And don’t give up the dream

20 04 2019

My mum’s a McCue, from a line which apparently traces back to 19th century Cork. So I’m of Irish descent. There might be some from my dad’s side as well—he’s a true American mosaic—but the McCue is a solid line.

That said, having grown up in southeastern Wisconsin, the culture was more German (which, yep, my ancestors also were) than anything else. Bit of Dutch, bit of Swedish, some Polish, heading toward Milwaukee, but I grew up in the land of bratwurst, sommer sausages, stumpf fiddles, and polkas.

Still, McCue, which was enough at some point in grad school to set me off on an “I’M IRISH” kick.

It was a shallow kick—I still haven’t read any good histories on Éire—but even a few inches will lead one into jigs, reels, Irish punk, and, as they happened to be recording when I was kicking—Black 47.

I do try to keep in mind the Pogues’s line “we celebrate the land that made us refugees” to keep any romanticism in check, but even a nationalist-skeptic like me gets choked up at a good, rousing, Rising song.

As a teen I took great pride in my cynicism; now, even though that seems a cop-out, a way to justify resignation, it’s tough to avoid.

So, yeah, I know there’s a fair amount of bullshit about the revolution and a dangerously blinkered revival of the (New) IRA, but however contrived my Irish identity, and whatever my unease with nationalism, I am not ungrateful that I can still be moved by a song celebrating liberation.





I’m only human, of flesh and blood I’m made

15 10 2014

I haven’t read the book, but do you really think that would stop me from commenting on it?

I have a PhD, y’know, which means I am more-than-well-qualified to talk about an argument on which I have not laid eyes. After all, who but PhDs would have come up with the whole I haven’t read it, but I’ve read of it gambit?

Anyway, Katha Pollitt has a new book out—Pro—in she argues that those of us in favor of abortion rights should stop apologizing about our support and “reclaim the lives and the rights of women and mothers.”

As you would expect from someone who has written on this issue ad nauseam, I can only respond Right on! Right the fuck on!

The other day I noted that stories are unlikely to work the same kind of magic in swaying people toward a pro-choice position that they did in gay marriage; perhaps the, or at least a, solution, then, is simply to drop the stories, assert the right, and not budge.

I like how Hanna Rosin handled this in her review of Pro:

I had an abortion. I was not in a libertine college-girl phase, although frankly it’s none of your business. [. . .]

I start the story this way because Katha Pollitt, author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, would want it this way. In fact any woman who’s reading this piece and has had an abortion, or any man who has supported one, should go in the comments section and do the same thing, until there are so many accounts that the statement loses its shock value. Because frankly, in 2014, it should be no big deal that in a movie a young woman has an abortion and it’s no big deal. We shouldn’t need a book explaining why abortion rights are important. We should be over that by now.

Yes: simply state, Yeah, I had an abortion, what of it?

I haven’t, by the way, had an abortion (although frankly it’s none of your business. . . ) and likely never will: I’ve never been pregnant, and, given my age, never will be. But had I gotten knocked up, I almost-certainly would have been clinic-bound.

In any case, being nice, being sorry, being afraid to make the political case of the necessity of abortion for women’s liberation has gotten us bupkes—no, worse, has gotten us fewer clinics, longer waiting times, and, unfuckingbelievably, a pushback against contraception.

Contraception! The “responsible” choice (as opposed to the irresponsible abortion) has now been hectored into the status of “controversial” among corporate owners and politicians alike.

Well, fuck that.

Ta-Nahisi Coates has been arguing of late that attempts to be “responsible Negroes” have black people little more than jail time, beat-downs, and death. He’s not arguing against responsibility per se, but against the double-bind that black people must be responsible in ways over-and-above the ways  any [white] human beings must be responsible and that, too often, such Negro-respectability offers no protection whatsoever.

Trying to be “respectable” or “responsible” on sex and birth control and abortion hasn’t done much to secure women’s rights, so maybe now it’s past time to try something new: the assertion—without apology, without permission—of our full humanity.

