Monday, December 15, 2008

Flower power

This past weekend I attended an immigrant rights coalition meeting. It was my first meeting, but friends have been there since it formed in 2006. Its formation was a direct result of the working class movement of immigrants, primarily Latinos, in the Twin Cities area. From what I could tell, the people at the meeting were a mixture of democratic party activists and socialists (although it was hard to tell the difference with some folks).

The reason I bring this up is to examine an exercise we did at the beginning of the meeting. The moderator, in all seriousness, had us draw a flower. Our flower needed at least four large petals, with a smaller petal drawn inside the outline of the larger one. We were then to label each petal. One should be race, one gender, one whether or not English is our mother tongue, and one marking our social class (which wasn't talked about much, if at all). If you are white, male, and speak English, then you were to fill in the outer layer of your flower petals. This means you are an "exploiter" in these areas. If you are female, non-white, and learned a language besides English when you were young, then you were to fill in the inner layer of the petals. You are "exploited." This was taken extremely seriously, with the moderator at one time asking people to stop laughing and think hard about their exploitation situation. I did the exercise, and besides recognizing the general silliness of it, didn't give it much thought until our first break when I talked with a friend.

We both agreed the flower didn't do much other than offer many members a chance to self-flagellate and momentarily ease some feelings of liberal white guilt (doing the project reminded me of reading Tim Wise's recent nonsensical babbling). Of course it is true being a male, white, English speaker gives you an advantage in our society. But what wasn't represented in the flower example was the ability of class, at least when social power is concerned, to largely trump our society's sexist, racist and xenophobic nature. If we objectively concern ourselves with power and exploitation, then this needs to be recognized. In this flawed exercise, a white homeless man would be more of an exploiter than a Latina CEO of a fortune 500 company.

This is worth mentioning if only to reinforce the fact that the main power in our society, just as throughout much of modern history, lies in who controls the surplus value created by labor power. No doubt the struggles against sexism, xenophobia, racism, etc., are extremely important; but they are mainly symptoms of a disease, not the disease itself. Liberal ideologies, and policies, tend to want to put a bandage on a gunshot wound. This is all good and well, I certainly support working for better policies even within the confines of our current society, but it is crucial to understand even if we stop the bleeding with a good bandage, we've still got a bullet rotting away in our body.

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