Call + Response

This documentary focuses on the important social issue of human trafficking. Its specific emphasis is upon sex trafficking, and features lots of disturbing stories and statistics, delivered via a slick production. However, the documentary’s biggest problems are systemic and fatal: namely, its reformist orientation toward the subject matter and the resulting naiveté of the directorship.

Even though it purports to be about anti-trafficking movements, no actual social movement activities are even depicted—even simple protest is absent. The director laughably references so-called “open source” protest, as if previous social protest is irrelevant, or that something has dramatically shifted in real-world power relations to justify such a new term. It presumes that people can “just get involved” and “make a difference” by “educating themselves” and clicking some buttons. Unfortunately, the naiveté only gets worse.

If there is a central root cause to the modern, global “slave trade”, it is modern capitalism, just as mercantilist capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy was the cause of post-medieval era African slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Amazingly, though the film claims to be so concerned with slavery, it does not mention—even once—this major institution (capitalism) that drives the “trade”. Sure, “profit” is mentioned a few times (which heads in the right direction), but in a post-2008 financial crisis era and post-Occupy Wall Street, this oversight is not so much unfortunate or tragic, as it reveals the superficiality of the film’s analysis. This significance reflects a story told about Murray Bookchin, the famous eco-anarchist. After hearing endless testimony of people at a city hall meeting, railing against “economic injustice”, Bookchin rose to his feet to thunder “in my day, we called it capitalism”. That plain-spoken-ness is absent here in this documentary, and instead we’re awash in abstractions and manipulative, heart-tugging stories lacking context.

The sex trade in Asia is very sad, but horribly de-contextualized. Amazingly, there is not a single mention of patriarchy. How are people to understand something if it is not explained systematically, in plain language? No one in the film bothers to hypothesize or ruminate about just how different the US and Europe were (or were not) in their slavery practices 150 years ago. “The same shit, different century”, would be a simple conclusion to draw. But, now the US has “modernized” and is “civilized”. Of course, the average American (or even most History majors in college) know zilch about historic slaveries, chattel slavery in the US south, the US civil War, etc. (Instead, most usually believe mis-truths about all these subjects.) This raises the concern that “human trafficking” is portrayed as such a serious issue now simply because most of the people trafficked do not originate in the West. This leads to a serious case of Orientalism (i.e., Westerners depict the “East” in stereotyped, incomplete, racist, and warped ways). This problem may even over-shadow the capitalist-gorilla-in-the-living-room problem. Nearly all the stories are about Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe—although “slavery” still occurs in North America and Western Europe. Hearing terrible stories of how people treat their own kind in other countries serves to “other” people outside the West. “Wow, people in those poor countries are monsters. And the poor girls and women who live there… let’s save them!”

It’s good that child soldiers (in Africa) appear in Call+ Response, but again there is no context to understand their circumstances. There is no mention of colonialism (let alone neo-colonialism), no analysis of the conflict minerals in people’s cell phones, and no acknowledgement of western mineral corporations or endless marketing (itself a multi-billion dollar industry in the US alone) to convince people of the “need” for such electronic devices (or whatever other toys). Instead viewers are just left with anecdotal stories.

You can learn a lot of important things about a documentary by the people a director chooses to interview. In Call + Response, we are treated to an appearance by the war-criminal Madeleine Albright (former US Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton). She comments on the injustice of the slave trade. This is meant to be sincere and convincing. However, many viewers may not remember that this woman claimed on national TV in the 1990s that a half-million dead Iraqi children from US-imposed sanctions was “worth the cost”. To which, the mothers or Iraq would likely respond: Fuck you, Albright, you occupy no moral high ground.

Most of the assembled interviewees are, unsurprisingly, very white—except for Cornel West. Regrettably, his usually radical analysis is blunted, as he is relegated to merely discussing the influence and origins of Black music. Other interviewees include prominent celebrities, who ooze a “savior” complex. We should be skeptical of celebrities who start doing activism (like Julia Ormond, Ashley Judd, and Daryl Hannah), and that pick such sensationalist and uncritical topics for their efforts.

While non-sex trafficking is described, it’s the sex trafficking stuff that gets the central focus. As with the anti-breast cancer “movement”, we should suspect a titillation factor at work. You know, “ooh, boobs!” Whether the subject is sex trafficking or not, “slaves” are presented as lacking agency, thus requiring salvation. Surely, there is much clear-cut coercion, kidnapping, and the like occurring throughout the world. But, to lump all non-free practices together under the same label does a disservice to “victims”. People do things for complex reasons, including self-subordination. People sometimes sell themselves into bondage to pay for transit to other countries, to pay bills or survive, while others freely submit to “wage slavery” and work 40 hour work weeks. These distinctions—so crucial to understand about capitalist exploitation—are washed away. The film does try to separate slavery and labor at the beginning, but the debate is left undefined. Thus, the broader issues of free-will under capitalism are left un-addressed.

Other sensational elements contribute to the confusion. For example, it’s hard to have clear numbers about trafficking, given its illicit character. Just as with all estimates of crime, this one is just as tough, if not tougher. (Even US crime is hard to estimate, while actions outside the US are often harder, especially with Western cultural biases at work.)

One final criticism is warranted, which has to do with style. The “rockumenary” format of Call + Response is compelling in some moments, while tragically overblown in others. It’s hard to take serious a self-important and self-absorbed [male] rock star rocking-out, in the midst of the doom and gloom featured through out the film. Hip-hop artist Talib Kweli shines, but most of the musical acts are rock bands—and mostly all-male efforts at that—featuring serious-looking rock stars (and, let’s face it, fuck rock stars!, amiright?). A subtle message is delivered herein, as throughout the rest of the documentary: these men are going to save women who need help. It’s an ancient patriarchal trope shrouded in mythological chivalry and just a tad of 21st century polish. It’s the kind of ensemble that a college-educated white dude would make, who independent of any grounding progressive politics, discovers a “cause” to dedicate his privileged, post-college life to. This effort, incidentally, requires zero introspection or lifestyle change on his part.

