Activism Forum at Anthropology News

In continuing my trend of working on anything but what I should be working on, I have a small update for you all. You might remember that I participated in a dialogue at American University in the fall discussing the role of anthropology in activism and activism in anthropology. I’m very pleased to announce that, in the intervening months, that dialogue has turned into a very nice little edited collection over at Anthropology News. The facilitators of the dialogue edited the collection and it just went up about a week ago.

My own article, titled “Writing and Research in a Conflict Zone,” touches on the ways that anthropologists might find themselves using similar tools as activists (gathering data, telling stories, etc.) either in the same, parallel, or opposing ways. I then give some short reflections based on my own interactions with, along side, and against popular non-profits working on ending the LRA conflict. Here’s a brief snippet:

The conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government was the focus of numerous academic monographs and NGO reports for 20 years before I heard about it. Little of this coverage mattered when the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut toured the United States with the tagline “discover the unseen.” While anthropologists, political scientists, humanitarians, and northern Ugandans were certainly aware of the conflict with the LRA, the film’s primary audience of upper-middle-class millennials was not. And so the film and the grassroots activist movement it sparked caught fire over the course of the 2000s, culminating in the Kony 2012 campaign.

The idea that raising awareness about an issue will lead to it being addressed is a common narrative in social and political activism. From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to Kony 2012, awareness (and fundraising) is central to activism, especially in the digital age. And a crucial part of raising awareness through activism is storytelling: activists must tell a digestible and actionable narrative that tugs at the proper emotions to galvanize a response. For Invisible Children videos, the formula was one that shed light on the effects of the conflict on Ugandan children, with a request for funds to address these negative impacts (building schools) and a call to take action (lobby the government). This strategy isn’t unique. The Save Darfur Coalition created a similar narrative (Hamilton 2011) and the campaign against “conflict minerals” in your cell phone does similar work (Seay 2015).

Storytelling has, of course, long been the domain of anthropologists. We are trained (or at least learn by doing) to write stories about people and places, shedding light on the lived experiences of others. While sometimes criticized as neither digestible nor actionable, ethnographies broadly do work that is similar to many activist and advocacy narratives. Anthropologists interested in either doing activism or speaking to activists must navigate the different publics and different modes of storytelling involved in such acts. The type of activism I saw emerging around the LRA conflict is part of how I came to find myself an anthropologist trying to write within and between these spaces.

The article centers on how we write about what we write, and for whom. Part of this emerges from the long debates around non-profit messaging about Africa, and part of this comes from a longer academic reflection on how we write about violence. It is also another example of me navigating through how to write about my own progression from one place to another in regards to the conflict that I study. Have a good, I hope you get something out of it.

But more importantly, you should read the other pieces in the collection. The introduction by Haley Bryant and Emily Cain sketches out what the dialogue was all about, and the important questions highlighted by the conversation. Each of the individual pieces resonates with something either implicit or explicit to my article, and the different parts of the collection speak to each other in interesting ways. Chloe Ahmann’s piece looks at the politics, ethics, and methodology of being (in)visible when studying activists in Baltimore. Hugh Gusterson discusses the different audiences an anthropologist has, and the responsibilities one might feel toward particular groups and not others in the course of research. Emma Louise Backe looks at the importance of care and self-care involved in ethnography through her experience studying a rape crisis hotline. Each of these pieces is well worth reading, and I learned a lot from speaking with everyone involved (including Shweta Krishnan, who was a part of our PAC panel but did not write a piece for AN) both during the dialogue and in the writing process after. A big thank you to everyone involved in the event and the publication.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently, and a lot of activism. These sometimes overlap, but don’t always. I strongly believe that scholarship can and should be a form of activism, but it is certainly not the only one. This collection is just one small part of an ongoing conversation and reflection about what anthropology and activism can offer each other, where they converge and diverge, and how to use both to imagine and enact a better world.

Society Must Be Defended #readin

When I saw Paige West and J.C. Salyer’s call to mark January 20th with a read-in of lecture eleven of Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended, I was excited to re-read the lecture in light of the right-wing ascendancy in U.S. politics. As West and Salyer note, this lecture in particular is a useful text now because “it demands we simultaneously consider the interplay of sovereign power, discipline, biopolitics, and concepts of security, and race.” I did my reading a little bit early, because I knew that I’d be busy on Friday, as a series of direct actions were being planned to disrupt the inaugural proceedings (and we were largely successful). This post is partially about Foucault and the read-in, and partially an initial foray into thinking through Friday’s events. More to come, I’m sure.

Foucault’s lecture is critical because of its close attention to biopolitics and sovereignty, something crucial to a number of the issues represented at the direct actions on Friday. As West and Salyer noted, this is a time when “the reaction to activism against persistent racism has been to more overtly perpetuate racism as political discourse, [and] we need to remember and re-think the role of racism as central to, rather than incidental to, the political and economic activities of the state.” Same with sexism, same with xenophobia, same with homophobia, same with Islamophobia. Many of these ideologies are part of the American state in general, of course, but they are all crucial and central building blocks of the current administration’s claim to power. Losing the popular vote by millions, Trump has no real mandate to govern. The only mandate he can lay claim to is a voting bloc built around white supremacists, misogynists, and nativists.

