Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fitting in Our World Society

The bronze is of Toussaint L'Overture and is one of my favorite sculptures by Dr. John Moossy. Haiti is on my mind and I expect I'll say a bit about the situation there. But first I left a comment at Gay Uganda's blog and it's been troubling me ever since.

As an American I don't think it's strange in the least when people I meet online from other countries are interested to find out more about the USA. But there is something a little odd about my interest in Uganda. One of the odd things about is my presumption that people outside the USA are interested in it. And that presumption goes hand in hand with a presumption that by virtue of being an American I have something interesting to say to them. Maybe, but I'm sure the problem has something to do with presumptuousness.

I got online rather late in the game, but when I did I was fascinated by the social aspects of the Web. I also quickly got hooked on searches and the range of news and informative Web sites astounded me. And I fell enthrall to cyberutopian visions. That link is to a video of David Weinberg speaking at Reboot 11. I know most people don't have time to watch yet another video, so here's my quick summary: The Internet can enable people to create something good, but to do that it requires of us activism. Ethan Zuckerman, always excellent, has written several posts on cyberutopianism and this piece provides plenty to think about contra the notion. Anyhow I got charged up along with millions of others that together online people could come together in incredible ways not possible before. I had been chatting with people online from all over, but noticed I had not chatted with anyone from Africa and so sought them out.

I first began chatting with a young man who tended a computer lab at a high school in Uganda. We've been talking ever since. One thing led to another and so I've met more people in Uganda and other African countries. In 2002 my friend from the computer lab at the high school along with his brother and other friends began forming a community based organization. Early on there were some group dynamic issues I was keen to understand better and began searching through Yahoo Groups for other Ugandan groups. In the process of doing that I became acquainted with some Ugandan activists working on behalf of gay people.

I'm not saying that my interests in Uganda is noble. What I am saying is that I see the Internet as a tool that people can use to work together to get through what we're facing. And my interest in Uganda has been sustained over for nearly ten years now primarily through online friendships with Ugandans in various parts of the country and who have their own views.

Another way I've fed my interest in Uganda is to follow Ugandan bloggers. Gay Uganda provides a voice that's rarely heard and has been doing so since 2006. The 27th Comrade is in my view a brilliant writer, but in any case clearly is wickedly smart. He rarely tends his blog Communist Socks and Boots these days, but from the title you can tell he's a communist and as such is another unusual voice among Ugandan bloggers. Comrade 27th has also left frequent comments on the blogs by Ugandans and has done much to promote cross-blog communications.

Gay Uganda has written eloquently since October about a truly horrendous Anti Homosexuality Bill pending in Uganda. Comrade 27th has been critical of Gay Uganda's encouragement of people outside Uganda to work towards the defeat of this bill. I made the mistake of leaving one of my rambling comments on one of Gay Uganda's posts. I wish I'd learn to get to the point and I guess that comes down to thinking before I post.

Comrade 27th has made the point I'll loosely summarize as the USA's foreign policy is often heinous and the culture heedless and immoral; so why should Ugandans look that direction? I'm sure I differ with Comrade 27th on a multitude of details, but I've got to give it to him that in the larger sense of it he makes a good point.

The Box Turtle Bulletin has a great page where they've listed their coverage of the issue chronologically--just click on the link BTB's Uganda Coverage. Just scrolling through their stories an understanding why Americans, even if they could care less about Uganda, ought to care about this bill can be gleaned. Americans are involved in promoting this intolerance and this agenda often has more to do with politics in the USA than Uganda.

Few people care what I think, most people think me pretty goofy, which of course I am. When I talk to my American friends about what concerns me about American politics mostly the response is that eyes roll. If I use the word "plutocracy" I hear back: "Well what else is new." When I then use the word "oligarchy" they tell me: "The correct word is plutocracy." When in exasperation I use the word "fascism", well then I'm just beyond the pale and a nut. I am a bit nutty, but in general try to avoid such generalized talk in favor of more specific topics. But that doesn't mean I think people are not acting on some very bad ideas, or to put it succinctly that there are no bad guys.

The issue of homosexuality in Uganda brings together powerful Ugandans with powerful Americans up to no good. And the story of this confluence of the powerful is long and winding. Gay Uganda has a good handle on the map of it and so it's easy for him to see common cause with people outside of Uganda. I'm with him against a vengeful oligarchy. But I'm not often very clear what to do about it. I certainly cannot presume to tell Ugandans what they ought to be doing. And 27th Comrade at least is making the case that those in the West who are totally confident they do know what to do in Uganda, are deluded. I think he's probably right about that. The real issue is not the argument but what it is that we all should be doing? Imagining how Comrade 27 would answer, he might point out that if a white guy is doing the planning, the plan probably won't help him or Uganda.