That’s no guarantee of success, of course, but it will make damn clear what the stakes are.

~~~

h/t Scott Lemieux, Lawyers, Guns & Money (click link for more reviews by people who actually read the book!)





Go your own way

28 05 2014

Conservatives, like most populists, harbored deep suspicions of institutions not under their control, . . .

It’s a throwaway line in Nicole Hemmer’s re-view of three conservative texts from 1964 and their influence on the nomination of Barry Goldwater, but it shot out of the screen right at me.

OH! I thought. Oh! That makes perfect sense!

Not that you’d be suspicious of any institution not under your ilk’s control—that does not make sense, especially in a pluralist society—but that such suspicion could help to explain the resentment and fear of a politics and culture which goes its own way.

Even more, it helps to explain the disconnect within a hyper-patriot’s rants against the US: You people cannot be trusted with all that is great and good in this country and the fact that you hold power means it is no longer great and good.

They don’t live in “our” country, but in “my/not-my” country.

Anyway, I don’t know that this is necessarily a populist or even a conservative thing. Yes, populists may be skeptical of the institutions of power and conservatives might see themselves as holding the line, but as long as they can recognize that The Other—whoever The Other may be—is not alien then they can, however grudgingly, accept the legitimacy of that Other’s rule.

In other (Other?) words, it’s possible to be a populist or a conservative and a pluralist. Harder, perhaps, than it is for a liberal (ideologically, if not in day-to-day experience), but hardly impossible.

No, I think this suspicion is more a matter of authoritarianism mixed with righteousness: We must rule because we deserve to rule because we are right and you are wrong.

Not all authoritarianism is righteous—see the many, many nations run by mere kleptocrats—but righteousness fits easily within authoritarianism (of whatever sort). If you are convinced that you have the correct answers to all questions worth asking, then there’s really no point to granting space to anyone with any other answers—or questions.

It is perhaps not so odd, then, that righteousness is so often a part of anti-authoritarian politics as well. It can take the form of a kind of counter-authority—you are wrong and we should be in charge—but it can also be joined to liberationist sensibilities, as a way of shrugging off authority altogether.

The righteous authoritarian and anti-authoritarian are not, it should be said, mirror opposites. I’ve been around and have sometimes been a righteous anti-authoritarian and they (we) have been at most really irritating: it’s tough to get shit done without authority. Since they are fine with the notion of authority per se, however, righteous authoritarians have no problem taking and exercising power.

That makes them not irritating, but scary.

It also, in its own roundabout way, helps to explain why righteous authoritarians are suspicious of anyone running things who isn’t them. They assume that others will rule just as they would, so cannot trust that they might be merely unhappy under another’s rule. They thus translate that unhappiness into oppression and prepare themselves for the persecution they know is coming.

Whether or not it ever does.





You said you’d try to look for the end of the road

22 11 2012

It’s wicked, I know. I should stop, but I can’t.

I so enjoy reading GOP sob stories.

The flailing of arms, the casting of blame, the faux-introspection and real outrage: it’s just too delectable to be denied!

And no, I won’t be commenting on what went wrong, for precisely the reasons I mentioned earlier: I’m not a conservative, concern-trolling is annoying, and we leftists have our own messes to figure out.

These messes might explain why I am pretty much unrepentant in my snarfing down rightist blog post after rightist blog post: after all, any honest leftist of the past, pffft, four? five? six? decades has had to come to terms with some pretty nasty shit on our side of the ledger, and we still haven’t got it sorted.

Thus, it’s not so much that I’m unsympathetic—although I kinda am—as I am impatient with the bluster and bullshit and the apparent dedication to that same bluster and bullshit. I think something a former vice presidential candidate said about “lipstick on a pig” might just be applicable here.

Lemme put it this way: I started identifying as a feminist when I was in the eighth grade, and out of that grew an affinity for liberalism, then leftism, then socialism. And then at some point I had to come to terms with the fact that saying “the Soviets aren’t really socialists” wasn’t an honest response to repression in the old USSR and the Eastern bloc. If human rights and liberation were important to me—and they were and are important to me—I had to recognize that socialism as it was actually practiced in the world was not compatible with a free human life.

And then I had to choose.

I chose to hang on to the principles which led me both to liberationist politics and to socialism, and that meant I had to look honestly at those who claimed to liberate people under the banner of socialism—and criticize the shit out of them. There was no red flag large enough to wave away the barbed wire.

This wasn’t traumatic for me as I had never been invested in the myths of Soviet freedom or a Cuban paradise—not because I was so wise but because I came of political age in the 1980s and not the 1930s. The crisis of conscience wasn’t really so much a crisis as a click: Wellllll, shit.

The critical work is ongoing, while the constructive work is. . . lagging. I still call myself a socialist because I am persuaded by the left-critique of capitalism, but I am not at all convinced we have any replacement for capitalism. I am a kind of negative-socialist, seeking a positive program.

The elements of that program are there—a commitment to equality, to pluralism, to human being, among others—but do is there anything beyond welfare-state capitalism which might allow us to approach a fully human life? I think there must be, but I don’t know what it is.

So I’m a little impatient with Republicans who are gobsmacked by the 2012 results: You lost a fucking election, not a whole world.

You can wander around bellowing about the blindness of the electorate or the unfairness of change or the perils of pluralism or moochers and looters and other assorted layabouts, or you can put down the hanky and open your eyes and your ears and pay some damned attention to who and how your fellow Americans actually are, and go from there.

Your choice.





A great and good man: Robert Smalls

23 12 2010

This is pure theft from TNC, but this man deserves every last bit of attention he can get:

Robert [Smalls] was sent to Charleston in 1851 to work for his master (now Henry McKee) where he held several jobs. He started out in a hotel, then became a lamplighter on the streets of Charleston. His love of the water, evidenced in his childhood at Beaufort, led him to work down on the docks and wharfs of Charleston in his teen years. He became a stevedore (a dockworker), a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to a wheelman (essentially a pilot, though blacks were not called pilots). He became very knowledgeable of the Charleston harbor.
In the fall of 1861, Smalls steered the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate military transport. On May 12, 1862, the Planter’s three white officers were spending the night ashore. In the early morning hours of the 13th, Smalls and several other black crewmen decided to make a run for the Union vessels that formed the blockade, in accordance with a plan Smalls previously had discussed with them.
Robert was dressed in the captain’s uniform and even had a hat similar to the white captain’s. The Planter backed out of what was then known as Southern Wharf around 3 a.m. The Planter stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up Smalls’ family and other crewmen’s relatives, who had been concealed there for some time. Now with his wife and children and a small group of other African Americans aboard, Smalls made his daring escape.
The Planter not only had the blacks on board but it also had four valuable artillery pieces aboard, besides its own two guns. Perhaps most valuable was the code book in Robert’s possession that would reveal the Confederate’s secret signals and placement of mines and torpedoes in and around Charleston harbor. Smalls piloted the ship past the five Confederate forts that guarded the harbor, including Fort Sumter.
The renegade ship passed by Sumter approximately 4:30 a.m. He then headed straight for the Federal fleet, which was part of the Union blockade of Confederate ports, making sure to hoist a white flag. The first ship he encountered was USS Onward, which prepared to fire until a sailor noticed the white flag. When the Onward’s captain boarded the Planter, Smalls requested to raise the US flag immediately. Smalls turned the Planter over to the United States Navy, along with its onboard cargo of artillery and explosives intended for a Confederate fort.
Because of his extensive knowledge of the shipyards and Confederate defenses, Smalls was able to provide valuable assistance to the Union Navy. He gave detailed information about the harbor’s defenses to Admiral Samuel Dupont, commander of the blockading fleet. Smalls became famous throughout the North. Numerous newspapers ran articles describing his actions. Congress passed a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, rewarding Smalls and his crewmen with the prize money for the captured Planter.
Smalls’ own share was $1,500 ($34,000 adjusted for inflation in 2007 dollars), a huge sum for the time. Robert personally met Abraham Lincoln in late May 1862 (two weeks later) upon which he heralded his personal account to the President. Lincoln was quite impressed with Smalls’ intelligence. His deeds became a major argument for allowing African Americans to serve in the Union Army. Smalls served under the Navy until March 1863, when he was transferred to the Army.