“Sexuality,” Foucault states, “exists at the point where body and population meet. And so it is a matter for discipline, but also a matter for regularization” (251-252). The rise of biopolitics and biopower brought about a new set of technologies that measured and quantified the population that needed to be regulated, in addition to marking the body that needed to be disciplined. Efforts to measure, maintain, and control reproduction and fertility were at the center of this in the late eighteenth century, and continue today as the struggle over the bodily autonomy of women is unfinished.

An important point that Foucault highlights, though, is how “the emergence of this biopower… inscribes [race] in the mechanism of the State. It is at this moment that racism is inscribed as the basic mechanism of power, as it is exercised in modern States” (254). This has roots in settler colonialism and the slave trade, and racism continues to be tied to the state now. The racial logic of biopower leads the state to wage war not against a political enemy but against a racial Other. “From this point on, war is about two things: it is not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary, but of destroying the enemy race, of destroying that [sort] of biological threat that those people over there represent to our race” (257), i.e. for white supremacists, not a war on terrorist organizations in specific locales but a war against Muslims everywhere, not an effort to reform immigration policies but a war to prevent particular races from entering this country, not a war on crime but a criminalizing of black life.

Reading this lecture before #j20, it became readily apparent that the commonalities between the various groups offended, affected, targeted, and attacked by Trump and his supporters lie in the biopolitical. In the first days of Trump’s administration, it is clear just how right those fears are. He has appointed white supremacists to senior government posts, including Customs and Border Protection. He has signed an executive order restricting abortion access that has serious impacts for women’s reproductive rights and health globally, and which promises to actually increase the number of unsafe abortions, in an effort to exert control over women’s bodies. He approved both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines (which he has stock in), while simultaneously instituting a blackout at the EPA and other agencies. His senior appointments promise to destroy our planet, eviscerate labor, and punish the press for holding his government accountable.

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These four people were at the center of a blockade of one of the entrances to the Trump inaugural parade. The Future is Feminist blockade lasted six and a half hours and was just one of over a dozen actions on Friday, January 20th.

On the day of his inauguration, we saw a coalition of activists stand in the way of Trump’s rule. Every single issue-based group involved had good reason to resist a Trump presidency. Women’s rights, black rights, indigenous rights, Muslim rights, and labor rights have been under attack from before the beginning. Climate, anti-war, and anti-police activists have been under attack as well. Certain forms of protest are being made illegal, meaning mobilization against the government will become more difficult. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Friday, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say as we move into (and push against) this new government. But for now, the key takeaway is that all of these groups and more came together Friday to ensure that there is no smooth transition to an authoritarian regime, to show a refusal to acquiesce, to be ungovernable, to defend society with their bodies and their voices.

Transnational Advocacy and the Single Story Problem

In 2013, a group of students at the Fletcher School at Tufts organized a research seminar on the topic of Western advocacy campaigns and their shortcomings. Several short pieces were posted online (here’s an overview of the seminar [also as a pdf]), which I followed from afar, and I was happy to hear that the organizers decided to turn it into an edited volume. When I was asked to review it, I excitedly agreed:

Transnational advocacy is an increasingly apparent part of activism in a world that is more and more interconnected. As Twitter and other social media sites allow people to forge relations with like-minded individuals, many have chosen to stand with or for others in their activism. Some of this has taken the form of solidarity movements like BDS while others can more easily be categorized as part of the “white savior industrial complex,” like Save Darfur.

While the book covers much more, the problems of Western advocacy campaigns are at the heart of Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, a new collection of articles edited by Alex de Waal with Jennifer Ambrose, Casey Hogle, Trisha Taneja, and Keren Yohannes. In an age when there are more and more edited volumes that fail to achieve much, this is one example that is more than the sum of its parts. The chapters in Advocacy in Conflict strike at the heart of what activism looks like and does, and what it ought to do.

Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, edited by Alex de Waal

One crucial theme throughout the book is the role of single narratives. While we’ve all seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the dangers of a single story by now, not everyone was aware of this danger when planning advocacy campaigns for causes around the world. Mareike Schomerus shows this in her chapter on the most (in)famous attempt to craft a single narrative: Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video and campaign. The dangers of a narrowed narrative are also present in Burma, where Maung Zarni points out the limitations of a narrative centered on an individual such as Aung San Suu Kyi rather than Burma as a nation, which has left the country with a facade of democratization; it is present in the D.R. Congo, where Laura Seay explores the unintended consequences of Enough’s conflict minerals narrative, including a de facto boycott of (and loss of livelihood for) legitimate Congolese miners; it is in South Sudan, where U.S. support of the SPLA helped create a new country out of Sudan, but also bolstered a corrupt and murderous structure that led to the ongoing civil war in South Sudan; and in disability rights, where Tsitsi Chataika et al. show that the complexities of identity and representation get molded into a narrowed discourse as Western donors get involved, a discourse which carries out its own oppression.

