about global media representations of migration on the 73rd anniversary of the Partition of India.

What do the Google commercial “Reunion,” the Bollywood film Raazi (Agree), Shauna Singh Baldwin’s award-winning novel What The Body Remembers  and the oral history project 1947 Partition Archive all have in common? They all do transnational memory work and remember the mass migrations of the 1947 Partition of India.

This past weekend marked the 73rd anniversary of the decolonization and division of India, and the end of British colonialism. It also marked the creation of two independent nations: Pakistan came into being on August 14, 1947, and India became a new secular democratic nation on August 15, 1947. The partitioning of India in 1947 generated the world’s largest mass migration in under nine months: between 12 and 16 million people migrated across the newly etched borders.

Graphic MigrationsIn my forthcoming book Graphic Migrations, I describe the legacies of this pivotal moment in British and South Asian history, with a focus on migrant and refugee experiences. As such, this book uncovers the effects of this Partition on both India and the South Asian diaspora in North America. I am especially interested in how different media represent the precarity of migrants’ and refugees’ lives, as well as their descendants. I map how this precarity is memorialized across media, in ways that create empathy and solidarity for the shared humanity of migrants and citizens.

For example, I analyze South Asian American fiction by writers including Shauna Singh Baldwin and Bapsi Sidhwa as well as Hindi art films like Shyam Benegal’s Mammo; Bollywood cinema, as well as the new genre I call “border-crossing” advertising. In addition, I discuss graphic narratives from Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition, the Digital Humanities oral history project 1947 Partition Archive as well as photography by Margaret Bourke-White and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. This book’s archive is thus eclectic and cross-media, capturing how the Partition migrations are inscribed or erased in public culture in India and its diaspora.

Graphic Migrations is poised at the intersection of Asian American Studies and Postcolonial Studies. It draws upon and extends new directions in Asian American Studies, especially Critical Refugee Studies.  These new directions take a transnational lens to understand how twentieth century conflicts and displacement in Asia have shaped Asian American history. My book’s feminist orientation means that gender is a central part of the story I tell. Talal Asad’s influential theory of the secular in Formations of the Secular is also central here, given that the Partition focalized religious difference. Central to this book’s story is the inspiration of the noted political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s brilliant analysis of statelessness, which, as she argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism, was the defining feature and product of the twentieth century.

My book considers several issues that emerge out of the 1947 Partition and its transnational impact. It explores the complexities of statelessness in India as well as South Asia, and asks: Why has this momentous displacement not been widely memorialized, until recently? How did refugees’ stories, labor, and losses shape ideas about religion, secularism, and belonging in public culture? How were female refugees’ experiences different, and with what consequences? What alternative modes of imagining community and planetary cohabitation, including ‘the secular,’ do stories about statelessness offer us today?

Graphic Migrations is timely and relevant now. More people than even before are migrating or displaced because of war, conflict, poverty, environmental devastation, and other reasons. By one estimate, there are 10 million stateless people, and there are 272 million migrants in the world today. This raises urgent issues about human rights and social justice for nations around the world, who must work together to end statelessness.

My book is a profound reminder of the contemporary stakes of studying the experiences and impact of decolonization and nation-formation in 1947 South Asia, in a transnational feminist mode.

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 46 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.

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