In December 1863, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. On December 1, 1863, the Planter had been caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. The ship’s commander, Captain Nickerson, decided to surrender. Smalls refused, fearing that the black crewmen would not be treated as prisoners of war and might even be shot. Smalls took command and piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter’s captain.[2] Robert returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the re-raising of the American flag upon Ft. Sumter.

Read the whole thing, and read the thread for even more on this great and good man.

Forget the Lost Cause: This is the history we should be celebrating.





Mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is

15 11 2010

We’re fucked.

That was my response to Jtt.’s question of how to think through this present historical moment. Jtt., of course, is a ‘dogmatic Marxist!’ [said with downward chopping arm motion] while I am merely marxish. Regardless of our differences, however, we share a, ah, certain skepticism with regard to the consequences of a capitalism unfettered by any convincing and practical critique.

Who is there? we asked ourselves. Zizek? Please. The man has the intellectual chops and global scope, but he’s rather too impressed with his own cleverness, a cleverness which substitutes for actual imagination. Habermas has aired himself out into abstraction, and the [post-]Marxists such as Laclau, Mouffe, and Eagleton have either turned inward or narrowed their vision. Their works are still worth reading, but hardly inspiring to the non-theorist.

What happened to critical theory? Marx wrote at a time of great intellectual ferment, following hard on the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and mixing it up with contemporaries such as Proudhon (‘property is theft’) and Feuerbach. And not only did he inspire 20th century theorists and revolutionaries, he laid out a critique to which even non-Marxist felt compelled to respond.

And now? Well now we get, as Nicholas Carr points out, critics of the current modes of communications economics squeaking that they’re ‘not communists!‘ Nope, instead of rigorous historical analysis, we get cotton-candy encomiums to ‘quadrants’ of innovation or the glib giddiness of ‘free‘.

I could point to a certain enervation on the part of capitalist theory as well, but as I am not a capitalist, I leave it to those folks to figure themselves out. I will at least note that there is some stirring in the small pots of ‘behavioral economics’ which take note of how people actually make (or don’t make, as it were) economic decisions, but however welcome is this dose of reality in the sclerotic delusions of the freshwater economists, it is, still, small.

And we leftist and leftish and pink and red folk? Christ. Completely out of it.

Our problem is twofold. One is the collapse of anything like a communist world. There’s Cuba and then there’s. . . Cuba. China is authoritarian capitalist, and North Korea a cultic autarky; Chavez in Venezuela fashions himself a modern-day Bolivar, but his brand of charismatic strong-state leadership is more populist than socialist, and while there are so-called revolutionary leaders in a number of African countries, the politics and economics in these countries instead simply revolve around a party or a personality.

What about Vietnam and Laos, you say? What about ’em?

No, I am sorry to say, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rule of Communist parties across Eastern Europe not only mirrors but in fact reveals the poverty of socialist thought today. I am not at all sorry that the USSR and its client states—almost all brutal regimes—have collapsed, but that they have done so means that capitalist theorists no longer see the need for a vigorous defense of capitalism per se and, as such, content themselves with such matters as quantitative easing and currency manipulation.

More crucially, those of us on the left are left to grapple with the failure of both the ruling and the rule and of communist regimes. Communism was supposed to liberate people and instead it imprisoned them, and no amount of weasling about Stalinist or even Bolshevik distortions can get us around the plain fact that communism failed.

The second piece involves the shattering of a unified epistemological field. Nietzsche began poking his fingers into the cracks of modern liberal thought in the 19th century, but not until the cataclysms of the two world wars and the Cold War confrontations in which the end of everything became possible did the optimism of knowledge shrink back into silence. Dare to know! Kant had exhorted; but now we are thrown back to the Baconian knowledge is power—with the slogan rewritten as threat.

The hermeneutics of suspicion have infected us all, and we who seek liberation distrust liberation movements. What is the downside; there is always a downside.

Bereft of confrontation and confidence, we marxishts have gone into hiding. Oh, we may be able to pull out the old man as a way of seeing into today’s historical conditions, but no longer can we say that there is anything better beyond this—and to those who do say so we can only say, with contempt, Prove it.

I have been as guilty of this as anyone, running away from sustained engagement in this historical-political moment and content to lob water-bombs of derision at the likes of those who squeak that they are not communists or intone on the verities of free.