Of all the hundreds of documentaries I have seen, this is one of the worst. And, if this is cutting edge of new social movements, we’re all screwed. After watching this documentary, I am thoroughly depressed—for altogether different reasons than those the director intended.

Topics: crime, activism, music, sex, work

The Invisible War

The Invisible War provides an institutional analysis of how and why sexual assault thrives in the US military. Through a detailed accounting of the problem—over time and across multiple branches of the military—the documentary shows the predictive factors of sexual assault and also the dynamics that inhibit prosecution and future prevention. The film is gripping and intense—like its subject matter (absolutely no pun intended)—and it mirrors many of the same strengths that served the directors in their follow-up film The Hunting Ground. Unfortunately, it also replicates many of the same weaknesses: while providing a rather sociological analysis of sexual assault within military bureaucracy, it stops short of identifying core, hierarchical systems that perpetuate it, namely rape culture and patriarchy. Those limitations aside, it’s a stunning film that is very convincing (especially due to its strategic and exclusive use of official government and military statistics throughout).

There are numerous factors that lead to sexual assault within the military’s ranks, not least of which is the heavy drinking culture that it fosters. This drinking culture is partially an expression of the highly masculine nature of the military, but is also reflective of the many needs to cope with the violence, control, and trauma experienced by its members (sexual or not). As with the sexual abuse that festers within the Catholic Church, the US military is also a closed system in which civilian oversight cannot penetrate, which allows sexual predators to safely exist. Also (at least in my analysis of the film’s main arguments), the US military is also a highly macho environment, wherein men prove their masculinity through conquest. This is why male victims of sexual assault—who are justifiably shown in the documentary—are even less likely to report than female victims due to the dual shame of homophobia and emasculation.

The factors that inhibit prosecution are even more troubling, since they illustrate that many more people are aware of the predatory, abusive, and violent actions of their peers, subordinates, and superior officers, but choose to do little to rectify these problems. Survivors of sexual abuse or assault have to file charges against fellow soldiers up the chain of command. As a consequence, one’s commanding officer handles the initial investigation (and, as The Invisible War shows, he may be the very perpetrator the survivor wishes to charge). Officers do not want to inform their superiors of rape allegations originating in their units since it reflects negatively on their command skills and thus their future careers. The rape culture that many military personnel accept prima facie includes numerous apologies for sexually aggressive behaviors, as with the soldiers who made excuses for aviators who groped female soldiers (“what did you expect to happen when walking through a crowded hallway of drunk aviators?”—apparently not respect). There is a weak and ineffectual “prevention” division within the military, known by the acronym SAPARO (Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Office) that engages in cringe-worthy victim-blaming via advertising and posters, but does not seek to understand predation nor target predators. If anything, SAPARO is like many bureaucracies’ legal office who seeks to avoid lawsuits or a public relations office that seeks to put a positive spin on horrible behaviors. The top military brass feel unaccountable to Congress, as witnessed by one incident the film shows: the head of SAPARO is ordered by her supervisor to not attend a Congressional hearing, despite Congress ordering her to attend and testify.

All in all, The Invisible War makes for a formidable case study on the many negative consequences of bureaucratic institutions (like large universities or the Catholic Church) who seem structurally uninterested, unwilling, or incapable of responding to malevolent behavior occurring within their own ranks.

Five Friends

Typically any mention of “gender” immediately makes people think of girls and women. Overlooked in this dynamic is a recognition that the problems females face in any given society is often either a result of or an interaction with the role that boys and men have in creating those problems. Consequently, to focus on the key cultural institution of masculinity is super important. Five Friends does just that, but it depicts an alternative form of masculinity lived by a small number of American men, who violate many of the key tenets of traditional masculinity—most importantly: don’t share your emotions with other men. The filmmaker himself grapples with how to raise his soon-to-be-born son (who is introduced at the end of the documentary) in a most positive fashion. Along the way, he interviews people who revolve around a single man: Hank. There are also interviews with a progressive male pastor as well as with sociological superstar Michael Kimmel, who both talk about manhood and men’s relationships with each other.

The filmmaker meets Hank through his work, strikes up a friendship, and then discovers that Hank is also friends—close, intimate friends—with another five men (probably at least that number). All five of these friends are introduced one by one. Many of these friends remark that their relationship to Hank is unique and unlike all their other male friendships, which are less intimate, personal, and emotional. The friends have varying types of relationships with Hank, too, which probably helps Hank greatly, as he can find the type of friendship he wants or needs at any given moment.

These friends feel they can be honest with each other, lovingly critique each other, be sympathetic, kind, and supportive. Some of them also say “I love you” to each other, hug, and kiss (on the cheeks, of course), and are forgiving of each other’s misdeeds. These behaviors clearly violate what Kimmel describes as the tendency to separate roles and emotions into feminine and masculine categories. Here, Hank is clearly a [straight] man, while he also embraces a compassionate and nurturing persona. Today, women can now do more masculine things, usually with far less condemnation than in the past, but men have not generally been granted (by society, women, or themselves) the same license to embody “femininity”. Kimmel argues a better future would be one where all people can express a wide range of emotions, adopt wider roles, and have this still be considered “human”—and not just masculine or feminine.

Five Friends describes how childhood sexual assault led Hank to seek more meaningful and stable relationships and friendships later in life, although he wisely states that his friends did not seek his friendship because of common tragedy like his. Thus, great harm need not befall men who seek such relationships. Hank also describes his relationship to his father. Hank sought more from the relationship and his father, which never got. This seems to drive his passion for and interest in establishing deep friendships with other men.

Although the film stands without having to interview or even include women, they and their perspectives on their male counterparts’ lives and relationships are absent. There is some description of the women in the mens’ lives, but it is mostly tangential.

