Dr. Jo Reger Discusses Feminism’s “Different Wavelengths”

Last week Friday, feminist author and activist Jo Reger spoke at Aquinas College on contemporary feminism and the movement’s past and future.

Jo Reger, professor of sociology at Oakland University and editor of the book Different Wavelengths: Past, Present, and Future in Contemporary US Feminism, came to speak at Aquinas College on March 31, 2006. She spoke about feminism in the United States – how it has changed over the years, and how it fits into society right now. Reger spoke of three themes that emerge from contemporary feminism: divisions and inclusivity, changes in ideology and strategy, and origins and delineations of feminist waves. Mentioned was the “commonly accepted” version of feminine history, which views the white woman as universal. The “reenvisioned” version, on the other hand, acknowledges that women of all ethnicities have worked on similar issues. Reger, a white woman, stated that while second wave feminism (feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s) did have problems regarding its race and class makeup, the traditionally told history of second wave feminism writes off the significant contributions of nonwhite women and the times in which white women and nonwhite women from various socioeconomic classes did work together. Some challenges to contemporary feminism mentioned by Reger include the complex construction of feminine history and the necessity to avoid monolithic interpretations.

Reger noted that there has been a call for changes in the strategies and ideology of the feminist movement in the third wave (what some see as feminism’s current wave). These include an emphasis on power feminism versus a feminism that views women as victims as well as an emphasis on the individual’s actions rather than the actions of a group. Traditional strategies seem to be losing their effectiveness. Second wave feminism placed importance on the resistance of heterosexuality. Current feminism (known as the third wave) places importance on resistance through personal choices; for example, making one’s appearance a form of “everyday resistance.” Also, certain domestic tasks are being reinvented by women, such as knitting – Reger notes that knitting has become an especially popular method of making a political statement about domesticity. On the national level, Reger has observed that there are no feminist leaders. Instead, there has been a trend toward turning to musicians, such as Ani DiFranco and Kathleen Hanna, for “emotional empowerment.”

As for the future of feminism, Reger mentioned referred to “social movement spillover” – she noted that most activists are involved in a variety of causes such as anti globalization, and that these causes often intertwine. Feminism is shaped by local communities, and can not be universally defined; it is “diverse and fragmented.” It is for this reason Reger stated in her presentation’s end that it may be misleading to speak about values, tactics, and emphases of the third wave, since contemporary feminist movement is so decentralized.

After Dr. Reger’s presentation, small groups were formed to discuss issues regarding women’s liberation on local college campuses, as the audience was made up almost entirely of student and faculty from area schools. The discussions made painfully clear the draconian treatment of students working to dismantle patriarchy and heterosexism by the administrations of many local conservative colleges. While no concrete organizational plans resulted from these small groups, connections were made between schools and consciousness was raised of the reality of organizing and of life in general for those working on ending oppression while living under it.

Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties

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There are no shortage of memoirs concerning the 1960s, but it would be hard to find one that covers more ground than Tariq Ali’s.

Because of the diverse people Ali encounters, and the many different locations he travels to, it is difficult to summarize the book. Ali begins his story growing up in Pakistan, and then later becomes involved in the emerging Pakistan student movement. The Pakistan regime’s brutal crackdown on the students causes his parents to fear for his safety, and send him off to Britain to continue his education. In Britain Ali becomes one of the leading figures in the New Left. He eventually travels to Paris, Berlin, Vietnam, Bolivia, and back to Pakistan.

Ali met Malcolm X in Oxford, and apparently spent one evening talking late into the night with him about politics and religion. He debated Harvard Don Henry Kissinger as part of the televised Oxford/Harvard Vietnam War debates. He was recruited, and worked with Bertrand Russell on a Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal. He was also sent by Russell on a mission to Bolivia to make sure the recently captured Regis Debray was still alive, and to send words of hope to Debray. He marched in Berlin with the German SDS and advised Rudi Dutschke on strategy. He appeared on TV with Daniel Cohn-Bendit and apparently advised the later on how to deal with the BBC. He apparently talked politics often with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and provided the inspiration for John Lennon’s song “Power to the People”. He talked about the Vietnam War one night with Ulrike Meinhof. The various people who pop up in this book represent a “Who’s Who” of the 1960s.