Marx is dead and the revolution will not be televised. Mouthing revolutionary slogans or whitewashing the past in what-ifs is no substitute for thinking, for thinking down through the failures of communism and down into the successes of capitalism and through the fragments of the-truth-will-set-you-free.

Only then—perhaps—can we say if there is anything better.






Jody Howard, 1940-2010

15 02 2010

Jody Howard, one of the founding members of Jane, the underground abortion-and-women’s-health care network, died February 5th.

Howard was given the name ‘Jenny’ by Laura Kaplan in her history The Story of Jane, and her story opens the book:

The first voice Jenny heard as the anesthetic lifted was the surgeon’s, “The sterilization procedure was a success, and congratulations, you’re eight weeks pregnant.” That was the news Jenny dreaded most. “All I wanted to do was roll off the table, pull the IV out of my arm, and bleed to death right there,” she recalls. Jenny was twenty-six, the mother of a two-year-old and a three-year-old and had been suffering from lymphatic cancer (diagnosed while pregnant with the younger daughter–ab), Hodgkin’s disease, for the past two years. Her health had deteriorated to such an extent during her previous pregnancy that she had every reason to believe another one would kill her.

Kaplan noted that when Jenny asked a doctor to perform a tubal ligation after her second daughter was born, he refused: ‘He could not endorse elective tubal ligation for a woman as young as she.’ Only after months of trouble with birth control pills did he agree finally to sterilize her.

She then sought to end her pregnancy, which required the permission of the hospital board. Even though her oncologist, radiologist, and gynecologist supported her decision, the board denied the request, as ‘her life was in no imminent danger. It was only after she convinced two psychiatrists she would commit suicide if she didn’t get the abortion that the board relented and agreed to it.

‘She came out of the hospital after her abortion infuriated.’

The key to Howard was not just the fury, however, but the context for that fury—that others, in this case, all men—had a quite literal control over her life. And not just her life, but, by extension, over the life of every pregnant woman.

It took Howard a while to make that connection, that women could never be free as long as someone else controlled their bodies and their lives, but once she did, she gave herself over to Jane.

She fought the good fight, for us all.

Rest in peace, Jenny.

(h/t: Feministing)





Pat-pat, good dog

26 01 2010

So as not merely to pick on the religious folk:

France Should Ban Muslim Face Veils – Panel

From today’s NY Times:

By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s National Assembly should pass a resolution denouncing full Muslim face veils and then vote the strictest law possible to ban women from wearing them, a parliamentary commission proposed on Tuesday.

Presenting conclusions after six months of hearings, the panel also suggested barring foreign women from obtaining French visas or citizenship if they insisted on veiling their faces.

But it could not agree whether to opt for an absolute ban on the veils, known here as burqas or niqabs, or one restricted to public buildings because some members thought a total ban would be unconstitutional.

“The full veil represents in an extraordinary way everything that France spontaneously rejects,” National Assembly President Bernard Accoyer said as the commission delivered its report.

“It’s a symbol of the subjugation of women and the banner of extremist fundamentalism.”

Okay, so let’s look at those commission members: Andre Guerin, communist deputy, headed the commission; Eric Raoult, conservative deputy, was vice chair. Socialist members of the commission, protesting the entanglement of this issue with a debate on national identity, boycotted the final vote.

Jean-Francois Cope, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s  conservative Union for a Popular Movement party, has introduced a bill banning full covering (i.e., the burka and the niqab) in public; it’s been signed by 180 members of the 315-member body.

Supporters of a ban say civil servants need a law to allow them to turn away fully veiled women who cannot be identified when they seek municipal services such as medical care, child support or public transport. (NY Times)

Now, I haven’t been able to find out who exactly sat on this commission, but does anyone else notice who is championing efforts to restrict the movement of liberate the estimated 1900 Muslim women who cover themselves fully?

I assume they’ll get right on regulating the bodies of men legislation to ban facial hair from men.

In the name of freedom. Of course.





I am woman—hear me roar

12 01 2010

I am so fucking tired of having to generate outrage at yet another horrendously stupid or awful comment on or policy regarding women.

It’s not that I’m no longer capable of outrage—note the existence of the ‘Rant’ category (or see this post)—but JesusMary&Joseph can I not simply walk away from idiocy on occasion?

