News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.
Saturday, June 21, 2003
Advocacy again: Toward a coherent theory
Before disappearing into the ether, Digby of Hullabaloo said something to me about having gotten himself entwined in a multi-part blog project he was working on. Been there, done that, though not with blog entries so far. When you are thinking it through as you write it, an idea can turn into a kind of Mobius strip. So, in the interest of preventing that from happening, let me reiterate and clarify my thoughts on advocacy gone wrong.
1) I believe advocacy positions definitely have their place in the general discourse. But for people taking such positions, especially when it comes to opposing the status quo, there would be less positive change in society because people who are comfortable with the way things are don't want to change them. Silver Rights has taken an interest in domestic abuse, an area that has much benefitted by the presence of advocates for abused women during the last 20 years. Prior to that time, victims of domestic abuse were often dismissed as troublemakers or ignored. Because of advocates, the law now takes cognizance of the widespread presence of men who engage in mental, physical and/or sexual abuse of their lovers or spouses.
2) Advocates who are also propagandists are often untrustworthy in regard to facts. They present facts that favor their position and ignore or misrepresent those that don't. Sometimes, they make up 'facts' which are not facts at all. Mainly for this reason, advocacy should be examined with the knowledge the advocate is likely not trying to be objective. The example I will offer here is fraudulent pro-gun researcher John Lott. Whatever Lott's personal failings, the core of the mess he has created is that his 'research' is strongly advocacy driven. His results must match his ideological position -- guns are a positive force in society and should be distributed as freely as possible. To mistake Lott's conclusions for balanced, objective research is to be badly misled by an advocate.
3) Advocacy can be a way to avoid meaningful action. Advocacy of a position can substitute for actually doing anything to change the situation at issue. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., criticized white clergymen in Alabama for not doing enough to support the civil rights movement.
Each one of the men he took to task would have denied that he held any racial animus toward African-Americans and declared himself an advocate for civil rights. However, their advocacy was actually a pretext. It allowed them to say the right things while avoiding doing the right thing. They were as guilty of failure to act in good faith as the white supremacists they were siding with in deed if not in word were. Much of what passes for advocacy of civil rights in the blogosphere and elsewhere suffers from the same sleight of hand in my opinion. Too many bloggers and other advocates substitute soaring rhetoric for actually cleansing their hearts and souls of the contempt for people of color that still obviously lurks there.
I began this series on advocacy by discussing the murder of a young retarded woman in Portland. I've continued to read the coverage of the growing case. (Thirteen people have been arrested and charged. Others are still being sought.) So far, not one advocate for homeless youths has admitted there is something terribly wrong with encouraging street 'families' made up of teens and adults with serious psychological problems, and, association between children and adult veterans of the criminal justice system. To her credit, Mayor Vera Katz is not taking the 'under rug swept' approach to the murder of Jessica Kate Williams, the third person known to have died at the hands of the Thanatos street family. I believe the Williams murder is an example of the worst case scenario when advocacy goes wrong.posted by J. | 7:04 AM
Friday, June 20, 2003
What's wrong with advocacy?
If I can apply a timeline to my skepticism about the use of advocacy, I would trace it back to junior high and high school, when I initially read the works of Sinclair Lewis. The first American to win a Nobel Prize for literature, he seems to have been born with a built-in bullshit detector.
Other writers and other books have had just as much of an influence on me. However, whenever I encounter people using their advocacy of a cause to obscure full examination of it, I immediately think of Babbitt. George Babbitt, the protoganist of the novel, is held captive by his inability to not support the corrupt agendas of the ruling class in his hometown despite sometimes seeing right through them. To break with the in-crowd would mean standing alone or with a smaller, less powerful group that the members of his clubs sneer at and dismiss as 'socialists' or worse. Rather than risk that fate, Babbitt settles into his role as a yes man for things he doesn't really agree with. His life is more comfortable that way.