And to a certain extent this might represent the book’s greatest flaw. At one point in the book, since the BBC had banned the song “Street Fighting Man”, Ali rings up Mick Jagger to ask for the lyrics to publish in his magazine, “The Black Dwarf”. He receives a handwritten copy of the song the same day, but after photocopying it, throws the original in the wastebasket. He justifies it this way: “No one in the office thought this was sacrilegious. The cult of the individual is always, in the last resort, a substitute of collective action. Jagger sang well and he was helpful. That was all.”

And yet, by all the name dropping Ali does in his book, one gets the sense at times that he has been thoroughly seduced by the cult of celebrity. Although I suppose, if I had met all the same people, I would want to write about in my book as well.

And there are advantages to Ali’s approach. He paints a very vivid picture of Rudi Dutschke, and reading his book one gets a very good picture of the anger and despair felt by the New Left after Dutschke’s attempted assassination. Although Ali never actually meets Che Guevara, the section of the book dealing with his adventures in Bolivia and Regis Debray give a sense of the importance Che Guevara had to the period, and the shock felt at Che’s death, something that is sometimes lost with the over-commercialization of Che’s image.

Although it is hard to summarize the plot of the book, several themes can become evident. The failure of state communism is a major theme, both the failure of the USSR and China to help Vietnam, and the betrayal of May 1968 by the French Communist Party. Also the failure of liberal democracy during the Vietnam War, and the Vietnam War itself are major themes.

Although the book was originally published in 1987, the new edition contains a new 50-page introduction that helps to highlight some of the parallels to the present. “History rarely repeats itself,” Ali says in the introduction, “but it echoes.”

Many of these echoes are self evident even without the aid of the new introduction. Such as the crisis facing the anti-War left in Britain as to whether or not to support the pro-war Labour government. Tariq Ali and his friends support the anti-war candidacy of independent Richard Gott, only to be demonized by others on the left out of fear of a Tory victory.

Unfortunately the candidacy of Richard Gott ultimately ends in failure, and Tariq Ali is unable to provide an easy answer to the problem of the failure of liberal bourgeois democracy to provide an anti-war alternative. It is a problem that still faces activists today on both sides of the Atlantic.

To collect evidence for Betrand Russell’s Vietnam War Crimes tribunal, Tariq Ali travels to Cambodia and Vietnam, and he devotes a large part of the book to describing the human cost of the war. It is heart-breaking reading for any American. He describes how schools and hospitals are bombed, and the heavy civilian casualties on the Vietnamese side. Tariq Ali correctly concludes that the Vietnam War is genocide, and quotes for Jean-Paul Sartre at the War Crimes Tribunal: “The present genocide, the end result of the unequal development of societies, is total war waged to the limit by one side, without the slightest reciprocity – Indeed, genocide presents itself as the ONLY POSSIBLE REACTION to the rising of a whole people against its oppressors.” (Capitals in the original).

Parallels are highlighted in the new introduction when Tariq Ali focuses on the civilian cost of the Iraq War, citing a study that indicates the Iraqi death toll since the March 2003 invasion might be as high as 100,000. Ali continues, “When the World Health Organization claimed that the sanctions against Iraq had cost the lives of at least half a million children, the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, told CBS that it was a price worth paying. No doubt the debased politicians and even more debased apologists in the media think the same of the hundred thousand killed in 2003-4. Nice of them to be so generous with Iraqi lives.”

Tariq Ali, Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, (Verso, 2005).

Voices of a People’s History of the United States

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Voices of A People’s History of the United States is a new companion anthology to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present. The new anthology expands upon A People’s History by moving, as Zinn puts it, by moving away from his commentary and instead giving prominence to the eloquent voices that make up the history of resistance in the United States. According to Zinn, many of his readers have not been struck so much by his commentary as they have by his inclusion of quotes by participants in the various stories he has told. Zinn wants to illuminate what he terms the “hidden resistance” throughout the history of the United States, emphasizing that while the decisions and actions of the elite have always had the attention of the media and subsequently the history books, there has always been a domestic resistance to the policies of the United States government. Arguing that a “nationalist fervor” has inserted itself in the education system in the United States, specifically in the teaching of history, Zinn argues that the teaching of history often specifically excludes the stories of everyday people and how they have been able to organize and change society, as that would be dangerous to the elite, and instead creating a “passive citizenry” that does not know its own power, believing that only the actions of a “savior on high” can improve its standing.