Look, I’m old—an old feminist, and shit that used to rile me is now far more likely to lead me to roll my eyes. Some dickwad thinks women can’t think and menstruate at the time and I’m supposed to engage in a point-by-point rebuttal of this so-called argument?

Can’t I just laugh in his face and move on?

C. and I were discussing our respective positions vis-a-vis feminism the other night; while her views generally might be described as feminist, she declines the term. I’ll leave it to her to explain why—she’s working on a post on the topic—but she was clearly weary of the ‘rules’ of feminism. Do I have to invoke ‘The Patriarchy‘ every time some guy acts like a douche? Can’t I just say, This guy is a douche?

I think patriarchy is a key concept in understanding the development of male-female roles and relationships across societies; I also think such understanding requires a sense of critical distance from the term itself, as well as an ability to distinguish between overarching/underlying structural dynamics and the idiosyncracies of individual behavior.

Translation: Yes, sometimes a douche is just a douche.

But even if I think that scripts for individual behavior are shaped (not determined) by those structural dynamics, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to go nuclear every time someone tosses a dart my way. Sometimes I can just toss it back—bent, if I so choose. Sometimes I can just duck.

This is called judgment, and one of the benefits of aging is accumulating enough experience on which to base this discretion.

This does not make a bad feminist or a sell-out or blinded by privilege. (Grrrr, now there’s a word that sets me off. . . .) As a long-ago grad school colleague responded to a newly-out woman’s hectoring her on not being a good enough lesbian: I’ve been out since I was fifteen, so I don’t need any lectures from some baby dyke.

Was P. invoking privilege in her put-down? Yeah—an earned one. And P., an exceptional mild person, didn’t go any further in criticizing this woman’s zeal; rather, she made the practical observation that the way one relates one’s sexuality to the world changes over time. Such change, needless to say, can indicate development in as opposed to repudiation of an aspect of one’s identity.

So how I’m a feminist has changed over the last thirty years—which strikes me as a good thing. I was twelve or thirteen when I first identified as a feminist, and took to it with a teenaged zeal. I ain’t knocking adolescent views—they’re entirely appropriate for adolescents—but, really, how sad would it be for an old broad like me to ignore the fact that I am no longer thirteen?

It is true that in those intervening decades I have come to question feminism and to shift where I locate myself within the spectrum of feminisms. It’s not that I’ve abandoned my previous commitment to equality, but in recent years I have focused more intently on issues of liberation and domination.

These are big topics, but here I want simply to make the practical point that domination affects all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. Some people might focus on race or ethnicity or class or sexual orientation or gender identity or disability or any number of other boxes in which we find ourselves, but it seems to me that we can share the general goal of liberation, as pursued in our particular ways.

So while I might have to start calling myself a ‘libber’ to reflect that larger project, my entry into this project was as a feminist. It has formed my thinking and guided my development regarding liberation, and I see no reason to discard it, now.

(There’s also the little matter of rank oppression of women world-wide and the necessity of recognizing that however general the goal of liberation, it is in fact experienced in the particular. Women’s rights may be human rights, but you can’t neglect the former and hope to achieve the latter.)

Still, I share C.’s wariness to some versions of feminism, those which traffic in conversation-stopping jargon and which allow for no nuance in how we actually inhabit this world. We discussed a couple of websites and their contributors, and the constant jackhammering in their posts.

C. was pissed off, but I (uncharacteristically) took more of P.’s mellow line. Look, I said, those websites are geared toward a particular audience—a younger, academically-oriented one. They’re pounding away on stuff that we might already have learned to deal with. In and of itself that’s not a bad thing, but for those of us outside of that target audience, it’s bound to produce its share of irritation.

Then C. asked a very good question: Where the hell are those websites for women our age?

Beyond the mommy blogs, I couldn’t think of any. Katha Pollitt keeps on keeping on, but where is the Gen-X version of Feministing or Jezebel or Pandagon? (Could we call it BabyBust? Or would that just be too cute?)

We need a site which takes account of our nicks and scars, defeats and victories, and which doesn’t expect us to get riled up every damned time someone says something stupid about women, somewhere. Righteous Broads? Crone? Or, to call on an earlier post, how about Mormo, a.k.a. She-monster?

Something which encourages us to laugh and dance and not be perfect, but human, instead. Politics, liberation—yes, but life, too. Life, always.