As I an adult, I first became conversant with Babbittry in the newspaper business. There is often substantial pressure on small to mid-size newspapers particularly not to question anything about the cities they cover, but to act as advocates, even cheerleaders, for them. So, everything from corruption in city government, to police brutality to pollution of the environment by local businesses may be off limits for full examination. Often, a major story is broken by larger outside papers, who don't have a duty to echo the local Babbitry and can compensate for similar pressures on them by their size and national scope.
You will notice the kind of advocacy I am describing has a definite slant to the Right. It protects the status quo, socially, economically and politically. However, as I have become older and more observant, I've discovered that some advocacy groups that describe themselves as Leftist also practice forms of Babbittry. For example, the National Lawyers Guild is much given to self-congratulation in regard to its liberality. But, I noticed years ago that many of its members are much more comfortable fomenting rebellion in the Third World than they are fighting for better lives for the poor in the United States. If there was real change in the lives of the poor here, especially the minority poor, that would make these advocates of radical values' lives less comfortable through such intrusions as integrated schools and neighborhoods or having to pay decent wages to the help.
But, how about recent events such as the release of the Tulia, Texas, defendants wrongly convicted of drug crimes? They are, mainly, poor black Texans and just about every Left advocacy group is cheering for them. It is easy for liberal advocates to support such minority Americans, at least through acts as inexpensive as cheering, without exposing the hypocrisy that often lurks within. The residents of Tulia, who are uneducated and low-income, represent no threat to these kinds of 'Lefties' so they compromise nothing by 'supporting' them. The Tulians are not going to challenge them for positions in higher education or employment, or even disagree with what they say in conversations or publications. That is why one often sees these advocates making much ado over the relatively few inmates on Death Row while ignoring the corruption of the criminal justice systems of most states that has led to millions of people being in prison for minor crimes, at least some of which they did not commit. Death Row inmates are too marginalized to threaten them in any way. Besides, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund actually went to bat for the Tulians, not the white Leftists in the blogosphere and elsewhere who are so busy patting themselves on the back.
So, what role do I see for advocates? I believe there is nothing wrong with their being advocates as long as they aren't allowed to get away with imposing their narrow, and often self-serving, perspectives on a subject to cloak it from broader examination. For example, some advocates choose to claim that marijuana is good for people. I don't have a problem with that claim being published as long as medical data that suggests marijuana can cause health problems also gets an airing. Or, if someone wants to rage against helmet laws, let him. But, also include information from studies on head injuries and deaths in motorcycle accidents.
What of the role of advocacy in the blogosphere? Based on what I have observed so far, I believe it may play too strong a role. Perhaps the most obvious instance is in regard to gun control and related issues. The average reader of blogs may have a very slanted take on the topic if most of her information comes from reading weblogs. That is because most of what has been published in the blogosphere ignores the law as it is, which does not recognize a right for individuals to arm themselves with whatever weapons they see fit. In contrast, the typical blog entry on the issue encourages people to believe such a right exists. Most of the bloggers who write on the topic are coming from a position of pro-gun advocacy. The same is true of many other issues discussed in the blogosphere. Advocates are telling only part of the story.
What can be done? In the blogosphere, more bloggers can refuse to echo whatever advocacy position is being urged on them and write as fully about a topic as they can. However, we need to remember that weblogs are a very small part of the public discourse. Even if some of the advocates mainly achieve their goal of preventing broader discussion of 'their' topics, through threats of quitting blogging or suicide or whatever, they will have influenced only a miniscule amount of the information on the topic. That is one reason why I am glad to have mainstream media around. Despite their shortcomings, they are still more reliable sources of information than blogs or anything else.
Note: Some of the material in this entry is from the World Book Encyclopedia Mac OS X Edition.posted by J. | 7:59 AM
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
Death on the streets: Why advocacy isn't enough
In every city I am more than passingly familiar with, advocates for homeless youths are very vocal. Whenever a homeless child* is treated brutally by the police, injured or killed by persons unknown, advocates respond with symbolic activities such as mock funerals and political action such as pressure on city government for more funding.