Over two-hundred documents are featured in Voices of a People’s History starting with an account of Christopher Columbus’ destruction of the Arawak people upon his arrival and concluding with Patti’s Smith’s song “The People have the Power” and the protest movements against George W. Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq. In between these two documents the pages are full of histories of both well-known rebel figures such as Martin Luther King, Emma Goldman, Fredrick Douglass, John Brown, Eugene Debs, and Malcom X as well as the stories of a number of “ordinary” people who looked at the world around them and realized that it was their duty to work towards changing it for the better. It is these histories, those of the everyday people pushed to resistance, that prove to be the most interesting and inspiring; and without Voices of a People’s History such accounts would probably be lost amidst methods of history that largely focus on teaching the history of so-called “great white men” who were either generals or politicians. Zinn not only explores well-known periods of popular resistance such as the abolitionist movement, the Populist and Progressive eras, the antiwar activity at the outset of World War I, and the widespread resistance during the Civil Rights movement and the other movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, but he has also included a number of documents that shatter many of the mythologies of American history. The realities of what Zinn dubs the “half revolution” at the country’s founding, the horrible defeats for progressive causes during the Clinton presidency, and the opposition to World War II, just to name a few, are all exposed through the inclusion of copious dissenting voices. These voiced are organized into twenty-four chapters, with each chapter and document prefaced by a clear and concise introduction that gives enough information for readers to place them in their proper context.

Voices of a People’s History of the United States is an important anthology, imparting upon readers a much better notion of what is American history than the rather dismal anthologies that have been used over the past century to teach students at the university and high school levels. Both students of history and those interested in understanding how the origins of the United States shape our present reality will benefit from reading Voices of a People’s History. Moreover, the stories contained within provide a significant amount of inspiration for those who continue the struggle today, allowing us to both take inspiration from past successes and move forward from the failures of past movements.

Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of A People’s History of the United States, (Seven Stories Press, 2004).

Cochabamba: Water War in Bolivia

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Too often it seems these days that those who spend time trying to challenge the power of corporations and the financial institutions that stump for them rarely draw attention to the insurgent efforts around the global that have achieved small victories. In reading Cochabamba, not only did I enjoy reading the story of how Bolivian citizens kicked out a corporate demon like Bechtel, I discovered that there was a years in the making popular movement.

In this book, Bolivian activist Oscar Olivera tells the story of how after years of top down neo-liberal economic policies had devastated the economy people began to organize new forms of civil society. In many ways the massive demonstrations that sent Bechtel packing from were just the most visible manifestation of how many Bolivians have organized their brand of resistance. Long before the State granted Bechtel the rights to privatize water, Bolivians were responding to the oppressive consequences of neo-liberal economics.

The result of grassroots organizing has led to what are known as the Constituent Assemblies (CA). The CA is a forum of governance that is more democratic than many of the previous popular movement institutions throughout Bolivia. In some ways the CA is similar to what were called the Aguas Calientes in Chiapas by the Zapatistas, and are now known as the Carracoles. The similarity resides in the fact that they do not seek to take over the government, rather to “create space where people can decide their own future.” The CA has come about in part, due to the lack of authentic representation or democracy in other political organizations, particularly political parties. We would do well in the US to heed these words “The Constituent Assembly is a form of recovering and exercising political sovereignty, that is, of gaining the capacity to make and to execute public policy. This capacity is currently mortgaged to the system of political parties.”

Those involved in developing the CA have commented that the neo-liberal policies have actually had a great deal to do with creating this alternative system of organizing and resistance. This according to Olivera is crucial, since in the end popular resistance can not last if it is just reacting to narrow campaigns like that which responded to Bechtel.

More importantly, this resistance must lead to other forms of social organizing. This book not only is a powerful anti-corporate globalization testimony, it is a lesson for where the rest of us might invest our energy in future organizing.

Oscar Olivera in Collaboration with Tom Lewis, ¡Cochabamba!: Water War in Bolivia, (South End Press, 2004).

Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies

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For many historians and participants in the various social movements commonly referred to as “the sixties,” the formation of Weatherman in 1969 as the faction that eventually came to control Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest student-based organization opposed to the war in Vietnam, was the beginning of the end of the antiwar movement. Rather than engaging in a serious evaluation of both Weatherman’s critique of non-violence and United States imperialism, as well as the tactical efficacy of their approach, numerous historians and movement participants have chose instead to ignore questions raised by Weatherman and dismiss the group as a sectarian cult of violence that led to the destruction of the antiwar movement. Of course, while such an analysis ignores many pivotal events that happened both after and during Weatherman’s actions, all of which-Kent State, the Winter Soldier investigation, and protests at Nixon’s 1972 inauguration reflect an antiwar movement that did not simply fall apart with the shift of some in the movement towards more militant tactics. While Varon states that Weatherman’s violence was “a dramatic failure from a tactical standpoint,” he is investigating the political violence of Weatherman to examine the broader revolutionary impetus of the late 1960s and early 1970s-a period in which there were innumerable physical confrontations with the state and, in the period from January 1969 to April 1970, 2,800 attacks on state and corporate property in response to the Vietnam war, with 281 attacks on ROTC buildings and 7,200 arrests on campuses alone.

Numerous individuals and collectives within the United States shifted towards attacks on state and corporate property during the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to the United States’ war on Vietnam-Weatherman was the largest and most well known group to make the shift. As such, Varon concentrates on Weatherman to construct an analysis of the wider violence of the New Left. In Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, the history of Weather is broken down into three distinct events-the Days of Rage in October 1969 and the Flint “War Council” in December of 1969 as examples of Weatherman’s politics, and focuses on the Weather Underground (the organization was renamed after going underground) by way of the townhouse explosion in 1971. These three events, while pivotal events in the history of the Weather Underground, are frequently misinterpreted and used as the basis for dismissing the group, and to each event Varon brings a level of analysis and interpretation that has been sorely lacking from previous examinations of the Weather Underground. Weatherman’s ideology is examined in the discussion of the Days of Rage, a week-long series of “militant” actions that Weatherman hoped would “bring the war home” and inspire working-class youth throughout the United States to engage in militant action against the state in support of black radicals and in solidarity with the Viet Cong. Of course, the Days of Rage was poorly attended-the projected attendance of “thousands” ended up being a few hundred-and many key leaders ended up with multiple felony charges-while fe, if any, working class youth joined the revolution. Varon uses the failure of the Days of Rage as a springboard for a detailed critique of Weatherman’s politics, specifically looking at its attitudes towards class and its conception of revolutionary communism. The December 1969 “War Council” showed the isolation of Weatherman from both the majority of people in the United States, as well as those in the antiwar movement-and cemented the group’s resolve to engage in “exemplary” violence to “inspire” others to “pick up the gun” against the state-violence that, had the townhouse explosion not occurred in 1971, would have likely progressed towards individual representatives of state and corporate power. The Flint War Council allows Varon to examine the popular support of the Weatherman and examine how their isolation led to increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Finally, Varon interprets the townhouse explosion, long a target of scorn from those on the right and the left, as a “recasting” of the Weather Underground’s politics and a shift from violence to the multifaceted antiwar movement that it previously berated rather than just n example of sixties “excesses” as it has been portrayed by many.

By contrast, the violence of the Red Army Faction (RAF) was undertaken for a less direct purpose, and in many ways, seemed more random than that of the Weather Underground. As with the Weather Underground, the RAF attacked state and corporate targets in an effort to challenge the West German government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The RAF engaged in “armed struggle” as a result of its sense of “proletarian solidarity” with the Vietnamese and West Germany’s role in supporting the Vietnam War as well as a vague sense that West Germany was becoming “fascist” in its response to domestic dissent. Student radicalism in Germany was met with draconian laws restricting dissent, many of which students and university faculty viewed as the harbinger of a new fascism and as such extreme forms of protest including violence towards property were justified. However, unlike the Weather Underground and New Left violence in the United States, the RAF moved its war from attacking property to attacking people complicit in “the system” and by 1978 and the end of the “second wave” of the RAF, 43 people had lost their lives as a result of the RAF’s “guerilla warfare,” including 28 people who were victims of left-wing violence and 15 guerrillas.