It is notable that Hank’s friends are all solidly upper-middle class. They are professionals for whom emotional disclosure is more common and verbal communication skills are tantamount. Also, except for one, these are racially-homogenous friendships. Then, except for another friendship, they are also age-homogenous, too. While racial segregation surely limits the diversity of one’s friendships, age is a much more artificial limitation. The friendships are largely established through business contacts (Hank is a businessman). This raises the crucial issue of whether most men in society—who are working class, not upper-middle class—can easily establish these same kinds of friendships as these men? Perhaps, but it would take a much greater change in the norms of masculinity. Hank’s relationships amongst mostly upper-middle class white men is not as threatened by emotional disclosure and closeness. The film does not question what the challenges are for working class men, nor what could be pathways toward closer male friendships for them. Also, interestingly, the film does not grapple with themes of feminism, per se. Sure, there is a latent feminist analysis at work, but it is unspoken and appears in indirect ways (mostly through the Kimmel’s words).

While not a simple set of ideas to apply in every instance, Five Friends demonstrates the real possibilities of radically different male friendships. Given all the negative consequences associated with standard masculinity—everything from interpersonal violence, sexual assault, and war, to poor men’s health and suicide—there is a great need for evolving masculinity so that restrictive gender definitions do not continue to maul men, just as restrictive femininity and patriarchy continue to do for women.

Topics: gender, masculinity, social relationships, aging

The Hunting Ground

With sexual assault at American universities in the news in recent years, The Hunting Ground summarizes not only the collective outrage at its occurrence, but also the weak response by university administrators to the continuing crimes. The film’s best asset is its strong emphasis on institutional factors that lead to sexual assault, and the cover-up and avoidance of dealing with those assaults. Unfortunately, the analysis inadvertently neuters itself, stymieing the ability to truly grapple with the problem of assault on campuses.

Campus police fail in a variety of ways to respond to assault allegations and to encourage safer conditions for students. University administrators often join police to protect major power players on campus, who enjoy a disproportionate influence upon policy, especially related to the long-term economic viability of a campus and its brand: athletes and fraternities. Not only are these two student demographics more likely to be involved in sexual assaults than the general student population, but they are more protected by universities, too, due to their economic, social, and political power. (Of course, one reason for assault in the first place, is the existence of greater power on the part of perpetrators.) Universities are particularly concerned about a loss of their prestige if assaults become publicly and widely known, and they fear a subsequent drop in enrollment and potentially alumni donations.

The film interviews a lot of survivors, who painfully describe not only their assaults, but also the indifference they experienced when they reported the crime to others, including university employees. Two of the survivors—students at University of North Carolina—become activists and create a network of student survivors across the US. Most of the film’s interviewees are at prestigious universities (almost no one is at a state college or community college) and these activists clearly have social and cultural capital that they can employ, as well as a legitimate belief in the righteousness of their cause. They are successful in raising a significant ruckus by filing a Title IX complaint with the US Department of Education and even get news coverage in the New York Times. One of the nice characteristics of the film is that it shows these survivors and others organizing and being pro-active, working with other survivors who come forward with their own experiences.

Unfortunately, The Hunting Ground‘s directors fail to present an analysis that would help to more systematically interpret and solve the problem, which of course has been around for generations at coeducational universities. For example, certain helpful phrases are not mentioned anywhere during the film: rape culture, patriarchy, masculinity, and misogyny. It is difficult to know how a film focused on rape culture can so studiously avoid identifying rape culture. Indeed, the film doesn’t even attempt to define “rape” as a crime of power, rather than one of sexuality (of course, it doesn’t do the latter either, though). Further, the film is saturated with a certain liberal indignity that these educational institutions have simply failed to do something that people would otherwise expect them to do. But, if we understood rape culture as a manifestation of patriarchy, would we really expect a patriarchal institution like the American university to respond positively to allegations of sexual assault? This a-systemic analysis prevents us from comparing universities to other institutions that have had similar problems, like the Catholic Church and the US military (the latter of which was featured in an earlier documentary by the same directors, entitled The Invisible War). Consequently, viewers may naively conclude that these institutions may simply need to “work better”.

Some other immediate absences are apparent. Where are the second-wave feminists to help these current college students? Surely each campus has a handful around who could be (and likely are) advising not only survivors, but also activists. Indeed, a radical feminist analysis in the film would have helped to contextualize that this is not just a problem in higher education, but a general problem in society, due to patriarchy, masculinity, and rape culture. It affects universities disproportionately since universities are major, powerful institutions, where lots of young people are and thus lots of potential victims (especially young people just out of high school).

The film’s prioritization of elite American universities and their students is not surprising, but unfortunate. As mentioned above, no state universities or community colleges are shown in The Hunting Ground. Is this because the film makers and other upper-middle class people automatically privilege elite universities or because the problem is less severe at lower-tier schools (this is an honest question)? If so, perhaps less entitlement and fewer untouchable male students are enrolled at these schools to do the assaulting?

Who the perpetrators are is dealt with appropriately: known men, usual acquaintances, rather than random strangers. Still, most cases described in the film seem to be of randomly-met men at parties—in other words, the commonly-believed, but non-realistic perpetrators. Also, the film appropriately notes that it is a minority of men who are doing this crime upon a sizable number of sexual assault victims. Contextualizing who does these crimes would seem to lead to very easy advice to male viewers of The Hunting Ground. However, much more could have been done to lay out a challenge to college men. While the film does say “most of you men will not rape anyone”, it leaves unsaid that “you have the ability to influence the culture of misogyny that contributes to assaults and to condemn your fellow males for their endorsement or participation in it.” As it stands, many male viewers will have a sympathetic, but impotent, reaction to the film: I’m not doing these bad things and I won’t in the future, but there’s nothing else I can do. As Michael Messner writes in his book Some Men, only a small minority of men are rapists, but also only a minority of men are anti-sexual assault activists. The great majority of men stand-aside or quietly endorse this rape culture by failing to openly confront it. Consequently, the gauntlet needs to be thrown down more forcibly to college men to be active amongst their fellow males in disrupting sexual assault.

Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal

This is not simply a film about a well-publicized political prisoner (or cop-killer, depending on your perspective). It’s actually a comprehensive exploration in an array of issues surrounding race, imprisonment, and activism in modern America. Unlike many other documentaries on Mumia Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary focuses the least on the famous murder case (he was accused and convicted of shooting a Philadelphia police officer). Instead, the film introduces a rich background to that violent encounter, by describing the racialized history of Philly. Even W.E.B. DuBois warned in his famous ethnography—the first sociological study in the US—that Philadelphia was hostile, to say the least, about its Black residents (despite being the supposed “City of Brotherly Love”).

The modern city of Philly can be best understood by the segregation experienced post-World War II and the dominating presence of police chief Frank Rizzo (who personally singled out Mumia). Mumia arrives early in the founding of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party, contributing in his young teens (!) to the Panther newspaper, thus beginning his career as a “revolutionary journalist”. And, no story of racism in Philadelphia is complete without including the story of the MOVE organization, which Mumia begins to cover as a reporter. MOVE is a radical Black freedom organization that attracts the ire of Philly’s city fathers and police department. All of this context helps to explain not only Mumia’s influences, but why Philly’s ruling elites were so interested in shutting him down, at all costs.

Other elements intertwine with Mumia’s personal story, particularly the rise of the prison industrial complex (which he will spend much time writing about and fighting as a jailhouse lawyer). The subservience of the press corp to powerful people and institutions is displayed in contrast to Mumia’s willingness to ask challenging, inquisitive questions of all (including President Jimmy Carter, of whom Mumia tells a funny anecdote, saying Carter once personally saved his job). After Mumia’s incarceration, he continues to work as a journalist. Most famously, he partners with NPR (although his program is canceled in the eleventh-hour before airing, thanks to a Republican offensive in the 1990s); other non-incarcerated journalists express amazement at how prolific he is, and with limited resources at his disposal. Mumia has taken the “opportunity” of the sterile, solitary environment offered by prison and works around the clock, reading and writing. Amazingly, he has never used the Internet and can only checkout a small handful of books at any time.

The extraordinary character of his life is testified to not only by the words of numerous interviewees in Long Distance Revolutionary, but also by the caliber of these interviewees. The film interviews a “who’s who” of the radical American Left, including Cornel West, Alice Walker, Michael Parenti, Dick Gregory, M-1 (from dead prez), Peter Coyote, Angela Davis, and Amy Goodman. Even figures that may surprise some appear, like Ruby Dee. These voices humanize Mumia (and consequently, all who have been locked-up in America), showing how he came to his beliefs and made his decisions. Humorously, Mumia states he wants to thank the Philadelphia police officer who (literally) kicked him into the Black Panther Party by beating him and his friends for protesting outside of a George Wallace political rally. He discusses the people he loves and the separation from his family (whom he has not physically touched for three and a half decades). Through it all, he is lively, entertaining, and funny. He sings, tells jokes, and relates funny stories (e.g., when he changed his name to “Mumia”, his mom refused to comply, calling him his given name, Wesley).

One of Long Distance Revolutionary‘s pleasures is its production value; the effects, sound, and color are all compelling. Many people (including some of the prominent people listed above), read Mumia’s words (and a few others), in artistic fashion, dramatically emphasizing the power of his words. Even though the film is clearly partisan and laudatory of Mumia, it starts with clips of anti-Mumia people, often spitting venom, disparaging him. These police and small business owners in Philadelphia (unsurprisingly, all white) seem unable to see Mumia as human and often view any support for him as heresy committed by cruel idiots.

Perhaps the most telling line from the film comes towards the end, from journalist Juan Gonzalez (who Mumia once invited to join a Black journalists organization, even though he is Puerto Rican). The moral commitment, intensity, and breadth of Mumia’s work (decade after decade) is impressive. Gonzalez notes that even though the movements that initially inspired Mumia have quieted and lost much of their steam and few public “revolutionaries” are visible in America, Mumia still refers to himself as a revolutionary journalist. According to Gonzalez, because Mumia has been in prison for so long, the system has “not had the opportunity to calm him down”.

The Harvest / La Cosecha

While many Americans know that a largely Latino labor force harvests food in the US, few likely know that some 400,000 children also pick crops every year, too. The Harvest explores this even more troubling aspect of the US food system—its exploitation of child labor. Many people are unaware of the decades of struggle necessary to eliminate child labor in the US—through the labor movement and eventually codified in law—but even more unknown is that agricultural work has always been exempt, not only from overtime, safety protection, and originally Social Security, but also from child labor prohibitions.

Three Latino minors are presented in The Harvest: 12-year old Zulema, 14-year old Perla, and 16-year old Victor. These youth and their families harvest onions, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, and peppers, in many states, including Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, and Ohio. The lives of these youth are similar to many others: they primp and prime for the approval of peers (Zulema delays her family’s morning departure by taking extra time to put on makeup before heading to the fields), take care of and play with their siblings, help their families, rebel against their parents, attend school, and express discomfort with their lives. But, they also are unable to attend school regularly, they work with—and in some ways for—their parents for paid employment, move regularly, and in the case of Zulema express having goals, but no dreams. Thus, even though their lives are similar to many working class youth—getting jobs at earlier ages than their middle-class peers—they are even more stressed by economic forces, family pressure, and dislocation.

It might be easy to blame parents for children who are working in the fields. But, as The Harvest shows, the relationships children have with their parents is far more complicated than one might imagine. These parents want their children to goto school, be successful, and not remain migrant farm workers. And, the parents often do not even ask their children to help out (at least initially). Victor describes how he decided to pick crops to help his family—on a slow day, he estimates that he picks approximately 1,500 pounds of tomatoes. The pressures felt by these youth seem to come from all sides. Their families have expectations for them, which are themselves contradictory: get an education, but also help the family out. Society wants them to work hard, follow orders, goto school. Peers want them to hang-out, have a consistent presence, and do kid stuff. Schools want them to show up (or, seemingly, just drop out and stop causing so much administrative trouble). Perla wants to be consistent at school, but since her family moves so much, she can’t finish each year. Her grades do not always transfer from one school to the other and she had to re-do an entire year because of it.

The day by day grind takes its toll, even on the most optimistic. All sorts of small problems emerge to make things difficult. Their parents develop sore bodies and injuries far earlier in life. Sicknesses that happen without medical insurance lead to periods of unemployment. Unavailable work leads families to be economically stranded. These factors compound on top of each other, causing occupational entrapment, for the parents and children. Since the children have a hard time finishing school (there’s a very high drop-out rate for the children of migrant farmworkers), children have to rely on employment for survival as opposed to higher education and professional jobs.

The work that the children do is physically challenging, even for adults. The work is harder than they expect it to be, even though they eventually build up strength and endurance for it. Their knees get sore from kneeling, their backs get sore from bending over, and they get exhausted from the heat and lack of food. Victor washed his arms at the end of each workday with bleach because soap couldn’t remove the chemicals that coat his arms as he works. These chemicals (pesticides, plastics, etc.) also make it hard to breath and remain standing. In fact, an estimated 300,000 farmworkers suffer from pesticide poisoning every year. This is where the narratives of “hard work” and meritocracy in the American mythos are crucial to analyze. So, what exactly is the benefit (for them, at least) of getting poor, working class Latino kids to work hard? It seems to train people to tolerate their lot in life. Systematically, the myth of “hard work” benefits those in power. Of course, the wealthy rarely do physically strenuous or dangerous work (yes, they may have to think, but it mainly happens in air-conditioned buildings, in cushioned-chairs, with nice salaries), so this is really a by-product of ideological class warfare.

Ultimately, the consequence of using children as farmworkers seems to benefit agribusiness elites more than anyone else (even American consumers). The average farmworker family earns less than $17,500 per year—hardly enough to pay for the expensive cost of seasonal relocation, children, and growing medical bills. This low salary is most pronounced, as the farmworkers describe going to supermarkets. They see the very crops they picked (maybe even personally picked), but find it nearly impossible to afford. A simply calculation would show that an infinitesimal part of each item’s cost went to the migrant who picked it. This suggests a very clear problem: in order to deal with the economic need of families to have their children financially help out (and child labor itself), we have to deal with the exploitative conditions under which migrants toil. This does not necessarily mean raising the costs of food, since the profits of middle-men corporations and other agribusiness interests are incredible. Even a humble portion of this profit could be redistributed to migrant farmworkers and improve their living conditions. Of course, capitalists are always hesitant to make workers “too comfortable”, since it’ll increase worker bargaining power. But, it’s a struggle that is worth fighting. Unfortunately, the Harvest does not explore the rich network of social movements, farmworker unions, solidarity organizations, social workers, and others who work to achieve political reforms and economic parity. As the one downside to the film, its absence might leave viewers feeling angry and powerless, whereas the reality of farmworker resistance can itself be inspiring and hopeful.

Themes: migration, immigration, Latinos, youth, work, food

Race: The Power of an Illusion (Part III: The House I Live In)

Even though it’s the third film in a three-part series, The House I Live In may be the most helpful for understanding the current state of racial affairs in the US (it’s the one I’ve shown the most in my classes). It covers both the social construction of race, how European ethnic immigrants became racially white, and how affirmative action benefited white people.

There’s a bit of an introduction at the beginning that helps to connect to the first two parts in the series, to make the case that race is not biological, but how that does not make it any less real. Race has social meaning and significance because there has been public policy and private action in support of it. The best way to see this happen is by following the history of immigrants who enter the United States, and whether they get classified as white or as something else. For the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dominant “race science” of the time focused on the struggles of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Of key concern to these supposed scientists was how these immigrants would be fit into the existing racial hierarchy. The impoverishment experienced by these European ethnic immigrants caused their neighborhoods to be dirty, unhealthy, and dangerous, thus leading to the conclusion that there was something “biological” about these groups that was inferior—their diseases, pathologies, crime, and intelligences were all allegedly linked to inheritable traits.

Of course, these new immigrants looked a little bit like the white Americans already in the US, definitely more so than Blacks from Africa or American Indians. It was unclear as to whether these south-east European immigrants were from separate races or “in-between peoples” who would eventually change race. This drives home the documentary’s point about social construction very clearly: these immigrants were not racially white then, although their descendants are considered white today. Or, as an interview rhetorically asks, what does race mean in conditions where individual US states could dictate the racial boundaries? For example, southern US states had different rules for who was Black—one-eighth, one-sixteenth, or any African ancestry—thus meaning that people could “literally, legally change race” simply by going over a state line.

For European ethnics, whiteness was the clear path to citizenship—one had to be considered white under law to be a citizen. Every other immigrant group knew this, too, and many petitioned courts to be considered legally white. This will surprise many viewers to hear: that someone’s racial status was not immediately known and that it could be legally changed. Various groups had successfully petitioned to be classified as white, particularly people from the Middle East and North Africa (the film doesn’t mention it, but the same thing was true for mestizo from Mexico). In other words, courts were in the business of ascribing race and, thus, citizenship to entire groups of people—often for the most spurious of reasons. Two cases studies are presented in The House In Live In: the first of a Japanese immigrant named Takawa Ozawa. He petitions in 1915 to naturalize and he argues that his skin was as white as most white people and that his beliefs were solidly American. He acted American, dressed American, his children only had white friends, and they attended a Christian church. The US Supreme Court, however, ruled that he was not biologically white (given the faulty racial science of the day), but rather Asiatic. Only months later, the Supreme Court decided another race case, this time pertaining to Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind. This time, Thind makes the scientific “argument” that he is Caucasian, because Indians are classified as Aryan. Unsurprisingly, the Court reverses its earlier logic, denying that this scientific reality means anything of substance and that “the common [white] man” knows perfectly well how to discern whiteness. And, to the all-white male Court, Thind and other Indians were not white. Due to these decisions pertaining to Asian immigrants, many Japanese farmers in on the West coast had their land taken from them and other Indian immigrants had their naturalized citizenship stripped from them. The film argues that still today, people of Asian descent are not considered American, even when they’ve lived in the United States for many generations; FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is just the most extreme proof of this.