These facts make the silence of advocates for the homeless in Portland recently particularly revealing. Jessica Kate Williams, a young retarded woman, was beaten, stabbed, set on fire and left under one of the city's bridges to die. Not long ago, a couple of homeless girls met their ends at the hands of a serial killer who focused on street prostitutes. Their deaths were lamented and their lives memorialized in various ways by the 'homeless community.' So, why is the murder of a vulnerable child in an adult's body not getting the same response?
The family? That would be Thanatos, or in street lingo, 'Thantos,' a fluctuating group of homeless and not homeless youths and adults who have been responsible for at least three murders during the last 12 years. The suspect thought to have ordered the killing of Williams, 22, who is said to have functioned on the mental level of a 12-year-old, was one of the teens convicted in a similar murder by the family over a decade ago. He was released from prison in March and allegedly had Williams murdered in May. You read that right. He spent three months as a free man.
The third murder known to have been carried out by Thanatos was the killing of the previous leader's handicapped father so the group could use his house, which his son inherited, as a crash pad.
I believe this situation offers insights into the world of homeless youths and adults and the perspective of advocates for homeless children.
I marked child when I used it in regard to the homeless community previously. That is because I've watched the term be stretched to a breaking point in regard to the homeless for ten to 15 years. Many homeless advocacy groups offer services to people well into their twenties. (I am not referring to the retarded, for whom this is justifiable, though I think other agencies should be handling those cases.) The adults being served are often veterans of the criminal justice system who pass on their knowledge to the actual teenagers they meet, as modeled by Wilson.
Earlier this year, Willamette Week published a cover story on two "homeless youths" who have dwelt on the streets and under the bridges of Portland for most of the last 10 years. Now, 28, the 'Tweaker Twins,' as the meth addicts are known on the streets, have fathered a half-dozen children between them, all of whom were placed in foster care after findings of neglect. Yet, these grown men are still referred to as children. I am not a social scientist, but plain old common sense tells me this conflation of not yet having gray hair and being homeless with being a 'child' of the streets is at the core of some of the problems of criminality in the street culture. I fear that unless something changes, we may read about one of the suspects now in his late teens returning to the family to lead more violent episodes after his release from prison five to 10 years from now. The stage is already set.
The other 'sleeper' issue in all of this is the conflict between being an advocate for a group and telling the full truth about it I have mentioned before, including in regard to the transsexual community. Advocates for homeless youths in Portland, most notably Outside In, the organization the family is most associated with, are holding their tongues because telling the truth would require criticizing both their constituency, homeless youths, and themselves. If Jessica Williams had been murdered by the police or persons unknown, there would have been a protest rally every day since her body was found. But, since she was apparently murdered by the 'street youths' she naively took up with, it is her family, friends and church mourning her, not her adopted community.
My previous comments about treating advocacy as the unobjective approach it is and also considering the perspectives of the nonaligned in regard to issues has not been met with welcoming arms by everyone. A typical response is to call an entry that includes information from objective sources about an issue an attack on the group being discussed. For example, an entry about the skepticism transsexuality is still met with among much of the medical community and policymakers will be described as an attack on transsexuals. People who think like that are saying either accept the advocacy position or remain silent. I am aware of at least one case in which the goal of the persons involved is to try to prevent anything that does not fit their advocacy perspective from being published in the blogosphere.
This episode in the sorry history of the Thanatos street family highlights one reason why advocacy is not enough. To reach core problems within a troubled community, the community needs to examine its complicity in some of those problems. As long as advocates for homeless youths in Portland and other cities can strongly criticize the behavior of the police, but not of violent street gangs, their effectiveness is limited by their own actions.posted by J. | 2:55 PM
Monday, June 16, 2003
What Newnan, Ga., means to me
Yesterday, I received an email from a reader in Newnan, Ga. He took issue with some of my observations about the unwillingness of many white Southerners to really give up their belief in being racially superior to African-Americans, despite claiming otherwise. The man believes I have exaggerated the history of racial strife in the region and I don't understand that white Southerners, including Georgians, bear black people no ill will now.