Varon argues that had members of the Weather Underground not been killed in the “townhouse explosion” in 1971 where Terry Gold, Diana Oughton, Cathy Wilkerson, and Kathy Boudin were preparing anti-personnel bombs to use at an uncomissioned officers’ dance, the Weather Underground’s attack on the state would have likely been comparable to the RAF’s and many more people would have lost their lives in a form of “armed struggle” that would have served no end other than to increase state repression. This thesis sheds new light on the Weather Underground, illuminating a shift in the Weather Underground’s approach after the townhouse explosion as Weather purposely shifted towards “armed actions” in which bombings were used to draw attention and embarrass the state while precautions were made to ensure that no lives would be lost. While critics of the Weather Underground have dismissed the group as being ineffective and counter-productive for any number of frivolous reasons, Varon’s analysis allows for a more accurate appraisal of the use of violence by the New Left and a reevaluation of tactics and the New Left, specifically in terms of the role of “violence” and the gains of the movement. Tom Wells’ The War Within has long been cited as proof of the effectiveness of the non-violence of the New Left; with Wells going to great lengths to show how protest directly limited the state’s capacity to wage war, specifically Richard Nixon’s November 1969 withdrawal of a plan to unleash “savage” attacks on North Vietnam, likely with some form of tactical nuclear weapons. However, Varon concludes that it was the diversity of tactics that helped limit the war, not one particular approach, while pointing out that the actions of the New Left succeeded only in adjusting the magnitude of destruction. Rather than reading Wells’ book simply as a testament to the power of non-violent protest as is often done, Varon argues that the book repeatedly makes it clear that the state was worried about the militant attacks on the legitimacy of state power and the very stability of the state while pointing out that had more been known about the United States’ actions in Vietnam, it is likely that more would have embraced militancy. In the end, despite “thousands of violent acts,” New Left violence in the United States unintentionally killed three people (two at the townhouse and one innocent bystander in an attack unaffiliated with the Weather Underground)-a small number compared to the “countless deaths, the toppling of governments, and deliberate assaults on domestic dissidents” by the state, the war continued and no form of domestic protest was able to stop the war.

With the lack of writing on the Weatherman, Bringing the War Home stands out as the best analysis of the movement. While Ron Jacob’s The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, the only other history of Weatherman, provides a more detailed account of some of the specifics of Weatherman, it suffers from a lack of research and analysis. Bringing the War Home‘s contribution to the history of the Red Army Faction is slightly more difficult given the reviewers limited knowledge of the German New Left, but given Varon’s well-crafted analysis of the Weather Underground, it can be generally assumed that he has presented a similarly competent portrayal of the Red Army Faction. By way of comparing the violence of Weatherman and the Weather Underground with the Red Army Faction Varon strengthens his analysis of the effectiveness of political violence. Bringing the War Home makes an important contribution to both scholarship on the antiwar movement in addition to providing an important evaluation of violent forms of protest in the United States and West Germany and the potential ramifications and likelihood of success should contemporary anti-war movements make similar decisions.

Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, (University of California Press, 2004).

The Fire this Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism

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When second-wave feminism came to the front of the various protest movements of the 1960s it was seen by many of both sexes as a distinct set of issues, and although its broader goals and revolutionary implications applied to everyone, too often it was seen in the limited context of woman’s groups, the fight for access to safe abortions, and other such issues. The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism reflects the tremendous expansion of feminism over the past thirty years and presents a series of essays from a number of female organizers about the varied issues they address, giving an indication of how feminism has moved beyond on just “woman’s issues” to become an integral part of citizens’ movements around the world.

The topics addressed in The Fire this Time are varied–the emergence of the global Indymedia network and its addressing of gender issues, the effects of US foreign policy on women, transgendered people and the legal system, immigration, efforts to organize largely female domestic worker populations, efforts to unite women whether in the zine scene of the early 1990s or more recent attempts to form feminist foundations, and the consequences of the prison-industrial complex for women-and those are only a few of the topics covered. Among the most interesting of the essays is Robin Templeton’s look at how the prison-industrial complex is shaping minority families in the United States, how the role of women in these families has shifted, and how women are organizing in response to the incarceration of a significant portion of their races’ males. Ana Nogueria’s and Joshua Breitbart’s essay on how the Indymedia network and how the creation of participatory, user-centered networks for publishing news has created a feminist alternative to the corporate media (as well as raising some questions about how women’s perspectives and gender issues are addressed in the framework of a largely male population of tech people) provides a critical examination of how more egalitarian systems can function within, and as a response to, the existing structure of society. Other interesting essays include Ayana Byrd’s essay on female subjectivity in contemporary hip-hop and Syd Lindsley’s examination of the anti-immigrant stances of many environmental groups. Perhaps the most important lesson that can be learned from the book that feminism cannot be narrowly defined and that an analysis of gender and patriarchy must be a critical part of movements for social change, and indeed The Fire this Time presents a number of ways in which feminist views can be incorporated into a variety of organizing efforts.

Many of the authors in the book eschew the “Feminist” label, viewing the upper-case feminism as the narrowly defined province of upper-class white liberal women who want “an equal share of the wealthy”, and prove that as Rebecca Walker states in the introduction, feminism is far from dead and indeed has been revived in a variety of movements. The Fire this Time provides an engaging series of essays on the amazing work that woman are doing and the ways feminism has been embraced by a new generation of activists.

Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin, eds., The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism, (Anchor Books, 2004).