After World War II, most of the meaning behind European ethnic differences melts away (a few religious incongruities aside). The key racial questions had always centered on Black-white, and this again becomes the dominant concern in the post-war era. Whiteness is of central significance as it grants exclusive rights and the now-legitimate “hard-work” of whites will enable social mobility. Middle-class status is achieved for many of these newly-assimilated whites by government-funded and -enabled affirmative action programs. The House I Live In does not make this explicit (although it is essentially arguing it), that European immigrants entered the middle-class due to affirmative action that raised their standards of living, gave them access and resources, and specifically gave them land and housing. The film focuses here on the Federal Housing Administration’s efforts to broaden homeownership in the US and Levittown, New York serves as the example to show this. Like most new suburbs, incoming residents to Levittown were overwhelmingly white. Blacks had trouble gaining access to racially-exclusive neighborhoods, but also to getting any government-subsidized loans because the minority neighborhoods they lived in were given high-risk security ratings. Financial underwriters warn against investment in minority communities (labeled as bad investments) and thus classified neighborhoods, in part, based on racial composition, assigning them the color red: thus, “red-lining” is born. These minority neighborhoods stay minority-dominated, because people of color couldn’t get loans there. Economic resources go elsewhere—mainly to whites and to suburbs—thus exaggerating the poverty of minority neighborhoods. Non-whites constitute only two percent of all the government loan recipients!

Being white is thus associated with being a homeowner. Even working class whites get this opportunity and they can even live in suburbs. Racially homogeneous suburban communities are created, while Blacks are particularly left out of new housing markets. Then, the federal government engages in “urban renewal”, deciding to get rid of old housing stock. This overwhelmingly affects people of color. The government does not replace the majority of this housing and new public housing is cited in poor, minority neighborhoods and built as “vertical ghettos” (tall apartment buildings). When the Fair Housing Act enables minorities to have access to all-white neighborhoods, some middle-class Blacks are able to move. When they do, they take their [modest] wealth with them (and out of the poor minority neighborhood). And their new white neighbors’ racial fears are preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders who offer them cheap prices for their houses, so they can leave before the threatened “racial invasion” happens (this process is called blockbusting). People claim that the influx of minorities lowers the housing values of a neighborhood, but it is clearly the quick abandonment by whites who undersell the value on their houses that does this. In other words, minorities do not cause problems for housing values and neighborhood stability—white racism does. The resulting white flight leads to ever more suburbanization.

The film ends by considering how it could be possible for the US to be a “colorblind” society. Even though The House I Live In was made in the pre-Obama era, the analysis remains the same: stark racial inequalities, including an incredible racial wealth gap (as most American’s wealth is held in housing equity), gives lie to the claim that we live in a post-racial society. Even though MLK spoke famously about such a colorblind future, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva observes that many white Americans believe that such a future has already arrived, and thus the concept of race is unimportant, maybe even meaningless. But he and others make the strong case there race must be part of any analysis in a society unequal by race. They quote Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun who said that the only way to deal with racism is to talk about it openly and not pretend it doesn’t exist. In other words, the path to colorblindness, can only result from a very colored national discourse and reconciliation.

Topics: race, social construction, inequality, whiteness

Bag It

There’s a really simple question posed by the film narrated by Jeb Berrier: what’s the consequence of all the plastics we use today? He focuses on a now classic single-use item, the plastic bag, which didn’t even exist in supermarkets prior to the 1970s. Now these bags are ubiquitous—including all those places we wished they weren’t (one interviewee jokes that the flower of New York City is a plastic bag caught in a tree). The main problem with plastic bags is that they require a non-renewable resource, which the narrator would prefer we used some other way (he doesn’t call for ceasing to use all fossil fuels).

Many places throughout the world have begun banning the use of plastic bags, for a variety of reasons ranging from ecological concerns to how ugly displaced bags make the environment around us. Ireland is one country that has banned plastic bags and according to random people in Irish pubs (a stellar measure of public opinion, it would seem) these bags are a scourge upon Irish society that people are glad to be rid of. Other places have also attempted such bands, including places in California and, notably, Seattle. There was a ballot initiative that asked whether a fee should be placed on those choosing to use plastics bags. The main chemical lobby (the American Chemistry Council) sunk $1.4 million dollars to oppose a bag tax, while its opponents (a pro-bag tax organization) were only able to raise $62 thousand. Surprisingly, even in a progressive city like Seattle, the ballot initiative fails against industry propaganda.

Bag It has a broader scope that just bags, though. For example, Berrier explores the controversy between tap water and bottled water. In the US, these plastic bottles are also single-use items to be thrown away (or recycled if they’re lucky), while in Germany they are washed and reused numerous times. According to the Society of Plastics, even the recycling symbols on bottles make less sense; only plastic #1 and 2 can be recycled—and mainly this means down-cycling (turning the material into a lower form of material), and typically it can only used one more extra time.

If this weren’t ominous enough, things get scarier when considering the impact of plastic on the environment and people’s health. There are a number of giant garbage patches swirling away in the ocean (call gyres). Some have claimed these are not terribly serious or large, but all evidence points to a truly humongous patch of garbage floating in the upper-North Pacific Ocean. One in the Pacific Ocean is estimated to be twice as wide as Texas. Fish are apparently gullible enough to think that most anything floating in water is worthy of eating; thus, fish accidentally ingest small fragments of plastics. Albatross being studied by scientists have discovered that mothers are bringing plastics to their chicks to eat. Then, as shown when an albatross died, scientists discovered in its carcass dozens of pieces of plastic, including an incredibly number of plastic bottle caps. It’s these kinds of discoveries that likely made eco-warriors and direct actionists on the Sea Shepard like Captain Watson ask: “will we survive” ourselves?