"Newnan, Ga." The words elicit the same reaction from me as "Stone Mountain, Ga. " As someone who has lived in the South, I know the special histories of both towns. Stone Mountain is the founding place for the modern Ku Klux Klan. Through the mid-1990s at least, Klansmen gathered there for celebrations and African-Americans did not visit the park after dark. Meanwhile, Newnan is known for a history of racial segregation, despite anti-discrimination laws, that continued into the 1980s, perhaps longer. Blacks were said to be waited on after white customers in stores. At least one white doctor had continued to maintain separate waiting rooms for blacks and whites. A check with friends in Atlanta familiar with the area confirms that the professions, including the law, remain virtually all-white.
Among people who are interested in civil rights, Newnan is most famous as the site of a grisly lynching of a black man in 1899.
The area has retained its reputation as a place where people of color had best tread lightly into contemporary times.
Often, issues of the determination of whites in the rural and small-town South particularly to maintain segregation play out in the arena of schools.
Many of these towns rely on segregation academies to educate most of their white middle-class students.
Georgia is one of the states in which the dual system of private and public schools is most severe.
However, there are other methods of maintaining quasi-segregation, even in public schools. Students can be tracked so that pupils in each class are either mainly black or white. Racially divisive behavior can be encouraged by white adults to reassure white students they are superior. For example, the Albany, Ga., school that held a segregated prom party this year also has dual school officers and awards black and white superlatives, so black students are never alone in any leadership capacity.
A recent study of school resegregation confirmed Georgia as a state with a substantial problem.
The Coweta County school district still operates under a court-ordered desegregation order.
Other segregationist tendencies are also still quite evident in the area, including an active neo-Confederate movement that led the fight to try to reimpose the Confederate war emblem on the official standard of Georgia. The Ku Klux Klan is also far from unknown. Albany, Ga., the location of the high school which held the whites-only prom, has long been considered Klan territory.
However, you need not take my word for whether a white person from a place like Newnan is likely to be an authority on the absence of racism. Minister Julian Gordy has confronted that issue and found that even after he thought he had become enlightened, the oppressive history of his people still clung to his soul.
That is an attitude that any of us can see echoed on the weblogs of many white bloggers from the South today. Though some of you have time and again told them tossing out bromides that mention Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or prefacing racially offensive remarks with a claim one is joking does not mean a person has dealt with his likely acceptance of racism as a white Southerner, they remain as deaf as stones.
I told one of my friends in Atlanta, a black woman in her sixties, about Southerners in the blogosphere during the phone call I made to her about her home town, Newnan. (I'm not sure she understood my quick explanation of blogging. One has to actually look at blogs to 'get it' for the first time. However, she definitely knows the South.) Her response was that she no longer associates with white Southerners unless she is absolutely sure that beneath a liberal facade, they no longer hold white over nonwhite views. She did not mean she is rude to her white co-workers at the school where she is employed. Or, that she avoids chatting with white people in the public places where the races encounter each other. What she meant is that her patience and her trust have both been exhausted. She is no longer willing to invest the emotional capital required to interact with people who, despite their easily mouthed denials, have no intention of treating her as an equal human being. That -- not two white men from Georgia congratulating each other on their lack of racism, as I recently observed -- is the legacy of places like Newnan, Georgia.posted by J. | 10:28 PM
Columnist says GOP may make gays new 'threat'
Gabriel alerted me to this article in The Guardian, which opines the political status of gays in America may soon become what the political status of African-Americans used to be. Gary Younge wrote the piece.
Younge supports that opinion with two examples.
He believes the Republicans perceive gays as still open to overt insult, while blacks must be handled more carefully. This is a topic both Dave Niewert at Orcinus and I have discussed before. I would summarize my views by saying the Republicans are conflicted when it comes to their stances on gay issues and whether to publicly associate with gays. On one hand, homosexuals may be more likely to be conservatives than other minorities since they don't endure the discrimination visible minorities do and, if male, have a higher income than most Americans, so there are reasons to court them, or at least not to drive them from the Party. That mutual courtship has most publicly involved the high profile gay conservative organization Log Cabin Republicans. On the other hand, the GOP risks alienating at least two of its significant constituencies, Right Wing Christians and neo-Confederate types in the South, by appearing to offer the slightest approval of gays.