Jane says

4 10 2009

Do you know Jane?

‘Jane’ was the name of the underground abortion service in Chicago in the late sixties and early seventies; it wound down after the Roe decision in 1973.

As told by Laura Kaplan (who was a part of Jane) in The Story of Jane, a number of women in the Chicago area put together a not-for-profit and completely illegal service, one which they eventually expanded to include pap smears and female health education. Although a few members were eventually busted (somewhat by mistake), they operated for years with the knowledge both of police and various ‘legit’ medical professionals.

That such an underground service existed is not a surprise. What is stunning, however, is how completely fucking radical these women were. They initially relied upon various sympathetic and/or mercenary doctors to perform the abortions, but eventually learned how to do them themselves.

You got that? These women received training from a guy who received training from a doctor—and went ahead and performed not only D&Cs, but also vacuum aspiration, and, eventually, second-trimester abortions.

I’m as pro-choice as they come, but even I blanched when I read that. Fucking hell, I thought, second-trimester abortions done in apartments and hotel rooms?!

But they were good. One woman did die—a death which led some members to drop out, and to a great deal of turmoil for those who remained—but her death was almost certainly the result of an infection caused by  abortion attempts performed elsewhere. Upon realizing the extent of her infection, Jane members told her to go immediately go to the hospital; she waited more than a day, then died at the hospital.

Kaplan describes the meeting following the woman’s death:

As details of the story were recounted, a numbness spread throughout the room. They had founded the service to save women from dying and now the very thing they were trying to prevent had happened.

That was the whole point of Jane, to save women; even more, to give them a way to save themselves.

It wasn’t simply about making safe, inexpensive abortions available to women, it was also about women—both Jane members and those who used their service—taking responsibility for their own lives. Jane set up training for their members, and provided counseling for the women who came to them. They didn’t have moral qualms about abortion itself, but they were careful to ask anyone who seemed uncertain if she really wanted to go through with it. The decision, and the responsibility, lay with the woman herself.

Kaplan is not a deft storyteller, but she is an honest one. She details the egos and tensions, the difficulties of involvement with an underground organization, the conflicts with other women’s liberation organizations, and all the varieties of risk taken by Jane and the women they helped. All of these women shared desperation: the women (‘participants’, not patients) who came to Jane for help, and the members of Jane themselves, to help all who asked for it.

It was, in fact, that desperation to save women from unsafe abortions that led Jane to take over the operation itself, and to end up inducing 2nd-trimester miscarriages. If we don’t do it, they worried, what will happen to all these women?

There’s so much more to The Story of Jane. I used it in my ‘Women and Politics’ course I taught this past summer as a way not only to foreground reproductive issues, but also the issue of underground, anarchist, or DIY politics. Does underground work affect politics above the ground, or does DIY simply let the above-grounders off the hook? Or is the effect on ‘normal’ politics less the issue than the creation of one’s own politics?

I’m still chewing over those larger political issues. But when it comes to abortion, I wonder if Jane didn’t have the right idea. I’m a big fan of Planned Parenthood (see my links list), but they are at the forefront of putting abortion and contraception firmly within the medical sphere, i.e., within the sphere of specialization and  licensure and, most importantly, women-as-patients.

Jane insisted that abortion was something that women participated in, not that it was something done on or to them. This is your body, they repeated over and over and over, this is your life. In this context, the notion that women should have some idea of their own genitalia—a kind of mirror-empowerment which, honestly, always kind of put me off—seems less woo than utterly practical. How can you take care of yourself if you don’t know what you look like?

I know, there are both hospital-based and free-standing women’s clinics, not a few of which are also interested in patient or client education. And, frankly, autoclaves and medical education seem to me very good things.

But what about responsibility and liberation and solidarity? What of a woman’s (or any) emancipatory movement premised upon the simple declaration that you can and must free yourself? Jane was not encouraging women to bust out into chaos, but to recognize themselves as full human beings, and to inculcate a sense of responsibility not only to themselves but to those around around them.

With liberty and justice for all. Pretty fucking radical, huh?