Health-wise, numerous chemicals are found within plastic products that are thought to have negative effects, including BPAs, which serve as endocrine disrupters. Consequences of BPA include hormonal fluctuations, especially amongst children. Phylates (which includes PVC) are another chemical of concern. Just by being around these chemicals and consuming food and drink that is stored in plastics can lead to chemicals entering our bodies. Famous actor and activist Peter Coyote is featured in Bag It, and he describes how he paid for a professional measurement of the chemicals in his body. Narrator Berrier does the same—wisely in a pre- and post-test fashion. He finds that a normal American routine sharply increased the chemical compounds in his body—many of which are rather dangerous.

There are a few shortcomings to the film to keep in mind. First, there is a strange, liberal belief that petroleum simply needs to be used more wisely and judiciously, and that “we” are the government which means that anyone can participate to create positive change. Surely, lobbying matters, but it’s a bit of hyperbole (or a pipe-dream) to claim that US residents are the government. Then, one of the strongest weaknesses of Bag It is that the narrator has styled himself in the mold of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, with all the annoying ego that this suggests. It’s nice to see that he and his wife are about to have a baby, but multiple minutes during the end of the film shows the live birth—and its unclear for what reason. Berrier is at his best insightful, often silly, and occasionally offensive. At one point he purchases some groceries at a supermarket. He doesn’t want a plastic bag so he holds his food in his hands as he leaves; but, then, for no explicable reason (except to pretend to he is funny), he cracks a misogynist joke that he “likes his lettuce loose, like his ladies”. These attempts to appear witty is the narrator’s (and ultimate the entire movie’s) downfall. Berrier is a big dork, almost to the point that his groaning sense of “humor” gets in the way of what is otherwise a compelling, intelligent, and well-made film. The documentary ends with a number of practical solutions for how to reduce the amount of plastic used in society.

Topics: environmental, waste, consumerism

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

While many people recognize the name “Enron”, few today probably know exactly what it did to deserve such an unsavory reputation. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room describes Enron from its beginnings, and details all the illegal, immoral, and simply insane things it did, all to receive its well-deserved reputation. In some ways, Enron was unique or an aberration as a company, but in other ways it was the prototypical American corporation. It was unique in its sheer willingness to lie, deceive, and recklessly break things, but it was emblematic of American corporations in its lust for profit at any cost, its masculinist competition, and its desire to curry favor with the powerful in order to avoid regulation. Founder Ken Lay was close friends with George H. W. Bush, future American president, and then later with George W. Bush. For those who doubt the closeness of their relationship, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room includes a homemade movie the Bushes made for a high-ranking, retiring Enron employee.

It’s telling to witness Enron’s geeky men trying to assert their masculinity, by doing dangerous, long-distance motorbike treks, sometimes injuring themselves in pursuit of proving their manliness. The company enacts a Draconian policy that regularly cuts a certain portion of the workforce, to encourage employees to be super-competitive with each other—consequently, people slit throats and scramble to the top, to avoid being left toward the bottom of the heap and thus fired. Then, Enron deliberately tries to create money out of thin air by using a “mark to marketing” accounting strategy, in which forecasted profits can be counted immediately. Time and again, Enron is intent on trying to believe its own hype, to become successful simply through force of will (independent of tangible resources or assets). In this respect, they are representative of the American financial sector which is premised upon marketing, self-pomotion, deception, and—quite honestly—nothing of actual value being created.

The arrogance that accompanies the accumulation of wealth is shown by the construction of two exclusive staircases ascending to the offices of Ken Lay and Jeff Skillings at the company’s headquarters. This lavish celebration of power and success clearly infects all the Enron employees. When a critical [female] reporter from Forbes magazine asks questions about how Enron makes its money (because no one really knew), Enron’s response is to insult her for not understanding their practices. Of course, Enron’s practices amounted to fraud, but they instead chose to explain their profits as sophisticated and creative. Skillings exemplifies this arrogance when earlier in life he was asked by a college professor at Harvard professor if he thought of himself as smart, to which Skillings responded “I’m fucking smart”.

The house of cards created by Enron collapses in waves, but the company managed to conceal its failings for many years. One guy who leaves the company before its final implosion, manages to walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars, and becomes the second largest landowner in Colorado. Another executive, Andy Fastow, was tasked with covering Enron’s tracks, so he creates countless shell companies (with insider joke names) to conceal Enron’s losses.

The housing and mortgage crisis is a more recent financial scandal today, but the same callousness and indifference was present earlier in the 1990s and 2000s with Enron. The documentary includes audio recordings of Enron traders laughing about screwing over grandmothers and other citizens. The indifference these traders had for the victims of their actions is most pronounced in California. An Enron employee analyzed a new California energy deregulation law (the kind Enron itself lobbied for), to find loopholes, and then created dozens of strategies to play the new system and make money. One of Enron’s favorite tricks was to artificially create demand by deliberately reducing the supply of energy in California. Traders called up managers at California power plants and had them shutdown the plants, sometimes for hours. The ensuing energy shortages led to rolling-blackouts and other chaos. Californians saw their monthly energy bills quadruple in cost.

From the retrospective view of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Enron was a house of cards that involved too much risk-taking, and too much lying and self-deception. Consequently, they serve as perfect—if not cruel and cutthroat—mascot for Wall Street. Not ironically, much of the same personality characteristics and values helped to guide the crisis of 2007-2008, which brought down the world economy. Enron is a poster-child for anti-social corporate behavior and the wolves of Wall Street.

For class showings, be wary that there a few F-bombs (many of which are funny), as well as a short scene of topless exotic dancers. But, it’s still worth showing in a class, because it is one of the best tutorials of pre-mortgage crisis corporate crime, and a lesson we should not soon forget.

Themes: capitalism, Wall Street, corporations, crime, masculinity

The Canary Effect

It’s probably uncommon for a documentary about genocide against American Indians to be directed by members of an indie rock band, but The Canary Effect is just such a film. It is a compelling overview of the history of European relations with American Indians in the Western Hemisphere, beginning (of course) with Columbus. Unlike most of the fairy-tale tellings of the period, the film emphasizes the words of Bartolomeo de las Casas, a priest who traveled with Columbus, who advocated on behalf of the indigenous people that Columbus met, enslaved, and slaughtered. Thus, a film on Native Americans begins on the correct footing: discussing how Europeans’ first impulse in the “new world” was to exterminate those they considered “lessers”. This helps to put the documentary on course to destroy the Columbus mythology.