As a result of that meeting, Right Wing Christians demanded their own meeting with Racicot where they told him in unequivocal terms that courting the gay vote and assuming having the support of their followers was inconsistent.
Younge is not one of those folks who believe racial discrimination is a thing of the past or that prejudice against blacks and Hispanics is not a part of the GOP's political strategy. However, he believes gays may be the new 'threat' group for the Right Wing.
With half of African-Americans and Hispanics now considered middle-class and a desire by the GOP to garner at least 10 percent of the minority vote in future elections, partly transfering scapegoat status to gays, a group many Americans are still willing to consider aberrant, could be a viable strategy.
I have said before that I do not believe conservative gays will leave the party if they are "dissed" to satisfy other constituencies. They have more in common than not with their fellow Republicans and are used to being treated shabbily. Those low expectations may make being second-class Republicans more palatable to them than it would seem to be to outsiders.
Younge offers reasons why a bad situation may be about to get worse and why it is time for conservative gays to reconsider their political position. I urge you read the rest of his article.posted by J. | 2:22 AM
Sunday, June 15, 2003
Al Qaeda in America?
That, in the form of a statement, not a question, is the title of this week's cover story in Newsweek. But, is Al Qaeda in America? Obviously, I don't have the resources of the Justice Department or even an Explorers' troop. But, I have been following news of the alleged terrorists in the U.S. closely. The people I have focused on most are the Portland Seven.
Three of them are African-Americans who converted to Islam. Two are children of African-Americans who converted to Islam reared mainly in Arabia, but also maintaining American citizenship. One is of Jordanian descent. Another is a naturalized citizen who is also Palestinian. Their names are Jeffrey Leon Battle, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, Patrice Lumumba Ford and October Martinique Lewis, Habis Abdulla al Saoub and Maher Mofeid Hawash.
The gist of the case is the allegation that these men, and one of their wives, conspired to aid al Qaeda by traveling to Afghanistan to become soldiers for the terrorist group. There is also a claim one of the defendants, al Saoub, who is at bay, raised money for terrorist activities while living in the United States.
The evidence against the defendants was gathered using a paid informant, gossip from neighbors and, in the later months, FBI agents who rented an apartment in the complex where Battle and Lewis lived. It is alleged the six men traveled to China in the fall of 2001 in hope of reaching Afghanistan from there. They were unable to do so and returned to their normal lives in the U.S. Lewis, the only woman involved, is considered a conspirator because she wired small increments of money to Battle while he was in China. There are also reportedly computer records in which the couple obliquely refer to helping Osama bin Laden.
The most vulnerable member of the group is its "mighty mouth," Jeffrey Battle. He is said to have talked to neighbors about supporting bin Laden, to the informant extensively in recorded conversations and to federal officials after they were arrested, implicating the others. Who is Jeff Battle? From a fractured family in Houston, he moved to the Pacific Northwest about five years ago, to be near an uncle who had converted to Islam, a process he was engaged in. Soon after, he sent for Lewis, who was in Houston, to join him. She also converted to Islam. They were subsequently married and civilly divorced, though they continued to live together. The couple was rearing Battle's child by another woman, Ibrahim, now five. They worked at low-paying jobs, including as aides in a nursing home. Neighbors say they were so poor there was little furniture in their apartment, not even a bed. The Feds say Battle has bragged of a desire to blow up synagogues, shoot numerous people and other extreme acts. The most noticeable aspect of that description is its grandiosity. The man who could not afford a bed imagined himself to be quite powerful if the allegations are true. The closest the members of the group ever came to shooting anyone was target practice in a rural area that got them, dark, bearded men attired in robes, noticed by local police.
Other cases involving alleged terrorists that have come to trial so far include:
The previous Portland 'al Qaida in America' case started out with a bang and ended with a whimper. An imam, Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye was initially accused of trying to leave the U.S. to escape terrorism charges and having explosives residue on his luggage. He was eventually convicted of using false identification to obtain medical benefits and placed on probation.
Lewis was recently released on bail.posted by J. | 10:49 AM