A Federal Court in San Francisco is reviewing the decision to uphold the infamous Proposition 8--a voter initiative in California retracting the right of gay people to marry. Firedoglake has extensive coverage of the trial. This trial is seen by many as a risky gamble and that if the case goes to the Supreme Court with it's very conservative majority it will be overturned regardless of the legal arguments. An expert witness for the plaintiffs testified about how the odds are stacked against legislations to ensure the rights of gay and lesbians. He pointed out that in the past 20 years legal protections agains bias-motivated on gays and lesbians have been:
Overturned by popular plebiscite. Initiatives have rollewd back gains. 150, not counting marriage, G&L antidiscrimination votes, in 20 years. 75% of these have lost.
The struggle for basic rights is far from complete in the USA. And the politics governing what a small minority can do in the face of an often militant majority is not easy to work out.

I am in favor of LBGT rights in the USA. I stand for the right of adult people everywhere to be in control of their own bodies, to love who they love, and to express that love together as they consent to. How to stand up for our rights is very particular to the context. In the case of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda I've encouraged other Americans to find out about it and to contact their political representatives. I have also tried to convince people that there is more at stake politically in this legislation than simply gay rights, that the bill inhibits rights of association and of the press. What that comes down to is basically I'm a blowhard, all talk and no action.

The safety of Gay Uganda worries me a lot. From the outside looking in, it seems to me that Comrade 27th should be an ally of Gay Uganda. Actually it seems to me that he is. As I understand Comrade 27th, he thinks that even well intentioned white people seem inevitably to diminish the personhood of Ugandans in hundreds of often trivial ways. He may be right about that, but I believe that people have the capacity to empower one another to be more fully human. And that the two points are not entirely mutually exclusive.

I don't feel like I've said anything useful in regards the thread at Gay Uganda. I've been thinking about it for days, so that probably means I'm just confused. But there's a loose connection with the situation in Haiti after the catastrophe and the Anti-Homosexual Bill in Uganda. As an America there should be no question that this country's relationships vis a vis Haiti is an ugly one. This 2006 piece in the LRB by Paul Farmer is the best short history lesson I've seen online.

Haiti is the result of a successful slave revolt. That revolution shared the ideals of the revolution that brought the USA into being and the over turning of the Ancien Regime. Europeans like to think that they invented enlightenment values. How then to incorporate Haiti? One alternative is to suggest that these are values of human invention and of shared patronage. The old order is never replaced without a struggle and the struggle for liberty and fraternity is a long one.

I'll quote Barak Obama, a politician I frequently struggle with, who is in turn quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice...."
I believe all of our hands matter. Growing up in where I have and how I have means that I must be responsible. We all must be. We can find ways to struggle together.


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Steve said...


Every single time I come here to read your work, I am overwhelmed by the scope of issues that you try to tackle. I cant keep putting off commenting because I cant deal with all the content of a single piece though so I will try to address just one aspect of this piece.

"Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice...."

I read your piece and am actually pretty impressed by your capacity to put your struggle into words. I have to disagree, and disagree big time, with the quote though. We (humanity) are not bending the trajectory of the arc of the moral universe towards justice, in fact, I think that humanity (as a race) has been an abject failure at doing that. Is it enough to believe in the moral good of man, get together once a decade to "do Live Aid" and sponsor a kid somewhere?

Making a concerted effort to alter moral trajectory has to be universal concerted effort with individual application - hence all these manifestos that we have hung up everywhere - at the UN, in every single memorial of some atrocity, at the world HQs and country offices of every single NGO on the planet. Our common moral trajectory is towards self interest and self fulfillment. If one has happened to get to Maslow's 5th then, they can start dealing with issues like universal tranjectories. It seems to me that the rest of the world is just hurting too hard to bother.

- Steve

John Powers said...

Steve, thanks for checking in.

I've got to wonder why I primarily use the P2P features of the Internet to put embarrassing stuff up? I'm self-possessed I guess ;-)

Something about the social Internet is I see a lot more baby pictures these days. It startling how many of the kids are related to me! Lots of pictures of other kids too, and I can't help but to think of pictures of your son when I think of you.

Sure people must be interested in their self interest, but I'm not so sure the boundaries of what's in our interested are ever very firm. Every time I look at baby pictures they're endearing and I feel a sense of responsibility.

Very young children seem to be wired to be social. Playing nice is taught and encouraged of course, but the basic motivation is there in the children. Who knows, but it seems to me part of being an adult is protecting children,and that motivation seems so deep as to make me think it is wired-in firmware.

The whole world is hurting. What I can do about that isn't clear to me.

I don't think I'm unusual in the way I react to baby pictures. It's not just the pictures of course it's the kids themselves. My dad is about as unsentimental as they come, but I look at him at 88 with lots of infirmity, and yet he worries most not about himself but about his kids and grandkids.

It's this outward focus, this instinct for caring, that provides a reason why the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.