Through interviews with a few academics and many more American Indians, including Ward Churchill, The Canary Effect steps viewers through all five of the criteria of the international convention on genocide, demonstrating very clearly that what has happened to American Indians has been unequivocally genocidal. (Thus, the fairy-tale of Western and American exceptionalism begins to disappear…) The US army engaged in targeted killing of Indians, including the massacres at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, conveyed smallpox-infested blanked to tribes, forceably relocated Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes from the US southeast to Oklahoma (which included the devastating Trail of Tears), and scalp bounties. The latter will likely stick in viewers minds longer than the others, which are moderately well-known; fewer people know that every state, colony, and territory in the US (except for Alaska and Hawaii) had at some point a “bounty” that the state would pay to white citizens who rendered an Indian “scalp” (the bloody red pulp of their head), including for children.

Another characteristic of genocide is the creation of conditions that lead to the death of a group; in the case of American Indians, reservations today are the poorest places in the US, with the poorest farming land and few jobs. The result is that Indians have the shortest life expectancy and some of the worse health outcomes of any race in the US. The prevention of births also qualifies as genocidal, as doctors through the Indian Health Service sterilized Indian women over a period of many decades. Many of these sterilizations were done without informed consent. Estimates are as high as 40 percent of Indian women of child-bearing age may have been sterilized—this is likely a cause to the noticeable drop in fertility rates for Indians during the late-middle part of the twentieth century. Finally, genocide can also result from the “transfer” of children. By taking multiple generations-worth of children from their families on reservations, and placing them in religious “boarding schools”, the US government aimed to “kill the Indian, save the man”. The schools’ goals were to teach Indians English, have them worship Christianity, dress as Westerners, and so forth. Children were prevented from seeing their families, speaking their native languages, practicing traditional customs and religion, or wearing Indian-style clothing. Shockingly, approximately half of all American Indians went through the boarding school system over a multi-decade period; of those who did, half did not emerge from the experience alive. Deaths resulted from starvation, neglect, abuse and violence, exposure (many tried to escape and go back home), and—as one interviewee puts it—from sadness.

In other words, it’s impossible to deny the post-“contact” experience of Native Americans in the United States as anything other than genocide. The interviewees label it very clearly as a process of colonialism: everything about Indian life is turned upside down. The boarding schools were simply the last step in colonization. Today, half the Indian population lives in urban settings and are nominally-Christian—these are the children of the boarding school system. And the resultant effect of this colonialization is detailed in the second half of The Canary Effect.

The sources of the shortened life-span for American Indians are many, but they include alcoholism, suicide, and violence. Alcoholism is always a side-effect of life circumstances, especially depression. It is a way of coping with a hopeless and joyless existence. Thus, many Indian people drown their sorrow in temporary fixes, neglecting family and their bodies in the process. The link between alcoholism and depression is most pronounced in the epidemic of suicide amongst Indian people, especially youth. Nearly every child at Indian schools either knows someone who has attempted suicide or they have tried it themselves. Some of these children are so young that it breaks your heart (I have shown The Canary Effect three times in classes, and each time sizable portions of the class cry when the film discusses the suicide of a very young girl who hangs herself).

Other violence stalks Native communities, in the form of predators—including sexual predators (Indian women face a very high rate of sexual assault and rape, many of which are hard to prosecute since perpetrators are non-reservation residents). One woman describes a male doctor reaching out to help her with her depression, only to discover that he has plans to have sex with her instead. Then, one of the most deadly school shootings in US history occurs on the Red Lake reservation in Northern Minnesota. Not only did the shooter have a predictable history of depression and suicide in his family, but the national news media looked away. In fact, it takes then-President George W. Bush a week to even comment on the tragedy. (Perversely, the film includes what first appears to be a very poor-taste cartoon of a person going on a shooting rampage, while describing the shooter… only to then tell the audience that the cartoon was made by the killer himself and posted on the Internet before the tragedy.)

Not only do politicians like Bush seem indifferent to Indian issues, they also don’t seem to understand them. For example, Jesse Jackson mocks Bush’s inability to describe the basic concept of Indian sovereignty. They also seem unable to understand what trust responsibility means; for example, the California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tirades against the “theft” of Indian gaming. The “Governator” articulates the common American misconceptions when he assumes that such gaming is a huge profit-making enterprise; the majority of reservation-based gaming has very low returns and the most profitable enterprises are run by some the US’s smallest tribes. In other words, Indians in general are barely benefiting from gaming.

The long-term trauma of genocide (of which the boarding schools is an illustrative example) continues to affect subsequent generations, just as addiction and psychological disorders are passed down from parents to children. Churchill argues that in order to reverse the multi-generational effects of colonialism, North American decolonization is necessary. The interviewees also make an analogy with Iraq, wherein the US attacked and decimated the country, leading to what will surely be decades-long problems. This is akin to the colonization of American Indians by the US, and until that process is stopped and the wrongs are righted, the negative consequences will continue. Of course, the United States does not seem eager to address this issue, let alone to return all the land that is appropriated through the violation of hundreds of treaties. Notably, The Canary Effect ends by observing that the US government mismanaged the funds generated by leases of Indian resources on reservations, and did its job so poorly that it could not determine who was owed proceeds. Then, the government refused to pay anything and spent the money on other things. In other words, people may occasionally mention the wrong done to Native Americans, speak favorably about Indian culture today, or even speak superficially when visiting Indian Country (as Clinton did just once). But few are willing to come to terms with how the US economy’s prominence is directly due to the incredible resource base the US controls through its conquest of American Indians (and stolen African labor from slavery). The Canary Effect describes the impoverishment and misery of American Indians as the “canary in the coal-mine”, to indicate to any who will listen that something dangerous and deadly is happening with the American Project.

Topics: race, colonialism, genocide, Native Americans, political sociology