The pitfalls of a single narrative are just one thing that the book questions in its attempt to “reclaim international advocacy movements to make them more self-reflective and accountable to the people and the evolving situations they represent” (1). Other key questions that the organizers of the volume set out to answer include critiques of the legitimacy of advocacy on behalf of others, the question of inclusiveness, how to bring academic knowledge and public activism together, and the hierarchies of local and global contexts. The book does not necessarily offer explicit answers to each of these topics, but throughout the pages one can find explorations and ruminations that get us closer to building a better form of activism that is aware of its vulnerabilities and the importance of a more robust activism rooted in solidarity.

The book as a whole does a good job of turning success stories on their head. De Waal’s chapter on South Sudan shows that the success story of South Sudanese independence is anything but, and in so doing he renders the current civil war not a sudden crisis but a long-expected emergence rooted in the SPLA’s history as “a regressive resistance army masquerading as a liberation movement” (165). Citing Rebecca Hamilton’s brilliant reporting on South Sudan’s leading supporters in the U.S., de Waal also shows how these activists provided pressure that made U.S. policy inflexible, something I remember seeing in my own brief encounters with Save Darfur activists. This critique of past policies and advocacy helps place the current conflict in a new context, which can guide activists working to end this most recent crisis.

Critiquing movements that are commonly seen as success stories is more than just a buzzkill exercise. By doing this over and over, the book as a whole attempts to forge a new way forwards. Roddy Brett’s chapter on Guatemala shows that international efforts helped open space for indigenous activists to demand rights and gain a voice, but simultaneously made the realization of those rights impossible. Schomerus’ chapter on Invisible Children emphasizes that even radio programs that seek to inform people about LRA activities can inadvertently feed fear of rebels and empower armed militias that should otherwise be disbanded. Research like this, and others in the volume, show us what to be wary of as we engage in activism regardless of where and for what cause.

It’s crucial to ensure that global activism links all parties, giving local voices a global audience and ensuring the buy-in of those directly affected. Otherwise, we wind up with what de Waal refers to as policy that “can be progressive at home and regressive abroad” (19). Whether it’s central Africa, Burma, Guatemala, or Gaza, transnational activism is susceptible to being co-opted by those in power, and the best way to resist this is to ground our activism with those involved. It is harder for Uganda to entrench its militarization of the region if more Ugandan voices are included in advocacy decision-making. Congolese miners are more likely to stay employed and maybe even benefit if efforts to crack down on rebel supply chains were instead diverted to more fundamental concerns like security, justice, and governance at the heart of rebellion. The lesson in each of the cases featured in the book point to similar takeaways: be inclusive of those involved, be aware of the effects of involvement, and engage with complexity in order to address underlying causes.

The book itself is laid out in four parts – a one-chapter history of activism, followed by three case studies of Western advocacy movements linking with local campaigns (in Burma, Guatemala, and Gaza), then three case studies where Western activism diverged sharply from events on the ground (Congo, the LRA, and South Sudan), and three cases of issues-based activism (disability rights, the arms trade, and land grabs). All four sections offer different perspectives on a common problem: how to do advocacy across societies.

De Waal’s historical chapter is a useful look at how transnational advocacy has changed from decolonization through the human rights regime to today (though whether “today” is defined by post-Cold War, post-9/11, neoliberal, etc. is up for debate). The next section is useful for seeing how movements can merge – but the key is to see how this occurs. Sometimes foreign activists can integrate their message with local campaigns, but other times grassroots work gets derailed by intervention. The third section is most relevant to me, perhaps because it’s on Western advocacy in armed conflict in central Africa, but also because it demonstrates how outside activists can advocate for a cause regardless of what those affected actually feel about it. This power relation is an issue that is fundamental to any activist to be aware of, be it mansplaining, the white savior industrial complex, or some other form of the superiority-via-helping tendency. The last section, on issues-based activism, was to me the least interesting (chalk it up to subjects I’m less familiar with, or a different argument structure), and yet there are still key lessons to pull from disability rights activism being co-opted by big international NGOs, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ rapid success which actually heralded its failure, and the ability of actors with very different understandings of land rights to come together to resist it despite their differences.

Regardless of where you’re coming from (academic, development, activists or otherwise), this is a book worth reading. Taken individually, each chapter offers different perspectives and lessons on the particular topic at hand. Taken as a whole, the book coalesces around key concepts and lessons that every activist (and scholar of activism) should commit to her agenda.

In their conclusion to the book, Hogle et al. find four common goals in order to help “reclaim activism.” These are 1) empower local actors, 2) recognize complexity, 3) be inclusive of a range of those concerned, 4) reject single narratives. This call to action, and the volume as a whole, is a salvo in an ongoing debate over how to carry out activism, and it’s packed with important evidence and relevant cases for all aspects of transnational activism.

Weekend Reading on Student Protests

A short reading list this weekend: